“Are you mocking me Naina Bhatia?”
“May God help me if I dare do that, Your Highness.” She looked at him impishly, and added with a sigh, “Why don’t you loosen up a little? You are all wound up like a tight coil of self-imposed rules. So what if we take a detour of an hour or so. I am sure Mr Adhikari won’t mind. We mountain folk are quite adaptable.”
“That may be. But I am not molded that way. I respect time.” He glanced at her, “By the way, rules are made not to be broken, but are made so that one abides by them and stays whole.”
“Sometimes one has to completely break before they are made whole again,” she murmured.
“What’s that?” He frowned as he glanced sideways and his eyes took in the slight tremor in her tilted chin.
“Nothing. The bus stop is close to the crossing. Please let me off there.” She glared at him stubbornly.
“Don’t be obstinate Naina! We are going straight and that’s final….whether you like it or not. You can go to the temple some other day.”
“I am not stopping you Raj. I need to do this. So, the best solution is you let me off. I guess this was a mistake to begin with. I should have known better and insisted on going on my own.”
Raj swore under his breath and swerved to the left, stopping the car. He ran his hand through his hair in frustration, mussing it and then turned to her. He stared at her for several long moments until her eyes widened in trepidation and her breath held, waiting for his next words, which never came as he regarded her silently.
She let out a ragged breath, which she realized she was holding, and said in a rush, “Why are you staring at me like that? Don’t think you can impose your say on me by giving me those looks? You don’t scare me.” She crossed her arms and stared in front, scowling, “Men! Bah! You are all same. You think a woman’s will does not matter. You think you can play the domineering alpha male and push her to do anything…anything.”
His jaw clenched, “That’s a huge generalization, Naina.”
“Maybe. Nonetheless, I haven’t been proven wrong so far,” she returned in a faraway voice.
In that instant, Raj felt something shift inside him. The woman he barely knew had managed to tie him up in all sorts of ways he couldn’t explain even himself. He reached out and turned her face toward him with a finger under her chin. Her eyes that were dancing with mischief a few seconds earlier had now darkened, and a shadow of pain lurked in their depths. He inhaled sharply and let his hand drop.
His gaze searched hers. When he spoke, his voice was soft, “Who hurt you, Naina?”
The air around them thickened….at least she was sure it had as an ache erupted within her heart and suddenly she couldn’t breathe. She wrapped her arms around her and tore her gaze away from him, projecting a posture of such vulnerability that his chest tightened with a heavy feeling. He had to lean sideways to hear her tremulous whisper, “No one.”
Then the moment passed, and he knew with a jolt of familiarity what was going to happen next. He almost felt the cloak of walls surround her, as she squared her shoulders and faced him. Her eyes had widened in annoyance; only give away was her voice that was unnaturally bright as she spoke, “That was a smart move Colonel. But you can’t sidetrack me with that sap talk. Now, please drive. I’ll get down at the turning of the crossing. We’ll meet up at the orphanage around noon.”
Without a word, Raj started the car and when the crossing came, instead of stopping he took the turn and drove on. Naina peeked at him. He was looking straight ahead with a deadpan expression…not a muscle moved. She turned toward the window and mouthed a silent “Yes’’ pumping her left fist in the air just slightly. If she had looked at him, she would have noticed the faintly amused smile that fleetingly broke across his face.
Naina bought a puja thaali and flowers from a vendor and took off her sandals near the temple steps. She turned to find Raj sitting on the side wall
“Aren’t you coming?”
“You go ahead Naina. I’ll be up in a few minutes. I have to call Mr Adhikari and let him know we’ll be late.”
Naina went and gave the thaali to Panditji after he had finished attending to an old lady. He gave her a huge smile and blessed her as she bent down to touch his feet. The old pandit was also Rawin Mahal’s official priest and knew Naina well.
“On whose name should I offer the prayers today, bitiya.”
“A little girl, panditji. Her name is Tanushri Rathore. I want you to pray for her so that mata rani’s blessings are always with her and she doesn’t feel the lack of a mother in her life.”
“Are we talking about Raniji’s granddaughter, bitiya?”
Panditji smiled and kept his hand on Naina’s head before turning toward the idol, “Who says the little princess does not have a mother? Mata rani has already taken care of that particular emptiness.”
“What do you mean, panditji?”
“All in good time…all in good time.” With that he began his puja.
After the puja, panditji gave her the thaali and kept a marigold in her hand, “Keep this flower next to her bed. It’s from mata rani’s lap. It’ll keep the little princess warm and loved till her mother is with her forever.”
“You are talking in riddles today, panditji.” Naina smiled.
“That’s because you don’t see what I see, bitiya,” he chuckled. “Aha…Kunwarji, why do you stand there? Come. Take mata rani’s blessings and her prasad.”
Naina took the thaali and turned to find Raj looking at her strangely. He stepped forward and took panditji’s blessings, who soon got busy attending to the next devotee after exchanging a few words with Raj.
His gaze not wavering from hers, he took the prasad from Naina and asked, “You wanted to come here for Tanu?” Emotions flickered in his eyes…unfamiliar, raw emotions that left her strangely breathless before he covered up.
Naina nodded and gave him the flower wrapped in a red cloth, “Keep this under Tanu’s pillow.”
Raj shook his head, “No. You have prayed for her. You must do it.”
“No arguments, Naina.” He looked around, “Do you wish to go to those other temples also?” There was a holy pond and a few other idols in the temple complex. The architecture was nothing spectacular, but there was a spiritual aura that surrounded the temple and attracted devotees into its divine fold.
