khushi smiled widely as nani ji and anjali ji met them at the door, welcoming payal, akash and herself in. payal was looking very pretty in a pink salwar kurta that had a sprinkling of paani mukaish on it, she had tried to tie her hair in her usual fairly severe plait, but khushi had insisted she leave it open and just let it hang straight down past her shoulders in a thick dark swathe. she had also suggested the tiny white and silver bindi instead of the pink one payal had been toying with.
khushi was so happy for her sister, tonight she wanted everything to be perfect. and she made sure payal who was always a bit self effacing and never understood how lovely she actually was, looked her very best. she had pestered her jiji, even annoyed her, while getting ready, but she was pleased with the results and so had a happy satisfied air about her.
when nani ji said, “aiye, payal bitiya, i am so happy you could come,” and held payal’s hands in hers, khushi’s eyebrows did a little dance. her eyes sparkled, and her pompoms shook a bit. she so wanted to do a quick jig. this was her jiji, and looked like akash ji’s grandmother really liked her.
“khushi ji, please come in, ” said anjali, “you look happy!” anjali had that gentle guileless smile that seemed to touch khushi every time she saw her. Then for some reason khushi remembered shyam ji with another woman in bali, and her brow began to furrow.
it was just then that anjali said, “chhotey bhi na! did he have to leave for bali today itself!”
khushi felt the emptiness hit her and her breath almost halt. he was not here. he had left for bali? without even telling her? how could he?
then she admonished herself… no need to think of that laad governor… one moment this, the next that… and anyway, why should he tell her? who was she to him? and he… well he was nobody and nothing to her. let him go to bali… let him go to the moon. hoonh. khushi lifted her chin and started to walk in.
anjali murmured, “and now you look very angry, khushi ji. is everything alright?”
khushi started at that, oh no, so rude of her to let all her feelings show like that. she smiled instantly and said, “nahin, anjali ji, i just was wondering if i had everything to make jalebi at home…”
“jalebi?” anjali looked nonplussed.
“haan… haan woh, you know, tonight i really must make some!” khushi tried to look calm though she seethed within.
they had reached the drawing room and were sitting down when shyam and mama ji joined them. payal stood up hastily to greet akash’s father who motioned her to sit and said cheerily, “arre bitiya, sit sit… namaste… and everything ok with you? khushi bitiya, aap kaisi hain, my son is a good boss or not?”
(please, dear, sit sit… namaste… and everything ok with you? khushi, how are you, my son is a good boss or not?)
shyam greeted both the girls and went and sat by nani ji, obviously she was very fond of him. khushi looked at shyam’s face and felt a creepy feeling ride up her spine. the very thought that this man might be cheating on that innocent looking woman in her beautiful pale blue gauzy saree and matching glass bangles made her want to hit him.
“khushi, kya baat hai? tum… theek toh ho na?” payal’s voice interrupted her angry thoughts.
(khushi, what’s the matter? you’re… okay, aren’t you?)
again khushi rearranged her expressions, “no, jiji, i was just wondering… just wondering… akash ji, your mother isn’t at home?” she tried to change the subject.
akash looked a little lost at that, really where was his mother? he was beginning to get up to go and call her, when suddenly manorama appeared at the head of the steps leading down to the drawing room, resplendent in her finery.
mami ji was wearing a heavy benarasi from the looks of it, in a beautiful pink which happened to be exactly the shade payal wore, only that instead of delicate mukaish, her saree was covered in gold, large motifs of intertwined flowers and vines covered the material end to end. the pallu had layers of zardosi work. along with it she wore a blouse in orange and red with velvet trimmings and gold embroidery. a large gold necklace studded with sparkling rubies covered her neck extending practically down to her bosom. khushi wondered how anyone could wear such long and heavy earrings and possibly hold their head steady.
