Beyond words

When eyes and souls connect

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 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 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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