The sun was high in the sky, a time of familiar post-lunch inactivity. In a high backed armchair, covered in golden silk upholstery, sat a smiling women. On her lap was a single sheet of paper that she was writing on. The paper rested on an intricately carved oxidized silver jewelry box that contained two bangles. Her blessings for her future daughter-in-law in them.
A boy leaned forward curiously, dangling on one arm of the chair, while a slightly older laughing girl peered at the letter from the other side of the chair.
“ho gaya! All done and ready for my bahu. Chote, ab she will know aapko kitna gussa aata hai.. par hidden inside your heart kitna pyar bhi hai.” If you listened closely, her mellifluous voice had an odd mixture of indulgence and seriousness. Lovingly she ruffled the boys hair, “I want a beautiful pyari bahu, samjhe chote?”
The boy narrowed his eyes and huffed, clearly not approving of the conversation. Even so his eyes strayed to the neat flowing handwriting that covered the paper. His intelligent bright eyes wondering what his ma wanted to say to this unknown girl about her chote.
His sister was laughing, as children often do, without a care in the world, her heart open to the exciting prospect held in the present. “mujhe bhi kangan chahiye ma. They are pretty. aur is papad ke tukde ke sath kaun rahegi? He will scare her away. Isn’t it chote? Hahaha… but you will love her. You will not let her go na chote?”
The girl had swiftly got up, and made a dash for it. The boy close behind.
“ma dekho na, why is di teasing me? And anyway I don’t want to stay with anyone. ma see di is not stopping.. maa..”
Arnav Singh Raizada woke up. The dream was not as disturbing as usual. This in itself was highly unusual.
Love.. the word lingered from the half forgotten dream..
In a flash he remembered the feel of smooth heated skin under his lips, her startled eyes and the give away blush that had spread on Khushi Kumari Gupta’s cheeks.
He gave himself a shake, and walked over to sliding door closet. In one swift movement he pushed the door open and pulled out his towel. A hot shower would clear his head.
Her tinkling laughter echoed in his head. A firm reminder that she had no thoughts of leaving his thoughts. She was lodged in his memory and was going nowhere.
How her shapely fingers curled on his shirt lapel when he scooped her in his arms. How could anyone be this light? The trust in her eyes when she hugged him. How could anyone hold on so tight?
As the sharp jets of water cascaded on his body, loosening, relaxing his tensed muscles, he still couldn’t get her images out of his head. He concentrated on the feel of the hot water against his skin. He felt awake. Alive.
The heat had condensed the cool air, leaving behind a hazy mist. ASR remained lost in the girl that danced with him. Who fit perfectly in his arms.
Refreshed from the shower he pulled out his immaculately coordinated attire for the day. As he quickly buttoned his crisp white shirt with sure practiced fingers, he still couldn’t get her image out of his head.
A know-it-all smug voice in his mind even dared to whisper that he didn’t really want to remove her from himself. If there was one thing he badly wanted.. needed.. it was to have her close.
He sighed as he walked out of his room and almost banged into an ever smiling Om Prakash. He gave curt instructions to Om Prakash to bring him some orange juice. Then made his way to the dining table, vaguely wondering why Om Prakash seemed so pleased with himself early in the morning.
“cupboardwa mein aisan ka karat the Aakas bitwa ki insidej ma self locking kari liye khud ko?”
(what were you doing inside the cupboard that you locked yourself inside?)
Hearing his mother’s perfectly valid question a hapless Akash choked on the glass of warm milk he had been sipping. Helpful as always NK bent forward with full enegry patting the still spluttering Akash on his back.
None of the men on a the table had an answer. ASR was irritated. Had Akash not called he would have had Khushi to himself. Instead he had had to call NK to get him to unlock the door.
“ha chote? Cupboard ka darwaza torna par gaya aap logan ko? ee hua ka chote? I do not understand“. Deviyani Raizada had a faint smile on her face, luckily, in a much better mood than her sleep deprived daughter in law. After all the noise and chaos yesterday night, Manorma had hardly slept and that made her more sour than usual.
