he snapped open his macbook and started punching keys, in seconds absorbed in work, his brown eyes fixed on the screen, their little movements indicative of a mind at work, assessing, evaluating, pondering. a tiny frown on his forehead as he worked with complete absorption. he had moved back to his window seat across the aisle. the cup of black coffee lay next to him on the wide arm rest. miss rao refilled it quietly every time it emptied.
khushi had sipped her hot sweet tea and felt herself get warmer and somewhat more secure. the plane was not going to drop her off or anything, oh devi maiyya, thanks for always being there for me. but that rakshas? why did he have to hold her hand and say horrible things? as though she couldn’t manage to take care of herself. what nonsense. and then the gall to say that she liked to hold his hand… she would show him…
but her thoughts of vengeance were cut short by a sight she’d never seen. the earth down there from up here in the skies.
through the window she could see a layer of fluffy feathery clouds and below them little squares in green, brown red yellow, farm lands, tiny homes and huts, snaking roads and country paths winding through the farms and meadows; was that a little village there, all those thatched rooftops? and a river, gleaming under the setting sun, like a ribbon of gota over the land, making everything sparkle, look pretty.
she broke into a grin and said, “dekhiye, ekdam hamare gota ki tarah.”
(see, just like my silver trimming.)
he was deep in thought and looked up a bit dazed… what was the problem.
he saw her huge happy grin and felt something lurch erratically in some part of his body. what was that? oh never mind.
“miss gupta, could you please not yell so much, i am trying to get some work done here,” his voice was stern and distant.
her face fell immediately, and she looked away. he felt something plunge in some part of him. this was crazy.
he went back to his laptop and scowled at it. he still had no idea why he was here. why he needed to see this girl. all he knew was that the next six months were crucial to business and he couldn’t afford to be scattered and unfocussed. if having her around eased the restlessness, so be it.
arnav singh raizada did not spend hours thinking of emotions and feelings. in fact, in his opinion both were highly overrated things, especially all the song and dance about love. romantic love, the thing between a man and a woman that was supposedly way beyond fun, games and physical desire.
he was, in fact, quite sure this was entirely a concoction of the human imagination, and his sister was its biggest devotee and propagator.
love. a funny sort of smile appeared on his face. really, when would this world grow up.
if there was anything called love, and if it were of any value, his mother would have been a happy woman. and perhaps alive today.
he shut the laptop vehemently. every time did this thought dislodge him deep within, he lost balance, his mind went into a tailspin. fourteen years. long desolate years. without her voice, her smile, the sound of her bangles. he closed his eyes and put his head on the seat back.
when he opened his eyes, she was standing right in front of him, bending over to take a closer look, as she moved her hand to tuck back a straying lock of hair on her forehead, her pink glass bangles made a tinkling sound…
“aap theek hain, mr raizada!!”
(are you okay, mr raizada!!)
her hazel eyes were full of concern, she was close enough for him to feel her breath on his face, to smell the faint pleasant scent that clung to her. jasmine?
he stared at her without a word, again wandering what he was doing here.
“i’m fine, miss gupta,” he replied, then watching her eyes calm down, he couldn’t resist, “i hope you enjoyed staring at me, better than your gota wouldn’t you say?”
surprise was followed quickly by anger in very hazel eyes. the lips in pale pink tightened, swift turn was taken by angry feet in beaded mojri and all would have gone perfectly if captain raina hadn’t hit an air pocket just at that moment.
khushi felt the ground beneath her wobble, a sudden emptying sensation in her stomach, and then she was flying, a curiously weightless feeling… only to land inelegantly on the carpeted cabin floor. completely winded. the suddenness and swiftness of it all stunned her reflexes.
strong hands caught hold of her hands. she looked into dark chocolate eyes, furious dark chocolate eyes.
“why must you always rush before you can barely walk?” came out hissing through clenched teeth. “what was the need to get up from your seat when you have no idea about planes?!”
he hauled her to her feet and grabbing her left arm with his right hand, then started propelling her toward her place.
and the plane passed through heavy clouds, again the ground seemed to shift and khushi tumbled. this time she fell on asr and together they crashed into a seat, he below, she on top of him. it was the seat next to hers.
his arms went around her instinctively. he felt her hurling against him that very first time he’d seen her with her startled, frightened eyes. he inhaled sharply. this was madness. his hands moved over her back, he wanted to stroke her slight body and pull her closer.
he caught hold of her shoulders and pushed her off him.
she was too shaken to feel much at that point. all she knew was that she was now lying on top of this rakshas with her face almost buried in his neck. she could feel and hear his heart beat, and a heat rose from him that tickled her ears, there was an aroma too, like what was it? leather? honey?
suddenly khushi was terribly hungry.
she was about to get up when she felt brutal hands on her shoulder. she found herself looking at his taut face, a nasty edge to his expression.
