thereafter rose desire in the beginning, desire, the primal seed and germ of spirit.
~~~ rig veda, hymn cxxix ~~~
she stood there, looking down at him. he lay in that hospital bed, hard white sheets, a pillow under his head. but where’s the cushion, she thought. he always liked to tuck a sturdy square cushion under his neck, she must tell di… then she stopped herself. again her mind went blank and she stared at him lying there eyes closed, no expression on his face, covered in sheets up to his chin, so wan and still… were those beads of sweat on his temple?
oh these thoughts, why wouldn’t they stop? khushi didn’t want to see this, didn’t want to be here, didn’t want to know anything… the details… the unfamiliar words.
vital signs not steady. pressure fluctuating. oxygenation levels. coma. diabetes… complications. ventilator.
the word shuddered through her and she drooped, winded. she had to let her eyes shift and rest on something other than that beautiful closed face… her eyes found a ridiculous bottle of hand sanitizer on the portable table near the foot of the bed. what could a sanitizer do when… when…
khushi swallowed hard. she couldn’t finish such sentences… she closed her eyes and without thinking said what felt like a prayer to her.
on the silence and stillness of the room it fell like the first drops of rain. tender, moist, with a smell of earth in it… of life.
when she could finally hear the words the doctor, that man in white, said, it had all sounded like gibberish. really, it was time for arnav ji’s medicines and this man was going on and on. but when she turned to complain to di, the truth was there in her eyes and try as she might khushi couldn’t look away.
“chhotey ko kuch nahin hoga, hai na, khushi ji?” her sister in law, older than her by many years, needed khushi to assure her that nothing would happen to her dear little brother. a strange touch and go moment.
(nothing will happen to chhotey, right khushi ji?)
one will never know if di really was so helpless then or she did a little ramanchi only to bring khushi back out of her locked out state of mind. whatever it was, it seemed to work. khushi held di’s hands and lay her head on her shoulders, eyes clearing at last.
the afternoon sun, the hurtling blue and white bus… but he was still breathing.
saansey… his breath was still here. she took a long long breath and asked permission to see him… alone. just for a while, if di and akash and jiji didn’t mind.
time had however stood unmoving from that moment when she saw him against the white. critical care unit, bed no. 6611, constant monitoring advised. not out of danger.
arnav ji, surrounded by machines, wires and needles everywhere, funny lights flickering on monitors, and he lay there among them. so so so far from her.
“arnav ji,” she whispered again and with her eyes still tightly closed she wished she could run to him and throw herself on his wide, warm, solid chest, feel his arms go around her so she could tell him there was no way she could bear this… she couldn’t lose him… she wouldn’t be able to live without…
what was that? was that a gust of wind?
her eyes opened with a start, and the hand sanitizer was right before them.
hand? she turned and looked at the sheets that covered him, she moved them gently and felt for his hand.
khushi swallowed hard. she couldn’t finish such sentences… she closed her eyes and without thinking said what felt like a prayer to her. “ar…nav… ji.” on the silence and stillness of the room it fell like the first drops of rain. tender, moist, with a smell of earth in it… of life.
there it was, his right hand, long sturdy fingers… she held it with both of hers, her soft palms delicate yet so desperate at that instant. she pulled his arm out over the covers and then as though guided by something outside herself, took his hand straight to where her heart beat and lay it over the spot, she held his fingers in a loving grip and pressed them to her heart.
why does my heart beat faster when you’re near?
again a weird detail her gaze picked involuntarily, the ventilator pipe that entered arnav ji’s mouth. it was so thick, and ridged, and bright bright blue.
sunlight glinted on the fresh, morning blue water. a lithe supple arm rose out of it and neatly sliced the undulating surface going back in… and again it came up, again it scythed through the air and cleaved the surface of the huge six lane, fifty metre pool.
arnav singh razada was doing his customary morning laps. forty of them, nonstop, part of his relentless fitness regime. his smooth sculpted body gleamed as he swam, the only swimmer in the massive hotel pool; elegant free style strokes, arms moving in perfect rhythm, tireless legs kicking away, a pair of black speedo trunks and black speedo goggles on. nothing else between him and his target. fifty laps by end of month. it was the sixth today.
oh the water felt good this hot june morning in lucknow. once the deal was done, he could draw to a close that painful chapter and concentrate on expanding the business. twenty five laps done. onto twenty six.
he lifted his arm and was about to finish the stroke when he felt a massive weight drop on him; heavy, thick, insistent. and the next thing he knew he was plunging right in below the surface, no control, falling swiftly toward the bottom of the pool… just going under… down… down.
as he struggled telling himself not to panic, he noticed his arms were entangled in something… cloth, lots of it, and a… what the… what was this he was grabbing on to? a bundle of some sort.
that brought him back to alertness instantly and he started paddling fast, pushing his way up, holding on to the bundle… now the bundle had sprouted arms and was grasping his neck and shoulders tightly. this called for a “what the” completed. and some more.
by the time he and bundle had come back up, and were out in the sunlight again, gulping air, getting their breath back, his temper had shot right up. he whipped off his goggles with a violent move and opened his mouth to shout… and looked straight into dark eyes drenched in fear, surrounded by thick clotted eyelashes, water streaming down them… he could feel a tremble below his hands.
it was a girl. he stared mouth open.
his eyes slowly traveled down from her eyes and saw quivering, delicate lips. they were shivering really, maybe the water was too cold? somehow he couldn’t look away from them.
then she began to struggle, an expression he couldn’t describe entered her eyes. the anger ricocheted back.
