Chapter 2

Should you trust your first impression?


The plant’s common name refers to Venus, the Roman goddess of love.
It is a carnivorous plant.
When any insect crawling along the leaves contacts its hair, the trap prepares to close, snapping shut only if another contact occurs within approximately 20 seconds of the first strike.
Triggers may occur if one-tenth of the insect is within contact.
Flytraps show a clear example of memory in plants.
The plant knows if its hair has been touched and remembers that for a few seconds.
The plant then recalls that incident if a second touch happens during that time frame and closes.
After closing, the flytrap counts additional stimulations of the trigger hairs to five to start producing digesting enzymes.
“You are such a good girl. Here’s a lollipop.”
I reached with eager hands. I loved candy. Which six-year-old does not?
My parents were all about teaching me healthy eating habits.
But my father’s secretary Adnan Lahiri explained with a wink what my parents did not know would not harm them.
He picked me up and seated me on his lap.
While I licked the candy, Adnan started to rub his hands all over my chest, bucking into me like a horse.
For some reason, the whole exercise seemed to excite him.
Strong hands gripped my arms, lifting me off and set me aside on a bale of hay.
I will not forget Rajveer’s ominous voice.
“Get up, you filthy bastard!”
I froze with terror.
Rajveer’s face seemed set in grim rigidity. The white scar down his right cheek pulsed with the tic in his jaw.
His hands fisted at his sides.
The moment Adnan Lahiri lurched to his feet unsteadily, Rajveer’s fists flew.
For a skinny teenager, he made short work of my father’s well-built assistant.
Adnan was weeping, begging for mercy, while fists hailed upon him.
Blood poured from Adnan’s nose, his mouth.
Still, Rajveer’s extreme rage showed no signs of abating.
Adnan somehow stumbled to the barn door, where he collapsed in a heap.
“Rajveer!” Vishwas uncle, my father’s best friend, had heard the commotion. Vishwas uncle grabbed Rajveer just as he aimed to kick Adnan in the gut.
“Stop it, Raj! For the love of God, stop hitting the man. What do you want to do? Murder him?”
“I want to kill him!I want to kill every bloody man who lays a hand on an innocent girl.”
Rajveer punctuated this with a kick in Adnan’s ribs.
A yelp tore from the beaten man’s mouth. “Save me, Sir! Please!”
“Stop it, Rajveer! Just look at Aadrika! The poor child is petrified!”
Rajveer paused mid-stride.
An intense searching look from those furious grays made my stomach churn.
“Aadrika! Aadrimy baby!”
My father appeared on the scene and rushed to me, gathering me up in his arms.
I threw the lollipop away.
“Please,” I begged, trembling, clutching my dad. “Please send this horrid man away. I don’t want a lollipop, please, please, please,” I implored with all the power in my command.
“Just don’t let him come near me.”
All my childhood, two things rang the knell of doom for me.
One was a lifelike black bear head, its mouth agape in a snarl. It hung on the main wall of our formal dining room, flanked by doors on either side.
I did not enter that room unless accompanied by some trustworthy adult.
The second was Rajveer Singh.
Rajveer’s eyes haunted my nightmares.
I associated him with tense, fraught moments in an otherwise blissful existence.
Left to me, those two would not be in my perfect world.
But that choice was never mine to make.
Vishwas Rai was my father’s bosom bow. Dad served as a director on the board of Rai Industries.
We (their children) were constantly together.
“Wow, Rajveer! You are a natural.” I recall dad enthusing, watching Rajveer canter in the corral atop Baby, the sweetest natured mare in our stable.
Turning to Vishwas uncle, my otherwise plain talking dad exaggerated. “Vishwas, if Rajveer trains on our farm, we can make him one of India’s best jockeys.”
I rolled my eyes, thinking heaven forbid.
Tanisha aunty caught my eye roll. Since she was Rajveer’s mother, I thought she would get mighty upset.
Surprisingly, she winked.
“I am sorry, Raghav,” Vishwas uncle told dad, unaware of our byplay.
“Rajveer will be a captain of industry. My son will transform the Indian economy. To win Olympic golds, you have to find someone else.”
The Indian economy deserves thanks, or Dad would have spent a lifetime trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
Vishwas uncle’s youngest son Virendra, nicknamed Veer, had the best seat on a horse.
Even Virata, his middle son, was a better rider than the firstborn Rajveer.
Unluckily for him, Virata was riding Bluff, the most capricious horse we owned.
