tendidos en la yerba
una muchacha y un muchacho.
comen naranjas, cambian besos
como las olas cambian sus espumas.
stretched out on the grass,
a boy and a girl.
savouring their oranges,
giving their kisses like waves exchanging foam.
~~~ octavio paz, los novios – a boy and a girl ~~~
“khushi, help me no… i want to bake a cake for asr… you know i have been going for these baking classes and learning all those eggless recipes…” lavanya whined, she sounded tense.
khushi was teaching lavanya the basics of chikan stitching. it had been almost three weeks since anjali had persuaded khushi to return to shantivan to help lavanya learn the ways of their family. when khushi had refused point blank, anjali had used blackmail, both financial and emotional, to persuade her.
she had reminded khushi that she had walked out on a contract with ar which required her to pay a lakh of rupees to the company. when khushi had looked very troubled but still unrelenting, anjali had pleaded with her… chhotey had at last found a girl that he might be willing to settle down with. nani ji disliked lavanya’s attitude, her way of dressing, her complete ignorance of traditions and custom but she, anjali, knew la was not a bad sort and once she learned these few things and how to live with them, nani ji would accept her. this was the only chance the whole family had of getting chhotey married… it would make nani ji so happy… it would finally clear the way for akash to marry… it would mean anjali could at last look forward to her only brother having a life partner, children…
would she, khushi, deprive an entire family of a chance for happiness just because she did not like one person?
khushi had not been able to say no, exactly as anjali had thought.
and so it was that lavanya and khushi were having this conversation out by the poolside that afternoon.
khushi passed the needle over to the other side of the pattern and picked a tiny delicate stitch, “see, lavanya ji, this is how you create the shadow effect, it’s a very important stitch in chikankari…”
“khushi!!!” la was upset, “you aren’t listening to me! i said i want to bake a cake for asr, and i can’t decide how to decorate it, help me please, khushi… stop this chicken curry for a second… i can’t put flowers in blue and pink for him, can i?”
khushi burst out laughing. her laughter filled the swimming pool deck and floated into the stark, spare room abutting. asr’s room. he had just walked in to get a file.
he scowled darkly as he heard the laughter.
that crazy girl, di had insisted on bringing her back. why was she laughing! just for di’s sake… asr’s nostrils flared, he gritted his teeth.
“why are you laughing?” lavanya asked, annoyed.
“par, lavanya ji, aap ke asr kitne khoobsurat dikhenge, gulabi aur neele phool mein… imagine, pink roses in his hair,” khushi started to snort uncontrollably as a giggling fit overtook her again.
(but, lavanya ji, how beautiful your asr will look in pink and blue flowers… imagine, pink roses in his hair.)
khushi could almost see the scowling, khadoos laad governor face with its hard unyielding look, a pink rose tied with blue ribbons tucked in his hair, just above the ear. she laughed out again.
he heard the words and wanted to hurl something at that girl. he almost went out to the poolside to give her a piece of his mind.
“stop it, khushi! now tell me, seriously…” lavanya was focused on her task.
“okay okay, sorry… how about a laptop on the cake then!” khushi said.
lavanya shot her a deadly glare.
“no no, lavanya ji, i am serious, a black and white laptop on a grey and brown cake, and you can put a ribbon all around, dark blue, phir ussko tie ki tarah bandh dijiye… he loves ties and those colours, he will like it… promise…” khushi sounded so serious lavanya almost believed her. then she saw khushi’s eyes dancing with mirth and a fair dose of mischief.
(… a ribbon all around, dark blue, then knot it like a tie… he loves ties…)
inside the room, asr had also been listening intently to that lovely poised voice… she sounded so serious and sincere. yeah, he did have a thing for his laptop, and those were his favourite colours… and anything was better than flowers… maybe it wasn’t such a bad…
what the. he growled in his throat and he stopped his thoughts short. he was actually getting taken in by this ridiculous, stoopid girl. and how come she knew what he liked and didn’t like. anyway, who cared. he stalked out of the room.
a grin began to appear on his lips. it went all the way to a full lopsided smile.
asr breathed in deeply, his eyes twinkled.
pratap malik looked at his nephew and felt an old rage returning. that damned cool, that smile. he wanted to break it, he wanted to end it.
