when life is parched and dry / come to me in streams of compassion
when all beauty and grace is hidden / come to me in the sweetness of song
~~~ rabindranath tagore, an approximate translation~~~
the darkness had a way of slipping around his heart.
that's how it had been ever since he could remember, a familiar black blanket of not seeing, not feeling, what couldn't be soothed away could certainly be shut out.
he looked at his face in the mirror, a cursory glance, ah maybe a little hair cut. must get aman to call dan for an appointment the moment they got back to delhi, he thought. the white linen shirt was crisp and light just the way he liked it. he reached for a dark brown tie. not too wide. charvet. he enjoyed the fastidious finish of their ties, and no matter what the season dictated, for him it was always a slim one, with a single knot.
the silk felt cool against his fingers, and the knot came on perfect, first shot. asr smiled. there was always something neat about getting a knot right in one try. he admired his handiwork for a moment. not everything in life was like that though.
what was that noise? was it his heart? it was a gunshot. no.
like that night. that night he could have done something surely. something. even as he thought, a kid was running down the long corridors of his mind, labyrinthine corridors, that led from thought to thought then took twists and turns and left you in a place with nothing in front, you turned back but the way was gone… you were lost, alone. no way out.
the boy's breathing was frantic, rushed, his heart beat had risen to an almost deafening level. felt like it would burst.
what was that noise? was it his heart? it was a gunshot. no.
his breath grazed against his throat and struggled out as he remembered.
there were two. two gunshots. maaa.
he closed his eyes. and the darkness did its trick.
his breathing had become laboured but as numbness came, so did the calmer deep breath.
he came back to the day and shrugged on the charcoal brown waist coat with a nonchalant air. as he buttoned it, op walked in with a glass of orange juice. bit of a character, the youngest member of the raizada household staff, in charge of all odd jobs. op or om prakash sharma; diminutive, amiable, happy to serve. many of his cousins worked with him in shantivan, his uncle, ram prakash, used to be chief cook at the raizada's ancestral home in lucknow. thanks to their employers' generosity and genuine concern, the sharma family had managed to set up for itself a nice establishment in their village in etawah. there was land, a proper well constructed home, and money to educate the kids. interestingly, because of arnav singh raizada's insistence, all the girls were sent to school too, and college if they wished to. of course, they were not given a choice in this matter. asr had simply given orders. if they were flouted, all sharmas would be out on their ear, without a job.
when asr traveled within india, he liked to have op accompany him, especially if di was around. she needed help with things and op was always meticulously caring of her. for just this one thing, asr was willing to put up with op's many questions and decidedly attention seeking behaviour.
this morning too he had his little prattle ready.
“chhotey saab,” from the tone asr knew something was coming.
“what?” op seemed to feel comforted by the usual brusqueness.
“i was saying, but of course, only if anjali ji is not feeling too tired, maybe it would be nice if…”
“op!” he'd had enough of the meandering sentence never reaching the end.
“bhool bhulaiya, chhotey saab… can we go there? nani ji told me it's…”
“op. stop. if di is ok with it, you go. i'll drop you… now stop bothering me… jao!!”
op turned around pleased with his success, maybe even that bark from chhotey saab. his eyes fell on something pink and shiny on the coffee table. he picked it up muttering, “lagta hai anjali ji ne…” maybe anjali had left it here. he knew asr's aversion to untidiness and hurried to take it to anjali's room.
(looks like anjali ji…)
as he looked at asr, thinking he needed something, asr nodded toward the pink thing in op's hand and said,
“leave it there,” and turned, picked up his light summer jacket, left the room. leaving a rather puzzled op, fuchsia plastic purse in hand.
“khushi ji… yeh raha shakkar…” op walked into the kitchen with the sugar and saw khushi standing staring at the cooking range, a ladle in hand.
