(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.

(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 🙂

 

669391-bigthumbnail

 

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.

 

(CT) Chapter 11: On the Road

Khushi opened the iron gate and stepped on the road.  No one had come to see her out. Pressing her fingers against her wet eyes,  she cast the last glance at the house. She had thought she would heal the breach.  How mistaken she had been. Sujata was right. Some wounds could never heal. Only if her aunt had the courage. She sighed and checked the watch. Arnav had told her that he would take about an hour. She still had time and she needed to be on her own to come to terms with what happened, to collect her thoughts. The trail around the house called her. It promised a long solitary walk up the hill. Perhaps the exercise would do her good.

 

She had taken a few steps when she heard someone call her name. She turned around.

‘Wait a minute!’ it was Shlok,  his long strides eating up the distance between them. ‘There you are. I thought you would be in the market. But then after a meeting like that one can hardly go shopping.’ He made a wry face and gestured towards the house.

Khushi shrugged and turned away. She was angry and disappointed. But what could she say this teenager who hadn’t even seen her mother?

‘Hey, wait! Don’t be angry. Sudha bua sent me after you.’ That made her stop. She looked at the boy through the narrow eyes, wondering whether he was lying. ‘Sudha bua…er…you know, my bua, your mausi.’

Khushi nodded. ‘Why? Why did she send you?’

‘Gawd, how much like Baba you sound! Why are you here? Who sent you?’

Khushi huffed and turned away. She disliked being compared to that bitter old man who had no a bit of kindness in him.

‘Hey wait!’ he called out

Khushi kept walking not wanting to keep up with his juvenile conversation.

‘Ok Ok,’ he joined her. ‘You are angry. I get it. Baba is like that. He is old. One can’t change him now. Too set. And he has been miserable since dadi passed away. Can’t adjust to life without her.’ Shlok went on with the conversation alone, not needing Khushi’s inputs.  ‘He was driving mom and dad against the wall and they called bua. But it isn’t easy on Sudha bua also. She can hardly stand up to him.’

Khushi listened on silently, still unwilling to talk, but his words thawed some of her anger.

‘So we are struggling. And then you turned up and baba blew his fuse. The problem is no one stands up to him. I tried but then dadi and my mom told me it was disrespectful. SO no one has every told him that he is wrong,’ Shlok paused and Khushi felt his sidelong glance. No except Sujata bua years ago.’ The words stopped Khushi in her tracks. ‘And he has never forgiven her for it.’ Shlok finished quietly.

Khushi turned to look at him. He wasn’t as juvenile as she thought. He looked backed into her eyes with uncommon seriousness. ‘You know my mother,’ she asked.

‘Of course, I know. Dadi talked about her, Bua, even father. I planned to come to meet you when I go to Delhi to study two years later. When dadi was on her death bed and I promised I would bring Sujata bua if she lived for some more time. She didn’t believe me.’ His voice broke. Shlok had clearly been close to their grandmother. ‘Even Sudha bua misses her. I think dad would also like to meet her sometime.’

Khushi nodded, not knowing what to say.

‘Come, there is a small cafeteria nearby. We can get to know each other, Khushi di,’ he asked uncertainly. ‘I can call you that, right?’

Khushi smiled, her heart warming to Shlok’s chatter as they made their way to the café. ‘How is Sujata bua? Dadi said she is married?’

‘Yes, my stepfather is a doctor?’

‘And he is a good man? Not the ogre-like stepfather of fairy tales?’

Khushi laughed. ‘No. No. he is the nicest man in the world. Tell me, Shlok, how old are you?’

They had been in the café for about twenty minutes when she received a message from Arnav.

‘Let me know if you are ready. It is going to rain.’

Indeed it was. The clouds were gathering fast and there was a chill in the air. Khushi quickly told him she was ready to leave and the name of the café.

It took him another fifteen minutes. By the time, the breeze had turned into a dust storm. She had been standing out, chatting with Shlok when the SUV rolled around. A frown and compressed line of his mouth told Khushi that Arnav was not in a good mood. After rather terse introductions, she took her leave, promising to be touch with Shlok. As soon as she had climbed into the seat, the car took off. Fat droplets of rain dotted the windscreen.

