December 25, 1994. 8.30 PM. New Delhi.
Khushi pulled the tattered blanket closer around her shivering form. Her breath coming out in shallow spurts fogged up in the freezing night air. The blanket just about covered her bony limbs– the alley she had taken shelter in offered minimal protection from the sharp wind. She barely felt the hard ground beneath her though, the cold had made her numb.
She was so cold… and so very tired. The pangs in her stomach had stopped a long while ago. All she wanted to do now was… sleep. The blackness beckoned comfortingly to her– it promised nothingness. With all the experience of her nine years, she knew this. No feeling. No hunger. No cold. Nothing at all. All she had to do was close her eyes and succumb to it. It would be so very easy.
Her eyes had started drooping shut when a gentle shake and a soft whispered “Khushi!” pulled her back to consciousness.
She opened her large hazel eyes and looked at the scrawny ten year old boy kneeling in front of her with a worried expression.
“Arnav? What took you so long?” Her thin voice was hardly audible anymore.
“I’m sorry, Khush. I took longer than I’d expected. But I’m back now. Here.”
He carefully helped her sit up. Her wispy, tiny frame posed no challenge even for the undernourished little boy.
“Look what I have for us, Khush!”
From the pockets of his over-sized, threadbare shorts he pulled out two sweet buns, with raisins on top– the kind you see in every roadside tea stall; a plastic packet filled with hot, milky tea– which he proceeded to pour very carefully into two plastic cups; and lastly, a single large white candle and a box of matches.
Khushi’s tired eyes lit up and she clapped her hands in excitement. She looked at him with untarnished joy on her face, giving him a wide, gap-toothed smile. He returned her smile and placed the candle in a protected corner, away from the biting wind before lighting it.
Khushi waited for Arnav to settle down properly on a sheet of newspaper and pick up his bun, before she took a bite out of hers. She smiled at him again.
“Don’t be silly! We always eat buns on this day. Merry Christmas, Khush!”
“I know. But we’ve been sick and haven’t been able to beg for a week. And you still went out today. Thank you. And Merry Christmas!”
Arnav nodded, his mouth full. He couldn’t help look worried however as he swallowed.
A tiny, grimy hand tentatively touched his knee. He looked up.
“Don’t worry. We’re better now. We can work again from tomorrow. And I still have a few rupees hidden away. We’ll be fine. I promise.”
“Is it always going to be like this, Khush?”
“No Arnav. It’s not. Things are going to get better. I can feel it. We’ve already run away from Shyam Bhai. We no longer have to pay him a commission, or do his bidding, or worry about getting beaten up if we don’t bring enough money back. And you promised me that we would go to that footpath school we saw that day, near the signal. We are already moving away from our old lives. We just have to be patient.”
Arnav looked at Khushi’s wise-beyond-her-years-face with a newly strengthened resolve glinting in his eyes.
“You’re absolutely right, Khush. We’re going to be rich and drive one of those fancy cars one day. And we’ll go to one of those big restaurants on Christmas and eat as many buns and as much ice cream and drink as much Pepsi as we want. We just have to be patient and work hard.”
The two children quietly went back to chewing the sweet, raisin-y bread slowly, relishing each mouthful, quietly reassuring and drawing strength from each other. Maybe not next Christmas, or even the Christmas after that; but one Christmas, they would finally be able to do just as they wanted. This much was given.
December 31, 2012. 11.45 PM. Paris.
The ice cubes in the glass of fine single malt sparkled in the low candlelight.
Hushed conversation, the occasional clink of glasses being lifted from and placed on trays and table-tops, the stray muted laugh, the rustle of expensive silk, the brilliant glitter of solitaires– everything about the party screamed elegance, sophistication and money. Oh yes! Plenty of it.
The slender finger circling the rim of the glass of golden liquid paused and the hand lifted the glass to take a short sip.
The rosebud mouth stained red, twisted into a wry smile. These parties were insufferable but imperative.
The woman holding the glass leaned against the bartop. Stilettos were a bitch. Sexy yes. But a bitch.
Not that the breathtakingly beautiful woman needed the candy apple red Jimmy Choos to elongate her already very attractive legs. Or lift the pert derriere encased in black lace– classic Zuhair Murad. But she wore them just the same. Because she knew that it was a part of the role she played. Had been playing for almost ten years now. That of a woman in control. In every sphere of her life. In the boardroom. In the ballroom. Even in the bedroom.
