there will always be people who say it does not exist
because they cannot have it.
but i tell you it is true and that you have it
and that you are lucky even if you die tomorrow.
~~~ ernest hemingway, for whom the bell tolls ~~~
the wind was chilly and had a bite in it. it blew across his face, glancing off the planes and ridges of his lean visage as he ran. he was wearing a pair of grey running pants and a hoodie over his dry-fit running tee, it was colder than he had expected. the water on the serpentine was still and placid, its ripples waiting to catch a bit of sun rays, but the grey skies looked unyielding.
he usually went for an early morning jog in hyde park when he was in london, the only thing unusual this time, a bundle of yellow, pink, and bright red sitting on a park bench up ahead, looking at him through bleary eyes and smiling so sweetly he wanted to stop then and there, flop down next to her and kiss her thoroughly. till she protested, then sighed, then said “arnav ji” and went a little wild in his arms.
he remembered her the night before and smiled. her moans, not muffled or muted, but long and sustained and heady, filled his thoughts. to make love to her in their own place with no one else about, he had no idea it would feel this way.
it was a good thing arnav singh raizada was a man of strong purpose and keen focus, he just about managed to dash past khushi kumari gupta singh raizada sitting on the bench without changing course.
red parka? how could anyone look so delicious in a bright red quilted jacket with a yellow and pink churidar kurta. and yes, there were little pink pompoms hanging along the edge of her dupatta which was wrapped around her head as she sat there trying to grapple with the temperature and the sleepiness.
she had insisted on accompanying him, she wanted to see the new city, every inch of it, she also wanted to be with him. she had never stepped outside india, and growing up, she didn’t belong to the sort of family where you spoke of your dreams of travelling abroad, it was really always more about studying well, learning values, being a good daughter who would one day become a good wife; marrying a decent man and making a home… having children, being a clever housewife who could manage with less not more.
and yet here she was, with a… with a… what… khushi looked at asr with sleepy yet suddenly hungry eyes. why did his skin have to sparkle so startlingly she wondered. and against the greys of his clothes and the skies, he seemed even more radiant. there were beads of sweat glistening on his skin despite the chill. his legs moved swiftly and gracefully, his shoulders were straight, bracing against the wind as he ran.
why did he have to look so handsome that she could not concentrate on anything? all these new and wondrous things, this huge park, the beautiful trees, those red buses outside, how magnificent they looked and.. and… the blue boats on the serpentine where you could sit and paddle together, all those black and grey ducks, the cute little children, some in prams which their mothers or fathers pushed as they ran, really these people were strange… and the beautiful green expanse… yet she could think of nothing, but his looks.
and his smell… his touch… oh she wanted to get up and stop him and make him kiss her till she felt a little less hungry. she shook her head slightly thinking deeply of the conundrums of being anywhere near this man.
this was unfair, next time she would face the other way. and yes, she had not ended up marrying a decent man. he was nothing but a scheming, nasty laad governor.
she was so deep in thought, she did not see him come racing to where she sat. when she felt his hands on her wrists she looked up startled. he was smiling, his teeth dazzling white, his eyes dark, deep chocolate, his breath still short, fast, faintly audible… he pulled her up with a smart tug and the next thing, he was kissing her.
right there in front of the whole wide world, he was kissing her long and slow and yes, she could feel his hunger.
“khushi,” he murmured, breathy and granular against her lips, “kiss me.”
khushi’s eyes grew wide and became large circles. her lips struggled to get into their trademark “o” formation, but his lips would not relent.
they nibbled, they played, they adored and teased. asr kissed his wife thoroughly just as he had wished to. his ability to focus and act with purpose in great evidence, especially given the resistance to his plans.
she pushed him away at last and said looking up at him angrily, “arnav ji… aap aap… sabke saamne humey… how can you do this… how can you… in front of everybody…”
(arnav ji… you… you… in front of everybody, with me… how can you do this… how can you… in front of everybody…)
she was clearly flustered. and the angrier she looked the more he wanted to give her cause to look that way.
he decided that was what she would get for her efforts. grinning down at her with no sign of remorse, he pushed back her dupatta wrap off her head, grabbed a handful of her silken tresses and pulled her really close…
“i can do what i please,” he whispered, his eyes narrowed, a suggestion of what pleased him in them. and despite the cold air now stinging her ears, she could feel her cheeks go warm.
