in my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and i roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
“live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
though i lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
i am not done with my changes.
~~~ stanley kunitz, the layers ~~~
the ball lay at the end of the long covered balcony, red with lines of yellow, he was running to get it, he didn’t want to lose the game.
rahim chacha kept saying, “thahro, chhotey baba, main laa deta hoon,” he would get it for him. for some reason rahim chacha really didn’t want him to race toward that side of the house, but he wouldn’t listen, he ran full pelt like any boy of eight or nine with a desire to win. when he reached the ball, he picked it it up with a whoop of joy and paused for an instant, breathless from all that running.
that’s when he heard the voices. his mother and his father; they seemed to be arguing.
“nahiin, aap kya kar rahein hain, shant ho jaiye, calm down, please, please…” maa was pleading in a low but urgent voice.
(no… what are you doing… calm down, please, please…)
“don’t rile me, ratna, i’m telling you don’t rile me, samjhi tum? i can take this to a point you’d all regret, all of you…” his father hissed wildly, teeth gritted, face distorted, “you know i can take this to a terrible place, it is written in my horoscope even i will either kill or be killed… remember that… always… do you hear me!!” by now pita ji was shouting, his voice opening out and echoing around the room, crashing against the ornate ceiling decorations, all those cherubs and angels flying and the lotuses in between.
there was the sound of a struggle, something terrifying other than just the words or the voices.
the little boy could feel his heart pounding. he cautiously peered over the window opening onto the balcony. there was maa holding pita ji and trying to pull him away from the large black mahogany cupboard at one end of the room. she breathed heavily as she held on to him, while he tried to get away, and reach that cupboard. he had a frenzied look in his bloodshot eyes, his hair flew all around, his mouth was a fearsome gash. arnav looked at him terrified. then with one forceful move, his father pushed his mother away, freed himself and stormed out of the door leading into the house.
arnav stared wide eyed. rooted to the spot.
“aao, chhotey baba, aao, let’s go and play,” he felt rahim chacha’s arms scoop him up and carry him away. without thinking, he hugged the retainer and said, “rahim chacha, sab theek ho jaayga.”
(rahim chacha, everything will be okay.)
he so needed to know everything would be alright.
he pressed the accelerator down hard and stared straight ahead as he drove. not a muscle moved on his face. the keen observer though might notice a clenching of his jaw once in a while. a quick, snapping movement that registered at the edge of a terse jawline.
the morning traffic was thick, and the waits at traffic lights got lengthier and more and more suffocating. he seemed to know where he was headed and not care about the road conditions at all.
“kyun khushi bitiya, aaj chhotey ki manpasand aloo bharta aur maide ka poorie… woh achchi tarah se kha ke gaye na?”
(why khushi, today there’s chhotey’s favourite potato and poories made of flour… he’s eaten properly before leaving?)
nani ji and di had attended early morning prayers at the temple and just returned, nani ji was pleased to see her grandson’s favourite poori with potato at the breakfast table, and wondered if he’d enjoyed it and had enough.
arnav rarely gave anyone a chance to fuss over him. nani ji loved to pamper her children and grandchildren with food especially. the happiness she felt watching akash munch his way quickly through a good kachauri, or chhotey putting away several poories, quite forgetting his habitual restraint, or anjali licking away at the shalgam gobi achaar… nani smiled at the thought.
and khushi bitiya? uff such a healthy appetite, bless the child… none of these newfangled ideas of dieting and all that, and yet see, she was so beautiful… why manorama had to play around with food to lose weight… devyani raizada’s thoughts wandered around the members of her family… they were indeed her world, each loved in their own way. and generously.
she looked at khushi as she asked the question, but her granddaughter in law made a sad little face and before she could say anything manorama jumped in.
“sasu ma, bhat you are saying, arnav bitwa toh coming like bahti hawa and flyings so phast phast… hello hi bye bye. i kalling, bitwa poori, bitwa saying, i habh majboori…,” she paused to marvel at her own rhyming skills, and then went on, “and russing out. behti hawa sa tha woh…” she sang out the first words of the popular song, head shaking in rhythm.
