It was deathly quiet in his house. The normally lively home was absolutely silent. He had not minded the silence in the years before he got married but now, it was downright deafening. Akash ran a frustrated hand through his hair. He hadn't been able to go to his room. Payal...he had never seen her that way. The look she gave him just before she turned to go to the car haunted his every thinking moment. He knew she wouldn't understand why he did what he did...at least not now. But he had to give his friend a chance to save his marriage the best way he could.
He heard a soft thud upstairs and glanced at the ceiling. He had to admit right this minute he was being a coward, very much afraid to go speak to his wife. He was afraid to hear the words he knew were wrapped around her heart, squeezing it and causing her pain. But he hadn't done it to hurt her...he'd just... It suddenly occurred to him that he could sit here and rationalize all day and all night. If he wasn't explaining himself to his wife, all his reasons were useless. He immediately pushed himself to his feet and left the patio, taking the stairs that led to his bedroom.
He rapped on the door softly, before pushing it open, "Pari? he called softly.
The lights were off, the only light in the room pouring in from the closet. He looked at the bed but she wasn't there. He heard the noises coming from the closet and went in there. He slowly made his way there and stopped short, his heart skipping several beats as he watched his wife packing a small bag.
"Payal, what are you doing? he asked, his voice as confused as it was dazed.
She turned to look at him over her shoulder, and without a word, continued her packing. He also noticed she was packing only from her box which carried her pre-wedding things.
"Payal, what's going on? he asked, true fear gripping him now.
Sighing heavily, she turned to face him, "I'm going back to Chandigarh. My Masi needs me.
His heart dropped into his stomach, sweat beginning to bead on his forehead as he watched her unhurried movements, "Pari please...we can...
"There is no we' Akash, she said, a bite of anger entering her voice as she shoved a salwar into her box, "There's you, and Arnav Singh Raizada. Perhaps you should have married him.
"That's not fair, he said, his face betraying the hurt that he felt in that moment.
"Fair? What's not fair is my husband, taking his friend's side in a fight for what is right. I put too much faith in you and your ability to take care of me and my family. That's unfair. Because I shouldn't have burdened you with something that heavy. You don't know when to be a husband and when to be a friend. And that's okay. I don't know why we always think the men we marry are different from every other man out there.
"You cannot compare me to them, he bit out, upset that she would equate him with the general populace of men the world over.
She stopped, pensive or a few seconds. She nodded and said, "You're right, Most of them would stand up for their wives, even if they were wrong. Correction can be done in private, she said, zipping up the bag and lifting it from the floor.
"Payal stop, he blocked her path when she attempted to go past him, "Please, let's talk about this.
"And say what Akash? You made your thoughts very clear and I understand them. No need to over flog the issue. I'll be away...
"Babe, please, he cut her off, taking the bag from her and setting it on the island, "Please just give me a chance.
"You are my husband! she snapped, snatching her hand away from his and clearly startling her husband, "How could you do that to me?! To my sister?!
He said nothing.
"That man claims to love her and yet it cost him nothing to tear down the one thing that we all hold dear and you? Rather than stand up for your wife and her family, you chose to take sides with your friend. How dare you stand there and ask me to talk about this? What could you possibly say to make this make any kind of sense?
Akash stood still, his expression contrite, and very much unable to meet his wife's accusing gaze. He couldn't deny that he had made it Arnav's problem to fix this whole mess, neatly sidestepping mines that could blow up in his face. In so doing he had inadvertently alienated his wife. There were things he could have done to make the situation better but he thought...
"Payal, I'm sorry, he said heavily, "I...I know you don't think much of what I did, and I'm sorry for raising my voice at you. But...you have to know Arnav to understand...
"And who is going to understand my sister? Payal asked softly, cut him off and refusing to be swayed.
Akash exhaled, shaking his head in resignation. He couldn't do anything to make this go away or make it better. Of all the emotions she had displayed today, this one of disappointment was the one that lanced him the most.
"What can I do? he asked, looking at his wife beseechingly, "I messed up...I get it...just...tell me what to do.
She looked at him, her hurt and anger reflected in her eyes, and swiped angrily at the tears that slid down her cheeks, "Come with me. She took him into the bedroom and sat him down on her dresser, kneeling before him.