“saaley saab, looks like you are not feeling well…” shyam said staring at asr, utterly perplexed by that smile.
asr said nothing, he was still thinking of her voice saying he would look great in pink and blue flowers… bet she even imagined me wearing them, he thought. khushi, paagal ladki, do you even know how much i love you?
“stop smiling, arnow!” chacha ji said sharply, “i hate that smile on your face…”
asr was surprised by a note in chacha ji’s voice.
“now that you are finally here, and despite my esteemed lawyer, shyam manohar jha’s bungling…”
shyam’s lips twitched at that, then his nose. asr watched the two men keenly. an act was about to begin he sensed… chacha ji was ready to speak. he would listen. khushi would be fine, he’d make sure of that, but something told him he ought to listen to the rambling of his gloating uncle.
“now listen to me… do you know why i wanted to bring you here, arnow? to this ancient sprawling… sheesh…mahal, the bastion of the maliks?” he sniggered in an effeminate way as he said the bombastic words, then looked at arnav singh raizada and asked, “… have you even asked yourself that?”
chacha ji’s face was slightly contorted as though gripped by something unseen, “you walked in that day after almost twelve years and took back… tricked me into taking back… what you think is yours… sheeshmahal… arnav singh raizada ka nishana kabhi nahin choogta… hah! isn’t that what you said!” chacha ji sneered.
(arnav singh raizada never misses his mark, isn’t that what you said!)
“your nishana…” the older man laughed again, his paan stained teeth and lips ghastly against that hollow sound.
“the whole nishana of life itself was wrong!” his voice rose almost to a hysterical pitch, “your father… the wonderful first son, first born of the malik family… exceedingly handsome, sharp as a tack, fabulous shot, apple of my mother’s eye… the perfect one. oh the girls loved him, and how… and pata hai, arnow???” chacha ji paused and sneered, an iciness clutched at asr’s heart, he was looking at a face that had lost all humanity, all emotion.
“i loved him too…!!!” chacha ji continued, “yes that was the funny thing, though i was not my mother’s favourite bada beta, i was too young when my father died and perhaps he had not even formed an opinion of me… even then, i loved dushyant bhai, he was my hero… i ran after him, reveling in the slightest attention he paid me, watching him charm everyone, the only man i could look up to… i tried not to let it bother me that my mother never seemed to notice me, it was always about him, it was always about her bada beta dushyant!” chacha ji paused again, asr watched quietly, he realised something he had never even thought of all these years.
“you hated him, didn’t you…” asr said quietly, it was neither a question nor an exclamation, just a simple statement. he knew what he said was accurate.
chacha ji looked at asr silently for a few seconds. shyam’s eyes were on chacha ji, as though waiting for the story to continue. asr sat implacable, eyes narrowed as he gazed at his uncle.
“yes, ultimately, i hated him… nafrat karne laga main tumhare pita ji ko… do you know why, arnow?… because of you. you. because you came along… that finished me off… DO YOU UNDERSTAND? finished me! i could never give the maliks a waris, an heir… yes, my nephew, i was a young teenager when i found out that i… smart, strong, hard working, intelligent as i was, i who had never held anything against your father or my mother for all the pathetic treatment given to me, i was not capable of… i was not capable of…”
“what, malik saab? what were you not capable of?” shyam prompted, a curious urgency in his voice.
“of having children… of impregnating a woman, i had no seed… none… nothing… i was impotent… napoongsak!!! namard!” pratap malik was breathing heavily, the effort of saying what he had just said was evident, and the crazed emotions that came in hurtling with it.
