the night closed in around the white mercedes-benz suv as it shot through the empty after hours roads. there was a slight drizzle building up to something more falling lightly onto the asphalt, the large old trees, and the pretty landscaped circles of new delhi. dark windows sat behind high walls and rolling lawns, the rich part of town.
he drove without seeing a thing, eyes fixed straight ahead, hands gripping the leather of the steering wheel, knuckles white, his jaw was set, a complete stillness in his frame, the darkness outside seemed pale in comparison to the lack of light in his irises. opaque, pebble like, inert, inaccessible. his foot pressed down on the accelerator as though glued to it. he was leaving behind the bungalows and avenues, heading toward what who knew. he didn’t seem to care, he looked neither left nor right, just followed the path where it led him, turning whichever way it went, tyres screeching against the slippery surface, headlights throwing two harsh pools of light in front. blue black road, a ribbon stretching on, and a car gleaming white against the rain drops, speeding.
the thoughts had come he had no idea when, but as usual, suddenly they had him enveloped. choking. gagging his insides, he couldn’t breathe, he needed to get away.
he’s running down a corridor, a terrible feeling growing. he’s bounding up old marble laid steps two at a time, over the inlay work on each step, banisters with cast iron curlicues on either side topped by a smooth gleaming railing in dark mahogany, how many times he’s slid down them, playing with his friends, getting away from someone out to catch him at a prank… but tonight there was no time. he had to get there, get there before something terrible happened. his heart had a premonition too heavy for his 14 years, his head whirled with a smell of danger, he ran faster, almost tripping on the edge of a slightly chipped step.
the speedometer swung to 90, the silence of late night streets shattered as the tyres hit a pothole submerged in water, it had been raining intermittently the whole day. a dull sort of rain that refused to drain the clouds and clear the skies, burdening the air with a clammy humidity, mid july heat trapped in its pores and threatening to return full swelter the moment the rain drops eased.
a scream pierced the world. a boy knew it was over. everything. she was gone. that was it. a part of him writhed in agony, it wanted to scream, but he couldn’t. everything had gone flat somehow, closed. a gate within had slammed shut, inside it the scream, the tears, the pain, the mindless anguish, the fear, the terror, the whimpers that don’t stop, the sobs that break out unbidden, the burning feeling behind the eyes, the heaving wracked breaths, the sorrow that lingers in the soul, the keening, and also the laughter of a young boy, his playfulness, his gentle bit, his loving bit, his tenderness, his right to be just that, a boy loved to distraction by his beautiful mother. all shut out. everything gone.
arnav malik had to keep quiet, had to be strong, ruthless almost, and he chose to be arnav singh raizada.
he could feel his breath getting shallow, his head begin to spin. were those beads of sweat on his face? his skin felt fragile. too many thoughts. too much pain, and a question that put cold fear in his heart. at the thought of it his foot pressed down harder, the car bolted and almost spun out of control.
but a part of him knew what was coming and deftly brought it back on to the road; he hit the brakes. the car came to a stop, and a silence descended, only the sound of his long fractured breath in the night, and an underlying whisper of rain.
that fear had come again.
he opened the door and got out swiftly, he needed fresh air. he needed to feel free, he needed to feel like himself, but the fear stalked him, asphyxiating, demanding to be heeded. he had to get away from it, had to stop it, he inhaled slowly then he did what he hadn’t done in years.
he screamed into the darkness.
out to the skies, the stars, the trees, whoever would listen. maa.
he sank down onto the bare wet road, looking up, pleading… pleading for what?
the minutes ticked by. barren, desert minutes scorched by a merciless rage.
at last he felt the drizzle on his skin… he frowned, what was the time? he had to get home. he got up as he had done so many times before, at every instant that life tripped him up, and made his way to his car. in its cabin he was safe, a feeling of comfort here. quiet, giving, as if the machine knew the man’s heart.
when he reached shantivan, it was almost midnight, he let himself in quietly and walked down the long hallway and swiftly went up the stairs to his bedroom. a night light was on at the far end of the room, a little adjustment made for khushi, she couldn’t sleep in complete darkness. he could see her silhouette on her side of the bed. for no reason, the word “pala” came to his head and a smile almost came to his lips. a tenderness entered his gaze, funny girl, he thought, so innocent and untouched by this world in so many ways.
