As Khushi bade Nani farewell, her smile hid a thousand hurts and shattered dreams. Sometimes it seemed that she couldn’t remember what it was like to breathe without pain shuddering through her with every breath; there were times when all she wanted to do was scream till her throat was raw, scream at her husband for destroying her over and over and over again. It would have been kinder to kill her than the daily torment he put her through, but she knew that he hadn’t wanted to be kind, knew that Arnav Singh Raizada was capable of the utmost cruelty when he believed someone worthy of punishment.
He had turned their lives into a punishment and ensured her existence had turned to torment, reminding her with every breath of how unforgiving he could be. The love she had once seen in his eyes had turned to hate the moment he realised she had lied to him, and for that she couldn’t blame him. She hated him with every fibre of her being, mostly for being so unbending and unforgiving; but part of her hated him simply because she couldn’t stop loving him, no matter how hard she tried.
She sat in the car, Hari Prakash sitting next to the driver, the shaded screen raised between the front and the back seats. Her husband had left standing instructions; she was never to be unescorted, no matter where she went; if he wasn’t with her himself, then one of the Prakash brothers was always by her side. Arnav had told Nani it was so that Khushi never had to do anything for herself, so that she never felt the burden of any of the responsibilities she had shouldered before their marriage. Nani had happily believed him, but the truth was far more bitter. He had told Khushi the real reason the day after their wedding- he didn’t trust her alone. He didn’t trust her to not hide things for him, so to make sure she could never lie to him again, he had decided to remove that temptation from her mind. If she was never alone, then she could never have anything to hide from him, and she would never be able to lie to him. And so it had been for the last two months; if she ever left the Raizada Mansion, she had an escort who stuck to her like glue.
Khushi had accepted her guardians the way she had accepted everything after that night, with mute resignation. Things had happened so fast that she hadn’t been able to think of a way out of the maze of half-truths she had found herself caught in, and the pain which had shredded her heart had left her so dazed that she had found it hard enough to breathe, let alone to come up with an explanation cogent enough to satisfy Arnav Singh Raizada.
So much had happened that night.
The night that had changed everything.
She stood there half-dressed, a red saree in her hands as she contemplated her reflection in the mirror. Was she the same girl who had come to Delhi from Lucknow? There was a look in her eyes that she had never noticed before, a knowledge as old as Eve; she had first noticed it after she returned from the Raizada mansion with his bangles on her wrists. Arnav may have been unable to tell her why he had bought her those bangles, but the look in his eyes when he had seen her wearing them had told her so much; there had been so much hidden in the depths of his eyes that, while she didn’t fully understand everything he was feeling, she knew deep down inside that she was his.
The bangles she was still wearing were nothing less than a brand, his way of marking her. It was an old-fashioned notion, the idea that she could carry his brand. Part of her fought against the idea of belonging to anyone, but a deep seated, more primal part of her thrilled to the sight of his bangles on her wrists, there for everyone to see. For the last two days, she hadn’t taken those bangles off, wearing them even when they didn’t match the outfit she had worn for the first part of the wedding ceremony. She wore them even now, and couldn’t help but be thankful that the saree her mother had chosen for her to wear that night matched them, these bangles that he had chosen.
Khushi knew it wouldn’t be possible, but there was an unshakeable need inside her to not take those bangles off, not until she had something else to brand her as his; a thread would do if he wrapped it around her wrist himself. She stood for another minute, looking at the way they moved on her wrists as she draped the saree around her waist; the gentle tinkle as they moved against each other hinting at gentle words she thought he would never be able to actually say.
The man who had claimed her was not a gentle man, though sometimes he surprised her with his tenderness; she was almost afraid of the day when he would come to claim her in front of the world. Still, despite everything, he was hers and she was his; a small part of her couldn't help but wish that they would fight their way through life together, even if they fought with each other as much as they fought for each other.
Shaking herself out of her dreamworld (only in her dreams could she imagine he might think of marrying her), she turned to pick up her earrings, saree finally draped, then jumped as her mother bustled into the room.
“Tayyar hogayeen bitiya? Phir aajao, chalte hain. Akash ki Naniji ne hamare liye gadi bheji hai, kaha hai ke woh humara intezaar karrahi hain. Humein aur der nahin karni chahiye””Are you ready, sweetheart? Come on, we should go. Akash’s grandmother has sent a car for us, she said she’s waiting for us. We shouldn’t dally any longer”
Garima stopped speaking as she finally looked at her niece.
“Titaliya, tu itni badi kab hogayi, mujhe pata bhi nahin chala. Tu kitni sundar lagrahi hai””Butterfly, when did you grow up so much, I didn’t even notice. You’re looking so beautiful”
Khushi blushed, then walked over to hug her ‘mother’.
