kanumoni held the end of the chadar and with deft, quick fingers twisted the material. in an instant, a series of three triangular folds fell across the edge of the fine white cotton with motifs in black and red, the tassels bobbed playfully. she tucked the point she was holding from where the pleats started, into khushi’s petticoat, over the mekhela. then she leaned closer to take the rest of the chadar around khushi, letting the other end fall over her left shoulder in a pallu. khushi watched her completely absorbed. in lucknow and delhi, no one wore mekhela. she’d never seen one before… and it was so pretty.
“baideo, see, do you like it?” kanumoni asked, still adjusting the back, making sure the mekhela was level and not dragging on the floor.
khushi had turned back to see what kanumoni was doing. her eyes sparkled, she grinned… she was in a mekhela! she’d always enjoyed dressing up, and this was a whole new kind of dress! like a saree. but, and this is what tickled khushi no end, not a saree. she wondered what jiji would think of it. maybe she’d get one for jiji… and mami ji… and also amma. bua ji? maybe not. khushi frowned as she contemplated how many mekhelas she’d take back home.
“baideo?” kanumoni’s voice broke into her thoughts.
khushi started and then turned swiftly. the mirror was right in front of her. she looked at herself and began to smile.
“kanumoni ji!” she exclaimed, touching the pleats, running her fingers over the unfamiliar motifs, “yeh kitna sundar hai… aur hum…” she shook her head gleefully and jumped up and down a little, “kitne sundar lag rahe hain… hai na?”
(kanumoni ji, how pretty this is…. and i… i’m looking so pretty, aren’t i?”
kanumoni had to smile at that.
“yes, baideo… very beautiful,” she said. she’d never been asked by a guest if she could try on a mekhela. kanumoni had gone running to bahadur to determine how to tackle this. bahadur had spoken to salman and he’d suggested baideo wouldn’t mind it if kanumoni got along one of her mekhelas, so she had. she’d decided white would suit her very fair skinned baideo. she was pleased she had an almost new one for her.
“i am so happy rahena ji decided not to go out today!” said khushi talking fast, in her mind she thought, thank you, devi maiyya, for saving me from that laad governor wala game. she really was not looking forward to golf even if she thought salman ji’s mother was a nice lady.
“thank you, kanumoni ji, aap ne hume kya shandar naya dress pehenna sikhaya!” she bestowed another wiide grin on the young girl, eyes shining bright.
(thank you, kanumoni ji, you’ve taught me to wear such a magnificent dress!)
“aap ke assam mein sab kuchh kitna achha hai… that cup of tea in the morning from your own garden with ginger and cardaomom, haye mazaa hi kuchh alag hai! bua ji kitni khush ho jaati… yeah! i’ll take tea for bua ji, yeh achha rahega… ” she turned and pirouetted before the mirror looking at herself from different angles.
(in your assam, everything is so nice… that cup of tea in the morning from your own garden with ginger and cardaomom, oh it’s such a joy! bua ji would have loved it… yeah! i’ll take tea for bua ji, that’ll be good… )
“i hope rehana ji is all right! wonder why she cancelled?” khushi frowned suddenly, even as she examined her reflection.
“bandh, baideo…” kanumoni said in a low voice.
“what? bandh? you mean nothing is working? here… in assam? why?” khushi was surprised. a bandh or a shut down of all services happened once in a way when there was some trouble, but here in this peaceful place?
“it’s always like that here. something or the other… always, baideo…” kanumoni’s voice was growing smaller, a sudden heaviness about her expression, making her look older, a little tired… khushi watched the innocent face take on a different air. what was the matter?
“two managers in jorhat gardens were kidnapped last week… they say the police caught many people from the area, the other party has declared bandh…” kanumoni explained.
“kidnapped? from where? why?” khushi was nonplussed. she couldn’t believe anything like that could happen here.
“not far, baideo… they kidnap all the time… ask for money… sometimes ask for other things… no one can catch them… sometimes they kill also…” kanumoni sounded sad, almost helpless.
when the feeling came and gripped khsuhi, she had no idea what it was.
“arnav ji!” her mind grasped his name and she wished she could hold him, keep him safe. keep him close.
her breathing started to grow laboured without her even clearly understanding why. unsafe. assam was unsafe. arnav ji…
“no!” she almost screamed.
