Thank you for your likes and comments. I wrote and posted the first half in a short span of time. I'm taking a break and will continue in the last week of August when I have some time off work- the blueprint is ready!
Please do consider reading my earlier work in the meantime. A lot of it is interconnected.
P.S The chapter after the next one is devoted to Arshi.
Anjali waited in the car while Amanji went inside the school to fetch Pari.
Taking advantage of his blind panic on hearing from the school principal, she had convinced him to accept a ride to the school to pick up Pari and bring her to the hospital.
Pari had fallen from the monkey bars in the playground and the school nurse suspected that she had broken at least one, if not both, of her left forearm bones. She was in quite a lot of pain and in need of urgent medical attention.
Outside the café, Anjali had explained the urgency of the situation to Mohanji. His surprise on seeing Amanji with her had been limited, by his inherent tactfulness, to a momentary widening of his eyes.
Holding the door open as they climbed in, he made haste.
En route, he tried to reassure Amanji that children were prone to bumps and bruises and generally recovered, even from broken bones, with no lasting consequences.
This reminded Anjali that the two men knew each other, perhaps from living in the same neighbourhood.
When Amanji remained visibly rattled, she recounted an incident when Chotey had once fallen off a ladder and closely missed injuring his left eye. He had needed stitches below his eyebrow that left him with a barely noticeable scar.
Their commiseration seemed to have little effect on Amanji who bolted from the car the moment they pulled into the parking lot.
In the anxious moments spent waiting, Mohanji thanked her for her help. Pari was a favourite in their basti, he informed her. She was as adorable as she was mischievous.
Even without prompting, he spoke of how they had all seen Priya and Aman grow up and had shared in their joy when they tied the knot. Pari’s arrival had been a celebration for the whole neighbourhood.
“Kabhi kabhi hume Nandkishore ki moh-maaya samajh nahi aavat hai, Anjali madam” he said, with a sigh. “Na jaane unke hasthe-khelte parivaar ko kiski nazar lag gayi. Akhir Priya bitiya ki umar hi kya thi?”
Anjali felt a lump rise in her throat. The illusion of happy families could be so…so fragile.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of Amanji with an esprit five-year-old girl in tow. Dressed in a blue pinafore dress and two pigtails in matching blue ribbons, she exuded energy and vitality in spite of her tear lined cheeks. She greeted Mohanji, forgetting her pain briefly in the excitement of seeing him and clambered in as he held the door open for her.
“Sit down” Amanji said, ducking down for an instant. He straightened up and gave Mohanji directions to a nearby children’s hospital.
Holding her left arm delicately, Pari reluctantly gave up her vantage point between the two front seats and sat back and rather belatedly noticed Anjali.
Before either of them could speak, Amanji was scooting Pari to the side and getting in.
“Pari, yeh Anjaliji hain” he said, his words half-drowned by the shutting of the door.
Pari turned to her with a look of surprise.
“Hello” Anjali said, with a smile.
“Aap sach me angel hain?”
A moment’s confusion later, Amanji tried to correct her. “Angel nahi, Anj…”
But Anjali cut him off and addressed the little girl. “Jee haan, aapko bharosa nahi hai?”
Pari blinked once and turned to her father questioningly.
“Jab aapke daant gir jaathe hain, toh kaun aata hai?” Anjali asked.
“Tooth fairy” Pari said and after a second’s thought, “Aap fracture fairy ho kya?”
“Correct!” Anjali said, much to Pari’s delight and Amanji’s look of incredulity.
“Acha hua aap aa gayi” Pari said, excitedly.
Anjali and Amanji exchanged a look of surprise.
“Woh humaare class me Dhruv hai na” Pari said, not meeting either of their eyes. “Usne kaha ki humaara haath toot ho gaya hai aur ab se hamesha tedha-medha rahega”
Anjali assured her that this was not the case and even if it was broken, the doctor would fix it. They were heading to the hospital for that reason and Pari only need be as brave as she could be.
But the little girl was not appeased. Sneaking a look at her father, she inched closer to Anjali and half- whispered,
“Dhruv ne kaha ki tedhe haathe wali ko koi Prince nahi milega”
“Speak properly, Pari” Amanji admonished.
