Timeframe: Written late February 2012, during the earlier weeks of Arnav & Khushi’s contract marriage.
Part One – ‘Whispers in the Dark’
‘What the fuck?!’ The house was empty so Arnav felt no hesitation in letting out his full frustration as his room was suddenly plunged into complete darkness.
Everything was going wrong and even the smallest thing jarred his already bruised nerve endings. He was barely holding it together and today he felt ready to explode – damn those clients for being so bloody difficult about everything and them needing to hold an emergency meeting at such late notice; damn the thing for over-running for hours and damn the stupid lights for going out right when he needed them!
He let out an angry breath and fumbled for a moment in the dark with the tie he’d been trying unsuccessfully to knot before the lights had gone; at last glance it had been in a loose half-knot and now he gave up and unbuttoned the top two buttons of his black shirt as well, leaving the grey tie as it was. He didn’t have enough time anyway so he might as well be comfortable physically, even if he was losing it in every other sense. He took a side-step till his left foot hit the low bedside table and he felt around till he found his car keys and made his way out of the room in the dark.
He’d only come home to drop off some files but Anjali had already called him half a dozen times from the function they were all attending to see where he was and to say people were asking why he wasn’t there… As if I give a damn what they’re thinking, he thought darkly as he moved through the house slowly, knowing he was late but wishing he could avoid it altogether. He was in a foul mood and couldn’t wait for this hellishly long day to be over – although he knew the night would be worse because inevitably, they always were.
‘Why don’t you think about why you’re really so angry all the time..?’ The voice in his head was dejected and broken, a mere whisper of what it had once been. But he hadn’t been able to silence it completely and it kept needling away at him, making him feel guilty for all the hurts he’d caused and continued to cause her.
‘Think about it again…you know her… Would she do something like that..?’ But along with the words came the fragments of piercing memory that seemed to somehow get clearer with time and unerringly surfaced whenever his resolve faltered or if he allowed himself a moment to breathe freely.
He felt his stomach knot and he shook his head bitterly, refusing to listen to the hopeless voice of his conscience, biting down hard on it. He knew what he’d seen and telling himself to think about it differently was foolish and only made way for more disappointment. It wouldn’t change anything no matter how much he wished it; it was right there in front of his eyes… He tried to push the images away as he turned a corner carelessly and knocked his shoulder on a pillar. He closed his eyes pointlessly in the dark and swore again as a dull ache went through his upper arm but it wasn’t enough to knock the vivid images out of his mind.
Arnav stopped walking abruptly and clenched his hands into fists, taking in a deep breath, willing his mind to go blank as he made his way more cautiously towards the front hall. He thought instead about his day and the grim evening ahead and sighed; he shouldn’t really be surprised at how badly today was going because it was only following the same nightmarish tone as every day this past month had.
Ever since that night… the night he’d got married in such a furious rage, the night he’d seen the girl he’d so foolishly fallen in love with in the arms of his lying, cheating brother in law. Ever since that night everything in his life had gone to hell.
‘Chotte.. hum teek hai, humme koi bimari nahi hui hai!’ Arnav ignored Anjali as he led her to one of the sofa’s of the still dark house later that night. The family all came in behind them and he heard Mamaji say something jokingly about letting her husband look after her. Arnav’s fingers unconsciously tightened on Anjali’s shoulders at the mere mention of the man and he had to apologise to her when she winced slightly. It made his skin crawl to have to see her with that pathetic excuse every single day. He’d said he would give him a chance but as the days turned into weeks and he got to know his enemy better, he’d begun to realise it was a lost cause.
‘Nahi Jijaji, aap log yahi rukiye, hum dekh kar aate hai ke light ko kya hua!’ Arnav came back to the present and looked up at the sound of his wife’s voice. His brain registered the fact that she sounded brighter than he’d heard her in weeks but still not back to her normal self. And she was volunteering to help as usual. He watched her glittery form disappear into the darkness and wondered, not for the first time, what to make of her behaviour since he’d blackmailed her into marrying him.
She never complained to anyone; whatever he did, however many fiery battles raged on in the bedroom, however cold he was with her, when it came to the rest of the family, she remained the same as she always had, if a little subdued. Over the past month or so he’d watched her, slowly but surely and in her own way, turn Nani and Anjali around; he’d felt the atmosphere in the house lighten considerably as the days went by and somehow knew it was down to her.
He told himself repeatedly that it was all an act but that never stopped the churning mess of emotions he felt when he lay down to sleep at night. He’d seen her true face, heard her speak about his sisters ruined marriage like it was nothing and yet she still managed to get under his skin when she looked at him with those confused eyes; turning the tables, making him feel like he was the one in the wrong and he hated it.
