the train was about to pull away from the platform, the coolie ran in front of her with her huge suitcases, both precariously balanced on his head. as he ran, he kept looking back and calling out desperately, “jaldi kariye, train miss ho jayga!”
(hurry up, you’ll miss the train!)
khushi trudged behind him, on slow leaden feet. she didn’t want to go. why did she have to leave? why couldn’t she stay in delhi? and why did bua ji pack all the sweets in her suitcase, didn’t she know people with sugar ki bimari, that bad sugar disease, could not eat sweets? how could the train be right here? she didn’t want to reach the door of her coach.
and now the coolie was holding her hand and pulling her along… the suitcases had disappeared and instead of his own face he had arnav ji’s face…
no no not arnav ji.
his eyes were smouldering… so much fire… here in bali there was a volcano they had told her. but what bali? this was delhi. he tugged her hard and ran fast. they were at the door of her coach.
the announcement droned on, “shatabdi express is ready to leave for lucknow from platform number 9… shatabdi express is ready to leave for lucknow… shatabdi express is …”
he looked at her and without a word lifted her up in his arms.
she could feel his silk shirt against her cheek. but he was the coolie, so coolies wore silk shirts nowadays… not those rough cotton bright red long shirts! she snuggled into the shirt.
he raised her high and deposited her inside the train.
she looked aghast at him. the door slammed shut between them. he raised an arm and smiled a cold nasty smile, his lower lip turned derisively.
“get out, khushi kumari gupta,” he said coolly as the train began its journey.
“nahiiin!” khushi was wailing loudly as her eyes opened. payal came running out of the bathroom, brandishing a toothbrush.
“kya hua… what happened, khushi?!” she was worried, what had happened to khushi?!
“huh?!” khushi sat up in bed and looked around confused, trying to focus. no this was not the new delhi station, no crowds, no smell. only jiji, and the calming scent of frangipani. bali, yes, they were here. that was only a dream. no no, nightmare.
khushi sighed and lay back in bed promptly. next second she was fast asleep.
payal looked at her sister and said “pagli!” in a most indulgent tone and went back to finish her ablutions.
asr had gone for an early morning run on the beach and was now sitting by the water in a quiet little patch, working and waiting for jean pierre to join him. he was feeling far more energetic and focused today. he could sense ideas beginning within him somewhere. it was always such a good feeling. oh yes, this bali trip was going to work out. he hadn’t been wrong… no, he hadn’t. those were just minor hiccups. beside, only two days had been unproductive, there were five more days to do good, nah, fantastic work, dammit.
he breathed in the fresh morning air. he could smell the sea in the air… and hear sea shells.
“good morning, aahnav,” jean pierre was here, “and ‘ow are you today, my friend? you know i ‘ave been theenking, and…”
“and?” asr cocked a dark pronounced eyebrow.
“volcano!” jean pierre said dramatically.
“volcano…” the corner of asr’s lips began to lift.
“boom! erupt, fire smoke ‘azard… colours… a million colours!” jean pierre’s grey green eyes sparkled, he was onto something good and he knew it.
bali always meant the sand and the sea somehow, and both asr and he had wanted something else from here. when the project started, that was asr’s brief, get to the gut of bali, beyond its heart, beyond what had been fathomed… deeper still.
asr had a hunch there was more to this beautiful island that fashion could explore. something other than the calm and the green and the lovely connotations of the sea and the almost mystical feeling that was bali… all floaty, and free and amorphous.
“agung!” asr’s voice had a streak of crazy excitement.
“ye… yes… ahhnav… ze beeg volcano, majestic, ‘igh, angry, alive, immortal… ‘ighest point on ze island, at 10,000 feet ze open, still alive crater of mount agung, ze volcano people believe is like mount meghoo (meru)… imagine… smoke… extreme temperature, flames… fire… spewing!” the more jean pierre spoke, the more excited he sounded.
“what eef, ahhnav, what eef, ziss bali we create for ze collection, we interpret, we colour, we fantasize, we wrap ourselves in…” he turned to asr.
asr seemed far far away.
he could see the flames… they rose high and swayed. orange, yellow, blue, vapour on the edges. raging and wild. in their heart a bunch of frangipani. then he saw her face turning toward him, a hint of a smile playing on her lips.
he blinked… from somewhere far away an information he’d picked during his voracious reading came and got stuck to the visual. frangipani doesn’t burn except in very high temperatures… above 500 degrees centigrade.
