you who demolish me, you whom I love,
be near me. remain near me when evening,
drunk on the blood of the skies,
becomes night, in its one hand
a perfumed balm, in the other
a sword sheathed in the diamond of stars.
~~~ faiz ahmed faiz ~~~
he lay there staring up at the stars. the night sky beckoned, inky and clear. winter was on its way in, a slight chill blew in the air, she shivered a little, his arm around her tightened as she slept next to him on the charpoy. the mesh of ropes gave under his weight when he shifted to draw her closer and cover her with the light razai. she murmured, “arnav ji, aap soye nahin?”” and threw her arm across his chest, cuddling up.
(arnav ji, you haven’t slept yet?)
he could feel his heartbeat steadily pick up speed, he wondered how he got this lucky. how did you know where to find me, he wanted to wake her up and ask her. why didn’t you leave me, even when there was no reason to stay?
it was here, in the rooms by the courtyard where they lay, that he had left her alone one night. his heart still lurched at the sudden lash of panic he had felt when he’d woken up the next morning wondering where she was. had she gone away?
how she’d wanted him to look at her, stroke her cheek. but she knew he was not free.
he’d gone running to the room next door where he’d seen her last, and there she sat on the sofa, knees drawn, sleeping with her head on her folded arms as they rested on her knees. how lost and forlorn she’d looked. and petrified. even though she slept, he knew she’d been scared through the night. he’d picked her up and taken her to the bed. she had fever. he had wanted to hold her close, lie by her side and make her feel better.
ridiculous thought. since he was a man with a girl friend. a girl friend who lived in his home.
arnav singh raizada remembered that day on the way to nainital when chance had brought them to this dhaba. chance? no. a smile started to go lopsided.
it had been khushi kumari gupta who had brought them here. by draining the petrol tank. so that he and lavanya may be stranded in the middle of nowhere and get to spend a little time together. she’d even packed pakodas for the trip, which she had demolished all by herself while talking nonstop after he found her in the boot of the car.
the boot of the car.
he began to laugh.
when he stopped the suv at the side of the dhaba and told her to come with him, she’d been surprised. “arnav ji, where are we?” she’d asked, confused. clearly, in the dark she hadn’t recognised the place.
“don’t you remember, khushi?” he had to tease, “this is where you’d said we had run away together, that we were married… toh maine socha, tumhare iss wish koh bhi poora kar dete hain… we have run away, khushi, and here we are at aunty ji’s dhaba. remember? you made me drink sweet thick awful lassi?”
(so i thought, let me fulfill this wish of yours too…)
“arnav ji!!” khushi sounded flustered. and yet, he could tell she was happy. without further ado, he picked her up and carried her into the room where on that day almost two years ago, he’d brought her in bundled over his shoulder, kicking and screaming.
inside, the dhaba owner’s wife had kindly allowed him to have a few changes made.
lanterns and candles glimmered all around casting long alluring shadows in between pools of warm flickering light; a large bed covered in fine white linen had replaced the rickety one with a particularly ugly duvet she’d lain on that morning all those months ago and he couldn’t take his eyes off her face… how soft her cheek on his palm… but he was a man not free. and even had he been, what would he have known of these feelings… so so long ago his feelings had all been stolen. twisted. battered. only weak people had tender emotions. only untrustworthy people fell in love. his father. involuntarily, asr’s eyes closed.
khushi stared open mouthed at the room, fragrance of crushed rose petals in the air, a beautiful couch on one side, air conditioning. was this where she’d woken up that morning and felt his hand on her cheek? when her heart beat had suddenly careened and she’d pretended she was not awake? yet she could feel his eyes looking at her, even though her eyes were shut. and she’d wanted them to. she swallowed hard.
how she’d wanted him to look at her, stroke her cheek. but she knew he was not free. he belonged to lavanya ji. all her feelings were not right… wrong, she had to never ever think of them. she had to close her eyes.
but then when he’d kissed her by the pool she hadn’t been able to stop him… she didn’t want to. she wanted him even when he was someone else’s. khushi’s cheeks flamed when she remembered that wanton desire coursing through her.
why did this man, her arnav ji, make her feel like this? she rested her head on his heart and heard it beating, her cheeks still hot and red.
