Friday, December 28, 2012

In her Eyes (Sequel to Under Your Skin)

Part 1

The layers of sleep moved away, one by one. Sounds filtering in, muted hums and voices. Lights behind his eyes. He raised his eyelids, and looked straight up at a bland white ceiling. He let his eyes travel down to the green walls around him. There was a perfume that he could smell, something that was familiar and yet unfamiliar. He sat up straight in the bed. Khushi! Where was she? His heart started pounding and he looked around wildly. 

'Khushi!!' he called. She had been here, he was sure of it. He hadn't dreamt her up. He saw the laptop on the couch and a small gym bag next to it, closing his eyes and heaving a sigh of relief. Not realizing he was panting with the panic that had just now gripped his heart.

The door opened and a nurse and a doctor walked in.

'Good morning, Mr. Raizada. And how are we doing today?' the doctor asked cheerfully. He was an elderly, rotund man with twinkling grey eyes, and absolutely no hair on his head, but a salt and pepper goatee. His voice was surprisingly deep. A name tag over his heart read Dr. Andrew Tooley. He picked up the charts at the foot of the bed and looked at them, before peering up at Arnav over his reading glasses.

'I'm good.' Arnav gulped, a hint of panic in his eyes. 'Where's my wife?'

'She's outside, I think,' said the nurse, a matronly looking woman in her fifties.

Just then, the door opened and Khushi walked in. To his surprise, she was dressed in a pair of slim black jeans, a white shirt, and a black leather jacket. A pair of black UGG boots came up to her knees. Her hair was plaited and thrown over her right shoulder. She wore absolutely no makeup except her smile. He could see the diamonds in her manglasutra glinting in the open collar of her shirt. She came and stood next to Arnav, sliding her hand into his.

'There you are, Mrs. Raizada,' exclaimed the doctor. 'Well, I've got some good news and some not so good news for you,' he said turning to Arnav. 'Your vitals look good. Looks like you've made an almost full recovery. But I'd advice you to take it easy for the next couple of days. No exertion, and I mean absolutely no exertion, eh?' he winked at them both, chuckling at his own joke, causing Khushi to turn pink, 'for the next forty-eight hours. Rest, relax, you've got your wife here. Let her take care of you. Is that clear?'

Arnav could only nod, his eyes wide at this man who talked almost as much as Khushi did.

'Now,' continued the good doctor. He turned to Khushi and smiled kindly at her. 'I think we can let him go home today, my dear. But make sure he gets that rest.' She nodded obediently.

He was putting down the charts when Khushi spoke, 'you said some not so good news. What is it?' She was looking a little scared, and Arnav squeezed her hand.

'Ah! that. You're sugar levels are slightly elevated. So we need to get that down. You'll need to get a follow up done on it within the next week. I suspect it may be because of what happened yesterday, but I don't want to take any chances, eh. You might also get headaches every now and then. I'll have a prescription ready for you along with your papers at the reception and you can pick them up when you go home.'

'Thank you, doctor,' Khushi was more than overjoyed to hear it. As soon as the door closed behind him, she turned around and hugged Arnav. Words kept failing her, she who could talk nineteen to the dozen had no words for what she was feeling right now. He squeezed her right back, but drew back when she went to kiss him.

'Khushi, I want to brush my teeth,' he said, laughing at her annoyed face. 'By the way, do I have any clothes?' looking down at green and white printed hospital gown that was all he had on.

'They gave us your clothes and stuff last night. Akash took it back to the hotel with him to get them cleaned, but your wallet and phone is with me. He also sent some of his clothes this morning, so you could change,' she said, digging through the bag and finding a tee, some warmups, and a jacket.

'It's better than nothing,' Arnav grumbled, as he swung his legs out of bed. She hurried to help him. 'I'm okay, Khushi,' he sounded irritable. One look at the hurt in her eyes and he stopped immediately. 'I didn't mean that, I'm sorry,' he said, softly.

She nodded and stepped back, keeping a careful eye on him as he went into the bathroom. She called Akash who was waiting out front and told him that Arnav had been discharged.

Arnav came out of the bathroom, looking a little better. 'Where's my phone, Khushi?' he asked. She dug it out of her purse and handed it to him. He turned it on and scrolled through the calls frowning. 'I need to go to the office today,' he mumbled.

'You heard what the doctor said. You need to rest for the next couple of days,' she said softly, placatingly, laying a hand on his chest. He looked at the hand, then raised it to his lips, and kissed it, his stubble prickling against it.

His other arm came around her waist and he pulled her close, a smile breaking through his features as he saw her mouth drop open.

'The doctor said no exertion,' she gasped.

'This,' he said, as he grazed his lips along her jaw, 'isn't exertion.' He kissed her cheek, letting her feel his warm breath against her ear. Her eyes drifted shut, as familiar long-lost feelings surfaced, her breath deepening in anticipation. His mouth was leaving a trail of fire towards hers.

The door opened and Akash walked in, stopping immediately at the scene in front of him, his eyes opening wide. Somehow, it never failed to embarrass him to see his brother making out with his wife.

'Next time, Akash, knock,' Arnav growled, holding on to Khushi who was trying to discreetly wriggle out of his arms. He let her go reluctantly, but still kept an arm around her.

'Sorry, bhai,' Akash had slowly turned a very pale shade of red. 'I've got the discharge papers and the prescription. Ready to go?'

Arnav nodded and they headed out the door.

At the hotel, Khushi and Akash settled Arnav in the bed in her room, although he very vociferously said that he was okay, and didn't need to be in bed.

'Stay there,' she ordered.

There was a knock on the door and Lavanya and Payal trooped in. Arnav was exasperated. Was he not going to get some quiet time with his wife? But he couldn't ignore the feeling of happiness bubbling up in his heart to have so many of his near and dear ones around him. These people loved him, and for the first time in his life, he was content to accept their care and concern for him. They stayed awhile, lunch was ordered in, chatting about what they planned to do for the rest of the day. Khushi decided to stay in with him, while they went to catch one of the other catwalks. It was only when they noticed him drooping that they left.

He yawned mightily as Khushi let them out the door and shut it. Then he held out his hand to her. She came over and put her hand in his and he pulled her over, she sat down next to him.

'Lie down next to me,' his husky tones sent frissons down her back.

She took off her boots and lay down, curling up next to him, her head on his shoulder, arms around each other. Only when his breathing evened out, did she allow the tears to leak through her lashes. She stared at his face, drinking in the sight of him sleeping peacefully. There was so much love she had for this man, so much pain that was there in loving this man, but she wouldn't have it any other way. She needed him like air, and only now was feeling it flowing into her lungs. They hadn't talked yet. So much had happened in the past four years! What had happened to him? What was his life like now? And did she have a place in it, she wondered. So much had happened to her, how would he take it?

*****

Arnav had come by taxi the previous day, so Khushi and he decided to go to his place in the evening, to pack a few things, so he could move into the hotel. The taxi came to a halt in front of a very modern looking high rise, all steel and glass, in one of the suburbs. He led her to the elevators and swiped a card before pushing the button for the top floor. The lift swooshed up, taking its time to get to the thirtieth floor. They both stood in silence, awkwardness building up from him and hitting her in waves. She crossed her arms across her chest, not realizing the defensive stance was giving her away in Arnav's eyes. The lift halted and he gestured towards the right. She followed him down a hallway and waited while he unlocked the last door on the left. He opened it and let her in.

She stepped into the living room and gasped! To the right was a wall of sheer glass, looking out onto a terrace. In front of her was the rest of the living room, done up in the colors of the desert, a pillar stood in the middle painted five shades darker, with a fireplace at the bottom, effectively dividing the room into two parts. A large TV hung on the wall. Comfortable rust colored leather couches lined the curved walls. The whole decor was country style, but there were potted plants around, bringing in the green of an oasis. The cushions on the couches were all brightly coloured, yellows and rusts, reds and blues and greens. The room was colourful! Even the stones around the fireplace had been inlaid with a colored Mexican style mosaic in white and royal blue and red depicting a salamander. Three words - comfortable and elegant.

She was puzzled. Arnav did not like colors. His wardrobe was monochromatic. His room at Shantivan had been very muted, yet this room smacked of someone that loved color! Someone like her, from four years ago.

He was looking at her, waiting on her approval.

'Arnavji, did you design this room yourself?' she asked slowly. He nodded. 'But you...,' she stopped. This room had been decorated before he knew who he was. Had he changed so much, then?

He watched her walk through the room. It was a smallish apartment, compared to Shantivan, he knew. His bedroom there would probably fit in the entire living room and the kitchen. The bedroom here was a surprise to her. Being a corner apartment, one wall was sheer glass, the second had French windows leading to the terrace. The walls were painted an olive green, with one wall accented by a color three shades darker. The furniture was all dark here, black and mahogany. The comforter was white as were the pillows. This was a starker room. More like the ASR she knew. He followed her in, going to the walk-in closet to drag out a suitcase and starting to take clothes out.

She stood there awkwardly, hands in her pockets, not quite knowing what to do with herself. He glanced up at her and smiled. 'Go check out the rest of the flat ' all two thousand square feet of it!'

The den was a small room off the living room. It was neat, uncluttered and very masculine. She wandered over to the TV and realized that there was a collection of DVDs under it. She flipped through the titles idly, and then her mouth dropped open. There were Salman Khan movies! DVD after DVD ' some open and some still in their plastic seals. He didn't even LIKE Salman Khan!

Holding the DVDs in her hand, she went to the corridor leading to the master suite. The bedroom door was ajar and she could hear him talking on the phone.

'It's just for a few days, Joannie,' he was saying. There was a note of annoyance in his voice. A pause. 'I was in the hospital, dammit!'. Pause. 'No. No. You can't come over, I'm leaving in a bit.'

Khushi knocked on the door and pushed it open. He looked up and saw her, her eyes wide and questioning. 'I'll call you later. Bye,' he said, before turning off the phone.

Joannie? Who was Joannie? she wanted to ask, yet deep down was afraid to. He smiled at her and raised his eyebrows, looking at the DVDs in her hands. She looked down at them and then up at him.

'Arnavji, you don't even like Salman Khan movies. But you have the DVDs?' her voice was small, hesitant.

The smile was gone from his face. He went back to his packing. She stood there, waiting for an answer. He turned around and saw her still standing there, looking so lost. Came over, and took the DVDs from her hands and tossed them on the bed. 'Come on, I want to show you something,' he said. He led her to the French windows, and opened the first door. She shivered as she felt the cold night air on her shirt, the jacket lying in the living room where she'd taken it off.

He got a parka for her from the closet and helped her put it on, shrugging on a light jacked himself. She was almost lost in his big jacket, the hood falling over her eyes. He laughed as he pushed it back a little, before opening the doors and leading her out to the terrace.

Dusk had fallen and in front of her were the twinkling lights of the city. To her left she could see the outline of the Toronto skyline, the graceful sweep of La Tour CN rising above the skyscrapers. Beyond the lights, spread out before her eyes, lay Lake Ontario, just a shade darker than the sky. The full moon already shone in the East and the water reflected it like a silver ribbon to the end of the earth. A few clouds darkened the sky in the West. Snowflakes drifted by, and one landed on her nose. She shivered in delight. Her eyes and mouth already wide at the grandeur of the scene before her. She held on to the cold railing, her fingers freezing, when he put an arm on each side of her, blocking her in, letting her feel his warmth on her back. He peered at her, and grinned. Her nose was red.

'Your nose is red,' he said teasingly. She brushed at it with her fingers and smiled looking up at him. Memories of the many times he'd teased her about her nose in both their eyes. 'Let's go inside,' he said, holding her hands noting how cold they'd gotten.

'It's so cold,' she complained, rubbing her hands together to warm them, as they walked back into the warmth of the room.

'You need some really warm clothes if you have to live in Canada,' he hadn't thought through this sentence before it slipped out of his mouth. She swung around at him, surprised.

'Live in Canada?' she asked surprised.

He shook his head, cursing himself for his thoughtlessness. 'I meant, anybody who lives in Canada, needs warm clothes,' he amended.

Khushi drove them back in his black CUV, to the hotel. He had been feeling much better, but was worried that she'd been so quiet. It wasn't like her. But he was also pleasantly surprised at how competently she drove. That night they called up home, talking to Nani and Di. Although, the best gift he had was talking to Aarav. For four years, the little boy had seen his Mom go through changes that he barely understood. Now, all of a sudden, his Dad was back and Mom sounded happy. She was actually laughing again.

It was late when they finally hung up. Khushi crawled into bed and watched as Arnav went to the bathroom. How strange, she thought. After four years, I am with him, but now what? Will everything go back to being the same way it was before?

He came back into the room and for a moment stood gazing his fill at her laying in bed, looking at him with shadows in her eyes. He got into bed, next to her and lay down, turning on his side facing her. Slowly he reached out a hand to hold hers. Sighing peacefully, his eyelids fluttered close as he fell asleep. 

Part 2

Back in Delhi, Nani and DI had watched teary-eyed as Aarav chatted happily with his father, even though he was getting late for school, until his mother told him to go to school. His face was shining with joy. The little boy who had stolen their hearts, was still the same little boy looking for a father’s love.

