then even nothingness was not, nor existence,
there was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it.
what covered it? where was it? in whose keeping
was there then cosmic water, in depths unfathomed?
~~~ nasadiya sukta, rig veda~~~
he stood outside the room, unable to look in through the glass panel set in the door frame. blue door, white walls, a skirting of pale grey oil paint along the wall almost three feet high. an eerie silence all around. a faint yet persistent smell of disinfectant. it was past midnight, the operation was over, di was still unconscious.
they couldn’t save the baby.
arnav singh raizada felt his heart knock against his ribcage as the words went simply, without embellishment, through his mind.
di had lost her child. they couldn’t save her little girl. something flickered in his irises and went still. for some reason, di was convinced it was a girl… he almost smiled, remembering di insisting, she was even knitting a pale pink sweater…
he stood there alone in the corridor, an emptiness seeping into him. he had failed again. he had not been able to protect di.
di… what if… what if she had not…
he didn’t finish that sentence. he wouldn’t think of “what if” scenarios. he never did. what was, what had to be faced, dealt with, that was important. that was what mattered. he would focus on that.
and yet, what if he had lost di.
without taking his consent the thought crossed his head. he felt a jolt in his chest, a heat behind his eyes. he walked away carried by the force of a terrifying emotion.
for years now, he’d done everything he could to set right the defilement of a night far away… yet always close by. how it lingered just beneath the surface, seething and turbid, a craving in its wailing shehnai, a cremation in its gunshots. it wanted to swallow all light, plunge the world into eternal darkness… only a single sensation writhing within. a sound. maa.
everything might have ended that night. then he had looked at di and felt a stirring… a reckoning. he could feel it rise and take hold of him. he’d walked quietly to her side as she sat staring vacant eyed at the bodies of their parents covered in pristine white sheets and sat down beside her. he had reached over and taken her hand in his. two siblings struck by catastrophe… a twenty one year old girl who had been dressed as a bride just a couple of hours earlier and who now looked almost childlike in her helplessness, and a fourteen year old boy who had started looking grown up all of a sudden.
as the world and its doing of things done whirled around them, a brother and a sister sat side by side, their relationship quietly realigning, changing, taking a shape it might never have if their life had not taken this turn.
into the wretched numbness had come a single thought, he would make sure nothing happened to his di. he would take care of her. as long as he was there, she would be safe… some day she would be happy too. he would see to that. yes, he would. he had let go of her hand and put his arm around her shoulder, drawing her head down till it rested on his shoulder. he had rocked her gently. he was here, he wouldn’t let anyone harm her.
that night a young boy had found a reason to go on… to fight back, to succeed, to live.
and now di lay in that hospital bed, her child had died. her husband was a philandering cheat. her world was shattering again.
he had failed.
asr swallowed hard. his eyes moved upward of their own volition, then a mirthless smile slanted his lips… there was nothing there, or anywhere else… that one could depend on, seek anything from.
he began pacing along the corridor. how would he face di when she came to? what would he tell her? he could feel a thick pall descend.
“arnav ji,” khushi’s voice was a whisper. he started. he hadn’t heard her approaching. he tried to look at her, but he couldn’t. he wanted to tell her how badly he had failed, dammit… but that too he didn’t. energy was sapping out of him… another long night loomed ahead. it was happening all over again.
khushi moved closer. she was still dressed in the rich prussian blue lehenga she had worn for di’s godh bharai ceremony. the evening had been going so well, di was smiling and looking beautiful in her dark pink saree…
and suddenly… what had happened? they had all been dancing… then that piercing scream.
di was slipping and skidding down the stairs, trying hard to reach for the banister… arnav ji was running toward her. before he could reach her, di had fallen.
khushi looked up at the face of the man she loved. she lifted her hand and stroked his cheek, “ghabraiye nahin, arnav ji… di ko kuchh nahin hoga… aap hain na, di ko aap sambhaal lenge,” she said softly. if she knew him at all, she was sure he was blaming himself right now… thinking he had fallen short in some way. she wanted to throw her arms around him and hold him, but she knew he wanted to be left alone.
(don’t worry, arnav ji… nothing will happen to di… you are there, you’ll take care of her.)
he seemed to laugh, she realised it was a sneer.
