Life moved on, and it wasn’t long before Rohit finished college and started working and the twins after having finished school joined college. Neelima and Abha continued to work to support the family. For them, life did not change much. It was all about earning enough to take care of the present and secure the future as much as possible. They had no contact with their uncle or his family. The uncle, for obvious reasons, did not wish to be in touch with them, and the children also had no such desire.
In fact, with time, the girls were able to move on and put the past behind them, but Rohit was not able to. He was outraged over the fact that they had been duped out of their inheritance, and a part of him wanted to settle scores with the uncle at some point. Many times he would express his anger and frustration at the treatment meted out to them, but Neelima would try and calm him down though she could understand his feelings. At the same time, she did not want him to waste his time and energy on something that could only cause him misery and even more frustration.
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Abha meanwhile was getting quite concerned about Neelima’s future. She could foresee that once her siblings moved on in terms of finding their life partners and having their own lives, Neelima would be left all alone and by the time she realized it she may not be left with any option but to be on her own and alone. She knew from her personal experience that no matter what, every individual needed a companion, a someone with whom they could share the joys and sorrows of life. She wanted her to find someone and get married, but Neelima was clear that marriage was not for her, and she wasn’t going to sacrifice the future of her siblings for her selfish interests. She had this huge sense of responsibility towards them which did not let her think about herself at all. And so there was no way that she was going to listen to Abha and Abha had no choice but to give in.
The twins finished college and also started working. The financial position of the family improved considerably and became quite comfortable. They decided to move to a bigger apartment and also started getting back in touch with the extended family on both sides. But of course, they ignored the uncle and his family whenever they bumped into them. The extended family was now aware of what he had done to them, and so no one wanted to have anything to do with him. Rohit had in the meanwhile started doing exceptionally well in his job and was getting promotions and salary hikes as well. All this gave Neelima an immense amount of satisfaction as she felt that her sacrifice had not gone waste. At about that time, two developments took place in Rohit’s life, which had a far-reaching impact on the family. For one, he got into a relationship with Rohini, a lovely young girl who worked with him. They had met two years ago at an office party and had hit it off from day one. With time they had fallen in love and had decided that they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. He introduced her to his family, who also loved her. She was a good looking girl with a charming disposition who acknowledged and accepted the fact that Rohit had to share the responsibility of the family with Neelima. She had a lot of respect for Neelima and for what she had done for the family.
Both Rohit and Rohini were very ambitious and wanted to do well in their careers. They worked hard and as a result, got appreciated and rewarded too. The other development was that Rohit was offered a position in the Singapore branch of his office in recognition of his hard work and talent. Now, this was a considerable jump not only in terms of monetary benefits but for his self-esteem and confidence too. Everyone at home was really happy for him but he though happy was in two minds about what to do because he didn’t want to leave his family and go anywhere. He felt that by doing that he would abandon them which he didn’t want to do. So he kept delaying the final decision till it reached a point where his company could not give him any more time, and he had to take a call. He had a long conversation with his aunt, who told him to go ahead as she felt that they would be able to manage without him.
Moreover, Singapore was not very far, and if required, he could come and see them. So off he went. Neelima though happy for him also missed him a lot as did everyone else. But then he made sure that he visited them often enough and in fact, once he had taken up a house there they also started visiting him.
Within six months of Rohit’s moving to Singapore Dia announced that she had fallen in love with a classmate of hers and wanted to get married to him. The boy had been with her in college and was now running his own business. Since she was only twenty-two, Neelima wanted her to wait for a few more years before tying the knot, but Dia was clear that she wanted to get married as quickly as possible. She felt that if they had found each other, there was no need to wait. The more Neelima tried to reason with her, the more adamant she became until one day she got into an argument with her sister. On being told by Neelima that she was far too young to think about marriage, she looked at her sister and said,’ Do you want me also to remain a spinster like you?’
