“But the memories that hang heaviest are the easiest to recall. They hold in their creases the ability to change one’s life, organically, forever. Even when you shake them out, they’ve left permanent wrinkles in the fabric of your soul.”
Julie Gregory, Sickened: the Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy
Aman had deliberated the whole night. After leaving ASR , he had spent hours pacing around in his bedroom – one of the best available rooms at the Sheesh Mahal. And yet no simple solution seemed ot be insight. Unlike ASR, he was not troubled by the denials of the past or the fear of the future. His was a different kind of a dilemma – dilemma of a man who had acted on an impulse and now since, he couldn’t go back in time and change it, Aman wanted to weed out the possibilities of ill-consequences that could follow from the act. When ASR had said that he would not hurt Khushi, Aman had instantly believed him. He had seen the man suffering; as he had dealt with all-consuming grief for months, the veneer of arrogance and pride had worn thin. And Aman, who worked closely with ASR, had seen an insecure, suffering, guilt-ridden soul. No, he knew that ASR would not hurt Khushi – at least not deliberately.
But Aman had also seen the volatile unpredictable nature of the man. Hell, he had often been at the receiving end. At times the only thing that had kept him sane was the fact that professionally ASR was all that he admired – keen sharp business acumen, confident in himself, fair to his employees despite his temperamental nature.
But he floundered badly when it came to emotions – his own and others’. And in the process, he often ended up hurting others and himself. With Khushi Kumari Gupta, this troublesome tendency had reached extremes. It had been amusing initially but then the events had often taken shocking turns as neither Khushi nor ASR backed out dangerous challenges they threw at each other.
Had Khushi been her usual feisty self, Aman would not have worried. That girl, though she had suffered, knew how to stand up tall against the man. But now in her current broken, vulnerable state, Aman worried about her. Through the night, his mind had scrambled for ideas and plans. Should he call Khushi’s family, the Guptas? Would that be effective? Not much, his mind answered. Aman knew enough of ASR to know that the man himself would not part with Khushi. He would assert his rights as a husband to keep her with him. Wasn’t he doing that now?
Aman realized that he could not do much. Nothing at all in fact without risking his job. After all, Khushi was ASR’s wife.
And then, hours later his mind clicked and a rough plan formulated in his mind. At least he could send Khushi in to the care of people who loved her, people who would be available for her even when she was with ASR. Khushi’s sister was married to Akash, wasn’t she? He knew that since Khushi’s disappearance, a yawning gap had grown between Akash and ASR. He had also heard rumors of Akash and Payal no longer living in the Raizada mansion. Perhaps, he could still use the avenue. After all wouldn’t a sister stand for her lost injured sister now that she was back, wouldn’t she give her all to look after her? Yes, Payal and Akash Singh Raizada would look after Khushi, especially if they knew her state.
Probably like Lavanaya, his mind veered to pleasant territories now that he had seen a way out the dilemma. He settled down for the night. He would make the call before ASR and Khushi left Lucknow.
ASR knew that his display of emotion in thanking Lavanaya had surprised everyone. What the hell, he was stunned himself. To hide the embarrassment that surged through him at Khushi and Lavanaya’s expression, he picked up Khushi’s luggage and hurried to the boot of the car.
Impatient to be gone, he turned to see Khushi climbing down the stairs precariously. Dismay flared in his eyes as he saw her struggle with the walking stick. He started to rush back, fully intending to do away with the walking stick and carry her to the car. As his feet moved towards her, the mind tugged him back. She might not like it. Remember she doesn’t like your touch. She might dislike it even more if forced. She might think that you find her limp offensive.
The last thought brought him to a halt. The feet that had flying towards his wife, slowed as covered the last few steps. Without giving her a chance to react, Arnav took Khushi’s arm. He derived some hope from the fact that she did not flinch away once again.
‘You could lean on me. It would be easier,’ he offered matching his steps to hers. Why did she have to continue using the damned stick.
‘And what if you drop me,’ once again hurt bloomed in the brown eyes at her innocent words. He tried to appear nonchalant but he knew she had seen it. Her smile faded a little and then as if to allay his suffering she added, ‘or you are not around?’
‘That is not going to happen, Khushi. You will see,’ the voice carried a note of a grim determination.
