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 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 27: Can I trust you?

Did she forgive him?

Khushi lay awake, unable to sleep. She had reached home, helped Payal remove the make up and spent time with Lavanya before they all went to bed. It had been an exhausting day and by all accounts she should have been asleep by now. Sleep eluded her.

“Truly, Madly, Deeply.”

The words swum in her head. Did she forgive him? There was no question. She had been hurt by his walking away. By his dismissal of her feelings. But she had never held it against him. This is how he was. He battled his demons by running away from anything that threatened the careful walls he had built around himself. She had seen past the exterior, beyond the carefully erected barriers. She had seen him at his vulnerable best and her heart had gone out to him. She felt a kinship with him that she could not explain. She pushed the covers back and went to the window. The moon was bright in the sky.

“Can I trust you again?” she whispered.

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Arnav sat by the poolside, sleep evading him. He held the note in his hands. He turned it over a few times. He had hurt her far too many times. There was so little he knew about the girl who occupied so much of his waking thoughts. He thought back to the first few times they had met and wondered why he had felt that innate need to crush her spirit? Was it because she represented everything he loathed about the world. The hope, the optimism and the unshakable faith in God? Did he want to crush her to prove he was right? That power and money were the only immutable things in this world? That the world was a cold, hard place with no space for the warm fuzzy emotions she represented? What if he had been wrong?

A conversation from a long time back echoed in his years.

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“I was eight when my parents died. I did not know what death was. For a long time, I waited for them to come back. What more? Even today I believe they have now become stars, and so I sleep with stars hanging over my bed. Even today I am scared of fast cars, of the dark, of sleeping alone. Even today I hope this is all a bad dream, and one day I will wake up and they will be back.”

They had both been orphaned at a young age. He had become bitter and locked himself out while she hid her pain behind a mask of cheer. She had accepted and moved on believing her parents were watching her. Perhaps he had the same hopes, same aspirations but lacked the courage to let go of the past?

“Can I trust you? a voice echoed in his head. He looked up and trusting the voice within whispered back.

“Yes. you can.”

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Chapter 18: The past, the present and somewhere in between

Khushi tossed and turned in her dreams. She was caught in a collapsing building, her screams dying in her throat as she realized she was all alone. She was fainting and a finger tenderly caressed her cheek as it tucked in a stray strand of hair. She is waking in a strange room dizzy with fever and exhaustion. A familiar face fades in an out feeding her milk and medicine. She is flying through the hospital lobby hurtling herself against a calming presence sobbing and letting go of her fears. She is sitting quietly mulling the burden of gratitude when a palm caresses the top of her head reassuring her all will be well. She is standing in a tangle of lights when every touch, every contact seems to set her skin on fire. Her heart is racing and the skin on nape of her neck is tingling with anticipation.

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Gasping for breath, Khushi woke up unable to distinguish between the dream and reality around her. Calming herself, she looked around. She was still in her bed. The stars twinkled merrily above her. Jiji was fast asleep. Slipping out quietly she got a glass of water and stood by the window sill looking at the inky blue sky. As she usually did, she scanned for and found the two stars she looked on as her parents. She sent a wish heavenward.

“Are you looking down at me?”

Thoughts of another night crept in.

looking at stars

“Do you believe they become stars?”

Any shred of sleep slipped away. She felt alert and awake. She was meeting Anjali ji today. She would have to pick something up on the way to their home. Something simple. Something meaningful.

Arnav ji. Would she meet him today? Did she want to?

Arnav stood by the pool sleep eluding him. All it had taken was one “Hello” to destroy his facade. The sound of her voice had awakened those dormant feelings in him. The memory of a lone tear escaping from Khushi’s eyes when he announced he would marry Lavanya had haunted him for months. He had seen her mask slipping on when she wished Lavanya well. How he had tried to crack that mask open on that fateful car ride dropping her home.

