her hand went still, the toothbrush stayed in her mouth. she stared at the mirror, a little misty from the steam.
he’d called her by her name the very first time. not the terse “miss gupta!” just… khushi.
he had kissed her.
khushi’s eyes went round in an instant, saucer like, her lips formed a perfect “o”, the toothbrush remained where it was.
he had kissed her! that awful man. how dare he? she was going to…
her bosom heaved as her breath quickened. she was all set to complete her highly offended thought when suddenly her thoughts took a sharp turn and headed off in an unknown direction.
her eyes lost their umbrage.
she took the toothbrush out and the index finger of her right hand landed on her lower lip, he’d nipped her right there. her eyes closed as she remembered lips that were hard and brutal one minute, tender and coaxing the next. she felt their pressure on her lips, his hands on her back, and a sensation overwhelmed her.
her eyes closed as she went over the moments of her very first kiss.
why wasn’t she feeling angry, she thought. he was such a horrible man. no, no, he was a rakshas… a monster. he was rude, he was nasty, and he’d been autocratic and terrible to her from the moment they met.
it wasn’t as though she didn’t know about kissing and such things. and she’d always thought she’d meet a perfect man, a man who would marry her, and then on their wedding night, on the suhag raat, sitting on a bed covered with beautiful white rajanigandha and velvet red rose petals, he’d lift the ornate red ghunghat off her face, just like in the movies, and kiss her… for the first time.
her eyes flew open. and it was this rakshas that had to do it! and she… she wasn’t even being able to get mad at him.
this was definitely black magic. no doubt about it. she began to rush about her ablutions… she’d ask bua ji to do a blessing and a nazar utarna before she left for the office. her heart beat did a funny leap at the thought of office. not good, she thought.
hey devi maiyya, raksha karna.
(hey devi maiyya, protect me.)
“hain, sanka devi? you want me to do nazar utarna now? why, my sweet butterfly, who has given you the evil eye?” bua ji bellowed as she looked at her niece all sparkly eyed and bright in her pristine white churidar kurta with silver gota trimmings and a red leheriya dupatta, large gota flowers all over.
payal pinched khushi’s waist. she didn’t want her to get a yelling from bua ji first thing in the morning. as it is, last night khushi had behaved very strangely. payal couldn’t figure out why her little sister had been as flaky and unfocussed right through the evening.
usually at pujas, khushi was always most useful and engaged. but that had not been the case at the raizadas’. khushi seemed to be in another universe altogether. when nani ji asked her to sit next to payal and anjali, she went promptly and sat by akash ji, who looked somewhat puzzled but smiled and made her feel comfortable nonetheless.
that akash ji seemed like a nice man, thought payal.
khushi had also eaten two jalebis swiftly one after the other when she was given the prashad platter to take around, before remembering she was supposed to offer it to everyone. and then when she’d reached her boss who had joined them quite late, she’d stood there as though glued to the spot, despite anjali ji telling her that her brother didn’t eat sweets, he was diabetic, he’d take some fruit from the offerings later.
and when they got back home, khushi had asked bua ji to tell her a story about jadoo tona. black magic… uff the things this girl came up with. bua ji of course, had been delighted at the opportunity and launched into an endless story of what had happened once upon a time in their village near lucknow where a girl had met this stranger…
by the time bua ji ended, half the colony seemed to have joined them. happy ji was there and so was bedi ji, the owner of the garage in front of their home, a whole bunch of aunties from the neighbourhood and some young girls had also come over. the rounds of jadoo tona stories had gone on for a while.
payal had had a long day. the train journey was tiring, then all the excitement and unfamiliarity of a new city, after which khushi’s story about the job, convincing bua ji, talking to babu ji and amma, attending the puja and now stories of spooks. really.
“kahey, sanka devi?” bua ji queried again with an aggressive thrust of her face, a wave of her right hand, her two gold bangles not moving or clinking but sitting tight and firm against the wrist, bua ji had worn those when she got married and was considerably smaller in girth. the bangles would move freely then.
