his arms still firmly around khushi, asr turned his head and looked at lavanya.
“yes, lavanya, what’s the matter?” his voice was cool, almost businesslike.
khushi squirmed slightly and she felt his arms tighten, holding her where she was, not letting her get away. uff, this laad governor, how could he be so shameless! what would lavanya ji think, khushi’s mind catapulted into a litany of protests… but his smooth suede waistcoat felt so plush and comfortable against her cheek, and there was a fresh smell of… what was it, was it the shirt? khushi pressed her cheek a little closer into the suede and turned her curious nose toward the linen shirt.
“n-nothing, asr!” lavanya’s voice was strident, a forced lightness in it, “just came to remind you… we have a meeting in five minutes, you remember?”
“thanks, you go ahead, lavanya, i’ll join you…” he said in a faintly dismissive tone and turned back toward khushi. khushi heard the door click as lavanya left the room shutting the door after her.
what would lavanya ji think of her! khushi pulled away looking at him indignantly.
what she saw made her feel even more angry.
arnav ji was grinning down at her, lips tilted and disturbing, one eyebrow cocked, eyes gone even more chocolate. was he mad?
“suniye, arnav ji! aap aise…” she started admonishing him.
(listen, arnav ji, you… like this…)
“shh! sh!” he put his index finger on her lips and shut her up. “stop wriggling when a man holds you in his arms, samjhi tum? no time to talk now, but how about a date this evening…” he spoke briskly and was already picking up a file and his iphone and on his way out of the room, as khushi stood there gaping.
“d..d..date?!” she managed sounding confused, voice a little choked. what was this new problem she was having with talking? she had never felt her throat constrict like this before, and what were these incoherent gurgling sounds she ended up making when she knew exactly what it was she wanted to say.
she lifted her chin ready to say, no, she would not go with him on a date, but before she could get in a word, he continued,
“i’ll pick you up at 8.30… be ready, i hate waiting… and khushi, close your mouth,” he left the room.
khushi stamped her foot in frustration. that terrible laad… then she stopped short. no, he was having a tough day… she would not call him that today. for just this one day, he was arnav ji, bas. her arnav ji.
huh? she was really sanka devi!! bua ji was right. no no… just arnav ji.
she smiled to herself. next moment her mouth had become a perfect circle, eyes had gone wide almost popping out.
had he just said he was going to pick her up at 8.30 for a date!
what was she going to wear!
khushi stood like that for a moment. then realising what she was doing, she scolded herself, told herself to act like the mature woman she was and stalked off to her office.
“i don’t agree, jean pierre, i think we have the look and feel alright, but no we don’t have the soul of blooms in agung yet… it’s not there…” asr was insistent.
lavanya frowned, “but asr, what do you mean by soul? it’s just a collection… and we have the silhouette… the materials, the accessories… you agreed in bali…”
“it’s never just a collection, lavanya, i thought you knew that by now…” asr shot back in a steely voice.
“okay, okay… let’s give eet thought. we ‘ave ze time, mes amis… sometheeng missing you say, ahhnav…? still doesn’t ‘ave zat spark, right?… a beautiful line… but nothing zat makes it ‘appen!” jean pierre gesticulated and shrugged, his gallic air to the fore as he delved into the problem earnestly. a gifted and committed designer, he knew exactly what asr was talking about.
lavanya had a strong gut feel the line would sell and they’d get enough and more pret a porter orders. she really couldn’t figure out why asr was so dissatisfied, but she had known asr long enough to know once he was after something he wouldn’t let go till he got what he wanted. as she mulled this over, she remembered how he stood holding khushi in his arms just now. did it bother her? of course, it did. but she was smart enough to realise this was really not in her hands. she and asr had always had a cool, take it as it comes relationship. neither had he made promises, nor had he asked her for any. that’s how even she had wanted it.
she looked down at the papers before her and wondered if things would have been different had she said that she needed more, she needed commitment from him… she perhaps needed love.
