“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)
Silver strands of moonlight streamed on the dark rippling water in the shallow rectangular pool. Tiny fairy lights blinked to the rhythm of two heartbeats. A sweet fragrance of roses suffused into the chilly night.
In a haze Khushi Kumari Gupta’s voice reached Arnav Singh Raizada’s ears.
His hold on her slender shoulder had been gentle a second ago. As she spoke, tears glistening on her stricken face, his grasp progressively tightened, till she was wincing under his vice like grip.
“Enough“.. His voice rose razor sharp. She was sobbing hysterically, her words still did not seem to penetrate to his brain. His mind refused to process the words. So they fell onto his ears and wilted away, never reaching a state of coherency.
He shook her roughly. She let him.
Somewhere far off in a corner inside him he found himself wonder how slender she really was. That part of him almost longed for her to object, then have her break into her sunny guile free smile and say it was all a joke.
Jeejaji.. No.. Shyam.. Was cheating on di.. And had wanted to marry..
ASR could not bear to complete the thought.. It would take an intolerable form..Khushi was his..
No she wasn’t.. a voice roared out in agony inside him.. She had secrets.. Things he knew nothing about..
Khushi made a movement, to take his hand probably. He didn’t wait to find out.
“Get out..” His face was ashen.
“hum nai get out..“, for this once she braved his wrath and determinedly took his hand in hers.
“Arnavji hum aapko batana chate the.. I should have told you everything.. I did come.. Devi maiyya ki kasam.. But I saw di and I couldn’t.. humse unka dil toda nai gaya“. She pleaded, urgently stroking his hand.
(I wanted to tell you everything.. I swear on devi maiyya.. but I could not break her heart)
He focused on gulping in air. And tried to allow her words to reach him.
“Arnavji aap sun reh hai na? I know how you must be feeling. par.. hum di ke khatir chup the.. plea..”
(you are listening right? but.. I was silent for di’s sake..)
He wrenched his hand free, with a wild force that caused her to lose balance. She stared at him.
“Leave. main tumhare bare main sahi sochta tha. tum jaisi larki...” Something stopped him. He swallowed hard, and with what felt like super human effort spoke again. This time is voice was deadly calm. Through gritted teeth he said, “tumhari kisi baat ka koi koi matlab nahi. Go..”
(I was right about you.. a girl like you..)
(Your words hold no meaning to me.)
Then he lashed out with fully force, in blazing fury, “I said GO..NOW..”
She stumbled out of the poolside. Her world had just shattered into a million scattered fragments, just like the mug that lay on the floor. Would Arnavji ever forgive her?
Blind with tears obscuring her vision, she rushed out of Shantivan.. but where would she go? Her feet slowed down, a terror had taken over her. What if Arnavji never ever wanted to see her again? A wretched choking cry escaped her and her body shivered.
What would Anavji do now? What if in anger he did something dreadful? She wanted to be near di. Would Arnavji tell her the truth about Shyamji? devi maiya raksha karna… fervently Khushi prayed.
She rubbed off tears from her soaked face, still whimpering, when she reached outside the temple.
The temple compound that in the mornings would be full of comfortable sounds, crowded with people, aroma of desi ghee sweets, camphor, flowers, was now deserted. The trees swayed, their shadows dancing in an eerie wild abandon. Heavy brass bells clanged.
Khushi was scared. Was devi maiyya also unhappy with her? She crumpled on the bottom most courtyard step, buried her head in her knees and cried.
“Hello hi bye bye.. phatee saree ko silber kanganj aur Misuj Manorama Raijada ki bahuriya ke empty handwa.. bahutehi nainsafi hai gabbar”
(Phatee saree gets silver bangles and Mrs Manorama Raizada’s daughter-in-law will remain empty handed.. this is highly unfair)
Anjali had found mami and nani together and told them how she had given khushi bhabhi the bangles carefully treasured all these years for chote’s bride.
Nani had smiled fondly at the lingering memory of her daughter as she had shown them the bangles. How beautiful they were!
Mami, however, had gone off in her tangent direction. And soon not only her thoughts, but her entire heavy body, also moved off in a tangent direction.
Deviyani Raizada shook her head at the foibles of her daughter-in-law. Atleast one thing she consented to, life in Shantivan had never been dull after her son had married Manorama.
“nani chaliye.. Who knows what mami is upto? Payal bhabhi might need our saving“, Anjali tugged at her arm.
“Payal bitiya ko bachane ke khatir Akash bitwa hai na“, nani giggled, well aware how her grandson was smitten by the terribly well-mannered sweet girl.
(Akash is there is save Payal)
Both followed in the direction of the whirlwind resembling mami.
