Arnav rushed into the room as soon as he could, angry and irritated with the world around him. First NK and Payal had sent him away for dinner and medicines. Then, after NK’s call, Mami and Di had stood guard over him, not letting him get up till he had finished, knowing full well that Khushi was awake, he had even heard them tittering as he ran out. And then the infernal traffic… Arnav rushed through the never-ending corridors of the hospital. Khushi’s room was just around the corner. He was greeted by sounds of laughter outside the room. ‘Why not? After all that NK is there….’ he scowled.
Three beaming faces turned towards Arnav, inviting him to join in the charmed circle of joy. Without a thought, his face relaxed into a smile. He rushed to Khushi’s side.
‘Tum Theek ho, Khushi?’
Khushi nodded, smiling at the man she had been waiting for.
‘So now you believe me, Nannav. See, Khushiji is ok!’ NK piped in.
‘I had to find out myself…How can I believe a man who thinks 15 minutes is immediately?’
‘Nannav, my dear brother, even if I had called you in 2 minutes you would have told me I was late.’
‘Because you said you would call me immediately,’ for a moment Arnav’s answer stumped NK. Was he serious? Indeed he was.
NK shook his head. ‘I will go and get coffee. Bhabhi, please tell Nannav about khushiji’s medicines. He will have to cross-check with the nurse as well.’
‘Shut up, NK’ Arnav drawled even as he turned to listen to Payal. He would have to cross check secretly.
Arnav’s smile grew as he heard the doctor’s words, Khushi would be completely ok, even the limp. They could go home in two days. His hand tightened around Khushi’s.
‘See, I told you so,’ he turned excitedly.
‘Yes Arnavji, so I have decided tochange your name – from laad governor to Pati parmeshawar? Jo aap kehte hain wahi hota hai,’ Khushi joked.
Arnav’s smile slipped slightly. Main apni takdeer khud likhta hoon. He pushed back the words from his mind as he composed himself and smiled back.
‘Nahi, I am not God, Khushi. But I believe that your Devi Maiyaa is kind….and forgiving,’ he said softly. The words faded at the end and he sat silently, his eyes closed, his hands clutching Khushi’s, thanking the almighty for giving him this chance and time to earn forgivenss. There had been design in everything…Despite his cruelty, Khushi’s Devi Maiyaa had not overlooked his pleas for redemption.
As Payal watched Arnav and Khushi, she felt the burden lift finally, leaving her lighter, happier. The worry of the future left her…everything was going to be fine. The last shadows of guilt and anger that still gnawed her inside finally faded away. She had been wrong about Arnav, she acknowledged it now. Payal saw the man emerge behind the mask of ruthlessness that he always wore. She had not believed Aakash and Anjilidi when they told her that Arnav was not as he pretended. Now she saw that herself. Khushi, her sister was going to okay, she felt with a certainity that had been absent till now.
The hope and happiness, the complete and utter perfection of the days that followed the surgery was too good to be true. Later, when she was alone, Khushi often wondered if she should have known then. Such contentment was too good to last for a lifetime. But she had known even then. She had been seeing life at the surface. Time and again something shook the placidity of the calm surface. The unplaceable emotions, the troublesome ones – the fear, sadness, guilt – time and again often left her confused as they permeated through the atmosphere of the Raizada house.
She sensed them shifting and changing around her – the anger that simmered in her Jeeji’s eyes when she was with Arnavji; these days it had changed into a grudging acceptance. Nanheji had also been withdrawn and cagey initially; now he joked more freely. And Anjili di constantly hovered around her when she was with the family, as if she partook in her brother’s guilt and happiness, looking after Khushi’s comfort when her brother wasn’t around, trying to emphasize how much her Chottey had missed his Khushi when she had been gone for a year; it was surprising that she bore no grudge against her…had it always been like this?
At the center of it all was Arnavji, her husband. He had admitted that he had made mistakes and he was out to set them right. She understood his sorrow and guilt. Khushi desperately wanted to believe that all was fine. That apart from disagreements and minor arguments which were a regular feature of any couple’s married life – all had indeed been well.
So Khushi believed all of them …not only because they seemed sincere. But also because she had been starved…starved for safety, lonely, with no hope and no resource to turn to. When Arnav Singh Raizada had appeared at Sheesh Mahal, she had been wary yet fascinated … but with his unstinting attempts to care of her, the wariness had been lulled to sleep and the fascination had turned into acceptance, and acceptance was soon shifting to affection. Khushi often thought that had she not been so vulnerable she would have put up a greater resistance ….asked for more clarifications…probably she would not have felt so badly betrayed and hurt then.
But as long as she was at the Raizada Mansion after her surgery, she had felt blessed – blessed and grateful to feel the love being showered on her. The entire family, including her amma, babuji and the buaji had gathered together to welcome her back from the surgery….as if she was once again returning from a long absence. The lunch had been a little feast; Di had made sure that there was everything that Khushi liked. Khushi had been embarrassed when Arnav had carried into the house, but there was little she could do with her bandaged leg. Payal Jeeji and Akash Jeeju had followed them beaming. In the days that followed, it became so common sight that the teasing looks were replaced by welcoming one. She only had to move to draw attention and someone would rush to ask if she wanted something. She even got irritated when Arnavji kept moving the position of her leg, when she winced slightly and thence followed an argument…about his decision to stay at home for a week till they next visited the doctor and the therapy began.
