the pooris were heaped high on the stainless steel plate, white, fluffy and still steaming. in a bowl next to them, the potato curry looked delicious, a bright green chilli sat right on top, khushi noticed it was shining. like his eyes, she thought. she swallowed hard and tried to fight her tears.
“c’mon, guys, dig in,” salman said with gusto as he swooped down on his makki ki roti and tore a piece grinning at kareena and khushi. kareena shook her head, and made a face. clearly, salman hadn’t sensed a thing.
“you know, in the tea estates, we don’t get makki di roti and sarson da saag… must tell my mom to do something about it,” salman declared munching away. khushi swallowed hard again, the chilli was so beautiful, how could she have said such a silly thing to arnav ji… his maa was born on the first day of the year… were the pooris hot… did they hurt… her thoughts came in a muddled disorganised sequence. everything was out of sync, not in place, jagged and scraping. she didn’t notice a tear had escaped and started to slide down her cheek.
(you know in the tea estates. we don’t get maize flower chapatis and mustard greens… must tell my mom to do something about it.)
kareena wondered if she should kick salman under the table now, or just yell at him later. from the time khushi had walked into their room earlier that day, she had so evidently not been herself. they’d been friends and colleagues for almost seven months now, and kareena could see khushi was distracted and lost despite that happy smile she always managed to have on her face. she had suggested bengali market for lunch mainly to get khushi’s mind off things, whatever they may be. looked like nothing much was happening in that department though and salman was merrily eating.
kareena kicked salman hard. how can a designer be so insensitive, she wondered, then she smiled in a satisfied way.
“ow!” salman yelped, “who did that! kareena!”
kareena glared at salman, “how’s the sarson ka saag?” she asked sweetly, “does it have a kick in it? my mother says in bengali cooking sarson is what adds the…”
(how’s the creamed mustard greens? does it have a kick in it? my mother says in bengali cooking mustard is what adds the…)
but even before she could finish her sentence, khushi was standing up and hurtling off in the direction of the washroom, her off centre plait swung wildly as she rushed and a mojri got left behind just next to salman, but she didn’t turn back to retrieve it.
“sh**!” salman swore under his breath, “what’s the matter with khushi today, she’s been down ever since the morning.”
kareena stared at salman speechless.
dave ogawa was a short man with precise, fastidious ways, almost quaint some might say. he was the man with the real power at shima, the fastest growing fashion house in asia, even though it was his wife naho who was the executive chairperson and managing director of the company. she was the only child of the largest shareholder of the conglomerate that owned shima.
the negotiations with shima had gone well earlier although they had started out difficult. asr was meeting dave ogawa for the very first time, he had heard the man was tricky, and today he needed just that. dave ogawa was a slightly built man, not more than five feet four inches in height. he wore a grey faceless business suit, though perfectly ironed and creased, his hair was coloured a pale shade of burgundy, and he wore it slightly long. his shirt was a faultless white, and his balck shoes were clearly italian and very expensive. he had a soft voice and a deliberate way of speaking.
after an intense three hour meeting, a deal was struck. ar would create an exclusive line in tussar and mooga silk for a small group of well heeled, aware, and insistent on natural fabrics japanese customers. a high value segment that was difficult to please.
“sir, may i take your order?” the waiter asked politely. they were at the house of ming, the chinese restaurant at the taj mansingh, for lunch. asr frowned. order? he suddenly seemed to feel a weight on his lap and a jalebi nudging at his lips. he wished he could bite into it and put his arms around that gota infested not too heavy thing on his lap. not thing… person, said his mind sternly. and her name is khushi.
asr’s lips tightened. a heaviness now clutched some part within. he looked at the waiter and said curtly, “a black coffee, please!”
akash looked up from the menu he had been studying for some time. dave ogawa’s eyes moved from the unsmiling face of the owner of ar to the slightly confused face of the waiter.
“black coffee, sir? but-” the waiter, a young man of about twenty three in a smart maroon mandarin jacket, sounded hesitant.
“it’s all right, jayant,” a mellifluous and poised voice cut in. a tall, good looking woman stood by the waiter’s side, she wore a maroon cheongsam, her hair was piled high on her head in a neat chignon. it was the maitre d’.
she smiled at asr and continued, “sir, pleasure to see you… anything other than black coffee, sir? i’m afraid though, i don’t think we have the jamaican blue mountain you like…”
asr acknowledged her with a slight smile and replied, “that’s all right, aziza, i’ll take whatever is there. no sugar, as usual.”
akash noticed dave lifted his napkin, folded a corner and delicately dabbed at the corner of his lips.
