you could hear the rush of the waves coming in, a gentle constant murmur, a conversation between the water and the land and the breeze that changed direction as evening descended. the sky was turning inky and the ocean grew dark, gleaming in the moonlight. the endless ebb and flow of never still waters drew shimmering undulating lines on its vast surface. what stories did they tell?
khushi could hear heartbeats. were they his or were they hers? or maybe, they belonged to both of them? what did he say? did he just tell her, no… order her, never to leave him. ever?
but that morning he had smiled so nastily and said, “get out, khushi kumari gupta.”
what was happening? was she dreaming? khushi blinked.
she knew this was no dream. she was here, on the sand, crushed against arnav singh raizada, her arms desperately clutching him, her lips wanting to be held by his and never ever relinquished. he was holding her so tight, the length of his body stretched out against hers, he had kissed her long and with unreined passion till she felt giddy and fuzzy in the head, his hand was now on her back, roaming… did he just touch the dori of her kameez? the simple string that held her dress, her neckline, in place. she shivered at the touch of his fingers, a heat emanating.
“hey devi maiyya,” khushi whispered under her breath.
“huh?” asr looked at her and smiled ever so slightly, his dark cacao eyes glittered as they looked into hers with an expression she had no way of describing. surely it was not tender.
khushi felt her stomach do a slow flip and her heart sort of skip, race, then settle. she began to scramble up. this was the rakshas. this was that magarmach. a sense of immense danger was rising somewhere quite close by though she really didn’t want to acknowledge it, but a part of her was hellbent on saving her and she knew she had to get away. now.
yet before that, she had to ask him something.
“aa…aap theek toh hain na… sir?” her voice was tremulous, her eyes searched his face. she needed to know the answer to that.
(y..you’re okay… sir?)
his gaze moved slowly over her face and stayed there. he nodded.
“haan…” his voice was even, though his eyes watchful. he turned away and looked up at the sky, he seemed to be struggling with something.
khushi rose to her feet slowly. he didn’t stop her. he too got to his feet in one lithe strong movement. they stood facing each other, the distance between them crowded and alive with things known and unknown. he leaned close, lifted her chin, placed a soft kiss on her forehead and straightened up. khushi turned away in a daze, collected her tray of jalebis and started to walk toward her villa.
asr stood there watching.
when khushi said she didn’t want dinner, payal was seriously worried. khushi skip a meal? this never happened, not unless she was sick. very sick.
“nahi khaogi? kyun? kya hua hai tumhe, khushi? tum theek toh ho na?” she checked her forehead and neck to see if khushi had fever.
(won’t eat? why? what’s the matter with you? you’re okay, aren’t you?)
payal got her a glass of water and insisted she drink some, muttering all the while. she didn’t like to see khushi in any distress, her elder sister protective instincts came careening out the moment she sensed khushi was in any sort of trouble. and she was getting a strong sense of that now.
“from the time you’ve decided to come to delhi, it’s all been a bit too much for you… really! what was the need? we were fine in lucknow, there was no need for… you’re okay, na, khoosie bitiya?” payal smiled trying to lighten the moment with some mimicking, calling khushi the way the elders usually did, and put an arm around her sister as she sat on the bed with a slightly disoriented air, “oh meri sanka devi, why do you always rush into mad things… no fear, no thought for your own safety… when will you learn? huh? all this has been a bit too much for you… come, you want me to call a doctor? i can ask akash ji…”
“n…nahin nahin, jiji, don’t worry,” khushi said quickly and smiled at payal trying to reassure her, “i am fine, bas, just don’t feel like eating… maybe i need to be by myself for a while… you go eat, jiji… i will be fine. promise.”
payal looked at khushi’s face, she certainly looked pale. payal decided she’d leave her for the time being and after dinner find out about the doctor.
when payal left, khushi ran to the low side table where she’d placed her goddess, her friend, her confidant, her devi maiyya. she so needed to chat with her tonight.
“yeh humey kya ho raha hai, devi maiyya?” she asked as she picked up the little idol. she went over to the desk in a corner of the room and put devi maiyya on it and then sat down before her. her eyes were beginning to fill with tears, her lips trembled, she adjusted the little red chunari on devi maiyya’s head and looked at her beseechingly.
(what’s this happening to me, dm?)
“what’s happening to me? why am i behaving like this? am i a bad girl, devi maiyya? why did i want to touch sir… i mean rakshas… okay, okay, sorry, i won’t call him that in front of you… arnav ji, okay? but tell me, why am i doing this? how can i let a stranger touch me like that? you think something is wrong with me? maybe when i’d gone to the temple just before coming to delhi, the sun was too strong? it got me? amma says we can become quite silly when we get sun touched… huh? devi maiyya? you think that’s it? haan, must be that only!”
khushi paused for a moment and looked at devi maiyya, now her eyes were even more worried.
