It was late night and everyone finally began to find their way to their hotel rooms or rooms as assigned by their hosts in the Rathore Haveli. It was one of those nights where after the guests were gone, the family continued with their own private celebration. Daksh was beside himself with joy and nervous expectations and his father couldn't be prouder. They had had to negotiate with the girl's side, saying they wanted the ceremony held at their place and wouldn't mind transporting as many of her family as they wanted to ensure they were not overwhelmed. Tanya's father had tried to refuse but ever the savvy businessman, Randir had put forth the ever persuasive argument of their family becoming one and what did it really matter if they insisted on making sure that their own daughter to-be was married off in style.
Lata Rathore stood watching her sons conversing with their father and the young man called Arnav Singh Raizada. He was quite an enigma, and she could see how her son would bond with a young man like that. They were cut from the same cloth. Yes, there had been a bit of rivalry between the Rathores and the Raizadas because Arnav, this young man she now watched from a distance, had managed to steal a government contract her husband had been bidding for, from right under his nose. Randir had wanted to kill the young man. In light of that, imagine Akash returning from Dubai to say he had joined hands with the very same man to start a company and was going into business with him! Randir had almost had a heart attack that day.
Cool as a cucumber, her son had said it was a matter of take it or leave it. His father could do nothing about it because he was a grown and consenting adult. It had taken guts for him to go over and pitch this idea to Arnav as a young business man who had just struck out on his own, not wanting to go the expected path of the family business. Let Daksh handle it, he had insisted. That way there was never a chance of rivalry or comparison. She recognized that her husband though grudgingly, had begun to respect his second son more than ever before. He had guts and a spine of steel, wasn't swayed by emotions and was firm.
She watched them now. How things changed. The buzz created when he showed up tonight was a huge plus to her son's wedding. She wasn't one for media attention but at least her first son was getting married. Adequate noise should be made about it. What concerned her right now as she watched them, was that she had noticed her second staring quite intently at one of the dancers that had performed tonight. She had to admit the girl was beautiful...very much so. If her son had designs on that girl, well she hoped it would be a passing fancy because their lives were in Mumbai. She didn't want complications of any sort. These village belles were no longer as nave as they used to be. The influence of Bollywood and the small screen cinemas took care of that. They knew who was who and who had what. Either way she would not interfere...yet. If her son could take a decision that would pit him against his father and not be swayed by ultimatums and threats, she didn't want to try and to force him. She had nothing against poor people or middle class people, but she generally found you could find any type of love within your own class in society. You didn't have to slum it before finding a balance.
"Kya soch ri hoon masi?" Maya came up to her aunt who was lost in thought.
She smiled easily, "Nothing really. Just thinking its so good to have Akash around for a few days before the wedding. We rarely get to see him even though we all live in Mumbai."
"That is so true. I'll have to talk to him about it," she said, glancing over at them, "He's too young to be working all the time. He needs to socialize, else I fear he'll get married at fifty!"
Lata smiled to herself. She didn't even need to prod the girl, "So do you have any way to remedy that? Because your cousin always has his nose buried in some report or other."
"I invited a couple of friends that should be right up his alley. They should be arriving tomorrow. He should like one of them."
"Well I'll leave you to it dear cos I find that you young people today do not want us interfering in your lives as much as in the old days."
"And with good reason!" Maya laughed, "You people would send us to an early grave if we let you people keep taking decisions for us. Look how Akash striking out on his own panned out. Uncle didn't ever think he could succeed without his help, yet here he is! A self-made man who still gets to inherit a substantial part of the Rathore estate."
"He is a son to be proud of, isn't he?" Maya looked lovingly at her son.
In that moment, Arnav Raizada turned and immediately looked at her with a fixed stare. Of course it was impossible to hear what was being said, but all the same, she had a feeling this young man could read people like a book. Not much got past him she concluded. He inclined his head by way of greeting, a small smile curving his mouth.
"That one's a lady killer I'll bet," Maya whispered.
"He does look the type. He and my Akash were the most eligible bachelors at the engagement ceremony if the rumor mill is to be believed."
"I don't doubt it. So how come there was no attempt to match-make?"
"Well they weren't expecting him. We," Lata indicated herself, "were definitely not expecting him, yet here he is! I guess the mothers will come to the sangeet and mehendi functions tomorrow well prepared. I pity them both."
"This one looks foreboding. Much more than Akash does."
"Well some women here have really thick skins as do their daughters, especially when you're trying to land a man like those two." Lata chuckled, but rose to her feet anyway, "Well, I'm off to bed. It's an early morning for me tomorrow and I must sleep off tonight's fatigue."
"Good night Masi. I'll retire too."
Both women parted ways as they went different directions to their rooms.
