Manohar stood at the edge of the lawn, watching his employer Karan work under the hot sun. Karan was digging the flower bed around the rose bushes. He was also talking to the roses.
Karan was one of the leading businessmen in the country. In the past fifteen years, Karan had amassed a fortune with stakes in different industries. Manohar had worked for him for over eight years and respected Karan for his honesty and business acumen. Karan was stern but fair. As Karan’s assistant, Manohar was one of the few who knew Karan closely. And yet there was much about Karan’s life that even Manohar didn’t know. It was almost as if Karan’s previous life before he became a businessman, did not exist. He didn’t have any family, friends or lovers.
All Karan had in life was work. And his roses.
Karan loved his rose bushes. Despite having an army of gardeners, Karan personally took care of the roses. Karan also disliked being disturbed when he was with his precious roses. But today, Manohar’s gut instinct said that Karan needed to know the news as soon as possible. So, he dared to do what he had never done before. He stood behind Karan and cleared his throat.
With his back still towards Manohar, Karan drawled, ”You do know that I fired your predecessor for disturbing me when I was gardening?”
Manohar paled hearing the threat in Karan’s voice.
“Thakur Vikram Singh has agreed to the deal,” Manohar blurted. “He wants to meet you tomorrow.”
Karan turned around his brown eyes lit with an unknown fire.
“Get the papers ready. We leave in half an hour,” he said to Manohar before turning back to the roses.
Manohar heaved a sigh of relief. His job was still safe. He hurried inside to do Karan’s bidding.
Half an hour later, Manohar was seated next to Karan in the limousine as it cruised down the highway. Karan was checking the papers that Manohar had readied.
“Good job!” Karan commented.
Manohar flushed with the seldom-given praise. Emboldened, he hesitantly asked,“ If you don’t mind, may I ask a question?”
At Karan’s nod, Manohar asked, “Why are you doing this deal? The haveli is in ruins. It is a waste of money and time to buy it.”
Karan’s lips twisted at Manohar’s question. “Why? To pay the price of love of course,” he replied.
His voice was filled with an emotion Manohar had never heard before in Karan’s voice. It sounded suspiciously like a mixture of longing and regret.
Karan turned his face to look out of the window, his action dissuading Manohar from probing any further.
The verdant countryside flew past. Far away, in between the fields, he saw a lone banyan tree. Karan closed his eyes, letting the memories flood his senses. Memories of Pankhi.
Karan had returned to the village for a few weeks after having spent the past two years in the town. He had been working hard towards getting educated so that he could escape. Escape from the village, from his background, and from poverty. Taking advantage of the drowsiness that seemed to have infected the village, Pankhi and Karan had sneaked out to their special place, the banyan tree in the middle of the wheat field.
Pankhi sat on a low branch, her legs dangling down. Her silver anklets tinkled as she swung them absent-mindedly. Karan lay under the tree, his face covered by his hand. Pankhi thought he too was drowsy, but in reality, he was sneaking looks at Pankhi, admiring her beauty. The dusky pink salwar kameez she was wearing, brought out the roses in her cheeks. A faint aroma of roses hung around her. Sometimes Karan used to marvel at his luck in finding a rare gem like Pankhi. She was beautiful and spirited and yet, was always kind.
“I have heard the girls are very forward in college. They wear men’s clothes like jeans and even smoke?” Pankhi asked, curious.
“Some do,” Karan replied, his voice muffled.
“If they are so modern, they must be handing out favours too?”
“Favours?” Karan asked with studied innocence, though he knew exactly what Pankhi wanted to ask.
“Favours like kisses,” She asked her cheeks turning red.
Slowly, Karan uncovered his face. Giving her a cheeky grin, Karan drawled, “Oh! Yes!”
Pankhi looked at him, her eyes flashing before jumping down on the ground.
“I am going home,” she said.
“Why?” Karan asked.
“Why should I stay here and be insulted?” she shouted.
“Who insulted you?”
“You did by talking about taking favours from those hussies in town,” she cried as tears of outrage splashed down her cheeks.
Karan laughed at Pankhi’s jealousy. Grabbing her hand, he pulled her into a hug.
As she struggled to break free, he said, “ Hush my love! How your thoughts run amok. Did I say that I take those favours? Have some faith in me and my love for you!”
“I trust you! It is those hussies from the city I don’t trust,” she said, sniffling into his chest.
“Pagli!” he murmured lifting her chin to look into her eyes.
“Pagal!” she whispered back before his lips touched hers, soft and tender.
The aroma of the red rose in her hair wove around them, perfuming the air.
The click of the car door opening broke Karan’s thoughts. He blinked, noticing that the limousine had stopped under the portico of the hotel. The valet was holding the door open, waiting for him to get down. Shaking his head, Karan got down, buttoning up his coat. Glancing at Manohar, who followed him, Karan said, “Be in the conference room at eight am sharp.”
Leaving Manohar to handle the formalities, Karan strode off towards his suite, trying to ignore the scent of roses that followed him everywhere.
