‘You are so much like her. It feels like jeeji has come back’ Shlok’s father ran a hand over her head. Her uncle had been waiting for her on gate when Arnav had dropped her. Khushi’s skepticism about meeting Shlok’s father had dissolved at once when she saw the man, a few years younger than her mother. He was her uncle, Mama, just like Arnav was to the twins. The surprise was soon replaced by wetness as he had remembered his older sister. In the absence of her grandfather, the house seemed much more welcoming.
‘I missed her so much. Sujata di and I were so close. Sudha was too young only 11 when Di left. I was 15. I missed her for days. When I grew old enough, I tried to find her for years. But she had just disappeared. There was no clue, no hint. Tell me, beta, tell me what did Sujata di do? She was just nineteen and pregnant, with no one to fall back on.’
Haltingly, Khushi told him the story. Of her birth, as her mother had told her. The hardships and penury that she still remembered. The constant moving of houses and jobs as her mother tried to outrun the past and its ignominy, the shame that she faced as the single mother, till she had met Dr. Shashi Gupta, her stepfather who had loved her and her daughter almost instantly.
‘She married when I was 10. Finally, found someone who just wanted to make her happy.’
‘Must be a great man.’ her uncle nodded as Shlok entered with a tray with steaming cups of tea. Sudha leaned forward to pass her cup and then her brother’s.
‘Do you…you have siblings, Khushi?’ Sudha asked.
‘Yes. Two of them, Amit and Sheena. Here I have a picture,’ Khushi searched her phone to find photos of her family. And handed it over to Sudha. Her uncle and Shlok leaned towards Sudha to see the pictures.
‘Di hasn’t changed at all,’ her uncle murmured.
‘Is that your stepfather?’ Sudha asked as she looked at the picture of her sister with a handsome man wearing stethoscope.
‘Yes. That is papa. He is a doctor. Sheena has just started studying medicine. There she is. About your age Shlok. Amit is studying Economics.’ Khushi introduced them to her family. Shlok, his aunt and his father, looked at the pictures eagerly, asking questions, making comments. They seemed so eager to know about their elder sister, that Khushi felt her voice choke. So much time lost. So much hurt. And Sujatha’s young brother and sister had pined for her as she had pined for them. She couldn’t wait to bring them together.
‘beta, you say you will finish in chandratall in a week. I will be coming to Delhi, in a fortnight,’ her uncle told Khushi.
‘Me too,’ Shlok chimed in.
‘I also want to,’ Sudha said hesitantly.
‘I would like to me jeeji, beta. Can you arrange that?’ her uncle asked.
‘Would she like…to me meet us?’ Sudha asked.
‘Of course, maasi.’ Khushi hugged her aunt who was so unsure of everything that she needed to follow others. ‘Mummy would go mad with joy.’ Khushi told her. ‘But nana?’
‘He need not know,’ her uncle said decisively and then hurried on when Khushi as well as Shlok opened their mouths to argue. ‘He is too old to change. It would be difficult for him to change, to admit that he was wrong to have turned away from his daughter, to have thorwn her out when she needed him so much. To have lived with this hatred that refused to weaken even when his wife asked for their eldest daughter on her death bed. Too much guilt, too heavy a weight for such an old man. Let him live in his illusions, children. But we must not live in the past. We must meet Sujata jeeji. Khushi beta, you will do that for us.’
Khushi nodded, suddenly unable to speak. It seemed so worthless – all the misunderstandings, all that hatred. She wanted to rush to Arnav and confess truth and ask him to trust her love, give her a chance. She would have rushed back at once had Sudha not insisted on meals. And then there was so much to learn and tell – minutes turned to hours and afternoon faded into late evening when Shlok and Khushi set out for Chandertaal, a little too late.
The lights of the mansion beckoned as she Khushi waved to Shlok and stepped into the gateway. As she walked through the path she taken, now nearly three months ago, she felt none of the anxiety she had felt then. It wasn’t a cold strange place that had shadowed her childhood.
