For Expelliarmus. =)
The air-conditioning in the car was cranked up to counter the sweltering heat of the Rajasthani summer. The sleek Audi Q7 swallowed up the miles effortlessly– a silver beast reflecting the harsh sunlight, glittering among the endless sand dunes and barren scrub lands.
“Kunwar sa, would you like to stop at the next petrol pump?”
Golden-green eyes, like a predator’s, met Gopi’s in the rear view mirror. Gopi gulped and muttered an incoherent apology– although he wasn’t sure what exactly he was apologizing for.
The young man in the back seat sat upright, refusing to let the fatigue of the almost 24 hour journey pull him down. The only concession he had made to the scorching heat was to take off his classic black Hugo Boss blazer, undo the top two buttons and roll up the sleeves of his pristine white shirt. A five ‘o’ clock stubble shadowed his angular jaw and a lock of unruly hair fell on his forehead. He ran an impatient hand through his hair, disheveling it further while he tapped away relentlessly on a tiny touch screen. Occasionally he would stretch his legs as far as the confines of the luxury car would allow. Somehow, even the spacious interiors of the SUV seemed cramped by the man sitting in it– a fact that had less to do with his impressive 6 foot 3, broad frame and more to do with the aura of almost feline strength, ruthlessness, and power he exuded.
Ever so often, his eyes would stray from the five inch screen in his hand to the small overnight case that sat next to him.
His natural reticence and brooding air effectively disguised one very important fact– Arnav Singh Raizada couldn’t wait to get home.
“Khushi! Look what I have for you! You liked these at the fair that day, didn’t you?” A scrawny ten year old girl shyly accepted the box of bright pink and green bangles a gangly fourteen year old boy held out to her. With a whispered “Shukriya Kunwarsa”, she vanished into the narrow corridors of the Haveli.
The car finally drew up to the gates of an enormous gated haveli in Bhilwara, almost 8 hours after it had left from Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. The regal, sandstone structure glowed a muted gold in the late afternoon sun. As the car made its way up the winding driveway to the main entrance, Arnav stifled a groan. A veritable procession stood outside the haveli, led by his mother holding an aarti thaali in her hand.
Stepping out of the car in one graceful move, he stood impassive, unsmiling as his mother beamed at him, swinging the thaal around him. A tiny muscle twitched in his jaw.
Bending down momentarily to touch his mother’s feet, he straightened up and strode past the crowd of women without a word– his hand tightly gripping the overnight case.
He came to stand in front of an imposing figure in a traditional dhoti-kurta, standing erect, his salt and pepper hair adding to the air of nobility around him.
Bending down again for a minute to touch his father’s feet, Arnav finally allowed himself to survey the haveli. A year had passed, and nothing had changed. Like every other time, Arnav was amazed by how the haveli seemed caught in a time warp. It was the same story every summer– had been so for the past seven years now. Other than the slight sprinkling of white in the hair of his parents and of the various servants and workers that ran the haveli, nothing ever seemed to change.
“Won’t you wish me a happy Holi, Khushi?” A tiny hand dipped tentatively into the trey of orange gulaal nearby and streaked across his cheek in a feather light movement. “Holi ki shubhkamnayein Kunwar– um… Arnavji.”
“What do you have in your hand?”
“Prasad. Woh… agle mahine aapki board ki pareeksha ke liye.”
Arnav grinned and accepted the laddoo from her outstretched hands.
As the evening lamps were lit in the white marble shrine housing the idols of Krishna and Radha, Arnav sat in the living room with his parents– showered and changed into more casual clothing, sipping tea from a porcelain cup. His father cleared his throat.
Arnav put the cup down. He knew exactly what was coming and was prepared for it.
“Arnav, it’s been seven years since you left home. You’ve achieved everything that you set out to, when you’d left us at the age of eighteen. You have your degrees, you’ve successfully established offices of our textile business in 3 cities in America and with god’s blessing, you will continue to prosper. It’s time however, that you thought of coming back home for good and settling down. You are twenty five years old and we’re getting on as well, son.”
