"Tell me, have I missed something or do you all of a sudden hate Khushi?"
"Di with all due respect... shut up."
"You can't give someone respect and then tell them to shut up Chote. That's counter intuitive."
"Then just shut up."
Khushi couldn't agree more. They had been bickering since morning. How two adults could conduct themselves worse than children baffled her. Though usually endearing, this day was stressful enough without the added drama of their juvenile sibling antics. A dull headache that had blossomed over the course of the day pounded against her temples. Suppressing a groan, she willed herself to zone out of the conversation behind her and concentrate on the double doors ahead.
"I'm only looking out for both of you."
Arnav, not quite as adept as Khushi, did groan out aloud. "Di...we can't do anything about it now. So quit nagging."
"Nagging am I? It wasn't so long ago you were the one nagging me to do your shoe laces. You didn't hear me complaining."
Khushi snorted. My god had this woman missed her calling in life. Bollywood didn't know what they were missing.
"Di....." Arnav whined like a child. Khushi shook her head in disbelief.
"Di...." Anjali imitated back. "I have ammunition that I can choose to fire at a moments notice. Don't ever bring me to the stage where I have to inform your darling Gupta of your childhood habit."
Both Khushi and Arnav turned to face Anjali, brows furrowed in confusion.
"You know the one where you needed my help in the middle of the night...after a particularly scary..."
"DI!" Arnav bellowed cutting her off. "You wouldn't!"
"Wouldn't what?" Khushi asked her curiosity getting the better of her.
"Just try me." Anjali smiled with disturbing cunning. "Anyway..." she segued breezily. "...are you trying to make this fail? I told you she should be wearing a saree."
"Khushi can wear whatever makes her feel comfortable."
The girl in questioned sighed heavily and turned to press the door bell once more leaving the sibling to continue their bickering. While she was grateful for Arnav's support of her autonomy she sorely wished in this case that he had considered sharing his sister's advice. Standing in front of his house, waiting to meet his grandmother, wearing faded blue jeans and a kurti top, she felt woefully inadequate. Uncharacteristically, she clutched the corner of the cotton top desperately trying to calm her racing heart and frazzled nerves.
Khushi Gupta always approached situations with calm, calculated precision. In her professional life, there was very little she knew not of; affording her control of any unpredictable variables if the need arose. However, this, was an untested arena. Family. It was obvious that people did not play by the same rule books here. Here boundaries were crossed, limits pushed and privacy breached. All in the name of a bond determined by blood.
It scared her. The idea that you could surrender a part of yourself to another person made her squirm. It meant relinquishing the strings of control that kept her well engineered life together. But wasn't that what Arnav required from her? What he had taken from her? What she had given unknowingly yet gladly? Secretly, in some hidden part of conscience, she was happier knowing that someone else was watching out for her, caring for her.Being the puppeteer of her own life had ensured that it would never come crumbling down. And now, she was exhausted. Her life could be thrown into imbalance at any given second but she couldn't care less. She was happier than she had ever been but also sadder and perhaps even a little scared. All for the love of a man.
No. The love of the man.
A soft smile flitted upon her lips and she lost herself in the memory of his love. And that was how Devyani Raizada first saw her Chote's Khushi.
Devyani's eyes crinkled in amusement. Khushi Gupta had gone from nostalgic to horrified in a split second. Her doe eyes were stretched wide open, making it apparent that she had been startled. Which really made no sense, as she had rung the door bell to begin with. Behind Khushi, her two grandchildren were deep in argument none the wiser of the matriarch's presence. With a finger upon her lips, she signalled Khushi to remain quiet. Handing her the pooja ki thali, she walked with a quiet grace toward the sibling duo. Then, with a practiced ease she grabbed the ears of both offending parties and gave them a sharp twist.
"Aaaah! Nani!" they chorused.
"Are these the manners that I have taught you? Fighting like street urchins in front of my future daughter in law?"
Behind them, Arnav spied Khushi turning tomato red. He grinned, still bent down at an odd angle. "What's the saying Nani? You can take the urchin out of the street but not the street out of the urchin?"
His ear was twisted just that bit tighter.
"Ok ok! Sorry!" he grimaced.
"Hmmm." Letting go of their ears, she stared at them sternly. Arnav and Anjali looked at their Nani, turning on the puppy dog charm. Then with impish grins they threw themselves in her arms, hugging her close. Khushi felt her heart tighten with longing.
"Now then. Let's have a look at you shall we?" Devyani stood in the entrance once more with, prying the thali from Khushi's frozen fingers; her eyes darted from place to place unsure of where to rest.The young woman in front of her was clearly terrified and strangely enough it endeared her further in Devyani's eyes. There was very little Arnav had told her about Khushi save for the love that dwelled in his heart. In these short moments Devyani took stock of what she could.