“aman, see my calendar for the next six months and tell me where can i get a clear ten days free…” asr sat outside in the lawn under the umbrella, his laptop and papers lay before him on the table. his brow furrowed as he listened to aman, his lips were pursed. he wore a khaki shirt over slim fitting black trousers, his neatly brushed back hair was still wet, he’d gone for an early morning swim. his eyes looked alert.
salman had called earlier to tell him about the sudden bandh. nothing would be open today across upper assam. it wasn’t possible to get any work done.
salman hadn’t been expecting asr to be quite so calm about it though. he had prepared for ire, but there was nothing he really could do, even the golf club would be closed.
“dammit!” the expletive had come as he’d expected, but then asr had said coolly, “oh, all right, salman… let’s meet first thing tomorrow morning then.”
salman was surprised. he didn’t know his boss’s mind had been working from early morning, ever since he’d woken up and it had struck him simply and clearly… yes, mooga could be done.
a new project, a new fabric, a new client, nothing got him more bristling with energy, rearing to go. no bandh was getting in the way of that. he had to talk to aman first. then he’d call lavanya… bring in jean pierre maybe… or was someone else more appropriate for this line?
“okay!” he said crisply cutting in as aman tried to explain how till august he didn’t have any time at all, “you make sure i have ten days in march, any time that month… i am flexible.”
aman almost choked. flexible. asr? then he shook his head slightly as he heard himself say, “yes, sir… i’ll get on it right now.”
he knew he had to get the ten days asr wanted. failure was not, as they say, an option. aman took a deep breath and a slow smile started to brighten up his face. he was beginning to like these challenges he realised. working with asr all these years, was he getting to be a bit like his boss? aman almost trembled at his own audacity for thinking that. then he started looking through asr’s calendar. he would find those days.
asr stretched his legs out and reached for his laptop. the winter sun felt great this time of the morning. he picked up the mug lying on the table and took a sip of steaming hot black coffee. the tea gardens stretched and undulated just beyond the fence. such splendid green… he took the bale of mooga lying on the chair next to him and opened it out, unrolling several metres of it. then he caught hold of the end and flung it up…
between blue sky and verdant earth, the golden fabric spread out, sun rays touching it and making it glint even more.
asr felt the urge to make, to create, to get immersed.
as the swathe of mooga floated down, he saw her eyes.
he blinked. he hadn’t heard her coming up from the house. the fabric fell gracefully and settled near her feet.
he would have asked her when she had come by perhaps, he would have certainly picked up the silk before the grass stained it, but there was something in the way she stood there, just looking at him, her eyes glittering, an intensity about her… he stared back silently.
without it even registering, he’d started walking toward her he noted. his arm reached out… a strange fear gripped him. what if khushi disappeared, what if she wasn’t there one day. he didn’t ask himself why such bizarre unfounded absolutely uncalled for thoughts came and shook him. his hand wasn’t steady when he put it on her shoulder. he gripped her hard.
she stood there still. her breath was racing, she heaved a little every time she exhaled.
he began to put his arm around her, bring her close, she looked so lovely, he wanted to hold her.
“nahin!” she whispered. he frowned.
“khushi?” he asked gently as he drew her near.
“nahin… nahin nahin, arnav ji…” khushi said shaking her head, tears mingling with utterance.
(no.. no no, arnav ji..)
“kya nahin, khushi?” he felt this inexplicable desire to hold her tight and be with her… nothing else.
(no what, khushi?)
“nahin… hum nahin sah sakte… aap… nahin.. aap assam mein kaam nahin kar sakte… hum… hum.. jo bhi ho jaye.. no, arnav ji no…” khushi was shaking her head, he movements were jerky, her words incoherent as they tumbled out.
(no… i can’t bear it… you… no… you can’t work in assam… i… i… no matter what happens… no, arnav ji, no…)
the only thing he heard was the anguish in her voice.
he swallowed hard and tightened his hold. but she was resisting…
he jerked her toward him, albeit not with too much force, she was looking fragile. what had happened to her?
“come here!” he cajoled, his eyes looking sombrely into hers.
she looked stricken.
