Dust of Ages: An 1857 Romance (1)

2016: Navgarh

Shiv gazed at the paper in his hand. It was an excerpt from a diary of an unknown British soldier caught in the tumult of 1857. He was looking for his wife, an Indian princess, who had cast her lot with the rebels. The brown edges of the paper seemed singed by emotions. The large sloppy writing throbbed with life.

Accompanying the letter was a faded miniature of a woman. The green colour of her dress had blurred with the pink of the face. But the dark eyes looked at him straight across the centuries. Behind the painting, in the same large hand, a single word – Meera.

Shiv found it last night when he had been looking for the legal papers of the haveli, their ancestral house in Navgarh. The collapse of a stone railing on the terrace revived the old argument about its sale.

‘We should sell the old house,’ Shiv’s father called from Singapore. ‘Come and live with us here, Ma. The haveli is too old, too inconvenient.’

‘But I am old too. So it is convenient for me.’ As always, Amma was adamant. The haveli belonged to Amma, Shiv’s grandmother. She had inherited it from her father, and he, from his.

‘Convenient?  The geysers don’t work. Neither does the air conditioning. There is seepage in some parts. And now this collapsing terrace. It is dangerous,’  Shiv’s father tried to convince Amma. He had left the old house behind when he moved to Singapore. For him, it was nothing but a burden.

‘Okay,’ Amma sighed. ‘I will ask Shiv to look for the documents of the house.’

Shiv had watched on from the sidelines. His curiosity was piqued. Did Amma mean to give in this time?

The next day she asked him to check the ownership documents. They were in a chest in the old kothari which was locked most of the time. Shiv opened it, much to the noisy resentment of the pigeon clan living in the kothari’s latticed window. The room held all the memorabilia of the past – discarded cartons and boxes, old utensils, some broken furniture, out-of-date fittings, Shiv’s old cycle and cricket bat.  Through the golden motes of dust, Amma pointed at the wooden chest in one corner. Shiv dragged it out and carried it to the living room.

It was an old piece, most probably teak. Dust clogged the tiny flowers carved on the edges. Someone had made it with a lot of care. The base had four lion feet and the handles were brass. Each passing decade had left its shadow on the dark surface. But the heavy lid opened with one push; the smooth brass hinges moved without a creak. The mirror on the interior of the lid was original though the silvering had become cloudy.

On the top lay a bunch of old papers stitched crudely with red cotton string. The string was brittle and the papers stiff with age. Most were household bills – interesting everyday stuff. Perhaps they had been left by mistake and forgotten. Shiv kept them aside and turned back to the chest.

Layer by layer, the chest revealed its secrets. Papers – some yellow and some brown – official bills and letters – all came out, detailing the life in the haveli for more than a hundred years. Shiv fingered them with the reverence of a historian.

In the end, the chest disgorged its secret. The original deed of the haveli! An old parchment-like sheet covered in a spidery Devanagari script.

‘Raja Bhanu Pratap of Navgarh gave the haveli to Munshi Gangadhar Sahai of Benaras on his appointment as the court scribe,’ Shiv read out. ‘Along with it, fifty beeghas of land, two cows and a monthly salary of two silver mohors. The deed dates back to the Magh Ashtami, Krishna Paksh, in the year 1880.’

‘I have heard that,’ Amma nodded. ‘Anything else? After 1947?’

Shiv flipped through the pages. ‘Here. A document from the Home Minister’s office, with the seal of the Government of India. It confirms our ownership.’

‘Good. And what are the other papers in the bundle?’

‘Some sale deeds.’

At various points of time, parts of the property had been sold and resold among the cousins and relatives till it finally came to his Baba and Amma, Rajender Prasad Sahai and Rajeshwari Devi. The documents were in an excellent state of preservation.

Shiv kept them aside. The papers brought a sense of belonging. To him, the haveli was home. He was six when he and his parents migrated to Singapore. Since then they had visited once or twice a year during school holidays and festivals. For Shiv, the ancient mansion was a storehouse of precious boyhood memories when he had indulged in make-believe games in its maze like corridors – of brave kings defending their land, of djinns and bhoots waylaying the unsuspecting traveller. Behind the huge spike-studded doors of the haveli stood Amma, with open arms and a smile. Always.

