Beyond words

When eyes and souls connect

Epilogue

kangans

Khushi sat in her bridal bed resplendent in red. Her coy smile reached her eyes as she looked up to see her husband close the door behind him as he entered. The past few weeks had been the happiest in her life. She had been married to her Rajkumar who literally swept her feet by his proposal and later by his participation in all the traditions with an involvement that put his Di to shame.

Arnav looked at his bride. She looked beautiful and fresh waiting for him. She was his finally. He felt content and satisfied. The past couple of weeks had been the happiest in his life. Seeing the joy on his Khushi’s face as he gave in and surrendered to the happiness that pervaded his life. The rituals had been fun. Even more fun was sneaking his fiancee away for quick moments of privacy. He enjoyed teasing her, watching her color rise and give in to his love.

His soul finally had found its mooring point. In hers. Together they would weather the storms of their life. He had finally found the one person who could wordlessly wipe out the deepest fears of his heart. There was just one thing left.

He walked across the room and reached out for a small box. He sat next to his wife and turned her face to his. He put the box by his side and cupped her face with his hands. Kissing her forehead he said,

“Khushi, I have something for you.”

He extended the box.

Khushi reached for it with trepidation. He had already showered too many gifts on her. She felt overwhelmed. The box looked like a heirloom. Her fingers trembled as they opened it. Inside were two beautiful gold kangans and a little note. She looked at Arnav’s face. His eyes looked far away like he was remembering something.

She touched the kangans reverentially and opened the note.

“To the girl who will be my Chottey’s bride,

I know I will be putting these kangans on you, but I want to let you in on a secret that is why this letter. Keep this in mind and be careful, my Chotey has anger permanently on his nose, but his heart filled with love… lots of love. Bear his anger, and return his love with interest… “

She couldn’t finish reading the note as tears welled up in her eyes. She put it down and reached for her husband. They held each other for a long time. Arnav finally moved away and reached for the kangans and took Khushi’s hand in his. He slipped them on her slender wrists with love.

“They are finally where the belong” he sighed.

“Amma will be very happy.”

Khushi felt a deep sense of belonging and peace. The two of them looked out the window in time to see a shooting star flash past the night sky.

And they lived happily ever after.

The End.

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Chapter 42: Will you marry me?

arnavkhushidance

Khushi woke up mumbling Arnav’s name and opening her eyes realized she was home and Payal was asleep next to her. She had a goofy smile plastered on her face as she made her way to the bathroom.

“Payaliya” cajoled Buaji as she woke the sleeping bride to be. “It is your Mehndi and Sangeet today bitiya. Wake up”.

Payal woke, thoughts of Akash ji still fresh in her mind. She smiled and hugged Buaji.

The morning bustled with activity as Lehengas and accessories were set out. Lavanya arrived bright and early to help with make up. Shashi watched his daughters get ready with happiness. Everything was as it should be.

Khushi fingered the silky material of her Jiji’s skirt. She would miss all the rituals. A pang went through her heart. A voice piped up in her head.

“You don’t really have to miss it you know? Participate in your sister’s rituals as your own. Nobody is the wiser.”

She grinned as she hugged her secret to herself. Worry niggled at the back of her brain. It was one thing to promise Arnav ji to get married secretly. How would her parents and Nani and Di react. They would be heartbroken.

Khushi see-sawed between extremes. She would write a long note explaining why she was doing what she was doing. Surely they would understand?

Payal watched her sister with amusement. The usually klutzy girl was even worse today.

“Khushi, look at your face. You look like a ghost. Enough of the powder.”

Khushi looked at herself in horror and shrieked as she ran to wash it all away.

Laughing and teasing the family got ready to leave for the Raizadas where the ceremony was to be held.

The Raizadas waited for the Gupta family with equal enthusiasm. Akash looked splendid in his cream kurta and Arnav stuck to his usual suit. Anjali had opted to wear silk as did Mami. NK had outdone himself in a blue sherwani.

Nani looked at the joy and happiness in their faces and she hoped Anjali would love again. Anjali held Anya’s hand as she posed for pictures. NK had taken over Anjali’s camera and was going to town taking pictures.

Aman had kept his word dropping Anya off and having a word with Anjali about her food and other needs. Anjali found her heart skip a beat at the sight of him with Anya. The love for his child set him apart in her mind. Very few men she had seen made such dedicated fathers.

Arnav looked impatiently at his watch. What was taking them so long?

The door opened to the Gupta family and Anjali took aarthi before they stepped in. Payal looked lovely in her saree and Khushi stunned in her yellow lehenga.

Arnav felt his breath catch at the sight of her. Her eyes searched for him and they met across the hallway. Sparks flew and everyone around them felt the tension in the air. Coughing rather loudly, Anjali lead Payal to the room they had decorated for Mehendi and Nani shooed the men away.

The ladies looked at the books and picked out patterns. When Payal’s was almost done, the lady applying the pattern asked her what letter she wanted in her hand. Payal blushed as she said “A.. Akash ji”.

Di’s heart swelled with happiness at seeing how beautiful Payal looked as she said Akash’s name. Khushi debated how to get Arnav’s name on hers without drawing attention. As if on cue, even as the lady asked her what letter to write on her hand, her cell phone buzzed.

“Arnav ji?” she said aloud as she saw the number.

Using her free hand to pick up the call, she said hello.

“Meet me by the poolside when you are done.” said a cryptic Arnav.

Switching the phone off, she looked at her hand and saw a neat “A” in cursive at the center of her pattern. Devi Maiyya had willed it. She was sure.

A smile broke out on her face as she hugged her secret even more tightly to herself. When her hands were done, she slipped out to the poolside and saw no one. She sat down looking at her reflection in the pool when she spied another join her. Looking up, she saw Arnav ji looking at her with so much love that she felt flustered.

He helped her up and asked to see her hands. She hid her hands behind her back teasing him that he was not to see it before they got married. He smirked and whispered rather loudly in her ear.

“After Payal’s wedding. Remember.”

Her heart thudded as she realized what she had signed up to doing. The smile gave way to a serious look and she looked up at Arnav ji’s face. He seemed serious.

Even as she made to walk away from the pool Arnav grabbed her to place a kiss on her cheeks before he let her go. He couldn’t wait for the evening.

Khushi walked away feeling flustered and upset. What was he thinking? What if anyone had seen? Why did he not understand how she felt about getting married in secret. She had given her word and she would keep it. The joy of the morning was evaporating and in its place a dread and unease seized her. She looked at her mehendi to reassure her that it was meant to be.

Anjali watched as Khushi walked back indoors. She looked upset.

“Khushi ji, Are you OK? You look upset.”

Khushi looked up at Di concern writ large on her face.

“Am OK Di. I just realized Payal will soon be leaving our home.”

