he walked into shantivan looking grim and aloof. his lips were pursed tight and he walked ahead completely unaware of om prakash who had opened the door for him and greeted him with a smile, taking his brief case and laptop from him. he didn’t even see the whole family sitting in the drawing room, he saw nothing, he didn’t want to see anything now, he needed to be by himself… to not feel what he was feeling.
“bitwa, aap aa gaye?” nani ji’s voice interrupted him.
(son, you’re back?)
he looked at her with a distracted air and said, “yes, nani ji, but i have lots of work, i’ll go to my room…”
he barely looked at the others.
“oh chhotey!” di got up and started hobbling toward him, “come and sit for a bit… om prakash, hari prakash se kahiye chhotey saab ke liye ek coffee laaney!”
(tell hari prakash to bring a coffee for chhotey saab.)
she could see he was looking tired, she stroked his cheek the way she always did, her way of communicating love and her right even perhaps to be this close to him. no one was allowed to cross a line with arnav singh raizada. except his di. he had great regard and love for his nani ji, he loved his mama and mami too and akash was important to him. he trusted and respected shyam but essentially because he made di happy.
only di was part of his innermost circle, with an unspoken claim on him as it were. there was nothing he could deny her really.
but today, he needed to be alone.
“di!” he held her hand and gave a tight smile, “bahut tired hoon, akela rehna chahta hoon…”
(di, am very tired, want to be alone.)
anjali was about to protest when her husband said from where he was sitting next to nani ji, playing chess with her, “arrey raanisahiba, let saaley saab go and relax a bit… he will come and sit with us later, what’s the problem…”
asr knew if there’s one person di would listen to that was jija ji, he looked at shyam and smiled, before turning away…
“but chhotey, you are looking so…” di began to say something.
asr could feel a suffocation begin to rise in him and walked away swiftly.
“hello hi bye bye, arnow bitwa is what happening? my bitwa lookings bhery bad, so good lookings eej my boy… but kaahey itna paresaan, aall color phrom phacewa phadings… tomaarrow pooja, sasuma, agar hamaar arnow ka kuchh huwi gawa…” mami ji couldn’t help herself, she had to get melodramatic looking at her nephew’s state.
(“hello hi bye bye, what’s happened to arnav bitwa? my bitwa is looking bad, so good looking is my boy… but why is he so hassled, all the colour from his face has faded… the pooja is tomorrow, if something happens to our boy…)
“manorama!!” hemangini singh raizada had to mind her loud and not at all subtle daughter in law.
anjali’s eyes filled with tears at the mention of their parents’ annual memorial pooja… why did it not hurt less even after so many years.
he stood by the french window looking out at the night, the play of water in the pool outside. he could feel heat rising up his chest, his breath, his ears, the back of his eyes felt hot. he closed his eyes… it was agony.
he couldn’t bear to think of her with someone else.
he just couldn’t bear to see her smiling at jean pierre. and knowing her, she was going to smile and giggle too.
damn. couldn’t the girl have a serious, morose face. why must she smile!
his teeth gritted. he wanted to drag her into her arms and kiss her senseless. he wanted to hear her whimper as she started to kiss him back, her tiny little tongue, searching for his. he wanted to crush her to him and feel her arms go around him, at first a little shy, then completely possessive. he wanted to push his body against her till there was nothing between them, he wanted to inhale her fragrance, taste her skin, get completely lost in her and never let go. he wanted to see her smile at him with drowsy large hazel eyes filled with joy.
he wanted her and…
he shook his head in despair.
his hand reached up and long lean fingers started slowly loosening his tie. one by one he took off all his clothes, then leaving everything where it was, on the floor, on his lounger, his tie hanging from the foot of the bed, he walked naked to his walk in wardrobe and pulled on swimming briefs.
he went out to the courtyard and plunged into the pool. he needed to feel water, cool and soothing around him. he needed to focus and feel the rhythm of a powerful swim. he needed calm, he needed shut out from all those feelings, from all that he wanted.
his eyes were closed as he swam the familiar length of his pool. he could easily do fifty laps, but tonight he didn’t stop, he kept going. he needed to forget everything, even the count of laps.
she dressed carefully for her first evening out. she had never done this before and there was an excitement in her, a curiosity.
bua ji had been completely taken aback when khushi told her that she would be going out for dinner with a frenchman called jon piye ji.
