Ranima bent and kissed her favorite grandson’s forehead, “No, Raju…not strange at all. That’s the all-encompassing emotion that only true love can put together. This feeling of belongingness defines you…the feeling that you are finally home.”
“Home.” Raj whispered, “Exactly nanisa. That’s how it feels. After years of living life on the edge and feeling like a nomad, I thought I had finally come home when I came to Palampur this time, but...,” he looked up with shining eyes, “now I know why the feeling was so deep. It’s because Naina was the first person I saw when I entered home. It was as if…as if…”
“As if it was meant to be. She was meant to be.” She ran the tips of her fingers over his forehead, “It’s all written here Raj. Destiny. Fate. Some people meet their destinies straight away…and some go through life’s detours before they do, like you and Naina. You were fated to meet and come together after walking through your respective tests of fire, because your souls were seeking each other.”
“But nanisa, you are overlooking something. This is something only I feel, and I am not going to impose my feelings on Naina. I won’t risk the friendship we share. For me that’s enough. I want to see her happy, and I will go to any lengths to ensure that.”
“You don’t think she has feelings for you?”
For a moment, Raj recalled the interlude outside the dining hall. Naina’s eyes had looked at him with such longing that his heart still throbbed at the memory. Is it possible? No, couldn’t be. She had opened herself to someone for the first time…let him in. She was still not herself after their talk and just needed her friend to lean on to. He shook his head, “I don’t know nanisa. And I hope she does not. I don’t want her to.”
In answer, Raj extended his left leg and lifted the trouser. “Look at me.” He clarified sadly, “You forget I am not whole. I can’t offer this to her, nanisa…Naina deserves better. She deserves to be happy with someone who is not broken…a complete, healthy man…who is her equal in every way. I am not good enough for her.”
Ranima got up in a swift motion and pulled him up by his wrist, “Come with me.”
She dragged him to her room and made him stand in front of her husband’s portrait. They looked up at the lifelike image of the handsome Sumer Singh. Her eyes took on a far-off look as she reminisced, “Take a good look at your nanasa, Raj. He was a zaildar and I was the princess…but that didn’t stop us from falling in love with each other and making a life together. I knew his status in court would never allow him to express his feelings for me. So I went to him and told him I loved him and that he was the one I was going to spend my life with…that he was the only one who could give me the happiness I needed. He tried to reason with me…saying how he was a lowly officer and not good enough for a princess…that I deserved better…that I deserved a prince. I listened to his prattle and just asked him one question.”
She looked at Raj then, who was listening intently. He waited for her to elaborate, which she did, as she turned back to gaze at her husband, “I asked him whether he really wants me to be happy.”
“Of course he did! He was a man in love, and he wanted only the best for you. That’s why he wanted you to marry someone…..” Raj broke off as something dawned on him, and looked perplexed, “Nanisa, what did he say?”
“Nothing. He kept quiet and just stared at me.”
Raj still looked confused. Nanisa smiled, “You didn’t get it, did you? He couldn’t say Yes because saying that would have meant saying Yes to my proposal. I had already told him that he is the only one who could make me happy.”
“Gosh, that must have put him in a spot!” Raj ran his fingers through his hair and chuckled.
“Yes it sure did.”
“Then what happened?”
“Oh, I just needed to work on him a little after that. Don’t ask me what I did.” She winked and chortled, “Well…the rest as they say is history.”
“And the moral of the story is….?”
“The moral of the story my dear Raju is that it is the lady’s prerogative to decide what she wants.”
Raj smiled but still looked apprehensive as he looked down at his leg. Nanisa kept a hand on his arm and urged him to look up, “Tell me something Raj…if tomorrow you come to know that something very ugly happened to Naina in her first marriage, something that left her emotionally and physically scarred, will you stop loving her?”
“Of course not! My feelings are not so shallow.” His face hardened and his jaws clenched at the very thought.
She smiled and then turned serious, “Raj, you cannot decide for Naina. Her feelings are her own…you cannot control them. If she loves you, do not let a non-issue like a physical handicap come between you. If you do, you will only be insulting her decision.”
Raj looked at his grandmother with consternation, “I didn’t think of it that way nanisa. You are right.”
“Trust me on this Raj. I haven’t seen Naina this relaxed and this secure with a man before. You have broken through her barriers. You make her happy, son. She cares for you. It’s much more than Karuna and I had hoped for.”
