Aman Mathur polished off the last morsel of the dessert in his plate – hot jalebi dipped in icy creamy dollop of kulfi. Food was the only thing in Sheesh Mahal that made the stay tolerable. Had he been on his own, he would have shifted to a better kept place but returned every day for the meals. He had been exercising an extra hour every day to work out the entire amount he tucked in from breakfast to dinner.
Perhaps he should tell ASR that he should sell the place – sell Sheesh Mahal but retain this incredible chef. And the feisty receptionist who at this moment chipped in in this understaffed place as the restaurant incharge-cum-waitress. She returned his smile coolly from behind the counter signaling another boy to go and clear his table. Lavanaya, he had found out her name eventually.
The woman had held him speechless ever since her outburst on the day one when he had landed here. A buyer had made a reasonable bid for this old place. But ASR had chosen to ignore it till the staff itself had petitioned him expressing their problems and demanding some changes if he meant to keep it running as a hotel. He had promptly dispatched his most able man, Aman Mathur to Lucknow. ‘See to their concerns, what are the problems, make a report and then I will see.’
The sale was an excellent proposition in Aman’s opinion. But the big man himself was hardly his reasonable, ruthless businessman-like self when it came to this place. Some events of the past kept him tied to the old haveli. Nobody at AR knew what it was, and nobody dared question an angry lion, especially since Khushi bhabhi – maam, Aman corrected himself – had been kidnapped and never found again. There was more to the fiasco but Aman knew little about it. All he knew was an angry and suffering ASR whose rage hid a deep painful sorrow. Aman, who worked with him day in and day out, could see that. He could see the yawning distance that had grown between him and his brother. Ironical. Who would have thought that he who hated Khushi Kumari Gupta so much in the beginning, did everything to send her away would now go through life like a zombie without her.
Aman shook away the depressing thoughts about his friend, his boss and concentrated again on the pretty receptionist. The manager of the place had hemmed and hawed when Aman had questioned him about the hotel. The man from the big office in Delhi held the manager’s tongue tied. Lavanaya had burst in, shown him the unkempt, down market condition of the place, their working hours which were way more than the normal ones, and their salary way below the number of hours all of them put in.
‘Somebody needs to tell you all this. You take charge. Change. Or else we all…we all…’ she floundered.
‘We all what…are you threatening the management,’ he quirked his eyebrow.
She stood glaring at him. ‘You are pretty quick on uptake Mr.Mathur.’ The memory of her face still brought a smile. He had taken heed, filed his report, expressed concerns and made a case for the sale yesterday.
As expected, the big man was due any moment now by the Delhi flight this evening.
Aman walked towards the counter of the restaurant once again to try his luck to strike up a conversation.
‘Thank you, Lavanaya. The food as well was excellent.’
All he got was a courteous nod.
‘I would like to meet the chef.’
‘Why?’ the answer came back immediately.
‘Well, because in this very trashy place as you have correctly pointed out, the food is the only thing worth it. I must congratulate him.’
‘Her. The chef is a woman.’
‘Ah!’ he looked into her eyes. ‘I should have known that.’
Did the mouth just quirk? He saw faint dimple develop on the side.
‘Then I must meet her. She is the only one of the staff I haven’t seen.’
Lavanaya seemed uncharacteristically worried. ‘She likes to stay in kitchen…her safe zone. Doesn’t like to meet a lot of people.’
Aman frowned. What was going on here? ‘Why is that? Lavanaya is there something I should know. Because ASR is coming today and if there is something…’
‘She is amnesiac.’
‘She is suffering from amnesia, you know. Forgotten her past, memories lost…’
The words stopped him right there. ‘Amnesiac? You mean the food is prepared by a chef who remembers nothing. We have hired someone who knows nothing.’
‘As a chef, she knows how to cook. Have you already forgotten your earlier words?’
‘But how…was there a background check? Where does she come from? Who is she?’
‘If she remembered, then Khushi won’t be amnesiac, right? Please Mr. Mathur she desperately needed a job. Khushi was in bad condition when we met. I…I can vouch for her.’
‘Khushi, you said,’ Aman’s voice had lowered into a whisper.
‘Yes we met about eight months ago…oh’ Lavanaya’s voice died down as her gazed fixed on something past his shoulder.
Aman turned to see ASR climbing up the stairs and making for the grand revolving doors of the hotel. For a moment Aman stood there, blanked out wondering what he had to do till he felt Lavanaya’s hand shoving him, asking him to straighten up.
Next few hours passed in a daze, talking to the manager, going over the hotel, the things that required attention, the things that needed to be done to upgrade the place. Only at dinner time, when Aman was left alone with ASR for the first time in the evening, did he gather courage to speak out the words that had been going round and round in his brain.
‘ASR, the chef here is an amnesiac. She…joined eight months ago…and…and her name …her name is Khushi.’
Arnav felt the hair at the back of the neck rise at Aman’s quiet words.
With a deftness that came out of long practice, Khushi squeezed the jalebi batter from the cloth in her hand into the hot oil. With other she pushed took out the jalebis dipped in sugar syrup and arranged them in a plate. Some people visited Sheesh Mahal just to buy sweets made by her.