The moment the words were out of her mouth, she realized that she had spoken too much. But by then, the damage had been done. Neelima was hurt beyond words and had tears in her eyes. Without uttering a single word, she left the room and locked herself up in her room, where she cried her heart out. It had been ten years since their parents had died, and she had done everything to ensure that her siblings got everything that they wanted. She had tried to ensure their happiness in every possible way, which of course meant that she had given up her personal life also for them. But to what purpose?? To listen to this!!
Dia, of course, was given the third degree by both Abha and Ria who felt that she had behaved in an incredibly selfish manner and had hurt Neelima. Her behaviour actually made Abha realize once again that Neelima had to be pushed to take care of her life as well. Anyways Neelima came out of her room after a while, Dia apologized to her, and the sisters made up with each other, but somewhere this incident left a profound impact on Neelima.
Dia held on for two more years after which she informed everyone that she wasn’t going to wait any longer and so six months later she married Abhijeet, the man of her dreams and moved to Delhi to start her life with him. With two of the siblings leaving, the house became very quiet. Though Rohit visited them frequently, his life had become hectic in Singapore. Also, by now, Rohini’s parents were putting pressure on them to get married. Neelima agreed with them, and within a year the two were married. And a year later Ria also got married to one of Rohit’s friends. By now, Neelima was almost forty, and Abha was desperate for her to find someone, but Neelima was not interested. She was happy that she had managed to settle her siblings and discharge her responsibility toward them. She was very proud of the way they had all turned out and had this deep sense of satisfaction inside her. She felt that now she could sit back and do all the things that she had always wanted to do in her life and had not had the time to do in the last almost fifteen years. She wanted to get back to her reading, her singing and her gardening. In fact, she just wanted to take things easy and relax in life. She no longer needed to save and cut down on expenses. Though not a lot, she did have enough money to lead a comfortable life. Rohit also sent her some, and of course, Abha was also there.
Moreover, the two of them were good company for each other. And in the entire scheme of things, she didn’t feel the need for a man. She had kind of accepted long ago that marriage was not meant for her and she was okay with it.
There had been times in the past when she had heard about her friends getting married, having children and leading happy lives with their families. She had felt sad and left out at that time but had now kind of put those desires behind her, was happy the way she was. Over a period of time though she had always loved children and had wanted to have her own, now she had reconciled to the fact that she couldn’t have her own. And so she showered all her love and affection on the children of her siblings. Whenever they visited her, she pampered them, bought them gifts, cooked their favourite dishes and showered them with all her love and attention. Her nieces and nephews also loved her. She was their beloved aunt. In fact, Ria, who was the only one in the same city many times, left her children with Neelima and Abha whenever she had to travel or had an emergency. Both Neelima and Abha loved taking care of them and spending time with them. And they would always feel terrible when Ria or her husband came to take the children back.
Meanwhile, Abha was getting on in years and for a while had not been keeping too well. She had in the previous year retired from active work life and was spending time at home. She was also getting more and more worried about Neelima but didn’t know what to do. Neelima was going to turn fifty in a couple of years, and Abha was concerned about how she would carry on with life once Abha was no longer on the scene. Her siblings had all got so busy in their lives that they had no time for her. It wasn’t deliberate or anything like that, just that Neelima’s life was not a priority for them, they were all so caught up in their worlds that they did not have time to think about her or her future. Rohit having consistently done well in his job had risen to a high-level corporate position and was now living in New York. Rohini was also working there. As a result, their trips to India had become very infrequent. Neelima also could not often go to meet them because she couldn’t leave Abha behind and also because she got quite lonely and bored whenever she visited them. She understood that Rohit, Rohini and the children had their own lives to lead and couldn’t be there for her all the time. So it got quite lonely for her there. As a result other than a phone call or their annual visits to India she wasn’t really in touch with them. And even when they came to India, they had a lot on their plate and the time was always too short. So there wasn’t much of contact between them.
As far as the girls were concerned, Dia had never really kept in touch with her aunt and sister as she felt that she needed to focus on her family, on her life more than on anyone else’s. So Neelima had never been a priority for her and over the years that hadn’t changed much. She spoke to her occasionally and visited her maybe once in two years or something like that.
