She was in pain…terrible pain. The skin of her palm was torn. She could feel the stickiness of blood. The knee jarred against the pavement. The car sped away, its rear tyre scrapping against her leg. The door hung open – the door from which she had fallen out…no, she had jumped out…why? Why did she jump out of a moving car?
She sat gazing at its taillights, gulping in fresh air – for a moment there was relief …. and then a distant screech. It was turning. The car was turning around.
‘No one will come for you, Khushiji. No one will help you. No one will come to save you.’
Words hammered in brain…she wanted to shake them out…shake them out of her mind. The car…halted for a moment after taking the turn and then it restarted. It was moving…moving towards her ….she looked around…there was no one to help.
‘No one, Khushiji. They will think you ran away. Who would care now?’
‘You know what, you have no character, Khushi,’ another voice, heard weeks ago, joined the chorus.
The voices hurt her head, the words tore her heart. She looked around for an escape. The highway was deserted…sound of lapping water….a stone railing…she was on a bridge. Stars in the sky, car accidents in the dark…darkness, how she had dreaded the darkness…since that car accident…which accident…she shook her head trying to remember..another accident when she had lost everything.
‘You ran away…with your lover. No one believes you…no one will ever believe you …. You have no choice.’
‘You have no character, Khushi.’
Disjoined words, hurtful words….she did not want to think about them. Stars in the sky calling out to her. Take care, my daughter. Get up, run, Khushi, run.
‘You have no choice…come with me or die…. I have seen to it…you can never go back.’
She pushed back the words…tried to bury them in her mind. Later.. later once the danger had passed, she would think…
The car was nearing, headlights rushed towards where she lay, fallen. She caught the maniacal gleam in the eyes of the man behind the wheels. He was not going to stop. She got up, her knee buckled…she had to move away…move away fast, she dragged her injured knee and hurried away…on the pavement,…as fast as she could…lugging her broken leg…leaving behind a trail of blood.….her hair flayed around her…torn, tangled, the dupatta had fallen somewhere …somewhere her face bled…where, where was all this blood coming from?
‘No choice…come with me or die.’
The words would not go away. She banished them at the back of her mind, firmly… don’t think about what has passed. Think about the present, think fast…The headlights wouldn’t stop. The maniacal gleam pursued her…eyes of the devil. The engine roared behind her. She looked back, the car was tilted now, one side on the pavement on which she moved…. it moved towards her.
‘Come with me or die…no one will come’
Her spirit wavered. Every part of the body throbbed… one step after another…hurry…it is gaining on you…one step, another step…the knee, oh her knee. She would never be able to outrun it…she will never be able to outrun her bad luck.
‘No one will come’
‘Come with me or die’
She was near the end of the bridge…the driver of the car slowed down…he was playing with her… She came to a stand still…the car moved slowly towards her….slowly…playing the game…the hunter and the hunted….the cruel grin slashed beneath those evil eyes….she moved again slowly…it picked up speed…. Amid the mind numbing pain, a plan…another madcap plan, Khushi’s plan…she knew what to do.
‘Come with me or die’
‘Come with me….’
Gathering all her speed she started moving fast…fast…faster…faster…there was no other way out. Faster…the driver was getting angry, the engine roared…rushing towards her …full throttle…. She moved towards the railing…the car was on the pavement now…
Now was the time…she climbed the railing, the car lost control….splash…the coolness hit her…
‘Come with me or die.’
Sleep, silence, peace.
She drowned in them….here nothing hurt her…numbness … a different kind of darkness…darkness that healed…she wanted to stay there….she did not want to wake up…she did not want to hear those words again…banish the words, banish the memories.
But someone wouldn’t let her …
‘Wake up, Khushi. What happened? Are you okay…Khushi…Khushi, please.’
The hand on the shoulder shook her slightly. A familiar touch, a familiar voice. She opened her eyes with a jerk. They clashed with a worried pair, bending over her…’Are you okay? You were crying?’
The room came into focus. Khushi sat up as Arnav lowered himself on the side of the bed. Her back was drenched in sweat.
‘Was it a nightmare?’
Arnav stretched out his hand to pick a glass of water from the side table and handed it to her. She gulped it down, its coolness pushing away the remaining effects of dread and panic. She leaned back against the bed rest, closing her eyes to calm herself. The heartbeats slowed down. She felt another set of fingers coming to surround hers, rubbing their warmth into her cold hands. A soft glow of night lamp surrounded them.
‘Do they happen often?’ Once again Arnav wondered how little he knew about her life in the last one year.
