He looked mean…mean and alien. Khushi inhaled the tantalizing scent that had been assaulting her senses ever since he folded himself in the seat beside her. He had flung his jacket at the back of the seat.
As they began the journey without a single word being spoken between them, Khushi wondered what she was getting into. His mind was elsewhere, she could discern that. Yet she was struck by the way his gaze remained fixed at her almost unblinkingly most of time she was around him. Was it a habit? Had she found it endearing ‘ that her husband could not take his eyes off her? Khushi smiled at the fanciful thought. His gaze made her self-conscious. What was he thinking? She turned to look out.
Khushi caught the last glimpse of Sheesh Mahal and felt tears burning at the back of her eyes once again. Goodbye, she lamented silently. Last one year, it was fading so swiftly, so finally. She was right, the man sitting next to her had just swept her away.
She avoided his eyes. But she had questions, so many of them. And Aman Mathur had given her an opening. Her heart had latched on to the information he had dropped, carelessly, too carelessly she had noticed.
‘My sister? Payal is my sister, right?’
The man, her husband, she corrected herself, came out of his reverie and nodded. ‘She is married to my brother, Akash.’
‘Oh. That would have been nice. To have your sister in the same house after marriage,’ she paused to take in the fact and then turned back to him. ‘So did they meet at our wedding, or did we meet at theirs?’
‘We..’ he cleared his throat. After Aman’s revelation he knew that this barrage of questions would come soon. How many lies would he have to weave? ‘We got married on the same day.’
That surprised Khushi. ‘Oh’ was all she could say. She turned back to look at the changing scenery outside. No memories of her wedding day. Probably there would be some pictures
‘How did we meet then?’ she asked after a moment.
‘You…you worked for AR designs,’ he said evasively.
‘I worked for AR Designs,’ she repeated, trying to remember, let the words roam in her mind in search for a memory, an image. None came forth except beginnings of a headache. ‘You know, I thought I was a chef. Even Lavanaya thought so.’
‘At first,’ Arnav improvised quickly. With Aman’s distrust still in his mind, he did not want to talk about her days at AR. But he had to talk. How else was he going to build some trust, some affinity so that she stayed with him. ‘At first you worked for AR Designs for…for a short while,’ he forced himself to continue. ‘Then you started catering food. Your own business. You were good at it,’ he was trying to divert her mind.
‘I was running a business?’ the news pleased her. So she had been an independent girl. Business sounded so good. She wanted to know more. She turned to him with eager eyes.
His heart expanded. It made her happy. It brought a glint in her eyes. For a moment, he could almost hear the old Khushi.
‘Jaante hain aap, hum ek halwai ki beti hain aur ek businessman ki patni.’
‘Haan! KKGSR dabba service, yeh naam theek rahega.’
‘KKGSR dabba service,’ he smiled at her.
‘KKGSR?’ she frowned. She returned his smile as if it was the most natural thing to do. Something about the way he was smiling, sharing the details of their life together made her feel comfortable, less worried.
‘Hmmm…Khushi Kumari Gupta Singh Raizada. You almost rendered Shuklaji, the contractor of AR canteen, jobless. But the smart man decided to join forces and became partners.’
She looked at him as if she didn’t believe him. Was he pulling her leg? Did she really start a dabba service with that name. And there was a Shuklaji, her partner!
He waited for her to react. Try as much as he could, his lips wouldn’t stop curving into a smile as she looked at him, with round wide eyes. His heart wouldn’t behave – this was what he wanted. Things to tell her, make her happy, surprise her, talk to her. Neutral untroublesome subjects to start building bridges, bring her closer. Suddenly everything seemed easy, light, pleasant. The mistakes he had made, the pain they had gone through, the lies he was still telling – all, all was forgotten as he watched surprise and amusement flit through her face.