“manorama!” mama ji sounded slightly shocked, “weren’t you wearing a…”
“sarry sarry, everybodiej!” mami ji cut in quickly, “i am so bhery lates… fassonably na, ha ha, i am likings fasson you know… oh…” she sailed down the steps going straight to payal who by now was standing up as was khushi, “oh, my dears payal nooj, i means payal dears, how you are… see you copying me, wearings pink, ha ha… competisson competisson… sarry, i touchupiya makeupiya, so gettings late! seet seet, payal nooj, no istandings…”
(sorry, sorry, everybody… i am so very late… fashionable, isn’t it, ha ha, i like fashion you know… oh… my dear payal noose, i mean payal dear, how are you… see, you’re copying me, wearing pink… ha ha… competition, competition… sorry, i was touching up my make up, and got late! sit, sit, payal noose, don’t stand…)
“par manorama, what happened to the…” mama ji tried to say something again.
“khushi! comes comes, so goods to see you, tonight we must talks and talks…” mami ji carried on as if she hadn’t heard mama ji at all. the smile on her face was wide and fixed. khushi could feel the daggers in her eyes. she darted a quick look at payal. oh no, jiji looked perturbed.
(khushi, come come! so good to see you, tonight we must talk…)
nani ji glared at mami ji with a frown, if only her daughter in law would behave, she knew why manorama was upset, but to make a scene in front of guests… really, wouldn’t she ever learn. and why was she dressed so gaudily, even more than usual, hemangini wondered.
despite all the wonderful food and nani ji’s spectacular graciousness, the evening left everyone feeling tense, strained and tired. everybody had tried so hard to keep things normal; the conversation light and happy. but mami ji did not let a single opportunity go to remind payal of her place in life, her lack of high social status, wealth, style and of course, make up. when lakshmi ji sauntered in, mami ji came up with an unbelievable,
“ee leo, our lovely missed kaal eej here!! payal nooj, you like pets… you must haves the pilenty laksmi ji’s gifat to keep one, you knowj… laaats of moneys.”
(oh look, our lovely missed call is here!! payal noose, do you like pets, you must have plenty of lakshmi ji’s gift to keep one, you know… lots of money.)
nani ji turned sharply to her daughter in law at that and said, “lakshmi ji’s gift is wealth, manorama, the wealth of a good, big, simple heart is sometimes much more than money!” she obviously was at the end of her tether and had tempered her rebuke so as not to offend her guests.
however, mami ji instantly took offence and got up wailing, “nobody respectiyaing me in this house…” and left the room.
khushi had fried a couple of kilos of jalebi after getting back. it was a little past eleven at night, she sat outside in bua ji’s backyard on the park bench, drinking adrak wali chai and munching on jalebis.
the evening had left her feeling worried, irritable and on edge.
where was this laad governor? the thought came out of nowhere, as it had a few times now already. she started and told herself to shut up. then she bit into a jalebi, the crust cracked and touched her palate, the syrup squirted in her mouth. delicious, she thought and the next minute all she could see was a black silk shirt with syrup sloshing down the front, orange bits of jalebi glowing bright against the black.
and a furious pair of eyes.
khushi swallowed hard. she could feel a helplessness settle over her. jiji was so upset. she had almost wept on the way back home. she knew her jiji, if akash ji’s mother didn’t approve of her, she would never marry him.
and from the way jiji had been smiling and radiant at the mere mention of her boss, she knew her sister had fallen in love with him.
what was to be done now?
in movies you could tell kabootars to take messages and solve things, but here, in delhi… that huge distance between lakshmi nagar and shantivan? how was this to be crossed?
she got up sadly and went inside, thinking a chat with devi maiyya might help. she sat down to pray when her eyes fell on the phone lying next to her goddess on the desk.
18 missed calls?
what???! she picked up the phone hastily thinking something was wrong in lucknow… babu ji? amma? she peered at the screen. no… the calls were from… and her breath caught in her throat.
the phone buzzed just then, she quickly answered, “hay… haylo…” her voice was tentative, lost.
“where the hell were you, khushi kumari gupta!” yelled arnav singh raizada. he continued without waiting for her to answer, “i’ve been trying to call you this past one hour… why the hell aren’t you answering your phone… what’s this new game?… i was so worried, do you even know how worried i was!! i thought something was terribly wrong! you were hurt… you were in some trouble… you were…” asr’s voice was hoarse and loud, a note of panic in his voice.