“and, sir, what would you like today?” aziza’s voice startled akash.
“oh!.. oh…. er… um…” he fumbled looking at her amiably through his thick glasses, “how about…”
“may i suggest steamed prawn dumplings for starters and eight treasures fried rice with peking lamb after that?” aziza seemed to know her guest’s tastes.
“thank you… yes, that sounds perfect!” akash beamed.
“i believe jayant has your order for a black chicken soup and cold noodles with seared tuna on the side, sir,” aziza said to dave ogawa, then she gave a warm smile to everyone at the table before leaving; the long slit along one side of her dress parting slightly as she walked, her legs in tights visible.
akash saw dave ogawa looking after the maitre d’, he again lifted his napkin and wiped the corner of his lips. akash felt a faintly disturbing feeling flit through him.
“ah, mistah raizada, i have been meaning to say something for a while,” suddenly the small asian man turned to asr and beamed, a glint in his eyes, “you see, your junior colleague was there earlier, so i had to wait.”
asr looked at dave ogawa without saying anything.
“junior colleague, mr ogawa?” akash asked, perplexed.
“the lady, what’s her name…” dave ogawa gave a faintly dismissive smile.
“lavanya. lavanya kashyap, mr ogawa, she heads marketing at ar,” asr said crisply. there was a watchfulness in his brown irises now.
“ah yes, of course… anyway… i wanted to discuss another line with you, mr raizada,” dave ogawa replied smoothly and took a sip of his jasmine tea, his tongue peeped out, a darting triangle of pink, as he licked his lips.
asr fixed him with a stare and said nothing.
akash moved uncomfortably in his chair. bhai was not looking pleased. shima was a huge player, they had cracked a deal at last…
“i mean a line with that essential thing, mr raizada. shima is high end, but shima also goes mass under another brand name… we don’t want to miss out on the street, you understand…” dave ogawa paused and sipped at his tea again, again wiping his lips with a corner of his napkin.
a girl looking vulnerable in a pink churidar kurta with atrocious pompoms hanging from her sleeves had flashed through his mind
“the lady has long beautiful legs, doesn’t she, mr raizada…?” ogawa’s smile bordered on a leer, “skin… always good for the profit… i would like to give ar the opportunity to really grow big in asia… make us a line with enough skin in it… yes? here in india you have the beautiful navel showing through the saree-”
he stopped short.
his host was standing before him. thanks to the plush royal blue carpet, he hadn’t heard the chair scraping back as asr stood up swiftly. there was a closed look on arnav singh raizada’s face. only his eyes blazed darkly. a dangerous intensity in them.
dave ogawa thought he felt a stab of fear in his abdomen.
“the deal is off, mr ogawa,” asr shot out. there was a steely flatness in his voice.
“ar will not be doing any business with shima. akash, please make sure mr ogawa’s lunch is paid for,” asr wasn’t looking at anybody as he rasped out the the words. then he turned sharply and walked away.
akash looked at the head of shima to see if he’d again wipe his lips.
a girl looking vulnerable in a pink churidar kurta with atrocious pompoms hanging from her sleeves had flashed through his mind as the little man had spoken of skin and profit. asr’s jaws clenched. he went quickly down the main staircase and got into his suv.
his mother’s face had floated up as he’d listened, anger growing, to the disparaging words, to the bluff confident tone. maa was standing by the temple in a midnight blue silk saree smiling at him as he took reluctant steps toward her, he didn’t want to go for the puja. that girl in pink didn’t want to come with him. her suitcases were heavy, but her eyes had a weight in them he wished weren’t there. now she was smiling and waving a strand of fairy lights at him; and she was lifting her arms because he needed to be held in them. because maa…
he’d stood up without even realising what he was doing. then done what he knew he would do every time. to hell with profit. to hell with opportunity. there would be no disrespect shown to women in his business.
he stepped on the accelerator. the smog had already started settling on the streets, barely one thirty in the afternoon, the bright sunny morning had been deceptive, it would be dark soon. he drove blindly without any real thought as to where he was headed. something was pounding in his head.
it had been maa’s birthday. that’s why she was doing a special puja and wanted him to come for the blessings. she’d made all the things di and he and their father liked for lunch. fluffy white pooris and aloo for him… asr swore under his breath. this world was heartless… always…. why did people have to love and be faithful and hurt and die.
why dammit. why this sham of happiness, of respect, of love…
the little man had a filthy gleam in his beady eyes as he spoke. asr had seen his eyes follow aziza as she’d left.
a pair of hazel eyes shone at him. clean, innocent, untouched… khushi, where are you? his mind whispered and a longing seized him.
he turned down the highway and drove fast. he had to reach the farmhouse before sunset. he had to be by himself for a while. everything was in a turbulent whirl inside.
