i have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and i am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
~~~ stanley kunitz, the layers ~~~
khushi stared down at the little pink bag clutched in her hands. it was so tiny, a little shiny purse with brown edging and trimmings. her heart felt a desert wind blow through, shattered lay everything all around, a peculiar sensation right in the centre of her heart, spreading and taking it over.
her eyes wanted to close but couldn’t. she wanted to cry but the dry parched feeling within yielded no tears. the heat caught her behind the eyes and almost gutted all it touched.
amma had run down those corridors. a singeing breath hit the back of her throat.
she was in her pink saree, clutching this little silly bag, assaulted by someone she trusted, locked in a room, grappled with, touched…
it was almost two weeks since they had returned from lucknow, arnav ji and she were supposed to leave for london the next day. she had known they were all going through very difficult days and had not said anything to him. in fact, she had smiled and laughed and tried to be happy. especially around jiji.
khushi wanted to be happy for jiji. jiji was expecting her first child… oh how much they had talked about such things as they grew up… how many kids who’d have, what their names would be, who would be smart, who pretty… how they’d joked and laughed.
despite everything, a burst of joy had erupted in her when they returned to shantivan and were given the “good news”. jiji had looked radiant and jija ji so proud.
she had hugged payal and thanked akash for coming to help them even in the middle of all this.
jiji had made a face and said, “chup kar, khushi, i am not that frail and weak… of course akash ji had to go… are you trying to be formal with me?”
(keep quiet, khushi, i am not that frail and weak…)
khushi had apologized and willed herself to get into a happy frame of mind because she wanted to never ever spoil a moment for her sister.
aloo kumar or jalebi mati she had declared she would call her nephew or niece. the happiness in jiji’s eyes had made her heart dance, so powerful its energy. a mother to be. her jiji… and yes, jija ji of course… but how wonderful, she’d be masi. masi… what would the baby call her…?
yet every day the thoughts had come. she had tried not to let them bother her. told herself a million times not to let all this matter. koi matlab nahin. doesn’t mean a thing. the past was over… there was no point in delving, in dwelling.
when she had gone to see amma and babu ji the day after the night that changed everything, how amma had sobbed. sitting on the bed, she had clutched khushi’s hands and begged her not to misunderstand her jiji, lajwanti was not to blame. she was just so lonely. no one understood her need to be given a little time, some attention… after their parents died… jija ji traveled on work all the time, she herself was busy with college. lajwanti took care of little khushi and just waited for the wretched feeling of death and emptiness to pass.
khushi remembered amma’s pleading face, her tears pouring. she had never seen her amma cry like that. not even when dadi had recognised her and hurled accusations.
but on that day, amma wanted to tell her everything about lajwanti.
it was almost as if a dam broke.
a whirlpool of painful emotions buried deep came rushing out. a hot forceful geyser, uncontrolled. it drained amma.
jiji had been so lonely in her heart, in her mind, garima wept.
she went to temples and prayed hoping to cope with things… she was a beautiful strong woman with many interests, unlike girls of her background, she had been actually encouraged to go to college by their father, study, and marry a little later than the usual age at which girls were married off… she liked to paint, she liked to read, make new things, she had a curious happy mind, she was not like the other girls who settled down to mother in law gossip and taking care of the home. she always had a yearning…
it had been on one of her visits to the chiriya wali mandir that pratap malik had found her… “why was it raining that day, khushi bitiya…”
garima had suddenly wailed and collapsed into tears. she would never forget that afternoon when she had received the call from lajwanti. her sister was crying into the phone not being able to say anything… finally she’d understood, jiji was hiding in a sweet shop near sheesh mahal, disoriented, helpless. garima had told her to stay there, she’d come and get her.