“hain! naahin, sanka devi, naahin, how can i let you go out like this with someone i don’t even know… and that too a man… humey pata nahin kaun piye ji… ee kaun piye ji ke saath tum kahin naahin jaoge haan, hai re nand kissore…” buaji had gone off at high speed and high decibel.
(what! no, sanka devi, no, how can i let you go out like this with someone i don’t even know… and that too a man… i don’t know “who drank ji”… with this “who drank ji” you are not going anywhere, hai re nand kissore…)
“kaun piye ji nahin, bua ji, jon piye ji…” khushi tried to interject and calm her aunt a bit.
(not “who drank ji”, bua ji, jon piye ji…)
“jauno bhi piye ji…” bua ji dashed in, “i don’t care, who drank, who didn’t drink, who may or may not drink, none of all that is of any concern to me, but sanka devi, i am responsible for you while you are here… not letting you go, bas…” bua ji was adamant.
(whoever may have drunk ji…)
“bua ji,” payal had just walked in, she seemed to look radiant khushi noted, “i know jon piye ji, bua ji… he is a very nice man…” payal would never forget jean pierre putting lavanya in her place when she’d called her little sis “behenji”.
“khushi will be absolutely safe with him, and bua ji, there are so many new things we are both doing these days, aur ek sahi? one should have new experiences, na, bua ji? so that one can always manage in this life… no matter what.” payal was telling bua ji something she loved to say to the girls herself.
(there are so many new things we are both doing these days, why not one more?)
at this madhumati went suddenly completely silent. her thoughts veered instantly to her days alone when her husband passed away suddenly and she had to manage in this city all by herself. she didn’t have children or relatives here. many suggested that it may make more sense to go back to lucknow where her brother lived and whom she loved dearly. but madhumati realised she had crossed a line already, she had come out of where she was, and going back was no longer possible.
not because of any other reason, simply because she didn’t want to.
when she had married her husband and moved here, the big bursting city, so different from her smaller, safer, courteous and still caught in nawabi airs lucknow, she had been scared.
but delhi had taken her to a new world… a huge colourful whirl of throbbing energy, chaotic vibrancy, and robust raucous fun. the city was very often minus the tehzeeb of lucknow, rough and rude it was, unsafe too, but yet it beckoned, it shone, and how it tempted. madhumati had learned so much in those early years about managing this beast. how much she had enjoyed passing each test, and how much she had changed and strengthened from within.
when it seemed like it was the most rational thing to move back to her hometown, which she loved even now, and sometimes more than delhi… she couldn’t bring herself to go, to leave this city.
she had become a part of delhi, it a part of who she was.
and she did not regret a single moment of this transformation.
girls leave home when they marry in our country, she thought, and have to tackle so many things including that whole thing called sasural, the in laws’ home and family. and not that every husband will be a good husband, nor every situation easy… her khoosie bitiya had suffered greatly at such a young age, but look at her, how she smiled and sparkled and fought back… ok, perhaps it was not such a bad idea to let her try this new experience… only what about this kaun piye ji, i mean who names a child “who drank”? what sort of parents… or maybe in that foreign language, what was it? yes, french… maybe in that language it meant something else…
khushi put on her tiny red meenakari and gold jhumkas and wondered what made bua ji change her mind. one minute she was screaming “no”, and then suddenly, she was fine with her going out with jon piye ji, as long as she was back home by ten thirty.
she also told khushi to eat something and go just in case the food at the restaurant was not nice… these hotels and things, what did they know about good food.
payal came and stood by khushi, she had a small smile peeping out every now and then.
“jiji, what’s the matter? why are you smiling so much today? where did you go? the mandir or the market…?” khushi asked as she gave her hair one last brush, she had left it open and it fell straight and thick over her back, up to her hips, a few strands fanned out framing her delicate oval face. khushi combed her short bangs and tucked them behind her ears… she suddenly felt a long shuddering breath go through her, she so wanted to feel arnav ji’s slightly rough fingers pushing her hair back.
why did she think of that man in the middle of all this! she was flustered.
