Joined: 25 March 2012
OS: Young and Beautiful
As you can tell, this story is very much influenced by the song 'Young & Beautiful' sang by Lana Del Rey for The Great Gatsby soundtrack. It's a beautiful song and I hope it captures the essence of the story I wish to tell.
PS: Smoking isn't glamorous. It's hazardous to your health.
Will you still love me
When I'm no longer young and beautiful?
"Chotey, I knew you would be in here."
The moonlight broke into a cacophony of shiny lights in the reflection of the swimming pool, adding an air of calm and serenity to the surroundings as he had engineered. As he had planned. But calm and serenity were emotions so far removed from the situation right now.
He heard the swish of her sari graze the autumn leaves around his potted plants as she sat herself beside him under the beam of the moon. He didn't want her here. He wanted to be alone. He wanted peace. He barely understood what he was feeling right now, couldn't she understand that? How could he articulate the strong currents of emotions he was hiding in the chambers of his heart when he couldn't distinguish them himself.
She had to leave.
"Chotey...please hear me out." Her soft voice pleaded, the dulcet and mellifluous notes of her intonation floating into the breezy night air.
He kept quiet. He had lost the fight to argue everyone a long time ago.
Despair, he acknowledged detachedly; a hollow victory. That was one of the emotions he felt.
"Chotey, please." He heard her say. "Please don't be like this."
Disappointment. His mind added another to the list. He brought his cigarette to his lips and inhaled the acrid smoke, feeling the hot burn down his lungs and into his veins. Khushi had always detested his smoking habit. She said it would kill him faster. Now he saw no reason to not hasten the process. The memory of the indignation at the lack of concern for his own welfare in her eyes floated unbidden in his mind's eye, remembering how he placated her with promises to start quitting and pinching her red nose in return. His eyes clenched at the sweetness and love the memory brought, feeling the widening chasm in his chest grow bigger than before.
Will you still love me
When I got nothing but my aching soul?
"Speak to me please!" his sister sobbed, her words tumbling out of her mouth with little grace and polish. Her voice broke as she clutched his wrist, staring at the broken man that was her brother.
But Arnav and his thoughts were far away. Life had dealt Arnav a cruel hand, taking away everything he held dear. Anjali's heart cried a million times over the events that transpired over the past few weeks, thinking why hadn't her younger brother been given a chance at happiness in life when he was the most deserving. And finally, the most heart-wrenching tragedy of all - the death knell that was delivered tonight.
As Arnav sat stoically at the poolside with his inconsolable sister next to him, he numbly registered another emotion to add to the list of charred and dead dreams burnt to ashes in the pursuit of their love.
Will you still love me when I'm no longer beautiful?
Spluttering, Khushi scurried to the kitchens to get a drink of water. She just had green powder thrown in her face and could feel the powder turn into dough in her mouth. Repulsed, Khushi made haste towards the little corridor to her right, in the meanwhile dodging water bombs and fistfuls of powder.
"Ha! Got you Khushi Di!" came the mischievous shriek of a boy who was no taller than her hip. He leapt aside to admire the red handprints he made on her back with enormous glee.
"Arrey, Aarav? You got me! But look at you! You look like..you..you..look like a.. a.. rainbow has melted on your head!" Khushi giggled with full-bellied amusement, taking in his avatar. Indeed, the little boy was barely recognizable with a multi-hued mop for his hair, splotches of red, green and purple across his face and not a single stitch of white thread left on his clothes.
Aarav just grinned in response. "At least I don't have green teeth Di Di!". And with that cheeky rejoinder, he ran off before she could react, throwing colours at his fellow friends and carers.
Khushi shook her head in laughter, looking at Aarav as he sped off with soft endearment. She had known Aarav ever since she started volunteering at the orphanage. Her family were patrons of the NGO and she had grown up spending her spare time helping out with the work needed for their operations.
Dusting off her red palms, she turned into the corner when suddenly she found herself walking straight into a hard, warm chest. Startled, Khushi raised her palms to prevent herself from falling over the stranger when to her horror, she saw a streak of red splashed across the white shirt under her hands.
Contrite, she whipped her head up to look at the stranger's face, an apology ready on her lips when her breath caught in her throat and she found herself tongue-tied. The man in front of her who held her upper arms to keep her steady had the most distinguished and handsome features she had ever seen. Strong coffee-coloured eyes stared back into hers in surprise, over the arch of his nose. His soft, pillowy lips were open, emphasizing his sharp jawline and cheekbones whilst hanging open in shock. Even the streaks of grey in his hair and stubble added to the maturity and power his stance seemed to command.
A niggling feeling sounded off the back of her head. She never met this smartly dressed stranger before and yet she felt as if she had. Remembering where she was, Khushi adjusted herself properly before delivering her apology.
"I'm sorry about your shirt. I didn't see you. We are celebrating the Holi festivities at the orphanage today, that's why I have colour all over me. Are you here on official business?" she asked, speaking a tad breathlessly.
The stranger hadn't spoken a word. Instead, he gazed at her lips, transfixed as she spoke. Feeling extremely self-conscious, Khushi cleared her throat, hoping to get his attention again.
