he frowned at the laptop screen. back of his mind a tick. somehow his concentration was not there one hundred. he pursed his lips and went back to the work at hand. coffee, he needed a cup of hot black coffee, fairly bitter. always worked. he reached for the phone.
“asr,” lavanya stood at his door, pouting. she was looking good as usual, he liked that. at no time of day, evening, or night was la to be found with even one hair out of place. he noticed the fresh bright make up, lavanya sashayed into the room, swaying her hips a little more than usual, the pout growing more pronounced.
asr watched the approach with amused eyes.
lavanya wanted something.
now what could it be? keeping his gaze locked with hers, he called the canteen, and muttered “coffee…” into the phone. then disconnected and looked up at his visitor who by now was standing right in front of him and waiting to be greeted. his eyes glinted as he smiled ever so slightly, one corner of his lip going up. he didn’t say a word.
“asr… i miss you,” la said finally, she leaned closer still, and pecked him on his lips.
why did he feel faintly irritated at that, he wondered. it wasn’t the first time la had done this routine. whenever he couldn’t make time for her, she grew restless and came by after a few days to get him to spend an evening with her.
he liked lavanya, she was smart, cool, uncomplicated. it was clear to both of them what this relationship was about. it was adult and unhampered by expectations, and it took care of both their needs. ”what’s up…” he traced a finger lazily down the side of her face… “you know there’s just no time these days… and anyway, darling,” he pulled her onto his lap, “since when have you become a one man woman?”
“asr!!” la looked pleased with the flirting, she made a little moue and said, “how can you say that!”
“quite easily, lavanya,” he laughed and stood up taking her along with him, he set her on her feet and walked across the room to find a file. “this bali project needs a lot really… i have to say i am enjoying it… did you meet jean pierre? maybe you’d like to take him out for dinner tonight?”
“but, asr!” la wailed, “what about us?”
“hmm ?” he looked up from the file with a distracted air.
la was leaning against his desk, head bent to one side, a slightly forlorn air about her, right next to her he could see the frangipani, fresh and white… and most disturbing.
“okay, come, let’s catch a bite somewhere… and…” he looked at her.
“and?” lavanya asked archly. she was not in a mood to back down today, it seemed.
“and… go to your place, maybe?” he knew he’d said what she wanted to hear.
but why did he not like hearing himself say it? what the f… he looked at the flowers on his desk once more. she had called the mouse a chuha and why had she been smiling so much, dammit. he felt a surge of ire. the girl was a menace. he was done with her. he was going to la’s place tonight.
“asr, who’s that shiny girl akash has got as his temp now? where did he find her?” she laughed, “did you see her? such a scream. absolute behenji!”
he could feel her weight against his body, she smelled like a baby, and she muttered “salman ji, aap kitne takatvar ho,” in her sleep and snuggled close. he just wanted to make sure she was alright.
(salman ji, you are so strong.)
“she said, you held her hand!” lavanya laughed, a sharp edge in her voice.
“let’s go, lavanya,” he said in clipped tone, his eyes gone flat hard brown.
“namaste, nani ji!” khushi smiled brightly, walking into shantivan that evening. hemangini looked up to see the nice girl from lucknow dressed in a cobalt blue churidar with gota trimmings, a lahariya blue and pink dupatta flowing around her. on her forehead a gleaming tiny bindi. hemangini enjoyed the youthful fresh beauty of the child. she also used to love her parandis when she was young, tying them to the end of her plait or tucking them into her juda, the hand knotted bun she liked to make. she remembered her obsession with matching them with her saree. one time, she’d delayed the family for a film by almost an hour searching for the right parandi. arun ji had not been happy, she recalled, a smile coming to her lips.
“aiye, khushi bitiya,” nani ji said warmly, and then stopped as she saw someone else standing by khushi. a young woman in pink. a pretty but sedate looking girl with a calm demeanour and shy eyes.
(come, khushi bitiya.)
“nani ji! this is my jiji… mera matlab, payal… my elder sister. she’s just come from lucknow, nani ji… i thought you wouldn’t mind… if i…” khushi was bright to begin with, then a little hesitant.
(nani ji! this is my elder sister… i mean, payal… my elder sister. she’s just come from lucknow, nani ji… i thought you wouldn’t mind.. if i…)
“mind? arre nahin nahin, bitiya, i am delighted, please come… we are so glad you could attend devi maiyya’s puja today…”
(mind? oh no no, bitiya, i am delighted. please come…we are so glad you could attend devi maiyya’s puja today…)
payal stepped forward and did a namaste to nani ji. guests had begun to arrive, ladies in lovely sarees, young girls wearing lehengas, churidars, some in sarees too. there was a happy festive air all around.
anjali came bearing a large platter of flowers, one hundred and eight little bright red hibiscus for a special prayer. khushi came forward to relieve her of the laden platter, she’d noticed that morning anjali walked with a slight limp and wore a plain black orthopedic shoe on her left foot. anjali was delighted to see khushi and her sister. she’d liked khushi on sight practically, warming to her guileless, happy way.
“aap kitni sundar dikh rahi hain, khushi ji… i love your churidar, such a pretty blue, it was my mother’s favourite colour, you know!” she laughed, but khushi could hear a note of sadness she was sure.