Raj looked at his grandmother incredulously, “Why do I smell a conspiracy? Dear God, you two have been matchmaking, haven’t you?” He turned full-on toward her; hands on hips he angled his head to regard her with narrowed eyes, “Hmm…I remember you were so melodramatic when you came to Devisar to insist that I move here and take over the business. What was that? Yes…“Raju, I am old and lonely. I cannot carry on alone anymore. The mahal seems so big and empty and haunting. Please Raju…I need you. Please come to Palampur. Make this old woman’s last years happy. Please Raju…please.” ” He rolled his eyes, “God, nanisa, you had me mentally packing my bags by the second Please. I should have known there was something cooking in that impish brain of yours. You wanted me to come here and meet Naina. You knew I’d fall for her, didn’t you?”
She grinned widely, “Well, I won’t lie that I did harbor such a hope. Naina is a lovely girl. I love her. She is perfect for you. And after that farcical marriage with Shilpa…,” she scrunched her nose, “I wanted you to settle down with someone you love.”
“And you decided that love was Naina.”
“Like I said I hoped. I know you…I know Naina. Let’s just say it was a matter of time. I meant it when I said it’s all ways of destiny. I just gave a nudge.”
He shook his head and laughed aloud. He then grabbed his grandmother in a tight hug, “Oh nanisa. What a royal meddler you are! I love you.”
She giggled like a schoolgirl and tilted her head to look at him, “If I could drill sense into my Sumer, you stood no chance my boy. I admit you had me worried in the beginning when Karuna called up and told me how you and Naina started on the wrong foot. I had other plans on my sleeve.
“I am sure you did.” He pressed his lips on her forehead and wished her goodnight, still chuckling.
Raj woke up to his phone ringing. Naina’s name flashed on the screen. “Good morning Naina!”
“Did I wake you Raj?”
“Umm…not really. I was about to get up. You alright?”
“Yeah. I just wanted to thank you for last night. I…I needed that talk. I am sitting on the swing with my cup of tea and thinking about similar mornings in Nainital with my family. And I am able to do this because of you. Thanks Raj.”
“There’s nothing to thank me for Naina. I am glad I could be of some help. They were happy times for you…Why run away from their happy memories? Any time you need to talk, I am here.”
“What are you doing today?”
“Mmm…I have to make a few calls, to musicians and DJs for Ranima’s party this Saturday. After that I’ll be taking beeji to the flower show in Hotel Palam. Adi will be at the academy. Some state cricketers are coming to coach them. After that they are going to have lunch there only. From the hotel beeji will be going with some friends of hers for lunch and saree shopping.”
“Oh, I’ll come back home. I have some schoolwork to catch up.”
“No. You won’t.”
“Change of plans, ma’am. Nanisa is inaugurating the Spring Festival in Hotel Palam. The flower show is part of that I believe. I have an appointment with the Chef of that hotel for catering for the party. Once you are done with the flower show, we’ll have lunch in one of their restaurants.”
“Why?” Naina bit her lip.
“Did you just ask me that? I am deeply hurt Naina. Can’t I have a relaxing lunch with my friend without her questioning my motives? It’s indeed a sad day for me.”
“Cease the theatrics.”
“Yes ma’am. And the lunch?”
“Only if they have Chinese.”
“The best in Palampur.”
“Right then. See you.”
“Counting the hours already.”
“Stop flirting. Bye.”
God he loved her! She made him grin like a teenaged lovesick idiot. Still smiling he reached for his prosthetic.
Naina stared at the phone. She shouldn’t have called him so early. Raj knew her too well. What if he gets a whiff of what’s going on with her heart. Yet she couldn’t help herself. One moment she was thinking of papa, ma, and Milli and the next moment she was dialing his number, desperately needing to hear his voice. This won’t do. She had to be careful. The fact that she loved him with every breath of her body should be buried deep inside her heart and not allowed to jeopardize the precious friendship they shared. Raj trusted her. He would be very disappointed if he realized she had feelings for him, not to mention embarrass him.
She took a sip from her cup and sighed. Suddenly she remembered overhearing Ranima telling beeji last night that how she wished Raj married again…not only for Tanu but also for himself. Naina closed her eyes as emotions churned in her. Raj didn’t lack female attention. She had seen how women ogled at him. He was a good man. He deserved to be happy with someone he loved and who loved him back. He deserved someone to love him and care for him for who he is. He deserved someone with a good family background and a clean past. He deserved someone who was untainted, body and soul.