"Excuse me, what is the purpose of your visit? I can help. I assist with the management of operations here."
This time, a small smile tugged at the corners of the stranger's lips. This rapidly turned into a smirk, and then a tiny guffaw erupted, which turned into a string of chuckles. Puzzled, Khushi stared at the stranger in front of her wondering whether she was dealing with a mad man when she realised he was laughing at her.
"Mouth...g.g..g...green." he choked out in laughter, a warm smile spread across his aristocratic features.
Khushi turned pink with embarrassment. She quickly excused herself and went to the kitchen to get that drink of water she was meant to get. When she returned to the corridor, she found that gentleman gone. When she had gone to the office, they had verified that the matter with the visitor had been attended to and she needn't worry.
Relieved to put the matter and embarrassment behind her, Khushi returned to the playground feeling a little perturbed. Why did the stranger feel so familiar?
A few days later, the incident was forgotten and Khushi was helping the NGO with organizing the academic curriculum for the kids. She had been taken onboard as part of the teaching staff and will be starting her duties from today.
The bell rang for recess and the children jumped off their seats in excitement. Walking around the courtyard as part of her lunch time duties, she noticed the silhouette of a man behind the gate of the orphanage's entrance. Her anger rising, she stared wondering what she was going to do with this mystery man's appearance again when she saw him walking away into his car.
Vowing to confront this unacceptable behaviour when she next saw him, Khushi made a mental note to report the man to the President of the association when she had the opportunity. There was something highly suspicious about the man's behaviour. Decent people do not observe orphaned children outside their gates for two months on end! She shuddered to think they could have a paedophile on their premises. That was it, she thought. Time to get Virmila in the loop.
That time did not take very long as Khushi spotted the same man entering the premises the very next day. When she saw him, he was sitting off the corner of the playground.
Incensed, Khushi stormed up to the man, not before leaving a message with her collegues to send Virmila to the playground ASAP. As his back was facing her, she tapped him on his shoulder to get his attention. When the man turned around, she recognized with mild shock that he was the same person she bumped into on Holi. If anything, that made her more furious.
The man was taken aback by the ferocity of her tone. He cautiously answered, "Yes?"
"You are a disgusting man! What sort of human being are you? Coming day in, day out to observe little children. You know these kids do not have parents, but that doesn't mean they have no one looking out for them! We do not condone or allow perverts on our grounds do you hear me? Don't even try to weasel out of this situation! I have seen you hanging around for the past 2 months and found you staring at the children through our gates and on our playgrounds. I may have only picked out the pattern recently but I am going to put a stop to it right now! Leave this place and never show your face here again or I'm going to report you to the police!"
The man shot up in anger. "How dare you! How dare you speak to me like that!"
"I can, so? I am right. You should get out of here right now. Leave!"
His eyes widen with fury. His body shook with outrage, with clenched fists and jaws. "You have no idea what you are saying."
"Are you saying I am lying? That you don't quietly come and observe our children? Am I not telling the truth?"
"Khushi" a female voice interrupted with admonishment.
The two of them spun around to the direction of the voice. Khushi was surprised to see Virmila standing behind her. Relieved, she started, "Thank god you are here Virmila, this man.."
"Khushi, this man is our donor and major sponsor, Mr. Arnav Singh Raizada."
Suddenly she felt her heart sink into the ground. She knew that name. She sang platitudes to that name with the rest of the other committee members by his recent generosity and funding to their orphanage. She could barely lift her eyes off the ground in severe mortification. Did she just scream at their biggest benefactor?
As Virmila, their President rushed in to offer her apologies for the misunderstanding, Khushi recognized in the midst of her embarrassment that being their sponsor did not excuse the behaviour that he displayed on their grounds but wisely kept quiet. Virmila clearly knew the man and she didn't. She would have to clarify it with Virmila later.
"..and Khushi is just looking out for the children's best interests. I hope you forgive us for the misunderstanding."
The man called Arnav stood there quiet and calm, with hardly a feature giving away any feelings he may have had.
"It's okay. I understand. I suppose I should be happy to see that the staff is devoted to the safety and care of the children. It is what I would have wanted, despite being the accused."
Khushi felt Virmila elbow her hard in the side and stuttered out a half-baked apology. "Sorry sir."
He nodded grimly at the two women and walked out as Virmila hurried to keep pace.
"I must leave. At any rate, I do not wish to overstay my welcome."
Ashen-faced, Virmila replied imploringly to Arnav whist while throwing a dirty look in Khushi's way, "Please do not say that. You are always welcome here any time..."
The small, short nod in understanding signalled he understood and no longer held a grudge. He left hastily nonetheless, leaving Virmila and Khushi in his wake.
"Khushi what have you done!" Virmila hissed vehemently at her, pulling her ears in annoyance.
"Ouch! Virmila! How was I supposed to know he was THE Arnav Singh Raizada? Besides, just because he gives us lots of money doesn't make his behaviour acceptable, you know that!"
Giving a tired sigh, Virmila nodded in concession and gestured her to sit down with her on the bench as they watched the children play.
"There's a lot you don't know about the man. He has a reason for being attached to the orphanage you know. He recently lost his children in a bus accident on their way to school. A few months later, his wife left him. He comes to the orphanage as his own way of remembering his children."
