khushi sat head bent before devi maiyya. something inside her trembled even now.
why was he so angry with her? and what was it she had felt as he had hauled her to him, his arms unyielding around her even as he shouted and berated her?
khushi closed her eyes remembering the heat of his breath on her face, the fury emanating. she had felt bludgeoned by it, almost physically hit. perhaps when she decided to go to the temple on her own she had meant to rile him a bit for not coming to fetch her, but this level of anger!
khushi looked at devi maiyya and said, “why? why is he like this? and why does it hurt me so much, yet i… i…” her tears started to flow then.
he had said, “you are right, doesn’t make a difference, koi faraq nahin padta.” how could he say such a thing… and this was not the first time he was saying she meant nothing to him. even if not the last time, surely this time he knew it would hurt her…
he could be angry, perhaps that was his way… yes, he had his gussa, she knew that. he could shout and scream and even shake her by her shoulders… khushi touched the edge of her shoulder as she thought that and winced, “devi maiyya, though i am saying he can shake me by the shoulders, actually i’d rather he didn’t, it really hurts, ouch! what’s happening to me? okay i won’t say that any more… i know you have given me the answer…”
in a flash, interrupting her train of thought, came the feeling she had felt standing by the fairy lights the previous night.
a surge of warm and mellow things. it poured through her and seemed to soothe away her shock and hurt. it filled her and made her want to melt. like chocolate.
chocolate brown eyes twinkled in her mind.
she loved arnav ji, yes, that was what she felt for him. why she had no idea, she just did. and that seemed to be all that she wanted to feel, even if she… and now her feelings frayed and shuddered, but she went ahead and completed what her mind had started to say.
even if she meant nothing to him… made no difference.
what! what was she saying. winded by her own thoughts she reached for the ber which she had unconsciously put on the table as he dragged her to him.
her heart beats could feel his almost, so close they’d been. khushi shut her eyes tight and popped a ber into her mouth. the salt hit her tongue, then her teeth plunged into the fruit bursting the skin, eager to feel the sting of sudden sharp sourness, and because by now she knew exactly how the sensation went, she searched for the sweetness that came straight after, just under the sour. a perfect sweetness; crisp yet delicate. it was that sweetness she particularly looked for. wasn’t always there. only in some seasons.
again she halted her thoughts. what was she thinking of? she was supposed to be angry and upset… and now she was muttering about ber in her head?
really, she was sanka devi… no, she was parmeswari.
and he was rak… a memory of di’s gentle hold on her elbow made her pause. what was it his sister had said? arnav ji’s amma had killed herself? because his babu ji was… unfaithful?
khushi looked at devi maiyya and couldn’t help the tears that began to cloud her vision again.
the ruby on her finger glittered as her hand lay still on her lap. she thought of the kabooter with blood red eyes and sobbed, she thought of crimson frangipani and wanted to wail.
she meant nothing to him, koi faraq nahin padta… but he meant so much, so much to her.
she looked around the room, wondering how long she would be able to bear this thick ache in her. he had been harsh and walked away.
and if it didn’t make a difference what were they doing here in this mess? why were they getting married? he had tricked her into agreeing. why? he wouldn’t answer. and marriage was not a thing that could be just flung away and stalked off from the moment anger came?
or could it? was that what he would do?
terrible thoughts started buzzing inside her head. confusing and uncontrollable. her breath caught in her throat. she could feel herself sinking and struggling to stay afloat, alive. she looked down at her hands, at the ring.
di had guessed he had chosen it. he had. a lump invaded her throat. should a girl’s first love be so difficult? she raised her eyes to devi maiyya and there was a complaint in her gaze. she had offered such fresh gujias for prashad just a while back, thanking her for making her know what she felt. now she wished she had not realised a thing.
she wished she could go right back to hating him.
a note of hope traipsed in.
buaji called her titaliya, butterfly, maybe she was just that and could fly and flit from feeling to feeling. she would show that laad governor. she narrowed her eyes and stared ahead, decidedly unkind thoughts going through her mind.
“sir…” aman had called him twice already but asr had not looked up. he sat at his desk, a frown creased his high forehead. his eyes looked glazed as if he were lost in another world.
aman wondered if all was well with the show. he knew asr was tense about it, this year was a crucial one, several new players were aggressive in the market and given the economic woes of the world, buyers did seem to get swayed by lower prices without caring too much about quality, unlike the more robust years in the past.
aman had no doubt his boss would find a way through this. it always fascinated him to see how arnav singh raizada’s mind worked. how he faced issues squarely and dealt with them. he looked at asr almost indulgently. thankfully, his boss did not see that.
but today, why was it that aman sensed it was not work that brought that look on asr’s face? it seemed like something else…
both men were immersed in their thoughts when the phone rang.
asr started and snatched his phone up from where it lay next to the laptop, and answered without checking who was calling.
