“kk! you look dazed… are you hungry?” salman asked khushi from the front seat of the ambassador car taking them toward margharita tea estate where they would be staying at the guest house. salman’s parents were at a garden nearby, he had wanted to make sure his boss stayed at the best place around here. salman had grown up in assam. he loved the place, in fact, he was almost proud of it… it’s natural beauty, the richness of the land, the people who had a certain simplicity and freshness, the wide open non skyscraper interrupted skies. but being salman, he wouldn’t say much, just try to see to it that you had a great time while you were in his part of the world
he had found out about a couple of workshops where they could go and see mooga weaving. these were not large set ups, but they were known for their quality. the weavers were all women as had been the tradition and while prices were high, it was only because original techniques were adhered to and just fine mooga, or muga, silk yarn was used without any slipping in of cheaper threads. mooga weaving is complex and asr was happy to come to the less commercial centres to get a feel of the textile and its possibilities.
they had landed at mohanbari airport at about three in the afternoon.
“mohanbari… matlab mohan ji, yaane krishna bhagwan ji ke ghar!” khushi had exclaimed clapping her hands. “bua ji would love this airport… nand kissore!”
(mohan bari… that means mohan’s, that is lord krishna’s, home!)
then she had sniffed loudly.
“what’s up, khushi? you okay?” asr had murmured distractedly as he helped put the luggage in the boot.
“nahin… woh… ghar…” khushi had mumbled looking down.
(no… just that… home…)
“not again, khushi!” asr had said sounding exasperated.
“look,” he’d been brisk, “we are here for only four days, four… days… okay?” he’d paused for emphasis, shrugged and looked at her, an eyebrow raised, before continuing, “di will not have her baby before we return, nani ji will not think you are a selfish girl who left everyone and came away with me, payal will survive without your chatter and… that pigeon…” he’d shaken his head, clearly at a loss for words.
“hum knowing! no one will miss me and kabootar ji will eat all the channe i have left near the pot of roses, but…!” khushi had shot back, her eyebrows dancing up and down… then she’d walked off with a little flounce and sat on the back seat, looking out of the window.
(i know no one will miss me, and the pigeon will eat the gram kernels i have left near the pot of roses!)
she had hardly said anything since they’d set off almost half an hour ago.
“huh?!” she said starting as salman spoke to her.
“are you hungry, kk?” salman repeated his question.
“nahin! samandar!” she blurted out.
“samandar?” salman sounded mystified.
“whaaat?” asr scowled, “khushi! what are you saying? tum theek ho? salman, will you ask the driver to pull over!”
“thapa…” salman began but khushi cut in…
“nahin nahin, salman ji! i am fine! i meant… yeh chai ke bagiche… tea estates! see, like a green ocean… jahan bhi dekhiye hara hi hara…” khushi tried to explain. she had never seen a tea estate before, the tea bushes growing for miles along the slightly undulating slopes, they reminded her of the endless sheet of blue and sun and sand and wind she’d seen in bali. here too the sky had a different blueness to it, she was sure… it couldn’t be an illusion.
(no no, salman ji! i am fine! i meant… these tea gardens… tea estates! see, like a green ocean… wherever one looks, it’s only green…)
“dekhiye, arnav ji… hai na samandar jaisa!” khushi suddenly turned, beamed at asr, her smile wide and full, her pearl like teeth glistening and her hazel eyes full of joy.
(see, arnav ji, isn’t it like the ocean!)
asr wasn’t prepared for this, she had been in a huff and incommunicado; now without any warning, this. he felt his heart lurch, his stomach muscles tighten, and there was a funny feeling near his throat. he stared at her bemused. then recovering quickly, he leaned forward, and brushed a strand of hair off her forehead. why didn’t the girl do something about that lock, he thought. a part of him though was quite pleased she didn’t.
he let his lips slant to a small sardonic smile. he said nothing.
salman grinned, “an ocean of tea! we could go surfing…”
“haan,” khushi chirped happily, getting lost in the idea, “chai ka samandar, adrak daal ke! khushboodar, mehekti, mithi, hayee… haan!” khushi smiled to herself, then she muttered under her breath, “na ki koi kala, kadwa coffee, woh bhi bahut garam!”
