Joined: 09 October 2008
Nandini rang the doorbell of her house and managed to smile convincingly at her mother when she opened the door. She had just stepped inside when her mother said happily, "We were waiting for you to come home. Rajeshji's friends have arrived….they came just a few minutes after you left for college."
To Nandini's good fortune, her mother did not wait for her to respond and turned to go back to the kitchen, continuing to talk, and so she missed the tiny shadow that flitted across her daughter's face at her words.
They had come in the morning itself….if only she had known, Nandini thought despondently. She usually called her mother from college before leaving, but had forgotten to do so today. She sighed and followed her mother.
There was a little round table in the kitchen, with two chairs. Nandini sat down on one chair and kept her bag on the other.
"They are really nice and decent people. We couldn't have found better tenants than Sumer Singhji and Prithvi," her mother was saying cheerfully, adding tea powder and sugar to the water boiling on the gas. "They had breakfast here, but Sumer Singhji insisted on having lunch in Ayodhya, even though we tried so hard to convince them to stay. So I took lunch to them. But we made them promise that they will have dinner here with all of us for today at least. Nandini, give me those cups from that shelf, we can't serve them tea in our ordinary cups…"
Nandini got up from her seat, reached to the shelf her mother was pointing to and cautiously took down two of the best and most expensive cups they had in the house. Her mother poured steaming tea into the cups, placed them onto a tray and held it out to Nandini.
"Here, go and give this to them. I've made some onion pakodas. I'll come with you with a plate of those and I can introduce you to them."
"Go there….right now…?" Nandini asked weakly. Prithvi had lambasted her less than an hour ago and his words were still ringing in her ears.
Her mother carefully replaced the tray carrying the cups back onto the platform and asked concernedly, "Nandini…what's wrong?"
"I had lost my anklet and I went to check in Ayodhya before coming home. I didn't know they had arrived and I just walked inside to look for it," Nandini said shamefaced.
"Oh dear…," Sarojini muttered, sensing in some way that what had followed had not been very pleasant.
"I apologized to them," Nandini said hurriedly. "But…going there again...so soon…."
Her mother smiled at her worried expression. "I'll go and give them the tea and the pakodas. Don't feel upset about what happened…I am sure you'll become friends with them tonight when they come for dinner." Even though Sarojini had said 'them', Nandini knew her mother was somehow aware of who exactly she did not want to face so soon.
"Here, have some tea. It solves all problems, doesn't it?" her mother asked with twinkling eyes, knowing it was one of Nandini's favourite ideas.
Nandini grinned and took the cup. But she felt guilty as Sarojini adjusted the plate of pakodas also on the tray with the tea cups. Her mother has just picked up the tray again when her grandfather appeared at the door, magically lured by some appetizing aromas.
"Did I smell something good?" he asked enthusiastically, and then saw Nandini, who was walking back to the table to sit down, smiling at his excitement.
"When did you come from college Nandini…did your mother tell you…the tenants have come," he beamed.
Just then Prakash came running into the kitchen, with a cricket bat in hand. The smell from the kitchen had been delicious enough to force him to make a stop there before joining his friends for a match on the ground near the house.
"I smell pakodas!!" he yelled happily. Then his eyes fell on Nandini, who was sitting at the table, with the cup of tea lying untouched. She smiled at him, but he looked at her a little thoughtfully and started to walk towards her. Assuming that he was about to sit on the other chair, she removed her bag and placed it on the table. But to her astonishment, he came and stood at the back of her chair, put his arms around her neck and hugged her.
Such displays of affection were very unusual for Prakash, who had forbidden her mother and her from hugging or kissing him when he had turned seven years old. That was the age when he had decided he had become too old and mature to be cuddled and kissed. But today, it was almost as though he had intuitively sensed something of what his sister was feeling. Delighted and very touched, Nandini drew him around to the front, hugged him back and then held him firmly to her side.
Grandpa came and sat in the empty chair next to her.
"Sumer Singh is a good man", he nodded appreciatively, "and that boy…there is something about him…something familiar…" he frowned in concentration, " and he was so quiet…hardly spoke a word or two when he was here, and I didn't feel it was because he was shy....do you think he was feeling shy," he asked Sarojini.
Nandini who had just taken a sip of tea almost choked on it…the very idea of calling Prithvi shy….. She started to laugh, unable to control herself and saw belatedly that grandpa and Prakash were looking at her curiously. Grandpa opened his mouth to ask the reason for her laughter.
