Ria woke up late afternoon on Wednesday after about five hours of sleep. That morning as soon as the foreman had come Gaurav had rushed back with her to the main building and they had quickly taken to stairs to the third floor. Though she was exhausted she didn’t want anyone to see her in a bathrobe and blankets giving them ideas or fodder for gossip. The foreman did give her the looks but a stare from Gaurav had set him straight back on track and he had gotten busy with work. After reaching the rooms, Gaurav had helped her open the door with the spare key with him. She had royally forgotten hers in her zeal to go after him… He had then set her a hot bath and also got her a couple of tablets to prevent common cold from setting in, before retiring to his room. He had barely spoken few words to her ever since their last encounter outside Shiva’s stable.
The next three days flew in a jiffy. She rarely saw Gaurav unless he was out talking to ground staff or once in a while when she had been to the children’s wing where he was interacting with children teaching them something on the laptop. From what she realized he was in his room probably preparing for the trial coming up on Monday. She immediately felt the nerves setting in. How would the trial actually be…? Would it be synonymous like those shown in films? Would the prosecutor ask her awkward questions? Was she doing the right thing by speaking the truth? She then remembered her thatha (grandfather) always said, ‘stick to the truth even if it kills you…’ her grandfather was a staunch devotee of the Puttaparthi Sathya Sai Baba and often mentioned Swami’s sayings…. ‘when you stick to the path of truth and righteousness, pain and poverty will haunt you… but they are just the dark clouds before the splendour of the Sun…’ Of course, she was right… she felt it.
Nonetheless her anxiety on the impending trial kept rearing its head at regular intervals. She kept herself occupied all over Parijath. She supervised the women in the factory, spoke to them as they worked and even landed up counselling a couple of very young women who were apparently having some trouble with their in-laws. She visited the local school to volunteer to teach a couple of classes and even spent an hour in the night school accompanied by Kalyani. During the evenings she helped in the kitchen right from chopping vegetables to serving food to the children. She was in awe at the systematic execution of duties in Parijath without being constantly monitored or needing repeated instructions. One of the days when it was bright and sunny, she also visited the stables and offered carrots to Shiva. She had developed a soft corner for the stallion… She wondered if it was because he seemed like the animal version of Gaurav… just like him… strong from the outside but held up a storm of emotions within that needed to be unleashed. The foreman was very cordial to her and even helped her pat Shiva… She left the stables in tears… thinking about how much she would miss this place…
Soon it was Sunday and time to leave. Gaurav had met her the earlier evening just to tell her to be ready by 10AM. On Sunday morning as she packed her bag, Kalyani walked into her room shutting the door behind her. The woman and she had developed a close bond… closer than Ria had with her sister or Preeti. She gave her a tiny Ganesha carved into wood… “Didi this is for you… He is the Vighnaharta… He will remove all the obstacles in your path… mark my words. Tomorrow is a very important day… the start of the fight for justice…” She spoke with tears in her eyes. Ria didn’t know how much Kalyani knew about the case but she was very touched by the gesture. She hugged her.
“Kalyani… I don’t know how you…”
“…Actually didi… I am the only one who knows details. Dada had taken me into confidence… er… he said he didn’t know when he would be … back… didi, I hope you believe in him… he can never do something dastardly like what he has been accused of…” tears flew uninhibited as Kalyani choked.
Ria wiped her eyes and smiled. “…Kalyani… I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe in him… and thank you for this wonderful gift I am sure He would bless us and be with us… and don’t worry… your dada will be back for sure…”
Kalyani nodded and they heard a knock at the door. As Kalyani opened it, Ria saw a grim Gaurav stand outside speaking to someone on his phone. He gestured her to come downstairs and left … Pradhan stood there holding Gaurav’s bag and Kalyani handed over Ria’s bag to him as he left too. Kalyani hugged Ria once again and sighed. “…Didi…um… may I say something…?”
