‘Hey, princess, how are you?’ he called out as soon as the door was opened.
‘I’m fine,’ Mani replied. ‘That tutor didn’t come. But I found a friend to help me. I know all the sums now. Tomorrow’s test would be great!’
He had walked in by then and I know I had turned rude and staring.
Being a distant relative, I had seen him earlier too. But it was over a decade ago. We both had changed since then. I hadn’t taken much notice of him then. I couldn’t take my eyes off him now.
‘You let a stranger inside the house?’ he said to Mani, then turned instantly towards me. In a flash, his eyes measured me up. I suppose I passed his examination enough to convince him I was not a robber. But he failed to recognize me. ‘Hi, I’m Adih,’ he said, extending his hand towards me. ‘You live around here? Never seen you before in this neighbourhood.’
‘I’m Pakhi,’ I said, shaking his hand. ‘We are related. I’m Rajni didi’s cousin. Masi’s daughter.’
My eyes, meanwhile, remained glued to him. Straight nose, slanting eyebrows hooding his dark and intense eyes, a shock of jet black hair that looked messed up, but had every strand right where it looked best. Or so it seemed to me, at least. He was tall, looked athletic and had the bearing of a strong, intelligent and self-reliant man. While his smile looked careless, his eyes were alert and piercing. I know, I squirmed under their direct scrutiny and felt as if he saw right through me.
Besides that, thanks to Rajni didi, I knew that he was 29 years old, worked at a branding firm, making big people and bigger brands more famous. So, he had contacts with several politicians and celebrities. He was a good cook, trying to be better at housekeeping, and could plait Mani’s long hair in two minutes.
‘Oh! A relative at our home. This must be our lucky day, Mani. What brought you here?’ he asked, turning first to Mani and then to me.
‘I thought she was the tutor, so I…’ Mani said.
‘So, you pulled her in,’ Adih grinned. ‘Explains,’ I heard him murmur under his breath. Then he turned to me and said, ‘Thanks for helping my child. Please be comfortable. I’ll be back in five minutes,’ with that, he strode towards his room. Just before entering his room, he halted and said to me, ‘I heard about your sister’s death. Sorry for your loss.’
‘Thanks,’ I replied.
He nodded and went into his room.
‘I’ll make tea!’ Mani exclaimed, rushing towards the kitchen.
‘I’ll help,’ I said. I didn’t want to stand alone in the room whose very air seemed to have assumed a different character now.
Later, I scolded myself for not exiting the house at that moment. It was a perfect opportunity to be obedient to my mother’s warning. Somehow, that idea didn’t enter my mind when it was most needed. But then, bad ideas always come more readily to my brain than the good ones.
When Mani and I returned from kitchen, Adih was already settled on the couch.
‘You can call me a brute to let such a little girl work in the kitchen. In my defence, I can only say that she loves making tea and she makes the best tea in the world,’ he said, smiling at Mani.
I remember feeling surprised at his cheerfulness. I guess, after what I knew of his family history, I expected him to be gloomy and morose always. He was far from it.
I have learnt since then how deceptive appearances can be. Not everything that eyes see is the truth. Not everything the ears hear is reality. And when it comes to a broken person, some of them are expert at blinding you. Spend an entire evening with such a person, but you may still not know how he is crushing inside. Because he will be holding on to his broken bits with great care, carrying them secretly and silently in his heart. Even if it means getting pierced by those shards every moment of every day.
Adih was much the same…holding on to the broken bits of his life, and smiling.
‘No cookies today, princess?’ Adih asked when Mani set the tea tray on the table.
‘Coming right up!’ she said and ran back to the kitchen.
‘She’s a bright kid,’ I said.
‘Takes after her father,’ Adih replied. The smile that accompanied those words was not as bright as I had seen before. Yet it was there, like an unwavering resolution.
A minute later, Mani returned with a plate full of chocolate-chip cookies.
