Joined: 01 June 2007
hmm..first line...humara dill zor zor se dhadak raha hai..what is there in the letter..that's gonna change her lyf 4eva..what is it..now em gettin so curious....hmmmmm..
Finally tis letter mystery is solved..I was os restless for reading what was in the letter…
previously..emm soooooo sowie….
From now on I'd comment regularly..for sure…
N plzzzzzzzzzz do PM me wheneva u update nxt…..
Plllllllllzzzzzzzzz cont asappppppppppppppp……..
Love ya loads ranju di…….t.ccccccccccc
-Ur's Ever Madhu
Joined: 09 October 2008
Joined: 02 April 2005
Joined: 09 October 2008
Joined: 09 October 2008
Nandini checked the lock on the front door, and then moved around the ground storey of her house to verify if all the other doors were closed securely. She passed by her grandfather's room while returning after tightly locking the door to the backyard and saw that the lights were on. Her grandfather was sitting on an armchair near his bed, engrossed in reading a spy thriller. He had a whole stack of books on espionage and international intrigue, which were his secret hobby, and which were hidden in one corner of his bedroom. Nandini had brought him most of those books with her pocket money, and she also often borrowed books from her friends for him.
Lost in the adventures of the hero who was an intelligence agent, he absentmindedly reached down and rubbed his ankles.
Nandini went into the kitchen and took a small bottle of herbal oil, which she then warmed and poured it into a tiny container. She returned to his room, sat down at his feet and gently lifted his feet and placed them in her lap. Then she started to gently massage the warm oil on his ankles, which were swollen due to the cold and also due to standing for long in the temple.
When she looked up, her grandfather was looking at her with a very sweet smile on his face. Nandini grinned up at him. "So what's happening in the book, grandpa? Has the hero found out that there is a conspiracy to destroy his country?"
"No…not yet. He's just come across a spaceship in a room in the government office and he's going to go inside to find out if there are any aliens inside. Because the heroine has been kidnapped by some extraterrestrials," grandpa said animatedly, and Nandini giggled.
"But you know, there is a lot more mystery in Shamli these days," he added and laughed. "Everyone who has been coming to the temple has been asking me about Prithvi and Sumer Singh. Some of them came home too, with so many questions, but your mother and I told them that Rajesh had strictly instructed they were to be left alone and not be troubled by anyone," her grandpa said smugly.
That would have put an end to any questioning, Nandini thought. Rajesh uncle's sway in Shamli had not decreased at all even though he had moved away two years ago. And if people came to know that he had issued an edict, it would be followed without question.
And then abruptly grandpa became a little serious. "You know, I have a little suspense to solve myself," he said slowly. "Ever since I've seen Prithvi, I've been thinking about this. I know for sure I have never seen him before. But there is something familiar in the way he walks and speaks… I wonder if…"
"I am not going to sleep so early," Prakash's defiant voice floated down from his room upstairs. "It's Saturday tomorrow, there is no school. I want to stay awake for some more time."
"That boy is very disobedient. He should be sleeping by this time," grandpa said, shaking his head in disapproval.
"It is time for you to go to sleep too, grandpa," Nandini said, laughing.
"But this is a very action-filled part of the story," he protested.
"You can read it first thing tomorrow morning," she reassured.
Nandini stood up with the empty container and went into the kitchen and washed her hands. When she returned to her grandpa's room, his nose was still in the book. She firmly took the book from his reluctant hands, put a bookmark on the page he had been reading, and kept it on the table. She tucked him comfortably into bed, covered him with a warm blanket and put out the lights.
On the way to her own room, she passed by Prakash's room, from which her mother stepped out. "He's really drowsy, but is reading his comics book and is not willing to go to sleep," her mother said, exasperated. "Anyway, tomorrow you don't need to go to clean Ayodhya, Nandini. Sumer Singhji insisted that they will keep a maid for all that work. I asked the Sharmas if their maid could go to Ayodhya too once their work was over, and they've agreed." She bid Nandini goodnight and went into her room to retire for the night.
Instead of going to her own room, Nandini entered Prakash's and saw him lying on the bed, reading a comics book even though his eyes were drooping with sleep.
"Why aren't you asleep yet?" she asked, walking over to the bed and sitting down by his side.
"Its Saturday tomorrow, I can stay up late," he said stubbornly.
"Ok…then you can lie down on my lap and read," she said; he had always loved to do that.
He thought about it. "Fine...but don't pat my head, I always go right to sleep when you do that,"
"I won't," she assured him, knowing fully well that she wouldn't have to.
Prakash happily laid his head on her lap, and continued to read. But few minutes later, the book had fallen to his side and he was fast asleep. Nandini tenderly stroked his head.
Prakash had been hardly 2 years old when her father had passed away. He had grown up without knowing their father, without having the memories that she had…just like Prithvi.
But Prithvi had lost his mother also before he had turned six…He was an orphan. The first time she had learnt that, she had found it heartbreaking and the more she thought about it, the more it distressed her. How terrible it must have been to grow up without the love and security of parents. The mere idea was frightening. Her father had passed away 7 years ago, and the pain hadn't diminished at all. But she and Prakash still had her mother and grandfather, and so many friends to love and be loved in return. But Prithvi had never known the love of a real family at all…
Nandini washed all the clothes in the icy cold water, put them all in a bucket and climbed up the stairs to the terrace to put them out to dry. She picked up a shawl on the way up and wrapped it around herself, as the sun was just coming up and it would be quite cold outside.
