it was six in the morning, dewdrops glistened on the leaves, asr stood by the poolside, deep furrows on his forehead, a troubled look in his eyes.
he had not been able to sleep, restless through the night; then finally, at around five thirty he had gone and splashed cold water on his face trying to dispel the unsettling feeling. it hadn’t worked.
so he’d walked over to the kitchen and made himself a cup of strong black coffee and come out here to the poolside, here he usually could find peace. especially when his hands were grimy and covered with soil and he was looking intently at a plant or a bloom… tending his garden.
rarely did that fail to bring him to even keel. but today there seemed to be a lag between him and everything else.
he pursed his lips and glared at the water in the pool. sun rays, now getting brighter rapidly as morning came, danced and flirted with the ripples.
and he thought of her wide radiant smile.
where was she? should he call her now?
but he knew he couldn’t… it was too early and besides why did he even have such a strange thought?
she meant nothing to… he could not complete the sentence, before that his mind uttered her name, “khushi!”
asr took a deep breath and tried to focus. why, he asked himself, why for the first time in years, he was feeling what he had done was not right… not at all right. it was “galat”… wrong, in fact.
he went over the sequence of events of the evening before… and almost immediately what rose up and hit him with gale force was a shrieking worry… for khushi. it had not taken him long to figure out who might have hit lavanya… he had felt terrible for putting la in the path of peril even if unwittingly… but all the while as he’d waited for the ambulance to come, for the doctors to check her, even while he fretted over lavanya’s injury and the accident, he thought of khushi.
the spectre of a white suv charging down the road at khushi kept flashing in his mind. it unnerved him.
then it catapulted him to take action. he was not going to stand by and let danger get to her. he felt he had to keep her safe. why he had no idea, and he did not waste his time asking… he was supposed to make sure she was unharmed. that was all.
he had felt an inordinately strong need to have her near him, before his eyes, within reach. and so he had decided she had to marry him. if she were with him he could protect her, he could make sure no one got close enough to harm her in any way.
of course, he was not wrong to have insisted she marry him.
yet, his mind said, he was not absolutely right either.
he looked up impatiently trying to shake off the feeling, the sun caught his eye. he winced and looked away. galat… had he really done something he shouldn’t have?
contemplating still, he started walking… his steps took him all the way to the guest room and he was standing right in front of the bed when he realised where he was.
“what the!” the expletive shot out of his lips even as his eyes fell on the bed.
the bed… he had laid her down here that first time she had come to shantivan. well, she hadn’t come willingly, he had pretty much commanded her to… she had fallen asleep on the way home. how deeply she slept, he had not been able to wake her, well, actually he hadn’t tried too hard either he had to confess.
somehow he had wanted to let her sleep… rest.
when he had lifted her in his arms, how light and pliant she had felt… she had put her head against him and stayed there as if she…
he shook his head musing… di had made one of her di-like cracks… something about that tradition of this family vis a vis carrying someone in over the threshold.
threshold. the word touched him somewhere.
he shook his head again, what was he doing, standing here thinking of useless things, he turned to go and yet he had to turn back. she had held onto his lapel when he tried to set her down on the bed… and she had murmured in her sleep, some gibberish. he had wanted to hold her a little longer in his arms right then.
a tremor came at this memory… to his breath. he felt shaken.
he quickly retreated from the room… as he walked out his eyes fell on the painting of the krishnachura tree. maa loved krishnachura, would she have liked the girl he was going to marry in six days?
he halted in his tracks, a tumultuous amalgam of pain, hurt, longing and confusion shot through him.
then he pulled himself together and strode out.
khushi hadn’t slept a wink.
after he left the night before, she had not been able to speak or think… so in a frenzy she had fried jalebis. and what made her even more angry with the world but mainly herself, was that she had unconsciously made a batch with very light syrup, hardly any sugar in it… she had quickly dunked the jalebis for just a touch of the syrup so there was a hint of sweetness but nothing too harmful in it.
harmful for whom? her mind had wanted to know.
why for people with diabetes, of course, she’d averred to herself. she’d picked up a jalebi and taken a big bite as she let her thoughts run. yes, she was actually experimenting to see if she could offer some happiness to diabetics… really, if you couldn’t eat jalebis, what was the point… of… of… anything?
