should the pillars of memory
topple out of my reach,
i must remake the air,
the steam and the soil and the leaves
~~~ pablo neruda, from “memory” ~~~
millions of stars seemed to be rushing up at her. they twinkled blue, grey, yellow, red… which constellation was this? where were they going?
khushi breathed in sharply. her cool sudden breath seemed to travel down to the base of her throat and stop, caught…the stars blinked.
she closed her eyes and convulsively searched in the dark for a hand, a touch she belonged to… and it was there. brown, steady, her solid ground, part of her being.
sure fingers curled around hers. and held on.
khushi’s breath released slowly. what if the stars ended some day? what if the constellations dissolved? what if arnav ji never ever found her in this world full of people… billions of people, more countless than the stars… what if?
a slight rush of air and she felt his hand on her shoulder, then it moved swiftly down. a moment later there came a snap and she sensed a release. the seat belt had been unfastened.
now his arm reached around her and pulled… tenderly but surely. she moved to its bidding and strained to reach her destination. his hand slid over her back, little shivers started off wherever it touched.
“khushi!” a whisper teased her cheek, her ears… she reached out toward it. he slipped both his arms around her and pulled her onto his lap.
his body curved around her slight frame, protective, warm, comforting. arousing. she could feel the strong contours, hear his heart beat. involuntarily a sob escaped her… what if he never ever found her…
fingers buried into her hair, a little tug and her chin lifted… it was so dark and yet the stars kept racing up at them. an urgent touch ambushed her lips, her sob died down as he kissed her with dense seething hunger, his lips were tight clenched calling out for something that had no name.
the stars melted away, the darkness, the seat belt, the rising sound of the plane as it continued to descend didn’t matter.
only his lips.
she felt their sweetness reach her thirst, her fear. behind his harsh hard touch there always was this entrancing endless sweetness… she’d felt it, sensed it, even that terrifying day when his fingers had felt cruel yet they’d saved her, his gaze had been menacing… and yet, she couldn’t forget it. she wanted it on her skin, her wet drenched skin. he had caught her shoulders in a hurting grip that first day…
he was holding her like that right now…
no, i will never leave, arnav ji… never… i am here… hum jee nahin paayenge aapke bina…
(i won’t be able to live without you…)
she started kissing him back with unreined emotion letting it flow from wherever emotion was born…
she heard him groan and move in closer, his hand deliberately raised her kurta and sought her skin beneath, caressing her back, pressing her even closer. his hand on her body brought peace…
khushi felt her thoughts centre and fill with hope.
no, … arnav ji would have found her. however many people, however many stars… or universes.
captain raina let the plane ease down onto the tarmac, the noise grew deafening as the jet began to slow down while fighting the momentum of the speed it had held onto for so long.
she was an ordinary looking woman, not a face you’d remember. she was about five feet and four inches tall, of medium build, with fairly swarthy skin and a round bland face. her eyes were dull, her skin had a slight greyish pallor, when she spoke, the air of ordinariness was further accentuated by her flat, low, colourless voice.
however, her uniform though sparkled. it was clean and dazzlingly white, perfectly ironed and sat well on her. her white shoes and socks were without the usual stains and tears most nurses seemed to have. her little white cap was neatly tucked on her head, secured with a band around her tightly coiled bun.
she looked at asr and doctor verma qith a vacant gaze and said, “she’s my daughter, she belongs to me…”
asr’s teeth clenched, a wild anger surged in him, his nostrils flared.
“stop lying!” he whipped out, “tell me who told you to keep her and when was the baby born?!”
vijay verma was looking silently at the nurse, a slight frown on his forehead. he hoped whatever be the truth, anjali would not be harmed in any way by it.