she had gone in an auto, found jiji, and brought her back home. jiji was so tired, so winded from the whole thing she had slept off in the auto. then garima remembered a curious detail as one often does in the middle of traumatic experiences. she remembered she had taken jiji’s purse and put it inside her own bag. this little pink bag with brown work on it. she had kept it with her ever since, somehow unable to give it back to jiji, worried it would remind her of that day… and she hadn’t been able to throw it away, something made her keep it. then one day she just couldn’t find it, maybe it was here in one of the cupboards somewhere…
sitting in her bedroom now, khushi looked at the purse and clutched it, bringing it up to her heart. the pain grew. “amma!” she whispered.
garima had stayed with lajwanti till her husband returned from his latest tour. for months after that, garima would come and live with jiji when jija ji was away. jiji couldn’t sleep alone… she felt vulnerable, sometimes very guilty… or just angry.
how much garima had implored jiji not to go to sheesh mahal that night when pratap malik told her to, but lajwanti knew this man… he could destroy her. more importantly her family. and she had insisted on going.
garima had had a strange premonition that evening and gone to sheesh mahal looking for jiji. what she saw left her speechless, confused, horror struck. two people lay dead… one was dushyant malik she gathered, the other his wife.
wife? but jiji thought dushyant ji was a bachelor.
garima had shivered violently at the memory. for a moment she couldn’t speak.
an air of loss and arrested horror pervaded the huge rooms and hallways and she had stood there nonplussed, staring. the talk swirled all around amongst the thronging crowds, wedding guests who now kept vigil over the dead; they spoke of the gunshots, the quarrel between husband and wife over another woman, the daughter’s wedding in disarray…
suddenly an older lady stood before her, accusing her of shocking things. the other woman… she was the other woman the lady said, because of whom her son lay dead.
garima had understood the game suddenly. her jiji was the bait, someone had planned all this… everything. she remembered how pratap malik had threatened lajwanti into complying with his request. he had given her no choice. why? because he needed her there no doubt. but… for this!
she couldn’t bear to let anything harm her sister… she had not been able to save her from the attack years earlier, but not again, she would not let that happen.
she did not correct the lady’s mistake. she let her believe it was her. she only pleaded for forgiveness, she had no idea he was married she said and then she ran away from there. she went home and said not a word to anybody. she would talk to jiji the next morning she thought.
soon the news of the accident came.
amma had never believed it was an accident. never.
amma stroked khushi’s cheek with the hands that had comforted her since that fateful day, “bitiya, I didn’t want to have anything to do with that terrible place any more. you were there, my jiji’s reflection, her only child, my sweet little niece… remember how you used to watch salman khan movies even when I thought you were too young to? kabootar ja ja ja…?” amma’s voice had trailed off.
then she had looked at khushi and said, “I decided I would live with you, not kill myself and everyone around me… my jiji’s gift, her nishani… did I do wrong, khushi bitiya, kya hum galat the?”
(my jiji’s gift, something of hers… did i do wrong, khushi, was i wrong?)
khushi swallowed hard as she remembered amma’s words. she had just held amma in her arms and wept with her.
some pain, some injustices just had to be borne… there was nothing anyone could do.
she looked down at the purse once more. she had not told amma how her mind had flown to a strange thought as she spoke. it was like the mind leapt off before she could stop it.
she had remembered that evening when she was getting ready for the modeling assignment. when she had to go to sheesh mahal dressed up. she’d worn her green and pink lehenga choli and then while searching in amma’s cupboard for a gota ribbon she had seen the purse.
it looked so pretty, she had taken it out and looked at herself in the mirror carrying it.
uff, nice! she’d thought and decided to take that purse instead of her jiji’s golden batua. somehow the pink purse felt just perfect with the dress.
amma… why can’t I feel anything any more… khushi stared blankly at the sunlight diminishing outside.
she had not been able to speak to the stars at all ever since that night.
hot phulkas were being served by om prakash and hari prakash, extra hands needed at the table as there were several guests at dinner that night. doctor verma had managed to get away from the hospital earlier than usual and joined them, he was taking anjali out later. nk and lavanya were also here, also planning to go clubbing afterwards.