“khushi?” he folded her in his arms, burying his face in the crook of her neck, her soft, thick hair with that elusive fragrance caressing him. he kissed her lightly on her shoulder blade, then rested his chin on her head, cradling her.
“you heard about the kidnappings, did you, khushi?” he asked at last… his mind had pieced together her words and the look in her eyes, the fear in her voice. he realised she must have heard about the managers. he hated the thought of her being so badly scared.
“ow!” the pain was sharp near his chest. khushi had just pushed him hard and was standing away, seething… looking at him angrily, incredulity in her hazel eyes.
“aap jaantey the?!” she said, her voice rising.
he wondered why she was so angry.
“and you didn’t tell me? why? why? arnav ji… what did you think? huh? what? khushi is silly, she is stupid, she feeds jalebis to elephants! usse kya pata! mad girl! nahin batate hain… aap toh arnav singh raizada hain, hai na? kuch bhi kar sakte hain… kuch bhi!” khushi was raging now, eyes blazing, index finger jabbing the air, and a constant stream of tears pouring down her cheeks, “but aap ko shayad pata nahin… hum khushi kumari gupta… singh raizada…” her voice went up on the last word, “i have a right to know… especially if my husband’s life is in any sort of danger… any!”
(and you didn’t tell me? why? why? arnav ji… what did you think? huh? what? khushi is silly, she is stupid, she feeds jalebis to elephants! what does she know! mad girl! let me not tell her… you’re arnav singh raizada, right? you can do anything… anything! but perhaps you don’t know… i’m khushi kumari gupta… singh raizada… i have a right to know… especially if my husband’s life is in any sort of danger… any!)
she was crying by now, he made a move toward her. but she had already turned and walked away.
her sobs echoed around the garden. the mooga lay there on the grass. arnav singh raizada’s eyes darkened to almost jet, the brown lost despite the sun.
“dammit!” he swore under his breath.
he sat down on the wrought iron chair and tried to ignore what had just happened. khushi would come around, he had to get this work done now, no time to waste really. and anyway, she was over reacting.
why did women always behave in this unreasonable way?… and why was she looking so beautiful? he felt like getting up and going to her right then. she had been wearing a mekhela. where did she get it from?
“ridiculous!” he admonished himself.
what was he doing? sitting here and thinking of his wife’s mekhela.
he was about to grab his laptop, but the thought stopped him. his wife…
he closed his eyes and inhaled long and deep, his diaphragm expanded as air filled his lungs. he opened his eyes and picked up the laptop. he would carry on working. he had to.
the most terrible agony writhed in her. she could hardly breathe. why hadn’t arnav ji told her?
and even if he had… how could she ever let him come here on work? no.. she wouldn’t… she wouldn’t.
it was too dangerous. there were people disappearing all the time.. what if… what if.. arnav ji… no.
she couldn’t finish the sentence. the barrage of apprehensions and fears suffocated her. she lay back on the sofa in the room and her body went limp as her defences came up trying to save her from the onslaught. she began to blank out.
just before she drifted off, words she never believed she could say went through her mind.
“no, arnav ji, you’ll have to give up this project, jo bhi ho jaaye, hum aapko yahan aane nahin denge.”
(no, arnav ji, you’ll have to give up this project, no matter what happens, i won’t let you come here.)
a man sat absorbed in his work. his eyes moved over numbers and figures, his fingers were sure and fleet on the keyboard.
a bale of golden silk lay beside him.
she took off her mekhela slowly. her arms felt leaden, her legs seemed weighed down with stones. most of all her heart. oh what wretched heaviness was this?
she picked up her plain white churidar kurta with a little red edging and put them on.
it was almost evening. where was arnav ji? her body jerked, bludgeoned by a dark furious worry.
they are the most unnervingly riveting couple ever. at my age you’d think good sense would prevail, but where’s the time or even need for that. never thought i’d write fanfic some day, take a look at me now. arnav and khushi, asr and khushi ji, what fabulous memories.
a short terse chapter… sorry to leave on a difficult note. i will update on monday. many apologies to ktothem, asli duniya has been truly zalim, i couldn’t get to write on saturday. see you all soon. and thanks a tonne for reading never on a new year.