asr stroked khushi’s cheek distractedly as she lay among the crisp white sheets of the sprawling bed in the hotel room. they were both winded by all that had happened that day. he’d been sitting with her on his lap, holding her, gently nuzzling, letting a sense of calm return for they both needed it badly.
without realising, they’d moved and settled into the comfort of the fluffy pillows, the plush mattress and the layers of fine egyptian cotton. it was late afternoon, the sun had started dipping sending long slanted rays into the room. shadows sat in the corners, dappled light played on the furniture.
asr could feel peace begin to settle in him. he had noticed this of late, an unfamiliar feeling really. it was complete and unequivocal like the shade of a large tree or the smell of earth after rain. it stayed in him making contact, soothing, and he had no memory of such a feeling in the longest time.
yet, ever since this girl… his mind checked him and said “khushi!”… yes, ever since khushi had come into his world… this funny new sensation… when had he felt it last?
asr halted his thoughts. he did not trust this feeling. happiness, peace… these were myths really. people needed these to cajole themselves into going through the reality that was life. and the reality was harsh, merciless, without remorse.
someone always got hurt in it. or died.
he would fight reality knowing what it was, not running away to made up emotions, make believe escape strategies.
asr grimaced, throwing off the feeling of peace he couldn’t bring himself to allow in.
“aap theek hain?” her voice was drowsy yet full of concern.
(are you alright?)
asr stiffened involuntarily. he was not used to anyone really caring about his state of mind. he preferred to be by himself when troubled and rarely invited sympathy or even empathy.
he tried not to look at her. because he knew that usually was his undoing.
he felt her hand cover his, he had not stopped caressing her cheek he noted… and cursed himself under his breath.
her hand was soft and cool, she curved her fingers over his and gave a slight squeeze.
he could feel a shiver start at the base of his spine and shoot right up his back to his neck.
he tried to stay aloof, away from that gentleness, the softness he craved yet resisted with all his might.
you could never give in. that only brought pain. nothing else. he would never make that mistake.
but try as he might, he couldn’t stop himself from turning and looking at her, from bending over to kiss her gently on her cheek, from sliding an arm around her and gathering her close, from pressing his head against hers as she turned her face into the crook of his neck and continued to snooze.
“sleep, khushi!” he muttered, patting her head. they would have to leave soon, there was the havan, he had to take khushi home then go over to shantivan with her.
but before that, there was a small gap of about half an hour. he stayed like that with her in his arms as she slumbered.
a little later, he shook khushi, “c’mon, khushi, wake up… tea time!”
“nahiin!” khushi mumbled, “i am not waking up, hotel ki chai nahin chahiye, mujhe sirf adrak wali chai pasand hai, this place is meant for laad…”
(no! not waking up… i don’t want hotel tea, i only like ginger tea, this place is meant for laad…)
“khushi!” he was laughing but managed to sound threatening.
“haan!” she replied in the same tone.
then without warning, she jumped up and was standing in front of him, “now you’ll say, ‘khushi! drink tea,’ i’ll say, ‘no, i won’t!’ you’ll say, ‘what the! how dare you say no?’ i’ll say, ‘i can say what i want to say!’ then you’ll shout,’what nonsense, apni aukad dekhi hai?” and i’ll yell back, ‘aukad? just because you have money doesn’t mean you can say anything!’ you’ll shake me then, i’ll start crying… arnav ji, will we always be screaming and shouting like this… even after… after…” and khushi made such a pitiable face, asr couldn’t help but burst out laughing.
(then you’ll shout, ‘what nonsense, have you seen your status?’ literal translation 🙂 and i’ll yell back, ‘status? just because you have money doesn’t mean you can say anything’…)
a veil of lightness lifted the entire moment, even the shadows looked lighter.
khushi stopped talking and stared at the face of the man she was going to marry in four days. his head was thrown back, strong white teeth gleamed as he guffawed, there were crinkles at the corner of his eyes, his skin was brown and taut and shining and she felt like running her fingers along the ridges on his cheeks.
khushi swallowed violently. if he looked this good all the time, it would be difficult to concentrate on anything. maybe in a way it was good he was such a khadoos. “hey devi maiyya, whatever you do you do for the best!” she thought frantically. she so wanted to kiss him just then.
