“it’s so big, isn’t it?” khushi was staring at the water, her eyes fixed on the horizon, a stillness gathered over the ocean and the afternoon light suddenly lost some of its brightness. khushi was too engrossed in her contemplation of the vast stretch of waves and ripples and endlessness before her to notice.
“what is?” asr asked casually from the hammock where he lay while khushi sat on the sand near him.
“the samundar, arnav ji… there’s so much water there, so much… it’s endless, deep, so beautiful, but you know sometimes it scares me… maybe because i can’t swim… in lucknow there was a nice lake near our house, a pond really and of course, there was gomti ji…” her voice reflected a quick flash of sadness… she was so far from home. then she thought she didn’t feel lonely or very homesick though… why did it feel normal to sit out here with a rakshas and feel so much at home… chudail. had she called him that? she started to giggle.
“gomti ji…? who’s that!!…” asr sounded confused. then he noticed she was laughing, in fact getting quite hysterical.
“khushi! what’s the matter, talk to me, dammit… are you ok?” he couldn’t understand this behaviour at all… and what he couldn’t understand always made him a little angry. maybe because he had not understood so much growing up… maybe because he had not seen the pain in maa’s eyes when she smiled, or the damn untrustworthiness of his father when he spent hours teaching him to do new things… shooting, riding, playing polo. he had no idea that this man was not what he seemed to be. that he was fickle, licentious, absolutely unfaithful to his mother. asr winced as a volley of memories streaked though him, like a quick lethal undercurrent in that water khushi sat gazing at full of wonder.
an undercurrent that pulls away people and drowns them in whirlpools… carries their bodies far far away where no one ever finds them.
khushi was laughing hard, and yet she suddenly knew she needed to turn back and look at him.
his face was rock still, eyes had gone flint… he barely breathed.
alarmed, she stood up quickly and walked to him. he did not look at her. she knew he needed something, though what… what could she do. without thinking too much she reached out and held his hand.
his hand jerked slightly as he felt her touch, he almost snatched it away. she let her grip get firmer, looking at him without a word. she had seen him like this, wretched by the water once before… she had felt the need to comfort him… as she did now. that was important.
the skies darkened, thunder roared somewhere close by. the water changed colour; flat, dark grey in a moment. the glint of sunlight had disappeared. unpredictable the weather here. just now it was so beautifully bright. you could never tell what might happen when so much water, earth and sky got together.
asr lay there with that inert gaze she couldn’t fathom. khushi swallowed, she could feel tears threaten. why was she about to cry? really, khushi kumari gupta, she scolded herself, you are pagal, you are sanka devi, you are parmeswari… why are you ready to weep, when it is arnav ji who is in a terrible state. just look at him.
she stole a furtive glance at his face, and her heart lurched, she swallowed, a tear, warm and hot, burned the corner of her eye as it sneaked out.
thunder rolled across the sky, the water seemed to quake.
she let her other hand hold his hand as well, her palms pressing against his hard, slightly calloused skin. she wondered if he would let her in. the moments ticked… why was the air stirring, what approached.
the hand in her grasp remained unyielding, completely motionless. but where her finger lay over his wrist, she could feel his pulse beat. movement… life.
at last she felt… no, arnav ji did not need her today… not really. she remembered how he had held open his arms to her that day in the office when they had spoken of losing their parents, when he had asked her to tell him about her stars.
she recalled how he had held her and kissed her desperately the other time she had found him here by the sea, anguished.
but today, no… he did not need her today.
a funny kind of pain started to assail her, it rose from within, somewhere near her chest, no lower still… oh khushi kumari gupta, why can’t you eat a little less, so many ice creams, was there any need to wolf down that many, as though you don’t get ice cream in lucknow… really, maganlal kulfi centre made the best ice cream ever, oh the saffron kulfi with lots of falooda they had when babu ji took them all the way there for a drive, especially in the winter, she loved to feel the chill on her teeth when it was freezing outside… but, stop thinking about that now. now this crazy acidity or whatever just when you need to think calmly…
amma always said she spoke even more when she was disturbed, but now look her mind was talking too and getting lost in a bhoolbhulaiya of different chats, uff this being from lucknow, that lucknowi thing… really, khushi, tu bhi na…
(really khushi, you are just too much…)
she was too busy talking to herself to notice he had pulled her close and right onto the hammock…
it was when the whole earth seemed to sway crazily and she could feel her breath escape in a rush that she realised she was no longer standing by arnav ji, she was lying crushed next to him and everything was rocking funnily… they were on the hammock together.
“arnav ji!” she yelped, “i am going to fall…” she clutched at him tightly and blindly, “hey devi maiyya, ek toh yeh acidity, usske upar jhule peh letna… what is wrong with these people, why must they make a bed hang on the tree, are we monkeys… arnav ji!!!” her voice rose frantic as the hammock swung wildly for a moment.