‘Surprised at yourself, Khushi. Here see this. You even had a business card,’ he pulled out a bright blue business card from his wallet. He had stolen one when she had got them printed, and hidden it in one of the numerous pockets of his wallet. Another piece of her, of her life that he used to hoard and collect and feel in solitude, secretly, like the pearls, her payal, her jhumkas, her dupatta. In her absence, these little painful reminders had been his constant companions.
Khushi’s attention was fixed on the floral designs of the card. A narrow band of black at the center said ‘KKGSR Dabba Service.’ Below it was her name and phone number.
She looked at him, still smiling as she reached out for the card. She ran her hand over the name, as if trying to remember it. ‘It…it must be an old one…I mean it has been a year. Did it close down?’ her voice was heavy. She refused to look up.
‘Khushi” Arnav called out softly. He paused and waited till she looked up. Yes, there were tears, but they hadn’t spilt. Something urged him on, something told him that he had to stop them from spilling, that he would be able to forgive himself, justify everything he was doing only if he stopped them from spilling over. ‘It is waiting Khushi…waiting for you.’ She kept on looking at him, her head inclined questioningly ‘Payal is running it for you…she says she would hand it over once you were back.’
She nodded slowly, trying to smile through the tears. Tentatively, almost as if he could scarcely help himself, he reached out for the hand that held the business card. She looked down, the blue business card in her pale fingers which were now enveloped by a big strong hand.
Arnav felt he was walking on eggshells. Her questions brought memories, happier ones that made him want to hold her hands, look into her eyes and tell her about the time they had spent together – teasing, flirting, falling in love. But on the heels came painful images, far outnumbering the happier ones – the memories that he wanted to hide from her, from himself – the memories of the monster he had become. It was strange. Much as he wanted her to be the old happy, bubbly Khushi, something about that wish scared him greatly now. Would she still stay with him when her memories returned? Would she still blush and look at him shyly when she remembered that he had done everything to make her life hell.
‘I belong to Lucknow, don’t I? My family,’ she asked softly
He nodded, only aware of the fact that she was letting him hold her hand, that she was talking to him. ‘But your family moved out last year. To Delhi.’
She looked at him questioningly when he paused. ‘Your father had some …some troubles. And he hasn’t been well,’ he refused to elaborate further
She nodded. ‘Who is there in the family?’
‘Your amma, babuji. Buaji, Payal. And at home…our home,’ he added firmly ‘there is Di, Nani, Mami and mamaji.’
‘It is a big family then,’ she said softly chewing on her lower lip.
Arnav tightened his hand on hers. ‘Don’t worry Khushi. I know you don’t’…’he paused to swallow the thickness in the throat. ‘I know that you don’t believe it, but I am with you. I will help and everyone, every single one of them has been missing you. They will be so happy to see you.’
She lifted her gaze. It was filled with honest confusion. ‘Then why didn’t anyone look for me?’
‘We did, Khushi. We did. Everywhere in Delhi…’ how did he explain this to her without revealing the past. It was the second time she had asked him the same question. And he knew she noticed his evasions for what they were, attempts to hide the truth. How could he tell her how worried he had been, how distraught, turning mad with grief and loss till he thought that his heart would cease beating, his lungs stop breathing.
Janti ho kitna pareshaan tha main. I thought I had lost you.
He knew that Khushi was struggling, struggling to accept him, to believe him. But something stopped her. How deeply she must have been hurt that even in the state of forgetfulness she refused to let the guards down. The walls around her heart and mind held him out, oblivious to his repentance only aware of the deep hurt the inmate had suffered, bent on saving her from further pain. She noticed the sincerity in his eyes. He had noticed her attempts to pacify him when she thought she had hurt him. Yet too many uncomfortable questions simmered in her brain- questions that demanded answers he was not willing to give…as yet.
‘But why in Delhi? I was going to Lucknow. You knew, didn’t you?
Something in his stillness grabbed her attention. His eyes hooded and his jaw clenched. He answered her question, ‘No.’ He braced himself for the questions to come – questions that would pierce his heart and soul, questions which he could not answer.
