why was the pillow so big, khushi wondered as she snuggled right into it, fighting the need to open her eyes. she knew it was morning. but must she get up? five more minutes, she thought and sighed as she buried her head deeper into the down of the pillow… too big really.
she turned on her side, eyes resolutely shut. but a couple of seconds later she turned again and called out in a sleepy voice,
“jiji, chai ban gaya kya?…”
(jiji, is the tea ready?)
then most reluctantly she opened her eyes.
instead of stars hanging above her bed, there was a goat looking down at her inquisitively.
“jiji, tumhe yeh kya ho gaya?!” she sat up in bed with a shriek. she lowered her gaze slowly and looked at the creature again. it was still a goat.
(jiji, what has hapened to you?)
“hey devi maiyya, yeh kaisa jodoo hai?” she yelped and at that precise moment the goings on of the day before hit her.
(hey dm, what sort of magic is this?)
he lifted his chin and looped the wider end of his tie through the gap in the knot he was tying. it slipped and twisted. again.
“damn!” exploded through gritted teeth, under an irate breath.
what was the matter with him, three times he’d made the same mistake. for god’s sake it was a tie, he could get this done with his hands tied behind his back.
his hands immediately felt her weight, he’d just slipped them around her and lifted her off the seat. she was sleeping soundly. he’d tried to wake her up when they reached home last evening. but she wouldn’t budge. when he tried to shake her by the shoulder, she held his hand in both hers, pushed her cheek against it and rested even more comfortably.
he heard a soft sigh escape her lips and the tiniest of moans… “mmm.”
he felt something bizarre around his chest and promptly jerked his hand away. without further ado, he got out of the car, went to her side, opened the door and reached under her to pick her up. what the… he’d just take her and dump her in her room. this girl was really troublesome, but he had to get that bali project right. and this was the best solution.
he started striding briskly toward the large two storey bungalow sitting comfortably in the midst of landscaped gardens and well tended lawns. hopefully di had had the guest room readied.
what was that tug near his neck? he looked down and saw delicate fingers had caught hold of his lapel and were holding on tight. smooth, silken skin against the fine wool of his jacket. he swallowed and involuntarily looked down at her face. had he ever seen such a gentle profile before.
he’d seen many women sleeping, but that cheek was so childlike, so innocent and that trusting pushing in of her face against the crook of his elbow, right by his heart. he wanted to trace the line of her cheek with his fingers. gently. tenderly.
he muttered inaudibly and walked faster. the sooner he got rid of her the better. but his eyes were somehow stuck on the pink little bobbing pompom on her tiny puff sleeve. ghastly, he thought. just not the right profile for a reputed fashion house.
khushi looked frantically around the room. it was huge, and she was sitting on a bed which would take amma, babu ji, buaji, and her and still have space for jiji to crawl in. the room looked lovely and it belonged to someone with lots of money for sure. silk curtains, long and elegant, hung from the row of windows along one wall, a comfortable sofa and an arm chair around a low table sat at one end, a beautiful carpet lay between the sitting area and the bed, there were flowers on the table, a burst of pink and red roses in a tall glass vase…
khushi’s eyes roamed all over this unfamiliar yet beautiful place.
what an arresting painting of a krishnachura tree on the wall. she loved those rich orangey red flowers, with their plume which reminded her of kanha ji and his peacock feather decorated headband… in fact, just next to gomti sadan…
but, hey devi maiyya, how did she get here? to this room? the last thing she remembered was talking to jiji and babu ji from that rakshas’s car. they were finally convinced she was alright, and understood why she couldn’t stay in bua ji’s wet, flooded home that night. all things considered they’d agreed arnav singh raizada’s home, where his sister also lived, was the safest place for her.
she could hear amma muttering worriedly in the background, and bua ji yelling, “hai re nand kissore!” she also heard babu ji say, “bitiya badi ho rahi hai… woh sambhal legi, khoosie bitiya samajhdar hai, galat kaam nahin karegi…”
(daughter is growing up, she’ll manage… khushi is an intelligent girl, she won’t do anything wrong.)
and somehow all of it had made her feel better, the tension had seeped out, replaced by swamping tiredness.
she’d felt so relaxed and she’d…
oh no, she’d slept off.
now she was here.
but how did she get here???
and the goat?
when her eyes swiveled to her early morning visitor again, she noticed the white benign looking animal was dressed in a mirror work wrap and had a copper bell hanging around its neck. somehow, she remembered buaji’s “om” locket.
uff, she closed her eyes, shook her head as though to clear it and opened her eyes again.
now before her stood a beautiful woman in a diaphanous pale blue saree, matching bangles gleamed on her arms, a streak of sindoor lay above the tiny alluring bindi she wore on her forehead, she had a pure and gentle loveliness and she was looking at her with a wide welcoming smile. huh!
