“Ye toh kamaal hai! Aap mera naam janti hain.. But I like NK.. you know short and sweet“. NK’s arms were hurting, this old lady was too heavy. And instead of getting to her feet, she looked a bit too pleased, sitting on the floor squashing helpful NK.
NK had rushed inside Khushi Kumari Gupta’s house while Arnav Singh Raizada found a place to park his SUV. Akash had mysteriously disappeared as soon as the car had stopped in front of the quaint traditional looking Gupta house. NK was not happy with the way things had turned out. Instead of having a pleasant conversation with Khushiji, he was literally stuck between cold floor and a very heavy arm refusing to budge. He heaved again to disentangle himself.
“Aree issweet babua, you are extremely helpful, but I will stand on my own. Humka uthane ki kono jarurat nahin“. NK was quite alarmed. The crazy woman was making some fancy hand gestures next to his face. “Sakshat humare nand kisore“, she said in a sing song tone. NK wondered how the woman knew who he was. With a determined burst of energy he leapt to his feet, finally managing to free himself.
His effort was rewarded as he saw a smiling vivacious girl approach him. Khushiji was looking lovely in the white and yellow Indian dress. Yellow was NK’s favourite colour. It was such a bright color and made NK feel happy.
“Buaji inka naam Nand kishore hai. He is Aakashji’s cousin. Ye aapke nand kisore nahi hai, but if you want he can be your nand kisore too buaji.” Khushi wriggled her eyebrows and giggled while buaji continued to croon and swoon over the man.
Arnav Singh Raizada parked his SUV and smartly stepped out. He was wearing a steel blue shirt and a glazed gray waistcoat over it. Black shades rested over on his eyes. Unknown to him, in Lakshminagar today a few young girls, and unknown to the girls, even their mothers, would spend the day dreaming of the mysterious dashing stranger, whom they had been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of.
He made his way to the front door of Gupta house. On his way, noticing Aakash peeping in through what ASR could only assume to be Payal’s window. The expression on ASR’s face softened. He was about to enter when he heard the voice of the girl who was a continuous presence in his head.
“Aa..achoo.. Nanheji I had told the tailor, but I didn’t actually tell him.. Mera matlab I had actually told Arnavji.. achooo.. And now my lehenga is not fitting“. Her voice floated towards him. He let his muscles relax some more.. “Paagal“, he murmured to himself.
The next instant his face hardened. The smile was gone as his lips came together. His eyes flashing fire as he heard NK say, “I will get you a new lehenga Khushiji.. Don’t be sad.. Phir aap bilkul pari dikhengi.. Par Khushiji aapko toh bahut dukaan ho gaya hai“. Her tinkling laughter wafted through. “Dukaan nahi zukaam nanheji“. ASR abruptly turned and walked away.
This time the site of Akash still peering into the window was not as entertaining to ASR, as it had been a minute earlier.
Unaware of the turmoil in another agitated heart walking by, Aakash was happily contemplating how wonderful the day was.
Yesterday’s storm had cleared up and the morning was bright and sunny. Tufts of shining silver clouds peppered the vivid blue sky. Birds were chirping and the newly washed leaves shone like emeralds from far off seas.
Aakash felt like bursting into a song. Would payalji sing along, he wondered. “payalji..payalji“, he called out into the open window.
Freshly showered, in a light cotton pink kurta with light blue flowers of lucknowi chikankari, Payal looked cautiously out through the window. She gasped. It was an unusual sight in lakshminagar to see a well dressed man stepping on innocent looking blossoming gladioli and standing on tip toe trying to look inside a half open window, And it would certainly seem more unusual if you happened to know that the man in question was Aakash Singh Raizada.
With a burst of recklessness, Akash clasped Payal’s hand. “Payalji did you hear it? We are going to get married. Right this minute everyone is inside talking to you family. I could not wait to see you Payalji“.
He was greeted with the prettiest most content smile, he was convinced, that could exist in the whole wide world.
“oh Aakashji lekin how did your mother agree“?
Suddenly, Aakash remembered another source of delight. “Payalji bhai aur Khushiji are also getting married. Can you believe it? Di says they love each other..”
Payal was about to vehemently deny such an atrocious possibility when her sharp perceptive mind remembered all of Khushi’s obsession with Aakashji’s elder brother. It was love! It always had been. Payal could see it quite clearly now. Her dear little sister was in love and had not even told her. She needed her ears pulled and then needed to be tickled and teased.. Payal laughed delightedly.
She looked at the man she was about to marry with adoring eyes. He was the bearer of such lovely tidings. In her quiet calm voice she asked him for more details which he more than readily gave her.