“no, khushi, i went to er… achha, i’ll tell you when you come back… okay? this red saree really suits you… so pretty you’re looking..” payal gave her sister’s shoulders a tight squeeze, “jp ji will be fall flat…”
khushi began to smile back, though she wished a nasty man could see her in her red saree. and fall flat… literally, she grimaced.
and how did he know she had eaten a lot in the middle of the night?
how? he wasn’t here. or… was that slight breeze that had shifted devi maiyya’s chunari…?
no no… what was she thinking…
and anyway she was going out with jon piye ji… her first time, what did they call it? yes, her first date.
she got up and reached for her tiny gold clutch purse, then said, “wish me luck, jiji, aate hain…” and walked out to the living room to say bye to bua ji. outside she could see jon piye ji had arrived.
to her surprise, he got out of the car and came in, in his hands a bouquet of lovely pink roses and some feathery white flowers plus a couple of other nicely wrapped things.
“namaastey, booaa zhi,” he said to bua ji, then he handed her the bouquet with a cute grin.
you could tell from the way the older lady smiled that she was completely enamoured. “aao aao, kaun piye ji…” khushi lifted her hand to halt her aunt, utterly embarrassed. but jp was totally at ease.
(come, come, who drank ji…)
“booaa zhi, thank you for letting me take khushi out… please do not worry, i weel take good care of ‘er, and ‘ave ‘er back by eleven? ees zat okay?” his accent seemed even more pronounced.
bua ji happily forgot her ten thirty curfew and said, “oph course, oph course, bitwa… take your time, haan? bitiya, jaao, habhe fun…”
jean pierre turned to payal and gave her a spray of yellow roses, “good to see you, payal, ‘ope all well wiz you?”
payal smiled and thanked him.
“and zees for you, my dear,” he handed khushi a single red rose. khushi looked at the darkly lovely rose and felt a twinge in her heart… red frangipanis and a hand pushing back her hair went through her mind.
she gave jp a wide bright smile.
when they walked into the imperial hotel, khushi couldn’t believe her eyes. such elegance and grandeur, such a sense of history, uff this reminded her of those mahals in lucknow, like the sheesh mahal hotel…
her heart beat a tremor at a different pace for a second. black silk shirt, orange jalebis stuck on it, syrup dripping, a pair of furious eyes. she swallowed.
why was she beginning to feel this was not right for some reason. she looked at jean pierre as he spoke to the captain about their reservation. she told herself to not act ridiculous, and enjoy the evening. beside jon piye ji was a good man, a friend, she was not going to do anything to make him feel bad. how sweet he had been to bua ji, and how understanding.
it was a large restaurant but a sense of privacy had been created around the tables with lighting and other things. the tables were not crowded together, instead enough space had been wasted to give a sense of luxury. the colours were dark and muted, the lights were low, candles flickered on the tables, courteous waiters moved around silently, taking orders and bringing laden trays. once in a way, there came a sizzler on a hot plate with a plume of white steam.
the tables were arrayed around a dance floor and a slightly raised stage where the band played. when they entered, the crooner was singing a slow love song, a few couples swayed to her heady number on the floor. khushi stared.
she had never seen this sort of dancing before. there was something mysterious and a bit dangerous about it… how close some of the dancers held each other, and how gracefully they seemed to move. in salman ji’s films there was a lot of dancing, and khushi loved dancing herself, kathak was what she had learned, also such fun to do all the bollywood moves at sangeets, those hum aapke hain kaun songs, she liked desi girl and the kal ho na ho songs too, pity those films did not have salman ji…
but this was not like that at all.
khushi watched as a waiter came to the table beside theirs with a stand and what looked like a bucket attached to its top. he set it down as another waiter walked up with a big bottle, he showed it to the guest, then a few flicks of the wrist and “pop” went something. khushi saw all at the table cheer, and a little bit of the drink gush out of the bottle…
“shawn-paan-ye, or as most people say, sham-pain,” said jean pierre looking at her curious eyes and touched by this lovely young woman sitting across from him, “zat’s champagne, khushi, from my country,” he winked. “we are ze experts at making very very goood alcohol… but i know you do not dreenk, in fact ahhnav said…”
khushi had been listening to him, shawn-paan-ye, how nice it sounded. shawn-paan-ye… ahhnav?!!! what was jon piye ji saying?
