It is the mehndi ceremony of Payal and Akash at the Gupta haveli in Lucknow. The courtyard is decorated with a profusion of marigolds with twinkling diyas and mirrors hanging from the ceiling of the verandah. The ladies are gathered in the central courtyard and there is great hustle bustle in the household. On a diwan in a corner sits Payal, looking demure and shy in her pre-bridal outfit, looking on and laughing coyly at all the attention and gaiety around her. Buaji is sitting on another diwan with a dholak, surrounded with ladies who are singing wedding songs and laughing at her jokes.
Khushi, dressed in her ‘chamkili’ best lehnga and choli is the center of all the festivities. Her long hair braided in a glittering parandi sways softly on her bare back as she runs around listening to orders from ammaji, greeting guests and checking on her jiji every little while. The gold tissue dupatta flecked with crystals, draped softly across her low neckline, is sheer enough to give naughty glimpses of what is beneath. This is completely her show today, and nothing should go wrong. Her best friend from school, Aman is expected any minute now to join in the celebrations. He called from the station and is on his way. Khushi is excited to meet him and is looking forward to some Punjabi tadka to be added to this sangeet ceremony.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Lucknow, at another mansion-turned-hotel Anjali is preparing the customary gifts for the bride that have to be taken to Payal’s house this afternoon. Large brass trays are laden with fruits and mitahis; jewelry and glass bangles and the exquisite red bridal outfit. As she is checking all the packing and decorations, she calls out to Arnav to get ready to drive her to the Gupta’s haveli a little later in the afternoon. Arnav silently shuts his eyes as he hears his favourite didi issuing instructions to him that he knows can only make his job of enduring this wedding even tougher. Why did he have to arrive earlier with di for all this tamasha. His jijaji had also mysteriously taken up an overseas job. That was something that Arnav had found very odd, but for the sake of his sister he has given up probing the matter further. Di was planning to join him sometime after the wedding, for a while. He would have been happier accompanying Akash and the others when they arrive tomorrow for their own rituals and ceremonies that will be performed here. Di wanted to come earlier to make everything perfect for Akash’s special day. For her the quiet, shy Akash was as important as her stubborn and arrogant chote, who pretends that he has no feelings, but is all heart inside. She waits for the day when that special some comes into Chote’s life, who will erase all his sorrows with her love and care.
“AMAN!!!!!!” Screamed Khushi from the far end of the courtyard as she saw him standing at the door paying off the cabbie. Picking up her glittering lehnga slightly, she broke out into a sprint across the courtyard, ignoring Buaji’s sarcastic comments and some more raised eyebrows… was she glad to see her best friend after so many many years. Last she saw him, was when he left for England for his higher studies. “I hope he’s not going to speak to me with an accent vaccent”, she muttered as she saw him turn towards her with that familiar grin that reassured her.
As Aman picked up Khushi and twirled her around in his arms, she felt herself being enveloped in a bear hug that nearly crushed her delicate ribs. They both burst out into an animated chatter asking each other a million questions, and not letting the other speak. Finally it took amma-babuji to break into their oblivion and remind Khushi to at least get their guest in and give him some refreshments.
“Jalebi?”, Aman asked mischievously, turning towards Khushi. “Yes, yes, jalebi and lots of other mithai’s”, babuji laughed and led Aman to his rooms on the first floor to freshen up before joining them downstairs.
Khushi ran off with ammaji to the kitchen to prepare some tea and eats for Aman, chattering away nineteen to a dozen about him and how he has not changed. Amma kept giving her indulgent smiles, hoping secretly that the next wedding they celebrate would be Khushi and Aman’s.
Unknown to them, a black car drew up slowly outside the haveli and Anjali rushed into the household carrying one of the smaller trays, leaving Arnav to offload the rest of the stuff, and get it taken into the house. Babuji escorted Anjali into the ‘baithak’ adjoining the entrance, where she chatted with the ladies of the house, while looking out into the courtyard where all the activity was.
Suddenly, few things happened simultaneously – the beat of bhangra drums broke into the feminine chatter in the courtyard; Khusi ran out of the kitchen into the verandah with a gleeful smile to see Aman in a crisp white chickan angarkha and churidar breaking out into the song ‘gal mitthi mitthi bol’ along with some other male cousins. And unknown to all, a quiet black clad figure walked into the entrance of the house stopping to take all this activity in.
“Chahne wala hoon tera… dekh le idhar zara...” Aman was down on his knees in front of a giggling Khushi, urging her to join him in the dance. As he led her into the courtyard dancing to the beats of the song, the silent figure at the entrance clenched his fists in anger while he watched this Romeo touch his Khushi. Who the hell was he, and why was he ‘romancing’ a visibly happy Khushi.
As the song reached a crescendo and everyone joined in the bhangra including Payal … Khushi was twirled into a frenzy of the crowd and as she went around in circles with her lehnga and braid flying all around her, she reached Arnav unknowingly. As he caught her by her slim waist her long glittering braid which was flying about her wrapped itself again and again around Arnav’s neck binding him and Khushi together. The force of her motion pushed him back along with her into a chick-covered alcove near the entrance. You could look out from there into the courtyard but could not look into its dark recesses from outside.
Wrapped to each other with her braid they stood silently in the semi dark, Khushi panting with the exertion of her dance, and Arnav stunned with the sudden turn of events. She was here in his arms, clutching his shoulders, breathing deeply, with her braid wound around both of them like a muffler. Maybe there was a God afterall.
Khushi opened her eyes to look up into glittering black ones that were full of an emotion that she did not want to face. His warm hands on her bare waist, where he has automatically put them to steady both of them, was imprinting a deep mark. She could feel his heart beating loudly under her palm, while her other hand had somehow would itself like her silly braid around his neck. She was aware of the prickly feel of hair on his nape under her fingers.
They stood like that for what seemed like eons. As she tried to move back from his embrace, her braid tugged painfully causing a smattering of tears in her eyes. Arnav could have stood there for eternity, with her in his arms, and not another care in the world. He forgot Di; why he came here; that loud annoying boy serenading his Khushi… he forgot everything but the warm responsive body in his arms, and the solitude of this alcove.
Khusi turned her face towards the chick to look out into the courtyard, and felt another painful tug … she immediately turned her head back only to find her lips accidently brushing against Arnav’s. They both froze as an electric current passed through both of them freezing the moment. The music and festivities outside died as they started at each other, a myriad emotions passing through their eyes, which were only for each other.
‘Khushi’ … he whispered huskily … staring at her quivering pink lips. “Arnav”, Khushi whispered unknowingly, making a shiver go down his spine. It was first time he heard his name on her lips.
Arnav slowly reached around his nape and started untwining her braid, while staring deeply into her wide innocent eyes. “Khushi… I …” he started…
“KHUSHI” … they were startled out of their reverie with Aman’s loud shout. “I have to go”… whispered Khushi, a part of her not wanting this moment to end. “They are looking for me…”
“WHO IS HE?”… Arnav asked harshly
“KHUSHI???”... An exasperated Aman could be heard nearing the alcove.
Her hair unbound now, Khushi gathered her wits and broke free of Arnav’s grasp, stumbling into the verandah before Aman could find her there. She would have been teased mercilessly if he had found her in the alcove with Arnav.
“Ah, there you are…” Arnav heard Aman say with relief… “what happened… are you okay Khushi?”… Why the bloody hell was he so concerned, Arnav muttered to himself.
He waited for them to move before walking out. This was going to be one hell of a long wedding ceremony…