Despite her nervousness, Khushi stood tall in her petite frame. She was dressed modestly, complimenting the aura of understated beauty that beguiled the eye of the beholder. Her hair was long but pulled back in a no nonsense pony tail, while two simple pearl studs adorned her lobes. The dia flickered as it went circled round her; it's warmth reflected in large orbs of emerald green. Here she revealed herself for those who took care to notice. And so, Devyani took care. Love blossomed in gardens of green, fighting off the elements; uncertainty, fear, heartache. But it's foundations lay in something below the surface. Behind the turbulent seas of terrified eyes, a quiet strength called out to the Devyani. And she knew that it was this strength her Chote so desperately had clung on to. That he so desperately needed. The strength that would see their love through.
Here were two individuals in desperate need of love. Different kinds of love but love nonetheless. Devyani knew that the love of this woman had finally made Arnav Raizada a man, just as his love had made her a woman. Her nathi (grandson) had become quieter but more determined. No more was he using his work to escape his reality. No longer was he running from his responsibilities with the excuse of a life cut short but living as though forever was no longer a foregone conclusion. And here this girl was worried about whether Devyani would approve of her dressing sense!
Then, there were the other changes. Changes that made the blood in her cold and withered veins pump with renewed vigour. Years had gone by since she had seen Arnav act so carefree and juvenile and Devyani felt her heart burst with joy. His share of happiness had always been weighed down with the heaviness of his fate. Though she feared that this burden may have now been placed upon Khushi's shoulders she could not help but feel a sense of peace. Khushi, like her name, had returned the happiness that had long left the wrinkled corners of the Raizada's eyes.
And the gods above would not be so cruel as to take away her own.
Khushi literally had to clasp her hands behind her back to stop them from shaking, as Nani took her aarti. Never in her life had she been so nervous. Her logical mind told her she was being ridiculous. Infront of her was an old petite woman with kind eyes. What was their to be afraid of? Her traitorous heart replied with a self satisfied smirk. "She's important to him. So what she thinks of you is important to you." Her mind rolled its eyes and replied with a succinct..."Oh just shush!" A warm hand subtly slipped its fingers through hers, giving her the silent support she needed and Khushi sighed. He always knew just what to do.
A small tika being applied to her forehead brought her attention back from the two sided pull of her heart and mind to the woman infront of her. Devyani placed a gentle hand, cupping her cheek.
"Welcome to our home."
Khushi smiled wanly, as she was ushered inside.
The size of the house bewildered her. It was probably five or six time the size of her own. The light floor and interiors gave the illusion that the open living plan house was larger than its already magnanimous size while the natural light streaming in from the wall to wall french doors made the otherwise intimidating structure, inviting. The decor, however was classically indian and somehow fit in with the modern interiors. Garlands of flowers and curtains of lights were littered over various floor spaces and hired help moved in and out of the house with intent.
"Diwali preparations already?" Arnav murmured to himself.
"What to do you mean already Chote? The puja is tomorrow." Anjali chided.
Devyani turned to Khushi as they walked through the foyer. "He always forgets these things. You should probably get used to it."
Though she smiled, Khushi felt her stomach lurch. The idea of getting used to Arnav meant that she needed to accept he would be around. No! She couldn't afford to think like that. It had been a few weeks since their argument in the hospital and she had slowly come to terms with her anger. Though she could no longer blame Arnav for the turn of events it didn't mean she wasn't bitter. There wasn't even anyone to blame.
Every brief moment of happiness was inevitably followed by the thought...how many more of these moments will we have? How long before he can't walk unassisted? How long before this fine specimen of a man becomes a shell of what he once was? The worst of it was not imagining the pain she would feel. It was the thought of Arnav falling in his own estimation. How could she help him then? Would her love be enough? The hospital gown was only the beginning. What next? How long before their next fight over something so seemingly inane?
"You will come to the puja won't you?" Devyani paused waiting for an answer.
Suddenly Khushi realised that she had been talking to her this whole time and she hadn't heard a word. "Yes of course!" she replied clumsily.
Great. Another thing she had to worry about. Diwali. Having no family meant having no idea about any rasam's or traditions. Could this get any worse?
"Maama! Maama!" A girl of about two years came running at full speed toward Anjali. This, she assumed, was Neha. Running faster than her chubby legs could carry her, the toddler was at risk of falling over and Khushi found herself laughing at the youngsters innocence. A shocked Anjali, quickly gathered her wits and ran forward to scoop the child in her arms, saving her from an untimely fall.