and nani ji had invited bua ji to join them as well. she knew payal bitiya would like to have someone from her family during this time and bua ji would also wish to see her niece as often as possible; nani ji had grown rather fond of this feisty martinet who was her grand daughters in law’s one and only aunt. lakshmi ji seemed to have a special fondness for her, and madhumati ji would indulge lakshmi with little treats every time. she knew lakshmi loved bananas and so large bunches of banana would arrive with the beaming lady on practically every visit.
conversation was on full swing as the delicious food came to the table and was devoured. anjali had cooked after a long time. rahim chacha had sliced and diced tomatoes, carrots, cucumber, lettuce, little red radishes for hours for the salad today. anjali bitiya was known to be very very particular about the way food was prepared and offered. he didn’t mind. as long as she looked happy. he could see she was beginning to be like her old self again.
“akash, come eat some more green jackfruit curry, i know it’s your favourite, so why are you being so shy?” anjali asked as she put some curry on his plate…
“nahin… di, actually..” akash mumbled, he was feeling really full.
(no… di, actually…)
“no no, now you must eat well, you are eating for two after all…” anjali giggled.
everyone burst out laughing.
“di!” akash protested with akash like mildness.
payal said, “aap ekdam theek kah rahi hain, di!”
(you’re absolutely right, di!)
mami muttered, “hello hi bye bye, ee ghar ma only girls are ispeakings and ispeakings, no bhalue for my bwoys… khamosh bitiyaj and bahuj… come akas bitwa, i bhills gibh you some nice pawtato dum, you bhil enjaay!”
(hello hi bye bye, in this house the girls are the ones talking all the time, no one values my boy… keep quiet girls and daughters in law! come akash, i will give you some potato curry you’ll enjoy!)
bua ji joined in with, “hai re nand kissore, bichare damad ji, aap agar gala jara tej naahin karna sikhoge toh pachtaoge… hai na, arnav bitwa?” she gave a sweet smile to asr, several winks thrown in.
(hai nand kissore, my poor son in law, if you don’t learn to raise your vouce, you will suffer… isn’t that right, arnav?)
he had been sitting quietly next to doctor verma, eating his three phulkas with light dal, a little salad and a small bowl of jackfruit curry, and looking at khushi. she looked distracted. though he could see she was making an effort to join in and be part of the lightness and bonhomie.
he wondered how long he would have to wait.
“i think anna should wear the dark olive and zohara should take the lucknow pink,” he said frowning thoughtfully at the girls as they walked the little studio ramp at ar. dress selections were on for the coming season and they had been working long hours for almost a week now. asr had hardly had time for anything other than the show. he was used to this, it rarely got to him.
but this year something was bothering him… he wondered what. his mind found it hard to come to that placid calm he knew was vital for taking the right decisions. more than seventy five dresses, a whole lot of options, choices, combinations, the mind had to know what it wanted…
the music soared, a row of models walked in graceful and svelte, swaying, sashaying, showing off the silhouette… light gossamer frills in tiers at the edges of many dresses. springtime. rebirth, regeneration, flirtation.
asr got up and left the room.
in minutes he was outside and then in his suv, seconds later he was off, driving smoothly and fast down the highway. ring road… good, the traffic was easy. he needed to get there now.
he reached shantivan in less than twenty minutes, a distance that usually took at least half an hour sometimes longer. he let himself into the house and walked in. hari prakash was dusting and came running to take his bag, asr waved him away with a swift motion of his hand and walked urgently down the hall and took two steps at a time now visibly hurrying toward his room.
he reached the bedroom and walked in, his steps quickening.
“khushi,” he called out softly, she would be here somewhere, it was afternoon, she might be dosing at the poolside.
he walked outside and there she lay on the deckchair, but she was not sleeping. she was looking at the water and humming to herself.
he stood still. he had never heard her singing. yes, she danced he knew, and he loved watching her. but she had never sung really.
what was the song?
he couldn’t make out, because she was humming not really uttering all the words, just some.
she finished her song and then reached down and began dipping her fingers in the pool, playing with the water. he started walking up to her…
she turned around startled out of her reverie…
“aap?” she sounded confused, “iss waqt?”
