(CT) Chapter 18: Fears

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‘I hear that you and Chottey made up…quite well,’ Anjili breezed in the gallery next morning as Khushi worked on the last of the paintings. Khushi blushed at the knowing smile on Anjili’s face. Nisha must have been quite forthcoming with the details. ‘I just met him going to Chanderpur,’ Anjili beamed, coming to stand next to Khushi. ‘It’s been a while since I saw him so happy. Not since baba’s death. Thank you so much, Khushi.’ She stepped forward to engulf Khushi in a hug.

The two women stepped apart as Anjili looked around the gallery. Over the last two months, Khushi had painstakingly erased every mark of damage and neglect. The gallery now gleamed with new life and colours. ‘You have worked wonders with this place.’ Anjili came to stand before the last unfinished painting. ‘And that is the last one, is it?’

‘Yes, it is all done,’Khushi sighed. It had been in such an exhilarating time. She would miss it all when she left. But more than that, she would miss the man who had just left the gallery a few minutes ago, after kissing her goodbye thoroughly. She had a sinking feeling that she always had when she remembered the secret she was hiding. She had to let him know if they were to have a future together.

‘But I guess, I will still be seeing your around,’ Anjili raised her eyebrows and nudged Khushi before taking her hand. ’I am so happy, so very happy,’ she said with a sigh.

‘So am I,’ Khushi answered suppressing the pang of guilt that lanced through her taking away some brightness of the morning.

‘Keep him happy,’ Anjili told her. ‘Last few years haven’t been pleasant. And both of you deserve it. I told him that, and you know what,’ Anjili returned to her usually chatty self. ‘My brother blushed. Arnav, imagine, all red ears. He might not say it Khushi, but …but I know my brother. He is …is be in love.’

The words shocked Khushi. Was he in love? Was she?

She worked in a daze as Anjili left the gallery humming with happiness. She had to talk to Arnav, somehow find a way to tell him the truth without spoiling their nascent relationship. It would be difficult, she knew. He was so vehement and unreasonably when it came to this house. Not that she could fault him. She had grown quite attached to the house with two months. But she had to clear Arnav’s misunderstanding about the past. Their relationship was too precious, she felt, too precious to waste on a misunderstanding. She remembered the beautiful evening that they had spent together yesterday, after the doctor had left instructing her see him in his clinic at the end of week. Once the doctor left, Arnav returned with her dinner. On her insistence, he asked Raghav to send his food to the room and they had shared a pleasant evening, till the medication took over lulling Khushi to sleep.

Tomorrow, she told herself.

In the morning, he had a met her in the gallery, with a warm good morning kiss and she had had no other thoughts accept the desire to stay close. However, there was a meeting in Chanderpur, he told her before leaving reluctantly. Evening, he told her when Khushi held on to his arms reluctant to let go.

Khushi was having a restless day when she received a call from Shlok.

‘Khushi di, my dad would like to meet you. Come over tomorrow or day after’ he told her.

‘Uh…but Nana…’

‘He has gone to Haridwar. Would be back next week. Just come. Sudha bua will leave in a day or two. She wants to meet you properly,’ he insisted.

‘I don’t know,’ Khushi chewed her lip. ‘I don’t like this, Shlok. Going behind someone’s back. If Sudha mausi wants to meet me then, why hide?’

‘Oh Di, I am working on it….but Baba is just a too set. Even if he dying to know about you, he wouldn’t say. And I think Papa and bua have put up with him too long, it has become a habit with them. But they….they would really like you to come,’ he paused for a while. ‘But I would understand if you don’t. I mean papa and bua have not exactly been around for your mother or you. But I would come to see you, when I come to Delhi,’ he chuckled. ‘Do you think Sujata bua would like to see me?’

His eagerness to breach the family divide was endearing. Khushi found herself smiling and giving in despite herself. ‘I have to visit the clinic at Chanderpur in a few days. I shall come over then. Will let you know.’

When Arnav returned, he found Khushi in bed once again, sleepy and tired. The walk was out of question. Once again the dinner was ordered in the room and Khushi, concussed and greedy for Arnav’s company, kissed the revelations away for another day.

It set the pattern for the next two days. They had breakfast and later parted ways for the day’s work as Arnav turned to the estate matters while Khushi worked on the paintings. They went for walks, returning for dinner. Though they held hands and kissed, and Khushi felt herself on the edge, willing to fall over as they kissed goodnight. Arnav, being a gentleman that he was, was always the first to withdraw.

‘Not now when you are injured,’ he had rasped in her ear.

‘But I am ok now,’ she protested.

‘I can see that,’ he held her wrist, stopping it from wandering into the dangerous zones. ‘But let’s see the Doctor tomorrow.’ he kissed her as she pouted. ‘I want to be sure, Khushi, and I want to do this right. I want to know that you are happy.’

‘I could be happier,’ she whispered.

With a sigh, he had pulled her closer, kissing her throat. ‘You make it so difficult for me.’

‘Then don’t fight me,’ she arched her neck pushing herself against him. ‘Arnav, Anjili thinks we are in love.’

He stilled for a moment and raised his head. His eyes were expressionless as they gazed into hers. Khushi had learnt enough about him to know that he was trying to gauge her feelings before revealing his own.

‘What do you think?’ he asked.

‘May be. I can’t differentiate at the moment.’

‘Differentiate between?’

‘Love and this…this lust for your body,’ she giggled.

‘Lust.’ He ground his body against hers. ‘Really? Want to slake the lust,’ he waggled her eyebrows.

‘Now you get the gist, Arnav,’ Khushi giggled.

‘I really think you have lost your head, Ms. Gupta,’ he teased. ‘So I must wait for the Doctor’s verdict. Two days,’ he said as he took her mouth once again, leaving them both breathless. ‘I think I should go,’ he drew himself away.

‘Arnav,’ she held him for a moment as he turned to go. ‘I…I need to tell you something.’

‘What is it?’ he stopped seeing the seriousness on her face. ‘Are you ok? Any pain…’

‘No. no. not about the injury’

He looked at her frowning and stepped back near her, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear. The fingers lingered on her cheek. ‘Then? What is it, Khushi?’

She looked up at him, trying to gather courage. She saw desire and humor and warmth but there was something else. His insecurities that scared her.

‘That I…that I…’ Khushi tried to gather courage and failed. His hand had stilled and his expression was becoming guarded again. ‘That you wouldn’t be my first. I have been in love before,’ he frowned and she added, ‘when I was six.’

He laughed and brought her close. ‘What will I do with you, Khushi?’

What would she do? Khushi berated herself for being a coward. But the moment had passed and so had another opportunity.

 

A week later, when Arnav drove Khushi to the doctor’s clinic in Chanderpur, she was still procrastinating. The week had been beautiful in every sense of the word. Khushi had never felt as close to anyone in her life as she felt to Arnav to whom she had told everything about herself apart from the one little truth that would drive a wedge a between them. He had seen the photograph of her family by her bedside and had marveled at the how much she resembled her mother.

‘I can see how you would look when we are old,’ he had chuckled, his voice warming Khushi to the core. It suggested permanence, togetherness for years and years to come. If Arnav had asked anything of her at that moment, she would have said yes. So like every other evening, she postponed the unpleasant task to the next day. She would tell him on the way to the clinic.

It was decided that she would meet Shlok and her family after the visit to the hospital and Shlok promised to drop her back by the evening.

‘You never told me exactly how you guys are related?’ Arnav grimaced as they set out for Chanderpur the next day.

‘Too long a story.’ Khushi told him as they drove around the mountains to the town. ‘But Arnav…’

‘Yes?’

‘We need to talk…about something?’ Khushi said chewing her lower lip.

‘All ok?’ Arnav glanced at her, quirking his eyebrow before turning back to the road.

‘Yes,’ Khushi looked at him closely. Suddenly she felt sure. Her words would separate them. He would not forgive. He would not listen to her excuses. He would send her away. Her heart sank with the sense of certainty. It throbbed with a dull ache as she imagined parting with him. The very thought sucked the life out of her.

She was in love, the answer with blinding clarity as he gazed at his sunlit profile. She was in love with Arnav Singh Raizada and he hated the girl who he thought had stolen his house from him. He hated her. Khushi closed her eyes and pressed her fingers to the temple as she felt the wetness behind her eyelids.

