“what am i going to do,” thought khushi, as she distractedly played with the shiny stars made of plastic hanging above her bed… “i’ve never been on a plane before.”
hawai jahaaz, the word went through her mind, flying at a bizarre angle, then zoomed off through the window, a screeching sound in its trail. khushi closed her eyes tight, “hey devi maiyya, yeh maine kya kar diya…” what have i gone and done now, she muttered.
buaji is right, i am sanka devi. goddess of craziness. how could i agree to this? and leave home today, this evening? in three hours?!
her agony led her straight to the the need to munch on something.
where were those sour plums?
and… and.. khushi could feel tears pushing against her eyelids, panic dancing near her throat…
a changed heartbeat.
what? what was she going to tell babu ji? how kind he was to her. he trusted her.
and amma? what would she say?
and the whole of gomti sadan, all the aunties and uncles and so many… especially that billo mausi, always so many questions she needed to ask…
a flutter of wings.
had the hawai jahaaz arrived already?
khushi’s eyes flew open and she saw a pigeon on the window sill. the pigeons were playing around in the compound court yard and adjoining verandahs as usual. a white one with tiny red eyes sat at the window looking at her intently… like it was any of its business what she was thinking of.
khushi shoved her ber away and sat in front of devi maiyya. “hey devi maiyya, aap kuchh upay bataiyye, i will be a good girl, i will tell babu ji everything, but i can’t say no to this job, this is good for my family, i really want to do it… i am scared, very very scared… but…” she paused, took a deep breath, shuddered at the thought of leaving home for the first time, going to a city she’d never been to, working for a rakshas, and completed her thought, “i will do it.”
(oh devi maiyya, you tell me a way…)
she decided there was no point in wasting time, she would go and speak to babu ji right now.
asr walked into shantivan, his sprawling home in maharanibagh, one of delhi’s most upscale neighbourhoods. his pace was brisk, a distracted air about him. a few strands of hair flopped on his forehead, he was too preoccupied to notice. he didn’t realise his sister was standing right in his path till he almost walked into her.
“di!” she stopped short.
“haan, chhotey, kya baat hai? you look busy,” she had a smile and that indulgent air which he was so used to. the former he liked, but the latter… don’t elder sisters ever realise that you’d grown up?
“no di, nothing special… just got to go to lucknow… some work…”
“lucknow? chhotey, i hope you are not still fretting about sheesh mahal…” anjali jha was a lovely young woman, about seven years older than her one and only brother. she was gentle of demeanour, smiled readily, loved with all her heart, and was completely devoted to two people in her life.
her not so sweet brother and her absolutely indulgent, very gentle and loving husband, shyam manohar jha.
anjali jha had not been treated too right by life. despite all the wealth and influence of her father’s family, when the polio came, it had its way with her… viruses don’t care apparently whether you’re rich or poor, all they want is to strike you down. anjali was left with a prominent limp in her left leg. a beautiful woman with a sad little flaw. thankfully, she was strong and optimistic by nature and tried not to spend too much time moping about her troubles.
however, after her wedding was interrupted on a terrible night, anjali was left shattered… she tried hard not to show it. her brother did everything he could to set things right, all of 14 he was then, and she about 21.
and then three years ago shyam came into her life. she would never forget their first meeting at the shiv mandir. it was of course a monday, the day of the lord, and she was there for her vrat, when she lost consciousness while climbing the steps to the main pavilion. shyam had materialised out of nowhere, revived her, taken her home, and his kind face and concerned eyes had left an impression on her. next time at the mandir she’d looked out for him.
and he’d been there.
anjali smiled at the thought.
“jija ji in town?” asr asked, looking at his sister’s radiant face and bright and elegant saree. the perfect way to divert her from lucknow talk.
anjali blushed. asr was happy. because whatever made her happy, pleased him no end. the only woman in the world, no, the only person in the world he really gave a damn about.
he walked toward his room to get ready for the trip, as he went up the flight of stairs, lithe and graceful, he called out, “di, make sure the guest room is ready… we might have someone staying over tonight.”
“uthay deo nand kissore!” bua ji exclaimed as khushi came to the living room all set to talk to babu ji.
