The Shantivan hall had a sprawling uncluttered feel to it, filled with echoes of laughter and chatter since morning. The lofty tasteful teak furniture had been moved against the walls to make space for the freshly starched sheet that covered the mattresses. The walls were covered with bright yellow and orange marigold garlands; Anjali had insisted that the decoration be traditional. Arnav Singh Raizada and Akash Singh Raizada were getting married to two sisters, Khushi Kumari Gupta and Payal Kumari Gupta. And today was the mehendi ceremony.
There were a lot of talkative middle aged ladies, all invited to take part in the celebrations. Payal had forgotten their names and was quite overwhelmed with all the people Akash’s mother had introduced her to. An hour back Khushi had also disappeared after getting a scolding from buaji for having removed her mehendi too early. A gentle smile spread on Payal’s face in happiness for her dear little sister. Her mehendi was dark..
With a sudden burst of nervousness Payal peered anxiously at her palm. Would her mehendi be as dark? Buaji and dadiji had selected the design for her. A bride in her doli.. Because of the intricacies it had taken longer to complete Payal’s mehendi. Now her hands were growing tired since she had to keep them alert, afraid of spoiling her lehenga. She loved the peach color of the material of her lehenga, and it had heavy zardosi patch work on the too thick border. Even Akash’s mother.. umm maji.. had seemed to like it.
Payal was still getting used to this strange new feeling. Thinking of someone new as her mother-in-law. Amma said mother-in-laws were like mothers. Girls actually spent more years with their husband’s mothers than their own. She suddenly desperately wanted to be back in Lakshminagar, sitting close to her babuji in her comfortable cotton kurtis. She liked keeping quiet and watching Khushi entertain everyone. That was home.. this ..was just a new place.. How could she belong here?
In sudden unfamiliar panic her gaze swept over the brightly decorated hall and she found herself looking at a man gazing upon her with a gentle smile on his face.. Akash.. The reason she was here.. As their eyes met he broke into a broader smile.. Then raised his hand, gesturing to show him her mehendi..
Payal demurely looked down, then quickly turned her palm upwards. Then just as quickly hid them again, in case someone noticed. Though her palm was hidden her smile was on her face for the world to see. She knew that everything would be okay. She was coming to spend her life with Akash. Her smile only grew wider as happiness lit up her heart.
“Akash main Khushiji ko le aaya. chalo mehendi mein break in karte hai”, NK had crept upon Akash and spoke in a theatrical whisper, making him jump.
(I brought Khushiji. lets break into the mehendi)
Akash blushed a little seeing Khushiji smile. “umm wo khushiji I thought I would see Payal’s mehendi. She is looking bored alone there and I..”
Khushi linked her hand in Akash’s and gave an exaggerated sigh, “uff jeejaji jab pyar kiya toh darna kya? I have a plan”.
(why fear when you are in love)
NK steered them towards ASR’s room. Even though he knew his nannav would probably only find fault with the plans and act irritated, NK had this undying unshakable theory that the great ASR must like this excitement too.
He remembered the summer holidays spent together only too well. He was quite in awe of Akash’s elder cousin, who would become serious and play the best chess game possible and the very next moment come up with a plan to blow up rahim chacha’s garden wheel barrow, just to add some fun to a dull evening.
Actually more than brightening up nanav’s day it was just fun to get him angry.. NK gave a mock evil laugh in his head.. Indian weddings were such fun!
“But plan kya hai khushiji?”, Akash was questioning Khushi as they entered ASR’s room.
(what’s the plan?)
Khushi was nervous. Their last meeting a few minutes ago was still fresh in her mind. Her pulse was getting all ready to start the sprint they were used to in this man’s presence. Spend her whole life with him?.. She gulped.. Why was she thinking of all this..
“ha khushiji aap kareeb batayiye”, said NK as he sat down on ASR’s recliner which hardly had place for two. ASR gave him a stern look and went back to his laptop.