“khushi ji,” said the unknown lady. what was happening, thought khushi, her eyes becoming round and saucer like, and her lips going into its habitual “o” formation. how did this woman know her name?
and where was rakshas?
“sorry, khushi ji, laksmi ji woke you up…” the lady said, then looked at the goat and admonished, “lakshmi ji, you are being very naughty today, does anyone treat a guest like that?”
to khushi’s amazement, the goat said, “mehhh…” and walked right up to khushi and nuzzled her hand with its head.
khushi started laughing. this was really strange but somehow that goat, sorry lakshmi ji’s touch comforted her.
she petted the goat and said, “no no, it’s ok lakshmi ji, you just wanted to make sure i don’t get late… didn’t you? namaste lakshmi ji, i am khushi kumari gupta, from lucknow.”
“thank you, khushi ji, for understanding, par aap theek hain? kal raat aap jab aayin… sorry sorry, aap soch rahi hongi main kaun hoon… main arnav ki behen hoon, anjali… anjali jha…” she held up her hand in a namaste, her eyes looking keenly at khushi.
(thank you, khushi ji, for understanding… but are you ok? when you came last night… sorry sorry, you must be thinking who i am… i am arnav’s sister, anjali… anjali jha…)
khushi returned her namaste and then wondered aloud, “but how did i get here?”
anjali, looked at her with a curious smile and said, “you don’t remember?”
he stood before the pool outside his room, wondering why he was so bothered. she was just a girl. what’s more, she was very badly dressed and totally accident prone. she’d covered him with jalebi that first time.
his hand reached up and touched the place where he’d felt the first impact, and had looked down to see a startled face with large dark frightened eyes, a pair of perfectly arched eyebrows, and the jalebi crushed against his black silk shirt; orange, dripping with syrup.
he looked down and saw his hand hovering around his heart and frowned… that’s just where her face was resting last night…
again he remembered her weight against his body as he carried her. her face looked a little wan and tired, her lips were slightly apart, shimmery in the dark. he’d wanted to kiss them. he had wanted to feel them against his lips, his teeth.
he turned swiftly around and walked quickly through his room, making his way to the dining room.
breakfast. he needed some black coffee and hot food.
and hopefully di wouldn’t have that smirk on her face she had when he’d walked in carrying that girl, “chhotey, tum ek ladki, ek ladki ko gode mein leke ghar ke andar aaye,” she’s said eyes glinting with mischief, “awww, so sweet, pata hai na iss ghar ke uss riwaz ke baare mein?…” she paused and prolonged the “iss” and the “uss” really irritatingly.
(chhotey, you walked into the house with a girl, a girl, in your arms! aww, so sweet, you know about that ritual of this house, don’t you?…)
all he said was, “di, this is khushi kumari gupta, she’s joining ar tomorrow. please wake her up in the morning… she’ll come to the office with me…” and stalked off toward the guest room.
when he lowered her down on the bed, she’d been unwilling to let go of his lapel, he’d almost forced her to open her fingers and let go, and left the room feeling most disturbed. he really needed to talk to aman about jean pierre and take a look at the proposals again.
at last he felt like going right back to work.
when anjali told khushi that her brother had carried her into the house, she thought she’d pass out.
rakshas had carried her. oh no, was there anything more embarrassing, more horrific.
that’s why her heart was pounding so much at the thought. not for any other reason.
“aao chhotey! rahim, chhotey ke liye nashta laayiye…”
(come, chhotey! rahim, please get breakfast for chhotey.)
his grandmother, his mother’s mother, sat at the head of the table supervising breakfast, his uncle, mama ji, aunt, mami ji, and cousin, akash had already started breakfast.
hemangini raizada was a remarkable person, graceful of demeanour, still a very good looking woman at 68, she was known to be extremely strong and wise. which is why perhaps no one could figure out her fascination with lakshmi, her beloved pet goat. but in this matter, hemangini was adamant, lakshmi was not to be messed with.
life had thrown challenges at this woman with unerring regularity… her mother died when she was very young, the only child of her parents. her father, a fairly profligate zamindar, as zamindars were wont to be, decided to marry again within months of her mother’s death.
