Posted in Stories

The Tireless Trip. What a mother feels…

1.   The Ratangarh Haveli

I looked out, the hot wind blowing through the open window grazing my face. The train was slowing down, its rattle getting softer. I sighed.  From next to me, my husband took my hand and squeezed it affectionately.

“We’re nearly there. We should get our things.” He said.

I nodded and he dragged our shared suitcase from under the train berth. The label on the case caught my eye, as he rested it on its wheels. Mr. and Mrs. Aditya Ranganathan, the faded label read. It still brought a smile to my face. Adi, my husband, had insisted on sharing everything when we’d gotten married. We are sharing our lives, he’d said, so whatever we have in our lives, we’ll share it too.

And so we did. We shared our dreams, our thoughts, our room, our suitcase, even the label and….our daughter. Our only daughter, Radhika. She preferred Rika though and so we all called her so. I sighed as her face appeared in my mind’s eye. She was the reason for my…our disquiet.

“Nivi! Nivi!” Adi was trying to get my attention. “Nivi!” He yelled. “We’re here!”

“Sorry” I grunted. “Let’s go.”

As we waited for the train to completely halt, I looked at his face bathed in light from the open door. His dark brown eyes were watching the station and I could see him taking stock of it. His once black hair was speckled with grey and his age (53 years) was apparent in his dark face. He was clean shaven, like always. His old shirt was wrinkled and the collar was limp. Yet, to me, he was no different from the strapping, handsome youth with medium build I’d married.

I looked down at my faded clothes, knowing I looked no different from him. My braided hair was dangling off my shoulder, looking pitifully thin. Time had not left me untouched. My brown eyes were no longer as bright as they’d once been, hidden behind thick glasses and the wrinkles on my face had only deepened over the past couple of weeks. Only thing that hadn’t changed- my 5’ 2” height. But it didn’t look too out of place next to my husband.

We dropped onto the platform as the train screeched to a stop and brushed past the porters trying to get us to hire them. I smiled as I saw families being united, right there on the platform.  Children bending to seek their parents’ blessings, parents embracing their children, siblings hugging each other, married couples seeking joy in each other’s company. It was lovely to see the happiness of coming together. The joyful reunions and deafening noise of clamoring porters, hawkers, travelers and railway attendants all faded as we crossed out of the crowded railway station. There was a different kind of noise here. That of idling cars, taxis and auto-rickshaws.

I took my first look of Ratangarh. It did not look like much yet, from what I saw, the usual small shops lined the roads and there were street vendors strolling around. But I knew this small, unassuming town housed a very important family, to whom it owed quite a lot of its prosperity. The family that me and Adi had travelled for two days to meet.

Adi flagged down a cab and after fighting a horde of cab drivers all wanting our fare, we managed to finally get into one. “Chauhan’s Mahal” Adi gave the driver our destination.

“Oh you want to go to the Haveli?” The driver asked, Haveli being the local word for mansion. When we nodded, he said, “Tourists not allowed inside. Only allowed to take photos. You don’t want to go hotel and put bags?”

“No thank you.” I said. “I …I want to meet someone there.”

The driver sharply looked back at me. “Meet? You know the royal family?”

It gave me a strange feeling. Royalty. The royal Chauhan family of Ratangarh.

Adi answered this time. “Our daughter works in the…Haveli. We want to meet her.”

“Oh your daughter works there? Wow!” the driver laughed. “Very nice. What does she do?”

“She’s the manager.”

“Oh sir! Don’t lie!” The man looked angry. “The manager is Vikram Mathur. He comes to my sister’s shop every day to buy her homemade sweets. Who are you lying to?”

I gasped. Adi looked very troubled. The man stopped the car and angrily said, “I don’t give rides to liars. Especially to outsiders who interfere in our Haveli. Get out!”

We got out, lugging our suitcase. I clutched Adi’s arm. “Rika isn’t the manager anymore!”

“Nivi, something is very wrong. We need to find out what’s going on.”Adi said, very seriously. My heart felt heavier, at what he said. Yes, something was certainly very wrong. Something had been wrong ever since that last phone call from Rika.

My mind went back to how it all started.

We weren’t very rich but Adi and I had pooled our savings to send Rika to her dream university in Mumbai. It was hard to see her leave us at Chennai while she went to Mumbai, but we knew we needed to let her do it. We had taught her to dream. We needed to let her live her dreams too.

She had worked diligently there, achieving good grades. She knew how hard we worked, to pay her fees. Adi worked 18 hour shifts and did overtime in the weekends while I sold homemade jewelry to supplement the salary from my daily job. She always helped me when she came home for the vacations. We tried to spend as much time together as possible then. Those were the best days. We’d go out as a family and visit beaches, museums, parks…anything she wanted to do. The house seemed so much brighter when she was home. She was the brightness of our lives. The moment I’d seen Adi first hold her as a newborn, I’d known the strong love shining in his eyes would make him go to the ends of the world for his little princess.

She’d come back from the university after finishing her studies, but not alone. She brought along a job offer. Her face was glowing with pride when she announced that she had got a job as the HR manager for the estate of Amar Chauhan. Raja Amar Chauhan. We were shocked. The family’s business advisor had visited her university for a series of guest lectures and impressed with her performance, had recommended her to the royal family. The job offer had arrived not long after. She was so excited! We couldn’t have been more proud. The job was great, the pay was good and it was a fantastic job for a beginner. The only problem was that the job was in Rajasthan, even further than Mumbai. We’d get to see her very less.

Adi had been upset that his little princess was going away again. But when she enthusiastically began her preparations to leave, he had to concede and accept that her life was now taking her to Ratangarh. He had laughingly said, “My princess will really live in a palace now!”  She’d laughed at him and said, “No palace will ever be equal to this castle, with my King, my papa!” Adi’s eyes had filled with tears then.

She’d left then, ready to take on the challenges that her new role would bring. She called us every day and talked about everything – the royal life, the King, the Queen and of course, the princes. She’d learnt quickly, managing the place efficiently. It had all been going very well, till her last phone call, six months into the job.

“Mama!” She’s cried. “I don’t know what’s happening! Someone is trying to get me fired. Every one suspects me.”

When I’d asked her who, she’d admitted she didn’t know. “But mama, someone keeps spreading false rumors about me and …and the King hates me!” She’d wailed. She then rang off, saying the King was calling her. That was the last I heard from her. I waited anxiously for her to call. She didn’t call that day. Nor the next. I tried calling her, and I got no response.

It has been a week now, and I am out of my mind with worry. She’s never ever gone this long without contacting me. My daughter, my life was missing. Adi had tried to remain optimistic for a couple of days, saying she could be busy at work or her phone was broken. But after a few days, he’d started looking haggard and worried too. We’d hopped on the next train then.

Now, as I stood on the roadside, my feelings were unrecognizable.  Adi gripped my hand and said, “We’ll find her. We’ll find out what happened to her. Come on.”

My mind was coming up horrible scenarios and I was powerless to stop it. I imagined Rika having been kidnapped, locked up in a basement somewhere or having being forced to give up her job and she was stuck on the road with no money.

I gave myself a shake. No, she was my daughter. Our daughter. She could handle herself. We had brought her up to be self-sufficient. She can handle herself.

I kept telling myself that.

We waited for 15 minutes, waiting for a cab to come by. None did. Finally Adi said, “Let’s go have a cup of tea. Hopefully, after a few minutes, we’ll be able to get a cab.”

I nodded and we sat at the tea stall next to the road. I sat on the seats there while Adi was chatting to the tea vendor.

“So, brother, where is the Haveli from here? My wife really wants to see it. I’ve heard it’s really beautiful.”

Adi had learnt from the previous incident. He was being careful now.

“Oh yes. It is a wonderful place.” The vendor grinned, getting the tea glasses ready. “It is some 10 kilometers from here. Very big place.”

“Oh really?” Adi probed.

“Yes yes. Big gardens and the building alone is built on 5 acres. You know, more than 30 people work in the Haveli alone.” The vendor said, expressively widening his eyes.

“God! Really?! So many people? They should have a great manager then! Must be difficult to oversee so many people.” Adi ventured.

I pricked my ears and waited impatiently to hear what the vendor would say.

“Oh sir! Why do you ask?” the man eyed Adi suspiciously.

“No I was just wondering.” Adi faked an easy smile. “You said it was a big place so it must be tough to manage it.”

“Anhh!’” the man grunted. Then he lowered his voice and covertly whispered, “The thing is, we don’t trust these managers any more. Rotten thieves, all of them!”

“Thieves?!” Adi echoed.

The man nodded vigorously and resumed whispering, “The last one? A girl!” He grimaced. “Giving a man’s job to a girl.” He shook his head sadly. “That too one of those dark south Indians. Up to no good.” Then he had a good look at Adi and asked, “Are you from the South as well?”

I held my breath Adi shook his head. “No brother. I am from Mumbai.” He lied. “But what did that girl do?”

I was thankful then that Adi spoke Hindi fluently, as well as any North Indian. The supposition that south Indians did not know Hindi was rather false. But the tea vendor was talking about my Rika. Unless there was another south Indian in the Haveli, which was highly unlikely.

“ That girl cheated…” the tea vendor said but then saw that another customer had come by and so handed our tea cups to Adi and with a smile and a surreptitious wink, moved to his new customer.

Adi handed me a cup and sat next to me. My eyes were brimming with tears as I said, “He said she cheated. She can never cheat anyone.”

“I know, Nivi. She would never. Looks like someone has framed her.”

“Why?” I sniffled. “She wouldn’t harm anyone.”

Adi sighed. “We have to find out. They have certainly either fired her or she’s left the job. Either way, she’s not the manager anymore.”

“Then she would have called us and told us. Why didn’t she try to contact us?” I frowned. “No Adi, something else has also happened.”

“We will hopefully get the answers in the Haveli.” He looked at the tea vendor who was earnestly conversing with the next customer.

We thanked him and went back to look for a cab. At last, an auto rickshaw stopped for us. I sat, holding back my tears. My daughter would never cheat anyone. She was honest as the day. I could not understand it. How did everyone in Ratangarh, from cab drivers to tea vendor know of Rika?

A tear dripped down my chin. Adi put an arm around me and I saw him looking at me with concern. He rubbed my shoulder gently and I closed my eyes, leaning into shoulder for comfort. “I want our daughter. I want her with us.”

“And she will soon be with us. See, she’ll be all safe and sound and she’ll make you proud. Just wait and see.” Adi smiled. But I could see that he was very worried. And scared. His eyes were tense, tight.

The auto rickshaw rounded a corner and pulled up in front of massive iron wrought gates. I gasped as I saw the Haveli. It was huge! A broad driveway went past the gates till the front door. The palace itself was designed like a fort, with red-sandal walls and rampart like decorations. There were several windows and balconies jutting outside, covered by small arches. It made the building look all the more artistic. There were colored tiles making spiraling patterns over the walls, sparkling in the sunlight. The whole place was majestic.

There were sculptures of maidens dotting the driveway. A huge gilded archway led to the front door, which was polished brown and gleaming in the late morning sunlight. The garden lay on the other side, neatly arrayed with flower beds, small trees and clipped bushes. There were small paths leading to the gushing fountain in the middle of the garden.  Flowers of all shapes and sizes were blooming, making the place look cheerful.

While the traditional style of the building was preserved, the stylish BMW and Lexus parked on the driveway added a modern touch. State of the art installments were visible in the form of CCTV cameras placed discretely into nooks.

I remember how awe-struck Rika had been when she first saw the place. She’d rang me as soon as she’d been shown her room, gushing endlessly about the Haveli and its grandness.

2. Rika’s first visit to the Haveli.

Rika’s eyes were huge as she stepped foot into the atrium. She saw the polished marble floors reflecting the huge tiered chandelier hanging overhead. It led to a courtyard sort of thing in the center and she realized that the Haveli was actually shaped like a rectangle around the court yard in the center, different rooms opening out of the corridor going around it. A grand staircase on the side of the atrium led upstairs, while she spied another set of stairs on one corner of the courtyard. The courtyard itself had little benches on the sides and had little flower pots with carnations and roses arranged round it.

The man ushering her inside was dressed in a traditional butler attire- a well pressed suit complete with white gloves. She raised her eyebrows, and thought, ‘wow these people are serious about living the royal life!’

