Naina froze at the deathly sound of the voice from the past. But why was she surprised? Wasn’t she expecting this? Deep down she knew this moment would arrive. For a moment she forgot to breathe, as she stared toward the pillar in the far end of the half-lit living room. A sense of dark déjà vu engulfed her slowly, as she felt Adi move closer, slip his hand through hers, and squeeze. Her clammy hand barely registered her son’s silent communication. Each cell of her body numbed to immobility as her body tensed. And then a tall shadow moved from behind the pillar and into the light, as the handsome, drop-dead attractive countenance of Manmeet Dhariwal came into view. Time stood still as she faced her so-called husband cum nemesis for the first time in years. The man whom she had once married with hopes for a better future. The man who turned her young-girl dreams into nightmares….He and his father. The Devil and his spawn.
“Hello Nayantara! Or should I say Sunaina Bhatia? Fancy meeting you here…alive and well.”
His voice cut to her bones, and she shivered. Then he smiled…the sick, evil, unpleasant smile that morphed him into the monster that he was…the smile that was ingrained in her psyche. And just like that, Naina was transported back to the dingy room from her past. Back to the dark, revolting nights when his chilly laughter would break through her miasma as he closed the door on her and…! Back to the stark, icy reality from which she was running for years. For a brief second, all she heard was the loud thudding of her heart. It seemed to echo inside her very being…as all emotions and all sensations ceased.
She was shaken out of her dead stupor as someone rang the bells from the small temple across the road. The labored sound of her lungs as she drew in a jerky breath caused Adi to tug at her hand. She looked at the man who epitomized hell for her and knew that this time there was no escape. But before he reached her, she had to get Adi out of here. She will be damned if she let him witness what was to surely follow. She knew that Manmeet had come for only one purpose…to seek revenge. She had seen the all-familiar maniacal rage lurking in his eyes. He had come to punish her for escaping him and for causing his father’s death. But before that she had to ensure Adi’s safety.
Naina reached inside herself and pulled out all the strength she had to keep herself together and not lose it for Adi’s sake. She needed to be in control for him…always for him. Taking a deep breath, she turned to him and smiled, “Adi, listen to mumma. Go up to your room, lock it up, turn on the TV loud, and stay inside. I’ll be along soon.”
“Who is he mumma?”
As Adi hesitated, the man shouted, startling him, “Didn’t you hear her? Leave.”
“Please Adi. Now. Whatever happens, stay inside. Promise?” Something in her eyes and her posture communicated to him, and he nodded. She kissed him once on his forehead, steeling herself to be strong, capturing his beautiful face in her eyes. Her hands on his shoulders, she steered him toward the stairs. His hand slipped away from hers as he stepped back and then away, but not before turning and giving the man a dirty look for scaring his mother. Adi stumbled up the stairs, making a decision of his own as to what he had to do as soon as he was in his room.
Naina refused to look at the man before she heard the welcome slam of the doors upstairs and heard music drift out. She squared her shoulders and slowly turned to face him. He was staring at her with a frenzied watchfulness. Her insides revolted as his mouth turned up in an ugly sneer.
Manmeet’s eyes oozed disgust and anger. He flicked his thumb toward the stairs, “Didn’t you bother to discipline the little rascal? He lacks obedience. But then what else could I expect from a worthless woman like you? Once I am done with you, I shall have all the time to deal with him and turn him into the man he should be.”
“Leave him alone Manmeet. He has nothing to do with you all.” Naina clinched her fists by her sides.
“No? You have the gall to stand there and lie to me? I must say you have developed some guts over the years.”
Naina’s eyes blazed, “Didn’t you hear what I said? Leave Adi out of this. He is not your son.”
Smack…Naina fell down near the center table as he slapped her hard, drawing blood from her lips. She closed her eyes in pain as he fisted her hair and pulled her head back. Her eyes snapped open as he breathed down at her, “You think you are smart? Did you think you could fool me with all that stupid cover up about the boy’s identity?”
Naina gripped the edge of the table and shot back, “I adopted Adi. He is 8 years old. You can check the Asha Deep orphanage in….”
“I don’t have to check anything. Have you ever looked at my photographs at that age? That boy is a carbon copy of how I looked as a boy. He is a Dhariwal alright.”
“NO! You are wrong” Naina tried to reach for her phone, but he was too fast. He grabbed it and threw it against the wall, smashing it.
“Don’t you even think about it? Did you think I would leave open any probability for you to contact your boyfriend, you characterless w**re? The land phone is also dead, and the guard incapacitated. The other guard is my man who has my getaway transport ready outside at this very moment. By the time that bastard colonel douses his stable fire, I will be gone with my son. After punishing you, that is…for killing my father, running away, stealing my son….the list of your offenses is endless.”
