Beyond words

When eyes and souls connect

Chapter 25: Lonely in a crowd

roka

Raizada Mansion had outdone itself this time when it came to preparations. Workers scurried everywhere clearing, trimming, mowing, hanging lights, stringing flowers and sprucing up the place for the impending celebrations.

Nani ji sat content at the center giving directions and guiding the event. Anjali wished she could make copies of herself one for the kitchen, one for the outdoors and one for the puja related detailing. Mami sat moping in her room rueing the loss of her position as the bahurani in chief. Realizing belatedly that whether she liked it or not, she had to be at the forefront and that videos and pictures will be taken, she focused her attention on getting ready. It wouldn’t do to be seen with bags under her eyes would it?

Akash put finishing touches on a gift he had bought for his fiancée. A set of payals for his Payal. He knew she hated ostentation and he had been careful not to splurge on it. He had a lifetime ahead of him to do that.

Arnav barked orders to Aman on the phone.

“No, he couldn’t be at the office today. Yes! please reschedule the meetings to next week.”

“And Aman, I expect you to be here at home for the evening celebration. Bring your daughter with you. And yes, that is an order.”

A smile nudged the corners of his mouth. For all his bark, Arnav had a soft corner for Aman. His man Friday.

Work was taken care of. There was just this problem of the little note that stayed in his pocket burning a hole with its presence. The year that had gone past had Di at its center. Khushi remained on the outer edges rarely disturbing his conscious.  This past week had been tumultuous. It had dredged up memories he had suppressed for a whole year. It brought with it remorse and an overwhelming sense of regret. He looked forward to the evening with a mix of apprehension and excitement.

He felt like an animal on a hunt, his senses heightened and the thrill of the kill pumping adrenalin through his body. Except his prey knew he was lurking and was armed.

He dressed to kill.

His phone buzzed and he looked at it with irritation. Picking it out of habit, his eyes widened when he saw the message.

“Nannav mere bhai. Am at the airport. Is anyone coming? Do I take a taxi? – NK”

In all the excitement surrounding the sudden festivities he had totally forgotten that Akash’s cousin was flying in from Sydney that afternoon. He slapped his forehead and texted back.

“Take a taxi. Will explain when you get home. Ask for Raizada Mansion. Most taxi drivers will know. If not, call me.”

He ran down the stairs to apprise Di and Akash of NK’s arrival and stood mesmerized at the sight of the Gupta family at the door.

Di, Nani and Mami stood with the aarti plate and they were calling out to him. Walking downstairs he was aware of a pair of eyes following him.

Folding his hands in a polite namaste, he joined the rest of the family in welcoming the bridal party and acted the perfect host.

His eyes strayed to the vision in cream and pink next to the bride. Her dark locks framing her porcelain face. A small stone studded clasp pinning the hair away from her ear. The barest of eyeliner highlighting those charcoal eyes. A smile seemed to permanently dance on her face. She stole looks at him when she thought he was not looking.

Feeling a tiny prick of excitement, he dug out a small box from his pocket and discreetly dropped it into her bag that she had left by the side of the dais  He stood by Nani and watched as Di held out the ring for Akash to put on his fiancée’s finger.

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Akash eyes shone with happiness as he slipped the ring on Payal’s finger gently. Khushi held out the ring for Payal to slide on Akash’s finger. Payal looked up demure and happy. Her fingers trembled a little as she held Akash’s hand and slid the ring on. They turned towards everyone and walked off the dais to take blessings. Only Khushi noticed Akash slip his hand into Payal’s reassuring her that he was there to support and hold her hand. For life.

As the music began signalling the start of the festivities, the door opened and a handsome young man strode in. A collective gasp went around the room.

“NK Bhai!”

The entire clan rushed to the door and greeted the newcomer with such enthusiasm that the Gupta family looked on in surprise. Struggling to breathe from the onslaught of hugs, the said NK extricated himself and introduced himself.

NK

“Nandkishore. You can call me NK.”

Payal shyly extended a hand as Akash explained that NK was his cousin. He went around the group and his hand lingered on Khushi’s. Arnav burned. He made it a point to rush NK away from her and to his room.

When Arnav came back, the music was on and every one seemed to be having a good time. His eyes scanned the room for Khushi and found her talking to one of their guests for the evening. Wondering how she knew him, he made his way to the small group at the back. Waiting for a lull in the conversation, he stuck his hand out.

“Welcome Mr. Mehta. I am are glad you could make it to Akash’s engagement. Meet Khushi, sister of the bride.”

