Raj reached across and caught the first tear before it could trickle down. “Hey! This is precious. Don’t shed it for me. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
Naina stared at him for a moment and then abruptly got up and walked toward the window, looking out at the mountains bathed in silvery moonlight. She felt him get up and slowly walk toward her and stand behind her. “Naina?”
She shook her head and let out a deep sigh, “It’s not fair Raj. Why is it that what happens in a parent’s life should negatively affect their child so much? It’s just not fair.”
Raj held her by the shoulders and turned her around, “Who says life is fair? We just have to make the best of what it deals to us, and protect our children in the best manner possible. Don’t worry about Tanu. Fortunately, she was too young to understand what was happening. She is fine.”
“But she lost her mother.”
“And gained the love of three wonderful women. She is happy here Naina. It’s better this way…for all concerned. Shilpa never wanted Tanu…She was pressurized into having a baby by her family just as she was pressurized into marrying me. It was a marriage of convenience. I thought we might make a success of it if we had a child, but that was an illusion, as I know now. She lacks the maternal instincts that I see so naturally in you. She just needed an excuse to get out of the marriage and motherhood…and I gave her the perfect opportunity when I was bedridden. Believe me, Tanu is richer in love today. Plus she has an older brother too now.” He grinned.
Naina groaned and closed her eyes, “Gosh, I hope you didn’t mind that. Adi has a tendency to go overboard with perfection. I had no clue he was planning a ritual.”
“C’mon Naina. That was the most articulately endearing pipping ceremony I have ever been part of.”
Naina raised her brow, tilting her head to look at him, “Pipping ceremony? What’s that?”
“It’s a ceremony in army wherein when someone is promoted, the pips on his uniform are changed as per the new rank. Adi has been promoted to the rank of big bro now, and Tanu knotted his pips to his wrist.”
“Promotion…eh!! Adi will be thrilled with that bit of information.” She walked toward the door, “He is such a little Mr Perfect. So regimental. So unlike me….I sometimes wonder how he got those traits?”
“Most likely from his father,” Raj quipped without thinking and banged into Naina’s back as she suddenly stopped. He felt her go still, as her hand on the door knob froze. He gripped her arms to steady himself and sensed the tension. He whispered to her back, “Naina, that was uncalled for. I am sorry.”
She spoke in a low tone, “Never say that again…never. You hear me. Adi is nothing like him…them.” Before he could react, she jerked the door open and walked out…head bowed with aimless quick strides…toward the garden.
“Naina,” He followed her, “I am sorry. Stop. Where are you going?”
“Leave me alone, Raj. Please…just leave me alone. For awhile….please” She glanced back at him, pleadingly.
Raj recoiled with horror at the naked agony reflecting in her eyes, “Naina, don’t do this to yourself. Talk to me. I am your friend. Don’t avoid your past…Face it. You need to deal with whatever happened.”
“Deal with it? Face it?” She turned to him in rage…shaking, “You think I am avoiding my past? Raj, I live my past every single day…I fight it every single minute. You know nothing.….NO! Stay back…Don’t come closer.” She stared at him, her hand raised…a deafening silence surrounding them. Raj hitched his breath and didn’t say anything. She wrapped her arms around herself and whispered in a tone that chilled him, “Do you know what it is to wait for the inevitable? I do. I wait for it. It will catch me soon…and tag me…and take me.” She was mumbling now, “I cannot outrun it. I…can’t…I….” She swayed like a tree in a storm and clutched her stomach and then her neck. She made a choking sound and looked at him with fear, “Raj……” He caught her before she hit the ground.
“NAINA!!” He ran inside with her in his arms and kicked the library door open. Laying her gently on the sofa, he first called the doctor and then beeji. Naina was soaking wet with perspiration. By the time he came back from getting the water jug from a side table, beeji and nanisa burst in. “What happened?”
“She fainted.” He sprinkled a few water drops on her and sat down rubbing her hands, “It’s all my fault. Oh God! I am a damn fool. Naina, honey, open your eyes….please. I am so sorry.”
He felt his grandmother’s hand on his shoulder and looked up with anguish, “Nanisa!”