She had walked onto the middle of the terrace, when she realized there was someone on the neighbouring terrace.
Prithvi was standing facing the rising sun, eyes closed, immersed in prayer. There was a small brass vessel, the kind her grandpa used for poojas, on the railing of the terrace in front of him. He had evidently just finished with a Surya Namaskar.
That night too, when she had seen him outside the temple, he had been praying, Nandini mused. She had startled him when she had suddenly opened the door…
When he opened his eyes, she realized with a jolt that she had unconsciously been looking at him for some moments…..what if he had turned and seen her watching him…
Feeling very flustered, she hurriedly picked up a sari from the bucket and started to hang it on one of the many clothes-lines. When she peeked around the side of it, he had picked up the small brass vessel and was making his way towards the door.
"Good morning" she called out cheerfully.
He halted and located the source of the greeting.
"Do you do the Surya Namaskar everyday?" she queried, "Grandpa says that's a very good practice and it helps ensure good health, a long life and…"
"I'm glad you approve," he interrupted, "Could you ask your grandfather if he also knows of any method to keep away annoying neighbours."
"No, he doesn't," she shook her head regretfully. "But he always says the name of a house should reflect the nature of those who live in it," she grinned, "so I've told him we should change Ayodhya's name to 'Lanka'".
His face turned red at her insinuation and he stepped forward angrily on the other terrace, saying, "You…"
"Nandini…have you finished hanging the clothes…" Her mother walked in from the door, interrupting whatever threat Prithvi was about to give her.
"Oh hello, son," she beamed at Prithvi, and then she noticed the brass vessel in his hand, "Were you doing the Surya Namaskar? That is very good for health, you know," she said approvingly.
Nandini stifled her laughter as Prithvi shifted uncomfortably. "I…err…yes, I'll….I'll go now," he muttered and turned to leave.
"I'll help you put the clothes," her mother told her, "then we can finish fast and make something special for breakfast." Nandini smiled and nodded and picked up a sheer net dupatta from the bucket. Her mother picked up few garments and moved towards another clothes-line. Prithvi reached the door of the terrace just as she flung the garment over the line and through the transparent white dupatta she saw him reach for the door and open it. She was straightening the garment on the line, when he unexpectedly turned around.
And suddenly, she found his eyes piercing into her own through the netted cloth...And then he was gone, shutting the door behind him with force.
Why had he looked at her like that, Nandini wondered, feeling very disconcerted. Fortunately, a dupatta, even though it was very translucent, had separated her from his direct gaze. Because the blush that had swiftly reddened her fair cheeks would have otherwise been very clearly visible in the early morning sunlight…
Her mother was hanging clothes facing in another direction, and Nandini desperately prayed for her face to return to its normal shade before she turned.
Prithvi had probably been giving her death threats in his mind when he had looked at her for those few moments. But even though she told herself that, her heartbeats took a while to slow down…
The truck with the belongings of the new tenants had come today morning instead of yesterday. A whole crowd of curious onlookers had gathered to watch the unloading of the furniture, which looked quite elegant and expensive. There were also many crates, which presumably held kitchen utensils and other household appliances. It was only after everything had been shifted into the house that the gathering outside the house dispersed. The workers were now inside the house, moving the heavy furniture.
Nandini's grandfather and her mother had offered to help with the shifting, but Sumer Singh had assured them that they could manage on their own. But her mother insisted that they send breakfast for them at least, and so it was that at around 9:30 in the morning Nandini carried a plate of hot parathas and curd to Ayodhya.
The door was wide open as the workers were still inside. But Nandini had not forgotten her experience when she had entered without permission just a couple of days ago, and so she knocked the door and remained standing outside.
When there was no response, she gingerly stepped onto the first step, and then the second, and peeked inside the room. There was no one inside.
"What do you want?"
Startled, Nandini swung around and saw Prithvi was coming in from the gate; he had apparently stepped out to talk to the truck driver. He walked past her into the house and then turned around, blocking her way.
"I've brought breakfast. Can I come inside?" she asked brightly, knowing his answer well in advance.
"No. Give me the tray and leave." he answered shortly.
Nandini sighed…this was not going to be easy…
She swiftly moved to the side unguarded by him and entered the house, ignoring his annoyed, "Hey!!".
She went straight into the kitchen and kept the food items, and then saw many crates lying unopened on the floor. It would take some time and effort to arrange all of its contents in the kitchen…and she would help as much as she could.
When she came out Prithvi was standing near the door, arms crossed. "You've done what you came for, now get out…" he said impatiently.
But Nandini was looking at the changed living room with interest. It seemed so much fuller now, with more chairs, a big dining table and other assorted furnishings. A book case was lying in the centre of the room; apparently its place had not been decided as yet.
There was quite a bit of dust on the newly arrived furniture. Nandini saw a cleaning rag on a small side table; she picked it up and started to wipe the dining table
"What do you think you are doing?"
"Dusting. You can help too if you want," she said with good cheer.
"The dust can stay. The only thing I don't want in my house is you. Now get out."