“hum kahat hai sasuma eeha Shantibhan ma ghost hai. Bahutehi colorphul ghostwa eeha hua ghumat hai“. She was in full blown James Bond detective mode.
Akash looked helplessly at ASR. Luckily they had managed to literally smuggle Payal and Khushi out of the house before NK and ASR attempted to break the closet door. Akash almost broke into a sweat just imagining what would have happened had his mother caught Payalji in his room. Surely from hello hi his life would have reached a certain bye bye.
Fortunately for the men of shantivan there was a smart young female in the house. Anjali slowly walked upto the dining table and pulled the chair next to Akash. Smiling she teased, “arree mami our Akash is getting married. ye sab confusion toh hota hi rahega. After all dil kahi hai aur dimag kahi. kyu hai na Akash?”
Manorma did not looked too pleased, but nani seemed to be mollified enough and directed her attention to the aloo paratha on the table. Akash furtively mouthed a quick thank you to his life saver di.
“Indian shaadi mein bahut malamal hai“. NK declared amidst usual confused exasperated glances.
“NK bhai malamal nai.. I think you meant dhamal“, Anjali corrected.
NK grinned just as usual. “That’s right dhamaal.. yani excitement, right di? Cupboards breaking? Lovers meetings.. Ghosts appearing.. All a regular night in an Indian wedding. Kyu hai na Akash?”
Akash broke into a coughing fit again.
Not letting herself get side tracked, with a knowing smile Anjali continued. “humein Payalji and Khushiji ke ghar kuch samaan bhejna hai. NK bhai can you take the driver and drop the things at khushijis..”
Waisting no time ASR stood up.”I’ll take it di“.
“par chote you must be busy. NK bhai can take it“, Anjali persisted. NK chimed in hopefully. “Yes nannav no problem at all.. I can take everything to Khushiji.”
ASR glared at NK and without looking at di, responded, “It’s okay di. NK can get Akash’s cupboard door fixed. I will go to Khushi’s house“.
“ha chote.. yehi thik rahega..after all you will get an opportunity to meet our would be bhabhi“. Anjali teased, her eyes sparkling.
ASR walked away, knowing her di had succeeded in pulling his leg. Well, what the.. He would still get to meet Khushi. Nothing else mattered.
Even as he acknowledged it internally, he was surprised at how simply it fell in place.. Nothing else mattered, except he get to be with khushi..
At the table Anjali noted with satisfaction, the subtle change in her chote’s behaviour. He had not denied the wedding. Her plan was working.
If only she knew how well her plan was working!
In Gupta house the ladies had gotten dressed early. A wedding house seemed to have a never ending list of work that needed to get done. On top of that there was a doctor’s appointment. Payal had taken her amma and babuji to keep the doctor’s appointment.
That left Khushi and buaji to take care of meeting the panditji. Lata mausi and taiji had helpfully volunteered to accompany them to the mandir, since it was common knowledge that a force of women were needed to deal with a panditji and wedding preparations.
They were already late when buaji noticed Khushi, standing, doing absolutely nothing, near the Gupta house door.
Madhumatiji had pinned a bright red hibuscus flower onto her hair near the nape of her rather wide neck. She thought the flower suited the mood.
Just like the orange kurta, with silver gota on the sides, suited her niece about to get married. Hai re nand kisore parmeswari was lost in her dreamland again. She was having these bouts of ‘getting lost’ more and more since she had fallen in love with Arnav bitwa.. Madhumatiji chuckled.. Trust her sankadevi to want to marry a man completely opposite to her.
But was he..opposite to her? Both had a fiery spirit, that could not be hidden. And did they both not love their family? Deviyaniji had told Garima and Madhumati a little about the hardship that Arnav and Anjali had suffered. There was something disturbing in their past, that Madhumati knew was still not completely revealed. She also knew if anyone could bring a smile on the seemingly khadoos Arnav Singh Raizada it would be her Khushi bitiya. She had seen how his eyes softened when he looked at her niece. There was little that got past the old lady.
ee liyo nand kisore.. Instead of jolting Khushi out of her reverie madhumati herself had gone into dreamland.