Anjali smiled knowing it was only a matter of time before Khushi would be a bahu in their home too.

“Show me your mehendi” she said hoping to take Khushi’s mind off whatever was bothering her.

Khushi had not counted on anyone asking to see her mehendi. She fidgeted. Anjali took her hands in hers.

“A??”

“Khushi ji. You have “A” in your hand.” she exclaimed.

Khushi looked nervous and tried to explain how it had happened and that it was a mistake. Arnav stood by the stairs enjoying her discomfiture and winking at her when she turned to him for support.

“That’s OK Khushi ji, am sure it was a mistake. Who knows? perhaps your husband to be’s name starts with an “A”” she teased.

Khushi blushed and wished she could disappear.

The rituals of the morning gave way to family time at the tea-table. NK and Lavanya exchanged looks and jibes. Nani was sure Lavanya was well on her way to being a bahu even if not as Chottey’s bride. Life was good!

Washing off the Mehendi, the women changed into their evening wear and got ready for the Sangeet.  Arnav had arranged for performers from outside as their original plan of getting things choreographed had been nixed by Dadi’s untimely demise.

The music started and everyone got up to join in and shake a leg. Khushi was determined to have a good time and pushed thoughts of her elopement to the back of her mind. She decided if the next few days were the last time her family would be nice to her, she would make the most of it.

Arnav watched his girl give in to the music and twirl. He had eyes for no one. Di came to stand next to him and watched his face transfixed. Her chottey was besotted. She felt tears prick her eyes.

Aman had arrived to pick Anya up before her bedtime and thanked Anjali for being so good to his daughter. Anya hugged Anjali and kissed her without being asked to. Anjali felt sad as she watched the little girl go. She had started feeling attached to her. Nani watched Anjali follow Aman and Anya with her eyes and made a mental note to find out more about them.

Lavanya and NK grooved to the music till it felt like there was no one on the dance floor with them. Akash and Payal retired to a semi private corner to spend time before the haldi ceremony. They whispered sweet nothings to each other and quite forgot the rest of the world around them.

The lights dimmed and everyone looked at the makeshift stage as the dancers took their place. The next hour sped past listening and dancing along to popular numbers. Khushi danced so much that she felt her legs would fall off if she did not sit. She found a seat by the dais and watched her Jiji and Akash ji dance lost in each other’s eyes. NK and Lavanya had found seats and were whispering to each other. She would have to talk to Lavanya. She belatedly remembered it would not just be her family and Arnav’s family that would disown her for what she was about to do. Lavanya would never forgive her either.

She felt a despondency settle on her. As if mirroring her mood, the lights dimmed again and a voice rang out from the stage.

“As we come to the end of the performance we have a special dance. This one is dedicated to the sister of the bride Khushi ji.”

Whistles and hoots sounded with the announcement as she looked up. Her eyes popped out at what she saw. Her mouth made an O and she half rose in amazement.

Arnav stood on the dais with a bunch of dancers singing along and mouthing the words “Mujse Shaadi Karoge?” His eyes were fixed on Khushi as he danced.

Khushi looked disbelievingly as he danced with gay abandon. For him to pull a Salman Khan number on her was so not him. She rubbed her eyes as she watched and as the music slowed, he bent down on one knee and indicated for her to join him on stage.

Arnav realized what had happened was still sinking in so he got of the stage and pulled Khushi with him. Onstage, in the presence of both their families, he went down on one knee and in a clear, steady voice asked for all to hear.

proposal

“Khushi, will you marry me?”

Khushi felt as if she would burst. Her eyes shone and she nodded and with fierce burst of love said “Yes Arnav ji” as she lip synced

“Haan. Thujse Shaadi Karoongi.”

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Chapter 41: Mending hearts, building bridges

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Payal and Di heard a crash and came rushing out to find Khushi in a heap in the landing. Payal reached her first and cradled her. Anjali fetched water and they sprinkled some on her face. Khushi opened her eyes and remembered what had happened. Her eyes floated up to the picture above her and shock and grief assailed her. How was she going to live with this secret. She had known that Arnav ji and Anjali ji’s parents had died under tragic circumstances, but that her mom life was intricately tied to theirs was unfathomable.

Payal looked at her sister concern welling in her eyes.

“Khushi, are you OK? Can you sit up?”

“Jiji.” Khushi said weakly struggling to raise herself up. Payal helped her to lean against the wall. Khushi sipped on some water that Anjali Di had brought. She felt color creep into her pallid face.

“I had forgotten to eat lunch and must have fainted” she lied weakly.

Anjali asked Hari Prakash to set out some food and the two of them escorted Khushi to the table. Nibbling on her food, Khushi tried to quell the rising feeling of panic and unease in her. How would Arnav ji react to this? She had to tell him.

After resting awhile, Payal and Khushi were on their way. Khushi wondered if she should let Payal in on the secret and then decided against it. Her Jiji deserved the happiness she had now. This was something that was best left buried.

The day broke to find Arnav curled up in a ball on the floor. He woke up to pain in his back and stiff joints from the cold floor. The photo lay on the floor beside him. He picked it up, put it back in the diary and packed all his things. He needed a hot shower and some food before he could think.

Sitting in the cab back to the airport, he looked at the world around him with new eyes. How fitting was it that what had started in Lucknow ended there. He would have to share it with his Di. She needed closure as much as he did. Having walked in the same shoes as their mom she knew what it was to live with a man who hankered after another woman. Perhaps she would find it in her heart to let go of the pain they had carried for too long.

They would have to face Garima aunty. He would think about it another day. Perhaps some things were best left as secrets?

Khushi. His Khushi.

The past day had broken some of the carefully erected walls in his psyche. He had spent a good part of his life being bitter and resentful against marriage. Reading his father’s diary had given him a glimpse into his father’s life. Perhaps not everything was black or white. Perhaps his father had never loved their mother. There were questions for which there were no answers.

He had been lucky to find love. To find that one person who felt like home to him. Being in her presence made him feel grounded and secure. He would be a fool to let her go.

As the flight took off, he saw clouds with a silver lining. A warmth filled the space in his heart he had kept closed for too long. He smiled without being aware of it.

Reaching home, he sought out his Di. Brother and sister held each other as they tried to rebuild their lives from the ashes around them. Anjali looked at her brother. He looked different. As if by shaking off the past he was learning to live again. Perhaps he would find love.

Arnav sat by the poolside, the water reflecting the night sky. Instinctively he looked up searching for the brightest stars.

“I need your blessings mama” he whispered.

He felt a deep sense of peace pervade him and knew what to do.

Khushi sat by the front porch of her house, her fingers played with the glass bangles she had taken to wearing everyday. Their presence seemed to be tangible reminder of the person who had gifted them to her. Looking up the night sky, she found what she was looking for and whispered “Give me strength Amma. I am going to talk to Arnav ji.”