(why, sanka devi?)
then looking at khushi’s suddenly woebegone expression the martinet relented and rushed off to burn dry red chilies on the flame then circle them around khushi’s head. bua ji declared there was no danger really, khushi was quite safe.
khushi smiled and gave her aunt a tight hug before running out screaming, “uff, buaji, aap bhi na, with all this evil warding off and things, now i am going to be late for work!”
buaji rolled her eyes. payal smiled, happy to see khushi back in form. she was quite astounded at the support khushi had got from bua ji on the issue of the job. in fact, she had helped convince their parents that khushi had taken the right decision. this was a good opportunity to earn and also, the girls needed to see more of the world, be ready for life ahead…
khushi ran down the few steps leading off the patio onto the lane in front and almost banged into the huge car parked right there.
“aap pagal hain kya, koi aise gaadi…!!” and her voice petered off.
(are you mad, does anyone park the car…)
asr sat at the steering wheel, aviators on, lips set in a straight grim line.
khushi stood nonplussed, looking at him unblinking.
the power window on his side rolled down, he looked out at her and drawled, “khushi! i don’t have all day… please get in.”
not a muscle could khushi move.
asr got out of the car and with long strides came up to her, caught hold of her elbow and propelled her toward the passenger door. khushi was too taken aback to protest. beside, her ears had started to flame at a memory she really didn’t wish to have.
he opened the door, waited till she was in and her seat belt was on. then for a second he just stood there looking at her, an unreadable expression in alert brown eyes.
he turned away and went to his side and got in smoothly, in seconds they were off.
he had woken up that morning feeling a lightness he wasn’t used to to. almost an edge of froth to it, foamy, lacy, weightless.
“om prakash!” he had yelled loudly. when the ever faithful young man servant came running with chhotey bhaiya’s black coffee, his habitual first thing in the morning drink, he prayed under his breath that all was well, asr normally rang the bell.
chhotey bhaiya in a bad mood was not something op looked forward to. asr was standing by his potted plants, peering and checking the foliage, he motioned to op to keep the coffee on the table and then barked out, “tell ghanshyam to get the fertilizer for the flowering plants today, understand?”
“j-ji, chhotey bhaiya,” op walked out gingerly not wishing to upset him in this frame of mind.
asr stood feeling the surface of a large shiny and firm rubber plant leaf. he wondered how khushi was doing.
then he cursed under his breath. what did he care. and yet…
his lips tightened and a frown appeared. he stood looking at the water gleaming in the early morning sunlight. he wondered what had gotten into him last evening.
he went abruptly into the room and started getting ready. by the time he was done he knew what he had to do.
he’d go around and see if she was alright.
what if she wasn’t? a voice seemed to ask.
well, then he’d leave her there to… there to… to just sit and eat her jalebis. or whatever.
he left earlier than usual since he didn’t want to be late. di was not happy, she nagged till he was out the door.
he gave her a hasty peck on her cheek as he rushed out, “di, if i don’t have breakfast one day, nothing will happen… promise, di… really, all your fasts and things… imagine i am fasting for one meal, ok?” he muttered with a little superior sort of smile.
“for what, a beautiful bride?” snapped back anjali, not at all fazed by her brother’s words. she was not happy about him skipping meals, it was not good for a diabetic. she made a face and turned away, and found shyam standing right there, a faint smile on his lips.
“oh!” anjali’s voice went up one notch, “aap? when did you get up, and you’re ready! are you also running away without eating?”
shyam gave his wife a lingering warm look and said, “no, i just thought i’d come and spend a little time with you, my ranisahiba, before the day got going, have a feeling i’ll not be back till very late this evening, might even have to work through the night…”
“again?!” asked anjali with a pronounced pout.
shyam drew her into his arms. anjali put her head on his shoulder and felt an immense peace in her heart.
“khushi!” he said suddenly after they’d driven for a few minutes.
khushi had been sitting quiet. there was a wild conversation going on inside her. why was he here? and why was she letting him drive her? shouldn’t she be leaving this job? i mean, what he did… no, what she did… no no, what they both did! this was not right… really…
she frantically reached for her bag, unzipped it and started searching for her ber. she had found a shop right here in lakshminagar that stocked her favourite titbit. she found her little stock and pulled one crunchy sweet sour fruit out and popped it in her mouth.
he turned and glared at her.
“khushi!! i am talking to you!”
khushi squeezed her eyes shut and made a face as the sharp acid hit her palate. and that’s when she heard his voice. she almost jumped out of her skin, she turned and blinked at him, “y-yes, sir?!”
he saw her lost slightly confused look. he hit the brakes without warning and stopped the car.
“stop this sir, sir business… call me arnav!” he ground out through gritted teeth. why was it hurting him to see that look on her face?
