khushi sat, distracted, at the dining table. buaji huddled on the sofa, fanning herself with a palm leaf fan and looking at sanka devi with an arch look. behind the visible and familiar exaggerated air of impatience lurked a worry, a concern. something was not alright with her niece madhumati ji was absolutely sure. she had come back looking dejected the night before last after dinner at the raizadas. payaliya looked somewhat down too. but she had recovered yesterday. titaliya, however, had seemed even quieter last night, and now… just look at her!
khushi was actually pushing the food around on her plate and not taking big, hungry, delighted bites of the poori and aloo sabzi that payal had made for breakfast. she poked her index finger into a large hot poori without thinking and as the surface cracked a gush of really hot steam got her finger.
“ow!” she yelped and stuck her finger in her mouth. a little tear sprang to her eyes and rolled down.
“sanka devi,” madhumati admonished, “kaa kar rahi ho, hain?!! why aren’t you being careful? and why are you crying, the steam of the wretched poori is hot but not that hot either that you start weeping! c’mon c’mon, eat your breakfast and tell me, aaj tum kis kis ko paresaan karne wali ho!! oo aafis ma kaun?… haan, kaun piye ji… unko sataogi ka?!”
(sanka devi… what are you doing?!! why aren’t you being careful? and why are you crying, the steam of the wretched poori is hot but not that hot either that you start weeping! c’mon c’mon, eat your breakfast and tell me, who are you going to bother today!! who’s there at your office?… yeah, kaun piye ji… will you be hassling him?!)
khushi looked at bua ji with large worried eyes and tried to smile, be herself.
“nahin bua ji, jisko hum satana chahte, woh toh office mein hain hi nahin!” with a quickly summoned chirpiness she replied without thinking and felt an attack of such a dismal feeling the moment the words were out, she almost collapsed into it in a heap of unrestrained tears. she swallowed hard. and looked balefully at the poori. she hated hot things, they only hurt you, and make you cry, and they taste so good… no! they don’t! they are awful, bad, khadoos.
(no bua ji, the one i want to bother, he is not in the office!)
she pushed her chair back and stood up suddenly… then rushed to her room and sat down before devi maiyya with the most troubled look ever.
bua ji shook her head in complete puzzlement, then feeling helpless at not being able to understand what exactly was awry and therefore not being able to help with the problem either, she muttered, “hai re nand kissore! who will take care of this mad girl… and also my sweet lovely payaliya… you, oh lord, on you i put all my faith!” after several rounds of touching her forehead with hands joined in supplication, she picked up her long plait and swung it across her neck over the other shoulder.
no one knew the exact length of madhumati ji’s hair, for years now an add-on tassle had become part of her formidably long trademark plait, where real hair ended and false nylon strands began no one could guess, perhaps not even the all knowing lord nand kissore himself.
she picked up the phone to call shashi babua, it was time her brother and sister in law made a short trip to delhi. the girls were acting strangely… young women, you couldn’t take any chances, once there was oonch neech… something went wrong… almost nothing could set it right. bua ji belonged to a time and a mind set that completely believed in this theory and felt it was for the good of the girls.
khushi was in a state she was not used to at all. what was this overcoming her! it must be because of jiji and that awkward awful time with akash ji’s mother… mami ji was so difficult, how would jiji cope?!
yes, that must be the reason she was upset. it had nothing to do with the fact that no one had called her yesterday. well actually, akash ji had called her, because he wanted to make sure she was alright and was coming in to work as usual at 9am… he was so sweet, such a sensitive man. he knew her jiji meant the world to her and she was perturbed about the situation.
and yes, kareena and salman had called her to find out something about materials, also about lunch… if she would like to sit with them and eat together.
jon piye ji had called and said he wanted to get some colourful pompoms and where could he get ready made ones, he was in a hurry to create the mock-up of a dress.
and who else had called?
yes, happy ji. he had some urgent work with bua ji but she was out so he wanted to know when she’d be back…
only one person, really… khushi looked at devi maiyya and made a face, “humey koi faraq nahin padta! haan, devi maiyya, i don’t care if people don’t call… i am fine… i am not so weak, nor so silly… who does he think he is anyway!…hum kah rahe hain…” what was the noise she wondered, then said even more emphatically, “humey koi faraq nahin padta!”
(makes no difference to me, devi maiyya, i don’t care if people don’t call… i am fine… i am not so weak, nor so silly… who does he think he is anyway!… i am telling you… make so difference to me!)
