Arnav pulled his seat belt and locked it in place, glancing briefly her way to check if she had done the same. Khushi drew the two ends and fumbled around when she heard another click. He had undone his belt and now leaned over her to pull her seat belt in place. She sat still as her breath hitched – the nearness, the feeling of being crowded, the wariness and sudden awareness of his presence. No bells rang, nothing clicked in her scant memories. Just the feeling – a sense of deja -vu. She remembered feeling like this. She looked up at him. He had a small smile playing at the corner of his mouth as he looked down at her – a smile that was not directed at her, a smile that did not ask anything in return, it was a smile that was for himself, a smile which indicated his own state, his thoughts in his mind.
Arnav was aware of her puzzled glance. Yet he could not restrain the smile. The simple task of fixing her seatbelt brought on so many memories – some so painful that they threatened to drown him; but he chose to concentrate on the happier ones – the adrenalin burst when he had leaned over to fix her seatbelt the first time. How it had angered him then, this pull that drew him so relentlessly. Now he drew comfort, reveling in her nearness, inhaling her scent, looking down into her wide eyes. Somethings never changed; somethings would never change.
One hour – one hour to Delhi and then …and then Khushi might chose her sister over him. The thought had been with him ever since he had disconnected the phone. Was it possible? That her lost mind may choose Payal over him? Yes, his heart answered. Because he strongly suspected that those little unmovable guards she had herself placed around her heart and mind who kept him out, might let her sister in – the sister whom Khushi loved so much that she had gambled her own life away for her despite knowing that the dice was loaded so heavily against her. Yes, ASR feared Payal, because Payal may be able to topple that defensive wall that he had been able to move. Not deliberately, but he was afraid that her battered heart and mind may do right by her – choose her loving sister over her erring husband.
Soon they were airborne. After the initial hustle when she had reluctantly handed her walking stick to the air hostess and then let herself be assisted to the seat irritatedly, Khushi sat down and looked out of the window, avoiding him assiduously. She had not spoken much since their argument in the car. In the lounge, she had relented, but she had not forgotten his evasions about the past, she had not forgotten their argument in the car. Now she sat quietly, her eyes glued to the window. The airhostess called attention as she offered them the breakfast menu. Food was the last thing on mind. Khushi turned to the view outside as soon as the interruption was over.
Beyond her fragile silhouette, the scene was beautiful – the light of morning sun filtering through the rolling soft clouds, scattering at their edges to give a sharp silver lining to each, a silver lining that was blinding in its intensity. The sky of the morning. It gave hope, it made him reckless as he clutched at the sixty minutes promised to only him. Like a miser, he decided to hold on to each passing second close to his chest. He bent slightly over her shoulder. Before she could feel him or flinch away, he whispered in her ear.
‘I can hear you, Khushi Kumari Gupta Singh Raizada.’
Khushi felt his warm breath near her ear, at the back of her neck. Once again she felt sensations race down her spine – sensations that made her want to stretch, smile and luxuriate in its warmth.
She turned towards him cautiously. ‘What?’
‘I can hear the names you are calling me,’ the smile still lingered in his eyes. Khushi looked at him with question in her eyes. He stayed quiet, waiting for her to ask her question.
Khushi looked at him for a moment. Something about her needing help with the seat belt had made him happy. Her husband, who had been so unwilling to talk about the past sometime ago, now offered her other memories – probably the ones he knew would make her happy – like her business card. He had not known that he would meet his wife in Lucknow. So? Did that mean he carried her old business card everywhere? When she was alone she would sift through the implications – of that small card whose presence seemed to tell her something, of the smile and hurt that alternated in his eyes driven by her smallest of actions, but most of all her own puzzling reactions to him – the fear, the cautiousness, the sense that she was playing with fire that could scorch her painfully; and yet, at the same time, the longing at the sound of his voice, the firework of sensations in her heart and mind, almost a hypnotic fascination with his eyes and him.
‘Really? What names?’ ready to accept the pieces of the puzzle he offered, for now.
‘Laad governor?’he offered and she frowned turning the words in her mind ‘laad governor.’ ‘No?’ he asked as she frowned. ‘You are angrier? Then it must be rakshas.’
She giggled. ‘They suit you, you know! Look the way you have completely swept aside all my reservations and have me here, just where you wanted. Laad Governor!’
She called him by the name she had given him. It had irritated him so much once; and then last one year, he had often wondered if he would ever hear it again in her petulant voice; her shadowy sisters who lived in his fevered imagination had often teased him, whispering the words in the ear. But nothing, nothing matched this.
‘Yes Khushi!’ Arnav leaned back, his head turned towards her, the smile still playing on his lips as he heard her call him ‘laad governor.’ Khushi waited for him to continue. Something about the way he said her name every time made her heart beat faster; the exhalation on the last syllable as if her name was on his breath. ‘Just where I want you,’ he was looking in her eyes refusing to let her draw her eyes away. ‘With me, heading home. I have you just where I want you.’
She wrenched her gaze away and looked out.
‘That stick, Khushi,..Why the stick?’ he asked suddenly. The damned stick had been striking on his conscience ever since he had seen it first in the morning. How he resented it. ‘Tell me Khushi, why the stick? You said you met doctors in Lucknow. What did they say?’