The clock in the hotel’s conference room showed eight-oh-five.
Manohar sat next to Karan, waiting for the other side to arrive. Karan’s face was calm, but his foot was tapping continuously under the table. Manohar was sure that Karan hadn’t realized that his actions had revealed his inner turmoil.
The snick of the door to the conference room drew Karan and Manohar’s eyes to the door as Thakur Vikram Singh walked in, followed by his lawyers. Manohar noted that Vikram Singh looked a few years older than Karan. His clothes were well-cut and bespoke. He looked every inch of an erstwhile zamindar, right down to the contemptuous look on his face.
Vikram Singh stood in front of Karan, who was yet to rise from his seat to greet him. Manohar felt a wave of animosity flowing between them as they looked at each other, their eyes not hiding the contempt they felt for each other.
Once again, Manohar wondered why Karan was doing this deal if he hated Vikram Singh so much. He was also surprised at Karan’s rudeness in not getting up to greet the guest. In all the years that he had known Karan, he had never seen Karan impolite.
With an insolent smile, Karan inclined his head towards a chair at the end of the table. “Have a seat,“ he said. But his tone felt like it was an order rather than a request. Vikram Singh’s face turned red with anger at Karan’s tone. He turned as if to walk out of the room, but then changing his mind, he dragged out the chair and sat down with a huff. The insolence in Karan’s smile grew. He seemed to revel in Vikram’s displeasure.
Karan nodded at Manohar, who started reading out the terms and conditions of the deal. Karan’s eyes were fixed on Vikram’s. There was a malevolent gleam in Vikram’s eyes as he stared back. Manohar’s voice faded into the background as memories came rushing back.
“Chhore! Fill my hookah and lay out my manji before you go!’ Devi Singh, Vikram’s father ordered.
“Ji hukum!” Karan replied.
Karan was the son of Devi Singh’s driver, Mansukh. To fund Karan’s college education in town, Mansukh had taken an advance from Devi Singh. Apart from the heavy interest to pay back the original loan, Karan was supposed to be at Devi Singh’s beck and call whenever he was in the village.
Not for long, Karan promised himself.
He had only one more year to go before he got his degree. Then he would get a good job and his family would escape this life of inhuman servitude.
Karan was carefully filling the coals in the hookah when Vikram Singh walked in.
Vikram was five years older than Karan. Being the son of the village zamindar had made him a cruel bully, and Karan was his most frequent target. For Karan was everything that Vikram was not. Intelligent, good looking and decent.
Looking at Karan, a mischievous light came into his eyes. Sauntering close to Karan, Vikram gave a casual kick that sent the hookah crashing down, spreading the coals all over the courtyard. One of the hot coals came to rest close to Devi Singh’s foot.
“Fool! Imbecile!” Devi shouted raising his cane and hitting Karan on his back.
Vikram Singh laughed adding to Karan’s humiliation.
“Look at him. Wants to become a bade saheb, but can’t even fill a hookah properly,“ he taunted.
“Stop living in the dream world, boy. Studying will not improve your lot. You are worthy only to serve us! As a punishment go and clean the cow shed too,” Devi Singh added.
Karan’s face flushed with anger and shame. But knowing that any attempt to talk back would mean more chores and punishment, he suppressed his feelings as he cleaned up the mess. That night as he cleaned the cowshed, Vikram Singh’s taunts and laughter rang in his ears. Looking at his hands covered with muck, Karan vowed that one day he would be richer and more powerful than Vikram Singh.
An insistent voice intruded. Karan blinked, bringing his focus back to the meeting. Vikram Singh’s lip curled in amusement as if he could read the memory that had just run through Karan’s mind.
“We are waiting for you to sign the papers,” Manohar said, pointing to the papers kept in front of Karan.
Karan looked down at the documents, noticing Vikram’s untidy scrawl. Karan looked straight into Vikram Singh’s eyes and said, “I want to talk to Vikram Singh alone.”
“But Sir…,” Manohar started speaking.
Karan quelled Manohar’s objections with a look.
“Very well,” Manohar said, gesturing to the others and the room emptied, leaving Karan and Vikram alone.
“I will sign the deal papers only if you sign this paper first,” Karan said, sliding a sheet towards Vikram.
Vikram scanned through the document and slid the paper back. Furious, Vikram said, “What makes you think I will sign?”
“You will sign this because you need the money. Your coffers are now empty because of your gambling problem. No one else will buy the haveli because it makes no business sense. Be grateful I am only asking you for what is mine and not sending you to jail for your crimes.“
Hearing Karan’s words, Vikram’s face turned red.
“What crimes? You have no proof!”
“Don’t I ?” Karan’s soft voice didn’t hide the threat that his words implied. “You, of all the people, should know how much power money has. Fifteen years ago you had both and I had none. Now our positions are reversed.“
A vein throbbed in Vikram’s forehead as he stared at Karan. Realising that his choices were limited, Vikram pulled the paper towards him and signed it. Flinging the pen on the table, Vikram walked out, leaving Karan alone.
