“Shikhs!” Rajani was overjoyed. And furious. “You are here in India! You didn’t tell me?”
“Rajji,” Shikha’s voice quavered and she broke down.
“Shikhs! What happened?” Rajani was alarmed. “Lucky okay?”
But to Rajani’s dismay there was no answer. After a while, Kirti came on the phone. “Hello Rani. How are you?”
“Aunty! What happened to Shikha? Why is she crying? Is Lucky…” Rajani panicked.
“Lucky is fine.” Kirti was composed, guarded. “Shikha was homesick after I left so she came back for a bit. She would love to meet you, if you have the time to come to Chandigarh…”
“But of course I will come,” Rajani promised, “this weekend, pucca. Oh! I am traveling. But I will come soon. Till when is she here?”
“You come when you can.” Kirti disconnected the phone.
Rajani had a bad feeling. Aunty wasn’t her usual warm self. She sounded distant, disturbed. And Shikha? Why would she be homesick and would she come all the way home and then start crying uncontrollably?
“I want to go to Chandigarh.” Rajani said.
“When?” Harsha asked.
“Guests are coming.”
“How does that matter? I am traveling half the weekends any way.”
“So the one weekend you are not, should be spent at home.”
“Shikha has come home after so long. I want to see her baby. I am going and that’s that.”
An altercation was imminent but Sunaina jumped in. “Of course you should go home. It has been a long time since you met your parents too. You should go to Chandigarh. But why waste a weekend? Take two days off. You haven’t taken a single leave since you joined…”
“But I don’t want to take…”
“Why waste your leaves, they aren’t going to be encashed…”
“They are.” Rajani said.
“Oh. I see. In that case I will postpone the lunch next weekend and I will go along with you to Chandigarh.”
Damn it to hell.
“No, don’t say anything Rani. My mind is made up. You do so much for us, surely I can do this much? We’ll take the car, roam around Chandigarh, go shopping, oh it will be like a girls’ party.” Sunaina was excited.
Rajani wanted to bang her head. Who had a girls’ party with her MIL? And what about Shikha? When would she meet her? What bloody nonsense.
But there was no way Rajani could wriggle out of her MIL’s self-invited trip to Chandigarh. Sunaina stuck to her like glue and even insisted on going to Shikha’s house, have her share of play and cuddle with Lucky while Shikha looked on pale, listless and disinterested. Rajani’s heart sank. She yearned to go back to their carefree childhood days. But then they wouldn’t have had Lucky. He was so adorable, a chubby gurgling darling.
Time was short and it looked as if she would have to leave without her heart to heart with Shikha. She rebelled. This couldn’t be! She had to do something!
Rajani racked her brains trying to come up with a solution as how to shake off her shadow for at least a couple of hours. Finally pleading a headache, stayed opted out yet another shopping expedition in two days and stayed back. The moment they were out of sight, Rajani slipped out to meet Shikha.
“Shikha ki bacchi!” Rajani pounced on her. Shikha gave a shriek and almost fell over. Thankfully she wasn’t carrying Lucky.
“Rajji! I’ll kill you!” She screeched but Rajani was busy lolling about laughing and giggling at Shikha’s rather comical start of surprise.
“Stop it Rajji.” Shikha said sternly. “It’s not that funny.”
“You di…didn’t see…eee you…rself,” She gasped clutching her tummy.
“Shut up Rajji.” Shikha wasn’t amused. “Grow up. Be serious.”
But Rajani was on a roll.
“Shush! You’ll wake up Lucky. Do you know how difficult it is make a baby fall asleep?”
No I don’t. Rajani sobered. “I have lots of experience with Sameer and Akash…”
Shikha turned away. “It’s not the same thing.”
Rajani winced and swallowed. “What happened Shikhs?”
“Nothing.” Shikha shook her head. “You won’t understand. Clearly you are miles away from reality. Giggling like a school kid.” She snorted.
“You sound upset. What happened?”
“Something is the matter.” Rajani insisted. “That day you started crying…I have been so worried. Is Amu…”
“Don’t talk of him!” Shikha snapped.
“What?” Rajani looked at her in surprise. “All well Shikhs? I thought it was your MIL…”
“Like mother like son,” Shikha was bitter. “I can’t stand either of them.”
“Shikhs! What on earth is the matter? I thought you were happy with Amu, loved him?”
“Happy?” Shikha gave a mirthless laugh. “Love? Do these things even exist after marriage? Tell me are you happy? Do you love Harsha?”
“I was never in love with Harsha,” Rajani held herself steady, “besides, let’s not talk about me. You tell me, what happened?”
“He’s mean obnoxious intolerable…”
“Whoa! Relax. Chill. What happened? Aunty?” she turned to Kirti. But Kirti shook her head, “I need to check up on Lucky. It’s time for him to wake up.” She went into the other room.