She was taken into an office like room, with bookshelves on one side and sofas arranged on the other. A desk stood on one corner with office supplies, files and stationary neatly arrayed on it.

A lady was sitting at the desk, rapidly rattling instructions to a young man stood next to her. She was dressed in a beautifully embroidered saree, her greying hair pinned back. When she saw Rika, she stood up, making the man she was talking to turn towards her. Before she could study him, her attention was commanded by the lady who walked towards her with a confident bearing. It was obvious she was the queen, her stance was noticeably royal. She was not very tall, she drew respect and attention as she walked. And yet, her face was kindly, which she wasn’t able to completely disguise with the stern look she was trying to adopt.

“Hello. I’m Vindhya, the queen.” She blandly stated. “You will be working under me from today.”

She eyed the tall Rika, dressed professionally. Her long hair was pulled back in a bun and her rimless spectacles flattered her sharp features. Her eyes were alert and she was poised. Her mental fear was not visible on her erect stance.

“Good morning, erm…your highness? I am Radhika, but I go by Rika. It is a pleasure you meet you.” Rika warmly said, smiling. “It is an honor to able to work under you. Thank you for giving me this opportunity.”
“Yes, yes.” The queen. “There’s me, the king, Jayvardhan and my younger son Vivan here. We occasionally have guests. As the manager, you will have to make sure the duties of everyone working here, from the gardener to the head cook is being done properly. You also have to coordinate and plan any events, dinners, parties we hold. I hope you will not fail in your duties.”

“I will do my very best to make sure everything runs smoothly here. I won’t give you an opportunity to complain about anything.” Rika professionally said.

“Make sure you don’t.” The queen looked strained. The man who was with her started laughing, which made the queen throw him a dark look.

“Give it up mum. You’re just making her think you’re strange.” He looked at Rika with a friendly smile and said, “Hi! I’m Jay. Please don’t ever call me Jayvardhan. Nice to meet you. You’re Rika, right? Welcome to Ratangarh. And this Haveli. How are you finding it so far?”

Rika was taken to have the tall prince behave so …normally. He was dressed as if he were going to a conference, in a neat suit and tie. His brown eyes were open, warm. She noticed he kept mussing with his black hair, the only part of him that was untidy. He held himself stiffly but his attitude was casual. She gave him a tentative smile, not sure if this was a test. She was in unknown territory. She wasn’t completely sure how to act around royals but she had to be careful, she decided.

“Thank you, your highness. It is a beautiful place.” She said.

“Ah don’t worry about formalities with us.” The prince, Jay, said. “We’re not that stuffy. Forget all that your highness stuff.”

“Yes sir.” She answered.

The queen laughed. “Well done! Sorry about earlier. I’ve been told I need to be stricter with the staff but I can’t seem to be able to pull it off! But welcome.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Ah none of that ma’am things. Congrats on the job. Now, the butler, Shyam. Shyam?” she called. When he entered the room, the queen looked at Rika and said,” Shyam will show you your room and explain the details of everything. He’s been here longest so ask him if you’ve got any questions. You start tomorrow. You’re welcome to come talk to me about anything that concerns you.”

“Thank you very much, ma’am. Have a nice day.” With that, Rika smiled to both mother and son, and quietly withdrew with Shyam, who led her beyond the courtyard to a small door, which led outside. She gasped, as she saw a huge complex out back, with atleast three other buildings. The butler, Shyam, chuckled.

“Yes, it’s quite big, isn’t it?” he said.

“Yes, I didn’t realize there was more than building.”

All the buildings were built in a similar style to the main one, but some were clearly more modern than others.

“That one is a gym, with a swimming pool and everything.”Shyam pointed. “And that one is a temple,” he pointed to the one furthest away, which looked the oldest. “And that one is the staff quarters.” That building looked pretty modern. It had television antennas and a massive dish on the roof that was visible from quite far away.

“Only the royal family and their guests stay in the main building. The rest of us stay here.” Shyam explained.

He led Rika to the staff building and showed her to her room. It was gigantic, compared to the one she had back home. It had the necessities – a double bed, a carved wardrobe, a dressing table with a big mirror and a couch at a corner. She went into the en-suite bathroom and grinned when she saw everything gleaming. After being in a hostel room for the last few years, this was a refreshing change. Her bed had hangings around it, which made her feel like she had a princess bed. There was a little chandelier in her room and she marveled at it. She opened the curtains to reveal windows that overlooked the gardens.

Shyam cleared his throat, “Should I show you where the other staff are, Miss?”

“I’d love to meet them. And call me Rika, please. Can I call you Shyam uncle?” Rika smiled at him.

“If you must.” He answered. Then he led her outside. He showed her the kitchens, the dining room where the staff ate and introduced her to the head chef Aryan, the sous chef, the housekeeper Mrs. Soumya, the maids, the valet who tended the king and the prince, as well as the gardeners, grooms, drivers and stable boys. Rika was quite cheerful while conversing with them. They were elder than her, so she was careful to respect them. She didn’t want to take away their authority. She was just there to help them when they needed it.

At long last she re-entered her room and laughed, twirling around in it. She rang her mum and said, “Mama! You won’t believe how cool it is here!”

 

3. Nivi learns the truth.

I went up to the gate, while the auto rickshaw puttered back out.  Adi walked behind me. I can only imagine how we looked, two bedraggled south Indians looking very out of place trudging up the driveway of a palace. I stopped in front of the guards post. They looked down their nose at us.

“Excuse me,” I began. They rudely interrupted me with, “No visitors allowed. GO away.”

“Not visitors. We are here to see our daughter. Please. She was the manager here. Rika Ranganathan. Please we want to see her.” I begged.

The guard looked disgusted. “She isn’t here. If you’re related to her, then get out! We don’t want scum like her here. Out!”

I gasped. Adi angrily pushed forward. “Look here. We want to see her. Where is she?”

“I told you. She is not here. We don’t keep riff-raff like that traitor here. You’re her parents eh? You taught her to cheat good, hardworking people. Phoet!” He spit. “Get out, or we’ll throw you out like we did her.”

His words rang in my ears. I felt lightheaded. My daughter was thrown out. She wasn’t here. Where was she?

“Threw her out?!” I wailed.

“Yes! Nasty thief! And you! How many times should I ask you to get out?” he pushed Adi, who just numbly watched.

Another guard walked past and asked, “Problem?”

The first one said, “Old creeps won’t leave. They’re the thief’s parents.”

The second one said, “Oh she’s your child. Nice job raising her.” He sarcastically quipped. “Shameless! First swindling us, then you have the nerve to show your face here. Out!”

Tears were running down my face as I heard his abuse. Adi looked heartbroken. He weakly asked, “Where is she?”

“Who knows? Good riddance, I say. Now will you get out, or should I throw you out?”

Adi meekly turned, still in shock and gently, putting his arm around me, steered me towards the road again. I shuffled forward, crying bitterly. Adi walked, his head bowed in shame as I felt disheartened and humiliated. But mostly worried, where was my baby? These horrible people had thrown her out! My princess, who we brought up with all the love in the world, never letting her see grief. These people had thrown her on the road. Where was she, in what condition? I cried harder, knowing she would never do anything wrong. How did her pure heart handle all these accusations? She was a sensitive soul. She wouldn’t ever be able to bear all the horrible things people were saying to her. What had they done to her?

We walked on the road, blind in our misery. I was sobbing loudly, while Ado held me in his arms. He didn’t say anything. He was not ashamed of our daughter, but I knew he was furious at the people who had dared hurt her.

“Adi?” I finally spoke.

“Hmm?”  A feeble answer.

“Where can she be?”

“I don’t know, Nivi. But we have to keep looking. Let’s try the town.”

“Do you think she is..sh..she..” I couldn’t finish the sentence. I didn’t need to.

“No!” he vehemently answered. “She is okay. You hear me? She is okay. She isn’t a quitter. She is there, somewhere and we WILL find her.”

I nodded, still sobbing. I felt weak, crying. But I couldn’t help it.

We kept shuffling along the dusty road, alone, helpless and broken. I couldn’t help but curse the day she agreed to do this job. And yet, everything was going so well till last week.

4. Rika’s job

It had been a month since Rika started her job. She’d gotten to know the other members of the staff well. She didn’t make a lot of friends, per se. But the head housekeeper Mrs. Soumya got along well with her. They often had their meals together, sitting in one corner of the staff dining room. Rika found the maids all rather giggly and silly. The older maid who tended to the queen was always aloof and kept to herself, which made it difficult for Rika to keep track of her work. Mrs. Soumya tended to gossip, so Rika soon knew about every member of staff. Which helped her be better at managing different people differently. But most of the time, she only needed to ensure no one was goofing off, which didn’t really happen, as the staff had been working at the Haveli for ages and everyone worked together like a well-oiled machine.

“Three people, mum. Three!” She’d told her mum on the phone one day. “Three people and a whole army of people working for them! It costs more to keep up the staff than the family!”

Nivi had laughed and said, “Well, they are royalty. And see it this way, they offer jobs to lots of people.”

Rika had liked that outlook. But she still tried to cut costs. She was very sharp about the budget, and tried to curb unnecessary expenditure. The end result was that, at the end of the first three months, she’d saved quite a large amount. She’d gone to meet the queen to discuss it.

“Ma’am, with the more efficient lighting, cooking techniques, water use for the gardens and so on, we’ve managed to save quite a lot of money.”

“Yes. That’s great! I did like the improvements you’ve done for the kitchen. And the kitchen garden was a nice idea.” The queen was impressed.

“I like the idea of a self-sustainable place. It also made things a little different for the gardeners so they don’t quite mind it. I’m glad they were very supportive of the ideas. And that the kitchen crew agreed to use the wastes for manure.”

“They are very good people.” The queen agreed.

“If I may,” Rika hesitated, then pushed ahead. “Would it be possible to use some if the money we saved to issue bonuses to the staff? They work very hard and they’d appreciate the money. It is just a suggestion.” She hurriedly added.

The queen looked thoughtful. Then she smiled, “Of course! That’s a wonderful idea! Smart and kind. I like you!”

Rika modestly smiled and muttered “Thank you.”

The queen loved her new ideas and so started calling her to discuss some other ideas for improvement. Soon, this led to Rika’s involvement in the business front as well. This was when the first problems started.

The King, Amar Chauhan wasn’t very receptive of the changes. He was a hard man, very set in the old ways and didn’t like change. He liked things done in his way and his way was quite traditional. While he was up to date with the current happenings, he did not necessarily approve of all the changes. For one, he didn’t quite trust the women with high flying jobs. And the other thing, he didn’t like outsiders very much. He felt they changed Ratangarh and made it lose its tradition and culture. So true to his nature, he didn’t approve of Rika and avoided meeting her. He didn’t like her interfering in his business. But since the queen was all for implementing new ideas, he tried to minimize Rika’s influence by keeping her ideas to a theoretical level, not necessarily implementing them.

However, other members of the Chauhan family weren’t so averse to change. Or Rika. Jay especially was very impressed with her performance. Having been educated from London, he had a more modern outlook, though not at the expense of his tradition. He had found the perfect balance between the two, which worked for him. So Jay was also present in Rika’s meetings with his mother, and not just theoretically, but also practically implemented the ideas that were the fruit of these long discussions. He’d noticed Rika was always holed up in her room after work hours, so as a kind employer and a concerned friend, he sought her in her room one evening.

Rika heard the knock and opened the door, wondering what emergency had come up. She gasped when she saw Jay standing outside.

“Hi!” he smiled. “I was wondering if you’d like to go to the town? I noticed you haven’t left the Haveli in weeks so I thought it’d be nice to get out.”

Rika gulped. “Thank you sir, but I’m sorry. I cannot.”

“Ugh! Sir again. I told you, call me Jay.”

“I…I.. Sir..”

“Jay.” He insisted. “If you don’t want to, then….You still have to. It’s an order!”

She huffed and said, “Jay, I’m sorry I can’t go into town with you.”

“Why not? I’m bored and you’re free. None of my friends are free so just go with me. And Vivan’s off to the gym again. So come with me.”

“I can’t sir.” At his glare, she amended. “Jay.”

“Why? I’ve noticed. You always hide in your room when you aren’t working. Why is that?”

“I …I like being alone.” She answered.

“I want the real reason, Rika.”