Gupta haveli was well lit up at the top of the hill overlooking the rest of the surrounding village. It was an old sprawling mansion that was once one of the glories of the village. It was currently being restored in bits by a proud Khushi Kumari Gupta. Yes, this was her right. She may not be a man but then, her family had been a forward-thinking one. Before her parents died, they had willed the place to her and her cousins. They could never sell the place. The reasons were it was the family's legacy and, should anything happen, they would have a place to stay for always. Khushi had taken it upon herself to begin restoration works on it. The bits she and her cousins could do for themselves, they did. Rest, they hired professionals.
As they neared home, Khushi looked with pride at the imposing dome of the haveli which she was currently having restored. It had swallowed up a lot of money but she had insisted, saying that this was one of the attractions of the haveli. It was made from gold plated metal which had weathered and lost some of its shine. But even in the night lights, with the metal being replated and polished and the imposing entrance almost being finished, the outside of the haveli looked magnificent. It was almost at its former glory. Khushi's plan was that since tourism in the village was growing, she could transform the haveli which had almost twenty five rooms sitting dormant, into a guest house where people who wanted to experience the royal life could do it, for a price.
As their bumbling bus drew near to their stop, she sighed happily. This wedding had been such a blessing. She looked at Payal who had fallen asleep with her headphones on, and Dia who sat, a little lost in thought. Their own parents had died in a boating accident when they were ten and twelve respectively. Their mothers were sisters and so her mother had taken in her sister's children, seeing as she would be gaining two more daughters, and providing companions for her own daughter. It had been impossible for her to conceive again after Khushi, hence it was a painful reason to come together but it was a blessing nonetheless. That year had been hard for everyone, adjusting to what their lives had become, but they pulled through and grew as a family. Now all she did was look out for them. She had made sure that after her own parents passed within three years of each other, that her cousins whom she thought of as sisters, lacked for nothing. She sent Dia to fashion school, and Payal was about to finish Business School. All in all, she was like a proud mother when she looked at them.
At twenty-seven, she had also convinced herself she was doing the right thing, waiting for them to both be settled before she settled down herself. After all, it was not as if she was searching for a groom. She had one. The best of the best... Nahar Varma. Thinking of him, she smiled.
"Didi, we're here," Dia said quietly as the bus came to a stop in front of the haveli entrance.
"Home sweet home," she sighed contently, already dreaming of her warm bed, "Gudiya, wake up. We're home."
Payal stretched lazily and opened her eyes. Khushi smiled down at her with all the love in her heart, "You are so spoiled."
"And whose fault is that?" she murmured in her sleepy state as they headed to the door which was immediately opened by their long time housekeeper and whom they just called Masi.
"Welcome home," she smiled warmly.
"Thank you Masi," they chorused, and Payal added, "You should have seen Khushi Didi. She was the best looking and best dressed woman in that haveli."
Dia rolled her eyes and Khushi laughed, "You must be really tired to think that."
"No I'm not," she said as Khushi led her upstairs to her room while Dia followed behind, a pensive look on her face.
"Did you have a good time too Dia? You don't look as happy as your sisters."
Dia turned surprised eyes on Masi, "Nahin Masi...bahut khush ho. Sirf...mujhe bahut tak gaye."
"Acha? Toh theek hai. Joa, aram soh jao," she shooed her up the stairs.
As she watched her go, Masi shook her head thinking to herself, This Dia would someday be a problem for Khushi and Payal if that look on her face was anything to go by. She was a good girl, but she tended to bring have the desire to live far above her means. Wherever luxury was to be found, Dia was sure to find her way there. She wasn't supposed to be at this wedding party as she had nothing to do there. She wasn't part of the dance troop anymore, but she went running there as soon as she heard who was in town. Mumbai royalty she had called them. Of course she hadn't a clue who, they were but Payal and Khushi seemed to know, after all she had never left the village her whole life but these girls had gone and returned.
Keh, thought Masi, at least this time she seemed to be behaving herself. The last time she was here, she and Khushi had ahd a huge fight about money. Khushi had been accused of favoring Payal over her, giving her more money and attention. It had taken all Khushi could do, not to throw her out on her ear. But when Dia had left in a huff, Khushi had put her foot down and it was almost three months before they heard from Dia again. Khushi had refused to reach out to her as she usually did when she threw a tantrum, and Masi had been so proud of her. She had spoiled both girls, but Dia was the one who took it for granted. Khushi had had to clip her wings to get her back in line. Now there was a healthy respect as well as a fondness that survived the fight.
Her only real worry was Khushi. That girl was doing too much at a young age. She knew the struggle Khushi had in keeping the house running. She knew about the mortgage Khushi was struggling to pay every month, having taken out a loan to develop the farm and get some new machinery to make the farming process less tedious and reduce the need to hire more hands. She knew that Nahar setting up this dancing gig for them was the best thing that could have happened because she had been able to pay off three months in advance and this afforded them good breathing space financially. The Rathores had paid a whooping amount of money emphasizing that they wanted nothing lacking in the entertainment. Perhaps they had paid Mumbai rates because Khushi had been speechless when Lata Rathore handed her the cheque to cover expenses, get appropriate costumes and transportation. Khushi had run all the way to the bank before coming home and gathering the troop. They would go on to practice until they bled!
