Beyond words

When eyes and souls connect

Chapter 32: Smooth moves

ArnavatGH

Khushi traced her fingers along her cheeks and smiled. Payal walked in to find Khushi twirling a strand of hair with a smile playing on her face. Her eyes looked distant and Payal’s presence was not yet felt.

Gently laying a hand on her sister, Payal brought her back to the present.

“Thinking of whom Khushi? You have a far away look on your face.”

Khushi came to with a start and blushed a bright red and started fiddling with the bag Payal had brought in. She slid her feet off the bed and felt unsteady. Payal gave her a hand and in an hour both sisters were ready to leave. They found at the billing department that their bills were paid for and a car was waiting to take them home. The driver handed a note to Khushi.

“Sorry I had to rush for a meeting. Stay safe and look right and left before you cross the road. – Arnav ji”

Khushi raised an eyebrow as she folded the note and put it away even as Payal gave her a piercing look. She had a great many questions for her sister but it could wait a couple of days. What was Khushi doing at the temple and why was Arnav ji there? NK had asked Arnav ji yesterday but Arnav ji had not answered his questions.

Was her sister in love with Arnav ji? Confusion reigned in Payal’s heart. Perhaps Akash ji would know if his Bhai was looking as lost as Khushi was these days? And what was it with NK bhai showing up with fishy reasons at their house? He had a bunch of red roses he was forced to give Buaji. Payal smiled at the thought and turned her attention to Khushi.

Khushi had nodded off and Payal turned her attention to the road.

Arnav wrapped up his meeting with clients and felt a rush of euphoria go through him. This was what had been the driving force in his life. The thrill and exhilaration that came from pulling business away from competitors noses. This deal would mean more trips to Lucknow. Perhaps Akash could set base in Lucknow for a bit after the wedding and handle things from their end? He would have to talk to him.

Making mental notes, he picked up his coat and whistled wordlessly to himself as he walked out of the AR building. Lavanya watched him leave and smiled to herself. Khushi certainly seemed to be good for ASR. He seemed to actually smile at people and stopped to make small talk. The office certainly was buzzing with curiosity on the boss’s behavior.

Lavanya’s phone buzzed. A text from Payal confirmed Khushi was back home. Another hour and she would leave too. Khushi’s accident had seemed to be the catalyst that broke the ice after she had left the Raizada house more than a year back. She had continued working for AR but had maintained a cool distance from Arnav never venturing anything personal. Arnav had been grateful and reciprocated in kind. After Anjali Di’s marriage had crumbled whatever trace of softness had been there in his countenance had died and he had thrown himself into work maniacally. Meeting Di, Arnav and NK at the hospital had thawed that ice and she felt herself hugging and catching up with Anjali. NK came across as a nice guy and had made her laugh after a long time. She had enjoyed his company that she thought nothing about it when he had asked her if she could show him around Delhi.

Now that it was actually time to meet him at the cafe, she was not sure it was a good idea at all. She pulled the compact from her bag and looked at her face critically. A touch up and she would be good to go.

Anjali sat in the living room with Nani, Mami and Mama. They were looking at the invitation samples and picking out one for the wedding. Mami had a tough time staying away from all the cheer and reluctantly gave in. She was vociferous in what she wanted for HER son’s wedding. Anjali smiled and realized Mami would grow to like Payal over time.

Arnav got into his car with every intention of going home till the surprise on Khushi’s face as he strode away after caressing her cheek flashed in front of his eyes. He would stop by to check in on her and go home. Before that he had a few calls to make.

The doorbell rang. Sure that it was Bua returning from her errand, Payal opened the door to see Arnav ji at the door. Before she could ask him anything, the phone rang. Motioning him to take a seat, she ran to get the phone. Khushi walked in limping a bit but otherwise looking all too well for someone who had been in an accident recently. Getting up to help her to the couch, Arnav put his hand over her shoulder and a mild heady mix of citrus and jasmine wafted up. Positioning her on the couch, he turned to take a seat when Payal announced she had to step out for a bit. Would Khushi be OK? Could she get Arnav ji something to drink?

Khushi looked at her sister. This was so not her.