She sighed and walked inside, letting him follow her. She sat on the sofa and said, glumly. “That is the truth. I have… I have mild anxiety. I can’t deal with people in social settings. It’s all fine at work, which is what really matters. I can’t travel, I can’t just ‘hang out’ for ages and I can’t go with you. Also, you’re my employer and a prince! So I can’t go anyway.”

The prince looked shocked. “I…I’m sorry. I didn’t know. You’re so poised and confident all the time, I find it hard to believe. I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable. I just…Okay, I’ll come clean. I heard you on the phone talking about how much you missed having spicy chaat and I’ve always loved it but the ‘Prince’ can’t just roam the streets having chaat so I …” he shrugged.

“You want to eat chaat?” Rika asked incredulously. “Can’t you ask Aryan to make you some chaat?”

“It’s not the same.” He sighed. “I want to eat chaat from roadside vendors, have some tea in tea stalls and just be…just be normal you know. None of my friends understand why I enjoy it so much. And I haven’t got a lot of normal friends. All the guys here freak out because they see the prince talking to them. I guess, I just wanted a regular friend for once. Just to enjoy some chaat, go see a movie, queue for taxis. You know.”

Rika still looked a little bewildered, so he laughed. A little bitterly. “I know. I’m the cliché prince who wants to be a normal guy. I don’t really. I just like to do normal things once in a while.”

Rika broke out of her stupor and said, “I understand. Sorry for being all weird about it and thanks, for telling me. I’m afraid I’m the wrong choice for a normal day out, as I get all freaked out by crowded places.”

“But you’re the only regular person I know. Well, who seems like she won’t run away screaming anyway. You’ve been working here for a while so I’m sure you see us as normal people by now.”

“Yep! Normal people who live in a palace and are very, very rich!” She quipped.

He laughed, along with her. Then she smiled. “I know what you mean though. Okay, I will do some normal things with you. Not today though. A couple of my friends really want to visit the town. I’ll give them the go ahead and when they come here, we can all do fun, touristy things here okay? We won’t tell them you’re a prince and as long as you remain a little incognito, we’ll be fine. Does that sound okay?”

He grinned. “Perfect! I’ve always wanted to have my own group!”

“Yes well it’s just a couple of people from college who want to get out of the city for a while, so don’t get too excited.”

“It sounds perfect! Let me know when they are coming and we’ll work out the timings. This is so cool! I’m going to see if I can rope in Vivan to come as well!” With that he bounded off, still grinning, leaving a very bemused Rika behind.

 

5. Nivi’s helplessness

I was still trudging along, my crying reduced to frequent hiccups. I held on to Adi, his strength the only thing keeping me upright. He looked defeated as we walked, not saying anything. He’d tried calling her again and got the same response – nothing. There weren’t a lot of people on the road. But I kept asking anyone who passed us if they’d seen Rika, by showing her recent photos. I got weird stares and rude answers. Most people just shook their head without looking at the photo. Everyone was too busy with their lives to offer one moment for strange grieving parents. I kept trying.

Adi, on the other hand, was trying to convince a couple to look at the photo.

“Please. Please are you sure you haven’t seen her?” His voice was desperate. “My daughter. Please…”

“No. NO! I told you we haven’t! Go away you mad man!” the other man physically pushed Adi away and pushed forward, audibly muttering to the lady with him, “Crazy! Can’t manage his daughter and comes irritating decent people like us! Bet she ran away with some guy and he’s annoying us about it!”

Adi looked forlornly after the couple and hobbled to the next pedestrian, who brushed off his question and kept walking.

It hurt to see my string husband meekly listen to everything the passers-by said. But it hurt even more knowing that in spite of all this, we were no closer to finding our daughter. I knew we’d both feel every bitter pain in this world, if it meant our daughter would be back with us. I slowly shuffled over to Adi. My feet had blisters and my knees were aching. But I didn’t feel it. My mind reigned supreme and mental agony overshadowed any physical pain I might have felt.

“Do you think we should go to the police?” I asked Adi, whose body was faring no better than mine.

“No.” he groaned. “We don’t know this place. And it seems like the whole town hates Rika. It’ll be dangerous to involve the police. They would surely prefer the royal word over ours and we’ll unnecessarily put Rika in more danger.”

I nodded. If only we knew where she’d gone after being kicked out. Was she still in the town or had she gone somewhere else? I didn’t know how much money she had. Or if the so called royals had seized everything from her before throwing her out.

“Let us keep trying.” Adi suggested. But it was late. It was nearly late evening now, and the shops were closing. The pedestrian traffic had reduced considerably over the last few hours.

“If we go to the main town, there might be more people.” Adi suggested, reading my mind. “We’re still fairly near the palace. Let’s try to get to the main town.”

So we started walking to again and Adi stopped another man walking by and asked about Rika. The man looked at Adi and said, “Better not to ask about these things, old man. It’s dangerous to meddle with the royal family. I’ve been watching you. Get your stuff and get away from here. Listen to my advice and leave, or you’ll vanish. Just like her.” He pointed to the photo. “No one will help you.”

“I’m her father. I need to know where she is. Do you know?” Adi begged, despairingly.

“No.” the man shrugged and walked away. “Go back home, old man.”

My eyes widened at the warning but I was too upset to feel any real shock. Everyone here seemed to hate Rika. I suppose at this fellow was decent enough to warn us. Not that it stopped us. Adi walked on with slumped shoulders, showing Rika’s photo to anyone we came across, but to no avail.

Oh this unfeeling world! Did no one feel this mother’s pain? This father’s misery? I had never felt so helpless, so hopeless, so…so  useless to rebel against fate. I was only asking a moment to look at my baby’s photo? Can one not spare that much? Where was humanity?

This town, I looked around. My Rika had had such good things to say about the people here, the places she saw. But now, was there no one left like that? No one to help us?

She’d possibly been in the very spot I was standing in. She might have been smiling at the distant view of the Haveli that was just visible in the horizon? I imagined her strolling leisurely towards the Haveli, pleased at the view. Then another image replaced it and I saw her running frantically, past this spot, looking behind her constantly.

I shook the image from my mind, as more tears escaped my eyes. Rika had enjoyed walking around the town, seeing the different sights. That’s how I wanted to imagine her. She was all right. She was out there somewhere, doing something good. She was still enjoying everything this place had to offer.

For a minute, I was in my memory of the happiest she’d been during her stay here. She’d enjoyed her outing with her friends here, I recollected. She’d been so happy when we talked that night. She was laughing, her eyes were sparkling and she was euphoric.

6. Rika’s day out with friends

Rika had been looking forward to her friends’ visit for ages. She’d planned and completed all the work before, so she’d be completely free to enjoy her day off. She was anxious though, about how it was all going to play out. She’d let Jay know and he’d been very eager to join her, with Vivan. She hadn’t met Vivan much. He looked a lot like Jay, but was taller and more buff, with longer hair that always brushed his eyes. He was still rather young, just 19 and so free from responsibilities. He kept to himself, his friends, his college and his workout at the gym.

She grinned as she got dressed that morning. She was a little worried about having not one but two princes tagging along with her. Even though Jay had promised that they’d both be behaving normally. There was still a little voice inside her saying that taking her employers for a day out with her friends was a bad idea. But seeing the crestfallen look in Jaya face, she’d not been able to deny him the chance to have one normal day.

She met her friends in town. Her roommates from college Raima and Shanaya and the other coursemates from the group they’d formed – Avinash (Avi), Rishi, Avni.

They’d come up for the day and then were going to explore other parts of Rajasthan. She met them at the station and were all excitedly catching up when Jay and Vivan joined them. Jay had planned it so, to give her some time to talk to her friends before he joined them.  Rika’s breath hitched as she saw Jay in casual clothes. He was usually dressed in a suit or formal Indian wear. Today both the princes were dressed in jeans and crumpled T shirts. Vivan had added a baseball cap to complete the look. They looked so …so normal.

Rika breathlessly introduced them to her friends, waiting to see if anyone recognized them. But her friends nicely welcomed them.

“Jay and Vivan both know Ratangarh really well. They’ve very nicely agreed to take us on a tour.” Rika explained.

“Whoo!” her friends chorused. She laughed.  “Thank you for doing this.” Avni smiled at Jay, who smiled back gracefully saying, “No problem.”

They walked out of the station and Rika sidled up to Jay. “You look very casual. It’s nice.”

Jay looked surprised and smiled at her. “Thank you. Are you all right? This is a very crowded place.”

“I’m okay thanks.” She smiled. “As long as I don’t have to talk to these people I’ll be fine. Plus, it’s a train station and I love trains so it’s not much of a hardship to be here.”

“You love trains? I thought they were noisy and dirty.” Jay flatly said.

She laughed. “No! Trains are so much fun! You get to relax completely and read or stare out the window or do whatever for however long you’re in the train. I get to eat and sleep without having to worry about anything else. You always shave people selling awesome stuff and I just sit and drink tea, eat peanuts, samosas or anything the vendor brings really. And I get to blankly stare out the window without thinking about anything! It’s so much fun!”

“It does sound like fun. I want to travel in a train now.” Jay looked a little wistful.

“Wait, you’ve never travelled by train before? Ever?” Rika looked shocked.

“No! Never!” Jay shook his head.

Tanta’s eyes were wide. “You haven’t lived. Wait till tonight. My crazy friends are going to make you do all sorts of mad things!” With that she joined the others, laughing and chatting with them.

“Nice bro!” Vivan laughed. Jay scowled at him.

Vivan winked and nodded to Rika and imitated her, “Youu looook niceeee!” Jay shoved him and whacked his head before walking faster and imitating a conversation with Avni.

It was a memorable day for everyone. After touring the town in cars, they had chaat in the roadside (suggested by Rika of course), went shopping in the little souvenir shops Jay had never been into and bought little trinkets, took an elephant ride around the outskirts of the town, had a traditional Rajasthani lunch with lots of curries, rotis, papad, two different varieties of rice, dal and specialties like bati and churma in a little restaurant while sitting on the floor and eating off the plates placed on little stools in front of them. They then went to the palace and Jay and Vivan were careful to not be seen by anyone but hanging out in the background. Avi had insisted on at least seeing the outside of the palace before leaving, knowing that tourists were not allowed inside.

“Wow! I can’t believe you live here!” Raima had gushed at Rika.

“It is spectacular!” Rika said, grinning.

“Do you think we can see the princes? Where are they?” Shanaya asked craning her neck to see better. Rika sniggered and said, “They’re busy.”

“Come on! I want to see them! You get to see them every day.” Shanaya pouted.

“I’ll be sure to tell them how much you wanted to meet them then!” Rika smirked at Jay, who laughed at her. Vivan rolled his eyes but smiled at the two of them, before walking to Shanaya and saying, “Why do you want to meet the prince?”

“He’s the prince, duh! Is that his car?” she pointed to the BMW parked inside. “He is soo rich!”

Vivan nodded. “Yea that’s my..I mean his car. He loves it.”

“I love it too. We have so much in common.” Shanaya sighed dreamily. Jay and Rika were chortling behind them while Avni kept throwing them strange looks. Raima however gave them a knowing look and with a secretive smile, moved to take pictures. They soon left, opting for a sunset walk on the other side of the palace, from which they could see the sunset behind the Haveli. Rishi, Vivan and Avi were talking about cars animatedly while walking ahead, while Jay was conversing earnestly with Avni. Raima and Rika were chatting when Shanaya interrupted them with, “That Vivan is cute.”

“Okay?” Rika raised a brow.

“So what does he do?”

“He goes to college. Too young for you. And he’s not really available, if that’s where you’re heading.” Rika asked.

“Oh man!” Shanaya complained and then laughed, with the others. Rika shook her head. “Speaking of that, wonder what they’re talking about?” she pointed to Jay and Avni.

The other two giggled and shrugged. Jay was actually talking about Rika. He’d randomly engaged in conversation with Avni and the conversation wandered to Rika and her life. He found out about her shyness, her anxiety before she met these people, her hard work at university and her happiness at finding this job. He chuckled as Avni described Rika as “an overworked mess with no social life but a heart of gold!”

“You know,” Avni continued, “She loves her parents more than anyone. She wants to make them proud. She’d do anything for them. I admire that.”

“Me too.” Jay smiled.