(ma in law, what are you saying, arnav came like a gust of wind, hello hi bye bye. i called him to have poories but he said he had some commitments and rushed out.)
nani ji shook her head in exasperation… manorama would never change. maybe she should come along for some calming morning prayers…
another traffic light. his fingers drummed lightly on the steering wheel. he didn’t notice the first drop of rain that splashed on his windscreen. in seconds it had turned into a downpour. a sudden cloudburst in the middle of a sunny bright morning. he turned on the wipers and moved into gear as the lights changed.
a streak of lightning split the sky and a clap of thunder followed soon after that. he took the right turn into shantiniketan, a rich neighbourhood the other side of town. his car drew up in front of a corner house with a trellised fence all around. he sat for a moment gazing at the house. it had a large, well maintained facade with wide windows, several balconies and a red tiled roof above. another thunderclap shook the skies, the ivy on the trellises trembled.
arnav singh raizada could feel his anger rising and raging within… gushing up his throat, behind his eyes, burning his ears, a throbbing in his head. he could feel the heat running along the outer edge of his ear, a prickling sensation back of his neck. he reached down and felt the revolver in the right pocket of his trousers. he flexed his fingers.
then he drove toward the gates and rolled down the window to speak to the security guard. in an instant, the gates were opening and he was on the long driveway. he parked the car in the covered porch and went straight to the main door up a short flight of wide steps, but before he could ring the bell it had opened.
a lovely young woman with large innocent eyes stood there. on her lips a glimmer of a smile, she looked at him enquiringly. she wore a simple yellow saree, her hair was done in a loose plait, a gajra of jasmine was tucked in it.
something familiar about her he thought, then asked crisply, “shyam manohar jha, does he live here?”
she immediately gave him a wide smile and nodded.
he felt the anger again… it exploded somewhere above his head and crashed all over him. he asked quietly, “could you please call him?”
she stood for a second looking at him, as though deciding what to do, then she gave a quick smile and gestured to him to wait there, and walked into the hallway.
he could see her as she went up to a door toward the end of the pavilion and knocked.
the door opened, and shyam walked out.
asr stared at that familiar face. a man he had trusted for three long years, loved as his own, respected with what’s due to an elder, his sister’s husband. the pulse at his temple beat rapidly. his sister’s tormenter, the killer of her child. the man who had dared to look at khushi, his beautiful compassionate wife. who had defiled her dreams, desecrated her unspoilt pristine world.
shyam, the man who had done terrible things to di. who had dared to touch khushi. shyam, who wanted to kill khushi now. his fist clenched. a hiss of an indrawn breath.
“kahiye, raanisahiba, aap ko kya chahiye?” shyam said with a loving voice.
(say, raanisahiba, what do you want?)
what was that, asr started. raanisahiba. he stared at the two of them, shyam had not seen him yet.
the young woman was telling shyam something, only she was not speaking, she was using her hands… it dawned on him, she was using sign language. she couldn’t speak.
shyam was looking at her with utmost concern, and nodding.
in a flash, the picture cleared. a deaf mute lovely girl of a wealthy family, a beautiful girl with a limp of a wealthy family. there was an air of vulnerability about the girl behind her bright smile… like di… like di. he almost screamed at the obscenity of it all. shyam had found his next quarry.
“kya, raanisahiba? someone has come to meet me? who?”
and shyam turned to see who it was.
“haan, mr roy? nahin, woh toh ghar pe nahin hai,” khushi was surprised to hear mr roy’s voice on her cell phone.
(yes, mr roy? no he is not at home.)
“he left very early this morning, seemed to be in a hurry, why, mr roy? is there a problem, why are you sounding so worried?… ok, please come,” khushi put the phone down with a little frown. what could be wrong she wondered.
shyam looked toward the door and saw asr standing there. the girl in yellow sari watched intently as the two men looked at each other. why is neither one smiling she wondered.
she didn’t see shyam hood his eyes with his heavy eyelids for a second as he desperately sought composure. before him stood the end, he had no doubt, but in his typical ophidian vein he looked for a way to spit venom in eyes and somehow escape. after all he’d done it many times before. but how did this arnav singh raizada find him!
