18 months later………
Naina looked out of the window of Amar’s house at the snow-capped mountains bathed in a lazy winter sunshine. She loved to watch the game of hide-and-seek the sunbeams and shadows played with each other on, and around, the mountains during winters. She would never tire of the beauty this place offered. This was her paradise. She sighed and kept a hand on her stomach. Life had come a full circle: Like a river that was dammed and turned away from its natural course, only to return to it after flowing over and through all the rocks and boulders that tried to block its way…
“Here’s your apple juice, Naina. Are you comfortable? Do you need anything?” Aastha’s voice broke through her reverie. They were all invited to spend the sunny Sunday in Amar and Aastha’s house.
“Thanks Aastha. Don’t worry about me. I am as cozy as I could be on this couch. Where are the kids?”
“Playing football with Amar and Kundan. You should see Tanu. Never far behind, even though she is the only girl out there. That girl has gone on her mom. Strong and resilient and a never-give-up attitude. (sigh) I am so hoping for a girl this time.” Eight weeks pregnant, Aastha softly caressed her still-flat belly.
“What does Amar want?”
“No guesses there Naina. He badly wanted a daughter the first time around as well. He has been visiting Chamunda Devi every week. As if the prayers will change the baby’s gender in my womb if it’s a boy. Some doctor!” She smiled affectionately and then turned toward the kitchen. “I’ll have to get beeji and Ranima out of there. They have not come out in the past hour. They are taking this let-us-grannies-cook-while-you-kids-relax-and-have-fun undertaking quite seriously…. Oh, here they are.”
Beeji walked up to them wiping her fingers in a napkin, “Calm down Aastha. Both of us thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in your kitchen. I was afraid that after shifting to the mahal and not having to cook, my cooking skills would have become rusty.”
“Not a chance Karuna. You are easily the best cook in my book.” Ranima’s face was bright and glowing. Raj’s marriage and the subsequent increase in her family had done wonders to her spirits. She had cut down on her public engagements and had not stepped out of Palampur in the past twelve months. After leading a lonely life for so many years, she was loving the presence of a vibrant, happy family around her. The mahal had come alive and become a home once again.
“I loved the Channa Madra you have made today, Meenakshiji. It’s delicious.”
“Thank you, Karuna. That’s my mother-in-law’s recipe. I am glad I could remember it.”
Naina sniffed audibly, “Mmm! All that food talk has made me hungry. Nanisa, I want….Oh...oh…Dear God!”
“NAINA!” Three voices shouted at once.
Naina stared wildly at them and then down in pure shock, “I think my water broke.” She touched the couch, and the wetness there confirmed her fear. She stared at Aastha with horror, “I am sorry. I spoiled your new couch.”
“Shut up, Naina. As if that is important now. Why didn’t you let us know if you were getting the pains?” Aastha asked while waving frantically to Amar from the window and shouting “It’s Naina.”
“I have been suffering with acidity since morning. I thought I was cramping because of that. I didn’t realize I was going into labor. How could I? My due date is still three weeks away.” She looked wildly at nanisa and beeji, suddenly panicking. Tears swam in her eyes, “Raj! Oh God! He won’t be home before tomorrow morning. I can’t do this without him. I won’t do this without him. I need him. Find him. Call him. Please beeji.”
Raj had gone to Shimla that morning for a meeting with the Governor regarding the opening of Asha Jyoti, the blind hospital…Naina’s dream project. Later he was to interview a couple of doctors for the hospital. They planned to have the hospital running as soon as the winter was over…at the first blush of spring. Raj had not left Naina’s side throughout her pregnancy, but he had no option but to go as the manager of his Shimla office had called and told him that the governor’s secretary had fixed up an appointment on this day because the governor was going to be out on tour for the next couple of months.
Amar strode in with his cell phone glued to his ear, “His phone is ringing but he is not picking up. He must be in the meeting. The security does not allow any gadgets inside, so his phone must be with them. Here Aastha, take the phone. Keep trying. I’ll call the hospital.” He turned to the older ladies, “Get Naina ready. I’ll get the car out of the garage.”
Ranima sat beside Naina and ran a hand up and down her back, “Relax beta. Your pains have only just begun. It’ll be still some hours before you deliver. Remember Adi’s time? You were in labor for better part of the day.”
Naina’s lips quivered, “Nanisa, Raj did not want to go. I forced him. What if he can’t make it back on time?”