“what did arnav ji say?” khushi asked, a slight note of anger in her voice.
“nothing, just zat, you don’t dreenk alcohol, and you like indian food… so i chose zees restaurant…” jp had noticed that edge in her voice.
“what does he know about me, bade aaye laad governor, and who is he to interfere,” khushi mumbled and then said clearly, “jon piye ji, i want to try some of your country’s very very good alcohol, and thank you for choosing to eat my country’s food… also very very good…”
(what does he know about me, ha know it all laad governor, and who is he to interfere…)
she remembered arnav ji telling her to go GO with any man she wanted. so he had known jon piye ji was taking her out.
khushi felt a storm of restlessness within. just then the champagne arrived and she watched agog as the cork came off the nozzle of the bottle with force, then bubbly pale liquid came pouring out, glasses were filled and jean pierre raised his as he said, “to ze beautiful khushi,” he signaled her to take her first sip.
khushi looked at the tall narrow champagne flute, thought what a strange looking glass and took a huge gulp instead. that storm needed to be settled.
she finished the whole glass in one long very long sip. aaah, such a light lemony taste. and fizz, mmm on her nose she’d felt them as she drank. she smiled at jp, she wanted some more.
as the food arrived, khushi could feel herself begin to relax. she ate merrily, loving the spicy taste. jean pierre had asked for a mild chicken curry and was pleasantly surprised by the delicate cashew and saffron flavoured murgh shahjani korma.
khushi loved the brinjal curry, bagara baingan from the south, almost as good as aunty janaki’s she thought. and remembered the snack of the night before and the breeze on devi maiyya’s chunari, and a man’s glittering eyes.
she shut hers instinctively.
she really needed to get away from these thoughts.
“dance?” jean pierre’s voice brought her.
he was standing in front of her, a hand held out, palm up, inviting…
she let her hand slip into his and stood up. he led her to the dance floor, held her right hand lightly in his left, his right arm went around her and rested on her back. she put her left hand hesitantly on his pale cream shirt, then feeling a sense of comfort, she allowed it to sit nicely on his shoulder. they started moving to the beat. jp was a fluid dancer, he knew many steps it seemed to her, she followed his lead and started to get into the swing of things. soon he had her jiving, albeit not too fast and she was laughing, happy, oh she was glad she had decided to come… maybe they should have some more shawn-pan-ye…
“how about another shawn-paan-ye, jon piye ji?” khushi said, a little giggly by now.
“um, khushi, maybe after the next course, come let me show you a move…” jean pierre demurred.
“okay! show me!” khushi grinned.
she saw jean pierre look up at someone behind her, and he opened his mouth as if to say something.
“would you mind, jp, if i had a dance with your… partner?” there was only one voice in the whole world that made her heart leap like that. the husk grazed the back of her neck and went straight to her head. she blinked and spun around.
arnav ji was standing there, even in the low light she could see his eyes, his hair, his smile… he was smiling at jean pierre, not looking at her.
“ah, ahhnav, you are here, how nice, of course not… provided of course, my partner does not have a phoblame,” jp was a bit surprsied to see asr, but thought maybe he had a business dinner, plus how would arnav know which restaurant he had decided to take khushi to.
khushi was trying hard to quieten her racing heart, and say “no, i don’t want to dance with you,” but before she could manage all that, jp had walked away and a steely hard arm was pulling her close.
she closed her eyes and tried to struggle.
“khushi! stop it, dammit!” he said in a fierce whisper. she opened her eyes and saw his black silk shirt. she looked up at him… from this angle, she could see his strong neat chin, his firm jaw, the unyielding jawbone stirred her, the nose standing straight and proud, and dark dark eyes, a glitter in them as he lowered his gaze to look at her gazing at him.
the fight went out of her. she leaned against him, her hand found his shoulder and she stroked the thick smooth silk…
he started moving with her across the floor. he neither crushed her against him in a tight embrace, nor held her away, just face to face, at touching distance but not quite touching, and glided gracefully leading her easily, when he let go of her waist and held her arm a little higher she knew he wanted her to twirl and she did so feeling a freedom in her, then he caught her back, and they moved together once more… his eyes never left her face.
the song ended and he stopped, she looked at him and said, “more,” then she hiccuped.