‘Are you ok? Is the head aching once again?’ he asked worriedly. ‘I shall stop at the next…’

‘No…I …I am ok.’ She tried to reassure him, but the voice was weak. How had the things messed up so much? Why didn’t she tell him or Anjili right at the beginning, as soon as she learnt about Arvind Mullick’s will, Khushi berated herself. But then she had never thought she would get so deeply involved. Khushi sobbed.

‘That’s it.’ Arnav stopped the car on the side and reached out. ‘What is it, tell me?’ he ran a hand over her head.

‘Nothing,’ Khushi shook her head, unable to stop another sob that welled up at his tenderness. She tried to bring herself under control.

‘Khushi, Khushi,’ he put a finger under her chin and raised her face. Khushi closed her eyes but some wetness seeped from corners. She felt his soft touch as he wiped the tears. ‘Are you in pain? Shall I … shall I turn back. We aren’t so far,’ he stroked her face. ‘Khushi, please tell me. I will take you back and call the doctor home.’ He turned to the steering but Khushi held the hand against her face, leaning into his palm as she opened her eyes. She had him worried. But this sudden discovery of her feelings had left her emotionally helpless.

He must have seen something in her eyes, for he sat still gazing at her and then said in a soft whisper. ‘It is about us, isn’t it?’ He was looking at her closely, perhaps trying to make out her mood. Close beneath the surface lurked his insecurities, his belief that he would be rejected for his handicap. Khushi wanted to put them to rest.

‘Yes, about us, Arnav. I…I think I am…I have fallen in love with you.’

She heard the quick intake of breath as he sat still for a moment. And then he smiled, a smile that began from his mouth, reaching to the eyes before suffusing his entire face. ‘Is it so bad that you are crying about it?’

Khushi snorted. ‘I don’t want to go away. I don’t want you to….send me away.’

‘Send you away? As if I could do that…send away Khushi, my happiness these days,’ he murmured.

‘These days?’ Khushi wanted him to promise an always, right there and then, so that when she told him the truth she could hold him to that promise

‘Yes, my Khushi these days. And I hope for a long, long time to come.’ He kissed the side of her mouth Khushi savored the kiss before he moved back, cursing the gear stick between them.

‘And what if I say…or do something that makes you unhappy? Or angry?’ she asked. They still sat close as he stroked her head and she held on to the lapels of his jacket.

‘Not possible,’ he whispered.

‘Or make you hate me?’

He leaned back and looked into her face. ‘What’s gotten into you? I think you are still concussed, Ms. Gupta.’

‘Tell me, can you hate me?’

‘No, Khushi. What do you think I am? How can I ever hate you?’ he was puzzled.

Then say it. Say that you love me, Khushi urged silently. But the words did not come. He was frowning at her silently.

‘Arnav, I…I want a promise,’ she finally gathered herself and wiped her face.

‘Anything, Khushi. Anything you…’

‘No, don’t make promises you cannot keep. I just want that….that when I ask…when I tell you something….just …just trust me and listen….try to believe me….believe that I…I love you.’

‘Yes, yes, yes.’ Her words seemed to set something free inside him. Arnav kissed her deeply, tenderly almost as if sealing the promise, that he would never let it go. Khushi clung on to him and to each passing moment with all her might. The two would have gone on and on had Anjili not called to ask them if they had reached the town.

After the checkup at the hospital, where the doctor declared Khushi to be well and recovered, Arnav dropped her at Shlok’s place. He drove off reluctantly after instructing her to be back before the night fell.

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(CT) Chapter 17: Whatever ‘this’ is

 

Arnav swirled the amber liquid in his glass and took a sip. A fire burned down his throat and pumped a little bit of heat into the frozen limbs. Perhaps he should close the window, he thought. The cold air of the mountains was chilling the room. Soon it would be freezing. Not good for his leg. He stretched the offending limb. The cold air had worsened the dull ache from the fall. On the opposite chair, lay the hot water bottle that Anjali had sent through Raghav. Unlike his usual considerate self who would insist on tucking the bottle under his leg in a blanket, this time Raghav had left it on the chair. Khushi madam needed urgent attention; the doctor who had come to have a look was worried about the momentary blackout. Arnav remembered her face after the fall – the chalky whiteness of it. He would have taken care of her – perhaps a little clumsily but he would have.

‘How many?’

Arnav looked up as Anjali slid into the chair facing him, holding out the hot water bottle to him as her narrow eyes slid from the glass in his hand back to his face. Arnav took the hot water bottle and put it on the side table carelessly, almost defiantly. Anjali didn’t comment.

‘How many drinks have you had since we brought Khushi in?’ she asked again

Arnav downed the remaining alcohol in a gulp and shrugged. ‘Don’t worry, Anji. I am ok.’

‘No. You aren’t. But that is not what I asked. Anyway, don’t you want to see Khushi? She is feeling much better now,’ Anjali asked.

‘I don’t think so.’ Arnav looked at her nonchalantly and rose to fill make another drink for himself. He needed a little stiffer one. It was taking too long to squash his thoughts into nothingness.

‘Did she get badly hurt?’ he asked. He hadn’t intended to, but this he had to know.

‘No.’ Anjili answered. ‘Just banged her head. A doctor said she might have some concussion. She had a splitting headache just now. But doesn’t seem to be more than that.’

Arnav nodded and settled down with the next drink.

‘I didn’t exactly see what happened, Arnav.’ Anjali said.

Arnav stiffened and slowly leaned back into the chair, his eyes fixed on Anjili. ‘Why don’t you ask her?’

‘Why not ask you?’ Anjili persisted.

‘She tripped. And I could not catch her.’

Anjili stared at him for a few seconds. ‘Oh god, Arnav, You are blaming yourself, aren’t you?’

Arnav continued to look at her. ‘

‘But how could you have caught her,’ Anjili thrust forward and waved her hands.

‘precisely,’ he bit out the word. His fingers tightened on the glass as he looked away.

‘Damn, Arnav,’ Anjili hissed in frustration. ‘I didn’t mean it that way. Everything isn’t about…about your leg.’

‘Really,’ Arnav smiled twistedly.

Anjili pursed her lips for a moment, then spoke as if talking to a child. ‘She was blindfolded with that thick scarf around her eyes. The ground was uneven. And she tripped. Perhaps one of the twins knocked into her.’

‘It doesn’t matter why she fell,’ Arnav took another sip.

‘It does. She was thrown. And so she must have come to you with all that force.’ Anjili spoke slowly as if trying to explain some fine points to a child. Arnav was in no mood to understand or do anything else apart from drinking and feeling sorry for himself and he wished his sister would leave him peace to do just that.

‘Just leave, Anjili,’ Arnav slumped in the chair.

For a moment Anjili was quiet as she watched Arnav, her mouth thin and disapproving. ‘I can see that nothing I say is going to make any difference. So I will let you have this evening.  She walked out. ‘I am going home. And I would suggest that till you have some sobriety left, go and visit Khushi. She would…would feel good. Was asking about you.’

And she left Arnav who cursed her sister and her blasted parting words as he wondered what Khushi Kumari Gupta would have been asking for him for.

 

 

The sunset brought back the same restlessness that Khushi had been feeling for days. The doctor said she would have a mild concussion and indeed her head had started swimming as soon as she had tried to get up in the morning. SO she had returned back to bed and stayed there for most of the day. But now as her head came back to its own, so did the thoughts that had been going in her mind for days. Yesterday evening she had waited for Arnav to visit her. He hadn’t. Just like that, he had returned to the cold aloof man he was being before the mishap. Although she was blindfolded, she knew he had tried to catch her, had felt the arms come around her to stop but the force was too much. They had both gone down. When he had taken off her blindfold, she had been dazed. But she had not missed the concern and the pain that was etched on his face. He had hurt his leg, she was sure. Yet he had reached out to help her, worried about her. In that hazy moment, she had thought to ask him for the reason he was avoiding her. She would have had the splitting pain in her head permitted. But soon others had crowded around her and Arnav Sigh Raizada had slipped her grasp.