he looked at her with knowing eyes, and an eyebrow went up.
akash was in a pensive mood.
billo mausi had called him badmash and besharam. how strange, thought akash, no one in his entire life had called him anything like that. on the contrary, in fact; he was always seen as the sweet, decent, calm and gentle one. he was polite, he was kind, he was amazingly unaggressive around women, he disliked men being overbearing with those obviously less physically strong.
though he was over six feet tall, he held himself in a way that made him look of average height. and although he spent at least 45 minutes at the gym at shantivan every day, fitness being important to him, he never ever showed off his chiselled arms or torso, always preferring full sleeved shirts, cut straight, no tapering.
yet, today, when those words were hurled at him he had felt shocked no doubt, but now a strange desire flitted through his mind.
if only he could be besharam… even if just once. he missed payal ji. he wished he could pick her up right now and take her to a secluded place and lay her on a rose petal strewn bed…
he was shocked at his own thought… but persisted.
yes, on a soft, flower bedecked bed… and… and…
kiss her… on the cheeks. he wondered if he should go further and decided he wanted to… he’d kiss her on her perfect pert lips, she had such lovely full lips. he would kiss her… he would touch her…
hair… she had thick glossy dark hair, it was always tied in a plait… he wanted to loosen the braid, let her hair run through his fingers.
payal ji… no. he would call her payal. yes… just that.
akash’s eyes grew dreamy and a smile spread across his face.
just then the phone rang. he picked it up without checking who the caller was.
“yes?” akash said trying to sound composed.
“i love you… akash ji” it was a girl’s voice. akash blinked. payal ji!
“payal ji!” akash sounded completely foxed. then he paused and gathered his thoughts. when he spoke again, he sounded very sure.
“payal… will you come out with me… alone, for a bit? i am missing you, i want to see you!” payal wondered why she was suddenly almost breathless. did he just call her payal? uff, billo mausi would have found that so besharam.
payal smiled tremulously and hugged the phone to her ear, “yes… akash… no ji,” she whispered, “i’ll wait for you… and you didn’t say…”
“i love you, payal,” he whispered back, then disconnected.
payal decided she would take along a couple of hot samosas for their date.
“and who are you whispering sweet nothings to, my friend?” lavanya’s voice was full of laughter, she had just walked into akash’s office.
“er.. ahem… woh..” akash reached for his specs, he was too decent a man to feel comfortable about anyone overhearing his conversation with payal… no ji, he thought feeling happy. he gave a bemused smile and peered up at la.
“okay, akash,” lavanya sat down across from him and fixed him with a sombre look,”i need to talk to you about something.”
“yes, tell me lavanya,” akash replied a little perturbed. la was sounding serious underneath that flippant air.
“akash… i am worried about asr. very… very worried,” lavanya started, “i know no one is talking about it… because perhaps no one wants to upset me, they think i am recovering from that accident… but akash, fact of the matter is, this is not really about me… don’t you see?”
she leaned forward and there was such a deeply concerned look in her eyes, akash wondered what the matter was.
“it is really about asr! akash, someone is trying to frame him… to harm him… don’t you see? the call, the car… it is all so clear!” she shook her head exasperatedly, “and look at asr… he couldn’t care less. never ever does he take care of himself!”
akash stared at lavanya taking in her words. it was true.
in all the excitement of the weddings and engagement and all that, even he had overlooked the matter. guilt began to creep up on him. how could he have been so remiss? it was bhai who was being framed… and…
“ptcha!” akash sighed and said with a grimace, “you know, lavanya, you are right. how could we all forget that? and i have been so… but who could possibly want to harm bhai? and that too like that? also la, don’t make any mistakes, this person meant you harm as well…”
“i know i know, akash!” la was impatient and strident as she was wont to be, “the man wanted to kill me… but he couldn’t, right? but still why would he want to make asr the scapegoat if he were only after me? think, akash, think… it is really asr this fellow is after… i am sure of it!”
the two of them took a minute to digest this surmise and again the phone rang.
akash blushed instantly. a part of his mind that he had no control over pranced up and said, that must be payal. akash admonished the errant thought and picked up the phone.