Manorma Raizada corned an embarrassed looking Akash and a scared Payal. Usually Manorma was one of those people who spent time in building up an atmosphere. What was the point of doing a deed without hyping in up, had always been her sound reasoning.
Today she went for a different tactic. Straight to the point. With extreme difficulty, panting and puffing, she pulled out the first heavy gold bangle from her hand. She grimaced as she put in all her energy reserves in pulling out the second bangle.
The shopkeeper needed to be called and shouted at for sure. His sizing was all wrong. He had said that she, Manorma, needed a large size. Of course she did not! She only ate organic low fat food. Anyone who glanced upon her could tell how silim and tirim she was, only the shop keeper needed to get his eyes checked and the sizes of bangles fixed.
She had been thinking all this, when completely out of breath, she realized Payal was also trying to pull at the bangle.
“maaji allow me to help“. Before she got a chance to warn her daughter-in-law to keep her hands away, the bangle slipped over the last stretch of bulging flesh, right into Payal’s open palm.
“hoonh.. khoon bhari taang..” was all she said as she slid the too large heavy bangles onto Payal’s wrist.
“hello hi bye bye..“.. And she gone, leaving behind a confused future-daughter-in-law staring at the bangles that were sure to fall off her slender wrist.
“Akashji..”, Payal was about to ask if he had understood what any of this was about, when she noticed Anjali ji and dadiji show up.
Anjali was laughing gaily. Her mami could be highly entertaining at times.
That is how ASR saw his di, as he walked out of the poolside, to find her.
He halted mid step. What was he going to tell her? The truth… but what was the truth?.. He had barely registered anything that khushi had said.. He knew close to nothing.. Except that Shyam did not deserve to spend another second in his di’s presence.
di was still giggling and talking. He had to tell her, but what would he say?
Had Khushi been stuck in a similar dilemma? What to say when your words would surely wound and maul?
He spun around, picked up the SUV keys from the hall counter and walked out.
He had first heard of Shyam Manohar Jha when nani had mentioned him during evening tea. She had said, they had met a decent learned man in the temple that morning.
He remembered wondering at that time why was it important enough for nani to mention the man.
The next time Shyam was mentioned in Shantivan was during breakfast. Mamiji had asked di if the lawyer saab was going to come for the Shivratri puja. Di had blushed and said she did not know what his plans were.
ASR had known what he would need to do next. Immediately after leaving the breakfast table he had called Aman with precise instructions on what he needed to find out.
The news had not been good, but neither had it been too bad. Shyam had no family, a budding lawyer, he was trying to establish his practice in the Delhi civil court. What irked ASR were the cases Aman had dug up where the lawyer had skirted too near the edge of the law. Not broken the law, Aman had stressed, but when one took too much care to stay within the bounds of law, it was highly suspicious.
ASR had been worried, and had decided to talk to nani about it. But nani had talked about the growing apparent change in di. Her smile, that came more often. Her limp, that seems less pronounced. The vitality that seemed to exude from her after her meetings with Shyam.
Everyone liked him, that much ASR knew the minute he saw his family around Shyam. And di adored him. Over the course of the evening, his first visit to shantivan, Shyam had managed to make everyone laugh and reminisce over Lucknow. He had even insisted on making them a round of tea. And in all the hours whenever Anjali moved Shyam was always close to help her.
ASR had thought that is all that mattered.
He had obviously been grossly wrong. Right under his nose Shyam Manohar Jha had lived for three years. Managed to betray di.. and.. Khushi.
He had been driving blindly, not knowing where he went. Not caring. Swerving the steering wheel to the right the car narrowly avoided a ditch.
He slammed the breaks and came out. The confined space, and memories closing in on him, had made him claustrophic.
Marriage… he laughed.. Ma seemed to have believed in marriage.. She died because of it..
Still laughing uncontrollably.. He remembered his di dressed up as a bride the first time.. And then the second time she was a bride.. His di believed in marriage..
His body shuddered.. Khushi.. Who had so fiercely spoken in defense of the sanctity of a bond of marriage… he remembered her clearly.. Crying that day.. He had guessed it was because of her fianc.. The word made ASR breathe fire.. It had been shyam all along..
ASR had for the first time considered the possibility of marriage. Today. And today came the reminder.. It was all a farce..
khushi’s dream was about to shatter too. Marriage ..
He let out a strangled cry into the dark night. And slumped against the car, his fingers running through his hair, down his face, in desperate frustration. No sound left him, but still the muted cry continued to echo into the darkness.
How was he supposed to protect his di? He had failed her.
Whatever was about to happen would only bring her tears. She did not want anything else in her life. Her world revolved around that swine. And no one had suspected the man’s true colors. Not nani. And not her chote.
His eyes were red, nerves straining. He was not going to give in.