Arnav heard NK make a comment about whether this meant he would have to leave for Australia in the dark when the time came and while the family laughed his eyes did a quick scan to find Shyam was also missing…
His lip curled in disgust and his hands clenched in fury as he guessed where he was and without another word he headed towards where the fuse box was, cutting across the poolside to get there quicker. The faint light coming from the pool made it easy for him to see that for now at least, Khushi was alone and standing on a low stool while she examined the open box in front of her.
She was dressed in a shimmery midnight blue saree and he’d noticed irritably that she’d been getting compliments all night. Right now though, she was holding a lit candle up to the open fuse box and for a few moments, Arnav was transported back to a simpler time when he’d been standing in the same spot, watching her face in the flickering candle-light while Lavanya fixed the fuse. Then Khushi had been looking right at him but tonight she was unaware of both him and the dark shadow he could now just make out on her right.
Arnav felt something fierce and bloodthirsty rise up inside him at the sight and he closed the distance between the two of them swiftly, demanding her attention and ignoring the sickening man still standing in the shadows.
‘Khushi..!’ He saw her jerk and freeze for a few seconds before turning to look at him, startled, and despite everything he told himself he no longer felt for her, he still hated the wary, deer trapped in headlights look that entered her eyes as soon as she saw it was him standing there. ‘Aap..?!’
Part Two – ‘Flickers of Hope’
Khushi was stunned to hear her name spoken so urgently by that voice; he so rarely said her name in any tone other than cold anger when they were alone these days and it was a painful reminder of better times when she heard it now.
She turned to see Arnav standing just a mere foot away from her, giving her a piercing but unreadable look and she braced herself, waiting for the words that would cut fresh wounds into her already bruised heart. ‘Aap..?’ She wondered what he would say and why he had gone out of his way to find her – he usually tried to stay as far away from her as he could
The thought saddened her. She knew she should hate him; he’d effectively imprisoned her here for reasons still unknown to her, in a marriage that she knew he was just as unhappy about as she was. But she couldn’t seem to hate him however much she tried, despite her anger at how he’d been acting. It made her mad when she thought about what he was doing, not only to her but to himself, and for what? She’d had so many hopes and dreams about this phase of her life and then slowly, little by little, he had made her think she could share those dreams; only to have them all crushed with one bewilderingly painful ultimatum.
‘Haan main… Kyu? Kissi aur ka intezaar tha?’ Khushi blinked at his choice of words and frowned in confusion when she heard the unmistakeable edge to his voice. ‘Kissi aur ka..? Nahi, hum toh bas yeh…’ she gestured to the open fuse box but words failed her when he suddenly moved closer to her and reached up to take the candle from her hand. Except he didn’t take it, he simply placed his fingers around hers and held the candle with her while looking up into her eyes, reminding her of a bittersweet memory from their intertwined past, his eyes a softer shade of brown than she was accustomed to these days but still somehow managing to burn her with their concentration.
She hadn’t been this close to him in weeks but she still felt her whole body react to him almost instantly; her heart starting its mad dash to an unknown finish, her face heating up under his gaze even in the semi-darkness, her breath catching in her throat and her eyes widening in confusion.
‘Arnavji yeh aap..?’ She didn’t know what to think; in the month since they’d been married he’d made no move to come close to her unless it was to make some painful point or when they were in public and he was forced to. He’d been cold and bitter towards her and actively avoided being near her or even looking at her when they were alone; yet now they were so close she could easily lean down and kiss his forehead… if she had a death wish.
Suddenly Arnav blinked and looked a little to her right for a fraction of a second and she saw a flash of anger in his eyes before it was gone and he shocked her further by reaching up with his free hand. He ran his fingers across her wrist and then took her hand in his slowly, causing sparks to shoot up her arm and her head to spin.
‘Come down from there Khushi,’ he spoke roughly, his voice breaking slightly on her name. His voice was so low that it was almost a whisper and Khushi felt her heart wrench at the sound of her name, falling off his lips so softly after so long. He tugged on her hand and she stepped off the stool wordlessly.
She couldn’t look away from his eyes; they held her captive, the flickering candle-light making them look like they were burning with an inner flame and she was still lost as she lowered herself to the ground and stumbled on the hem of her saree. She felt his arm go around her almost instantly and felt his heartbeat against hers as she fell into him and closed her eyes on impact, resting her cheek on his chest.
She stayed there for a few long seconds, wondering how the same person who’d caused her so much pain over the past few weeks could also make her ache in a way so that she never wanted to move away from him.
Khushi could feel Arnav holding his breath as her body hit his and after a timeless moment she felt him slide his hand along her back and into her open hair slowly, causing her drag in a breath and shiver against him when his fingers stroked the back of her neck. She sighed as he seemed to give in to something and rest his head in the curve of her neck, her legs feeling like jelly when he took in a shuddering breath. His lips brushed over her ear in a feather-light touch which made her shudder, she felt like she was coming apart and had to hold on to his shoulder for support.