Yet he held her in a thrall, his thoughts, the memory of the kiss, the night in the mountains….they had to talk. Khushi swore to find him and talk, right away. Still descending the stairs had once again turned her head into water. The way to the empty library and drawing room was as much as she could take. Anjili was visiting some part of the estate. She had left soon after dropping the twins with Kanchan. Arnav would be in, she had told Khushi, in case she needed something. But he was nowhere. Perhaps he was out for a walk. Khushi decided to wait and rest in the gallery and have a look at the paintings.

He was there. Gazing at one of the paintings she had finished a few days ago. It was one of the Malik ancestors, a regal and proud lady. Khushi had quite happy with the way it turned out to be. She had wanted it to show him, but he had never been there. She went in, eager to hear what he had to say.

‘Why are you here, Ms. Gupta?’ he asked without turning around to face her. How did he know it was her?

‘I was looking for y….thought of looking at the paintings once,’ Khushi bit her cheek to stop the unreasonable smile that welled up at finding him here unexpectedly….in her workspace. Did he miss her too?

‘You shouldn’t be up and about.’ He turned around but did not make any further move towards her. Yet Khushi felt the air shift drawing the two of them closer. Damn, she was so unreasonable when this man was around.

‘I…I spent a whole day in bed. Needed to get about.’ She replied peevishly. ‘You alsohad a fall, but I can see that you have been walking around.’

‘Or limping,’ he said dryly.

Her eyes flew to his face but he had already he turned away and walked to the window. ‘I am sorry, Khushi,’ he said

‘For?’

‘I could not stop you …from the fall.’

He was blaming himself for the accident. Arnav Singh Raizada was wallowing in self-pity,  Khushi was surprised. ‘But I would have fallen anyway,’ she assured him. ‘I think one of the girls bumped into me and I had this…this blindfold.’

He said nothing.

‘Well, in that case, since you are bent on apologizing, there is a stronger case for another one.’ His head turned slightly. She had his attention. Khushi gathered all her courage. ‘You have been avoiding me since that…that day in the meadow.’ She trailed off as he turned and fixed her with a stare. ‘You are never there,’ she swallowed.

‘Why?’

‘Why what?’

‘Why did you want to see me? I remember you couldn’t wait to get away that day.’ His gaze pinned her down.

‘that day..’

‘You were so embarrassed that you wouldn’t look at me. Ran away as soon as Raghav appeared and then decided to have an early night. Did not seem you wanted to see or talk to me,’ he spelled it all out for her.

‘But I…I just needed some time to think,’ she blinked at him. He thought she was embarrassed about that evening.

‘Yes. To think. To come to terms with what had happened. Well, I will make life a little easier. Nothing happened. Nothing to remember, think or talk about. Nothing that matters. There you can breathe easy. I can do that much,’ he shrugged.

‘Nothing that matters?’ she repeated. He was angry, Khushi told herself. Still, it hurt, especially when those moments had been the most wonderful ones of her life. Her eyes slid to his lips and those sensations of heat and desire surged once again. He must have seen something on her face for when she looked up, his eyes widened in surprise. ‘But it did. I just needed time to think why it mattered so much.

‘No need to think, Khushi,’ he sighed. The look they had shared had doused his animosity, yet he persisted in pushing her away. ‘No need to beat about the bush. I am lame and that is it. That is why it wasn’t a good idea to kiss me.’

A stunned silence followed the words.

‘Perhaps you can apologize right away,’ Khushi muttered through a clenched jaw. ‘Say sorry and I might forgive you.’

What?’ he frowned

‘Apologize that you think so low of me, Mr. Raizada. Last chance. I am not going to forgive so easily if you do that later.’

Arnav looked surprised. He opened his mouth and then closed it again as if at loss for words. When he spoke, the earlier certainty had gone from his voice. ‘You don’t …don’t have to pretend…’ he began.

‘So you think I was pretending that evening,’ Khushi interrupted, folding her arms and glaring at him. She felt a little bit surer now that she had him perplexed.

‘I ….I think I will go for a walk.’ He shook his head as trying to get a grip on things.

Arnav tried to make his way out, but Khushi was having none of it. She reached out and took his arm. They had to talk. Well, they definitely had to…she told herself as her eyes once again slid to his mouth. There could be other infinitely more pleasant things they could do.

‘I need to go,’ he whispered. All that anger, the firmness was gone. He seemed to be fighting with himself.

‘Me too, back to that meadow, that day.’ Khushi murmured.

‘Why?’

‘So that I can do it differently.’

He said nothing. But his whole stance was waiting for her speak.

‘I really did need to think and…and it was not about your leg,’ she told him

He still did not speak. He wanted her to spell it out, Khushi felt the challenge. It annoyed her, it invigorated her.

‘It was about the kiss, and what it made me feel …,’ she watched his eyes widen as the words registered. She stepped back with a half-smile. This time his fingers tightened on her arm stopping her from drawing away. It felt wonderful, this little victory.

‘Feel what?’ he almost growled. Khushi shook her head with a smirk, still trying to withdraw. Arnav’s arm went around her to stop her. ‘don’t play games with me. Tell me, tell me what did you think?’

‘That perhaps it wasn’t about the meadow,’ she went on her tiptoes and whispered in his ear. ‘It was you…you who made me feel so good.’ She nipped at the ear lobe. Arnav gasped and went rigid, before closing in on her as if he couldn’t help it. Khushi had already buried her fingers in his hair as she drew his head to her.

‘Khushi,’ he moaned as he felt her hand roam his back drawing him closer. He kissed her hard and deep, trying to capture and hold on to the moment. She kissed him back with fervor pushing him slightly, making him step back and back, till he leaned against one of the pillars of the gallery. She stepped back, and looked at him. Both of them were breathing heavily. Still holding his eyes, she reached for his walking stick, unstrapped it from his wrist and put it against the wall. He kept watching her warily as she stepped back and lifted his arms to put them around her waist.

‘You can apologize later, Mr. Raizada,’ she reached up nuzzled against his throat, reacquainting herself with the smell and taste of him. He made her forget herself-just like he had done that day. His arms tightened as she placed an open-mouthed kiss at the base of his throat.  His fingers reached up to tangle around her hair and pull away from her torturing lips. He tugged her hair so that she looked up at him. So close, she just had to lean a bit and she could kiss him. But Arnav held her tantalizingly just far enough to look into her eyes.

‘Arnav,’ she whispered as she let a finger slide down his spine.

“Khushi,’ he exhaled as if giving up the fight. His hands began roaming on her back again. ‘I have to know. Give me the words.  Do you want this?’

Her desire was written all over her face but needed to hear her say it.

‘Tell me,’ he whispered subjecting them both to the torture of being close and yet not enough.

‘Yes,’ she leaned up to whisper against his lips. His body heaved in one ragged exhale before he caught her lips again, this time holding nothing back.

Khushi let out a moan, a husky sound trapped in his mouth. The kiss was hungry, ravenous, full of need. She could feel it in their movements, in the harsh raspy breaths, every touch of the hand, every flick of the tongue, they stoked need in each other. Her fingers slid under his jacket to untuck his shirt, skimming lightly over his skin. She felt the muscles jump and spasm as his breath rustled past her cheek

‘You don’t know what you are doing to me, Khushi,’ Arnav rasped. ‘You don’t know what you do to me.’

The sheer torture in his voice overwhelmed her and made her feel strong at once. ‘Tell me, Mr. Raizada,’ she arched her back to push her body closer.

He wrenched his mouth away and looked at her, their breaths mingling in a heavy bursts of exhalation. He smiled that endearing half smile and shook his head. ‘Shouldn’t give you more ammunition than you already have.’

‘I am not an enemy, Arnav. This isn’t a war.’

‘Then what is it?’

Love, the word flitted through her mind, stunning her, her eyes widened as she saw a similar shock mirrored on his face. But neither was ready to put that in words.

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Don’t know, but it is very pleasant. I could get used to this.’ She put her head on his shoulder and leaned on him. He drew her close and leaned back against the pillar, relishing the stillness in their proximity. The frenzy of passion simmered beneath the warmth but for now, this was peaceful, Arnav thought. Not a good idea to stay in such close quarters, he thought. Khushi was headstrong and he doubted his own control in staying away from her. They had to think where they would go from here, he thought. Perhaps that is what she meant when she said she needed time to think. Had she decided? Is that the reason she had come to pin him down today. Arnav smirked enjoying the allegory and the picture it conjured. He wouldn’t mind being pinned down by her.