“why do you care?” khushi heard herself say in a most upset voice. what was she saying? she meant to say, sorry, her phone was on silent… but instead this? care? no one cared. yet she had to say what she had to say, “who cares anyway? you went away and didn’t even tell me! you just call to yell and scream and…” she was not sounding too good by now, the tears had started to pour down her cheeks.
“khushi?!!” he sounded suddenly gentle. unsettling her once again. what was wrong with this man. just now he was screaming. khushi didn’t answer.
“khushi?” he said her name softly again.
khushi gritted her jaws and refused to respond to that voice, though her breath was racing recklessly by now.
“khushi,” so terribly gentle, “don’t ignore me when i talk to you, dammit!”
at this, khushi started bawling and ran out of the room so as not to wake payal up.
“what is the matter? why are you crying? what has happened… tell me! tell me now, khushi… shhh… shh, stop crying…” asr cajoled her, though there was a streak of impatience in his voice.
“n… nothing is the matter, ” khushi mumbled, “just that… ” again she sniffled…
“just that…?” he prompted, not wanting to have her collapse into tears once more.
“… i… i .. don’t think akash ji’s mother likes my jiji… she thinks we are too poor, not high class enough… and also my jiji…” khushi’s voice started to rise.
“shh… calm down, take a deep breath…” he cut in, “and tell me…”
“also, jiji doesn’t do make up,” khushi took a deep breath and tried to stop the tears.
“make up?!!” asr sounded taken aback, completely mystified. “what’s make up go to do with it!”
“you know that makeupiya…” khushi wailed.
“khushi! stop crying… and talking nonsense! what makeupiya…now tell me, what exactly happened?” he sounded no nonsense and so real, khushi felt her heart compose itself. it felt as though he was sitting right beside her on the bench.
she clasped her phone with both hands, then quickly reached for a jalebi and took a bite.
“mmm… mphummphgdj, she said to keep a pet…” khushi said, the jalebi crumbling and sticking to her teeth and palate…
“what are you doing?” his voice was sharp now, “eating?”
“n..no no, just drinking chai…” khushi said defensively.
“no… you are eating… jalebi, aren’t you?” he had such a soft edge to his voice she again wanted to bawl.
“okay, so mami ji was not happy… anything else she did beside saying payal is not wealthy enough?” he sounded as if he was thinking of something.
“no… but you know i noticed mami ji wore a saree which was the exact same colour as jiji’s!” khushi had been very intrigued by that and she had noticed how every time mama ji tried to say something, mami ji ignored him.
“i think she wore it on purpose,” khushi’s voice was very small. she hated talking about elders in that way, and this was akash ji’s mother, who might be her sister’s mother in law some day. babu ji and amma had taught them to always respect elders, even if what they said was not correct or edifying… this felt so difficult. khushi frowned.
“khushi, tum theek ho?” he asked and she could feel the soles of her feet go warm at that something in his tone.
“ha-aan, theek hain… theek hain,” she managed to say though her throat felt constricted.
(khushi, are you ok?
ye-es, ok, i’m ok.)
“ok then, ” now he was crisp and matter of fact, “i’ll talk to mami, you go to sleep now, it’s late.”
“mami ji, you’ll talk? late?” khushi exclaimed, “but it must be two o’clock in bali!”
“yes… so you know i am here?” why did it feel as though his voice stroked her arms gently and wafted away? she could almost feel it on her skin.