“Who was it on the phone Jiji? Where is Bua? Where are you going?”

Payal blushed a furious red and said Akash ji had just called. He was waiting outside. He wanted to surprise her with something and had promised it would not take more than an hour. Would she please not tell Bua ji?

Happy that her Jiji was being courted, Khushi nodded happily letting her know she would be fine. Arnav smiled contentedly knowing his plan was working.

“Khushi, Are you OK? How are feeling now?”

She detected something other than concern in his voice. Wary, she looked up.

“Get well soon” he said simply as he extended a small box and a red rose to her. Reaching out for it, she thanked him and smelt the rose before setting it on her lap. Opening the box, she found six tiny jalebis. Sheer joy overcame her and she looked up at Arnav who was taking in every little transformation on her face. Popping one in her mouth, she extended the box to him and on second thoughts retracted her hand.

Even as she relished the juicy crumbs in her mouth, she saw him lean over, pull her hand to his lips and press a small kiss on it.

“I miss you Khushi.”

He said it without preamble. Like it was the most natural thing to say.

Her face flushed and she was very aware of his hand over hers. Of his lips on her skin. Of the bristle of the five o clock shadow as her hands grazed his chin. Suddenly everything in the room seemed loud. The minute hand ticking across the clock. The sway of the curtains against the wind. The sounds of children playing outside. The evening sun seemed too bright and everything stood out in extra relief.

Stilling her thudding heart, she quietly removed her hand from his and looked up. He looked sure of himself and his place in her life. His eyes followed hers never leaving her face.

“Arnav ji. Thank you. I am not sure…”

Even as she spoke, Bua ji entered the house and stopped at the sight of Arnav in the house. Acknowledging him quickly, she looked around, her eyes searching for Payal. Arnav stood up and addressed her.

“Buaji, I just stopped by to drop of sample invitation cards for the wedding. Di and Khushi were working on them before the accident so Di wanted her to take a look at the ones she had selected.”

Bua looked relieved and turned to go to into the kitchen. Khushi watched the exchange with an open mouth and even as she turned, Arnav gave her a broad wink, dropped a bunch of invites on her lap and walked out.

No one had ever accused Arnav of not being prepared.

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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.

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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.

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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 28: Shifting equations

GuptaswithjalebiKhushi heard Lavanya stir on the other side of the room and noiselessly slid back under her bed covers. She managed to fall asleep in the wee hours of the morning. The day broke and the family crowded in the living room to demolish the mountains of puri aloo Buaji kept replenishing and dissect the previous evening. Everyone concluded the evening had gone very well despite worries about Akash’s mom causing some drama.

Mehndi and Sangeet were to be a week before the actual wedding which was a month away. There was shopping to be done and actual wedding purchases to be made. The home hummed with cheer and happiness.

Anand had tried to reach Lavanya and finding she had changed her number, decided to call on Khushi to find out what happened. What he had not been prepared for was an onslaught by the entire Gupta family. He fled tail between his legs and Lavanya heaved a sigh of relief. Apartment hunting had started in earnest and she found one not far from the AR office but it was available only three weeks later. Khushi’s family persuaded her to stay on with them till that time.

With a few weeks to go for the next ceremony, Shashi and Garima decided to return to Lucknow to invite family and wrap up their affairs for the next couple of months. Payal seemed to have developed a new-found ability to be the first to pick up the phone when it rang. She looked forever dreamy and became as klutzy as Khushi much to Bua’s consternation.

Between Anjali and Khushi, shopping trips were planned and wedding plans made. Payal was content to let them take charge and used her evenings to meet Akash who seemed to have finally found his voice and loved to regale Payal with tales of his Bhai and Di.

Lavanya and Khushi sat in the yard with cups of tea in their hands.

“Lavanya,” Khushi began hesitantly “There is something I want to talk to you about.”

Lavanya looked at Khushi expectantly. It was not often that Khushi gave a preamble before she started a conversations.

“The day the Raizadas had come to our home to ask for Payal’s hand in marriage, Arnav had come too. He came to the kitchen when I was getting tea and snacks ready. He left me a note.”

Khushi paused.

“It said. Can we start over? As friends.”

