“So what project did you ultimately make?” Sherry’s cracked voice broke the spell.
Anya blinked and withdrew – the discussion turned technical and safe. Sunita returned soon afterwards to find them involved in a heated discussion over some academic problem, “Yeh kya ho raha hai yahan?” she scolded them impartially; she melted at their sheepish expressions, especially Anya who was looking extremely embarrassed and guilty, “Come come I guess you must be starving, and that is why tempers are running high right?” she twinkled.
Anya rushed to help Sunita unpack the dinner; it was a simple meal, but hot and of course ma ke haath ka pyaar aur jaadoo.
There was khichdi for Sherry and fried rice with manchurian for Anya. Sherry took offense at this partiality and insisted on having that as well. Not content, he demanded that Anya too partake the khichdi.
Anya rolled her eyes, “What’s up with him maam,” she said in a loud whisper.
“Oh he doesn’t like khichdi,” Sunita replied, “He probably has built up a strong negative association of khichdi with illness,” she attempted to excuse her son.
“Kuch nahi Maam,” Anya shook her head knowingly, “I think he is just sleepy and tired.
Sunita looked at him and nodded her head as she spooned him some fried rice, “Yeah he does get cranky when he is sleepy.”
“Just like Ankit and Devansh, my kid brothers,” she stressed, barely concealing her grin; Sherry just glared at her, he attempted to take away the plate from his mother but she swatted his hand away, “Haatt Sheru,” Anya’s muffled giggles escaped and Sunita followed suit.
Sherry rolled his eyes and gave himself up to the beauty of the moment – the sight of the two most adorable women in this world laughing and smiling – even if it were at him.
Anya reluctantly put away her plate, “Maam, I think I should leave now.”
“Oh yes of course, the driver is waiting he will drop you and then go home, let me call him,” Sunita called him up and gave him instructions.
Anya took the opportunity to wish Sherry a goodnight, promising to be back the next day with Aisha; Sunita’s presence barely prevented another session of free fall and Anya hurriedly waved goodbye but then Sherry called urgently, “Maa!”
Sunita looked at him questioningly, she sighed and smacked herself, “Yes of course, I wasn’t thinking straight, come Anya I will drop you and then come back.”
Anya of course protested, but Sunita hustled her out, “Come on Anya don’t you want me to survive the night? He will never let me hear the end of it if I let you go alone at this time of the night, even though the driver’s been with me for more than a decade now,” she shook her head and gently pushed Anya.
“Maybe we should send in the male attendant,” said Anya in a small voice feeling guilty and worried that Sherry would be alone, of course for a short while, it wasn’t far and there would be no traffic either at this time.
Sunita nodded approvingly, “Yes even I was thinking that, may as well get over that till then,” she said.
A final look back at the door and Anya vanished; Sherry lay back with a sigh a heady song in his veins and regret in his heart. He wished he could have gone to drop Anya. He shook his head, he was over-reacting he admitted to himself, the driver was trustworthy and besides his Mum forever going and coming at all odd hours alone with the driver for so many years now. Actually it was his helpless state that was chafing him, to be lolling about on the bed, whilst they waited hand and foot, damn it, he swore silently.
Unexpectedly, he grinned – on the other hand – if he hadn’t been here, Anya too wouldn’t have come would she? He shifted uncomfortably and sighed philosophically, ahh well no pain no gain.
Sunita returned soon enough, “Well,” he asked expectantly.
“Well what?” Sunita said obtusely as she served dinner for herself.
“Come on Maa! Now you are deliberately teasing a sick man, how can you be so horrible?” Sherry protested, he couldn’t wait for her verdict, and of course he couldn’t resist talking about her – woh nahi toh uski baatein hi sahi.
Sunita looked at him; her heart broke to see him like this –all battered and bandaged and ohh so much pain! She wished she could take away his agony but then she looked into his eyes – it had been years since she had seen that spark in his eyes. There was a glow, a brightness, a zest for life in his eyes which shone through, her heart melted.
