Payal and Akash had decided [much against mamiji’s laments] that the wedding would be held at the Gupta haveli, and would be just a simple ceremony with close friends and relatives. The reception, in Delhi, would be elaborate ‘Raizada’ style, to gratify mamiji’s wishes of a grand wedding for her son.
When Aman reached Khushi’s house in the morning, his only wish was to hole up and die somewhere. But that was not to be. Amid the haldi ceremonies being performed by the women of the house, in the central courtyard, there were contractors, caterers, well-wishers, helpers and anyone one you could name in every corner of the house. Babuji caught Aman as soon as he spotted him and put him to the task of overseeing the lighting, and then the mandap arrangements, and then… his list just did not stop.
“Another pill…” Aman groaned inwardly, “I need another pill, before I tackle any of this.” To top it all, he could feel Khushi giving him dirty glares over the bevy of women gathered in the courtyard. “It’s going to be long painful day, dude.” Aman braced himself.
Surprisingly, as is always the case, everything looked pictured perfect by the time the sun set, and the time for the wedding guests to arrive dawned. All the chaos of the day, seemed as if swept under a giant carpet, and even the twinkling stars visible in the sky over the courtyard looked as if waiting to shower star dust on the young couple to be married.
Khushi had chosen to wear a sari today. The intricately woven onion pink Benarasi brocade, complimented her flushed cheeks and toffee brown eyes, while the gossamer gold choli seductively hugged her soft curves, while leaving her back bare. She had braided her hair with small white champa flowers, and as she ran in and out of jiji’s room a sweet fragrance enveloped her as the braid swayed two and fro on her graceful back. Since she knew she was to be on her feet till midnight, she had decided not to wear heels, and opted for a pair of gold seqin encrusted jootis. Pink glass bangles jangled on her slim wrists, and a kamarband - a thin gold chain with paisley charms - rested on her slim waist, it belonged to her grandmother, and had been kept away for Khushi’s trousseau by amma. Small gold jhumkas, and a matching maang tika completed her jewellery. She looked captivating in her simplicity, only her eyes betraying her stress levels as she got jiji ready for the most important day of her life. Emotions varying from ‘misery’ to be soon parted from her jiji; ‘apprehension’ of how jiji would cope with a mother-in-law like mamiji; ‘dread’ at facing Arnav this evening and a constant worry that all should go well today for her family, were flitting across her face at regular intervals. One minute she would frown at her thoughts, and another become rapt with jiji’s shringar ritual.
A hullabaloo outside, indicated the arrival of the baarat, and Khushi felt jiji’s hand go wet and clammy. Giving them a reassuring squeeze, Khushi walked to the window, to watch amma do the traditional tilak ceremony to Akashji. Behind Akash was a small group of his family and close friends all smiling indulgently at the groom, while one stiff figure behaved as if he was at a funeral. Not an iota of emotion shone in those black eyes, and Khushi wondered what could have been crossing his mind right now. She watched as he completely ignored a shimmering Lavanya who was hanging on to his arm as if her life depended on it.
“Well, she has the audacity to call ME ‘chamkili’, Khushi fumed, remembering her torturous days at the offices of ASR. “She seems to have gotten all the sequins and crystals of meena bazaar on HER sari today… and what’s that … was she not wearing a blouse or what!” Khushi gaped at the vast expanse of bare skin that was wrapping itself all over a completely lifeless Arnav Singh Raizada. “I wonder what happened to him, that he looks completely frozen.” Khushi thought, remembering the monster whose eyes were always filled with fury. She noticed his eyes were bloodshot right now but then so had Aman’s been all day, she thought angrily.
Lost in her thoughts, standing at the window, Khushi suddenly felt a rush of warmth. Focusing on the ceremony outside, her eyes met Arnav’s as she found him staring at her with a pair of cheerless eyes. Warning bells rang noisily her mind, as she pursed her lips and turned away from the window abruptly.
