the sun had almost disappeared beyond the tea estates and the faraway mountains. the last rays of light remained, there was an orangey purple hue in the air, on the green tea bushes, the winding paths, and far flung homes and hamlets. khushi’s tiny diamond nose pin glinted for an instant as she turned her face to take a look at herself. she would have walked away after a cursory glance at the mirror, but then her eyes seemed to take their own decision and lingered on what was before them… the reflection in the mirror.
a girl in a mekehela chadar. her hair drawn up in a chignon, a bunch of bright red frangipani tucked on the right, their soft cool petals brushing the nape of her neck. she wore a curious smile.
khushi went absolutely still. how pretty was the mekhela. the earthy golden mooga had a soft, lush fall… kanumoni had told her only the more expensive variety draped like that. the border was wide and intricately woven with black silk thread and highlights of a light svelte pink. there were motifs in black and pink all over the body. khushi had never seen bootas like that, they were neither flowers nor fruits nor auspicious symbols; one of them reminded her of a drum, the other was a pretty cluster of shapes with fine details. there was not a single thread of zari, nor a sequin, yet it all felt dazzling and shimmery with banks of quiet in between.
her eyes found the tassels in black and pink bobbing down the layered edge of the chadar that was tucked over the pleats in front.
khushi smoothed down the chadar, a tiny frown made a couple of furrows on her forehead, exactly where she had put her plain black bindi. her lips trembled a little. she stroked the pleat once more. her thoughts went far away… a pair of steely cold eyes, a stern voice, a man walking around a white big car toward her. she had been in pink that day, she remembered, of course a brighter, deeper pink and there was lots of gota on it too… her suitcases were right next to her at the main doorway of gomti sadan… in lucknow. she had lied… she was going away to another city and no one was aware she had planned not to come back in a while. no one, not even babu ji.
because a man she didn’t know… a man with anger in his grasp, his breath, his gaze… a man with two surnames which was a sure sign of arrogance and how he lived up to them… a man who had made an offer she really had no way of refusing… because a man she had never ever known she would meet had strode into her life.
she could still remember the derision in his gaze. she could still feel the comfort of his hand on hers as the hawai jahaz took off. who was this man? what was she doing with him?
khushi took a long breath and looked at herself in the mirror again. her eyes widened. he was standing right behind her, looking at her silently. he wore a black silk shirt and a grey woolen suit, there was no tie this evening, she noticed. his hair was combed back neatly, still wet, his stubble was smooth and even.
for some reason neither moved nor said a word.
the sun was almost behind the mountains now. the drums could be heard all the way from the river.
he lifted his hand at last and touched the petals with a half smile, his lips sliding up at an angle.
khushi turned and slipped her arms under his jacket and around him, resting her head on his chest. she said nothing.
“what’s the matter, khushi? didn’t like the mekhela?” asr asked putting a finger under her chin, trying to look at her face.
khushi hugged him tighter still and refused to look up.
“hey! what’s up? you okay?” he tried to sound cool but he was getting concerned. what had come over the girl now? he thought she would like what he’d chosen. he usually was not too keen on pink, but when he had seen the colour as the shop assistant had opened the mekhela out, he’d been reminded suddenly of that day he had gone to pick her up from lucknow. a girl he didn’t know yet who was interfering terribly with his plans to get the autumn collection in place.
really, she had intruded so badly in his thoughts, he hadn’t been able to concentrate on anything. jean pierre was on his way to delhi, and he hadn’t gone beyond the most rudimentary of briefs. lavanya had not said anything but she had been concerned. this was not like him.
yes, not like him at all. he grimaced as he remembered. there was only one thing to do. find her. get her over so that she stopped bothering him. the plan had been simple… just six months. and the moment the collection was done, she could go… leave. simple.
he put his arms around her as the thoughts came, and pecked her on the top of her head.
“tum pagal ho!” he murmured. there was a brusqueness in his voice and that gentleness which made her want to hold him even tighter.
“amph lamph gmphnrm hmph aumgh shamfdnfish shemph bhmph!” khushi mumbled in reply from somewhere near his breast pocket.
“whaatt!” snapped the man in black and grey.
“aap…!” khushi looked up, her eyes flashing now, eyebrows dancing, to repeat what she had said.
he kissed her just then, right on her open mouth, with the words tumbling out.
