“let’s frighten the dragons,” i said to pooh.
“that’s right,” said pooh to me.
“i’m not afraid,” i said to pooh,
and i held his paw and i shouted “shoo!
silly old dragons!” … and off they flew.
“i wasn’t afraid,” said pooh, said he,
“i’m never afraid with you.”
~~~ a a milne ~~~
his profile looked set, chiseled. yet something moved and glittered in the dim light. the faint rays of the early morning sun, still struggling to cast off the slumber of a long cold night, reflected off smoky brown irises rimmed with dark chocolate and tried to drive out the darkness they glimpsed there. asr stood by the long window in the bedroom, looking out, thoughts rushing through his mind, jumbled up, nothing clear and crisp, yet a host of murmuring, pervasive sounds and images. what had woken him up? it was a little past five when his eyes had opened suddenly, he’d sat up startled. where was he? where was maa? and di? and pita ji wasn’t back home yet? he’d turned to call out to rahim chacha, or maa, or was it di? he wasn’t sure, his mind still wafting, fuzzy… and he’d seen her lying by his side, deep in sleep.
why was she here? who was she?
sleep and wisps of a dream now disappearing fast into the nooks and crannies of his subconscious mind, kept him in their grasp a while longer as he stared dazed at her by his side, lying supine inches away from him, eyes closed, breathing easy, deep in innocent sleep. a powerful desire to touch her, to bury his face against her came upon him… she was his, part of him, something whispered… who was she, which part of him, his thoughts drifted… but she was meant to be here, nowhere else. he reached out to stroke her bare arm even as consciousness took firm hold of the moment.
his lips almost involuntarily began to curve… it was her. of course, it was. what was he thinking? no dreaming? had he really wondered which part of him she was? he wanted to lean over and quickly drag her into his arms and keep her there, warm against him… but she was sleeping like a child. he would not disturb her. he allowed himself a soft stroke along her lissome, fluid arm. the gentlest purest flesh, taut unblemished skin, innocence unfazed. his life, his love, his light. he bent and kissed her on her upper arm, breathing in her fresh clean scent. the most tender look flitted across his eyes and then returned to stay as he sat looking at her.
you wash away my sins, my darkness, d’you know, khushi? his heart called out. he wondered if she heard.
then he shook his head… what was he doing? he smiled a little again, this crazy pagal girl, the things she made him believe in. made him do.
he watched the sweet curve of her cheek, her lips relaxed and pouting just a bit as she slept, her hand lay on the bed as though reaching across to him, fingers slightly curled. when suddenly she moved and swung a deft punch with the same hand, he started. her left leg moved with alacrity and kicked him in the shin.
“ow!” he yelped under his death and grimaced but he was already laughing.
his taekwondo queen was in peaceful sleep clearly. it was only when she was absolutely at home somewhere that her frolic while asleep started. his belgravia flat had become her place too, he grinned, his teeth a wicked flash in the half light, and moved quickly out of the way of her next lethal jab and got up. his thoughts were already moving back to sheesh mahal as he walked over to the window.
not everything can be found a word or even a clearly demarcated feeling for. some places carry bleakness in their entrails, in their bones, in the hollows of their innards. a grimy licentiousness permeates the air and a sense of suffocation alongside. no matter how resplendent the visage, the rot in the gut is all you remember, it gets stored in you, in places where no one ever told you memory lingers. asr shivered slightly. the sheer vileness of his home, where behind all the custom and ritual and the vanities of a wealthy well known family going back many generations, only unholiness and a treacherous darkness dwelled. there was no room for innocence here. or love. how could maa survive, how could anything lovely blossom in a place where sunshine rarely came…
his eyes moved over the large plane trees that filled belgrave square, their leaves were subdued, shedding, preparing for the long winter ahead… but then there would be spring. and green again, new leaves, light, soft, bursting forth. why was there no spring in sheesh mahal.
how it had returned again with a harsh blast of pitiless cold, frost that bit you, left you bleeding. he could still here his uncle’s reedy sinuous voice, trembling with pleasure, telling him exactly how he had planned and killed, no slaughtered, maa. sheesh mahal had turned another devilish trick. maa had not killed herself… what he and everyone else had believed ever since that night, even that was a lie. nothing was ever as it seemed, nothing was ever transparent, nothing was simple, innocent. his lips were drawn in a grim line. she had been killed… he almost stopped breathing as the thought hit him as if for the very first time. his eyes shut tight. and behind his lids he could see his mother’s radiant smile, then curiously a lady was running down the corridor… she was in a lovely pale pink. khushi’s mother! no, she had not been spared either. he wanted to run and catch his mother in his arms and tell her he’d keep her safe. don’t worry, maa… i am here. he didn’t want the lady in pink to die. maa, i am here!
