“Mumma, please…leggo, no kissy-wissy…not here. My friends will make fun of me.” Adi rubbed his cheeks, looking back at the gate from where a throng of boys of varied ages came out. Gingerly he stepped out of his mother’s ferocious hug and waved at some of the boys.
“It’s OK to be kissed by your mother, champ. She was much worried for you.” Raj ruffled Adi’s hair, which was all mussed and sweaty from his game.
Adi stared at Raj for a brief second and stepped back into Naina’s arms, curling his arms around her neck, “Sorry mumma. I was worried for you too. That man was here again, and I was concerned. So I called Raj uncle.”
Naina gave her son a tight squeeze and stood up, “You did right, Adi. That man won’t bother us again. Raj uncle took care of him.”
“Super!!” He extended his fist toward Raj, who banged it back with of his own, “Did you beat him uncle? Did you? Did you?”
Raj laughed, “Yeah, I might have…a little.”
“Wow!!” Adi’s eyes went wide, “I wish I was there.”
Just then two boys of Adi’s age walked up to them, “Adi, here…you forgot your water bottle.” Adi thanked them, and before he could introduce them, one of them, who hadn’t taken his eyes of Raj, completely blindsided them by asking, “Hey Adi, is he the one who is going to be your papa?”
Adi went all red, as he shuffled on his feet and focused on his bottle as if it was an object of deep study. Naina gaped. Her eyes looked as if they were going to pop out of her head even as heat rushed to her cheeks and her mouth formed a perfect “O.”
Raj chuckled and saved the day for them, “No, young man. You are mistaken. For now, I am just Adi’s friend.”
The boy wouldn’t give up, “Oh, I am sorry, uncle. I thought you were the soldier uncle who was going to marry Aunty. Adi said that …”
But what Adi said was never heard, as Adi suddenly found his tongue and nudged his bigmouthed friend, “Jeet, your parents are here. Aren’t you going for the movies? Look, they are waving…Hurry.”
After his friends ran off, Adi sheepishly braved a peek at his mother, who was still staring at her son as if he had grown horns, “Explain yourself, Aditya Bhatia.”
“Err…mumma, don’t bother about Jeet. He blabbers a lot unnecessarily.” He tried his winning smile, which waned as his mother’s grave expression was not dented.
“Seems to me it was you who has been blabbering…as well as assuming a lot. You owe Raj uncle an apology.” She gestured toward Raj.
Raj spoke up then, “No. He doesn’t. Nothing has occurred that warrants an apology.” He bent down to Adi, “It’s OK son. Just remember that sometimes it is better to keep to yourself what you wish for. Silent wishes are heard louder by God.”
“Really? I’ll remember that. I am sorry, uncle.”
“No harm done. Now, go and sit in the car.”
Raj turned to Naina who was staring at him in confusion, “Raj, I don’t know where that came from. I am really sorry.”
“But I am not.” He tilted his head and smiled at her, the intensity in his eyes snuffing out any other word that tried to escape from her jumbled-up brain. He held her by the arm and turned toward the car, bending down sideways to whisper, “Children’s hearts are as transparent as spring water, Naina. Adi only articulated what he sensed between us.” He loosened his grip on her and swiped an unsteady hand through his hair. Knowledge of Adi’s hidden yearning had affected him to the core. He opened the car door and paused to look into her large eyes, “You can’t fight this, Naina. We are meant to be. Meeting you was fate, becoming your friend was a choice, falling in love with you was not in my control, and now, more than ever, I am sure that being together is our destiny.”
Naina stared at herself in the mirror. A beautiful woman with troubled eyes stared back at her. She was used to dressing low key…always. This was the first time in years she had taken care to dress up. She was wearing an elegantly designed red and black jamwar saree that had embroidery and patchwork on the pallu and border. It was a birthday gift from Ranima. She never had any occasion to wear it before. Smiling sadly she realized how the colors were a reflection of the ambiguous disposition of her heart. She had lightly curled her hair and let it down in loose waves….just as Raj loved them. For some twisted reason she wanted to look good today…just for him. For once she didn’t want to look over her shoulders and be reminded of what could not be. For once she wanted to be the Naina she was and look at the unabashed look of love and admiration in Raj’s eyes without feeling guilty and ashamed. Throughout the afternoon Raj’s words had filled her head and heart: Being together is our destiny. She picked up her phone and reached for a picture of Raj that she had stored. It was a picture of him laughing at something Adi had said, on the day they had visited the zoo. On a whim she had clicked him. She stared at his handsome profile through glistening eyes. A stab of excruciating pain, almost physical, cruised through her as she envisioned her loss…a loss of something that was never hers to begin with. Why did life have to be so complicated? She loved Raj; He loved her. Why couldn’t it be that simple? Yet nothing was….Everything was intricate. Sinful. Undefeatable. Real. Scary. Manmeet was on his way here. Maybe he was already here. Tomorrow may change all the equations in her life. Reality was bound to raise its ugly head sooner than later, just like the early spring sun bathing the valley. And when that happens, what will be left? Will Raj still love her then? Will he even look at her? Will she be able to withstand the disgust, revulsion, hatred, or, worse still, pity that will replace the warmth in his deep eyes?
