Khushi walked out of her office and came to a stop near the security guard’s cabin.
It was raining cats and dogs and many other animals of a zoo. The sky was a deep, dark violet and it was darkening rapidly. Street lights and headlights of vehicles appeared dim through the heavy sheet of rain.
Khushi’s lips twisted in annoyance with herself. This morning she had left her umbrella on the table next to her bag so that she wouldn’t forget to take it with her and then promptly walked out of the house with her bag and no umbrella. ‘Now what will you do, Khushi Kumari Gupta?’ she asked herself. ‘Will you walk home in the rain like a bheegi billi?’
Maybe she could borrow an umbrella from the guard. She looked around for him, but he was missing. She frowned.
There was no other go. She would have to get drenched. ‘Your non-existent Mama is not going to appear here to carry you home on his shoulders. Walk, Khushi,’ she exhorted herself.
Khushi put a foot out tentatively. Cold water seeped in through her jooti and chilled the digits of her foot.
“Khushi,” came the low call.
Her non-existent Mama had appeared? She peered through the rain and darkness.
Intimidating Singh Raizada stood there like a dark giant, holding an umbrella open over his head.
Khushi blinked. ‘Now you have started seeing him everywhere. Khushi, tumhara kuch nahi ho sakta,’ she told herself.
He moved a step closer. “Khushi, come on. I will drop you home.”
His husky voice woke her up from her stupor.
“You are really here?” she asked in doubt.
She peered under the umbrella to see his smile.
“Yes, you are really here. Nobody can smirk like you,” she said.
He covered her with the umbrella, passed his free arm over her shoulder and tugged her close.
“Kya kar rahe hein ap? If someone sees us...” she looked around with panic-stricken eyes.
“In this dim light?” he asked.
Khushi tried to insert her hands between the press of their trunks, but he hugged her closer to prevent her from puting any space between their bodies.
“You are Besharam Singh Raizada,” she whispered her half-hearted complaint.
“Only with you,” he breathed, his eyes on hers.
Slowly they walked together, wading through the steady stream of water. Slowly, Khushi’s arm lifted and curled around his waist. ASR clenched his jaw, praying for self-control. Heavy rain battered the umbrella, but Khushi and Arnav, wrapped in each other’s warmth, remained oblivious to the cold and the deluge.
They reached his car.
Reluctantly he took his arm from her and opened the door.
Khushi crawled in and he shut the door after her. He walked around the car and slid in to his seat, folding the umbrella.
Khushi phoned Buaji and informed her that Arnav was giving her a lift home.
Buaji chuckled. “When did the goonda become your protector, Titliyya?”
“Hum phoone rakhte hein, Buaji,” a hunted Khushi quickly cut the call.
“What did Buaji say?” Arnav asked.
“Woh..woh....nothing,” Khushi said.
“Nothing?” Arnav was sure she was being economical with the truth.
“I forgot to take the umbrella today morning,” Khushi confessed to change the topic.
“Good,” Outrageous Singh Raizada said.
Khushi’s lips parted in shock, but she pursed them, unwilling to rise to extreme provocation.
‘Is this the way he woos me?’ Khushi wondered. ‘Picks me up like a drowned kitten and drops me home?’ She looked him up and down with doubt in her eyes. 'If it were Salman Khanji...'
“Did you say something, Khushi?’ he asked, feeling her eyes on him like a touch.
“No..oo..” she stammered.
She looked out of the glass window. It was raining heavily. The roads were full of two-wheelers driven by people covered in water-resistant coats and hoods, buses sending waves of water to hit the pavements, cars and rickshaws navigating the roads with care. Shops were open and light from them spilled out on to the roads.
They passed a row of small tea shops and dhabas. Men and women were sitting inside sipping hot tea and snacking on delicacies. Khushi shivered in cold and promised herself a ginger tea as soon as she reached home.
She felt him slow down and park the car.
Khushi looked at him in alarm. Was something wrong with the car? Had the rains damaged it?
“Shall we have tea?” Mind-reader Singh Raizada asked.
Khushi shook her head. Had he really said what she had heard or was her head playing up?
Arnav nodded towards the shops, delighted that he had succeeded in surprising her.
Khushi nodded, not trusting her voice.
She watched him with incredulous eyes as he picked the cleanest joint and led her in to its bright confines. She watched him talk to the proprietor and inspect the food on offer.
She told the boy who came to serve them, “He is diabetic. Chai mein shakkar mat daliye.”
“Ji, ji,” the boy nodded. “I will take care to avoid sugar in your husband’s tea.”
Khushi looked down at her locked fingers. Husband?
Thirty minutes later, Khushi looked at the two empty cups of tea and the many plates on their table.
“We really ate so much?” she asked Arnav.
