Dr Amar Raina was a longtime friend of Raj. They had trekked together many times in the mountains when Raj would come for his vacations. He had recently shifted back to his hometown after a stint in a hospital in London. His son had taken admission in Naina’s school, so he knew Naina well. He nodded at Raj and smiled gently as he took Naina’s wrist, “How are you feeling Mrs Bhatia?”
Naina grimaced painfully, “Fine, I guess. Though, I ache all over, mostly in my ch…chest. Every breath is a pain.” She felt Raj’s hand on her head, his thumb softly caressing her temple down her cheek. Her eyes stung but she refused to look at him.
Dr Amar left her wrist and picked up her chart, writing something before looking up, “That’s because of the ribs.” He sat down on the bedside chair before looking grimly at Naina who waited for the verdict, “Ma’am, you have a couple of broken ribs and many bruised ones.”
“Yes. I guessed as much. He kicked me…quite a number of times.”
“You also have a concussion and a sprained left wrist.”
As he hesitated, Naina asked, “Go on doctor, what else? Tell me all…the unadulterated version. Don’t worry about how I’ll take it. I have experienced worse injuries than these.” She felt rather than heard a sharp intake of breath above her as Raj’s thumb paused a beat before resuming its soothing motion.
Amar glanced at Raj and noted his friend’s clinched jaw and controlled anger reflected on the clenched fist that was almost white as it rested on the bedpost. The minute he had seen Raj’s traumatized state the previous night he had understood what this lady meant to him. He had silently blessed Naina for making Raj find himself and be open about his feelings. Ever since he had known Raj, there was always a part of him that was shadowed and closeted…a part where he never let anyone in. Not anymore. His caged heart seemed to have found its key in Naina. Last night he had a had a long conversation with his friend, in which Raj had all but bared his heart. He had not budged from Naina’s side ever since she was brought in last night. Amar just hoped that she also reciprocated Raj’s feelings. He would hate to see his buddy getting hurt.
Now he raised a brow in query at Raj, who nodded to him. Amar cleared his throat, faced Naina, and laid down her injuries candidly, “Well, there is swelling and some nasty bruising on your face and multiple lacerations on your legs, feet, arms, and body. Thankfully, apart from the ribs nothing else is broken. The X-rays and CT scan are clean. All you have to do is take plenty of rest, get those wounds taken care of, and take the medicines regularly. I am prescribing you painkillers for the ribs. Feel free to breathe deeply and cough if you want to…Don’t hold back. The medicines will ease out your pain, and the ribs should heal in a few weeks….so will all the cuts and bruises. The only hitch with broken ribs is that one is at high risk for pneumonia. Stay warm. If you feel feverish or experience weakness and tizzy spells, call me. The swellings will be down in a couple of days.”
Naina lifted her hand to check her face and winced as a sharp pain shot through her chest due to the sudden motion. Raj immediately dropped down beside her and stopped her exploring hand. He turned her face gently and forced her to look at him. Their gazes met and locked. The depth of love in his eyes sucked her in as he whispered, unmindful of his friend, “Don’t. Nothing has changed. You have no idea how incredibly beautiful you are, sweetheart.”
Naina tried to roll her eyes but ended up flinching, “Don’t patronize me, Raj. I know how I must look after the way he hit me.”
Raj brought her fingers to his lips, “Please don’t. I am so sorry. I wish I could have prevented this. Dammit, I should have been there. I should have preempted his move and sensed that the fire was a tactical ploy.”
Naina stared at him as a single tear rolled down his left cheek. That single tear did her in and she had a complete meltdown of her resolve. She was already guilty of blocking him from her heart and hurting him, but she would fry in hell if she allowed him to feel guilty of something he could not have prevented. She reached out her hand and wiped it away, lifting her lips in a bid to smile and lighten the mood, “Now that’s surely a first one for me…a soldier who cries. Don’t let Adi see you like this, Colonel. He will never forgive me for making his soldier hero cry.”
His eyes red due to a sleepless night and stress, Raj blinked at her unexpected teasing, and slowly smiled, “Who says soldiers don’t cry? Mind what you say, Ma’am. I can sue you for being sexist.”
He grinned even as Amar chuckled aloud before getting up, “I am with you on that pal. I’ll testify if required.”
