Red.. Not crimson like jiji’s.. Not maroon like mamiji’s.. Red like devi maiyyas chunari.. Like the richness of rubies glittering under a blazing sun.. Like that very same sun when it starts to set after a scorching day.. Carmine like blood that flows in our veins.. throbbing of life.. Like the color of sindoor that was heaped onto the silver plate by her side..
Khushi Kumari Gupta saw her lehenga in the mirror. The golden threads, beads, stones and tassels all dazzling as she watched her reflection in the dim light. Yards and yards of resham and zari. She knew if she twirled it would spread out and whirl around her. Make her feel like a rajkumari..
“Ye lo Khushi ho gaya..”
(There.. all done..)
Khushi turned sideways to glance at the dori that her jeeji had neatly tied up along her arching nape. Hundreds of pearls strung together on a golden silken thread. Jeeji had rubbed a soft shimmery powder on her otherwise bare back.
She could see her shoulder blades peak from the cut of her blouse. Di had suggested she leave her hair open. So, for now her lustrous black hair had been brushed till it shone iridescent as coal under moonlight. It was swept to one side, strands expertly curled by someone whom di had asked to come and help with the brides.
Her skin could sense the pearls lie against it. A stranger had ripped her dori once. His eyes dark, unforgiving. Who knew the stranger would one day become hers for life! He would make her feel warm and fuzzy inside.
Khushi would often talk to her friends about marriage. They always said they would miss their carefree life after marriage. There would be responsibilities and duties. A life away from the home they had known for all the years that they had been alive.
They had not met Arnav Singh Raizada. All her life babuji, amma, even her dearest jiji had been close, but something had held back Khushi. She could not quite explain it, but she understood it. She was grateful for the care her family gave her. But part of her had remained afraid of the darkness, of the nightmares that were never fully gone.
With Arnavji it was different. A life she never knew existed. Thrilling and unpredictable. Inherently safe because he was there. She was free to be herself, like nothing held her back. That she could soar in the clear blue skies. In ways indescribable he seemed to urge her to be herself. Simply be. That in itself was the greatest gift of all.
It was their wedding, she thought. She should give him a real gift; the orange juice did not count. She smothered her giggle.
Her palm hit her forehead. The graceful poised fiery woman in the reflection dissolved into a beautiful vivacious sparkling eyed girl.
Devi maiyya what should I gift him? Arnavji would most probably laugh if she gave him a rose.. It seemed like something hero and heroines would do in movies.. a single rose at night after the wedding felt romantic, but with Arnavji at night..
As suddenly as that she blushed scarlet..
Anjali was convinced the house was going insaner by the minute. Chote’s shoes had made a reappearance, but someone had poured juice in his shoes. Miraculously chote had not lost his temper, just muttered something inaudible and looked like he couldn’t have been more pleased at the fact that his shoes now contained orange juice.
Anajli could hardly believe her eyes. Aman had been dispatched off to procure another pair of shoes for the groom while Akash and NK had been warned to stay clear of the new pair that would arrive.
Her brothers’ were finally enjoying the wedding whole heartedly. Anjali felt relieved and happy.
She had returned to her room smiling, but the smile vanished. She had a saree picked out for the evening, that would have matched her husband’s kurta. She no longer wanted to wear it.
The room was vacant. No Shyamji to usher into getting dressed on time. She scoffed at how dependent her life had become of him. How much idle time she had the few hours she had spent as Anjali. Not the wife of Shyam Manohar Jha, simply Anjali.
Her hand automatically went to cradle her stomach. An idea had struck her.
When she entered her brother’s room nani was there already.
“Anjali bitiya ye saree toh..“, the old lady remarked.
(this saree is)
“Ma ki hai“, a deep gruff voice spoke. The groom turned away from the mirror to face them. His eyes glittering with flecks of vivid memories.
(it’s mother’s saree)
Anjali nodded. She was wearing her mother’s saree. A blue as deep as saphire and golden woven silk.
When her ma was helping her pack her trunk, with clothes to take with her after her wedding, Anjali had pleaded for this saree. She did not want all the other sarees, just this special one that would have reminded her of ma. Ma had laughed and replied in her silvery tone that she would keep it safely for when Anjali came back to her maika for the first time as a married woman.
