“Are you OK, Naina?”
“Sure, why wouldn’t I be?” Naina smiled and averted her eyes, the smile not reaching her eyes. And then she bent toward Tanu and held out her hand, “Hey sweetie! Ready to go for a movie?” Tanu grinned and nodded, “Will Adi bhaiya also come?” Both of them walked out chatting. Raj frowned as he stared at Naina’s back and then turned toward Nancy who was coming out of the room, “May I have a word with you Miss Peters?”
“Will you take the reporter’s number and pass onto me when he calls next? Actually, I don’t want any media person venturing inside the estate without my grandmother’s or my consent.”
“Of course, Sir!”
“And do me a favor; please don’t let Mrs Bhatia know. She already has enough on her platter. I don’t want her or anyone being pestered by a nosey journo who only wants a story about my family.”
“You can count on me, Sir. I had no idea that reporters were pursuing you. Aha! Now I get it…He wants to speak to Ma’am because of Tanusri.”
“Right Miss Peters. Thank you. Good evening!”
Raj came out to find Tanu sitting on the front seat of the jeep, with Naina leaning against it…both of them having a serious conversation. He felt moisture prickle his eyes as he witnessed his daughter moving her hands and speaking animatedly, looking very excited. A couple of months ago he would never have thought he would ever see her this way…so happy, so chirpy, so talkative, so normal. He finally felt his legs move when he saw them do a high-five and giggle.
“What’s all the excitement about?”
They both looked at him and then at each other. Naina winked. Tanu giggled. Naina cleared her throat. Tanu tried to copy and ended up squeaking.
Raj crossed his arms, “Well!!!”
Naina said, “Girl secrets, Raj.”
“Yes, girl secrets, papa. Boys not allowed. Not even Adi bhaiya.”
Raj rolled his eyes and went to pick up Tanu, “C’mon Little Girl, we have a movie to go to after we have gone home, changed, and eaten something.” He looked back at Naina, “And you (pause) Big Girl, we’ll meet up in front of the hall in an hour. OK?”
“Touche!” Naina smirked as she sat in the jeep and waved to Tanu.
“Hardly…just outganged.” He laughed full-throttle…a deep rumbling sound that resonated in the air. Naina stilled and stared at him as she felt an ache of warm pleasure ripple through her on seeing his beautiful face lit with laughter. A strange, unexpected completeness consumed her being. The very next moment her eyes clouded as the fears that she rode on her shoulders all the time slipped inside and tightened her chest in warning: She had cut a piece of universe for herself, built her own walls brick by brick, and was secure in it. She would never be able to step out of it. She passed him a tight smile and drove away.
Naina went home and freshened up. She changed into a T shirt and jeans and bunched up her hair in a messy bun. She put on eye liner and a light lip gloss and looked at the clock. There was still some time left. She took out her phone and dialed Baldev Kalra’s number.
“Hello, Naina Ma’am. Good evening.”
“Good evening Baldevji. I called you regarding a very urgent matter. I need your help.”
“For you, anything Ma’am. You just have to name it.”
“Thank you Baldevji. I’ll come and meet you soon, probably on Sunday. Keep the Asha Deep files of 2007 with you. This is personal and very important. I cannot say what the matter is on phone, but please keep this to yourself. I’ll let you know when we meet.”
“Of course Ma’am! No one will know. You have my word.”
Naina pocketed the phone and stared at the only photograph she had of her parents and baby sister kept on the study table. It was a picture of her holding four-year-old Mili, cheek to cheek, and laughing, their parents standing behind them looking into each other’s eyes and grinning. Her father’s friend had clicked the picture on the terrace of their home exactly a month before she lost them, and subsequently the course of her entire life changed. She was only eighteen. Naina brushed her fingers on the frame, her eyes glistening before she turned and walked away. Memories only weaken you. And she couldn’t be weak now. Adi had to be made safe before they found her.