"I have made your favourite onion pakodas, father," Sarojini interrupted and hurriedly filled a plate and handed it to him.
Grandpa exclaimed in delight and bounced off with the plate towards the living room, forgetting all about Prithvi and the mystery behind Nandini's amusement.
"Hey grandpa," Prakash said indignantly, "you are not going to finish off all that by yourself, are you!!". He pulled out of Nandini's hold and ran off to protect his share of pakodas.
Nandini and her mother laughed at the sight and then looked at each other, relieved. If grandpa ever learnt that anyone had so much as looked angrily at his Nandini, Rajesh Garewal's friends or not, the tenants would be on their way out within minutes.
Prithvi and Sumer Singh were standing in one of the five rooms on the first storey of Ayodhya. They had examined the ground floor, which had the big living room, two bedrooms and the kitchen, and now they were surveying the other rooms in their new home. Three of the rooms were totally bare, but the other four were well furnished. A flight of stairs from the living room opened to a big landing, with one room straight ahead; there were two rooms on either side of this room.
The room right opposite the steps was the biggest room in the house and had a big sturdy bed, a sizeable cupboard and a wooden table and chair facing a big window that opened onto the small locality with the temple in the centre.
"This room is perfect for you, my lord," Sumer Singh said.
"No," Prithvi responded, "You will take this room, Baba. I'll take one of the other rooms."
Paying no heed to Sumer Singh's protests, he left the room. Sumer Singh had years of experience with Prithvi's extremely obstinate nature, and so he accepted defeat and strolled over to the window to admire the beautiful view outside.
Prithvi walked into the room to the left of Sumer Singh's room. This room was just a little smaller and had similar furnishings, and it had two big windows, one each on adjacent walls. He decided to take this room and walked over to the windows. One opened to the same scene as Baba's room.
But when he turned and walked to the other window, which was in the middle of the adjoining right-hand-side wall against which the bed was placed, he found himself looking at into an identical room in Vrindavan, some feet away. Even as he was looking, a young girl came into the room with a bag in hand. She placed the bag on the table, opened the cupboard, took out something and walked out of the room again.
Prithvi immediately turned around to leave the room and saw Sumer Baba standing at the door.
"Should I arrange this room for you, my lord?"
"No," Prithvi said shortly, "I don't like the view from the windows. I'll take the room on the opposite side." And he walked past Baba and towards the staircase to return to the ground floor.
Mystified, Sumer Singh remained standing there for an instant, wondering what was wrong with the view from the windows…they seemed perfectly fine to him…
Prithvi walked around the huge living room, looking it over again, while Sumer Singh sat on the rather old sofa planning the arrangement of furniture once the truck came with their belongings. Two empty cups of tea and a half eaten plate of pakodas were on the little centre table in front of the sofa.
"The house does seem to suit our need for peace and quiet," Prithvi said slowly. "The area is calm and secluded, but is still close to the heart of the town."
"All the bedrooms are quite large, airy and have plenty of light coming in. Rajesh was right," Sumer Baba said approvingly, "The furniture is very old but the wood is of really good and long lasting quality. As for the rest, all our possessions from the previous house will arrive tomorrow."
"Hmmm…now just as long as the other neighbours are not like the guest we had this afternoon, I think we'll be fine."
Sumer Singh kept silent this time.
Prithvi sighed, "You can say it, Baba."
"Was there really any need to be so harsh with her," Sumer Singh asked quietly.
"She came into this house without knocking," Prithvi retorted, "It is important to set down some ground rules if we are going to live here for a while."
"But the poor girl didn't do it on purpose, my lord; she didn't know we were inside."
"Maybe…" Prithvi shrugged impassively, "but she needs to know she can't do it again…and now she'll think twice before simply walking in here as and when she pleases…"
"After the way you spoke to her, I doubt she'll ever come here at all, my lord" Sumer Baba said dryly.
"That's what I'm hoping for…" Prithvi said under his breath, before changing the topic and saying, "I'll take the bags upstairs to our rooms. We'll let this room remain vacant….for now…"
Sumer Singh didn't ask what he meant and simply nodded.
Prithvi went into the small bedroom, where they had temporarily kept the luggage while they inspected their new residence. He emerged with one of the heavy suitcases in one hand and the smaller bag in the other and climbed up the staircase to place them in the rooms above.
