He felt the ground drop off from beneath his feet and he floated weightlessly as if in a trance. Scenes from past passed like a film before his dazed eyes-Khushi walking on a ramp bewildered and terrified before falling in his arms, Khushi angry and defiant, Khushi smiling, blushing, crying, pleading. In the last twelve months, he had pulled out each of them from the troves of memories filling his lonely evenings. And now as she stood before him, he doubted if she was an image conjured up by his fevered mind, desperate for a glimpse, mad with wanting to see her once. Indeed if this was madness he would gladly embrace it.
But unlike the Khushis who had visited him over the last year, this one neither lashed out angrily nor did she let her pain flow through her eyes; she looked at him as it trying to remember him and failing to do that, she closed her eyes and let go.
Yet he remembered what he had to do…he rushed forward to hold her.
In all the long days and weeks she had spent in pain in hospital, Khushi had rarely given away to this pull of weakness. She had stood strong through the long painful recovery. Everyday in her mind she played the scene – someone would come in thtough the grand doors of Sheesh Mahal and call out her name to her.
And when someone had done exactly that, she had let the darkness claim her.
Khushi came around to a voice – cultured and smooth – falling in her ears.
‘Please, gentlemen, madam let there be fresh air. Don’t crowd around her.’
Behind the closed eyelids, her mind stretched into life taking a guess at the owner of the voice. It wasn’t the manager nor anyone from the hotel staff. Almost instinctively, she knew it was not the man who had rasped out her name in the husky shocked tones. ‘Must be Lavanaya’s Mr. Mathur,’ she felt a bubble of hysterical giggle well up.
She must have shown some sign of life, for she felt Lavanaya’s hand on her shoulder.
‘Khushi can you hear me?’ Lavanaya shook Khushi gently, yet it was strong enough for Khushi’s dizzy mind. She winced.
Other voices filtered through the haze.
‘Is she okay?’
“Must be the heat of the kitchen.’
‘She looks like she could do with some days of rest.’
Yet the voice that she was waiting for did not come. She knew he was around. She could almost feel him in the air – in the heavy, breathless awareness, in the goosebumps on her skin. He was there; just beyond the darkness she had cocooned herself by closing her eyelids.
‘Do you think we should call the doctor?’ came Mr. Mathur’s voice.
‘Khushi,’ Lavanaya shook her shoulder again.
Reluctantly Khushi let go of the safe peaceful darkness and opened her eyes. Lavanaya was bent over her, chaffing her hands.
‘Are you okay? What happened?’
Khushi’s eyes were fixed on the brown ones that appreared over Lavanaya’s shoulder, staring at her unblinkingly as if trying to drink in the sight.
‘You…you know me. Don’t you?’ she asked him straight away despite the impulse to run away and hide where he could never find her.
Lavanaya straightened up and tried to move away. Khushi grasped her hand in a tight grip, holding her in place. Her eyes did not leave the man’s even for a minute.
Still too imposing.
He nodded. ‘Yes Khushi. I…I am sorry,’ he rasped out. ‘Seeing you was such a shock that I just didn’t think before I acted.’ He took a place beside Lavanaya coming down to his knees so that their eyes were at a level. Lavanaya shifted and then he was right there, in front of her, claiming all her attention. He swallowed tensely, then added. ‘Are you okay? Tum theek ho, Khushi?’
It was frightening. The fact that this man knew her, knew her life, her name. Probably knew her more than she knew herself. And yet when she looked at him, try as hard as she might, she saw a stranger. She had believed that a face from the past would be all that was needed to bring back a deluge of memories.
And yet she kept staring at the man and her mind refused to recognize him, her senses responded in a surge of panic, a strange inexplicable grief shadowed the emotions.
The eyes fluttered shut in sheer bewilderment.
‘No,’ his voice was uncharacteristically thick. ‘Khushi, it’s me. Don’t…don’t pass out again.’ His hand reached out as if to touch her. Panic surged through the veins and sensations went screaming through her spine to her brain, scattering thoughts she had been so painstakingly gathering.
