Khushi looked around in surprise. Her brow cleared after she managed to place him. “Shubham. Aap yahan?”
“Ji. Coffee?” He held out the cup. “It’s hot.” There was a faint note of urgency.
She hurriedly took it from him. “You shouldn’t have.” She protested. “I don’t…”
“So they’ve deserted you.” It was a statement not a question.
“Nahi nahi. I only insisted. They wanted to…”
“But they shouldn’t have let you win…”
“Koi jung thodi hai!” Khushi exclaimed. “Anyway I was too exhausted to walk all the way to the guest house and they promised to be back in half-an hour.”
“Yeah right.” Shubham walked away.
Strange boy. Nice coffee. Thank you bhi nahi bolne diya.
“Maam, sit here,” Shubham reappeared carrying a plastic chair.
“Arre! Yeh kahan se laye.”
“One of the stalls.”
“But what about him?” Khushi objected.
“He barely gets a chance to sit with the crowd. Besides just a matter of half an hour right?” He looked at his watch, “Of which 13 minutes are already up.”
“Keeping a watch are we?” Khushi couldn’t help commenting.
He shrugged. “Adat se majboor.” Did he darken or was it a trick of the light? “I am naturally observant.”
Khushi raised her now empty cup. “Very nice coffee. And much needed. Thank you.”
Shubham took the cup from her before she could protest and chucked it into the dustbin.
“Kuch aur lengi? The rolls are very good. Although I am not sure whether aap non-veg…?”
Khushi shook her head. “No thanks. The coffee is what I needed.” She smiled up at him.
But he wasn’t there – she blinked.
She spied him in the distance running up to a couple walking ahead with a kid in tow.
Oh friend hoga
But to her utter surprise, he grabbed the toddler and seemed to crush him in his arms.
Uska baccha hai?
Or was he child molester?
Khushi was distressed.
There was a commotion and a crowd gathered obscuring Khushi’s view. Uneasy, Khushi stood up.
Did he need help? Or was he crazy? Chotti didn’t much care for him. Although Guddu almost idolized him. She also liked him.
But ho kya raha hai wahan par?
Oh shukriya Devi Maiyya.
She sank back on to the chair. He was coming back.
“Kya hua?” Khushi asked the moment he was within earshot.
“Kuch nahi.” Shubham shook his head and looked back as someone came up at a run.
“Thank you. Thank you.” He wrung Shubham’s hand and was almost in tears.
“Arre. All good only.” Shubham said awkwardly. “Nothing.
“You saved his life.” The wife joined them also crying.
Shubham looked even more harassed, annoyed even. “Please be careful about what you hand over to children. It can be very dangerous for them.” He sent them on their way.
“Kuch nahi?” Khushi mused.
Shubham gave a ragged laugh. “Haan, kuch nahi.” he sounded embarrassed, “As they passed by I saw the man hand a pen to the little boy who immediately put it into his mouth. I was thinking it could be risky and the next instant the boy jerked and stumbled. He had choked on the pen cap. I just..,” he shrugged and gave a self-deprecatory laugh. “I was just there at the right time.”
“Thank Devi Maiyya for that.” Khushi smiled. “And little bit to you too.”
This time Shubham’s laugh was more genuine.
“You are observant.” Khushi nodded.
“I told you Maam.”
She looked at him. “I thought you were working in Delhi?”
“Yes Maam. I came here to participate in the football tournament.”
“Oh right.” Khushi nodded.
“Deva settled down?”
Khushi smiled. “As much is possible without football!”
He laughed. “Woh bhi karlega jugaad sooner than later.”
“I hope so.” Khushi slid a hand down her aching leg
“I don’t think the girls will come back anytime soon.” Shubham looked at his watch, “Already been an hour. You must be tired what with all the rehearsals…”
“Oh!” Khushi looked up, “Did you see the program?”
“Yes. And very good too.”
Khushi smiled pleased. “Yes. The girls were brilliant.”
“All credit to the teacher.”
“Shubham tum bhi na.” Khushi was amazed at how comfortable she felt with the boy.
Now what? Khushi wondered as Shubham dashed off again.
Shubham returned soon enough, on a bike. “Come Maam, let’s get you to the guest house.”
