The rain continued to pour down heavily, fogging the glass. Inside the SUV, in the little ambient light that shone, Khushi Kumari Gupta stared in shock at Arnav Singh Raizada.
“shaadi? Marry now? Arnavji we can’t marry now. Nobody else is here…”
“Shut up Khushi”. His face was inches away from hers. Breath still hot and unsteady from the heady kiss they had shared. In a languorous movement he moved back straightening himself.
“I did not say.. now.. Waise agar tum chahti ho toh we could head back to your temple aaj hi. From my limited knowledge about your shaadi nonsense it requires just two people.. the bride and the groom..”
(If you wish we could head back to the temple today itself)
The violence inside him, which had been clearly visible in his stormy eyes, had dissipated somewhere within the last few minutes. She could not bear to see him torn and in agony as he had clearly been. She knew she had to play along, if only to stop that tormented look to return.
“Haw“, she exclaimed in indignation.
He gave a wry smile. Then using the back of his two fingers he trailed the contour of her face from her cheekbone down to the tip of her chin. He had grown weary.
The rain had stopped as abruptly as it had started. In the still silence she could hear her heart beating against her chest. She saw his adam’s apple move down. They sat this way, he stroking her skin, she feeling his fingers against her cheek.
In a fierce voice, the words rushed out of him, “I don’t know how many goddamn hours I spent tonight scorning the idea of marriage. Ma.. Di.. Deceit sweeps in and devours innocent pure lives.. I was burning in hell Khushi when I reached here, determined to take you home and rid your head of this stupid idea of marriage.. And then I realized I couldn’t bear tears in your eyes.. ”
“ye kya kar diya tumne mere sath khushi”? .. He slumped against his seat, his head flung backwards staring out of the moon roof. The hood had always been closed, Khushi never knew she could she the sky above her right from inside his car.
(what have you done to me?)
“shukriya Arnavji.. aap nai aate toh..“, she whispered, her voice breaking again.
With his head still resting on the seat headrest he turned sideways facing her. A slight smile played across his lips as he said, “aana toh tha hi“.
She smiled back.
Did caring for someone make you feel all grown up from inside? devi maiyya.. he came.. He was here in front of her.. strangely she felt fiercely protective towards him and at the same time wanted to hide in his arms and feel safe.
“Khushi stop talking to yourself..“, his voice startled Khushi out of her conversation with devi maiyya. Her spirits plummeted when she realized they had reached right in front of her house. The lights were dim, but the house was not completely in darkness. She wondered who was awake waiting for her. Even then, she did not want to leave Arnavji.
There was so much she wanted to ask him. What would he tell di? Had he already spoken to her? Was she okay? Was he?.. Devi maiyya ghar itni jaldi kyu aa gaya..
He had walked upto her side and opened her door. She remained seated, desperate wishing to stay a minute longer with him. How could she be away from him?
He seemed to read her mind expertly figuring out the cause of her hesitation. “Khushi .. I am fine. mujhe di ko sab batana hoga.. tum ghar jao“. His jaw was set firm, a determined look. He had honed a warrior stance, every muscle alert.
(I need to tell di everything. You go home)
She got out of the SUV slowly and walked a few steps past him. Quickly she turned and lifted her right hand waving. “bye Arnavji“.
He strode towards her and caught her wrist, spreading out the palm that had in dark crimson the word, ‘Arnav‘. With his thumb, treading lightly, perhaps afraid it would get wiped away, he traced the letters. Then picking up her other hand, which still clutched his ma’s letter, he stared unblinking at the initials, “K G R“.
He bent down and kissed her palm. She could feel his lips tremble for an instant against her cold skin. Then in a flash he was gone .
Khushi walked up to the front door. Payal opened the door even before Khushi could knock.
Payal was back to her comfortable cotton lime kurti. Her hair was in a loose plait and not a inkling of sleep apparent. She anxiously took in Khushi’s still quite wet hair, but refrained to ask questions where there was even the remotest possibility of buaji waking up.