“Amma, ye sirf tumhari aankhon ki mohabbat hai. Main to wohi hoon jo hamesha se thi.””Amma, you only think that because your eyes are full of love. I’m the same as I always was”
Garima smiled, pressing a kiss to Khushi’s forehead
“Nahin bitiya, ab tu bhi badi hogayi hai. Bahut jaldi tumhari bhi bidai ke liye tayyar hona hoga mujhe.””No, my sweet daughter, you’re more grown up than I had realised. Soon, I’ll have to get ready to send you to your husband’s house”
“Amma, aaj to sirf Jiji ke baare mein socho. Kal se to tum sirf humare baare mein sochna, magar aaj tum sirf Jiji aur Jeeja ji keliye socho. Ab chalo na, nahin to mujhe hi daanto gi, der karne ke liye”
“Amma, today you should only be thinking about Jiji. From tomorrow, you can think about me, but today you should be thinking about Jiji and Jeejaji. Now lets go, otherwise you’ll be telling me off for making you late”
Laughingly she pulled Garima out of the room; within moments the whole family were settled in the car and being driven towards the Raizada Mansion.
When they arrived, she left her parents to their greetings and slipped away to her sister’s room. She was just about to enter as she always did when she remembered that her sister was now someone else’s wife; her hand stopped in the act of pushing open the door and instead moved up, knocking on the door to announce her arrival.
She heard Akash say “Come in”, his voice as gentle as always. A smile broke over her face at the thought of how well her Jiji and Jijaji suited each other; both gentle people who complemented each other perfectly.
As she stepped through the door, her smile widened when she saw the couple standing on opposite sides of the room, clearly having jumped apart as soon as they heard the knock at the door.
“Maaf kijiye Jeejaji, magar hum Jiji ko tayyar karke neeche lejaane aaye hain. Wahan sab intezaar karrahe hain, humein jaldi se nikalna hai” “Forgive me, Jeejaji, but i’ve come to help Jiji get ready. Everyone’s waiting for her, we have to leave as soon as we can”
Akash blushed, then smiled gently
“Payal, main zara Bhai se millta hoon, neeche milenge””Payal, I’m just going to go and see Bhai, I’ll meet you downstairs”
Serene as ever, her blushing cheeks the only sign of her inner happiness, Payal nodded gently.
“Theek hai, hum bas aate hain” “That’s fine, I’ll be there soon”
Their eyes met, unspoken messages passing between them, then Akash quietly left the room.
She waited until the door had closed behind him, then Khushi squealed loudly and threw herself at her sister, hugging her tightly until Payal laughingly protested.
“Jiji, tum kitni khush lagrahi ho, aur Jeejaji to bilkul tumhare deewane hain. Tum hamesha itni hi khush rehna, theek hai” she said, grabbing Payal’s hands and twirling her round and round.”Jiji, you look soooooooo happy, and Jeejaji is totally mad about you. You’ve got to promise to always be this happy, ok”
“Khushi, bas, Khushi bas bas bas” Payal laughingly tried to calm her over-excited sister.
“Bas Khushi bas. Dekho, meri madad kardo, nahin to main ye sab kaise pehnoongi. Aur Saasuma ka aadesh hai ke main ye sab pehnoon” “Enough Khushi. Look, you’ve got to help, otherwise I’ll never be able to get ready in time. And Saasuma has dictated that I have to wear all of this”
Khushi turned to look at the jewellery laid out. Her eyes widened as she took in the array of jewellery laid out on the bed.
“Jiji, yeh sab aap ko pehnna hain?””Jiji, she wants you to wear all of this?”
With a resigned smile, Payal replied “Haan Khushi, yeh sab pehnna hain. Saasuma ka hukum hai. Humne jab inn se poocha to inhone kaha pehnlena hi behtar hai. Do din baad se to hum yahan nahin honge, to Saasuma ki baat aaj maanlena hi behtar hai””Yes, Khushi, I have to wear all of this. It’s Saasuma’s order. I asked him as well, and he said I might as well let her have her way today. We’ll be off after a couple of days, so I might as well give in today”
Khushi tore her eyes away from the glittery display on the bed.
“Tum yahan nahin hogi, Jiiji; tum kahan jaa rahi ho?””What do you mean you won’t be here Jiji; where are you going?”
Payal blushed. ““Yeh humein apne saath Malaysia leke jaarahe hain. Inhein kaam ke liye wahan tour pe jaana hai, to Bhai ne kaha ke ye humein bhi ke jaayein.” “He’s taking me to Malaysia with him. He’s got to go there for work, so Bhai said that he should take me too”
“Par Jiji, tum kitne dinon ke liye jaarahi ho” “Par Jiji, how long are you going for?” Khushi asked, feeling slightly dismayed at the rapidity with which things were changing.