Ria though concerned, could not devote a lot of time, especially when her children had been young. She did visit them once in a while, but that was it. Abha knew that once she went, Neelima would be left all alone. She felt that since she was the parent-like figure in Neelima’s life, she needed to do something to fix it, to ensure a happy future for her. She did not want her to live alone or be dependent on anyone. But she had no idea as to how to go about it.
And then to her shock and horror during one of the medical checkups, she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, and the doctor told her that it was spreading fast and she did not have a long time to live, at the most two years. Now the alarm bells started ringing at an alarming rate, and Abha was desperate to do something for Neelima’s future. She didn’t know how, she didn’t know what, she just knew that she had to do something. She was clear that she didn’t want her to lead a sad and lonely life. She also realized that her being in Neelima’s life had been a source of great support to her, but as a result of her presence, Neelima had never ever made any friends and had no company other than that of her aunt’s which made Abha feel terribly guilty. Neelima had lost touch with most of her friends, initially because of her siblings and then because after they had gone away, she had never felt the need for anyone else as Abha had always been there. They had always had things to do with each other whether it was going for movies, plays, walks or anything at all. They had never felt the need for anyone else. And that is why whenever Abha had broached the topic of marriage or the need for her to have a man in her life, Neelima had always brushed it aside. She had never felt the need for any of this. But now Abha was worried because she knew that once she went away, Neelima would get very lonely. And though still working eventually when she stopped doing that how would she survive. And God forbid, once she was on her own, what if she fell sick or got hurt!! What then?? Who would take care of her??
These concerns, these questions were beginning to haunt Abha, and she didn’t know what to do. The questions had no answers. She knew that time was running out, and she needed to find the answers. At the same time, she didn’t want to press the panic button. She had decided not to disclose the seriousness of her illness to anyone. She knew that the children and in particular Neelima had been through a lot in life and did not deserve another devastating piece of news to derail their current lives. So she kept the news to herself. But all the same, her mind was constantly working overtime to find a solution to her problem. It was as though she had only one purpose in life, and that was to make sure that there was someone who would be there for Neelima, with Neelima after she had gone away. She didn’t want her to be lonely and alone for the rest of her life.
Her brain was ticking away, and then one day, she realized that in a couple of months, Neelima would be turning fifty. Putting everything else on hold, including her concerns and apprehensions, she decided that they should be celebrating this milestone in a big way. She spoke to the others who also felt that they all needed to get together and do something special for her. They all racked their brains, and then Rohit came up with this idea. He knew that Neelima had always wanted to go on a cruise but had never had the opportunity to do that. They had never had had the money and the time as well. But now he felt that they should all plan and take time out for the woman who had sacrificed her entire life for them.
And then when he started thinking, he realized that they had all in a way used her to get to wherever they had wanted to in life but what about her? Why had they never thought about her or her life or her future? She also could have found someone when she was younger and left all of them to fend for themselves, but she hadn’t done that. She had made sure that their lives were on track, but they hadn’t done anything about hers. Once settled in their own lives they had forgotten entirely about her. He knew they couldn’t make up, but at least they could begin. So he started by organizing this birthday cruise for her. He told his sisters to plan and make sure that they and their families were able to be on the cruise. Between him and Abha, they figured out everything without disclosing anything to Neelima because this was going to be a surprise for her. They planned it in a way that it seemed they were all going for a much-needed family holiday. No one mentioned her birthday at all. Neelima had always wanted the entire, now quite a large family to get together every once in a while, but this had never happened. She was very happy to know that somehow, it had worked out and was looking forward to being with all of them. She could sense the excitement in the air what with the phone calls and conversations between Abha and the others, but she couldn’t detect the actual reason. All of them made sure that she no inkling about what they were all up to.