“lamphg hmph puffht!” said khushi, her eyes now indignant. she tried to push him away.
he held her securely and continued to do what he was doing. he kissed her taking his time, thrusting his tongue into her mouth, making her long for him, making her eyes grow languorous, their indignance forgotten.
she could feel herself lose control as his hands came and caressed her hips. she sighed and let her breasts settle against him and wound her arms around his neck, kissing him back, her body swaying as she went on tiptoe. he moved swiftly and picked her up in his arms and the next moment she was lying on the bed, his hands had pushed aside the chadar, he was unhooking the buttons of her blouse; his fingers felt familiar, she breathed in sharply, her body jerking a little. cold air touched her skin, and then his mouth closing over her right nipple… warm, tender, playful. she held his head and brought him closer, her eyes shutting. longing filled her, she reached with her other hand and stroked his cheek, his stubble tickled the tips of her fingers making her smile.
arnav ji! what if we had never met? what if i hadn’t run into sheesh mahal that evening and dashed into you? what if…? she grasped a handful of his hair.
the drums were getting louder now. a chorus of voices sang a song with a simple lilting melody.
he sat up and took off his clothes with precise, crisp movements. then he turned and pulled her up and began taking her mekhela chadar off. she didn’t demur, just stood looking at him.
when they’d returned from their walk in the river, he’d given her a packet and said, “for you! you don’t look too bad in a mekhela… go wear it, and hurry up! i don’t want to be late.”
she’d known he had meant many other things really, like he wanted to see her feeling happy, he did think she looked nice in a mekhela, and he hated to see her in tears… she had felt her knees turn to water almost at the way he had looked at her.
she had changed and was ready in no time.
but now it looked like they would be late.
his hand was on her navel, his chest rubbed her back, a hand came up languidly and cupped a breast before moving up and tracing her lips. she bit it the way she knew he liked… a little game. he would say “ow!” then whip her around and kiss her hard.
they fell back on the bed, their arms and legs entwined, he rolled on top of her and looked at her keenly. then he scowled and asked, “did you just call me laad governor and shadayantri sher?”
“nahin toh!” she fluttered her lashes and gave him a big not so innocent smile, “humne toh sirf aapko magarmach bulaya, laad governor!”
(no! i just called you crocodile, lord governor!)
he smiled nastily, his eyes narrowing, a glint of brown in translucent irises. she wondered why her heart pelted at that.
afterwards, as they got ready again quickly, he laughed and said, almost to himself, “there never was any question of just six months, was there!”
she wondered what he meant, and when she remembered their first phone call, she seethed. it was supposed to be a job for only six months, but why was he muttering that now? her jaw tightened, her lips thinned, this khadoos, jwalamukhi, magarmach…!
she glared at him, patted her red frangipanis, and said, “oh if you want i can always go aw-!”
he cut her short with an abrupt, “just shut up, khushi!”
the bonfire sent up flickering licks of brilliant orange flames into the night sky. the drummers gathered in a row beating their rotund dhols with sticks. they swayed in unison, their dhols keeping pace, once in a way, one or two or even three of them jumped high up in the air, a frenzy of drum rolls followed. they wore white dhotis under pale brown kurtas with red motifs and trimmings. their dhols were large, at least three feet across and a foot and half in of feet in diameter, the centres growing out to a larger circumference. one man carried a huge drum, its weight making him bend backward.
khushi watched them rapt, standing next to asr, she had never seen anything like this.
there were several bonfires spread over a large area by the river, the night was chilly, the fires brought both light and warmth. the largest of them was right in front, where the drummers played merrily, joyously, and with great vigour. people in brightly coloured clothes milled around. there were so many people, khushi wondered where they’d suddenly appeared from. a little away to the side was a big makeshift hut like thing, decorated with lanterns and streamers of flowers. behind that, there were large fires on which cooking was in progress. most of the cooks were men, though some girls helped out now and then.
“kk!” salman ran up to them, “you’re here at last! come, come… you can sit with my parents there… see? just on the other side of the bonfire!”
as they made their way to where the ghaznavis were sitting, khushi saw kanumoni standing with a group of girls. all of them were in mekhelas, some wore white ones with red work, some wore golden ones with red motifs, they had plenty of red flowers pinned to their beautifully knotted hair, red bindis glowed in the light of the flames, each one carried a flattish round hat made of straw with a conical centre, the hats had red and orange applique like work on them.
khushi’s eyes gleamed, “salman ji! can we go there?!” she pointed toward the girls.
salman waved at them and said, “sure! come, kk!”
asr looked at his wife’s face and couldn’t help but smile at her excitement, she looked like a kid, delighted with all the new things all around. then he shook his head, silently admonishing himself. she was mad, as he had noted earlier, hopefully the condition was not contagious.
he said brusquely, “you two go ahead, i’ll find tazdiq and rehana!”
kanumoni came over swiftly leaving her friends, when she saw khushi, “baideo! nomoshkar, baideo! xubho bihu! you are looking so beautiful!” she exclaimed, then stopped right in front of khushi, suddenly embarrassed.
(baideo! greetings, baideo! happy bihu! you are looking so beautiful!)