“yes!” his voice was terse.
aman was about to signal he was in the room, when he saw the frown lines disappear from his boss’s forehead almost magically.
his lips moved a little, then the faintest smile came. had he ever seen asr smile like that before?
but what caught aman off guard really was the sudden glint in the dark brown eyes. a moment ago they were opaque, cold. now there was a lightness in them, they shone.
aman had never seen his boss look like this. he stared. that’s when asr glanced up and saw him.
instantly his expression underwent a mercurial change.
“what the f…!” asr said sharply under his breath as he frowned darkly.
before aman could answer, asr looked away. he was listening to what the caller was saying it seemed. a second later with an exasperated shake of his head, he banged the phone down on his desk and stood up.
“aman, whatever it is, we’ll talk later,” asr rapped out and went quickly toward the door that led into the small office next to his.
aman shook his head, he was never not a little fazed by his boss’s alacrity, the fleetness that was so typically him. and he could have sworn he had seen that smile before.
wasn’t it on the day he had wondered about persuading miss gupta to come and work at ar and asr had said “that’s taken care of”? yes, that was the day he had flown to lucknow though aman didn’t know of any meeting scheduled. definitely, the smile was there that day.
he walked briskly into the room and shut the door behind him.
khushi looked up startled. she had been sitting at her desk eating ber it looked like.
“i didn’t say that to you…” he said without preamble.
khushi kept quiet, she gazed down at her hands, her lips moved a little, some feeling overwhelming them.
“look at me, khushi, when i talk to you,” he rasped out.
she turned resolutely away and stared at her computer.
he swallowed hard. when he had answered the phone and heard her simple, softly said, “haylow!” he had felt his insides quicken. lightness… a quicksilver lightness. he had wanted to hold her just then. and say he didn’t mean anything he had said… nothing… he was terribly worried… that was all. he couldn’t bear to think of anything happening to her.
he might have said it too, if he could bring himself to handle that lightness.
but then he had seen aman and the expletive had come rushing out.
“it was not you i said that to… it was aman…” he said brusquely.
at that her yes moved swiftly and she was staring at him, had she been crying?
he closed the distance between them and peered down at her.
“were you… were you crying?” he meant to ask that crisply yet his voice went hoarse on the last word.
she continued to stare at him without a word. her heart beat had hastened to a point where she could barely think let alone speak. why was arnav ji giving her explanations? why was he standing so close and was that concern in his eyes?
why? especially since faraq nahin padta. koi faraq nahin padta.
(especially since, doesn’t make a difference. doesn’t make any difference.)
her heart beat picked up volume and pace. she blinked at him but couldn’t really speak. why was nothing about this feeling easy? even though it was he who had been so nasty and rude, she had known he was upset… she didn’t like him feeling that way… she never had.
she had wanted to know how he was doing but she didn’t want him to think she cared so she did not go to his room right next to hers. yet she had to reach him, had to know, so she had made that call.
he walked around the desk to her side and waved a hand before her face.
“tum theek ho?” he was sounding worried now, “answer me, khushi! are you okay?”
she nodded her head silently. a few moments passed, then she held out the packet of ber to him.
he stared at her hand holding the crumpled chit of paper with a few brown little berries covered in salt and spices on it… what the!
he shook his head and said, “unbelievable!”
the next moment he was gone.
asr walked out of the room but could not stop thinking about khushi and her safety. something had to be done about shyam and sooner than he had thought.
things were not under control. yes, he had put shyam under surveillance, but since the attack on lavanya it had become clear to him that shyam was dangerous and if he felt pressured for too long he could act unpredictably… he could do damage.
di… no he could not let di go on living with this man. she could not be with him for six more months. not with a man who had no morals and who would not stop at anything, not even murder.
his stride grew more urgent as thoughts of his sister began to filter through.
how would he keep her safe? and khushi?
he noticed he was standing in front of the office shared by his two young designers. he walked in. it had been a while since he’d taken a look at their work… he needed to think about work now… he had to calm down before he thought of a solution to the problem of shyam.
that needed to be solved with a clear head; he knew right now his emotions were too roiled.
salman was drawing furiously at his work station. kareena was on the floor, several drawings scattered around her, she seemed to be in deep thought.
both of them stopped work… what did the boss want! was everything alright, he usually did not walk into their office like this.
perhaps something urgent?