Around ten that morning, the doorbell rang. HP opened it to let Aman in. He had already had a call from Khushi and Arnav and like the rest of the Raizadas was equally happy. He wanted to make sure that Nani and Di understood what ASR’s coming back was going to do to their lives again - the media frenzy would start again. But the fact that it was a happy occasion would probably make it a bit more bearable. A lot of things had to be worked out and he would be taking care of it, while Khushi was away.

Fashion Week was over.

Lavanya was already on her way home. Arnav and Khushi were with Payal and Akash at a restaurant they’d found that served breakfast all day long. Arnav watched in bemusement as Khushi tackled the pancakes with gusto, along with cream and fresh berries. The restaurant was crowded as it was mid-morning, but they’d managed a booth by the window.

‘So, Khushi,’ Akash said, ‘I guess you’re staying on for a few days?’

She smiled and nodded, swallowing the food in her mouth before saying, ‘Yes, Jijaji. I thought I’d like to .. see a little of Canada before I go.’ Arnav just smiled. ‘I was thinking,’ she continued, picking up a strawberry and dipping it in the cream. ‘It would be great if we could get Aarav out here, too.’

‘No,’ Arnav said, almost immediately. She looked at him surprised. He slid his arm along the back of the booth and said, ‘in any case, Akash, I never took your Bhabi on a honeymoon,’ and winked at him. Khushi choked on her strawberry, while her sister and brother-in-law just laughed at her. He thumped her vigorously on her back.

‘Seriously though, it’s kind of cold here, and I wouldn’t want him to get sick,’ he added a little seriously. There was a frown on his face. Just then his phone rang. He looked at it, excused himself and walked out of the restaurant. Khushi could see him outside the window. His back was turned to them and then he glanced once over his shoulder at her. She could read the tension in his back.

Akash raised his eyebrows and she shook her head, I don’t know. Arnav came back to the table, his face sombre. But he quickly cheered up and they finished breakfast. They were going sight seeing today, the two of them, but Akash and Payal were returning to New York on an afternoon flight.

They spent the whole day taking in the sights. Arnav had insisted on Khushi getting a chic warm coat in red, with a hat, scarf and gloves to match. He was delighted with how it looked on her. He tucked his arm around her, and pulled her close as they waited to cross a street. Looking at her red nose, he bent down, and placed a soft kiss on it.

She gasped, embarrassed at this public display of attention. ‘Arnavji, what are you doing?’ she muttered, loud enough for him to hear.

He grinned at her, ‘kissing my beautiful wife,’ he said, just as the signal changed and the ‘Walk’ sign came on.

‘Arnavji,’ she said a little later, ‘can we go to your place today?’

He frowned in puzzlement, ‘why?’

‘Well, I’m tired of eating out, and I am surprised how much Indian food you can get here, but I’d still like to cook dinner for you. You used to...’ she held back.

‘I still do,’ he said. ‘I miss your jalebis.’ Easy tears came to her eyes at his words.

‘Why didn’t we stay at your place, Arnavji? Why the hotel?’ she asked.

‘You had to be downtown. It’s a long commute,’ he sighed, looking around for a cab, not quite meeting her eyes. They got into a cab that came to a halt in front of them. He helped her in, got in and gave the cab driver the hotel’s address. As they got off and he was paying off the driver, his phone rang again. ‘You go on inside, it’s warmer there,’ he told her. She nodded and walked into the lobby, waiting inside while he took the call outside. He kept his back to the doors as he talked. Two minutes later, he walked in, a frown on his face.

That night as he lay beside her, holding her hand, his eyes roamed over her face. How could he have forgotten this one thing in his life? She had brought color and joy into his life. She was the reason he was alive. She made him come alive. And he’d forgotten her?!

He hadn’t know why he’d picked those colors for his rooms. And yet, when she walked in, it seemed to make so much sense. It felt right. She fit in there. Those were her colors. He never knew why he had the compulsion to buy those Salman Khan DVDs. Because she loved the man. In so many ways, his clothes were brighter now, because she would have liked it. Every time he’d been in an Indian restaurant and seen Jalebis on the menu, he’d been tempted to order some. It was just the thought of his blood sugar that had kept him from actually eating them. He’d tasted them on his tongue, he had known. Just when and where, was the question. He’d done those things, without knowing who she was. But it was as if somewhere, his dil kept telling him that there was a piece of him missing, though his dimaag had betrayed him.

Now she lay next to him, sleeping peacefully. Yet he had made no move to claim what was his own. And he didn’t know why. The four years seemed to have created a barrier between them. A barrier he didn’t know how to cross. But they’d come through so much together before. This was just his mind that they had to get over. And hers, a voice whispered in his head.

For she was different now. Her smiles had been rare, the first couple of days. But slowly, she had started smiling more, talking more. He was startled to find dark, muted, neutral colors in her wardrobe, in strictly severe cuts. It was full of browns and greys and whites and black - lots and lots of black. She even visited the hotel gym regularly! He smiled in the darkness, a lop-sided smile of pride on his lips. ‘I’ll manage. I can do anything you can,’ her voice echoed in head. You certainly can, Khushi, he thought. He was glad Akash and Lavanya had practically ordered her to take a holiday. He couldn’t have asked that of her. Evidently, she’d become quite the business woman! He’d heard her talking on the phone to clients and subordinates. It was strange to hear her speak, almost like an echo of him from five years ago!

But they needed to be away from all this. Needed some time to themselves. Needed to assess their relationship. There was no doubt in his mind that he loved her and she loved him. That much was clear in his head. And he needed to show her that, he thought. Plus, he really wanted to have jalebis, made by her, and with her.

Gently sliding his hand out of hers, he got out of bed, making sure she was still tucked in. He switched on the little lamp on the work table and drew his laptop close. Opening it, he logged in and clicked on the Web browser.

***

Next morning, he woke up to an empty bed. He looked around and spotted her. She was dressed in warmups, bluetooth in ear, obviously on a phone call, pacing up and down as she spoke in low tones so as not to wake him. He sat up and her gaze went immediately to him. She turned off the call and came to him.

‘You’re awake!’ her smile as bright as a sunny morning.

His lopsided grin warmed her heart. ‘Yeah.’

‘What are we doing today?’ she sat down next to him, eagerly wanting to know what else he had in store for her.

‘Breakfast first, and then,’ he hauled her into his arms, and she fell forward, balancing herself by holding on to his arms. Their eyes met and for a long time they just looked at each other, drinking in the sight. They were lost in each other until there was a knock on the door.

She pulled herself away. ‘Breakfast is here.’ He raised his left eyebrow and watched her walk to the door.

Over breakfast he said, ‘pack a few things, we’re going away.’

‘Going away? Where?’

‘It’s a surprise,’ he said.

Winter is not the best of times to be traveling around in Canada, but there is nothing more romantic than sitting in front of a roaring log fire and having hot chocolate together. They drove west, the Audi Q5 eating up the distance under its wheels. They chatted desultorily as he drove, the speedometer never more than 10 kms above the limit. She seemed to have lost her fear of speed, or maybe it was because there were other cars traveling way faster than he was, jumping lanes and generally being road hogs. But Arnav never lost his temper with them, keeping to a steady speed. It surprised her how patient he was while driving.

It was dusk by the time they drew up to the Marriott overlooking the Falls. They had stopped on the way for a winery tour and picked up a couple of bottles of Ice Wine. Surprisingly, Khushi had loved the taste and the smooth afterglow of the sweet dessert wines.

Their room was a duplex suite and one wall was all glass, overlooking the falls. Her eyes widened as she ran to the wall and looked out. Even from so far above the thunderous roar of the water could be heard, although it was muted. The sprays danced far above the water line, throwing a rainbow in the sky. With no trees to take your eyes away from the view, it was an awesome sight. Arnav watched her childlike glee as she saw the falls, a warm glow in his heart at seeing her like he remembered her.

‘Arnavji, can we go down there?’ she asked breathlessly.

‘I’ll find out, Khushi, but tonight, we’re staying in,’ he said.

‘What? We came all the way here to stay in?’ She looked at him, hands on hips. He walked over to her, slowly, purposefully. She stepped back. His eyes widened, and a smile crossed his face. How many times had they done this dance? And she didn’t miss a step. He put out a hand and twisted one of hers behind her, pulling her flush against him, hip to hip. His eyes narrowed as they darkened with desire. She pushed against his chest, he pulled her closer. He lowered his head, watching her arousal in the flush of her cheeks, in her eyes burning into him, dark as coal now, the pupils dilated, her lips pouting. He leaned forward wanting nothing more than to kiss her right now, take her right now, in full view of all the teeming tourists that could look up to their window and see them.

He was shocked when she leaned forward, putting her lips against his, kissing him with all the sweetness in her soul, her love opening her up to him. It was kiss of tenderness, of joy at being together again, of love that had found the strength to live past the sorrows and the thorns in their way.

She rested her head on his chest, hearing his heart hammering away. Knowing that she was the one who could make it beat like that.

A knock on the door interrupted their engrossment. Each groaned inwardly, but Arnav went to open the door. It was a waiter with their dinner. As it turned dark outside, they left the most of the lights off. A small seating area had been created facing the glass wall. He took her hand and led her to the little settee. The lights on Niagara Falls came on. It was a magical sight, and they changed and glowed and pulsated in the dark, reds and blues and greens and yellows. She lay nestled against him, at peace, watching the sight.

Only to have it broken by the insistent ringing of his phone. It stopped and started again. ‘Arnavji, it must be important,’ she murmured, and sat up.

He picked up the phone, looked at it and turned it off. She frowned. Was it Joannie again? She didn’t want to ask. She didn’t want to know who this woman was who could keep calling Arnav so many times. She’d seen it on his face, and known who she was. She wanted him to tell her.

‘Let’s go to bed,’ he said, coming over to her and holding out a hand, his face unreadable in the shadows cast by the lamp. She looked at him for a long moment, before putting her hand in his, and allowing him to lead her upstairs.

The next two days were spent like the honeymoon they never had. They talked, laughed, he teased her, she pouted, he kissed her and then they made love. Hours spent in bed just exploring the sheer ecstasy of being with each other again. Their starved souls making up for lost time. They explored the falls, the wine region, the parks and the casino. But mostly they explored each other.

Arnav seemed to have made it his mission to give her in two days, what he’d missed with her for four years. Showering her with his attention, his love and his care. She was sucking it in, taking deep gulps of it, like someone who had stopped breathing, now has an oxygen mask strapped on. She bloomed. He glowed. People stopped and stared at the striking couple, taking them to be newly-weds, and in a way they were. Discovering what it was to be a couple again. Discovering what it was to be parents together again. For they never forgot to call Aarav at least once a day, if only to say ‘good night’ or ‘good morning’ to him’.

One thing they did end up deciding was that Arnav’s company would be merged into AR Group. It gave them a local base here in Canada.

Much too soon, it was time for them to head back to Toronto.

‘Arnavji,’ she said quietly, ‘can we go to your place? I’d like to cook us dinner. Tired of eating out.’

He nodded and took the exit from the QEW towards his place. They stocked up at a local Indian grocery store, and headed to his house.

Khushi changed into a casual salwar, her hair tied in a ponytail and went into the kitchen to put the groceries away. She’d brought the fixing for making jalebis and was hunting through the cabinets looking for pans that she could use to make them in, when someone knocked at the door. She waited for Arnav to open it, but she could hear the shower running. Wiping her hands on a dish towel, she opened the door.

The first thing that struck her was the eyes. The girl in front of her was taller than her, with grey-green eyes and flaming red hair, and a figure to die for. She realized she was being scrutinized equally carefully.

‘Who’re you?’ the girl asked her.

Khushi drew herself up, lifted her chin and said, ‘Khushi Kumari Gupta Singh Raizada. And you are?’ an eyebrow lifted with the question, arrogance dripping from her tone.

‘Joannie. Joannie Westwood. Where’s Arnav?’ She tried to see beyond Khushi, but she wasn’t being allowed in, as yet. She held out her hand, and Khushi looked at it.

Khushi frowned. ‘Showering,’ she said shortly. What was Arnav’s relationship with this girl?

Joannie drew back her hand, ‘can I come in?’

‘Sure,’ said Khushi. ‘Have a seat.’

‘Umm... you said your name is Singh Raizada. Are you related to him?’ Joannie asked, sauntering into the room, before sinking down elegantly into a sofa.

‘Yes, I am,’ said Khushi. Anger and pain were ripping through her, but her months of self-control helped her keep her face a blank mask.

Joannie looked at her questioningly as Khushi refused to elaborate further.

‘Khushi?’ Arnav came in from the bedroom, his pants slung low on his hips, his bare chest barely covered by the towel around his neck. Drops of water clung to his skin, and his hair was still dripping.

Khushi turned around and marched away to his bedroom. Angry tears were forming in her eyes but she wasn’t going to cry. She had cried enough for him. She had cried enough because of him. She wasn’t going to do it anymore! Dashing away the tears, she looked around, she wasn’t even going to sit on that bed, she thought. She sat in the lazy-boy in one corner, rocking to herself. She could hear the murmur of voices in the living room, and her angry imagination was getting the better of her.

