Arnav was running through the long and empty corridors of Sheesh Mahal, his face chalk white and his eyes frightful. He wasn't supposed to be here on the third floor of the Mahal where his father resided. He was sure this was going to earn him a big earful from him but he had to risk it for his mother.
Arnav's mother, Sujata Malik was under high fever and constantly asking for her husband who, like most other days, was too busy to attend her or even pay her a visit.
Arnav had spent the better part of the night sitting beside his mother's bed where the doctor had given her some sleep medicines. But as the hours passed by and night thickened, the woman started moaning in pain and rambling in her sleep asking her husband to come and talk to her. Arnav placed some water-soaked cloth strips on her forehead and prayed to god to make his mother better. But the condition only worsened in the next hour and Arnav ran to the doctor's room, wildly knocking at the door but the servants at the house told him the doctor was having a conversation with his father in his room.
Arnav had hesitated only a second before deciding he will go and fetch the doctor from upstairs.
"Malik Saheb has said he is not to be disturbed, Chote Saheb" The male servant had quickly informed Arnav but Arnav was already on his heels.
Arnav stood panting before the huge, wooden doors which were beautifully carved and painted in bright colors.
He could hear no voices and braving his heart he made a loud knock on the door. He stood waiting only for a second and knocked again.
His patience ran dry as he knocked for a third time and then pushed open the doors with the little strength he had.
The doors split open with a loud creaking noise and Arnav stepped inside through them, his eyes looking for the doctor or his father but he could see no one.
That is when he heard the heavy footsteps coming down from the bedroom of his father and fear crept up his spine.
"You mindless slimes, did I not...?"
"I am sorry, father. But, Ma is very ill and Ratan Kaka said that the doctor..." Arnav quickly sprang into a nervous explanation barely noticing that the eyes of Birendra Singh Malik were unfocused with too much drinking.
His mouth shut close when he noticed his father was stepping towards him with fists clenched and nose flaring, barely walking straight.
"Do not come back here unless she is dying, and from what the doctor told me, that would not happen tonight. So, go and be the pathetic little nurse she has made you into" The man said with disgust as he grabbed Arnav by his arm and started dragging him out.
"She is sick, father. Please help her. The doctor..." Arnav begged, ignoring the shooting pain in his arm where the fingers of his father were bruising the thin skin.
"I sent the doctor home, you half mind! I do not have any more money to burn on your mother than I already did. Now get lost before I get angrier and have your mother thrown out in the mango orchards where she can freeze to death. Is that what you want?" The man said as he pushed Arnav out of the room, his words slurring.
"May your mother die sooner!" With that Birendra Singh Malik shut the doors close, leaving Arnav crying alone in the corridor where he stood waiting for minutes, his hopeful heart expecting that maybe his father wasn't as cruel as he behaved, that maybe he will open the doors and go down with him to check on his mother. His mother! That pulled Arnav out of his hopeful wishes and he ran again, only this time his tears running freely and his eyes frightful thinking if his mother was alright. What if he had wasted too much time here? What if she really died as his father wanted her to?
Arnav sat up in his bed, his head between his hands. It had been so long since he had had these dreams. Only they weren't dreams but fragments of memories that kept coming to him. He was too young back then to remember all of it but he remembered enough, knew enough, and had suffered enough to wake up in the middle of the nights.
He looked at the open window and was glad for the fresh air gushing in.
He then got down from his bed and walked towards the source of it. The window of his room opened in the direction of the 'Aamra Kunj' and Arnav leaned against the window, the wind ruffling his hair.
He could see the lights gleaming from this distance. Could picture the grave that waited there. He hadn't been able to take himself there today despite Akash's offer of coming along.
He needed time. Being in this Mahal was an effort and Arnav knew he has to get over this queasiness. How long will he run from the dark shadows? He needed to stop and face them.
He recalled the last time he had come back. He was sixteen and full of boiling anger towards everyone. That included Akash. But, he had quickly realized how wrongly misplaced his anger was towards the thirteen-year-old boy. In fact, he was made to realize, made to think.
