Part 16: Half-truths and Dangerous Lies

  Something was amiss. He knew as soon as he stepped inside the door. Handing his bag to Hariprakash, Arnav walked to the living room anxiously. It was Khushi, he knew. For a long time now, he had given up denying the instincts which told him about her, when she was near, when she was angry, when she was upset. And now his instincts told him to rush to her as soon as he could. That something might slip out of his hands if he did not hurry.

Khushi sat alone on the sofa, hunched over something – stiff, silent and unmoving. He moved towards her. His footsteps echoed in the room. Yet she did not look up – no, did not even twitch. Whatever it was in her lap held all her attention.

‘Khushi.’

The sound of her name made her jerk up and for a moment his steps faltered. Panic and fear swam in her eyes; distress and helplessness called out to him.

‘What is it?’ he rushed over, coming down next to her, following the stiff line of her body – wide fearful eyes, rigid shoulders, a stiff arm, a white shaking finger resting on a photograph – on him, the face of the devil that still haunted their lives.

Had the blasted man accomplished what ASR could not? What none of them could? Snatched away the precious time with Khush that he had stolen from fate? Could it be that he had reached beyond the grave to shatter the fragile happiness they were all slowly settling into? Khushi had clearly remembered something…what did she remember?

Arnav looked up into Khushi’s eyes once again. There was distress and fear, and questions …. Questions he realized he could no longer evade; questions he should answer before she drew her own conclusions and shut him out once again. Instinctively he reached out to hold her white hand that pointed at the photograph and squeezed it to calm her.

‘Di’s husband?’ hundreds of ugly thoughts swarmed in Khushi’s mind. She knew the man from her nightmares. He was the one who had played with her cruelly; the one who had almost ran her over with the car, the one whom she had led over the bridge… she had killed him! Khushi closed her eyes, the horrible thought left her speechless.

Arnav did not like it when she closed her eyes. It made him feel shut out …as if she had withdrawn into that place within herself where he could not reach howsoever much he tried. He sought to bring her back to him…anything to bring her back and make her stay.

‘Yes, Khushi. Shyam Manohar Jha. Di’s dead husband,’ he answered and saw her flinch. He tightened his grip on her hand. ‘You…you remember him.’

Khushi did not know how to answer the simple question. Did she remember him? She remembered the face in her nightmares. She could feel the panic in her heart when she saw him, disgust rolled off her in waves at the sound of his name. ‘He was the man in my dreams. He..’ she looked at her husband helplessly. How does one put into words something so blasphemous, so ugly, so utterly wrong.

‘He was in the car.’ Khushi stopped.

 Her eyes demanded him to speak. To tell her about the past or be damned.

‘Shyam Manohar Jha was married to Di. He was a good husband to her, good to all of us because we had what he wanted…money, position in society. So he stuck to Di like a leech mostly for her money. But when he saw you, he took a liking to you,’ he heard her gasp and continued. ‘He had been fooling your family too, living in your house as a paying guest, as a bachelor…even got engaged to you before…before you found him out. And then about a year ago, he kidnapped me. Wanted to make me sign the documents which would have transferred everything I owned to his name. But…you, Khushi…you along with Mami and NK, my cousin…you all spoilt his plans. You found me, Khushi…but that day, the day …I …before we could get away, he took you away, Khushi. Took you away before I could reach you, away from me…all of us.’

Khushi sat silently, trying to assimilate the shocking bits of information.

‘That is why I did not know that you were in Lucknow. We tried to find you everywhere…all around the places where he had held me, went through his accomplices, the places he frequented in Delhi. There was no sign of either of you,’ he looked directly into her eyes, willing her to believe him. ‘Some days later, police found the car and his mangled body in the river.’ Arnav finished. Silence reigned.

Unnoticed by either, Payal had walked into the room. Now as she came to sit on the arm chair, Khushi turned to her sister whose eyes were fixed on Arnav. ‘Jiji,’ Khushi called out to her.

Payal nodded jerkily. ‘Yes, what Arnavji says is true Khushi. Shyam…Shyam was responsible for all…for most of the things that went wrong last year.’

Arnav did not miss the implications behind Payal’s words – the man was not responsible for all, but most of the things that went wrong…but then, at present such nuances did not concern him. His entire being was concentrated on the bewildered girl sitting next to him. He could hear her mind processing the skeletal sketch of the past he had painted for her, glossing over its harsh details. Khushi would draw her own conclusions…he dreaded the uncomfortable questions that would soon come.

Khushi heard her sister’s words corroborate Arnavji’s story. Not that she doubted it for a second. She had known that he was telling her the truth. She had seen it in the distress in his eyes. Then what had she asked her sister…perhaps she wanted Jiji to add something more…there must be something more. Arnav’s story was…was too…she didn’t know how to put in words…but it raised as many questions as it answered. And she wondered if Jiji would fill in some of the blanks.

But Payal did not. Perhaps there was nothing more to it. What she learnt was traumatic enough…was it this…this truth and then the shock of being in such a situation where someone attempted to kill her…where she ended up killing someone …was it this that had led her mind to shut down? And now, if she knew everything, why was her mind still not able to recreate these scenes of the past?

‘Khushi, don’t worry about all that now. The past, it is over. Thankfully the man can do no harm. And you are with us,’  Arnav took his cup of coffee from Hariprakash.  ‘We need to go for the doctor’s appointment.’

Khushi nodded, as new questions formed in her mind. Payal drew her attention. ‘Yes Khushi, you have to see the doctor. Go tell Dadi that you …you two would be leaving soon.’

Too preoccupied to see through Payal’s ruse to send her away, Khushi walked to Nani’s room, the sound of her walking stick growing distant.

Arnav narrowed his eyes as Payal looked at him accusingly. ‘You should tell her the whole thing…Khushi has the right to know the whole thing.’

‘Then she could do well to remember,’ the hateful arrogance was back. The gentle kind man who held her sister’s hand was nowhere. Payal saw ASR whom she detested.

‘You are using her condition to…to…’

‘To get my own way? You are right, Payal. Perhaps I am. Getting my own way…if that is what you think,’ he smiled at the irony of the words. ‘What do you want, Payal? I know you think I don’t deserve any forgiveness…perhaps I don’t, but I need her…and she…is in such state…that..’

‘Whatever be her state, it should be Khushi’s choice…her decision. You made the mistake of trying to protect Di without telling her anything. You took away her choice to decide about her marriage, her life…because you felt she was too weak. You took away Khushi’s choice by not giving her chance to tell her story. And now you are making the same mistake again. It should be Khushi’s choice.’

‘Payal, don’t you understand. Somethings in life are too precious to risk…even for the sake of truth. If it happened again, I would again try to protect Di. Not in the same manner. I have learnt my lesson with Khushi. But I would still protect her and Di from any pain if I can…now and in future,’ he tried to explain himself to her. ‘And tell me something, why don’t you tell her…the truth about her marriage? About her husband?’

Payal was silent. Why did she not? Because it was not her truth to tell, as she had been telling herself whenever her conscience smote her. But also because, the truth would destroy Khushi’s chances of happiness…she was afraid that it would destroy her sister, take her away from them once again. She wanted to thrust that difficult task on the man sitting in front of her. Was she also trying to protect Khushi…and herself from the difficult task of telling her the truth.

In a way, they were all hiding behind Arnav – his acceptance of his errors and his guilt – as if by thrusting  the responsibility of the past on him, they were all absolved of their own errors…He loved Khushi, Payal did not doubt that and yet he risked all by willingly becoming a scapegoat for all of them. For a moment, it struck Payal…he was not so different from Khushi who had sacrificed her life for her sister and bore the burdens of the world to keep her loved ones happy. He did the same…

Arnav watched the play of emotions on Payal’s face. He wanted to mend the relations he had so callously destroyed a year ago.  So he continued.

‘You know, Payal, you might not admit, but I do. When it comes to Khushi, I have become a coward,’ ASR sat back, leaning his head against the backrest, his eyes closed. ‘Cowardly and selfish. I cannot tell her the truth and watch her walk away from me. There is no way that I can risk that…I, more than all of you, because…because if that happens, you would all move on. You will miss her, there would be a void in life, but you would fill it with other things. Even Khushi, she would be hurt, and she would be unhappy for sometime…but she would make a life for herself…she did in Sheesh Mahal, didn’t she? She is strong that way but…but what will happen to me? I would not be able to move a step. I will be left behind – alone, aching, hopeless. There would be no life for me without her….no present, no future. If I can’t belong to her, then there is no point in living. I will be no one.’

Minutes ticked by. Payal was jolted, struck speechless by his admission of his weakness, his complete dependency of her sister. Never in her dreams had she thought that the hateful man whom she held responsible for her sister’s state lived with this tangled web of complicated emotions.The veil of arrogance slipped away to reveal a man who cared, was too scared to face the loss of another loved one. Payal could not help but sympathize with him.

‘You know what is said about half truths. They are more dangerous than lies. What will you do when she remembers?’ Payal could almost feel afraid for him.

Arnav shook his head. ‘I don’t know what I will do then. But i know what i want to do now. I want to make her so happy…that she believes in me…that I care…that she is my world. When the time comes, I will leave it to her…I trust her…she is generous, isn’t she? But I will not tell her…I cannot tell her myself and see my life fall apart. I am content to live in this…this small bubble of happiness. I am sorry Payal…I am selfish…selfish to my core where your sister is concerned.’

He turned away towards the direction of dadi’s room. And sure enough, the sound of Khushi’s walking stick grew louder. Her sister was not the weaker one in this relationship. She could not be defeated because she would always get up and prepare for the next battle of life. It was him…hiding behind the mask of arrogance, with all his weaknesses and insecurities that made him so harsh, ASR, with all his money and power, he was the helpless one when it came to her sister.

Payal watched Khushi as she walked backed into the room and the man came alive, literally.

********

‘Does di know?’ was her first question as soon as they settled down alone in the car.

