khushi wondered why the green looked hazy, out of focus.
something warm and wet touched her cheek, her vision cleared. it was a tear she realised.
that choking sensation near her throat was still there. khushi shook her head not quite conscious of what she was doing… her breathing was getting irregular again. how would she make arnav ji understand? it wasn’t safe here, anything could happen.
as the words filtered through, a darkness seized some corner without name, a suffocation rose. it was filling her chest, her ears, her forehead, her nose, she reached out blindly and her fingers touched a soft cool surface.
khushi blinked. what was that? it was so smooth.
asr glared at the laptop screen. why wasn’t he being able to keep his mind on what mattered, dammit!
khushi was being childish. she had to stop it, that’s all.
he took a sip of coffee exasperatedly.
di was just like this… worry about the most ridiculous things, go crazy without assessing anything, annnything… rationally.
why couldn’t they think, use their minds a bit, he thought for the nth time. everything came from the wrong place. that damn dil.
he turned suddenly and grabbed the bale of mooga. how could a natural yarn have a sheen like this? a colour like this?
didn’t khushi understand? didn’t she understand anything? didn’t she understand… him?
a funny twinge shot through his heart.
the leaf was bright green and almost sparkling. she watched her finger stroke it. she was standing in front of a tea bush, holding a tea leaf. khushi frowned and peered closer, allowing her mind to move away from what she couldn’t even look at too clearly. she had walked around distractedly after changing into her churidar, trying to grapple with that worry and she must have wandered into the tea garden across the road.
the blade was wide and the edge curved in an arc all the way to the tip, there was something comforting about its shape. the gloss on the surface was deep, the patina shone, khushi rubbed the leaf, feeling its suppleness, staring at it, wondering about what she had no idea.
she had seen girls with baskets on their backs hanging from a strap on their heads, come down the road in groups and enter the gardens the last couple of days. salman ji had told her they were the tea pluckers, in assam they were called coolies.
coolies? khushi blinked again. arnav ji was a coolie… yes… but he was not a tea plucker, he carried luggage. he was a porter in new delhi station… he wanted to send her away. no, he wanted to hold her in his strong arms, keep her here. arnav ji…
salman ji had told her how the coolies were really tribal people brought here from bihar and other places as labourers, when the british people started the tea gardens almost two hundred years ago. the coolies had a miserable life, she remembered her friend looking angry as he’d said that.
angry… gussa… arnav ji was angry… he was jwalamukhi. her jwalamukhi… the leaf in her hand was blurring again.
khushi took a deep breath and concentrated on what salman ji had said.
his father tazdiq ji had over the years started taking a lot of interest in the the lives of the workers… without whom, the tea estate would be quite useless. there would be no tea, salman ji had grinned. tazdiq ji had started cutting down work hours, improved the state of the huts where coolies lived, raised the pay, got a group of doctors from gujarat involved in a women’s health programme, the men were big drinkers often, tazdiq ji hoped the simple sports activities he was encouraging would help in some way in curbing that… he’d set up a school with his own family’s money. rehana ji supervised the running of the school, she also encouraged the older girls to come at least once a week to her home and showed them things on the internet. one of the girls had just been accepted into a college in calcutta, everyone was pretty happy about that. salman ji was sure, there had been a lot of drinking in the village that evening.
khushi frowned, she had not met any of the pluckers. they were not all young girls, many were much older women… experts at their work. they worked really fast, their fingers moving without faltering, tearing off the leaves and tossing them into the basket at the back, they knew exactly how to break off the tip of the stem with two leaves and a bud, that’s what was needed to make really good chai.
two leaves… khushi smiled, two.. always two…
two strings… babu ji always said the syrup had to come to that density… do taar.
the leaf was intensely green and yet… the tea… khara…
brown that gleamed gold as it moved. how did that happen, how did green turn to… why were arnav ji’s eyes so brown? why couldn’t she think of anything else when he smiled, when his eyes were like tea without milk. moving glinting deep brown.
khushi took a ragged breath in. arnav ji.
