the night was still, a quiet darknesss all around. the dogs hadn’t yet started howling as they often did around this time.
khushi had no idea what the time was as she sat shivering on the floor, staring at the benignly smiling face of devi maiyya. her mind was in a blur, her gaze was blank, every once in a while her eyes welled up with unstoppable tears and she swallowed hard to hold them back, not let any tear escape. the warmth of a tear might end everything.
she wouldn’t be able to do what she must. she had no choice, there was no other way, she looked ahead with vacant eyes.
she stopped her heart, no she wouldn’t think of him.
her body jerked involuntarily and she gripped her knees tight as if seeking something. khushi closed her eyes trying to fill her head and heart with the night… no thought should escape into it… hey devi maiyya raksha karna.
what was that?
a draught of wind seemed to have rushed in through the open window in the still of the night. khushi looked around sensing something, an uncanny feeling sweeping through her.
why was her heart beginning to beat so fast?
why did she feel a weight begin to lift?
was she going mad?
the knock was sharp, loud and extremely peremptory.
it shattered the silence and commanded instant attention.
khushi’s eyes widened, she stood… no jumped, to her feet and looked around wildly. who was that? and at this time of the night? her breath pelted as she clutched her heart with a shaking hand.
you know who it is, don’t you? something in her said. she closed her eyes again, shutting out everything.
no… no no no. she would not think such things, she would not…
this time the knock was louder, sharper and scarier. soon after came the words she’d dreaded…
she had longed for…
“open the door, khushi, dammit!”
arnav singh raizada sounded furious and in no mood to tolerate delay or denial.
khushi held the post of the bed firmly, her feet had already begun to fly toward the door, but she was determined to stay where she was.
“khushi! i know you’re inside, so stop this game…do you hear me!!! open the door otherwise i’ll break it!” he threatened.
khushi heard a resounding bang soon after… he’d meant that thing about breaking the door!
khushi’s feet made the decision this time, she ran and opened the door.
his eyes were bloodshot, his face was set and dark and extraordinarily still. he stood before her, tense, absolutely motionless, a pulse leaped at the end of his left jaw close to the ear.
khushi almost jumped back at the blast of heat that hit her, her heartbeat rose to a deafening crescendo.
the moments ticked by.
and suddenly harsh fingers were gripping her shoulders, pushing her back into the room, red rimmed incensed eyes were looking at her as if they didn’t care if they scorched her, as if they wanted to do just that, a rush of searing breath was falling on her face, her neck.
a dry hot feeling that had appeared from nowhere and sat behind khushi’s eyes ever since that phone call… began to cool off, ease all of a sudden.
khushi breathed in deeply looking up at the angry face looming over hers.
he stared at her unable to say anything, his whole being shaking with exactly what he wasn’t sure. he didn’t care… a bleak bottomless anger mingled with a fluid current of unnameable feelings. he gritted his teeth and began shaking her violently. mercilessly.
her eyes widened, shocked. her slender slight form couldn’t deter that relentless force… she stared at him speechlessly, helpless… the tears came soon, this time she couldn’t stop them.
even in his frenzied, fractured state, even in the darkness, he could see a plump shimmering tear spring up in her eye, balance for a moment on the edge of her eyelid and then plunge down, streaming rapidly down the curve of her cheek, its speed picking up as she was jerked back and forth by his punishing hands.
with a muffled cry he pushed her away.
khushi fell against the dining table nearby. her hands gripped the edge as tears continued to fall.
“how could you?!!” asr whispered raggedly. he was trembling all over still unable to control himself.
“how COULD you?!!! do you even know what you’ve put me through??? do you even give a DAMN!!!” there was something broken and bereft behind the anger that was obviously there… khushi closed her eyes in agony.
she turned around slowly and looked at him, she badly needed to see him… even though she would never ever go near him again. her hand reached out automatically and touched a switch.
warm mellow light flooded the small sitting room in gomti sadan in the older part of lucknow.
he could only hear his breath as the plane taxied and lifted off.
where are you, his mind was screaming. his hands felt empty, a numbing worry occupied the back of his neck, his ears strained to hear a whisper of her voice, he could feel a soft curled frangipani by his neck, only that it wasn’t there.
he had walked out of bua ji’s house, winded, but his mind had refused to stop working.
where was khushi… he had to find her. she could be in danger. he couldn’t let anything happen to her. he’d gotten into the suv and sat for a moment trying to compose himself… what was this pain ripping his mind, almost gutting him.