‘Don’t fold them. No crumpling. Get a copy made. When will you bring them back? Keep them straight in a file. I’ll get you one.’Amma hurried out of the room. In her excitement, she had forgotten about her grandson’s obsessive desire for organisation. Disorder irritated Shiv. His papers were always carefully ordered. So was his room. His mother used to be proud during his boyhood. But nowadays, she was irritated when he was home, cribbing about things which were out of place. Katie, his former girlfriend, a Psychology Major, saw Shiv’s fastidiousness as a symptom of the stress common among first generation immigrants. Shiv was pursuing his doctorate in Art History in Singapore when he had met Katie. She was drawn by his looks and scholarly air. But Katie felt that Shiv needed to loosen up. They parted with little heartbreak on either side when Katie went to the U.S to pursue her PhD and Shiv joined a research project at the University of Delhi.

Now at thirty-two, Shiv Sahai had a preoccupied air about him. The thoughtful dark eyes gave in to amused friendliness when he relaxed his guard. He was a man with precise features and a thick mane of soft black hair always neatly in place. The overall impression was that of extreme tidiness and order – right from his well-ironed formal clothes to his shiny shoes.

He had arranged the papers in a neat order by the time Amma returned with a green folder. On the right-hand corner, a pile of bills detailing the everyday household expenses, then the stack of old photographs, followed by a pile of old newspapers – it was a historian’s treasure trove.  Shiv decided to examine them at leisure.

Amma watched him keenly as he placed the haveli’s documents in the folder.

‘I think, I’ll run away with them, Amma,’ Shiv teased.

‘And what will you do? Become the widow of the owner and claim ownership?’ Amma laughed. ‘It’s still your grandfather’s house, and mine.’

‘And I’m your grandson. I’ll inherit it.’

‘But I plan to be around for a long time, Shiv,’ Amma was unfazed. She looked at her name along with that of her husband’s on the documents. ‘As the wife of the deceased and a Hindu widow, I have the right to his share as well. Besides, you have never lived here.  You and your parents have been living in Singapore for the last twenty-five years. You won’t stand much chance in any court,’ Amma finished confidently.

Shiv enjoyed this banter with Amma. In the seventh decade of her life, Amma was no push over. Her no-nonsense behaviour contradicted the mildness in her eyes. Always in a white sari that matched her long white hair, Amma was at home in the haveli.  Her day began with a visit to the nearby temple, followed by a visit to the Women’s Centre, which worked for the improvement of health, education and living conditions of the women in the rural areas around Navgarh, and then back home. Some years ago, when Shiv’s grandfather passed away, Amma had given in to the concerns of her children and tried to adjust herself to the life in Singapore. But living in a high rise apartment did not suit her and she had returned to Navgarh after a few months.

Now Amma and the haveli had become a refuge for Shiv as he pursued his research project in Delhi. His week days were scheduled by tutorials, research and visits to the archives. But during the weekends, Shiv escaped to Navgarh. The small township was about seventeen miles southwest of Delhi. But for Shiv, it was million miles away from the heated bustle of Delhi and clinical sterility of Singapore.

Over the months, he had grown closer to Amma. Shiv knew Amma saw him as her link to the future.  When the entire clan – her brothers and their families, uncles and cousins – all had moved out of the haveli and Navgarh, Shiv, her only grandchild, had returned.

 

‘These papers say that your father willed this house to you and Babaa joint ownership.’ Shiv noted. ‘It must’ve been a strange will, at the time. I mean it’s usually the sons who inherit.’

‘There was no son,’ Amma shrugged. ‘Your Baba, Dr Sahai, was posted in our medical centre. He was charming, sincere and good at his job. Before we knew, he was everyone’s favourite. I was nineteen when we got married and I moved out of this house to a smaller one near the cantonment.’ She smiled to herself. ‘And then he was transferred to another city. You should have seen the amount of tears I shed that day. I missed the haveli so much and now we had to leave Navgarh too. But your Baba quit the government job and set up his own practice. Fortunately, people liked their doctor sahib and they flocked to him.’ Amma’s eyes had a soft, affectionate look. ‘On the other hand, most of my family – uncles, cousins, brothers – all were moving away one by one. Everyone wanted to sell their share in the property. And my father kept buying them out. When he couldn’t, your Baba pitched in. He knew how much I loved this place.’  Amma was lost in the past.

The rustling of papers brought her back. An old paper had fallen from the bundle. Shiv picked it up. It was a handwritten journal entry in pale blue ink and a faded painting.   The entry dated back to August 1857 when chaos around Delhi was at its peak. The unknown writer had stood on the outskirts of Delhi searching for his wife when the fate of the two sides – the Indian rebels and the British soldiers – hung in a delicate balance.

Shiv read the note as Amma mused about the past.

The princess of Navgarh.

