Joined: 25 October 2011
A/n: I know. I'm despicably late...I'm so sorry :( I've been incredibly busy, and it's been nearly a month since I actually wrote- well anything. So I'm a bit apprehensive about how this chapter turned out, esp since it was written in snippets over a period of four days in between assignments and what not :s
So...warnings for this chapter. Firstly, it is looong. My reasons being that, after watching my favourite show and characters being butchered, I couldn't help trying to give them substance so that their actions are at least justified and don't seem random here. Another is that I guess I owed it to you for being AWOL...and lastly, well I just had to accommodate the Arhi scene in the second half. Yes, that was a teaser :P
Anyway, sorry in advance if your think this is crap...and on with the story
Chapter Forty Four
Say it, Khushi. Come on...say it. You have to. It's the least you can do...
Khushi tried her best to weather out the gale that tossed about her composure relentlessly, fighting the urge to give away her nerves by succumbing to a bout of restless fidgeting. If anything, were it not for the seatbelt strap pinning her in her place in the car, she would probably have been shifting restively, unable to curb the nervous energy that had been bubbling through her from the moment her husband had carefully secured her to her seat minutes ago.
At the mere thought of him, she peeked askance at the subject of her inner turmoil, pupils darting nervously between the lean, tapered olive fingers that had refused to let go of her tinier, slender ones even as he drove on, every fibre of her attuned to his presence, every particle singing with the euphoria of his warmth, dancing with delight because of the invisible yet indestructible bond that tied them together...
Love. He loved her. She loved him. She was his, and he was hers, bound together for eternity...
Love. Her dhak dhak pounded louder, a full-blown orchestra lending enthusiastic music to the odd juxtaposition of contentment and rapture, of quiet delight and boisterous glee, of unmitigated love and the desperation to reciprocate it, settling about her like the simmering of feeble sunlight glistening through the misty breath of a winter morning...she was torn under the tussling of these contradicting, confusing, befuddling emotions, unsure whether to ride upon their rhapsodic waves or to seek quieter, calmer ground, to try and regain her bearings, a clearer frame of mind where each train of thought knew where it was going and what it was going to do...
Had it been this difficult for him? Had he found himself struggling to remain afloat in this whirlpool of sensation, of outright pandemonium, trying to vocalise one of the million precious sentiments his heart urged his mind to accept? Had confessing to her that he loved her caused him as much vexation as this?
Film reels of vivid, stark images of every single time he had admitted to it, admitted to her mattering, admitted to loving her, needing her, wanting her, replayed slowly and meticulously across the screen of her mind, committed so thoroughly to memory she could remember precisely every twinkle in his eye, every twitch of his lips, every gentle caress, every nuance of his tone...
And it wasn't just words. The tiny little star-lights hanging above their bed, his mother's kangans, her mother-in-law's wisdom-filled words whispering across aged paper, his leaving his Di in her charge, his shielding her from the rain, his comforting embraces when the ground beneath her shifted, and now...wide wondering eyes dropped for the millionth time to the tiny little band of gleaming white gold around her finger, and once again she could almost feel a trail of rejuvenating warmth shoot straight from where the metal band enclosed her finger, its touch so familiar it may have been there all her life, all the way to her heart and then crisscrossing through every nook, every cranny, every little corner of her being...
Everything he did, everything he said, shouted out that one undeniable, irrefutable, indisputable fact.
That he loved her.
Khushi's fingers curled a little more tightly, albeit hesitantly, about his, as though afraid he might vanish, afraid he might let go. Nervous-eager eyes fluttered towards him, hungry to catch a glimpse of that lean face, the aquiline nose, the penetrating eyes, the quirked eyebrows, the stubbled cheeks and those lips...lips which had left their burning imprint upon hers...
Her breath hitched immediately and eyes shut tight, as that particular image and all the burning, intoxicating sensations that had come along with it burst into life in the theatre of her mind, staging an encore with an extravagant flourish and deafening fanfare. Her skin tingled where he had held her, her lips tingled where they had danced with his, and she fought the mad temptation to flick her tongue out and sample the residue of his smoky-sweet, addictive taste that lingered about her mouth.
He had made her feel so alive. So special. So unique. As though she was the only one that mattered, the only one that existed in the world with him. Khushi had never seen herself as anything apart from an ordinary, middle-class girl with humble roots and a few girlhood fantasies for company. And yet...and yet...
And yet, Arnavji- her Arnavji- made her feel like a queen, a princess...did things for her that no ordinary person would do for anyone else, going so far as the impossible, reaching back into the past, plucking out that one traumatising event that had spread, like a contagion, its reach into every alley of her life until every dark corner was a nightmare and every fork of the road a new tragedy...and turning it irreversibly into the most momentous, most beautiful moment of her life, inoculating it from its grim overtones...