When he came down again, he saw Sumer Singh coming out of the room with the other heavy suitcase in hand.
He strode over, took the bag from his hands, placed it on the floor and asked heatedly, "What were you doing, Baba?"
"These bones still have the old strength in them, my lord," Sumer Singh said soothingly.
"Yes, I am sure you are very strong, Sumer Baba," Prithvi replied angrily, "In fact, I am sure that every night after I go to sleep you wear a mask and a cape and fly around the world rescuing people and fighting evil. But for my sake, please pretend that you have crossed 50 of age and shouldn't be lifting luggage that weighs twice as much as you…."
Ignoring Sumer Singh's laughter, Prithvi grasped the old man's upper arm and, with a gentleness that was in stark contrast to his tone, led him to the sofa again.
"Sit down," Prithvi ordered grimly, "If you move an inch before I say so…"
Still chortling, Sumer Baba nodded in response to the warning in the unfinished sentence and said, "As you wish…."
With a look that said 'you better do as I wish', Prithvi picked up the bag and moved towards the stairway, saying loudly, "And don't you dare end that sentence with 'my lord'".
"…my son," Sumer Singh fondly completed his sentence in the empty living room.
Nandini peeped into the living room from the kitchen. Grandpa was sitting in his favourite armchair and Sumer Singh and Prithvi were sitting on the sofa. Sumer Singh was chatting contentedly with her grandfather, but Prithvi was sitting silently, looking very uncomfortable. Prakash was sitting on the sofa opposite to theirs and was staring at him with a strange mixture of approval and suspicion. Prithvi was ignoring him very successfully.
He looked like a school boy who was being punished for some mischief, Nandini thought, and fought down a laugh.
Then she took a deep calming breath and walked into the living room, smiling and carrying a tray with two glasses of water.
But she need not have been worried about facing Prithvi again. Sumer Singh smiled back at her warmly when he picked a glass, but for all the attention Prithvi gave her when he took a glass, the tray might have been floating by itself in mid air.
"This is my granddaughter…Nandini," grandpa announced with a proud smile.
"Oh yes…We met her in the afternoon" Sumer Singh said, smiling at her.
"You have?" grandpa asked, frowning. "Nandini didn't say….."
"Sumer uncle…we heard you were in the defense forces." Nandini said hastily, trying to divert the topic from dangerous territories.
Sumer Singh smiled, "Well actually I was with the UN peacekeeping forces."
"You were with the UN forces!!" grandpa asked, very impressed, and he exchanged awe-struck looks with Prakash. And soon, he and Nandini's brother were pelting Sumer Singh with questions about his experiences in various countries.
Nandini suddenly realized that Prithvi was finally looking at her. And his expression only showed mild contempt at her very obvious attempt to change the topic. She smiled at him uncertainly, but he simply looked away again. She sighed faintly and returned to the kitchen to help her mother with the dishes.
Dinner was finally over. Sumer Singh was now extremely friendly with grandpa and Prakash. Prithvi had been very reserved but polite with her mother and grandfather, and though he hadn't spoken to Prakash at all, he seemed tolerant of her brother. He had given very brief answers to most questions, but her mother and grandpa appeared to have accepted his reticence very indulgently, and they had directed all their questions to Sumer Singh.
Prithvi's attitude towards her, of course, was a different story. He hadn't looked at her once during dinner, leave alone talk, and had refused servings from her while accepting them quietly from her mother.
Nandini was thoroughly bemused by his animosity towards her. She had thought his anger in the afternoon had only been because of her ill mannered entrance into their house. But now she was not so sure. He seemed to radiate hostility when it came to her.
Then there was another feature of the dinner that Nandini found very puzzling. Throughout their visit, Sumer uncle had managed to keep the conversation centered only around very general topics, and about his experiences in the peace keeping forces. Every time her grandpa or mother started to ask anything about their family, their past or anything about Prithvi, he would effortlessly steer the talk to some other topic.
But the others didn't seem to have noticed anything unusual…maybe she had just imagined it…
When they finally got up to leave, Prithvi had the air of having survived a very big and terrible ordeal. They had just stepped out the door when Sarojini came down the steps holding a big stack of bed sheets and blankets.
"Nandini, go and give these to them. It's a very cold night and their belongings will only come tomorrow. They might not have sheets or anything warm for tonight."
Just then the phone rang and her mother went to answer it.
