the water felt cool, crisp hitting his face, sliding down falling along his neck and chest, dashing against his skin as it burst forth from the shower head, streaming down in rivulets, currents of flowing sparkling clear cleansing water.
he shut his eyes and held up his face to the the assault of continuous jets. each one hit him on some spot on his face, numbed it for an instant, then sensation returned and all he felt was the coolness, the flow… he wanted nothing else now. a surrender to that flow.
everything was filled with pain within, held in a tight unmoving, immobile gridlock of hurt and chaos. people said nothing was forever. arnav singh raizada knew the lie in that.
something was indeed forever. it was death.
khushi reached work almost an hour late, feeling flustered, guilty, completely out of sorts. she had sat at home on her bed for a long while after she awoke. what was that that happened the night before? she had felt her ears go red as she remembered everything. the drink, the dance, the phone call, and then oh no, how could she have taken his hand and put it on her…hey devi maiyya, she had started everything, she had even kissed him on the side of his neck…
as the thought came, she could almost smell his musky warm skin, its heat on her face, the taut skin against her lips, his taste…
khushi nearly stopped breathing.
it must be that terrible thing called shawn-paan-ye, a part of her head said. but devi maiyya sat right in front of her at her usual place on the desk and khushi could not hide from the truth looking straight into those benevolent eyes etched on sacred mud. it had not been just the drink she knew.
“hum kya karein, devi maiyya? when i see him something very strange happens to me… something i have never felt before…please help me, yeh kya hai, what is this whole thing… he is so nasty, he hurts me and says terrible things… hoonh, laad governor!” khushi gritted her teeth and tossed her head remembering exactly how awful he could be… then she seemed to remember something, her eyes grew larger, more hazel, soft and shimmery, she swallowed and blurted out, “but then he says i mean something to him… and i feel… i feel…” she stopped searching for a word that could describe the feeling and continued, “why do i feel like this? and whatever it is, what is the right thing to do when i feel this way… i am so confused…”
(what should i do, devi maiyya? when i see him something very strange happens to me… something i have never felt before… please help me,what is this, what is this whole thing… he is so nasty, he hurts me and says terrible things… hoonh, laad governor!”)
it occurred to her that in the last month and a bit her conversations with devi maiyya had been somewhat similar, as a completely unfamiliar emotion and a whole frenzy of sensations unknown invaded her being, rocked her sense of certainty and demanded attention even when she did not really want to think about those things.
“jiji!” she shouted in an excited voice. when something was getting a bit too overpowering to handle, it was best to divert one’s attention. jiji had been looking a little different lately, something about the way she smiled at times or looked lost in thought. what was the matter?
“yes, khushi?” payal came in smiling, she was looking rather lovely in her pale lime green churidar, “not going to office today, have you seen the time?”
“huh! kya??!! quarter to nine already? akash ji will be so angry and that laad…”
“relax, khushi! today he will be going to the office a little late himself… there’s something on at home,” payal said reassuring her sister.
“kya? how do you know that, jiji? and he never told me? what function at home?” khushi kept firing questions as she ran around trying to get her clothes together and rush to bathe and change.
“ophho, sanka devi, bua ji is right… so many questions and that too while you are spinning like a top!” payal grumbled, “it’s arnav ji’s parents’ death anniversary, barsi… they’ll go to work after that…”
khushi felt a strange pang in her as she came to a standstill, “barsi? arnav ji’s parents’ barsi?” her voice had gone flat, a little blank.
she felt a lump rise in her throat. was he alright?
she made her way slowly to the bathroom, payal gazed after her, what was wrong with khushi now? and she hadn’t even waited to hear how payal knew all this.
“ai sanka devi, kuchh khaye leo!” bua ji hollered after khushi as she saw her niece come out of the room, ready in her maroon churidar with lots of gota and pompoms dangling. why was khushi looking so lost?
(oh sanka devi, eat something!)
“what’s the matter, titaliya? last night everything was alright with that friend of yours, na? what’s that nice fair boy’s name, yes yes kaun piye ji…” bua ji asked.
“jon piye ji, bua ji,” replied khushi in a wan voice, walking toward the door.
“but eat something, bitiya, before you go!” bua ji said again.
“i’ll eat later, bua ji, i am late… hum aate hain!” khushi left without even looking at the food laid out for her.
(i’ll eat later, bua ji, i’m late… see you!)
