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.
‘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 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.