“the deal’s off, gentlemen! akash, let’s go.”
the voice rang out sharp and precise, its decibel remained low.
there was a tremor on the surface of the water in the glasses on the long conference room table, and as the three men sitting across watched nonplussed, the man who had just uttered those words got up smoothly from the leather upholstered chair and strode toward the exit. behind him shuffled a pleasant looking young man, with a slightly myopic air, his amiable face filling with bewilderment.
the man he followed had not a trace of amiability or bewilderment on his visage. he looked straight ahead, his profile immobile. his jawline was rigid, his lips had thinned to a steely contour, his eyes were opaque. he breathed swiftly, the air he exhaled was searing. anger was apparent in every line and movement of his taut, lithe frame. he walked fast and didn’t look back as one of the men, the large one with a flamboyant lavender velvet jacket, called out plaintively, “mr raizada! but, mr raizada…!”
the youngest of the three men, the only one in shirtsleeves, ran after the man who was now almost at the stern of the yacht, where a smart sunseeker predator in white and polished black waited. in front, the elegant arc of mandovi stretched and touched the horizon, it was a warm day in june, sunlight glittered on the undulating ripples, an eagle banked gracefully overhead.
“arnav! arnav! don’t worry about what daddy is saying, i’ll find a way…” the young man stuttered in his haste, obviously distressed.
the man walking ahead didn’t break his stride. at the edge of the stern he leapt neatly across to the other yacht, then he turned and stood still for a moment facing the young man who shifted awkwardly on his feet, looking perturbed.
“it’s okay, we agree to your terms!” the young man blurted out, unable to bear the pressure of that long point blank stare.
there was a lick of fire in the inscrutable eyes; though one couldn’t be sure. wind blew back thick jet black hair off the man’s high forehead, a sharply etched widow’s peak at the centre. his precisely cut charcoal grey jacket fluttered in the breeze, the slim trouser legs wrapped around legs firmly planted about a foot apart, the yacht swayed gently.
“good,” said the man.
relief washed over the young man’s face, he gave a helpless smile and began, “thanks, arnav, you don’t know…”
“akash!” the man cut in, “take the deed and let’s go!”
he turned around once more and walked off.
the young man was too flabbergasted to say anything. akash singh raizada walked up to him and with his habitual gentle smile held out his hand for the deed of sheesh mahal.
he exhaled slowly and closed his eyes. the river was all reflections, the sky closed in, the yacht increased speed. a shrill call cut through the air and hovered over images intent on entering his mind. it was the eagle. he swallowed and an indecipherable expression glanced across the planes and angles of his face, he seemed to start. suddenly his face looked tired, drawn.
sheesh mahal… the house of glass, of shattered mirrors, in which every image must get tainted, must bleed, must die. the eagle called again. his eyes opened and he stared straight into the sun, which was getting brighter just before setting.
dark irises glinted. you could tell now they were brown, a deep startling shade of earth and cognac, a transparency in them which you’d never have imagined only an instant before.
“bhai!” akash was standing behind him, he sounded elated, “how did you manage to swing that! those guys! poor chaps!”
arnav singh raizada gave a tight smile and drawled, “akash. money. it’s all about that. and yes -”
he turned deliberately toward his cousin, and reaching out with a languid arm dusted an imaginary speck off his shoulder with long fingers that were, as always, perfectly manicured.
“-don’t let anyone get away with a ‘no’. remember, you don’t win some and lose some, you win them all.”
akash grinned nervously. he hoped his cousin was saying this in jest.
he knew for certain, he wasn’t.
the helicopter’s staccato whir sent ripples through the silent air of the night. lights began to dot the land below. first just a handful, then more. and the twinkling grew, beckoning. they had reached lucknow.
arnav sat staring ahead in the passenger’s seat behind the pilot. the robinson r66 five seater craft had started to arc toward the destination, they were beginning to descend.
a pair of remote eyes looked down. was there a flash of lightning caught and stilled somewhere, in some inaccessible depth or haunted recess?
the man in the passengers’ seat threw back his shoulders and took a deep long breath. it had been a while. yes, a long while. was sheesh mahal ready for him? was he…?
arnav singh raizada cut the thought short.
the flight from goa had been delayed, they’d reached delhi as evening fell. he was determined to reach sheesh mahal that very day. there would be no waiting, enough time had been wasted, been taken away.
he was out of the helicopter the instant it landed. as his feet touched the ground, he breathed in again, this time sharply. it was done. he had returned. he had wrested from the pretenders what was his. the night air touched his face, and seemed to greet him.
darkness lay all around, he let his eyes adjust to it. the grounds stretched into woods at the back, he could hear the sound of water to his right… the river. the helipad was where it had always been, in the far right corner of the property. he pivoted slowly in the direction of the house, it was to the left he knew, even if the night wouldn’t let him see anything clearly.
the first silhouetted spire came into view, a rush in his throat made him draw in his breath. the muscles in his gut clenched, his diaphragm was taut, as if anticipating an attack. he let his eyes travel further over the barely visible curves and arches. the massive shadowy structure coalesced into view, memory filled in the details.
