but i love your feet
only because they walked
upon the earth and upon
the wind and upon the waters,
until they found me.
~~~ pablo neruda ~~~
darkness enveloped the the long narrow tunnel like corridor ahead… flapping of wings as asr held his wife’s hand and ran down into the blackness in front, pigeons flying out of nooks and crannies, disturbed again tonight.
there was no time to lose. he figured shyam’s men would be lurking somewhere and at some point would be set after them. in fact, by now they must have figured out khushi had escaped and were making their way to the room where he had left shyam and pratap malik in mortal confrontation.
they had to get out of here fast. he could hear khushi’s breath, heaving and rapid, as she tried to keep pace with his long fleet stride. she would be fine, she never balked at anything, he gripped her hand even harder and kept running. a couple more turns and they would be out he knew.
the cry rose in his chest cavity somewhere from below, maybe his abdomen, or his gut, shooting through his diaphragm, filling his lungs, constricting his wind pipe even as he started running. the shehnai played, its mournful wail meeting the evening air, mingling into an incoherent cry of what? was it pain? was it joy? was it farewell? why were people not standing aside, he needed to get there fast.
where but… where… he ran not knowing, down the corridors brightly lit and decorated for di’s wedding. the only daughter of the malik family, subhadra and viren malik’s first grandchild, the wealthy and illustrious dynasty all out to show its significance and status through a massive, splurging, splendid wedding. people had gathered from every corner of the country and even abroad, gold and diamond and song and laughter glittered in every bend and curve and chandeliered space, a heightened slightly brittle sense of happiness all around. the lights were so dazzling, on trees and shrubs and pillars and gates, all along the corridor.
what was that sound?
and why did the shehnai cry?
he kept running… he had to reach…
she was there somewhere. she was in danger… she needed him…
his ears were blocking out the noise now, stored in it just one sound… he had to stop it.
the pillars began to shift. was that maa there in the bright gold saree she had worn for the wedding? and was that a bullet coming toward him, where was it headed? were chacha ji and pita ji shooting clay pigeons…? but the pigeons were not made of clay, they were flying all around. who was behind the pillar there, her gota edged lehanga bottom floating and flaring as she lifted her skirt a little and began to run? who was that? she turned back to look at him once, large hazel eyes fear and terror in them… the pillars kept closing in… he had to reach…
the gunshots rang. once. twice.
he knew he had to turn back.
he could not walk away, not this time.
without a word or pause, asr whirled around, still holding his wife’s hand firmly, and started running back to where they had come from.
khushi felt the tug and the sudden disorientation as direction changed, she didn’t know why and for what her husband had decided what he had, she went with him for that was what she would do every time. no matter how many times it might be.
from the age of eight she had known she had no one really who was completely hers. viscerally, by gut and the pulse of life attached to her. she loved her amma, her babu ji, her jiji, and she knew they loved her as their own… she knew there was nothing false or less in that love… it was deep in her heart and theirs. it had nurtured and nourished her, allowed her to live.
yet, little khushi had been torn in a way not easy to put into words, that day when a huge something came like a wild animal at the car, and even in broad daylight all went black. dark. breathless. still.
something snapped within her and tucked away, quietly bleeding where no one could see. more so because she had in her nature an inherent light, it shone through, she grew up smiling, trusting, believing, loving. her devi maiyya actually spoke to her, as did her stars whom she believed to be her parents, always shining for her. upon her.
but there remained that little snapped bit inside.
till this man who was running back toward danger came, and hurt her, yelled at her, doubted her, shouted and berated and threw her into complete disarray, shook her from deep within, questioned every belief every certainty of hers… then dragged her into his arms and seemed to reach right inside through all the pain he gave to that snapped place and tied something there. a simple tie. and in it she felt the touch of hamesha.
always, forever… he became hers and she his.