“nanheji kareeb nai tarkeeb”, Khushi corrected amicably. She was happy he had sat down next to Arnavji. Gave her an excuse to look at Arnavji. She liked to look at him while he concentrated on his laptop. pata nai kyu devi maiyya.. She wondered.
(nanheji not close.. idea..)
Suddenly she was curious to complete their conversation from earlier. A shiver ran down her spine in anticipation. Would he think of looking at her other hand? He had not looked even remotely angry when she teased him about being a khadoos laad governor rakshas..
Khushi giggled, extremely pleased with her idea. Then hurriedly tried to cover it up as a cough. He looked up then. Straight at her. A veiled indulgent gentle look on his face.
“tarkeeb.. That’s it.. That’s what I mean”, NK did some funky hand movements. “Khushiji you have the best ideas. aapke idea se hi toh aapki aur nannav ki shadi ho ri. kamaal hai“.
(idea.. because of your idea only you and nannav are getting married.. brilliant)
This time Khushi did start coughing for real. Akash worriedly patted her on the back. ASR turned his face a little to the side, a stray flicker of smile making its way to his face. pagal.. His mind seemed to utter.. His heart wanted to add a whole lot of other words for her.
“ha Khushi lets listen to this brilliant idea of yours”, he teased, leaning back.
His undivided attention only flustered Khushi more. hooh.. samajhte kya hai khud ko.. hum nai darte unse..
(hooh.. what does he think of himself.. I am not sacred of him)
“jeejaji naheji aapne Hum Aapke hain kaun nai dekhi? All you need to do is this.. “, she spoke brightly, her eyes sparkling, dreaming of how her plan would work perfectly. And another pair of eyes followed her each movement, how she flicked her hair, nodded her head, blinked with those long alluring eyelashes, hands gracefully flowing in sync with the excitement her words carried.
(haven’t you seen hum aapke hain kaun?)
ASR just watched her. How could anyone be this uncynical, believing in things, sincere and fun? How could anyone be this beautiful? She made him catch his breath.
Soon the others were heading out and Khushi was about to follow when he called out to her. “Khushi..”, each nerve inside him felt a jolt when he said her name. She paused at the doorstep, but remained standing looking away from him.
“so tum kya keh rahi thi. main khadoos hon.. aur?”, He had stretched out his hand and blocked her way. She turned to go from the other direction. He placed another hand on the wall.
“pura karo..”, he had her encased between his outstretched arms. Could smell her intoxicating fragrance. Her swan like pale neck where a pulse was visible caught his attention.
“lllaad governor..”, she had managed to say, when his single finger landed on that beating pulse. Leisurely it trailed along her collar bone.
“aur?”.. He spoke in a velvety whisper following his brown finger against her pale gleaming skin.
“rakshas“, her voice was barely a whisper. The word ended in a gust of exhaled tremulous breath.
“Looks like you have spent some time thinking about me and you don’t like me.. hmm?” , now the back of his fingers brushed along the unblemished soft skin from her dainty chin, along her jaw, caressing her cheek and rested against the spot her eye crinkled.
dhak dhak dhak.. Khushi felt her stomach knot. Her cheeks were on fire.
“Let me tell you what I think of you.. “ he nudged her face so that she was looking at him.
“I think you are pagal”, his hands had now left the wall and were slowly drawing her into his warm arms.
“I think you are..”, he had pulled her closer, his hands resting possessively on the small of her back.
“chote..”, Anjali’s voice drifted towards them.
He moved away from Khushi, slightly dazed. She had not moved. What did he actually want to say to her?
Anjali entered the room, her hands covered with mehendi. She could not use them to lift her saree above her ankle so walked a little more slowly, afraid of tripping. Khushi and ASR both reached her at the same time, wanting to help her. They each placed a hand on her shoulders.
She beamed at them, “chote khushiji.. aap dono yaha.. Sorry to disturb..”
(you both here..)
Khushi turned a deep shade of scarlet and wringing her hands tried to explain,” wo anjaliji.. I .. We were just going down with nanheji and jeejaji..I will go check what they are doing.. Hum abhi aate hai”
She rushed out of the room, even before Anjali could stop her. “Khushiji humein aapse baat karn..”