“Bah! What’s this? Display of buddy bonding? You scratch my back and I scratch yours!”
Amar laughed, “Beware my friend! The lady is spirited.” Then sobering down, he said, “I salute you Ma’am. Not many women…hell, not many men could have done what you did last night. I am so happy that my son is under your tutelage. And now, I have to go. Anything else you want to know?”
“Naina. Please call me Naina. Just one thing. My head feels as if a ton of bricks are resting on it.”
“That’s because of the sedatives. You must sleep now. And oh! The police were here for your statement. I told them to come later in the evening. OK?” He smiled before rushing off.
“He is a good doctor.” Naina said drowsily.
“He is a good friend.” Raj got up and sat on the chair Amar had vacated. He held her hand, rubbing her wrist just where the crepe bandage ended.
“Go home Raj.”
“No chance. Sleep Naina. I am not going anywhere.”
He thought she was drifting off when she spoke.
“Raj.” Her eyes fluttered as they got heavy.
“When the children come, don’t let them inside the room.”
“Tanu will get scared if she sees my face.”
“She won’t. She has already been here and has kissed you.”
“What?” She pried her eyes open with difficulty, “She was not upset?”
“Initially she was. I told her that you fell down when the bad man was chasing you. Adi did the rest. He picked her hand and made her stroke your face and kiss you, telling her that if she did that often, your hurt will go away faster. She must have done that four to five times before they left.”
“Adi did that?” Her eyes spilled over.
Raj leaned forward and wiped her cheeks, “Don’t cry, sweetheart. You should be proud of him. That’s one hell of a boy we have there. He was so poised, proud, and controlled, all the time talking with beeji and nanisa, and playing with Tanu, keeping them busy and distracted. He cried only once, when he saw you last night. He has been OK after that.”
“I am guessing you have something to do with him calming down.”
“Well! I had a man-to-man talk with him on our way to the hospital. That’s about it.”
“Sleep Naina.” He cupped her cheek.
“Yeah…just one more thing.” Her voice tapered to a slurry whisper as her eyes closed, “Don’t blame yourself. It wasn’t your fault……You saved me….My hero. I lo….” She couldn’t fight the drugs anymore and fell into a deep sleep.
Raj smiled as he caressed her face, “I love you too, my stubborn brave Naina.”
Naina awoke to gentle strokes of hair. Before she opened her eyes, she knew who the hand belonged to. She would recognize the soothing, maternal touch anywhere. She fluttered open her eyes to find beeji looking at her moist eyed.
“Oh Naina! You gave us such a scare. Never do that to me again beta. I don’t know what to do without you. For a moment this old woman saw complete darkness.” Beeji sniffed lightly.
“I am fine beeji. Your love and blessings always surround me like a shield. Even God would think twice before separating me from my mother a second time,” Naina smiled. “Your daughter is a tough girl beeji. I can take a few knocks. You should not worry about me so much.”
“You cannot take that privilege from me. How are you really feeling?”
“Like I have been hit by a canon and still survived a war.”
“You have indeed won the war Naina. I am so proud of you.” She bent and kissed Naina’s forehead. Placing a hand on Naina’s heart, she said, “Now all you have to do is fight that final battle with this little thing that’s beating here. Listen to what it says. Maybe what you are thinking will happen is all your fear. Maybe your fear is completely unfounded. Have faith.”
“Beeji, what are you…” Naina’s breathing hitched as she realized what beeji meant. But then beeji didn’t know. Her chest constricted with emotional pain, which had nothing to do with the broken ribs.
The door opened bringing to a stop whatever Beeji was going to say. Raj walked in, looking fresh after having shaved and bathed and put on a fresh white shirt and jeans, “I am sorry. Did I interrupt? I’ll come later then. Naina I wanted you to know that the hospital had a call from the police station. They will be here in half an hour.”
Beeji straightened up and walked to him, “It’s OK Raj. I was about to go down and get the kids. Ranima has taken them to the park next to the children’s ward.”
“Beeji, get them after the police leave.” Naina called out.
“Raj you need to go home and rest for awhile. I’ll stay with Naina tonight.”
“Absolutely not beeji. I am fine. You have been under a lot of pressure and need a proper rest. Moreover, with Naina here, Adi needs you to be with him, even though he is being all brave.”
After beeji left, Raj moved closer, “Hey Gorgeous! Slept well?”
