Raj took Adi’s hands and pulled him up to stand between his legs. He wiped his eyes with his thumbs and held him firmly by his thin shoulders, “Adi, first of all calm yourself. It will upset your mother if you look so agitated. She is a wonderful, strong lady, son…She can take care of herself. But between you and me we shall make sure no one harasses her. We won’t let anything happen to her. OK? So, yes…I’ll teach you a few moves.’
Adi sniffed and smiled shakily through moist eyes, “Thank you, Uncle.”
“However, the most important thing for you to know is that if a dangerous situation arises, you have to first think with your head. That bad man is a big person, and you are still a little boy.”
“Not little.” A stubborn look spread across Adi’s face as he shook his head vigorously.
“Nope. Not little. My mistake. A young man…that’s who you are. Brave and loving young man.”
Raj was rewarded with a beaming smile. He ruffled Adi’s head and continued, “You do understand that you cannot physically fight the big man, don’t you Adi?”
Adi looked into Raj’s eyes and then after a beat nodded reluctantly, “Yes Uncle.”
“But you can think with your head,” he tapped on Adi’s temple, “and you can buy time to get out of sticky situations.”
“By getting help. Like you did now by telling me…without worrying your mumma. If you find yourself or your mumma in danger, be calm, and then at the earliest opportunity, get help from someone you can trust. OK?”
Adi nodded…this time a little more enthusiastically, as he understood that he could be of some help if the occasion demands. He had felt so helpless and inadequate when he had seen that man trying to hurt his mother. Beeji told everyone proudly how he was the man of the house. Yet when it came down to it, he was torn between rushing out to hit the man and obeying ma’s orders about not stepping out of the gates till she came back for him. He felt that he had somehow failed ma and beeji. That’s when he had remembered Raj uncle, and he knew for sure that he could go to him for help.
Now, he looked at Raj with veneration as the older man got up and looked down at him, “Come Adi. I want to give you something.”
“Patience Adi. Let’s go to my study.”
Inside the study, Raj left Adi’s hand and went behind his desk. He pulled the second drawer and took out a package. Adi ambled closer and saw that it was the packing of a cell phone.
“A phone?” His eyes went wide. “You are giving me a phone? Wow! Awesome.”
Raj chuckled at Adi’s excitement, “Yes Adi. This is for you. Come here.” Raj picked up Adi and sat him on the desk. He sat down in the chair and punched in a few numbers in the phone. He had got it to give to nanisa who was looking for a second phone for her use. Good thing that it was delivered earlier in the day. He gave it to Adi, “Here son. It’s a small phone and will fit into your pockets. I have punched in your mother’s, beeji’s, badima’s, and my number. You will get me if you press on 1. But remember, there’s only one reason I am giving it to you. You will use it if there is an emergency and you want help. This is not for chatting with friends.”
“OK uncle. Can I play the games in it?”
“Sure.” Raj smiled. “But don’t forget to charge it regularly. Here’s the charger.”
Adi took the phone and tried the functions as Raj watched. Suddenly he slid down the desk and threw his arms around Raj’s neck, “Thank you…thank you Raj uncle. You are the best.”
Raj pressed the little body against him and dropped a kiss on his head, “My pleasure Adi. I know you will take good care of it.”
Adi stepped back, “May I show it to mumma now?”
“Show me what Adi?”
Raj and Adi looked toward the door as Naina stepped in with Tanu. “We have been looking for you Adi. Tanu was waiting for you to come and play with her.”
“Oops! Sorry Tanu. Mumma, look…Uncle has gifted me a phone. Isn’t it super?”
Naina stared at Raj and then at her son’s beaming face. “Yes, it is. Did you thank Uncle?”
“Yes, mumma…I did.”
“Show me bhaiya.” Tanu craned her neck to look at the phone. Adi took her hand and put it there, “See. It’s tiny…like you.” Tanu giggled. Adi pulled her along, “Come we’ll show it to beeji and badima, and then I’ll show you the games that are in it.” He tossed back a glowing smile at Raj before striding out with Tanu.
Naina stared at the man who had captured her heart in a way no one ever had. Through the evening she had avoided him. She was sure that if she looked at him long enough, he would know her secret. She resisted the urge to step toward the magnificent aura that emanated from him. Instead, she gestured toward the door from where Adi had just left, “What were you thinking Raj? You shouldn’t have given him such an expensive gift. In any case he is too young to own a phone.”
“I am sorry Naina. I should have asked you first. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing.” Raj stood up and stepped closer, before stopping.
“But…a phone Raj! At his age, he shouldn’t be expecting to receive such gifts. I don’t want him to be spoilt.”
“C’mon Naina. Adi is a responsible child. With you as his mother, he is never going to go astray. However, you may not have noticed that he is taking his role as the only man in the family too seriously. I just handed him a reason to shift his sense of responsibility toward a thing. That’s all.”
