Khushi saw him sway and fall first for she was facing Akash and Arnav was standing behind Akash.
“Hey Devi Maiyya!” she exclaimed even as she leaped on the glass cabinet, threw her legs over the other side and rushed to the fallen man.
Khushi reached Arnav and was followed a second later by Akash.
“Bhai,” Akash gasped.
Khushi knelt by the fallen stranger and lifted his head and placed it on her lap. Her fingers caressed his scalp through the thick, short hair.
The customers gathered around in shock.
“Pour water over him,” an elderly man suggested.
“No, his coat will be damaged. Fan him,” another shouted.
“Is he breathing?” another asked.
“Bhai,” Akash pleaded. “Bhai, get up. Please.”
Bhai was deaf to his pleas.
“Should we ring for the ambulance?” another asked, pulling his phone out.
“Is it a matter for the police?” another asked.
“He was standing silently here, looking at the sweets. Did not speak even a word. Bewda he kaa?” an elderly lady asked.
“Let’s take him inside,” Khushi muttered to Akash.
Akash nodded, frantic with worry.
“Munna, Krishna,” Khushi bellowed.
The boys came running and helped Akash carry an unconscious Arnav through the shop’s exit and into Khushi’s house, Gomti Sadan.
“Buaji, Amma, Jiji...” Khushi screamed.
The ladies came running to see Khushi leading a procession into the house. Behind her was a man being carried by Munna, Krishna and a stranger.
“Khussi, kaa hua?” Amma asked, her hand on her heart.
“Place him on this bed, Nandkisore,” Buaji showed them the piece of antique furniture.
Payal ran to get water.
“Shukriya,” gasped Akash before reaching for his phone to call his family into the house.
“What happened to that bitwaa, Nandkisore?” Buaji asked in an aside. “Khussi, you did not hit him, did you?”
Khushi huffed, placing her hands firmly on her hips. “No, I didn’t. I didn’t get the time,” she replied crossly. “You can tease me later. First look at this poor man. Buaji, he has shakkar ki bimari.”
“Hai Re Nandkisore!” Buaji exclaimed.
The panels of the door were pushed open by the anxious hordes from Delhi.
“Hamre Arnav bitwaa!” Mami wailed.
“Bitwaa,” Mamaji gasped.
“Chotey!” Anjali and Nani called in one voice.
Payal returned with the water and sprinkled it on Arnav’s face. There was a slight flicker of his eyelids.
“His sugar levels must have gone low,” Anjali gasped.
“We need something sweet,” Akash looked at Khushi, desperate.
“Isme problem kya he, Bhaiyya. The shop is full of sweets. I will get something,” Khushi spoke as she ran to the shop.
“He was alright till a few moments back,” Anjali explained to the Guptas. “He went after Akash to buy sweets and then..”
“Tum chinta mat karo, bitiyya,” Bujai consoled her. “Nandkisore sab theek kar dega.”
Khushi returned in seconds with a box full of jalebi.
Akash called, “Bhai, bhai, please wake up.”
His Bhai was not in the mood to obey him. He remained comatose. Akash shook Arnav and Mama removed his shoes and rubbed his feet. Nani rubbed his hands. Mami placed her hand on his head and wept all over him.
“Bhai,” Akash called.
“Chotey,” Di cried.
Arnav moved slightly.
“Prop him up and force his mouth open,” Khushi said urgently.
Akash and Mama lifted Arnav to sit. Amma and Buaji pushed pillows behind him. Akash applied pressure around Arnav’s lips to get him to open his mouth. As soon as Arnav’s mouth opened, Khushi pushed a jalebi into it.
Arnav turned his head restlessly, trying to push the sweet out of his mouth.
“Eat it,” Khushi ordered. “Don’t show your nakhre when you are sick.”
“Open your mouth,” Khushi scolded him.
Arnav parted his lips. Khushi made him eat three jalebi and Payal forced water down his throat.