that was the only reason she had made this huge mound of practically sugar free jalebis. really. it had nothing… nothing whatsoever… to do with that… that… magarmach… no, laad governor… nahiiin, he was a… a … she had taken a few quick bites and munched through the crunchy sweetness. a chudail… that’s it… a frangipani chudail at that!
khushi had made a face and she could feel tears beginning to sting her eyes.
how could he… how could he… she had wailed in her heart.
and then angrily she’d thought… how could she.. how could she!
ultimately, she’d had to admit to herself, she had made the jalebis for him. and she really wanted him to have some too.
khushi remembered all this as she got ready to go to work. asr had told her he would come to pick her up. why was he doing this? why was he marrying her?
khushi walked out into the sitting room, babu ji was at the table reading his newspaper. she felt a little better when she saw him.
“babu ji,” she said in a tentative voice…
“haan, khushi?” shashi gupta looked up and saw his daughter’s worried face.
“what is the matter?” he asked gently.
“about… about arnav… ji’s…,” she was dying to call him laad governor but somehow she knew that would not go down well with babu ji, plus you never knew where billo mausi was lurking, her ears incredibly alert and hunting for gossip, khushi mumbled, “you know what he said… the proposal… aapne kya socha hai?”
(you know what he said… the proposal… what have you thought?)
“bitiya, it is not for me to think really, is it? what have you thought, bitiya? do you want to marry him and also in just a week?” shashi gupta asked looking into her eyes.
he saw the flicker in her hazel irises before she quickly lowered her eyelids and turned away on the pretext of filling the kettle to boil water for tea.
khushi felt a wild leap of unnamed feelings in her. then as she was about to say, no, never, why should she want to marry a rakshas, arnav singh raizada’s face flashed before her eyes. he was grim, haggard, and peremptory… he was telling her she would marry him. no arguments.
otherwise he would sack her and make sure she couldn’t put together a dowry for jiji. mami ji would be expecting a seriously show off worthy dahej, khushi was certain.
but why? why was he doing this, she thought. and yet, most importantly, she did not want to worry her parents… she would earn that dowry for jiji’s wedding. she was not going to create a turmoil in her family’s life. they had all waited long for happiness to come calling. babu ji struggled so hard, amma did everything she could… for her, for jiji.
no, she would marry that terrible man and hate him forever. her eyes narrowed, she felt a curious exhilaration as her mind said “yes” to the laad governor.
“babu ji, i am willing to marry him if you are okay with it… and why the hurry? you know na, he is very busy… runs this big company and they have an important fashion show coming up, plus there is jiji and akash ji’s wedding… that should be done nicely… and he has to…” khushi let her agile mind work fast building a story as she went along hoping it would convince her father, she did not want him to think anything was amiss,
“arnav ji has to travel abroad for a while soon, so since neither he nor i want a big wedding… he thought… i mean we thought that let’s get married quickly and get it out of the…”
“do you love him, bitiya?” the words came from very close just behind her right shoulder. shashi gupta had walked up to khushi as she spoke, she had not heard since she was totally concentrating on her yarn.
she went stock still at the words. love him?
her eyes widened. her breath almost stopped.
two gentle hands settled on her shoulder and she was propelled around. babu ji was smiling as he looked at her and waited.
khushi felt her head spin slightly. love him? of course not. she hated him. and she was going to poke him with billo mausi’s sharp silver hairpin.
love laad governor?
why was her heart thumping and tripping and traipsing crazily?
it was definitely acidity… she had eaten too many jalebis.
“ha…an, babu ji…,” she whispered, convinced she was lying. she could never really lie to babu ji. he always knew… she again felt the tears back of her eyes, she blinked.
(ye…es, babu ji…)
“i have a feeling you do,” her father said with a smile and gave her a hug… “and so, how can i or your amma say no to arnav bitwa’s proposal?”
khushi wanted to scream.
“what a relief, ” said babu ji, “now i need not get you married to this not very attractive suitor…” he was holding up the stone lizard payal had picked up for him in bali. khushi started to giggle looking at the strange and ugly creature.
payal had just walked into the room, she said, “no, babu ji, i think it’s better you choose this one as your son in law, i am sure khushi likes the lizard more, isn’t that right, khoosie bitiya?”
“ah, chhotey, stop stop! are you smiling to yourself as you walk? nahiiin, someone hold me, i will faint!” anjali said with an exaggerated air coming across him on his way to his room.
“di! samhalke, are you okay?” asr reacted with alacrity and caught hold of anjali.
