She had changed. The thought went round and round in his head. How she has changed. Through out the long process of checking in to the airport lounge, she hadn’t uttered a single word. The old Khushi would never have been able to carry it on so long, hold onto to her anger and give him a cold shoulder, ignore his constant presence at her side and conceal her terrors.
Neither did she show any sign of weakening. As they entered the lounge, he noticed that she was leaning heavily on the stick. Yet she had not turned to him. There was still some time for the plane to take off.
‘Let’s sit here,’ he said. He heard her exhale deeply as she lowered herself and stretched her leg. Her hand reached out almost unconsciously to massage her knee. Yet she sat straight. ‘Do you need something?’ Arnav asked softly.
For a moment she was quite and he thought she would not reply. “Water” she said softly.
‘I …I just need to make a phone call. I would be back in a moment,’ he waited for her response and left only when she had nodded in acknowledgement.
Khushi watched him walk out of the lounge. Slowly she let her spine relax and leaned back, giving in to the urge to grimace in pain. Throughout the last half hour – from the car to the lounge she had chanted the lines. ‘Don’t show any sign of a weakness. Your condition is vulnerable. There is no one. You are out for yourself.’
Over the year, this cautiousness had become a part of her nature. Right from the time she had woken up injured and lost. She understood that she had been lucky, despite all her misfortunes, she had been lucky to have been saved by some good people, to have met a conscientious fatherly doctor in a small medical center … despite out-of-date medical facilities she had good care. But things had been different in Lucknow. She had felt helpless and lost, panic when her money started to finish, hopelessness at the suggestion of the expensive surgery. Despair had been closing in all around her when Lavanaya had held out a ray of hope.
Khushi sighed. She had overcome those dark days. She would overcome this too. She patted her small cloth bag wherein she carried her savings. More precious, she had Lavanaya’s number. She could always call her for help.
She watched him go, her husband, she had to keep reminding herself constantly. He drew out his phone and made the call, turning back to look at her. He smiled almost hesitantly when he caught her eyes on him as if unsure of her reaction. Khushi felt herself soften, her lips curved in to a small smile. He relaxed visibly as he gestured her to wait for a few minutes. The phone must have connected on the other side. He turned away to talk.
His words came back to her.
‘Why do you insist on seeing as a monster? Can’t you see that I am trying. Trying hard.’
Khushi could not deny that – that and several other things she had noticed – the pain that flared up every time he felt her distrust, his concern, the happiness that had crept in his eyes when she asked about the dabba service – it had all been genuine. His eyes spoke volumes – more than the words he uttered, they told her more than he admitted.
Mr. Raizada, for some mysterious reason, may not tell her what happened a year ago, but she knew it was drastic. Not only because of her own loss of memory, but also because of the way he clamped up every time she asked him. He worked hard to make her comfortable, to make things easy for her, was soft and tender and caring. Khushi noticed his attempts to be near her through out the last hour, despite the cold shoulder she had been giving him.
Yet he risked it all by refusing to tell what happened. Why, Khushi asked herself? The answer came immediately. He is not happy with what happened. He feels responsible for whatever had come to pass.
She remembered her own angry words when he evaded her questions. ‘Because the answer may destroy this pretense of caring?” He had closed his eyes. She remembered how he had shut his eyes and breathed deeply before responding with another evasion. Hadn’t he apologized for her condition, told her repeatedly that he did not know where she was? Hadn’t she heard the pain clearly in his voice, seen it swim in his eyes?
‘What is he afraid off?’ She asked herself.
‘That you might not believe that he cares,’ her mind.
‘Why? Why should he afraid of that?’
‘Because it is as clear as daylight. You don’t trust him. He is working hard to show he cares. And yet you do not trust him.’
‘Something happened in the past that scares him too.’ Khushi turned the thought over. The catechism went on. ‘What? What could it have been?’
‘If only she could remember,’ she rubbed her forehead. Back to square one.
‘But now? Since you don’t remember and he wont tell…what will you do.’
‘Go along. Is there a choice? Watch his eyes carefully and go along, cautiously, slowly.’
Arnav watched her as he waited for someone on the other end to pick up the phone. She was thinking something. Frown marred the forehead she was rubbing. A long past conversation replayed in his mind – from that bizarre and beautiful comedy of errors on the New Year’s Eve.
‘Yeh duniya aaj bhi utni bedard hai jitni kal thi. Magar yeh sab samajhne ke liye jis cheez ki zarrorat hai woh tumahre paas hai nahi?
Kaun si cheez?
‘Maine socha tum puchogi nahi. Usse dimaag kehte hain, Khushi Kumari Gupta.’
How many times he had accused her of not using her brains. Thanks to him she knew now, how heartless the world could be. And now when he saw her carefully thinking through everything over and over again, he yearned for the naive young girl who rushed into his arms spontaneously. She was there, somewhere behind the stern wary exterior. He would find her…even if it took an entire lifetime, he would find her.
The sight of her distracted him even as it strengthened his resolve. He turned away when he heard the voice on the other end.
‘Hello. Bhai? Is that you? What is this we are hearing?’
‘Yes, Akash it is me,’ Arnav answered. ‘Aman called you.’ It wasn’t a question. He could hear the breathlessness in Akash’s voice. He knew.
