they glowed orange refulgent shiny, heaped almost a foot high on a large bell metal platter, next to that another sumptuous mound sat on a stainless steel plate, the largest in bua ji’s kitchen… there were a couple more formations of bright, crunchy, crisp, hot, freshly dunked in clear sugar syrup jalebis in other containers on the platform next to the stove.
however, the mistress of jalebi making seemed not quite done, she had a large basin of batter by her side and the cloth bag filled with the mixture of flour, yogurt and saffron swirled nonstop over hot oil. coils of pale cream batter landed, sizzled and turned orange, were flipped till they were evenly fried all around and then lifted and thrown into syrup, only to be rescued quickly before excessive sugar smothered the delicate spirals and arrayed on plates and platters.
the jalebi maker was frowning severely as she went about her task. it was clear, her mind was completely focused on her work. she was also busy doing one other thing… eating her creations without pause or rest. as one jalebi was stuffed into the mouth and munched on noisily, a hand reached for another.
“hai re nand kissore! jalebian ka parbat pahad banay rahi hai kya… himalay, nand kissore, ooka bajoo ma nilgiri! sanka devi, sanka devi! sabere ke aat bhi nahin baja hai… ee dekho, paglaye gayi, nand kissore…” bua ji hollered in her booming voice trundling into the kitchen.
(lord nand kishore! you’re making mountains and hills of jalebi! the himalyas, nand kishore, and next to it the nilgiris! goddess of craziness, goddess of craziness! it’s not even eight in the morning… just look… she’s gone mad, nand kishore…)
khushi didn’t respond, she continued with her jalebi frying. and eating.
bua ji shook her head and rolled her eyes, confounded by the sight before her.
“ey khussie… can you hear me or not… has the kind lord above taken your ability to hear for servicing or something? why aren’t you saying anything? stop stuffing your mouth!!” madhumati ji said sternly.
but her niece seemed oblivious to all the noise her aunt was creating.
it was payal’s gentle hand on her forearm that startled khushi out of her jalebi induced trance, she stared at her sister, eyes blank, looking curiously vulnerable.
khushi was still in the plain pale green salwar kameez she had worn to bed, her hair was tied in a loose plait, it was fairly obvious she had not combed her hair yet, her face was bereft of any make up, while her light translucent skin glowed something in her eyes seemed subdued, dimmed.
“what’s the matter, khushi? tum theek toh ho na?” asked payal, she was concerned for her little sister. so much had happened to her, to them… in just the past seven days. everyone had been struggling with the pace of events.
(what’s the matter, khushi… you’re alright, aren’t you?)
and everyone knew when khushi made jalebis with that sort of concentration it meant she was worried about something, hassled, distracted, even sad. what was troubling her? they were both getting married the next day… and look at the bride to be… such a state. payal stroked her arm soothingly.
khushi’s eyes widened, then her lips quivered a little, payal was beginning to get seriously concerned when khushi suddenly broke into a happy sparkling smile and said, rather loudly,
“nahin toh, jiji… what could be the matter with me…” she slung an arm around payal’s shoulders and continued hands flailing, head shaking, “now can’t a girl dream of her rajkumar a bit while cooking??? huh! remember the story of cinderella…?”
payal glanced at khushi’s determinedly happy face and knew whatever was bothering her sister would remain unknown. khushi was not going to tell her a thing. instead she’d pretend all was well and leap about laughing and cracking silly jokes.
payal let it be, knowing it was futile to tackle khushi now. she’d let her relax and pursue the matter later in the day, after breakfast, and knowing khushi, she would have her breakfast no matter how many jalebis she’d polished off now.
“okay, stop being cinderella you!” payal laughed and nudged her sister, “let me be one for a bit, after all my rajkumar deserves some dreaming of too… you go get ready, i’ll make breakfast… want poori?”
khushi clapped her hands and screeched, “garam garam poori… haan, jiji… please and some halwa, okay?” then she rushed off.