“akash bhai?” it was di… and she sounded excited, “please, on your way back from office go to lakshminagar and pick up payal ji and her family… we have a havan at home and nani has invited everyone. i have spoken to payal ji’s mother, just pick them up, okay, bas… i better rush, your jija ji wants to take me somewhere… today only he wants to go, see? in the middle of all this…”
“okay, di,” akash started to say, when lavanya interrupted…
“anjali!” she grinned at akash, “give me the phone, i haven’t spoken to her in ages… i must congratulate her!”
she grabbed the phone from akash and chimed, “anjali… congratulations, such good news… baby… wow!”
anjali was always fond of this girl her brother had a friendship with. she was different and certainly not very traditional, but anjali liked her upbeat nature and her openness.
“hello, lavanya, thanks” anjali giggled happily, then said, “but tell me, how are you? i heard about the terrible accident… are you alright? chhotey was so worried…”
“no, no, i am fine, just glanced me, that nasty white suv…” la said dismissive almost of the incident.
“white suv?” anjali sounded nonplussed. lavanya realised anjali had no idea and she wished she had held her tongue, obviously asr didn’t want to worry his sister in this state… and now she, la, had gone and said that…
she rushed in changing the subject, “guess what, anjali, you know the funniest thing happened in bali… i saw this man with his girl friend out on a romantic date, he had his arms around her, all cootchie cooing in the dark… and would you believe it, he looked exactly like your husband. ditto. believe me…” la went on blithely not noticing the silence at the other end.
“yeah… it was funny, i actually stopped and stared almost… then i realised i must be seeing things… i know your husband couldn’t be there… anyway, you know na, they say we all have our lookalikes in this world, i think we are supposed to have seven people who are identical to us… anjali, you there? is the line dead?” la stopped when she heard nothing.
“no… no… lavanya, i am here,” anjali spoke quietly, “that is… so interesting, i must tell shyam ji… he was in australia actually when you all went to bali… okay, bye then and take care, lavanya…” anjali’s gentle voice made la feel terrible.
she had said two things to anjali, whom she rather liked, and both related in a sort of uncomfortable, even negative way to the two men she was closest to. what is wrong with me, la thought and made a face.
“you saw someone who looks like jija ji in bali, la?” akash’s voice cut into her remorseful reverie.
“yes, akash…” la said wanly, “of course, it wasn’t shyam… but yeah… looked just like him… now see, i have said all the wrong things to anjali… i really think i need to get away for a while… maybe after the show, i will go to paris and do the ooh la la french thing for some time…”
akash knew this bright young woman may have many faults but her feelings for asr were genuine and strong. she was bound to be shaken by the big change in her life. bhai was going to marry khushi and it was pretty apparent to anyone looking at them that he was completely in love with her.
“hey, la,” akash patted her hand, “take it easy… you’re okay… now let’s crack this one about who is after asr, shall we?”
hemangini raizada looked around the hall and the pooja room adjoining, anjali bitiya had done such a marvelous job of decorating it. her grand daughter had an eye for detail which always amazed and pleased hemangini. it showed interest, taste and a good mind, the proud grandmother smiled.
such a joy, her only grand daughter.
even though she had been afflicted all her life and then to have faced the terrible tragedy of losing both her parents, in that unimaginably difficult manner… and her wedding having to be called off the same evening…
hemangini shook her head, it was so wonderful to see anjali bitiya had stayed healthy and centred in her mind. she hadn’t lost hope or the will to carry on. of course, nani ji knew, her grandson had a lot to do with that.
she would never forget how chhotey had handled the whole thing. she had been worried, he was his mother’s boy… how would he cope? after that night had come the ignominy and helplessness of being turned out of their own home… sheesh mahal.
nani ji shuddered remembering those days. and chhotey. how he had withstood everything. overnight he seemed to grow up. he was brother, father, friend, everything to anjali. how hard he worked and with such focus. there was no other choice perhaps, but how hemangini wished her grandson were not robbed of something that used to light up her daughter ratna’s life, no matter how harsh her marriage became.
her chhotey’s smile.
nani ji sighed deeply, now that chhotey was marrying khushi bitiya, maybe that would come back at last.
oh she knew her grandson well enough to know he would not be rushing around grinning from ear to ear, but within him… maybe there the smile was coming back?