A few moments later, Arnav opened his eyes to see Khushi looking at him with a worried expression on her beautiful face.
He blinked. The goddess was by him, looking at him, anxious about his well-being?
“Chotey, how are you?” Anjali wept over him.
“Tum theek ho, bitwaa?” Amma asked.
Arnav looked at the Guptas and his surroundings, disoriented.
“Chotey, you have to go for a full check-up once we get to Delhi,” Nani insisted.
Mami nodded. “Hamre Arnav bitwaa! Phell like a katte patang! Hello Hi Bye Bye!” She dried her eyes but could do nothing about the streaks of make-up on her face.
“Bhai, if you are better, we can leave now. I will drive to Delhi,” Akash offered. “You rest.”
Arnav shook his head to clear it.
Khushi drew in a deep breath. “How can you make him travel? He is sick! Please let him rest here a while.”
“Yes, yes,” Amma and Buaji added.
The Raizadas looked at the Guptas with gratitude and embarrassment on their faces.
“Maaf keejiye,” Nani began. “We barged into your house.”
“Thank you for looking after Chotey,” Anjali said with tear-filled eyes.
Buaji waved away their thanks and their sorries.
“This can happen to anyone. Please don’t apologise, Nandkisore. Please stay here till babua is able to travel. What is the hurry?” she asked.
The Raizadas looked among themselves and then at Arnav. He looked at khushi’s worried face and nodded quietly.
“I am Madhumati Gupta. This is my sister-in-law, Garima. These are my nieces, Payaliyya and Khussi. My brother, Sasi will be home soon. We run Satwik Mishtan Bhandaar,” Buaji explained.
“I am Devyani Raizada, Madhumatiji. This is my son, Manohar, his wife, Manorama, their son, Akash. Anjali and Arnav are my grandchildren. My daughter and her husband are no more,” Nani explained.
“Raijjada..the name sounds familiar,” Buaji said thoughtfully.
“Haan, Jiji,” Amma agreed. Then she asked Nani, “Do you have relations in Lucknow?”
“Do we hab relations in Lucknow? We hab only relations in Lucknow, Hello Hi Bye Bye!” Mami said, wiping her tears.
Nani sighed. “We belong to Lucknow. Thakur Rudra Pratap Singh was my husband.”
Buaji and Amma gasped. “Thakur Rudra Pratap Singh?”
Khushi and Payal looked at their Amma and Buaji with curious eyes.
“Who doesn’t know Thakurji?” Buaji exclaimed. “Such a decent gentleman with a kind heart. He never turned away anyone who approached him for help. Was Ratnaji this babua’s mother?”
“Yes,” Nani sighed for she knew that the tragedies at Sheesh Mahal had made headlines. “Chotey bought back Sheesh Mahal. We came to finalise the deal. We live in Delhi now.”
Buaji said, “Only Nandkisore knows why such terrible things happen to people. Who are we to question him?”
Amma nodded. “You must stay with us for a couple of days at least. Apna hi ghar samajhiye.”
“Yes, yes,” Buaji added.
Khushi and Payal smiled their approval.
Nani and the others tried to refuse but the Guptas were joined by Sasi Gupta, who after listening to Buaji and seeing Arnav, refused to hear of their leaving.
Nani, Anjali and Mami looked at Arnav.
He quickly leaned back against the pillows and shut his eyes to get them to agree to stay.
“Hamre Arnav bitwaa ijj weak,” Mami exclaimed. “Saasumma, let us stay for two dajjs.”
The decision was made. The Raizadas stayed back, grateful that they did not have to travel to Delhi when Arnav was so ill and that they had found such a warm and loving family to live with.
Khushi led Akash and Arnav to their room, chattering nineteen to a dozen.
“You rest well, Arnavji. I will make whatever you want to eat and send it with your brother,” she smiled.
“Thank you,” Arnav said.
“Why are you thanking me now? Thank me after you taste my cooking. What would you like to have for lunch?” she asked.
“You can cook?” Arnav asked to tease her.
