“And this kissy is from Furry.” Small chubby arms encircling her neck, Naina received another hurt-soothing kiss by Tanu. “Your hurt will go away soon Naina Aunty. Right, Adi bhaiya?”
Adi nodded absentmindedly as he kept staring at his mother.
Naina looked at her son and then turned to Tanu, “Thank you little princess. Who needs medicines when I am getting so many sweet kisses to keep my hurt away? Don’t worry I’ll be fine and playing with you and Adi in no time.”
“And Furry too?”
“And Furry too. I promise. Tanu, will you do me a favor, child?”
Tanu’s head bobbed up and down. Naina whispered, “Will you go out for a few minutes with badima? I need to speak with Adi bhaiya alone.”
Naina looked over Tanu’s shoulders at Ranima and beeji who nodded at her with understanding. After they took Tanu away, Naina turned to Adi, “Come here Adi. Take off your sandals and lie down with me.”
“But you are hurt mumma.”
“Yes. I am. That’s why I need to hold you in my arms. I’ll be fine once I do.”
Adi climbed onto the bed and lay down carefully next to his mother, keeping his head on her shoulder and wrapping his arm around her as gently as he could. For long moments they stayed like that. Naina held her son close, unmindful of the pain in her chest as he sobbed quietly against her. His pain made her heart constrict a lot more painfully. Her eyes welled up but she willed them not to spill over as she spoke softly, “It’s OK Adi. Mumma is fine. This hurt will go away in a few days.”
Adi moved closer, finding peace in her sweet scent and feel of her beating heart as he whispered, “I was so scared when I saw you in the garden, mumma. There was so much blood. I thought you had…you….”
“Shhsh!! I’ll never leave you Adi. Never. Sometimes bad things happen but if one is brave and good, God sends help.”
“Like He sent Raj uncle?” He tilted his head to look at her.
“Yes. And also you. You are the real Hero Adi. If you had not called uncle, things might have been a lot worse. I am so proud of you. You are my little soldier prince from now on.” Naina smiled and pressed her lips on his forehead.
“And you are my brave mumma. You shot the bad man. I am also very proud of you.” He lifted his head, “Who was he mumma?”
“Just a bad man, Adi. Just a bad man. No one you have to want to know about. OK?”
Adi was quiet as he pondered.
“Adi? Tell me what you are thinking.”
“Mumma…(pause)…He called you by a different name. Nantra…something. Why? He seemed to know you.”
Naina closed her eyes briefly. Adi was too sharp. He would never forget the man who did this to his mother. He was much too protective of her ever since he was little. He would forever chew in his guilt that he couldn’t prevent her from getting hurt. She didn’t want that sort of thing harboring in her son’s conscience. She decided a little half truth won’t hurt but at least relieve Adi.
She shifted a little and looked at him, “You are right Adi. He did know me. He called me Nayantara. That is the name your nana-nani gave me.”
“How did he know your real name?”
“That’s because he knew me from many years ago, after nana-nani died, and I was still called by that name.”
“Why did he hurt you?”
“Umm! Adi, there are some people in this world who carry their anger for many many years. They think that they will be happy only when they have hurt the person who angered them.”
Adi ruminated for awhile. Then realizing something he looked at her, “Why was he angry with you?”
Naina expected this question. “He was angry because he wanted something from me, a very special treasure that God gave me, and I refused…and then I ran away to protect my treasure. He found out where I was after all these years and came to steal from me.”
“And you fought him, and you won. Wow! Mumma. You are the strongest mumma,” Adi sat up, his eyes twinkling. That’s when he noticed Raj, who had slipped in awhile back and was standing with his arms crossed and leaning against the widow at the far end. “Uncle, did you hear? Mumma is a lady soldier, right? She fought the bad man and won.”
Raj walked up to Adi, ruffled his hair, and said in a voice thick with emotion, “She is indeed son. Actually she is our very own warrior queen. She can face any battle and win it.” He looked at Naina who was staring at the ceiling, avoiding him, “Any battle. Your mother is not a quitter.” A solitary tear escaped her eye and made the long journey from her eye to the edge of her jaw and then lingered a beat before falling down her neck.
