A svelte figure clad in mehendi green hand woven cardigan leaned against the railing outside. Her hair was bound in a long thick plait with a small black band holding it at the end. A cup with a broken handle rested on the railing. Hot steam vapour was visible rising from it.
Khushi Kumari Gupta picked her cup of tea and took a satisfied sip with a slurp. She then dipped her orange cream biscuit into the tea and gulped it down in one go. The hot scalding liquid intermingled with tangy sweetness of the cream trickled down her throat.
It was unnatural to see khushi this quiet, peacefully stagnant in one place early in the morning. Mornings were when she slept till late and when she finally woke up she would rush about like a cheerful whirlwind. Twilight was different, when everyone slept early in her house. If one happened to be strolling in the lanes of lakshminagar often one would witness a beautiful solitary figure out on the steps conversing with the stars.
However, today Khushi had not needed to be woken up by Payal. She was up early. Today was her mehendi! She had been been chatting with her trusted wise devi maiyya for a while now, when amma found her.
Garima watched her little daughter from far, understanding her trepidation. All these years her bitiya had woven dreams around her rajkumar and her grand marriage. How many pleasant summer evenings in their Gomti Sadan courtyard had Payal and Khoosi spent with their amma giggling about such things. And now as each day edged closer the time for her bitiya to grow up came closer.
“Khoosie.. tum janat ho bitya why girls put mehendi before their wedding? You will be beautiful for Arnav bitwa. The mehendi leaves a frangrance..aur oo khusboo se bitiya tumhara ghar hamesa mahekega .. Aur mehendi ki thandak should be how calmly you face all troubles. His name will be on your hatheli. He will become a part of you. Always together..”
(You know why girls put mehendi before their wedding. the sweet smelling of the mehendi will always keep your home fragrant. And the cool touch of the mehendi will make you calm so you can calm face all troubles. His name will be on your palm.)
“nahi amma.. Aapne picture nahi dekhi? Main baat toh you forgot.. Mehendi ka rang jitna laal pati se utna hi pyar”, came Khushi’s cheerful reply. Her hands moved gracefully palms facing outwards when she said the word “mehendi“. Then with equal flair they curled and unfurled into a budding flower around her heart as she said the “pyar“.
(No amma. Have you not seen movies. you forgot the main thing. as deep is the color of the mehendi such is the depth of your husband’s love)
“Bitiya tab toh your mehendi will be the darkest because damadji tumse bohat pyar karat hai. You both will always be happy. Tumhari amma, humari jiji hoti, then she would have also danced with me today kyunki we both are extremely grateful. Devi maiyya ne tumko aur Payal bitiya ko itna achcha jeevan sathi diya hai“.
(damadji loves you a lot. If your amma, my jiji, was here we both would have danced. Devi maiya has given you and Payal bitiya such wonderful life partners.)
Garima took her bitiya’s hand in hers and said softly, “Treasure him forever.. Hamesha..”
Khushi could hear the echo of the constant thudding of her heartbeat. It all felt too real today when her amma was saying such things in earnest. She saw amma about to leave and had to ask in a low uncertain question, a child desperately seeking an answer. “Amma aapko kaise pata.. you are so sure that Arnavji cares.. par humein kaisa pata chalega?”
(Amma how do you know? How will I know?)
Amma smiled gently and replied in her simple, uncomplicated way, “listen to your heartbeats, hear what they are saying“. And she left.
dhak dhak dhak dhak.. Khushi’s delicate fingers scrunched her kurta close to her heart.
Right at that moment a pair of sparrows landed on the railing. One sparrow playfully nipped the other on its beak.
Two for joy.. Khushi had always believed in signs.. And everything was telling her she was happy..
devi maiyya.. humein pata nahi if we can share with others the good luck these sparrows bring lekin hum Arnavji se baatana chahte hai.. devi maiyya do you think amma sahi keh ri hai.. kya unhe bhi humse utna hi..
(I want to share this luck with Arnavji. Do you think amma was right. that as much as I he also..)
“chup kar Khushi.. Don’t start day dreaming about the smiling dhobi again“, she glared at the sparrows and took another sip from her tea cup, but that did not hide the happiness that sparkled in her eyes.
(keep quiet Khushi)
His phone was vibrating. Arnav Singh Raizada parked his SUV on the side of the road and answered the call. He spoke into the bluetooth attached to his ear, “Haan di“.
“Chote who told you to go to office today? Aaj mehendi hai na.. ” He heard his di’s voice and rolled his eyes. Mehendi.. As if he wanted to stay home for that! Now if he got to be around Khushi, he might have considered skipping work, but di had said guys weren’t supposed to come..
