khushi sat in the back holding anjali in her arms as she lay on the seat and asr drove fast toward shantivan.
when di had passed out and asr had run to catch her, without thinking much or wasting time, khushi had tried every door on the floor to find a bathroom, get water and do what she had seen done in many movies to revive an unconscious person. she had splashed cold water on anjali’s face till the latter came to finally, though she looked extremely weak.
asr had picked up his sister without a word, swiftly gone down all the flights of stairs and taken her to the suv.
curiously, khushi did not feel any panic. she knew arnav ji would not let any harm come to his sister. and she had heard when women were pregnant, they were prone to being fragile… yet they were strong in many ways. she had heard amma say the reason perhaps god made women carry the baby in the womb is because women have the strength to bear it, they understand what a growing life needs. what amma never said was for some reason she was never asked to take care of a life growing in her.
khushi stroked anjali’s hair tenderly. she always felt that that was because amma had a strength of a different kind, she could make people live again, just with her immense unselfish love.
“aman? please call dr nair, all the details are in di’s file and ask him to come to shantivan… now!” asr’s clipped voice brought a sense of purpose to the tense cabin. “and aman, tell jean pierre, i’ll be in later… he can leave everything in my office… i’ll look through it…”
khushi was astounded when she heard that. so arnav ji would go back to work tonight? what was this man made of? after all that had happened…
“akash! are you still at payal’s place? good!” asr made his next call, his voice was crisp, matter of fact, “okay, please tell them the havan has been cancelled today… and yeah, could you reach shantivan as soon as possible. di is not too well and… akash, i need to talk to all of you about something.”
his next call was to someone he didn’t address by name, “hello, yes, this is arnav singh raizada… find out from where shyam got his white suv that evening… if he owns it, he must have had it for a while, you can’t simply walk into a showroom and pick up a car here… even if you have managed to swindle the funds,” a bitterness found its way into that last sentence..
“hello!” khushi was flabbergasted. one more call? “om prakash, nani ji ko bolo… just tell her that i… i… oh damn! these networks!” khushi heard him swear under his breath. “damn!” he swore once more under his breath, she swallowed involuntarily.
(om prakash, tell nani ji…)
arnav ji was worried and hurting. she realised this in a flash. he was very very scared for his sister… nervous and panicking really. that’s why he had to keep on doing things. he didn’t want to think. khushi felt terrible… for him…
just a while ago he had remembered all that had happened to his amma.
then had come that nightmare at e-27 greater kailash. shyam ji lying and pretending and di shouting at arnav ji. now di was lying still in her arms, looking so wan.
arnav ji was trying hard to stay in command of things, but…
she wished she could reach out and hold him, tell him not to worry… he would not let anything happen to di, as he never had… he was strong. yeah, khushi thought, even if he was not a woman, he was very strong. then she frowned furiously.
not a woman? what is wrong with you, khushi kumari gupta! what are you thinking? of course, he is not a woman. and who said you had to be a woman to be strong… amma was only saying that about babies and…
“khushi!” she heard his voice and frowning slightly, she reached for her phone… so now he was calling her!
“khushi!” asr shouted, khushi looked up startled and met his molten brown eyes in the rear view mirror.
she stared at his glinting irises, they looked almost translucent in the mirror. her eyes lingered on his and she felt her breathing hasten. how deep was his gaze, she remembered him looking down at her, furious, that first time she had seen him… his intense angry brown eyes were the first thing she had seen of him. raging furious startling chocolate…
now they were not furious, but the depth, the demand in them was the same. why did his eyes always say so many things to her? things she had to hear. even when she really did not wish to.
it was the first contact they had had since they’d heard shyam ji and di’s voice in that house. she stared at him saying nothing. he glared back at her, extremely irate, then looked away at the road ahead.
“why aren’t you saying anything, dammit, khushi!” he gritted out, “i am talking to you…!”
she kept looking at the mirror… hoping he would look back at it again. she’d felt she was somehow close to him amid the craziness when their eyes had met and paused for a few moments there… as if in a place away from all of this, a clear simple place. like the temple courtyard back in lucknow, near gomti sadan.
