The car came to a halt in front of the Asha complex. Raj unhooked his seat belt and turned to Naina. She was fast asleep huddled up in her seat with her feet tucked under her… holding the flowers tightly to herself. She had fallen asleep a few minutes after they had resumed their journey after having breakfast. Obviously she hadn’t yet recovered fully from the previous night’s ordeal. Raj wondered again what urgency had made her come here. They had conversed on various topics, but through it all Raj had sensed a veiled edginess in her. A few times she had looked at him as if she wanted to tell him something but then held back.
He was about to wake her when he noticed the file she was holding on to had slid down. He bent to pick it up along with the papers that had slipped out. Raj saw they were all related to Adi…his birth certificate, his admission form from Happy Hours school where he started his schooling, his passport-sized photographs. Raj paused for a few seconds and then returned the papers to the file before turning toward her. He touched her shoulder, “Naina…Naina…Wake up. We have reached.”
Her eyes flickered open slightly and gazed at him unfocused; reaching up she took his hand and held it to her cheek. She then smiled sleepily through hooded eyes, “Hi! You look beautiful.” He smiled as she went back to dreamland still holding his hand. Raj knew the sedatives of last night hadn’t worn off completely. Left to him, he would have just sat there staring at her …but this was neither the place nor the time. But then how will a few a more seconds matter? Just a few more…. Suddenly a voice called out loudly, “Naina Ma’am…Naina Ma’am…you are here. Good morning! Welcome.”
Naina jerked awake and looked out where Baldev was rushing down the steps and then at Raj, blinking, “Did you just growl Raj?”
“Of course not,” Raj denied hotly knowing fully well that some such sound had indeed escaped his throat. He would have happily throttled Mr Kalra for breaking the moment. Naina noticed the hand clasp and wrenched hers away in embarrassment…looking up to find Raj’s brooding eyes on her.
Baldev saved the moment for her by greeting her overenthusistically once again. She wished him back and stepped out as he opened the door for her. Raj got out as well, returning Baldev’s greetings and looking at Naina, “I’ll be back in an hour. Is that OK with you?”
She nodded, “Yes. I should be done by then.” She took a few steps after Baldev, who had run up the stairs to open the office, and then paused to call Raj who was about to get back in the car, “Raj!”
“Just before I awoke, did I…umm…did I say something in my sleep?”
“Yes. You did.” Raj kept his elbows on the roof of the car and looked at her, his eyes twinkling.
“Err…may I know what?”
“Are you being funny?”
“No. But I cannot repeat what you said. It’d be highly inappropriate.” He enjoyed the wave of emotions crossing her face.
“Alright…You said something that’s in your heart.” He saw her eyes widen even as her face turned red.
“Raj!” She twisted her fingers, “Please.”
Raj would have loved to rib her further but he sensed a vulnerability in her stance, as she looked at him fearfully, “C’mon Naina. I was teasing you. You need not take everything seriously. You must have been dreaming of flowers because all you said was that the flowers were beautiful. OK? Now go…I can hear the puppy yelp. He is going to come back sniffing if you delay anymore.”
“Raj, you are incorrigible,” she laughed. He winked and chuckled before getting into the car and driving away.
Naina entered the office and shut the door. She sat in front of Baldev across his desk and kept the file between them, “Baldevji, before we proceed, I want you to promise me that whatever I say will remain between us. It is a matter of great importance.”
All the casualness left Baldev as he promised solemnly, “Of course Ma’am. You don’t have to mention again. Nothing will go past me. You can rest assured. What is this all about?”
“It’s about my son Aditya. What I suggest might seem very strange to you, but I have to do this. I need your help. His entire life is at stake here. There are people who are going to try to take him away from me.”
“Who are they, Ma’am?”
For the next twenty minutes Baldev listened with rapt attention what Naina told him…not once interjecting. Only his expressions reflected the horror he felt. When Naina halted and looked at him, he said gravely, “Tell me what I have to do Ma’am.”
“Raj, please stop at the Holy Cross Hospital for a few minutes. I need to speak to the matron there.”
Naina had just sat down in the car after waving at Baldev. Raj turned, “Is everything OK? You are not feeling ill, are you?”
“No. I am fine. I need to talk to the matron regarding the health check up of the Asha Deep children. Their annual medical is next month.”
“OK. If you say so.” He nodded slowly, giving her a speculative look.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Naina,” he sighed as he started the car. “The kids had their check up two months back, and you know that. I am aware of it because that bit of info was part of Kalra’s briefing when we came here last. I don’t mind you keeping things from me…that’s your prerogative. You have your reasons. But Naina…you cannot shut yourself in like that. If there’s a problem, you have to let others care for you and help you.”