“have you ever heard of anything FUNNIER? i hated your father from that moment on… maybe in my heart i had hoped some day i would get a bit of respect in this house…” a diabolic curl of the lips marred chacha ji’s face as he looked around at the walls of the room, “give my mother her bada pota… the all important first grandson… but no. i was not capable of doing even that. but i am a fighter, arnow, and do you know something…” pratap malik laughed,
“you get that trait from me… ajeeb, hai na? yes, me… because your father was weak… terribly weak of nature, of character. pampered, feted, held high as the best, but soft and pudgy inside. only i knew that… because you see i loved him so much and never left his side… kyun, arnow, quite a story, isn’t it? only that it ruined my life.”
there was a dark silence in the room. for a while no one spoke.
“i decided i would not let your father have an heir, i would make sure he never could do that. weak as he was, soft… he loved alcohol, women and flattery. i started to make sure he got plenty of all three. i introduced him to attractive girls, oh you’d be surprised how many girls in lucknow even back then were willing to let a rich handsome man have a bit of fun with them if they felt this might end up in a permanent tie… i even got him prostitutes… once he was high everything was easy… but then… your father went to delhi for a short stay to sort some property matters… my dear mother gave him the address of your grandmother who used to be her friend when they were young. your father met your mother and fell in love. oh i don’t blame him, your mother was lovely…”
asr felt a blow to his body almost at the mention of his mother by this horrific man before him. maa… he closed his eyes.
“so he married her, and even managed to be more or less faithful for a year or so… but he drank, oh how he loved his alcohol… i would get smuggled whiskies for him, black label, blue label, chivas regal… then your mother was pregnant,” pratap malik laughed derisively,
“the bada beta who could have children!!! thankfully it was a girl… and you know that period of nine months? the perfect time to get him back to girls… i was your father’s procurer practically… he was wasting away slowly, i was sure he would be in no state to control anything when our mother finally died and i would really be the one to run the estate, practically own it… in fact, i was doing all the work for the estate anyway… my mother even was showing just a little bit of interest in me… and in the middle of all that… you… you had to be born…”
chacha ji sprang up from his chair suddenly, “i was never a bad person. i never wanted to destroy anyone or anything… i tried… but you had to come… the eldest grandson, the heir… i would not let you win! took me a while to think it all through… almost fourteen years really… because i was not really a base man… but then your sister was going to get married, and the thought of the next generation that brought along… it killed me… so i sat down and thought.” pratap malik shook his head remembering, “arnow, just like me, you are… you think. not like your father, who always acted. no thought. none. i remembered my esteemed elder brother had another weakness. gussa. his anger, uncontrollable anger. once he was angry, he might do anything, and everybody, every single person all around, knew that.”
asr knew they had come to a terrible place in his uncle’s maniacal narration. suddenly he didn’t want to hear any more. he opened his eyes and stood up.
“ok, enough!… i don’t care who or what my father was… nor you, chacha ji. both of you are rotten, and no… he did not need you to get him girls, he could do that himself, so stop flattering yourself. you worked on his weakness to get your mother to love you… well looks like that didn’t really work out, so no chacha ji i get nothing from you. my plans work. your sordid tale is just that… let’s talk business, shall we? let’s do the deal. you want sheesh mahal back, right? okay, take it, but first i want to see khushi here. in front of my eyes, unhurt.”
both men stared at him open mouthed. asr sounded precise and in control. he looked steadily at the two men with completely expressionless eyes. shyam twitched and felt a riff of uneasiness.
the man snatched the phone from khushi’s hand and walked out of the door. before she could say anything, the door had been shut and latched from the outside again.
i love you, he had said. and he had said her name, khushi!… in the way only he did. it always sent a tremor through her. it touched her deep inside, it made her feel alive, and so so precious.
khushi. she felt herself relax a little as arnav ji’s voice played in her head again. the darkness all around felt a little lighter.
she was not going to sit here and let these people do whatever they pleased.
she ran to the door and started banging.
