Rajani dumped her bag on the table and pulled out her chair.
“Hey Rajji!” Pakhi came at a trot. “Guess what?” She was glowing and despite herself Rajani cheered up.
“Tell me!” she asked eagerly.
“I cleared the MBA entrance exam!”
“Oh wow!” Rajani jumped up and gave Pakhi an exuberant hug. “That is great news! Congratulations!”
“Thank you!” Pakhi was all smiles. “I am so excited and a little bit nervous too.”
“Nervous?! But why?”
“Leave this place. Go to a new city, back to college. Wouldn’t you be?”
Rajani looked at her in dismay. Pakhi would leave here!
“Don’t look like that!” Pakhi exclaimed, “I am not going to Mars but to Ahmedabad.”
“May as well be Mars.” Rajani said morosely.
“We’ll be in touch.” Pakhi promised.
“Like Avantika is?” Rajani said skeptically. “Out of sight out of mind.”
“Why don’t you come away with me to Ahmedabad? It is a safe city for girls and you could find a job, a crèche for Anisha.”
“Don’t tempt me.” Rajani shook her head.
“What happened?” Pakhi looked closely at her.
Rajani sighed heavily. “That MIL of mine. She is really something. So jealous, petty and mean, not just where I am concerned but even Ani.”
“Tell me something new.” Pakhi fumed.
“Ani’s been low and cranky. We are both worried about her.” Rajani didn’t go into the details of the other night. “Harsha suggested that I take a half-day off and we take her to the mall play area which she loves, maybe have lunch out. I of course agreed but my MIL’s blood pressure rose. She deliberately instigated Harsha just as he was about to do puja. She made some pointed remarks about the neatness and cleanliness of our room, which he is very particular about and I also rose beautifully to the bait,” Rajani cursed herself. “One thing led to another and Harsha threw a major tantrum and walked out of the house with Ani howling and crying. Thankfully, Rekha came with her kids, so she calmed down and I could come to office.” She looked down at her phone, which was ringing incessantly.
“Now what?” she groaned. “Yes Mummyji?” she said shortly.
“Sorry beta, I didn’t mean for Harsha to walk out of the house.”
“Then what did you hope for him to do?” Rajani snapped.
“I was hoping that he would throw the lighted match at you.”
Rajani threw the phone down and burst into uncontrollable giggles. “She’s mad. She’s really lost it.” She gasped bringing Pakhi up to date.
But Pakhi wasn’t amused. “It’s not funny Rajani. It’s not she it’s you who has lost it,” she said brutally. “You better walk out and soon. Any place would be better than this, even the streets.” Rajani sobered.
Even Aditi had said that.
“Maybe I will come to Ahmedabad with you.” She said recklessly.
Pakhi raised a hand for a high-five. “I’ll hold you to it. You have one month to get your things and grey cells in order.”
“Done!” Rajani promised feeling free. That’s what she would do, leave without a forwarding address. Let them answer uncomfortable questions from society, let her parents worry and fret for her. She felt tears come into her eyes at the thought of their plight. She gritted her teeth. Serve them all bloody right. She attacked her work in a better frame of mind.
Late in the afternoon Rajani called up home landline to inquire about Anisha.
“Hello?”Rajani’s blood ran cold. What was Kuldeep doing at home at this time? She steadied. His kids were there too. Hopefully. She disconnected the phone and rang her MIL’s cellphone.
“Where are you Mummyji?” she asked without any preamble.
“Here only.” She replied cagily.
“Where exactly? And Anisha?”
“She’s okay. She’s sleeping.”
“What’s that noise?” Rajani stiffened. “Where are you?” The penny dropped. “You are at the parlor?” her pitch rose.
“I had an appointment and am almost done.” Sunaina said defensively.
“What about Anisha? Where is she?”
“I told you. She’s at home sleeping.”
“She doesn’t sleep at this time.” Rajani was panicking.
“She’s not well, she has fever. Otherwise I would have sent her to the park with the others.”
Rajani’s heart thudded and fell to her feet. “You mean she’s alone at home?” Rajani set up a screech. She pulled out her bag from the drawer and made a dash for the door.
“Not alone! Kuldeep is there…”
“That’s worse than being alone!” Rajani screamed as she ran down the stairs too hyped to wait for the lift. “How dare you leave her alone with that…that man? I’m warning you Mummyji, if I even sense anything wrong has happened I will go straight to the police station, my parents be dammed.” She hit the accelerator and drove at breakneck speed and rang the bell.
“What a whole lot of fuss over nothing.” Sunaina grumble as she opened the door. “I told you I was here only.” “
“Please!” Rajani raised a hand. “You weren’t here when I called.” She picked up a sleeping Anisha and gave her a quick look over before holding her close to her. Thank you Bhagwanji thank you. She chanted over and over again.
“A whole lot of fuss over nothing.” Sunaina sniffed and walked out of the room.
