“take it off,” he said softly placing her hand gently on the dark red fabric.
khushi almost winced at the urgency in his tone, a demand yet a need that made her stomach muscles clench.
take it off? what was he saying? the fabric was rough against her skin. she felt her fingers move and clutch a handful of red, she felt her breath shudder.
his hand lifted languidly and went slowly toward her face, she could feel its approach, a warmth coming nearer. a candle light flickered and she started just as his fingers brushed against her forehead and found a tendril of hair and pushed it with a touch as light as a gossamer odhni, tucking the hair behind her ear.
a flash of heat rose right from the pit of her stomach and careened to her cheeks, her ears, the back of her neck.
“khushi,” he murmured looking up at her, brown eyes glittering, lips a little open… that slight dip on the right side accentuated.
“take it off,” his voice was hoarse as he repeated the words. khushi couldn’t look away from those eyes, she could barely breathe but her hand began to lift as if she had no will over it, a part of the night’s raiment still crushed in her nervous palm.
after the wedding ceremony and all the formalities were over, the brides and bridegrooms along with the families and a few close friends had sat down to dinner. waiters rushed around serving delicacies, from lucknowi kababs and biriyani to the best chat and tandoor specialities of delhi.
of course, everything was vegetarian, since at raizada mansion the tradition was maintained. yet nani ji had called mama ji the day before the wedding and told him to organise a tandoor in the lawns which would serve lamb and chicken kababs from her home town, kakori reshmi, gilauti, tangdi and more. she had told her extremely surprised son, this was being done to make the guests feel welcome since she knew most of them ate meat. mama ji had assented silently and gone to comply with his mother’s wishes, knowing well for whom she was making the exception. her grandchildren, of course.
nani ji walked around supervising, making sure everyone was eating and being served with what they wanted. her smile was wide and refused to leave her lips and her eyes. lakshmi ji followed her wherever she went, looking rather glamorous in her red banarasi jacket and colourful beads from chandni chowk.
“aap theek se kha rahein hain na?” she asked khushi and payal. both smiled at her shyly and nodded, “eat properly, khushi bitiya, payal bitiya… you’ve had such a long day!”
(you’re eating properly, arent you?)
“and now you’ll have such a lambi suhaag bath!” piped up nk from somewhere.
something clattered, metal against metal was heard.
anjali laughed, “not suhaag bath, nk bhai… suhaag raat… wedding night!”
nk looked embarrassed, and grinned amiably.
lakshmi said, “meeeh… meeh!”
“naahin, lakshmi ji… aaj aapka suhaag raat nahin hai!” nani ji quipped and moved to take care of her guests at the next table.
(no, lakshmi ji, it’s not your suhaag raat tonight!)
“kya hua?” asr asked looking at an uncannily silent khushi, “why aren’t you eating? are you okay?” he frowned as he saw her spoon was lying on the table and not her plate and there was food all around it. she’d obviously dropped it.
khushi looked up caught off guard and stared at the deep furrows on his forehead. “huh! shadi ke din bhi jwalamukhi chehra!” she thought before she could stop herself. then she realised why he was frowning and blushed violently…
(huh! on the day of his wedding too this volcano look!)
“pata nahin… khane ko man hi nahin kar raha,” she whispered back, not wanting to be questioned by anyone else… “shayad, acidity…”
(don’t know… i don’t feel like eating… maybe it’s acidity…)
“okay!” said asr crisply, “i’ll get some food organised, you can eat later…”
“later?!!!” khushi was now in panic…”kaun sa later…”
(later? which later?)
“khushi?” her husband looked at her, eyes concerned, leaning closer and peering at her, “tum theek toh ho?”
(you’re alright, aren’t you?)
khushi moved back instantly, putting some distance between them and turned around hastily saying, “kareena ji! kareena ji! you are looking so pretty in that blue saree, kahan se liya??” khushi’s voice sounded high pitched, not lilting and pleasant as it usually did.