Raj’s heart twisted at seeing her like this. On the face of it she was being so brave and pragmatic for her son, assuaging his fears, all the while fighting a lonely battle of her own. Watching her somehow holding it together for all those who depended on her, he promised himself that he would have to increase the pace of his chasing to an urgent level. He needed her to trust him so much that she lets him into the darkest corner of her life…a place that she didn’t allow anyone in and which was sucking her into its darkness. This incident had cruelly ripped away the barely formed scabs on the wounds. Those wounds had been exposed again, but now it was time they were healed for good. She always did a good job of putting on a convincingly brave, indifferent front, but inside she was a girl who was yearning to be loved and understood unconditionally, to be promised never to be left alone even after her secret was out. He just had to make her believe.
One week later…..
Dr Sujata Sinha had to defer her visit for personal reasons. Raj finally got to meet her the day Naina was being discharged. He knocked on the door to her office and entered after he heard a “Come in please”. He was surprised when he saw a rather young woman sitting behind the desk. Hearing about her caliber and reputation, he had envisioned an older person. She was on phone and gestured for him to take a seat. Raj saw a blue-colored file with Sunaina Bhatia written on it on the desk.
Raj mouthed a ‘Good Morning’ before sitting down and she nodded with a smile. She finished her call and turned to Raj, “Good morning Colonel Rathore. Sorry about that. Due to the postponement of this visit, a lot of appointments have had to be rescheduled.”
“It’s OK Ma’am. I won’t take much of your time. Has Amar spoken with you?”
Dr Sujata tapped on Naina’s file, “Yes. We spoke last night.” She leant back on her chair and subjected Raj to a direct look, “He said you wanted to talk to me about Naina. I am sure you are aware of doctor-patient confidentiality. I cannot divulge the details of my sessions with Naina.”
“I understand Doctor. I just wanted to meet you and take some advice regarding Naina’s stubborn refusal to let me or beeji know what exactly is causing her to build walls around her. I can see how being so entombed in the memories of past is hurting her.”
Sujata thought for a second and then asked, “I want an honest answer when I ask you this Colonel. Why do you want to help her?”
Raj replied without hesitation, “Because I love her and want to see her happy…really happy.”
“And you think you can make her happy?”
“Yes, doctor. I can. I am in this for the long haul.”
“How about Forever.”
“Hmm!” Sujata nodded speculatively, “All that’s very good for you to say and for me to hear Colonel. But why do you feel she needs help. Naina is a strong girl, even though she carries around some broken parts within her. She is living a good life in spite of everything, isn’t she?”
Raj put his palms on the desk and narrowed his eyes, frustration writ large on them, “You think she is living? Is that what your diagnosis is? I am sorry if you think so Doc. You are wrong. Naina is only existing. She exists for her son and people she loves. She exists to protect them from herself…from her pain. She will start living the day she conquers all her demons and moves on….the day she starts to live for herself as well. Today she is afraid and guilty of those unspoken fears. I want to make her unafraid and make her want to live…and not just exist. I can only do so if I know what is eating her inside.”
Sujata scrutinized Raj briefly and sighed, “Calm down Colonel. You have convinced me. Naina has spoken about you. She definitely has feelings for you, though she would not admit it. I can only say at this point that she trusts you implicitly, yet she is afraid of losing that trust. I can see how passionate you are about her. If anyone can make Naina speak up, it’s you. Don’t give up on her. She is expecting you to back off at some point. Assure her that you won’t.”
Raj relaxed, “Sorry about that Doc. I didn’t mean to doubt your proficiency. I am just so worried for her. She keeps pushing me away.”
“She will do that Colonel. You said it yourself. She is protecting you from herself.”
“But why? Hasn’t she given you any clue?”
“No. She clams up the moment I broach nearer the truth. Of course, I can always try hypnotherapy with her and get the answers. But I don’t want to go to that extreme at this stage of her treatment, especially since she has never shown any weaknesses in dealing with her life.”
