In the Dausa haveli of Thakur Umaid Singh, that morning in June was chaotic. The servants ran through the long passages, carrying rice bags, milk cans and flower baskets. Some were busy decorating the main hall. They hung garlands from one corner to the other. The smell of roasted jaggery wafted from the kitchen into the main hall. It mixed itself with the fragrance of the rose and the marigold flowers.
The servants wiped every table twice, obeying the order of Thakurain Umavati, who was instructing them from the adjacent kitchen.
“Hurry up, you lazy bones! You people still have to sweep the main hall,” she hollered. “Kunwar Amar Singh will be here any time. He is coming after six months. I just want everything perfect in this haveli.”
Her excited voice reverberated in the high walls of the haveli, while her hands were busy frying the bread in the hot oil.
After a few minutes, the Thakurain walked out of the kitchen. Her orange saree was sodden, and it stuck to her curvaceous figure. She wiped the sweat on her tanned face with the corner of her saree. Her hair was matted with sweat. As she sat down on the sofa in the hall, she remarked, “Oh! Summer these days is like an open oven in Rajasthan. I read the newspaper and it said this will be the hottest year in the last fifteen years.”
She took a sip of the orange juice that a servant had brought for her, and looked at Bhuwar Singh, her brother- in- law, who sat in front of her. Bhuwar Singh appeared spruce after a shower, wearing a T-shirt that hugged tightly his well-toned body, accompanied with blue jeans. In his mid thirties, he was ten years older than the Thakurain, but looked very young. He was still a bachelor and never wanted to marry anyone, because the scars of being cheated in love had left him with the opinion that women just bring trouble in life.
Bhuwar Singh stopped reading the newspaper. He put it down on the coffee table and said, “Bhabi, I can see how happy you are that Kunwar Amar Singh is coming. I have no words, how much love you have showered on Kunwar as his step-mother.
“No, Bhaiyaji,” she said, “he is my own son, and I am delighted he will be eighteen this month. An adult. All these havelis and lands will be his. He has become a perfect gentleman, after finishing school from one of the best boarding schools.”
There was stillness between the two.
“Me and you, Bhaiyaji, are just care takers,” the Thakurain smiled and said, “we don’t own anything here. Thakur Umaid Singh has bequeathed all this to his elder son, Kunwar Amar Singh, his heir. After all, I am his second wife.”
Bhuwar Singh noticed the color drain from the Thakurain’s face. But she quickly recovered and changed the conversation. “It must be very cool in Nainital? Oh, I must switch on the air- conditioner in Kunwar’s room.” Saying this, she left abruptly.
The Thakurain had left the main hall. Just then, Thakur Bhuwar Singh’s mobile rang.
A hoarse voice on the other end said, “Kunwar Amar Singh is with us. If you want him alive, bring two crore rupees, to the Gopinath temple of the Bhangarh Fort. At 10:00 pm tomorrow.”
Bhuwar Singh, ranted, “You fool, stop joking with me. We are Thakurs, you will have to pay a price for this joke.”
“Listen, I am not playing games with you. Why don’t you talk to your nephew?”
“Chachu…chachu…” Bhuwar Singh heard his nephew’s voice on the mobile. “Please give them the money and save me…please…”
The hoarse voice returned. “Now listen, bring the money to the Bhangarh Fort. We want the money in front of his grave. Bring the Thakurain also. And if you inform the police, you know what we will do to your nephew.”
“In front of whose grave?” asked Bhuwar Singh.
But the phone line went dead.
Bhuwar Singh felt the earth had sucked the life out of him, leaving him motionless for a few minutes.
And then a loud cry was heard in the haveli. The words that echoed were, “Bhabi!” “Bhabi!”
The Thakurain ran into the hall, breathless. She saw tears flowing down Bhuwar Singh’s face. “What happened?” she asked.
The only word that he stammered was, “Bha…bi.”
She gripped his shoulders hard, “Bhaiyaji, what happened? Why are you screaming?”
“Yes?” Deep lines creased her forehead. Her lungs sucked in the air, leaving her gasping.
“He is kidnapped. They have asked for two crore rupees. We have to take the money inside Bhangarh Fort, outside the Gopinath temple.”
“Bhangarh.” The word was a whisper. Thakurain Umavati took a deep breath. Her hazel eyes filled with tears.
“Why? Why Bhangarh?” she asked, as she sat with a thud on the sofa. “Nobody goes there after sunset…” The unstoppable tears made her voice heavy. Her lips quivered, droplets of perspiration formed on her forehead and her hands trembled.
“If they take Kunwar there! Legend has it, the ghost of the dead Princess of Bhangarh still lives in the Bhangarh Fort. People have seen the Princess wandering. And nobody return’s from there after sunset.
With hands folded in front of Bhuwar Singh, she pleaded, “Please save my son.”
