akash came tripping lightly down the stairs humming a song to himself.
“don’t you love her madly… don’t you need her badly…” he could hold a tune well and in college he was always the one chosen to sing whenever the need arose. shyly pushing back his glasses on his nose he’d sing obligingly, never one to fuss or demand attention.
“don’t you love her waaayyys,” he let his voice lengthen the note enjoying its essence… he did so love payal ji’s ways. all of them, that slow and steady gaze of hers from those dark kohl rimmed eyes, her gentle tender smile, the way she sometimes laughed suddenly, her sweet face lighting up, her straightforward yet always delicate way of saying things, he wanted to put his head down on her lap and look up at her longingly and let her come slowly down and kiss…
“akash bhai!” di’s voice and the poke on his shoulder came simultaneously, completely breaking into his dream moment and wrecking it.
“h..huh! ah! di… yes?” he stuttered trying to recover, nervously he fidgeted with his specs, “kya? what’s the matter?”
(what? what’s the matter?)
“matter? my dear bhai, you are singing… while coming down the stairs, and that too so loudly that i could hear you from the kitchen and came out to see what happened!” anjali was smiling at him with an eyebrow lifted, a cheeky smile on her face, sometimes her gestures and expressions were startlingly like her sibling’s who of course preferred to go about with a grim, almost saturnine, expression, “what’s up, my brother? why so happy shappy? thinking of your wife to be? wait wait… even the engagement isn’t over yet… what will happen then? will you bring on the whole band here? doncha love her madly… yay…” anjali trilled off, teasing her cousin, enjoying the feeling of happiness pervading the home.
akash smiled back at his dear cousin, she looked so innocent and warm in her pale mauve saree, her head tilting to one side and a large grin on her lips. he was an only child who’d longed to have some brothers and sisters of his own and whom anjali had never treated as anything but just that. she was, as far as he was concerned, his sister, his only sister. but right now he was looking most awkward at having been caught in that state.
“what’s wrong, di? are you okay?” the urgent and brusque questions from the other side of the sitting room threw the two cousins off.
“wrong, chhotey?” anjali looked around and saw asr had just come in after his morning run. he was wearing black track pants, a white short sleeved tee clung to his body, now quite drenched, he was rubbing his head and back with his towel, obviously he had poured all the water in his water bottle over his head and face…
“yeah! why are you wailing? what’s up?” he came briskly up to them and peered at his di.
“wailing?” anjali said starting to get upset, “i was singing! you know, doors… the guys you think only you guys like to listen to… huh!”
“huh?” asr looked genuinely shocked… akash looked at di, commiserating. a tense few seconds passed.
suddenly anjali, who was staring at both of them started to laugh, her face crumpling and eyes shining, “you two, huh! terrible… one shouldn’t have brothers… one is sooo in love and singing while he runs happily down the stairs, the other,” she glared at asr, “sooo in love, he has no idea he cannot tell his di that her singing sounds like wailing…” with that she gave a blithe smile to both and wafted off back toward the kitchen, “ginger orange pancakes for breakfast… come down soon! hari prakash ji, aap kahan hain!” she called out.
(hari prakash ji, where are you?)
akash walked off toward the patio to say hello to the family leaving asr alone by the stairs. no one saw his face grow sombre, then dark, almost thunderous. head down and anger gathering in him, he went swiftly up the stairs and straight to his room.
“jiji! jiji… where are you? i need help!” khushi called out, she was at the dressing table frowning in consternation.
payal was in the verandah talking quietly into the phone, she heard her sister and said, “sorry, akash ji, can i call you back in a minute? khushi seems to need something, and it sounds urgent… what? yes, yes… of course… no… please… okay, okay…” she pursed her lips and looked around a little hesitantly.
bedi ji had just drawn up with a bag of fresh imported cauliflowers he had picked up for his favourite neighbour madhumati ji at khan market where he had gone for some work. he saw the look on payal’s face and wondered if all was well.
