“what did we hear?
it was the breath we took when we first met.
listen. it is here.”
~~~ harold pinter ~~~
“jaa rahi ho?” his voice was soft, husky, with that grain that was his. only his.
(are you going away?)
she closed her eyes, a rush of blood, crimson, gushing, pounding coursed through her toes, her gut, her head, her ears.
she whirled around.
and looked straight into chocolate brown eyes. glittering.
her entire being went dead cold, then everything seemed to come alive in an instant. a pulsating heat in every pore, her ears were ringing, her head felt woozy, and she couldn’t breathe. as though if she did inhale or exhale something might shift, something might change, and she couldn’t let that happen. it had to be here just this way. nothing must change.
she knew then in her heart, deep down, she had indeed thought he would die.
she would lose him, no matter how hard she tried, how much she spoke, how much she dressed up and went about a day as though all were normal. through almost two months of the strangest days, she’d kept her head as best she could; gathered every shred, every ounce of courage she had; fought back. yet in a tight little dark core had sat this thought.
he would die. death. that terrible hamesha. forever.
her eyes gazed into his. for the longest moment. ever. she hadn’t seen his eyes, chocolatey, melting, velvet brown for so many days. and how they sparkled, a light in them. life in them. alive.
he saw her whirl around. he saw her go cold, he felt her breath cease, holding the moment. he held on to her pallu.
who was she? this ethereal beautiful creature? had he seen her before? where had she come from? far away or near?
he was dragging her up the steps of a temple. the night was unforgiving, fires raged within. her wrist was crushed in his grip, her tears flowed, her crimson lehenga studded with a million sequins gleamed, a scream for help? but who was listening.
he thrust a chain of black beads and a touch of pure gold around her neck. she stood still, unable to fathom the claim of a disdained mangalsutra.
as fire and the eternal as witness, and in the presence of the night and the winds that howled, the temple bells that rang out timeless words of union, they stood face to face, eye to eye, a man and a woman; caught in a moment where breath would stop and begin.
he thrust a chain of black beads and a touch of pure gold around her neck. she stood still, unable to fathom the claim of a disdained mangalsutra. you are mine, it seemed to say. dismissive fingers took a pinch of vermillion from a ready platter as if someone knew he would come, he would come looking for this one day. he had to hurt her, he had to make her his. you are mine, said his eyes. you are nothing, said his lips, no one to me, just the signs of a wife, but not her place… cruel fingers marked her with red, a sacred streak of sindoor so false. i am the truth, it seemed to say. she had no words…
she was so lovely, all he wanted to do was fold her in his arms and say, “how could you do this to me?”
he wanted to lift her up in his arms and walk down those stairs, drive her to a midnight pool under the stars and make love to her all night. “don’t you know how i feel?” he wanted to ask her as he covered her face with a hundred kisses, ran his fingers through her loosened chestnut brown hair, buried his face in their silken wiles, felt her skin melt at his touch. he wanted to hear her silent permission to undo that dori of her tunic, to run his fingers up her arms leaving a trail of goosebumps, to hear her moan when he gazed at her perfect body then took her in love, in only adoration. to hear her sigh when they reached where they’d been coming to all along. ever since that moment in a bright blue morning pool. and a plunge that took them drowning. all the way to breathless.
that endless moment.
he could feel her quivering body, her eyes were tight shut, her long lashes seemed to carry a tremble, he pressed his lips on them. who are you, have i known you before, have i never not known you?
the sunlight gleamed and winked on the bright blue waters.
a large blue metal monster came hurtling out of nowhere, raucous afternoon sun.
“khushi!” desperation mingled with yearning.
he was sitting up in bed and pulling her pallu hard all at once. she fell almost on him as she lost balance, his arms reached up urgently and pulled her close in a tight hug, tighter still.
he was shaking, breathing hard, she started getting worried… what was happening to him?
“khushi!” a hoarse whisper, “tum theek ho?”
