‘NAHIN’, Khushi said softly but firmly.
She watched apprehensively, as he looked up from his place at the desk. Her voice seemed to bring him back from somewhere.
‘What did you say?’ he asked quietly, as if confirming what he had heard.
‘Humne kaha … nahin … I will not marry you’ she stated firmly again, requesting her devi mayyiya silently for the strength to see this through.
‘I don’t recall asking you,’ He pointed out harshly. ‘You will do what you are told…’
‘… or else…’ she challenged him, taking a militant stance with her hands on her waist.
Arnav give her a brief look and walked towards where she was standing.
Uff, why couldn’t he remain where he was … at a distance … so that she could say what she had to, and not worry about his proximity, she groaned inwardly.
Soon he towered over her.
Khushi could sense the fury in his stance, as she mustered up all her bravado, and continued to stare up at him defiantly.
‘You are very fond of sacrificing yourself for your family’s safety and wellbeing. So here is your chance again,’ he said harshly, in a dangerously low voice. ‘Lets make it easier for your tiny brain to understand this – if you do not do as I say … I will destroy ever thing that is dear to you,’ he stated with a deathly finality.
‘First I will destroy your family … then you … then that cheating …’
‘Par humne kya kiya …’ her voice trailed off, when she saw him stiffen.
‘YOU’… he spat out the words at her, ‘you are the cause of his unfaithfulness to Di. He has obviously gotten taken in by your false innocence, like every one else.’
‘But your charms do not work on me. I know exactly what you are,’ he continued in that cold calculating voice that Khushi had come to fear. ‘Get yourself organized,’ he dismissed her, ‘ tomorrow we get married. I need to sort out that …’
‘Why don’t you let Anjaliji decide what she wants to do about her husband?’ Khushi ignored his command. ‘Why can’t you let people take their own decisions … make their own choices.’
‘Don’t you DARE say anything to Di, you …’ he held her shoulders with both his hands and shook her violently.
‘Aap …’ Khushi started.
‘BAAS’ he thundered, shaking her once again. ‘Now GET LOST and be ready to go to the temple with me tomorrow morning.’
And saying so, he pushed her out of the door, and banged it shut on her face.
By afternoon Khushi was pacing the floor outside his study, while jiji and Akash were locked in there with Arnav. He had summoned them shortly after dismissing her, and Khushi did not even have a minute to answer jiji’s quizzical look as they shut the door again on her face.
‘Great!’ she muttered, ‘but … poor Anjaliji,’ she thought of all the fasts and prayers she always offered for the wellbeing of her husband … and he…’ She recalled all the times when she had been taken aback, by his suggestive comments; comments that he had covered up later. But thinking back now, Khushi felt dirty and soiled suddenly. She had put her faith in such a man, and held him in such high regard.
The door opened interrupting her musings, and she felt herself being enveloped in a hug by jiji and a smiling Akash jiju. ‘Khushi!’ exclaimed jiji, ‘you never told me… and all this while we thought that you both …’ Khushi could only stare with her mouth open over jiji’s shoulder at those smoldering eyes, where she only saw hatred for her at this moment.
‘Come on,’ Jiji pulled her towards her room, ‘we have so much to plan … this is so sudden … we have to call amma babuji …’
On seeing the mute figure of Khushi, jiji stopped her chattering suddenly. They were in Khushi’s room and jiji was talking nonstop about shopping, and getting ready, and the paucity of time.
‘Khushi?’ jiji asked her gently, ‘you want to do this, no? … He’s not forcing you…’
‘Nahin jiji,’ Khushi smiled brightly as her sister, instinctively covering up her own feelings. She flushed, as she realized that she was lying blatantly to her sister.
Mistaking her blush, Payal hugged Khushi, ‘I’m happy that you have found happiness also.’
‘Now, let see… we need to get you a sari … but let’s call amma first’, Payal started her nonstop, excited chatter again.
By evening Khushi was getting a splitting headache. The rest of the day had passed in a flurry of activity, and the stress of pretending that all was well, had started to tell on her. She felt the worst about lying to jiji, amma and babuji. If they ever came to know what she was doing, they would be completely heart broken.
A million questions raced through her mind all day – what had he told Lavanya ji? What had he told her family, Anjaliji and nani? There had been no calls from the Raizada House, and Khushi found that odd. Had he even told any of them yet?
She finally got one of her answers, when jiji let slip, that Arnav had requested them to wait till they were married tomorrow morning before telling nani or Anjali, as he wanted to sort out the Lavanya issue before he took Khushi home.
Jiji was making him sound like one sensitive man, caring for everyone’s feelings, and it was making Khushi more and more sick. Why was this happening? She questioned for the millionth time since morning. And she was going to marry him tomorrow …
Seeing the strained look on Khushi’s face, jiji offered to get them some tea. Alone in her room, Khushi looked about at the clothes and jewellery scattered all over her bed. She felt totally numb. Jiji had insisted on immediately taking her to Chandini Chowk, where they had selected the sari. What would have been a happy occasion for Khushi, where she would have loved to plan and organize her own wardrobe, was soon becoming a chore for her, as she just played along disinterestedly. The only time she actually put her foot down was to dissuade jiji from buying an expensive elaborate red bridal sari. She had chosen a simple cream and gold Kerela-style one instead, shying away from the red one immediately.
