‘Uff… sone do, jiji,’ Khushi muttered, feeling as if she had only just shut her eyes. The room was still dark and she sensed Anjali’s deep breathing beside her, who had been mildly sedated by the doctor, Khushi recalled groggily. She focused on jiji bending over her as her eyes adjusted to the darkness.
‘Chalo Khushi … utho,’ Jiji shook her shoulder softly, trying not to wake up Anjali. ‘Puja nahi karni Karva Chauth ki…’
Khushi sat up in bed, looking apprehensively at Anjali, her heart going out to her. She had always been the first to fast and perform all the rituals and festivals for her husband, and what did she get … today she was unaware of that husband’s … no Khushi stopped herself from speaking ill of the departed. He was gone now, and there was no need to say anything about him. After all Anjali was still here and most important to all of them. Khushi, prayed silently to devi mayyiya for Anjali and jumped out of bed silently to change and follow jiji outside into the dining room.
Seeing the lovely spread of food and sweets instantly cheered up the still sleepy and grumbling Khushi, as she dove into the food with her customary gusto, unmindful of the time or place. Since they were not going to let her eat or drink anything, she might as well stock up for the whole day, she thought, her mouth full of the delicious hot aloo parantha. Gulping down jalebis, with a glass of milk, she sat back, satisfied, a happy smile on her face. This ‘sargi’ idea was a good one, she thought, eyeing the plate of jalebi and wondering if she could manage just another one.
Since it was also customary that the fasting wife’s, not do any housework, she happily went back to bed knowing that she would not be required to help with the breakfast etc. later.
When Arnav came down for breakfast he found just nani sitting at the table with Aakash and mamaji. His eyes searched for Khushi and he missed the knowing smiles exchanged between the rest at the table.
‘Ka dhoond rahe hain bitua…’ Nani asked innocently a naughty smile on her lips.
‘Kuch nahi, nani,’ he mumbled, sitting down abruptly, ‘wo Jaiprakash coffee nahi laya abhi tak… er … where are the rest’ he tried to sound nonchalant.
Nani set about explaining the ritual of Karva Chauth to him, ending with giving him orders to return home on time to break Khushi’s fast.
Arnav’s hand stopped midair holding the coffee cup near his lips … Khushi and fast … all day … no food and no water, he thought incredulously. He recalled her stuffing herself with food on that fateful trip to Nainital … no, Khushi without food was just not possible. He turned angrily towards nani, his first instinct to get her out of this situation.
‘You know I do not like these rituals and ceremonies, nani.’ He muttered angrily. ‘As my wife, she has to follow what I believe in…’
‘As a Raizada dauthter-in-law she has to follow the customs of this household, Arnav,’ nani shut him mid sentence coldly.
‘But she is supposed to do this for me, right?’ he questioned slyly, ‘so am I not the one to decided if I want someone to do it or not… I have no say in this matter?’
‘You have taken enough decisions for your self, which have resulted in us being mocked in society,’ she made a pointed reference towards his bringing Lavanya into the house.
‘Fine…’ he slammed his cup down on the table and collecting his coat, left the table muttering ‘… then don’t expect me to be part of this madness, in that case.’
It was possibly the longest day of Khushi’s life, as she entered her room in the afternoon to get ready for the puja. She was absolutely dying of hunger and thirst, so much that she could have easily slipped into the bathroom and drank the tap water there. ‘I’m going to die of thirst Mr Arnav Singh Raizada, and all because of you,’ she cursed loudly as she pulled out the red brocade lehnga from its tissue wrappings. Jiji had also kept a strict eye on her all day, knowing Khushi and her tendency to quietly slip something into her mouth.
‘What the…’ Khushi muttered, smiling suddenly … ‘when will this day end, devi mayyiya?’
She suddenly thought of Anjaliji, who had woken up around lunchtime when a tray had been taken up to her. Thankfully Dr. Oberoi had been with her to calm her down, when she realized that she had missed Karva Chauth. Khushi had watched gratefully, as he had calmly reasoned with Anjali about her ill health and convinced her that she should not have kept the fast this year.
There was a small knock on the door, and the object of her thoughts walked into the room looking pale herself.