He nodded. ‘Everyone knows about his true colours, Khushi. It is over. You are back. Now we can all forget him and move on.’ Arnav tried to draw her attention away from the earlier revelations.

His heart was still heavy after his confession to Payal. He had seen some relenting, some amount of forgiveness dawn in the eyes of Khushi’s sister. How he wished that he could offer similar words to Khushi, tell her all that he felt, lay bare his heart and wait for her to forgive him. But what would his mere words do when pitted against all that he had done to her in the past. How could he offer them when his actions had done so much damage – damage whose effects she still bore – in her mind, on her body. No…he had to show her…he had to fix things for her before he could ever hope for forgiveness…all that he asked for was time …a chance to change.

‘When did you know…about him….and me?’ her being revolted with very thought of being put in the same sentence as that disgusting hateful man.

‘How does it matter? Leave it, Khushi,’ he answered wearily.

‘When?’ she persisted. ‘was it before …before we married…or later?’

He did not like the train of her thoughts. He did not like where they were going.

‘When?’

‘Before,’ he answered harshly. ‘I knew it before we got married. Can we talk about something else?’

A silence followed the outburst – a silence in which the next question she asked echoed against the walls of his heart.

‘Then why did you marry me?’

————————–

Ok…this update and some in the next few days are going to be short and erratic.  I am in the middle of shifting and then would be slightly busy till September 20. But after that, i hope to be so free that it might be two -three a week.  Till then, please bear with it and dont forget ‘Unforgettable’! :-D.

And yes…amnesia stories…

Only Ghajni  (suggested by Serendipitylove) and 21 days that I remembered. Of course, Lyra 99’s stories.  Are they so rare? I thought Amnesia was pretty cliched! what say?

Chapter 15: The Dreamy Terrains

She was in pain…terrible pain. The skin of her palm was torn. She could feel the stickiness of blood. The knee jarred against the pavement. The car sped away, its rear tyre scrapping against her leg. The door hung open – the door from which she had fallen out…no, she had jumped out…why? Why did she jump out of a moving car?

 

She sat gazing at its taillights, gulping in fresh air – for a moment there was relief …. and then a distant screech. It was turning. The car was turning around.

 

‘No one will come for you, Khushiji. No one will help you. No one will come to save you.’

 

Words hammered in brain…she wanted to shake them out…shake them out of her mind. The car…halted for a moment after taking the turn and then it restarted. It was moving…moving towards her ….she looked around…there was no one to help.

 

‘No one, Khushiji. They will think you ran away. Who would care now?’

 

‘You know what, you have no character, Khushi,’ another voice, heard weeks ago, joined the chorus.

 

The voices hurt her head, the words tore her heart.  She looked around for an escape. The highway was deserted…sound of lapping water….a stone railing…she was on a bridge.  Stars in the sky, car accidents in the dark…darkness, how she had dreaded the darkness…since that car accident…which accident…she shook her head trying to remember..another accident when she had lost everything.

 

‘You ran away…with your lover. No one believes you…no one will ever believe you …. You have no choice.’

 

‘You have no character, Khushi.’

 

Disjoined words, hurtful words….she did not want to think about them. Stars in the sky calling out to her. Take care, my daughter. Get up, run, Khushi, run.

 

‘You have no choice…come with me or die…. I have seen to it…you can never go back.’

 

‘…no character.’

 

She pushed back the words…tried to bury them in her mind. Later.. later once the danger had passed, she would think…

 

The car was nearing, headlights rushed towards where she lay, fallen. She caught the maniacal gleam in the eyes of the man behind the wheels.  He was not going to stop. She got up, her knee buckled…she had to move away…move away fast, she dragged her injured knee and hurried away…on the pavement,…as fast as she could…lugging her broken leg…leaving behind a trail of blood.….her hair flayed around her…torn, tangled, the dupatta had fallen somewhere …somewhere her face bled…where, where was all this blood coming from?

 

‘No choice…come with me or die.’

 

The words would not go away. She banished them at the back of her mind, firmly… don’t think about what has passed. Think about the present, think fast…The headlights wouldn’t stop. The maniacal gleam pursued her…eyes of the devil. The engine roared behind her. She looked back, the car was tilted now, one side on the pavement on which she moved…. it moved towards her.

 

‘Come with me or die…no one will come’

 

Her spirit wavered. Every part of the body throbbed… one step after another…hurry…it is gaining on you…one step, another step…the knee, oh her knee. She would never be able to outrun it…she will never be able to outrun her bad luck.

‘No one will come’

 

‘Come with me or die’

 

She was near the end of the bridge…the driver of the car slowed down…he was playing with her… She came to a stand still…the car moved slowly towards her….slowly…playing the game…the hunter and the hunted….the cruel grin slashed beneath those evil eyes….she moved again slowly…it picked up speed…. Amid the mind numbing pain, a plan…another madcap plan, Khushi’s plan…she knew what to do.

 

‘Come with me or die’

 

‘Come with me….’

 

Gathering all her speed she started moving fast…fast…faster…faster…there was no other way out. Faster…the driver was getting angry, the engine roared…rushing towards her …full throttle…. She moved towards the railing…the car was on the pavement now…

 

‘…or die.’

 

Now was the time…she climbed the railing, the car lost control….splash…the coolness hit her…

‘Come with me or die.’

 

Sleep, silence, peace.

She drowned in them….here nothing hurt her…numbness … a different kind of darkness…darkness that healed…she wanted to stay there….she did not want to wake up…she did not want to hear those words again…banish the words, banish the memories.

But someone wouldn’t let her …

‘Wake up, Khushi. What happened? Are you okay…Khushi…Khushi, please.’

The hand on the shoulder shook her slightly. A familiar touch, a familiar voice. She opened her eyes with a jerk. They clashed with a worried pair, bending over her…’Are you okay? You were crying?’

The room came into focus. Khushi sat up as Arnav lowered himself on the side of the bed. Her back was drenched in sweat.

‘Was it a nightmare?’

Khushi nodded.

Arnav stretched out his hand to pick a glass of water from the side table and handed it to her. She gulped it down, its coolness pushing away the remaining effects of dread and panic. She leaned back against the bed rest, closing her eyes to calm herself. The heartbeats slowed down. She felt another set of fingers coming to surround hers, rubbing their warmth into her cold hands.  A soft glow of night lamp surrounded them.

‘Do they happen often?’ Once again Arnav wondered how little he knew about her life in the last one year.

‘No. They used to…immediately after the accident. Doctors said it was my mind trying to remember. But…’

‘But?’

‘But after I came to Sheesh Mahal and settled there, they stopped…within a first few nights. There was too much work there for dreaming.’ She opened her eyes to look at him. ‘I am sorry, I woke you. Was I noisy?’

He shook his head without taking his eyes off her. ‘Just thrashing around and muttering something…something like ‘run Khushi, no one will come. What do you see?’ he asked softly after a pause, as if reluctant to ask the question.

‘I don’t remember much…the words buzz around my head…and a car…a car rushing towards me…and I am trying to run…but my knee…my knee wouldn’t let me…and it keeps coming…at me…keeps coming till..’

‘Till?’

‘Till I jump of the bridge.’

A sharp intake of breath as he turned to her in shock. ‘You jumped.’ His heart came to a standstill. Arnav was sure it was vision of the night of accident. Probably the stress of the day, the strain of being in this room, meeting the people she knew and didn’t. All of it together had brought back the memories which the security of Sheesh Mahal had lulled to sleep….memory of her desperate attempt…to…to kill herself. She had not fallen off the bridge, she had jumped…she had tried to ….he could not even think. Khushi…the ever hopeful Khushi, she had been so desperate that she had jumped into the river.  “You did not fall, you jumped,” he whispered again, the words burned themselves on his heart and mind.

Khushi saw his fingers clench over hers. He looked shocked at the idea. ‘Yes, and the car follows me in the water,’ she was quiet for a moment. There were so many questions she wanted to ask. Only if he would answer. She looked at his fingers tightly gripping hers. ‘It was just a nightmare. A dream. I know what you are thinking. But it might not even be true.’  He nodded slowly, knowing that it was lie. She dreamt of that night…the night of the accident.

She knew he was not convinced. He sat still looking into her face as if trying to reassure himself. Khushi looked directly into his eyes and began again, cautiously. ‘You know, I also see a man … and I hear him. He is …is evil…and his words…words I was muttering. “no one will come to save you,” “ no one believes you,”  “come with me or die” – his words keep going around my head…Do… Do you know that man, Arnavji?’

Minutes passed, and as she had expected, the curtain of wariness came down between them. He was still worried, but he grew cautious. The hands enclosing hers so tightly loosened gradually, held hers for a couple of minutes and then let go, reluctantly.

‘You should rest,’ he withdrew. ‘There are still a couple of hours before morning. Try to sleep.’ He got up slowly.

‘Do you know that man?’ she persisted.

‘We will meet the specialist in a day or so , Khushi. See what the doctor says,’ he turned away. ‘Till then, you should take it easy.’

She hid her annoyance but stayed quiet. She was getting used to it. She stocked all that he evaded in her mind…and her mind, emptied out of the memories of the past, concentrated on the present and remembered it with a stark kind of clarity. Every conversation with her husband was clearly etched in her mind.

Arnavji knew about the accident, he knew about the car, yet he did not know where she was going. And now the man who had rushed to her in the car…she knew that he knew that man. And so did she…who was the man? And what did his words mean? The voice? No…voices…there was another voice… ‘You have no character, Khushi’ ….did it sound like…No!…that was not possible.!!!

Khushi lay awake that night, aware that Arnav too was not asleep. Yet the easy conversation of the evening was a thing of past. For a moment, she forgot her annoyance when she remembered the evening.  Had their relationship been always like this – always swinging to and fro – up and down, up and down – like the waves before they hit the cliff and broke.  There was no rest, no knowing, …no…no…trust. The word came to her as sleep enveloped the mind and body once again.

