EVERY YEAR THE RAIZADA PARIVAAR was invited to their neighbours, the Kapoors, for Holi festivities. The Kapoors were famous for throwing extravagant parties, but their Holi parties were legendary. Servers bearing thalis of colour. Musicians plying instruments for eager dancers. Water fountains for those who loved to frolic in wet kurtas and sarees. Teenagers flirting away from watchful eyes. Children running wild and unattended.
And, of course, there was the bhaang!
Bhaang was infused into almost every available refreshment. No person was safe. And, this year, Sisters, we expected nothing different.
But, wait!—this year was different in one regard. This year the party included the two brand-new Raizada bahus. And rumour had it that even Mr Arnav Singh Raizada—who rarely attended parties—would accompany his bride. Those who had been privileged enough to be invited to the Unveiling Bride rasam had declared that not only was his bride a ravishing beauty, but Mr Raizada was fiercely protective of her. It was told that he insulted a guest who dared to ask about their secret hasty wedding. Of course, this only added grist to the rumour mill and Mrs Kapoor despaired that her guests had come more to scrutinize the new pair than to praise her party arrangements.
ARNAV WAS SEATED BY THE POOL with his laptop. His eyes were directed on the monitor, but his thoughts were following the tinkling sound of his wife’s payals as she moved inside his room—their room—getting ready for the party.
The payals finally quieted.
Only to be replaced by the jingle of churiyas.
His eyes shut. He winced to block out a memory. The memory of that historical moment of Khushi’s mehndhi-ed hands lifting from beneath an orange dupatta. Cupped hands waiting to receive prasaad. Slender arms glittering. The soft chiming of his gifted bangles.
What an easy thing it is to buy a woman a gift. But what an extraordinary thing to see her arrayed with it.
“Hum tayaar hai,” spoke Khushi, softly.
Hum tayaar hai.
These had been her exact words when she agreed to marry him on that fateful night.
He looked up.
She was standing by the sliding door. She lifted a hand to lean on the door frame; his eyes were drawn to his mother’s gold kangan which rested against a million pink and silver churiyas which reached her elbow. The gossamer-thin white saree with pale pink sequins along the border accentuated her porcelain skin. His eyes traced her form. She took a small step back, away from him, and the saree shimmered with the movement. The flesh of her stomach beneath the saree shimmered too. Arnav stood and cleared his throat, aware that he felt the need to swallow. He indicated that she should precede him.
KHUSHI FELT HIM—no, sensed him!—as he followed her, close behind. Though she herself preferred tiny saree blouses, this particular man and this particular blouse made her self-conscious. It was a ridiculously indiscreet blouse. Especially the back. She was aware of his eyes touching her back.
On the pretense of adjusting her sandal, she stepped aside. He had no choice but to move forward and he did, to lead the way downstairs. There they were met by Akaash and Payal who informed them that the others had gone on ahead. It was a two minute walk to the Kapoors.
“What beautiful diamonds!” Payal whispered to Khushi as they followed their husbands through the front gates of the Kapoor residence. Payal tucked Khushi’s hair behind the left ear to examine the chandelier earrings. “From your Arnavji?” Payal asked, beaming.
Khushi indicated yes with her eyes.
Payal smiled again. “Matching tikka?”
Payal’s smile widened into a saucy grin. “Saree with invisible blouse?”
Khushi glared at her sister. Payal was aware that each day new sarees wrapped in tissue and jewellery boxed in velvet kept appearing inside Khushi’s side of the wardrobe. Arnav made no mention of them and she also ignored them. She continued to dress as before.
Until two days ago when all her own clothes disappeared.
Quintessential Arnav Singh Raizada.
By silent coercion he made it clear that she would dress only in those items he provided. And today, when she came upstairs to dress, she had found the jewellery and saree on the bed. For a brief moment, she had considered ignoring his command and selecting something else—but what was the point? It was only day-six of a six-month sentence; if she were to survive this contract marriage she would have to learn to choose her battles.
Moreover, yesterday’s failure still sat heavily on her. Oh, how she had crowed never to return Raizada House—only to be forced to race back and endure his arrogant triumph.
Payal continued to tease her further. Did her husband also select her lingerie? And Khushi forced a smile to form on her lips. So what if Payal wanted to read romantic notions into Arnav’s actions? It was far better than her guessing the truth about their sham marriage. She had married him for her Jiji’s happiness and returned to him yesterday solely under threat of Akaash and Payal’s divorce. If Payal was made happy believing these objects were love tokens, let her enjoy that belief.
Khushi knew better.
Everything Arnav did was to exercise control over her. He had said so yesterday when she had briefly gloated over the soggy divorce papers. “These papers can be reissued. Remember that before you pull another stunt, Khushi Kumari Gupta Singh Raizada. Everything is under my control and will remain so. You will do as I say for the next six months.”
Apparently his control extended to the cut of her saree blouse as well.
Khushi glowered, fixing her pallu before stepping to her husband’s side.
But for all that, Sisters, Our Heroine was oddly grateful for Arnav’s presence by her side as they entered the Kapoors’ garden. His utter disregard for what others thought cloaked him in a mantle of ease and invincibility—though she was conscious that judging eyes were upon them, his nearness lent her strength.
Akaash took Payal’s hand and immediately whisked her away to meet the neighbours and join the revelry, but Arnav led her to where Nani was seated and then disappeared without another word.
Khushi was warmly received by Nani’s friends, and after some time she forgot to be angry with Khushi. By the time NK came to rescue her, Nani actually urged, “Go and enjoy yourself, Bitya. I want to see that smiling Khushi I haven’t seen in many days.”
Welcome words to her ears.
A small step, nevertheless a significant beginning towards mending her relationship with the Matriarch of the Raizada Parivaar. It eased Khushi’s heart.
NK wasted no time in threatening her with a water gun. She managed to dodge him and ran away, only to find herself surrounded by some of the young girls who recognized her from the pooja at Raizada House.
“Didi! Didi!” they cried, and chased her with colour in their hands. Khushi gave them a good energetic chase, eventually allowing herself to be caught and received a few well-placed streaks of colour on her cheeks.
“Come and dance!” one little girl insisted.
So Khushi joined the children in their dance and met some of their families. While taking refreshment with them, she caught herself laughing and realized that she had not laughed for days. Her thoughts turned to that Laad Governor, the man who had wiped away her smile.
Where is he?
And in that very moment when she lifted her eyes to seek him, her eyes collided with his.
He was leaning against a tree not far away and Khushi sensed that he had been observing her for some time.
He captured and held her gaze.
She could not read his eyes.
Was he angry?
No, it was not anger.
Nor were his eyes filled with that familiar coldness. Nevertheless, his gaze was intense and Khushi found it disturbing. Her acidity had also returned. Perhaps she should have some more lassi. She broke the hold he had on her eyes and turned away, but something compelled her to meet his eyes once again. This time the message could not be clearer:
He wants me to go to him.