then they flared to hot.
khushi could not stop herself, her hands went up to the back of his neck, just for an instant she stroked his sharp, neatly trimmed hairline at the nape, her fingers tingling… then she pulled his head down, even as she went on tip toe to reach up and let her lips dash against his.
she wanted to kiss him here and now… and really she didn’t care who saw her. maybe not the ducks and the children… but… oh, she felt his tongue on the underside of her lips, warm and playful… khushi sighed.
no, she had not married the sort of man she had thought she would because she had never ever known anyone would be so loving.
nor love her as much as this man did.
she closed her eyes then and let the joy filter through.
there were many fixed ideas in our mind, some maybe life wants us to look at again. it did not feel wrong to be kissed by him out here in front of the whole world any more.
he felt her body calm down. he heard her soft little moan. he stopped kissing her, put an arm around her shoulder and gently said, “come, let’s go home…”
the traffic thankfully was not heavy as he drove to the ar office in canary wharf. the day was overcast but asr was enjoying the feel of his bentley continental, its quiet surging power, smooth luxurious handling, a sense of the race track in a car designed for the road. a clever idea, he mused… bentley was an interesting company. he liked the way they managed to stay in pace with the changing demands of drivers.
they seemed to completely understand every generation that creates its own wealth will define luxury ultimately on its own terms. bentley caught the spirit of the times adroitly… his hand gripped the gear shift and felt the luxury and sportiness of the new carbon fibre material that wrapped around the head… and yet bentley remained all about heritage, knowledge, being classic.
not an easy problem to crack, asr pondered. in a way fashion had the same challenge. he had worked constantly at harnessing the sense of now, but at the same time build heritage into ar. he was an entrepreneur of course and profit was always a motive, but he had chosen a business that also absorbed his mind and was in fact, a passion. he had never ever considered the option of selling ar and moving onto something else. in fact, ar had been financially sound for a while now, a great product to put out in the market some might say, especially now, with the big names in luxury looking around to buy in the new world as it were of fashion. but ar was not for sale.
the gear moved glissading as he picked up speed. who, he wondered, would take over his company one day. inherit it.
the thought came out of nowhere and the next minute he was frowning, lips pursed… what the, he had never ever had this thought in all these years. ar was his company, he ran it, he led it to its next moment… his family helped him and a very capable team worked to make ar successful… but inherit?
a sudden smile stole across his face. surprising him just as much as that thought had.
he started to laugh, exhilarated by that idea now, the face of a slightly crazy girl flashed in his mind… she was winking at him, again and again. and that errant lock of hair bobbed on her forehead as she shook her head in a nutty sort of way trying to get him to see something. her lips were so entirely flawless, smooth, flowing, bow shaped, stretching into the most beaming and beguiling smile he had ever seen… inside, the gleam of her teeth, even and white.
“khushi,” he let his mind chat with her, “shall we talk about inheritance tonight? i mean, you know who shall we leave the company to… ”
he was very close to the office now… “what did you say?” he asked the girl with bright hazel eyes who merrily occupied his mind.
he was throwing back his head and roaring with laughter next, “‘laad governor kahin ke! ab mujhe bahut saare jalebi banane padenge’… not a bad answer… hmm, go ahead, khushi, make your jalebis, let me go catch some work…”
(lord governor that you are! now i’ll have to make lots of jalebis…)
khushi was lying covered in scented water in the beautiful white bath tub in their bathroom. she had never used a tub before, because shantivan only had a shower closet, asr preferred spare smart ideas, and bath tubs had always seemed unnecessary to him, a waste of space, a bit decadent and thick in fact. but here, for some reason he had not struck it down when the designer planned the interiors. in fact, interestingly, there was even a television set on a movable lever on the wall near the foot of the tub. you could angle it the way you wanted and watch while you soaked in a hot tub.
khushi, of course, had immediately found out how to operate the tv and get into some indian channles. she was missing her daily dose of drama by the loud and insistent kamlesh khabri. alas he was not on any channel here, but while surfing she had found something that was perhaps even better; comforting almost… a movie with salman ji. ek tha tiger.
and how strange, even salman ji’s film was set somewhere near london… dublin. khushi watched rapt, letting the hot water take away her tiredness and the disoriented, slightly jet lagged feeling.