“Calm down Raj. Let me get the doctor.”
“I called him already.”
“Good. Now tell us what happened.”
The doctor entered as soon as he finished telling them. Raj repeated what happened to Dr Chauhan, a man in his sixties, who was also their family doctor. He was in his car and driving through the next lane when Raj called, so he could come promptly. He listened to Raj attentively and then turned to beeji, “Has she had these attacks earlier?”
Beeji was quiet for a moment, and then she looked up, “Sort of…once…I had completely forgotten about it.”
“When beeji?” It was Raj. He was still crouched near Naina, holding her hand.
“The night she met you and Tanu for the first time.”
The doctor nodded and attended to Naina. Her vital signs had normalized. He gave her an injection which he mentioned will calm her and make her feel drowsy and help her to sleep. She stirred once and opened her eyes to look at everyone before going off to sleep.
The doctor motioned for everyone to move to the other corner of the library. He looked grave and asked beeji, “Please explain to me exactly what happened when she had the attack at your house.
“Well, she came back home late and wasn’t hungry, so I took a glass of milk to her room. I found her shaking and sweating holding a picture frame. She was breathing rapidly and looked at me with eyes filled with fear and anxiety. I took the picture from her hand and dragged her to the balcony. The cool breeze calmed her, and she went to bed saying she was very tired and that she had to get up early.”
“Whose picture was she holding?”
“A picture of her parents and sister. It’s the only one she has of them.”
“Where are they?”
“They died about eight years ago. She was eighteen then.”
“How old was her sister?”
“Almost as old as Tanu is now. Four, I think.”
“Does she talk about them?”
“No. Not much…just a mention here and there. But she does reply to Adi if he questions about them.”
“Anything else that might remind her of events of her past?” he asked beeji.
“Naina has nightmares….if that counts”
The doctor tapped his chin, “Hmm!! That explains it.”
Raj was beside himself by now, “What are you saying Doc? Is it serious?”
The old man looked at him gravely, “I hope not. Naina has had what we call panic attacks. Sometimes memories that have been suppressed act as triggers for such attacks. Obviously Tanu reminds her of her own sister. She may not have blocked her past completely but she deliberately avoids talking about it. She avoids the real memories and has numbed her emotions in a manner that does not hinder her present living. On the two occasions she let her guard down and was forced to recall in depth, she had these attacks.” He looked at beeji for confirmation. She nodded.
The doctor paused and then continued, “Sometimes changes like new people, sudden appearances or mention of old names, and experiencing old emotions that refer to the past break down the safety walls, directly triggering such attacks.” He looked at Raj, “I have a feeling there’s more…something must have happened for her to lash out at you like that…something she is keeping to herself. The way she lost her cool today is not naturally Naina….which means she is harboring some heavy burden that is gnawing at her. Her emotional distress manifested as a physical one today.”
Beeji was clearly worried when she said, “But my Naina is such a brave girl. She never lets her past get in the way of our present. She is so vibrant and full of life.”
“I am sure she is leading a normal, happy life. She has to be a strong woman to have endured so much and not have a breakdown. I am not even going to ask about her married life. That seems to be the crux of her problems though.” He raised his finger to stress his point and took a deep breath. He then looked at the two ladies, “Look, I have only given you my opinion based on whatever I heard about Naina. My experience says that Naina has not really dealt with whatever emotional and physical trauma she has suffered, so she is most likely suffering from a condition called posttraumatic stress disorder.” He got up to go and looked at beeji, “Please call me tomorrow and I’ll give you the details of a good psychiatrist I know. She resides in Shimla, but visits Palampur Medical College twice a month. You can have a talk with her. My advice is: Do not disregard this. Naina needs to talk to someone and get it all out. If she is not taking her friends and family into confidence, then it has to be a professional. For now, she will be fine. Let her sleep it out.”
“Here nanisa, tea for you and coffee for beeji.” Raj handed the cups and sat down in the opposite sofa in the family room. It was much after 10 pm. Naina was sleeping in the guest room where Raj had settled her with beeji’s help. The kids lay asleep in the other guest room where a maid kept an eye till she would be relieved.