“ha…an!” he nodded, eyes glinting clear chocolate in the bright light, almost translucent. khushi’s breath caught in her throat. arnav ji was looking so terribly handsome. she had never known a man could look this good in a plain white shirt with a narrow grey tie. and his hair was shining, swept back neatly, he must have gone to dan ji recently. her eyes went a little dreamy and lost focus and she openly stared at the man looking down at her.
“main…” he stood over her, a lopsided smile all set to wreck her peace of mind, “you don’t want me around?”
and then even as khushi tried to find her voice and say something coherent, he leaned down all the way and started kissing her lips hungrily. she lay there a little taken aback till all she could feel were his hard lips on hers, his tongue licking the inner surfaces of her lips and pushing against her teeth, she forgot everything and just kissed him back. her hands rose to his face, she let her fingers feel the graze of his stubble, it always aroused her that prickly touch… she slipped her fingers into his hair then. she loved touching his thick dark strands. today they felt springy and crisp, tickled her palm. she shivered a bit.
he carried on kissing her, his kiss becoming less urgent, almost languorous… he licked her lips gently and planted soft tiny pecks on her lips. she heard herself moan, she felt her breath ease with a lazy feeling spreading over, making her want to pull him to her and lie back in the sun next to him, snuggling, playing, letting his hands roam over her. she wanted to loosen the tie, undo the buttons of the shirt and let her hand slip in, stroke his firm supple chest and lay her palm upon his heart.
suddenly he deepened the kiss and her breath leapt and went haywire.
when he was done, he let go of her lips, and eyes fixed on her with that crazy making smile on his lips he stood up.
“you don’t want me around?” he repeated and laughed softly, “lucknow pink…”
“haan? aap ne hume kya bulaya?” khushi managed to get a few words out though she was not really focusing still.
(yes? what did you call me?)
“oh i’ve missed you these few days…” he said quickly, as always trying to mask emotion and always khushi could hear the passion searing through.
“and…” he paused, cocked an eyebrow, then said with a drawl, his voice going even more husky, “i can see you missed me too… mmm, yeah, quite a bit, dammit!” the dammit came out soft, granular, caressing.
khushi watched him eyes widening, the man was teasing her, first he comes home when he is not supposed to, then he kisses her like that and now…
“see you later, khushi! lots of work to finish, might be late… bye!” he said reverting to his clipped matter of fact tone and left.
when he walked into ar twenty minutes later, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with the collection. the mind had found its calm.
khushi was turning down the beds and going about getting the room ready for the night. the lamps had to be lit, the bed made, she had to change. why were her hands and feet feeling so heavy? this was not good. she didn’t want to worry anyone.
she knew nani ji was very upset. how difficult it must have been for her to hear that her daughter had been murdered, she did not commit suicide. not that anything really changed but still… not to know the truth for so long, and each version of this incident more painful than the other. suicide, murder, no matter what the cause, the result was always the same. her daughter was gone, never to return.
and what about arnav ji and di… were they not also struck badly by this whole thing? khushi could feel her eyes going moist. why, devi maiyya, why did you let such a horrible thing happen? what have arnav ji and di done that they should suffer like this? and… and… khushi’s breathing began getting shallow as again the thoughts of a woman in pink running down the corridors of sheesh mahal began to crystallize and take over her mind, almost her body.
“khushi!” his voice was a warm caress on the nape of her neck. she turned her head and looked at him wanly, her eyes going resolutely blank. she didn’t want to trouble him.
“come!” he coaxed with almost a whisper and took her hand walking her to the wardrobe. he chose a beautiful black fine silk and lace long nightie from among her nightwear. she preferred to wear her simple cotton salwar kurtas at night, but he had bought her some lingerie though she rarely wore them.
with tender fingers, he undid the dori of her kurta…
she reached up and held his hands, “main pehen loongi, arnav ji…” her voice was soft but curiously flat. he almost winced at that.