"No," she said steadfastly. "I'll leave only after you both have eaten and after setting up the kitchen."
He was about to retort angrily when Sumer Singh came into the room, with a buzzing mobile phone in hand.
"Hello Nandini" he greeted her warmly. Then he turned to Prithvi and said, "It's the professor."
Prithvi took the ringing phone. "When this call is over, I don't want to see or hear you anywhere in this house."
"Then you should talk to your professor for a very long time," she answered staunchly. This earned her another very nasty look before he left the room to go upstairs to receive the professor's call.
When Nandini turned to talk to Sumer Singh again, she found him looking at her with a curious expression.
Naturally, he must not have not liked her answering Prithvi like that.
"I am really sorry, Sumer uncle. I was rude, wasn't I," she said, looking down. "But if you let me explain…" she pleaded.
"Rude?" Sumer Singh asked, surprised. "If anyone was bad-mannered, it was my nephew. I am only astonished that you didn't take his words to heart."
Feeling relieved, on the spur of the moment, Nandini decided to confide in uncle. He had always been so friendly and kind towards her, maybe he would even agree to help her in her undertaking. She needed every bit of assistance she could get if she was to strike friendship with Prithvi in this century, she thought wryly.
"I need your help, uncle," she said hesitantly, unsure of how he would react, "Aruna aunty had sent me a letter, asking me to become friends with Prithvi…and also to…to convince him to look at my family as his own…I promised her I'll do it. Will you help me, uncle," she implored, "I don't know if I'll be able to do it otherwise."
Sumer Singh listened to her quietly, his old eyes revealing increasing amazement at what she was saying. And when she had finished, he remained silent for a minute. Nandini was starting to feel fearful that she had overstepped a boundary, when he spoke.
"You are willing to do this even though Prithvi has been so discourteous with you ever since we came here," he said in a quiet voice. "I myself don't know why he has been so….and in spite of that you…" he stopped, looking overwhelmed.
Nandini, feeling very embarrassed and discomfited, hastily started to tell him that she had not taken Prithvi's words to heart and he need not feel so bad for her, but then he began to speak again in a low voice.
"You are just the way the Garewals described, Nandini, and now I know why they love you so much…And if you manage to do what your aunty wanted, along with her, I too will forever remain indebted to you…"
And then he placed his hand on her head, almost as if in blessing.
Nandini and Sumer Singh systematically arranged all the utensils and other cooking implements in the kitchen. Prithvi had not come down after the phone call, as he had been instructing the workers on the arrangement of the furniture in the bedrooms.
After completing the work in the kitchen, which took a surprisingly short time, she returned to the drawing room. She had dusted the furniture but she wanted to ensure that she had not missed any spot while cleaning. And it was only then that she noticed how bare the walls were. There wasn't a single photograph of Prithvi, Sumer Singh, or of Prithvi's parents or any others in their family.
"Why aren't there any photos on the walls?" She wondered aloud.
"You could give us one of yours," a derisive voice said and she swung around. Prithvi had come back into the room from upstairs and looked distinctly unhappy that she had not gone away as yet. "We'll hang it on the front door. It will definitely scare away those ghosts that your grandfather insists haunt this place, and rats too."
"There are no rats in Ayodhya." Nandini said indignantly, and then she scanned the floor and asked worriedly, "Are there?" She was terrified of rats.
"Sure there are, and lots of them too," he said enthusiastically, sensing a good opportunity to get rid of her. "There are two in this room itself...big black ones."
"You are not saying that just to make me leave, are you," Nandini asked suspiciously.
"What did he say now, Nandini?" Sumer Singh came into the room from the kitchen.
"Are there rats in this house, uncle?"
"Rats! Of course not, Nandini" he said comfortingly. "Don't frighten her, Prithvi," he chided his totally unapologetic nephew. "Oh, the workers are coming down now…"
Two workers came and stood next to the book-case. "Where do we keep this?" one of them asked.
"Keep it in front of that window," Prithvi said, directing them towards a big window on the right side of the room. The workers lifted the book case and started to move it.
Nandini looked at the window he had pointed to. "But if you keep it right in front of the window, it will block the view of our house and courtyard from your living room," she said, perplexed.
"That's exactly why I want it there. So you are not as dumb as you look then," he said with approval.
So he thought he could just block her out, did he….
Nandini turned to the workers. "Don't listen to him," she said charmingly, "please set it down by the side of the window, not in front of it."
Confused, the workers stopped midway, and lowered the book-case to the floor.
"Who do you think you are to decide anything in my house," Prithvi demanded angrily and then looked at the workers and said curtly, "I'm paying you, so do as I asked."
The workers were torn between the threatening look of the rather imposing young boy and the engaging smile of the very beautiful young girl. They lifted up the case again and one of them started to tug it towards the window, while the other, who was more susceptible to a pretty face, started to pull it towards the left of the wall.
So far, Sumer Singh had been standing silently, listening to the exchange of words going on between the two young people in front of him. But the pathetic condition of the workers made him feel it was time to step in.
"I think the book-case should not be placed right in front of the window, son, it can be kept to the left side." he said, "Otherwise it will block the light into the room," he added pacifyingly. The relieved workers hurried to comply before anyone changed their minds again.
"Thank you, uncle," Nandini smiled in gratitude.
