He saw the first drop of rain slide along her cheek, slowly follow a path down the arch of her neck and get lost in that mysterious dip of her collar bone. Her cheek had the most enticing crimson color on them. She was blushing, just like he had wanted.
How graceful was she tonight.. He skin luminescent in the moonlight, which even the rain clouds were unable to hide tonight. Arnav Singh Raizada did not like the rain much. But instinct told him that the girl in his arms, Khushi Kumari Gupta, must love the rain.
They were shielded by a large shrub, where he had lead her to tie that maddeningly alluring dori. And now with no one around she was right here, trembling in his arms.
In a single fluid movement she brought her fingers to touch the damp spot on her cheek. Raindrops continued to splash on the dark green blades of grass. Wind chimes tingled in the distance. She looked upwards at the sky, fascinated. Her eyes looked like they were remembering far off tales.
“What are you thinking?“, he whispered cautiously, not wanting to break the perfection of the moment. The night was standing still, and only rainwater rushed gaily along its course.
“Amma kehti hai agar barish ki pehli boond gaal pe giri tab jisse pyar karo usse shadi hoti hai.”
Love.. Marriage.. ASR felt struck with the lightening that suddenly streaked across the sky. For a split second it dazzled everything with its blaze. And then her eyes caught his.
She flashed a brilliant happy smile.
A song rose in the winds.. Drum beats ascended and violins faded in.. A man crooned somewhere far..
Teri meri.. meri teri.. Prem kahani hai mushkil.. do lafzon mein yeh bayaan na ho paye..
ASR had let go off her hand, but she had not moved away. There was comfort in the closeness. A million half formed wispy thoughts floated into ASR’s head. This girl believed in love. She had always wanted marriage. Even when she was behaving like a pesky kid, matchmaking for him and Lavanya, ASR had been struck with her conviction in the sanctity of marriage.
She did not know that it was all mere words. This hypocrite society had devised this elaborate lie to ensure a man and woman stayed all their life together. The lie did not work. The baser nature of human being prevailed and the hard cold world always won.
Ek larka ek larki ki ye prem kahani hai mushkil..do lafzon mein ye bayaan na ho paye..
ASR was violently affected by memories he did not want to recollect. Those memories that refused to let go of him. His ma.. Like Khushi had his ma also believed in marriage? And what about her husband? Could people like him believe in anything? His ma.. He had not seen.. Not known.. Not been able to stop her getting hurt..
But Khushi..He would remove Khushi from this uncaring cruel world. He had a terrible desire to keep her safe. So she could be free to dream. He would make sure rain always made her face glow. That nothing and no one could touch her dreams. She was meant to be happy.. And he was here to make sure she remained happy.
Har ehsaas mein tu hai hair ek yaad mein tera afsaana..
“Arnavji ye salmanji ka gana hai. I love this song“. She was excited and hopeful. Her refulgent eyes held a shy question in them. An invitation to dance.
ASR wanted to dance. With Khushi. And never stop…
And so.. they danced..
He stepped towards the open grounds and she glided alongside. He would make her his today.. No conscious thought. Conscious was each atom, each molecule, each fibre. She danced along. For this was where she was meant to be. In his arms. Twirling dipping whirling gliding..
Saara din beet jaye..saari raat jagaye..
Her eyes had held a challenge and he had surrendered his soul.. A brown hand gliding along her thin bare waist, the color of ivory in the dark light.
She found herself flying safe in his sure hands. His eyes left her face, his head turned away, only to jerk back, a demanding hand extending out. She could not refuse his call. She placed her hand in his. All was right with the world. Right then it had ceased to exist. Memories came flying past. Catching.. falling.. walking away.. drawing close.
Ye tadap keh rahi hai.. Mit jaye fasle ye.. Tere mere darmiyan jo hain sare..
They stood bodies in contact. Immersed in a heady feeling. She raised her hand in a graceful swanlike movement. Face raised. His hand followed her in its trajectory. Scorching was its path as it moved stroking, igniting. She rested on his frame. He was meant to hold her this way. Would they ever move away?
No question anymore. All the answers ever needed in this tango. Unrehearsed, instinctive.. Written by the stars themselves..
Then came a resounding crash..
ASR rushed to where Khushi’s babuji was frantically twitching. Garima was shocked, in tears seeing her husband in distress. ASR registered a passing annoyance to see Shyam quite nearby, but not moving a finger to help soothe the man in the wheelchair. There was broken glass on the ground near their table. Had uncle tried to reach for the glass? ASR wondered..