“He will. If I know my grandson, he will move hell and earth to be here with you to welcome the little one. She will see both her parents when she opens her eyes for the first time in this world.”
“You and beeji have been so sure that it’s a girl.” Naina kept her head on nanisa’s shoulder, and for the first time a smile played on her lips.
“That’s because we old ladies have a sonography machine fitted inside us, which only works on power loads of experience,” nanisa grinned. “Now get up. Let me take you to the washroom. Aastha, Naina will need a change of clothing...a loose kaftan if you have.” Aastha mouthed a “sure” and rushed to her bedroom. Ranima turned to her friend, “Karuna, you take the car and pick up Naina’s bag from the mahal and meet us at the hospital.”
“You have my bag ready? How did you know the baby will be early?” Naina was stunned.
Beeji smiled, “We didn’t. We just believe in being pre-prepared and pre-planned. Your bag has been ready since the day you stepped into the second trimester. Old ladies…experience…know-it-all…remember?”
In spite of her discomfort, Naina laughed, “You two are adorable. You look like two little girls waiting for a promised doll and it…,” she broke off to hiss softly, and then winced, “oho, oho…oh my, I think that was the first one.”
Beeji kissed her on the forehead before leaving, promising to be in the hospital at the earliest. With one hand on her tummy Naina braced herself to get up from couch. The next moment two little pairs of hands joined hers. Adi’s worried eyes looked at her, “Mumma, are you OK? Are you in pain? Why are you sweating? Is the baby troubling you? Should I call papa?”
“Whoa! Whoa! Take a breath buddy. That’s one too many questions for your mother,” Kundan said as he helped Naina up.
Ranima cupped Adi’s cheek in her palm and assured him, “Adi, don’t worry. Mumma is fine. It’s just that the baby is in a hurry to come out and play with her bhaiya and didi. We all are going to the hospital now.”
Adi nodded sagely, following Naina’s walk to the washroom with worried eyes, “Badi ma, have you called papa?
“He is in a very important meeting beta. Phones are not allowed there. As soon as he comes out of the meeting, he will know and come back immediately.”
“Okay.” He took a deep breath and caught Tanu’s hand, “Stay with me Tanu. Everyone is going to be very busy. If you want anything, tell me. Understood?”
Tanu nodded. “Yes bhaiya.”
In the car Naina sat at the back with both the kids flanking her and Aastha beside Adi. Ranima sat in the front, with Amar driving the car. Kundan followed in his mobike. Tanu leaned in and kissed Naina’s tummy, “Baby, don’t hurt mumma. Come out slowly. Okay? I love you.”
Naina hugged Adi and Tanu to herself and kissed them, “I love you both so much.”
Naina’s phone rang just as they took her to the labor room. She heard Aastha take the call and then hurry inside the room to give her the phone just as another contraction hit Naina. Aastha and Ranima took the kids outside. The nurse held the phone to her ear as Naina moaned painfully.
“Raj! Oh God….need you darling.”
“I am here sweetheart. Right with you. Take deep breaths. Yes. Again. There…you are doing just fine.” Raj’s voice was tight with tension, but to her it was her only lifeline at the moment.
After a minute, Naina relaxed as the pain passed away, “I am fine now. Come soon Raj. I won’t do this without you.”
“I am so sorry love. I should have been there with you.”
“Don’t be upset Raj. We didn’t know our baby would be in such a hurry to be born. I just never thought that doing this without you was ever an option.”
Raj closed his eyes and fought for composure. Naina needed his strength. He controlled the tremor in his voice and spoke gently, “I know love. Right now I want you to focus on yourself, and not where I am. I promise I shall be with you soon. You hear me? I shall be there before our little one breathes in the outside world. Soldier’s promise. You just focus on being calm and holding on for some time. Can you do that?”
Naina whispered, “Yes Raj. I can. I am sorry I sounded so panicky. It’s just that I am a little scared.”
“You are allowed to be scared. But don’t forget, you are my warrior queen. You will be just fine.” He paused and then. “Naina, till I come to you, will you do something?”
“Tell the little one how much her papa loves her and cannot wait to hold her. Tell her how her bhaiya and didi wanted her so badly that God had to send her to us.”
“You said her. You never…you wouldn’t tell me what you wanted even when I asked. Your standard answer was “boy or girl, all I want is for the baby to have your eyes and those dimples.” Yet, now…why?”
