It was almost five in the evening and Khushi stood at the entrance of Gupta haveli, waiting for the convoy of cars that were kicking up dust farther down the road from the haveli. The great hall had been decorated fully and with pride. Nahar had insisted they pull out as many stops as they possibly could. Right now, the hall was done up in rich reds and golds, traditionally woven throw-overs had been draped over the couches and that had dramatically changed the look of the chairs. More random pieces of furniture had been placed strategically so that the room could carry the thirty guests they were expecting.
Akash had already called to say they were about five minutes out. Payal was beside herself upstairs with excitement. Khushi's happiness was bitter-sweet as usual but at the moment, as Nahar came over to stand by her, she felt his quiet strength seep through her hands which were cold in spite of the warm weather.
"It'll be okay Lalli," Nahar said quietly, "Let it not be said you are not happy for your sister."
She nodded as the first of the cars came into view. Her heart rate picked up considerably and if she was honest, the second reason it did, was not due to Payal at all. He was coming. Akash had called to ask her permission, seeing as that was his closest friend among the lot that would be showing up. She had very good reason to refuse his presence but after a brief thought, decided it was only for the weekend and no great harm could come of it especially if she stayed out of his way, and he out of hers. The haveli was big enough either way, and he would be putting up at the Rathores. He and Dia were not legally married as yet, so he had no right to be here.
She however wished her heart didn't race at the prospect of seeing him again. She found herself constantly playing and replaying the pictures of what it would be like to see him again after the ball room incident, and it just didn't seem fair that he got to show up with Dia in tow. She now knew Dia was brazen enough to come in spite of her staying silent on the issue of her invitation to Payal's wedding was concerned. Either way, this was going to be a hectic weekend. Physically, and worse, emotionally.
The first of the cars pulled into the portico and Ramu, dressed in his finest livery which so happened to be brand new, went and opened up the car door from which Akash first alighted, then the very object of her scared-excitement, Arnav. Both were wearing identical black sherwanis with different designs of gold embroidery works as the only distinguishing features of their outfits. She felt Nahar stiffen beside her, but didn't look at him, as Dia alighted from behind as well. It would be too telling to make it obvious they were not expecting her. As their car went off to park, the second pulled up, Ramu repeated his valet services and Akash's parents alighted, Mr Rathore his usual loud and boisterous self was already shouting his greetings from the bottom of the stairs.
"Nahar beta, fancy seeing you here!" he bellowed, coming to clap Nahar on the back, who hugged him back.
"Namaste Sir-ji," Nahar said good humouredly, returning the man's hug with a clap on the back, "I see Aunty-ji is taking very good care of you since I last saw you."
"What can I do? She doesn't let me eat anything I like," he whispered in mock bitterness, "Shame."
"Don't they all?" he asked, indicating Khushi who gave him a glare of her own, having fully expected what he said, and both men burst into laughter.
"Namaste Sir," Khushi said softly from beside Nahar.
"Ah, the lovely Miss Gupta," he said, inclining his head as he looked at her, "I hear beautiful things about you."
"I have heard lots about you from Nahar. I see they turned your hair white before its time," she said with a conspiratorial wink.
"Oh my child, you have no idea," Randhir Rathore said, dramatically placing his hand on his heart with a forlorn look as his wife shook her head beside him, "Trying to kill an old man before his time."
"Dad," Akash said with exasperation, "At least let's go in before you start with how we tortured you as kids."
Khushi laughed lightly, pointedly ignoring Arnav and Dia who stood beside Akash. Arnav's look was foreboding at best, trained on Khushi, but she ignored him completely.
"See? Won't even let me speak," Randhir shook his head. "Terrible."
"Welcome Lata-ji. It is good to see you again," she greeted Lata.
"Likewise Khushi. You are looking well."
"Someone's been doing a good job I take it," Randhir said, winking at Nahar who had the good grace to color and cough lightly in embarrassment.
"Shall we?" Khushi indicated that they all come in with her, not a word being said to anyone else. Payal had already told her that Maya would be arriving later tonight and might miss the engagement, but would definitely be at the wedding. She would be staying with Payal in her room. She had insisted. Khushi did not object. It did not go unnoticed by the few gathered there, that Khushi had said nothing to either Arnav or Dia, but whatever their thoughts might be, they tactfully kept it to themselves.
As soon as the guests were settled in, for they had insisted on only family for the engagement. Light refreshments were being passed round after initial greetings had been exchanged. Akash kept glancing up at the stairs each time a door opened, wanting to see if Payal was coming down just yet. It amused Khushi to watch him sit straighter each time a door opened.
"Aare yaar, stop looking like a love-sick puppy," Nahar whispered audibly, "It's already clear she's going to rule in your house."
"There's only two of us so that's fine with me," he said good naturedly, not minding being ribbed at all.