“miss urmila,” he said in his deep sonorous voice, “you see, there is no point in denying the facts, you are aware it won’t take us any time to find out the details from holy family… it’s just a matter of matching dates, doing a simple dna test… and…”
“doctor sahib,” nurse urmila looked stricken, her voice had gone reedy thin, subdued, she knew what the doctor said was true, “i am her mother…” she said…
asr got up swiftly and strode across to her, his eyes burnt with rage, he thrust his face pugnaciously, snarling, “not…!!! not your baby, dammit! you’re a lowdown thief… don’t call yourself her mother!!!” his voice rose uncontrollably. “i am not wasting my time any more… let’s call the cops, doc!” he said still staring at the nurse.
“no! no!! doctor sahib…” urmila looked wildly at vijay verma… he said nothing.
“okay… okay.. yes… the child… my baby…” suddenly the blank look vanished, her face crumpled and she sobbed helplessly, “meri bachchi hai… woh meri bachchi… us rakshas ko nahin chahiye tha bachcha… he gave me money, told me to take the premature baby away in case it was alive… and and… kill it. i took the baby… the doctor arrived later… the doctor… he paid off the doctor too… par hum hum… meri bachchi ko hum kaise maarte…” she wailed, tears streamed down her cheeks even as she stood there in the middle of the room before the two men.
(she’s my baby… my baby… that monster didn’t want a baby… he gave me money, told me to take the premature baby away in case it was alive… and and… kill it. i took the baby… the doctor arrived later… the doctor… he paid off the doctor too… but i i…how could i kill my baby…)
“what!!!!!” asr growled.
“calm down, nurse… it’s okay… sit down and let’s talk about this…” vijay verma said, he could feel his breathing had picked up.
“who!!! tell me who was this man? what’s his name? tell me!!!” asr cut in.
“speak, dammit!” he now ground out… his patience frayed… his agitation rising… could this woman be the one who, he swallowed hard… was his niece…?
“menon… j… s… menon, sir!” her whisper was barely audible. she started weeping just as a stunned silence erupted in asr. even doctor verma was looking disconcerted.
“what did you say the name was…?!!” asr was incredulous.
his eyes glinted, yet he forced himself to pause and calm down before pulling out an envelope from his briefcase. there were five photographs in it… of five different men. one of them was shyam.
he handed them to the woman who was now beside herself with grief and said, “take a look at them… do you know anyone? is j. s. menon…” his voice had dipped, his teeth were clenching tight… he sensed his adversary near… here… in this room, “one of these men?”
urmila jana raised her eyes slowly… a feeling of being trapped… being riven… she could feel the blood drain from her face.
vijay verma realised he had almost stopped breathing.
asr looked unflinchingly at the nurse. he didn’t want to miss a single telltale sign.
“kya!!! hey devi maiyya!!! hume chimti katiye, om prakash ji!” khushi yelled.
(what!!! hey devi maiyya!!! pinch me, om prakash ji!!)
op looked at her in horror… was this one of khushi bhabi’s games and was she planning to play with him for real this time? here? in the hallway?… chhotey saab would kill him… and mami ji would create such a scene, but if khushi bhabi wanted…
and what would khushi bhabi’s amma and babu ji say… especially now that her babu ji was not in his wheelchair. in fact, he was walking… no, standing to be precise… standing and looking at his daughter with a very indulgent smile.
op reached out gingerly and pinched khushi hard, “sorry, khushi bhabi… you will hurting!” he muttered in a low voice looking at the guests at the door, begging their understanding.
“ow!” khushi yelped and glared at op, then she turned, beamed at her parents and threw her arms around shashi gupta’s neck…
“babu ji!!! babu ji!!! aap khade hain, aap chal rahe hain… aap…!” khushi burst into tears.
(babu ji… babu ji… you are standing… you are walking… you…)
“aiye aiye, shashi ji, garima ji… khushi bitiya, bring your parents in… i am so happy to see you have recovered completely, shashi ji!” nani ji walked up gracefully to them looking beautiful in a pale pink chikkan saree.