(khushi ji, here's the sugar…)
“khushi ji, the oil is hot already,” he cautioned, there was smoke in the air.
what was she doing here? in the kitchen?
then she remembered, she was here to make jalebis. suddenly it hurt terribly… tears welled up. how long, how long would this go on?
he called it her “asli kkgsr” look. had even threatened to start a fashion line and brand it.
it had been twelve days. twelve days of nonstop talking to her arnav, staying calm, being chirpy, keeping her spirits up, thinking only of good things, playing happy composed and upbeat with nani ji, di, jiji, everyone. and sitting before devi maiyya, praying, pleading with her to bring her husband, the man who meant everything to her, back. alive, beautiful, strong, eyes glinting, sharp mind, warm heart, making her smile, making her safe, loving her… oh how much longer.
she threw down the ladle and ran out of the kitchen tears streaming down her face. op stood sad and downcast… chhotey saab…
in the bedroom, she rushed to his wardrobe, wanting something, anything of his in her hands, close to her, she wanted to feel him, breathe him in, touch his skin, stroke his hair, no no don't stand there, she wanted to shout out, that bus that bus…
she rifled through his clothes and pulled out a jersey tee. not this… white shirt, she wanted one of his white shirts. linen. there it was. she took it out with shaking hands and pressed it to her heart, nuzzling her face against it. “arnav ji.”
she stayed like that for a few minutes.
when she lifted her head, her eyes fell on it. it was lying on the floor, must have fallen when she pulled out that tee. it was so bright and pink. the memories rushed. running down corridors. a sparkling blue swimming pool, strong arms, angry eyes, her little pink purse. that night. how? he'd found it. he'd kept it. from that first time they met. he'd never told her. just kept it with his things. he'd said to her once that every time he saw tears in her eyes, it had touched him, cut him, hurt him. that morning she had tears in her eyes… and he'd kept her purse.
she couldn't breathe.
she picked up her bag and left the house as she was. in her blue churidar kameez with golden glittery gota and pompoms, her mojris slipping off her feet, her slightly askew plait. he called it her “asli kkgsr” look. had even threatened to start a fashion line and brand it. he was sure a market could be found, among slightly lunatic women. she'd thrown a book at him, he'd avoided it adroitly, swung her up in his arms and dropped her with fanfare before laxmi ji, with a grand “ladies and gentleman, i give you asli kkg singh raizada.”
tears blinded her. she walked briskly down the road. where would she go, maybe the mandir? the sun was high, today nani ji, mami ji and di had gone to see him, insisting that she rest a bit.
she found herself at a bus stop, and there was a bus coming to a halt. it was blue and white and metal… her stomach tightened, her breath caught. the bus was exactly like the one that had come out of nowhere and driven right into him. she wanted to run away again.
then she remembered him telling her how hard he wanted to run from a night, but never could. and when he found her, he decided he no longer needed to flee… he would walk in slowly and look at that terrible thing. she stepped into the bus and found a seat at the back. the bus started. she lay her head back against the seat and closed her eyes…
bin tere bin tere bin tere
koi khalish hai hawaaon mein bin tere
her heart seemed to clench at the words. who played the song here? one of her favourites, oh asr had really not liked the movie. his eyes had brightened at the name, “i hate luv storys,” but alas it was a sweet story of young love, and khushi had watched in glee, tears and giggles at all the right places. he'd watched her. and slipped his hand into hers, then held her hand really tight. she was glad it wasn't a movie with salman ji because she just couldn't concentrate after that.
without you… without you… there's a khalish, an emptiness all around… without you… a wide open expanse of empty… just vacuum… nothing there nothing
she saw two young girls in a seat a couple of rows away, looking at their phone, watching the video. she wanted to put her head down and cry, but she forced herself to shake the feeling off and turned toward the window.
he was sitting at the window seat. right next to her. she stared. he looked handsome, fresh, his stubble just right, white shirt, brown waistcoat, dark brown tie, tawny eyes… a little smile in them.
“hi,” husky whisper with a grin in it… a little bit of flirt.
“h… hi” she had to reply.