Soon, Rika’s friends had to leave. There were lots of hugs, kisses and fist bumps. Rika hugged Raima last and gasped as Raima whispered in her ear, “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure those princes of yours don’t end up on Facebook.” Rika looked at her shocked as she smirked and said, “I do my research before I go anywhere! You know this.”

Rika was till gaping as Raima said, “You take care. Those two seem nice so I’m glad you’ve got some friends here. I’ll keep the secret.” She winked.

Rika hugged her friend with a fervent “Thank you” and then they all were gone.

“Wow!” Vivan breathed on their way back.  Jay was giving Rika a ride back. “What a day! That was loads of fun!”

“Glad you enjoyed it!” Rika smiled. “They all loved you. Especially Shanaya.” She teased.

“Ugh!” Vivan groaned. “She gave me her number before she left!”

Rika laughed loudly! “That’s Shanaya for you! Lord! If she ever found out she spent the day with two princes, her head will explode!”

Jay laughed and said, “You have lovely friends, though.”

“Like Avni?” Rika mocked.

Vivan snickered and Jay stuck out his tongue, making Rika guffaw. “Never thought a prince would do that! But then again, you guys are not much of royalty now!”

“We never were, really.” Jay admitted. “Too much like mum.”

Rika giggled. “She’s so sweet.”

“That she is.”Vivan agreed.

Jay sighed. “It was so amazing! Being normal for a day!”

“He’s using ‘normal’ loosely.” Vivan told me, conspiratorially. “There’s nothing normal about him. He’s so weird.”

Jay cuffed him and he fell back laughing loudly. Rika grinned, loving this side of them.

When they reach back, she waved them goodbye and ran back to her room before anyone could see she was out with the princes. Jay and Vivan laughed at her and then strutted off to their rooms.

“Nice outing?” their mother’s voice reached them from the shadows.

“Erm yea.” Jay sheepishly nodded.

“Did Rika reach her room safely?” she asked.

“Yes.” Jay muttered. How did his mother always know what was going on?

“Good.” She smiled. “That girl works too hard. She needs to get out more. So do you.” She pointed to Jay. “And you need to work more.” She wagged her finger at Vivan who grinned and kissed her cheek. “Jay doesn’t need me. He has Rikkaaaaa He sang, winking at Jay and taking off before Jay could hit him.

“Hmm true. I do like her.” The queen conceded. “Lots of sense and no airs about her. Next time, try taking her out alone instead of tagging along with her friends. Good night.”

She left a startled Jay exasperatedly smiling.

7. Finally! Nivi gets some good news

We finally managed to get a cab to town. It was nearly dark and I was huddled in the backseat, racking my brain for new ways to find Rika. I looked outside and it hit me that it was twilight, Rika’s favorite time of day. And yet again, the tears started. I was quietly sobbing, but Adi put his arm around me and gave me a squeeze. He always knew what I needed, even when I didn’t.

“Soon, Nivi. Soon. We’re closer to finding her now. Have hope.” He soothed me.

“But..But we have no idea where or how she is!” I wailed. “Rika is missing, Adi. She’s gone. What if we never see her again?” I sobbed again.

“I know.” Adi grimaced, his own eyes sparkling with tears. “But I also know she is okay. We have to believe that.’

“Oh Rika!” I wept.

“Excuse me? Did you say Rika?” the driver asked. He was a kindly looking man with a large moustache and small eyes. Those eyes were looking curiously to Adi.

“Erm yes?” Adi frowned, wondering if this man was also going to dump them on the road.

“You are south Indian? You are looking for Radhika from the Haveli?”

“Yes! Yes!” I yelled. “Do you know where she is? Where is my baby?” I screamed.

“Shh! Shh Nivi. Calm down. Breathe.” Adi shushed me as I cried harder. “Yes we are her parents.”

“I’m so sorry sir. For what happened.” The man said.

“You…you..you know?” Adi whispered, not daring to hope.

“No sir, I don’t know where she is, but I do know someone who can help you. My wife is the housekeeper at the Haveli. Soumya Bhati. Myself Samir Bhati. Your daughter helped us a lot sir. When we needed money, she gave us her bonus money and gave Soumya a few days leave and helped us so much. She is an angel sir.”

I wept hearing those words. His words mollified my wounded heart. After hearing insults hurled at Rika ever since we got here, a single word of praise immediately gave me hope. At least one person knew the real Rika. We had not gone wrong. Rika would never do anything wrong.

The man, Samir, continued, “She never did anything wrong, sir. They all lie. They trapped her. Soumya told me. Rika madam was very honest. She would never steal.”

“What happened here? Rika didn’t say anything and she suddenly disappeared. We came here and no one will tell us anything.” Adi said.

“Sir, Rika madam made lots of changes to the Haveli and she saved money. She was doing good things. She helped the staff and took care of them. But some people, they don’t trust women. The Raja sa (king), Amar Chauhan, he didn’t like that Rika madam was helping Rani sa (queen) and Kunwar sa (prince) with business. He doesn’t like outsiders. He was angry and got more angry when Rani sa said that Rika madam is good and needs a raise. And then, Vikram spread lies. Vikram is the son of the raja sa’s personal valet. He lied to Raja sa that Rika was stealing money. He said she was only saving money by using cheap things and using the saved money for herself. He said that Rika madam was an outsider so she shouldn’t be trusted. She could soon cheat with the business and steal money. At that time, some business thing failed and made loss for the Raja sa. He found out Rika madam helped with that and he was so angry. Vikram said more bad things about her and Raja sa believed him because he is from here and she is outsider. Vikram also threatened the staff to lie and say she never gave them the bonuses. He bribed some and scared some and they all lied. No one listened to Soumya as she said the truth.

So the Raja sa threw Rika out. He took her salary to make up for what he thought she stole and didn’t give any money. Rani sa tried to talk to him but he didn’t listen to anyone. Vikram fully lied to him. Rika madam was so sad. She kept saying how she shamed her parents. Soumya tried to take Rika madam to our home, but she went off somewhere. Rani sa was so sad. Kunwar sa tried to find her but he couldn’t. Then Vikram became the manager. He spread the lies all over the town, so no one will help her. He is horrible.”

My sobs had subsided while hearing the story. But my eyes were now filled with rage. How dare that man falsely accuse my daughter? She had done nothing wrong. But the horrible money hungry men had made her a target and made her take the fall.

I clutched Adi, who looked enraged. “She did nothing wrong. She …she is innocent.”

“We knew that. But king or not, I’m not leaving that man!” he growled. I agreed.

“Sir, Raja sa is very powerful. Vikram is the bad man.” The driver said. “You come home with me. You look tired and Rika madam parents are like our brother and sister-in law. You come and rest…” he stopped and suddenly slammed the brakes. He quickly got out of the car and ran to a well-dressed man, who was walking out of a bookstore. Samir bowed and frantically whispered something to the man, gesticulating wildly. The man looked shocked, then determined as he followed Samir to the cab. He got into the shotgun seat and twisted to look the Adi and me, sitting confused in the backseat. Samir got in and started driving again.

“Hello.” The newcomer said, smiling softly but his eyes were serious. “I am Vivan Chauhan.”

Adi stiffened while I gasped.

“I am so very sorry for everything you’ve been through.” He started. “Rika…”

“MY DAUGHTER IS MISSING!” I screaming, startling everyone in the car. “MY DAUGHTER HAS VANISHED AND NO ONE KNOWS WHERE SHE IS! YOU PEOPLE THREW HER OUT WITHOUT INVESTIGATING HER CASE! WHAT KIND OF ROYALS ARE YOU?”

“I know.” The prince admitted shamefacedly. “We tried hard to change dad’s mind but he was adamant. He is the king. Look, we need to talk about this. I know you want answers and I know mum and Jay need to meet you. Will you please go to Samir’s house? I will get mum and Jay there as soon as possible and we’ll help you.”

“Why should we trust you?” Adi rudely asked. “You people ruined my daughter’s life!”

“Look, Rika is my friend. And..” he looked at Samir, hesitated and said, “ She means a lot to my family. Please.” He begged.

“I took a deep breath and looked at Adi, who seemed to be wavering. I looked at Vivan and said, “Rika has always told me you were nice. For her, I will do as you say. I will wait in Samir’s house till tomorrow. Then, we take matters into our own hands.” My voice was raw, full of pain.

Adi seconded me, “Listen here, if anything has happened to my daughter…”

“I understand. If there is anyone who knows where Rika is, it would be mum. She knows everything that happens here. I will be here soon with them.” He promised.

We were dropped off at Samir’s house and after Samir saw us in and introduced us to Soumya, he left with Vivan to the Haveli. Soumya was lovely to us, letting us freshen up and giving us some snacks to eat while she prepared dinner. She kept chattering about Rika, their times together and how much of a tyrant Vikram was. She had some very strong views about Vikram, which made me feel better. Atleast that evil man was hated. Hearing her talk, I felt glad Rika had had this nice woman to share thoughts with here. They certainly seemed to have shared a lot of time together. Something Vivan said bothered me. He had mentioned Jay and it reminded me of how much Rika talked of him. They had spent a lot of time together towards the last months of Rika’s employment there. She had seemed very happy with him and it had made me feel slightly suspicious of her feelings for him. Now, the feeling returned.

8. Rika meets Vikram.

The day after the sightseeing trip with her friends, Rika had been apprehensive about talking to Jay. She wasn’t entirely sure how to act around him. He was still her boss so she needed to be formal and respectful, she decided. When she met him, however, that plan went out the window. He’d enthusiastically greeted her and she found herself thinking how great he looked even in formal wear. She’d begun laughing as she saw he was wearing a big brass bracelet he’d bought at the souvenir shop. It look garish next to his designer suit but he dangled it proudly in front of her.

“You like?” he grinned.

“Lovely.” She laughed. “Goes very well with what you’re wearing.”

“I know!” he beamed. “I love it!”

She laughed and they started talking about the trip before drifting to other topics. It became a daily occurrence then. They would meet either for a walk after dinner, or stay chitchatting after their business meetings. Sometimes Vivan would join them and even convinced her to use the gym a few times.

After a couple of weeks, Jay took her and Vivan to eat chaat again, claiming he was craving roadside food. They did more touristy things, visited the weekly bazaar and bought more souvenirs. Rika hung those around her room, feeling cheerful every time they chinked. Jay sometimes accompanied Rika on her weekly visits to the temple.

Jay was not the only one Rika had become close to. The queen enjoyed spending time with Rika as well, so often monopolized her. After dealing with her two naughty boys, the queen found calm Rika a welcome distinction. They talked of fashion, of different events, marriage and every other topic that interested them.

Life was pleasant for Rika. One day, she was striding to the kitchen for her daily checks, when she ran into a new face.

“Yes?” she enquired the tall, mean looking man in front of her. He had overly gelled hair and shrewd eyes, which assessed her thoroughly.

“Manager right?” he asked. “I’m here to see my dad. I’m Raghav Mathur’s son.”

“Oh!” she was flustered. She didn’t like the way he was glaring at her. “He is in the dining room Its..”

“I know. I’ve been coming here since I was a kid.” He gave her a tight smile. “You’re the newcomer. I’d watch out, manager. This is a big place for a little girl. Don’t get lost.”

Rika stared after him as he stored off.

“Why is that Vikram here?” she asked the queen later. “He’s…strange.”

“I know.” The queen huffed. “He’s not very nice. But Amar respects Raghav and so we tolerate Vikram.”

“Oh! You know, I wouldn’t trust him. He’s has a creepy look. Like he’s going to do something bad.” Rika frowned.

“Yes, he creeps everyone out. Except Amar. He’s managed it charm Amar and I don’t know how.” She sighed. “Don’t worry, he won’t do anything.”

Later that night, she met Jay for a stroll around the gardens. She mentioned Vikram again.

“He..he just doesn’t give me the right vibe. You know, what he said to me today?”

After she’d recounted it, Jay looked angry. “He’s a nuisance all right but he doesn’t do anything. He used to pick fights with me when we were younger. I used to get in trouble because he’d lie about things. He’s managed to brainwash dad into thinking he’s this golden boy. He’s a menace. Tell me if he does something again, okay? I don’t like that he’s speaking nonsense to you.”

“Okay.” She smiled. “I will.”