“Do maheene ka tour hai Khushi, inho ne kaha ke agar humara dil nahin laga to ye humein pehle bhejdenge, magar humein lagta hai ke jahan bhi yeh honge, hum wahan khushi khushi reh sakte hain” “He’s got to be out there for two months, Khushi, he’s said that if I don’t like it he’ll send me back early. But I think that I’ll be happy to be wherever he is”
“Do maheene? Tum do maheene tak bahar rahogi Jiji? Hum tumhare baghair kaise rahenge?” ” Two months? You’re going to be away for two months? How will I manage without you?”
“Khushi, humare baghair to ab rehne ki aadat to daalni hi padegi na, aur dekho; yahan to aana jaana to rahega tumhara. Di ne kaha hai ke unko tumhari itni aadat hogayi hai ke woh chahti hain ke tum roz unke paas aao, unke saath waqt guzaaro.””Khushi, you’ll have to get used to managing without me, and look, you’ll still be coming here. Di has said that she has become so used to having you around that she wants you to come and visit her every day, come and spend time with her”
“par Jiji, hum bina wajha thodi na aasakte hain; abhi tak to aap ki shaadi ki tayyariyon ki liye aarahe the, par ab to koi wajha nahin hogi””But jiji, I can’t just keep coming here without any reason; uptil now, I was coming to help with the preparations for your wedding, but there’s no reason anymore”
Payal turned to face Khushi, taking her hands in hers.
“Khushi, tumhein ek baat batani hai. Di ki tabiyat theek nahin hai. Bhai aur yeh Di ka itna khayal kyun rakhte hain, tumhe pata hai; issliye ki unki tabiyat kissi bhi waqt kharab hosakti hai. Pichle kuch maheenon se woh kuch zyaada beemaar rehrahi hain. Bhai ne innse kaha ke agar tum aati rahogi, to Di ke baare mein yeh donon bhai thoda kam pareshaan rehenge. Humari khaatir kardo Khushi, nahin to inhe apni Di ki bahut chinta rahegi””Khushi, I have to tell you something. Di isn’t well. He and Bhai take such care of her, you know that; they do that because her health is so fragile that she could deteriorate at any time. She’s been getting gradually worse over the last few months. Bhai said to him that if you keep coming, then they’ll both be a little less worried about Di. Please Khushi, please keep coming for my sake, otherwise he’ll be so worried about Di”
Khushi listened to what her sister was saying with ear, but her mind was going over and over the fact that he has asked that she keep coming to the mansion. He was making sure that he had an excuse to be near her, to see her and talk to her every day. He was as keen to be near her as she was to be near him, even though the chances were they would end up fighting over everything and nothing.
“Jiji, agar tum kehti ho, to hum zaroor aayenge. Par tumhare baghair humein yahan aate hue bahut ajeeb lagega.””Jiji, if thats what you want, then of course I’ll come. But it’ll seem really strange to come here without you”
“Do maheene ki to baat hai Khushi, aur phir hum yaheen honge. Kya pata, tab tak koi ladka tumhare pyaar mein paagal hoke tumhein hum se door lejaaye.””It’s only two months Khushi, and then I’ll be back. Who knows, maybe by then some handsome man will fall madly in love with you and sweep you off your feet”
“Jiji, tum hamesha humein chedti ho, magar dekho; zyaada pareshaan kiya to hum Jijaji ko humare bachpan ke sab raaz batadenge. Samajhlo, aur hum se daro Jiji!””Jiji, you always tease me, but look, if you tease me too much then I’ll tell jijaji all about how naughty you were when you were little. Remember that, you should be scared of me!”
Payal laughingly raised her hand to Khushi’s cheek, but Khushi ducked away then said “Jiji ab dekho, Mamiji hum donon se bahut ghussa hongi agar humne aur der ki. Chalo, jaldi jaldi ye sab pehenlo, neeche sab intezaar karrahe honge” “Jiji, look, Mamiji will be so cross with both of us if we’re even more late. Let’s go, let’s get all of this on you as quickly as we can, everyone must be waiting for us downstairs”
As she helped her sister don all the finery which Mamiji had deemed appropriate for her bahu, her thoughts wandered to the man who’s bangles she wore. That part of her which dreamed of the day when he would claim her the way Akash had claimed Payal kept rearing its head, trying to make her believe in the impossible, but the sensible part of her knew that it would never happen. She was his, but he would never claim her; he was hers, but he would never admit it. He would never marry her, she knew that; sooner or later, her parents would find someone suitable for her to marry and she would have no reason to say no.
She was his, for now; it was only her fantasy that she would always be his. When the time came, she would do her duty and lock his memories away in the darkest recesses of her heart; she would do her best to be a good wife to whoever her parents chose for her. But till then, she would wear his brand proudly, create a store of memories to last her a lifetime, and rejoice in the fact that, even for a short time, she was his.