“shut up, khushi! stop talking nonsense,” said an all too familiar voice. that too right into her ear.
khushi’s eyes widened, her lips went into trademark and default “o” setting. what had she done! more importantly, what was she to do! now she could hear his voice when he was not even around. what had devi maiyya allowed to happen to her!
she looked around in panic, then she realised she was holding the phone to her ear. that noise had been her mobile and unconsciously she had received the call, no idea she was doing so, engrossed as she was in her talk with her goddess, her greatest confidant. oh no, what had she said?!
“i don’t care faraq padta hai ya nahin… but i want you to come to bali… pack-“
(i don’t care whether it makes a difference or not… but i want you to come to bali… pack-)
khushi cut in before he could complete his sentence, “kya?!!! bali? me? now… but…”
“shut up… khushi kumari gupta! don’t interrupt me, dammit! i am telling you something!” hot, furious voice travelled across the 5,805.27 kilometres separating them and singed her ear. he was speaking through extremely gritted teeth and she could almost see his intense chocolate eyes inflamed with rage.
khushi kept quiet.
“good, now listen. pack for a couple of days, akash will pick you up and take you to the airport. he will give you the papers and other things i need. captain raina is expecting you. i will see you later this evening. bye, khushi!” he said all this in a curt, clipped tone. he was clearly not in a great mood. at least that was normal, khushi thought.
“khushi!!” he rasped out when she didn’t reply.
“h..haan… ok, but, bua ji… bali…” she mumbled.
“stop mumbling!” he shot back and the phone went dead.
bua ji walked in after a few minutes and nodded happily at khushi, “titaliya, are you okay? come, come, pack! pack!… that nice boy, nand kissore, arnav singh raijada… he is waiting for you… your phupha ji had his own iskooter when we got married, later he bought one fiat car… that was so nice, hai… so romantic to sit next to him and go to bangali market to eat chaat… ah ha ha ha…”
khushi stared at her aunt open mouthed. what was she talking about…
“but hai re nand kissore, eehaan toh hawai jahaaz… how i wish i could sit in one and go phuurrr to different places… paris! hai re… eiffel tower, fair fair girls, an evening in paris… nand kissore, it is a dream… but your phupha ji…” after saying all this in a happy, slightly hysterical rush, head thrown back for effect, hands waving in the air, heart clutched from time to time, bua ji halted on the last word, picked the corner of her pallu, wiped her eyes and sniffed with a mournful air.
(but oh lord nand kishore, here it’s an aeroplane… how i wish i could sit in one and go flyyying to different places… paris! aah… eiffel tower, fair fair girls, an evening in paris… nand kishore, it is a dream… but your phupha ji…)
“what are you saying, bua ji? i don’t understand a thing!” khushi asked in a small voice.
“not understand! are you madhumati’s niece or what, sanka devi! that nice boy called, he said there was some urgent work, he is sending a whole plane to collect you, if i was okay with it, nand kissore! he said not to worry he would make sure you are safe and send you back in a day or maximum two…! what is there to understand… go pack!!”
laad governor! thought khushi… to get his own way he will stop at nothing. even dupe an old helpless woman, a widow at that… a childless widow too… her poor sweet aunt… this charlatan, this magarmach… using her bua ji! huh! khushi’s eyes shot fire, her plait swung, her hands landed on her hips as she struck her nastiest pose and looked out at lakshminagar passing by with narrowed eyes. she would show this man… who did he think he was!
“khushi ji!” happy ji was standing outside the verandah, looking at her with slightly perturbed eyes, “aap theek toh hai na?”
(you are okay, arn’t you?)
it felt as though something was poked and all the feelings inside came rushing out. hot, searing slightly scalding feelings.
when captain raina landed at denpasar, it was already eight in the evening, he told khushi he would take her to the resort at nusa dua, they should be there in about an hour.
khushi smiled widely thanking him and did not let her twinge of disappointment show.
no… no… not that she wanted to see that man, but still he could have come to pick her up at least and anyway she had been all alone in the plane, it had been unnerving. but really she just didn’t want to lose any time in showing him her irritation, that’s the only reason she wanted him here.
her phone rang.
“have you landed?” asr asked abruptly.
khushi opened her mouth to answer but couldn’t find her voice. her heart was beating at a rapid rate. dhak dhak dhak dhak dhakdhak. she had been caught off guard.
“what the!” sharp expletive burst forth, “why aren’t you talking?” he yelled into the phone, “answer me, what’s the matter, were you scared?”
did his voice soften on the “scared”? but khushi was not interested. how dare he think she was a coward!
“nahin! why should i be scared? i am quite capable of taking a hawai jahaaz alone!” she said in a huff.
