Arnav decided to drop in at the Laxmi Nagar house before passing on the task to Aman. Nostalgia gripped him almost as soon as he turned the corner. This was one place where time appeared to have stood still – everything was just the same, the hand pump by the corner, people milling about, Happyji’s welcoming smile and offer to park the car. A weird feeling pervaded his being; he climbed the stairs and stared at the lock. He held his breath – if he just turned a bit, surely he would find Khushi standing with the matka of water, her obvious dismay – A stab of guilt smote him, he had been so callous and mean to her, instead of just apologizing cleanly, instead of clearly declaring his feelings, he had twisted her arm and manipulated her.
He shook the feeling off and opened the door. The air inside the house locked up for so many years was musty and dank, there were signs of damage everywhere, the house was clearly in urgent need of repair. But Arnav didn’t really notice all that he had come to see for yesteryears’ memories closed in on him with renewed zest – everywhere all he could he was Khushi. Khushi with her myriad expressions – hurt and desolate as he dropped her back on Diwali night, a furious Khushi as he fumbled to wish her happy birthday, startled Khushi as he stole a kiss from her, a stunning Khushi defending him to Buaji, a freezing Khushi, a mischievous Khushi hosing him down, a sleeping Khushi, a nautanki Khushi dressed up as Maamiji, Khushi alternately upbraiding him and moaning on New Year’s eve, Khushi massaging him, her innocent wide eyes as she stared back at him fearlessly.
Arnav roamed restlessly around the house unseeingly – Khushi maine bahut galat kiya hai tumhare saath, he rued silently to himself, pehle toh kiya hi tha, aur ab bhi kar raha hoon. He banged his fist on the table, pata nahi kyon main aise karta hoon, why, why do I always end up hurting you, khushi nahi de sakta toh itna dard kyon deta hoon?
A dull hopeless lethargy engulfed him. How could she forgive him? He wondered not for the first time – he didn’t deserve her, she deserved better. I have not done right by her, aise kaise kar sakta hoon main, nahin yeh theek nahi kiya aur na hi kar raha hoon – tabhi toh I cannot meet her eyes! So pure, so innocent so full of love, I just can’t look at you Khushi, its hurts too much, it only reminds me of my culpability, my transgressions, sahi kehti ho tum, main rakhash hoon, I am a monster, a selfish egoistic monster, who thinks only of himself, his moods, his needs, kabhi tumhare baare main nahi socha – kahan phans gayi tum Khushi, you deserved so much better, main toh tumhe kuch bhi nahi de paya – shayad shayad he thought jerkily as emotions overcame him, NK ke saath… bitter bile rose up and choked him, he swore loud and long.
He slowly climbed the stairs to the terrace – he shuddered – here too there was no escape from those awful memories. He stared up hoping for some release from the suffocation that engulfed him – the thick black clouds frowned back at him menacingly. He flinched as the echo of that day finally reached him in all its judgemental vicious harshness – because YOU don’t have a character.
He shuddered in anguish – Dammit how could I be so callous, ruthless, unfeeling and blind!
Guilt and regret tore at him and not being privy to responsive tearducts, he just gnashed his teeth and cursed himself over and over again. Unable to deal with the waves of emotions pouring over him, he quickly left the place and sought refuge in in his office.
“Ghar dekha?” Khushi’s bright chirpy voice greeted him, “Kaisa hai? Does it require much repair?” she asked over the phone.
“Pata nahi,” said Arnav shortly.
“Pata nahi?” faltered Khushi, “Aap dekhne gaye the na ghar?” she asked in some confusion.
“Haan par I didn’t see,” he snapped sab tumhari galati hai; tumne mujhe kuch dekhne samajhne ka mauka hi nahi diya; hamesha mujhe pareshan karti rehti ho; bilkul bhi chain se nahi rehne deti ho, he controlled himself with a superarnav effort, “Aman se baat kar lena,” he disconnected the phone and grimaced angrily.
Khushi stared at the dead phone in her hand, Laad Governor kahini ke! Ab kya ho gaya? Subah toh theek hi the? Kisine wahan kuch keh diya kya? She sighed and went back to her routine.
Arnav wrestled with himself some more. His first instinct was to call back Khushi and apologize to her, but kis kis cheez ke liye apologize karoon? Ek lifetime bhi kam padh jayega. He sullenly threw himself into work and attempted to wash away the waves of guilt not to mention nostalgia – quite unsuccessfully.
It turned out that the Laxmi Nagar house did need some major repairs and the Gupta parivaar was able to shift out only a couple of months later. Chotti’s exams sar par the and hysteria was fever pitch. Studying came easily to Chotti and she was used to doing well in school, but now she wasn’t just content with doing well she wanted to be the best. And therein lay the problem – woh toh ration paani ke bina hi padhai ke peeche padh gayi. It fell to Khushi to mother her, feed her and generally nag her into taking things easy, “Medical main admission toh ho hi jayega Chotti,” she said over and over again, “Bimar padh jaaogi, just look at you, I don’t know kitna weight lose kiya hai tumne,” she fretted while Chotti clapped her hands, “Yaay, I have been struggling to lose weight, issi bahane I will show those who called me ‘Moti’,” she frowned.
“Moti aur tum!” Khushi was aghast, “But who cares what anybody says, this is not right Chotti,” she warned, “Tum bimar padh jaaogi, and then your results will suffer, kuch kha lo,” she pushed the tray filled with appetizing goodies towards Chotti.
She drooled but only for an instant, “Mom!” she stood up with a crash, “Khana khana bas khana, bola na bhook nahi hai, please aap jao I want to study,” she said firmly.
But Khushi aise kaise jaane deti, “Khana toh padega hi,” she insisted, “How can you study on an empty stomach? Here ek bite toh le lo?” she held out a piece of parantha coaxingly.
“Please Mom!” screeched Chotti completely at the end of her tether, “Please get a life and leave me alone!”
Et tu Chotti?
Khushi stared at her aghast unable to believe what she was hearing, “You are my life beta,” she managed to say before gathering her dignity and moving out of Chotti’s room. She paused at the door, “Khana na lena please,” she added once more unable to stop herself.
Chotti just rolled her eyes, “Oh Mom, please I wont die if I don’t eat a meal or two.”
Khushi shook her head worriedly, “If it was a couple of meals I wouldn’t worry, just look at you, so pale and sallow, kitni bimar lag rahi ho,” and indeed she was looking ghastly, all skin and bones.
But Chotti ko toh size zero chahiye tha na, besides what did Mom know, even when I was so fat all she said was kuch nahi, bilkul moti nahi ho. Bimar – all rot and nonsense – I am fit as a fiddle kisiko kuch pata wata toh hai nahi, she thought disparagingly, going back to her books. What did Mom know?
But mothers do know best, don’t they?
Click here for Chapter 482