Mum put the book of fairy tales on the nightstand then got up from the bed to tuck me in for the night.
“Is Vishwas uncle Virata and Veer’s stepdad?”
For a nine-year-old encountering all those steps in fairytales, it was sound reasoning.
I was neither Virata nor Veer, but I felt it keenly that Vishwas uncle played favorites.
Mum stared at me, stunned. “Who’s spouting such nonsense? Vishwas is their real father.”
“Then why does he favor Rajveer? Even Tani aunty does not like it.”
Mum stared at me, opening then shutting her mouth.
“It must be because he is the crown prince,” I concluded. My reference source the same fairy tales. A crown prince inherited his father’s kingdom, and so merited special status.
“Aadri, first, you are not to discuss the Rai family with anyone, understood.”
When Mum commanded in that tone of voice, I always nodded.
“There are many people who will use you to try and get close to them. Seeing they are our best friends, we have to protect them, okay?”
I nodded in earnest.
“Good girl.” She kissed my cheek. “Good night.”
If Mum did not want to answer a particular question, she was apt to go off on a tangent, hoping I would forget all about it.
But I was, in my way, persistent.
Questioning sources other than my Mum, I learned of Tanisha aunty’s first marriage to Ranveer Singh, a famous superstar of yesteryears.
Rajveer Singh was born from that union.
After Ranveer’s death, Tanisha aunty remarried Vishwas uncle.
Virata and Veer were indeed Vishwas uncle’s sons (Mum had not fibbed).
It was Rajveer, the favored one he had adopted.
I have a memory of me as a fourteen-year-old. The first time I wore my peacock blue dress, which Dad bought in Paris.
I thought of myself as smartly dressed, but it did not give me the courage to enter the dining room on my own.
Vishwas uncle took my hand in his. He knew of my aversion to the black bear head.
“How is school? Last I heard, you were bullying your English teacher?”
“I never,” I began heatedly, then caught the twinkle in his eye. “You are just like Dad,” I punched him. “You are always teasing me.”
Vishwas uncle doted on me as a father with a favored daughter and spoilt me terribly (Mum’s serious accusation).
“Aadrika, you have met my sons, haven’t you? Rajveer and Virata?”
I almost flattened myself against Vishwas uncle, clutching at his hand tighter than before. With my peripheral vision, I scanned the room.
Rajveer’s grays met my scaredy-cat brown.
Silently, he retreated to sit next to Mum, at the opposite end of the table.
I sighed with undisguised relief.
“You have impeccable taste,” Virata whispered in my ear. We were seated side by side. “I can’t stand him either.”
I looked at Virata bug-eyed. “He is your elder brother!”
“Step.” Virata corrected his lips, thinning.
“So what? Sri Ram and Bharat were step-brothers.” In my Hindi Class, we were reading The Ramayana as a supplementary reader.
Mum and I had nightly discussions on related passages from the Ramcharitramanas.
Our talks gave me a perspective refreshingly different from fairy tales.
“You must not hate your brother. God will punish you if you do.”
“So, you’re saying I should ignore his icky gray eyes?” Virata was eight years older than me. I think he acted silly to make me laugh.
I giggled. “You have the same icky gray eyes.”
“His nose is fatter like a car’s horn. Toot! Toot!”
Rajveer frowned, seeing a lily-livered coward like me peering at him with avid curiosity.
“Look at him licking his lips. That glutton’s going to finish the ice cream your Mum made before it reaches us.”
I scowled, convinced of it when Rajveer scooped two massive dollops of mango ice cream on his plate.
Rajveer scowled back.
Tani aunty and Veer had not accompanied them. Veer was down with chickenpox or mumps. I forget the ailment, but I know it was contagious.
Virata good-naturedly suffered my company from sunup to sundown. We became good friends. Thanks to Virata, my leeriness of Rajveer lessened.
I could hardly get freaked by the person I made fun of, laughing at everything about him, from his physical attributes to his overboard nature.
Virata and I loved our dads, but Rajveer was pathetic in how he fawned over Vishwas uncle.
“I know his backstory, Ma. How his father was a nasty drunk and how he scarred Rajveer’s face in a drunken rage.
But why must he always cut such a sorry figure?
Instead of standing out like an eyesore, he could get plastic surgery.”
“Surgery cannot erase the scars on one’s heart,” Mum replied darkly.
Our mother-daughter heart-to-heart conversations happened inevitably in the kitchen. Mum was an excellent cook.
