let us be like
two falling stars in the day sky.
let no one know of our sublime beauty
as we hold hands with god
and burn
into a sacred existence that defies –
that surpasses
every description of ecstasy
and love.
~~~ hafiz~~~

the rain had a nagging quality about it. and it had been going on for almost two days. wetness clung to surfaces; everything was soggy, damp; shoes brought home squelching mud and hp was tired of cleaning the entrance of raizada mansion, the sparkling marble in the hallway needed to be mopped again and again. op, of course, seeing this had busied himself with helping the cook, a self important air clung to him, like that wetness.

“op!” at the strident call, he jumped out of his skin and then came running. chhotey saab was back from office and clearly not in a good mood.

“ji, chottey saab?!”

“mohan se bag lo, aur ek black coffee jaldi,” as he commanded op to get the bag from his driver and bring a coffee quickly, his voice was terse, clipped. a grimace on his face.

(take the bag from mohan! and black coffee quickly!)

his head was pounding.

he didn’t like the rain.

its chill, its damp, its clinginess. a bland insistent shower, neither a pleasant drizzle nor a torrential downpour. like a soul in purgatory, just hanging in between somewhere, a desolate air howling through it.

the rain soaked through to places kept hidden, locked away deep inside. suddenly he was running down a corridor as though chased by a thousand ghosts. even before he’d reach his destination, he knew it would happen again. that sound.

that sound… short, sharp. loud. how it rang out. were chacha ji and pita ji shooting clay pigeons in the middle of the wedding? he had no idea then that was the sound of a revolver going off. a bullet zipping out and puncturing the skin of a person, blood spattering.

his eyes shut tight, a sharp indrawn breath that he couldn’t control.

again the sound. it always happened twice.

why couldn’t he ever stop it?

asr flopped down on the recliner by the french window, his head ached so. he felt the pain shudder through him. he didn’t want to think. he didn’t like to brood. there was no point. there was work instead. to do, to drown in. arnav singh raizada would not give in.

focus. he thought. autumn winter line.

“chhotey saab, coffee?” op had materialised silently. without a word, arnav took the mug, and let the hot liquid touch his lips. ah, the sting of it.

thoughts still in disarray, he began to take off his tie with a tired hand while staring at the pool. raindrops fell on the surface. dipping, splashing, making little circles.

it had been raining like this even then, the skies were still heavy with clouds on that night of the wedding. sheesh mahal so brightly lit. and di… his breath was getting ragged again.

“chhotey!” di’s voice sounded so happy, he glanced around to see her at the doorway, all dressed up, looking radiant. “di!” he always felt a tug at his heart when he saw his fragile elder sister with that brilliant smile on her face.

in fact, if not for her, would he even be aware of his heart? hearts that are such inefficient fragile things. they get played with, they are broken, they get destroyed. they are betrayed.

“haan, di?” though he tried his best not to show it, the tenderness managed to slip out somehow.

anjali grinned. she was so happy this evening, but chhotey? why was he looking so tired?

“chhotey? are you okay? tum theek ho?” she walked over to check his forehead, “bukhar toh nahin?” always a little more worried than she need be about her younger brother.

(don’t have fever, do you?)

“no, di, stop it, i don’t have fever, a headache… nothing. but you look happy.”

“haan woh…” anjali’s smile wouldn’t be reined in.

(yes… that…)

“jija ji wapas aa gaye kya?” asr said with a slightly wicked grin; his sister was crazy about her husband and it pleased asr no end to see the two of them in this state of utter and abject mushy love. something in him felt a little better about the world.

(has jija ji come back?)

well, if not the world, at least it seemed worthwhile doing all that he did. di’s happiness. that was all that really mattered.

“try not to make him go crazy with your long list of demands now, di. poor jija ji… i can see you mean to give him a hard time,” he could never resist teasing his sister.

“chhotey!!!” anjali made a moue playing along, “i drive him mad, or he? always staying away… see didn’t even come to lucknow with me this time.”

“but di, the man has to work, doesn’t he? or just be his joroo’s ghulam?” he took off his tie as he spoke and picked up his change laid out on the bed. his headache was getting worse and he didn’t want to di to get hassled.

(or just be his wife’s slave?)

“see you later,” he said hastily as he escaped her keen gaze and hurried into the dressing area. it was a beautifully but simply designed walk in wardrobe paneled in swedish pinewood, with a couple of full length mirrors on two walls, a chair next to the shoe rack, and an old dumb valet that used to belong to his nana ji to one side. rosewood curlicues adorned the otherwise functional piece of furniture, age had brought a comforting patina to the wood. it was the only piece of childhood he allowed is his contemporary and spare setting. otherwise lines were always clean, colours restricted to grey, beige, white, black, cement green, minimum artifacts, nothing on the walls. apart from a faceless mural that di had insisted on. something to soften the edge.