Nandini hurried out of the door, holding the stack and shivering slightly because of a sudden gust of chilly wind.
Sumer Singh had gone into the house but Prithvi was just stepping through the connecting gate.
"Prithvi," she called out from her door.
Prithvi stopped, and turned around to look at her.
"Mother has sent some blankets and bed sheets," Nandini smiled, holding up the bundle, and walked over to him. "It gets quite cold here on some nights. It will be a little chilly till mid February, after that the climate is really lovely. Shamli's weather is very pleasant all through the year…summers also are not too hot…I'm sure you'll like it…" her voice faltered into silence. She realized that he had been looking at her like he was trying to understand why she was telling him all this.
She flushed under his derisive glance and quietly held out the bundle and he took it without saying a word and, Nandini noted with amusement, with great care not to brush her hands.
"If you need anything else..." Nandini started to say.
'Yes. Actually I do need something else," he said coolly "I need to get some sleep…that is if your hour long commentary on the weather is over".
Nandini sighed and said, "You are still angry with me, aren't you, about what happened in the afternoon."
Prithvi paused in the act of turning away.
"I'm really sorry about that, it won't happen again," she said earnestly.
"Apology accepted," he said sardonically, "Now is there any other irrelevant topic you want to discuss..."
"No…there isn't anything else," Nandini said softly, "Good night."
He turned around wordlessly and walked into Ayodhya.
Subdued, Nandini returned to her warm living room, closed the door securely, and sat down on the sofa. Now she was convinced that Prithvi had taken a very strong dislike towards her for some reason and nothing she said or did was going to help.
And in that case there was only one way out, Nandini thought resignedly. If he found her so irksome, she would try her best to stay out of his way and not disturb him again.
She looked at her mother, who was sitting on the chair near the phone stand and chatting very cheerfully to someone. It would be difficult to explain to her why she couldn't go to Ayodhya with food or other refreshments or for anything else…but she would manage somehow, she decided somberly.
Just as she got up from the seat to go to kitchen to clean it up, her mother said, "Nandini, talk to Garewal aunty, they both are at the airport and will be boarding the flight in some time…"
Nandini had just taken a joyful step towards the phone when she suddenly remembered an unopened letter lying in her bag upstairs. She stopped mid step, feeling horribly guilty and apprehensive, how could she have forgotten to read it so far…she was the most terrible person on earth…what if aunty wanted to talk about something she had written in it…how would she respond….
Her mother was holding out the phone to her…
She nervously took the phone from her mother, who left to tidy up the kitchen, and sat down on the vacated chair.
However, to her intense relief, aunty didn't talk about the letter at all. She only asked questions about Nandini's studies and college, and then spoke about how much she missed her and their family. Then she gave the phone to uncle and they spoke for a long time….and both got a little emotional at the end when they said their goodbyes…
"Here…talk to your aunty again…she hasn't had her fill of talking to you..." uncle said in a slightly uneven voice.
Aunty's voice came over the line. "Nanhi…," she said, and her tone was no longer casual. She sounded strangely apprehensive. "I need to ask you something….I know you must have read the letter I sent by now… "
Nandini closed her eyes in despair, wishing the earth would open up and swallow her…aunty had so much faith that she would have read it…
Feeling miserable, she started to tell aunty that she hadn't read the letter, but aunty interrupted her again.
"I know you will not ignore my request, Nanhi…" aunty said hastily, "but we will be boarding the flight for the US in some time, and before I left, I just wanted to ask you once…you will do it, wont you...for me…and your uncle too…" and her tone almost turned pleading…
Nandini felt totally bewildered….what had aunty asked her to do. She cursed herself again for not having read the letter.
Her silence prompted aunty to ask worriedly, "Nanhi…are you angry with me….please Nanhi…don't be angry...it's ok if you don't want to do it… "
"Oh no aunty," Nandini said, horrified at the misinterpretation of her silence, "of course…of course, I'll do it…"
"Thank you so much, Nanhi," aunty said, sounding profoundly relieved, "I knew you'll not let me down…we love you …"
They spoke for some more minutes and said a touching farewell. After keeping the phone, Nandini sat still for some time, depressed by their leaving. Then she got to her feet and slowly climbed up the steps to go to her room. She had to read that letter tonight…
What exactly had she agreed to do?
And why did she have a strange feeling that she had somehow sealed her fate by giving her consent.
Joined: 01 June 2007
Gosh..firstly em so sowie that I got late..i hpe u not angry wiv me.