“you’ve drunk…!” he hissed.
“hmm” she giggled, “shawn-paan-ye!”
“what! i told jean pierre..” he started angrily…
“who are you to… aap kaun hotey hain… to tell anyone about what to do or not with me? i am nobody to you, remember, sir… nahin nahin, arnav ji…” she was slurring a bit, her eyes felt heavy, “you told me… nobody… i mean nothing… nothing…”
asr gathered her close to him, and started to walk toward the table. he helped her sit down and said to jean pierre, “i don’t think she is going to last too long, jp, maybe you should take her home…now!”
before jean pierre could respond, he turned and walked out.
he reached home seething. she had decided to go out, so let her handle it, he said to himself with a nasty snarl.
the next moment he was fretting, had they reached lakshminagar? jp was a decent guy, and he knew what to do in these situations… but at her bua ji’s, what if she was out of control… what if…
no, he had to make sure… he didn’t want to do something wrong, galat, and crash into someone’s date. bad form… no he was not going to do that. he had asked aman to find out which restaurant jean pierre had reservations at just because he wanted to make sure she was alright…
oh heck no, it was because he had wanted to see her…
why, why did she do this to him?
how beautiful she looked, he wanted to kill jp. he wanted to throttle her.
he had almost reached his room when he changed his mind and started to run back toward the main door.
just then the phone rang, he answered quickly… a little panic in his voice,
“arnav ji?” she sounded tearful.
he would kill jp.
but first, he had to know what was wrong.
“yes, darling, what is it? tum theek ho?”
(yes, darling, what is it? are you alright?)
“hmm… nahin…aap…? hum aapke koi nahin hain? koi bhi nahin? koi maine nahin rakhte?”
(hmm… no… you…? i am no one to you? no one at all? i mean nothing to you?)
she was sounding upset, tremulous, and very drunk.
“where are you?” he asked, even as he got into the car and started the ignition.
“at home, i am talking to devi maiyya… and you…”
“okay, khushi, don’t move, stay there, i am coming…” he was already picking up speed…
“kyun? why? i am nobody… koi bhi nahin…” she stopped suddenly.
she had rung off.
“what the… f!” damn, he slammed the steering wheel.
she was sitting just the way she’d been the night before and he could see her through the open window. now he realised she was chatting with her devi maiyya.
he got out of the car and walked quietly up to the window.
“khushi!” he whispered so as not to wake up the household.
she looked up and saw him, she brought her finger to her lips and went “shh!” then she stood up and on tiptoe, swaying just a bit, she went to the main door and opened it. she stepped out and closed the door behind her and turned to him…
her hair was still open and she had not changed, though the saree was disheveled, her pallu was almost slipping off.
he stepped forward and lifted the folds of red chiffon and put it on her shoulder. she smiled at him in a bemused way and waited as if for something.
“khushi,” there was a calm in his voice, he was relieved to see she was alright…
“it’s late, sweetheart, go back inside… listen to me, go in, change and lie down on your bed… i’ll wait here outside till you go to sleep. okay, khushi?”
“nahin okay khushi…” said she, “arnav ji, you look so handsome in that black silk shirt…” she blinked at him quite inebriated and smiled woozily. then she simply walked over and snuggled into him… “koi nahin hain hum aapke…?”
(i am nobody to you..?)
“oh khushi!” his arms felt her pliant small frame, he held her close to him and stood there. he had missed this so much.
“arnav ji, take me somewhere with you… kahin bhi…” she said and he couldn’t hold back any more. he lifted her up and took her to the suv, made her sit, pulled the seat belt and locked it in place knowing she may not be able to manage herself.
“where do you want to go?” he asked gently.