“please carry on working,” asr said, “i just wanted to check in and see how’s it going… anyone got a thought on ravenous yet? jean pierre must have mentioned it!”
“food, sleep, chocolate… sex!” said kareena immediately, her head nodding at every word, curls bobbing as she seemed to tick off from a checklist.
asr’s left eyebrow shot up.
salman made a wry face. and making sure asr couldn’t see him, he shook his head at kareena his hand gesturing a neat slicing off of the neck.
kareena jumped up as soon as she realised what she had said, she could sense the quiet quick tension permeating the room.
“sorry, sir… i was… just doing a free association with the word.. you know… brain.. stor…” she began to peter off, kicking herself mentally for being so impetuous. this was the owner of ar asking a serious question and before shooting her mouth off she might have paused for a second. thought a little.
but now it was too late. she looked sheepish and waited for the scathing put down. asr was not exactly known for his honey tongue; nor his tolerance.
“sex is good!” came the clipped voice. kareena’s head shot up, she stared at the man in brown suit with a perfectly matched olive tie… how do you manage to wear brown and green and not look like a tree, her agile mind skimmed the question even as she gaped at the cool response.
“okay, think about it, you two… do keep in mind the prudish censors and yes… taste. good taste… ar is all about that,” he gave a brief, tight smile and left the room.
kareena almost collapsed. she was sure she had to find a way to never leave this and be plunged into the grey world of management. brown and green and red and pink and blue swirled in her head… ravenous had to be delineated through sex but with taste.
salman whispered, “you’re nuts, kareena… but you’re good!”
they hi fived like the young twenty somethings they were. neither thought it strange that it was impossible to imagine their twenty something boss… hi fiving.
khushi was trying hard to concentrate on the figures on her computer screen, akash ji had left her with some number crunching charts and graphs… though babu ji always said her sense of math was perfect and she really liked calculating things for his mithai shop… but today, her mind was on anything but those squiggles on the screen.
when he said, “unbelievable!” like that and looked her up and down, she felt her heart flip and her head go flying. she was still trying to settle her various shaken bits and it was almost an hour since he had left. really, khushi kumari gupta, if this is your state now, how will you handle things after four days… once you are…
her heart plunged to her toes…
she was going to be married in four days. the meaning of that statement seemed to finally hit her.
what was wrong with her? how had she agreed to this completely bizarre idea. and actually let herself be tricked into it too…
no! she would not marry him.
yes! she did… l…l…like him.. but no, she was not going to let him force her into this marriage.
she thought she felt someone looking at her.
she turned and there was devi maiyya, sitting quietly on the desk.
“are you looking at me?” she asked aloud, “yes, you are! and why are you smiling… this is not right, devi maiyya, i am in such a difficult situation and you…! jaiyye, hum aap se baat nahin karenge!”
(go, i won’t talk to you!)
the phone rang, she answered with a distracted, “haylow!”
it was bua ji. “arri o titaliya, phool gobi ke samose bahut swaadist banai hai tohar amma, aoor oo methi chutniya bhi… when you come back this evening with arnav bitwa, tell him to have some tea and samosa with us… theek hayeen?” said her aunt.
(hey butterfly, your mother has made really tasty cauliflower samosas, also the methi chutney… when you come back this evening with arnav bitwa, tell him to have some tea and samosa with us… okay?)
“not tea, bua ji… he drinks only coffee… that too black… without even a chutki of sugar,” khushi sounded quite irritated.
(without even a pinch of sugar.)
“sanka devi, now what’s eating at you? why can’t you ever be calm and placid… see, like me? hain? why?” bua ji sounded concerned, she was ecstatic for both her nieces. her aunt’s instinct told her that the “boys” were absolute gems… yes, one was a bit abrupt and felt too angrez but he was so romantic… imagine sending a plane to pick up her titaliya.
bua ji sighed. she wouldn’t admit it to anyone but while both the young men were good and deserving of her nieces, arnav singh raizada felt like a specially exciting man to her… she knew her parmeswari would have a fantastic life with him, a thought that made her very happy indeed. the little orphan girl who had walked into her life all those years ago, large innocent eyes and a funny wide smile… madhumati knew she would never have a child by then… maybe the little girl had become her daughter, without anyone ever quite realising it.
but suddenly now, now as her matrimony approached and the strains of bidaai were already in the air… only four more days and then it was time to let her go… bua ji felt pangs which were no less than a mother’s.
she swallowed hard, the chain with the om locket cut into the folds of her neck, she said, “parmeswari, haldi ke bakhat, tum hamari laal lehenga peheniyo, theek hayeen?” and swung her long plait over the shoulder with a swish, trying to grapple with her emotions.
