faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.
~~~ voltaire~~~


she woke up with a start and sat up in bed. arnav ji! no he wasn’t there. he was not next to her in their bed. he was in hospital, in a cold hard room with needles all over him and a pipe in his mouth, she heaved with pain as reality rushed in, rending the night.

her eyes closed as if to shut out the thought, a terrified breath escaped on a shiver. “arnav…” she whispered, her arnav, in her heart he’d become her arnav, ever since that night she’d let him untie a dori… believing him, trusting him.

just beautifully simply arnav. no “ji,” no social niceties and conventions, just an owning, claiming, belonging, arnav…

her rakshas, her laad governor, her arnav ji… but most preciously, right inside her, in her dhak dhak, her arnav.

yet she’d never called him by that name,  only that one time he’d forced her to…

at the memory, a smile came rushing to her lips, and yes, her heart. just a little thought of laad governor and his terrible coercion… “say my name… say it…” he was advancing toward her, and she was of course stepping back… devilish glint in his warm chocolate eyes… if she refused, he’d… he’d… no… “ok ok you win, arnav…”

she’d tried to run away, but he’d caught up with her easily, and made her pay anyway… then thrust his cheek against hers and stroked her with that rough stubble of his… once, twice, and one more time, she’d squirmed and shrunk away yet wanted some more, he’d  whispered… “arnav singh raizada kabhi haarta nahin,” in her tingling, gone crazy ears and left for work. no, asr never loses.

(arnav singh raizada never loses.)

the short one turned and asked with almost a peremptory air, “and who are you to ask that?”
“i am the owner of the property where you’re standing and asking impertinent questions.”

he would make it.

the thought passed through her and a calm settled in. she remembered nani ji sitting quiet in front of devi maiyaa when she’d come back from the hospital with di, payal, and akash. she’d never seen nani ji look so frail, so powerless. forgetting her own fears and tiredness she had hurried up to the matriarch and sat down. “nani ji?” wan eyes looked back at her, “my chhotey?” khushi had grasped her dear grandmother-in-law’s hands and sat there. a keening rising in the hearts of two women who loved.

“you know, everyone thinks i care for anjali more… i know even chhotey thinks so… and yes, anjali is my dearest grand daughter, my daughter’s reflection, a part of her and what a lovely brave girl…”

anjali had come to stand by nani ji by then, her limp more pronounced in her disturbed state of mind. mami ji had gone off to get op or hp to make some lemonade and light cucumber sandwiches; her children had just come back from perhaps the most harrowing day in their lives, hello hi bye bye, where was op? she must do something to make them all feel a bit better, such a hot day, and now her “arnav bitwa istill isstruggling…” mami ji couldn’t finish the sentence. mama ji stood at the window overlooking the pool, gazing worriedly at his mother. akash and payal just stood in silence. shantivan had never been in such turmoil.

“…but you know, khusie bitiya, he… my chhotey? he is a reflection of me.” tears streamed down those proud, wise eyes, khushi watched arnav’s strong beautiful nani ji go to pieces; “part of my…” and nani ji pointed to her own heart.

khushi couldn’t stop herself, she flung her arms around the older woman and held her in a fierce little hug, and without thinking just said what came to her mind first, “don’t worry, nani ji, i promise i will bring arnav ji back home to you, safe, unharmed.”

now as she sat on her bed alone, she knew she had to make good on those words. she couldn’t let nani ji down. she wouldn’t. she swallowed as a surge of fear rose and then got up to sit in front of devi maiyaa who graced her little desk on one side of their large bedroom.

“devi maiyya, you know i am worried and feeling really scared and… ” her voice shook… but she wouldn’t give in… “you will do the right thing won’t you… not only because i can’t… i can’t… but you know he has to become fine, be just the way he is, laad governor, strong, proud, laughing… walking around scolding people, winning his deals, being…” and she did a little asr thing, “main kabhi galat nahin hota (i am never wrong)… devi maiyya, you won’t let anything happen to him, will you?” she folded her hands and prayed “give me strength, give me faith, and protect my love.”

love. arnav.

had he called her in her dream? she could still hear the echoes of his “khushiii!” in her. the water in the pool rippled, stars twinkled on its surface. khushi felt under the pillow for her stars.


