Khushi leaned against the window absorbing the sight. The glass frosted with her breath. She rubbed the glass and quickly withdrew her hand in the folds of her coat. It was particularly cold this year, even on the plains. Here on the mountains, the cold lingered.
But for the moment, her mind was on the gleaming white mansion, its green rooftops and the surrounding forests.
‘Abhi ek ghanta aur lagega, madam wahan tak pahunchne mein.’ The driver sensed her excitement.
‘Have you been long at Chandanpore?’
‘Our family shifted here when I was two. Almost 30 years ago. My father works in the local post-office.’ The driver negotiated the curvaceous bend and the mansion disappeared on the other side of the mountain.
‘Have you been there before? To Chandrataal?’
‘Several times. Bade sahib used to come and go often. He used to live in Delhi but he said that his heart lay in Chandrataal. It was the same with his children then.’
‘Yes, Arnav babu and Anjili ji, who you are going to meet?’
‘Oh, they are….they are his children. And his wife?’
‘Whose wife? Arnav babu isn’t married. At least he wasn’t three years ago when he was here last. I took him from the mansion to the station the last time. A week after bade sahib’s death. Was very upset that day. Haven’t seen him since.’
‘Bade sashib’s wife? Doesn’t she live in Chandrataal.’
‘Bade Sahib’s wife? No one has heard of his wife. Or seen her. They say she left him ages ago.’
‘Ab pata nahi madam, what is the truth and what is rumour. People just talk. ’
‘So Anjili lives in Chandrataal.’
‘No no. No one from the family has lived in the mansion since bade sahib passed away. Anjili lives with her family in a bunglow in Chandanpore. There are some old servants taking care of the mansion.’
‘But there is restoration work going on in the mansion, isn’t it?’
‘Restoration? Pata nahi? Construction chal rahi hai. Anjili madam is overlooking the work. She looks after the estate also.’
‘But if it is empty then what is the need.’
‘Kya maloom. Perhaps they plan to sell it. The house requires lot of maintenance. If Arnav babu doesn’t plan to return then no point keeping it.’
Khushi nodded. So Anjili Jha was Arvind Malik’s daughter. There was a man as well – Arnav who had left after his father’s death and never returned. No one knows about his wife.
‘And this Arnav babu…I mean Mr. Arnav Malik he doesn’t live here?’ Khushi asked tentatively her curiosity about the family growing with each passing minute.
‘Not Malik. Arnav babu is Arnav Singh Raizada. He is not bade thakur’s real son. Thakur saab adopted him and Anjili madam, after their parents died in a car accident. He lives in Delhi now.’
Sitting back, Khuchi closed her eyes and absorbed the information. She remembered her mother’s agitation when Khushi had told her of the assignment in Chandrataal.
‘But…but Khushi I thought that this obsession was over. There is nothing for us in Chandanpore. Chandrataal is not….,’ her mother looked worried as she gazed in her daughter’s eyes.
‘I know, Ma. But this is an important assignment. I can’t say no.’ Khushi held her hands and tried to convince her mother
‘But you always wanted to go there….were always looking for ways to go to Chandrataal.’
‘I was. But all that is over. The man….Ma, he passed away three years ago.’
The information startled her mother. ‘He…he…three years ago. You never told me.’
‘You were so excited about Aman’s admission in US at the time. Worried about how your son would manage with out you,’ Khushi smiled wryly. ‘And then you always told me that you had left it behind.’
‘I did. It was just a shock to know that he….he is no more,’ her mother recovered. ‘You too should forget all this. This…this is your family, Khushi.
‘I know, Ma,’ Khushi sighed. They had been over this so many times. ‘I know. Just that …that I wanted some answers then. But now it is too late. The man is gone. But this project is important for our institute and …and one of the biggest in my career till now.’
Her mother nodded reluctantly. ‘Then go. Take care. And remember your family is always here.’ Her mother told her she ran a hand over her head.