"Payal? he questioned.
"Close your eyes, she said, taking both his hands, "Go on. Close them.
She waited until he had obliged though an uncomfortable frown creased his forehead as he waited for whatever it was she wanted to do.
"Imagine this young girl...she's sixteen...she's smart, intelligent...beautiful. The best daughter in the world by any parent's standards. She's kind...with a really big heart. She's raised in the lap of luxury but you would never know it by looking at her. She loves to take care of everyone, and so never discriminated between family and servants. She worked alongside everyone, every time...when she wasn't studying.
She paused, looking at her husband's relaxed face which still sported a creased forehead as he listened intently, lightly gripping her hands.
"One day, her father arrives from Lucknow arrives bringing two little girls with him, explaining his brother had just died, leaving his two daughters and that she was tasked with taking care of them. It was second nature to her so she did. And five years later she would lose her own father, the weight of the family falling to her shoulders, she paused when Akash inhaled and exhaled deeply, "She kept going with a smile even when things got tough. She was a poster girl for never give up'. And then one day, this man arrives, and takes a liking to her. She isn't interested, but he's relentless. Suffice it to say that he manages to back her into a corner and she agrees to marry him. It is not her wish to marry him and so there are problems. One day, this man...was so angry...that he goes and destroys the one thing that means everything to her, almost killing her. She paused when Akash shifted uncomfortably, but otherwise said nothing, "Her family raises an alarm only to be shut down by her husband's friend...asking them to mind their business. She paused again, and added softly, "Now imagine you were that girl's family, and that girl...was Maya.
Akash gripped her hands tightly as his eyes flew open in shocked outrage. Her smile was sad as she regarded her husband, fresh tears pouring from her eyes.
"It's always a little abstract isn't it? Until the pain or unfairness of a situation touches your own family, she said softly, getting to her feet. "I might not be able to help my sister, but I can help my aunt. Dia and I are leaving for Chandigarh tomorrow. So saying, she turned and walked back into the closet to pick her bag. "I'll stay over at Dia's place tonight.
"At least let me drop you off, he implored her.
She smiled, an empty, sad curve to her once happy lips, "That's okay. I already called a taxi.
With that, she walked out of the room, and out of the house to the waiting taxi he didn't even hear arrive. Icy cold fear gripped his heart as he watched her leave.
Three days later...
"...wickedness...you ingrate...how could you...taught you to be cruel...insensitive...level of hate...frustration out on people...never have believed you capable...result of your actions...callous...consequences...try to kill her...
Arnav jackknifed to a sitting position, panic gripping him as cold sweat dripped from almost every pore of his body, soaking him to the skin. He tried to take deep calming breaths but his erratic breathing wouldn't slow down as his eyes darted around the familiar room of his pent house suite. The nightmares plagued even his sleep. It was the same dream always...not necessarily because it was a metaphor for his guilt and shame, but because it had actually happened and there seemed to be no escaping it.
It was forever etched in his mind, the reactions that heralded their welcome back to Raizada Mansion. It had been everything he feared and worse. It wasn't enough that he had had to battle his sister in-law for his wife once they disembarked from the jet at the airport. It had been ugly. And now he regretted it even more for the pain it had caused his friend. Now he had that too on his conscience...
"She's coming with me, Payal had stated, once they were on the tarmac.
Arnav stopped in his tracks, looking a defiant Payal in the eye before saying ever so calmly, "No, she isn't.
"I'm not asking you Arnav, she said testily, going to take Khushi from his side, "She needs peace and quiet, none of which you can give to her so...
"If you as much as come near my wife, I will not be responsible for what happens next, he said, losing his patience.
"And what will you do? Huh? she asked defiantly, "What can you do? she screamed, shoving him away from Khushi.
Akash who had just appeared from getting their luggage tossed them aside to restrain his wife, "Payal what are you doing?
"You tell him to leave my sister alone! she said, glaring at Arnav who still held on to a now trembling Khushi who seemed ready to bolt if given the chance, "She will only get worse in that prison he calls a house and I won't allow that!
"She's his wife, Akash said tiredly, "He decides what happens to her.