(supreme goddess, during the turmeric ceremony, you wear my red lehenga, okay?)
khushi almost bawled at the mention of her haldi. she was not going to marry that horrible man. and haldi in bua ji’s lehenga?!! khushi wanted to weep copiously… a girl had only one haldi and hers would be in bua ji’s huge lehenga.
she mumbled a “yes” and disconnected the line.
the phone rang again, must be bua ji she grumbled to herself and answered the call with a resigned air all set to hear about the marriage she was definitely not going to go through with.
“haylow, buaji?-” she started but a smooth svelte voice cut her off.
“khushi kumari gupta,” the caller said, it was a lady, “remember… if you marry arnav singh raizada, there will be consequences…” khushi gasped audibly.
“… we shall ruin his show… and in case you think that is a minor blow… remember also, one failure this year and it would take years for your…” the speaker paused, clearly for effect, and then continued, “fiance’s company to get back in business again… have a good day, ciao darling,” the woman spoke at an even pace with utter confidence; a little cool laughter toward the end and the phone went dead.
just then the door opened and asr walked in. khushi was startled, worn out, shocked by that last call, she blurted out the first thing that popped into her head,
“samosa… bua ji wants you to eat cauliflower samosa…”
he walked across to her, his gaze never leaving her face… her mind went blank, all she could think was, why were his eyes so glittery and like warm chocolate suddenly? why was he not angry or sarcastic or nasty…
he came up to her desk and stood opposite her, a hint of amusement in the irises now.
then he put both his hands on the desk and leaned over, bending down, when he was almost at eye level with her, he murmured, “khushi kumari gupta, do you ever think of anything other than food?”
she would have perhaps answered him, but his lips had caught hold of hers by then, he had started kissing her right there in her office, bending across her desk.
khushi blushed and wondered why her lips were pressing against his so hungrily. yes, please kiss me, her mind seemed to scream.
she realised she had missed him doing just that this morning, she reached up and slipped her arms around his neck, pulling him down.
“whoa!” he seemed to be laughing, “you’ve missed me, haven’t you?” he was biting her lips playfully.
“come!” he said and pulled her up, drawing her around her desk till she stood before him, breathless and unresisting, her eyes gazing over his features… the dark dark eyebrows, the sharp widow’s peak, the chiseled, fine lips, the lower one thicker, fuller and thrusting forward a bit, her eyes felt drowsy with craving. she reached up and kissed the right corner of his lips where it pulled down a little, an asymmetrical tug to it. something seemed to erupt in him.
“khushi, dammit!” he said softly and started to kiss her again. his arms looped around her hips and pulled her against him, he was leaning against her desk, she could feel her thighs pressing against his as she fell forward. she didn’t demur or stop. she wanted to be near him… she wanted…
he crushed her to him and all thought ended. his lips left a trail of feather light kisses across her face. they moved to her throat, her collar bones, he kissed his way up her neck to her eyelids. she murmured incoherently and turned her head, kissing him wherever her lips landed… she wanted arnav ji to be with her hamesha and love her like this.
khushi went still.
what was she thinking? he didn’t love her.
“um hmm, not a smart move, there will be consequences,” he said sounding amused though she could hear he was breathless and not really in control. he started to kiss her hard on her lips. but she drew away sharply. consequences… yes, that is what that lady had said. they would wreck his show, his company would suffer… if she married him. khushi almost stopped breathing.
“what’s the matter, khushi?” he asked, still nuzzling her neck.
she pushed his shoulders trying to move away, “i can’t… no… i won’t marry you,” she said in a tense small voice.
“really?” he was rubbing his lips along her long, fine alluring collar bone, nipping her, pecking her once in a way.
khushi could feel her body respond and strain against him.
“so miss khushi kumari gupta, do you usually behave like this with men you … won’t marry?” he was openly laughing now and gathering her even closer.
he had lifted his head to look at her reaction.
she found herself gazing directly into melting chocolate brown eyes, shining with laughter.
and with a long shivery sob, she burst into tears.