darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this all was indiscriminate chaos.
all that existed then was void and formless: by the great power of warmth was born that unit.
thereafter rose desire in the beginning, desire, the primal seed and germ of spirit.
~~~rig veda, hymn cxxix, creation ~~~
anjali sat in front the resplendent idol of devi maiyya in shantivan, looking at a basketful of beautiful white lotus buds, a pensive lost look about her.
she was supposed to open out the buds by gently pulling at the petals from the tip and rolling them out, of course the flower shop would have done it for her, but she wanted to offer a hundred and eight lotuses herself to the benevolent deity on this saturday. she was thanking god for saving her brother.
only nani ji knew that she was doing this veneration specifically for chhotey, anjali had wanted to keep it quiet. she still struggled with the coma and all the terrible feelings of that time. she knew if she’d told him to stay back and attend the puja and then “elope” with khushi ji, he’d have done it gladly for her.
but anjali really wanted to him to be happy, do what he felt like doing, and not be restricted and bridled from his desires all the time any more. she knew she’d needed him a lot when their parents passed away, and he’d given her everything he could, unstintingly, without asking for anything in return. the sweetest most generous brother with the nasty, arrogant, couldn’t care less facade.
she smiled as she thought of his perpetual prickliness. “di! stop doing that!” “impossible, di! i am not coming to the puja.” “whaaat?!! i have to wear tika now and eat prashad… what about my clients! i have a meeting… ok ok, jaldi kariye phir!”
(“whaaat?!! i have to wear tika now and eat prashad… what about my clients! i have a meeting… ok ok, hurry up then!”)
the only tradition he always made time for, in fact insisted on observing, was rakhee. she loved the way he held out his hand and watched as she tied the simple red thread on his wrist. he didn’t fuss about the red tika on that one day, nor about the prashad she insisted he eat. she knew he had said to himself as she tied the thread, he would take care of her and protect her from all danger every evil, that he’d be willing to give his life if need be to save her.
that was him and she felt blessed to have him in her life. she’d known while waiting for him to be born that someone special was coming into her life. she had always known that.
ever since he was a child he was wary of expressed affection, preferring to be by himself, read constantly, and yes, he had plenty of gussa and he showed it too. maa would say he got that from pita ji, but she’d also say that he had more than double and three times the love in him, one had to know where to look.
anjali smile wryly. she had never had to look, especially after that day… never.
and yet… anjali sighed, her whole body seemed to droop… there had been the others. why anjali’s mind wandered so much today she didn’t know, but it did.
she had known only a handful of men in her life. her father… she had adored him, no one could be as loving and indulgent as him when he was happy and sober. pita ji would be so proud of her when she did well in school. and even though she limped and often couldn’t keep up with chhotey and him when they went to the grounds to play or learn swimming or shooting, he always waited for her to catch up, and was immensely patient when she struggled. he would buy her such beautiful bangles and dupattas and clothes sometimes, expensive ones. maa would frown about the cost, saying this would spoil the children. but pita ji would laugh, he’s always say his one and only daughter deserved only the best.
as she grew older she realised that though he did love her, his real pride was his son. she was sensitive enough to understand, had chhotey not been around, the good and whole son, no flawed leg, the bearer of the family name… things might have been different. dadi made it very clear always, but pita ji struggled with it. part of him loved her just because she was his first child, there was a man in him who had felt another world outside of the tradition and restriction bound wealthy landowning class he belonged to, but he was not strong enough to make any real change. he so needed his mother’s approval and his extended family’s “respect”.
a son. a healthy energetic son. what could be more valuable than that.
anjali had never really minded, for she adored her brother. she looked at her arms covered almost up to the elbow with beautiful matched glass bangles in red, orange and cream, some with flecks of gold on them. pita ji… wasn’t it because of him she fell in love with chooris…
how could he have done what he did? how could he…
anjali’s brow furrowed, she could feel a moistness near her eyes.
her thoughts veered and went to another man who was always around, growing up. chacha ji.
he was never far away, somewhere in the rambling large haveli, lurking, waiting for her… smiling. his eyes were glinting with something unholy in them… “come, my pretty little niece, i’ll give you nice chocolates,” his reedy voice was saying as he tried to make it sound larger.
why did chacha ji always try to sound different? anjali shivered, a feeling of suffocation gripped her. that one afternoon when he had caught her… anjali looked silently up at devi maiyya. what would have happened if he’d stopped her from hobbling away? he was stronger than her… but they’d both heard chhotey outside and she’d taken the opportunity to run as fast as she could, completely ignoring the inadequacies of her afflicted limb.