She knew a lot of things that went on in this house. For instance, that it was difficult to get the workers who ploughed maintained and harvested the vast farm land that still belonged to them, to work for less pay and a meal per day from their kitchen. She watched this young woman do it all with a smile and a laugh that was infectious. She never stopped, this girl, and it was hard to see. She only wished that young man would truly marry her and give her a life of ease that she very much deserved. A woman with a heart of gold deserved a breather from all the harshness she had experienced throughout her life. They all did.
The sangeet ceremony was in full swing and again, Khushi and her dance troop were preparing for the same. It was another glorious function by the Rathores but Khushi barely had time to appreciate it. She had decided to trust Payal with taking the lead on today's performances. Lata had asked them to do Chilman from Kisna, and they were going to do Mahi ve from Kal Ho Na Ho. The rest of the dance sequences in-between Lata had left to their discretion though she had okayed the list with Lata before they had gone to rehearsals.
"Are you okay?" she asked Payal.
"I'm fine. It's not my first time," Payal said, a nervous tick pulsing in her neck.
"It's your first time without me there beside you."
"I can handle it Didi. I promise you," Payal assured her.
"Good, because I will have to kill you if you mess up."
"That's not the first time you've told her that," Dia said, coming up behind them. "You're about to be called up."
"Okay, stand up for me," Khushi said to Payal whose legs she had been massaging. Payal did same and Khushi motioned for her to twirl, and began to adjust her clothing and costume jewelry they had acquired to get as close to Sushmita's outfit in the item song as they could. Dia had been responsible for Payal's make-up which looked stunning! "Alright. Just remember we're here, cheering you on. No mistakes!"
"No mistakes," Payal echoed.
"Off you go," Khushi gently shoved her as the opening dialogue began, before the first strands of music began to play.
With one last look, Payal joined the rest of the dancers on the floor. Khushi held her breath as she watched her baby sister whom she knew danced because it was something they could do together. She would miss her when she left to Pune once again for her final semester. She was just glad that soon her little cousin would finish, be able to get a job and finally settle down with that young man she was always talking about. She might not admit it to herself, but he study buddy at school was way more than a study buddy. She knew it, Dia knew it too.
Dia took her hand and squeezed it to show her support. Khushi smiled gratefully at her, but they didn't need to worry. Payal had the crowd wowed as she re-enacted the dance sequence that the iconic Sushmita Sen had given life to.
"There's your lady love," Arnav whispered to Akash.
"Beautiful," was all he said.
"So," Arnav said, a hint of rarely seen mischief coloring his voice, "When do you make the first move?"
"She already did," he indicated her fluid movements to the song.
"Well, I'll look forward to hearing all about this," Arnav said, and was about to take a sip of his bourbon when his eye caught sight of her again.
She was standing next to the older sister of the dancer Payal. So what was she? A friend? Or the middle sister? He looked at the dancing Payal and compared her features to the mysterious woman. Yes. They were definitely sisters. But they didn't share much else with the oldest of them all. He took his time to look at the one called khushi Kumari Gupta. She was a beauty too. Her skin wasn't creamy white like these two. It was more of a gentle golden brown, probably from being in the sun too much. Her features were almost painted. It looked like she didn't wear much make-up but her features shone. Dark brows curved proudly over wide green eyes. Her dark hair which currently flowed down her back enhanced her eyes and her skin. Her skin positively glowed under the lighting. It seemed full, pouty lips ran in the family. She bit on her lower lip as she watched her sister perform. It was obvious she was a protective one. And she was all woman.Definitely not his type, but all woman. She was full figured...probably a size twelve. Unlike most girls who craved to be skinny, he could tell she was comfortable in her skin.
Interesting family, he thought, but he was intrigued by the middle woman. She had had the opportunity to throw herself at him and she hadn't even given him a second glance. He wasn't fooled, people had motives for everything they did, but he wanted to know what 'make' her story was. It would be a fine distraction from the norm of this forced holiday.
As if sensing his gaze on her, the lady turned and swept the room with a curious gaze. Her gaze went past him and then flew back in a double take, registering he was the one from the garden. He waited, wanting to see her reaction to seeing him again. After about five seconds, she looked away without so much as batting an eyelid.
Arnav was mildly surprised at the dismissal. Hmm, he thought, no one dismisses him like that. Now he definitely had to find out about her. It was a given. Akash had his own stuff to deal with, and he had his.
Smiling a little, he took a sip of his scorching drink.