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.