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Khushi sat in the confines of her small cottage and checked the goods purchased by her from the town for the upcoming Raizada's wedding. Her favourite Anjali Memsaab was getting married and she had also been given the task to look after the house arrangements for the entire month for the arriving guests.
"Titaliya, have you bought everything on the list Malkin had given to us?" she heard her Buaji's voice echo from the kitchen.
"Yes Buaji. Everything is there." She replied and her mind suddenly went to the earlier small meeting with Arnav on the roadside.
"I didn't know Arnav was already here." Khushi announced to Buaji, gaining her attention.
"Stupid Girl!" the old lady came running towards Khushi. "How many times do I have to tell you that he is 'Chotey Saab' and not Arnav? Have you forgotten your manners? We work for them and they are our employers. How can you call them by their names?"
"Sorry." Khushi replied biting her tongue. Old habits die hard and she had been so used to calling him Arnav that now, Chotey Saab sounded so strange to her.
"I heard that he arrived today morning." Buaji replied. "And you girl, stay away from him and don't cause him any trouble. He has come here only for a month and I don't want him to leave this place with bad memories."
"Okay Buaji." She replied and resumed her work, while the elder lady walked back into the kitchen.
It was true. He was no longer her 'Annyavv' as she would call him when she was a kid. He was her 'Chotey Saab' now. He had transformed completely.
He wasn't even a small boy with his checked shorts and white shirts. He had grown into a full fledged man and roamed around wearing expensive waistcoats and suits.
And he didn't even remember her anymore. Afterall, why would he remember a staff girl like her? Yes, they were her employers and she was nothing but a staff to him who they paid salary to every month. That was the only relationship left between them.
Her best friend had gone away that day, fifteen years ago and she had to accept that fact and move on in her life.
During these long fifteen years, she had imagined numerous times about finally meeting her best friend and talking to him about their childhood spent together and laughing about it. She had imagined sharing a cup of coffee with him just like they had promised each other in their childhood in that small Coffee shop on the Mall road. She had imagined going up the cable car with him on the Gun hill and screaming out loudly on top of their voices to the entire valley below them.
But all she had received was a 'Sorry, I don't remember you.' And those five words had shattered all her dreams in one stroke.
However, that was life. People just moved on and even she had to, some day.
But she was unsure whether she could ever move on in her life without her best friend.
"Orange, yellow, white and pink. I want all four colours of lilies. Two hundred of each colour for the reception and the nuptials at the church. I don't care whether you have to get it all the way from Dehradun, but I want fresh ones without any delay. I'm ready to pay double the price." Arnav screamed on top of his voice to the man on the other end of the phone.
Now he knew why his Dad had assigned such a simple task of the wedding to him. Now he had realised how hard it was to deal with people in India. It was nothing like London where all he had to do was order on the phone and it would arrive on the doorstep without any hassles.
But this was India and people had a hundred different reasons to mess up the things for him. At the end of the day, all that they wanted was extra money and right now, Arnav Singh Raizada was even ready to throw the money on their face to get his work done instead of arguing with them.
"Don't give me the bullshit about transport not being available. If there is no van to pick up the order, then arrange for it!" Arnav shouted once again. He could feel the blood boiling in his head and the beginning of migraine starting to attack him.
"You have exactly one month for the function and I want my work done at any cost. I wouldn't have even bothered you at all if you hadn't been the only florists in the entire town." He added in an absolutely frustrated voice and disconnected the call, throwing away the phone on the bed behind him.
He bent forward on the banister of the balcony and gazed down the valley beneath him. And his eyes suddenly found her, stopped midway on the narrow path trailing to her cottage amidst the woods and staring at him.
It looked like she had realised that she had finally caught his attention and thus, suddenly waved at him for just a second and began her ascend towards the Raizada Manor.
He felt a chill creep up his spine as he saw her outline disappearing amongst the trees.
The one face that he wanted to forget was haunting him.
He should have known that she would still be here in this place. How could he have expected her absence when this was the only home she had known?
Some foolish part of his brain had hoped that maybe she would have moved out of this town. But he was wrong. She was still here and probably waiting for him.
He had only wanted their memories to linger, not to have her around him and when fate was once again bringing them face to face, he really didn't know what to do of it.
"Chotey has lost so much weight nah!" Manorma Mami spoke as the entire Raizada clan and their associated members sat together to have their lunch.
"Yeah, we have to stuff him up before he returns back to London." Devyani Pandit, his Nani laughed at her daughter-in-law's comments.
"Well, he actually looks healthy now. I don't want him to develop a paunch like his father at such a young age." His Dadi immediately defended him, taking her grandson's side while earning a snort from Arnav's father.
"This is supposed to be Anjali's wedding preparations. Not mine. So why am I the topic of the lunch conversation?" Arnav asked, looking up at the entire family mollycoddling him.