“Aree aaphat ki puriya.. ooha khare khare ka kar rahi ho? Go call an auto. We are already late. Ka hoga tumhara Shantivan mein? Arnav bitwa toh time ka pakka hain hum sunat hai. Tum toh uke pagal hi kar dogi.. Nand kisore..”
“Don’t worry buaji. Hum abhi auto lekar aate hain. Yu gaye aur yu aaye“. Khushi grimaced at her shrieking buaji, and ignored the jibe about the man she did not want to think about. The man she was helpless not to think about.
The mention of that laad governor had brought a betraying warmth on her cheeks. He had kissed her.. devi maiyya.. and she had let him..
She closed her eyes and gave herself a violent shake determined not to think about it.. nahi devi maiyya.. humein nai sochna hai us baare mein.. She told herself as strictly as she could. But even as she spoke, her voice trailed away. There was no way she would manage to even remotely not think about that.
She ran out of the courtyard onto the road. Her payal tinkling as she sprang down the steps. Buaji was right. Thank’s to that rakshas she was late. Lata mausi and taiji were also waiting inside. She peered all over for an auto. Willing a vehicle to materialize out of thin air.
It did. Just not the one she would imagine in her wildest dreams. Arnavji’s white SUV drew to a halt right in front of her. He rolled down the tinted glass as she stood gaping, least expecting him there.
“Hi“, was all he said. it was apparently more than enough.She felt goosebumps erupting all over.
“You look worried?“, it was a serious question, only the tone was a drawl, and his lips tilted in a precarious angle. It was hard to focus.
She found herself stutter. “hum.. auto ka wait kar re.. We have to go to the mandir to talk to panditji“. She had surprised herself by talking to him civilly.
In one graceful movement he had got down from the car and was striding into the house, while Khushi stood gaping. She was at a loss of words quite frequently in his presence these days.
She was about to get indignant at his lack of response, after she had shared her problem, when she was further stunned to see ASR helping taiji down the Gupta house steps. Looking even more frail than usual next to Arnavji, taiji was leaning onto him for support.
Khushi blinked, completely at a loss. Had buaji gone senile? Why had she not stopped lata mausi. What if laad governor got angry and let go of her with his favourite ‘what the’… And what did he think was he doing? There was no auto outside yet. Why was he making them come out in the sun?
Completely disregarding her presence ASR moved towards the back of the SUV and opened the door, helping taiji inside. Buaji and lata mausi quickly scuttled towards the other side to get in.
Khushi had not moved an inch. Her mouth was slightly open, in shock.
ASR walked upto her and locking his gaze with hers, spoke softly. “Unless you want to drive us to the mandir I would suggest you go over to the passenger side and get in. Don’t forget the seatbelt.”
“Huh?”, was all the poor dazed girl managed.
He grinned. “And I don’t mind if you want to put on my seatbelt for me as well… Khushi..“. He tilted his head towards the car, his hand casually touching her above the crook of her elbow.
She jumped away from the touch.. dhak dhak dhak.. Loud, clear, insistent in her ears. Hurrying to other side, she opening the back door.
“Khoosi bitiya humlog thik se baith gaye hai. tum damadji ke sath aage baith jao“, Lata mausi spoke up.
Khushi gulped and did as instructed. Her seatbelt would not bulge. ASR waited one whole minute before he leaned over and tugged at it, securing it in place.
Khushi was ready to drown in embarrassment. When no one was in the car she was used to him doing that, but there were three other people in the car today. She chanced a glance at the rear view mirror to see if by some miracle missed they had missed what had just happened.
No such luck. All three woman were smiling widely at her. Khushi sunk down on her seat, wishing she could disappear. What did the rakhshas have in mind?
ASR had started the vehicle and they were on their way. Khushi fervently wishing the ride would be a short one. It was not going to be a short one.
The ladies at the back were talkative in excitement. Khushi almost feared Arnavji would ask them to shut up. But that did not happen.
A moment later she was imploring him silently to get taiji to keep quiet, because one topic had led to another and soon the ladies had started to discuss.. Honeymoon..