The two sisters made there way to their room. Khushi walked right upto the drawer and pulled out the small trinket box, where she carefully placed the folded sheet of paper. Along with a leaf, a glittering sequin was now ma’s letter to her daughter-in-law.
Silently, deep in thought she changed out of her lehenga. It had been a whirlwind of a day. Khushi had never thought it was possible to even experience so many different emotions at one time. Then again, from the night she had met Arnav Singh Raizada, her life had never really been the same.
She was never certain of what would come next. Would he be angry or caring? Would he shout at her or whirl her in a dance? She did not know. What she knew unquestionably was that she was certain of one thing. She wanted him in her life. Badly.
Picking up her devi maiyya she fervently prayed for Arnavji and di. In the morning, before the chaos of the mehendi had started, Khushi had placed the new red chunari on the idol. She had put the jari border on the chunari herself. Devi maiyya appeared to look back at Khushi kindly.
All she wanted to do was succumb to the overpowering need to sleep. Her eyes were closing, but there were still things to do. Arnavji, right now, might be telling di everything, Khushi needed to tell her jiji too. She turned too Payal who was putting up their pink mosquito net.
“Jiji I told Arnavji everything about Shyamji . You should also tell jeejaji everything“.
The numerous lights in the Shantivan hall were all dimmed when ASR walked in. The furniture was still lined against the walls leaving the center space open.
“Di kaha hai?“, he asked Om Prakash, who had opened the door.
(Where is di?)
“Apne kamre mein hongi Anjali di“, OP could sense ASR’s moods. And this particular one was one to fear.
(She should be in her room)
Without wasting another second ASR sprinted up the stairs to his di’s room. He was not the one to rehearse what he would say. ASR thrived on action. Di needed to know the truth and then they would deal with the repercussions together.
“di..“, ASR burst into her room. Only she was not there. Shyam Manohar Jha stood before him, still in his heavily embroidered too red kurta.
“saale saab aap yaha? This late at night. Is everything all right?”
“Mujhe sab pata chal gaya hai.. Jeejaji“. ASR spat the last word out and reached out for Shyam’s collar.
(I have come to know everything)
Shyam winced at the iron grip, his mind ticking furiously.
His already large eyes turned bigger as he spoke. The words were not of apology and the tone steadily grew in condescension.
“I have no idea what you are talking about saalesaab. We can surely discuss whatever is the matter in a sane fashion. Aise dimag garam karne se kuch hasil nahi hota saalesaab, humne aapko kitni baar ye baat samajhai hai“.
(With a hot head you will not gain anything, have I not explained this to you innumerable times?)
ASR shook him vigorously, his eyes ablaze with fury. He could not believe how he had let himself be taken in by this swine. Through gritted teeth he warned, “Stay away from my di.. Shyam.. Don’t you dare..”
“chote..” , Anjali had walked into the room with the latest pile of ironed clothes. She let go of the pile, stunned to see her chote and Shyamji clearly in a fight. She had also heard his words. Chote threatening Shyamji..
ASR let go of Shyam. His anger replaced by worry. He strode over to Anjali.
His voice reverberated with sincerity and concern, “di jeeja.. shyam betrayed you. All this time he has been lying to you. Jhooth bola usne aapse.. Hum sab se. He posed as buaji’s paying guest. He is the one Khushi was engaged to. This lying deceitful son of..”
(he lied to you.. to all of us)
“bas karo Arnav..“, her words pounded in ASR’s ears. He reeled. Di never ever called him Arnav.
“di aap samajh nai rahi hai.. He kept his marriage a secret.. He..“, ASR spoke softly, almost beseeching his angry di to understand.
(You are not understanding)
“tum nai samajh reh Arnav“, her voice cut in, face harsh.
(You aren’t understanding)
“di aap aise kyu keh rahi hai? And why are you calling me Arnav. I know this is a shock to you, but..“, he had taken her hand, but she jerked away.
(Why are you saying such things?)
She moved to Shyam, her limp very pronounced, who extended his hand and caught her. ASR had not anticipated hostility. Neither had he even remotely considered the possibility of di denying to believe him. He tried to absorb what was happening, an helpless overpowering him, which would only intensify after hearing Anjali’s coming declaration.
