(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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DO let me know what you think of the romance between Princess Meera and Captain Richard Smith amid the turmoil of the 1857 uprising

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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.

Coming soon on September 1, 2017

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