Khushi gasped in remorse. What a tragic past! How could she have shouted at him the way she did? No wonder he was beside himself with anger. She would be furious too!
Seeing Khushi struck with grief, Virmila rubbed her shoulders in comfort. "He didn't want the staff to be alerted to his presence because he didn't want any sympathy. He is here to mourn their loss in his own time. Please respect that Khushi. Don't tell anyone about his story."
Nodding, Khushi could not find herself to speak another word. Her throat had clogged up with unshed tears.
"Besides, I think Arnav was more than slightly amused by your reaction after he calmed down."
"Are you kidding? I wouldn't be surprised if he hated me.." she croaked out, her voice shaky with emotion.
"I'm sure he was affronted but you did the right thing. He recognizes that just as I do."
The days that followed made Khushi nervous. She had made up her mind to apologise to Arnav when he next visited but he had not shown up in the days after her confrontation with him. A week later, she spotted him climbing out of his car and into the courtyard. After passing a parcel to one of their staff members, he spotted her from a distance and started walking towards her. Her jaw dropped ungraciously. Was he really approaching her? She was supposed to approach him first. What to do? What to do???
"Khushi Di, why are you looking so funny? Your mouth is open like a fish."
Aarav giggled as Khushi started and stared back at him in bemusement.
"Chotu, that isn't a nice thing to say. Say sorry." Came a husky voice.
Sticking out his tongue, Aarav said "Sorry" before running off, leaving the two of them behind in awkward silence.
Khushi bravely gathered her wits about her and turned to look at Arnav. It didn't help her nerves that he was wearing a friendly smile.
"Arnavji, I am really sorry about the misunderstanding. I cannot tell you how bad I feel about it." She said rather morosely.
Arnav only chuckled in response. As this was not the kind of response Khushi was expecting, she kept silent, waiting for him to take the lead in the conversation. But no such thing happened.
Feeling extremely uncomfortable and annoyed at his enjoyment at her awkwardness, she fiddled with the ends of her dupatta, unsure of what to do next. Finally, he replied with mock sternness, "You ought to Miss Khushi. It's a terrible crime to be so dedicated to one's students."
Khushi interpreted that as sarcasm but yet it bore no resentment. She was puzzled as to how to respond so she remained quiet.
He sighed. "But you know what a worse crime is?"
Her ears pricked up. What had she done that been worse?
He chuckled once more at her reaction. "Don't call me Arnav-ji please. Arnav will do. I know I'm old. I don't have to be reminded of it." And with a smile, he left Khushi there with no time to form a response.
An unwitting smile came to Khushi's lips. Arnav had a good sense of humour. He also seemed to have put the incident behind them in a lighthearted manner. His decency floored her. How could she have gotten it so wrong?
I've seen the world
Done it all
Had my cake now
"Anjali, how is he?"
"Not good at all Aman. I don't know what to do. He hasn't come out of his room ever since the news broke out."
"Shit. That's not good. It's been three weeks now. He wasn't this bad with Sheetal's divorce. Not even Avni and Akshay's passing.."
"I think it's an accumulation of the terrible things that has happened to him. Chotey has gone through so much pain and suffering. This must have broken him.."
Anjali's tears made her incomprehensible over the phone. Aman's attempts to pacify her only intensified her sobs.
"Anjali, has Payal gotten back to you?"
Hiccupping, Anjali swallowed her tears and replied, "The status hasn't changed Aman. They have been unable to find her."
"Aakash is still leading the search party. We've found no leads either."
Aman could hear Anjali's voice breaking over the phone once again. "It's not fair Aman. They've never been fair to Chotey. Why doesn't he deserve happiness? Why couldn't they just let him be?"
"Speaking of which, how have they been in the past few weeks?"
"What do you think? They were silent. They know they were wrong. They haven't spoken after my meltdown with them. And so they should! I'm sick of them! So sick!"
"Anju, they belong to another generation. They believed they were doing the right thing.."
"That's not true! What is so unusual about an older person marrying a younger person in our culture? They are just worried about the aukat, that is all."
Aman remained silent for some time.
"But it's done, isn't it. It can't be undone."
Her hiccups returned. "I refuse to believe that. I have to."
Hearing a door slam, Anjali quickly hung up the phone and walked to the corridor to see her brother storm down the stairs with his car keys in his hand. Her heart twinged at his inner turmoil but she was happy that this behaviour was a departure from the last three weeks.
"So Arnav beta finally emerges from his room to grace us with his presence?" Dadi's gloating voice hung in the air.
Arnav stopped in his tracks on his way out and stood stock still. Anjali whipped around in anger.
"What do you mean by that?"
Nani, who emerged from the kitchen looking properly aghast and regretful turned to Dadi and interrupted, "Subradra doesn't know what she is talking about. She means nothing by it."
Dadi's scoff could be heard reverberating off the walls. "I'm not surprised you have changed your position Sumi. You were always weak. I however, stand by my decisions, unlike you. Arnav shouldn't marry that girl. She would only bring dishonour and shame to this family. You may disagree all you like, but tongues will wag and I will not stand for our name to be dragged in the mud. Again."
