“ADI!! Hush. You must not say or think something like that.”
“But mumma….” Adi’s face fell.
“Oh Adi. Don’t look so sad. I didn’t mean to upset you. I understand your feelings, sweetheart. It’s just that solutions are not always that simple. I just wanted to say that if you wish Tanu to be your baby sister, nothing should stop you. You don’t have to depend on anyone or any situation for you to feel and express that kind of love for Tanu.”
“I am not sure what you mean mumma?”
“It’s simple Adi. If you feel in your heart that Tanu is your sister, then she is. For that you don’t need a mumma or a papa or a beeji. It’s a relation between you and her, and the love that you share that matters. Mumma will always be there for Tanu, just as Raj uncle will always be there for you. We don’t have to marry for you two to have a connection. We can be friends and you can be the big brother for Tanu.”
“Sure. Doesn’t beeji always say that she and Ranima are like sisters, but then their parents never married…right?”
Naina pressed her point forward, “Also beeji is like my mother, but that does not mean my father married her. We have relationship with a person because we feel for that person….Nothing else should matter. Hmm! Do you understand now? ”
“Yes. I guess so.” He furrowed his brows and pondered for a few seconds and then grinned, “Mumma, Tanu already calls me bhaiya and she is special to me, and she likes me more than Bobby. So we are OK…we don’t have to think like grownups, right?”
“Nope. You don’t. Haven’t I told you before that we adults are comp….” She raised her brows as Adi completed.
“…licated human beings. Yes, that you have told me plenty of times.” He smiled and then yawned widely, “Tomorrow I’ll tell Tanu that she is and will forever be my one and only precious baby sister, like Milli maasi was to you.” He reached up and kissed his mother. “You are the best. I love you mumma. Goodnight!”
“Goodnight, my prince!” She kissed him and tucked him into her arms, before reaching out to switch off the bedside lamp. She stared at the inky night. Even the steady fall and rise of her son’s breathing could not ease the rush of the memories that escaped the entombed layers under which she had condemned them. They surrounded her, consumed her, paralyzed her with fear...fear for Adi. Apparently the adage “time heals all wounds” did not apply to her, otherwise why would a vague reference to a long-forgotten name conjure vivid scenarios from the past that constantly replayed in her mind to torture her soul. Was she reading too much into the situation? Was she overreacting? Whatever it is, she couldn’t afford to be caught unawares. The passing years had made her complacent, happy, and content…But now she had to face her fears and feed from them…expect the worst and make herself strong, freeze her rippling emotions, and plan with a steely heart and clear mind. She couldn’t let her troubles cloud all those people who cared for her. Already Raj suspected, his scrutinizing gaze penetrating her defences…She sighed. He was so astute, and he read her like no one. She knew her responses to his concerned queries came out all incriminating and overly defensive. If he knew, he wouldn’t sit on the information…he will act. That much she was sure…How? She had no answer to that. She just knew that he will leave no stones unturned to protect her and Adi. And that’s what she didn’t want. No one is going to be hurt because of her…not anymore. She tightened her hold on Adi…One couldn’t change the past, howsomuchever you rattle the gates of your life. But one could make the future secure for people who genuinely cared.
The harsh ring of the hotel phone woke him up. He snapped out of the haze of a deep sleep, groggy and foggy headed, and reached across the sleeping girl to pick up the receiver. “Who is it?”
“Good morning Sir! This is the reception. There’s an urgent call for you from Delhi. Hold on. I’ll put you through.”
“Malik?” The voice was angry.
“Yes Sir.” He jumped over the girl and got down, standing near the bed, wondering what was the urgent call all about.
“Why the hell is your mobile switched off?”
He looked at his phone and then at the girl, suddenly recalling her switching it off before joining him on the bed. He cursed his folly.
“Err…Sir. I misplaced my charger. I am going to go out and buy another one as soon as the shops open.”
“No need. Pack up and catch the earliest bus to Delhi.”
“But Sir, I haven’t yet interviewed the Colonel. I heard his grandmother is going to be in town today, so I’ll…”
“Malik, you heard me. I need you here by evening. I am reassigning you to the Assam job. The reporter I had in mind has fallen ill. I want you to take up that feature.”
“But Sir, what about this story?”
“I am sending Ankita to take it up. Now jump to it.”