(di! careful, are you okay?)
“chhotey bhaiya, i am fine,” retorted his miffed sister, “joke.. it was a joke… do you understand those things or not… i was teasing you…”
“huh?!” he looked genuinely disoriented, “di, aap ko pata hai i don’t like jokes like this… when it comes to your health i won’t tolerate any nonsense…” he was rattled, the thought of anjali being unwell or in any way unhappy never sat well with him.
(di, you know i don’t like jokes like this… when it comes to your health i won’t tolerate any nonsense…)
“ok ok let it be… but did i tell you how thrilled i was that you have decided to marry… and that too khushi ji… remember uss din when you carried her in that very first time… i knew even…” anjali was smiling widely and dreamily.
(remember that day when you carried her in that very first time…)
“di, enough!” asr was curt.
“enough? never. so romantic… now you want to marry her, and that too within a week…” anjali grinned then she made a serious nasty face, and mimicked him, “‘nani.. di! i have decided to marry khushi… yes tomorrow when you go to her place with akash’s proposal… ask them for khushi’s hand in marriage too’… oooh chhotey, you sound so cute when you are in love…!”
“di!” he was extremely curt, the shock he felt at that word filtering through to his voice immediately. love? what was wrong with di!
as he looked at his sister, the reason why things had gone the way they had came to mind.
shyam. shyam was dangerous. the thought made him grimace. he could not let shyam be anywhere near his di also he realised. there was no question of stalling matters for six months waiting for di to have her child. he would have to act soon… find a way to remove shyam from their lives.
but how… and there seemed to be so little time. he told himself not to panic, not to rush. he would find a way. in the meantime, he had instructed that shyam be tailed and kept under surveillance. he had also had a brief word with shyam the previous evening, or rather late night, when he returned.
he had remembered to sound calm… and had told his sister’s husband that he was being followed closely by detectives, so it was best he stayed out of trouble. he instinctively felt shyam would pay heed, it would not suit him in any way to be indicted with evidence.
asr knew he had bought a little time with this move, but soon he would have to find a permanent solution.
di was still making funny faces at him and looking happy.
“di, try to be normal sometimes,” he quipped and turned away. he loped up the steps two at a time and at the head of the stairs turned and said to her, “oh, and di, i am arnav singh raizada, i don’t fall in love!”
anjali made a face at him and threw her fist in an irritated gesture, “chhotey, tum bhi na… i can’t stand you!”
(chhotey, you’re impossible… i can’t stand you!)
she was waiting outside when he drew up in front of bua ji’s home. she wore a deep red churidar kurta with dark blue trimmings and of course the gota gleamed, the pompoms bobbed and when she saw his car, a very grim expression came over the usually bright and happy face.
he completely ignored her look and leaned over to open the door on the passenger side.
“get in, khushi!” he snapped.
she looked at him angrily.
“nahin get in… what will you do, arnav sigh raizada… sir!” she spat out.
he promptly opened the door, got out, came around, picked her up in his arms, dumped her on the passenger seat, fixed her belt smoothly, walked back to his seat, got in and started the car. everything happened so quickly, khushi had no time to react.
by the time she recovered, he was reversing smartly out of the lane and the expression on his face was so khadoos like, she wished she could hurt him badly in some way.
“hayeee!” said billo mausi collapsing on the wicker chair in the verandah, “did you see, madhumati behen ji, did you see… what he did!” her voice had a giddy note of hysteria in it…
bua ji too was looking after the car… both the ladies had been sitting out on the side verandah chopping vegetables when asr came and so they were witness to the early morning skirmish outside the suv.
billo mausi had jumped up in excitement when asr picked khushi up in his arms… while bua ji had a look of deep sublime love on her face, “hai re nand kissore, hai re nand kissore,” she uttered with a beatific expression.
“haan, billo ji… nand kissore babua… just like khoosie bitiya’s phoopha ji…” madhumati’s heart swelled at the memory of her husband. her locket perked up against one of the umpteen ridges on her neck, she flung her long plait over a shoulder and put both hands on her forehead, where of course a red and white towel had been tied to keep her headache at bay… seems the late night proposal by the multi millionaire had thrown the poor lady’s tabiyat into disarray. while she was elated, the surprise had completely done her in, and so a headache had arrived, which the towel only could quell.