“help! help!!! open the door… maine kaha, darwaza kholiye… kholiye darwaza!!” she shouted as she hit the door with all her might.
(help! help!!! open the door… i said open the door… open it!)
she had no idea how long she had been doing that when she heard a noise at the door all of a sudden. the next instant, the door opened…
khushi couldn’t believe her eyes but she knew there was no time to waste, she ran out of the door, instantly she was pulled back by someone, a hand on her elbow jerked her into the room…
she heard a harsh, “shhh!”
the face of her detainer wasn’t clearly visible in the dark, yet she seemed to know him, he was familiar, who was…?
“aap dheeraj rakhiye, bitiya, chhotey baba yahin kahin hai, hum unhen dhoond nikalenge…” khushi’s eyes widened as she heard the words. it was rahim chacha.
(stay calm, bitiya, chhotey baba is somewhere here, we’ll find him…)
she turned to look at him… in the muted light all she could see was the outline of his beard, and a glinting pair of eyes… they burned with a fierce light.
“so you don’t want to hear my… sordid tale, is it, arnow?” pratap malik was angry now.
asr didn’t move a muscle… he waited.
“maybe then you’d like to hear something about your beloved… khushi?!!” chacha ji threw at him. he wanted to scream and tell this lowdown man not to take his wife’s name, not to mention his mother, but he knew he had to stay alert, these two men would stop at nothing to get what they wanted.
“or should i say your wife’s mother… the beautiful lajwanti… did you know i found her one evening by that chiriya mandir… stupid women go and pray there for so many things, as if feeding pigeons will get you what you want in life. it was raining… she stood there completely drenched… i said to her i’d give her a lift. she was lovely, i knew your father would not be able to control himself… she came with me thinking my wife was at home… how was that gullible woman to know i had no wife… and when she met your father, he never told her he was married, but naturally… so she thought he was single… isn’t that funny? ”
asr could again feel an acrid foul thing rising in him. khushi’s mother? what was this man saying? he looked at shyam to see if shyam was aware of this, one look at the smarmy grin on his face and asr was certain he did.
a game. these two were playing some sort of game here… and they clearly thought they had all the aces. maybe they did, but arnav knew no matter what they had, this time he would win.
no more death and destruction here. this time he would not leave sheesh mahal defeated.
he pursed his lips aggressively.
“it was she, arnow, your darling khushi’s mother because of whom your mother and father committed… suicide… she was the woman that night who came and met your father…” chacha ji paused for effect.
asr felt thoughts rushing through his head… what was going on? khushi’s mother? but what about garima ji, hadn’t dadi accused her? and she had said… she was the other woman in his father’s life…
“the suicide… how i loved setting it up…” chacha ji smiled almost gentle and in reminiscent mood, “you see, arnow, i have a fine sense of drama, your father liked western classical music, i liked western drama… the greeks… shakespeare, synge, marlowe… dr faustus, have you read faustus?… oh your generation… you read nothing! i decided it had to be the night of the wedding… i decided lajwanti would be the girl… you see there were many women i could have called to get the job done… but a certain pleasure in getting the one who thought…” chacha ji’s voice went icy, “she got away…” he smiled a weird filthy smile,
“yeah, lajwanti had come one afternoon to meet your father here, your mother had gone to delhi… the perfect time to take the innocent friendship to its next step i felt, she came looking lovely in pink, why is it that girls always love that stupid colour… i met her at the entrance and took her to the room at the back… that way no one would know a thing, your dadi ji, my lovely mother, never found out about the girls that came to meet her bada beta… oh it is astonishing how much can go on in a large sprawling mansion with no one aware of a thing… hai na, shyam?”
shyam loooked at pratap malik and nodded in agreement.