“get a hold of yourself, man,” he thought… he needed to be calm… now more than ever. and as happened with him in times of crisis, a calm did steal over him as he sat there willing it to come… arnav singh raizada moved into autopilot.
he would have to visit anjna jha once more… this time at the lock up where she was right now. she had admitted earlier that she was indeed her “husband’s” accomplice, she had designed the nursery, she and shyam were planning to grab anjali’s property and, yes, she had made that phone call to khushi. she was defiant, brash and utterly cold. she was shyam’s “italian” “wife”. he had duped her as well, but she had managed to catch onto his game and when she had, instead of being horrified, she’d been excited. there was a thrill in this.
for the past five years she’d helped shyam find women, marry them and slowly drain them of their resources.
he would have to speak to her again, he had a feeling she had contacted khushi. but when? could it be this morning? of course! last night khushi was fine, she was… he exhaled slowly and let the vision of loveliness that flitted across his mind go.
he was about to start the car when happy ji came by. spotting asr and completely unaware of what had transpired, happy ji smiled widely and said, “namaste, arnav ji!”
asr looked at the beaming man, he remembered meeting him the first time he’d come to lakshminagar… with khushi… that evening almost two months ago…
“namaste, happy ji, have you seen khushi?” asr asked without preamble. for some reason, he knew he had to ask this of the tiny little elf like man with an amiable face.
“oh… khushi ji… yes… but that was a long time ago… woh auto le rahi thi…” happy ji replied, his smile still in place.
(… she was taking an auto rickshaw…)
asr’s syes sparkled, “auto? where was she going?”
happy ji’s smile slipped a little, he looked puzzled…
“woh toh…” he scratched his head, “humein nahin pata…”
(that… i don’t know…)
asr felt his stomach hollow out.
then suddenly happy singh brightened, “yes! i remember, khushi ji was telling the driver, ‘nahin nahin, old dilli nahin, new dilli…’ arnav ji, i think she went to the station… maybe to pick up someone coming for the wedding??” he added helpfully.
(no no, not old delhi, new delhi.)
asr swore under his breath and started reversing the car swiftly, hooking his blue tooth onto his ear.
the plane had started descent. lucknow airport closed at eleven… they had just made it in the nick of time. captain raina was happy this last minute flight had gone smoothly, the boss had not looked prepared to take no for an answer from anyone tonight…
asr ran across the tarmac not waiting for the vehicle assigned to pick him up… the suv was waiting for him at the entrance, he collected the key from the driver and leapt into the car…
she had to be here… at her home in gomti sadan… she had to be…
he accelerated and looked into the darkness.
his heartbeat moved faster still, no speed limit there… no limit.
she stared at him, her heart breaking. he looked drawn, tense, haggard. his eyes… khushi swallowed almost feeling the pain in his eyes right there in the centre of her throat.
he was livid… he was broken.
khushi couldn’t bear to see this.
“is this what you mean by love? by commitment? by your huge big lectures on marriage…?” his accusing gaze lashed into her, his voice was a hoarse whisper.
as if unable to control anything any more… not even his own self, he went on, “forget me… yeah… you don’t love me, dammit!… right???… hah! how could i forget that!!… so forget me… but what about your parents…bua ji… payal… what about THEM, KHUSHI! WHAT!” his voice scaled a barrier somewhere and exploded.
khushi started and cringed.
and the next moment she was crying copiously and running to him, flinging her arms around him and snuggling as deep as she could into his wide hard chest, her ears seeking instinctively and settling on the spot where his heart beat its erratic asunder beat.
“arnav ji! don’t look like that… please, hum aap ko aise dekh nahin sakte…” she sobbed as she spoke.
(arnav ji! don’t look like that… please, i can’t see you like this…)
his arms had not gone around her, she noted, they hung rigid by his side. his head had not come down to rest on her chin as it usually did. he had simply remained there, aloof, angry, unreachable.
tears wet the front of his dark brown waistcoat. they soaked through and touched his skin.
“i couldn’t do anything else… she said… she said… arnav ji…” khushi couldn’t complete her sentence, she clutched him tighter and let the tears flow. she hadn’t felt a moment of peace from the time she had picked up the phone that morning.
her mind was frazzled, tired, torn… her heart had lost hope… she could not see light anywhere, even her stars seemed too far away.
now arnav ji wouldn’t hear her, wouldn’t hold her.
she felt his chest move against her cheek. he exhaled slowly, his breath touching her forehead.