“hai re nand kissore, what happened to this titaliya now! two two young women one old aunt has to look after, if there’s any trouble, how will i answer my brother? how?” bua ji grumbled dramatically. her locket bobbed, her plait swung.
he breathed in sharply. death. never goes away.
the ache in his being grew even as the shower sprayed him with sparkling soothing water. he had sat through the prayers again as he had done each year… di had looked so terribly fragile, how he wished he could make her feel better, till her eyes were bright and laughing again. nani ji always looked older than her years on this day, she sat quietly at the back and kept her eyes on her daughter’s photograph, she never ever shed a tear. mama ji looked lost, mami ji always cried. for the past three years, ever since di had got married, jija ji sat right next to her and every now and then looked at her to make sure she was okay. asr was glad jeeja ji was there.
after the puja, everyone sat down together in the drawing room, weary and disoriented. om prakash and hari prakash were serving tea and breakfast, no one was in a frame of mind to eat. he saw di bury her face in jija ji’s shoulder; assured she was being taken care of, he finally walked away. he had never shied away from being strong, from taking on whatever life threw at him. from being di’s protector. she was his only succour in a way and he did love her dearly, more than he loved anyone or anything, even himself.
but this was always a hard day for him.
asr stood helpless under the water. then as he stood there with his eyes shut tight struggling to overcome feelings pushing him down, seizing him… refusing to let go, just below his eyelid a picture started to float up, a beautiful young girl in the moonlight, her face tilted up looking at the stars.
she was talking to the stars, she had said. ridiculous girl, who talks to stars? really she was crazy. but she had said her parents were there…
he shook his head, and felt the water sprinkle and fly all around.
he saw her sitting petrified in the plane coming from lucknow. she had held his hand so tight.
yellow shimmer hit his eyes, he blinked, she was jumping up and down in the distance on the beach, what was this girl doing? and why could he not look away?
his thoughts seemed to unshackle slowly.
asr stretched his gleaming wet body opening up to the water, beginning to relax. he turned the lever of the tap letting the spray get warmer.
she was pushing her body against his, her hands were fluttering over his chest, touching his skin, urgency in every stroke, a demand even. he was pulling her closer, breathing in her nearness, burying the distance between them. he could hear her heart beating against his, he could look into her hazel eyes through the streaming cascading water and they were so alive, they beckoned him from across the water, across the sand, across the darkness of the night.
“khushi,” a whisper went through him, and the gridlock began to ease. he took a long deep breath.
“hi, kk, what’s up!” salman turned his head a little to look at khushi who was peering over his shoulder looking at his drawing on the large a2 sheet he preferred to scribble his first ideas on.
“nahin, nothing… just walking around, trying to understand what all of you do…” her voice was barely audible, not the usual brightness in it.
salman noted the lack of verve. he tossed a pencil at her and pulled out a couple of blank a2 papers.
“come, sit here next to me and try doing a design yourself!” he said casually with a wide grin.
“main?!” she shrieked. salman nodded.
“no, no, salman ji… i have never done all this, and i am not trained… and…” she went on, a bit incoherent now.
“kk…” salman reasoned, “do you wear clothes?”
“what!” khsuhi was taken aback…
“exactly… you do. so if you can wear them, you can draw them also, can’t you?” salman smiled and urged her with a nod to sit down.
kareena was working at another drawing board nearby, watching the two of them. she had also noticed khushi was down, but looked like salman was determined to do something about it, so she let them be and concentrated on the desdemona inspired evening ensemble she was working on. innocent fair beauty, a touch of tragedy, some moonlight, no no, candle light, yes candle light. oh desdemona, desdemona, why were you so lovely and so much in love, kareena was drowning in her inspiration’s image.
“my love doth so approve him … that even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns – prithee unpin me – have grace and favour in them…” kareena said theatrically in her strong clear voice… a sudden need to break out and be desdemona as she designed, it seemed.
salman grinned even wider and rolled his eyes, but khushi’s ears had heard something apparently. for she looked almost stricken and turned to stare at kareena who was chuckling gleefully now and was back to drawing.
khushi looked at salman and in a dazed sort of voice said, “i must go now, salman ji…” then she turned and left quite hastily.
outside in the corridor, she stopped and tried to calm down. stubbornness. frowns. hey devi maiyya, why did his face come up so sharply before her eyes the moment she heard those words? and why was her heart racing like this? she wished she could see him now, and it didn’t matter to her if he’d be nasty or maybe shout at her for getting drunk, or scowl at her for being late. didn’t matter to her. not one bit.