“nani ji,” shyam sounded elated, he had just walked into the room. hemangini raizada beamed at him. damad ji had made her bitiya so happy, and he was a really amiable young man, knowledgeable about the shastras unlike her very modern young grandsons.
“say, damad ji, what’s the matter?” she asked pleasantly.
“nothing, nani ji, just wanted to let you know i am taking your grand daughter, my wife, out for a little surprise, we’ll be back soon… so please don’t worry… ” shyam said with an ingratiating smile.
“surprise?” nani ji was pleased, “haan haan zaroor jaiye, anjali bitiya, you have done enough, now go with damad ji… the rest om prakash will manage…”
(surprise? yes yes do go… anjali, you have done enough, now go with our son in law… the rest om prakash will manage…)
“hello hi bye bye!” mami ji came rushing in, “who eej goingj bherej? me manorma goingj parlour…” then she saw her mother in law and mumbled, “mistakes hui gawa…” loudly now she averred, “me goingj mandirwa, i bhills be backs soons, anjali bitiya, you needings anything? i can do ebhrythings you bhants… go and hab phuns, my girls, hab phuns… okay?”
(hello hi bye bye! who’s going where? i am going to the parlour… ooops mistake… i am going to the temple, i’ll be back soon, anjali, do you need anything? i can do everything you want… go and have fun, my girl, have fun, okay?)
“going to the temple, are you?” said mama ji strolling in, “come, i’ll drop you, i am going that way today, meeting some people close by…”
“hain? naahin naahin, bhy you bothers, i takes the other cars, don’t bhants to disturbiya you, no?” mami ji said with alacrity.
(huh? no no, don’t bother, i’ll take the other car, don’t wish to disturb you…)
mama ji’s lips twitched, he said, “it’s no bother at all, manorama, don’t worry, whichever way you are going i’ll go that way… don’t i always?”
mami ji tossed her head a little angrily, then again catching her mother in law’s eyes, changed her demeanour and smiled sweetly at her husband, “let us go thens… hello hi bye bye!” she trilled.
nani ji shook her head again… marriages, she thought, yes, they are really made in heaven. and heaven indeed help some marriages.
“hello, akash?” asr was driving back with khushi, the blue tooth earpiece was clipped to his ear and he had been pretty much constantly on the phone ever since they had left the hotel.
traffic was getting thicker, arnav singh raizada was not known to be patient with the din and clutter of the rush hour road. every once in a way he swore under his breath but kept on talking to various people.
when khushi heard akash ji’s name, she looked up…
“what? di told you to pick up payal and her family? okay… but khushi is with me, i’ll take her home and maybe bua ji and khushi can come with me… okay… what?!!! what did you say?!”
khushi started as arnav ji’s voice went up a few notches. he sounded abrupt, worried. what had happened?
“no… no…” asr seemed to be trying to calm down, “it’s okay, i’ll talk to her… i’ll tell you what, you take everyone home, i’ll bring khushi…”
khushi watched silently as he pulled over to the side of the road and started making a call, he looked tense, his fingers moved very fast, almost jittery.
khushi could see he was agitated.
he waited a while then tried the number again. and again. every once in a way he said, “damn!” under his breath but didn’t look at her or say anything.
khushi hoped everything was okay… of late there had been so many things happening…
“hello? arnav singh raizada speaking… yes, please tell me where he is… i need to find him… now!”
he finished the call, then slammed the steering wheel with his bare hand. khushi was aghast, “arnav ji!” she caught hold of his hand without thinking…
“how could i’ve been so stupid, dammit!” he exploded, “i should have told them to inform me if shyam ever left the house with di alone… how could i!!”
khushi was horrified, so shyam ji had gone somewhere with anjali ji… and was someone keeping an eye on shyam ji? maybe it was just a harmless trip… khushi was about to open her mouth and try to calm arnav ji down, then she shut up.
the vision of shyam ji at happy ji’s garage rose up before her eyes. he was driving a white suv which he wanted to paint black.
khushi shivered, a worry for anjali ji beginning to spark off in her too.
this man was not good, he was not safe to be around. what if he harmed anjali ji…
khushi looked at arnav ji with desperate eyes.
he was looking straight ahead, his face had lost colour, his jaw had hardened to a sharp angular stillness, his eyes glinted dangerously.
he made a jerky movement, it was the phone.