“What kind of weaknesses?”
“Extreme ones Colonel…for instance, going into depression, being suicidal, or just being irrationally emotional and obsessive about her son. I have seen cases where patients who have experienced much less pain than her have broken completely and caused harm to themselves. Naina refuses to give up and instead has channelized her grief constructively. So far her only motivation in going through day-to-day life was to ensure to keep her son away from her husband and just lead a normal life for everyone’s sake. With her husband’s death at least that threat is over.”
Raj nodded, “Yes. I had thought with Manmeet gone, all would be fine. But she has withdrawn even more. That man really did a number on her. No wonder she refuses to acknowledge him as Adi’s father.”
Dr Sujata was suddenly on alert, “When did she say that?”
“She says it whenever Manmeet’s name comes up in Adi’s context. She was angry with the police too for even suggesting Manmeet was after Adi because he wanted his son with him.”
“Can you remember her exact words?”
“Certainly. She said, ‘Adi is my son. That man was not the father.’ ” Raj blinked almost as soon as he said that and stood up slowly, shocked as Sujata stared at him, “Oh my God! Are you implying Manmeet did not sire Adi? Then who is Adi’s father?”
Dr Sujata’s face turned grim as she observed, “I have suspected that since the last time I spoke with her. She was adamant that Manmeet was not Adi’s father when I asked her to speak about her husband. We all have seem to have misconstrued her words as spoken out of her need to alienate Adi from her husband. I am fairly certain now that Naina has been inadvertently spelling out the truth. If she has maintained that all along, then it is because what she says is the truth and not just an outburst borne out of her hatred. Adi’s conception is the crucial fact Naina is hiding. Maybe she had an affair when she was married.”
“NO.” Raj denied hotly, “My Naina is not that type of person. She is the most loyal person I know.”
“I agree Colonel. However, in that disclosure lies Naina’s chances of complete healing. If she had not had an affair, then the only other alternative reason could be that she was physically abused, which would make it clear why she feels that she has to keep away from getting into a romantic relationship.”
Raj sat down with a thud. Keeping his elbows on the desk, he buried his face in his hands. When he looked up, Sujata was stunned to muteness at the tortured expression on his face, “Help her doctor,” he whispered, “Help my Naina. Tell me what to do.” He had never felt as helpless as at that moment of realization. Who hurt his beautiful Naina? Why was no one there to protect her?
Sujata got up and walked around her desk to his chair. She kept a hand on his shoulder and said, “This is not the time to break down Colonel. You need to be strong for her. She needs you.”
“What should I do? Once she goes home, she will try her best to stay away. I know her too well.”
“Then stick around. Be within her proximity as much as you can. Show her that you are not going anywhere even though she appears to want that. Just be there for her. I am sure your resolve and constant presence will force her to reevaluate her concerns regarding your expected reactions. Maybe, then, she will trust you enough to tell you everything.”
“Thanks for the Chinese lunch Raj. I appreciate the effort. I didn’t know you could cook.”
“I do a passable job. Glad you liked it. I have something to finish off this special outing. Kids will have their share in the evening. I wanted you to be the first one to try.” He reached behind his chair and picked up a small basket and held it out to her, “Here, pick one.”
She saw small foil-wrapped pieces. “What are they?”
“Cookies. To be precise, fortune cookies.”
Naina’s eyes widened, “You are kidding me. No one makes Chinese fortune cookies in Palampur. Where did you get them from?”
Raj rolled his eyes and kept a hand on his heart, “I am deeply hurt sweetheart. Even after a wholesome lunch, you still doubt my capabilities.”
“You made them? You sure are a man of many talents. I am impressed, Colonel.”
“Thanks. I try. Don’t they say that the way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach?”
She smiled, “You got that in reverse.” Reaching out she picked one and unwrapped the cookie. She looked up and saw him waiting. He gestured at her with his fingers to break it open. She broke the cookie in half and took out a small slip of paper. She read it and bit her lip.
“What does it say Naina?” When she didn’t say anything, he took it from her fingers and read aloud, “The love you fight for is the love that can mend bridges, heal scars, and open closed hearts.”