“say something… you talk constantly… so why are you so quiet now… don’t you know-” his voice was beginning to rise, sounding more and more agitated.
“don’t worry, arnav ji, di will be okay… nothing will happen to her…” khushi said in a quiet even voice, trying to soothe him with her tone, make him feel better, reach him somehow. how she wished she could put her arms around him. and yet a part of her felt a terrible terrible sadness, for something said to her, the time to part had come.
everything has its own repercussions… this afternoon would too. one good thing that would come of it is that anjali ji-
just then he looked back at the rear view mirror and she felt her breath almost explode in her as their gazes clashed and her eyes sought his and clung to them.
he said nothing and a little later, he looked away again but after that there were no more phone calls.
when they reached shantivan, he came over and lifted anjali in his arms and started walking to the house; he said nothing to khushi barely sparing her a glance.
khushi got down from the car and turned toward the gate, she would take an auto and go home, it wasn’t that late.
“where are you going, khushi?” his voice was testy, she looked back and he stood there frowning at her with an impatient air.
“nahin… woh… arnav ji, i… will go home,” his lips tightened, “this is time for family… and-” khushi mumbled helplessly by way of explanation. she was suddenly feeling like she did not belong here at all… and that somehow made her feel forlorn.
“shut up, khushi!” he said tersely, “come with me!” he sounded brusque and harsh. yet khushi’s heart lifted a little, she turned and did as ordered…
he walked ahead without looking back again.
nani ji was petting and talking to lakshmi ji when the door opened and her grandson walked in carrying her granddaughter in his arms.
she stood up shocked and instantly inundated with worry.
“chhotey! kya hua? anjali bitiya ko kya hua, chhotey!!… damad ji kidhar hain?!!… manorama, jaldi paani laaiye… om prakash, hari prakash… yahan se phool hatayiye, chhotey… bring her here.. here…!!”
(chhotey! what happened? what’s happened to anjali bitiya, chhotey!!… where’s damad ji?… manorama, get some water please… om prakash, hari prakash… move the flowers from here, chhotey… bring her here… here…!!)
hemangini raizada had seen a lot of turmoil in her life and it had taken its toll, especially the death of her daughter. as much as all the storms had hurt and shaken her up, they had also curiously made her resilient. she had become a survivor; a pragmatic, tough woman who focused on doing the thing that needed to be done when there was crisis.
now, even as she was terrified at the sight of the limp anjali in chhotey’s arms, she bustled around making sure chhotey could lay anjali down on a comfortable place on the long plush sofa upholstered in pale cream silk. she was pushing cushions in place herself and directing everyone as asr walked briskly up to her.
by the time he’d reached the sofa, the entire household was rushing to the spot. the servants came with water, mami ji raced forward and wailed, “ka hui gawa, bhat happened my anjali bitiya, hello hi bye bye?!”
(what has happened to my anjali bitiya?!)
she was terribly distressed, she lifted the pallu of her gold embroidered purple kanjivaram saree and started fanning anjali frantically. nani ji sat by anjali’s head and began stroking her hair. mama ji stood near them looking utterly worried, he shook his head from time to time.
asr bent over anjali and called, “di! di! aap theek ho, di! talk to me, di! di!”
(di! di! are you okay, di! talk to me, di!)
khushi stood quietly by one side, hoping everything was okay. in her mind she had again started praying for help to devi maiyya.
“hey devi maiyya, take care of anjali ji, i mean di… take care of di… let her be alright… and arnav ji…”
she was concentrating on the words when she felt something soft and wet brush her finger and looked down. it was lakshmi ji, and she noticed the quadraped was dressed in a festive red “jacket” with mirror work today. she had obviously been decked up for the havan.
khushi bent down and sat by lakshmi ji, gently patting her. the goat nuzzled against her, an unquestioning, simple gesture of almost camaraderie. khushi felt a surge of tears at the back of her eyes.
akash walked in and when he saw the situation, he came running to where everyone was.
“bhai! what has happened? has anyone called a doctor?” he said to everyone and no one in particular. mami ji and nani ji both began to say something, asr said, “damn!” again and reached for his phone. the doctor hadn’t arrived, khushi watched her arnav ji’s face becoming taut again.