(oh take me, lord nand kishore!)
“kya hua, jiji?” shashi ji asked, concerned. his elder sister was looking most perturbed. someone had called her from delhi, payal had received the call, obviously the news was not good.
(what happened, jiji?)
bua ji sat down with her hands on her head, “ab hum ka kari, babua?!” she said sounding terribly hassled as she swung her long plait around her neck and over a shoulder.
(what shall i do now?)
“oo happy ji ka phonewa tha…he is my neighbour you see, very nice man, very kind, all these years since your jija ji left me and went to the other world, he and a few neighbours have been my support, like an elder sister, a bhabi they…”
(that was happy ji’s call…)
“haan, jiji, but what has happened?” shashi ji tried to coax her sister get to the point, the circuitous route always being her preferred one.
“haan?” madhumati ji tried to focus, “that’s what i am saying na, babua, the water pipe in my house has burst… there’s water gushing out of my front and back doors… ganga jamuna sarswati flowing out… thai thai paani, happy ji called to ask if i knew where the main connection was so they could turn it off…”
“so, jiji, do you know where it is?”
“yes, babua, it’s in the kitchen, but how will anyone get in? i have the keys! hai re nand kissore,” bua ji gave a loud wail, “i have to get to delhi, now!” she declared and struggled to come to her feet, the soft cushions not relinquishing her that easily.
khushi stood there listening to the whole thing, nonplussed.
“kya?” she thought, “bua ji needs to get to delhi? there’s an emergency?” she ran back into her and jiji’s room and flopped in front of her deity.
“aap ne… aap ne yeh kiye, hai na?” you… you’ve done this, haven’t you, she looked at devi maiyya and said, “aap ka ishara hum samajh gaye, you have given me a sign, you are with me, thank you, thankyouthankyou devi maiyya,” a few speedy namashkars were offered to the goddess.
(you have… you have done this, haven’t you? i understand your sign, you have given me a sign…)
“i will now do what needs to be done without fear of failure,” saying so, she drew herself up to her full height and marched back into the living room.
“bua ji,” she called out grandly, “aap chinta mat kariye… don’t worry, i will go to delhi and get that pipe repaired.”
four pairs of eyes turned and fixed their astounded gaze on her. from the corner of her eye khushi noticed the pigeon was now on the window sill here and staring at her too… intently. again!
“khushi, tum kya kah rahi ho?” said payal.
(khushi, what are you saying?)
“bitiya…” garima ji started.
“e leo suru hui gayi natak,” there starts the drama, snapped bua ji.
“bitiya, mujhe batao, kya soch rahi ho…” said shashi ji. tell me, what are you thinking.
“babu ji, you remember that arnav singh raizada? that…” payal looked at khushi wondering what she was up to, she could feel a story coming.
“haan bitiya, i know the people from sheesh mahal.”
“haan! that one… well, they called today and they said they so loved our mithai, they were coming down specially to buy all the balushahis, jalebis, and pedas we had in the shop… some party or pooja or something in their house,” khushi paused triumphantly.
“so?” shashi babu was confused.
“so? so? babu ji, can’t you see? they are coming in their hawai jahaaz to pick up lucknow’s special khaas ekdam best mithai, i can always go back with them in that hawai jahaaz and get the pipe in bua ji’s house fixed… otherwise how will this get solved?”
(lucknow’s special absolutely best sweet…)
there was silence all around.
then garima ji said, “khushi, sit down, you have never been to delhi, we have no one there, and in a hawai jahaaz…? tum kya kah rahi ho?” really what was khushi saying, seemed to be on everyone’s mind.
(what are you saying?)
“if that is the case, i can go in the hawai jahaaz,” bua ji said suddenly.
the thought of telling rakshas that instead of her her buaji would accompany him to delhi… khushi’s stomach somersaulted at the thought…
“please listen to me everyone, this is the best solution,” khushi decided she would just do the best she could, “i will go and give happy ji the keys, and tonight i can stay in bua ji’s house alone, nothing will happen. i am 20 years old, i am not scared of ghosts, everyone in the neighbourhood knows bua ji… she just has to call happy ji and some other kind neighbour and tell them i’ll be there… i am sure they will take care of me. tomorrow bua ji can come with jiji to delhi… we’ll stay with bua ji for a while and once she is settled and all is well, we’ll come back… kyun bua ji?” she went and perched on the arm of bua ji’s sofa and hugged her, “don’t you want sanka devi to come and see your home, aap toh akele hi rahti hain… you must be so lonely.”