Naina got up and stared at him fearlessly, contempt lacing her words, “Adi is not your son. He is not going anywhere. He is only mine. As for your father, he died the death he deserved.”
He punched her. She staggered on her feet but stood her ground before taking a few steps backward to the front door.
He grabbed her roughly by her chin, “You bloody b***h! You never learn. I would have given you an easier death if you had just given my son. But now, I am going to first cut this tongue and then kill you slowly.”
At that moment Naina knew that howsoever she protested Manmeet will not leave without Adi. In that instant, all fog lifted and something inside her went deadly calm. The fear and panic disappeared, leaving behind a sharp focus and clear intent. She couldn’t care what happened to her, but she had her son to protect. She would kill if she had to but she will not let this man near her son. She pushed herself up as understanding donned, “Your threats don’t scare me, Manmeet. Now I understand. You are the one who set the stables on fire, so that Raj would be called away.”
“That cripple is a fool. He and his amateurish security measures…bah!!. He thought he could keep me away from the boy. I am much better than him. You were always very slow, Nayantara. Your complacency led you down earlier also.”
Naina wiped the blood from her lips, ignoring the pain in her jaws and temple, and smirked, “Really? It sure was not complacency that made me escape your prison. What was that you had said after the first time I tried to escape? Oh yes! ‘Nayantara, my house is an impregnable fort. No one gets in and no one goes out without my permission.’ Ha! Some Fort! I escaped, didn’t I?”
Manmeet growled menacingly and stepped toward her. But Naina continued, all the time backing away to the door, “Words. Ha! Mere words. You were always full of empty words, Manmeet. You had to….after all you are not good for anything else. You are nothing compared to Raj. He is a man to be idolized and admired and respected…and loved. I love him for the man he is. And you? Well! You are not much of a man, are you?”
Throwing the insulting words at him, Naina ran out of the front door, intending to lure Manmeet away from the house, away from Adi, and gain some time. Don’t give up…the voice inside her screamed. A few minutes required…that’s all. She had to incite him and delay him, and pray like hell that Adi had called Raj in his mobile. If she could get to the garden shed in the back lawn, she could get hold of some tool to use as a weapon.
She heard Manmeet curse and follow her as she ran with all she had. Unfortunately, she tripped on her saree, just a foot away from the shed, and fell down. In no time Manmeet was all over her; he was a man possessed….kicking her, pulling her up, and throwing her down again with slaps, punches, and more kicks. Naina kept on saying the one word that goaded him more and more…“IMPOTENT. That’s what you are Manmeet….Impotent. Adi is mine…all mine. You cannot sire a child to save yourself. You are pathetic…and you know that.” The blows continued, and then suddenly they stopped. Through a red haze Naina saw Manmeet turn toward a shovel leaning against the shed door.
At the same time, she heard her name being shouted in a voice that cut through the darkness and reached her, and it was the most beautiful voice in the world. He was here. Her Raj was here. She tried to shout for him…to call out his name one last time, but couldn’t. Yet, she was happy. She had succeeded. She was able to protect her son. She smiled as she saw Manmeet pick up a shovel and stand over her for the fatal strike. It didn’t matter anymore. Nothing mattered. Adi was safe.
Raj saw the fire from a distance as he neared the mahal, all the time talking to first nanisa and then to Altaf chacha on phone. He switched off the phone just as the car entered the palace gates. Something was not right…his instincts screamed foul. But what? He parked the car when the phone rang again.
“Uncle! Oh, uncle! I have been trying to call you.”
“Adi! What is it? Calm down, son. Stop crying. Tell me.”
“There is a man in the house. He scared mumma. He shouted at me also. Please come back, uncle…please.”
Raj’s blood ran cold. Manmeet was inside the house. It couldn’t be anyone else. Suddenly, he knew…the fire was a distraction, to lure him away….and he fell for it. Dear God, if anything happened to Naina and Adi. He would never forgive himself.
“Adi, where are you? What is the noise?”
“In my room. Mumma sent me up and told me to switch on the TV loud.”
“Right. Stay there Adi. Don’t open the door till you hear my voice. OK? Mumma will be fine. I promise.”
Raj stepped on the accelerator and tried calling Bahadur, the guard. No response. He knew it was a futile attempt. If Manmeet was inside, then it could only mean one thing: the guards were taken care of. He opened the dashboard and took out his revolver. There was one more call to make, the police….and hope like anything there was a patrol van nearby.
He screeched to a halt in front of the gate and saw a loaded truck parked opposite. He had just reached the gate when a shot buzzed past him. He ducked behind the car and saw a man jump from the truck and run toward the tree near the fencing of the house. Raj aimed. He had only one shot before the man left the cover of the tree and jump the fence. He shot him before the man could reach the fence. He had rightly guessed who he was before he registered the guard’s uniform…the accomplice.
