the river stretched far into the other side, the waters were deep and rippling, a rush in its current. the yamuna was in full spate, heavy rains had filled it to the brim and beyond, the embankments on either side had been breached a few times.
no, not the yamuna of the arid delhi summer this; a monsoon yamuna bursting with fecundity, burgeoning with life, flowing expectant and full toward sangam, the meeting.
khushi sat on the grass watching the river glisten. it was early in the morning, sleep had eluded her all night, she needed to get away and sit by herself and just be. she couldn’t explain to anyone her restlessness, her longing, her feeling of being empty.
who would understand what being away from him for a month felt like; someone she hadn’t met or known till less than a couple of years ago, and now? she didn’t know him… really? she thought. why did it feel as though such a time had not existed? ever.
when he told her he had to go for a couple of months to his office in new york, she’d been disoriented, confused. go away for two months? but… ? she had no idea what running a large business in the ever electric, ever fretful international fashion industry meant. her father’s mithai shop in lucknow had been there for nearly three decades now, it even provided a decent income, not huge, but enough… yet rarely did it impose such demands on the owner.
she had looked at him with troubled eyes. he had smiled back, leant forward, flicked her nose, and murmured, “you’re coming with me.”
she’d felt light and frothy for an instant. every time he did such things, she felt a quick dart of happiness inside. she had smiled back shyly and watched his eyes light up. she wished there was a way to catch these moments and put them in a box and keep them on the shelf where she hoarded her treasures.
she’d shaken her head and said, “nahin, arnav ji, hum nahin ja sakte…” he’d scowled darkly and retorted “khushi, shut up.”
right now she wished she could put that instant in her little box too.
she pulled at blades of grass as her mind wondered and the breeze played with her hair. the morning feeling in the air calmed her taut nerves. she had not felt it was right to go away from home for so long. this was her family, plus amma and babu ji were there too. payal and akash were in america. di was not yet feeling that strong. no, from whatever she understood of life, she really couldn’t go away just because arnav ji had to. that would be irresponsible.
someone had to stay here… khushi gave herself all these long lectures and finally asr relented. he did leave though.
khushi sighed. she could feel herself swallow raggedly, a frazzled emotion wanting to well up from within.
why, devi maiyya, she thought, is it so tough? she spoke to arnav ji every day. there was a nine and a half hour time difference, which meant when he woke up it was tea time for her, and every day her eyes strayed constantly to the phone around then. he’d be happy to hear the iphone which he’d bought her just before leaving she’d now grown practically addicted to… checking the time in new york on the world clock. he liked to call her usually the moment he awoke. his voice had a little sleepiness in it often, and it made her want to wrap her arms around him and pull him close, let him linger five more minutes before the day got going. really he worked too hard, she thought.
they did speak a few more times during the day, but then there were some days when he was too busy to linger over chats. just this thursday he’d called when it was midnight his time and morning hers. he sounded so tired. when she asked him what he’d had for dinner, he was distracted and muttered, “nothing, khushi, where’s the time to eat?”
she’d felt so terrible she couldn’t eat lunch that day. mami ji was shocked, “phati saree, are you pheelings aalright? tum khana naat eating? sun rijing in the baste…”
(phati saree, you feeling alright? how come you’re not eating, did the sun rise in the west today?)
she had kept herself busy, tried not to mope, but somehow, she never felt complete, whole, all there. like something was missing, all around, all the time.
khushi looked at the river, now stop moping she told her frayed self, look, there’s a boat, wonder where it’s going? are they fishing?
again a sigh.
today was going to be hard.
her eyes stung with tears. she remembered the bells ringing. she remembered a tense voice, a hand rough and merciless on her wrist… she was numb, in shock, he was relentless… hey devi maiyya, raksha karna. why is today so bleak? why can’t i pull myself out of this mood? chal, khushi, bas kar, ab jaakey jalebi banaate hain… theek hai?
(come khushi, now enough, let’s go and make some jalebis, okay?)
she got up slowly and made her way back to her scooter. yeah, she’d insisted she needed one, and after some arguing, he’d bought her a brand new one, refusing to buy the second hand scooter of bedi ji’s she’d suggested. he had checked the helmet himself, driving her crazy about the right kind and the right way to wear one. he’d also bought her a car, just because he felt she would be safer in one. a sweet red beetle.
she remembered her first time on the scooter. he had wanted to come along, just to make sure she was ok, she hadn’t been on a bike in a while. she remembered his arms going around her waist and holding her tight. her concentration had gone on a long wild flight at that. he’s shaken with laughter and teased, “khushi, kya kar rahi ho? told you, you can’t ride a scooter.” that did it. she’d wrenched her concentration back out of his clutches and shown him he was wrong. they’d had ice cream at india gate, actually she’d had two ice creams while he’d watched.
she smiled at the memory. oh arnav ji, where are you? a gust of wind rose as she started her scooter and seemed to pick up her thought.
gust of wind. she felt it and again thought, oh arnav ji, aap kahan hain?
when she got back home, nani ji was up and just a bit worried, “khushi bitiya, aap kahan the? aap theek hain na? amma babu ji?”
