anjali woke up and grinned. chhotey was getting married today, in fact, this very evening. she lay in bed a moment longer to smile happily up at the ceiling while she patted her belly absentmindedly.
suddenly she frowned and pursed her lips, as a sense of urgency came rushing over her. there was a shadi… no no no no… two weddings in their family today. what was she doing taking it easy and dreaming in bed!
she had to get up and organise the haldi rasam, the ritual had to be observed properly, anjali shuddered at the thought of anything, even the minutest detail, not done according to custom. these things were important. chhotey didn’t understand.
she shook her head sitting up… it was the only ritual chhotey had agreed to other than the wedding rites themselves. if he had his way, she knew they would be sitting around a desk and signing papers in front of a colourless expressionless marriage registrar, that’s all. really, chhotey was so… grey… about certain things.
again anjali made a face. but then her brow cleared. at least chhotey had decided to marry… to love… to trust.
anjali’s thoughts went to sheesh mahal. growing up. chhotey always there, running after her, making sure she was okay… but there were the fights, maa and pita ji.
she swallowed hard. it was difficult… and chhotey never could stay immune to the discord, how could he… he was so young when the voices started filtering through the walls of maa and pita ji’s room. he would come to her bedroom often at night and snuggle up next to her… while the voices soared and raged.
no, anjali shook her head, again unconsciously engrossed in thought… there was just one voice, you rarely could hear maa.
she shuffled toward her cupboard…
around the age of nine or ten, chhotey stopped coming to her, and she remembered his jaw seemed to set differently, harden, around that time too. a rigidity…
and then came the night when two gun shots finished everything.
it was too painful to ponder that night. anjali determinedly disentangled herself from her thoughts and reached for a bright yellow saree.
chhotey was getting married today and akash too… she had work to do.
mami ji walked into the room wearing a bright canary yellow kanjeevaram silk saree which she had had embroidered all over with fairly loud gold zardosi work. she wore a long heavy gold seeta haar on her neck extending all the way down to almost her waist, at least a dozen gold bangles of various thicknesses hung on her arms, not moving or making any noise because there was no place for them to even breathe as they jostled quietly for their perch on the neither too long nor too slim forearm. on her ears, manorama raizada wore large gold chandeliers with elaborate chains leading up to her large bun. and on her head shone a full mangtika, with its centre piece in pure filigreed gold, a glittering chain going along her parting to attach to the same bun at the nape of her not too long nor too slim neck. two chains fanned out from the centre along her hairline, dipping coyly over the forehead just a little and ending somewhere behind her ears.
“c’mans, anjali bitiya, let’s hurry ups, bhe cants make the bwoyj waits… you cants eats bephore the ceremony, you knowj… my poor akas bitwa, supherrings already phor that honey beej… how they comings phram that ismall towns and isstings our high phalyings bwoyj!”
(c’mon, anjali, let’s hurry up, we can’t make the boys wait… they can’t eat before the ceremony, you know… my poor akash, already suffering thanks to that honey bee… how they came from a small town and stung our high flying boys!)
anjali tried to hide her smile. mami ji was in form.
her eye shadow was glittery blue, her lipstick was bright coral. it was eight in the morning.
he answered the phone with a distracted air switching on his bluetooth ear piece as he buttoned his waistcoat. he looked somewhat sleepy still, though he had had a shower and was ready for the day.
“chhotey!” it was di, “tum kahaan ho? we must not be late for the haldi rasam, we have to start in a couple of hours and get the turmeric over to the brides’ home before one o’clock… the mahurat ends at two, chhotey… where are you?!” she sounded excited happy and anxious, all at once.
asr walked to the window and looked out… a series of unfamiliar doors and windows were arrayed before him. the windows were opening, so were the doors, people were coming out and looking around, a monday morning was starting out in gomti sadan, it looked very different from the monday mornings he was used to.
“lucknow, di!” he said without thinking.
“what!!!!! kya kahaa tumne?” di sounded incredulous
(what!!!! what did you say?)
asr shrugged and replied in an even voice, “relax, di! it’s okay… kuch kaam tha… i just wanted to make sure everything was in order… i’ll be back a couple of hours… okay??”