“okay! i’ll see you in a bit,” he sounded offhand, disinterested almost. she disconnected.
at the resort, she collected her keys and asked to speak to asr. the girl at the reception whom she had met just days before on her previous stay, called him, then she looked up and with a smile said, “mr raizada says you should go over to his villa immediately!”
he wanted her to go to his villa at this hour?! khushi frowned. the girl, suryawati, gave a slight knowing smile.
embarrassed, khushi turned swiftly and hurried after the bell boy down the pathway through the greenery to the villa.
she had expected him at the entrance, but the porch lights were off. when the bell boy left, she skipped up the shallow steps, went to the main door and knocked.
“come in!” the brusque voice commanded.
she walked in and found the sitting room empty. a lamp was on, but no sign of laad governor. where was this man… she sighed in exasperation, clutching his files and the little box akash ji had sent.
“in the bedroom, khushi,” he called out and she could feel her stomach empty out. must be because she had not eaten well on the flight, she thought.
her legs she realised had gone slightly numb and they seemed to be moving slower than usual. “chal, khushi! chal!” she told herself, “don’t let that magarmach scare you.”
(go, khushi! go!… don’t let that crocodile scare you.)
she went into his bedroom and saw him at last. actually what her eyes really saw first was a foot propped up on a pile of pillows and a huge white bandage around the ankle.
arnav ji was hurt. khushi’s mouth went dry, her lips tingled.
she deposited the files and the box on a table by the door and ran to where he lay on the bed looking at him with frantic eyes.
“kya hua! what happened? when did this happen? is it broken? aap… aap theek toh hain na? how did this happen? you are looking so pale… do… do they know you are hurt… arnav ji, does anjali ji know? and akash ji? no one told me…” she was babbling without control, not quite sure what to do to make the situation better, terribly worried to see him in that bandage, and lying down helplessly. his left ankle was obviously badly injured. he looked pale.
she didn’t notice his eyes staring at her, brown irises leaping to a bright light and then settling again. nor the hint of a smile that sprang to his finely sculpted lips, the right side pulled down a bit, the left lifted. and then it was quickly gone. the face was implacable again. imperious almost.
“shut up, khushi,” he said at last. he sounded rough, yet there was some sort of gentleness interfering there. it reached her.
she lifted her gaze to his face and stood mute, her hazel eyes unusually large and deep in her anxious state.
for a moment neither spoke. he kept looking at her face, betraying no emotion on his. she looked vulnerable, emotions flitting through her and showing clearly.
“nothing happened. it’s a sprain. i had gone white water rafting, i twisted my ankle on the steps coming back up from the river. it will be fine in a couple of days. just needs rest.” he said very very calmly, looking at khushi all the while.
then he added softly, “come here.”
khushi felt her stomach knot tightly, she felt a little dizzy too and a crop of goosebumps spread across her knees climbing up… or was it down?
“n… na… nahin…” she muttered, looking down, her cheeks beginning to go hot.
he made a move as if to get up and in a second she had flown across and was almost falling on top of him in her rush to stop him. before she could recover, he held her wrist and yanked her to him.
“ow!” she yelped the second time that day. then she lost balance and tumbled onto the bed, sprawling across his chest.
he flinched slightly and she went still.
“arnav ji,” she pleaded, “please be careful…”
her face was buried in the crook of his neck. she felt his hand come up and cup her cheek and move her face around till she was right up close near his face, looking at him. his eyes glittered inches away from hers. she could feel herself getting lost. she blinked. her cheek pressed against the slightly rough warm palm.
he stroked her cheek lightly, sending her into a whirlpool of goosebumps.
“missed me?” his voice was hoarse with something and had a knowing sound in it.
she reacted instantly… she would not let him think she had missed him… of course, she hadn’t too… she quickly told herself as well.
she opened her mouth to answer and he moved just then. her startled lips felt him swoop down and cover them with his. her breath caught as he started to kiss her.
she tried to struggle, but the thought of the ankle stopped her. she was angry with him. so angry, she couldn’t quite even understand it herself. he had hurt himself. and he had told no one! he was laid up here, alone… and… how could he… what if…!!
“kiss me, khushi!” he said against her mouth and drew away, looking down at her from so close to her, she could almost count the number of lashes he had.
she looked at him stubbornly.
“i said, kiss me, dammit!” he growled, a guttural low deep sound. she shuddered and flung her arms around him, kissing him now with abandon, her lips moving under his, biting slightly, letting her tongue run over his bow shaped upper lip. she had wanted to see him so much yesterday and the day before. she didn’t know why but she really wanted to see this laad governor’s terrible horrible arrogant face.