(a sea of tea, with ginger in it! aromatic, fragrant, sweet, sigh… yes!… not some black, bitter coffee, that too… too hot!)
the man sitting beside her jerked ever so slightly. there was silence in the car.
as she turned away to look out of the window and resume her cold shouldering of the man who had refused to listen to all the reasons she had given as to why it wasn’t right for her to accompany him on his trip to assam, she felt a gaze of brown eyes on her neck. she was quite sure.
then she heard him whisper softly, deliberately, “i heard that.”
a shiver ran up her spine. she knew he was smiling like a laad givernor. no… a magamach. were there any magarmach in assam?
khushi shivered again.
it was a low, spread out colonial bungalow, verandahs all around, sitting in the middle of a huge plot of land with mint green lawns and beds brimming with bright seasonal flowers in shades of orange, red, pink, even blue. there were trees and shrubs and creepers heavy with blooms and a gazebo by a lily pond. pale pink and white lilies grew in it amid large circular lily pads.
khushi stared at the vibrant garden as they got out of the car. four white wrought iron chairs and and a couple of tables were set under a large umbrella. she wished she could go and sit there, and enjoy the fading rays of the winter sun. unconsciously she checked in her cloth satchel bag to see if she had remembered to get along her channe.
“kya dhoond rahi ho?” asr asked, he had been about to walk into the house, but khushi stood there staring at the lawn. now she was groping for something in her bag.
(what are you looking for?)
“huh?” khushi blinked. she had forgotten to bring her channe.
“bahadur!” asr called out to the man in a white livery who had appeared as they drove up to the covered porch. he must have been in his fifties, he’d said namaste to them and started helping with the luggage, carrying the suitcases into the house.
“ji, shaab!” bahadur turned and hurried up to asr.
asr took his duffel bag from bahadur’s hand and opened the zip. he pulled out a plastic packet from inside, then handed the bag back to bahadur with a curt, “thank you!”
he walked up to khushi and gave her the packet, “payal said you might want this!” he said laconically.
khushi was puzzled. jiji? what had jiji sent for her?
she opened the packet, looked in, and gave a squeal of joy.
“channe!” she nearly screamed and looked at the dour man in front of her with shining eyes.
again his heart did that lurch thing.
this time he laughed and pecked her on her cheek.
she felt her cheeks go hot. arnav ji and she had disagreed over this trip. she had felt it was not right, not done really, to leave home like that. she was the bahu of the house, the daughter in law, she had her duties…
“the house didn’t marry you, i did. you didn’t marry the house either… so really khushi, what’s the problem? it’s four days…” he had said impatiently as she had tried to make her point. they were standing by the pool, and it was a beautiful day. khsuhi wished they were not disagreeing like this.
“beside, will you be able to spend four days without me, khushi? what if a tiger ate me up in assam or an elephant trampled me…” he was laughing, which made khushi even more angry.
“aap?? aap…!! how can you say such things, arnav ji! sab kuch mazak nahin hota!” she had gritted her teeth and glared at him.
(you??? you…!! how can you say such things, everything isn’t funny!)
he had leaned forward at that very moment and kissed her hard on her lips, his arms had gone around her and tugged her till she fell on him.
she had felt his tongue thrust against her clenched teeth. she had tried not to give in, but then she’d heard a guttural sound deep in his throat and had felt her toes curl. and she had simply let him do as he pleased.
it was impossible to think when he got into this mood. and she always seemed to feel and hear so many unspoken things when he was like this. whenever he held her, even frowned at her, when he called out to her… that “khushi!”
somewhere along the way he had picked her up and taken her to their bed. she hadn’t protested when he had caught her dupatta and let it slide to the floor, then taken off her kurta, her churidar… she had let him make love to her, too lost in him to think of anything… she only felt his need and his extraordinary arousing of her senses.
afterwards, he’d said sleepily to her, an arm flung across her breasts, “come with me, khushi, and save me from the tigers and elephants…” he had a lazy smile in his voice.
she had wanted to throw her arms around him and snuggle but she had again felt a frisson of unease. amma had always told them that once you married, you had to take care of everyone in the family, not be selfish, not go away and have fun with your husband only. it’s the sign of extreme irresponsibility.
he had gotten up a little, balancing on his elbows, bitten her lightly on her earlobe and said, “stop thinking so much, khushi kumari gupta singh raizada… go to sleep.”
“memshaab!” the young woman said.
khushi’s eyes widened, her lips rounded to a perfect “o” as she stared uncomprehending.
