everything is more beautiful
because we are doomed.
you will never be lovelier than you are now.
we will never be here again.

~~~ homer, the iliad ~~~

the suv shuddered violently as it hit a pothole.

asr continued to stare ahead, his foot pressed hard on the accelerator. they raced down the narrow path as evening descended. it was a kutcha road, not paved with asphalt. that year’s monsoon had been hard on the surface and left it rough and uneven, boulders and stones jutted out in many places, potholes dipped dangerously without warning, it was gritty and gravelly, and even at low speeds it promised no comfort.

they had come out for a little drive and all had been wonderful despite the bumpy journey till his phone rang. khushi saw his face darken as he heard what the caller had to say. then came a “whaaat?!” followed by the jawline going rigid. he said, “don’t worry, main aisa kuch hone nahin doonga!” and disconnected the call.

(don’t worry, i won’t let any such thing happen.)

khushi could feel the car gather speed suddenly, she turned to him startled, but he was not looking at her… he looked straight ahead, and in the lines of his face she could read his remoteness.

he seemed far away, in his own world and he was terribly disturbed. she tried to hold down her rising fear. he knew she was scared of speed. of the darkness. he knew it well. and yet.

she felt the car picking up speed again.

her terrified eyes watched the trees and the farms hurtling by. the electric poles with their jumble of wires, birds sitting on some of them, flashed before her scared eyes. what was arnav ji doing? what was wrong? but then all that ceased to matter as the fear completely suffocated her and she closed her eyes, beginning to feel a rush around her ears, her breath came in short sharp bursts, she seemed to be breaking out in sweat. her hands reached out clutching at nothing. she couldn’t breathe.

and then just as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. the suv jerked to a halt abruptly.

“khushi!” his voice was near her ear, low but urgent.

the world refused to stop spinning, she could feel beads of sweat on her forehead, her upper lip, along her arms.

“khushi!” he called again. something about that second call got through to her. she wanted to fight the darkness off, open her eyes, she felt a need to answer him.

as thoughts filtered in, it brought with it a calm and she felt her breath ease.

“arnav ji,” she looked at his drawn face, “aap…”

“tum theek ho?” he said cutting in, his voice a little brusque, she could sense angst in it.

how strange, she thought, i was about ask if he were alright.

“arnav ji, kya baat hai?”

(arnav ji, what’s the matter?)

“damn!” he said under his breath, and banged the steering wheel with his palm.

“sab… is everybody alright?” khushi asked tentatively, wondering what could have happened to bother him so much? was that aman ji on the phone, something was wrong at ar?

“i’m not going to tolerate this,” he said in a furious whisper.

“what, arnav ji, what is the matter?” she was getting a bit scared now.

“that doctor… how dare he… you know he was married… and now…my… my di,” asr was almost shaking with anger as the words burst out of him, staccato, disjointed, “i am not… not… letting anyone… anyone… do this to her again!”

“doctor verma?” khushi couldn’t believe what she was hearing, “what has he done? why are you so angry? boliye, arnav ji…” she could see he was seething with rage, and she feared he might do something terrible in this state.

“mami ka phone tha. di went out with the doctor last night… after dinner,” he shook his head disbelievingly, “what’s wrong with di? why must she do this? i am not letting anyone hurt my sister again… no! no! no! khushi, this is not happening again, dammit. NEVER!”

(it was mami’s call…)

the last word, intense, sharp, loud, ricocheted off the window panes.

khushi looked at him aghast. her heart went out to this man. he would never get over what happened to his sister with shyam. but worse, he would never forgive himself. di was his responsibility. and he had messed up. that is how he saw it. and no matter what anyone said, he would never believe otherwise.

the man she had come to love… perhaps more than herself, the man she had thought was impossible to love, who was hurtful, arrogant, and seemed not to care, but whom she’d grown to feel and understand, sometimes without even thinking… the man without whom she knew her life didn’t mean much any more, he was hurting desperately and trying to make everything alright for the sister he loved so much. a love that had kept him alive in his cruelest hour… he would stop at nothing to make her the happiest person on earth.

yet he had not been able to stop shyam.

khushi looked at him silently, tears beginning to well up. so helpless we all are at times, she thought. “hey devi maiyya,” she sent up a quiet prayer to her trusted eternal one, “arnav ji ki raksha karna…”

(hey devi maiyya, protect arnav ji.)