“On your next day off, I’m taking you to see the Rampur. It’s this cute village near here and they make the best sweets!”

“Do we take a train?” she asked, still smiling.

He laughed. “We could. That’ll be exciting! But I’m not sure they have a railway station.”

“Oookaayyy…” she raised a brow. “What creepy, remote place are you taking me to?”

“It’s not creepy! It’s quite small, with good food, good views and I’ll need good company. So you’re coming with me.” He winked. “And I’ll treat you to the best halwa ever!”

“Done!” she chirped.

He smiled tenderly at her. Then said, slowly. “It’s a date then.”

She looked a little surprised, then shyly said, “Okay.”

Jay looked ecstatic.

9. Nivi learns the truth

I was talking to Adi about everything that had happened. I still couldn’t entirely forgive the royal family but I still was hoping that the queen did know where Rika was. It had been more than two hours since we’d come here and there was still no sign of the royal family. It was nearly 10 pm when I heard the sound of a car pulling up and my heart gave a leap. I’d tried to keep from hoping but when my heart found out there is a chance I might find out where Rika is, it leaped.  I waited impatiently for them to enter the house. Soumya showed them in, showing them the proper deference. Adi stood up as they approached while I just sat there, too physically exhausted and mentally drained to stand up and greet them. I can visualize how I looked ― my hair a mess with flyaways making a halo around my head, my face swollen from crying and my clothes dusty and filthy. But it didn’t bother me that I was meeting royalty in this state. After all, they were responsible for this. While they sat in air –conditioned comfort after throwing my daughter out, me and my husband wore ourselves down walking the streets, looking for her.

The queen walked in, looking fresh, proving my point. But I couldn’t control my gasp when I saw the prince shuffle in behind her. The elder prince, Jay. I’d seem him in pictures but never had I thought I’d see him in this state. He was dressed in crumpled jeans and a T-shirt, which had stains that looked a lot like coffee. His face was gaunt and his eyes had massive bags under them. His face was covered in stubble and his black hair looked uncombed. His expression was very like the one on Adi’s face and it showed acute misery. He painted a pathetic picture.

The queen, on closer look, looked strained. She gave a small smile to Adi and then looked at me, her face softening. She sat beside me and gripped my hands. “I am very very sorry. I know my apology won’t change anything, but I must apologize.”

I said nothing. She was right. Her apology did not change anything. Not even my attitude towards her.

She continued, still holding on to my limp hand, “Rika is like a daughter to me. I..”

“She is my daughter.” I rasped. “She’s my only daughter. She’s our “I held Adi’s hand with my other arm “life.”

“I know. And you are hers.” The queen gently said. “She loves you both very much. It is her love that made her keep away from you.”

“Look Rani sa, “I burst out “please just tell us where our daughter is. We have been worried sick, we haven’t slept in days and I am just…I’m just tired.” My ready tears sprang up again. “I just want my daughter.” I sobbed.

It was embarrassing. I’d always considered myself a strong woman. But now, the smallest thing set off my tears. I’d cried more today than I had my entire life. My body couldn’t seem to handle the stress and kept finding an outlet in the form of tears.

“Very well. I do know where your daughter is.” Jay sharply looked up at this. The queen ignored him and said, “Rika is at a small village about 100 kilometers from here. She is working in an orphanage, looking after the kids there.”

I gasped. Adi straightened and said, gruffly, “Are you sure? She’s there?”

The queen firmly nodded. “Yes, of course.”

Jay got up then, knocking over his chair, “Why didn’t you tell me?” he screamed.

I ignored him and got up, pulling Adi with men and hurriedly asked, “Which town? How to get there?”

At that point, I didn’t care how she knew. All I wanted was to see that my baby was safe.

“She’s in Barampur. But there are some things you need to know before you see her. Please. “ She gestured for us to sit back down. “I assure you that she is perfectly all right.”

I hesitated and then looked at Adi who was scowling at the queen. Then he sighed and nodded. I sat back down. The queen looked at Jay. “You too Jay. Please sit down.”

He looked mutinous and remained standing. The queen rolled her eyes and turned back to us.

“I am sorry for all this. Your daughter is an absolutely wonderful person. She has a very big heart and she’s helped all sorts of causes when she was working with us. She’s so efficient, so kind and so good. I am very sorry that she and you had to face all these difficulties. My husband is a harsh man and he’s been very unfair to you.” She waited for a reply, but when we didn’t say anything, she carried on. “It was only due to Amar’s anger and his stubbornness that Rika was sent away. I know you’d like to know the whole story.

I’m sure you know that Rika was doing a great job with us. Amar wasn’t fond of her, well what he saw as interference in business matters. He’s still old fashioned and it irked him. When Vikram poisoned his mind against Rika, his ire grew and he was furious. Then he saw something that made his anger turn into fury and hatred. He saw Rika and Jay enjoying time together. He observed them over a few days, unknown to them.”

I looked at Jay who looked sulky, angry and most of all, miserable. Adi didn’t seem to share my slight sympathy to the prince. He shot Jay a sharp look.

The queen continued. “Jay took Rika on a trip to Rampur, just the two of them. When they returned that evening, Amar saw them laughing and chatting, very at ease with each other. It confirmed what his suspicions. His thoughts were colored by what Vikram had told him. He saw Rika as a cunning woman out to ensnare Jay and take over the Haveli and the business. He never spent time around her and he did not know her at all. It was the last straw as he saw it.

10. Rika’s life falls apart

Rika got out of the car, when Jay opened the door for her. She giggled at his actions as he bowed to her. Then laughing, they walked toward the courtyard. He smiled at her, his eyes soft. “This was the best day ever.”

She nodded, smiling. “I loved it. Thank you.” She’d enjoyed the hour long ride there, chatting with Jay about anything and everything. He’d been adorable, taking her to see the sights in the village, for a camel ride, taking her to lunch in a quaint shop with the best tasting sweets and then buying her a pair of cute earrings. They’d strolled around the village and then driven back, enjoying the sunset. He’d been the perfect gentleman.

“So, ready for our second date then?” he coyly asked.

“When?” she asked.

“I would take you out right now, but I’m afraid that’ll not count as a second date. More like an extension of our first date again.”

She laughed.

“So I’m thinking we could go tomorrow. Maybe for chaat?” he asked.

“You are entirely too fascinated with chaat!” she chuckled. “But I can’t fault you so ….yes!”

“Yes!” Jay exclaimed. “I knew you wouldn’t say no to chaat!” he smugly declared.

She grinned. “Definitely. Well see you tomorrow then.”

“Wait.” He gently held her hand, then dropped it. “Won’t you meet me after dinner? Just for a quick chat.”

She stared into his eager eyes, open and persuasive. “Okay.” She lowered her eyes.

He bent his face, bringing it under her lowered eyes so that she had to look at him. She looked up in surprise and then, indulgently smiled at him. “Goofball!”

They looked into each other’s eyes, smiling together. She broke away, laughing and called over her shoulder as she ran, “See you tonight!”

She giggled and when she reached her room, she flung herself on her bed, laughing happily. She closed her eyes and laughed again. Oh Jay was so sweet! She’d known for some time that she had strong feelings for him. She was so happy when he’d asked her out. She rolled over and froze. There was a note on her dressing table mirror. She frowned and went to look at it. She gave a little chuckle. It was probably from Jay. He was so cute!

Then she gasped. It wasn’t from him.

The note said’ ‘I warned you. We don’t tolerate outsiders here. Nor thieves. Now the time is here. Face the music, Miss Manager.’

What did that mean? Thief?

She ran out and went into the dining room. The servants all gave her dirty looks. She heard the word ‘thief’ being whispered. She backed away and ran back to her room. She dialed her mother and said, “Mama! I don’t know what’s happening! Someone is trying to get me fired. Every one suspects me. I don’t know who but mama, someone keeps spreading false rumors about me and …and the King hates me!” She wailed.

Just then, someone knocked on her door and she saw Shyam standing there. “The King wants to see you.” He said in an emotionless voice. She told her mother that and followed Shyam.

The King was in his study, looking enraged. He turned as she walked in and she saw his face was red. His grey hair was still hidden under a turban and he was dressed in his usual Dhoti and Kurta. His narrowed eyes spoke volumes. He pointed a wrinkled hand at her and screamed, “You’re fired!”

She inhaled sharply. “Sir…”

“Your highness!” he barked.

“Y..your highness, I don’t understand. What did I do?” she stammered.

“You dare ask that? Filthy thief.” He spat. “You embezzle my money, steal from my staff and then dare ask me what you did?”

Embezzle?! She was shocked. Her head swam. She breathed in, trying to calm herself.

“Your highness, I did no such thing. I have not stolen anything, especially not from your staff. There must be a misunderstanding.” Her voice was very shaky.

“Oh of course. We’re idiots, aren’t we? Only you south Indians are clever?” The kind sarcastically said.

She gasped again. “I did not mean that. Sir, please don’t bring my nativity into this.” She said, trying valiantly to keep things professional.

“Why not? We don’t need outsiders here. I don’t trust you and so you can get out! But first give me back the money you stole.”

“I did not steal!” she cried.

“Tell that to the police.” He retorted. “I have all the proof here.” He showed her the papers Vikram had fabricated.

“Sir, these are false. They real accounts are in the computer. I’ve given the money to Vindhiya aunty and…”

“You dare address the queen by name?” he roared. She scuttled back, scared. Her anxiety kicked in full force. She gasped for air, forcing large amounts of air in her lungs.

“N..No.” she whimpered.

“Get out!” the king yelled. “And don’t ever come back.”

She cowered back and slowly withdrew, shaking. He smirked cruelly and then said, “Don’t even think of looking at my son, girl. He’ll marry a princess, not a gold digging inferior outsider like you.” He sneered. “If you ever contact him, I will make sure you will never be able to show your face outside for the rest of your miserable life.”

She opened the door and fled, not seeing the horrified faces of the queen and Vivan on the other side, or Vikram smirking in triumph.

“Vikram!” the kings voice screamed from inside. “Go make sure she gives the money back.”

“Yes, Raja sa.” Vikram sounded obedient and he swaggered behind the sobbing Rika. Vivan glared at his father’s study and then ran behind Vikram. He reached her room just as he saw Vikram laughing evilly at her. “Told you that women belong in the kitchen. And outsiders don’t belong in Ratangarh.”

“G..go away.” Rika stammered. She was still shaking, almost hyperventilating.

“Get out, you sexist pig!” Vivan barged in.

“I’m here on business, kunwar sa,” Vikram said, his voice as oily as his hair.

“You have no business taunting her. Out!” Vivan demanded. Rika had sunk to the floor, sobbing. Her anxiety had fully taken hold.

“I have to…” Vikram began but was stopped by the venomous note in Vivan’s voice. “I order you to get out! Don’t defy me, you creep!” he yelled.

Vikram gave him a snarky nod and went out. Vivan rang Jay and said, “Get to Rika’s room, fast! She’s having an anxiety attack.”

Then he sat next to Rika, talking to her soothingly. But Rika kept staring at the wall, blankly. Jay rushed in within a few minutes and when he saw Rika, his face crumpled. He sat next to her and gently put an arm around her shoulder. She stiffly sat there while he rubbed her shoulder and gently spoke to her, asking her what was wrong. His voice broke her abstraction and she gasped. She stared at him, fear and anger in her eyes. He worriedly looked at her and reached out for her but she drew back.

“Rika.” He whispered but she broke away and ran to the other side of the room. “Please leave.” She whispered.

“Rika what’s wrong?”  He asked, looking worried.

“Nothing. Please go.” She said, her voice shaky.

“But..” he protested but Vivan pulled him outside. While Vivan hurriedly explained what had happened, Rika packed her things. She threw all her clothes, books, shoes and documents into her suitcases. Her phone fell and crashed to the floor. She disregarded it and zipped up her bags. She looked at the souvenirs handing around her room and a sob escaped her.  She ran out, dragging her suitcases, glad that Jay had left. He’d actually gone to confront his father but she didn’t know that. She had reached the atrium when Vikram blocked her path, smirking.

“The money you stole?” he leered.

“I didn’t steal.” She said, barely managing a cold tone.

“The money?” he demanded. “You can’t leave without giving it.”

“It’s my money. I earned it. I didn’t embezzle it you liar!”  She screeched.

“No one believes you!” He sneered. “If you don’t give the money, you go to jail.”

