Raj felt Naina make a choking sound and withdraw. He tightened his hold a fraction to prevent her from moving away, and absorbed within him the tremor that coursed her body. As he drew her inexorably closer to him, Naina froze, sucked in a maelstrom of fear, abject agony, and sheer hopelessness along with a yearning so profound and powerful that she thought she would happily drown in it. Raj loved her…Raj loved her….the words resonated in her mind. Her heart rejoiced…and danced…and then a shudder rippled through her as the reality pierced through, causing her to stumble back. It couldn’t be. It could never be. What was she doing?
Naina found her hands gripped in Raj’s as she looked at him in misery and confusion, “Raj, please…don’t joke about this.”
“I am not joking, Naina,” his deep voice was as honest as his eyes were, “I love y…”
“NO! You don’t. Don’t say it. You just…you just are so mistaken.” In desperation, she tried to brush it off, her eyes pools of grief, “Raj, I am your friend…the only friend here. Obviously you are fond of me. But don’t misjudge those feelings as something else. You…”
Raj clasped her shoulders and halted her rant, bidding her to look at him, “Naina, stop. I know what I am saying, and how I feel about you. I love you…in every manner a man can love a woman. When I came to Palampur, I had no idea I could ever trust a woman, leave alone love her…but you entered my heart and my life so fast that before I realized you had become a part of my soul.” There was a calmness about him that belied the turbulence that was raging inside Naina.
“Please Raj. Be rational. You don’t know all about me.” She was pleading now.
“Then tell me Naina. Trust me with yourself. I don’t know how you need me to help you, but I want you to know that I am not going anywhere. I am not asking you to love me back sweetheart. I will wait as long as it takes.” He stepped closer as Naina stood numb and said gently, “Don’t you get it?”
“What?” She whispered.
He cradled her beautiful face in his hands and rested his forehead against hers, “Making you happy, seeing you smile, and keeping you safe has become a matter of self-preservation. I don’t want anything else...at least not right now. You are stuck with me, my love. I am not letting you go…ever.”
“Why me Raj? I am not good enough for you. How do you know you are right?”
“Shhssh!! Sometimes when something feels right, you just know. And I knew that night when we met that I was a goner. It’s as if my life began anew in that very moment. There’s not a moment in the day when you are not in my mind.”
“But Raj…I don’t love you. I can never love you.” Lying through her teeth, she moved to the window, praying for something…anything…that would make him change his mind. He was an honorable man, heir to a legacy that was looked upon with admiration and respect. People held his family in high esteem. Ranima was revered and adored by everyone here. Naina looked at her hands, as if looking for some hidden smears. Her tainted self could only bring disgrace to them.
“That’s because you are scared Naina. You are scared to move on.” She was brought back from her self-castigation by his soft voice. She turned as he neared, the limp hardly visible, yet there. She stared at him and then turned her back again. “Dear God, forgive me for this?” She fisted her hands tightly in a bid to gain strength for what she was going to do.
Taking a deep breath, Naina turned and looked at Raj with a cold resolve, “No Raj. I am not scared of love. But I do have my dream of a man….a physically perfect man. You see, the man I married had a physical imperfection. After him, I promised myself that I will never get involved with…with a di..disabled man. Sorry Raj. It’s not personal. You are my friend and very dear to me. I respect you, but I cannot bring myself to love you the way you want me to…I just cannot.”
“Hmm! So you cannot love me because I am a cripple and not a whole man.” Naina flinched visibly when he put it so bluntly
“Yes.” She lowered her head and whispered, her eyes shut tight in shame and pain. At that moment she hated herself to the core. She had targeted him where it hurt the most, and by doing that she had surely killed all that connected them.
Lost in her melancholy, Naina felt his fingers cup her chin and lift her face, “Look at me Naina.”
She shook her head and tried to pull away.
Fearfully, she opened her eyes, bracing herself to look into his accusing and wounded eyes. Her eyes widened a little when she saw his eyes twinkle with amusement and love, “Raj?”
“Nice try, my love. But you don’t fool me…not one bit. You might keep a part of your past from me and a few others might know more about what happened all those years back. But I wager that I know you better than you know yourself…heart and soul. I know you inside out Naina. I have told you I am letting myself in, even if you won’t let me. So quit trying to push me away. Shall I tell you a secret of yours?”
“What secret?” In spite of herself she couldn’t resist asking. She was completely taken aback by his nonchalance. Anybody else would have taken offence at her cruel words. She didn’t know whether to kiss him or shake him for his foolish tenacity for trusting her so much.
