Manik lowered himself towards Nandini and gave her a soft, quick side hug. This was the only response he could manage after an overwhelming promise from her that she will keep believing in him even when she didn’t understand him.
“Let’s go.” He quickly separated from her and held her hand taking her towards the arrival terminal of the airport.
“Will your parents be angry?? I hope they don’t get upset at me!” She murmured anxiously.
He smiled, “Don’t worry. No one can stay angry with you.”
She had the best-shocked look on her face, “Stay??? What does that mean?? Will they be upset, right now?”
He lifted one shoulder in a half shrug and twisted his lips as if his action would replace the need to speak in words. This irked Nandini, always. Sometimes, he just decided to play the mystery game and took it to the highest level.
“You are mean!” She glared at him with a soft murmur, making him chuckle. He didn’t speak, coz he didn’t know what to say to her.
They were at the arrival terminal, by now. Manik’s parents walked out of the exit gate when he informed his mother that they were there. Manik’s father, Manoj Malhotra walked out holding the trolley with their luggage, followed by Latika, his elder sister Gaurvi and younger sister Trisha. Trisha was holding in her arms, Gaurvi’s 2-year-old daughter Ishani.
Manik touched his parents’ feet who hugged him one after the other. Latika hugged him for a moment longer with tears in her eyes. “Happy Birthday, Manik!”
Manik hugged her tightly before he left her and nodded, “I hate your surprises, mom! Why are you so dramatic?” Latika slapped his arm lightly with an adoring grin.
“Happy Birthday, Bhai!” Gaurvi, who was 7 months pregnant, right now and Trisha hugged Manik together. Manik spread his hands around them and gave them such a warmly squeeze that made Nandini smile. His bond with his parents was a sight to behold.
She stepped forward and touched his parents’ feet too and then she hugged his sisters. Manik held Ishani in his arms and talked to her in some kids language that the baby giggled, making Nandini want to giggle too, but she suppressed her laughter and confined it to warm smiles.
“We are so sorry, mom.” She apologized sweetly. So sweetly that it distracted Manik from the baby in his hands to steal a quick glance towards his wife. She was so innocent that he felt bad for her. The poor girl had no idea what was in store for her.
Latika grinned and brushed her worries away, “No…no… beta… it’s not your fault. You are busy too. Your hospital work must be tiring and Manik was always a workaholic. We didn’t realise that it was Sunday today so you must have woken up late. It was our fault. We should have called yesterday.”
“Please don’t say so… actually my phone was discharged since last night and …” Nandini started explaining.
Latika smiled more, “Leave it…beta… we should have been more thoughtful… actually, it was my fault. I only said that let’s give a surprise to Manik on his birthday. We didn’t know that he will be busy.”
Nandini’s face was immersed in a flood of guilt, “I can’t stop feeling sorry…”
Manik interrupted them, “Both of you can continue with this game at home.”
Gaurvi and Trisha giggled and their father smirked, leaving Latika embarrassed. She simply nodded, scolding him, “Grow up, Manik.”
Nandini was the one who felt most awkward. She took the baby from Manik’s hands when he said that he was going to bring the car from the parking area. While taking the baby, she gave him a complaining stare. He smiled softly and left.
The few minutes when Manik went to bring the car were difficult as Nandini was new to this family and she had met them for the first time around 4 months back during their wedding and had spent only 3 days with them. She practically knew nothing about them.
She felt a bit comfortable when Gaurvi and Trisha asked her about Bangalore and how she was adjusting there. Nandini answered their queries spontaneously and warmly, just like she was and just like she talked to everyone else – be it her colleagues at the hospital, Manik’s friends, their neighbours, and even Manik when she met him for the first time.