“what all goes on… anyway, i took her to the room and sent your by then lurching drunk father there… i had done this many times before. he was like a pavlovian dog, my dear dushyant bhai… whenever i told him that the room was ready, he knew he’d find a nubile woman there… a woman he could have a bit of fun with, sometimes his affair lasted a few months, sometimes days… i don’t think your mother was much fun in bed -”
asr’s hand moved before his brain could even command it to. pratap malik reeled back and fell on the chair with the force of the strike on his cheek. asr loomed over him, a hand on his collar, the other at his throat.
“meri maa ka naam apni zubaan pe dobara mat laiyega, chacha ji…” asr whispered through clenched teeth, face thrust into the older man’s.
(don’t bring my mother’s name to your lips, chacha ji.)
“warna?” chacha ji squeaked as his throat constricted.
“there is no or else…i will kill you,” asr said it simply, and there was no doubt he meant it.
pratap malik looked at his nephew for a long moment, his breath almost cut off by the grip on his throat.
then he sputtered with a mad glint in his eye,
“you are like me, after all, arnow. that is exactly what i did. i killed your parents.”
the whole room spun as asr stood gazing into the older man’s eyes. his hand let go of his uncle’s throat.
a boy of fourteen was running down a corridor. the shehnai played loud and insistent, di was looking so lovely, guests everywhere. he knew something terrible was about to happen. he raced up the stairs, he could hear voices raised. maa was not sounding good, she was breathless, screaming. his father roared and then he pleaded… “no! no! it isn’t as you think it is… there is nothing, nothing between us… i don’t even know her…”
his mother was hysterical, “how could you… how could you…” she cried, “how could you bring that woman here on your daughter’s wedding day… don’t you respect anything…?”
“i’m telling you, ratna…” his father’s anger was rising.
he could see them through the gap in the door as he reached the upper floor…
then maa was pushing pita ji and he reeled back with her. they were out of sight, inside the room.
arnav stood there helpless not knowing what to do… he wanted to go in, but maa would not like that… she always shielded him and di from these fights.
“what are you doing, ratna? stop it! stop it!” pita ji was saying, he could hear them struggling.
should he call…
and he heard the shots.
were chacha ji and pita ji shooting stool pigeons in the middle of the wedding, he thought for an incredulous moment.
but that was not possible, pita ji was here.
he ran into the room then. and there lay his mother. his father. the gun. blood everywhere.
he felt his very breath leave his body.
suicide. they had said maa had killed herself. and pita ji had then committed suicide too. everything ended. everything.
asr looked at his uncle’s leering face.
he felt he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think… couldn’t live.
in a flash the memory came back… the lady was running down the verandah…
“khushi’s mother got away that afternoon,” he said in a flat voice.
“yes, someone opened the door of that room and she disappeared before your father could manage to… you know…” pratap malik sounded almost meditative, a calm in his voice, “but once i knew i had to finish your parents off, i decided she was perfect for the job. she was lovely enough for my brother’s wife to get fooled, plus she had not listened to me when i called her after that afternoon, trying to get her back here. she said she knew i had locked the door from the outside, that dushyant couldn’t have done that… she had insulted me, in fact. well, she was perfect for the job. it was simple. i told her to come and meet your father for a few minutes that evening of the wedding. i said she need not worry, there would be no assault on her modesty… modesty, huh… she refused.
“but you didn’t stop at that, did you, chacha ji?” she heard him say in a tired blank voice.
i said i had photographs that her husband may find interesting. of course, i was lying. but women like her never doubt such things, so scared they are of society and what people say… she came that evening, her head covered trying not to be seen, i ushered her to the room at the back… yes, yes, that same room… she had to know she could not get away. i told your father to go there, it was his daughter’s wedding, dushyant malik was of course nice and high. after he left i told my sister in law that her husband was looking for her and he had gone that way. did you know, arnow, just to make sure that the plan didn’t fail, i gave your mother just a wee bit of intoxicants in her tea? she had eaten nothing the whole day, fasting for anjali bitiya’s wedding… the drug worked like magic, your mother too was not a hundred percent in control of herself. she walked in and saw lajwanti and your father… she shouted at your father, turned around and left the room furious, running down the verandah, past the astounded guests… your father followed… he loved anjali you see, and he did not want anything to go wrong at the wedding… what would people say!!! they went up to their drawing room upstairs… i walked up the staircase at the back and waited by the window opening onto the verandah… you know which one, right?”