“main? no, khushi… i have failed, that’s all,” he said quietly. then he drew her into his arms and buried his face in the crook of her neck.
(me? no khushi… I have failed… that’s all.)
“how will i face di, khushi? what will I tell her?” he said, his voice breaking.
khushi felt tears roll down her eyes. she couldn’t bear to hear arnav ji sound so helpless. she stroked his hair without saying a word. hey devi maiyya, take care of arnav ji and di, she prayed silently.
when anjali regained consciousness she refused to believe her rajkumari, her baby, was no more. she shouted at anyone who tried to say otherwise.
mami came to her nephew, distraught. a feeling of inevitability seemed to grip asr, he knew what he must do. he walked up to the door once more, but this time he did look in.
anjali saw him standing there and as their eyes met, without a word having to be said, she understood. he watched her face crumple, her hands grope wildly around her middle, her eyes lose hope… he stood there watching, unable to go and hold her this time. he had not done what he had promised to do. a part of di was dead forever.
that darkness, why did it never leave?
the noise startled everyone.
nani ji and bua ji were in the prayer room arranging the afternoon’s offering and lakshmi ji nuzzled against her mistress. she seemed to want more attention than usual, devyani raizada thought distractedly and gave her pet goat a loving pat before going back to her work.
the rest of the family was sitting in the drawing room, om prakash and hari prakash had just served light refreshing buttermilk, the table was being set for lunch.
mama ji and shashi ji were deep in conversation about a lane in lucknow which had the most interesting savouries. garima was telling anjali to try a massage oil that had been particularly beneficial for her husband.
khushi was showing off her knowledge of london to nk and payal.
“haan, you know, i took a taxi all alone also… hum lucknow se hain, woh london wondon se darte nahin!” she said making a face and thrusting out her chin.
(yes, you know i took a taxi all alone also, i am from lucknow, huh, not scared of any london…)
“really, khushi ji? aap kitni badsurat hain!” nk gushed with a beaming smile.
(really, khushi? you are so ugly!)
“badsurat nahin, nk bhai, bahadur,” payal corrected him in her gentle, patient vein. then she turned to khushi and with a slightly raised eyebrow asked, “you weren’t scared at all, khushi?”
(not ugly, nk bhai, brave.)
payal had a knowing smile, khushi looked around a little uncomfortably, scratched her head and said, “haan, woh… matlab…”
“do you know, nk, yeh khushi hai na… yeh meri darti hai par karti hai behen hai…” said payal
(do you know, nk, this khushi here… she’s my scared but will do sister…)
“darti hai!” nk jumped up, “khushi ji, like me! I am also darti hai… of bua ji… and…”
“and… lavanya ji?” khushi said archly, “why, nanhe ji, these days you’re never too far from her…”
nk blushed and grabbed his glass of buttermilk.
mami ji walked in looking very pleased, the after effects of all the “foreign” gifts had obviously not worn of. she was humming, “dehleez pe meri… hmmm hmm… jeena jeena…” her latest favourite hindi film song…
(on the threshold… hmm… hmm… to live to live…)
she came and struck a pose before the three of them and said, “uff atif eej so guds, bhat a sweeets bwoy… bhat a lauly bhoice… my phaaborite! jeena jeena… hmm hmm…” she blew on her nails coyly, obviously the polish had been touched up.
akash lifted his head from the newspaper for a moment and looked at his mother, then he went back to his reading. payal had asked him to come home for lunch today, she was absolutely delighted to see her father almost back to being the way he was.
lakshmi ji darted out of the mandir and went toward the main entrance and that was precisely when the noise started.
it was so strident and sudden, it took a while to register that it was in fact the door bell.
“kya hua! kya hua!” nani ji came rushing out, looking perturbed.
(what happened! what happened!)
“kaun hai! hari prakash ji! kya ho raha hai!” anjali called out, standing up.
(who’s that! hari prakash ji! what’s going on!)
khushi sprang to her feet and went toward her father.
mami ji stopped singing.
and then it was she who yelled, “arre baba, jaao jaao, hp, op, darwajja kholo… ee toh humaar door bells hai, hello hi bye bye… bhere bhere… bhere eej the phires? bhy ringings so so many many timej… hab we gaat the jayckpaat… he he he…” mami giggled at her own sense of humour and bustled off toward the entrance.