It is trust…we do not trust each other.

As he heard her even breathing, Arnav knew that Khushi was asleep. He had been lying motionless on the recliner…his mind still trying to come to terms with the fact that Khushhad been in such desperate situation. …she had been so helpless, so sure that no one would come to help her. There was this urgent need to see her closely, almost like an ache around his heart – to see her to reassure himself that she was there. He stood up and walked to the bed. She slept peacefully in their bed in their room. The sight eased him somewhat.  For some time he sat beside her, reassuring himself with her nearness, her warmth. ‘I am sorry,’ he whispered.  The words were meaningless.

He knew that if she persisted with her questions, soon he would soon run out of excuses. He would have to tell her everything.  Some more time…he told himself…some more time …

Just till she believes that I care. Till she can trust me.

The next morning Arnav mailed his cousin… the man of whom he had been so jealous of once. Rightfully so, he had often thought later. Probably even then he knew that Khushi would have been better off with NK…NK had sensed her goodness and warmth, had made her happy, had made her laugh. He had helped her when she had no one. Like Payal, NK had left them soon after Arnav’s revelations.  Over the year, he had not kept in touch and neither Arnav not Akash had tried to write to him. What was there to tell?

It would take some time to come from  Sydney, Arnav thought. But if he knew NK, Arnav was sure he was going to be here soon.

Two days later in the evening, as Khushi waited for Arnav, she went over her days in Raizada House. Arnavji had been right.  They cared…all of them, as much as they were capable of, even Mamiji. But most of all Arnavji.  After the nightmare, they had been cautious and tentative once again. Both of them remembered the conversation with great clarity…each aware of the other’s vulnerability as well as their lack of trust. When the horrible dream had revisited Khushi the next night, Arnav had been there, shaking her up from the sleep before she was lost in terror.  This time she did not ask the uncomfortable questions and he kept sitting next to her till went to sleep again.

Khushi had resolved to talk to Payal. But two days later, she still procrastinated in bringing up the past with her sister. Yet as they sat waiting for Arnav, Khushi did bring it up, albeit, unintentionally. She had been sitting with Anjali and Payal when Aditi, who was in Nani’s room, called for her mother.

Khushi watched Anjali rush away, her grace and elegance hardly marred by the limp.

‘Jiji, where is Di’s husband? I have been wondering…no one talks about him and..’ as Khushi turned away from Anjili to Payal, Payal lowered her head concentrating on the Chikankari embroidery she held in her hands. But not before she had caught the look of utter shock on Payal’s face. ‘Jiji, what is it? Where is he?’

‘He…he is dead, Khushi,’ Payal answered shortly, refusing to look up.

‘Oh…but Aditi is not even one…I mean, when?’

‘About a year ago.  Leave these sad things, Khushi,’ Payal continued with forced brightness. ‘Buaji had asked us to come over. Probably next week. Lets ask Dadi tonight.’

Khushi knew Payal was trying to divert her attention. But something about the words held her. ‘A year ago,’ she repeated, half listening to Payal. ‘That must be around the time I …I ..went away. Right?’

‘Khushi…’

‘Jiji, please…’

‘Please what?’ Payal still did not meet her eyes. ‘Why do you want to talk about those days. They…they were horrible, you know!’

‘No. I don’t. I don’t know anything, Jiji,’ Khushi looked at Payal earnestly, trying to make sense of what she had just learnt.

Payal watched Khushi as she puzzled over the facts she had revealed unknowingly.  She felt an urge to protect Khushi, especially now when she was asking about the darkest episode of the past. It was not her truth to reveal. Yet she could not lie. Payal moved towards Khushi and ran a hand on her head. ‘There is nothing. Those were terrible days. You had disappeared and two days later, Di’s husband had passed away….very bad time for the family.’

‘How did he …you know…what happened to him?’

‘A car accident,’ Payal shook her head, trying to shake away the horrible memories. What would she not give to forget it all.

‘Oh….’ Was Khushi’s only response.

‘So when we visit buaji’s house, I will show you the accounts…for your dabba service…and other things…’ Payal continued. ‘lets see what the doctor says. You can then take over next week…’

Khushi was not listening. A car accident, the words buzzed in Khushi’s head. A car accident. A car …a car…she had made one fall in the river, the car being driven by a devil. A car accident. Who was he? Khushi looked around. There were no clues. With half a mind, she listened to Payal telling her about next week’s visit to Buaji’s house.

‘So next week, okay?’ Payal asked.

Khushi nodded. Some how she had a feeling that her husband might have problems. She would speak to him later. Now she had other things on her mind. Once again she looked around before turning to Payal. ‘Jiji, why are there no photos here. Can I see some…our wedding…others…?’

Payal was silent for a moment before she gave in with a sigh. Our wedding? Wedding Album? There was no album for Khushi’s wedding. What would she tell her if she asked? What had Arnavji told her, Payal wondered.

But she could show Khushi her own album – the reminder of those happy sylvan says when it had felt that nothing…nothing could wrong. When, if someone had told them that their world would fall apart in a few days, the two sisters would have laughed at him? Yes, she could share those memories.  Payal rushed to her room and came back with a thick set photo album.

‘Here Khushi. The wedding album,’ Payal carefully avoided saying my album.  ‘take this. Dadi has asked for tea. I will go and make a cup for us too. Call me if you need something. ’

Khushi took the album eagerly and turned to the first page. It was a family photo.  All of them stood together. There she was, her bangle laden hand waving in front of Arnavji’s face who looked at her severly, with a feigned indifference. Khushi smiled. She looked so happy, happy and full of life… young.

Her eyes moved away to other people in the picture. Payal, Akash, Nani, buaji, Di and …. Khushi gasped. The door bell rang somewhere. Door opened, and she heard footsteps. Yet she could not tear her eyes away from the photograph…she stared into those eyes…those maniacal eyes…they had a face now.

Part 14: Being Normal

 

Once again the days started settling into a routine at Raizada house – a happy routine, Arnav thought as the family came together for breakfast. He smiled at the pile of jalebis at the center of the table. Khushi had finally managed to breech the boundaries of the kitchen from which Payal, Anjili and even Mamiji had kept her out.  She had been home for two days and the atmosphere of Raizada had changed diametrically.

He had been home yesterday, in case Khushi needed him. Today Arnav decided to go to work with Akash and come home early in the evening to take Khushi to the doctor. Probably they could have dinner somewhere, he thought. They had never done such normal things. How different things would have been had he not been scared of his own feelings earlier. He shook his head to shake off the melancholia.

No, he told himself, no point regretting the mistakes of the past. He remembered Khushi’s nightmare on that first night. It made him realize the uphill task he had undertaken. But he had decided.  He was going to create so many happy memories that whenever Khushi remembered the past, she would also remember the present. That was all he could do.

The bittersweet memories of that night made him restless. He looked around anxiously.

Where was she? She shouldn’t be in the kitchen for so long. Her knee must be aching. Was she okay? Payal and Anjili Di were also missing, he noticed. Mami was trying to feed little Aditi, who banged the side of her baby chair in enthusiasm, spilling the food on the table. Arnav smiled at Aditi, ruffling her hair before going to seek out Di. They must in the kitchen – with Khushi, he thought.

‘Jiji, if I stay one more day in the bed, I will really fall ill,’ Khushi hurried took out the last batch of jalebis and put them in the sugar syrup.

‘But you need to rest. And you are visiting the doctor today.  You can start working after that. ‘

‘Uff …jiji, you sound so much like Arnavji. Khushi don’t do this. Khushi you should be resting. Khushi, come to bed.’

‘So he does take care of you,’ Payal said softly almost to herself.

‘Take care… I am getting tired of being taken care of…and being put in bed by that Laad Governor all the time. If he had his way, he would never let me out of bed and we would stay in the room the whole day…I would be in bed and he would watching over me and…’

‘That’s it stop. Khushiji, Stop, stop, stop,’ Anjili’s voice interrupted her tirade. A burst of giggles followed.  Anjili and Payal stood behind her… their eyes twinkling with amusement before Anjili put on a pained face. ‘Stop Khushiji, he is my brother…and I can’t take this..’.

‘Yes, we don’t need details, Khushi’ Payal managed before falling into a fit again.

Khushi blushed crimson as the two women teased. She shook her head with an embarrassed smile as she started arranging the jalebis in plate.

‘Di,’ the man in questioned walked in. ‘I think Mami needs help feeding Aditi,’ Arnav delivered the excuse with which he had come to the kitchen. He took in the scene …the teasing merriment in Anjili and Payal’s eyes as they looked from him to Khushi, a deep crimson blushing stained Khushi’s face. A snort from Payal’s direction as the two women followed his gaze. Some women’s joke probably, Arnav shook his head.

‘Khushi, don’t exert yourself. Leave this,’ he went towards his wife, taking the ladle out of her hands and putting it on the counter. ‘Hariprakash will take care of it…come and eat and then you can go to bed and rest …’ It was definitely a snort. Arnav turned around to see Di stifling her laughter with her hand on her mouth.

Khushi was looking at him with deep mortification.  ‘Please Arnavji, go. I am finished here. I am coming.’

Payal bent on over the counter holding her stomach.

‘Go

’ Khushi urged. And he left.

Behind him he heard Khushi turn on the other two. “Kya Jiji, Di, aap log bhi na…’  her words drowned in a burst of laughter. Arnav knew he was the butt of the joke. But somehow it did not matter. Laughter was back in the house. Happiness was back.

Khushi came to sit next to Arnav still writhing in embarrassment. With the relations between her and her husband still tentative and hesitant, Di’s and Jiji’s teasing had woken her up to some rather disturbing aspects of marriage.

Did he expect…? No. He did not, her mind answered immediately. He had not tried to get close to her- he had given her the space she needed.