Raj took a sip from his coffee and turned to beeji, “I have already delayed this. I want to know all beeji…How is Naina related to you? What happened to her? She clearly fears someone. Who?”
Beeji kept her cup and held his gaze, “I promised Naina I will never say anything to anyone. So, before I break my word to her, I have to know why is this so important to you. Why can’t you let her be?”
Raj looked at her and then at his grandmother who just raised her brow and waited. He sighed, “Beeji, Naina has become a good friend. I value her welfare.”
“Is that all Raj?”
“Is there something you are not telling us?” Beeji looked at her friend and a tacit communication passed between them.
“For heaven’s sake beeji, you know me. I want to know because I want to help Naina. Ever since I came here, she has done everything to settle us and helped us in whatever manner she could. It’s only appropriate that I help her when she needs it. I don’t like to see the fear I see in her eyes when she refers to her past. It was worse that day in Kangra.”
Beeji’s eyes widened, “What happened in Kangra?”
Raj narrated about the reporter incident and beeji gasped, even as Ranima straightened. She spoke first, “Again Raj…What was the name with which he called her?”
“A Mrs something Dhariwal.” He looked at beeji and understanding dawned, “He was right. Wasn’t he? She was recognized. That’s why she was so scared. And that’s what’s eating her up. I suspected as much.” He looked at both of them, “She is not a Bhatia, is she?” They shook their heads.
He raked his fingers through his hair, “Well…say something beeji.”
Beeji looked at Ranima who reached across and patted her hand and nodded, “Tel him Karuna. Raj might be able to help where we could not. I’ll leave you both now. I have had a long day.” Ranima wished them goodnight and left.
Beeji watched her close the door and then proceeded to speak, “Naina is not related to me at all Raj. In fact I met her for the first time about seven years back in Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh where I had gone to attend the marriage of my sister-in-law’s son.” Raj remembered nanisa telling him once about beeji. She had had a love marriage. She had married her best friend’s brother. Unfortunately, she became a widow only a year after her marriage. Her in-laws had never accepted her.
Beeji settled back in the sofa and entwined her fingers on her lap, “I was staying in a hotel. Altaf mian had accompanied me. Meenakshiji had refused to let me travel alone.”
“You mean our Altaf chacha?” Raj confirmed.
“Yes. The wedding was in a suburban village. We rented a car, which Altaf mian drove to go to the marriage venue, but enroute we had a flat tire. While he changed tires, I stepped out to take a breather. We were on a road with forests on both sides. I was just staring aimlessly when I noticed a red-colored cloth near a tree. Curious…I stepped behind the tree. That’s when I saw her.”
“Naina?” Raj whispered and bent forward to hold beeji’s hands.
Beeji nodded, “She was barely alive. She had a head wound and scratches and cuts all over the body; her wrists and ankles were bleeding. Clearly she was kept tied somewhere. But the worst….” Her voice quivered to a stop before she continued, “…the worst was the bullet wound on her shoulder.”
“She was shot?” Raj was incredulous.
“Yes…and she had lost a lot of blood. A little pouch lay beside her, which had her family’s picture and some money. I called Altaf mian…and then both of us heard sounds of a dog bark and a shot coming from farther back into the forest.”
“She was being tracked.” Raj was horrified as the truth unveiled. Nothing in his wildest dreams had prepared him for such a disclosure of what Naina had endured. By this time he understood that she was running away from people who were killers. Yet she had not given up. No, she wouldn’t. His Naina was a fighter…he knew that about her. He felt a sudden surge of pride rush through him
“Yes Raj. Just then, for few seconds she opened her eyes and whispered, “Help me please.” There was no way we could leave her. We realized we had to act fast. Her pursuants were not far off. There are many Buddhist monasteries in Balrampur. We carried Naina to the car and from there we went to the nearest monastery. I went and spoke with the monks, requesting for an immediate medical help and also their silence if someone came asking for her. One look at her and they understood. The monastery physician gave Naina first-aid, but told us to go to a hospital as soon as possible, as the bullet was still lodged in her shoulder. It was Altaf mian who suggested we go not to Balrampur but to the next town, Sravasti, so as to evade whosoever was after her. They were sure to enquire in Balrampur hospitals for a girl with bullet wounds. In the meantime, I called Meenakshiji who arranged for Naina to get medical help without any legal interference. She then arranged for a chopper and we evacuated Naina to Lucknow the same night after the doctor had taken out the bullet.”