(go go, hp, op… go open the door. that’s our door bell, hello hi bye bye… where where… where’s the fire? why are they ringing the bell like this? have we won the jackpot! )
the noise was getting deafening… khushi followed mami ji hurriedly… something told her she knew who it was… yes, it was arnav ji…
her heartbeat raced… had he…?
all you could see were two pairs of eyes. both dark brown. both shining.
asr’s eyes were sparkling with something impossible to name. right next to them gleamed the little child’s large eyes…
he was carrying her, holding her securely with both arms and walking in without looking left or right. behind him came doctor verma, more slowly but even he had a peculiar smile on his face.
khushi stared at them, her heart beat reaching a crescendo.
mami charged ahead keeping pace with the two men, her hands were shaking with a strange excitement… her eyes had widened and she went straight to her mother in law, though she had no idea why, and grasped her shoulders.
hp gaped open mouthed at the goings on, completely forgetting to close the door.
lakshmi ji trotted happily alongside doctor verma. a silence gathered and right in the middle of it fell four familiar inimitable words… “hai re nand kissore!”
before anyone in the sitting area could react, asr reached anjali… his eyes were fixed on her now and they seemed to get even brighter.
anjali stood there without moving. everything all around began to recede. brown eyes… she stared at the curls, the plump tender cheeks… the drool… who had smeared so much kajal in those eyes? anjali extended her hand even as she heard asr’s ragged, hoarse, “di!”
her fingers touched the wet cheek. the child made a noise. one of those noises that no one can describe… like the sound of rain… of the wind… of leaves falling. one of those noises there isn’t any need to describe… anjali gazed at the child, her eyes refusing to move away…
who was she?
chhotey never carried children… anjali searched for an answer in her head. but her heart had picked up an erratic uncontrollable beat already.
“di!” chhotey said again. her nonplussed gaze shifted to him, was that a sheen of tears on his eyes… his lips were beginning to slant up… he looked like a little boy…
“chhotey?” anjali whispered asking him what she didn’t know.
“roshni,” he said softly… “aapki rajkumari…”
anjali wasn’t aware she cried out at the words. a sharp guttural cry from some corner of her, some chasm within this thing we call our body yet it holds so much more than mere flesh. all she felt was a wild need to clasp the girl with huge eyes and curls and drool to her bosom… to keep her there. who was she ? was there any need to answer that question? was there any answer to that question? she had heard her and touched her and known her for so many days, so many months, endless moments, right inside her… where you knew things… where there was no lie… ever.
asr watched through a film of tears as his sister took his niece from his arms and laid her on her own body… her eyes closed, she held roshni tenderly yet tightly, her hands had balled into fists.
asr caught hold of di’s shoulders and made her sit down… everyone was now coming closer to the mother and her child… a murmur was rising. there was laughter, there were questions, there was astonishment, amazement and joy.
he looked back. where was khushi? she stood just outside the circle of people, tears streaming freely down her cheeks… his eyes moved down to her lips… she was smiling. light pink lips, unlined, innocent. he wanted to run to her and tell her… at last he felt free. he wanted to kiss her guileless lips.
“shyam!” anjali’s voice was so low you had to strain to catch the word.
yet, he did. and he stiffened instantly. khushi’s eyes widened. what was di saying?!
“you are my kanha, my shyam… do you know, you have come to me!” anjali was saying to the little girl who sat on her lap now, pulling lakshmi ji’s ears… “no one can hurt you, no one can harm you… nani, khushi ji! hain na yeh ekdam shyam ji ke tarah…?”