“theek hai…i am saying it, okay?… yes… i do too… what? oh ho! now i am going,” payal disconnected the call, smiled looking down, made a slightly coy face, and turned to go to the bedroom.
bedi ji’s eyes twinkled. oh young love – everyone in lakshminagar of course knew that madhumati ji’s nieces were both going to marry two handsome rich young men. then he looked at the bright pale cream and green vegetables he had brought for the one who would never ever understand; and seemed a tad forlorn.
the tubby and well meaning mr karan singh bedi had been a neighbour of madhumati ji’s for several years. he was a straightforward and honest man who was a clerk at the school nearby. he was a perfect gentleman, always helpful, and if he had a little flutter in his heart for his statuesque neighbour, he tried not to show it. but every once in a way, he found himself bringing her a little something or the other, just because he wanted to. nothing fancy or obvious. things like agarbatti or good desi ghee if his mother sent any or cauliflower…
“what’s the matter, khushi? why are you so jumpy?” payal asked walking in.
“dekho na, jiji… i can’t decide, should i wear the silver bindi or the purple one? tell me, na!” khushi was still immersed in the tiny little circles on the bindi pack and did not see the look in payal’s eyes.
(see, jiji… i can’t decide…)
“you are mad, khushi,” payal said half indulgently, but just a bit irritated.
khushi looked up immediately, “kya hua, jiji?” she asked catching the irritation in jiji’s voice, then she smiled, “haye, hai re nand kissore!” khushi did a little bua ji like shaking of head, “you were speaking to akash ji on the phone… that’s why! i was thinking… what is she doing for so long out there…”
(what’s the matter, jiji?)
payal looked completely embarrassed now. first akash ji had made her say… things.
now this sanka devi.
khushi jumped in front of payal, nudged her with her shoulder and said, “say, say, what did your prince charming, rajkumar akash singh raizada say?” then she fluttered her lashes and went off, “payal ji… er… er… do you hmm er… sort of… oh akash ji, don’t say that… please…”
payal blushed furiously, picked up a brush and pretended to hit khushi with it, “keep quiet you… what about you… calling me like that, only to ask about a bindi… you think i don’t know why? because your rajkumar is coming to pick you up, and you want to look pretty for him… isn’t that it?”
by now khushi was running around the bed and yelping, “nahiiin, not rajkumar, laad governor…!!” while payal gave chase brandishing the brush.
after last night, there was a light frothy sensation dancing inside khushi, she wanted to quell it, yet she wondered why it felt so good to just let it be. her laad governor, arnav ji, even while she ran, she blushed and felt her cheeks go hot.
garima came into the room and stood laughing helplessly. it felt so good to see both her girls looking so happy. maybe shashi ji was right after all in letting them go out of their sheltered safe life. maybe they were ready. garima couldn’t help it as a sob rose without notice and she felt a tear break free.
next minute, her daughters stood before her, looking concerned.
“amma!” said payal.
“amma! kya hua?” came khushi’s rapid query.
(amma, what’s the matter?)
“kuchh nahin, nothing,” averred garima, patting her daughters on the cheek, “go, get ready!” her girls had grown up, they would soon be leaving home forever. she sighed and looked at them with all the love she felt in her eyes.
khushi flung herself on her mother and gave her a tight hug, “you are the world’s best amma!” she declared.
“hai re nand kissore! have you seen the size of these phool gobi? hain, garima, where are you? shall we make samosa with cauliflower, potato and ajwain today? bedi ji, do come for snacks and tea this evening!” it was bua ji, in high excitement over the out of season cauliflowers… one of her favourite vegetables.
(oh lord nand kissore! have you seen the size of these cauliflowers? garima, where are you? shall we make samosa with cauliflower, potato and oregano today? bedi ji, do come for snacks and tea this evening!)
“bua ji, don’t forget the methi chutney with it, okay!!!” khushi yelled, then the three of them started to laugh… nothing was ever sane at bua ji’s place.
garima enjoyed the feeling of joy seeping into the atmosphere.
shashi ji, who had just returned from his early morning chat with friends at the akhada, the neighbourhood exercise ground, thought bedi ji looked very happy this morning.