Arnav had listened to his father in complete silence, his face devoid of all expression as usual. He finally spoke in his deep baritone. “I agree with you, Bapusa. It’s time I got married and settled down.”
His father almost dropped his teacup in shock. His mother gawked at him. They hadn’t remotely expected him to give in so easily. Arnav had always been the black sheep of sorts in the family. Schooling his expression again, his father gave him one of his rare smiles. “I’m glad you’ve recognized your responsibility toward this family, son, I have several eligible girls in mind for you. We can arrange meetings–“
Arnav unceremoniously cut his father short. “There won’t be any need for that. I have already decided whom I’m going to marry.”
His mother gasped, covering her mouth in horror. His father bristled in indignation. “Look here, Arnav. I haven’t said anything for years, assuming that you will outgrow your foolhardy behaviour. Oh, I’ve heard all about those gori mems of yours. I refuse to let our noble blood line be tainted by firangi blood. You will not bring one of your American girlfriends–“
Interrupting his father a second time, Arnav set the record straight. “I don’t know what rumours you’ve been listening to. I’m not talking about any American girl. The girl I’m talking about is Indian– Rajasthani in fact.”
His parents looked slightly more relieved, although still disapproving. His father spoke again. “In that case, we’re willing to consider this girl you’ve chosen for yourself. As long as she is suitable for you, we have no objection. I understand times have changed, and young people think that they know best.” He snorted derisively. “What’s her name? Who are her parents?”
Arnav stood up, rolling back the sleeves of his grey hoodie. His tone was clipped and cold. “Don’t worry, Bapusa. I don’t believe there is anybody on this planet who would suit me more than her. I’m talking about Khushali.”
He walked off without waiting for a response as his parents sat completely dumbstruck.
“Khushi? Tum khush ho iss shaadi se? Tum jaanti ho na ki yeh galat hai?That it’s illegal?”
A seventeen year old Arnav Singh Raizada stood bristling with barely suppressed rage.
Hennaed hands reached out and gently circled a wrist. “Woh humaare bapusa hai. Unki khushi mein hi hamaari khushi hai, Arnavji. Wada kijiye ki aap kuchh nahi kahenge.”
Arnav clenched his jaw. A pain that he couldn’t quite explain settled in his chest.
“Arnavji? Aap humein shaadi ka koi tohfa nahi denge?”
With a derisive smile, he pulled a beautifully embroidered emerald green chunari out of his jacket and draped it over the head of the young bride in front of him. His eyes expressed a longing that neither of them quite understood.
Without another word, he stalked out of the room.
Making his way down the long, narrow corridor in the servant’s quarters, he stopped outside a wooden door and knocked softly. After a moment, the door swung open as a slender figure peeped out cautiously. Seeing who stood outside, the figure gasped and shrank back into the room, drawing her veil more securely over her face.
Arnav walked inside with slow but steady steps, shutting the door behind him.
The figure turned away from him. In the low light coming from a lantern, Arnav could just about make out her petite form, wrapped in the voluminous folds of cloth, her veil drawn low. The only skin visible was of the tanned, calloused hands clutching the veil tightly.
Smiling slightly, he took another step toward her. She immediately took another step away from him. With every step he came closer, she walked backward, until she hit the wall with a gentle thump. He leaned in until he was inches away from her face hidden behind the expanse of navy blue cloth. He could make out the slight quivering of her body when he stood so close.
The weeping women surrounding the bewildered, white faced fifteen year old sat stunned. Arnav grimly strode to the centre of the room. With infinite gentleness he grasped the girl’s hand and pulled her to her feet. He led her away from the crowd of women who dared not say anything to the young master of the Haveli who had just returned after his first year abroad at college.
Leading Khushi to the kitchen, he pushed her onto a chair. Lifting her wrists, he carefully picked the pieces of glass out of her skin with his teeth, before washing the blood off. Bandaging the delicate wrists, he couldn’t help drop a soft kiss on each.
Khushi sat mute, dazed in the chair. How could a fifteen year old comprehend the loss? How could she mourn a husband she had never known? Her blanched face stood out against the dark brown of her lehnga choli. She looked up at him, begging him to explain with her eyes. Explain to her why the rest of her life seemed to stretch out in front of her as a long, drab, colourless veil– much like the one that covered her head.