The night she had met him.
And that night...when we first met...I ripped that dori on your dress...the dori made of pearls...I ripped apart everything that was you, then and ever since...I fouled up your purity, your innocence, your perfection, because of my own inability to believe that something so pure, so innocent, so perfect...could actually exist...And maybe I'm asking for too much...I know I'm asking for too much...but this pearl ring...is perhaps a weak, insufficient attempt...to tie back together everything I'd torn apart before. To finally bring an end to the unhappy phase of our story...and start anew, from the beginning...
He had no idea. He had no idea how much that meant to her. How much each of his little gestures meant to her. How much the ring and what it signified meant to her. How much the fact that he wanted to fulfil her buried and almost forgotten wishes of the perfect engagement, the perfect wedding, meant to her. How much the fact that he had gone out of his way to have a ring made for her...a ring that retold their tale, that immortalised their love...
She loved him so much she did not know what to do about it.
She loved him so much, she could feel herself physically ache. It took her breath away. Perhaps it was because she had only just discovered, or rather, accepted that fact this morning, but it did not fail to take her breath away.
And while it made her feel as though she was soaring up to the acme of life, the pinnacle of the universe in an entirely new brand of ecstatic high...the insecurity that was part of the set did not fail to torment her. Fear, sharp, cold, numbing, like a shaft of ice itself, rent into her throbbing flesh repeatedly. Fear of the unwelcome but incorrigible thought that refused to budge from her mind, fear that she could never in all her life be able to give anything in return for the million impossible things he had done for her, without her ever asking, whether it was by rewriting her dour past into a fairy tale, or opening up the night sky in their room to battle her fear of the dark and comfort her with the presence of her parents. It was a devouring, ravenously consuming fear that ate her from within, dread that she was undeserving of all the unconditional love and care and adoration he showered upon her without asking of anything in return...
How could she explain? How could she make him see? He made it seem so simple...so easy...could she make up for her own inadequacy, knowing she had nothing to give back for every single time he had brought her dormant heartbeat to life and filled it with the joy of living, with just three words?
Say it, Khushi. Just take a deep breath and say it...
Oh, what she would do to be in the kitchen back home, in front a big steaming pot of bubbling, splattering oil, mechanically manufacturing jalebis to smooth out her frazzled nerves and try to sort out the bedlam in her head...
I love you so much Arnavji...I wish I could explain...I wish it was enough...
She desperately needed the comfort of the kitchen and a batch of sugary melting jalebis at the earliest. Before this mental conflict drove her insane.
Observing Anjali as he silently leant back into the leathery suppleness of his wheelchair, Shashi Gupta was struck by how uncannily reminiscent it was to the momentous day his younger daughter had appeared on his doorstep.
He could never in any number of years erase that picture, so potent he could still recall quite clearly the lightning jolt of poignancy and empathic anguish that had shot through him and rattled him to the core, feeling his heart splinter like a delicate case of glass at the lost look on the little eight year old clasping onto her Maasi's hand with both her own. Even now, a small lump clogged at the base of his throat at the memory- it had made countless nocturnal visits to him in his dreams, tormenting him when he was helpless in the clutches of sleep at night, and by the trappings of his own body by day, hindered by paralysis, thwarted in his determination to save his daughter by him...
Shyam Manohar Jha.
A hot fist of anger immediately clenched within him, so violent it drained his still recuperating body of strength. Bitterness flooded his mouth as he attempted to smooth out his grimace, while the same black rage that had infested his mind, the only part of him that could vouch to be truly alive, truly active, while his soul had been caged within the prison of his body, blossomed insidiously once again. Even now, his heart contracted painfully, squeezed by the surge of fiery protectiveness that had clattered about within him, unable to vent itself despite his repeated pleas and clamours to his limbs to move, his mouth to speak for the sake of his daughter's happiness- the horror, the fury, the dread, the sick, nauseating fear of what that soiled little snake might do to his innocent, trusting, guileless little girl...
And now, watching Anjali Jha, the woman with whom he had spied out that traitorous villain, the woman whose forehead he had seen Shyam adorn, and in the process besmirch, defile, with sindoor, he could not but help let his mind steer itself back to the eight-year old Khushi who had been brought home by his weeping wife, the only survivor from a terrible accident that had robbed an innocent, unwary child of her parents and endowed her with a lifetime of sorrow that would fade but never die.