(you are my krishna, my shyam… do you know, you have come to me! no one can hurt you, no one can harm you… nani, khushi ji! isn’t she just like shyam ji?)
asr relaxed a little.
it was almost an hour since he had come home with perhaps the most beautiful gift he would ever give his sister. questions had been asked and answered, everyone had taken turns to cuddle and kiss the new member of the raizada family.
khushi had watched spellbound as nani ji had taken her great grand child in her arms for the first time and blessed her. she remembered nani ji sitting before devi maiyya that day when she had come home from the hospital after arnav ji slipped into coma… she had marveled at nani ji’s strength and prayed her grand mother in law be spared any more tragedy. she had suffered enough, and always with grace and strength.
khushi had wondered what nani ji was thinking at this moment.
almost as if reading her mind, nani ji had turned, looked at her straight in the eyes and smiled. khushi had never seen her so happy, youthful… almost untouched by the years.
“oph course, my grand daaghter eej like that natkhat nand kissore only… and she eej prettier than him, hello hi bye bye… she eej our own raijada maynsson bootiphool sweet bestest kismis kajoobadam barphi gulabjamun jalebi…” mami ji chimed completely out of control in her joy. she also wept copiously right through.
(of course, my grand daughter is like that playful krishna… and she is prettier than him, hello hi bye bye… she is our raizada mansion’s beautiful sweet best raisin cashew barfi gulab jamun jalebi…)
akash was sitting next to anjali beaming. anjali was the only sister he had ever known, she may be his cousin but to him, she was his di and he loved her, that was all. he reached out gingerly, looped a finger through one of roshni’s curls and pulled, then let go almost immediately. the curl went right back to its original state. akash looked at anjali and they giggled like kids.
“chhotey, i need to thank the nurse who saved my daughter… i must meet her… and she…” anjali said turning to asr, she sounded agitated.
“she…” anjali’s lips quivered a little, “she was like a mother…” anjali felt a little better once she had said the word… “a mother… to…”
asr watched her silently. di was struggling with many things he knew. he had too. he still was. urmila jana had done more for his family than he’d ever have believed a stranger could do. he could still see that vulnerable look in her eyes as she gave the tiny toddler a little push and said, “jaa…” letting go…
he had called aman on the way home and left specific instructions to contact urmila jana and give her anything she might ask for. but he knew this was far more complex than just a matter of giving and taking.
“anjali,” docter verma spoke for the first time since walking in with asr, “would you like to come to the hospital with me and meet her?”
anjali looked from her bother to the man she had grown to trust and value in these months, she said, “yes, vijay… please, I would… now.”
the sun was bright but pleasant in the winter afternoon. anjali sat next to urmila on a bench, they were in the park next to the hospital. she was holding urmila’s hands in hers as they spoke.
asr and khushi stood to one side, keeping an eye on roshni who was busy with a colourful ball, tumbling around the sand pit. vijay verma and akash were standing farther away, talking.
“have you heard the story of krishna, urmila ji?” anjali asked the plain looking woman sitting across from her.
urmila jana had barely spoken a word since they met. she seemed bereft, almost shut out from everything, she hardly looked at anjali.
“i don’t think i will ever find the words to thank you the way you should be thanked… aur…” anjali held the limp hands in hers tighter, “hum shayad aap ko aisa dukh de rahen hain jo humne kabhi nahin jana tha hum kissiko denge…”
(and perhaps i am giving you the sort of sadness i’d never known i’d give anyone…)
the nurse lifted her eyes at anjali’s words.
“it’s okay, i won’t create any trouble, i promise… roshni…” urmila’s voice shook, “roshni will be happy…” she said listlessly.
“haan, she will be… that is why i have come… you saved her, urmila ji, you loved her… you are her…mother. humey yeh hi shiksha di jati hai na? sirf janam dene wali maa nahin hain, aapne unki raksha ki hai… ” anjali said, her voice was breaking too.
(we are taught that, aren’t we? only the one who gives birth isn’t the mother, you have saved her…)
urmila jana started sobbing. anjali leaned forward and hugged her.
“please accept my thanks… and don’t stop loving roshni… jab ji chahe, man karey… usse dekhne, zaroor aaiyega… jaantey hain? humney socha tha shayad humari pooja, humari prarthna… sab mein koi kami hai… nahin toh…” anjali paused for a moment before carrying on,” lekin… aaj humey laga… nahin… sab theek hai, jo sahi hai, wahi hota hai… you made me believe that… thank you.”