Mr. Mehta took the proffered hand and shook it vigorously before proclaiming “I know Khushi. She supplies food to our canteen. In fact, I believe she does business with most of us who are here today. Excellent partner to work with.” he beamed.

Arnav’s eyes narrowed. “In that case, I will leave you folks to catch up.” He strode out of the room in a huff.

Walking to the poolside as he did when he needed to let off steam. He took a couple of deep breaths and stared at his reflection in the pool. She has a life. She had one before she came into yours, a voice whispered in his head.

She was a business woman now? What else did he not know about her? Why did he feel she was his? Why did he burn so when NK held her hand? The questions seemed relentless. Pushing himself to get back to function, he walked in to see her dancing with abandon.

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She was a free spirit. The joy on her face roused something protective in him. What he would he not do to make sure she remained that way all her life? He leaned against the pillar and took in the celebrations feeling like an outsider, his eyes only for Khushi.

Aman walked in with his daughter. A little girl of about 5 years. He looked around to find Arnav at the back watching the group with a wistful look on his face. He had worked for Arnav over ten years now. The ten years had been good to him. When his wife died following complications from her C-Section, Arnav had provided silent support providing him time off and arranging for a wet nurse for the baby. A man of few words, he had been a godfather of sorts to his little Anya.

Arnav felt a little hand slide in his. Looking down, his face lit up at the sight of his goddaughter. He lifted her high and gave her a kiss on her forehead before setting her down. He guided Aman to the refreshments and asked him to help himself. He felt a tug at his elbow and found Di looking with curiosity at Anya. Introductions done, he was happy to see Di take Anya under her wing and show her around.

Soon Aman was introduced around the crowd as the man who was heard but never seen. Laughter bubbled to the ceiling and the night fell on a happy crowd. Arnav ached to be alone. Crowds made him feel lonelier.

Slipping away to his favorite spot he found someone standing there much to his annoyance. He was about to turn away when she turned and his heart stilled.

She was looking at the sky. Her eyes searched for the two stars she claimed as her own. She sat down by the pool looking reflective. Her eyes seemed to be brimming with tears. A quiet voice said “I feel lonely Amma. Even in a crowd.”

His heart went to her and he turned and went inside.

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Chapter 24: Friendship

payashengagement

Khushi woke early. She had to meet Shukla ji to let him know she would not be hands on for the next couple of months. She had reached out to other vendors to ask if they could fill in for her. She felt happy with the way her business was shaping up. She enjoyed the goodwill that came with being flexible and willing to work with others. When it came time to use her cards, she did it wisely and without coming across as a bully.

Payal sat at the table tallying her accounts and making copious notes for the woman who would be taking over from her for the next few weeks. She knew she could not be hands off the entire time but she did want Sarita to feel comfortable dealing with everyone. She needed to run to the bank and then she would have time to relax before getting ready for the evening.

Amma, Babuji and Bua sat at the table making lists and estimating what the wedding would cost. Shashi looked at his daughters with pride. In the one year that they had started the catering business, they had saved quite a bit. His girls had grown up and looked ready to take on the big bad world. His face darkened at the thought of that slime ball who had threatened rob his Khushi of her innocence. It was good that he was behind bars. He felt the rage building up inside him subside at the sight of Khushi bouncing into the room.

Garima looked at her daughter and smiled as she said.

“Be back soon. We have tons of work to do.”

“Bitiya, before I forget, your friend Lavanya had called. She seemed upset.”

A shadow fell across Khushi’s face. Lavanya and her fiance seemed to be fighting a lot these days. She wondered what was it this time. Was Lavanya marrying for love or did the break up with Arnav cause her to yes on the rebound to Anand? Well she would know soon enough.

Walking out of her meeting with Shukla ji, Khushi head straight to their favorite meeting spot, the cafe right outside AR Designs. There was so much she had to share with Lavanya.

Lavanya was already sitting by the window looking forlorn. Her eyes looked puffy and red like she had been crying. Khushi felt a stab of fear. Was she alright?

“Lavanya! Are you OK? Did you fight again with Anand?”

Lavanya looked at her and got up to collapse into sobs again. Khushi looked around. She needed to get Lavanya out of there. Far too many AR employees were filing in. Quickly dragging her and picking up her bag, Khushi hailed an auto and directed him to her favorite temple. Lavanya held Khushi’s hand as she sobbed.

“I could not take it any more. Anand was starting to physically abuse me. Each time he slapped or bossed me around, I would fight and then make up because he would come back looking all repentant and plead with me. This time something broke in me. I had to get out. He left for a meeting in Bombay this morning and he will be back tonight. I am scared to go back Khushi.”