“arnav ji, are you okay?” she asked silently.
it was almost noon when he reached the office. he had dressed with care trying to take his mind off things that he really could do nothing about. for years he had trained himself to do just that. stay focused on the doable. stop wishing for things that cannot be. hurt is controllable, take your mind to other things. make. create. work. be strong. stay focused. do what you can get done, do not believe in anything outside of yourself… because nothing really can be relied upon. nothing is forever. only death.
he had combed his hair back with impatient strokes of the heavy brush, the thick dark locks tended to have a mind of their own. looking at the long full length mirror on the wall of the walk in wardrobe he had reckoned it was time for a trim. he must tell aman to make an appointment with andre. his stubble was close trimmed to a smooth, flawless “one” on the electric trimmer he liked to use.
he’d slipped into his white linen shirt made of fine japanese linen, pulled on the grey suede waistcoat which created an interesting contrast in texture and light with the linen, dark grey slim fitting trousers hung a little low on the hips, snug and meticulously tailored.
he put on his socks and smart ralph lauren monk straps. tie. he felt like wearing black today, yet as he reached toward his rack of ties, his hand picked a dark blue silk. it was the colour of midnight. a thought flashed. he picked up the tie and slung it smartly around his collar, sure fingers tied the single knot, a check in the mirror, then a tug… he lifted his chin and set the knot in place against the collar. his jacket sat perfectly on his straight shoulders, the hangers had been customised to his measurements so as not to in any way mess the lines of the jacket.
he knew he was dressed sharp and original. he frowned, an unconscious gesture, picked up his laptop and walked out.
“om prakash!!” his voice rang out and in seconds op appeared as if out of thin air, collected his briefcase and ran after chhotey saab to open the door.
it was almost a palliative for asr that everything that he had built his vast fortune around, at the core of it was transience. change.
fashion never stopped, never stayed still, it kept moving, animated, alive… there was no seeping in of decomposing mortality here, none of its tyrannical reign.
he walked in through the open plan interiors making his way to the spiral staircase… he was frowning still.
then he saw her eyes, startled shimmering hazel. huh? he was taken aback, where was he?
he realised he was standing at the adjoining door between his cabin and hers, he had no idea how he got there, he was supposed to be at his desk.
she stared at him, wondering why he looked so lost. but he was frowning. she swallowed and slowly stood up. she felt a relief come over her. he was alright.
“i… i…” she wanted to say something smart, maybe tell him she was not always so silly after drinking… no no she wanted to ask him how he was… she wanted to know if he was hurting or maybe it was better to stay away from such talk, he might start yelling… yeah she’ll tell him, she was actually very good with things like shawn-paan-ye and he need not have bothered, or maybe…
“khushi, come to my room,” he said in a still quiet voice.
it cut through her confusion immediately. she looked up at him and into his eyes. he was not doing well she could see.
he went and sat at his desk, when she walked in, he motioned to her to take the chair on the other side. she sat quietly, an expanse of black between them.
then he said, “tell me about the stars, why do you think your parents are there…”
her eyes widened slightly, she heard the ache beyond the layer of calm in his voice. her eyes shimmered, now with tears. she looked down at her hands clasped on her lap.
“my parents died when i was eight. in an accident…” she paused trying to deal with the pain that always rose when she said that to anyone. it was a line she had said so many many times over the years, a set line really. yet it hurt. she didn’t see him start, a strange light in his eyes.
then recovering she continued, “my amma, she’s my mother’s sister… and babu ji,” she smiled involuntarily, a tiny tender smile, “he is the best babu ji in the world… amma and babu ji gave me a home, never let me feel i had no one, i was alone… my parents,” she breathed in deeply her smile growing misty, “i believe they are near me still though, somewhere there, among those stars… they have become stars themselves… and when i feel like it, i talk to them… they always listen… always… hamesha.”
her words seemed to cascade all over him, his face, his ears, his heart, his lungs, his entire self… cool, flowing washing away, cleansing. what was it about her voice, he thought… there was such purity in it now, such untainted beauty… its innocence swept away dark debris, its clarity brought a gentle light.
he sat looking at her. so she had lost her father and her mother… and she spoke to stars believing her parents were in them… strange girl, ajeeb ladki, he thought with an unfamiliar tenderness, actually he had felt it a few times by now and had no idea why. a lightness came into him from somewhere.
he wondered if maa was also a star somewhere. the lightness ebbed, an ache began to gather.
he got up and walked around the table, she stood up as he approached. when he reached her he stopped and simply looked at her. then held open his arms.
she stepped into his embrace and put her arms around him. this felt like the most natural thing to do, as if she were meant to be here, right now, like this, with him… comforting him, asking for nothing in return.
they stood their together, unwilling to move.
“asr! have you talked to jean pierre about…!” lavanya was standing at the door, staring at them, aghast.
startled, khushi tried to move, to break the embrace, but his arms stayed firm around her.
his eyes rested on the small almost wilting red frangipani she had tucked into her plait. her off centre, not fashionable, beautiful long plait.