The man is too harsh on himself, Khushi thought, as if he is trying to proof something. Once again she wondered what kind of relationship they had shared that her husband was troubled by her most mundane questions, that he felt the need to utter such promises – promises that are taken for granted amongst normal couples.
They climbed down the stairs together to where Aman was waiting for them near the passenger door. Aman did not step back and ASR cast a puzzled glance at the man. Surely he was not going to start again, expressing his discomfiture about the situation, now in Khushi’s presence. He did not like the decided steely glint in Aman’s eye.
Aman smiled at Khushi and then nodded at ASR. ‘I have called Akash sir. Payal Maam is eager, very eager to meet her sister,’ he turned to Khushi, ‘Your sister, Payal is waiting for you. As you said,’ he turned back to ASR with a blank expression, ‘As you said, I have explained the situation. That…that, I think, was the right thing to do.’
Aman had fired the salvo. He saw ASR’s jaw clench and eyes narrow. He wondered what ASR had meant to do once he left Lucknow. But if he knew Khushi, Aman did not doubt that she would not let ASR rest in peace till she knew about Payal and Akash and had met them.
ASR understood Aman perfectly. He also knew that as soon as he landed, Payal and Akash would be there to take over. He had not yet given a thought to what he was going to do once he reached Delhi.
‘Thank you, Aman. Probably should you stay in Lucknow for some time and oversee the work at Sheesh Mahal,’ he said with a cool stare.
Aman nodded once again and stepped back.
Arnav wondered why Aman’s intervention irked him so much. He had been so focused on Khushi’s condition and the decision to keep her with him at any cost that he had not really paid attention to the situation in Delhi. He had not thought what he would tell his family. Hell, he had not even told his family about her or prepared them for the shock to come.
Khushi’s disappearance still hung like a pall over the household. Nani seldom spoke to him. The disappointment in the wrinkled old eyes which had showered him with love and affection at the most difficult time of his life smote him. Her words often rang in his ears. ‘Chottey I thought you were not your father.’ Her face and words were etched in his heart.
So were Payal’s and Akash’s. He had told the truth to the family two days after his return, two days looking for Khushi like a madman with NK. The story of their forced marriage, of Shyam’s lie, Khushi’s helplessness at his threats of sabotaging Payal’s wedding.
Payal had broken down completely. He would never forget the helplessness of the day when she had stood in the hall with her bags packed and he could do nothing but watch, filled with horror, unable to fulfill one thing that Khushi had asked of him. Don’t harm my sister’s happiness.
‘Don’t do this Payal? This is all she wanted. She suffered because…’
‘Stop. Stop, Arnavji,’ he stopped at the tortured look on Payal’s face, the closed eyes and scrunched face as she put her hands over her ears. ‘Don’t say this. I did not ask for this sacrifice. Not from her, not from you. Do you think that for a moment I can forget this…that because of me, my sister…’
‘Then don’t go Payal. Stop her, Akash. Mami. If she goes, what will we tell Khushi…what will I tell her when she comes back.’
‘Please try to understand, Arnavji. I can not live in a relationship built on the ashes of Khushi’s happiness. I can never forget that she suffered twice at your hands because of me. No, Arnavji, if I live on here, I will never be able to look at myself in the eyes.’
‘No. Stop her Akash. Why do you stand here? Say something.’
‘You tell me Bhai. Give me the words and I will say them,’ Akash’s quite words burst the bubble of hysteria, replaced them with shock, horror. How many people had he taken for granted? ‘You are proud that I do what you say, that I would blindly follow my older brother wherever he led. To think … to think that Khushiji believed that …I am scared to even ask Payal if she believes that. I feel …I feel so small. Bhai, you’ve made me feel so small.’
Silence ensued Akash’s outburst. Silence punctured only by silent sobs of Mami and Di. Payal left. Akash did not stop her. Neither did he stay back. He walked along with her promising to drop her to buaji’s, to be with her when they told her family about Khushi.
Watching them leave was like losing Khushi all over again…as if she had withdrawn her dreams and happiness from his keeping. For a long time he stood watching the doorway where Akash and Payal had stood. Now empty…Khushi’s sister had left. The last link to her…the one thing she had wanted…’
‘Nani,’ Di’s shriek called him back. He turned to see Di and Mami supporting Nani who had fallen on the sofa.
‘Don’t worry, Sasu ma. I will talk to them. Akash bitwa will come back. I will even talk to that khoon bhari taang. She is angry because of her sister. But she will come back,’ Mami was trying to tell herself all this as much as she was consoling her mother-in-law.