‘I am sure you were a chef, Khushi,’ Lavanya remarked dryly as she watched her from the other side of the kitchen counter..
Was I? Khushi thought as she handed out the packet to Lavanaya. Another thing she didn’t remember. ‘So does your Mr. Mathur want jalebis or gulab jamuns for dessert?’
‘I think Jalebis. And he is not my Mr. Mathur’ Lavanya answered as she frowned at Khushi. Khushi smiled mischievously and for a moment the twinkle in her eyes overshowed the dark tired circles around the eyes. And then it was gone. “Are you okay?”
‘Just tired,’ she said, and lowered the heat of the stove. She was, justifiably so. Her injured knee was protesting painfully. She usually took short breaks in the middle of the day but today had been exceptionally busy and one of three helpers had quit without notice.
‘Rest for while. You know, Raizadas, the people who own this place? The man is here. Hopefully things will get better, soon.’
Raizada, the name once again sent a tremor down her spine – a chill of awareness. As if the name meant something to her in her other life – life which had slipped away from her grasp. Like the grains of sand.
She had first heard the name of owner of Sheesh Mahal some days ago when the bid for sale had been made. For a flash of a moment, she felt she knew the name. It was new sensation in itself, because names did mean much to her – had meant nothing infact for a year now..or faces or dates or people…
It buzzed in her ears now. After hearing the name from the manager, she had heard it often. The Raizada group was a prominent name in the world of business. But how was it related to her, or her past. Was it a memory? She wondered. A moment of knowledge that was lost even before she knew it was there?
But she would be happy, really happy if someone took interest in Sheesh Mahal. Sheesh Mahal hotel, Lucknow could be the finest five star hotels in the city, outstandingly good. But the owner had never returned to the place after purchasing it. A rich man who had forgotten the place after making an investment. The place was now teetering at the edge of bankruptcy.
But for Khushi, though Sheesh Mahal was crumbling from age and neglect, it had held out hope for her when her life was at the lowest ebb. It wasn’t just a work place; it was her home; the only home she remembered. The place which had given her shelter while she waited for someone arrive and claim her. It might never happen now. She had started accepting that.
At times she had this fanciful notion that she had died there on that river bed from where she was rescued, lonely and unclaimed, and woken up weeks later as a different person altogehter. Stop this self pity, she told herself. You are still the same person, though you are slightly lost for now. And it does not matter, she told herself. Even if no one comes, I would take care-take care of my self. She told herself everyday and clung to the belief tightly. There was nothing else to hang on to.
Limping to the window at the back of the kitchen with her cup of tea, she cast a glance outside. She turned at the sound of the door creaking open. Lavanaya entered, followed by two men strange men. She wondered why Lavanaya brought them here when she knew Khushi did not like intruders in the kitchen.
‘Khushi, Mr Raizada and Mr Mathur want to meet you.’
Khushi looked the clean fair face of the first man. He wore an expression of utter astonishment . She slowly got up. Something in his expression told him that this was not about meeting the chef. But she didn’t know him. His face was pleasant but it struck no chords of memory, no clue if she had known him.
And then her gaze shifted to the other man behind the first one, another stranger who stepped in and joined them. Similarly built – tall, lean, dressed similar formal gear. But the dark forbidding expression of the newcomer sent a cold little quiver down her spin. It stopped her midway and held her still.
ASR’s gaze was fixed on her face – sharpening with each passing second, intensifying and holding her in a thrall, taking her breath away. The eyes locked. His jaw slackened – a short, sharp intake of air. He looked as if he would pass out. And suddenly she wasn’t sure if she liked all this. She didn’t like him, she decided then and there impetously. She didn’t like the tightness that obstructed her throat. To breathe was an effort. The heart thumped violently like a hammer against her scarred temple.
She raised her hand to the puckered scarred tissue on her forehead, a legacy of the accident. She instinctively tried to cover it when she saw him flinch.
And then as if in a trance, he walked straight towards her in a deliberate, measured way that made her want to back away – a step for every step that he took in her direction. Sweat trickled down her back. The kitchen faded out and only two people were left in the heat of the room – herself and him. And the closer he came, the more tighter and airless it became till she felt suffocated by the time he came to a stop before her.
He was too dark, too imposing, the feelings that he gave rise were too much take in in her fragile state. A tight shudder shook her frame as she tried to take some deep calming breaths. But his overpowering shadow sucked all the air; the flames in his eyes seemed to reach out and scorch her.
No, she resisted. What was she protesting against? Did she say it out aloud? Was this croaking sound her voice? He was going pale steadily, she noticed. The eyes became darker standing out in the bloodless face drawing her right into the center of the fire.
Mad. I am going mad as well.
‘Khushi,’ the tremor of his quivering breath echoed through her. ‘Oh my god! Khushi .. .’
She let go of everything and fainted. With the sound of her name called out in a husky deep painful rasp echoing in her head, hitting madly at the walls within, she simply closed her eyes. She heard Lavanaya’s scream at a distance, footsteps rushing into the kitchen and then nothing but a pair of vaguely familiar arms came around her..