Outside in the living room, Arnav was facing an irate Joannie.

‘Who’s she?’

‘My wife,’ he said, simply.

‘Your wife? Your WIFE?!’ her voice rose an octave higher, an angry flush staining her cheeks. ‘Since when do you have a wife, Arnav? Two weeks ago, you didn’t have one, if I’m not wrong.’

He tried to stay calm, although everything inside him was screaming to shout and make her listen to him. Taking a deep breath, he said, ‘I’d forgotten about her. It was part of my memory loss.’

‘But you said you’d remembered everything, then how could you forget you were married?’ tears had filled her eyes, threatening to flow over.

‘I’m sorry, Joannie. But I only remembered a few days ago.’

‘Sorry? Arnav I thought you and I..’ her voice trailed off. ‘A wife…?’ she whispered obviously confused.

‘Joannie, you’re a great girl. But I love Khushi,’ his voice broke, dropping.

‘That’s why… you wouldn’t…’ she sat there, hands covering her face.

‘I couldn’t. I guess somewhere inside I knew I couldn’t,’ making sure she understood it. ‘It’s over, Joannie,’ he said softly, trying to keep from hurting her but knowing that nothing could lessen the blow for her.

At that moment, Khushi marched in. She took in Joannie’s tear-stained face, and guessed what had happened. But right now, she was seeing red and all her anger was focused on Arnav. She walked past them, and headed into the kitchen, banging pans on the stove top, picking up the can of oil and dumping it into the pan. With quick angry movements, she went about mixing batter.

Joannie stared at her in surprise before walking over to her. ‘I hope he keeps you happy,’ she said. ‘He certainly wasn’t man enough for me.’ With that she slammed down the spare key on the countertop and walked out the door.

Arnav stood there, head bowed, fists clenched. Dammit. But there was nothing he could have done. The minute he’d remembered, Joannie had become just another woman to him. He looked up and saw Khushi furiously swirling jalebis through the pastry cone.

‘Khushi,’ he tried.

She didn’t look at him. Didn’t even pretend to hear him. She went on, furiously, her thin frame shaking with anger and frustration.

He walked to her and tried to hold her shoulders. She shrugged him off, picking up a jalebi in her left hand munching on it, while she swirled more with her right hand. He tried again, and again she shrugged him off. Somewhere inside him, he felt happy. Happy that she cared enough, was frustrated enough to make jalebis. He picked up a jalebi and started putting it in his mouth.

She slapped his hand away. ‘You can’t have that,’ she said. ‘It’s got sugar in it.’

‘Thoda chalta hai,’ he said, raising it once more to his lips and taking a bit of the succulent sweet.

‘Arnavji!’ she yelled. ‘ENOUGH!’

He was startled enough to drop the jalebi. She had calmed down now after that outburst, the furious workings of her mind slowing down. She turned off the stove tops and walked out, head bent.

‘I want to go back to the hotel, Arnavji,’ she said, quietly.

‘I thought you wanted to stay here tonight,’ his voice was equally quiet.

‘I did. But not anymore. Please can we go?’

His heart was breaking inside him. But he knew she needed the time to come to terms with what had happened. Yes, Joannie was his girlfriend. The first woman he’d dated in four years. Four years where the memory of his Khushi had been wiped out. But his heart had known about her. Now he knew why he’d held back, not taking their relationship to another level. Why he felt like he couldn’t commit to a relationship. And why it had been so hard for him to break up with her. He’d hated himself for having to hurt her. He hated himself for having hurt Khushi. Darkness came down slowly in his mind. The joy of the past two days seemed like a dream now.

Part 3

One month later.

Arnav Singh Raizada stepped out into the sunlight at the arrivals terminal in Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. He was dressed in casual jeans, a black golf shirt, and Ray-Ban shades. A black leather jacket was carelessly hooked on one finger over one shoulder, the other hand wrapped around his wife. Like him, she was dressed casually, in a chic lilac churidaar kameez. Her hair was tied in a plait, and the duppatta floated in the slight breeze. Like him, she too had her eyes hidden beneath large sun glasses except hers were Chanel, and her arm was hooked around his waist. They looked at each other and smiled; a picture perfect couple as they faced the battery of paparazzi waiting for them outside the airport. He leaned down and kissed her nose, and flashbulbs went off blinding them. A porter followed behind with a large pile of bags on a cart.

Aman came forward, and made a way for them towards the waiting car. The reporters threw questions at them, mostly answered with a nonchalant ‘No comment’ from Arnav. It was only after he seated Khushi in the car, that he turned around, held up a hand and said, ‘I’m glad to be back home. It feels great. Right now, all I want to do is meet the rest of the family. So if you’ll excuse us,’ with that he stepped into the car and slammed the door shut on the reporters, before the driver took off.

Khushi leaned back, closing her eyes and sighed with relief, the smile wiped off from her face. She stole a glance at her husband. His face was blank, his eyes effectively hidden behind the sunglasses revealing nothing of his inner turmoil. Just the clenching of his jawline hinting at the tension inside him. She was surprised to find his hand sliding into her, lacing his fingers with hers. She didn’t hold back from him, but the slow rotation of his thumb on the back of her hand started her pulse racing.

The car drew up to the carport in Shantivan. They’d started the renovations as soon as they’d heard about Arnav. Last week they had finally moved back in. Arnav got out of the car and stood looking for a while at the fa├žade of the place he’d called a home for so long, and that he’d missed for all of the last three months.

Memories came flashing back to him. Growing up. His Nani. His Di. Mama. Mami. Akash. Payal. Khushi. The moments beside the pool. The stolen kisses. Their marriage. Their love. Most of all their love. He held out a hand to Khushi to help her out, knowing that that would be expected of them as they walked up the steps to the front door together holding hands. He looked at her as she stood beside him.

Before he could say anything, the front door opened and Aarav ran out. His eyes widened in surprise. The lanky, ten-year-old, with short hair had grown up almost up to his mom’s shoulder! Luckily he knew what he looked like what with video calls and photographs.

‘Dad!’ he yelled throwing himself into his father’s arms.

‘Aarav,’ he hugged him close. And then Arnav Singh Raizada did something extraordinary. He kissed the top of Aarav’s head, a smile breaking through the sternness of his visage. Khushi couldn’t help but smile at them. Aarav held out an arm to her and dragged her into the group hug. There were tears in her eyes, too. She wasn’t the only one who had missed Arnav.

The three of them walked together to the front door. The door was wide open and the hall decorated with flowers, drapes and lights. His sister stood with tears in her eyes, ready to greet them both. Beside her, he could see his grandmother, Nani, looking frailer than she had before, but still standing with a straight back, and regal posture. Only her eyes, sparkling with tears of joy betrayed her inner emotions. Nani stood there beaming, as did HP.

Rituals over, the small but happy family gathered in the lounge. The servants hovered around, HP - after all these years seeing Arnav Bhaiyya was prone to secretly wipe his eyes on his sleeves. Aarav sat next to his Dad, hanging on to every word, like he would never let go. Nani sat across from him, while his Di sat on the other side. Only Khushi sat apart, knowing they needed this time together.

Chotey,’ his Di was still sniffling. ‘We missed you so much. But Khushi was so strong. She refused to believe you had gone. She refused to accept it. We all did,’ sniffle, ‘except her.’ Wipe, sniff. ‘She believed in her love. Never took off her mangalsutra, never forgot to wear sindoor.’ Sniff. ‘Marrying her was the best thing you ever did, Chotey,’

‘I know, Di,’ he said, looking straight at his wife, willing her to look at him. But her eyes were turned away.

‘How thin you’ve become, Chotey,’ said Nani, dabbing at her eyes. She caressed his hair. He reached out his arms and hugged her.

‘Nani, I am fine. Please, believe me,’ he said softly.

Nani shook her head at him. ‘I don’t think we should ever allow you to go anywhere. You were going to London and you got kidnapped. You go to New York, and we lose you for four years. Chotey, you are not going out of this country again!’

‘Nani, maybe I shouldn’t go on my own,’ he said, his eyes on Khushi. She lowered her head, refusing to look at him. ‘If I go alone, I get lost. Tangled up.’

She raised her head at that. Tangled up. In fairy lights. The memory of that heady day assailed her thoughts, her eyes leapt to his, and knew he remembered too. He’s trying to make you remember the good times, Khushi, she told herself, looking away.

I am, Khushi. She heard him loud and clear in her head, her heart stopped almost beating, before beginning to race. Her eyes snapped to his again, widening in recognition!

He looked around the room, the familiarity of home finally seeping into him. He had missed it! There were changes, he noticed. Gone were the mile-high murals, instead elegant statues and intimate clusters of photos let the wide open spaces speak. On the other side of the hall, was the other seating area, but this one was grouped around a piano. A piano? Who played the piano in this house?

‘Who plays the piano?’ he asked.

‘I do, Dad,’ Aarav piped up.

He raised his eyebrows. ‘The piano? What happened to drums?’

‘He wanted to try something different, after...’ Khushi spoke for the first time. ‘He chose the piano. So now, he’s finished three years on it, and he’s actually getting quite good at it.’ She smiled softly at her son who smiled back at her.

‘And basketball? Do you still play basket ball?’ Arnav asked.

‘I do. But I really like football, Dad,’ Aarav was excited. ‘I made the our school team, you know.’

Arnav knew there would be changes, but these he wasn’t prepared for. These were memories of Aarav that he’d cherished, yet Khushi had told him nothing of these changes. Before he could ask anything, Nani spoke up.

‘Arnav, go take some rest. It’s been a long flight and I am sure you’re tired. HP will call you for tea.’

‘Yes, Nani. I am tired,’ he stood up and stretched. ‘Coming, Khushi?’ He held out a hand. She had no option but to take it, not in front of Nani and Di, she couldn’t.

They walked upstairs together and went to his room. It had changed a bit. The bed was now a mahogany four poster, the closets were now painted a stark white. HP had placed his bags on an inbuilt luggage rack. He took out some casual wear and headed into the shower and stopped. The bathroom was the biggest surprise. Pale green and dark brown, was the dominant color theme. A beautiful black claw-footed iron washtub stood against a wall. The shower stall with its frosted glass partitions was at the end. A long counter on the right held his and hers floating washbasins in frosted glass. Candles and flowers added their perfume to freshness of the room.

He took a long hot shower, feeling remarkably sleepy by the time he was done. Walking out of the bathroom, he saw that Khushi was almost done unpacking his things. He hesitated a moment and walked over to her, his hands loosely looping around her waist.

‘Still mad at me?’ he asked huskily, breathing into her ear. He could see the slow tide of color in her cheeks, before she whipped around in her arms.

‘How could you?’ she whispered harshly, shoving his arms away.

He searched her eyes. ‘How could I what, Khushi? Have a girlfriend?’ His voice was raw with the effort of keeping it all down. ‘I lost my memory. I didn’t even know who I was.’

She held his right hand with both of her shaking ones. ‘Didn’t this ring mean anything to you? Didn’t you even think that .... that you wouldn’t be wearing a ring if it had no meaning for you?’

He looked at the ring in question thoughtfully. ‘It did,’ he said slowly. ‘I knew that it had some meaning, but I didn’t know what. I could never... I guess that’s why I never had more than a platonic relationship with Joannie,’ he looked into her eyes as he said it. His were open, honest, expectant. Hers were hurt, angry and unwilling to trust.

He sighed and let her go. Crawling into bed, he fell asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow. The relief at being home at last, finally taking its toll on him. He slept peacefully and dreamlessly.

***

The next two weeks passed by in a whirl. Arnav came back to work at AR, settling in and figuring out how far his companies had gone. But now there were two CEOs, with their cabins next to each other. Khushi had offered to step down. He had vetoed it. At work they had found their rhythm. He realized she made perfect sense here, in his world.

The newly expanded business meant that they both worked longer hours.

What he didn’t understand was the change in her. She barked at people. There was a tension about her, like a coiled spring that wanted to break loose. She had never been this short with people before. Now she didn’t hesitate to crack the whip, at the drop of a hat. She was tough when it came to dealing with clients and vendors alike. She knew exactly how to crack a deal. No longer was she the beloved Khushi Ma’am who made jalebis for the employees. With a rising sense of unease he realized what she’d become - a female version of the much feared ASR!

Khushi pushed back the bangs from her forehead, frowning at the figures in front of her as she played through a what-if scenario. Arnav leant against her door watching her for a few minutes, before walking over and standing behind her. She glance up at him before focusing back on her laptop again. He put his hands on her neck and began massaging it.

She closed her eyes at the feel of his hands on her neck, allowing herself to sink into the relaxing sensation. He pushed at the tight knot at the base of her neck, digging his thumbs into it, eliciting a groan from her. He smiled in satisfaction.

‘How much longer, Khushi?’ his voice was soft, husky.

‘I just need to finish this,’ she murmured, eyes closed, head forward as she allowed him to continue rubbing her neck. His hands slid under her collar, fingers gripping the hollows of her collarbone and continuing to massage her.

