Naina’s eyes glistened with tears as she watched the man she loved more than life itself walk away without glancing back even once, respecting her wish. She had never known, never experienced this kind of love. Now that she was bestowed this amazing gift, she could not accept it. She let out a sob and touched her lips with trembling fingers…They still tingled with the myriad of sensations that had assaulted her when Raj had bent to capture them. Her first kiss. And it was as perfect as she had once dreamt it would be. She had lost all her romantic firsts to a monster…her innocence, her maidenhood, her dreams. He took everything from her, over and over…but for some reason he would never touch her face. Naina looked up and thanked God for granting her this First. Raj’s unexpected move had thrown her off-kilter in a way she had never felt before. His kiss was gentle and soft, yet sensual with promises of more. His lips were warm and molded to fit over hers. His warm and minty breath had fanned her cheeks in that glorious moment, the musky scent of his cologne sending a sudden rush of prickly sensation that left her reeling with an unfamiliar need. Just before he withdrew, he had touched her lower lip with the tip of his tongue, and she had felt something ignite in her for the first time. The kiss may have lasted for brief seconds, but to Naina, it was a feeling she never imagined she would ever experience. She knew what it is to be loved. God knows Raj had showed her in many ways. Yet, as she watched his tall figure disappear inside the house, she understood what it is to feel cherished, adored, respected, and revered at the same time.
Naina closed her eyes and leant back, savoring the most perfect moment of her life. She kept her eyes shut for endless minutes, not wanting to open them and face reality. Her reality. Till this moment she was swimming against the current, trying to find words that would make Raj leave. Yet the answer was so obvious…so blindingly clear…howsoever awful it was. The truth. The entire unpleasant truth. It was time Raj too knew about it. Even though her heart wanted to hold the moment and revel in his scent that still surrounded her, her mind recognized finally that Raj was not going to give up on her, unless she did something drastic, which is, read out the final and the ugliest chapter of her past to him. She was being dishonest and selfish by letting him hanging by the rope. He needed to leave the rope and find a solid footing for himself. He was keeping his life on hold for a miasma that could fade away anytime and that will cause him only grief and heartache in the long run. It was unfair of her to not give him the reason to break away, be free, and move on. She will have to give him that reason. Her mind made up, she was in a hurry to get to Raj, hoping that he was still around. Normally after lunch, he retreated to the study to get on with his work.
Naina put her feet down and rose slowly. She was halfway through the lawn when beeji came out and seeing her rushed to her.
“Naina, you should have waited for me. I was coming to get you.”
“It’s OK beeji. I can get around by myself now. Are the kids asleep?”
“Yes. They were pretty tired after all that running around. They slept almost as soon as we began making up the story.”
“Making up a story? What do you mean?” Naina was amused by the phrase. At the same time she was a little sad. Because of her injuries and convalescence regimen, she had missed out on spending time with the children. But now that she was well on the road to recovery, she vowed she would make up for the lost days with them.
“Oh! That was Raj’s idea. A few days back they wanted Raj to tell them a bedtime story.”
“Raj and story?” Naina laughed, “That must have been something. What did he do?”
“Well! He was foxed for awhile, but then he hit upon this brilliant idea. He gave them a few characters and then we all sat and made up a story. It was fun.”
“Hmm! I am sure it was.”
“The kids are looking forward to having story-making times with you.”
Naina smiled, “So am I beeji. I have missed spending time with them. This story-making thing is a great idea. I’ll ask Nancy to implement it in school also. The little ones can be very creative with their imagination.” Just as they reached the living room, Naina turned toward beeji and asked, “Just a minute. Bedtime stories? Have Raj and Tanu been sleeping over?”
Beeji looked sheepish as she answered, “No, not everyday. They have slept over just a few nights. It’s when I see Adi a little disturbed that I request Raj He has been a pillar of support, Naina. I don’t know what I would have done without him.”
Beeji hated to lie to Naina, but she couldn’t tell her that the real reason she would ask Raj to stay over was because of Naina’s nightmares, which had returned with a vengeance. The doctor said it’s because the house was where the incident had happened and returning to it had triggered suppressed memories. On her first night back home, she had her worst nightmare to date, when she cried, moaned, screamed, and thrashed about…her physical pain making her cry louder. Thankfully Raj had still not left. When they had rushed up on hearing her screams, beeji saw how Raj had gathered Naina in his arms, and she had immediately calmed down. Beeji was so shaken that all she could do was stand and silently cry while Raj soothed Naina, rocking her gently and mumbling words that lulled her back to serenity. After that night Raj would leave only after Naina was sound asleep for awhile. If there was any sign of restlessness, he would stay back.
