He signed the last of the papers on his desk and glanced at the watch on his wrist. Twenty minutes past eleven. Every one would be asleep. Perhaps he could get back quietly into the house and begin preparing for the journey tomorrow.
His eyes fell on the file his brother Akash Singh Raizada had sent for him. He still needed to go over it. Picking it up, he flipped the pages. An office boy had walked in couple of hours ago,’Sir, Akash sir wants you to have a look at these and sign.’ ASR dismissed him without looking up. When was the last time Akash had come to his cabin, sat around for a chat, when…Arnav Singh Raizada shook his head.
‘Don’t go that way. He has been there throughout, standing like a rock for everyone. After you destroyed everything …fed all love, life, happiness around you into the flames of anger. Why do you want mercy when you showed none? Why do you want understanding when you denied it to the other? Why do you want love, friends, family, when you had wrenched it all away from an innocent.’
He remembered Akash’s words on that terrible morning. ‘I am afraid to ask Payal what…what she thinks of me. I feel so…so small. Bhai, you have made me so small,’ the words played in his mind, buzzing around in a loop like a needle stuck on a record, echoing against the thin walls of memories that seemed to partition his life – before her, after her.
He closed his eyes for a moment.
‘Kitne gire huye hai hum? Aur aur bhi ghir sakte hain. Jaante hain kyun? Kyunki hum apne pati se baut pyaar karte hain.’
Immediately Khushi Kumari Gupta staged her return with words that tugged mercilessly at his battered heart. She would still never keep away. Like a nagging, arguing, never-give-up kind of girl she was, she persisted even now, imprinting herself on the back of his eyelids, smiling in a way that taunted him beyond endurance.
At first he would often reach out for her, and was left clutching at empty air, while she just disappeared. These days, he let her do what she wanted, visit him, plague him, argue with him…talk to him, look in his eyes with her wide hazel ones asking for some understanding, be with him for some time in this deep well of loneliness that he had been living in for over a year. So what if she was only an image conjured up by his fevered mind that ran in circles still, tirelessly month after month asking him the same unanswerable questions : What if he had stayed back for a few moments more on the terrace on that horrible night? What if he had given her a chance to explain? What if he had tried to share his pain with her instead of inflicting a more severe one on her? What if…he sighed pushed the thoughts at the back of his mind. Life had been full of ‘what ifs’ for a long time.
He signed the papers in Akash’s file without giving them a glance. The business to which he had given so many years of his youth had little meaning these days. Khushi, the cursed name, that girl who had fallen in his arms so long ago blasting him out of his torpor that evening, she had taken care that nothing in his life remained the same.
Taking his car keys, he walked in to the car park. His heart skidded to a halt. Someone had left a packet of ber on the bonnet of his gleaming SUV. They drew him as if tugging the invisible chords of memory.
‘Who is it? Who has left these here?’ he circled the car. ‘Is there anyone?’
A young watchman came running, panting with exercise and now with fear. ‘Sorry Saab. I was eating and some one needed help in the parking. I will just clean up.’
‘Yes,’ ASR roared. How dare it be him? How dare he play such tricks on him. ‘How dare you leave this filth on my car. Take it away.’ He reached out with one hand to sweep away the fruits.
‘Humare ber phenk diye?’
A soft voice muttered in accusation, deflating his anger and it took all his strength to stand, to keep his knees from buckling and the spine from crumbling.
‘Please,’ he pleaded with the boy who was hurriedly picking each little fruit from the car, casting anxious glances at man. Ways of the rich, the boy shook his head and left.
The drive to home was accomplished in a trance.It was late; the house was quite. As usual most of the inmates had gone into a peaceful slumber – a peace that had been wrenched away from the lonely man who sat under the stars every day.
He walked into the room, threw his jacket on the bed, tugging his tie loose and then wrenched at the buttons of the shirt. He refused to look around as he walked to his stash of drinks, illegal in the Raizada house. Poured himself one and walked to the poolside. And then, as if the burden of the day had become too much, he sprawled on the deckchair, his gaze fixed on the swirling golden liquid glinting in the crystals of the whisky tumbler in his hands. He took a sip and the bitter warmth of alcohol trickled down his throat.
Thus sat Arnav Singh Raizada, the business tycoon , the owner of AR Designs, the man frequently dubbed as the handsome young magnate by the press. His eyes stuck on the twinkling stars on the firmament searching for someone he could never find.
‘Now is the time, come to me Khushi,’ the heart whispered and opened the gates of his heart, mind, memories. The boundaries held firmly closed all the tim, tumbled open.
Today she chose the most painful episode from the past. He re-lived every second of the day when he had escaped with Khushi’s help, when he had seen her the last time. It could have been only her idea, replacing kerosene with water, that left the kidnappers stumped. His heart had burst with joy, adrenaline pumped through the veins. ‘How can I be stay in here when she is outside.’ And he had fought, fought with all his might and rushed out, to catch the glimpse of her; of Shyam manhandling Khushi, Khushi shouting at him, telling the creep how much she loved her husband, the panic when he saw Shyam drag Khushi in a car. And then the car disappearing. Too fast. It had all happened too fast. Too many men who stopped him, too many battles he had to fight, too many things he had left too late. Too late. When he finally managed to get a car to chase Shyam, they had disappeared. He had driven around shouting her name on the roads and finally ended up in a police station where he tearfully registered his complaint ‘My wife, Mrs Khushi Kumari Gupta Singh Raizada…she has been kidnapped.’ At last giving her the name she had been demanding ever since he had forcefully wed her.