On the windowsill, his hand still remained in hers. Payal sighed and exclaimed at all the right place and Aakash was hit by a sudden daring idea. One only a man in love could get struck with.
He would jump inside through that window.. Yes! In broad daylight.. And take sweet laughing Payalji in his arms. He moved a bit too enthusiastically.
The next thing he knew a swarm of bees had risen in air, disturbed from their usual spot in the flowers where Aakash was standing. An eerie buzzing started and Payal yelled out to him to run. He did not need to be told twice. He wanted to look good in the wedding photographs, not be remembered as the bridegroom with a face spotted by bees.
Moreover he could vividly recollect the sting of the bees when bhai, one summer long back, had shot his catapult and dislodged the bee hive in that farthest corner of Sheesh Mahal. The hug would have to wait.. he sadly thought as he ran down the street, a few angry bees still in hot pursuit behind him.
Payal was leaning out of the window, but hardly worried. She was too happy to worry. Who would have known that Aakashji would come meet her in secret when his family was in the room next to them. She was getting married to this man she loved so much. And adding to her sense of bliss was another terribly exciting thought… Khushi and Arnavji .. Could life get any better? It might have been better.. If only Aakashji had managed to jump in… giggling merrily and blushing profusely at her runaway thoughts she closed the window.
The Raizada family were saying their goodbyes outside, as Khushi pulled out a big packet of flour, cut the edges diagonally and dumped it into a big mixing bowl.
“achooo”, she went, causing a cloud of flour to tickle her nose further. She was very tired and the kitchen was starting to whirl full circle in slow motion before her eyes, but she was going nowhere. There was mouth watering food that buaji and amma had prepared for naniji and the rest, but that food would not work for Khushi. Jilebis had to be made.. Abhi..
Devi maiya.. The rakshas hadn’t even come today. And naniji had gone on talking about Khushi’s marriage to.. To that laad governor.. All by herself, she couldn’t say know, could she? How could Khushi say this was all a plan when it obviously had worked a little too perfectly. Jiji had looked happy, but .. Oh where is Arnavji, devi maiyya?
“Khushi”.. She whirled around almost falling over him.. He was again standing too close.. Could it be a dream, khushi desperately wondered. He seemed real enough. There was a lot of urgent things she had wanted to tell Arnavji a second ago, maybe even yell at him a little, but now, seeing him before her she forgot what had been so important.
Right.. Important.. For now it was very important to suck in air and then exhale.. Breathe.. Had Arnavji gotten a haircut? He .. err.. umm.. Looked nice.. this shirt.. Khushi herself liked lots of color, but on Arnavji anything looked good.
Hey devi maiyya..what nonsense was she thinking.. At this thought her eyes grew wide and mouth opened in a characteristic ‘o‘. Arnavji moved closer.
“Apna muh band karo. Aur ye lo“. Arnavji coolly placed a black bag in her hand. A satin ribbon went around the breadth of it and ended in a delicate bow. A pale periwinkle translucent paper with tiny sparkles peeped out. Khushi carefully pushed aside the paper and her hand touched the softest of cloth. It was an exquisite shade of emerald green.
She could feel his eyes on her. Slowly she raised her eyes towards him, struggling to understand.
“tum ye saree pehenogi. Wear this“. He looked straight at her.
Saree? For her? Arnavji had brought her a saree.. he wanted her to.. wear it..
Her air supply was dwindling. The slowly spinning kitchen started to spin as if in fast forward motion.. before her eyes closed they hazily focused on a concerned packed face.. He most definitely had got a hair cut..
When he saw khushi sway and her eyes start to lose focus ASR was quite alarmed. This was definitely not the reaction he was expecting when he gave her the saree he had brought for her. As she fainted, he forgot everything. His arm short out to break her fall.
“Khushi? khushi.. can you hear me? tum thik ho?“. It almost hurt to hear the agony in his insistent call.
Buaji entered the kitchen a second later. “hai re nandkisore.. ee ka hui gava.. parmeswari…“, she called out in alarm.
“She was making jalebi, I think buaji. she.. she fainted. I will make sure nothing happens to khushi“. Asr’s gaze was still on the girl resting in his arms.
Buaji understood what must have happened.”babua khushi had not eaten properly, uske upar se jukaam. She had a cold, but will she listen to me and rest? nai sankadevi will do whatever she feels like.. nand kisore ab ka kari..”
Before her disbelieving eyes she saw Arnav bitwa, in one clean fluid motion, sweep unconscious Khushi in his arms. Buaji turned a shade of crimson. Nand kisore.. . How unpredictable this boy was.. Maybe not.. Since he was always picking up her titliya.. That day when she had not picked her phone all day also he had brought her home in his arms..
