The heavy velvet brocade curtains were pulled wide apart to let the bright sun rays through. The large spacious room lit up and echoed with the tinkling sound of glass against gold. Thick gold bangles, with a dozen thin glass ones, in red, adorned the hand that was opening the window latch.
“Utho Chote. It is your di’s wedding today. Bahut saara kaam hai humein.”
He pushed away the heavy silk quilt and slowly sat up in bed rubbing his eyes. A flock of pigeons had fluttered onto the window ledge. One ruffled its feathers and turned and flew straight into the room landing right on the bed. He remembered ma had said pigeons brought peace with them.. Sukoon, was the word ma had used.. He liked that word.. But this pigeon had blood red rims around his black beady eyes. It looked sad . Why was the pigeon sad? It scared him to see the pigeon sad. He wanted his ma. She would know what to do to help the pigeon.. He looked towards the window, but ma wasn’t there. Where had she gone?
“Ma?” He waited for an answer..
The dream had left him shaken, but Arnav Singh Raizada had deliberately set a pace slightly faster than was usual for his early morning jog. Gradually he could feel his muscles strain and then loosen up. The crisp morning chill and steady rhythm of calculated movement had helped his body relax. The mind however needed another distraction.
Just then his phone started to vibrate. Still rather lost in thought he answered the call.
“aap uth gaye hai na? You should not be late today. Aur der toh hogi hi when the whole night you kept disturbing me. Don’t think you can come scare me in my dreams. Samjhe aap? Achcha aap ye sab rehne dijiye. Jayiye talk to mamiji. Aur Arnavji feel.. Ha, say it with feelings, ok? Remember the plan. Ab hum phone rakhte hain.. Hello hi bye bye“.
Khushi Kumari Gupta had already disconnected the call before ASR could say a single word. He shook his head with an indulgent air. His thoughts returned to sheesh mahal again, but this time it focused on the light figure of an ethereal girl resting in his arms for a precious few minutes and a pair of rosy quivering lips that had caught his attention.
“Chote tum bhi na.. Why aren’t you in the hall with mami? Pata hai since early morning she is in a very bad mood. Subah subah se Om Prakashji has been told by mami to make four different kinds of juice with and without sugar and lots of ice… aur tab bhi mami’s gusaa is still this hot. Ab toh Om Prakashji is too confused and too scared to even venture anywhere close to her. What are you waiting for now? Go chote..”
Anjali had just returned from the mandir and was carrying a puja thal which seemed to be overflowing with items. She looked fresh and pretty clad in her baby pink saree with a shimmering thick silver border. There was an infectious smile that did not leave her face even as she raised her eyebrows in mock annoyance.
ASR continued to meticulously button up his charcoal gray waistcoat. Always one button at a time starting right from the bottom most, as was his habit.. It was a well-practiced precise movement and he let his eyes wander up to his smiling di. He felt happy seeing her this excited. Though she tried to hide it as best as she could, he knew, lately she had been missing jeejaji a lot.
Now thoughts of Aakash’s wedding had her distracted and ASR knew she was thoroughly enjoying the fact that she had gotten her chote to say ‘yes’ to their crazy idea. In fact she was enjoying it a bit too much, he thought suspiciously.
His mind wandered to the previous evening.
Di had gone on to supposedly explain, “Chote, for being so intelligent sometimes you can be such a budhdhu. You look look like you have to actually marry Khushiji for real. Nahi baba.. She is only saying that you have to tell mami that you love Khushiji and want to marry her. Kyu? Thik kaha na maine Khushiji? Isn’t this what you are suggesting? I think it is perfect.”
Khushi had looked completely flustered and mumbled something incoherent, but di had not given her a chance to speak further. He was quite certain that that this was not what Khushi had in mind. There was a strange sensation in him after hearing di’s words. And now, seeing the clearly panicked Khushi, amused him further. Some corner within him felt a thrill that he could not quite explain. He did not want to analyze what it meant just yet.
Di was however not even close to done yet.
“Think about Akash chote. Payalji is such a lovely girl. Our bhai will be very happy with her“. Di did have a perfectly valid point, ASR mused. Payal was a very nice girl. She had a lot of spirit in her, just like her sister, he grudgingly admitted to himself. And only because he had refused to believe Khushi ,had Payal’s marriage not taken place.
Maine galat kiya. I should have listened to her. Wo sach keh rahi thi. The words reverberated within him. In fact if he had known then, he himself would have given the money to Khushi. No. He would definitely not have given any money. Payal was better off not marrying a spineless sorry excuse for a guy like that. It was good she met Aakash.
“Payalji and Aakash are meant for each other. Just like you and Khushiji.”