his eyes opened in a flash. he caught himself up short. he must not get lost in these feelings… he must not. this world, this realty… it had to be faced. it had to be endured. it had to be conquered. you could never let up, never escape. he didn’t even wish to escape. long years of dealing with all that was around him had made him learn to enjoy the exchange, get quite comfortable with whatever it was that came his way. oh the thrill of triumph when he did overcome.
the one thing that had got him good and proper though, was that fey girl lying there, practicing her warrior moves. he turned to look at her. his gorgeous insane wife. who would think of pouring mango juice into a crotchety nasty man’s shoes just to punish him… or hide in, of all place, a cupboard! hadn’t anyone told her, it was dangerous to do so?
why are you so lovely, so innocent, khushi? how will i protect you from this heartless, crushing world?
yet that was what he wanted to do, always.
he turned back to look out of the window again. now the sun was a little higher, the trees swayed in a light breeze, the whitewashed low rise majestic buildings built a couple of hundred years ago looked elegant and bright, a calm serene ambiance. yet somewhere in the distance he could hear an ambulance wail… or was it a fire engine? sirens. coming closer. where had trouble come, was it in one of these stately mansions before him? perhaps there was something rotten behind a beautiful facade here too…
why could he not shake off the feeling of unease, he wondered, turning to walk back to bed.
he lay down beside khushi and tried to draw her near. she yelled, “badmash, kaminey, chhorde mujhe!”
(rascal, b…, leave me!)
then she reached out and caught his hair in a punishing grip. he moved to get into a position where her hair pulling hurt a little less, covering her hand with his. she was obviously in her hindi film dream… maybe salman khan was her hero and she being saved by him, no one else was good enough really… he found himself grinning again.
“arnav ji aayengey toh pitoge aise… bhago agar bachna chahte ho, samjhe tum!” khushi yelled to the imaginary assailant, and for good measure, she gave his hair a vicious yank.
(when arnav ji comes you’ll get so thrashed… run if you want to live, understand?!)
asr could feel tears stinging the back of his eyes, and at the same time a strange contentment settling in. so arnav ji is coming to rescue you, is it? he thought to himself, burying his face in her hair.
“main aa gaya, khushi… kahin nahin jaaonga, okay!” he whispered against her silken tresses and drifted off to sleep.
(i am here, khushi… not going anywhere, okay!)
the boy sat at his designated place with a glum expression, a dark frown creasing his forehead. he was completely oblivious to the excitement in the air. di was wearing a saree with gold embroidery, he wondered what the fuss was and why she had to be dolled up like that when it was a holiday and they could have gone out to play, maybe gone shooting with pita ji, or something interesting.
everybody was smiling too much and rushing about doing things. maa was again sitting for hours in the temple, dadi had joined her there as well. but soon he knew they would both emerge with huge platters of flowers and offerings, then di would join them with her silver platter arranged with all sorts of things and attack him with a tika on the forehead and tie that funny sponge flower and tinsel decorated rakhi on his wrist.
arnav singh raizada hated rakshabandhan. at eleven, he did not wish to be seen with a girlish bracelet and that bright red thing on his forehead. he hated it the most when his dadi instructed him to say all sorts of ridiculous things to his sister about protecting her and being there for her forever. and she also mixed things in the tika to make it stay longer, it was impossible to wash it off.
didn’t these people understand, he loved di and would do whatever it took to make sure she is fine, unharmed. in school, even though he was years junior, everyone knew how ferocious anjali’s brother was when it came to her safety and well being. he had walloped a class eleven boy just the other day for making a snide remark about di’s limp when she came to pick him up from school, di had just joined college. he couldn’t care less the boy was twice his size and a champion athlete, he had beaten him to a pulp anyway.
but to wear all this and say silly things. arnav scowled as di came smiling with her thaal and stood before him. reluctantly, he held out his arm. di chose a rakhi carefully, and leaned to tie it. arnav was surprised. the usual pink or red or blue sponge flower and tinsel were missing, instead it was a discreet red string, platted with a touch of yellow that just went around his wrist and did not look offensive at all. he looked at di, startled, she winked at him.