Em so soooooo sowie..kaan pakad kar sowie…
Now em back..abb se regular edit..kk..
Hmmm…so tis Prithvi..he is damn mysterious..rilli vry vry..he is authorotive.he is sweet in his way of showin concern towards summer baba…
N then his behaviour wiv nanhi..extremly unfriendly..buh well he doesn't like befriendin people like that..so its kk..sum people r introvert by nature..buh still why is he sooo rude..he can be least friendly buh still…
N dear nanhi..sealed her fate..kya yaar..my poor nanhi doesn't even know ki..ki usne kya promise kiya hai..now gotta read nxt prt….
Joined: 14 August 2007
Joined: 02 April 2005
Joined: 09 October 2008
Joined: 09 October 2008
Joined: 09 October 2008
Joined: 09 October 2008
Nandini picked up her bag from the table in her room and sat down on the bed with it. She quickly opened the bag and took out the envelope, which she had already opened earlier that day in the canteen, from a notebook. She held it in her hands it for a few seconds, then said a silent prayer and took out the letter.
She ran her eyes through it quickly, anxious to know the task aunty had assigned to her.
The first page was just like aunty's usual letters, full of love and concern for her. Then she turned over and started to read. After she had finished reading it once, she sat still for while….then she started to go through it again, slowly this time.
"Rajesh must have told you about the tenants he has found for Ayodhya. We became acquainted with Sumer Singh within a few days of moving here. He was living alone in a bungalow in our neighbourhood, as Prithvi had gone abroad for his studies. He rarely spoke about his or Prithvi's past, and we only knew that he was Prithvi's maternal uncle and had brought up his nephew single-handedly as they were the only surviving members of the family. Sumerji's love for Prithvi and pride in his many achievements shone on his face every time he spoke about his nephew. And little by little, even without seeing him, we too started to become fond of him.
Then one day Rajesh told me he had learnt from Sumerji that Prithvi had been orphaned when he was very small. His father had died a few days after he was born and his mother passed away before he had turned six years old.
Prithvi returned from overseas only a few months back and I think initially he only tolerated us because of Sumer Singh. But at our very first meeting, both Rajesh and I immediately felt a strange, strong attachment towards him and we tried to get him to visit us more often.
You know your uncle and I have yearned for a child for more than two decades now. Our hearts had already gone out to Prithvi when we learnt that he had been orphaned at so young an age, and as we started to spend more time with him, our affection only became stronger. I know it was foolish of me, but I felt as though God had somehow meant for him to be my child, and I sensed that Rajesh too felt the same way, though he never said it aloud.
We had understood that they did not like to talk about their past and so we never pried. Maybe it was because of this that Prithvi too didn't mind spending time with us once in a while.
In the past months I've tried to take as much care of him as I could without crossing the invisible wall that Prithvi and Sumer Singh have drawn around themselves. I know he does not return our affection in full, but my heart tells me he does care for us in his own way.
But then, as you must know by now, Rajesh got a very good opportunity to expand his business internationally. I was very against leaving initially because it meant parting from Prithvi, but then we learnt that he and Sumer Singh too were moving away for Prithvi's studies.
Although I was upset at first, when I learnt that they were coming to Shamli and were going to live in Ayodhya, I felt as though a burden had been lifted off my heart. Since I knew I wouldn't have to worry about him with you and your family being next door.
I have a request to make of you, Nanhi, and I wouldn't have asked this of anyone else but you. Only you can help me go to another country with a peaceful heart.
Please make friends with Prithvi, and bring him into your family's fold slowly. If I know that he has another concerned family near him, then I will be at peace in the US. He is very aloof by nature and detests any kind of intrusion in his life, friendly or otherwise. So I know it will take a lot of time and patience to win his trust and friendship, but I'm sure you'll be able to do it, because I have known you since you were a day old infant and I've seen that, just like your father, you have the rare ability to make friends and bond with people irrespective of their nature, age or any other outward differences.
More than 35 years ago, a little boy came to Vrindavan with a letter in hand. His family had moved to Shamli some months before. Because he was extremely shy and withdrawn, he had not made any friends so far. The letter was from his mother, who was too busy for her son because of parties and other social functions, and it held a request for your grandfather. She had entreated that his son, Siddharth, become friends with her child, because even then your father was the most loved and well-liked child in the locality and acceptance by him meant that her son would soon have the approval and friendship of other boys his age. Your father immediately and unquestioningly stretched out a hand of friendship towards that lonely boy, and Rajesh found a life-long friend and a loving family.
