“Why didn’t you leave? Why did you stay?” Naina’s voice quivered as she looked at Raj with a hint of confusion still lingering in her eyes. “Why?”
After lunch beeji had left for the mahal. The kids had to be taken to a birthday party. Raj and Naina had moved to the back veranda and were now sitting on the newly installed swing sofa overlooking the lush greenery of beeji’s vegetable garden and fruit trees. After the attack, Raj and beeji had discussed and changed the landscaping of the area. Hence, the shed was shifted to the farthest end of the garden and a small greenhouse was built in its place. From the swing, the shed couldn’t be seen. Naina understood and appreciated the great lengths they had gone to ensure that the reminder of that night did not hover in her mind, erasing the scene of crime of its existence. Ever since she was allowed mobility by the doctor, Naina had spent a lot of time here. The green soothed her, and if she lifted her eyes, the mountains beyond fenced out her insecurities.
Raj sighed and then smiled. If he had to assure her a thousand times, he would. He turned toward her and lovingly brushed away an errant lock from her cheek. He tried not to notice the slight tremor that passed through Naina at the soft touch or the way she closed her eyes and turned her head slightly. He knew the feeling very well. He was aware of it every time he was close to her. Every fiber of his being was attuned to her…to the underlying sea of passion between them. He had always known that even though her mind blocked it, she could not completely control her reactions to him…that this sizzling awareness touched her equally. Difference was she fought it with a fierceness, while he reveled in it. This was the final barrier. Raj understood that. Naina needed to be comfortable with her own self first…the physical scars still singeing her needed to be healed first. Only then will she feel comfortable with the attraction she felt and accept it.
He shifted closer and took her hands in his, “Naina, did you honestly believe that I would leave after you told me all that?”
Naina looked at him straight in the eyes and whispered, “Yes. I did. How can you even like someone who is so broken?”
“Sweetheart, I am deeply in love with each and every broken piece of you. I just want you to pause a while and understand that. Leaving has never been an option. If required, I would fight hell’s demons to come back, but I shall always come back to you. That first moment when you entered my life was when I began living again. I just couldn’t stay away from you after that. That night in the mahal, when you fought me, your protective instincts for Tanu made you look so strong that I was blown away. I lost a piece of my heart to you right then and there.”
“I am not strong Raj…though I always made myself believe that I was. The truth is I have been scared for years.”
“You are the bravest person I know, Naina. I shall never tire of saying so. If you were not, you wouldn’t have been able to find courage to make your escape from that hell-hole. Any other girl would have given up after such sustained period of torture. Giving up is the easiest thing to do. But to hold yourself together under the most adverse circumstances…Well, that’s true strength. You fought them and escaped all by yourself. That’s not the description of a weak soul. If that is not fearless and brave, I don’t know what is. Trust me…I know what I am saying.”
Naina got up and stood holding the railing, looking out at the mountains for a few moments before knotting her hands in a clinch and turning to Raj, “I didn’t…I couldn’t have…I mean I had someone help me escape.”
“Who?” He asked though he suspected who the person could have been.
“Bela. Manmeet’s wife. They had assigned her to pass me food and water after they locked me up. When I rebelled in those first days, they tried to break me by asking her to show me the various methods by which I will be tortured if I didn’t comply. They had a dungeon-type of room with all sorts of torture tools. There was a snake pit as well. It all seemed like the den of the villain of a cheap Hindi movie. I have always been mortally frightened of snakes. The hissing snakes in that pit scared me numb. So, when they drugged my food and then told me to eat till the last morsel or else, I was too shaken up to suspect the rationality of such an order or why the food tasted bitter.”
Raj inched across to stand next to her and placed his hands on her twisting ones. The warmth, the gentle touch, the feeling of safety associated with it all did wonders and Naina welcomed the sense of blissful peace that came with it. Raj took a deep breath and said, “Let’s do this another day, sweetheart. We can take this real slow.”