‘Please’ she moved her body away. ‘I…please don’t touch me. I don’t know you.’ Her eyes bewildered and pleading.
Arnav felt his heart shrivel as his hand fell down to his side. He was right. She had forgotten him. Forgotten him and made a new life for herself here, in this place of pain and grief. Indeed why should it surprise him. She was here, living here, working here, in this place where they had first met yet she remembered none of it. No remembrance of that night which tormented him so often – now one more memory was added to it. Khushi flinching away from him, once again just like she had done that night ages ago when she had pleaded with him to let her go for her sister’s wedding and he had not believed her. Would she believe him now, if he told her that he was her husband, if he pleaded with her to come back? Lost in rage, he had not listened to her then. Ironical, he thought. Now lost herself, she flinched away as he knelt down to her side. Something-probably his own fear told him that despite her loss of memory, she was not the same trusting and naive Khushi.
Khushi sat drawing some deep breaths to settle the chaos that raged in her. What now?
‘I think we should talk in somewhere private,’ Mr Mathur was the voice of sanity in the chaos. He whispered softly over Lavanaya’s shoulder so that only the people sitting huddled around her could hear.
Khushi grasped at the suggestion like a dying man clutching at the last straws of hope. “Yes. I need time.”
Mr. Mathur nodded and gestured towards the room which he had been using as his office during his stay here. Khushi noticed his hand resting on the stranger’s shoulder as if soothing him down. The man looked up at Mr. Mathur and then, as if coming out of the trance, he shook his head, composed his features into a sophisticated mask, got to his feet and moved away. Khushi felt a sense of relief wash over her.
‘Come,’ Lavanaya stood up and offered her arm. After spending months together, Lavanaya knew her friend would need assistance. She had banged her knee against the stool in the corner near the window. And that right knee which was a problem even on a good day, was now going to trouble Khushi for a while.
Lavanaya had the shock of her life when Khushi had fallen and Arnav Singh Raizada had immediately rushed ahead and caught her in his arms as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. He carried her close to his chest. Lavanaya noticed Khushi’s hand clutching the collar of his jacket. Aman Mathur had rushed to open the kitchen door and led them to the sofa in the reception area. The two men wore an expression of surprise and concern. Mr Raizada seemed to be almost in a stupor. Not once had his eyes left the face of her friend.
Yes, Khushi’s dream had come true. Someone from the past had come and found her. But Lavanaya was sure this was not how Khushi had imagined it. For one, her friend’s memories did not come rushing back immediately. She seemed more confused than ever.
As soon as Khushi put some weight on her right leg, there was a crack of pain that made her gasp out loud. She tottered. Mr. Raizada took a step towards them and then stopped immediately, his fists clenched at the sides as if it was an effort to restrain them from reaching out.
Inhaling a lungful of air, Khushi recovered with Lavanaya’s help and began to limp towards the room. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the stranger shift his weight restlessly and then take a step towards the retreating figures of the two girls.
‘I..I will come with you.’ he said sharply, staring at them as if they were about to disappear. Was it fear, panic that she saw in those eyes?
Khushi smiled wanly. She was right, too imposing. Khushi nodded and started to turn away when she heard Aman Mathur.
‘Come gentlemen and ladies. Lets get back to work. I will stand instead of Ms. Lavanaya till she joins us in a few minutes.’
‘No. No Lavanaya. You cannot. Don’t leave me alone with him’,’ the words slipped out of her mouth almost involuntarily.
Lavanaya nodded. The anxious glance she cast at the back told Khushi that the man was right behind them. Did he take an offence? He must have heard her. She glanced back and his eyes directly honed into hers. For a moment Khushi felt herself sinking into those brown depths again. Confused, she wrenched her gaze away and concentrated on pushing her feet towards Aman Mathur’s office.