“babuji .. babuji what happened“? Khushi knelt next to her babuji and took his hand in hers. Shashi Gupta was shaking all over, a little out of control. Everyone had crowded around them.
Seeing the clearly distraught Khushi and her amma, ASR took charge. “Don’t worry. Let us take uncle home. Aur main doctor ko wahi bula leta hun“.
“Ha babua.. Ee thik rahega. Shayad bheedh bhaadh se Shashi babua ghabrai gaye hain“. Buaji had come forward and was patting Garima on her back, in an effort to calm herself as much as Garima perhaps.
(This is a good idea. Maybe because of the crowd Shashi babua is agitated.)
“Ha jiji. Let us all go home. Inki tabyat bahut bigar gayi hai.. Aise achnak.. Pata nai kaise?” Garima looked teary eyed at her husband. Her one hand clutched the anchal on her head and with the other she had grabbed her elder sister-in-law.
(Yes. he is in a bad state. suddenly.. no idea how?)
“I’ll get the car ready. Aunty, buaji uncle is already much better. Please calm down. He’ll be fine“. ASR was right as usual. The man in the wheelchair had stopped jerking and was staring into the distance.
“Madhumatiji, Garimaji Khushi bitiya hai na.. She will go with chote and they will take Shashiji home. Aaplog aur Payal bitiya thori der aur ruk jayiye“. Deviyani Raizada had stepped forward and in her firm tone insisted that the rest of the Gupta ladies stay back for a while longer.
Seeing that her brother was indeed much calmer than before Madhumatiji finally gave in.
“Khushiji main bhi apke sath chalte hun. Do se bhule teen log rahenge to take care of uncle“.
NK came up to offer his help. ASR was about to lose royally lose his temper when Anjali spoke up, “NK bhai bhule nai ..do se bhale teen.. But not today. Today you can help us here. Let chote and Khushiji go“. Without waiting for a response from NK, ASR shrugged and walked off to call the doctor directly to Lakshminagar.
NK’s face fell a little, but he stuck out his tongue. “Sorry sorry, mera matalab tha teen se bhale do hi. But I will help Khushiji take uncle to the car atleast. Aayiye Khushiji..”
Once they left, Akash took charge of distracting the Gupta women who still seemed worried. “Buaji aapne kachoriyan khai? The chef is from Lukhnow. You must try it” .
While the elder ladies walked in front, Payal and Akash fell into step behind them.
Payal had moments ago been dancing with Akash, her tinkling laughter echoing, and now she looked subdued. Akash felt a tug in his heart. Part of him was glad his dadi had stopped Payal from leaving. He could not bear to be away from Payal when she looked this sad. Yes payal.. In his thoughts she was now Payal.. Akash had yet to tackle the looming problem of how to convert Payalji to Payal in real life.. His Payal.
Firmly he slipped his hand into hers and squeezed tight. She looked towards him with startled eyes, that were no longer as sad as a moment before. Akash gave a reassuring smile to her and continued walking together.
“nani aap bhi.. You are a true matchmaker. You made chote go alone with khushiji. Waah nani! But Khushiji ke babuji ko achanak kya ho gaya? Aapko kya lagta hai Shyamji?”
Shyam was moodily standing next to the two Raizada women. He glared at Anjali, “Unko bhi sab kharab karna na?“. Then mumbled some excuse about an urgent phone call and left.
A perturbed Anjali watched him weave his way across the crowd. Her husband had been in his own world all evening. She kept losing sight of him.
Anjali was very proud of her Shyamji. He was extremely hardworking and many people depended on him, but she wished he would involve her more in his life. She was interested to know what troubled him or when his case went well. So far, however, he never took her queries seriously. And recently he seemed completely wrapped up in his world.
She wondered what was troubling him. she had hardly seen him tonight. Finally she spotted him near the table where Khushi’s babuji was sitting. Shyamji had been holding two glasses of juice and had claimed that he was bringing it to her so that they could drink together. But Anjali wanted to dance and he kept insisting that they should sit and drink. Finally she had managed to get him to put the glasses down on the table and dance with her.
And then had come the crash. The glasses on the table lay shattered on the floor and uncle was close by convulsing frighteningly. And after all this, Shyamji was now again off someplace by himself.
Anjali felt a gaping loneliness engulf her. She missed him terribly when he was not around. Didn’t he miss her too?
As soon as the thought entered her head, she lightly hit hear forehead with her palm. Of course he must miss her.. She was his rani sahiba.. He was the most caring husband in the world.. How silly was she to doubt how important she was to him.