he was in such a good frame of mind that morning, under the brightest star of all, the sun… dazzling and cleansing it had felt. the deal was done. sheesh mahal belonged to him and di again. chacha ji had been given the treatment he’d practically begged for all those years ago when he threw them out without a penny.

aah, he almost smiled as he swam. years since he’d really smiled, but this brought a turn to his lips.

then this thing fell on him. and it had the most maddening trembling… lips.

now it was evening, time to relax, and here he was sitting in his room, staring at a ridiculous pink and brown plastic, or what was it? faux leather? whatever… purse. the pool cleaner had found it floating on the water and given it to him when he got back to the hotel, since he was the only one in for a swim that morning.

must be hers… what was her name? he realised he didn’t know. now what? he decided to check inside to see if the strange girl with no answers had left any clues inside. things were a bit damp, but little and light (and really not classy), the purse hadn’t sunk to the bottom… must have been flung off her hand as she fell. good, here was a piece of paper, neatly folded. he opened it out carefully, that dampness could easily result in it tearing. it was a newspaper cutting, he was staring at a row of classifieds in tight black type. one ad was circled neatly in red ink.

he began to read. modelling… hotel sheesh mahal… room 1913. fifty thousand rupees for a day’s assignment.

his eyes glittered dangerously, one flash. so that was it. so patently a scam… a lure… get innocent girls in and…

quickly his mind connected… so she was here… in a room, in that room. she must have come the day… no, the evening before. and she’d been running out this morning, after a whole night in that…

he was out of his chair and his suite in a second, striding furiously toward the elevators. he reached room 1913, and was about to knock when he heard raised voices from within. “what are you doing? nooo!” said a girl’s startled, scared voice. “this is the easy way, believe me,” said a man, cold and oily. “if she doesn’t listen…” another man began, but asr had heard enough.

a neat, swift kick and the door was down. cameras, lights, a reflector on a stand… the girl was wearing a gaudy little gota encrusted ghagra choli, her arms crossed over her chest trying to protect herself somehow, three men, two younger, one short, pudgy, lascivious look in eyes… an image flashed in his head: of the girl he met in the pool… trembling lips, dark frightened eyes standing where the other young woman stood, eyes pleading and scared…

asr could feel his temper unfurl and hit a point just above his head, he walked in purposefully, long strides, jaws clenched, hands balling into fists.

“she said, ‘no’ did you hear?” his voice was low, almost pleasant.

might have fooled the men. the short one turned and asked with almost a peremptory air, “and who are you to ask that?”

“i am the owner of the property where you’re standing and asking impertinent questions.”

the man smiled ingratiatingly and said, “you should have told me you’re from mr malik’s family… he’s such an esteemed customer… maybe you would like to..?” and he looked at the cowering girl.

what happened next was so fast, it was hard to tell if the fat man was out on the floor first or the other two had run out before that; one tripping on the fallen door and lurching and hitting his face on the corner of the wall, blood flowing. the young woman watched bemused as the enraged stranger beat the threatening little man to a pulp, then almost sat on him and said in a quiet deadly voice, “before you do this to a woman again… ever… think long. got that?” he stood up, dusted his clothes lightly, then looked at the ridiculous heap on the floor and continued… “no, i am not from mr malik’s family, my name is arnav singh raizada, remember that. i own sheesh mahal… don’t you dare ever play with a woman in my hotel.”

he then looked at the girl and without a word picked up her dupatta lying on the large bed covered in a plush satin spread and handed it to her. as she fixed her clothes and collected her belongings, he waited grimly. before she left he asked her to check if she had enough cash to reach home.

even before she could finish saying thanks, he walked out looking even more fierce than when he’d entered.


so that was it. this is what she was running from. and she’d not made it out the same evening. what had happened to her in the course of the night? was she…

the more he thought, the more his head pounded with rage. di found him in his suite looking really upset. “”kya hua, chhotey?” she asked, concerned. “nothing, di, i just want to be alone for a while.”

his breathing was getting shallow, what was the matter with him? he didn’t even know the girl.

again he thought of that diminutive man with a leer. and his fist clenched.

her eyes were dark and scared, water droplets on her lashes, sunlight glancing off them. he felt anger heat his ears. how could she.


