she’d learned his name much later.

when she and jiji were trying to explain to babu ji exactly what had happened, why there was a problem with the sheesh mahal job.

the hotel had called babu ji and explained, despite the great inconvenience caused and the grave mistake committed by one of his daughters, the client had decided to make the payment, but really next time, mr gupta must make sure such things don’t happen. a bit of a reprimand there from a rather pompous manager.

shashi gupta, thankfully, was a man of wisdom and even temper. rarely did he fly into a rage and, in matters of business, he was always polite and fair. a bit too much of both, his elder sister madhumati agarwal felt at times. otherwise, sasi babua who made the finest balushahis and jalebis in the whole of lucknow would have become a lala when, hai re nand kissore, a rich man with a big house and imported car and four four servants.

but sasi babua was made of the purest earth, he would not be worldly wise, just hard working and wise, and scrupulously honest. chalo, she loved her brother enough to forgive him his lack of greed and desire for material things. at least he was happy.

when he’d lost his wife just a few years after marriage, she’d seen him truly broken. payal bitiya was just two years old. that had worried her, how would things get back to normal again? but then came garima, and took charge. in no time, she’d brought back a sense of home and peace to her brother’s little abode in gomti sadan.

marvelous girl really, garima… bua ji sighed and looked heavenward in thanks. her large eyes rolled, her triple chin wobbled and her huge “om” pendant on a chain too small for her neck bobbed up and down as she said the name of the lord under her breath a few times, her considerable girth settled more comfortably into the sofa.

how well garima had managed payal, how contented her brother looked after such a long time.

it was her gratitude to this younger woman who became shashi gupta’s second wife, that had kept bua ji’s tongue and acerbic mind at bay when khushi came into their lives.

about nine years after shashi ji’s second marriage, garima’s sister and brother in law died in a terrible car accident, leaving behind their only offspring, the eight year old khushi kumari gupta. thin and waif like, with shiny eyes and an abundance of straight silky dark brown hair, khushi had looked so vulnerable when she saw her that first time, that despite herself bua ji could feel her heart melt.

but being of older thinking, she decided she would love her “own” niece a little more and this new adopted niece a little less. felt “correct” to her somehow.

shashi gupta however accepted khushi as his daughter, no more, no less, from the day garima and he decided to bring her up. not his wife’s niece. this little child with a sparkling smile and a trusting hug would be their second daughter. that’s all.

many people said bua ji succeeded in keeping her adopted niece at a bit of a distance, but khushi knew otherwise. the aunt who rarely spoke to her sweetly, often calling her “parameswari” (ultimate goddess), “titaliya” (butterfly), “sanka devi” (goddess of craziness), and giving her the sourest slant of her vocabulary, was actually inordinately fond of her, and this was how she showed it.

in fact, it was bua ji who had given her the pretty little idol of devi maiyya on her twelfth birthday, saying, “titaliya, inhen hamesa tumhri paas rakhio, devi maiyya tumhri raksa karenge.”

(titaliya, keep her with you always, devi maiyya will protect you.)

khushi fell in love with devi maiyya in no time. the kindest eyes. the sweetest smile. the gentlest words. every night she had a little conversation with her before bed.

that night she’d spoken about the terrible stranger in black, the rakshas she’d met at the hotel. she’d complained and asked devi maiyya to teach that arrogant man a lesson. the idol had sat listening patiently and khushi had felt she was not being as proactive as she might have been. in fact, she seemed to be smiling. hmmm, something had to be done.

so khushi promised to give her special batasha prashad the next day, just so she understood the importance of making that man suffer.

and when that evening babu ji asked her and jiji what had happened at sheesh mahal, she’d started with a slightly guilty air,

“babu ji, hum aap se kah nahin paaye us raat ki unhone paise dene se inkar kar diya, ” i couldn’t tell you that night he refused to pay, “but what was my fault, i was just walking in with the tray of sweets and he walked into me…”

“he walked into you…?” shashi ji smiled and asked.