there was the front door below the main arch at the centre, a series of windows with stained glass ornate tops flanked it on either side. a pathway led to the door through the manicured lawn.
his steps quickened. he could feel the crunch of gravel under his feet.
clouds shifted in the sky, a bright ivory moon lit the night.
he pushed open the heavy mahogany door and stepped into the hallway. it cut the night air out, he was enclosed in a cocoon of silence. arnav walked briskly to the wide pavilion ahead, which ran all around the four sides of the central courtyard. he could see the row of pillars along it in the moonlight. there were twenty four in all, six on each side.
he went out onto the mosaic paved courtyard and stood there for a moment. then he inhaled deeply, remembering. trying not to remember.
why had he not reached in time? why had he not started running the moment he felt something was not right? why had he waited? had he not… had he not- his breath became short, constricted, laboured. even after so many years, he couldn’t think of that moment without feeling his breath slowly die.
maa had died. he had been too late.
the night was mute and unmoving around him, an indictment in its stubborn quiet. he had known it would be difficult to return, but he hadn’t known just how difficult. arnav looking up at the star studded sky above. he willed himself to take control; he would counter the pain, he would not brook it. maa would never come back, his father would always be the weak philanderer he was, and his uncle a charlatan, a thief.
but his sister was innocent. she was a mere child of four when their parents died that treacherous night. later their uncle cheated them out of everything they had. he had promised himself then, he’d get sheesh mahal back for her. it would be her eighteenth birthday present.
arnav exhaled slowly. anjali had no real memory of their home. or maa, or pita ji. to her, arnav was her elder brother, mother and father. she called him badey… elder. she’d be eighteen in a couple of weeks. unbelievable.
a tiny smile played on his lips as he thought of his sibling. the right corner of his lips dipped a little more than the left. an asymmetry his mirror reflected without any kindness, a part of him. his eyes glinted. he swallowed hard, his adam’s apple jutted out, an ache in his throat. he had been only fourteen at the time. his maternal grandmother, nani ji, had stepped in and taken over. they had gone to delhi with her and lived there ever since, along with their mother’s brother and his wife, their uncle and aunt–mama ji and mami ji– and their son, akash. anjali bullied akash shamelessly. poor akash.
arnav was about to reach for his phone to call anjali when he heard the noise.
he started. what was that?
a sweep of fluttering wings overhead. he looked up involuntarily and saw the pigeons flying out of the eaves.
there was the noise again.
a tinkling, bell like. bells? here? arnav frowned.
was he imagining it? how could anyone be here? the main door had been locked. besides no one lived in sheesh mahal. his uncle’s agents had assured him of that. he shook his head, it must have been the pigeons.
a shadow moved somewhere. he looked around swiftly, his eyes darted toward the upper floor. the covered balcony with the ornate balustrade and stucco decorations on the ceiling and arches loomed above, with its curiously watchful air. darkness crowded its hollows, moonbeams streamed in at places illuminating a baluster here, a lamp shade or stained glass elsewhere. but all seemed still up there.
arnav craned his neck, peering. right behind his head there was the sound again. arnav didn’t turn this time. his head cocked at an angle, eyes narrowed, a feral alertness in him, he tried to gauge what the noise might be, what was its source.
bells, yes, they were bells… he was sure now. he had heard bells like that before. here, in this house…
maa. his mother’s anklets used to have a clear happy sound, a jingle of tiny gently swaying round bells, like the pitter patter of raindrops.
his eyes closed at the reminder of that sound, pain shot through him. he swallowed involuntarily, feeling the tightness in his throat. the bells could be heard again, now a longer spell. who was running around the house wearing anklets?
arnav opened his eyes. no, this wasn’t his imagination.
he swung on his heels and dashed back into the pavilion, taking care not to make any noise. he let his instincts lead him to the stairs and raced up, two steps at a time.
reaching the balcony above, arnav turned blindly to the left, that’s where the noise had come from he was quite certain.
something beat furiously close to his ears. wings. a pigeon flew by brushing his cheeks and eyes with its rushing wings. he ran on down the balcony, intent on finding the intruder.
as he turned at the far end of the long marbled stretch, he felt the hit on his chest, it knocked the wind out of him, he almost fell but managed to stay on his feet. his arms shot out and caught hold of whatever it was that had made such violent contact with him. he stood there gasping for breath, his eyes closed.
an instant went by, grabbed by the night and locked away in its opaque embrace.
just an instant, or maybe a fraction of it, a tiny endless piece of an infinitesimal sliver of time.
then the frantic threshing registered. arnav realised the thing he was holding was moving constantly and with considerable force. what was it?
he opened his eyes and frowned darkly at it, his anger mounting. his lips had already tightened as he glared at the object. he wasn’t sure what he noticed first though, the eyes or the volley of breaths.
large iridescent irises were looking at him angrily. or were they terrified?
it was a girl.
a woman, in fact.
arnav stared at her dumbfounded.
a woman? what was she doing here?
he felt her breath on him; on his neck and chin; warm, stirred up. she was breathing fast and she was pushing hard against him. arnav was still trying to collect his thoughts. who could she possibly be? why was she here?
he noticed his hands were grasping her tightly, he could feel her bones through the fabric of her clothes. his left hand was on the small of her back, his right hand was clamped on her left arm and was twisting it behind her.
she made an incoherent, vicious sound and tried to jerk away from him.
he caught hold of her shoulders none too gently and shook her as he bit out through clenched teeth, “who the hell are you?!”
she didn’t answer. instead she wriggled desperately and tried to wrench herself free, but he was not letting go.