“just like that, i remember, he used to pick me up and put me on his scooter… then away away far away he would take me… oh what days those were… my sanka devi has found such a good man… just like my…” her emotions got the better of her and she sniffed loudly.
billo mausi stared at bua ji for a while, trying to imagine her being lifted by her husband, who if one were to believe the photographs up on the walls was a slight built man with a quiet air, not exactly the picking up in the arms sort of lover.
then she tucked her pins and said, “haan, my rajat ji also, never misses a chance to pick me up in his arms and take me to you know… all sorts of places…” the innuendo in her voice would have made a fine actor proud.
“khushi!” he said tersely, driving and looking ahead.
she kept quiet, eyes fixed on the windscreen.
“talk to me, dammit!” his temper was rising.
she still refused to open her mouth.
“i said, talk to me!!” he shouted now bringing the car to a screeching stop.
he snapped open his seat belt and leaned forward, grasping her shoulders, he jerked her close to him. “what’s the matter? why are you behaving like this? i asked you to marry me! isn’t that what you wanted?” he stormed.
“wanted?” she was staring at him furiously. and then tears welled up and before she could control it, two crystal clear sparkling streams were cascading down her cheeks. her eyes widened and a whimper left her throat, escaping softly through her parted lips.
“shit!” he said under his breath. his eyes closed for a moment, then opened again, now they were so dark and melting, she wondered how he did it. one second he was blazing, the next he was warm and tender… this man was not normal. her irritated little thought gave her a bit of strength, she pulled away, trying to gather herself.
he put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a large white handkerchief and handed it to her without a word. when she had finished wiping her face and had sat back comfortably, he held out something else to her, she could see it from the corner of eye.
cautiously she turned her head, wondering what it might be… his body was turned slightly toward her, he was wearing a beautifully cut jacket over a waistcoat and white linen shirt, his face was expressionless, in his hand was a bar of chocolate.
he was offering her a slab of chocolate.
khushi practically gawked. she stared at the purple packaging, her favourite fruit and nut… she wanted to grab it and break off a square and eat it instantly… ohhh chocolate, mellow rich smooth… but why should she take it from this laad governor… no, khushi, she admonished herself, you are stronger than that… you won’t…
“take it, dammit!” he said in a soft whisper.
“kya?! do baar dammit ek vartalaap mein!! looks like it is going to be a really bad day!” she said pertly even as she took the chocolate and started opening it in a rush.
(what? dammit twice in one conversation!! looks like it is going to be a really bad day!)
“khushi! i am warning you…” there was a lethal note in his voice.
it riled her…
“really? why? because i am not swooning over and dying because you the great arnav singh raizada have decided to marry this poor lowly ordinary…” she started gushing angrily…
“stop it, khushi! stop it!” he was holding her in his arms suddenly and pulling her closer… his hands were cradling her, “come here!” he drew her to him and made her lay her head on his shoulder and rocked her a little, “shh! sh! everything will be alright…” he crooned as if to a child.
khushi was too taken aback to protest. it reminded her strangely enough of the very first time he had kissed her, throwing her completely off kilter and then come the next morning and spoken with such simple honesty, she had just felt herself relax and let go.
after a while, he settled her back in her seat, and drove quietly to ar.
akash ji was smiling to himself while he stared at the laptop. khushi was so pleased to see her gentle boss and to be brother in law. what a nice man, she thought, he will make jiji very very happy. no very very very happy. she said “good morning, akash ji!” and withdrew to her room. after placing devi maiyya on the shelf by the side of her desk, she fished in her big tote of mirror work embroidered maroon cotton and brought out the chocolate.
he had bought her a chocolate… she smiled involuntarily, how swee-, but no, no way was she going to be happy about this gesture. she narrowed her eyes and changed her adjective, how khadoos! how karela…!! hoonh!!!
(… how mean! how bitter gourd…! huh!!)
“haan, devi maiyya, he is not a good man…” she said brightly to her goddess, “sorry i used a bad word, but you know what he has done is not right… you know that, don’t you, devi maiyya?” a slightly helpless note entered her voice… a bit of a plea in it, as though she needed devi maiyya firmly on her side on this one.