Khushi looked at her friend in horror. She knew they had fights but physical abuse?

Getting off at the temple, they made straight for the steps. Khushi knew she had to do something and do it quick. With the engagement in the evening they had little time. Thinking on her feet, she looked at Lavanya.

“You take an auto and go home Lavanya. Payal will be home. Tell my parents that you are sick and go into my room. I will be back in an hour. Give me your home key and your cell phone.”

Lavanya looked at Khushi with gratitude. This is exactly what she needed now. Someone to take charge and tell her what to do. Nodding her head, she gave her friend a tight hug and made her way to Devi Maiyya.

Khushi watched her friend take an auto and she took one.

An hour later, Khushi pushed open the door to her home and noticed the atmosphere was subdued. Her parents and Bua looked concerned about Lavanya. They had grown to like her as one of the family. Khushi made straight for her room and saw that Lavanya was sitting on the bed. The tears were gone but her eyes were still red. Payal fussed around her. Noticing Khushi come in, Payal left, closing the door behind her.

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“Lavanya, I brought some of your clothes in this suitcase. Also inside are anything of importance I could find. I left a note for Anand saying you were done with him and not to make an attempt to reach you. If he does, he will be sorry. I had the sim card changed on your phone. This gives us some time to figure out what to do next. You stay with us till we can find an apartment for you.”

“Come give me a hug. You will be alright and you were brave to leave when you did.”

The tears fell again. This time with gratitude and relief.

Khushi had Lavanya freshen up and help Payal with getting ready. She hoped it would take her mind off the morning and it did. Soon Lavanya was smiling and teasing Payal.

Khushi had hoped to talk to Lavanya about Arnav’s note. That would have to wait.

It was soon evening and everyone was ready to leave. Khushi felt misgivings at leaving Lavanya behind. They had cajoled and pleaded with her to come but she remained firm. She needed her space and the Raizada Mansion was the last place she needed to be in today.

Lavanya watched as the family left and closed the door behind her. She had hardly gone into Khushi’s room when a knock sounded. Peeking through the window warily she sighed with relief that it was only Khushi. She probably forgot something she thought as she opened the door.

Khushi slipped in, gave Lavanya a big hug and reminded her to lock the door and not let anyone in. I will be back before you know it.

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

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Chapter 22: The thaw sets in

Friday dawned well and early in the Gupta household. Garima and Shashi had travelled to Delhi and Bua’s smile stretched from ear to ear. Her titaliya was getting married. Khushi and Payal were up early and helping Bua and Amma pack the return gifts and getting the thali ready. The smell of sugar and oil was thick in the air.

Khushi did the finishing touches to Payal’s makeup and looked at her sister. She looked radiant. Removing a smidgen of her kajal, she applied it behind Payal’s ear.

“You look beautiful Jiji. Akash ji is a lucky man.”

Payal blushed and looked away. Khushi looked at herself in the mirror. She had chosen a simple suit and had just lip gloss on. Her complexion glowed and she found herself looking at the window in anticipation.

Soon, two cars came to a halt in front of their house and the Raizada family trooped in carrying gifts and wearing smiles to match. All except Manorama mami. She had her nose scrunched as if she smelled something bad. Khushi’s smile faltered only to brighten at the sight of Anjali ji. The two of them hugged and celebrated the happiness that they had wrought about. Just as the family settled down in the chairs that had been arranged, the door opened and Arnav stood there dashing in a white shirt and black vest. His eyes flew to Khushi who stood nearest the door lingering on her before he strode inside to stand by his brother.

Akash bent down to take blessings from the elders as did Payal and Nani ji cleared her throat to speak. She formally asked Garima and Shashi for their daughter’s hand in marriage. Shashi and Garima accepted, tearing up with happiness. Payal symbolically crossed the room to sit with the Raizadas.

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Garima indicated to Khushi to bring out the refreshments. Khushi walked with a spring in her step. Her jiji was promised to Akash. There would be more rituals and eventually the marriage. Daydreaming she poured out the tea and set out the snacks. Sensing someone else in the kitchen, she turned and all but collided into the man himself. He was helping himself to water.

Arnav.

Arnav ji.

Her heart beat raced. Looking flustered, she tried to compose herself and raised her head to meet his gaze. He looked straight into her eyes and with a casual motion, placed a note on the counter grazing her wrist as he did and turned and walked away.

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The world around her seemed to slow down. Her heart beats sounded way too loud. Clutching the counter for support, she took in a deep breath and willed herself to recover. Her wrist still stung from that accidental contact.