‘You need any help Khushi,’ she asked softly. Khushi instinctively realized her wanting to a part of the ceremonies in some way or the other, and welcomed her into the room, continuing to grumble about being hungry and thirsty.
Anjali helped Khushi dress in the lehnga, admiring her beauty affectionately now and then. ‘Chote, will see his real bride today,’ she teased Khushi as she placed the sheer net dupatta on her head framing her innocent simple beauty that needed no adornment. Nani had purposely chosen this bridal lehnga for Khushi, knowing full well that she had been deprived this pleasure during her own wedding.
Khushi fumed at the mere mention of his name, the pangs of hunger gnawing her stomach. Pursing her lips she looked at the clock on her bedside, which regretfully showed that it was at least five hours before she would be allowed to even touch food or water. She had to look at the moon before she ate, and God only knows when the moon will rise, she thought, holding back her tears.
The puja was performed in the mandir downstairs with all the ladies seated in a circle passing their decorated plates around and chanting the prayers. Khushi sat next to jiji, now feeling faint, under the weight of the dupatta and lehnga and the heavy jewellery that Anjali had insisted she wear.
Jiji looked so much more comfortable and poised, thought Khushi enviously, in her brocade sari and simple gold jewellery. The thought that she had been made to dress us as his bride made Khushi angrier, as she felt another swoon coming upon her. It was when she got a soft nudge form jiji that she realized that she had not taken the thaali from the person next to her, so lost was she in her thoughts.
Nani and Anjali watched indulgently as the ladies performed the Karva Chauth puja, offering food and sweets to the goddess. One bite would not hurt anyone, Khushi eyed the halwa in front of her longingly.
‘Khushi…’ jiji’s knowing whisper again got her back to the rituals being performed.
After the puja, when all the good byes and thank you’s were said and everyone had left, Anjali suggested that the girls rest in their rooms for a while, and then gather on the roof to complete the rituals. She hurried into the kitchen to help prepare the special dinner.
Alone in her room Khushi paced the floor, lehnga held aloft in her hands, wondering why the hands on the clock were not moving. What was jiji doing … Akash jiju had come in early from office, so would probably be with her now, Khushi thought fondly, a sudden small smile coming on her face.
Arnav looked at his watch, turning his face away from his laptop. He looked out towards the glass walls of this cabin and saw the scant smattering of staff, most of them packing up to leave for the day. Much to his annoyance, some of the girls had requested for half day off for this Karva Chauth.
His mind went once again to Khushi, and how she would be coping with this fast, that had been thrust upon her. Traditions and customs, he muttered angrily, not believing in either. It was bad enough that Di had been totally involved in them, to the brink of obsession he thought, only to be cheated and lied to in the end. He slammed the lid of his laptop in anger, recalling his wily brother-in-law and his cunning crafty ways. She deserved better, his sister, he fumed, his fist clenching at his own inability to keep her secure and safe.
Packing his laptop away, he stood suddenly, feeling a rush of giddiness come over him. Now regretting his own spontaneous decision this morning to not eat or drink anything to give his wife company, he stood still for a while, letting the feeling pass, before picking up his stuff and heading home. Hopefully the tamasha would be over by the time he got back.
Khushi, tired of pacing up and down the room, and feeling lightheaded without water sat on the bed and wished that time would fly. Pulling her knees up, she rested her tired head on her arms, and tried to keep her thoughts from warm jalebis, and paranthas … and most of all a chilled glass of water.
Arnav opened the door of his room to see a bride sitting on his bed … legs drawn up … and head bent, covered under a glittering transparent red veil.
He had a sudden foreboding of watching Lavanya like that in his room, recalling that he had been furious with her then … for not being Khushi…
He stopped and absorbed the scene before him – Khushi sat in the middle of his … no, their bed … clad in a red bridal attire, her pretty feet peeping out from under the hem of the lehnga. Her bangle-clad arms were wrapped around her raised knees and her head rested atop them covered in a glittering translucent veil.
He felt his earlier irritation vanish. Shutting the door silently, he moved closer to the still figure on the bed, dumping his laptop on the table along the way.
She seemed to be chanting something; he cocked his head quizzically, trying to peep at her face under the veil. What was she doing?