“no, i know that’s not true… it’s not the sun. but what it is… i don’t know. and you know something, he’s really horrible… really… okay, sometimes he is kind, but really… inside, like deep inside… ooof!! khadoos, yes, and full of himself… arrogant, mean, and not at all good… but then why, devi maiyya, i didn’t want to see him looking so sad?”
khushi felt she’d burst into tears. devi maiyya said nothing, though her eyes looked kind and understanding. it seemed to soothe khushi a bit.
just then she heard her phone ring. she looked at it to see who might be calling at this hour. jiji? no… it was him. laad governor. she stared at the little device with its bright orange cover and willed herself to answer the call. but she couldn’t.
she got up instead and went to take a shower. there was sand between her toes, in her hair, her clothes. she wanted to get away from that sand.
khushi adjusted the shower head and lifted the lever of the tap right up, a strong spray of water came pouring out, hot, crystal clear, cleansing and comforting. she turned her face up and into it, letting the water flow all over her, covering her… clearing away.
the spray dashing against her, dancing off her skin, reminded her of the little waves coming up to the beach, the smell of the sea in them. her toes curled at the memory and she inhaled; her nostrils seemed to fill with the smell of the sea mixed with a masculine scent, musky and deep… how she wanted to turn her face into his neck and…
her eyes flew open. what was she doing! what was the matter with her! this was not right.
she could hear the phone ringing again. she ignored it.
the water was gentle and calming and she lay back in it, turning off the shower and letting the tap fill up the bath tub instead. in lucknow there were no bath tubs in their home, only taps and buckets… the shower and the tub were such fun, khushi couldn’t get enough of them. was that the phone ringing again?
oh let it, she thought. she was not going to talk to that awful man again tonight.
khushi poured bath foam into the water and threshed her arms around gleefully working up a huge amount of bubbles. then she lay covered in them and tried to shut out the whole world.
the loud bang startled her out of her reverie. she sat upright, where was it coming from? bang! bang! bang!… oh it was the door. jiji must have come back and she hadn’t heard the bell.
khushi jumped out of the tub, quickly threw on her bath robe and ran out tightening the belt at the waist. the toweling material felt so good and comfortable, oh she’d sleep in it tonight… what an idea!
with a huge grin she opened the door all set to tell payal of her decision.
arnav singh raizada stood there, glaring at her furiously.
“don’t you dare, ever!… ever!… not answer my call… SAMJHI TUM?!!” he said through tightly clenched teeth, his voice a harsh whisper, rasping.
she jerked up, her hazel eyes widening at the sudden loud command at the end. there were tufts of white foam clinging to her long auburn tresses that had opened out and fell to her waist, her face was wet with droplets of water all over, her feet were bare.
he looked at her for an inestimable moment with the most angry eyes she’d ever seen, then he turned swiftly on his heels and strode away.
for some reason, khushi thought of the the white pigeon with tiny red eyes and the intent stare that day in lucknow, when she’d decided to take an offer that scared her yet called out compellingly.
lavanya was walking back with jean pierre to the car, they’d decided to go and spend a bit of time in the restaurant and shopping area of kuta, try out a new italian restaurant recently set up by a michelin star chef who was particularly good at adding local produce and flavours into his recipes.
the meal had been outstanding. jean pierre couldn’t get over the salad and its roasted garlic and coconut gelato served on a bed of crunchy greens including the very asian four angled beans, sliced thinly. he was talking about the food and the great wine she’d chosen as they strolled along. it was a lovely evening with clear skies and a balmy air…
la had been intrigued by the blooms in agung concept when jp explained it over dinner. it was different, seemed like a big enough idea and one could explore it in many ways. she was eager to find out more and start talking to buyers, promote the collection… it was never too early to start in this business.
as they turned toward the car park by the adjacent beach, she noticed a couple out on the sands. they were in each others arms, obviously kissing. the girl was completely in the shadows, but in the light from a nearby bar you could see the man’s back, his shoulders, bent of body, dark straight hair, … he looked familiar to lavanya.
isn’t that…? a thought began to cross her mind. but then she said to herself, no, it can’t be. lavanya shook her head, the wine is making me see things, she thought as she giggled to herself and walked off chirpily toward the car.
he was driving too fast for the narrow winding roads of ubud.
jean pierre grabbed the handle on the passenger door as asr drove to the meeting with a couple of designers. they wanted to discuss accessories and materials for the project and had set off quite early in the morning as ubud was at a distance of almost an hour and a half away from their resort.
asr looked straight ahead and grimly changed gears, negotiating the tight, practically single lane alleys and roads, pretty balinese homes and gardens skirted their way. jean pierre tried to concentrate on them and not fret about the speed.
