Jodhpur Diaries #10

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(10 years ago….continued)

Days following the grand declaration of love were like a never ending fairytale. I was living my dream and ticking off things from my secret wish-list. Rehaan and I spent most of the time together, especially evenings, chatting for hours together. I took part in the tea ceremony, took numerous trips with him to the plantations, posed for clicks and plucked tea leaves too. He had his way with words that completely won over me. I came to trust him, gradually. Slowly and steadily I came to know his tastes, his favorites, and his complete personality. But I also realized, sadly, that he didn’t trust me yet. He still kept secrets from me; I still knew nothing of his past. I was curious about his life, his childhood, his closest friends and family, but he never talked about them. He avoided the subject if I ever raised it. He loved me, I could feel it; he cared deeply for me, he was always there whenever I needed him; but he never let me inside his mind, never revealed anything about his past. And it hurt.

I once shared these thoughts with Jane, upset beyond my limit. She patiently listened to me and said, ’Give it some more time, dear. May be he has a problem with being open. May be he fears you’d judge him or worse. Everything has a reason, don’t just assume things. It’ll be fine.’ Her words comforted me a bit. Myra turned up just then. We had a bit of cat fight days earlier. I thought at first that she was being jealous about me and Rehaan, but she was just hurt that I kept things from her. She was a darling as always. She put her arms around my neck, hugging me from behind, ‘What happened dear? Why are you so sulky and sad?’ Her humorous accent made me laugh. She cheered me up. I was so blessed to have them in my life.

The next day mother had asked me to invite my friends home. She wanted to meet Rehaan, I guess. She loved gossiping with Malhar a lot. This time he suggested we do the cooking and mom should rest to taste our hand-made delicacies. ‘Hello Aunty,’ Rehaan was in his best attire that day, well groomed too, as if dressed to please. He had brought a small planted pot of tiny exotic flowers. ‘Hello, Oh thank you, this is beautiful. You didn’t have to bother so much,’ mom received it with pleasure, and hung the pot by a hook outside from the upper window sill. Rehaan knew the art of impressing people well enough. He had remembered how mom loved gardening. I smiled at him, and his eyes twinkled back. He didn’t miss any chance to win over my dearest ones. ‘Come on now, we shall prepare dinner. Rehaan and Rano, help me in the kitchen. Myra and Jane, you have to arrange the table, the crockery and the lights. Done?’ Malhar took over command. It was funny in a way, but we said in loud chorus, ’Done, sir.’

We planned the dishes together and zeroed in on chicken noodles, vegetable soup and paneer momos. There were just a couple of items we could manage without help. Rehaan took care of the chicken and vegetable broth and the complementary tea flavor of course. I played assistant to Malhar in the kitchen and almost drooled over the yummy dumplings he worked with his hands. It was a piece of art. When we finished preparations and set the table, we found what a beautiful job Jane and Myra had done. They had arranged everything out in the lawn, with lamps, lanterns and candles, and were busy with mom and dad doing their photo shoot. The evening went by in leg pullings, gossips, numerous poses and clicks and delicious food. Quite a memorable night.

Dad asked me that night before retiring to bed, ’Where is Rehaan from? He’s quite a knowledgeable fellow. He knows about diverse subjects.’ And I just smiled in agreement to that, not having an answer. The day was good, but that made me sad again.

The next day Myra called me up early in the morning,’ Rano, can we meet now? I have something important to tell you.’ She sounded urgent and tensed. I said ok, and suggested Tea Town to meet up. She panicked at that, vehemently refused and told to come near the school instead. Something was really wrong. I got up quickly and dressed.

An hour later we met near the school. Myra was alone. Hasn’t she informed others? Was this thing important just for me? Her eyes met mine, and I could sense her fear. What was this all about? ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked slowly. ‘It’s about Rehaan,’ she said. ‘What happened to him?’ I asked worried. ‘Nothing happened. Just, just tell me.. have you ever thought about why he’s never told you a thing about himself?’ Myra’s words confused me.