That had not happened. The saree was safe though. Nani had kept it all these years and today Anjali felt like she had returned home. Not a married woman, but a grown woman about to be a mother herself.
“She was wearing this in my dream di. Today morning. Ma ne kaha ki..” He looked away. She knew he was hurting. She let him speak at his pace. “she said she was here with us di..”
She allowed the tears to flow as she limped over to hug her brother. Her chote.. Who was dressed in a shwerwani.. Who was going to get married tonight.
“ab bas kijiye aap dono.. aaj aapki shaadi hai chote.. aap mama banane wale hai.. Zara hasiye toh..”
(enough you two.. today is your wedding.. you are going to be an uncle.. smile a little)
Deviyani Raizada was also blinking back tears, but her voice was steady and loving.
In a swift gesture Arnav Singh Raizada, hugged his nani. The woman who had taken two orphaned siblings into her house. Given them means, shelter and the much needed confidence to rise. He had grabbed that opportunity and returned the favor in the man he had become.
They hugged in silent camaraderie, that trespassed the boundary of ages, which understood the profound knowledge that both grandson and grandmother were after all the inherently similar. Providers and protectors of the family.
Anjali watched them and almost clapped in glee. Marriage were such fabulous occasions. Bringing people together and flooding hearts with all sorts of emotions. She wrapped the aanchal around herself.
Ma was close and watching over them.. She could feel it..
He was back in front of the mirror when nani came forward and smoothed Anjali’s hair.
She whispered, perhaps not wanting to disturb the groom who was busy with the buttons on his sherwani. “bitiya I could not save my daughter. Of this I will always be regretful, but aap eeha hai. Humare saamne. With me. Sab thik hui hai bitiya. Take each day as it comes. Aap phir khush hongi”.
(you are here.. in front of me.. everything will be alright.. you will be happy again..)
NK came into the room wailing about his dhoti. He had insisted on wearing one. It would be bhartiya, he apparently thought. Only he didn’t know it would be only a single piece of cloth. Mamaji had followed him in and was patiently trying to explain the mechanics of that single piece of cloth with less success than he hoped for.
Anjali shrugged. Letting go of the heartache. Hurrying to bring a dozen pins that might help the current problem of the frivolous dhoti.
The pain would return she knew, but she was not afraid of it. Not anymore. The past did not matter. That man did not matter. What mattered was here right in front of her. Her family. What mattered was within her. Her child mattered. She herself mattered. Anjali mattered. And she would not let herself ever lose sight of that again.
Her phone chimed. Payal Kumari Gupta, soon to be Singh Raizada, stole a glance at the message that had scrolled on screen. From Akash..
Her hands shook a little in excitement and under the weight of the unaccustomed jewelry that adorned it.
“Wear what you like. I know you will look lovely tonight..”
A tender touched smile played on her crimson lips.
Minutes ago she had watched in despair as her sasuma had piled on tons of gold onto her bahuriya. Payal couldn’t quite decide if it was the new found love of her bahuriya or the old true love of gold that had made her mother-in-law over enthusiastic at the task of getting the bride ready.
Sadly, buaji had liked this open display of what she supposed could only be affection and had joined Manorama in the task. Both ladies had managed to practically smother Payal under all that gold and diamonds. Amma was too subservient to object and Payal too well mannered to say anything herself.
She did not know her benevolent, and in his own way quite shrewd, father in law had been passing outside. He had heard his wife’s vociferous excitement and passed on a hint to his son, who had taken it as a sign to message his would be wife. He had merely messaged what his heart already promised. She would be his tonight…
A hew minutes later, her resolve strengthening after reading the message, Payal had exchanged the heavy jhumkas with a pair she liked more. These earrings had those golden chains that could be tucked into the hair behind the ear. Dangling and dainty, she gave her head a shake, and giggled.
Her phone chimed again. This time she picked it up with eagerness. Only to blush and gaze awestruck at the message. Her heart racing in that good thrilling way.