The day broke and Khushi and Payal left for work. Buaji, Garima and Shashi Babu sat in the living room tallying expenses and making sure everything was ready for the Mehndi and Sangeet the following day. A knock sounded on their door. Garima opened it to find Arnav standing in front of her. He removed his glasses and his eyes lingered on her and an unreadable expression came over his face.

Garima welcomed him inside and Buaji and Shashi ji made space for him to be seated comfortably. He looked at the three of them not knowing where to begin.

“Aunty, I would like to have a word with you alone before I talk to all of you.”

Garima looked at him quizzically. She turned to her husband who nodded imperceptibly. Buaji was not sure what was happening.

“Bitwa you can talk to Garima in Khushi’s room.”

Garima walked into the room and Arnav followed. He closed the door behind him and faced Garima. He walked close to her and held her hands in his.

“Aunty ji, will you bless me?”

Garima nodded not sure what he was talking about.

Arnav wordlessly removed the picture of his dad and Garima and held it out to her. He watched as her face turned pale and she looked unsteady. He held her elbow as she steadied herself and spoke in an even tone.

“Aunty, I did not mean to bring this here to intrude. When Dadi passed away, she gave me the key to my dad’s locker. I found this picture and a diary he had left behind.”

He hesitated before he continued.

“I am sorry for whatever happened. I know I cannot undo the past but I realize now that you were as much a victim as my mom. I hope you find closure in the fact that the family and children you tried to protect are doing well. We have suffered a lot in the last fourteen years but Di and I are looking forward to moving on.”

Garima looked at Arnav’s troubled eyes. Her eyes filled with tears as she reached to touch his head.

“I am sorry Bitwa. I did not know your dad was married. I would have never…”

She choked as she tried to explain what had happened. Arnav reached out to comfort her and ended up being comforted. Wiping away tears, the two of them returned to the living room.

Aunty, Uncle, Buaji, there is something I wanted to talk with you. Garima looked at him wondering what else he wanted to talk about.

Looking directly at Shashi Babu he said.

“Uncle, I would like to ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage.”

Shashi looked at the man in front of him and felt happiness overcome him. Struggling to speak he nodded his acceptance.

Arnav continued “I will ask Nani and Di to come with the Shagun soon but I have a request. Please do not tell Khushi I asked you for her hand yet.”

Khushi had a rough morning. She had trouble concentrating on the food and kept mixing up numbers. What she needed was a good session of making Jalebis. But before that she had to talk to Arnav ji. The photo was burning a hole in her conscience. She would tell him and accept whatever he decided. The trouble was where was she to find him?

Arnav’s phone buzzed even as he finished talking to Di and Nani about his visit to Khushi’s home. Nani couldn’t quell the happiness that threatened to balloon inside her. Di promised she would hold the secret all to herself but she couldn’t help smiling. Her chottey was in love. And he wanted to get married. She hugged her brother for the umpteenth time since that morning.

Wriggling out of his sisters hug, Arnav reached for his phone. A smile reached his eyes and he walked to the poolside to call her back.

“Arnav ji. I need to talk to you.”

Khushi sounded breathless.

“Are you OK Khushi. You sound nervous.”

“Can you meet me at the temple?”

“Sure. I will see you there in half hour.”

There was much he had to do before he could meet her.

Khushi sat fidgeting with her dupatta as she awaited Arnav ji. Arnav walked in and watched her from a distance before he walked up. Sitting next to her, he bent over and nuzzled her cheek.

“I’ve missed you Khushi.”

Khushi looked up in consternation. The closeness was unsettling. Moving a bit to put some space between them, she looked up at him, her face giving away the confusion within.

“Arnav ji. There is something important I need to share with you.”

She paused not knowing how to start saying what she needed to say. Closing her eyes as if she needed the strength it gave her she began.

“I found a photo in my mother’s box. Your father loved her Arnav ji. She loved him too but she did not know he was married.”

She looked at Arnav expecting the lines on his face to harden. For him to walk away.

He sat there. Resolute and unmoving. His eyes held a tenderness that baffled her.

“Khushi. I know that.”

He knew that? How? When?

“I was in Lucknow yesterday to bring my father’s belongings back home and I found the same picture. I also found a diary.”

He paused swallowing hard. Images from the previous day swum before him. He held back nothing.

Khushi reached out and held his hand as the two of them tried to make sense of what had happened and how their lives were intricately linked.

She felt a burden lift from her chest. Arnav ji knew. He was OK. He still loved her. She kept touching him to make sure this was real. He was real. They were real.

Arnav looked at Khushi with affection in his eyes. Reaching out for her hand, he held it under his.

“Khushi. Promise you will never leave me.”

Khushi looked at him, her love for him all-encompassing.

“I promise. We will be together. Always.”

As they walked down the steps, Khushi belatedly remembered the other thing she had wanted to talk to him about. She stopped mid step.

“Arnav ji. I was thinking about your question the other day. The answer is yes. I will elope with you.”

She said it with so much naiveté that Arnav melted all over again.

“Let’s go to the car” he ordered gruffly as he pulled her with him.

Once in the car, he pulled her in for a hug and looked into her eyes and a twinkle came into them.

“You never cease to amaze me Khushi Kumari Gupta. Be prepared. After Payal’s wedding. Be ready to walk out with the clothes on your back.”

Khushi nodded remembering what she had promised.

“I have one condition though Arnav ji. Even if we run away and get married, I want to get married the right way. With pheres, sindoor and mangalsutra. With a priest officiating the marriage.”

Arnav looked at his girl with amazement. He was a lucky man.

“I promise Khushi.”

With that, he threw reserve to the winds and bent down to claim his woman.

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Chapter 40: Truth and nothing but the truth

Arnav slid his aviators back on dropping Khushi at her kitchen. His eyes mirrored the torment he felt within. Why was every meeting with Khushi fraught with so much emotion? Why did the sadness in her eye permeate his soul and make him feel so little? Why did his idea which had seemed so good in isolation feel so wrong when he voiced it?

Walking into his home before his flight to Lucknow, he heard voices from Nani’s room. He paused as he heard Khushi’s name bandied about. Edging closer to hear, he spied Payal, Di, Mami and Nani sitting with an array of jewels and wedding related paraphernalia around them.

“Khushi would have loved to see all this” Payal said wistfully.

“She was the one who had grand dreams about a Rajkumar sweeping her off her feet. She always dreamt king size. And her wedding. Oh! her wedding. She used to want a big wedding with lots of food and lots of people. Between the two of us, she is the one who took enjoys the color and tradition of our rituals. She says it makes her feel connected to the generations ahead of us who stepped into married life following these very same customs.”

Payal stopped realizing she had been rambling on. Nani held her elbow.