“I don’t know, sweetheart. I guess I love my girls so much that I want another one. I know for sure that Adi wants another sister to pamper. I guess I just voiced what my heart wanted all along.”
There was a long pause.
“I love you Raj.”
“I love you more. I’ll switch off for now sweetheart. I have to be on my way. I have a promise to keep.”
Aastha went back home to get the lunch packed. They all had their meal in the waiting room. Ranima and beeji stayed with Naina, soothing her, distracting her with anecdotes from Raj’s childhood whenever a contraction rippled through her.
By evening, Naina was more than five hours into labor. The contractions were only three to four minutes apart by now. The nurse came in to check on her and then left saying “she is dilated enough to push; I’ll get the doctor.”
Naina squeezed beeji’s hand and looked at her tearfully, “He is not going to make it. Is he?”
“Listen to me Naina. At the moment it does not matter whether Raj is physically here or not. You need to concentrate on doing all that it takes to get this baby born. I won’t leave your side. Do you want Meenakshiji to be here?”
“No. Let her be with the kids. They need her to be with them.”
The nurse came back saying the doctor was on the way along with Dr Amar.
Amar saw Kundan pacing the corridor with phone glued to his ear, worry writ large on his face. He asked the obstetrician to proceed and walked up to Kundan, “What happened? Any news?”
“There has been a landslide near Bilaspur because of heavy rains. They have shut down the highway for a few hours. Just bhaiya’s luck. If he takes a detour, it will add another three hours.”
“Have you spoken with Raj?”
“Ever since he spoke with bhabhi, he is out of contact. The staff in our Shimla office have no clue where he is.” He stared down the corridor toward the labor room, “How long does bhabhi have?”
“None. She will be giving birth anytime now.”
Kundan’s eyes welled up, “Damn! It’s not fair.” Suddenly his ears perked up and he looked out of the window, “What the…? Did you hear that Amar bhai?”
But Amar had already gone inside Naina’s room. He spoke with Naina's doctor, who after examining Naina was preparing for the birth.
Amar walked up to Naina, “Hey there! Are you ready?”
“No Amar. I am not.” She pouted…suddenly looking as stubborn as a mule. She gritted her teeth and gasped, gripping beeji’s hand, “I won’t push till Raj is here. And please go out. I am not comfortable with you here. You are my friend. You can’t see me…there. Okay?”
Amar raised his hand in surrender. He understood how stressed out and vulnerable Naina was at that moment, “All right. I am out of here.”
Amar looked at beeji in a mute communication. Beeji nodded and spoke to Naina gently, softly, “Naina your baby has started her journey to come out. But she cannot travel alone. She needs her mother’s help with this. You cannot delay this any longer, beta. Okay?”
Immediately remorseful, Naina bit her lower lip and caught a sob before nodding, “Okay. I am sorry for acting difficult and being rude. I just wish Raj was here.”
“He is…Naina, he is here.” Beeji’s excited voice pierced through her tired brain. Before she could turn her head toward the door, she was engulfed in Raj’s familiar scent and his mouth was on hers, unmindful of the people in the room. When he lifted his face to look at her, Naina beamed a smile at him through her pain, “You are here.”
“How could I not be? Come on…let’s do this. Let’s get our little girl out.”
“Hold my hand Raj.”
He gripped her hand. Naina turned to the doctor, “I am ready.”
The doctor raised her thumb, “Okay Naina. Push.”
Naina held Raj’s eyes and braced herself to push. Toward the end when she became utterly exhausted, Raj whispered words of encouragement in her ear, all the time pressing kisses on her forehead, her brows, her cheeks and wiping sweat off her face.
At the end of many eon-long minutes, the doctor angled her head toward Naina, “I can see the head Naina. Just one more push. Give it all you have got.”
Naina looked wearily at Raj and shook her head once, absolutely drained of energy. Raj took her face in his hands and in a steady, commanding voice told her, “You can do this Naina.” A look passed between them. Naina nodded, took a deep breath, and then pushed.
She felt her baby slide out, and the next moment a loud wail filled the room. The doctor looked up with a huge smile, “Congratulations! It’s a girl.”
Raj bent to kiss Naina, “Thank you for this precious gift. I love you so much.”
Raj looked in wonder at the beautiful little girl the doctor placed in his hands, tears escaping his eyes. He kissed her and whispered, “Hey little princess! I am your papa. Here…Meet your mumma.” He lay the baby on Naina’s chest. Exhaustion forgotten, she sobbed and laughed at the same time, “Oh my God! Raj, she is beautiful.”