Life had always been his adversary. Today when he had let his guard down it had sneaked up upon him and laid this terrible blow. Now Arnav Singh Raizada was ready.
Abruptly, with full force, he banged against the door frame. The car seemed to shake at the impact. In his fight with this nameless ruthless enemy he had hurt the innocent messenger.
Where was Khushi?
It felt difficult to draw breath. If he stopped talking to her.. She .. She would .. A gaping hollow had settled in her chest.. If he didn’t believe her she would not be able to breathe.. Devi maiyya agar Arnavji humara vishwas nai karenge..humari.. Humari saasein hi ruk jayengi..
(if Arnavji does not believe in me.. my .. my very breath will stop)
A far off rumbling of thunder had started. A moment later, sure enough a drop of rain fell on her already drenched cheek.
Khushi looked at the black clouds overhead. They had hidden her amma babuji. Also Arnavji’s amma. Khushi looked at the letter that was still clutched in her hand. Crumpled, a few water droplets already causing the ink to run. Arnavji’s ma’s letter.
With her dupatta Khushi tried to shield the paper. She stood up and looked towards her devi maiyya. Devi maiya was far off, inside the temple, but she was smiling benevolently. Khushi drew in a deep breath. She could not break down. She would go find Arnavji, jump through the Shantivan window if needed, but reach his room, and make him listen. She would..
All her thoughts came to a full stop as the skies suddenly seemed to open up and torrential rain poured down. With desperation Khushi ran up the stairs to the shelter of the temple. Then she peered out at the rain.
That night when she was cold and miserable in the parking lot, hating the laad governor, he had come out of nowhere and saved her from the approaching car.
When she had been all alone, stranded in the middle of the road praying for a miracle, even though he had been angry with her minutes ago, he had still come.
devi maiya aaj wo nahi aayenge.. despondent she thought. In tandem a white SUV screeched to a halt at the corner. She saw the flash light illuminate a narrow path.
(today he will not come)
With only one thought, she floated down the steps. He had opened the car door and stepped out.
She flew to him, flinging her arms around him.
He watched her lissome figure dash down the steps. Still in her lehenga, she looked like she was stepping right out of a living painting.
She hugged him with so much force that it almost caused him to lose balance. She was shorter than him. With her arms tightly wrapped around him she had to stand tip toe. Khushi felt soft.
He wanted to lose himself in her wet entangled hair. Would they be dense enough to hide him from the harsh reality?
“Arnavji humein maaf kar dijiye.. I ..“, her voice was muffled. She wept inconsolably.
(Please forgive me)
“Khushi..”, his voice broke, an unbearable pain taking over again.
She was still snuggled against him, her body shuddering in rhythm to her crying heart.
He could bear it no longer. He whisked her into his arms. The unexpectedness of the action muted her sobs temporarily. For an infinite moment, oblivious to the deluge, they looked at each other. Then slowly, in a gesture of homecoming, she raised her hand and clutched onto his shirt, right next to where his heart beat against his chest.
He strode to the SUV and gently placed her on the passenger seat. Her wet hair was splattered across her forehead. She looked fragile. If Shyam had succeeded in his ploy what would have happened to this girl? It enraged him to think how much danger Khushi had been in. And ASR had been unaware.
With a bang he shut the door and walked over to get in himself.
He revved up the engine. His hollow iris followed the slow periodic movement of the wiper across the windshield. The blade kept moving, valiantly trying to keep the rain away. The rain came from all directions, in heavy gusts. The wiper had to work incessantly, untiringly. It had an important function, make the way safe, and if it failed, the people inside would suffer.
ASR had failed. He had failed his di.
A light touch pulled him out of the inferno he had swiftly descended into. She looked at him anxiously.
None of this was her fault. He had already lost control once tonight and she had been alone, heartbroken , in the rain.
He willed himself to hold onto a shred of sanity. For the sake of the girl sitting next to him, shivering.
“I called your home and let Garima aunty know we are together.” His voice sounded dead to his ears, but atleast he had managed to keep the torment hidden.
Taking him by surprise, she burst into tears. Alarmed, he slammed the breaks, and cupped her face.
“humein laga aap humse kabhi baat nai karenge.. hum.. hum aapke bina..”
(I thought you would never ever talk to me again.. without you..I..)
He kissed her then. Her lips eagerly sought him too, moving with an intense palpable need.
Their tongues slid against each other in a mad frenzy. Their breath intermingling. His hand held her in a fierce grip. He needed her.
He needed to assure himself she was for real. She was here with him. That this harsh world could have within it something as precious as this girl. That she was not a figment of fantasy that would waft away like the mirage of happiness. No, she was his… His Khushi…
He broke free of the kiss. Her eyes were still closed. He knew she was trying to catch her breath.
“We are getting married“, was all he said.