“Really? He is twenty-two years old. That’s a grown-up!”
“Aadri grown-ups also have challenges. I don’t expect you to understand.”
I had the healthy appetite of a teenager just two months shy of my sixteenth birthday and little patience.
“Mum, what’s for lunch? I’m starving!”
My parents were conducting an intense conversation with Rajveer at the dining table. All looked my way with sober expressions on their face.
Dad smiled first, extending his arms in a non-verbal demand for a hug. “How was school?”
Rajveer’s expression was carefully bland.
“Hi,” I made the first polite overture towards him after hugging Dad.
“Where’s Vishwas uncle?”
“Your Vishwas uncle’s not come,” Dad replied in Rajveer’s stead. “But Rajveer is staying with us this summer.”
In my room, I threw a tantrum.
“Why must we endure that wet blanket’s presence? Why couldn’t Virata have come instead?”
“Virata cannot help your father recoup losses. He’s still in college.” Mum was a founding member of the Rajveer fan club.
“What losses?”
“Business losses.” Mum’s dark expression and cryptic words communicated her uneasiness.
However, I did not expend much mental energy on Rajveer.
I figured my parents knew their business best. I had upcoming board exams. Teachers gave us so much homework I had to burn the midnight oil.
It was a real struggle to wake up in the morning, eat breakfast and reach school before the bell rang for morning assembly.
Still, we lived in the same house. Inevitable, we would bump into each other.
“Oh,” I gasped for no reason, and my face turned a beetroot red.
Rajveer had been mucking about in the stables. His sweaty torso and the shoes he carried in one hand were liberally mud-stained.
I had seen men shirtless before. My over-the-top reaction was plain weird.
His narrow-eyed steely glare communicated he thought so too.
I psycho-analyzed myself. It was not infatuation, thank you.
Rajveer was old, driven and, no fun.
At night, our cook Ramu chacha delivered a glass of hot milk to Rajveer’s bedroom as his last chore of the day.
I overheard Ramu chacha gossiping.
Rajveer was intently studying our boring account books.
I self-diagnosed. Due to hormonal growth changes, I was drawing more than my share of attention from the world.
I held the dubious record as the recipient of most roses on Rose Day.
Only to break my record by getting most cards, candy, stuffed toys, and love confessions on Valentine’s Day.
Not just classmates, boys from neighboring schools had started hanging out at the school gates to gawk at me.
Even some male teachers behaved rather oddly.
Rajveer’s aloofness was refreshing and, at the same time, challenging.
I perversely wanted to draw his attention to me.
Also, I was lonely.
Since the year upped my nuisance value, all sensible classmates I’d have liked to be friends with avoided me.
Nisha was the only classmate willing to come home, who had a conversation beyond gossip. She acted way mature than other girls in my class.
Mum disapproved of Nisha’s street-smart ways.
But when one is sixteen, who listens to their Mum?
“Aadri,” Nisha clutched at my arm. “Who is the hot dude grooming that black horse?”
I did not think hot dude and Rajveer. I thought cold-blooded wretch and Rajveer.
I was surprised Rajveer’s scarred face did not repulse Nisha.
People seeing him for the first time had two predominant reactions. They either fixated on his scar or avoided looking directly at him
“He works for my father,” I replied dismissively.
Mum had drilled in me to protect the privacy of the Rai family.
People acted funny concerning anyone or anything associated with them. I had seen this not just in India but also when we vacationed abroad.
No denying decisions taken in their home impacted the economies of countries. Rajveer was as much a Rai as Virata, even if he insisted his last name was Singh.
Just another example of the chip on his shoulder, I privately thought.
My birthday was to be a spectacular affair with a garden party. Balloons, festoons, and sparkling lights illuminated every corner of the house.
After the cake cutting, Mum had planned a dinner and dance party.
Around midnight there was to be a firework show.
I was super excited. I kept running about the house, giddy with excitement.
We had houseguests. The list had inevitably grown to accommodate relatives and close friends. Someone would call my name every so often and hand a gift-wrapped present to open.
The sharp crack sounded like a hand connecting to a cheek.
Curious, I peered through an open window into the horse barn.
A daunting Rajveer was dragging Nisha out of a horse stall. She was resisting trying to pull her hand free, but her strength was no match to his.
My eyes widened when I noticed her state of undress. Why was she topless in a bra?
“Just who the hell do you take me for?” Rajveer’s contempt was absolute, his tones cutting. He threw her tee-shirt on her face.
