insane longing. khushi was about to wake up, her eyes were just beginning to open when she felt a tremor from somewhere else, some other time, right in her heart.
she so wanted him.
her eyes flew open.
what was she thinking? who was this him?
the evening before came rushing back even as bright sun rays hit her eyes.
khushi swallowed convulsively, something clutched at her abdomen, she turned and grabbed a pillow to her chest, and held on tight, praying for all the feelings to subside, for her to feel like her usual self.
“kya hua, khushi?” payal’s voice brought a much needed dose of the present. khushi was so relieved, she turned and gave her sister a sweet sleepy smile and sent up a quiet prayer to devi maiyya.
(what happened, khushi?)
“kuch nahin!” she said, before jumping up suddenly from bed and catching her sister in a tight hug, “everything is perfect because I have you… ohhh jiji…” she danced a little jig with a flabbergasted payal.
“pagli!” payal admonished lovingly extricating herself from her sister’s early morning impulsive traipse. Khushi giggled. Payal doted on her younger sibling, always grateful that she had come into their lives.
looking at her happy face, payal wondered if she should tell her about akash ji. then she blushed. she recalled all through the drive back home, his hand gently holding hers. just before that as they had stood looking at the dormant volcano, he had said…
and payal went red, her ears grew hot.
she walked across dreamily to the window and watched the ocean with its white frothy surf, its endlessness, the sunny sky above, the brown sand stretching up to it. and there, she could see lavanya and jean pierre walking to the beach.
she had to give akash ji an answer soon… oh how she wished she knew what it should be.
khushi turned and ran to the bathroom wanting to splash water on her face and completely wash away the feelings of last evening. she just did not want to think about all that now, how was she to know she’d fall in love with him…
khushi stopped dead in her track.
had she just said “fall in love”? and with him!
what was wrong with her! bua ji was right. she was sanka devi, the goddess of craziness, pagli too, mad, just like her sister had said only a couple of minutes back.
what “falling in love” was she talking about? of course, no such thing had happened.
this was all just a… just a…
she stamped her foot and said, “gadbad!”
yes, that was it, it was all some weird upside down thing, “haan, yeh sab gadbad hai, and I must, nahiiin!…” she put her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes, “I will do something about it…”
(yes, all this is weird and strange, and I must… nooo! … I will do something about it.)
she never allowed herself to look at the terrifying feelings that had gripped her when he’d said in that dark intimate space, both of them in the back seat, disheveled, doused with a craving and an engulfing need, “pack your bags and move in with me… mere saath, mere paas, khushi… come stay with me.”
(pack your bags and move in with me… with me, close to me, khushi… come stay with me.)
at his wanting her to be with him, near him, all the time, a strange storm had risen in her even while the full meaning of what he was trying to say had not yet crystallized.
she had been shocked when she realized, and that feeling of being degraded…
khushi was about to react to that when she held her straying thoughts firmly and said, “no, wahan jaake koi faida nahin, mitti daalo aur bhool jao… not thinking of all that any more… I am here for a purpose, samjhi tum?” she wagged her finger at her own reflection in the mirror above the oval black stone basin, “jiji’s marriage, money for that… that is what you have come here to earn, and till this work is done, you are not gong to behave like a… like a…”
(no point in going there, just put soil and bury it… )
“haye!” she suddenly struck a pose and held her upturned palm to her forehead, a sad forlorn look came over her face, she giggled a bit, “… like a filmi heroine, no dukh bhari dastaan, only salman ji ishtyle dhishum dhishum, kyaa…?” she flipped from her leading lady in trauma act to an emulation of her favourite actor salman khan in his latest role as a corrupt cop with a heart of, naturally, gold.
(“like a filmi heroine, no sadness filled saga, only salman ji style punch punch, whaaat…?”)
pleased with her theatrics, she started her ablutions, planning how she was going to slay that rakshas.
she could feel the scrape of his stubble against her fingers suddenly.
again! stop bothering me, I hate this gadbad, she thought, and washed her hands furiously.
she knocked on the door of his villa, tentatively calling out, “arnav ji?”
it had taken a lot of courage and a whole lot more of talking to herself plus at least five aloo parathas and about six slices of kueh lapis to get here. it was a good thing that the young indian man who helped out in the kitchen had been sympathetic to her needs and made some aloo parathas… how could anyone live without them, she thought… her mind running away to safer places, dreading what was up ahead.