“who the hell are you? what are you doing? do you know you could have killed me?” he said brusquely, his voice raised and gravelly.
“chhoriye… chhoriye hume…” she wasn’t listening… she was telling him to leave her… let her go… her voice was soft, imploring, worried… a stricken look in her eyes now, as though he was the perpetrator of some unknown crime.
(let go… let me go.)
he gripped her shoulders tighter still. his angry molten brown eyes noted that not only had this person fallen on top of him out of nowhere, she was fully dressed in, wait a minute, lehenga… choli… her dupatta swirled around in the pool, billowing out, sparkling in the sun… pink, green, gold.
she was wriggling away getting more frantic every second, and she managed to break free, as she turned to move away, he reached out to pull her back and continue with the questions now tearing through his mind…
but she’d disappeared.
what? where was she? then he saw the flailing arms. without wasting a second, he dived under, plucked her up even as she sank, and brought her right up in his arms. so his attacker couldn’t swim.
no more talking, he swam across to the edge with her, and came out of the pool carrying this peculiar stranger in his arms, his eyes widened a bit when he saw the sneakers on her feet.
he set her down on a deck chair unceremoniously and said curtly, “ok, this is it… tell me who are you? why did you…”
she stared into his fierce eyes… her mind was in a mess… she thought she was going to drown… and all this man kept on asking her was, who was she… why had she…
and babu ji… amma… oh no, it was morning, they must be worried sick… oh, why had she been so silly? why had she believed that ad preeto had shown her… girls wanted for modelling, a day’s assignment, a handsome rupees fifty thousand remuneration, all you had to do was report at hotel sheesh mahal, room 1913, with a photograph, do an audition and if you were selected, they’d just take some shots and you’re done. job over.
she knew how worried babu ji was about jiji’s wedding. a demand for a scooter had just come in, she didn’t believe in dowry, but she knew her parents had no choice, maybe she could help? she was eighteen, her father’s chief accountant in the sweet shop, but her salary was really the trust and faith he put in her, and of course, jalebis and those delicious balushahis only he could make. this seemed like a nice and simple way to solve a problem.
of course, when she reached, it was something else that she had to provide in return for that money. she’d donned the dress she thought she was modelling, was about to change her shoes, when an oily man walked into the room, he was the sort you stayed away from in a movie theatre, the bus or any lonely place, what was he doing here? as she watched, the others started to leave the room.. and then it struck her…
even as a creepy sensation overtook her entire being starting from the tip of her ears, she ran from there, but the corridors of this heritage hotel were too long. they caught up with her, and threw her into a room, locking her in… promising to return the next morning. she yelled and screamed and maybe that fobbed them off, not wanting to create a commotion in the hotel.
khushi had sat there shivering the whole night. when the door opened, she was ready, hiding behind it… as the two men walked in, she bolted out and sprinted faster than she ever had in her whole life. the bhoolbhulaiya like corridors suddenly opened up on to sunlight, she kept going toward it and when she came out, before she could realise she’d reached the poolside area and stop, she’d tripped on the edge of the pool and fallen right in.
her last thought… “hey devi maiyya, raksha karna,”
and now this terribly angry man was asking her for clarification. she watched his stern and remote face, why was he staring at her like that? like he was a laad governor or something. hoonh.
“i… i… am sorry… let me go please… my parents… i i can’t explain…”
“what? can’t explain? but you can jump on top of me while i am in a pool and almost kill me in the…” he was hissing through gritted teeth.
how could she tell him what had happened… her family would be shattered if they found out, she had to make up a story… for everyone… if only this laad governor would let her go… she was feeling her anger reach her teeth, but she had to keep calm… amma babu ji were waiting.
“look, please let me go, i have had a terrible time, i need to get back home…”
on “home” her voice wobbled dangerously. he looked at her, eyes still stormy. a tear formed and rose to the edge of her eyes. he watched her silently. then he had no idea why, but he felt something welling up inside him. he swallowed.
and stepped back. “wait a minute,” he said, voice still brusque, and he reached for his phone lying on the table by the deck chair. “di, good morning, aap zara poolside pe aayengi?” he called his sister and asked her to come over.
(di, good morning, could you please come to the poolside?)
as she realised what was happening, khushi started to come undone. her whole body shook as the tension finally began to drain out and a feeling of safety began to come back in. since last evening, fear and danger had stalked her every fibre, no sleep, no food, nothing and no one of her own. just a raw fear.
her knees started knocking, her teeth chattered.
arnav singh raizada felt a surge of protectiveness come over him. why?
he picked up a large beach towel and wrapped it around her fragile, slim, shoulders, and held them in a steady grip.
khushi looked up at the hard jawline, the steely brown eyes. why did she suddenly feel safe and warm?
di had helped her so much that day. and she never asked why she was there that morning in a lehenga choli and sneakers.
di walked into the cubicle to find khushi standing with his hand pressed to her chest. she looked at her brother. she remembered maa… she too had been on a ventilator, her last few hours. maa hadn’t come back.
khushi stepped forward and now covered him with the light quilt, then held his shoulders with a steady grip.
she hoped he felt safe.
a question had started to enter her mind, what was a bus doing in a narrow alley in the middle of the afternoon? was it really just an accident?
the nurse told dr vijay verma later that twice during the day, arnav singh raizada’s vital signs had looked steady and strong.