That single confrontation with Khushi had shaken Arnav's raw heart. How come such a young girl could see that Akash was innocent in all of this but he was blind to the fact?
It was Khushi's words and her fierce loyalty to Akash's friendship that had Arnav rethinking. He could continue to hate his father without making someone suffer who was faultless. In fact, he needed to befriend Akash, to know him better, so that if Birendra Singh Malik ever tries to hurt someone else he could help him. Akash could be Arnav's tether to Sheesh Mahal.
With these thoughts in mind, Arnav had tried to let go of the one-sided bitterness. But, he had never imagined that so easily he would come to love Akash as his brother. The transition from civil conversations to friendship and then later into the strong bond of brotherhood had been effortless. Arnav knew he could not take credit for it because it had been only Akash's dedication and respect for him that made Arnav realize that relations of heart could be stronger than relations of blood.
Akash might not be Arnav's brother by blood but in every other respect, he was Arnav's brother.
Akash and his Nani were his family.
And Khushi? Arnav didn't know what to name the things he felt towards Khushi.
He was grateful to her for standing up to him that day. He had in fact wanted to talk to her the very next day at Akash's birthday party but Khushi had maintained her distance. Her wariness against him had been written in bold on her face. But he still wanted to talk to her, to tell her that he appreciated her fearless nature, her thoughtful advice. He might have cornered her at some point of time at the party but he didn't get the opportunity. Things went down unexpectedly for Arnav that night. He had been aware that his Nani had an argument over him with his father in the morning but by the evening, Devyani Singh Raizada had decided that she had learnt enough about Birendra Singh Malik and he did not deserve another chance with Arnav. She had been disgusted and enraged by the things that had come to her knowledge. She hadn't even bothered telling Arnav anything before declaring that they were going back.
Arnav had been willing to go back from the moment he had entered the Mahal but in that second he had hesitated. His one eye had been on Khushi in the red frock standing with her mother and another eye at Akash who was talking to one of his school friends.
But, the look on his Nani's face said there was no staying here for another day. So, he had obliged. He had walked away from the Mahal once again. But this time, he did not leave with severed bonds. This time he had left with new relations.
The same relations have now brought him back. After some long minutes, Arnav finally felt at ease, the nightmare pushed back into his mind. So, he closed the windows after looking towards 'Aamra Kunj' one last time and went back to the bed.
The next morning Arnav woke up at five and found that the rest of the house was still in bed.
He decided to go for a run as there was no gymnasium in the Mahal unlike at his house back in Delhi. After running for an hour, and a bath, Arnav came back to the dining hall for breakfast.
Akash was already there.
"Good morning, Bhai" said Akash, more cheery than he was last night.
"Morning, Akash" said Arnav as he took a seat.
"How are you feeling, Bhai? Had good sleep?" asked Akash.
"I am feeling fine, Akash" said Arnav, looking at the assortment of the food on the table and then reached for the Aalu parathas.
Akash watched him all this while.
"What?" asked Arnav.
"Nothing, Bhai. It's just that I always imagined you sitting here, with me, having breakfast" said Akash, smiling.
Arnav shook his head while smiling back on the inside.
"These parathas..." He said, the taste familiar and delicious on his tongue.
"Made by our very own Ratan Kaka" exclaimed Akash, signaling towards the old man who emerged from whichever pillar he was hiding behind and bowed at the waist before Arnav.
"Kaka" Arnav said, pushing his chair back and touching the old man's feet whose eyes welled at the gesture.
"Arey nahi, Chote Saheb, don't" He said, even as he placed a hand on his head out of habit and love.
Arnav straightened and then hugged the man, overcome by emotion. Ratan Kaka was the oldest help in the Mahal, being around ever since Arnav could recall. He was always there in the house, serving, caring, and loving Arnav like his own child.
Arnav too had been very close with the man, always following him around.
It was a bond that Arnav still valued. And was thankful to the man for so many reasons.