“hello, shyam,” the coldest voice traveled across the hallway,
“won’t you come out and say hello to an old friend?”
shyam glanced sideways at the girl then quickly started walking over with a smile, “arrey, arnav, after such a long time…”
as he reached asr, he held his hands out as if delighted to see him. asr looked into the protuberant devious eyes, and the faintest smile touched his lips before in one swift motion he reached for shyam’s collar.
another lightning and a thunderclap, the rain came down in torrents. but the man who dragged the squirming and struggling shyam out onto the driveway and then to the garden by its side seemed oblivious to it.
he hurled shyam before him and even as shyam tried to get his balance, asr punched him hard on the jaw. the force of it almost knocked shyam out, he tried again to stand his ground. another punch, this time on the mouth and nose.
“par, arnav…” shyam attempted to start a spiel. but asr, alas, wasn’t listening. his hands moved swiftly, his jaws were clenched, anger was all that he felt. extreme, absolute anger. he brutally hit the man who had hurt his entire family. again and again his arms swung, his fist made hard crushing contact. he pushed shyam back with every punch. when shyam fell to the wet slushy ground, he didn’t stop. he kicked him sharp in the gut, this man who had made such a mockery of all that was held dear by his sister. he grabbed shyam by the hair and lifted him up and punched his face. this man who thought he had the right to go anywhere near khushi… he didn’t even have the right to think the name khushi. he shook shyam violently and threw a burst of punches on his face and head…
shyam by now was a whimpering mass of flesh and raw flowing blood.
“who sent that bus, shyam?” arnav spat out the words through clenched teeth right by shyam’s ear.
shyam went still.
“i said, who?”
shyam remained silent. till a lethal slap stung his cheek and the pain ricocheted in his head.
“i… i.i..” he mumbled as he lay on the mud.
“i didn’t hear that, shyam, who and why?” asr’s voice was low, almost meditative. shyam began to feel a nervousness he never had.
“i.. i… because i wanted to kill, i wanted to kill that woman… your khushi…” shyam almost shouted this out, that chilling feeling within him had got the better of him.
“did you really think i would let you do that?” asr picked shyam up by the scruff and made him stand as he asked almost laconically. the rain was easing.
shyam began to smile, “what could you do to stop me… saale saab… aap kya kar sakte hain, bataitye na hume…”
(what could you do to stop me, bro in law, what can you do, do tell me…)
in a quiet voice asr replied, “maybe i could just kill you.”
shyam felt the cold metal against his temple, too late he realised while he was busy gloating, his opponent had pulled out a gun and placed the nozzle right on his head.
he looked at the revolver and for an instant he thought this was it. and then calculating he had nothing to lose, he lunged at asr and went to snatch the revolver away.
asr felt the nozzle against his temple and heard shyam say, “kyon saale saab, why don’t i kill you instead. i couldn’t manage to kill your devi like sister maybe, oh i tried… i tried many many times, believe me, hum koshish karne se darte nahin…” he had started laughing by now, a note of hysteria in his metallic, slightly high pitched voice.
( i tried many many times, believe me, i am not scared of trying.)
“did you guys even know? nahin na? oh the fabulous, wise, wealthy raizadas… did you know, did you know, for whom i had got the scorpion that night of your beautiful teri meri dance… with your beautiful, so lovely khushi? and saale saab, did you really think your sister had an accident the day of the wedding? ha ha ha, arnav singh raizada, you good people are just no match for this bad very bad me, are you… it was i, i who put the scorpion there to kill your sister, i who doused her saree in ether so she may burn in the holy havan’s fire and go straight to heaven… heaven, saaley saab, how we seek heaven…,” a manic gleam came into shyam’s eyes as he virtually giggled… “so i thought, why not raanisahiba, let me send you there in your car, i made sure the brakes would fail… oh the trials you and your family have put me through… and now, again… again… you are here? how dare you! enough!… i think i’ll just kill you and finish this whole thing here and now. once and for all.”
his face had contorted, his voice was vicious, he stood there holding the gun to asr’s head. the rain had almost stopped, yet a thunder called from somewhere.
arnav had a feeling shyam was ready to pull the trigger.
when he saw her standing next to payal at the entrance, his breath almost stopped. she looked so lovely, he wanted to hold her in his arms and just kiss her till she said, “yes.” this urge to feel her skin against his, to kiss her, sometimes it was so powerful, he wanted to go over to her house and just hold her, take her away somewhere, keep her with him where no one would interrupt them.
she looked at him, and felt her face flame. something in his eyes. but she was not going to let all that bother her this evening… this was jiji’s big moment. she and akash ji would get engaged.
and so would lavanya ji and… and… and the man lavanya ji loved.
not wanting to stay around him too long, she decided to do some work instead. she’d go to the poolside and do up the little lap pool with floating candles. maybe akash ji and jiji could spend some time there after… she giggled to herself as she sat lighting the flower shaped candles.
