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to her mother, noting that the latter wasn’t saying anything, neither encouraging her to go ahead nor stopping her. It was true, wasn’t it? She hadn’tkept this fast because she cared much about Bihaan butbecause of Vasundhra. So,whywould it be wrong to simply break it now? Shewasstarving, after all.Though, looking at the cup filled with water in her plate, she couldn’t shake off the feelingofwrongness. As if even considering such an act waswrong. And it drove her mad! Her mind was telling her somethingelse than her gut feeling- leaving her frustrated.I didn’t do this for Bihaan, she told her protesting conscience as she was reaching for the water.So, it shouldn’t matter how I break the fast.”Bihaan, finally!”Startled, Thapki pulled her hand backas if burnt and looked over to where Vasundhraand Balwinder were sitting close to the main gates. Truly enough, Bihaan was walking through the gates, head lowered, hands buried in his jeans’ pockets, and closely followed by Paan. She squinted at him- was it her imagination or was Bihaan limping slightly? He did look ruffled as if he had been in a scuffle with someone.Of course. Typical.”Bihaan!” Vasundhrastood up and rushed towards him, grabbed his right elbow and maneuvered him to where Thapki was standing with her family. He grimaced as she pulled himalong behind her.”Where have you been? Andwhere’s your phone? I have been trying to reach you forever! Doyou know how late you are?””Sorry, Maa,” he sighed, hisvoice strangely hoarse.”I… got caught up in something.”What a surprise, Thapki thought sarcastically. “Can you do a-an-anything else b-b-besides getting into tr-trouble?”Bihaan glared at her, clearlyirritated.”Well, since I have to look at your face day in, dayout, I don’tthink so.”Thapki was aboutto retort somethingequally nasty when Vasundhrastepped inbetween them, hands raised warningly.”Okay, enough! You two can bicker later on, break Thapki’s fast, first. The poor girl is starving, by now, because ofyourirresponsibility, Bihaan.”Bihaan flinched- itwas a slight motion, barely noticeable, but Thapki had been glaring intensely enough at him to seeit. As if Maa’s wordshurthim. And…was hetrembling? No, morelikeswaying, only a little, but still. As if he had difficultiesstanding upright.Whathad that guy done, seriously?”S-so-sorry, Maa,” she apologized. And only when Vasundhrasmiled and nodded encouragingly at her, did she start the ritual by, first, viewing the moon through the sieve and then, Bihaan. She couldn’t help but notice the utter exhaustion etched into his features- itgave him astrange touch of vulnerability, somethingshe wasn’tused to see unlesshe was asleep. Handing the sieve to Vasu Maa, she grabbed her decorated Thaali withboth hands andbegan doing his Aarti.And during the whole time, she couldn’t quench the wave of worry which stirred in the pit of her stomach. Didn’tanyoneelse notice? Vasundhrawas standing right next to him, surely she had to notice how worn out her son looked? But she didn’t seem to be bothered and neither didany other family member seem to notice. Though,Paanwas sending them nervous glances.”Bihaan, open Thapki’s fast.”When Bihaan reached for the water, Thapki noticed that he was wearing gloves. She frowned inconfusion.”Why are you w-w-we-wearing gloves?”For a split second, an expression of sheepishness rushed over Bihaan’s face though, it was gone as fast as it appeared.”Because. What do you care?””I don’t,” she huffed, irritated byhis snappy attitude.”C-co-couldyou now…?
