The next morning (very early morning) as the car sped towards Jaipur, Arnav sat surrounded by the dreadful memories of the past. The past – there was just no escaping it was there? It came back to haunt him in new and different ways each time. He had sworn not be like his father, but then naam badalne se kya hota hai, clearly it wasn’t that easy to take the Malik out of him, he clenched his fist in anguished fury.
That week had been so hectic, he had been traveling non-stop and had been exhausted. Yet when something had cropped up at the Lucknow fashion show, he had jumped at the chance to go, even though it would mean further stretching his already jam-packed schedule. But then it had been more than a week since he had seen Khushi or his kids, the longest ever! Even a glimpse would do, just a smile a hug or two and he would be off – that would be enough, it had to be for he was even busier the next week; perhaps after that either he would go over or, his eyes had crinkled, he would order Khushi to come back – he laughed to himself as he sat in the airplane – oh how he loved that ‘what the’ expression of hers, come to think of it, she said it more often than him these days; he laughed again did she even know what she was saying? He would have to investigate one of these days – poora boliye na indeed, main batata hoon poora kya hota hai! He smiled in pleasurable anticipation. His good mood lasted the whole evening, the issue had been sorted out; the fashion show was a brilliant success, another feather in his already overloaded cap. He sat smugly in the front row staring unseeingly at the girls sashaying on the ramp, remembering how it was on this very day that his life’s happiness and joy had fallen into his arms – unconsciously his arms tightened as if holding her close, he could still feel the tremble of her body, light as a feather, her soft rushed breath, the flutter of her eyes, the quiver in her lips, the delicate flush on her cheeks – The burst of applause as he faintly heard his own name being called broke his reverie. There was no time to think or even escape as he was the star of the evening and the celebrations went on till late at night, actually early morning. He remembered feeling bored and irritated; he couldn’t go over to his in-laws place this late, he decided he would try to make it for breakfast on the way to the airport.
And then everything just went for a toss.
He recollected having a drink or two, nothing more he could have sworn but he felt nauseous and dizzy, even suffocated. He had stepped out of the crowded hall hoping to catch a breath of fresh air before making his escape to the blessed silence of his room. The rest of the events were a big blur – there was some girl crying, she claimed to be a model, a new one in his organization, she couldn’t find her room key; he offered to help her and went with her to the receptionist, he stumbled and slurred a bit, she in turn offered to help him to his room, he didn’t care either way but she insisted anyway, she opened the door to his suite, it was pitch dark, he again stumbled and she gave a squeak of alarm; he grabbed hold of her, “Khhhhushiiii” he was almost delirious with joy. She was here! He didn’t stop to think or question how that was possible, he just hugged her tightly while she struggled and squirmed, “Yeh kya kar rahein hai aap, chhodiye humein, you are drunk! Chhodiye hume!” He had laughed as they had both fallen on to the bed. That was all he remembered till he had been woken up at 10 am by the insistent knocking on the door. Still woozy and disoriented he had stumbled reluctantly to the door, it was a waiter bearing fresh hot coffee, the aroma revived him somewhat; Arnav decided against blasting the waiter for disturbing him and asked him the time, “Dus bajein hain Sir.”
“Dus!” Arnav suddenly woke up – his flight was at 11.45, damn it! He wouldn’t be able to meet his family, for a few blissful seconds he toyed with the idea of going back to sleep, calling Khushi over with the kids – regretfully he discarded the idea, what about the delegation from China? He had rushed off without contacting Khushi, no point if he couldn’t meet her, she would give him an earful, first for not telling her earlier and now for oversleeping – as it is, his head was throbbing and felt as if it were stuffed with cotton wool; he couldn’t think straight and had been glad to doze off in the flight, something he rarely ever did. The whole day he had been disoriented and dizzy, but of course he hadn’t thought much about it then as he was terribly busy with no scope to pamper these internal glitches. Feeling annoyed and irritated at not being able to meet his family, he had rather pettily taken it out by not returning Khushi’s calls and instead sent terse curt messages, very well knowing she would be hurt and upset; possibly the sub-text behind those almost rude texts went something like this, damn Khushi for making me miss her, must be her fault that I couldn’t even meet my children, they must be missing their dad while she is enjoying herself with her parents, I will make you miss me as much I am missing you so take this – hence those cutting texts to Khushi. After a couple of rounds, there was blank and hurt silence from Khushi’s side as she got the message that he was in his ‘mujhe koi faraq nahi padta dammit’ mood. Paradoxically this made Arnav even more mad and upset, she would float up before his eyes, her eyes wet with tears looking reproachfully at him; he slammed the door of his car shut and strode into ARD, he was dammed if he was going to let anything or anybody interfere with his work – his step faltered a bit, she wasn’t just anybody was she, she was Khushi, the mother of his children, the love of his life – his heart softened and he yearned to hear her voice. In a minute from the privacy of his cabin he would call her up, maybe have an argument or two with her to cheer himself up, he grinned to himself.
But then he never got that minute or the opportunity to smile again, for an agonizingly long time.
The mood at ARD was solemn and somber, word was out; the boss was on a rampage and hungry for blood. He had been like that ever since he had returned from Lucknow about four or five days ago; a few employees had even taken to ticking off the days on the calendar till Khushi madam’s return. Thank God he was off to London today. All the staff prudently gave him a wide berth, except of course for Aman, who had no choice but to offer himself as the sacrificial lamb, again.
