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pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
to feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
awake forever in a sweet unrest,
still, still to hear her tender taken breath,
~~~ john keats, bright star ~~~
akash walked in with an apologetic air, “sorry, sorry! i’m late… doctor verma!! good to see you… i’m glad you started dinner, we had to solve the runway problem tonight…”
khushi’s eyes widened, she froze, the spoon with malai kofta in her hand stayed where it was, mid air, not quite making it to asr’s plate.
“khushi bitiya, kya baat hai? aap ruk kyun gayi?” nani ji asked, concerned.
(khushi bitiya, what’s the matter? why did you stop?)
everyone looked at khushi, who still stood there, dazed.
“haan, khushi,” asr’s voice was husky, close, touching her almost as he stared up at her, eyes browner than chocolate, brimming with laughter and that underlying heat which made her heart go funny. “why did you stop?”
khushi almost choked. goosebumps shivered up her shins, her cheeks flushed, this arnav singh raizada! this… this… laad governor!
he knew why she was in that state. runway problem… “will you please do me the honour of running away with me?” she could almost hear his satiny whisper right here before everyone… run away with him! her eyes widened some more.
oh why did she want to just turn around and kiss him and hold his hand and…
“khushiii?” he broke into her thoughts, “tum theek ho?”
(are you ok?)
khushi looked around trying to gather her wits, and smiled, “n… n… nahin, nani ji, kuch nahin, wo… doctor saab, malai is good for health, hai na?”
(n… n… no, nothing, nani ji… er… doctor saab, cream is good for health, isn’t it?)
everyone looked at khushi again, there was a desperate note in khushi’s voice, a slight blip somewhere in the middle of the sentence.
doctor verma wondered why khushi suddenly asked him this. he was about to reply when nani ji laughed and said, “arre khushi bitiya, malai kofta doesn’t mean there’s lots of cream in it. aap ko pata hai na? you’re such a good cook. go on, give it to chhotey, nothing will happen to him. aur akash bitwa, koi baat nahin, aaiye, khana khaiye.”
(oh khushi, malai kofta doesn’t mean there’s lots of cream in it. you know that, don’t you? you’re such a good cook. go on, give it to chhotey, nothing will happen to him. and akash, no problem, come, eat.)
nani ji turned to doctor verma and said in the beautiful gracious way of hers, “doctor saab, aap theek se khaiyega zaroor, aap aaye hain khaane par, hume bahut achha laga. manorama, zara doctor saab ko paranthe dijiye…”
(doctor saab, please do eat properly… i am very happy that you joined us for dinner. manorama, do give doctor saab some parathas.)
asr had gone back to eating his food, head down, engrossed. khushi glared at him and went around his chair to the other side and sat next to him. was his shoulder shaking with laughter? she glanced at him sideways. no one could make out, but she could see it! he was laughing at her! oooph she’d show him, her eyes narrowed and she made a face.
“khushi bitiya, koi baat hai ka?” mama ji enquired.
(khushi bitiya, anything the matter?)
as she tried to look normal and assure mama ji all was well, she could feel the shoulder next to her shaking again.
payal served doctor verma some fragrant and steaming urad dal. babu ji loved this dal and insisted that the ghee in it was not only tasty but full of health. payal gave another spoonful to the guest.
she’d never forget the look on khushi’s face that day in the hospital when this sombre looking man had said, “i am so sorry to have to tell you, we tried our best… but…”
she had felt khushi let go, her breath knocked out by this quiet sentence. she’d reached out to take her sister’s limp body in her arms. for a second she’d feared that her khushi was gone. a terrifying moment. she never said it out loud to anyone, but she’d known this was possible… no, probable. if arnav ji didn’t pull through, she knew her sister would not be able to take it.
such fears should not be given credence. we are always told to think in a positive way, not live in a world of imagined dread. payal was a strong intelligent girl and she knew she wasn’t imagining this.
this man with a kind air, piercing eyes that seemed to understand more, who had shown a complete dedication to his patient and acted with astuteness and prudence, had brought arnav ji back to them. to her dear sweet mad crazy utterly lovable and completely indispensable sister.
payal was grateful to doctor verma. she was also glad that di was beginning to show some interest in a man once more. not that she could feel a romance in the air, but she knew how difficult and destructive shyam’s betrayal must have been for anjali and was happy that she was once again reaching out to the world outside.
doctor verma looked at the dal and smiled, “ah, ghee se banayi… bahut saalon baad…”
(ah, made with ghee… after years…)
“babu ji, humare amma babu ji kyon kho gaye? aur kabhi nahin aayenge?” the little girl asked of the man sitting at her bed side, stroking her hair, telling her stories.