So on the morning of her birthday, Neelima Sarin now fifty years old woke up in a luxury suite on board a cruise liner taking them across the beautiful Scandinavian countries. It was like a dream come true for her. The previous night they had all brought in her birthday which had been a quite a surprise for her. It had been years since she had ever brought in, let alone celebrated her birthday. They had all thrown a party for her, and they had ensured that every single family member was present for it. So from her aunt to her siblings to their spouses to all their children, everyone was there to bring in her big day. They had all got something special for her from books by her favourite author to her favourite candles to sarees by her favourite designer, everything that they could have thought of. It had all been made very special for her. The thoughtfulness and all the love touched the core of her heart and brought tears into her eyes and made her feel so loved, so special. In fact, the entire trip and the way it had been organized keeping her likes and dislikes in mind really touched her. The extent to which they had all gone to put this together for her was something that wasn’t something she would ever be able to forget. They all spent a fabulous ten days onboard the cruise liner during the course of which Abha and Rohit had long discussions about Neelima and her days ahead. Rohit assured his aunt that he would take care of his sister no matter what and she didn’t need to worry about her.
The ten days got over, and then it was time to head back home. They had all had a fantastic time together, which was actually the first time for them. On the way back Rohit, Abha and Neelima stopped over in London for like a grand finale to the birthday celebrations. Rohit had planned this visit because he knew that London was Neelima’s favourite city and so he wanted her to spend some time there as well. He organized for them to go and watch Mamma Mia, the musical, another one of his sister’s favourites. While all this happening Abha could not push the worry about Neelima’s future out of her mind, she was always stressed about her. It had become like an obsession with her. She wanted her to find someone with whom she could spend the rest of her life. And maybe because she wished so hard for it or perhaps because it was destined to happen, as they were walking out of the theatre after the show they heard someone calling out to Neelima. Now Neelima didn’t know anyone in the city, so she was equally perplexed when she heard her name. She turned back, and what did she see?? Niren, her classmate from college, was almost running towards them. She couldn’t recognize him, but the voice was unmistakably his. Of course, he had greyed, had put on weight, but it was him. He came up to her, hugged her and asked her what she was doing there. They got talking entirely forgetting that there were other people also with them. After about ten minutes when Rohit realized that Neelima had forgotten all about them tapped her on the shoulder, smiled at Niren and introduced himself and his aunt to him. Niren quick to realize his mistake introduced himself and suggested they all go for a coffee somewhere.
Rohit could see that his sister was very happy to see Niren, he knew that she was in Leicester square, her favourite part of the city, so he decided that he and Abha would head back to the hotel and let the two of them go for coffee. In any case, he could see that Abha was quite tired and he didn’t want to push her. So Neelima and Niren spent the next two hours catching up and having a good time in each other’s company. Since they still had two more days in the city, they decided to meet up for lunch the following day. Niren dropped her to the hotel, held her hand a tad bit longer than necessary and walked out of the hotel. This accidental meeting left Neelima with a very lovely, warm kind of a feeling inside her and brought back a number of memories from her young days. Days when she also had been footloose and fancy-free, days when she had thought that maybe she was in love but had not been sure about her feelings. And after that, life had taken a drastic turn, and she had forgotten all about her feelings, her happiness. But now!!
She went up to her room where both her brother and aunt though awake and waiting for her did not ask her anything. The moment she walked in, Rohit calling it a day walked out to go to his room. The aunt-nephew duo had decided that they would not to talk about the chance meeting at all. Abha, the sensitive soul that she was wanted her niece to dwell, to reflect upon her meeting with Niren. She had sensed that the two of them were more than friends, and she felt that if fate had brought the two of them together, then she should give her time and let her sort her feelings out.
Neelima had been quite surprised to see Niren. She had lost touch with him after college especially after her parents’ death and now to see him had rekindled a lot of memories, had taken her back to those heady days full of love and romance. Where had they all gone? Why had her life changed the way it had. But of course, there were no answers to any of the questions. During the course of the evening, she had gathered that Niren had after college lived in several places before finally making London his home. He had two daughters, both of whom were now living in different parts of the world. One of them was married while the other one was living in with her boyfriend. He though living in London spent a lot of his time with his girls too particularly with the elder one who had a little baby. He had lost his wife two years ago and was now pretty much on his own.