“How is ‘he’ looking?” Payal asked Khusi shyly when she returned to where her sister was sitting. Taken aback, as she had not even noticed Akashji, Khushi guiltily turned a pretty shade of pink. “I can describe what the monster is wearing perfectly, if you want to know,” a sly voice spoke inside her head. The jet-black achkan hugged his muscular frame perfectly, tapering towards his slim waist and then fanning out gently just below his knees. A cream Aligarhi churidaar hugged those toned legs and a turquoise silk handkerchief added that dash of colour peeping put of his breast pocket. Khushi felt a blush creep down her neck now, as she stalled her vivid imagination. “Had I really noticed all that in those few seconds, devi mayyiya?” she asked herself.
Thankfully she need not have answered jiji, as her young cousins came running in to call the bride out for the jaimala ceremony.
“Chalo jiji”, Khushi helped her up gently, arranging the bridal veil comfortably over her sister’s head. Making sure she was able to walk the short walk without tripping over her voluminous lehnga.
As she walked beside a visibly nervous jiji, Khushi completely lost in prayers for her jiji’s happiness, did not notice Arnav’s eyes following her every step, as if she were walking towards him alone and not surrounded by a crowd of women.
Why was he not feeling anything at all, Arnav asked himself once again for the hundredth time since morning? He didn’t feel angry, he didn’t feel irritated; he didn’t feel happy… he DID NOT FEEL ANYTHING. The cold block around his heart was making him completely numb.
As he had looked at the window during the ‘tilak’ he felt a moment of warmth as his eyes met Khushi’s. She looked an image of loveliness, in her pastel coloured saree draped across her petite form. The white flowers in her hair, her kajal rimmed wide eyes, glittering diamond nose pin and quivering glossy pink lips, evoked a feeling of tenderness in him. And before he could take in his hearts fill, she had frowned at him and turned away abruptly. Would it be okay to excuse one self right now, and go get another drink, he speculated.
And now she sashayed alongside her sister towards where they were waiting and Arnav felt as if the whole world had dissolved into a silent black and white film. The only bit of colour and motion was Khushi, walking towards him slowly, smiling shyly. The only sound was the soft tinkle of her anklets; the only fragrance her jasmine laden hair. She was walking towards him and he felt himself open his arms ready to embrace her and take her away somewhere.
“ASR”, Lavanya whined, as she felt him try to shake her off his arm. “I got all decked up in this finery to please nani, and she has just been shooting daggers at me all evening.” She lamented further. “And now you are also behaving boorish… you haven’t even told me how I look.”
“You look very nice, as always, Lavanya,” Arnav answered as if on autopilot. His attention was not on Lavanya or her clothes at all right now. He had finally found a warm place, where he was feeling something. Where just Khushi was walking towards him her arms out stretched … where he waited to envelope her in his embrace …
“Chote!” Anjali di shook him out of his reverie. She was looking pointedly towards Akash who was standing alone with the garland as Payal walked towards him.
Only to happy to shake off Lavanya, Arnav marched across to where his brother stood waiting for his bride. Looking towards Payal, his eyes met with Khushi’s and he watched the smile fade from her lips, as she found him staring at her. The sisters reached them, and Akash and Payal shared shy smiles, while Khushi threw daggers at Arnav from beside her sister.
Amid a round of applause, the bride and groom exchanged garlands and walked towards the mandap being showered with rose petals. As the pink petals fell all around them, Khushi suddenly looked up and laughed gleefully, forgetting everything and trying to catch them on her face. Forgetting even the stunned expression on Arnav’s face, as he stood there looking at her as if could not get his eyes off her.
A flurry near the mandap had them both turning towards where Akash had just removed his shoes, and the young cousins had pounced on them. Khushi turned questioningly towards Arnav, her eyes asking why he was not there to protect his brother’s shoes… His startled expression told her, he had no clue what she was saying, and shaking her head ruefully, Khushi turned once again and walked away from him… the ice was seeping around his chest again, Arnav thought watching her slim hips swaying away from him.
“Where could she hide Akashji shoes?” Khusi stood in the verandah, away from the hustle bustle of the central courtyard with a pair of brocade jooti’s in one hand and biting the nails of her other hand. The kids had handed over the shoes to her while the pheras were going on.
The roof!! Yes of course! The roof was perfect, Khushi thought happily. No one would look there, she decided, turning around and walking purposefully towards the stairs.