But Naina didn’t have to know all that. Beeji had given Raj her word she wouldn't mention it to Naina. Now she turned and kept a hand on Naina’s arm. “We all can see how he feels about you Naina. He is so devoted to you, so attuned to your needs, it’s amazing. Won’t you give this relationship a chance? Won’t you give yourself a chance? You have to stop punishing yourself for what happened to you. It was not your fault.”
Naina looked out of the window, her shoulders drooping, and said in a detached voice, “Maybe it was beeji. Maybe it was.”
Beeji held Naina’s arms and shook her, “Look at me Naina. It was not your fault. You tried to get away as soon as you came to know what they were like. Remember?”
Naina shook her head, “That’s just it. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough. I never told you this. The first time I tried to escape and was caught, I was beaten badly with threats of more if I did that again. They said they will throw me in a pit of snakes. They had one you know. Manmeet’s first wife, Bela, had showed me. I remember I was so terrified that I gave up the idea of escape. In that moment I became a coward. I let them do to me whatever they wanted, just so I was not thrown into that pit. I was weak. I should have fought harder. So you see I deserved what I got.”
Beeji’s voice shook as she laid emphasis on her words, “No, you did not deserve that. Not even a second of it. You were too young to handle such cruelty. You were drugged, yet you fought back. You were never a coward, Naina. If you were, you would never have tried to escape again. You are much stronger than what you give yourself credit for. You are free now my child…free from all those who hurt you and who made you hide your true identity. Life is too short to live in the past. Naina, you have been given a second chance to be happy. You owe it to yourself to have your happily ever after. And you can have it with a man who worships the ground you walk on. Don’t turn your back on this Naina. Raj is a good man.”
“Not merely good beeji…but the best . He is the best. That’s why he deserves the best. He had a bad first marriage. This time he deserves someone who will not bring any complications in his life…someone who won’t come with a past baggage. As his friend, I will not wish someone like myself on him.”
“Someone like yourself? Balderdash! You are talking nonsense Naina. Who gives you the right to attack your self-worth like that? I know, and so does anyone who has been in contact with you, what a special person you are. You enrich us Naina. Everyone wishes for a child like you, and I am proud to have you as my daughter. I thank God everyday for bringing you to me. As for Raj, I know that you are in love with him. And if you truly love him and want only the best for him, then you should know that it is you he wants and you who makes him happy. It’s all about about who he wants. You cannot decide for him.”
Naina hugged beeji, “I won’t. Raj will decide for himself, after I have had a talk with him. I am going to give him a call. He is not here, is he?”
Beeji shook her head. “No. He left as almost as soon as he came in.”
“Did he tell you where he went?”
“He got a call and said it was an urgent matter. He’ll be back for dinner.”
“Beeji I feel like cooking something. May I help you in preparing dinner?”
“Are you sure you are upto it Naina?”
“Yes beeji. I am really better. The ribs also don’t trouble too much. I am sick of staying inside that room. Please beeji. I promise I won’t exert myself.”
Beeji took Naina’s hand and took her to her room, “Okay, but only after you have rested. Now go and take a nap. I have my afternoon soap coming up on TV. I am going to have some Raj cookies and enjoy my show.”
Naina took a step and hugged beeji and then kept her head on her bosom. Beeji patted her head, “What is it beta?”
“Thank you beeji.”
“For everything. I wouldn’t know where to begin if I am asked to list what you mean to me.”
“Shshh! There’s nothing to thank for. We should be grateful to God for getting us together. Now go. Rest. I don’t want to miss the opening of my show. Today the bahu is going to expose her saas and get her arrested.” Beeji winked and gently nudged Naina toward the bed.
Naina smiled indulgently at beeji and walked to her bed. She took her medicine and lied down. Her last thought before drifting away was how lonely her life was going to get after tonight. Raj will know everything, which will ensure his departure from her life. Somehow she had to dig in and find enough strength to see him go…and never come back.