Naina closed her eyes and took a deep breath. But all that’s tomorrow. She still had tonight. Tonight she will forget the reality and live her childhood fantasy. Tonight she will bask in the love of her prince. Tonight she will be happy. One night. In this one night she will amass all the joys for a lifetime. Her choice made, she opened her eyes with a smile and kissed Raj’s picture, “I love you Raj. I shall always love you…till my last breath. You are the other part of me: the better part. But you are wrong. We are not meant to be.”
She kept the phone and turned as there was a knock and beeji’s voice called out. “Naina, are you ready?”
“I am, beeji. Just a minute.” Naina opened the door with a smile and stepped back. Beeji stepped into the room with a wondrous expression. Naina pirouetted on her toes, “Well…what do you think? Do I look OK?”
Beeji cupped Naina’s face and said, “You look stunning, my child. You are going to be the showstopper tonight…No doubts about that.”
Naina giggled and hugged the woman who may not have given her birth, but had given her life and was her parent in every sense of the word. Beeji took Naina’s hand and kept a jewelry box in her hand, “This is for you, Naina. Wear this tonight and make me happy.”
Naina opened the box and saw an exquisite gold and ruby set, “Oh beeji! This is beautiful. Did baba give you this?”
“Yes, Naina. On our wedding. I want you to have it.”
“But beeji. I can’t possibly take this. Baba’s memories are in this.”
“He would have wanted his daughter to wear it, Naina. I am only following his wishes. Here, let me put it for you.”
Naina met Adi at the landing. He was wearing a tuxedo and looked suave and princely.
“Wow mumma! You look like a queen.”
Naina did a little curtsey and smiled, “And you look magnificent. Will my little prince honor me by escorting me downstairs?” She then extended her hand.
Adi grinned and then sobered up. Squaring his shoulders he gravely put his hand in his mother’s, “Yeah. Cool. I mean, yes ma’am.”
“Raj uncle, see I am escorting a queen.” They were in the middle of the stairs. This was a surprise. Naina had told Raj they would come by themselves, and that he need not come to take them. Obviously that had fallen on deaf ears. She suddenly tensed. Raj had never seen her all decked up. She wondered what his reactions would be.
Raj was texting in his phone and was sitting on a leather chair facing away from the staircase. On hearing Adi, he turned and was dumbstruck. The vision he beheld knocked away his senses. His jaw slackened and his eyes darkened with unrestrained passion as he slowly got up from the chair. He ran his fingers through his hair and then spread his hands toward her, “Naina. You look beautiful. Absolutely gorgeous.”
Naina blushed, “You really think so?”
“Every other woman in the party is going to pale against your beauty. Am I right beeji?” The last to the older lady who had walked into the room.
“I have been telling Naina the same thing.” Beeji smiled at them knowingly.
“And me? How do I look uncle?” Adi put his hands on hips and cocked his head to one side.
“You look handsome, son. Beware of the girls tonight.”
“Eww, girls! Tanu and I will keep away from them. Why didn’t she come with you?”
“She is waiting for you at the mahal, Adi. Come, let’s go.” Adi walked ahead with beeji. Raj turned to Naina and gave her his hand, “May I?”
Naina found herself staring at the striking and magnificent man in front of her. He looked utterly handsome in a ceremonial military dress, with silver cross-belt and epaulets as well as an impressive array of medals adorning his chest. All in all, the combination of that face, those hypnotic eyes, and the regal bearing was lethal. She couldn’t take his eyes off him. She came down to earth when she heard him clear his throat, “Err…Naina. Is something wrong? You seem to be in a trance.”
Red heat crept up from her neck to her cheeks as she realized what she was doing…blatantly checking him out. She blushed to the roots and kept her hand on his extended hand, “So sorry, Raj. I have never seen anyone in such a magnificent uniform before. I hadn’t meant to stare.”
“Now you are hurting my feelings. Do you mean to say that only the uniform is magnificent? What about the man in it?”
She shook her head, “No…no I didn’t mean…,” and then broke off before narrowing her eyes, “Are you fishing for compliments or pulling my leg?”
Raj’s lopsided, amused smile didn’t help her cause, nor did his words as he bent and whispered in her ears, “Do you even know how transparent your eyes are? They just paid me the sexiest compliment.”
“Stop flirting Raj. You are incorrigible.” She grinned and then turned to lock the door after they had stepped out into the porch. Before they moved toward the car, Naina turned to Raj, “Thanks for coming. You need not have though. We would have managed.”
He turned to her with a seriousness that took her breath away, “Nothing in the world would have kept me away, Naina. This is my right.” He brushed a stray hair off her cheek, tucking it behind her ear, and then bent to place a lingering kiss on her forehead. The tender gesture almost did her in as Naina fought to curb the raw sob that nearly escaped her throat. She controlled herself and stored the beautiful moment in her cache of memories.