(i need to talk..)
Anjali laughed at her shy bhabhi. She was extremely happy for her brother. “chote..” she looked at him with affection and felt her eyes brim with tears of happiness.
“di now don’t start crying. I get it.. you are happy“, he feigned and rolled his eyes, as they made their way towards his bed. She sat down on the edge, he on the rug, looking up at her.
“chote weddings are beautiful aren’t they?“, her voice was clear and loving.
The darkness seeped into him. Weddings.. shehnai.. a bride.. a scream..
“no di. Weddings are ..”, he could not complete the sentence, choking on the words. Anjali could see the darkness enter his eyes. The pain that had never left her chote had started to be pushed away in these past few weeks. Anjali had seen that, but the memories of a wedding still suffocated him.
Urgently she tried to explain. “chote we can’t control what has to happen, what we can control is our actions”.
She could remember her ma that day. All dressed up. Anjali had thought she looked pretty, but her ma looked even prettier than the bride. Anjali felt sad too, but she would be strong for her chote. He had remained strong for her, that day.
His entire life he had tried to bear everything alone. But now Khushiji was here, to be part of his life, just like Shyamji had come into hers.
“one wedding day had brought us loss, make this wedding special chote. Tell her how much you want her in your life. ek pal mein zindagi badal sakti hai, kuch bura ho sakta hai, par tum ho na chote. Tum kuch bura nai hone doge. Don’t let anything bad happen in this weddings. Sirf achcha hoga humare sath, tumhare sath. You had stopped living after that day, today start living again. ”
(In a second life can change, something bad can happen, but you are there. You will not let anything bad happen. Only good will happen to us, to you)
ASR was fourteen again for a moment. He wanted to believe all that his di was saying. Was it really possible? Could happiness be given a chance? Happiness.. Khushi.. Could she be part of his life forever? Hamesha.. Could it be this simple?
He knew his di was right.. He could not think of a single moment apart from Khushi now. He needed her to breathe.. His heart needed her to beat.. She had slowly entered inside him and filled the hollow vacuum with her laughter, crazy plans and all that talking.
He placed his head on in his di’s lap and hugged her.
She was about to ruffle his hair when he raised his head swiftly and caught her hand.
“di aapki mehendi.. Don’t dare touch me with that..“, then as tears streamed down his dis eyes seeing her chote look relaxed and carefree and happy, the brother and sister’s foreheads touched.
With their eyes closed, they lived the moment. They had managed to find a way out of the corridors of sheesh mahal after all. They had won the fight against the ever looming untiring enemy that threatened to suck every chance of happiness. They had won. They were going to be okay.
“Khushiji aapko Arnav bhaiya khoj rahe hai”, Om Prakash had finally found Khushiji, delivered the message and rushed to do all the work mamiji had asked him to do.
Khushi stood in the silent poolside, holding a strand of fairy lights. He had untangled her from these right here. But she had not been able to untangle herself from him.
Again she opened her palm and looked at his name.. Arnav.. Every time she managed to fall he would catch her.. Every time she ran to him he stood waiting.. Her jhumka, churi, payal, dupatta all seemed to want to be with him.. Her amma, buaji loved him.. And she? What did she feel for him..
Listen to your heartbeats.. Her amma had advised her.. dhakdhak dhakdhak.. Khushi knew from very long they had been telling her something.. Was she ready to listen finally?
A hand placed itself on her shoulder. She stilled.
She whirled around when she heard the voice of the owner of the hand. A venomous honey dripping voice. “Khushiji..”, Shyam said her name.
Full of disgust at his touch she moved away. Shaking with fury she yelled at him, “how dare you Shyamji? Did I not tell you humse door rahiye?”
(stay away from me)
“Achcha Khushiji sirf humse ye doori.. Saale saab ke toh aap bahut kareeb aa rahi hai. “, his eyes were popping out and he had the look of a deranged man. He moved forward attempting to grab her hand.
