“chhotey, where are you and khushi? hariprakash ji said you aren’t at home!” anjali was sounding worried.
asr swung the suv into the driveway of shantivan.
“di..” he began to answer…
“kya?!” anjali practically shrieked at the other end. khushi, who was sitting in the passenger seat looking dreamily out of the window, jumped and turned toward asr, eyes very wide.
“di!” she whispered.
“om prakash ji says you haven’t even slept in your bed!!! chhotey… tum kahan ho? how could you… the suhaag raat also you didn’t do properly…” anjali was sounding most elder sisterly. and quite offended.
(om prakash ji says you haven’t even slept in your bed!!! chhotey… where are you? how could you… the suhaag raat also you didn’t do properly…)
asr recalled the bed sheet with pink roses, winced slightly and muttered, “di, you know i don’t believe in stupid things like suhaag raat!” shrugging as he stopped the car and distractedly undid his seat belt.
he looked at khushi, she was staring at him aghast.
“whaat?” he asked softly, frowning and lifting his shoulders.
khushi was speechless. asr waited, frown still in place.
di yelled away, “chhotey! you’ll never learn anything! sab baat pe main yeh nahin vishwas karta woh nahin vishwas karta, main shadi nahin karoonga, pyaar bakwaas hai… “
(chhotey, you’ll never learn! all the time, i don’t believe in this i don’t believe in that, i don’t believe in marriage, love is rubbish…)
“par ki na maine,” asr murmured evenly, his bluetooth ear piece was in place, of course, and he barely spared the conversation any attention, he was looking keenly at his unusually silent companion.
(but i did, didn’t i.)
sunlight fell across one side of her face, half of her bindi was bright red and glowing.
she was, it seemed to him, even more beautiful this morning.
she was wearing the red and orange churidar suit garima aunty had given aman when he’d gone to pick up a change for khushi the previous day. asr had called khushi’s mother ahead of that and requested her to give his executive assistant some clothes for khushi, she had asked him if there was anything in particular he’d like her to wear.
he had said simply, “aunty, whatever she is comfortable in…”
khushi’s mouth was starting to move, her lips trembled a little. he felt something halt then lurch in his chest.
“kay kiya?” di was annoyed.
(what did you do…)
“shadi,” his voice was barely audible.
he felt drawn to those lips. a sensation that pushed out all others. he leaned forward and let his lips seek and close upon khushi’s. he heard her indrawn breath, but he paid no heed. his lips moved gently over hers, coaxing, nudging… letting go, drowning in a softness, a silent avalanche of some unknown unuttered longing. his tongue reached to touch her skin, he lingered… she let her lips part… she gripped the edge of the seat… control was slipping away… there were only his lips and their unsaid questions, declarations, directions and his way of arousing her… she pressed her mouth hard against his mouth and let her tongue find his.
just as slowly as he had come to her, he drew away. it seemed to her they had been like that for an eternity… hamesha.
“shadi karne se kya hota hai… suhaag raat bhi karna padta hai!” di hollered, “i am feeling so bad for khushi! how could you! she must be so sad, aur woh toh mere khadoos unromantic stupid bhai ko kuchh kah nahin paaygi…” she went full tilt into the charge.
(so what you got married, you must do suhaag raat too… i am feeling so bad for khushi! how could you! she must be so sad, and she can’t even say anything to my nasty unromantic stupid brother…)
asr sat back with a satisfied smile, a slant on his lips, a glimmer in his eyes and said, “okay, why don’t you ask khushi yourself if she is feeling upset. see you, bye!” he switched off the phone.
khushi’s lips were glistening, the lipstick was gone. he lifted a languid hand and stroked her cheek.
“let’s go…” he said crisply and unfastened her seat belt.
khushi had felt really angry when she’d heard him say suhaag raat was stupid. she wanted to tell that magarmach what she thought of his rude laad governor attitude and ways. really, where had she found such a man… no romance in him. was he even remotely from lucknow? how could he be like this!
she would have said all that too. because notwithstanding the night before and all the other many nights and days and afternoons before that, what was felt had to be uttered by khushi kumari gupta to mr jwalamukhi… and instantly. with him she felt no need to be cautious… or careful.
and she hadn’t been. how she had paid for that.
she really was all set to tell him off.
khushi’s hand came up, she touched her lips.
she noted she was feeling dazed.
soon his hand was gripping hers and he was pulling her out of the car.