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He had always acted in anger. This time had proved his undoing. She had gone. Gone from his life forever. So he thought till he heard her voice again and hope rose unbidden.

He would have walk the path to redemption.

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Chapter 17: Unexpected run ins

“Jiji wait!”

Payal stopped. Khushi caught up with her only to drag her back to their room. Stars dangled from the ceiling. The decor of the room had changed but the Salman Khan poster and the neon stars that light up at night had not. She felt a rush of affection for this girl who spilled sunshine where ever she went.

“I can’t promise not to tease you but what I can tell you is that Akash ji is a nice guy. He may be silent but he has the spine to stand up for his mother. Mami ji is weird for sure but at heart she is not all that bad.”

Khushi hesitated as she continued.

“From what I have seen, it seemed that Mami ji was trying hard to make up for the lack of class she perceived in herself. I am sure if you understand why she is who she is, it will make things easier. I am not going to lie and say it will be a cakewalk but… but if you really like Akash ji you should listen to your heart jiji.”

Breathless from spilling what she felt, Khushi paused and looked at her jiji.

Payal’s face mirrored her anguish.

“Why are we even talking about this Khushi? Last I know Akash ji has not indicated in any way he is romantically inclined towards me. If… If he ever talks to me about how he feels, I will keep what you said in mind. Happy?”

“By the way, I did run into Anjali ji at the temple today. She was sweet. She said she would like to talk to you.”

Digging into her bag, she fished out the note Anjali ji had written for Khushi.

It read “Khushi ji, Please call me. I am sorry I have not reached out in the past year. I hope you will call me.”

Khushi held the note with trembling hands. All the emotions she had tucked away out of sight came to the surface. She turned away under the pretext of putting the note away and composed herself.

“I’ll call her jiji.”

With that she left the room.

If she noticed how the note had affected Khushi, she did not show it. She turned her attention to moving the groceries from the hall to the kitchen smiling as she did.

Khushi walked out to the veranda. It was early evening. Bua was visiting neighbors. Payal would take care of dinner. Perhaps she should find out if Anjali ji was free now.

She quickly dialled Anjali ji’s number. The phone rang a few times before it was picked up.

“Hello!”

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A familiar voice sounded on the other end. Khushi froze. Her spine tingled and she closed her eyes. She heard that voice in her ears as clearly as yesterday.

“Hello!”

Recovering her senses, she managed to keep her voice steady as she spoke.

“Hello. Is Anjali ji there?”

Arnav felt his breath catch.

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“Khushi.”

“How warm her voice sounded! He remembered the last time she had spoken, questions in those clear eyes.”

“Why did you keep my payal? What was it… that happened to us back there?”

He closed his eyes, regret filling his heart.

The silence was thick between them. Anjali ji’s clear voice cut across the tension.

“Who is it on the phone Chottey? Are you OK?”

“Anjali here. Who is it?”

Khushi composed herself before she responded.

“Anjali ji, it is me Khushi. How are you? How are Nani ji and Mami ji? I am sorry I did not call you before. Payal gave me your note.”

She paused as she realized how she must sound on the other end.

Anjali ji’s voice came in clear and melodious.

“Khushi ji! How nice it is to hear your voice. You should come visit us. We will all be very happy to see you. Please say you will come. Pretty please.”

Khushi relaxed. Anjali ji sounded as sweet as she had been before. It was easy being herself with Anjali ji.

“Sure I will. Does tomorrow work for you? I have work that side and can stop by after lunch.”

“Yes. That works. We are all home. I look forward to seeing you Khushi ji!”

Khushi hung the phone up happy to finally find closure from the fear she carried in her hurt. Anjali ji was OK. She was not mad at her. Even as she smiled, memories of the first voice she heard snuck back in her head and the smile died away.

“Arnav ji.”

His voice had caused her throat to constrict. What had happened that Diwali night was something she had analysed in her head many times over. She could not bring herself to believe he meant what he said when he had dropped her home that night.

He had broken her that night. She would never trust again.

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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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