Naina stopped the jeep in front of the gate of the multiplex. She saw Raj standing with Tanu near the doors of the hall. She turned back to Adi and Bobby, “Adi, you two go and stand with Raj uncle. I’ll park the jeep and come.” The parking was in the basement. By the time she took the lift up, the crowd of parents and kids had swelled. She took a couple of steps and stopped. Adi was holding Tanu’s hand and telling her something. As always she had a wondrous look on her face when she listened to Adi. Bobby tried to intervene but Adi shushed him. Apparently, he held the monopoly where educating Tanu was concerned. Within a few days, Adi had become very protective and possessive about Tanu. She could sometimes see her father in him. She only had to close her eyes and hear him tell her mother, “Geeta, the pleasure of treating my girls with ice-cream is only mine. I don’t want Dheeraj doing that again. Got it?” It didn’t matter that Dheeraj uncle was his best friend.
Naina smiled as she looked at the kids now. The smile froze as she saw Raj talking to a woman. She was gorgeous…tall, slim, flawless features with milky fair complexion, beautifully made-up face, and a Jennifer Aniston haircut. She was wearing a lemon-colored chiffon saree with sleeveless, low-cut blouse…all her curves and assets clearly visible through the sheerness of the fabric. A hand was on Raj’s arm as she leaned in to say something. Raj smiled and nodded. The woman reached up to flick back the lock of hair that always played hooky on his forehead. Naina’s hands balled by her sides as her feet moved forward.
As if he sensed her, Raj turned and looked at her smiling, which quickly turned into a frown at seeing her expression. “Hello Naina! Is everything OK?”
“Yes…everything is just perfect.” She stared at the stunning man-eater with narrowed eyes. Man-eater? Now where did that come from? Naina blinked and smiled sweetly, very conscious of her casual look, “Won’t you introduce us, Colonel?”
“Oh yes! Naina this is Vimi, a friend. Vimi, this is Naina.”
“Hi Naina! Nice to meet you.” She looked at Raj and smiled seductively, “C’mon Raj. I am not just a friend.” She looked at Naina, “Actually Raj was my first boy friend. He was the first boy who kissed me. He was here on his annual vacation and we attended a summer camp together. Remember Raj?” She batted her false eyelashes at him.
“We were kids then, so….” Raj was clearly uncomfortable.
“Hello Mrs Vimi! It’s a pleasure. Is your husband also here?” Naina tried her damndest to sound polite, but her tone came out all wrong…almost catty.
“I am divorced. I have come back to my home town…,” she stared at Raj, “….permanently.”
Raj could have sworn he heard a “Harrumph!” sound from Naina. He looked at her, but her eyes were focused on Vimi…her expressions betraying nothing. He tried to ease the undercurrents, “Naina is the principal of the school where Tanu goes.”
“Really?” The femme fatale crooned, “How wonderful? I have high regards for academics. Raj, it was sweet of you to have invited Tanu’s principal for a movie. It’s always nice to be in the good books of your child’s teachers. Right?”
Raj looked at Naina’s widened eyes and bit his cheek to hold back the smile. She looked like an angry teenager in her attire…rather cute. “Actually Vimi, it’s Naina who invited us.”
“Oh dear! My bad. Oho! I get it. You must be in need for grants. Raj’s family is so generous.”
What the…? Was she real?
Naina had had enough, “Excuse me Miss Vimi! Do you always jump into conclusions? If I needed grants for the school, I’d have called on your friend…sorry, ex-boy friend…in his office and not beg in front of a movie hall. Now if you will excuse me, I’ll take the kids inside. It was nice meeting you.” She looked at Raj, “You can join us after you have caught up with your…err…friend.”
“Sure…see you in a few.” As she passed him, he leant sideways and whispered, “Touche!”
She glared at him and joined the kids. Tanu leapt in her arms, telling her excitedly about the characters of the movie about whom she had just learnt from Adi. She was ushering the kids toward their seats when she felt Raj behind her. She looked back to see him holding two large tubs of popcorn and grinning at her, “What was that Naina?”
“What?” Naina tried to be nonchalant as she grabbed the tubs from his hands and adjusted them between the kids. She then passed on their Cokes.
“Well…it’s a long shot, but…by any chance, were you jealous?”