"My sister never recognized him as her husband...never! She isn't safe with him. He's going to kill her! she screamed, and spat in Arnav's direction, just barely missing him.
That seemed to snap her husband's patience, "Payal, I have had enough of your tantrums and it ends now! Just what do you think you're doing? he turned her around to face him, "This is your sister's marriage and you do not have a say in it! We are all worried about her but she is not in any imminent danger. What happened was unfortunate and I'm sure Arnav regrets it, but you don't go throwing wild accusations like that just because! In any event, she will be surrounded by enough people to help take care of her, so you need to quit acting like she's being led to the slaughter house! Enough!
Payal was stunned into silence to say the least. Her husband had never spoken to her this way before...and for what? For this Arnav? She was about to tell him that, but he silenced her.
"Go wait in the car, he said in a tone that brooked no argument, and for the umpteenth time since this ordeal began, his wife ran from him, tears streaming down her face. He started pacing, cursing under his breath.
"Akash... Arnav began.
"What the hell Arnav! Just look what you made me do! That's my wife for crying out loud. Do you know what this means?! Akash stopped pacing to face him, "I warned you. I warned you but you wouldn't listen. Human beings are not equations. Relationships are dynamic between two people and two plus two is not always four. I warned you. Now look. You are causing problems between me and my wife, and for what? Something that didn't start in our home.
Khushi was crying now, squirming in Arnav's arms and trying clearly to get away from him, her face full of agitation.
"Brother, I'm sorry, Arnav said, releasing Khushi so that he only held her hand while she still tried to get away from him, "I...
"Please understand, that at some point you will have to let her take her sister if this persists. Perhaps Payal is right and being away from you might help her. Do I have your word?
Arnav looked at his friend, knowing in himself though he couldn't admit it, that perhaps they were right. Khushi might get better without him near her. But he needed to try... He needed to know that he could fix what he broke.
"Three weeks, he said, "Give me two weeks. If she doesn't snap out of it, I'll bring her over myself.
Akash nodded curtly, and turned on his heel, heading to the waiting car and his crying wife. There would be hell to pay but damn it, there was nothing he could do right now. He just hoped Khushi woke up out of this trance soon, for all their sakes.
When he had gotten home, it was to Dadi's slap across his face. To say they had been shocked was an understatement to say the least. No one expected a walking, comatose Khushi to come back from Chandigarh. He had hung his head for the first time in almost fifteen years as Dadi, Shyam, Anjali screamed at him. Finally, Anjali had managed to coax a reluctant Khushi to go with her and had taken Khushi from him and leading her to his room. Shyam wouldn't stop yelling at him and he stood there, taking the physical and verbal beating, knowing that he deserved it and much more. There was no defense in this matter. He had set it all in motion and had ended up with a disaster bigger than he could ever have imagined.
They all watched him, guarding Khushi as it were from him. Anjali took care of her, bathing her, feeding her, making sure she walked around in the house so she didn't feel claustrophobic. They had taken to showing her pictures and videos of herself as she once was, but she wouldn't look at any of them, getting agitated and running away from everyone. The only person she seemed to warm up to was Shyam who took time out to be home early to talk wither, whether or not she responded. The one place she seemed totally at peace was out in the garden. Severally she would just up and walk out while everyone was seated inside. After a week of watching over her closely, they were confident she wouldn't harm herself, and let her roam as she saw fit, though someone was always a few feet behind her.
Some days were harder than most. He couldn't for the life of him figure out what else to do. Finally he decided she might fare better if she saw a psychiatrist. At which point he left the hotel and came back to the house, daring anyone to say anything to him. They took her to the best Mumbai had to offer.
Dr. Nishita must have asked why he wasn't in attendance at the first meeting, and had consequently asked to see him. He had had to cut short a meeting to go to her office, hoping to hear good news when he got there. Rather, the Doctor had asked him to tell her in his own words, exactly what had happened to make his wife this way. It was uncomfortable but he knew if he wanted to help Khushi, he had to be honest with the Doctor. He relayed everything from how they got married, right up to that ill-fated day. She had listened patiently, interjecting with one open ended question after another, thereby forcing him to look at the real reason he was angry with her, and why he did what he did...as if he already didn't know.