“blooms in agung,” asr said quietly.
“ca va! that sounds divine, ahhnav!” jean pierre liked the sound too much to do nothing about it. he picked up a sketch pad and started drawing with long easy fluid strokes.
“what made you think of the volcano, jean pierre?” asr asked frowning, no stories of the fierce agung lately, not even belching smoke. strange, the young man had suddenly felt its spell.
jean pierre continued drawing, he was not about to tell the man who asked the question that yesterday morning he had felt the rage and soar of asr, the fire in him ready to break free and come flowing out. he’d wondered was there a place like that right here in bali. that rage he’d wanted to use as material, and the feeling which triggered it he wished he could create a whole collection around. did that feeling have a name? had the man who’d felt it given it a thought.
men and women get bound by all kinds of emotion. not all are logical. in fact, what was he thinking, none of them were logical. not one. and that was the whole beauty of it.
jean pierre smiled as he worked away.
“good morning, sir, akash ji has sent these files for you,” khushi’s voice startled both men. asr looked up and grimaced, lips tightening. jean pierre sprang to his feet and smiled. “oui, ma cherie! eet ees indeed a very bon jour!”
khushi smiled shyly at jean pierre then placing the files on the table, and turned to leave.
“wait!” asr called out, terse and peremptory.
khushi could feel her hackles rise, but she stopped in her tracks.
“look at me when i talk to you, dammit!” came the next brusque command.
khushi turned around slowly.
“go and get me two vases filled with red frangipani!” said asr.
“laal… red?!!” khushi almost shrieked. porters wear red uniforms, and that porter with asr’s face was saying, “get…”
“get me some red fraginpani! why are you shrieking?”
“n…nahiin toh, what shrieking… i can get the red flowers… i am not scared…” khushi muttered and stalked off.
asr swore under his breath and exclaimed, “is she mad?!”
jean pierre didn’t lift his gaze, but he couldn’t stop his smile. illogical and beautiful this man woman thing, he thought. he would devote the collection to it. blooms in agung, he liked the name.
lavanya walked up just as khushi left, “good morning, you two,” she was sounding happy.
“i think we’ve cracked eet, la!” jean pierre said.
“you have? tell me, tell me, asr! what’s the idea?” asr looked up and started to smile, and was about to answer when she continued, “and what was that behenji doing here? really, akash should give her more work!”
“usska ek naam hai! she has a name, lavanya! next time, use it!” asr said sharply, all signs of a smile gone in an instant, and went back to his papers.
lavanya couldn’t believe what he’d just done. she felt herself go hot all over, then icy cold. she turned and walked swiftly away. asr didn’t bother to look up. after a couple of seconds, jean pierre got up and left with a casual, “i’ll see you soon, ahhnav.”
“why are you so frantic, khushi?” payal asked perplexed.
“frantic? no! just that i have to make jalebis, straight after i have got the frangipani for that…” and she gritted her teeth, “that laad governor, that rakshas that… that…”
“ok, khushi, calm down now, calm down… he has a name you know,” payal wished she knew what was bothering her sister. she looked very upset.
khushi continued cutting flowers from the lower branches of the tree by asr’s villa. large, beautiful bunches of crimson and yellow flowers filled the vases. once they were done, she looked around, saw a waiter passing by and ran after him.
when she came back, she looked pleased, she picked up the flowers and went off.
jean pierre caught up with lavanya quite easily. she was walking along the beach, still angry, he walked beside her. neither said anything. lavanya was in no state to. and jean pierre knew this was not the time to.
the sea was extraordinarily lovely this morning, a shimmery surface connecting brown earth and bright blue skies. young children played in the water, a few surfers were out, you could here children’s laughter when the wind carried it this way. looked like the perfect day for a tropical cocktail on the beach… a mai tai or maybe a sex on the beach…
suddenly la stopped walking. jean pierre paused too, looking at her.
then she turned to him, pulled him close swiftly and started kissing him long and hard on the lips. a passionate burning desperate demanding kiss.
he could sense her angst, her hurt, her need through it all, even though he was taken aback by the abruptness. he let her kiss him, responding a little when he felt she was ready.
then he put his arms around her and brought her close, kissing her back with eagerness, with tenderness. as gentle as she’d been brutal.
when it was over, he could feel the tautness had left her body, he lifted his head and smiled at her, pulling her to the bench by the water. she sat down and stayed quiet.