Anjali glared at him indignantly as the little girl repeated herself, trying to sound as dignified as she could. Amanji tried his best to school his nonplussed expression, the vein on his forehead popping.
Watching him scramble, Anjali intervened and promised her that straight hand or not, there would be no trouble with finding a Prince. And besides, Pari didn’t really need a Prince to be a Princess, did she?
After all, what did her Papa call her?
“Little princess” Pari mumbled, turning to her father who now looked like he might cry.
The acuity of his anxiety abating, he sighed and put an arm around her.
Pari’s determination to get her arm fixed in order to find a Prince suffered an abrupt demise when they arrived at the hospital and the prospect of a doctor and injections suddenly became all too real.
Amanji lifted the crying girl in his arms and as they made their way inside, Pari suddenly exclaimed,
“Aapka leg bhi fracture ho gaya kya?” she asked, pointing at Anjali’s limp.
Looking embarrassed, Amanji tried to shush her, but Anjali didn’t mind. She had never taken offence at people asking about her leg. It was those who made ridiculous leaps in judgement about it that irked her.
Hoping to use Pari’s curiosity as a distraction, Anjali explained about her leg as best as she could to a five-year-old as Amanji spoke to the receptionist in the Emergency Room.
When she directed them to an examination room to await the orthopedician, Anjali offered to wait outside.
“Lekin aapko Prince mil gaya na?” Pari asked, her mind clearly still hovering on the topic.
Anjali stopped short.
She didn’t hear Amanji’s admonishment to his daughter as they stepped inside, and she found her way to some seats.
The storm of emotions arising from the innocent question surprised her.
What surprised her, even more, was that her thoughts turned not to her ex-husband but to another man, one who had broken her heart a long time ago.
An actual prince, he had belonged to the royal family of Lucknow. They had been long-standing family friends and she had been floored when, disregarding his family’s objections to the match because of her disability, he had proposed.
On the day of her parent’s funeral, it was his face she had searched for amidst the throng of mourners. And it had taken her an inordinately long time to realise that he hadn’t yet arrived because he was not coming.
All subsequent attempts to contact him were met with ‘his royal highness’ not being available. To this day, a part of her never understood.
Had his family convinced him to leave her? How easily had he been persuaded? Was it because of the scandal with her parents? Was it her leg? She would never know.
Princes, she thought dryly, were in short supply.
When they emerged, Amanji informed her that Pari needed to have her forearm x-rayed.
She accompanied them into radiology, trying to reassure a visibly terrified Pari that the X-ray machine was nothing more than a giant camera.
They soon discovered that she had indeed broken one of her bones and the doctor explained that they would need to reduce the fracture under anaesthesia.
“It’s very unlikely we’ll need to operate, per se” he said, “We’ll just set it, confirm with X rays and apply a cast. It’s a very short procedure.”
Amanji did not look reassured but put on a brave face and signed the necessary forms.
As Pari hadn’t eaten since breakfast, the doctor decided to do the procedure straightaway. He asked the nurse to send some blood tests and pop in an iv cannula first.
Anjali, who had some experience with iv cannulae and how painful they were, insisted on the nurse using a local anaesthetic patch first and tried to explain to Pari that although it was a needle, it wouldn’t hurt.
Pari’s look of surprise at the miraculously pain-free injection a few minutes later made her smile.
Anjali was simply bowled over by the little girl's courage when despite her apparent pain and fear, she listened when the anaesthetist explained the process and seemed to accept her promise that it wouldn't hurt.
Amanji kissed on the forehead as the sleepy meds were administered and she was wheeled in.
Staring at the retreating automatic doors of the operating room, he swallowed hard.
“She is all I have left,” he said, his voice breaking.
Anajli touched his shoulder. He turned to her; his expression pained.
“If anything happens to her…”
“Amanji, she will be absolutely fine” Anjali said, reassuringly. "It'll be over before you know it."
Her own eyes misted at seeing him, a man she associated with strength and composure, falling apart like this.
He raised a hand to his shoulder and tightly gripped the hand she had placed there.