Karan walked through the ruins of the dilapidated haveli that had once belonged to Vikram’s family. Memories chased one another. The kitchen where his mother’s hands used to turn raw and red, scrubbing the pots. Thakurian’s puja room where she would spend most of her time. The stairs where he was supposed to sit and wait, to run Devi Singh’s errands. His steps slowed down when he reached the courtyard, the place where every night, Vikram Singh used to play one prank or another to humiliate him.
It was also, the place where his heart had been broken into a million pieces, never to be healed again.
He walked to the center of the courtyard, his shoes clicking on the brick floor.
His eyes blurred as he saw Pankhi lying there. Her suit was splattered with mud and blood. There were scratches on her wrists, and her right cheek bore an imprint of Vikram Singh’s slap. Karan was lying a few feet away. His body was battered by the blows of Vikram’s henchmen, who had found Karan and Pankhi living together in the city.
“Slut!” Roared Vikram. “Bauji should have dropped you in the well the day you were born! Did you think you would live happily after dishonouring the family name? Bauji might have gone to heaven, but I am still alive to punish you!”
Leaving her cowering, Vikram walked towards Karan.
“You upstart! How dare you even think of touching my sister. I will crush you like the insect that you are!” Vikram said, repeatedly kicking him in the stomach until Karan coughed up blood.
“Please Bhaiya!” sobbed Pankhi moving closer to Karan.
Karan hated hearing the pain in her voice. He wished he had protected her better, taken her so far away that Vikram Singh couldn’t have reached them. He didn’t want her pleading with a person who valued family honour more than love.
“You are still favouring him?” Vikram shouted. “You will pay the price of besmirching the family’s honour. So that no one else in the village dares to flout the rules of society and fall in love ever again.”
Vikram lifted his rifle and aimed it at Karan.
“No! Bhaiya!” Shrieked Pankhi as Vikram pressed the trigger.
When the smoke cleared, Pankhi was lying on top of Karan, her life seeping out from the gaping wound in her stomach.
“Pankhi!” Karan sobbed, hugging her close.
“I love you, pagal,” Pankhi whispered before her eyes closed forever.
A red haze enveloped Karan. Placing Pankhi’s body gently on the floor, he turned toward Vikram, intent on making him pay for taking Pankhi’s life. But instead, Karan saw Mansukh grappling with. His father, who had always bowed his head in front of Vikram Singh was trying to wrestle the gun from Vikram’s hand.
“Run, fool!” his father shouted. “Don’t let Pankhi’s death go in vain!”
And Karan had run, with the crumpled rose from Pankhi’s hair clutched in his hand and a desire for vengeance in his heart. The vengeance had sustained him in the years that he had struggled to build his empire. Each day he plotted how to bring Vikram to justice and take back what belonged to him.
The cawing of the crows pulled Karan out of the whirlpool of his memories. Sighing Karan turned to go back when his eyes fell on her.
“Pankhi!” he whispered, seeing the coltish young girl watching him from behind a pillar.
But no, she was not Pankhi. She was her daughter. The one who had been taken away and hidden from Karan by Vikram Singh. The one whose legal guardianship Karan had wrestled back by forcing Vikram to sign the papers.
Karan walked towards the girl. She looked back at him, her brown eyes shining with unshed tears. Her lips trembled. Karan leaned forward and kissed her softly on her forehead.
“Baba!” the girl cried, hugging him tight as the dam broke.
For far too long she had waited for her father to free her from the clutches of her evil uncle. Today she was finally free.
Holding her hand, Karan walked back to the limousine where Manohar waited.
“Raze the haveli to the ground and build a school for the village children,” Karan instructed before getting into the car with his daughter.
Manohar stood at the edge of the lawn watching Karan deadhead the roses. The arrival of his daughter had softened Karan. He did not bark out orders like he did before, and was also more lenient when it came to mistakes. But Manohar was not sure if his job would survive two interruptions during Karan’s rose time within a month. But the peculiar news he had just received was a bit too much for him to handle by himself.
“Don’t hover Manohar, speak what you have come to tell,” Karan said without turning around.
“Bones were found buried in the courtyard of Vikram Singh’s haveli while digging for the foundation for the school. DNA reports say they match with Pankhi, Vikram Singh’s sister. He has been taken into custody on the charges of murdering his sister,” Manohar said, waiting for Karan’s response.
“Thank you, Manohar. I would like to be alone now,” Karan replied, not turning around.
When Manohar’s footsteps faded, a soft smile curved Karan’s lips.
“Did you hear that my love? Our daughter is finally with us, and that evil person is in jail. He will now pay the price for destroying our love,” he whispered to the roses.
The roses swayed and nodded in the breeze.
Chhore – Boy
Hookah – Waterpipe/hubble-bubble
Manji – Rope cot
Thakurian – Wife of the Thakur
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