Khushi,’ he said softly.

‘Hmm..’

‘We need to talk.’

‘No.’

‘No?’

‘You aren’t good at talking. Always second guessing me. But we are good at this,’ She snuggled closer.

Arnav chuckled. Yes, they were good at this. What was this, he wanted to ask her. But the answer scared him. It was too new, too precious, whatever this was. He kissed her again, and she turned his face to him and parted his lips as she had been waiting for him.

 

‘Mamu?’ The word was a burst of childish outrage.

Khushi and Arnav sprang apart. One of the twins stood just in the doorway, her hands on hips, glaring at the two of them.

‘Nisha, you should knock’ Arnav said. Khushi tried to step away in embarrassment but Arnav held her in place.

‘The door was open,’ Nisha pointed out her eyes, her fixed on Khushi. ‘Kanchan di told me to look for you, Khushi. The doctor is here to see you.’ she said in a quiet little voice and ran out.

‘She is going to tell Anjili,’ Khushi whispered and turned to Arnav who was watching her speculatively as if waiting for her to go into a panic. She stepped back and folded her arms to glare at her. ‘And no, I am not going to deny this to anyone. You think what you what you want to tell your sister.’

‘I think you have lost your head, Khushi,’ He grinned suddenly.

‘And you too,’ she smiled back, putting her arms around his neck. ‘I think you have lost your head over me.’

Arnav drew her closer. She would never know how much her acceptance of ‘this,’ whatever it was, mattered to him. ‘I think I shall tell my sister that it is my business.’

‘I would love to see that,’ Khushi laughed. ‘In the meantime, help me back to the room. And think of the ways to earn that forgiveness.’

‘What forgiveness?’ Arnav took his stick and walked Khushi out of the gallery.

‘that you could think so low of me.’

‘I think quite highly of you.’

They bantered on. Khushi leaned on Arnav, as he led her upstairs, both unaware of the two little pair of eyes watching them from the hallway – one full of mirth, joy and warmth and the other, with misgivings.

 

 

(CT) Chapter 16: Impossible Longings

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Arnav was avoiding her. There was no other explanation. Once she had overcome her shyness, Khushi knew they would have to talk about what had happened that evening. His hostile attitude had further made it imperative that they clear the air.

But while she had forestalled their talk earlier, now Arnav was bent on evading her. Khushi saw him only during breakfasts when the presence of Anjili or Sheetal or the twins made any private conversation impossible.  He spent his days out. There were no more requests for the evening walks that she had come so much to look forward to. The dinner was either taken early as he worked in the library or downtown where he now went every day for work.

Meanwhile, Khushi’s work was fast nearing completion. Another 3 weeks and she would be done. But the work which had given her so much satisfaction earlier, now failed to do so. Every morning she would expect him to be in the gallery, waiting for her to begin work on the paintings he said he really didn’t care about. They would banter and play with words and she would feel that delicious pull towards the man who liked to pretend he was cynical and worldly. But there was another facet that she had glimpsed during the night they had spent out in the mountains. It was a warm and caring man who endured his sister’s mollycoddling because he did not want to hurt her; who spoilt his neice rotten; who loved his childhood home so much that he was heartbroken what he thought was his father’s betrayal. A man who had taken up the small timber business of his father, and grown it beyond imagination; who bristled defensively when people made allowances for him because of his leg and went on prove them wrong.

And then there was that headiness she had experienced when she had been in his arms. It had never happened before. In early days of youth, she had allowed some boys to kiss her and had always wondered what the hullabaloo was about. By the time, she grew up, she had already accepted that sexual chemistry was nothing that it was cracked up to be. Her one single relationship had been practical and levelheaded and had broken when the man she had been dating proposed marriage with the caveat that she would have to give up her career and take up a less demanding job after marriage.

 

But the way she had responded to Arnav in the firefly meadow, she knew that she would give up a great deal for this man. The evening scared her; it excited her; it confused her. At times she would tell herself that it was good that he was avoiding her. She had a secret that could break both their hearts. Any relationship with him would be too demanding.

But then the image would flash in her mind – his slight smile, the way his eyes challenged her. He would twist his body slightly on his walking stick and murmur in her ear ‘Scared, Ms. Gupta.’ And she would feel the shivers of excitement run down her spine.

Looking for an escape from her confusing thoughts, two afternoons later Khushi found herself with Anjili  and the twins in the lush lawns of Chandrataal, all set to enjoy the warm sunlight after days of mist. The twins insisted on playing Blind man’s buff, and after much cajoling, Anjili and Khushi decided to join the game.

Giggles resounded in the gardens as Raghav joined in the fun. Sheetal preferred sitting on her own, watching them, smiling at the twins who ran around their mother, calling out her name and shrieking with laughter as Anjili failed to catch any of them. Khushi hovered behind them, enjoying the play between mother and the daughters. The noise of the driveway distracted her for a moment and she felt Anjili’s hand on her shoulder.

‘Its Khushi di,’ Aditi shrieked.  ‘Mumma caught her! What were you doing standing in a place?’

‘You had to run!’ Nisha hollered.

‘Thank god, it’s not me anymore,’ Anjili pulled out blindfold and smiled at Khushi. ‘These girls are so difficult to catch. Now it’s your turn to suffer.’

Khushi pouted and turned around. ‘I will tie it?’ Aditi took the blindfold from Anjili and ran to Khushi who knelt down obligingly.

‘What are you doing?’ Nisha tried to peer into the blindfold. ‘She can see!’

‘No, she cannot?’ Aditi finished the tying the blindfold and joined her sister. ‘Can you, Khushi? How many fingers are these?’

‘Hmm, three I think.’

‘Look she can’t,’ Aditi said to her sister smugly.

‘But Khushi di might be lying?’ Nisha came back at once.

‘No. She never lies. Do you tell lies, Khushi di?’ Aditi asked.

‘Never,’ Khushi assured.

‘She might still be lying,’ Nisha said suspiciously.

‘Ok girls, do you want to play’ Anjili put an end to the argument. ‘Let’s start now.’

‘Alright, Khushi, careful,’ Aditi took her hand and swirled her around before letting go

‘I am here, Khushi,’ Nisha called out from behind her. Khushi reached out to catch but she was already gone.  Unlike Aditi whose giggles always gave way, Nisha crept up slowly and ran away as soon as you turned around.

‘Here, here,’ Aditi tugged her dupatta. The twins led her a merry dance. Anjili laughed in the background as Khushi reached out, trying her best to catch one of the girls.

She had just a moment to register another presence, a deliciously familiar cologne when someone tumbled hard into her. She lurched forward, her hands swinging wildly for balance, only to latch on to something – a hand that had come to break her fall.

But to no avail. She fell, on the hard ground, taking the person down with her. The person, she could swear who it was, gasped and muttered an oath as the walking stick clattered down next to them.

She let out a cry as the back of her head hit the pavement. Things blackened out for a moment as breath whooshed out of her lungs. Pain burst through her head taking over her entire body and she held still, waiting for it to subside.

It didn’t.

 

For a moment, Arnav had felt whole again.

He had been walking to the mansion, trying desperately to ignore the sounds of laughter in the lawns. But as Khushi reached around in her blindfold, he had allowed himself to watch and enjoy the game for a while. And then she had tumbled, just a few steps away from him, reaching out for some support.

He held out his arms to catch her. It was the most natural thing in the world, except that he was a man with a bad leg, and men with crippled legs should never forget what they are.

He caught her, or at least he thought he did, but his leg could not support their combined weight or the force of her fall. He did not even have time to feel the discomfort. The muscles simply crumpled, and his leg buckled.

Perhaps she could have saved herself had he not tried to catch her. They crashed to the ground, and he could do nothing but gasp. The fall sucked the very breath from his body, and his leg just folded under him. He bit the inside of his cheek and tasted the blood as he felt the pain as if needles had pierced his leg.

Muttering under his breath, he dragged himself away freeing Khushi who lay sprawled on the ground, still under shock.

He pulled away the blindfold.

“Are you all right?” he asked urgently.