After a heavy two hour session, she had asked to observe Khushi in her natural environment, and the next day had them bringing her to meet Khushi at home. She watched Khushi eat from Anjali's hands, even observed the change in her attitude of normal impassiveness to one of blushing shyness when Shyam teased her. She had persuaded Arnav to try to communicate with her but he flat out refused, expressing his concern that he might send her into a worse state than she already was.
She had Anjali take Khushi to Arnav's study and once she was settled, invited Arnav in. Khushi stood with her back to him, facing the garden, a ghost of a smile playing on her lips. Dr. Nishita having encouraged Arnav to speak with Khushi, stood off to the side and motioned him to speak.
"Khushi, he began uncertainly.
He saw the stiffening in her back. She slowly turned around, her eyes downcast as she instinctively sought a way to exit the study.
Arnav looked at Dr. Nishita, who encouraged him to go ahead, "Khushi, can I please talk to you?
She started pacing by the window, her hands wringing the life out of her dupatta as she paced, her head making small, jerky movements as if to say she didn't want to listen.
"Please Khushi...I need to talk to you, he said, taking a tentative step towards her. "I just want to talk.
Khushi backed up against the window, tears already staining her cheeks as she ripped her dupatta, her agitation becoming more evident in her heavy breathing.
"Okay...okay...Khushi, just calm down, he said, not going any closer, "Look, I won't come any closer. See? I'm going to stand right here. Is that okay?
She turned away from him, small whimpers escaping her as she realized there would be nowhere to run. Arnav still looked at the Doctor who nodded in encouragement.
"Khushi...listen...I... he began, realizing that he had never even thought of what to say to her. Taking a deep calming breath, he continued, "Khushi, I'm...I'm so sorry. He took a tentative step toward her, "What I did...in a fit of rage...was unforgiveable. There's...no excuse I could possibly give you that would make any sense...or justify what I did. She stopped wringing her hands, turning slightly to face him, "I promise Khushi...I will fix everything. I will...just...don't punish everyone on my account. Please...just...come back.
She didn't respond, just stood still, as if waiting for him to speak or do something else to her. But she was calm now...at least she was listening.
"I know I hurt you, but... believe me it was not my intention, he took another step toward her, stopping when she backed up against the window again, still turned toward him, "Okay...okay...I'm not coming any closer. He stopped five feet away from her, "I know how hard you worked on restoring the haveli. I was never going to destroy it. Yes...yes...I wanted to scare you...but I never wanted to hurt you or destroy your dream. All I've ever wanted to do was... He stopped, his hands falling to his sides in obvious defeat as disappointment etched lines on his handsome face, "...protect you.
She slowly turned to face him, her eyes still downcast as if unsure if she wanted to believe him. Arnav looked behind him at the Doctor who was smiling now, but asked him not to go any closer so she didn't feel crowded.
"I know you don't owe me anything after all that I did, but I ask you to try to forgive us all. I took everything from you, and try as I might, I cannot give it all back. But part of the reason I wanted you...needed you...is your heart. You have...such a big heart, he said, a mirthless smile curving his lips, "and I...I had to make you a part of my life because of your ability to love even the undeserving. Many times Khushi...many times, and to many different people, I don't deserve to be loved, he said simply, shoving his hands in his pocket, a deep frown of realization creasing his brow as if this truth just dawned on him. "It's selfish, I know. But what can I do? I meet two-faced people every day. Everyone wants something. You were the only one who looked me in the face and challenged me without fear. You didn't want anything from me and I guess... I needed you. To feel something...anything...to feel like a human being. Not like an ATM or a ...business partner, or a pawn in someone's game...I just... He stopped, swallowing hard as if preparing for the enormity of what he was about to say. "I need you. Anyway I can have you, I'll take it. But if you come out of this and don't want to be bound to me...I won't stop you.
At that, she turned fully to face him, her expression almost deadpan save for the slight tremor that wracked her frail frame. He stepped closer to her. "I have to be honest, I pray that's not the case, he chuckled dryly to himself, "Who's going to lock me in the closet or put pins in my pillow? he asked jokingly, and watched in fascination as she bowed her head, resuming her picking at her dupatta frills again, her neck red from what, he assumed was embarrassment.
