‘Old relatives,’ Khushi told Arnav vaguely when he asked her about the people she was visiting. ‘My mother’s side.’
‘Your mother belongs to Chandernagar,’ he looked at her in surprise. Arnav had insisted on taking her to Chandernagar. He had a meeting there, he said. Sitting with him in the confines of the car was intimidating. The smell of his cologne enticed her senses. It was difficult not to. In a white polo neck and a faded jeans, and the sun twinkling through the car window behind him, the man looked gorgeous.
‘No’ she shook her head. ‘No. Just some distant relatives live here. Cousins and all.’ Despite her uneasiness with the topic, Khushi tried to smile
‘Why haven’t you met them till now? You’ve been here for months,’ he persisted.
‘We…we aren’t close. The family fell out years ago. So I had been dithering. Not sure how they would receive me.’
‘Oh. Want me to be with you,’ he shot her an earnest glance.
Khushi shook her head, warmed by his offer. ‘It’s ok. I think it’s best if I see them on my own.’ She was touched by the concern. Though their friendship was just a few hours old, he was ready to lend her the support. She wondered what would he would say if she told her, it wasn’t distant relatives. It was her maternal grandparents, her nana and nani who had disowned her mother when she had gotten pregnant without getting married. Would he be able to piece the story together?
Khushi gazed out of her window. As they rounded a bend, she could see Chandrataal, bathed in sunshine, on a green hill. She tried to envision the mansion as hers. After all Aarvind Malik had bequeathed it to his lost child. And she could easily prove she was that child.
But the mansion didn’t evoke any sense of belonging – the one that her little flat brought in Delhi or even the warmth that rushed through her at the picture of her step family’s house in Mumbai. She thought of the man next to her and felt a surge of sadness. Arnav and Anjili- both of them loved Chandrataal. It was evident in the way Anjili had lovingly restored it although she knew it would soon be lost to her. Arnav’s anger in itself showed the extent of his hurt. Her mind wandered to Arvind Malik and Khushi discovered that Anjili’s story had blunted the edge of her anger towards him. She still felt for her mother’s sufferings but now she could no longer blame them on Arvind Malik.
She had already made up her mind. The past was too painful to be raked up once again. She knew her mother would not want anything to do with the Chandrataal. She had moved on. Khushi herself felt ready to leave the past to where it belonged and move ahead.
So she decided to keep quiet. The charitable trust worked for abandoned women and orphaned children and Anjili and Arnav identified with the cause. No need to cause friction when things in all probability would fall in place. Once three years deadline was over, and the mansion passed on to the trust, Arnav as well as Anjili would soon forget their anger and hurt. And she would finish her restoration work and move back to Delhi.
The mansion disappeared from sight. Khushi took a deep breath and turned away. Arnav was driving smoothly. The car was automatic and the bad leg did not pose much of a problem. The walking stick rested to the door.
‘Whom are you seeing?’ Khushi asked.
‘Some people for business,’ he answered shortly as the lips pursed and a small frown gathered on the smooth forehead.
‘I thought you were on a holiday,’ Khushi tried to lighten the mood.
‘Chandernagar is not my idea of a holiday,’ he said shortly. Khushi bristled and turned away. He wasn’t looking forward to the meeting but that was no reason to be rude. She refused to talk anymore and he did not make an effort to reverse the damage. Khushi gathered the reserves of her courage as she prepared for the meeting.
The house was on the corner of the street. Built on a hillside, with pristine white walls and sloping red roof, it wasn’t much different from the others on the road. It was on one of the busiest roads of Chandernagar. There was a lawn beyond the small iron gate that opened on the roadside. Behind that a closed door and a curtains that had been drawn close. For a moment, Khushi felt like the turing away. She looked around. Arnav’s car had already disappeared.
She pressed the doorbell, Khushi wished he could have taken him up on his offer of support. There was a movement behind the curtains and a middle aged woman stepped out.
‘Yes, who is it?’ A middle aged woman stepped out and walked to the gate. Khushi watched as the eyes, so much like her own, round and hazel, squinted at her and then widened as the woman came to a halt just a few feet behind the gate.
‘Nam…namaste. I am Khushi, Sujata’s daughter.’ The woman stood speechless. Khushi felt her heart dropped. This hadn’t been a good idea. It was clear that the woman was her aunt, mausi, her mother’s sister. Yet there was no joy in her face. Just shock and wariness as she nodded and opened the gate.
‘Come inside.’ She said softly and led the way inside.
The inside was dark and cold. Heavy wood furniture of the drawing room rested against the wall. There were some noises from the inside, a whistle from pressure cooker.
‘Is it papa?’ a teenaged boy entered through the closed door on the opposite side.