She put down the plate and gently caressed his cheek and kissed his forehead, “You are right, Anya is adorable and worth waiting for,” she twinkled at him, “Didn’t at all look like a kid to me!” she smiled.
Sherry brightened even more, “Exactly Ma! But you should have seen her yesterday, she looked as if she had just stepped into her teens, amazing what difference clothes can make!” he marveled.
Sunita nodded her head thoughtfully, her heart contracting a bit; he was clearly madly in love with Anya, but what about her? Did she too care about Sherry in the same way? What if she didn’t? How would Sherry take it then? Dread filled her, she couldn’t bear to see him only half alive, not again. The past few years had been terribly agonizing, seeing the blank listless look in his eyes going through the motions of life yet not really there – to be a helpless mute witness to his pain – and even worse, pretend to be unaware, go along with the flow of events, just waiting, hoping and praying for a glimpse of that gleeful glint in his eye.
She shuddered; she couldn’t go through that again, “Maa! What are you thinking?”
Sunita smiled and shook off her dark thoughts, “Kuch nahi Sheru, was just thinking that you should take things easy, she is after all very young still and who knows her destiny maybe elsewhere?” she couldn’t resist cautioning him.
His face fell, his eyes dulled, “Yeah I guess you are right Ma, I shouldn’t get my hopes too high,” he sighed and then brightened, “But Maaa, do you know why she didn’t wait to meet you before leaving this morning?” he laughed in sheer delight, “She thinks she is so smart huh!”
Sunita looked questioningly at her clearly gloating son, “Why?”
“She didn’t want you to catch her in her scruffy Tom Sawyer avatar,” he grinned delightedly, “She specifically made it a point to dress in something that makes her look older and more mature,” he laughed, “I think this is the first time I have ever seen her in an Indian dress, hmm not bad Anya, but I wonder how many Indian dresses you do possess? After all I am here for sometime as is Ma,” he laughed wickedly.
Sunita shook her head, “Tum bhi na Sheru, you just watch it ok, don’t tease her too much and take it easy,” she looked at him sternly, “Don’t rush into anything and especially don’t push her into anything that she doesn’t want,” she stated rather bluntly.
“Ohh puhlleez Ma! Now don’t lecture me, I know all that, or don’t you trust me?” muttered an offended Sherry.
Besides, if he read the signs correctly he would have to put a stop to her rather than the other way round; a grin tugged his lips – he had a strong inkling he was going to have his hands full trying to control the impulsive impetuous headstrong love of his life.
And he couldn’t wait.
Sunita could have bitten her tongue; she shouldn’t have said that, of course she trusted him but then old habits die hard and she knew exactly what that predatory glint in his eye meant – now that his inhibitions and apprehensions seemed to have been laid to rest, he wouldn’t rest until he got what he wanted.
But then was that what was destined?
Sunita’s heart sank a bit ‘hey DM sab tumhare havale chhod rahi hoon, iska, in dono ka khayal rakhna, shakti dena ma shakti dena.’
Khushi heard the children yelling and shouting, she smiled – looked like Arnav was home. She hurried to meet him ‘aaj toh Jijaji bhi aaye honge’ she thought.
After a long time Aakash had come to Delhi; he had gone straight to ARD and was expected to return to RM with Arnav. In anticipation, Khushi had cooked his favorite ‘bhindi ki sabzi’ and packed gifts for the kids, Payal and of course Mamiji as well (otherwise there would be hell to pay), but she stopped short in surprise – Arnav was alone.
“Jijaji kahan hai?” she queried, he just looked at her. Khushi’s heart sank to the bottom of her feet at his grim set expression. Khushi barely had time to register and wonder when Arnav’s phone rang. But before he could pick it up both Devansh and Chotti grabbed it and the nth Battle for Supremacy and Dominance (main Daddy ko phone doonga, nahi Chotti dega etc etc) began. Wails and shrieks, interlaced with the shrill and strident call of the phone, echoed in the lobby.
Bas phir kya tha, wohi hua jo hona tha, “ENOUGH!” snapped ASR his BG score overriding even the insistent and persistent ringtone, he wrested the phone away from them, “Hello?” he turned on his heel and strode away.