She nodded and tried to sit up. But it was jerky kind of nod, as her eyes remained unfocused. No. She was not alright.

‘Are you hurt? Where?”

“My head,” she moaned.

Arnav tried to kneel beside her, his own leg screaming in pain, demanding attention at once. He had to get her up to the house. She might be badly hurt. He reached out to touch the back of her head to see if there was a wound.

Before he could even touch her, they were surrounded. Anjili came running, followed by the twins. Raghav bent to help Khushi up, calling the watchman for assistance.

Finally, Arnav just hauled himself to his feet and backed away, leaning heavily on his cane.

The muscle in his thigh felt as if someone stabbed it multiple time with a sharp knife but that was a familiar sort of pain.

Raghav and the watchman helped her get up. She reeled as her legs buckled. Raghav carried her back into the house.

Capable and careful.

Arnav watched on as they put Khushi on the couch.

He would never be able to do that. Forget running, forget the pain, forget the bloody walking stick that he had suffered ever since he had injured his leg. None of it seemed to matter.

He would never gather the girl he loved in his arms and carry her away.

He had never felt like less of a man.

 

 

 


 

 

The last part of the chapter is not my POV; it is the character’s POV.

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(CT) Chapter 15: Just a kiss?

Dear all,

First of all, apologies for the delay. I have been on the verge of abandoning this story so many times. But I come back. There is this sense of leaving the task unfinished that doesn’t let me work on a new book. I am really really trying to finish this one. Its not that i dont love this story, just that new interesting things come up, work takes time and so on.

So sorry to all of you who are following this one. I am already working on the next chapter. there are about 6-7 chapters to the end of this one. I hope you guys are still with me when I reach the finish line. 🙂

On the other front, DUST of AGES: An 1857 romance is out – this is the full volume- right from start to the end. please do read and review.  Everyone who hasn’t read it, please do read and review. Would mean a lot to me. You can learn more about it and read the first few chapters here.

And without further ado, the next chapter of Chandrataal.

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His mouth moved over hers in a whisper of a kiss. She felt is the slight roughness of his lips as they lingered around the corner of her mouth, moving on to her cheek. A tingle began in her toes and reached up her spine as Khushi crowded closer, her own arms rising to the side of his neck before she gave up on common sense and let them go around him.

Arnav exhaled sharply feeling the thrill of her arms and her soft body envelope him. He tilted her head a little more and took her mouth in a deep kiss. An exquisite sensation shot through his whole being to feel her response. His own lips parted as unreservedly as he kissed her, thrilled to feel her arms tighten about him in response.  He explored the sweet intoxicating secrets of her mouth before moving on to kiss the hollow in her throat, making her moan with pleasure as he trailed kisses to the shell of her ear. Leaning a bit more on the walking stick, Arnav let his free hand roam across her back before encircling her waist and pulling her flush against him.

Khushi clung to him, straining to get closer, her hands sliding beneath his jacket, the feel of the heat of his body through the shirt.

The sharp ring of his phone penetrated through the haze of desire yet they ignored it. His heart skipped a beat as he felt her teeth bit the soft skin of his neck where it met his shoulder before soothing the pain with an open mouthed kiss.

Whoever was calling him, disconnected and then called again. Both of them groaned together and Arnav heard her chuckle before he raised his head to look at her. Desire shimmering in her gaze made him shudder. ‘You phone is ringing.’ She whispered.

He nodded and bent to rub his cheek against hers, making no effort to take the call.

‘It could be someone important.’ She whispered. ‘It could be Anjili, or Raghav.’

He sighed before stepping back reluctantly and taking the call. Khushi instantly felt the loss of warmth.

‘Yes, Raghav,’ he said in the phone.

Khushi watched as his mouth tightened.

‘I know it is dark. I can find my back.’ He said tersely. ‘You can go to sleep.’

Raghav must have said something about her, for he turned to her and nodded. ‘Yes, Khushi is with me.’ Arnav reached up to tuck a stray lock behind her ear. ‘We will be back soon,’ he told Raghav before disconnecting.

Khushi’s face came up as he stepped closer. Desire beckoned once again. Khushi tried to hold on to sanity this time. ‘He…I mean, Raghav, he must be worried.’

‘yes,’ Arnav whispered as bent to kiss her forehead lightly.

‘Its dark,’ she folded her fingers into tight fists, resisting the urge to reach up and stroke is face.

‘So it is,’ he kissed her ear lobe.

‘Shall we…we must go home.’ She stammered

Arnav raised his head to look into her face. His own eyes were blank except for the remains of the desire that still burnt along the edges.

‘Let’s go back,’ Khushi persisted.

He nodded as he stepped back and without any word, began the trek back to the house.

Unlike their walk to the firefly meadow, this time there was an awkward silence and a distance that opened up between them as Khushi tried to make sense of what had happened. Arnav, on the other hand seemed to be lost in his own thoughts.

In the hallway, he turned to her as if to say something.

‘I…I am tired,’ Khushi forestalled him. She needed time to process the event of the evening, before she could talk about it. ‘I will call it a day I think.’

Silence followed her words as Arnav gazed at her through narrow eyes. And then he nodded abruptly and looked away. Khushi sighed with relief as she saw Raghav behind him.

‘There you are. I was worried, Bhaiyya. It is going to rain tonight. Do you want coffee, Khushiji.’

‘No,’  Arnav intervened. ‘She is tired and is going to bed.’ He told Raghav before moving towards the sitting room. Khushi wondered if she had heard a sneer somewhere in those innocuous words.

 

Back in her room, she relived the kiss a thousand times. As she brushed her hair, her eyes were drawn to her lips – slightly swollen and red. She remembered the warm and rough feel of his mouth and brushed her fingers against her lips. How she had reacted? How she had not offered a single word of resistance and flown into his arms? But even the thought of resisting had never occurred to her. There had been a strange sense of rightness in the moment, as if through their spats, fights and endless talks they had been moving to this moment. She felt the same tendrils of desire unfurl in the pit of her stomach as she remembered the sensation of his arm around her, pulling her against his hard of his body. The warmth tingled her.

It scared her too.

It would not be good to get into a relationship with Arnav Singh Raizada. The man carried heavy baggage from the past. He was scarred – from his own accident and his handicap, his father’s death, the hatred for the girl who he thought had come between him and his father. What would happen when he learnt that it was her?

No. She should avoid him and run away.

But the thought crumpled something inside her. It dulled the excitement and aroused a sense of discomfort, almost akin to sadness.

Indeed her reactions to Arnav Singh Raizada were scaring her to no end.  What was she going to do?

 

Hours later as the sunlight broke through the curtains, Khushi was still pondering over the same question. The night had been restless, where she dreamt intermittently of Arnav who kissed her with passion and then told her how he hated her for tarnishing his father’s memories.

Unlike the other mornings, where she would rush to work and put in an hour and half preparing the painting she would be restoring before breakfast, Khushi spent the morning in bed. With her dreams and the last evening still vivid in the mind, she felt strangely shy and reluctant to face Arnav just yet. She would have to soon, but she could take some time, couldn’t she?

It was only when she had heard Anijili’s laughter that she went downstairs to the dining room. Nisha and Aditi were telling their Mamu about their fight in the school while Anjili hovered around the table. But it was the hooded brown eyes that pinned her as soon as she entered. She could feel his eyes on her as she walked to the table and took the chair. He sat straight, barely moving, nodding when Aditi or Nisha asked for something. There was something strange, almost hostile in his attitude. It confused Khushi.

‘I trust you slept well, Ms Gupta,’ he bit out as she took a toast.

‘Yes. Thank you,’ she nodded in confusion and looked away. Khushi’s eyes fell on Nisha, who looked at her mama and then turned to her, her little eyes narrow with distrust. Khushi tried to smile but the girl did not return the smile.

‘Hope all was well, yesterday, Khushi,’ Anjili seemed unaware of the tension simmering around the table. ‘I had to go early. The girls were alone.’

‘Yes…yes. All is well. I was just a little tired and went to bed early.’

‘And delayed the work in the morning. I must tell you Ms. Gupta that you have only two weeks now to finish the paintings and leave.’

Khushi’s eyes flew up in dismay as she heard Anjili gasp. Why was he being so harsh? Did he regret last evening?