"Fine," Prithvi snapped. "Do as you please, Baba," and he gave Nandini a withering look that seemed to say that he would like nothing better than for her to disappear off the face of the earth.
Nandini moved around the courtyard, watering the plants. This was one of her favourite activities. Her father had always said plants had feelings just like a human being and they could hear and respond, just like a normal person. So it had been her practice since childhood to talk to the plants, caress their leaves and also give them pep talks if they looked unwell or droopy. Prakash was already sure that she needed psychiatric treatment because she just spoke to the plants, and teased her mercilessly about it. So she had to ensure no one was around when she was giving the motivational speeches, or else her little brother would ensure that she was taken to the mental hospital… she chortled at the thought.
It was evening now. She had returned to Vrindavan by 11:30, after both Sumer uncle and Prithvi had eaten breakfast. Prithvi hadn't spoken a word to her after the book-case incident ….he had eaten only on Sumer uncle's insistence and then had gone upstairs to work on his laptop. When would he…
Nandini sighed tiredly and closed her eyes; as of now there was only person in the vicinity who would call out to her with so much respect.
She turned around, and sure enough, Prithvi was standing on the other side of the gate, something hanging from his outstretched hand; it was the anklet she had lost a few days ago. It was a partly amusing and partly annoying scene - He was holding the piece of jewellery far away from himself, with the very end of his finger tips, as though it were the dead body of a poisonous reptile.
"I found it outside the bathroom. I think it wanted to take a bath to get rid of your stink," he smirked, as she walked over to take it.
She stretched out her palm and Prithvi dropped it in her hand with a relief that indicated that he had got rid of something revolting.
To be on the safe side, she waited till he was a little distance away, and then asked, "Do you need some antiseptic liquid?"
He stopped and half turned. "Antiseptic... for what?" He asked, confused.
"To wash your hands because you held my anklet in your hand. What if you get an infection??" she quipped.
For a second she felt sure Prithvi was going to come and grab the anklet from her hand and strangle her with it. But he content himself with glowering at her and then stalked off.
Nandini chuckled and returned to her plants. But a few moments later her mood turned sober and she felt guilty. She shouldn't have said that; she had already angered him in the morning and now once again she had antagonized him. But the way he had held her anklet, like it was disgusting somehow, had hurt her slightly...
Still, she would never ever be able to become friends with Prithvi if she didn't learn to overlook all the hurtful things that he said, which seemed to come to him spontaneously whenever he saw her, Nandini thought despondently.
She would not break her promise and would win his friendship, no matter how long it took or how hard she had to try…
"It is with Prithvi. It has been with him from the beginning," the old man yelled in panic, fearing more pain. "I am not lying…please believe me.."
He had been tied to a chair, and there were bruises on his face and hands. A bulky man was standing near him, pointing a gun straight to his head. Another man was standing in a corner of the room, with a gun pointed at the old man's daughter-in-law and grandchildren, who were all crying.
But it was the thin, weapon-less man, standing in front of him some distance away, who frightened him the most.
Indrajit looked at the elderly man with disgust. The old man's screams and the sobs of his family were getting on his nerves now. And he felt as though he were polluting his lungs and his blood by breathing the same air as these filthy animals.
"If what you say is true, then you may drag your pathetic existence for some more time," Indrajit said tonelessly, almost sounding bored. "But if you are lying, I will kill your entire family in front of you, before killing you, of course…and I hope you don't think of anything as idiotic as running away, because I'll hunt you down anyways and give you and your family a slower and more painful death," he added unfeelingly.
He turned to his attendant, who was standing near the door and looked as afraid of him as the old man and his terrified family.
"I need to go to Shamli, and I must reach there tomorrow. Arrange it…" he said icily, and walked out of the room.
Joined: 02 April 2005
Joined: 09 October 2008
Joined: 09 October 2008
Nandini laid down the pen tiredly and flexed her fingers; she had been writing non-stop for two hours. It was 7:30 in the morning; she had got up early to finally copy the notes she had borrowed from Nishi nearly a week ago. Just two paragraphs to go and her work would be complete. She was in her room, seated at the table that was placed against the window. This window opened into an empty room in Ayodhya and the other window in her room opened to the view of the temple and its surroundings.
Her mother came into the room. "Nandini, you got up so early today, why don't you sleep for some time. You won't get time to sleep in the afternoon."
Nandini turned around in her seat to look at her and said, "Just two paras to finish, ma. Then I'll sleep for half an hour."
"Okay. Be sure to get some rest. I forgot to ask you before, the lamps are ready, aren't they?" she asked anxiously.
There was a special pooja in the late afternoon at the temple and many people would be attending it. Nandini and her family had been busy in preparations since yesterday evening and they had worked late into the night.
"Everything is ready, ma," Nandini smiled. "The lamps, the flowers, the oil and the prasad too. You don't need to worry about anything."
"Alright...I hope everything goes well today. Your grandfather has invited the new tenants too, and Sumer Singhji had promised to attend and bring along Prithvi too," Sarojini added happily.
Nandini was confident that Sumer Singh would come, but Prithvi...
She looked at the pleasure on her mother's face that their distinguished neighbours would be attending the small function.
"Yes, ma. I am sure they both will come," she smiled.
"I am not going to any pooja anywhere, Baba," Prithvi, who was taking some notes out of the book-case, said with finality.