History did not mention any such remarkable figure in the legends of 1857. But Shiv had to admit that he had never really paid attention to Navgarh’s past. The events that happened in this small town were always peripheral to the larger and more complicated events in Delhi. Till now, Shiv had assumed that the history of Navgarh was untroubled – the kingship passed down from the father to the son till the great uprising, after which the British took over the administration of the town and integrated it with Delhi. There was no news about Navgarh’s royal family till India’s independence in 1947 when an aspiring leader, claiming to be the direct descendent of the last king of Navgarh took over the political leadership. From then on, like the earlier monarchy, the leadership of Navgarh had passed on to his son and then his grandson.

Perhaps the lost princess belonged to the same family. Why did she marry a British soldier? And above all, how did the paper end up in the haveli?

Shiv read out the anonymous excerpt to Amma before keeping the paper and the painting carefully in his bag.

Amma watched the glint in Shiv’s eye silently. She had heard rumours about something that had happened very long time ago, a scandal that lingered in the forgotten passages of this small town. But she decided to let him explore the past of this old town on his own.

COMING SOON: BOX SET of Dust of Ages (PRINY and eBOOK)

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Dust of Ages: An 1857 Romance

 

Hello everyone. As I prepare for the print release of ‘Dust of Ages: An 1857 Romance,’  I would be uploading some part of it here.  The print version will have all the 5 volume of the series together. Enjoy and please read and review. 🙂

Prologue

 

Camp, Delhi Cantonment, 16 August, 1857.

Things have changed forever. A day spent in the company of my old friend Knox made it clear. These distances can never be bridged.

The pole of his tent snapped in the storm yesterday; and for the sake of old friendship, I offered Knox my humble abode. But his rancour was jarring. His determination to teach the enemy a lesson, the unshaken belief in the rightness of our mission– such bitterness asks too much of friendship and duty.

Earlier we went over the battlefield. One of our regiments was destroying the village near the bridge to prevent the enemy from getting cover in it. Elephants were pulling down the walls. The villagers stood by as their houses turned into mud while the monsoon clouds gathered on the horizon. Unfortunately, they were the Jats, who, for the most part, are our friends. We decided that the destruction of their homes and fields was necessary. Twenty-three men – their countrymen – were lying together in the ditch at the back of the village; we weren’t sure if they were the rebels. A party of Rifles killed then en masse, just to be sure.

We left the village with our bags swollen like raisins in water. And who can blame our light-fingered gentry? Armies are said to travel on their stomach.

At some distance from our camp, I can see the sun setting over the fort of Delhi. It isn’t much different from the first sunset I witnessed here years ago. How things have changed! We came with a mission – to know this exotic land, to bring the light of knowledge and civilization to its darkness. Now the memory leaves me embarrassed. These massive red walls made me uneasy even then. Today they mock our camp again. Whatever be the outcome of this devil’s wind, it has revealed the banality of our mission.

Knox’s bitterness is an expression of the anger in the camp. When the cannons are quiet, the silence resounds with confusion, with terror, with rage, but most of all with the question ‘Why?’ As we sit around a small fire every night, the question rages in every mind. ‘Why the mutiny? Haven’t we brought the glory of civilization to this land of superstition?’ These thoughts simmer as we deal with hunger, heat and rain.

But soon these questions will be forgotten. The winners will annihilate the other side. Already I see the madness in the eyes as rumours reach us from other places – Cawnpur, Jhansi, Lucknow. Madness will soon be let loose.

I often feel that the answers that elude me today were within my grasp a short while ago. They are somewhere near, yet unreachable, like the time gone by.

I promise to look for them once I have found her again. For she, I feel, holds a part of it.

So every evening, I try to escape this madness by thinking about her, Princess Meera of Navgarh, a rebel soldier and my wife. It is the third year of our marriage. Three years of tenuous links and fragile understanding. It was only a matter of time before an explosion happened. And it happened that eventful week when Navgarh too burnt in the fire raging all across India. The news that the sepoys in Meerut had rebelled spurred both of us. Did I expect Meera to be a dutiful wife when all her beliefs, her convictions pulled her in the opposite direction? Was I surprised on knowing that she was in Delhi, amongst the rebels? Would she be surprised on knowing that I have followed her as an enemy… a British officer? And as I follow her, I stand here once again, after five years, outside the walls of the Red Fort in Delhi.

 

On Amazon: Print coming soon 🙂

(CT) Chapter 13: The Morning

Surprise, Surprise! it is a short one. So I added the precap 🙂 tenor

 

 

 

Arnav felt warm – pleasantly so.  His huge wide bed in the mansion was uncharacteristically cozy. He must thank Raghavan for the warm comforter draped around his leg. He flexed the muscle and felt none of the stiffness that the cold mountain air brought to his leg. He burrowed in and felt the floral fragrance around the pillow. He pulled it closer. The pillow emitted a soft sigh and then a whisper of hot moist air against his throat. The sensation traveled all over his body, jerking him awake.