then she stroked his cheek and said, “maybe di wants to start her life again? with something or someone that means…” she wanted to take his mind away from its combat zone, feed other thoughts, a happier picture, something that would make him think… so that this anger wouldn’t consume, this hurt wouldn’t choke.

“khushi, i don’t want to talk about this,” he was curt.

“par, arnav ji, doctor verma mein burai kya hai?” she had learned not to be scared by that cold voice of his…

(but, arnav ji, what’s so bad about doctor verma?)

“he’s married!” asr spat out.

“he was,” she countered.

“who takes a girl out after dinner?” his tone grew angrier.

“di is not a child, arnav ji, she is a woman, and she must have wanted to,” khushi tried to reason.

“so now you will teach me who my di is…” he started driving, “seatbelt pehno!” his tone was almost off hand, yet his voice was brusque and raspy, that grain that seemed to graze her skin in it.

(put on your seatbelt.)

khushi smiled.

“why are you smiling, you think this is a joke?” he snarled.

“nahin, i smiled because when you say ‘seatbelt pehno’,” and she mimicked his angry tone, “i feel happy, like you know… aap samajh rahein hain na main kya keh rahin hoon?”

(i feel happy, you know… you understand what i am saying, don’t you?)

“khushi, tum pagal ho!” his voice had the slightest streak of indulgence in it, but it was still angry.

(khushi, you are mad!)

“hoon!” she agreed,”aur mujhe lagta hai ki di ki zindagi mein bhi acidity ki zaroorat hai!”

(i am… and i think in di’s life also there’s need for acidity.)

“acidity! what rubbish, khushi!” he couldn’t believe she’d just said that.

“rubbish! haan, i speak only rubbish, what the…” she started to giggle.

“but no, dammit, i am not allowing this, samjhi tum?” he suddenly glared at her, “i want to know everything about this man before my sister goes anywhere with him… ever again, ” he whipped his phone out ready to make a call.

khushi stopped laughing.

“arnav ji, main kabhi nahin bhooloongi woh din jab aap ne mujhe bachane ke liye, khud ko… khud ko…” she stumbled, then carried on, her voice bell like, calm, “uss din iss aadmi ne aake mujh se kaha tha, woh koshish karenge, poori koshish karenge ki aap kahin na jaaye hume chhorkar… arnav ji, he brought you back to me. if the same thing had happened to me? would you be able to suspect the person who saved me of not being good… or honest… or decent?”

(arnav ji, i will never forget the day when to save me you… you… then this man had come and told me he’d try his level best to make sure you don’t leave me…)

he slammed on the brakes and stopped the car.

“don’t you ever say that!” he shouted at the top of his voice. then he got out of the car and banged the door shut. he stood there leaning against it, trying to control himself.

khushi sat where she was as the evening turned suddenly to night. winter days, how fast the daylight hours are gone, it must have been only six in the evening.

the sky was clear, a hint of midnight blue in its night colour, the stars spread wide and deep across the expanse, twinkling.


“usske paas tasveerein hain… he will show them to akhilesh ji…” her voice was hushed but you could hear the terror in it, the fear clinging to the words.

(he has pictures, he will show them to akhilesh ji.)

“nahin, jiji, phir bhi… tum nahin jaogi…” garima was trying to sound calm, she couldn’t let her sister go to that house. anywhere but that dark cavernous kothi where nothing but trouble lurked. garima shuddered.

(no, jiji, even then, you’re not going…)

“tu pagal ho gayi hai, gudiya? tujhe pata hai iska anjaam? i will have to go. it’s only for a short time. he said, kuch nahin, i just have to go and spend a little time with him… some function in the family…”

(have you gone mad, gudiya? you do know the consequences? i will have to go. it’s only for a short time. he said, it’s nothing, i just have to go and spend a little time with him… some function in the family…)

“why, jiji, why? kyun? KYUN?” garima couldn’t keep her voice down despite the fact that her little niece played right outside the door, engrossed in her dolls and humming, “kabooter ja ja ja…” continuously; the sound bearable only because it was a child’s voice.

(why, jiji, why, why? why? WHY?)