“let’s go,” he said again, “we need to get to work…”
khushi’s eyes again dashed to his face, growing larger. what was he saying, hey devi maiyya!
“no,” he sounded amused, “not that kind of work…”
khushi was horrified as she realised what he meant, oh! he was mercilessly teasing her. her eyes narrowed, she’d tell him…
“or… um… why not!” he said ruminatively. his shoulders were definitely shaking now.
“don’t ever trust a man, i mean goat,” khushi complained to lakshmi ji who hovered by her as she put away her things in the walk in wardrobe.
“khushi!” payal called out, “kahan hai tu? khushi! tum theek ho?”
(where are you, khushi? are you okay?)
her sister came out and went running to her jiji and flung her arms around her, “ha-an, jiji! i am fine… and you?”
she peered at payal closely. jija ji looked like a decent man, but you never know. khushi made a moue and glared.
“who are you so angry with, khushi? and where were you? om prakash ji said you hadn’t slept here? where did you go? did you run away home or something? did poor arnav ji have to go and get you? tell me, khushi!” payal was getting more frantic with each question.
“no, jiji! why should i run away… woh toh arnav ji made me… made me…” khushi couldn’t go on. her ears had started feeling very hot. her voice was quivering and her hold on payal was getting more and more tight.
payal watched her sister go a little haywire. she saw her cheeks turn crimson.
payal lowered her lid and and before she could stop it a knowing smile had peeped out. she ran a soothing hand over khushi’s head and smiled at her, “we can’t run away any more, hai na…? yaad hai, tujhe toh shadi hi nahin karni thi…”
(remember, you weren’t going to get married?)
khushi saw the happiness in payal’s eyes and for a moment forgot her ire.
she giggled, “karni bhi nahin chahiye thi… dekho na, jiji, uss laad governor se bhi lamba chauda naam ho gaya hai mera…” she made a pompous face and said in sonorous voice, “khushi kumari gupta singh raizada! uff apne aap ko samajhti kya hai?” she turned to the mirror and asked herself with a dance of her eyebrows and much head shaking…
(shouldn’t have married too… see, my name has become even longer than that laad governor’s… khushi kumari gupta singh raizada… huh, who do you think you are?)
“um…” payal pulled her sister’s nose, “sankadevi? ya parmeswari… hai re nand kissore… or titaliya… aafat ki puriya…”
khushi giggled and picked up a jalebi from the plate heaped with the crunchy orange favourite of hers. nani ji had sent some up for her soon after they got back, asr had bestowed on the plate an amused look and gone off to take a shower.
khushi had been plagued by the thought of him under cascading rivulets of water, steam all around, and had munched on several jalebis in her attempt to quell her thoughts. she was angry with him, yes. she would not budge from her resolve. she was strong. yes, she was.
arnav ji had come out and left soon after, looking disturbingly good in his black, white and grey. he had told her to follow later, their driver mohan would drop her off. khushi wanted to throw something at him but had desisted.
“hayee, bua ji hasn’t given me a name in such a long time, must ask her for a new one now, kyun jiji!” khushi clapped her hands and struck a pose.
payal suddenly became serious, “khushi, tu theek toh hai na…”
(khushi, you’re alright, aren’t you…)
before khushi could respond, lakshmi ji said, “meeeh meeeh!!”
a sense of topsy turvy was in the morning. the girls started laughing, khushi pushed payal and they both fell on the bed and lay there. their lives had changed completely it seemed to both… how different one felt in just one day.
khushi’s stomach muscles tightened as she remembered arnav ji’s face hovering around her middle, his kisses on her navel.
she glanced at payal sideways. was jiji okay?
payal was looking up at the ceiling, smiling to herself.
“hello hi bye bye! bhere ares the lajee lajee middil kilaas mandraaoing madhumakkhis…” mami ji’s voice could be heard loud and clear from downstairs.
(hello hi bye bye, where are the lazy middle class hovering honey bees…)
“manorama!” nani ji’s stern admonishment floated up, though not as loud as mami’s voice.
“ohh ohh sasuma, maarnings maarnings bhy angriyaing, i am onlyj caalingj our bootiphool bahuriyaj phar the bireakphaast… must eatings so theens they arej, must bej so tiredwa aphter whole night awake. hai na, anjali bitiyaaa… he he he he!” came manorama’s scintillating tone.