Raj ran inside the house and stopped short, as he saw the signs of struggle. His guts tightened when he saw the broken phone, the scattered jewelry, and drops of blood. He heard a noise that came from the backyard. Without pausing to think, he ran toward the kitchen and through the backdoor to the lawn behind. He shot Manmeet on the run as he was about to bring down a shovel on a prostrate Naina. The shot went through Manmeet's wrists, causing the shovel to fly away from his hands. He yelped holding his bleeding wrists and turned around. Raj punched him away from Naina. Manmeet fell to the ground before struggling to get up.
Raj knelt beside Naina and touched her face, whispering, “Naina, I am so sorry love.” She smiled and that smile gutted him. He turned toward Manmeet who was getting up. Rage consumed Raj. All he wanted was to rip the son of b***ch from limb to limb and kill him.
He held the lowlife by the scruff of the neck and threw him against the stone bench behind him, before pummeling him right, left, and center with rock solid punches….his fists flying without any mercy. His wrists bleeding, Manmeet couldn’t defend himself. In one last burst of strength, he kicked at Raj’s prosthetic and made a run for it. As Raj stumbled, he heard a shot and jerked back to see Manmeet falling down. The bullet had pierced his temple.
Raj rushed to Naina, and gently took the gun from her, pulling her head onto his lap.
She looked up at him, speaking painfully “I had to do it Raj. He would never have left pursuing Adi.”
“Shushh! I know Naina. It’s OK. You did good. It’s all over. My brave Naina. I love you so much.”
She wanted to smile at him one last time...speak with him one last time….clutch onto him one last time…one last time before he came to know everything and leave her. She wanted her mind to be conscious for a moment more, bask in this moment of love without the dark shadow of the past hovering over, because this moment may not be hers tomorrow. He may no longer be hers once he knew all. Her entire body ached and felt heavy like lead, yet she tried to smile but could not. She heard him talk but could not fathom his words, as her eyelids grew heavy and closed. He knew she was past hearing as finally, mercifully she lost consciousness, yet he kept on talking, till he heard police jeep and ambulance sirens.
Naina’s eyes sprang open. She turned her head slowly and found herself in a room with white walls, with a glass wall at one end, over which green curtains were drawn, because of which she could not see outside. She was in a hospital. She guessed it was daytime, judging by the light in the room. She could see a row of monitors on the other side of the bed. She saw IV taped to her hand. She tried moving her hands and feet, and sighed with relief when they cooperated. How long was she out? Where was everybody? Adi? Raj? As memories trickled back, Naina gasped and attempted to sit up.
“No Naina. Don’t.” She saw Raj stride in from the open door, even as a nurse turned right back muttering “I’ll get the doctor.”
He came and sat beside her, leaning forward to kiss her on the forehead and then holding her free hand, “Hey beautiful! How are you feeling?”
She nodded and averted her face.
“Naina! Look at me sweetheart.”
She shook her head once and asked in a raspy voice, “Adi?”
“He is fine, Naina. Worried for you, but very proud of his mumma. He and beeji along with nanisa and Tanu were here till awhile back. They will again come in the evening.”
She sniffed and asked again, still looking away, “What time is it?”
“It’s three in the afternoon.”
She nodded again and tried to pull away her hand.
Raj held onto it and arose. Very gently he cupped her face, “Why won’t you look at me Naina?”
Silent tears cascaded down her cheeks as she whispered, “I am sorry Raj. Please leave. And don’t come back.”
Raj stood stunned. For a moment there was absolute stillness…and then he bent and softly pressed his forehead against hers, his thumb wiping her tears gently. His lips moved as he whispered, “Naina, I don’t know what is happening inside you, but I am not going anywhere. Please don’t push me away. Time for running is over. You are free.”
She closed her eyes and shook her head, “I don’t deserve you Raj. Why don’t you get it? Why would you want a damaged person like me?”
Raj lifted his head and kissed her forehead, “Because I love you. Because you are the air I need to breathe. Because you exist, and so I exist. I love you for who you are. I love you with all the past monsters, the ugliness, the darkness. And the beautiful, caring, warm, cheerful, loving, and honest person that you are. All of you Naina…all of you.”
“You won’t when you know all.”
She opened her eyes and smiled sadly, “Stay away from me Raj. It’s what is best for you. Manmeet’s coming here was a wake-up call for me as well as a reminder that I never deserved you. I was never good enough. Just go and live your life.”
“Without you? Never.”
Raj stood up as the doctor entered.
To be continued…………….