Her eyes flew open in outrage. “Can I cook? He is asking if I can cook,” Khushi informed Akash who looked as uncomfortable as anyone could be. “I have been cooking since I was twelve,” she claimed, lifting her nose in the air.
“Really?” Arnav infused doubt into his voice.
Akash stared at him. What was wrong with Bhai? Why was he challenging this lioness of a girl? And what did it matter to Bhai if she could cook or not? It was not as if he was going to employ her as his cook!
“Really,” Khushi answered him. “Tell me what you want for lunch. I will make it,” she declared.
“You will?” Arnav asked softly.
“Of course I will,” she proclaimed.
“Pizza,” Arnav demanded.
Akash gasped. Bhai never ate pizza. What was wrong with him?
“Pijja?” Khushi whispered, a frown creasing her forehead. What was that?
“Veg pizza,” Arnav tried to hide his smile at Khushi’s confusion.
“Woh..woh..jo kuch bhi he..woh veg hi hoga. We are pure shakahari log. We don’t take non-veg,” Khushi claimed.
“Fine,” Arnav smirked. “So can I expect a veg pizza for lunch?”
Khushi looked at the open challenge on his face. It was better when he was unconscious!
She nodded and left the room, temper propelling her.
“Bhai, what are you doing?” Poor Akash asked.
Arnav burst out laughing. “Eating pizza for lunch. Veg pizza because we are all shakahari,” he chortled.
Khushi walked into the shop, a big worried frown on her face.
“Kya hua, Didi? Is he still ill?” Munna asked.
“No, he is awake now,” Khushi muttered.
“Waise, why did he faint?” Krishna asked her in her ear. “Knocked him out cold with your chatter, didn’t you?”
“Behosh kar diya bechare ko with her ada and nakhre,” Munna teased.
“I will deal with you two later,” Khushi muttered. “First I have to find out how to make veg pijja.”
“Veg pijja? What is that?” Munna asked.
“Who knows?” Khushi asked. “Why can’t he eat bhature or phulka or parathe? Pijjawala kahin ka,” she muttered. “It is all the fault of Delhi.” She booted up the computer in the small office attached to the shop.
She typed Veg Pijja and got a series of leads to Pizza Online, Pizza movie, and Veg Pizza recipe on a blog.
“It is pizza, not pijja? Let me get my hands on this recipe. Then I will show you, you Arnav Singh Raizada!” she exclaimed as she set out to write down the recipe.
“Sugar, warm water, yeast...sab he..no problem....” she studied the ingredients. “Maida, salt, olive oil...yeh olive oil kaa he?” Khushi wondered. “From where do I get this oil?” she fretted. Then she told herself, “Khushi, it is just an oil...a yellow-green oil. The bottle looks green. Take sarson ka tel instead. It is an edible oil after all.”
Then she studied the recipe.
“Tomato pijja sauce,” she read. “Tomatoes, garlic..yes, I have garlic...phir se olive oil? Hey Devi Maiyya, this olive oil will follow me to the shamshan. Onion, capsicum..oh...Shimla mirch, olives? Yeh kya he? Is it ber? Basil? Yeh kya he?”
She quickly googled it. “Tulsi? I have it in my pot. Woh to theek he. But what is this? Oregano? Isn’t oregano something you do in craft class at school? No, Khushi. That is origami.” She checked out oregano. “Hey Devi Maiyya, from where will I get this?”
She looked at the recipe. “Oven? But I don’t have an oven. Raju Chacha’s Nani’s neighbour has one, but I think it is old. Does it work now?” she wondered. “First heat the oven. Make a roti of the pijja dough, put sarson ka tel on it, put sauce on it, put vegetables on it, then...mozarella cheej? Yeh kya he? Amul cheej suna he, paneer suna he, yeh kya he?”
“Didi, aren’t you coming to the cash counter?” Krishna asked.
