thng nh c tri theo ngy thng mt,
though longing flows down the river of time
qu kh anh; anh khng nhc cng em.
my past, i did not share with you.
linh h”n ta cn u n hn ‘m,
my soul’s dark recesses darker than night
ta cha thu, na l ai thu r’.
inscrutable to me, inscrutable to all.
~~~ by the vietnamese poet xuan dieu,
translated by thomas d le ~~~
“she was called nancy?” anjali asked softly.
they were sitting in a quiet corner at the bar. it being a weekday, the gymkhana club was not crowded. when doctor verma had called earlier and asked if she’d like to come out for a drink after dinner and he’d finished seeing patients, she had wanted to come, though this was something she had never done before; their way of living was different, and beside, shyam did not go to bars.
at the thought of shyam her jaw hardened. why was she even thinking of him? she was not going to let him anywhere near her ever again.
she went up to nani and asked if it were alright for her to meet the doctor later that evening.
“raat ke khane ke baad, bitiya? woh toh bahut der ho jaaygi…” nani instinctively didn’t like the idea of a late evening meeting, girls in their family did not go out at that hour and that too with a man. she was about to say “no” when she looked at anjali. she could clearly see her grand daughter wanted to go, and after all that this child had gone through and still not caved in, nani felt she couldn’t just refuse only because such a thing had never happened before.
(after dinner? but that would be really late…)
devyani raizada had seen a lot of life. however, it didn’t daunt her; didn’t steal her ability to hope and be full of wonder at the possibilities life held. look how happy her chhotey was at last. and payal bitiya and akash bitwa seemed to be growing closer, maybe there would be the laughter of little children in the house soon, payal bitiya had put on a bit of weight, hadn’t she?
nani ji smiled at anjali and changed her mind, “i think it’s a lovely idea, poor doctor saab, i am sure gets no time to relax… and you too, all this studying and going to the office and all… go go have some fun…”
anjali couldn’t believe how easily nani ji agreed, and she was herself somewhat surprised at how tense she’d felt thinking she may not be able to see doctor verma that evening.
now she was glad she had come out. they had met at the club, since they were coming from two different directions, and distances in delhi being what they were, she’d seen no point in him coming all the way out to pick her up. the moment she saw him sitting at the reception she’d felt a sort of happiness. there was something about this man she’d come to like and trust. maybe it was simply the fact that he’d been such a good and dedicated doctor to her beloved chhotey. he had brought chhotey back.
but anjali was smart enough to realise it was more than that. otherwise she wouldn’t have gone to him that day with her fears about chhotey and what he might do.
she smiled as she walked forward. he got up and warmly greeted her, his dark usually silent eyes suddenly alive. they’d gone to the bar and ordered a drink each. he a whisky, she her usual pina colada, no alcohol. she noticed he took his drink straight, no ice, no water, no soda. exactly like pita ji. she shuddered at a memory and then looking at doctor verma’s earnest face, his long slim fingers which always were steady as they reached out to help someone, she resolutely pushed the thought away.
she would not let the evening be lost to memories that one could never ever change. anjali needed to feel her own life, her breath, her being once more.
this evening, she decided, she was just going to be a lovely woman out with a man who had something nice and warm about him, something that made her feel like herself… the anjali who read, who was clever, chhotey’s “sayani” di , who had gone to the best college in lucknow and who had a sharp mind and a strength of purpose. most of all, an anjali who laughed and could have a good time.
in the middle of conversation as she watched him talk animatedly and let the day’s stress melt away, she said, “you know i am so glad i came, in fact, it was nani ji… she said, you get no time to rest a bit and have fun…”
doctor verma laughed, “really? so i have to thank nani ji for this date? the last time anyone worried about me and my not having fun was…” he stopped mid sentence abruptly. a look of exhausting pain appeared and was gone in a flash. she felt his slight indrawn breath.
a few seconds went by as neither spoke. then very gently she asked, “she was called nancy? please don’t tell me anything if you’d rather not.”
he took a long, slow breath and looked her directly in the eyes, focusing his thoughts, bringing himself back to this moment. a moment he had chosen to enter. after years he had felt like meeting a woman, spending a little time with her. why he had no idea, but he knew he had wanted to spend this evening sitting here at his favourite haunt with anjali and talk.