"You have grown so tall...and big" said the old man, smiling a tearful smile.
"And you have grown old, Kaka" said Arnav.
"You shouldn't be working in the kitchens at this age" added Arnav.
"I don't, Chote Saheb. But after Akash babua told me that you were coming back, I had to make these parathas for you. I remember how much you loved them" said the old man as Arnav directed him towards the table and helped him sit in one of the chairs.
"Thank you, Kaka. The parathas are really nice" said Arnav, knowing the old man would be hurt if he told him he didn't had to trouble himself for him.
The old man nodded, the smile not leaving his face and eyes.
Akash watched the exchange with contentment. He had heard so many times from Ratan Kaka that how much he missed Arnav. Had heard too many anecdotes from him. It felt good to see his Bhai genuinely happy after meeting Ratan Kaka.
There was so much yet to be done, to be achieved. He had to convince his Bhai to meet their father. And if possible, resolve whatever issues there were between them.
"Akash...where are you lost? The breakfast is turning cold" Arnav said and Akash started eating.
Ratan Kaka, in the meanwhile, had gone back to the kitchen to bring whatever else he had prepared for Arnav.
"At what time you leave for office?" asked Arnav.
Akash looked up from his plate.
"I don't these days" He said.
"Mr. Sahu, our manager is handling it for the past month." said, Akash.
"You trust him enough to leave everything on him?" asked Arnav.
"Baba trusts him. And he is good with the work too" replied Akash.
Arnav only nodded, not commenting further on it.
"How is Nani ji? Is she keeping well?" asked Akash and Arnav nodded.
"She is hale and hearty. And she was disappointed when you didn't visit this summer"
Akash gave a sheepish smile before saying he'd call Nani and apologize to her. Arnav said that wasn't necessary. He was only pulling his leg.
Akash made a face to that.
Arnav was about to say something to that when Dr. Kumar descended down the stairs. Arnav's mouth clamped shut, his face hardening.
The sudden change in Arnav's demeanor did not escape Akash's eyes.
He followed Arnav's gaze and saw Dr. Kumar who was now almost near the table.
Akash sighed. It was pretty evident that Arnav's hate for their father wasn't limited to just his father. If only he knew what began it all.
The little he knew about whatever that had caused Arnav to leave this house he had learnt by observation and deduction alone. He had never asked his father, never asked Arnav or even Dr. Kumar for that matter. He always thought they'd tell him sooner or later on their own. But they hadn't. No one had.
"Good morning! How are you feeling, Arnav? It is very nice to have you back here" said Dr. Kumar as a means of starting the conversation, his manners easy and amiable as he sat down opposite to Arnav.
"Good morning, Dr. Uncle. Bhai had a good sleep. Isn't it, Bhai?" Akash took the onus upon himself to dissolve the palpable tension that was settling around.
Arnav looked straight at Dr. Kumar, sizing the man.
"That's great, Arnav" Dr. Kumar said, looking at Arnav who didn't respond again.
"How is Baba this morning, Uncle?" Akash further asked.
The lightness from Dr. Kumar's face vanished slowly.
"The response to the new medicines is not as good as we had expected. But, it might pick up. There's some hope that the medicines would help ease the pain and inhibit the further growth of the tumour" Dr. Kumar replied.
Akash nodded softly, not trusting himself to speak.
"How much longer is he going to live?" The question came from Arnav. Akash tried not to look at his brother's face. It was the question that he had been trying to avoid for weeks.
Dr. Kumar's face grew hard this time.
"Is that a way to ask about your father?" He asked, rather sharply, all traces of amiability instantly vanishing.
Akash was taken by surprise. Dr. Kumar losing his cool was a rarest of rare events. But he could not fault him for doing it.
Arnav's tone had been more impatient than curious. It will change slowly, Akash told himself.
"Father?" Arnav's words were dripping with derision.
"Bhai" Akash intercepted, placing a hand on Arnav's shoulder. Arnav angled his head towards Akash and noticed the pleading look.
