“Buaji, I am feeling hungry,” Khushi whined.
“Chup raho, Nandkisore!” Buaji brandished her belan.
Payal smiled. “Don’t think about food, Khushi,” she advised.
“How can I not think about food, Jiji? I am cutting cucumber. You are peeling potatoes. Buaji is rolling pooris. How can I keep my mind away from food when we are preparing a feast for the evening after the pooja? Jiji...” she cried.
“Khushi, tum bhi na!” Payal giggled.
“Nautanki kahin ka,” Buaji muttered as she applied the belan with vigour.
“I can smell the ghee in the besan laddoo, Buaji,” Khushi looked with longing at the metal bin with the laddoo.
Buaji said, “Payaliyya, hide this bin in the cupboard...on the topmost rack. Nahi to this chatori will start eating now.”
Payal laughed silently, her body shaking in mirth.
“How can you laugh when I am dying of hunger, Jiji?” Khushi pouted.
“Khushi, we didn’t have breakfast and lunch. That’s all. In two hours we will be at the temple. As soon as the pooja is over, we can return home and you can make up for all the pooris you missed,” Payal said softly.
“From her complaints, you will think that I have been starving her for the past ten years, Nandkisore!” Buaji growled.
Payal laughed while Khushi took umbrage at Buaji’s remark.
“You will understand my value only when I die of hunger, Buaji. Then your Nandkisore will ask you why you killed a phool si bachi by denying her the poori she begged for,” Khushi threatened.
“Phool si bachi? Kaun, Nandkisore? You are kaanton ki rani!” Buaji retorted before dunking the first poori in hot oil.
Payal laughed while Khushi grimaced at her failed try.
“Di, we will leave in ten minutes,” Arnav declared.
Mami looked at the clock. “Arnav bitwaa, it is only phor (four). Bhat are you going to do outside a shut templewaa? Kabootar udaane ka shauk he kaa?” she laughed.
“We need to get there on time,” Arnav tried to sound stern.
“In time for what, Chotey?” Anjali asked. “The pooja is at 6pm, isn’t it?” she teased.
“Arnav bitwaa, your Mami is going to do makeupwaa now. Call me after three hours,” Mami tried to provoke him, nudging Nani.
“Yes, Chotey. Manorama need the time to paint the surface of her face,” Nani added.
“I am leaving in ten minutes whether you come or not,” Arnav threatened. “You can let Mohan drive you. I will inform him of the exact location of the temple.”
The three ladies looked at him in wonder and then burst out laughing.
“Arnav biwaa, you goes early and guard the temple. We bill comes with Mohan,” Mami declared.
Arnav quickly shrugged in to his coat.
Nani looked at the other two ladies and winked. She said, “Chotey, are you going to the temple in such formal clothes? Aaj to kurta pehen lete?”
“Yes, yes, Chotey. Your wardrobe is full of the kurtas I gave you. Wear the cream and golden one your Jiju bought for you two months ago,” Anjali prompted him.
Arnav paused for a second. Would Khushi expect him to be in a kurta on such a holy day?
But a kurta?
He was not familiar with its workings...What if it fell down around his ankles while he was before Khushi? It was better not to take a risk.
He pulled the coat more firmly around his trunk and pocketed his phone in preparation to leaving.
The three ladies started at him till he vanished from their sight.
“He didn’t wear the kurta,” Nani lamented.
“Saasumma, it ijj great that your grandson at least stopped to wear clothes. He was in such a hurry burry that he might have gone as a nanga bacha, Hello Hi Bye Bye! Hamre nose hi kat jaate!”
Arnav parked his car behind the temple and walked to its entrance. The temple was open and a steady stream of devotees was proceeding to its premises.
Arnav looked around to spot Khushi but she was nowhere to be seen.
Maybe she was still at home. Maybe she was dressing to come to the temple, he thought. His feet led him away from the temple, towards her house. His eyes intent on the house, he failed to realise that he was in the middle of the road and blocking traffic.
Horns honked behind him, but he was oblivious to them.
“Arrey bhaiyya, what is wrong with you? Move out of the way,” came a voice from behind him.
Arnav jerked around to see a rickshawala yelling at him.
“Bhaiyya, you will get knocked down by some vehicle,” the man explained. “Move away from the road.”
“Sorry,” Arnav mumbled as he stepped away to the side. His eyes went to the open doors of Buaji’s house.
As though he had summoned her, Buaji came out of the house, dressed in fine clothes. She turned her head to shout, “Payaliyya, Titliyya, jaldi aao. The aarti won’t wait for you.”
Arnav quickly walked away. The last thing he wanted was for Khushi to see him before she was in the temple.
Khushi and Payal joined Buaji and Khushi held her own & Payal’s thalis as her sister locked the door. Then the three of them joined the crowd surging towards the temple.
Suddenly Khushi stopped. She looked around. Arnav Singh Raizada was somewhere around. She sniffed the air, her eyes scanning the area anxiously.
“Why are you soonging the air, Sanka Devi? Were you a dog in your last birth?” Buaji asked.
The crowd pushed them forward. Khushi walked with her family, her heart beating wildly. Was Loafer Singh Raizada loitering around the temple? She clutched her thali firmly.
Buaji, Payal and Khushi prayed and moved to the side to let others take their place. Buaji sat down a small ledge alongside other middle-aged ladies. Payal stood by her. Khushi leaned against a pillar facing them.
‘How can he be here?’ she thought. ‘I must be imagining his presence. After all, what has he got to do with Teej? And Shyamji said that his wife frequents a temple near their madhouse. So why should he appear here? Khushi, tum bhi na! Your imagination is as out of control as you are.’
Three girls came to stand by her. Khushi shifted to give them space. Four more ladies joined them, pushing Khushi away from her place. Khushi sidled over to another side of the pillar, away from Buaji’s eyes.
Arnav stood looking at Khushi, mesmerised by her beauty. She was in a pastel green sari with silver work on it. Her hair was unbound except for a clip or two.
She looked impossibly beautiful, more gorgeous than any woman had the right to be.
She was standing against the pillar, her head thrown back, her eyes closed, deaf to the sound of the bells ringing, blind to the crowds thronging around her.
“Khushi,” he hissed.
Her eyes flew open. She turned to look at the pillar with suspicion in her eyes.
‘Who is calling my name the way he does?’ Khushi wondered. “Did I imagine it?’ She peeked around the pillar to spot the culprit.
Arnav watched her look around in confusion and panic. Just as she was about to see him, a plump gentleman stepped before him, blocking her sight.
Arnav tried to move closer to her. His eyes fell on Buaji and Payal. As he watched, Buaji whispered something in Payal’s ear. She nodded and moved towards the pillar to find and join Khushi.
Arnav moved towards Buaji.
“Arnav babua!” Buaji beamed. “I was telling Payaliyya today that it has been long since you visited us.” She patted the space beside her.
Arnav sat down obediently.
“Are you alone here, Buaji?” Innocent Singh Raizada asked.
“Na babua, Payaliya and Khussi are with me. They are fasting today,” Buaji divulged.
“Where are they?” he asked, looking around.
Buaji sighed. “Bitwaa, Khussi was standing against the pillar here, where I could see her. Then these ladies came and pushed her away. So I sent Payaliyya to keep her company. Oo kaa he, bitwaa, I am very worried about her.”
“Payaliyya? I mean, Payal?” Arnav asked, a frown on his face.
Buaji sighed. “No, Khussi,” she said.
“What happened to Khushi?” Arnav felt his face pale.
“Hum kaa bataye babua, a goonda is following her around, proposing marriage,” Buaji confided in him, her big eyes round with worry.