asato ma sad gamaya
tamaso ma jyotir gamaya
mrtyor ma amrtam gamaya
lead me from ignorance to truth
lead me from darkness to light
lead me from death to immortality
~~~ the brhadarnayaka upanishad ~~~
he wasn’t sure exactly when the helicopter skids actually touched the ground, his eyes had caught sight of the domes of sheesh mahal a while back even though it was almost dark. the silhouettes had come into view as they approached.
unmistakable, familiar, indelibly threatening.
he could feel a lump lodge in his throat. without knowing it he had known this would happen, for every time he had returned as an adult to the home of his ancestors, his father, his grandmother, his uncle, his mother… that lump had come. suddenly… always. it seemed to say something to him but he had to time, no inclination to find out what.
maa… his insides went empty, vacant, nothing in it… just a word echoed. maa… and a rustling screaming wind knocked against the walls of his heart.
he drew in a long breath steadying himself and kept his eyes on those domes. this time he would not let them win. this time he would not leave defeated. destroyed.
it was only when he realised he was running swiftly across the grass that he knew they had landed. a terrible urgency made him want to fly. yet abruptly he stopped. he stood before the humongous edifice of sheesh mahal, legs apart and firmly planted on the ground, back rigid and erect, shoulders thrown back, head tilting up… a monolithic impenetrability in him, defiant of all that wished to make him bow, make him yield.
his eyes traveled up the walls of sheesh mahal, from the ground to the top of the largest dome. maa… the cry echoed in him again.
maa. how could i have lost you. why could i not stop it. why.
tears stung the back of his eyes, sharp and painful. a funny acrid sourness rose in his throat and mingled with his ragged breath…
khushi!!! khushi!!! khushi…
her name filled him. it was in his mouth, his throat, his eyes, in his heart, his gut, from his head down to his toes it seemed to travel, taking up every inch of him.
he began to run then.
pigeons muttering in the eaves and nooks of the rambling facade flew out as they felt the unfamiliar presence, the vibrations of feet falling hard and fast along the entrance, the corridors. their wings flapped intensely, one almost scraped his eye as it fluttered close passing him.
it was dark everywhere, but he knew the way, he knew every cranny every crevice, every secret door and passage of this place… and the voices, the footsteps, the smells… of food, of fear, the touch… of pride, of suffocation.
he reached out and flicked a switch on the wall. lights came on… he kept running. there was no time to lose. khushi might be anywhere in one of these rooms… anywhere.
how he instinctively honed in on sheesh mahal he was not certain, but he had known in a flash this was where he was meant to come.
he had realised it was to bring him to this very moment shyam had mentioned sheesh mahal that day in the rain, before everyone. shyam wanted him here… but why? and how was khushi involved in all of this? and why did shyam know about it anyway?
he knew shyam would not kill khushi. but he might…
arnav singh raizada could not complete that thought. he would kill shyam before shyam dared to even come near khushi.
“khushi!” his voice was loud, hoarse, echoing in the empty room.
he rushed out to the next room… then the next… wing after wing he ran through. nothing. no one. sheesh mahal was empty.
she was nowhere.
only his calls gathered volume in the cavernous spaces and ricocheted all around.
he stopped running. he was standing in front of the room he usually used when he visited the hotel. he opened the door and walked in. the renovations had not started in this wing yet.
he looked at the bed and the entire exhaustion of the day came upon him as he stood there. he walked slowly across and sat down.
he had always known there were secrets here, secrets he had no idea of… what were they? were they tied and wrapped around khushi in ways perhaps unholy?
shyam wanted to bring him here. and shyam wanted khushi, that had not changed… what he had seen that night on the terrace, what had made him go insane was not a complete lie. shyam wanted khushi. he had not read that bit wrong. though how he had reacted to khushi…
asr closed his eyes, how could he do that to her… khushi, where are you… i love you… do you hear me? where are you?
he got up and turned off the light. the darkness, he needed the darkness to calm him. it always did. what couldn’t be soothed could be shut out. he knew that, he had done it for years. but this time he couldn’t not feel, his heart refused to numb itself out… where are you, maa… where are you, khushi…
sheesh mahal. no you are not mine, you never were. you belong to the darkness. to the abyss of no return… your walls wrap around my mother’s scream and a gunshot.
