I hid behind the big flower vase and the hanging decorations as Shivam descended the stairs chatting pleasantly with a relative, a middle aged woman, perhaps a queen. The very silhouette of him had my heart pounding and gave me goose bumps. And today he looked very much the prince that he was- charming, compelling and enigmatic. And every royal woman had her back straight, bore a dignified stance and an elegant smile, complimenting her stature well.
I myself was draped in a beautiful peacock blue saree that Nandini and Shaan had urged to get for me on our second visit to the designers’. Relatives and friends from different states had started arriving for Nandini’s wedding. Everyone was busy in the preparations and catering to the guests. Cold drinks and juices were being served. Even the guards in uniform looked good today. If pre-wedding days were so, I wondered how the wedding day would be.
I could see Nandini searching for me, as I had hurriedly left her side without a word on seeing Shivam. This was the second time in the day that I did this. I’d make up to her later. She would let it go.
I nervously shifted my position lest I should be discovered. His footsteps stopped just a few feet away from me. I could hear most of their conversations. They were this close to finding me. I didn’t want to encounter him now. I was not ready. I was not prepared. No, not now. I couldn’t think of any way to escape him. He shouldn’t see me now.
‘Bhai sa, have you seen Rano here?’ It was Nandini. I could feel his attention focusing on what Nandini said, and lines of alertness forming on his brows. He hadn’t forgotten the name. Somehow the thought made me happy. ‘Who?’ he asked suspiciously. ‘Oh, I forget, you haven’t met her yet. Don’t worry I’ll find her,’ Nandini came towards the vase but something caught her attention and she turned left. I moved far into the garden finding no place inside the hall where I wouldn’t be noticed.
I sat on the swing thinking about the dilemma I was in. Fate was playing games with me, I thought sipping the ‘Aam Panna’(a beverage made from unripe sour mango) from the silver tumbler.
Shaan’s words still reverberated in my mind. Prince Shivam was the King’s adopted son. Though he didn’t tell me any more details, it was clear that it was meant to be a secret. He had trusted me with a big secret. When Shivam had known about it at the young age of nineteen, he had left home and the city for good feeling deceived and fooled. The truth created cracks in the bonding that was meant to last for a lifetime. After searching a lot he was found after about six to seven months in Darjeeling, working in a coffee shop. A lot of persuading from Raja Sa, the King and a lot of scolding from Rani Sa, he finally returned to Rajasthan. But the damage was done. Their relationships could not go back to normal even after much efforts and reconciliations. He left the country for higher studies and came back less frequently. He kept becoming more and more detached from the family, on a personal level, and no attempt even from the siblings helped undo that. The family missed him, and perhaps he in his own darkness missed them too.
It was sad and unexpected. I didn’t know he carried so huge a burden when all his face showed was an easy smile and joy. I thought I knew him completely then, ten years ago. But there was so much more to this person. I really had thought he was passionate about his job. It was actually an elaborate tea shop with an attached mini-library, but I didn’t dare correct Shaan. I under no circumstance wanted to face the questions that would have come after that.
Someone entering your life, your conscious awareness, is a very big thing, as their entire past comes with them. But I didn’t know whose past I cared more about. I dare not admit it. And I didn’t know whether it was care or just curiosity.
‘There you are,’ Nandini’s accusing tone pulled me from my reverie. ‘I have been searching for you for the past fifteen minutes. What are you doing here? I wanted to introduce you to my cousins, and also the elders. Even Shiva Bhai Sa hasn’t met you yet. Perhaps he didn’t even know you are staying here.’ ‘Umm, can I meet them later? I just wanted a bit of fresh air. We still have over a week to get acquainted,’ I tried to reason with her. How would I meet him? Ten years is a long time, still, what would I say? Hello, you were my heart throb a decade back but now I’m almost betrothed to you brother. Ridiculous!
‘Ok. Alright. I didn’t realize that. I was too excited,’ she relented. ‘What were you thinking? Sitting here, ‘far from the madding crowd’?’ Her choice of words made me smile. I had told her once, how much I liked and disliked that Thomas Hardy novel. ‘Nothing, Just, sorting out things.. arranging my thoughts…nothing special,’ I answered. Her expression changed to that of concern. ‘Do you feel out of place with us? Is there anything bothering you?’
‘No, not at all. I really like it here. And you all have treated me like one of your own. Why should I feel so?,’ I reassured her. She had this bad habit of jumping to conclusions. With time I came to know there were two sides to her personality- one, the sweet, simple, bubbly child woman adoring everything she saw and another the caring, protective woman bestowing sisterly love. And I loved both. She then grumbled about having to go and welcome an overbearing aunt from California. I laughed and excused myself to go to my room.
I held the lower pleats of the saree and went up to my room, keeping an eye around me. I shuddered at the thought of having to encounter him eventually. But I would try to escape him as long as I could. The door to my room was left open. I remembered having closed it. Perhaps Nandini had forgotten to close it while searching for me. Shaan wouldn’t enter if I wasn’t there. I opened it, searched for the light switch and pressed it on.
Suddenly my heart stopped and by breathe was caught in the throat. There, in the middle of the room he stood, staring intently at me, with surprise, relief, anger and longing, his eyes penetrating into mine. My hands shivered. I wanted to vanish into thin air, or get swallowed into the earth before my heart exploded, before I faced his wrath. And within a matter of seconds, in a spur of a moment, when maybe his anger overpowered him, he closed the distance of a room between us with fast heavy steps, pulled me with one hand, closed the door and latched it fast with the other, pushed my back to the closed door, and stood in front of me his eyes filled with anger caging me with his hands on the door. His face was just inches away, and his eyes bore holes into mine. And only a two syllable word escaped my mouth, ’Rehaan’.