pratap malik was actually grinning at the memory, he needed everyone to know how clever he had been.
asr heard quietly, breathing was getting more and more difficult. but he knew he had to hear. till the end. the end of everything.
“when she pushed him away from the door and i knew no one could see them, i shot them, threw the gun next to them and walked away. i knew enough people in the police to make sure this was going to be recorded as a suicide, nothing else. and no one questioned after a point, because people had seen them arguing and rushing up to the room. everyone knew how impulsive your father was when angry and upset and oh poor ratna ji to be faced with her husband’s mistress on her daughter’s wedding day… everyone thought they understood exactly how the double suicide happened. best of all, you, my dear arnow, had actually heard them quarrel!” chacha ji settled more comfortably into his sofa.
“but you didn’t stop at that, did you, chacha ji?” asr asked hoarsely, as he suddenly understood things in a way he never had. the lady in pink… khushi’s mother…
“shatir ho, arnow… no, i try to do things with a certain finesse, after all i am a malik… the next day as lajwanti and her husband left home in their car, they were followed by my men and at a nice bend in the road they had an accident. it was really simple. i couldn’t leave her alive to blab to anyone, you never can trust women…”
asr took a long deep breath and felt a crazy wild pain coursing through him.
khushi’s parents had died because of his uncle, his father, his family.
khushi stood outside the room hearing pratap malik’s words.
she heard her mother was here in this house, locked up in a room… that for some reason she had agreed to come here one afternoon… and she had run out because someone had helped her… and later she had returned, this man had given her no choice… and because of her mother, arnav ji’s parents fought, then this man who was talking, took advantage of that situation and shot his parents.
two gunshots… arnav ji’s nightmare ran around the dark corridors, khushi shuddered and closed her eyes.
she almost fainted when she heard the noxious words wafting out of the room, rahim chacha had left her here and told her to stay put, he was going to get something done. hey devi maiyya, what sort of night have you allowed to descend on us, she wondered.
then she folded her hands and prayed, “hey devi maiyya, raksha karna!”
that’s when she heard arnav ji’s voice for the first time.
“but you didn’t stop at that, did you, chacha ji?” she heard him say in a tired blank voice. she could feel him suffering… so much. she knew she would not wait for rahim chacha, she would go to him.
that’s when again the man, his chacha ji, started talking… and khushi finally knew, no… it had not been an accident.
she remembered the bright headlights, the big truck coming at them, her mother screaming and then darkness.
amma had come to the hospital with babu ji, khushi still clearly remembered… it was an accident, now her amma and babu ji had gone to heaven… but she would be fine, masi loved her so much… so much. she could still feel her aunt’s arms around her rocking her gently. she could hear masi’s heartbeat… it was an accident, but everything would be alright.
but it hadn’t been an accident.
tears came from the furthest corners of her being and gathered behind her eyes.
arnav ji, what have you and i done… that this should be what we will have to live with forever. we both lost our parents once, but look at this man, he made us lose them again.
he was almost caving in, the truth stared at him dark and unforgiving. four people lay dead in it. khushi’s beautiful wide innocent hazel eyes was all he could think of.
you never had a chance in all of this, did you, maa? how would you even know such evil existed? there was not the slightest evil in you… even if you saw it, how would you recognise it. and you did love him, pita ji… so much.
he took a ragged breath… and that’s when he felt it. the merest gust of wind, it seemed to lift the light day curtain a little.
khushi was here somewhere. he was certain.