“And anyway you won’t be wearing much of it through the night. Love Akash“.
Downstairs prevailed a sense of incomparable excitement. Lots of shouting and things getting lost and found in unexpected places, only to be forgotten again in all the rush.
The halls were covered in the choicest of flowers. Orchids, marigolds and lilies and roses. No one was quite sure how such a varied range of flowers went together so well, but they did.
Guests had thought that perhaps the grand wedding of the two Raizada sons would be someplace else, but weeks before, since the start of the preparations, Anjali had insisted that the ceremony would be in Shantivan itself. Home is where a marriage should be, she had declared. And she wanted to hear the halls ring with laughter, grounds full of gaiety. People milling in the corridors, and those sofas that were never used finally having a chance to be sat upon.
The grounds had been opened. The lawns lush green. Freshly mowed, so that the soothing fragrance of cut grass hung in the air. And any of the guests if even remotely commented on how grand it looked were given a minute account of the exact details of the decorations by the enthusiastic duo of Mohan and Om Prakash.
Manohar Jha had given up trying to keep them in check. It was too much for one man to handle, and Aman who had helped him in this task, had been sent off by Anajli and nanni to get dressed.
They had refused to let him enter in his boring neat everyday office clothes, even when he had loudly protested that he needed to take the shoes safely to ASR. The shoes had reached the groom, but Aman was handed a wrapped packet with a sherwani specially for him. He was allowed to wear a sherwani was the general consensus since his boss was wearing one too.
Platters of appetizers kept flowing through. Melody wafted in all corners. Each branch, almost every leaf was covered with fairy lights. Fireflies danced around them right through that onerical night. Satin curtains floated in the gentle breeze like dupattas beckoning lovers who were meant to be.
A large group of ladies ranging from under twenty to above fifty were exclaiming over Lakshmiji’s shiny new coat.
Another group that included taiji, Happyji and a whole of others from Lakshminagar, headed by a boisterous loud buaji, were sampling the gol gappas. It was rumored the chefs were specially flown in from Lukhnow. Nobody got around to actually confirming this because they were too busy sampling the sumptuous meal laid out.
Mamiji was leading her own group of guests to the sweet dish section. Rules were for other people. If Manorma Raizada wished she could very well eat desserts before the meal. Her friends gladly obliged.
The group of ladies marveling over Lakshmiji had now moved on to gawk over two smart attractive men. Granted one of them looked quite uncomfortable in a bright fuchsia colored dhoti.
NK was busy with a plateful of dishes whose names he did not know. He was generously offering some of it to Akash who looked quite pale.
Akash was dressed in a cream Sherwani. Glazed raw silk, with the finest work in crimson thread. He held himself upright. A distinguished look that only became more dreamy when one caught the flicker of undeniable love in those eyes.
The ladies had hardly had time to recover from the sight of the two young Raizada men when the third arrived. Trying to breathe was a lost cause at this point of the night.
Strikingly handsome was the man in black with that regal air, arched brow and firm jaw. His arresting eyes a little lost, a set of perfect shoulders and a most exquisite air of detached concentration. The groom had arrived.
Arnav Singh Raizada wasn’t paying attention to the gaping guests around. He was mulling over the endless rows of small red buttons that lined his charcoal black sherwani.
Hell! he would never have been caught dead wearing a sherwani and here he was in public dressed in it for his own wedding.
A know-it-all voice inside had whispered that she would like him in it. Khushi..
His dark shining irises swept through the crowds. The vision it wanted to feast on was not around.
Khushi.. The name that had intruded his thoughts for what seemed like forever now.. Khushi where are you? .. he yearned to have her in front of him..
He was impatient. Had he really been stupid enough to imagine that he did not want her in his life? He needed her as much as he needed the air to breathe.
The wind ruffled his hair, his ears picked a gasp of breath. She had answered his call; she was here.
His gaze fell upon her and remained there.
The girl shivering on stage in the pink, green and gold attire was a sight ingrained in his memory. The siren in red, her hair swept in the wind, her curving waist peeping out from under the chiffon. The alluring woman surrounding by fluttering diyas smiling to herself, later trembling at his touch. Dressed in green, when the droplet of water had traced its way down her exquisite neck. Dancing in his arms, her ivory skin gleaming in the moonlight.