Arnav followed them. For a moment he had felt hurt – vast and all encompassing seize him as she leaned on her friend. Nothing had prepared him for this. He was still recovering from the sight of Khushi limping as she got up with the aid of her friend. But when they had turned and moved away, grief was replaced by the panic.
Khushi’s words had hurt him. They also made him take stock of the situation. She did not know him. Yet she seemed hunted. Not exactly happy or even curious about him. She does not want to know you – the realization dawned fast and painful. He should give her some space.
They reached the door and Arnav reached forward to hold it open. Khushi noticed that he no longer looked at them. He had withdrawn. She could sense it, probably she had hurt him. She felt his hot breath on her neck as she passed him to enter the room and moved fast.
Lavanaya led Khushi to the couch in the corner near the window that looked at the landscaped front gardens of the hotel. Khushi bit down on her bottom lip as she lowered herself. Lavanaya drew the ottoman and slowly Khushi lifted her injured leg and straightened it to rest on the ottoman. The knee was hurting badly.
‘You would need the painkillers today,’ murmured Lavanaya.
Khushi nodded. ‘After the dinner probably.’
She was aware of the man now standing at some distance, his hands in the pockets of his jacket, the sleeves of the shirt rippling with the muscles he seemed to be flexing underneath.
Lavanaya stood up once she had settled Khushi, looking from tense face to the other.
No two people had more to say to each other than these two. And yet they refused to look at the each other. Her friend sat massaging her knee while Mr. Raizada stood looking at the floor.
Khushi felt Lavanaya’s indecision. She had asked her to stay and she knew that Lavanaya would not desert her. But she had to admit that there was no escape from the situation. It had to be faced and refusing to look at the man would not make him go away.
In fact, he seemed quite determined. He had followed her to the room and now stood planted at the center, waiting for her to make her move. After all, wasn’t she the one who had told Lavanaya that she didn’t want to be with him. He had heard her, all right and now waited for her to handle this in the way she wanted. Like a dark shadow, he stood motionlessly, waiting to envelop her, making it clear – he would not go. She had to face him, on her own.
‘Probably, you should … you should go to help Mr. Mathur, Lavanaya.’ Khushi said.
Two heads came up immediately. She felt two pair of eyes look at her in surprise.
‘I will be okay,’ she said with as much calmess as she could muster.
Lavanaya laid an assuring hand on her shoulder. ‘I am just outside. Just give me a call if you need me.’
As she turned to leave, she cast a tense look at the expressionless face of the man who stood looking at her friend. She would find out from Mathur, Lavanaya decided. With a daring look of warning towards their boss, Lavanaya stepped out.
Khushi shuddered at Lavanaya’s retreating footsteps. She wished he would give her time to recover and think. She remembered the odd feeling that had assailed her in the kitchen before she had fainted. She didn’t like him. It returned with full force once again.
Don’t be an idiot Khushi, she rebuked herself. This man could be the link to the past you have been desperately looking out for.
‘I am sorry for … for my words outside just now. Just that this has been a shock…and I don’t know how to deal,’ she tried to explain.
He merely nodded. Once again his gaze was fastened on her with a strange intensity, as if he did not even want to blink. Yet he did not move from his position at the center of the room.
‘It must be a shock for you also,’ she was trying to be understanding and fair despite her instincts to tell him to leave, that he made her too uneasy, that he was not the past she wanted. ‘You can sit,’ she said instead.
He jerked into motion, pulling up a chair right beside her own. Too close. She could feel his body heat and smell his subtle, masculine scent. Resisting the urge to edge away from him, she rubbed her throbbing knee. It was his turn to make an effort now.
‘It seems to be very bad?’ he rasped looking at her hand on the knee.
‘Not too bad.’ It was very painful. But something about him made her want to hide her vulnerabilty. She did not want to seem weak. ‘I just need some rest and my painkillers.’ Khushi tried to smile.
‘You injured your knee in the accident?’ he asked again, softly. ‘And your head,’ His gazed moved to the scar on her forehead before moving to her eyes, nose, lips as if caressing her face.