(khushi bitiya, where were you? you’re okay i hope? your parents??)
“sab theek hai, nani ji, main yun hi…” khushi smiled slightly trying to reassure her… nani ji had started to feel like her own grandmother. she hugged her.
(everything is alright, nani ji, i was just…)
“bitiya,” nani ji hugged her back and then said, “come, get ready, we have a pooja today you remember? special day…”
khushi swallowed hard and went to change. somehow, it was impossible to put her mind to choosing the right clothes, matching the bangles, bindi… oh what a chore, she thought as she picked out a saree. right in front of her was a yellow one. hadn’t she worn a similar saree when he’d told her he hated her? and she’d said, she hated him too? because he wasn’t fit to be loved?
she felt as if she were suffocating.
she rushed out, outside by the pool, by his plants, and took deep breaths… she stood with her eyes closed, willing herself to recover, calm down, take a hold of herself. arnav ji, why didn’t i go with you?
she stood there bereft, shoulder drooping, today of all days…
then she felt something call out to her, she frowned slightly. what was that?
without really knowing why, she turned around.
he stood there at the french windows, staring at her. what was that expression on his face? why was he looking so tortured?
why was he… wait… was she dreaming? he couldn’t be here.
then he opened his arms wide.
and all she could do was race into them.
here, not here, reality, dream, whatever. she wanted arnav ji.
“aap hume chhorke kaise ja sakte hain? how could you leave me and go away, i can’t live without you, main aapke bina jee nahin paaoongi, ” she was crying and holding him tight.
his arms cradled her, “shh… shh… khushi, my darling, khushi, chup, stop crying, i’m here, see?” his breath caressed her cheek, she hadn’t felt its touch in so long. she wanted to hold it and never let it go anywhere.
she looked up at him at last, his eyes were alive and shining, his lips on hers were hungry, desperate. she held him even closer and kissed him back without shame or restraint. for long moments, the pool waters lapped and the breeze rustled the leaves and they kissed.
“khushi,” he whispered, standing with his forehead against hers. ”arnav ji,” she sighed.
“do you know what day it is, khushi?” his voice had an undercurrent of tension.
“yes, i do,” she said simply, “it’s the day we got married.” she felt a grip on her wrist, her feet going up the temple steps, her dupatta trailing on the floor. he dragged her up the steps without looking at her even once, and flung her in front of devi maiyya’s graceful moorti. the winds howled, her tears streamed, her eyes went from his rigid face to a plate with sindoor and a mangalsutra lying before the deity. as she stared speechless, he went and picked up the necklace of black beads and gold and came back. his eyes were burning with anger, with hatred, with something torrid and tearing, he put the mangalsutra on her without a word.
then a pinch of sindoor was thrust upon her maang, her parting in the hair… married, she was married. to this man with violent eyes. who said this was a farce, for six months only. the bells clanged wildly, the night crashed around her head. she stood there numb. once he’d put that sindoor on her maang, she knew she was married… whether he hated her or adored her. there was no going back.
her arms reached out for him again, “arnav ji,” she clung to him, eyes shut. and at last the tears came. for so long she had kept a check on them. they flowed, warm and unstoppable, drenching his shirt, soaking through, on his chest, his heart. the monsoon had arrived at last. and it carried her to her meeting.
he lifted her up and took her to their bed, he sat with her on his lap and just let her cry. his arms held her, his heartbeat told her he was there.
when her tears abated, he wiped her eyes gently with his pristine white handkerchief. ”how could i do that to you, khushi?” he asked. how he wished he could completely erase that night. he could feel the roughness of his hand, the ruthlessness in him, he could see a fragile bewildered girl just standing there helpless as he took away all options from her, as he beat her into submission by threats that he knew she couldn’t ignore. he wanted so badly to hurt her. “how could you!” cried his heart and shattered each time after it said that. all he knew was he had to do what he had to do.
yet he could see her vulnerable eyes, her resplendent beauty, however hard he tried not to. something in him roared, “you’re mine, mine.” something else screamed, “you’re filthy, dirty, vile.” and yet he had to put that mangalsutra around her neck. his hands were steady and determined, and his heart felt a jolt when the sindoor touched her parting. he didn’t believe in such things, yet he felt that jolt. rubbish, nahin hai asr ke seene mein dil… there’s no heart in asr’s breast.
he took a long breath and gripped her tighter.
“how could i?” he buried his face in her hair.
as they held each, their breathing eased. both seemed to settle a bit. it had been so long since they’d felt each other’s touch. in that itself there was peace, there were answers to difficult questions.
“i so missed you, khushi… i had to see you today…” they were lying next each other they both realised, no longer sitting, he held her fast, his shoes were still on, and her sindoor was smeared across his shirt front, where she’d buried her head and cried. her eyes lingered on the crimson blotches on the white linen, she nudged forward and pressed her lips to his bare skin, just above the top button.