She told them about the weather and general living conditions in Bangalore and spoke about her hospital. Gaurvi and Trisha were now talking to her like long-lost friends. Nandini was thrilled to find friends in her sisters-in-law. Though Manik had done everything possible to make her feel comfortable so that she didn’t miss her family and she was very happy with him. But since she had grown up in a joint family, she often missed the warmth of the family around her. So many people together made her feel back at home. When Nandini was talking to Gaurvi and Trisha and cajoling Ishani, she found Latika observing her keenly with a warm adoring smile on her face. Nandini didn’t know how to deal with this sudden attention, so she simply smiled.
Back at home…
Latika moved around the house with a glorious smile on her face, appreciating the efforts Nandini had made to keep it clean and decorated. She loved the kitchen, the living room, the balcony, the washrooms.
“This is my third visit to this house. I must say that for the last two times, I was received in a jungle, which I turned into somewhat livable space in the 4-5 days that I was here. But you have done wonders! Amazing!!” Latika praised her profusely.
Nandini was exhilarated, “Thank you.”
“Really bhabhi… your living room is so cute!” Trisha chirped. Joined by Gaurvi and Manoj, one by one, leaving Nandini overwhelming with joy.
Manik pressed his lips inside for a moment and asked, “Gayu, where is Akhil? I’m missing him.”
Gaurvi elaborated in one go, “Bhai, he had a posting in Guwahati to study some industrial plant. So he has gone there for six weeks.”
“Ooohhh!” Manik twisted his lips, “Guwahati is far!”
“And that is why I was staying with mom and dad. Now, that they decided to come here for a break, me and Tishu thought that we will come too.”
“Awesome! But has your doctor allowed you to travel? I mean… you are…” Manik hesitated to speak more.
“I know… I am 7 months pregnant. But my doctor gave me a green signal. A plane journey is safe. And I was coming to another Gynaec…” Gaurvi turned to Nandini and chuckled, “Do I need to worry?”
“Absolutely not!” Nandini replied with a confident nod and hugged her. When she turned to Manik to get a smile and nod of approval, she was surprised to find him worried and stressed. There was no smile on his face. In fact, his brows were puckered at the center and lips almost in a pout. His stare was the deadliest.
Nandini hadn’t seen him like this since long, so it made her worried. She raised her brows as if asking him, if he wanted to say something. He left a huge breath and turned away.
It was not something that Nandini would appreciate at any time. Especially not today. Today was different. Today was special. It was Manik’s birthday and they had been fortunate to have the time together to begin the day on such a beautiful note. His smell was lingering in her hair even now. His touches felt live on her skin. His kisses were as fresh on her mind as if he had kissed her moments ago.
Latika had moved away towards the window and adjoining small balcony in the living room, “You don’t have ‘Tulsi’ plant?” She asked observing the beautiful terra-cotta pots and several plants in those antique colourful pots.
Nandini quickly rushed to be around her, “Actually, I forgot to bring one. I’ll bring it today!”
Latika smiled and touched her cheek lovingly, “Please do that. I pour water in Tulsi plant every morning around Sunrise. You should do that too. Every woman should do that. It brings harmony and prosperity in the family.”
Nandini nodded and smiled, “Ji!”
Manik cleared his throat and said, “I’m going to get rest of the luggage from the car. Nandini please come with me.”
“Sure!” Nandini replied to him and turned to Latika to take a leave.
“Go!” Latika pressed her hand warmly between her hands and said, “I’ll make tea in the meantime. Come soon. We need to talk so much.”
Nandini grinned and nodded. She was excited after meeting Manik’s family again. This time in her own home, apart from the wedding festivities, in a normal set up to interact with them and strengthen the bonds. Her longing for her extended family nearly dimmed when she found his parents adored her and his sisters were doting on her.
Living alone for the first time and managing every work on her own along with hospital work, was beginning to make her cranky. Manik’s family was like a cool downpour of showers on the parched land.
Nandini couldn’t stop smiling while she followed Manik taking hurried steps behind him when he walked out of the apartment first.