‘Let her go, Manorma. She has an option. She should.’
For a moment, as the three women sat huddled sharing their grief, Arnav stood forgotten. Only later, much later, Di had come to ask him to come for dinner. Akash came back the next day, he even came to work at AR but he divided his time between the Gupta house where Payal lived and here, where his family was – his grandmother, mother, sister, even a brother who howsoever wrong, still needed him.
Gradually, as they waited for Khushi, everyone returned to life – got used to a dull life, a life devoid of happiness, laughter and love that had been so much a part of life of the Raizada household before everything went wrong. Only Di and sometimes Mami tried to talk to him. Even in them he could sense a distance. As if the warmth and acceptance they felt for each other were a sham – selfish sentiments that had taken their toll on an innocent girl. Mami worried about Akash and Payal. He had heard her talking to Akash about bringing Payal back. Yet Khushi’s sister had not returned.
Di too suffered from guilt. Whoever said the wife is last to know was mistaken. She is the first to suspect; she is also the first one to make excuses for her man; “My love is not enough”, “there is some problem with me that had led him astray,” “I need to change myself ,” “everything will be fine when the child arrives.” Anjili had gone through all this. She had suspected Shyam’s treachery for a long time. But she did not know that it was Khushi who had to suffer his lecherous advances. Yet she had made excuses and depended on the little child in her womb to right the wrongs of her life.
Her beliefs tumbled like a house of card as the events spiraled out of control. Her own brother, equally a victim, mad with anger and grief had committed unforgivable crimes and Khushi had paid the cost for Anjili’s blindness. She never asked her Chottey to do all this, yet she partook in his guilt and grief for Khushi.
For months she would ask him eagerly about news of Khushi. But after the day he was called to identify the body of a dead girl, she had stopped, as if afraid to hear anything. Then her baby girl had arrived and she had tried to drown her sorrows, caring after the little girl and her grieving brother.
Arnav rubbed away the wetness that welled up as he sat on the back seat of the car gazing at Khushi while he re-lived through the horrible days that had followed in her wake. He had gone to the Gupta’s to ask for forgiveness. He knew it would be difficult but it was his penance and he would do it. The pain and helpless anger in the eyes of Khushi’s father would haunt him forever, more than Garima’s tears and Buaji’s anger. ‘Nandkishore will not let this happen, Garima, Payal. Our titaliya would come back. And we will ask for her forgiveness. She has a big heart. But I hope she never returns to you, babua. You tried to break her wings; crush her spirit. You have killed her.’
His eyes opened wide and heart vame to a halt before it resumed thudding hard and fast. He remembered Buaji’s words.
If Aman regretted letting him know Khushi’s whereabouts, what would his family do? What would her family do?
They would attempt to keep her away, snatch her from him. Would Payal suggest that Khushi go to buaji’s house? And the state she was in, in her distrust of him that bordered on dislike, Khushi herself would prefer to go to her own family. And then- then what? Soon she would learn the truth from everyone else, of what he had done, how callous he had been.
He wanted to take her to Raizada house, tell her that it was her home, their home, the place where the two of them lived, where they shared their life together; he wanted to take her to their room which was so dead without her; he wanted her to trust him.
Now Aman’s intervention had made sure that Akash and Payal would be at the airport, probably waiting to take over Khushi’s care, even with arguments to take her away from him. No, he could not take that risk.
Don’t give them a way out, his manipulative brain whispered. Claim your right as her husband and she would be with you. This … this is your second chance, you cannot let it go.
That is selfish, the nagging conscience chided him. Wasn’t it supposed to be about her this time?
But she doesn’t remember.
Do you think she would approve if she did?
No, he answered. She would not. Because she is upright, a far better person. But he was selfish. And after a long long time, he had a purpose in life, something to look forward to every morning when he woke up. And he was not going to let it go now – not for a moment. He had not told anyone about the six month contract. The courage of mighty ASR had failed then. Now felt thankful for it.
The contract was a secret between Khushi and him. She did not remember and as far as he was concerned, their marriage was going to last forever and beyond. He refused to contemplate any other possibilities now.
Khushi was his talisman to happiness. And now that he had her, he could start putting things right. With her by his side, he could begin asking for forgiveness, begin setting right everything that he had destroyed.