Dia had apparently disappeared upstairs somewhere and he glanced at Arnav now, who was again openly staring at Khushi, as if willing her to acknowledge him or something. He began to wonder if his decision to insist Arnav come along was the best, seeing as it seemed to be feeding his obsession with Khushi, even in the presence of others. Nahar seemed to have caught on, because he now openly glared at Arnav who gave him a patronizing smile and looked away, as if dismissing him. He would have thought he would never see the day when Arnav would act like this, but a woman was involved, and even the sanest of men did the stupidest things when women were involved. He would have to speak to Arnav again.
Arnav watched Khushi as she flitted around the room, her beautiful anakarli suit glittering seductively in the glow of the lights that lit up the room. His thoughts were pensive and very measuring as he watched her. He was here on a mission, but there would be time enough for that...he would make sure of it. He watched as she floated between Akash, his parents and the beautiful Maya who had finally made it on time for the exchange of rings after all. Payal looked beautiful, chatting with her soon to be mother in-law who it seemed had finally come to accept that there was no changing her son's mind and perhaps, the girl was in her own way, the best her son could do. Nahar was chatting away with Randhir and he thought to himself, with the amount of noise they made, they should have been father and son. Dia had disappeared, feeling like a stranger in her own home. He was sorry about that, but regardless of what they had going on, family was family after all.
He glanced at his wrist watch. It was now almost eight in the night. They needed to get started if they were going to rise early tomorrow morning. He motioned Akash who quickly informed his father that they needed to get going. On cue, everyone rose. Most of the guests would be joining in the ceremonies toorrow and the ones who were just arriving would need to be entertained. Aman was seeing to security measures which he thought, would not leave him time to hide behind bushes with Maya this time.
The Haldi ceremony would be held in the morning, the Sangeet at night. He could feel a stirring in his bones as he thought of the celebrations tonight. He would just have to be careful not to take the spotlight off of Payal and Akash. It was because of them he was even in this house once again and he would do well to respect that. The feeling of being watched caused the hairs on his hand to stand and he looked up to see Nahar watching him with hooded eyes as he listened to something Randhir was saying. Arnav lifted his glass in a smug salute, and drained the last of his drink just as Akash rose to make their excuses for leaving so soon.
"It is only proper, besides, you have guests to attend to I think," Masi who had stood in for a mother today said as she waved off the outlandish Randhir who it seemed, was intent on stealing some of Khushi's famed jalebis from the platter left on the table.
"Fikar na karo. You're coming tomorrow na? You'll have loads to take with you," Nahar was pacifying him as Lata glared at both men who were now smiling sheepishly, "I will make sure my Khushi makes them just for you."
He had said the last bit with a pointed look at Arnav, which even Akash did not miss. Arnav smiled. An almost feral smile as he inclined his head in acceptance of the open challenge Nahar had issued. The grass was indeed going to suffer loads this weekend, though who the grass was, was yet to be determined, Akash though with a heavy sigh. There would be no stopping Arnav now. He never backed down from a challenge.
"Do you have to do this this very weekend Arnav?" Akash asked with a sigh, seeing as Dia was no longer with them.
"I didn't start it this time my friend," he said with a small smile, "The man is baiting me and while I usually wouldn't have taken the bait, this time, he asked for it."
"Listen, I know, and I hear you, but you're going to put me and Payal in the middle of it and I cannot have that Arnav. I can't."
"Then you won't have to," Arnav said. "This will be all about me, that gawar, and the delightful Miss Gupta."
"Raizada," Akash said with an exasperated shake of his head, "Of all the times to be stubborn about this."
"Don't worry my friend. This isn't even a contest. I'm just intrigued to see how it will play out."
Akash swore softly under his breath, "At least wait until after the actual wedding ceremony, will you?"
"I'll try, but I'm not the only player in this game you know. What I do or don't do will be dependent on what they do or don't do." He smiled, "It has been a while since I last played chess."
"You're hell bent on this aren't you?"
Arnav just smiled. For the first time in quite a while he would take pleasure in winning a game he could have done without, but was willing to play for the sake of winning the grand prize. He wondered if they could stomach what was coming. He wouldn't let up just because they cried Uncle. He would now see it all the way to the end.
It was a frenzied morning for the occupants of Gupta haveli but the stress was eased because of the extra hands that had poured in. The villagers as well as the members of their dance troupe had come to lend a helping hand in any way they could. All the meals to be served were done and the preparations necessary were complete as the first of the thirty guests they were expecting began to arrive. Khushi barely had time to sit down the whole morning and Maya finally had to lock her in her room to get her to rest a bit. That didn't help. Khushi was back out on her balcony issuing instructions. After five hours of frenzied cooking, cleaning and last minute checks, they were ready.
Masi had insisted she be the first to put haldi on Payal, seeing as she had practically raised her. Khushi had tearfully done so, grateful for the opportunity. Dia had brazenly come forward and done same, much to the chagrin of Masi, Khushi and Payal, who would have averted her face, had Khushi not motioned for her to be still. Khushi had caught an amused look from Arnav and resisted the urge she had to hurl something at him to wipe that smug look off his face. The tension created in the house was all his fault.