(please accept my thanks… and don’t stop loving roshni… whenever you want to see her, please do come… do you know? i’d thought my prayers, my faith, everything was flawed in some way, otherwise… but today i felt… no… everything is fine, what is right… that happens. you made me believe that… thank you.)
urmila jana smiled a little before she spoke in her flat monotone, “she was so tiny… and her hair was thick and dark… i did not do right, miss anjali… she is yours… and she should be with you… forgive me, i didn’t do right.”
not all relationships come about in neatly understood and prescribed ways. urmila was ready to kill a child without whom she now couldn’t imagine living. anjali had never ever allowed herself to think her rajkumari might have survived. it was too painful to toy with such thoughts. yet, she always remembered how she’d not been able to believe her child was dead. she had only accepted it because chhotey had looked so shattered. maybe a mother has ways of knowing about her child that can’t be explained? today she was sitting with the woman who had agreed to murder her unborn child. the greater truth however was, she had not.
nurse urmila jana had, without even meaning to, become a part of their lives… and she would always be the woman who saved roshni.
stars covered the dark winter sky.
asr sat by his pool, looking at the water. di was sleeping next to her daughter tonight, he thought… his brown eyes glittered for an instant. an intense emotion held him almost immobile.
then he breathed out slowly.
where was khushi? she had not yet come upstairs. it had been a long long day…
he got up and went quickly through their bedroom and down the stairs…
“khushi?” he called out. there was no answer.
where was the girl? he needed to see her now. where was she?
he checked in the kitchen but she wasn’t there. he went to the sit out at the back only to find she wasn’t there either.
“khushi!” had she gone to the terrace? he was about to go up when he saw her.
she was standing by di’s bed, leaning down over roshni and smiling. both di and roshni were fast asleep.
asr felt his heart skip and miss a beat. khushi was wearing her red churidar kurta and she’d knotted her hair casually in a bun at the nape of her neck, her face as always had barely any make up, a tiny silvery bindi glinted on her forehead… from this angle, he couldn’t see her face really… only her forehead and the arc of her lips as she smiled.
he knew though she looked beautiful.
an impatience nudged him. he walked into the room and without saying a word caught her wrist and pulled her after him taking her back to their room.
khushi was taken aback but she kept quiet… roshni mustn’t wake up and really how shameless was arnav ji! in front of everyone he was pulling her like this. in her sudden agitation, or was it excitement, it didn’t occur to her that there was no “everyone” anywhere. only the furniture, the plants, the curios. and now the water and sky and stars.
he sat down on the deckchair and pulled her on to his lap. his arms slipped around her waist and he drew her close…
“why are you still not ready for bed?” he asked in a hoarse whisper, making her spine tingle.
“arnav ji!” khushi exclaimed, she knew she was blushing.
“khushi, i want to make love to you… now!” he said against her lips kissing her hard.
she knew he was trying to tell her something… in his way. but at this moment, she couldn’t think any more because he was taking off her kurta with sure swift movements… next his shirt was gone and his bare cool skin was against her breast, her diaphragm, her stomach, her abdomen… his hands cupped her breasts, he buried his face against her body and sucked gently on her left nipple. khushi moaned. his hand travelled over her back, her legs and came up to the drawstring of her churidar.
khushi covered his hand with hers and arched against him…
then he was lifting her and taking her into the room. everything was happening at a dreamlike pace… khushi thought. was this because of jet lag?
she felt her churidar slipping off her and all thought ceased again… his trousers were joining her dupatta and churidar on the floor by the bed.
khushi turned and lay back knowing he would be leaning over her soon. she wanted to feel his lips on her, his weight on her, his hands getting a little rough. she could feel him about to cover her body with his, she moved so that he would lie exactly where he should… she knew his every muscle rhythm and tone by now and she yearned for him. as she did every time.
she felt his legs against hers, soon he would be kissing her all over then sliding into her she knew… but tonight she needed to tell him what she felt he wanted to hear.
she cupped his cheeks in her hands and brought his face close to hers, “arnav ji,” she said clearly, “i want you to make love to me… now!”
she saw his teeth flash in the dark. he was grinning…
then he was kissing her on her navel, her waist, her back… his hands were touching her, arousing… his skin was crisp and taut and compelling, she longed for it… for him.
his lips found hers when at last he thrust into her, loving her, delighting her, wanting only to give himself to her.
he felt his world come together in that embrace of hers. she had told him he would make everything alright for di some day… maybe that’s why this day had come at all.
he looked intently at her face as she writhed beneath him. would she someday be looking down with that smile at a child of theirs?