Her Amma voice pierced the haze she seemed to be in.

“Khushi bitiya, are you bringing the chai?”

“Yes. Amma. Coming right up.”

Khushi quickly set the cups on a tray and on an impulse turned the note to read it before she faced him again.

“Can we start afresh? As friends.”

There was no indication the note was from him. She turned it over and scribbled before sliding it under the cup of sugar-free coffee on the tray.

Balancing the snacks and tea, she went around setting the cups. She bent before Arnav and indicated with her eyes before she left. She watched him scoop up the note and slide it into his pocket casually.

Akash seemed content stealing glances at his fiancée to be. Payal seemed to be very interested in her feet and barely looked up. Manorama mami seemed in a hurry to leave.

Finally setting the next day for the Roka ceremony the Raizadas departed. Arnav lingered till he was the last to leave and as Khushi stepped out the door, he slipped right behind her.

Walking in tandem to the car, Khushi was barely aware of anything but him. The air around her seemed to scorch and she moved instinctively to put some space between them. She stopped at the fence while Arnav walked on.

Waving bye as the cars eased out, she kept her face impassive as she saw him mouth the words “You look nice”.

A deep color suffused her face as she walked inside.

Arnav helped his Di and Nani inside the house and took the steps two at a time till he was in the privacy of his room. He hesitated before he pulled out the crumpled note.

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Chapter 21: Match Fixing

The phone rang at Gomti Nivas in Lucknow. Garima wondered who was calling. Jiji usually called only if there was anything important to share. The girls will be at work. Shashi Babu worked in the stall adjacent to the house.

“Hello!” said Garima tentatively.

“Namaste Garima ji” a warm, cultured voice sounded at the other end.

“My name is Devayani Raizada. I am calling to speak to you about a rishta for your daughter Payal.”

Garima was caught unawares. She swallowed not knowing what to say next. Where was her husband when she needed his support.

“Namaste Nani ji. Rishta for Payal bitiya?”

Nani realized that Payal and Khushi had not said anything to their parents so she smiled and started from the beginning.

“Garima ji. I would like to ask the hand of your daughter Payal in marriage for my grandson Akash. Akash bitwa works with Arnav and is a quiet, sensible man. He likes Payal and asked me to ask her hand in marriage.”

Garima felt a mix of happiness and apprehension flood her being. The Raizadas were high society. From what little Khushi had mentioned of her time working with them, Akash ji’s mother Manorama ji seemed to be very class conscious. Would Payal be happy being her bahu?”

Questions swirled through Garima’s head as she realized Nani waited for her answer.

“Nani ji. We are honored to know you consider Payal bitiya worthy of being a Raizada bahu. Let me talk to my daughter and her father before proceeding further.”

Nani smiled. She was a stickler for protocol and felt happy at the way things were shaping up.

“Thank you Garima ji. We will wait to hear from you.”

Garima stood with the phone in her ear long after Nani ji had hung up. Was this for real?

“Payal’s dad, are you listening?” she asked watching her husband’s face light up at the news of a rishta from the Raizadas for Payal.

Shashi babu nodded his head. Tears filled his eyes and spoke volumes where his voice could not. He indicated that they should speak to Payal and then proceed.

Bua heard the phone ring. Washing her hands and turning the stove down, she walked to the living room to pick the phone. Who would call at this hour?

“Jiji. We have a ristha for Payal from the Raizadas.”

It took a lot to stun Madhumathi ji. Today was one such occasion that she stood spellbound, words refusing to emerge from her mouth.

Evening saw Payal and Khushi on the phone with their mom and plenty of tears and excited shrieks later, Garima called Nani ji to give the green light.

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“We will come home with the shagun next Friday” Nani ji said as Akash, Anjali and the rest of the Raizada family stood around her.

Arnav slipped back to his room in the happy melee that followed. Closing the door, he stood by the window. Khushi had been on the periphery of his thoughts before, intruding when he least expected it. The past year had given him plenty of opportunities to revisit his every interaction with her and he realized there was a long walk to redemption ahead. With the two families being bound by a relationship he could not put if off any longer. He held a single pearl in his hand. Shameful memories of a torn dori and pearls scattering to the floor flashed before his eyes.

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Khushi.

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Chapter 20: Cupid finds his mark

rishtapakka

“Jiji, if Akash ji asked you to marry him, would you say yes?”

Khushi looked at her sister as she asked this question. It was bedtime. Payal lay twirling her long tresses. Her eyes looked distant and she seemed lost in thought.