she knew she couldn’t stop him. she wouldn’t be able to bear it if the eyes dimmed. even that bit…
arnav ji loved what he did. his work meant so much to him. he had created his business out of nothing practically… that drive, that determination… yes, it was terribly dangerous here… but people worked and lived here still. kanumoni ji, helena ji, bahadur ji, salman ji’s parents, the coolies… and yes, thapa ji…
she wondered if rehana ji was scared for tazdiq ji ever. and she instantly knew, yes, she was. perhaps every day. but still, she was here with him. and tazdiq ji who was so good, maybe… could be who he wanted to be because rahana ji let him be?
what a strange thought, khushi shook her head again.
her heart raced at the thought of arnav ji smiling up at her, confident, sure of himself, with just a bit of teasing in his eyes… or anger… or, khushi gulped, the way he looked at her at times… shimmering brown eyes.
she started to walk toward the bungalow. suddenly, she wanted to drink a whole glass of hot tea. with elaichi.
he got up slowly and walked over to the swathe of mooga still lying on the grass. he bent down and picked it up, and holding it up he let his eyes run over the fabric.
khushi saw his shoes first. she stopped in her tracks and looked up.
asr stood there. khushi started, her heart leaping. what was arnav ji doing here?
asr walked up to her nonchalantly and lifted her chin with his fingers, for a long moment he looked into her eyes.
she watched not quite understanding what he was doing. why he was here.
he let go of her chin and stepped back, then he said, “okay… okay! i won’t come to assam any more.”
khushi felt her heart flip.
“nahiiin!” she whispered, asr stepped closer again and stroked her cheek with slightly unsteady fingers.
“it’s okay,” he said almost in a whisper. khushi shook her head and said,
“aap ko aana hi hoga!”
(you have to come!)
asr stared at her. he was sure she didn’t know what she was saying. she was in a such a state. he could have kicked himself, she was so frantically worried for him, and he had not understood that. of course, she had been irrational. she was like that. he would be rational. no, what the! he had to admit it, actually he wouldn’t. the poor girl… he started to draw her to him, but she pushed him away.
“nahin, arnav ji! you must do the work you want to do. hum aapko khush dekhna chahte hain… hum… hum… i will manage, dekhiye… assam is beautiful, dekhiye… nothing will happen. hum jaantey hain…” khushi’s voice was steady, but he could sense the fear, the worry underneath.
(no, arnav ji, you must do the work with mooga you want to do. i want to see you happy.. i… i… will manage, see… assam is beautiful, see… nothing will happen. i know…)
he felt something grow and fill his heart.
“khushi, tum kitni bahadur ho, you’re so courageous,” the grain in his voice grazed her skin. his eyes were twinkling. no they were glinting. with… khushi looked for the word she was seeking. pride? yes, with pride. really?
khushi giggled a little and threw herself into his arms. her chest dashed against his as his arms came up, strong and never unsure. he held her tight. she reached up, hungrily catching his lips with hers, she began kissing him. he needed to make love to her right now, he decided, and swung her up in his arms. she moaned and bit his cheek and put her slightly bruised lips on his again.
neither noticed it as it fell from her hand. a perfect tip of two tea leaves and a bud.
she sat on his lap and rocked slowly as he held her, his face against her hair. his hand stroked her bare skin, she settled closer against his chest, absentmindedly running her fingers through the springy hair that extended from somewhere below his collar bones, all the way down.
“hey!” asr stopped her playful fingers. she laughed lightly and nuzzled his neck.
“i mean it, i can get the work done without actually coming here… you know technology… khushi? stop it!” he was laughing now. the sound made her toes wriggle. she started to pull him down onto the bed.
“you’re mad!” he said, his voice inadvertently husky, even though he meant to be stern.
“hum bahadur!” khushi made a face, “samjhe aap!”
(i am brave… you understand!)
