“You are hurt. Let me help you Raj.”
“Didn’t you hear what I said? Keep away from me. I don’t want your damned pity.”
He reached down and lifted his trouser leg. There was a sound of a loud gasp, which Naina belatedly realized came from her. It was a prosthetic, an artificial limb from below the knee. Raj’s hand stilled and he looked up at her with such open contempt that she took a step back, “That disgusts you...huh! I should have known. The sight of a cripple always brings that reaction….from a woman especially. You cannot stand to look at such disfigurement. Don’t worry; I won’t mind… I am used to such reactions. Go…sit in the car! I’ll be along as soon as I fix this.”
Without a word, Naina turned and walked toward the car. She heard him let out a bark of derisive laugh…a sound that chilled her to the bone. Raj finished relocking his leg. His hands shook in his task, an anomaly as he couldn’t decide whether his reactions were due to his anger or this cold sense of disappointment that washed through him as he saw her turn her back. He was halfway up with his back to the boulder when he found her standing in front of him. That was the last straw. He turned her and pinned her to the boulder, with firm grip on her upper arms, his gaze dark and dangerous. She didn’t struggle this time and stared right back at him, her beautiful eyes probing, searching, and holding a depth of serenity that unsettled him to the core. For the first time since the blast, he felt really bare and vulnerable and felt a wild, desperate urge to look away and let go. No one had ever looked at him…into him… like that, as if she knew…she understood.
He was close enough to breathe in her scent…floral, soft, warm. It filled his being and consumed his senses. Something stirred within him and Raj felt an emotion akin to panic, and in desperation to break the connect that seemed to devour him, he let his anger take over, “I told you to sit in the car. But you have this uncanny habit of not listening. You were clearly disgusted and ran away, not wanting to see the ugly deformity. Why did you come back? Curious? To check out how broken I am? Why Naina? Did your sense of philanthropy get tickled?” He bent closer…his face close to hers…his body taut with coiled tension, “Say it Naina. Speak the words. Say how you want to stay away from this cripple because the sight repels you and you see how worthless I am...Say that you came back because you wanted me to know how much you sympathize and feel sorry. Say it Naina.”
She looked at him, and he saw his soul staring back for a fleeting moment. He sucked in a breath and his mouth went dry. She closed her eyes for the briefest of seconds and shook herself gently. The next moment Raj felt a palm against his chest, giving him a gentle push and his hands released her. She spoke softly, her voice firm and controlled, “Are you done?”
He stared, as she tilted her head and raised a brow, “No? There’s some more in that vitriolic arsenal? Well then…sadly, it will have to wait for another day. We have appointments to keep…so get back on the tracks Colonel. Pronto. Oh, by the way, I went back for this and came back for this, since you won’t take my help.” Saying so she brought his walking stick in front of him and lifting his hand planted it in his grip. She then turned and walked back to the car, her back straight, her stride firm, “I will wait for you in the car. Don’t be long.”
Raj was gobsmacked as well as euphoric as pure relief surged through him. She had done it again…reacted unexpectedly yet just the right way. She didn’t pity him, and as he saw the driver’s seat empty, he realized she showed her confidence in him by expecting him to continue driving. He had been too busy concentrating on the darkness created by the others in the past…too busy nursing his wounded pride at the unexpected disclosure of his handicap to her. He should have known better. The truth was always there, right in front of him…in her kind eyes…in her actions that only emanated honesty and understanding. How could he suspect her motives? Damn!! He had blundered…Big Time. He owed her an apology. Mere words would seem hollow now, yet he had to try.
Raj hurried to the car, opened the door, got in, and belted up. Only then he looked at her. She was staring out of the window. He had no way of knowing what she was thinking. He touched her arm lightly and said, “Naina, I…” He stopped as she picked up the earphones lying on her lap and inserted them firmly in her ears and switched on the FM in the phone….not once looking at him. And he knew she was angry….very angry. No theatrics. No melodrama. Just simple withdrawal….which left Raj reeling with a bout of unwelcome solitude.
Raj finished his meeting with Mr Adhikary in record time and after promising him that he will visit the tea gardens the next weekend, he drove to the two Homes, Aasha Dham and Aasha Deep, for aged and for children, respectively. Earlier he had dropped Naina near the steps; she had sprinted up without a backward look.
The last time he was here, only Aasha Deep, the orphanage, was there. Aasha Dham came up about four years back. He walked up the steps to the common entrance, and stood enchanted as the manager, Mr Baldev Kalra, came forward to greet him along with two of his staff members. Even though he greeted them with a smile, Raj’s eyes were on the lady in pink and white who had a guitar in her hands as she rested against a table and sang to the children surrounding her even as the old members hummed with her. They sat around under a huge shamiana on the lawn that lay between two buildings. She was coaxing the children to sing along. They were afar so no one noticed him.
“She sings too.” He mumbled to himself.