(father, why did my mother and father get lost? aren’t they ever coming back?)
shashi gupta looked at the trusting eyes turned toward him, big hazel pools of innocence. he wished life were not this marred by cruelty. by truths that wouldn’t change. then he touched the soft rounded cheeks of the child, his second daughter, a gift from life in a way, and said what he believed would preserve the shine in those eyes, the sparkle, the trust.
“nahin khushi bitiya, kahin nahin khoye… wo dekho,” he looked out at the evening sky visible through the open window, “wahan woh taarey… unme aapke amma aur babu ji bhi hain…”
(no, khushi, they aren’t lost… look there. there, those stars… among them your mother and father are also there…)
khushi gazed at the twinkling dots in the inky blue sky her babu ji showed her. and because from the moment she had seen him after the sudden light and noise that changed her whole world she’d felt reassured, because his eyes were so dark and warm, because when he said “bitiya” she felt calm, because he was always there that moment on, she believed what he said.
her amma and babu ji must be there, shining and looking at her. now which ones were they?
“babu ji, kya woh tara hamari amma hain?” she pointed her tiny index finger at a star brighter than the surrounding ones.
(babu ji, is that star my mother?)
shashi gupta’s lips curled in a smile. he hugged the little girl who always wanted to believe in happiness, possibilities, joy.
“agar aapko vishwaas hai, toh zaroor woh hi aapki amma hain,” he said indulgently.
(if you believe that, then certainly that is your mother.)
“achha, phir woh babu ji honge… ” khushi smiled at the stars and turned to shashi gupta, “phir kya hua raj kumari ko?”
(okay, then that must be father… what happened to the princess then?)
in an instant, her feelings of helplessness and fear had gone away, all she wanted to know was if the rakshas ate up the raj kumari or was she saved by some miracle.
“so tells us, daktar verma, whose you havings at home? your paarents? any brother… sister? aain… wife?” manorama’s smile grew bigger and brassier with each question.
she was clearly on a mission to find out the doctor’s marital status. her niece had invited a man to dinner, while that made her happy, her protective instincts demanded that she make sure her dear anjali was not disappointed a second time in her life.
“maa!” an anguished whisper from akash coincided practically with her last word.
anjali started. a silence gathered swiftly around the table. a note of embarrassment in it, a bit of shock, and curiosity.
“mrs raizada,” the doctor replied with a faint smile, “my parents are no more, sadly, and no i don’t have siblings, i was their only child which is why my wife…”
there was a hush growing thicker around the table. a pair of cognac brown eyes glinted dangerously.
“yes, my wife…” doctor verma looked down at his plate and grimaced, lost in thought for a second, “she always said she worried that after her, there’d be no one to take care of me.”
then he looked up at mami ji and said simply, “my wife, nancy, died… many years ago, mrs raizada.”
“arnav, that was a brilliant show,” one of the brazilians invited to the ar autumn/winter fashion show was full of praise as guests sipped champagne and new indian wines after the event and chatted while a whole array of beautifully put together hors d’oeuvres were served by waiters walking around with laden trays.
“thank you so much, luiz… glad you had a great time,” asr was particularly dashing this evening in his prussian blue silk shirt under a black jacket, smart charcoal black charvet tie expertly single knotted, slim fitting trousers and hand stitched evening brogues in the deepest blue which looked black at first glance.
“may i introduce you to my wife… khushi, this is luiz fernandez, and his partner joaquim diaz from zonasul, rio de janeiro…” asr looked at khushi and smiled.
the men shook her hand enthusiastically. joaquim diaz said, “mrs raizada, arnav has us very interested in what ar has created, that spring in the middle of autumn winter… great touch. the world is never either this or that is it, it is everything… if it’s rain somewhere.. it is shine somewhere else…”
khushi had been quite tense about the evening. firstly, she was still uncomfortable in these fashion gatherings, and then all that had happened to arnav was on her mind. he’d hardly spent any time on this show, she knew how much it mattered to him, she had prayed long and hard to devi maiyya for its success, for his happiness.