“damn!” he spat out under his breath. the knot had gone wrong again.
asr pulled the tie off and narrowed his eyes, glaring at it angrily. what was wrong with it. why would it not knot properly. he flung the fine silk charvet tie on the chair by the wardrobe and looked at his tie hangers for another one.
but his head was throbbing by now, a pounding in his ears.
he wondered how he had let things come to this. di’s smiling face was always something he looked forward to, but what was this about love! they all thought he was in love… in love with kh… he could not take her name in his agitation.
something uncontrollable was rising in his core, it threatened to engulf him. a raw bitterness. he closed his eyes, his body tensed, he struggled to hold onto himself.
no. no. he didn’t want to hear it again.
that gunshot… maa… he was running down that corridor of the huge looming sheesh mahal. where was maa, why this sense of premonition…
he had reached too late. the shehnai at di’s wedding was still playing, blaring…
and there was blood. everywhere… all around maa.
she had shot herself.
asr heard a whimper… who was it? he didn’t realise it was him. everything was a bit fuzzy. he couldn’t make out where pain began… where it ended. it seemed to have no end.
he lurched backward and sat on the chair, his head in his hands.
in just a few moments everything had been over. maa was gone. so was his father.
a ragged breath tore through him. he could feel his ears go hot and something vicious clutch at his stomach.
all because… all because… of something they called love.
he grimaced and a scorching heavy breath gushed through his nostrils, burning his eyes.
asr sat silently for a few minutes. the memories wrapping him, gnawing at his skin, wrenching his heart, his muscles, his wind pipe constricted, he felt his chest muscles tighten, he could barely breathe.
how long… how long before all this was over… over…
he could feel himself beginning to let go… the pain always was unbearable.
but he would not give in. he would fight back. as he always had. from that very night. the one thing that always worked was talking to himself and the other was action. he needed to do both now. right now. he would get the better of this feeling. he had to. there was no choice. he gritted his jaw and sat still a moment longer.
then he got up and walked up to the french windows. he stood there, looking at the pool, at the play of sunlight, at the unreal clarity there while his insides grew muddled and darker with pain shooting through at random, hitting targets all over within.
his father had loved this woman, the “other woman” as they whispered… and she had loved him. it had never occurred to his father that he was no longer free to feel this thing he called love. just not free. but it seemed love had nothing to do with responsibility, duty, correct action… nothing. it was just felt and then it took over your life.
asr had hated the whole idea of this thing.
it finally gave you nothing… nothing but death. the death of beauty, of safety, of happiness. of maa.
he would never feel this he had sworn to himself.
another lash of pain reverberated through him. maa had gone away… forever. he could feel moisture sting his eyes. “no,” he thought, “i am not like him, i will not be like him!”
and then came that whispering fear which he tried never to let loose… and yet it found a way.
what if… what if… he was galat. wrong. just like his father. what if he was like his father. dushyant malik… asr’s lips curled in pain, in derision.
after all he was his son.
he clenched his fists, agony assailing him. his lips were drawn back in a straight line, his head was thrown back slightly as if the jolt of this onslaught was too much to withstand. his breathing was rapid and shallow. an acrid sourness clung to the back of his throat.
and right in the blind bleak blackness behind his closed eyes, he saw her face.
she was smiling at him woozily and waving a strand of fairy lights. she was casting a spell, to make him disappear.
“khushi!” the word came out on a harshly exhaled breath. he tautened and yet he felt himself freeing. he sternly held himself erect, aloof.
no, he was not going to think of her. ever since he had seen her, that day in sheesh mahal, her face so near, the impact of her body still felt in his heart… dark large eyes, filled with surprise, shock, then tears… ever since then, she had never left his mind.
what was this whole thing? why could he not stop himself? he was not going to feel anything. he was not. he had tried to shake off this hold before… tried to forget her. he had not succeeded.
yes, even he could see that.
but it was only a setback. that’s all.
because of his precipitate action, her life was in danger… he would protect her. he would keep her with him, safe. because he was not going to be galat… he was sahi… right. not like his father. no.
but once shyam had been dealt with… then…
he took a long breath and completed his thought… then he would let her go.
there was no place in his life for permanent ties.
a tremor shook his body as a yearning screamed through him. his arms ached to hold her. he wanted to bury his face in her hair and feel her soft breath against his ears, her chest crushed to his. he wanted to stay with her like that for as long as it took… for this riven, torn shredded feeling to go. he wanted her right here, now… khushi.