‘How’s the tea?’ she asked, before she had set the plate on the table.
‘The best in the world,’ I replied. ‘Perfect.’
As I turned, I caught Adih smiling at me. A sudden warmth flamed up on my cheeks and I had to look away. It was safer to stare at Mani instead.
The child grinned at me, picked up two cookies and went to snuggle into her Chachu’s arms.
‘So, Mani, what else is your hobby? Besides making tea, I mean,’ I asked her.
‘Playing on my smartphone,’ Adih replied. I saw that those intense eyes of his could laugh too.
‘No! I mean, yes, but not just that!’ Mani said, slapping Adih’s arm. ‘I like listening to songs and singing. I also like reading,’
‘Comics,’ Adih again interfered, receiving a fist in his arm this time and laughing.
There was no mistaking how much he loved that child. She was the only one he had left as a family. Even her life was at risk. It was treachery that had robbed Adih of his parents and brother. It was fate that had put Mani’s life in danger by giving her a disease called Thalassemia. She needed blood transfusions every month, injections 4 nights a week, and lots of medicines.
Rajni didi had already told me that much. She pitied and adored Adih and Mani. It filled her with rage to see how their relatives had alienated them. She was angry with my mother too, for the same reason.
Adih is Rajni didi’s cousin on her father’s side. So, in a way, he and Mani are our relatives too. But my mother would have none of that. She had heard terrible rumours and gossip against his family. And no matter what facts Rajni didi put forward to defend them, she was not ready to believe or disbelieve anything.
‘They might be innocent, or not. Nobody can know for sure. You want to help them, fine,’ she had told Rajni didi upon learning that Adih had moved to Delhi. ‘But I don’t want him anywhere near my daughter. I have only one daughter left now. I don’t want to put her future at risk.’
And here I was, drinking tea with Adih in his own home. Alone. With nobody else but Mani to give us company. I decided I needed to get away from that house, as soon as possible.
So, I gulped down my tea and jumped up from the couch. ‘Lovely tea, Mani. Thanks for it. But I need to go now. It’s late and my mother would start worrying.’ I had realized that staying at my cousin’s house wasn’t going to work out as I had expected. I felt it better to return home that night, instead of the next.
‘Did you, by any chance, come on a pink and white scooter?’ Adih asked, also standing up.
‘Magenta and white. Why?’ I asked.
‘Devil drove it away,’ he declared.
‘Well, when I came, I saw Mohit driving away on it. If he has gone to his coaching class, he won’t be back till 9 pm,’ said Adih.
Mohit is Rajni didi’s son. At that time, he was in class tenth.
‘Ok,’ I said. ‘I guess, I’ll have to catch a rickshaw then.’
‘The weather is getting bad. It might start raining soon. If you want, I can drop you to your home,’ Adih said, stepping closer to me. ’It’s been long since I met your parents. Many years, in fact. Some wedding it was when I saw them…’
‘You? No, no!’ I said, cutting his words. For them, he was not the same kid anymore. He now belonged to a family that had faced legal charges and might have ended up in prison.
Adih nodded, his eyes glinting with sudden coldness. He had understood. A smirk stretched out on his face. ‘Right,’ he said, stepping away. ‘You better leave then. No need to waste time here. Thank you for helping my daughter with her studies.’
‘It was my pleasure,’ I said, without looking at him. ‘I like teaching and she…I mean her tutor…so…’
‘That woman found a group of students so she opted out from here.’
‘Oh, that’s bad,’ I murmured.
‘Well, I’ve seen people staying away for worse reasons than this,’ he shrugged. Before I could say anything to that, he extended his hand towards me and said, ‘You are late. Goodbye.’
We shook hands. Or rather, touched our fingers in a pretence of handshake. Then I turned and sped away. Before I had taken two paces out of his home, the house closed its door on me.
But it was justified. If I couldn’t welcome Adih in my home, I had no right to expect a welcome in his.