“Naina…take it easy. Haven’t you heard that the greatest gifts you can give your child are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence?” Raj tried to alleviate her mood.
Raj’s words transported Naina to another day, another time. She felt her head go fuzzy, her hands felt cold and clammy, and she found it difficult to breathe. The memories came rushing in, unsettling her, as she felt the start of a panic attack.
“Naina!” She felt her heart pound inside her ribcage as she struggled to focus on the voice that was her lifeline at that moment.
“Naina, are you OK? What happened?” She swayed on her feet before he caught her. “Dear God! It’s OK love. I am here.” She felt strong arms gather her and walk her to the sofa. “Breathe Naina. Take deep breaths. That’s it…Good. Here, have some water.” He kept on talking to her. She heard him through the haze and concentrated on slowing her breathing. A few minutes later she felt herself calm down, and her mind and heart found their way back to normalcy. She found herself held against Raj’s chest, and he was mumbling soothing words.
She tilted her head. He was looking at her with tortuous eyes, “I am fine Raj.” She shifted back, and he let her go, but reached down to hold her hands, “I did it again, didn’t I? I caused this. I am sorry that I gave Adi…”
“No, Raj. It’s not you. You didn’t say or do anything wrong. I am not upset about the phone. It’s just that this whole situation and what you said brought back memories….and I wasn’t prepared.” She hated to see him feel guilty of what was clearly her shortcoming. She had always known that healing process of her mental scars would be long and complicated. She had learnt to internalize the healing…for Adi’s and beeji’s sakes, and also because she wanted to honor the words of advice of her father. He would always say: “Sing the song of Spring Naina…even when the chips are down. In your smile will lie the secret of the happiness of all those who love you. Try to be happy always…against all odds.”
“Naina, I understand that no one likes to revisit painful memories. But if you turn your back on them completely, you are only letting them fester and allowing them to cause harm to not only you but also to Adi.” She looked up at Raj in shock. What is he saying? She looked and found only honesty and concern in his eyes. He continued in a gentle voice, “Adi is a sensitive kid Naina. He is more attuned to your emotions and reactions than you credit him for. You cannot hide yourself from him for long. Remember you told me once that I hide behind my handicap? You were right. I was doing exactly that. What if I say that you have closed the door to the happy memories of your family and are hiding behind it? Hurting alone. You don’t need to, you know. Just try opening the door Naina. Think of them. Feel them. Hear them. See them…..See them Naina….See them as freely as you did once. They are there. Alive. In your heart.”
He squeezed her hands and rubbed his thumbs over her inner wrists in circles. Her heart fluttering with love and each nerve responding to his touch and his voice, Naina stared at Raj for long…till their gazes seemed to melt together and they couldn’t look away. As if they were floating aimlessly in a bubble of their own. In the warmth of his essence, Naina felt all her inhibitions wash away. In his courage, she found her strength. He was right. She had spent too much time looking back and dreading the past. She wanted her life back…a life that was ripped from her so violently…not once, but twice over. Running away was never the solution.
“Talk to me Naina. Tell me…. I am sure that the more you reminisce and talk about your family, the easier it will be for you to remember them.”
“You think so? Beeji tells me that one day I’ll remember and smile and the grief would have gone. But it doesn’t go Raj…Every time someone or something triggers a memory, it’s as if…as if I am thrust into the middle of a twister. It is not easy.”
“I know it isn’t. But talking about it will help. Believe me. Trust me on this Naina. We’ll deal with it together…OK?”
Naina looked down at his large, strong hands holding her small ones. He made it sound simple. Should she dare? Should she believe? She felt she was having an out-of body-experience and heard herself whisper, “I should have been with them in the car.”
Raj understood. He had heard whispered words akin to that so many times…among his fellow officers, friends, and soldiers…when they survived an ambush or an armed skirmish or a blast. The doctors called it survivor’s guilt….the guilt of remaining alive when others died.
“Do you really think that Naina? Would that have made your family happy? Wherever they are today, they must be very proud of the life you have made for yourself. You fought your way through all the ups and downs…like a warrior queen.”
Naina’s eyes widened at that. Raj’s lips formed a half smile, “What?”
“Sometimes you speak just like papa. It’s amazing. He used to call me his warrior princess because I would get into arguments with everyone.” She smiled.
“Tell me about your parents.”
And it flowed…as easy as the flow of stream down the mountain and through the valleys.
“My father was a musician. A wonderful singer, he played many instruments. He used to be part of this group and would travel a lot to sing and play in concerts. My mother was in university when she met him during a concert. She went to interview him for the university magazine, and they fell in love. They were polar opposites in many ways, yet so alike. My father never took anything seriously. He was a happy man and always laughing and cracking jokes. He always knew how to make us smile. Their fights were a treat to watch…My mother would be seriously scolding him, and papa would stand in front of her making faces and then suddenly bursting into a song.”
“I would have loved to meet him.”
“He would have liked you Raj. For all his superfluous behavior, he was a very wise man. We would spend hours talking to each other.”