“Tumhe galat lagta hai Arnav. Humare Shyamji humse kuch nai chupate hai. If you would have given him a chance to explain he would have, par apne gusse ke samne tum khud ko kho dete ho“.
(You think wrong. My Shyamji does not hide anything from me.. In front of your anger you lose yourself)
What the hell was di talking about! ASR eyed Shyam with disgust, but held his tongue. Di was already angry enough. His gut feeling now clearly registered this man was up to no good, but he had to tread with extreme caution.
“Shyamji has been feeling awful about it. So he finally told me everything, and bhagwan ka laakh laakh sukhr hai he did nai toh pata nahi aaj kya ho jata, if I would have believed you“.
(Thank god he did otherwise who knows what would have happened today)
ASR did not like this feeling of grasping in the dark, unsure of what it was he was supposed to find in the first place. His di couldn’t have forgiven adultery. Or could she?
“di aap use maaf kaise kar sakti hai? You were his wife, all these months. And he.. decided to make a play at Khushi..“, his voice broke, a hollow ringing as he said her name. the feelings came crashing. di.. Khushi.. In repeat the names kept playing in his mind. This man had wronged both and di was about to forgive him? How was that possible?
(How can you forgive him?)
“Bahut hua Arnav..”, she rebuked sharply. di had lifted her hand, putting a stop to his words.
“How can you say such things about this decent man.. Humare pati hai ye.. You are delusional.. He and Khushi bhabhi.. For a case he needed to investigate a suspect in lakshminagar. So he stayed as a paying guest in buaji’s house. Us samay ye nahi jaante the ki Khushiji hi hai wo jo humare ghar aati hai Lavanyaji ko seekhane. Buaji ko laga Shyamji should marry Khushi bhabhi and it was all a confusion. He did not want to blow his cover, Khushi bhabhi ke babuji ki tabyat kharab ho gayi.. He did not want to say no and increase the family’s woes. You know the rest.. Remember how upset Khushi bhabhi was with her engagement? And then it all broke.. Because Shyamji broke it. He is very sorry about all the confusion and I have forgiven him.”
(He is my husband. At that time he did not know Khushiji was the same girl who used to come to our house to teach Lavanyaji. Buaji thought Shyamji should marry Khushi bhabhi. Her father’s health took a worse turn..)
ASR could not believe the audacity of Shyam. To cook up such baseless senseless lies. For a second he felt exasperated with his di, how could she believe this crazy story?
He saw Shyam’s smug face. “di meri baat suniye.. Why would he have kept quiet for so long agar yehi sach hota toh?“, he knew the words were useless.
(listen to me.. why would he have kept quiet for so long if this was the truth?)
“Why did the Gupta family keep quiet? It was no one’s fault. It was an embarrassing mistake. Bas. I know you are worried about me, but there is nothing to worry about“, she had calmed down a little.
“par dii..”, there was nothing he could say at this moment that would make even the slightest difference.
“chote hum thik hai“, this time she was gentle.
(I am fine)
“apna khayal rakhna di. And I am always there“, he turned around, striding out of the room.
(take care of yourself)
Utterly vexed at the incredible nonsense that Shyam had fed di ASR unbuttoned his waistcoat and flung it onto the bed. His jet black shirt followed. Freeing the ends of the shirt from his trousers, he tossed it in the same direction.
Shyam was still in this house. Sprouting lies that di blindly believed. ASR had to make sure he dare not hurt her.
His mind was working furiously. How was he going to protect his di from this? He took out his blackberry from his pocket and dialed a number that was ingrained in his muscle memory. “Aman I need you to do this..”
He was deep in conversation with Aman, when his phone beeped against his ear. He would have ignored it, but out of instinct he checked. It was Khushi.
He would call her back, he decided. However, within seconds her number flashed up as waiting again. This time he did cut the call with Aman. Aman had been handed out precise instructions, and ASR was certain it would get done.