“miss gupta, please sit where you are supposed to and don’t move. d’you understand?” the last three words were barked out harshly.
miss rao appeared like a genie on hearing his raised voice.
was everything alright?
she saw a frazzled miss gupta at her seat, trying to put on the seat belt and not looking up. she seemed to be hiding her eyes.
asr was making his way to his seat, where he sat down and went back to his laptop without bothering to look at the concerned stewardess.
silence in the cessna citation, till captain raina announced he was ready to land.
khushi immediately felt apprehension gripping her. the next moment, a hand with long beautiful fingers came into vision. the terrible man from delhi was sitting next to her, looking straight head, his hand held out.
“nahin chahiye hume,” she muttered.
(i don’t want.)
the hand remained there.
the captain started descent. within seconds the hand had been grabbed and was held onto tightly. only after the plane had come to a standstill on the tarmac at the indira gandhi international airport at delhi, did soft fair fingers relinquish long brown ones with callouses and their strange air of comfort.
as she struggled with a suitcase, trying to get it into the boot of his suv, he turned to her after putting one of her huge bags in, took the suitcase from her without a word and threw it in nonchalantly, then walked around to the front of the car and held the passenger door open.
khushi stomped to the door and said,”hum khud kar sakte hain,” glared at him and got in.
(i can do it myself.)
he said nothing, simply walked over to his side, got in, put on his seat belt, cocked an eyebrow at hers while fixing his, and when he got her attention and she was done with wearing her belt, he turned the ignition and started the car.
he looked back as he reversed and said casually, “tonight you’ll stay at my place, we’ll fix up something for you tomorrow.”
“kya?!!” she turned and stared, “nahin! hum kyun aap ke yahan rahne lagey… hum lakshmi nagar jaayenge, buaji ke ghar… wahan paani bhi toh band karna hai na!”
(what?!! no, why should i stay with you? i’ll go to lakshmi nagar to my aunt’s house and i have to turn off the water too!)
“paani? lakshmi nagar? what nonsense.” came the crisp reply, one hand manoeuvred the steering wheel while the other rested on the gear stick.
“main nonsense nahin, aap…” she was about to retort, when she saw his eyes, they were looking at her, a dangerous glint in them.
(i am not nonsense… you…)
“don’t push your luck,” he said in this even cool way sending chills up her spine. khushi decided not to complete her sentence.
“dekhiye, mr raizada…”
“sir, call me ‘sir,’ that’s what my staff calls me.”
“theek hai, sir, dekhiye, i have to go to lakshmi nagar to my aunt’s place because devi maiyya has made her pipe burst and there’s water everywhere which is why i could manage to come to delhi with you. i have to turn that pipe off then sleep there tonight, tomorrow afternoon my buaji and my jiji will be here, so please drop me there…”
“who is devi maiyya and why is she bursting pipes?” asr was genuinely flummoxed.
“aap devi maiyya ko nahin jaantey? aap bhagwan kaun hain poochh rahe hain?” khushi was too shocked to bother to act cool. this man, really!
(you don’t know devi maiyya? you’re asking who is god?)
“ah, so devi maiyya is your bhagwan,” he smiled slightly looking at the road ahead.
khushi was distracted as she followed his gaze. before her lay wide open avenues with several lanes, cars zipped by, four abreast at times. she’s never seen such a thing before, not in lucknow, and the only other places she’d been to outside her hometown were kanpur for jaggi chacha’s daughter’s wedding and the village near lucknow where her babu ji’s family came from and still owned some land… dhanaur. they went there when some distant relative got married or died or there was a big pooja. no chance of wide streets with beautifully marked lanes leading to flyovers and toll gates in either place.
khushi watched entranced, her jaw almost dropping. could roads really be this wide?
“i don’t believe in your bhagwan. your bhagwan doesn’t make pipes burst, bad maintenance and poor quality materials do,” he said it in so matter of fact a tone, khushi thought for a second the news channel was on on the radio.