(CT) Chapter 10: The Ties of Blood

‘Old relatives,’ Khushi told Arnav vaguely when he asked her about the people she was visiting.  ‘My mother’s side.’

‘Your mother belongs to Chandernagar,’ he looked at her in surprise.  Arnav had insisted on taking her to Chandernagar. He had a meeting there, he said. Sitting with him in the confines of the car was intimidating. The smell of his cologne enticed her senses. It was difficult not to. In a white polo neck and a faded jeans, and the sun twinkling through the car window behind him, the man looked gorgeous.

‘No’ she shook her head. ‘No. Just some distant relatives live here. Cousins and all.’ Despite her uneasiness with the topic, Khushi tried to smile

‘Why haven’t you met them till now? You’ve been here for months,’ he persisted.

‘We…we aren’t close. The family fell out years ago. So I had been dithering. Not sure how they would receive me.’

‘Oh. Want me to be with you,’ he shot her an earnest glance.

Khushi shook her head, warmed by his offer. ‘It’s ok. I think it’s best if I see them on my own.’ She was touched by the concern.  Though their friendship was just a few hours old, he was ready to lend her the support. She wondered what would he would say if she told her, it wasn’t distant relatives. It was her maternal grandparents, her nana and nani who had disowned her mother when she had gotten pregnant without getting married. Would he be able to piece the story together?

Khushi gazed out of her window. As they rounded a bend, she could see Chandrataal, bathed in sunshine, on a green hill. She tried to envision the mansion as hers. After all Aarvind Malik had bequeathed it to his lost child. And she could easily prove she was that child.

But the mansion didn’t  evoke any sense of belonging – the one that her little flat brought in Delhi or even the warmth that rushed through her at the picture of her step family’s house in Mumbai. She thought of the man next to her and felt a surge of sadness. Arnav and Anjili- both of them loved Chandrataal. It was evident in the way Anjili had lovingly restored it although she knew it would soon be lost to her. Arnav’s anger in itself showed the extent of his hurt. Her mind wandered to Arvind Malik and Khushi discovered that Anjili’s story had blunted the edge of her anger towards him. She still felt for her mother’s sufferings but now she could no longer blame them on Arvind Malik.

She had already made up her mind. The past was too painful to be raked up once again. She knew her mother would not want anything to do with the Chandrataal. She had moved on. Khushi herself felt ready to leave the past to where it belonged and move ahead.

So she decided to keep quiet. The charitable trust worked for abandoned women and orphaned children and Anjili and Arnav identified with the cause.  No need to cause friction when things in all probability would fall in place. Once three years deadline was over, and the mansion passed on to the trust, Arnav as well as Anjili would soon forget their anger and hurt. And she would finish her restoration work and move back to Delhi.

The mansion disappeared from sight. Khushi took a deep breath and turned away. Arnav was driving smoothly. The car was automatic and the bad leg did not pose much of a problem. The walking stick rested to the door.

‘Whom are you seeing?’ Khushi asked.

‘Some people for business,’ he answered shortly as the lips pursed and a small frown gathered on the smooth forehead.

‘I thought you were on a holiday,’ Khushi tried to lighten the mood.

‘Chandernagar is not my idea of a holiday,’ he said shortly. Khushi bristled and turned away. He wasn’t looking forward to the meeting but that was no reason to be rude. She refused to talk anymore and he did not make an effort to reverse the damage.  Khushi gathered the reserves of her courage as she prepared for the meeting.

The house was on the corner of the street.  Built on a hillside, with pristine white walls and sloping red roof, it wasn’t much different from the others on the road. It was on one of the busiest roads of Chandernagar. There was a lawn beyond the small iron gate that opened on the roadside.  Behind that a closed door and a curtains that had been drawn close. For a moment, Khushi felt like the turing away. She looked around. Arnav’s car had already disappeared.

She pressed the doorbell, Khushi wished he could have taken him up on his offer of support. There was a movement behind the curtains and a middle aged woman stepped out.