Naina shook her head, “A walking snail would be too fast if I let go now. I want you to know everything, and then I don’t want ever to think about it.” She gave him a tentative smile, wanting him to understand, and Raj’s heart constricted in his chest. He nodded. She threaded her fingers through his and spoke, holding his gaze, “There’s nothing much to tell. Bela turned out to be my silent ally. Since one of Manmeet’s goons would always accompany her when she came into the room, we learnt to communicate silently…through eyes or finger prods or hand squeezes. Having gone through similar harrowing experience herself, Bela sympathized with my plight. Yet, fighting back never occurred to her because she was a product of the same society, wherein the daughter-in-law has to blindly follow the dictates of her in-laws. Also, she had her family to consider who were from the same village. Manmeet would have wiped out her family if she had dared to show any dissent.”
Naina paused to look into Raj’s fathomless eyes. His only movement was to disengage a hand and brush the back of his knuckles over her cheek. Tears sprang to her eyes, and he flicked away a stray tear with his thumb. His gentle patience amazed her. He walked her back to the swing and sat her down. She reached out for him and pulled him next to her. She was not ready to let go of him. She looked down at his calloused hand for awhile…so much softness hidden within such roughness. She sighed and resumed, “After I tried to escape twice in spite of the drug, Manmeet kept me tied up in the chair in that room. I am not sure how many days or weeks I was a shackled captive. And then the fateful day arrived. That day the family were to go to another village for a wedding. Bela and one of Manmeet’s goons were left behind to keep an eye on me.”
That day’s events were etched in Naina’s mind. Manmeet’s father was out of town for the past two days. He was supposed to meet his family directly at the wedding. Bela had come in the morning with her food and had managed to slip a small knife between the chapatis for her. For two days she had managed to switch Naina’s drugged food with clean meals. Bela had decided that this was the right opportunity for Naina to escape. She had communicated to Naina to be on her guard.
After untying her hands for her to eat, Bela distracted the goon with inane conversation, thus allowing Naina the opportunity to tuck the knife into her petticoat at the back. After they left, she freed herself by cutting the ropes. She waited for Bela to come for her, but when the door opened, it was not Bela, but their father-in-law. He was surprised to see her unbound and standing straight; she had taken advantage of that momentary shock. She had pushed him with all her might and had run for the door, closing it behind her. She heard him get to his feet and shout her name when she reached the first step. Her bare feet pounded down the wooden stairs as she ran without looking back. Her hand barely touched the railing as she jumped steps and raced down in breakneck speed. Thinking back, she had wondered where the energy had come from after what her body had been put through. She had reached the last step when she heard him break the door and yell out her name. The very next moment she heard a loud scream, followed by a loud thud just a few feet away. She was stunned to immobility when she saw her abuser lying in a pool of blood. She looked up and found Bela running down and simultaneously gesturing her to leave. She saw the look on Bela’s face and knew.
“So it was Bela who pushed him.” Raj said quietly.
“Yes. From the top-floor railing, just when he had leaned over to shout at me. And while I stood frozen at the gory sight before me, it was she was who grabbed my hand and shoved me through the back door, urging me to run as she had seen through the top-floor window Manmeet’s vehicle coming up the drive. When I told her to come with me, she refused, saying she had to be here to protect her family. She said she will delay Manmeet in order to give me some time to make it to the woods.” Naina sniffed and lifted her eyes to his, “I owe her my life. Manmeet thought I had killed his father, and he didn’t waste time in coming after me. To cut a long story short, I was on the run for more than a day, and the closest that man came was when he started shooting at the general area where I was hiding and one of his spraying bullets found me. I managed to reach the highway before collapsing.”
“That’s where beeji found you.”
Raj cupped her face and gently leaned forward to press a kiss on her forehead before wrapping his arms around her, “Thank you Naina.”
“For what?” She could feel his heart beating against her hand through the soft linen of his shirt. Steady, hard, and strong. Just like he was. He was her fulcrum…the rock that steadied her, anchored her, when she lost her focus.
“For letting me in and for trusting me. You have no idea what this means to me.”
“I have to thank you, Raj…for being there when anyone else would have distanced.” She raised her head, “For believing in me and for showing me how to believe.”
“Thank you for letting me do that.”
“Thanks for staying with me.”
“Are we playing thank you-thank you?”