He heard the click and stared at the phone. What rotten luck? He was pretty sure about that woman with the Colonel and wanted to pursue the matter, maybe earn some extra bucks with the info. But he couldn’t cross his boss. His job was on the line. Yet, he could do one thing. He picked up his phone.
At exactly 8:05 AM, Raj received the confirmation about the reporter Malik catching the 8 AM bus to Delhi.
“Naina, why are you standing back there? Come here and give me a hug.” Ranima spread her arms.
Naina smiled and stepped forward. She enjoyed watching beeji and Ranima together. Everytime they had a reunion, it was as if they were meeting after years, instead of few weeks. They hugged…they cried…they giggled like schoolgirls. This time they even shared a split-second conspirational look as they looked first at Raj and then at her. It was so short that she wondered whether she had imagined it. She bent and touched Ranima’s feet and was immediately pulled into a tight embrace. Then she was held by her by the arms as Ranima stared at her, “Let me look at your beautiful face. (Sigh) Those phirangi women are no match to this classic beauty. You are exquisite…Isn’t she Raj?”
“She sure is. Dazzling…if you ask me nanisa!” He nodded solemnly, not taking his eyes off Naina, his lips twitching at her obvious discomfort.
Naina rolled her eyes, and turning to the grinning old lady in front of her and spoke through her blush, “He seems to obey you implicitly, Ranima, even though he may not mean it.”
“Oh, but he does Naina,” Ranima turned with a chuckle and crooked her arm in hers, and started walking toward the sofa. “Raj does not lie.”
“Maybe. Did he tell you that there are other stars in town that dazzle our soldier here?”
“Yes Ranima. I have met one of them. Magnetic charisma. Overpowering pull.” She looked innocently at Raj, “Irresistible…right Raj?”
He narrowed his eyes, as beeji and Ranima looked at them with a perplexed expression. Before they could ask anything or he could say anything, they were distracted by the kids who ran to them awashed with excitement. They made everyone sit down, and then Adi held Tanu’s hand and pulled her to stand in the center of the carpet. Tanu looked at Adi, waiting for the next instruction. He stood next to her. As everyone waited, he straightened his shirt, ran his fingers through the ever-tousled hair, and smiled at everyone, “Badima, beeji, Raj uncle, and mumma…I have something to say to you all. I have already taken mumma’s permission, so it is OK.”
Naina’s eyes widened; she sneaked a glance at everyone and then at Adi…who paused and beamed a smile at all. She stared at her son. She knew what he was up to, but she hadn’t realized that he was going to make a ceremony out of it.
Adi bent and took Tanu’s hand who looked up at him with eyes filled with adoration and awe. He continued, “I have decided to make Tanu my baby sister, and Tanu has agreed.” He looked proudly at everyone after his announcement.
Ranima had an indulgent look on her face. Raj smiled back and nodded his approval. Naina’s smile was gentle.
Beeji smiled and spoke, “That’s a great idea Adi. But don’t you think…”
Adi tilted his head toward beeji and responded in his most grown-up voice, “I know what you are going to say beeji. I too had the same doubt, but mumma clarified it for me. If I make Tanu my sister, Raj uncle and mumma do not have to marry. They can be friends. Right mumma?” And when Naina nodded dumbly, he pronounced gravely, “But if they marry…Tanu and I will be very happy.”
Naina coughed in a state of fluster. Ranima and beeji smothered their smiles and looked at each other. Raj chuckled openly…inviting a glare from Naina after she had recovered somewhat.
In the meantime, Adi had no clue about the bomb he had dropped and was busy extricating something from his jeans pocket. It was a red-and-gold thick cord. He put it in Tanu’s hand and extended his hand. With the other hand he pointed to his wrist, “Tanu, this is a rakhi. You will have to tie it here. Remember how I taught you to tie the shoe laces?” Tanu nodded vigorously, as Adi finished, “Tie it here exactly in the same way. After this, every year you will have to tie me a rakhi, and I’ll give you a gift. OK?”
They watched patiently as Tanu struggled to make a knot with profound concentration, the tip of her tongue between her lips. Everyone clapped after she had succeeded. Adi gifted Tanu with a pair of hair clips that had a little rabbit on each. He had dragged beeji in the afternoon to the nearby shops for the all-important purchase. Tanu threw her arms around him in a tight hug. He grinned and rubbed her back and then pulled her along to play with Furry.