‘You know about the accident?’ she responded in surprise. He nodded slowly. Khushi saw him blinking his eyes as his Adam’s apple bobbed. What was that wetness that she saw in them? Tears? He was in shock, yet he spoke gently, almost tenderly. But still it did not make sense – this strange reluctance to ask the questions that swirled around in her mind. Something inside her told her to be careful. He was dangerous.
‘I am sorry, Khushi.’ he whispered once again making her uneasy. She wondered what was he apologizing for!
Khushi did not say anything, and after a moment he said more levelly, ‘Aman was here on some official work.’
‘About the sale?’
He nodded. ‘He heard about you today for the first time. When he told me..he couldn’t believe it” The words seemed to choke him for a moment, blocking the throat. He swallowed and continued. ‘Even I couldn’t…immediately…you know, in the kitchen.’
Khushi nodded, her lowered gaze drawn to the clenched fists resting on his spread thighs.
‘Aman Mathur, I believe, is your employee. Sent to take stock of Sheesh Mahal?’ she asked softly.
His head swivelled round to her, fiery eyes fixing on her face.
‘Arent you going to ask me…Who I am?’ he asked.
Khushi shook her head. ‘Give me time,’ was all she said. She didn’t understand the whys and wherefores but he asked that question and heard the answer in her refusal – not yet.
‘Aman Mathur…he also knows me. Right?’ she persisted ahead.
His jaw clenched at her refusal to ask the question he suggested. Still he agreed to play it her way. ‘Yes. When he heard that you had lost your memories and he heard your name and the accident, he…’ he seemed to be having trouble stringing more than a few sentences together. As if the shocked brain needed some more time to process thoughts into speech. He choked and stopped again to swallow thickly. ‘I can’t think about that right now…on top of all this. Khushi, I am sorry, so sorry Khushi. But you…you are alive, here.’ His voice faded away, almost in relief.
‘Why are you sorry? For my being alive?’ Where did that come from? Khushi was not into making sick jokes, she was not into hurting suffering men. Yet something about him made her want to lash out, to make sick jokes and see the pain in his eyes. It made her feel more alive than she had felt for a long long time. ‘I haven’t really spent the last year celebrating the fact!’
‘And I’ve spent twelve months…twelve months whole months Khushi wishing you in hell and searching for you all over the blasted city,’ he lashed back at her indifference. Yet despite the pain that was piercing through his heart, he felt alive, the numbness of a year was fading away. ‘Khushi, khushi. I didn’t know, Khushi!’
The last sentence came out almost as a plea. True, she acknowledged the truth of his words, for hell this was …this limbo in which she existed.
But she wondered why he would wish that for her. Why did he wish her in hell? What had she done to him to make him wish that? Something told her that they were not friends. The feeling of warmth did not well up inside her. Instead it was wariness, cautiousness despite his obvious suffering. And she could not do anything about it till she remembered.
Yet his words had hurt her. But they did not surprise her, as if she had been expecting it from him. They went with his persona. Maybe he realised it, read something in her eyes because he got back on his feet. The tension was almost palpable. Khushi felt she could almost reach out and feel the staticity in the air around him. The room became suffocatingly small as he dwarved everything. Not just with his physical presence but the raw emotions that seem to be sucking away all life giving air.
‘This isn’t how I drea … I thought it would be,’ he said finally looking away from her walking towards the window, he stood silhouetted against the darkness that was gathering outside.
‘So what now?’ she asked still not making an effort to lift her head and look at him.
Turning slowly to face her, he stood watching her as a few more tense seconds ticked by. And then as if waiting for her to shout out her rejection of him at each step, he walked towards her.
‘Look at me,’ he urged as he took the chair he had left. The frisson of awareness vibrated so strongly through her that she knew he could feel it. ‘I know I’ve come as much a shock to as you …you have come to me. But we have to face this, Khushi.’