“Get dressed and leave. Remember, the only reason I am not slapping you back or reporting you to your parents is you are Aadri’s friend.”
“As if my parents will believe a servant’s word over mine,” Nisha shouted back, shrugging the tee-shirt on in a belated show of modesty.
“Don’t act like the boss. Aadrika has told me. You are an employee here.”
Rajveer’s head jerked in her direction.
She grabbed his attention all right.
“Wait a minute- you just called your boss’s daughter Aadri! How are you both on such intimate terms?” Nisha gasped, “wait, are you doing her?”
No mistaking her lewd interest.
Rajveer was speechless.
I could have died a hundred deaths on the spot.
“That explains why you are refusing me!
Maybe you dream someday of marrying her and becoming the owner of all this!
Well, good luck with that Mr. Rajveer Last Name Nobody.” She sounded out his name with sarcastic emphasis.
Nisha walked to the barn door and turned.
“Hot bodies like yours are used for a good fuck. Aadrika will marry the man whose social status and net worth equal her own.”
I gasped.
Not just at her hurtful words but how ugly she made me sound.
Rajveer and Nisha turned with one accord to look in my direction.
Rajveer was accusatory.
Nisha smiled vindictively as if her suspicions were somehow proved right.
I lost my temper. I walked in, flinging the door open.
“Is it not enough that you humiliate yourself? How dare you drag me to your depraved level? I would never, ever
Just get out of my sight!
Get out of my house and never-talk-to-me-again.”
Nisha sniffed, turning up her nose in the face of my fury.
I was the tallest girl in class. She lacked the spine to battle it out with me.
She slunk away as fast as her two feet would carry her.
For the first time in my life, I understood the kind of mindless rage that wants to hit someone.
“I am so sorry.” I croaked, turning to face Rajveer.
“You would never everwhat? Fuck me?”
I flinched aghast as if he had struck me.
“Just-who-the-hell-do-you-think-you-are-you-spoilt-fluff-headed-baggage? Where do you get off?
Did you say to that crude woman I am your father’s employee?
How does it make you superior if your father loves and respects your mother while mine abused her every single day of their wretched, married life?”
I could not believe my ears. Poor Tani aunty! My beautiful, kind, loving Tani aunty had weathered such a horrific tragedy! I had no idea!
Molten gray eyes raked me from head to toe.
“Instead of saying Mr. Rajveer Last Name Nobody: how about you try saying Man Who Saved Your Precious Hide from Bankruptcy?”
I was dumbstruck. I recalled Mum’s anxious expression.
I had no interest in estate matters taking for granted my parents would work things out.
I had a flashback of Rajveer going out early morning, coming home late at night. Rajveer in state of déshabillé working with the men in our stables and, in our fields. Rajveer with his head buried in our account books
“Who can believe such notable people as your parents have raised such a vain, selfish, thankless child? I saved your sorry hide. For what- this?
Just get the hell out of my sight.
Now I don’t want to see your face for as long as I live, understand?”
I hated Rajveer Singh!
He prejudged, without letting me speak a word in my defense.
He stalked past in a fine rage.
Tears gushed from my eyes unchecked.
I turned and stumbled off in the opposite direction with some vague idea to get as far away as possible from him.
How could Rajveer believe Nisha’s cruel words and not give me the benefit of the doubt?
“Hi, Beautiful Sixteen. Do you want a lollipop?”
“RAJVEER!” I screamed.
I kicked reflexively when that creep’s hand touched my arm.
In a parabola, his knife flew, sunlight glinting on its blade.
He lunged to grab at it.
I turned and ran away from the bearded man who had accosted me.
He was fast, and honestly, I was not much of an athlete.
I had a tall, slender built, but I was two left feet on a games field. My postural grace came from dancing. I trained in classical dance.
That’s not much use when you are trying to outrun an armed molester.
He lunged as we broke into a clearing and grabbed my hair.
I screamed with fear and in pain.
We rolled down the slope as we fell.
Lecherous hands pulled at my clothes, ripping and tugging.
I fought back with all the strength at my disposal.
He slapped me hard on the cheek. The back of my head hit against a rock.
Grabbing at my hair again, he pounded my head repeatedly on the rock.
“You bitch! You will take me and like it!
Nobody will rescue you this time.
Your father ruined my life, my career, and my prospects by throwing me in jail!
When I finish with you, nobody will even spit on your face.”