“babu ji!” khushi smiled, still tearful…”aap fir se baat kah rahein hain, hum aapki awaaz sun rahein hain… devi maiyya ka lakh lakh shukar aap theek ho gaye…”
(babu ji… you’re speaking again, i am hearing your voice… thank devi maiyya a million times… that you’ve recovered.)
“tu theek hai, beti?” shashi gupta sounded bereft… sad. his speech had returned but he spoke with a slight slur, there was a hint of effort in his voice.
(are you okay, beti?)
khushi turned to look at him as he sat down,
“kya hua, babu ji…” she murmurred.
(what’s the matter, babu ji?)
“nahin woh, bitiya…” shashi gupta caught hold of her hand and brought it close to him, “bitiya, tumhare babu ji tumhe uss… shaitan se bacha nahin…”
(no.. bitiya… your father couldn’t save you from that devil…)
“shh… sh… babu ji, aise nahin kahte… hum theek hain… sab kuch theek hai… aur aap duniya ke sabse achhe babu ji hain…” khushi again hugged her father and laid her head on his shoulder… tears just wouldn’t stop flowing.
(shh… sh… babu ji, don’t say such things… i am fine… everything is fine… and you are the world’s best father…)
“chal hat, khushi… from the time you’ve come back, the amount you’ve cried…” said payal smiling happily as she walked in.
“yes, khushi ji, not only rona, you’ve done almost dhona of the entire shantivan…” chimed nk and looked around at everyone with his classic benign and bright grin, “aap ke pita ji ko aap bewaqoof bana dengi agar roti rahi aise…”
(yes, khushi ji, not just crying, you’ve almost done cleaning of the entire shantivan… you’ll make your father stupid with this amount of crying…)
khushi sat up, wiped her eyes, looked at nk with an exasperated air and said, “bewaqoof nahin, nanhe ji, bechain…”
“how haappy bhe ares to sees youj, samdhan ji…” manorama tried to sound gracious, her mood greatly lifted by the mountain of gifts her arnav bitwa had brought back from london. all her favourite estee lauder makeup and dior perfumes were there. plus, he’d got her a beautiful pink purse by this italian designer whose name was unnecessarily tricky, hoonh! unpronounceable.
but oh, she could say “cartier,” from where bitwa had got her a lovely brooch to fix her saree pallu, it was a big one too, a diamond and sapphire studded panther playing with a blue saphire ball… she was all ready to wear it with her brand new tanchoi banarasi in royal blue, with gold and silver zari all over, but where…? ptcha!!… they really needed an occasion…
“we soods salibratiya, hai na, sasu maa…?” manorama let her dark red lips stretch sweetly over a saccharine smile.
(we should celebrate, don’t you think, mother in law?)
payal hugged her father close, overwhelmed, shashi gupta simply held his daughter and said nothing. the thought of a grandchild gave too much happiness to clutter it with words.
op, hp, jp started to bring out the sweets and other delicacies that had been made to welcome khushi and asr home.
khushi saw the gulab jamuns and forgot her woes… and when the golgappas came, she almost danced with glee falling upon them instantly.
soon anjali and akash joined in too. akash had taken the day off from work and anjali was planning to go out with vijay later in the day, but she had decided she wanted to spend time with chhotey during the morning and so had postponed her visit to the birla mandir. she was sure chhotey would pull her leg about this and there would be several bad jokes cracked about ram ji versus chhotey…
instead, he had left really early in the morning. they had come home so late the night before, now he had gone away without eating breakfast. he seemed tense… anjali wondered what the matter was, but when she saw shashi ji sitting and talking and without his wheelchair, she was overjoyed… and quite forgot about chhotey…
“jiji, i really don’t want to get married!” garima scowled at lajwanti who was holding an envelope with pictures. pictures of prospective grooms that the matchmaker had dropped off.
“gudiya, don’t talk like that… it’s my duty to see to it that you settle down… and we have no one apart from each other… what if something should happen to…?”
garima jumped up and covered her sister’s mouth with an urgent hand.