So it was no surprise that Shashi immediately recognised the tell-tale signs that whispered of how distraught Anjali really was, no matter how light her laughter sounded, no matter how wide her smile, no matter how she participated whole heartedly in the womanly chatter initiated by his wife and sister. He had seen it all before. On Khushi. He was only too familiar with the bewilderment that was set deep into her eyes, the pasty hue that had crept up into her otherwise mocha-toned skin, the absence of the lively gleam that been alight and present in her eyes only the last time he had seen her, that day when she had come to the hospital to visit the gynaecologist, and had spent the better part of the day in his wardroom, chattering away happily...
Something had happened between then and now, something monumental, something that had shaken this girl up from within. Even her body language, the vague uncoordinated gestures of her arms as she spoke, the way she gingerly perched at the edge of her chair rather than sinking comfortably into it as she had done when at the hospital, the way she chose to remain silent more often than he knew her to be, spoke volumes about the mental exertions of whatever emotional upheaval was troubling her. All he knew was that it had to be something that had caused her shock, severe shock, something that had shaken her up badly, something that bordered on foreshadowing grief and loss and despair...
Those were the same symptoms that had glared back at him from the uncharacteristically quiet, uncharacteristically timid little girl he had lifted up into his arms and promptly marched off with to his sweet shop nearly ten years ago, propping her up onto the counter, showing her the biggest saucepan he could find and asking her whether she liked jalebis...
'I honestly can't eat anymore, Buaji...' Anjali protested meekly, raising both hands, palms forward, in an attempt to ward off his sister's attempt to refill the already weighed down plate on her lap, 'Honestly, I'm really full!'
Shashi, having been reticent for a while now, gently interceded, 'Jiji, don't force her...after all, she should eat what she wants, especially now, what with the pregnancy...'
His affable sister clapped a hand to her forehead and loudly exclaimed at her own lack of consideration, before apologising profusely to Anjali and patting her affectionately on the shoulder, sweeping an arm over the low table in front of them, laden with an assortment of snacks, savoury and sweet, that his daughters had dished out in celebration of finally having their father home again, with an invitation to go for whatever she wanted.
Shashi was only half aware of what his Jiji was saying now.
And that was because, at that precise moment, Anjali had looked at him in another startlingly familiar way.
A look of silent but genuine gratitude, complimented with a small hitching of the corners of her lips, flashed in his direction, transporting him back to that evening in his sweet shop in Lucknow, all those years ago...when he had held out a pouch bulging with batter and offered to teach the fidgety child sitting awkwardly on the counter how to make jalebis.
He still remembered that choking, heartbreaking gratefulness that had glowed iridescently in the small child's eyes as she had hopped off the counter, thankful for the distraction, thankful for the concern, for the attention...she herself had been far too young to understand the magnitude, the depth, the meaning of her own overpowering feelings...the small flicker of relief of knowing that even though life had dealt her a horrible, merciless blow, that would take a lot of time to heal, all was not yet lost...
An almost desperate need to believe that there was still hope...
Almost a decade later, Shashi Gupta found himself unmindful of the strain to his enervated physique and the faint dull pangs of pain in his head as he allowed himself to be swamped by the same rush of compassion, the same empathy, the same consideration that had spelled his resolve into stone the day he had made Khushi a part of their family.
Anjali was no different from Khushi, whom he had loved and cherished as much as his own daughter. She had also found herself orphaned and alone, at a critical juncture in her life. She had also been wounded in the worst possible way a human being could be- stabbed in the heart by loss of people whom she had relied on to be there, to lean on, support and sustain her, leaving her abruptly, without warning, alone and unprepared to fend for herself.
And just like Khushi, fate had dealt her yet another cruel hand, and let her be lured into that rancid spider's web- Anjali was just as much a victim of the manipulative ploys of Shyam Manohar Jha as his daughter had been, deceived, tricked, wronged, her worth belittled...his gut clenched spasmodically, both from the nausea that made bile creep up his throat, and the rage, the hatred he felt towards that sorry excuse of a man who had played with the lives of two pure, guiltless souls, wagering their fortunes and lives in the bargain.
Shashi's scrutiny sharpened discernibly. He sat up straighter in his seat, brow furrowed from the effort of concentrating on the young woman smiling demurely, inspecting her features for some sort of giveaway, any evidence that would hint to the origin of her distress...that helpless, lost look, that crippling disappointment that had made itself manifest in her eyes briefly when she had been told that Khushi was not at home, had not been forgotten...