“okay, let’s see how brave!” he lunged at her.
she yelped and tried to run away. he caught her without effort, lay down on the bed and pulled her over him. as she sat there on his stomach straddling him, legs on either side, he watched her body gleaming against the shadows. the light from the lamp in the corner was warm, it played over her, illuminating a hollow here, a curve there, streaking off a strand of flyaway hair. her left breast was a lighter shade of gold, his eyes traveled down along the dip of her waist, the flare of her hips, down her long supple thigh. he lifted a hand languidly and touched her knee. a thought came through the darkness. innate… intrinsic… gold.
he took a deep breath, then smiled up at her and said in his crisp, no nonsense way, “i love you, khushi…”
she had no time to react as she felt herself lose balance, topple, and the next moment, his face was looming over hers, his chest was pressed against her diaphragm, her navel, he was holding her arms down on either side, his hands gripped hers.
for some reason her eyes went to the scar on his left eyelid. bike accident, he’d told her tersely once when she had asked what caused it. for some reason, khushi longed to touch it just then.
she struggled trying to free her hands.
he grinned and whispered, “dammit!”
and she felt his mouth, warm and urgent, on her nipple. she writhed. her hands were still tightly gripped in his.
“people have gone crazy trying to make gold… it can’t be made… no amount of alchemy will do the trick… yet a tiny worm on a tree…” asr paused.
his mind wandered to bare skin a lighter shade of gold in the half light. he swallowed hard.
he’d been right, of course. love was indeed a dangerous thing. far more dangerous than he’d ever calculated though.
“asr? you there?” lavanya asked hesitantly.
“lavanya,” came the terse reply, “work on it, we need a name that gets the story!”
asr switched off the phone and turned to greet his host.
assam was back to normal this morning but the workshop was closed for bihu, the harvest festival. surojit gohain, the owner, had kindly offered to meet him here though since he was leaving the next day.
mr gohain was an elderly man with a head of silver grey hair, his skin was pale and fair, it was beginning to get that papery look of age, wrinkles were apparent near his eyes and the corner of his lips. he had small, refined features, his eyes seemed to belong to someone younger than his years. he wore a hand knitted, not very well fitting maroon sweater over his white shirt and khaki trousers; a light blue checked muffler was wrapped around his neck.
his attire was in complete contrast to his visitor’s sharply cut grey woolen jacket, trousers and matching waistcoat, which he wore with a charcoal grey shirt. the monochromatic palette was broken by an ochre tie, its single knot impeccably tied.
mr gohain said pleasantly, “i will try my best to get the fineness, mister raizada. we have not been asked to consider this before… but i am sure we can experiment…”
“thank you, mr gohain. that’s what i’d hoped to hear. i’ll be back in march. maybe you’ll have some success by then?” asr had a feeling that indeed would be the case.
they discussed a few things, then asr took another look at the premises. today the click-clack-click-clack from the looms was missing but the silkworms were busy as usual in the large boxes where they fed on som and sual leaves, that would soon turn into the cocoon and yield the rare yarn. the silkworms would die in the process. collateral damage.
asr wondered about the ethics of silk making, not for the first time. it was a cruel world, as it had always been, he thought with a tight smile.
khushi sat down next to rehana ghaznavi and said, “hum aapko dhanyavaad dena chahte hain, rehana ji. aapne hume kal ek mahatwapoorn baat sikhayi!”
(i want to thank you, rehana ji. yesterday you taught me something very important.)
“yesterday, my dear?” rehana was mystified, “but i didn’t teach you any golf yesterday… i had meant to but…”
“kya?!!” khushi almost shrieked as she cut in, “no no, rehana ji, much more important than that… about life… about you know… woh jo hum… arnav ji… aap… tazdiq ji…” she petered off not knowing exactly how to say what she wanted to.
(no no, rehana ji, much more important than that… about life… about you know… the thing that i… arnav ji… you… tazdiq ji…)
“what is golf if not life lessons, khushi,” rehana clasped khushi’s hand, “but tell me, what are you talking about…”
khushi struggled with her words as she gazed at salman’s mother sitting beside her in her perfectly creased white slacks and a rose pink chikkan top, her hair brushed back neatly, a light lipstick her only make up. her beige pashmina shawl lay on the sofa, there was an unmitigated warmth in her eyes, her smile.
“nahin, bas, i was very scared yesterday… then i understood… how brave you are… how much you love tazdiq ji…” khushi blurted out.
“what? i didn’t understand… i am brave?” rehana looked puzzled.