What had been their married life like, she wondered. Khushi wanted to look at him and try to remember but with Di and Jiji’s comments still in her mind, she felt shy. She caught the sight of his hands on the table – the hands that had held  her hands often over the few days they had been together – strong hands which had given her comfort, warmth , and strength.

And then she remembered his evasion- the evasion that had annoyed her deeply two nights ago after she had the nightmare. The next day she had caught the strange look exchanged between Arnavji and Payal jiji when her husband had come into the room as she had been arguing with Payal.

‘I know Khushi, that Khushi Kumari Gupta Dabba Service is yours…but I can run it for a few more days. Just till you get better,’ Payal told her

‘Arrey Jiji, I don’t know how long will that take. I want to know about it now.’

‘You are so stubborn Khushi, what do you want to know.  I have been keeping aside your share faithfully. Trust me.’

‘No Jiji..not that I…’

Payal laughed. ‘I am teasing you, Khushi. Why do you get so worried? Your dabba service is running just fine. You were catering to two other offices apart from AR Designs. I started looking after it with Shuklaji. Some more clients approached us but we took on just one more because…well, because we would need a bigger kitchen..’

‘We need to expand…’ Khushi said excitedly.

‘Probably. And for that you need to get better first.’

‘But…’

‘I think , Payal is right,’ Arnav interrupted the two sisters as  they had been laying the table. ‘You need to rest and get better.’

Khushi started to retort before she stopped as she caught the look exchanged between Arnav and Payal – the frankness of her husband’s face and coolness on her sister’s.  Something was amiss. They did not seem friendly.  Payal must know something about the time of her disappearance. Khushi decided to talk to her sister.

‘Khushi, you need something,’ he shook her upper arm gently. She came back to the present. Khushi shook her head as she looked at his fingers on her upper arm. The warmth from them seeped through her skin. Was it her fancy, or did he really try to touch her every time he could?  Beautiful hands, Khushi thought as she felt an urge to run her fingers over his. She stifled the urge as she tried to concentrate on her plate, the teasing still fresh in her mind. It would not be difficult to fall in love with this man, Khushi thought as she went over the last few days. But something still held her back…she needed to talk to Jiji.

As Arnav prepared to leave for home early in the evening, he called Khushi once again. She was to be ready in time, Di would help her, he told Khushi. Not that it was needed. He had told her the same things in the morning , and then again on phone, some hours after being in the office. It was not the message, but the urge to hear her voice. Once upon a time, he would have denied that truth vehemently; now he accepted it, gave into it with pleasure.

The revelations of the night of the nightmare had made him anxious.  Even when he was away from her, he liked to know…know where she was, if she was comfortable, if something worried her. Probably he was becoming paranoid – with so much simmering in his mind, with ugly truths and facts waiting, bidding their time before they came into light to destroy everything again. He wanted to know how she was every single moment. He had cried and eased his heart in Anjili’s lap…but where did he go to ease his mind. He needed to back off a bit, he told himself. Only today in the morning, he had caught Khushi rolling her eyes in irritation when he asked her to rest.  The memory brought a smile. Though she had not remembered anything of the past, Arnav started seeing glimpses of old Khushi. Slowly the old Khushi Kumari Gupta – the stubborn , I-will-not -give-up girl was coming back to life.

 

Precap

 

She caught the maniacal gleam in the eyes of the man in the car, headlights rushed towards where she had fallen.  They weren’t going to stop. She got up, her knee buckled…she had to move away…move away fast, she dragged her injured knee and hurried away…on the pavement,…as fast as she could…lugging her broken leg…leaving behind a trail of blood.

Part 15 on Monday. Till then, just a question ….when we talk amnesia, what are the first  three stories that come your mind? Let me know – films, tvseries, books, Indian, non-Indian? Lets see if it is as cliched as it usually dismissed to be.

See you on Monday. 

Part 13: Remembering

Khushi felt the earth come to a standstill. Fingers tightened around the edge of the dining table where she sat with the rest of family. She felt blood drain out of her, leaving her strangely dizzy. Naniji’s words echoed in her mind like a needle stuck on a record.

‘Khushi bitiya must be tired. Chottey take her to your room. It has been a long day.’

To the credit of the kind old woman, the words were not said with any thought or an ulterior motif. That Khushi should go with Arnav was natural for Nani. She was and always would be her grandson’s wife.

But for the two players of this drama, the words enveloped them in a shocked stillness. Khushi looked around for Payal. But Payal and Akash had excused themselves, gone to drop the Guptas back home. Khushi berated herself. During the course of the day, she had grown comfortable, with her family and her in-laws. She had felt loved and wanted and that had made her relax her guard. Now, without her sister, she felt helpless against the blind affection of her in-laws.

Khushi felt his dark eyes on her and they irritated her. Did he have to watch her every single second they were together? Don’t lie, her heart told her. Didn’t you miss him when he wasn’t there? What have you been doing for the last hour if not watching him quietly. Weren’t you looking for him when he left you with your family? Didn’t you feel a sense of relief when he returned with his sister’s daughter; the strange warmth that you felt when you saw him with his little niece; a feeling of peace when he came to sit next to you and the disquiet at the redness of his eyes?

‘Well, I don’t stare to make him uncomfortable,’ she told her cheeky little heart.

‘Perhaps you should tell him to stop doing that then…when you are alone. Tonight,’ her heart answered back with breathless excitement.

No.

‘I thought, Payal jiji…’

‘Don’t wait for your jiji, Khushiji,’ Anjili answered quickly. ‘She said she would take time. Has to gather some more of her stuff from her house.’

‘I wanted to talk to her.’

‘Arrey, talk to her tomorrow. She will be back and we will not let you go anywhere now,’ Anjili insisted.

‘Payal would not like you to tire yourself,’ the man sitting next to her said suddenly, his husky voice quelled any further argument. ‘Come Khushi. You must rest.’ He got up suddenly and waited for her to do the same.

Khushi felt she was being manipulated. She remained sitting as Nani got up to go to her room. It had been too exciting a day for the old woman.

‘Go, Khushiji. I would clear the table with HariPrakash,’ Anjili left for the kitchen.

Yet Khushi remained sitting, adamantly, her lips pursed in a thin line and the man standing next to her waited for a few moments, before sighing and asking again, ‘Come, Khushi.’

‘I need jiji.’ She refused to get up.

‘And you can have her tomorrow and forever after. But now you need rest.’ With that, the man, the stranger, her husband, bent to put one hand under her knee and other around her shoulders and slowly, giving her ample time to object, lifted her in his arms to walk upstairs.

Khushi’s objections died in her throat as a flood of feelings assailed her. Surprise, shock, soon giving away to fascination as he carried her carefully to the room upstairs, his unabashed gaze fixed on her face, scattering her thoughts so much that gathering them together seemed to much of an effort.

Anjili watched from doorway of the kitchen, her guilt at manipulating Khushi fading away rapidly at the sight. No two people were meant to be closer than these two. Yet no two people could be more out of touch with each other than these two.  Quickly she took out her cellphone to type the message.

‘Hurt her and I would join forces with Payal.’ Send

Arnav stepped inside the room as his phone buzzed. Gently he lowered Khushi in the center of the room and took out his phone, shaking his head at the message. A sudden movement drew his attention.

Khushi turned around jerkily looking at the room. The warmth of being in his arms was fading away soon,  replaced by a coldness that sent shivers down her frame. The room – the walls, the wind chimes that had rung when they entered, the colourful bedsheet and the bright stars hung on one side of the bed – and yet this pleasantness left her cold. She stepped away from the center, towards the door as if to run out. There was sadness here,  brokenness, hopelessness that she  felt slither coldly on her skin.

She turned around again. The poolside. It drew her. The water, forever shifting, playful, reflecting the moon overhead. Khushi limped out as fast as could, eager to leave behind the dark, heavy atmosphere of the room. For a moment she felt relieved. The pool was serene, she walked towards to the water and saw her reflection. There was a sense of pleasantness around her near the pool, a warmth, a happiness. Cool breeze wafted through the green plants, bringing in the smell of freshness that was absent in the room.She inhaled a lungful before turning around to take in the scene, gazing around till her eyes fell on the man standing on the other side of the window, looking dazed, confused as he slowly started towards the pool, towards her.

The brief feeling of relief disappeared as soon as he stepped out. She needed to protect herself – for a moment it seemed her mind and her heart became one as they shouted out to her hysterically. ‘Leave, protect yourself, don’t let him near you.’

Khushi immediately stepped back.

“Khushi? What happened?’ Arnav  hurried forward.

‘Stop’ she said softly. To whom? To him or to her own self. He kept on coming.

‘Stop. Stop, don’t you hear,’ her hands on the sides of her head as she shouted.

‘Khushi.’

Khushi looked around. She was caught, between a wall and the relentless man bent on pursuing her. The  ivy covered beautiful wall, a wall that sucked out all the sense of well- being, that threw her helplessness in her face,a wall where she had been at his mercy, where her vulnerability was shredded by his cruel words, where hopes were crushed, leaving behind painful scars,  time and time again.

She fell down,  her face buried in her hands, as keening cries of pain erupted in her throat.

‘What is it, Khushi? What do you remember?’ His mind went into a frenzy. He should have known. This room must hold so many blasted memories for her. She moved away jerkily when he touched her shoulder. The bridge, built so painstakingly over the day, broke in the flood of memories.

‘Something. I can’t remember. But here, here I…I have been here. Against this wall, in this corner and with you. And…’ she sniffed, quiet for a moment as if trying to think through emotions that assailed her. ‘And it was not pleasant. This room, this corner of the pool, this darkness…I don’t like it here,’ she raised her eyes. They were full of accusation, blaming him for her pain.

How could he apologize when she did not remember. How could he explain the feeling when she did not even realize which incident of the past she was talking about. Was it when he had been drawn to her like a moth to a flame on the Diwali night? Should he explain to her that he was a cad who had tried to kiss her and then told her it meant nothing before declaring his intentions to marry another girl the same night? Or did this pain come from her memories of their wedding night when he had tried to show her, her place in his life?