"I am done eating" Arnav declared after a second and got up from the table.
Akash watched as Arnav left and then he turned his head towards Dr. Kumar who was doing the same.
"He wants Malik to die" Dr. Kumar stated, his voice still hard.
"That's not true, Dr. Uncle" Akash said earnestly.
"Don't fool yourself, Akash. This house has been broken for decades. If you think anything is going to change now, you're wishing too much. And don't misunderstand me! I want this house to heal, but I know the scars are too deep. You...don't understand."
"That's because I was never made to understand, Dr. Uncle. But now I am ready to understand. I am going to sort everything out. However long it takes. But for that, I would need your help" Akash said, looking expectantly at the man before him.
"I can't help, Akash. Everything that you want to know now...it won't change anything. It will only make things worse. Besides, the things that you want to know are not for me to tell you. If they had been, I would have told you years back. It is only Malik or Arnav who have the right to speak. Me? I have just been a helpless spectator all my life. I am no one in this story" Dr. Kumar's voice grew heavy.
Akash attempted to speak but Dr. Kumar too got up from the table.
It was only Akash alone at the table. As he listened to the silence around himself he wondered if he really has been too late?
"Where are you heading to this early in the morning" Shashi Gupta asked as he walked into the dining room where Khushi had laid his breakfast.
Khushi adjusted the strap of her sequined, colourful bag on her shoulder and put on her flat footwear.
"Sheesh Mahal" She replied, smiling sheepishly at her father.
"Why do I even ask!' Shashi Gupta said as he poured some tea from the teapot.
Khushi's answering grin said 'I know right!'.
"How is Malik Sahab now? Is there any progress?" The question made Khushi's smile falter.
She shook her head.
"Doctor uncle is trying his best but there's not much in his hands. I really hope Devi Maiya help him" Khushi said joining her hands heavenwards and praying silently.
Shashi Gupta's nod was slow.
"Convey my best wishes to him, bitiya. I'll see if I can go and visit him sometime. There's a lot of work at the shop or I could have come with you" Shashi Gupta replied and Khushi nodded.
"I have packed your lunch, Babuji. It's in the kitchen. I'll most probably be back by the afternoon. Yesterday, I had promised Malik Uncle that I would make Jalebis for him. If I get late I'd call" Khushi said as she waved her hands at her father who waved back.
Arnav decided that he would spend some time roaming around the Mahal. He was back after years and he could see a lot of changes around. Starting from the perimeter walls around the Mahal to the new trees planted in the orchard, the modernistic lawn furniture in the garden spanning in front of the Mahal, the new fountains, the different cobblestone on the pathways in the garden, everything reminded Arnav that this house was not his. Everything about it was new and strange.
But as Arnav rounded at the main pathway leading to the main entrance of the Mahal, his eyes once again fell on the familiar roses, the same colour and smell.
These were the roses that his mother once loved to grow, the same roses that Arnav had once planted with his own hands upon his mother's grave. He wondered who would have taken the pain of growing them here. Most probably the gardener! They did look good here, spreading a soft smell in the air.
Arnav inhaled deeply and found himself relaxing.
"Beautiful, aren't they?" Khushi's voice made Arnav turn behind and he found her standing a few feet from him.
He noticed her bright yellow salwar kameez first and then the bright smile.
She looked so starkly different from the twelve year old girl he remembered from their first meeting or the pictures Akash often shared with him over the years.
In-person, she was a bubbling source of warmth. And unlike their first accidental meeting yesterday, this time she didn't look as flustered.
"I made Gopal Ji plant them here. Initially, he thought of growing some different flowers but I suggested him these roses would look perfect here. And he seemed to agree. So, here they are!" Khushi said, looking at the bushes and the roses with a proud smile.
"It was your idea?" Arnav asked.
"Yeah" Khushi said, and then looked at Arnav.
In the bright afternoon light, she could clearly see the sun rays falling on the planes of his face, the young stubble, the chocolate brown colour of his eyes all too clear.