“don’t you dare stop loving me, ever… dammit!” he whispered breathlessly.
“good morning, mr arnav singh raizada!” khushi was sounding bright and cheerful.
“what the! curtain band karo!” he commanded, eyes resolutely shut.
(what the! close the curtains!)
“haw… what will roshni say, her mama can’t even get up in the morning… such a lazy uncle… hai re nand kissore!” khushi talked away while combing her hair and getting ready.
“shut up, khushi!” asr said through clenched teeth, eyes still tightly closed.
“bahut achha, hum shut up tak pahunch gaye hain, ab aayga, ‘get out, khushi!'” khushi giggled.
(very good, we have come up to shut up, now we’ll reach ‘get out, khushi!’)
an arm shot out from the bed and gripped her wrist… next thing she knew, she was lying flat on him, ther faces very… very close.
one eye opened. brownness took over the day. a lopsided smile came on. a finger flicked a startled nose.
“remember, my name is arnav singh raizada… samjhi tum…?” he whispered, cocking an eyebrow.
“aur mujhe samajhna itni aasan baat nahin hai…” he murmured, beginning to open her plait, his voice was setting off goosebumps along her shin. she wriggled. he held her tighter.
(and understanding me is not that easy.)
“aaj get out nahin kehte… okay? instead ek nahin get out ka programme banate hain…” his eyes were looking at her in a way that made her ears go warm…
(today, let’s not say get out… instead let’s make a programme for not getting out…)
khushi wondered what would be the best way to escape this man, especially in this mood. she wriggled again and he pulled her right back.
but now his eyes looked sombre. absolutely serious. khushi blinked.
“do you remember, khushi, that night when i made love to you the very first time?” he asked in a matter of fact voice. khushi didn’t know what to say.
“the next morning, i told di and nani that i was ready to get married to you… again. with all rituals. yaad hai?” he said.
khushi was puzzled, “but, arnav ji… why are you talking about that now?”
he put his arms around her and smiled up at her, an earnestness in his eyes.
then he said slowly, “you said to me, you did not need to have a marriage with all the customs because you considered our wedding to be true and real as it was… you told me for you the fact that i had put sindoor on your head, tied the mangalsutra around your neck before devi maiyya and fire was enough… because you knew how much i loved you… you said, you considered our wedding sacred. there was nothing wanting in it, nothing incomplete…”
“ha-an” khushi said nodding, still perplexed, “i said that, because it is true…”
“tumhen mujh se itna pyaar kyun hai, khushi… and why do you believe in me so much?” he was looking into her eyes… “and whatever the reason might be, knowing you it will be fairly weird…” khushi made a face. it was hard to fathom arnav ji, really.
(why do you love me so much, khushi… and why do you believe in me so much?)
he laughed, “whatever may be the reason… thank you, khushi… mujh pe vishwas karne ke liye…”
(thank you, khushi, for believing in me…)
“vishwas…” she smiled bemused and stroked his hair…
outside the sun rose higher.
the sun had been blazing that day too, she remembered. but it was scorching hot that afternoon in june. arnav ji was lying on the road. she couldn’t see from where she stood whether he was breathing or not. there was a presence of mortality in the air… she wanted to tell all those people there not to touch him, he didn’t like being touched by strangers…
khushi swallowed hard and smiled at him.
in these few months so much had happened. so much… and here they were on a bright morning in december, all around them lay the feeling of new life… vibrant, indomitable life… its very breath.
“humari dhadkane ek ho jaati hai…” our breath becomes one, he had told her once. not one, arnav ji, she wanted to say… aap hain humari dhadkan, you are my breath itself…
she sat up and said playfully, “hum curtain band kartey hain, dammit!”
(i’ll close the curtains, dammit!)
he chuckled and replied, “i love you, dammit…”
there was that grain in his voice, that touched her right by her heart.