(kareena ji! kareena ji! you are looking so pretty in that blue saree, where did you get it from??)
anjali had requested kareena, salman, jean pierre and lavanya to stay back. since both the young men at home were getting married, and there was only nk left apart from herself to complete the very important “rasam” of teasing the newlyweds before letting them go for their suhag raat, she’d asked all of them to join in.
kareena was about to reply when khushi called out to jean pierre, “hawww! jon piye ji! dhoti!!! so handsome you’re looking… like a bridegroom… haw, who helped you wear it… salman ji?!!”
salman shook his head. khushi was not sounding like herself at all.
by now almost everyone at the table was looking at her a little surprised. amma and bua ji were shaking there heads in consternation. now what had come over sanka devi.
payal, who was sitting next to her sister, tugged her hand below the table and muttered, “khushi, shhh! why are you yelling? what’s the matter, something bothering you, kuchh hua kya?”
(has anything happened?)
“nahin! woh! acidity… jiji!!!” khushi mumbled and gripped payal’s hand tight for an instant, then she cast her eyes down, looked extremely demure and began picking at her food again.
“hello hi! ha ha ha, tells all shahnai playerj and all mujik peoples to byebye, pilleejh… the newj raijaddan dee.aai.ell eej two in bhuns… bridewa bhi aur baja bhi… heehee… bhere eej baaaynd, haan!” mami said in a caustic tone with a too tinkling and sugar laden laugh.
(hello hi! ha ha ha, tell the shehnai players and all other musicians to say bye bye, please… the new raizada daughter in law is bride as well as musical instrument… heehee… where’s the band!)
khushi did not see the look of concern melt away from the face of the man sitting next to her… and a decidedly wicked gleam enter the brown.
when it was time for the bridegrooms to walk into raizada mansion with their brides as part of the grihapravesh custom, anjali was all smiles standing at the door, “chalo chalo, you remember the way we do it here, don’t you?… pick your brides up in your arms and walk in, dear strrrong brothers…”
khushi was looking sternly at her toes asr noticed. he gestured to akash to go first as he said quietly, “you found khushi, after all… so thanks, bro…”
akash looked at him puzzled.
“aman told me, he always does!” asr grinned, his teeth a flash of white.
his face wreathed in smiles, akash picked payal up. payal felt her cheeks go hot and lowered her eyelids.
“sweetheart, after this day you’ll be with me, every day… every night… not just tonight,” akash said in her ear and started to walk in.
billo mausi, who was standing nearby, trembled. seizing the opportunity the moment presented, rajat ji held her from behind and whispered, “sweetheart, tussi aaj sabse pretty lag rahi ho ji, mainu vaaste…” he hoped with this grand declaration he had fulfilled his wife’s dreams and would not be called upon in the near future to pick her up.
(sweetheart, for me, you are the prettiest one here!)
the women ululated as akash and payal entered their home.
without saying anything to khushi, asr caught her in his arms and carried her over the threshold. all khushi could hear was the shrill sound of an aeroplane taking off, she wondered if the kabootar had come to delhi after all.
“ha… chhotey…i had told you na… uss din about iss din!” anjali was giggling happily and getting after her brother. she stressed the “uss” and “iss” for added effect just as she had done the first time he had walked in with khushi.
(ha… chhotey, hadn’t i told you that day about this day…?!!)
something in her voice made khushi look at anjali and suddenly all strange thoughts were gone from her head.
anjali ji… di was not wearing her mangalsutra.
khushi’s astonished eyes moved up to di’s face. she noted di was looking radiant and happy. an overwhelming emotion swept her in its tide.
asr had just walked into the house and was striding toward the sitting area when khushi wriggled and jumped out of his arms and before he could react she was running back toward everyone at the door. she reached anjali and flung her arms around her, “di!” she said hugging her close, “aap bahut achhi hain!”
(di! you’re very nice!)
anjali held her new sister in law close… “aap bhi itni buri nahin hain, khushi!” she said, her voice was calm and poised.