what’s wrong with me, dammit! asr cursed under his breath.
and how dare she… how dare she not take his call! he swore again inaudibly.
what was he doing thinking of her anyway? why couldn’t he stop it! this was stupid. stoopid stoopid, in fact. he hit the accelerator hard, his grip tightening on the steering wheel.
for some reason his thoughts went to his parents. how miserable they’d been together really, he grimaced. his father cheating on his mother all the time. his mother never ever saying a thing about it, at least not in front of di and him.
that anguished look on her face he caught at times, when she had no idea he was looking at her. he cursed and slammed on the brakes as a little dog came running out of nowhere onto the street. what he’d give to take that look away from maa’s face.
he knew she loved pita ji, she couldn’t live without him… and yet, pita ji did what he did.
a lancing pain streaked through his head, he felt his hands going cold, then a rush of heat somewhere. that look on his maa’s face, he’d never forget.
and then one day it was all over. he could do nothing about it. nothing.
what was the point of this thing called love? all it gave you was hell and a helplessness, a terrible lack of control over your life. till one day it was all done… over… finished.
he grew up knowing there was no place in his life for this destructive thing. never. he would never let anything or anyone do this to him.
he’d watch di read her romances, some infernally dumb series called mills and boon was her favourite, its endless books were devoured by her on a regular basis. how could his clever, funny, smart sister even look at those things, he’d wonder. but di was unstoppable, and she’d giggle and say, “you’ll see, one day that girl will come in your life… the one for whom you’ll forget everything, and you’d wish you’d read these very silly books so you’d know what to say to her…” di was impossible.
but why was he thinking about all this now? what was the matter with him…
this had nothing to do with her… miss gupta! no! khushi!
khushi kumari gupta.
why did he feel like holding that wretched khushi kumari gupta in his arms suddenly! when she’d opened the door and stood before him with blobs of white foam on her shimmering hair, he’d wanted to pick her up and take her straight back to his villa and make love to her all night. he’d walked away instead, completely shaken by the force of that desire.
a girl with wide hazel eyes was staring up at him, shocked and dazed. sticky syrup was soaking through his expensive black silk shirt, custom made in new york with the finest italian silk. he could feel the impact of the collision where she’d hit him… just where the syrup spread and caught crunchy orange jalebi bits, by his left breast pocket, right where his heart was.
ever since that day… everything was strange.
he’d been restless, his mind going again and again to that face. his ears recalling her voice… such things didn’t happen to arnav singh raizada. women were a part of his life, of course… in his matter of fact, intelligent way, he knew he was an attractive man and women were drawn to him. the fact that he was successful and wealthy no doubt added to his attractiveness, a slight sneering smile touched his lips.
although he had very little time for things other than work, he had had a few simple and strictly temporary relationships. none of them made him restless or angry. he did not feel like doing irrational things. in fact he didn’t feel anything much at all.
when he’d lifted her out of the car after there flight from lucknow, that’s where her head had landed… his thoughts had again pulled him where they wanted him. damn.
and now he could feel something there.
what. the. f…
he concentrated on the road… he was not going to think of this any more. accessories were what he wanted to think about. and materials. sheaths of orange, red, chestnut, maroon, sienna chiffon floated… and a lissome, smooth young body gleamed within the swirls.
“what the!” he swore aloud and swung the car to a halt in front of the artist’s bungalow. work. he needed work. jean pierre let out a long breath, they had reached in one piece.
akash, khushi and payal went out to see a little of the island after lunch. khushi and payal had wanted to watch the kecak dance, which was based on the ramayana, at the famous uluwatu temple.
the girl on the beach, who made millions of plaits with your hair and strung beads on them for you if you wanted, had said the temple was lovely and the view of the sea from there breathtaking. she’d also warned them about the monkeys that roamed around free all over the temple area… and told khushi not to eat anything in front of them or carry food, they’d be all over her otherwise in no time.
although staying away from all food was a grave challenge for khushi, she’d managed to empty her bag of chocolates, ber, and other hazardous things. and after spending a few hours in the artisan’s village and a cup of tea and a lot of crunchy salted peanuts, they set off for uluwatu.