She sniffed and then reached into her bag and threw a fistful of notes into his face. “I am no thief. And one day, the truth will come out. That day, I’ll laugh and you’ll cry. In jail.” She spat.

He laughed. “Not happening, sweetheart. I have won. I wanted your job and I’ll have it now. You were a mere obstacle and I removed you. Nothing personal. You were in the wrong place at the right time. Sorry honey.”

She growled and spun around, striding away. She couldn’t stay at this place another second. But outside, another hand grabbed her. She screamed in frustration and turned to face…the queen.

“I’m so sorry!” The queen hugged her.  “My husband has been blinded by that creep, Vikram. I’ll make it okay. Don’t worry.”

“I can’t stay here.” Rika sobbed. “The whole Haveli hates me! They all think…me..thief..” she broke down. “Mama..papa..what will they say? They’ll be humiliated! They won’t be able to face anyone. Because of me.”

“No! You did nothing wrong.” The queen consoled her.

“Yes I did! I ….Jay..I knew it was wrong! I’m so stupid.”

“No. Look Jay was also…you both..: the queen floundered. But Rika sniffed and stood straight, “I have to go. I can’t stay here. I can’t talk to my parents. They’ll die of shame if they found out. I…I have to go.”

“Wait,” the queen cried out. She gave Rika a paper and then pushed her towards a cab that stood idling in the shadows. “Go to that address. You’ll be safe there. I will do whatever I can to sort out this mess. I knew you wouldn’t be able to stay here after all this. Go now. Be safe. And talk to your parents. They’ll worry.”

Rika looked tearfully at the queen and have her a tight hug. “Thank you! Thank you aunty!” Then she ran into the cab and was off. The queen watched the dust rise as the cab rushed out and Jay came running out. “Where is she?” he frantically cried.

“She’s gone.” The queen sighed.

“Gone?” his voice broke. “Gone where?”

“Somewhere.” The queen said, sadly. Jay plopped down, resting on his knees on the ground as he stared forlornly at the gates that separated his Rika from him.

11. Nivi bonds with Jay

Adi and I were both crying as the queen finished her story. It must have been so difficult for Rika to bear everything alone. My poor girl! Jay then walked over to us, and sat next to us. He looked forlorn. “I am sorry.” His voice was regretful, sad. “I never meant to hurt Rika. I..I…” A tear slipped down his face and his face looked to the ground in shame.

Something came over me then. I don’t know if it was the relief of finding out where Rika was or I recognized a kindred spirit in Jay. Whatever it was, it made me reach out to Jay.

“It’s all right.” I quietly said. “Please don’t blame yourself.”

Jay looked up, startled. I gave him a teary smile. I could feel Adi’s surprise and his assent. I gently said, “ I know this was very difficult for you too. You made Rika’s time here very memorable and very less lonely, and for that I am grateful. I’m even more thankful that you helped her overcome her anxiety.” He looked surprised at this so I said, “You helped her feel so secure, so cherished that her anxiety had greatly decreased. She could never go out and enjoy as much before. But I think you made her feel safe and so she actually took the time to see the world, without begin afraid of its judging her. So thank you for that.”

“I…I didn..” Jay stuttered.

“I know.” I sighed. “Jay, did she ever tell you why she had anxiety?” He shook his head.  I went on “She faced a lot of discrimination when she was young, for her dark skin. She’s been bullied, made fun of and considered inferior because she was dark and because she was south Indian. She became afraid of people judging her for her appearance, so she lost a lot of self-confidence and developed anxiety. It bothered her most when she had to go out in public or mingle with a lot of people. That’s why her chosen work involves her working behind the scenes. It was a huge step for her, to agree to work here. She thought educated people in a royal family wouldn’t hurt her for such shallow reasons.”

I don’t know why I was telling him this. Maybe I needed him to know why it was such a big deal for her, what his father had done. But I was indebted to him for one reason. “I am grateful to you for teaching her to live freely. She’s gotten some of her confidence back. Thank you.” My voice was warm.

Adi looked emotional and looking into Jay’s eyes said, “Thank you. For giving my daughter her life back. And for giving us ours.”

Jay’s eyes were wet when he looked at us. “I..I did nothing worth such gratitude. I just made her come out with me to do normal things I couldn’t do before.” He choked.

“And that showed her how much fun it can be. But I think there is something else that helped her. You talked freely to her, treating her as a peer. That meant more to her than you will know. Your intellectual conversations and having being treated as equal was what showed her that she didn’t need to be afraid.” I said, softly.

“Oh!” Jay looked astounded. “I like talking to her.” Then suddenly his face changed, a determination blazed in his eyes. He took a deep breath, stiffened his spine and looked straight at us.

“Whatever I did, I did because I love spending time with her. I love talking to her. I love it when I make her laugh and her self-consciousness comes tumbling down. I love her new ideas and how excited she gets about helping people. I..I..I love her.” He said, a little diffident but very sure. His eyes glowed when he finally made the proclamation.

I looked at Adi and we smiled at each other.  “We know.” Adi said, still smiling.

“You..you …how?” Jay looked flabbergasted.

“You don’t think I don’t know what’s in my daughter’s heart?” I smirked. “Rika tells me most things, if not everything.  Lately, whenever I talked to her, she’s been very happy. She talked a lot about you and your adventures together. It doesn’t take a genius to figure things out.”

“You..you’re not mad?” he hesitantly asked.

“No. Not now anyway.” Adi said. “I was furious at first but then when I sat here and saw your condition without her, I became convinced. You still need to earn my respect but…”he trailed off, shrugging. “Well, if you want to still pursue Rika.”

“I do. I want to marry her.” Jay firmly stated. “My dad’s been horrible to her and I hate that. I will sort everything out and win her affections.”

I smiled at him and said, “Then you’ll have to prove you can take care of her. Fight for her and make her yours.”

“I will.” Jay promised.

The queen who had been silent till now, said, “Nothing would make us happier. Amar’s eyes are tainted and he cannot see Rika very clearly. He’s only seen her face, not her heart. But once he does, he will appreciate her pluck, her courage and her intelligence.”

Adi looked angry again and to my surprise, so did Jay. “I think it’s time he saw her, then.”

But first, he turned to his mother and said, in a hurt voice, “Why didn’t you tell me where she is?”

The queen looked sympathetic and sad. “I wanted you to understand the depth of the situation. I was eventually going to tell you but I wanted you to realize your feelings for her and what she meant to you first. It was awful to see you hurting so much but I needed to be sure you really cared for her. I absolutely love her. She’s a lovely girl and I’ve been hoping to get you both married since I found out she loved chaat too! It’s the perfect match!”

Jay gave a shaky laugh. “Mum!” he huffed.

Adi rolled his eyes but I could see in his eyes that he approved of Jay. He’d been fuming when we’d first had the conversation about him a couple of months ago. I’d sat him down and talked about Rika liking Jay. He couldn’t accept that his daughter may have feelings for another man, a real prince at that! But his eyes softened when he’d talked to her later and she’d been chirpy and happy. “If I have to relinquish my daughter to anyone, I’m glad it is to someone who she chooses. And who makes her laugh!” He’d said to me.

But coming back to the present, we still hadn’t seen Rika. We needed to go to her quickly. But the queen turned to me and said, “You asked me why I didn’t tell you where she was sooner? I didn’t know she didn’t phone you. I think, she was ashamed of herself and she didn’t want to make you face that. She thought you’d be mortified and would blame yourself for it. So she disappeared, rather than cause you humiliation.”

I face palmed. That girl! I can well understand her feeling. In her complicated brain, this idea probably made sense. She wanted to protect Adi and me from all the insults and abuses they hurled at her. She thought we wouldn’t be able to survive hearing our only daughter being slandered. But the pain and fear of losing her was far greater.

“You have a wonderful daughter.” The queen said, kindly. “You’ve done such a great job of bringing her up. I feel proud that my son was sensible enough to recognize her value. And prouder still that she’s going to be my daughter-in-law. And she will be.” She resolutely said as I opened my mouth to protest. “Jay will marry no other girl. I’ve seen how much she loves Jay and as long as she wishes to be married to him, nothing will come between them. Not even my husband. Thank you for giving Jay a chance.”

We both smiled, perfectly understanding each other at that moment. Maybe it was because we were mothers and nothing was more important that our children’s joy. Or maybe because I knew I’d found someone who understood my daughter almost as well as I did. Or maybe I was just tired and I was happy that someone else realized that Rika was a gem.

We were advised to wait till the morning, to drive to where Rika was. It was nearly 1 am and we had to wait a few hours to start. Jay looked eager to start right away but he’d agreed it was wise to leave in the morning. The queen had left with Vivan, saying she’ll send a car in the morning for us to go to Barampur. Jay however stayed with us. I couldn’t sleep, even though I knew where my daughter was at. I needed to see her, to hold her, before I could relax. I sat on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket and staring into the night, praying for my daughter. Adi and Jay sat a little distance away, talking together. I didn’t know what they spoke of, I don’t want to either. It was a special conversation between a girl’s father and the man who wanted to marry her. When I looked at them again, Jay looked a little pale, but still determined.

After a while, I wandered over to them and said to Jay, “I know you are impatient to leave, but are you sure you want to come with us?”

“Of course.” He answered. “I need to see her.”

I nodded. “One piece of advice though. I think Rika would like it better if you freshened up a little. No offense but you looked awful.”

“No.” Adi stopped me. “I think she’ll understand his struggle if she saw him as he is.”

I smiled at that. Jay looked a little lost. I guess he wasn’t entirely used to talking to the parents of the girl he loved.

12. Finding Rika

We left soon after daybreak. True to her work, the queen, or Vindhiya, as she’d asked me to call her, had sent over a car. She’d even sent over fresh clothes for Jay and some snacks for all of us. She truly missed nothing.

After thanking the Samir and Soumya Bhati for their generosity and all the help, I sat in the car, a little scared as to what I’d find at Barampur. I hoped Rika was okay. I’d never imagined that a prince will fall in love with my daughter. And yet, there he was, riding shotgun. I rested my head on Adi’s shoulder. He gave me a small smile before looking outside the window again. I sighed. While he did accept Jay’s love, it was going to be difficult for him to see his daughter with Jay. Jay still had a long way to go to earn Adi’s full trust and respect.

I was more worried about seeing if Rika was okay for the moment. It had to have taken a toll, believing herself to have failed us and keeping away from us. I was still a little dismayed and even a little angry that she thought we’ll blame her or be ashamed of her and felt she had to stay away.

Jay cleared his throat. “We’re nearly here. Just another 15 minutes.”

“Okay.” I looked at him twisting his hands. “What’s bothering you?” I asked.

He sighed. “I…I want to do something. But you might not approve.”

“What?” Adi asked, a little sharply.

“I want to take Rika with me to dad. I want to tell him the truth and kick Vikram out. He’s been deceiving everybody and it’s not okay. I want to expose him but I want Rika with me when I do it.” He admitted.

I looked at Adi, who also sighed. “I want Rika to get justice. And I also want to punch Vikram. But that is Rika’s choice. If she is okay to go to the Haveli, she can. But I have a condition. I will come with you.”

I interrupted with, “We will come with you.”

Adi looked at my resolved expression and he nodded. “We will come there and we’ve got a few things to say to that Vikram. And your father. And the guy who answers the phone.”

“Answers the phone? That’s either Vikram, or sometimes, Shyam. Why?” Jay asked.

“That explains it. We called the Haveli repeatedly when Rika didn’t answer her phone. The first time whoever answered said that it was a wrong number, then that there wasn’t anyone called Rika there and then insulted me for calling over and over again. After that no one picked up the phone when I rang.” Adi growled.

“Must be Vikram then. Shyam isn’t rude. He’s gruff and silent but isn’t willfully rude.” Jay said. “That’s one more thing to get back at Vikram for.”

I’d lost interest in the conversation by then. Because I saw that we’d entered the village. I sat up, impatiently waiting to see Rika. I kept my eyes peeled. My heart was thudding with anticipation and I was eagerly searching everywhere. Then the car pulled up in front of a big building. It was still fairly early, so I wasn’t surprised to see the place quiet and deserted. I opened the door before the car had fully stopped and jumped out. Adi was right behind me as I ran up the stairs at the entrance. The board at the front confirmed that this was the orphanage that Vindhiya had talked about. I ran to the reception and my heart deflated as I saw that there was no one there. I looked around, trying to see if there was anyone there. It was a small room with a small desk on one side that served as a reception.