(hot hot poori… yes, jiji… please and some halwa, okay?)
bua ji looked heavenward and muttered, “hai re nand kissore…”
asr drove to the cul de sac and parked the suv. his face was drawn, the lines around his lips looked deeper, his still brown eyes were tired.
he got down from the car, walked over to the edge of the knoll where the road ended and stood looking down at the stretch of uneven earth scattered with rocks and thorny shrubs below. it was early in the morning, a light haze hung in the air, the houses and streets in the distance were shrouded in mist.
he had gone back to ar after dropping khushi the night before… something niggled at his mind.
shyam had not looked as worried as he should have.
some instinct of his had noted that and that instinct needed attention.
asr knew he had to tie this thing up without any loopholes. shyam was tricky… if he had managed to play this game for so long and not got caught, he was a natural survivor.
a sneer curled his lips.
the rotten ones all seemed to know how to survive. like his father. till that night… the night that destroyed everything.
last time too heavy a cost had been paid for one man’s innate baseness…
a tightly wound breath erupted in him and he shuddered at its impact.
no… this time there would be no collateral damage… no harm would come to the innocent.
he would make sure di stayed unscathed. if not unhurt.
he would be there with her… watch her return to life. this time no one would suffer other than the culprit.
and khushi. shyam had dared to get someone to call and threaten her. not a wise move, asr thought as a particularly unpleasant smile flashed across his lips. shyam had become careless, crossed too many lines.
while he worked on some financial details of the show, he’d mulled over the problem of shyam.
what could possibly be his next move? was there one even? asr shook his head, his mind said, “of course…”
shyam would not let go that easily. but how would he manage to hit back if he were sitting in prison…
arnav singh raizada had sat staring at his laptop, lips pursed, eyes glittering, eyebrows scrunched under a dark frown. shyam! what was he up to…
it didn’t take him long to figure out shyam had to have an accomplice… the woman who had called khushi was most likely that. someone shyam trusted and delegated things to. who was this woman though? was she a duped wife who foolishly did whatever her husband told her to? or a collaborator?
it didn’t matter. either way, she had to be contained.
it was 2am when he had called aman finally.
“aman, i need you to do something urgently…” he’d said without apologising for the late hour.
“yes, sir, of course…” aman had replied calmly, he knew his boss wouldn’t call at this time of night unless it was important.
“find the woman who owns that house in greater kailash… i need her traced by tomorrow,” asr instructed.
“okay, sir, i will speak to the agency and find out what i can about the house…” aman replied briskly, he was sitting up in bed in his pyjamas, eyes bleary, yawning every once in a way… but he made sure his voice betrayed nothing.
“aman, check with everyone in delhi who decorates children’s nurseries… shops, interiors companies, design houses… everyone… you’ll find her,” asr said laconically and disconnected.
before his eyes he could practically see the freshly set up nursery in that house… the motifs of teddy bears and fairies on the walls, the brightly coloured toys, the baby cot at the far end of the room… di was walking toward it with a pair of scissors in her hands… shyam was smiling… khushi stood watching the scene with horrified eyes…
asr’s teeth had clenched involuntarily. yes, definitely a woman had been involved in creating that room…
he took in a deep breath. this time there would be no mistakes. di and khushi would be safe. secure.
he had continued to work till sunrise. sleep eluded him. a tension gripped his being keeping him alert, almost urging him to forget the normal biological rhythms of his body.
he stood now with his hands thrust in his pocket, centreing.
“maa,” whispered a stray thought somewhere inside him… his lips tightened involuntarily. he turned swiftly on his heel and walked back to the suv.
when he reached home, it was a little past eight, he wondered what khushi was doing, he wanted to speak to her. he took the steps upstairs with his easy loping stride, passing akash on the way, who was walking down with a bemused expression.
“akash!” asr said in a clipped voice.
akash fixed him with a flaky lost look and said, “yes, bhai…”
something caught in asr’s throat, he swallowed.
“you look happy, bro!” he said, an eyebrow raised.
akash smiled, his eyes remained unfocussed… dreamy.
asr almost smiled back, but stopped himself, chucked akash on the shoulder and raced up with a “whatever!” floating down after him.
mami ji had seen this little tableau on the staircase from her perch in the kitchen, a high stool upon which she sat looking extremely busy while others ran about getting the work done.
she said bitterly to herself, “hoonh! haapy lagat my bwoyj, soons only to be cryings and cryings and makings gangas with jamunas, hello hi bye bye… madhumakkhis phlyings phroms the lucknows, isstings my poor akas bitwa… hello hi… madhu bye bye… bhere bhere is any madhu in the middil kilaaswa!!” then happy with her own witticism she smiled and said sweetly, “hoonh!” once more for good effect.