“madhumatiji aaj kal toh sab hi shimla jate hai.. In dono ko toh goa jana chahiye.. Honeymoon ke liye“, taiji had just declared gleefully. The old woman considered herself very well versed with the present fashion.
Khushi went rigid, her heart jumping to her throat. She even contemplated jumping out of the running car. Atleast it would save her the embarrassment.
“nahi nahi nand kisore.. Arnav bitwa toh thora garam mijaz ke haiin na.. Unko aur humari sanaka devi ko toh kisi thandi jagah hi ghumne jana chahiye.. kyu hai na parmeswari?“, buaji countered taiji’s suggestion enthusiastically.
(no no .. arnav bitwa is a little hot headed.. he and parmeswari should go to a cooler place. isn’t it)
In utter panic Khushi dared a glance at Arnavji. His eyes were still on the road as his lips moved,”buaji how about nanital“?
Khushi could not believe her ears. She turned towards him. It was unmistakable. He was grinning. She had to try hard to stop rubbing her eyes.
Right that minute the car screeched to a halt near the mandir road. ASR turned and smiled at buaji, “buaji, di had sent somethings for Khushi and Payal. If you all don’t need Khushi, then I can take her back to your house and give her everything. main mohan ko bhej dunga to pick you all up“.
“Jeeyat raho babua“.
Much to ASR’s satisfaction and Khushi’s consternation buaji readily agreed. As taiji was getting down from the car she remarked loudly, “babua bahut achchi gari chalate ho. Thank you. Agali baar bhi kahin jana raha toh tumhi ko bula bhenjenge. kyu thik hai na?“.
(You drive the car extremely well. if we have to go elsewhere we will call on you next time as well. Is that okay?)
Khushi wanted to cover her eyes and duck under her dupatta. She made do with closing her eyes which snapped open hearing Arnavji smoothly respond,”My pleasure“.
They had left the mandir and were on their way home. Khushi finally managed to stammer a few words..”Arnavji.. ye.. aap“?
“Well you said you needed a ride to the mandir. And I have a car“, he explained in a matter of fact way.
Khushi simply gaped at him. Suddenly shy, now that they were alone in the car. She looked out of the window, avoiding looking at him.
He was quiet the whole way back. She wished he had spoken. She wished she had said something. As always, part of her did not want to leave the car when she reached home.
In silence she waited, not knowing what she was hoping would happen. Ruefully she observed he was completely unruffled by the silence… did he even remember what had happened yesterday.. mat soch Khushi.. She sternly reprimanded herself at her tell tale thoughts.
He lazily leaned forward and undid her seatbelt. Then got out himself, making his way towards the back.
Khushi slowly got down too. Anjali ji had sent a lot of packages. Some contained fruits, dry fruits, sweets and others looked like puja items and clothes. ASR dumped a whole load of stuff into her hands and carried the remaining himself.
Then when he had placed everything on the center table, and it was clear he was going to leave, khushi finally spoke up. Desperately not wanting him to leave, unable to say so.
“aapne humare liye..”
Halting midway, he turned back. And smiled. “Khushi do you want to say thank you to me“?
Why did his voice sound so very intimate. There were only the two of them alone in the house, then why did he have to whisper. Why could he not talk loudly, how Khushi was used to talking.
Wait.. alone.. only the two of them.. dhak dhak dhak.. uff devi maiyya.. why didn’t he go back to yelling at her and getting angry.. this Arnavji was way too difficult to be around.. the acidity was too much to bear..
He was taking slow steps towards her. She moved backwards, almost tumbling over the chair. He grabbed her hand and yanked her close.
“Thank me properly… kiss me khushi“, his voice had dropped to ragged murmur.
She could only stare at him. Then not sure why or how, she found herself doing exactly what he had asked her to do. His stubble grazed her lips as she placed a feather light kiss on his cheek. She was too confused and stunned by what she had dared to do, and also overwhelmed by how good it made her feel.
Butterflies fluttered in her stomach, as she took in his tender gaze. His eyes were serious and warm. She watched him gulp as if he was as dazed as her, wanting to get a hold of himself. Then in an intimate whisper he asked, “tum thik ho“?