“doctor saab, ek aur peg banake layen, sir?” the unobtrusive bearer in starched white uniform asked politely.
(doctor saab, shall i get you another peg, sir?)
vijay verma looked up and smiled, “thank you, kishen singh, do i ever say no?” kishan singh picked up the empty glass and walked away.
doctor verma turned back to anjali and smiled, “yes, her name was nancy. and anjali, i do want to tell you what i can about her, but i am not good at saying things, so you’ll have to bear with me. my wife and i met as students in calcutta, i’d gone there from bombay to study medicine. she was from darjeeling… an extremely bright girl… and an orphan,” he paused as he saw anjali look a bit startled.
“nancy never knew her parents, she had been brought up in an orphanage run by the church, she was catholic by faith and she really believed in her lord jesus and his power to heal, to save…” he could almost see nancy at that moment, smiling and happy.
“she was exceptionally bright, when the priests realised her potential, they helped her with her education, and she made it to medical school. she was a year junior to me in college. we married soon after i finished my mbbs and she was still in her final year. my parents were against this relationship. i have no idea why nancy loved a serious guy like me, that too an atheist. but she did… and anjali, perhaps that is the only time in my entire life that i fully and completely loved anyone. anyone other than my parents that is,” he stopped, lost in thought.
anjali could see he was struggling a bit. she said, quietly, “i know the feeling, doctor verma… of loving someone completely.”
there was silence for a while again. then, he took a sip of his laphroaig, grimaced, and said, “i know… strange things happen in life, don’t they…”
the air seemed to settle a bit.
“well nancy and i were married for just about two years when one night…” he took in another deep breath, then let it out slowly, “she died. a bullet out of nowhere… she was walking right beside me, we’d come out after seeing a play, about to cross the road… and a group of young men came running out of the dark suddenly, knives and pistols in hand. another group was chasing them… someone shot…”
“anjali,” his brow puckered as he recalled details from years away, details that rarely left him, “she lay there on the footpath in her red evening dress, a bullet through her heart, the blood kept spilling… i could do nothing… she knew i could do nothing. her eyes were shut, then all of a sudden she opened them, as though willing herself in some way to change that minute, that truth… she looked at me and said, ‘some day you’ll be the best doctor on earth, i love you, vijay,’ i think she was gone even before she said my full name.”
he sat still for a while. then looked at anjali sitting mute, tears still glistening on her cheek. a lightness he had not felt in years was in some part of his being.
“please don’t cry, i didn’t mean to make you so sad on our very first date,” he smiled trying to lift the mood a bit.
“you know, doctor verma, you are really a marvelous doctor, your nancy was right,” anjali said with a smile, wiping away the tears with her hands. she felt a certain ease around this man, no need to hide things.
“and anjali, now that you have gone out to a bar with a man,” his voice was ever so slightly teasing, “maybe you should start calling him by his name, …please?”
he insisted on dropping her home, so mohan drove back with the car, and she went with doctor verma. she was glad to see his driver was with him as she was completely against driving after drinking alcohol. when they reached home, he got out and walked her to the door.
“thank you, anjali, i enjoyed that… and… i have never said all that to anyone… ever… thanks,” he smiled wryly looking at her.
“vijay, i am glad you called, let’s meet soon?” anjali said exactly what came to her mind without thinking too much.
he stood looking at her with dark, unreadable eyes; when he leaned forward, and gave her a quick peck on her cheek and walked briskly back to his car, she was completely taken aback, but strangely not disturbed. or upset, at this gesture which she was not used to at all.
anjali wondered why she felt like behaving differently with him. why she didn’t want to hide behind her hobble or her many fears. and she was so glad she’d worn her floaty midnight blue chiffon today, she knew she looked good in it, especially with the plain glass bangles and a simple blue kundan pendant hanging on strings of tiny japanese pearls.