“xubho bihu, kanumoni ji! aap bhi kitni khubsoorat lag rahi hain.. aur yeh topi? kitna sundar hai yeh!” khushi said happily, “oh, salman ji! aap ko bhi xubho bihu!”
(kanumoni ji! happy bihu! you too are looking so beautiful… and this cap? it’s so pretty ! oh salman ji, happy bihu to you too!)
salman grinned, “happy bihu, kk… i am glad you are here this time of the year, you know! tonight is the eve, we call it uruku and that cap… it’s a jhapi, say it with a little nasal twang…”
“jhaa-n-pi?” khushi murmured, liking the sound of the word, a bit like champi… massage… she giggled.
“baideo, take… here’s a jhapi for you!” kanumoni handed khushi a cap as they walked back together toward the girls.
“that hut over there, that’s the bhelaghar, arnav… all the feasting takes place inside,” rehana said to asr. she was wearing a mekhela as well this evening, in a pale blue assam silk with yellow work all over.
they were sitting where rows of chairs that had been placed not far from the bonfire, a sort of vip corner it appeared to be. managers of estates and their wives mingled with army and border security personnel from neighbouring areas; there were a few folks from digboi and duliajan, the oil towns nearby. bank officers, the principal of a local college, school teachers, a well known contractor, doctors, and their spouses chatted and watched the festivities.
everyone seemed to know everyone, and they got along well clearly; now and then a hearty laughter would ring out, glasses of alcohol and other drinks kept being refilled, and plates of snacks were emptied.
“you see, arnav, assam really is a small tightly knit community… well at least upper assam is…” tazdiq explained to asr after a round of introductions, “we all get together for special occasions… in the old days, the coolies wouldn’t join in, but for a few years now, we encourage them to come and celebrate as well… i am glad to see, some of the younger girls and boys are taking part in the singing and dancing… drink? kanchha!” he called out to a young man walking by, “get a whisky for saab and a soda for me!”
“oooh, my my.. who’s this, tazdiq? why haven’t i met the handsomest man out here yet… mmm very bad!” the sultry voice wafted in suddenly. both men looked up startled. a tall, very thin woman stood before them, she was wearing a black printed chiffon saree with a dark red bustier top, her hair was swept up in a top knot, a huge orange canna flower was tucked into it on one side; her cheek bones, asr noticed, were particularly high. her long eyes slanted upward and she wore a thick line of kohl on her lower lids. she had a cigarette in one hand and a glass in the other.
“good evening, bhanu,” tazdiq said getting up and smiling at her.
“muaah, honey… but tell me, who is this you are refusing to introduce to me…” she asked archly and took a long drag from her cigarette.
asr had also stood up by then, he held out his hand and said, “hi, i am arnav… arnav singh raizada! good to meet you!”
“arnav!” said the lady, dropping her voice to an intimate low, then she set her drink down on a table and took his hand, “how lovely that sounds! you do know it means the ocean, don’t you?”
asr smiled politely. he was beginning to enjoy the theatrics, the sophistication, and the playful flirting, which was at such odds with the surroundings. he wished khushi were here, she’d have many things to say about the lady and the extended hand holding he was sure. where was khushi, dammit. he was missing her.
no sooner had he thought that, he kicked himself mentally… why was he missing her all the time, hell… this was totally stupid. unacceptable.
“darling, i’m bhanu… mrs o’leary, if you like… wonderful to see a gorgeous young man this part of the world…” bhanu o’leary smiled and raised an eyebrow, looking at him unabashedly, she shook her head and continued, “absolute desert as far as that’s concerned… all our lush tea gardens and deep oil fields… but the eyes thirst for more…”
she picked up her glass of whisky and raised it, “cheers, arnav! welcome to assam… i hope you’re having a blast!”
then she looked at rehana ghaznavi and said, “hey, reh, where have you been? golf, day after?”
she sat down next to rehana and the two women started talking.
asr looked around, wondering where khushi had disappeared to. the drums began a new beat, the bonfire raged. girls in mekhela, holding their straw hats near their waist, ran lightly in and took their position on the other side of the flames. the dance was about to begin.
he spotted her almost instantly. in a sea of red and gold, she stood out in her dazzling black, gold, and pink. he swallowed hard without realising, there was a tightness in his gut. she held a hat by her waist like the rest of the dancers. even though he couldn’t see it from this distance, he knew her eyes would be shining, her breath falling fast. she loved to dance. but how would she do this one? she hadn’t practiced at all. she didn’t even know this dance, dammit.
he took a sip of his drink. khushi! he wanted to pull her into his arms, make love to her right then..