The taxi jerked to a halt bringing her back to the present. Khushi looked around. they had left the mountain road and were now on smaller path. A barrier blocked the path ahead was closed.
‘Madam ko Anjili ji se milna hai.’ The driver lowered the window and told the watchman who was peering inside the car.
Khushi held out Anjili’s letter and her identity card. ‘I am from the restoration team. And here is Mrs Jha’s letter.’
The watchman looked at the papers, and ran back to remove the barrier the demarcated the private property. The taxi drove on, leaving the mountain road far behind. Lush green forests of pine lined both the sides. There were lamp posts at regular distance. Still Khushi could not help but imagine the eeriness in the evening – with all the mist and cold.
Another round bend and Chandrataal once again loomed up against the peaks of Shivaliks -as white as the snow capped peaks behind it, its roof as green as the forest of deodar and pine, smoke wafting from its high chimney and merging with the clouds of mist.
Khushi stepped out. At last she was here….the place she had been seeking for so many years. She gazed at it, for a moment unaware of anything else. The house seemed to reach out to her, exerted a strong pull. Now she was so close, its white walls seemed to call out to her.
She was brought out of the reverie by the sound of the taxi driver off loading her luggage. Khushi dug in her bag for her wallet to pay the man who was now impatient to be back on road.
‘You must be Khushi Gupta,’ a woman stepped out of the mahagony door on façade of the house. She was tall, elegant and plain. But her open friendly smile and the intelligent dark eyes made her look rather attractive. ‘Welcome to Chandrataal.’ She held out her hand.
Khushi took the hand, surprisingly warm in the cold surroundings. ‘Yes, I am Khushi. And you are Mrs. Anjili Jha, right?’
‘Just Anjili. Come on in. It is freezing out here. Leave the luggage. Hariprakash will take care,’ she gestured towards the man in heavy jacket, tracksuit and monkey cap who had materialized at her side. ‘Namaste madam.’ He fold his hands.
‘Namaste,’ Khushi answered.
‘Hariprakash takes care of things here. If you have to get something from the market, or send post. You just have to call him. Come I will introduce you to others. You will be here for sometime. Isn’t it? Three months at least, your experts said,’ Anjili chattered as Khushi followed her. ‘so you must know everyone. I stayhere once in while. But my house is in Chandanpore. I wonder when would Arnav would come. He should come sometime soon. He hasn’t been here for three years. But now business is calling. But forget all that. Anyway there is only so much I can do about this old place.….’
The chatter faded away as Khushi stepped in the blessingly warm salon. The massive windows that lined the opposite walls. On the right, an electric fire place warmed the room. Cosy olive green sofas lined wooden paneled walls, inviting one to sink in the warmth.
‘And this is Sheetal.’ A young girl entered with the tea trolley. She was exotically beautiful. The best features of the people of the mountains refined and put together – hazel eyes, fair and clear skin, winged eyebrows and aquiline nose. ‘And Sheetal, this is Khushi. She would be restoring the paintings. Sheetal has been looking after the kitchen,’ Anjili continued non-stop. ‘Actually she studies in Chandanpore college. But since she is on a vacation and her mother was unwell, she decided to help us.’ Sheetal nodded rather haughtily as she continued with her task of pouring the tea.
‘Take your tea. Then I will show you to your room. You can freshen up and then after breakfast, you can visit the paintings gallery.’
Khushi nodded, smiling at Anjili. She did not need anyone to carry on the conversation. Quite a chatterbox. Khushi decided that she liked Anjili Jha rather, just Anjili
Alright, I promised this earlier but more than a week has passed. I have been defaulting on deadlines quite often these days. But hey, this time I have a valid excuse. 😉 I got the first edits on my ‘Dust of Ages’ manuscript. and I have been working on it non-stop. The earlier I finish, the earlier it would reach the publishers and earlier they can go on with typesetting, cover etc and the earlier it would hit the markets!!! I am so looking forward to it. I hope so are you.
And dont worry about ICHTW suffering. I have finished that story. Just have to proof read and post. will do it in a day or so. 100%