‘You should have thought before bringing this on the girl,’ hissed Lavanaya. ‘She…Khushi is scared and your boss is bent on bulldozing her away without any consideration.’
‘He is your boss as well,’ Aman replied irritably. She was right, he admitted. He did feel guilty. But few could stop ASR when he was like this. Neither Lavanaya, nor Aman knew fully what had transpired between ASR and Khushi. They had been taken aback, when ASR had come out asking Aman to arrange for them to fly back home at the earliest. He had then turned to Lavanaya and caught her glare. She was to go and help her friend.
ASR at his loftiest best. There was to be no argument, no discussion. He snapped out orders which Aman took in his stride with a kind of silent sympathy at the state the man himself must be in.
Ever since that moment, Lavanaya had been sending glares that burnt holes in his back, even when he refused to talk to her. Her words made Aman feel guilty. Guilty of the way he had blurted out the information without giving it a sane thought. He should have known that ASR, true to the form, would bulldoze away all opposition to get what he wanted? But this was no business deal. This was about the life of another person – a person who had suffered terribly. Would you have kept the information to yourself if you had known the way ASR would react, his mind asked? No, came back the immediate answer. He had seen ASR suffering. But probably letting it out in a better manner once they were in Delhi, probably telling Akash Raizada first- Aman’s mind ran in circles. It was not in his hands any more. But he decided to talk to ASR.
‘I think you should wait, ASR.’ Aman had stayed up late refusing to call it a night till he had his word. He knew ASR had seen through his tactic to stall the flight to Delhi. With an arrogant stare, the man had taken on the task himself and accomplished it, without much difficulty. He was going to fly with Khushi to Delhi early in the morning, and no one could do anything about it. Sheesh Mahal was to be shut down for renovation. The staff to be retained for the months of renovation. Aman was to oversee it all. Everything fixed in a few hours, in a typical arrogant ASR style.
‘I am waiting till the morning,’ ASR answered fiddling with his phone, refusing to look at Aman. Aman had come to know him well, too well, especially since Akash and rest of the family had withdrawn. Aman had become a person he would depend on, the most trusted employee, a friend, his heart suggested.
And now he was going to suggest what ASR knew deep down inside to be true. That, once again he was being hasty and inconsiderate. Probably he should restrain himself. Make her life easy, comfortable here in Lucknow, be with her when she needed him and then, when she was ready to trust him, ask her to come to Delhi. A sane way, a way that any sensible and sensitive person would take.
‘Don’t you think you are being a bit hasty, taking her away from the only safe and secure environment she knows?’ Aman posed levelly joining the voice of his conscience.
Don’t you start, Arnav thought. ‘I will give her a safe environment,’ he insisted.
‘She’s in shock.’
‘So am I.’
‘And she’s frightened.’
Did Aman think he didn’t know that?
‘And what do you think I am going to do?’ he rounded angrily on the other man. ‘I’m not going to hurt her.’
His voice trailed off as he saw the look on Aman’s face. Aman Mathur had seen the two of them together. ASR at his cruelest, trying to break the spirit of the small town spunky girl who had the guts to stand up to him and tell him he was wrong. Shouting at her, humiliating her, throwing her down from the office, sending her to dangerous places – as the two men stood looking at each other, the scenes played in front of them – of the days when Khushi had worked with them, fought him, put up with his rudeness and callousness, gained friends, laughed, and met every challenge head on. For a moment, Aman forgot the sufferings of his friend, his boss. For a moment, he regretted informing ASR about Khushi. For a moment he wanted to protect Khushi from ASR.
‘I am not going to hurt her,’ ASR hissed between the clenched teeth. Still the words had a ring of an oath. Why this need to justify himself to Aman? Because he knew that what Aman felt was right, valid. Because anyone who knew about their past would say the same. Hell, if he was not suffering, he too would say the same. The girl should have nothing to do with him.
But he was a selfish man. A ruthless man used to taking anything he wanted. And in the last one year of life, he had discovered what he desperately needed in order to live – he wanted life, laughter, happiness, mischief – all the things that he had missed in the hurry to grow up, all the things he had been forced to give up too soon. He wanted Khushi. And he would keep her where he knew she could not leave him again.
He needed to do that, now more than ever. Because in the course of last evening, a new emotion had joined the pain and yearning of last twelve months. It was fear. Though he would not admit it anyone else, he recognized it for what it was. Fear of losing her – not because of the people or circumstances. But fear of losing her because she herself did not want to know him; did not want to have anything to do with him. He had discerned that all too clearly. And if this was the case during the amnesia, he feared her reaction when she remembered; when the old hideous memories returned and tore her away from him.
And something about the new Khushi told him that it would not be so easy to make her forget and trust him like it could have been once. If the old Khushi was a fireball of childish energy and playfulness, the new Khushi surprised him with her quietness, her wariness, her refusal to take things as they were. She assessed, thought, deliberated – skills that old Khushi had discarded in her zeal for life and love. The new Khushi was scared of these.
Because of you, his conscience whispered. Because of you. And now you are treading the same path again.
No, no, no. It is going to be different this time. He is going to be sensitive, caring, considerate. He would show her his love, his heart, woo her till she would not be able to deny him-he would do this till the pains of the bygone months was erased – for her and him. He would do anything, anything to get her back.
Except one thing. He would not let her be away from him. He had meant each word when he told Khushi that he would not let her out of his sight.