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Khushi’s question pierced her thoughts and she jerked her head up. Her eyes narrowed.

“Khushi! I thought we had agreed not to talk about that.”

“No jiji! I am just asking. What if he did? Would you agree?”

Payal looked at her suspiciously.

“Did anyone say anything when you went to the Raizada house today?”

Khushi shook her head, her eyes looking innocent and a smile threatening to burst out of her face.

“Actually Akash ji asked me today.”

For a moment Khushi did not believe what she heard. Her eyes widened.

“He did?? What did YOU say???”

Buaji peeked her head in hearing Khushi’s excited scream.

Managing to convince Bua nothing was the matter, Khushi dragged her sister outside.

“Say that again jiji. Akash ji asked you? What did you say?”

Payal remained silent.

Unable to tolerate the silence, Khushi held her hand.

“Jiji are you OK? You know you can tell me right? I will stand with you no matter what you decide.”

Payal looked at her sister and felt relieved she did not have to carry it inside her for much longer.

“I am OK Khushi. I was caught unawares. I mean I knew I liked him. I knew he liked me but marriage seems too much too soon. We hardly know each other.”

“I asked him what he knew of me. Of our family.”

“Was he sure his family would accept me? His mother?”

“Akash ji listened to everything silently. He held my hands in his and said just one thing.”

“He says he loves me. As is. With all of my past. He says he is sure he wants to spend the rest of his life with me. He says he will talk to his Dadi and his parents. He wanted me to answer his question.”

“Did I like him enough to marry him?”

“I don’t know Khushi. I am so confused. I told him I did like him. I did not know enough about him to say I will marry him. I asked him to talk to his family and if he was serious enough and if his family agreed, to talk to Bua and Amma and Babuji.”

Khushi listened with widening eyes. Wasn’t it just the day before that she and Anjali ji had talked about it? They were talking marriage already? She did not know whether to be excited or scared. Her jiji would move away?

“Jiji. I love you. You know that right? I think you did the right thing. Don’t worry too much. Everything will work out well. Do you plan to tell Amma/Babuji now or are you planning to wait?”

Khushi felt as confused and scared as her sister. It was one thing to tease her but to actually wait to hear from the Raizadas was nerve-racking. Should she call Anjali ji? Would it seem too forward of her?

Akash paced up and down in his room.

“What was taking Di so long to come? He needed to talk to her before he spoke to his Dadi and Ma.”

As if Di heard his thoughts, she opened his door and let herself in.

“So my bhai, did you talk to Payal ji? What did she say? Tell me she said yes. Please. Pretty please!”

Akash looked at his Di. Her earnestness at securing his happiness made him feel warm all over.

“I spoke to her Di. She said she liked me. She said she could not say yes to getting married till I spoke to our family and everybody were OK. She seemed to think I was rushing about getting married. She said if every body agreed to talk to her Bua and her parents.”

“I don’t know Di. Each time I talk to her, I feel convinced she is the best person for me. She balances me out. I can’t imagine living with any of the girls Ma keeps pestering me to get married to.

Akash looked at his Di, his eyes pleading “Please make this happen Di.”

Anjali felt like a woman on a mission. Her Akash would get his Payal. She would see to that. Chewing over what Akash had said, she asked him to keep it to himself till she had had a chance to talk to Chottey and Nani. She felt sure they would back Akash up. They would have to tackle Mami as a family.

Arnav looked at his phone. A cryptic text message blinked. “Meet me by the poolside”

Di never sent text messages. Least of all when they were both home. Wondering if it were a prank, he had half a mind to march up to her room and find out what she was up to. Whatever it was he would find out soon enough. He spied Di walking to the poolside. He got up, curiosity getting the better of him.

Di looked like child who had a secret that was threatening to burst out of her.

“What is it Di? I have never seen you this excited before.”

Anjali looked around to make sure no one was listening to them. Leaning in closer to Arnav, she whispered “Akash is in love.”

Arnav wasn’t sure if Di was joking. Why would she joke about something like this? Keeping his face serious, he held Di by her shoulders.

“Di, stop giggling and tell me what is the matter. Akash is in love with whom?”

“Payal ji.”

“Payal?”

“Haan. Khushi’s jiji. Remember Akash’s sudden affection towards the garage in Laxmi Nagar?”

A light bulb went off in Arnav’s head. Akash did seem to offer to get the vehicles serviced every so often. But Payal? He would have to talk to Akash.

“Did Akash talk to Payal? Is she open to getting married to him?” His tone was all businesslike.