‘Myra, now what is this all about? Don’t beat about the bush, for god’s sake, and tell me, or else I’ll imagine the worst… ‘

‘Ok, calm down. I went to the railway station this morning to see off my aunt. There was rush, and too many police officers. Some of them were holding posters, I’m sure it was Rehaan’s face in those posters. They are about to paste it everywhere. I don’t know if my speculation is right, but I can’t help thinking he’s a criminal perhaps.’

‘Watch your words, Myra. Do you even realize what you’re saying.’ My mind had already stopped working. I couldn’t register what she was saying.

Malhar and Jane came cycling from the other side, halted suddenly. Malhar talked first. ‘It’s true, Rano. Even in the traffic posts they were pasting his posters. The police have come from some other state perhaps. It’s quite a scene at every corner. They are bound to find him today itself, TeaTown is quite famous.’

My heart hammered nervously. ‘I need to meet him,’ I said finally.

‘NO. Don’t!!’ both exclaimed. ‘You don’t know the real Rehaan. What if he’s actually a convict or worse? We don’t really know anything about him yet.’

‘What are you guys saying? This is Rehaan we are talking about. He’s a good person. We all know him. He just can’t be….’ I was panicking. I just couldn’t believe. I needed to hear the truth from Rehaan himself.

‘What if it’s all a façade? You cannot refute that possibility, right? Just stay away from him for now, can you? We just want you to be safe, Ok,’ Jane tried to reason with me. I just couldn’t think straight. Their words irritated me. Nobody tried to listen to me. My perspective was just not important. I was not blind. I knew Rehaan. He could be anyone, yes, but not what they were speculating. No. Never.

I went home. Malhar accompanied me, I guess to make sure I didn’t sneak out to meet him. I was feeling restless. I needed to know the truth. Dad was walking to and fro on the porch. ‘Do you know that friend of yours….,’ he started as soon as he saw me. ‘Yes, I know. You don’t have to repeat,’ I said irritated. He scowled at my reaction. ‘The neighbors are talking weird things. They say they heard things from the officers. You are not to meet him till this is solved, you get it,’ dad’s tone was serious. ‘But they can’t know anything for sure. These are just rumors,’ I said feeling desperate and helpless.

I retired to my room terribly confused by this sudden turn of events. I found myself repeatedly mumbling, ‘This can’t be true.’ Doubts were beginning to form in my mind. Every incident where Rehaan had refused me information and diverted the topic flashed through my mind. This can’t be happening. I trusted me. I still trust him.

After a few hours mom told me she was going to the neighbors’ and that I should lock the door properly. As if there was a serial killer out there running loose! I found this was my only chance to go. I managed to go up to the street from the back door, took the public transport to Tea&Treats. Of course he wasn’t there! What was I expecting? Just then I heard him talking to someone over the telephone, in the far end room attached to the kitchen, perhaps the locker room. ‘I can’t go back. I just can’t. I feel suffocated there. I don’t belong there. I need to get away as soon as possible, before they can find me. I need your help. I have escaped their reach for so long, I can’t get defeated now. I just won’t go back,’ Rehaan almost barked over the receiver. I couldn’t believe my ears. I had never heard him speak this way to anyone, ever.

And then he saw me. He kept the receiver, and just looked at me, not finding the right words. What could he possibly attempt saying? I was in tears, and I was afraid. I couldn’t muster courage to ask any question- there were way too many. ‘Rano, I…’ he said and took a step towards me but stopped on seeing me move back, away from me. ‘I promise I’m not what you probably think me to be. Please don’t be afraid of me. I’ll explain it to you later. I need to go now. You need to trust me on this,’ he was again his soothing self. How many faces did this person have? And what could he possibly explain about this? He didn’t even wait for my reply and started searching his locker for something. How could I trust him now? I went out of the restaurant. It was crowded now. The police was there. They were enquiring the staff about Rehaan who refused having seen him since morning.

