Akash Malik, son of Birendra Singh Malik; that has been his identity for years now and Akash knew that it was as big a responsibility as it was an honour. All his life, he had done his best to live up to the name, to not cause his father any kind of pain or disappointment because Akash knew that his father had seen enough of it.
Yet, from the minute Akash had learnt about his father's cancer, he regretted wasting so many years, taking them for granted. Because, deep down, he always knew that there was a lot that he has to do for his father, for his family, and the time was now hardly enough.
As a brother to Arnav and as a son to Birendra Singh Malik, Akash knew that it was only him who will have to mend the estranged relationship between his brother and his father. It was his job to bring together the Malik family. But, he had taken too much time preparing the ground, waiting for the right opportunity.
It was the cruel play of destiny which had now left him with no time. How will he ever succeed in reuniting his family in such a small-time? Akash was devastated from inside, hopeless. And it was the same devastation and hopelessness that had driven him into action, into calling his brother and pleading him to come home.
He hadn't dared to hope as to how the conversation will go, if he would be able to make Arnav come home. But, he had known he had to tell Arnav about Baba's cancer, and maybe.. ..maybe get some reaction out of his brother after so many years.
Because, in all these years, Akash had respected his brother's wish and never asked him to come home. It was him who went to Delhi every year, to spend time with Arnav. Because, for Akash, Arnav was not just his brother. Arnav was Akash's friend, confidante, mentor, idol.
And Birendra Singh Malik was Akash's father. Akash owed everything that he was to his father.
In short, Akash was half Arnav and half his father.
So, when Arnav walked inside Sheesh Mahal that afternoon, Akash jumped up to his feet, eyes wide.
"Bhai?" He laughed in surprise, unable to believe it was actually his brother.
Arnav's answering smile was soft and affectionate as he further stepped into the large hall with his luggage.
"You were supposed to come two days later" Akash said, almost lurching towards Arnav and hugging him.
Arnav opened his mouth but Akash was still gushing.
"I missed you, Bhai. Phone calls and meeting in person are two different things" Akash continued and then pulled back from the hug.
"And why didn't you inform me? I would have come to receive you at the airport. It's fortunate that I had already informed the entire staff to be prepared for your arrival this week so by that luck they have already prepared the room. How was your journey, Bhai? Why are you still standing? Come, sit! This is your home. I will ask someone to take your lugg.."
"Calm down, Akash" Arnav finally interrupted Akash, placing a hand on his shoulder.
"I am here. I am not going anywhere. The luggage is not going anywhere. So, take a breath and speak slowly" Arnav said with a lopsided smile as he assessed his brother's excitement.
The journey was worth it. Akash looked visibly happy. If Akash was happy, Arnav was happy. So far, so good.
"Yeah, you're right, Bhai" Akash huffed a laugh and gave Arnav another side hug.
"You're indeed here" He said softly this time.
"You asked me. How can I ever deny you, little brother?" Arnav answered with the same softness, and then straightened his jacket.
"So, where is my room? I need a bath to get rid of this airplane smell, and then we can catch up" Arnav said, finally having a proper look around himself.
The hall looked pretty much the same. The same regal looking furniture, heavy carpets, humongous chandeliers on the ceiling, all of it reminded Arnav of the days he had spent running in these very halls, in the very same Mahal.
"The room by the library! I thought you would like the corner room. Plus, its windows open towards the west portion of 'Aamra Kunj'" Akash added the last part with a small hesitation, not sure if Arnav would appreciate it or find it melancholic.
The western part of 'Aamra Kunj' was where his mother's last remains were buried.
"That's perfect" Arnav replied, nodding his head.
"Would you like to go and see.."
"I will go see her later" Arnav answered. Akash understood.
Arnav would be visiting his mother's grave after a longtime. He most probably wasn't ready or maybe wanted to do it alone.
"Okay, Bhai. You go and have your bath. Dayal and Hema will take your luggage to your room. And, I'll go and ask Ratan Kaka to set the table for lunch" Akash said.
"Ratan Kaka? He is still working?" Arnav asked, mildly surprised. The old man was working in the Mahal for as long as Arnav could remember. Apart from his mother, if someone kept an account of what Arnav was eating and doing, it was Ratan Kaka.
