It was her lunch break on Tuesday afternoon, but Mukti's mind was on anything but food. She distractedly undid and redid the top button of her white dress shirt and chewed her lower lip thoughtfully. She wished she could think of a logical explanation for what she had seen at Angad Khanna's engagement party on Saturday. However, the more Mukti thought about it, the more she became certain that there was a big secret behind it all.
Prem had attempted to alleviate her concerns that very day, suggesting the obvious answer - the pendants were designed by the same chain jewelry store. Although Mukti hadn't given up on that possibility, it was the one that troubled her the most. If what Prem was saying were true, that would mean that her father had lied to her.
The memory of Mukti's first ever conversation with her father about her mother was still fresh in her mind. She was only six years old at the time. She and her father were seated in the living room. Mukti was completing her homework, while Dr. Nitin was skimming through a medical journal. As her hand unintentionally grazed the pendant around her neck, a question came to her mind, and she turned to him.
"Papa, yeh necklace mere gale mein kyoon hai?"
Dr. Nitin looked up with a faint smile. "Aise kyoon poochh rahi ho? Tumhen achcha nahin lagta?" he asked.
"Nahin, achcha to hai, lekin iski chain khulti hi nahin. Maine kal utaarne ki koshish ki thi lekin nahin utri."
With a sigh, Dr. Dekhmukh placed the journal onto the coffee table in front of him. He motioned for Mukti to come sit in his lap, and she complied. After a few seconds of silence, he began speaking. "Yeh pendant tumhaari maa ne khud design kiya tha, sirf tumhaare liye. Woh chaahti theen ke yeh humesha tumhaare gale mein rahe, aur tumhaari raksha kare. Isi liye maine chain aisi banwaayi hai ke toote baghair utaari nahin jaa sakti."
"Lekin Papa," Mukti responded, still curious, "Mummy ne yeh design kyoon chuna. Circle ke andar triangle, triangle ke andar star, aur star ke andar yeh blue stone. Iska matlab kya hai?"
"Is sawaal ka poora jawaab to mere paas bhi nahin hai, lekin jitna main jaanta hoon ek din tumhen zaroor bataaonga. Jab tum thodi badi ho jaaogi. Tab shaayad tum hi is pendant ke raaz ko poori tarah se khol paaogi."
For some reason, Dr. Dekhmukh never again disclosed anything further about the pendant, and Mukti never thought to ask.
Recalling the conversation, Mukti became even more eager to get to the bottom of all this. Was there really a secret behind her mother's motives when she designed the pendant? And if so, how did Angad Khanna fit into the picture?
The only person who she could turn to for the answers to these questions was her father. Mukti had attempted to contact him on Sunday, but his cell phone was turned off. She was able to reach his driver who informed her that he had left town for a few days for a conference and would return Tuesday night.
Glancing at her watch, Mukti realized that her lunch break was over. Tossing her unfinished lunch into the trash, she made her way back to her desk. She decided not to think about the pendant again until after work, at which time she would try reaching her father.
Angad looked up from his desk and out the door of his office at Kripa who was absorbed in her work. He had given her three tasks that morning, and she had already completed two of them. For the first time since she had started working at the office, she made no errors in either task. Loosening his tie, Angad smiled to himself, pleased at her progress.
As if she had read his mind, Kripa paused to glance at him with a grin. Almost done, she mouthed to him. Flinging the end of her pale pink dupatta over her shoulder, she returned to the letter she was typing.
Angad was relieved that he would not have to fire her. From the first day when she had collided with him in the hallway, Angad had formed the opinion that Kripa was an honest and decent girl, one with good intentions. He had sensed in her eyes the fear of being incompetent and he couldn't bear the thought of being the one to confirm her fears.
A few seconds after Angad had returned to his own work, he heard the phone on Kripa's desk ring. After completing the sentence she was typing, Kripa answered it.
"Hello...Maa? Tum yahaan kyoon phone kar rahi ho?" Upon hearing the response, she gasped in shock. "Yeh sab kab huwa?...Doctors ne kya kaha hai...Achcha, main abhi yahaan se nikalti hoon." With that she hung up the phone and stood up from her seat.
As she entered his office, Angad gazed at her questioningly. "Koyi problem?"
Kripa's eyes had become moist, but she kept her composure. "Mere pitaji hospital mein hain. Unhen kuch dair pehle heart attack aaya hai.
"Oh...I'm so sorry," he responded with concern.
"Kya main aaj jaldi jaa sakti hoon?"
"Of course. Aap ka wahaan hona zaroori hai."
"Thank you," she responded, turning to leave.
"Miss Kripa," Angad called out behind her.
Kripa turned. "Ji?"
"Aapko agar kisi bhi qism ki madad ki zaroorat ho to...don't hesitate to ask."
She flashed him a grateful smile, and quickly left the room so he wouldn't see the tears start to roll down her cheeks.
