The rain poured incessantly. The thunderstorm had broken as soon as they had finished dinner. Beeji had refused to allow Raj to leave before partaking of the meal. Now she and Adi were in the kitchen arranging for candles and lantern, as the lights had flickered once already. Raj finished his call and sat down next to Naina on the sofa. She was holding Tanu in her arms who was clinging tightly to her, scared to death with all the noise. Outside, the storm rolled through the mountains with rumblings of thunder and flashes of lightning. There was a zigzag flash of lightning followed by a deafeningly loud burst of thunder, drawing a whimper and sob from Tanu.
Raj reached out and put a hand on Tanu’s back, “Tanu, there’s nothing to be scared of, sweetheart. It’s just a storm. It will be over after sometime. Come on, let’s go. It’s late, and you begin school tomorrow.”
Following another loud crack of thunder that seemed to rise from the very bowels of the earth, Tanu tried to plaster herself more into Naina if that was possible, closing her eyes tightly and whispering, “I won’t go. Aunty, tell papa, I’ll stay with you. I won’t go. I won’t. If I go outside, the rain monster will take me and Furry.”
Naina felt her nape getting moist with Tanu’s quiet sobs and asked gently, “There’s no monster sweetie. Who told you that?”
Tanu mumbled, “Beena dai. She said when the monsters come with rain, they are so hungry that they make loud noises and look for small children to take away.”
“What nonsense?” Raj was furious, “I had no idea they had filled her little mind with such superstitious bullshit.” He looked at Naina helplessly and tried again, “Tanu, Beena dai was lying. It’s just the clouds that are making noises. I won’t let anything happen to you. Come here.”
In response, Tanu turned her head in Naina’s chest and held out her hand to her father. As soon as he took it, she pulled it between herself and Naina, “No. You also stay.” With Raj’s hand held against her heart, Naina stilled and looked at him like a rabbit caught in headlights. He didn’t move a muscle. His eyes glittered with some emotion she could not fathom. For what seemed like eons, they simply stared at each other. Raj could feel her heartbeats through the fabric of her kurta. Then, with clinched jaw he slowly pulled his hand away.
Naina rose with Tanu and walked to the window. That’s when the power went off. Raj started toward the kitchen, just as beeji entered the room with a lantern along with Adi who carried a packet of candles and matchbox.
Adi kept the candles and rushed to Naina. “What happened mumma? Is Tanu scared?”
“Adi bhaiya!” Came the low voice from Naina’s bosom, “Aren’t you scared?”
“Oh no, Tanu! There’s nothing to be scared about. The noise is only because God Indra is fighting with the bad demon who stole the water.”
Tanu lifted her head from the safety of Naina’s neck and looked down at Adi, visibly intrigued now, “What?”
“Mumma tell her the story,” Adi implored.
Naina settled on the window sill with Tanu and Adi sat opposite, holding Tanu’s hands, as his mother narrated softly, “Indra is the God of thunder and storms and is the strongest and the greatest warrior. Once a very bad demon stole all the water from the earth. Everywhere there was turmoil. No one could do anything, as people, animals, flowers, and trees started dying. When Indra came to know about the evil demon’s deed, he pledged to take back the water from the demon. He came riding on his chariot of clouds in the sky and challenged the demon. Indra’s anger caused the thunder and he brought out his weapon to kill the demon. Both of them clashed, and after a huge battle, Indra finally killed the demon. The water was released again in the form of the rains.” She turned Tanu’s face toward the window as lightening flashed outside, “Did you see that Tanu? That’s Indra’s weapon. It’s called vajra. With that he struck down the demon. And that booming noise thereafter is of the demon falling down. So you see, there is nothing to fear. God is out there taking care of us.”
“Really Aunty?” Tanu had sat up. She shifted down from Naina’s lap and looked out. The moment she saw another lightning, she pressed her face against the glass, “Another one. That means God has hit the demon again. Right Adi bhaiya?” She turned her face toward Adi who was kneeling next to her now, his hand thrown across her shoulder. “Yes…look there’s another one.”
Leaving the children, Naina went and sat next to beeji.
Raj spoke with a smile, “That was awesome Naina. You really have a way with kids.”