“Oh yes Sir. Our Naina Ma’am is a nightingale when it comes to singing. She introduced music in the daily routine here. You will be surprised to know that some of our senior members too learn singing from the teachers. Most of them never got a chance throughout their lives to indulge in a hobby, and now they can do what they missed in their youth. Naina Ma’am finds out about their hidden interests after talking to them and then ensures they get to do what they wish. We have classes running for yoga, painting, dancing, sculpting, wood carving, cooking, baking, and a few more.” Mr Kalra proudly informed Raj.
Raj looked at the new building, “I didn’t know that the two Homes are face to face. There used to be a football ground there.”
“Yes Sir. The playground has been shifted to the back of Aasha Deep. When Ranima wanted to build an old age home and asked everyone their suggestions whether to build it in Palampur, Chahal, or Chamba, all the places where the Trust had spare land, it was Naina Ma’am who suggested the home to be built right next to the orphanage. In her words, “If we have old people next to the children, they will both give each other company and be of help too. Values can be imparted to the children as they should be. They can be a family.” As per her suggestion, we have each child adopt a parent from members of Aasha Dham. So each child here has one to three parents, depending on the ratio. This is really a home for each person here.”
“Amazing,” Raj said. “They are creating their own present and their own future.”
“And being happy too. Naina Ma’am is like a bright ray of sunshine in their lives. We all look forward to her visits.” Raj looked sharply at the slim young man who was looking adoringly at Naina with large puppy eyes. Something hot flashed through him…a sliver of jealousy that left him baffled. He shuffled and stood between Mr “Puppy” Kalra and Naina and asked him few abrupt questions in order to distract him. Mr Kalra answered him with all sincerity and then guided Raj forward just as a loud applause broke through and the children broke away, making a dash toward the corner where the food was laid along with Naina’s cakes. Naina looked up and saw Raj. She said something and everyone turned to him, and then walked toward him smiling. After introductions and greetings, everyone sat under the shamiana to have lunch and chat. It was all very informal and very relaxed. He was treated with lot of warmth and cheer. Raj's eyes looked for Naina. He saw her sitting in the far corner holding a polio-ridden child in her lap and feeding him while narrating an anecdote to the giggling little faces in front. The child kept pulling her hair and turning her face to him, trying to get her exclusive attention. She suddenly dipped her face and rubbed him on the tummy with her nose, and he doubled up with unrestrained laughter. She wagged her finger and pointed to his tummy and said something, which brought upon another round of giggles. Raj rubbed at the sudden tightness in his chest. He couldn’t help noticing how everyone smiled and laughed when Naina was close by. There was a general happiness in the air…pure and genuine…nothing concocted…just like her. She was like an angel.
They bid adieu amid promises of coming soon. It was almost 4 pm. Raj got the car on the road and turned to her, “Thank you Naina.”
She stared at him in puzzlement, “For what?”
“For a magical experience. You have done wonders with this place. There is so much hope, love, and kinship there.”
“I have done nothing Raj. Thank Ranima if you wish to. She has never said no to anything this place needs. All I have to do is ask. A child needs someone older to guide them. An old person needs someone who makes them feel wanted and dependable. Above all, a human being fears loneliness. People coming to orphanages and old age homes are generally those who are shunned by their own and suddenly find themselves alone. Here the children and the old people come together and fill each other’s voids and in doing so become as whole a person as they were once. To put it simply, Aasha complex houses families.”
They were both silent for awhile, as the car entered the marketplace. The need to apologize hung heavy on Raj. He turned toward her, but Naina had her hand up, “Raj, please stop the car here. I need to go to that toy shop. Just a few minutes...OK?”
When Naina came out of the shop twenty minutes later, she had two packages in her hand. She saw Raj standing a little away from the car, talking to a man whose back was to her. Just then her phone rang. It was beeji. When Raj saw her, he ended the talk and came forward to help her. The man started to walk away across the road, but then turned and called out to Raj, “Which day will be convenient to you next week Colonel Rathore?”
“Tuesday morning. Ten sharp.” Raj noticed the man was staring hard at Naina and didn’t like it. He turned to Naina who was on phone with beeji, “Naina, get in.” She nodded and glided in as he opened the door for her. She hadn’t noticed the man as she was still busy on the phone. He had just started the car when the man rushed to his window and bent his head, almost thrusting it inside, “Mrs Dhariwal? You are Mrs Manmeet Dhariwal, isn’t it?”
Raj turned toward Naina, and found her bending near the door, trying to extricate the phone that had fallen there. He pushed the man’s hand away from the window, “What’s wrong with you? Get away from the car. And for your information you are mistaken. She is not who you think she is.”
The man straightened up, “Oho! I am sorry Colonel sahab. I meet so many people in my profession that sometimes there’s a mistake.”
“It’s OK. And about that interview…we need to postpone it. Call me tomorrow, and I’ll let you know when.”
After pulling out of the market, he glanced at Naina, but could only see her side profile partly hidden by her hair, “Sorry about that Naina. That was an unnecessary nuisance.”
Quite a few seconds passed before he heard her, “Who was he?”