Anjali and Nani gasped in horror and dismay, unable to believe that Dadi was blaming Arnav for bringing their family dishonour with the tragedies of his past. It was below the belt and belittling. Stricken by the unfairness of it, Anjali snapped, " Dishonour? The dishonour is ours for having such a Dadi like you, who would put societal concerns above the happiness of her own family!"
"Enough!" Dadi's voice boomed. "I will not stand for such insolence. I am looking out for the welfare of this family since you all are incapable of doing so. Your past tragedies have been a result of your own selfishness and had you listened to me, none of you would be in this predicament today."
"Like forcing Arnav and I into arranged marriages? For blaming Arnav's divorce on him and my husband's death on me?" She bit back. Nani gasped in muted distress, unable to take the agony of the confrontation that was happening in front of her. Arnav just stood there with his back facing them silently.
"Are you saying that you want to be associated with a family who wants Khushi and Shyam's illegitimate son to be together?"
"ENOUGH!" Arnav took in his sister's pale face and pulled her to his side. Glaring at Dadi, his next words were measured and clear.
"This is my house Dadi. In my house, I will not stand for anyone disrespecting any of my family members. That includes you. You have a right to your opinions but we have coped with your silence when we needed you the most. We hadn't needed you then, and neither do we now. While I appreciate your concern, if you cannot tolerate how we run this family, then you always have the option to leave. Just say the word and Hari Prakash will arrange for it."
And he left with his sister, leaving behind a distraught Nani and incensed Dadi. Two hours later, a taxi was hailed to the Shantivan for a late night passenger headed for the Ashram.
I've seen the world, lit it up
As my stage now
Looking at the packet in his hand, she could tell from the distinct aroma that he had bought it just for her.
"You're just humouring me now, aren't you?"
"What? You were boasting only yesterday that you could eat jalebis for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I wanted a demonstration."
His smirk sent lovely goosebumps down her spine but she would never share that with him. Over the past year he had been frequenting the orphanage, they had struck an unlikely friendship. Gone was the brooding gentleman she first met and now he had become a warm and trusted friend. She knew better though.
She knew Arnav hid his scars well. He bore his agony and pain quietly, and revealed his past with her only recently when she opened up about hers as well. The Gupta family adopted her upon her Jeeji's insistence to have a younger sister. They had been passing through the locality one day when Payal saw the other children playing in the orphanage and wanted to join in, much to her parents' reluctance. At the end of the day, she declared she wanted the skinniest and most malnourished orphan to be her sister. Her parents had no option but to comply.
Listening avidly to her story, Arnav spoke softly, "I understand why you love your sister so much now."
"I wouldn't be who I am without her."
"I highly doubt that Khushi. You are a wonderful person on your own."
Blushing, she nibbled on her lunch when he spoke again. "I lost my family a while ago. I was forced into an arranged marriage with a family friend, and when our children passed away, she saw me for the shell of a man that I was and left me for another. No doubt she had loved her children the same way I did, but I could not give her the support she needed. And so she left." He said this with a non-committal shrug as he bit into his pakora, leaving Khushi stunned with his words.
Noticing Khushi's reaction, he hastily added, "I don't blame her Khushi. We never loved each other. It was a marriage of convenience for both our families."
"Still, after living with you for so long, you at least develop feelings of care and concern for each other. How long were you married for?"
"See! That's a really long time. To me, it's just heartless that she left you at your worst."
He smiled warmly at her. "Khushi, people have different limitations for their suffering. I wasn't going to hold her back on her happiness just because I couldn't find mine. She wanted to be free and I don't have a problem with that."
Khushi shook her head at his bigheartedness. Sheetal never deserved him.
As time went on, she unsuspectingly fell in love with the man behind the impassive mask. His battered soul held no angst, just stark loneliness. She knew it was a problem, as her parents being conservative as they were would never accept a relationship between her and him, not to mention that he was unlikely to ever love a chit of a girl like herself no matter how nice he was.
So it was a problem, but Khushi decided it was her problem, not his, and she would deal with it.
"Come on. I didn't buy these jalebis for nothing. Eat them. You know what good they would do me."
Khushi was shaken out of her thoughts into the present. Smiling unaffectedly, she grabbed the packet off him and said, "You can't have any even if you wanted to. You're diabetic."
"Again, stop reminding me of my age."
Winking at him, she bit into one jalebi, moaning at the syrupy goodness that came out of the fried snack. For the first time, Arnav stiffened next to her, staring at her lips as she chewed and devoured the sweet he gave her.
Gulping uneasily, he turned away and averted his eyes. He couldn't believe his lapse in focus again. Mentally, he chided himself to behave and that his feelings should be dealt with later. Khushi was a friend. A confidante. She was to be nothing more. He wouldn't allow it.
Alas, it rained heavily one day as he was driving through the district. He happened to see Khushi's distinctive silhouette through the sheets of rain and paused at the intersection she was waiting at.
"Khushi! Hop in! I'll drop you home."
"Arnav?" Khushi squinted through the rain, peering at Arnav through his window. "Hai Devi Maiya, it is you! Thank you!"
Climbing into the front seat, Khushi smiled thankfully at the man beside her as she pulled her seatbelt on. After a few moments, Arnav stopped at the red light and took the strap from her.