‘Yes. He did. About half an hour ago”Akash was saying. Arnav smiled. So Aman Mathur had led him to believe that he had already told Akash and Payal while he must have made the call just after they left Sheesh Mahal. It gave him time to think. ‘I have been trying to reach you ever since but the phone was not reachable.’
‘Yes, I had to turn it off.’ There was no way he could have had this conversation with Khushi listening. He had switched off the phone, immediately after Aman had told him about the call. ‘Payal knows.’
‘Yes, bhai, I told her. I think the family ought to know”
‘Her family? They know? Everyone at home?’ he interrupted Akash.
‘No. We decided not to say anything till we spoke to you. She also wanted to confirm it before…you know how it is going to be when you are back, don’t you?’
‘Yes, I know Akash. But for once I think we should all think about her. Aman told you about her?’
‘He said that…that ..Khushiji has lost her memory. She remembers nothing. Total amnesia. Surely she would remember her family…her parents?’
‘No, she does not. Akash, she does not remember anything and…moreover she is injured,’ Arnav cast a look at Khushi. She was looking around, taking in the sights, massaging her knee at the same time. ‘Painfully injured. And Akash, she…she has changed so much. Doesn’t…Isn’t…I don’t know, Akash. She is not the same. You will know when you meet her.’ he suppressed a something which seemed suspiciously like a sob which blocked his throat. His voice thickened.
‘Bhai, are you okay?’
Arnav did not reply, as he tried to collect himself to carry on the conversation. He heard the concern in his brother’s voice. The same concern he had heard when he had broken down in Akash’s arms outside the police station. The concern he did not deserve. Yet his brother offered it. ‘Are you okay? Bhai?. Hello, why don’t you speak? Bhai, are you there?
‘Yes. Yes Akash, I am here. Just give me a moment.’ Arnav took a deep breath before he spoke. ‘Khushi, Akash. Khushi is in a bad condition. And she is very worried about all this, because she remembers nothing. It is…it is like going to an unknown place with unknown people.’ With an unknown man, his heart added the words she had shouted out to him earlier. ‘She did not know me, Akash.’
Akash was silent for a moment. His brother was suffering. Though Akash had been angry with him for so long, he had seen Arnav Singh Raizada suffering … suffering for the last twelve months, suffering more than when his mother had died. He heard the plaintive cry of the young boy in the words over the phone today. ‘She does not remember me.’
‘Then bring her home, Bhai. We are all here. We will look after her.’
‘Yes Akash,’ the voice was firm now. Voice of ASR, Akash recognized. He knew he would not like what was coming. ‘I will take her home. Home to Raizada house. Tell Payal…and buaji and…’
‘Bhai,’ Akash interrupted in a stern voice that he seldom used. ‘Don’t do this. It has to be about Khushiji now.’
‘You don’t have to remind me that, Akash. What do you think we should do? Tell her everything that happened. Add to her distress. She is in a bad shape, Akash. I know I was wrong. But I would be damned if I let her go through this alone once again, adding to everything she is going through. We all…’ he gathered himself once again before continuing. ‘Lets all help her out rather than rake up the past. When she is stronger then probably …’ Arnav could still not voice the possibility of letting her know the truth and then wait while he chose to leave him.
‘But if she wants to come to her parents then…’
‘She does not remember her parents…or anyone else.’
‘She might remember them when she meets them or Payal. Even though …even though she might not know you.’
Cruel, Akash knew he was being cruel. But when his brother donned the ASR avatar, someone had to do the unpleasant job reminding him that. And he would not step back from it. Akash had promised himself that an year ago.
The silence resounded for a moment, before ASR broke it with ice in his tone. ‘Fine, Akash. Then meet me at the airport. Bring Payal along. If Khushi recognizes Payal, then Payal can…Payal can take her sister to her parent’s house. But if she does not, then Khushi, my wife, comes with me, to her own home, her own family.’
Akash was silent. Arnav prodded on. He had to make Akash understand. The mask of ruthlessness slipped even as he tried to hold it on, trying to be arrogant while his voice broke. ‘I know, Akash, whatever happened, whatever…I am the one to blame. I did wrong. She suffered. Not for a moment I have forgotten that. It is…and will always be unforgettable for me. So if…if I have to live my life in any sort of peace…I have to atone for everything. And …and I will not let anyone take away this chance from me. Even if she knows Payal and goes to her parent’s house, I will go to her everyday and apologize…and earn her forgiveness. But if she does not, then Khushi comes to Raizada house. My wife stays with me. That is it. Tell that to Payal. Promise me…promise me Akash. Otherwise…’
‘Otherwise what, Bhai? What will you do?’ Akash was torn hearing curious mix of pain and ruthlessness in his brother’s voice.
‘I…I will not come home. I will take her away with me.’
The quietness underlined each word, leaving no doubt in either of their mind. This was what he would do.
Silence held on for a long time before Akash broke it.
‘Come home, Bhai. Payal and I will meet you at the airport. Let’s see then what happens. We will keep our word. You keep yours, come back.’
‘Thanks, Akash,’ Arnav heaved a sigh of relief. ‘I…no…we . We would be home soon.’
‘Yes. Let’s hope for that…that all of us can return home. It has been a long time.’
Akash was right. It had been a long time. Arnav thought as he walked with a bottle of water towards the girl waiting for him. It was still a long way to go for peace. But at least they would be home…soon.