“buaji I will call for a docto..aachchoo”
Somehow, this made buaji very happy. Arnav bitwa was sneezing. He had a cold just like her sankadevi. She patted him fondly on the head and declared, “Dui badan ekahi jaan hui gaye ho babua. Humari ee prameswari and you, both have a cold“.
(You have already become two bodies, but one soul)
She no longer felt even the slightest bit worried for her niece. Aranv bitwa would take care of her Khoosie. She spotted a worried looking Garima outside the kitchen, who had just witnessed her future son-in-law carry her daughter towards her room.
“Ruko Garima, let him go. Chinta ki kono baat naahin hain. Samjhe hu? ..nand kisore sab thik kari hain.. Babua bohot issaq karat hai apni sankadevi se“.
Then in her happy state she noticed NK still lingering about. Nand kisore.. This beautiful looking boy with such a wonderful name had brought such good luck with him. She couldn’t stop herself from pulling his cheeks vigourously..”babua bahute issaq karat hai..“.. Arnav bitwa was not as scary as he looked, buaji thought to herself and walked away to instruct Payaliya to take some food for Khoosie. Arnav bitwa could feed her with his own hands. Buaji patted her own shoulder liking her idea.
ASR tried to pull away after laying Khushi gently on her bed. A dainty hand stopped him.
The rest of her petite body was limp, but one hand held firmly onto his shirt lapel with endearing firmness. He felt an extreme tenderness threaten to overwhelm him. Why did she have to look so completely untouched and lovely while trusting him enough to not let him go.
Damn he would not even think of going anywhere. He was staying right here. I am right here, samjhi tum? Khush.. Aakhen kholo.. Please..
Perfectly on cue, she stirred. Relief washed over ASR. Every sinew in his body had been on edge with worry. He could feel the muscles nerves and tendons to relax. Breathing just became way easier.
“Khushi tum thik ho?“, he asked in the most caring hushed whisper, as she blinked her eyes, still clutching onto his shirt. The sparkle returned in her eyes as she let go of her hold and moved slightly afar.
“Dammit Khushi.. Buaji said tumne khana nahi khaya hai?” he was back to being crazy with worry. Who knew what this paagal would get herself into next? It was almost a 24 hour job keeping her out of trouble. keeping her safe and sound.. Ensuring that her laughter and chatter never stopped..
Instead of answering him, she looked a little loopy as she asked, “you brought a saree for me.. Kyu Arnavji?”
Why.. He had not really thought of why.. NK had offered to buy her a dress. ASR could feel his blood boil even now at the thought.. That was entirely unacceptable. Anyway, there was no telling what NK would choose. And ASR definitely did not like the thought of khushi wearing something brought by anyone else. So, he had called Aman and instructed him to keep aside the green chiffon saree from their latest collection.
Like a painter who instinctively senses the shade that is meant for the picture, ASR knew in his gut that there was this certain saree that was made for Khushi. The saree was to be worn by the show stopper in AR’s “green and gorgeous” collection. But ASR, with disconcerting intensity, wanted to see the saree on someone else. Why? He had not had time to think.. Not yet..
“Boliye na Arnavji?” Khushi was sitting up slowly. He quickly slid a pillow behind her and was getting its angle correct when Payal walked in. A plate with poories and a bowl of aaloo sabzi in her hand.
Payal placed the steel plate in Asr’s hand, still a little troubled. Then she saw Khushi staring at Arnavji, quite oblivious. Love.. Payal beamed. Pulling her sister’s ears and demanding to know why she hadn’t shared her feelings with her jeeji could way. These two needed to be left alone. Her sister was coming with her, marrying into the same house. Payal would have all the time in the world with her sister. She left the room.
“Arnavji you can’t keep quiet aise.. tell me na.. aap saree kyu?”
Arnavji had pushed a bite of puri and aaloo sabzzi into her mouth. “tum baat bahut karti ho“. She found herself melting..dhak dhak dhak.. Even though her acidity was back in full force Khushi had no thought in her head of refusing the food.
Her lips had come down upon two lean fingers. ASR could not tear his eyes away from her. “crap why had buaji not sent rice and a spoon?” ..did he just say that aloud?..
“Kyu? Humein puri aaloo ki sabji bahut pasand hai. And if there was jilebi with..”
His crazy foodie..paagal.. He tore a bigger portion of the puri, took some aloo ki along with it, dipped it into the curry and held it close to her mouth. He smirked.. So Miss Khushi Kumari Gupta was not as unaffected as she was pretending to be. Her fingers were crumpling her dupatta and her eyes were darting everywhere.
“I don’t have the whole day, you know“, almost lazily, he drawled.