“Rolling hiseyes, Bihaan, thankfully, brought the brim ofthe glass towards her lips, his grip unsteady and trembling, and she took a large, cooling sip before taking the glass into her own hand. Bihaan let his arms sink, a hard edge digging into the skin over the right corner of his mouth.He looked as if he were in pain…”Finally!” Aditi hugged her from the side, smiling brightly upat her.”Let’s eat, Di! I’m starving, as well!”As Aditi dragged her away towards the table they had placed in the garden, filled with food and drinks, Thapki glanced over her shoulder and saw Bihaanlimpingtowards the house.Paan was hurrying after him but besides him, the rest of the family, who had been waiting forher to break her fast beforethey would eat, were so immersed in their own chatter that no one paid much attention to him.Or they don’t care?The realizationmade Thapki’s chest tighten uncomfortably.###”Bhabi?”Thapki stared at Paan, surprised to see himsitting on the floor outside Bihaan’s room. He hastily scrambledto his feet,glanced briefly at the half opened door before he focused his whole attention back towards Thapki. Hewas brushing his palms repeatedlyover his thighs as if to get ridof some dirtiness.”Did you need anything, Bhabi?””I, err…” Thapki cleared her throat awkwardly. “I w-wa-wanted to see…he d-di-didn’t look well.”Paan blinked at her, bafflementevident in his face. Was itthissurprising that she had wanted to see whether Bihaan was alright or not? “It’s, ah- he’s alright. Don’t worry.”He’s lying.”Y-y-you know, Paan, I d-di-dislikelies as much a-as,” with her chin she indicated towards the room,”violence. I tell him n-n-not to fight and still… he n-ne-neverlearns.”Paan lowered his gaze and let hisshoulders slump.”Sorry. Though, he didn’t fight with anyone, I swear!” Hepaused before adding,”He’s too stubborn for his own good.And quite unforgiving to himself.”Thapki wasn’t sure what she was supposed to make ofthis. Unforgiving to himself? What was bothering Bihaan so much that he was not willing to forgive himself forit? Till now, he had always made the impression of someone who hardly cared for anything or anyone besides himself and maybe, to some extent, his parents. Neither would she have pegged him as thetype to dwell long on a specific matter.But then again, her mind reminded her,it isn’t really your business what Bihaan does in his life, is it?Maybe it had been a bad idea to come check on Bihaan. If even Paanwas sitting outside, then Bihaan probably wasn’t too keen on company, least of allhers. She could turn around and leave without anyone ever knowing aboutthis, yet…
She couldn’t put the image of aragged looking Bihaan limping inside the house, obviously in pain, and no one paying enough attention to notice, out of her mind. It nagged at her, had ever since she had broken herfast. There, still,was an uncomfortable heaviness in her chest- worry or pity or honest concern, she couldn’t define it.Though, whatever it was, it wasurgingher forward.”I will h-ha-have a look at him.”As she was aboutto move past him, Paan touched her wrist lightly. Fear was flickering in his eyes.”Could you… well, you don’t have to but, could you make sure that he, at least, drinks something?” he asked softly. “He hasn’t eaten or drunk anything for the whole day.””Why not?”she asked,completely caught off guard by that piece of information.Paan shrugged, clearly unwilling to explain. Or maybe he didn’t know, either – which she doubted.”He’s not nearly as bad as you think, you know. Just… consider it.” He slid back downthe wall and turnedhis head in the other direction. This conversation was clearly over but it left her with more questions than answers.Hesitantly,she entered Bihaan’s room- and faltered in her steps that very moment. There were red spots tainting the floor, here and there, some smaller, others bigger. Was thatblood? Her stomach churned sickeningly.Bihaan was sprawled on his side of thefloor next to the bed,one arm thrown over his face and one knee propped, weight resting up on his heel. On his left, there was a first aid kit lying scattered, and, as she walked closer, shecould make out the white bandages around hisfeet, poorly bound. Actually, they were so loose that they were dangling down, and revealed what was hiding beneath them-Thapki knelt down and inspected the spots on Bihaan’s foot whichthe bandage didn’t cover. Dark, reddish blisters adorned them, the skin looked raw.As if burnt.”Ah!”Startled, she jerked back – and realized only then that she had reached out and touched a reddish spot on Bihaan’s big toe.”S-s-so-sorry!” she apologized hastily, and scrambledup, stumbling