Naina tried to elude Raj for the next couple of hours. Her mortification at Adi’s candid proclamation had not lessened. Avoiding Raj wasn’t that difficult as she was engrossed in listening to Ranima’s tales about her trip for the better part of the evening. She had peeked at him once when he was busy chatting with Adi and Tanu. He had sensed her stare and had looked her way. She had quickly looked away. It was an obvious dodge, making her cringe with embarrassment.
After an early dinner, everyone moved to the family room to watch a Disney movie. As Raj was fixing up the system, Ranima leaned in to Naina, “I have a surprise for you in the library.”
“Really? A gift?” Naina smiled gleefully.
“In a manner of speaking…closer to what you wished for. Something you mentioned before I left for Paris.” Ranima beamed affectionately.
“Ranima, you got them for me? You really did? Oho…I love you.” She bent and kissed the elegant old lady on the cheek and rushed out.
She ran to the Mahal annex and opened the huge oak doors to the library. This was her favorite place in the Mahal. It had shelves after shelves of the most comprehensive collection of books. Ranaji had been an avid reader. Though Ranima loved reading, she was more into collecting. She would get boxes of books for her husband after a trip, a practice she continued in his fond memory even after he was gone. The library was opened to the local students twice a week, wherein they were allowed any book they wished to take.
There on the center table lay a box wrapped up in a golden cloth and tied up with satin ribbons. Naina felt like a little girl granted a wish by the fairy godmother. She unwrapped the gift with shaking fingers and dipping her hand brought out her treasure: five books on castles, fortresses, and palaces of Europe; ten souvenir porcelain plates with artistic renditions of the famous castles; and a complete set of fridge magnets depicting all the castles of Europe.
Naina got everything spread on the carpet and sat fingering her treasure, her eyes brimming at having her childhood wish fulfilled.
“You look like a lost princess waiting for your knight to take you to the right castle.”
“My father would have said something like that.” Naina ran the heels of her palm against her eyes and then realized she was not alone. She spun around on her knees and found Raj leaning against the door, hands thrust in pockets, a smoldering look in his dark eyes.
He straightened and stepped in. “So Naina believes in fairy tales…Now who would have thought that?” He smiled then.
“Why ever not?” She asked defensively.
“Because you only show your practical self…The real Naina is hidden under self-created layers.” He shrugged. She stared. He stared back. A mere few seconds of stand-off as they studied each other.
She sighed and sat back. “There’s nothing to hide Raj. When I was a little girl, my father would tell me stories about castles and princes and palaces. Each night he would show me a picture of a castle and concoct a story. He was a wonderful storyteller.” She paused, reminiscing, and didn’t notice Raj lowering himself on a footstool beside her. She drew up her knees and crossed her arms across, resting her chin on them, “When my baby sister Milli was old enough, I would narrate the same stories to her. She would ask me, ‘Didi, will you take me to these castles when I grow up?’ And I would promise her each time that I would…that both of us will visit all the castles and look for our princes.” She looked at Raj and found him listening with genuine interest. There was no mockery in his look. She held his gaze, “Before Ranima left, we were having a chat about this, and I told her how I would have loved to see those castles in my lifetime…for Milli’s sake. And since I cannot afford to visit them in person, I’d like to own a picture of each of them. But I didn’t have any books or enough pictures to stare at. Of course, there’s always the Net, but I am a book person. This library also didn’t have any good books on Castles of Europe. Ranima remembered and see she got for me an eyeful. So thoughtful of her.”
There was a brief period of silence.
“Naina, where is your family?” Raj looked at her apprehensively.
She stiffened, and then getting up walked to the table, repacking the box, “I lost them many years back.”
She turned to him then, “Why do you want to know?”
“We are friends, Naina. I just want to know more about you.”
“The same goes for you Raj. I don’t know anything about you.”
Raj came and stood in front of her and halted her fumbling hands with his own. With the other he lifted her chin, “What do you want to know Naina?”
She stared at him, trying to gauge his feelings. She didn’t want to hurt him with her probing. He smiled, “Go ahead. I am not going to bite.”
She said the first thing that came to her mind, “Why do you hate women?”
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. Then taking her hand he walked her to the reading corner. He pressed her shoulders and made her sit down on the sofa he knew she used while reading. He then sat opposite and locked gazes with her, “I don’t hate women Naina. I only have to look at nanisa, beeji, and you to believe the goodness that exists. It’s just that I have seen the other side of the coin as well….and sometimes the negativity stemming out of that tramples on faith and trust.”
