Khushi Kumari Gupta blinked as she placed a tiny golden stone bindi between her lovely arched eyebrows. She looked at her reflection in the mirror. A thin fair girl in a pink and golden exquisite crepe saree stared back at her. Her hair was left open and cascaded in alluring waves around her shoulders. A pair of intricately designed kundan earrings dangled from her ears. She was ready to meet Arnav Singh Raizada.
The doorbell rang and she rushed to open the door. Mohanji, the driver from Shantivan, held out an elegant white envelope with the ASR initial’s embossed on it. “Arnavji has sent this for you, Khushiji“, he explained and withdrew.
Butterflies had started to flutter in her stomach. They were those yellow ones with their big fairy like wings that she saw in buaji’s courtyard on a sunny day… Yes, definitely, those big butterflies were what caused pandemonium in her stomach. They must have decided to leave the courtyard and use her stomach as their playground…
Arnavji had sent her a letter. She would not risk opening it in the hall. What if someone came? Hiding the envelope under her aanchal she ran into her room and locked the door. Then slowly pulled out the envelope and placed it on the desk before devi maiyya.
She was still staring at the envelope as if her very life depended on what was inside it when her phone started ringing. She knew it could only be one person calling her. “Halo“.
“Khushi I sent you a letter“. His familiar voice came from the other end. The butterflies in her stomach seemed to have fainted and now there was a hollow left where they had been fluttering before. “My handwriting is awful, but the letter is specially for you. Khologi nahi?“, came his husky whisper. The timbre in his voice seemed to blow softly in her ears. She shivered.
Carefully she ripped open the covering and drew out the neatly folded white sheet of paper. A scribble greeted her eyes. She concentrated and eagerly read.
“What the! If I have to talk to you I will call you or come meet you, not write a stupid letter, samjhi tum? Sapne dekhna band karo Miss Khushi Kumari Gupta. And return the expensive designer saree you are wearing to AR office. Now!”
She sat up in bed, throwing away her purple jaipuri chadar. “Wo laad governor… Why did she always have to dream about him, devi maiyya?”
She spent the rest of the day convincing herself there was no reason to go to Shantivan. In fact, she spent the next few days trying to not give herself any reason to go there. It was much tougher, to resist the urge to visit Shantivan than what would be normal. She wondered why and tried hard not to let the answer reach her.
In Shantivan, a week later, ASR wandered near the poolside, lost in thought. It was a still morning. There was an oppressive heat in the air that made him even more restless. His green watering can was full to the brim and heavy. He showered water over the white chameli flowers. The water droplets causing the branches to shake, sending a whiff of sweet fragrance his way.
A soft expression entered his eyes and a slow smile appeared on his clean shaven face. It was too hot for even the slightest stubble, which is why even though it was a Sunday and he did not plan to go to AR he had made sure his razor had delivered the smoothest shave possible.
His thoughts raced back to the time he had looked at her draping the saree. How expertly her fingers had moved and how much her mouth had moved, till she had noticed him looking. He had been watering his plants that day just like he was today.
Frustrated with himself, he put aside the watering can. Why did everything remind him of her? How could this crazy girl have this hold over him.. The girl who had kept falling in his arms a countless times, who took his breath… No, that was a dangerous line of thought. He tried to get a grip over himself, tried to think about things he did not like about her. Yes, that would work. How she chattered endlessly… how she messed things up.. how she would talk with her lips quivering… how her eyes widened..
He gave up trying to not think about her. Instead resolutely moved on to sharply clip away some dry leaves from the rose plant. It was Sunday, he could spend extra time here with his plants. Sunday.. as the shears snipped, his mind went to the Sunday afternoon in AR. Things had escalated alarmingly. Khushi Kumari Gupta.. A voice in him sighed.. How did she manage to make him time and time again lose control…
That morning in the storeroom, with her eyes blazing, she had said she would return to Lucknow. He had been convinced he would not see her again and then… she had appeared before him. Khushi.. in his own cupboard. Unbelievable.. He had to resist hard to stop himself from opening his closet this very instant and wishing to see those big beautiful eyes again. Where was she, dammit? The week had gone by and she had not come. He threw down the shears and picked up a little trowel.
His long, almost artistic looking fingers started to work on transferring earth into the new flower pot. He had asked Om Prakash to bring him a flowering carnation plant. Bright yellow flowers… Again his mind conjured up a vision.. A deep instinct within him told him she might like these flowers…
ASR stood up in irritation. Khushi again.. He was restless. Had been for quite a few days now. And there was only one solution to the quandary he found himself sinking in. He did not wait to analyze the emotion further.