Could she have found out? Could she have discovered something that threw light on the real nature of a husband she adored? Or had she stumbled across some other troubling fact- something to do with Khushi, or Damaadji, something relating to the grim circumstances under which they had been married? That would explain why she had come running to meet Khushi after bidding her goodbye only that morning. Even that fact, and all the secrecy that had been maintained since, could somehow be blamed on Shyam. One of the prime reasons Shyam was not being hunted down at this very moment, despite almost killing him in cold-blood, and then toying with his health for his ends, was Anjali. Damaadji was frightened to his wits' end at the simple thought of what Anjali might go through if she realised that the man who professed to love her was a man who could sink as low as murder.
It could not just be the pregnancy taking a toll on her, even though Jiji and Garima would ascribe that as the reason behind any oddities in her behaviour...they didn't know, after all...
He watched Anjali's eyes stray almost longingly towards the door, watched her shoulders hunch, her stance making it seem as though she were trying to make herself physically smaller, trying to disappear. It was there for only a second, but he saw it- that hunted look, that look of utter desperation, the glimpse of someone trapped.
And it took just another second for him to make up his mind and steel his resolve.
Shashi Gupta had abhorred himself, loathed himself, punished himself no end for being at his weakest, for being thoroughly helpless, while his daughter's life had been dismantled before his eyes.
He had been helpless when that snake had been engaged to his daughter.
Helpless when he had threatened to jeopardise Payal's marriage before it had even happened.
Helpless when he had been nothing but a lifeless puppet to dance at Shyam's tunes.
Helpless when Khushi had been dragged into a marriage built on the foundation of lies and misunderstanding.
He had been able to do nothing then. He had not been able to spare Khushi the nightmarish turmoil she had been forced through, turmoil he could only imagine.
He would not allow that to happen again.
Despite his outward demeanour of calm, there was a veritable typhoon whirling within him, reducing such things as composure to pitiful tatters. Arnav drew quick, shallow breaths, lungs working furiously to replenish his overworked cells with oxygen, while his heart was abuzz with a great many emotions he would not be able to categorise for the life of him, inflating recklessly until he doubted whether the deceptively composed shell of his body could contain it. The hectic notes the drum beats of his heart thundered comprised of giddy disbelief, breathless relief, boundless, intoxicating, rapturous, earth-shaking, ground-breaking happiness-
He almost did not dare to believe it.
It was almost too good to be true.
Even now, with every particle of his body fully aware of the warm, silk-soft little hand he gripped tenaciously with one hand, he found himself wrestling with the desire to glance at her every so often, just to convince himself that she was actually there, beside him, her fingers lacing into his of their own volition. To prove to himself that this wasn't an illusion, a mirage concocted by a sleepless brain.
Because the fact was, nothing that had happened since last night, when Khushi had allowed him to listen to her heart beat, to listen to the music it made in tandem with his, for his, still seemed far too wondrous to be real. Waking up with her in his arms, watching her descend like a divine creature from the heavens above, clad in red so delectable it set his blood burning with longing, wearing the bangles he had given her so many nights ago, the first present from him to her that had more symbolic than material value...
And now, here she was beside him, with his ring around her finger, bound to him in no uncertain terms, the token of his love linked straight to her heart...and this time, because she had wanted it, because she had asked for it, not because he, blinded by the fear that the one person for whom he had been willing to retrieve his dilapidated heart for was the one who would squeeze out its last breath, had dragged her into it.
She had wanted this. She had wanted this as much as he had.
If all the riches of the world were proffered to him right now, it could not account for even a fraction of the joy that flooded in without hesitation to take the place of the guilt that had thrashed tirelessly within him, flaying his already battered self repeatedly for dragging Khushi into a fake, sacrilegious relationship against her will.
Because this time, she had willingly given herself to him.
Awed at the thought, awed by its sheer implausibility, awed by the fact that Khushi had unknowingly handed over to him more than he could ever ask for, claim, deserve...it was a humbling thought, knowing that he could hardly have done enough to warrant having all this, that it was likely he would never be able to do enough to redeem himself in his own eyes, and the humility of that fact robbed him of the faculty of speech.
But the silence did not bother him. Neither he nor his wife had spoken a word since they had departed from that empty disused street, a street that had now become one of the most important landmarks of his life. Words somehow would seem to belittle the worth of the phenomenon that had occurred there, somehow cheapen it, not do it enough justice. And that moment in itself, and all the feelings that had evolved from it, had been enough, had not needed any words to supplement it.
And a part of him was glad that Khushi was taking it all in her stride, not attempting to dissect what had happened, not trying to analyse it, not trying to fill the peace of companionable solitude between them with awkward phrases that would mar the wholesomeness of what they had shared. And besides, it was not as though they were quiet because they didn't want to speak to each other, or had nothing to say. No, Arnav thought, a sudden smile sneaking across his features at the thought, it was not that at all.