Outside the apartment, in the corridor – Manik was pressing the button for the lift almost fifth time and went on doing it, with his fingers hitting the button constantly. With that, a click of his tongue and snap of his lips followed. He tapped his foot impatiently and left a huge breath of air but didn’t look at Nandini. His eyes were on the closed door. Nandini observed him for a moment and then she softly touched his arm.
“What happened to you?” Her voice was so velvety soft that his tough stance began to melt almost instantly. The lift arrived and they walked in together. She was still looking at him for the answer.
He leaned back at the wall of the elevator and folded his hands across his chest. With a sway of his jaw, he replied, “Nothing!”
“Awww!!” She teased him, giggling softly, “Do you really think you can lie to me? Sorry to say that you failed. Come on tell me… I can see that you are upset.”
“As if you care!” He complained.
“What makes you think that I don’t? Of course, I do!”
“Tch…” He let his tongue click the inner side of his mouth with a lopsided twist of his lips. He loved throwing tantrums when she was in a mood of sweet-talking him out of his mood. He loved it when she cajoled him.
She pressed her lips knowingly and grinned. “Tell me what happened? Are you already fighting for attention from your parents? The one that they are giving me??”
“Huhh??? Nonsense!!!” He refuted outrightly and this time with a serious look on his face. He rolled his eyes, “You tell me – what happened to you?? Why are you suddenly so happy?”
She turned her hands sideways in a confused questioning way, “Is it a crime to be happy?”
“Yes… it is near-crime to be ‘extremely-happy-without-any-reason’…” He spoke in a wry tone, nearly offending her.
She glared at him in slight anger, “I am NOT ‘extremely.happy.without.any.reason’… I thought it was normal to feel happy when you meet the family…”
He huffed, “They are ‘my’ family…you don’t even know them…”
He must have spoken it in a flow, without even realizing it’s meaning but it hurt her so much that she kept quiet for a moment. Stunned, she had no words to counter his line of thought.
Why did he say that?? They were ‘his’ family?? Did that mean that he didn’t want her to mingle with them or step close to them? But why would he say so? Men usually felt best when there was harmony between their families and wife. If there was discord, they felt torn apart. It was the opposite here.
Her husband was telling her to stay away from his family. She wished she could keep confusions and doubts to herself. She wished she didn’t ask direct questions. But she always did. She wasn’t someone to let the misunderstandings grow because of lack of communication.
A moment later, she asked, almost hurt and disappointed,“What’s wrong with you, Manik? Why are you talking like that? Isn’t that my family too? Since when we became two different people?”
He looked at her distraught face and realized his mistake. He had used wrong words and once again hurt her without intending to. Without wasting any time, he stopped the elevator by pressing the red emergency button on the top of the other buttons. The lift stopped to a noiseless halt. She opened her mouth and widened her eyes in question. But before she could ask something, he unfolded his crossed hands and held her elbow, startling her. In another subtle jerk, he pulled her close to him and curled his arms around her.
“What are you doing? Why did you stop the lift?”
“To talk!” He smirked.
“Leave me. I don’t want to talk to you…”
“Wow!! Look at you… where are all those promises? ‘Manik, I’ll believe in you’… ‘Manik, I will trust you, even if I don’t understand you’… haan?? Not even 2 hours have passed since that promise!”
Her doe-shaped eyes squeezed for just a fraction of a moment when she kept staring at him, accusing her, when he should have been apologizing.
“Awesome! Instead of apologizing for being a jerk… you are telling me that I broke the promise? What was that about ‘they are MY family’… don’t be happy to meet them!”
He frowned, making a face, and shut his eyes tightly for a moment, as if super annoyed. Then he opened them and said, “Ufff!!! I hate explanations… you know that… but since I used those words and they hurt you …so I’m explaining… JUST FOR YOU….and…mind you… FOR THE LAST TIME EVER…”
“Go on!!” She didn’t try to struggle away from his hold. She was super comfortable in his hold as if she was made to fit in there.
“Like I said – it’s true that ‘they-are-my-family’… so that meant that I know them more than you. They are a bit tricky and complicated people!”