‘Yes, who is it?’ A middle aged woman stepped out and walked to the gate. Khushi watched as the eyes, so much like her own, round and hazel, squinted at her and then widened as the woman came to a halt just a few feet behind the gate.

‘Nam…namaste. I am Khushi, Sujata’s daughter.’ The woman stood speechless. Khushi felt her heart dropped. This hadn’t been a good idea. It was clear that the woman was her aunt, mausi, her mother’s sister. Yet there was no joy in her face. Just shock and wariness as she nodded and opened the gate.

‘Come inside.’  She said softly and led the way inside.

The inside was dark and cold. Heavy wood furniture of the drawing room rested against the wall. There were some noises from the inside, a whistle from pressure cooker.

‘Is it papa?’ a teenaged boy entered through the closed door on the opposite side.

‘No. Not papa.’  The woman, her aunt, shook her head and looked flustered.

The young boy looked at her and then at Khushi and back – his eyes catching the startling resemblance between the two women. ‘Who..who are you?’ he asked.

‘Khushi,’ the woman answered quickly. ‘And this is Shlok, my nephew, my brother’s son.’ She looked from Khushi to Shlok, still unable to decided what to do.

‘Hello, Shlok,’ Khushi offered a smile. It was her cousin, Khushi realized, the son of her mother’s brother. If things had been well, they would have grown up together.

‘Hi, Khushi. You…you look very familiar,’ Shlok moved towards her with an extended hand and a charming smile.

‘Go inside, Shlok. And send your baba.’ Their aunt’s voice was soft with a note of worry.

‘Bua,’ Shlok looked from her aunt to Khushi. ‘Is…is everything alright?’

‘No. Just send your baba. At once.’

‘Uh…sure,’ Shlok cast an apologetic glance at Khushi and left.

‘Sit, beta.’ Her aunt turned to Khushi. ‘Do you want something? Water?’

Khushi shook her head on the couch. The woman took the seat on the opposite sofa. ‘How is jeeji? Your …your mum?’

‘She is good. You are mausi, right?’ she asked tentatively trying to see if the woman acknowledged their relationship. The woman nodded. ‘You live here?’

‘No. In Shimla. It is two hours away. I am here on visit. Mum…our mother…she passed away ten days back.’ She gestured to the photo in the corner. Khushi had been so surprised that she hadn’t noticed much in the room. There was a large photo of an old woman in the corner. She looked like older, much older version of herself. It was uncanny, how the resemblance had carried on from the mother to the daughters. A stick of incense burnt in front of the photo.

‘I …I am sorry,’ Khushi whispered.

‘She would have wanted to see you,’ her mausi whispered still looking at the photo.  ‘Talked a lot about Jeeji in her last days. She wanted to meet her so badly.’

‘Then…then why did no one call us. I was just here….’

‘Who is it, Sudha?’ the words from the other side were followed by an old man who entered the room and stopped short at the sight of Khushi.

‘Baba, she is Khushi. Jeeji…’

‘I can see who she is? Why has she come? Did you ask her that, Sudha?’  with each word the hopes of reconciliation receded further. It was her grandfather, Nana, the man who thought he had lost his job and his name due to his mother’s transgression. The man who had broken all the ties and vowed never to see his older daughter, Sujata, ever again. He stood firm on his words.

‘Baba…’ Sudha began. The man raised a hand putting a stop to the soft words as he turned to Khushi.

‘Why are you here?’

‘Nam..namaste, Nana,’ Khushi tried. Neither the words nor the relationship was acknowledged. ‘I am…am sorry about Nani. If anyone had told mummy, she would have…’

‘She was not your Nani. And Sujata has been dead for us for years.’

‘Baba,’ Sudha tried to intervene. ‘Khushi is not jeeji. She is your grandchild, like Shlok.’

‘No. Shlok is from my son who has looked after her grandparents and cared for them. Don’t lump him with Sujata.’

‘Nana, it has been so many years. I just …’

‘Yes. It has been so for so many years. Then why are you here?’

‘I just thought…I am working here in Chandrataal and…’

‘Oh, it is Chandrataal again,’ her grandfather stepped towards her aggressively. ‘Sujata is determined, isn’t she? If not her, her daughter. Will her greed never change.’