(why this distance only from me. With saale sab you are only getting closer)
With all her might Khushi slapped him hard across the face. “Shyamji never ever compare yourself to Arnavji. aapko sharam aani chahiye, devi maiyya se dariye Shyamji.”
She was shaking in anger and Shyam stood stunned. A wild angry look on him as he cradled his cheek against his palm. An imprint of slim fingers was clearly visible.
“haye nandkisore.. ee ka karat ho babua?” Madhumatiji asked aghast seeing Akash and NK with a video camera and a blinding flash light.
(what are you doing?)
“buaji we thought we should take a video of the function.. Important mehendi ceremony hai.. kyu hai na future mom-in-law?“, NK swept the flash light right into Manorma’s eyes.
Garima and nani exchanged smiles.. Youth.. When would boys learn they were not allowed in the mehendi function..
“nand kisore.. bahute barhiya idea hai.. You can take my close up“, madhumatiji swung her plait to the front and flashed a brilliant smile.
(great idea. You can take my close up)
“no no nk babua.. uha nahin eeha.. humka recordingj mein you takingj.. humaar saree ke fall ka cloj up isshot bhill makingj bhideo bhery colorphool.”
(not there here.. record me.. take a close of my saree fall. it will make the video colorfull)
“oh saree kyu falling?”, NK asked alarmed.
(why is the saree falling?)
“arre babua tum uko choro I am ready.. Akash bitwa take my video with this beautiful looking nand kisore..“, buaji had linked her huge heavy arm around NK and he was having troubling breathing.
Akash had not heard a word that was said, he had been smiling at Payal, who was blushing, but smiling right back. After all these hours of watching her from far he was finally close to her. How beautiful she looked today. His future wife.. Payal..
“umm Akash?”, nani’s clear voice broke the staring contest of the couple. Their faces had turned red hearing the ladies erupt into peals of laughter.
“Khushiji achcha hua aap mil gayi.. Arre Shyamji aap bhi yaha hai?”, Anjali made her way towards them, a little taken aback to see Shyamji turn and walk away without any answer. Was everything okay, she wondered.. Khushiji looked very shaken.
(good that I found here.. Oh Shyamji you are also here?)
“aap thik toh hai khushiji? What happened?”, she took the girls hand in hers.
(hope you are okay?)
“aap bahut achchi hai Anjaliji”, Khushi hugged her tightly. She had to calm herself.
(you are very nice)
“Aap bhi Khushiji. But are you sure you are fine?”, Anjali stroked her hair in a soothing motion, worried. Had chote said something to Khushiji?
Khushi broke apart and nddded her head, a small smile on her face. “kuch nai Anjaliji. Tell me why were you looking for me?”
“come with me“, Anjali held her arm and took her along to her room. On the coffee table was a silver box. She opened it and took out a pair of bangles and made Khushi wear them. Her eyes were moist.
Khushi looked at the beautiful bangles then at Anjaliji.
“ye humari ma ke the. She wanted chote’s wife to wear them. You know Khushiji I was jealous. Why would a new girl come into our house and get to wear these bangles? I wanted to wear them, you see. But now I am no longer jealous. You have come into my chotes life and brought back his smiles. Aaj se when I see these bangles on you, their khanak will only bring me peace, just like my ma’s memory“.
Khushi didn’t know what to say. She could feel the tears in her eyes and tried to blink them away.
“Anjaliji..”, she said and stopped, trying to find words for her feelings.
“nahi.. not Anjaliji..my bhabhi.. You have to call me di now.. Aap ab meri bhabhi hai“. Anjali cupped her face with both hands and kissed her forehead.
(you are my sister-in-law now)
“toh di ab aap mujhe aap nahi tum bulaiye. You call Arnvaji also tum. humein achcha lagega”. Khushi never really liked that Anjaliji.. Umm di.. Who was elder to her addressed her as aap.. felt too formal..
(address me informally now)
Anjali placed her hand on Khushi’s head. “humesha khush rehna tum dono. I know chote is difficult to handle, but you already know what to say to him. You understand him. Welcome to our family bhabhi“.