She could never be that person.
The flower show was held in the hotel lawns. Beeji was soon surrounded by her friends. Ranima had left for another appointment after the inauguration of the Spring Festival. Halfway through the flower show, Naina said goodbye to beeji and went inside the hotel, hoping to meet the manager with regard to bringing her school children to see the flowers.
The manager was busy so she went to the washroom. She was washing her hands when two young women walked in chatting. Her senses went on alert when she heard a familiar name being uttered.
“Did you see how that Vimi was hovering around him?”
“Yeah. She told me she was going to marry him and that her parents will soon go to Ranima with her proposal.”
“She is delusional if she thinks Raj is interested in her. Why would he go in for spoilt goods when he has flocks of nubile beauties fawning all over him?”
“Whatever. But gotta say he is one breathtakingly handsome prince. Not to forget stinking rich. I won’t mind trying my chances with him.”
Naina didn’t wait to hear more and rushed out. She didn’t know what she would have said to those gossipmongers if she had stayed longer. At the moment she was feeling irrational and jealousy gnawed at her. The mere mention of Vimi had sent her into a fuming mode. She walked the corridors briskly looking here and there. Where the hell was the Casanova? Wait till she caught hold of him. Through the glass doors, she spotted him in the main lounge chatting with a man and two women…the latter she recognized as Vimi. Naina stood rooted as Vimi laughed and hooked an arm through Raj’s elbow. Her entire being urged her to rush in and pry the hand away from her man. She took a step and stopped with her hand on the door as she realized what she was about to do. She reminded herself of the resolution she had made herself. Through a green haze she saw Raj hold Vimi’s wrist and extricate his hand free before stepping away from her. At the same moment he looked up and his eyes met hers through the glass.
Naina turned away and began walking toward the lawns when she heard Raj call out, and then his hand was holding hers, “Whoa! Wait Naina. What happened? Why didn’t you come in?”
She took a deep breath and turned with a smile, “Nothing happened Raj. I just remembered I had something urgent to tell beeji. I was hoping to catch her before she left.”
He frowned, “Is that all?”
“Yes Raj. What else could it be?”
“Well, I wondered whether seeing Vimi there upset you.”
“Raj…please. What you do with your gaggle of admirers is your business. Why should it affect me?”
“Methinks the lady doth protests too much.” Raj muttered under his breath.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing. Just that I think our table is ready for lunch. Come.” He took her hand and guided her toward the The Oriental Room. They crossed the two ladies Naina had encountered in the washroom. They stared at them and then their handhold. Raj didn’t even look at them.
Inside the restaurant, the manager welcomed and escorted them to their table. Raj pulled the chair for Naina and then sat opposite her. The waiter gave them the menu cards and stepped back to stand at a distance to await them to decide on their order.
They enjoyed a leisurely lunch, talking, teasing, and talking some more. Raj couldn’t get enough of Naina. Among all the plastic, painted faces of the girls who swarmed him whenever he was in public, Naina stood out like a chaste, innocent angel. She was perfect. Beautiful and perfect.
He reached out to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear as she animatedly explained her next project for Asha Deep, “We are going to ask vocational consultants to visit and tap the talents in the children. We can then guide them toward the profession they are most likely to excel in. We have arranged for a small get-together when they visit. Children are going to dress up as the people they want to mold their life after.”
“That’s a wonderful idea, Naina.”
“Tell me Raj…if you had to mold yourself after a person, who would he be?”
“Not he…that would be a she.”
“You are being funny now.”
Raj straightened and took her hands in his, “No Naina, I am perfectly serious. You are kind, generous, and brave. Even though your heart bleeds from innumerable wounds of past, you still care for everyone with all of you. You have not a single cynical and mean bone in your body. You are like a ray of sunshine in everyone’s lives you touch. Everyone is so happy around you. And that my dear Naina is a rare trait. If I have even a fraction of those qualities, I’ll be a better man.”
Naina was so overwhelmed that she could only look at him. Raj’s phone rang at the same time as her phone beeped for an incoming picture message. He left her hands and mouthed a sorry before picking up the phone to see who it was. He then glanced at Naina to tell her that he had to take the call, but stared in horror at her face. She had gone white as she stared at her phone.
To be continued………