“Payal bitiya. Khushi always has a special place in our lives. I knew the first time I saw her that she was somebody special. Where can you find such a combination of deference for our tradition and grace in someone so young?”

“Who knows? Perhaps we can find a rishta for her at your wedding. Somebody to sweep her off her feet?”

Nani smiled thinking of Khushi finding her soul mate.

Arnav felt a fresh pain at what he had asked of Khushi. It wouldn’t kill him to go through the rituals would it? Specially now that he knew how much it meant to her.

Khushi found three missed calls on her cell phone from Payal. Wondering what was the matter, she called her back.

“Jiji, Is everything OK? I saw three missed calls.”

“Khushi. Where were you? Anjali Di wanted us to stop by so she could show us all the wedding jewelry and sarees. I tried calling you and eventually came by myself. It was so much fun. You would have loved everything. I will be here another hour. Do you want to come here and we can go home together?”

“Haan Jiji. I have some banking to do and will meet you there in an hour. We can get chaat before we go home.”

Arnav reached Lucknow with just enough time to open the locker before the bank closed for the day. Retiring to the room he had booked for the night, he opened the chest. He felt a strange sensation going over his father’s personal effects. His father had been a remote man.

A camera lay with a bunch of pictures. Di would love it Arnav thought as he put it away. At the very bottom lay an old diary. He carefully picked it up and thumbed through the yellowing pages. He would have to read that the last. He next opened the envelope. In it lay property papers and other bank statements. Setting it aside, he turned his attention to the diary. It surprised him that his dad had maintained one.

The entries were verbose for a man of such few words. Arnav read it engrossed. It painted a picture of a man with a song in his soul. A poet who was trapped in a business man. A father who could not connect with his wife or children. The references to his mom, Di or him were rare and when referenced was in relation to other events. As he neared the end of the diary, it felt like his father had found a muse. A woman he had pined after.

Arnav felt the familiar anger stir. This was the woman who had torn his family apart. He read on eager to find who it was. The entries got cryptic as the days passed. It was clear his father was besotted. The final entry read.

“Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.” – Kahlil Gibran”

“She found out today that I have a family. She refuses to have me. I cannot live without her.”

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Arnav gasped.

“She refuses to have me.”

All these years, he had channeled his hate towards this unknown woman who had stolen his mother’s marriage and life. All for naught?

Was his father caught in a loveless marriage? Was he a coward who had deceived his wife and an innocent woman?

Arnav felt the room swim before him. All the years of bitterness and hate crumbled and he sobbed. Sobbed for the years lost. He sat motionless for what seemed a very long time. Images of his mother haunted him. He stood up slowly and the diary fell from him. A photo fluttered out. He bent down to pick it up.

His father and Garima aunty. He felt the floor give way under him and sank to the floor. He sat there for hours till it was dark outside.

He felt shaken and years older. Everything he had known about his life had been a lie. Channeling his hate against an unknown woman had sustained him for well over fourteen years now. Putting a face to that target shocked him for he now knew that she was as much a victim as his mom.

The phone rang for what seemed eternity till voicemail took over. He laid down on the cold floor letting the exhaustion take over.

Khushi rang the bell at the Raizada Mansion. Hari Prakash opened the door and told her that Payal ji was in Anjali ji’s room.

Walking up, she glanced at the photos that lined the stairs as she always did. Her eyes lingering on each this time with the new-found knowledge that someday she would be a bahu here. Didn’t Arnav ji say he was ready to get married to her even if it meant running away with him? The anger and the sadness of the morning had given way to pragmatism. All her life she had dreamed of a loud wedding. Lots of colors and people and food. But dreams do not always come true do they? The man she had come to love, loved her back. He wanted to marry her. So what if it was unconventional? She would meet him half way. She would tell him that she would get married in secret but following tradition. They would take the pheres together and he would apply sindoor to her and tie the mangalsutra.

She stopped at the picture of Arnav ji’s parents, smiling as she did. Her smile froze when her eyes stopped on Arnav ji’s dad. She recollected the picture she had questioned her Amma about. Arnav ji’s dad had been the man in her Amma’s past?

khushidisturbed

Her head swum at the thought. She felt the stairs give way and collapsed in a heap.

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Chapter 39: Indecent proposal

Dadi’s passing away had put a damper on the celebrations in the Raizada household. Mami used the occasion to press to postpone the wedding as well. Nani stood her ground and the wedding was scheduled to take place as decided earlier.

Arnav threw himself into work to make up for the lost time and found himself thinking of Khushi late at night when solitude was his company. Pacing the patio surrounding the pool, his thoughts went back to what Khushi had said on their way back from his mother’s garden.

“Where is this headed? Where are we headed?”

For him it was simple. He loved her. She loved him. There was no need for social sanction for him to be able to claim her as his.

“We come from different worlds…”

They did. She believed in social sanction for him to be claim her as his.

His thoughts meandered to Di and Nani. They had accepted Lavanya at his insistence. They would be happy to accept Khushi as part of the family.

The thought of marriage brought back memories of Di’s first wedding and the the gunshot that had changed his life. Could he sit through the rituals? Perhaps he should elope with Khushi and get married? She would get the social sanction she craved and he would be happy to skip the elements that made marriage anathema to him.

Walking back into the room, he reached out for his phone and noticed Dadi’s letter under it. He would have to find out what the locker contained. He emailed Aman to get that sorted.

Khushi stared at the moon. She felt irritation creep up on her. She had missed Arnav ji. Missed him so much that she contemplated calling him at Lucknow or texting him. Something in her waited for him to reach out. And he had not.

She glanced at her phone willing it to buzz.

Garima walked into her daughters room and saw her standing by the window. Her flawless face looked worried. Standing beside her, she looked at the moon with her daughter and asked “Khushi Bitiya, are you looking at your parents?”

Khushi recovered with a start and hugged her mom.

“No Amma. I was just thinking.”

She looked around. The rest of the family sat in the living room watching TV.

“Amma, there is something I want to ask you.”

Garima nodded. “Tell me bitiya”

Khushi brought the photo she had in her almirah. Handing it to her mom, she watched her face.

Garima’s face turned pale and she held on to the window for support. She stood silent for the longest time. Then she turned, closed the door behind her and walked Khushi to the bed and motioned her to sit down.

“Bitiya where did you find it?”

Khushi bit her lip as she answered “Amma remember the day you asked me to take Payal’s kangans out? I took that box and the box beneath it fell. A bunch of photos fell out and this was one of those. I kept it aside since I wanted to ask you about it.”

She looked at her mom expectantly.

Garima drew a deep breath before she sat down and held Khushi’s hands.

“Bitiya, I had never imagined I would need to open up the past again. You are old enough to know now especially after what happened with Shyam.”