Lost in the cross fire of denials and justifications, Arnav stared at the landscaped front lawns of Sheesh Mahal. Once again a grim feeling of guilt alternated with stubborn mule-headedness. His friend sensing the futility of the discussion had left long ago, thinking of ways to deal with the situation. Hours passed and the darkness of the night gave way to the first light of dawn. Yet the man sat on the same chair that had been occupied by an injured broken girl during the evening, the restlessness of the evening forgotten once he had what he wanted. He sat there now debating, justifying,not ready to concede an inch where she was concerned.He did not move, only blinking at intervals, till interrupted by a soft voice.
‘I am ready.’
A voice laden with grimness and stoicism that was Khushi, interrupted the terrain of thoughts. He eagerly turned with a smile. It was a new day for them.
And then…with a suddenness that left him staggered, everything whooshed out -the excitement, the hope, the smile. Khushi stood near the door to the staff quarters with Lavanaya next to her carrying one bag where all her belongings in the world had fitted in.
Khushi – leaning on a walking stick, a simple blue suit, no gota, no pom poms. Her hair was fixed in a plait. Her head high and chin up, gazing into his eyes steadily watching carefully for any flicker of reaction.
Blankness and a slow nod. ‘Great! Then let’s go. Just a cup of tea and then probably…’
It was a reaction produced with great effort. His heart recoiled at the combination of the old and the new Khushi he confronted at the moment – the broken, testy new one who needed help though she denied it to him, and the feisty old one, ready to meet any challenge he threw at her. Khushi, whom he had never been able to resist. Unlike the last time, this time round, he didn’t even try.
Out of the corner of his eye, ASR saw her friend Lavanaya shift uncomfortably, glance anxiously at Khushi and then leave to call for tea. Khushi had limped a few steps when she was back, hovering over her like a mother hen.
‘It will be here. In a few minutes,’ Lavanaya said without sparing him a glance.
Lavanaya, Aman had mentioned her a couple of times. Lavanaya didn’t trust him. He’d seen it in her face when she had heard his plans to fly to Delhi. ASR had noticed her worry about Khushi, though it irked him for it was directed against him. This woman who knew nothing about him was judging him. But she is not wrong, the irritatingly conscientious part of his mind told him.
The tea was a quite and tense affair, everyone eyeing the other with trepedition. Aman had joined them, his eyes narrow and mouth grim. ASR was more coldly forbidding than ever, perhaps in an effort to avoid the uncomfortable questions that lurked unspoken in the room.
Khushi could sense his impatience and found a petty sense of satisfaction in lingering over the cup. He was standing against the window, like yesterday, tension and stiffness evident in his very stance. Had he rested during the night, she wondered as she finally put back the cup on table.
He turned at the sound immediately and looked at her and then at the cup, making sure she had finished.
‘I think we should …should get going,’ but something stopped him for a moment. He turned and looked at the girl who held his life in her hands. ‘Khushi, are you ready to come with me?’ he asked tentatively. Why? Probably because he wanted her to agree, go against Aman, Lavanaya and all the other people whom they were going to meet, who would disapprove of her coming with him. Tell them that she at least was giving him a chance, even if they were not.
‘As ready as I will ever be,’ came the words he had been waiting for.
But she does not remember, whispered his traitorous mind.
‘Get the car to the entrance, Aman.’
ASR cast one last look at the place he was standing in, the place of greatest horrors of his life. He had hated it even when he had chased it through the real estate market for ownership. If it fell down, he would not have missed it at all.
But Khushi had lived here for several months. ‘It was a home to me when I was alone,’ Khushi’s words challenged him. The thought was enough to snuff any anger. This place had given her shelter, kept her safe. It made him see Sheesh Mahal with different eyes. Perhaps, given time he could mend his relationship with this old place. But that would come later, much later. There were many more, more important relationships that had to be mended first.
ASR shook his head to ease the stiffness and turned to follow Aman.
‘He is – he seems to be a bully,’ Lavanaya whispered as they followed the man outside. ‘Khushi, are you sure? Are you going to be all right?’
No, I don’t think I am going to be all right, Khushi thought, bleakly.
‘I’m not … but I don’t think I am going to be worse than I am now,’ she pointed out. There wasn’t much left to say after that. Reaching out, Khushi took her bag from Lavanaya. The two girls hugged while ASR looked on.
‘Take care of yourself,’ Khushi murmured as she drew away.
‘You take care of yourself,’ Lavanaya returned. Khushi nodded and stepped back.
To their surprise, ASR stepped forward suddenly and held out his hand. Lavanaya’s surprised eyes went from his face to the hand that he held out for her. She took it gingerly and the big warm hand enclosed hers. The other came up to envelop it completely. Lavanaya looked up to see him looking at her fiercely, ‘Thank you. I cannot thank you enough for looking after Khushi through all this. But don’t worry yourself. I promise that I will take care of her.’
Something in the solemnity of the words eased Lavanaya’s heart. She just did not want Khushi to be hurt if he bungled up. But she nodded.
Perhaps he was okay.
Perhaps he should get his chance.
Khushi saw him thank her friend and then he was impatient to be gone. Khushi fought hard to damp the old panic that bubbled up again. He took her luggage to put it in the boot of the car, now standing at the entrance of the hotel.
The entire thing was accomplished so fast that Khushi had been able to climb down only two steps when he was back. He took her arm in a way that brooked no argument. Khushi let him do that as she continued to lean on her stick, walking down the stairs.
‘You could lean on me. It would be easier,’ he said tenderly as they moved towards the car. Aman Mathur stood waiting with the passenger door open.
‘And what if you drop me,’ Khushi smiled and then seeing his expression, she added immediately, ‘or you are not around?’
‘That is not going to happen, Khushi. You will see.’