“Bu..but Anjaliji..” Khushi had tried to interrupt di. He knew di when she got into such a mood. She would not easily stop. So he hadn’t even bothered to interrupt. And a little mischief was bubbling inside him too, seeing Khushi all worked up. Serves her right for coming up with such a crazy scheme. Paagal. He couldn’t stop himself from softly saying it.
“Kyu hai na Khushiji? Chote just has to convince mami he cannot live without you. What a brilliant idea you came up with Khushiji. waah!“. So di had continued talking till he and Khushi had slowly given in.
Though in reality he knew another reason that had compelled him to say yes.
That day at the cliff after her ridiculous idea to get Payal and Aakash together had worked Khushi had looked so happy. It had reminded him of the girl jumping and smiling widely with two silver coins in her hands.
“Chote stop staring at your laptop. Ab jao bhi. And I have called your office and let them know you will be at home today.”
“Fine di..“. He slammed his laptop shut with a purposeful air and strode out of his room to get this thing over with. If this insane nonsense was what it would take to get mami to agree to the marriage then he would get it done.
(what are you saying? Are you bringing back miss tip top? Does sasuma know? And at the very same time both brothers are thinking alike. Is this a new fashion from abroad.. Season for love.)
He forced himself to exhale again. “Mami I am going to marry Khushi. And I don’t see any problem with her family. She is smart and independent. Thori ajeeb hai lekin cute hai. Her family members are also very respectable. I see no reason at all that this will not work out.” Once he said the first sentence the rest of the words rushed out of him, as if even if he tried they would not be stopped.
If Manorma had been shocked a second earlier listening to her nephew talk about being in love, now she was sure this must be a hilarious funny dream she was in. Arnav bitwa was in love with phatee saree? She pinched herself on her rather wide forearm a little too energetically.
“Aaa..” She was definitely awake.
“isstap isstap and peeleejh rewindingjh do not fast forwardeenjh. Tum aur oo phatee saree ki parem kahani.. Hum logan ke nojej ke under. How this happeneengjh? Telljh peeleej. Ab bhy not isspeakingjh?”
(Stop..stop.. Rewind.. Don’t rush ahead.. You and phatee saree’s love story.. Under our noses. How did this happen? Tell me please. Now why are you not speaking?)
“Money is not everything Mami. Aur jab mujhe uski family mein koi problem nai dikh raha hai then I think you also will not have a problem.”
Arnav Bitwa wanted to marry? Was he serious? He had to be serious. He always was. Maybe someone had practiced some jadoo Tona on her poor Arnav bitwa. She again turned her attention back to what he was saying. And was he smiling?
“Mami Khushi sabse alag hai. I have never seen anyone like her before. I want to keep her safe and have her with me. There are times when it amazes me how important her happiness has really become for me. Uski smile..”
“par..par bitwa.. Eej this youj? Tum issmile karat ho bith safed teethwa isshowing oo phatte saaree ke memoriejh ma? Phatee saaree eej knowingjh all? Oo jaanat hai?”
(But..but bitwa is this you? You are smiling with your white teeth showing in phatee saree’s memory? Does she know of all this?)
“Nahin mami, she does not know. Kabhi kabhi mujhe lagta hai she still thinks I still only want to scare her.” ASR stopped talking. He had said way more than he had meant to. It was time he left and cleared his head. He would call Aman and get some real work done”.
Leaving behind a clearly bewildered disbelieving mami he took long loping strides back to the poolside with his familiar plants waiting for him.
Khushi clutched on to her jhola’s strap with one hand while she used her other hand to pop channa into her mouth. She had gone to her favourite thele wale bhaiya on her way to Raizada mansion and brought ten whole rupees worth of channa. She knew she needed lots of channa today. She had wanted to make jilebi, but she got up late having hardly slept at all and had rushed to reach here. That laad governor.. What did he think of himself.. Hey devi maiya.. Why did he have to come continuously in her dreams and keep scaring her? Did he have no other work to do?
ASR had gone back to his room, called Aman and was now blissfully immersed in things he did understand and have control over. In his one hand he was balancing his mac book and in the other he had a bunch of print outs.
Unnoticed by both, a third person was leisurely making her way towards the same spot. Her mouth full of juicy leaves she had managed to get from the poolside. Though some might say being a goat did not qualify her as a person, but Lakshmiji was as much a member of the Raizada household as all the other people who lived in it.
The man, the girl and the goat all banged into each other… and papers and channa and leaves showered over them..
“maaee“.. Lakhsmiji’s bells tinkled loudly..
“Can’t you watch where you are going?”
“Hum watch kar rahe the. Pata nahi from where you came up right in front of me. And you saw na.. Lakshmiji also came here at the same time so humari galti nahi hai“. She countered back rubbing her elbow. The macbook’s edges were sharp and they had hit right across her bones.