Raj didn’t come. Instead, he called beeji in the evening and told her that something had come up and he had to leave town in an hour. He said he would be back in four to five days. “I hope all is well Raj.”
“Everything is going to be fine beeji. When I come back, I hope to bring good news for Naina. Don’t say anything to her now.”
Beeji smiled as she looked up at Naina who sat opposite her, sipping tea, “I won’t.”
“Take care of her for me.”
“Who? Tanu? Really Raj! Do you have to even say it?” Beeji teased.
She heard him chuckle, “You know very well I am not talking about Tanu.”
Beeji grinned, “Sure I do. Don’t you worry about your girl. Haven’t I always looked after her?”
Raj laughed, “She is sitting there, isn’t she?”
“Yes. Just get back soon Raj.”
“I’ll do that beeji. Bye.”
Naina lifted her brows as beeji kept her phone down. Beeji told her about Raj’s change of plans. Naina suddenly felt all cold and empty, which was ridiculous, considering she had been pushing him away. Now that he was gone, even if for a few days, she should use his absence to get used to him not being there.
As Naina tossed and turned the fourth night in a row, she realized how difficult it was to get Raj out of her mind. He was always there in her thoughts. Where was he? What was he doing? She oscillated between anger and hurt that he hadn’t bothered to call or text her even once, though he called beeji everyday. She refused to listen to the part of her conscience that told her that she was the one who insisted he stay away. Wasn’t he doing exactly that? Her thoughts in a muddle, she found it difficult to sleep. In the end she got up and walked to the window, staring out at the mountains silhouetted against the pale glow of the moonlight. She had found sanctuary and shelter among these mountains when all doors had closed on her and there was no way out. In beeji and the people of this land, she had found her family again. This was her home. There was no other place she would want to be than here. She knew she would again have to look for strength within the lap of these mountains when she loses the man she loved. Tears rolled down as Naina mourned the impending loss.
She was startled when the phone beeped a message. She walked back to the bed and picked up the phone. It was Raj. In spite of herself she smiled, wiping her tears. She read the message and just like that her heart found peace for the first time in four days. She clutched her phone and read again: If you asked me how many times you crossed my mind, I would say once…because you never left after that. Close your eyes, sweetheart. Sleep happy. We will both find a way to face a new tomorrow and begin our forever. Love you.
Naina lay down and closed her eyes, still holding the phone. She saw Raj’s face as it came closer for a kiss. With that image in mind she drifted off to a much-needed sleep.
Beeji closed the door softly and stepped back. She texted Raj before going to bed: Thanks Raj. She is finally asleep.
Naina awoke next morning with mixed feelings. She immediately checked on Raj’s message again and then stored it. Another memory to be visited in the days of looming loneliness. Yet, now, she didn’t fear that forthcoming misery. The fact that she had Raj’s love for awhile would be enough to see her through the lonely future. His love had made her stronger, and she was not going to demean it by breaking down to pieces.
After sending the kids to school, Naina and beeji had their breakfast and waited for Baldev Kalra and a couple of other staff members from Asha complex who had requested to visit Naina. They came bearing a bagful of Get Well Soon cards, hand-written notes, flowers, and ashram-made snacks from the children and the elderly inmates.
Naina was overwhelmed. Her voice choked as she thanked them, “Thank you so much.”
Baldev pulled his chair next to Naina, “Naina Ma’am, we were all so worried when we heard what happened. Thank God you were unharmed. The children miss you a lot. I too…I mean we all miss you.”
Naina smiled sweetly, “I have missed you all as well. Please tell the children and everyone that I’ll come and meet them as soon as the doctors allow me.”
“No, tell them they will all be coming here very soon.” Everyone turned to the door to see Raj standing there.
He was looking at Naina. Everyone stood to greet him. He walked upto the group and very casually came and stood between Naina and Kalra.
Kalra beamed as he shook Raj’s hand, “What do you mean Sir?”
“We have planned for a Spring festival in the Mahal grounds. It is going to be open house. We’ll get everyone from the Asha complex to come and stay here for three days.”
Naina stared at Raj, “That’s an awesome idea, Raj. When did you plan this?” She felt a warmth enveloping her on seeing him again.
“It’s been in my mind for awhile Naina. Probably since that flower show. I want to have games, rides, stalls, competitions…the works. I need ideas from everyone…especially you Naina. I want you to help me get this show on road.”
