I CANNOT FIX ON THE EXACT HOUR or the spot or the look or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago.* But it was sometime during that wet December of twenty-eleven when I realized that I had fallen irrevocably in love with Khushi Kumari Gupta. Her spirit, her integrity, her resilience—her refusal to be anything other than who she was—had became a standard of Heroineship for me.
And at the risk of having my fidelity questioned, I confess, Sisters, that I stopped watching Khushi months before she left the stage. For me, her story was complete once she rescued her kidnapped husband, who by then had finally—finally!—realized that she was entirely innocent and that he was entirely in love.
That was enough for me.
The richest stories are those which leave me just short of satiation; stories which leave room for my own imagination to expand. I left our Beloved Heroine before the curtain call, confident that whatever challenge she would encounter thereafter would be resolved, by her own power and united with the force of Arnav Singh Raizada’s love.
You may imagine how grieved I was to discover that within days of Arnav’s rescue, he and Khushi parted.
A full year would pass before they would see each other again.
This is that story…
THERE IS IN EVERY DISPOSITION a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome.* In Arnav Singh Raizada’s case, this defect was pride. Granted, it was a pride which commanded respect; even those disgusted by his hauteur could not sneer with outright derision, for what the CEO of ASR Group had accomplished in his young life was unprecedented.
But they knew not how his pride had impoverished him.
Pride had long kept Arnav from realizing that he loved a firecracker who went by the name of Khushi Kumari Gupta. And when finally he did realize it, fate dealt him the bitterest blow. What happened next you need no reminding of. You recall all too well the manner in which he forced our Heroine to marry him and how he made her suffer—
Arnav suffered too, Sisters—do not doubt it! And his trials never came to an end. Once Shyam’s duplicity was exposed and conditions for happiness were favourable, Khushi made a devastating announcement.
She wanted their marriage annulled.
Her reasoning was just: Whatever her feelings were, she could not reconcile herself to the fact that Arnav had coerced her into an unwanted marriage. Yes, Shyam had been at the heart of that deception, but Arnav had been her judge and jury. She could not build a promising future upon such a repugnant beginning. She believed that the best thing for her was to return to who she was before Shyam entered her life.
Oh, Sisters!—what can I say? You know the strength of Khushi’s affections. You know with what a conflicted heart she must have come to this decision.
But here comes the greater part of this surprise: Arnav supported her decision.
Wait!—not her decision, but her right to decide. Yes, it broke him completely, but when the Raizadas and Guptas accosted Khushi to change her mind, he made them stop. Even when Anjali—still reeling from her own loss—begged Khushi, with clasped hands, not to leave the family at such a challenging time, Arnav prevented her influence.
He saw that Khushi, cognizant of Anjali’s fragile state, was in danger of wavering, and he immediately stepped between his wife and his sister. “No, Di,” he said, “For too long has Khushi sublimated herself for family. Both her own and ours. If she feels she must leave, none of us will attempt to weaken her resolve with our selfish demands.”
You can imagine how hearing such words from such a man may itself have weakened Khushi’s resolve. But she thanked him silently, with eyes bright with tears.
Arnav could not speak either. He could only feel most acutely what he was losing. Moreover, he was ashamed at how his abominable pride had kept him from seeing what had stood before him for months. A woman of uncommon strength and principles. Too late, but he saw now what a woman such as Khushi, with high notions of honour and integrity—yes! religion too!—could bring to a man’s life. It was remarkable for Arnav to recognize all these things, but he did, even though he could not express it.
He led Anjali away, drawing strength by making a resolution in that instant that while he had life in his veins, Khushi would never suffer again.
BUT TO ARNAV’S SUFFERING even a full year had brought no abatement. Indeed, he did nothing to lessen his pain, for he felt he deserved it. He fanned the flames of suffering. With emotional self-flagellation. And a punishing work ethic.
How doubly sad then that as this fiscal year was closing and the newspapers were awash in ink regarding ASR Group’s year of unprecendented growth, its CEO looked upon it as an annus horribilis; the worst year of his life.
And it was evident in his appearance.
He had lost weight. He kept a beard, partly from neglect, but mainly to conceal the sharp angles of his face. And his hair, before always short, now nearly touched his shoulders.
But the real loss was that gleam in his eyes; that sensual-something which had always held Khushi spellbound. Now there was only a dark sea of nothingness. And equally dark shadows beneath his eyes. No wonder! For the man hardly slept. He would pass out for four or five hours each night from sheer bodily exhaustion—often on the same pale green recliner where he spent his evenings working.
Arnav was at that recliner now, with the laptop open before him. A light tap on the open bedroom door brought his eyes up.
It was his cousin, Akaash.
Arnav’s countenance registered surprise. Akaash and Payal, along with their infant son, had gone to Lucknow to visit the Guptas.
“Am I disturbing you, Bhai?” Akaash asked, poised at the dehleez.
Arnav waved him in, leaving the recliner to stand.
They greeted each other with that half-pat-half-embrace that stands for affection between men.
“Back so soon?” Arnav queried. “Have Khushi and Payal remained behind? Er, Khush and Payal.”
