it was soft and cool against his fingers. he stroked the fabric feeling its smoothness, its supple texture. the yarn had a natural golden sheen, a deep innate gold that didn’t need to flaunt itself or glitter too obviously. it was rich and comfortable with its beauty. asr held a fistful of mooga and then slowly let it go… watching it fall.
“can you make it as light as chiffon, weave a fine transparency in? what do you think, salman?” he asked the young designer.
salman grinned inwardly. trust asr to ask for something that had not yet been attempted. yet could be… yeah, he didn’t see why not.
“i’ll set up a meeting with the master weaver and the owner of the workshop, asr…” he replied turning toward his boss.
asr was looking at the mooga again he found, holding a length up and appraising it, deep furrows on his forehead, clearly lost in thought.
“aap itne khoye khoye se kyun hain, helena ji?” khushi asked with a dazzling smile as the pachyderm extended her trunk and took another banana from khushi’s hand and put it straight into her mouth. maila had taught khushi how to feed helena and she had been sitting here for a couple of hours now indulging mr ghaznavi’s pet with all sorts of fruits and other things. elephants in general had a sweet tooth she had learnt.
(why are you looking so lost, helena?)
and helena was especially fond of sweets.
“haye, sach?!!” khushi had exclaimed when she’d heard that earlier, “then helena ji and i are going to be very very very good friends, maila ji… what’s life without sweetness and sweets! like… syrupy… crunchy… sweet… orange…” her eyes had gone dreamy recalling her favourite mithai, and she’d beamed at the mahout, “can i make some jalebis for helena ji?!”
maila had gaped and then scratched his head, then looked at helena with narrowed eyes for a while, and at last said, “of course, baideo, helena will like that, i am sure…” sounding not at all sure.
bahadur was surprised at the request, but he’d made sure the estate’s guest got exactly what she wished for. khushi had fried and dunked jalebis in syrup as kanumoni looked on astonished, never having seen any visitor cook in the guesthouse kitchen and that too with such gusto. khushi had flung her yellow dupatta with gota edging over her shoulder and tied it around her waist, then got busy mixing flour, yogurt, besan, sugar, and other ingredients. soon thick syrup was simmering in a pot and batter was landing on hot oil from a bunched up piece of cloth as khushi baideo’s hands moved deftly and really fast in circles.
when khushi had held out the first jalebi to helena, the elephant had unfurled her trunk, brought it close, paused for a moment over the orange swirl then picked it up and quickly tucked it into her mouth… less than a second later she’d been back for the next.
khushi had jumped up and twirled around in joy, “aapko pasand aaya, this is my favourite sweet, pata hai?!”
(you liked it, this is my favourite sweet, d’you know?!)
the elephant had flapped her ears and come looking for another jalebi.
after a whole tray of freshly made jalebis had disappeared, maila had patted helena’s trunk and said, “bas, helena is good girl, now she will eat good fresh fruit…”
he had told khushi, the elephant did eat some cooked food like rice and bread at times, but her main diet consisted of raw vegetables, fruit, grass, and leaves. sometimes though, helena stole modhu… honey… when shaab bottled it.
khushi had laughed, remembering how lakshmi ji liked to trot into the kitchen and swipe goodies while no one was looking.
“helena ji, you eat so much… but look at you, you’re so pretty! do you know, even i love to eat! ” khushi held out a large slice of water melon to her friend. it disappeared in a flash.
“and do you know, arnav ji also lost his amma when he was just a child,” khushi’s voice grew pensive, “sometimes he also looks lost just like you…”
helena took another chunk of water melon.
“hum kuchh kehte nahin, par isska yeh matlab nahin ki hum kuchh samajhte nahin…” she said as she held out a sugarcane.
(i don’t say anything, doesn’t mean i don’t understand anything…)
“he doesn’t like to discuss things, just like you… but when he hurts…” a sob escaped though khushi wasn’t aware, “see, he’s always had to be strong, and maybe that’s why he is a bit khadoos,” khushi paused, looked around at the green all around, for some reason a volcano came to mind, “nahiiin, a lot khadoos… like a rakshas at times… but inside… you know… hume pata hai, hum jaante hain…” he voice wobbled, she swallowed her tears, “inside he is all gold… khara sona,” she sniffed loudly and gave another chunk of water melon to helena.