"Here let me help." He said as he leaned forward to click the belt into position. Khushi's breath hitched in her chest and as hard as she tried to hide it, her breaths became irregular and shallow. Arnav looked at her in amazement, their eyes locked in an intense stare, sharing the secrets that their hearts refused to share. Their faces were millimeters apart, their lips even closer still. Arnav's eyes dropped to Khushi's lips that glistened with raindrops and swallowed hesitantly. Khushi was undeniably attracted to him, and he to her. What did this all mean?
The blaring sound of horns resonated at that moment, shattering their secret world. Arnav sat upright and quickly drove off, remaining absolutely silent for the remainder of their journey; not even bothering to spare her a second glance.
Khushi on the other hand was just the opposite. She intermittently bit her lip, looked at him, and looked away again. Just when she thought she had bitten her lips off, a nervous jingle made to her lips. "Aaj mausam hai suhana.." she started, and then quickly covered her mouth with her hands in fright. She couldn't believe she sang that out loud.
Arnav seemed to think the same. His mouth was open and he was staring at her in disbelief.
"I'm sorry, I always sing that when I'm nervous.." she said, realising a little too late she had put her foot in her mouth. Looking at him horrorstruck, Khushi observed how he would respond to her foolishness. She knew she had just affirmed the fact that she was another silly nineteen-year old in his eyes. Instead what she hadn't expected was his eyes to crinkle with amusement, and his head to be thrown back with laughter. Unable to help it, she laughed along with him, uneasiness forgotten.
And all the ways I got to know
Your pretty face and electric soul
After that episode, Khushi noticed Arnav had decreased the frequency of his visits to the orphanage. Deciding to confront him, she went to his office to ask for a meeting. However, his receptionist was adamant that she couldn't just meet 'ASR' like that and had to make an appointment in advance.
"Khushi?" came Arnav's surprised voice as he stood with two men behind him. Khushi found her voice stuck in her throat again. She dare not attempt to speak least she stuttered like a fool in front of him, which she knew she would.
Looking at her contemplatively, he turned to the men behind him and said, "Aakash and Aman, good job at today's meeting. We'll debrief in 20 minutes."
Turning to his receptionist, he told her, "Send for two cups of coffee in my office."
Startled, she did as she was asked as Arnav ushered Khushi into his office. Once the coffee boy left, Arnav stared at her in askance, conveying his hidden question silently to her.
He smiled at that endearment. She always called him "Arnav-ji" to annoy him good-naturedly about his age, and as a form of respect since he forbade any 'chachu's and 'kaka's.
"Yes Khushi?" he answered softly, looking at her nervous form as she placed the coffee cup on the table with trembling hands. Arnav did not even attempt to lift his, knowing the disaster that would follow. He may not show it, but Arnav was as nervous as Khushi was.
"W..w.why have you been avoiding the orphanage?"
"I haven't been avoiding the orphanage Khushi. I just haven't been coming in as often as I did."
"Because work has been busy lately."
"That's a lie."
Arnav was shellshocked at Khushi's bold statement. He had not expected her to confront him in this manner. Unsure of what would happen next, he kept quiet, choosing to let Khushi take control of their interaction.
She sighed as hot tears escaped her eyes. Arnav leapt off his seat to her side.
"Khushi, why are you crying?" he panicked.
"I'm so sorry Arnavji. It's all my fault." She said, the tears pouring out beyond her control.
Arnav's breath caught in his throat. "Why would you say that? How could it ever be your fault."
At this, Khushi gulped. She gripped the armrests of her chair, an action that did not go unnoticed by Arnav. As she drew in a breath to steady her nerves, she looked at the ground, unable to look at him in the eye.
"You must know why."
Her cryptic answer sent butterflies in his stomach. What did she mean? Could she mean what he hoped she meant?
"You have to spell it out for me Khushi." He replied, his mouth dry, and his throat working up a storm.
"I..I. I love you."
She looked at him in the eye just then, her own watery and emotional.
"I'm sorry if I have made you uncomfortable. I know you never asked for it. I have been dealing with it on my own. I know I was unable to hide it in the car ride you gave me. Please don't feel obliged. It's my problem, not yours. It's just a bit difficult to handle sometimes because this is the first time I've felt this way about anyone before. But I promise to do better. Just don't stop visiting the orphanage because of me. I don't care if we can't be anything more. I would...I would be devastated if we can no longer be friends. That's the last thing I want."
Arnav could no longer breathe. She said she loved him. It was beyond his comprehension. He had tried so hard to hide his own feelings from her, feeling like a cradle snatcher whenever feelings of attraction would arise. He would hate himself a little bit more, wondering what was wrong with himself for wanting to be with a person who was young enough to be his daughter. He attributed that to his loneliness and vowed to socialise with his age-group more. But no matter how many outings he went with Aakash and Aman, or the number of dates he went on, those feelings he had for Khushi just wouldn't go away. And so he told himself he would deal with them in his own time, for she shouldn't be burdened by his inability to switch off his feelings. After all, why would a sunny and independent spirit like Khushi love a lonely, middle-aged man like him?