“would you care for some sex on the beach?” jean pierre asked, his eyes twinkling.
“with more cranberry and less orange juice, please,” la said then looked up at him and gave him a smile… she wanted to thank this man… he’d understood what asr perhaps never ever would.
la knew asr was not in love with her, that he would perhaps never be in love with anyone. la knew what they had between them was just a casual thing. he had made no promises, nor asked for any. they had liked each other, they had similar interests, both were a bit lonely in their own way, and as two adults they had started a relationship which was clearly not about deeper things.
unfortunately, she had begun to care. even if she knew that would not happen with asr.
which is why it bothered her so much. must asr behave in that most un-asr like manner with this girl in gota churidar kurta? la couldn’t stand it. couldn’t he see this chamkili in shiny things and pompoms with her “jis” and ridiculous small town ways was just not his kind of girl… and… and…
a part of her knew she should not let it affect her, her reactions only made her look like an idiot. but she seemed to have no control over them.
jean pierre sat down next to her and caught hold of her hand, “when was ze last time you saw ze west bank, my dear la?” he asked, “and were you taken around eet by ze expert?”
they both knew he was flirting and doing the french young man thing to help her get away from her feelings. she decided she’d let him succeed, because she did want to work on the project and needed her wits and canniness about her for that.
“so what was the idea, jp, tell me and yes, if you are asking me to come to paris for a break, i will,” jean pierre looked at the calming lavanya and grinned.
“volcano!” he said.
khushi walked out of the kitchen with a huge platter of crispy orange hot sweet jalebis.
she had managed to convince the cook of the little restaurant by their villas to let her make her squiggly swirly magical favourite sweets. she just had to make them today. first that laad governor threatening to throw her out of her job, then that mean coolie in a silk shirt in her nightmare… khushi’s eyes narrowed at the thought of him and then she recalled the curt man on the beach ordering her about… oooph!
when payal wanted to know how she’d got them to allow her to cook in their kitchen, khushi smiled dramatically, jumped on the bed and struck a pose, “hum khushi kumari gupta jalebi banana chaahe aur woh na ho paaye? asambhav, kanya… aao hum tumhe ayodhya putra ram ji ke kahani sunate hain… ek din, dashrath ji ne…”
(i, khushi kumari gupta should want to make jalebis and that not happen? impossible, maiden… come, i’ll tell you the story of ayodhya’s son, ram ji… one day, dashrath ji…)
“ruko, khushi! stop!” cried payal, “tell me what happened in a nice simple way, can you? haan, koshish kar, khushi, koshish kar, meri pyaari behna…” payal had no idea how filmi she was sounding, obviously living with her sister had had its effect on her.
(stop, khushi, stop! tell me what happened in a nice, simple way, can you? yes, try, khushi, try, my sweet sis…)
akash was passing by the villa and through the open window saw the two girls and the large mound of jalebis. he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but he knew he wanted a couple of those delicious looking jalebis. three days of eating balinese, sundanese, javanese, italian, french, had made him hungry for desi food.
his mouth watered as he stood watching.
“okay, i will tell you in a simple way,” khushi leaped off the bed, “do you know, jiji, they love the ramayana here in bali? i mean they adore it… garuda, jataayu, oh… i told them the story of the golden deer and how that wicked, terrible, bad, monstrous…”
“khushi…” payal said gently, putting a brake on the runaway thoughts of her sister, bringing her back to the story…
“sorry, jiji, yes, that ravan…” khushi paused trying to control her feelings, “ravan, jiji, i told the cook the tale of ravan stealing sita ji and jataayu ji coming to save her… the cook loved my version so much, he let me make jalebis… well i said to him that sita ji must have loved jalebis…”
“what!” payal started giggling. sita ji loved jalebis… “khushi, you are mad!”