‘Let’s go home. It’s getting late,’ he bent down and whispered to her. The feel of his warm breath on her nape accelerated her pulse rate. She let her head drop forward even more and was surprised when he pulled his hands out. Before she could react he had pulled her to a standing position, before lifting her up and seating her on the desk. His mouth came down hard on hers. Her gasp letting him in, all the way. His arms were wrapped tightly around her, as he stood between her legs.

For a moment, she resisted his kiss and then with a groan of surrender, wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back. A kiss of hunger and denial, a starved kiss. He couldn’t seem to get enough of her, bending her back as he continued to hold her mouth with his own. They came up for air, their breathing ragged, their hearts racing in unison.

He pulled her down from the desk and said, ‘Let’s go home,’ before turning around and heading out the door.

***

That night he lay in bed, his thoughts running in different directions. Khushi and he were at an impasse. They shared a bed and they shared a room. But that was all. She had closed him out and shut him down. The small incident at the office had shown him that she was not unaffected by him. But was that all that was left in their relationship? Did she really think some other woman could take her place in his heart and his life? Didn’t she see that if this went on for any longer, they would no longer have what they had fought so hard for? Would she not fight for it? Yes, Joannie was an aberration, but it was a mistake made without knowledge of true circumstances. Could she not get past that?

****

Khushi lay on her side, turned away from her husband. He was asleep, she thought. Slow tears trailed down her face. She wanted to forgive him. She wanted to forget about Joannie. But somehow she couldn’t. She’d been able to forgive him Sheetal even. But not this. Not after they had married. How could he look at another woman? Didn’t his heart tell him she was there for him? The same heart that she gave into his keeping so many years ago?

The night cloaked them both ... each silent in their own little private hell. But ASR was not ready to give up. He was going to make Khushi his - yet again. He just had to figure out how.

******

The next day at work, Khushi was surprised to receive a call from Mrs. Sinha, the principal of Faith Academy.

‘Mrs. Raizada?’ she asked. ‘This is principal Sinha speaking.’

‘Yes?’ Khushi frowned in surprise. The principal rarely, if ever, called her up.

‘It’s about Aarav. Did you know that he has been acting up lately? He’s been picking fights with the boys in his class. This is the second time this week. He has also been very disruptive in class, distracting the teacher and the other students. Mrs. Raizada, Aarav has always been an exemplar student. He was so happy when his father came back. But lately, we don’t know why he’s been behaving so strangely. That’s why I wanted to talk to you. Can you and Mr. Raizada come to my office this afternoon?’

Khushi’s heart was thudding as she listened to the Principal. This was not like Aarav at all. He was the sweetest boy, albeit a little introverted. But this did not sound like him at all! What was going on?

‘Of course, Mrs. Sinha,’ she said. ‘We can be there this afternoon. What time?’

They settled on two o’clock giving them ample time to get to the school. She walked into Arnav’s cabin and knocked on the door. He raised surprised eyes to see her standing there and got up immediately.

‘What’s the matter, Khushi? Is everything okay?’ he asked seeing the furrowed lines on her forehead.

‘It’s Aarav,’ she said. He opened his mouth to speak but she continued. ‘Principal Sinha called me just now. He ... it seems he’s been acting up. She wants to speak to us about it.’

He nodded his head slowly. ‘What time do we have to be there?’

‘Two o’clock,’ she replied. She saw him look down at his appointment book and said, ‘it’s okay if you can’t make it. I can go by myself.’

Her face was expressionless, and he felt something tear inside him. Coming across to her, he held her elbows and said, ‘Khushi, you don’t have to do this by yourself. He’s my son, too. I’ll come.’

‘What about-?’ she began.

He laid a finger on her lips. ‘I can cancel the appointments. This is more important.’ She nodded, a shimmer of gladness coming into her eyes.

He pulled her close and wrapped his arms around her, hugging her briefly before saying, ‘We’ll leave by 1:30, is that okay?’

She smiled at him, then and said, ‘Yes.’

***

They sat across from the Principal as she narrated Aarav’s latest problem to them. A fist fight with a boy in his class. Arnav and Khushi were appalled. Aarav sat in a chair to the side, refusing to meet either of their eyes. His tie was askew and his hair was a mess!

‘Can we take him home, now?’ Arnav asked, a pulse beating in his jaw. He looked at Khushi, and she was staring straight ahead, red flags in her cheeks giving away her fury. The Principal looked from one to the other, noticing the stiff way they held themselves.

On the drive home, none of them spoke a word. They marched into Raizada Mansion.

‘Aarav, in your room. Now,’ said ASR in a low voice.

‘And stay there. You’re grounded,’ said the female ASR in an equally low voice.

The two of them marched into their room and rounded on each other.

‘What the hell happened to him, Khushi?’ Arnav started off. ‘What’s been happening to him since I’ve been gone?’

‘What’s been happening to him? I’ve tried to be mother and father to him that’s what’s been going on. Now that you’ve come back, he expects more from YOU. He expects you to start being his Dad.’ she yelled right back at him.

‘I AM his Dad. And you’ve made him into something I can’t relate to. Piano? Who the hell learns piano? What happened to his drums?’

‘He LIKES to play the piano. He couldn’t play the drums - cause he missed you so much.’

‘And football? He was going to be a basketball player!’

‘As if. He didn’t want to play basketball if you weren’t there. And have you taken him for a single game since you’ve been home? No!’

They glared at each other. Faces red, close to each other.

‘And this behavior also is, I suppose, because of me?’ asked Arnav sarcastically.

‘Well, he wasn’t like this all these days. Now he suddenly starts acting up. What do YOU think it means?’

‘I don’t know, Khushi. You tell me. Should I just go away again?’

A gasp at the door brought them out of their intensely heated argument. Aarav stood there staring at them. Before they could open their mouths, he turned around, only to bump into Anjali.

She stood there glaring at the two of them. Putting her hands on Aarav’s shoulder she gently told him, ‘go to your room, Aarav’. The boy turned around and walked away.

‘Di!’ said Arnav.

‘Di!’ said Khushi.

‘Enough!’ she held up a hand. ‘Both of you. Enough. Don’t you see how upset Aarav is? You’re supposed to be his parents. I don’t know what happened between you two, but you need to fix it, Chotey. Whatever it is, between the two of you, you took on the responsibility of Aarav. Now you need to do it. Be responsible parents, and grow up!’ She looked pointedly at both of them, turned around and walked away.

Part 4

Khushi came out of the bathroom, toweling her hair dry only to find the bedroom empty. She looked across at the poolside, but it was empty too. Arnav had obviously left the room while she was showering. She brushed her hair, carefully placing sindoor in her parting, before picking up the dupatta and heading out. The soft murmur of voices coming from her son’s room stopped her in her tracks. She went to the door but stayed partially hidden behind it, as she watched Arnav and Aarav talking in low voices. 

Unbeknownst to Khushi, Arnav had thought long and hard before coming to Aarav’s room and had just sat down next to his son on his bed.

‘Hey, big guy,’ he smiled at his son, only to be greeted by a stony look.

‘Hi, Dad.’

‘What’re you doing?’ he asked.

‘Home work,’ was the sullen reply.

Arnav sat quietly for a second wondering how to break through the wall.

‘I noticed how beautiful the garden looks,’ he said. Aarav gave a small smile. ‘You’ve done a very good job with it.’

‘Mom helps me sometimes, but I really like to do it alone,’ said Aarav. Arnav just nodded looking for the next opening into his son’s heart.

‘And when you’re not gardening, you like to play the piano?’ he asked. Aarav nodded. ‘What happened to drums?’ he asked curiously.

‘I like drums, Dad, but I like piano better,’ said Aarav, this time looking at his Dad, his apprehension that his Dad might not like the idea of him playing the piano clearly visible on his face.

‘So how come I’ve never heard you play since I got back?’ Arnav smiled gently at him.

A smile came over Aarav’s face, ‘would you like to hear me?’ his face brightening up at the thought.

‘Of course, I would,’ Arnav said. ‘And maybe you could play the piano and i could play on the drums with it.’

The bright expression on Aarav’s face faded away. ‘But you said you wanted to go away.’ he mumbled.

‘No!’ Arnav exclaimed. ‘No,’ a little softer this time, shaking his head. ‘No, Aarav, I don’t want to go away again. I don’t ever want to leave you all again.’

‘But I heard you and Mom. You were so angry with each other,’ Aarav’s eyes were filled with tears. ‘Is it because I stopped playing drums and Mom let me take up piano? and football?’

Arnav swallowed not quite sure how to explain to his son that this was nothing to do with him.

‘No.’ He hesitated wondering how to get the words out. ‘You see, Aarav. Sometimes grown up also make mistakes. Mistakes that can hurt others. I made one and I hurt your Mom. And she is angry with me because of that.’ He cupped Aarav’s face lovingly. ‘You didn’t do anything,’ he tried to reassure his son.

‘Did you say sorry to her?’ Aarav’s childlike innocence in that one question tore at his heart.

‘Yes, I did. I am very sorry for what I did. It’s just your Mom needs a little time to forgive me.’

‘What if she doesn’t? Will you go away again?’ Aarav asked again.

‘No, he won’t,’ came a soft voice. Even before he turned, Arnav felt her touch on his shoulder. A vast sense of relief washed over him. Khushi’s eyes were filled with unshed tears. He held her hand, and tugged at it, and she sat down next to him, lacing her fingers through his. She looked into his eyes and said, ‘he’s not going anywhere.’

‘So does that mean you’ve forgiven Dad?’ Aarav was grinning from ear to ear.

She nodded, still looking at Arnav, and then turned to Aarav. ‘I think your Dad is really sorry for what he did. And I know he won’t do it again,’ she threw Arnav a mischievous smile as she said so.

‘I wouldn’t dare,’ Arnav muttered only for her ears as he leant to brush his lips on her cheek, delighting in the blush that still came so readily to it. She rested her head on his shoulder as he put an arm around her.

Aarav jumped up and hugged his parents, who hugged him back unreservedly. Khushi kissed him gently on his forehead, running her fingers through his head, silently apologizing for the pain they’d put him through.

‘We love you very much, Aarav,’ she murmured. ‘We won’t do that to you.’

‘And now, big guy, some rules,’ said Arnav. ‘No more fighting in school, is that understood?’

Aarav could only nod in excitement as Arnav went on, ‘No more fighting, no more class disruptions, no more shoddy work, no more calls to the principal’s office. Clear?’

‘Okay, Dad!’ The boy was over the moon. Finally, his parents were happy and he was happy! All was right in his world!

Khushi stood up, pulling her husband and her son with her, ‘shall we go down for dinner? Nani and your bua must be waiting for us.’

Nani and Anjali watched them coming down the stairs together and smiled at each other. It looked like all was right in that little happy family.

Later that night, Arnav was standing by the poolside watching the reflection of the moon in the water when Khushi came looking for him with two cups of tea on a tray. He took the tray from her and put it down on a table, before taking her hand and pulling her to sit with him on the recliner. She snuggled into his arms, knowing they still had things to talk about and things that needed to be said.

‘Arnavji,’ she began. He looked at her, rarely had he seen her in such a sombre mood. She fiddled with the ring on his finger. ‘I don’t know why you forgot me all those years. I don’t know what Joannie meant to you. I know she meant something, and I know you meant something to her.’ Her glanced flicked to his face, and back to his ring. ‘I saw her tears. But I want to put it in the past and I want to let it stay there. I want to move forward now. I’m so tired of fighting,’ she whispered the last words, tears filling her eyes.

‘Then don’t fight, Khushi. The ring was what kept telling me that there was someone who meant something to me. Someone out there, who was so close to me, but I didn’t know how to find that person.’

She listened quietly to his voice, knowing that this was one of the few times that he opened up to her. Her hand rested on his heart, feeling it beat at the tips of her fingers.

‘You know, Khushi, when I ...,’ he swallowed the lump in his throat before continuing. ‘When I came to in the hospital, I realized that on some level I am still my father’s son. I had a wife, and yet I had gone into a relationship with another woman. Doosri aurat,’ he laughed sardonically, his eyes far away.

Khushi closed her eyes in pain.

‘But I had done it unknowingly. Put you through pain unknowingly. Once I heard your name, I couldn’t ..,’ he paused struggling to put his thoughts into words. ‘And when I saw you on the ramp, everything started to make sense. I didn’t mean to hurt her or you. But I did. And I am sorry.’ He was quiet for a long moment.

‘My mother meant the world to me.’ She understood. Without him putting the words together, she knew what he was trying to say. That he would never have allowed her to be in the same situation as his mother. Joannie happened simply because of a cruel twist of fate. If he could take it back, he would.

‘I am not my father, Khushi,’ his voice was hoarse, his eyes burning with pain. He couldn’t tell her what it meant to him. To compare himself to his father. The man who ended up destroying himself and his family. He’d gotten past all that, and yet, he had gone and done something so very similar.

She sat up shocked, gasped, her hand covering his mouth. ‘Never, Arnavji. I never thought that.’ Tears laced her voice too. ‘I could never think that.’

He gently lowered her hand, dropping a kiss on her palm. ‘Then, why, Khushi?’