(you are looking so pretty, khushi ji… i love your…)
“aap ki amma..?” khushi wondered if anjali ji’s mother was here.
“she’s no more, khushi ji, both our parents have passed away,” anjali looked away as she said that and khushi wished she’d kept her mouth shut. poor anjali ji… poor rakshas. what?!! did she just feel bad for that rude mean man! where was he though? she looked around but couldn’t see him. thank devi maiyya he’s not here.
“dekhiye, shyam ji,” anjali turned to her husband who was standing close by talking to the priest, “khushi ji is looking so nice in this colour!”
khushi was a bit embarrassed by all this attention and before shyam could react, though he had already started smiling in agreement, she rushed in, “anjali ji, please call me khushi… and you are looking so pretty yourself… hai na, jiji?”
“akash bhai!” anjali looked toward the stairs as akash came down, dressed for the puja in kurta pyjama, looking quite dashing really. it was a pity that most girls only saw the gentle goodness of the man and quickly turned him into a friend. no one seemed to think of akash in words such as dashing, alas.
he came up to the little group, and suddenly, he felt his heart skip a beat. it was her!
the lovely feisty girl in lucknow who had been soothing her sister in sheesh mahal.
he blinked. how could that be. was he imagining things?
“namaste, akash ji,” khushi’s smile was bright, “let me introduce you to my jiji, payal… jiji, this is akash ji… my boss… i am his executive assistant, you know!” she smiled, her eyes sparkling with pleasure, she was quite enjoying the idea of working in an office, and she’d almost got the hang of that computer thing today. she preened and looked pleased with herself.
so busy was she with her thoughts, she completely missed the look on akash’s face as he greeted payal, and payal’s little smile too.
payal felt a blush rising as the young man gazed at her. she had no idea why it should be so, but neither could she deny it was so. she quickly looked down, and it seemed a bit odd to her that she didn’t mind that look in the stranger’s eyes… which, she thought, were quite nice even though they are hidden by his tortoise shell frame, rather boring, glasses.
“khushi ji, my wife is right, you are looking lovely in that shade,” shyam’s voice brought khushi out of her reverie. shyam stood by his wife, an arm around her waist, looking every bit the proud husband.
“how did you all like the sweets?” khushi asked, more to change the subject than anything else.
“phantastikiya, hello hi bye bye…” came a shrill reply. it was mami ji.
she sailed up dressed in flaming orange and a few kgs of gold, her lipstick matched her saree, the eye shadow, her jewellery; and her nails had little sparkly flowers on them. she waved her hands as she spoke, obviously pleased with the results of the two hours spent at the nail parlour. she’d given up her afternoon sleep for that and wanted to get her share of compliments, of course. ”bhunderphool sweets… tirai tirai… it is so good you gettings giphat phor aaal the peopels but naat ispending a pie… just get the sweets phram the shap. so good to be halwai’s daughter, na… khussie… ji?” mami’s voice rose just after the pause on the “ji” a touch of insult it seemed to carry.
(wonderful sweets, try try. it is so good that you can get gifts for everyone without spending any money… just get the sweets from the shop. so good to be a sweet maker’s daughter, isn’t it, khushi… ji?)
akash winced slightly at the that. payal looked nonplussed… why was this lady being so nasty to khushi? what had khushi done? oh no… had khushi done something strange here this morning or last night?
khushi decided to overlook the taunt, “yes mami ji, i have the best babu ji and amma in the world, and our shop’s sweets are the best in lucknow, i am lucky!”
“too bads,” mami ji raised an eyebrow, “the high phalier cannots be trapped by the bee hive, hello hi… bye bye!” with this enigmatic statement the flaming one stalked off, leaving several embarrassed family members in her wake.
(too bad, the high flier cannot be trapped by the bee hive, hello hi bye bye!)
khushi wondered why mami ji was so interested in some flying person, and why a whole bee hive should want to trap it. bees had their own wings, after all.
asr lay back on the plush sofa at lavanya’s place and wondered why he was just not being able to relax. la lay next to him stroking his hair. suddenly, he sat up and said, “got to go.”
“what?” la jumped up, “go?! asr!”
“yeah, sorry, lavanya, i am tired, it’s been a long day… see you…”
before lavanya could even gather her wits he’d walked out the door. by the time lavanya scurried out, the lift doors were closing, he’d disappeared inside.
he got into his suv wondering whether he should go home or go back to office when the phone rang.
“chhotey, when are you coming? remember we have the puja today?” di was sounding anxious.
“di, puja! no no, you know i don’t believe in these things, i am not coming!”
“chhotey…” di’s voice had grown small.
“okay okay… don’t start that now… no need to say anything… be there in 20,” he closed his eyes suddenly feeling the tiredness hit him, “you alright, di? jija ji back i hope?”
“yes, chhotey,” di’s voice had brightened considerably, “he’s here, akash is ready, all the guests have come and khushi is also here with her sister, bye see you!”
“what!” he realised the phone had gone dead.
khushi! she’d insisted on going home on her own after work. he’d told akash to arrange to have her dropped, and her suitcase too, but that stubborn girl had insisted.