It was more the fact that now, they had the rest of their lives together to say whatever they wanted to each other, and they were both comfortable with that knowledge.
He could almost see the haze of his intermingling thoughts part, revealing the straight, unswerving sunlit road, devoid of bumps or deceptive corners, which guided him to his future with his Khushi.
And the magnitude of it once again left him stunned and speechless.
So entangled was he in the undulating motions of his thoughts, trying to keep his mind grounded to the task of manoeuvring his massive four-wheeler in the right direction while at the same time allowing himself to float on the blissful sensations that the woman beside him had given him the right to feel, that it was a while before Arnav noticed the fluctuation in the aura emanating from his wife.
Anjali felt almost feverish. She could feel convulsive spasms running up and down her body, and it took every bit of her self control to suppress the shivers that threatened to overtake her. Heat, uncomfortable, balmy heat, clung to her like a stifling cloak, and she could feel beads of cold perspiration trail a path down the back of her neck. A faint ache had grown in the back of her skull; the pounding at her temple was becoming rather painful.
She could not take it anymore. It had been a mistake, a foolish temperamental mistake, to come marching in here to meet Khushi on a whim, after having ample opportunity of speaking to her that morning itself. The disappointment had been gut-wrenching, almost like mustering the courage to venture into a dark room only to find it empty of what she sought. It had taken an enormous amount of blind thoughtless gall, something she did not possess in abundance to begin with, to take the plunge in the first place, to decide that she wished to share her dark secret, to seek help or at the very least someone to offer a shoulder to cry on.
But Khushi wasn't here, and Anjali had leapt for nothing. And as if this sensation of dangling in midair, fighting to find a footing was not enough, the edginess that had been eating away at her from the moment she had let the reality of her situation catch up with her and crumble the walls of her intentionally-fostered ignorance now rolled and heaved inside her stomach, making her almost sick.
She smiled absently at Garimaji, the effort causing the throbbing in her head to intensify, without a clue as to what she was saying. She was not sure how much longer she could keep this up.
She had been flooded with a gratitude that made her heart twinge powerfully when the two elderly women had ushered her into their home, bestowing her with genuine love and affectionate attention, even though she was not even directly related to them, even though, once upon a time, she had marched in here and, bluntly put, threatened them financially in a lowly act to get Khushi to accept a job teaching someone she hoped would eventually be her Chote's wife.
And how glad she was that her scheme of things had not worked out in the end after all.
Anjali pulled herself out of the mire of self pity she had embedded herself into with difficulty, forcing her eyes to sweep over the small little sitting room- the run-of-the-mill, scanty, somewhat rickety furniture, the hand-stitched wall tapestries in bright colours, the miscellany of mismatched ornaments dotting the room. It lacked the dominant, overbearing personality of the vast, almost majestic living room back in Shantivan, the severe austerity of its perfection...but what it lacked it made up for in warmth, in laughter, in light, in comfort. Anjali's slightly fogged up vision focused in turn on the other three occupants of the room- Shashi Gupta with his twinkling, fatherly eyes, the sweetly-smiling, soft-spoken wife, the garrulous Buaji...and her fluttering, faltering heart seized up, and she fought to swallow.
The love in this room was overbearing, and the fact that she was the focus of it made her head spin. Anjali was not used to all this. After her parents' death, she had shielded herself the best she could from the outside world, hiding behind the shadow of her younger brother's obsessive protectiveness, mantling herself away in the midst of loved ones whose concern she could be sure of. Even with...with...for a minute vision escaped her as tears fought for leeway and Anjali blinked furiously to dispel them- even with her husband, Anjali had clung to him regardless of all the lapses in his behaviour, lapses which ought to have clued her in to the other side of his persona, needing the love he professed for sustenance, to reassure herself that she was not alone, not worthless, not uncared for.
And so, despite needing to get away, despite fighting a steadily losing battle to keep up her facade of normalcy, Anjali had found herself fascinated by the love that this family offered her without any preconditions or prejudice or selfish ends, just as their daughter did, and she greedily lapped it up, knowing that she needed this reassurance, now more than ever.
Buaji tried to press some more food on her, and Anjali was jolted out of her reverie in an instant, faintly insisting that she really could not have any more. And then, Khushi's Bauji had gently interposed, and reminded his sister softly about her pregnancy and that she should not be forced to eat something she did not want to...
Yes, if she had to thank Devi Maiyya for something, she would thank her for bringing Khushi into Chote's life...and this time not only for his sake, but for hers as well. Because now- a weak, watery smile, almost imperceptible, flickered on her face- now at least she could claim a relation to these big-hearted, selfless, loving people, and stake a claim on their attentions.