Those feelings had been replaced by warmth, invitation, dreams that she had woven of the future. Chandrataal figured in all of them. It was hers. Not because Arvind Malik had willed it to her. But she no longer felt like outsider. The feeling of being rejected was gone. She knew her father had missed her and her mother till his last breath. She had found friendship, love and warmth. And above all, she had found a man who loved her and whom she loved with all her heart. The cold air of the mountain brought a pleasant sensation of homecoming. Khushi quickened her pace, almost breaking into a jog.
Inside, as always was pleasant and warm, and eerily quiet. Khushi had seen Anjili’s car outside. That meant she and the twins were still here. How was the house so silent? Khushi felt a thread of tension stir.
There was no one in the salon. Khsuhi was about to turn and leave for her room till she caught a movement near the window seat. It was one of twins. Nisha, she knew. The girl was observing her silently.
‘Hi Nisha,’ Khushi smiled, now used to Nisha’s strange behavior. The girl did not reply as she continued to watch her fixedly. ‘Where…where is mummy?’
‘In the gallery,’ she answered and turned to the window.
‘Gallery? What is she doing there? You aren’t playing with Aditi today?’ this was getting weirder by the minute. Anjili rarely went to the gallery in Khushi’s absence. Where was Arnav? Khushi cast a look around.
‘He is the gallery,’ Nisha answered shrewdly. ‘So is Kanchan di. I think you should go there.’
With that Nisha picked up the book that had been lying in her lap and turned away from Khushi. Khushi frowned as she walked to the gallery. Her earlier elation was replaced by a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.
The door to the gallery was ajar. It creaked a bit as Khushi brushed against it and stepped into the gallery. The two women standing at the center turned to her. There was strange blankness on one face and malice on the other. But it was the man at the window beyond them who drew her eyes. the tense set of shoulders betrayed his emotions. There was something dreadfully wrong.
‘Khushi,’ Anjili whispered. Khsuhi turned to Anjili immediately. ‘Why?’
‘Why what, Anjili?’ she asked
‘Why did you do this?’
What…what did I do?
‘What did she do, she asks? How innocent. All a façade!’
‘What do you mean?’ Khushi looked frantically at Arnav who had not turned around yet.
What did you mean Ms. Khushi Gupta? What did you mean by coming here, mounting all this drama of restoration, creating relationships making a fool of us. But then we should know that it is all a game – love, friendship – knowing who you are
‘Mind your language, Kanchan. I am working here but that does not mean I am going to put up with this kind of behaviour’
‘Really. But you should be used to it or is this the first time you have fooled…’
‘Enough, Kanchan,’ Arnav’s quite voice put a stop the venom that Kanchan had been spilling. But Khushi was angry now.
‘No!’ Khushi yelled. ‘I want to know what’s wrong. Why Kanchan spewing venom and you and Anjili is are standing here listening to her.’ Arnav did not move. His eyes glittering icily in a stony face. Khushi turned frantically to Anjili. ‘What is wrong, Anjili? Will someone tell me please!’
Anjili drew a deep breath as her lips thinned. She reached out for Khushi’s hand and dragged her to the small alcove where she often worked. Her easel stood near the window. Only this morning she had finished touching the last painting and hung it on the wall of the gallery. There was another painting in the gallery.
Khushi stepped in the alcove to see it clearly and gasped. A woman in red saree standing near the edge on the mountain, smiling at the onlooker with a twinkling almond shaped eyes. She would have known the face anywhere – she saw it every day in the mirror.
But Khushi felt her heart stop as she realized it wasn’t her. She didn’t need to glance at the bottom of the painting to know the name of the model. But the single word ‘Sujata’ told her everything.
‘Anjili’ Khushi reached for Anjili’s hand but Anjili had already withdrawn. She refused to look at Khushi as she moved out of the alcove swiftly muttering something about taking the girls home.
‘Don’t go like this, listen to me?’ Khushi ran after her and held her hand.
‘I need to go, Khushi. Please’ Anjili removed her hand from her arm and moved out. Khushi tried to follow.
‘Let her go,’ Arnav’s loud clipped tone brought her back. Kanchan came swiftly to the door and stood between Khushi and Anjili who was calling for Aditi and Nisha.
Khushi turned around to Arnav. She had to make him listen. But behind those cold eyes, she could see, he had already left her.