Khushi felt his weight on the bed in front of her, as soon as he sat down. The prayer to her devi mayyiya stopped on her lips abruptly as she raised her head slightly to look at him.
Whatever it was that he was about to say, died on his parted lips, as Arnav started wide eyed at the picture of radiance sitting in front of him. The red dupatta covered her head; its glittering gold borders and baubles framing her already perfect face. A small diamond encrusted tika placed on her forehead, below which a small dot of red vermillion dust peeped. Her red glossy lips were slightly parted as she stopped whatever it was she was saying … her toffee brown eyes staring at him … er … accusingly??
What the … Arnav was taken aback …
‘Khushi tum … theek ho…’ he asked instead, his greedy eyes continuing to take in the picture of loveliness that his wife was. He would never get enough of looking at her, he mused.
‘THEEK HAIN?’ Khushi burst out at him, famished and also angry at the feelings he could arouse in her with just a look. She had to stop melting every time he came near or touched her.
‘Aap pooch rahe hain ki hum theek hain … after 13 hours you are now coming here and asking me that …’ she was all but screaming.
‘But...’ he started, wondering what this was now.
‘But vat kuch nahi…’ she continued her ranting, not giving him a chance to speak, ‘aapko pata bhi hain ki…’
‘Par Khushi...’ he tried again, controlling his own rising temper. Why did she ALWAYS have to cut him mid sentence? She knew how much that irked him … was the only time she was speechless when he was making love to her?
‘Hume kahan na … but vat kuch nahi … app samajhte kya hain apne aap ko … app aaram se apni life jee rahe hain, as if nothing has happened… aur hum … hum yahan …’
‘KHUSHI KUMARI GUPTA…’ he thundered in characteristic ASR style
‘Hum Khushi Kumari Gupta nahi hain ab, Mr Arnav Singh Raizada …’ Khushi again cut him ‘wahi toh hum keh rahen hain … thanks to you I am now the daughter-in-law of this house … expected to …’
He stood up abruptly, his temper rising steadily now. The wave of giddiness returned as he shut his eyes to let it pass, standing with his back to her. He did not see her stand up, gathering her clothes about her and come to stand in front of him.
‘Kahan jaa rahe hain aap … humari baat khatam nahi hui …’ she poked him in his chest.
He opened his eyes and looked coldly down at her accusing finger, then at her agitating face. A muscle clenched in his jaw, as he silently reached up and held her hand in his vice-like grip.
‘… aapki vajah se hume subaha se kuch …’ her voice trailed off as she registered his frozen furious face. She felt herself being tugged towards him, as he pulled her roughly by her hand close to his grim face.
He opened his mouth, to say something, then thinking better of it, pushed her away from him.
Khushi stood rubbing her bruised wrist, as she watched him stomp out of the room, picking up his car keys along the way.
‘Ka hua Khushi bitiya?’ Nani noticed her glum face, when she walked into the mandir where they were collecting their puja thali’s to go up to the roof to wait for the moon rise.
Turning towards Anjali, she asked her to call and find out where Arnav was. It was time to break the fast, and she had specifically asked him to come home on time this morning. Wondering out aloud that he had been angry about Khushi being made to keep the fast and had stormed out without eating his breakfast either, she did not notice Khushi turn a bright shade of red, as she over heard what nani was saying.
And she had screamed at him… accused him for her plight … little knowing that he had tried to get her out of it … ‘Uff, why didn’t I listen to him…’ she scolded herself, feeling terrible, her own hunger forgotten.
The moon shone prettily in the starlit sky as they gathered on the roof. Nani and Anjali watching indulgently as mami and Payal stood with their husbands by their side. Khushi fidgeted about, embarrassed at standing alone with them. She moved a little away from the group setting her stuff out on the table near her. Nani stalled Anjali who immediately got up to walk to where Khushi stood, gesturing to leave her alone.