(you live alone… you must be lonely.)
at this ganga jamuna started to flow out of the martinet’s eyes. her loneliness really bothered the widow without children… it might be really nice to have the two girls with her for a while.
garima was so taken aback by this rather well finished spiel, she really had no idea how to react.
“khushi bitiya,” said her babu ji with a considering air, “what you say might work, but why don’t i go today in the plane with the mithais, and i’ll come back tomorrow by train. then all three of you can go to delhi when jiji is ready to leave, spend a bit of time with your aunt in her city.”
khushi began to get all tied in knots again. babu ji made complete sense.
“aap kya kah rahein hain,” cut in garima, “don’t you remember, we have to go there?”
(what are you saying!)
“where,” asked shashi ji, bewildered, clearly an important appointment had slipped his mind.
garima frowned and gestured with her head, not wanting to divulge all before the girls. khushi and payal looked at each other, must be another arranged marriage related meeting. khushi tried to hide a smile; payal rolled her eyes, hey bhagwan when will this ever end, she could do with a break. suddenly a few weeks in delhi sounded rather appealing.
“babu ji,” the calm voice of payal at last, “mujhe lagta hai ki khushi theek kah rahi hai. we should do what she says.”
(i think what khushi’s saying is right. we should do what she says.)
khushi could have hugged payal. she got up and started dancing instead.
“aaj mausam hai suhana,
pipe jodne ka hai bahana
hawai jaahaaz mein udenge hum
kabootar khaaye dana!”
in a fit of relief she sang and rushed and gave the pigeon some grain.
when she packed her bag, all her clothes went in, her bangles, bindis, parandis, three pairs of mojris, those backless slip ons she wore all the time, she picked up her stars and put them into the suitcase too. and last but never least, her beloved devi maiyaa. she took a look around her room and said, “aatein hai, chhai mahiney mein.” i’ll be back… in six months.
she began to trudge out with a bit of sadness and trepidation. then she screeched to a halt. turned back, rushed to the wall where hung three posters of salman khan. she took them down, rolled them carefully and put them in her cloth jhola, her ubiquitous hand bag.
“aap humare saath hai na salman ji, toh woh rakshas hume kuch nahin kar payga,” she had complete faith that her salman ji would take on that rakshas and make sure he wouldn’t bother her.
(you are with me, salman ji… that’s why that monster can’t do a thing to me.)
payal called her and asked, “khushi, tum sab kuch nahin batayi na ab tak? tell me, what’s the real story? you won’t tell me?”
(you haven’t divulged everything, have you?)
khushi had to hug jiji then, “jiji, kuch nahin, from now on whatever will happen will only be good, you’ll see,” her sister was so precious to her. and thinking this she went off to make some jalebis as the tension of this day finally caught up with her.
exactly three hours from the time they’d spoken, the phone rang.
“are you ready?” said cool steel voice.
“nahin, hum khushi kumari gupta!” snapped a hot saucy one.
(no, i’m khushi kumari gupta!)
“funny,” a pause, “now, miss gupta, if you’ve had your jest for the day, would you please give me your address so i can pick you up.”
he would come here? oh no.