Feeling much better Anjali turned her attention to her nani. “nani did you see how chote danced today? Khushiji is already making him dance to her tunes.. Hehehe.” She giggled happily, momentarily forgetting the nagging anxiety within her.
Her nani was also equally excited. “ha Anjali bitiya. Chote toh dimag ke aage dekhat hi nahi hai. His heart already knows what is head is still to figure out. Is liye toh humne undo ko sath bheja. Jab bure waqt mein koi sath ho toh wo dil ke aur paas aawat hai. Khushi bitiya and Arnav bitiya will live very happily, my heart says this“.
Her voice had cracked a little towards the end. She held her grandson in high esteem and was very proud of him. And it was her heartfelt wish to see him with someone who would understand him and take care of him.
With a naughty smile and exaggerated mysterious air she asked Anjali, “par bitiya did you notice what I noticed?” .
“Ha mami.. Dur dur tak sab dekh sakte the.. Our chote is jealous of NK bhai..hahaha”..
ASR was in the Gupta house courtyard. The doctor had taken a look and confirmed that there was no deterioration in Shashi Gupta’s health. On the contrary, the doctor was pleased to see more muscle movement in him. He had left feeling hopeful about the patient’s health.
ASR was about to leave when the night sky caught his attention. Khushi had been inside, giving her babuji medicine. When she stepped out she saw him with his face turned upwards.
The storm clouds had drifted away long since, and a clear sky stretched as far as the eye could see. A crescent moon decorated the sky while millions of stars glittered around it. Instead of black the sky had a brilliant dark blue shade that was surreal.
Khushi loved to sit on the steps and watch the sky. Her amma babuji were sparkling brightly at her. And since some months Khushi had noticed another bright star right next to him.. A hesitant voice whispered within her, it was Arnavji’s amma.. She was there watching her son. Khushi wanted to tell him this, but was afraid of his reaction. So she hadn’t told him.
She had been very worried about babuji. Khushi would not admit it to anyone else, but her devi maiyya knew how relieved she was to have Arnavji here taking care of everything. He always knew what to do.
And he also knew how to dance.. She thought shyly.. They had danced in front of everyone.. Devi maiyya aapne dekha?
dhak dhak dhak.. The familiar sound echoed in her ears.. She crumpled her saree aanchal with her hand willing the noise too quieten.. It was too quiet.. He might her..
She quickly stole a glance his way to confirm if he might have heard.. She almost forgot to breathe..
He looked like a statue standing still. Face at an angle. The black suit jacket must lay crumpled in the SUV back seat. He was in the crisp white shirt he must have been wearing underneath. The white seemed to radiate light. There was no movement. Khushi could willingly have sat all night long staring at this beautiful statue.
Just then behind him a streak of light lit up the night sky. A shooting star.. Without thought.. with exhilarating happiness erupting in her, she ran down the steps upto him.
“What the?” , he looked at her startled.
But she was already covering his eyes with her palm.”Shhh.. Arnavji tutata tara.. Make a wish“. He didn’t move her hand away. She took it as a good sign.
Her eyes, tightly closed, she wished as hard as she could.. devi maiyya keep him happy always.. It almost hurt in her belly, that strong was her wish. And though it was just one single thing, not her usual long list, she wanted to stay in the moment for some time longer. Arnavji must not be used to making wishes, so he might need more time. With this reasoning she did not remove her hand from his eyes.
She could feel his unsteady breath on herself. Slowly it gained a steady rhythm.. She let go and stepped away. Her eyes on him, trying to read him.
Was he the Arnavji who had been filled with laughter behind the bush or was he the Arnavji with those sad demons that haunted his eyes when he had watched those stars near the poolside that night? Who was he at this moment, she desperately tried to work out?
She didn’t need to worry. Though his face was thoughtful, there was a smile on his face, tender and caring. “Laad governor.. Hmmpphh.. Aise dekhke humein rula hi denge devi maiyya..”
The smile was quickly turning into that signature crooked smirk, which meant she had landed herself into trouble.
“So now you decide to talk to yourself?“, he grinned. “Tum itni baatein karti kya ho khud se Khushi?”
“umm.. Wo .. When I get hungry I have to talk.. Humne kuch khaya nai na.. Those kachori, and chat and gol gappa.. I missed it all Arnavji..“. She had started with a stutter, inventing an excuse as she went along till it had turned absolutely real.
She was missing food. This dhak dhak must be her stomach rumbling from hunger for sure. Such a simple explanation and here she had been thinking all sorts of silly things.