Tumhari jagah wahan hai…iss kamre ke bahar.

Or was it the time when he had told her how he hated her…how he had done everything to make her suffer? Or when he had bruised her body and battered her heart?

Khushi held herself tightly, her arms around her waist, doubling over as she felt pain and sorrow weigh her down. Even without the memories, they were intense. The man sitting next to her watched her, as she shunned him unknowingly, lost in her own grief. She did not want the comfort he offered.

Each sob lacerated the heart till he felt he could no longer hold himself together. Fear and pain threatened to drown him out once again. Here he had thought that he had cried out his heart’s misery in Di’s lap. For a moment, the magnitude of task he had set out to accomplish daunted him. Vision blurred with tears he could not shed. He came down next to her, sat some distance away from her, hugging his knees and rocking slightly as if the rhythm would help him with the pain, moving to-and-fro in an extremely restrained manner as if afraid to let himself go as he tried to overcome the helplessness of the moment.

He sat next to her waiting for her to collect herself. She did not want him, he did not leave. Minutes later, (or was it hours?) Khushi subsided. The flood of emotions passed over leaving behind a strange sense of emptiness, a calm of nothingness. He did not turn to look at her but he knew she was sitting next to him, across the vast gulf of memories that separated them.

‘I am okay now, Mr Raizada. I don’t know what came over me,’ her voice was calm, so cool that he hated it. No longer Arnavji.

‘Khushi,’ he said softly as he felt her shift, probably trying to get up. ‘You are right. I said some pretty awful things to you,…here in this corner and we…we fought, sometimes … ere, sometimes in the room. Said pretty hurtful things to each other,’ he swallowed. His eyes were fastened on the water. He felt he would fall apart if he looked at her tear stained face. But he knew she was listening. ‘When you first went missing, I used to remember all those things. And I would think that when I found you, I would tell you how big a liar I had been. How I had lied to you, to myself. And I was so foolish, so foolish…to believe that I would tell you all that and my meager words would erase all the suffering…can you believe how foolish I was?’

He shook his head as if mocking his foolishness.

‘And then I was not able to find you. I grew afraid. That I might never able to tell you anything. That I never meant those awful things. That this was my punishment, that wherever you were, if you ever thought about me, you would only think of those heartless, cruel words and wonder what kind of a monster you had married. That I could only be a source of pain to you in your life, in your mind. And when months passed, I had no choice but to live with that knowledge. I had to accept that. That the darkness which I hold inside me had blighted a pleasant happy girl who had the misfortune of coming in my life – that the hate I carried in me was so poisonous.’

‘You are right. This place is not pleasant – the room, the poolside. But I had to live here because, despite all the pain and darkness, here you were closest to me. So I would sit on that deck chair and remember some pleasant memories that this place also holds. Once when I shouted at you, you threw a cup of hot tea at me and then came to apoloigize…so endearingly that I could not help but forget the incident and laugh at you…,’ he smiled at the memory. ‘And when you tangled yourself in fairy lights while decorating the poolside for Diwali, and I put on the switch to see a beautiful girl lit up in small twinkling lights. You know, I could not believe my eyes for a moment, I thought I was seeing things…that I had become so obsessed that I was seeing you everywhere…but even my imagination could not reach where Khushi Kumari Gupta could…lit up in Diwali lights,’ he shook his head and looked at her. She was looking at him in rapt attention, a watery smile on her face. ‘And then, after we got married, we had fights over the bathroom and once you washed clothes in the pool, just to anger me. Do you remember the song you used to sing to irritate me?’ she shook her head, the smile remained. ‘Aaj mausam hai suhana, kapde dhone a hai bahana…what the what the what the…’

Khushi giggled and life crept back in his frozen limbs. Darkness receded a bit.

‘You know what I remember the most? The poolside, there, right against the water…’ she looked at the place where he pointed, the place where she had felt the brief touch of warmth. ‘I used to sit there.’ He continued softly. ‘That is a pleasant place here, Khushi. For you kissed me there first…’ a gasp followed the words. He remained silent giving her time to assimilate his words. ‘Yes, you kissed me there…but only after I had kissed you and thrown a challenge.’

He turned to look at her. Did he see a faint redness tint the sides of her face? He turned away quietly. Thus the two people sat quietly as a tentative bridge again opened across a wide gulf that separated them. Arnav remembered the past, in all its pain and beauty as he waited for her to speak.

The terror and pain had receded slightly, probably his words had woven a spell, Khushi thought. Sitting next to him, she had tried to relive the memories he described. She was still aware that he was being selective about the past. But she was also aware that he suffered, that there was something in past that he wanted to erase. He felt responsible for her condition. Was he? Was that the reason he offered only the happy memories, like the card he had shown to her earlier. Should she let go of the past and know only what he wanted her to remember? Did her mind also want that, Khushi wondered? Why had it not woken up through the day when she had come to the house, met the family, met her parents? It had disappointed her so much.

Khushi shook her head and remembered something. There was something that she wanted to ask. She had thought she would put the question to Payal. It would have made her Jiji very uncomfortable but she had to know. Probably she could ask him. Hadn’t he promised he would answer her truthfully? And this was not related to him.

‘Arnavji…’ she began

‘If you want, I will take you to the guest room, Khushi,’ he said simultaneously. He wanted to let her know that her comfort was most important for him.

‘No. I wanted to ask…wanted to ask Payal. But I think it is better to ask you…something buaji said…that they loved me though I was not their child…though I do not belong to them…’

He understood what she asked. ‘Buaji means well, Khushi,’  she remained silent. So he continued. ‘Your parents died when you were eight. And Garima aunty, your mother’s sister adopted you.’

Khushi was quiet for a moment. ‘Is that why no one came?’ the doubt raised its head again. ‘to look for me. Because I am an orphan.’

Arnav knew that the doubt had haunted her even before all this. Hadn’t buaji and garima aunty disowned her on their wedding night, without giving her any benefit of doubt? Hadn’t she told him once that he had orphaned her once again…as if that was a constant fear of her life?

‘We looked for you, everywhere,’ he said again. ‘They missed you terribly, especially Payal. Didn’t you see her at the airport?’

She slowly nodded her head.

‘And whether you want me or not, Khushi, I am here,’ he said with a deliberate lightness of tone before turning to her with a smile. ‘And so are your parents. They kept an eye on you for me.’

She looked at him questioningly. He looked up and pointed out at two bright stars in the dark sky of the night.

‘Look, there they are, watching us,’ he turned to her. She looked up. Once she had told him that she believed her parents were always there with her. He brought her back to them. ‘What are you doing, Khushi?’ he said teasingly. ‘Here I am introducing you to my in-laws and you do not even fold your hands and say namaste.’

Khushi giggled and complied.

‘You know, the room,’ she interrupted the contented silence which had settled between them. ‘I will stay here but you know…I know I am your wife and we should share it but…I …just that I…’ she fumbled with words in embarrassment.

Arnav nodded. ‘You don’t feel comfortable sharing the room with me?’

Khsuhi swallowed and nodded.

‘Then probably I can stay here, if you want…you take the room?’

What made him say that? Probably the conversation earlier that still lurked in the mind. He waited for her to point out that he could go to the guest room. But the poolside would be closer.

‘No. If you could take the couch…I mean, if it is okay with you.’

Arnav nodded, bending forward to hide his elation that he was sure marked every feature on his face now. He heard her trying to get up. She still did not ask for help. But when he stood up and bent down to help her, she did not flinch away.

And so, ASR, the man who once claimed that he did not trouble himself with things like feelings and words used both these things and succeeded for the time being. There was work still to be done…but today with words and by laying his heart open, he bought something he desperately needed – time with his wife.

Part 12: For there is no friend like a sister – 2

Part 12: For there is no friend like a sister -2

For a long time afterwards, Anjili often wondered if the sun had risen from the west that day, that if someone would have pinched her in the morning probably she would have woken up from the  dream like state which had descended on the Raizada house that day.

Indeed, the morning had been normal – like every other morning. She went about directing the servants, helping in the chores and like every day, wishing that her bhabhis would return soon. Only that would lift the pall of gloom that hung over the house.

If it was not for her little Aditi, life would be unbearable. In her newfound sense of reality and balance, Anjili was slowly taking up earlier passion of designing sarees and ethnic wear. But she spent most of her time with her little girl, Aditi. Aditi was her solace, a split image of her own mother. Even Chottey, who stayed away from everyone these days, was drawn to the little girl.  Often as he watched Aditi, Anjili caught a ghost of a smile on his face always underlined by wistful loneliness in his eyes.  She was aware that little Aditi could not fill the void in her brother’s life as she had done in hers. That was the place of another girl – the girl who had gone missing from their lives for long -too long. As she heard Aditi’s chatter with Nani, Anjili had thought about Khushi and sent up a quick prayer for her well being.

Later she marveled at the wondrous sense of irony of the Gods. When she spent hours in temples, conducting poojas and observing fasts, her world had crumbled around her; and now her simple wish sent in a hurried manner was immediately accepted and executed. When Chottey called to inform her that he would be home soon, something about the call, about the thickness in his normally harsh voice worried Anjili. Was he ok? Over the last year, he had withdrawn within himself. He rarely sought anybody. She knew he was stewing in his guilt and a sense that he did not deserve any understanding or warmth. Why did he call just to say that he had returned from Lucknow and would be home soon?

His next words pulled off the rug under her feet. ‘Di, she is…no, they…both of them…Payal and Khushi…they are with us. We would be home soon?’

The silence that followed echoed with hundreds of unsaid words.

‘Chottey…Chottey…are you still there?’ Anjili’s frantic question broke the silence. She needed to know if her ears were playing tricks on her.

‘Yes, Di. We are on our way.’ He had reined in the emotion in his voice.