“Yes. He did. She wants Akash to talk to us and if we all agree to ask her parents. She says she likes him but feels he is rushing to marriage too quickly.”

Arnav’s opinion of Payal went up a notch. At least she did not seem to be in a hurry. He stood in thought for a moment. Nani ji would approve. Mama ji would have no objections if this is what Akash wanted. Mami ji? She would throw a fit.

He knew how to get through to her. But first he needed to talk to Akash.

“Di, where is Akash now?”

“Give me a minute Chottey.” Di’s head was bent typing something on her phone.

Less than a minute later, Akash sauntered in to the poolside as if it was the most natural thing for all three of them to be huddled there.

Arnav looked at his cousin critically. He did look lost in thought.

“Akash, Di tells me you love Payal and want to marry her?”

“Yes Bhai. I really like her. It’s convincing mom that am scared about.”

“Just answer this. Are you really sure you want to marry her. Are you sure you will not regret your decision?”

Akash looked at Arnav wondering if he would have to walk on coals next to prove his love.

“Yes Bhai. I love her. I want to marry her. I am very sure about how I feel about her.”

Arnav nodded as if making a decision.

“Done deal. I will talk to your mom. Di will talk to Nani and Mama. We will have this wrapped up today.”

Akash looked at his brother not sure if he was discussing his future or a business deal. In any case, he was not complaining.

Arnav headed straight to Mami’s room and knocked. “Who is it?” sang Manorama mami as she walked up to the door. Opening, she blinked twice noticing Arnav at the door. It was not often he deigned to grace their quarter with his presence. Perhaps he decided to get married and was here to tell her that Akash’s path was clear? She was sure he brought good tidings.

“Arnav bitwa, come in please” she pulled him in with authority.

Arnav looked around. Mama seemed to have stepped out. He cleared his throat and came straight to the point.

“Mami ji, Akash wants to get married to Payal. Khushi’s sister. I am hoping you and Mama ji will agree. He is sure this is what he wants.”

Mami’s eyes grew round as saucers. She spluttered “What? My Akash bitwa? I have lined up girls from rich families and he wants to marry that Payal?”

“Never.” she thundered and paced up and down. “if he goes against my wish and marries her, either she will stay here or I will.”

She raged for a few minutes and turned to look at Arnav who had taken a seat and was waiting for her to be done. “You have my answer. You may leave.” she said and walked to open the door.

Arnav stepped in front of the door and said in a low firm tone.

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“Mami ji, this marriage will happen with or without your approval. If you accept and permit the marriage happen without incident, you have control over your son. You gain the upper hand. If you do not, your daughter in law will still be a bahu here and usurp your place. The choice is yours. You can choose to have the upper hand by dictating how the wedding happens and what powers Payal will have. The choice is yours. Think with your brain and not your heart.”

He kept his eyes level with her and watched her brows crease with consternation. Her brain appeared to be working over time. She seemed to weigh all the possibilities and finally said a simple “I agree to this marriage but nothing else.”

Arnav walked out a happy man.

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Chapter 16: Confessions

Akash reached the altar to find his sister eyes closed, head bent. She looked beautiful. Swallowing a lump in his throat, he closed his eyes and prayed fervently for his sister to find true love and companionship.

He opened his eyes to see his Di looking at him with interest.

“What were you praying so ardently for Akash? Does it have to do with a pretty girl who just left the temple?” She laughed as she teased him.

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“No Di.” Akash answered truthfully even as he felt his cheeks grow warm. Anjali watched her brother with interest.

“Shall we go?” Akash asked, ready to head out.

“Wait. Can we sit down for a few minutes? It’s Saturday. You have time for me right?” Anjali asked knowing Akash would sit with her and give her company.

They made their way towards the stairs that had come to mark many milestones in their life.

“Akash, I want to talk to you about Payal ji. I can see she affects you. Don’t think I don’t know about your occasional excursions to Laxmi Nagar garage.” She paused to see the effect on Akash’s face and continued.

“Have you spoken to Payal ji about your feelings for her? You need to tell her Akash.”

Akash weighed what his Di said and looking at her with new respect said “Di. I love her. I know I would like to marry her. I have not asked her yet but I think she likes me too. I keep thinking I should talk to her sometime but my tongue is tied when I am in her presence.”

Pausing a few seconds, Akash continued “I also worry about mom. She is class conscious. I know she will not accept Payal ji. I am ready to fight for Payal if she will accept me.”

