The flames were closing in on her as she ran… her baba was calling out to her…she was going to meet him on the other side of the fence… really…? was it time now…already…? No that couldn’t be…she still had to speak with Keshav and tell him at least once more that she loved him… she had escaped the inferno and also battled the muddy deluge…. only to see him…was she too late…? And then she heard Keshav calling her… ‘Avanti…? Avanti…? Sweetheart…?’ Was he joining her too….? What the hell…oh God her foot burned in pain… ‘Avanti darling…?’ Why was Keshav here…? This was so confusing… where was that car and the guy calling Keshav…? The trillion-dollar question…where exactly was she…?
Avanti jerked up awake to see the spotless white hospital ceiling even as the sharp antiseptic essence invaded her olfactory tracts with a vengeance. There was sudden movement around her and rough warm hands covered her cold palm. She tried to move but a piercing pain shot through her body and she couldn’t even make out the point where it originated. It was like a road roller had actually travelled over her and she wondered if this was what, out of body experience felt like. “Av…Avanti… darling… can you hear me…are you …OK…?” She heard Keshav’s voice heavy with anxiety and fatigue and right then the events at Shansunder Valmiki’s place flooded her memory cells urging a break in her walls to set them free. She shut her eyes as fear shuddered through her bruised body and tears threatened to overflow. But as soon as she did, the vision of the blast she was sure would have resulted in a conflagration making her crisp meat if not for the rain… spreading all over the dilapidated house with smoke threatening to gag her to death, sprang before her eyes and she gasped in fear. She heard the beeping of the monitors around her even as she panted, her breathing getting laboured, her throat felt constricted and all she could hear was Keshav screaming something intangible in the distance…and then all went blank.
She didn’t know how long she had lost consciousness but now when she came to, the background was still the same but Keshav’s rough hand was clasped firmly in hers. Strangely it gave her the needed impetus to come to. Her throat felt dry and parched and all she wanted was a sip of water. She used everything in her to squeeze his palm and immediately he moved right over her face. “…Avanti… Oh thank God…” Keshav’s face though rugged and bleary, was what she had craved for a long time ever since she had been in her precarious position in Khandala. She wanted to tell him everything she had found out but she just couldn’t move… her body was heavy and as if not under her control. She must have cried because she felt his thumb rub away her wetness from the corners of her eyes. “…Don’t cry Avanti… everything is fine… doctor’s on his way… your…your vi…vitals are fine…Just rest…”
She further squeezed his hand that was still in her palm. “…Kesh…av…” She rasped with all her might as the pain numbed her senses to oblivion. “…Wa…t..er…” She could barely whisper.
But Keshav understood…he always did. He released her hand and used the side lever to raise the bed so that her upper torso was now slightly inclined. It was then she saw her hospital room… where was she? As Keshav came with a cup and straw she gave him a weary questioning glance. He sat next to her and held her shoulder with one hand and forwarded the cup to her mouth with the other. She sipped greedily as if her life depended on it but the very activity exhausted her and she fell back on his hand. He kept the cup away and pulled her close. She relished the closeness of his taut body as she snuggled further unmindful of the pain throbbing her insides. And then she felt the shudder… oh God was he…crying…? He held her close and dug his face in her hair as he wept and she softly patted his hand. “…Ke..shav… hey… I am…OK…” she whispered.
He moved a bit but still held her in his arms. “…Avanti… I almost…da… died when I saw you that day…” He wiped his face as the doctor arrived and stood up to greet him and make her lie on the bed again…she immediately missed his touch. “…Doctor…?”
The doctor, a greying man probably in his sixties and a stern face conducted a thorough check up and after about ten minutes he folded his hands. “Mr and Mrs. Goyal… well… Mrs. Goyal you are lucky to have escaped with minor bruises and a sprained ankle. But having said that you need plenty of rest and fluids besides what we have been transporting into your body. You need to eat well too to regain the strength…Mr. Goyal…I hope you see to that…” Keshav nodded and walked with the doctor outside the room. The nurse who had accompanied the doctor belled the aayahs who arrived with warm water and a fresh change of clothes. As they sponged her the feel of the hot cloth on her battered body was nothing but bliss and after a while the nurse helped her take in the medicine’s and helped her prop up further on the bed as she lay.