Raj chuckled softly. At least her sense of humor was intact. Thank God for that. Throughout her narrations he was apprehensive how much damage her journey down the past would cause her, emotionally. He need not have worried so much. His Naina was strong. She might feel unsure of herself during weak moments, but she had no idea about the unique power she possessed…which is not allowing any weakness or fear to consume her psyche. She had the ability to overcome all kinds of obstacles, emotional or otherwise. In his arms, in their silence, he felt her relax, and, then, as the sun dipped behind the mountains, he sensed her even breathing and the heaviness of her body. She had fallen asleep. He held her to his heart for a few minutes, promising himself that he would never let her fall again….that he would always be there to catch her. She had put together his life when it had fallen completely apart, when he needed her the most. He would not rest till she was secure with her feelings and in their togetherness.
Raj had just put Naina to bed, and was tucking her in when he heard the excited chatter of the kids downstairs, followed by pitter-patter of running feet up the stairs. Very gently he extricated his hand from Naina, smiling at the soft whimper of protest she made before settling. He closed the door and hurriedly walked across to block the mini hurricanes.
“Papa, look what I got as return gift.”
“Uncle, we had the bestest fun.”
“Yes, the bettets! And Adi bhaiya won two games.”
“Tanu also won a game uncle and we…”
“Shshhh!!!” Finally Raj managed to get a word in. “Quietly. Let’s go downstairs.”
“Oops!” Adi slammed a hand on Tanu’s mouth and the other on his, and whispered from behind it, “Is mumma sleeping?”
Raj nodded and ushered them down and asked them to go to beeji’s room. Beeji looked at him from the kitchen door, her eyes questioning.
Raj walked up to her, “She is fine beeji. Sleeping. All that talking drained her. I think we should let her sleep it out.”
Beeji looked relieved, “Thank God. I was so worried.” And then she sagged against him, sobbing quietly, “Oh God! Raj, what did they do to my baby? How could they?” Raj hugged her tightly and let her cry it out. He sat her at the coffee table in the kitchen and gave her water to drink. After she calmed somewhat, beeji stared up at his dark irises, registering the pain in their depth, and whispered, “How do you forget Raj? How does she forget?”
There had always been this understanding between them that could not be explained in mere words. Without being specific, they knew exactly what the other meant. Just as she knew now that if Naina had physically gone through the pain of the ordeal, Raj too had experienced equal pain with each word that Naina spoke. He had experienced Naina’s suffering in his soul, which would leave a mark in its core forever .
Raj curled his fingers over beeji’s, “She won’t, and neither will we. We’ll just find a way to live with this knowledge and go on from here. We have to learn from Naina. She has done it all these years. Hasn’t she?”
“Will she…will you…ever stop looking back?” For the first time since she had met Naina, beeji was on uncertain grounds. There’s nothing more helpless for a mother than to see her child suffer and not know how to make things easy for her.
Raj would have very much liked to respond to beeji’s question in the affirmative, but he was no liar. He was a soldier who only knew straight-talking, so he said softly, “I don’t know beeji. Honestly, I don’t. But I have faith. And I have hope. Time is the greatest healer, right? And whether Naina accepts it today or not, we are in this together. I do know for sure that we must not ever allude to this topic ever. We need to keep things as normal as they were before. Nothing has changed. If we are the same, Naina won’t overthink. Our love and her resilience will see us through.”
He leant and kissed beeji on the cheek and got up, “You go and freshen up. I have to go out for awhile. I’ll pick up Pizza on my way back. You don’t have to make dinner.”
Beeji followed him out of the kitchen, “Don’t bring too much. Mrs Behra had prepared too many snacks. The kids are stuffed. I doubt they’ll have anything tonight.”
Dining Hall, Devisar Palace
“This is not fair Ranaji. You cannot take away my son’s rights and give it to that nomad army man.”
“Mind your tongue, Padmavati. Raj is my elder son. By tradition he is the rightful heir to the riyasat.”
“Bah! A son who was never there when you needed him. But my Kundanveer has always been in Devisar learning to be your successor.”
“Do not try to fool me. Just because I don’t question you does not mean that I don’t know what a wastrel Kundan has become. He does not have an iota of responsibility in his bones. No, Padmavati. I have made up my mind. Very soon I am going to get Raj back and hand him over his legacy. That is my last word on this topic.” Ranaji got up and threw down his napkin before striding out of the room toward his quarters.