After so many decades, once again a mother is sending her son to Vrindavan with a similar hope. And like Rajesh's mother, I dream that I also will find a friend and family for my son.
Lots of love and blessings from both of us…"
Nandini got up from the bed and kept the letter safely in her table's drawer. Then she shut off the light and sat agonized on her bed in the dark for the longest time.
She had promised aunty she would befriend Prithvi…someone who had taken an aversion to her within seconds of their meeting. She seemed to irritate him with her mere presence…. the thought of imposing her friendship on him was positively frightening…
She also had to make him part of her family. And barely an hour ago, she had seen the relief on his face when he was leaving after dinner…he had found it taxing to spend less than two hours with them…
Of course, now there was no question of backing out, because she believed that a promise was sacred. She had given her word and would do as she had said.
The only question was…how on earth was she going to do it?
Prithvi was unpacking the small bag on the wooden table facing the window; it was just 9 o'clock, but not a soul was outside. He took out his laptop and set it on the table.
Sumer Singh came and stood alongside Prithvi, looked out the window and said restfully, "It's even more tranquil and silent at night, isn't it?"
Prithvi looked up from his occupation to see a very isolated ground outside the window, with thickets of trees here and there. "I think even graveyards must have more people walking around at night than this town," he said dryly and returned his attention to taking out all the laptop accessories.
Sumer Singh chuckled; then he placed a slightly wrinkled hand on Prithvi's shoulder.
"I'm glad we found such a peaceful place."
Prithvi looked at him with a strangely pitying expression. "The peace is not going to last for long, Baba….you know it as well as I do…"
"But few people know we have moved here, so surely this time…"Sumer Singh began to say desperately, and then stopped, realizing he didn't believe what he was saying himself.
"You don't need to be so distressed, Baba…" Prithvi said comfortingly, "after all, we've managed just fine so far…"
Sumer Singh smiled a little, "Yes…we have"
"I think you should go to bed now, it's been a long day."
Sumer Singh agreed and returned to his room. He started to walk towards his bed, then changed his mind on an impulse, and made his way to his suitcase which was on the table. He opened it and removed a thick layer of clothing to reveal a small black velvet box which had been placed right in the middle of all his other possessions, to protect it from any kind of harm.
He picked it up reverentially and held it in the middle of his palms, holding it as if what it contained was priceless and of incomparable value. He remained still for a minute, ruminating….maybe Prithvi wouldn't refuse to keep it this time….
When he returned to the room he saw Prithvi still engrossed in emptying the bag of its contents, his back to the door. He made his way silently to the cupboard in the room, which was right opposite the door. He had opened the cupboard door soundlessly and was just about to keep the box on the third shelf, which was at the same height as him, when Prithvi spoke.
"Not in my room, Baba," he said quietly. "It will remain with you, as always."
Sumer Singh stopped halfway through placing the box and looked around. Prithvi hadn't even turned once or paused in his unpacking to see what Sumer Singh was holding and trying to keep in his room. He didn't need to.
Sumer Singh drew back dejectedly from the cupboard with the box still in hand.
He took a few steps towards the door, but just before he crossed the threshold, he halted.
And in one of the rare occasions when his emotions got the better of decades of training, he asked with something close to despair, "When will you forgive, Prithvi."
"Never," Prithvi answered coldly.
Disappointed but not surprised, Sumer Singh gripped the box tightly as if to comfort it and returned to his room.
His footsteps receded and then Prithvi heard the door to Sumer Singh's room close.
Now that he was sure he would be alone for some time, he took out a roughly made wooden case from the bag.
Holding the box, which hardly covered the size of his palm, as if it were made of glass, Prithvi opened it with great care; a very plain, thin gold chain lay inside. He didn't take it out, but stood gazing at it for some time. Then he walked over to the tall cupboard, placed it in the topmost shelf and locked the door.
This was least expensive of his belongings. But it was his most cherished possession...infinitely precious...more treasured than life itself....
Nandini woke up at the crack of dawn, feeling exhausted due to inadequate sleep. She freshened up and swept and swabbed the house as was her daily practice before taking her bath. When she finished, she went to the kitchen.