(today is mehendi ..)
“Actually chote its good you will be in office. We have to come down to try out our dresses and get ready. You can also try out your sherwani and then all of us..”
This time he didn’t let Anjali finish. “Di didn’t I tell you I don’t wear sherwanis?” He muttered with a finality in his tone.
Anjali, however, wasn’t the slightest bit phased by his refusal. “Haan chote, but a few weeks back you had also said you are not marrying. Aaj I didn’t hear you saying no to the marriage, so by your wedding day I don’t think you will be saying no to the sherwani I chose specially for you either. Samajhe chote bhaiya?”
(understood little brother?)
She had cut the call before ASR could get in another word. He loved to hear his di sound cheerful, but these day’s she was a little too astute for his liking.
He reached office in no time and walked in. Immediately he could sense a flurry of muted activity around him. Loping up the winding stairway into his office cabin, he was ready to start his day at AR.
The company he had built from ground up. He still clearly remembered the day he had careful sat with the architect giving him instructions on how he wanted the layout of his office. He had wanted a panoramic view of everything and everyone, because at the onset he had decided that his company would reach unprecedented heights. And ASR would be involved in every single detail of AR.
It was good that Akash had an acumen for business as well. His cousin’s mild demeanor might have fooled others, but ASR was quick to identify the potential the man had. And as with all his judgments his instincts had been right. The divisions that Akash handled functioned smoothly.
Then had come Aman. His precision and resourcefulness was exactly what ASR had needed. Arnav Singh Raizada valued competency. AR ran like clockwork actually, just like his life, everything in his control, till a distracting chattering girl had decided to enter his life.
He swirled around in his revolving high backed black chair. Khushi again.. Always his thoughts seemed to return to her.. Only now, he had stopped fighting the pull.. He could feel his barriers crumbling, all resistance disappearing. He wanted to draw her in and be drawn into her. There was no question of staying away. And hell he had no idea what that even meant, except that it felt exhilarating. That having her before him made him feel alive. Hadn’t he heard his heartbeat just the other day?
“ASR I thought you might want to know that“.. Aman’s crisp voice buzzed from the intercom, bringing ASR out of his daydream.
“No Aman. I am not interested to know anything. Handle it. And only if you can’t, lemme know. Am going to look over the presentation for tomorrow and I do not want any disturbance. Am I clear?”
ASR was ready for work.
It was past noon when finally he looked up from his laptop. He would have gone on working without a break, but a persistent feeling was gradually stealing over him. She couldn’t be here in his office could she?
Completely distracted by the thought he pushed his chair assigned and headed out of his office. His feet seemed to know where to take him. He reached her, but it took him a moment to take in the sight of her.
Khushi was standing facing the full length mirror. Her hand touched the maroon crepe full sleeves choli. It was not traditional, a round neck encrusted with finely cut dazzling zardozi crystals. The same crystal work adorned her magenta lehenga. The choli ended just above her waist, and she shyly drew her dupatta over her exposed naval. She knew why the choli needed to be short. It made the intricate work on her lehenga stand out. The top portion of her lehenga was like a kamarbandh made of zari. This was not the lehenga she had imagined herself wearing on her mehendi, but as she looked at herself in the mirror, she could not be happier.
She had to admit she looked glamourous. And Anjali ji and Payal had both liked it. The thought made Khushi frown. The three of them had come together to AR office to try out their outfits for the mehendi, but the other two had left her here alone.
Mamiji had called and was creating a fuss about something so Payal had to rush back to Shantivan. Khushi’s dress had needed a minor alteration so she had to wait. Anjali ji had assured her that.. that Khushi could come home with the laad governor.. devi maiyya only you know where he was.. He had not even come to meet them.
She pushed back a lock of hair that was falling over her eye. Her gaze fell upon the maantika that was pinned to her forehead. Her hair had been brushed back and a gold leaf covered with glittering cut rubies had been pinned up. Her earrings were a similar shape. The rest of her hair had been brushed straight and pulled up with a clip.
What if he wasn’t in office? Khushi felt a panic rise within her. She could not wear this lehenga and go in an auto could she? Hehehe.. She was used to wearing a lehenga and driving a scooter, but ..
That’s when she caught his reflection in the mirror. He was leaning against the doorframe, with his arms folded, staring at her. She felt shy and involuntarily her breath quickened. Seconds before she was happy with the way she looked, but now she was no longer sure.
devi maiyya did Arnavji like her lehenga.. hmmmpp.. hum bhi pagalait hai bilkul.. It does not matter.. And still her heart raced.. dhak dhak dhak dhak..