Arnav grasped her hands tight in an attempt to reassure her. He couldn’t bear to see his Khushi like this. He silently made a promise to her. He’d bring those colours back.
“I have something for you Khushi. Do you want to see it?”
“I have something for you Khushi.” He held out a pair of bright pink jhumkas in front of her.
She shrank back from his hand as though he’d offered her a poisoned apple.
He sighed. It was the same story every year. Every summer he’d return with a present for her. And she’d refuse to accept it. The brightly coloured chunaris she’d once worn with pride, the rainbow bangles that she’d delighted in, the twinkling bindis she’d loved wearing, her favourite jalebis– he’d tried everything. With every passing year, his best friend seemed to slip further away from him. He was scared. So very scared. Scared of losing her altogether. He was quite, quite sure that he’d lose himself if that happened. He couldn’t let that happen.
This time he wouldn’t let her off. He shot out an arm and caught her hand in his. Her palm was rough and calloused with work. To him it seemed to fit perfectly into his own larger hand.
“This is the last time I’m allowing you to refuse, Khushali Saini. The next time I come to you, you’re going to accept everything I give you. You will, won’t you Khushi?
She wrenched her hand out of his, her eyes giving away the desires she felt terrified to give voice to, even in her own heart– and ran.
Khushi shook her head in mute refusal.
Undaunted, Arnav opened the box he’d been holding. Inside it lay two dozen white, red and silver bangles– suhaag chuda and a small silver filigreed container– the kind married women kept sindoor in.
She finally pulled her veil aside and stared at him with tear-filled, reproachful eyes.
“Bas, Arnavji! How could you? You know I can’t… We can’t… Go away, Arnavji. Please!”
Arnav drank in her beloved countenance like a parched man. The beautiful inky black eyes still glowed with the same purity of spirit, the same light that it had when he’d first met her twelve years ago.
Khushi turned her head away. “I know what you’re asking for… and it can never be. Even if I hadn’t been a… a widow… I’d still be the gardener’s daughter. And you’re the heir to this haveli– a Rajput.”
Arnav gently turned her face back toward him with a finger under her chin. “You’re absolutely right. You’re the gardener’s daughter. The girl who kept me company when my own parents were too busy for their only son. The same girl who fasted and prayed for me when I had exams and when I was sick. The girl who has been my best friend for as long as I can remember. The only girl I’d ever want in my life. You’ve always given me what I’ve asked for, Khushi. You’ve sneaked me ice-lollies when I’ve been sick. You’ve stayed with me, making me tea when I’d stay up all night studying. Iss baar meri baat nahi manogi?”
She turned her face away from him again. “Please don’t ask for this, Arnavji. Your bapusa and maasa will never accept me.”
Leaning in closer, he moved his mouth to her ear and murmured huskily. “And when has that ever stopped me? I’ve come back for you, Khushi. Just like I had promised I would. And this time, I will not take no for an answer. Please Khushi? Let me bring the colours back?“
Khushi was so tired– tired of fighting her treacherous heart and body that longed to join with his even when her mind told her how wrong it was.
She’d had enough.
With a barely perceptible sob, she threw herself at him. He caught her slight body and drew it into his own, relishing the feeling of finally holding her in his arms, running a soothing hand over her head and down her back as she sobbed her heart out into his chest. He bent his head and was just able to make out her broken whisper. “Promise you’ll never let go?”
He tightened his arms around her, the grimness of his mouth belied by the tenderness in his eyes. “I promise.”
Holi— the festival of colours celebrated in the Indian subcontinent has a variety of stories behind it. Popular ones include the story of Prahlad’s salvation and the death of the demon Holika, fables of Krishna and Radha playing Holi in Vrindavan, and numerous other association with spring, fertility and new life.
The colours of holi signify rebirth, regeneration, celebration and mark the triumph of good over evil.
I don’t mean to preach, but the theme of the story is one I feel rather strongly about.