Rajani charged out after her. “Over nothing?!!!” Her throat hurt with the pressure of keeping her volume down. “I called up the landline and you know who picked up the phone?”
“Yeah so?” Sunaina looked guilty for an infinitesimal moment.
“So?!!!” Rajani thrust a furious finger into her MIL’s face. “You’ve forgotten what happened just a few days ago? Or are you going to pretend you were deaf and blind that night? Didn’t I tell you that he wasn’t to come to this house? That I would complain to the police?”
“This is not your house…”
“Oh isn’t it?” Rajani put a hand to her hips. “It is just as much mine as it is yours. By law. So don’t try to browbeat me – and keep that monster away from here. You’ll regret it if he enters this house while I am here or Anisha is here.”
“I don’t know why you are insisting on making a mountain out of a molehill. I apologized to you on his behalf and to him on your behalf…”
“Wait a minute!” Rajani flared up. “You apologized to him on my behalf?”
Sunaina nodded. “If children don’t do the right thing, we as adults…”
“But why should I apologize!!!!” Rajani shrieked. “I haven’t done anything wrong. He should apologize and Didi should dump him. He’s nothing but a sleazy monster.”
“How dare you!” Rekha stood there with her kids. Rajani turned on her heels and slammed her bedroom door shut. She locked the door and let despair take over her fury. She cried her heart out. If only there was somebody she could call, someone who would take her out of this quagmire. Perhaps she shouldn’t have been so hasty about breaking away from Riteish… Anisha thrashed about restlessly and wailed.
Controlling herself, Rajani focused on Ani. She took her to the doctor, bought her medicines, some toys some goodies for herself and returned home. Her MIL was waiting at the parking. “Here take this list I want them urgently. Guests.” She said cryptically.
“How can I go?” Rajani protested. “Ani…”
“I’ll take her.” Sunaina reached through the window and pulled out Anisha. She cuddled and kissed her. “Say bye to Mamma. Say bye.” She walked away.
Cursing herself for being unable to break free of the years of conditioning Rajani drove off to do her MIL’s bidding. Rajani returned from her shopping chore and lugged the stuff up the stair, opting to leave her and Anisha’s things in the car – Rekha was sure to be there, waiting to grab anything, she thought sourly.
“You took so long!” Sunaina grumbled, “Put it all away in the kitchen and make some tea and serve the samosas. Did you get everything I told you?”
“Yes.” Rajani nodded. “Where’s Anisha?”
“She’s playing with the other kids on the balcony. She’s fine.”
“She’s not fine. She has fever and I would rather she didn’t play…”
“Oh don’t create a scene now!” She gave her a push. “Go on now hurry up. Guests have been waiting.”
Rajani swallowed her retort and went to the kitchen. She didn’t want to create a scene – everyone would blame her. If only she could check up on Ani. She had been so cranky and irritable. Perhaps the fever had broken she thought hopefully as she swiftly put the tea water to boil and laid out the crockery. At least she wasn’t crying. That was something. Ani did enjoy the company of her cousins. She sighed and let her be – she wasn’t in any mood to meet Rekha. Best to give them a wide berth while she could. Serving tea and socializing with the guests, Rajani was relieved when they finally left.
As they waved goodbye, Rajani saw Rekha and her kids coming up the stairs. “Where’s Ani?” she panicked.
“How do I know?” huffed Rekha.
Rajani turned to her MIL.
“She must be sleeping.”
“Sleeping? For so long? I thought you said she was playing with the kids?”
“Well she was.” Sunaina sniffed. “The way you talk as if I was her nanny or something. I was busy with the guests….”
“I hope you brought her upstairs and not ‘forgot’ her somewhere.” Rajani had stalked off, calling out, “Ani?!”
A tousled Kuldeep emerged from her in-laws bedroom holding a crying Anisha. “There there baby,” he crooned, “no need to cry. Your darling Mamma is here now.” He planted a smacking kiss on Anisha’s cheeks and held her out to Rajani, making sure to press against her breasts while he did so.Rajani snatched Anisha away.
“How dare you?” she snarled at everyone before vanishing inside her bedroom. She hurriedly stripped Ani – was she okay? Had he done something to her? Why was she crying so much? “Hush baby hush” she soothed even as tears ran down her cheeks. No please. Please Bhagwanji. Please let nothing have happened. I swear I will take a step today. I swear I will move away today. Don’t punish my baby for my sins. Please don’t let there be another Ayesha. Please please Bhagwanji. Thank you Bhagwanji Thank you. There were no marks or bruises anywhere and Ani had quieted.
“Rajani.” She froze.
Why was her FIL calling her? Of late he had begun to ignore her and frankly she couldn’t even remember the last time he spoke directly to her. Initially she had been hurt and upset but later she had put it down to his guilt at allowing so many injustices being meted out to her under his roof and rule. And it had been a balm to her wounded soul.