she looked at him directly at last. he sat there engrossed, looking through drawings, pondering what exactly had to be unearthed still to make the collection work. he was frowning.
such a dear face, la thought. over the years a part of her life… she trusted this face. she wanted him even. maybe she loved him?
she shrugged inwardly, acknowledging that that was not the case. she found him inordinately exciting. his energy, his power, his drive, his striking good looks, his wealth… all of it was heady. she had terribly enjoyed the fact that this man chose to spend time with her. that he wanted her. no, this was not love, and she knew it well.
she had perhaps known back of her mind this was all he could give and so never had asked for more.
lavanya was about to get back to her papers when she caught sight of jean pierre sitting back in his chair, twirling his pencil, looking at her, a gleam in his light blue eyes. she looked at him and smiled, slightly embarrassed.
she would take jean pierre up on that offer maybe and go to paris for a break.
it was almost 7.30 in the evening. bua ji was muttering about the burdens on a poor elderly aunt as she munched on pakodas that khushi had made a mountain of after coming back from work. next to the plate laden with crisp, brown, delicious pakodas, sat a platter heaped with orange, gleaming, crunchy, syrup covered jalebis. khushi had insisted on making both.
she had also talked nonstop all the while as she cooked, bua ji’s head was buzzing even now.
“hai re nand kissore, how much this aafat ki puria, this parmeswari can talk. who is this kareena now… and desdemona? ee kaun haiiin? first it was ‘i want to work,’ then ‘i want to go to bali,’ then ‘i want to go out with one man’… but haan, that kaun piye ji was a nice boy, nand kissore,” bua ji paused her monologue to sigh over the young man who had given her the lovely bouquet and also to take a large bite of another pakoda.
(oh lord nand kissore, how much this packet of trouble, this supreme goddess can talk. who is this kareena now… and desdemona? who is thaaat?…)
then she took off again, “and now, she must go out with arnav singh raijada… but it is good that desdemona is going with them, another girl…” bua ji made a long suffering face and bit into a jalebi.
payal walked in and asked, “who desdemona, bua ji? and who is going out with arnav ji?”
“arrey, payaliya,” bua ji turned to payal eagerly but then noticing something, went off on a completely different track, “you are looking so pretty today! nand kissore, see see… suddenly it is as if my brother’s daughter is blooming, like a flower… so innocent, so lovely…”
payal blushed. then eyes downcast she ran inside, leaving her aunt utterly mystified. bua ji settled down to another round of pakodas to solve this puzzle.
inside the room, khushi sat on the bed frantically tossing a coin. her eyes were closed and she was saying something under her breath.
payal chucked her lightly on the shoulder, “ai khushi, what are you doing?”
“haan!!” khushi started, eyes flying open, hazel irises a little dazed, coin rolling off her palm, “nothing, jiji! i was just trying to see what i should wear… saree or churidar… that laad.. i mean arnav ji is very strange, i must be ready to run anytime!! really!”
“run? arnav ji? what are you talking about and who is desdemona? new girl at work?” payal tried to calm her sister and get some simple answers.
“desdemona? no no. jiji… she is a character from a play, kareena is making this dress… i was just talking about it… and i.. i am going out for dinner with… arnav ji…” khushi tried to keep her voice nonchalant, but she could again feel that slightly choking sensation back of her throat. she was feeling a little tongue tied in fact.
realising this, khushi marched to the mirror, stood with her hands on her hips, and said to her reflection “bas kar, khushi, stop it, understand… it’s not as if you’ve never been out with a man… jon piye ji was your first date, ok?” her eyebrows danced, her eyes sparkled, her head shook from side to side as she moved further into her charge, her jhumkas swung, “of course, he was also your date, aur kya? and he is also a foreigner… so there! so what if arnav ji is.. is… well, whatever he is… no need to get all silly and coy, understand.. and no need to fear that… arnav singh raizada! okay okay, you are a bit scared… but you remember, don’t you… khushi kumari gupta darti hai par karti hai!!”