‘Nana,’ Khushi rose for her mother. She had not come for this. Perhaps the earlier she left, the less hurtful it would be.

‘For the last time girl, I am not your Nana. Like mother, like daughter. Who is it this time? Arvind Malik’s lame boy whom he picked up from the streets? You wouldn’t mind him, isn’t it? Such hunger for wealth.’

Sudha gasped. Yet she stood in the corner, silenced by the father’s anger and Khushi knew why neither Sudha nor any other member of the family had every made a contact with Sujata. Her grandfather was a bitter old man.

‘I think I should leave.’ She stood up tightly.

‘Beta, have something…how can you…’

‘Sudha,’ the grandfather roared. ‘Let her leave. Let her not tarnish the memory of your mother, the good woman we are mourning. Leave girl,’ he turned to Khushi. ‘And remember,  Sujata is dead for us.’

Khushi nodded. Her eyes met Sudha’s wet ones and then her grandmother’s in the big photo behind her. Suddenly she noticed the difference, between their eyes and her mother’s. There were fire and determination that glittered in Sujata’s eyes instead of the helpless tears that she saw in Sudha’s.

Once again Khushi folded her hands and bowed her head. Her grandfather averted his head while Sudha timidly raised a palm in blessing before dropping her hand at her father’s scowl.

(CT) Chapter 9: Little Steps

Hello and here is an update on Chandrataal. Btw, so many of you read and say its a good story but never share my stories (Unforgettable, It could happen this way and Chandrataal) in any best stories list 😦 . 😀 not a complaint. Just wondering. As long as you are reading, I would write.

Also, any who downloaded dust of ages and did not get it, please, please write to amazon at once. they can’t do this. Just send a screenshot to me so that I also can inform them. and If you have read Dust of Ages – please comment on Vol 1 and Vol 2 on Amazon and Good reads. I did send a free copy to Juhi, Jyothi, and Sarika. Now comment to win the next volume, Silence of the Dolls.

Another thing. I have another blog called vandanashankerwrites.wordpress.com where I review books, translate etc. visit it if you have time and suggest books I could review 🙂

And now without further delay, presenting Chapter 9: CT

Once again the days in Chandrataal settled back into peace and quiet. After her talk with Anjili, Khushi had felt a shift in her thoughts and emotions.  Her anger and disappointment with Arvind Malik settled into a regret. Though she couldn’t think of his as her father, Khushi often found herself wishing she could have met the man. After finishing the portrait of the bearded Raizada ancestor, she had turned to Arvind Malik’s portrait. The frame had suffered some wear and tear and one corner was chipped. The paint was scraped off in places. Khushi had borrowed Arvind’s photograph from Anjili and set down to work. Each little stroke of brush brought the portrait live. One morning, she had walked into the gallery to find Arnav in front of the portrait. He looked lonely – standing stiffly in the semi-lit gallery leaning on his walking stick

‘Do you like it?’ She asked hesitantly.

Her words had an immediate effect. He stiffened and straightened before turning around and giving her a once over that she had found so annoying that first night they had met. And at once she understood. It was a defense mechanism. He thought she had been watching him, in his vulnerable moment. That annoying look was supposed to disconcert the pity that he expected in the eyes of the onlooker.

‘Does it come up to the standards of Chandrataal, Mr. Raizada?’ Khushi willfully raised her eyebrow challenging him to comment on the painting.

A slow smile lit the handsome face beating away the morning blues. ‘Fishing for compliments, Ms. Gupta? You know the wonderful work you have done.’

‘Good to hear that, Mr. Raizada, from someone who says he doesn’t care about these paintings and yet spends his morning look at them,’ Khushi donned her painting gear and began the preparations for the day.

‘Don’t count too much on it. I just came to check the value I would be getting from your work.’ Despite the cold words, a smile lingered at the corners of his mouth.

Khushi mixed the colors giving him a sidelong glance. ‘Really? Then I promise Mr. Raizada, I will do full justice to every penny you are spending on these. In return, you must admit that you do care.’

‘And to what end, Mr. Gupta? What purpose would my admission of feelings for these paintings serve.’