“Yes. Did you go home?” Raj smiled inwardly. She might be all vocal about sending him away, but her face clearly betrayed the disappointment at the thought of his leaving her.
“No, I didn’t. I freshened up here only. Nanisa brought me a change of clothes.” Then suddenly serious, he said, “I did say I won’t leave. There’s no other place I want to be.”
Naina’s eyes clouded over and she shook her head, “This cannot carry on Raj. I respect your feelings for me. I value your friendship so much that I cannot even begin to quantify it. I won’t risk it by giving you false hopes. You need to step back. I wish I could love you back. But I can’t.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
“No Naina. It’s not the same thing. Do you know what nanisa told me the other day?”
He bent down and kissed her forehead before sitting down. It took every ounce of self-control for Naina not to throw herself into his arms and cling to him, feeling his arms around her, making all those memories go away. She knew she needed to discourage him when he kissed her or held her hand, as he did now, but she savored this touch knowing she would not have even this for long. Maybe a few minutes more…just a few.
Her eyes took him in greedily as he spoke, his eyes on her…always on her, “Nanisa has a pulse on my emotions where you are concerned. A few days back she came to me after dinner. We were chatting when she said, “Raj, a lot of good things happen to us in this life, of which very few are what we call the best things. And the best things in life are worth the risk. Finding your true love and your soul mate is one such thing that is worth fighting for. Are you likely to get hurt? Sure. Are you scared to take the plunge, fearing you will break into pieces when you hit the ground? Absolutely. Yet, let me tell you something Raj: You still take that fall, because you believe. Within you somewhere you hold the belief that before you hit the ground you will fly.” ”
“I don’t understand.” Naina frowned. Where was this going?
“Even I didn’t get her initially. But when she explained, I realized she was spot on.” He played with her fingers while speaking, “Naina, you remember that day when we went to the zoo, we saw this baby parrot being pushed out of the nest by its mother?”
“Yes, that was so it could fly. The mother birds often have to do that.”
“Right. Sometimes we are like those baby birds…afraid to risk a flight because we are scared of falling. But then those birds almost always find their wings and fly before hitting the ground. We will fly too, sweetheart. We should not be scared to take the plunge. Sometimes taking the risk begets the greatest reward.”
Naina’s eyes welled up. He had such faith that “they” will happen. It broke her to see him so buoyant about their future, “Raj, don’t waste your emotions on me. They are too precious.”
He turned her hand and dropped a kiss on her palm, “Sooner than later you will fly my sweet, I promise you. Just let go. I won’t let you fall.”
Naina stared at him…saw the love in his eyes and felt it in her heart. This wonderful man…who had captured her soul and her very being. She didn’t deserve him….No, he deserved someone who was not contaminated by her past….who didn’t carry a baggage of images that were hard to erase. They will hover over him like a dark cloud till one day he would stifle and break through to reach for a little sunlight. He would be revolted. He would leave. She was that sure.
He saw the doubts gathering in her expression, and said, “Don’t think too much, Naina. Accepting love is often scarier and more threatening than giving it is. Whatever is stopping you will cease to exist when you realize that what is between us is far more potent and pure than our fears. This connection will inspire us to become more fully who we are. It will happen Naina…as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow. Just have faith. I shall wait for that day. And yes, one more thing.”
“What?” She whispered, his words resonating in her heart and mind.
“I love you,” He smiled brightly, and her world burst into colors. She couldn’t help but feel the warm glow of his positivity and was beginning to smile back when there was a knock. Amar came in with two policemen.
The police officers looked too stiff and intimidating to Naina in her vulnerable condition. They stood staring at her for awhile, as Amar instructed the peons to arrange chairs for them. Raj had helped her sit up after arranging pillows behind her. One policeman had absolutely no expression on his face and had cold, icy eyes, which he directed at her; the other had a habit of shifting his eyes all the time, first on her, then at Raj, then at Amar. Naina immediately dubbed them Icicle and Shifty. After taking her statement, they said they have to put few questions to her. Naina nodded and submitted to their questioning.
“What was your relationship with the deceased?” Icicle queried.
“I was married to him seven years back. I was his second wife.”
“When did you last see him?”
Naina gaped at him. Was he serious? “Last night, of course.”
“What Sir meant was before last night.” It was Shifty.