(hey devi maiyya, first this acidity and now i am lying on a swing… what is wrong with these people, why must they make a bed hang on the tree, are we monkeys… arnav ji!!!)
“shhh… shh!” laughing eyes glinted down at her panic stricken face. a kiss laced with crazy hunger landed on her lips, and was gone… next moment his face was buried in the nape of her neck, his hot breath mingled with her soft auburn hair and tickled her nape, she quivered, the tender yet urgent thrust of his lips on her skin raised goosebumps… she could feel a rush of them on her waist, the left side, closer to her belly. a dizziness spread too.
he let his lips touch her skin and linger… a trail was made with absolute concentration up from the base of her nape all the way to her jaw… her chin… then he groaned and took an unpredictable turn, and began kissing the hollow between her breasts that peeped out just above her fairly conservative neckline. he nudged against the creamy yielding flesh, bruised it with a deliberate rub of his stubble, she shivered and felt a sense of abandon overcome her… more, she wanted to give him more.
khushi was too taken aback, too thronged with sensation to know what exactly she was feeling. she kept seeing the laughing eyes before her and felt a relief, an elation… he was not gone to a far hell any more… he was here, eyes brown and dazzling, light trapped in them… hamesha.
hamesha flitted through her. always, forever… yes, stay like this forever something in her seemed to say before she had articulated any words.
khushi wondered about this feeling of hers, it seemed to be more sanka than her and raced even faster than her thoughts… what was this thing? did it have a name.
was it normal?
normal? she clutched his head tightly to her, her breasts straining, wanting to feel his touch, his mouth, his hurtling need… she needed him here just like this…
his hands reached behind her and pulled her even closer, holding her at the waist, stroking her back, moving down, over her hips, her thighs… she heard him sigh and draw her leg over him… she would have resisted, but he looked up at her at that moment and she forgot what she was supposed to say.
instead she arched her body to reach him and kiss him on the mouth, feel his teeth with her tongue… she wanted so much to feel his lips claim hers in that suffocating joyous way… right from that first time, that very first time in shantivan, the day of the puja when he really should not have done such a thing… but she too had not been able to do what she should have, instead she couldn’t stop thinking of that kiss.
the rain came in a fierce torrent drenching them both instantly. the shock of it made them go still. then as water lashed down, they kissed each other, even more deeply, longingly, a thirst rising.
the buggy made no sound as it drove up to them, the ever attentive resort staff were aware mr raizada and his companion were out by station five, they would need assistance. while the driver gawked in consternation, he saw mr raizada see him from the corner of his eye. mr raizada calmly drew his lips away from his companion’s, gracefully swung down from the hammock and grabbed his crutch leaning against the palm tree trunk, tucked it under his arm, helped the lady down and with a protective arm around her shoulders, came to the car and sat down with a smart “thanks, let’s go.”
“but, khushi, how exciting, you are in baliii!” kareena was breathless, “ufff he sent a plane and took you there, you know what this means i hope…”
“means?” khushi had just changed into dry clothes when kareena ji called and started off about why she was not at work, she really missed her at lunch, and when khushi told her about being in bali, kareena was unstoppable. the questions came fast and furious, then the squealing. now this.
khushi always felt kareena ji had a lovely adult air, yes she was a bit dramatic when talking about design, but then khushi loved that and it went so well with her seriousness otherwise, but now kareena ji was over the moon and rambling… had everyone gone mad?
like her feelings?
khushi cleared her throat and said, “nahiin, woh, kareena ji.. sir needed some papers and so… this is only work… really…” even before kareena laughed out loud, khushi knew she sounded utterly convincing… not. not at all in fact.
“khushi ji!” kareena giggled, “you are so useless at lying… now tell me, do you madly absolutely fundamentally technically and non-technically love him?”
khushi’s eyes went huge and round. her breath almost stopped.
“kareena ji, no no, it’s nothing like that…” her voice rose imploring to be believed.
“ah!” kareena’s voice had a knowing tone, “methinks the lady doth panic too much…” she chortled.
khushi willed her breath to calm down.
“it’s only work…” she said at last. then asked her friend, “aap ko kuch chahiye yahan se? i am coming back tomorrow, any material or something? i will go and get it, just tell me… also please ask salman ji…”
(do you want anything from here?)
“yes, khushi, i do want something actually…” kareena was kidding yet there was a beautiful lilt to her voice, “just bring me back a story… a kahani…”
khushi felt her mind take unbidden flight again and dance with the rain.
when she put the phone down she twirled and swayed as the magical words that had been set off by kareena ji’s playful ones tripped around the room and made her feet move, her arms reach out, her body spring to life…
teri meri meri teri… oh that song from salman ji’s film, bodyguard, and kareena ji’s too… prem kahani hai mushkil… she hummed and did a little movement with her arm, then froze.