She shook her head, swallowing her tears, before resting her head on his shoulder. ‘I don’t know, Arnavji,’ she wrapped her arms around him. ‘For a while, I thought I had lost you, again. I couldn’t go through that again. I couldn’t bear it.’

‘And now?’ he gently asked her.

‘I just want to move on with our lives, together,’ she sniffed.

They stayed that way quietly for some time, before he said, ‘I want to move forward together, too.’

He smiled as a thought struck him. ‘You know, our son brought us back together,’ he said.

She smiled, too. ‘He’s taken after his father. Always gets his own way.’ She lifted her head up as he chuckled, the deep-throated sound making her fall more in love with him than ever, the bubble of happiness in her heart expanding at the sound.

‘Arnavji, there’s something I have to tell you,’ she said after some long moments of silence. He drew back and looked at her, his eyebrows raised questioningly.

‘It’s about Di,’ she said a little diffidently.

‘Di? What’s wrong with Di?’ he asked looking just a tad worried.

She sat up straighter, handing him his cup of tea and picking up her own.

‘Actually I think Di should be the one to tell you,’ she said.

‘Khushi,’ he warned. ‘Just tell me, will you?’

‘The thing is, I found out quite by accident,’ she began in her usual roundabout way. ‘I mean, I wasn’t really trying to find anything out, but it so happened that-’

‘Khushi, just say it!’ he was exasperated now.

‘I think Di is seeing someone,’ she said in a rush.

‘What?!’ thankfully, there was no tea in his mouth or for sure he would have spit it all over her.

She nodded, eyes sparkling. ‘I think Di’s seeing someone,’ she whispered dramatically.

‘Khushi, there’s no one here, why are you whispering? Just tell me out loud. Who is it? And how do you know about this? and why has nobody told me?’ he was asking all these questions in a row without giving her time to answer.

She put her cup down, rolled her eyes and said, ‘just as unromantic as ever. Can’t you think in filmy style for once?’

He grinned, happy to see his jhalli in action once again.

‘His name is Tarun Mehra. He’s a businessman - like you. Wait,’ she suddenly got off the recliner, and walked off to the bedroom. Two minutes later, she was back with a thin blue file in her hand. ‘Here.’

He took it from her, shaking his head at her as in, what is this?

‘Background check,’ she said. He grinned again. His Khushi was now anticipating his actions! He loved it.

He opened the file and quickly skimmed through it, before placing it beside him on the floor. Right now, he needed his wife next to him, to show her how much she meant to him. Wrapping an arm around her waist, he pulled her onto his lap and kissed her soundly.

Her eyes widened at first, before drifting shut, arms wrapping around his neck, as she met him half-way into the kiss. The flames always simmering below the surface leapt into conflagration. ‘We’ll discuss Di later,’ he murmured huskily in her ear. ‘First, we have some unfinished business to settle.’ Picking her up in his arms, he carried her back to their bed.

******

Two weeks later, Tarun, Anjali, Arnav and Khushi sat around the pool. Steaming cups of coffee and tea stood on the glass table between them. Khushi was comfortably ensconced on Arnav’s lap, while Tarun and Anjali held hands, his fingers lightly rubbing over the ring on her finger - a ring he had put there earlier that day. Their conversation was desultory, and easy. They were discussing the NGO that Anjali had just recently started working with.

Arnav liked this sombre man who he could completely relate to. Tarun was quiet, and calm and confident. He didn’t need to throw his weight around, and he commanded respect where he went. There was something extremely stolid about him. Arnav liked the way he treated his sister, not as a china doll, but as a woman with her mind of her own, and he had watched as his sister had somehow stopped clinging so much to him and become a strong, independent woman. She’d already been helping Khushi at AR, but with Arnav back, she’d decided to work with an NGO helping orphans. Tarun’s encouragement of this idea was something that really resonated with him.

It was getting late by the time Tarun bade farewell, and Anjali got up to accompany him to the door.

The two of them watched as the newly-engaged couple went out of sight. Khushi sighed in contentment and then snuggled into her husband’s neck.

‘Happy?’ he asked her. She nodded as a smile flitted across her face. He lifted her up and sat up. She looked at him, eyes wide questioning. ‘Bathroom,’ he said. ‘Don’t go to sleep.’ he murmured before heading indoors.

She sat there gazing up at the stars. Amma, Babuji, Mamma, all of them shone down on her as she whispered her happiness to them. Di was happy, Mamma, she said. This time, please let it be for a lifetime. Amma, Babuji, Mamma, I just hope he likes what I have to tell him today.

Arnav walked into his bedroom and peered out towards the pool. His wife lay on one of the loungers, her eyes lifted up to the skies, communing with their parents as she often did. The simple white salwar kameez and the dark flowing hair making her seem ethereal against the shadows behind her. For a moment he stared at her, drinking in the sight of her, the one woman without whom his heart was incomplete.

She watched him walk across to her. No matter how many times a day she looked at him, she never tired of seeing him come towards her. His long loping strides, the loose way he held his body, the caramel eyes drinking her in. She sat up as he came and stood in front of her, looked up at him, seeing the diffidence in his eyes.

He held his hand out to her, she placed hers in it, expecting him to pull her up. Instead he slowly crouched down, until one knee touched the ground, his eyes never letting her go. The other hand came out holding a ring in it - a small emerald surrounded by diamonds.

‘Khushi Kumari Gupta Singh Raizada,’ he said in that incredibly husky voice that poured over her skin like warm honey. ‘Will you continue to be my wife and my life? Every day from now and forever?’

Tears sprang into her eyes, questioning him, why? What was the need for this?

‘I want us to have a new start and I want to renew the vows I made as I took those pheras with you. I want to pledge my entire life to keeping you happy and safe. So will you - hamesha?’ he asked again.

Tears choked her throat and she had to clear it before she said, ‘on one condition only.’

He had started to slide the ring on her right hand, the left still occupied by her engagement ring, when he stopped. ‘Condition?’

‘Yes,’ she whispered, her face glowing with love for him.

‘What condition?’

‘That you accept another new member into our family,’ she said softly, a faint blush rising on her cheeks.

‘I already accepted Tarun,’ he said, wondering how his wife managed to shatter a romantic mood so easily. Besides, his knee was starting to hurt and she still hadn’t said yes.

She giggled a little and said, ‘not Tarun.’

‘Not Tarun? Then who? -’ suddenly he looked into her too bright eyes, the flush on her cheeks, before dropping his gaze to her stomach.

She nodded at him, reading the expression easily on his face.

‘When?’ his voice was throaty.

‘About another seven months,’ she replied. She was feeling a bit apprehensive at this point. This was so not how she had imagined most husband’s greeted the news of their wife’s first child-to-be. But then, this was Arnav Singh Raizada and he never did anything by the book. She should know, shouldn’t she?

He looked up at her. And all the pride and love and gratitude in the world shone at her in his eyes. He leaned forward and said, ‘condition accepted,’ before fully placing the ring on her finger.

With a swift move he loomed over her, placing his hands on either side of her on the lounger, before capturing her lips with hers. It was a kiss of love and gratitude and passion held fiercely in check and it lasted a lifetime.

Scooping her up in his arms, he twirled her around, as she clung laughing to his neck. Dropping his face into the crook of her neck he placed light kisses along her neckline and her jaw, before pulling back, and letting out a loud ‘Whoooop!!!’ much to his wife’s delight.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

SS - Under Your Skin

Part 1

She woke up as she did everyday at 6:00 am to the peace and quiet of the fall morning broken only by the chirping of the birds. For a while she lay in bed, just ruminating. She turned her head on the pillow to look across. For four years, she’d looked across at the empty side of the bed every morning, just stared at it for a few minutes, running her hand over the empty pillow, as if seeking strength from it to face her day. Then she looked away, pulling herself out of bed and into the bathroom. Five minutes later, dressed in jogging clothes, she let herself out of the house, water bottle in hand. A few stretches to warm up and then she started her jog. 

By the time she got back and let herself in, the whole household was stirring. Naniji turned as she heard the door opening.

‘Good morning, Naniji,’ she said.

‘Good morning, bitiya. Are you coming for the aarti?’

She hesitated, and then said, ‘No, Naniji. Not today. I’ve an important meeting. I’ll go get ready and get Aarav ready, too.’

‘Okay. Breakfast will be ready when you come down,’ Naniji smiled at her. But the smile faded from her eyes as she watched Khushi lightly run up the stairs and head over to her room. She shook her head and walked over to the temple where Akash and Payal had already gathered, along with Manorama.

In her room, Khushi quickly showered and changed into a casual salwar before heading into Aarav’s room He was still sleeping, his head tucked into his pillow with only his nose showing above the comforter. She smoothed his hair back and smiled tenderly.

‘Aarav, come on, son, it’s time to get up. You’ll be late for school.’

‘Mom, lemme sleep,’ he grumbled.

‘No, Aarav, come on. It’s time to get up.’

He turned away. It was the same story every morning, so now she tried to wake him up at least fifteen minutes before he really needed to be up! He never knew how smart his Mom was at these little games.

Half an hour later, dressed and ready for office and school, they both headed downstairs for breakfast. Parathas and potatoes for all of them. Aarav had discovered he liked to eat as much as his adoptive mother did.

He looked at her, she gave him all the love he’d craved, all those years in the ashram. But ever since Dad had gone away, she had become a little ... different. She was dressed in a severe black suit today, with a stark white shirt. Her long hair was held back in a sleek ponytail, easily hiding the sindoor in her parting. The high collars of the shirt hid the mangalsutra that she’d never taken off. On her left hand, sparkled the diamonds that he’d put on her finger, oh! so long ago. A blue tooth was tucked under the bangs over her right ear. Her feet were encased in three inches of sleek high heels.

‘Khushi bitiya,’ Naniji began. ‘Can you come home a little early today?’

‘I’ll try, Naniji,’ she replied with a quick smile. ‘There’s a lot of work piled up and I need to see to it.’

Anjali watched her sister-in-law feed her son, and eat at the same time. Soon she was done and hurrying Aarav up to leave with her. She sat chewing her lip as she listened to the muffled sound of the SUV that Khushi now drove. The same white SUV that her brother had used four years ago. They could afford a new car, but all she wanted was to drive Arnav’s car. Tears in her eyes, she looked at her Nani and her Mami, who sighed and looked down at the food on her plate.

‘Naniji,’ with trembling voice, she addressed her grandmother. ‘How long is Khushiji going to continue like this? Everyday, she is becoming more and more like Chotey, before he met her.’

Payal walked into the dining room, just in time to hear Anjali’s words. She sat down carefully at the table, making space for her baby bump.

‘Don’t know, Anjali,’ said Naniji. ‘It breaks my heart to see her like this.’

‘Naniji, Anjaliji, I think she should go somewhere. Take a holiday somewhere with Aarav,’ said Payal. ‘The little one has lost the only father he barely knew, and now his mother has turned into both his father and mother.’

‘I know,’ Naniji said.

Mami sighed again. ‘Does she even remember what day it is today?’

They all fell silent. ‘I don’t know,’ said Payal.

‘She does. She just does not show it anymore. Anything to do with Chotey, she has tried to wipe it out,’ Naniji said.

‘Is that why she still wears sindoor and her mangalsutra?’ said Anjali. ‘That looks to me like she hopes he will come back someday for her.’

‘Ever since she became Mrs. India, she has become ... different!’ from Mami.

‘How many days has it been since she made jalebis?’ asked Payal

‘She did make them the other day,’ said Nani. ‘Only for Aarav. For him, she will do anything.’

‘At least she takes time out from him. Running the company isn’t easy,’ said Akash who just joined them. He took a seat and waited while Payal poured out tea for him. ‘I can’t believe how well Khushiji has learnt the business, so quickly. She is very tough. And she’s building a reputation for herself.’

The doorbell rang just then and HP ran to open the door. Garima, and Buaji stood at the door, Shashi in a wheel chair still. His recovery had had a set back ever since the new trauma in their lives. HP took the wheel handles from Garima and wheeled him in.

They all stood up to greet the Guptas. Hugs were exchanged and Buaji like always had a special hug for Anjali. She loved the girl and wished that tragedy did not follow her footsteps around so much. For someone to live through what she had had in her young life, and still be able to smile through it, took courage. No one appreciated it as much as Buaji did. She blessed Anjali and gave her a tight hug, her own eyes filling with tears as she wiped away the younger ones’.

Garima hugged Payal, and then looked around searching, ‘Khushi? Where is she?’

‘She’s gone to the office, like every year, amma,’ Payal was choking back her tears.

Akash put his arm around his wife, before Anjali caught his eye. They had to go and supervise the preparations for the havan.

****

The CEO of AR group sat at the large desk in her cube. She’d sat quietly staring at the calendar for the past fifteen minutes, before resolutely moving her eyes away, taking in the room that was now hers. The glass walls were still the same, except they now had blinds on them, affording her privacy when she needed it. The walls had been painted the same passionate red. The shelf still contained the pictures of Anjali, but now it had been joined by a picture of Aarav. She stood up and walked over to the glass wall, looking down at the busy humming workplace below. The red and white theme continued downstairs too.