“Calm down Shikhs. Tell me.” Rajani invited again.
For a moment it looked as if Shikha wasn’t going to spill the beans but then after a brief tussle she opened up. “It was all fine until Mummy was there. He was so caring considerate loving,” her eyes filled with tears and she choked on the words, “but then all of a sudden he became withdrawn aloof and so rude. It was so tough to manage everything from cleaning to shopping to cooking and top of it there was Lucky too.”
Shikha shrugged helplessly. “I wish I knew! Earlier when we were alone and even when my MIL was visiting, he used to help me around the house, risking her wrath and taunts. When Mummy came to help with the baby, he was so sweet and kind to her too. I just don’t know what happened.”
“Didn’t you ask him?”
“I did. Several times. But each time it would turn into a massive screaming session with no solution in sight.”
“Is…is he having a affair?” Rajani asked in a hesitant rush.
“That’s what I thought too. But…but more than somebody else, I think it’s me,” she said, “he’s bored of me. I’m no longer ‘fun’ he says.” Shikha’s voice wobbled. “I am just a typical mummy, all I care about is Lucky, his meals, his sleep time, but you tell me,” she turned to her, “How can I go off for a weekend trekking camping trip with no medical facilities? That too when Lucky’s cranky and colicky? He thinks I am over-obsessing about Lucky and I don’t care about him any longer. I haven’t slept for months – not since Lucky was born. It’s not his fault,” she rushed to absolve her baby of any wrongdoing, “but I am human. I can’t stay up nights and days endlessly without compromising on something? He says I don’t cook his favorite meals, his clothes aren’t ironed, that I don’t love him anymore.” She bit her lip. “Oh Rajji I was so exhausted.”
Rajani’s heart broke for her friend. “I am so sorry Shikhs. I thought at least you were happy. But I am surprised Amu let you leave…”
“As if he had a choice.” Shikha said bitterly.
“What do you mean?”
“We had a massive argument over something I also retaliated in full measure. He lost it and…and…and…” Shikha broke down.
In tears herself, Rajani put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed in silent sympathy.
Shikha controlled herself. “He…he slapped me hard. I…I went flying across the room and hit my head on the wall and cut my hand on the edge of the windowsill. He didn’t even come to check if I was okay. Lucky was screaming at the top of his lungs. But he just slammed out of the house.”
“No!” Rajani gasped horrified.
“It was awful Rajji. I couldn’t see properly for sometime and blood was dripping all over from my hand,” she rubbed her left hand, “and there was Lucky,” she shook her head, “I don’t know how I managed. My head was throbbing my cheek was black and blue. Then this lady came to book her tickets. She guessed something had happened and helped me book my tickets.”
“Amu didn’t know at all?”
“I had to tell him of course. I had to take his permission to take Lucky…”
“I threatened to go to the police if he didn’t sign the document.” She fingered the faint scar on her temple.
“Would you have? I mean if he hadn’t signed, would you have actually gone to the police?”
“I don’t know. At that time I was mad enough to do anything. But now, I wonder…”
“Didn’t he apologize?”
“Of course he did. But I don’t want to stay with him. How can he raise his hand at me? What if it had been worse? What if I had broken something, injured for life or died? What would have happened to Lucky? He didn’t come back or even check in until late at night. If Parminder Aunty hadn’t come…”
“Did you tell Rajani that Amar had sent Parminderji?” Kirti stood at the door.
“Oh!” Wide-eyed and horrified Rajani was relieved, “That was nice of Amu…”
“Nice!” Shikha blew up, “Nice?” she set up a screech. Kirti made a dash to the other room and shut the door. “Nice to hit your wife, leave her dead for all you know with a little baby and then send in a neighbor to do your dirty work? What bloody nonsense!”
“I meant he could have…I mean he was concerned enough…”
“…about his own safety. He was worried he would have to go to jail.”
“It’s not like that Shikha.” Kirti said gently. “He sent Parminder to check and inform if the situation was critical and if you needed to go to the hospital. And if you were, he told her to convince you to book your tickets for he was afraid of his own reaction…”
“Whose side are you on?” Shikha attacked her mother.
“Your side.” Kirti was categorical. “It is entirely your wish if you want to go back or not. But don’t ignore the facts. People make mistakes. If people are genuinely sorry, they should be forgiven and you should move on, for the sake of the baby.”
“You just want to get rid of me.” Shikha accused hotly.
“No darling. I don’t you can stay here for the rest of your life. But will you be happy?” Kirti said gently. “A child needs his father. Besides, he is so apologetic. Everyday he calls up…”
“I can’t go back to him! I can’t! I can’t!”
“Okay. Okay fine. Fine. Hush. Hush.” Kirti enfolded her in her embrace and held her close.