Reaching for the sieve Khushi turned towards the moon to peer at it with a heavy heart. Why had she reacted and shunned him away? Why had she blamed him and not listened to him? Why …
Looking at the pale moon through her sieve and feeling wretched about what had transpired earlier, she suddenly felt a familiar prickle at the nape of her neck. Turning slowly, sieve held aloft, her eyes fell on her husband who was walking towards her purposefully. Watching him through the mesh of the sieve, she felt lightheaded as a wave of relief mixed with joy rushed through her. She took in his lean frame, dressed immaculately in his dark coloured suit, that hugged him perfectly, up to his set aquiline features, his trademark stubble, that grazed her soft skin when he… blushing she shut her eyes as a wave of desire rushed through her.
When she opened her eyes, he was standing within inches of her, staring back through the upheld sieve in her hand, his expression unreadable.
Putting the sieve down gently she then turned to pick up the silver pot of water, which she offered to the moon first before handing it to him.
Their hands grazed and she pulled in a breath. It always felt like he was touching her for the first time, as her skin tingled. She blushed and lowered her eyes, as she felt him continue to stare at her unabashedly.
‘Chote, paani pilao bhi ab …’ Anjali could be heard from across, a smile in her voice. She had watched indulgently, the smitten look on her brother’s face, as he had walked across towards where his wife had stood. A rush of relief washed over Anjali, as she suddenly realized that her prayers had finally been answered. Her Chote, had found his soul mate, one that would heal his wounds and soften his heart again … make him laugh and love him completely. Looking at Khushi, she knew that this was the perfect wife that he could ever have.
Arnav took the silver pot from her trembling hands and held it up her lips, his eyes never leaving her face. He watched her shut her eyes as she took the first tentative sip, his mind wandering back to the mandir where on Teej he had unknowingly also broken her fast. How angry she had been with him then, he mused, till he had held her close to himself when she had stumbled…
After the first tentative shy sip, Khushi held the pot firmly over his hand, and gulped the entire contents down her parched throat. He watched in amusement, the stay drops trickle down the side of her mouth, his smile vanishing as he held back an urge to reach out and drink them himself.
Taking a deep breath Khushi turned towards jiji to see her reaching down and touching Akash jiju’s feet. She looked inquiringly at nani, and understood her indication that she was to do the same.
Turning back towards Arnav, she eyed him awkwardly, before deciding to go ahead and do it. She was about to bend forwards when his firm grip on her shoulders stalled her … she looked up inquiringly … ‘no …’ he muttered, ‘you don’t have to…’
A wave of nausea washed over him again, as his hands tightened on her shoulders and his eyes shut momentarily. Khushi looked at him, instinctively knowing that something was wrong. Putting the water pot down, she reached out to steady him, as he swayed on his feet.
She looked towards the rest of the family, who had already started moving towards the door, mami loudly ordering Jaiprakash to lay the dinner, as she was famished.
‘Aap … aap theek to hain ...’ Khushi asked him anxiously, searching his face for answers.
‘I’m ok …’ he mumbled instead ‘don’t fuss’… angry at the weakness that he was portraying in front of her. What on earth had possessed him to not eat or drink all day? His anger at nani … his anger at this ridiculous tradition … his anger that she was being forced to follow it … or his love and concern for her … his wanting to share her hunger … to be part of her somehow …
You are losing it dude, he scolded himself. For one who does not believe in traditions and rituals, you’re doing quite well for yourself … keeping a fast for your wife. Jeeze! Who does that!
‘Par aap… ‘ Khushi’s voice brought him back from his ranting.
‘Just give me some water…’ he muttered, suddenly embarrassed at anyone knowing what he had done.
Khushi looked guiltily at the pot, that she had just finished. She looked around the terrace and saw a tray with covered glasses where nani and Anjali had been sitting. Running across, she brought back a glass and holding it against his lips, watched him gulp down the entire contents, just like she had a short while ago.
She needed to apologize, Khushi told herself, as she lowered the empty glass from his lips.
‘Hume maaf kar dijiye …’ she said pleadingly, ‘I didn’t know that you had tried to get me out of keeping …’ her voice faded away as her wide eyes looked at the glittering line of water on his upper lip. She swallowed at the unexpected gush of emotions that raced through her. Unconsciously, her hand rose towards his face, missing his shocked expression, and touched his lips, tenderly wiping the water with her trembling hand.
Gathering her up to himself, with a groan, Arnav bent down to take her lips in a passionate kiss, but not before mumbling ‘Happy Karva Chauth, wife.’