“isn’t this what you were wearing the day you fell on top of me and almost drowned me?” his smiling voice made her jump. she got hastily to her feet and in her rush twisted her ankle.
“aah!” she winced in pain.
“khushi!” he said softly as he caught her in his arms. she felt a jolt of electricity, or so it seemed, streak through her. that breath on her ear, and the tender voice just below that, a tickle in it, the gentle hands on her bare waist. then his hands were moving up, over her back where the skin was exposed. she felt his hand flatten against her back, his other arm went behind her knees and she was off the ground, he was carrying her. she closed her eyes in excitement and a strange fear. what was he doing.
he lowered her gently on the deck chair.
“sit,” he whispered in her ear, and brushed his lips over the outer edge of her ear lobe and pecked it once. she heard him breathe in. then he sat at her feet and while she watched speechless, he lifted her right foot on to his thigh, and pressed around the sole, the toes, the ankle, “dard ho raha hai?” is it hurting, he asked. his fingers were featherlight and caressing, they seemed to want to linger. she couldn’t speak, she shook her head slowly.
yet she could feel a dard, just that it was nowhere near her ankle, it was right up here in her heart. her eyes closed in agony, in ecstasy. she watched him lean away slightly and pick something up from the floor, it was her anklet, her payal, it must have come off as she fell, a skein of silver with little bells that tinkled prettily as she walked.
he looked up at her, his eyes had grown dark chocolate, flecks of mocha and madness in them… she looked back, her hazel eyes yearning to see the darkness grow. then he bent down and with great concentration put the payal back around her ankle and clipped the two ends together. she felt the cool metal against her skin and the rough warm skin of his fingers next to that. a curious combination, it set off a fire in her almost, she could feel her breath quickening. what should she do.
he stood up gazing at her all the while, and she couldn’t look away even if she’d wanted to. he held both her hands and pulled her up till she stood right before him, barely a few inches away. he let her go, then leaning in he turned his head to one side and gave her the softest little kiss on the corner of her lips. again she felt his breath on her skin and that sweet touch. oh how would she resist this, how could she. her mouth opened and her lips trembled involuntarily. she felt his lips cover her mouth, warm, caressing, loving.
she wanted so much to love him back… so much. her arms stole around his waist and she held him close as she let her lips reciprocate, let her feelings flow to him. i want to love you, arnav ji, her mind said clearly. he held her closer still. “khushi!” he murmured against her mouth, she looked up to see his eyes shut, a sense of calm on his face. he played with her lips, nipping lightly, licking, nudging, brushing his lips against hers. she responded without even thinking, just being there. with him, in his arms.
his lips moved across her face, kissing her cheeks, her nose, her eyes, her forehead, her ears… he was kissing her behind the ears and along the length of her taut neck, she clung on, just being, just feeling… but then the thoughts started to come.
what were they doing!
her arms let him go and she moved back quickly, staring at him aghast. he looked back at her, completely puzzled. “khushi?!! are you okay?” the gentleness in his voice almost changed her mind.
“aap kya kar rahein hain? aap ki aaj lavanya ji se sagaai hai! aur aap yahan… yahan… hume?” her voice accused him of things her words had not yet uttered.
(what are you doing? you’re getting engaged to lavanya today! and you’re here… you’re here…with me?
“main yahan… kya? what, khushi? what, dammit?” he had moved to anger quickly, he’d heard the sneer in her voice.
(me here… what? what, khushi? what, dammit?)
“kya? aap pooch rahein hain humse? aap rakshas hain, rakshas! aap mein koi sahi galat ka ahsaas nahin hai… aap samajhte hain aap jo bhi chahe kar sakte hain? mujhe toh lagta hai, aapka character hi dheela hai!” she blurted out everything in a rush.