she saw the genuine warm smile on the handsome brazilian man’s face, and felt herself beginning to relax. the show had received many rounds of applause, but somehow that hadn’t reached her. this felt good. she turned to asr with a huge grin. but he was not looking at her.
he was staring at a beautiful woman who was leaning closer to him. she came in all the way and planted a kiss on his cheek. asr smiled at her his most devastating lopsided grin. then he reached forward and placed a kiss on her cheek swiftly and with force.
he drawled, “you were beautiful, tsering… couldn’t take my eyes off you.”
tsering wagged her index finger at him playfully, eyes narrowed, “coming to party with us, asr? after the after?” she raised a dark arched eyebrow at him, he shrugged and returned, “can i say ‘no’ to you ever?”
tsering seemed happy, she waved a “hi mrs raizada! hello gentlemen… sorry to barge in!” to khushi and the two men and walked away, graceful and stunning in her christian louboutin 7 inch high pencil heels and snug fitting little black dress, her thick straight black hair piled up on her head in a flamboyant top knot, minimum make up, silver dust gleaming on her bare shoulders, a chunky antique cuff in old silver on her left arm, her only piece of jewellery.
khushi had to admit tsering was lovely, and yes on the ramp she did ar proud. she walks like a princess, a raj kumari, khushi had thought to herself when she first saw this tall model with her majestic carriage.
but now she could feel a heat rising along her ears, a burning anger inside.
arnav ji just kissed that woman! okay okay, she knew in his business this was the norm… but still.
and all that smiling at her. what was the need?? so yes, the show had been great and tsering was good, but so were all the others… so would he now run around kissing all of them! really!
and anyway, didn’t he look at her a bit longer than necessary?
and what’s the need to smile like that at her?
he knew what that smile did to her… khushi kumari gupta singh raizada.
“khushi?” asr cut into her thoughts, “did you want to tell me something?”
khushi smiled brightly at joaquim and said, “oh, you must tell me about your country, mr…”
“please call me joaquim…” the young man said on cue.
“w-a-keem,” khushi flashed another smile.
“brilliant!” joaquim approved of the charming pronunciation.
“khushi!” asr tried to interrupt.
“w-a-keem, tell me are women in your country as beautiful as indian women?” her smile was too wide, her eyes too shiny.
and before the slightly surprised brazilian could respond, khushi was walking away, with an, “oh, excuse me, i must do something, i’ll be back in a moment…”
asr looked at his wife’s retreating back, she kept moving away without turning around. his gaze softened and a curious smile flitted across his lips then he turned to his brazilian guests and resumed the conversation.
“maa!” the scream in his nightmare had found its way to his throat, he could hear it even before he opened his eyes… he sat up in bed, breathing hard, shivering, breaking out in cold sweat.
a pair of arms gathered him close. he was pressed to a bosom, soft and loving.
“shh!! sh!” crooned a gentle voice as he was rocked to and fro, soothing him, loving him.
in the dark, his arms reached up and held her tight.
his hands roamed over her back, her hair, then the contours of her face. his touch was urgent, convulsive.
eyes still closed, he pulled her down, kissed her cheek and buried his face in her hair. holding her like that, he went to sleep.
she looked out through the french windows at the pool water glittering outside. she wondered if the stars were out tonight and held him even closer.
outside the large white silk and brocade marquee erected specially for the show, lay the sprawling grounds of purana qila, the old fort. a few lights glimmered here and there on the grounds. ancient stone stood quiet and timeless, an air of mystery all around.
khushi was standing by a sparkling water fountain set up for the show. she had been trying for the past 15 minutes to calm down. but a frisson just below the surface of her skin persisted. it kept her feeling unsettled. angry.
a warm breeze seemed to pass by near the nape of her neck, she shivered.
“mad at me?” he whispered, just by her shoulder, then his lips touched the back of her neck. a tender featherlight kiss.
involuntarily she threw her head back and closed her eyes.
his lips started traveling up, their touch warmer, pressing against her arched taut muscles.
she jerked away and crossed her arms. she was not giving in. she was not.