(you’re not too bad either, khushi!)
mami ji looked at the two young women, her eyes beginning to well up. her poor anjali bitiya had been going through such a terrible time… everyone should love her as much as possible now, she felt… she had been perhaps worried in some corner of her mind that arnav bitwa’s new wife would not understand what anjali needed, even take away bitwa’s attention from his sister.
manorama raizada looked around archly and sashayed up to her daughter in law and son, akash made a move to let go of payal…
“noj noj!” his mother wagged her forefinger at him, “carryj yours bridewa and walks to the badrooms…” she commanded, then she winked at asr and said, “kahey, arnav bitwa, bhy you are isstanding heres only thees time, thees eej not satsang you knowj, thees eej suhaag raat… go gets the girls in reds and go to your… ” she giggled and looked away, tucking her knuckle in her cheek, eyebrows dancing, jhumkas swaying wildly. nani ji looked exasperated but clearly she was happy and in no mood to reprimand her perennially embarrassing daughter in law.
(no no! carry your bride and walk to the bedroom… why arnav, why are you just standing here now, this is not satsang you know it’s suhaag raat, go get your girl in red and go to your…)
lakshmi ji bleated. jean pierre caught hold of kareena’s hand and pulled her outside. he had to kiss her right now, especially on that nose of hers…
asr went and picked up his bride once more and held her in his arms. she went still and smiled tremulously. he felt his heart lurch again, then his heart beat pick up. damn, why must she look so beautiful, he thought.
the games had been played and both asr and akash had paid hefty sums of money to be left alone with their brides.
payal sat on the bed decorated with jasmine and roses, the canopy of the fragrant blooms all around her. flower arrangements brightened every corner and niche, there were even petals scattered on the floor. on the pillow was a heart made of red rose petals, “akash loves payal” was written with white flowers across it. payal was trying hard not to lose her nerve, not to blush, not to stutter.
she had never ever realised how completely a wedding uprooted you and then tried to settle you in a new environment within mere hours. she had always slept with khushi by her side… she wished she could go and get her sister over now.
di and kareena had arranged her lehenga prettily in a circle. di had also thrust a silver tumbler in her hands, covered with a lace doily…
“saffron milk, payal… make sure akash bhai drinks it, it’s going to be a long night,” she had said smothering laughter.
payal had felt her cheeks go the colour of the crushed red rose petals then.
“payal,” akash said tenderly as he walked into the room once everyone had gone.
payal looked up, trepidation on her face.
“ummm, what was your favourite subject in college?” akash asked pleasantly, the unintimidating slightly flaky smile on his face.
“ji?!” payal said taken aback.
“yeah… see, i am very nervous… i’ve never done this before, you know.. so why don’t we sit and chat about college for a while. i loved college, how about you?” akash said walking around the bed and sitting on the other side.
payal relaxed a little, “chemistry!” she said shyly.
khushi’s hands were shaking, she kept pulling the fabric away, she was going to take it off. at the thought, her heart beat pelted, her fingers shook… she felt his hand cover hers.
she gazed up and watched the brown eyes darken in the play of light and shadow.
he was smiling at her now, why were his lips trembling?
khushi looked around the room, at the bedsheets with pink roses, flowers everywhere… the flower bedecked bridal bed… it was all so pretty.
every girl dreamed of her wedding, her shagun, roka, her mehendi and haldi… then shaadi, pheres… and then, khushi gulped, her hands went cold… and then her suhaag raat.
“mujhe toh darawne sapne aa rahein hain, yeh kaisi reet hai… akele ek ladki ko ek magarmach… nahin!” she pouted angrily, “ek jwalamukhi ke saath aise chhor dena!”
(i am getting nightmares… what sort of custom is this, leaving a girl alone with a crocodile… no! a volcano!)
“par hum nahin darte, samjhe aap, laad governor!” she hissed the words through clenched teeth and wagged her finger at no one.
(but i’m not scared, you lord governor, understand!)