“yes, anjali ji said…” khushi sounded a little peeved. but her heart went dhak dhak dhak dhak.
there was absolute silence from the other end. khushi wanted to say something but had no idea what.
then he said, “goodnight, khushi…”
she muttered, “good night…” bring me a jwalamukhi from there, will you… said her heart.
the disquiet that had come upon her that morning when he had shouted for no reason and later after hearing he had gone away, was somehow settled and not gnawing at the back of her neck any more. never occurred to her to wonder why he had called her in the first place.
asr was working out on the ocean’s edge, his dumbbells moving to a steady pace. it was a bright clear day, the sea was calm with white bordered surf moving gently along the shoreline. flocks of birds flew overhead through a classic light blue sky dotted with cotton wool like fluffy clouds. the sun rays were beginning to get a little warm.
she had walked up that day as he exercised and stood right there, looking at him… asr smiled meanly as he looked at the spot. it was fun relinquishing that dumbbell in her palm and watch her stagger.
she hadn’t faltered though, she had taken it in her stride.
asr smiled again. this time not so meanly.
he had decided to drive up to the volcano once more in the suv he hired when he was here. as he drove, the skies seemed to gather dark clouds all of a sudden and very quickly, soon afterward the rain broke and came down in cascades, lightning split the sky… every now and then the sound of thunder rumbled somewhere.
what was missing from the idea, the whole feel, he kept thinking. blooms in agung. it said fire, gentleness, beauty, red orange white black purple, mesmerising, evocative, explosive, heat, flow, lava, gorgeous, ravenous…
asr frowned. why did that thought cross his mind? where was that feeling in a volcano and a flower that could withstand very high temperatures and still survive, thrive, look beautiful?
insatiable… was a volcano that? what did it want to consume?
and like the free flow of rain, danced before him images of a girl… she was running down a hall and dashing into him… her eyes were so large when she looked at him petrified, so hazel… she sat in the plane looking scared and then she grabbed his hand… she had excitement on her face beneath that fear… she slept peacefully right by his chest, her cheek resting against him like it was meant to be there… a lock of hair fell forward onto her forehead, he reached and touched it tucking it behind her ear, her skin felt so crisp… he was kissing her on the chaise longue in his room, he just wanted to kiss her till… she was playing with something on the beach right here, jumping up and down in her yellow churidar kameez, what was wrong with the girl… he thought she had drowned.
his heart seemed to seize at that. he closed his eyes involuntarily.
and he felt a terrible need to hold her in his arms. make sure she was ok. all was well. he wanted to feel her body crushed against his and her lips, he wished he could kiss her right now, feel her straining against him, her fine boned frame fluid and beautiful colliding with his body, he wanted to let his fingers linger over her breast, stroking and feeling her quiver to his touch… he swallowed hard, yearning, wanting her near him, not so far away… “khushi!” he heard her name inside him somewhere.
when he opened his eyes, they were blazing fire. he was angry and seething with the surge of fury.
he had to stop this whole thing… these things mean nothing. they are a figment of the imagination and all they lead to is disillusionment…betrayal, death.
he was arnav singh raizada and he could control this aberrant feeling.
after driving blindly through the rain for almost an hour, he felt calm enough to call aman.
“aman, i will talk to the agency now, please get them to call me,” he said brusquely. and before aman could reply put the phone down.
aman knew sir was not in the best of moods and prayed the agency had some good answers for him.
khushi couldn’t sleep. she kept looking at the phone and then at the clock and then at devi maiyya in turn. more than a couple of times she said, “hum paagal hain… why am i waiting for him to call… why should he? and anyway, i don’t care… yes, koi faraq nahin padta humey…”
(i am mad… why am i waiting for him to call… why should he? and anyway, i don’t care… yes, doesn’t make any difference to me…)
but then again, after a few seconds her eyes would stray to the phone on the desk, then to her wise and kind goddess. at some point in the night, tired of all this thinking and talking to herself, she fell into a slumber. being khushi, the slumber soon deepened into a heavy sleep.
he lay back in the lounger on his verandah and felt the desire ride him again. this was ridiculous, yet he couldn’t help but look at the phone a couple of times. he decided sleep was what was needed and resolutely shut his eyes.
till the early hours of dawn sleep eluded him nonetheless. at six he got up and went for a walk. he would go white water rafting today he decided… he wanted to be completely immersed in something for a while… thoughts would flow better then.
but right now he was ravenous.
ravenous? his gut felt a jolt.