“khushi bitiya?” nani ji sounded warm.
khushi pressed the phone closer to her ear, nani ji always made her feel calm. she was sitting at her desk, salman ji had come back to collect his things before leaving, khushi had come with him, not very sure what she should do now…
“haan, nani ji?” she said trying to sound upbeat, she didn’t want her grandmother in law to worry.
(yes, nani ji?)
“bitiya, i was thinking, today you have half day at work, isn’t it? why don’t you visit your bua ji after work then? she’s alone and must be wanting to see you and payal bitiya today, don’t you think? i’ll send payal bitiya with akash and you can come back together. i’ve told mohan to take you to madhumati ji’s, okay?” nani ji said pleasantly.
“theek hai, nani ji,” khushi said in a wan voice.
(okay, nani ji.)
“ee dekho nand kissore, kaun aayin hain apni bua ji ke yahan… titaliya, tum toh humey bhoolay dei ho, kyun!” bua ji boomed as khushi came in. the door had been open. bedi ji and happy ji, her neighbours, were with her aunt in the little sitting room. they seemed to be in the midst of some work, happy ji was scribbling something with a pencil in an excercise book.
(oh look nand kishore, who has come to see her aunt… butterfly, you’ve forgotten me, why!)
bua ji was wrapped in a humongous blue shawl with white and pink flowers embroidered all over. khushi knew she loved this shawl that her late husband had bought for her from darjeeling when he had gone there on some work. it was at least fifteen years old but the dizzying brightness of the blue hadn’t diminished even that bit. khushi noticed bua ji’s locket was comfortably lodged in the folds of her neck and bobbed from time to time especially when bua ji was in the throes of high emotion; and her single gold bangle sat on her wrist as always, not budging a millimetre. khushi felt a little smile begin to pull at her lips. everything felt familiar, in place.
“bua ji!” khushi threw her arms around her dear aunt, her father’s only sibling, his elder sister, and hugged her tight. she then sniffed loudly, she missed babu ji and amma.
“hayin! hai re nand kissore, roh kyun rahi ho, kaa hum itni kharab hayin… ki dekho aur ro dio!” bua ji chortled, pinching her niece’s cheek and making all sorts of faces, trying to make her laugh.
(what! oh lord nand kishore, why are you crying, am i that bad… that you just see me and burst into tears!)
“khushi ji, aap hamare party mein aayengi na!” happy ji said with a wide grin.
(khushi ji, you’ll come to our party, won’t you?)
bedi ji said nothing. he was looking at madhumati ji, his corpulent neighbour, with a lost bemused air. how many wondrous expressions she could make!
“bedi ji!” a sharp voice was heard. khushi looked around, frowning… how could it be…?
but it was.
billo mausi stood at the door to the second bedroom, diminutive and trundling, in a pink saree with silver patterns. she was tucking her silver hair pins into her bun as she smiled her most charming smile. no one realised she was doing what she believed was called… an entrance. she stayed in that pose for a moment and then slowly walked in. did her hips sway a bit?
bedi ji was still gazing at bua ji, rapt.
“bedi ji! see, my saree matches your patka, haye!” billo mausi giggled.
khushi blinked slowly. was billo mausi trying to… khushi gave bedi ji a quick look. but he was looking with twinkling eyes at her… aunt?
khushi shook her head, what had come over everyone?
“we’ll watch tv, burst crackers, decorate the house with lights, we’ll have lassi, cauliflower samose, chaat, paneer tikka… happy new year party, khushi ji, everyone’s coming… you’ll come, won’t you… with damad ji!” happy ji said, oblivious of all that was going on, ticking off the items on his exercise book.
lights? fairy lights? khushi felt her heart plummet to her toes.
she gave bua ji another tight hug and mumbled, “bua ji! i must go now… hum kal aayenge!”
(bua ji, i must go now, i’ll come tomorrow!)
with that she turned and ran out of the room.
bua ji stared after her disappearing niece and roared “sanka devi!!”
(goddess of craziness!)
bedi ji beamed. billo mausi gave a disdainful “hoonh!”
happy ji asked, “rajesh ji is coming later, is he?”
khushi came at top speed back into the little sitting room, her dupatta flying her pompoms dancing her mojri slipping off, and called out, “maaf kijiye, bua ji! namaste, billo mausi! bedi ji, happy ji, hum aate hain!”