That evening, Mukti tried multiple times to get in touch with her father, and was disappointed each time when his voicemail came up. She ultimately gave up and left the room to cook dinner. After eating, she washed up and got ready for bed. Before sleeping, she decided to give it one more shot. Grabbing her phone from her side table, she quickly entered the speed dial code for her father's cell phone.
Relief washed over her as she heard his voice on the other line. "Hello?"
"Hi Papa," she responded keenly.
"Arre, Mukti beta. Bilkul sahi waqt par call kiya hai tumne. Maine abhi abhi apna phone on kiya tha."
"Jaanti hoon. Pichhle kuch ghanton mein kayi baar aapko try kar chuki hoon. Aap ki conference kaisi rahi?" Mukti sprawled herself out on her bed and ran her fingers through her thick brown hair.
"Bahut stressful environment tha aur kaam bahut zyaada, so naturally, I loved it," he replied.
Typical Papa, Mukti thought with a laugh. Then it occurred to her that she had inherited the same trait. She enjoyed a demanding work environment and was attracted to challenges. Realizing this connection gave her a sense of homesickness, and she nearly forgot about the purpose for her call.
"Oh, Papa, main to bhool hi gayi. Aap se ek baat poochni thi, mere pendant ke baare mein."
"Pendant? Haan, haan, poochho."
Mukti felt as if she could detect a slight change of tone in his voice, as if the mention of her pendant had made him anxious. Dismissing it as a figment of her imagination, she continued. "Aapne mujhe bataaya tha ke ise Mummy ne khaas taur par mere liye design kiya tha. Isi liye mujhe hairat huwi jab maine yahaan Mumbai mein ek aadmi ko yehi pendant pehne huwe dekha."
"Kya? Wohi design tumne kisi aur ke gale mein dekha?!" The shock was evident in his voice. "Kaun tha who?"
"Ek mashhoor industrialist ka beta. Mere dost ne mujhe uski engagement party mein invite kiya tha. Wahin maine use dekha."
"Yeh kaise ho sakta hai? Woh design to sirf... Reema mujhe bataati agar... Ya shaayad is mein bhi koyi raaz hai..." Dr. Nitin's voice became dimmer, as he continued speaking to himself, almost forgetting that Mukti was still on the line. "Kahin aisa to nahin ke Shekhar aur Namrata ka ek beta bhi tha?"
"Papa, aap kya keh rahe hain mujhe kuch samajh mein nahin aa raha hai," Mukti said in exasperation. "Yeh Shekhar aur Namrata kaun hain?"
There was complete silence on the line for a moment. Then Dr. Nitin took a deep break, and revealed, "Tumhaare asli maa baap."
"Kya?! Yeh aap kaisi baatein kar rahe hain."
"Mukti, asal mein, tum meri beti nahin ho. Bachpan se leke aaj tak maine tumhen paala to hai, lekin tumhaara janam mere ghar mein nahin huwa tha. Humaara rishta khoon ka nahin hai."
Mukti's world seemed to come crashing around her. Everything she held to be true was suddenly in question. How could this man, who had always protected her, made sure that her every wish became a reality, and served as her biggest role model now admit that he had lied to her all her life? Yet, the serious tone of his voice persuaded her beyond a shadow of a doubt that this time, he was telling her the truth.
"Aap ne aaj tak mujh se yeh baat chhupaayi ke main aap ki beti nahin hoon?" Mukti yelled into the phone. "Meri zindagi ki saari buniyaad ek jhoot par hai. How could you do this to me, Papa?"
Dr Deshmukh's voice trembled on the other line. "Mukti...tum...please samajhne ki koshish karo. Mujhe tumhaari hifaazat ke liye tum se yeh sachchayi chhupaani padi."
"To phir ab bataaiye. Kaise log the mere maa baap, jinhon ne apni hi beti ko abandon kar diya? Kya hai meri zindagi ki sachchayi?!"
"Main tumhen sab sach sach bataaoonga, lekin phone pe nahin. Main jitni jaldi ho sake Mumbai aa raha hoon. Mera intezaar karna. I'll be there soon."
"Mukti please. Main nahin chaahta ke humaare beech koyi ghalat fehmi ho. Humein aamne saamne hi baat karni hogi."
Reluctantly, Mukti gave in. "Theek hai. Aap jaldi aaiye."
"Sab samajh mein aa gaya hai, Inder? Sab kuch plan ke mutabiq hi jaaye to tumhaare liye achcha hai. Is baar agar koyi ghalti huwi, to samjho tumhaari khair nahin."
The scientist paused for a moment allowing the man named Inder to attempt to reassure him. A haughty smirk came over his face as he listened.
"Theek hai. Yeh tumhaara aakhri chance hai. Angad Khanna zinda nahin bachna chaahiye."