(… see, he’s always had to be strong, and maybe that’s why he is a bit nasty… noooo, a lot nasty… like a monster at times… but inside.. you know… i am aware, i know… inside he’s all gold… pure gold…)
“don’t feel so bad, helena ji… dekhiye, how much maila ji loves you and also salman ji’s father. i haven’t met him but i know he must be a wonderful man…” khushi was rambling a little uncontrollably now, holding out more and more fruits to helena.
suddenly the elephant bypassed a banana and reached for khushi’s face instead. she tapped on her cheek gently, then lay her trunk on khushi’s head for a moment, before going back to eating.
“mekhela sadar, baideo,” said kanumoni when khushi asked her what the dress she wore was called.
the skirt was the mekhela and the separate piece of cloth that draped around the body and went over the shoulder was the sadar… or chadar. kanumoni’s mekhela was a in shade of pale pink with motifs in red, her sadar was white, of a lighter material and it had little tiny red tassels hanging along the edges.
khushi flicked them playfully and then showed kanumoni her green pompoms on the sleeves and yellow pompoms on the parandi on her plait, and winked, “you also like pompoms i see, kanumoni ji! stylish!”
the skirt or mekhela had to be pleated, holding it along the top edge. then you tucked the pleats into the petticoat. the sadar was like a dupatta, you fixed one corner to the petticoat over the pleats, and took it around you draping it like the pallu of a saree. khushi was absorbed trying to understand the finer points of mekhela when her phone rang.
“haylow!” she said as she held the sadar in the correct way, letting a couple of folds form at the end.
“kya kar rahi ho tum?” came a husky voice from the other side. the grain in it seemed to come through the lines and caress her. she gulped.
(what are you doing?)
“k.kya? hum? kuchh bhi toh nahin!” she tried to sound nonchalant and failed at it miserably. her heart beat had picked up. she swallowed again.
(wh.what? me? nothing at all!)
“khushi, tum theek ho!” his sounded concerned.
khushi wished he wouldn’t ask that question that way… it made her feel so so… khushi swallowed and gripped the phone tightly… no, he must never stop asking that question that way, she thought, her thoughts getting garbled… she was missing arnav ji, he had been out the whole day.
“helena ji likes jalebi!” she said without thinking.
“whaaaat!” asr’s voice shot up. there was silence for a fraction of a second, then came a burst of loud laughter from the other side.
“you fed the elephant jalebi… khushi kumari gupta singh raizada, you’re mad!”
khushi frowned darkly at this, her chin lifted, her lips thinned, all set for a cutting retort.
“and…” his voice had dropped to a whisper, “i think i’m getting to like mad.”
khushi tried to think of something smart to say, but her mind had gone completely blank. and her heartbeat was cutting out all other sound.
“very interesting, mr raizada,” tazdiq ghaznavi said as he poured a whisky for asr, “salman says you are trying to see if mooga can be woven lighter, more gauzy… i tell you just a bit of entrepreneurship… throw it in and see how our traditional skills and industries will flourish!”
“it’s a beautiful yarn, mr ghaznavi…” asr replied taking the glass from his host and raising it, “thank you for having us over, mrs ghaznavi…” he smiled slightly at salman’s mother.
“cheers… and welcome to assam!” mr ghaznavi held up his glass of soda with a twist of lime, he had decided to give up alcohol recently he’d said.
“oh please call me rehana!” simpered salman’s mother as she patted her perfectly blow dried hair and smiled at asr.
salman looked from his mother to his boss, he didn’t miss the twinkle in the perennially serious man’s face before asr replied, “thanks… and i am arnav… it’s wonderful to be here with all of you. salman has done a splendid job of finding us exactly what we’re looking for.”