“come in!” came the curt reply.
she pushed the door open and before she could change her mind, walked swiftly into his sitting room. she was panting slightly.
he stood at the french windows on one side of the room leading out to the koi pond behind, his back to her.
he didn’t say a word.
“dekhiye…” she started, then she realised she was barely whispering, she cleared her throat doggedly and started again… “dekhiye… arnav ji…”
(see… see, arnav ji…)
“i… i… am… i mean, i think what we are… no… you are doing… is not right… i know you can throw me out of this job, but i can’t…” why wasn’t he saying anything? and why wasn’t he turning around? she started to feel uncomfortable, but she was going to say what she had come here to say.
“i can’t do what you say… and … and… i know you might feel…” she was looking down, mumbling by now.
“i feel nothing, khushi,” she almost started and jumped back, she had never heard a voice so cold. he had turned and stood looking at her, his face gaunt, impassive, his eyes expressionless. they seemed to have gone grey too matching his charcoal grey and pale grey suit, waistcoat, tie.
khushi shivered inwardly. was this the man in the car, in the backseat lying next to her kissing her, holding her, making her feel all sorts of things last night? were those the eyes that had looked at her with so much passion, wild and uncontrollable? khushi took a long breath.
“what did you think?” he sneered ever so slightly, it cut into her… “that a rich man would be shattered forever and lie around weeping for you brokenhearted if you rejected his offer?”
again he turned away and she was looking at his straight back, wide shoulders, legs slightly apart, an air of indifference, almost dismissive.
“please don’t live under any illusion, you are not that important to me… in fact, you are not important at all. it was just one of those things. that’s all,” his voice was icy cold, and as she began to understand what he said, a terrible sense of shame started to rise in her. rich man? she meant nothing? just one of those things, like that kiss in his room that very first time? how many one of those things did this man have? and what was all that the previous night then? he couldn’t live without her? never leave him?
tears stung the back of her eyes.
“you agreed to the deal only for one thing. money. so just go, earn it… and stay out of my life. now please get out of this room,” his words came out smooth, almost hushed, a low guttural sound. she flinched at the talk of money.
“just get out,” he ground out again, swift and whip like fell the words.
she wanted to run up to him then and shake him by the shoulders, ask him how he could possibly talk to her like that, but her legs felt leaden, her breath was ragged, she was whimpering almost.
flashes from the drive back last night rushed at her in waves. speed, high, insistent relentless speed… she couldn’t breathe… she was so scared of speeding cars, of the dark… what if there was a flash of light, what if again everything was plunged into darkness.
“khushi?!! what’s the matter… are you ok?” he turned quickly when he heard her faint whimper, but she was gone. she was running down the steps and out toward the ocean. she didn’t look back.
she didn’t see him standing there looking after her, a broken look on his face. she didn’t see him close his eyes, as if in agony. she didn’t see him standing like that as the seconds ticked. she didn’t see him swallow hard… she didn’t hear him ask himself, “why does it bother me? why does it hurt me to see her hurt like this? i must stop this… i must…”
he stayed still for a while, struggling with feelings he had no notion of, pulling himself back from an edge and somehow making his way back to his place of sanity. arnav singh raizada, tycoon, no one could beat him at his game, he was the best there was, and this is all he needed. this and the happiness of his di. nothing else mattered.
he took a deep long breath and called jean pierre, “shall we take a final look at the work before we leave, jean pierre?”
no one would have guessed from that matter of fact, business like voice what had transpired in this room just now, barely a few minutes ago.
“what is love, payal ji, i don’t know,” payal sat on the sand, drawing patterns in it with a stick, recalling akash’s words the previous evening, “but ever since i first saw you… haan, payal ji, i remember that evening clearly, when you were consoling khushi ji after she had dashed into bhai… well ever since then, when i think of you, i feel happy… then out of nowhere and i have no idea how, you were in my house… now we are here… payal ji, do you believe in fate?”
payal had been surprised by the question. as it is what he was saying made her feel strange and unsettled but not in an unpleasant way. this kind, friendly man with his slightly lost air made her feel happy too, she rather liked his fumbling, his affable way, and his gentle concern for everyone. what was this about fate?
“i mean,” he had continued, “as in two people meeting because they were meant to…? you know like there was a higher authority…”
“akash ji, i have no idea about such things, but amma always says, we are born with the name of our life partners written in us and they will find us, no matter what…” she said it all without thinking, his words triggering a memory from childhood… her amma had certain beliefs and it was very hard to shake them.