“A journalist from Inside Look magazine. He is doing a feature on army officers, past and present, who are or were part of erstwhile royal families. He saw me standing and recognized me from the photograph he was provided. Anyways, he won’t bother you. I am sorry he came upon you like that.”
She looked at him fleetingly with a thin smile before looking away, “It’s OK Colonel. You don’t have to apologize for a stranger.”
“Can I apologize for myself Naina?” Raj gripped the steering wheel. Something was not right. He could have sworn there was fear behind the veiled smile.
She looked at him with surprise, “What for?”
They had left the town behind and were on the highway. He stopped the car and turning to her took her hands in his. They were cold as ice. He rolled his thumbs in circles on her palms, trying to warm them and said, “Naina, I am very sorry for doubting you earlier today. I shouldn’t have said those things to you. It was a mistake. You are a wonderful person…kind, good-hearted, strong, and forgiving. There is no excuse to my obnoxious behavior. Forgive me please.”
Naina was stunned. True, she was angry with him earlier for even thinking that she could be so mean to him…to anyone. But as the day progressed, she had analyzed his behavior and understood a little bit from where he was coming. Still his sincere and from-the-heart apology was totally unexpected. Their gazes locked and for few moments Naina was only aware of the warm current passing from his palm to hers. She extricated her hands and twisted them in her lap, asking him something that was on her mind since the previous night, “Why are you so sensitive about your condition? Do you think that makes you less a person than you are?”
Raj looked at his palms and shook his head, “No, but people around you don’t let you forget that you are a cripple once they know….either they stay away or they pity you.”
“So you hide behind that excuse!”
“What?” He was shocked.
“The prosthetic limb. You hide behind it.”
“No. Of course not. That’s an absurd notion.” His tone was cold. “You don’t know me Naina.”
“Maybe not. Yet, sometimes it takes a stranger to see the obvious.”
“What do you mean?”
“Friends, family, and acquaintances sometimes take you for granted. They try to mold their behavior according to you. In doing so sometimes their natural conduct gets clouded…and you are so sensitive that your heightened senses are ever ready to pounce on those deviant actions. So, you strike back…It’s just a defence mechanism Raj. Don’t mind the people who know you. Don’t forget they are also adapting to a changed you. They see you in a manner they adapt themselves to.”
“And you? What do you see Naina?” he asked softly.
She turned and looked in his eyes, “I see a brave and gentle soldier who would risk his life for a child he didn’t know but about whom he knows everything. I see a man who is proud of being a soldier more than a prince. I see a loving father who would go out of his way to protect his daughter, even if he has to go about it in a rather…ahem…unorthodox manner. And…” Raj felt a warmth seep through him at her words. She was like a breath of fresh mountain air infusing life back into him as he felt himself come alive every second that he spent in her company.
“And???” His voice was laced with thrill as he saw the familiar twinkle dance back into her eyes.
“Well, well, well….Greedy, aren’t we Colonel? Methinks that’s enough compliments for today. I don’t want you getting back on you high, snooty horse again so soon. So turn the key and drive.”
“Drat!!” He thumped the steering wheel with an exaggerated gesture, “And here I thought that you were so impressed that you will raise a toast in my honor tonight at dinner, with the kids and beeji clapping for effects.”
“Dream on soldier…dream on. So not happening.” They looked at each other and broke into laughter, as Raj reached for the ignition.
They kept a lively banter going on the drive back. They were getting comfortable with the friendly sparring and enjoyed the verbal duels. Naina told him some more about the Homes and also about beeji’s gardening obsession. He told her about his life in army and that he put in his papers and requested a premature retirement because he didn’t want to get stuck with desk jobs, since his active soldiering days were over. He told her that his grandmother was coming this week and that he had some plans for all the institutions and businesses they were running. He told Naina that he would need her help with most of those. He didn’t talk about his family or his marriage and she didn’t probe.
Just before turning into the road to her home, he said, “You know Naina, all my life I have tried to do the right thing…the right thing that others chose for me. It took the blast and the aftermath for me to realize that we have to decide what we want our life to be about...and go after it.”
“I understand. I have known that feeling for awhile now Raj.”
He parked the car in front of the house and looked at her, “Naina…all that you said to me when I apologized, how did you know what went in my life?”
He parked the car in front of the house and looked at her, “Naina…all that you said to me when I apologized, how did you know what went in my life?”
“Been there…done that.” She looked at him with shiny eyes and laid a hand on his arm briefly, “Thank you for today Raj.”
Before he could respond, the children ran out of the house and she stepped out of the car, kneeling down to grab them in a hug.
Raj stared at her back. Someone had hurt her…really hurt her in the past. The very thought made him shake with anger. There was no doubt the fear he sometimes saw in her eyes...just as today in that market. Her cheerful demeanor was just a coat of armor protecting her from her past. She still feared….
“I’ll be damned if I let her continue like this.” Raj whispered to himself before getting out of the car.
To be continued……………