“it’s okay, akash,” it was anjali.
everyone stopped talking at once. asr stared at di. she lay there with her eyes closed, yet there was no doubt it was she who had spoken.
“it’s okay,” anjali repeated, “i don’t need a doctor.”
“but, anjali bitiya…” nani ji started to reason with her grand daughter.
“no, nani, i know what i am saying… no doctor…” anjali was adamant, “i just want to go to my room for a while…”
then just as suddenly as she had spoken, anjali sat up.
asr put his arm around her, “come, di, let me help you…” his voice sounded extremely worried to khushi’s ears. worried and tender… and yes, vulnerable…
“no, chhotey, i’ll manage… i am fine,” anjali said in a cool even voice as though nothing really had happened.
asr tried to help her anyway, but anjali pushed his hand away, stood up and said, “please don’t worry, main theek hoon… i’ll go to my room now… i just want to be alone for a while…”
(please don’t worry… i’m okay… i’ll go to my room now… i just want to be alone for a while…)
it was clear that anjali was in no mood to be refused or reasoned with. while everyone watched quietly, she limped slowly yet deliberately away and went up the stairs, her beautiful red chanderi saree floated light and elegant, the pallu graceful as it swayed delicately with each step.
khushi watched her without blinking, she could sense an undercurrent that unsettled her… why was everything feeling so shaken all of a sudden?
mami ji was in tears by now and she suddenly wailed, “arnav bitwa, bhat eej happening to my anjali… hello hi bye bye! bhere eej damad ji… bhy he eej nebher theres bhen you nids him?”
(arnav bitwa, what’s happening to my anjali, hello hi bye bye! where’s damad ji… why’s he never there when you need him?)
anjali had reached the last flight of steps on the terraced staircase leading to the upper level. as mami ji said that, anjali stopped and started to sway in a slow out of control motion.
khushi looked at her aghast, she almost screamed, when something streaked past her at astonishing speed and a rush of air hit her.
it was arnav ji. he was dashing up the second flight of stairs even before khushi could stand up… taking the shallow steps three at a time. he reached his sister just as she’d have fallen and rolled down the stairs.
khushi watched with eyes growing rounder, her breath caught. as the whole family sighed in relief when asr made it to anjali in time, he swiftly picked her up and walked up the remaining steps, heading straight for her room. anjali could be heard saying, “chhotey, let me go…” but he was no longer listening to anyone, doing exactly what he thought was right.
there was a pounding in his ears, the corners of his eyes felt stretched along one line, the back of his neck was taut, his breath was shallow, irregular… he felt fear clutch and hold his middle in a tight unrelenting grip. but he was not giving in to any of that. di would be ok… di’s child would be okay… no one, no damn one, was going to interfere with that. certainly not that shyam.
he could feel his teeth gritting at the mere thought of the man who had dared to betray his sister. and had touched her. with every fibre of his being, he wanted to obliterate shyam from the face of this earth. no… not on his watch… never again would someone he loved be made to suffer the way his maa had.
where’s the doctor, he wondered, as he briskly laid di on the bed, refused to listen to her telling him to go away, she’d be fine. he settled her in and drew the covers over her.
the family had reached di’s room by then. he stood aside letting nani ji and mami take care of his sister.
then he pulled out his phone and started calling the doctor again while his eyes kept straying to the door…
lakshmi ji was chewing on a leaf she’d managed to quickly grab from one of asr’s potted plants before khushi could coax her away.
feeling strangely out of place and sad, khushi had walked out onto the poolside with the animal who’d greeted her that very first morning she’d woken up in this house, when everyone went up to see anjali.
“meehhh meehhh,” bleated lakshmi ji, starting a conversation.
“hum toh bahar ke hain na, lakshmi ji… how can i go and crowd there, everyone is so concerned, upset… i do wish i could be of help…” khushi said and put her arms around lakshmi ji and gave her a cuddle, then she got up and started walking by the water.