“pasand nahin woh sab phool shool, hai na, chhotey? i made this specially for you… and don’t worry, dadi wasn’t looking when i changed the tika powder, this one will wash off easily… but promise me, you won’t fight with those huge senior class boys any more, okay?” she whispered.
(you don’t like all those flowers and things, isn’t it, chhotey?)
he smiled slightly and said, “maroonga… aap ko agar koi bhi kuch kahe ya kare, main nahin chhorunga…”
(i will beat them… anyone says or does anything to you, i am not sparing them…)
anjali shook her head and touched his cheek gently.
asr looked at his watch bleary eyed. it was almost 10.30 in the morning, he had slept through his eight o’clock alarm. he remembered he’d woken up earlier and not been able to sleep for quite some time. he was feeling tired even now. he turned and saw he was alone in the room.
where was khushi, he wondered. had she gone out? he was about to get up when he heard her voice.
“see, aunty mary, the onion, na? you must fry it very nicely, till it is absolutely brown, otherwise the chicken curry won’t get the right taste…” khushi was obviously talking to mrs higgs… was she teaching her how to make chicken curry? he smiled wryly… soon mrs higgs would also possibly get instructions on how to make the world’s best jalebi.
“okay, will you taste the gravy a little and see how it is?” khushi asked.
he heard mrs higgs mumble something.
“no, no, i don’t really like chicken, so i won’t try it… i only make it for arnav ji because he enjoys all this so much…” khushi said.
again he could hear mrs higgs’ voice.
“arrey… nothing like that, aunty mary! arnav ji does so much for me, this little bit of course i can do, no?” khushi sounded happy.
asr began to get up from bed…
“aap uth gaye?!” khushi said brightly as she walked into the room just then. asr was sitting at the edge of the bed, eyes still very sleepy, a lock of hair fell over his forehead, he was about to stretch in an effort to fight off the ennui.
khushi’s heart almost stopped beating when she saw him sitting like that, the air of vulnerability about him, and that hair… she walked across without thinking and ran her fingers over his hair, then pushed the lock back.
the tenderness of her touch didn’t go unnoticed by her husband. he looked at her and cocked an eyebrow. she felt her heart beat pick up pace, why did arnav ji have to… before she could complete her protest in her head, he’d pulled her down on top of him and they were both sprawled across the bed.
“arnav ji!” khushi squealed.
“yes, khushi? you were saying…?” he slung his arms across her hips looking up at her innocently.
“nahin… woh…” khushi began to mumble, she could feel the contours of his body flush against her, and even though she couldn’t see it, she knew he was playing with her plait, running his finger over the bunch of pompoms on her parandi, his eyes looked drowsy and a knowing smile played on his lips. she wished she could stop all thinking and just start kissing him right then.
but she was not going to let him know what he was doing to her, so with an arch little look she said, “nahin, i was just thinking you need a hair cut… you hair’s grown too long… woh dan ji must be having a partner or something here…”
“what the!” he burst out, “so you don’t like my hair, is that what you’re saying?!”
“nahin… woh.. main..” khushi wished she hadn’t said what she had, he seemed hurt.
(no… that… i…)
she was looking almost woebegone, when she felt him shaking under her… her eyes flew to his face and to her chagrin, she found arnav ji guffawing, laughing uncontrollably.
“khushi! i was just pulling your leg…” he said and when she started struggling to get away from him, he held her tighter, “come, run your fingers through my hair, now…” he half commanded half cajoled her, his voice growing thicker.
khushi wanted to tell him to get up and wash his face. she wanted to say, mrs higgs was just outside and could hear them. she thought she’d say, she had to rush back to the kitchen because the daal was on the stove. there were so many things she thought she’d say. but there was something in his voice she couldn’t deny. how he touched her with his open, unguarded, absolute love, his need, and yes, his desire. she liked being desired by him, she realised as she reached up and let her fingers play with his hair. he looked up at her, smiling, then raised his head and kissed her on her chin, before proceeding to her lips.
before long, he was taking off her clothes, that familiar drugged feeling began to overtake her as his pleasantly rough fingers roamed over her, arousing, intoxicating… she hoped aunty mary had taken the daal off the fire as she felt his lips begin to nibble her breast and his hand caress her navel.