Anjali looked at her besotted brother. She lay a hand on his arm. “Akash, you know I support you right? Nani will be thrilled. Chottey will handle your mom. He understands her the best I think. I also think Payal will make a lovely wife for you. Get your act together and find out what she feels before some one else claims her as his.”

With that, brother and sister left for home, their secret safe with them.

Khushi watched her sister put away her purchases and walk into their room as if her thoughts were far, far away.

“Interesting!” she thought. She followed Payal into the room and tapped her on her shoulders. Her sister came to her senses with a startle and tapped her smartly.

“What are you doing scaring me like that?”

Before Payal could say anything more. Khushi dragged her to the cot and sat her down. “Out with it missy! You eyes are faraway, you smile to yourself and you have been stocking the kitchen grocery in the hall closet.”

“Now out with it. Who is occupying your thoughts? Would they have to do with someone tall, lanky and with glasses?”

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Khushi laughed as color crept along her jiji’s cheeks.

“You think I don’t know Akash ji keeps haunting Happy ji’s garage is it? Do you guys even speak to each or is it all just eye-speak?”

Payal pushed her sister and got up.

“I think he likes me Khushi. I like him too. But it won’t work. They are the Raizadas for heaven’s sake. And from your descriptions of Manorama mami ji, I am sure she will look at me like I am vermin or something. It has taken me a year to get over Abishek. I don’t want to get my heart-broken again. So before you start teasing me again. This is the last time I want to hear of it.”

Khushi looked at her mild sister again, her eyes goggling. Jiji was in love. Akash ji would make a lovely jijaji.

Sighing happily, she ran after her sister. “Jiji wait!”

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Chapter 15: Forging new connections

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Khushi looked lazily at the clock. It was a quarter to seven. Saturday morning. She snuggled into her pillow savoring the luxury of lying in. It had been close to a year since she teamed up with Shukla ji. The first few months had been rough with Khushi having to oversee everything from buying grocery to planning and cooking for an entire office. Over time Payal took over the logistics and planning and Khushi had stuck to cooking. With revenue coming in steadily, she ventured enough to hire two other women from their colony to help her. Life had been good to them. She smiled at the thought of Lavanya. The ‘ji’ had long since gone. They were now friends. Very good friends.

From the time she had handed over the check, Lavanya had been an invisible steadying presence in Khushi’s life. The girls had turned to each other for unlikely support and understanding. Lavanya from the mindlessness of the circle she moved in and Khushi for respite from the responsibilities she had taken on her young shoulders.

Under Lavanya’s influence, Khushi’s bright wardrobe toned down. The gotas were replaced with embroidered chikaan suits. Her tightly combed back hair fell in wavy cascades behind her back. The waist length hair gave way to curls skimming her shoulder blades. Lavanya in turn imbibed her tendency to seek solace in the cool innards of the temple. She learnt to embrace channe and jalebis with equal abandon.

A smile still playing on her lips, Khushi turned to the sleeping form on her side. Jiji. She felt a rush of affection for her sister. Her uncomplaining woman friday. Someone who put up with her sanaks with nary a word. Jiji had changed too. She seemed to have shrugged off the stoicism of the past. Misgivings if any over her broken marriage seemed to have disappeared. In its place was a graceful, poised lady who turned heads where she went.

Even Buaji seemed to have mellowed. The events of the past year had her looking at her nieces with respect. She had convinced Garima and her brother Shashi that Delhi was good for the girls. Shashi Babu had recovered enough for him to be able to walk around. His speech was still slurred but he was back to getting his shop back in operation. Garima caught up with her girls over phone each night before bed and was amazed to see the change in them.

Buaji looked around the house and sighed in satisfaction. It was not every morning that she got to savor her morning chai in peace. Glasses perched on her head, she sat by the window and glanced at the headlines of the vernacular newspaper. A familiar picture caught her eye. She read with interest about the Raizada scion.

Arnav ji. He had been a part of their lives a year back. The Laad Governor Khushi kept muttering about. She wondered what had happened to his sister. Wasn’t her name Anjali? Images of Shyam flashed before her and she felt revulsion about the way she had been used. She put her paper down and went to wake the girls.

An hour later Payal and Khushi left their separate ways to get ready for the week’s catering needs. Payal decided on impulse to head to the temple before she hit the market. It had been a while since she had gone there. She had run into Akash occasionally and each meeting had left her with the feeling something was left unsaid. He was always the polite gentleman, listening to her speak and enquiring about Khushi, her parents and Bua.

Today the temple seemed empty. She made her way to the altar and stood in silence enjoying the peace that came over her. Hearing footsteps behind her, she opened her eyes and paid her respects to Devi Maiyya before being on her way. She was surprised to see Anjali ji behind her.