“khushi,” he reached out and put his arm across her shoulder, pulling her close to him. she had to touch him, her hands found their way to his face, she forgot she was in a bus full of people, she stroked his cheek, let her hand linger on his high cheek bone, then felt the scar on his eyelid. one… two… three… the ridges. he was here. he was with her. there was no emptiness any longer.
“you really shouldn't ride a bike you know… aap bahut tez chalate hain,” she so wanted to say something normal, everyday to him. the scar reminded her of his love for his bike and speeding down wide highways.
he held her in his arms and sat looking at her. “khushi, where are you going?”
“i do… don't know…maybe the mandir?”
“aren't you tired?”
“n… no” her eyes felt so heavy.
“come,” he said and made her lay her head on his shoulder and ran a hand over her eyes, shutting them.
khushi stayed there for a while. not speaking, not moving, just feeling him with her.
it had been more than two weeks since the accident. she hadn't been with him it felt as if for a lifetime.
she opened her eyes and said, “arnav ji, main aap ke begair jee nahin paaongi,” i won't be able to live without you. she'd never said this before, though she'd felt it for a long long time. he held her hand and then lifted it up to kiss the inside of her palm. “you won't have to… i promise,” his lips were warm against her palm, his stubble scratchy, she wanted to cry.
“ghar chalein?” he asked, a little wickedness in his eyes. he could see she was reaching a funny place… well not so funny if you're on the road. she hadn't felt him for so long, she wanted to have him with her, his arms around her, his hand on her skin… she needed him so much.
(shall we go home?)
the bus stopped, she got up to leave, he followed, and when the crowd got thick at the door, he shielded her with a stretched arm and put himself between her and the groping hands, the inquisitive eyes, the sickening leers, and helped her alight.
the song was still playing in her mind when she looked up and found he wasn't there. surprisingly, it felt alright even then. she was calm, happy. she even smiled at the thought of arnav singh raizada, hot shot tycoon, dapper and suave, in a public bus. then her mirth increased at how he he was holding her in front of everybody and kissing her palm. laad governor always.
she hailed a cab. a gust of wind as she got in. and a tune she had in her memory but she could never tell from where… hmm hmm hmm rabba ve…
nani ji told chhotey she was very worried about khushi. bitiya hadn't slept properly in days. she didn't know what devi maiyya had in mind, but she trusted her chhotey, she knew he was brave. he was always brave, he had himmat, he would fight back and come out of this coma. she stroked her grandson's hair with great love and blessed him. at last there was happiness in his life, he couldn't go away now. nani ji had seen a lot in life, suffered but borne it all with courage and a determined stoicism. her grandson was not in a good place but she had faith, she'd managed to pull herself away from the despondence she'd felt when she got the news.
that evening doctor verma heard, the patient seemed to show improvement for a long span of time in the afternoon. he felt it was important to let the family know and called their home. he spoke to anjali raizada as mrs raizada was sleeping. anjali raizada thanked doctor verma profusely. somehow he felt good to hear that tinge of happiness in her voice. he put it down to a professional's satisfaction at the positive effect of a job done with sincerity and passion.
asr dropped di and op off at the bhool bhulaiya, akash had also wanted to tag along. he was pleased, since when di went out and especially when jija ji was not around, he preferred to have as many people with her as possible. left to him, he'd hire a posse of body guards for her, but di was too independent and refused to let him go overboard in any way. yet how could he not worry about her?
he reversed his suv to turn out of the parking area, and felt an impact. he'd hit something at the back. or something had dashed into him. irritated, he was in a rush, he swung out of the car to check what the cause of this annoyance was. and there she stood.
rather, sat indignant on a scooter, trying to keep her balance, feet on either side planted on the road.
glaring at him.
he narrowed his eyes in disbelief, her mouth was stuffed with something, and there was… what was it, chane, yes chane, kernels of gram lying all over. on the scooter, on her clothes, what was that hideous round furry thing dangling from her sleeves?!! there was chana everywhere. on the road, on her hair… and the edge of his car's rear window. he walked up to her not happy at all, one might even say threateningly, flicked the gram off his car window, and through gritted teeth hissed, “what the!”