And just as suddenly as that tiny glimmer of hope had ignited in the heart of her ever-stretching darkness, it sputtered dangerously as though tackled by a sudden gust of wind.
This was pitiful. She was pitiful. Even now, when the dilemma, putting it mildly, directly and solely concerned her, she found herself wheeling about in bafflement, round and round, hoping to find someone else who would swoop to her rescue, someone else who would provide the solutions to her crises, someone else who would tackle her demons for her, while she hid herself away in some secure nook, away from the ugliness of her reality. Like every other time in her pathetic existence, Anjali was the needy one, the one needing assistance, needing assurance, needing to lean on someone else, never able to stand by herself, stand for herself...always needy, always a burden on loved ones...her hand strayed to her abdomen, her mind strayed to her little brother...
If I can't even rely on myself...how can anyone else rely on me?
It took superhuman effort to finally find her voice, and a few degrees more to smooth out its roughened edges.
'Garimaji, I should really get going now...' she floundered for an excuse as mild protests erupted, '...I- I wanted to go the temple before heading home, and it's getting late...'
'Bitiya, wait for a little while longer...Payal must be returning from the market soon, and Khushi bitiya will also be-'
'No, no, Buaji...perhaps...some other time...it really isn't urgent...'
'Anjali bitiya, you look so wane...perhaps you should go home and rest...it won't do to strain yourself in this condition...'
'I'm fine...really...I just...want to drop over to the temple for a few minutes...' I need the peace, the solace, the security...I need the courage to face my fears again, before I break down, I need to be able rely on myself and not lean on people I love...I need to be strong enough for my baby to lean on me...
'I would like to go to the mandir, too...'
Confused blinks, a renegade tear that is quickly wiped away.
'But Shashi Babua, you just got home today! The doctor said you are supposed to rest and not stress yourself out-'
'Haan, Jiji, but he also said I should get some fresh air and not restrict myself indoors...I am tired of being cooped in within four walls...'
'Haan, par- '
'Garima, don't worry...visiting Devi Maiyya will do me a lot of good spiritually...after all, I have to thank her personally for helping my recovery, which is nothing short of a miracle itself...'
'Toh we can all go together, once Khushi and Payal bitiya come back...and hold a pooja for your recovery...'
'We can do that, of course...but if Anjali bitiya does not mind...she could take me with her to the temple too...'
'Babua...she is expecting, she won't be able to manage-' Buaji and Garima exchanged uncomfortable, awkward looks which went unnoticed by Anjali.
She had her eyes fixed on something rather strange.
Shashiji was looking her straight in the eye. The lines of his face were a little jaded, a little weary, but the friendly twinkling eyes were fiercely alive, blazing with...determination? Confidence?
She expected to see sympathy, pity, any of the several emotions that, she thought bitterly, she had seen in people's eyes more times than she cared to count...
'She will manage, won't you, bitiya? I have full faith in you.'
And it was with a quick catch of breath, clearing of vision, and a healthy pound or two of her heart that she realised he meant it.
He expected it. Expected it from her...almost as a father expects from his child.
'Of course, Shashiji,' she whispered almost in a daze, 'I'd love to take you to the temple today.' The odd ringing in her head reminded her of the pealing of giant bells in Devi Maiyya's domain, and a queer peace beckoned her.
'What are you thinking about, Khushi?'
With an almost violent start, Khushi's teeth released the lower lip she was gnawing ferociously on, one hand nearly flying up to her chest to clasp over her heart. The intrusion of a voice not belonging to the persuasive and at times reprimanding personas in her mind had jolted her rather abruptly back into reality.
As wide, almost guilt-ridden eyes turned shyly to meet her husband's, Khushi felt a dark flush dust over her cheeks, an uneasy tossing intensifying its assault behind her navel as she rummaged frantically in her head for an excuse.
So muddled was she by this sudden resurfacing from the din kicked up by her conscience, it took Khushi a few seconds to realise that the car had come to a stop. Seizing at the chance of a diversion, she swung her head about to hide her face from his watchful stare, quipping a little breathlessly, 'Arnavji, why have we stopped? We are already late...we should be-'
'Khushi.' She felt her dhak dhak pick up its pace arbitrarily, the butterflies in her stomach looping feverishly within her, their fluttering wings only fuelling Khushi's jumpiness. She did not have to turn around to note the firmness underlying the downy caress of his murmur. A tremble shook her as she felt his finger unlock from hers only to reach over and cup the side of her face. And as always, her will melted under the gentle pressure of his touch, and, her mind a humming blank, let herself turn to look into his eyes once more.