The pale moonlit night lit up the place gently as Khushi stood on the roof now, thinking where exactly she could hide the shoes. Finally deciding on putting them under one of the ‘moodas’ there, she ran lightly towards it and quickly put the jooti’s under, happy at her task.
Even through the haze of pain, Arnav felt her presence the moment she stepped on to the roof, where he was taking an overseas call. His head still throbbed and he quelled the shaky feeling that he was not well. The tinkle of her anklets broke the stillness of the quiet night as he watched her glide to an arrangement of chairs, close to where he stood in the shadows near the parapet. So engrossed was she in her task, that she did not even notice she had company. Arnav felt a gush of tenderness as he watched, phone forgotten in his hand, her triumphant smile as she accomplished her task.
He watched silently as she also sensed a presence, looked quizzically towards the shadows where he was standing and started walking towards him slowly.
Arnav’s felt his heart thawing once again, and lost all track of time and space as she was once again walking towards him, a little dread on her face as she neared the shadowy recess where he was leaning against the parapet.
“What are you doing her?” she asked angrily … actually relieved to see him and not some intruder that she was expecting. He was very silent, unlike the Arnav she knew and Khushi stepped closer towards him as the shadows hid his face from her. “Are you okay?” she asked gently, her sweet nature getting the better of her. After all he was a guest in their house! As she reached out her arm instinctively towards him, without thinking, she found herself tripping on something and falling headlong into his arms, and as always they always seemed to be there to hold her! Both of them lurched on the low wall as Arnav tried to steady both of them before they plummeted down on to the ground floor unceremoniously.
As she tried to disentangle herself from him, Khushi felt a painful tug on her ear… her earring was stuck on the hook of his achkan. NO, Khushi moaned, NOT AGAIN!!! She noticed that he was not moving and just stood motionless while she fidgeted to free herself, her ear lobe paining with every tug.
Her hand reached towards her ear and met his as Arnav too reached out to disentangle the piece of jewellery from his achkan. Khushi froze, and immediately lowered her hand, but not before realizing that his hand was burning hot. As those burning hands touched her cool ear lobe to probe the cause of the problem, she felt a shiver pass down her spine and stumbled further into him, not being able to stand on her quivering feet.
“Stop fidgeting,” he whispered harshly, as if trying to control his emotions and concentrate at the task in hand, “you’ll only hurt yourself.”
His hand was unnaturally hot, thought Khushi, as she tried to stand steadily crushing the desire to touch him and concentrated on thinking of her devi mayyiya instead.
Little did she realize that her proximity was running havoc on Arnav’s mind too. It was taking all of his will power to concentrate on the task at hand and not crush her to him in a death grip. His fingers fumbled with her earring, being careful not to hurt her, as he felt her warm laboured breath somewhere near his neck. “Ouch”, Khushi instinctively raised her hand towards her ear, as he gave it a painful tug. Her hand touched the side of his neck, under his ear and she finally realized that he was actually burning up with a very high fever. As the earring came free, Arnav saw that she had not moved away, but remained standing near him her hand at his neck. She could now turn up to look into his face, as the hindering earring had been removed.
“Are you okay?” she asked again, huskily, her hand now holding the side of his face against his jaw. “He’s shaved today,” she thought distractedly, as she felt the smooth skin against her soft hands.
His last thought was the feel of her soft hands on his face and the concerned brown eyes looking deeply into his, and for the first time in his life Arnav Singh Raizada collapsed against her in a faint!
It took all of Khushi’s strength to hold him up and not tumble to the floor with his dead weight on her. As she tried to hold him steady against her slight frame and the wall behind him, she wondered what she could do next. The man had actually passed out in her arms, she giggled, having no clue as to how to help him. “Chalo, hisab barabar hua!” she remembered the time in the guesthouse, then guiltily focused on the task at hand. What now?
She could drag him towards the mooda’s a short distance away … umm no… he would be too heavy to lug till there. She could leave him lying here on the roof and go get help … no, it didn’t seem right to leave him lying there, she scolded herself for even the tempting thought crossing her mind.