“proud of you, my son!” mr ghaznavi said, throwing an arm around salman, “mrs raizada…”
“khushi…” said khushi with a smile. salman ji’s father was as easy to take to as his son she had felt when they’d met. he was a short man with a wide chest, something solid about him. his hair had gone almost completely grey though he was in his late forties only. he had a crisp, matter of fact way of saying things… and most of all she liked him because he had done what he had for helena. such a man, khushi had decided even before meeting him, could only be a good man and a kind man. “hey devi maiyya, this world should have more people like him,” she’d said quietly to herself, as usual without quite realising what it was she was doing.
most of her conversations with devi maiyya happened in this way. at times when she noted how many things she had said to her goddess in a day, she was surprised devi maiyya didn’t demand more sweets and offerings from her.
“okay, but only if you call me tazdiq…” countered mr ghaznavi, “i believe you had a good feeding session with helena this afternoon.”
“aap ko kaise pata, tazdiq ji?” khushi stared at her host, eyes widening.
(how do you know, tazdiq ji?)
“this is assam, khushi, the gardens,” salman laughed, “you sneeze here and people in jorhat tea estate will tell the doctor he is needed…”
“i believe helena loved the jalebis…” tazdiq was smiling.
“hawww!” khushi exclaimed, her hand lifting to cover her mouth.
“and if you want a nice mekhela chadar, don’t worry, i’ll take you shopping. we could go for golf tomorrow and afterwards to tinsukia, don’t you think that’s a good idea, jaan?” said rehana turning to her son… then went on without stopping, “don’t look at me like that, khushi my dear… kanumoni was so excited that baideo liked what she wore and had tried to pleat the chadar… i know! it’s bihu day after, you can wear yours then, i’ll get it stitched… did you bring a blouse?!”
asr watched the expressions flitting across his wife’s face and decided he was glad he had dragged her to come along on this trip.
“galf?” said khushi weakly, her hostess was unstoppable.
“yeah, don’t you play, my dear? even i knew nothing of it… in baroda who played golf, but in assam… everyone! it’s good fun, i’ll show you… okay, so that’s settled!”
rahana was a plump woman somewhere in her forties, and she obviously enjoyed dressing up. she wore a beautiful chiffon in dove grey with a finely embroidered border, grey beads sparkling in it. her blouse matched her saree exactly, on her neck was a twisted double string of darker grey pearls. diamond studs glittered on her earlobes. she wore pencil heels and teetered delicately on them. a bracelet with four strands of pearls sat on her left wrist just above the diamond cocktail ring on her index finger.
khushi smiled at her and clutched her red dupatta. her red and silver churidar kurta, hair left open, shining and straight, a faint pink lipstick and tiny bindi in bright pink had earned her a long slow stare from her husband. but now all she could think of was… galf? that laad governor played it sometimes, and she had no idea what it was. hoonh! why such games had to be invented… hey devi maiyya, raksha karna…
asr began to smile. brown eyes glinted, a familiar gradient sloped up. alas a pair of hazel eyes were too perturbed to notice.
salman wished his mother would curb her enthusiasm and bossiness a bit. but he knew she was lonely living here in the gardens, miles away from the next planter’s home and someone to talk to. she enjoyed having guests.
“khushi, come, let me show you the river from our balcony,” he said.
“par aapko rasta kaise pata chalega?” khushi asked, looking worried.
(but how will you know the way?)
“shh!” replied asr, “seat belt!”
when she made a face, he leaned over, pulled out the belt and fixed it for her. then he planted a swift kiss on her nose and started the car.
the open top jeep picked up speed as they drove out of the ghaznavi’s home and onto the narrow, uneven road winding through the garden. it was dark all around, over the estates and the far away little hamlet where the workers lived. khushi looked around in trepidation. darkness unsettled her. she remembered things she had no clear memory of yet they lurked. unsettling.
shaken, she looked up. and almost stopped breathing. had she ever seen such a vast stretch of twinkling, sparkling, dazzling gleaming stars?
she turned her head and gazed as far as she could to her left, then her right, she craned to see behind… nothing stopped the stars. they spread like an unending blanket over the dark.
“khushi?” asr was peering ahead at the road, there were no lamp posts, only his headlights to show the way.
“hmmm?” she replied distractedly.
“puchhogi nahin? what if we get lost?” he asked, wondering why his wife was ignoring him suddenly.
(won’t you ask? what if we get lost?)
“the forest will start soon, and who knows…” he continued, looking ahead.