(what? you’re asking me? you’re a monster, a monster! you have no sense of right and wrong… you think you can do what you like! i think, you have a loose character!)
she felt steel grip her arm and twist it to her back, he jerked her close to him, his lips had thinned to a line, his jaw was set hard, a demonic rage flared in his eyes.
“how dare you? who do you think you are?”
she looked at him transfixed as she felt his hand move down her back…
to her dori strung with pearls.
he tugged once with a vicious snarl. it snapped.
her eyes went still, his bore into her… livid and on fire.
ratta…tat…tat… tat… tat.
the pearls scattered on the hard flagstone tiles by the pool.
“asr, shall we go?” la called out from inside his room.
she was shaken to her core. how would she attend the function. she took a long breath, this was jiji’s day, she wouldn’t spoil it. she carefully opened her plait and let the hair cascade down her back, and slowly made her way inside.
arnav announced the engagement of payal and akash, the whole hall broke into applause. khushi watched payal’s face wreathed in a dazzling smile. yes, she thought, this is what i wanted to see… and for that, even a thousand snapped doris are acceptable. absolutely manzoor, mr arnav singh raizada. but jiji, you be happy, said her young innocent loving heart.
and now smile bravely as the next one is announced, khushi, she admonished herself. asr said, “and ladies and gentleman, we are sorry to announce, lavanya and i have decided not to go ahead with our engagement… but please don’t let this take away from the evening, let us put our hands together once more and congratulate akash and payal…”
the whole world seemed to whirl for an instant. he was not getting engaged to lavanya ji? she could feel the walls closing in on her. she had to get out. she turned and ran out of the room, into the hall and then out of the house, she was running down the road, no idea where she was headed, no idea it had started to rain. she just needed to go away…
“khushi!! stop! i said stop!” he was chasing after her, arms reaching out, trying to stop her. her breath came faster, she was losing momentum, but she kept running.
when he caught up with her, he simply hugged her tight from the back. “what are you doing, khushi?” he was yelling though, “what if you got hurt? tumhe kuchh jata toh? what if i lost you?” his voice was rising into the night, mingling with the rain.
he turned her around swiftly and leaned his forehead against hers, they stood there together, and he whispered to her, “don’t you know i can’t lose you, i just can’t…”
she slumped against him and closed her eyes.
“nahiiin, arnav ji, aap wahan se hat jaiye!”
(no, arnav ji, move away from there!)
both the men were startled by that voice. khushi? here?
she was standing at the gate, looking at them, her eyes terrified. mr roy stood behind her. next to her stood anjali.
“shyam,” said anjali in the coldest voice, “tumne agar yeh galati ki, toh mujhse bura koi nahin hoga.”
(shyam, if you make this mistake, there won’t be anyone worse than me.)
near the door stood the girl who couldn’t speak.
“raanisahiba,” shyam laughed, “aapne mujhe sirf shyam kahke pukara, apne patidev ko, aap ki sanskaar ko kya ho gaya… ya phir aap bhi sochne lagi hain, humare saale saab ki tarah, ki aap humara kuch bigad sakte hain?”
(raanisahiba, you called me just shyam, calling your husband like that? where are your manners… or did you, like my good brother in law here, think you could do me any harm?)
he held the gun more firmly to asr’s head.
two people began running at the same time. khushi… and the young woman at the door. they both headed toward the two men.
“unhe maarne se pahle aapko hume maarna hoga!” khushi shouted in a frenzy.
before you kill him you have to kill me.
“shaukh se, khushi ji,” smiled the man with no conscience, nothing too low for him, if it served his purpose.
(with pleasure, khushi ji…)
in one sudden move he swiveled around, pointed the gun at khushi and pulled the trigger.
at that very instant, the young woman fell upon him and both fell on the ground, she held him down with her entire might while she shook with the shock of it all.
khushi watched wide eyed as shyam pulled the trigger, waiting for the bullet to hit her. but then she felt nothing.
anjali was hobbling as fast as she could toward khushi. mr roy was trying to help her.