He was getting heavier now, and balancing him on one shoulder awkwardly she tried to peep over the parapet, trying to spot someone to call up. “Khushi”, he whispered drowsily, his warm breath on her ear, as he tried to nuzzle into her hair.
Khushi panicked… she had to get him help before he got more delirious … and looked around frantically. Maybe I’ll have to leave him here only and get help, she decided.
And then she spotted a third person storming onto the terrace; phone in hand – an image that was becoming increasingly familiar lately. Aman was loudly arguing with someone and pacing up and down on the roof.
“AMAN”, Khushi hissed loudly trying not to wake up the monster in her arms … “AMAN”, she said louder, till she saw him stop mid sentence and look her way. “I’ll just call you back”, he spoke curtly on the phone and rushed towards them.
“Now what … ”, he started before Khushi cut him and looked pointedly at her precarious position here. As Aman took the weight of the unconscious ASR on himself, Khushi babbled on about his fever and getting help, thankful to see Aman come to her rescue.
“You better go get babuji while I take him to my room. His fever seems unnaturally high, and we must not delay anymore.” Aman assessed the situation and took charge, seeing Khushi panicking.
Khushi ran down to where the phera’s had just ended, cursing Arnav once again for making her miss the ceremony!
When she and babuji reached Aman’s room, she noticed that Aman had removed the black achkan and placed Arnav on one side of his bed. Khushi took in his sleeping form, clad in a cream silk kurta, buttons slightly undone, displaying his virile chest. His face still looked an image of pain, and Khushi wondered what could be going through his mind even in his sleep. She was jolted out of her thoughts, as babuji and Aman took charge of the situation, taking Aanav’s temperature and issuing instructions to Khushi.
“But Aman, you cannot shout at her like that on the phone!” Khushi whispered in exasperation, “I told you to tell her you love her, remember?”
It was very late at night. They were both were in Aman’s room speaking quietly. After babuji had been called up everything happened in a flurry, as the ceremony over, everyone rushed up to check on Arnav. Strangely it was nani who insisted that they not move Arnav for tonight at least, as they would have to go and do some more rituals for the bride and who would look after Arnav in all of that. Khushi found the naughty smile on her face a little odd, but then this whole family was very odd as far as she was concerned! Amma had immediately sat beside Arnav cooling his forehead with a cold compress to get his fever down. In all the commotion, Khushi could not even say a proper good bye to jiji, and that is another fault of yours Arnav Singh Raizada, she grumbled as she was made to sit up and watch over him along with Aman for the next few hours, so that amma could get some sleep.
Khushi, washed and scrubbed of all her finery, her hair rolled up in an untidy knot, sat curled up on an armchair next to where Arnav slept. Her legs, clad in her voluminous salwar, were curled up under her. Behind Arnav, lying on the other side of the bed, was Aman grumbling about women in general!
“And what’s with you and Him,” he said suddenly with a sulk, pointing towards the sleeping form next to him. “Shhhhh….” Khusi hushed him, when she saw Arnav stir, and reached out to touch his forehead to check his temperature. As she bent over him, she saw him open his drugged eyes, and stare at her silently. Khushi froze. But before, she could react, his eyes shut and the steady rise and fall of his chest showed her that he was again fast asleep. She looked beyond him towards Aman, and found him too curled up and asleep. So much for sitting up with her, she thought nastily, trying to find a comfortable position in her chair, and wait for morning when this monster would be taken to his mansion.
And that was the first vision Arnav had the minute he opened his eyes sometime in the wee hours of the morning. The room was still dark, as the sun had not come up yet. As his eyes adjusted to the semi darkness he saw Khushi curled up uncomfortably on a chair, within his arms reach. He stared spellbound at her tousled hair, which had opened sometime during the night. Stray curls were falling across her forehead, and Arnav itched to reach over and tuck them behind her ears. Her face was scrubbed clean of all makeup and he was taken aback by her loveliness, which needed no adorning. He could get used to waking up like this, Arnav thought to himself.