"Chotey, you have not been in this house for the last fifteen years. So all that quota of love from us should be completed right?" Mami quickly replied, winking at him.
"Mami, give my share of love to Akash. He needs it more than me. Just look how thin my cousin has become, trailing after you to the beauty parlours." Arnav quickly replied and everyone burst out laughing at the table.
And then, he heard it.
A familiar laugh.
It was faint, but the familiarity of it made it hard for him to miss it out.
And he knew who it belonged to without even having to turn back.
There, on one corner of the room stood Khushi, silently listening to their conversations and her own face widening with smile listening to all of it.
She immediately noticed him looking at her and stopped smiling and instead, turned around to go back into the kitchen. What was she doing inside their house?
The rest of the lunch passed like a breeze and Arnav quietly left the table to return back to his room for a quick nap. But when he reached his room, he realised that he had left his mobile phone at the dining table.
Turning around, he went all the way back and that was when, he saw her once again. She was cleaning away all the used silverware and arranging the serviettes and the table cloth of the huge dining table, along with the help of the other servants of the house, instructing them in between.
Did that mean she worked for them?
Why was he so surprised? Afterall, her Buaji had worked for the Raizadas and Khushi would follow her footsteps, wouldn't she?
But it was strange to absorb the fact that one of the two best friends had ended up heading the Raizada distilleries in London while the other was resigned to the fate of the Raizada household. How strange life was!
He noticed that she had instantly realised his presence and was now looking at him. "Chotey Saab!" she exclaimed walking towards him.
It just felt improper for her to call him that. He wanted to hear his name from her lips, but yet fate had resigned him to only hear him being addressed like how the rest of the world knew him as.
"You left your mobile phone." She said, handing over the phone to him.
He grabbed the phone and quickly turned around to go back to his room without uttering a word.
No, he couldn't bear to see her face, to gaze into those warm hazel eyes, those innocent eyes which had once silently cried for help. He couldn't let her eyes meet the dark molten brown ones which had failed to protect his best friend.
He knew he was wrong then, he knew he was wrong now too.
Arnav closed his eyes in vain as he desperately tried to take a quick nap for the afternoon. But her face simply refused to vanish from his mind. Why did her face keep haunting him? Why couldn't he just forget her?
Now that he knew her status in this house, why couldn't he accept that she was just another servant staff of this manor? That she was nothing to him?
Why couldn't he stop the silent ache of guilt gnawing his heart for the last fifteen years?
He closed his eyes to go back to one memory exactly twenty years ago. It was still crystal clear in his head and he doubted he would ever forget it.
The first time he had ever seen her.
It had been just another random afternoon in the Raizada Manor. An eight year old boy and his six year old sister were sitting in the front porch and playing Ludo after returning from their school.
He had seen a fat middle aged lady in the front garden and Dadi and his mother had come out to meet her.
"Whatch are you lookin at?" Anjali had snapped her fingers in front of her brother's face to gain his attention. "It's your turn."
"Who's that fat lady?" Arnav had asked, pointing at the lady and giggled at her size.
"You know, Ma says it's not nice to make fun of a person for her appearance." Anjali had rebuked him. "But yes, she's fat." She had giggled a second later.
And then, they had seen their mother walk towards them, holding a small girl's hand in hers.
"From where did she appear?" Anjali had asked her brother in surprise.
"I guess she was hiding inside that fat woman's stomach." Arnav had laughed loudly, only to stop abruptly after coming to know that his mother had heard the last comment from him. He had received a threatening glare from her and he had shut his mouth quietly.
"Arnav, Anjali. Meet Khushi. She'll be staying with us. Say Hi to her." His mother had told them.
The little girl was wearing a pink cotton frock and had muddy brown shoes on her feet. Her elbows and arms were covered with numerous scratches which might have been from a recent accidental fall. Her hair was tied up in two pony tails that looked like two coconut trees on her head.
But she had the loveliest pair of hazel eyes and cute pink lips that made her look just like a doll.
Anjali had immediately liked the new girl since she was around the same age. "Hi Khushi." She had said, waving at her.
But instead, the little girl had hid behind the woman in fear and Naina Singh Raizada had laughed seeing the cute girl's reaction. "Khushi, don't be shy. Say hi to them."
And the five year old had slowly come forward and said the cutest and sweetest 'Hi' to both of them and his mother had picked her up in the arms and kissed her cheeks.
That was the first time Arnav Singh Raizada had felt the pangs of jealousy in his life, seeing his mother divert her love and attention to the little girl other than him and his sister and he had not been very happy with the presence of the little girl.