“where’s the mud for the puja, bitiya,” nani ji asked anjali.
anjali started to get up, “oh! nani ji, i forgot, it’s by the poolside…”
khushi quickly rose to her feet and said, “anjali ji, please let me get it for you… is it somewhere upstairs?”
“thank you, khushi ji, yes… just go up the stairs, and along that corridor there,” anjali pointed in the direction, “you’ll see steps leading down to the pool… i’ve kept the mud in a small red pot just under the tree there… you’re sure you’ll find it?”
“of course, anjali ji,” khushi was already half way to the stairs.
it was late evening and twinkling stars covered the sky, their reflection on the pool. a light breeze played on the water creating ripples. how pretty, thought khushi. she stood there for a moment just taking in the beauty of the place.
it was a small pool set in a courtyard. the house rose around it, one side had huge windows overlooking the gardens beyond, on the opposite side was a room with french windows, all around the pool the floor was paved, patches of greenery here and there, someone seemed to like plants around here. little potted plants sat in a cluster, a few flowering shrubs in the ground, orchids and hanging plants cascaded down one corner beside a tree. oh, it was a krishna chura, flame of the forest… just like that painting in the room. khushi went toward it. anjali ji had said the red pot was somewhere here.
where was it? though lights from the house and the garden filtered through, most of the area was in the shadows, she bent down to look for the pot.
”what are you doing here?!” his voice exploded in the quiet. like a whip, lashing.
she jolted and spun around, lost her balance and fell.
he sprang forward to catch her, but too late. she teetered precariously for a couple of seconds and then collapsed in a heap. pain seared through her right ankle, her entire leg.
“khushi!!!” he called out as he ran to her.
she was struggling to pull herself up when she felt his hands on her arms. firm, cool fingers that gripped tight. she remembered them holding her hand as the plane took off.
“khushi! are you okay? tum theek ho?” raspy, husky voice. a shiver went up her arms. she looked up to see his face looming close, just above hers, his eyes glittering in the dark, his breath almost touching her cheek.
(are you alright?)
she felt a sensation she’d never felt before. she wanted to turn her cheek and feel the warmth of his breath, she wanted to hear him call her khushi again.
she panicked. what was this? felt like witchcraft. was it? bua ji always said to be careful, you never know what might happen…
“what’s wrong, khushi? you can’t move… is it your leg?”
she looked up at him again, and blinked. this was definitely witchcraft, she wished he’d pick her up. what?!!! and the next minute he was doing precisely that. gathering her into his arms, lifting her.
“come!” he said in a soft yet commanding voice, and walked with her straight into the room at the other end of the pool.
he set her down on a chaise longue at the foot of a large sprawling bed, and knelt before her.
khushi just gazed at him without a word. why was he being so nice? so concerned?
he knelt there looking at her ankle, he felt around her foot with the most delicate feather light touch, held her heel with one hand and stretched out her leg, ran his fingers over her leg, right up to her knee with a “tell me if it hurts,” and finally when he was sure all was well he stood up and again asked, “tum theek ho?”
(are you alright?)
“h..haan,” khushi managed to stammer a yes, her large hazel eyes fixed on him, she had no idea how vulnerable and beautiful she looked at that moment, the fall and its aftermath having left her colour heightened, her hair was disheveled, the plait had become loose and little bangs and wisps of silky hair fell around her face. she lay there disoriented, bemused. her dupatta floated around her, fluttering a little in the draft from the air conditioner.
his hand came up, pushed a tendril back and tucked it behind her ear. she looked at his fingers startled. what did he just do! his hand didn’t move, she felt his thumb stroking her ear. again she felt a shiver going up her being.
he looked at her lying there, that open innocent gaze, her lips trembled, and before he knew it he was closing the distance between them and kissing her passionately.
he felt her soft, untouched lips below his, yes they were trembling. he pecked gently, then kissed her harder, pushing against her lips, coaxing her to open her mouth, deepening the kiss.
after a couple of stunned seconds, khushi reacted, her arms came up and she tried to push him. she moaned against his mouth, trying to break the kiss.
he pulled her into his arms and refused to comply. she struggled a few more seconds, then with a moan she gave in. she had no idea what she was supposed to do. she just didn’t want this to stop. she wanted to feel these arms about her, and those lips on hers.
no no, this was witchcraft… jadoo tona. what was she doing… hey devi maiyya.
he could feel her lips go still against his.
he lifted his head and said, “khushi?!” the sweetest gentlest whisper.
she looked at him. her heart beat went crazy. she closed her eyes and opened them again, wide. jadoo tona.
she leapt to her feet, and bolted. she careened out of the room, picked up the pot which she’d seen lying by the tree, raced up the stairs and was gone in seconds.
he sat there completely taken aback. everything happened at such a pace.
slowly he began to laugh. his whole body shook with laughter. he shook his head, “unbelievable!” he muttered under his breath.
it had been a long day, but suddenly he felt relaxed and not at all tired. he picked up his phone, “aman, have you made all the reservations for bali?… okay… wonderful, we’ll confirm all bookings tomorrow.”