“i said who… are… you?!” arnav repeated in a guttural voice, pausing menacingly between each word.
a thought struck him and he could feel a surge of anger ricochet through him. his uncle. was this woman part of some game his uncle was playing? a plant? here to sabotage his possession of sheesh mahal? arnav’s anger and instinct came to a decision.
he tightened his grip on her shoulders and thrust his face close to her, his lips drawn back in a sinister grimace, eyes glowing with chilling fury.
she drew back and strained against him, trying to get away. he pushed his face further toward hers, his rage scalding.
“who… sent… you? ANSWER ME DAMMIT!” his hoarse voice rang out and echoed off the bare walls and surfaces of the empty mansion clothed in darkness.
the girl flinched. her eyes widened and grew more opalescent. her body began to tremble. he could feel her shoulders shake; she has such fragile, small bones, he thought taken aback. and what was that pounding he could hear? it was getting louder, almost deafening. he felt his mouth go slightly dry. what was he sensing? danger?
he saw her open her lips… why were they shimmering?… she took a slow breath, tilting her head up till it went all the way back, till he could see the arch of her dark eyebrows in the moonlight, the bridge of her sharp nose, the curve of her upper lip… her quivering chin… the long column of her neck…
arnav waited. the pounding was louder now. what was it?
suddenly he knew what it was. his eyes were wary as he looked down. he saw their bodies touching, almost fused near the chest; the pounding was coming from there. it was heart beats.
how could heart beats be so loud?
he could feel them racing against his sternum, striking the inner walls of his chest cavity, riding up his throat. whose heart beats were these? his? or were they hers? he had the strangest sensation of drowning for a moment. running… he was running… but he knew he wouldn’t reach in time.
he felt a jolt… it was her. the girl. the woman.
she was pushing him back with all her might. as the force with which she resisted scaled and overcame his hold, she lost balance and surged toward him, her face coming up close to him, her breath on his eyelids and cheeks.
then she heaved and thrust him back with both her hands, and kicked him on the shin. the pain made him wince and her shoulders slipped out of his grip. a cascade of shimmery fabric; a skirmish of anger, surprise, and velocity… and she was gone. he turned swiftly and lunged to catch her, but she was quicker. his feet moved of their own accord, giving chase. he could hear the sound again of those wretched bells as she fled. by the time he reached the main door, she had disappeared.
he stood there, dazed and furious. the woman had sensed his distraction and taken advantage of the moment. his opponent had got the better of him. arnav didn’t like that. he didn’t like that at all. he looked out into the night and up at the starlit sky.
“dammit!” he hurled at his invisible opponent under his breath.
arnav turned and went back into sheesh mahal.
he had to know who this woman was. she couldn’t get away so easily. he retraced his steps all the way back to where she had bounded into him. he squinted at the balustrade, the floor, searching for what he wasn’t sure. he took a step, what was that under his foot? he prodded with his shoe.
there was the noise again.
arnav bent down and touched the object. he lifted it up slowly, wondering what it was. it was a delicate strand of silver he saw, there were tiny clusters of round bells hanging from it. it was an anklet. he raised it further up to examine it more closely in the moonlight. a frown creased his forehead.
such a small insignificant little thing. but that’s all that was needed. it wasn’t easy to defeat arnav singh raizada; a smile began to tilt his lips; an almost meditative malevolence entered his eyes. his adversary would have to return. and this time, she wouldn’t get away.
he felt the thrill of a win in his gut. his heart beat accelerated.
the girl was pelting down the path leading to her house. it wasn’t too far. she had climbed in through the window at the back as usual to feed the pigeons. she’d gotten late because they’d gone to the fair today. she shivered at the thought of the intruder. no one lived in sheesh mahal… so, who was that man? or maybe he wasn’t a man at all. he was… he was… she almost screamed at the thought. was he a ghost? was he a… m… m… monster??
she folded her hands together in supplication as she ran.
“hey devi maiyya” she prayed fervently to her goddess, “save me! save me!”
but what was that? something was not right. she stopped and looked down at her feet. where was the anklet on her left leg?!!! was it lying somewhere on the road… or perhaps it had fallen off in sheesh mahal??
the girl could hear her heart beat thudding against her rib cage, speeding up.
a cataclysmic meeting. i just felt like intruding upon that. arnav singh raizada and khushi kumari gupta were on my mind. started writing this one shot months ago, but only the other day it all started coming together. so i decided to give myself a birthday treat. hope you had fun reading it. i have no idea if this is the preamble to a longer story. for now, it’s this… the meeting. the collision. the cessation of all normalcy.