“khushi!” asr said briskly, “if you have finished your conversation with the bed spread or flower streamers or whatever it is you’re talking to… shall we go?”
khushi’s eyes widened. that laad governor… and what is this going he was talking about!?!
she turned to ask him what precisely he was up to and gawked.
he was wearing a black silk shirt now with the suit he had been wearing all along.
where was the white shirt? why had he changed? this was jadoo tona… black magic, no doubt. black silk… not a good sign.
khushi’s lips moved in an uncontrolled mutter.
asr picked up his car keys nonchalantly and walked over to her. he held her hand and made her stand up, “come!” he said in his curt way. but why did she shiver?
it had to be black magic.
khushi held back. he easily pulled her along after him.
soon they were driving down dark delhi streets. it was almost eleven thirty at night. very close to the witching hour. she looked desperately at the stars… why were they twinkling so brightly? traitors… you can’t depend on anyone these days bua ji said and she was right.
they reached the farmhouse… it lay wrapped in darkness and peaceful among the acres of lawns with their frangipani blooms and the krishnachura tree. the air around carried the scent of the night, the stars lay in a wide open sea of sparkle and glimmer up above.
he came around the car and pulled her into his arms and carried her without a single word, walking in.
candle light greeted them and large shallow peat coloured urlis filled to brimming with bridal red frangipani seemed to ululate as the flowers swayed on the water. khushi shivered again. where were they? why were they here?
then her eyes fell on the plush wide sofa on which just the other night, he had… they had… khushi struggled to find words. the cushions had been removed from the sofa, a wide expanse of pristine white covered the seat… it was a fine woven linen sheet, a little heavy and it lay smooth and silken surrounded by the shadows.
asr went up to the sofa and lay her down with infinite care on the white sheet. khushi was about to say something, anything, she was almost choking now.
he lay his finger on her lips and smiled slightly.
“main hoon, khushi…” he said evenly. why did his eyes look so disarmed? and why was her heart beat flowing now like a river, a stream… hey devi maiyya…
(it’s me, khushi.)
she looked into his eyes wondering what she should do now. he bent down and lightly bit the single pompom hanging from her left sleeve, his eyes roamed over her face, down the arc of her neck, over the swell of her bosom, reaching her torso which heaved as her breathing grew frantic… his eyes came to her bare midriff, her navel. a smile seemed to flit across his lips again, she couldn’t be sure. all she heard was the pounding in her ears.
she inhaled slowly…
he got up and left the room.
she was resolutely staring at an urli of crimson frangipanis on the floor before her when he returned. she saw a bit of something white and then his feet. they were bare. brown slim feet with a raised arch and a row of straight toes, perfectly manicured. her eyes latched onto the row of digits, and stayed there… what was this stirring in her, this unrest…
he leaned over, hooked a couple of fingers under her chin and made her look up.
he was wearing a red kurta.
khushi’s eyes widened. it was the kurta she had given him. she stared open mouthed. he was actually wearing it.
“mooh band karo, khushi, aur… here, let me help you,” he laughed and bent down, kissing her brusquely on her lips and moving back with a self satisfied smile.
(close your mouth, khushi, and… here, let me help you.)
“aap… aap ne yeh kurta pehna aur aaj!” she said, still thrown by the sight.
(you… you wore the kurta and today!)
“yeah! tumne diya, maine pehna!” he replied shrugging, sitting down next to her.
(yeah! you gave it to me, i wore it!)
“aap… aap.. bahut…” and she went crimson. she had never imagined anyone could look so rugged and male and handsome in deep red. she had so wanted to buy him something that day… with her own money…
(you, you are very…)
“khushi, do you know how beautiful you look in your shadi ka joda?” he mused, his finger flicked a pompom, he caught the edge of the diaphanous cloudy veil and pulled it… letting it slide off her head and her shoulders and fall in folds on the floor.
then he took her hand and lifted it to his lips, kissing her on the palm, turning and touching the other side with his firm lips where ornaments still glowed. khushi watched unable to move… her eyes fastened on his face, her ears picking every rise and ebb in his voice, every breath…
her breath moved along with his, catching its rhythm and flowing in unison. inhale exhale inhale… the only other sounds in the room were the flicker of candle light, the yearning of red frangipani, the simmer of water.
he took off her bangles one by one and dropped them on the deep pile of the cream throw rug. he kissed her where the neckline of her blouse hugged the hollow between her breasts and leaning close took off her necklaces. he looked for a moment at the mangalsutra and lay it back on her chest. his hand cupped her breast lightly for a fraction of a second and was gone. khushi felt a longing grow.