(huh! my boy looks happy, soon he’ll be crying nonstop and making ganga and jamuna rivers, hello hi bye bye… honey bees came flying from lucknow and stung my poor akash… hello hi… honey bye bye… where, where is any honey in the middle class!!)
asr walked into his room even as he reached for his phone to call khushi and then stood stock still at the entrance, shocked.
hari prakash and om prakash were moving things around, on the bed lay stacks of white and pink linen, his bed was stripped down to the mattress… hp was telling op to carry the chaise longue carefully as they shifted it to one side, away from where he liked it right by the french windows, a long low table that did not belong to his room had been wedged into a corner by the bed.
di stood in the centre of the room looking gleefully at the proceedings. his room was a mess.
asr’s temper soared, his bloodshot eyes reddened further.
“what the!” the expletive was sharp and incisive.
“chotey!” di beamed, “you’re here… i was wondering… where did you go so early in the morning and op said you didn’t even have your dinner last night, did you hav your medicine? what’s the matter, bhaiyya? nervous, are you? or are you so excited about your shadi, you can’t eat? did you go to see khushi for a romantic sunday morning tryst?”
“whaaat!” asr’s anger was now at a precarious high, “stop talking nonsense, di!” he growled, “what are you doing to my room?!! and what are those… those…”
he was pointing toward the pink printed bundle sitting on his bed. his frown was trenchant, his finger jabbed the air violently, it was evident he was not pleased.
“and why’re you moving things around in my room, di…? this is MY room! how can you…?” asr look around angrily.
“ofho chhotey! tum bhi na… why’re you shouting? this is your room but soon it will be khushi’s room too…” started anjali, asr turned and looked at her, eyes widening…
“stop scowling, chhotey… you’re getting married tomorrow, remember? that table is for khushi, you know she needs a place to keep her devi maiyya, i noticed she keeps her on a desk in her room… and also tomorrow’s your suhag raat, remember? we have to do up the bed with flowers and nice fresh, beautiful, not boring like yours, sheets… i’m just trying to see how these lovely pink rose embossed satin sheets will…” anjali stopped when she saw the expression on her bother’s face.
he’d been gaping at her, speechless as she spoke, now he was holding up his hand, jaws clenched, nostrils flaring…
“suhag raat?!!” he spat out, “hold it, di, no… no… lemme speak… what’re you talking about… and pink floral sheets??? seriously? sorry, di, this is not happening, okay? and i don’t believe in all this suhag raat bakwas, so please… op… hp… out… everything out, and my chair… back where i like it! now!”
op and hp exchanged glances and scurried to do a very irate chhotey sahib’s bidding.
“fine!” anjali looked around grimly, “do what you like… don’t consider anyone… not even khushi… she is a normal young human being unlike some people i know…” it was obvious anjali was upset, “she might not think suhag raat is bakwas… plus this is going to be her room too, you know…”
asr snapped, “well, if it’s that important, you can set up a suhag raat for her in another room… the guest room if you like, but not in my room! and if she needs a room, just give her one!! we have plenty of rooms in shantivan, di…!” he was too tired by now, all he wanted to do was lie down for half an hour then go to work.
“chhotey, can you hear yourself talk? you’re MARRYING khushi tomorrow, she is not a GUEST in our home, she is family… your WIFE!! akash was so happy when we arranged his room… he even said, he thought payal might want to choose new upholstery…” anjali was too distraught to notice her brother looked worn out.
asr’s lips tightened… new upholstery??? khushi would probably choose red crinkly linen with gota and sequin edging… pompoms hanging along the pelmet rail.
he shut his eyes and winced.
“do what you like, di… just spare me those sheets… i am sure khushi wouldn’t mind sleeping on white sheets… go ahead… do the flowers, table, gota, pompom… whatever,” he said wearily, walking toward the pool…
all this talk of marriage, wife… he was suddenly missing her… khushi. hopefully she was up by now and not sleeping in late on sunday.
“awww, chhotey, see? i should get angry with you more often…” di stroked his cheek gently and peered at him, “you look tired, om prakash ji, chhotey ke liye coffee laiye!” she said to op and smiled charmingly at her brother, then her brow wrinkled, “gota, pompom… you sure you want those on the bed…?”
(om prakash ji, bring some coffee for chhotey!)
asr rolled his eyes and walked out.
he sat on the the deckchair outside and dialed khushi’s number. the phone rang a few times, she didn’t answer.
he wondered why he felt so alone suddenly.