As the baby squirmed on top of her mother, she scrunched her nose and let out a loud wail, showing a noticeable dimple on her left cheek. Raj laughed, “She is exactly like you, Naina.”
When Naina didn’t say anything, he looked at her and froze. She was touching the baby’s face and crying. He scooted toward her.
“What is it love?”
“Raj, she doesn’t look like me as much as she looks….” She broke off as the doctor came to check her up. Raj shifted aside. Before he could ask her anything, the nurse took the baby for cleaning and measuring and weighing.
A little later, as the nurse shifted Naina to a private room, Raj took the baby out to the waiting crowd of family and friends. Ranima and beeji were ecstatic. There was a mini celebration right there in the corridor till Amar laughingly requested everyone to tone it down a little. As the little one observed everyone with a fist in mouth, Raj knelt down so that Adi and Tanu could meet their little sister. To say they were wonderstruck was an understatement.
Adi tentatively touched her cheek with his index finger and whispered, “She is like a little doll.” Before he could remove his finger, the baby wrapped it in her fist. Adi went all red and blurted out, “Oops! She caught me papa.”
“She did. Didn’t she? She recognized her bhaiya I suppose.”
Adi beckoned Tanu to come closer. He held Tanu’s finger closer to the baby’s other hand, which she promptly fisted in. Tanu let out a soft squeal of delight, and looked at Raj, “She is so tiny papa. And so pretty. I love her.”
After Naina had rested and recovered from the ordeal of delivery, everyone came in one by one to congratulate her.
Beeji asked Raj, “How did you get here?”
“After Naina’s call I hit the road, but just an hour later came to know about the landslide. I returned back to Shimla and spoke to the Governer on phone. I knew he had an official engagement in Chamba this evening. I requested him for a ride in his chopper. He was gracious enough to give me a lift.”
The visitors didn’t stay for long, realizing the family needed some private time. Finally, only Raj, Ranima, beeji, Tanu, and Adi were left. The kids sat on the bed with Naina holding their hands.
Raj sat with the sleeping baby in his arms next to Naina’s bed. Ranima looked at Naina, “So what do we name our little princess. Have you thought of any names yet?”
Naina looked at Raj, “Well, I was thinking….”
“MILI….Mumma, is it OK if we call her Mili?” Everyone turned to Adi who had spoken out of the blue.
Tanu nodded her assent, “Mili is good.”
Raj passed the baby to beeji before engulfing Adi, Tanu, and a visibly moved Naina in his arms, “Mili is perfect. We all found her together…so Mili is just perfect.”
Much later when Ranima and beeji had left with the kids, Raj sat up on the bed with his back to the bedpost with Naina in his arms who couldn’t take her eyes off her little daughter. Mili lay sleeping in her cot after her feed.
Raj rubbed Naina’s arm up and down and asked her something that was playing in his mind, “Naina, earlier when you said Mili didn’t really look like you, you couldn’t finish your thought. Were you going to say that she looked like….”
“Mili…my baby sister.” Naina turned her head to look at Raj, “It’s uncanny Raj. Milli is my sister’s mirror image. I remember my sister’s birth as if it was yesterday, even though that was so many years back. I was the first to hold her. I remember I would spend hours just staring at her. Each and every feature of Mili is ingrained in my mind. Our princess has the same face, the same dimple on left cheek, the same scrunching of nose.” She shifted in his arms, “Have you noticed our baby’s right earlobe is slightly folded on top? Mili had the same thing.”
Raj cupped her chin and looked into her eyes, “Your Mili has come back to us as our Mili, Naina. Life has come a full circle. Maybe it’s God’s way of telling you that this was how it was meant to be. Mili was always going to be brought up by you, so she had to come back to you with your parents’ blessings.”
She sniffed, “You think so?”
“I believe so.”
Just then Raj’s phone rang. It was Adi. He and Tanu wanted to speak with their mother regarding Mili’s homecoming celebration, so Raj put the phone on speaker. Both Tanu and Adi sounded extremely excited about their ideas and spoke at the same time. Naina kept telling them to calm down and to speak one by one. As if on cue, Mili woke up and wailed loudly. For a moment there was utter confusion with all the three kids demanding their parents' attention at the same time.
Raj and Naina looked at each other and, after a beat, laughed out aloud.
This was the life they had dreamed of…love, laughter, and chaos.
This was their happily-ever-after.