(khushi kumari gupta gets scared but she gets the job done!!)
she finished with a grand flourish of her arms and struck a regal pose.
payal was giggling standing right next to her, “khushi, i do pity arnav ji if he is daring to go out with you, see you don’t give him too much of a headache, okay? and wear a saree, saree mein tum bahut sundar dihkti ho!” payal pinched her sister’s cheek and went to the cupboard to find a saree.
(you look very pretty in a saree.)
“jiji, why are you so concerned about arnav ji?” khushi had again heard something unusual in payal’s voice, if not her words as such, “why do you care?”
payal went further into the cupboard feigning she hadn’t heard khushi.
“jiji?!” khushi asked again.
payal turned around ever so slowly then and said in a low voice, “khushi. akash ji… akash ji asked me to marry him.”
“kyaaa?!” khushi exclaimed, the coin she had just picked up to toss once more clattered to the floor.
she rushed to payal and held her hands, “and you said what, jiji? what did you say? he is such a nice man… but do you love him?” all the questions tumbled out in a rush and at once.
“yes, yes, yes, and yes!!!” payal was answering all her sister’s questions and interjections with the only word she felt like saying these days.
“yyyeeesss!” khushi leapt up and down and then hugged her jiji tight. the happiness this news brought her she could not explain to anybody. everything… this whole coming to delhi, working at ar, putting up with strange new things, tolerating that angry arnav ji, everything really was for her jiji’s sake, for her wedding.
khushi felt tears sting her eyes. she kissed payal on both cheeks and blessed her from deep in her heart. this beautiful elder sister of hers deserved all the happiness in the world.
payal hugged her tight, “now don’t start crying, khushi!” she said. her voice wobbled on the last word and soon both girls were sniffing loudly holding each other.
bua ji called from the sitting room in her stentorian voice, “girls, what are you doing… it is almost 8.15… is titaliya ready?”
khushi started, “oh no, 8.15… arnav ji will be here any time…”
the bell rang at 8.30 sharp.
when khushi opened the door, she looked into bright caramel eyes. her heart practically stopped. she swallowed hard and said, “namaste!”
a slight lifting of the lips on one side, asr murmured in a low intimate voice, “hi!”
khushi almost fell back with a strange nervousness pervading her from head to toe.
he looked at her, his gaze giving nothing away. khushi wondered what he thought of her white chiffon saree with a light border of fine chikkan work and sparkling badla. maybe she was not looking that good, maybe she should have not put her hair up in a loose hand knotted bun, her bangs falling over her forehead, but there really was no time, she just got ready as quickly as she could. perhaps the small pearl ear rings were too small, definitely her kajal was too light for the night and the lipstick…? khushi’s lips quivered. she swallowed again.
“shall we go?” asr asked in that crisp husky way of his.
“h..haan!” khushi replied and called out to bua ji, “bua ji, hum aate hain…”
(y..yes!… bua ji, i’ll be back!)
at that, he stepped neatly past her into the sitting room and greeted bua ji, “namaste, bua ji, how are you? i will drop khushi back after dinner…”
“nand kissore, i am fine, babua…” khushi winced at the “babua”, when did her boss become babua to bua ji! “arrey take your time, take your time, you can drop her after you drop desdemona…”
asr’s brow began to pucker. khushi realised it was time for swift action, she ran to bua ji, gave her a hug and said, “okay, bua ji… i will see you soon…” then turned and walked quickly out of the house, not waiting to see if asr was following her.
he was there in no time, walking alongside her and when they reached his suv, he went over to the passenger’s side, held the door open for her; she got in and he swiftly strode to the other side. khushi pulled her seat belt and started fixing it, but her fingers had caught the nervousness bug. he turned and without a word, moved her fingers away gently, fixed the seat belt and started the car.
the silence made her uncomfortable, why didn’t he say anything?
“desdemona?” a note of incredulity in arnav singh raizada’s voice.
