Part 1She 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 2Lavanya 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 3Fashion 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 4Khushi 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.