“aahh“.. An involuntary cry rose from her. She sqeezed her eyes shut trying to shut out the pain as well.
“Khushi, Tum thik ho? What happened? Let me see..“. His voice an urgent whisper. With her cry ASR’s gussa had immediately left him. His hand had moved to grasp Khushi by the shoulder and he was peering at her intently. When she did not respond, instead remained with her eyes closed and a grimace on her face, he jerked her closer to him.
“Khushi?“.. A faint caress in his tone.
She could feel his breath on her. He was that close to her, his hand clutching her arm and the rest of him just shy of coming in contact with her. The air seemed to simmer between them and each of his breath that landed on her face left her a little more breathless than before.
“Leave me.. And why only me Lakshmiji must also be hurt, though she should not have come in the middle.. Hum khud kar lenge.. Lakshimji can take care of me.. Mera matlab Lakshmiji and me are completely fine..aayiye Lakshmiji“, Khushi jreked back, still affronted by his sharp rebuke from a second ago and completely disoriented by the close proximity to this man.
Feeling strangely lightheaded she quickly turned around, picked up Lakshmiji, who had managed to salvage some leaves and was happily munching again, and swiftly walked away leaving a slightly dazed ASR staring in the direction she had disappeared in..
His eyebrows arched a tad bit higher. “Unbelievable“, was all he could manage at that moment.
Back in the hall Anjali had heard the exchange between mami and chote. In fact, to her it felt like she spent most of her days now listening to things. She had a lot of free time on her hands. When Shyamji was with her then all her waking minutes would be blissfully centered around him, but these days he spent so much time wrapped up in his work. She longed to be able to spend more time with him.
However, meanwhile instead of moping around the house she was eagerly planning matchmaking for her dearest chote. It was her much cherished dream to see him with a wife. He may laugh all he wanted, but Anjali knew how uplifting and exhilarating being in love felt. Chote was beginning to figure that out too. She could see it. And everything she had heard until now told her she was right. Chote’s words had convinced her that she was definitely right. But the more pertinent question this instant was whether his words had convinced mami.
“mami aapne dekha these days humare chote remains so happy. He even scolds Om Prakashji less. Achcha mami hum abhi aate hain.” She walked away grinning to herself.
Left alone in the hall mami struck a theatrical pose, plopped herself back onto the sofa and placed her palm on her forehead. ‘me, manorma mami, not iseeing Arnav bitwa ke Khoosie?’
(I did not see Arnav’s happiness?)
She thought over the past few months. Of course, he & Khushi were in love… hmmph.. And of course she knew what being in love meant. Had she not had a love marriage herself? She glared at all the invisible people who might be around to challenge this statement.
She clearly remembered one summer month many years ago when she had been a new bahuriya in Shantivan. She had been feeling quite lonely and out of place. She had worked here and now she was the daughter-in-law. She had tried her best to hide it for her husband’s sake, but all the while she had been unnerved.
And then Arnav bitwa and Anjali had come for their summer holidays. One afternoon, when everyone was in their room taking a nap, the small boy had walked into her room and asked her curiously whether she was his mami now? He had said he did not understand why everyone was in tension over her being the new mami. He had demanded she play with him because when she was Manorma mausi then also while making him eat his meals she would always play with him. Arnav bitwa had taken her English magazines from the table and had wanted her to read it aloud to him. And once she started to read, he had laughed and run up to give her a hug.
Manorma remembered that small little laughing boy. She also equally clearly remembered the fourteen year old broken boy with sad haunted eyes who had returned a few summers later with no smile on his face.
“Bahutehi galat hui gava ee humse. I doingj Bhery Bhery much wrongs“. Unshed tears glazed Manorma Raizada’s eyes. Arnav bitwa has a chance at happiness and his mami would do all she could to make that happen, she thought to herself, rather fiercely.
(I committed a grave mistake. I did wrong.)
Not having money meant nothing at all. Look at herself now… With an extremely self satisfied air she gingerly patted the red and yellow flowers that she had painstakingly pinned to her bun like always. All class and sophistication, she had always been meant to be a Raizada bahuriya, she thought complacently.
There was not too much wrong with khoon bhari taang and phatee saree, just as much wrong as there would be in any girls trying to take her bitwas away from her. Manorma sat thinking all this and then came to a decision.
Arnav bitwa had said phatee saree did not know of his love. That was unacceptable. “oo bilack aur bhite phillum jaisan larka needingj khube helpwa. I gibhingj. Hum meeteengjh kairabe Arnav bitwa and phatee saree ke” Full of resolution she hauled her heavy frame off the sofa. “ee match ke fixing toh karike pari.”
(That black and white film like boy needs lots of help. I will give. I will make Arnav and Phatee Saree meet. This match had to be fixed.)