The events of the night resurfaced in the mind. He opened his eyes to take in the surroundings. They were in the small cramped bed at the back of the SUV. Perhaps it was the cold or just the attraction that had drawn them closer earlier in the night, they lay together in a tangle of limbs. Khushi’s nose was buried in his throat, her soft breath sending small currents of awareness racing down his body. He felt his body stiffen in reaction. He tried to shift and realized that what he had thought was comforter around his leg was actually Khushi’s leg wrapped in the blanket, its pleasant weight shifting caressingly closer as she frowned and burrowed nearer.

For a moment, Arnav closed his eyes and allowed himself to fantasize, letting himself open to the warmth that this girl offered. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t been without women. But like much else in his life, his relationship with women was complicated. Ten years ago, he had bestowed his heart on a girl in his college. She had been his classmate in the MBA years. Later he had heard her joke around with her friends that she was willing to take a cripple if he was a wealthy one.  Funny, he didn’t remember her face, but he had remembered the heartbreak – the pain, as if the world would end. He had been wary since then, skimming through relationships – never assuming much, never offering anything more than a casual relationship, making his injury an armour to protect himself from the heart ache. Baba’s death and subsequent revelations had only proven him right. Letting anyone close was making yourself vulnerable. Arnav was never going to let it happen to him again.

Yet, it was a lonely life. Especially after Anjili’s marriage and Baba’s death, he had yearned for someone. He could not deny that Ms. Gupta would make a charming companion. For one, she wouldn’t make a big deal about his leg. He remembered her thunderous frown when she had told him that he could walk to the gallery if he wanted to see the paintings. She wasn’t afraid of him. In fact, one of the reasons, he had enjoyed sparring with her was the she gave as good as she got.

And yesterday….yesterday had been something else altogether. He had felt a jolt of desire at the sight of her stretching out, as if reaching for the moon.  And now, warm tendrils of desire unfurled in the pit of his stomach as she breathed out against her throat. With his eyes closed, he let himself feel – apart from her leg, her body was half over him, pressing him down. His own arm went around her waist as if holding her there. His palm resting on her lower back. If he moved a little lower…

Not a bad way to wake up in the mornings. From the side window of the car, he could see the faint rays of sun rising behind the mountains. The long road to Chandertaal winding up the hill could be seen clearly.

Arnav savoured the remains of the wonderful night as his fingers unconsciously caressed Khushi’s silken tresses. Soon they would return to the world, and the night and this morning would become a distant dream.

Khushi stirred, and Arnav drew back at once, knowing that the night was over.

PRECAP

‘In that case, Khushi, may I have this dance?’ the smirk on his lips challenging her to stand up with him

‘Sure,’ she put her hands in his, as the strains of music filled the terrace.  Arnav tugged her out of the chair and moved to clear space in the center. She looked into his eyes as smiled, and for a moment he felt his heart lurch. Her giggle brought an answering grin and Arnav felt the last of his inhibitions melt away.

‘We would need some innovation though, if you don’t mind. Can you put your hand on mine here?’ He gestured at the hand resting on the cane. Khushi followed the instructions, her fingers and then the rest of her palm coming to rest against the hair-roughened back of his hand.  His other hand snaked around her coming to rest on her back.

‘And this?’ She placed her other hand on his shoulder.

He nodded. ‘Yes, are you ready?’

It was awkward. Instead of clasped hands raised to the level of the shoulder, theirs rested on the cane, as Arnav and Khushi swayed against the music. With his hand on her waist, Arnav led them through slow graceful turns. If she stepped an inch closer, she would be able to place her head on his shoulder. Perhaps he would never be able to hold her with both his arms as the danced…but this felt good.

He had never really danced with a girl. Never felt the flow of music through the body, or savored the warmth of a woman’s hand resting over his. It was magical, this starlit night on this terrace. It restored a piece of his heart. Arnav felt the ice thaw and warmth steal through his chest.

‘This is lovely’ she looked up and smiled, and for a moment he felt that the sun rose and set on her smile.

1857 Dust of Ages: A Forgotten Tale

Dear readers,

A quick offer of a download of 1857 Dust of Ages – The Forgotten Tale. This is the first volume of the five volume series – available free for KINDLE KDP SELECT members and for a nominal and to others. Would be great to have your feedback.