"Nehu! My bigidy boo! Where did you come from?" Anjali's voice became sugary sweet and high pitched as she tickled her daughter's tummy and showered her face with kisses.
"Do you really need the bird and the bees talk Di?" Arnav quipped. He was answered with a quick slap to the back of the head.
"She came from me." A deep male voice responded teasingly.
Arnav smiled broadly hugging his best friend and brother in law. "Thank god for that. If she was all Di...can you imagine the terror?"
Aman went to his wife and kissed her chastely on the lips. Khushi raised a silent brow. Perhaps the Raizada's weren't as traditional as all that.
"Oh come on! We don't need to see that." Arnav complained placing an arm around his Nani.
"I quite agree." Devyani replied, her eyes twinkling.
Somehow in the whirlwind of activity, they had seated themselves in the lounge. Steaming chai and snacks awaited them. As the tea was poured and passed around Khushi took a moment to breathe. Here she was in the middle of Arnav's family drinking tea as if it were just another day. As if she belonged. The strange part of it was...she felt as if she did. In these few moments they had made her feel as if she were part of the family. Their easy banter and familiarity made it easy to live in the delusion. Leaning back into the chaise, she sipped slowly, letting the delicate flavours rest on her palate a moment before swallowing the liquid. Conversation ebbed and flowed around her and no one felt the need to purposefully include her in the conversation. Her silence was comfortable.
In actual fact she was glad for the reprieve of attention. The heavy brunt of emotions hitting her were overwhelming and her mind felt like grabbing the remote of life and hitting the pause button....hard.
"Why does Neha smell like oil?"
"Because it's good for her hair Chote." Devyani replied. "It will make her locks beautiful and strong. Won't it Neha?"
Neha nodded enthusiastically. Arnav made a face.
Aman scoffed. "The only reason you're making that face is because of that one time you knocked over the entire bottle of coconut oil on yourself. You smelt of the stuff for weeks."
"Blech." Arnav shuddered at the memory. "I was so....slimy."
Anjali clapped her hands together and laughed. "That's right. I think we have a photo of that somewhere. Infact I'm pretty sure the family album has tonnes of blackmail material. So what do you say Khushi?"
"Huh?" Khushi looked at Anjali confused for not the first time that day.
"I said what do you say about pulling out the old photo album's and humiliating your boyfriend over there?"
Khushi chocked on the tea she was drinking, glaring at Anjali for using the 'b' word. Devyani handed her a napkin laughing. "Don't worry bitiya. I have heard the word before."
She looked over to Arnav who seemed to be enjoying her torment. That's it. Enough was enough. "You know what...in that case, let the humiliation begin."
Wild cheers erupted from the other family members as Arnav made a face. Cradling his niece his arms, he turned his nose up in mock disgust. "You know what princess? You and I don't need to be here to witness your Mamu's humiliation. Humph."
It was almost as if time stopped for just that moment. It was a surreal experience. A ghost whispered in her ear.
"Hurry up Gupta. My balls are freezing and that won't be good for our future children."
Her stomach did a flip flop as her mind skipped foot loose and fancy free watching him hold his niece. For a fraction of a second she imagined her Raizada with his little Raizada. Another baby girl who had him wrapped around her finger. His eyes and her button nose. His smile and her unruly hair. Their daughter.
Her breath hitched. Their daughter. Kids. With Raizada? Was that what she wanted? Looking at the little girl in his arms she knew the answer. She wanted kids with him. She wanted everything with him. She wanted a future. And in that moment it became clear. Arnav Singh Raizada wasn't going to die. He was going to be the father of her children after all. She simply wouldn't allow it.
The little day dream was ruined when the man in question walked past. "You can fool everyone else Gupta but I know the only reason you're so eager to break out the baby pictures is so you can see me naked." With that he smoothly exited, leaving her grinning like a fool. Trust him to ruin such a pivotal moment in their life.
The evening found the ladies sitting in Nani's room. The nostalgia party had eventually bored Aman. Having heard the stories 101 times he decided to go in search of his best friend and daughter. So Deyani had requested that she rest her legs on her bed as they flipped through the photo album. How the day had turned to night, Khushi would not know. Wrapped up in the childhood of her lover, she hung on to every word living vicariously through his experiences. The stories were funny and bitter and fond and sad. His family was incomplete and their history torrid but after all of it they still had one another. That was all that mattered.