“Oh Shubham!” Khushi was overwhelmed. “You shouldn’t have. The girls…”
“Even if they come, you’ll have to walk. And it’s a good 20 minutes’ walk.”
“I don’t have the keys….”
“They won’t dare say no to ASR…”
“They know ASR?” Khushi frowned
“Of course,” Shubham nodded, “And woe betide anyone who crosses swords.”
Khushi laughed but still dithered. “But how will the girls know?”
“Text them, or I will, ” Shubham revved the bike, “The guy from whom I borrowed the bike is having some snacks. We don’t want to make him wait do we?”
Sighing Khushi acquiesced.
“That was fun!” Khushi smiled as she attempted to smoothen her wind-blown hair.
“Never been on a bike before?”
“No!” She laughed.
“I hope ASR won’t kill me.” He accompanied her inside.
“Why would he?” Khushi scrabbled for the key which she had insisted on for safekeeping as she didn’t trust them.
Shubham shrugged. “How dare you risk her life?”
“Aisa kuch nahi hai,” Khushi denied flushing. Did the whole world know? “Perhaps I was once a great deal but now I am old deal.” She tried to make light of it.
Shubham looked down at her with an inscrutable expression. “Once a deal. Always a deal.” He walked to the reception counter and threw over his shoulder. “Waise I was talking about Angelika Singh Raizada.”
Grimacing Khushi followed him inside. He had wrangled the key from the receptionist and insisted upon escorting her to the room. “Would you like to eat something?” He asked. “Dinner toh nahi kiya…”
“Arre nahi!” Khushi exclaimed, “I couldn’t eat anything now. The entire evening I have been chomping on something or the other.”
“Good night.” He was gone before she could thank him.
Such a kind considerate boy, Khushi mused as she unravelled for the day. Wonder why Chotti didn’t like him. Or was she protesting too much? And him? Looks like he had a soft corner for her. Par aisa kyun laga? Kuch bhi toh nahi bola. If anything he was critical and disparaging. Phir bhi. Kuch toh hai.
Yeh ladkiyan kahan reh gayi? Khushi fell asleep worrying and didn’t wake until the next morning.
Anya was asleep on the bed beside her while Chotti was sprawled on the sofa quite dead to the world.
Famished, Khushi washed up and changed. After a quiet breakfast at the restaurant [Kapi and idli] downstairs, she went for a stroll around the campus. Strangely she felt at peace here. More than she was in the States. Aisa kyun? Kuch bhi toh nahi badla. In fact, wapas jaakar she would have to pay tax for her daring…was that what she was looking forward to?
Hey DM was she a glutton for punishment? Or was it a case ki isi bahane kuch toh interaction hoga. Better than the cold dreadful silence between them. That was even worse. Nahi kuch aur hai. She stepped aside to let a bunch of giggling girls pass by. But they stopped.
“Wonderful dance program Aunty.” Khushi looked up in surprise. The girls had stopped and were smiling at her. “How we wish you stayed nearby then we could have a dance party every weekend!” One of them gushed.
Khushi laughed. “Time hai aap logon ke paas?”
“Jeene ke liye thoda time toh nikaal hi lete!”
Khushi nodded smiling and walked ahead. Jeene ke liye thoda time toh nikaal hi lete
And that’s what was different.
She felt alive.
When was the last time she had felt like this?
All at once a crowd, cheers and claps from all.
His hands were in his pockets.
But the expression in his eyes made her feel like she had never felt before.
Agar aaj yahan hote toh aise hi dekhte kya?
“Mom!” Chotti and Anya were upon her. “Kahan gayab ho gayi? Uff really a one for giving heart attacks. Kal raat ko and now.” Chotti grumbled even as she linked her arm with her mother.
Khushi laughed and squeezed her. “Kyon? Kya socha? Ma has eloped with Shubham?”
“That’s not funny!” Chotti dropped her mother’s arm.
“Of course it is.” Anya piped up. “I wonder why you think it’s not funny?” She high-fived with Khushi as Chotti turned red.
“Of course it’s not funny,” snapped Chotti, “That’s my Mom. What about Dad?”
“What about him?” Khushi shot back. “Woh apni duniya mein mast hai. Maine socha main bhi thodi masti kar loon.” She spread her arms. “Mahol hi kuch aisa hai.” She gave a blissful sigh.
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