“And why didn’t you eat?“, his head was tilted to the side and arms folded across his chest. “because you were too busy dancing.. With me..“, he said it with extreme satisfaction, a smug look on his amused face.
Khushi felt herself shiver, “nai toh.. I didn’t dance kyunki..mera matlab i didn’t eat because”
“I’m listening..“, was all he said.
“kyunki.. Kyunki this saree is too expensive.. Ispe Khana gir jata toh? It’s all your fault I am hungry.”
“Really my fault?” his voice was still light, but he had turned and was walking away. Khushi felt disappointment wash over her. Part of her was telling her sternly, she should call him back. She would go grab his hand. She didn’t want him to go. She wanted to talk.
And then he was back before her. As if he had heard her. She tentatively looked at his extended hand.
He was holding out a plate of… jilebi.. She felt like the world had burst into a song and she was whirling in a dance.
“This is from the party..“, but ASR never managed to complete his sentence, because Khushi threw his arms around him and hugged him. She was beyond happy.. He cared for her..
“NK bhai Payalji really liked the party“. Aakash had a bemused expression on his face, and was clutching a cushion to his chest.
NK was fiddling with his ipod, but kept it aside, happy to indulge in conversation with this lovesick brother of his. “Akash I think Payalji se zyada unki buaji ko party pasad aayi.. aaauu.. Mera bechara pair.. Bilkul gayab ho gaya.“, he said vigorously rubbing his feet.
“NK bhai gayab nai ghayal ho gaya.. Gayab matlab disappear..“. Anjali was with a pile of clothes that she was folding before going to bed.
“Tab toh sirf pair nai whole NK ko gayab ho jana tha. Wo buaji agar baki ceremony mein aayegi toh main wapas australia ja ra hun. Akash tum Payal bhabhi ko bhagake shadi kar lo. Sab problem solve. Main bhi wedding attend kar lunga.”
“Ha nk bhai ye thik rahega. This waiting even I don’t like any more“, Akash was a quite lost in the memories of the evening.
Anjali burst out laughing at her brothers. Love was surely all around
With a sigh she remembered Shayamji had refused to come downstairs and spend time with them. So the three of them were alone in the hall waiting for ASR to return.
With a light step ASR entered the Raizada hall and was momentarily taken aback by the noise that greeted him. His siblings had apparently gone crazy. “What the?”
“What the?”, they chanted in chorus.
“Chote you danced with khushiji..”
“bhai you never dance“.
“nannav kitni baar tumne bola I don’t dance, don’t dance..aur phir ja kar khud Khushiji ke sang raat bhar nach diye“.
“Hello hi Arnav bitwa.. hum 2 minutes gone hue aur tum two hours diappearj kar gaye.. dancing baki reh gava tha ka? Aur eek kaise dancing.. lonely dancing tum sirf oo phatee saree ke sath akele mein karat ho?“, mamiji had also come right at the opportune moment.
(I felt for 2 minutes and you went away for two hours? Was there dancing left? And what kind of a dance.. that you did with phatee saree alone?)
“Ab bye bye..“, and she cat walked away.
ASR sauntered to the sofa and casually sat down. Trust his hyper excited family to come up with this drama. But he was not really angry. Khushi was happy, how could he be angry at anything tonight?
“I danced..so? “, one eye brow shot up, the rest of him remained in its previous lazy stance.
“So? Ye tum keh ro ho.. Ab na bahut hua.. You both will look so good together on the marriage day. Hum kal hi matching lehenga aur sherwani order kar denge.” Di came next to him and cupped his face.
He jerked away feigning impatience. “Di you know I don’t wear sherwanis. And I am not getting married“.
He left as Anjali hit herself on the head laughing..
At the exact same instant in her house in lakshminagar Khushi let the soft chiffon slip through her fingers. She had changed out of her saree into a white cotton kurti. Her thin fingers had deftly tied her hair into a plait and she had slipped a rubber band onto the end. Payal was already fast asleep. Khushi was sitting in front of the table with her friend, and the saree on her lap, and a plate full of jalebi in on the table.
She neatly folded the saree and was about to put it away when she saw a gleaming green sequin fall on the table. She picked it up with infinite care, like it was the most precious sequin in the world. Then from her drawer she took out a small round box. In it was already a leaf, that he had taken out from her hair.. To this she added the she sequin.. That had fallen from the saree he had gifted her.
She closed the box, her treasures safe within. She bit into one jalebi and let the sweetness trickle down her throat and settled down to talk to devi maiyya.. Today I danced devi maiyya..and it was the most wondrous feeling that can ever exist..