(your and mine, mine and your… love story is difficult…)
no… what confusion was this.
prem… she smiled… yes, prem… of course, she was thinking of salman ji only. in hum aapke hain kaun he was prem, wasn’t he. of course he was… salman ji… she was thinking of him, so what’s new in that, khushi…
a smile of relief spread.
but, and she frowned, even he had lost his parents when very young.
asr lay down on the bed. his leg was throbbing with pain. he should have been careful. but really, it was not possible. and anyway, pain could be handled, no need to overdo the treatment and care.
he remembered her standing by him holding his hand in hers. her tiny, soft hands, yet so strong they had felt suddenly. they had stayed firm and let him let go of a moment that had him in its thrall… entrapped.
the girl had never been on a hammock… really! nor an aeroplane… he smiled… he wanted to take her and show her everything she’d never seen or experienced… would be fun to see what she had to say…
asr frowned. he had to stop thinking of her.
“khushi!” his head said before he could stop it… she has a name… khushi. she was not just a girl… never just that. now his cousin and her sister would marry, and she would be in a way part of his family.
asr liked that feeling. he wanted to call her and tell her to come over right now and lie beside him, they’d make love through the night.
the phone call woke him up, he had dozed off after taking the pain killer. it was aman.
“sir, i am sorry, but…” aman sounded unlike himself, almost cagey as though he was ready to concoct a tale.
“aman, what is it? speak clearly…” asr was curt.
“sir, about anjali ji’s husband…” aman mumbled.
“what!” asr was alert, a tension seizing him.
“well, it… that… he was with a lady in bali when you were there… she lives in australia and shyam sir visits her quite often. no idea till now the agency has about the exact relationship, but…” aman realised his boss had rung off.
they were halfway into the flight going back to delhi. asr had been immersed in work hardly looking at khushi right through. he had been distant in the car too, khushi could sense he was upset, but why she couldn’t tell. by now she knew her arnav ji, no… sorry, not her but just arnav ji… he was strange and his moods were stranger, so she waited… hoping the cloud would clear at some point.
he had asked her sternly once if she were okay just before take off. she’d said she could manage. then not able to completely ignore the hurt she felt, she’d looked at him equally sternly, though that dark grim look, did she really wish she could do that? huh! but she had been stern too and said, “i always manage on my own…” and sat down with a huff looking out of the window.
he had left her alone after that. it irked her, she wanted to switch off and stare at the beautiful clouds outside, forget that unreasonable khadoos thunder, dark and grumbly inside. yet, every once in a while, she looked at him to see if there was any improvement in the weather.
she shut her eyes after lunch and slept off.
“how could you not carry enough coffee, miss rao!” asr’s raised voice woke her. he looked furious and poor miss rao was almost quaking in fear. khushi knew how it felt to be in that spot.
“sorry, sir, my mistake, i thought we have enough for the flight, i mean the usual amount…” her voice trailed off.
“i don’t pay people to think they had enough, i pay, miss rao, as well as i do for them to know what’s enough and what’s not…” he sounded insulting, nasty, enraged.
miss rao looked down and squirmed.
“forget it!” he dismissed her her with a tightening of his lips, jawline hard, and looked down at his laptop, fire in his gaze.
khushi watched him gaping. what had happened? and why did she always have to guess everything, could he not just tell her?
then the mind of hers that never shut up, said, and why should he? who are you to him? or he to you?
who i am i don’t know… but he… came the reply racing from the other side of her.
yes… he? prompted that errant thought.
khushi felt confusion flummox her. oh never mind, she admonished herself.
“so you think marriage is a wonderful thing, huh?” the question was shot at her along with a blistering angry look.
khushi was so relieved to have him talk to her, she forgot to take umbrage, “yes, it is… yes it is… marriage is a gift, arnav ji, a blessing… really…” she had thought about this relationship often. growing up a girl in lucknow, that too a middle class one, the word marriage and its extreme importance in every girl’s life had been thrust at her more regularly and with greater force than those waves lapping the shores of bali.
finally, fed up with the empty answers she got every time she’d asked why exactly marriage was so important, she had started thinking about it herself. she had also asked amma and babu ji very seriously about this. she never wanted to leave them she knew because she wanted to take care of them, be there always for them… they had filled her life with joy when it might have been truly bleak… she did not want her parents to grow old alone… so she had pondered this issue carefully while munching through mounds of jalebi and popping golgappas, sometimes ber.