(relax, di… there was some work… i just wanted to make sure everything was in order… i’ll be back in about a couple of hours… okay??)
he had not told anyone at shantivan about khushi’s disappearance or his trip to get her back. there was no point, they’d worry and the last thing he wanted was for di to get all tense. she had been going through too much lately.
“relax??? can you hear yourself talk? aaj tumhari shaadi hai… today is not like every other day that you fly off here and there the way you do, chhotey! it’s perhaps the most important day of your life… oh chhotey, tum bhi na! i hope khushi doesn’t know about this… she’d be so worried! now come back… don’t be late… the haldi must touch your body before being taken across… that is the whole point… a little turmeric paste, auspicious and blessed, which has been on your person will be mixed into the bowl of turmeric paste we are getting ready for khushi… a sign of your presence in her life always, always by her side, protecting her, being there…” di was beginning to sound dreamy.
(relax??? can you hear yourself talk? it’s your wedding today… today is not like every other day that you fly off here and there the way you do, chhotey!)
“di! did nirupa roy come up with this haldi ritual?” asr interrupted, trying to contain his laughter.
“chhotey!!!” di sounded scandalized. he burst out laughing.
the kabootar with beady red eyes flapped its wing and flew off. khushi came running from the bedroom clutching the keys to the house, they were supposed to leave soon.
asr coolly closed the deal, “if you don’t put the phone down, di… how will i leave? i don’t want to be late, you know!”
anjali shrieked, “chhotey!!!”
asr switched off the bluetooth with a laconic, “and don’t worry about khushi, i’ve already spoken to her!”
he knew di would have a lot to say after that but he didn’t want her to hear khushi’s voice. he went up and put his forefinger on khushi’s lips, shaking his head and telling her not to say anything.
khushi froze, his finger on her lips sent shivers up her spine.
but even standing a few feet away, she’d heard di’s scream. her eyes went wide and faintly horror struck.
“hawww! aapne di ko kya bola?? she sounds so… so…” khushi protested, worried and almost accusing him, voice pitching up, the moment he disconnected.
(haww! what did you say to di?? she sounds so… so…)
“why do girls shriek so much?” asr replied buttoning the cuffs of his mauve shirt and perusing her slowly, eyes considering her red pompoms, moving up to her red jhumka and then with a satisfied smile coming to rest on the red red stone on her ring finger. he smiled ever so slightly. for some reason as he observed the several touches of red, those red flowers came to his mind, right by her nape… even her bindi was a deep carmine today.
and suddenly without warning, he was catching her hand and pulling her to him, “come here and shut up…” he whispered as he began kissing her.
khushi’s eyes widened further… she pushed him with her hands on his chest and started mumbling even as his lips insisted on continuing with what they were doing.
“hum..ph..khu..ph..shi!!! kuma…phri… gu..phta… nahiiin gupta!…” she began her declaration, her chagrin rising along with her struggle to have her say, pronounce her name with clarity… with dignity.
“singh raizada!” he said clearly against her mouth and resumed kissing her thoroughly, this time making sure she couldn’t speak or even breathe for that matter.
khushi had no idea when her arms had gone around his waist and she was holding him with all her might. her fingers had slipped under the waistband of his slim fitting trousers, she could feel firm flesh under the smooth material of his shirt and a slight curve that dipped down and then seemed to flare out. khushi melted against his reassuring unyielding body, she could feel herself flowing and beginning to not really care about anything… not even what he had just said.
a noise echoed in her ears… dhak dhak dhak dhak… whose heart was beating so fast? hers? or arnav ji’s? what did it matter? was there any difference?