they belonged. and that was all there was to it. she never really knew how to give this thing a name. nor asked herself why it was so… perhaps years of talking to stars and an idol made of mud had grown in her an ability to perceive things from another place in her, not necessarily always from her five senses. she just felt and accepted what seemed to be true. an absolute truth…
she knew now that if he was running back to that terrible heart numbing place, he had a reason for it. arnav ji, i love you, said her heart.
he reached the room and barged right in, pushing khushi behind his back.
to his surprise it was not his uncle but shyam who lay on the floor, blood all around, he was struggling and trying to get back up.
a fury filled the air, a rage ancient and wild. its heat emanated and a sense of red came into the room… thick, dark, coursing.
pratap malik towered over him, a small gun in his hand. two burly men stood behind him, as pratap malik spoke.
khushi heard his last few words, “… she was just trash, i gave her to my friends… so whose son are you, you filthy scum?”
asr didn’t wait for anything, he walked right up, caught the older man by his collar and jerked him around to face him. shocked by the sudden turn of events, the man’s jaw seemed to drop, and taking advantage of the confused moment, asr let his fist fly and hit him hard on his mouth and chin, then one just below his chin, hooking up.
the men standing by reacted with force, trying to fall upon asr and drag him off. faster than you could think, arms and legs moved, and the two men were on the floor, winded.
a fury filled the air, a rage ancient and wild. its heat emanated and a sense of red came into the room… thick, dark, coursing.
asr turned to his uncle and started punching him. hard, fast, unrelenting. he said not a single word. his jaw had tightened, hard and jutting. his hair fell forward over a fierce forehead, his teeth were clenched, his lips thin and taut slightly apart, his breath gushed out in angry hisses, his eyes had a fixed, intense stare, an atavistic glint in them, gathered from some faraway forest where the light was first born. his body was tense and swift.
khushi stood looking, eyes growing more deeply hazel, she could feel a vital old feeling in her, throbbing in that place where a memory stayed of the day that had suddenly turned black. she couldn’t breathe almost. she wanted to stop her husband to protect him, and yet, no, tonight she knew she wouldn’t. he needed this… maybe she did too.
shyam tried to get up and fell back again, his arms flailed trying to reach the gun that had fallen from pratap malik’s hand by then. khushi saw the movement and stepped toward him, picking up the gun in her hand.
another strange emotion assailed her, she looked at shyam lying there.
the gun felt hard and brutal against her palm. she knew what she could do right now. there lay the man who had done unthinkable things to her, to her family, to her arnav ji. her skin crawled as in a flash she recalled him clutching her on a terrace one night, his breath hot and lascivious. disgusting. she remembered the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach as she was forced into wearing a ring by him once, into even letting her mind go to something as sacred as marriage with his name in the thought. no. she had actually never done that. ever.
even while she wore his ring, there was only one name that meant anything to her. that had been tied to her in a simple tie. even though he only hurt her. even though he didn’t believe in marriage and in ties. arnav ji.
“khushi ji, aap… aap humey maar nahin sakti… yeh paap hai…” shyam’s voice whispered hoarsely.
(khushi ji, you can’t kill me… it is a sin…)
khushi looked at him silently.
“look. look at that man there… he is the one you want… you know what he did to your mother? your family? you know how he tried to trap her, forced her… he killed your parents, khushi ji… if you have to use that weapon, whom should you point it at?” shyam kept on talking, hysterical almost.
khushi realised how cold blooded, almost inhuman, this man was. even in this state, blood pouring out of his shoulder where he had been hit by pratap malik’s bullet, pain etched across his face, sharp frissons of it making him flinch every now and then and whimper, his face scrunched; even in this state, his venom was intact.
maybe something had never grown in him for all that had been his reality from the day he was born, or maybe he was like that for all eternity. in every life.
khushi drew in a long breath and looked at shyam steadily. she would not let him win tonight.
his breath exploding in sharp bursts and the sound of pounding and threshing was all you could hear.
arnav singh raizada took control even as chaos descended and went through his mind. it was a killing… not a siuicide. there was a trap… khushi’s mother was the trap… and then there was more killing.