“I was 18 yrs old when I met Mr. Malik. My father worked for him. I went to their home to give something to my father and met him in passing. Over time, I found him come to our home time and again. He confessed to being in love with me.”

“Bitiya, I was 18 and naive. I was in love with him too. He wanted to marry me. I spoke to my father and found out he was married with two children. I was heartbroken. The next time he met me, I told him never to see me again. The next thing I heard was that he and his wife had both committed suicide. I could not live with myself. I repented for having ever met him.”

“When I met your dad, I told him what had happened. He said my past was my past and it would not affect my future. With you two in my life I have never let myself revisit that part of my life till you showed me this picture today.”

Tears fell steadily from Garima’s eyes.

Khushi watched her mom and silently wiped away her tears. She held her face with both hands and gently kissed her forehead.

“Amma I am sorry I reminded you of it again. Will you forgive me?”

Garima hugged her daughter tight and whispered prayers of gratitude to Devi Maiyya.

The day broke and even as Khushi got ready to head out the door when she found another hand covering hers as she opened the door. Surprised she looked up and into those brown eyes she had dreamed of each night.

Hastily pulling her hand from under his, she stuttered a “Please come in” and made way for him to step inside. He made himself comfortable on the sofa and addressed Garima who had come into the living room hearing the sounds.

“Aunty ji, I just came to drop off the wedding invites.”

He held out a bundle of deep maroon cards. Garima graciously took them from him and asked if he would have tea.

Arnav politely refused and added as an afterthought “I am leaving to Lucknow today for half a day. If you need anything from there, let me know and I can get it for you. Khushi has my number”

“I will take leave now. See you all at our home soon for the Mehndi and Sangeet.”

Khushi made to leave as he did and he looked at her with a gleam in his eye.

“Khushi if you are leaving I can drop you where you need to go.”

Khushi looked askance at her mother who nodded encouragingly. Walking behind him, she felt her nerves on edge. This would be the first time there were together after they had admitted their feelings. She still did not know where this was headed.

Getting in the car, she struggled with the seat belt  Arnav reached over with the practiced ease of a man who did this all the time and snapped it in. Feeling his weight on her and the smell of his aftershave did funny things to her. This was not turning out to be a good idea. Focusing her eyes on the road, she sat silent.

Arnav slid his aviators on and eased out of their street. Halfway to where she needed to be, she felt the car slow down and Arnav turned into a parking lot.

“Where were they?”

Arnav was out of the car before she could take in their surroundings and opening her side of the car door.

“Arnav ji where are we? I need to be at the kitchen or Sarita ji will panic.”

He walked his hand on her elbow making her keep pace with him.

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They walked inside the building and soon were seated at a cozy booth in what seemed a very upscale coffee place.

Khushi fidgeted with her purse snapping it shut and opening it.

Arnav covered her hands with his.

“Stop it.”

“Khushi you look beautiful when you are nervous. And angry.”

He looked at her in the eyes as he said that.

“Arnav ji, what are you doing? I should really be going.”

She looked petulant.

“Khushi listen. I thought about you, about us a lot when I was gone.”

Khushi’s sat up, her nervousness giving way to anxiety.

He extended a box to her.

She looked at it and at him. His eyes danced with mischief.

“Go on. Open it.”

She opened the box to find beautiful red glass bangles and a smaller box within. Opening that box, she found a simple pearl necklace. Her eyes welled over.

“Khushi, I wanted to get you something that will remind you of me. Even when I am not around. Do you like them?”

Khushi nodded. She looked at the man sitting across from her. This was a man who shied away from anything sentimental. Somebody who found human emotions to be a weakness

“Arnav ji. I missed you a lot too. I wanted to call you. Each time I picked up the phone to call you, something in me hesitated. I should have called. I am sorry.”

He held her hands and kissed each finger.

“You should have you know” he murmured. “I would have come sooner.”

Squinting his eyes, he kept his voice level as he asked “Khushi, will you run away with me?”

Khushi’s eyes widened and she pulled her hands away from him.

“What?” She was not sure she heard him right.

“I mean it Khushi. I love you. I can’t imagine a life without you. I don’t care about tradition. I have too much emotional baggage when it comes to the institution of marriage. I know it means a lot to you. If to have you by my side, we should get married, I am ready to do that but can’t we just elope and get married. Just the two of us?”

Khushi felt tears prick at her eyes again. She shook her head sadly. Arnav ji had come a long way from being against marriage to wanting to get married. But could she walk away from everything she had wanted? Risk being disowned by her parents and her family?

His eyes plead with hers.

“Arnav ji, this is all too sudden. Can we take some time to think about it and not rush into anything we will regret later?”

Arnav nodded knowing he had put Khushi on the spot. He stood up and came to her side to help her up and watched as she slid the bangles on her wrists and touched them lovingly.

“Thank you Arnav ji. I love glass bangles.”

With that they left the place. Khushi felt a sadness in her heart that weighed her down. Arnav wished he could take back what he said.

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Chapter 37: Heart to heart

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Aman knocked on the door to the Raizada Mansion. Hari Prakash opened the door and had him seated in the study. Anjali sat in her room on the phone with the choreographer picking songs for the Sangeet. Hearing the door bell ring, she walked out to see a vaguely familiar gentleman being seated in the study by Hari Prakash.

As she walked down, she remembered. “Aman. Chottey’s man Friday. He was here with his little girl Anya for the roka ceremony.”

Smiling she welcomed him and asked if she could help him. Aman held out a file marked Lucknow and said ASR had asked for it to be delivered home.

“Is he not home?”

Anjali looked at the clock and wondered aloud.

“He usually is. Not sure what is keeping him today.”

As Aman got up to leave, she asked him to stay a bit for she was sure Arnav would be home shortly. Aman hesitated and sat back. As they waited, she got to talking and she realized why her Chottey liked Aman. He was quiet, with a quick wit. She was rather nice looking she realized when he reached out to pick his tea. His eyes held back a little something when he smiled.

Khushi pulled her seat belt and watched Arnav ji as he started the car. They had walked around the garden and he had shown her all the plants he had planted with his mom. He had caressed the trees and shrubs as if they held a piece of his mother. Khushi felt overwhelmed at having been admitted to what was surely an inner sanctum in his life.

Where was this leading to? The questions seemed to get more persistent as the unease in her heart grew.

As they pulled out the dirt road, Arnav said he would drop her home.

“Arnav ji.”

Arnav looked at her. Her voice seemed to tremble as she said his name. He could see she was fighting within herself about something.

“Arnav ji. I need to tell you something.”

“The reason I went to the temple today was that I felt a disquiet in my heart. I don’t know where this is headed. Where we are headed. We come from very different worlds…”

She left the words trail as she realized she could not bring herself to ask the one question she wanted to ask him. It seemed immaterial. Whether he loved her or not. She loved him. She had realized that the moment she had linked his hands in hers and shared his sorrow as hers. All she had wanted to do was wipe away the torment that racked his insides.