“hum khud kha lenge. Give me the plate“. Her eyes were still not meeting his.. her breath rapid.. ASR felt a thrill in his bones. Gorgeous long eyelashes cast a shadow on her red cheeks.. Even her nose had turned the most perfect shade of red, he observed. She was shy.. For some inexplicable reason that felt absolutely wonderful to ASR.
“mujhe khilane do Khushi“, he stated, with his inherent right on her, willing her to look up, and match his intense gaze.
She seemed to hear his call as she haltingly, almost demure, raised her eyes and met his. Slowly her lips parted and she moved forward to take the bit of puri, again brushing his fingers.
“Do you even know what you do to me?“, his voice sounded thick to his ears, thick with an undercurrent hard to ignore.
Her dreamy expression immediately turned feisty…he loved this expression as much as the one just a second before.. Wait.. What had he just admitted in his thoughts?
“hum? Do you know what you do to me Arnavji?“, she was demanding to know. Something inside him wanted to roar in joy and pull her close, never letting her go. Ever.. Instead he settled for leaning forward to wipe off with him thumb the crumbs close to her lips.
Her lips quivered.. She was clearly completely in panic…”I think I do know what I do to you Miss Khushi Kumari Gupta“, he said in triumph and let himself laugh.
That was the only way to deal with this maddening enticing minx, unaware of her own potent spell.
“Chote tum has rahe ho? Khushiji made you laugh for the 2nd time. Tum haste hue kitne achche lagte ho“.
Caught laughing by di again… ASR averted his eyes, discomfited, quite uncharacteristically shy suddenly. Since he ended up looking not at di but elsewhere, a big bright poster caught his attention.
Quite a few expletives threatened to come out of his mouth as he took in the man in white. He looked handsome and had an elan the way he held himself. The man has strong forearms, ASR found himself admit grudgingly. With an heroic effort he stopped himself at, “What the?!!“.
He noticed Khushi almost beside herself in excitement. “aapko achche lage ye? He is my most favourtiest actor after Salman khanji…inki aakhen..anka accent.. His intensity.. ye hain Barun Sobtiji“.
As he fiddled with his blackberry back in his room, ASR was still quite irritated at the thought of a certain poster on a certain girl’s wall. In his opinion, the girl was completely crazy, and was driving him crazy too. He threw is phone on the bed and tried to concentrate on NK and Akash.
“Kamaal hai! Main gaal gaal bacha aaj toh.. No no actually mera gaal hi nahi bacha“. Nk was as usual busy with some nonsense ASR surmised.
“NK bhai what are you saying?” Aakash was actually looking quite interested. ASR noticed Akash had a big blob of, what looked suspiciously like toothpaste, on his right cheek. They used to put toothpaste to soothe bees sting as kids. Had a bee bitten Akash?
“That buaji..kitni scary hai.. She pinched my cheek so hard“.
“NK bhai now stop obsessing over buaji and help me with a plan. I want to do something for Payalji“.
ASR was cursing himself. Why was he sitting with these pair of idiots? He reached out moodily for his phone again.
“Isme kya gari baat hai? NK has the perfect plan. Romance and no dance.. how boring Akash. Tum Payalji ke sath dance karo“. This was going to be interesting, ASR thought as he heard NK.
“NK bhai this is a useless plan. I cannot just walk into Payalji’s room and play a song and start dancing. Your favourite buaji will come“. Aakash atleast has some sense left in him. ASR’s inner voice continued its commentary.
“Oh no no no Akash! kya ke re ho? This is a very scary plan. Cancel. But I have another. Nk bilkul kamaal hai. You call Payalji outside, it will rain and bheenge hue you both can dance“.
“And rain is just waiitng for a phone call from NK!“. ASR couldn’t help himself join the conversation. He kept his phone aside.
NK looked sufficiently affronted. “Don’t just sit there like a spoil sport and find faults in my brilliant plans nannav“, he complained.
“Ha bhai suggest something “, Akash was quite expectant.
ASR did not even need time to think to come to a solution. The pragmatic resourceful man had a perfectly logical solution. “Akash stop complicating things. Keep a party. It is the logical place to dance with your future wife“.
“nannv kamaal ka idea hai. Hum sangeet karenge. I have seen it in all bollywood films.. And even you can dance with Khushiji. After all idhar do do bulhe hai“. NK was already excited. His eye brows moving up and down.
“NK bulhe nahi dulhe. And not two. There is only one groom. Main nai shadi kar raha hun. And neither am I dancing“. ASR again picked up his phone and started to randomly type in some numbers.
“Tab toh aur bhi achcha hai nannav. Khushiji told me she lovs dancing. Main unke sath dance kar lunga“.