“jiji! don’t say such things…!!! devi maiyya raksha kariye! why must you speak like that!!!” she said angrily to her sister. she couldn’t imagine anything happening to her… bad… anything… ever.
lajwanti looked at her furious younger sibling, a funny protective feeling rushed through her… really, garima was just a child. like her khushi.
she grinned and said, “achcha chal… ladka mat dekh… picture toh dekh sakti hai?”
(oh alright… don’t see the boys… but you can see a movie surely!)
“khushi, i want to talk to you… alone…” garima said quietly to khushi.
khushi looked at her amma startled.
“amma! sab theek toh hai na?” she asked instinctively.
“bilkul theek hai… par aa, mujhe kuch kehna hai…” garima drew khushi a little away from the rest.
(absolutely alright… but come with me, i have to tell you something!)
“amma!” khushi said loudly so everyone could hear, “chaliye chaliye… come with me to my room, i want to show you what i bought… chaliye na!!” and with that she caught hold of garima’s hand and started pulling her up the stairs. of course, being khushi, she didn’t miss the chance to look at her mother and wink a few times in joy while taking her away.
garima wondered what she had ever done to deserve such a delightful child. and when memory promptly told her why she had been so blessed, a terrible sadness choked her.
the poolside was quiet, winter had come to delhi already and the flowers of the early cold were blooming in asr’s garden… a few buds had come up on his rose plants. especially on the red one. a butterfly was flitting about, a light breeze played with the water… ripples came and went.
garima stood before the diminutive old man holding his hands in both of hers.
rahim chacha looked faintly embarrassed, but there was a quiet deep understanding… sympathy… in his gaze as he gazed at the demure lady, head covered with the pallu of her saree.
she had been so helpless that afternoon. he had only seen her once before, she’d come to sheesh mahal with chacha saab. that afternoon when he heard a woman’s voice, the shouts for help, the banging on the door, he had not thought of anything but rescuing her… when he opened the door and walked in and saw bade saab he’d been shocked… but what had registered with him was the terror on the lady’s face. she was wearing a pink saree and she was fighting saab off… it had taken him an instant to realise bade saab was quite drunk, he’d looked at the woman without saying a word but in his mind he’d repeated “run! run! run!” almost without noticing he was doing that… she seemed to have heard him, for she turned and looked once at bade saab as he fell back against the bed, then she’d stooped down, picked up a little pink bag from the floor and started running. he had quickly locked the door from the outside and followed her… he wanted to make sure she was safe…
he could almost clearly see her… even now…
he started. he had opened the door and released khushi bitiya from that same room just the other night…
garima was finding it hard to speak, “hum… aap se… sirf dhanyavaad kehna chahte hain… hamari jiji thi woh… aur uss raat… hamari beti… hum aap se kya kahe… allah aap ko salamat rakhe, hamesha…” garima knew she was crying, but telling this pleasant unassuming man who had come from where who knew to save her sister and her child was all that really mattered at this moment.
(i… just want to say thank you to you… she was my elder sister… and that night… my daughter… what should i say to you… may allah keep you safe, always…)
rahim anwar hussain smiled and looked down… he wished the lady in pink had survived the treachery of the haveli he had come to work in as a young man years ago… the look in her eyes had haunted him for days. bade saab had been too inebriated to realise what had actually happened.
he now knew khushi bitiya was the lady’s daughter. chhotey saab, his chhotey baba, looked happier since she had come into his life… he breathed in deeply remembering chhotey baba’s mother… sheesh mahal… such darkness in its corridors, so many stories…
but both the little children he had learnt to love as he served as valet to their father, were now alright… not children any more. he smiled slightly, crows feet crinkling the corners of his eyes.
then he bowed slightly before garima and quietly left the poolside.
