The moment I stepped out of the car, my heart started racing. Was this place even real? Nah, it couldn’t be. The house – no, let me correct that – this beautiful, colossal, magnificent palatial mansion, which he refers to as his ‘ancestral home,’ is easily the most breathtaking structure I’ve encountered in all of my 14 years. The fact that it stands on the edge of the lake, solitary and deserted at the end of the road, makes it even more captivating, and I might add, somewhat eerie; especially after I learned about the tragic drowning accident in the same lake that claimed the lives of his parents and grandparents.
As if in response to my thoughts, the moment my mind wandered back to his past, the wind chimes hanging from his house porch started swaying eerily in the breeze, producing a melody that caught his attention. He sat beneath the enormous tree near his house, overlooking the lake, his gaze fixed on it as if in a trance. My brother went over and embraced him, and I, who had been so excited to join them, suddenly felt self-conscious when his eyes met mine for the first time. He merely nodded at me and resumed his conversation with my brother. So, I settled down beside them, mirroring their seating positions, and gazed out at the expansive lake ahead of me. The same lake I initially found ominous now soothed my senses with the graceful dance of its water ripples.
My brother is utterly impressed by him, not only because he‘s on track to becoming a director soon, but also because they’ve been the closest of friends since kindergarten. He never judged my brother based on his lack of designer brands and never made him feel inferior.
You might be wondering how they met, given the disparity in our social backgrounds. Well, my brother had always been an exceptional student, garnering numerous awards and accolades for his academic brilliance. Our father worked at his company and applied for a scholarship for my brother after recognizing his academic prowess. The scholarship was swiftly approved, leading my brother to join his school. He felt like an outsider there, except for him. Without his support, my brother might have suffocated or abandoned his studies. And as they say, that marked the beginning of their profound friendship, both as brothers and as friends.
For someone celebrating a birthday, he didn’t exude much enthusiasm. He went along with my brother’s plans, seemingly more to please him than out of a genuine desire to celebrate. When we entered the house bringing with us a chocolate cake (which was of course chosen by me), chips, and soft drinks, the echoes of our footsteps and voices reverberated throughout the vast space. The size and grandeur of the house were astonishing.
After they had their share of uncontrollable laughter, at my expense – comparing my enthusiasm for the cake to a hideous picture of a woman holding a bowl on his wall, which my brother promptly captured with his camera – my eyes met his. I had never heard of him smiling or laughing, for that matter, according to my brother. He had described him as almost robotic, going about his tasks devoid of any emotion. However, that smile he directed at me was unlike anything else. Almost instinctively, my irritation with my brother dissipated, and I found myself smiling back at him. The way his gaze held mine, a mixture of relief and something else I couldn’t quite grasp, unexpectedly quickened my heartbeat and gave me shivers.
We spent the day exploring the ancestral home, uncovering hidden corners that seemed to guard secrets from bygone eras. We also delved into his photo album, as he virtually guided us through his family’s history. His eyes appeared distant when he spoke of his parents and grandparents. Just as I thought his life couldn’t have been more tragic, we stumbled upon a photo of him with a younger boy.
“This was my younger brother, my everything,” he shared.
“Was?” I inquired with surprise, earning a sharp nudge from my brother.
“Listen; show me the photo of us from kindergarten. Let’s create a collage with our then-and-now pictures. It’ll be a cherished memory for both of us,” my brother interjected, trying to steer the conversation in a different direction.
“Sure, that sounds wonderful. I love the idea,” he agreed.
Then, he turned to me. “As for ‘was,’ he is no longer with us. I lost him in an accident here, in this very house. I consider your brother, Suraj, to be my brother I’ve regained, as I met him around the same time I lost my own. Well, all this nostalgia talk has stirred up my appetite again. Shall we eat?” With that, he playfully dragged my brother to the dining table, where an array of magnificent dishes lay, ranging from Italian to Chinese and my brother’s favorite Mughlai cuisine, along with a variety of desserts.
“I wish all my birthdays could be celebrated like this from now on,” I muttered in amazement at the opulent spread, momentarily forgetting my self-consciousness, and shamelessly indulged in the feast. My brother and he burst into laughter once more, observing me devouring the food like a famished animal. Not, that I cared – such delicacies weren’t an everyday occurrence for me.
Since that day, I became an inseparable part of the duo. My brother had no choice but to bring me along, as per our dad’s insistence, and he seemed not to mind. Although he didn’t talk much to me, he was always considerate and took even better care of me than my brother did, who often considered me a burden, a tag along.
We spent many evenings by the lake, serenely gazing out at the water, while he shared stories from his past. I was an avid painter, and on each visit to his ancestral home, I brought along an old notebook and a collection of broken crayons to capture the beauty that my eyes beheld.
Approximately two years after my first encounter with the house, he led me to a room that had always been locked. When he opened it and handed me a set of keys, my surprise was understated compared to my reaction upon seeing the contents of the room.
He had transformed the space into a studio for me, complete with an elegant canvas stand, an assortment of paints, and a variety of brushes. What stunned me the most was that he had placed the painting of ‘the beggar woman’ – as we now referred to it as – inside the room.
“This is meant to inspire you. I’m certain anything you create will surpass this,” he said with a smile. “Feel free to use this room whenever you wish. It’s yours exclusively, and I won’t enter it without your permission. Consider it an early birthday gift.”
I was overjoyed and began spending most of my time in that room, allowing my passion to truly flourish – all thanks to him. Most of the time, he and my brother studied or worked on their projects in the common hall area, or they often sat beneath the lakeside tree, where I happily joined them. Most of my paintings depicted the lake and the surrounding beauty. I even experimented with caricature, creating sketches of the two of them. I gifted him the painting of the lake and my brother the caricature. To my surprise, he framed my painting and hung it in the original spot of ‘the beggar woman’. “Something to remember you by,” he said, meeting my gaze, and I experienced the same sensation I had felt two years earlier.
As the years rolled on, on my 18th birthday, he presented me with a gift that not only altered my life – let me correct that to – our lives, all three of us. By now, he had successfully taken on the role of Director, leading his company to the top 50 in the Forbes India list. My brother’s friendship with him continued to flourish, resulting in my brother becoming the Chief Financial Officer of his company. My parents were elated, finally experiencing brighter days. We left our modest 1BHK apartment and relocated to a luxurious bungalow provided by the company. Of course, we all knew that this was mainly due to his benevolence. However, his generosity didn’t cease there.
On my 18th birthday, for which he had meticulously painted the ancestral home with the exact shades I had painted in a painting of the house, he also introduced a slew of changes I had fleetingly spoken of. I was no longer astonished by his memory. There was something about him – he never crossed any boundaries or attempted to exploit me, yet whenever his gaze met mine, I felt the same sensations.
As a birthday gift, my parents gifted me a heart-shaped pendant, and my brother gave me my favorite perfume. Me and bhai, then left for his house, as had become the norm for our birthdays. The minute I stepped inside, I was astonished, mouth gaping astonished. The tears just started to flow.
The entire place was now adorned with my paintings, and when he guided me back to the painting room as he had done two years prior, my tears were full with tears of joy. Overcome with happiness, I embraced him tightly.
He had bestowed upon me a fully-funded scholarship to an Arts college in London, a dream I had nurtured since my earliest days of painting. But what he had truly gifted me wasn’t just a course – it was My Dream.
Breaking free from my embrace, he wiped away my tears and grinned. “Go conquer the world with your brush. Live your dream.”
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