(i am an outsider, lakshmi ji… how can i go and crowd there…)
it was going to be dark soon, a flat grey stretched across the ripples, she remembered the first time she’d come here… di had sent her to get some mud… from that pot by that tree… khushi looked at the tree for a few moments… time was going still in packets, then hurtling it seemed to her.
she went back to her contemplation. di was such a lovely person, she had only been kind to her… poor di, that bad leg of hers, how it must bother her, but she never complained, in fact, she was always so sunny… khushi almost smiled… hey devi maiyya, please keep di safe, please keep di’s baby safe, her mind veered off into prayer again… please keep arnav ji…
her heart started hammering as the next thought made its way over the ripples to her.
he had caught her here… and carried her to that big chair.
khushi went still by the pool, facing the wall at one end, she willed her head not to turn and look at the chaise longue inside his room, just next to her beyond the french window.
no, she would not look at that place, her heart was pounding anyway. such a spate of dhak dhak dhakdhak. must be acidity, or… this was not good… because…
“pata hai, lakshmi ji, shyam ji has been caught now… he is in prison.. or wherever they take you when they arrest you… i have never seen such a thing so i don’t really know but in salman khan ji’s movies, oh you should see where he is the police man… hayee, kya polis hamare salman ji hain!!…” she laughed and winked, still staring at the wall.
(oh you should see where he is the police man… aww, what a cop our salman ji is!!)
“ek pakad ke ghoonsa lagate hain, dhishum, then he throws the criminal into the cell and then, oh i love it when he does that, he beats the guy up nice and proper, dhishum dhishum… lakshmi ji, why am i talking so much? you know amma says i talk nonsense when i am really upset… maybe i should talk to amma…” khushi was quiet for a fraction of a second, then she ran on…
(gives the baddie one biff, dhishum, then he throws the criminal into the cell then, oh i love it when he does that, he beats the guy up nice and proper, dhishum dhishum… lakshmi ji, why am i talking so much? you know amma says i talk nonsense when i am really upset… maybe i should talk to amma…)
“no, no, i won’t call her, i don’t want to worry her… woh sab theek kar dengi… lekin… let me tell you instead, lakshmi ji, you are my friend na… and you won’t tell anyone… lakshmi ji…” again khushi fell silent… “ab sab theek ho gaya hai… shyam ji is not a threat any more… i know arnav ji, he will not let shyam ji get away with it, kitni bhi shyam ji koshish kar le… oh he was doing maha drama in front of di… such a bad man… he really should not be in di’s life…” yet again khushi paused as if finding it really hard to say what she was trying to.
(no, no, i won’t call her, i don’t want to worry her… she’ll make everything alright… but… let me tell you instead, lakshmi ji, you are my friend after all… and you won’t tell anyone… lakshmi ji… now everything is alright… shyam ji is not a threat any more… i know arnav ji, he will not let shyam ji get away with it, no matter how hard he tries… oh he was doing plenty drama in front of di… such a bad man… he really should not be in di’s life…)
“now, lakshmi ji, there is no threat to my life you see…” a sombre low tone had entered khushi’s voice, “now there’s no need to marry me. yes! no need to marry khushi kumari gupta, see?! so now i can go back to my old life… i will go back… yes, maybe tomorrow i’ll go back to lucknow-”
strong harsh fingers dug into her middle from both sides, she was yanked backward with extreme force and she slammed into a rock hard unyielding wall. khushi almost screamed and fell back, winded against the relentless pull.
“so you’ll leave me and go away, is it!” asr bit out, “just when i need you… huh! why does it not surprise me…”
cold furious voice, fire shooting under it. khushi felt almost singed, right inside… where the acidity was.