her earrings and mang tika came away too in his caressing stroking arousing hands.
after all the jewellery had been removed, he sat back and looked at her, eyes smouldering… a long long moment.
khushi stared at him transfixed.
when he reached out she had no idea what he would want of her… she had a feeling she would give it to him, here in the quiet of a desire, a cascade of red and white and undulating water and play of light and dark.
he took her hand and laid it on his kurta and said, “take it off…”
earlier in the day, when he’d decided he would wear the red kurta he hadn’t really given it much thought. he had wanted to wear something she’d given him, bought in fact with her own money.
he had no idea why this should matter, but then since it did, he’d made sure aman had set up the farmhouse exactly as he had told him to and left the kurta in the dressing room by the master bedroom.
it was while he wore it and the khadi slid against his skin and he felt the spark of the red that a feeling overwhelmed him… he wanted her to take this piece of clothing off him… bare him… see him naked underneath. touch his skin, explore him, know him… make him hers.
asr had blinked and made a face at the thought. what the f… this was abnormal. first, he was willing to even consider wearing a kurta… and now he was fantasizing about it???
he began guffawing all by himself… khushi kumari gupta, he thought, yeh tumne mere saath kya kar diya.
(khushi kumari gupta, what’s this you’ve done to me.)
he heard her voice correct him… she was also singh raizada now. he chuckled. he had no one to blame for this ridiculous state of affairs but himself.
well, he believed he made his own kismet… good, bad, indifferent, chaotic… his responsibility… he felt his body stir and long for ivory taut skin, trembling tender lips, an errant lock of hair, he wanted to watch her losing herself in him…
with a little tug, khushi pulled the kurta off him…
shyness was rushing over her, making her turn her body away from him…
“look at me, khushi,” he whispered, a grainy, moist hoarseness in his voice. he swallowed.
she lifted her eyelashes and encountered the expanse of smooth supple earth coloured skin.
below his square cut firm jaw, the column of a regal neck descended and from its base his shoulders flared out above the jutting collar bones, everything seemed sculpted… the swell and trough of muscles finely toned took her eyes on a journey… over fluid, long arms with infinite details, beautiful agile fingers, the square shaped nails neatly trimmed…
her eyes felt a hunger… she wanted to see him.
she looked at his chest at last. wide and reassuring… and stunning, tapering down to a narrow waist… her eyes moved lower… to his navel, his flat stomach, the muscles etched there. she could see a crop of hair rose from below that going all the way up to the base of his throat. dark, springy hair… she had touched it before, played with it.
he sat there with his easy elegance, bare to the waist, still in his white aligarhi pyjamas.
“won’t you touch me, khushi?” he asked… he took her hand and placed it on his chest just where his heart beat and said, “here.”
khushi’s fingers curled wanting to draw him near. he took her other hand and put it against his lips and murmured, “here.”
he lowered the hand then and placed it on his navel whispering, “here.”
khushi closed her eyes, a warm melting sensation taking hold of her.
“arnav ji,” she said on a ragged breath.
and he pulled her into his arms with both hands, “come ‘ere, khushi… have i ever told you i can’t live without you?”
his voice had never sounded this gentle before it seemed to her…
“and don’t be scared… i won’t hurt you… khushi…” he had pulled her over him and now his hand moved over her leg, khushi shuddered again, the lehenga rode up… she was sitting across him she realised, and she could feel his body throbbing against her.
khushi fell on his chest, her chest slamming against his, and covered his mouth with hers… he was touching her sweetly, roughly, unashamedly, unrestrainedly, gently here, urgently there… she moved with his touch, letting her clothes fall away one by one…
the cold air on her rib cage told her she had slipped out of her choli, then his hand was on her breast, then his lips, warm, seeking, nipping… she held his head to her body.