“no, jiji! not mad!” khushi laughed as she changed her voice and did a perfect impersonation of her stern aunt, “arri oh payaliya, tu kaahe itna bhool jawat hou, bitiya… ee toh hai hamar sanka devi, hooonh!”
(oh payal, why do you forget so many things, girl… this is our goddess of craziness, huh!)
payal turned back to answer her and saw akash standing there staring at them. a rush of embarrassment and a strange shyness overcame her. how silly they must have looked to khushi’s nice boss.
“payal ji…” akash was soft and a bit lost as usual, he took off his glasses and whipped out his handkerchief to polish imaginary marks off the lenses, “er, i was thinking… i mean, those jalebis…” he mumbled.
“what, akash ji? jalebis?” payal looked perplexed, then realised what akash was trying to hint at. “oh of course, please come in and have some jalebis,” payal opened the door and let a happy akash in.
khushi was offering prashad to her devi maiyya with the freshly made jalebis, so payal served some to akash motioning him to sit down and have them. akash grabbed the plate and went for a golden yellow swirl with alacrity.
he ate with relish while payal watched amused. she had no idea that a grown man could look so happy munching on a simple jalebi.
“aap jalebi… er… banati hain?” akash suddenly popped the question. for some reason it felt like an important one.
(do you… er… make jalebis?)
payal nodded and replied, “yes, i do… but khushi is the expert..”
khushi came running out of the room with the platter, “akash ji! is there anything else you’d like me to do?” khushi looked happy, “the sun is about to set, can i go and just offer some jalebis to ganesh ji and then finish the rest of my work?”
“ganesh ji?” akash hadn’t a clue what khushi was talking about.
“nahin,” payal stepped in, “akash ji, she means that big idol of ganesh ji out there near the water, which they decorate with fresh flowers every day… you’ve seen it, na?”
“oh, yes yes, of course, khushi ji…” akash replied and went for the fourth jalebi.
he stood before the water looking out at the tide coming in. the waves had started growing larger. the sea was not calm this evening as the sun set… something out in the horizon called. he could feel the images coming at him over the waves. images he didn’t want to see. voices he didn’t want to hear. he closed his eyes, his face was drawn, he waited for the feeling to pass but he knew it was in vain.
“maa!” again he heard the voice somewhere near his chest… it was his voice… he was running down a gigantic cavernous corridor, up endless steps, and then he was at the door, but there was no one there… before him only a steep fall into nothingness. a gun went off and a flock of pigeons flapped their wings and passed close to him as they escaped into the darkness.
asr opened his eyes with a start. he knew the day was coming near. again a year had passed and again he and di would be saying prayers before large framed photographs of his mother… his father. it was their parents’ death anniversary in about ten days… photographs…
he winced at the the thought. his whole body seemed to take the blow and stiffened. he slowly opened his eyes and tried to bring his breath back to even keel.
this wouldn’t do.
he was not weak.
he stood still and looked on as the waves rose higher and higher.
she went on happy light steps to the statue of the elephant headed god with her jalebis and some flowers she’d picked along the way. she did a namaste to ganesh ji then got busy decorating him with white hibiscus, red hibiscus, pink frangipani, and lovely variegated leaves.
when she was done, she offered him a little basket heaped with jalebis from her platter.
“i know you love modak, ganesh ji,” she said, hands folded, eyes closed “but today i have made these fresh jalebis… you’ll eat them, na? i made it with a lot of love… and not only because of that… you know that… laad governor… he says he’ll send me away… that i can’t work… but hey vighnaharta, you will remove all obstacles, won’t you? i have talked to devi maiyya too… i really need to earn that money for jiji’s wedding… yes yes, i promise, that is the only reason i don’t want to leave… please accept this prashad and now i’d better go, akash ji has lots of work for me!”
she picked up the rest of the jalebis and was about to leave when she saw him.
he was standing alone, so terribly still, his back to her.
what was wrong with arnav ji, she wondered. then she admonished herself, “shut up, khushi, stop thinking you know everything… something is wrong… huh!” she made a wry face, “nothing is wrong… that rakshas is standing there making plans to shout at or scold somebody, rob some innocent’s smile, that’s what… what else does this horrible man do… the whole day…”
yet even as she said all this to herself, her feet carried her toward him, till she was right behind him and that’s when she realised what had happened and stopped dead in her tracks.