‘Ok. I…ok. come home. We will talk then. Bring…bring them home fast.’

‘Yes, Di.’

Despite her surprise, the sister heard his anguish. ‘Tum theek ho, Chottey?

‘Haan, Di. Di, talk to Akash.’

And then Akash, in his usual calm and collected manner explained how Arnav had found Khushi in Lucknow. Khushiji was in a fragile state of health and no mention of past was to be made till they had consulted the doctor. Payal wanted to be with her sister and now that Khushiji was back, probably it would be the best for everyone that the family moved ahead instead of lingering in miseries of the past. Anjili nodded once again urging Akash to come soon, her heart swelling with affection for her staid and calm cousin, so different from her impetuous brother. How he had stood tall and strong – like a rock from which they had all drawn their strength during the turbulent year.

Soon all of them would be home. It seemed that Anjili had sprouted wings as she flew about the house, uncaring of her limp, calling out to Mamiji, hugging Nani with the news, telling little Aditi that soon her two Mamis were going to be back. That brief call transformed the normal gloomy day into a happy one, the likes of which the Raizada house had not seen for a long time.

All three women, waited eagerly at the house, preparing for what they would say and do when the long absent family members came back, especially Khushi. Anjili wanted to apologize for Chottey, for herself, for seeming weak and blind. She needed tell Khushi that she was always going to be there for her like Payal. Nani wanted to see her and hear her around the house – for Khushi, to Devyani Raizada, was just that – Khushi, the happiness of her house. Mami already planned to take her two daughters-in-law to task for shirking their duties in the sasural and getting down to the chores soon.

But the happiness that followed carried a keen edge of pain. The Khushi for whom they had been waiting for did not arrive. It was another girl, broken, leaning on a walking stick as she limped into the house. Anjili’s heart went out to her. She rushed ahead with open arms. And all Khushi could do was look puzzled and turn to Payal before Chottey stepped forward to introduce them.

Khushi had forgotten them all.

There was a silence as they tried to absorb the implications. There had been an accident which had left Khushi injured. Suffering from complete amnesia, Khushi had been working at Sheesh Mahal for months now.

Khushi stepped towards the Nani, the oldest member of the family and folded her hands almost apologetically. ‘I am sorry, Naniji. I…I don’t…’

Devyani Raizada could no longer stop herself. She immediately drew the girl in an embrace. ‘My daughter. It does not matter. What matters is that you are back.’ Beyond her shoulder, she looked at her erring grandson and nodded. As their eyes met over Khushi’s shoulders, Arnav remembered the last words Nani had said to him ‘Chottey, I thought you were not your father.’ The small imperceptible nod of acceptance from his grandmother took away some of the burden he still carried.

Later Anjili found Mami alone in kitchen, standing alone with her shoulders uncharacteristically slumped. When Anjili put her hand on her shoulder, she straightened up hiding the wetness in her eyes.

‘Mami, you are crying?’

Mami turned around and pointed to the drawing room jingling her expensive gold and diamond bangles before she screwed up her make-up laden face, dramatically. ‘Yes crying over my fate. Here I was thinking I was going to play the mother-in-law and have my daughters-in-law run around me. But God’s don’t seem to care.’

They do, Anjili thought as Mami left the kitchen pretending to be in a huff. They do care, but they are stingy with their blessings. She saw Chottey going out of his way to make Khushi comfortable, anticipating her wishes, asking her if she needed anything, telling her things that she needed to know. She also observed the pain in his eyes, as  Khsuhi thanked him gracefully as one would talk to a likeable stranger and turn to Payal.

When the Guptas came, they withdrew giving Khushi’s family time with their daughter. Khushi met them all with the same look of bewilderment. The sight of her father moved her as did her mother’s tears and buaji’s loud affection. But none of it brought about the event that she had been hoping for. Her memories still remained locked, much to her own frustration.

For the first time after he had found her, Arnav withdrew from Khushi’s side. For a moment, he stood watching the family, not knowing what to do with himself as others claimed Khushi’s attention.

Slowly he walked upstairs and turned to Di’s room. Di was not there. He sat on stroking Aditi’s hair as the little girl slept the sleep of an innocent.

What now? The thoughts rushed in at once. Was her memory loss permanent? Will she never remember? He did not know what to do? He had thought that the longer the memories remained buried, the more time he would have to win her over. And when she remembered, she would also remember his love and care.

But now the possibility that she might never remember herself scared him. Sooner or later she would come to know about the past. He did not want anyone else to tell her about it. There seemed to be only one way out. He would have to tell her – tell her all that had happened before she discovered someone else’s version.

But the truth was stacked so much against him. Even if he left out the callous details, his crimes against her were unforgivable. His heart quailed at the thought of sitting by her and telling her all, and watch anger and hate descend in her eyes once again. For she would hate him, of that he was sure. Wasn’t her amnesia an indication of how much she had suffered, how her mind had been so horrified that it now it kept out the memories of those painful times so guardedly. What will he do?

‘Chottey?’ Anjili was surprised to see her brother sitting in her room. The way he had been watching over Khushi, she expected him to be hovering around the hall.

‘Di. I came to get…get the phone number of the doctor. Your physiotherapist?’ Anjili noticed the red eyes, the tousled hair, the way he held himself together with an effort as he tried to speak calmly. ‘We need to see a specialist about Khushi’s leg?’

Anjili nodded and opened the drawer next to her bed to take out the doctor’s card. Arnav took the card and stood looking at it as if waiting for her to say something. As she sat on the bed, Anjili slowly pulled the hand that rested stiffly on his side and drew him down. When he refused to look at her, she put her hand on his cheek and turned his face. The eyes were bright-too bright.

‘Tum theek ho, Chottey?’ Anjili asked the same question she had in the morning.

This time, sitting right in front of her, Arnav could not lie. He shook his head jerkily.

‘Nahi Di, main theek nahi hoon,’ he said brokenly before he buried his face in her lap, his body shaking as he let his misery flow.

Anjili stroked his back holding in her own tears as she remembered the innumerable times Arnav had comforted her – after the death of their parents, after they were thrown out of Sheesh Mahal, after her marriage broke down, after Shyam’s treachery.  She held him close, putting her cheek against his head as he cried out for the mistakes of the past, the uncertainties of the future, letting go of the pretense of being in control, of being strong and uncaring, for once being what he was, a broken man.

——————-

Part 11: For there is no friend like a sister

 

‘Payal.’

 

Payal knew. The moment she saw Khushi whisper, she knew. She rushed ahead towards her sister’.so unlike her sister. The girl did not screech out loud, did not wave at her in an exaggerated fashion as Khushi would have done’ the word was a mere whisper, yet it told so much to Payal.

 

Not Jiji, but Payal. 

 

That moment Payal had known it had not happened’what she had hoped and the man standing behind her sister dreaded. Payal knew it before she came to stand before Khushi. She had prepared herself for this. Still it was painful.  Payal looked at her sister ‘ the sister who had quietly sacrificed her life for her, now injured and broken. She had been angry, was still angry with Khushi. But today was not to be the day’.one day, one day she was going to have it out with her’ but not today, today they needed each other. Payal choked back tears as she slowly raised her hands to touch Khushi’s shoulder, as if afraid that girl in front of her was only an apparition.

 

‘Payal?’ it was a question that Payal read in Khushi’s eyes and nodded.

 

Khushi had looked at the woman rushing towards her and she had known. Hadn’t Mr. Mathur said that her sister was waiting to meet her? And then the look in her eyes, the tears as she ran towards her’It was Payal, it must be Payal, her sister who was married to her husband’s brother. Khushi saw a tall bespectacled man following.  And now as she stared into the eyes of the woman standing in front of her ‘ she was sure.

 

‘Khushi,’ Payal murmured to herself. ‘Khushi, is it you? You are back,’ she raised her hand as if the make sure Khushi was real, touched her head, the forehead, the scar. And then neither knew who moved ahead first. They were hugging each other, holding on fast as the sobs wracked Payal’s body. ‘Khushi. Khushi, how could you? Where were you’so long? My sister”

 

Khushi stood in her sister’s embrace, rubbing her back as if trying to comfort her as she felt Payal shiver. Tears flowed yet she was the composed one. ‘a part of this reunion, yet standing away and witnessing all this anguish from the outside ‘ first her husband and now her sister. The doctors had been right. Her mind had been kind to her; the amnesia was a welcome relief ‘ it saved her from the pain that engulfed all those she met.

 

The curse of remembering’ were they so painful, the memories that she sought?  

 

Standing in the warmth of Payal’s embrace, once again emotions flooded Khushi ‘ the sense of knowing. She knew Payal, she recognized her as a part of her past and yet that past remained veiled; she felt the love, unconditional, warm and sisterly; unlike the uneasiness she had felt when she had met her husband, acceptance flooded her being this time.

 

 Khushi felt another hand on her head. She looked up to see the man who had followed Payal. Akash.

‘You have taken a long time, Khushiji. But you are back’,’ his eyes seemed wet as he stroked her head. ‘We are so glad that you are back.’ He looked at her and then turned to his wife. ‘ Payal’Payal’,’ he called out to the woman whose head was still buried in Khushi’s shoulder.

 

As they separated, Khushi looked at her sister, ‘Payal ji..I..’

 

‘Jiji, Khushi,’ Payal could not keep her hands away as she held Khushi’s cheek in her palm. ‘I am your jiji.’

 

Khushi nodded. It was frustrating. This limbo of remembering, of something being there’almost in her grasp and yet when she tried to reach out, it slipped from her hands’as if knowing that you have forgotten something but remembering it only as forgotten, not the thing itself. 

 

‘Jiji’and Jeeju,’ Akash pointed at Payal and then himself.