She had been demurely looking down as he had been hit by fervent memories. Now his bride looked up. Her refulgent eyes meeting his from across the distance of the grounds. He gulped.
She smiled. A wide disarming happy smile.
One night out of nowhere Khushi Kumari Gupta had fallen into his arms. And she would be his for life. dammit he loved her.. how much her loved her..
dhakdhakdhakdhak.. His heartbeat was skidding, singing and dancing..
Khushi had stopped worrying about the teasing laad governor. Her worry was replaced by the more imminent threat that she had to walk into the grounds where everyone was waiting.
She was certain her elder sister was as nervous as her. Who wouldn’t be, when you had to walk into a crowd of strangers all waiting to see the main attractions of the night? devi maiyya if only I could munch on one jilebi.. that would bring me courage..
Khushi was fiddling with the edge of her pink and green dupatta. She had not been sure it would go with her red attire, but when it was draped on her head it reminded of that first night she had met Arnavji. And it all fit perfectly.
She was making sure she did not stumble as she made her way into the grounds. For a second, she could almost sense the collective exclamations from the crowd. The hushed whispers that were clearly discussing the brides.
devi maiyya.. Hum pagal hai.. Humein kisne kaha tha aisi bari shadi karne ko? Sab us laad governor ki galti..
(I am crazy.. who told me to have such a big wedding.. its all that laad governors fault)
She halted.. His unmistakable voice had called upon her. A certainty washed over her as she raised her eyes and they were held captive to his gaze.
He was hers. As she was his. The joy that erupted within her at this profound realization was too powerful to even try to curb. She flashed her teeth, her heart skipping quite a few beats.
He always managed to take her breath away when he looked at her in that special way. And was he? She stared at him oblivious of the chuckling crowd. He was in a sherwani.. the laad governor that he was, he looked as elegant as in a three piece suit.
Her rajkumar.. How much she loved him.. Her heart almost couldn’t contain the intensity of love that seemed to burst from within..
She wasn’t quite sure how she had reached the mandap. It was under the cloudless skies. Stars had come out to watch the weddings. They were twinkling.
She could feel the heat of his comforting exhilarating presence next to her, as Akash and Payal had thrown garlands on each other.
Akash had been lifted high in the air, but Payal had jumped higher and the flowers had landed in their rightful place.
No one dared to lift ASR so Khushi had luckily had an easier time to place the garland on him. She almost imagined him mutter “what the” at any minute of the ceremony. He however quite coolly picked the garland from the plate amma was carrying and placed the flowers on her.
At one point, NK had dared to instruct ASR and Khushi to pose at an angle gazing at the stars or something which ASR termed silly and blatantly refused. Khushi was about to argue, when ASR turned and looked right into her eyes.
The closeness muddled her and she lost her train of thought. The moment was long enough for NK to get a picture of the couple, that would frame their bedroom wall for years to come.
Babuji proudly gave his eldest daughter’s hand to a groom who was having a hard time to stop smiling and staring at his bashful delighted bride. When babuji placed Khushi’s hand in Arnavji’s, it trembled. She didn’t know why, but the emotions were overwhelming.
He held her hand firmly in his.
When his fingers skimmed over her back, to brush back her hair, so that he could tie the mangalsutra around her neck all noise had died down. She could hear her own breath and his. In sync. A steady rising and falling.
The stone and metal fell against her skin. An unfamiliar but welcoming weight. She did not care if anyone was noticing, her hand rose to touch the mangalsutra. Her forefinger and thumb rubbed it and marveled.
It was time to stand up for the pheres. Seven. For the seven lives they would live together, she thought. She did not want the seven lives to ever end. No. She wanted him with her forever.
He held her tighter as di came to tie the knot securely. He had a red stole around his neck that was entwined with her chunari. Di bent and kissed her on her forehead. Khushi had never felt this blessed.
Slowly she followed him round the fire that blazed. Then came the panditji’s call for her to step in front of him.. His face was solemn as he let her pass forward. As her foot got entangled in her lehenga she had barely tripped that his strong hands caught her.