(oh ma in law, why are you getting so angry early in the morning, i am only calling our beautiful daughters in law for breakfast… they must eat something they are so thin and they must be so tired after staying up the whole night… isn’t that so, anjali… he he he!)
both khushi and payal blushed violently at that.
“er, bhai! um… i think i’ll head home now,” akash said sounding hesitant, he pushed his glasses up nervously and waited for asr’s reply.
it was almost eight o’clock. khushi had left the office earlier, she and payal were visiting bua ji and their parents. the guptas along with billo mausi and rajat ji were going back to lucknow the day after the pagphere ritual which was the next day.
seemed rajat ji had injured his back and khushi was most worried when she heard about it. rajat ji was not telling anyone how this might have happened, and every time he complained, billo mausi apparently made a face, said “hoonh!” and stalked out of the room. that’s what payal had told her on the phone, she had gone to bua ji’s place straight after lunch.
khushi was sitting at her desk muttering to devi maiyya when asr had strolled across.
seeing him, she had no idea why and even though she was still a little irritated with him about that leg pulling, she had had to tell him exactly what was bothering her.
asr had called aman immediately and asked him to send a doctor over to bua ji’s. then he’d casually said to khushi, “captain raina will take them to lucknow.”
even before she could react to this the way she’d wanted to, he had pursed his lips and asked, “did akash give you the reports i’d asked for? oh good… okay, khushi, i’ll be very late today, you go ahead from bua ji’s place, akash will pick you and payal up…”
then he had left, going into his office without even a backward glance.
khushi had felt bereft. and irked again.
asr looked up from his laptop, still lost in thought.
“what, akash?” he enquired curtly. something was clearly bothering him.
“no, i… i’ll get going now… got to pick up…” akash mumbled.
“oh.. yes yes of course… i’ll see you later then,” with that asr went back to his computer.
as akash turned to leave he bumped into jean pierre. the frenchman looked over akash’s shoulder, saw the man at the desk and his eyebrows shot up, “what ees thees, mon ami… akash… tell ahhnav, he just got married… go home! home!… ze work can wait, but ze leauve… ‘ow does ahhnav do thees!”
(the work can wait, but the love…)
akash smiled wryly at jean pierre and left. jean pierre squinted again at asr, who was of course completely oblivious to everything, then shrugged his shoulder in the most gallic way imaginable and left too.
khushi. was she asleep?
the thought went through his mind even as he continued to type. his eyes lifted and checked the time on the monitor. a flicker in the brown.
just past midnight.
for some reason, he remembered the night he’d sat here feeling completely frustrated. thinking of her.
she had invaded his mind, his gut… and stalled him, thrown him asunder. he couldn’t work. he couldn’t concentrate on anything. he chuckled at the thought. the girl, he was sure, would drive him mad. and if he had actually sat through what he had the previous evening, she most certainly had.
asr picked up his phone. who was calling now? the number was unknown.
“is that mr arnav singh raizada?” from the other side came a crisp male voice.
“yeah!” asr’s tone was clipped.
“hi, this is dinesh singh, I am calling from new york,” said the caller, “i’d like to talk to you about shyam manohar jha…”
asr’s brow furrowed instantly, a darkness loomed on his visage. his eyes narrowed. what was this. what was shyam up to now?
“we have been looking for him for a while… almost seven years now. he was married to my sister, mr raizada. she was found dead in their home one evening and he had disappeared. we knew him as gopal srivastav… just yesterday our investigators established a visual match with a suspect in india… I was told a case had just started and I could still speak to you on the matter without breach of confidentiality. actually, mr raizada, we wish to proceed with a case…”
asr felt a chill grip his heart. shyam had actually most probably killed someone. di… he shuddered and took a deep breath before replying.
“mr singh, let’s talk about this tomorrow, of course I will make sure you get everything you need to go ahead with your case,” he said in as steady a voice as he could.
“thank you, mr raizada… tomorrow around nine in the morning your time then?” dinesh singh replied.
“yes…” asr was about to ring off, then he said, “mr singh… i am very sorry to hear about your sister.”
there was silence for a few minutes.