‘No. Not papa.’ The woman, her aunt, shook her head and looked flustered.
The young boy looked at her and then at Khushi and back – his eyes catching the startling resemblance between the two women. ‘Who..who are you?’ he asked.
‘Khushi,’ the woman answered quickly. ‘And this is Shlok, my nephew, my brother’s son.’ She looked from Khushi to Shlok, still unable to decided what to do.
‘Hello, Shlok,’ Khushi offered a smile. It was her cousin, Khushi realized, the son of her mother’s brother. If things had been well, they would have grown up together.
‘Hi, Khushi. You…you look very familiar,’ Shlok moved towards her with an extended hand and a charming smile.
‘Go inside, Shlok. And send your baba.’ Their aunt’s voice was soft with a note of worry.
‘Bua,’ Shlok looked from her aunt to Khushi. ‘Is…is everything alright?’
‘No. Just send your baba. At once.’
‘Uh…sure,’ Shlok cast an apologetic glance at Khushi and left.
‘Sit, beta.’ Her aunt turned to Khushi. ‘Do you want something? Water?’
Khushi shook her head on the couch. The woman took the seat on the opposite sofa. ‘How is jeeji? Your …your mum?’
‘She is good. You are mausi, right?’ she asked tentatively trying to see if the woman acknowledged their relationship. The woman nodded. ‘You live here?’
‘No. In Shimla. It is two hours away. I am here on visit. Mum…our mother…she passed away ten days back.’ She gestured to the photo in the corner. Khushi had been so surprised that she hadn’t noticed much in the room. There was a large photo of an old woman in the corner. She looked like older, much older version of herself. It was uncanny, how the resemblance had carried on from the mother to the daughters. A stick of incense burnt in front of the photo.
‘I …I am sorry,’ Khushi whispered.
‘She would have wanted to see you,’ her mausi whispered still looking at the photo. ‘Talked a lot about Jeeji in her last days. She wanted to meet her so badly.’
‘Then…then why did no one call us. I was just here….’
‘Who is it, Sudha?’ the words from the other side were followed by an old man who entered the room and stopped short at the sight of Khushi.
‘Baba, she is Khushi. Jeeji…’
‘I can see who she is? Why has she come? Did you ask her that, Sudha?’ with each word the hopes of reconciliation receded further. It was her grandfather, Nana, the man who thought he had lost his job and his name due to his mother’s transgression. The man who had broken all the ties and vowed never to see his older daughter, Sujata, ever again. He stood firm on his words.
‘Baba…’ Sudha began. The man raised a hand putting a stop to the soft words as he turned to Khushi.
‘Why are you here?’
‘Nam..namaste, Nana,’ Khushi tried. Neither the words nor the relationship was acknowledged. ‘I am…am sorry about Nani. If anyone had told mummy, she would have…’
‘She was not your Nani. And Sujata has been dead for us for years.’
‘Baba,’ Sudha tried to intervene. ‘Khushi is not jeeji. She is your grandchild, like Shlok.’
‘No. Shlok is from my son who has looked after her grandparents and cared for them. Don’t lump him with Sujata.’
‘Nana, it has been so many years. I just …’
‘Yes. It has been so for so many years. Then why are you here?’
‘I just thought…I am working here in Chandrataal and…’
‘Oh, it is Chandrataal again,’ her grandfather stepped towards her aggressively. ‘Sujata is determined, isn’t she? If not her, her daughter. Will her greed never change.’
‘Nana,’ Khushi rose for her mother. She had not come for this. Perhaps the earlier she left, the less hurtful it would be.
‘For the last time girl, I am not your Nana. Like mother, like daughter. Who is it this time? Arvind Malik’s lame boy whom he picked up from the streets? You wouldn’t mind him, isn’t it? Such hunger for wealth.’
Sudha gasped. Yet she stood in the corner, silenced by the father’s anger and Khushi knew why neither Sudha nor any other member of the family had every made a contact with Sujata. Her grandfather was a bitter old man.
‘I think I should leave.’ She stood up tightly.
‘Beta, have something…how can you…’
‘Sudha,’ the grandfather roared. ‘Let her leave. Let her not tarnish the memory of your mother, the good woman we are mourning. Leave girl,’ he turned to Khushi. ‘And remember, Sujata is dead for us.’
Khushi nodded. Her eyes met Sudha’s wet ones and then her grandmother’s in the big photo behind her. Suddenly she noticed the difference, between their eyes and her mother’s. There were fire and determination that glittered in Sujata’s eyes instead of the helpless tears that she saw in Sudha’s.
Once again Khushi folded her hands and bowed her head. Her grandfather averted his head while Sudha timidly raised a palm in blessing before dropping her hand at her father’s scowl.