Devansh and Chotti were stunned into silence, they looked at each other – arch rivals now partners in crime – Chotti’s lips quivered and upturned, tears pooled in her eyes and rolled over, while Devansh manfully attempted to shun such an obvious display of emotions. He swung on to his trike and zoomed away breaking all speed limits. Khushi looked after the disappearing backs of the men in her life in dismay and gathered Chotti in her arms; she soothed and rocked her gently, “Bola hai na Chotti, Daddy’s phone is NOT a toy, phir kyon baar baar tum dono Daddy ke phone ko lekar ladai karte ho?” Her eyes met those of Nani who too was looking very thoughtful and worried, “Aakash bitwa nahi aaya?” Khushi nodded, “Haan Nani wohi hum bhi soch rahein hai, kuch toh gadbad hai.”
Nani sighed and adjusted her pallu, “Haan humka bhi yehi laagat hai,” she looked towards the stairs, “Jaao bitiya dekho toh ka hua.”
“Ji Nani,” Khushi too shot a worried look towards their room and attempted to put down Chotti but she clung to her.
“Daddy paas jaana hai,” hiccuped Chotti, she would apologize, provided daddy apologized first – bhala aise koi apne princess se baat karta hai kya? Tears rolled down her cheeks, itni insult, Daddy ki himmat kaise hui and all that.
Knowing the pitfalls of that course of action, especially considering ASR current frame of mind, Khushi set about distracting and soothing the ruffled feathers of Chotti’s not so chotti ego. Nani too pitched in, praising her sky high, explaining that Chotte was tired, sleepy and hungry – besides it was wrong on their part to fight over the phone.
Gradually and grudgingly Chotti calmed down and deigned to sit down for a board game with Nani; worn out, the other wounded warrior too returned from his mad dash across RM lured by the board game and promise of Maggi. Peace reigned, at least in the RM lobby.
Khushi sighed and picked up Arnav’s lunchbox from the table; she frowned. In the kitchen her suspicions were confirmed, his lunch was untouched. Her heart sank and steadied, perhaps he had gone out for lunch? A meeting perhaps?
She called up Aman, “Aman, did Sir go out for lunch?”
Aman denied it, “Aakash jijaji aaye the na office aaj?”
There was a pause, “Yes Mam, he was there in Sir’s room for a couple of hours and then he stormed out of the office,” he coughed, “Pehli baar Maam I heard Aakash Sir talking in a loud voice woh bhi Sir ke saath.”
“Shukriya Aman,” she chewed her lips and quickly rustled up some pasta for Arnav. She set the tea tray and went to their room giving instructions to HP to serve Maggi to the children and of course tea to Nani (oh Poo? Poo was out for her evening computer classes).
Khushi softly entered their room to find Arnav on the recliner, his hand thrown over his eyes, his lips white and drawn. He was too still and stiff to be asleep.
Khushi dithered over where to put the tray and whether or not to call him; she stood there over his head for a while before moving out to the poolside table. She sat on the swing and knotted her fingers, ‘pata nahi aisa kya ho gaya office main, Jijaji raising his voice that too in front of ASR ho hi nahi sakta! But then why would Aman lie?’
She looked towards Arnav, she hesitated, what if he was sleeping? He wouldn’t thank her for disturbing him, besides she didn’t want to snatch away the few stolen moments of peace and rest.
The lingering aroma of his favorite dish and an empty stomach forced Arnav out to the poolside. He sat on the swing and hungrily gobbled up the pasta without a word. Khushi’s heart went out to him, must be starving, she thought. She poured him his tea and let him enjoy his first meal of the day; there was time enough for dissection and her curiosity.
But she knew he needed his space and would tell her all at his own pace.
Feeling restless and afraid that she wouldn’t be able to hold on to her patience or tongue for much longer, she got up and began tending his plants.
A little while later, Arnav joined her. They spent a companionable but silent half an hour or so before Arnav unbent enough to say baldly, “Aakash apna hissa maang raha hai.”
Click here for Chapter 306