Rawin Mahal was lit up and looked spectacular in its grandeur. As they stepped through the door, Tanu, looking like a doll in a frilly frock, ran and hugged Naina, “Aunty, I have been waiting for you. Please put this on my head. Bela didi cannot do it. She is spoiling my hair.” She held a little tiara in her hand.
Naina knelt and adjusted it on her head, “There. Now you look like a little princess. As pretty as a fairy.”
Tanu shyly kissed Naina and went and stood next to Adi. He took her hand and both of them went in search of badi ma. By the time Naina went and greeted Ranima and had a final look at the kitchen, the first guests had started arriving.
One hour into the party, it was apparent that the evening was a huge success. Ranima introduced her grandson to everyone personally with such pride that it caused a lump to form in Raj’s throat. Soon the crowd moved into the ballroom where a live band played old, classic numbers. Raj guided his nanisa to the dance floor for the customary opening dance. Soon many couples joined them. Duty over, Raj’s eyes searched for Naina. She was nowhere, nor were the kids. He caught beeji’s eyes, who silently gestured toward the terrace. He weaved his way over to the terrace to find the most adorable scenario. Leaning against the door, he watched Naina dance a waltz with an imaginary partner, with Adi and Tanu following her as she taught them how to do the basic steps. She bent to adjust Adi’s hand behind Tanu, instructing him where exactly to keep it, as Tanu squirmed. She instantly made a serious face as Adi gave her a stern look and told her to concentrate. Naina straightened, trying hard to keep a straight face, and lifted her hand only to find it placed on Raj’s shoulder, who then proceeded to take her other hand and spin her around. “My dance, I believe.”
They danced in blissful silence before the kids nudged them and demanded they too be included. That’s how beeji found the four of them, dancing and laughing, as she came to call them for dinner. She stood watching them with her hands clasped to her bosom and eyes welling up and then looked up at the night sky as she wished, “Please God…if I have done any good in this life, then let this family come together to join for eternity.”
“No arguments, Naina. I am going to stay the night and take you both to the temple tomorrow morning.”
“But Raj, you don’t have to. You are needed at the mahal. Someone has to see to the closure of the party. I would have stayed back had the panditji not given the dawn-breaking time for the puja. Adi has to wake up early and take a bath. And if you are worried about the security, then don’t. The two guards are good.”
It was only during the dinner that Raj came to know that the next day was Naina’s family’s death anniversary….a day on which she offered prayers in Chamunda Devi temple. For the past two years, Adi was performing the main puja.
Beeji stayed back at the mahal to help Ranima supervise the wrapping up. Tanu had slept on Naina’s lap midway during the dinner. Raj had changed into jeans and shirt and packed an overnight bag. Now, as he drove them to beeji’s house, Raj refused to give in to Naina’s demands that he go back after dropping them home, “Don’t be difficult, Naina. This is non-negotiable. I am not going anywhere.”
He smiled as Naina harrumphed and muttered, “Bully!”, and Adi giggled, “It’s fun when you both fight.”
Raj grinned, “I never fight, son. Your mother does. She is a real firecracker.”
And, then, to Naina’s consternation the two laughed aloud. She crossed her arms and glared at them, “What’s so funny? We’ll see how you like it if I go all quiet on you.”
Raj stopped the car in front of the gate as Adi jumped out, still chuckling. Raj turned in his seat and cupped Naina’s face, not smiling anymore, “Don’t say that, my love. I won’t know how to handle it if ever that happens. You are my miracle, and I will never let you lose your sparkle. I love you.” He caressed her cheek, her heart melting at the way he looked at her. As they got down from the car, Raj’s mobile rang.
“What? How did it happen? Has anyone called the fire brigade?... Yes!...The horses?...OK…OK…I am on my way.”
“What happened, Raj?
“The stables caught fire.”
“Oh my God! The horses…”
“They are all fine.” He held Naina by the shoulders, “Naina, I have to go, but I won’t be gone long. I’ll come back…OK? You take care.”
Before Naina could say anything, he turned toward the house and shouted, “Bahadur!!”
“Yes Sir!” One of the guards ran up to him.
“I’ll be back in a couple of hours. Be alert. Call me if you find anything unusual.”
“Yes Sir! One thing Sir, there is…”
Raj’s mobile rang again. He turned away, dismissing the guard with the wave of his hand as he spoke urgently on the phone. Once done, he strode to where Naina stood with her arms around Adi. Without any preamble, he pulled them in a tight hug, and whispered into Naina’s ear, “Be careful, love.”
“I will be, Raj. Don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine. Now go.”
Raj drove away after a lingering look at the two people who along with Tanu had become his life. “Tomorrow,” he promised himself, “Tomorrow after the puja. Somehow I will convince her.”
Naina sighed and unlocked the door, simultaneously answering Adi’s tumbling queries about the fire. She locked the door and kept the keys on the side table. They stood chatting at the front door for a few minutes, with Naina removing her jewelry. They then moved into the living room. Naina kept the jewelry and mobile on the center table and turned to ask Adi whether he needed any milk before turning over. Her eyes fell on a black coat that draped the leather chair…the same chair on which Raj sat just a few hours ago. She sucked in her breath as her eyes darted wildly around the room.
To be continued……………