“ever since he has come into my life he has caused trouble… musibat singh raizada… that is what he is,” she paused a bit in her breakneck complaining session, “i… i… he does all sorts of horrible things as i have told you before… and the worst thing of all, how he makes me… makes me…” her voice petered off for a second, but she resumed soon, “…do things… i mean… feel… oh devi maiyya, what am i to do, how will i marry him? how?… and why is he doing this?” her voice sounded desperate, she looked really troubled.
then she took a deep breath and smiled brightly, she showed devi maiyya the chocolate and said, “okay, i will stop crying and moaning now… you will help me tackle all the problems i know… for now, see, i have got chocolate for your prashad… you remember the bonbon jon piye ji gave? you liked it, didn’t you? today, you have this large slab of fruit and nut, okay? that laad… i mean arnav ji gave it to me… but i can never have something like this without offering you, can i…?” she closed her eyes, joined her hands and prayed for a few minutes. soon she sat down at her desk and started working.
a few minutes later though, the door was flung open and kareena was whirling into the room, she came rushing and hugged khushi… “i told you to bring me back a story, and you brought the whole book of fairytales… ohhh, khushi khushi khushi, how romantic… you and asr… getting married… ohhh!”
obviously, kareena’s penchant for drama had been stoked by the news of the wedding, but how did she know? khushi was puzzled.
“ah ha, you can’t hide anything from good old kareena, don’t you know, my dear?” kareena read khushi accurately and went on, “but i will be sweet and tell you how i knew of it…” kareena leaned close and whispered, “your prince charming has asked jean pierre to make a nice outfit for you for the wedding! and jean pierre wanted to pick my brains for some smashing indian wedding dress ideas…”
khushi stared at kareena speechless. what? laad governor wanted to get a wedding dress made for her… and jon piye ji was asked by him to design one? what was happening out here? and why was it all happening so fast. hey devi maiyya, was there going to be any time to breathe or think in the middle of all of this!
kareena prattled on, “oh, since last evening it has been a mad mad time at ar… i love it… a true design house atmosphere. first, poor lavanya was hit by a speeding white suv, and as she passed out saying ‘why does asr want to kill me?’…” kareena paused for effect then resumed, “i saw the look on jean pierre’s eyes holding her and calling out to passing kareena to organise an ambulance… rommmance… i tell you there’s romance in the air… and then asr came… we all went to the hospital… he was there till lavanya recovered… after which suddenly he vanished!!! now this morning, i walk into the office and jean pierre is asking me about a wedding dress. what!!! i thought, that was quick work… but no.. it is not for his wedding… it is for… pause, slow mo pan camera… for asr’s wedding to tarrra… khushiii…”
kareena hugged khushi again. but khushi was staring blankly ahead.
what was that kareena had just said? lavanya ji was hit by a white suv?
just the evening before?
and she thought… she thought asr wanted to harm her?
khushi frowned… a vision of shyam ji at happy ji’s garage flashed before her eyes. shyam ji was driving a white suv… which he wanted to turn black. arnav ji had been hellbent on telling his sister all about shyam ji… last night in the middle of their conversation when he sprang that marriage surprise… no shock.. talk had got diverted. she never did find out how anjali ji had reacted… arnav ji must have told her and shyam ji must have found out arnav ji knew about the lady he met in bali. so…
in a crazy weird flash the whole thing fell into place. shyam ji must have tried to hurt lavanya ji… and he was pretending it was arnav ji… the white suv. but why lavanya ji when it was she, khushi, who had told arnav ji…??
maybe shyam ji didn’t know that… whatever it was… this white suv thing was too much of a coincidence, especially since he wanted to camouflage his vehicle…
so… that’s why arnav ji wanted to marry her. he thought she was in danger…
“tum theek ho, khushi?” kareena asked looking at her friend’s fixed stare.
(are you okay, khushi?)
khushi started, “haan, yes, yes, kareena ji… will you excuse me a minute, i need to talk to…”
“who, your prince charming?” kareena giggled as she left the room.
he was poring over a design sheet when khushi stormed into his office.
he looked distractedly up and saw her standing inside the door… fuming.
khushi put her balled fists on her hips, arms akimbo, she thrust out her chin and looked at him challengingly. why did he have to look so good in those black and white and grey, totally colourless clothes of his… brown eyes, just like chocolate.
khushi blinked… what was wrong with her… don’t get distracted, she urged herself.
an amused look shot through his eyes, he straightened up taking his time, languid and easy…
“i know why you’re marrying me!” she said in a tense voice.
he raised his eyebrows slowly at that, “you do? so tell me, khushi, why am i marrying you?”
“because you think my life is in danger…” she replied holding his gaze, chin still out.