“This Arnav Singh Raizada and his veg pijja will drive me crazy, Krishna. Suno, is Raju Chacha’s Nani still alive?” Khushi asked.
Krishna frowned. “Why? Is she going to make veg pijja for you?”
“No, I need her help to borrow her neighbour’s oven,” Khushi told him.
Krishna hit his head. “That oven? It must be lying in some pile of junk by now.”
“Shubh shubh bolo,” Khushi admonished him and set out to locate her oven.
Khushi looked at the dilapidated oven and then at Munna and Krishna. Both boys looked heavenwards, absolving themselves of all responsibility.
“Will this work?” Khushi wondered aloud. The oven was older than her and its photo deserved to be hung on the wall with a floral garland around it!
Munna swallowed his laughter and said, “You will never know if you don’t try.”
“Haan, Didi, the oven can’t speak,” Krishna looked at Munna, his eyes dancing with laughter.
Khushi swallowed hard and then gingerly plugged it in and switched it on.
The house was plunged into darkness.
“Hai Re Nandkisore! The current has decided to abandon us today!” Buaji was heard to exclaim loudly from the hall.
“Payaliyya, take these to Devyaniji’s room and fan her,” Amma handed over two hand-made cloth fans to Payal.
“Munna, Krishna,” Khushi whispered in panic. “Buaji will come here now to find out why the current has gone!”
“I will repair it, Didi,” Munna chuckled as he walked away.
“Your oven is very potent, Didi. Current hi udda diya!” Krishna teased as he set out to dismantle the culprit and repair it.
Khushi stood looking at the oven, her eyes rolling, her hands on her hips.
“It is all his fault, that shakkarwala lying in the guest room, smirking at me, challenging me!” She looked around. The house looked dark even at noon. She looked at the clock and panicked. She didn’t have much time to produce the pijja. “You are not innocent, Khushi Kumari Gupta! Part of the blame lies with you too. If he was stupid enough to challenge you, why were you stupid enough to accept it? Mari jaa rahi thi to take up the challenge! Ab bhugto!”
Krishna laughed silently, listening to her chide herself.
“Don’t laugh,” Khushi rebuked him. “Who knows what else will get damaged in this house by the time he decides to leave for Delhi!”
“As long as your heart is safe, you don’t have to worry, Didi,” Krishna said softly, his sharp eyes on her perplexed face.
“Heart? What has my dil got to do with veg pijja?” Khushi asked.
“What if you come to like him a lot? So much that you feel sad when he decides to return to Delhi?” Krishna asked lightly although the look in his eyes was serious.
“Like him? Like that..that man? Lose my dil to a mere man? Never! My heart belongs to Satwik Mishtaan Bhandaar and its jalebi, balushahi, rajbhog, rabdi, sandesh, Mathura peda, dry petha....” Khushi claimed, smiling at thought of her gorgeous shop and its delicacies.
Krishna looked down at the oven, a small smile on his lips. “Dekhte hein,” he said mildly.
“Dekhte hein,” Khushi retorted.
The lights came on.
Khushi clutched her heart in relief. Munna returned to help Krishna. Soon they set the oven to rights.
Khushi looked at the final product with doubt in her eyes. The veg pijja looked alright, just as it looked in the photo in the recipe. But the taste?
Khushi broke off a piece and put it into her mouth.
Krishna and Munna burst into laughter seeing the grimace on her face.
“The dough is raw in places...the smell and taste of sarson ka tel...uuuggghhhh...it is bland, pheeka...” Khushi washed down the piece with a huge glass of water.
Munna hid his head in his hands and laughed. Krishna was last seen rolling on the floor laughing.
“How will he eat this for lunch?” Khushi worried. “He will have indigestion along with low shakkar, Hey Devi Maiyya.”
Munna gasped between laughter, “You should have tried the tandoor at our catering section instead of this old oven.”
Khushi’s face lit up. “Tumhare muh mein ghee shakkar, Munna!”
She quickly rolled out a fat roti and ran to the big shed behind Gomti Sadan from where the catering section of Satwik Mishtaan Bhandaar worked.