(khushi, are you okay?)
she wondered what he meant.
“that bus… khushi! i pushed you… are you ok, baby… are you ok, my darling? you’re ok, aren’t you… why do i always hurt you?”
as he spoke almost incoherent in the turbulence of his feelings, he could see a boy turning away leaving a beautiful woman alone in a garden… but she was smiling. when he looked again, the boy was a man… a man he knew. it was him, arnav singh raizada. and he had to get to that girl on that hot afternoon road, he had pushed her.
“khushi! tum chup kyun ho?” he wanted to hear her voice. so long, for so long he hadn’t heard her it seemed. only sometimes in a dream, in a drowsy haze, in some place far far away.
(khushi, why are you silent?)
“arnav ji,” at last she spoke.
his body eased at the sound of her clear soft yet strong voice. though he held her even closer.
she couldn’t believe he was here. sitting up on the bed, holding her, talking. she began to smile. no matter what happened, he was here.
that’s all that mattered.
she lifted her hand and touched his hair, soft and thick it was and springy to touch, “arnav ji,” she said just enjoying saying his name, knowing for sure, he could hear her. her hand explored his head, then traced the ridge of his earlobe, she loved his ears, she loved what happened to him when she nibbled them lightly.
her hand moved down as she stroked his long lean back, gently, yet possessively. her arnav, and he was here. the tears had to come at some point she knew and now she could feel one squeezing out of the corner of her eye, flowing down the side of her nose as her head rested on his shoulder, then making its way over the bridge to fall on the nape of his neck. first one, then another, and then…
“tum ro rahi ho?” he had felt the warm saline drops.
she shook her head, averting her face further so he wouldn’t see. he pushed her gently away and looked at her, a finger under her chin lifted her face, warm brown eyes gazed into moist dark hazel ones.
“shh, shh,” he soothed her, as he brushed the tears away… “i am here, you are safe…”
she smiled at his words. this was the man she loved. he had been practically killed by a rampaging bus, his ribs were broken, there had been damage to some organs, he had just been in a coma for almost two months, yet the moment he comes to, he is the master of the situation, the man in command. he holds her and assures her, she is safe. he is here. always strong, a man of himmat since he was a boy, always there for those he loved.
oh, arnav singh raizada, i just love you madly, she thought. paagalon ki tarah.
everything in him seemed to want to move, to grab back life, to reclaim dynamism.
“kya?” he asked, as if he’d heard her thought.
“kuch nahin… arnav ji. sirf yeh, bas,” she let her arms go back around him and held him close. the two sat there, quiet, it was enough to know the other was there.
(nothing… arnav ji. only this, that’s all.)
but this was not a man known to stay still long. and he’d just been kept captive to this very thing for almost 60 days.
everything in him seemed to want to move, to grab back life, to reclaim dynamism. his limbs wanted to spring out of bed and start doing things, his heart raced with a feeling of freedom, his mind buzzed taking note of all that he’d been away from so long.
matter of habit, his eyes sought out the pool by his room; the ripples, the reflections, his land of thought and reverie. oh it was beautiful to be here… he gave her a little squeeze. and for the first time in a long long time, a smile touched the corner of his lips.
he was here and she was in his arms. he pushed her back again and looked at her once more. she saw his smile, that lopsided asr smile, and felt something lodge in her throat. again that feeling she couldn’t breathe. really, khushi kumari gupta, she thought, tu kitni nautanki hai, you’re such a drama queen, sanka devi! bua ji is right! but try as she might she couldn’t pretend she wasn’t completely overcome by the feeling of him.
he was alive. he was here. he was holding her. she reached up and pecked him on his cheek. her reward was that sweet smile, the sweetest smile on earth she could have sworn. her diabetic pati dev, with the purest sweetness in him.
he looked at her and wondered how he’d survived without all this so long? or maybe he’d survived just so he could come back and see her loveliness again, feel her innocence soothe him, cocoon him, make him safe. he groaned as he went right back to holding her.