Lavanya’s face registered an unknown emotion. Khushi looked at her.

“Aren’t you going to say something?”

Lavanya mulled her reply for a bit and said hesitantly.

“Khushi, what was between Arnav and me is in the past. It never had a future. If you are worried that I might be hurt, please do not worry. No matter whom he eventually loves or marries, there will be a part of me that will wonder what went wrong.” She paused to look at Khushi and continued.

“I think it is OK to share with you now. I have known for a while now that ASR loved you. When ASR and I broke up it was because I finally realized he would never feel for me the way he seemed to care about you. What you say and feel matters to him Khushi. I have never seen any one else get so much under his skin. I don’t think he himself realises it Khushi. He has been in love with you for a long time. I only hope he understands his feelings for you before it is too late.”

Saying that Lavanya relapsed into silence.

Khushi looked at her with bewilderment. She had expected Lavanya to feel pain. But this? This she had not expected.

She reached out to hug her best friend.

Lavanya hugged her back and her eyes twinkled.

“Make him woo you Khushi. It’s payback time.”

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Chapter 26: Total Eclipse of my heart

Khushi dug into her bag for a kerchief to wipe away the tears that threatened to fall from her eyes. Pulling out the pink lace embroidered piece of cloth caused a box to fall out near her feet. Wiping away her tears, she reached to pick it up. It looked unfamiliar.

Did Payal drop something in her bag? It looked too tiny to hold anything valuable. It was too dark to open it by the poolside. She moved to the windows by Arnav’s room where the light from the room fell on to the patio surrounding the pool. Curiosity getting the better of her, she opened it to find a piece of paper folded a few times over. Opening it gently revealed a single pearl taped to the note with a line underneath.

“I am sorry. Truly, Madly, Deeply.”

Khushi stared at that pearl bead for what seemed ages. It was from her dori. The one Arnav tore forcibly causing the string of beads to break and scatter all over the night she was lost at Sheesh Mahal. The image played over and over again in her head.

“Truly, Madly, Deeply.”

For a man of few words, Arnav ji seemed to say exactly what she needed to hear. She looked up, half expecting him to step out of the shadows. Her thoughts were a whirlwind. Did he hold on to this pearl from then? Why? Had he been sorry or was it a relic of his conquest?

She had little hopes of finding answers tonight. But she had to do one thing before she left. Searching in her bag, she found the thing she was looking for. Turning the note over, she wrote a reply for him and found a pin to secure her keepsake to the note. Folding it carefully, she put it back in the box and peeked into his room. She had been to his room enough times to know where to place it so it would catch his eye. She slipped away to join her family.

Arnav watched leaning against the pillar by the stairs as she came down. He ached to hold her. To wipe away her loneliness. To tell her he ached with her. As if on cue she lost her footing on the last step and stumbled. In a flash he was by her side holding on to her as if he never meant to let go. Her troubled eyes locked with his and seemed to plumb the depths. He held her gaze unblinking till the sound of someone clearing their throat caused them to jump back reflexively.

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“Thank you Arnav ji” Khushi said softly and held his gaze a second longer than necessary. He remained mute, his eyes acknowledging her message.

Di watched the two of them struggling to dismiss the awkwardness of the situation and held out her hand for Khushi. Enveloping her in a warm hug she said “We are practically family now. I hope you will call me Di.”

Khushi looked at Anjali ji and the earnestness in her eyes and nodded happily.

“Yes Di.”

Arnav watched the two of them giggle and walk away and felt a lightness that he had not felt in years.

Akash insisted on dropping the Guptas home and the rest of them waved before they returned inside. All of them were exhausted and retired to bed almost immediately. Arnav stood overseeing the cleanup for a bit before heading to his room.

Lost in thought he pulled out his purple polo to change into and knocked the box Khushi had left in his shelf down. Bending down, he recognized the box. Putting it back on the shelf, he changed and remember to close his door before he sat down on the recliner box in hand.

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He opened it to find the same paper except it felt bulkier. Gently unfolding it, he found a key pinned to it with a note below.