“payal ji, is there any chance your life partner’s name that’s written in you begins with an ‘a’?” akash had asked softly, looking into her eyes with the most honest and hopeful gaze. payal had felt all confused and hot suddenly.
life partner… she had just repeated amma’s words without pausing to think it was about really about a husband… marriage… and what was akash ji really asking her?
akash ji had stepped back slightly after that, giving her space. he had simply said, “i know this is sudden, even unexpected, but i think i am developing serious feelings for you… please think about it and if you say “yes”, i would like er… to ask you…” he had paused and then hurtled on, “i have a feeling the name that’s written for me begins with ‘p’!”
payal drew a dozen or more concentric circles hastily in the sand… jalebi… khushi’s jalebis… where was khushi? and what was her answer really for akash ji?
they reached delhi around seven in the evening, india time. khushi was intrigued by this time difference between two countries, how strange and full of new things this world was. but today, nothing much had registered. she’d sat next to jiji and talked continuously about anything and everything… she wished she could hang up her stars above the seat and just sleep. she was so tired, nothing felt right. she had taken great care to avoid asr for the rest of their time in bali and in the plane had chosen a place right at the back where he couldn’t see her.
funnily, akash ji had decided to sit across the aisle from jiji, while lavanya ji and jon piye ji sat up front next to arnav ji.
asr remained engrossed in work right through the flight, not speaking much. endless cups of coffee came and were emptied in no time. it was a nearly seven hour flight, he kept at his work, focussing only on the project. nothing else.
next to him sat a bag filled with frangipani in many colours for di. his eyes did stray to them once or twice. each time he saw khushi’s face, a little red flower peeping out from behind one ear. he could feel the soft petals in his hand… and her thick silky tresses, her satin smooth neck as he pushed the hair back to pin the flowers.
he closed his eyes and willed the picture in his to mind melt away and went back to his laptop. work.
akash picked up payal’s suitcase and went to get khushi’s too as he said, “bhai, you go ahead, i’ll drop khushi ji and payal ji and come home…”
asr looked at them coolly and said, “go ahead, akash… bye, payal…”
he was going to turn away when khushi heard herself say something. she had been tense the whole day, and she didn’t realise it but all that she managed was an incoherent sound.
asr stopped. then slowly, taking his time, he turned back and said, “khushi, nine sharp tomorrow…” next instant, he was walking away. the breeze on the tarmac was strong, it made his jacket flap, his trouser legs fluttered against his legs… a tall, lean man, completely alone strode into the darkening dusk… she wished she could make some sense of him…
she knew an interlude had come to an end. she would not come across him by the ocean again. he wouldn’t drive back with her from a volcano. they would not be feeling the sand and salt in each other’s hair, on each other’s skin, on his lips, his eyes… he would not ask her again, his voice ragged and hoarse… but why did it hurt so much?
“kuch gadbad hai,” she whispered to herself, her eyes looked lost.
(something is weird and upside down.)
“kya, khushi? tum theek toh ho na?” payal had heard her.
(what, khushi, you’re okay, aren’t you?)
“haan, jiji!” khushi threw herself into the moment and smiled to allay her sister’s concern, “i am hungry!!”
“chhotey! so sweet of you! thank you, kitne sundar hain yeh champa, dekhiye, nani ji!” anjali was so excited with the flowers, she didn’t notice the look on asr’s face when she picked up a bunch and held it against her hair.
(thank you, how beautiful are these frangipani, see, nani ji!)
she prattled enthusiastically walking along after him as he made his way to his room, “how was your trip? everything was good? your collection is looking nice? got your idea? where’s akash bhai? did payal ji and khushi ji…?”
“stop, di!” he was smiling but there was a note in his voice that made her look at him… “aap kitne questions ek saath poochhengi?” he gave her an irritatingly patient brother like smile.
(how many questions will you ask at the same time?)
“chhotey!!” di made a face, “okay, if you don’t want to tell me, i’ll go… anyway, now you are all grown up and you don’t like my…” anjali obviously knew exactly which buttons to push, he couldn’t see the little smile on her face since she had turned toward the door of his room already.
“okay! okay, okay, di… sorry!” he sounded contrite though he did know what she was doing… he always gave in.