his room abutted an open courtyard with a lap pool and his little garden. when he came out refreshed, the rain had stalled somewhat, he walked out and stood by his plants for a few minutes.

when would the headache go.


he sat in his office just taking it all in. it had been a long while away and he’d missed all this. his room was exactly the way he’d left it. neat, clean, sleek, his jet black desk in order. the carmine carpet added a sense of drama to an otherwise black and white space. through the french windows that lined the wall overlooking the lower floor, he could see ar going about a normal day. and it looked like a very active and busy day in a thriving fashion and luxury conglomerate.

he breathed in deeply. oh, he had missed ar.

it was a joy to see this really. he suddenly recalled, how it had all started with an idea, a longing, and a little bit of money, most of which came from his mami ji willingly selling off her jewellery to give him a chance at his dream. never judge a mami by her hello hi bye bye, he laughed to himself.

“aap bade khush lag rahe hain,” you’re looking very happy, said khushi.

he looked toward the door startled and she was there in a fetching pink and cream churidar kameez, hair open, tiffin carrier in hand.

“khushi!” he said, his voice husky, taken aback, “tum yahan kya kar rahi ho?”

(what are you doing here?)

“aap ko hum dopahar ka khana khilane aaye hain, doctor saab ne kaha hai ki…” she held up the tiffin carrier as she told him she’d come to feed him lunch as doctor verma had said he should…

“liar!” he cut in, he’d walked up to her by then and was standing right in front, “you couldn’t stay away from me… say… tell me the truth,” he stood there looking down at her, head at a rakish angle, eyes hooded, a lopsided smile out to mess with her heart beat.

she tried to look into his eyes and hold his gaze. her fingers grew tighter on the tiffin carrier handle. her lips started to tremble, an involuntary frenzy, she swallowed. “n…na..nahiin toh…” her gaze faltered, she had to look away.


“n..nnahin kya, khushi?” he came a step closer, barely any distance between them now.

(n…no what, khushi?)



“haa-an tum, tum kya?” he took the tiffin carrier heavy with food from her unresisting hands and set it on the desk, then with a tug pulled her to him.

(yeah you, you what?)

“s…sab log…” she was whimpering, her voice just not in her control.


he looked at her, chocolate eyes with a touch of liqueur, and said under his breath, “lagi shart?” want to bet?

“tell me, khushi,” he murmured close to her ear, his breath hot and ticklish on her ears, her nape, “can you stay away from…me?” the “me” was spoken right into her ear, softly, with that grain, that graze in his voice. she felt her stomach churn, her breathing went funny.

she nodded. yes, she could, she had to believe she could. she couldn’t give in. he had banked on her doing precisely that.

he looked at her, chocolate eyes with a touch of liqueur, and said under his breath, “lagi shart?”

want to bet?

she nodded.

she didn’t see the hint of a smile that played on his lips before he leaned close again and kissed her, quiet and long, on the cheek. just where her cheek bone curved toward her temple.

as he drew away she felt the warmth of his lips on her skin and heard the sound of his kiss.

she turned blindly toward him and held him close. she didn’t care what he thought. she really couldn’t ever, never, stay away from him. his body shook as he laughed silently, “even last time you lost the bet… almost.”


next morning he went to work, the dull ache in his head persisting. endless cups of black coffee didn’t help. it was going to be a long day, a set of meetings, then the first round of chat with the design team about the silhouettes he had in mind. hopefully lavanya had some good ideas about accessories and jewellery, he wanted this show to be perfect. europe and america might be finally looking at new terroir for fashion, he wanted ar to be the first name they’d notice. also japan, no matter what the state of its economy, japan was the trendsetter for the rest of asia… he had to speak to those sisters who bought huge stocks of indian mooga, there might be something…

he got busy looking at his computer, planning the next few months, which he felt would be crucial in many ways.

a little “uff” alerted him to the presence of someone else in the room. he looked up ready to snap. he wanted peace and quiet.

the first thing he saw was a huge stack of files piled high, grasped by long slim arms, the face of the person hidden behind the papers. and the next thing he saw were maroon pompoms.


in his office? the strangest of sensations swept through him.

in the meantime, the owner of the pompoms had deposited the files at the edge of his desk, and had turned away looking at the room, talking to herself.

“hey devi maiyya! yeh aapne hume kahan laake chhora? where have you brought me, devi maiyya? how can i work here? how can anyone work here… see see,” she peered down at the cubicles below, “kitne chhotey chhotey kapde sab ladkiya pahnee hain (such small small clothes the girls are wearing), and everyone keeps saying, do this otherwise asr will shout, do that otherwise asr will scream, who is this asr? even lavanya ji sounds scared…”

“aa ha ha ha, hum aapko phollow kyun karein? aur aap…” she spoke loud and clear and rather miffed

muttering to herself she turned around and bumped into something hard.