“ok.. ok… greater kailash part one, e-27… got it! get the police there… RIGHT now… i’m coming!”
he began driving.
“i don’t want you caught up in this, khushi. let me ask akash or aman to pick you up at moolchand…” he started instructing khushi looking straight ahead.
“nahin, arnav ji… i am not going anywhere. i am coming with you…” khushi said clearly.
“i said…” asr was already gritting is teeth.
“i heard what you said,” khushi said calmly, “but i am not listening to you, i am coming…”
“khushi!” he sounded really angry.
“arnav ji, is this the time to waste on this pointless argument? you know you have to hurry…” she sounded so reasonable, it was hard to argue.
he concentrated on driving.
there was silence for a while. then he said, “she is not answering her phone!”
she could hear the fear gripping his voice.
she tried dialling anjali ji’s number. there was no answer.
khushi closed her eyes and prayed, “hey devi maiyya… raksha karna… keep anjali ji safe, keep di safe…” she kept her thoughts targeted on her prayer.
e-27 in greater kailash part one was a simple three storey house, it looked freshly painted, the garden however was not well maintained, the grass was overgrown and the plants looked wild and dry.
asr stopped the car right in front of the gate and got out swiftly, running into the driveway. khushi followed him.
they came to the main door of the house, he looked around wondering for a second what would be the best course of action. then he simply tried to open the door and walk in.
the door was unlocked. they were inside the house… no one seemed to be about.
asr looked at the staircase to their left leading up. a wild look had started to enter his eyes.
getting here was one thing but now that he was where he had been told shyam had brought di, a frantic worry and a sense of foreboding had quickly set in.
where was di?
“di!” he called out, “di! di!”
the doors of all the rooms on the ground floor were open, a smell of paint in the air.
he turned and caught hold of khushi’s hand and started racing up the stairs with her. she could see him wincing every now and then.
he had hurt his ankle just the other day.
he was about to call out to di when they reached the third storey, but suddenly they heard voices.
“no! no! do as i tell you… exactly as i tell you… ” it was shyam and he sounded almost threatening.
“par, shyam ji, aap humey kahan le jaa rahe hain? why have you blindfolded me?” di was confused, she seemed to be laughing…
(but, shyam ji, where are you taking me? why have you blindfolded me?)
“you’ll see, raanisahiba… you’ll see,” shyam’s voice made the hair on the back of khushi’s neck rise. he sounded like he was gloating. hey devi maiyya, she thought, keep di safe. she realised not for a second had she stopped calling devi maiyya ever since she’d heard shyam had spirited anjali away somewhere.
asr said “shit!” under his breath and the next instant he was flying toward the door from behind which they could hear di and shyam ji.
he flung open the door, rushed in and his blood nearly froze at the sight before his eyes.
di stood there with a dark blindfold across her eyes. shyam stood just by her, holding a large pair of scissors.
shyam was gaping at the unexpected visitors, for a moment completely thrown.
arnav singh raizada didn’t want to lose the advantage of surprise, he knew you couldn’t underestimate the enemy.
he lunged forward and fell on shyam, grabbing the scissors. together they rolled onto the floor.
anjali shouted, “what happened? who’s that? shyam ji!!”
khushi ran into the room and caught hold of anjali’s hand.
“di, di… hum khushi… don’t worry, sab theek ho jayga… aap theek hain, arnav ji bhi yahan hain…” khushi said urgently to anjali trying to calm her as she took off the terrible blindfold. what game was that monster playing, she wondered.
(di, di, it’s me, khushi… don’t worry, everything will be alright… you’re okay, arnav ji is also here…)
anjali blinked a few times when the tie came off her eyes and looked at the two men on the floor, her eyes flew to khushi, horrified.
“chhotey! what are you doing?” she screamed as asr caught hold of shyam by his collar and started punching him on the face.
“leave shyam ji! i said leave him! LEAVE HIM, CHHOTEY!” anjali screamed.
asr went on hitting shyam.
khushi tried to hold anjali, anjali pushed her aside and went limping to where the two wrestled on the floor.