“Oh, just that you love me too.” He smiled and moved to the door.
“No, I don’t.”
“Yeah…yeah. Keep denying to yourself if you have to, but I see the truth in your eyes. Plus there is the other matter as well.” He paused with his hand on the door.
“What matter?” Now she was parroting his words.
He leaned against the door and kept a hand on his chest, “The fact that it’s not possible that I feel such deep love and you don’t feel the same…It’s just not possible.”
Naina staggered, her breathing fast and shallow. He had voiced her exact thoughts. It’s as if she saw her soul accusing her from his eyes. Oh dear God! She was in trouble…deep trouble.
Raj straightened up to leave, because if he didn’t, he would go across, grab her in his arms, and kiss her till she gives in to her heart. His stubborn Naina…fighter to the last. For some strong reason, she was fighting this…and he will find out why.
“Raj?” Her voice quivered with apprehension, stopping him.
“I am sorry. I shouldn’t have…. I mean I didn’t…”
“Forget it Naina. I know you didn’t mean to. I also know how much it must have pained you to say something like that.”
“Are we still friends?” She voiced her misgiving, something so forlorn and naked reflecting in her eyes that he wanted to hold her and hide her within himself. But he needed to restrain. Naina was not ready yet.
He took a couple of steps and stopped, “Of course, we are! Look Naina. I didn’t mean to rattle you with disclosure of my feelings. It just happened. You are my forever…it’s that simple. There’s nothing that I won’t do for you. Having said that, I assure you that nothing will affect what we already share. OK?”
She nodded, “Thank you. That means a lot to me Raj. I don’t want to lose my friend.”
“You won’t. I promise.” He smiled gravely, “Naina, we both have scars from our past. The only difference is I bear them on my body and yours are etched on your heart. You taught me not to be ashamed of my disfigurement. Now I ask you not to be ashamed of yours. Neither of us is perfect my love, but together we are exactly that….perfect. Have faith. Believe in my love. I am not going anywhere.”
Raj inched closer. His hand lifted to caress her face, his fingers lovingly stroking her brows down to her flushed cheeks over her slightly parted lips, along her delicate jaw line to her nape. Naina closed her eyes and savored his touch, a part of the coldness in her heart diminishing like winter snow in spring thaw. Her eyes flew open when he withdrew his hand and stepped back. A deep sense of loss engulfed her.
Raj didn’t take his eyes of hers. His chest tightened as he saw her soulful eyes staring at him swirled with pain and sorrow, the stress of repressed emotions clearly visible. “Naina, you need to rest awhile. I’ll be down in the living room working on my laptop and making some calls. We’ll talk about Adi’s and your security after you have napped. I’ll take you to the mahal later. Nanisa wanted you to take out some silverware from the store for the party. She says you know about them as you had packed them after they were used the last time. Pack an overnight bag for Adi and beeji also. I’ll feel better if you all stay the night there.”
“OK.” She murmured, and then, “Raj!”
“You won’t leave without me.”
Raj checked on her after twenty minutes to see her fast asleep clutching her family’s picture. He knelt beside her bed and whispered, “You will soon have a family of your own Naina. I promise. The four of us will make new memories.”
In the next few days Raj increased the security around beeji’s house and in the school as well. He assigned a car with a driver and bodyguard for Adi to commute to school. He had wanted all three of them to shift to the mahal indefinitely, but Naina refused. “I am not going to be driven out of my home once again Raj. Don’t worry. I’ll be careful. As long as we keep Adi’s identity from them, we are fine. They cannot do anything to me here, away from their fiefdom.”
On Saturday morning Raj waited for Naina in the library. She was due to arrive to oversee the final décor for the party that night after her appointment with Dr. Sujata Sinha, the psychiatrist with whom Naina had already had a few sessions. She had refused to divulge anything about the sessions to anyone, not even beeji, and they respected her privacy on the matter. Raj was worried and edgy, but he had to let Naina know about Manmeet. He had asked his friends in the Intelligence to make inquiries regarding her husband and in-laws. Early morning there was a call that Manmeet had taken a flight to Delhi last night. They were still trying to find out where he went after he landed. Raj had called up the Palampur police and told them to be on alert. They had promised they would look into all the buses, taxis, and private cars that entered Palampur. He had mailed them Manmeet’s picture that he had taken from Naina’s phone.
He got up to move outside to check the lawn arrangements when his phone rang. It was Adi.
“Adi, hasn’t mumma come to pick you up yet from the academy?”