'What is it, Khushi?' the concern in his voice was projected even more emphatically in his eyes as he frowned a little, peering at her. She almost squirmed under his intense stare, 'I can tell you are worried about something.'
Khushi felt the heat rise even more insistently up her face, knowing full well that her embarrassing blush would give her away even if she attempted to dissuade his argument. In her wrangled state of mind, she could not even phrase a proper plea of help to Devi Maiyya. How am I going to tell him??!
'N-nothing, Arnavji, it's nothing,' she stammered, a shaky laugh escaping her while she cringed inwardly at the sound and struggled not to slam her palm onto her forehead, 'I'm not worried...just- thinking about things, that's all.'
'Things? What things?' Arnavji probed, the furrows upon his brow deepening considerably as panic lashed out within Khushi. She could willingly throw herself out of the car and scarper at this moment, her attempts at discretion a hopeless failure, mortified by her woeful inability to compose herself. As her eyes flittered in every other direction apart from his face, knowing full well that her thinking capacity suffered lamentably whenever she did, she could not help the small breathless gasp when Arnavji's warm, calloused hands suddenly trapped her head, forcing her to look at him.
And what she saw there was blatant anxiety.
'Khushi, please tell me,' she blinked at the pleading in his voice that he was not even attempting to stem, the urgency disorienting her, 'please tell me if something is wrong. Are you unhappy? Are you upset? Have I- have I done something wrong? Please, I-'
Khushi, you are hopeless! Look at him! Look at how he's panicking again just because you can't get three small words out of your mouth! You can shoot your mouth off when you aren't supposed to, and now when you actually need to say something important-
And once again, in her hurry to reassure him, in her hurry to erase the panic that had intruded in the bliss that had been written in his face moments ago, Khushi blurted the first thing that came to her head.
'No, Arnavji, really, there is nothing wrong! I was just thinking about- jalebis!'
It took Arnav a moment and a half to fully convince himself that he had heard right.
Before him, Khushi coloured adorably at the scepticism in his tone. Watching the rouge that now painted her cute little nose red, Arnav felt a small hole punctured into the balloon of anxiety that had inflated within seconds inside him as he had caught the faraway, rather troubled expression morphing Khushi's expression from the coy bashfulness that had been there before. That gratuitous fear that never failed to bother him when he saw her in the least bit anxious had made a spectacular reappearance, transforming all his peace into crippling doubt that perhaps her acquiescence had not been as complete as he liked to believe.
But as she avoided his eyes, squirming a little in her seat and blushing bright red, her lower lip a little bruised from being troubled by her teeth, the worry dissipated.
He was overreacting. He was sure of it. If there had been any real cause of worry, he would have picked up on it, that he knew.
How he found it so easy to read Khushi, he did not pause to ponder.
In fact, at the moment he was too busy quirking his eyebrow at his visibly flustered wife, who was trying her utmost to avoid eye contact. A sideways smirk crossed his face, a warm bubble growing steadily in his stomach and extending its reach outwards.
'You were worried about jalebis?' he inquired, failing to keep the amusement out of his tone.
Khushi shot him a reproachful glare, and batted her eyelids as though trying to organise her thoughts, all the while pouting so pointedly Arnav felt his breath hitch and had to grip the steering wheel with both hands to keep from latching onto her lips in a repeat of the kiss they had shared earlier.
Then, with a deep intake of breath, her shoulders squaring as though she had made up her mind to go through with whatever it was that was plaguing her, she stared semi-resolutely at his jaw and said with more confidence, 'I wasn't worried...I was just thinking about jalebis...I was thinking...that you are like a jalebi.'
Arnav knew Khushi Kumari Gupta Singh Raizada was a highly unpredictable woman. He knew that one of the infinite reasons he loved her was because of her idiosyncrasies.
But that did not mean that she ever ceased to surprise him, and this time was no exception.
Khushi watched Arnavji blink twice in confusion before giving her a look laden with rather nonplussed scepticism.
She found the sudden urge to giggle rather uncomfortable. Her facial muscles battling to keep from giving away a smile, Khushi thought, a little vindictively, that it served him right. Here she was trying to work up the guts to tell him her innermost feelings, and the man had the gall to find it amusing. Well, if that was the case then...
'I am like a jalebi?' he questioned, making it sound almost rhetorical, the sheer sardonic incredulity in his voice making it extremely difficult for Khushi to keep from laughing. She could feel her cheekbones starting to hurt from the effort.