“rehne dijiye, rehana ji, i can’t explain… bas, thank you!” khushi gave rehana a quick hug and opened the packet of jalebis she had brought along.
(let it be, rehana ji, i can’t explain… just thank you!)
“thank you, my dear, for being such a good friend to my boy, he is so far away from home… mmm… these are delicious…” rehana said enjoying her jalebi.
she took khushi for a walk around her garden. the flowers were in full bloom. roses in at least ten colours, elegant gerberas on long slender stems, sprightly multi-hued phlox along borders, dahlias, hollyhocks, orange nastertiums with their round leaves, calendula in tones of yellow, purple and golden pansies in little patches, sweetpeas pink and pretty on a trellis… winter was the time for flowers in assam.
khushi gasped and sighed and crouched to peer or touch or just grin at in delight. rehana led them to the back of the house where she had her kitchen garden.
“gajar, mooli, gobi, matar, sab kuch?” khushi almost yelled, staring in astonishment at the beds of vegetables.
(carrot, radish, cauliflower, everything?)
rehana tried to hide a smile.
“hmm hmm,” she replied, “also potato, tomato, coriander, spring onion, ginger, garlic, summer veggies during season, and yes, fruits! strawberry, plum, mulberry… you know setoot… mmm, pineapple, passion fruit… jack fruit…”
“bas bas, rehana ji, i am hungry already!” khushi said happily, looking around, thinking maybe when arnav ji came here again, he’d ask her to come along? her eyes widened at that and her lips went into their customary “o” formation.
she covered her mouth with a guilty palm and muttered to herself, “haw! what am i thinking! how can i leave everyone and go with him like that… hey devi maiyya, i am becoming very bad i think, raksha karna!”
(hey mother goddess, i am becoming very bad i think, protect me!)
“see you this evening at the bihu feast,” rehana said to khushi at the gate as she was about to leave.
“yes, rehana ji, i have never seen bihu! it’s okay if i wear a saree, na?” khushi asked.
rehana frowned suddenly and shook her head, “yes… but, khushi… oh how could i have forgotten to ask! i hope you liked the mekhela i helped arnav choose for you!”
khushi looked nonplussed, “kya?!!”
the sun had begun its descent. the river was calm, water shimmered and reflected the pinks, mauves, oranges of sunset. flocks of birds glided above, chattering, banking gracefully toward home.
he held her hand firmly, feeling the sand beneath his feet, the water splash and reach the rolled bottom of his trousers. he turned to look at her. she had a beatific smile on her face as she stared at the sky. her red and yellow dupatta floated about her in the breeze… her pompoms were dancing as usual, the gota was bright, even in this light.
he looked down and noticed that her churidar, which couldn’t be rolled for this walk along the shallow edge of the river, was completely wet till her knees. tiny fish swam around their legs, the sand where the dihing met its bank glistened like a long wavy endless ribbon.
he took another step and broke her reverie, she nodded her head as if in approval and pranced along. the half built bridge jutted out behind them reaching for the other side.
he kept walking.
she remembered suddenly and looked at him. he was in his waistcoat and shirt, the jacket and ochre tie had come off and were left in the jeep. laad governor, she said in her head, nowadays the words had started sounding too loving she noticed and frowned a little, but soon returned to the contemplation of the man who held her hand and strode… even in the river he was wearing his waistcoat buttoned down. then she saw the rolled trouser legs, below that a bit of shin, then ankles… the feet with straight toes, brown skin… wet.
she forgot what she wanted to say.
from somewhere in the distance a song floated up. you could hear drum beats. anticipation gathered in the dusk.
video credit uploader
i grew up in assam… images from those days stay in the mind, a sense of home. assam is beautiful, rich, it has a quality all its own. an intensity. an innocence. but there is sadness too and enough violence and blood. the struggle is often between these two reflections of a wild and beautiful land. guess where there is extreme beauty, there’s bound to be devastation as well. i am a tea drinker and assam tea is absolutely wonderful. the coolie’s life has always been difficult. i hope you enjoyed the chapter and its emotions. sorry, monday became thursday. thanks for reading, would love to know your thoughts.