It was late evening and the flat was silent. There was a large rectangular hall in the centre, two adjacent bedrooms on each side of the hall with a kitchen, a puja room and dining area. Sanjay’s bedroom was on the left wing and Meghna’s on the right, adjacent to what used to be her mother’s.
Meghna had locked herself in her room and refused to open the door. Sanjay and Reema had tried in vain to talk to her. Rahul persuaded them to rest and promised to do his best. He and Sanjay were friends since schooldays and Rahul was as good as a member of the family.
He knocked on Meghna’s door lightly.
“Go away,” was the muffled reply.
“Meghna, this is Rahul. Open the door.”
“Go away,” she repeated.
“Please, Meghna, I’ll be leaving in a few hours.” Rahul’s voice beseeched her.
The door opened with a crash. “You’re leaving?” Tear drenched grey eyes, innocent of make-up, stared at him accusingly.
Rahul stepped into the room before she tried to shut herself in once again. He gave her a small smile.
“You haven’t answered my question.” Meghna glared at him autocratically.
Rahul’s smile widened. “You know I’m leaving tonight for London, my darling Meghna, so why this flash of temper?”
“But Rahul, how can you leave now at this time? Mamma’s just passed away and you’re also leaving—” fresh tears coursed down her chubby cheeks as Meghna cried her heart out.
Rahul’s face was also wet with tears as he enfolded her shuddering body into his arms. Meghna buried her face in his chest and cried hard. It was like a dam burst. Rahul held her plump body for he knew not how long, waiting for the pain to fade away with the tears.
Meghna gradually calmed down and stopped crying. Neither of them spoke for a long time. Her body shook with sobs. Rahul was glad that she had finally broken the barrier she had set up against everyone, even her brother Sanjay, after the news of her mother’s death. He stroked her dark head.
Meghna looked up at him, “Can’t you postpone your trip?” She asked.
“Mamma’s gone. We’ve to accept that and continue with our lives.” That sounded callous to the sixteen-year-old.
“How dare you talk like that?” She shouted at him, straining at the arms holding her.
Rahul kicked the door shut. “I dare because it’s the truth Meghna, accept the fact. Mamma had a good life. She was happy to see you all settled in this new home. Now let go of her.”
“What’s it to you? She wasn’t your mother anyway.” Meghna was offensive.
“Wasn’t she?” asked Rahul sadly.
Meghna stared into his distressed eyes and regretted her rudeness.
“I’m sorry, Rahul.”
“That’s okay. Now promise me something and be a good girl. Don’t shut Sanjay and Reema Bhabhi out. They love you and are hurting so much because you’ve been ignoring everyone. And also promise me that you’ll study well and grow up into a wonderful young lady.”
Her eyes turned mischievous. “Sure, Grandpa Rahul, I will.”
Rahul tweaked her nose affectionately. She was so small that she barely reached his shoulder. She hadn’t lost her puppy fat yet but had the beginnings of a real beauty. Her large grey eyes with long, thick dark lashes looked up at Rahul trustingly.
“Do you really have to leave tonight?” whispered Meghna. “I’ll miss you terribly.”
“I need to go, Meghna. My Dad needs me to join at the bank. My studies are over. I don’t have anything to keep me here,” he pointed out reasonably.
Meghna continued to stare at Rahul with her tear-drenched eyes, at a loss for words.
‘She’s still a baby,’ thought Rahul. But he was going to miss her awfully, too. They had grown quite close over the years. He couldn’t resist kissing the ‘baby’ softly on her lips. He was surprised at the way her lips clung to his and immediately regretted his action. He pulled away after a small tussle. “Bye, Meghna,” he released her and stood a couple of feet away, “and no more tears, please.”
“I’m not a cry baby,” returned Meghna, faking anger to cover up for her shyness.
“I guess not,” grinned Rahul teasingly.
Meghna put her own small hand in his, saying, “Bye, Rahul and take care. I’ll keep my promise.
He shook her hand solemnly and said, “Goodbye, Meghna.”
He heard a flutter and turned to the dressing table where a sheet of paper was flapping when he switched on the fan. Rahul took the couple of steps to reach out and was astounded to see it weighed down by the opal ring that he had given her that very evening. What the hell!
A frown puckered his eyebrows as he read the letter - yeah, it was a letter and was addressed to Reema Bhabhi. Meghna had left without a word to him, making a farce of the wonderful evening they had spent together.