‘Amanji!’ she called.

Aman Mathur came into the room, a steaming cup of tea on a tray. ‘Ma’am? Your tea.’

‘Thank you, Amanji’ she gratefully accepted the tea. ‘What’s my schedule for today? Have the Mehrotras responded to our proposal?’

‘No, ma’am,’ he said, and continued briefing her on her schedule.

The phone rang, and she smiled briefly as she looked at the caller-id. She nodded at Aman and he excused himself.

‘Hello?’ she smiled as she listened to the excited voice at the other end. ‘That is wonderful! I can’t wait to see you! When are you arriving?.... Great. Let me know when you have the details.... ‘Bye,’ she hung up he phone, the smile lingering on her face for a second, before looking at the date again. Tears filled her eyes, but she brushed them away before determinedly getting back to her laptop.

It was almost seven in the evening when she rubbed a tired hand over her eyes. The day had gone very fast, jam packed with work and meetings, but she had ensured that Aarav was picked up by Mohan from school.

Akash was not in today. She never asked him to come in if he didn’t want to. Especially not today.

She pulled up to the portico of the house, hesitating a moment before she finally got out. Slinging her laptop and her bag on her shoulder, she walked into the house, coming to a complete stop as she went past the living room.

HIS photo was still standing in a corner - a smiling portrait, the hair was gelled back, showing off his widow’s peak; his big hands resting comfortably in the pockets of his black three-piece, the lop-sided smile crinkling up the corner of his eyes - caramel eyes that still seemed to look into her soul and ask her ‘tum theek ho?’

She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned around. Anjali stood looking at her and said, ‘Khushiji? Are you okay?’

She smiled, her lips stretching across her frozen face, and nodded brightly, ‘I’m okay, Di. Where’s Aarav?’

‘In his room, doing his home work.’ She hesitated, about to say something and then finally said, ‘Khushiji, you knew what today was. Why did you have to go to work today? Your parents and Buaji had come, they waited to meet you and left just a little while ago.’

Khushi searched her sister-in-law’s face, looking for condemnation but finding only loving concern. She placed a hand on her shoulder and said, ‘Di, I’ll call them and talk to them. There was a lot of work at the office.’ She drew a deep breath. ‘I should go and check on Aarav,’ she patted her sister-in-law and moved away, heading to her room.

She had a quick shower and went to Aarav’s room. Spending time with her son brought her the solace and gave her the drive to move forward in her life. He was her strength now. The strength she needed when she felt the lowest. She hugged him tight before tucking him in. Surprisingly, he seemed to understand his mother’s need of comfort and hugged her back.

Back in her room, she opened her laptop to start working but her mind was wandering. She shut it in frustration and wandered out to the poolside. She looked up at the stars in the heavens, but didn’t see a new one. She knew them by heart now, knew where they moved with the movement of the earth. And though she sometimes saw them, and sometimes she didn’t, she knew they were there. Her amma, bauji, his amma.... She sat by the pool for a long time, laying back in the recliner trying to blank out her mind from the constant memories hammering at the doors.

Finally she rushed inside, throwing herself down on the bed, his side of the bed, burying her face in his pillow, gripping it to muffle her sobs. ‘Hum theek nahin hain, Arnavji. Hum bilkul theek nahin hain,’ she whispered to him.

******

Four years, she thought. Four years to the day, since he’d gone missing.

She had won the Mrs. India contest a week before that.

Arnav Singh Raizada had left for New York. He never reached there. The flight he was on, crashed in the Canadian North. A large number of the passengers had died, but some had survived and some had gone missing. Arnav’s name was on the first list. They never found his body, as the plane had incinerated most of the dead bodies when it had blown up. Rescue teams had found most of the ones that made it out alive. But some remained missing.

Khushi had received the news in silence, her large eyes looking from one face to the next as they sat surrounding her and Anjali. His two women. The two for whom he would give up his life. Aarav clung to her sobbing his little heart out. Khushi had tried comforting them both. In her mind, Arnavji would come back. They hadn’t found him, and they hadn’t found his body. He was out there alive, somewhere. They’d all tried to console her through their grief. Instead it was she who stood tall and consoled them. Became the strength for the family. The family had turned to her in their hour of need. She hid her grief until she was in her room, alone on her bed, and then she hugged his pillow, smelling his aftershave on it, clutching her mangalsutra while silent sobs wracked her body. The pain inside her ripping her into bits and pieces.

For a month, she’d been in denial. Then she realized, she had another whole family to take care of. The people of AR Group needed their leader, and Akash for all his skill at business was not a leader.

All who saw her, saw the unemotional exterior she presented to the world. A world in which she had no acumen, and one which she wanted to conquer. It was Lavanya who had reached out to her, coming to Delhi to help her, groom her, make her who she wanted to be. Until Khushi Kumari Gupta finally became Mrs. Khushi Singh Raizada.

***

Part 2 

Lavanya woke up to the insistent ringing of the phone. Grumbling at people who didn’t know a decent time to call, she picked up the phone and barked a sleepy, ‘Hello!’ into it. 

‘Lavanya?’ the husky voice sent a shiver down her spine. It was so familiar. Who....?

‘Who’s this?’ she came fully awake.

‘Don’t tell me you don’t remember my voice?’ he chuckled.

‘No. I don’t. Who the hell is this?’

‘ASR,’ he said. ‘You really don’t remember my voice?’

She stared at the phone in her hand. ‘What kind of sick joke is this?’

‘What the! Why would ...? What’s wrong with you, Lavanya?’ he sounded really annoyed now.

‘ASR,’ she breathed in with difficulty. ‘ASR, does Khushi know?’

There was silence at the other end. Then, ‘Khushi? who’s Khushil? What should she know?’ She heard the slight tremble in his voice.

She was shaking now. ‘Where are you?’

‘In Toronto. Why?’

‘What are you doing in Toronto?’ she asked puzzled.

She heard the deep sigh over the line. ‘I don’t know,’ his voice was a little bewildered.

She thought for a minute and then said, ‘Look. Give me your number. Let me call you back. I’ll come down to Toronto as soon as I can. Let me make the flight arrangements and get back to you.’

She hung up the phone debating on whether she should call Khushi or not. She decided against it. Picking up the phone, she started dialing her travel agent’s number.

Two days later, she stepped out of the arrival’s door at Terminal 1 of Toronto’s huge Pearson International Airport. Scanning the crowd around the lounge from the higher vantage point she spotted him standing next to the coffee bar at the back of the lounge, a styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand, looking around disinterestedly. She hurried over to him, waving to get his attention.

He waved back moving forward to her, enveloping her in a hug. She burst into tears, clutching his lapel and sobbing her eyes out.

‘Shhh.... Lavanya. It’s okay. Why are you crying?’

‘Oh, ASR. You don’t know how good it is to see you!’ she blubbered.

‘I can guess. It’s been around five years, huh?’

She nodded, pulling back and looking at his face. The same chiseled jaw, the same caramel eyes, the same lop-sided smile. But a little thinner, the hollows in his cheekbones a little more pronounced, shadows in his eyes revealing his inner turmoil.

‘Let’s go to the hotel. You’re at the Intercontinental, right?’

She nodded. ‘Yeah, let’s go.’

They drove to downtown Toronto, chatting desultorily till they drew up at the valet parking behind the hotel. He took out her bags from the car and handed over the keys to the valet.

Still the same ASR, she thought, taking him in fully now. Still the same authoritative manner, the same air of command. She looked down at his hand. He still wore the gold engagement band on his right hand. So he knew the significance of it? Or did he think he had always worn it?

She checked into the hotel, and went up to her room to freshen up, while he waited in the lounge downstairs. Once in her room, she sat on her bed, chewing her nails, wondering how to go about what she had to do. It was going to be very difficult. But first she had to find out. Where had ASR been these past four years? And more importantly, why did he not remember Khushi?

They took a taxi to Yorkville, since parking in Toronto is always at a premium, deciding to leave the car at the hotel so he could pick it up later. They found a quiet pub, settled into a booth and ordered beers.

‘So, ASR, do you want to tell me now? Where have you been these four years?’

He sighed and said, ‘The flight I was in crashed in Canada. I don’t remember much. I remember the heat and the flames. I was airlifted to Montreal, evidently. When I finally came around, I was in hospital. I didn’t remember who I was, what I was doing or anything. All I know is that my passport and wallet had been destroyed in the crash. I basically was John Doe.’ Her eyes widened as she listened. He took a sip of his beer. ‘The doctors told me it was something that happens with trauma and I would get my memory back slowly. But I didn’t even know what nationality I was! A legal case worker assigned to me helped me file for immigration on grounds of asylum. The case was approved. But once I recovered fully - physically - I realized that I had to find a way to work and eat, and somehow, business appealed to me. I started working in a small plant, the only job I could find. I didn’t speak French so I moved to Toronto - its difficult to find work in Quebec if you don’t speak French. Somehow, I knew I was better than what I was doing. I started with a small business, and in the past three years its been a modest success.’ He stared out of the window, noticing the fashionable women walking by. He gestured outwards.

‘That is something I knew I should be doing. High fashion. Some business with high fashion.’ He smiled a little bitterly. ‘I used to keep thinking that.’

She put a hand on his and he glanced back at her. ‘What then, ASR?’

‘Two months ago, I woke up and all of a sudden, I knew who I was. Arnav Singh Raizada. And I wondered what the hell am I doing in Toronto?’

‘Two months?’ she exclaimed. ‘Didn’t you call home and let them know you were here?’

‘I did, Lavanya,’ he said. ‘I called home, no answer. I tried Di and Akash, Naniji, Mamiji, none of their phones worked. I tried calling Aman even, nothing. Then I tried calling AR group, the woman at the switchboard hung up on me. I couldn’t understand what the hell was going on. I finally found your number and called you.’

‘ASR, did you try Khushi?’ she asked gently.

A pair of grey-green eyes flashed in his memory and he flinched. ‘Who is this Khushi that you keep talking about, Lavanya? You’ve asked me this twice.’ He was clearly annoyed.

She felt the tears start to come into her eyes and changed the topic. ‘Why do you wear the ring, ASR?’ she gestured at his hand.

‘This ring?’ he turned it over slowly on his finger. ‘I don’t know,’ the words were low. ‘Every time I try to take it off, something stops me. Like I can’t.’

‘Why didn’t you go to the Indian Consulate?’ she asked.

‘Do you have any idea how incompetent they are? You’ve got to wait in line for hours!’ he exclaimed. ‘I filed a case, and I’ve still got to hear back from them. They think I’m a Canadian national. It’s all so mixed up.’

She laughed out loud at this, dimples flashing beside her pearly white teeth. ‘Oh thank god! ASR! You haven’t changed a bit!’ she got up and hugged him again, which he returned by patting her on her back.

For a long time they sat silently, drinking their beers, trying to figure out what had happened. He finally looked up and said, ‘What happened in the four years, Lavanya?’

She took a deep breath, wondering how much she should or could say.

‘ASR,’ she swallowed. ‘When we heard about the plane crash, your name was on the list of deceased people. In India the media went crazy. There were so many phone calls, they finally had to change numbers. AR offices had to move to new premises. Akash and Payal, along with Mamaji and Mamiji are in New York. They have a baby daughter, Akansha. They just got back from India last month. The family shut down Shantivan and moved to another house as well.’

‘Akash is married? And Di? what about her and Jijaji?’

Lavanya stared at him. There was a huge gap in his memory and he didn’t even know it? ‘Payal is Akash’s wife. Di and Shyam...’ she swallowed again, ‘got divorced.’

‘What? How did that happen?’

‘He cheated on her,’ she said shortly, not wanting to give him any more details than he could handle. ‘Di moved with Naniji’.

‘So who’s running AR Group now?’

‘Khushi,’ she said.

There was a tightening in his chest. The name. Every time she uttered it, there was something - a shiver down his spine, like he should know the name. He choked on his beer and she quickly got up and thumped him on his back.

A memory came unbidden to his mind. Him choking. Someone rubbing his back, holding his chin up. A soft voice saying, ‘look up. You’ll feel better.’ He closed his eyes. Who was she?

‘Who is Khushi, Lavanya’ he asked when he could finally speak. ‘You keep bringing her name up.’

‘Khushi is,’ she stopped, rephrasing her reply. ‘Khushi is the person the board of directors selected to run AR after you .... went missing.’

He frowned. ‘Did nobody try to look for me?’

‘You were listed as dead, ASR,’ she said bluntly.

He was sitting there, wondering what to do next.

‘ASR,’ she suddenly thought of something. ‘Next week is Fashion week in Toronto. AR group is presenting its first international line, because of the huge Indian population here. As well as the exposure to the International market. You should come for it.’

He looked at her. ‘Why can’t we just call everyone at home and let them know I’m alive, Lavanya?’

She bit her lip. As always, his logic was still as irrefutable.

‘ASR. For four years, you’ve not been “alive” to them. We have to inform them, of course. But I think you should wait until after Fashion Week. Meet Akash and Payal - they are coming over for it. They’ll be representing AR, here.’