“come, sit here, and yes, we had a very good trip, everything worked out very well…” he started to loosen his tie as he spoke. he was looking tired. anjali scanned his face for a second and said gently, “everything?“
he was staring at the lap pool outside, his plants, he murmured, “yes… everything.” his voice had gone flat, disconnected.
anjali wondered about that tone, then she stroked his back gently and said, “go get changed, chhotey, you’re tired… i’ll get dinner served and shyam ji should be here soon, we’ll all eat together.”
payal and khushi reached home and found bua ji looking highly excited and happy to see her nieces. she fussed around them, making them sit and drink hot adrak wali chai first which she insisted on making herself. then came a whole lot of food, chana chor garam, chips, jalebis, samosas… and questions.
how was their first time in ‘vides’, foreign land? did they see the temple? and payaliya, how big is the ocean? how do the people out there look like? dark? fair? thin? fat? short maybe, everyone said, they were very short people that side of the world…
seemed like the neighbours and friends of lakshmi nagar had had a very good time speculating about all sorts of things that might or might not be there in bali.
after all, it was their right to do so, madhumati ji’s own nieces had gone there. so what if khoosie bitiya was her brother’s adopted daughter, she was a niece only…
and what did titaliya like about bali? did she get her jalebis? bua ji was unstoppable. in between, she exhorted them to eat, quite sure without home cooked food, her bitiyas had suffered miserably. and oh they must be tired… such a long journey, all the way from vides…
payal tried to calm her aunt down, “bua ji, we’re okay… yes the journey was long but not really tiring… we didn’t travel by train like we always do…” she smiled sweetly.
at the mention of train, khushi saw a railway station coolie running with her bags… it was arnav ji in a porter’s red tunic, and he was saying, “goodbye and don’t come back, SAMJHI TUM!”
khushi said, “bachao!” and jumped up, the plate of samosas on her lap which bua ji had just put there dropped, the stainless steel clattered, the samosas crumbled, bua ji said, “ooo dakhau sanka devi… hai re nand kissore!”
(oh look, there’s the goddess of craziness, oh lord nand kishore!)
after dinner, khushi took a cup of hot tea and went out to sit on a bench in bua ji’s back yard and look up at the stars. tonight she really needed to see her amma and babu ji who were up there. she needed to see her stars twinkling and shining back at her, she needed them to talk to her, hear her.
kabooter, ja ja ja… her ringtone chimed. someone was trying to call… she felt her heart beat increase…
(pigeon, go go go…)
who could it be?
she answered the phone with a tremulous, “hay… haylo?”
“bitiya, you’re back? how are you, everything is okay?” it was babu ji, from lucknow.
khushi was overjoyed and replied, “haan, babu ji… we were going to call you in a short while! how are you? oh i missed you all so much!” she felt like weeping at the sound of his kind, concerned, always loving voice. ever since she was a child… how it had always soothed her, comforted her. and amma, where was she? khushi wanted amma to ask her many questions, maybe scold her a bit too. oh she missed them both, and home, and everything that was her life back there… in less than a month her life had gone all weird and funny…
khushi smiled as she heard her father and mother argue with each other as to who would talk to her first.
she didn’t pay any attention to the small but niggling sense of disappointment that it wasn’t him calling.
asr lay on the deckchair by the pool, his scotch was by him on the table. tonight he needed a stiff shot, it was a good thing jija ji had taken di for a late night movie, otherwise she’d be nagging at him about the drink.
he took a long sip and grimaced, the fiery spirit streamed down his throat, burning yet smooth. he looked up and saw the night sky glimmering with stars. tiny little blue specs, millions of them it seemed to him, covered the expanse, the pool water undulated reflecting them.
he wondered if she was out there somewhere sitting and talking to the stars again… she had said they reminded her of her parents… were her parents no more? but he thought they were in lucknow… he frowned. had she lost her own parents…? suddenly he felt a terrible desire to hold her in his arms, to keep her safe. he wanted to know if she had again slept off somewhere outside.
“khushi!” the word was out of his lips before he had a chance to bridle it.
this couldn’t go on.
he was not going to think of her any more.
the phone rang. he reached for it automatically.
it was jean pierre.
“hello, jean pierre, everything okay?” he was a bit surprised, it was quite late, what work could jean pierre possibly have with him right now.
“hello, good evening, ahhnav,” came jean pierre’s reply, “i need a leetle help from you, my friend.”
“tell me,” asr replied in his precise way, taking another sip of whisky.
“you see, i want to take khushi out for dinner, can you recommend a restaurant that khushi will be comfortable in? hmmm?” jean pierre said.
asr choked on his drink, whisky sputtered all over, some of it went down the wrong way, searing his throat and almost getting into his wind pipe. he coughed violently and said in a hoarse, afflicted voice, “whaaat!!!”