She couldn’t bring herself to talk about how she felt without knowing what he felt for her. She lapsed into silence.

Arnav looked at her. Her face troubled. She looked innocent and beautiful as she sat there weighing where they were headed.

Arnav reached out to her with his free hand. Holding her hand in his he said “Khushi. All I know is that you make me feel complete. I am different when I am with you. I feel lighthearted. I wake up in the morning with you in my thoughts. One tear of yours affects me like nothing does. The prospect of losing you makes my heart stop.”

He paused and as if letting go of his reservations said simply.

“I love you Khushi. I always have.”

Khushi turned to him. Her eyes looked clear. She gripped his palm and weighed her words.

“I love you too.  Arnav ji.”

All her other misgivings could wait. She had heard what she needed to hear. She felt happiness balloon inside her threatening to burst and overwhelm everything around her. She closed her eyes and let the tears come.

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Chapter 36: Soul searching

Khushi sat in the auto and her phone buzzed.

“Khushi.”

She felt her heart race at the voice. Keeping her voice steady, she answered. She had questions and she had never been the one to back away from asking them.

“Arnav ji.”

“Khushi, I need to talk to you. Where are you?”

“I just left the temple. What is it you want to talk about? Can we talk when I come to your home for the dance practice tomorrow?”

“Can we meet now? Let Buaji know that I will drop you. Tell her I needed your help for planning a cocktail party for Akash and Payal. Get off at the cafe near AR. I will see you there in 10 mins”

Khushi sighed as she switched the phone and instructed the auto to change course. She called Payal and told her she was running late and would be home for dinner and not to worry.

Well! She had questions and the only person who could answer them was Arnav ji.

True to his word, he was waiting at the cafe entrance when she got off the auto. With his aviators on, she had no idea what was lurking in those eyes.

“Get in the car.”

Khushi got in and slid her seat belt on.

“Where are we going?”

“You will see”

The drive was quiet and they soon reached a dirt track. Arnav parked and led Khushi through a rusted iron gate. Wondering if she had been right to trust him so implicitly, she followed him without a word through a tangle of bushes till they came to a clearing with tall rose bushes all flowering.

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Khushi breathed in the air heavy with the roses. She felt a peace and calm descend on her. Arnav had taken his glasses off. He looked younger and more relaxed than she had ever seen him.

Wordlessly he held her wrist and guided her to a bench under a tall banyan tree. Without preamble he started.

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“Khushi. I know you are wondering why I brought you here. This place is very special to me. It is my mother’s garden. As children Di and I used to come here with amma often. I garden because it keeps me close to her. Someday I will tell you why I am the way I am. Today is not the time for that. But I want you to know that you are the only person I have ever brought here.”

He paused for a bit and looking into her eyes said “To meet my mother.”

Khushi reached for his palm and entwined her fingers in his. They sat together in silence for a few minutes as she took in what he had said. This was the first time he was referring to his parents to her. She knew they had died when he was a teenager and there had been something tragic about their death. She felt connected to him by the thread of grief that they shared.

Just as the sun set and twilight fell where they sat, Khushi remembered the confusion in her heart. She was not sure if this was the time to ask them. She turned her face tentatively towards him. Her eyes asked the questions she was not comfortable asking. He turned towards her, his eyes naked with grief and longing. A need to be held and comforted. She gently lifted his palm and pressed her lips to them. He leaned on her shoulders and for once in his life, let someone else share the burden on his young shoulders.

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Chapter 35: Questions

Khushi walked back in a daze to Anjali Di’s room absently touching her cheek where Arnav had kissed her. The brazenness with which he had done it shocked her. She had to analyse her feelings and she needed time alone to do it.

She headed straight to her oasis. Devi Maiyya’s temple. She sat in the wide steps overlooking the valley below. Her emotions were all over the place. She could still feel his musky scent on her. The slow, unhurried way in which he had kissed her and stood back to look at her face. The sureness of it all like he was laying claim to what was his. She should be miffed by all accounts but what she felt was confusion. She had never denied the attraction she had felt for him but where was this leading to?

The last time he had come close to kissing her had ended disastrously with him running away from her. What did she feel? More importantly what did she want? The Khushi from a year ago had changed. This new Khushi, what did she want?

Having tasted success in her catering venture, her dreams had grown bigger and bolder. Where did love and marriage figure in all of this? Where was Arnav ji headed with all this teasing and flirting. She got that he was trying to make amends for the past. Did that include accepting he had feelings for her? Would he ever admit to it? Did marriage figure in his plans at all? Was she someone whom he would tire of in a while?

Images from the time she had spent with Lavanya at the Raizada Mansion came to mind. Hadn’t Arnav ji been very clear that marriage was not something he believed in? Would she be happy with the kind of non committal relationship that Arnav ji had offered Lavanya?

She heard the temple bells toll. She turned to find aarthi in full swing and joined in. This was her. The unshakable belief she had in Devi Maiyya. Her savior. God figured full and foremost in her life as did society and social acceptance. Would she be able to live with someone who believed that he wrote his own fate?

DeviMaiyya

Paying obeisance to the Goddess, she turned and the wind wafted her dupatta to her face. The world seemed to be bathed in a different hue. Her world was so different from his. Her small town values were at odds with his sophisticated upbringing. What was novel to him now was bound to irritate him with time.

But what about how you feel when you are with him? A voice chimed from within her. The feeling of wanting and being wanted. The thrumming of your heart when you sense his presence. The way your eyes search for him in a crowd. The way your heart thuds when he holds you.

Trying hard to brush away the feelings these thoughts were evoking, Khushi turned to the temple one last time before she left.

“Help me Devi Maiyya. Give me a sign.” she pleaded and walked out.

Even as she hailed an auto, her foot pressed on something soft. Looking down she found a box of jalebis squished beyond recognition and rose petals stuck to it. A dirty tag on it said “Khushi, I am sorry.”

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Arnav shut his laptop with a bang. He could hardly focus on his work. He had come back home knowing Khushi would be home to meet Anjali. What had happened in the store-room had been on his mind all afternoon. What had been a platonic kiss had evoked stronger feelings in him. He had felt the same rush of feelings he had felt the past Diwali night. Except this time he had accepted how he felt. How it made him feel.

The day he had sat by her in the hospital voicing his deepest fears, he had realized he had been in love with her for a long time. He had to let her know. He feared her response. What if she walked away from him. What if she said she did not love him?

Seeing Khushi walk past him as he was about to enter his room from the poolside had taken him by surprise. He was as surprised as her at what he had done. It had felt right. She made his heart feel lighter. That she reacted to him made his heart sing. Before Khushi had come into his life, he had no idea what it was to be in love. Sure, he had his share of girlfriends. But no one had brought out this side of him.