"I'm going to Ayodhya to clean the house ma"
Immersed in cooking, Sarojini murmured agreement before registering the tiredness in her daughter's voice. She called out to Nandini to stop before she had reached the door. When Nandini turned, her mother was shocked at how pale she looked. She took the broom from her hand and insisted that she sleep for a little while longer. Nandini protested vehemently, but for once her mother wouldn't give in and she was bundled off to bed; she fell asleep within minutes.
She woke up with very little time to leave for college and had to dress up in a tearing hurry. When she reached the campus, she was still lost in thought, and didn't realize when she passed by a small group of two girls and a boy, all of whom had waved to her and then exchanged puzzled looks when she didn't return their smiles.
When she was going to walk past them completely, one of the girls yelled impatiently, "Hey!! Do you remember us!!"
Nandini came out of her reverie with a start and saw herself face to face with a very indignant trio of Nishi, Vrinda and Rishabh.
"Hi! I didn't see you three!" she smiled dazzlingly at all them, wondering how she was going to escape explaining what she had been thinking about.
"We noticed that," Nishi said sarcastically. "Now can we know what you were thinking about so deeply that you didn't see two friends you've known for 15 years and one friend whom you've known for 8 months?"
"That's 8 months and 17 days," Rishabh said crossly.
"Yes…that makes a lot of difference," Vrinda nodded patronizingly, "but come back to the point, people." She turned to Nandini, "So…what were you…" then she stopped and asked abruptly, "Did the tenants come yesterday…"
"Yes, they did, and they both are really nice and sweet," Nandini said brightly.
"That smile on your face, it's too bright," Nishi said suspiciously, "and Vrinda didn't ask you if they were nice or not. Come with us, we'll stand in a corner of the ground. We need to talk."
"I agree with Sherlock Holmes," Rishabh said as they made their way to a quiet corner on the huge playground in front of the college, "What's wrong, Nandini? Is it something to do with the tenants?"
"Is it the uncle? Is he weird? Or is it the nephew? Oh! I forgot to ask!" Vrinda said excitedly, "Is he cute? Handsome?"
"Like some wise person said a little while ago," Nishi said loudly, "let's come back to the point people."
"I was just asking for general information," Vrinda said in an injured tone.
"That's enough you two…" Rishabh interrupted, "What happened, Nandini"
"It's nothing serious," Nandini said, trying to sound lighthearted, "You remember that letter aunty had sent for me?" All three nodded.
"She has asked me to become friends with the new tenants, and make them part of our family."
"So what's the problem," Nishi asked, confused, "You have always made friends as easily as Vrinda has had crushes."
Vrinda had opened her mouth to protest this grave insult when Nandini answered even more uneasily, "I…I don't know if….Sumer uncle is really sweet and kind and we are already friends, but Prithvi is…"
"Prithvi…that's such an adorable name," Vrinda interrupted dreamily, but then saw Nishi and Rishabh glaring at her and immediately changed her expression and tone, and asked very attentively, "So what were you saying, Nandini …?"
"He's…He's not very friendly," Nandini finished uncomfortably.
There was silence for some seconds.
Then Nishi said, "This is the first time you've actually said someone was unfriendly - he must really be standoffish."
"Was he rude to you, Nandini?" Rishabh asked angrily. "He was, wasn't he? What did he say? I'm coming with you when you go home and I'll set him straight."
"Oh no Rishabh, you don't need to do that," Nandini said hastily; it had been a mistake to talk about it in front of him. Rishabh usually feared and hated any kind of conflicts or confrontations and went out of his way to avoid them. But he was very protective of her and was perfectly capable of actually coming home and demanding an explanation from Prithvi. The idea was really alarming, and it was not Prithvi she was afraid for….
"He wasn't rude at all. It was my mistake actually; I went looking for something in Ayodhya without knowing they had come and were inside. He didn't know me of course, and he thought I was….so you see, it wasn't his fault. That was all that happened," she said with as much sincerity as possible.
"You're not lying, are you? Is that really all that happened" Vrinda asked suspiciously. "Your fingers aren't crossed again?"
Nandini grinned and held up her hands for inspection, while mentally crossing her fingers and begging her friends for forgiveness.
"It's ok… I am sure I'll become friends with him also very soon," Nandini said cheerfully, attempting to lighten the atmosphere and change the topic, "Come on, let's go to class or we'll get late."
As her friends reluctantly let the subject drop and they made their way into the college, Nandini wondered how many more lies she was going to have to utter today.