"What to do? He refuses to take a retirement. Now that you're here maybe he would listen to you, Bhai" Akash chuckled before he turned away and called Hari Prakash, telling him to carry Arnav's luggage to his room.
"Did you have your medicines, Malik?" Dr. Kumar asked Birendra Singh Malik, who was looking restless on his bed.
Birendra Singh Malik looked towards Dr. Kumar and gave a pained smile.
"These medicines are only going to prolong my misery, Kumar, they won't save me" He replied.
"That does not answer my question" Dr. Kumar's voice was sharp and pressing.
"Yes. Khushi bitiya helped me with them" Birendra Singh Malik answered, his eyes following Dr. Kumar who was now checking the various machines installed in the room that regulated and monitored his health.
"What does it say? Is it better or worse than yesterday?" Birendra Singh Malik asked.
"Khushi is the only one who can urge you to have your medicines on time. I don't know what we would do if she weren't around"Dr. Kumar said instead, reading the monitors and scribbling down the readings on a notepad.
"You didn't answer my question" This time Malik pressed.
"Because it's an irrelevant question. It will take time for the new medicines to show their effect. It's too early to tell if they are working or not. So, hold your patience and avoid dying" Dr. Kumar's answer was full of reprimand and Malik smiled.
"For a doctor, your temper is short".
"As a doctor, my temper is immense. It is as your lifelong friend that my patience is wearing thin. You can be an insufferable prick when you want to be" Dr. Kumar's words had his friend suppressing a laugh.
"I keep hearing it from you, Akash and Khushi. Although, they trim their words as to avoid hurting my feelings. But you..you're just crass" Malik replied.
"I am honest" was Dr. Kumar's answer before he tore open a new syringe packet.
"Time for the injection" He announced, filling the syringe with the translucent solution.
Birendra Singh Malik adjusted a little on the bed, facing other way and Dr. Kumar rubbed an alcohol dipped cotton swab on his lower back.
"I still cannot believe that my son is coming back" Birendra Singh Malik's voice turned hoarse and anguished as he closed his eyes at the sharp pain from the syringe.
Dr. Kumar did not say anything.
"Do you think he would come to see me, Kumar? What if he still hates me? What if his hate has only grown?" Malik's voice cracked a little, and he turned to look at his friend's face.
Dr. Kumar's face was solemn.
"He has come. I heard Akash talking to him in the hall" Dr. Kumar answered slowly, throwing the syringe in the dustbin.
"He has come? He is already here? In Sheesh Mahal? Where? I want to meet him, Kumar. Did you see him? How does he look?" Birendra Singh Malik struggled to get out of the bed, anxious, but Dr. Kumar held him down.
"Lie down, Malik. I just gave you an injection, the medicine is going to hurt as it works its way into the bloodstream. You're weak and you cannot leave the room. At least not for another week" Dr. Kumar's voice was authoritative and Birendra Singh Malik stopped struggling to get out of the bed.
"He is my son. I want to see him" Malik murmured.
"I understand that, Malik. But, you cannot leave the room. As your doctor, it is my duty to make sure you do not hurt yourself"
"Did you see him? Has he changed much in the past years? Does he look like Sujata? Does he look like me?" Birendra Singh Malik asked.
"I did not see him closely. I was still in my room but I watched him heading towards the room on the first floor. He is taller now. And he always had your eyes. He is your shadow, Malik. He reminded me of you all those years back" Dr. Kumar said, taking a seat on the chair by the bed.
Birendra Singh Malik looked at Dr. Kumar's face.
"I won't die, Kumar. Now that my son is back, I will meet him. I will beg him to forgive his father. Do you think he would forgive me?"
"I don't know, Malik. And it is not just you who needs Arnav's forgiveness. I need it too. He still holds me responsible for Sujata's death. He hates us both. Maybe this is our chance to mend everything that we broke so many years ago. And don't worry, Malik. I will talk to him. I will make sure he comes and sees you. I am sure he wants to meet you as much as you want to meet him. He is your blood, your son. And no one can deny that reality. Not even Arnav!" Dr. Kumar's words soothed Birendra Singh Malik's aching heart.