her ears flamed at the filthy question he had asked. she knew she could never tell anyone about this. it would break her mother’s heart and there would be chaos at home. beside, she’d never be able to repeat the words to anyone. till now she hadn’t.
anjali started opening out the buds, she had to bring herself out of this darkness. but thoughts of shyam waited in the wings.
she recalled meeting him, how loving and gentle he had been. he was the first man who had made her feel like a woman… a beautiful woman. she had not known when she had fallen deeply in love with this young handsome stranger who knew so much about shastra and who didn’t seem to even notice that she was almost thirty, with a handicap and the whole issue of a marriage that didn’t go through. she had been astonished by the force and conviction of his love, so much that when he asked her to marry him she hadn’t felt a single twinge of doubt, just plain and simple happiness. something that had vanished from their lives.
a tear drop fell on a creamy white lotus now opened out, its yellow heart nestled against the petals.
anjali had no idea that she was crying. too many thoughts crowded her. and there was a sharp ache in her heart. for an unborn little baby… a beginning of hope, a feeling of joy, till suddenly once more all happiness was snuffed out.
why did she only seem to know men who crushed beauty, who had that dark and ugly thing in them. two of them she had loved dearly. what was wrong with her? maybe she was fated to be let down, put her faith in the wrong sort of man?
“anjali beti, are you alright?” nani’s voice was quiet and full of concern, she was sitting right in front of her, anjali hadn’t even noticed nani ji was here.
“nahin, nani…” anjali busied herself with a flower, “i… i… nani, do you think i was meant to be cheated and hurt?” the words came tumbling out before she could stop them.
nani ji had always loved her without reservation, without compromise. anjali was her eldest grandchild and the special love nani ji felt for her never failed to touch her or make her feel whole.
she couldn’t stop herself when she saw her grandmother. she was perhaps a little tired too of trying to remain calm and poised no matter what, accepting blow after blow and somehow holding on. shyam had wrenched her insides leaving marks that may never fade, anjali would rarely speak of that, especially since she had so wanted chhotey to find some harmony and peace at last.
“anjali, ” nani took the flower out of anjali’s trembling hands and held them tight in hers,”if anything, you were meant to be loved and cared for, aise nahin sochte beta…” nani ji kept quiet just holding anjali for a while.
(… don’t think like that…)
“why are you feeling so fragile today, beta, are you worried about the new feelings you are beginning to feel?” nani was perceptive. anjali looked up at that, her eyes were shining with tears.
“is it doctor saab? are you starting to think of him in a different way? are you worried that he will also disappoint you?” nani smiled and stroked anjali’s cheek.
“i can’t tell you what will or will not happen, beti. but i am glad you are taking a little time to think about things… hum kabhi bhi kissi bhi cheez se bhaag nahin sakte… when your nana ji died, when your maa left us… i did so want to run away, but i couldn’t. it hurts, beti, but i decided i had to go on… and do you know i found in all of you parts of those who had left me… maybe it was a story i told myself…” nani ji’s voice was tremulous all of a sudden.
anjali looked at nani and leaned forward to hold her tight, “nani, you were always the strongest, the best, you are the most fabulous woman i have ever known… without you, where would chhotey and i be?… nani, i’ll be okay, won’t i?”
(… we can never run away from anything…)
“of course, my darling, and you’ll also be happy, very very happy, just as i’d always known you’d be… only one thing, beti, don’t let the shadow of shyam fall on your thoughts about doctor saab, that would not be fair to him, nor to you.”
she lay fast asleep on the bed. it was almost midnight and he’d just got back from work. it had been a long day, the buyers were adamant and negotiations had been taxing.
he walked in and found his dinner laid out on the dining table, everyone had gone to bed. tonight somehow he didn’t feel like eating all by himself.
he went to his den instead and poured himself a shot of whisky at the bar, then came to the bedroom with the solid heavy bottom baccarat glass he liked his whisky in.
too tired to change, he sat on the chaise longue by the french windows, took of his shoes and lay back. a sip of pure alcohol burnt his throat and sent a shot of energy through him. he stared out at the pool shimmering in the moonlight.
the seconds ticked by, the whisky gleamed amber in the sparkling crystal glass, his deep brown eyes glittered. was that moisture on the surface of his irises? soft brown eyes. he closed his eyes and took another sip, grimacing and then slowly letting his breath out, feeling the sting of the potent 18 year old single malt.
finally, he turned and looked at her. he’d wanted to do that all day… every moment that he had stayed away telling himself he didn’t care. he could do without her. arnav singh raizada ko faraq nahin padta… it really made no difference.