She was waiting for more but when he stopped, she raised her brows, “And???”
He raised his brows too and shrugged casually. He thought he was declaring something really huge and earth-shattering. She huffed, “That’s it??”
He nodded, with another shrug. She tilted her neck, almost irked, “Really Manik?? That’s all you were worried about? So, what’s the big deal in that? All families are a bit tricky in their own way. Every human being is complicated.”
He tackled a single lock of hair touching her cheek and pushed it behind her ear, tucking it safely at its place. Without leaving his eyes from her, he said, “I’m not sure…”
“That you will be able to deal with them…”
“Excuse me?!! You are underestimating me.”
“I hope… I really hope… I am!” He sighed with a low whisper, still not getting enough of her beautiful eyes, honey-smooth skin and an innocent smile that was a window to her pretty soul.
“Aren’t you overthinking, Mr. Malhotra??!!” She smirked, teasing him, “And you call me an overthinker?”
“I don’t know. Maybe!! But can you do me a favour? Like I asked you before? Will you go a little easy with them?? I mean, just don’t rush into things to make a bond. Such relationships are complex. Give them some time to brew!”
She was staring at him like he was a huge sum of probability. Then she made a desperate little face and asked, “I wish I understood even 1% of what you are talking. Manik, are you fine? Do you even know that your words are making no sense to me?”
“Ohhh Nandini!! How do I explain?!”
“Say it in clear words…” She coaxed him, “Try it!!”
He chewed the inner mucosa of his lower lip on the left and frowned, “I don’t know… I have nothing to say in clear words. There is nothing that I can pinpoint… I mean, I love them … all of them. They are my family. I can give my life for them. And I know that I can handle them. They love me, they listen to me… and they know that I don’t care about silly things… you can handle them if you be like that… but I have doubts … the way you are…”
She stopped him, with her hand on his lips, “Manik…wait… Family members don’t need to be handled. They need to be loved and understood…We need to be open to them, love them, be caring and giving towards them…”
“You are not even trying to understand!”
“I am NOW able to understand you. You are always so skeptical about every new relationship. You think that it will be difficult to come out of that expectations-disappointments trap… but do we need to think about all those stupid things before starting a new relationship. Do you remember the rules we made?? It was so idiotic of us… We started somewhere and ended up, somewhere else… we can’t plan relationships…”
“We can stay cautious!” He argued.
“Cautious of what?? I’m surprised… On one hand, you say you love them so much that you can give your life for them. On the other, you are warning me to keep a distance from them. Honestly, I don’t even know how to keep a distance from people close to me… And out of all people, you are asking me to stay cautious… don’t you know me?”
“I know you…” He spoke seriously, with his lips pursed, “And that is what makes me worried. You won’t even know what’s going on around you!”
“That’s all about your claims of knowing me?! What about you?? You know what… now, I have serious doubts on your understanding of relationships… I think you always misunderstood your mom for giving more love to Gaurvi than you. She wasn’t partial. Your expectations were unreal. So you were disappointed!”
Her words stabbed him like a butcher’s knife right across his chest. So deep and so razor-sharp that it actually hurt. It pained as if a spurt of blood gushed inside his chest and not outside it. His jaw hurt for he had clenched it so hard. She observed his changing expression and realised that she had bitten more than she could chew. She had no business telling him that his feelings were wrong.
“I’m sorry!” Quickly, she mouthed an apology.
With poignant darkness in his eyes, he murmured painfully, “Thank you very much for this birthday gift. I will not forget how you actually passed judgement on my emotions.”
She was nervous. He had never been this angry with her. He had been angry on one or two occasions but not to this extent. She hated herself for this and now she had to make it up before he carried this anger for more.
She rested her palms on the flat of his chest, over his white shirt and softly whispered, “I … don’t know… why I said that… I … I wasn’t judging you… ”
“Oh yes!! You just did… My wife of 4 months just told me how she thinks that my entire life of 29 years was a lie.”