“…Of course, Kalyani, you don’t have to ask…”
“…The trial… um… I have heard that… these are tough on the women involved… and since you are the prime witness it may be tough on you as well… but… but… promise me you wont give up on him didi… please…” Kalyani held her hands tightly with a pleading look in her tear filled eyes. “…Didi… Parijath is Dada’s baby literally… and he is the soul of this place. We have a life and hope because of him… If anything were to happen to him…” her voice broke.
“…Hey… Kalyani… just listen to me… Ok? I would be lying if I say I am not afraid… I am… but trust me when I say I will do whatever is possible… travel the extra mile to see that sir gets out unscathed… and I am confident he will… he has all your wishes with him, doesn’t he…?”
Kalyani nodded as they moved towards the stairs.
As they drove towards Pune, the rumbling noise of the car the only icebreaker in the silent moments as they were both lost in thought, Ria watched the passing scenery. This was such a beautiful place, she wished she didn’t have to go back… these last four days were the most beautiful and fulfilling days of her life and she wished the dream wouldn’t end. Her anxiety was killing her in the mute zone in the car. “Um…sir… all OK back home…?”
Gaurav didn’t even look her side his eyes focused on the road and she looked away annoyed. What the hell… after all that had transpired, he had closed up again… He had barely spoken a few words ever since that night in the stables.
“…All is good… Ria… I have been speaking to Keith… We are going to this place close to the court premises… Its easy to walk it up from the back side and change our routes every time… car will be conspicuous. Keith will be staying with us…I…I hope its fine by you…” he still didn’t give her a glance.
“…I am OK sir… whatever you decide…” She said softly folding her hands and blinked back tears as she stared outside. She failed to understand what she had done to offend him… why didn’t he talk to her…? Something was happening out there but he wasn’t sharing. She was in the dark too, scared out of her wits and staring at an uncertain future. Suddenly the car came to a halt on the side of the road. She looked around but there was no hotel or public toilet just a road for miles ahead… why did he stop?
He looked at her and rubbed a hand over his face. “Ria… I am sorry…Ok? I know I haven’t been… I mean… you have been doing so much… but I… Ria…I… I am scared too… and I am worried that I will drag you down with me… in whichever hell I am destined to go…” he looked away.
She kept her hand on his which was on the gear and he immediately turned his palm up interlocking his fingers with hers. “look at me sir…” when he did, she continued. “…For the last time… I am not doing you a favour… I am only siding with the truth. As for you, sir… you are going to get out of this mess… I can feel it in my heart… and yes… I am scared. But… when you are around… I feel confident…and that is the best preparation… dont you think so…?”
He kept looking at her as his eyes well up and he looked away. He took his hand way from her and drove it through his hair. “Thank you, Ria… I just … hope things go well… for your sake, more than mine.”
He started the car and they continued their journey… In the next two hours they had arrived at a small flat in a crowded low- income locality and Keith was already in the flat as Gaurav and she rang the doorbell. They had to park the car outside the lane as it was too tiny and the car would have called for attention. Since it was afternoon and it was raining, there were barely any people outside. Their flat was in one of the few buildings in the lane. Rest were all tiny houses clustered around in groups of four. She was told this was a colony of daily wagers who worked across the tracks mostly on contract for the railways. The strong stench of garbage littered by the rain made her cringe and she had to cover her nose…to avoid throwing up. Fortunately, the house was in a cleaner area on the fourth floor and the building was sans an elevator. Gaurav had held both their bags throughout till they reached the designated house. Keith welcomed them and Ria was immediately shown to her room. There was a single bathroom for their usage near the drawing room and Ria took it up first. God bless Keith… he had cooked up a simple meal of potato stir fry with khichidi and she relished every bite before going into her room to rest… Gaurav had asked her to meet them outside at 4PM to discuss the case and Khatiyal was to visit them. She had only nodded. There was no TV and her burner didnt have any kind of internet connection… she had no clue about any news that was going on here…
Later that evening Khatiyal met up with them. “Look Ms. Narsimhan, it’s going to be nasty…I hope you are up to the challenge…” the bulky lawyer looked worn out… the case was taking a toll on him as well. She nodded wringing her fingers on her lap.