Padmavati sat fuming for awhile. Then she got up and walked toward a life-size portrait of Raj in his uniform, which was recently placed next to his father’s portrait, in the opposite wall. She spoke softly, “I’ll never let you take away what is rightfully my son’s. I’ll do whatever has to be done to prevent you from coming here.”
“Just one slice, beeji…please.”
“Are you sure Adi? You do get greedy where pizza is concerned. If you eat it on full stomach, you might get sick at night.”
“I have place for one thin slice. I won’t get sick. Promise.”
“OK. Go ahead. Just one thin slice. The rest you can have for breakfast tomorrow and even take in your tiffinbox. What about you Tanu?”
“I am not hungry, beeji. I’ll have it tomorrow.”
“Good girl. Now get into the bed. Adi will join you soon. Papa has finished his shower. He will tuck you in after today’s story.”
“Papa is already here.” Raj came in smelling of lemon and mint and clad in white Kurta-pajama, with Adi towing after him brushing his hands off the crumbs.
Raj settled between the two of them, “So, what story are we making today?”
“Not making, papa. Today you will tell us a story.” Tanu looked at her father adoringly.
“Me?? Whoa! Hold on young lady. That was not the deal. You know I can’t…”
“But papa…Kiran’s father told us a lion cub story today in the party. If he can, you can too.” Tanu’s face fell.
“Of course, uncle can.” Adi hated to see her sad. He looked pleadingly at Raj, “You can do anything uncle…even tell a story. Right beeji?”
“Right! You can’t get out of this Raj. Kids, just tell him what you want to hear. It’ll be easier for him to take up from there. I have to make a call to badima.”
Raj knew he was well and truly cornered this time, “Oh well! OK. I’ll try.”
“Yaay!” The two shouted in chorus.
Raj laughed and picked Tanu onto his lap with his left hand, and with the other he tucked Adi closer. “So, what do you want to hear?”
Adi gestured toward Tanu, “Tanu, you say.”
“Okay!” She smiled sweetly, “Papa, tell us a story about a princess.”
“A princess? Hmm!! Let’s see. ” Raj tapped his temple, cleared his throat, and began, “Once upon a time there was a man.”
“Just a man? Was he not a prince?” Tanu blinked at him.
“No. He was quite a normal, ordinary man. There was nothing special about him. But one moonlit night he met the most beautiful woman in the entire universe.”
“So, she was not odi…odi…”
“Ordinary.” Adi prompted without taking his eyes off Raj.
“No Tanu, there was nothing ordinary about her. She was pretty, charming, witty, and had the most gorgeous smile he had seen on anyone. Her eyes danced and twinkled when she spoke with him.”
“Like an angel?” Tanu sighed.
“Yes, like an angel. He couldn’t believe she was standing before him.”
“Err…uncle, what happened next?”
“What happened after they met?” Adi was getting impatient.
“Oh yes, after they met…emm…they met again…and again….and”
“And?” Adi urged.
“And they became friends…yes...very good friends.”
“Was she a princess?” This time it was Tanu.
“Yes, sweety, she was a princess…the…emm…the Angel princess.”
“Did he kiss her?”
“Yes…almost. I mean he wanted to so much but…
“Uffo Tanu! Kissing/vissing happens in the end.”
The three of them turned to the door as they heard someone giggle, which soon turned into fits of laughter. Naina was leaning against the door, her entire body shaking with mirth.
Raj didn’t even register the fact that the kids had jumped from the bed and were now pulling Naina in, commanding her to complete the story. He was too busy staring at the lovely picture she made. She was truly amazing. After the day she had today, the last thing he expected was for her to come down and want to be with everyone. Yet, not only was she here, but she was actually laughing. His eyes drank in the pretty sight she made in her pink anarkali.
He got down from the bed to make way for them. His jaw twitched when she grinned at him, “Not bad Colonel. That was quite a beginning. Your princess is quite something!”
“Yes. She is.” He gave her a deep look and smiled sheepishly before walking toward the door, “I’ll put the pizza in the oven. Come soon.”
He was almost out of the door when Naina called out, “Hey Raj! Before I continue, I wanted to know something. How does your story end?”
He turned and looked at her, his eyes unambiguously expressing all the love and desire he held in his heart for her, “It doesn’t. It won’t ever. Even a lifetime will not be enough.”
To be continued…………