but he had no place for this innocence tonight, he was too beaten by the world, too fragile, he couldn’t take this burden to her, not tonight.
he made his way to the poolside french window, gently opening it so as not to make any noise, feeling the tiny shards of rain that the wind blew in on his face. the curtain billowed, he held it away and stepped out, letting the door slide shut. his eyes fell on the side of the pool and he remembered another night.
a beautiful bride stood outside, alone, helpless. his bride. he had left her alone, made her helpless. he had pushed her out of the room into the cold night. he had made her sleep on the hard flagstone floor while he slept in his bed inside. he was pushing khushi out of the room, shutting the door, leaving her alone out there in the open… how could he?!!
pain made him wince, he felt a sob rise, he sat down on the floor and felt the stone with his bare palms. how could he? and the sobs came. silently, inexorably. his body shook as they tore through him. how could he? the girl who was his love, his very life, who made jalebis when she was angry, but never forgot to make his sugar free batch even then, the girl who forgave so easily, who spoke to stars, who was miss taekwondo in bed and how he loved her moves, the girl who opened her heart with such completeness and gave everyone joy, the girl who was his sweet paagal…
his train of thought was interrupted. what was that? he felt a touch on his left shoulder. he looked up quickly, who was that?
she stood there looking down at him, sleep still clinging to her eyes, “arnav ji?”
she’d never seen him like this. she was terribly worried at what she saw in his eyes. she sat before him and held his face in her gentle palms. she could feel the sobs running through him. “kya hua?” she asked with her habitual directness, her innocence.
he sat looking into her dark, clear eyes, and the fear that wouldn’t leave found expression, “khushi, i’m not like my dad, am i?”
khushi stared back, nonplussed. what had brought this on? she had never heard him say this. he never spoke of his father, in fact.
he saw the puzzled look in her eyes and knew he had never shared these thoughts with her or anyone. they bothered him, so he kept them away… but he had loved his father too. growing up, his indulgent father’s only son, he’d had a lot of fun with the man he thought was good and kind, who was the “head” of the family, a man he could trust. his father had a nasty temper, but when he was in a good mood there was really no one as wonderful as him.
that night as he ran knowing he would be too late, he’d lost not only his precious mother, but also a man he loved, and every illusion he’d ever had about him. that breaking of trust, that erasing of father was also a pain locked behind the door that slammed shut.
just that once in a while it visited him, in the form of this fear.
was he like his cheating, profligate, untrustworthy father? did his father live in his gussa? in his self, somewhere? was he capable of doing what his father did, after all he’d done that to khushi… and that marriage too. he was perhaps just like his…
khushi began to understand what he was trying to say. and felt the terrifying pain of the man she loved no matter what. she drew him close into her arms and kissed him gently on one cheek. then on the other. then she drew his head down to her breast and stroked him with all the love she felt for him.
“aap sirf mere arnav ji hain, arnav singh raizada.”
(you are only my arnav ji, arnav singh raizada.)
she knew hearing his name, the identity that he’d created and worked relentlessly to become gave him strength, it soothed him, she wanted him to feel its truth, its innate courage. his innate courage. himmat dikhai maine, he’d told her when speaking of that night and the days that followed. nothing he’d ever done had made her doubt that.
they sat there, the two of them, in the light drizzle.
when she felt his shoulders relax, his breath ease, she pulled him up and led him to their room. he lay down next to her, holding her close, her back to him she lay, his body curved to fit the lines of hers. he buried his face in her neck, enjoying the touch of her silken hair, his arm stretched across her belly, his fingers were tucked under her waist. his worst fears would always perhaps stay in some corner of his being, but life had sent him a crazy girl to open that locked door and feel all his feelings again, there was no need to be afraid, she was always there. he breathed in deeply.
“will you let me sleep in your pala?” he teased as he nibbled her ear, kissed her shoulder blades lightly, and hugged her a little tighter.
she smiled slightly at his tone. the worst was over she knew. tomorrow let it be a better day, please devi maiyya.