(sorry, bua ji! namaste, billo mausi! bedi ji, happy ji, i’ll see you!)
then she was gone.
the tree had hardly any flowers today.
a few dark orange red krishnachura were scattered on the grass below, some bloomed along bare branches. he stood quietly in front of the tree. his mind was still in an unsettled state. it had been almost an hour since he got here.
he’d not been planning to buy a farmhouse, it always felt unnecessarily self indulgent to him. but then he’d seen the tree. maa loved krishnachura. he’d decided almost without thinking.
khushi loved the farmhouse. khushi.
he felt her name pass through his throat, touching the walls, grazing.
his turned and looked at the other side of the garden… the frangipani trees skirted the edge. no flowers on them today. in the dead of winter they lay dormant, all leaves gone, waiting for warmth, for spring. he felt a desire to go across and touch a tree. were they all right?
frowning slightly, he strolled over and peered at a few of the trees, checking the tips of branches, making sure all was well.
he remembered the first time he had seen her with frangipani flowers. she’d come into his office with a vase full of them. his mind had played a trick. all he could see was her long long neck with a bunch of the lush velvety blooms against it… she was turning her head and looking at him. he had never asked himself what was in her eyes…
asr inhaled deeply.
he started walking briskly then. his steps suddenly lighter. he knew where he had to go.
khushi came to the garden, panting a little, she had been running but even without that her heart had been racing and tumbling for a while. right through the drive to the farmhouse she had felt arnav ji calling her. she hadn’t bothered to ring him though. he had not answered her calls earlier, she didn’t want to go through the same thing again and feel despondent.
“khushi, tu pagal hai!” she declared to herself sitting in the car, “you know arnav ji, don’t you… he can’t say things.. how could you leave him alone… you should have barged into the room… har jagah aisi chali jaati hai, kissiko poochhti nahin, but where you should go… bua ji is right, i am sanka devi!” khushi prattled on.
(khushi, you’re mad! you know arnav ji, don’t you… he can’t say things.. how could you leave him alone… you should have barged into the room… you go everywhere without bothering to ask anyone, but where you should go… bua ji is right, i am the goddess of craziness!)
mohan tried to concentrate on his driving and not hear what khushi bhabi was saying. he had a feeling bhabi didn’t know she was muttering quite loudly. she was right though, about chhotey saab, that is. he didn’t talk at all. but bhabi sort of talked all the time.
when they reached the farmhouse, khushi noticed the suv wasn’t there, but something said to her so strongly that he was right here that she just bounded in, sure he’d be standing by the krishnachura tree… yes, that tree. she’d find him there.
the main door was locked from the outside, khushi frowned, then fished out the key from her purple and red cloth bag. arnav ji had given her the key on one of their visits, he had said he wanted her to have the key to their house. khushi remembered feeling a funny happiness at the thought of a house that belonged to the both of them. their house.
she had opened the door quickly and walked fast through the rooms to the verandah and straight to the garden. now she stood before the tree.
but where was arnav ji?
“didn’t he come to you?” she asked the krishnachura silently.
the tree was inordinately quiet.
her phone rang.
“haylow!” khushi whispered tremulously.
“khushi!” it was jiji.
“where are you? bua ji said you just left without saying anything! tum theek toh ho na!” payal sounded worried.
(where are you? bua ji said you left without saying anything! you’re okay, aren’t you!)
“ha-an!” khushi mumbled, a deep feeling of hopelessness suddenly enveloping her. she shivered a little in her light yellow cardigan and thick brown shawl. where was arnav ji?
“okay, you have mohan ji with you, right? tell him to take you to lavanya ji’s house. akash and i are going there. you remember she’s having a party, don’t you?” payal said briskly to her sister.
dadi ji had told her not to take no for an answer from khushi. jeth ji, dadi ji was sure, would not be coming home till late tonight and khushi bitiya would fret unnecessarily… just take her out with you for a while, hemangini raizada had told payal, she’ll feel a bit better, then send her home with mohan ji and you stay on at lavanya’s party. dadi ji would spend time with khushi she had assured payal. payal loved her grandmother in law, she’d never expected to find such a wonderful and wise and strong elder at her in laws’. one who cared so deeply for everyone, even the daughters in law. payal particularly liked the way dadi ji treated sasu ma, akash’s mother. no one could say sasu ma was easy to get along with, yet, dadi ji somehow managed to both scold her and love her without any fuss.
she’d overheard sasu ma planning her new year’s eve with her father in law.
“bhe sall bhatching teebhee, samjheo, wonly yous and me togethers in our roomwa…” manorama had announced to her husband.
(we shall watch tv, understand, just you and i in our bedroom!)