At some point, Anjali had come with some hot oil and requested her Nani to apply some in her hair. Khushi watched as she leaned back with her eyes closed. Weathered hands massaged her scalp and any tension that Anjali had been holding fell away from her as she became a little girl just for that moment. It was unlike Khushi to be jealous but the pain in her heart was so deep that it could not be helped. For years she had begged for just such a moment. A moment where someone would hold her and tell her that everything would be alright. That she didn't have to be scared because they would tackle any demons that came in her way. A moment where someone could be a mother, a sister...a nani.
The room was silent and Khushi blinked away hot tears; berating herself for getting overly emotional. You couldn't miss something you never had. Right? Slowly Anjali's hair was braided and she stood up. With a loud stretch she softly claimed..."I'm going to check on my baby. Make sure she's still alive."
Devyani looked over to Khushi. "Come bitya. I will put oil in your hair."
Khushi felt like a deer in the headlights, fumbling over her words. "Oh...no..no...its ok. I mean I don't need it. It's very kind of you to offer. It's just that...
There was something so authoritative in her tone that Khushi dare not argue. Warm oil drizzled onto her scalp and practiced fingers kneaded and rubbed, sending warmth radiating down her back. It was a welcome relief after the self induced stress her body had subjected itself to. Still Khushi could not let herself relax. There were so many questions she had to ask this woman. Silence hung uncomfortably, waiting for a catalyst to shatter its fragile hold. But where would she start? She didn't even know how to address this woman.
Then as if, she had read her mind...
"You should call me Nani bitiya. I would prefer it if you do."
"Oh." Well done Dr. Gupta. Great answer.
Silence reigned once more.
"My mother always told me that the best way to unburden the heart is to burden the tongue." Khushi craned her neck to look up at Devyani. Sighing, she decided to ask what had been eating her up inside.
"Are you happy with me?"
Devyani smiled knowingly, screwing the cap on the oil bottle shut. "Why wouldn't I be happy with you?"
"Don't you want someone more traditional and cultured for Arnav?"
"In what way?"
"It's only that I don't know anything about prayers and religion. I rarely practice my faith. I don't know how to wear sarees or what any of these festivals are about. How could you be happy with me a daughter in law for your only grandson?"
Devyani furrowed her eyebrows and thought long and hard about what she was going to say. Turning Khushi to face away from her, she began to massage her scalp. "Life can be fickle. Beliefs I held as a woman of wealth faded away in the face of poverty. There is nothing like a hungry stomach to put life in perspective. In the end, without the complication of money, life is what we surround ourselves with. The people we surround ourselves with. Being traditional and cultured doesn't make you any better than the next person. It gives common ground between two people but it cannot ensure happiness. I measure the wealth of a person by the love in their heart. You make my grandson happy. There is no bigger wealth for me."
The simple explanation left Khushi somewhat disappointed. She had been expecting a battle with this woman. A display of territorial rights over the sole male heir. Never had she thought is would be this painless. But she could not fault her logic.
"As for tradition and culture. It can be learned. It is supposed to be learned. You are not just expected to know it. That is why elders to pass on this knowledge. As for everything else, it will come with time. You just have to be patient enough."
"I guess. It's just that everything seems so uncertain. I'm not sure how much patience I have left."
"For certain is death for the born and certain is birth for the dead; therefore over the inevitable, thou shouldst not grieve." Devyani smiled. "That my dear girl is from the Bhagvad Gita."
Khushi smiled and instinctively rest her head in Nani's lap.
Outside the door Arnav watched quietly as his Nani ran her hands lovingly over Khushi's head. It was not long before her soothing voice had lulled the younger woman to sleep. When asleep, Gupta was just Khushi. An innocent. No more and no less. Seeing her in the embrace of the woman who had protected them like a lioness gave him peace he had not known for sometime.
Anjali walked by with a sleeping Neha in her lap. Arnav gently pried the young girl from her mother's arms rocking her back and forth.
"What are you doing?" she whispered. Arnav signalled her to be quiet and gently pointed out to the scene inside the room. Anjali poked her head in through the crack and spied Khushi asleep on Devyani's lap. She smiled and looked up at he brother.
"It's time that girl got a little happiness."
"Hmmm." he concurred. The sibling duo stood there in the dimly lit corridor, silently observing.
"Di...will you promise me something?"
"When I'm not around...."
"No Di. I need you to listen."
"You're not going anywhere." Anjali whispered fiercely, unable to stop her tears.
"When I leave Di, I need you to promise me you will look after her. Not as my girlfriend or anything like that. But as a part of this family. If I can give her one thing then I want it to be family. I want her to have a family. This family."
Anjali looked as if she were ready to hit her brother. "Nothing is going to happen to you."
"Di..." he begged. "Please. I need you to promise me."
Anjali looked away closing her eyes. "I promise."