“you okay, khushi?” asked asr.
he’d taken her to the couch and sat with her. both of them a little tired after a long day. arnav was relieved the show had turned out right. in his business, you were as good as your last success, cut through. an unkind business really, failure rarely tolerated. each season mattered. fall back a bit and someone is viciously butting in, snatching your place away. the only thing that had kept him here was love: an intense love of beauty and fashion. and of course a love of profit.
he had wanted to make money.
he had wanted to let all those who betrayed, cheated, ridiculed, mocked know just one thing… that he could make it through the darkness. he could rise above. he would.
why when his uncle was ruthlessly breaking all laws and throwing them out and he as a minor had no way to fight back, he’d felt anger and determination instead of fear and helplessness he’d never know.
he was the way he was.
and in that there was no space for failure. for self pity. for vulnerability.
there had always been dark whispers in the corridors of his home. he had grown up sensing them. then that night on the staircase at sheesh mahal. he had felt too many things just standing there still as the gunshots rang out. once. and one more time.
too many things.
he rubbed his cheek on her soft silky hair, she was snuggling up to him on the couch. and he felt peace within. deep complete peace.
the one thing that boy on the staircase had lost forever. or so it seemed.
he recalled the moment he’d known he would marry her. yes, he would marry.
things were not going well at ar. there were clear indications that a large valuable order was in trouble. dire trouble. there had been some changes in the money markets and it seemed a client may declare himself bankrupt. not go through with the deal. yet ar was in the process of completing the job, a large sum of money had been borrowed… materials bought, suppliers paid.
they’d been struggling with the problem for days.
payal and akash’s wedding was round the corner. he had to make sure everything went off right. and this certainly was not the time to hassle akash and mama ji with these worries.
back of his mind, arnav singh raizada felt a strange instinct… the trouble was bigger than was apparent. it was the tip of that proverbial iceberg.
brows knitted, lips taut, muscles at the back of neck tense he’d walked into his room that evening and was about to switch on the lights when he noticed her outside.
she sat by the poolside sewing something in a frame with great care, and talking to lakshmi seriously.
“dekhiye, lakshmi ji, aap ko samajhna chahiye ki nani ji aap se bahut pyaar karti hain. aisi baat nahin ki duniya mein aur koi nahin hai jisse nani ji pyaar kar sakti… kitne bade bade sundar sundar kutte hain… jaise ki hamare gomti sadan ka bhola… wah kya baat tha hamare padosi ke uss kutte ka… phir aap ko toh pata hai na, billian kitne pasand karten hain log, aur chidiya? aap ne dekha hai woh film jisme kabootar ja ja ja gana tha… hayee… kabootar kya kya nahin kar sakte hain, salman ji ki pehli film thi woh… lekin, main jo aapse kehna chahti hoon woh yeh hai… aise mat bhag jaiye idhar udhar, nani ji bahut chinta karti hain. woh aap se, lakshmi ji, bahut pyaar karti hain! samjhi aap?”
(see, lakshmi ji, you should understand that nani ji loves you a lot. it’s not as though there’s no one else in the world for her to love… there are so many big dogs… like our gomti sadan’s bhola… oh our neighbour’s dog was something… then you know how people love cats, and birds? have you seen the film which had the kabootar ja ja ja song… oooph… what can’t pigeons do, it was salman ji’s first film… but what i want to tell you is this… don’t run off here and there the way you do, nani ji gets terribly worried. she loves you so much, lakshmi ji! do you understand?)
with that she stroked the goat’s cheek then gave her a little hug.
arnav stood there and felt a peace he hadn’t felt in ages.
absolute quiet peace. it flowed in him and settled inside. he didn’t want to switch on the light. he wanted this conversation to go on… he needed to simply stand there and watch her sewing and talking… to a goat.
he never ever wanted her to go away anywhere. he wanted to marry her.
he started. what? what the.
she went back to her needle and thread and peering and lakshmi walked away. he breathed in deeply. what was he doing thinking she’d come to live with him? he didn’t want a temporary thing at all. he was suddenly not afraid to say it to himself… if it was marriage that would make sure she would be with him, then so be it.
i must tell her, i must tell her, he thought, why she can’t say no to me. not this time.
the champagne bottle was chilling in the bucket filled with ice, two flutes kept by the side. he opened the bottle with a pop, effervescence gushed forth, champagne sprinkled on them, she started giggling…
“arre, what are you doing, arnav ji!”