“oh, am i?” he looked at her quizzically for a second, then without a further word, went back to looking at the designs, frowning slightly, completely disengaging from the conversation.
she walked rapidly to him and stood close, so close she could hear his even regular breath, “you can’t do this… you can’t just end a conversation when you wish… and who are you to marry me because i may be in danger??… i can take care of myself!! samjhe aap! badey aaye humey bachaney!… and what about you… isn’t shyam ji trying to frame you? i know he came to happy ji’s shop and asked him to paint his white suv black… i wanted to tell you that… but you… you… and what if he… what if he decided to …” she struggled for words…
(you can’t do this… you can’t just end a conversation when you wish… and who are you to marry me because i may be in danger??… i can take care of myself!! do you understand! huh you’ve come to save me!… and what about you… isn’t shyam ji trying to frame you? i know he came to happy ji’s shop and asked him to paint his white suv black… i wanted to tell you that… but you… you… and what if he what if he decided to …)
“what, kill me too…?” asr’s voice was husky and low almost loving… he continued to work.
“how can you just act like this? as if nothing is the matter? how can you… be like this?” khushi was livid, she stamped her foot and looked at him with angry eyes, seething, her teeth clenched.
he raised his eyelids and looked up at her, still bent over his papers, his irises glittered for a moment, he said quietly, “i am like this, khushi…”
a silence hung in the air as they gazed at each other.
like this… he is like this… khushi closed her eyes frustrated, the tension of the past few hours making her feel weak. she remembered his voice on the phone that first time he had called… he had made it impossible for her to refuse his offer… again no explanation as to why he wanted her to be in delhi. he had offered her four times what she had asked for… but never ever told her why.
“now stop fretting, go and finish your work, we are just over four months away from the show… there is too much to be done… we can’t afford to mess up now… okay?” he put a hand on her shoulder and looked into her eyes…
she stood staring at him, she remembered she had packed some jalebis for him in a box.
“i will drop you off after work… please will you ask jp to see me?” there was a briskness in his voice. he was again arnav singh raizada, the owner of ar talking to an employee… and not the man who kissed her and touched her and made her feel things no one ever had, for whom she wanted to pack jalebis even though she hated him.
khushi turned around and left the room. had she looked back she’d have seen a man standing with the most tender look in his eyes. asr smiled slightly and went back to his designs…
lavanya was sitting with jean pierre when khushi went looking for him. there was a bandage on her thumb and a dressing just below her right knee.
“lavanya ji!” khushi hurried over, “aap theek hain? kareena ji said you were hit by a car…”
“i am fine, khushi, don’t worry…” lavanya said with a smile, “just a little winded… if jp hadn’t come and pulled me away though…”
“ah, no no, ma cherie… eet was nothing… serendipty… zat is all. but i am glad i was there!” jean pierre was sketching on his pad as he spoke, “and my dear khushi, i believe congratulations are in order…”
khushi looked at him blankly, “who has ordered congratulations, jon piye ji?” she could only think of one person who could order such a thing. she made a face.
lavanya laughed slightly at that, then winced as a cracked rib made its presence felt, “ouch!”
“cherie, take it easy,” jean pierre said softly, then to khushi he said, “i meant, congratulations, so very ‘appy to hear about you and ahhnav…”
“ahhnav?? oh…” khushi’s eyes widened as she remembered why she had come to jean pierre’s office, “sorry, i meant to tell you… he’s calling you…”
she left feeling a little happier, there was a nice feeling in the room, jon piye ji was such a lovely man, and she was quite sure now he liked lavanya ji. maybe they would some day… marry?
khushi almost leapt in the air as the word came to her.
“shaadi shaadi shaadi! what is wrong with me, why can’t i think of something else… like… like.. yes…how about fashion… haan, now i will think only about fashion,… not about that other… thing any more… let me go see what salman ji and kareena ji are doing…” determined to deal with the day as normally as possible, she stalked off to meet her young friends.
(marriage marriage marriage!)
she entered their studio and found both the designers deep in work. kareena was matching fabrics while salman was pinning a dress on a mannequin.
“namaste, salman ji, how are you?” khushi said chirpily, “your dress looks very nice… is it a new fashion?”
“hi, khushi, great to see you, what’s up?” salman replied with a big grin.