She stared out of the window. When he had given up that she would say anything, he heard her, “I don’t expect you to understand Raj. It’s very difficult for me to let anyone in.”
“Accept it or not Naina…but I am already in. Nothing can make me go away.” He glanced at her and found her eyes on him, “And I mean nothing.”
Adi and Tanu were waiting for them on the palace lawns. The rest of the day was spent in fun and laughter visiting the Gopalpur zoo. Beeji stayed back with Ranima to discuss about a party Ranima wanted to throw for Raj and Tanu. Altaf chacha would drive her back home.
While Raj parked the car and got the kids, Naina had joined the queue for tickets. The man behind her was trying to be too close. Twice she told him to maintain distance…The third time she turned to give him a piece of her mind, only to find him being dragged away by the scruff of his collar by Raj toward the gate. When he came back, Raj didn’t say anything, but took the kids’ hands in his and guided them inside the zoo. That’s when she noticed his reddened knuckles. After the incident, she found herself taking in his profile and sneaking a glance at him when she thought he wasn’t looking. She felt Raj’s eyes on her many times. She accepted that Raj being the kind of person he was, he felt protective toward her. He was an honorable man and a good friend.
What boggled her was her own reaction to him. She had barred away her emotions for so long that this deluge of feelings for this man felt alien…yet they were as familiar as the warmth of the sunrise. She had never felt this acutely attracted toward any man…ever…neither in her past life nor now. He made her feel happy and belonged. Something about how he looked at her tugged her heartstrings in a way she couldn’t recall before. She had no right to feel this way…she had nothing to give him; yet she felt drawn to him, wanting to be with him, wanting to talk to him, wanting him to smile and grin in that inimitable endearing manner of his. She was treading on uncharted territories…this ache, this strange need, this yearning could only take her to a darker place than she already was. Nothing could come out of this wanting.
Naina was startled out of her thoughts as she heard him laugh at something Adi said. The duo were sticking out their heads between them from the back seat of the car and were narrating him something, as they drove back home. Adi said something again and Raj laughed harder with Tanu falling backward shaking with giggles. Naina found herself joining in. God, she adored these three. Out of nowhere one word flashed; “Mine.” She broke off her thought as the rational part of her mind sounded the alarm. Oh my God! There was no denying now. This was it.…She was falling in love. Her brain choked on the thought as she shook her head as if the strange idea would fly out of her mind. And when it didn’t, she stared at Raj like a doe caught in headlights. He sensed the change in her and raised his brow in query after stopping the car in front of her house. He was about to say something when she scampered out. Beeji came out to greet them and asked Raj to come in for a cup of tea. He declined saying Tanu was tired and left. Naina refused to look at him when he wished them goodbye and stayed back near the gate.
In her room, Naina sat on the bed with a thump…feeling shell-shocked. Why now? Why should this beautiful gift come to her now? She never imagined she could ever fall in love and certainly not this way…so indelibly…so fast…so deep. She had thought her barriers were strong enough, but Raj had stormed his way in, breaking all the walls….leaving her exposed to heartbreak. For one weak moment she wished he loved her back…because it didn’t seem possible that she could feel this much love and not have him feel the same. But then it was not fair for her to expect that he come down to her world. His and her worlds were different. She can never have her happily ever after…Her marriage in that family had tainted her soul and seen to the demise of her dreams.
Yet the question kept coming back to her…Why now? Is this a sign? A gift of few moments of happiness and love to be carried to the empty days of exile? Because leave she must…if they come looking. She bent and picked up a picture of beeji and Adi kept on the bedside table. She couldn’t let their lives be in peril. Tears streamed down her face as she cried over all the love she was going to leave behind. If only there was another way. How will she live without Adi? Without beeji? Without Raj and Tanu? Just then her phone beeped. It was a message from Raj.
“Are you alright?”
She wiped her tears and texted back: “Yes. Thanks for today.”
“Are you upset with me?”
“No Raj. Why do you ask?”
“You didn’t say goodbye.”
“Sorry. Can I ask you something?”
“Sure…And don’t apologize.”
“If I don’t say goodbye and leave, will it matter to you?”
“Of course it would. So don’t ever do that. Promise me.”
“Good night Raj.”
She pressed the Send button and set the phone aside. It rang within seconds.
“Naina, you didn’t promise.”
“Raj, how can I promise such a thing? What if I have to leave somewhere on an emergency?”
“Naina….for my peace of mind. OK?”