"Go to sleep, Malik. We'll talk at dinner time. I have to go to the hospital for a quick round" Dr. Kumar said but Birendra Singh Malik was already half-asleep, the medicines already kicking in.
As Khushi walked home, she couldn't help but keep thinking about how she had bumped into Arnav Singh Raizada. What a stupid way to introduce yourself to someone who was so important in Akash's life. She wouldn't be surprised if Arnav Singh Raizada thought of her as a clumsy fool.
But, a clumsy fool or not, Khushi felt relieved, happy.
As the closest friend of Akash, Khushi knew what place Arnav held in Akash's life, in the Mahal. Arnav's presence would certainly help Akash get out of the gloom he has sunk into.
As for herself, Khushi wasn't sure how she was to behave in front of Arnav Singh Raizada.
Because she still clearly remembered the day when she had looked him into the eye and told him that he was a rakshas (monster).
It had been exactly one year after Khushi had met Akash and became friends with him.
In one year of her friendship, Khushi and Akash had become thick as thieves. Every day after the school, Khushi would go home, have lunch, and then Malik Uncle would send for a car which would bring her to the Mahal where Khushi and Akash would have their tuitions together.
Malik Uncle had specially requested her Babuji to allow her to come to the Mahal to take tuitions. Back then, Khushi had been surprised as to why her father had said yes, but today, she understood that even her father had sensed the sadness and emptiness that plagued the Mahal and Birendra Singh Malik's life.
So, Khushi used to spend her late afternoons and evenings in the Mahal, studying, playing, learning from Ratan Kaka how to make crispy, piping hot jalebis.
Those months had been months of absolute happiness for Khushi before things had started getting clearer.
Over the months, Akash would often mention his elder brother Arnav who lived in Delhi with his Nani and how he wanted to meet his brother and talk to him. Akash had never met Arnav, only heard about him from his father.
"Why doesn't he live here with you and Malik uncle? Doesn't he like Lucknow?" Khushi had asked.
"Baba says that Arnav Bhai left because he wanted to study in Delhi. Delhi is a big city, you know? They have bigger schools"
"So, why didn't you go to Delhi as well? If you want to live with your Bhai you should go too" Khushi had suggested and wondered if her Babuji will allow her to go as well. Then the three of them, Akash, Khushi and Arnav could be friends and study together.
"Baba says that I am too young to live alone. I think he's right. I can't sleep until Baba tells me stories. But, on my next birthday, I will become thirteen years old. Maybe then I can go to Delhi and finally meet Arnav Bhai. I will live with him in Delhi. You can come too, Khushi. It would be fun" Akash had said and Khushi had instantly nodded her head, already thinking about visiting the Red Fort that she had seen in her textbooks only.
But, the thirteenth birthday of Akash had become a disaster.
Three days before Akash's birthday, Arnav had come to Lucknow with his Nani.
Akash had been jubilant, running around Arnav, introducing himself and asking Arnav all kinds of questions about Delhi and calling him 'Bhai'.
In fact, Khushi had felt jealous as Akash had been kind of ignoring her. She wondered if Akash had forgotten that she too was to go to Delhi with him.
So, that late afternoon, a day before Akash's birthday Khushi had reached the Mahal to remind Akash of his promise and probably befriends with Arnav, after all, they all had to live together in Delhi.
But, looking for Akash and Arnav, Khushi had found them in the western portion of Aamra Kunj, a few feet from the grave where Khushi rarely dared to go.
While playing in Aamra Kunj, both Akash and Khushi always avoided that portion of the orchard, but that day, Khushi found both Akash and Arnav there.
Arnav, who was three years older than Akash and much taller, looked angry and was shaking while Akash looked ready to burst into tears.
"YOU ARE NOT MY BROTHER" Arnav shouted loudly and angrily and Khushi's legs had frozen, still a few feet from where the two boys stood.
"Please Bhai, don't say that. Baba has told me that we are brothers. Why are..."
Arnav, who had been sixteen years old then, took an angry step towards Akash.