“kyon khushi, making champagne rain for you, of course… i love you in the rain, don’t you know?” he was laughing, but the hands gripping her shoulder said other things.
she again felt her cheeks go hot, her ears too joined in this time.
she wanted to hold him in the rain. just as she had once. when he’d come out of nowhere and grabbed her and crushed her against him. and she had forgotten she had to move away. stayed there in his arms, her body plastered against his. she had hated him then and yet she had wanted to stay.
he kissed the champagne spots on her face, her neck, and got up swiftly pulling her after him. on the white linen bed he sat her down and gently yet with urgent fingers took off her jewellery, her clothes, one by one.
she remembered the very first time they had made love. he had even then taken her jewellery off like this, at every removal her heart flipping dangerously, anticipating, wondering, fearing desperately, wanting… oh arnav ji, why do you make me feel like this? she had never ever known that one could have so many sensations and feelings. she shivered slightly, and felt his warm mouth in the crook of her elbow where a pulse beat, he slipped off the last bangle.
then he drew away and sat before her, kneeling on the floor still fully clothed, and looked at her… the faintest smile on his lips. in the firelight, she could see his eyes shining, and the expression on his face was so full of calm and joy, she just wanted to sit and stare. not move at all, let nothing take it away.
his eyes roamed from her face down her body. her breasts trembled at the thought of his eyes on them. he looked at her quietly. what was that in his eyes she wondered. how could a man love her so much? he sat there, a gratitude pouring through him.
this beautiful woman, untouched, innocent, her gleaming ivory skin flawless and untainted… how could he ever have thought otherwise, he shuddered. she started. he stared at her bemused and wondered how he got so lucky.
“i love you, dammit!” he said softly to her, looking up at her startled eyes.
then he lunged in one smooth arc and took her with him landing on the bed both of them lying, her below, him on top. he took her hand and placed in on the top button of his shirt, “want to help your poor tired husband with a little undressing, mrs raizada?” he was laughing into her hair.
she loved it when he played like that.
they made love for hours it seemed. and when she suddenly wanted to see the stars, he picked her up and took her outside, where they found the charpoy the dhaba aunty ji had kindly left behind.
khushi had not felt this happy in so long. there seemed to be a lack of darkness in their lives tonight; a complete light. she let her fingers entwine with his and lay there looking at the stars… oh those were surely their parents up there. and yes, certainly they were twinkling brighter tonight. she drifted into sleep, her breath easing, her body growing limp, he held her close… and wondered where she’d like to spend the rest of their honeymoon.
he’d asked captain raina to be prepared for a trip to practically anywhere. wherever khushi wanted to go they’d go he’d decided while planning. he prayed silently that she wouldn’t say, they should take nani ji, bua ji, amma, and maybe di along too. he laughed at this unbelievable thought that passed through his mind. then out of nowhere, he thought, nah, she won’t worry about di right now because there’s doctor verma.
he was so startled at the thought that he almost sat up.
di! he so wished she was alright. no one said anything, but he knew she suffered. shyam’s betrayal… and he knew she’d loved him. he looked at the sleeping girl next to him and knew as he had never known before how much di must have suffered. was suffering now. yet di had that strength in her at times. she’d carried on. now she was engrossed in her management studies… but di needed more. she deserved a wonderful life.
she had been silently weeping that day in sheesh mahal while he stood angry and shouting back at chacha ji. he’d promised himself he’d take away her sadness. he would make everything alright. yet he hadn’t been able to. not really.
shyam’s leering face in the rain came back to him. he wanted to pull a trigger. and silence that obscenity forever.
no. he would not let anyone hurt di ever again. he would not. everything was in his control.
he kissed khushi on the tip of her ear, pulled her close to him and closed his eyes. had he ever slept on a charpoy before that too in the open? felt nice, even though it was a cold november night.
it was six in the evening in london, dark already, when the phone rang. the man picked up the phone and said gruffly “yes? kahiye!”
“woh aa raha hai… do ya teen din bas… aap wapis aa jaiye lucknow,” shyam’s voice was cold and full of venom.
(he is coming… in two or three days… come back to lucknow.)