Now that he thought about it, he felt bad about even thinking in that dimension. Two days later, after their first meeting, he had come to know that Khushi didn't have parents like him, that she was an orphan who stayed with her Buaji and that was the first time he had realised that there were other unfortunate children unlike him who didn't have parents. He still remembered how he had hugged his mother the entire day and begged her not to leave him and go just like Khushi's parents had done with her. Only when his mother had promised him had he finally let go of her.
"Chotey Saab?" Khushi called out apprehensively to the man lying asleep on the bed. It was already 7 in the evening and she had been sent to his room by Claire Dadiji to wake up her grandson. When he still didn't move, she walked closer to his bed and bending forward closer to his ears, she called out his name, a bit louder than her previous attempt.
And that worked because he instantly snapped open his eyes and looked at her with confusion written all over his place.
"Don't worry. You are in your bedroom, in your own house. But it's just that you have overslept and it's already 7 in the evening." Khushi said, pulling over the curtains of his bedroom and switching on the lights.
"What?" Arnav asked, still confused while his head throbbed with severe migraine.
But Khushi was quick enough to notice his fingers clutching the bridge of his nose and deduce his problem. "Just wait here. I'll bring something for you to cure that migraine." She said and went downstairs to the kitchen.
"What the hell!" Arnav looked around the room and then he slowly realised that he was not in London in his apartment but rather in his house in Mussoorie.
Within few minutes, Khushi was back in the room, holding a white mug in her hand.
"Here's your finest prepared green tea." She said, giving the mug to him. He didn't struggle or resist. Rather he silently accepted the tea and sipped it, finding an instant relief for the migraine.
"Chotey Saab, do you remember when we were kids, we used to play King, Queen and the servant?" Khushi asked laughingly, remembering the old days. But a second later, she stopped laughing. "Ofcourse, you would not remember such a silly thing. But I remember all of it." She said looking into his eyes.
Arnav definitely remembered all of it without any doubts.
It was once again a random afternoon and playtime for the three kids in the Raizada Manor. The seven year old Khushi had heard a story about Kings and Queens in her school and decided to play King, Queen and Servant with the Raizada siblings.
"Annyavv, you are King." Khushi had exclaimed in a tiny squeaky voice, wrapping his head in her Buaji's shawl like a crown.
"Anjali, you are the Queen." She had said, making Anjali sit beside Arnav.
"And I'm your servant." Khushi had exclaimed, going to fetch Anjali's kitchen set tray and two pink cups.
"Why are you the servant? You should also been the Queen. I have read Kings have more than one Queens. Anjali is my sister Queen and you are my 'Queen' Queen" Ten year old Arnav had suggested, not at all liking the idea of Khushi being their servant even if it was for their game.
"Arrey Buddhu! If I'm the queen too, who will serve the tea? Does the Queen do any work?" Khushi had slapped his head with her tiny fist. And then, she had poured water into the two cups and dipped the stolen tea bags from the kitchen into the cold water and served it to Anjali and Arnav.
"Your Highness and Majesty, tea is served." Khushi had told dramatically, fluttering her eyelashes and the Raizada kids had laughed and drank the tea, only to spit it out a second later.
"Eww' that's gross." Anjali had exclaimed, sticking out her tongue.
"But I clearly remember Buaji preparing tea like this." Khushi had explained with a frown on her face.
"Arrey Kukku!" That was what Arnav had nicknamed her and calling her towards him, he had pulled Khushi to hug her like a teddy bear and made her sit on his lap. "You missed the most important step that the water is supposed to be hot." And he had laughed stupidly at her innocence.
"I never thought that one day I would indeed be your servant and have the privilege to serve a proper nice tea to you." Khushi's voice brought him back to reality. "I'm sure you and Anjali Memsaab are like King and Queen afterall."
He didn't miss out the slight hint of hurt in her voice.
"I hope my tea is not bad like those childhood days." She laughed. Maybe if he was observant, he would have seen the agony buried in those hazel orbs too.
"No, it wasn't that bad." He replied unintentionally without pondering over his words.
Khushi had expected another 'I don't remember' or atleast silence from him. But she hadn't been expecting this answer. He clearly didn't remember her, but he remembered her tea to compare it with?
"You do remember me, don't you?" She asked suspiciously, narrowing her eyes at him.
"What makes you think so?" He asked, suddenly aware of her inquisitive direction of thoughts and before she could interrogate him further, he simply walked downstairs in the pretext of meeting his Dadi. "I'm sure Dadi is waiting for me." He said and excused himself, leaving her in his room, all by herself, confused at what had occurred few seconds ago.
Next update will be on Monday 15th around 1:00 pm IST.
NOTE TO ALL THE PEOPLE WHO COMMENT:
Thank you. I may not reply back to your comments, but believe me I read every single one of them. I can see your efforts, especially those so many new readers who have commented for the first time. Your comments are invaluable and are a major contribution to how the story turns out. It indeed gives a new dimension to the thinking of a writer.
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