“Children’s innocence is also their biggest strength, Raj. It helps them adapt fast and accept the positivity presented to them. Tanu lost her fear the moment she knew that the rain monster was being beaten by someone superior. Her fear turned into hope.”
Raj looked at his hands, “It’s partly my fault. When Tanu needed me the most, I was in the hospital. She grew up among the Devisar palace maids. Because Rajasthan doesn’t get much rains, there are many superstitions attached to storms and rains. Those women passed on their beliefs to Tanu.” He looked up with a sad smile, “Her being a girl didn’t help matter. Most of the time she was left to her own devices. That’s why she was so withdrawn and shy when you saw her first. But thanks to you all and everyone at the Rawin Mahal, she is finally opening up.”
“You don’t have to worry about her at all Raj,” beeji leaned across and patted his hand, “Now she is where she belongs. She is home, and so are you.”
Raj got up. “It’s been a long day. We should go beeji. It’s past Tanu’s bed time.”
“And who says I am letting you drive in this storm?” beeji stood up too. “You and Tanu are not going anywhere.”
“Beeji, please. I’ve driven in worse weather and rougher regions. We’ll be fine.”
“Raj, no arguments. There’s no way I am going to let you leave this house in this weather, especially when even the street lights are out. Absolutely not. You are staying the night.” She turned to Naina, “The kids will sleep with me. Raj can sleep in Adi’s room.”
In the end Raj had to agree. Beeji gave him her brother’s track pants and T shirt to change into. He visited her occasionally and had a few clothes lying about. Naina settled the kids in beeji’s room and went to Adi’s room with a jug of water. Beeji was there chatting with Raj. She wished both a goodnight and came out. Beeji halted her just outside her door.
“Will you be OK tonight?”
“I’ll be fine beeji.” She came back and laid her head on beeji’s shoulder, “You are a darling to worry so much. But you don’t need to. I haven’t had them in years now. Even then, it’s a relief that the kids are with you.”
Beeji hugged her tight and left her as Naina looked at her back, whispering to herself, “I am sorry for lying beeji. I won’t have you worried over me.”
Raj leaned against the doorjamb, having heard the coded conversation, and watched Naina go into her room across the corridor. He couldn’t help wondering what that was all about. He turned from the door of Adi’s room and looked around. It was a lovely room. Adi was a neat boy. His books, toys, and other things were all well kept. The walls adorned pictures of him and Naina, and some with beeji. There was not a single picture of his father, the mysterious Mr Bhatia!
Broken souls never reveal how they feel…..they're full of pains and hurts "still" real. Parts of a poem she had read recently came back to her as Naina walked slowly toward her window and stared out blankly into the dark night. The storms always awoke memories that she could never wash off. She had learnt to wall those memories in so securely that only she was privy to them now, and she had every intention of keeping it that way. No one…not even beeji had any idea of the cravings she still had to have a bath in the dead of the night daily…sometimes twice…sometimes thrice. She wanted to forget, but the chains of the past were bound too tightly around her to do that. They resurfaced now and then. Like today, when that man in the market….She had somehow averted showing him her face again. It had taken all her self-control to shove that fear back and carry on with the day. Her tears, her fears, her worries were her own. The tears that she shed in the privacy of her room were never allowed to trouble her little family. She was all alone in this…always and forever.
Naina rubbed her eyes and admonished herself for indulging in self-pity. She was gifted with a natural calm and was certainly not morbid; but somehow tonight the dark sky, the pools of dark shadows all around, and the dark uncertainty of the future had her in her clutches. Would that man believe Raj and let the matter drop? Or would he dig? And if he does? Oh God, Adi…She cannot let them get hold of Adi. She sat down on the bed with a thump. She had to think…plan. But first, she had to get this dirt off her. Within seconds she was under the shower. By the time she came out of the washroom, she had the outlines of a contingency plan. She changed into a nightie and slipped under the covers after blowing off the candle.
She had thought she would find it difficult to sleep after the first big scare in seven years, but the moment she closed her weary eyes, she was asleep…her tired body finally taking over. Not much time passed before the nightmare began…It was always the same…his laughter, the old lady’s smirks and taunts, the ugly old man’s lustful, lecherous look and alcohol-ridden breathing, and that touch…that’s when the screaming always began.