unseen to both of them, a couple of angry eyes spewed fire.
mami ji had stayed up waiting for anjali, she was worried about this whole going out with the doctor business. why hadn’t sasuma stopped anjali? why so late at night? and he had been married before… she happened to see the two of them at the door. and when he pecked anjali on the cheek, mami ji almost went up in smoke.
she wanted to rush out screeching, “ishtaap ishtaap! you are bhery goods daktar and sabhings my arnav bitwa, but haan, you do anythings baad to my bitiya, you are answerings me manor’ma, d’you understands?” she knew when arnav said those last few words in a certain tone, most people were scared stiff and all their bad intentions vanished. huh, this doctor… kuch kareka padi.
(stop stop! you are a very good doctor and you saved my arnav boy, but… you do anything bad to my girl here, you’ll be answering to me, do you understand?
huh, this doctor, something needs to be done.)
“di?” he’d woken up with a start that morning. for some reason, she was on his mind.
khushi was sleeping peacefully next to him on the charpoy. he smiled as he saw her face… his little crazy woman.. he poked her in the ribs playfully, “get up… get up! i didn’t run away with you so you can spend the whole day sleeping… come, let’s go get some breakfast.”
the word worked like a charm as he’d suspected it would…
“breakfast?!” her eyes flew open, she was sitting up in no time, ecstatic at the thought of the first meal of the day, “arnav ji, nashta! hayee dhabe ka nashta… paranthe bahut saare ghee dal ke, aloo sabzi teekha teekha, dahi, lassi, zyada doodhwali chay khoob saara shakkar ussme, malai…”
(arnav ji, breakfast, aaah dhaba breakfast… parathas with lots of ghee, potato vegetable nice and spicy, yogurt, lassi, tea with extra milk and lots of sugar, cream…)
then she saw his amused face. “arnav ji, stop making fun of me, i am going back to sleep,” and just as swiftly as she had sat up, she lay right back again and resolutely shut her eyes.
“arrey, good morning ji good morning, beti, tu abhi uthi nahin? come get up, see what i got for your breakfast, twada husband toh bada romantic nikla… waise uss din lag toh nahin raha tha… but he called shalled and fixed all this… aur yeh kya… what happened to that bed (she pronounced it baayd, of course) from dilli? you are sleeping on my dhaba charpai… hain? par, i know, main bhi with your uncle ji on the charpai only… so romantic na?”
(hello… good morning, good morning, girl, you still not awake? come get up, see what i got for your breakfast, your husband turned out to be very romantic… though that day he didn’t seem so… but he called and fixed all this… and what’s this… what happened to the bed from delhi? you are sleeping on my dhaba charpoy… huh? but i know, me and your uncle ji on the charpoy, we too… so romantic, isn’t it?)
khushi leapt out of bed at this sudden intrusion of loud happy friendly voice. aunty ji! she was in bright yellow slightly shiny shalwar kurta, her entire portly self seemed to be beaming with smiles. khushi blinked. standing next to aunty ji was a young waiter in sparkling livery holding a tray laden with food. khushi stared open mouthed at the two.
they quickly set everything down on a simple wooden table in the courtyard that had two benches on either side. aunty ji added a few little touches, a napkin settled here, a plate shifted there, glasses turned upside down so dust won’t fall in…
then she came to khushi and said, “khana jaldi jaldi kha lena, beti, uncle ji ne kaha thanda mat hone dena… it’s cold out here, garam garam ka mazaa hi kuch aur hai.”
(eat your food soon, dear, uncle ji said not to let it get cold… the fun of hot hot… is something else.)
then with a cheery smile all around she left along with her helper.
asr had been standing silently all through, watching the little tableau. his wife with saucer eyes and “o” lips stood looking at the table. everything she had had on her breakfast list was there. her eyes checked each item with extreme longing. paranthe… aloo sabzi… lassi… malai… scrambled eggs.
“anda bhurji? aur toast! woh bhi napkin ke andar? yeh kahan se aa gaya?” she muttered befuddled.
(scrambled eggs? and toast? that too wrapped in a napkin? where did these come from?)