“what are you doing here?” he said through gritted teeth. right in her path he stood.

her eyes rounded in horror. she’d know that voice anywhere. but here in delhi? she looked up shocked. what was this terrible man doing here? was he following…?

“are you following me?” he said teeth still clenched.

khushi was not going to take this any more, plus, what business did he have being here? in asr’s room?

“aa ha ha ha, hum aapko phollow kyun karein? aur aap…” she spoke loud and clear and rather miffed, her eyebrows arched and danced with her little tirade, the pompoms swayed “aap, yahan kya kar rahe hain… pata hai yeh kiska kaybin hai?”

(look at that, why should i follow {pron: khushi style, phollow} you, and you… what are you doing here, do you know whose cabin {pron: kaybin} you’re in?)

he winced at the kaybin. but before he could say a thing, she snapped.

“yeh a…s…r ka kaybin hai, samjhe aap?”

(this is asr’s cabin, get it?)

he looked at her coldly and said in quiet imperious vein, “aur main hoon arnav singh raizada.”

(and i am arnav singh raizada.)

“toh kya, bade aaye, ” she made a face, “arnav… singh… raizada, hume koi faraq nahin…” around the dismissive “nahin” it hit her.

(so what, if you’re arnav singh raizada, makes no difference…”)

“arnav.. singh…raizada, ” her voice dropped to a frightened whisper, “a… s… r?”

he gave her a grim smile. the girl from sheesh mahal was standing in his office with confidential files. who had committed such a blunder?

she looked down at her toes wondering what to do next, why oh why had she listened to shyam ji when they met in the train to delhi? why had she trusted him when he’d said it would be a good job, just because he’d been kind that day at the bhoolbhulaiya, she’d thought…

and bua ji was so charmed by the stranger she’d offered him paying guest accommodation at her home, right there in the train. it wasn’t shyam ji’s fault though she’d misplaced her appointment letter and come to meet lavanya ji as directed by the people at the other ar office. wasn’t his fault too, that lavanya ji was unhappy with the girl she’d just hired as her assistant and fired within minutes, then offered khushi the job, in fact bulldozed her into taking it, saying this job or nothing else.

not shyam ji’s fault. just that… her eyes started to fill with tears.

he saw her tears form, come to the edge of the lid, and topple over, sliding down her cheeks.

the strangest of feelings overcame him. he couldn’t let her cry. he couldn’t bear the sight of her tears. why, he had no idea. just that he couldn’t. he picked up a box of tissues and held it out silently. she took the whole box without looking and walked out of the room, down the steps, as she wiped her tears.

“lavanya, come right up” he barked into the phone. his head was throbbing with pain.


khushi had just left the office when his phone rang.

“yes, mr roy? okay… that’s good, let’s meet in a couple of hours, somewhere outside please… okay soliloquy at 3.30 then. he’s sure he knows exactly where shyam is, right? right, ok.”

he remembered his wife’s arms tight around him, she’d worn the pearls he’d given her to come to see him, he felt tears sting his eyes… scattering pearls, a girl’s face looking at him shocked, a breath caught eternally in that moment… rratttat tat tat tat, pearls scattering…

“don’t worry, baby, i will not let anyone harm you.”


when khushi reached home, she found doctor verma having tea with di and payal.

“doctor saab, aap? how nice, you know, your patient didn’t listen to anyone and has gone to work today…” she smiled brightly. she had plans for doc, if only he knew.

doctor verma looked slightly embarrassed, “hello mrs raizada, i’d come to see arnav, but miss raizada said my patient had flown the coop… and then insisted i have tea… so…”

“baithiye, doctor saab, aur aap hume kab khushi kehkar bulaynge, aur di ko anjali, aur jiji ko payal… itne saare miss aur mrs raizada…” she giggled.

(please sit, doctor, and when are you going to call me khushi, and di anjali, and jiji payal, so many miss and mrs raizadas…)

doctor verma smiled his calm steady smile, dark eyes glinting, he liked this gutsy, upbeat young woman, “okay, khushi ji, from today, it’s khushi ji, payal ji and… anjali ji, is that okay?”

anjali thought he had a rather nice voice and smile.

“and how is my patient today, khushi ji?” vijay verma asked.

“and did he eat his lunch?” anjali asked at the same time.

they both looked at each other and started laughing. a little embarrassed.

they didn’t see khushi blushing. lunch?!! she clasped her hands and looked heavenward for a quick chat with her devi maiyya.

payal had not seen khushi looking quite like that in a long time, it was good to see her little madcap sister in her sanka mode.

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without you chapter 13