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?

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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 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 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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Chapter 31: Muddled messages

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Khushi wove in an out of sleep. She felt her head throb and her body was in pain. The sedatives were wearing off. Payal lay asleep on the couch by her side. The room was lit in an eerie blue glow of the hospital corridor lighting.

She looked at the bandage on her hands and legs and felt the one on her forehead. The doctor said she had been very lucky to escape with minor injuries. She winced as she tried to reach for the glass of water on her side.

Sipping the water quietly she tried to remember what had happened. She had stepped into the road then she was airborne and the next thing she sensed was Arnav’s voice saying something to her. She had felt wetness in her palms. She was not sure what Arnav had been saying but she had felt an enormous peace come over her. When she had finally felt good enough to open her eyes and talk, Payal and Lavanya had been by her side and Arnav was leaving after promising to come back in the morning. His eyes had looked at her with so much tenderness that she felt disturbed. She tried to quell that feeling of unease that something had happened that evening that had changed the nature of their relationship and she was not sure what that was.

Payal turned in her sleep and Khushi looked at her sister with love. Lavanya had insisted on staying but Payal refused to budge. Eventually all of them had left long past visiting time. She wondered if Amma and Babuji knew. She hoped they did not. There was no point worrying them with so much left to do for the wedding. NK had come too. He had been standing in a corner happy to run errands and content to watch. Even in her weakened state she had noticed his eyes going back to linger on Lavanya.

The thoughts jumbled and twisted in her head till she fell asleep.

“I loved you then. I love you now.”

“I am sorry. Really, really sorry.”

Did she imagine them? Khushi woke with a start to stare into Arnav’s eyes as he fussed around her like she was a child. It was late morning and her room buzzing with activity. A nurse was taking readings and Arnav was leaning over adjusting her pillow when her eyes met his. His eyes flickered with something of a surprise and happiness to see her bright-eyed looking at him.

Standing up, he looked around to see if the nurse was still around and spoke softly.

“Are you OK Khushi? Do you need anything?”

Khushi looked at him distracted by the tenderness in his eyes. The rude, brusque Arnav she could handle but this new improved version was scaring her.

“Am OK Arnav. Arnav ji. Can I go home? I feel better.”

Arnav looked at her with a mixture of amusement and concern.

“Make that Arnav. And yes, you will be discharged in a couple of hours. Payal has gone home to get you change of clothes.”

He stepped closer now that the nurse was leaving, closing the door behind her.

“Khushi.”

He sounded husky and his voice was dangerously close.

Her nerves were on alert and she felt every cell in her body react to his presence.

“Khushi, I was scared I would lose you yesterday. I.. I realized how much I needed to say this aloud.”

“I am sorry Khushi. For everything.”

He sat down and took her hand in his.

“I know I have a long way to go to earn your trust but I want to make a start somewhere. I wanted to meet you yesterday so I could say the words. Will you forgive me?”

Khushi looked at him. So much had changed from the first time she had seen him.

“Arnav… ji. I had forgiven you a long time ago. When Payal told me you had met her with Akash ji at the temple to apologize to her for what happened at Sheesh Mahal. The night Shyam ji was also at the temple…”

She paused at the memories and as if brushing it away continued.

“I knew then, that you had not meant to do what you did. I was upset and hurt by what had happened that Diwali night but I wanted to put it behind me. I knew Lavanya was your girlfriend and I had no illusions about your affections for me. I had no right to expect anything”

“Let the past remain in the past. We are going to be related now by Jiji getting married to Akash ji.”

“Can we be friends?”

She gripped his hand. Arnav looked at her steadily, absorbing what she was saying and a gleam came into his eyes.

“Friends.”

He gripped it back and held it for a while. Then getting up in a fluid motion, he brushed the side of her cheek with his fingers and tucked in her hair before striding out the door.

Khushi looked at him, her senses in overdrive. She was falling hard. For him.

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Chapter 30: Saansein ruk jayengi

Khushi ran around making arrangements for the next day’s food before rushing home for a quick shower and change before her meeting at the temple. Bua looked askance at her when she rushed out of the home in a hurry at half past four. She opted to wear a red and white suit with simple glass bangles.

She arrived at the temple with a few minutes to spare and on an impulse rushed across the street to get flowers for Devi Maiyya. The next thing she knew she was fading in and out of consciousness and felt like she was floating somewhere.

Arnav had arrived and was parking his SUV when he spied Khushi looking pretty in red. Her bangles reminded him of the first time he had felt any stirrings of affection for her. A smile crept into his face and he reached into the passenger seat to pick a small box and a single red rose.

Walking towards her, he noticed she was making to cross the road. The next thing he knew a car turned out of nowhere and he saw a flash of red and heard screams.

He felt his chest explode as he sprinted towards her. Fear gripped him. He acted mechanically, carrying Khushi’s limp form to his car and speeding like a madman to the nearest hospital. A crowd had formed at the site and the driver of the car which had hit Khushi was being manhandled. Nothing mattered to Arnav but to get Khushi to safety.

He sat in the waiting area of the triage center at the local hospital. His legs trembled and he felt faint. His shirt and hands were bloody. His eyes scanned the room for the doctor and relaxed visibly when he noticed him walking towards him. The doctor pumped his hands and ushered him inside.

“Is she.. Will she be OK?”

Arnav couldn’t believe the fear he heard in his voice.

The doctor smiled as he reassured him.

“She will be fine. She has lost a fair amount of blood and is unconscious from shock. There is no major injury and her vital signs are stable now. We will call you when she is awake.”

Arnav felt so relieved that he felt his legs buckle. Steadying himself he asked if he could sit by the patient.

The doctor looked at him. It was not often that a major donor to the hospital made requests to him.