“khushi!” he said her name, the “kh” touched the back of his throat and opened out, in it a longing from within. his arms came up and went around her waist, his hand reaching up her back, stroking, drawing her in, his head came down seeking its place in the crook of her neck, his cheek felt the silky touch of her hair even as his stubble grazed her tender skin.
she felt as though her world had returned to her… there was firm earth, there were stars, there was hope… always. hamesha.
they stood together like that for a few minutes. eternity sows thoughts of its very existence in certain spaces in time. arnav singh raizada and khushi kumari gupta had chanced upon such a space in the middle of the night in a small unpretentious, sparsely furnished sitting room situated in a quiet timeless spot on this earth.
he lifted her up in his arms and felt her settle against him. elation lifted the corners of his lips… she watched mesmerised. this is all she ever wanted to see, she thought. she reached up and stroked his cheek… he hadn’t shaved it was obvious… she knew why… worrying for her… going mad perhaps with that worry.
he looked at her and winked… “kissi aur se pyaar karti ho? hmmm?” he asked in a quizzical voice, obviously amused… and yet she felt his vulnerability at the moment he must have read her note.
(love someone else? hmm?)
her lips quivered.
“hey! enough… no more tears, okay?” he said sitting down on the sofa with her on his lap.
“arnav ji, that ciao darling woman called me this morning… she said, if i married you… if i don’t disappear today itself, she would… hurt di… her baby,” khushi wanted to tell him everything… needed to. “and when i… i said.. you wouldn’t let her… she said, for that to happen, you’d have to be alive!”
khushi flung her arms around asr and started sobbing again, “hum nahin sah sakte… aap ko kuchh ho jaaye… hum jee nahin paayenge aap ke bina…”
(i can’t bear it… if something should happen to you… i won’t be able to live without you…)
“uh huh! kya main jee paaoonga tumhare bina, khushi?” he murmured gathering her close, kissing her cheeks with utter concentration. warm soft tender kisses that gave as much as they asked for, that said so many things… “socha bhi kaise aisa…”
(uh huh! will i be able to stay alive without you, khushi? how could you even think that?)
“socha nahin, arnav ji,” khushi whimpered, “i couldn’t feel, i couldn’t think, i couldn’t…” she faltered overwhelmed.
(i didn’t think…)
“shh… later… sweetheart… relax, come rest on me…” asr crooned to the girl without whom he couldn’t live. and being a fairly matter of fact man, he knew this was no exaggeration, this was how it was. perhaps this was even love.
“no, arnav ji, i really couldn’t think… amma babu ji bua ji jiji, everything went blank, i thought of nothing, no one… just that i couldn’t… couldn’t let them harm you… arnav ji…” she began sobbing, “babu ji… amma.. i must call them… they must be…”
“khushi! it’s okay… i spoke to them before coming… but yes, we’ll call them and tell them now. but first, you come here,” he said kissing her on her lips at last.
her mouth thrust closer against his lips, her teeth nipped his lower lip and she drew away, she wanted to kiss his lips along its entire line, right from where it started at one end, across its length, lingering over his cupid’s bow, right onto the other side, where his lips had that little dragged down dip.
he turned and lay down with her, kissing her hungrily. his hand pushed up under her kurta and felt the skin of her belly. he felt a peace begin to settle. she was here. with him…
“so you thought i wouldn’t let any harm come to di? hmm? but you didn’t come to me with the problem? next time, don’t do that, promise me? i know she called you, i know she can be very convincing… tum theek ho, khushi?” he asked softly kissing her along the length of her neck.
(are you alright, khushi?)
khushi couldn’t think straight, the heady sensation of his skin against hers made her crave, and lose all thought.
yet she almost jumped up, “aap ko pata hai? kaise? how do you know about her call?”
(you know? how? how do you know about her call?)
“we got her this afternoon, khushi… unfortunately she’d already got through to you by then…” he replied pulling her back and rolling over till she was under him and he lay right over her, his every contour flush against hers. khushi blushed. then put her arms around his waist, pulling him to her,
“poor ciao darling, she had no idea whom she was taking on, did she… arnav singh raizada… humaare pyaare magarmach, laad governor, rakshas…” she lifted her head up and kissed his tired eyes… “jwalamukhi…”
(my beloved crocodile, lord governor, monster… volcano)
he hadn’t slept in nearly forty eight hours and yet he suddenly felt bright and alive.
he knew he had to do only one thing before he did something about that feeling.
he reached for his phone to let the guptas know khushi was alright. in his arms and giggling already.