he grimaced and told himself to go get a tie and this time tie the knot properly.
once he was ready, he walked out and went downstairs, when he saw akash, he said sounding absolutely like his usual self, “do me a favour, akash…”
khushi was still finishing her poori when the doorbell rang. she swallowed too quickly, her coordination disoriented by the instant dhak dhak the bell set off.
arnav ji was here!
she started to drink her water fast. he hated waiting and beside she wanted to see him, even though he was a magar…
“namaste, uncle ji, aunty ji, billo mausi…” at the sound of the voice, khushi’s head shot up, she turned toward the doorway, startled.
it was not arnav ji who stood there looking ready for the day in his smart sharp waistcoat and jacket, hair brushed back and neat, tie perfectly knotted.
no, it was akash ji. also looking ready for work, quite handsome in his pale blue shirt… but it was akash ji.
khushi could feel her heartbeat almost plunge and go really slow. where was he?
“akash ji!” jiji had opened the door and now stood there looking embarrassed, playing with the border of her dupatta.
billo mausi felt a little disappointed, she had waited after breakfast patiently, delaying her bath and beauty regime, just to see if arnav singh raizada again carried khushi in his arms to the car.
garima beamed at her son in law to be, “namaste! come, akash bitwa, have breakfast with us…”
“no, no, aunty ji, thanks, i just wanted to give khushi ji a lift to work… bhai had a meeting so he asked me to…” he let the sentence peter off as everyone turned to see khushi getting very busy collecting her bag, her little lunch box and come rushing over with a wide, bright smile.
“oh akash ji, thank you so much, i am so glad to see you, shall we go? yes?” khushi sounded chirpy. perhaps a little too chirpy.
“yes, yes… why not…” said akash, darting a look at payal who was staring fixedly away…
“achha okay, bye,” he muttered and walked after khushi who had raced ahead.
they had driven for a short while when khushi said, “akash ji, if you don’t mind, i need to go to devi maiyya’s mandir today… will you drop me off there? i will make my own way to the office… it’s on the way, just here, not too far…”
“but, khushi ji, bhai said…” akash was hesitant.
“oh that’s because he didn’t know i had to go to the temple today…” khushi was blase, “it’s very close to the office anyway, nothing will happen, i will find my way… waise bhi, i have always had to find my way through things in life…,” her voice wobbled just a bit.
khushi told herself to be careful… she was not feeling bad, it was just that last hurriedly swallowed poori, nothing else. she didn’t care that he had not come to pick her up. she didn’t care at all. and it was true she had meant to visit the temple today. after all that had happened last night, she wanted to give special prashad at the temple, thank her goddess, take her blessings. the feelings in her were new and overpowering, she needed to feel the touch of devi maiyya on them. she would have asked… she wondered what she would call him and settled on arnav ji… she would have asked arnav ji to take her to the temple. he might have chosen to wait. but she couldn’t make akash ji wait. and she was not too worried about shyam ji, he had no idea she would be coming here… so.
akash was a bit taken aback by her last sentence… what was the matter with khushi ji this morning, he wondered, she was always such a happy, strong girl.
“khushi ji…” akash started.
“khushi!” khushi smiled sunnily at the puzzled akash, “now on you must call me just that, okay? and please just drop me at the temple, please?”
akash nodded and albeit reluctantly, left her at the steps of the devi maiyya mandir.
“don’t take too long… khushi, ” he said, “bhai will get worried.”
he was working at a furious pace… riffling through the logistics of the show. venue, sets, music, choreography, refreshments, media… all the big and small things that go into making a fashion show, apart from the clothes and collections themselves.
“uff asr, i am telling you, don’t rush me like that,” said lavanya.
asr looked tense and his face was taut, he said nothing.
“ahhnav, what do you say to a dance before it all begins… you know something like the volcano rising and a stream of blooms…” jean pierre started saying in a thoughtful tone.
“don’t you think you should have thought of this earlier?!” asr snapped, “jp, i didn’t fly you out here…” he sounded so sharp and harsh, both la and jean pierre looked at him aghast.
la was about to say something but the frenchman checked her with a look. he could see ahhnav was not himself. he had known him long enough to know this was a thorough professional he was working with… something was bothering the owner of ar, his mind had not been on the things they were discussing right through and he did keep checking his watch every five seconds… okay maybe fifteen. he decided to let it pass.