Raj sprang up in the bed after the first scream, and all his inborn instincts came alive. Naina! That was Naina. He tried to rush but fell down before the second step. Cursing loudly he reached for the prosthetic when he heard her scream again. He let go off the limb and reached for the stick. Getting up he reached for the candle stand and hobbled across to her room. He found her thrashing in her bed and mumbling, “Leave me…(sob, sob) Let me go…please…don’t touch. I beg you. Let me go.”
“Naina!!!” Raj shook her lightly. “Wake up…wake up.”
Suddenly she shot up. Her eyes opened, and he stared at a pair of unfocussed, terror-stricken eyes. She clutched his shirt, “They will take Adi. I have to hide him.” He called out a few more times, but she was in a daze. He sat on the bed and spoke her name softly over and over again. But she continued to give him a blank stare and then shrunk back toward the headboard. He tried again and again, “Naina, it’s me. Raj. I won’t hurt you. Open your eyes.”
Finally, her eyes lost the empty look as she appeared to recognize him. Next moment she had flown across the bed and thrown herself into his arms, hugging him with her life and crying relentlessly. He held her tightly till her sobs ebbed, all the time speaking to her softly, calming her, stroking her hair. He reached out for the glass of water kept on the bedside table and made her drink it. He adjusted himself on the bed beside her, all the time holding her. She relaxed before mumbling once, “Don’t leave me.” He promised he won’t and rocked her till she fell asleep again. Even then he didn’t let go and tightened his hold. Everything had changed in twenty-four hours. Somehow Naina had become very important to him. He refused to analyze the reason…not yet. He rested her head on his shoulder and caressed her arm till his eyes closed. Before sleep came, his last thought was, “I won’t let you step on another minefield Naina. Whoever is responsible for shattering you this badly will pay, I promise.”
For seven years she had suffered these nightmares. This was the main reason she had weaned off Adi to a separate bedroom at an early age. For the last three years or so she had been lying to beeji about not having them anymore. They came on their own free will…with or without any trigger. She was used to waking up in the night crying, sweating, and shaking and then taking hours to calm herself back to sleep. But last night was unlike any other. Naina woke up feeling warm and more refreshed than she had ever been. She remembered the hellish nightmare, and she also remembered the beautiful dream that followed soon after wherein she had found paradisical bliss and security, comfort, and peace in a man’s arms for the first time…in Raj’s arms. She still felt the strength of his arms holding her and recalled feeling protected. She didn’t remember sleeping so fitfully after a nightmare as she did the previous night. She closed her eyes and flopped back into the pillows. What a strange dream! She had never let any man touch her in all these years, but Raj was different. He was a genuine person, and she trusted him. Maybe that’s why subconsciously she sought his help in her dream. Yes…that had to be it. After all he couldn’t have been here, could he? Naina looked around just to make sure, but couldn’t notice anything out of place. She slapped her forehead and smiled at the foolish notion, before getting down from the bed.
She was arranging the teacups in the kitchen when Raj walked in tentatively. He had changed into his own clothes. He seemed to have taken a shower as his hair was still wet, from which few droplets dangled…just like Adi. Her son always needed a last-minute rub by her.
Naina grinned and passed him a hand towel. He raised his brow, and she pointed to his hair. He took it and rubbed, wishing her Good morning.
“A very good morning to you too, Raj. Did you sleep well?” She smiled and passed him a cup of tea.
Raj responded perfunctorily and stared at her as she went about her task of pouring tea in two more cups and arranging biscuits.
“What about you Naina? Slept well?”
“Like a baby,” she smiled. “It’s great to wake up to a clear sky. Isn’t it?”
He nodded with a slight frown. Naina greeted beeji heartily when she walked in. “How’s the garden beeji? Hope there wasn’t much damage.”
“No, Naina. Everything is under control. Thankfully it wasn’t much windy last night. With the sun out, the extra rainwater will be taken care of.” Beeji returned Raj’s good morning hug and sat down, chattering with Naina who looked her normal chirpy self. By this time Raj was sure that she didn’t have any recollection of the events of the previous night. He kept glancing at her as he fiddled with his phone and responding to beeji’s queries, but she showed no signs of any trauma.
Beeji went to wake up the kids as Raj wanted to get back home early to get Tanu ready for school. He sat down in the living room with the newspaper.