‘Arnav, what do you mean by that? Khushiji is working hard and is doing a wonderful job,’ she said to her brother before turning to Khushi. ‘He doesn’t mean that.  We really appreciate what you have done.’

‘But that does not mean that we should forget that she is an outsider, a visitor who would leave us soon. Would be good to remember that and work towards the end of this project, Anjili.’ With that Arnav rose, strapped his walking stick to his hand and left the room.

 

 

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Dust of Ages: An 1857 Romance (5)

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1852: Zenana, Navgarh Quila

 

Meera looked at her mother in astonishment.

‘You want to meet the English Resident in the absence of the king? It’s dangerous. And desperate.’

But her mother was serious. Meera watched her keenly. Every night, she sat listening to Rani Leelamani as she worked out the solution to Navgarh’s inheritance crisis. During that time she was not the Rajkumari. She became Meera, Leelamani’s daughter.

Raja Bhanu Pratap had left for a hunt in that morning. Meera knew it was an excuse. Her father was too old to hunt. But whenever he grew tired of being the king, he took this escape route.

But her mother was not one to rest.

 ‘We need to assess this situation from all angles,’ Leelamani advised. ‘What is in the mind of the Company Bahadur? Raja Sahib thinks we cannot fight them. Remember, Meera, those you cannot fight, you should befriend.’

Meera scoffed at the idea. Being friendly with the Company’s representative in Navgarh, the haughty British Resident, John Smith, was out of question. She often saw him in the court and town. Resident Smith never made any effort to hide his disapproval of her or the royal family. His disdain, his interference, the thinly veiled warnings sent from the cantonment to the court – all these fuelled Meera’s dislike for the man. She knew that the Resident and his Company coveted Navgarh’s land and income. At the moment, British got only a part of the kingdom’s revenue. The major portion was retained by her father – not like other kingdoms where the Company took the lion’s share. Her forefathers had been shrewd. But things seemed on the verge of change now.

 ‘Sheetala has asked for bigger chambers.’ Leelamani veered towards other problems. ‘And why not? She is going to be the queen mother soon. Raja Sahib has been putting off the decision for such a long time. If he lets us know his plans then we can make the arrangements. .’

‘What would you do if Raja Sahib decides to make Jai the king? Shift to the smaller chamber?’ Meera smiled at her mother.

 ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Leelamani cast an irritated look at her daughter. ‘Even if Jai Chander becomes the heir apparent, I’ll be Rani Leelamani till the end of my days. It is you, my daughter. I’m worried about you.’

Meera knew that. While she went around with her friends in the forest and the bazaar, Leelamani waged another battle in the zenana. Not the kind to be fought with a sword or the bow. The rules of war in the zenana were different. But the spoils were the same. Meera had heard stories of the merciless power struggles in this cloistered world – in Delhi, Awadh and now in Navgarh. She had never paid attention to the power her mother wielded in this small fierce world. Now, with the troubles mounting from every quarter, Meera found herself turning to Leelamani often.

Both mother and daughter knew that the only way for a usurper like the British Company to take over Navgarh was through the line of succession. Once the king passed away, there would be chaos.

Meera clenched her fists at the thought. Her whole being flared up with resentment. Navgarh could not slip away from her. It was hers to look after. She had allies neither the King nor the British Resident knew about, friends like Sukriti and Chaya, who would do anything for her. Friends in the British cantonment. A pair of brown twinkling eyes on a handsome face flashed through her mind. Meera smiled. Yes, she had some aces up her sleeve, some loyalists in the enemy camp.

Dust of Ages: An 1857 Romance (4)

Time is a strange storyteller. It writes, erases and rewrites endlessly. Things change, places and people become unrecognisable, but stories are repeated endlessly.

Navgarh, too, has changed with time. Supermarkets and cyber cafés encroach and obliterate the most influential names of the old bazaar. The wide and well-lit roads meet at the central crossing of the bazaar where the ancient banyan, now trimmed and fenced, serves as a parking place for bicycles.

Besides these changes, the small town ethos are still strong. Everyone takes a deep interest in everyone’s life. Scandal mongering and gossiping are the favourite pastimes of the town.

Like its history, the changes in Navgarh too are shaped by its proximity to Delhi. A huge canal on the south east and a highway on the west of Navgarh are the umbilical cords that tie the township to the metropolis. Large quantities of raw material and cargo move on the highway between Delhi and Navgarh. The canal on the other side once joined the Navgarh jheel to river Yamuna in Delhi. It was built to ward off the flooding of the Yamuna but a miscalculation in the depth of the canal led the water to flow the other way. Within a year, the jheel had poured itself into the river. With the jheel disappeared the forests of Navgarh. Now the south of the town hosts a large sunken stretch of land, full of cracked yellow mud. It is the empty basin of the Navgarh jheel.

Beyond these paradoxes of modernisation, the past also lives on in Navgarh. Some colonial bungalows still exist in the cantonment area, but most are now unrecognisable. Beyond the arid basin of the jheel, stands the quila on the hilltop. It was once a site for adolescent adventure for the local lads till the Historical and Archaeological Survey, or HAS, cordoned it off for research and study. Since then, the quila has kept a lonely watch over the town.

These neglected old places were hosts to the only memorable event that had happened in Navgarh – the one recorded in history textbooks as a minor aside to the events of 1857.

‘The Battle of Navgarh was a subsidiary event of the mutiny in Delhi. In 1857, confident of the support of the then-Raja of Navgarh, the sepoys planned to attack the British troops besieging Delhi from the ridge outside the city. The sepoys from Delhi intended to move along the jheel under the cover of the forest and take the enemy by surprise.

‘But when the sepoys reached the outskirts of Navgarh, the Raja procrastinated. By the time, the rebel sepoys were allowed to enter Navgarh, their morale was low. Drenched in rain, famished and disoriented in the unfamiliar territory, they advanced, only to find that the enemy had anticipated the move. The British troops stormed the camp. On the other flank, another British regiment closed in and destroyed all the villages on the way, cutting off the routes of retreat or the possibility of local support. The old Raja of Navgarh surrendered and died a few days later.’

In letting the rebels enter the kingdom, Navgarh became complicit in the rebellion. Yet by delaying them, the Raja became a dubious character in the annals of Indian history – another royal thinking only about his kingdom.

But over the last few days, the story of the Indian princess married to a British officer had taken over Shiv’s imagination. On Saturday evening, he accompanied Amma to the temple. The ancient temple stood at the end of the eastern road – one of the four roads that forked from the banyan tree in the bazaar. Over a hundred years old now, the temple had fared well through the ravages of time. Its gleaming white shikhar stood tallest in the marketplace. Steps leading to the white marble platform were cleaned twice a day.  The temple came alive every evening with smell of incense and flowers. In the sanctum sanctorum, the idols smiled on the gathering as if the loud aarti, the bells and conch shell had caught their attention.

Shiv stood with his head bowed after the aarti, trying to remember the last time he had attended the ritual. He wasn’t an atheist but God was a tricky question that he seldom paid attention to.

After the aarti, one of the younger pandits offered prasad to the devotees. Amma nodded towards the frail man with white hair sitting on a cot propped against the side wall of the temple.  Bade Panditji. Shiv folded his hands and bowed in his direction. The old man raised his hand. Was it to bless or to indicate that they were to wait?

After taking the prasad, Shiv sat on the floor near the cot while Chotte Panditji brought a small stool for Amma. People continued to pay quick visits to the Gods and children returned for more prasad.

‘The last Raja died without any heir,’ Bade Panditji said when Shiv asked about the rulers of Navgarh. ‘That was the end of the kingdom. The angrez took over after that.’

‘But didn’t he have a daughter?’ Shiv looked at Amma for confirmation.

‘What could a girl have done? If there was a son, he would’ve become the Raja and the British wouldn’t have got Navgarh,’ Panditji answered.

Shiv refrained from pointing that despite the Rajas and Rajkumars all over India, the British did take over the country. Heir or no heir, Navgarh did not stand a chance. But Panditji was already looking sullen.

‘Suna hai, there was a Rajkumari,’ Amma took over from Shiv. ‘She married a firangi.’ Her tone was softer than usual. It smoothed a few creases on Panditji’s wrinkled forehead.