Sumer Singh started to remonstrate when someone knocked on the door. He decided to resume his attempt to convince Prithvi to attend the function after answering the knock.
When he opened the door, a man in his early forties was waiting outside, sweating profusely.
"Ramdas...what are you doing here.." Sumer Singh asked in surprised welcome. "Come inside."
Ramdas staggered in through the door, and came to an abrupt halt when he saw Prithvi, who was looking at him inquiringly.
He walked unsteadily towards him till he was just a couple of feet from Prithvi. "You are Prithvi, aren't you?" he asked urgently.
"I am really sorry," the man whispered and dropped to his knees and fainted at Prithvi's feet.
Sumer Singh ran over to the prone man. Prithvi was already hoisting him up and Sumer Singh helped him carry the man and lay him on the sofa.
"Baba, bring some water," Prithvi said and Sumer Singh hurried off to the kitchen and returned with a glass.
Prithvi splashed some water on the unconscious man, and asked Sumer Singh, "You seem to know him, Baba, who is he."
"This is Ramdas. I know his father, Harinarayan very well. They both had even come to our previous house once, but you were abroad then."
"Harinarayan?" Prithvi said pensively, "wasn't he among the close attendants of my.."
"Yes, my lord..oh look, he is coming around now.."
Ramdas had opened his eyes and was staring at Prithvi. Then he suddenly sat up and started to talk in a disjointed fashion,
"He had come to my house...Indrajit," he gasped, and Prithvi and Sumer Singh exchanged meaningful glances at the name.
Sumer Singh looked upset and shocked, Prithvi merely looked interested.
"And my father..he had to say...sorry...had no choice..my family.." he gasped.
"Shut up," Prithvi said evenly, and he turned to Sumer Singh. "Get some food and water for him, Baba." Sumer Singh smiled and went into the kitchen.
The man's offended look turned to that of bafflement and then embarrassment. But he didn't object, and when Sumer Singh came with a plate laden with food, he took it with slightly trembling hands. And for a few minutes there was silence as he ate ravenously and then drank a few glasses of water. When he had finished, he kept the plate aside and started to talk in a much more stronger and audible voice.
"You must not know me, Prithvi, but my father was among those who were closest to your -"
"He knows all that," Sumer Singh interrupted quickly. "What were you saying about Indrajit?"
"Oh, okay," Ramdas said and his eyes dropped to the floor, "what I have to say is..I am very ashamed.." Then he looked up at Sumer Singh and Prithvi with a very pleading expression, "but please understand....my father had no choice..." and he paused again.
Seeing that he was in some sort of internal agony, Prithvi and Sumer Singh didn't break the silence and waited patiently for him to speak again.
At last, carefully avoiding looking at either of them, Ramdas gathered enough courage and started to speak again.
"I've come from Shahpur, which is 8 hours by road from Shamli. We had lost all our land in our village, which is far from here, long ago and times were hard. Sumerji knows all about it. And some years ago, he got me a good job in a factory in Shahpur. My father is very old and frail, so my wife and children remained in the village to take care of him."
He paused for some minutes then resumed.
"Yesterday, Indrajit came to my father's house for some information. His men tied up my father and beat him very brutally," he said in a low voice with his gaze on the floor, and so he missed the anger that flashed in Prithvi's eyes at these words. "They held him and my family at gunpoint and Indrajit demanded to know the location of the sword."
"What sword?" Prithvi frowned, and at the same time Sumer Singh asked urgently, "What did you father tell him."
"You know about it, Baba?"
"Yes, my lord...but not much..I haven't heard of it for many decades now." Sumer Singh turned from Prithvi to Ramdas again, "What did your father tell him, "
But Prithvi knew the answer to that.
"Your father told Indrajit it's with me, didn't he?" he asked amusedly.
Ramdas looked up at him, his face showing guilt at the truth in what Prithvi had said and bafflement at the light-heartedness in his tone. Indrajit's mere name was enough to strike terror into the hearts of people, and here this young boy was looking almost entertained at the idea that Indrajit was about to make him a very unpleasant visit.
"They threatened to kill my father and my family and burn down the house. Indrajit wouldn't believe my father when he said he didn't know where the sword was now. My father wanted to call you right away but he didn't have any contact number, only the address. So he told my wife to call me up to tell me to warn you. She couldn't get the line for many hours and finally managed to talk to me very late last night. I left immediately but I couldn't get a bus, so I hitch-hiked to reach here as fast as I could..Please...please forgive us." he begged.
Sumer Singh, however, was outraged. "How could Hari have done such a cowardly deed?" he shouted in anger, "Prithvi knows nothing about it...nothing.." and Ramdas shut his eyes in shame.
"It was not his father's fault, Baba. He had to save his family and he did the right thing," Prithvi said calmingly and Ramdas opened his eyes and looked up in surprise, "Anyone in his place would have done the same."
And then he looked at Ramdas. "You don't need to worry about your family, they will not face any more danger. I will confirm everything your father has said. Just tell him not to try to move out of the village, because Indrajit will be keeping a watch and any attempt to run away will convince him that your father was lying. But you must leave Shamli right now, before Indrajit comes, or he'll kill you." he said flatly.