Adi pointed to a door at the back of the room and we hurried there. A sign said that this was the office. We knocked and pushed inside and I almost screamed when I saw no one inside. So close and still so far away! WHY? WHY GOD? I screamed in my head.

We went back outside and saw Jay at the reception. He was looking around as well. We went back outside and then, my breath stopped. There she was.

My Rika. She was trudging towards the orphanage, towards us, her head bowed. My breath whooshed out and I heard Adi mutter a prayer of thanks. Rika looked tired and burdened. But she was okay! I staggered a little from pure relief and Adi held me. Rika looked up then and her face transformed into incredulity when she saw us standing there. She blinked a few times and then a look of deep joy lit her face. But then her expression crumpled and she lowered her eyes.

“Rika!” I screamed and ran towards her. She kept standing there as I reached her and pulled her into my arms. And she broke. She started sobbing loudly into my shoulder, holding me tightly. My eyes were overflowing as I held her. She was safe. She was okay. I pulled her in tighter. Adi embraced us both, holding both of us as we cried. I know his eyes didn’t remain dry for long. Even though I couldn’t see him, I could feel his eyes fill up and the relief and joy in his heart.

I finally pulled back and Rika was still sobbing. “How could you?” I yelled. “You scared us so much. What a stupid thing to think?! There’s nothing you can do that will make us hate you or be ashamed of you! We’ve been worried sick!”

Adi shoved me aside and made her look at him. “Are you all right?” He tenderly asked.

She nodded. “But I…My job…” she hiccupped.

“Shh!” He put am arm around her. “I know. And it’s okay. We’ll find you another job. Okay? We know you haven’t don’t anything wrong. We know they’re lying. It’s impossible for you to do anything wrong. We always believed in you.”

“You d…did?” She asked, looking very vulnerable.

“Of course!” He answered. “Why did you think we’ll be ashamed of you? What a silly thing to think! And you didn’t even phone us!”

Rika looked like a little child again, insecure and scared. She snuggled closer to him and mumbled, “I failed.”

“So what?” Adi asked. “If you fail, you pick yourself up and work hard again.”

“But everyone hates me.” She cried.

I brushed her hair from her face, even she was sobbing into Adi’s shirt and said, “We don’t hate you. We are always here for you. We were so afraid for you.”

“And there is someone else who doesn’t hate you.” Adi said. “And he’s been heartbroken without you. I think it’s time the two of you talked.”

“Adi!” I hissed. “We just found her. We’ve been waiting…”

“And so has he, Nivi.” Adi said, an edge of sternness in his voice. “Don’t you think it’s time we put him out if his misery?”

I huffed but agreed. I saw Jay standing a few steps away, looking happy, apprehensive and a little worried, all at once. He looked longingly at Rika, patiently waiting for us to finish talking. He certainly seemed to love her very much. I can understand the great patience it would take to wait a few steps away. And the great pain.

I stepped away as Rika lifted her head from her father’s shoulder to finally see Jay. She gasped. And looked at me and Adi. “Go.” He whispered.

She looked at me uncertainly. “Good choice.” I winked at her. She looked bewildered and just stood there. Adi gave her a little push and nodded encouragingly.

She gave him a small smile. But that smile let us see her feelings. And I grinned back.

Adi pulled me in closer as we saw our daughter take the first steps to her future.

13. Rika meets her love

Rika tentatively walked towards Jay. Her head was spinning. How did her parents find her? And Jay? How did they meet him? What was going on? And what was Jay doing here anyway? She gasped as she got closer, seeing his red eyes, tired face, the bags under his eyes and the stubble all over his face. He look so tired, so untidy, so…so…happy? His expression was euphoric.

“Are you okay?” She asked.

“Me? You’re the one who vanished without a trace! How are you?” He asked.

“I..I’m okay.” She said.

“Oh yea? Well I’m not.” Jay said, passionately. “I haven’t been okay since you left. Without even a goodbye. How could you?” His voice broke.

She looked down. “I couldn’t stay.”

“Rika, why didn’t you let me help? You are the last person in this world who’d steal or cheat anyone. That snake Vikram lied to everyone and you just left?! You didn’t even talk to me. Why?” He asked, his voice incredibly sad.

“I…I didn’t want to bother you.” She murmured.

“My dad threatened you ,didn’t he?” Jay asked.

Her eyes flew to his face and she knew that he knew. “Yes.” She admitted.

“Listen.” He took her hand and she gulped. “You never bother me. You never can. Your problems are mine too. You know why? Because I love you.” He said, looking into her eyes. He spoke quietly but his voice was full of conviction.

She gasped. He smiled at her and said, “I want to spend the rest of my life eating chaat with you.”

She giggled at that, even as a tear ran down her nose.

“When we spent time together, I realized I found myself then. I’d always been a balanced person. But then you were there and I learnt more about myself when I saw myself from your eyes. And I liked who I saw. I liked who you saw me as and I want to be that person for the rest of my life. I can only be that person when I with you. Because I’m myself when I’m with you. I don’t need to pretend to like the fancy food or the clothes.”

“I know!” she sniffed. She looked so cute with her swollen eyes and her hopeful expression; that he squeezed her hands, wanting to hug her but he knew it’ll make her feel uncomfortable.

“You look so pretty when you close your eyes and smile at the sky. Or when you gasp when I surprise you. Or when you shyly lower your eyes. Or when your eyes light up when you get new idea. It’s not your face I love, Rika, it’s you. All of you. Mostly your heart. Because it’s what allowed you to give this prince a chance to meet his common self.”

She smiled at him. And this time, she didn’t look down.

“I love that you were always responsible and didn’t even hold my hand on our first date. I love that you parents mean everything to you. Someday, I hope to mean everything to you too. But I want to earn that position. So will you give this common prince a chance? To mean everything to you?”

She looked at him, her almond shaped eyes warm and trusting. The look shook him. “Yes.” She smiled. “As long as you fulfill your promise.”

“Promise?” He cocked his head.

“To take me out for chaat!” she grinned.

‘Oh darling! I’ll take you out every day if it’ll make you happy!” He beamed.

“Thanks.” She breathed. “For bringing my parents to me. And for seeking their blessings before seeking my love. They are my life. I owe everything to them. But to you, I owe you my heart. Because you helped me find it. And see what is in it.”

He grinned even more, if that was possible. She looked at him and said, “You won them both over. This moment is so much sweeter, knowing that mum and dad sent me here. To you. And I’ll be here. Forever.”

His face had transformed. There was no tiredness, no sorrow. He was glowing and so was she. They had found what they didn’t know they were looking for. He found his carefree joy in her and in him, she found her confidence. He gave her a quick hug, drawing back before she could react. Or before we could. Adi looked a little miffed though.

“My dad can’t keep me away from you. And we are going to clear your name. Vikram isn’t getting away with this.” Jay promised.

“But..but…”

“But what? My dad’s been brainwashed by that snake for too long. Want to help me win my dad back?” He asked.

Rika looked at him and took a breath. “What do I have to do?” she asked.

 

I smiled as I watched her face light up, at whatever Jay told her. I looked at Adi who looked content. No anger in his face.

“Our daughter is all grown up.” I sighed. But it was a happy sigh. The heartache of the past few days was behind me. I was basking in my daughter’s joy. “She’s found her prince.”

“Indeed, my queen.” Adi smiled. “Are you sad it’s someone she chose from all the way here? We probably won’t see her as often now.”

I leaned into his chest. “Not really. I will miss her terribly but she looks so happy.”

“Hmm.” He rumbled. “I’m still going to test Jay, you know. He isn’t getting my daughter so easily.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything less.” I laughed. It felt good. “But I like him. He seems like a lovely man. But I trust Rika’s judgment more. She won’t go wrong.”

Adi smiled wider and we went back to watching our daughter’s life changing.

14. Confronting the King

We were on our way back to the Haveli, having picked up Rika’s bags and thanked Vindhiya’s friend, who ran the orphanage. Jay gave a large donation for the orphanage, which made Adi look at him appreciatively and Rika’s eyes to sparkle. Well, sparkle even more than before. Rika sat between me and Adi; and I kept fussing over her. Jay kept looking at her through the rear view mirror, smiling secret smiles. I chuckled quietly. Ah! The beauty of young love.

“You look so tired mama.” She sighed. “I’m so sorry for all of this.”

“It’s all right. Don’t ever vanish without telling us okay? Even if you think you’re guilty.” I admonished.

“Never.” She promised, snuggling into me.

I made Rika tell me everything about her time here. Her feelings, her fears everything. She did cry once or twice, which made Jay look at her in concern. But then she calmed down, apologizing for worrying us and being the reason for us facing insults in Ratangarh. We consoled her as best we could, but I knew she felt guilty. I saw Jays face darken in anger when he heard about everything. Vikram certainly wasn’t getting off easy.

Rika stiffened when we passed the gates of the Haveli. “You aren’t alone.” I whispered to her. “We are here with you. And so is Jay.”

She smiled tremulously. Jay helped us out and she slowly walked through the atrium. I held her hand and we walked up through the courtyard, our heads held high. Adi strode confidently, his chest puffed out. I could feel the waves of anger radiating out of him.  Jay looked furious himself. There were whispers all around us as we all marched into a room, which turned out to be the study.  An old man sat behind the desk, barking orders at a mean looking man. I knew, without an introduction, that the tall man with the malicious face was Vikram. The king looked up in surprise when we barged in and then his expression was angry. Vikram looked absolutely mutinous. He gave Rika an evil look which faltered when Adi glared at him.

“What is this?” the king thundered.

“Dad!” Jay spoke, his voice loud but not rude. “Rika did nothing wrong. She did her job well. Vikram lied about everything.”

“You’ve told me this many times in the last week, Jay. I don’t need more nonsense,” The king said, irritated.

Rika looked at Jay. He tried to clear her name?

“Dad, you’ve got false reports from this liar. Mum told you that the money he claims Rika embezzled was issued as staff bonuses. He’s threatened the staff so they won’t expose him. He’s threatened Rika before as well. He’s lying to you!” Jay said, loudly. When the kind said nothing, Jay said, incredulously “You believe this man over your family? Your wife?”

“Look, I don’t know what rubbish she fed you but….”

Jay interrupted Vikram harshly. “Not a word. You will say nothing. Or I’ll break your jaw with pleasure.”

“Jay! You will not speak like that!” The king screamed.

“Why?” Jay demanded. “What’s so special about this snake?”

“What is so special about that girl? Why are you fighting me, your father, for this outsider?” the King asked, venomously.

I put my arm around her, wanting to take my daughter away from this place, wanting to shield her from all the pain this man heaped on her.

But Jay wasn’t having it. He grabbed Rika’s hand and said, proudly, “I love her.” When the King blanched, he smiled. “You heard me dad. I love her. And the only outsider here is that snake over there. She is the kindest, most generous and sweetest person I’ve met. Dad, how can you call her an outsider? She tried to make things more efficient around here. She tried to save your money, helped your business and made your house better. What happened to you dad? You’re showing your egotism and superiority by trampling a gentle woman! This isn’t you.”

Jay walked over to his dad. “Mum vouched for Rika and you still believe this man over her! Why?”

The King looked uncomfortable. “Look, I can’t accept this. Just go.” He said.

“No!” Jay shouted, exasperated. “Why won’t you admit you were wrong?”

“I wasn’t wrong!” The King yelled. “She is making you go against your father and…”

“She isn’t making me do anything, dad.” Jay said. “You’ve always asked me to fight for something I believe in. That’s what I’m doing. I believe Vikram is influencing your decisions and I believe it’s wrong. So I’m trying to fight it. You corrected me when I did something wrong and now it’s my duty to do the same for you.”

The King looked perplexed. Vikram saw the situation getting out of hand so he jumped in, “This is a family matter. We don’t want this girl and these people here. Eh you,” He looked at Adi, “take this old woman and this useless girl and get out! We don’t need useless outsiders like you here.”

“Enough!” Rika exploded! “Don’t you dare!” Her voice was menacing.  “Keep your senseless insults to me. Don’t even think of saying anything to my parents.”