“Babuji, where is Harpalji?” Khushi asked, panting.
“Near the tandoor,” Sasi Gupta said, not taking his eyes from the cartons of food being loaded on a mini truck.
Khushi held the roti aloft as she ran, making her way through the crowd of workers to the tandoor.
“Harpalji,” she called.
“Kya he, beta?” Harpalji asked, placing rotis on the inner surface of the hot clay oven with dexterity.
“Will you fry this roti for me in the tandoor?” Khushi asked.
Harpalji looked at the over-sized, floppy roti in her hand, his bushy eyebrows rising in shock.
“What is this?” he asked gruffly.
“Pijja-roti,” Khushi answered.
Harpalji frowned. “What is that?”
“Poochiye mat!” Khushi sighed, sitting down by him.
She watched him position her roti on a cloth cushion and place it in the tandoor. “It is all because of him.”
“Him? Kaun him?” Harpalji asked.
“A man!” Khushi sighed. “I met him only today morning, but it seems like I have been carrying him for years.”
“In your dil?” Harpalji’s eyes widened.
“In my dil? Never! On my shoulders like the burden on a dhobi’s donkey,” Khushi clarified.
“So you are a donkey?” Harpalji asked, fishing out her pijja-roti with two metal sticks and placing it on a plate.
Khushi pouted. “Harpalji!” she protested.
“I thought you were speaking of your husband,” he teased.
Khushi fired up. “Khushi Kumari Gupta has only one husband. Satwik...”
“Mishtaan Bhandaar,” Harpalji completed, having heard this innumerable times. “Lo, take your pijja-roti and run. I have work to do.”
“Shukriya,” Khushi called. “I will send your pakore here with Munna,” she promised him a treat.
“And rasmalai,” Harpalji bargained, his eyes twinkling.
“And rasmalai,” Khushi laughed as she ran away, the plate with her pijja-roti held aloft.
Khushi looked at the pijja-roti. It was nicely done. Now all she had to do was splash some oil and the tomato sauce on it, arrange vegetables on it and cover it with cheese.
She opened the bottle of sarson ka tel. The smell of mustard was strong. She grimaced and corked it. Maybe she could use sunflower oil that didn’t smell quite so much. Or why not ghee?
‘Why should I use sunflower oil when I have desi ghee?’ Khushi asked herself. She quickly pulled the big bin of fragrant ghee close to her, prised open the lid and dipped a big spoon in it.
She coated the tandoor pijja-roti with a lavish helping of ghee. Then Khushi covered the oily surface of the roti with the tomato sauce she had made. She dipped a finger in it and tasted it.
Her lips turned down.
How could that man eat this? It was practically tasteless!
She quickly got out her spice box.
A little red chilly powder...
Some garam masala powder....
A sprinkle of chaat masala...
Some kasuri methi...
She arranged blanched capsicum rings and onions on the spiced-up sauce.
Why only capsicum and onions on a veg pijja? She quickly boiled mattar, carrots, beans, cabbage and just about every vegetable she could find and decorated her pijja. Khushi added small cubes of paneer to the mix.
She sprinkled a generous dose of chaat masala on them.
Then she opened a packet of Amul cheese.
Khushi used a sharp knife on the slices and cut them into small bits. She showered them on her veg pijja and added finely-diced coriander and mint leaves to give it a classy look.
Khushi stood back to look at her piece of work. It looked beautiful, all red and green and white and orange. “Your pijja is more colourful than a sari, Khushi Kumari Gupta!” she patted herself on her back. “You Arnav Singh Raizada, look at my veg pijja and melt in jealousy. Can you make a pijja like this? No, you can’t. Only Khushi can.”
Then she placed the masterpiece in the antique oven and watched it anxiously through the glass like a mother gaping at her child attending Kindergarten on its first day.
Darlings, Rash & I need a short break. Will be back in a couple of weeks if not sooner!