“from the taj mansingh, darling… you know i can’t have that…” he perused her favourites with an amused look, “you know… all those… wonderful… absolutely wonderful things you love to break your fast with… so aman had this arranged…”
“aman ji?” she cut in, “you made aman ji call up a five star hotel and have them deliver breakfast to you by a waiter in uniform… here… in the middle of nowhere… at a dhaba?” she was obviously shocked.
“ye-es,” he looked at her quizzically… a most natural thing to do he’d thought. minor problem, easily solved.
“aap toh laad governor hi rahenge,” she made a face.
(you will remain a lord governor.)
and why could he not hold her back just now? return her embrace? when she had come running to him in the hospital?
his eyes narrowed at her slightly irritated expression. he walked toward her with a faintly menacing gait. she saw his face, looked down at his approaching feet, and as though conditioned for this very thing, took one step back, then another.
he advanced. she retreated. they were up against the wall of the dhaba’s little room.
her breathing started to go haywire. he came closer, his face beginning to descend toward hers.
he whispered softly, “pasand nahin hai?… laad governor…”
(you don’t like?… lord governor…)
her toes curled, her ears went hot…
“nnn… nahin… woh…”
he put a finger on her lips. she looked up at him startled.
“shut up, khushi!” a guttural thick whisper, the “kh” exploding even at that low decibel… the words fell like a sultry caress on her body, wrapping her all around. she tensed in reflex.
he removed his finger and ever so slowly began to kiss her on her lips.
his lips were soft and gentle and persuasive and so heady, she stood on her toes and closed her eyes and prayed this would go on. and on.
her hands rested on his wide shoulders, under the fine tee shirt she could feel his muscles stretch and pull. she held his shoulders tight, then let her fingers roam over his taut neck, down, down to his collar bones.
how she loved those beautiful bones at the base of his throat, flanking out on either side, angled by some divine hand, straight, flawless, proud and inviting. she wanted to kiss him along those bones right now, from end to end.
with a murmur she drew her lips away from his and kissed the the spot where his collar bone met his left shoulder, he shivered, she continued down its line, her hands had reached his supple torso. she had no idea that she was moaning and sighing as she went about her adoration of this man whom she could never love enough.
when her hands moved down to his hip bone, he finally couldn’t stop himself anymore.
he grabbed her in his arms and took her straight to the bed draped in white linen that was still untouched.
again and again they made love. it was strange how there was discovery each time. always a new sensation unearthed and felt with all of oneself.
the breakfast got very cold indeed.
he stood in his room, wretched, churning. why had he lost control like that when that disgusting man with wild hair had touched khushi outside the dhaba? why? what was she to him?
he’d just gone crazy, beating the man in frenzy… battling the whole gang all by himself… irrational. stupid.
yet he couldn’t stop. how dare they! how dare anyone touch khushi!
and why could he not hold her back just now? return her embrace? when she had come running to him in the hospital? her father had been rushed there with a terrible ailment, not yet clearly diagnosed. she needed help, she’d run… no raced… to him, flung herself on him, wanted his support, his assurance.
everything in him had wanted to hold her tight, to protect her, to tell her, don’t worry, it will all be ok… he was there for her. always there.
he couldn’t do that. he couldn’t. she was many things perhaps to him… but not that… forever. what was that. was there even such a thing?
payal was folding clothes as usual. akash walked in and looked at her tenderly, “payal, don’t you ever get tired of doing these mundane things… you know the servants are there…”
“i know, but i like to do all this, ” payal said eyes twinkling. a huge grin on her face.
“c’mon, don’t tell me folding clothes makes you so happy… and if it does, kapde fold karti raho, mona darling” akash loved to see a smile on his somewhat serious wife’s face.
(… keep folding clothes, mona darling.)
payal burst out laughing at the reference to a movie “villain” from yesteryears, famous for his white suits and call to a girl friend off screen, always named mona or so went the stories, exhorting her to continue bathing while he went about his usual deeds: killing, smuggling, stealing, blackmailing, etc. thanks to bua ji and mami ji, both she and akash had seen enough of these old movies and actually quite enjoyed them.