“Then be specific please. I saw him after seven years.”
“Did he molest you, ma’am?” Icicle’s tone never changed.
“What the hell? What kind of question is that?” Raj was furious and had jumped up from his chair.
“It’s a pertinent question Sir, given her apparent injuries.”
“You people forget I was there. And I have already given my statement. Nothing of that sort happened.”
“But you reached there after a few minutes Sir. Anything could have…”
“No.” Shifty stopped as all eyes turned to Naina. “No, I was not molested. I was not raped. I was not sexually harassed. I was only beaten like an animal.”
Amar stepped in beside Naina on the other side, “I can confirm that. Anything else? My patient needs rest.”
Icicle looked at Shifty, “Did you take it down? She was not raped.” Shifty nodded and scribbled on his pad. By this time Naina was livid. They looked as if everything else she went through was less in suffering quotient just because her body was not sexually violated.
“If you are done, please leave.” Raj had had enough of the two. He slipped in his hand into Naina’s. Shifty raised his brow. Raj stared right back.
“Just a moment Sir. We are only doing our job. I still have a couple of questions left.” Icicle said without looking at Raj.
Raj nodded, “Keep them short.”
Icicle turned to Naina, “If you were estranged, what did he want from you so urgently that he was ready to kill for it.”
“He wanted to take my son away from me.”
“His son, you mean.”
That did it. Naina’s eyes blazed, “Are you deaf? I said My Son. That man was not the father.”
“But why would he want to take your son if he was also not his son?”
“You are the detectives, right? Go do some detecting of your own. I shot that monster in self-defence, and I don’t regret it.”
“Is that all, Ma’am?”
Naina gripped Raj’s hand tightly before saying in a saccharine-sweet tone, “Well, let’s see. I was slapped, punched, shoved, dragged, pushed, kicked, and almost beheaded. I guess that just about covers the whole incident. Good day Gentlemen! I would have loved to say it was nice meeting you, but I’d be lying.”
Shifty shifted his eyes to his pad. Icicle cleared his throat, “We are just doing our duty, Ma’am. Didn’t mean any offense.”
Naina sighed, “Yes. I know.”
Amar showed them the door, “No more questions officers. You have agitated my patient enough. She needs rest.”
Amar closed the door and whistled, “Whoa! What a pair of idiots. I am going to have a talk with the Commissioner. No way am I going to allow such badgering of my patients by the police department.”
“They were irritating chauvinists. How come the forces have such biased people like Icicle and Shifty?” Naina huffed .
“Icicle and Shifty?” Both parroted in unison as they stared at her.
Naina looked sheepish, “Yeah, that’s what came into my mind as I saw them.” She smiled as Raj and Amar guffawed.
Amar looked at Naina with admiration, “You handled them well, Naina.”
Raj smiled, “That’s my girl. Those jokers didn’t know what hit them in the end. I am with you in that talk with the Commissioner, Amar.”
Just then the door burst open and Adi and Tanu burst in. Beeji was right behind with nanisa, “Slow down you two. You shouldn't run in a hospital.”
As Raj watched Adi hug Naina gently mindful of her injury, followed by Tanu who stroked Naina’s face and gingerly planted two pecks on her cheeks, he felt a tug. It was Amar, who was signaling Raj to follow him out.
In the corridor, Raj turned, “What is it Amar?”
Amar looked speculative, “Raj, I was watching the monitors when the police questioned Naina regarding Adi. Her BP shot up like crazy.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean Naina was visibly agitated over that line of query, but she was definitely more shaken within. That question shook her.”
“It’s understandable. Naina was always scared that Manmeet will stake a claim over Adi, and she may lose him.”
“Maybe. Nonetheless, call it a doctor’s instinct. Naina is hiding something that is causing her grave mental anguish.”
Raj looked over at the end of the corridor for a few seconds and then back at Amar, “Naina has been seeing a visiting psychiatrist here, Dr Sujata Sinha. Do you think I should talk to her?”
“I think you should. She is due here in a couple of days. I’ll set up an appointment for you. Naina’s good mental condition is imperative for a speedy physical recovery.” Amar stepped up and gave Raj a quick hug, “I have to go. You stay with her. She needs you.”
“Not as much as I need her.” Raj whispered to himself as he saw Amar stride away.
To be continued………..