Dusting his hands and without wasting time, he picked his phone from where it had been lying on the glass coffee table. His lean fingers made the necessary selections and within seconds he could hear her phone ringing.
He was almost taken aback by the sudden onslaught of intense emotion that hit him full force. ASR had always accepted life head on. And at precisely that instant, as he listened to her phone ring, he knew his feelings had a name. He was missing her. Missing her.. terribly. Hell.. Missing as a word felt grossly inadequate.. He yearned to hear her voice.. Every thought, conscious or otherwise, in him needed her smiling face in front of him. Surely no one word could capture all that he felt. And why did he feel all that he seemed to feel? He needed her in front of him.. now..
The girl herself was busy, deep in conversation with her dearest friend. Khushi had tried hard to keep herself engaged in the frenzy at home. But, random words, signs, any and everything reminded her of the of the rakshas she desperately tried to ignore.
Only, it was becoming more and more difficult to think of him as a rakshas. Specially when jiji had said that Arnavji had called her and even apologized for being the reason her marriage had not taken place. That was certainly not a very rakshas like thing to do… Then there was his smile of victory, full of teasing and things she could not give a name too, that caused hre stomach to burst into a flip flop marathon. Hardly a memory one associates with a rakshas.
“devi maiyya what is happening to me?” she muttered, woebegone.
Buaji had been initially flabbergast to hear her Payaliya was expecting a proposal from Aakashji’s family. Her chant of hai re nand kisore knew no end in sight. And just as suddenly she had burst into a giddying excitement. Amma and buaji were busy preparing gujiya, mixture, namkeen, besan ke ladoo and even more dishes. All in preparation of the much awaited visit from Shantivan. So much food in the house and Khushi had lost all her appetite. That itself made her sad.
Everyones’s dear Payaliya’s laughter rang through the Gupta house as the older women kept redirecting Happyji to rearrange the living room furniture. Khushi had joined in and added to all the excitement. Her favourite part of the week was when she had taken out buaji’s old tape recorder and found the hum aapke hain kaun cassette. She had played the “mai ni mai” song and made everybody dance. “lekin devi maiyya why do I feel kuch garbar hai?“.. Through all this, in her heart, had been anxiety. A gnawing persistent unease.
So she had finally decided to come to devi maiyya.
She was sitting under the cool shade of the ber tree in the mandir compound. Her eyes searched for a man in a black suit talking on the phone. He was not here today. “Why am I searching for him?”. She softly hummed the lines of the song.
“mai ii ni mai munder pe tere bol raha hai kaga..”
Her phone rang. Arnavji.. Immediately her hand went to answer the call. She stopped herself sternly. No, he had called to talk to jiji, but not bothered to talk to her. He could have atleast asked jiji to hand over the phone to her and updated her on mamiji’s current mood.
The phone stopped ringing. She felt like bursting into tears. “I should have picked up the pphone devi maiyya… hum bhi na bilkul paglait hai“.
Chal maiyya ke bhavan.. gaily called out her phone again. This time she could no longer control the craving.. she no longer wanted to control the craving.. “Halo“.
“Khushi, can’t you pick up your phone? It rang forever. Kaha thi tum?“. Came a familiar breathless voice from the other end. The voice she had been longing to hear of the man who was in her thought every second.
“aapko isse kya? I don’t need to tell you anything. And it was your phone which is why I didn’t pick up, samjhe aap?”
And she cut the call. Every nerve, every sinew suddenly felt alive. A tiny part of her brain was admonishing her.. There was no need to be this rude to him.. But, most of her just felt exhilarated at having heard his voice again.
She stared at her phone, which was held tightly by both her hands, and continued to hum. A smile had replaced the frown from earlier as she continued her song…
“jogan ho gayi teri dulari man jogi san laga..”
“What the! How dare she cut my call? “. ASR was about to redial when he heard di and nani talking.
“Anjali bitiya humka laagat hai it is time we spoke to Payal bitiya’s buaji.”
“Ha yehi thik rahega nani. Aakash will be so happy“.
He turned in time to witness the arrival of a third woman. “yes yes saasuma. Aakash bitwa and Arnav bitwa.. Duno ke baat karike pari“.
Manorma Raizada had a smug expression on her face. She had no idea that her sasuma was already more than happy to see the eldest son of the house settle down with a sweet jilebi loving girl. Instead, Manorma had done all in her power to try and get sasuma to agree to the marriage. From pretending to skip her lunch and fast in anger to endlessly praising Khushi, she had tried her best to get the eldest member of the house to approve of the wedding.