She saw the identity tag on the nurse’s uniform mentioning Sahayadri Super speciality hospital, Lonavala. “…Sister…” Avanti continued to struggle for strength. “…what day is it…how long was I…?”
“…You arrived day before yesterday night and were out totally all day yesterday and now its 11AM in the morning…. Your husband… oh my! he was a nervous wreck…” the nurse chuckled as she adjusted the drips. “… A good Samaritan couple brought you in at around 11PM that night and your husband was here by 1AM… I don’t know how many traffic rules he may have broken in the process and then once you were stabilised and brought into the room, he had been glued to the seat next to you holding your hand… as if you would disappear if he let go… Mrs. Goyal…” the nurse winked as she left the room.
Avanti smiled and blinked her tears away…and just then there was some commotion as her mother barged into the room with a harried Keshav behind her. “…Avu…bala… oh God… kaay jhaale he tula… (what happened to you…?)” She rushed to her bed and stroked her hair inviting fresh batch of tears.
“…Aai… me thik aahe… (I am fine) … Don’t worry…”
“…don’t worry…DON’T WORRY… look at what has happened to you…I had told you not to get into this… but enough is enough…”
Avanti saw Keshav looking on pensively and it broke her heart to see the pain in his eyes. He didn’t need this outburst now. “…Aai… please…relax…”
“…No Avanti…nothing doing… I am taking you with me… we will stay in the Panvel house for few days till you recover and then you are coming with me to Shirgaon… just enough of all this…” She waved towards Keshav and said. “…all this façade called marriage…” She wiped her eyes with her saree palloo and continued. “…My child…Avu bala… your life is ruined because of us…”
“…No…aai… I am OK…”
“…uh…Aunty… I will…” Keshav started to speak but her mother held her hand up to stop him.
“…Enough Keshav…we have had enough…I don’t know what arm-twisting tactics you used with my daughters that one ran away scared and the other has landed up in the hospital almost dead… No…I am taking her with me and you will not say a word…”
“…Aai…it’s not his fault…” she struggled to speak and felt her veins bursting out of her throat.
“…everything that has happened… every calamity that has befallen on our family is because of this man here…” He mother looked accusingly at Keshav and he appeared as if someone had struck him. Avanti’s heart went out to him and all she wanted to do was hold him close to her and console him. She knew her mother was worried about her and was probably unaware of what she was speaking at the moment.
“…Aai…please… just calm down…”
“…No Avanti… NO… just NO…I am talking to the doctor shortly. And if he permits you, I will take you out immediately and your things from his house can be sent for later…”
Why was her mother speaking the gut-wrenching words? Keshav moved towards her bed and rubbed his face again. He spoke softly. “…Aunty…please don’t do this… you may stay at our place if it puts you at ease… but don’t…talk about taking her away…I will take care of her…I promise…”
“…to hell with your promises…there have no value… not for me… I hate you from the bottom of my heart… you ruined our family…now I am only left with my daughters…just let us be…Take the Panvel bungalow back if you want to… We will sell Vedshastra… and the two flats in my daughters’ names and pay the debts as much as possible… whatever it is…we will handle it from here…you have done enough…” Her mother was trembling as anger blazed her eyes. Avanti didn’t know why her mother reacted the way she did. But at that moment she held Keshav’s hand.
“…Aai… I am not going anywhere… I want to be with my husband…”
“…Avu…he is not your husband for real… you don’t have to compromise anymore…”
“…He is my Husband…my soulmate…the man I love and respect… the man whom baba had chosen… for his daughter… and also to help run… the company…” Her mother stared at her panting form as if she had grown two horns. Keshav squeezed her hand as she continued. “…Aai… I trust Keshav…more than anything else… and I won’t give up on baba’s dreams… Vedshastra will arise again…”
“…Avu you don’t even know what you are saying… Vedshastra is down under because of this man and you expect him to just turn things over…?”