“huh! memsahib… kaun memsahib?” she asked looking around. she was in the room they were to live in. it was large and airy with windows along an entire wall, the wall was in a shade of lilac. the bed linen and curtains were in a paler tone of lilac. the bed was really wide; the furniture was painted white, there was a desk set into a corner with a leather upholstered chair, a lilac throw lay over the back, a large comfortable sofa sat before a low coffee table. the sofa covers were in a mauve, pretty close to the lilac. khushi liked the vase filled with purplish blue small feathery flowers on the table. she had never seen flowers like that.
“aap memshaab!” the girl smiled and nodded her head at khushi.
“nahiiiiiiiin… i am not memsahib…!” khushi’s eyes went wide and… did they think she was like that, hoonh!, khushi scowled… that laad governor… no, hey devi maiyya, raksha karna, she wanted to be nothing like him. always ordering people around, not listening to anybody…
(hey, mother goddess, protect me!)
“memshaab!” it was bahadur. he had just walked in carrying a tray laden with tea and cakes.
“shab theek hai?” the elderly man asked with a smile. he had a broad happy face lined by time and weather, his skin was a shiny dun, and his eyes were almost disappeared every time he grinned yet you could see the glint in them.
(is everything alright, madam?)
“kanumoni, memshaab ka shaman cupboard mein rakkho!” bahadur turned and instructed the girl at the door.
(kanumoni, keep madam’s clothes in the cupboard!)
“memshaab, yeh kanumoni… she will help you…” he said to khushi, who was still looking faintly horror struck.
(madam, this is kanumoni, she’ll help you.)
“memshaab? nahiiiin… !” khushi shrieked suddenly finding her voice… “bahadur ji, kanumoni ji, you can’t call me that… hum not memshaab, hum khushi kumari… see? khushi…” she smiled, “kumari!” she smiled wider.
two sets of perplexed eyes followed her.
“ji?!!” exclaimed both the young girl and the older man.
“haan! aap bahadur ji… aap kanumoni ji… hum khushi…” khushi tried to explain…
(yes! you… bahadur ji! you… kanumoni ji! me… khushi…)
kanumoni giggled and said, “baideo!”
khushi frowned, “bye bye???” she was reminded of mami ji.
bahadur beamed, “khushi baideo… elder shishter… okay, memshaab?”
“baideo! do people here call jiji that? how pretty!” khushi grinned at both of them, “bahadur ji, baideo… okay?”
the sun began to set fast around five. khushi stared unblinking at the sky turning pink orange purple mauve over the stretch of green, the spare tall shade trees growing amid the tea bushes became dark silhouettes against the burst of colour. far far away was the horizon somewhere, khushi sighed.
a dark shape loomed before her eyes. she started. but before she could scream, a pair of lips had landed on hers and she was being kissed thoroughly. khushi struggled a little, then decided she liked the kiss too much to fight it… or maybe she liked the kisser. he had walked up to her from behind obviously while she sat out in the garden having tea. he’d been out for some time. she couldn’t see his face in the dark, but she could feel his stubble grazing the skin by her lips, his teeth were sharp and smooth against her tongue, a faint aroma reached her nostrils. it was pleasant and made her want to… want to… she inhaled deeply and thrust her lips against his, unable to complete that thought.
“hmmm…!” he grunted still kissing her, then the lips lifted from hers for a moment and she heard him say, “what if someone can see us?”
once more she got no time to react, the lips went right back to doing what they were doing.
khushi decided she didn’t care any more, she flung her arms around his neck and pulled him down onto the chair. his hands were riding up under her kurta soon, his fingers were cool against her waist, her ribcage. she wriggled and protested, but didn’t stop him.
“still angry with me?” he murmured as his mouth moved along her cheek toward her ear. she wished she could speak, but it was getting difficult to concentrate on anything… and what was that orangey fragrance around him, something sweet in it and heavy… she nodded vigorously.
“okay, then i’d better go to helena,” he said. was he laughing?
she reached up and ran her fingers through his hair, clutching a handful she drew him nearer, arching her neck, lost in the touch of his lips on her neck, her ear lobes.. her..
“kya?!” khushi sprang away from him as the words registered, her head still reeling, her mind longing, “hele… kaun?”
in the fading light, his face was not clearly visible but the dark shimmer of his eyes cut through the shadows, made her breathless again. he was laughing.