“aap ko kuchh yaad hai?” she asked softly. not wanting to say the wrong thing.
(do you remember anything?)
“that bus came out of nowhere, khushi, i pushed you… then all i remember is this, you and me. here. come ‘ere you,” he said as he pulled her back when she moved away a bit to see his face. she subsided back happily, haan, there was a lot of time to talk.
he felt tiredness hit him suddenly, he had to lie down. he slid back with her still locked in his arms,and turned to lie on his side facing her, her chiffon saree swished and the pallu fell across his face. he picked it up instinctively, sensual, silky spiderweb fine weave, he remembered the feel of chiffon on his face that night at the hotel. she had tripped and tumbled into his arms a moment later. there was a song in the air that night he could have sworn.
why did he feel he could hear it here? today? right now? beautiful song rising and wrapping around them?
“maybe her sanka has touched me, my paagal biwi,” he thought.
(maybe her craziness has touched me, my mad wife.)
“kya?” she said, her face close to his.
“kuch nahi, yeh!” he kissed her on the mouth. soft quivering yielding lips pressed back against his male demanding touch. how much he’d wanted to do that… and for so long. he wouldn’t think of all that now. he would just be here, doing what he wanted to do. kiss this gorgeous woman in his arms. long and slow, and he nibbled a little, she squirmed, he rolled on top of her as he tightened his kiss. no more games. you are mine.
she knew she had to stop him. she so wanted to not. absolutely not. but she knew he was not ready for this. not yet. and besides, she had to tell everyone, the entire family had suffered through these days. and di, oh she had to know. and doctor verma had to be called. how come the nurse hadn’t come checking yet?
she broke the kiss slowly, lingering just a bit, then unable to help herself she pecked the scar on his eyelid quickly, he smiled thinking she was playing and began to get back…
but no, she stopped him and said with a sweet smile designed to quickly get him away from the heat a moment ago, “main kaise lag rahi hoon?”
(how am i looking?)
how am i looking? he looked at her astounded, what was she doing? she’d taken advantage of that startled moment and wriggled out from under him, she was sitting up in bed, settling her hair, her saree…
“nahi arnav ji, aap ko bataana hi hoga… how am i looking?”
(no, arnav ji, you have to tell me… how am i looking?)
“tum bilkul…” he was not going to let her off so easily, he came close and blew on her always errant locks falling over the forehead. she shivered in anticipation. ah, not so easy to play with me, he thought, as he blew ever so lightly once more. “b…b..bilkul…?” she stammered, breath in a mess.
(you’re absolutely…) (a…a..absolutely…?)
“bilkul brazil ki football team jaisi lag rahi ho…” he smiled broadly and turned away.
(you look absolutely like the brazil football team…)
“huh? poori team? pehle dilli ki auto rikshaw, ab ek football team? main itni moti hoon kya?” khushi was upset. well not really, but just a bit maybe.
(huh? the entire team? first the delhi auto, now a whole team… what, am i that fat?)
asr burst out laughing. and felt a sharp pain instantly.
“kya hua, arnav ji, kya hua?” khushi was at his side in a second. concern laced with fear.
(what happened, arnav ji, what happened?)
“nothing, khushi, just a little pain here,” he pointed to his ribs. khushi made him lie down and started calling di on the phone. she was at home but khushi wasn’t going to leave him alone.
just then, rahim chacha walked in with some fruit juice for khushi.
“khushi bitiya, juice yahan rakkhoon?” he asked and then realised chhotey saab was awake!
(khushi bitiya, shall i keep the juice here?)
without waiting for her reply he left the room and rushed to tell nani ji, on the way, there was op going to mami ji’s room with her diet drink of celery and carrot and green apple.
“om prakash, pata hai, chhotey sab uth gaye…” he beamed.