“nahin, hum khud aa jayengey, where should i come, just tell me…”
(no. i’ll come by myself…)
“i’m afraid they won’t let you in unless you’re accompanied by me, so…”
when the white suv drew up outside gomti sadan, many windows were flung open to check out the rich owner of sheesh mahal who lived in delhi, and who was coming to pick up their own khushi kumari gupta.
completely oblivious to it all, arnav singh raizada got out of the car, gave one cool look at the young woman in pink churidar standing at the doorway, two big suitcases next to her and a cloth back clutched in her hands, and said, “all set for a bit of fun, miss gupta?” in this lazy intimate sort of voice.
her eyes widened slightly. what was this new game? she’d told everyone to say their goodbyes inside as she didn’t want to cry in front of the whole colony.
he saw the widening eyes, her hazel irises sparkled in the light of the setting sun, her lips quivered, he felt himself swallow involuntarily. he could feel a funny sort of calm settling somewhere inside himself. how could anyone wear such a hideous little thing with sparkling tinsel on it, he wondered looking at the gota and the little pom poms and frills of her suit. and yet, he wished he could take a few minutes and just look at those lips and eyes.
how terribly he’d missed them.
“what the!” he gritted his teeth. was he going mad.
“miss gupta,” he lashed out, “i don’t have all day.”
he held the passenger side door open for her and she clambered on. why couldn’t he drive a normal car, she fumed? everything had to be big and bold and bullying. hoonh, she would show him, she was not scared of his menacing ways.
he got in and barked, “seat belt!” and started the car.
she stole a glance at him sideways, so he was not wearing black silk today, but he had kala chashma on. and gray coat, white shirt, what was that on his wrist? was it a raksha dhaga…?
(dark glasses) (wristband for protection)
“do you always stare at men like this, miss gupta? this could be a problem, you know.” his voice had a cruel little laughter in it.
khushi was aghast.
when they walked into the jet plane, khushi couldn’t stop her mouth from going into its state of “o.”
a smell of fresh lime and a blast of cool air welcomed her, and there was this lovely lady at the door saying, “good evening, welcome aboard.”
“miss rao, please help miss gupta with her bags and settle her in, i’ll have a word with the captain,” asr walked away toward the front of the plane saying this, leaving khushi alone.
she looked around, eyes getting bigger and bigger at each new discovery
there were two rows of plush seats upholstered in fine black leather, with an aisle in between, crimson carpet covering it along the entire length. cold air gushed into the cabin from overhead vents, little oval windows with their shades up lined the walls. on each seat lay a tiny pillow covered in white silk and a fluffy little blanket in gray.
where would she sit?
“may i take your bag, ma’am?” asked the lady sweetly as she tucked khushi’s jhola in a closet concealed behind a partition and then handed her a warm towel to refresh herself. khushi stared at the towel blankly wondering what she should to do with it.
“so staring is a habit, is it?” said an amused voice, “you may wish to wipe your face.”
she looked up at him still not comprehending. what was she supposed to do with this little wet taulia?
“never mind,” he said taking it away and dumping it on a tray.
“ma’am, would you like to sit here?” miss rao showed khushi a seat by the window right in front. without thinking much, khushi sat down. she could see the sun setting through the window, there was an empty seat next to her, a wide table like space in between, a galss of water was placed by miss rao in a little circular glass holder at one end of it. khushi put the pillow and blanket on the seat next to her and wondered what she should do now.
asr walked briskly to the other side of the aisle and sat at the window seat. he pulled out his phone and dialled a number, “aman? yes, we should be there in a couple of hours, make sure the car is there… tell akash to receive jean pierre, and yes, i hope miss gupta’s cabin is ready… ok, yes, i’ll come in later tonight.”
“miss rao, please tell captain raina, i’m ready, and please give me black coffee after take off.”
khushi’s eyes widened again… take off what? all sorts of thoughts crowded her head. what was she doing? she was sitting in a plane with a man she didn’t know, going to a city she’d never been to… and why was she missing jiji so much suddenly? khushi closed her eyes and tried to swallow the tears that were threatening to well up.
“please put on your seat belt,” his voice jolted her back to the here and now.
she looked at him lost. what seat belt? his keen dark gaze on her somehow reminded her of that pigeon. khushi began to feel a little giddy.
he got up and came toward her slowly.
“is this your first time?”
her eyes grew even more opaque.
“miss gupta! i asked you something.”
“is this the first time you’re flying?”
she swallowed, she wasn’t going to show him she was nervous, disoriented.
“nahin toh… hum bahut baar flying…” trying to affect a nonchalant air, she claimed to be practically a frequent flyer.
(nooo… i have flown many times!)