no… two gunshots.
lajwanti looked at the mirror and did a quick check, she was pleased with what she saw, she was looking lovely in her pale pink saree. she was going to sheesh mahal, dushyant ji had said he would give her a couple of rose plants from their sprawling garden and had invited her to lunch.
she had met him that first day she’d gone to sheesh mahal with the kind gentleman who had given her a lift. pratap malik. he was most courteous and when they got to his place she had realised he was from a world she had never ever encountered first hand. one look at the huge, no humongous, palatial building he called home and she knew he belonged to wealth and all that came with it. whatever that may be, for she had no idea about such things. she came from a reasonably comfortably off family and her husband earned a decent salary, life was not in any way wanting, but they had never known the problem of extra money. they lived within their means and were fairly happy with what they had.
looking at the house, she’d been a bit wary, but he had said with such ease, “ah, we’re here, this is sheesh mahal, lajwanti ji, our home,” then smiled charmingly and continued, “a little small isn’t it for just one family?” she’d felt a little less overwhelmed.
she’d gone in with him and he had taken her to what looked like a sitting room on the ground floor. the room had a rich layered air, its colours were mainly purple and green. there were plush sofas and fine persian carpets, a large painting of something that looked like a moghul princess was on one wall over a large fire place and a mantle piece, and all around lay beautiful carved pieces in silver. a hookah, a flower vase, a massive fruit bowl, mirrors in silver frames on the wall, and wasn’t that a paandaan like they used to have in the old days on that marble table?
lajwanti was intrigued and quite delighted by the lovely things strewn all around. she was admiring the paandaan engrossed when she heard him say, “namaste, are you lajwanti ji?” she jumped and spun around and saw a strikingly good looking man standing looking at her.
“sorry, i didn’t mean to scare you,” the stranger smiled, lajwanti relaxed a little, his voice was assured and his smile genuine, “i am dushyant malik, my brother said you were here and to pass you these…” he held out some clothes. lajwanti took them without a word.
dushyant malik pointed in the direction of a door and said, “you can change there,” and left her.
soon pratap malik returned very apologetic, his wife was not at home, but she was welcome to join his brother and him for some tea. she had felt it would be rude to refuse and stayed on. they had had a perfectly pleasant evening and dushyant malik had driven her home.
a few days later she had bumped into dushyant at the market and he had invited her to have tea at a restaurant nearby. lajwanti had said “yes.” she would normally never have done so, going out with a man other than her husband was something she wouldn’t have even remotely considered, but nothing really felt normal these days.
a strange suffocation in her, a disconnecting from all that was around her. only khushi seemed real, her uncomplicated five year old’s prattle, her complete dependence on her, her sweetness, her innocence… lajwanti reveled in them, finding a sense of life in it.
but otherwise everything else was a bit at a distance, a little abstract these days. akhilesh ji’s company was setting up a factory in gujarat, for almost three weeks every month he was gone. garima was in her final year of college, her studies kept her very busy and she hardly found any time to visit them. her parents had passed away in quick succession leaving a blank space that seemed to grow every day.
lajwanti had tea with dushyant that day and found him to be rather good company. he was interested in western classical music which she knew nothing of… her interest was gardening she had said. oh really? well they had beautiful gardens at sheesh mahal and he was happy to get her some nice plants the next time they met.
and so lajwanti had gone out with dushyant ji a couple of times more, once to a flower show, another time when he had brought her a mussanda sapling, it was a new plant that had just started coming to india from singapore he’d said, his mother had ordered some.
today she was going to sheesh mahal to have lunch with him before picking up khushi. garima had collected khushi from school and taken her to see a children’s play the kids in their colony were putting up. garima had not been happy to hear that she was meeting some man for lunch, but lajwanti had neither hidden the fact from her nor asked her opinion. she enjoyed dushyant ji’s company, was she flattered by the fact that a handsome wealthy unattached man enjoyed her company? well, maybe she was, but she didn’t wish to go into that too much. she loved akhilesh ji, they had a good marriage, that was all there was to it.
it never occurred to lajwanti that there was a streak of denial or even some may say recklessness in what she was doing. she was too fragile to even think of such things at that time.
she picked up her little pink purse and went out, ah there was an auto, good she wouldn’t have to wait in the sun.
he was dazed, abjectly tired. where was khushi? why did it feel as if she couldn’t hear him?
and why was it so sunny suddenly? rahim chacha was really not bowling properly. he lifted his cricket bat and whacked the ball sending it flying to the far corner of the garden. he could see rahim chacha was in no state to run all the way to get it… he had grown old, he was fifty after all and that was very old. arnav started to sprint toward the ball.