“Hhmmm,” Arnav leaned back in his chair. He couldn’t remember enjoying an evening more. Khushi had chatted, all inhibitions gone. She had talked of her childhood, the mischief she had gotten up to, dragging Payal behind her, the ways in which she provoked Buaji, her neighbours, her colleagues at Shyam’s office, her parents...
He had listened, a smile on his face, his eyes tender and amused. He had even burst out laughing a couple of times, visualising her driving people out of their minds with her antics.
He had spoken too, very unusual for him. In a few words punctuated with pauses, he had talked of his work, his plans for the firm, his family, his love for Akash, how he had no time to design clothes anymore, how his workload had increased dramatically the last few years...
Khushi said with a frown, “Do you own the business or does it own you?”
Arnav raised his brow.
“Don’t think you can scare me with your eye brow. Hum Khushi Kumari Gupta he,” she chided him.
Arnav lowered his head to hide his smile.
“You have only one life. I have only one life. What is the use of working day and night and becoming old and then thinking that I should have done this or I should have done that?” she asked reasonably.
He looked at the child-woman before him. She was wise beyond her years sometimes.
“Look at my parents. They had only started to live when an accident killed them without asking them whether they wanted to die or not, whether they were ready to die or not. The same thing will happen to me and you and everyone sitting here. What is the use of lamenting after death that you didn’t get to design a dress? Kaun sunega aap ki shikayath? Lord Yama?”
Arnav could only look at her and think.
“And for whom will you design clothes after death? For Lord Yama’s buffalo?” she asked reasonably.
“Err...no,” he replied.
“Aap hamein dekhiye. I have to work. Jiji has to work. That is how we manage at home. We don’t have a choice. But you do. Then why are you killing yourself working?” she asked.
“All my questions are good, par kya karein, Buaji does not appreciate my intelligence,” she pouted. “She thinks I am mad.”
“I wonder why,” he murmured, his eyes twinkling.
Khushi snorted. “You eyes are smiling again. You are laughing at me, aren’t you?”
“No, Khushi,” he caught hold of her hand. “I am just happy to be with you.”
She stared at him for a moment. Then she said weakly, “That’s a given. After all my name is Khushi.”
As he parked before Buaji’s house, the rain had died out.
“Our first date was fun, Khushi,” he said softly, his eyes lingering on her expressive features.
He smiled. “When girlfriends and boyfriends go out together.”
Her mouth rounded in an Awww. “You are my boyfriend?” she asked.
He nodded, suppressed laughter hurting his tummy.
She thought aloud, “I have a boyfriend?”
She looked suspiciously at him. “It is OK,” she admitted. Then she asked eagerly, “Suniye, will you write love letters to me?”
He stared at her.
“Prem patra? Will you write them? With lots of poetry?” she asked, her eyes dancing with eagerness. “When Pappu wanted to court Minu, he asked me to help him write a prem patra.”
“Who is Pappu?” Arnav asked faintly.
“Kamla Chachi’s son. He is seventeen,” Khushi informed him. “Minu is Vimla Mausi’s daughter. She is his neighbour.”
“I see,” Arnav said. So he had to behave like a seventeen-year old knucklehead to woo Khushi? Write letters, prem patra filled with poetry? What the!
“I have a boyfriend,” Khushi leaned back, feeling all victorious, full of a sense of achievement.
Arnav looked at her with a strong sense of foreboding.
“Will you take me to see Salman Khanji’s phillums?” she asked. “Woh kya he, Jiji doesn’t like him. And Buaji doesn’t like phillums with dishoom dishoom.”
Arnav looked at the eager light in her eyes and found himself nodding.
“Shukriya,” Khushi was nothing if not polite. “Ab hum chalte hein. It is getting late.”
“Khushi, thank me,” he demanded, his husky voice sending a thrill down her spine.
“I just did,” she said in confusion.
“Not like this,” he said.
“I can’t give you pappis but you can kiss me,” he suggested.
“Try it, Khushi. It is not very difficult. And you may even like it,” he teased her, his face straight.
Khushi looked at him, misgiving in her eyes. Naughty Singh Raizada would be the death of her, she thought.
He tried to look innocent. “After all, I am your boyfriend,” he offered the clinching argument.
Khushi thought furiously. She was safe anyway as he couldn’t kiss her. Would giving him a pappi be dangerous?
“All the time,” he reassured her.
Khushi inspected his face. Where should she kiss him?
His lips beckoned but that way lay danger. She quickly moved to safer areas. His nose, his forehead, his eyes, his cheeks...How would it feel to touch her lips to his stubble? How would it feel?
She unconsciously bit her lower lip.
Arnav swallowed. Hard.
Slowly her face came closer to him...and stopped. “Promise you won’t do anything?” she asked.
“Promise,” he croaked.
She moved closer. He shut his eyes.
He felt her lips settle on his eye lids, one after the other, her lips feeling like the caress of a petal.
He drew in a deep breath filled with her jasmine scent.
It was going to be a very long 2 months, he thought.