 

Khushi smiled briefly. ‘I am sorry, Jiji, I don’t seem ‘I don’t…I don’t remember, jiji,’ helplessness and frustration floated in her wide eyes. For a moment, Payal saw the eight year old Khushi who had come to their home ‘ weeping and lost, without her parents. The memory reached out to Payal.  She drew Khushi back into a hug. ‘Don’t worry, my sister. It doesn’t matter. You are here. I will be with you. Don’t you worry, Khushi. Don’t you worry any more, Khushi.’

 

‘Jiji,’ Khushi hugged her back and sighed heavily. In Payal’s arms she felt she was back. She was home.

 

 

 

Thump. Only Akash heard the muffled noise of the bag hitting the floor. While Khushi and Payal were lost in rediscovering each other, Akash turned to where his brother had been standing.

 

Arnav no longer stood there. His heart had plummeted when he heard Khushi’s whisper and then caught the sight of her rushing forward with Payal’s name on her lips. With her back to her and the emotions roiling in his brain, he neither saw nor heard what Payal heard.  That Khushi had called her older sister by her name and not Jiji, as she always did. His mind had registered just the fact ‘ Khushi recognized Payal. And then all the sane thought process came to a standstill. It was over’.all was over even before he had begun.

 

As the two sisters had fallen in each other’s arms, Arnav had slowly walked to the chair nearby and slumped before his leaden feet refused to bear the burden any longer and crumbled to dust. A wave of dizziness overcame him. Vaguely he remembered that he had not taken the medicine for his diabetes today. He had not remembered them till now. The momentous event that he had been anticipating ever since they had embarked on this journey from Lucknow to Delhi had kept him preoccupied every moment. His entire being was concentrated on Khushi, her walking stick, her anger, making her comfortable, talking to her, giving her some confidence’and now that she seemed to have made her decision, the rush of adrenalin receded, thoughts stared into the bleakness ahead, all emotions spent ‘ and into the emptiness rushed the trivialities ‘ medicines.

 

He glanced at them and turned away. Khushi stood in Payal’s embrace, accepting Akash’s hand on her head. Look, she does not flinch away from them as she does from you, the dispassionate brain pointed out to the battered heart.

 

Arnav revived at hearing Khushi’s words, the sound of those uncertain words zipped through his quivering frame giving him support.

 

‘I don’t’ remember, Jiji.’

 

He was mistaken. Khushi did not know Payal. It had just been a hunch. Khushi still does not remember. ‘Go stake your claim,’ his mind urged. ‘You have won. ASR has won once again.’

 

But he watched the two sisters. Payal wept on Khushi’s shoulder and Khushi rubbed her back, offering comfort. She had not withdrawn like she had done with him. They leaned on each other, and Arnav knew that it would not be easy to draw them apart. It would not be right to draw them apart’ without recriminations, without arousing Khushi’s suspicions, without inviting some more doubts and dislike. His shoulders slumped in defeat.

 

‘Bhai,’ Akash left the two sisters together and came to the aid of his brother. ‘Are you okay?’

 

Arnav nodded without raising his head. ‘Akash,’ he said after a moment of silence, still not willing to look up. ‘Khushi does not ‘she still does not remember.’

 

‘Yes, Bhai, she does not know Payal. You were right. As always’ Akash answered wryly.

 

‘What now?’ Arnav finally looked up, not at Akash but at the two women, Khushi smiling at her sister, leaning on her slightly, while Payal still caressed Khushi’s arm.

 

‘Khushi goes to Shantivan, with you instead of going with Payal. That is what you wanted.’ Akash said quietly, turning away from the two sisters to look at his brother.

 

ASR nodded. ‘Yes, that is what I want.’ They watched the two girls in silence. Payal helped Khushi to another set of chairs nearby and now they sat talking. Khushi rested her knee. ‘What would you have done, Akash?’ Arnav whispered.  ‘Had it been Payal, what would you have done?’

 

‘I would not have separated her from her family. I got her in a proper manner, proposed her, fought my mother, married her. Remember?’ Akash turned to look at her brother.

 

‘Proper manner? We all plotted’and planned. And lied to her.  You also, Akash. You also lied to her!’

 

Akash smiled as he remembered Khushi’s madcap plan of staging his suicide. ‘It is not the same, Bhai. The stakes are higher.’

 

‘Still’you cannot deny. I helped you.’ Arnav’s voice rose a fraction. ‘I helped you, Akash.’

 

‘I asked for help. You know, I would have fought with my mother endlessly for Payal. But I asked for help,’ Akash was looking steadily in the direction where Payal and Khushi sat. ‘I let you help, Bhai.’

 

Arnav was irritated at Akash’s refusal to look at him. So what did he want? His pound of flesh?

 

‘Then help me,’ Arnav reined in the anguish. It was Akash, his brother, his friend whom he had taken for granted, yet Akash had stood beside him despite his own anger. He could depend on Akash. When Arnav spoke again, there was no anger, the voice was soft, soft yet firm and steady. ‘Akash, you must help me. You have to’.I need help.’

 

Akash smiled. It was petty to feel vindicated at ASR’s admission that he needed help. But Payal had been right. It made one feel better.  No longer the one to follow where his older brother led. Once again they were equals, partners in mischief as they had been in their childhood.

 

‘I already did, Bhai,’ Akash turned to him with a smile.

 

 

 Akash recalled the conversation that he had with Payal nearly two hours ago, immediately after he had spoken to Arnav.

 

‘So it is again your brother’s wishes versus Khushi’s welfare,’ Payal fumed.

 

‘No, Payal. I don’t think so. If we tell Khushi what happened, in this fragile a state, it might not help her. I can see Bhai’s point.’

 

Payal refused to answer. So he continued. ‘Aman also said that Khushi’s condition is delicate. And what happened distresses us all so much’think what would”

 

‘Khushi is stronger than us all. Can’t you see that? She lived through all that for months Akash and none of us knew”

 

‘I don’t doubt that”

 

‘Fine, Akash,’ Payal huffed as he interrupted. ‘I see the point. You don’t have to irritate me defending your brother. He was wrong and nothing can change that. But that does not mean that I am going to pull Khushi into this tug of war. If she knows that she was married, then telling her about the state and circumstances of the relationship is going to be difficult. Once she is back, she will remember eventually. We all will be there for her by then, she will have her family and friends around her’.but your brother needs to take care. What will he do then?’

 

‘That is for him to see’ Khushi might decide to forgive him,’ he offered tentatively. Payal was never reasonable when it came to Bhai. Not that he could not understand her.

 

Payal stared at him as she absorbed the thought and then shrugged. ‘She might. After all, I always felt she had a soft corner for him. God knows why. But she did.’

 

‘For her sake then, can you not return to Shantivan and be with her when the moment of truth arrives?’

 

Payal said nothing. It was the first time Akash was asking to come back home.  The whole family had talked to her but she could not forget Khushi’s fate. She had been grateful for Akash’s understanding. And now Khushi was coming back. Akash wanted her to return to Shantivan.

 

‘Say if Khushi knows you,’ Akash continued, ”then it is for her to decide if she wants to come here or go to Shantivan.  It would be Khushi’s decision, and you as well as Bhai would have to abide by it. No’.’ Akash stopped her before she interrupted. ‘I will see to it that Bhai does. But what if Khushi’s memories do not come back on seeing you? Then? She would need you around.’

 

It was the truth. Still, Akash knew he was being sly but for once there was this longing to have the family back together. He was going to pull them all back together. Payal’s silence meant she was thinking. Akash left her to it as he quickly made arrangements at office for his and Bhai’s absence.

Khushi’s welfare was above everything else in Payal’s mind. Her sister – suffering and broken – once again she felt a wave of anger against ASR. She thought about the erring man whom everyone had seen suffering for a year. He seemed to have changed. Yet Payal did not have any sympathy for him.

 

But then her sister was married to the man. And if…if that man, ASR, was regretting what happened, then…why…then there was a chance that Khushi might discover some happiness. Indeed neither Payal nor anyone else among the Raizadas or the Guptas, was aware of the six month contract. For them, the marriage between ASR and Khushi was valid and legitimate till the two decided to separate. And Payal knew how much her sister believed in sanctity of the bond – Khushi would have made every attempt to keep her marriage going.

 

Would she, Payal, be right in separating them? Should she tell her injured and distressed sister about the events of the past? Or should she stand besides her sister as Khushi rediscovered herself and made her decision? Payal spent hours thinking about it?  Was there a point in raking up the past? Was it her truth to tell?

 

 

When they left Gupta house for the airport, Akash was relieved to see that Payal had already taken her bags and belongings, telling Amma and buaji that she was thinking of moving back with her husband and try to work out things between her and the family.

 

‘You know, I desperately wish that Khushi remembers me,’ Payal told Akash later in the car. ‘Just to see the dismay on ASR’s face, I wish’.’

 

‘Payal! He has suffered so much. Anyone can see that. And he is still suffering I think. Seeing Khushi in this state’even on the phone, he could not”

 

 ‘I don’t want to pull Khushi into this tussle but’,’ Payal interrupted him once again not willing to hear his brother’s defence. ‘Remember how he dismissed me…us…our feelings on this without consideration. For once, I want to be petty, downright petty and vindictive. After all, if Khushi decides to forgive him, we will all have to. But for once, I want him to suffer…a little bit, on our account.’

 

 Akash remembered his wife’s words. She would be satisfied to know that ASR had suffered, indeed stewed on her account, even though Khushi had not remembered her.

 

‘We…Payal has decided to come back to Shantivan,’ Akash told Arnav.

 

No reaction. The silence drew him and Akash turned to his brother. Arnav stood watching him with his eyes wide. One whole year, he had apologized; Nani, Di, Mami – all had called her. Payal had been polite to all but him – but she had not budged.

 

And now, just like that…

 

‘Come bhai,’ Akash reached out and held his shoulder. ‘Let’s go and have coffee. We need to call up everyone at home and give the news. Give them time. Prepare them. …you know it is going to be a long day.’