then he was lifting her up in his arms and carrying her… and soon she was lying next to him in the bathtub and warm water was cascading all over them. she had never been in a tub with him before but it felt so good, she forgot all her inhibitions and stretched her body enjoying the water lapping gently against her while he kissed her, slipping his tongue inside her mouth and making her go slightly dizzy wanting him. time ticked by slowly as he held her close and made unhurried languorous love to her.
by the time khushi got ready and emerged from the bedroom, mrs higgs had left, she had also turned off the fire and the daal was still fine, though half cooked. khushi was standing looking at it and smiling to herself when she felt asr’s his arms around as he held her from behind.
“khushi,” he sounded serious, “i know you worry about me, especially since,” he turned her around, “that accident… but really, there’s no need to go so much out of your way for me… i know you don’t eat non-vegetarian food, so…”
“aap shut up, samjhe!” khushi snapped, “i will do what i want to do and you will get a hair cut, bas!”
arnav singh raizada looked at his wife and wondered again how he would protect that unfettered innocence from the harshness of this world.
he sat on the deckchair at the poolside, a naked wild anger coursing through him. he hated her. behind that innocent, sweet face was the mind of a filthy vile woman. a woman out to ruin his sister’s life. she was having an affair with his brother in law. she was sleeping with shyam. as he articulated the thought, he felt a sharp pain stab his gut, the breath was knocked out of his body at the vehemence of his feeling.
he got up and stood tense, fists cinched, breath ragged.
but he had not let her win. he had stopped her. he had married her because he hated her. hated her.
“i hate you, dammit!” he said under his breath. the rage spiraled in him, uncontrolled.
the water in the pool lapped the sides gently.
it was their last day in london.
as he left for the office, he’d asked her what she wanted to do today.
she was washing up after lunch, happy he had liked the chicken curry, and she’d said with a cheery smile, “bus, arnav ji… we will go for a long bus ride!” her eyes twinkled as she said it.
“nooo! not again!” he had protested.
instantly, she had struck a sad look with a huge pout and fluttering her lashes, said meekly, “theek hai, arnav ji…” knowing exactly what that would do to his resistance.
(alright, arnav ji)
of course, they would go for the bus ride, he grinned to himself as he drove toward canary wharf. a quiet happiness seized him, even now it was a feeling he was not utterly familiar with. he decided he’d go across to selfridges on the way home and pick up a pair of earrings for her from van cleef and arpels, he’d seen them the day they had gone shopping for the family. he would also get her a bag and a pair of shoes, and a dress. and for di, he wanted to get a set of bangles from tiffany’s, khushi had seen them in a magazine and pointed them out to him, thin diamond encrusted bangles in different shades of gold, yeah, di would like that. he missed her, hopefully she was alright…
his phone rang.
he looked at the phone, it was an unfamiliar number.
“yes!” he said peremptorily as he answered.
“arnav?” it was a man’s voice, heavy… doctor verma.
“yes, doc?” asr was immediately alert, “what’s the matter? all okay? di…?”
“nothing to worry about, arnav,” doctor verma replied but there was something in his voice asr could sense, “i… just wanted to have a word with you… about something…” doctor verma was clearly measuring his words carefully, asr grew restless “okay, when anjali had her… miscarriage, which hospital was she taken to?”
asr was nonplussed… why was di’s miscarriage being brought up suddenly? he hoped doctor verma had not upset di with these questions… asr was about to tick vijay verma off when he heard him say,
“i didn’t want to talk to anjali about all this… not yet… but it is important for me to know the name of the hospital… arnav, i have heard something and it is important…”
“holy family, doctor verma… we took di there!” asr said curtly, interrupting.
there was a silence of a few seconds at the other end.
then doctor verma said in a quiet, serious voice, “arnav, there’s a rumour going around in the hospital… yes, there are always all sorts of rumours… that a nurse who has joined recently from… holy family… has been talking about a baby she saved and smuggled out of the hospital even though the child’s own father wanted her dead…”
asr went stone still as doctor verma spoke.
“i don’t say, arnav, that this is… but i would like to investigate a bit more, now that i know anjali was at holy family… arnav, i don’t mean to play with anyone’s feelings…”
“doc, i’ll come and see you day after tomorrow… and i would like to meet the nurse,” asr said in a tone that brooked no opposition.