“er, no… i mean… i was just telling bua ji that kareena is very dramatic and she is designing this dress which was all about some famous heroine called desdemona but i was making pakoda and jalebi at the same time so maybe bua ji got confused and well… she thinks i am not going out with you alone, desdemona is also coming along…” khushi finished lamely, wishing she could say something poised and sensible instead of explaining this ridiculous situation.
there was silence for a few seconds, but she could see his shoulders were shaking… pretty badly. then he laughed out loud.
khushi stared at him. had she ever seen him laughing? even in the dark of the cabin she could see the sheen on his stretched lips, white teeth glinting and the sparkle in his eyes. her breath caught in her throat. a low thudding sound started making its way up from her chest and deafening her.
dhak dhak… dhak dhak… dhak dhak.
khushi clutched her stomach, closed her eyes, and started repeating devi maiyya’s name.
“tum theek ho?” he said, eyes still on the road.
(are you ok?)
“yes, yes… i am fine,” khushi replied in a low voice.
he drove with his usual ease and soon they were at the taj, khushi smiled at the sight of the grand entrance with the liveried doorman standing there, huge curled mustache, portly belly, gleaming dark eyes, big red turban with gold braids, like a character from a movie.
she waited for the man to open her door then stepped out feeling rather rich and famous. like a heroine in salman ji’s film. the elderly doorman smiled at the young lady in white, who smiled back most graciously.
as she came up to asr, he said, “you love hotels, don’t you…”
he seemed to know. then she remembered that very first time they had met. she felt a little blush creeping up her cheeks and ears.
at the new indian restaurant just opened a couple of weeks ago, khushi was all set to order her favourite aloo paratha, when her date suggested she may wish to try the peas kachuri from bengal.
“bengal? yani kalkatta, but bengalis only eat rice, shobha mausi made rice in the afternoon and at night too… she hated chapati, phulka…” khushi was perplexed. was arnav ji sure?
“khushi, this is a winter speciality and di says it is very good, you can try if you like…” he said patiently.
“but it isn’t winter yet!” khushi blurted out.
“khushi!!” arnav singh raizada sounded impatient. very impatient.
“okay okay, arnav ji, i will have that kachuri and the potato curry with it… and some achari baingan, paneer kofta, mango chutney… and… yes yes, jeera pulao… oh yes, also some dal makhani, please,” khushi finally finished with her order.
“o–kay!” asr said, “think that will be enough?” he asked the waiter.
“yessir, for the two of you…” the man started, but asr cut him short, “no, just for the lady…” the young waiter was speechless trying to find the right answer, but asr continued, “okay, just bring it along and for me a mulligatawny soup not spicy, two bread rolls and a small portion of chicken tikka.”
he looked at khushi quizzically, “champagne?”
khushi could not stop the blush this time, “jal jeera, please,” she murmured demurely.
asr looked at the girl across the table, head down, trying to hide her embarrassment, the little pearl on her ears accentuating the ivory lobes and her long graceful neck. he swallowed involuntarily. locks of shiny auburn fell on her forehead. he sat looking at her for a minute or two, then he reached out and touched a lock, silken and soft against his finger, he tucked it back behind her ear.
she glanced up at him startled. hazel large irises, no guile, no game.
his lips seemed to break into the slightest smile as he brushed her cheek gently before drawing his hand away.
dhak dhak… dhak dhak. the deafening beats from within her somewhere rushed to her ears.
“i am not much of a dancer, but would you like to dance?” he asked as he saw her looking at the dance floor every now and then while they ate.
not much of a dancer? she wondered, so what was he doing with her on the floor last evening? she could still feel herself fly, held secure in his arms. she had never danced like that before, but he had been so easy to move with, before she knew what she was doing, she nodded.
he got up with alacrity and held out his hand.
why, khushi wondered, she always felt reassured when he did that, she trusted him, a feeling that nothing would go wrong went through her. right from that day in the hawai jahaz.
he held her in that poised grip of his and moved onto the floor. she could feel her feet doing steps as though guided, her arm on his shoulder rested with a sudden hunger and pulled him in a little closer. he smiled as he drew her near, his lips in that familiar asymmetrical arc. then she felt his cheek against hers. his bristly stubble grazed her delicate skin, she squealed a bit then let her cheek go back to where it was, pressing against the stubble. her hand came up and stroked his other cheek.
she could feel his breathing change suddenly. his slightly calloused, cool fingers halted her hand on his cheek.
he murmured, an urgency in his voice, “let’s go!”