Ramdas sat still listening, totally thrown by the turn of events. He had come fully prepared to be beaten and abused. Instead, he was being comforted by the very person who had been betrayed by his father. A 19-year-old whom he had only heard of and never seen before was assuring him that everything would be alright...
And he realized to his amazement that he had absolute faith in every word Prithvi was saying. If Prithvi said all would be safe and fine, then that was what would happen?nothing would go wrong, as long as they had him...
"I will tell my father and I'll go now...but please, you must leave with me."
"Leave?" Prithvi asked, bemused, "Why would I do that?"
Sumer Singh sighed and gave Ramdas a very long-suffering look.
Dumbfounded, Ramdas stared at Prithvi, who turned to Sumer Singh and said, "Baba, go with him, see him off safely."
"Oh no no..I will go by myself," Ramdas said, taken aback.
"No, you will not go alone...and Baba, don't let him go by public transport. Hire a car. The buses here are not frequent and are delayed by hours sometimes."
Unable to say anything to express his emotions at the unexpected and extraordinary generosity he had been shown from the moment of his arrival, an overwhelmed Ramdas started to bow down to touch his feet.
"Don't," Prithvi said sharply, forestalling the gesture of the grateful man.
"But what if Indrajit comes before I can return, my lord," Sumer Singh protested.
"You should let us have some time alone, Baba," Prithvi said ironically, "it's been so long since we've met...we have a lot to catch up on..."
Kundan Singh furtively looked at Indrajit who was sitting alone in the luxurious back seat of the car, with his head resting back, eyes closed. The henchmen had been sent home once they had the information from the old man. They had only been taken along for the questioning because Indrajit did not want to dirty his hands with the blood of inferior people like that man and his family.
He had been dying to ask something from the time they had left the old man's house yesterday evening. Maybe he could try his luck now.
"Your highness?" he fawned from his seat next to the driver.
"What?" Indrajit asked, with eyes still closed.
"Was it wise, your highness, to leave that old man and his family alive?" he asked, trying not to sound sulky but failing. He had suggested that their men should kill all of them when they had been standing outside the old man's house, but Indrajit had not even bothered to reply. He had simply ignored him. "I still think you should have killed all of them before you left. What if they find some way to warn Prithvi?"
"No one must know what we are after. And a trail of bodies is not the best way to ensure secrecy."
"As always, you are right, your highness," Kundan Singh said worshipfully.
"And Kundan Singh?"
"Yes, your highness?"
"If you value you life, don't dare to tell me what you think I should and should not do ever again..."
When the car came to a halt, Kundan Singh jumped out and opened the door for Indrajit, who got out and looked at the house scornfully. He was finding it insulting to even stand in such a second-rate place. How could anyone think of living here, and that too in this hovel?
Kundan Singh hurried before him and opened the gate, which had a rusty sign that said 'Ayodhya'. The door was open, but this time Kundan Singh stood aside, and waited for Indrajit to step in first. The gesture was less of reverence and more of fear.
When Indrajit walked inside, he saw Prithvi sitting in a comfortable chair, immersed in reading, with his feet resting one on top of the other on a small table in front of him.
He looked up casually at the entry of the two individuals, and then resumed his reading.
Indrajit looked unsurprised at the reception, while Kundan Singh's expression was a mixture of spitefulness and reluctant admiration.
"Aren't you curious about how I found you out so soon, Prithvi?"
Prithvi looked up from his book. "Actually I was wondering what took you so long. Did your tail make it difficult for you to walk," he asked with concern.
Indrajit's composure cracked. "You dare to?," he said wrathfully, "you bloody - " he stopped abruptly and controlled himself with difficulty.
"I did not come for this....just tell me where is it."
"Your brain?" Prithvi enquired with raised eyebrows, keeping the book aside. "Haven't you finished searching for it as yet?."
Kundan Singh cringed at the acidic tone and words being hurled at his master, whom he hardly dared to look at boldly. At the same time, he inched a little closer to the door so he could escape with ease if the situation turned ugly.
"You know what I am asking for, Prithvi," Indrajit said angrily, "I've been told that you have the sword. Or have I been given false information?"
"You've heard right," Prithvi confirmed with an air of increasing enjoyment, "I do have it. But even with your limited mental abilities, why would you think I would give the sword to you?"
"Because if you don't, I will kill you."
Prithvi shook his head disapprovingly. "You really should bring about some innovation in your threats, Indrajit. You've been giving me that same one for too long now."
"Where is the sword, Prithvi?" he asked malevolently.
Prithvi stood up slowly and patted his shirt and pant pockets with a quizzical look.
"Not here, I must have left in the pocket of my other shirt," he said regretfully.
"So you won't give it up peacefully....You'll pay for this, Prithvi," Indrajit said menacingly.
"Look at me, I am terrified," Prithvi grinned.
Nandini moved around with the aarti plate, laden with camphor and flowers, offering the holy flame to all the devotees in the little temple.
The pooja and the aarti were concluded. Everything had taken place without a hitch and everyone was very happy and satisfied at having been part of it. Her grandfather and Prakash were standing near the inner sanctum, placing the prasad ? rava sheera and an apple - in banana leaves and handing it out to the devotees. Each leaf also had a sacred red thread, imbibed with holy mantras.