‘Why didn’t you?’ she demanded instantly. Anger took over her confusion at his direct answer. Throughout the last twelve month she had been searching for something that might have jogged her memory.
But it hadn’t happened. Why? How could she have not even recognized her own married name when she’d read and heard it so often? Because she’d blocked it out. Just as she’d blocked out everything else about this man until he had come along in the yesterday…was it only yesterday. He had virtually force-fed the Raizada name to her and now, the next morning, she was headed to Delhi with him.
Arnav felt the pleasantness of a moment ago evaporating steadily, leaving behind an acrid bitter atmosphere in its wake. How did it happen so suddenly? When did his small attempt at winning her lead to the mire of the past? Would it be always like this, he worried.
‘Didn’t you know I was going to Lucknow?’ her voice was shrill. ‘Or was our marriage already over by the time I disappeared?’
His face closed up tight. ‘No. Khushi. There is nothing wrong with our marriage. And I’m not going to answer any of that,’ he said, taking a firm grip on her hands.
‘Why not?’ she challenged, resisting his tug. ‘Because the answer may destroy this pretense…this pretense of caring that you are carrying out?’
He closed his eyes. She knew him enough by now to know that her words hurt him. But she wanted her answers.
‘Because I can’t have you passing out at this time,’ ASR was using her condition heartlessly. But he needed to think about this. He needed time to think how he was going to answer her questions. Yet she was relentless. She would not let go. She was Khushi. ‘And, I think until we have some professional advice we should not talk about the past,’ He withdrew his hands and looked out.
That’s it. Conversation closed. Khushi understood the evasion. He was not ready to answer. Something drastic had happened that had sent her brain into this state of sleep. And this man, her husband, she corrected again, he knew about it. She looked out.
‘Come, we are there,’
Khushi looked around. Where? She wanted to ask. She had assumed they were driving to Delhi.
Arnav got out as soon as the car stopped and walked towards her side and held the door open. Khushi climbed out, her puzzled eyes trained on him.
‘What? You thought we were driving all the way to Delhi. It would be too tiring,’ with his head he gestured towards the airport. They were flying. Indeed why was she surprised. Wasn’t he a rich man? He could arrange a flight within a night if he wanted. Her husband…why did she feel so dismayed when confronted by his money. Why did she feel another barrier coming up against him, a barrier that became stronger each time she was confronted with his monetary status?
Khushi bent to pick up her walking stick.
Once again, the sight of the walking stick opened a deep gaping void of pain and anger . No sooner had he managed to contain one set of disturbing emotions than another set erupted inside him. And these new emotions were centered around that blasted stick and his fierce resentment of it.
‘Leave it. You can lean on me. It will be easier,’ he determined.
‘Not while I still have an alternative, Mr. Raizada.’ Khushi hit back angrily.
‘What the hell. Khushi,’ Somehting snapped inside him as he felt her push him away once again- now even more hurtful after the easy conversation in the car. His breath left his lungs on a hiss of impatience. ‘Why do you insist on seeing me as a monster? Can’t you see that I am trying. Trying hard.’
She flushed, not with guilt but with anger. ‘Oh yes I can see that. You did not know where I was at the time of the accident. I know something drastic happened. It is the reason that I lost all the memories. But you…you refuse to help me, to answer my questions ‘ she charged. ‘What do you think it means to me? Do you know how this feels – to be heading to an unknown place with an unknown man?’
He refused to answer, withdrawing in hurt, pursing up his lips, shifting his eyes away from her angry ones as he waited for her to step out.
Khushi ignored him as she leaned on the stick, straightened herself and started moving towards the entrance. Arnav held his ground, matching his steps to hers, respecting her wish not to lean on him, yet there for her if she needed him. If only…if only she noticed …he was trying, trying the best he could, wasn’t he?