“dekh, gudiya, har kyun ka koi jawab hota hai kya?” lajwanti’s voice was suddenly filled with tears. “main kyun ek ajnabee pe vishwas karke uske ghar gayi thi uss din? shayad amma babu ji ke jaane ke baad kuch gadbad ho gayi thi mere man mein… who knows why we do the things we do, gudiya? i only remember a loneliness… tumhare jija ji tour pe jaate the, for days… there was no one around, khushi was so small… tum college lekar vyast rahti thi…” lajwanti recalled a time she wished she could erase… but she knew that was not to be.

(look, gudiya, does every why have an answer? why did i trust a stranger and go to his house that day? maybe the death of amma and babu ji had done something to me… who knows why we do the things we do, gudiya? i only remember a loneliness… your jija ji would go on long trips… there was no one around, khushi was so small… you were busy with college…)

“i met him by chance on a day when the rain just went on and on, i was stranded on the road… no bus, rikshaw… kuch nahin mil raha tha, main ekdam poori tarah se bheeg chuki thi… chiriya wali mandir ke bahar pata nahin kitni der se khadi thi… he came and asked me politely if he could help. he seemed like a decent man… i accepted his offer of a lift. on the way home…” lajwanti stopped and swallowed hard, “he said his home was close by, and his wife would be happy to help me… give me some dry clothes… pata nahin main kya soch rahi thi… aur phir…” lajwanti suddenly stopped. she could not speak about it any more, she could feel she couldn’t breathe.

(i met him by chance on a day when the rain just went on and on, i was stranded on the road,… no bus, rikshaw… nothing was available, i was drenched.. no idea how long i waited outside the chiriya wali mandir… he came and asked me politely if he could help. he seemed like a decent man… i accepted his offer of a lift. on the way home… he said his home was close by and his wife would be happy to help me… give me some dry clothes… i don’t know what i was thinking… and then…)

“jiji, jiji!” garima stroked her sister’s back, her head, “bas, aur kuch bolne ki zaroorat nahin…” she hugged her sister close. she could feel lajwanti’s tears falling on her shoulders, hot and full of despair. there was so little one could do at times.

(jiji, jiji, quiet, there’s no need to say anything any more.)


“hello? anjali? this is vijay!” it was doctor verma on the line.

anjali smiled as she replied, “good morning, how are you… vijay?”

“that was brave,” vijay verma chuckled, “okay i was wondering, would you like to join me for lunch on saturday? one of my patients has invited me to the opening of his restaurant…”

“sorry, vijay, shanivar ko mera mata rani ka vrat hai… no lunch, no tea, nothing… i wish i could come with you but…” anjali’s voice trailed off.

(sorry, vijay, i have a religious fast on saturday for mata rani…)

“oh that’s alright, some other time then..” the doctor replied in a matter of fact tone, then after a short pause, he said, “may i ask you something? you believe in god… i don’t. does this bother you in any way? i know it’s a personal question, but anjali, i would like to know.” he had a simple way of saying things.

“vijay, i am used to men who do not believe in bhagwan,” she sounded quite comfortable with this, he wondered why.

“do you know what chhotey calls bhagwan?” anjali sounded amused, “aapka bhagwan… my god… he doesn’t have a god, he doesn’t believe in puja path… he is rude to me every time about attending prayers and putting on tika… but vijay, the way he is, what he does for all of us, especially me… and yes, for khushi ji, actually each one of us… vijay, it all feels like nothing less than prayer to me… trust me, when you did everything you could to save my brother, you did pray, you believed… achha now okay, enough heavy baatein… aap mujhe kabhi aur lunch pe invite kijiye, ok? i’ll run away from college and come and meet you!”

(ok now, enough heavy talk… you take me out for lunch some other day, okay? i’ll run away from college and come and meet you.)

“hain, anjali bitiya, ee hum hamre apne ee kaan se ka suni… runnings away? you? hai re nand kissore… naahin naahin, dialogwa mix uppiya, i means hello hi bye bye…” mami ji had been tailing anjali the whole day for a clue, a hint of what was going on between the doctor and her niece. she had even given a call to arnav bitwa, in such matters she was not willing to take any risks. she coulddn’t let any harm come to anjali.

and now she was horrified at her discovery.