“Sure Mr. Raizada. We will arrange to shift the patient to a private room and you may stay with her till she recovers.”

Arnav sat by Khushi’s side. His heart beat a steady rhythm. He held her hand and caressed it. Without realizing what he was doing, he whispered softly.

“What if I had lost you Khushi? I was so scared. I felt like I could not breathe. When I left work to see you, I had no idea what I wanted to say to you. All I knew is that I needed to spend time alone with you. To ask for forgiveness for everything. For Sheesh Mahal. For treating you the way I did when you worked for me. For the guesthouse.”

At the thought of the guesthouse, his voice broke and tears fell. He continued even more softly.

“I drove like a madman that day when I realized you could be in danger. I could not even think of losing you. I am sorry Khushi. I am so very sorry.”

Tears fell steadily on his hands and made their way to hers.

“Each time I pushed you away, it was not because of anything you did. It was because I was scared of what you made me feel and the way you made me act. Every single tear of yours bothered me like nothing ever did before. I was scared of losing the control I had on my life. My feelings.”

“Remember your Amma’s payal? The one I put on your feet on Diwali night. I held on to it because I was scared of losing you. I returned it to you that night because I got to know how much it meant to you. I wanted to kiss you that night Khushi. I loved you then. I love you now.”

“What I said that night when I dropped you. I did not mean a word of what I said. I was trying hard to run away and push you away from me.”

“I am sorry. Really, really sorry.”

He felt her fingers twitch and he felt a shoot of relief and happiness go through him as he looked up and watched her struggle to open her eyes. She opened and closed them as if she were sedated.

affection

He rang the bell for the nurse and bent over to give her a quick peck on her forehead. He pushed a strand of hair that fell across her forehead and felt a rush of affection for her. For the first time since the accident, he let his breath out and slumped back in his chair as the nurse took over.

The evening passed in a flurry of phone calls and soon Lavanya and Payal came to stay with him. Akash, Anjali and NK showed up a few hours later. The hospital was soon starting to resemble a reunion with all of them cheering when Khushi was well enough to speak. She still looked dazed but seemed to be regaining her color. The doctor wanted her under observation for a day before she could be discharged and Payal stayed with her.

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Arnav sat in his car for a long time after the rest had left. He felt like his world had turned upside down. One minute he was walking towards her not sure what to say and how to say it. The next minute he felt he couldn’t breathe. Didn’t Di say all the time that if he ever fell in love “saansein ruk jayengi”.

He drove aimlessly and without realizing it was parking near his mother’s rose garden. He went in and sat on the bench. On an impulse he looked up at the sky and for the first time since his mother’s death sent a wish heavenward.

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Chapter 29: Call me Arnav

Arnav sat at his desk tapping a pen against his head. Aman poked his head in the door and knocked as an afterthought. Arnav frowned and looked up.

“What is it Aman?”

Aman extended a file marked ‘Confidential’ and turned to leave. Hesitating at the door, he turned again and spoke to Arnav.

“I want to thank you for having us over for the engagement. Anya usually clings to me wherever we go but Anjali ji seems to cast a spell on her. She was content to stay with her the entire evening and I had to literally drag her home that night. It means much to me…”

Arnav nodded his head in acknowledgement and called out after Aman after he started to leave.

“Why don’t you bring Anya over for the Mehndi in a couple of weeks? Am sure Di will be thrilled and you can get a couple of hours to yourself? In fact, I insist you do.”

With that he turned his attention back to the notepad in front of him. Aman looked at ASR in surprise and left the room.

Arnav felt restless. He paced up and down his room and eventually hit upon something that made him smile. Khushi could never resist a challenge.

Khushi delivered the days meals to Shukla ji and was about to leave when Shukla ji handed her an umarked envelope. She looked at him questioningly. He said he had no idea what was in it but ASR had asked that it be delivered to her.

Khushi’s hands felt clammy. Muttering thanks, she walked away as calmly as possible. Walking to the bench in a park nearby, her fingers trembled with anticipation. What had started out as one note was ballooning into something she was not sure she was ready to handle.

“Do you trust me enough to meet me? Alone.”

She looked it over a couple of times. Memories of the few times they had been alone seared her brain. Arnav had never shied away from physical intimacy. He held her as it if were his right. She shivered from the memories and reflexively rubbed her wrist as if expecting a bruise to show up.

arnavkhushiwrist

Turning the note over, she scribbled. Inserting it back into the same envelope, she made her way back to the AR office.

Arnav watched from his window as she left the office. He gave her five minutes and sauntered back to the window. He smirked as he saw her come back and stop at their glass doors. A few minutes later, the peon knocked at his door with an envelope in his hands.

Arnav waited for him to leave and flipped it open.

“Trust is a two way street. I set the time and place. Are you game?”

He sat mulling the message and had enough of the paper games. He texted her. “I am game. When and where?”

Khushi heard her phone buzz.

“Parbat Mandir. 5:00 PM”

Arnav felt a stab of disappointment. He texted back.

“See you then. And call me Arnav”

Khushi did a double take at the message.

“What the…?”

Khushi read the text a couple of times. What was she doing? Was it a date? She felt rather clever at having set the temple as the meeting point. She had been sure Arnav… Arnav ji would refuse.

“Devi Maiyya raksha karna” she muttered as she hailed an auto.

Arnav turned his attention to the file Aman had bought in. The past night he had mulled over the havoc he had wrought on the Gupta family starting with his skirmish with Khushi at Sheesh Mahal. It was time to make amends. He called his attorney on the phone and set in motion the plan to become the new owner of Buaji’s house and Gomti Nivas.

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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.

gazebokhushicrying gazebo

“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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