“It might be safer if I carry you the rest of the way“, his eyebrows arched, as he straightened her.
Laad governor .. What if someone heard.. But she had no time to notice the delighted claps and starry eyes of everyone who watched. She was only aware of her husband. Yes he was her husband.
When buaji came forward with the sindoor, he picked a pinch of it and she felt it smeared on her forehead; she closed her eyes. Thanking her devi maiyya that she was his wife. She was not aware a tear had escaped the confines of her eyes.
It startled her when he brushed it away with his fingers, murmuring with worry, “tum thik ho?”
“thik.. Hum thik nai.. Hum toh Khushi hai..“, came her loopy disarming reply.
(am not okay.. am Khushi)
He drew her in his arms in a fierce embrace. She hugged him back with wondrous abandon.
In the midst of the shower of flowers that came from all directions, guess who else hugged each other! Mamiji was wailing and had fallen into buaji’s arms who was sobbing equally loudly. It wasn’t quite clear whether they were sad or happy, but both sniffed loudly and patted each other with vigor.
Amma was holding tight on to babuji’s arms. Nani and Anjali threw all the flowers they could.
Akash and Payal smiled on upon each other, while NK whistled as loud as he could since his hands were occupied with holding on to his dhoti. There were ladies sniffing and girls wishing this was there wedding.
ASR and Khushi remained in each others arms.
Soon the wedding ceremonies were over. The guests were starting to leave, the last dishes eaten.T he grooms, their wives and both families sat on a group of chairs in the garden. The night was cool. the skies still clear.
Though amma had lovingly fed both her daughters from the same plate Khushi was certain she was having an acidity attack.
She concentrated on the food. Suddenly aware that it was night already, her stomach had decided to grumble. It did not make it the least bit better to know a pair of enamored eyes had followed her every movement since they had sat down at the table.
ASR’s phone rang. It wasn’t the right time, but a call from the police station had to be answered. He had got up and strolled a few paces away from the others, not wanting to alarm anyone. He was about to postpone it, but Shashi Gupta laid a reassuring hand on his son-in-law’s shoulder.
“Arnav bitwa chaliye hum us Shyam ko aakhri baar ke liye apni bitiyan ke jeevan se nikal det hai”
(Let us go.. we will throw out Shyam once and for all out of our girls’s lives)
ASR’s eyes shone with an added respect at the man in front of him. Akash had joined them, but ASR insisted he stay behind. Given buaji and mamiji’s combined excitement two missing grooms wouldn’t go well with anyone.
ASR watched his di give instructions to OP to bring that special kofta that buaji wanted to taste. Then his eyes rested on his bride who was eyeing the jilebi as if it was a foe on the battlefield. He couldn’t help but grin.
The lights had been dimmed, but the fairy lights still burned bright when ASR made his way into the Shantivan hall. Khushi’s dad had signed the statement confirming Shyam had made a deliberate attempt on his life. Plus, his recent depravity in the Gupta house was enough to hold Shyam behind bars for years to come. The police were fast tracking the entire case, working well into the nights as instructed by Arnav Singh Raizada. Whatever it took, but the man had to suffer.
ASR was weary. A sudden acute worry for his di gnawed into him.
He followed the voices that seemed to come from the kitchen. Khushi was talking to di, who was smiling. Both were sipping tea.
“di aapko kya lagta hai beti hogi ki beta.. Kitna mazza aayega na di?“, He heard her say.
(do you think it will be a boy or a girl? it will be lots of fun, won’t it?)
Di laughed. “humein toh hamesha se ek choti si rajkumari chahiye thi“, she replied.
(I always wanted a little princess)
There was no sign of the others. ASR leant against the pillar and allowed himself to relax. Both women were munching on biscuits and namkeen from the red and yellow cardboxes boxes from the wedding.
“Agar larki hui toh aap uska naam puri kumari rakh sakti hai..”
(if its a girl you can keep her name puri kumari)
“what the? Khushi don’t you ever think of anything other than food?“.. She was unbelievable..