"Do not talk about that man before me. I hate HIM. And you? You are not my brother! You're just a pathetic roadside charity case who was brought to this Mahal to compensate for my absence. He adopted you because he had no one left to torture. So, take my advice and run away from this Mahal. This Mahal is full of killers who killed my mother. They will kill you too" Arnav had said in one breath, panting, eyes burning and it was only then he had turned away to notice Khushi standing there.
But, Khushi's eyes were fixed upon Akash who was now crying, tears rolling down. And as soon as Akash noticed Khushi, he ran from there.
Khushi who herself was only twelve years old was suddenly filled with anger.
All that she had seen and understood at that moment was that her friend Akash had been hurt by this boy who was in front of her.
She walked up to him.
"How dare you make my friend cry?" She had demanded, but Arnav had barely bothered to listen or reply. He had just left, leaving Khushi there.
But, Khushi was not done.
She followed him.
"Go away" Arnav stopped once he noticed the petite girl following him.
"I won't! Because of you, my friend has not been talking to me. He is not spending time with me. Yesterday, we were supposed to go to the book fair with Doctor uncle, but Akash cancelled. He didn't even apologize to me about it because he has been running after YOU. He loves you a lot, you idiot! And I hate you! You made him cry. He is your brother" Khushi screamed the last part.
"He is not my brother. I don't want a brother"Arnav's words had been cold and angry.
"It's not Akash's fault! What is his mistake? How can you be so rude to him? He just wants to talk to you. My Amma says that those who make other people unhappy can never remain happy themselves. Especially if they make someone unhappy who has never hurt them. I am telling you, Akash is a good boy. I mean he did once hit me with a ball but that was unintentional. He apologized to me instantly. Otherwise, Akash never makes anyone cry. Also, he once made Rakesh apologize to me for tripping me. Do you think a bad boy would do that? And Babuji says that despite being rich, Akash has a richer heart. I don't know what that means but I guess it is something nice about Akash. Do you see what I am trying to say? Akash is the BEST brother you can get! So, go apologize to him, okay?" Khushi had finished her monologue after speaking at length. Even she hadn't known from where she had got so many words that day.
Arnav had been taken by surprise by her sheer courage and commitment to her friendship.
It had made his sixteen-year-old self look at Khushi like she was a wonder.
"Who are you?" He had asked her after a minute.
"Ham Khushi hain" (I am Khushi). Akash's friend. We take tuitions together. And Akash helps me with my homework sometimes. Like I said, he is very helpful. But you? You are a rakshas! You are a very bad person" Khushi finished, and she noticed Arnav flinch, look at her like he was going to throttle her.
She didn't know she had hit a nerve.
Arnav took a step towards her, hands fisted.
"You.." Khushi didn't wait to listen, she had already broken into a spring.
She didn't stop until she was out of the gates, where she crashed into Doctor Kumar.
"Khushi? Where are you running to? Don't you have your English lessons today? Come, let's go inside. Mr. Naqvi and Akash must be waiting for you. Come along now" Doctor Kumar held Khushi by her hand, and she meekly followed, looking behind once to see if Arnav was behind.
That had been Khushi's encounter with Arnav. For her, he was a bully and a jerk. Even the next day, in Akash's birthday party, she could see Arnav trying to approach her, but she had purposely remained stuck by her mother's side, avoiding him completely.
Maybe Arnav might have caught a hold of her at some point of the night, but then she had to leave early from the party, her parents forcing her to leave with them.
It was only later Khushi had learnt that there had been a family disruption in Sheesh Mahal that night because of which everyone had left early.
When Khushi arrived in the Mahal the next day, Arnav had left with his Nani and there was an eerie silence howling in the galleries of the Mahal.
She located Akash and found him huddled in his room, reading Oliver Twist.
"What happened?" She had asked, climbing into the bed.
"Arnav Bhai left" Akash said, without looking away from the book.
"Isn't that good? He is a rakshas! He is not at all like you said he would be. He screamed at you, said horrible words" Khushi said, looking at the book once and then at Akash's face.