Khushi evoked the protector in him. She made him feel complete. She was his. He felt a fierce happiness at imagining Khushi being by his side. All his life.

Smiling he picked up his phone to call her.

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Chapter 34: Check and Checkmate

The morning rose bright and sunny.

Arnav walked down in his usual impeccable suit flanked by Akash. Anjali sat at the dining table waiting for her brothers to join her for breakfast. Nani looked with pleasure at the happiness that seemed to have descended on their house with the impending nuptials. Mami’s head swum with the number of lists she had going. Did her husband have to pick this week to go out on business? NK looked lost in his own world.

“Di, I forgot to mention but I asked Aman to drop his daughter off at our home for Mehndi and Sangeet. Would you mind keeping an eye on her?”

Anjali looked at her usually morose brother. This was getting interesting.

“Of course Chottey. I liked Anya. She seemed very wise for a 6-year-old. It was nice of you to offer Chottey.”

“It’s nothing Di. Actually I have some work for Aman.”

Arnav looked at his sister.

“Di, Did you want me to hire the same choreographer from our cousin’s wedding for this Sangeet?”

Anjali looked like her eyes would pop out.

“Chottey, What is with you? You never dance. You hate anything to do with music and dance. The last time the choreographer was here, you kept complaining all through. What is with the sudden interest in dance?”

Arnav looked around trying to keep his voice casual.

“Well! it is Akash’s wedding and I figured these things need to be taken care of. If you are not interested, that is OK.”

Anjali’s face fell.

“No! Not that Chottey. It is not that. Of course it will be fun to get a choreographer. You know what, we should invite Payal ji and Khushi ji too. They love to dance.”

Arnav smirked when he realized he had hit target.

“OK Di. If you want it I can arrange for her.”

NK’s voice rang out.

“Actually can we call Lavanya too? She is with Khushi ji and Payal ji till the end of the month. Am sure she will like to dance too. Perhaps we can have some duets…”

NK lapsed into his dream world.

Anjali suppressed a smile and said “Yes NK Bhai, we can call Lavanya ji too and yes we can have duets.”

Breakfast over, Anjali picked up the phone to call Khushi.

The phone rang at the Gupta residence and Khushi picked the phone.

“Khushi ji, This is Anjali. Can you stop by home sometime today? I need to discuss some wedding shopping and sangeet preparations with you.”

Khushi paused a moment, mentally reviewing her calendar.

“Sure Anjali Di. I can stop by evening.”

“See you evening!”

Arnav stopped halfway to the door listening to his Di.

“Evening huh?”

He resumed striding to the door and the world looked a tad brighter.

Khushi stepped out of her Bua’s landlord’s home confusion writ large on her face. Somebody had bought the home they were living in? And they wanted to be anonymous? They wanted no rent?

Khushi felt a stab of fear. Images of Shyam crossed her mind. He was behind bars wasn’t he? Did he manage to buy the house so as to have a measure of control on their lives? But didn’t Akash ji say he had no money of his own? Who could it be and why would they not want rent?

She hailed an auto and directed him to drive to her kitchen. She had to figure out who bought the house. The house should have been registered with the government. There had to be a way to figure it out.

Thoughts still pounding her head, she got off and was welcomed with a smell of jalebis being fried for dessert. Biting into one, she decided she had to do it that afternoon after delivering the food to Shukla ji.

Lavanya sat in her office rescheduling meetings and rearranging calendar invites for ASR and Akash for the next week. NK had called her excitedly about preparations for the Sangeet. He had been so cheerful and insistent that she had given in. She squirmed at the thought of being in the Raizada Mansion again for the festivities.

After lunch she had to go to sign the lease on her new apartment. Another week and she would have her own place. While living with the Guptas was fun, she had started to crave her own space and own bed. She looked at the calendar. Her parents were visiting in the next couple of weeks. For the first time since she had moved out, she felt relief and happiness at their impending arrival. Living amongst people who placed much value on familial ties had rubbed off on her.

Khushi pushed the doors to the cafe to see if Manju aunty was there. Shukla smiled seeing her and called out that she was probably in the store-room. Khushi made for the storeroom. Didn’t Manju aunty’s son work for the Building Development Authority?

Arnav hunted for copier for his printer. He looked at the phone. The peon would be in the cafe for lunch. He had no time to wait. He would get it from the store-room himself.

He pushed the door open and ran smack into Khushi.

His eyes widened and he fell back closing the door behind him. Khushi rubbed her eyes adorably and her mouth made a perfect O in surprise.

“Aap?”

“MmmmMain”

They looked at each other awkwardly. Arnav broke the silence first.

“What are you doing in the store-room?”

“I came to look for Manju Aunty. Her son works for the DDA. I need to find out who bought our home…”

She realized she was letting on more than she had intended to. Why did it always happen that Laad Governor either made her tongue-tied or made her say everything on her mind. Chiding herself mentally, she tried to move past him to the door.

He put a hand out blocking her way.

“I did.”

Khushi looked at him her irritation giving way to surprise and bewilderment.

“You did? Why?”

“Do I have to explain all of my dealings to you?” Arnav asked smirking.

He loved watching her squirm and get all bothered.

She looked at him digesting what he had said, the questions still swirling.

“Why won’t you take rent? It makes no sense. What are you trying to achieve?”

Arnav’s eyes softened seeing her troubled. He reached out to her, taking her elbow gently.

“Khushi. I meant it the other day when I said I was sorry. My actions in Sheesh Mahal impacted your family in many ways. I am trying to make amends. I am not good with words. This is the only way I know how. Please let me.”

His tone had become quieter and his eyes pleaded with Khushi.

Khushi looked with amazement at how much he had changed. Gone was the arrogance, the place of power from which he operated. She felt the need to reach out, reassure him that it was OK.

Stepping a bit closer, she looked into his eyes and giving him a quick hug, and a quick peck on the cheek. It felt natural. The way she felt with her family.

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Stepping back, she realized what she had just done. She looked up at Arnav’s eyes. He looked surprised and something other than tenderness had crept in. Sensing the change in the atmosphere she quickly said “Arnav ji, I did not mean it that way. I don’t know why I did…”

She could say no more as his palm covered her mouth.

“Hush. Say no more.”

With that, he turned, opened the door and walked out.

Khushi tumbled out in the sunlight a jumbled mass of nerves. The day was not going right at all. She had not meant to kiss him. All she wanted to do was reassure him that it was OK. She would not tell Bua. She of all people understood the burden of gratitude. She understood his need to even the score.

She looked at her watch and realized she had to meet Anjali ji before she got home. Hoping she would not run into Arnav ji there, she rang the bell.