One of them asked me, showing a photo of him. I didn’t know what to do. ‘He is about to escape from the back door now,’ I said. I must have lost my mind. They ran around the building in seconds and I could hear a lot of shouting back there.

Minutes later two of them held Rehaan by the arm and forced him into a van. Anger and wrath was written all over his face. He knew I had led them. When his eyes found me, I could see pure surprise and fury. ‘Why couldn’t you trust me for once?’ he shouted, and I almost shivered. This was not the person I knew.

And that was the unexpected end to my fairy tale.

(Present day…)

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’.

Bully #fiction

The team leader kept shouting at the bespectacled fresher. I just couldn’t stand it anymore. Enough of being a spectator. ‘Stop bullying him,’ I said loud and clear. His attention shifted to me. ‘What? What did you say?’

‘I said stop bullying him.’

‘And who are you, madam, to say me that? How dare you? Would you instead like to take up his task and stay over the weekend?’ he threatened.

I was seething inside. ‘You don’t have to tower over him like that. He’s doing well enough.’

‘And you are the judge? Says who? The one who fumbled during the presentation yesterday,’ his tone was piercing.

I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of seeing my shivering feet. I mustered up all my courage, pent up anger and spoke again,’ You are not perfect yourself. Get out of the illusion. Everyone knows of your shortcomings even if you think they don’t. Stop being too much of yourself.’ That silenced him for a minute. The highest anyone had managed till date.

Jenna #shortstory

‘I think chicken broth is tastier than vegetable broth,’ she said with conviction chopping the cucumber and cabbage on the wooden board. ‘Really, I want to taste it. Would you make it for me?’ he asked coaxing her to cook for him. He loved her recipes and rarely had such a golden opportunity to have a meal with her. He couldn’t forget the coconut and mango smoothie he had had last time. ‘Ok, it’s Pasta then, for dinner,’ she smiled chopping the tomato and onion now. She too liked a lot to display her skills and gain appreciation. Soon they started talking about other relatives in foreign lands who are reluctant to return, their marriages, divorces, affairs and babies.

John had come to Jenna’s town to visit her. He was a great fan of hers and immensely admired her. Their grandparents had been close; they were the founders of a company that Jenna’s parents now take care of. Soon John will do the same, but Jenna made her choice not to get stuck in this heirloom. She broke free from the emotional blackmails of her father and chose to be a chef instead, taking culinary courses along with her business administration classes. She was brave, independent, challenging and daring- something that John couldn’t be. At first he envied her freedom but then he understood the risks she had taken, and the stakes of her decision; he thought she was bold.

‘There’s a competition going on for getting accepted to the food labs. Aren’t you participating?’ he asked munching the Chinese salad. It was delicious- the crunchy fried noodles and some sweet sauce were surprising his palate. ‘Yes, I have applied for it but they have not yet responded,’ Jenna replied. She had been preparing hard for the competition. It was her only chance to get some exposure and rise higher than what she was- a chef in a decent family restaurant. ‘Aren’t you going to sit for a while? There’s three more hours for dinner. You needn’t worry from now. Keep that knife aside,’ he was being sulky. She laughed at his childish tone and came to sit with him. And just then the door bell rang, interrupting them from another long conversation.

It was a package. Jenna opened it eagerly and the contents made her squeal with joy. She held the acceptance letter for the competition in one hand and hugged John. It lingered a few seconds more than it comfortably should. ‘See.. I am so lucky for you,’ John said to lighten the awkwardness that followed. Jenna laughed.16577327-Woman-cutting-vegetables-tomato-cucumber-salad-on-a-wooden-table-Stock-Photo

Jodhpur Diaries #9

10 years earlier– (continued)

‘We are not yet open, Miss.. It’s after about two hours..,’ Rehaan said as he saw me enter the door. I had not thought of any good excuses yet but I attempted nonetheless,’ I know. But I have my school at that time…Umm… Can I just sit in the far end, in the library? I’ll make sure not to disturb you…’ My art of sweet talk was failing me here. There was a chuckle, or did I imagine it. ‘But I won’t be able to serve you the recommendations now,’ he said with a straight face, but his eyes crinkled with the pent up laughter. ‘Not at all a problem, anything will do,’ I knew was being childish not able to contain the excitement.