“She will come at 11. I called her. But her phone is switched off.” Raj looked at his watch. Ten minutes to go. He heard a shuffle over the phone and then a soft “ouch.”
“Adi! What happened? You OK?”
“I am fine. Just got scratched by a thorn,” Adi was whispering now, “Uncle, that man is here again. He is peeping through the gates.”
“Where are you?
“Behind the bush next to the gate.”
“Where is the watchman?”
“I saw him go to the canteen, probably for tea. Uncle, I am sure the man is waiting for mumma. Should I throw a stone at him?”
“No Adi. Don’t do anything. You did right by calling me. Now go inside. Pronto. I am on my way. I’ll reach before mumma does. Don’t worry.”
Raj was already pulling out of the driveway as he made a call to the police station. Next he tried Naina. But her phone was still switched off. Obviously she hadn’t remembered to switch it on after her session.
Raj took the turn toward the academy and saw Naina get down from her jeep. And then he saw a tall, hefty man with the body of a wrestler cross over the road toward her. Raj stepped on the accelerator in a bid to cover the last couple of hundred meters as fast as possible. He parked the car and jumped out with a run, as he saw the man say a few words to Naina before reaching for her arm.
“STOP! Don’t you dare touch her.” Raj shouted.
The man looked surprised and then he smirked as he looked who it was. He looked at Naina with a sneer, “Look who is here. Your cripple lover trying to play the hero and coming to save the damsel in distress.”
Naina stared right back and scoffed, “You got the Hero part right. I suggest you make a run for it.”
“You have quite an acid tongue for a woman. Thakur sahib will enjoy cutting it off when you come back to the village.”
“I told you not to touch her.” Raj had reached and was looking pointedly at where the man had gripped Naina.
“Why? What will you do? Break my hand.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
“Big words mister. Let’s see what a langda can do.” He left Naina and pushed Raj with both hands. Raj took a step back. Before Naina could shout “Raj” she saw a whirl of lightening moves and the man was down on his back, holding his wrist and moaning, with Raj’s prosthetic foot pressed on the crook of his neck.
As the man squirmed below holding his broken wrist, Raj said calmly, “Stay still. It’s for your good health. You stand to lose your voice if you move even a little.” The police siren sounded as Raj looked at
Naina, who was leaning against her jeep for support, “You OK Naina?”
Naina felt a wave of emotions sweep over her as she saw Raj’s angry eyes turn to concern and love the instant he looked at her. She hadn’t felt so protected in a long time. She nodded with a tremulous half smile.
The police reached them the next moment and took over, requesting Raj and Naina to come to the station later to lodge a formal complaint. As he was being handcuffed, the man turned to Naina, “You did not heed my warning. Now be prepared for the consequences.”
As the police dragged the man away, Raj took Naina in his arms, rubbing her tensed back. Slowly, her arms circled his waist and held him. After a long silence when they let their heartbeats comfort each other, she mumbled against his chest, “Thank you.”
Raj spoke against her hair, “I would have never forgiven myself if….”
Naina’s arms tightened instinctively as she interjected to alleviate his tension, “I am fine Raj. The man was all words…empty words. They don’t scare me.” She raised her head and leaned back, “I have an idea.”
Raj released her but kept a hand on the small of her back as they walked toward the gate of the cricket academy, “What idea?”
“I think I should go to the village and confront them…have a closure you know.”
“NO! Absolutely not.” Raj stopped midstride and turned, “Promise me you won’t do any such thing Naina.”
“But Raj, I cannot live in a limbo like this. I realize I’ll have to take precautions. In fact I can approach the law and get a restraining order or something.”
“Naina…No. For once, don’t argue. Apart from roadside harassment and phone messages, there isn’t enough to apply for a restraining order. Also, what if they trap you there and make it look like an accident? You yourself said how they are the law there. Who will believe you or anyone who accompanies you? No Naina, we can tackle Manmeet better on our turf…here. We will have to wait for him to make a mistake.”
“Manmeet?” Naina clutched Raj’s shirt, “What are you not telling me Raj?”
Raj took her hands and kissed her knuckles, “Naina, I was going to tell you when you got home, but….”
“Tell me what?” She whispered, somehow knowing what he was going to say.
He told her about Manmeet’s recent traveling, and concluded by voicing his apprehension, “Naina, I believe Manmeet is on his way here.”
“Oh my God! Adi! Raj, that man should not get to meet Adi at all.”
Naina jerked her head as she heard a loud “mumma” and saw her son running toward her.
*langda = lame; cripple
To be continued……………..