What did the laad governor want her to say? was she ever going to be thik when he was looking at her this way! She felt flush and warm and shy. thik.. she took a deep breath.. surpassing everything she really did feel thik.
He could read the hint of a smile that brushed against her lips. “See you tomorrow Khushi Kumari Gupta“, was all he said as he sauntered out of the open door.
hey devi maiyya! Khushi almost shouted in alarm. The door was left open. agar koi dekh leta toh?
Why did that rakshas make her do such things.. Flustered, her heart racing she went to close the door.
ASR had never felt better. His feet skidded on tufts of clouds as he recollected Khushi’s kiss. Smiling and berating himself for walking away, when there was a whole lot more he wanted to do, he reached his parked car.
One kiss. That too hardly a kiss. A peck on the cheek. And he felt like he was on fire. Khushi Kumari Gupta.. Her inexperienced coy kiss would lead to many sleepless nights, ASR knew. She had absolutely no idea how much he..
Wanted her? No that was not it.. Needed her?
He was absolutely distracted, unable to get the car door open. He continued to fiddle with the handle, too lost in moments he wanted to continue to be lost in hamesha..
As chance would have it, it was right then that he overheard two people talking in the nearby garage.
“ha hum keh rahe hai na I saw the man who was staying as paying guest in Madhumatiji’s house “, said one voice.
Another excited voice joined in,” ka keh reh ho? That man who was engaged to Khushiji? Who knows what happened.. Why did he go away.. Why was the engagement broken. Tha toh achcha hi aadmi“.
ASR’s knuckles were straining on the car handle. All blood drained from them as his grip tightened. His jaw set he remained inert. A nerve throbbing dangerously near his temple on the right side.
“toh he was here in the morning?” .. The voices were no longer distinct. ASR did not care who had spoken.
He spun around and took two steps at a time in seething anger. He noticed Khushi fiddling with the door. An expectant look on her face. It angered him more.
He hauled her inside and slammed the door shut. She flinched sensing the sudden violence in him.
“Who has he? Why did you not tell me he was here, today?“, he demanded.
She looked confused, unable to process the drastic change in a man so tender a moment ago. A man she had just .. kissed..
“aap kya keh reh hai.. humein nai pata..” She summoned anger as her defense.
He heard her voice and it broke through the storm inside him. He wanted to kick himself for losing control. It was not like Arnav Singh Raizada to jump to conclusions listening to wayward gossip. And he wasn’t even sure why his blood was boiling at the thought of the man Khushi had been set to marry. And how was this even remotely her fault?
“Shit!”.. The expletive exploded from his mouth.
He felt wretched as he saw a teardrop escape her eyes. Her lower lip trembled, as she determinedly bit it, trying to stop herself from breaking down in front of him. Clueless why he was in such a rage.
He didn’t wait to think. His hand curled on her hair as his lips descended on hers. She readily flowed into him. Her hands winding around his neck. She could feel her sobbing stop, replaced by shock.
She felt heavenly against his lips. With excruciating control, he broke the kiss and murmured against her lips, “I’m sorry“. She whimpered, her breath heaving.
He continued to kiss her. She tasted sweet.. must be all those jilebis.. He felt light and care free, a bubbling laughter rising within him.. She felt heavenly… Her soft lips moving in sync with him, just like when they had danced.
He sucked and nibbled, his eyes dancing at her shocked expression, till she moaned, and he was no longer sure what he was doing. He could sense her legs give away as she moved closer to him, unable to stand.
He willed himself to break the kiss. Both were in need of air.. He gulped in large mouthfuls as he remained with his eyes closed, his forehead touched hers.
Slowly he opened his eyes, wishing he could go back to kissing her. She looked ravishing. A rosy hue spread across her cheeks, lips that were slightly swollen, hair in complete disarray. She looked well and thoroughly kissed.
ASR was sure to never ever forget this sight. She was shy, unsure how to react, fidgeting to move away from him. But he made her arms stay around his neck, savouring her close.