he was standing at the french windows looking out. she could see his profile, it was set and unmoving…
how khushi wished she could wipe that look off his face forever. today she even knew why he looked that way…
“chauda saal ka tha jab meri maa ne suicide kiya… i was fourteen when she killed herself…” his eyes had been red and brimming with tears, his voice had been harsh, he was breaking she could feel every crack and shatter, that day when he had spoken at last.
she had pushed him to tell her why he was sad, why he was the way he was, why so much anger? but he’d remained silent, then she’d run after him saying not to tell her anything if he didn’t want to, just that she couldn’t bear to see hurting like that… she only wanted him to be happy… she would not interfere, if he didn’t wish to tell her… she had been babbling in her agony, wanting to see him looking carefree, happy… her arnav ji’s smile was so rare, but when it came, it lit up her whole world… and when he looked like that…
she had been rushing through her incoherent words when he had just said that.
only fourteen when his mother committed suicide.
khushi had felt herself go cold all over, then a barrage of unnameable feelings hit her with force, like something slamming her against a hard unyielding surface… but her eyes had stayed on him. only him… and she knew she had to reach him… he was letting go… falling in… even though he stood tall and defiant, his lips set in an anguished gash, his eyes holding onto its tears. he was drowning.
she had flown across the room and wrapped her arms around him, pulling him away from that abyss. he had not responded. she’d loved him and comforted him anyway… in an instant she had understood the ever present underlying pain in those eyes and her heart had exploded with grief and pain for him. his dark molten brown eyes never seemed to be completely free of a bristling tactile ache… even when they’d shut down, grown inward, inert…
at last his arms had come up and settled around her and he had held her tight, let her soothe him. kissed her gently and searchingly. she had tasted the saltiness of his tears on his skin. namkeen. she’d never forget that moment.
now he was unaware of her presence as he stood looking out. he would be twenty eight the next day. fourteen years had gone by since she was gone… the number of years he had spent with his mother would soon be exceeded by the years he would live without her. he wondered if that were possible… yes, it was… he would live… there was a lot to be done. di… ar… nani ji.
a smile flitted across his face the moment he thought of her. she was like the spark of life itself. maa would have loved her.
he smiled again. khushi would have called her “maa” like he did. she’d have done all those poojas with her and who knows maybe taken her to see salman khan movies. again a frisson of pain shot through him. when was the last time maa was happy?
he turned away and his eyes fell on the silent girl standing by the bed.
he walked up to her and said quietly, “kal mere liye tough day hai… if i lose my cool or… stay by me, khushi… okay?”
(tomorrow is a tough day for me… if i lose my cool or… stay by me, khushi… okay?)
she nodded without saying anything. the tears wouldn’t let her speak.
she was about to look at shyam’s picture. he had handed her the stack, keeping shyam’s photograph after three others.
asr watched her without blinking. she might try to pretend that she recognised none of these men.
her eyes fell on the next photograph.
and even before it actually happened, arnav singh raizada could feel her quiver. then she did and drew in her breath sharply.
at last he closed his eyes. yes, his niece was alive.
j. s. menon… s. m. jha… shyam and his little games.
a numbness settled over the room. you could hear a woman sobbing intermittently. a story of unendurable loss and of unbelievable return had collided in a clinical office in one corner of a sprawling modern hospital. no one would leave unscathed, no matter which side of the story was theirs… how would anyone ever tell a little child that her father had paid to have her killed in case he had not accomplished the task himself. how would anyone tell a mother that for a year and more, her child had been in the nurture and arms of another while she believed her baby was no more. how would anyone make a mother give up the baby whose life she had saved and whom she’d loved like her own.
the man who had always tried to focus on what mattered and not let chaos reign, said quietly, “take me to my niece, please…”
vijay verma wondered how anjali would cope with this. he knew how hard she had struggled to leave shyam behind and move to a new place in her life. this was her child… but also shyam’s.
“arnav, if you don’t mind… i’d like to come along,” he said to asr.