they turned and twirled, they shook their shoulders, their feet alert and light, their heads shaking to the beat, their jhapi moving in rhythm; they kept their hands on their waist and swung their elbows back and forth as they swayed from side to side; at one point, they deposited their jhapi before the fire and whirled away into another set of steps. their movements was always delicate, almost demure, they had dainty smiles on their faces. in the light of the fire they shimmered like paintings in their reds and gold, a mesmerising quality to the sight.
the audience watched the bihu dance they must have seen many times before, yet their excitement hadn’t dulled. bhogali bihu brought with it a sense of spring as winter began its wind down, of abundance, of happiness. and there was so much good food, pitha and other delicacies of the season. there would be revelry through the night, eating in the bhelaghar, children stealing fruit and vegetables from the gardens as was the tradition, and drinking and dancing. and the next day, there would be prayers and the burning of the bhelaghar, and more eating, singing, dancing.
the girls did a last round of pirouettes and stopped, standing motionless. the audience cheered and applauded.
khushi had stumbled a couple of times, but she had managed to keep pace otherwise, asr noted. he wondered why he felt a funny sort of pride. no denying it, asr grinned wryly, his lips slanting all the way up on one side, he did feel proud of this girl. “khushi!” corrected his mind, as it had now gotten used to doing by now.
“my my!” said a husky voice, “that is some smile!”
asr started. bhanu was leaning close and staring at him, she had an unmistakably inviting look in her eyes.
“so what makes arnav so happy?” she murmured, asking something else really, leaning closer still.
asr’s eyes glinted, he was about to answer when he felt the kiss.
khushi was feeling terribly happy. where was arnav ji? had he seen her dance!
kanumoni and her friends had taught her quickly, in just a few minutes in fact, all the basic steps… no no, she shouldn’t overdo the movements… contained, more restrained… and light, very light… khushi had loved it. a new dance! wait till she showed it to jiji, to amma, and yes, to bua ji.
bua ji always tried to compete with her, “hai re nand kissore!” slipped in her mind just to complete the feeling… but she’d be kind, she’d teach bua ji everything and very patiently too. light… more light, she imagined her heavyset bua ji glaring at her at those instructions, her om locket bobbing at her neck below several layers of highly established chin.
khushi grinned at the thought and shook her head happily. so where was arnav ji?
she looked across the fire impatiently and saw him. there were so many people there… hey devi maiyya, had he even noticed she wasn’t around! and had he seen her dance or not?
laad governor might have been talking business with someone for all you know, she grumbled to herself and started walking toward him. she had almost come up to the cluster of chairs, when she saw a tall woman with a large flower in her hair begin to sashay up to arnav ji and lean close…
khushi felt a strange sensation at the back of her neck, the outer edge of her ear lobes prickled and went warm. what was the matter with her? but her feet had begun to fly by then, there was no time to think.
the woman was coming closer.
khushi reached asr just as he turned toward the woman with the flower. a wild feeling rose in khushi. she stepped forward and kissed him on the cheek. right there, in front of everybody.
asr frowned even as he turned toward the person who had just kissed him. what th-, his pupils widened. it was khushi. her face was flushed, there was a look in her eyes he’d not seen before. what was the matter with her?
“khushi!” he murmured, a little surprised.
she turned and kissed him on the other cheek. her lips lingered on his skin, asr could feel a shiver in her breath.
he put an arm around her waist drawing her close as she finished the kiss.
“bhanu,” he said to the lady in the black chiffon saree, who was looking completely disconcerted now, “this is khushi, my wife…”
khushi tautened and stood straighter, then she patted her bunch of frangipanis, thrust her hand out, and said, “hum khushi kumari gupta singh raizada! xubho bihu, bhanu ji!”
her voice was sweet, extremely so.
asr watched the cascade of expressions in bhanu o’leary’s eyes. and suddenly he got it. khushi had just marked him…. aggressively, assertively, with no room for any doubts. he was out of bounds.
he swallowed hard and almost laughed out loud, a strange feeling welling up in him.
in the night filled with fires and feasts and aroused senses, a girl slipped her arm around her man’s waist and rested her head on his shoulder. it had been a bountiful harvest, the celebration would go on till long.
she was fast asleep on the bed. her hand lay tucked under a cheek, her dupatta had slipped and her neck and bosom were visible in the low, dimmed light of the room. smooth, ivory skin, rising and falling as she breathed.
he sat on the sofa, his laptop open before him. he frowned a little as he typed, his fingers were fleet and sure on the keyboard. from time to time, he looked up and sat watching her. a feeling he no longer even tried to describe, coming over him, a silence taking hold of his heart.
video: credit uploader
hi, i thought this would be the last chapter, looks like it isn’t. i do hope you enjoy it. will be back soon with the last chapter. please leave a comment, i would really appreciate it. am posting avideo of bihu dance and thinking i realy do need a mooga mekhela with red motifs.
find all chapters here