Control. Her favourite word. (Followed closely by Cut, Clarity, Carat, and Colour.)
Although to be fair, she wasn’t exactly the only one in control of her life. She conceded this point without any embarrassment. For she had nothing to hide from the one who held as much control if not more, than her own self, on her own self.
Almost as though her thoughts had called out to him, a lean, strong, slightly calloused hand closed over the fair, but strangely rough hand that held the glass.
“It’s almost midnight, love.”
She carefully placed the glass onto the bar-top without disentangling his hand from hers and leaned back into the comfortably broad frame standing close behind her. The expensive silk of his suit rubbed sensuously against her back and she was enveloped in an intoxicating smell that was part smoke, part Gucci Guilty, and every bit the raw masculinity that he exuded.
“I know. Let’s go.” She whispered back huskily.
The two made their way to the private terrace of the banquet hall. The City of Light stretched out all around them, shining brighter than usual on New Year’s Eve.
“Do you have them?”
He only laughed in response and pulled a packet out of his jacket.
Her eyes sparkled in merriment. He opened the packet and slipped the contents out onto his hand, and handed her one.
She ripped through the foil and waited for him to do the same.
“5…4…3…2…1— Happy New Year, Arnav!”
“Happy New Year, Khush!”
With a wide grin, she popped the chocolate bonbon into her mouth, watching him mirror her action. In a minute, the confection disappeared down her throat. She immediately launched herself at him. His waiting arms tightened around her slender form and his mouth found hers, as they shared a long, languid, sticky kiss that tasted of chocolate, whiskey and tender love.
When they finally broke apart gasping for air, she smiled up at him. The same dazzling smile that reminded him of a nine-year-old grinning at him with a tooth missing, for bringing her a sweet bun on Christmas Day.
Eighteen years had passed. The world had changed. They had changed. But the tradition of bringing his Khush something sweet on Christmas Day had not. Over the years, the tradition had shifted from Christmas Day to New Year’s Eve, but its essence had remained the same. A reminder of simpler, humbler, harder– yet just as happy times. A reminder of their years together– in the past and in the future. A reminder of how far they had come from the streets of Delhi to the fashion circuit of Paris. By sheer effort and hard work, plenty of manipulation, and the kind of detached ruthlessness that can only grow after having lived with the harsher realities of life for a long time. A reminder of a team– their team, and its evolution from best friends and family, to partners, to lovers, to husband and wife–soulmates no matter what. A reminder of the sacrifice of a normal adolescence and life.
A reminder to two perhaps irreparably damaged souls that they had each other no matter what. That it was okay to be damaged because the world they lived in was not perfect by any means either. Irrespective of the amount of money anyone had.
A symbol of togetherness at the beginning of the New Year. Always.
Christmas is the annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ and is celebrated widely on 25th December according to the Gregorian Calendar. While there is some dispute over the actual birth date of Christ which is magnified by differences in the Gregorian Calendar and the Julian Calendar, the spirit behind the festival remains the same. Hope. And love. Hope for better times. And love to see you through.
I’ve always been a huge fan of Christmas– Indian cities are possibly at their prettiest during Diwali and Christmas. Yet behind all the festivity and joy, I’ve always keenly felt a hollow dissatisfaction– because not everyone around me goes home to a warm bed, a hot meal and a loving family.
I hope that changes someday.
New Year’s Day is the first day of the year in the Gregorian Calendar and perhaps the only truly global holiday. People the world over celebrate a new beginning with celebrations that try to exorcise the demons of the past and step confidently into a better tomorrow.
It works out for some, not so well for others. But at that stroke of midnight, that feeling of having come so far yet having a long way to go, is the one that overpowers me every time.
Note: These two parts are also a dedication to two fantastic ladies I don’t know personally, but who have played an enormous hand in me bringing these stories to you– Gargee and Bingala (Applebee). I don’t know if you’ll ever see this, but your Shades of Grey was one of the very first bits of ArHi fanfic that I ever read, and I fell in love with it immediately. I have been a huge fan of all your work ever since and I wish you would come back and resume writing! Khushi’s outfit in the second part and the general tone of this tale are both inspired by Shades of Grey. I have never read anyone with a finer aesthetic sense than you two. And I thank you for being such an inspiration.