“haan, matlab, he must have, na, otherwise…” khushi suddenly felt her cheeks go hot as memory rushed in. dark glittering eyes, angry set jaw, long column of throat, silk…  all black… with spots of sticky crunchy orange.

khushi began to giggle.

“babu ji, you should have seen the chaos, he was looking so silly, ekdam cartoon.”

“sanka devi,” bua ji interrupted, “can one not depend on you to do anything right? hai re nand kissore, aafat ki puriya you are, really… does anyone do that to a paying customer…”

“par bua ji, it wasn’t khushi’s fault that the man decided to take advantage of the situation and said he wouldn’t pay…” payal jumped in defending her little sister.

“jiji…” shashi gupta said, “theek hai, it’s ok, khusie bitiya is anyway quite upset…”

bua ji chucked her long plait over one shoulder and sat down to a quick sulk.

“bitiya,” shashi ji told khushi, “ghabrao nahin, the manager called me and they’ll pay… i just wanted you to tell me… whatever happens you can always tell me about it, no need to take the burden on yourself always, ok bitiya?”

khushi was so relieved, she hugged babu ji, then she stepped back and made a face, wagging her fore finger she started, “woh aadmi, uska toh main…”

(that man, his…)

“woh admi nahin, khushi bitiya, itna gussa nahin karte… arnav singh raizada hai unka naam.”

(not that man, khushi, don’t get so angry, his name is arnav singh raizada.)

“kya? singh bhi aur raizada bhi? samjhte kya hain apne aap ko.”

(what! he’s singh and he’s raizada? who does he think he is?)

she was thinking about all this as she came home from the shop that afternoon around 1 o’clock. she walked in and was about to call out to her mother when she heard her and bua ji talking in bua ji’s room.

“panch lakh rupaye? dahej ki rakam?” buaji said shocked.

(five lakh rupees, the dowry amount?)

“haan, jiji, that’s why i’m telling him we shouldn’t raise our hopes… we can’t pay this kind of money to get our payaliya married. that’s just the dowry… then there’s the kharcha of the wedding also na? where will we get it from.”

khushi stood quietly outside, a feeling of helplessness coming over her. why was she such a  useless daughter? why couldn’t she earn more money and make her parents’, her jiji’s, life easier. she hated the idea of dowry. but what could poor babu ji and amma do… for thousands of years this had been going on. so unfair. yet totally unavoidable.

what could she do?

out of nowhere a number hummed across her mind:


what? she frowned?

they’ll pay whatever she wanted?

but in delhi… and that arnav singh… no!!

but jiji? shadi?

khushi unconsciously started taking out sour plums from the packet she’d picked up on the way home and biting into the spicy little fruit, feel its delicious sourness. she went toward the room she shared with jiji, wondering what would be the best course of action? just pretend to herself that she never received a call that morning?


“chup… band kar natak, khushi, ” hush… stop the drama, she admonished herself. “where is the question of not calling that number… it’s a proper job… respectable… and they’ll pay…”

she reached for the phone.




arnav singh raizada glared at aman.

“what,” like a short sharp lash of a whip came his response.

“khushi kumari gupta has said she won’t work for us… and you have accepted that?”

the anger was palpable.

aman mumbled, “but sir, she wouldn’t even speak to me once she realised…”

asr cut him dead with a quick, electric look. his brown eyes burnt with rage.

she had refused? how dare she?

what he perhaps didn’t want to face was that he’d never factored in this scenario. he so needed to have her here, he believed once she was tracked down, the rest was a cakewalk. bad planning. he didn’t like that.

okay, he’d solve the problem. with a curt nod of his head he indicated to aman they were done. aman left quietly, still wondering how he could persuade miss gupta.

then asr picked up the phone.




before khushi could dial, her phone rang. it was not a lucknow number her quick check told her. okay, here goes, she thought.


then without any further preamble or procrastination she took off, scared if she waited too long she might get cold feet.

“dekhiye, aap uss arnav singh raizada se kah dijiyega, ki hum naukri karne ke liye taiyyar hain… and i want a salary of rupees twenty five thousand, ek paisa kam nahin.”