He narrowed his eyes, not sure if he understood why she insisted on his waiting till after Fashion Week. Why couldn’t he just call up Akash?

‘Try to understand this, ASR.’ She HAD to tell him something. ‘You’ve got gaps in your memory. A whole year, year and a half is missing. And some things happened during that time. Things that involve YOU.’ She was breathing rapidly, not wanting to tell him all that had happened.

‘WHAT happened to me, Lavanya?’ he bit out.

‘I can’t tell you, ASR,’ her eyes flashed in annoyance. ‘It’s not for me to tell.’

He sat back in surprise. This Lavanya he had never seen before, a Lavanya that actually stood up to him.

‘Whoa! Lavanya, you’ve changed!’ he said. ‘You would never have spoken back to me like that before.

‘Yes, I have, ASR,’ she calmed down. ‘I had to. I learnt how to.’

‘So, what’s your plan? I assume you have one?’ he asked.

She nodded her head. ‘I’ll get the passes for Fashion week for you. What name do you go by now?’ she asked out of curiosity.

‘ASR - since the last two months,’ he smirked.

She nodded her head. ‘Sit tight for a week, ASR. That’s all I’m asking of you.’

He looked at her wondering if he could trust her. She seemed so much more mature now, so much less the bubble-headed girl he had dated. She seemed to have an inner strength in her that he hadn’t seen before. He decided to go along with it.

‘Okay, Lavanya. I’ll let you handle it.’

***

Part 3 

Fashion week, Toronto. Like every year, Fashion Week in Toronto is a beehive of fashion houses show-casing local Canadian talent, and International houses. Big names, new comers and wannabe’s all rubbing shoulders at the various cat walk and studio events. Parties every evening for networking. For the first time, an Indian fashion house would be represented, bringing Indian fashion to the world of haute couture in the Americas. This was a great opportunity for them. 

Khushi arrived in Toronto three days before the show began, along with her whole team. As soon as the plane had landed, she texted Aarav, ‘reached safely in Toronto. Tell Naniji and Di.’ Her next text was to Lavanya, ‘just landed. waiting to get to gate. r u there?’

Two minutes later, Lavanya texted her back, ‘am outside. cant wait to c u’.

She stretched before unbuckling her seat belt. The nine-hour flight from London had been tiring. This was her first visit to Canada and she couldn’t wait to see Lavanya. That reminded her. Why had Lavanya come to Toronto a whole week ahead? She wasn’t even supposed to be here. She’d said something about ‘personal business.’ Hmmm. Perhaps a new boyfriend? She smiled at the thought - a rare smile that barely reached her eyes.

Lavanya greeted her with a big hug and a squeal of ‘Chamikiliiii!! So good to see you again.’

She hugged her back and said, ‘Lavanyaji, what’s going on? You look very happy.’

‘Chamkili, you won’t believe. I found a friend of mine after ... a long time,’ she grinned.

‘Really? What kind of friend? Boyfriend?’

‘Ex,’ this much she could say truthfully. Khushi just raised one eyebrow at her, not asking anything more. How different she was now, Lavanya thought. Five years ago, she would have been pestering me to know more about my ex, today she doesn’t even ask!

They had dinner that night together, Akash and Payal also joining them. As they were finishing up, she got a call. She looked at the phone, excused herself and walked away from the table.

Akash raised his brows at Khushi, she shrugged. ‘An ex-boyfriend, that’s what she told me. Looks like he’s more than an ex, now.’

Lavanya came back to the table, her eyes shining.

‘So when are we meeting this ex-boyfriend of yours?’ Akash teasingly said. She looked at Khushi who shrugged, yes.

‘I’ll bring him to the catwalk for AR Group. He really wants to see it,’ she replied.

They all nodded understandingly. As they got out of their taxi at the hotel, Lavanya tripped and almost fell, before Akash grabbed her hand and straightened her.

‘Thanks, Akash,’ she grimaced. Clutching his sleeve she didn’t let him move. Over her shoulder she watched as Payal and Khushi made their way indoors.

‘I have to talk to you. Urgently,’ she said softly.

‘What about?’ he asked puzzled.

She shook her head. ‘Can’t talk in front of Chamkili or Payal.’

He nodded wondering what was going on with this mysterious conversation and where it was leading. But she was looking at him with pleading eyes. Hesitating a moment, he took his phone out of his pocket and called Payal.

‘Payal, er... I have to talk to Lavanya about some of the arrangements for the show. We’re downstairs having coffee, and discussing. ... Yeah ... okay, I won’t be late,’ he assured her. Turning off the phone, he led her through the doors, heading to the Azure bar.

They found a private table at the far end of the bar, and waited to order two coffees before he asked her, ‘Lavanya, what’s going on?’

She took a couple of deep breaths, cleared her throat wondering how to put it, and then decided that it was better to just baldly state the facts. ‘I did meet an ex-boyfriend, Akash.’ She looked him in the eye and said, ‘ASR. ASR is alive,’ no trace of a smile or dimples on her face.

He stared at her. ‘Lavanya, what the hell are you talking about?’

‘Two weeks ago, he called me.’ She proceeded to tell him the entire story. He listened with his mouth open, not understanding half of what she was saying, a refrain running through his mind, ‘Bhai is alive!’

He sat there stunned, as he listened to her, finally realizing that all was not well. ‘He doesn’t remember Khushi at all.’ Lavanya’s words rang in his head.

‘How will Khushi take it?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know.’ Her eyes filled with tears. ‘I didn’t tell him who Khushi is. He seems to realize the significance of the ring, but...’ she sipped her coffee. Taking out her phone she dialed a number and gave it to him. ‘Talk to him, but don’t tell him about Khushi. Or her relationship with Payal.’

The phone rang three times, before he heard the familiar voice say, ‘Lavanya?’

He closed his eyes in relief, choking on the lump in his throat, unable to say a word. He heard him say again, ‘Lavanya? You there? Are you okay?’

‘Bhai,’ he said softly. ‘Bhai, its me, Akash.’

There was silence at the other end, and then he heard an equally choked voice say, ‘Akash?’ He couldn’t see the tear-filled eyes at the other end of the line, but he could see them in his mind.

They talked for a while, catching up, unable to bear the happiness of hearing each other after such a long while. Lavanya sat dabbing her eyes and sniffing into a napkin, handing one to him to wipe his tears, as she listened to the one-sided conversation.

They agreed to meet the next day. Khushi would be busy with the preparations for the show, while all he had was a TV interview with the local Indian channel. He could avoid Khushi when he went to meet his brother.

Finally he hung up and handed the phone back to her. On impulse, he hugged her and she hugged him back, their mutual joy bringing fresh tears to their eyes.

Late that night he sat with Payal telling her all about it.

‘Akash, I don’t like keeping this from Khushi,’ she said.

‘We have to, Payal. He doesn’t remember her at all. Tomorrow we’ll meet him after the interview. He’ll meet us downtown he said. Lavanya wants him to meet Khushi, but it will be a shock to his system, for sure.’

‘We should tell Dadiji and Di,’ she reminded him.

‘Yeah,’ he nodded. ‘What time is it in India?’

They called up India and waited tensely while the phone rang. He’d put the phone on speaker so they both could talk to Dadi. It was a long, emotional conversation. Dadi made them promise to bring him back home, where he belonged. They promised her that.

Two doors down, Khushi lay wide awake, unable to sleep. She felt very restless today. Like there was something she should know. Something was tugging at her heart. For the first time in years, she wanted to call to him, call from her heart. She clutched the mangalsutra in her hand and closed her eyes. ‘Arnavji,’ she whispered. Her heart beat raced, as she whispered again, ‘Arnavji!’

Miles away in a condo, Arnav sat up in bed, clutching his chest. His heart was beating erratically. A whisper had floated into his mind. ‘Arnavji!’ That soft voice. He should know who it was. Why didn’t he? What was he missing? He sat there, and not for the first time that night, he felt a pain in his chest as tears filled his eyes.

***

The next day, Arnav waited impatiently outside the restaurant on King Street. He’d arrived a little early, and couldn’t wait to see Akash and his wife. The taxi drew up in front of the restaurant, and Akash climbed out. He turned around to see him helping a petite woman with long hair climb out of the taxi behind him. She had a baby bump - her second from what Lavanya had told him. As she straightened up, he heard her voice, ‘Don’t touch her!’ her large eyes were flashing at him. ‘You are responsible for her being in this condition.’ The room was dim, on the bed, she lay ... he couldn’t see her face, he wanted to desperately. His head was spinning and he swayed.

Akash turned around to see him swaying on his feet. Another man got to him first, ‘Dude, are you okay?’

Arnav opened his eyes. The cool fall morning was still the same. The traffic was still the same. In front of him was a tall, blonde man holding his shoulders, looking concernedly at him. He nodded, ‘yeah. Thanks.’

Akash ran up just then, ‘Bhai!’ he said, putting an arm around his shoulders. ‘Thanks,’ he said, to the man. ‘He’s my brother. I’ll take care of him.’ The man nodded and walked away. Akash held Arnav in a tight hug.

Payal had paid off the taxi seeing Akash run to Arnav. She now walked up to them, her eyes filling with tears. ‘Arnavji,’ she said, holding his arms. ‘I am so, so happy to see you.’

His eyes widened at that name. But it wasn’t the same voice. And why had he seen that flash? ‘Do I know you?’ he asked her.

She nodded her head. ‘I’m Akash’s wife.’

‘No, I mean, did I know you before?’ he mumbled. ‘Why were you yelling at me?’

Her eyes widened and flew to Akash’s as he slowly shook his head. ‘I don’t know, Arnavji. I don’t remember why I would yell at you.’

He continued to stare at her. Flashes of their wedding like faded pictures flew through his mind. He blinked to clear his head. ‘Who else calls me Arnavji?’ he asked.

They both looked at him, not knowing what to say. ‘Let’s go inside, Bhai,’ Akash put his arm around his brother. ‘We can sit down and talk.’

It was a long lunch. They had four years to catch up on. But Arnav kept feeling that they were holding something back. Lavanya had mentioned Khushi a few times, and that she was the new CEO of AR Group. But Akash and Payal had studiously avoided any mention of her. His curiosity was getting piqued. What were they hiding?

‘Who’s Khushi?’ he asked during a lull in the conversation.

‘She is the new CEO of AR, Bhai,’ Akash said.

He shook his head. ‘Doesn’t make sense, Akash. Why would they appoint someone new to that position?’

‘She’s also Payal’s sister,’ his brother said.

‘And that makes her capable of being the CEO?’ he asked, one eyebrow raised, hiding the butterflies taking wing in his stomach.

The wedding memories were coming back. He’d been there. He saw it again, a red and blue lehenga. A pair of tear-filled grey-green eyes. He closed his eyes again, wanting to see that face. He had to see that face. Who was she?

‘Arnavji, are you okay?’ Payal’s soft voice interrupted his focus.

He nodded again. ‘I’ve met her, haven’t I?’ They both nodded. ‘Is she any good, as CEO, I mean,’ he asked.

‘Very good, Bhai,’ Akash said approvingly. ‘It’s almost as if,’ he paused. ‘She has continued with what you started, Bhai, and look where we are today.’

They finished the rest of their lunch and then, Akash said, ‘Bhai, you’re not going to invite us to your home?’

He smiled at that. ‘Why don’t you guys come over tonight? Bring Khushi with you as well. She is here, I presume?’ His heart was hammering in his chest as he said the name.

‘Bhai, we’d love to come for dinner, but I can’t speak for Khushi. We’ll let her know,’ he promised.

It felt strange to him. There were walls that he knew he was being kept out of, but he wasn’t going to be deterred. ‘Good, then I’ll pick you guys up at seven,’ he said instead.

Khushi was tired. It had been a long day, and everything that could go wrong had. She’d growled and yelled at just about everything and everybody, a constant scowl on her face. But finally, it had started coming together late in the afternoon. It was almost seven o’clock and as the taxi dropped her off at the hotel, she checked her messages. Akash had called in the afternoon, but she’d been too busy to answer. She called him back.

‘Jijaji,’ she said when he answered. ‘Sorry, I couldn’t take your call earlier, I just got back to the hotel.’

‘Khushi, we’re going out to dinner, with a friend. Would you like to come with us?’ he asked.

She frowned. A friend in Toronto? Why had she never heard about it? ‘No, Jijaji. I want to rest now. I’m tired. Besides, I want to talk to Aarav also.’

At the other end of the line, Akash closed his eyes in relief. ‘Okay, Khushi, we’ll see you tomorrow at breakfast then.’ He hung up.

Khushi plopped the phone back into the Versace bag on her shoulder, digging around for the key to her room. She reached the little enclosed elevator well and hit the button. Suddenly, she felt it. She felt HIM. Her mouth formed the words, ‘Arnavji’. Her heart beat quickened and she looked around.

Arnav was holding the door open for Payal and Akash, at the valet parking entrance. Suddenly, he saw the flash again, those grey-green eyes, dancing with mischief, and a rosy mouth curving in a smile, the lips forming the words, ‘Arnavji!’ He closed his eyes again. The face, he wanted to see the whole face! Anxiety and panic ran through him.