she loved the way salman ji acted, yes he had become a little older and larger, but no one could smile like him, or dance, or fight, or crack jokes… khushi giggled at every little pun and comeback of tiger’s. she wished katrina ji were a little nicer to tiger and so what if he wanted to stay with her, the whole world knew what a good guy salman ji was, and therefore also his character manish chandra aka tiger… she was thrilled when they both stood looking up at stars one evening. and then the unthinkable happened.
arnav ji… her mind whispered and veered off instantly. she almost forgot her hero and her hindi film. remember how we looked at stars together, arnav ji…? she felt a different warmth and quickly it had become a longing.
tiger delivered a neat punch on the offending little villain’s nose… but khushi was in another movie by then. it played so compellingly in her head… arnav ji and she were lying out there by a beautiful river and looking up at a sky shimmering… millions of taarey… her stars up there… her vishwas… his fingers were intertwined with hers… he was playing with them, and now he had turned, he was planting feather light kisses on her shoulder, her upper arm… she could feel his breath on her skin, little shivers came and went… she was wearing a dress she realised, and it had cut away sleeves; her arms, her neck were showing, bare… also her leg.
a dress? hmmm, khushi lay deeper in the water and imagined arnav ji’s eyes on her if he saw her in something like that… his eyes would darken, and sparkle, then grow like… yes, like dhoond… mist… on a winter day… smoky. mist with heat in it. khushi could feel her heartbeat quicken.
as if sensing that arnav ji looked up at her. and he said, “shall we talk about inheritance tonight? i mean, you know who shall we leave the company to… ”
it took her a moment to realise what he was saying, then she was looking at him shocked and remonstrating, “laad governor kahin ke! ab mujhe bahut saare jalebi banane padenge!”
(laad governor, huh! now i’ll have ti make lots of jalebis!)
just then it was revealed on the now ignored screen that tiger’s name was actually not manish chandra, but avinash singh rathode.
khushi started. avinash singh rathode… asr? asr!
how was that even possible. she had to make jalebis now.
a blinding pain shot through his head. it was sharp and merciless… he could tell a migraine attack was coming on. asr worked furiously with the shears… he had to prune the shrub, cut it till it was practically shorn of all leaves… he could not stop… the ache was too harsh to withstand.
he had just seen shyam with khushi. they were standing so close to each other near the mandir by the sitting room in shantivan. khushi had her back to him, but he could see shyam’s face, there was a curious intimate smile on it.
he had wanted to call out sharply to khushi… break up this tete a tete between two cheats, two despicable liars… he wanted to protect di from this poison spreading… yet he couldn’t say a thing. only wince at the solid bludgeoning pain which seemed to have a sharp edge in it.
asr felt the pain explode near his temples. at the same moment his fingers slipped and the shears made a deep gash in his hand… blood oozed out, red, dense and fluent. he stared, the pain from the cut not yet registering.
the next thing he knew, khushi was in front of him, grabbing his hand, she was almost screaming, “arnav ji!… arnav ji!… be careful… you’re hurt… let me…”
he saw her eyes staring at his blood, her hands pulled at his wrists… his anger came gushing out in a carmine stream.
“leave me alone…” he shouted, “tumhe kya faraq padta hai… let it bleed!”
(what difference does it make to you… let it bleed!)
he turned away and started to stride toward his bedroom, but she moved swiftly, blocking him… then she was holding his hands in hers with the gentlest touch but when she opened her mouth, she yelled, “humey kya faraq padta hai? what childishness is this… you will bleed to… bleed to…”
(what difference does it make to me? what childishness is this… you will bleed to… bleed to…)
she didn’t bother to finish her sentence. she ran inside instead and reappeared with a first aid box in no time.
his head was almost splitting with pain by then, he had no energy to resist as she made him sit down on the deck chair by the pool and slowly, tenderly, cleaned the wound, put ointment, added gauze and tied a bandage. he remembered how soft her hands had felt when he had wound a bandage around her finger the day she had cut herself on a broken glass because he had carelessly pushed her.
even now he flinched at the thought of hurting her. his chest felt ripped at the sight of her standing so close to shyam, he grimaced and said nothing.
when the bandage was tied, she called the doctor, then told di and nani ji about his cut. soon he was surrounded by the whole family. his head throbbed and pounded and as always he said nothing to no one. finally, di realised he was in unbearable pain and shooed everyone away, leaving him alone to rest.