“don’t come near my sister, you scum… don’t… you… dare!” asr ground out between clenched teeth as he hit shyam a few more times.
“chhotey! what are you DOING?” anjali shouted again.
shyam was flailing, almost collapsing by now. asr seemed to hear di at last. he looked in her direction, his eyes red rimmed, frenzied.
he said trying to sound as normal as he could, “di! get away from here… main hoon! aap ko kuch nahin hone doonga… di!”
(di! get away from here, i am here, i won’t let anything happen to you!)
anjali bent down convulsively and grabbed his hand trying to pull him away from shyam.
“di! shyam is cheating on you, di… and he tried to kill lavanya the other day… today he was going to… going to…” asr couldn’t finish his sentence, he got up and caught hold of di in his arms.
shyam was too winded to get up. he writhed around on the floor trying to get up.
“kill lavanya, cheating on me? kya BAKWAS kar rahe ho, chhotey… don’t forget you are talking to me about my husband!” di sounded angry and stern, she pushed asr away and started to kneel down to assist her shyam ji.
(kill lavanya, cheating on me? what NONSENSE, chhotey… don’t forget you are talking to me about my husband!)
asr caught her by the shoulders and pulled her away. he was adamant, she was not going anywhere near shyam.
khushi looked at asr, he looked stricken. she looked at shyam, was there a smile on his face? khushi frowned.
“di! he had those huge scissors in his hands, he wanted to kill you! don’t you see? di.. di!” asr’s voice grew urgent, “i didn’t want you to find out like this, i promise, but you can’t be with that… that…”
“raanisahiba, aap theek hain?” shyam whimpered looking helplessly at anjali.
(raanisahiba, are you okay?)
“now saaley saab has accused me of so many things, i feel embarrassed to even say it… but woh dekhiye, in that corner… i wanted you to inaugurate that, which is why i was carrying those scissors.”
(now my brother in law has accused me of so many things, i feel embarrassed to even say it… but look over there, in that corner… i wanted you to inaugurate that, which is why i was carrying those scissors.)
anjali had started crying by now, she raised her tearful eyes, asr and khushi followed her gaze.
in the corner of the room sat a beautiful baby cot, around it was tied a wide red satin ribbon.
khushi drew in her breath sharply looking around the room. there were pretty motifs on the white walls, one wall was candy striped in pink, blue, yellow and white. the closets were finshed in a pastel cream shade, there was a chest of drawers on one side and a plastic table for toddlers with four plastic chairs in blue and yellow tucked around it.
it was a nursery, she realised.
anjali was sobbing by now, “he brought me here to show me the house he had quietly bought for us… he got it ready all by himself… a surprise for me… he was just bringing me to this room which he must have decorated with so much love… and you, chhotey, are telling me he wanted to kill me? how could you, chhotey? how could you behave like this? what is the matter with you? why can’t you leave the past behind? why are you doing this to me?”
asr looked around aghast, yet he could smell a trap in this. he tried to put an arm around di, but again she pushed him away.
“di, i am sorry to tell you, shyam is seeing another woman… we have proof,” asr said quietly.
“proof? we?” di looked at him, incredulously, “you have had shyam ji followed?”
shyam whimpered and fell back on the floor.
before asr could say anything, they heard footsteps rapidly coming up the stairs. it was the police.
“please, inspector, that is shyam manohar jha, i believe you have evidence that the car that hit miss lavanya kashyap a couple of nights ago is his…” asr greeted the officer.
things happen at a curiously disjointed and almost mechanical way at times, even when emotions are running high and there’s a sense of disbelief spreading.
the police took shyam away.
but before leaving, he caught hold of anjali’s hands suddenly and wept, “raanisahiba, this is all a misunderstanding, everything will be alright and don’t be too angry with arnav… he means well, he is just misguided… i told you he was being too quick in taking decisions these days…” he gave a funny sideways glance to khushi as he said that.
then he smiled almost pleasantly at asr and left with the police.
anjali stood still and expressionless watching him go. khushi looked at arnav ji, he was looking even worse now…
“di!” he said as he took a step toward anjali.
anjali swayed slightly and began to crumple. by the time he reached her and held her tight in his arms she was unconscious.