He answered her call. “Haloo“, came a whisper from the other end. Almost in wonder ASR could feel the weight fall of his bare shoulders. He shook his head, how could just her voice, that too from across a phone, make him feel rejuvenated.
“sab so re hai.. Is that why you are whispering darling?“, even at his moment, he felt flippant. He wanted to see the blush slowly spread over her cheeks. Maybe he would take out his SUV and drive upto her house.
“umm .. wo..“, she was clearly tongue tied.
He grew serious gradually. She did not usually call him this late. Was everything okay?
“Tell me Khushi..”
She mumbled something which he had a hard time understanding.. Wait.. What the? Had she just said she was outside Shantivan?
He dashed to the front door and opened it. She was there peering cautiously. In her green kurti, her hair in a tight plait, resplendent in the moonlight. She had her multicolor jhola slung across her shoulder.
“What the?! How did you get here?“.
She did not say a word, her nose had grown red and she was avoiding looking at him. What was wrong with this girl? First she had managed to come to him in the middle of the night and then she was not even looking at him.
A midnight rendezvous with khushi Kumari Gupta! This girl did the most outrageous things.
“khushi what happened? Why are you here and why are you staring at that rose bush?”
“aap.. aap ne shirt nai pehni hai Arnavji“, she gulped, and meekly replied. If possible her cheek had grown darker, almost radiating heat. She bit her lower lip nervously.
He smirked. His voice dropped to ragged murmur, “You can stop trying not to look at me. In fact you can stare at me all you want“. It had hardly seemed possible, but his tone went huskier, “tumhara hone wala pati jo hun.. samjhi tum?”
(am your future husband.. understood)
Her hand fisted her dupatta, eyes refusing to leave the floor.
Barely concealing his laughter he ordered in the most intimate whisper, “Come..”
She followed him to his room. Did the laad governor frequently walk around without a shirt and open doors that way too? Besharm.. She thought angrily.. but butterflies inside her fluttered around quite non-angrily…
He shrugged into a sweat shirt. She liked him in his home clothes she decided. The new found voice inside her, that seemed to have a lot to say where Arnavji was concerned, sternly reminded her she liked him in office clothes as well.
“You wanted to talk khushi?“, he inquired.
“I was worried for you. Aapne di ko bataya? Wo thik hai Arnavji?“, she looked at him anxiously, sensing the change that came over him hearing the question.
(did you tell di? Is she okay?)
He walked to the french window and sat down on the single step that led out to the poolside. She sat down next to him.
“di did not believe me Khushi. Shyam ne unhe pehle hi jhooth mein uljha diya hai. I.. I am helpless“. ASR was not used to sharing his problems with anyone. Saying the words out loud gave them credence, but he knew Khushi deserved an explanation of what was happening.
(Shyam had already filled her head with lies)
“Laad governor and helpless.. Ye ho nahi sakta Arnavji.. You will find a way.. Humein bharosa hai aap pe..“, her clear innocent eyes had a bright glow in them. Her voice was firm. She looked at him as if he was invincible.
(This won’t happen Arnavji.. I have faith in you)
He longed to believe in her confidence. He regarded her with wonder. She could be so much fun, carefree one minute and then act in the most mature manner in the very next.
With full concentration she fished about inside her bag and withdrew a round steel tiffin box. Opening it revealed the expected.
“When I am worried I like to eat jalebi Arnavji“, she explained, taking a huge bite.
He swiftly pulled her close and laid a kiss on her forehead, “You will have your dreams come true. Even if it is the only thing I do“.
She looked at him and smiled, beautiful and serene. Then held out a jilebi to him. In a conspiratorial whisper she said, “You can take a small bite. This has sugar, but take a small bite jaldi..”
He nibbled at the jilebi she had held out and continued to watch her stuff the remaining in her mouth.
A thought struck him. “how did you get here Khushi?”
She beamed at him. “I borrowed Happyji’s isscooter“..
He burst out laughing and she rushed in panic to place her hand on his mouth in an attempt to muffle the sound.. Laad governor.. What if someone woke up and found them.. hey devi maiya..