I took a seat near the romantic novels section. It smelt of room freshener and sanitizer wash. The aroma of the various concoctions was not yet present in the air. I put my fluffy overcoat on another chair. It was cold outside but inside was a bit warm. I was in my uniform, again. It’s not a date, I chided myself. Rehaan moved from one end to the other fixing things and arranging flowers. ‘Are you from Delhi?’ I asked as he assembled the books in the shelves around me. ‘No,’ he said. That’s it? He didn’t even name a place. That question usually worked, didn’t it? ‘You must be in college right? Or are you already graduated?’ I tried again. ‘Really, my looks tell you so? I’d rather let you make a calculated guess,’ he smiled this time. ‘College, I presume. Or did you drop out?’ No answer. ‘Where was your schooling?’ ‘A place far away from here..,’ I was blown over by these diplomatic answers.

‘You don’t have any friends here?’ -yet another attempt at having a proper answer from him. Why need he be so secretive? He’s playing with me, having fun, yes, he is.

‘Miss Rano, I think you said something about not disturbing me..,’ his teasing voice, chuckle and a raised eyebrow made me flush with chagrin. ‘Oh, yes, um.. sorry,’ I poked my head into the assignments and started writing without another word. Ah, I shouldn’t have come. I could hear unabashed chuckles from behind the shelves and cupboards. I really shouldn’t have come.

****

After about an hour, my assignments were completed. I was packing my bag to leave when he came with two cups of green tea. ‘Are you leaving, already? Isn’t it still an hour before your classes begin?’

‘Yes.. it is..’

‘So why don’t we ..,’ he left the rest unsaid pointing to the cups.

‘Yes, Ok.’ It was awkward to sit with him face to face. I had a lingering feeling that he was going to laugh at me again. I hate being laughed at.

‘You like this book?’ He pointed to Preeti Shenoy’s ‘Tea For Two and a Piece of Cake’ on the table. ‘Yes, she’s one of my favorites. I’ve read this book twice.’

‘Ah, sad the guys have not yet arrived, and we don’t have a piece of cake for our tea for two,’ he made a funny face. I laughed. ‘I like thrillers more and also coming-of-age novels. James Patterson is my favorite author, just after Agatha Christie,’ now he was answering my unasked questions.

We talked about hobbies and adventure sports; about movies and characters- damsels in distress and knights in shining armor. He had a good sense of humor and was good to talk to.

‘I should leave now. Thanks..,’ I got up picking my bag. ‘Today it was a complimentary drink, tomorrow it won’t be,’ he said holding my overcoat for me, before I could ask for the bill. He was expecting me to come again, welcoming me too. I didn’t reply to that. ‘You should come on Sunday mornings, we have tea ceremonies scheduled. It would be interesting to watch, I hope,’ yet another invitation. Ah, it’s good I came. ‘Sure,’ I said.

****

Days turned into weeks and weeks into months. Rehaan and I met almost every day at TeaTown or outside in the Mall Road. I had tried all the flavors of tea within a month, I dare not tell this to my friends- they would have killed me of jealousy. Rehaan helped me prepare for the exams; at times he helped us all in solving mind boggling equations. I wondered what this intelligent guy was doing here in this quaint township. We helped him in planting the exotic flowering plants in return. We trekked together a few times. It was really fun. Malhar, Myra and Rehaan tried rock climbing and Jane and I watched them compete. We were a bit afraid of heights.

In such a short time we had created so many memories, captured so many moments in clicks. I knew I liked him, but didn’t know about Rehaan’s feelings.