“Forgiveness is the KEY to happiness”

The key looked familiar. He turned it over a couple of times and it came back to him. His “mannat ki chhabi”. He had dropped it at the dargah. Khushi had returned it to him. The day after Diwali, she had come to return it and he had asked her to get out. She had left it behind. He had put it in his pocket when he ran in search of her. Did he lose it again at the temple? She held on to it again?

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Did she forgive him?

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Chapter 25: Lonely in a crowd

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

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

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

Arnav barked orders to Aman on the phone.

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

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

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

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

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

He dressed to kill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“NK Bhai!”

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

NK

“Nandkishore. You can call me NK.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 24: Friendship

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

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

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

Garima looked at her daughter and smiled as she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

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Chapter 23: Realization

Arnav held the crumpled piece of paper in his hand. Making the first move in relationships had not been his style. He opened it to read “Jeth ji, friendship MEANS much to me. It has to be earned.”

Arnav felt a frisson of anger radiate through his being. “How dare she.. What did she think of herself?”. He read the note again noticing the capitalized “MEANS”. Was she telling him something. His mind went back to the last conversation they had after the Diwali night.

“For me you or whatever happened tonight MEAN nothing”

He sunk to the ground, his back against the bed frame. The images played in succession in his head. The hurt in her eyes as he backed away after leaning in to kiss her that Diwali night. The tear that escaped her eyes when he stood with Lavanya announcing they were to get married. The devastation on her face at her doorstep as he uttered those cruel words dismissing everything she had felt in one swoop.

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How had he even expected her to respond to his offer of friendship? She was right. He would have to earn her trust before her friendship let alone love.

“Love?”

Did he actually say that?

Khushi sat by the window sill. The full moon poured a silky light all over her room. Her hair was open. Her thoughts far away.

Arnav. Not Arnav ji. She had earned the right to be his equal. Hadn’t she? This time they would start out as equals.

“Can we start afresh? As friends.”

The note had been burned into her memory. What did he want from her? He had destroyed her that night hadn’t he? She knew as well as he did that what had happened was not an impulse. They had been drawn to each other as moths to the fire. Writing her reply had been difficult. She knew how hard it would have been for him to take the first step. Arnav Singh Raizada never asked for anything. He demanded and got away with it. If he wanted to her in his life in any capacity, he would have to earn that right this time.

She looked at the sky. The bright light of the moon had overshadowed the stars. She knew her parents were up there watching over her. She had to sleep.

Tomorrow Jiji would be engaged.

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Payal sat in the living room clutching the phone. Akash ji had called for the third time that evening. He was besotted. She had to give it to him. For all his mild manners, he was a wild horse at this romance thing. She half expected him to pop in to her room through the window next. Life was good.

Akash couldn’t believe himself. Tomorrow he was going to be engaged to the girl of his dreams. His Payal. The first time he had seen her at the market looking for dupattas, he had fallen hook, line and sinker. Growing up with a mom who believed in flaunting, he craved for the simplicity that Payal offered. He needed someone silent and strong. Someone who would stand with him. By his side. Not ahead. Not behind. A partner.

Anjali watched the moonlight filter in through the window. The drapes moved in the breeze sending shadows dancing on the walls. Tomorrow one of her brothers would be engaged. She sighed wistfully at the thought. When would she see Chottey’s eyes shine with happiness the way Akash’s did? Would she ever see him laugh. In the fourteen years since he had taken responsibility for their well-being, he had been a man on a mission. He hid behind his pain. His heart was shuttered in making them impregnable to hurt. He used cynicism as a shield and held a grudge against the fates for leaving him without a mother’s love to cocoon him. She had done her best but what he needed was a shore for his soul to moor itself. A sunny, calming presence that could heal away the hurt and apply balm to his troubled soul. An image of Khushi inveigled itself into her conscious. If there was one girl who fit the bill it was Khushi but Chottey seemed to always get off on the wrong foot with her.

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Devi Maiyya, please make Chottey see sense she whispered as exhaustion overcame her.

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Chapter 22: The thaw sets in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arnav.

Arnav ji.

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

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

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

“Khushi bitiya, are you bringing the chai?”

“Yes. Amma. Coming right up.”

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

“Can we start afresh? As friends.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A deep color suffused her face as she walked inside.

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

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