‘Well, for one. We could be friends. You know I love these paintings and find it very difficult to be friendly who says he doesn’t care about them. ’

His eyebrows rose and the smile appeared no longer, subtle or sardonic. It reached to his eyes and Khushi, for once, stood mesmerized at what it could do to it normally grumpy face. ‘So that’s the reason we haven’t been friends till now, Ms.Gupta? Because I said I didn’t care about beautiful things?’

‘Of course,’ Khushi brushed aside the words meant to embarrass her and stuck to her guns. ‘That’s the reason we haven’t been friends. Come on, admit it.’ His obvious enjoyment loosened her tongue. ‘ok, I would even give the permission to call me, Khushi.’

‘And how can I refuse such incentive. Alright Khushi, I do admire these paintings a lot though loving them would be stretching it a bit too far. And please forgive me for saying that I didn’t care.’

‘Only if you forgive me for the last week, Mr. Raizada,’ Khushi said immediately. ‘I was not eavesdropping.’ Somehow it felt important that he did not think badly of her. ‘I had just stepped out and…’

‘I know,’ he interrupted the apology. ‘I was angry that day. I didn’t mean what I said.’

Both stood a while, looking at each other. There was not much to be said. This feeling of openness between them was too knew. Smiled seemed to fill a few moments till they started feeling foolish. Arnav straightened once again and shrugged. ‘So, see you at the breakfast.’

‘See you at the breakfast, Mr.Raizada,’ Khushi nodded, reluctant for the encounter to end. But he moved towards the door and she turned to the painting. The tap of the walking stick stopped abruptly and she turned back. He was standing at the door, waiting for her look at him. ‘Its Arnav, Khushi.’ And he left.

Anjili looked at Khushi inquiringly at Arnav’s words. ‘Come, Khushi. Hope you a good morning session.’ She had not missed the undercurrent of uneasiness when Arnav and Khushi were in the same room.

‘It was good. Thank you.’ Khushi shrugged and took her space.

The breakfast was remarkably quiet in the absence of the kids. ‘Off to school,’ Anjili told them. ‘You two must eat. I had my breakfast with them. You two seem to be in a good mood today.’

‘It’s a beautiful morning.’ Khushi pointed out to the scene outside the window. The light of early morning danced on the mountains, illuminating them sharply against the azure skies.

‘Then its time, you stopped seeing it through windows, Khushi. Go out, go to Chanderpur. You have been scooped here for two months.’

‘Not scooped up, Anjili,’ Khushi took a bite of her toast. ‘But yes, I must go to Chanderpur. There are some people who my mo..my family knows. I should pay them a visit sometime.’

‘No good, is it Arnav? She says she knows people in Chanderpur. But she hasn’t even been there to meet them.’

‘Why, Khushi? Anyone would say we are making you work too hard,’ Arnav shook his head in mock disappointment.

‘In that case, I shall take the day off today and go. That is, if you don’t mind,’ Khushi sat back and looked at the brother and the sister as they smiled. It was a pleasant morning indeed.

‘Great. I have some work. Need to meet someone. I can give you a lift.’ Arnav offered. ‘We leave in say two hours and comeback before sunset.’

‘Yes, my lord.’ Khushi answered at his high-handed tones and joined Anjili in giggling as Arnav shook his head and let the girls have fun at his expense.

For more of my work:)

(Chandrataal) Chapter 8: Revelations

Hello, everyone. Here I am with another update of Chandrataal 🙂 I think this part marks the turning point. From here on we might see a turn in relationships.

But more important, the second part of 1857 Dust of Ages is out!!. The first part did well and I will soon be mailing gift coupons to Sarika, Juhi and Jyothi (if she would please email me her email address). Keep reviewing. Against first 10 would get part 3 free 🙂

The deal remains the same-first 10 reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads get the next part free. I had a mind-blowing 100 downloads of the first part…but here are only 9 reviews on Amazon.in. So one place there and 1 review on Amazon.com (Thanks to Juhi!). So nine places free to review. Goodreads too has some free space! Review and I will send part 2 free.