“let’s go? but arnav ji, the food, i mean…” she was flabbergasted. but arnav ji was holding her hand and striding ahead toward the door.
as they walked out of the restaurant and the maitre d smiled and thanked him, khushi wondered if arnav ji planned to pay for the meal. the waiter had looked like a decent chap, now he will have to pay she was sure. and how much food she, khushi kumari gupta, had ordered!
they had been driving for a while. asr hadn’t said a word all that time, he just looked ahead and drove.
“ar…rnav ji?” she decided she needed to ask.
“hmm?” the shortest little response came back.
“a..aap theek toh hain na?”
(you are okay, aren’t you?)
he said nothing.
khushi was looking out of the window at the world passing by, when she realised they were no longer surrounded by the usual city traffic… in fact, there were no buildings along the way, nothing, it was dark for miles around. they were driving through open countryside.
“where are we going?” khushi asked tremulously.
“why? don’t you trust me to take you somewhere safe?” there was an edge to his voice… she could feel a tremor of gussa in it. she shut up.
at last they pulled up in front of a bungalow sitting amid acres of land. she reached for the seat belt automatically.
he came over and opened her door, let her step out of the car, then grabbed her hand and led her toward the house with a short crisp, “come!”
up a few steps they were on a wide verandah, in front was the main door. asr opened it with a key and walked in.
inside, mellow lights lit a medium sized room. simple off white sofas with black and grey throw cushions stretched at one end of the room, rugs in single solid colours ranging from grey to beige and black were on the floor. the walls were bare, except for a tall full length mirror in a wide wooden frame leaning against the wall on the left. the only colour in the room came from a huge dark urli filled with floating krishnachura flowers placed right in front of the massive mirror.
bright red, dark orange, resplendent krishnachura. khushi remembered the painting of the krishnachura tree on the wall of the room she had woken up in that first day in shantivan.
asr watched her as she took in the room. her ears were beginning to go red, an early warning of some sort. what were they doing here?
she turned and stared at asr. he was looking at her steadily… he walked up slowly to her and bent down, she could see the two of them in the mirror, the flowers looked even brighter against her white saree and his dark wine shirt.
she felt a rush of thrill and a strange fear assail her, but she stood still as he approached, predatory, eyes smoky and soaked in an unnamed sensation. she did not want to run away from him any more.
his lips touched her forehead, surprisingly tender, quiet… he kissed her eyes one by one, then the tip of her nose, she felt his fingers lift her chin, she looked up at him and watched those dark eyes change colour in the warm mellow light, growing even darker, almost black, glinting.
she let her body sway closer to him, wanting to feel his contours against her, his weight upon her pushing her back. his eyes grew languorous and she could feel the languor spread through her body, her eyelids felt heavier, her breast more full, an ache gathered in her.
“khushi!” he whispered against her lips.
she opened her lips and waited for him to take hers in a kiss. but he paused and stood there, his breath touching hers, bare millimetres away from her mouth, a half smile played on his sculpted beautiful lips, a little dip on the right, a fine thin upper lip, curved, more plump lower lip, a slight pout in the way he held it now.
khushi couldn’t help it. with a little groan she reached on tiptoe and bit his lower lip then started kissing him the way by now she knew he liked. her arms went around his shoulders, his neck, drawing him down.
he picked her up in his arms and without breaking the kiss walked out of the room to a patio behind, when he came to the edge of the patio he sat down on the floor, his feet resting on the steps leading down and settled her comfortably on his lap. then he held her head in his hands and kissed her long, hard and deep, thrusting his tongue into her mouth, waiting for her to do the same to him. he kissed a trail up her cheek all the way to her ear, she shuddered as he bit the tip of her ear, then he kissed the lobe near her jaw, just beside her pearl drop. she heard him whisper, “why are you so beautiful, why can’t i stop myself? are you sure you’re not a spy?” his breath was playing with her ear, warm and teasing, she had just started to melt at that first thing he said when she heard his last word and stopped moving. he was teasing her, that laad… no arnav ji.