“you don’t believe in bhagwan?!! who do you think you are?” the words rushed out before she could stop them.
never had chocolate frozen so quickly. his gaze was icy as he said, “i think you know the answer to that question. especially since i and not your bhagwan will pay you one lakh of rupees every month. and girls like you i believe do understand the meaning of money,” there was an insult in his voice which scathed her skin. what is this girls like you and money talk! she really should have let bua ji come in that plane with him.
he could have sat there holding her hand and comforting her, while bua ji yelled, “hai re nandkissore” and tied a red gamchha around her head to contain her apprehension and palpitation.
khushi started giggling at the thought, her fear quite forgotten.
he turned and saw her profile, lips upturned at the corner as she laughed to herself. he had no idea what came over him, he swallowed violently, desperately trying to suppress the desire to lean over and kiss her delicate cheek, push back the locks of hair falling over her forehead, hold her in his arms and feel her laughter against him.
“give me the address,” he rasped out abruptly.
at lakshmi inagar, when they located bua ji’s modest single storied home, they found a whole pile of newspapers and rags and old towels and sheets jammed against the front door, obviously some neighbour’s attempt at stemming the flow of water. but then this was ganga jamuna saraswati as claimed by buaji, how could such flotsam and jetsam stanch their spate?
the plumber was waiting outside the house.
completely overriding khushi’s protests, asr had called aman, given him the address and told him to send over a good plumber at once. and of course, though aman knew seven in the evening wasn’t the ideal time to enthuse a plumber around his skills and means of livelihood, yet he was quite clear as to which man’s wrath he was willing to handle.
aman had found a good plumber and dispatched him forthwith.
asr got out of the car, took a look at the water seeping out of the house, “please open the door, miss gupta,” he commanded.
she started saying, “hum kar…” then decided to do as he said.
( i can do…)
he waited outside while she went in with the plumber.
“namaste ji, aap madhumati ji ke bhatiji ko lekar aayen hain?” the slightly squeaky voice startled him.
(namaste, have you brought madhumati ji’s niece here?)
there was a small man with a large smile standing before him. short, slightly plump, in dark blue overalls.
“ji i’m happy, sir ji, you know goga ji’s assistant…” he nodded his head in the direction of a little shed that had a board with “goga’s garage” splashed across it in red and blue, obviously recently painted.
before asr could respond, khushi came flying out of the house, “everything is covered in water inside, the phone isn’t working, i think the power is gone, ” there was panic in her voice. he wondered why.
“aap sochiye mat, hum electrician le aayenge, abhi theek kaarwa denge…” said the man in overalls.
(don’t worry, i’ll get an electrician and get it fixed right now.)
khushi looked at him puzzled, then she made the connection, “happy ji!!! aap happy ji hain na? bua ji aap ke baare mein hume bataya hai… aap bahut acchhe hain, bua ji kahti hain, aap log unka kitna khayal rakhte hain…!”
(happy ji!!! you’re happy ji, aren’t you? bua ji has told us all about you… you are very nice, bua ji says, all of you take such good care of her.)
the plumber came and said, he’d done what he could do at this point. he’d be back the next day to replace the pipe and finish the job; and the job, including labour and materials would cost rupees three hundred.
“three hundred rupees?!!” khushi almost screamed, she’d left lucknow with a princely sum of two hundred rupees. what would she do now!
“fine, kal aake kar lena, ye lo, change madam ko de dena,” asr put a thousand rupee note in the plumber’s hand without ado and turned to khushi.
(fine, come tomorrow and get it done, here take this, return the change to madam.)
“shall we go?” he asked.
“go? kahan go?” go where? she was totally disoriented… what a day, harrowing, demanding, hectic… first this man’s call, an offer of a fortune, then the games to catch that plane, the plane journey, now the water and electricity problems, a whole new city. and a man who completely irritated and confounded her, yet he was the only one a little familiar in this huge sheher. and why did he scowl all the time?
he looked at her for a second, turned to happy ji and said, “she will come back tomorrow after her aunt and sister arrive, no need to fix the electricity right now.”
then he walked up to her, held her elbow and said, “come.”
she felt his fingers on her skin, cool and assuring they felt. she took a deep breath and did as he bid.
he drove quietly, it was completely dark now. she sat, a little tense, next to him. her hands gripped the seat belt.
he dialed a number on his phone and spoke on his blue tooth, the device sitting on his ear from the moment they’d arrived. “di, yes, we’re here… yes, she will stay with us tonight, yes, di, she… bye,” he spoke briskly and disconnected.
so he had an elder sister who lived with him. she was going to stay in his house where there were others, certainly a woman, his sister. oh devi maiyya was really great. khushi relaxed slowly, and let her head go back and rest on the seat.
he accelerated. tomorrow was an exciting day, the bali project was starting. he smiled to himself. good work was always exhilarating.