Jay looked at her in astonishment.  He’d never seen her this angry. Even the King and Vikram looked a little disconcerted. Adi smirked. Even though it was rather unfair, I couldn’t help but be a little glad that things were going to go haywire. Rika never got angry. It took something big for her to lose her temper. But when it did, her anxiety went out the window. She didn’t care who was in front of her. She’d give them a piece of her mind. And now the time had come for Vikram to get his comeuppance.

She stalked to Vikram and screamed in his face. “They are my parents. Hardworking people who make money, not take it, like shameless people like you. What did you think? You’ll keep spewing rubbish and I’ll stand here and take it. What’s your vendetta against me? I am a woman, I’m dark and I’m not from here, isn’t it? Look here, you cheap man! You, me, we all are Indians. And we are all humans. Actually, I’m not sure about you, but the rest of us sure are human. My DNA isn’t that much different from yours or his.” She pointed to the King.

“I’m a woman and I did a great job managing this place. You don’t need to be a man to work like one. Actually, you need to learn how to work like a woman. Because we put our hearts and souls into our job. You know why you don’t want women doing your jobs? You’re afraid we’ll do a better job. You were too afraid to compete face to face for my job, so you lied to get me fired! You’re nothing but a big baby! I don’t need this job to live. I’m qualified, I have morals and I can get any other job. I can’t say the same about you!

Call me or my parents filthy again and I’ll show you filthy your face can get is when you’re face down on the floor!” she yelled into his face.

“You have the nerve?!” Vikram raised his hand. Rika grabbed it and flipped him on to floor. He groaned as the hit the ground. Her face was ferocious. “Don’t touch me!” She snapped.

Jay looked at me, his eyes wide and mouth open. I shrugged. “Karate classes for five years.” I said, by way of explanation. “She didn’t want anyone bullying her again.”

Adi looked at her proudly. But then the King jumped into the fray. “Get away from him, girl! Are you mad?”

And I couldn’t take it anymore. “Her name is Rika.” I said, my voice cold. “And you will use it when you speak with her. You may be a King, but that doesn’t excuse treating another human being like this. You become a King when you respect your subjects. You’d do best to remember that you’re a King in name only. What gives you the right to verbally punish my daughter? Actually, what gives you the right to inflict pain on anyone?

Do you know how it feels? In the past 24 hours since we got here, my husband and I haven’t eaten or slept. We’ve searched nonstop for Rika everywhere. It’s easy to say things, Mr. King, but try living that pain. Do you know how it feels when your child is missing? When you don’t know if you are ever going you see them again?” My voice sounded raw, hoarse. “Have you ever felt that? It feels like your heart has stopped. Like someone is constantly squeezing your throat, not letting you breathe. You can’t escape the mental pain, the different images that run in your mind. You picture your child hurt, hungry, cold. It’s not a nice place to be in.”

I walked up to him and stared into his eyes. “You.” I pointed my index finger at him. “You made us feel that pain. You!” My voice lowered to an angry whisper. “And I will never forget that. Neither should you.”

The King looked a little ashamed. Adi gently pulled me back, staring at the King. “We aren’t inferior to you, King. We aren’t rich, maybe. But our thoughts are a thousand times more advanced than yours. Kings are supposed to be visionaries who feed growth, prosperity and progress. You don’t even applaud the courage of a girl who has the guts to live her dream, much less appreciate the good job she’s done. On top of that, you fire her and insult her because of things she can’t change – her gender and her nativity.” He made a derisive sound. “You are a King because you were born into this. We don’t live off our parents’ wealth. We stand on our feet and reach heights based on our strength, our work. Don’t underestimate us!”

He threw one last scornful look at the King and turned to Rika. “This place isn’t worth your presence. The people here are as narrow-minded as their Haveli is grand. Let’s go.”

Rika threw only last contemptuous look at Vikram and then joined us. Adi looked at Jay and his gaze softened. “You are always welcome to our house. You know you have our blessings. But that is not enough. When you’ve got your parents blessings as well, you can come for Rika. Our doors are always open for you.”

Jay stood shell shocked. He’s probably never seen anyone scream at his father like we had just done. I hope it brings some sense into that King.

Of course, Vikram was still a miserable worm and had to interrupt. “Go!” He screamed. “Jay will never get any such blessings! He’s a disgrace for loving that girl!”

“Excuse me?” the King thundered. “That is my son you’re talking about. He’s the Kunwar sa. Don’t forget that.”

Jay looked at his father before slowly smiling at him. But Vikram looked aghast. “He loves her. That girl!” He screamed. “She stole from you!”

“He’s still my son!” The King said, firmly.

“Ugh!” Vikram screamed at Rika. “You ruined everything! I wanted to get him disowned!” Then his eyes widened, horrified.

“What?” the King roared.

Jay caught Vikram by the collar and shook him. “Tell the truth now!” He said, his tone lethal.

Vikram gulped. “I…I…”

Jay tightened his hold. “Game over, snake! You’re going to jail either way.”

But Vikram said nothing. So Jay spoke, “I’ll help you. You saw me spending time with Rika and made a plan. You filled dad’s ears about her being untrustworthy and an outsider and all that rubbish. Then you did your preparations, planted evidence, made sure dad saw me and Rika together and got her fired. I bet you were then going to inflame dad against me for falling in love with the enemy and feed him more rubbish about me till he disowned me. Is that right?”

Vikram went pale but still didn’t answer. The King looked at him darkly and demanded, “Why?”

Vikram blanched and muttered, “I wanted to be put in charge of Jay’s business ventures. So I could get my hands on some of the shares.”

Jay punched him then, as the King sat down muttering, “I’ve been such a fool!”

Jay got a couple of the staff to take Vikram away and said he was to be locked up somewhere till the police came. Vikram looked sulky and annoyed, not to mention angry. He glowered at Rika as he was dragged past her and she glared right back. Adi stood by me, both of us silent. I was glad Vikram was caught, his lies were exposed and he going to jail. I couldn’t help smirking at him as he went past me. I turned back to the study after he was out of my sight. I saw Jay was talking to his dad, who was sitting with a terrible frown on his face. I gestured to my husband and my daughter to follow me outside.

“What? We weren’t finished.” Adi said.

“We need to give them their privacy. And we all just crazily yelled at the King. I don’t really want to step on any more toes.”

Rika giggled at that. I narrowed my eyes. “Giving them the time to talk also give me a chance to talk to you.” I looked at Rika. She wasn’t giggling any more. “Rika, we want you to know that we will always support your decision. Whatever it might be. I want you to think and made your decisions carefully.”

She gulped but nodded.

“Do you like Jay?” I bluntly asked.

Rika looked down but then smiled and nodded shyly.

“Never thought I’d see my daughter being all shy!” Adi commented. It just made her coyer. I elbowed him and he grinned.

“Are you sure? There are going to be many roadblocks ahead. Can you face them?” I asked. I really did want her complete confirmation. I knew she liked Jay. Maybe even loved him. But it was better for her to slowly discover where her destiny led.

“Y..yes.” she stammered. Someone insults us and she flips him on the floor. But when I ask her a question and she can barely speak. Although, I suppose speaking to parents about a man can be very daunting.

Adi decided to take over from me then. I was glad. I wasn’t very good at this sort of thing. “Rika.” He gently said. “He seems like a good person who will keep you happy. I can see you both care for each other. But I will ask you not to rush into anything. Take the time to know each other and then make any firm decisions. I trust you enough to know you won’t make any mistakes.”

“Yes papa.” She mumbled.

“I like Jay.” He said, which made Rika choke a little. I grinned. So did Adi. “I like him but I’ve told him he needs to earn my respect still. He’s already one step closer, after I saw what he did in there.”

“Thank you.” Rika looked at both of us with gratitude. “I know you already gave him your blessings. I heard you inside. So thank you.” She gave a slightly cheeky smile.

“He still does need my complete approval if you want to marry him.”Adi warned, but he was smiling.

“I know.” She said. “Thanks for trusting me.” She hugged us both.

Jay came out just then. And so did his father. The King still looked a little red-faced. But when he spoke, it was a lot calmer. “My apologies for falsely accusing you.” He said. Jay coughed and the King shoot him a look before sullenly saying, “And for slandering you based on your background. It was a little harsh.”

“A little?” Vivan sauntered into view, along with the queen. Rika gave them both warm smiles, which they returned. The queen pulled her in for a hug which made me smile and the King scowl.

“I’d you’re okay.” The queen said.

“Thanks for everything, Vindhiya aunty.” Rika said fervently. I raised my brows at her way of addressing the queen. They were closer than I thought.

“Yes. All right.” The King said, almost snapping. “Now that everything is settled, get back to work.”

“Not yet.” Jay said. “You forgot to apologize to Rika’s parents and tell her that she still has her job.” He stared at his father without fear.

The king cleared his throat and said gruffly, looking at us. “I am sorry for the inappropriate things I said and did.”

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with this ‘apology’ but standing in his house, it wasn’t prudent to antagonize him more. I suppose with everything we all had said to him, I shouldn’t expect much more of an apology. We could call it even. I still couldn’t put a price on the pain he caused us and Rika. I know all of it wasn’t his fault. And hopefully one day, he’ll analyze his actions and find it as repulsive as we did. Being targeted for skin color, gender, or nativity is unfair and to be completely honest, it shows how parochial people are.  Which is why education and social reform changed the public perception of these things. When I saw an educated man still being prejudiced, it made me question the progress out country has made.

But then I saw Jay and Vivan, the younger generation with a better grasp of equality and it gave me hope. Jay fought for the rights of someone. Granted, he loved her and so he fought for her. But still, he did fight for equality and that was something.

So in the end, I guess I pitied the King a little for his narrow outlook. It might be easier to forgive the things he said if I thought of him as ‘not knowing any better’. And in a way, he didn’t.

I still said nothing in response to the King’s ‘apology’ but Adi nodded stiffly in acknowledgement. The King just said, “You can have your job back.” to Rika and then stomped back into his office.

The queen and Vivan exchanged helpless looks at his behavior. Jay grinned at Rika who smiled back happily. Adi looked a little annoyed but he decided to let the matter drop. If all went well, Rika might end up in this house for good. It didn’t make me feel any better that my daughter would be the daughter in law of this man, but I guess it would at least make life interesting. I only hope Jay would fight for her every time. But somehow, after seeing her in that study, I had a feeling he didn’t need to. My daughter could fight for herself.

We went back home after a couple of days, taking Rika with us for a week. She went back to her job. I thought she’d decline the offer to resume her post as a manager because she won’t be able to tolerate the same people who had judged her so harshly. But she was determined to work under their noses and keep doing a fantastic job. She did win back their affection and I suppose doing the things people didn’t want her doing was a sort of revenge. It made me proud to see her taking on challenges. Her father couldn’t stop praising her for her guts. Somewhere along the adventure she had, she started losing her fear of judgement. Her anxiety still wasn’t gone but she could manage it better. And I couldn’t be more proud. And relieved.

She and Jay are in an undefined relationship. They’re still getting to know each other, but I think Jay wants to win Adi over completely before he proceeds with their engagement. He confided in me that he’s planning on proposing soon. We’ve been having regular chats. It started because he tried to butter me up to find out ways to impress Rika. But now, it’s become a habit to check up on one another. He’s won me over but Adi is still unwaveringly hard to please.  Well, pretending to be hard to please, anyway. I’m sure he loves Jay as well but he just won’t admit it! It was especially hard after Jay announced to the King that he’s very serious about Rika and nothing will change his mind. After a few fights, some home-truths and some help from Vindhiya, the King relented and accepted Rika, which made us very happy. Well I hope he has whole-heartedly accepted Rika and isn’t just saying it till he finds some other way to break them up. I have complete confidence in Rika and Jay so I’m not too worried about the hard-headed king.

And now, Adi and I wait for the next challenge in our lives. With the engagement and then the wedding, there’s bound to be a lot of friction. But Adi is with me and I’m with him; we don’t need to worry too much. The week of Rika’s disappearance was the worst. Adi’s tireless energy and his relentless pursuit was what helped us find her. I had broken but he remained strong. The same way he always has been and will be.

We got through it together, the same way we’ll face anything other curveballs that come our way. We are equal partners and nothing will change that.

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I'm a writer, a poet, an observer and a studier of life.

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