‘A daughter like that doesn’t count. This is what happens when you thrust a man’s job on a girl… pollution in the family, the throne, the whole town.’ Panditji was visibly unhappy about the topic.

‘That means the king had a daughter,’ Shiv caught the inconsistency. ‘And she married an angrez.

‘I don’t know. I haven’t heard of her. Never.’ Panditji looked the other way.

‘But you said she polluted…’

‘Then why remember her?’ Panditji snapped. Amma frowned at Shiv. ‘Even if there was a girl like that, the family would’ve become untouchable after the marriage. Even a royal family.’

‘But if the king had agreed to the marriage…’ Shiv prodded further.

‘Arre, the king and the royal family of Navgarh were God-fearing Hindus. Poojas were held day and night. They built this temple.’ Panditji looked at Shiv with irritation. ‘There was no such girl. What you’re saying never happened. Such a marriage is not possible – not even today, how can you think such a thing happened back then?’

A sharp silence followed the outburst. Panditji folded his arms and bowed in Amma’s direction, before closing his eyes and leaning back to rest against the wall. The interview was over. Amma and Shiv got up, once again bowed to the idols in the sanctum and stepped out.

‘Why was he angry?’ muttered Shiv on the way back. ‘Why protest so much? And the inconsistency when he mentioned the princess… it is obvious that he knows the truth and would deny it.’

‘Or does not want to remember.’

‘But why? Just because she was a girl and…’

‘And she married an Englishman,’ Amma shrugged. ‘Whatever her reasons, Shiv, you must realise that such things aren’t accepted in the small towns of India. Why, even an inter-caste marriage can lead to riots. And the princess married an angrez. Panditji must be a century old. Did you expect a eulogy?’

‘He said that the king thrust a man’s job on a girl and she brought disgrace…’ Shiv mused.

‘The fact that he does not remember tells much more about Rajkumari Meera. Now I’m certain there is some truth in this old piece of gossip.’

Walking through the bazaar, pondering over the existence of a princess who had been erased from Navgarh’s history, Shiv noticed the hoarding that dominated the marketplace. A 20 feet tall Mahesh Chander, the member of the State Legislative Assembly from Navgarh, greeted the people with folded hands and a kind smile.

‘Doesn’t he trace his lineage back to the royal family?’ Shiv pointed at the hoarding.

Amma frowned at the picture. ‘Yes, he does.’

The poster emphasised the humility and kindness in the face. But there was a hint of stubbornness in the eyes and the jutting nose. The hair and the moustache were painted black to make the man seem young and energetic.

Mahesh Chander and his family had held the reins of political leadership in Navgarh since India’s independence. They claimed to be the kinsmen of Raja Bhanu Pratap, descending from his nephew and heir apparent Jai Chander Pratap. The family had lived in the zenana palace of the quila before being evicted by HAS. Later, the Chanders entered into a legal dispute with HAS over the property. The case was still pending in the court.

A large part of Chander’s political influence in Navgarh came from his royal lineage. It was strengthened by Gyan Chander, Mahesh Chander’s grandfather, a local legend who had walked along with Mahatma Gandhi to the Dandi coast to break the salt laws. After Independence, Gyan Chander assumed the leadership of Navgarh as its elected representative.

This mix of royalty and patriotism sealed the ideologies of Navgarh’s political leadership. While his grandfather had fought to free India from the British yoke, Mahesh Chander saw himself as the guardian of that freedom. Mahesh and his followers wore their Indian-ness literally – from the khadi clothes to their vociferous support against any tampering with the local customs. After three generations of being in power, Chander saw Navgarh as his personal kingdom; he knew what the people wanted, what was good for them.

‘It would be interesting to talk to Chander. Don’t you think so?’ Shiv asked as he and Amma entered the haveli.

Amma did not look eager. ‘I wonder if he knows anything. He is pretty conservative, not very different from Panditji. And he is always busy.’

Amma’s Women’s Centre repeatedly invited Mahesh Chander for inaugurating their projects.  Support of the local government was essential for the organisation. But Chander always sent his ‘earnest’ wishes and promised to be a part of the future projects. No, Amma did not think it would be easy to meet him.

Shiv shelved the thought for the time being. Perhaps he could meet the politician sometime in the future.

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Dust of Ages: An 1857 Romance (3)

Gateway to the past

1852: Navgarh Quila

 

If only he could hold on to this moment. From the parapet of the fort, Raja Bhanu Pratap watched the caravan begin its trudge to Dilli. Despite the flash floods at the end of the season, the year had been good. In a region prone to drought and floods, he was grateful for the normal seasonal changes for once.

Perhaps it was the havan that they had performed.

Bhanu Pratap thanked the gods. The caravan will return with supplies. People will get by this year. But what about the next year? Or the year after that?

If only he could get money for the canals. Bhanu Pratap remembered the excitement when the French friend of Sinclair Sahib, his daughter’s English tutor, had presented the plan – a network of canals taking water from the jheel to the farthest corners of Navgarh. The Frenchman talked of water storage and using that water during drought – an answer to the perpetual problem that plagued the farmers of Navgarh.

But the excitement plummeted soon. It required huge funds. In the earlier days, he could have petitioned the Mughal court, but now the kingdom of the Mughals was a shadow of what it used to be. That option was gone, may be forever.

So for this year, they settled for the havan. It gave him time to worry about the funds and other pressing issues – issues which he tried to forget at the moment. Soon he would descend into the mire once again.

Bhanu Pratap turned determinedly to the sight in front of him – the city bathed in the orange and gold hues of the setting sun. The waters of the jheel reflected its colours. On the other side, the Aravalli hills formed a perfect backdrop for the quila. The hills, the fortress, the jheel and the city – all in continuity. His kingdom, Bhanu Pratap thought possessively, ignoring the white buildings of the English in the cantonment area.

 Kingship did not sit easily on Bhanu Pratap’s old shoulders. Three decades ago, his father had ruled Navgarh with the arrogance of the one born to rule. It was the privilege of the people to be ruled by him. No one could wrest this privilege as long as he was diplomatic with the neighbours, as long as there was British army in Navgarh, and as long as there was a male heir.

 Bhanu Pratap had seen these privileges erode with time. The relationship with the neighbouring kingdoms had changed. The British Company became too strong. And there was no heir, or rather, no male heir. Queen’s life-threatening illness after the birth of their daughter meant that there would be no other child. Havans, sacrifices and upvaas – nothing helped. Bhanu Pratap and Rani Leelamani had come to terms with their fate.

It was only Meera, their beloved daughter, on whom they pinned their hopes.

Till some years ago, it would have been a minor hiccup in the line of descent. A girl could be trained to take over – rule or act as a regent till there was a male heir in the line. Such arrangements weren’t unheard of. Raja Bhanu Pratap had trained Meera to be the ruler of Navgarh. He smiled as he remembered his courageous and often foolhardy daughter. She had all the makings of a good ruler. Bhanu Pratap even appointed Master Sinclair to teach her the language and the ways of the firangis. The British made him feel insecure. But he ensured that Meera dealt with them as an equal. He knew Meera was looking forward to take over the responsibility. She would be a better ruler than him.

But the Company was already making noises about the legibility of the native rulers. They refused to accept adopted rulers. Would they accept a girl in Navgarh? Wouldn’t they use it as a chance to take over Navgarh? They were doing it everywhere – doing away with the local rulers and taking over their land.

Bhanu Pratap also knew Meera would not give up easily. She would put up a fierce resistance against such a take over.

How could he push her in such troubled waters? Veer Singh of Faizpur had asked for Meera’s hand in marriage years ago. The proposal was still open. Navgarh could merge with Faizpur.

Or Meera could become a regent for seven year old Jai Chander, Raja Bhanu Pratap’s nephew. But the thought, mentioned once in an impulsive moment, had led to another set of problems, triggering another battle of  power in the zenana.

Bhanu Pratap sighed wearily. The inheritance had become a never-ending game of chess that he played constantly in his mind. He remembered the first truth about Navgarh he had learnt from his father, a fact drilled into him ever since he learnt the language of power and politics – whoever ruled Navgarh controlled the road to Dilli. The quila was not only a seat of power in Navgarh; it was meant to offer fortified defence to Dilli. Any attack on Dilli coming from the south-west had to first conquer Navgarh.