Hoping to hear from you soon. And now on to Chandrataal…

‘Raghav! Raghav!’ Khushi’s heart lurched and the small chisel slipped out her fingers. The loud yell split silence of the mansion.  Khushi frowned as she looked towards the doorway. What happened to those cool sardonic tones that annoyed her so much? A thud of running footsteps told her that Raghav was indeed rushing to Mr. Raizada’s aid.

Khushi shrugged and turned back to the painting at hand. It was one of the Malik ancestors posing as the ruler of his small kingdom. The artist had captured the salt and pepper beard in great detail and Khushi needed all her concentration to retouch the delicate strands of black and white. As she worked her mind wandered downstairs. She had hardly heard from Mr. Raizada since their stand off right here, a week ago. They still met over the meals and often in the corridors. During those encounters, Arnav Singh Raizada would acknowledge her with a polite nod and an amused smile, daring her to judge him as Anjili and Sheetal lavished him with prodigious attention. But his pursed lips and frown when he thought no one was watching, told Khushi that he bore that attention rather than invite them. Only this morning she had heard him sigh in frustration as the twins played footsie with him and Anjili told her daughters to be careful about his leg.

‘Yes, girls. Always remember Mamu’s leg. IT should never be forgotten. Not for a moment.’

Khushi would have sympathized with the man had she not seen Anjili’s fallen face at his sneering words.

She stood back to examine her handiwork. Not bad. Just some touch up on the right corner of the canvas and it would be as good as new.

The sound of more footsteps and furniture scrapping against the floor disturbed her concentration. She had to admit, she felt curious. Normally Chandratal was a haven of peace and quiet except for the noisy banter of the twins. Trying to ignore the commotion downstairs, Khushi stretched her shoulders and bent backward, relieving the tension from her back. Perhaps she would finish the painting tomorrow.

She took off her gloves and wondered if she could go out. The loud voices piqued her curiosity.

‘Give it to me, Bhaiya,’ she heard Hariprakash as soon as she stepped out.

‘No need of it Hariprakash. Just get out of my way,’ Arnav growled.

‘Chottey, it was broken. That is why I put it in the discarded items.’

‘You don’t have to explain yourself to me, Anjili,’ The voice was cold. Khushi could imagine the hurt on Anjili’s face.

‘But why are you being like this?’ This time Anjili did not back out.  From the landing, Khushi saw the trio. Anjili was blocking her brother’s way.  ‘You told me you wanted nothing from this house. I asked you again and again and you told me…’

‘I know what I told you,’ He hissed in exasperation, trying to find a way around as Anjili. Anjili held his elbow as he tried to walk around.

‘Then why? You said you cared for nothing. Then why this attachment to this old broken chair.’

‘Leave it, Anjili.’

‘And why don’t you let me touch Baba’s room. It needs sprucing up before…’

‘I also don’t feel the need to explain anything to you. I need to go.’

‘No, you need to stay and think. And stop running away as you have been doing since Baba passed away. I understand you were hurt. So was I. But it isn’t that he had forgotten us. He had…’

‘My leg hurts,’ he told her curtly using his handicap to silence his sister. He was lying. Arnav stood straight holding the chair by its back without no difficulty. Khushi shook her head as she watched Anjili’s shoulders slump and fight leave her. She stood aside as her brother carried the broken up the stairs.

Khushi was so engrossed in the drama that it was only when he was on the top stair that she realized. She had been eavesdropping and the man would soon discover. Hastily she stepped back but it was too late.

‘I…I just came out to …to take a break,’ she stammered, embarrassed at caught staring.

‘Glad we are able to furnish you with some entertainment too.’ He said sarcastically, still carrying the chair in one hand and leaning on the stick on his other. She shook her head in embarrassment but he had already walked away.

Later that day, Khushi met Anjili for their evening tea. The ritual of sharing evening tea had been disrupted by her brother’s arrival. Today, Anjili sought her out again. Arnav had gone with Sheetal to buy something from the town Anjili told Khushi in a tight little voice. Thought Anjili seemed to have recovered her usual sunny nature, the morning’s run-in still rankled.