One day he came with blue roses, orchids and lavender. The fragrance was wonderful. I held it possessively hugging it close. And then he spoke for the longest three minutes of my life.

“I am deeply and irrevocably in awe of you. I won’t say ‘love with you’ yet, as I don’t take love casually. I like every version of you- the notice-me you, the notice-me-not you, the geeky you hiding behind the book racks and peeking at me, the bemused you, the excited without reason you and the gossipy you. You are innocent enough to be corruptible, but you are resolute and fiery in situations that I almost think you can’t handle. You are an enigma. Allow me to be a part of your life.”

I wanted to vanish in thin air at first. Then I desperately wished the ground to shallow me before I could blush further. And then I wanted to feel the feelings unhindered, without doubt. I said Ok- a resonating stupid one syllable, Ok, stupidly grinning ear to ear.

Little did I know that the next week would spoil it all.

Jodhpur Diaries #8

10 years back:darj_i0000db

The air was cool yet, still humid. It had drizzled two hours back. It was already March. Ah! How time flies! The wind blew on our face as we ran down the slope licking the ice-cream before it could dribble down our fingers. The roads in Darjeeling were like uphill and downhill, some slopes gentle but some too steep for any vehicle. We friends loved day outs like this, gliding on our skateboards, or pedaling on cycles down the road and walking the rest chatting and laughing together. High school and Intermediate in Darjeeling was quite, calm, soothing yet very eventful.

‘It’s the last month of school, do you all realize,’ Myra started. ‘Ya, next month we would be taking our board exams, and then off we’d go to places far from here, far from each other,’ Jane chimed in. ‘ISC is just a month away,’ I mock panicked just to change the course the conversation was taking. Such talks usually made an emotional mess of me. ‘Oh, stop it Rano, why do you have to mention the exams now? We’ll not talk of studies now, we shall chat, gossip and giggle our time together, alright,’ Malhar chastised me. He was the only guy among us, very sweet and homely, yet always pretended to be above us. We loved him. Well, actually he was like an outcast in other friends-circles in school.

I had suspected he was gay at first, years back, but it was something else. It was perhaps a phobia or something that he couldn’t connect well with people. ‘We should go trekking someday,’ Myra again started excitedly, making the same plans which almost always culminated into nothing in the end. ‘And when is that ‘someday’, you always have your last minute emergencies and murder our excitements with all your drama,’ I asked irritated. They laughed, ’Let’s plan something else.’ ‘For now, I’m going to the TeaTown, who wants to accompany me?’ I said finally unable to suppress my eagerness anymore. I had waited the whole day to go there, and it’s almost six in the evening. ‘Yes, Of course,’ they said in unison. I knew, I knew, they would never let me go there alone, or they would die of jealousy. I was giggling in my mind as we turned to a corner towards the Tea&Treats.

We walked up the steep slope feeling and imbibing the gradual change in our surroundings. There were no street vendors selling apricots, strawberries and extra orange carrots. Towards our right was a valley- the view was beautiful beyond words; we stood by the low height barricade against steep cliff-like edge that led to the green pine trees and the clouds in the valley. Each time we came here, we were mesmerized, and the view was the best at sunset. It was always difficult to let go of such a sight. But there was something else that piqued our interest and curiosity recently.

We walked up the stone and brick stairs admiring the exotic flowering plants in the sidelines. Oh, everything in this place was so beautiful. One has just too many things to admire here; you can never get tired of appreciating and adoring the place. The smooth colorful stones, tiles on the floor, Chinese patterns on the wall, vines hanging from the balcony, the red and pink tiny flowers on every table, and the golden card requesting a revisit given to customers while leaving- oh my god- there’s just too much mini treasures to hoard. I already cherish the glitter stones from behind the aquarium; three golden colored cards and a red flower now rest within the pages of my journal. It’s the perfect haven for a dreamy girl like me.