‘No. They used to…immediately after the accident. Doctors said it was my mind trying to remember. But…’
‘But after I came to Sheesh Mahal and settled there, they stopped…within a first few nights. There was too much work there for dreaming.’ She opened her eyes to look at him. ‘I am sorry, I woke you. Was I noisy?’
He shook his head without taking his eyes off her. ‘Just thrashing around and muttering something…something like ‘run Khushi, no one will come. What do you see?’ he asked softly after a pause, as if reluctant to ask the question.
‘I don’t remember much…the words buzz around my head…and a car…a car rushing towards me…and I am trying to run…but my knee…my knee wouldn’t let me…and it keeps coming…at me…keeps coming till..’
‘Till I jump of the bridge.’
A sharp intake of breath as he turned to her in shock. ‘You jumped.’ His heart came to a standstill. Arnav was sure it was vision of the night of accident. Probably the stress of the day, the strain of being in this room, meeting the people she knew and didn’t. All of it together had brought back the memories which the security of Sheesh Mahal had lulled to sleep….memory of her desperate attempt…to…to kill herself. She had not fallen off the bridge, she had jumped…she had tried to ….he could not even think. Khushi…the ever hopeful Khushi, she had been so desperate that she had jumped into the river. “You did not fall, you jumped,” he whispered again, the words burned themselves on his heart and mind.
Khushi saw his fingers clench over hers. He looked shocked at the idea. ‘Yes, and the car follows me in the water,’ she was quiet for a moment. There were so many questions she wanted to ask. Only if he would answer. She looked at his fingers tightly gripping hers. ‘It was just a nightmare. A dream. I know what you are thinking. But it might not even be true.’ He nodded slowly, knowing that it was lie. She dreamt of that night…the night of the accident.
She knew he was not convinced. He sat still looking into her face as if trying to reassure himself. Khushi looked directly into his eyes and began again, cautiously. ‘You know, I also see a man … and I hear him. He is …is evil…and his words…words I was muttering. “no one will come to save you,” “ no one believes you,” “come with me or die” – his words keep going around my head…Do… Do you know that man, Arnavji?’
Minutes passed, and as she had expected, the curtain of wariness came down between them. He was still worried, but he grew cautious. The hands enclosing hers so tightly loosened gradually, held hers for a couple of minutes and then let go, reluctantly.
‘You should rest,’ he withdrew. ‘There are still a couple of hours before morning. Try to sleep.’ He got up slowly.
‘Do you know that man?’ she persisted.
‘We will meet the specialist in a day or so , Khushi. See what the doctor says,’ he turned away. ‘Till then, you should take it easy.’
She hid her annoyance but stayed quiet. She was getting used to it. She stocked all that he evaded in her mind…and her mind, emptied out of the memories of the past, concentrated on the present and remembered it with a stark kind of clarity. Every conversation with her husband was clearly etched in her mind.
Arnavji knew about the accident, he knew about the car, yet he did not know where she was going. And now the man who had rushed to her in the car…she knew that he knew that man. And so did she…who was the man? And what did his words mean? The voice? No…voices…there was another voice… ‘You have no character, Khushi’ ….did it sound like…No!…that was not possible.!!!
Khushi lay awake that night, aware that Arnav too was not asleep. Yet the easy conversation of the evening was a thing of past. For a moment, she forgot her annoyance when she remembered the evening. Had their relationship been always like this – always swinging to and fro – up and down, up and down – like the waves before they hit the cliff and broke. There was no rest, no knowing, …no…no…trust. The word came to her as sleep enveloped the mind and body once again.
It is trust…we do not trust each other.
As he heard her even breathing, Arnav knew that Khushi was asleep. He had been lying motionless on the recliner…his mind still trying to come to terms with the fact that Khushhad been in such desperate situation. …she had been so helpless, so sure that no one would come to help her. There was this urgent need to see her closely, almost like an ache around his heart – to see her to reassure himself that she was there. He stood up and walked to the bed. She slept peacefully in their bed in their room. The sight eased him somewhat. For some time he sat beside her, reassuring himself with her nearness, her warmth. ‘I am sorry,’ he whispered. The words were meaningless.
He knew that if she persisted with her questions, soon he would soon run out of excuses. He would have to tell her everything. Some more time…he told himself…some more time …
Just till she believes that I care. Till she can trust me.
The next morning Arnav mailed his cousin… the man of whom he had been so jealous of once. Rightfully so, he had often thought later. Probably even then he knew that Khushi would have been better off with NK…NK had sensed her goodness and warmth, had made her happy, had made her laugh. He had helped her when she had no one. Like Payal, NK had left them soon after Arnav’s revelations. Over the year, he had not kept in touch and neither Arnav not Akash had tried to write to him. What was there to tell?