“khushi!” payal said after breakfast, “come tell me, what’s the matter… why are you so quiet? are you feeling scared about getting married… the change… tell me, khushi, you know you can!”
khushi looked so forlorn payal wanted to hug her.. what was wrong!
khushi’s eyes were wide and almost full of tears, her lips quivered… then she pulled herself together and said in an even voice, “nothing, jiji…”
she walked out onto the verandah and started collecting the dry clothes from the clothesline.
“aye hai, khushi beta, don’t look so sad…” billo mausi chimed, “today your dulha will not pick you up i know,” she giggled, “but after tomorrow he’s never going to set you down!” she chortled.
khushi sighed and sorted clothes.
“her name is anjna jha, sir…” aman said quietly as he walked into the room, “she is staying at the ambassador hotel in sujan singh park.”
asr looked up and snapped his computer shut.
“right…!” he got up swiftly and shrugged on his jacket, “aman, call the police, tell them to meet me at the hotel…” he instructed tersely as he strode out.
while driving, he tried to call khushi once more. he wanted to hear her “haylow”… he’d never heard anyone say that ubiquitous word quite like that. despite his sombre mood, a smile escaped his lips. pagal, he thought.
khushi didn’t pick up the phone. where was the girl, he wondered? must be sleeping the whole day… preparing for her suhag raat no doubt. he grinned and accelerated.
it was almost five in the evening when he got back to ar.
aman noted the boss looked a little relaxed now, but his face was drawn. he had known asr long enough to know he was not expected to show concern or fuss in any way.
he walked over to the pantry, made a cup of coffee and took it up to asr’s office.
as he placed the cup on the desk, asr looked up from his computer and said, “thanks, aman, good work!”
aman felt a rush of pride.
“see you later, sir… oh, madam had come over, she left a letter for you…” aman selected an envelope from a sheaf of papers and handed it to asr.
asr opened the sealed envelope as aman walked out. khushi had left a letter for him? what?!! why hadn’t she picked up her phone? he had tried even on the way back…
humey maaf kar dijiye… hum aapse shadi nahin kar sakte. hum kissi aur se pyaar karte hain.
forgive me, i can’t marry you… i love someone else.
asr felt the blood drain from his face and his hands go numb as he read the words.
he read the letter once more. the words didn’t change. they were what they were…
he felt an emptiness take over his being. and an anger spiral.
for the second time in the day, he got up with alacrity and left his office.
“meri jaan meri jaan sunday ko andey…” billo mausi was humming as she chewed her meetha paan and drank tea sitting in the verandah.
the suv drew up and screeched to a halt startling her. a man in a jacket, hair tousled, eyes bloodshot, got out, banged the door shut and came running up the steps.
“khushi hai?” asr asked without pleasantries or preamble.
(is khushi there?)
“arre, damad ji!” simpered billo mausi, “nahin, woh toh kuchh der pehle…”
(ah, son in law! no, she … a while back..)
asr shook his head impatiently and walked into the house without waiting to be invited in…
“bua ji!” he called out.
“babua!!! hai re nand kissore… ee toh humaar babua ki awaaz laagat hai,” madhumati ji said expectantly as she waddled out.
(sonny!!! lord nand kisore… that sounds like my sonny’s voice…)
when she saw asr’s face, dark and set, she hastened to him, “what’s up, nand kissore? have we done something wrong? why are you lookig like that… arri o garima, sasi babua, come here, hai re nand kissore, where’s everyone??… look who’s here!!”
“bua ji, where’s khushi?” asr asked tensely.
“haink, titaliya??? aaa…” buaji, placed a thoughtful finger on her cheek and furrowed her brow, “she has gone out… she said she told payaliya where she… wait wait… payaliya!!!” bua ji hollered.
when payal came running out followed by amma and babu ji, bua ji said, “where has titaliya gone, payaliya? she said she’d told you, was in such a hurry, like a storm she blew out… !”
“payal, where’s khushi!” asr asked payal who was looking very puzzled.
“told me? nahin toh… khushi said nothing to me!” payal looked around the room.
heaps of jalebis sat in a variety of containers on the dining table, under frilly covers.
no one knew where khushi had gone.
worried looks flew around the room.
without a word, asr turned and walked out.