Now seeing her bravery and straightforwardness made him fall in love with her a little more. Khushi always had maturity and wisdom beyond her years. He had found a kindred spirit in her. She helped him to heal, to move on. And now, she taught him how to love. He wanted to laugh. Khushi was nervous and apologetic as this was her first brush with love. She had thought him an experienced and worldly man. Little did she know it was the same for him too. He had loved no other.
Khushi was rambling on about the orphanage, his kindness and their friendship when he decided it had to stop. He would repay her honesty in kind and be upfront with her too. Holding the nape of her neck, he drew Khushi towards him and kissed her on her lips.
Will you still love me
When I'm no longer young and beautiful?
Will you still love me
When I got nothing but my aching soul?
I know you will, I know you will
I know that you will
Will you still love me when I'm no longer beautiful?
Arnav stared into the ocean as his sister dozed off into slumber on his shoulder after being all cried out and agitated. A small smile found its way to his face. If there was any constant source of strength he had in his life, it was his Di. She had been with him every step of the way. Seen him through his struggles, shared his pain at their parents' death, and been his rock through the decisions their family made them go through. He knew she had just as a tough life as he did. Her husband passed away in another locality, instead of the one he expressed he would be in for his business trip. It was how Anjali had found out the double-life he lead, with another family in Lucknow. Shyam had married her so that he could support his other family with her wealth. Even in his will, he had bestowed all her gifts to him to his family. Anjali didn't know what to think and fell into a depression after that. Her family was the one who suggested this alliance and she had followed them into it blindfolded. How could she have been so trusting? At first she blamed herself. She was unable to conceive and believed that to be the reason for his infidelity. When she found out that his family predated their marriage, she was embittered. No longer would she be a pushover for the benefit of her family.
At the same time, Arnav lost his children and watched his wife leave him. The hole in his heart was very hard to close but through Anjali's suggestion, he decided to make his tentative steps to recovery at a local orphanage and found himself falling in love instead.
He did not want it to happen. It just did. Khushi was a bright ray of sunlight in the dullness of his life. She glowed with optimism and happiness, everything her name seemed to suggest. The longer he spent time with her, the more he fell in love with her. Their innocent friendship evolved into feelings they could not control. And so after that fateful encounter in his office, they decided they could no longer lie to themselves any more. They decided to embrace their feelings and see where it took them.
The days following that had been nothing short of wonderful. Khushi opened a new world of experiences for him. They went to corny Salman Khan movies, fairs and dhabas he'd never go on his own, laughing at their experiences and misadventures along the way. Whenever people mistaken them for father and daughter, Khushi took it in her stride and would laugh it off, saying, "Are you calling my boyfriend old? He's my Salman-ji!". He admired her acceptance of them and their love in the face of societal disapproval. She never cared, but he always did.
The crazy days, city lights
The way you'd play with me like a child
He would lay awake at night wondering whether he was doing right by her. He was old enough to be her father. What sort of security would she have? Who would take care of her when he left, when he was buried under a mountain of medical bills? She would have to shoulder those burdens. How was that fair to her?
The day he blurted out those insecurities to her was a day he would never forget. She had simply told him that for an intelligent and experienced man, he was profoundly stupid. She could die tomorrow, she pointed out, and that death never favoured any age group. He had held her tight and apologized for his folly. He knew he had hurt her.
He hurt her once again after watching a rom-com in the cinema, after discussing the new, young Bollywood talent in the recent movies. He said that it would be better for her to have a physically fitter boyfriend than he was, which he was rewarded with a punch in the stomach.
She looked at him cryptically before responding with a sunny smile, "Arnavji, you are the only other man I know who is in his forties that has such a good body besides Salmanji. Besides, I don't care about all that as long as you have enough stamina for me." She left with a sultry wink, leaving Arnav behind gob smacked and shocked.
Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. Soon, they had been courting for over a year and Arnav couldn't be in a happier place in life. His Di saw the changes, as did the rest of his family. He knew then that he wanted this happiness all of his life. He had made up his mind to propose to her and make her his.
Khushi was overjoyed with the proposal, hugging him fiercely and never letting him go. They had discussed how they were going to break the news to their respective families, promising that no matter what happened they would work through it together. Alas, things had gone downhill from there.
Khushi's family had been deadest against the marriage. Garima was uncomfortable with Khushi marrying a man old enough to be her father. While he knew Garima and Shashi well from their visits to their orphanage, it seemed his age was a bigger consideration than his character.
Dadi, who had been visiting at the time had rejected the idea immediately. She knew who the Guptas were, as their cousin had worked in the Sheesh Mahal when she was staying there. Their aukat did not impress her, neither did their lineage. Using the excuse of society and perceptions, she argued she could not let the family be ridiculed by this spectacle and sought to find solidarity with the Guptas in this manner.
The Guptas were more than willing to agree, and in no short time did they manage to seek a rishta with Saleem Jha for their Khushi to prevent any sort of alliance between their daughter and Arnav. Throughout this time, Khushi had been miserable. She begged and pleaded to just give them a chance, to see that he was the right life partner for her. The fact that he was a divorce and had two deceased children made him a bad omen in their eyes, and they wanted to do nothing with him. Payal, who had been distraught at her sister's situation, flew down from Delhi and tried to sort out the tensions at home, but to no avail. They had used the 'adoption' card. They taunted her, saying they would never have this problem with Payal as she was their own blood, and that she was ungrateful to them for putting them through this scandal. Khushi wept tears of blood as his heart sank. He wanted to elope with her but she was against the idea, saying that eloping wouldn't resolve anything. She was still optimistic that her parents would come around.