“haan… shakaal…” she responded cheerfully and flung a shirt at him. “actually, you know, i’d never have thought arnav ji was quite so romantic… lovely, na… main khushi ke liye…” and she couldn’t continue as her words got caught in a sob.
(lovely, isn’t it, for khushi, i am…)
“hey… hey,” akash was next to her in a second, “don’t cry… sab theek hoga… i know you care for khushi and worry about her… but you’ll see..”
(don’t cry… all will be well…)
“i know… i know… all will be ok, but she’s so silly and tiny and clean and determined… and you know… when i think of everything she went through just because she thought we couldn’t…” payal struggled with this… how khushi and asr had got married… she would never know exactly what happened. but whatever she knew bothered her no end.
arnav ji had been misled terribly… that night as she stood ready for her varmala, he’d threatened khushi if she didn’t marry him, he wouldn’t let the wedding go through. khushi had not had a choice. she’d gone along just for her, payal’s, sake. and accepted a relationship… no real ceremony… no witnesses… no rites… nothing… she had gone to live with arnav ji without a single socially valid ritual, without asking any questions, without the right to ask for anything… just for her. payal. and how everyone had berated khushi…
that everything was fine now was one thing… but payal hated being the cause of any pain to her sister. even if she knew khushi was terribly happy now, that arnav ji was her life, her joy, her everything. even then. the truth could not be pushed aside and brushed under a carpet of feigned ignorance and insensitivity.
she started weeping. akash held her in his arms and rocked her, soothing, murmuring comforting words. his wife was a tad more emotional these days he noticed.
“main maa banne wali hoon,” she said against into his pullover, just like that.
(i am going to become a mother.)
the whole world seemed to rock. then a terrific happiness erupted. akash started to laugh, his laughter echoed all around, payal held him closer still and buried her face in his chest, a beautiful smile on her lips.
they had walked a lot that day. she wanted to see all the places they’d trudged around on that fateful trip to nainital. she in the car by mistake. it was meant to be lavanya ji.
she chased the pigeons that had congregated in front of the dhaba, then fed them grain. she went in and thanked uncle ji for a delicious breakfast. when he said she had done the right thing by eloping with asr, she agreed vehemently and drank some more lassi. asr felt slightly queasy but he was happy to see her doing her thing.
she insisted on finding the ditch in which she’d sat silent with the box of pakoda, worried that if she opened her mouth he’d deduct half her salary. he’d been frantic, fearing all sorts of things, thinking in that dense wood maybe there were wild animals… had they gotten her… or worse. and there she sat, pretty and mum in her dark blue churidar suit.
he’d laughed at the thought, but the fear he’d felt left tremors somewhere.
“khushi,” he’d asked with a serious look, “tell me, who takes off clothes in a public bathroom?”
“arnav ji!” she had scowled. she had her own ways, and who had asked that woman to steal her dress, anyway… that’s why she’d worn the bridal lehenga left behind by the thief. and so much trouble because of that.
he remembered how he couldn’t move his gaze, his feet, his voice, nothing, when he saw her come out of that crummy bathroom in a beautiful lehenga with a large gauzy dupatta… she’s shone and dazzled and his breath had been taken. and he didn’t mind, he just wanted to stare. never look away.
“yaad hai, aapne ek bhi pakoda nahin khaya, sab main kha gayi? humne kitna achha plan banaya tha, aap ke aur lavanya ji ke liye,” as the words came out, she felt a sense of unease. then she carried on, letting the feeling pass… it was such a lovely day and there was just herself, arnav, and the trees…
(you remember, you ate not even one pakoda? i ate all of them… such a nice plan i’d made for you and lavanya ji.)
it was long after sunset now, again a dropping of temperature, a breeze among the leaves, a chill. he was standing in the verandah, looking out… very very quiet.
she could feel the quietness in his whole body… as if he wasn’t there at all.
she went up to the railing and stood by him, outside the stars had begun to appear.
“kya hua, arnav… ji?”