a woman was running out of the room at the back and rahim chacha was walking so fast. she wore pink… who was she? was she khushi’s mother? he had seen her?
so maa did not pull that trigger, a man waited hidden behind the window and he pulled it. once for his mother. once for his father. killed them.
he smashed his fist into his uncle’s face, his nose, his head. he hit him till his knuckles couldn’t feel anything, he kicked him with the most vicious loathing. he was going to finish it all off here. tonight.
he was not going to let it rise victorious and cloud out all other things. he would punish. he would avenge. he would not let this darkness haunt him again. he would not let maa’s murderer breathe.
asr caught hold of pratap malik’s throat in a vice like grip and started squeezing. he could feel the flesh yield, begin to give way… his breath grew dense and thick.
a heavy hand landed on his shoulder, his head jerked around to look at it. one of the henchman had managed to get up and start attacking again. asr smiled thinly. he lifted pratap malik up by the throat and swung him hitting his assailant and sending him flying, then he walked over and kicked the man while still holding onto his quarry by the throat. the choking sound escaping from his uncle’s bulging lips were oddly delighting.
rage fumed and frothed and bubbled and ricocheted.
enough! cried a mind whose very memory had been usurped by a collusion of envy, greed, and sheer lack of any moral fibre. his uncle, his father… neither deserved anything but contempt.
he squeezed harder. he could see eyes beginning to turn up, the whites showing. he held on tight.
a silence crowded his mind… he was not going back into the darkness again. the light battering him as he ran down the corridor where he didn’t know. maa.
“chhotey! nahin,” he heard her voice and somehow it didn’t feel strange at all. of course di must be here, she must be here while he settled this whole damn thing once and for all.
“chhotey! let him go!…” anjali pulled asr toward herself. when he felt her touch, it hit him suddenly. yes, it was di… and she as here. what was di doing here? he turned around and looked at his sister, she stood there, tears streaming down her face, holding his arm, sobbing. he could see there were people behind her, men in uniform… the police… di must have spoken to them… how did she know…
anjali looked at him waiting for him to respond to her. he stared at this woman he had loved all his life, he would defend her with his life, she had been there when everything was gone. di hobbling, always there. di leaving the room and this man coming out behind her with a funny look on his face. di dressed as a beautiful bride and shehnai playing. that night the gunshots had come to this house. their home, sheeshmahal.
no di, his eyes said, maa did not kill herself.
no di, his trembling hand said, we will not let it win.
“di!” he said at last, his voice ravaged and let go of his uncle, his arms held her tight… they sank to the floor together. two siblings, children of the same mother, coming into being within her and loving her from the same place in them, tied together forever by her.
they held each other and cried.
the police walked in briskly and hand cuffed the four men.
khushi watched as her parents’ killer was dragged away still choking and spluttering. she felt the gun in her hand. and the horror of the night began to close in on her. it had not been an accident.
she looked up desperately, she needed something, someone… dr verma was standing at the door waiting for the police to leave. he walked up to her and simply stood looking down at her. such a tall man, khushi thought. and she remembered him standing just like that one day in a hospital, in a white gown, when arnav ji had almost…
“shall i take this, khushi?” he asked gently, touching the gun. she relinquished it willingly. she was not being able to breathe… everything had started to seize up inside. her chest was hurting and closing in, her ears were going hot.
“khushi,” dr verma said, “don’t think of anything, look arnav needs you,” he seemed to know exactly what would get her back to this moment, right here.
khushi turned to look at her husband sitting on the floor with his sister, arms around each other as they wept. she felt a lump in her throat and a terrible need to reach them. as she walked to them, akash and rahim chacha ran into the room with another group of cops, “thank god, you all are ok!” akash said, “no, there weren’t any other guys out there, or maybe they ran away… anyway, bhai, khushi ji!”
khushi sat on the floor with her arnav ji and di, she put her arms around both of them and rested her forehead on his back and let the tears come.