“i missed you too,” he disengaged from the kiss for a second to say that, then grabbed her head and drew her back into that hungry devastating sensation.
when it felt as though nothing could hold them back now, suddenly he stopped and slowly moved away. she reached up, still needing him and kissed him on his cheek, his stubble was a little longer than usual, it tickled her chin, lips and nose. she smiled and slowly extricated herself, sitting up.
she held his hand, stroked his brow, his regally etched widow’s peak and high forehead. he had to be hurting so badly. poor laad governor, all alone and in pain.
her face must have again reflected her thoughts.
“khushi, don’t start the drama,” he whispered, beginning to laugh.
she pursed her lips at that. a little angry again. how did he know she was about to get all maudlin!! really!
khushi jumped up from the bed and in a brisk tone said, “tell me what you need and here are your papers!”
“i need? shall i tell you really?” he began to laugh and then of course winced in pain.
“stop laughing,” she scolded him and sat down on the chair by the wall close to the bedside.
it was the middle of the night. khushi was sitting on the chair, watching asr sleep. she hoped he was alright.
he had told her to go to her villa, but she had refused. she couldn’t be alone at night. it bothered her, she had told him. it was the truth, but what was equally true was that she was not planning to leave him alone while he was in this state.
“maa, no no no maa…” he was talking in his sleep, muttering really, his voice sounded anguished, khushi sat up alarmed. what was the matter?
he whimpered again in his sleep. he sounded terrible. she searched through the little medicine kit he had asked akash to send him and found the pain killers.
“maa,” he groaned again.
fetching a glass of water she went and sat by his head, and called, “arnav ji, get up. get up, arnav ji…”
his eyes opened after a few calls, full of sleep… and then the pain registered filling the deepest corners of the chocolate brown irises with agony.
khushi slipped an arm behind his back and started to make him sit…
“i’ll manage,” he said trying to sound in command of the moment.
khushi said nothing, she just helped him up, gave him a couple of pain killers, made sure he had had them. then she sat again and pulled him down, letting his head rest on her lap.
she stroked his hair with one hand while pressing his back along the spine in a bid to distract his mind from the pain in his ankle.
he lay there quietly and went back to sleep, his breathing growing deeper and heavier as time passed.
khushi scrambled up in bed, the sunlight had hit her face all of a sudden, streaming in through the large windows. she looked around fuzzily. where was she? then she remembered. she was here in arnav ji’s bedroom… in his bed.
she looked around to see where he was… a funny kind of feeling washing over her. what a crazy thing to have done, slept off on an unknown man’s bed.
well, not unknown, but not her… well, there was only one man whose bed you could share really… khushi experimented with the word in her mind…
“husband… pati…” then she choked and jumped up.
“khushi!” his voice came from the sitting room, made her shiver the timbre in it, “are you awake?”
khushi went out without even washing her face or combing her hair, worried as to how he had made his way there.
he was deep in work, laptop open, the injured leg was up on the table, he had a glass of orange juice by him and he looked quite relaxed.
“aap… you… how did you get here? why didn’t you call me… you might have…”
asr held up his hand, and gestured with a slight movement of his chin toward the set of crutches leaning by him against the wall.
khushi looked at them and felt silly almost.
“don’t get so involved with me, khushi!” he said a note of acid in his words. it hit home immediately and she found herself feeling last night’s anger again, and the day’s and the day before’s.
“okay! i won’t…!” she snapped back, then unable to stop herself she went on, “anyway, there are many people who don’t mind me getting a little… involved… with them… aap apne aap ko samajhte kya hain? i will call jon piye ji and…”
(okay! i won’t…! anyway, there are many people who don’t mind me getting a little… involved… with them… who do you think you are? i will call jon piye ji and…)
“SHUT… up!” asr cut in furiously, “don’t you dare talk about another man… d’you understand! don’t you dare!”
khushi could see he was seething with rage, somehow it pleased her. who did he think he was, telling her how much she should or should not get involved, who she could speak to or not… sending his plane over to fetch her like she was his toy…
she tossed her head, gave him a withering look or so she hoped and walked out of the room. she could feel his hot, angry gaze on her, even through the wall of the villa.
as she ran down the steps, her eyes fell on the tree by the patio. thick, luscious bunches of frangipani hung on the branches.
her heart missed a beat… she felt his fingers brush aside her hair and fix soft cool frangipani to her hair. red ones. tears stung the back of her eyes as she ran toward her villa.