And if interested, I would like some of you to give me feedback for another historical romance I am writing.  Try this one first, and if you feel you want more, write to me. Will email you the new story and wait for your reviews.

Here is the pdf copy, click on the file and it will download

1857 Dust of Ages -The Forgotten Tale

 

 

(CT)Chapter 12: The night…

Dear readers,

A quick offer of a download of 1857 Dust of Ages – The Forgotten Tale. This is the first volume of the five-volume series – available free for KINDLE KDP SELECT members and for a nominal and to others. Would be great to have your feedback.

And if interested, I would like some of you to give me feedback for another historical romance I am writing.  Try this one first, and if you feel you want more, write to me. Will email you the new story and wait for your reviews.

Here is the pdf copy, click on the file and it will download

1857 Dust of Ages -The Forgotten Tale

 

 

And now, moving to Chandrataal 🙂

 

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The din of the downpour did nothing to ease the silence in the car. The grim line of Arnav’s mouth told Khushi that his meeting hadn’t been better than hers with her grandfather. But at least she had made friends with Shlok. Arnav, it seemed had no such consolation. The frown gathered as he navigated the curvaceous road. They had just started the ascending the mountains and Arnav was driving cautiously.  But the rain was relentless.

‘We might have to stop if this continuous,’ he muttered.

Khushi nodded and tried to look out. The rain had a cast a heavy curtain between them and the surroundings. The rhythmic movement of the wiper cleared the windscreen for a flash of second before the water blurred it once again.

His stiff leg movement drew her attention. ‘Are you ok?’ she asked hesitantly, not sure of his mood. ‘Is you leg hurting?’

‘What if it is?’ he snapped. ‘Can you drive?’

‘No, I am sure God has bestowed this divine blessing only on you.’ Khushi came back immediately offended by his rudeness.  She turned away, refusing to speak further. What was with the man? She was just being polite.

Much to her surprise she heard a soft chuckle and turned back immediately. A reluctant smile on the corner of his mouth had replaced the grimness. He was laughing at her. With a huff, she turned back to the window which was opaque with water.

‘I asked for it, didn’t I?’ he said after a few seconds.

Khushi turned to look at him. The frown had almost cleared. He cast a swift glance at her before peering through the rain to keep driving.

‘Yes, you did.’ Khushi was still chaffing.

‘I didn’t mean it,’ he said.

That was his apology. Not that it mattered to her, Khushi told herslef and nodded.

‘So how was the meeting…with your distant relatives? I saw the young boy had taken a light to you.’

‘Young boy?’ Khushi was puzzled till she realized he was talking about Shlok. ‘Oh, you mean the one in the café. He is my very distant cousin. We just met and were catching up.’

It was Arnav’s turn to nod. ‘You said it was your mother’s family. How long have they been here? What exactly is the nature of the relationship? You must ask Anjili, she knows most of the people of the town.’

‘Of course. And how was your meeting? I take it that yours did not go well.’ Khushi tried to divert the attention. She did not want to him pondering over her family in Chandernagar.

Arnav shrugged. ‘There is no way it could have gone better.’ He muttered before going silent again. Khushi waited for a few minutes before accepting his reluctance to talk about it.

The rain continued unabated as the darkness descended on the hills. Khushi held her breath at each turn as Arnav leaned forward, his hands tight on the steering wheel. Some tense minutes tricked. ‘There is an emergency parking somewhere ahead,’ Arnav murmured. ‘We will stop for a while.’

‘Ok,’ Khushi nodded.

‘There it is,’ Arnav eased the car in the emergency parking away from the road and switched off the engine. ‘It’s a crazy night.’

‘We are quite some way off,’ Khushi peered from the window. A few blurred globes of light dotted the landscape indicated the road that curved around the hills going towards Chandertaal.

‘About an hour away. Anjili would have had to stay back in the mansion. We must message her,’ He drew out his phone.

‘Oops,’ Khushi groaned as the street lights went off and the hillside plunged into darkness.

‘And that was the only thing left to go wrong,’ Arnav shook his head. In the glow of the phone, Khushi saw his handsome mouth purse up once again. He switched the phone off and the darkness reigned in the car. It felt strange, sitting in such close proximity with him, isolated from the rest of the world.

‘Is the leg ok? Answer me and then you can snap my head later.’ Khushi rushed in as he opened his mouth to speak.

‘I wasn’t going to,’ he chuckled at her words. ‘A little stiff. Tomorrow its going to be painful. The cold air of the mountains is not good.’

Khushi nodded a little more at ease at his willingness to talk. ‘Are you always this touchy about it?’