Does he never give up? Taking a deep breath, she gave him what he wanted.
‘The knee was crushed by a boulder when I fell into the river. From what, I don’t know,’ she paused and look at him expectantly, as if he would tell her how she was travelling. When he didn’t, she continued. ‘It was bad when I woke up and then’with the outdated medical facilities at the small center, nothing much could be done. And when I came here ‘.,’ she took a deep breath. Something stopped her from admitting this to him but then she knew he would not rest till he knew all. ”I met a doctor who ‘.anyway the gist is that I did not have money to go in for the treatment he suggested.’
He winced, but she didn’t care; he’d asked for answers and she gave them.
‘They suggested some exercises.’ she added. ‘Believe me, the knee is not half as bad as it was.’ The smile was so not Khushi. It did not reach her eyes. Just lingered around her mouth ‘ amusement at the ironies of life.
‘Does it offend you? My limp?’ Khushi asked suddenly giving in to her insecurities. Hadn’t he said ‘Lean on me,” three times now. Her eyes were fixed on his, not willing to miss a single strand of emotion that welled up at her question. They were her only guides to the future for now.
Surprise. He jerked up in his seat and turned towards her. He was taken aback, she could see that. Then denial. Denial and an anxiety that she thought so of him.
‘Haan, khush hoon main tumhe takleef mein dekhkar. Maine yeh sab kiya hi isliye hai ki tumhe takleef mein dekh sakoon.’
‘No, Khushi. No,’ he shook his head as if trying to shake away something that had taken hold of him. ‘It makes me…it does not offend me. Just that you are in pain and injured and suffering because…it makes me angry. And …and I want to know, what we need to do about it, how we can ease it,’ he looked at her for a moment in all earnestness before leaning back silently and looking straight ahead at nothing.
‘What treatment did he … the doctor suggest?’ he asked after some time.
‘Surgery,’ Khushi replied. ‘And physiotherapy. It will be long treatment and still, the limp might never go. So if you were hoping that I am the same girl, then… I am not, Mr.Raizada,’ she felt compelled to warn.
‘You are my wife, Khushi Singh Raizada,’ he was looking intently at his tightly laced fingers choosing each word carefully. ‘And now that I have you where I wanted you, as you put it just now, the rest doesn’t matter. We will see the doctor regarding your knee and your amnesia. Limp might never go, your memories may or may not return. But I have my wife and I am going to be with her.’
He turned his head towards her ready to meet her wary unbelieving look. But what he saw took his breath away.
Khushi was smiling. Her mouth had curved up. Not the ironical smile of few moments ago, but a smile that reached her eyes and suffused through her features. Almost unaware, her heart went out to the sincerity behind the words. She could have been angry at his dismissal of her condition, at his selfishness in rejoicing that he had his wife back; but she heard the unsaid promise, the same that he had enunciated when he thanked Lavanaya for looking after her, when he said that he would not let her fall. She would soon discover the past. How long could it be hidden? She would find out, she knew. Probably the smoky shadows of forgetfulness would lift once she was home; probably some inadvertent clue slipped in the conversation amongst the family members, some piece of evidence lying around. Oh, she would find out.
But for a while, she could not help but warm her cold, lonely and scared self in the heat that simmered in his eyes; bask in its warmth. The feeling of uncertainty and of being uprooted was taking its toll. Khushi wondered when she would be able to return to Lucknow. She turned to look out. It was only clouds and vast sky. The beloved town had already faded from vision.
‘You know we should visit Lucknow again soon. I don’t want you to miss Lavanaya and others,’ he murmured as if he could read her thoughts. ‘Nani and Di love Lucknow. We can come back.’ Probably he was making concessions now that he had what he wanted? To an extent, he knew it was true. But more than anything now he wanted Khushi to be happy with him.
‘And even stay in the Sheesh Mahal if you want.’ Arnav continued when she did not reply. He no longer wanted to run away from the place. The old house had paid its debt – by giving shelter to Khushi, it had paid the debt of pain. ‘You said you liked Sheesh Mahal, didn’t you? And Lucknow?’ he invited her attention.
‘Yes. It is the most beautiful city. And Sheesh Mahal could be once of its grandest landmarks. Don’t you think so?’ He nodded. It was, once, one of the grandest structures of Lucknow. The place that he should have grown up in – happily, without the shadow of tragedy that befell on his childhood so unexpectedly.
‘You know, it was an old haveli of an old family,’ Khushi continued as she told him what she had heard in rumours and gossips. ‘The elitest of Lucknow’s society of the time. There is a rumour … about a scandal sometime ago. A woman and a man committed suicide,’ she went on unmindful of his rigid jaw and the grim slash of his mouth. ‘You know Arnavji, you should do something about its image. It is called unlucky.’ The plane jerked at the turbulence in the air. Arnav’s eyes widened as he reached out to steady the glass of water she had put on the table in front of her. ‘Thank you, Arnavji. Yes, as I was staying, people call it unlucky. Even now, when it has become a hotel, not many people come. …’
Arnav sat rigid in shock, struck speechless. Arnavji! Not Mr. Raizada. Arnavji!