Avanti tried her best to gather every ounce of strength in her body “…Aai… do you remember what baba had said… when our neighbour had… come crying complaining about his son’s bankruptcy…? Baba had told him to become like a horse… He had said, we often have three choices in adversity…to give up, give in or to face the tide by giving all we have got and aai… that what Keshav is doing…” She took in a deep breath as exhaustion was overwhelming her and Keshav held her shoulders sitting close to her. Her mother looked away annoyance evident on her face.
“…Avu… bala… your baba adored horses for their ability to stand against all odds and their exemplary courage…” She looked sternly at Keshav. “…but what can you do when the horse goes lame…? Do you know Avu, when a race horse goes lame its often put down…”
What was her mother saying…? it made no sense to her medicated brain and she was way too sleepy. But she didn’t miss Keshav’s muscles tense beside her as his grip on her hand tightened. Did her mother know about Keshav’s hidden illness…? that would only mean one thing… Arpita had contacted their mother as well. But all the analysis was getting overwhelming at the moment and the nurse came in to advise her to sleep. Her mother stared at them and walked out of the room in a huff.
As sleep claimed her yet again, all she could think was of how she could convince her mother and more than everything she wanted to spend her life with Keshav… lame or not….
Meanwhile a few kilometres away:
The man chuckled as he cleaned his glasses… the beautiful golden rims had cost him a fortune. Not that he was worried. He had lots of money now and would soon get more… he would become the richest man in the country if things worked out as per his plan. He stood up and opened the walk-in closet and further opened the hidden chamber. He removed the rifle and smelt the bullet exit point. The smell of gunpowder still present and it gave him a strange high more than the superior quality of weeds combined. He kept it back and locked the closet covering the hidden area with his clothes.
He sat back on his bed and rested his head on the back rest. These days he got tired easily…age was catching up and he was yet to achieve a lot in his life. But he was still agile for his age that he could put younger guns to shame. He moved his neck and cringed…There was a sudden muscle pull he had acquired when he had gone to burn down that house. He didn’t like to leave loose ends…he had taken care of everything but something had nagged at him about that house. He had searched it enough but had found nothing that would incriminate him. He rubbed his neck as he remembered his years in prison… five years…five bloody years of his life down the drain. All because of Dnyaneshwar Rane… the extra righteous man. He had given the old man an offer he couldn’t resist… not only had the man refused but the bastard had complained about his business to the Information Bureau and things had gone downhill from there. His Hawala scams had come up to the forefront and that Keshav… the overzealous asshole had sided with Dnyaneshwar Rane and found other sinister dealings that led back to him. Even today his blood boiled thinking of the time he had to spend behind bars… not to mention get excluded from his father’s will and disowned by his family totally… Fortunately he had the good sense to stack away booty regularly for hey days and here he was. He was confident to get that formula and regain an entry into his family owned company. His groundwork had been perfect and he had everything under control so far…in fact Keshav may have been a smartass…but he was always a step ahead. He had every right to get a piece of his family owned company’s pie…. Every goddamn right and he would seal his position as his company’s managing director soon enough with his new find…. It was just a matter of time. Soon Novo Supremo and Vedshastra would bite the dust… and his company would be the Phoenix rising from the ashes… he had been burnt enough….
He laughed as he thought of Dnyaneshwar Rane’s daughter scampering away like a frightened rabbit. He hadn’t expected anyone to be there but she had caught him by surprise. He had tried to scare her off by shooting… he was a great shooter and the idiot girl thought he missed! He didn’t want more blood on his hands especially not Avanti’s since her overbearing husband would have moved heavens to find her murderer and at this juncture, he couldn’t come under the police radar. The door latch trick worked too… he was sure to have scared her to the core and she would definitely have nightmares for days to come. Good for him…. she would stay out of his business.
He only knew one way…forward and he was the flood which carried or ruined everything that came in its way… Avanti and Keshav would be ruined if they got in his way.
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