Even then there was no respite…he hovered as the therapist helped her exercise. The therapist would come everyday in the morning and Khushi was told to follow the same exercise schedule in the evening, on her own. But that was not to be, she discovered the first evening. For Arnav was ready to help her exercise, on a stool in the front of her in his waistcoat, shirt sleeves rolled up. Never mind that she needed no aid, forget it that she had been doing some of these excercises for a year. Arnav had decided that the limp had to go and he was going to see to it himself, Khushi thought in loving exasperation, as he held her leg like a piece of porcelain china and winced dramatically with every movement. So much for the man who showed no emotions….
And what about Arnav? He saw the old Khushi, his Khushi as she emerged and merged with the new one. Though she slipped back and forth in time so often, ever since she had called him Arnavji on the plane from Lucknow, the shell of amnesia had been loosening steadily. It had not been a deluge of memories as they had anticipated, but a slow and steady realization. These days Arnav saw her often, in her quips, in her toothy grin, in her eyes as she rolled them at him. The Khushi of his memories merged seamlessly with the new and mature Khushi. She has grown up, he thought. And at the heels would came the painful thought….it should have taken years, long and beautiful years and they should have grown old together. But she had been forced to grow up too soon, too painfully…. and he was the reason behind it all. And with a renewed vigour he would set out to alleviate her pain, look after her, comfort her, woo her.
She had said that she might have loved him….he would prove worthy of it this time.
It was during those days of bliss that Khushi decided to call Lavanaya. It had been a long time. She had called Lavanaya a day after her return to the Raizada house, assuring her friend that everything was indeed fine. Khushi had sounded excited and eager as she told Lavanaya about Payal, Aakash, Nani, Buaji, Amma and Babuji, even Arnav Singh Raizada, her husband who had tried his best to allay her apprehensions when she had broken down at the poolside the first evening. And Lavanaya had been convinced. Khushi had finally reached where she belonged.
Now in the restful days after the surgery, Khushi remembered her friend once again. She must speak to Lavanaya immediately. Arnav agreed. The chat was long overdue, he said mysteriously. And if she got well enough, she could even visit Lucknow soon, he promised…Only if he had known then…
This time Lavanaya was as excited as Khushi…both friends sure that their news was greater. The call was interrupted with shrieks and exclamations, as both girls struggled to talk simultaneously.
‘Haan Lavanaya, the surgery was successful. I don’t even feel that pain as I did earlier. It is receding…but you know the best part…’
‘Quick Khushi, tell me….I can’t hold my news back any more…jaldi batao.’
‘The limp…the limp would go soon. The doctors are sure, after some physiotherapy…’
‘Thank God Khushi. I am so happy. Everything has turned out for the best. Marriage has been good to you…hasn’t it? That is sooo reassuring….’
‘True, but I don’t understand, reassuring?…’
‘What is there to not understand? It’s simple…I am getting married, Khushi …’
Khushi shrieked ‘I knew…I knew…he was always your Mr Mathur.’
‘No, he wasn’t …but he is now…’ and thus went the next hour as the two friends shared the details. Later Khushi sat smiling at phone., She was happy, happy and proud. Lavanaya had mentioned his name in gratitude. Khushi remembered how Arnavji held Lavanaya’s hand and thanked her. It was not a show, it had indeed been heartfelt….why would he do so much for Lavanaya and Aman Mathur and not even let her know. She thought about the happiness in Lavanaya’s voice when she told her.
‘Six months…six months of doing nothing Khushi…can you imagine? After the hard work of months here? ASR had made a contract…We are going to be on a paid leave and then join again after six months. We signed it…who wouldn’t? He told Aman to take it as our wedding gift. Even the wedding will be held at Sheesh Mahal. It is still two months away…but how I am looking forward to it! Khushi, Khushi, I am so happy…’
Her mind full of Lavanaya, Aman Mathur, the wedding in Sheesh Mahal and her husband’s role in it all…She couldn’t wait for the evening…she couldn’t wait for seeing him again….her husband…
Letting himself into the room, Arnav paused at the door. He was surprised by the darkness. Eversince Khushi had been back, there had been no room for darkness. He usually came back to a room full of light and music of her anklets as she rose to meet him. Why was it dark today?
‘Khushi?’ he called out. She was somewhere in the room, he knew.
He was 15 minutes early, Khushi thought irritatedly. She had planned it all so well. Hariprakashji and Nanheji had been so nice to help her. All she had to do was wait ….and all he had to do was come home on time. Khushi had been patting herself on her back as she looked forward to surprise her husband. And now…She saw him move towards the light switch…. ‘wait!’ Khushi yelled from her perch on the poolside. She had to stop him before he switched on the lights. First he comes home early and spoils her plans and now lights! ‘wait Arnavji! Leave the lights. We…we need to talk’
Arnav moved towards the poolside, puzzled at what Khushi was upto.
‘Talk?’ He asked as he stepped out. ‘What do you want to talk about in this darkness, Khushi.’
Khushi heaved a sigh. The man always threw her plans haywire.
‘About Sheesh Mahal?’ she whispered. ‘And the marriage…and the 6 months of contract you offered…’
Arnav felt his flesh go cold, as his heart beat came to a grinding halt.
‘No…no Khushi…it …the contract….it was a mistake. Our marriage is real,’ he rushed on urgently. He had to make her believe. He had done it so many times in the last few weeks. He would do it again…make her believe in him again. Nothing was lost. ‘Khushi, you are my wife….in every way that matters.’
The voice undid the last knot. Something shifted inside her and Khushi felt it happen in slow motion…a sudden iciness and utter confusion as she tried to make sense of his words, of the misunderstanding…which did not seem like a misunderstanding but more like déjà vu. ‘Hamara vishwas kijiye’ she saw herself. And then not a deluge, but a slow…a painfully slow replay of the images that had been long buried. Only the positions were reversed.