She finally fell asleep thinking about him and their lunch the following day and woke up with a smile on her face. After a long time, there was something to look forward to and something which was just for her. She was palpably happy and joyful, a joy that was hard to hide or contain. It was pretty obvious to Abha and Rohit that Niren meant something special to her. But no one said anything to her and let her soak in that happiness. Neelima quickly went through the motions of the day and kept checking the time ever so often. Rohan who had never seen this side to his sister’s personality couldn’t help smiling seeing how restless she was getting by the hour. Abha was more relieved than amused. For once, Neelima was looking forward to something for herself, something that hadn’t happened in years. It had always been for others, for the sisters, for their children, for the brother, for his family, for Abha but never for herself. This seemed to be her spot of happiness and Abha prayed from her heart that something would come out of the meeting. She knew that she was probably reading too much into it, but it did seem as though the universe had sent Niren into Neelima’s life for a reason. She had her fingers crossed. She didn’t want to say anything; she didn’t want to expect anything; she didn’t want to tempt fate, but she could hope which is what she planned to do.
Neelima on her part was looking forward to the lunch and wanted to look really good though she felt a little foolish in wanting to be like that. But she couldn’t help picking up a lovely pink top to go with her jeans because she knew that pink looked good on her. Sharp at 12 Niren came to pick her up. He had booked a table at one of the restaurants which served the most delicious fish dishes in town because he remembered that Neelima loved fish. And when he told her the reason for having chosen that restaurant she was left with nothing to say at all. How could he have remembered after so many years? But he did remember!!
They had a wonderful time, time which seemed to stand still when they were looking at each other and time, which seemed to just fly away when they were talking. Finally, at about 3.30 they had no choice but to leave the restaurant as the place had to shut down at that hour to prepare for the evening. Not wanting to call it a day they went for coffee which continued till late. At about 6.30 Neelima realized that she had forgotten all about her brother and aunt and couldn’t help wondering as to what they must be feeling about her being away for that long. She mentioned this to Niren, who also realized that they needed to get back. They couldn’t be behaving like school children. Neelima called Rohit to find out where they were who told her that they were now back in the hotel. Neelima out of habit felt guilty for having forgotten about them and was full of apologies when she got, but Rohit and Abha didn’t react. They pretended as though it was perfectly fine and in fact, Rohit invited Niren to join them for dinner. He could see that Niren cared for his sister and wanted to enable them to spend time with each other. In the middle of the dinner, Neelima suddenly realized that the following day was going to be her last day in London. And her expression which they say is a mirror of your feelings just changed. From a look of pure happiness, it changed to a look which was a mix of sadness, alarm and a huge sense of disappointment. Niren was quick to notice, but when he asked her for the reason, she didn’t respond and just kept quiet. He gauged what was playing on her mind because he was himself going through the same set of emotions. He couldn’t fathom the reason but knew that he did not want her to leave. He wanted her to stay on and spend some more time with him.
So after dinner when they were having coffee, he asked her in front of everyone if she would want to spend a few more days in London in a way extending her birthday celebrations. She looked at him, not knowing what to say. Yes, she wanted to stay back, but what about the others? They had to leave. And if she stayed back, how would Abha manage. So she politely declined, but Abha was not going to let this happen. She wasn’t going to let this chance of happiness for her go away. She looked at them and said that since Rohit had decided to stay in India for a while, Neelima could stay back in London if she so wished. Rohit looked at his aunt clearly stupefied because he had no such plans. But he figured what she was up to and played on. So though a little uncertain, a little unsure, she decided to give happiness a chance and stay back.
Neelima didn’t know what was going to happen; she didn’t know if she was going to go ahead with Niren, but she knew that fate had brought him back into her life and there was a reason behind it. So she decided to stay back and give life a chance.