the new wife had no time or love for the 13 year old hemangini. the moment she reached 16, her father’s wife decided she was old enough to be gotten rid off without too much fuss, it was time to get her married. and so it was that arun singh raizada’s mother heard of the beautiful daughter of zamindar patwardhan choudhury, and chose her to be the bride of her only child.
hemangini hadn’t expected much of her husband, given her experience of men, such as her father and his irresponsible brothers. and so when arun singh started to treat her as if she mattered, showering her with love and respect, she was shocked at first.
she’d learned to harden her heart in the three years gone by, but now with her husband she slowly let her guard down and began to feel things again… and then before she knew it, she was terribly in love with this kind man who adored her. he was also brave and intelligent and fair. though belonging to a land owning zamindar family, he’d decided to study engineering and set up business. his motors and pumps manufacturing company grew swiftly and in just a couple of decades would become well known in its field.
in the meantime, their two children had come along. rajveer singh and ratna kusum, just two years apart.
as she took care of her home, her husband, her young kids, and studied for her b.a. in hindi literature, hemangini believed she must be the happiest girl, if not in the whole world, certainly in lucknow.
a few years later, they moved to delhi as the business had grown and her husband felt he needed to be based in a more accessible city.
then came another tragedy. arun singh suffered a massive heart attack one night, and even before they came with the ambulance to take him to the hospital, he was gone.
hemangini was only 39 at that time. her 23 years with arun singh had changed her forever.
she felt a strength she’d never felt before.
a part of her died with him. she didn’t resist that, knowing the same would happen to him if she were to leave. but with the rest of her she fought boldly to hold on to life, give her teenaged children the stability and love they needed as they came to terms with this new reality.
her only regret was, she couldn’t keep the business, it had to be sold off as the knowledge required to run it was not available in the family. rajveer and ratna were too young.
her son, a bright boy with a degree in management, also opted to start his own thing, a garment export unit which did reasonably well. all was going well, then he fell in love with the young part time maid who came to do the puja related work in the evenings, often staying back to massage hemangini’s aching head or help out in the kitchen if there were guests as there often were.
rajveer married manorama. his mother told herself, true, her daughter in law was loud and and not at all well bred, but she did seem to have a good heart. it would work out. a part of her doubted that very much, but still, she was not about to give up… one had to make life work. it didn’t happen automatically.
ratna married a man of her choice, dushyant malik, again from a land owning family in lucknow. he was well educated, charming, handsome. no one had an inkling that this was a man with no serious relationship with a thing called conscience. spoiled rotten by their mother, he and his brother believed that pleasure was all one had to seek and if that meant breaking promises, being lazy, hurting people, so be it. they were rich enough to get away with anything. they had every right to do as they pleased.
ratna knew early on in their marriage that her husband was cheating on her, but by then her daughter had come along and somehow she couldn’t quite face the idea of divorce. what bothered her more on a day to day basis was his irrational anger, ignited by any and every thing, but ratna held on. seven years after anjali was born, came her son, arnav. ratna tried to manage the best she could, finding happiness in her kids, her gardening and their regular visits to her mother’s home in delhi.
shocking as it may seem to many people, life teaches you to live with the most untenable things, if there’s a good enough cause for which you believe it must be tolerated. ratna was certain leaving her husband would be terribly harmful for the kids and so she stayed.
sometimes hemangini wondered if she had done wrong by not insisting her daughter walk out on this painful marriage. she wandered if she’d in some way failed her daughter. she wondered if that night when everything ended could have been prevented by her.
“lakshmi ji, aap hume kahan le jaa rahe hain?” a young girl’s clear bell like voice interrupted her thoughts.
(lakshmi ji, where are you taking me?)
she looked toward the staircase to see a young slim woman in a pale green churidar kameez running after lakshmi on light feet. behind her came anjali, with a big smile on her face.
“miss gupta, please hurry up, i am ready to leave!” said asr tersely, barely looking up from his omelette and toast.
“nani ji, yeh hain khushi ji, khushi kumari gupta, abhi chhotey ke office mein kaam karengi yeh… pata hai yeh kahan se hain, nani ji… lucknow!” anjali coolly ignored arnav and his scowl as she introduced khushi to nani ji.