“okay, let’s look at the rest of the things… la, you say your sets guys are good, but…” jean pierre steered the conversation back to work.
asr knew he had crossed the line, he was trying his best to concentrate and get on with work… but his mind kept wandering.
had akash picked her up?
was she alright?
were they here?
he swore under his breath and tried to focus.
but when almost ten more minutes had ticked by and there was no sound from the adjoining room, he couldn’t sit still any more, he got up suddenly, said, “excuse me, guys!” and left the room.
la looked at jean pierre, completely confounded, “what’s with asr?” she shrugged.
her companion raised his eyebrows and made a wry face, his blue eyes glinted, “i will ‘ave to say when it comes to zees, my fabulous language also does not say eet as well as my neighbour’s can… italiano… in one-a word-a, my sweet, zees is… amore!” he paused before the last word and delivered it with much flair, then sat with his hand on his heart.
“what? love? and asr? are you out of your mind, you flaky frenchman?” la laughed out loud.
asr strode into akash’s room without bothering to knock. akash was sitting at his desk, speaking to someone on the phone.
“where the hell is she?” arnav singh raizada practically shouted.
akash looked at asr startled and put the phone down.
“bhai, khushi ji went to the temple, she said she’ll be…” he began.
“she said and you listened?…i shouldn’t have depended on anyone!” asr was sharp, his teeth were clenched, he turned around and left the room.
he whipped out his phone and called khushi’s number.
the phone rang for a while. but no one picked it up.
he tried again. then once more. there was still no reply.
he began to feel a cold steely sensation begin to clutch at his insides. he swallowed hard. his legs were beginning to feel numb… he walked on heavy feet to her room and stepped inside.
it was empty.
she had not reached ar. he tried the phone once more. then again and again. still she didn’t answer.
the all to familiar, light and mellifluous voice at the other end did not say, “haylow…”
he remembered how angry she had sounded the first time he spoke to her on the phone, “dekhiye,” she had said, “aap uss arnav singh raizada se kah dijiyega…”
(see, you tell that arnav singh raizada…)
he could feel his ears going cold, where was she… had shyam…?
his eyes closed tight. the scar above his left eye seems to throb and tighten. he could feel his breath rushing and hitting against the back of his throat.
no… she was okay. she had to be… he started trying to talk to himself. but in which case why wasn’t the girl picking up the phone? ridiculous silly girl, maybe she was talking nonstop to her devi maiyya…
yes, that must be it… he would go and fetch her… but, what if something had happened to her, what if she was not alright. the thought went round and round his mind setting up a strange cruel ditty. not okay. not okay.
he told himself to stop this immediately, there must be some reasonable explanation. she might have set out for the office already.
calm down. he commanded himself. and tried her phone once more.
but he knew she would not pick up. by now a bad feeling was beginning to take grasp of his mind. something had happened, he was sure.
“damn… how could i!” he said softly, to himself. why had he not picked her up himself. why had he thought it was alright to let akash pick her up? why had he run away from his responsibility? why had he let anything stop him from doing what he should have done?
he stared at her desk, her chair, the empty room and a fear started to descend thick and heavy.
he turned to go out… he would go find her… he had to find her.
as he reached the door, it opened wide and khushi stood there.
he couldn’t believe his eyes. he almost stopped breathing.
she was standing there in her bright green and purple churidar, a silver bindi glimmered on her forehead, she looked downcast and in her hand she had a packet of ber with salt and spices sprinkled over.
he stared at her for a second without a word. she stood still gazing at him speechless, her eyes slightly widening at the sight of him in her room.
then he lunged forward and dragged her in by the elbow, slamming the door shut behind him.
khushi started at the noise from the door, she winced as he jerked her in.
eyes heated and scorching bore into her, he scanned her face, he was almost shaking with something… khushi couldn’t fathom why or what.
she looked at him helplessly and said, “k..kya.. what…?”
he started shaking her then, still he hadn’t said a word to her.
“arnav ji, you are hurting me!” she cried out.