“rahim chacha, don’t worry, i’ll get it!” he called out.
it was just after that that he heard the scream.
a piercing scream, then a “nahin! nahin! aap kya kar rahen hain? bachaao!”
(no! no! what are you doing? help!!!!)
it was a woman. even as he started to turn he could see rahim chacha rushing toward one of the rooms tucked away behind the long verandah stretching along the length of this wing of the ground floor.
he was too taken aback to react, everything was happening fast. now there was loud banging on a door along with the screaming. then rahim chacha rounded the corner and disappeared from sight.
within minutes, a woman was running out from the room on the other side, she ran all the way down the verandah and then she was gone.
rahim chacha still hadn’t returned. arnav stood there feeling curiously defenceless. something terrible seemed to have happened. he wanted to go to maa and feel her arms around him. he was eleven, dadi kept telling him he was a man and shouldn’t be cuddled anymore. but sometimes all he wanted was to be held by his mother.
rahim chacha was coming running toward him now. curious, how fast he could run and he had thought rahim chacha wouldn’t be able to go get the ball. the lady had been wearing a pink saree. why did girls like that colour so much?
asr squinted his eyes and looked at the harsh sun. no… it wasn’t the sun, it was the light. he was here, in sheeshmahal… he was twenty eight not eleven. it was dark, it was night… not a sunny afternoon from far away…
he shuddered as he recalled the desperate flight of the woman in pink… so much happened here… who knew what all…
but why this memory from nowhere? who was that lady in pink and why was she running, what was she fleeing from?
why was he drowning in the water? what was the burden that had suddenly landed on him? the water was gushing up at him, he had to catch that thing, push up, he had to save himself.
khushi!!! were you also running out that morning here in sheesh mahal?
his breath went faster and faster at every successive thought.
he needed to calm and steady himself. he had to find her.
“why don’t you believe in god?” khushi asked with that earnest air of hers. they were on their way back from a really terrible salman khan movie. khushi had enjoyed herself hugely. he had held her hand quietly right through, trying not to wince at the loud, senseless goings on on the screen.
in the light from the screen, he could see her profile. she watched rapt, unmoving. her entire concentration on this hero of hers she had loved ever since she could remember. she still had a poster of his stuck on the inside of her wardrobe door. and of course, the one she had pasted on the wall of the bedroom while she was into her “take revenge on asr” days.
asr had never said this to khushi but he was a bit perturbed to see her in this state while gazing at a man other than himself. who was this salman khan anyway!
what did women think of when they were so into a guy… he knew what men thought of. he gritted his teeth.
“god? why are you talking about god all of a sudden?” he couldn’t keep the snap out of his tone, “is that what that salman ji of yours reminds you of?”
“arnav ji!” khushi was horrified, “what are you saying?”
then she peered at him in her slightly exaggerated khushi kumari gupta sort of way and did a moue, “haww! arnav ji, aap toh jealous ho salman ji se!”
(haw, arnav ji, you are jealous of salman ji!)
“what nonsense, kya bakwas kar rahi ho!” he snarled.
khushi sat quietly looking demure, eyes downcast. in a few minutes, exactly as she’d expected he had cooled down and was giving her a long sideways glance… a slight smile had started playing around the corner of his lips…
“icecream khaogi?” he asked brusquely, he always sounded so terribly loving and smitten when he spoke like that. khushi sighed inwardly.
(want to eat icecream?)
she nodded without looking up. still demure.
he turned the suv toward connaught place and said laconically, “i don’t believe in god, khushi, maybe because i just am not willing to pass the responsibility of my life, my future, onto some unknown being’s hands… but if as you say god is there, then that is all there is to it, isn’t it?” he turned and smiled at his wife, “and only one icecream today, otherwise you’ll became fat and i will have to fall out of love with you.”
she made a nasty face at him at that, he laughed.
he could feel a sense of eternity in this moment.
what really was god.