“sorry, shyam, did you really think i’d “lose” a loaded gun to you?” asr’s voice rang out cold and sharp over it all.
he tilted his head, looked down toward his collar and said, “inspector, i think you’ve heard enough, please do come in.”
he had been wired before getting here and the police were obviously just waiting for the signal. in no time, they had arrived and handcuffed shyam.
“you have threatened me while on bail, you have pulled the trigger on that gun, you have admitted to making several attempts to murder your wife, and you have confessed that you had sent a bus to kill my wife. i do think, shyam, you will find it hard to get bail after this. and trust me, i do think i can give you the hell you deserve. by the time i am done with you, you will wish you were dead,” asr was cold, dead pan. his eyes glittered like ebony, the chocolate submerged, his facial muscles barely moved.
shyam was angry, desperate, he knew this was a non bailable offence now, not all his game playing would get him out of prison till the trial was over. and his chance of hoodwinking this stupid dumb girl with money was now totally gone.
“so you think no one can touch khushi ji while you’re alive, ” shyam screamed suddenly, “do you know what happened at sheesh mahal that night? do you know the date of her parents’ death? do you know who killed them?” shyam began to laugh, just as khushi jerked up at his words and looked at arnav.
something flashed in arnav’s eyes for an instant. khushi ran to him then and held him, “arnav ji, unki baaton mein mat aaiye, woh sab jhoot kah rahein hai… yeh unka khel hai…”
(arnav, don’t get taken in by his words, he’s lying… this is his game…)
anjali walked up to shyam and gave him one tight slap across his face.
“shut… up,” she said, “you don’t matter to us any more.”
she looked long at the young woman who was now standing in the arms of an elderly lady, she had a funny feeling shyam had tried something terrible with her. anjali didn’t really want to know, she walked to asr and touched his cheek gently, “arnav?” he put his arm around her.
he stood under the shower letting the water pour over him, he so needed to feel the water… feel something.
he knew the moment he left the house that morning that he couldn’t… no, wouldn’t, kill shyam and make it easy for him. and somehow the thought of khushi alone without him had made him focus. if he killed shyam, he’d simply surrender to the authorities after that. but what about khushi then? he would never do that to her. he realised what he wanted to ensure was her and di’s safety and as long as shyam was out on bail anything was possible.
of course, he knew senior police officers in the city, he decided to have a chat with sheila chatterjee, an ips officer for whom he had great respect. he called her and she was good enough to immediately work out a strategy with him. a little game to trap shyam. make shyam confess to attempt to murder while out on bail, that way they could throw him behind bars and leave him there.
everything had gone according to plan, he had not once let his temper get the better of him. even when shyam had listed out the number of times he’d tried to kill di… kill di? asr hit the tiled wall of the showering closet. how could he let that happen? how could he not know? and khushi’s parents? what was shyam saying? what had happened at sheesh mahal that night? what? he knew… he knew… maa. he held his face up to the jets of water streaming out of the shower… why wasn’t he feeling anything. he realised he’d come into the shower and turned it on without taking off all his clothes. his vest and trousers were still on… funny dead feeling in his mouth… why had he not taken off all his clothes?
he felt her hand on his shoulder. he turned around, he needed her. she stood there looking at him, worried. she was fully dressed. he pulled her into his arms and under the water with him. she didn’t demur, she just let her arms go around him and held him. after a while, she stood on her toes and kissed him on the little cut on his cheek, somewhere along the way, shyam must have taken a swing at him, he couldn’t remember, he couldn’t feel.
she put her hand on his heart and let the water flow all over them, she could sense he had shut down somewhere, a numbness. his skin didn’t quicken to her the way it always did. she felt he was not ready to tell her anything right now.
shyam was venomous… no encounter with him could leave one completely unscathed.
that night he dreamt of sheesh mahal again. he woke up with a jolt, khushi was sitting there looking at him, he realised she was staying up by him again. he smiled at her gently… and before dozing off said, “i have to go to sheesh mahal, will you come with me?”
khushi felt as though she could finally breathe.
he turned back to her once more and said, “promise me, you’ll never try to take a bullet or anything bad for me? khushi, i am a simple man, i mean what i say, main tumhare bagair jee nahin paaoonga,”
(i couldn’t live without you.)
his eyes were closing with fatigue, he held out his hand. she lay down beside him, intertwined her fingers with his and at last went to sleep.