“take this off, khushi,” he said laying her hand on his waistband.
khushi got up as if in a daze and eased the white cotton off him. he lay naked before her eyes, her lehenga was still on her… with a laugh he unhooked it expertly and let it fall and without giving her a chance to feel embarrassed, he caught both her hands and yanked gently making her fall flat upon him, along his length.
she took in a breath sharply.
they were lying flush against each other… absolutely naked.
he kissed her hard just as thoughts started to interfere with the hour… it craved a giving and a taking, a tasting and thirsting, a merging. where was the place for any thought here.
his fingers roamed to places on her body which even she had not touched before. they teased and coaxed, played and pleaded and wherever they went, they unshackled, untethered, unearthed…
he kissed her on her forehead, her eyes, her nose, her lips, she was hungry, but he wouldn’t stop.
his lips were on her earlobe instead, then his tongue darted in and out of her ear, her mouth, his lips found her nipples next, she arched wanting him to kiss her on the mouth, but he moved to her navel suddenly… a warm moisteness cut a trail across her diaphragm and stomach… moving down.
she clasped his head, her fingers buried in his thick dark untamed hair… panicking a little, wanting him to stay.
wanting him to stop this exploration. he went still and she wondered why her hand moved away from his head and invited him to continue the plunder.
when he loomed above her, his visage dark on the shadow side, his eyes still glittering, for a moment she froze.
he smiled and said “khushi” in that way only he did. she let her resistance leave…
she wanted to hold him and make him hers.
“hold me, khushi,” he murmured lowering himself…
she screamed once and he covered her lips with his mouth, kissing and easing her in a way she never knew one could be eased. when she was at last calm, he moved again…
“never leave me, khushi,” she heard him call out…
what was happening to her… how could anyone make one feel like this. khushi held him tight in her arms and neither realised their tears mingled as they kissed and let the night come and take them where it willed…
his eyes opened first. she lay there on his chest, spent and tired. he sighed and pushed her hair off her face, it tumbled onto his chest… warm flowing chestnut… a desire seemed to awaken.
suddenly her eyes opened, she looked up at him, remembered what had happened and sat up with a jerk. her hair fell like the folds of her dupatta and covered her gleaming body.
she was struggling he could see, a burgeoning shyness wouldn’t let her look up.
“look what you’ve done to me,” he said coolly. she instantly followed his gaze. on his chest, just below his right nipple, a red fiery bruise was visible. khushi breathed in sharply, covering her mouth with her hand.
“i think it’s time i punished you for this…” he was laughing but his eyes held a suggestion of something else, an intimate touch.
he went to catch her and managed to do so with extreme ease despite her attempt to evade him.
as she pummeled him trying to get away, he looked at her seriously and asked, “khushi… tum theek ho?”
(khushi, are you okay?)
she had to hide her face against him at that, of course.
this laad governor was impossible… what a silly question, does anyone ask such a thing?
then she lifted her face and kissed him quickly on the cheek… “hum theek nahin hain…” she said in a meek little voice.
(i am not alright.)
he let go of her immediately, eyes clouding with concern, frown on its way… “khushi!”
khushi leaped out of bed and ran toward the bathroom laughing happily.
she just wanted to laugh for some odd reason… yes, what bua ji said was right, she was sanka devi and parameswari and titaliya too… also pagal… and her arnav ji’s “khushi!”
the hot water from the shower head came with force, stinging where it hit the skin at times. khushi lifted her face to the frisson of it, its thrill… its fluid power…
she reached for the soap on the rack by the shower, it had looked pretty… large and ivory white. creamy.
she couldn’t find it…
she felt a warm soapy touch on her nipple, then her breast and her eyes flew open. his body came from behind and made contact. she froze… his hands rubbed soap on her in languorous circles growing larger…
his body grew hard, demanding…
she wanted to turn and hug him, she wanted to lean back and take him, lie supine against his every contour.
he pinched her lightly.
she stopped moving, that hurt.
“told you, there will be punishment!” he sounded deadly serious.
khushi whirled around and looked up at laughing caramel chocolate cocoa earth paani poori water brown eyes.
her eyes moved to the bruise… as the jets of water hit it, it began to wash away in streams of red…
it had been her sindoor…