“so put on your seat belt,” he threw at her with a sarcastic smile, lopsided… there’s nothing straight about this man, she grumbled to herself. and groped behind the seat for the belt.
“not there, here,” his voice was soft and right by her ear, she spun back startled, and there were chocolate coated velvety eyes looking straight at her. in his hands he held the two ends of the belt that had been placed helpfully on the armrests all along. he gave a slight grimace of a smile and leaned forward to bring the two ends across and clip them together. she heard the click of the belt and felt the back of his hands, his knuckles, brush against her belly at the same time. everything inside seemed to plunge to her toes. she shook as a tremble raced through her.
she looked up with frightened eyes.
he was staring at her, a dazed look in his eyes. then his eyes hardened, his jaw set itself in stern lines. he walked back to his seat without a word.
with a little shudder the plane began to taxi. the moment it started moving, khushi couldn’t help herself, her eyes closed and she started praying fervently under her breath.
hey devi maiyya, raksha karna… hey devi maiyya, raksha karna… hey devi maiyya…
(hey devi maiyya, save me…)
her lips moved constantly, though no sound emerged. her hands gripped the arm rests, she sat ramrod straight and waited for catastrophe.
the plane paused for a few moments and then when it started to move again it picked up speed rapidly. alarmed, khushi’s hands snapped to her eyes, her shoulders hunched, her knees came up. she was ready to go into foetal position in her fear, it seemed.
“open your eyes and take a deep breath,” said a calm voice next to her.
she cautiously turned her head and opened one eye.
he was sitting on the seat beside her, looking straight ahead.
“open both eyes… miss gupta,” his voice was beginning to get a bit of an edge.
she slowly did as he said.
“now take one of these and suck on it slowly,” he had put a handful of lozenges on the wide armrest. khushi grabbed one, took off the wrapping as fast as she could and popped it into her mouth.
she felt the sweet release its syrup sweetness and felt a little better.
“now hold my hand,” his voice was matter of fact.
she looked at him, shocked, only to see his hand lying palm up on the arm rest, waiting for her to do as he told her. long brown fingers, a strong thumb, clear sharp lines, khushi stared.
“not again, miss gupta… just take my hand, i don’t bite.”
tentatively she reached out and and placed her slender palm on his, letting it slip over the surface softly. his fingers closed over her hand, firm, reassuring. she let her fingers curl around his palm.
she was sitting next to a stranger, in a plane, and holding his hand. hey devi maiyya, if billo mausi ever heard of this.
but suddenly pushing billo mausi aside came funny sensations. she could feel the texture of his skin, there were rough patches here and there, callouses, but his skin felt firm and cool. it felt sort of nice… babu ji’s hands were rougher, and why not, he worked so hard with his hands, this pampered rich rakshas must have had everything given to him on a platter… laad governor kahin ke… huh! she could feel her anger rising.
(lord governor of some place)
“don’t get agitated… nothing will happen, we’ll leave the ground shortly… now tell me how did you manage to persuade your family to let you come with me…”
her eyes opened at that, and a giggle escaped her.
he wanted to divert her attention but he was taken aback at this mercurial change of mood.
“pata hai, what i told them, no not that i lied, not really… well anyway, i said,” and she giggled again, “i said, you were coming to get lucknow’s special khaas ekdam best mithai!”
(do you know… special absolutely the best sweet)
she laughed as she finished saying her words with a grand air and looked at him.
“did you?” he murmured, looking back at her quizzically… and the plane began taking off.
she gripped his hand tight with both hands and sat there, staring at him, panic stricken.
as the plane ascended to almost 30,000 feet, and she didn’t fall off the plane and all seemed more or less normal, she felt her fear gradually seep away. she relaxed into her seat, and laid her head back.
he felt her hands loosen their grip on his hand, he saw her sitting, looking calmer. he made to free his hand, but the moment he did that, her hold tightened.
“so you stare and you hold hands with strangers, uh huh, miss gupta, what are we to do with you…”
she looked at him with furious eyes, and let go of his hand.
he laughed and called out, “miss rao, do bring me that coffee, and a cup of hot tea for miss gupta!”