Raj looked up at Naina, but she was staring at the flowers, “The garden is looking good. Beeji’s hard work is bearing fruits.”
“Flowers you mean,” Raj smiled. “Spring is here Naina. Smell it. Welcome it. Embrace it. Open your heart to it.”
Naina shook her head slightly and dipped her head to stare at her palms. When she spoke, it was to say, “You don’t need to stay here. Don’t you have a tea estate meeting to go to?”
Naina was home for a week and gaining strength by the day. The swelling on her face had gone, and the bruises had become lighter. Since the day before, she had begun working on the files Nancy had sent for her perusal. Nancy was doing a wonderful job of running the school in her absence.
Raj was always in beeji’s house. He would come around breakfast after dropping Tanu off to school and stay on through the day, doing his work through laptop and phone. Altaf mian would pick Tanu and take her to beeji’s. They would only leave to go home after dinner. If Naina asked him to leave, which she did often, he would just move his presence out of her sight. Sitting in her room she would hear him talking to beeji or playing with the kids or running some errand for beeji. Ranima visited her daily. Two days back she had gone to Shimla for a marriage.
Today Raj had cooked Chinese lunch with beeji’s help for everyone in celebration for Naina’s first day out of the house into the lawns. She had insisted on walking on her own to her seat under the garden umbrella for an in-house picnic. Adi and Tanu held her hands on both side of her, guiding her. Raj had arranged for a comfortable recliner for her. After the meal beeji had taken the kids inside for a nap. Naina wanted to stay out for some more time. She and Raj had fallen back to their familiar banter, and that made her feel comfortable…almost. Till she read the proverb in the cookie. The words were much too close to home…enough to make her remember about her resolve to maintain distance from Raj, so she dismissed him and his addictive presence rudely.
But Raj had his own resolve to keep. “I took care of the meeting through videoconferencing. I am free for the rest of the day. Are you comfortable? Should I get another pillow?”
“I am fine Raj. Why are you still here?”
“Because I want to.”
“Why what sweetheart?”
“Why aren’t you running away from a messed-up person like me?”
Raj knelt beside her, “You know why Naina. You have been to hell and back and yet you are in one piece. Just looking at you fills my heart with wonder and pride and so much love that my heart just swells.”
“I am not in one piece Raj.”
“I disagree. You are here on this sunny day, making it brighter and sunnier with your sheer presence. You never gave up. You are here for Adi, for beeji, for Tanu, and for me and for everyone you care about. I would be a moron to run away from such brilliance. Why wouldn’t I want to be here? Here has you in it….period. That’s good enough reason for me.”
Naina swallowed the lump that formed in her throat, “Please try to understand Raj. I am very confused. I don’t know how to let you stay and keep you away at the same time.”
Raj took her hand and kept her palm on his cheek, “Why do you want me away Naina?”
“Because I cannot hurt you by letting you in. Raj, there are things in my life you need to stay away from. Why can’t you take my word for it? I can’t tell you more explicitly.”
“And I won’t ask you. If it’s only friendship I get, I’ll take it. I would never cross the line by insisting you spell out your problem.”
“Oh Raj! How am I going to make you go away?”
“You can’t. Not in the way you want me to.”
“Raj, I am too far gone. Even if you try, you won’t be able to pull me out of the dark depths I have been pushed to. So just go.”
In response Raj pulled her into his arms and hugged her gently, being careful not to hurt her ribs. With his lips on her hair, he whispered, “Wherever you are, I am going to find you Naina. For now, I’ll go. Not because I want to, but because you want me to. Only for now…not forever. Remember that.”
He pulled back and gazed at her lovingly, before dipping his head and capturing her lips in the sweetest kiss ever. Before Naina could comprehend this sudden act of intimacy, Raj got up and walked away.
He heard her stifle a sob but didn’t look back. He needed to do this for her…this loss of a moment for the gain of an eternity. She needed to see this. She needed to see him leave her when she asked him to, and yet come back to her again…and again…and again. For her.
To be continued………