(what, anjali, what do i hear with these ears of mine? running away? you? hai re nand kissore, no! no! dialogues are mixed up… hello hi bye bye…)

nani ji had just walked into the room and was irritated at mami ji’s hysterical pitch, “manorama! stop screaming. what’s the matter?”

“i iscreaming!!! sasuma, i tiryings best to keep phamily together…you always blames… me…” mami ji burst into tears, the tension the doctor caused was already too much to bear, and now her mother in law’s reprimand.

(me screamimg!! mother in law, i’m trying my best to keep the family together… you always blame… me..)

“oh ho, ka hui gawa, manorama, kyun chillay rahi ho?” mama ji walked in frowning. “mehhh!” said lakshmi running in behind him.

(oh ho, what’s the matter, manorama, why are you shouting?)

op came shuffling after lakshmi, “ay lakshmi, come come, eat your phood!” he said.

mami turned and stared darkly at op, “englissiya! chup! tumre kaun kaha tum englissiya kah sakat ho? ghar ke naukar chakar ee bhasa naahin bolat, samjhao?!”

(english! quiet! who told you you could speak in english? servants don’t use this language, understand?)

nani ji was about to say something when anjali looked at her, shaking her head, pleading with her eyes. she did not want mami ji to get even more upset. nani ji would have reminded mami exactly who she was before she married her son.

poor op had been struggling to learn a few words of chhotey saab’s favourite language; the new maid next door was a pretty girl, but she was educated up to higher secondary. how to impress a girl like that? op had been taking lessons from a niece over the phone for weeks now. he looked crestfallen and started pulling lakshmi toward the backyard.

“mehhh” said lakshmi not budging an inch.

in the midst of all this, akash and payal walked in looking shy. but they seemed to be beaming with joy at the same time.

it was mami who noticed them first. her hawk eyes landed on akash’s smile, then darted to payal’s. why are they grinning so happily she thought, especially that khoon bhari…

and then it struck her. this was, hello hi bye bye…

“ka baat hai, bitiya?” nani ji asked looking at the two. she had a feeling she knew what the “baat” was. payal bitiya had put on weight, yes, she was right.

anjali could see the look on payal’s face and on akash’s too… it seemed so familiar… she went up to them without even thinking, “payal ji?!!!” she exclaimed scanning payal’s face, then looking at akash, eyes narrowed, she asked, “akash bhai?!!”

akash and payal began to smile even more broadly at all this. both nodded at anjali, then looked at the elders. mami ji was suddenly smiling from ear to ear, in fact she had tears in her eyes that she went to wipe away with a dramatic sweep of gold embossed pallu. nani ji was shaking her head and looking so pleased.

“arre koi hume batayga ka hua? sab aisan ka dekhat ho?” mama ji was perplexed. what was the matter with these people?

(will someone tell me what’s up? what are you all looking at like that?)

“bhabi ji eej pregnant!” op said clearly.

“OM PRAKASH!” nani ji glared at him.

then she broke into a magnificent smile and said, “arre jaiye jaiye, go get some sweets, what are you waiting for!”

she turned and hugged manorama.


khushi sat on the verandah steps by herself. the stars looked so bright tonight. arnav ji was working inside the room. he was still unsettled about di she could tell. perhaps it was best to leave him alone for a while, khushi thought.

she looked at the darkness all around, out here away from the city, the darkness had a different feel, it was deeper and bigger somehow. and the chill in the air made everything seem more crisp, as though everything was at attention, waiting for something. a sense of expectation in the night.

she saw the light first, then realised it was moving in the air. fireflies! one, then two… then a whole flight of them. khushi’s eyes widened, her breath caught, her lips circled into an “o”, she covered her mouth with both hands.

she had only read about them… never had she ever seen them in her whole life. fireflies!

she wanted to run in and call arnav ji.


di was hobbling away quickly.

she had just come out from a room in the outer wing of sheesh mahal. she seemed to be almost running. arnav ran after her, calling out, “di! di! wait for me, what’s the matter? are you ok?”

“arnow, arnow!” said chacha ji, he was chuckling, bending toward him, and in his hand he had a huge slab of cadbury’s chocolate, “chahiye aapko?” he asked in his slightly nasal voice which he was always trying to make a little more booming.

(do you want it?)