“helena, she’s beautiful…” asr said, his left eyebrow cocked and he shrugged. she gawked at him.
“come!” he said in a crisp tone, she shivered slightly.
“you must meet her!” he caught hold of her hand and walked with long strides toward the porch, she followed feeling utterly confused. he was going to introduce her to some woman… girl… no, it was a chudail. yes, surely… khushi’s lips thinned and her ire rose… this shadyantri sher, no, frangipani chudail… he had brought her to a lonely deserted place only to kiss her and play with another…
“say hello to helena, khushi!” asr whispered in her ear.
“huh?!” khushi exclaimed, disoriented… something soft and wet touched her fingers, she looked down startled. a long brown something was playing with her fingers, her palm, her arm… khushi’s eyes followed, amazement gathering in hazel irises.
“salaam, baideo… helena, say salaam to baideo,” a tiny gnome like man she hadn’t seen before urged in a singsong gentle voice.
khushi’s dazed eyes moved from her hands to the face of the man and climbed all the way up to where she could see one eye next to a huge slapping ear. grey, wrinkled skin, long swaying… trunk.
it was an elephant.
khushi almost screamed.
“shhh!” asr was holding her hand in a reassuring grip now, “it’s okay, khushi… this is helena… salman’s father’s pet… okay? breathe… breathe… it’s okay!”
khushi looked blankly into warm brown eyes. pet? a whole elephant? this huge humongous creature??! she thought of lakshmi ji.
“p..p…pet?” she stammered, holding his hand tight.
“yes, khushi…” asr’s voice was gentle suddenly, he stroked the elephant’s trunk as he spoke, “helena here was a baby when mr ghaznavi… tazdiq… saved her after poachers killed her mother. she’s been with them ever since. she’s ten years old now… and that’s maila, her mahout…”
khushi watched the animal and asr for a few minutes, not saying anything. a strange affinity between the two she could sense. and arnav ji’s voice had been so soft, like a whisper almost, as if he were talking to himself… helena. she let her tongue go over the syllables.
“namaste, helena ji!” khushi said clearly to the elephant, folding her hands, “aap se milke badi khushi hui… hamare lakshmi ji bhi aap se milker khush ho jaati!” she grinned and patted helena’s trunk gingerly. then with growing confidence.
(namaste, helena ji! i am delighted to meet you… our lakshmi ji too would be very happy to make your acqaintance!)
maila nodded approvingly and repeated to helena, “helena, say salaam to baideo…”
helena turned her head a little and looked at khushi, then slowly she raised her trunk in a greeting.
khushi felt a thrill rush through her. asr swallowed and tried to look nonchalant, a curiously moving sight, the girl from lucknow with an off centre plait and bobbing blue pompoms meeting the orphan elephant from assam. he found himself wondering if elephants ate jalebi.
then he shook his head, maybe it was indeed time for a consultation with dr hussain, delhi’s leading psychiatrist.
“arnav ji, dekhiye, the sun is rising!” khushi was standing at the window, watching the morning light as it broke and the gardens and distant hills, hamlets, and a river came into view.
“shut up, khushi!” grunted asr from the bed.
khushi drew her white dupatta around her shoulders, there was a slight chill in the air.
she thought of the green ocean, of being called memshaab; of an orange flecked sweet aroma on her arnav ji… it was most likely from the honey he’d said, mr ghaznavi kept bees and he’d taken arnav ji to see the hives; she thought of young and pretty kanumoni ji who wore a dress she’d never seen before; of bahadur ji with glinting eyes and all “s” sounds turned to “sh”; of nand kissore’s home, the airport; of a big grey pet called helena ji… she began to feel a glorious lightness.
such an ajeeb and wonderful place arnav ji had brought her to.
she was too happy and distracted to notice a pair of deep brown eyes open, look at her appraisingly for a couple of moments, then close even as a hand shot out and grasped her around the waist and yanked her off her feet.
“arnav ji!” khushi yelped.
“arnav!” came the brusque command.
“jwalamukhi!” she countered, settling into his arms and pushing up his tee, trailing her fingers over his chest.
it’s been a while. meant to update earlier, wrote half the chapter and went to india, quite sure, i’d be able to complete it there. in the middle of a wedding. how intelligent was that. sorry, all… i hope this happy chapter you do enjoy. see you soon. thanks so much for giving my rambles your time.