“par… but, sir, you only asked me to call you sir,” she looked at him with her hazel eyes growing larger and even more confused.
“khushi, i didn’t come to discuss the issue of how you shall address me!” his voice was getting sharper.
she flinched at something in it, an unspoken subtext… “but i didn’t ask you to come!” a spark of anger lit her voice.
“khushi, i don’t need your permission to do what i do, understand?” his temper flared. why did this girl always manage to irritate him.
she looked at him squarely in the eyes then and retorted, “nahin understand… i don’t understand… why are you doing this to me? why? what have i done to you? last night… last night… you know i need to earn money… but do you think that just because you pay me you can do what you like… you can… you can…?”
khushi was almost crying by then, not being able to complete her sentence and struggling to pop another ber into her mouth all at once.
he swore sharply under his breath and reached for his seat belt. next instant, his hands were on her shoulders and he was peering into her face…
“khushi! calm down… calm down.. okay? okay?”
khushi put the ber in her mouth and nodded, but the tears wouldn’t stop.
“now listen to me. you are here to do work. i pay you for just that. sometimes things happen that are hard to explain. can we leave it at that and go to office now? there’s way too much work to be done. jean pierre must be waiting and i hate being late…”
his voice was simple and straightforward, no innuendo, no play in it… khushi felt calmer immediately and settled back into her seat, wiping her tears with her dupatta.
he watched her for a second before handing her his handkerchief and starting the car. he was feeling decidedly calmer he realised. silver gota today, hmmm. he wondered if she had even one outfit that didn’t have things sparkling or dangling. chocolate eyes seemed to glint with a smile.
“jon piye ji is very nice, yesterday he told me to help him with some ideas…”
“what the!” his jawline went hard, the words shot out of his mouth.
it was almost seven in the evening. asr was looking at the bali itinerary with aman and akash.
“but bhai, why do you want me to take khushi ji along? i’ll be there only for a couple of days and heading back, i’ll manage without her… it’s okay.”
“akash, khushi will come with us. jean pierre might need some help… in fact, why are you leaving earlier? we’ll all stay there for a week, can the project and come back together,” asr said in a matter of fact voice. “ok, aman? so book villas accordingly… one for akash and myself, jean pierre might like his own, lavanya and khushi in one…” he didn’t see akash wince.
suddenly akash piped up, “bhai, i was thinking… you know khushi ji may find it hard to join us… you know, they may not allow her to come like that with office folk… after all, this is outside india… and…”
asr’s brow had furrowed. “not allow? really? why?… don’t worry akash, there won’t be any problem.”
he was on his way out when he saw khushi walking toward the little kitchenette downstairs. it was almost eight by then. what was she doing here, he wondered, and without realising almost turned to follow her.
inside, she was not at the water dispenser in the pantry. he went toward the door that separated the pantry from the area with a little cooking platform, and there she stood looking at a saucepan drumming her fingers on the counter, the tea caddy and some cardamoms lay on the table top.
“jon piye ji, just give me five minutes, i’ll give you real indian masala chai, ok? you see how it helps you get really good ideas, hah!” she said cheerily and turned around laughing.
he stood there looking at her sternly.
“khushi, since when are you making tea for all the young men in the office?”
her face had fallen at the very sight of him, now her lips trembled, “sir… i… jon piye ji…”
“you and your jon… piye… ji…,” an eyebrow rose and a sarcastic drawl took over, “i really am not interested in. and didn’t i tell you to call me arnav?”
” s… s… arnav ji…” she felt her breath getting caught in funny places inside her. why was it so hard to call him by his name? it was simple to say even a difficult name like jon piye ji. but ar…nav. she blushed.
“tum theek ho?” he scowled. he hadn’t moved from the door, but khushi felt he was right beside her.
(are you ok?)
“ok, let’s go, i’ll drop you home, it’s late,” he began to walk away…
“but… but… sir… arnav ji, woh chai… jon piye…” khushi was flustered.
“jean pierre will make himself his own drink, and since i pay you, not he, maybe you should start practicing listening to what i have to say?” the cool sarcasm in his voice made her want to stamp her feet and scream.
instead she hurried after him and muttered under her breath, “a ha ha ha, laad governor!” and made a face.