In the end, they sat down to food, drinks and loud music as was characteristic of every Indian wedding. Naturally, their dance troupe did not miss an opportunity to perform, seeing as Payal was one of them, and on the upside, they might get another client from amongst this high and mighty crowd. It was almost two in the afternoon before the guests left, to return at 7pm for the Sangeet. Again, Payal and Maya had to drag Khushi to her room and force her to take a nap, seeing as she had been up since four in the morning. Khushi must have underestimated how tired she was, because she woke up a few minutes to five. She raced from the room in a panic and ran straight into Dia.
Dia after getting over that shock, smiled calmly, "If you're worried about the preparations for the Sangeet, don't be. It's almost ready."
Khushi was very taken aback by the fact that Dia saw fit to even speak to her. She looked closely at Dia, surprised at the tired lines and dark circles under her eyes. What did she have to lose sleep over? Wasn't she the one causing all the drama in the house?
"Thank you," Khushi said simply and would have walked away but Dia's quiet voice stopped her.
"I didn't mean to hurt you Didi. Woh mera majboori thi," she said.
Khushi stared in mild surprise at Dia's retreating back, confusion settling in her eyes. Majboori? What was she talking about? What pressure, or tight spot was she in that could ever justify speaking about her own home...her family in such a derogatory way? To cut all ties with them as though they meant nothing to her? She looked up as Dia's door swung shut quietly in the noisy haveli. Was Arnav controlling her sister? What did he have that would make her so different from the girl they knew and loved?
Pensively, she went down to the kitchen to join the rest of them, squeals of appreciation going up as she entered. It was impossible not to get pulled into the excitement. A half hour later, she and Payal were shooed upstairs to get dressed as the guest would soon be arriving. They got dressed in Khushi's room this time.
"Hmm?" Khushi absentmindedly answered as she brushed Payal's hair up into an elegant up-do.
"Why do you think Dia came after all?"
Khushi paused momentarily as the conversation she had had with Dia floated through her mind. "She's your sister Gudiya. Why else would she be here? Regardless of what we say, she's still family, and has every right to be here."
"He shouldn't be here," she grumbled, "I tried to get Akash to stop him from coming but he wouldn't hear of it."
Khushi instinctively knew she meant Arnav. "There's no need for that Gudiya. If he wants to come and support his friend, then he has every right to. Besides, you don't want to fight with your husband over his friend that was in his life long before you came into it do you?"
"Please," Payal rolled her eyes, "Wife trumps best friend any day."
"Hai hai, not even married yet and you're already trying to kick the best friend out of your to-be husband's life?" Khushi teased.
Payal blushed, a shy smile playing on her lips. "It's his fault."
Khushi would have replied but a soft knock sounded on the door. "Come in," Khushi called, wondering who it could be as she pushed a pin into Payal's hair to hold up the long tresses.
Both women looked up to see Dia standing indecisively at the door, "May I come in?"
Payal's face tightened in the mirror and she averted her gaze while Khushi was more than a little surprised to see her there again. She noted that Dia had something in her hands.
"Come in," she said, knowing it was brave of her sister to come her in as much as she wasn't particularly welcomed with open arms.
"You look beautiful Payal," she said softly, her voice heavy with emotion as she gazed lovingly at her little sister.
Payal still wouldn't look at her and kept her gaze on the floor, turned away from her. Dia swallowed hard, but Khushi was not about to make Payal do anything she didn't want to do. This was her day, and Dia would not spoil it.
Realizing that she was still persona non grata, she nodded, and took a shaky step forward. "I...I got you something blue. I mean it's...it's not traditional but...I think if you are still using the colors you once said you would, then...it should go nicely."
Khushi also folded her hands and stared at Dia, unsure what she hoped to gain by doing this. "Why are you here Dia? I thought you didn't want to be seen in this pile of rubble?"
Dia actually blanched at Khushi's hard voice, "Di... I said I was..."
"Sorry, yes. But I asked you not to come here. What, are you trying to spoil this day too? Make sure everyone knows there's a problem in the family?"
"No! How could you think that?" she cried, a very hurt look on her face.
"Then leave," Payal said coldly, "You've caused enough trouble already."
Collective gasps went up from both women. Dia looked stricken and Payal herself was momentarily stunned at the careless words she had uttered. Khushi looked in shock at a suddenly pale Payal.
"Gudiya?" Dia's voice was strained and very hurt.
Khushi couldn't move at the pained look on both of her sister's faces, surprised at how deep her feeling of hurt and betrayal ran, so much so Payal had taken it on. The box hitting the floor, and a broken cry from Dia were the only other sounds in the room as Dia turned and fled, her hand slapped over her mouth to muffle her sobs as she ran. Payal looked contrite, apologizing to Khushi with her eyes while Khushi just stood in confusion and shock, a different kind of fire burning in her chest, for there beyond the door, a murderous looking Arnav stood, glaring at both women...
HO GAYA...AGAIN J