it was dark in the room, his hand had a raw sour burn in it, pulsating pain along the cut.
his whole body was now tired fighting the migraine. he wished he could stop the onslaught on his senses… what was the time? had he eaten dinner? but even before he could come to any sort of answer, he drifted off to a strange half sleep state, a woolly feeling in his mouth…
soft, gentle, cool fingers worked slowly at his temple. they pressed the aching nerves and sinew, they rubbed and kneaded and massaged… behind his eyelids the pressure seemed to lessen… her hands moved to his shoulders and continued to massage.
he wanted to push her hands away, tell her he could manage without her… she needn’t bother… go to that shyam.. go… i don’t need you.
he wanted to whisper her name… he wanted to hear her syllables caress his throat, explode against his palate…
he wanted to draw her into his arms and make her lie by him and whisper, “don’t you ever, ever dare love anyone else, samjhi tum!”
she said nothing, she was always there each time his eyes opened that night. next morning, he woke up alone. his looked around the room his heart beat quickening. where was she?
asr stared at the plateful of bright orange, juice coated, scrumptious looking jalebis.
“where… did you get those from?” he looked at khushi as she beamed back at him.
it was late afternoon, he had just got back from work. he was eager to take khushi out for her first look of london, and drive her out to a pub in oxford that he always visited when he was here. it was on the isis… a calm serene place, he knew she would love the countryside, simple and uncomplicated, the river and the punting. maybe he would take her punting after a drink… but jalebis? where on earth…?
“kyun? you think i can’t find my way around your london, is it?” khushi was looking pretty in his favourite shade of blue… deep navy.
she took a jalebi from the plate and held it to his lips. giving in for a change, asr took a crunchy bite… why was it impossible to have a jalebi without remembering a million things… the part he loved the most were the emotions that brought about the making of the orange stuff.
it was often anger and especially her kind of anger, sizzling and rapid, and animated like her.
he also liked it when she was very flustered and worked out the feeling by her jalebi therapy.
today it could not have been anger… so she was flustered.
“aunty mary took me to oxford street, there on the other side of the park?! we went to this big supermarket called sainsbury’s, it has an indian section, do you know? i got everything i need to make my jalebis… i got pickles too and pata hai, papad… also…” khushi trilled on as she watched him eat.
“whoa!” he cut in laughing, “one minute, miss lucknow express, who is aunty mary?”
khushi looked at him with large innocent eyes, “lo, inhen dekhiye, pooch rahein hain aunty mary kaun hain? i don’t know anyone here, na… yaad hai, you had said mrs higgs will be here, she has a key and will let herself in?”
(ha, look at him, asking me who is aunty mary? i don’t know anyone here, do i… do you remember, you had said mrs higgs will be here, she has a key and will let herself in?)
“ye–es,” asr nodded, “mrs higgs… but aunty…?!”
“ha–an, mrs higgs,” khushi shot back, “she is so much older than me, how can i call her by her name? tell me! so i asked her her shubhnaam and it is mary… so she is aunty mary, yes? am i right? bahut achhe hain wo… took me all over that huge street… uff so many shops, arnav ji, it’s all so big… ” she was frowning by now remembering the crowds and the unfamiliar feeling of oxford street.
(she is really nice… took me all over that huge street…)
asr had a vision of this lovely elderly english lady who took care of the flat… she was about fifty, a little tubby, but smartly dressed, with very smart pump shoes, her hair now a little wispy with age, cut short and kept neatly permed, she had a kind air about her and always greeted him with twinkling eyes and a brisk, “good morning, mr raizada…” followed by a comment on the weather… “looks like a luvly day we shall ‘ave, i am thinking…” or “you never can’t trust ’em skies, blue and sunny one minit and then, no warning, they coming apouring down…”
asr almost guffawed imagining mrs higgs’s state, possibly her horror, at being called aunty by a perfect stranger. in england this was certainly not the custom. you only called your parents’ siblings, perhaps at most their spouses, aunt and uncle.