“won’t let me kiss you?” he held her from behind and pulled her to him. his hands slipped over her bare waist, her stomach, she stiffened as she felt her whole body respond. his hands settled on her navel, caressing, playing.
she’d worn a lenhega choli this evening, he’d brought it for her that morning itself. layers of chiffon in dark fuchsia pink and carmine red touched with a delicate spray of muqaish and highlights of fine chikkan embroidery created an ethereal yet sensuous affair. the diaphanous dupatta fell light and luxurious around her shoulders, the choli was short, velvet encrusted in zardosi. along with the dress he’d brought bangles that matched and a tiny bindi glittering, a real diamond at its centre.
when she’d worn it and come out to show him, he’d cocked an eyebrow and appraised her, then said with a smirk, “not bad.”
her heart had done a slow deliberate flip. whether it was because of the way he looked at her, or because he was so stunning with his hair slicked back and in his black and blue, she had no idea.
“wish me luck?” he’d said. her heart had welled up at that, because she could feel he really wanted her wishes for this evening.
now she could feel the length of his body against her back, she wanted to press closer and let his hands roam all over her.
she struggled to get away.
“you were the most beautiful woman in the room tonight… do i still need to tell you that?” his breath tickled her ears, he rubbed his nose against her jaw, her cheek as he began to turn her toward him.
khushi grimaced and looked unyielding.
he kissed her on both cheeks and when she refused to give in, picked her up in his arms swiftly, said, “come!” and started walking.
“arnav ji!!!” she had to break her silence, “what are you doing… yeh aap kya kar rahe hain?!! put me down… put me down right now, hume chhoriye!”
(arnav ji, what are you doinf? what are you doing? put em down, put m down right now. let me go.)
his shoulders began shaking again.
she balled her fists and hit his chest, “i am angry with you!”
“i know, and i love you,” he kept walking.
when he said things like that, she just wanted to hug him.
she hit him some more.
“where are we going?” she asked in between her little punches.
“my taekwondo queen… sorry boxing champ, we are… running away.”
he was openly laughing now. her jaw dropped, with alacrity he kissed her open mouth, even as he set her down by the suv.
she wanted to push him away, but before she could move she’d been bundled into the car and the seatbelt strapped on. he shut the door, walked on light feet around the bonnet, got into his seat, and started the car.
“r… r.. running away?” khushi was suddenly tremulous. the anger evaporated just as quickly as it had descended. a strange thrill started to replace it.
“y… ye…yes, my gusse wali biwi, we are running away.”
(y…ye…yes, my angry wife, we are running away.)
“wh.. whe.. where to?”
“you’ll see…” he reversed the car and drove out on to the main road, then turned right, “we should be on the highway in 10 minutes…”
“highway, arnav ji!” she shrieked a little panicky, “raat ke gyarah baje hain…”
(highway, arnav ji! it’s 11 o’colck at night…)
he reached out and held her hand, then eyes still on the road he turned and kissed her fingers.
“b.. but i don’t have anything… my clothes…” she so wanted to go anywhere everywhere with him, she tried desperately to say sane things.
“back of the car, your suitcase is there, payal packed it… enough clothes for a week,” his voice was crisp.
“a week?!… jiji? you mean… arnav ji… you planned this!! you never told me! you… you…”
he braked suddenly and stopped by the kerbside. he leaned forward and murmured, “laad governor…?”
even in the dark, she knew his eyes were twinkling.
she made a face.
“rakshas?” he laughed and nibbled her ear.
“n… nani ji pareshan honge…” of course, in her slightly incoherent state she didn’t realise that jiji could let everyone know, and asr would never leave without telling the family.
(nani ji will worry…)
he nuzzled her neck and ears, his hands stroked her her waist and moved up to caress her breast with the lightest touch. she trembled.
“hone do…” he whispered against the pulse beating wildly at her throat.
“di paresha..an…” she pressed herself against his lips, his hands and sighed.
(di will… worry.)
“hone do…” he was slowly undoing the dori of her choli, her arms went around his neck.
“bua ji pareshan… ho..ongi,” his hands felt cool and possessive on her back as he lifted her and drew her to him.
(bua ji will wo…rry.)
“hone do,” he brought her near and placed his lips on the heaving curve of her right breast visible above the choli’s low neckline. warm and tender his lips lingered.
there was silence in the car.
he lifted his head at last and said, “hone do… aur khushi, aman ji bhi pareshan ho jaayenge, hai na?”
(let her… and khushi, aman will also be worried, won’t he?)
khushi sat up startled, a little disoriented.
she could hear the laughter in his voice.
he started the car again and drove toward the highway.
if khushi had looked up at the sky, she would have seen layers and layers of stars twinkling in the night.