“It’ll be a pleasure.”
Kalra seemed very excited, “We’ll be happy to help Sir, in any way we can. Please let us know if you need anything. Naina Ma’am, I can come earlier and help you if you would have me.”
“Not required,” Raj’s curt voice cut across, “Naina shall have all the help required here only.” His eyes narrowed as they stared at Baldev, who was oblivious of Raj’s irritation and continued to engage Naina in conversation in an adulatory manner till Raj intervened again to let him know that Naina needed rest and that they should leave.
After they had left Raj asked beeji to sit down and turned to Naina, “I have some good news for you.” He sat down beside her on the sofa.
Naina was perplexed, “What is it Raj?”
Naina looked at beeji and then reached across to hold Naina’s hands, “Naina, your uncle and aunt have been arrested by the Dehradun Police on charges of murder of your family.”
Naina was stunned. Her entire being froze at this revelation. All she could do was stare at Raj. He squeezed her hands and said softly, “Naina, please say something.”
After what seemed like ages, Naina whispered, “How?”
“I went to your village Naina. I got the evidence that nailed them.”
“Why?” She still looked shocked, but color was coming back to her face, “Why did you go there?”
“Two reasons. Firstly, I had to get the evidence that Manmeet had against your uncle. Secondly, someone had to carry Manmeet’s ashes to his family. Since I was going there, I carried the ashes as well.”
“Why didn’t you tell me Raj?”
“I am sorry Naina. I didn’t want to upset you before ensuring their arrest. I have been in talks with the Dehradun Police for awhile now. Starting from FIR a lot of pending matter had to be taken care of before the police moved in with the arrest. I went to your village first. The district magistrate and the local police helped me in acquiring an urgent search warrant. We found the relevant papers in Manmeet’s safe. With that I went to Dehradun. The police there were very helpful. They remember the case. Your father was much respected. I was told he did shows free for Police fundraisers.”
Naina nodded, “Yes, he did,” and then looked up, her eyes swimming with unshed tears, “Thank you Raj. I shall always remain indebted to you for giving me this closure. Now I can remember my family without feeling a burden pressing my heart.”
“You don’t have to thank me Naina. This was a matter of denied justice. I couldn’t let you go through life thinking that your parents’ killers never got their punishment. Once the doctors allow you to travel, we shall have to go to Dehradun once Naina. You have to sign some papers related to the case in the magistrate’s presence there.”
Naina nodded, “OK. I…I…Please excuse me. I need to go up to my room.” Raj nodded understandingly, realizing her need to be alone.
Beeji got up and embraced Naina, “This is great news Naina. Go and freshen up. I’ll see to the lunch.”
They both watched as Naina slowly made her way up to her room. After spending a few minutes making calls, Raj joined beeji in the kitchen. He stood with his back to the wall and recounted in detail his visits to the village and Dehradun while beeji made chapatis.
She asked a few questions regarding Naina’s uncle and aunt, and then looked at Raj, “Who all are there in Manmeet’s house now Raj?”
“His mother and his first wife.”
“Did you see the room where they kept Naina?” When she didn’t get an answer for a few seconds, she looked at him to find him staring out of the window with moist eyes, “Raj?”
He started and then nodded, “Yes. I did. Manmeet’s wife showed me. Please don’t ask about it. I don’t think I’ll be able to explain what I felt.”
“It’s OK Raj. Forget I asked.” She rolled a chapati and then said, “Did they ask about Adi?
Raj nodded, “Manmeet’s mother did. She insisted that now that Manmeet is gone, Adi’s rightful place is there. She also said a very strange thing.”
“She said, ‘That boy is a part of my husband. He has to come here and take Manmeet’s place.’ ”
“It’s all about the male heir thing Raj. The bloodline and all that. She belongs to the kind of society that still believes in medieval, orthodox customs. She wants Manmeet’s son there.”
Raj straightened up. He decided it was time beeji knew what Naina had always insisted. “Beeji, as per Naina Manmeet was not Adi’s father.”
“What?” Beeji shut off the gas and looked at Raj with wide eyes, “Then why did he go to all that trouble to get a hand on Adi? If he was not the father, then who was he to Adi?”
Raj and beeji spun around to find Naina at the door looking at them with determined eyes, “Manmeet was Adi’s brother.”
To be continued………..