Now, hold still, I have not yet started about the interiors. It was an elaborate tea shop, inaugurated just recently, offering flavors you could have never imagined existed or was likable, with recommended food items combination for every type of tea. Work of a brilliant tea sommelier. And the book shelves with beautifully covered novels, just enhanced the charm.

We entered the glass doors. There were students like us all over the place- lovebirds, and chitter-chatter troupes. ‘Hello,’ dark eyes and easy grin of Rehaan welcomed us. I felt his eyes lingering on my face a few more seconds than others. He wore his black and white uniform with style, as we wore our school uniform with pride. I liked that. Apart from everything else that TeaTown boasted of, Rehaan was the best. Ever since I had been here, my eyes wandered searching for him every time I entered the doors, and I had grown a liking towards the sweet thrill that I felt every time our eyes met. I wonder if my friends noticed it, or worse, felt the same.

We were led to a table beside the Manga book section, Malhar’s favorite. ‘Would you like to try today’s recommended combo?’ Rehaan asked us. ‘Yes, for me,’ Myra raised a finger, smiling. ‘Yeah, me too,’ the rest of us said together. Rehaan smiled, as if he knew our reactions prior to asking. He perhaps knew the effect he was having on us, oh, of course he did, this guy. He was extremely handsome, with an edge of mystery. Again I felt his eyes linger on my face, I wonder it was real or just my imagination.

My eyes sought him every five seconds. He deftly poured the brewed mixture into beautiful shaped cups. But somehow it felt he did not fit here, his persona oozed of something more umm, important, yes and superiority, demanding respect perhaps. I could not pin point that feeling, or that word. We were served Belgian Mint Tea, Coco Truffle Tea, Orchid Vanilla Tea and Raspberry Nectar along with cakes and brownies. Yumm!! ‘Raspberry Nectar for you Miss. Rano,’ he said, He knew my name! O.M.G.. thank god I had that much of restraint not to smile foolishly at that. Everyone was looking at me. Myra’s expression was almost a scowl. Jealousy? Oh no. Jane teased, ’Oh, he knows your name. But Rehaan, why so special a recommendation for her?’ He hesitated a bit,’ No, I just overheard the name. Enjoy your time.’

‘Woah..You have an admirer Rano,’ Malhar began. ‘Let me taste your tea too,’ Myra demanded with a puckered face that made me laugh.

I have to talk to this guy.

The next day I woke up early enough and took the city ride to Tea&Treats with my assignments and journal. There’s no one to be seen so early, but Rehaan reclined on the window sill reading something intently in the newspaper.

Jodhpur Diaries #7

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’.

Jodhpur Diaries #6

Nandini
Nandini

It can’t be. And that too after so many years. How can he be a Prince? Perhaps the Prince just looked so from far. But that voice? I couldn’t concentrate on the fabric and look of Nandini’s beautiful bridal wear. So many things were going on in my mind. Internet was of no use- he must be social media shy. Childhood photographs were of no use. I should have stayed a bit longer to see his face properly instead of sneaking back into the room. That would have saved me these unnecessary headaches.

‘Princess, you look gorgeous,’ the designer beamed looking at her in his masterpiece. Nandini was very happy. She posed in front of the mirror admiring the intricate work. The saree was heavy but the red, green and golden cloth complimented her fair skin well. She indeed looked elegant.

Shaan stood there with a bemused expression smiling at her. He must be feeling emotional imagining his sister going to her in-laws leaving them all behind. Nandini saw her Bhaiya’s face in the mirror and turned to face him, ’How do I look?’ Shaan crossed the room and hugged Nandini. ‘You look lovely,’ he said and kissed her forehead. I could see a glint of tear in her eyes. That brotherly moment was forever etched in my memory.
* * *
‘Is that you? Oh my, you look so cute,’ I said noticing the chubby cheeks of a baby in the photograph. Shaan looked adorable as a baby. His looks just grew better with years. He laughed. Then we looked through another book of photographs of another generation of kings.