Her mother was busy ensuring that everything was fine, pouring more oil into lamps, and making sure that everyone had partaken the prasad.
Once all had taken the aarti, Nandini kept the plate outside the inner sanctum. Immediately, as was almost customary, children of all ages surrounded her, every single one of them eager for her attention and affection. She took the smallest of them into her arms and chatted and laughed with all of them; talking to every child, so no one felt left out.
By 3:30 pm, the temple was nearly empty. And Nandini, her mother and Prakash started clearing up the temple, while her grandfather washed and cleansed the idol.
After they had finished cleaning the area thoroughly, Nandini and her mother carefully packed the remaining prasad into a steel container to take home. The apples had all been distributed and only little sheera was left. Nandini would take part of it to college and her mother and Prakash would take some to school.
"Nandini, after we go home, take some prasad to Ayodhya," her mother said. "Sumer Singhji had said they were expecting some guests and that's why they couldn't come. Your grandfather saw him go out some time ago, but I think the guests are still there with Prithvi. Take a little extra for them, we must give them the prasad before they leave."
Nandini arranged three leaves of prasad on a plate and carefully walked with it to Ayodhya. It was sad that Sumer uncle was not there, because she would have to bull-doze her way past Prithvi to give prasad to the guests.
As she passed by the window, she saw two strangers inside. So these were the guests. It was good she had taken an extra leaf of sheera on the plate. She was nearing the door and she heard snatches of their conversation.
"I'll leave now, but you'll see me again, Prithvi."
"I look forward to it," Prithvi replied, and Nandini wondered if she had imagined the sarcasm in his tone.
All three men were standing; apparently they were just about to leave. Prithvi was standing facing the door, and the two guests had their backs to her.
She knocked at the door, which was wide open, and three pairs of startled eyes turned towards the entrance at the sound. When Prithvi saw her, Nandini felt she saw some emotion cloud his eyes for a minute. Then it was gone.
Hoping that the presence of guests would prevent him from being too mean towards her, she smiled and stepped into the house. Before he could ask her to leave, she walked over to the little gathering and began to talk to the guests cheerfully.
"Good afternoon. I'm Nandini, we live next door. There was pooja in our temple today, so I just brought some prasad. Here, please take some," and she respectfully held out the plate to the old man first.
It was only when they made no move whatsoever to take the prasad that she realized they were staring at her in a strange way. A second later she identified the look - it was one of pure abhorrence and scorn.
And all of a sudden, she felt instinctively afraid of the two men. Without meaning to do so, she unconsciously backed away from both of them till she was standing beside Prithvi on his right.
Then Kundan Singh who had temporarily been robbed of speech by the audacity of the girl, finally found his voice. "You dare talk to my master and me, without being spoken to first?" he shrieked, aghast. "How dare you.... and don't bring that disgusting food near us."
Now completely frightened, she winced at the repulsion in the man's tone and expression. She couldn't remember the last time she had been so truly afraid. And when she looked at the tall, thin man, her fear multiplied. He must have been 30 years old at the most and was fair and clean shaven. But his eyes were devoid of any feeling. Like those of a creature of stone. She felt terrified all of a sudden, and found herself wishing frantically for him to leave Ayodhya, and Shamli too. Tears of fright and humiliation stinging her eyes, she looked down at the floor and managed to say, "I'm sorry. I'll go now."
But she had barely moved, when a hand swiftly closed around her wrist.
"You are not going anywhere," Prithvi said.
Nandini's heart nearly jumped to her throat with shock and some other strange sentiment?and colour rushed into her face. His fingers were actually wrapped around her wrist and he had spoken up for her. It was a light clasp but it might as well have been a chain for the way it rooted her to the spot.
And just like that, she felt the fear that had gripped her heart evaporate. She wasn't afraid anymore.
She was staring at him in utter amazement, but he was not looking at her; his eyes were fixed on the old man, who had turned a little pale.
"Take the prasad from her hands, Kundan Singh," he ordered icily.
Kundan Singh looked at him, alarmed. He looked confidently at his own master, waiting for him to intervene and punish Prithvi for this impudence. But Indrajit looked back at him uninterestedly, like what was happening had nothing to do with him. And Kundan Singh understood that he was not going to get any help from that quarter.
"Of course, Of course," he gave an oily smile, and hastily came forward and took a leaf from the plate.
"Eat it," Prithvi commanded.
The second Prithvi had caught hold of her hand, Nandini had felt as though she had temporarily lost her voice. But the reality of what was happening now closed in on her.
"No!" Nandini exclaimed, horrified, "Prithvi please...don't insult him like this..". Prithvi still didn't look at her. His gaze, unyielding and inflexible, was fixed on the man.
"Who do you think you are, asking for mercy on my behalf," Kundan Singh sneered at her, "I would prefer death rather than get any respite because of you..."
"If you prefer death, I would be happy to oblige, now eat," Prithvi said, his voice vibrating with anger.
Kundan Singh flashed a last pitiful look at his master, who was looking at his predicament dispassionately, and then began to eat the prasad. He stuffed his face with it in one go, and then swallowed it with an expression that suggested he had just consumed poison.
And then finally Indrajit spoke. "Kundan Singh, you must pay for your misdeeds. You should not have forgotten the affinity Prithvi has for those not fit to even be kept as servants."