“what’s up, salman?” kareena piped up, “huh, as if you don’t know… khushi my dear, from your favourite kareena and salman, here’s something for you from your other most favourite salman and kareena… c’mon get up salman… do it… i told you…”
“stop it, kareena… this is really silly…” salman tried to demur but kareena was determined.
she took out her cell phone, punched some buttons and the next thing you knew, the room was flooded with the strains of a song all too familiar to khushi.
teri meri… meri teri… prem kahani hai mushkil…
(your and mine… mine and your… love story is difficult…)
the beautiful duet she so loved from salman ji’s film was playing on kareena’s phone and by now kareena had convinced salman to stand there while she danced and shimmied around him. salman looked at khushi with a resigned air, clearly his colleague was the leader in this programme.
khushi stared at them astonished, then it struck her that kareena was pulling her leg about her prem kahani. love story… her and arnav ji’s love story.
the moment she made the connection, her breath almost halted. next she felt such a crazy mix of embarrassment, longing, shyness and fear that she quickly turned on her heel and ran out of the room. she went straight to her room and sat their doing her work till asr called and asked her to wind up, they would leave a little early since she had to get ready for nani ji’s visit to bua ji’s house.
while driving back, asr took a turn all of a sudden.
“arnav ji, where are you going?” khushi asked puzzled.
he said nothing, just drove in silence.
“hoonh, another one of his, ‘i am like this’ things i suppose,” khushi thought with a slight angry shake of her head.
soon they were outside a beautiful bungalow and asr parked the suv outside. he came around, helped her down from her seat, then he caught hold of her hand and started walking with long strides toward the gate.
“arnav ji, where are we going?” khushi asked startled, trying to keep up with him.
he said nothing once more… now they were inside and waiting in a large, smartly done up foyer. he kept holding her hand while they sat next to each other on a large plush sofa.
a couple of minutes later, a woman walked in with a huge smile and greeted him, “asr, pleasure to see you! i am so glad you called, i am sure we have just the thing you want…”
she was a plump elderly lady of about fiftyfive khushi guessed, and she looked very stylish in her flowing white palazzo pants, loose white jacket over a pale lilac top, her hair was swept up in a neat chignon, no silver pins, khushi noted. she was very fair skinned with large eyes and a fine sharp nose. her smile, khushi decided, was nice.
“bharathi, good to see you,” asr replied crisply, “this is khushi… my wife to be.”
khushi felt her knees go weak, she clutched his hand desperately for support.
asr turned immediately to her, “you okay? tum theek ho?…”
khushi nodded, eyes wide, still not able to say a thing. wife to be? butterflies in her stomach. a whole park of them fluttering wildly.
“khushi!” bharathi smiled, “charming name, come my dear, see what you like from our selection…”
they were ushered into another room, here there were glass topped display cabinets with comfortable chairs and sofas around them, there were a few people looking at things at the cabinets. a fabulous persian carpet with many patterns and motifs covered the large floor end to end… khushi stole a glance above and saw a massive chandelier hanging from the centre of the ceiling. she gripped arnav ji’s hand as tightly as possible.
where were they and why was arnav ji looking at her like that?
“come,” he said softly and pulled her to one of the cabinets. bharathi went around to the other side and told the young girl standing there, “don’t worry, maia, i’ll take care of them, you go and see what mrs singhania wants over there…”
then she took out a velvet lined tray from a drawer below and placed it on the glass top. khushi could see what was inside now… there were rings… a whole lot of rings, in fact. beautiful dazzling rings. in diamonds, pearls, emeralds… khushi’s eyes widened, her mouth went into its “o” formation. she couldn’t utter a word. this was such wonderful jewellery. why had arnav ji brought her to an exclusive jewellery store? something for the show maybe he needed to buy… yes, that must be it… khushi began to relax.
bharathi took out another tray from yet another tucked away drawer, on it lay a few rings, “asr, i set these aside for you to choose from, i hope khushi likes something, come my dear, take a look, won’t you?”
khushi swallowed hard when she heard that. for her. cautiously, she looked at the tray now, there were six absolutely stunning rings on it. each one had a ruby as the centrepiece. big, beautiful, dark red rubies. khushi swallowed once more.
asr picked up one and looked at it appraisingly, then he put it down. he chose another…
“hmm, what do say, khushi…? will this do?” he asked her.
“do?” she managed to find her voice, “do what?”
he grinned suddenly at her confused response. a flash of dazzling teeth, khushi felt her heart beat quicken.