Naina shook her head, “Not today. I’ll come another day with the kids. And Beeji.”
“And me?” He raised a brow.
“And you too…that is, if and when you decide not to look straight down your aristocratic, rule-bound, stiff nose.” She grinned.
They were walking toward the gate. Naina faltered on her step when she saw him throw back his head and laugh. The gesture softened his face. He bantered back, “You won’t spare me on that one, will you?”
“Nah…never. It’s not everyday that I can claim victory on a soldier.” She shot back.
“And not everyday does one take pleasure from surrendering.” Naina was still digesting that when she realized something, “You are walking without your stick!!”
“Yup….I am trying to get rid of it. The walks on the trails here are doing the trick, along with the exercises.”
Naina stopped near the car, “What had happened, Raj?”
He reached out to hold her by the elbow and pull her aside as a group of youngsters descended from the steps, jostling everyone on the way. She felt the warmth of his touch tingle her skin, and a shiver moved through her…a very pleasant shiver. He guided her to her door and opened it for her. She glided in quietly. They drove along in comfortable silence for a few minutes before Raj answered, “A mine.”
“A mine blast happened.”
Before he could elaborate further, her stomach chose that moment to let out a loud, gurgling, unladylike growl. He jerked his head toward her and said amusedly, “That’s quite a rumble. Haven’t you eaten anything?”
Naina’s cheeks reddened with embarrassment, “No. I’ve just had tea. I don’t eat when I visit the temple.”
“Do you have anything other than cakes in those baskets of yours?” He gestured behind.
“Yes. Coffee and sandwiches. Beeji packed them for us.”
He drove silently for a few minutes and then after a couple of kilometers turned left on a dirt path.
“What are you doing Raj?”
“We are taking a break, so that you can have your breakfast. There’s a stream ahead.”
“But you will get more late. And so will I.”
“No. We won’t. We have enough time to make it to Kangra. I called Mr Adhikari and the Homes as well and apprised them of the changed timings.” He opened the trunk and took out the flask and the packet containing the sandwiches, paper plates, and glasses.
He turned to find Naina cupping her mouth and trying to smother her laughter that threatened to bubble out of her guts.
“No..no..nothing. It’s just….” She couldn’t help and doubled-up laughing.
He looked at her with a puzzling look, as if she had gone nuts, “Does hunger affect your brains Naina?”
She guffawed and put her hands on her hips, “Back home, what did you say about the baskets?...Remember?” And then she cleared her throat and mimicked him in a gruff voice, “We are going for official visits, not a picnic.”
He started walking toward a clear patch by the stream, “Yeah…yeah…go ahead and have a laugh, but don’t forget what you said as well. What was that? Something about me being the last person you would go on a picnic with. Don’t forget this unpracticed drill is kind courtesy your protesting belly.”
They sat down on the grass. Raj poured himself coffee as Naina ate and watched the stream prancing over the rocks and pebbles. It was evident his thoughts were elsewhere when Naina glanced at him and saw a somber look shadow his handsome features.
“Raj?” Naina called out softly, not wanting to intrude yet something compelling her to see him get back to his animated self.
He took a sip of his coffee, but didn’t look at her, and then spoke slowly, “Three years back, my unit was posted at Kupwara, Kashmir.” He turned then, “It’s a terrorist-infested terrain.”
“I know Raj. At one time, papers were full of that region….Kupwara, Shopur, Bara mola…”
“Baramulla.” He corrected her and continued, “It was just before the winters. That’s the most crucial time for army in that region, as the adversary from across the border helps infiltrate as many terrorists as possible just before the snow falls. We received an intel that a hard-core terrorist was going to slip into a nearby village and take shelter in the headman’s house that evening. We surrounded the village quietly, got the house evacuated, and planted mines all around the house to trap him. My second-in-command had got injured the previous day in a road accident, so I was heading the ambush. I was hiding behind the coal shed in the backyard when I saw this child wander inside through the back gate, just a few yards away from me. He had a ball in his hands. There was no time to think as I leapt…I was a few steps away when the ball rolled through his hands and he ran after it.” He paused as he choked on what was to come, but then lowered his voice and managed, “I was too late. My leg took the brunt of the blast. I was in various hospitals for almost two years.”
After a few silent moments, Raj looked at Naina. Her eyes had welled up, but she managed a teary smile and then asked in a voice thick with emotion, “What was his name?”
Raj stared at her, overcome with absolute awe and incredulity, and something so soul-stirring that he did not dare comprehend the feelings they awoke. Of all the people who met him after the incident…colleagues, friends, family…no one, not one person had asked him that. How did she know he would have followed up on the child?
“Waseem Qadir. He was just six.”
“As old as Adi.” She whispered. They sat silently for a few moments, each lost in own thoughts.
“Why did you ask me that? How did you know?”
She looked at him with earnest eyes, “I didn’t. I guessed…I think.” She got up, “We should go.” She started gathering things and tried not to take notice of the slight discomfort in Raj as he arose taking the help of the boulder on which he was leaning. How could she tell him that she knew he would have asked after the child, because it was something she would have done? The thought itself was stamped with a surety as it was with a strangeness.
“Goddammit!!” Naina swirled around as she heard the loud curse. To her horror she saw him kneel on his right leg as his left one lay twisted at an awkward angle.
“Oh my God, Raj! Stay still. You have broken your leg.” She rushed to him.
She was taken aback by the fury with which he lashed at her, “Stay back. I don’t need your help.”
To be continued…..