He lowered the paper and looked up to find beeji beckoning him to her room. He saw the kids were still asleep, and looked at her in askance.
She whispered, “I’ll wake them up in a few minutes. But first tell me, did you hear anything last night?”
“Hear anything? Like what?” Raj feigned a surprised look.
“I mean did you hear Naina crying or screaming?” Seeing the look in Raj’s eyes she tried to explain, “Oho…don’t worry Raj. I am asking because sometimes Naina gets nightmares whenever there is a storm. Something happened many years back that troubles her now and then. Since you were upstairs too, I am asking you. Normally I check on her, but I couldn’t leave the kids last night…..and so that’s why I…,” she broke off, “What’s wrong? Why are you looking at me like that, Raj?”
He put a hand on her shoulder, “Beeji, we need to talk.”
Before she could respond to his grave expression, Tanu woke up and called out to Raj.
“What’s it Raj?”
“I’ll call you later beeji.”
The school kept Naina busy for the next few days. New admissions were still on, and new students needed to be helped with adjustment. She found Tanu standing quietly near the door of her office on more than one occasion before she would notice her. Once she did, Tanu would smile hugely and run across to her. By Friday she had made a couple of friends and reduced her trips to Naina’s office. Naina hadn’t met Raj since Monday morning as he was busy making trips to other towns throughout the week and familiarizing himself with the business. She had gone to Rawin Mahal on Tuesday morning, had prayed in the temple there, and then had gone to Raj’s suite to keep the holy flower she had got from Chamunda Devi temple under Tanu’s pillow. She had told the maid to let the flower be for forty days as per panditji’s instructions. Raj wasn’t there, having left for Chamba early in the morning. She had taken Tanu with her to school.
On Friday, after school, she wrapped up her work quickly as she had promised Adi she would take him to the movies. Beeji was spending the night with a friend who was sick and all alone. She was about to lift the receiver of the intercom for a final instruction to Nancy when there was a knock and Raj walked in.
He smiled at her, and it struck her that a different current of emotion swept into the room than what was when he was here last…warm and exciting at the same time.
She kept the receiver down, “Hello stranger!”
He halted in the middle of the room, “Does that mean you missed me Naina?”
“Oh…puhleez. Stop giving yourself so much importance. That was just an observation.” A smile touched her lips and her eyes twinkled.
“You are bad for a man’s ego, Naina.” He made a sulky face.
Her laughter resonated in the room, “Oh God Colonel…Do you try that gimmick when you want to draw attention…especially the female ones?”
“My dear Naina…for that, I don’t need any gimmicks. Just a look is enough.” Naina could believe that…and somehow the thought bothered her.
She grinned and gestured him to sit down, “Right. Now tell me what can I do for you?”
“I came to invite you, beeji, and Adi for dinner tomorrow. Nanisa will be home before lunch. She wanted to meet beeji urgently. I’ll give a call to beeji later.”
“Thank you Raj. I am looking forward to meeting Ranima again and hearing her stories about her Europe visit. Don't bother....I’ll tell beeji. She is with a friend tonight.”
Just then her phone rang. It was Adi, “Mumma when are you picking me up?”
“I am on my way Adi. Is Bobby also coming?”
“Yes mumma. OK. Bye. See you.”
Naina kept the phone down and looked up to find Raj staring at her, “How is Adi?”
“He is fine. I am taking him for a movie.” She paused for a second and asked, “Will you and Tanu like to come? It’s the latest part of Ice Age.”
“Tanu would like that. Are you sure it won’t be a bother?”
“Of course not….Adi will be thrilled at this surprise. Let’s go.”
She stopped to hand over a few files to Nancy who had just entered the office. She had reached the door when the phone rang. Nancy waved her ahead. However, she waited as Raj went ahead to get Tanu. Nancy kept the phone after a hurried conversation.
“Who was that Nancy?”
“Weird. Some reporter of a magazine. He wanted to know your name and then said he wanted an interview with you. I told him you weren’t here. What shall I say if he calls again?”
Nancy waited as Naina spaced out for a few seconds, “Ma’am!!”
“Huh..oho…tell him I don’t have time for interviews. If he wants to know about the school, he should meet you.”
She looked up to find Raj staring at her with concern.
To be continued……….