“jiji!” khushi squealed when they reached the temple, “bandar… look look! so many monkeys!” the first thing she saw was a gang of the primates, led by clearly a leader with a brooding, threatening air. they were sitting along the low walls of the temple and on the branches of the many trees, waiting to pounce on things of interest.
inside, the three of them managed to find a nice spot on the floor for the open air performance. khushi sat next to payal, while akash sat beside payal on the outer edge of the row. the colourful and noisy dance started… large groups of dancers took over the space in the centre, all men.
they wore white sarongs and a red hibiscus behind the ear, they made a peculiar, repetitive, and rhythmic sound with their mouths. jagga jagga jagga jagga… it went. they created a whole melody with different beats and pitches, the feeling of an orchestra filled the air high above the sea.
then the main dancers, each doing a role, whirled onto the stage. fire blazed, the fantastically costumed performers leaped around and told a tale which khushi and payal would have understood in any language.
sitaharan. the abduction of sita by ravan was the story of the evening. when ravan revealed himself in his vicious looking mask and sita simpered and swooned at the sight horrified at the mistake she’d made, khushi wanted to cry. why did such nasty rakshases come into good people’s lives? like that horrid one who was making her life so difficult.
she sniffed and wished she had some ber to chew on. or chana.
suddenly out of nowhere a monkey with a long tail… hanuman… jumped into the middle of the viewers, looking for a way to enter ravan’s lanka.
seemed ravan had spotted him and he came rushing in after him, then seeing a pretty girl sitting in the crowd, he lost interest in the tailed offender and swooped down on her instead.
“khushi!!!” yelled payal as ravan twirled away onto the stage holding khushi by the hand.
obviously, this was a regular feature of the dance set up mainly for tourists. made for a bit of fun and audience participation. the audience cheered and took pictures.
but khushi had no idea of this whole thing. she was terrified and screamed “arnav… ji!! arrrnav… jiii!!! bachhao baccchhhao! arnaaav jiii!”
the reverberating hum of the kecak song drowned her desperate scream. how she wished he’d also come out of nowhere right now and save her from this scary place and that beastly ravan. she completely forgot that the last time she’d mentioned ravan, it was a very sharp nosed handsome face she’d seen in her mind.
a devilish glint in chocolate brown eyes, dark thick arched eyebrows on a high straight forehead, thick black hair brushed back from a classic hairline which incorporated a perfect widow’s peak, fine lips with an asymmetrical downward tilt on the right side making him look even more rakish…
she shut her eyes tight and tried not to see the face. while she longed for it.
on the way out as they stood by the edge of the grounds looking out onto the sea below, the monkey who was the leader of the gang came loping swiftly and disappeared with akash’s specs.
it all happened so fast, no one had time to react. poor akash had a befuddled expression on his face. without his glasses he was practically blind.
payal took his hand and led him to the car, worried for this decent and thoughtful man. she was glad when he said, not to worry, he had another pair at the hotel. he was the sort to think of safety, back ups, things like that. payal liked that, she was of the same bent of mind.
walking away from the viewing point, khushi noticed a man and a woman standing to one side, also appreciating the sea. he had his arm around her shoulder, her head rested on his… and… oh.. he looked familiar.
khushi looked at the two with scrunched up brow… wasn’t that… arnav ji’s brother in law, shyam ji?
yes! it was him. khushi began to smile, maybe it was anjali ji and her husband, come here to surprise arnav ji?!
just then, the lady turned to fix her saree pallu and khushi saw her face.
it was not anjali ji.
but the way shyam ji was holding her…
khushi turned sharply and walked toward akash and payal. “chup, khushi, chup,” she told herself, “no need to think anything fanciful and filmi… i’m sure there’s a very good explanation for this.”
(quiet, khushi, quiet.)
akash couldn’t see much, and payal was too focussed on akash to notice the couple.
she paced up and down in her room, praying to devi maiyya… but why had she not seen him at all today? what was the matter? was he planning to throw her out of her job again? really, she needed to let him know he couldn’t do that. she would call him. no, she’d go and see him. no.
“stop it, khushi, you are not going anywhere,” she muttered… she was going to sleep, that’s it.
he finished his whisky sitting out on that patio. good thing, he hadn’t seen her today. he would go and get some sleep now, last night he hadn’t slept too well.
about an hour later, and after much tossing and turning, khushi decided she needed to go out and see the stars. that would make her calm, bring sleep. she came out of their villa and resolutely walked in the direction away from his place, out toward the clump of trees where she’d sat a few nights ago, speaking to her parents up there, shining down on her.
at their thought her breathing eased, she could feel her mind beginning to relax.
when she reached her spot, she looked at the sky and found her stars, then she sat down and leaned against a tree and let her head flop back and closed her eyes.
he found her asleep there as he walked up to the trees. he had tried his best to sleep but hadn’t managed to get even a minute’s rest. finally, he’d come out, thinking a walk might help.
he looked at her sleeping out here in the dark all by herself. he wanted to shake her awake and shout at her… had she any idea how dangerous this was!
his jaws clenched, he leaned down to awaken her brusquely.
but all he could manage to do was reach out, pick her up very very carefully so as not to awaken her and take her to her villa. when he reached, he set her down on the patio chair, knocked on the door, waited till payal came out, then left with a curt, “good night”.