“Bhabi, don’t worry it’s just a story, there are no ghosts in Bhangarh.”
She looked at Bhuwar Singh and asked, “Two crore is a very big amount. How will we arrange the money so quickly? Should we call the police?”
“No, we can’t call the police. That would put Kunwar’s life in danger.”
Bhuwar Singh swallowed the pooled saliva in his mouth. His broad frame stood in front of the Thakurain. She looked up at him from the sofa, hoping for some calming words. He picked up his mobile to call the accountant, Bhajan Lal.
He ordered Bhajan Lal to come at once to the haveli.
After an hour, a gangly young man in his early thirties walked inside the hall. He held three red account books in his hand. He saw the Thakurain and Bhuwar Singh seated on the sofa as two statues. Expressionless. Motionless.
Bhajan Lal readjusted the books in his hands, and said, “Hukum, you had remembered me? What can I do for you?”
“Bhajan Lal, I want two crore rupees by tomorrow morning.”
“Two crore. But how is that possible, Hukum?” He saw the Thakurain crying, “What has happened?” he asked.
“Kunwar Amar Singh has been kidnapped.”
“What? How is that possible?” he said. Seeing the look on their faces, he did not waste any time. He folded the long sleeves of his shirt and sat cross-legged on the floor, taking out the pen from his shirt pocket. He began paging through the account books. Bhajan Lal had become the accountant of the Thakur family, seven years ago. It was coincidentally the same year the Thakurain married Umaid Singh and came into the haveli.
There was a silence in that hall, as though it was alive, and it was seated with them, making the tiniest noise in the haveli the biggest one.
After fifteen minutes, he said, “Hukum, the only way we can arrange the money is by selling the piece of land near the well on the outskirt of the city.”
“But who would buy the land so fast?” Thakurain asked.
“Only Chowdhary Raj Veer Singh,” he answered. He stared at them, “He can buy that land in a day and give you two crore rupees.”
Bhuwar Singh’s strong fist hammered the coffee table as he rose. “Never him,” he said in an angry voice. “My elder brother Umaid Singh, though paralyzed, would have never allowed to sell the land to his rival, Chowdhary Raj Veer Singh.”
Bhuwar Singh paced the hallway. He ran his hand over his French beard, and tightly rubbed his palms together as though the neck of Chowdhary Raj Veer Singh was in hands, and he wanted to throttle him. “How can we forget that they had thrown our sister, Vishali, out from their haveli, because she could not give her husband, Chowdhary Raj Veer Singh, a son!”
Bhuwar Singh passed fingers through his gelled hair. “I can still see Vishali’s body floating in that well when she committed suicide. I will never sell the land to that son of…” He banged his foot on the floor with all his might as though beneath his feet lay the body of Chowdhary Raj Veer Singh, waiting to be crushed.
The Thakurain went upto Bhuwar Singh. She whispered,” Bhaiyaji, you must understand the situation. Kunwar Amar Singh is most important right now. If we can’t arrange the money they will kill him.”
She lowered her gaze to the marbled floor, “If your brother was well, he would have killed his ego to sell the land to them and save his son.”
The Thakurain’s words had ripped Bhuwar Singh’s self esteem. Dejection settled in his eyes as he nodded his head to Bhajan Lal, while the Thakurain ordered, “Sell the land.”
“Hukum, I will arrange the money by tomorrow morning. I will come today afternoon for your signatures.” And the accountant collected his books and left.
In the evening, in Thakur Umaid Singh’s room, his wife Thakurain Umavati, sat next to him. She held a glass of water in her hand and was putting the water in Umaid Singh’s mouth with a spoon.
She saw from the first floor window of the Thakur’s room the sun was setting, and with its setting, it had muffled the exhilaration of the haveli that existed few hours ago.
She could hear footsteps approaching Thakur Umaid Singh’s room. Then, at once, they stopped. The Thakurain, sitting at the corner of the bed, turned back to look. Bhuwar Singh stood at the threshold. His face was blank; his cheeks had caved in. It was as though the few hours had made him a few decades older.
Gloominess had settled deep in Bhuwar Singh’s eyes. He lumbered inside the room. He sat on the armchair next to his brother’s bed. He looked at his brother, and then he turned his gaze to the Thakurain and said, “Bhajan Lal had come for the signatures. He will bring the money tomorrow morning.”
Thakurain asked, “Why would anyone want to kidnap Kunwar? We don’t have enmity with anyone in the village.”
“I don’t know, Bhabi. But I am sure the same people were responsible for Bhaiya’s accident. They want to ruin our family. When six years ago, you, Bhaiya, and Aina, his first wife had gone to Vaishno Devi, and Aina Bhabi fell from the horse in the trench, she was an ace horse rider, then how could she have fallen? Bhaiya jumped to save her, but he could not and she died, leaving Bhaiya paralyzed.”