Deviyani Raizada, though highly entertained with this new affable avtaar of her usually lazy and pretty much self-obsessed bahuria, had finally pretended to give in to her coaxing.
So, here stood Manorma, as if she had accomplished a great feat. “Arnav bitwa hum saasuma ke samjhaiye diye hai. Eberybody yes bolat hai phatee saree ke is ghar ma entary ke liye. Aur ghar ma dui dui shaadi ma helipya khatir who eej comingj? Gas? Gas karo? Choro hum hi batai det hain. Aur kaun, humaar NK babua. Hello hi bye bye. Saasuma, Anjali eeha khare khare kucho naahi hoga.. Jewellaryj, sareej, too much kaam hain Hello hi bye bye.”
(I have explained it all saasuma. Everyone has agreed to phatee saree’s entry into this house. And in a house where two weddings are happening guess who is coming to help? Guess? Leave it.. I’ll tell you. My NK babua. Hello hi bye bye. Saasuma, Anjali nothing will get done if we stand ehre. Jewellery, saree..there is too much work..)
Like a whirlwind she disappeared from the poolside leaving behind two happy women and one extremely disgruntled young man. Nani followed her out, but Anjali was not as lucky.
“What the? Di what is happening?“. The past week ASR had been so wrapped in the thoughts of a certain girl that he had not paid any further attention to the repercussions of his declaration in front of mamiji.
“Chote what should I do, tum bolo? Mamiji ko tum jante ho. She is so excited. Now if you cancel, what if she says no to Akash as well? Ab tum soch lo. Okay I have lots of work. Both my brothers are getting married“. Anjali could no longer contain her smile. “Uff.. Being an older sister in a household with weddings is very tiring. Main tumhare jeejaji ko phone lagati.. I will tell him to come help out“.
Just as ASR opened his mouth all ready to object, Aakash came tripping through the french window into the poolside. “bhai time to leave. Let’s run. If we delay a second longer we will surely be stuck with him. He is here“.
Just then with a singularly lost air about her Khushi walked in through the gates of Shantivan. So lost was she in her reverie that she did not notice Om Prakash .
There were signs of a storm brewing. The sky was overcast with dark clouds and a gale seemed on its way. Khushi’s green dupatta fluttered in the wind giving the impression of desperately seeking out for someone. Maybe it was doing exactly that… With each gust of wind it would blow upwards, not reach whoever it was that the dupatta longed for and finally float down heartbroken.
“namaste Khushiji. Hum bahar se bisleri botal laane ja rahe hai. Aapko kuch chahiye? Aap bahut din se aayi nahi.”
(I am going out to bring bottled water. Do you want something? Didn’t see you here since long?)
Snapping out of her trance, with a small smile, khushi shook her head. “Nai, I don’t want anything. And why should I come here? I don’t come here Om Prakashiji..“.
A little confused by her reply, Om Prakash decided this was Khushiji and a little confusion was normal with her. He liked Khushiji. Things got exciting when she came to Shantivan and usually Arnav bhaiya would be so busy yelling at Khushiji that he overlooked Om Prakash’s mistakes. He secretly hoped they would marry. Yes.. he had heard all the ladies of the house discuss their marriage. Mamiji had said that Arnav bhaiya loved Khushiji.. Om Prakash beamed at the thought. Khushiji made the best jilebis ever… Shaking his head at all that he was thinking, he left for his errand.
The oblivious girl on the other hand was as usual talking out loud, “Hey devi maiiya. Hum toh ghar ja rahe the, then how did I reach here? Par now that I am here I should go inside and atleast meet everyone. I have to also reconcile with lakshmiji. Cahlo aapko laakh laakh shukriya that you brought me here. Thank you“.
The smile which had not made a regular appearance on her face in the last few days, specially when she was alone, was now firmly back. She felt vaguely surprised at how her spirits had lifted as soon as she had decided to go ahead and enter the house. His house.. No.. She was not thinking about him.. Why should she.. She was only..
She stopped mid thought as she saw some disturbance behind the big bushy anaar tree. She cautiously edged forward and was startled to see a man she had never seen before jump out from behind the tree. He wore a bright yellow jacket and had black glasses covering his eyes.
The sight was stranger since he carried a squirming Lakshmiji in his arms. With a wide grin he declared loudly, “main tumhe chura raha hoon“.