(om prakash, do you know, chhotey saab is awake!)
“hain? chhotey saab? uth gaye… jai hanuman ji ki” op grinned, all 32 out, and ran to give the news to mami ji. rahim chacha wondered why op started singing “aaj mausam hai suhana…” under his breath. now where had he heard the song before?…
(what! chhotey saab? he’s up… thank the great lord hanuman!) (the weather is good today…)
the older man was not as sharp as he used to be when he was a member of the household staff at sheesh mahal. his duties were mainly to look after chhotey saab and anjali bitiya’s father, a sort of butler to him. some of those memories he’d never forget. try as he might.
“kya? khushi ji? main abhi aa rahin hoon!” anjali had been making kheer in the kitchen. it was so close to janmashtami. celebration was far from everyone’s mind, but anjali didn’t have classes today and thought it might be nice to make something chhotey liked and natkhat kanha ji too. she missed her mother today, why she had no idea. as though she was close, very very close. she could almost feel her standing there, smiling at her and chhotey.
(what? khushi ji? i am coming right now!)
she sighed. and her phone rang.
she quickly put a little kheer in a bowl and began to make her way upstairs as fast as she could. the phone rang again.
“miss raizada? doctor verma here,” the quiet reassuring baritone of the doctor who’d done all he could to save her brother.
“doctor verma!” she said her voice brimming with joy, “chhotey… i mean arnav… has woken up…”
doctor verma had visited his patient every day for the past two odd weeks, ever since he was moved to shantivan. usually, he’d call miss raizada and find out if the night had gone smoothly, and later after hospital, a quick visit to make sure all was well. he knew it was a waiting game, but he hoped the wait would end soon, for the longer the patient was in coma, the worse the repercussions.
then gone back to delhi, away from the disturbing roiling pain of sheesh mahal… its corridors. away from the girl whose face he didn’t want to remember but who refused to leave his mind.
so he was quite prepared to feel a certain sense of satisfaction at hearing arnav singh raizada was awake. what he wasn’t prepared for was the surge of happiness he felt at hearing the relief and delight in anjali raizada’s voice.
he was taken aback by its force.
“doctor?” anjali was surprised at the silence.
“that’s wonderful, miss raizada, i’ll be down shortly, ” he replied recovering quickly, his voice quite flat in his effort to settle his feelings.
“see you soon…” anjali was too happy to spend too much time wondering about that silence. he was coming, and she was glad to hear that. she went up the stairs…
that evening in sheesh mahal, after asr left abruptly, op came to make sure he had taken everything, that nothing was left behind. what was that pink thing lying under the curtain, he thought? his hawk eyes (and ears) rarely missed anything. he found the pink and brown faux leather purse asr had hurled in frustration, then gone back to delhi, away from the disturbing roiling pain of sheesh mahal… its corridors. away from the girl whose face he didn’t want to remember but who refused to leave his mind.
op picked up the purse and took it with him to delhi. he put it in the drawer in chhotey saab’s wardrobe.
arnav singh raizada lay back watching his wife making several calls, she seemed so happy.
and yet that afternoon… the image of the bus crashed in on the moment… what was a blue line bus, practically empty, apart from the driver and one other guy, doing in a narrow lane that afternoon? his mind couldn’t stop moving. and why was the guy speeding? couldn’t he see khushi trying to cross the road? or was it… no… but that’s what it was doing… it was picking up speed even though the driver must have noticed her… such a tiny alleyway… it was no accident.
the truth of that moment hit him. he knew why he had to get well quickly and do something about it.
it was no accident.
his face had obviously started showing signs of the thoughts racing through him, khushi put the phone down… di walked into the room with the kheer and a huge smile… khushi spoke before anjali could say anything…
clear brown eyes looked at her.
then she heard him say, “khushi, it was not an accident… it was that shyam… it was him.” teeth clenched, voice almost guttural, with a red hot edge of gussa.