“kya? forest? arnav ji! aap aise kaise kar sakte hain! it’s dark, you don’t know the way… and what if a tiger or a lion.. or a….” khushi seethed looking for a suitable animal to add to her list.
(what? forest? arnav ji! how can you do this! it’s dark, you don’t know the way… and what if a tiger or a lion… or a …)
“rhino? haan, yeh theek rahega. assam, so we could have rhinos attacking us,” he said looking at her.
(rhino? yeah, that should be good. assam, so we could have rhinos attacking us.)
“arnav ji!” khushi was aghast.
“i don’t think there are any lions around here though..” asr pressed on the accelerator and the jeep leapt forward.
khushi clutched his arm and shuddered.
“relax, khushi!” he said, “there’s only one road here and it goes straight past the river. tazdiq said, it’s a great spot… especially now with the full moon just a couple of days away… they are building a bridge… you’ll enjoy the view! now come on, put your head on my shoulder and shut up.”
khushi wanted to glare at him, but instead she sighed and did exactly as he told her to do, well she did put her head on his shoulder, but she had to mutter.
“galf? i have to play that laad governor wala game?!” she turned and pushed her face against his upper arm and put an arm around his chest.
(golf! i have to play that laad governor’s game!)
asr chuckled. he wondered if rehana was ready for the what was coming her way.
“khushi, i saw mooga today, yards and yards of it… a strange gleam in it… ajeeb…” he said, changing the topic abruptly, there was a something in his voice that made her look up.
“you know, assam is the only place in the world that makes this silk? mooga means yellow… but here it means gold…” he paused, shrugged and said, “mami ji would love that…”
khushi was about to agree when he said as if to himself, “maa loved her mooga saree…” a pallu seemed to reach out from somewhere and brush against his face.
a pale yellow moon shone in the dark rippling water. khushi looked up and there the moon was up there too. she smiled. the bridge stretched out not even half way across the wide river… its silhouette loomed in the dark. something poignant about it. on the other shore was what… she peered. was that a dense line of trees? a forest? or were they clouds? clouds on land..
asr pulled her onto his lap as they sat looking at the peaceful stretch of sky and earth, lit only by a moon daring to grow back from diminishing. he put his arms around her and let his right hand rest on her breast. khushi turned and kissed him somewhere beside his cheek, below his ear, and went back to her contemplation.
he bent down and bit her lightly on the side of her neck and let his lips brush against her skin.
“i missed you…” he murmured softly as if to himself.
she heard him of course, she turned around and drew his head to her heart.
khushi lay exhausted and happy against him, still quivering with an unnamed excitement in some part of her. his skin was damp. she put her palm flat on his navel and felt his instant response. he turned and stretched out on his back as if saying something, his body faintly visible in the moonlight stealing in through the windows. she slowly rolled over following an instinct, nothing else. she covered his body with hers, lying on him, and let her arms go around his neck, her head settled over his bare shoulder, she was ready to go to sleep right there.
“come!” his voice was a whisper, a caress, a command… he moved allowing her to get comfortable and put his arms around her. then he stroked her back as she fell asleep.
he had not told her of the real dangers of this beautiful state, where people disappeared without a trace so often, where lives had been lost for years and years without any solution to the problems, where extreme loveliness had learned to coexist with egregious loss and bloodshed…
she would worry unnecessarily about him coming here in the future… and he would be back, for after the visits to the workshops, he felt in his gut the mooga project would work out. she would lose her pristine picture of salman’s home, helena’s home…
asr held khushi tighter, then he lifted a hand and gently pushed back the tendrils off her forehead.
mad girl who feeds jalebis to elephants.
he had requested both tazdiq and salman not to mention anything about the recent kidnappings in the area to khushi.
he thought of the women making their resplendent silk. he must find a way to create a fall for western lines. they deserved so much more… the people of this land had been stymied by unrest for far too long. his thoughts drifted across what he had seen and heard over the past two days.
he took a deep breath and laid his cheek against her hair.
thanks, everyone, for you patience. and your impatience. i hope to update the next three chapters in a more planned way… every week. do tell me what you thought of this chapter. thanks for reading and letting me imagine new asr khushi moments.