“aapke paas…” she murmurred, her head trying to reach his shoulder.
he drove without a word. when they reached shantivan, he carried her effortlessly into the house, everyone had gone to bed he knew. he took her to his room and out to the poolside. he sat down on the deckchair and pulled her onto his lap. she put her arms around his neck and reached in, he felt her lips on the side of his neck, just below his ears.
his breath caught in his throat, he felt his whole body jerk and leap at the touch. he began kissing her lips yearning for her to kiss him back, to push her tongue into his mouth. his hands moved over her body, found her bare skin where the blouse ended, he thrust his palm against her soft, taut skin and pulled her even closer.
she was hurt, he realised, very badly hurt by that brutal attack of his the last day in bali… you mean nothing to me, he had said… he had so wanted to believe that.
he murmured incoherently as he started kissing her face, her cheeks, her eyes, her straight little nose…
she turned his head and offered her lips again…
her eyes were half closed, but he could see both her desire and her intoxicated state in what was visible of her hazel orbs. he knew she was not in her senses and he couldn’t take advantage.
he struggled to gain composure. she lay down on top of him and said, “arnav ji, hold me…” she started to unbutton his shirt, she wanted to put her ear against his heart, she wanted to hear his heart beat…
he held her hand and tried to stop her, but she wouldn’t. soon she had undone all the buttons and his shirt was being pushed aside. she put her hand against his heart and listened intently. her hand moved over his bare chest, her fingers played with the hair springing from where his chest started and tapering all the way down disappearing below the waistband of his trousers. he could feel her fingers going to places that perhaps they shouldn’t.
“khushi!” he groaned, holding and staying her hand once more.
she looked down at him her eyes riven with an unnamed emotion, her hair cascaded and swung forward, he looked into her eyes and felt himself getting swept away.
“khushi,” he sighed, and let go of her hand. she brought it up to his cheek and stroked his stubble. she was smiling slightly and in the light of the moon and the night she seemed ethereal, a vision, that was precious and ephemeral.
he dragged her to him and started kissing her then. he reached down and drew her hips close to his, thrusting against her… she pressed back against him and tugged his hand to her breast. her breasts were firm and sheathed in the tight silk blouse, he moved quickly, unbuttoning her blouse and slipped his hand underneath, at last cupping her breast. he could feel the swell of her tender breast against his palm, cool soft skin against his warm slightly calloused one. he could feel her nipple hard and beautiful on his fingers… he bent down and kissed the milky white translucent skin of her breast, she held his head and shivered, he put his mouth on her nipple, his tongue tasted her innocent puckered skin, he drew her nipple into his mouth. she threw her arms around him convulsively holding him to her…
he played with her breast, her nipple, kissing, biting, just brushing his lips against her skin. she was his. that’s all he knew. why he had no idea nor how, but she belonged to him… and in her arms he felt something he hadn’t for so so long.
peace. a huge complete peace.
“khushi! you do mean something to me… i have no idea why, but you do…” he gently kissed her lips, then her eyelids, he smiled and looked at her and whispered, “samjhi tum?”
(do you understand?)
he could see her eyes were drowsy with sleep now. she seemed to be at peace too. he let her head fall on his shoulder and stroked her hair till she fell asleep.
she woke up the next morning in her bed. she was still in her saree. she remembered she had gone out with jon piye ji… they had danced… her head was aching a bit… oh yes, they had had shawn-paan-ye… then laad governor had come… he was wearing a black shirt just like that day in sheesh mahal… and she had called him… he had come…
she had gone out of the house to meet him because she so wanted him to hold her. she blushed beetroot red remembering that.
then what had happened?
yes, she was on that deckchair by his pool… she was kissing him… and drawing his hand to her… what!!!
she remembered everything in a flash.
she took a pillow and covered her face and groaned loudly.
hey devi maiyya, what had she done.
how would she ever face that awful man.
she peeped out from behind the pillow and her eyes fell on a little bunch of red frangipani.
he woke up full of pain and that torn feeling in him. it was maa’s death anniversary. again the pooja they did every year. it brought peace to di and nani ji, so he attended and did his best to believe in this whole thing. but the emptiness echoed terribly inside, many times magnified.
he breathed in deeply.
he thought of khushi’s face in the moonlight, her pearly warm breast.
he knew nothing would bring him peace today.
a funny thought went through his head, would maa have liked this crazy girl? again he remembered her warm giving body, her trusting eyes. he got up and started getting ready. he could still smell the fragrance of her hair mixed with the frangipani.
as he’d carried khushi out, his eyes had fallen on the vase with frangipani di had set in the hallway. he couldn’t help but take some and put on her hair.