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.
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.’