“yes, but mano…” her husband had started gently…
“buts nothing!” sasu ma had asserted, “buts only at elebhens phorty phibhe sarp, we goings to mother in la’s roomwa and enjaaying all oph us togethers. i know anjali bitiya ij saayd and mother in la also… buts thees years, bhe ti-ry, samjheo, must tiryings always… anjali bitiya habhing baby, must be hayppy. aynd aphter aals my nanad naats bhantings to see aals oph you isso unhayppy on her birthdays… no? i habh got niice golgappa phrom khan market and jalebi… also phar the goat some phresh phresh green chholey… hello hi bye bye, bhe must tiry!”
(but nothing!! but only… at eleven fortyfive sharp, we’re going to mother in law’s room and we’ll all enjoy together. i know anjali bitiya is sad and mother in law as well… but this year, we try, understand? must try always… anjali bitiya is going to have a baby, she must be happy…
and after all, my sister in law wouldn’t want to see all of you so unhappy on her birthday… isn’t it? i have got some nice golgappa and jalebi from khan market and also fresh green chickpea for the goat! hello hi bye bye, we must try!)
payal smiled a little at the memory then grimaced. khushi was saying, “no, jiji, i… i will just go home…”
“chup kar, khushi… do as i say!” payal said firmly, “i’ll see you at lavanya ji’s.”
(keep quiet, khushi! do as i say!)
asr parked the suv in the awkward turn off happy ji’s garage and went on impatient feet toward bua ji’s place. the door was open. he walked in.
“damad ji, babua, nand kissore!” bua ji sounded surprised, elated, and a little hysterical all at once.
asr looked at the lady struggling to stand up from her cane chair, wrapped in bright blue and pink. yes, definitely, his wife’s fashion sense was inherited, he thought as he felt a little laughter play in his chest.
“please don’t stand up, bua ji! khushi yahan hai kya?” he asked briskly, he was sure she’d be here. he hadn’t called to check, he hadn’t answered her calls earlier, he didn’t want to have a pointless conversatuion about all that now. he wanted to see her. and she was here dammit… but where?
(please don’t satnd up, bua ji! is khushi here?)
“hain? damad ji, you don’t know where she is? she came here like the wind then she left here like the storm! hai re nand kissore… then payal bitiya and akas babua came like a waft of breeze, for just minutes, then they also left… now you are here… payal said she wanted to take parmeswari somewhere…” madhumati ji sounded more and more flustered as she went along.
asr looked around incredulously. she wasn’t here?! where was she then!
“damad ji, namaste!” it was happy ji, “khushi bitiya and you must come to our party… okay, i better rush and put up the lights before it’s dark…” with that the gnome like happy ji disappeared.
lights? fairy lights?
arnav singh raizada felt a twinge near his heart. a girl was looking at him woozily and trying to make him disappear with a spell… choo mantar… laad governor gum.
khushi… he had to reach her.
he pulled out his phone and dialed her number.
the party had already started at lavanya ji’s. the first thing khushi noticed as she walked in was, everyone was dressed up. lavanya ji was in a deep vermilion red long dress and a beautiful gold pendant on a long chain. nk or nanhe ji as she called him was wearing a black silk shirt, his hair was gelled. khushi saw the black shirt and almost started to weep. the first time she’d seen arnav ji…
jiji ji and jija ji were both in purple. they must have decided to wear the same colour khushi thought, sniffing slightly.
kareena was looking lovely in her short black dress with flowing chiffon sleeves. she gave khushi a tight hug and said, “honey, hope you’re feeling okay… did you eat anything?”
khushi looked at her blankly. eat? she hadn’t thought of food the whole day.
salman ji was in jeans but he was wearing a well cut jacket too.
“‘allo, ma cherie,” khushi spun around, jean pierre stood behind her in white kurta pyjama.
“jon piye ji!” khushi smiled involuntarily… the next moment she was in his arms and the frenchman was kissing her on both cheeks, “khushi, beautiful as evehh i see, and where is my dear ahhnav?”
he saw khushi’s smile slip. an old old feeling came back.
the volcano, he thought… and the frangipani…
smiling and fighting tears again, khushi drew her shawl around herself and walked among the crowd trying to find a quiet corner. she finally found a little alcove next to the study and curled up on a sofa. it felt so cold, she was missing arnav ji terribly. maybe she should call him?
she pulled out her phone. it was dead. she’d forgotten to charge her phone.
i really thought i’d be able to write this chapter long before this, but something or the other kept coming in the way. was that a bit like the day asr and khushi have just been through? i hope you enjoyed the chapter. i will update sooner than you expect i hope. thanks so much for reading. see you on new year’s eve again.