It was not the first time Arnav had referred to his nephew by the feminine variant of his name. Nor would it be the last. Yes, it had been a startling decision to christen the newest addition to the family with a name which could only exacerbate Arnav’s loss each time he heard it. But Nani had chosen the name with deliberate intention, and as we all know, Nani’s will was never refuted.
Of course, in the moment of Nani announcing the name, all eyes in the room had slid to Arnav to measure his reaction. They didn’t know what to expect of this changed Chotte. Previously, he might have lashed out in protest. Or wordlessly left the room. But the changes in Arnav this past year went beyond his appearance. He had deepened. Grown more circumspect. More placid. They watched him gently press his mouth to that tiny curled fist. He said: Welcome to the Empire, Khush. Our future is in your hands now.
“Yes,” Akaash was explaining, “Khush and Payal will remain in Lucknow for a few more days. The family insisted.”
Arnav asked, “How is everything there?”
I think we know Akaash’s empathic nature well enough to know that he could see Arnav’s real question was ‘How is Khushi?’—but Akaash couldn’t speak of Khushi yet. He needed to build up to it.
“Super,” he replied. “Bawji’s speech and mobility are fully restored. But, of course, you know that from the therapist’s reports. And the new halwai is working out well. Although Bawji still insists on going into the shop each day to sit behind the counter to lend his experience. Payal says it all seems exactly as before—as though they had never left Lucknow.”
Arnav gave a nod and waited in hopeful silence.
But Akaash continued with more inconsequential details: “Amma and Buaji couldn’t stop thanking me for the improvements to the haveli. They especially love the garden. They spend more hours there than indoors. The landscapers have executed your design beautifully. Honestly, Bhai, I’ve been forced to wear borrowed feathers all week. The family believe I’m responsible for arranging everything. The private therapy for Bawji. The re-purchase of the shop. Hiring the halwai to run it. Sending the workmen for the renovations. Theek hai, I understand why it must be so, but I felt quite awkward accepting gratitude for your gifts—”
“—not gifts, Akaash,” Arnav interrupted. “Reparations.”
He didn’t enlarge, but Akaash understood him. Arnav believed that his one act at the Lucknow fashion-show, detaining Khushi against her will, had unleashed events which forever changed life for the Gupta family. Khushi had expressed a wish to restore her life to what it was before Shyam had entered it, and Arnav felt it incumbent upon himself to restore her life to what it was before he entered it. As best as he could.
“Khushi knows you are their true benefactor,” Akaash said. “I see it in her eyes.”
The mention of Khushi’s eyes made Arnav’s own eyes darken with emotion. “How is she?” he asked, his voice not fully under his command.
It was now time.
“It is highly probable that she will soon marry,” Akaash said.
HOW COULD AKAASH BE SO CASUAL—nay, so callous!—with his words? I expected more compassion from him, Sisters. If he had to make such an announcement then surely he could have chosen better language.
Of course, his words knifed into Arnav’s chest, leaving him almost too breathless to speak. What’s more—soon after Akaash delivered that sentence, he turned away from Arnav to face the pool.
“How do you know this?” Arnav managed to say.
“She expressed her wishes to Payal and myself.” Then adding insult to injury, he added, “we were hardly surprised. Why it has taken this long is more surprising. She is beautiful. Charming. Vivacious. So full of—”
“—I don’t require you to remind me of her attributes, Akaash,” Arnav interrupted.
Akaash seemed to ignore the interruption, continuing, “As she said to us, she needed to allow enough time to pass. A gap to close the door on the past. And begin fresh. She seeks a new beginning.”
Arnav was aware that he was not breathing. “Does she speak in generalities?—Or is there someone in particular?”
“There is someone,” Akaash replied.
This definitive statement seemed to animate Arnav into movement. These past few minutes, he had been frozen in one spot, but now he began to pace the floor, from recliner to bed. And back again. He asked, “How long has she known him? Is it someone from their neighbourhood? Have her parents looked into the matter properly?” He came to a stop in front of Akaash and grasping his shoulders, he said, his voice insistent, “listen, you need to look into it thoroughly, Akaash. Find out if this—this—this person is legitimate. What is his history? What is his education? His family? His character? His means? Can he support Khushi in the manner she deserves?—”
Akaash tried to interrupt Arnav as this stream of commands and questions fell on his ears, “Bhai—bhai—BHAI!!!”
Akaash removed Arnav’s hands from his shoulders and said, “I know the man she hopes to marry. His history is slightly dubious, but he’s not altogether bad.” Arnav frowned at this unpromising report. Akaash continued, “And we’re all confident that she’ll smooth out his rough edges.”
“That’s hardly satisfactory!” Arnav protested.
“No! We’re talking about Khushi’s entire future here. How can you be so fucking reckless—?”
Akaash was not at all offended. He gave a careless shrug and said, “I don’t think she can be stopped. She’s told us that she intends to marry him. It seems she loves him. She never stopped.”
As Akaash spoke those words, he slid open the door which led to the pool area, and stepped out. He walked away without looking back.
And there in the twilight stood the former Mrs Raizada.