“yeah…” dinesh singh’s voice was taut and strained.
a surge of disquiet spread in asr. what if shyam had tried to hurt di? what if he had succeeded in hurting khushi? when maa had been in pain, he had scarcely known about it. then that night had come, and no matter how hard he had run, he couldn’t save her.
asr’s body went rigid, a vein throbbed behind his ear. he wanted to drive straight to the jail, haul shyam out and beat him till he confessed to every crime he had ever committed.
how could he have not seen how lowdown, dangerous this man was? di was so happy. he had watched her and felt a joy melding in him. he had not questioned or probed as he ought to have.
khushi. he wanted to go home and hold her now. she was there at his home. the thought brought a funny sort of quiet to him. she must be sleeping in their bed, possibly on his side. he found he was smiling to himself. pagal ladki.
he got up and left the office. the guard watched him sprint down the flight of stairs outside and stood up with a salute.
“sir, it’s very late… i can bring the car for you, sir…” he said.
“no no, goodnight, sharma, I’ll be fine…” asr waved him away and went with brisk strides to his car.
the moment he got in, he knew something was wrong… or…
he looked toward the back quickly, something told him to check. and there she was, lying on her side on the back seat, fast asleep.
“what the…” the words streaked out through his clenched teeth.
“khushi!” he said loudly, “tum yahan kya kar rahi ho! what are you doing here, dammit?!”
khushi sat up bolt upright at the whip like voice.
she rubbed her eyes and looked around dazedly, “huh? kya? hum kahan hain? aap kaun hain? amma… amma…” she said.
(huh? what? where am i? who are you? mother… mother…)
in a split second he was out of the car and coming around to the back. he opened the door and held her by the shoulder, he shook her urgently, “khushi! shh… shh! it’s me! you’re with me.”
khushi looked at him blearily, “huh! laad governor!” she muttered still a bit woolly headed.
he climbed into the car and sat next to her.
“but what are you doing here? tum ghar nahin gayi? dammit, khushi, it’s so late, how could you take such a risk, it’s so dangerous alone out here… tumhe kuchh ho jata toh… what if i… what if i…” he realized he was shuddering again. didn’t this girl realize how dangerous it was to be out here alone like this…
(but what are you doing here? you didn’t go home? dammit, khushi. it’s so late, how could you take such a risk, it’s so dangerous alone out here… if something had happened to you!… what if i.. what if i…)
khushi sniffed, “humney socha… i will come and sit with you while you worked… jija ji dropped me after picking us up… then i thought, you were so busy, you didn’t even look at me the whole day. not once,” khushi sniffed again and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, “i didn’t want to disturb you…”
asr was looking at her incredulously. what was she jabbering about? why was she looking so damn beautiful and why did he want to put his arm around her and just hold her forever? when he should really get angry with her for being so foolish.
“so i just came and thought i’d wait, maybe go up later, then i must have slept off in the car…” khushi said in a low voice.
“but the keys?” asr was puzzled. had he left the car unlocked?
“jija ji gave me the spare key he had… i said to him I wanted to leave a surprise in the car for you…” khushi hung her head really low and muttered.
“a surprise, huh!” asr reached for her, “a shock, you mean…” he pulled her onto his lap and nuzzled her neck. he was tired. he was worried. but she smelled so sweet.
“never. ever. ever. do such a ridiculous thing again, samjhi tum, khushi kumari gupta!” he sort of shouted in a hushed intimate whisper, biting her neck lightly, running his hand over her back, cradling her closer.
khushi moaned deep in her throat and sighed, “… singh raizada!”
she felt him go still against her. then he was drawing away and holding her by the shoulder and pushing her away a bit so he could see her face.
khushi wondered what happened.
“arnav ji?” she asked tentatively, “kya baat hai?”
(arnav ji, what’s the matter?)
“khushi…” he looked for words, “tumhe pata hai that… i… let my father’s family name go… took my mother’s… see, baby,” he stroked her neck, his fingers a little rough, khushi could feel his love.
(khushi, you know that… i… let my father’s name go, took my mother’s… see, baby,)
“it’s not necessary to add my name to yours…” he continued, he had an earnest expression on his face. he looked almost like a young boy, khushi thought. but what was arnav ji saying?
“my mother took my father’s name, my sister took that… shyam’s!” his teeth were clenched again and his voice was hoarse, low.