“Rajani!” Carrying Anisha, she presented herself without saying a word.
“What are you doing inside? Can’t you help your mother-in-law?”
“Anisha isn’t well.” She responded sullenly.
“Give her to me.” Sunaina plucked Anisha out of Rajani’s arms. “My knees are hurting. I can’t walk another step.”
“Get some ice for your Jijaji.” He ordered.
Kuldeep’s leer set her teeth on the edge. “Why can’t Rekha do it?”
“She’s taking care of the kids.”
“I’ll take care of the kids.” Rajani held out her arms for Anisha but her mother-in-law held her away. “No! Rekha’s not well.”
“I am also not well.” Rajani protested.
“Stop arguing!” Her father-in-law cracked the whip. “In this much time you could have served drinks and ice to a roomful of people.”
“I would rather serve to a roomful of people than this man.” She spat with a derisive look at Kuldeep.
“You dare speak to the son-in-law of the house in this manner? Who do you think you are?” Roared her father-in-law.
But Rajani was beyond caring. “If nobody in this house has any shame or respect for the daughter-in-law of the house I have no shame in speaking to them in any manner I wish.”
“You shameless woman!” Kuldeep was up in a flash and punched her in the face. The salty taste of blood flooded her mouth as she reeled from the shock and pain. Before she could steady, Kuldeep had grabbed hold of her by the hair and pulled her close to him. Why didnt anyone stop him? She thought hazily struggling to stay conscious. He thrust his face into her ear and growled menacingly, “Submit to me or Anisha is next.”
Anisha is next.
Anisha is next.
Anisha is Ayesha.
Ayesha is Anisha.
“No!” With a desperate scream , Rajani instinctively extended her hand and gripped the wine bottle by the neck. With superhuman strength she swung it in a wide arc and brought it down upon Kuldeep’s head.
With a howl Kuldeep let go of her; he fell back on the sofa and her MIL set up a shriek, “My new sofa cover!!!” as he bled all over it.
Rajani didn’t wait for anymore. Ignoring the stars dancing in front of her eyes, she grabbed Anisha and ran out of the apartment. She stopped outside the door to bolt the door from outside and dashed down the stairs. Thankfully her keys were still in her pocket and her precious bag in the car.
She strapped a hysterical Anisha into the car begging her to be silent. “Here baby see darling Mamma got some toys for you. She scrabbled around the packets in the car and held them out to her. Anisha screamed and thrashed about unwilling to be appeased.
“Anisha!” she snapped. “Mamma has to go to the doctor.” She pointed to her bleeding mouth. “See? Mamma is hurting. Please be quiet. Otherwise Mamma will also cry.” She started blubbering.
Miraculously Anisha quieted. Sniffling, Rajani eased out the car from the parking and gunned down the narrow lanes as fast as possible. It was ten-o-clock in the night she had no idea where to go or what to do. But there was only thought in her mind, get away from here as fast as possible, the excruciating pain be dammed. She had to keep Anisha safe. Herself safe. Without her, Anisha wouldn’t survive a day that much was clear. Calling Harsha was a not an option, so where could she go? To the hospital maybe. There would be lots of people. There was safety in numbers. Besides she urgently needed something to ease the pain, otherwise she might just pass out from the pain. She blinked to clear the haze, she couldn’t pass out. She couldn’t. She needed back up. She gripped the steering wheel tightly. Whom could she call?
“Hello Aditi Ma’am? Could you come to the Max Panchsheel hospital please?”
“I will be there in 15 minutes.” Aditi didn’t waste any time asking questions.
“Rajani?” Standing in the registration queue she felt a gentle tap on her shoulder.
Aditi gasped as Rajani turned around. She was dripping blood from her split lip and her right cheek was swollen almost closing her right eye.
“Sit. I’ll do the formalities. Ani would you like to come to me?” She held out her arms but Anisha clung to her mother. Aditi backed off before she started crying.
“It will be a medico-legal-case.” Aditi said emerging with the papers. Unable to speak, Rajani texted Aditi, “Couldn’t I file a case later?”
“Okay.” Aditi said briskly. “Let’s get you some treatment then I’ll look into the options.”
The rest of the night was a blur of excruciating pain and exhilaration. She was free. Ani was safe! The path ahead was hazy at best but one thing was clear – nothing would convince her to go back there. Not if Harsha begged pardon, not if they all fell at her feet not if her father hung himself from the fan. They could do what they liked and she would do what she thought was best. With the help of Aditi.
Without Aditi, Rajani accepted, she would have likely been crawl go back home. There was no way she could have managed Anisha in her condition for much longer. It was her fault, she admitted, she should not have waited for so long, hoping against hope, despite ample warnings. Then she wouldn’t have had to run away in the middle of the night or had to bother Aditi. But that was all water under the bridge, she thought drowsily in her drugged state. The important thing was she had found her escape velocity.
Click here for the next chapter – Defying Gravity