Raj closed her eyes or a few seconds and then said, “That was quick thinking between the three of you. When did you change her name?”
“In the hospital. There were two names in a message in the back of that picture, which said, “On the terrace of our palace with our princesses Nayantara and Mrinali.” I didn’t know which one was her name, but somehow Nayantara fitted her so I changed it to Sunaina and gave her my father’s surname, Bhatia. It was much later that she told me that her parents indeed called her Naina.”
“Then you got her here.” Raj said.
“Yes. After a week. She didn’t speak much in those early days…just stared blankly…as if emotions had died inside her. Doctors said she had undergone a major trauma and so needed time to normalize. Her eyes would follow me, and I knew I could not let her go. For some reason, God had sent me when she needed help, and she had quickly become very dear to me. In her I saw the daughter I would have wished to have with my husband.” Beeji paused, and Raj got up to get water for her.
“What about her parents and sister, beeji? How did they die?”
“Naina lived in Nainital with her family. They died in a car accident. Naina was in college that time. A runaway truck pushed them down the side of a hill. Her father’s body was found a little away from the car where he was thrown off. Her mother and sister were inside the car still tied to the seat with seatbelt. The seatbelt had jammed. They had died of their injuries.”
“Oh God! That’s why she doesn’t put on a seatbelt.”
“After the accident, her uncle, her father’s brother came and took her away to Balrampur where he lived with his wife. After a few months they got her married off.”
“And???” Raj looked up when she stopped.
Beeji shook her head, “That’s it. Naina never told me what happened to her in her married life. How long she was there? How did her in-laws treat her? How was her husband? Nothing.”
“We were here in Palampur for about two weeks when she fainted in the lawn. We found she was pregnant. When I asked her about her husband, she gave me an empty look and said, “He is dead.” To this day I haven’t had the heart to probe her about her story, especially who was she was running from. Who wanted her dead? And when I saw her embrace life and become happy at the news of a child inside of her, I let the matter be. Presence of Adi in her life infused life back into hers. When Adi was born, my Naina didn’t look back. She told me once, “Beeji, I know you have questions. Please trust me when I say that it’s best if I let that time of my life stay where it is. I don’t want to look back anymore. I will not have my past dictate our future, especially Adi’s”…And that’s how it has been. I respect her wishes. We never spoke about why and how of that part of her life again. But now?” Beeji stared at Raj with worried eyes.
“Now the past seems to have sniffed her out. It’s OK thus far. I have ensured that reporter’s departure. So Naina is safe for now.” Raj stood, pulling beeji up. “Thanks beeji. This helps me understand Naina better. You go and sleep now. We’ll decide tomorrow how to get her to tell us about the missing months of her life.”
Raj walked beeji to the guest room and then took a peek in Naina’s room. She was asleep but her brows were drawn in a frown. He went and smoothened the crease and then couldn’t help stroking her cheek with the back of her knuckles. “You aren’t alone anymore Naina,” he whispered, “I am with you. We’ll see this through together. You will have to trust me a little and let me in.” He bent and kissed her forehead and left.
“Where are you sneaking off to?”
“Sheesh! You scared me Raj. Why are you up so early? It’s 5:30.”
“I could ask the same to you.”
“Did you just roll your eyes at me?”
“Naina, you are not well. You can’t scoot off alone somewhere in the wee hours of the morning after you fainted.”
“You are not my guardian Raj. And if you are short-sighted, let me tell you, I am an adult and am capable of taking my decisions.”
“Right. What should I tell Adi and beeji when they wake up?”
“Nothing. I left a note for beeji telling her that I am going to Asha Deep.”
“I am meeting someone.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake Raj. I have to meet Baldevji on an urgent matter.”
“You are going all the way to meet “Puppy” Kalra???”
To be continued………….