khushi was tripping down the steps of the temple happily while payal collected the prashad and flowers, thinking it was a good thing that amma and babuji and buaji had bought her story, also jiji.

that preeto was suddenly sick, and her parents were away, so there was no way she could leave her friend alone. their phone was dead and she’d forgotten her phone at home, so what could she do but nurse her friend through the night then get back?

it was surely divine providence that she’d left her phone behind, she thought and sent up a prayer to devi maiyya. there was no question of telling her parents the truth. it would be unbearable for them. the trauma and the talk around it, no she couldn’t put her parents through that. it was better to lie.

and what’s more, she just never ever wanted to remember that night. she wanted to forget, she couldn’t face it. and that awful man in the pool…


what was that!

she looked up, startled.

“tum!” he was standing there right before her. you! he exclaimed, but why was he looking angry?

“aap!” you? she countered. flabbergasted. what was he? a genie or something? she’d just thought of him and…

“how could you? do you know what might have happened…?” he was holding her shoulders and shaking her before anything could register…

“you.. you want money… there are better ways… don’t you get it…” the fury in his voice… everyone was turning to stare at them.

“what are you doing? who are you to…” she spluttered indignantly, at a loss for words… this… this impossible, boorish, arrogant, horrid stranger…

“who am i? i am the one who saved you, remember…” now the teeth were definitely gritted and the voice had lowered to an agitated undertone.

khushi saw his lips thinning and a strange sensation walked her upper arm. she had to acknowledge, he had saved her… twice.

“yes… but… i mean.. you…” she was confused… she looked at the smouldering eyes, the accusation still in them…

she knew that he knew…  

and she couldn’t let anyone look at her like that, she blurted out… “i… i… it was… i wanted to earn some money to help with my sister’s, my jiji’s, wedding…”

“hah! that’s a good lie,” he spat out.

khushi’s eyes’s grew round, and her mouth formed an affronted angry “o.”

“lie? you think i’m lying… why… people can’t do this for their sisters? wouldn’t you? oh. but then you wouldn’t have to, would you? you… who… swim about in huge hotel pools in the mornings while people such as myself are being… are being…”

she walked into asr’s cubicle with an upbeat air. she would talk to him today, tell him, he has to get up and come back. he must try. but before that she’d hang these stars up over his bed.

tears started to pour unrestrained as every memory she’d tried to blot out began to return.

“khushi!… khoooshiee,” a woman’s voice rang out from somewhere above.

khushi immediately looked up, jiji was out looking for her, but she had to let this man know he couldn’t talk to her like that…

“how could you accuse me of something without knowing anything about me or my life… do you even know what it’s like to feel desperate, scared, locked up in a room, alone…” again the shower of tears… ‘i… i… i…”

“shut up, khushi.” said the stranger quietly.

and the next instant he was gone. what was that in his voice? surely not gentleness.


she walked into asr’s cubicle with an upbeat air. she would talk to him today, tell him, he has to get up and come back. he must try. but before that she’d hang these stars up over his bed. she ‘d taken them down from above hers and kept them in her drawer. she felt so safe and protected just knowing he was next to her… holding her hand as they slept. sometimes they woke up too… mmm. but last night she needed them again.

arnav will be happy with these looking after him… she was busy fixing the strings and hooks.

“shut up, khushi” said asr.

she whirled around and said, “what? i wasn’t even talking… how can you say that, i know sometimes i talk a lot but…?” she stopped. what? arnav… spoke? eyes full of hope she looked at him.

but his eyes were shut. face closed. nothing there.


dr vijay verma looked at the anxious young woman before him, and wished he could say it in a better way, say it even differently. he’d seen her state when arnav singh raizada was brought in. he was there through the valiant struggle by the patient in the operation theatre, and he knew how hard his wife had tried to hold on to a sliver of hope. also twice the young man had shown signs of stabilizing.

she was looking at him blankly now and saying, “but i heard him clearly…”

“i know, mrs raizada,” he replied, “it is known to happen sometimes… some people do say something… perhaps they have a dream or a hallucination… the brain is a mysterious thing. but i am sorry to say, mr raizada has slipped into coma.”

all she heard was, “shut up, khushi,” and a stubble brushed against her cheek.


without you: chapter 4