Prithvi transferred his frosty gaze from the old man to Indrajit. "Think twice before you open your mouth about her again, Indrajit, she is -" There was the smallest of pauses. "She is a friend."
Nandini felt her heart fill with joyful astonishment at his words and she smiled involuntarily in happiness. Prithvi though was still refusing to look at her.
"As big a disgrace as you are, I had thought....but then what can I expect," Indrajit said with malice in every word, "with the blood of that filthy..."
Prithvi's grip suddenly tightened very painfully and his fingers bit into her wrist.
"Please complete that sentence, Indrajit," he said in a dangerously soft voice. "Give me the reason I've been waiting for."
A flash of pure terror passed across Indrajit's face, and his face became whiter than usual. But he recovered rapidly, and without saying a word he turned around and marched out of Ayodhya. Kundan Singh scampered right behind him, after shooting Prithvi and Nandini a final look of hatred.
Prithvi stood looking at them for a few seconds, and then he finally looked at her. "Do you need a special invitation to leave?" he enquired.
She should have known it was too good to last, Nandini thought resignedly. Prithvi was back to normal.
"I don't need a special invitation...but I need you to leave my hand," she said with a straight face, fighting both a grin and a blush.
It was only then that Prithvi realised that he was still holding on to her wrist and he let go immediately with a red face. "Go now!" he muttered, turning abruptly away from her. He returned to the chair he had originally vacated when Indrajit had come, picked up his book again and started to read.
Nandini was feeling extremely self-conscious, and a curious awkwardness seemed to have sprung up in the room. If she didn't make the atmosphere normal right away and talk about their visitors casually, she didn't think she would be able to face him without getting all flustered.
So she bravely went and sat on a chair that was at an acceptable distance from his.
"Who were those people?" she asked hesitantly, knowing that they were not welcome guests by any stretch of the imagination.
"The two rats I told you about yesterday," he retorted, "And why are you still here."
"Why were they like that," she asked uncertainly, and he knew she wasn't asking about their behaviour towards her.
"That's none of your business. Now go home and leave me in peace."
Nandini sighed. She would have to talk about something else.
"What are you reading?"
"The true story of a man who killed his neighbour for being too irritating and nosy."
"But I'm not just your neighbour, I'm your friend too."
That made him look up from the book. "Friend?" he repeated disbelievingly, "What gave you the idea that we are friends."
"You said it yourself," Nandini grinned, "in front of them."
He looked a little discomfited at the memory, but just for a moment. "I only said that because it would make them leave faster if they thought I had friends like you," he said dismissively and resumed reading.
Nandini felt her heart sink a little. Was that really why he had said that? It was a possibility, because the visitors had looked quite revolted when he had said it.
But she was not going to let go of that straw of hope she had been given. "But you still said it, didn't you? So that makes us friends," she said determinedly.
He ignored her.
"You are not going to talk anymore, are you," she asked dejectedly. "Okay. I'll keep this plate in the kitchen and then go home."
She walked into the kitchen and kept the plate on the platform. She was about to turn away when the sacred threads in the leaves caught her eye. Those two scary men who had come here...they had looked at Prithvi with so much loathing....especially that tall, thin man called Indrajit. And their tone had been so threatening and hostile towards him...
She thought over it for some time, and then she picked up one thread and returned to the living room.
Prithvi was reading.
"What do you want now?"he asked irritably.
"You can have the prasad later, but will you tie this around your wrist," she asked hopefully, holding out the thread to him.
He looked at the thread and then at her with contempt written all over his face.
"Are you insane?"
"It's a sacred thread... for protection," Nandini said desperately.
"The only thing I need protection from is your company," he said irately, "I am not tying that thing so just go away.."
So he wouldn't tie it by himself. Nandini squeezed her eyes shut and prayed for forgiveness for what she was going to do?but she had no choice now. She kept the thread on the cushioned hand of the chair.
The she moved back a little, took a deep breath and said in a rush before she lost her nerve, "If you don't tie this, I'll have to tell Sumer uncle something."
Prithvi had reached the end of his patience. He cast the book aside and stood with a speed that startled Nandini, and she hastily moved behind a chair for security.
"What are you going to tell him," he asked sharply.
"That..That..when I...I came to your house when uncle was not there, you caught my hand by force," Nandini stammered bravely, though her voice was shaking.
The colour seemed to drain from Prithvi's face. "You'll tell him what?"
His reaction gave her a little courage. It was evident that he found the idea horrifying in the extreme.
"I'll tell him, I swear."
"He won't believe you," Prithvi said immediately.
"He'll believe me if I show him this," she answered, and held up her left wrist which bore a very red and clear impression of five fingers that had grasped it; the effect was intensified by the sheer fairness of her skin.
He stared at the proof silently and Nandini wondered if she had just signed a death warrant.
Then, with obvious anger, he snatched the thread off the hand of the chair and carelessly wrapped it around his right hand.
"There...I have tied it.." he snapped, "Now get out of my house."
"See... that wasn't hard at all," Nandini said brightly. "But don't remove it after I've gone," she added wisely, "it must fall off by itself."
But she had finally pushed her luck too far.
Prithvi moved towards her threateningly, gritting his teeth. Realising that he was going to actually throw her out himself this time, Nandini chuckled and sprinted out of Ayodhya.
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