her amma had told her to trust her instincts, not just what everyone said a marriage should be… it was important, she’d said, because a man and a woman together form a thing that is beautiful, a force really, something divine and indestructible in it. see even devi maiyya had her shiv ji, krishna ji and radha ji were inseparable, yes they were not married in the conventional sense, but in their heart and soul, where they not? a jeevan saathi, a life partner came to make our life experience complete… good, bad whatever came one’s way, he was there with you… through it all… forever. look for a good man she’d said, the rest doesn’t matter… money, looks, all that… no, not important, look for the heart, see what’s there, if that is pure, i know my daughter will be fine… look at your babu ji… amma had never given birth, yet khushi knew she had the best mother in the world. she had cried copiously and held onto amma, still trying to convince herself that yeah, this shadi was a good idea. and all that dowry and things that people of her world accepted without really protesting. she knew no matter how much her amma understood, she would not defy an entire society and its ways… specially because she had two daughters and daughters’ lives could be ruined by even the hint of a rumour. garima would go along, for the sake of payal and khushi…
but couldn’t a girl have a life, a meaning, without having a husband? her father had looked at her troubled face with kindness and a smile when she had said this. of course a girl is absolutely fine all by herself, he had said. but he wanted his girl to have the happiness, the joy of living with someone who cared for her, with whom she would find out all sorts of things that were meaningful and have lovely children… khushi had frowned at that and said, well, whatever… but she was not going to get out of their lives just because she had found some good loving husband… not so easy to get rid of her. babu ji had gazed at her with that kindness that was always her undoing and said, “bitiya, mujhe ek cup chai pilaygi?” indicating just how much the thought of her going away really filled him with dread.
(child, will you make make a cup of tea?)
but over time khushi had started to understand why marriage was a beautiful thing. why it was what she had just said, a gift.
“gift wrapped in all your sparkling noble ideas, hollow and sick inside, nothing in it… nothing!” asr spat out harshly.
“how can you say that!” she burst out, “do you even know what marriage is? when two people find each other and commit to be there for each other; when they reach out and say, no matter what, i am here; when they offer of themselves to make the other happy,”… khushi kept speaking, agitated beyond belief by his attitude and by the feelings in her… “swearing before god that they will be true, they will fulfill the promise that life presents… be part of each other’s joy and sorrow, believe in the beauty of life no matter what harshness comes their way… the only relationship, arnav ji, which we are not born into where we try to create, to find, permanence. isn’t that sacred anywhere? isn’t it what makes our lives fuller, perhaps even complete?… but how will you understand an idea that makes the other one, the life partner important? no. never. for you, it’s all about what you can get out of it. and then turning away when it suits you. how would you understand what marriage is, mr arnav singh raizada, you are too scared to commit to anything… no…” khushi was beginning to lose her words now, the flare in his eyes told her she had overstepped a limit…
don’t get scared, she told herself… at worst he will shout… he can’t throw you out of the plane… or maybe…
“not anything, mr raizada, to anyone. you are plain scared to commit… and beside because you have money, you think you can get away with anything…”
in less than a split of a millionth of a second, he was sitting next to her grasping her shoulders tightly and shaking her.
“ssshut up!” he ground out. “SHAAATAAP!” his eyes blazed.
khushi was horrified.
then he closed his eyes, his jaws flexed, his lips were set in an ugly line.
“he is cheating on her…” he said, she could hardly catch the words, his breathing was laboured, throat constricting.
who was cheating on whom…
“they all cheat… all damn… each one of them…” he was shaking.
“each one of them… ” he took a deep breath and looked at her with unseeing eyes, “jija ji is cheating on di, just like…”
then he shut up abruptly.
“this world is not the fairytale land you think it is, khushi… it really isn’t… i must tell her…”
at last she began to understand the cause of his behaviour, but who were the others that had cheated? it didn’t matter.
she searched his face wondering how anjali ji would feel when she heard. she was such a lovely woman, so trusting and happy…
“don’t tell her just like that, ” her words again came out before she could check them.
“what nonsense, she has a right to know!” he hissed back.
“yes, but she also has a world she has built around her marriage, don’t you know that? she is such a gentle loving person… this is her jeevan saathi, arnav ji… oh how i wish i had not seen anything that day… why did i… really… i have spoilt everything… for her, for you…” khushi started to feel terrible about the whole situation as finally it hit her what she had seen quite by chance one evening was about to do.
“stop blaming yourself, you have done nothing wrong… no, she must know, ” he said with force. desperate rage in his voice.
then he did something completely inexplicable. he let go of her shoulders and pulled her to him, jerking her against his chest, almost yoking her to him. his arms hard and unrelenting as he held her in a tight embrace.
she could hear his heart pound against her ear. pounding, thudding, beating… his breath. her eyes closed, hamesha, she thought.