It would take some time to come from Sydney, Arnav thought. But if he knew NK, Arnav was sure he was going to be here soon.
Two days later in the evening, as Khushi waited for Arnav, she went over her days in Raizada House. Arnavji had been right. They cared…all of them, as much as they were capable of, even Mamiji. But most of all Arnavji. After the nightmare, they had been cautious and tentative once again. Both of them remembered the conversation with great clarity…each aware of the other’s vulnerability as well as their lack of trust. When the horrible dream had revisited Khushi the next night, Arnav had been there, shaking her up from the sleep before she was lost in terror. This time she did not ask the uncomfortable questions and he kept sitting next to her till went to sleep again.
Khushi had resolved to talk to Payal. But two days later, she still procrastinated in bringing up the past with her sister. Yet as they sat waiting for Arnav, Khushi did bring it up, albeit, unintentionally. She had been sitting with Anjali and Payal when Aditi, who was in Nani’s room, called for her mother.
Khushi watched Anjali rush away, her grace and elegance hardly marred by the limp.
‘Jiji, where is Di’s husband? I have been wondering…no one talks about him and..’ as Khushi turned away from Anjili to Payal, Payal lowered her head concentrating on the Chikankari embroidery she held in her hands. But not before she had caught the look of utter shock on Payal’s face. ‘Jiji, what is it? Where is he?’
‘He…he is dead, Khushi,’ Payal answered shortly, refusing to look up.
‘Oh…but Aditi is not even one…I mean, when?’
‘About a year ago. Leave these sad things, Khushi,’ Payal continued with forced brightness. ‘Buaji had asked us to come over. Probably next week. Lets ask Dadi tonight.’
Khushi knew Payal was trying to divert her attention. But something about the words held her. ‘A year ago,’ she repeated, half listening to Payal. ‘That must be around the time I …I ..went away. Right?’
‘Please what?’ Payal still did not meet her eyes. ‘Why do you want to talk about those days. They…they were horrible, you know!’
‘No. I don’t. I don’t know anything, Jiji,’ Khushi looked at Payal earnestly, trying to make sense of what she had just learnt.
Payal watched Khushi as she puzzled over the facts she had revealed unknowingly. She felt an urge to protect Khushi, especially now when she was asking about the darkest episode of the past. It was not her truth to reveal. Yet she could not lie. Payal moved towards Khushi and ran a hand on her head. ‘There is nothing. Those were terrible days. You had disappeared and two days later, Di’s husband had passed away….very bad time for the family.’
‘How did he …you know…what happened to him?’
‘A car accident,’ Payal shook her head, trying to shake away the horrible memories. What would she not give to forget it all.
‘Oh….’ Was Khushi’s only response.
‘So when we visit buaji’s house, I will show you the accounts…for your dabba service…and other things…’ Payal continued. ‘lets see what the doctor says. You can then take over next week…’
Khushi was not listening. A car accident, the words buzzed in Khushi’s head. A car accident. A car …a car…she had made one fall in the river, the car being driven by a devil. A car accident. Who was he? Khushi looked around. There were no clues. With half a mind, she listened to Payal telling her about next week’s visit to Buaji’s house.
‘So next week, okay?’ Payal asked.
Khushi nodded. Some how she had a feeling that her husband might have problems. She would speak to him later. Now she had other things on her mind. Once again she looked around before turning to Payal. ‘Jiji, why are there no photos here. Can I see some…our wedding…others…?’
Payal was silent for a moment before she gave in with a sigh. Our wedding? Wedding Album? There was no album for Khushi’s wedding. What would she tell her if she asked? What had Arnavji told her, Payal wondered.
But she could show Khushi her own album – the reminder of those happy sylvan says when it had felt that nothing…nothing could wrong. When, if someone had told them that their world would fall apart in a few days, the two sisters would have laughed at him? Yes, she could share those memories. Payal rushed to her room and came back with a thick set photo album.
‘Here Khushi. The wedding album,’ Payal carefully avoided saying my album. ‘take this. Dadi has asked for tea. I will go and make a cup for us too. Call me if you need something. ’
Khushi took the album eagerly and turned to the first page. It was a family photo. All of them stood together. There she was, her bangle laden hand waving in front of Arnavji’s face who looked at her severly, with a feigned indifference. Khushi smiled. She looked so happy, happy and full of life… young.
Her eyes moved away to other people in the picture. Payal, Akash, Nani, buaji, Di and …. Khushi gasped. The door bell rang somewhere. Door opened, and she heard footsteps. Yet she could not tear her eyes away from the photograph…she stared into those eyes…those maniacal eyes…they had a face now.