Then he called home. No, Shyam had not come; neither had Khushi. Only NK knew where she had gone; about Arnav’s kidnapping, about Shyam’s nefarious plans. The panic on his young brother’s face set his heart on fire. Madly they had searched around – two men bound to one woman – one with threads of friendship, loyalty, laughter and happiness; and the other with pain, guilt, and love that was too close to hatred.
Eventually the police found the car, crashed into the river, along the highway to Lucknow. They had even found Shyam’s dead body. But try howsoever much they could there was no sign of Khushi.
All this a year ago. Now there were moments of anguish and guilt alternating with bouts of concern. What became of her? Is she still…? He still remembered the hideous morning two months after she had disappeared, when the police officer in charge of investigating her absence had called him to identify some belongings that they had found on the person of a dead woman. The phone call had almost stopped his heart, the panic as Akash had driven him to the police station, the shaking hands and his entire being shouting in denial as the officer had placed a bright pink dupatta on the table. And then the contents inside had spilt and his heart had burst. No! No! No! the opulent wrist watch, the sleek bracelet, the elegant necklace, this was not his Khushi. He had shouted and rushed out of the station with Akash following him on his heels. And there on the pavement two months after she had disappeared, ASR had broken down and cried like a boy in the arms of his brother, cried for his wife, for the errors of his way.
But that had been a long time ago. Tears had flown and dried up leaving behind a corrosive bitterness – she could leave him, forget him, move ahead with her life wherever she was while he stood at the same place, right there where she had left him.
Stop, dear readers. Don’t be too hasty to pity him. Don’t let your heart be softened by the tired eyes or the harshly etched lines around the grim mouth. He is a man who has driven away his own happiness; who had grossly misunderstood an innocent who had misfortune of falling in the love with him. He had torn her to shreds with his words, bruised her body and heart, made every attempt to send her away. He had realized his error too late; but the moment when he decided to change the order of things, she decided to give up on him. His savior left him; and then, as he had told her so often, he had what he wanted; silence. And with it, darkness, mind numbing loneliness.
He turned his head to look at the bare walls of his room; they echoed the hopelessness of his life – no colour, no music, no laughter. Once he had read in a bright poster they sell on the footpaths: home is where the heart is, where the spirit finds peace, where a weary traveller returns every evening to rest his tired feet. For our man, Arnav Singh Raizada, none of these things had meaning anymore. Anyplace where he could plunge headlong into a drunken stupor was home.
Yet he came here as much as he could.
Just in case Khushi Kumari Gupta might decide that it was time, that he had suffered enough … he turned back to the stars in the sky looking for the answers once again.
– Khushi. .. lines of pain and outrage sat on the face as if hewn in stone. But ASR had never been known for sweet nature. Those close to him had seen a certain mellowing, rare smiles, even a boyish burst of laughter when happiness and joy had touched his life for the briefest of moments. It had been almost a year now.
Not since Khushi Kumari Gupta Singh Raizada had left, walked out of his life and was never seen or heard again. She had rescued him from the gruesome death at the hand of kidnappers only to assign him to a worse fate. During those dark days, his mind had finally accepted the truth that had been staring in his face all along. That Khushi was not guilty of the monstrous betrayal; it was him, his trust, his confidence in himself and the world around him that had been lacking. He had promised himself that he would set things right. No more tears, no heartache. Life was too unpredictable to be wasted. Only later he learnt how unpredictable it was.
Now a constant nagging ache in the region of his heart was the reminder of her he clung to. Why-? Because Arnav Singh Raizada missed Khushi Kumari Gupta. All the time, every where, every moment.
Today had been like that. One of those rare moments when he had caught himself listening to music, humming one of the songs she loved ‘ teri meri, meri teri prem kahani hai mushkil – their song, he remembered, even managing to enjoy the beautiful memory it brought! Then a flash of bright colours and long dark brown tresses swinging down back of a petite frame as a girl rode her scooty past his car. His mood had flipped over. Light to dark. Warm to cold. Music to misery …
He took the last sip from the glass. Then, with a sigh that welled up from deep within him, his eyes screamed, ‘I hate you Khushi Kumari Gupta.’ One whole year, one entire miserable year- no word from her, no sign. She had simply dropped off the face of the earth, as if she had never lived outside his tortured imagination.
‘I hate you. You, you are the cruel, heartless, ruthless one. .not me – you, YOU,’ heart screamed at the stars silently, embracing the nothingness around him. Sleep finally overtook the spent soul.
His eyes closed as his phone beeped the reminder. Tomorrow, he was to visit another place of pain and trauma- Lucknow. Sheesh Mahal was in a mess.