‘No, I’ll wear my own jewellery,’ she insisted, when jiji pulled her towards a jeweler a little ahead of the sari shop.
‘But, Khushi…’ jiji started
‘Nahin jiji.’ Khushi stated firmly. ‘Just the new sari is enough.’
Now sitting in her room, with the sky darkening outside, Khushi looked at the sari peeping out from its tissue wrapping. Jiji had taken out Khushi’s jewellery box and had been deciding what all she could wear, offering some of her own too for tomorrow morning.
Payal walked in with the tray of tea, breaking Khushi’s chain of thought. On the tray was also a cone of mehndi, that jiji proceeded to apply on Khushi’s palms after they had had their tea. Khushi looked at her sister’s bent head, as she worked painstakingly, and felt a gush of love for her. She was trying her best to make this day special for Khushi as much as she could. With a sob, Khushi suddenly reached out and hugged her sister, all the pent up emotions just spilling out in her tears.
‘Khushi!’ a taken aback Payal, put down the mehndi, and gently gathered Khushi in her arms letting her cry. Pre bridal nerves were common, and here her bubbly sister was going through a rushed marriage, without any of her family close by. Payal quelled her sudden anger at Arnav for making them miss out on the proper festivities of a wedding.
From the bedroom door, which Payal had left slightly ajar on her way in, Arnav watched as Khushi sobbed uncontrollably in Payal’s arms. A muscle twitched in his jaw and his eyes melted at the sight. Only to be covered immediately with the cold mask, as he turned and stormed out of the house. He too needed to be alone.
Surprisingly Khushi slept like a log. Must have been the pressure and fatigue of the previous day, or the presence of jiji next to her, who had insisted on spending the night with Khushi. Turning to see the bed empty where jiji had been, Khushi shut her eyes and said a small prayer for all of them that everything would go well. She even added a prayer for Arnav, who she understood was going through battles of his own. After all if any one ever hurt her jiji …
Again her thoughts were broken, by jiji’s walking in with tea and a million instructions – Her clothes neatly ironed were laid out for her; she had to have a bath with a haldi and chandan paste that was already placed in the bathroom; amma has also said…
Within the next one hour, jiji helped Khushi get dressed for her wedding day. Never in her wildest dreams had Khushi imagined it to be like this, as she sat at the dresser and watched jiji braid her long hair in with a red and gold parandi and some frangipani flowers plucked from the poolside.
The final touch was a set of green glass bangles that jiji opened and put on Khushi’s slim wrists with tears in her eyes. Their parents should have been here, doing this, both the sisters were thinking.
‘Chalo, no crying now,’ jiji wiped her tears and gave Khushi a shaky smile. ‘I’ll go collect everything, you wait here till I get back.’
Khushi sat at the edge of the bed, wondering what was coming next. ‘I can’t do this,’ she stood up suddenly and started pacing the floor chewing her freshly painted pearl pink nails.
Thoughts of her parents and Arnav’s threat came rushing back, and Khushi sat down with a thud as the enormity of what was going to happen next suddenly hit her. She felt cornered and helpless. She was being made to pay for something that she had not done. The self-pity gave way to anger, and Khushi pursed her lips in a stubborn motion, as she swore not to make this any easier for him too.
‘You are going to get as good as you give, Mr. Arnav Singh Raizada,’ she vowed softly, ‘If you think that you are getting some docile girl into your life, you can think again. You may have succeeded in getting me to agree to this – a battle you have won right now. But the war has only just begun.’
There was a slight winter chill in the air, as the October sun shone gently through a perfect blue sky. Arnav and Aakash were already at the temple waiting for Payal and Khushi to arrive in the other car.
The morning breeze carried her fragrance to Arnav as soon as she stepped out of the car and he turned slowly towards the temple steps where she was walking up with Payal beside her.
Her head was covered with a red dupatta and she was walking demurely with her eyes looking down. He was reminded of the time he had stormed out of his room after throwing the dupatta at Lavayna, and found her at his bedroom door, the same dupatta on her head. Her beauty had fascinated him as she had shyly removed it while he had just been unable to look away.
Coming back to the present, he continued to check her out as she neared him. A small gold tika glittered on her forehead, complimenting the rest of the simple gold jewellery. The white and gold sari draped gracefully on her slim frame, the red dupatta on her head the only splash of colour. Green and gold glass bangles jangled on her otherwise bare hands. He felt a sudden rush of regret, that he had deprived her of a proper wedding with all the finery. Along with the regret also came a feeling of warmth – for someone, who was anti marriage, Arnav Singh Raizada suddenly felt that marrying Khushi was the right thing he was doing, all other reasons put side.