Nandini stopped at the family temple on her way home. She had made her decision but needed lot of courage to follow it through and hoped her favourite deity would make her brave enough to do what she had to do.
She stepped onto the temple's threshold and rang the huge brass bell at its entrance. It took her some time to reach the idol, as there were quite a few friends and neighbours who wanted to converse, complain about not having met her for some days, and also interrogate her about the new residents of Ayodhya. She chatted cheerfully and answered their questions about Sumer Singh and Prithvi as best as she could. And then at last she was standing in front of the ancient stone sculpture of Vishnu, who was smiling so benignly and compassionately at her. She closed her eyes and prayed for a long time, and when she stepped out of the temple to go home, it was with a calm and resolute heart.
Two hours later Nandini came out of Vrindavan, after having given herself a long motivational talk in anticipation of the forthcoming difficult conversation. Thankfully, she saw she didn't need to go inside Ayodhya.
Prithvi was sitting in the courtyard outside in the enjoyable warmth of the winter sun on a comfortable cane chair, working intently on his laptop that rested on the little round centre table, which he had transferred from the living room, in front of him. There was a teacup next to the laptop. Prithvi absentmindedly reached for it, and was about to bring it to his lips when he realized it was empty. And he slowly placed the cup back, his eyes still on the screen.
Nandini hesitated for a minute and then went back into the house. When she came out again, she had a cup of tea in her hands. She said a silent prayer to all the gods she knew and opened the connecting gate into Ayodhya's courtyard, valiantly disregarding the fact that her hands and feet were turning colder with every step.
Prithvi looked up at the sound of the gate opening, and then immediately returned his attention to the laptop. "I knew the peace was too good to last," he muttered loud enough for her to hear, making her courage lesser by half.
But then she remembered aunty's hopeful voice, summoned all of her guts, cheerily said, "Here, this is for you," and held out the cup.
"I don't remember asking you for tea," he said, not looking at her or the cup.
Nandini felt her bravado decreasing even further. "You didn't," she answered in a small voice, "but I thought I'll just make some for you….you know, as a token of friendship," she added on a hopeful note.
"I don't remember asking for that either."
She would have to redouble her efforts, though it was a little difficult to know where to start as he was pretending that she wasn't standing there at all.
"Prithvi…" she began.
With unconcealed irritation, he shut down the laptop and got to his feet with it.
Nandini realized that that he was going to walk away again and she didn't think she would be brave enough to do this again. And in sudden panic, she blurted out, "Garewal aunty has sent me a letter, asking me to become friends with you." The second the words left her mouth, she felt horrified at her stupidity; why had she told him that…
Prithvi halted and looked at her flustered face. "She did that, did she," he said slowly and with apparent regret, "and here I was…thinking I had come across a non-interfering woman for the first time in my life. I should have known there was no such thing."
"She wasn't trying to interfere," Nandini said indignantly, defending aunty, "she really cares for you and wanted to know that you'll have friends and a family when they are no longer here in India."
"Right…that's all very touching," he said irreverently, "but you are telling me all this because…"
"Because I wanted to tell you that I am going to what she asked of me," Nandini answered, much to her own amazement, "we are going to become friends."
"We are?" he asked, now sounding genuinely amused, "Thanks for warning me in advance…that was very honourable of you…But you see, I have better things to do than listen to this nonsense." And he started to turn away again.
"I gave aunty my word that we will become friends, Prithvi," Nandini said firmly, with rising courage. "And I've never broken a promise in my life so far….."
"You know...I have to admit something," Prithvi said seriously, "for someone with absolutely no looks and brains, you have great confidence in your self."
Nandini sighed in resignation, "You can insult me all you want, but it's not going to change my mind."
Just then the bells rang out in the temple, distracting both for a second. Nandini smiled at the sound, "See…even God thinks we should become friends."
"I'm not surprised," he retorted, "That's your family deity, isn't it….has to be as crazy as you. Anyway, I've heard enough of your delusions…" and he strode away, leaving her feeling hurt and indignant.
But, by degrees, Nandini's initial infuriation at this casual insult of her adored God gradually gave way to a steely determination.
If he thought he could get rid of her this easily in the coming days, then he was in for a surprise…..He might be very stubborn; but if there was no other way out, she too could be a far more determined girl than her appearance suggested.
"This was your last day of solitude in Shamli, Prithvi…" she promised. And at some distance away, the temple bells rang out again….
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