(doesn’t make a difference to asr.)
there she lay curled up under the covers, her stars dangling above her head. the innocent lines of her face, her tender cheek, her slightly pouting lips, her arm flung out and her hand tightly fisted… he looked at each detail without blinking, his eyes hungry, his lips slightly open as if he wanted to say something to her.
he wanted to lie down by her side and take her in his arms, and move that errant tendril off her forehead.
he wanted to kiss her on her pert nose, nibble her ears, tease her awake and watch her as she looked at him, with sleep filled eyes.
then he remembered and the whirlwind came.
she was in shyam’s arms on the terrace… his arms locked around her tightly and then even as he watched dumbstruck, she pushed shyam away and seethed like an injured lioness, anger shooting off her eyes, her very being. she screamed, “if this marriage means nothing to you, why don’t you finish it off, why don’t you leave anjali ji!”
finish it off. his world imploded.
before him stood the woman he loved… the only woman he had ever loved. he had never believed such a feeling could even exist… he had laughed at di’s suggestions about this strange emotion… it could not exist!
but his heartbeat called her name. his every thought passed around her, his future saw her in it everywhere. he was about to tell her that now… but she was in his sister’s husband’s arms, telling him to leave her sister. pita ji was shouting and maa was crying, she knew there was another woman in her husband’s life, di was dressed up as a lovely bride, it was her wedding tonight. he was panting, he sensed doom, the corridors of sheesh mahal came racing toward him, the pillars slid all around, he couldn’t breathe… a gun shot. then another one.
betrayal once more. and the smell of death.
he had turned away from that sight, but it had come to reside wantonly in his consciousness, his first layer of mind, right above his eyes, he could never turn away from that.
khushi, his khushi… in another man’s arms.
once long back she’d said she was going away. he’d even feared he’d lost her in an accident… forever… hamesha… all he wanted to do was hold her and love her for whatever time forever was… but then… what was she doing in shyam’s arms? the gunshots sounded.
standing there, he lost her that night… forever.
yet he couldn’t mourn, he couldn’t scream or cry… di had said “tum mama banne wale ho,” shyam had said, khushi is his life and there was only one barrier between him and her… ranisahiba. his di.
(you’re about to become an uncle.)
he had done what he had to do. he had to save his sister, her child, from that fiend… and this home breaker, dangerous and lovely, playing everyone along.
he had wanted to punish her, to hurt her, to throw her out of his life.
he had dragged her to a temple instead and put sindoor on her parting, a mangalsutra around her neck. this was a marriage in name only… and just for six months, he’d said…
what really was the use of forever now?
he had tried not to hear the words that echoed in him above the howling winds, the screaming bells, he had shut down his feelings, yet he’d heard clearly above the din, “mine, you’re mine.”
she had looked at him with imploring, terrified eyes. he had looked away from them and done what he had to do.
there she lay with her guileless face now, soft unlined skin, not a blemish, not a single visible sign of the devil in her heart. he looked into his swirling drink. he had told her he hated her. she had hurled back, she hated him too, he wasn’t fit to be loved. nafrat, he was only capable of earning that.
his irises glistened.
his lips drew into a tight line, a whiteness at the edges.
he set the glass down on the table by the chaise longue and slowly got up. the tiredness clung to every part of him. he walked to his side of the bed and lay down, then he turned toward her and leaned in closer.
how lovely she looked, he stretched his hand toward her and caught hold of her hand drawing it close to him. still looking at her he brought her hand to his lips and pressed a soft, lingering kiss on her palm, he turned her hand and kissed her fingers. then he tucked her hand beneath his cheek, feeling its softness against the graze of his stubble, and closed his eyes.
he knew khushi was going to cook him a full several course lunch today. she loved making things for him, insisting that her recipes with ghee and things were in fact very good for health.
“arnav ji,” she murmured, her eyes opened, she gave him a fuzzy smile, then reached out and with the gentlest touch pushed his hair back, “aap kahan the?” she asked and before he could react she was fast asleep once more.
(where were you?)
where was i? maybe where i shouldn’t have been, he thought. and how will i ever tell you that i can’t trust you, i hate you, i know you are neither good nor kind nor pure… no, not at all pure, yet i want to hold you in my arms and make love to you all night, i want to see your smile, i want to lie beside you hamesha?
“khushi!” he whispered. his breath touched and awakened the “kh”.
khushi had insisted on having breakfast at the dhaba this morning. she was still thrilled with him for playing her favourite song from salman ji’s film. and of course dancing with her.