“How are you? It has been so long…” She let the sentence trail as she realized what she had been about to say. Anjali ji looked different from the last time she had seen her. Gone was the heavy jewelry and the expensive sarees. She looked sweet in a simple saree with minimal make up. The most remarkable change was in her demeanor. Her eyes sparkled and she seemed genuinely happy to see her.

“I am doing well. How are you? How is Khushi ji? I really miss meeting her.” Her voice sounded wistful. I wish I had seen her again after… She let the words unsaid knowing Payal understood what she meant.

Noticing they were blocking the way for other devotees straining for a glimpse of the deity, they moved away to the steps.

“So, tell me Payal ji, how are everyone?” Anjali asked, her fingers reaching to touch Payal’s wrist.

“All are fine. We think of you often. Khushi kept going over what had happened and wondering if there was anything she had done or said that had caused Shyam ji to act the way he did. She never forgave herself…”

Payal looked at Anjali with sadness.

“Please tell Khushi ji I would like to meet her. She is/has never been to blame. What happened was not her fault or mine.”

“I know it has been a year since we met under unfortunate circumstances but I would love to meet Khushi ji. Would you please tell her? Here is my number.”

Payal took the number from her and said she would have Khushi call her.

Giving a grateful smile, Anjali left to visit the Goddess while Payal walked down. Akash watched her walk down not noticing anyone around. He was half tempted to call out to her but realized Di would be looking for him. A smile brightened up his face as he quickly caught up with his sister.

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Chapter 14: Lost in thought

Arnav sat in his room, laptop open in front. His eyes were looking at the pool. His thoughts rushed between the past and the present. Di was devastated. She was holding up for the sake of the others. Her eyes looked haunted. Watching his sister suffer made him helpless. He had done everything to ensure that legally Di would never have to deal with Shyam again. He would be behind bars for a couple of years for forgery and embezzlement. But beyond that, there was nothing he could do.

Perhaps he could send Di to Lucknow for a couple of months. The change in scenery would do her good. The purani haveli he had bought as a relic of their growing up years lay neglected. Getting it renovated and set up as a vacation home could keep Di’s mind off everything that had happened. He would have to run it past Nani and Di.

His thoughts turned to the vision in yellow he had gazed at for a long time yesterday. He had filed away what Akash had shared to process another day. It came back in pieces. That fateful day at Sheesh Mahal. Why did he react so much to her? Why did she get under his skin? Did he see something of the person he could have been in her? Why did he have the mad impulse to break her? To see her defeated? Yet, as she emerged smiling after each challenge he threw at her, why did it make him happy? Why did her tears move him so much? He paced the poolside unable to make sense of this loss of control. He needed to get out of the house. Grabbing his keys, he went for a drive. Focusing his energies on driving, he worked away his restlessness with every mile his car devoured.

Akash sat at his desk at work. His mom was increasingly hinting at him getting married. He closed his eyes and lay back. A serene face appeared in front. Payal ji. She was like him, simple, un-demanding. There was music in the way she uttered his name. He could imagine her making a home with him. Akash opened his eyes with a start. What was he thinking? He needed to talk to Payal ji to find out what she felt about him. He would have to deal with his mom later.

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Khushi was back home still trying to come to terms with Lavanya ji’s generosity. She lay on jiji’s lap taking in her calming presence. Jiji always knew what to say.

Payal ran her fingers through Khushi’s thick hair soothing away her misgivings. Khushi would do well. She always did. Seeing Khushi fight odds time and again imbibed Payal with a need to do something about the household income. She had asked around and started tuition classes for the neighboring kids. It kept her busy and made her feel good about adding to the family coffers.

The afternoon breeze wafted in through the windows. Pleasant thoughts of a certain tall gentleman in glasses intruded in her thoughts. Would she run into him on her way to the temple in the evening? He certainly seemed to be in the area a lot these days. Shaking away her thoughts, she looked at her sister’s face. It seemed troubled.

Khushi’s thoughts meandered to Anjali ji and the Raizada family. How were they dealing with the aftermath of Shyam ji’s deception? Perhaps she should meet with Anjali ji some time. What would she say? What if she ran into Laad Governor? Did she not promise to not see or talk to him again?

Why then did her heart race uncomfortably at his thought? Why did she feel kinship with him? Why did she feel the need to reach out and soothe his troubled soul so much? She remembered his eyes staring at her the day she walked home after meeting with Shukla ji. What was it that she felt? Hatred? Compassion? Attraction?

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