"Will you forgive me Khushi? he asked softly, "Please? I know my mistake is big. Not so easily forgiven or forgotten...But believe me I will do penance for as long as you want me to. I won't complain. I would rather have the old you back than... he let the sentence trail off as he didn't want to speak about her state.
She just stood there, hugging herself round her middle, a slight frown on her forehead as she seemingly pondered on his words. Instinctively he stepped forward, almost closing the gap between them.
"Kumari? he asked again, watching her stiffen ever so slightly at the use of her middle name.
"Alright Mr Raizada, Dr Nishita said, "I think that is enough for today. We have achieved the purpose for which I wanted this exercise.
Arnav looked like he wanted to argue, but tamped it down and held himself in check, telling himself that the Doctor must know what she was talking about if she said it was enough for one day.
He watched as she walked over to Khushi, "Will you come with me dear? she asked, holding her hand out to Khushi.
After hesitating a moment, he watched as she slowly placed her hand in Dr Nishita's hand, and let her lead her from the study. Arnav stepped back to give them room to pass. This was the most comfortable she had been in his presence since he brought her home. She always hid behind Anjali or whomever was closest to when he walked in. And they all protected him from her. It had irritated him at first, but he had gotten used to it after a few days. She saw him as a threat. But now...now, she had allowed him stand close to her. So starved was he of her that even this filled him with so much hope for the future. It was a baby step, but he would gladly take it over what he had had all this time. Anything was better than where he had been this past week.
Amazing, wasn't it? He could not remember the last time he had to apologize to anyone for anything. And here he was, pleading with his wife. It was rightly said that only a woman can bring the greatest of men to their knees. He understood many-a-fallen man a whole lot better now.
He lowered himself into his seat, utterly drained from the confessions and realizations of the last twenty minutes. He let a rueful smile curve his lips as he thought about his wife. She had heard him today...knew he was sincere in his apology. Perhaps in time, she would actually forgive him, and snap out of this fugue state. He hadn't forgotten that each passing day brought him closer to his promise to Akash to allow them take Khushi for a while. Damn it, he didn't want that to happen, but he couldn't rush things.
The smile however died off his lips as he thought about the decision he had made. Could he really give her up if she woke up and decided she didn't want to remain married to him? Could he really let her go if that was her decision? He wasn't proud to admit it, but he knew even if he hadn't found damning information on Nahar Varma, he would still have done everything in his power, to take Khushi away from him. And since he was being honest with himself, he would not regret it either. Khushi was a rarity, and any well deserving man would be lucky to have her. In that moment he decided he would need to be around her more often. She had allowed him within touching distance of her today, surely that was a good sign...
There was a short rap on the door and it opened for Dr. Nishita to enter the study. He got to his feet, "Doctor, is there a problem?
"Oh not at all Mr Raizada, she said, smiling softly, "May I?
"Please, he indicated the seat across from him.
"I have to commend you on your actions today, she began, "You did a good job of being honest and opening up yourself to her in truth, and I believe we made tremendous progress today.
"Do you think she'll make a full recovery?
"Of course, but baby steps. The point of today's exercise was making sure that she could be around you and not feel afraid for her life. If she were around you more, it would make it easier...safer if you will, to come back to us.
Arnav was quiet, lost in his own thoughts.
"Mr Raizada please do not give up hope. This state is not so dissociative that it cannot be reversed. She just needs some more time, and certain constants in her life, you being one of them. She has to know that you will always be there for her from here on out. Your relationship started out on the wrong foot, but it is almost never too late to start doing the right thing.
"I'll take my leave now. How about I come back in three days' time to check on her progress. Would that be fine?
"Good. And one more thing. I know this has resulted in a lot of strained relationships in the house, but I think even you need to start interacting with the family more. She also needs to see that they have forgiven you for all this.
"That will be pretty hard, he gave a bitter chuckle. "It's as if she were their family and I'm the outsider. They've all been protecting her from me.
"And understandably so, but all that has got to change. She is the thing that's important, so everyone needs to get their act together. I've spoken with them, and I need you to cooperate with them. Do I have your word?
"Yes. Whatever it takes. I just need my wife to get better.
"Splendid. Then I'll see myself out. Till next time.
"Thank you Doctor, he shook her hand, and she turned to leave his study.