“no no, don’t be mad at me now!” he said as his tongue probed her ear and she went almost insane with a craving she was shocked she even had in her.
“look up now!” he whispered as he let her go and moved his head to give her a clear view of what he wanted her to see.
khushi looked up.
and up there in the inky dark blue sky floated a sea of stars. spreading wide, spreading deep, layer upon layer till the eye could see… twinkling, startling, shimmering stars everywhere.
khushi drew in her breath. how could anything be so beautiful. she had never seen so many stars together. not even in bali. here somehow the cool dry air and the night made more space for the stars she loved so much.
she stared without moving and then unable to control herself, she jumped up and ran out standing under the canopy of brilliant constellations, her heart feeling as though it would burst any second.
she kept looking up, not able to look away.
he walked out and stood by her.
“i thought in the city, it is difficult to see them… too many artificial lights,” he said in a slightly awkward way.
he could see she was smiling.
“this is my farmhouse… i come here when the city gets too much for me. and this garden here… this is for my mother. i thought you might like to come here with me today.”
“oh arnav ji, thank you so much,” khushi was too happy to care that her voice was a bit wobbly. and then the strangest thoughts came to her head. she had to tell arnav ji.
“arnav ji, do you know akash ji has asked my jiji to marry him?” she was looking up so she did not see him frown a bit and stiffen.
“and arnav ji, i should have told you before, but in all this it slipped my mind… i saw shyam ji in bali one evening… and… he was with some other lady!” she said it without preamble because she felt he needed to know. anjali ji was a nice lady and it had disturbed her to see her husband in that state with someone else.
“what!” asr whipped around, in seconds his eyes had gone stormy, enraged, “are you mad? do you even know what you are saying? what is this? why do you want to ruin my sister’s happiness with such lies and whose idea was it to send your sister to trap my cousin? whose?” his voice was harsh, “yours, i bet!” he said through clenched teeth and turned around walking away swiftly, leaving her alone in the garden.
khushi could feel warm tears slipping down the corner of her eyes. she swallowed hard and sat down on the grass. she knew her timing was not right, but did that mean he had the right to say such things to her? why did he always hurt her? why was he so cruel.
she had no idea how long she sat there, and as time passed she felt a need to talk to her amma and babu ji, looking up she was entranced by the sight of the thick covering of stars again and began speaking from her heart to her parents who were far away, but she knew they heard her.
the slight rustle behind her alerted her to some presence.
“are you talking to your amma and babu ji?” his voice was low, a little unsure.
she didn’t turn around, she just nodded her head.
“are you complaining about me?” he had never sounded this tender she was sure. she shut her eyes tight. she would have forgiven him anything at that moment.
he lowered himself onto the grass next to her and turned to look at her, she sat there, eyes closed.
“sorry,” he said it simply and clearly.
khushi opened her eyes and looked at him, her eyes full of tears. his lips tightened, “sorry…” he said once more.
looking up at the sky he said, “she means everything to me, my di… i am sure there’s some mistake, it couldn’t have been jija ji, but you thought it was, and you felt i should know… i am sorry i said what i did.”
“you apologised to me three times!” khushi was staring at him now, “are you alright?”
he stood up and held out his hand to help her up, “come, i’ll take you home.”
khushi went with him silently. when he held her in his arms inside the room and laid her down among the cushions and kissed her longingly she didn’t say that she was quite sure that man indeed was shyam ji.
when he reached home he made a call to aman and instructed him to find out the best detective agency in town and set up a meeting with them sometime tomorrow itself.