Not once did she look up and meet his eyes. She walked numbly, as her mind was completely blank all of a sudden. As she neared, she saw his trouser clad feet, and realised that he was dressed in his business suit. This was also a contract after all, she thought hysterically, another contract to bind her to him. This was why that dupatta meant for Lavanyaji had landed on her head that day, the sindoor and his breaking her fast on Teej … so many signs and leading to … this?
The pandit chanted the marriage mantras, and Khushi’s pale face showed no emotion as they walked together around the fire; as he put the mangalsurta around her neck; as he filled her forehead with the vermillion sindoor. She kept her eyes downcast all the time, not wanting to meet his eyes – fearing what she would see there. Somewhere in her heart she knew that she could not have endured the hatred in them, today of all the days. Panditji finally put Khushi’s pale hand in Arnav’s calloused one and blessed them with happiness and many lives together … all that she held sacred to the marriage vows and all that he did not believe in.
Jiji came forward to hug her and Khushi mustered up a watery smile for her and Jiju who was hugging Arnav next to her.
‘Lunch is on me,’ announced Aakash jiju, ‘we’ll go somewhere nice to celebrate.’
‘I have to go to office, Aakash,’ Arnav said curtly.
‘But today is your wedding day…’ Aakash started.
‘It’s okay, jiju’ Khushi whispered hoarsely, her first words of the day, ‘I’m not feeling too well either, and want to go back and rest.’ There was no point in prolonging this any further for either of them.
‘I’ll come home early and we’ll go out for dinner instead,’ Arnav suddenly added. Now where did that come from, he groaned. Why had he felt bad hearing her quivering voice; why did he suddenly want to make it okay for her?
‘Chalo, theek hain,’ Aakash added gratefully, breaking the tense atmosphere. ‘Dinner it is then. I’ll make the bookings.’
Akash and Payal turned and walked towards the car that the girls had earlier arrived in, automatically assuming that the newly weds would like to be alone in the other car that Arnav had driven.
Left alone they stood in an awkward silence for a couple of minutes. Arnav suddenly turned towards Khushi and started to say something, when he noticed her pale face and blank expression. She swayed a little on her feet and before he could react, she tumbled into his chest in a faint. Arnav’s arms came around her slight frame automatically, preventing her from falling on to the marble floors of the mandir.
As she slumped against him, he gently removed the red dupatta covering her head, to allow some air to reach her, all the while holding her against him with his other hand. In the pale morning sunlight, he skin looked translucent and Arnav quelled a strong urge to touch her face.
He then scooped her up into his arms and walked across to where his car was parked. Opening the passenger door with his left hand, all the while trying to balance her, so that she may not topple, he placed her gently in the passenger seat.
He was grateful for the silence on the short drive back to the farmhouse. It helped him gather his thoughts … before getting down to dealing with Shyam Jha, he had to first tackle Lavanya and the rest of his family immediately. And Di … he again felt the pain of frustration that he was unable to keep this sorrow away from her. ‘I’ve removed one obstacle from their path,’ he assured himself guiltily. But do you want an unfaithful man to be married to your sister, a small niggling voice asked him.
As he drove up the curved driveway, Arnav noticed that the other car had not returned back as yet. What was Aakash upto now, he thought irritated. More of this ‘leave-them-alone’ thing, I suppose.
He carried Khushi to her room next to his study and placed her gently on the bed. He draped the red dupatta that he had crumpled into one hand while carrying her, on to the dresser chair, and returned to the bed to stare down at her prone form for a few seconds.
Then as if taking a decision, he sat down gently beside her, and slowly started removing her jewellery. The task of first removing her tika, and then the flowers from her hair was soon turning into an uncomfortable one for Arnav. His trembling hands touch her ear lobe and she shivered slightly in her comatose state. He slowly removed first one earring then the other and added them quietly to the growing pile on the bedside table. His hand went to her neck next to remove the necklace that was uncomfortably lodged along with the small mangalsutra that he had placed there a little while ago. He stared at it for a while, as if registering that she was actually his wife now, then started disentangling the two to be able to remove them.
He added the necklace to the jewellery pile, and stopped himself when he came to the mangalsutra. Something made him want to leave it there, nestled in her cleavage showing from the top of her brocade blouse. The blouse, he noted distracted, was stitched minus all the usual glitter and pompoms, and then coming to an abrupt decision, he left the mangalsutra where it was, along with a few bangles on the wrist. Let her remove it herself, if she wanted to, he thought harshly.
He stood suddenly, a part of him not wanting to leave her, to continue the task of removing her bridal finery, to make her his in every sense of the word.
His hand went into his trouser pocket and he pulled out a small velvet jewellery box, which he proceeded to open. From the deep violet satin folds he took out a small platinum ring encrusted with a single solitaire. Gently lifting her left hand, he slid it into her ring finger.
In a sentimental moment yesterday, he had gone to the family jeweller and picked up this ring for her. He had had no idea when or where he was going to give it to her, or even if she was going to accept it, after all that had happened yesterday.
Now, suddenly, he felt glad that he had, as he watched it glitter on her slim tapered fingers.
He had made her his, he thought with a sudden smile, as he turned and walked out of the room, calling Aakash to find out where they were and that they needed to get home to be with his wife.