Khushi realized the graceful features of the sixteen-year-old boy had now settled, become rougher but finer.
She also realized that she was staring, and so was he.
Arnav's eyes refused to leave her face as he searched for any hint of remaining sourness in her.
Did she still think he was a rakshas for how he had treated Akash back then? He had never heard about it from Akash. And as far as Arnav knew, he doubted if Akash even knew that Khushi had a hand in shaping the relationship between Akash and him.
He had always wondered why Khushi never told Akash about it.
Maybe he would ask her someday. Maybe he won't.
"How long are you here for?" Khushi asked, looking away and then back at him.
He too blinked and realized that he had been staring. He must be making her uncomfortable.
So, he put his hands into the pockets of his trousers and slowly started walking, a small step at a time.
"I don't know" He said, to be honest.
Khushi matched his steps and they started walking up the paved path, slowly heading towards the Mahal.
"I guess as long as Akash needs me to be around" He added.
Khushi gave him a side look as they walked next to each other maintaining as much distance as possible.
"It is Malik Uncle who needs you more" Khushi didn't know from where the words came but as soon as they were out of her mouth she realized she had overstepped her limit.
How come she always ends up opening her big mouth at the wrong time in front of him?
Arnav stopped walking.
"Who are you to decide that? Just because you are Akash's friend it does not give you the right to have an opinion on the matters you know nothing about" Arnav said sharply, unaware that he had unconsciously stepped towards her.
"I didn't mean to.." Khushi's voice was regretful and shaky as she watched him take another step towards her. Instinctively, she stepped back. As she was already standing on the margin of the pavement, her foot stepped into the bushes behind her and she tripped, losing her balance.
Arnav instantly reached for her, holding her by her upper arm and shoulders. He helped her stand, while his hands held her firmly, and close.
Khushi shivered as a cool breeze passed by and she looked at his face.
He still looked angry but there was concern on his face. For her?
"Are you okay?" He asked, softly.
She nodded, all too aware of the proximity.
Arnav realized it a moment later and quickly let go of her, stepping back.
"Thank you" Khushi murmured.
"My relationship with my father is none of your concern. I chose to come here for my brother. He is all that is important" Arnav replied, the ice back in his tone and Khushi wondered how easily he could shift moods. A second back she had seen concern and softness which was now replaced with coldness.
"Can't you mend things with your father for the same brother? Akash would want nothing more than to see.." Khushi knew it wouldn't be Arnav's fault if he lashed out at her again. It really was none of her business. Except that it was.
She cared about Malik Uncle, she cared about Akash, and that made this her concern.
She was surprised when she noticed the darkening gaze of his eyes.
"Why do you care so much about what Akash would want?" He asked her, implying a deeper meaning in his question.
One that made Khushi's face heat up.
"What do you mean?" She asked, angry suddenly.
Arnav looked her up and down before he backed away a step.
"What I mean is that you don't poke your nose in my business and I won't poke mine in yours. Now, excuse me" Arnav said tersely and then he walked off.
Khushi stared after him unaware of what just happened.
Why would he ask her such a question?
Did he think that she and Akash..?
Khushi shook her head at his brazenness and audacity.
She watched as he walked inside the Mahal and Khushi had half a mind to go back home. But, she told herself that she was here for Malik Uncle.
Walking up, she too reached inside the Mahal. He was nowhere in sight. Relaxed, she headed into the kitchen, mumbling to herself what did he think of himself.
Arnav, on the other hand, stood in the gallery of the first floor and watched her head into the kitchen.
She still looked angry. Well, so was he. There was no way he was going to let her influence him this time. This time, he knew he was right and what he has to do. One of those things was to not get too close to her. And as if to reinforce that resolve, he noticed Akash too heading into the kitchen.
Arnav turned his back and headed off into the library, the sounds of laughter from the kitchen making him keep his pace brisk and his fingers balled into fists.
Please do share your thoughts on the story. It keeps me motivated to continue writing. :)