Preparations for her wedding had been on the way, which Dadi had no qualms throwing in his face at every opportunity she could get. He had no choice but to keep quiet. He had to respect Khushi's wishes, and if eloping was out of the question, then so be it.
On her wedding day, Arnav was hysterical. The time for Khushi to finally make a decision had come and gone. He was sent an invitation to come to her wedding, but he couldn't bear it. He would die if he went. Anjali and Aakash went in his place, distressed and upset that things had turned out the way they did. Anjali decided to take matters into her own hands and confront Khushi, but when she arrived at the bride's chamber, she found no one there. On the table lay a simple note in Khushi's handwriting:
If I can't have the life I want, I don't want it.
Her ambiguous note left everyone in an uproar. Payal went frantic with worry, going with Aakash to start a search team for her sister. Anjali, was left standing in a daze at the sequence of events that followed after her discovery, too jaded and numbed to think of how she would break this news to Arnav. Amid the cries of the Guptas and gossip among the wedding guests, Anjali managed to walk past the Jhas without realising it in her bid to get home as quickly as she could. Arnav should not find out the news from anyone besides her.
Arnav remembered the brief feeling of elation following the news of Khushi not going through with the wedding turning rapidly to despair at the contents of the note. She had to be alive. She just had to. He was still breathing wasn't he? He was still alive. His mind numbed itself following the incident and he had been keeping to himself ever since. That was until he decided to go for a drive tonight.
Breathing out a harried sigh, he stepped out of his car and sat at 'their favourite' spot across the jetty by the seaside. No one knew where Khushi was right now. She did not take her cellphone nor any vehicle for transportation. It seemed she fell right off the surface of the earth one fateful night and Arnav didn't know if he preferred this to her getting married off. He wanted her alive. That's all he cared about.
Watching the sunrise in the horizon, Arnav was swept with acute agony. He couldn't afford to believe Khushi was dead. He had to believe she was still around, otherwise he would stop breathing.
It's been 83 days, 20 hours, 4 minutes and 27 seconds since they received Khushi's note. Arnav had been liasing with Payal and Aakash directly in the search effort, hoping to find clues to where Khushi had disappeared off to. However every time they almost came to a break through, the trail would turn cold again.
Angry with the circumstances, Arnav picked a pebble and tossed it into the ocean. The days went by but it did not make it easier to deal with the pain. Arnav simply accepted that this would be a permanent fixture in his life from now onwards until they found Khushi.
His cellphone buzzed with another message. It was probably from Anjali again. She wanted him home to celebrate his birthday, believing that one's 50th should be an unforgettable affair. Aman was coming over to help out with the decorations, while Nani took care of the catering. He knew that ever since Khushi left, Aman and his Di had grown closer, working together to look after him at work and at home. While he appreciated them, he could see the blossoming chemistry between them and believed if they realised what they have, they could be really happy. Time would tell. As for Nani, her previous objections to his relationship with Khushi melted away when he spiraled into depression. Anjali's words really struck a chord in her and she tried to redeem herself by making no small effort to mend their relationship. At this point of time, he was to emotionally wrought out to do anything about it, but she hadn't minded. If she was affected by Arnav's indifference she did not show it. The party was everything he detested and more. He didn't want any of it. He escaped the house as fast as he could and headed to the spot he and Khushi used to frequent. He picked up another pebble.
Another hand reached out for the same. Taking a step back, Arnav allowed the stranger to take the pebble. He was instantly struck by how familiar her scent was and realised belatedly it was the smell of jalebis. Eyes watering with unshed tears, Arnav quickly turned away from the person and walked away. The scent brought back many memories and it wouldn't do to fall apart in the middle of the beach.
Suddenly he felt a thud on his shoulder blade and turned around slowly. Did the stranger just chucked the pebble at him?
Looking at her face, Arnav's movements came to a halt. He could barely breathe. The woman in front of him looked exactly like Khushi. She could easily be Khushi's twin. Her hair was the same, the curve of her smile was the same. Heck, even her lithe body was the same. Had he finally gone mad that he had started imagining her around him?
"Oi! Are you senile? I didn't think you were that old Arnavji.." came the cheeky retort directed at him, accompanied by a naughty smile.
Great. Now he was hearing things too. Blinking his eyes rapidly, he stood staring at this vision, hoping desperately that it wouldn't go away soon. The vision tilted her head smilingly at him, walking towards him slowly with her dupatta flying in the sea breeze behind her.
She came standing in front of him and grasped his face to lean in for a kiss. Startled, Arnav almost shot out of his skin when her lips made contact with his. Her lips felt familiar, they tasted familiar. Everything about this vision felt so real and then it hit him. Khushi was standing right there in front of him, kissing him like there was no tomorrow.