“why did you go out alone? tell me WHY? when i told you not to…!!” his teeth were gritted, his face contorted, as he shouted at her hoarsely.
“what if something happened to you? what if…” he was shaking her by the shoulder, a streak of violence flashed across the room, “… you were hurt??!!! what if you were harmed… how would i…?” his voice had started to break and just as she thought he would fling her away, he pulled her into his arms and held her, his arms went all the way around her, drawing her body flush against his, his hands clutched on either side of her waist, fingers digging into her tender skin. and his arms grew tighter yet, they seemed desperate. she could feel him still shaking… he was so angry.
she had been so disappointed when he hadn’t come to fetch her, her heart was heavy, she could sense something was not right… she had perhaps known he would be angry if he heard she had gone alone to the temple. had she wanted to make him worry? she had no idea…
but she was completely thrown by the violence of his reaction and, paradoxically, instead of making her want to soothe him, it fueled a fire in her. she went utterly still in his arms. his arms pulled her even closer, she could feel the buttons of his waist coat against her chest, their hard rims pressing in. she could hear his ragged breath. his jacket was smooth and cool against her cheek. she felt her anger soar.
the room went quiet.
a few seconds went by. then she heaved back with all her strength and pushed him away. he was too unprepared to retaliate. they were face to face, breaths rushing, eyes blazed… for a timeless spin of the earth and the skies and all that is perhaps the universe they just stood there looking at each other. adversaries in an unseen arena, locked in a heartbeat forever.
“you didn’t bother to come to get me… even if something bad had happened to me, aapko kya faraq padta?” she asked in a strident tone then. she had needed to see him that morning… and he always was there, even last night, he had come…
(you didn’t bother to come to get me… even if something bad had happened to me, what difference would it have made to you?)
he looked at her, his face growing more furious, his eyes incredulous and enraged, “mujhe kya faraq padta? MUJHE? of course, mujhe faraq padta, dammit!” he didn’t bother to keep his voice down. it blasted and flew all around. khushi started.
(what difference would it have made to me? ME? of course, it would’ve made a difference, dammit!)
but she held her ground, “kyun? kyun faraq padta hai?” she had no idea why she was asking him this… why she goaded him. all she could feel was an undeniable, uncanny tension in her. everything was shivering and wanting and yearning… but for what she had no idea. she had to push him, that was all.
(why? why does it make a difference?)
he took a threatening step forward, “kyonki…” his tired, riven voice wanted to continue but it was halted by a dreadfully beautiful vision… she was holding a strand of blue and white fairy lights and smiling at him, a little silly soft grin, she wore her simple pale cream salwar, her night suit, her hair was tied in a casual bun, errant silken tresses escaped the tie and floated about, bangs fell forward on her forehead, her eyes were so soft, playful. then she tickled his ear lobe with the light and held her face up to him. all he wanted to do was cradle her and give her a tender sweet long endless kiss… a kiss that whispered… forever.
arnav singh raizada stood speechless before his angry adversary, her shining hazel eyes had a question in them. a question he could not answer. he looked down, guarding his thoughts.
he turned away slowly and said in a voice gone flat and cold, “you are right, doesn’t make a difference, koi faraq nahin padta.”
khushi felt herself go empty… a wind howled through barren land, or was it over the sands of a beach by a beautiful sea.
she reached blindly for her ring finger and grabbed the ring with its sparkling carmine stone. why did it feel so cool? she felt she was ebbing… she started struggling to take it off…
“in which case, take this…!” she was sniffing and breathing wretchedly as she spoke, her fingers still trying to pull the ring off.
he looked back over his shoulder when he heard her voice, then he whirled around and went and caught hold of her hands. “stop it, khushi!” he said in a thick guttural voice, his eyes gazing at her face with dense emotion, agonising and unending. her eyes were filled with hurt and pain, her breath trembled and cut through her. she couldn’t carry on, she simply stopped.
asr turned around and walked out of the room.
khushi sat down, spent, on her chair and let the tears come.
arnav singh raizada went back to his room and sat on his black leather chair. his face looked etched in stone. his eyes were blank.
then his lips trembled ever so slightly.
he knew his heart said a name.