The Mughals always kept a small party of troops at Navgarh. The troops were looked after by the kiledar of Navgarh. When the power of the Mughals began to dissipate, there were continuous attacks on Navgarh to make inroads into Dilli. But Navgarh stood firm, war-torn, yet protecting its greater neighbour. The power and influence of the Kiledars increased and soon they established themselves as the rulers of their own small estate -the Rajas of Navgarh. The attacks stopped when they entered a subsidiary alliance with the troops of the East India Company.

But the alliance brought another group into this game of power. The East India Company and when it came to power and politics, no one knew it better than the Company.

Bhanu Pratap’s reverie was interrupted by a polite cough.

‘It’s time. Raja Sahib has to go to the zenana. Rani Leelamani is waiting.’ It was Munshi Sahai.

Bhanu Pratap drew a deep breath. The foot soldier standing behind him helped him heave his six-decade-old frame from the ramparts to the ground. As he walked to the zenana, Bhanu Pratap wondered who had asked for an audience – his wife or the queen of Navgarh. What did Leela want to talk about – their daughter, the household, or the kingdom? There was no distinction between his personal and political life.

 

 Age respects none, thought Munshi Sahai, the king’s chief advisor and trusted friend. Bhanu Pratap walked with a heavy gait and the pronounced stoop of someone suffering from severe joint pain. Forced to stay in bed due to inflammation of joints, the king had ample time to ponder over the troubles that were mounting inside and outside the kingdom.  But Rani Leelamani was impatient. She had sought Sahai’s help. After all, he was the chief advisor to the king. But as a friend, Munshi Sahai wanted Bhanu Pratap to have these rare moments of peace.

Now Rani Leelamani’s summon indicated that she was ready to take the matters into her hands.

 

The king entered the zenana amid a show of obeisance and respect. The place was full of women from the extended royal family – numerous aunts, sisters and cousins. All who met him on the way to queen’s chambers bowed down to him. He smiled at some and frowned at the vague unknown ones. The royal household was getting bigger by the day. Distant cousins and friends arrived frequently. According to the rules of hospitality in the royal family, none asking for refuge could be declined. But times had changed. The royal pockets were no longer bottomless. He would have to speak to Leela about it.

Before stepping in, Bhanu Pratap paused at the door. A maid announced his arrival. The queen sat on a low diwan silhouetted by the fading sunlight from the lattice windows behind her. Leela’s chambers were bigger than the other chambers in the zenana. As he entered, she rose and gestured to the maids. The girls lighting the lanterns bowed and left. He took the ornate chair opposite his wife.

 And so begins the game. Bhanu Pratap was painfully aware that they were no longer the allies they once were. Leela had seen him as an opponent ever since he put forward the idea of Jai Chander as his heir. He had not made a public announcement, but he had expressed the idea. For Leela that was enough; it was betrayal of faith that she and Meera had in him. The fault lines had widened ever since.

 ‘I see some more new faces now,’ he began.

The queen pursed her lips. ‘Sheetala’s distant cousins. They arrived yesterday.’ The cool tone expressed her disapproval of Jai Chander’s mother and his brother’s wife, Sheetala. Sheetala and several others in the zenana and the court felt that Jai Chander was the rightful heir to the throne of Navgarh.  But Leela had her own coterie of loyalists. In their minds, the idea of Meera’s kingship was beyond dispute.

 ‘I don’t see Meera,’ he mentioned.

‘She has gone riding.’

‘Alone? The darkness gathers. Shouldn’t she be back?’

‘She’ll be, any moment. Don’t worry. She must be in the town, meeting people under the banyan tree,’ Leelamani smiled. ‘You’ll get the news tomorrow.’

Bhanu Pratap smiled back. ‘Those meetings were a good idea. I hope she has others with her.’

‘Sukriti and Chaya follow her shadows. There are others also.’ Leelamani went to stand near the window. Sukriti and Chaya were the daughters of Bhanu Pratap’s dead sister. The girls had grown up in the zenana with Meera. When he had decided to train Meera in martial arts, Leela insisted that Sukriti and Chaya join her. These days the three girls were often seen teaching the skills of horse riding, sword play and archery to the younger girls in the zenana.

Bhanu Pratap joined his wife at the window. Somewhere in the lights of the city were the lights of the bazaar where their daughter was holding her court under the banyan tree.

It was an old custom. A courtier close to the king would hold a small assembly every evening in the bazaar to convey messages from the king and hear the woes of the people. Accompanied by a munaadiwala, the courtier was the source of information and entertainment. The tradition had faded long since. People now approached the court directly and the banyan tree was seldom used.

 Some months ago, Meera had revived the forgotten routine. She even found an out of work munaadiwala. Many gathered to hear him beat the drum and bellow out the messages. Even the British folk began to come for a peek.

And so his daughter gathered the unsure people of Navgarh around her and began her durbar, appointing herself as the king’s emissary, bringing in the news of people to the court. Every evening, the princess sat under the banyan tree, listening and talking to the people.

At first, no one took them seriously. The cantonment snidely referred to it as the ‘women’s durbar.’ The men of Navgarh shied away. What would the princess know about their grievances? She might be royalty, but she was a woman.

But the absence of the men did not deter Meera. The women gathered every day under the banyan tree at sunset to talk, share their concerns, or to just gossip. Meera’s durbar became a regular feature of the bazaar.

‘The gatherings are getting bigger now,’ murmured Leelamani. ‘The workers from the bazaar and the nearby farmhands often come for the meetings.’

It was true. Slowly, men had begun appearing on the peripheries of the women’s durbar – especially those who didn’t have any access to the King. They came with their small issues and disputes. With her suggestions and sometimes her orders, Meera had eventually gained acceptance among the people.

 ‘The girl would make a good ruler.’ Bhanu Pratap sighed. 

 ‘Will she? What about Jai?’

 ‘You know our plans might never come to pass, Leela. Neither for Meera nor for Jai. You forget there are other players. Veer Singh, the Company …’

‘No,’ Leela interrupted. ‘Nothing will happen if we remain strong. We cannot give in to the pressures of the Company. They get only a share of Navgarh’s revenues. They are paid to fight for us. You can terminate the alliance, send away their troops.’

‘And then? Our neighbours, whom we call our friends, will attack us and the Company will be the first to pounce on us. Don’t you understand, Leela, this peace between all of us is an illusion. We sit quietly not because we don’t covet each other’s land but because each one of us depends on the Company. Their troops are everywhere. The day we terminate the services, Navgarh will be wiped out. Wouldn’t it be better to let Meera marry Veer Singh, or anyone of her choice? Let’s have grandchildren to spend our last days with. Let us—’

‘Give up? And what will we tell our grandchildren, Raja Sahib? How will we tell them that we gave up their rights without even fighting for them?’ The queen yearned to take matters in her own hands.

Bhanu Pratap turned away impatiently.

‘I’ll see, Leela. If there is nothing else…’ the noise outside the chamber interrupted him. He could hear loud voices and quick footsteps. He thought he heard his daughter’s voice. Leela hurried out. As she passed him, Bhanu Pratap saw his wife’s face for the first time that evening. Faint crow’s feet enhanced her large and luminous eyes. Strands of grey sprinkled her dark hair. Age agreed with Leela. She smiled as she went to meet her daughter.

Bhanu Pratap followed his wife to meet Meera, Sukriti and Chaya in the courtyard. Meera folded her hands and bowed. Her dark eyes glowed with excitement; her dusky complexion was flushed with robust exercise. The girl had not inherited her mother’s fair patrician looks, but Bhanu Pratap could detect traces of similarity in the mother and the daughter – from the bright eyes to the stubborn jaw.

But Meera’s demeanour had something that Leelamani’s did not have. It had attitude and arrogance – like her grandfather – the one born to rule.

‘People are looking forward to Janamashtami this year. They want us to be a part of the celebrations at the temple,’ Meera informed her father. ‘The year has been good.’

Bhanu Pratap smiled at Meera’s excitement. If only he could travel in time and get a glimpse of what was in store for Navgarh.

 

 

Launching on September 1, 2017, Romance of Meera and Richard

All the volumes of Dust of Ages together as Dust of Ages: An 1857 Romance 

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