She straightened up and looked at him incredulously, “Oh…my…God!! With all that inflated ego filling up this hall, I wonder how the rest of us managed a few teensy-weensy seats to sit on.”
Raj chuckled as he settled down, “May I have a bit of that popcorn?”
“I have to give that a serious thinking now.”
“What for? It’s just popcorn.”
“What if you accuse me of being jealous of the little pops because they were making you drool.” Naina hit back, feeling a little giddy with a sense of being off-kilter. She knew she was treading on dangerous grounds…but somehow it was leaving her feeling exhilarated…and not scared. What the hell was happening?
Raj threw back his head and laughed aloud…as many heads turned toward them, “I guess I deserved that.”
“What’s the joke Raj uncle?” Adi pushed Naina and came over.
“Nothing son. I was just teasing your mother, and she got angry.”
“Mumma hardly ever gets angry.” Adi looked toward his mother with a frown. He tugged at her shirt and, when she looked down, tiptoed up and kissed her, before sitting down next to Raj. Naina ruffled his hair and passed on to her seat. Tanu immediately came and flopped down next to Adi. Bobby sat next, with Naina completing the row. She started chatting with Bobby, stopping when the commercials came on. She stole a glance at Raj and found him looking at her with a penetrating look. As their gazes locked, she felt something shift in his expressions, making her catch her breath. He smiled then and lifted his Coke in a gesture of truce. There was so much tenderness in that single smile that Naina was sure something happened there between them…but wasn’t sure what.
That night Adi came to her room with his pillow. She was sitting on bed, working on her laptop. She looked up to see him hovering near the door.
“Mumma, may I sleep with you tonight?”
“Of course sweetheart!” She patted the bed, “Hop in. Just give me a minute. I’ll save this work and close the laptop.”
She kept the laptop on the study table and went to the washroom. When she came out, she found Adi standing near the table holding the picture frame in his hand. She went to him and hugged him from behind, putting her chin on his head, “What is it Adi? Is something troubling you?”
“No mumma. I was just wondering….”
“That Tanu looks so much like Milli maasi. See.” Saying he thrust the frame in front of her.
“I know Adi. I noticed that the first time I saw her.” She had always avoided this…this journeying back into the forbidden zone….where happy memories lay untouched, unremembered, unmourned. She didn’t want those memories to cloud her vision and lose her focus. But try as she might, she couldn’t escape the clutches of even the happy past. Tanu was a stark reminder of her baby sister and that’s why she was so drawn to her. She was fourteen when Mili was born. Her parents hated to term her conception as an accident and would take offence if their friends alluded to Mili as thus.
“Tell me about her mumma. About Mili maasi.”
“But I have told you about her earlier also, sweetheart.”
“Again mumma…One more time. Please.”
She picked him up and adjusted him on her lap on the bed. “You are right. She was like Tanu in many ways…like a little doll…my little doll. She was quiet but a very happy child. She would be waiting for me when I’d come back from school. She would run to me and wouldn’t leave me till your nanima took her away forcefully so that I could take a bath and change. When I held her, when I sniffed her baby smell, when I rubbed my nose against her and heard her giggle, I would forget all the problems I may have faced that day. I never had any friends those days. I didn’t need any. She and I were inseparable.”
“Just like you and I are mumma.”
“Absolutely. In many ways I was her mumma. I also learnt many things from her.”
“Like what mumma?”
“Hmm….like even when people think you were not supposed to be born, you change their opinion by being happy and spreading happiness. She was like this ray of sunshine God sent just for us. Mili could always bring a smile on everyone’s face.”
“Just like Tanu does.”
“Yes. You really like her, don’t you Adi?”
“Yes mumma. If I had a papa, I would have asked you for a little sister just like her. She is so cute.”
Naina closed her eyes as a stab of pain pierced her heart. Adi was silent for awhile. Just when she thought he had drifted off to sleep, he sprang up, “Mumma, I have an idea. If you marry Raj uncle, he will become my papa, and Tanu will become my baby sister…just like Milli maasi was to you.”
To be continued……………………