“good evening, saaley saab…” the slime coated, ingratiating voice brought him out of his thoughts.
shyam was standing before him.
“so you understood my message… i knew it,” shyam smiled, an almost pleasant smile. he was positively gloating.
asr wondered how for three long years he had been completely taken in by this man. this cretin, this lowdown… he could feel his anger rising and stopped his thoughts.
no. this was not the time for all this, no losing one’s focus, no mistakes… khushi had to be found and he was not going to let shyam get the better of him.
“shyam, don’t waste my time and yours, tell me what you want… tell me where khushi is,” his voice was level.
“saaley saab, you are not going to get angry today, is it? the famous gussa of arnav singh raizada… wah! wah! what a thrill it is to watch you rage… a blessing really for an ordinary everyday man like me… remember how you’d slapped me? twice, saaley saab, twice… and then the gun that day in the rain… oh i love the rain, don’t you? baarish mein maut ke saamney khade hone mein kuchh aur hi mazaa hai…” shyam was ready for theatrics obviously.
(the thrill of facing death in the rain is something else…)
asr looked steadily at shyam, his eyes still and emotionless. opaque chocolate that would chill a man’s heart.
“arrey arnow bitwa, itni bhi kya jaldi hai, before we get into all the transaction, let’s talk about the rain, shall we?” it was chacha ji. he had just walked into the room and he went and made himself comfortable in one of the sofas.
(hey, arnav boy, what’s the rush…)
so shyam was in this whole thing with chacha ji. asr wondered where and when they had met. obviously, there was a lot he didn’t know, but he was not going to get into that right now… khushi. he needed to know how she was doing. and where she was.
“shyam, i need to talk to khushi. now,” he said in an even voice, a note of steel in it.
“ohho, saaley saab, aren’t you even going to wish your chacha ji? pratap saab has come all the way from london, just to meet you. vilayat bhi unhe jaana padaa aap hi ki badaulat… all that noise you made about the lovely business he ran with beautiful young women… in a way he was doing samaj seva, getting poor helpless ladies a good source of income…” shyam was out to goad him and though he could feel the rage beginning to stir dangerously in him, asr held on to his temper.
(he had to go to london because of you… all that noise you made about the lovely business he ran with beautiful young women…in a way he was doing social work, getting poor helpless ladies a good source of income…)
“i said, i must speak to khushi, now. otherwise, i am leaving. no negotiations till i speak to my wife!” came his curt reply.
he could see chacha ji guffaw silently.
then the older man chuckled and looking as disgusting as he no doubt really was, he said in a reedy, slightly wheezy voice, “maan gaye, arnow, you are the fabulous malik heir your grandmother always said you were. how she loved to rub it in my face… the prince of the maliks, the perfect scion of a great and illustrious clan, not my son… but that of my brother, my perfect elder brother, dushyant narottam malik… do you know what narottam means, arnow?” something sinister in the way chacha ji said it.
(got to accept, arnav, you are the fabulous malik heir your grandmother always said you were…)
asr ignored his uncle yet again and said, “i want to speak to khushi.”
“achha ok, saaley saab, you know how i have always had a special feeling for you, come talk to your wife, make sure all is well.. then we play… we have the whole night, no rush… it’s only eleven o’clock,” shyam dialled a number, spoke to someone, and handed asr the phone. asr realised he had been sitting in the room for almost three hours.
asr’s heart trembled, his hand reached out steady and strong, he put the phone to his ear and waited.
a second ticked by. he knew it was an eternity.
“hello?” it was khushi.
“khushi?” he said gently.
“arnav ji?” her voice was small but she was trying to sound normal he could tell. his brave lover, his beautiful wife, “hum aap se bahut pyaar kartey hain, arnav ji… aur aap… aap sochiye mat, hum theek hain…” she said and he knew she was holding the phone close to her with both her hands, a tear was threatening to brim over and fall down a cheek, but she was holding on.
(i love you very much, arnav ji… and you… you don’t worry, i am fine…)
“of course, you are fine, and i know we’ll be ok… ok?” he assured her… he could feel life surging back through him after what felt like years. her voice… he had heard her, he knew she was breathing, alive…
khushi, i can’t live without you… tumhare bina jee nahin paaoonga…
“khushi, i love you…” he said and disconnected the phone.