Khushi, on the other hand, wanted to clarify her position. She had not been eavesdropping, as Mr. Raizada had implied. And whatever the brother thought, Khushi did not want Anjili to have think she had been. When Khushi mentioned the incident, Anjili brushed aside her apology with a sigh.

‘Don’t take him otherwise, Khushi. I understand his remark was uncalled for but these aren’t easy times for anyone of us, what with Chandrataal going out of our hands,’ Anjili leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes.

‘Out of your hands?’ Khushi looked up from her cup of tea. The words surprised her.  ‘But I assumed that this was your mansion.’

‘We did too,’ Anjili chuckled. ‘Rather Arnav did. But Baba had other ideas. He didn’t will it to Arnav or me.’

‘Didn’t will….but to whom then. YOU are his children…whom did he…’

‘Adopted kids, Khushi.’

Khushi shook her head in disappointment. Everywhere she turned she saw evidence of Arvind Malik’s insensitivity. The man liked to play with lives – pick up people, give them affection only to betray them in the end.

All her life she had been eager to meet him but never once had she liked the man. Even when she had known nothing about him except the fact that he was her biological parent. But the man who could abandon a girl when she was pregnant with him a child was not fit to be deemed a father. Her mother Sujata had been left alone, bearing the cruel taunts of the small town where she lived as she valiantly battled with the complications of early pregnancy. And then her family too had given. Her little siblings were laughed and jeered at. It had become difficult for her old parents to move out of the house. So they sent their twenty-year-old daughter to Delhi, under the guardianship of a distant relative.

Sujata had survived with nothing but her grit and determination – working at a school, tutoring children, pretending to be a young widow. Khushi still remembered the years of her early childhood when her mother worked day and night to make the ends meet. She had been thirteen when Sujata met Dr. Shashi Mathur, her stepfather. Shashi uncle had been kind and generous and when her mother started her new life with him, no one had been happier than Khushi. It was then that Khushi first mentioned her desire to meet her family. She and Sujata had traveled to Chandrataal to meet her grandparents. But the distances had grown too wide and even after all the years, Sujata and Khushi saw the disapproval lurking in the eyes of her parents. They had never gone back. When Khushi had mentioned Arvind Malik, her mother had refused right away. She did not want to open the old wounds. Khushi had surrendered. She decided to wait, to grow up and then confront the man who was responsible for her birth.

But he was already dead by the time she could make it to Chandrataal. Khushi wondered what Anjili and Arnav thought of him, the children who got the love and attention that should rightfully have been hers. She felt she wanted to know more about the man.

‘You know, Anjili,’ She said cautiously. ‘the more I hear of your baba, the more I get confused. He doesn’t seem to be very nice. Once he had adopted you…’

‘NO, you don’t understand him, Khushi. Baba was the nicest, the kindest man I ever knew.  He brought us up with so much love that I never missed my parents.’

‘But…’

‘But he was not a happy man. We learned how unhappy when he died. You see, he had fallen in love with a girl from Chandernagar. But his parents disapproved. They considered themselves over and above the people of the town. So, baba was packed off to a University in America. He went with dreams in his eyes, of making it big and when he was independent he would return and marry the girl. But when he returned two years later, the girl was nowhere to be found. On top of it, he learned that she had been pregnant. I think it broke his heart. It’s the reason he never married.’

‘But…I ..didn’t he …why didn’t he look for her.?’

‘Day after day, Khushi, year after year I saw him looking for her.  SO many people took him for a ride, claiming that had found her whereabouts and he would go rushing, only to learn that it wasn’t her.  That’s why he did this.’

Did what?

‘Willed this house to his child, if there is one or the mother if it isn’t. Even when he died he hadn’t given up hope. I think Arnav knows this though he is so angry. You know this is the house of our childhood too. Arnav loves every corner, every little bit of furniture. You saw how angry he was when he saw baba’s old chair in the discarded items. He may not admit, but he still loves baba. They were so close that at times I felt left out,’ Anjili shook her head as she chuckled. ‘Baba has willed this estate to him, the townhouse to me. But this mansion which means so much to Arnav, he gave it to that unknown child. And that is Arnav’s grouse against him.’

(CT) 7: Encounters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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