I’m joining Sanjay on his flight to Dubai tonight. Don’t worry about me. I’m quite okay. I just feel this tremendous need to get away. Everything’s over between Rahul and me as you saw for yourself. Will be back with Sanjay. Hope that Rahul leaves town by then. Love you, Meghna
“Goddammit,” swore Rahul with a vengeance. This was what he had been afraid of. Rahul swore again as he left Meghna’s bedroom, closing the door behind him with a crash.
Reema gave him a startled look as she saw him storming out of her sister-in-law’s bedroom. She had been sitting curled up on the sofa waiting to have coffee with the two of them.
“The little fool. Why couldn’t she have waited for me to get back? A couple of hours I turn my back and she ups and leaves. Don’t I deserve a hearing at all? Do I get hung without even getting a chance to explain myself?” Rahul ranted and raved, his frustration building up by the second.
“Rahul,” Reema’s voice was confused. “What’s it? Is Meghna asleep?”
“Asleep my foot. Read this, Bhabhi.” He thrust Meghna’s note close to Reema’s face.
“But—” Reema had a bewildered look on her face. But when she saw the black frown on Rahul’s face, she buried her face in the letter, finding it safer, only to let out a horrified shriek as she came to the end of it. “Rahul,” her voice cracked as she hugged the note to herself, tears streaking down her face.
Rahul had moved to the window, wondering whether he should follow his foolish young fiancée and her brother to Dubai when he heard Reema’s strangled cry.
He turned around to find the even-tempered, calm Reema in a state. He rushed across to her and shook her hard as she tried to speak while no sound emanated from her lips. She only made a keening noise as she sobbed. He put his arms around her to pull her close. He pressed her face against his shoulder rubbing her head roughly, hoping to calm her down. He couldn’t understand what had brought on the spate of weeping.
“Bhabhi, please calm down.” He brought his own temper and frustration under control. “I’m sure Meghna’s okay. It’s only two days. They’ll both be back—”
Reema didn’t allow him to complete the sentence as she shook her head vigorously. “Rahul, Sanjay called to say that his plane was hijacked.”
Rahul stared at her. Was she hallucinating? Too many hours without sleep could do that to anyone, he thought. How could someone call from a hijacked plane? He shook himself from his reverie and spoke again softly. “Bhabhi, let’s get this clear. Sanjay phoned?”
She nodded her head while the tears flowed faster. Rahul was totally confused. She had been quite calm when she opened the door for him earlier. There had been no phone call since. He would have heard otherwise. Sanjay had obviously called earlier to tell her what?
“Bhabhi, what did he say? That his plane’s been hijacked?”
“Yeah, Rahul,” Reema found her voice. “Sanjay had cancelled going on the hijacked plane by chance. That’s why he called to assure me that he was safe. But—” Light dawned on Rahul’s dismayed face as he understood the reason for Reema’s tears. Meghna was probably on the flight that Sanjay had missed. A tremor ran through his body as his imagination drove him crazy with worry.
The phone rang as if on cue. He pressed Reema on to the sofa before rushing over to pick up the receiver. It was Sanjay. “Where’s Meghna?” he barked, the anxiety coming across the wires.
“Sanjay,” Rahul’s voice almost broke with the strain, “I think she’s on the wretched flight.” Panic rose in his voice as he enquired, “Any further news?”
Sanjay’s voice cracked as his hopes died with Rahul’s answer. “Nothing good. They’re terrorists, I believe. They’re keeping us in suspense till further notice.”
“Tell me exactly where you are. I’ll come over.” Rahul turned to look at Reema pathetically as he listened to Sanjay’s instructions before disconnecting the phone.
“You go ahead, Rahul,” said Reema with false bravado. “I’ll be fine. I’ll pray for Meghna’s safety.” She gave him a small reassuring smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
Rahul popped into his room to change out of his formal wear into a pair of jeans and t-shirt and left the flat, closing the door quietly behind him.
“THIS IS CAPTAIN RATHOD SPEAKING—”
‘Hey, that’s not Sanjay,’ thought Meghna as she pressed the overhead button for the Air Hostess. When there was no response, she called out to the one who was standing further down the aisle.
“Yeh lady, shut your bloody trap or I’ll blow your brains out.” Meghna was horrified to hear the extremely rude voice near her ear as she felt something metallic press against her temple.
Could it be—could it be—oh no! It was the muzzle of a gun, the light glinting against the metallic sheen. She was terrified to see the unkempt man holding it against her. If his voice had been guttural and grating, his face was worse. He wore his hair long and had a thick moustache and beard. He was awfully filthy and she wouldn’t have been surprised if she had seen lice crawling over all that hair.
She gave vent to the scream that forced its way into her throat. She just couldn’t stop it. The next moment she faced the sweetness of oblivion as the terrorist hit her hard against her temple with the back of the gun.