“Khatiyal….” Gaurav spoke in a stern voice. “…If there is any question or comment threatening her modesty, I want you to object immediately…”
“But Sir… I can’t object for every point and the prosecution…”
“TO HELL WITH THE PROSECUTION… I CARE A DAMN… SHE IS NOT TO BE MADE UNCOMFORTABLE AND YOU WILL SEE TO IT …” Gaurav bellowed and Khatiyal sank further in his seat.
“Sir… may I have a word with you… in private…please…” Ria pleaded.
Gaurav nodded and they walked into the kitchen as an amused Keith looked on. “Sir… we have to see this case through… I am fine with whatever is thrown my way… I really am… its important for you to be exonerated… we can lick our wounds later…” She spoke at a stretch as the two pairs of eyes looked at her as if she was an alien. She had the window she needed and continued. “… By the way, if you keep scaring the lawyer, he won’t be able to fight out there. So, I am going to go out there and tell him to do his job and not hold back on my account…” He was about to say something when she held up her hand. “…And I meant every word I said…” She turned around and got back to Khatiyal. “Mr. Khatiyal… I request you to do your job in ways you deem fine… I am ok with anything coming my way… I am ready to take it… don’t worry about me… I will be fine…”
Khatiyal looked at her wide eyed and then looked at Gaurav and Keith who had walked behind her but she didn’t bother to look and went into her room. Later after dinner which she had in her room, Keith knocked at her door and gave her a set of probable questions she was likely to face whenever her turn came up. Ria read through them late into the night… most of them were bearable but there were questions which were outright character-shaming and she only hoped she could see this through. She switched off the lights but couldn’t sleep as her anxiety kept the insomnia button on and when she checked the time it was 1AM. They had to reach the hearing at 9.30AM tomorrow and she had kept the alarm for 6AM…
She heard some sound in the eerily quiet dark and sat up straining her ears to check if it was just her paranoia getting the better of her… no there was some sound in the drawing room… She walked to her door and twisting the knob slowly, opened the door… though the sound was minuscule it was loud enough to distract Gaurav who was exercising in the dim night light. What was with this man and nocturnal workouts…? And God help her he was topless… He turned around and immediately dragged his T shirt wearing it and looking at her with annoyance evident in his eyes. “…What the hell Ria…? Its… goddamn 1AM…” he was still panting with the after effects of some workout that he was busy with.
“…Sorry… I heard something…so came to check…didn’t mean to startle you…” Ria fumbled as the image of his topless front though not very clear in the heavily dimmed light, refused to leave her mind and her insides had turned mush at the perfection she could sense… She turned around and shut the door, leaning her forehead against it… She had to rein it in… God help her. She heard him for the next hour or so and then it was quiet again. She didn’t have to check to realise he had gone back to his room he was sharing with Keith. She tried her best to sleep but it stubbornly eluded her and she hoped she woke up fresh enough for the trial next day…. She just hoped everything worked out for the best!
Next morning at about 8.30AM they left the house on foot. Keith walked ahead and Gaurav held her hand as they walked through the stinky narrow lane. She had worn a simple cotton salwar -kameez and had wrapped her dupatta around her head covering her face. Her anxiety was at its peak and she was grateful for Guarav holding her hand his warmth seeping in to help her calm down. Gaurav had worn a hoodie covering his head totally and after about forty-five minutes of walking round about they reached the court. Ria was exhausted by the time they reached a chamber assigned to them and she had a bottle of water and some fruits.
Ria peeped out of the window and understood why they had to do all that walking when she saw the swarm of reporters buzzing at the entrance and the police had a tough time preventing them from entering the cordoned area. What was going to transpire…?
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