“i mean, do you like this, would you like to wear it?” he said evenly.
“w… we… wear it?” she had no idea how to handle this whole situation.
“yes, khushi… i would… er… like to buy you a ring…” was there a little hesitation in his voice? khushi looked at him then, her eyes searching his face for a clue. a clue of what she had no idea.
he lifted her hand and picked up the ring he had liked, he held it up to show it to her and raised his eyebrows, asking her what she thought of it.
khushi looked at the ring mesmerised. it was a simple oval ruby set in rose gold with a circle of black stones around it…
“great choice, asr… that’s a two carat burmese blood red ruby, and you know we do not deal in smuggled and unethically mined gems… surrounded by fine black diamonds, set in 18 carat rose gold, the rose tint is patented by us… and let me see, yes, of course, we had it set in paris.”
it all sounded like greek and latin to khushi… all she could see was the red sparkling. fire in the heart of a stone. inadvertently she thought, jwalamukhi…volcano. she almost shivered at the thought.
asr took her silence for assent. he slipped the ring slowly onto the ring finger on her left hand. khushi felt the cool touch of the gold against her skin… her eyes wouldn’t stray from the fire breathing stone.
and next to it, long brown steady fingers, fixing the ring so it sat straight on her finger.
lovely long fingers, slightly calloused, their touch always gave her goosebumps. she could feel them spreading on the back of her long neck now.
“thanks, bharathi, i think khushi likes it… i appreciate your taking the time to choose some for us…” asr said to the lady, khushi could tell he was smiling though she was still too stunned to say anything or look up.
“oh asr, pleasure’s all mine… when you said you wanted a ruby i knew i had just the ring you wanted… everyone buys diamonds, but rubies, asr, you know, they are really precious…” bharathi took out a beautiful box for the ring and handed it to khushi, “congratulations, my dear, wear your ring in good health and happiness, always,” she beamed.
khushi smiled back at her weakly. her knees had almost turned to water, she wondered how she’d walk to the car. and was that huge ruby really sitting on her ring finger? what did bua ji say? the nerve of that finger went straight to the heart… that’s why it was meant for the engagement ring… a ring given to you by someone who loves you… and you love.
khushi looked up at asr, her panic in her eyes.
he seemed utterly cool as he held her hand once more and started walking out with her.
khushi tugged at his hand as they reached the door, “arnav ji!” she whispered urgently, “won’t you pay for the ring… how can we just leave?”
he looked at her, a little amused, and said “pay? do i have to? or maybe it’s too precious and i don’t have the money…”
“what! then we must return it…!!” she went to take the ring off her finger.
instantly his hand came and covered hers, “don”t!” he said sharply and tucking her hand in his walked out to the car.
he drove for a while and then pulled into a lonely stretch of road and stopped. as he had done before, he got out and came around to her side, he opened the door and khushi reached for him even before he had held his arms out.
she held him to her and let her head rest on his shoulder. her heart was racing… there was such an unfamiliar and unexpected weight on her finger… yet in the span of about twenty odd minutes she felt she was quite used to it.
his breath on her nape was warm, he moved so she faced him now, looking into her eyes, he commanded quietly, “kiss me, khushi!”
she felt her heart plunge to her toes at the tone of his voice. holding his gaze, she moved closer and let her lips rest on his, she brushed his lips with hers… a gossamer touch. his hand moved and cupped her breast as if he had every right to do so, she sighed and covered his hand with hers, “arnav ji…” she began.
“shh… not now, ” is all he said as he started kissing her.
there was a hunger in both of them that neither could explain to themselves nor the other. she clung to him and kissed him back pressing against him. he picked up her hand and looked at the ring for a moment and placed kisses on her palm, tender warm kisses. she stroked his cheek lovingly, feeling his stubble scratch her fingers… and bent down to kiss him on his cheeks, his eyes, his forehead. she ran her finger along his widow’s peak, she pecked the scar on his left eyelid; he let her do whatever she pleased. then he gave her one final long lingering kiss on her lips and went back to his seat.
“khushi, di will be coming to your place this evening, i don’t want her to think there’s anything strange about us, this marriage… you understand? i want her not to worry about anything… will you make sure she believes everything is normal… as it should be…?” he spoke almost impersonally as he drove.
khushi wondered if he had given her the ring just to make everything seem “normal… as it should be…” to di and nani ji. for some reason, the thought made her sad.