“pata hai, arnav ji, aap vaise sach mein filmi hain!” she grinned as she took a huge bite of paratha with pickle and a large sip of her malai lassi.
(do you know, arnav ji, you are really “filmi”.)
“what nonsense!” he cocked an eyebrow and said in a husky voice. she felt her stomach begin to flip. and when he reached over casually and wiped her upper lip with his pristine white handkerchief, her stomach somersaulted and went completely wobbly.
“you look rather good in a moustache,” he said with a serious face.
“uh huh… ar.. nav…” she muttered incoherent.
“yes, khushi?” a slow indulgent smile, and a quizzical look through half closed eyes. she realised the rakshas, the laad governor… knew exactly what he was doing. she made a face at him and dived back into her hot paratha and cold lassi, plenty of pickle on the side.
asr sat there enjoying her enthusiasm and the incredible khushi appetite, quietly sipping his black coffee.
when breakfast was over, aunty ji invited khushi to come and see how she made her parathas so crisp and light, khushi was delighted and went along with the lady most happily.
asr watched his wife clad in her dark pink and purple churidar kameez with enough gota and many dangling pompoms disappear into the back of the dhaba, then he left to get a bit of work done.
around noon, he decided to go for a drive, he gave captain raina a call and told him to be ready to take them to lucknow early the next day. on his way back, he saw a bunch of kids on the road selling strawberries. strawberries in this part of the world? khushi would love them. he stopped and picked up a couple of baskets for her. he asked the kids if they knew where to get ber or chana or golgappa. he was told the golgappa stall was a couple of hundred yards away from where they were, just round the bend.
he knew khushi was going to cook him a full several course lunch today. she loved making things for him, insisting that her recipes with ghee and things were in fact very good for health. he would nod obediently, eyes twinkling and eat whatever she had made. di laughed at how khushi had tamed him, all his fussing had stopped.
he could never explain to khushi what exactly it was that he felt when she said she’d made something for him, ever since maa had gone, he hadn’t really cared what he ate, maa loved cooking for him.
he picked up a large bag of golgappa and a big bottle of the sour tamarind water… he could almost see her jumping with glee when he revealed these.
he chuckled. who would have thought one of the richest men in delhi would have a wife who could not be pleased with trips to london, paris, new york, rome, gifts of expensive jewellery, fine perfume, and extravagant meals created by michelin star chefs. to get her to smile you had to find jalebi and golgappa, salman khan songs and posters, a ramshackle dhaba and maybe a handful of fireflies.
he felt his heart fill with a crazy longing, i wouldn’t have you any other way, my jhalli pompom girl, he thought, don’t ever change, don’t you dare… and remember, mine, you’re mine.
he started missing her badly as the thoughts came. he wanted to, no he needed to, see her right now.
he got into his suv quickly and headed back home. yes… where she was it always felt like home.
“if ever anything should happen to me, promise you’ll take care of my khushi?” lajwanti was holding garima’s hands tightly as she said this.
“what are you saying, jiji! stop being dramatic! nothing will happen to you,” garima was angry with her sister for even suggesting such a thing.
“gudiya, now you are married, i know shashi babu has his own daughter and you are like a mother to her, but promise me, my khushi will be ok, you’ll never abandon her…” lajwanti was insistent.
garima did all she could not to hear the fear in her sister’s voice. ever since that conversation about sheesh mahal, there had been an uncanny feeling in the air, something disturbing.
garima caught hold of her sister’s hands now and said, “jiji, i promise. okay? now will you stop saying such things?”
asr knocked on the door of their little room, “khushi! open the door!”
there was no answer. he knocked again, perhaps she had gone in for a little nap.
“khushi, baby, it’s me… open the door!”
she was obviously not in the room. he went around to the back to see if she was lying on the charpoy or maybe feeding pigeons or something.
she seemed to be nowhere in the vicinity.
“khushi!!! khushiii!” he called out and reached for his phone.
he dialled her number but her phone was switched off.
was she still at aunty ji’s cooking? he frowned wondering and made his way to the dhaba… both uncle ji and aunty ji were at the counter.
asr waved out and said, “aunty ji, have you seen khushi?”
the lady smiled broadly at him and said “why, puttar, you are missing her or the khana she’s made for you? but she left a while back, said she wanted to change and get ready to serve you lunch…”
that’s when the first shard of fear struck way inside him. he turned and began to run…
outside the room again, he knocked frantically on the door once.
then he started banging on the door, intent on forcing it open, never occurred to him that the owners might have another key. when the door suddenly opened he ran in, eyes darting all around the room.
and the fear ripped through him lodging somewhere in his throat.
there was no sign of khushi. anywhere.