“OK Raj. I promise I’d do my best if ever such a situation arises.”
“Thanks Naina. Sleep well. Goodnight!”
Next few days passed peacefully. However, Naina was jumpy. Beeji noticed her tension. She came to Naina’s room on Friday night. Naina was working on her laptop. She shut it off and crawled toward beeji and then hugged her, “You are worried about me, aren’t you beeji? Sorry for bothering you”
“Stop worrying about me my child. Tell me what’s up. You are not yourself.”
Naina disengaged herself and stared at beeji for a moment, “I thought I could delay this, but I can’t anymore. Beeji, they suspect I am here…they will find me soon.” She told her about the phone call from the police station.
Beeji was shocked, “But how? I don’t understand.”
“Remember that journalist? He recognized me and passed on the word. He was attached with a local newspaper in Balrampur around that time.”
“Oh my God! Naina, we must go to the police.”
“No beeji. We can’t. What will we say? There isn’t any crime yet. But I have to keep Adi from falling into their hands. Beeji…” Naina paused and then continued, “If anyone enquires, you will tell them that Adi is adopted.”
“It’s the only way beeji,” Naina interrupted. “I have been making arrangements to make it authentic. Baldevji and Paula aunty, the matron in the hospital Adi was born in, have helped me with the documentation. For all legal purposes, Adi is my adopted son. His age will be documented as being almost 8 years and not 6.”
Naina and beeji talked late into the night, making plans. The next day Naina was about to get into her jeep after dropping Adi in front of his Cricket Academy, when a man stepped in front of her. Just by looking at him, she knew he was not from these parts, and her blood froze.
She tried to skirt around him. But he stepped between her and the jeep, “Mrs Dhariwal your family is looking for you.” He had a faded passport-sized picture of hers in his hand.
“Step aside mister. You have the wrong person.”
She tried to get into the jeep, but the man held her by the arm and pulled her back, “Oh no! I do believe I have the right person. You have to come with me.” He twisted her arm behind her when she struggled to get free.
Naina gave him a hard push with her free hand and stepped back, “Don’t touch me. It won’t take me two seconds to have you arrested if you don’t leave.” Seeing a few people walk their way, the man let her go, but not without issuing a threat, “You have one week to call your family. Here’s the number.” He threw a card inside the jeep and walked away. She sneaked a look toward the academy gate to ensure Adi had gone inside, and then got on the jeep and drove away. She knew she had little time now.
Adi had watched the entire scene of his mother getting harassed from behind the gates. He had forgotten his gloves in the jeep and was coming back for them. That evening they went to the mahal. Ranima had called them over so that they could plan the party. She wanted it in a large scale and call everyone she knew in and around Palampur….a sort of a Welcome party for Raj. She wanted to introduce her grandson to all the Who’s Who of the state.
While Naina was busy discussing the layout with Ranima and beeji, Adi went to Raj who was sitting on a barstool in the corner, “Uncle, will you take me to the Armory? I want to ask you something about that sword you showed me last time.”
Raj had a couple of phone calls to make so he said, “Adi can we do this after a few minutes?”
Adi looked around and saw his mother was busy. He had to do this before she got up. He bent down and told Tanu, who was hovering around, “Tanu, please go to your room and get the Ludo. We’ll play here, on that carpet.”
She ran away with an “OK bhaiya.”
Adi turned and slipped his hand into Raj’s hand and whispered, “Uncle…please. It’s urgent.”
Raj looked down and saw the stress on the little boy’s face. He cut off the call and walked with Adi to the Armory. Once there, he turned, “What is it Adi? Is something wrong?”
Adi raked his fingers through his hair and looked up at Raj, “Uncle, will you teach me how to fight?”
Raj was taken aback. He hadn’t expected this. Adi may be fascinated with soldiers and wars and battles, but he was the most peace-loving boy he had seen. He sat Adi next to him on the settee and asked him, “Why this sudden wish Adi? Has something happened?”
Adi looked down and kept quiet.
Raj tried again, “Adi, I have to know. How can I teach you if I don’t know why exactly you need to fight? And with whom? Did someone threaten you in school?”
Adi kept his head down but shook it once.
“Then, is it your mother?”
After a few seconds, there was a nod…and then a whisper, “Yes.”
“Who was he Adi?”
Finally, he looked up, his eyes brimming with tears, “I don’t know. But he was shouting at ma and even pulled her down from the jeep so badly that ma almost fell. Then he twisted her arm. If I see him again, I’ll beat him to pulp.” He fisted his hands on his lap and looked at Raj, “You will teach me, won’t you?”
To be continued……….