hey devi maiyya, what was she doing here? her eyes widened. she couldn’t move.
he felt a slight breeze from behind, it touched his neck, caressed his ear and went on toward the ocean. what was that, he wondered, his mind still lost in thoughts that tormented, a pain that never seemed too far away.
he turned slowly to make his way back to his room and before him stood a girl with wide open eyes, and a tray of jalebis in her hand.
a sense of deja vu passed silently between them as the last rays of the sun dissolved in the waves.
she looked at his bleak face and felt a crazy storm begin to rise in the pit of her stomach.
he looked at her silly green pompoms, her innocent uncomplicated air, and those large eyes. something near his chest gave way.
he reached her in one long stride and took the jalebis from her hand…
“nahiin… you can’t have them, anjali ji said diabetes, you have that diabetes, that sugar thing… you…”
he put the platter on a nearby bench and turned back to her…
then she had no idea why but her arms reached up toward him as his came out and went around her waist taking her close to him, so close, she could feel his buttons against her chest, she could feel his heart beat, she let her arms go around his neck and looked up at him… all she wanted to do was take that awfully beaten look away from his face…
he gazed at her face rapt, when had he last seen such lack of guile, such beauty… that night when she’d dashed into him, ruining his clothes… yeah those jalebis, even that night those jalebis, dammit…
with an incoherent murmur he sought her lips with his. when he found them, he took them without guilt or frenzy, they were his to kiss and that was all that there was to it. his, always his.
why were her lips so soft? why was she so pliant? so ready and giving? who was she? where had she come from? when did she begin to matter? was she real?
and then at last he stopped thinking.
khushi held him tight and let him kiss her… she had not resisted the first time till reality had struck all of a sudden. but this time, she knew she wanted this, if this was what was needed to make him look like himself… nasty and powerful.
she groaned and stood on tip toe, seeking his lips, reaching deeper, wanting to give him more.
he swallowed hard and gently bit her delicate lips, coaxing them open with his tongue, as his tongue probed further, she let hers press against his, a hunger grew in her she’d never known before. she held his head in both hands and sighed as he continued to kiss her, play with her lips, her mouth, her tongue… she sighed again and let her fingers trail along his cheek, the close cropped stubble felt so good against her fingers, it tickled, it hurt, it made her feel strange things, she wanted to touch it with her lips, she broke the kiss and let her lips graze against his cheek, she nibbled and then kissed his cheek tenderly…
he smiled against her cheek, “hey, where are you going?” he murmurred and drew her lips right back to his within seconds. khushi clung to him. he stopped kissing her for a moment only to sit down on the sand and draw her onto his lap, then he lay back and let her lie on top of him as he kissed her behind her ears, on her cheeks, her forehead, her eyes. he could see her smiling and somehow that was all he wished to see at this instant. nothing else.
every now and then she found herself looking at his face. was he ok? his eyes were half closed, but she could feel the desire in them, a half smile lifted one side of his lips, he was looking like… yes, he was beginning to look like laad governor… khushi lifted a finger and put it on his lips, “aap hanstey hue bilkul laad governor nahin lagtey!” she whispered.
(when you laugh you don’t look like laad governor at all!)
“khushi!” his voice was hoarse with longing. the “kh” exploding as the heat rose and spread and flowed all around.
his hand moved over her back and then came slowly around her body, for a second it paused on her waist then came to rest gently on her breast. khushi felt her breath tremble, then almost burst. she exhaled very, very slowly. her knees were turning to water, there were a thousand different arousals in every part of her body. she had never felt like this before and all she knew was she never did want this to stop. she stared at him with all her longing and every bit of helplessness she felt. she remembered him holding her hand in the plane, helping her out. his hand…
for an instant they stayed still and quiet, looking into each others eyes.
then he held her tight and rolled over till she lay on the sand, he took her face in both his hands and ordered, “never leave me, do you understand? never!”
and he buried his face in her hair.
she lay there still too alive to his touch to think, feeling the sand between her toes, near the collar of her kurta… she wriggled her toes. she turned her face and kissed his jaw bone, and was thrilled to hear him groan as he took her in his arms and started kissing her on the lips ravenously once more.