‘Usually, that is the thing people notice,’ he pursed his lips as if remembering some of those unpleasant experiences. ‘And then their whole attitude is shaped by my injury. Even Anjali, Sheetal…do you know how irritating it is – to be defined by your Disability?’

‘Disability? You don’t look disabled in any way….just..’

‘Handicapped? Cripple?’

‘Stop words in my mouth. Just a weakness….which makes you more human, in a way. Otherwise, you are intimidating.

‘Intimidating? You find me scary? I thought nothing would ever scare Ms. Khushi Gupta!’

‘Why is that?’ she asked.

‘Look at you, coming here and living among strangers just for the love of old paintings, trying to meet old unfriendly relatives who didn’t exactly welcome you, and now here….sitting with a relatively short acquaintance in a car, in the darkest of night with no one for miles – nothing scares you, does it?’

‘It does when you talk about it like,’ she laughed. ‘But we were talking about you. Why is it so offensive when I ask you about your injury?’

‘How would it feel to be reduced to nothing but your handicap?’

‘Stop saying that. As I said, on you, it doesn’t seem like a handicap, just a weakness. So I don’t think there should be any special concessions for you on that account.

Even in the darkness, she could see the half-smile with which he watched her. ‘You must tell that to Anjili then. She is a close friend of yours, isn’t she?’

‘She is. But I don’t think it would right on my part to interfere in the relationship between siblings.  Why don’t you tell her yourself? And Sheetal? Even Raghav?’

‘You think I haven’t tried? Ah, I remember. You thought I like being waited on hand and foot.’

Khushi giggled. ‘You never gave an impression you were suffering it.’

‘If I did, they would be hurt. So I let them. Anjili and I meet after such lengths of time. SO I let her be. If that makes her happy then…’ he leaned back.

‘What a coconut you are?’

His head swerved in her direction. ‘Coconut?’

‘All that hard shell,  and mushy inside. Don’t deny…’  she forestalled him once again. ‘I have seen you with the twins. You are like putty in their hands.’

He guffawed. ‘They are adorable. I wish…I wish I could spend more time with them.’

‘Then why don’t you? Is it so busy in Delhi that it took three years to visit?’

There was silence for some time and Khushi thought she had overstepped her limit. There was something strange in the atmosphere.  The rain had slowed down to a drizzle. Soon it would stop. But she knew they shouldn’t risk the road in the darkness. They would have to wait either for the lamps on the road to light up once again or, in all probablity, for the dawn.

The forced proximity created an intimate atmosphere that had wiped out their earlier hostilities. Sharing confidences seemed natural.

‘Three years…it has been that long. Still, this place is the same as ever…hard to believe that it will no longer be my home in a few weeks.’

Khushi was silent. ‘You love it very much.’ She murmured in the silence, her heart aching at the longing in his voice. ‘Then why don’t you buy it from the trust.’

‘I tried. Earlier, when…when I read Baba’s will, I didn’t want to. Anjili must have told you.  It felt like…like buying my way into my own house, into the affections of the only parent figure I knew. But now…now I feel desperate. I want this house. And so does Anjili. But…’

‘But what?’

‘The trust doesn’t want to sell it. They…they have come up with the idea of turning it into a heritage resort of sorts. Think, all those strangers in Chandrataal, the house of our childhood. But you can be happy. I am sure they will appreciate your paintings more than me.’

‘You hate them, don’t you?’

‘I used to be fascinated with them. When I was a boy I would stand for a long time in that gallery, trying to copy those poses, wondering how my portrait would look there, where could I ask baba to put mine. Now all those paintings tell me that I never belonged to there. I am not one of them.’

Khushi sighed. There was nothing she could do. Once again she thought about Arvind Malik, that man who had created this tangled mess of relationships. She, the forgotten daughter and he, the adopted son – and yet, neither of them belonged to him. What was Malik thinking when he bequeathed the house to her and the grounds and estate to him.

‘Why did he do that?’ Arnav echoed his thoughts. ‘Even now, it hurts so badly. An anonymous girl, a child who never came to him, never spent nights on the bedside as he died…’

‘She didn’t know…perhaps.’ Khushi offered tentatively, her heart beating at his words. ‘Did he…was he ill for a long time?’

‘For months, he was bedridden. But even before that. Whatever the doctors say, he died of a broken heart and …endless guilt for something that wasn’t his fault eve. The longing for that woman and child who never looked back – it was like a poison in his blood. And nothing, nothing we could do, would ever fulfill it. It was so hard to see him look for them for all those years. I tried so hard to stop him. To tell him that we…we would be there for him. So did Anijili before…before she gave up. For us, he was the only parent, the father whom we loved with all our heart and soul. But we…we were never enough for him. Just two orphans he picked from the roadside.’