We were at the office of the royal family historian. He was in charge of the royal records and accounts. Rani Sa had asked Shaan to take me there. I found a lot of information on generations of rule- the whole dynasty. I gladly took notes and clicked pictures of the pages. It really would fuel the research work. This would make a good report.

We visited the archival and Shaan patiently explained me the details in short as we skimmed through pages of yellowed journals and chronicles. He seemed as interested as I was. That made me happy. I didn’t for a moment feel like I was imposing on him. And before we knew it, two hours had flown by.

When we reached the palace, Nandini was chatting excitedly with Rani Sa. The jeweler had delivered the jewelry for the bride, and they seemed very satisfied by it. ‘Rano! Shaan! There you are. Nandini was so eager to show you the ornaments. She has been asking me to call you or not to call you for over an hour. Aren’t they lovely?’ Rani Sa laughed and we all joined in. It seemed comfortable, like family. I felt I could belong there.

The jewelry box was full of beautiful earrings, custom designed necklaces, nose rings, anklets, rings, dazzling bangles and hair adornments. It was for every occasion before, during and after the marriage. The ‘maang tika’ for the forehead was very pretty.

‘I hope Bhai Sa comes home early today, I want to show him these, ‘Nandini was sad. She really missed her older brother. Rani Sa became quite and didn’t reply. ‘Yes, I hope he would,’ Shaan filled in the silence. I too was eager to have a glimpse of this person.
* * *
For two more days that wish was not fulfilled. Prince Shivam usually came too late after dinner, rested and left early for business works before I even came downstairs. I was so curious to solve this, and find out things, yet he always eluded me. Or I missed the chance. Not that I was brave enough to go and look at him directly. He didn’t meet Rani Sa at all. I got the impression that perhaps both avoided each other, lest they should confront on the palace premises. The atmosphere during dinners was the same- comfortable yet a bit heavy.

Shaan gave me a tour of the whole palace one day- it was a very long one. The palace was bigger than I expected. There were men working everywhere, responsible for keeping the grand architecture clean and spotless. We even visited the kitchen and the kitchen garden. I liked this part the most. Different corners smelt different- the wafting flavors of spices being crushed in iron buckets, and that of dried herbs, nuts and fruits. We talked to Madhav too. He was middle aged, and easily smiled thanking me for the compliments.

‘You like it, don’t you,’ Shaan couldn’t contain his curiosity as I tasted the mango juice in the silver tumbler. ‘Um, let me think,’ I couldn’t help teasing. ‘Oh, just say it. Everyone likes mango juice. It’s my favorite.’ It had the best texture I had ever tasted, I agree. ‘It’s fruity… yumm.’ We tasted the recently made pickles and sauces too. This whole thing was so interesting. It seemed like we were winning scavenger hunts.

‘And that’s Bhaiya’s room,’ he pointed to the opposite end from Rani Sa’s room. I was instantly curious. I wanted to barge in and search for any clue, and picture, any photograph that would clarify things for me. ‘Is he there? Should we visit him?’ I started knowing fully-well that he wasn’t there.

‘He is busy these days. Mostly after he came back. He is usually not at home.’ I had heard, from the servants gossips perhaps that he was always globetrotting, making business tours for years and had just recently come back home permanently.

‘I haven’t seen any pictures of you both. Or any of his recent pictures. Not even in the archival.’
‘Well, that’s a long complicated story.’ I could feel he missed him too.

‘And then, well, I have all the time in the world to hear it.’ I smiled hoping he would tell me.

‘Ok,’ he said decidedly as we moved towards the balcony. We sat on the big swing and looked at the crimson sky after the sun set.
He put one hand into his pajama pocket and took out a picture. A Polaroid click. Very recent.

‘That’s Shiva Bhaiya. A friend clicked it last month.,’ he showed it to me. Sleek tailored suit. The same deep penetrating eyes. Only thing replaced was that easy grin with that stoic look.

More Panic. More Surprise. Utter disbelief.