(i’ll wear it, arnav ji.)
“no, today i want to do this… theek hai, khushi?” he bent a little and nuzzled her cheek, placing a soft warm kiss on it before going back to helping her change. khushi held her arms up like an obedient child as he slipped the kurta over her head. the entire evening seemed to change pace, enter a dream.
(no, today i want to do this, that okay, khushi?)
he unhooked her bra standing behind her and bent to kiss her on the shoulder blade and cupped her breast from the back pulling her close, letting her rest back against him. her full breasts felt the comfort of his touch and she allowed her head to lie back on his shoulder. he took off her little jhumkas and the few glass bangles she wore. then he made her sit and helped her out of her churidar and briefs. when she was naked, he knelt before her and let his arm go around her waist, laying his head on her lap. he lifted her hand up and put it on his hair. he knew she liked to play with his hair. he could feel her fingers move a little as though unable to stop themselves.
she sat quiet and listless. he slipped the nightie over her head and made her wear it. then he pulled her up. the sheath of silk fell fluidly as she stood and shimmered down the length of her body, at the centre across her midriff and back sat the lace, her ivory skin peeping against the black. auburn hair fell to her hips as he undid her plait and brushed her hair with even measured strokes. hazel eyes had a plea in them, what did they want?
he wished she would smile just a little, maybe tell him what troubled her… he had waited long, but with each passing day he could see she was not really coping, just trying very hard to.
he gathered her in his arms and hugged her close. “i love you,” he murmured against her hair and then he picked her up in his arms and took her to bed.
“mujhe nahin bataogi?” he set her down and asked. she looked up… his eyes were dark, sombre, and concerned.
(you won’t tell me?)
“nahin! arnav ji, i am fine,” khushi willed her voice to sound chirpy, “just tired, you know so much is going on… jiji is pregnant, she needs the right kind of food and nanhe ji and lavanya ji are here so i must do something for them too… really it’s nothing.”
asr thought, at least she is talking… he prompted, “and?”
“and?” khushi frowned, “why dekhiye na, hum toh aloo kumar ya jalebi mati ke liye jabla bunna chahte hain, usske liye chandni chowk se woh achhi wali wool lana hai, phir imli ka achaar, haan imli ka achaar banana hai, iss liye bua ji ke saath woh saket market gaye the, bahut achhi imli wahan milti hai, aap ko pata hai… aur…” and she had no idea but by now she was weeping copiously, tears flowed down her cheeks
(and? you know i want to make a sweater for aloo kumar or jalebi mati so i have to get that nice wool from chandni chowk… and the tamarind pickle? yeah, want to make some… for that i went with bua ji to saket market… you get great tamarind there, you know?… and…)
he held open his arms and this time she didn’t resist, she flung herself into them and cried without restraint. he started to feel life flow into him. he let her cry till she was sobbing and hiccuping almost done with her first real tears since that night at sheesh mahal.
“shh, shhh…” he crooned softly, rocking her. khushi started to calm down a bit. suddenly she looked up at him, he caught sight of her tear stained, innocent face… something in him broke a little.
“aap ko pata hai, arnav ji, she had that pink bag with her that day… that day.. that she…” she couldn’t finish her sentence as an ache wrenched through her, from her gut to the top of her head and she threw herself back into his arms, clinging and shaking.
“i… i can’t forget her… i can’t just let her suffer like that… arnav ji, is it okay if i don’t go to london with you
“khushi! khushi… calm down… shh…” he soothed her even as he remembered the tacky little purse, pink and kitschy. the pool cleaner had caught it in his net the day he had first set eyes on khushi when she had almost drowned him. inside it he had come across the advertisement that told him why she had come to sheesh mahal in the first place.
he had kept it… and then tried to throw it away but om prakash had brought it carefully to delhi… and it lay there in his cupboard till khushi found it again.
it was her mother’s purse? she had been carrying it that day when she came to have lunch with pita ji? well she thought it was lunch. he remembered the woman in pink running as though chased by fiends down the verandah… khushi’s mother.
a sadness clutched his heart.
he didn’t believe in such things, but maybe she had wanted her daughter to come and find him. maybe she had wanted to release herself of the treachery and leave behind hope… beauty.
a pink funny purse, what mysteries did it hold in its heart. his mother, her mother, both betrayed by the same man. his pita ji, a man he had once loved. he remembered his vision of a woman gardening when he lay in coma. maa… he would have run to her, but she had seemed to say to him, go back… someone is waiting there for you.
he held khushi clasped in his arms.