"Happy Birthday Arnavji." She whispered against his lips, stroking his stubbly chin as she did so.
"Khushi?" his voice wavered, breaking at the end note. Khushi lunged at him, giving him a big embrace as his hands desperately wound around her frame.
"Oh my god, it is you." His hoarse voice rang out, grabbing her face as he sprinkled small kisses across her face, her neck and her hair. In a spontaneous moment of happiness, Arnav lifted Khushi off the ground and twirled her around before bringing her down to kiss her senseless.
Giggling with delight, Khushi hugged Arnav back as tightly as she could, breaking the kiss to tell him that they needed to talk.
Grabbing her hand tightly as if he was afraid she would disappear if he let her go, they sat down at their favourite spot as they smiled at each other unreservedly.
"Khushi, where did you go? I've been worried sick about you." Said Arnav, his voice half-chocked with tears as he downplayed his true anguish at her disappearance.
"Oh Arnav, I'm so sorry. I had no choice but to lay low for a while." She replied dejectedly. She could see how shattered he was. She knew all this time he was living with the uncertainty and she struggled with her conscience all this while.
"What do you mean?"
"I was in Delhi at Payal's insistence. She planned the whole thing from the start."
Arnav was completely blindsided. He had not expected that at all.
"But Payal was on our search team. How could she not know where you were?"
"She put herself there to remove any leads you found on me, so that she could keep me safe and undiscovered until she could manipulate the situation to my favour."
Holding his hand, Khushi said, "Arnav, Jeeji did not want me to lose my parents again. So she wanted to make sure they knew how it felt to lose me to appreciate me more."
"And how did she plan to engineer that?"
"She believed that time and a possible suicide attempt driven by them would shake them up."
"Unbelievable.." was all Arnav could say.
"Well it worked. Amma and Babuji have been beside themselves with guilt ever since my disappearance. They recently mentioned that they would do anything to get me back, even if it meant marrying you and so Jeeji decided to bring me back home."
Arnav stepped away, angry beyond belief. Khushi took in his enraged countenance and remembered the only time she saw him this way - when they first had their miscommunication.
"I don't understand Khushi, what was the need for all this secrecy from me? I wouldn't have told anyone about it. Why did you let me believe you were missing, or potentially dead? DO YOU KNOW WHAT I'VE BEEN THROUGH????"
"Arnav, please understand.."
"No. Why should I understand? While you two were playing this little game, I was battling depression and contemplating suicide. The only reason I kept going was the belief that you hadn't died yet. That I would know if you did. SO DON'T ASK ME TO BLOODY UNDERSTAND. TRY UNDERSTANDING THAT INSTEAD!"
"Arnav please," Khushi cajoled. "Believe me I tried very hard to reason with Jeeji. She believed that you had to appear like you were properly grieving for everyone to believe I was gone. I disagreed with her. I told her you could be trusted, but she didn't know you enough to believe me."
Arnav kept quiet in seething silence. He never pegged Payal to be quite the strategist. Nonetheless, the fact of the matter was he spent the past three months in utter agony, and all of that could have been avoided if he was told in confidence that this was the plan. That said, he didn't know if he would have bothered to keep with the search party or faade if told otherwise. That, he grudgingly admitted, was exactly the reason Payal chose not to tell him.
"Arnav, it wasn't easy for me, believe me. Knowing how badly you took the news while I was staying away hurt me as badly as it did you. I didn't want you to feel that pain, and knowing that you struggled with it every day riddled me with guilt and despair you can't imagine. I would never have chosen this plan if I had an alternative, you know that."
And it was as simple as that. Arnav knew Khushi would have avoided this if she could help it. Sighing dejectedly, he sat down again as she bridged the gap between them instantly.
"How long where you planning to continue this charade?" he asked.
"No more than 3 months" she replied firmly.
"Why 3 months?", he asked inquisitively.
"Because Jeeji believed if our parents did not show any remorse for their actions by 3 months, the situation wouldn't be worth going back to. I would stay put with Jeeji and work in Delhi instead."
She paused and looked right into his eyes as she said her next sentence, "I also knew your 50th birthday was coming up and I didn't want you to spend that worrying about me, so I decided to end the operations then and let you know so you could celebrate it with peace of mind."
Will you still love me
When I'm no longer young and beautiful?
His heart overflowed with happiness. She cared, no, loved him deeply. And all of that didn't matter anymore as long as he had her by his side.
"Khushi, please don't leave me like this next time. If you do, I won't be able to breathe."
Will you still love me
When I got nothing but my aching soul?
With tears in her eyes, Khushi hugged Arnav close to her and whispered softly in his ear, "No more running away Arnav, I'm yours. Hamesha."
I know you will, I know you will
I know that you will
Will you still love me when I'm no longer beautiful?
A/N: I totally wrote this as a one-piece but it has spanned 21 pages, and about 9000 words long! Whew! Hope you like it as much as I enjoyed writing it
My other works:
A Special Thank You to Aashi12 for writing this beautiful poem for the story.
It was a journey, written so well that I had tears with a smile..
Just their love and some separation for a while..
It was their beating hearts I heard..
Rest all you said, adding word to word..
Love, which no one expects ever..
Lasts somehow forever!
Here, here! :)
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