When his phone buzzed seconds later, he let go of her hand with an awkward pat.
“Amma” he said, answering the call.
She directed him to one of the seats in the waiting room as he spoke to his mother. Looking around, she spotted a water purifier and poured him a Styrofoam cup.
When she returned, he had hung up and was looking very embarrassed.
“Anjaliji, I apologise for Pari’s behaviour” he said, accepting the cup. “It’s all this Disney nonsense she’s always watching, Prince-Princess, Fairies… yehi sab rehta hai”
With a chuckle, Anjali took the seat beside him and reminded him that his daughter was only five years old. And what a little trooper she was.
He nodded and then looking at his watch realised that it had gotten quite late.
“Anjaliji, aapko wait karne ki zaroorath nahi hai, Amma and Priya’s parents are on their way.”
She insisted on staying and when he looked like he was about to protest, she asked him to let her stay for her own peace of mind.
However, it wasn’t easy to wait, the anxiety was oppressive. It made her think of how her family had waited for her outside the operating room when she had miscarried. They had all been every bit as broken as her. She had cried only for her loss, but they had cried both for their loss and for her heartbreak.
Shaking herself out of the repetitive loop, she tried to distract Amanji by asking for more gossip about her own family.
Reluctant at first, he acquiesced when he realised that perhaps it was better than dwelling on the inherent risks of anaesthesia and surgery.
“I can’t confirm this because I wasn’t actually present,” he said, turning in his seat to face her. “But I’ve heard this story from more than one employee. Shortly after ASR and Khushiji got married, the first time, they apparently got into a fight in the office foyer and…”
He trailed off with an unexpected smile that instantly softened the tense lines on his face.
Anjali, who was now well accustomed to Chotey and Khusiji’s incessant nok-jhok, raised her eyebrows in trepidation.
“She threw a mug of water from the mop bucket on his face and he…well he dumped the entire bucket of water on her head.”
Her eyes widening, Anjali let out a laugh.
He told her of another instance when Chotey had called him from Laxmi Nagar and kept saying he had seen the ‘gadde’ and that they were acceptable but that he had some suggestions for corrections.
Aman had been quite fearful for his sanity until he had corrected himself and said, contracts not gadde.
Anjali laughed again. For all his intelligence and cunning, her little brother could be a bumbling halfwit when it came to Khushiji.
Before he could launch into another anecdote, the doctor emerged saying the procedure had been successful and that Pari was in the adjoining recovery room.
Giving thanks to God, Amanji leapt to his feet and they followed the doctor.
Pari was curled up on the bed, fast asleep with a few beeping monitors attached to her little form.
As the doctor explained what they had done and the post-procedure care she would need, Amanji bent and kissed Pari’s hand.
“She’ll be up in an hour or so,” the doctor said, smiling as Aman thanked him and promised to return to check on her shortly.
Amanji’s phone rang again, causing Pari to twitch in her sleep. Stepping away, she heard him speak to his mother, who had apparently just arrived. Reassuring her that Pari was alright, he directed her to meet him in the waiting room.
Placing a hand on Pari’s head, Anjali prayed to Devi Maiya to bless and protect this precious child.
“Hume chalna chahiye Amanji” she said, when Amanji returned to the bedside. “Aap apna aur Pari ka khayal rakhiye aur kisi bhi cheez ki zaroorath ho toh bejijak hume yaad kijiye”
“Thank you” he said, walking her to the door. "It was very nice of you..."
He hesitated on the threshold, perhaps considering more words to express what she considered unnecessary gratitude. But in the end, he drew in a decisive breath and held out his hand.
She shook his hand and stepped out, contemplating the unexpected turn of events that had drawn the curtain on their association.
As she made her way out of the hospital, she reminded herself that there was much to look forward to. Chotey had said, just that afternoon, that she was free to visit them in their apartment. She had been truthful when she told Chotey that she wanted to be there for Khushiji in her pregnancy.
Perhaps she could cook something for Khushiji or grind up neem leaves from the poolside for a hair mask.
Thinking of ideas, she convinced herself that what she was feeling was a sense of anticipation, not one of inexplicable wistfulness.
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