“khushi!” he seemed to whisper…
“…kumari gupta singh raizada,” she said quickly, breaking the kiss for a fraction of a second and hurling the words quickly before going right back to the kiss.
asr felt his heart skip a beat.
and then she was flying out of his arms yelling, “hey devi maiyya, yeh humne kya keh diya… laad governor ke sirf doh naam… aur hum gupta bhi aur singh bhi aur raizada bhi!!! hey devi maiyya raksha karna… itne naam leke hum karenge kya? hum bhi aise khadoos ho jaayenge… laad governor…”
(hey dm, now what have i done… laad governor has only two surnames… and i am gupta as well as singh and also raizada!!! hey devi maiyya, save me… what will i do with so many names? i’ll also become terrible… lord governor…)
“magarmach?” asked the man behind her helpfully, dropping a kiss on her shoulder and saying briskly, “stop jabbering, khushi! let’s go… got to reach in time for that haldi thing… take off is at 9.30…” he was shrugging on his brown jacket over his mauve shirt.
“take off? kya take off? i’m not taking anything off, samjhe aap?” khushi muttered defiantly. this man was too much, first he yelled at his sister, now he was saying awful things to her.
that too on his wedding day.
“nahin,” she shook her head and thought “hum bhi na!”
(no… i’m silly!)
on their wedding day.
she was also getting married this evening.
her eyes grew so huge at the thought, asr wondered if something might be seriously wrong, then gauging the situation rightly, he calmly handed her his overnighter which she took without a word, took the keys from her unresisting fingers, propelled her out, locked the door, picked her up in his arms as he had been wanting to for some time and started walking out toward the suv parked outside gomti sadan.
at least a dozen pair of eyes followed him from the little verandahs, terraces and windows of the housing estate, with varying expressions.
rajat ji was rushing out to catch the train to new delhi, having been summarily beckoned by his wife to attend khushi and payal beti’s shadi. when he saw the self assured man in a brown suit casually pick up gupta ji’s younger daughter and with a little suitcase too, he almost called out. what was khushi doing here? rajat ji cleared his throat…
then something about the look on khushi beti’s face and the stance of the man’s back made him hold his tongue.
well, if khushi was eloping with another man on her wedding day, he rajat bhalla had better reach delhi soon, billo ji would need him… someone had to take the brunt of her extraordinary excitement at the occurrence of such a newsworthy event. plus, he had to make sure, she didn’t completely demolish the reputation of their neighbours, he was very fond of shashi ji and garima ji and the girls were always pleasant.
asr walked fast, he could feel his heart beating erratically. he wondered if this were another sign of that thing called love. then he shook his head and thought, “what nonsense!”
the white pigeon flew past, no one noticed him.
“haye, main mar jawan, so he has taken hawai jahaaz to go and get her… what luck our khushi bitiya has, by god ji!” billo mausi gushed, then she narrowed her eyes, thrust her head forward, looked somewhat hungry and asked, “par… madhumati ji, what happened, haan ji, why did khushi have to go to lucknow suddenly, and that too without telling you all, you know?”
(oh… i could die!… so he has taken a plane to go and get her…)
her concentration was utter as she peered closely at her hostess’s face. she didn’t want to miss a thing… a hair pin fell off her juda, she didn’t notice.
bua ji smiled brightly at billo ji.
then she swung both her hands in the air in the age old gesture of protecting from the evil eye and brought her hands back to her temples cracking her knuckles, and said beaming,
“arre billo ji, ee sanka devi bhi… i only had told her some time ago that i had left my light pink banarsi saree in lucknow, nand kissore… last time i went there… parmeswari went off to get that, bas!… so i can wear it for the weddings… two of them… haan!” madhumati paused, her eyebrows leapt up and down contemplating the beauty of this very special occasion, her locket got into position horizontal, her plait swung, “you know what a kindhearted and very caring girl our titaliya is… but, hai re nand kissore, how to make her understand she could not take the night train alone to come back, not safe these days… good thing, damad ji came and then phurrr flew off!”
billo ji had a feeling the truth was being kept from her, but the very thought of a man leaping into a plane, that too his own plane, to get his lady love back, gave her such palpitations, she settled back in her verandah chair and fanned herself with her pallu and wondered if rajat ji would ever do this for her.