“koi faraq nahin padta, men don’t protect their wives, they don’t honour and cherish… this whole custom of forcing people to accept another’s name…” he was sounding really angry by now.
(doesn’t make a difference, men don’t protect their wives, they don’t honour and cherish… this whole custom of forcing people to accept another’s name…)
“kya aapko pasand nahin, humne aap ka naam liya?” khushi asked in a tiny voice, her heart was beginning to break. she had felt so close to him when she strung her name with his. she had wanted to make it hers too.
(didn’t you like that I took your name?)
“what???” he looked at her, his eyes blank. he’d gotten lost in painful thoughts.
then he swore under his breath.
what was he saying? it had felt so good when she’d signed her name on the marriage certificate… what the h was he saying.
he dragged her back into his arms and held her flush against him.
“i love it, khushi, jab tum mere naam ke saath apna naam jodti ho… and it’s your right, haq hai tumhara, mujh pe… mere naam pe…”
(I love it, khushi, when you join your name with mine… and it’s your right, you have a right over me… on my name…)
khushi snuggled happily against him and murmured, “aapke pyaar pe.”
(… on your love.)
asr kissed her on her mouth just then, his hand slid under her kurta and stroked her smooth firm back. she could feel a warmth ricochet in her. she put her hands on his shoulders on either side and let fingers run along their width, she slipped her hand into the hair at the nape of his neck, it felt crisp and fresh. she bit his lip lightly.
his body jerked and he rolled back so she lay on top of him. he looked at her through half closed eyes. there was even now a sombreness about him, she could sense.
“what’s the matter, arnav ji?” khushi asked.
asr kept quiet. his hands had found the drawstring of her churidar and was opening the knot impatiently.
khushi held his face in her hands. his stubble tickled her palms, she rubbed slowly, mesmerised by the sensation. in the dark she could barely see him, but she seemed to feel everything even more.
“I’ll tell you tomorrow, khushi,” he said, his hands were on her hips, “call me arnav, khushi,” he commanded.
he moved with alacrity and she felt him thrusting up into her. she almost yelped, instead she felt her body rush to the sensation and thrill to it. she strained against him and he reached up holding her, guiding her, touching and awakening. she forgot they were in a car in a darkened car park, she forgot she had been mad at him, even if just a bit, the whole day.
“arnav,” she whispered, she wanted to see him looking less tense, she wanted to call him by his name. yes, amma never did that with babu ji and she had always been taught that you call your spouse with that ji added for respect. he too did the same. but who was to tell arnav… ji… no, arnav… that. would the laad governor listen to anyone!
“arnav,” she whispered again. he smiled and yanked her closer, she lay on him playing with his shirt buttons, opening them, kissing his chest, toying with the springy hair, rubbing her nose against it, then his skin… her tongue darted out and did a little recce of his collar bones, the base of his throat.
he felt her little movements and knew she was happy. he laced his fingers through hers and made love to her, forgetting all else.
later they lay, arms around each other, he kissed her cheeks, her forehead, her nose, her chin. finally a gossamer kiss on her lips.
“khushi,” he said, his voice thick and drowsy, “I have no idea what love is… and I know nothing about marriage, I will not be the best pati in the world… but I can’t live without you and I bet you have no idea exactly how fabulous I am to live with…”
“whattt?” khushi was taken aback at this sudden turn, “you…!”
“ha-an main… arnav singh raizada, young, smart, wealthy,” one eyebrow went up, lips were pursed, “I have been told I am not too bad to look at either…”
khushi balled her fist and punched him in the ribs.
“ow!” asr caught her fist and dragged it to his lips.
“you’ll have to pay for this…” he was laughing openly now.
the night was pitch dark. there were no stars visible in the sky… the moon was a distant sliver. he parked the car in the porch and went around to her side. she had nodded off again.
he kissed her gently on her cheek and lifted her up. then he walked with his sure elegant gait toward the door. at the entrance he lowered her and let her stand leaning against him. her eyes remained shut. he turned the key, opened the door, propelled her in and picked her up again.
her head rested just by his heart…
he lay her down on his bed, by his side and turned her to face him.
that’s when he saw the crushed red flower in her hair.
an emotion he was just getting to know surged in and lapped against his edges, filling him.
he wondered if there’s be time for a quick weekend in bali. a hammock beckoned.
find all chapters here