(what happened, arnav ji?)
“khushi!” was he sobbing?
she looked closer. his eyes were dark and dense, his face rigid, drawn; the last time she’d seen him looking like that was on the night of their wedding.
a cold sweep clutched her heart.
“tell me, am i like him?” flat dead voice.
“like whom, arnav ji?” she was lost.
“he was always galat… always… no matter how much i wanted him not to be…”
(he was always wrong… always.)
he turned around suddenly and looked at her…
“my father… why did he need other… other… why was my mother never enough for him? why could he not stick to one woman? khushi… when i came here with you that first time, lavanya was in my life… jaisi bhi thi woh, jaisa bhi tha hamara rishta… tha toh rishta… she trusted me… then why, why did i feel all those things for you? why, khushi?”
(however she was, whatever our relationship… it was still a relationship.)
khushi could see the raw pain in his eyes now… she wanted to run to him, tell him, no no he was not wrong, these things happen.. lavanya ji had understood things he couldn’t… nor could she… why, she had gone and gotten engaged to shyam ji… a million words tumbled inside her.
but she knew they couldn’t be said.
he would not listen. he could not.
“aaj mujhe phir se yeh mehsoos ho raha hai, ki maine jo kiya, woh galat kiya… par khushi, tumhare bina main jee nahin sakta. kya yeh bhi galat hai? maine sahi hone ki kitni koshish ki… khadoos hoon, i am arrogant i know, brusque, insensitive often, but i so wanted to be right. not like him… not like him… always weak, always galat… and yet the way i married you… the way i behaved here…”
(today once more i feel i was wrong, that what i did, it was wrong… but khushi, i can’t live without you. is this also wrong? i tried so hard to be right, to be correct… i am rough, i am arrogant i know, brusque, insensitive often, but i so wanted to be right. not like him… not like him… always weak, always wrong…)
he was swaying on his feet, his voice getting into a spin.
then he caught himself somehow, drew himself up to his full height, and stood quiet for a few minutes…
he saw his father’s inebriated blood shot eyes, his mother was scolding him for throwing away the datura flowers, and the pillars of sheesh mahal moved, khushi was running between them. toward a bullet.
“was i wrong, khushi?” his voice was clear and strong.
she stayed where she was, “nahin, arnav ji, aap sahi hain… dil kabhi galat kaam nahin karta… jab woh kuch kehta hai, who sahi hota hai… hamesha…”
(no, arnav ji, you are right… the heart never does anything wrong… when it says something, it is right… always…)
“but it was not fair to lavanya… i didn’t promise her marriage, but she was entitled to my fidelity.”
“and you were not unfaithful, were you? not here… not that day…”
“but i did think of you… i couldn’t help myself.”
“so did i… think of you… and it always bothered me…”
“i am not like him, am i?”
she walked to him then and held his hand.
he tossed and turned in his sleep the whole night. when he woke up, he knew he had to tell her. he needed to go back to sheesh mahal. ever since that meeting with shyam, he’d known there was no escape. he had to return… bas.
shyam had chosen his words well. perhaps he was walking into a trap. but it had to be done… for khushi, for himself… for maa… for di… and for pita ji.
he’d asked the hotel to be closed over the winter. after they’d visited the place khushi chose… he’d go to sheesh mahal.
he turned to look at khushi, he had not realised she’d woken up next to him. she lay there looking at him…
“arnav ji, can we spend three more days here… then go to sheesh mahal?”
“i feel that is my real sasural… where your mother had her garden… i have never been there after our marriage, will you take me?” her eyes were clear and large and he knew she felt every feeling of his.
“aur amma babu ji ki bahut yaad aar rahi hai,” she smiled, “aur pet mein chuhe daud rahe hain… chaliye chaliye… aaj hum toast khayenge sahib logo ki tarah… aur aap ko milega, paranthe bahut saare…”
(and i am missing amma and babu ji… and mice are running around in my stomach… come come… today i’ll eat toast like the sahibs, and you’ll get paranthe with lots of…)
“shut up, khushi, ” he had to grin.