“arnav ji, sometimes maybe things happen the way they do because they have to happen that way?” she was playing with his shirt button… “i used to dream of my wedding and how everything would be, but… it didn’t happen that way…” she looked up, he pushed back a lock of stray hair from her forehead.
“did you do that in the guest house the night you came to save me from the storm,” she asked suddenly, a memory seemed to trigger somewhere.
“yes, khushi,” he was taken aback at this jump to another topic suddenly.
“aap ne uss raat pehli baar hume khushi kahke pukara tha,” she smiled and snuggled a bit. you’d called me by my name the first time that night. asr was perplexed, what was she trying to tell him?
“arnav ji, when we met did you ever think we’d be here one day?”
what a strange girl she was, he thought and couldn’t help but smile.
“khushi, what are you trying to tell me, stop saying strange things.”
“ajeeb,” she said, and laughed, “hum sach mein kitne ajeeb hain.” strange, we are really so strange.
“did you really think it was only for six months and not a marriage at all?” she asked looking him straight in the eyes.
he remembered the jolt.
“no… no. i thought, ” he ran his fingers through her hair and grabbing a bunch of thick curls pulled her close, “i thought, you are mine, mine… i also thought you were a terrible woman.”
“but you couldn’t not be with me, hai na?” she breathed near his mouth and gave him a searing kiss.
“khushi…” he could feel desire rising.
“i felt terrible, i wanted to hit you, hurt you, i had no idea why you were doing this to me, but you know, arnav ji, when your hand went round my neck and you put on this…” she touched her mangalsutra, “i looked at your face… and all i saw for an instant was my husband. mine… mine.” she repeated his words and hugged him close and just lay there.
somehow there was no need to say things any more. he took off her churidar kurta slowly, she unbuttoned his shirt and undressed him with a terrible need. she so wanted to lie next to him, feel his skin, know he was there. they made love till both were exhausted and fell asleep.
when a river runs in full spate its beauty is of another order. no one remembers how dry and barren it had been just a while back, how narrow its spread, how brown and muddy the islands that erupted in its centre even at times, for the lack of its life force, water. perhaps it is these unpretty days of the river that hold up its beauty even more. make us marvel at its surge and strength, its gleaming ripples and sure gait. it seems to know where it’s going, without there having to be maps and compasses. an instinct carries it along to the right place. a river never gets lost.
that evening he said he wanted to take her out. she dressed with care in a red saree with matching bangles and a tiny sparkling red bindi. she left her hair open the way he liked it. when she came before him, he thought time had flipped and done some funny dance, that first time she’d worn a saree in his office and he had stood and stared, unable to look away… it all came rushing back.
he grabbed her hand and said, “come!” in that half tender half imperious way of his. out by the poolside, he made her sit on the deckchair and sat on the floor before her.
khushi recalled the look on his face when he’d slipped a payal onto her ankle one night, and him blowing so so gently into her eyes that day when she’d managed to rub some dust into them. arnav ji, do you know how often i have sat here and spoken to you this past month? but i think america is too far away, shayad aapko sunai nahin diya… she was talking to herself.
“no, khushi, i heard you every day,” he said to her as he lifted a hand and kissed it.
“haan?!!” she looked at him startled. he’d read her thoughts again.
“ha-an!” he grinned that lopsided grin of his, and she felt something on her wrist.
she looked down to see a beautiful gold kangan on her wrist and even as her mouth started to form her trademark “o” the other kangan was slipped on smoothly by a pair of expert hands.
she stared at the two perfect bangles, gleaming solid gold. “arnav ji?” she looked at him tremulous… what was he doing?
“khushi,” he lifted both her hands and drew them close, right up to his heart, “i know everything about that night was wrong… i know you don’t like apologies, so i won’t apologise, i just want you to know that i loved you… even though i hated you. and i did want to celebrate the first anniversary of our wedding with you. together. you and me.” he bent and kissed both her wrists first. khushi literally felt pain melt away.
were these eyes that violent that night?
he turned her hands around and kissed her on each palm, slowly, taking his time, then he laid his face on them and sat quiet.
“please come to new york with me.”
as the plane rose higher, she sat still gripping his hand, her stomach felt like it was emptying and rushing up at the same time.
“tum theek ho?” a pair of creamy brown eyes were looking at her below a severe frown. the sunlight streaming in through the window made them sparkle more. how terribly grim those eyes could be sometimes. but she liked them even when she hated him. she almost smiled.
the plane banked and as she felt the tilt she grew nervous, her eyes went quickly toward the window, what was up? and there below she saw the yamuna.
a skein of silver in the mid day sun, how well it knew where it had to go. “hum aate hain, yamuna ji,” she thought, then turned and laid her head on his shoulder. her kangans made little sounds as they touched her bangles when she moved.
she heard him sigh.