(tell that arnav singh raizada i am ready to work… and i want a salary of twenty five thousand rupees, not a paisa less!)

pachees hazar, as she said the amount, she felt a tremor of apprehension go through her. such a large amount, she’d never thought she’d ever ask anyone for it… and that too in this brazen manner. that poor man aman saxena sounded like a decent fellow.

she felt bad.

maybe she should soften her tone, apologise even.

she opened her mouth again.




“ah, so miss gupta,” came a steely voice from the other end. she paused taken aback. definitely this was not aman saxena. this was that… that… khushi’s eyes were getting rounder and then her mouth opened to describe a perfect “o”.

“money does talk, doesn’t it?” now he was silky smooth, an insulting tone creeping into his voice… “especially when it comes to girls like you.”

“aap?” her voice hit a peak in anger and surprise.

“aap samajhte kya hain apne aapko, aur aap ko yeh number kaise mili?”

(you? who do you think you are? and who gave you this number?)

“one question at a time please, miss gupta.”

she seethed at his condescending tone.

“who am i? now let’s see. i am one of the country’s richest men… young, unattached, very  (he paused to underscore that “very” in a husky maddening voice) clever, mmm, meet with your approval?… as for your phone number… well if you had the thing that’s required to figure that one out, you wouldn’t be asking me, now would you?”

“kya? kya one thing?” khushi was irritated.

(what? what one thing?)

“dimag, khushi kumari gupta, dimag.”

(brain, khushi kumari gupta, brain.)

khushi was aghast at this rudeness. why this terrible behaviour every time? what had she done to him?

hey devi maiyya, iss rakshas ko toh aisi sabak sikhaiye, ki zindagi bhar yaad rakhe, she prayed silently with gritted teeth. teach this rakshas such a lesson, devi maiyya, that he remembers it his entire life.

“anyway, enough talk, the plane will land in lucknow in, let’s see, about three hours. please be ready.”

“plane? yahan? ready?” she was incoherent in her confusion. what was this man saying!

“stop repeating what i say,” he murmured, “pack… your… bags. i have a meeting in lucknow this evening, i’ll fly in for that, you can come back with me.”

“aaj? yaane, aaj? no mr raizada, i can’t leave like that. i have to talk to my family… no… i will come in a couple of days…”

“then the deal is off.” his voice was flat and non inclusive, “goodbye, miss…”

“rukiye,” she skidded in. “rukiye!… theek hai… i’ll be ready.”

(stop… stop… okay… i’ll be ready.)

“good, miss gupta,” triumph made his voice grainy and full of plush satin just below the grain… “oh, raise your standards a bit will you… what’s this twenty five thousand you ask for… small change. at least ask for a lakh of rupees, miss gupta. ok done, i am in a generous mood. a lakh it is.”




khushi almost passed out.

all this was too much to take…

that arnav singh raizada!!! but devi maiya… one lakh? that means she’d only have to work six months to get all the money together for jiji’s wedding, five lakhs dowry, one lakh wedding expenses.

and she’d be free.

she could have kissed devi maiyya. but now to explain to the family.




aman was just about to enter asr’s office for he thought he’d found a way to get miss gupta here, he heard asr on the phone. lucknow?

when asr was done with his call, he turned to see aman.

an eyebrow went up, “yes, aman?”

“sir? you have a meeting in lucknow this evening?” aman asked, he had no idea.

“meeting? no.” asr said while flipping through papers.

“ok, sir… er, about miss gupta…”

“don’t worry, aman, that’s taken care of… good job. you found her.”

“thank you, sir.” with a smile aman turned to leave.

“aman, tell captain raina i’d like to fly to lucknow in a couple of hours’ time, will you?”

lucknow? aman thought once more, quite puzzled. and did he imagine it or was there a smile on sir’s face when he said,”that’s taken care of.”

aman went out silently.



ncofl 2 400



find all chapters here

ncofl chapter 3