“seat belt!” asr said in his usual curt way.
khushi was beginning to feel a strange feeling as captain raina started to taxi down the runway. she gulped violently, her finger fumbled with the hard metal end of the belt, trying to find the slot.
asr looked at her with a frown and fixed the belt, then turned away settling into his seat… he was planning to catch up on some sleep for the next hour.
but khushi was unusually silent.
he waited a couple of minutes, she remained silent. he put his finger under her chin and turned her to face him, “what’s up, khushi kumari gupta!” he asked briskly.
there was no quick comeback of “singh raizada!” nor any flash of ire or mischief or anything in the large hazel eyes.
“nahin woh…” khushi mumbled under her breath and quickly looked away… she could feel tears smarting her eyes. what was wrong with her!
“look at me!” he said sternly, khushi did as she was told… her red jhumkas and pompoms swinging.
“now tell me!” he commanded, there was a gentleness in his eyes, but khushi was looking at his third shirt button trying to gather herself.
his shirt was the colour of those light skinned baingans bua ji loved so much. she liked the brinjals fried with a tadka of mustard seeds and fenugreek, just a pinch of asafoetida and some dry red chillies with it… her eyes travelled up the buttons to his his firm chin and kept moving up to his face.
she gulped again. arnav ji looked so nice in this brinjal colour.
“kya baat hai, khushi?” he prompted once more, this time his voice had a trace of that concern so visible in his eyes.
(what’s the matter, khushi?)
“aapko baingan pasand hai?” khushi asked
(do you like brinjal?)
“it’s okay, khushi… just tell me, dammit!” he replied beginning to bristle.
khushi swallowed hard, her eyes filling with the tears that had been bothering her… “hum… hum…waise lucknow ke hain… aur aaj ke baad…” a sob escaped her. it had begun to descend on her that this was the last time she was leaving her home, her city… as she was. as she had been, all her life. khushi kumari gupta, gupta ji and his wife’s flighty, slightly crazy but nonetheless lovable, younger daughter. just about twenty years old, talking nonstop, loads of plans and dreams.
(i… i… am actually from lucknow… and after today…)
“khushi!” in a moment she was in his arms…
“you will always be who you are, impossible and pagal khushi kumari gupta…” asr said in a gruff voice.
“and lucknow… well, all you have to do is take the plane and come… whenever you like, darling…” as asr heard himself speak he had a feeling this was definitely a sign of love. damn, this was going to be hard to live with.
khushi wriggled and looked up at him, large eyes beginning to look a little happier.
asr wondered if there was any way he could control the barrage of feelings blocking all normal thinking. obviously, it was futile, and being a shrewd businessman he let it be, no point in expending energy when failure was inevitable.
“humey aur hawai jahaaz mein dar nahin lagta,” khushi whispered, gripping his hand. very very tight.
(i don’t feel scared in a plane any more…)
he remembered that very first time she had sat in this plane. she had held his hand just like that. even then, he hadn’t minded…
“can’t decide what i should wear to the two weddings, salman… help me!” kareena said to her friend.
“how about jeans and a tee shirt,” came the murmurred reply, salman didn’t even bother to lift his eyes from the drawing before him.
“sahreee, ma cherie,” offered a familiar voice with its not very indian accent. it was jean pierre… he had just strolled into their room and he was regarding kareena with an amused pair of very bright eyes.
“and wiz your kind of colours, i seenk a pale powdery blue you know ze kind ze royalty, when eet still reigned, preferred… blue wiz a beet of seelver sequins will work just perfectly… what do you seenk, salman?” jean pierre was specific. kareena stared dumbfounded.
salman looked from one to the other for a moment and went right back to his drawing.
kareena blinked. what was jp saying?
jean pierre wondered if this were a good time to tell her, he had got a nice length of chamois satin in the palest smoothest blue on khushi and his chandni chowk trip and he’d actually had a seamstress scatter sequin across it the way he thought it would look good on this beautiful brown skinned girl staring at him.
amore seemed to have struck. salman sighed and thought, “i needed to work. some serious real work.”
captain raina landed in delhi. it was eleven hundred hours, five minutes past. it had been a good flight, the skies had been particularly blue and clear.