(always be happy)
She looked older somehow, a strain showing on her face, betraying all the sadness she had to bear in her short life. She reached into the box and pulled a small folded paper, clutched it against her heart. Then placed it with care into Khushi’s hand. “Our ma also welcomed you bhabhi”.
Then abruptly she got up and left, afraid she might break down, as the memories of her ma intermingled with her infinite happiness for chote today.
Khushi held the colored paper in both her hands. Not moving she just sat with it. Arnavji’s ma.. She had left a letter for her bahu?.. Was Khushi her bahu?..
Tears flowed from her eyes as she opened the letter to read.. “humare chote ki bahu ke naame. humare chote ki naakh pe bahut sara gussa rehta hai aur dil mein bahut sara pyaar. Gussa bardasht karna aur pyaar soot samet lautana”.
(To my chote’s bride. Our chote has anger on his nose, but lots of love in his heart. bear the anger and return the love with interest)
Khushi was overwhelmed. His ma had told her all Khushi needed to know to understand her Arnavji. And a voice inside her told her she already knew this. His anger.. His loving heart.. She wanted to be a part of both..
She lost track of time as she sat their alone. Crying. She clearly remembered the night he had stared at the stars asking her if his ma could see him.
Talking to the letter in her hand she spoke softly, “ma he is very nice. aap chinta mat kijiye.. He will be fine.. Hum.. Hum khushi hai..“. With a strong conviction that seemed to erupt from each pore in her she spoke again, “hum aapki hone wali bahu hai. I will be with Arnavji.. Hamesha”
(don’t worry..me.. I am Khushi..)
She was slowly making her way out of di’s room when she noticed a photo frame. A smiling couple, the wife with adoration in her eyes. Khushi was stunned.
di.. Arnavji’s di.. the center of his universe.. Arnavji himself ..were such nice people..
She had been wrong about this. She could only protect di by telling Arnavji everything. Hey devi maiyya.. Humse galati ho gayi.. Please please let Arnavji fix it..
Blindly she rushed to find him, not caring if he would be angry with her. She had to tell him. He needed to know. He would know how to solve it, she trusted him. He would fix it. Please devi maiyya..
Her hands went up in prayer. She was sobbing uncontrollably when she dashed into him near the poolside.
Her head rested on his shoulder. She had found him. She would tell him everything and it would all be okay. He would make it okay.
ASR took a moment to realize what had happened. He looked at the coffee mug that lay shattered on the ground.. Then he understood and felt the breath leave him. Khushi was crying.
“Khushi?”, he asked urgently. He was beyond worry. Why was she crying as if her world had been ripped apart?
“khushi? kya hua tumhe?”, he was having difficulty breathing. shit.. A sense of dj vu stole over him. Once before also she had come crying to him.
“shh.. main hun Khushi.. tell me.. shh”, his voice was tender, piercing into the heart, his grip reassuring. He held on to the panic inside him. He needed to be strong for her. His hand was clenched in such a tight fist that all blood supply was cut from it. A vein throbbed in his neck.. Dammit what was wrong?
“darling what happened?”. A sense of forboding was engulfing over him.
He had been right. Happiness could never last for long.. it was always snatched away.. but he would fight it. He would not let any harm come to Khushi. Her smile would remain..
“shh.. Khushi?”, with his thumb he brushed away a tear drop that rested on her cheek. Khushi had stopped whimpering, but was looking at him utterly woebegone.
Her expression tore into his heart, yet he held himself in check. Putting a firm pressure on her arm he shook her gently.
“Arnavji..”, she spoke in a small voice. Scared of how much her words were going to break his heart.
“ha Khushi..”, he held his breath, expecting the worst, no way prepared for the blow that was to come.
“wo.. wo Shyamji the.. unhone di ko dhoka diya..humein dhoka diya.. Shyamji bahut bure insaan hai Arnavji..”
(it was Shyamji.. he bretrayed di.. he betrayed me.. he is a very bad man Arnavji)