'Yes,' she nodded energetically, before turning to face the road again and continuing in a thoughtful voice, 'You're hard to understand, and sometimes it's so hard to figure out what you are thinking and why you do the things you do...all twisted and loopy like a jalebi-'
'And you are always as crisp as a jalebi too- always impeccable. Always dressed as though you are about to run to work at every minute of the day,' Khushi went on dreamily, ignoring him, enjoying herself so much ribbing him that the nerve-wracking anticipation that had nearly rendered her comatose was completely forgotten.
'I don't believe this,' her evidently irate husband huffed, but before he could get another word in, Khushi had continued, a grin pulling up the corners of her mouth, '-but you are also soft and mushy and warm on the inside, just like a jalebi...'
'Mushy?' he repeated loudly, exasperated and a little annoyed, as Khushi kept her eyes trained out of the windscreen, tears of hilarity springing to her eyes, holding her breath to rein in the bout of laughter that tossed about inside her, threatening to splinter her ribs. She could detect that slight note of irritable offence in his protest- the last thing one would openly accuse Arnav Singh Razizada of being would be soft or warm. And in this case, mushy.
But inwardly, beneath all the mischief and all the playfulness...Khushi knew in her heart of hearts that she was being dead serious. Arnav Singh Raizada was like a jalebi. Crisp and rough on the outside, and melting soft, delectably warm, on the inside. The comfort she drew from being in his presence, the warmth and succour and consolation that he always managed to give, the sweetness he had infused into her dreary grey life...no amount of jalebis in the world could rival that.
'Khushi...I know you like jalebis but your obsession with them is a bit disturbing. I mean, I can't understand how you can be so fond of something that is so- sticky! And so- so- sweet!'
Khushi turned frowning and mildly unhappy with him criticising her favourite dessert in time to catch the rather disgusted look on his face.
'You're only saying that because you don't like sweets!' she countered, a little affronted.
He shook his head, too involved in the argument to notice, just like her, that the mutual solitude the two of them had shared, and then the moment of discord where their feelings had momentary been out of synchrony, had disappeared without trace. Once more, they had slipped from tranquillity to bantering within seconds, not sparing the transition a second thought.
'No,' he disagreed with her, his jaw stern and the glint of his obduracy aglow in his eyes, 'It's not that I don't like sweets, I just don't eat that many because I'm diabetic. I like mildly sweet things, I mean, you make them for me with that artificial sweetener or whatever. But jalebis-' he made as if to repress a shudder, 'they're overly-sweet, dripping in sugar, messy, unhealthy, fattening- in fact, I think you need to cut down your jalebi consumption anyway...you must have made at least three batches in the last five days itself...'
'What?!' Khushi squeaked, indignant. A tiny little corner of her brain registered, with delirious happiness, that he had actually kept count of the number of times she had made jalebis over the past week, knowing that it was not all that long ago that he would not even spare her face a second glance. But that tiny corner's celebration was effectively drowned out by the incensed part of her brain that was ludicrously irritated at his chastisement. 'There is nothing wrong with jalebis! They are warm and comforting and a great way to work off stress...and they are the first sweet Bauji ever taught me to make! And besides, you should be pleased that I compared you to jalebis, it was a compliment! I love them the most out of all the sweets we ever made in our shop and here you are telling me that they are bad and I shouldn't eat them- I can't believe I actually fell in love with someone who doesn't like jalebis! And no wonder you don't, you're a karwa kadela after all, you wouldn't know how to appreciate something as succulent as-'
'Khushi...' the quiet, almost cautious tone brought her steadily pitch-climbing tirade to a stop, and with both hands still suspended in the air where they had been as she gesticulated, a fierce glint in her eyes and a retort ready at her lips, she pivoted to face her husband. 'What?'
He was looking back at her with a distinctly queer expression on his face.
He was almost ogling her. His eyes were wide with something akin to shock, his mouth slightly upon, the gleam in his eyes suggesting that he was suddenly having trouble believing she was there, right in front of him...
Alarm stole over Khushi's previous ire and she dropped both her hands immediately, leaning forward as she earnestly searched his face, 'Arnavji- are you ok? What happened?'
'Khushi-,' Arnavji wheezed, sucking in a shuddering breath, his unblinking eyes not moving from her, as though afraid she might disappear if he closed them, 'did you- did you just say you love me?'
Next update will for sure have Arhi romance, because well- I'm a hopeless romantic when it comes to these two. I hope this chapter didn't disappoint- I haven't read over this and if you have any concerns please let me know :)
And do leave your comments- they may give me an incentive to update faster ;)
I reserve all rights over this work of fiction and request that readers do not reproduce/copy/modify it elsewhere and/or claim credit. thanks :)
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