“Sir,” he knocked softly and entered, “Bit of a problem, Sonia has made an allegation of rape and molestation against you,” Aman announced rather blandly as if relating the status of ARD shares.
ASR had stared at him disbelievingly, “WHAT! Who is Sonia? When did this happen?”
ASR’s reaction was somehow reassuring for Aman; he relaxed a bit and then called in a couple of unknown ladies, who were presumably representing Sonia. They presented a written complaint from Sonia – a new model at ARD who had gone for the Lucknow fashion show. That evening, she claimed, she had been hungry, tired and exhausted, she couldn’t find her room keys and was crying when ASR came and offered to help her; she thanked him, he insisted on escorting her to her room, but then he was swaying and stumbling so she offered to help him to return the favor and help him to his room. So far so good, but then once inside he had attacked her; repeatedly outraged her modesty and she had managed to escape only a couple of hours later. She had felt too ashamed and scared to complain initially but now she wanted justice.
Arnav had read the complaint in growing shock and horror, no, this couldn’t be true! He could never do such a thing! Or could he? He was drunk and he had no recollection of what happened after he entered his suite, but there was no denying it he could have sworn he had clutched Khushi’s softness, inhaled her fragrance, had it been a dream or had it been this girl? Had he been so desperate for Khushi that he had…He almost gagged but none of it showed on his face, his mind working furiously, he nodded to Aman to call Mr Roy and dismissed them coldly, “I deny this allegation. Where is the proof?”
“Do you have any proof Mr Raizada to prove your innocence?” the fat auntyji shot back, “In a case like this, her word counts for more than yours,” she sneered, “Waise bhi, aapki reputation toh gayi na?” she said almost gloatingly.
Alarm bells went off in ASR’s dimaag, “So what do want?” he casually steepled his fingers, “Money?”
“We want justice,” both the aunties declared piously.
“So why didn’t you go to the police?” Arnav challenged them, “Have you filed an FIR?”
They were clearly taken aback and looked at each other uneasily, “Nahi, we wanted to but Sonia didn’t want us to make a national issue of it, she knows her chances of becoming a successful model will be seriously affected if she takes the extreme step, so she just wants an apology from you.”
Arnav shook his head, “Leave your contact details, my lawyer will get back to you.”
He began working on his laptop, the two ladies, had no choice but to leave.
He shut his laptop with a bang and again attempted to recollect that night, but it was a big blank, no matter how hard he tried, it was a big blur, yet something had happened. But what exactly? Was the girl telling a cooked up story or was it a fact?
His blood ran cold; he broke out in a sweat. No! This couldn’t be true, this couldn’t be happening to him!
Khushi! What would she think? What if she didn’t believe him, dammit he didn’t know what to believe himself, what if she left him? His hands felt nerveless and cold as his heart dropped to his shoes.
He cared two hoots for his reputation, what the world thought of him, if only Khushi was by his side, if only his conscience was clear. He slumped against the chair – that was the whole problem – he couldn’t remember anything further of that night to be able to justify even to himself, to declare with conviction. He had no doubt his lawyer would be able to extricate him from this mess without much trouble, especially since the girl didn’t seem to be interested in bandying the word about town. But Khushi, what would she say? How would he be able to stay with himself? A revulsion of feeling gripped him, how does one disown oneself? He was torn, he felt like screaming, wasn’t there any way to know what had actually happened that night?
Mr Roy came in soon afterwards; Arnav was honest about his side of the story. Mr Roy took up the matter and was confident about sorting it out soon without much collateral damage. He was right but only partially, nothing less than an apology in front of the internal inquiry committee of ARD would satisfy the girl, and of course monetary compensation which would ‘dissuade’ her from going to the police.
Mr Roy was convinced that it was all set up, a cooked up story, Arnav’s drink had been spiked possibly with some ‘date rape drug’ (hence the blurred and hazy memories of that crucial night) but with no proof they really had no choice but to play along with the girl’s dictates. Arnav seethed at his vulnerability, especially because he had no way of proving his innocence, even to his own self, he was his father’s son, betrayal ran in his blood –Khushiiiii he yearned for her comforting support, she would make everything alright, “Aman make sure this news doesn’t reach Khushi and cancel the London trip,” he ordered bleakly; Aman nodded, but he couldn’t stop the grapevine from spreading the word like fire around ARD. The accusation reached even Anjali who was holidaying in the States with her family; she cut short her vacation and flew back alone to be with her Chotte while Khushi’s sixth sense brought her back to Delhi.
Arnav had been stunned to see her at RM and somehow relieved. He knew he was living on borrowed time, in constant dread, waiting for the axe to fall; waise bhi this was not something which he could have hidden from her for long and he had no intentions of being anything other than brutally honest with her. It was only just, it was pay back time – time to pay back for accusing her, trying her, punishing her without even the courtesy of a hearing – today he could finally and fully appreciate how she must have felt to see the disgust, the loathing, the contempt in his eyes, not knowing her crime.
He refused to look at her, he wouldn’t be able to bear it; unable to resist he had looked squarely into her eyes, he had reeled from the shock of the pain and anguish he could clearly see. What if she couldn’t take his betrayal and what if she took Ma’s route, cold fear clutched his heart, he felt suffocated his breath came in short gasps. He couldn’t stay here another moment and had walked out of RM, perhaps never to return.
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