‘No. No don’t say that. I am sure he loved you. He left everything to you – the business, other things. I am sure he saw you as his son.’

‘But he took away our home. In the end, I am homeless again…no, not literally,’ he said quickly as she opened her mouth to speak. ‘I have a flat in Delhi. But this…this is home and it wouldn’t be for us in four weeks.’

‘You hate that girl, don’t you?’

‘Yes,’ he hissed. ‘From the bottom of my soul, I do. If it wasn’t for her, Baba would have truly adopted us as his children. I hate her for what she did to him, to us.’

Words rushed to her mouth. Sad words to defend herself, trying to put things straight. She too had belonged nowhere. Despite the love of her stepfamily, she felt like an outsider. She too had been looking for ways and means to meet Arvind Malik. That she didn’t care about the house. She would have been happy to know the man who had sired her.

But it was too late. The truth would destroy this fragile bond once more.  The past, dead relationship had no place in the present.  She would soon finish her work and move on. What was the use of interfering?

‘But you must find a way to convince the trust,’ she said. ‘I am sure….’

‘I am trying. But they seem to have made up their mind. Even money wouldn’t budge them. They think it would be a profitable resort. They told me they would use the money for their NGO for orphan children and handicaps. I am supposed to give in on that account – orphans and handicaps – who is supposed to know more about their hardships that me….’ he grimaced.

‘Oh. So you…you met them today.’

He nodded. So that was the reason for his bad mood. There was nothing she could say or do, except come out as the girl in question and hand over the house. The way he felt about the girl he didn’t even know, she doubted he would take kindly to her revelations.

Once again silence reigned in the car as they stared out, both of them lost in thought. It was broken by a rumbling sound coming from her stomach. Khushi immediately puts her hands around her tummy and turned to him. Arnav was grinning openly, ready to laugh. ‘What? I am hungry. I haven’t eaten since the morning, except that ice-cream with Shlok.’

‘So your unfriendly old relatives didn’t even offer food. Who are they, Khushi? I don’t like the sound of them.’

‘Neither do. But at the moment, I can think of nothing but food.’

‘then we must do something, shouldn’t we? The bag on the back seat…take that, it has some kachoris.’

‘Kachori? Here?’

‘Got them for Sheetal. She really likes this shop in Chandernagar and their kachoris. Bu I suppose they were meant for you.’

Khushi felt a pang of annoyance. He had bought them for Sheetal and in other circumstances, she wouldn’t have touched those kachoris. But another rumble in her stomach had her reaching for the enticing packet. She opened the packet and smelled the food. It was cold. Yet her mouth watered.

‘Er…shall we go out and eat,’ Arnav said. ‘I could do with some stretching. It has stopped raining and …’ Khushi was out even before he finished speaking. With another grin and shaking his head, he adjusted his walking stick and stepped out.

Khushi was out even before he finished speaking. With another grin and shaking his head, he adjusted his walking stick and stepped out.

It was cold. The rain-laden air of the mountain tingled on the skin sending a shiver down the spine. Khushi rubbed her arms, looking for a dry place on the car to keep the food.

‘There,’ Arnav cleaned his side of the bonnet before offering her the cleaning cloth he had brought out with him. Khushi finished wiping the bonnet as he spread the food and brought out a flask off water. ‘You can sit on the car.’

‘So can you,’ Khushi climbed up the bonnet of the SUV and made space for him. He took his time, adjusting the walking stick and his leg before settling down beside her with food between them.

The cold kachoris were perhaps the tastiest that Khushi had tasted in a long time. Arnav must have been as hungry, for in no time, they had finished the kachoris he had brought for Sheetal.

‘So, you do this often? Buying stuff for Sheetal?’ Khushi asked taking the flask of water he offered.

He pounced on the awkwardness of her words. ‘What might you be asking, Ms. Gupta? About our relationship?’

Khushi snorted. ‘You wish!’

‘Then to put your mind at ease, yes, I do get things for Sheetal. She…she, we grew up together. Malti aunty is like a mother, and Sheetal, for me…for me she is like Anjili.’

‘You sister?’

He chuckled once again. ‘Do I detect a note of happiness there?’

Khushi rolled her eyes. ‘Just a warning, though it’s not my place and I am risking your sharp tongue, but you need to tell that to Sheetal. She…I think, she….she is…’

‘I know. Anjili warned me a long time back. I had thought that these three years would have put an end to her…her infatuation.  It isn’t anything else, you know. Like Anjili, she likes to look after me. It would get over.’