arnav wondered what chacha ji was doing in that room. and why he had come out suddenly, he had a feeling chacha ji didn’t want him to reach di. but why wouldn’t he want that? arnav frowned.

he didn’t like the paan streaked smile on his uncle’s fleshy lips, there were stains on his chin too. something looked wrong to him.

he had no idea what it was, but he really didn’t want that chocolate, even though he loved cadbury’s.

di! are you ok, di?


“close your mouth,” he said it so softly she almost didn’t hear him.

when she turned he was standing there looking at her, a question in his eyes, or so it seemed to her.

he looked at the fireflies, glowing green in the black night.

music floated in from somewhere… familiar notes. she looked at him startled. he held out his hand.

her hand reached out. he caught it in his and pulled her gently up.

then with a swift motion and a little tug at her hand he turned to his side, his face arced away looking in the other direction.

without asking anything, without missing a beat, without any sense of discord or fear, she followed him and angled away just as he had.

teri meri… meri teri… the words of a song that belonged to another night, a night that was theirs, a night owned by two bodies, two souls, and a song that sang in them, poured out of the room and filled the darkness.

he swiveled again and pulled her to him. she twirled, sylph like, svelte, and let her spirit soar, laying herself against him for a second and then allowing him to take her to the next step… then the next…  a flight, a leap, a lift, a pirouette, a hold, a letting go.

his palm slid over her stomach and stayed there, her hand came up to hold his. brown and ivory mingled. skin touched, scorched, ignited.

she was falling into his arms in a red chiffon swirl, the touch of her diaphonous red on him

and against the backdrop of the night with glowing stars and ethereal fireflies, they danced.

he held her hips and lifted her up over his shoulder, he lowered her till she was almost lying on the floor, he pulled her to him, he pushed her away, she turned and caught him back…

memories came cascading, captured in starlight.

teri meri… meri teri…

strong arms caught her as she struggled against the water. a man came from nowhere and called her “khushi”, the “kh” exploded. the sun was setting and she wanted him to make her his, right there. he was sitting in a bus by her side cradling her… he was shouting at her and flinging a pink and brown plastic purse… he was kissing her by the pool and she had to run away. he tugged at her dori and pearls scattered everywhere. he was looking at her with hungry eyes and there was flour all over them… he was lying still in a white hospital bed. he was saying “jaa rahi ho?” his eyes open, chocolate glittering, and that grain in his voice, that was his… only his.

why did she know he would always be there?

why did he know he could never let her down?

she looked so tiny and frail, sopping wet in her green lehenga… he was sitting and staring at a pink and brown hideous plastic purse. he was enraged that she had come to the hotel to meet those men… he was furious with the girl eating chana on the scooter… she was telling him did he have any idea whose office he was daring to pollute with his presence… she was falling into his arms in a red chiffon swirl, the touch of her diaphonous red on him, a spray of rain. she was stopping him from going ahead. she was pulling him to her on the deckchair by the pool… she was crying for him clutching his white shirt, he knew he had to get to her… he was dragging her up the temple steps, he never ever wanted to let go of her hand… she was turning away… a bus was coming toward her…

“khushi!” he buried his face in her hair and held her tight.

“arnav ji.”

they stood quiet like that, arms around each other. the music played on, the fireflies glowed green, the night was black.

she wanted to tell him she had felt his breath on her forehead when he thrust the sindoor on her parting, and her breath felt as if it were one with his. was that also pavitra, why did it feel so sacred? was that also a marriage really?

he lifted his head and smiled, “salman ji or arnav ji?”

she trailed her finger over his cheek, feeling the prickle of his stubble. she looked into his eyes for a long time and said, “jugnu!”

he was glad he had downloaded the song before coming and carried the little bluetooth speaker that streamed music from his iphone. he wanted his filmi wife to have a honeymoon her style, no compromise. and what the, he rather enjoyed dancing with her.

he picked her up in his arms and carried her in, at the door a backward glance at the riot of green light outside.

should he tell her she reminded him of fireflies that night?

i wrote this chapter exactly two years after teri meri had us transfixed one fine evening. it’s a tribute really to a dance and a splendour that’s unforgettable, that makes me always feel a delicate yet extreme high. thanks to barun sobti, sanaya irani and directors who made it work and created beauty.


without you chapter 21