(I am completely crazy)
He seemed to glide, so smooth was his gait as he advanced towards her. She was ready to move backwards, biting her lower lip nervously. But she was arrested into immobility by the expression in his eyes. Within seconds he was upon her and she could feel his heated breath on her exposed nape.
She felt goosebumps erupt as his nose nuzzled her skin tracing a path along the curve of her neck. Her tight grip crumpled her lehenga, but she remained frozen to the spot. His lips reached her ear lobe and he nipped gently, whispering, “tum khule baalo mein..“.
(with your hair open you..)
He had jerked open her jeweled clip and let it fall with a clatter to the floor as her hair cascaded across her shoulders in lovely soft waves.
She stepped back determinedly. “humein.. ghar jana hain. I mean shantivan jana hain. It is already late“.
(I.. need to go home.. I mean I need to go to shantivan)
“chalo“, came his lazy drawl. His eyes still smoldered with a sheer intensity that Khushi found captivating. Why did he always have this smug look these days, she wondered. Here she was having a hard time steadying herself, did it even affect him.. Magarmach.. That is what he was..
She had quietly followed him to the basement parking where his car stood, but suddenly spoke up with determination, “hum khud chale jayenge. I will take an auto“.
“Shut up Khushi and gari mein baitho“, he commanded, opening the passenger seat door for her.
(sit in the car)
She did notice that his tone was not angry, as she slipped into the seat, taking care that her lehenga did not get crushed. Then she tugged at the seat belt.
His fingers grazed hers as he pulled it for her and fastened the belt with a wicked chuckle.
“It’s already late. We can’t wait an hour for you to wear your seatbelt“, and they zoomed off on their way to shantivan.
rakshas.. and amma said her mehendi would be dark? Ha! All he knew was to irritate her.. Then everyone would laugh at her. Her mehendi would not even be seen it would be so light. She would not even bother putting mehendi.. She continued to mumble darkly. “yehi thik rahega devi maiiya I won’t put mehendi”
“It’s a good idea Khushi. All this mehendi crap is nonsense anyway“, ASR seemed in a good mood.
Khushi’s temper flared at this comment, “Arnavji mehendi is very important. All these rituals have a meaning. Sab nonsense nahi hai. Apko pata hai your name will be written on my hand with mehendi and..” She had conveniently forgotten her resolve from a moment ago about not putting mehendi. At this moment no one could stop her from getting mehendi on her hands. How dare he make fun of these rituals..
“What the? My name?“, the car had luckily reached a red light as ASR slammed the breaks.
“haan Arnavji and you will have to find it. It is a game“. Khushi would have explained more, but he cut in.
“Khushi I don’t have time for your stupid games. I am not going to find my name in your hand“. He eased in the gas pedal and the engine revived up as the car shot forward. His eyes were fixed on the road, but a slight furrow on his forehead was indication that all his attention was on this pagal girl on the passenger seat of his car.
“Aap khoj bhi nahi payenge. You won’t be able to find your name is liye aap dar rahe hain“, Khushi goaded him, her face puffing up in irritation, a glare in her eyes.
(you won’t be able to find it, so you are scared)
“Arnav Singh Raizada always wins at everything. And I would think I can find my own name Khushi Kumari Gupta“, his voice cut sharply across and his firm jaw settled tighter at the bait.
Both had no time to wonder why suddenly this game had become about haar ya jeet.. And why was it important that his name be written across her palm and he find it. They settled in silence, a little dazed at the onslaught of feelings that always took them by surprise when they were around each other.
So many months of being around each other, one would think by now they were used to dealing these unexpected bursts of feelings, but it still always came as something new. A heady current that swept them along in an exhilarating free fall har baar.
A few hours later, Khushi was frantically trying to wipe away her mehendi with a kitchen knife.. Of course the mehendi was not going to leave her palm or for that matter become a shade lighter.
Why was she concerned? Because the mehendi was too red. Crimson with a certain black tinge. hoonh.. his favourite color.. black.. Why did he love complicating her life devi maiyya.. Everyone had teased Khushi mercilessly about how much “chote” loved her.. ha! Love.. If only they knew!
So here ducked Khushi beneath the kitchen counter hidden from view staring at the design of a peacock that adorned her palm. She had not even kept the mehendi for too long. Payal and others still had not taken off theirs. In fact buaji had called Khushi her set of favourite names when she saw Khushi had given into impatience and removed the mehendi.
devi maiyya.. humse aur intezaar nahi hua.. I’ll tell you a secret.. I wanted to go to Arnavji so he could spot his name.. hehe.. wo nahi khoj payenge and I will win!