‘Bhai?’ Akash was staring at him, concerned. ‘Are you okay?’

He nodded and stepped outside the doors, letting them swing shut behind him.

The enclosed elevator well was empty. The elevator doors opened in front of Khushi and she got in mechanically, and pushed the button for her floor. How was it possible? After so many years? She checked the elevator, she was up to floor ten now, and she pushed the button for floor eleven. The elevator slowed to a stop and opened. Running out, she found the down button for the elevators, jabbing it again and again in frustration. Finally the doors parted open and she rushed in, pushing the first floor button, impatiently tapping her toes until it swooshed to a stop. The doors opened and she rushed out, coming into the main lobby, looking frantically around. Nothing.

****

Part 4

Khushi had been too busy for the past few days to even go shopping with Payal. She’d been to events, parties, shaken endless hands, and air-kissed endless cheeks. Today was the AR show, and she really wanted it to be special. She’d taken along her dress with her to the venue. Their runway show at six p.m. would be followed by one of Canada’s own - Lucien Matis. A designer whose claim to real fame began with a reality TV show that he hadn’t won, but who today, was one of Canada’s best known fashion names.

A lot of people would be arriving early so as to ensure that they had a good seat for the Matis show. This meant good exposure for the AR brand as well. She was very happy with the show slot that she’d been given.

All week, the restlessness inside her had grown. A feeling that if she turned around, she would find those caramel eyes staring at her. Many times she HAD turned around. But he was never there. Perhaps its because he was last in this country, she thought. Maybe that’s why I’ve been feeling so close to him.

***

For Arnav it had been a long week, too. He’d Googled Khushi’s name, but he didn’t know her last name, so that wasn’t of any use. Then he’d tried CEO of AR Group and all he’d had were shots of her from the back or something held up to her face. She was notoriously camera shy, preferring to keep away from the spotlight, and focusing on work. As far as he could find out, she had a ten-year-old son. There were no pictures, no names. So she was married! Everything was tightly controlled. Knowing Aman, he suspected this Khushi would have used the same methods to keep herself and her life out of the press as he had.

Akash and Payal had connected him with his Di and Nani and it had been very emotional. But any probing questions about this mysterious Khushi, were tactfully turned away. Even Lavanya had been elusive, rarely giving him straight answers, pleading work.

The week was draining him out. He’d had more and more flashes since meeting his brother and his wife. Every night, he’d woken up with that voice in his ears calling him. But her face still eluded him. She was important to him. He knew this much now. The ring on his finger proved that they were probably in a relationship. Getting ready to be married? No. Why did he feel that he didn’t need to get married?

He lay in his bed, a thoughtful frown upon his brow. Somehow this Khushi was the key to everything. Tonight, he thought. After the show, they were going out for dinner. He would come face-to-face with this mysterious Khushi. A couple of times, he’d thought about calling the hotel and talking to her, but somehow, didn’t go through with it.

***

The tent was full of people, jostling around, walking to their seats, heading to the bar for some last minute drinks. Lavanya rushed through the crowd scanning it for ASR. He had just called to let her know he’d arrived and was entering the tent. She was dressed in an AR original, although not part of the collection. She saw him standing at the entrance looking around, and tried to catch his eye. He glanced over, and saw her, breaking into a smile.

‘ASR, I’m so glad you could make it,’ she said, giving him a brief hug.

He was dressed as always in a smart, dark three-piece. His hair was shorter than it had been a week before. But his eyes looked more sunken, like he hadn’t been sleeping well.

‘Hi, Lavanya,’ his eyes twinkled at her. ‘I gather you’re happy to see me?’

‘Of course, I am, ASR. Come with me. We’ve got seats in the front row,’ she dragged him over to where Akash and Payal were already sitting.

He looked around the room, searching for her. ‘Where’s Khushi?’ he asked Akash.

‘Backstage. She gets a little nervous at these things,’ Akash said.

Arnav raised his eyebrows at that. She was nervous? The CEO should be sitting up front here, with all the people and letting her head designer take care of things backstage.

‘She is a bit of a micro-manager, Bhai,’ Akash said apologetically.

Arnav frowned at that. At some point, he was thinking, we have to sort this out. This is my company, I built it, but she has taken it so far. It wouldn’t be fair if he were to just come back and reclaim it as his own. He didn’t see how he could not go back to India after this week. Then what?

His thoughts were interrupted as the lights dimmed and Lavanya stepped into the spotlight. She introduced the line, to a lot of claps and cheers, and then walked away. The room darkened and a rhythmic bass thumped through the hushed crowd. The spotlight moved to the left of the stage as the first model walked out. The music pumped faster and the strobes hit the stage, swiveling into crowds and coming back.

Arnav felt his head start to throb with the music. The strobe lights were beginning to hurt his eyes. The jungle beat was hitting inside his chest. His hands turned clammy. ‘I need some air,’ he said to Akash, before getting up and walking out of the tent. Outside, he gulped in deep breaths of air, finding a chair and sitting down. The music still thumped, but it was a bit muted outside. After about ten minutes of sitting there, wondering why he was sitting here, he got up and made his way to the bar. Asking for a scotch on the rocks, he downed it quickly, the warmth from the drink spreading through his body. He felt much better now, and decided to head back in. He entered the tent, and stood at the back of the crowd.

The wedding collection was being show cased now, and he made his way forward to his seat. The show stopper stepped onto the ramp to the loud clapping and cheering of the crowd. He paused to take a critical look at the dress. It was amazing! In pale pink and green, the model glided along the ramp, and his breathing quickened. His head began hurting again. The flashes came, the eyes wet with tears, this time with a green veil on her head, so much pain in her eyes! He gasped and opened his eyes. Looking around, he moved forward to sit beside Akash.

‘You okay, Bhai?’ Akash was concerned. His brother’s jaw was clenched, and his hands were shaking as he wrung them together. Arnav nodded leaning back in his chair, trying to breathe deeply.

The model had finished her walk, and all the girls came out and did the final walk, sashaying down the runway. Arnav looked at the collection, truly amazed by the beautiful designs on the stage. The show stopper stood at the back, the models lined the runway.

‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ the announcer’s voice came over the speakers. ‘The Head Designer of AR Fashion, Ms Shoma Dey and CEO of AR Group, Ms Khushi!’

His head snapped up at the name, unaware that both Payal and Akash were looking at him anxiously. From the wings, Lavanya could see him clearly. It meant something to him, she thought. Her name - he recognizes it! Please, God, let him be okay now. She sent up a silent prayer to the Gods that Khushi had introduced her to.

He sat staring at the stage, when a short woman in a cream colored designer saree came out. She was followed by another woman. Tall, slim, elegant, in a black designer saree. They stood on either side of the show stopper and started walking down the center of the ramp.

The crowd stood on its feet. A standing ovation! He stood up along with them. His eyes never left her face. The eyes. He could never mistake them.

She paused in the middle of the runway, her eyes searching the crowds, but the footlights blinded her. Her heart was beating so hard, she put a hand up to it.

He smiled. He knew that hand. He knew that ring!

She kept walking standing on the end, feeling the eyes on her. ‘Arnavji!’ the word ran through her brain, like a litany.

He heard it. He wanted to run to her, hold her, kiss those lips. She was here in front of him!

She turned around and walked away, hiding her faltering steps in the folds of her saree.

The crowd sat down. His knees were like jelly, and he had to sit down. Akash put an arm around his shoulder, holding him.

‘Khushi,’ he whispered and fainted dead away.

Lavanya held out her arms to Khushi as she came off the stage. She didn’t know what Khushi had seen or not seen, but the pale face she saw made her hold out her hands to one of her best friends.

Khushi hugged her tight, sobbing into her shoulders. Her eyes filled with tears.

‘Why? After all this time, why do I feel like he is around me? Every single day?’ she heard Khushi say.

‘Because he is,’ said Lavanya. Khushi drew back, eyes wide open.

Before she could say anything, they heard a call of ‘Paramedic! We need a paramedic here!’

Lavanya and she rushed out on the catwalk. The lights had turned on and they could see the people gathered right around where Akash and Payal had been sitting. They shoved their way into the crowd and Khushi stopped.

Arnav lay on the ground, while a paramedic worked on him, checking for his vitals.

‘Arnavji!’ she whispered, before seating herself next to him. Payal crouched down next to her holding her shoulders, tears streaming down her eyes as well.

‘Miss,’ said the paramedic, as she reached out a hand for his. ‘Please stay back.’

‘Mrs.’ she hissed at him, eyes flashing. ‘Mrs. Arnav Singh Raizada. I’m his wife.’ Gripping his hand within hers. Rubbing them. ‘Arnavji, open your eyes.’ His hand was limp.

‘Mrs. Raizada,’ the paramedic was a bit more kinder now. ‘Please, we want to take him in. His pulse is irregular, but otherwise, he seems to be alright. Please allow us to do our job. He needs to be examined by a doctor.’

‘I’m coming with you,’ she stated.

‘We’ll follow you, Khushi,’ said Akash.

She swung around and stared at him. ‘You knew? All this time, you knew?’

‘We’ll talk later, Khushi. There’s so much that we have to tell you.’ He was trying to calm her down.

‘Any allergies or anything we should know about?’ the paramedic broke up their non-verbal battle.

‘Diabetes,’ she snapped at him. ‘He’s diabetic.’

They got him on the stretcher and she let his hand go. His grip tightened around hers. Payal was smiling through her tears as she saw it.

‘Go with him, Khushi,’ she said. ‘He knows you’re there.’

She left with the paramedics for Mt. Sinai. Akash, Payal and Lavanya followed in a taxi.

They waited outside as the doctors examined him. Akash and Lavanya gave a shortened version of the story to Khushi as she sat there rocking in her chair. The doctor came out and said, ‘who’s his next of kin?’

‘I’m his wife,’ she stepped forward.

‘Did he have some sort of trauma?’ the doctor asked. ‘He sees to be in shock.’ Akash stepped forward and explained to him what had happened. He nodded. ‘You can visit him now,’ he said. ‘He should be coming out of it soon. But we’ll keep him overnight for observation.’

They followed the doctor through the long corridors leading to his room. Khushi pushed open the door and entered, walking up to him. He seemed to be sleeping. Payal, Akash and Lavanya stood silently watching.

Tears flowed freely down her face, she didn’t bother to wipe them off. She sat down carefully on the side of the bed. Slowly, hesitantly, she touched his face, his hair, as if making sure he was there in front of her and not some mirage or a dream. One hand clung to his hand, like a lifeline.

They left the room, leaving Khushi alone with him. She picked up his hand and kissed it, seeing the ring on his finger, and smiling through her tears at that. Slowly she leaned down and kissed him on his lips. She placed her hand on his heart, feeling the reassuring beat of it through her fingertips. She lay her head on his chest to hear it for herself. Her Arnavji was alive! Alive! She didn’t want to sing and dance or jump with joy. She just wanted to curl up next to him and never let him go.

He opened his eyes to the most beautiful sight in the world. His Khushi. Her head on his chest. Her hand on his heart. ‘Khushi,’ he said softly. She lifted her head, staring at him with those eyes. He knew those eyes. All his life, those were the eyes he wanted to see.

‘Arnavji,’ she cried, burying her face in the crook of his neck, arms holding him as close as she could.

Moments like these don’t need words. Because words are so inadequate to express those feelings.

His arms came around, holding her, crushing her to him. She welcomed the pain. Welcomed the blood once more pounding in her veins. Welcomed the scrape of his stubble on her cheek. She raised her head, before kissing him, pouring her heart and soul into it, and he kissed her back, telling her that he’d only been half-alive when she hadn’t been in his world. They drew back after what seemed like ages.

‘Where had you been all these days?’ he asked her. ‘Don’t you know I can’t live without you, Khushi Kumari Gupta-’

‘Singh Raizada,’ she laughed through her tears, showing him her mangalsutra.

‘You never gave up?’ he asked astonished.

She shook her head. A knock on the door brought a slight frown of annoyance on both their faces.

Akash popped his head in, before letting himself into the room. Payal and Lavanya walked in behind him.

‘How are you feeling, Bhai?’ he picked up the remote to raise the head of the bed, so that Arnav was sitting up, but properly supported. Khushi sat down next to him, her hands entwined with his.

‘Better,’ said Arnav.

‘Bhai, Khushi. It’s getting late. We should go.’

Arnav’s arm snaked around her waist, not allowing her to move.

‘I’ll stay with him tonight,’ Khushi said.

Akash nodded. ‘I’ll have Payal to get some clothes for you in the morning,’ he smiled.

‘And shoes,’ she said. ‘These heels are killing me!’ lifting a foot to indicate the three-inch sandals she had on.

‘Heels? You wear heels?’ Arnav was surprised, a big grin going across his face. She nodded, biting her lip. ‘What else has changed about you, Khushi? You have to tell me everything. But I hope you still like jalebis’ he added softly.

The other three watched with interest as a red color stained her cheekbones. She nodded. ‘I love eating them, but only with you, Arnavji,’ she whispered, burying herself in his arms, as he chuckled softly.


****