Anjali was giggling as she got up from her stool. “tum aa gaye chote.. Khushiji and me were talking.. Others went to sleep. There was a bit too much excitement when the games were played”
(you came back..)
“ha Arnavji you know Mamiji and jiji played that game where one person has to find the ring.. And I think jiji let mamiji win.. Wo kitni khush hui na di?” cheerful as ever Khushi spoke up. She had enjoyed the game thoroughly. Even wished Arnavji was there. She had cheered loudly for jeeji, but been happy when mamiji had looked ecstatic.
(she was so happy, right di?)
Clueless as to what this ring game could be, ASR turned to Anjali for some sort of plausible explanation.
“err mamiji didn’t let akash play the game he was supposed to play with payal. Anyway..”
“Anjali bitiya bahut raat ho gayi hai.. Aayiye aaj aap humare sang so jayiye..”
(its very late.. come sleep with me tonight)
Naniji, back in her familiar cream saree, did not want her granddaughter to spend the night alone, Khushi correctly guessed. She had been keeping di company for the very same reason. Arnavji’s warm loving di. The one who had welcomed her the first time Khushi had set foot inside Shantivan. Her home now.
“jee nani. I am exhausted, par kitna mazza aaya na?” Anjali slowly made her way towards the kind old lady. She paused to giggle.
(yes nani. but it was all so good, isn’t it?)
“chote yaad hai na humare ghar ki parampara.. Pick Khushi bhabhi in your arms and take her to your room.. Chaliye nani“, her voice rang clear and strong in the sudden still house.
(remember the tradition of our house.. come nani)
ASR didn’t wait for them to leave before he turned to Khushi, who looked much more bashful than she had all evening. He sauntered forward. His gaze caressing her in ways his hands would soon do too.
Lithe and swift he swept her into his arms. Even though she must have been expecting it she still gasped. If possible she looked even more fetching than she had all evening.
He noted with a glorious contentment that her fingers were curling next to his heart. Her head followed, burrowing herself closer to the warmth that radiated from him.
Khushi rested her head against the steady rise and fall of his chest. He was an intoxicating mixture of muscles and heat, strength and exultation. His arms were wrapped protectively around her, cocooning her.
She could catch the thudding urgent joyous beat of his heart. She closed her eyes to drown in the sound.
“Don’t plan on sleeping tonight Khushi..“, gravelly and seductive were his words.
“Khushi Arnav Raizada“, she corrected, clutching with heady anticipation on the raw silken fabric of his sherwani . Her head snuggled closer as she listened to his heartbeat clenching her eyes tightly shut.
Unplanned, but sultry was the laughter that escaped her quivering lips. The slightest of shimmery gloss remained on them. ASR could not tear his eyes off them.
No other words were wasted or needed. His lips descended on hers as they walked over the threshold of their room as man and wife.
He could swear he heard her racing heart intermingled with the gurgling waves in the pool outside. Tremulous, erratic and mesmerizing was the beating heart, like the girl in his arms.
His hand had travelled the smooth naked skin of her back, found the maddening dori and pulled at the end with infinite tenderness watching it come undone.
Soon the meeting of lips grew urgent as hands dared to roam free, touching and stroking places unseen. She had no thought of shying away. In wonder she followed wherever he led. When the kisses turned to much more, when the caresses grew frantic, when their breaths intermingled she knew it was a celebration of love like no other. In that moment when she was closer to him than she had ever felt before she gave him a gift he had asked for before.
“Arnav“.. She sighed.. Stripping of the ji.. Instinctively she knew this was the gift he deserved for all that he brought into her life. Taking up that role he had offered her. As his equal.. As his partner, friend and wife.
It had started to drizzle outside.
When ASR heard her say his name he paused. Hesitant that he might have imagined the missing of the ji. Khushi cupped his face with her hand and leaned closer to kiss him, leaving no doubt. He caught the expression in her eyes and smiled.
The moment triumphant of bliss. Their eyes remained locked as the sound of heartbeats reigned.
dhakdhakdhakdhak… The heart sang of stars and love, of laughter and play. And in that melody weaved itself a hamesha that was here to stay.