Naina didn’t blink, “Your accident?”
He nodded, “Mostly…but they became more profound when one considers the childhood I had.”
“Bad?” She couldn’t imagine how bad life could be for the eldest son of a princely state.
“Not bad…but lonely and desolate.”
She waited for him to continue. None of them noted beeji open the door, and closing it back after a brief contemplation.
Raj kept his elbows on his knees and bent forward, “Naina I lost my mother when I was five. My father remarried within a year. From my stepmother I have a brother and a sister. Being the oldest I was made aware of the family importance and responsibilities from an early age. I was given the required training and education and dealt with strictly…almost unemotionally. I had everything except what I had once received from my mother…time and pure love. My father is aloof and keeps to himself. My stepmother ignored me altogether. She manipulated everyone in the palace in such a way that people forgot my mother in no time. I had no one in that palace I could call my own. I used to wait the whole year for the two months I could get to spend here in Palampur. Nanisa had understood the situation long back. She refused to give me up. She had come to Devisar and had had a talk with my father…Whatever she said to him worked; my father could never deny my time here. Right from the beginning my stepmother wanted me out of the way for obvious reasons…the property and the status of heir for her son. She would abuse me in private and play the good mother in front of my father. She plotted cleverly and convinced my father that as the oldest son I needed to have a tenure in army. I appeared for the NDA entrance exams and got selected. So from age 17 I have been out. Army turned out to be a blessing in disguise. For the first time I was respected, accepted, and looked up to for who I was as a person. It didn’t matter what my family was. For holidays I preferred to come here….till I was manipulated into marriage.”
“Manipulated?” Naina had felt a chilling sadness creep through her when she heard the life he had led.
“Yes. I had refused all the proposals my father sent over the years. And then one day I got a message that he was very ill. I took leave and rushed home. He had had a heart attack. He said he wished to see me settle down before something happened to him. He had fixed my match with my stepmother’s niece who was much younger than me, barely out of her teens. I couldn’t say no and agreed. Much later I came to know from my wife that she never wanted to marry me but was pressurized into the marriage so that my stepmother’s family had control over my share of the property as well. Nevertheless, I tried to keep her happy, but it was evident that we were totally ill matched. We just coexisted. Also, my long months away in the field area didn’t help matters. By the time the blast happened, only Tanu’s presence was keeping us going.”
He paused and looked at Naina with agony. She held out her hand and he took it, taking strength from her softness, “Everything ended the day she came to see me in the hospital. At that point of time, I was paralyzed waist below and had lost the leg. She saw me and then told me bluntly that she couldn’t stay with a cripple…that my appearance filled her with revulsion…that she will not let her life be wasted on me. Two days later her brother came and told me that she wanted a divorce. I agreed with the condition that Tanu will stay with me. For the first time, my father held my hand and prevailed over my in-laws. The Court granted me the custody. The fact that Tanu’s mother never contested it made it easy.”
“Where is she now?” Naina just couldn’t get over the fact that any woman could give up her child so easily. Raj was feeling light hearted after a long, long time. He had never spoken about all this to anyone. But with Naina it seemed simple; there was no awkwardness, and emotions flowed easily.
“She remarried last year, and has migrated to USA.”
He looked at her. She wanted to ask one more thing but didn’t know how to.
“You must be thinking why I didn’t stay in Devisar after I took premature retirement from army.”
“The thought crossed my mind.”
“It’s because of Tanu….I wanted her to have a wholesome life, which she would not have had in an environment that was controlled by my stepmother. She had convinced my father that Tanu needed a mother and was trying to get me remarried to another one of her relatives. During one of our phone conversations, nanisa realized what was happening. She flew down to Devisar before she left for Europe and requested me to come and take charge of my legacy bequeathed to me by my mother’s side. I didn’t really have to think twice. I gave away my share in the Devisar property to a well-known state NGO.” He looked at her and smiled, “I am glad I took the decision. I have no regrets. It's a new beginning for Tanu and I.” He almost added, “The first day of my life was the day I met you....the day my heart started beating again.” But he knew it was too early for him to express his feelings.
Naina smiled back through teary eyes and nodded, “Yes. It feels right to have you and Tanu in Rawin Mahal. You belong here.”
Raj reached across and caught the first tear before it could trickle down.
To be continued……….