A shuffle from behind broke his thoughts and he turned to find Aman fast asleep beside him. Seeing Aman brought Arnav back to the present, and he felt a wave of anger engulf him. He turned back with a frown, trying to figure out where exactly he was, and how he got there. That’s when he felt a cool hand on his forehead, and turning towards the chair, saw a sleepy Khushi automatically reach out and feel his temperature. She had not realized as yet, that his wide-awake eyes were giving her an unblinking stare. Suddenly his hand reached up and caught her wrist in a vice-like grip that woke Khushi up. Her startled eyes met his. “He wakes up also angry,” Khushi told herself, and she tried to clam her racing pulse. Before she could get her bearings together, the hand tightened painfully and pulled her out of her chair to land unceremoniously on his chest. Khushi tuned anxiously towards Aman who was thankfully still fast sleep with his back to them.
“Scared the boy friend will object?” Arnav hissed angrily enjoying her struggles against him. Her unbound hair was trailing on his exposed chest, stray locks framing her exquisite face. “But you’ve already refused his proposal, so why bother what he thinks?” he continued.
Boyfriend, what boyfriend? Khushi looked back at Arnav worriedly. Did he think she was Lavanya? Was he still delirious with fever, she tried to remember how his forehead had felt. She was only aware of the feel of his taut body under her soft one, and even through the thin silk of his kurta, felt really uncomfortably warm. Resisting an urge to curl up into his arms, Khushi tried to pull away from his grip. “Arnav”, she whispered and felt him stiffen under her as she again called his name unthinkingly. “You still have fever”, I should call amma…” her voice trailed off, as she saw the intense look in his eyes. Her eyes further widened in shock as she felt his other hand move up towards her face, and gently tuck the stray strand behind her ear. She realized that the hand remained there at the side of her face, burning an impression on her cool skin. It registered somewhere in her befuddled brain that he still had fever, but Khushi was unable to break out of the stupor that surrounded both of them. This just felt too right – to be ensconced in his arms like this. It took all of her will power [and continuous chants of her devi mayyiya] to not collapse on his warm chest and snuggle into his arms for the rest of the night.
It was a grunt from Aman that brought both of them back to their senses, and Khushi sensing an opportunity, stumbled back onto her chair, looking every where but at Arnav. Both of them missed the naughty smile on Aman’s face in the dark, and also the sly plan hatching in his mind.
When she had regained some composure, Khushi silently reached out for the thermometer on the bedside table and held it out to him. When she got no response, she gave him an annoyed look and getting out of her chair sat forcefully on the edge of the bed, holding the thermometer near his mouth pointedly. He opened his mouth slowly, all the while staring at her, and let her place the thermometer there gently. Notwithstanding her innocence in these matters, something inside Khushi realized that he was playing with her. Was he mocking her again, she thought angrily? As she fixed her stare on the second needle of the alarm clock on the bedside table, she felt her cheeks go red, aware of his eyes on her all the time. Thank god for the darkness, she thought with relief. Don’t want him to see the effect he is having on me. I’d rather die than let him know. She pursed her lips as flashes of another day passed by her mind – when she had told him that she’d rather fall then let him save her, and he had let go of her hand to watch her fall down from his elevated office. Why are they making me look after this monster, Khushi all but cursed her good-natured parents.
He still had a fever though not as high as it was last night. “So why don’t you want to get married”, Arnav asked in a harsh whisper, when she had wiped and put away the thermometer, and was wondering what to do next. “I thought that was the only aim girls like y…”
“Huh …’, she turned towards him, her mind busy calculating the time he was last given a medicine. Yes, she could give him another one; at least he would go back to sleep and not torment her anymore.
Paying no attention to him, she continued to silently fill a glass with water from the jug and took out a pill from its casing. Best will be to ignore his delirious ranting. Must be missing Lavanya, she thought spitefully, ignoring the stab of pain that shot through her at the thought.
When he persisted in staring at her with that sullen look in his face, as she held out the pill and water, Khushi felt a surge of anger. Picking up his hand she slapped the pill on his palm and kept the glass of water close on his bedside. As she flopped back on the chair in disgust, she said harshly, “Just take the medicine, so that you can be okay to leave today. We’ll both be better of rid of each other.”
Thankfully, she felt the rays of the sun beginning to stream into the room, and heard amma’s footfall outside the room, and was spared any further communication with Arnav for now at least.