(nani ji, this is khushi ji, khushi kumari gupta, she’s going to work in chhotey’s office… do you know where she’s from, nani ji? from lucknow!)
khushi held her palms together in a namaste and said, “nani ji, namaste,” her smile was tremulous… the mention of lucknow had her close to tears in an instant.
nani ji looked at the innocent young face with sharp clean features, she liked the lack of guile in the large eyes, the respect this girl showed her, and what a gentle way, not at all like the girls of today, especially some of chhotey’s friends.
nani ji smiled, “namaste, bitiye, hamare lucknow se ho tum? bade shubh din pe aayi ho, aaj hum devi maiyya ke liye havan rakkhe hain ghar mein… shyam ko zaroor rahiyega.”
(namaste, you’re from our lucknow? you’ve come on a very auspicious day, we have a prayer at home for devi maiyya this evening, you must be here.”
“devi maiyya!” squealed khushi suddenly terribly happy, “aap ke yahan wo hain?”
(devi maiyya! she’s here at your place?)
asr looked at the wide luminous smile and got up suddenly.
“i said, miss gupta, hurry up! i don’t pay people to hang around and waste time talking nonsense,” his tone was sharp, his eyes cold.
everyone looked at him shocked.
khushi stuttered, “nahin, sir…”
without saying another word, asr walked out of the dining area, and made his way down the wide hallway leading out of the house.
“na-aani ji, hum chalte hain,” khushi said looking worried and tense, and started to follow him.
(nani ji, i’ll go now.)
“hello hi bye bye, ee tragedy queen types kahan se mila hamaar arnav bitwa ko,” suddenly mami ji burst out, “lucknow mail coming to catching dilli high phalier! hoonh.” her large gold earrings jangled as she jerked her head disdainfully. khushi had never seen anyone dress up in gold encrusted saree and so much make up for breakfast.
(hello hi bye bye, where did our arnav boy find this tragedy queen type? lucknow mail has come to catch our delhi high flier! hooonh.)
nani ji said, “manorama!” stern and commanding.
anjali looked upset.
akash jumped up and said, “khushi ji, main hoon akash, aa… aap mere executive assistant hone wali hain…”
(khushi ji, i am akash, you are going to be my executive assistant…)
khushi looked at him gratefully, “namaste… sir,” she remembered what that rakshas had said about how he liked to be addressed by his employees, maybe his brother was also like him…
“no no, khushi ji, please call me akash…” a tender resigned air about akash as he said that.
khushi warmed to this decent man. she smiled a little and then she shrieked…
“hey devi maiyya! nani ji, aap ne kaha aaj unka puja hai yahan? issi liye issi liye…”
(hey devi maiyya! nani ji, you said you have a puja for her here today? that’s why, what’s why…)
“that’s why what, bitiya?” nani ji was intrigued.
“mithai,” khushi was smiling gleefully, “mithai, nani ji! when i was coming here something made me say there was a puja here and you’d ordered all our jalebis and balushahis and pedas, and when i left i packed all of them… in that big suitcase? where do i have so many things to need two two suitcases! see? devi maiyya wanted me to bring those sweets, hey devi maiyya! thank you, you saved me from being a terrible liar!”
she did several namastes to her goddess, eyes closed, frantic movement of joined hands, from forehead to chin and back.
she realised everyone was staring at her as though she was crazy.
“miss gupta!” came a yell from outside.
khushi stared at the front door worried.
“do i have to carry you out of the house now?” he was livid.
khushi began to race toward the door, looking back only to call out breathlessly, “anjali ji, my big black suitcase has the best mithais from lucknow, i have already opened it. please take it for today’s puja… namaste, nani ji, hum aate hain…”
(namaste, nani ji, i’ll be back…)
it was a tiny little room, but it had a big window. khushi sat at her new desk and looked around. oh she must get the room organised. she was beginning to feel excited. she’d never worked in an office before. wonder what akash ji would ask her to do. for the time being, she thought she should find out a bit about what the company did… she looked at the closed door on one side of the room and wondered what lay beyond that… then she took out her little devi maiyya idol and placed it on a shelf above her head.
“hello, jean pierre, good to see you, it’s been a while,” asr shook the young frenchman’s hand warmly.
“ah, ahhnav,” jean pierre smiled back, “at last we get started on the project…” his english was heavily french accented, the “r” gone “ghh” the “the” becoming “ze” and so on, but over all it was a charming sound and the young attractive designer never failed to impress the girls with that different air.
“i hope we can get ze work done without any interruptions and things, you know there’s so little time.”
asr was looking at the door on one side of his large room with a quizzical smile…
“oh i think we’ll be fine, jean pierre… everything is under control.”