Anjali who had been expecting Khushi, opened the door. The two exchanged hugs and made their way to Anjali’s room which had a mass of sarees and jewelry spread out. Anjali took her by hand and cleared an edge for her to sit on. Carefully bending her impaired foot, she made herself comfortable. The next hour sped by with them making selections and checking off items on their respective lists. Just as they were about to wrap up, Anjali frowned at something on her list.

“Khushi ji, I missed the Kangans Nani had kept for Payal ji. I have them in a safe in Chottey’s room. Let me get them.”

She made to rise when Khushi held her arm.

“Anjali Di. Please sit. I can run and get them.”

With that, she made her way quickly to Arnav’s room. Her brain was on overdrive processing the plans Anjali ji had shared with her. The choreographer would be there every morning till before lunch. Payal, Lavanya and she would have to rearrange their schedules to make it. Amma and Babuji would reach Delhi this weekend and she needed to arrange taxis for them.

Having been in and out of Arnav’s room many times before, she had no trouble finding out what Anjali ji had wanted. Clutching the bangles, she was about to step out of the room, when an arm grabbed her and pulled her to the poolside. She was about to scream when Arnav ji’s hand covered her mouth.

“Shh! Don’t scream. I did not mean to scare you.”

She nodded and he took his hand off.

Even as she watched, he deliberately bent and kissed her on her cheek.

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Stunned to react, she looked at him questions in her eyes.

Arnav looked at her with a mix of amusement and tenderness.

“I did MEAN it.” He smirked as he reminded her that Di was probably waiting for her.

Khushi walked back in a daze not knowing what hit her.

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Chapter 33: Laad Governor or Rajkumar?

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Khushi looked at the bundle on her lap. They really were sample invites. Did he really come to drop the invitations? Shaking her head she focused on them and picked out a couple she liked. She then picked her phone to follow-up with the girls who worked for her on how the day went and if they were able to manage without her.

Payal returned looking happy and flushed. Her eyes were bright. Khushi’s heart overflowed. Love did suit her Jiji. Akash Jijaji was fast becoming her favorite person. Another two weeks to Mehndi and Sangeet and then the wedding. She realized with a pang that her Jiji would be moving to the Raizada Mansion. Well! At least she would be in Delhi.

As if Payal heard what Khushi was thinking, she pulled her to the porch outside. She was bursting to share the news with someone.

“Khushi. Guess what was the surprise?”

“What Jiji? Tell me na?”

“We.. I mean Akash ji and I after the wedding will be moving to Lucknow for a few months.”

Payal paused for what she said to sink in. Her eyes shone.

“Few months Jiji?”

“Yes. Arnav ji told Akash ji that he needed him to relocate to Lucknow for about 6 months to handle some business they are setting up there.”

Payal lowered her voice.

“Akash ji thinks it is because Arnav ji thinks we need the time away from sasuma after the wedding,”

She grinned as if she was privy to some inside joke amongst the Raizadas.

Khushi gave her sister a big hug and squeezed her tight. Her Jiji deserved all the happiness she was being showered with.

Payal bounced back into the home to find Bua with a surprised look on her face looking at what looked like a check register. Her forehead had furrows in it from thinking so hard.

“Payaliya, come look at these numbers for me. Why does my account have more balance than it usually does?”

Payal sat next to her Bua and crunched the numbers for her. She added up the numbers and looked at the past month to compare debits.

“There it is Bua ji. Your rental check has not been cashed yet. That is why you have a higher balance.”

Bua sat lost in thought. The check should have cleared by now. She would have to follow-up with the landlord.

“Hai Re Nandakishore. With all the work relating to the wedding, I now have to follow this one up as well” she said as she rose to go in the kitchen.

Khushi who had come in as well, grabbed the check register and concurred with what Payal said.

“Buaji. Am feeling good enough to go out. I will look into this for you tomorrow morning” she said as she pocketed the check book and the passbook from the table.

She was hungry and peeked into the kitchen to see what Bua had for dinner. Her eyes fell on the teacups on the counter and the memory of Arnav ji assailed her.

“Who was he? The laad governor who enjoys having the last word, reminds her of her aukat and pushes her away or her rajkumar who rescues her from burning buildings, bashes goons who dare lay a finger on her, says sorry without hesitation and brazenly presses her fingers to his lips?”

“What did she feel for him?”

Khushi smiled absently at her naivete in the years before when she mistook her attraction for him as acidity. She now knew that she was attracted to him. She definitely liked him. A lot. Love? Did she love him?

She felt color rising up her cheeks at the thought and decided she had enough of playing the demure damsel. It was time to up the ante. Two can play this game.

Cheering up, she let go of her fingers she had been staring at and looked up. Bua and Payal sat transfixed watching her.

“Sanka Devi! What were you thinking of? Your cheeks are so red. Are you OK?”

“Should we call Arnav ji?” Payal teased. “He always seems to be there when you fall, when you decide to walk into speeding cars.”

“Jiji! You too??”

With that the Gupta sisters attacked their food with gusto.

Lavanya entered the home, her face radiant.

“I had such a good evening” she declared. Payal and Khushi looked up and at her expectantly.

“Well! NK had asked me to show him around Delhi and we had a good time driving and walking around the main spots.”

Payal and Khushi looked at each other and said in unison.

“NK? Good time huh? Just walking and talking Lavanya?”

Lavanya looked at them and added hurriedly.

“We are just good friends now. He is cute though.”

Khushi felt happy for her friend. She had been through much the past couple of years and NK would be good for her. He was goofy and knew how to make her laugh.

“Did you have dinner or are you joining in?”

Lavanya waved her hand breezily and disappeared into Khushi’s room.

Arnav sat at dinner table playing with his food. Nani and Anjali looked at each other meaningfully.

“Chottey, Are you OK? You seem to have lost interest in food these days? You are going to temples. You actually volunteered to take the invitation samples to Payal ji’s home. Sab teek hai?”

Anjali reached to touch her brother’s forehead in mock concern. Nani smiled coyly and Mami looked at everyone with suspicion. What was happening without her knowledge. She would have to find out. Akash and Mama dug into their food without any hesitation.

Arnav pushed Di’s hand and scowled. He ate hurriedly and left without a word. Reaching his room, he let the mask down and a smile played on his lips. He relived the evening and the look of surprise on Khushi’s face as he walked away dropping the invites in her lap. Something about being with Khushi brought the child out in him. He loved sparring with her and having the last word.

She had looked lovely in her night suit he thought distractedly. What would he give to be able to kiss her. He recoiled with horror at the direction his thoughts were taking him. Mehndi and Sangeet were a couple of weeks away. How was he going to contrive it such that they could meet often?

He smiled as the answer dawned on him. All he had to do was let Di know casually and his work would be done. He went to bed a satisfied man.

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