“but you know what, khushi kumari gupta!” he was hissing into her ear, his head was nudging against her neck, pushing, making her want to flinch, making her want to push back… to engage, “you are not going anywhere… not till i say so… i will make your life miserable if you even dare talk like that, samjhi tum!”
his hands left her waist and started to roam up her body. he was angry with her, madly, she could tell. her mind was shocked at the suddenness of it all.
when did he get here? why was he so furious at her? she’d have thought he’d be relieved he didn’t have to go through with this marriage, because flawed as it may seem that was the way he had devised to keep her safe, though why he should care about that… thoughts raced through khushi’s head… how was anjali ji? what was arnav ji doing here?
she drew in her breath as his hands grabbed her breasts and he pressed her even tighter against him. she could feel the slant of his collar bone against her neck, his chest pressed into the small of her back, his breath was falling over her shoulder warm on the front of her neck, passing over her front, down her neckline lapping the bare skin of her upper breast. she realised she was grasping his forearms, her fingers trembled for some reason and she was leaning back against him, wanting to feel the length of his body, its rise and fall and push and steer. she wanted to curve into his body and fling her arms back holding him right there.
it felt like where she belonged.
khushi almost shouted at herself… but her head wanted to lie back on his shoulder, her back wanted to rest against his heart, her breasts were surging against his touch, she wanted arnav ji to crush her to him, to never ever let her go… khushi closed her eyes. she could hear her heart beat racing… and what was that other thing she could hear?
then her eyes flew open. no. she would not give in to this… to him… that rakshas. how dare he threaten her! he was always shouting and yelling…
his hands were now caressing her breasts, gentle and flowing, his thumb stroked the tender skin near her cleavage and she felt her breasts yearn for his touch, his head was burying deeper into the crook of her neck, he rubbed his stubble on her collarbone, she shivered.
she whirled back catching him off guard, and faced him. her hands went up all set to push him off and free herself. her eyes blazed.
he was taken aback but with alacrity he jerked her closer even as he gazed at her affronted expression.
she would have shoved him just then, but something made her stop.
this was arnav ji… and he was in pain. troubled. how could she have thought of leaving him. her gaze locked with his without either being aware of it. wasn’t that how he had been that evening in sheesh mahal… angry even now, but also vulnerable… she could sense that, and she didn’t want him to be like that.
time went quiet and still as arnav singh raizada let his eyes roam khushi kumari gupta’s face. her hair was parted in the centre and pulled to a tight plait, off centre, he knew without having to check. there was a tiny bindi gleaming where her eyebrows sloped down their perfect arch, her nose was straight like her, a pale shimmer played on her lips, light and innocent like her. his eyes stayed on those lips… the staggering innocence of this girl…
this… no… his girl.
the “kh” touched the back of his throat and became part of him even as he thought her name.
had he ever seen such innocence?
today all he wanted to do was sink right into it… be calmed, be soothed, be brought back to peace by it.
“don’t leave me, khushi,” he whispered looking at her displeased face, “don’t you dare…” he commanded with a grimace.
he saw her eyes start, then he felt her arms go around his neck swiftly as she drew him close to her. she reached up on tip toe and the lips he’d been staring at came closer, moved to one side and pecked him on his cheek, the sweetest touch. like her fairylights, he thought. with a sigh and a muffled groan he started kissing her. this was real. more real than harshness, than betrayal, then broken trust. this was what he never ever wanted to let go of.
her lips were pliant and eager. she brushed them against his full sculpted ones urgently. he nipped her lips making them tauten, bruising them lightly. he pulled away to see the effect that had had. his eyes grew lighter, tender as he saw her plump, slightly reddened lower lip. a feeling of infinite tenderness seemed to touch his heart.
he raised his arms from her waist and gathered her into an embrace once again. for a few moments he just enjoyed the feel of her head on his shoulder, her arms around his waist, her body pressed against his. that was all he seemed to need. a tiny smile played on his lips which he wasn’t even aware of and she didn’t see.
then he went back to kissing her. she held his head in her palm as his kiss grew more demanding, clutching his hair tight, not wanting this moment to end. ever.
it was here he had found her by chance one evening and kissed her why he had no idea. today he knew this is where she would be when he had left di’s room, a sudden need to see her when she didn’t come there following the rest.
he had made a call to the doctor, who had arrived even as they spoke and he had walked away from the room, knowing there was only one face he wanted to see right now. his feet had unerringly led to her…
khushi realised what the other sound was when she could hear her heart beats. they were arnav ji’s thumping racing heart beats. even faster than hers.
poor arnav ji, even he had acidity. a really nasty attack it seemed to her.