‘Devi Maiya,’ the plea to the Goddess welled up from somewhere deep inside her for the first time. And holding every ounce of courage she possessed in her hands she lifted her eyes and meet his gaze. He is handsome, she thought, stunningly so. Neat hair, black and shortly cropped, eyes the colour of bitter chocolate that left an melting aftertaste in the mouth. Her gaze drifted downward to pause at his firm mouth. It was a strong face, handsome – beautiful, the word defined him.
Yet unknown..the face of a complete stranger.
A stranger whose eyes, demenour, body everything insisted he was not a stranger and, indeed, he did not feel like a stranger, because …because she knew his touch…it felt so familiar. The intimacy in his eyes told her that he knew her well.
‘Khushi,’ he prompted huskily. ‘You knew your name. Khushi. How..?’
‘Precious little that I remembered. Just that.’ She smiled at the long ago memory of an old doctor asking her name after she gained consciousness. She had immediately told him she was Khushi, and then try as much as she could, she could not remember her last name, her anger and panic after that. So she was Khushi, just Khushi.
She looked at the man, and drew her hands away, knocking the scar on her forehead with a bent index finger. She shook her head and shrugged.
Arnav smiled and nodded. For a moment the childish gesture reminded him of his Khushi. He wanted to take her into his arms and howl in pain, bury his face in her hair and revel in the fact that she was here, with him.
‘You don’t remember? How long were you in the hospital? Who got you there?’ he asked harshly.
Her body became shrouded in a clammy coat of perspiration. ‘Only what I was told later. That I had been found on the banks of the river near the highway to Lucknow. It was a small medical center. I was there for three months before…before I could walk, somehow. Not very good medical facilities.’ She slowly reached out and massaged her knee. ‘They tried to fix it as best as they could before sending me with a recommendation to another doctor here in Lucknow. There – there was a mangalsutra I was wearing. I … I had to sell it,’ she looked at him in distress as if trying to justify her actions. ‘I had nothing. I was injured. I needed money to get on my feet. That was the only thing,’ The thought clearly agitated her. He nodded. ‘Anyway, no one had come looking for me. So …’
His eyes were too bright. She looked away. ‘And later my earings and payal. I thought…’ Then the trembling fingers left the knee to quiver up to the small pink scar at her temple. ‘I might have been heading to Lucknow. So I came here. I didn’t know,’ she said huskily. ‘ I was injured … and m-my right leg. … .I met Lavanaya in the hospital. We became friends. I needed a job. The money had finished. She got me a job here. Tried various things but with a bad knee…’ His eyes dropped to her knee, where the churidar hid the scarring beneath. ‘Thankfully I discovered that I could cook, otherwise… ‘ she shook her head. Her voice trailed off and she sat waiting for him to speak.
Slowly raising his shimmering eyes he looked at the scar at her temple. Almost in its own accord, his hand lifted up to touch the scar
She flinched again. She wished she could get up and get away. But with her knee she would probably end up at his feet.
‘Who are you?’ It was time to ask the question that she had been putting off till now. She finally asked him as he slowly lowered his hand. She withdrew her hands in her lap.
He stood up. ‘My name is Arnav Singh Raizada,’ he said huskily, deliberately as if waiting for her reaction to each syllable.
There it was, Raizada. She breathed the name softly. ‘Related to the Raizadas of AR group?’ She offered as a weak joke, trying to alleviate her rejection of his touch. The group name often appeared on news.
She looked at him with a smile which froze midway.
He nodded slowly, watching her. Did the name carry any meaning for her? But other than the odd sensation she had felt when the name was mentioned earlier, it rang no bells. Her gaze remained blank.
‘And me?’ She said in a forced whisper as if she did that under great duress, as if her very being shrank away from the question and the answer that was to follow. ‘Who am I?’
The fire leapt in the eyes again, nerve ends began to sing. ‘You are also a Raizada,’ he told her carefully, gauging her every reaction. He elaborated gently, ‘Khushi Kumari Gupta Singh Raizada, you are my wife. … ‘