“i… i can’t forget her… i can’t just let her suffer like that… arnav ji, is it okay if i don’t go to london with you… i want to go to chiriya wali mandir and i want to do the vrat for her… i want to feel her, arnav ji…” khushi was crying again.
(i want to do the fast for her…)
“vrat? what vrat?” he asked.
“it’s a simple fast, only seven days…” she started to say.
“seven days?” in an instant his anger arrived and shot up, “seven days of not eating? khushi, seriously. you want to do all your endless fasts i never say anything, but seven days? why is it that people just don’t get it? these things don’t work… do you think your mother will like to see you in that state? do you know that purse, it led me back to you… i tried to throw it away, but it came right back… khushi! tum kya kah rahi ho? i am a rational man as you know. you have taught me a lot about feeling things, believing in of all things, stars… but this… no, i can’t accept.. ok if you want to do this… fine…!”
(khushi, what are you saying? i am a rational…)
khushi was staring at him shocked. from loving gentle lover to asr in extreme anger how long did it take.
“f… fine?” khushi stammered.
“yeah, fine. do it… but,” he thrust his face close to hers, “i will also do it… bas. enough. if this fast has to happen, that is the only way it will happen.”
“arnav ji, please, aap kya kah rahein hain?” khsuhi implored.
(arnav ji, please, what are you saying?)
“main kya kah raha hoon? tum kya kah rahi ho…?” he shot back and stood up.
(what am i saying? what are you saying?)
“khushi… dard saha jata hai, usse hum bhag nahin sakte… kabhi nahin. aur shayad dard humey mazboot banata hai, himmat deta hai… i don’t know khushi, there’s so much pain all over this whole life of mine, maybe it’s become a habit… ” the slightest catch in his voice, but she could hear it… she went to him and held him tight.
(khushi, pain has to be borne, we can’t run from it… never. and maybe pain makes us strong, gives us courage… i don’t know, khushi, there’s so much pain all over this whole life of mine, maybe it’s become a habit…)
“nahin karenge vrat… theek hai?” she whispered.
(won’t do the fast… okay?)
“khushi… come with me…” he went toward the french windows. outside, it had started to rain.
“arnav ji,” she sounded hesitant.
“come,” he said in that masterful yet loving way of his, khushi knew she would go to the ends of the earth with him if he called like that.
they stepped outside into the rain. the downpour was heavy, rain drops dashed down on them and splashed off their face, nose, eyes, lips, hair, arms… drenching them. they stood by the pool wrapped in each other’s arms just letting the rain fall and wash away memories that really would never leave.
“khushi! belt,” said asr raising his eyebrow and moving his head to point at the seatbelt on the aircraft seat.
“kya? yahan pe bhi seat belt?” khsuhi exclaimed.
(what? seatbelt here too?)
“khushi!” asr said with an exaggerated air of patience.
“aur get out bhi?” khushi grinned at him.
(and also get out?)
“uh huh… no getting out of this one, khushi kumari gupta singh raizada… you are going to the land of the bad angrez… london,” he said coolly and started reading the economist.
“haan, i know, woh log laaye the na laad governor hamare yahan,” khushi shook her head, her eyebrows danced, she made a sassy face, “ab unko hum dikhayenge laad governor kya hota hai.”
(yes, i know… they had brought lord governor to my country… now i’ll show them what’s a lord governor.)
the plane began to take off, the noise drowning out khushi’s yell of horror.