"No. Don't call him that. He is not a bad person, Khushi. Do you know that yesterday morning, when I woke up, he was in my room? He apologized to me. He said that he didn't mean any of the things that he said to me that day. He said he had got angry because I was plucking the roses from the grave. He said that the grave is of his mother, and he himself had planted those roses before leaving. He was upset because I was taking the flowers without his permission. In fact, he had brought me a bouquet for my birthday from the same roses. He was really sorry, Khushi. And do you know? He said that I can call him Bhai" Akash finally gave a bright smile.
Khushi didn't know what to say! Should she tell Akash that she had fought with Arnav? Maybe Akash wouldn't like that.
"In fact, he also said that I should come to Delhi for my next summer vacation. He is not bad, Khushi. It was my mistake. And you know how Baba keeps telling that Arnav Bhai has always been short-tempered" Akash continued.
Khushi decided it was best to remain shut up about how rude and ill-mannered she had been before Arnav.
"Then why are you sad? And why did he leave?" Khushi asked, signalling at the book in Akash's hands. Akash only read Oliver Twist when he was sad.
"I don't know. Something happened before the party. Nani ji, who had come with Arnav Bhai, was very angry. She was in Baba's room and shouting. Even Arnav Bhai didn't know what was going on. He was in my room, telling me about his school in Delhi. And later she didn't come to the party when I cut the cake. After the cake was cut, Arnav Bhai gifted me HIS watch. But, then Nani ji came downstairs, and she took Arnav Bhai away. After you had left with uncle and aunty and the party was over, she drove away with Arnav Bhai in the car. They just left. I didn't even get to say goodbye. And no one stopped them, Khushi. I requested Baba to stop Arnav Bhai for a few more days, but he didn't come out of his room. Even Doctor Uncle didn't listen to me. No one is telling me why he left. Baba is in a bad mood. Doctor Uncle left early for the hospital" Akash finished narrating the day and Khushi listened with rapt attention.
She told Akash that maybe Arnav will come back or Akash would get to go to Delhi in June.
That cheered Akash.
As for herself, she no longer wanted to go to Delhi and meet Arnav. And much to her fortune, Arnav never came back.
In so many years, Khushi had slowly learnt a little about Arnav and pieced some pieces together.
Malik Uncle and Dr. Kumar never really talked about Arnav. At least, not the things which made him leave the Mahal. Akash knew very little himself and shared those things with her.
On Akash's birthday, she had learnt that Akash and Arnav were not related by blood and Arnav disliked Malik Uncle. Over the years, she had learnt that Arnav's mother, Sujata Singh Malik, had been battling with depression and had committed suicide when Arnav was ten years old. At thirteen, he had left Lucknow. A few months after Arnav had left, Birendra Singh Malik had adopted a ten-year-old Akash and two years after that had begun Khushi's friendship with the Maliks.
She had come into the picture when all things had already been said and done and there was not much she could learn about it. And she didn't want to. For her, Akash was her best friend; Malik Uncle was the most loving man and Dr. Kumar was the nicest human being she had ever known. Beyond that, there was no other reality for Khushi.
And Arnav? He was a puzzle for her. She didn't know where to place him, how to approach him. Her contact with him had been limited to the time she had rebuked him regarding Akash. And the annual phone calls on her birthdays! Seeing that Khushi's birthday used to come in June, Akash was never around for it. After Arnav had accepted Akash as his brother, Akash always spent his summer vacation with Arnav in Delhi. He always returned in the first week of July, leaving Khushi alone on her birthdays. But, he would send a birthday gift that always reached her on her birthday mornings. In the evenings, he used to call her. Oddly, the birthday calls always began with Arnav on the other line and ended with him wishing her happy birthday. It was their annual routine. In fact, the two times Akash had stayed back in Lucknow for her birthday, Arnav had still called to wish her. Khushi had not given it too much thought. Most of the time she used to bumble and get really nervous talking to him. Add that with her crashing into Arnav at their very first meeting in years, she was sure Arnav really considered her a clumsy fool. And what did she consider him? A friend? She didn't know.
She had never had a chance of knowing him well enough to be his friend. He was the intimidating elder brother of Akash.
Someone, she yet had to learn to place in her life.
But, there was one thing she knew for sure. Arnav Singh Raizada was no ordinary man. This man had come in their lives to change everything. He was either going to fill in the cracks that Sheesh Mahal had begun to show, or he was going to storm everything down.