(I couldn’t wait any longer. he won’t be able to find it and I will win)
Only a few hours had passed since they returned together from his office, but he had been cooped up in the poolside. Khushi had peered through the windows leading upto the poolside twice. Once he was busy on his bluetooth. She deduced he must be scaring some hapless unlucky soul on the phone and the second time jeejaji and naheji were with him. He had looked quite irritated and Khushi had decided she better wait for him to be alone.
In front of her on the floor of the kitchen were bright red mithai boxes stacked high. She opened one and her face lit up seeing a small motichoor laddo. The aroma for pure desi ghee wafted towards her nose and she eagerly picked one and gobbled it up. She was already on her third ladoo when her thoughts went towards him again.
She could sense laughter rising within her. devi maiyya aaj kal humein unke serious se chehre ki aadat si ho gayi hai. There are times when he is immersed in work and looks removed from this outer world, aloof. Then there are times when the crooked smile lights up his face. devi maiyya someday when he is not as scary and unpredictable I will touch that edge of his lips that is definitely assymetrical.
(these days I have gotten used to his serious face)
She forgot to swallow her ladoo and an insidious heat spread across her face. Her eyes widened at her strange thought. wo humein apne jaisa besharam bana de rahien hai.. What was she even thinking talking to devi maiyya about touching his lips! The thought made her so extremely nervous that she clenched her eyes shut.
(He is making me like him… shameless..)
Who should show up right then in the kitchen, wearing a bright orange kanjivaram, and completely laden in heavy gold? “Hello hi bye bye.. Ka karat ho eeha phatee saree? ab tumka toh khoon bhari handwa bulai ke pari.. handwa bhi toh khoon jaisan red hui gawa hai.. Itna red red handwa dekhi ki naahi.. Arnav bitwa eej lovingj only youj.. Maami knowjes all.. Underisstandingj?”
(what are you doing here phatee saree. Now I need to nickname you khoon bhari hanf. Now your hand is also red like the color of blood. Did you see how red your hand is? Arnav bitwa loves only you. I mami know everything. Do you understand?)
Khushi opened her eyes, and stood up, blinking a couple of times trying to understand mamiji. Mamiji had already left by the time Khushi’s brain processed what she had said. Before someone else came and spoke about her dark mehendi she would find another place to hide.
Without warning she found herself again at the poolside. This time he was alone. Looking at his laptop screen with point blank concentration while his fingers flew across the keyboard. Khushi wondered why he didn’t need to look at the keys to type. There were so many questions she had about Arnavji, she was curious to know more and was not sure as with anything related to him, why it mattered as intensely as it did.
She deliberately made more noise with her payal as she approached him. He looked up and waited. Without a word she extended her left hand palm upwards and challenged him, “Find a name“.
His lips had curled into that irresistible smile, and his eyes gleamed with purpose. Without moving from his chair his gazed rested on her open hand. After a few minutes his jaw clenched tighter as he tried harder to find what he was searching for.
“You are cheating Khushi. I don’t see my name.“, he finally admitted.
“haw ramanchi… aur aapse? toh aap haar mante hai?” Her voice sounded poised, to her ear. She wasn’t sure how she knew what to say and how to play this game, but she sure was enjoying herself.
(haw cheating.. with you? so do you accept defeat?)
Her taunt had ignited the desire to win in him and slowly his smile became more prominent. He pushed aside the table blocking his way and sauntered towards her.
Then on her palm with his forefinger he traced circles. Even this simple touch seared her skin. It felt potent like an electric spark.
“‘K‘, ‘G‘, ‘R‘. You didn’t write my name but yours. Khushi Gupta Raizada. Though I prefer Khushi Arnav Raizada..“. The R rolled off his tongue, his voice thick with an undercurrent of desire. The name had never sounded as good to hear as it did now, spoken aloud by him.
She smiled and shook her head and replied still in that different sure tone, “nahi toh.. aap hi ka naam hai. K.. Khadoos.. Laad Gggovernor.. Rakshas“, she stressed on the G, not breaking eye contact till she finished.
His eyes were folded across his chest, an amused air lingering in his heated gaze. The air sizzled between them, a heady intoxication in its wake, but a voice broke the spell.
“Khushiji.. Khushiji..” NK had come in to spoil the moment.
ASR’s eyes darkened at the interruption, his gaze darting from her flushed face to her open palm. Without waiting to hear what Nk had to say he strode away.
Khushi did not turn towards Nanheji, instead carefully opened her right hand that had been clenched tight all this while. A tender smile played on her lips as she looked at her palm. On it, right in the center of a perfectly designed heart in the most delicate timeless calligraphy was written “Arnav“.