“Awhile back…what did I say that got you in a tizzy?”
Naina extricated her hands and arose, walking to the window to look out. Raj followed and leant against the wall, waiting. After a few moments she spoke softly, “It was Milli’s fourth birthday.” She glanced at him, “Milli is…was my baby sister.”
“I know Naina.”
Her brows furrowed but she didn’t ask him how he knew. In her mind, she was in their sunny living room in Nainital, with Milli clinging to her legs, listening to her arguing with their mother. “I had bought this fancy, glittering pink-colored digital watch for Milli. One of her classmates was given a watch by an aunt visiting from US. Milli was full of admiration for it. I had sensed her envy. I saved my pocket money and gifted it to her on her birthday. She was thrilled, but ma….,” she took a deep breath as a tremor passed through her at how she only had to close her eyes to recall the scene, “…ma was not happy. She thought I was spoiling her…that she was too small to be given a costly watch. I argued back and told her that…”
Naina stopped and stood still as Raj completed for her, “…that the greatest gifts you can give your child are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence. Right?” She nodded.
“What about your father? What did he say?”
He was enchanted at the smile that flashed across her face, “Nothing. He listened to us for a few minutes and then stood up and winked at me. I knew what was coming. He went and hugged ma from behind, turned her in his arms and began dancing a waltz, not to forget singing a romantic song. Within a few seconds, ma smiled and her anger vanished.”
“He sang and danced? When she was so upset?”
Naina grinned, “He always did that when ma got angry. My father had no angry bone in his body. He kept us all laughing and giggling all the time.”
Before Raj could say anything further, his phone rang. He looked at the number and smiled, “Hello Adi!”
“Hello uncle! I just called to say we are hungry. Tanu says she wants ma to feed her, otherwise she won’t eat. Err…that’s an emergency…isn’t it uncle?”
Raj laughed out silently at Adi’s ploy to use the phone, “Sure it is son. We’ll be there in a moment.”
He looked up at a smiling Naina, “I love that boy.”
“What did he say?”
“Come, let’s go to the dining hall. I’ll tell you on the way.”
Just before he opened the door to the dining hall, Naina halted him by holding his arm, “Raj, what happened earlier…”
He kept his hand on hers, “Don’t worry Naina. I won’t tell anyone. We can’t have beeji and nanisa all tied up in knots over this.” He saw her hesitate, “Did you want to say something?”
She stared at him. Her eyes darkened, and something seemed to shift deeply inside Raj.
“Naina,” he whispered and his hand rose to cup her cheek. She curled into it inadvertently not breaking her gaze, and in that innocent moment Raj was lost. It was as if a path was lighting up all the way in those deep orbs that contained another universe.
Suddenly the kids shrieked in delight, probably because of the game they were playing on the phone….but the moment was broken. With an audible gasp Naina moved away and rushed inside in one fluid movement, leaving Raj’s hand hanging in the air.
After Naina, beeji, and Adi left, Raj put Tanu to sleep and then waited for a few more minutes to text Naina.
“Don’t get alarmed. I have posted a couple of guards around the house.”
“Adi told me about the man outside the cricket academy.”
There was a long silence and then Raj’s phone rang.
“Raj….thanks. But we are good. This was unnecessary.”
“Like I have said earlier…for my peace of mind. OK? A little precaution will harm no one.”
“OK. I’ll tell beeji.”
“Who was he?”
“No one. Just someone who saw a lone woman and thought he could get away with badgering her.”
“OK. If you say so.”
“You don’t believe me, do you?”
“Do I have an option?”
“I am sorry Raj.”
“It’s OK. I have ample patience. You take as much time as you need.”
“Thanks Raj. You are a good man. Goodnight!”
“Goodnight Naina. Dream sweet.”
Raj looked up to find nanisa looking at him with an affectionate smile playing on her lips.
“Nanisa, I didn’t see you. Come in please.”
She came and sat beside him on the sofa. She had changed into a nightie and gown. Raj was still in his formals.
“Raju, may I ask you something?” Raj smiled. She always called him that when she had some information to extricate from him.
“You love her, don’t you?”
Raj looked down at his hands. He could still feel the warmth of Naina’s dainty little hands in them, “You are talking of Naina?”
“Who else? The way you stick by her is like you would forget to breathe if she is not in the same room as you.”
“Is it so evident?”
“It is to me, Raju. After a long long time I finally see a spark of life in you….a glow that can be only because you are in love.”
“Nanisa, it’s an amazing feeling. When I see her, I feel happy…and not only my happiness, but I feel everyone else’s happiness. I see inside me, and I see a better man. It is exhilarating…as well as humbling. If this is love, then yes I love her…yet what I feel cannot be confined to that one word.” He looked at his grandmother, his eyes glistening with unshed tears, giving a glimpse of the depth of his feelings, “Will it sound strange if I say I feel I belong to her?”
To be continued……..