Khushiji’s eyebrow shot right up to her hairline in alarm..”chor chor..”, she yelled as loud as she could. Devi maiyya a thief in broad daylight in Shantivan grounds.. Dili was such an unpredictable place. One never knew what might happen here.
The man looked around, spotted her, and then muttered some nonsense.. “India .. Is country mein chor bina dare apne aap ko aanounce karta hai“. He edged closer towards Khushi.”Beautiful chor“.
Khushi continued to scream, now convinced that a madman had entered Shantivan. “Chor chor..”
Extremely relieved she saw Aakashji and Arnavji dash out of the house.
ASR came to an abrupt halt. Not having seen her since what felt like ages to his senses, and finally finding her right there in front of him, was an assault on his senses. He needed some time to simply drink her presence in.
Aakash, however, not handicapped by such obscuring of judgment by matters of the heart, was better equipped to deal with the peculiar situation that seemed to be unfolding before him.
“NK bhai what are you doing with lakshmiji?“. This was no stranger. This man was their cousin, NK.
“Main ise chura raha tha.. See..“, replied a happily smiling NK.
“Chura?”, Aakash knew his cousin well enough to expect the unexpected where NK was concerned, but really, stealing a goat seemed too far fetched even by NK bhai’s standards.
Khushi was still caught up in the rush of the glory of having single handedly catching a thief. “subah subah chori.. A thief.. The audacity..”
“khushiji one minute. NK bhai what do you mean by chura raha tha?”
“chura.. Mera matlab ..rescue.. From those bushes..“, patiently explained NK.
“NK bhai.. Chura nai.. Chhura..”
With a sheepish grin NK caught hold of his ear and took out his tongue, nodding vigorously. “that’s right“.
Aakash had expected such weirdness to accompany NK’s entrance, no wonder he had rushed to ASR. Both were on their way out to spare themselves from having to bear their wacko cousin’s company, when they had rushed out hearing Khushiji yell. Strange that bhai had run as if possessed hearing Khushiji scream. Oh right.. Why did she scream?
He turned his attention to Khushiji who was looking indignantly in NK’s direction. “Why were you shouting Khushiji?“, he curiously asked.
Khushi grabbed the opportunity provided and enthusiastically launched into an explanation. “He said he is a thief“, she exaggerated.
“Main nahin..you. You were calling yourself chor… and chor matlab thief hai na Aakash ?“, NK responded, not to be outdone.
“Main chor?“. Khushi couldn’t believe her ears. Who did this man think he was?
ASR had finally managed to wretch away his concentration from a certain maddening girl who was bewitching in her craziness. He felt the laughter bubbling inside. Khushi Kumari Gupta and NK, apparently now he knew two people whose antics never failed to amuse. But, he judged rightfully that when these two were involved the argument might go on for a long time, and so decided to intervene.
“Bahut ho gaya ye shor. Stop it you too. Khushi this is our cousin NK. And NK this Khushi, Aakash’s would be wife’s sister“.
“Maee”, Lakshmiji, still in NK’s arms was feeling a bit left out of the conversation and decided to leap over to Khushi. Khushi put out her arms and greeted Lakshimiji like a long lost friend.
Really, what an ajeeb girl Khushi was and why couldn’t he stop thinking about her, ASR mused as he saw Khushi break into a bright smile.
He felt himself get engulfed in a bear hug as NK descended upon him. “Nannav mere bhai“.
Some thing never change. That irritating silly nickname.. For one single precious second ASR was transported back to the garden where three boys had run all summer evenings long. Carefree… No, things did change. Always.
ASR acknowledged the hug as best as he could while Khushi watched the stranger give Arnavji a hug. Arnavji’s cousin was all smiles. He also had a nickname for the laad governnor.. Nannav.. Khushi felt like giggling. She found herself warming upto the man who had directed his attention towards her now. With alacrity she extended her hand towards him.
ASR meant to leave. But even as he turned to go, he couldn’t stop himself from looking back for one last glimpse of her. So many days of not seeing her. He saw the laughter, her ease and their excited handshake.
Something boiled inside his chest while some more things felt a little broken and hurt. Dammit, here he had been worried sick about her and she? She had absolutely no idea. He missed her and she had not even picked up the phone initially. And then cut his call.
He strode towards her. A dangerous glint in his focused eyes. Grabbing her hand he jerked her close, oblivious of Aakash and NK’s astonished expressions. Her lithe frame came to him, unresisting. “Mere sath chalo. Now..“, was all he said as he walked away with her.