(CT) 7: Encounters

Arnav gazed at the painting. It was a scenic landscape of Chanderpur from the Chandravillas state. He knew the precise point in this sprawling estate where the painter must have stood to capture it – the jutting hillside on the west. He had stood there himself a number of times gazing at the scenery rejoicing in the feeling of beauty and belonging that coursed through him then. How lucky he had counted himself – to have found a home and a parent after his own had died in that accident.

Three years ago, those illusions had been destroyed. Baba had left chandravillas, their home, to a nameless girl, no one had ever seen. His daughter, Baba had claimed in the will. The outer estate was Arnav’s and the bungalow in Chanderprore Anjili’s. He had been fair, the lawyer said. But Arnav hadn’t been ready to listen. He had felt homeless, as abandoned as he had been when his parents died. It had told him clearly that though Baba might have adopted Anjili and him, they were still outsiders. Ultimately the wealthy stuck to their kind.  The house, their childhood refuge belonged to someone else.

As he gazed at the vivid colors of the landscape, Arnav felt all his misgivings return. He knew that by coming back he was inviting all that hurt all over again. But it was time to return. The three years, the time baba had himself stipulated for him to find his lost family was almost over. And in a few days that Chandravillas would go into the hands of a trust that worked for poor abandoned women. Only the estate, the land on the hillside would remain for him.

Over the last three years, Arnav had often debated if he should buy the house and give the money to the trust. But he knew that buying the house wouldn’t lessen the pain of abandonment. Instead, he would sell the estate he decided– the estate which the artist had captured with such sense of wonder and beauty on the canvas. Ms. Gupta was right. It was valuable – and a wonderful piece of art.

Arnav felt her tentative presence behind him in the gallery. She was waiting for him to turn around and pass his verdict. He felt strangely reluctant to talk to her now.  A feeling polar opposite to the anticipation of the morning when he had been looking out for her. She had not liked him. He had seen the surprise turn to disapproval in her eyes and tight mouth yesterday. But that haughty disapproval had been refreshing. At work – he had seen people eye him with pity and sympathy till he turned into a tough cold businessman. Only then they took him seriously, even disliked him for being made to feel inadequate by a handicapped man. Coming to Chandrataal, he had prepared himself for Anjili’s overprotective instincts, Raghav’s conscientiousness and Sheetal’s obsession with his comfort. But after meeting Ms. Gupta, he had a feeling that things might not be so bad

But now that was gone. He knew that when he turned around there would be sympathy in those hazel eyes. And he did not want to see it. So he took his time gazing at her painting.

‘I…I did not know. No one told me.’ He disliked the hesitation that replaced her cold voice.

‘Know what, Ms. Gupta?’ he turned around reluctantly

‘That…uh..your leg is….’ His fixed gaze flustered her. He pinned her down with a stare as she searched for words and then gave up and looked at him steadily. ‘that you are injured.’

‘It isn’t injured, Ms. Gupta. It was injured long time ago. The limp is permanent.’ He told her coldly and turned back to contemplate the painting. She had done good work. By rights, he should let her finish the task. But her discomfort was filling him with a strange sense of irritation.

‘So tell me, Ms. Gupta, what would you have done had you known. Got the painting for me in the dining room, right? Next time, remember that.’ He finished viciously.

The silence stretched and Arnav wondered he had been that mistaken about her. He had hoped for a feisty comeback. Had he got a silent acquiescence instead?  Another soul to pity him and his handicap.

‘Sorry, Mr. Raizada,’ the firm voice, caught his attention. ‘I don’t think so.’

He turned around, his eyebrow raised in inquiry. Despite the coldness in her tones, Arnav felt some of his annoyance retreat.

‘The gallery isn’t far off, and I didn’t think it was too much of a task to come to the gallery, was it?’ She said softly.

He was afraid he would smile with relief. So Arnav turned back to the painting and looked at it again. ‘Despite your shocking rudeness, Anjili was right,’ he told her. ‘You have worked wonders with this painting, Ms. Gupta.’

‘But I understand that it doesn’t matter to you much. You don’t really care about these paintings, do you?’  Arnav was starting to recognize her direct manner. Ms. Gupta didn’t believe in mincing her words.

‘No.’ he said firmly, with a nonchalant shrug. ‘I don’t care about what happens to these paintings or this house for that matter. This restoration is Anjili’s whim.’

‘I can see that,’ her tone was cold and clipped. ‘Well, at least one of you cares.’

‘ANd what do you mean by that?’ He didn’t like where the conversation was going. Despite his nonchalance, Arnav realized that he cared what Ms. Gupta thought of him.

‘Just that your father would be glad at least one of his children care for this old house and its heritage.’ He refused to let her words bother him. After all, in her characteristic directness, she merely stated what she saw.

‘Oh yes, she cares and I don’t. You have learned fast, Ms. Gupta. I don’t attach myself to things…or people,’ he looked at her once again.  ‘How so ever beautiful.’

‘Ironical, isn’t it?’ Khushi looked unfazed as she walked to the portrait of Arvind Malik. ‘If your father had thought the same way, he wouldn’t have adopted you or Anjili. He was a bad judge of people.’

‘And I see that you love to gossip. You have picked up the family history fast, Ms. Gupta.’ He returned coldly. There was something heartfelt in her criticism. She seemed had become attached to the paintings and his casual dismissal bother her.

‘Its hardly a secret – from the taxi driver to the Raghav – I have heard this story from almost everyone this month.’

‘And you encouraged it and passed your judgments based on these pieces of gossip.  Unfortunately, Ms. Gupta, though you can restore paintings, you can hardly restore feelings. And I don’t feel anything for this house or these paintings.’

‘I gather that. I shall leave tomorrow.’ Her shoulders slumped and she moved back as if trying to disentangle herself from something she loved.

‘Leave? Who said anything about leaving?’ Arnav asked. ‘I thought you were here to restore these treasures as you call them.’

‘But you said …just now that don’t care, Mr. Raizada.’

‘Oh but I do care about the money they might fetch. So please use all your skills and restore each of these relics of past so that when the house goes, they too shall be a part of its antiquity.’

She opened her mouth as if to say something, and then snapped it shut. Perhaps to give him a piece of mind for being so mercenary. Good, she thought better of it. For Arnav realized it was time to retreat. He discovered that though he enjoyed sparring with Ms. Gupta, she had had an uncanny knack of playing his emotions. Within a course of half an hour, he had moved from amusement to annoyance and some more disturbing ones that he did not want to name.