Khushi doubted that, but as she said it wasn’t her place. They cleared the food and leaned back against the windscreen. With the rain over, the sliver of moon had emerged between the clouds. Nascent moonlight lit the shadows in the darkness.

‘So does that rest your mind about Sheetal,’ he egged her.

Khushi refused to answer, yet a smile crept on her mouth.

‘What no reply? That’s not like you, Ms. Gupta.’

‘I am kind of speechless. Wondering if the same nasty man who bit my head off every time he saw me, is now trying to flirt with me.’

‘And what if I am? What other entertainments can I offer?’

‘Sing for me.’

He laughed out loud. Khushi was startled for a moment at the rumbling soft sound and then she was giggling. ‘Then you should try working harder on your charms, you know,’ he told her.

‘Just trying my luck.’ Khushi settled back once again. A gust of cold wind blew across the mountains, its sharpness penetrating through the light sweater she had worn in the morning. Khushi shivered.

‘Perhaps we should sit inside. Shouldn’t catch cold tomorrow.’ Arnav slid off the bonnet.

Khushi looked up, stretching her arms as if reaching towards the moon. Her body arched as the wind played with her hair. The moonlight lit her features as she felt the cold wind on her face. She opened her eyes and looked around the mountains, trying the imprint the night on her mind. She knew she would never forget these strange exhilarating hours as long as she lived. Her eyes fell on the man standing near the car. Arnav leaned slightly on the bonnet, his eyes fixed on her with a strange glittering intensity, so different from the once over that he had given her when they had met that first night. His eyes took in her stretched hands, her taut arching body, the moonwashed face. Khushi put her hands down at once and smiled sheepishly. As slid downwards on the bonnet, his hands reached to hold her by the waist. The warmth from his hands penetrated her clothes. She felt his body heat closely in the cold of the night. Suddenly she had this urge to push aside the lapels of the jacket he had worn, to burrow deeply into the chest. It must have shown on her face, for his hands tightened, tugging her closer. She slid down the bonnet, her body rubbing against his – a pleasant warm friction that neither of them wanted to let go. They stood close for a few minutes as Khushi felt his warm breath rustle her hair. She felt the goosebumps on her skin and wondered if was just the cold. They were so close, his hands still hold her around her waist. She raised her head and was caught in a whirlpool of a gaze that burned through the darkness of the night. Their breaths mingled and Khushi’s eyes fluttered close and she saw his gaze slipping to her mouth.

 

Khushi put her hands down at once and smiled sheepishly. As slid down, his hands reached to hold her by the waist. she felt the warmth of his palms right through her clothes. His body heat enveloped her dispelling the cold of the night. Suddenly she had this urge to push aside the lapels of the jacket he had worn, and burrow deeply into his chest. It must have shown in her face, for his hands tightened, tugging her closer. She slid down the bonnet, her body rubbing against his creating a pleasant warm friction that neither of them wanted to let go. They stood close for a few minutes as Khushi felt his breath rustle her hair. She felt the goosebumps on her skin and wondered if was just the cold. They were so close, his hands holding her around her waist. Khushi raised her head and was caught in a whirlpool of a gaze that burned through the darkness of the night. Their breaths mingled and Khushi’s eyes fluttered close and she saw his gaze slipping to her mouth.

‘We..we…’

‘We…?’ His husky voice washed over her.

‘We are …cold.’ she whispered still caught in the gaze, her body straining towards his warmth.

‘Are we? There is a blanket in the boot.’ He whispered back making no effort to move.

‘Then we should get it and go in.’ She tried to be as practical as this closeness would allow.

Arnav pulled himself away and nodded before turning away. ‘Perhaps the back seat would be better for you. We must catch some sleep.’ He moved to get the blanket.

Khushi climbed in the back of the SUV and pushed the lever to recline the seat. It flattened out, creating a small uncomfortable settee. she settled in her space as Arnav opened the opposite door and handed her the blanket. He stepped back, ready to make his way to the front seat when she called out.

‘Wait. I…we can share. This …this looks a little bit more comfortable than the front seat. ….and there is only one blanket.’

Arnav watched her, his gaze alluring her and frightening her at the same time. ‘Are you sure?’ he asked.

Khushi nodded. ‘What?’ she asked when he didn’t move. ‘Do you find my charms irresistible, after all.’

He grinned openly in reply and climbed in, carefully settling down next to her, keeping his walking stick next ot the close door and adjusting his leg in a comfortable position before turning around, only to find Khushi Gupta, burrowed in the blanket and snoring softly.