 

‘Yes…’ Arnav managed to murmur as he recovered from shock. ‘Yes, I need to take my medicines.’

 

As they walked towards Khushi and Payal, Arnav smiled gratefully at Payal. Payal caught his gaze. She knew Akash had informed him of their decision. To Arnav’s dismay, Payal nodded coolly before turning away. 

 Later, in the coffee shop at the airport, as they got coffee, he asked Akash. ‘Payal is still angry, isn’t it? Why do you think she agreed?’

 

‘Why, Bhai? Because my wife is a better person than you.’ Akash smirked as Arnav nodded wryly and they turned to table where Khushi and Payal waited for them.

 

10. What’s there in a name?

The plane jerked at the turbulence in the air. Arnav’s eyes widened as he reached out to steady the glass of water she had put on the table in front of her.  ‘Thank you Arnavji. Yes, as I was staying, people call it unlucky. Even now, when it has become a hotel, not many people come.’

Arnav sat rigid in shock, struck speechless. Arnavji! Not Mr. Raizada.  Arnavji!

She has not forgotten. She remembers. She knows me. The stab of pain at the mention of his parents was replaced by another emotion – astonishment. At its heels followed so many others, unidentifiable, merging flowing one into another, bursting through the walls of depression and guilt, a sparkling bit of the past, a mere word, only a name – yet there was so much in the name, his name as she remembered.

‘But Sheesh Mahal is beautiful to me,’ Khushi was saying. ‘Lucknow is full of such places … beautiful and old. You forgot Sheesh Mahal after buying it two years ago, didn’t you?’

Khushi chattered on; as if in response to his longing, the old Khushi had suddenly decided to splinter the wry facade and surged ahead to meet him. And his senses drowned in her voice, her words, the flickering sentiments chasing each other in her luminous wide eyes.

‘But the people there, the staff, we have been trying in our way to improve it in our small ways. I added some Lucknowi mithai to the menu. People come to taste my Jalebis and Gulab Jamuns.  You know Arnavji, what Lavanaya says? I make them like a professional. I make them all fresh. Even the kulfi and badam milk…’

She talked…talked about food, about cooking, about feeding others, things that came like a second nature to Khushi. She is there, Khushi, his Khushi, she is there. Arnav wanted to fall in her arms…and shake her…and fight with her for forgetting him.

Yet he knew that if he reached out and so much as caught her hands and held them close to his heart, she would be startled, she would push him away once again, grow distant and look at him in confusion.  For Khushi had changed, even at this moment when she was almost like her old self, he could not deny that. It was there – in her injured knee, the scar on her forehead, her amnesia, in the cloak of guardedness that clung to her like a second skin. But his old Khushi lived on in the new one. He could clasp on to those fleeting glimpses as he got to know the new Khushi.

So he looked on rejoicing in the brief moment in a tentative hesitant manner; her chatter a cool shower on the barrenness of his heart and life. Yet a fear lurked at the margins of joy. Her mind was awakening once again. What if she remembers when she sees Payal? What if she remembers too soon? What if she leaves him with no time? What if he gets no time to win her, erase the past and create new memories? ‘A stranger,’  ‘An unknown man,’ ‘a husband she did not want’ – her words came back to him.

The spell was broken soon enough. Arnav chaffed at the interruption by the air hostess asking them if they would like something to drink.  Arnav shook his head and looked at Khushi. She sat silent, staring uncomprehendingly at the air hostess as if she had been jerked out of a trance. ‘We will let you know,’ Arnav muttered dismissing the air hostess before turning back to his wife. Khushi’s blank stare shifted from the girl to her husband and then shaking her head, she seemed to recollect herself. Smiling self consciously at Arnav, Khushi turned away towards the window.

What had happened to her? What had made her chatter like that? What must he be thinking? Talking about Sheesh Mahal when he so obviously disliked the place.

In the last one year, Khushi had learnt to be quiet, think about her problems on her own, work out her solutions, give herself hope and courage to move on every day, little by little – all on her own. She had found a willing friend in Lavanaya and then later amongst the staff in Sheesh Mahal. But she had been quiet and reserved as if her amnesia had created a barrier that made her keep to herself and stopped her from reaching out to others whole heartedly.

But the chatter just now had come naturally to her…as if it was her second nature…as if the persistence of the man sitting next to her had forced it out of her.  It had taken over without her being aware of it.  Going by his reaction, it probably was. He had been astonished, but soon the astonishment had changed, replaced by a small smile as if  in her chatter, he had found some answers, some relief, some glimpse of the girl he used to know.  If that was the case, then she must have been quite a contrast to what she was being at present. No wonder her husband was surprised at everything she said and did.

Khushi cast a furtive look at him and turned away immediately seeing his eyes trained on her. Arnav felt a violent longing swell up in his chest. He had to bring her back. He wanted hear his name again in that carefree manner; he wanted to feel and caress the hope that rose in his breast with that careless utterance.

‘What is it Khushi? Why so quiet so suddenly? Something happened?’ he asked.

‘I…I…’ what could she say? Apologise for letting her tongue run away with her? Ask him if she was a chatter box earlier. She did not know what she wanted to ask?

Khushi shook her head. She was confused. Confused by herself. And lying…lying that she had no questions. He could tell by the way she refused to meet his eyes.

‘You can ask me for anything, you know?’ he said, reckless in his desire to assure her, forgetting that their present understanding stood on the fragile foundations of half-truths and falsehoods.

His words stopped her. She looked at him in his eyes.  ‘And you will tell me all? Truthfully?’

The word hung between them. ‘Truthfully.’ Truth, the word mocked the two people who sat looking at each other assessingly. Had it ever existed between them? Once she had carried the burden of one onerous truth alone, hiding it from him, carrying it faithfully on her frail shoulders. And he had misunderstood her, hidden his own knowledge…that he knew that shameful secret that would destroy Di’s life and then used it as an excuse of make her life a living hell. Now the word hung on his conscience once again. The suppressed truth. The contract. It should never surface. No,in a relationship built on relentless attraction, misguided hatred, secrets, misunderstandings and desperation, there had been no space for truth. Arnav saw that…saw that now.

The impersonal voice of pilot infiltrated the surroundings, bringing them back. They would soon be landing in Delhi. The passengers should put on the seat belts.

Arnav knew his time was up. The moment of truth was here. He turned around, helping Khushi with her seatbelt and then sat bent over her, till she looked up, right into his eyes.

‘Truthfully, Khushi, as much as I can, I will tell you truthfully. But there …there are somethings that I cannot…’ he sighed and sat back on his seat, defeated. His eyes closed. ‘Khushi just…just know this…I am always going to be around now.  And you don’t need to worry. There would be others who care, who have always cared …and if it makes you happy and you want to go with them…’. Arnav had to force the words out even if they ripped his heart, for her sake, he had to say this.

His eyes were still closed. They made Khushi panic as much as his words. For a moment, she felt at sea…with no guiding light to lead her.  ‘Why? Why would I go with anyone else? You are my husband, aren’t you? You said we were going home.’

‘Khushi, I said if you wanted…’

‘But why would I want that? At Sheesh Mahal, you said that you would be there…’

‘And I would be. Trust me.’

‘I did…’ she desperately tried to rein the dread that rose to block her throat. ‘… and I came with you. I don’t know anyone and …and now you say that others…’ Khushi reached out for her bag. Lavanaya’s number was still there. She would call her as soon as she could.

Arnav saw the panic in her eyes as her hand clutched at her bag. He reached out and held them. Khushi did not flinch; she looked at him steadily, fighting the waves of anxiety washing through her. She would be alright, she promised herself. She would be alright.

‘Khushi, I said if you wanted. But I hope, I truthfully hope that you would come with me. Because…because, Khushi…’ he had to say this.  Give her the words, the truth that would bind her to him. ‘Because I don’t think I can live like this anymore. Believe me, I need you more than you need me. I cannot go away…’

It is you, you might choose to leave me, his heart completed the impassioned declaration when the words fell silent at the thought.

His eyes were steady and firm. The warmth from his hands permeated through the cold clamminess of her palm. Khushi nodded slightly. The bubble of panic subsided, replaced by an unknown and welcome feeling of contentment.  Was it trust? He had acknowledged now, directly, that there were things he was hiding, things that he could not tell.  For now she accepted, as much as the look in his eyes when he told her that he would be there.

The airhostess cleared her throat noisily, slightly embarrassed at disturbing the couple.  ‘Sir, you need to put on your seat belt. We are about to land.’

They disembarked in Delhi and Khushi leaned on her stick once again, accepting help this time, with a marked absence of her earlier irritation, leaving the luggage and other tasks for Arnav.

She noticed his preoccupation, as if his thoughts were already running ahead of him. Khushi also noticed his attempts to stay as close to her as possible without making her uncomfortable. As they started moving towards the exit, his steps slowed down considerably. Khushi looked at him questioningly. He shook his head and sighed. ‘Let’s go, Khushi.’

It could no longer be postponed. Arnav looked ahead, steeling himself as he scanned the sea of people-people waiting eagerly for their friends and loved ones to disembark. He heard exclamations of joy and happiness all around him and they rankled, rankled in his ears and heart engulfing him in a strange sense of desperation.

Will she remember? The past? His words? His whole being was concentrated on the click of the walking stick that sounded steadily next to him, its rhythm giving him courage to put one step ahead after another.

And then he saw them – Payal, her eyes wide in surprise, gripping the steel railing and Akash, holding her as he stared at his brother and sister-in-law.  Arnav saw them and faltered for a moment before moving steadily towards them. Payal rushed ahead, with a strange mix of joy and pain on her face, tears gathering slowly on her cheeks as she almost broke into a run.

It stopped.

The click of the walking stick. And with it, his heart.

‘Payal,’ Khushi whispered her sister’s name. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her walk ahead quickly, the rapid clicks of the walking stick indicating her hurried steps towards her sister, leaving him standing behind. ‘Payal.’