“khushi, please give all your particulars to aman tomorrow morning, he’ll get your passport done,” he was looking straight ahead as he drove, khushi was sitting next to him, eating chocolates.
“passport?” khushi squealed.
“haa-an, passport… what’s the problem? and don’t you ever stop eating?”
“but why passport? where am i going? you need that to go abroad, right? aand… what? did you ask me about my eating…?” as she stumbled through all that, she wondered why this man always sprang things on her. everything felt like a take off in a hawai jahaz, that sudden up in the air and empty feeling in the stomach. where was the chocolate… really.
“bali. you are going to bali… next week,” he turned a corner.
“haaan? bali? kyaaa?!!”
(whoa? bali? whaaat?!!)
“you really have to learn to stop repeating like that. there’s work. we are all going. you too.”
“but, sir… i mean arnav ji, no, i can’t… bua ji won’t let me… not like this… please understand, my parents… alone… you won’t understand… aise hum nahin ja sakte…” she was in a quandary. she knew she couldn’t ask her parents to let her go like this. they’d worry. abroad? she almost choked.
(… alone… you won’t understand… i can’t go like this…)
“khushi, i do pay you…”
“arnav ji, i am sorry, i can’t… if that means i will have to leave, then that is ok… i will…” her little voice had a firmness to it. she was serious.
“okay, what if payal comes along with you? think you can manage that?” his voice was terse.
“please speak to bua ji,” the words came out of khushi’s mouth before she could control herself.
“bua ji?” he almost shouted. was she mad? this was work, she was an adult…
“okay. when? don’t answer that… i’ll speak to her now.”
khushi looked at him wide eyed. then she felt a nervous something followed by a shot of excitement. bali?!!! foreign?!!! oh wait till she told preeto.
bua ji opened the door with a customary complaint, “ee ka hai, sanka devi, tum itni der lagai dei ho, hamar saare baal safed hui jaawenge tumri karan… khana khaye ho ke nahin, hai re nand kissore?”
(what’s this, sanka devi, you’re so late, because of you i’ll go grey… have you eaten or not, oh lord nand kishore?”)
khushi could feel asr smother a guffaw next to her. she wished she had eaten all the chocolates before getting into his horrid car. laughing at her, hoonh.
“bua ji, yeh hain…” she started introducing him.
(bua ji, this is…)
“kaun ho, nand kissore?” bua ji looked up at the young man and fell for the handsome face without ado, “arre babua, aao aao, andar aao, e sanka devi, jao babua ke vaaste paani le aao…”
(who are you, nand kishore? hello sonny, come come, come inside, hey sanka devi, go get him some water…)
babua… khushi didn’t look at asr’s face as she ran in to get some water.
arnav singh raizada looked at the portly bordering on very large woman who gazed at him with a clearly approving expression and said, “actually, bua ji, i am arnav singh raizada…”
before he could finish, she was pointing toward a chair and exclaiming, “aap hain? it is you, nand kissore? my khoosie bitiya’s boss… oh, oh, thank you so much for bringing her home… you have been so good to her…”
“i wanted to ask you if it is okay with you, if khushi and her sister payal accompany my team to bali for work… for about one week,” he didn’t see the point in wasting time on small talk.
“bali?” bua ji went still, her eyes grew large and round, “you mean, like that foreign one… that island far away, near javadweep, sumatra?”
“my husband, khushi’s phupha ji, he had gone to that island once, babua, oh what to tell you, all the memories…” she wiped tears with the pallu of her saree, then swung her long black plait over a shoulder, “he got me that beautiful mirror with batik handle from there… that one, next to the shiv ji calendar… you want to take my bitiyas?” she beamed at the stranger standing before her. something in her trusted him, “of course, you can… i will talk to my brother… but babua, take care of my girls, okay? and now do me a favour…” she beckoned him to come close and whispered dramatically.
when khushi came back, she found bua ji shouting and refusing to let her and payal go to bali. asr stood by quietly. bua ji went through the whole spiel of girls of good home, how could they be allowed to go just like that, no no, not possible, she glared at khushi and said, the things i have to do for this girl, aafat ki puriya, bundle of trouble, then she sat down and drank the water meant for him. finally she relented and said she’d have a word with her brother.
when asr got into the suv, he said under his breath, “runs in the family.” he reversed and headed home. everything was falling into place; and maybe he should think quietly about the pompoms jean pierre kept mentioning. he wished he could see a couple dangling right now.