“poor mrs higgs, ” he murmured looking at khushi, “but tell me, khushi, what made you want to make jalebis today?”
khushi looked at him nonplussed, “haan? woh… jalebi… i mean…”
he leaned close and gave her a devastating smile then, and murmured, “no need to tell me, khsuhi, i think i already know… pata chal jata hai…”
(one gets to know…)
khushi swallowed hard, took a jalebi quickly and started eating really fast.
they were sitting by the river isis at the silver boar pub around five in the evening, the sun had already begun to set.
he sipped his peaty mellow laphroig looking out over the water… idly watching the shadows lengthen and the sheen of dying sun rays over the surface of the wide, calm river. she had decided she would try some wine. he had told her not to feel she had to, one could just as easily drink orange juice here if one wished, but she had insisted, “nahin, arnav ji, lavanya ji said i must try mulled wine, they only make it in winter and it is really sweet and spicy…”
“did she now?” he replied, “and did she tell you what happens after you drink the sweet potent fairly cheap wine…”
“cheap? very good then, i will have it!” countered khushi, smiling back with a smug look.
khushi watched the shallow boats with their strange square-cut bows, the punts… that’s what arnav ji had said they are called, going by with little groups of people. some had families in them. a few had revellers, seemed to be part of a large party. a little further up just two people in a punt, even from a distance she could feel their absorption in each other. he was standing up and rowing while she sat looking up at him, hardly moving… on the mirror like water their boat moved gracefully, large trees lined the banks, the branches of some curved all the way down to the river… it was all so pretty, felt like a fairy tale.
a feeling of utter calm came over khushi. so many new things yet everything felt right.
the drive had been beautiful… first there were all the houses and buildings of a layered city that had been around for more than two thousand years … then the countryside, opening out… endless skies… and arnav ji sitting beside her, driving quietly. she had enjoyed the way he had fixed her seat belt and shown her how to lock and unlock her door, she also really liked the car. it was not his usual suv, but it had a solid, no nonsense feel and it felt smart… a bit like the man sitting next to her.
when they reached the pub, she was charmed by the beautiful scenery; she had never been to a place like this, but there was a simplicity and earthiness about it which reminded her of aunty and uncle ji’s dhaba on the way to nainital.
now she was drinking her wine, oh she was dying to tell jiji that she had actually had sharab… and it was really nice, the cinnamon and clove fragrance reminded her so much of home.
khushi breathed in deeply and closed her eyes.
her phone rang.
“na jaao saiyya… chhoorake baiyaan,” went the ring tone, playing the highly emotional notes of a song that was in her head these days. arnav ji’s eyelid flickered slightly… but he was getting used to her choice in ringtones it seemed to her. he didn’t protest or make fun of the new one.
(don’t go beloved, leaving my arms…)
it was di.
“hello, khushi ji… how are you?” di sounded happy.
“i am fine, di! and you?… and nani ji mami ji akash ji jiji…” khushi beamed and rushed in.
“arre arre arre, stop, khushi ji, stop… everyone is ok… now tell me, you had a good flight?” anjali sounded happy and indulgent.
“yes and a good sleep too, now i am drinking wine…” khushi declared triumphantly, “you want to talk to arnav ji?”
“no khushi ji! never!! for the next two weeks, i won’t disturb you two… maybe you will give me some…” anjali paused for effect, then continued, “good news when you come back…” she giggled as she teased khushi.
khushi blushed and said, “haan… woh.. hum… jalebi..”
(yes… that… i… jalebi…)
anjali laughed at the gibberish khushi mumbled, obviously things were going well. nani ji would be happy, she had wanted the two of them to get some time alone. she said, “bye, enjoy!” and hung up.
she was smiling happily still when she turned and looked at vijay verma sitting next to her in the car. he was dropping her home after dinner.
he saw her carefree beautiful face, and suddenly doctor verma felt something he had not felt in years. he leaned over and kissed anjali on the lips… passionately, taking his time.
anjali seemed totally taken aback, but when she realised what was happening, she let her arms slip around this tall quiet dependable man who had come into her life at one of the worst moments of her life and brought with him a promise of things she never thought she would believe in again.
anjali kissed vijay back. and for the first time since her child was taken from her, she felt a place within her being touched that had lain bereft and still till now.
“khushi!” he tried to awaken her but she was too inebriated and jet lagged to even stir. she lay slumped on her side of the bed, still fully clothed. he wondered if he should try and get her to change, but suddenly it didn’t seem to matter. he lay down next to her and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her in against him. then he murmured next to her ear, “i love you when you are drunk… dammit!”