A moment or two later Khushi heard a noise behind her and she felt Arnav freeze again, his face still buried in her hair. They were both still holding the candle and she felt his grip on her hand tighten a little before she felt him take a slow breath and move away from her, blinking down at her wordlessly in the candle-light. The flickering light threw dark shadows across his face but she thought she could make out disappointment and an odd flash of guilt in his eyes before it was replaced by something she couldn’t read.
He stepped away, letting go of the candle, moving around her before fiddling with the fuse box till everything around them lit up and she turned to watch him questioningly. She blinked and let her eyes adjust to the sudden light as he closed the box and stood still for a minute, fighting an inner battle she didn’t understand.
Her head still felt fuzzy and she looked confusedly to where she’d heard the noise earlier but there was nothing there; she thought she’d imagined it but then noticed Arnav looking towards the empty space too, his hands clenched by his sides. She opened her mouth to question him, feeling disorientated by his behaviour but she was shaken when he suddenly frowned at her and blew out the candle she was still holding before giving her one last unreadable look and turning on his heel, walking away.
Khushi looked down at the still smoking candle in her hand, feeling bewildered and hurt; she had no idea why he’d held her like that and then just walked away. It made no sense and again Khushi had that underlying feeling that there was something she was missing in all of this. She didn’t know what was happening, she didn’t understand any of it but now she wondered if despite everything he said, maybe all those feelings she’d thought had disappeared were still there between them, under the surface, flickering and burning in the darkness like the candle they’d both been holding moments ago.
Arnav paced the corridor angrily, running his hands through his hair in frustration. He hated what he was doing, what he was becoming; he’d somehow begun to hate himself more than he hated her.
He’d sworn to himself not to get close to her again; he didn’t even let himself look at her, limiting his exposure to her presence and her occasional smile to times when there were plenty of people around to justify it. And yet one glimpse of the man standing in the shadows behind her had lit something so fierce inside him that he’d thrown aside all caution and given in to the ever present need for her which he hated himself for still feeling.
He felt torn; a cold, calculating part of him thought that this was the point – to make Shyam and everyone else think he and Khushi were together in every sense of the word. And yet another part felt guilty as hell when he thought of the hurt that’d flashed across her face when he’d belatedly realised what he was doing. He’d somehow only just moved away from her, putting his indifferent mask back on with difficulty.
‘But she responded…’ the whispered voice in his mind made him stop in his tracks as he made his way back to his room. She had responded, turned her face into his neck, clutched his shoulder; gasped breathlessly when his fingers had slid across her back to her neck… he shook his head at the images and the sensations that came with them, wondering how a few stolen moments could unsettle him so badly. He was still fighting it when he was startled to hear her slightly raised voice coming from around the corner, outside their room.
‘Aap ko woh sab se kya matlab? Aap waha kya kar rahe the?!’ Arnav froze and waited but he couldn’t hear the low response of whoever she was talking to. ‘Hum ne kaha na humse door rahiye!’ He felt an icy stab of anxiousness in the pit of his stomach; he’d decided to wait a little longer but something in her voice caused him to abandon all rational thought and go skidding round the corner, only to come face to face with one of his darkest nightmares.
Except there’s something wrong with this picture, his brain told him insistently while his heart burned; in his nightmares they were never so far apart.
She had her back to him and as she took a step away from Shyam’s outstretched arm, he looked up, noticing Arnav and smug look on his face made him see red. He strode forward, fully intending to beat the smugness out of him but Khushi chose that moment to spin around and he had to brace himself; expecting fear and guilt, both of which would eat away at his heart even as it sickened him. His eyes searched her face quickly, taking in every line and every curve and he was shocked to see nothing but relief written all over her features at the sight of him.
‘Khushi?’ His surprise caused her name to fall off his lips without him wanting it to and with another jolt he saw her move towards him as he spoke, almost instinctively and with a flicker of hope in her eyes, only to hesitate a second later, looking lost while her fingers continued to wring the soft material of her saree.
Without knowing exactly why and with his anger forgotten for a split second, he held out a hand and watched with an almost detached fascination as she came to him willingly and stood by his side. He felt something inside him give as she took his arm, her fingers sliding tentatively around his wrist and staying there while he stood frozen in place.
He had no idea what had just happened so silently between them but his heart was pounding. He fought to keep his face as neutral as he could but there was no mistaking the ice in his voice when he spoke, ‘Kya baat hai Jijaji…’ he emphasised the last word before continuing in a measured voice, ‘Khushi itni pareshan kyu hai?’
Arnav watched, trying to assess the situation without losing it, preparing himself for some sort of mental blow as Shyam stepped forward boldly and reached into the pocket of his kurta with a self satisfied smirk.
He held out a piece of jewellery triumphantly, ‘Kuch nahi Saale Saab, bas Khushiji ki payal humare paas reh gayi… humara matlab hai humare kamre mein mili thi…’ Arnav felt like someone had punched him in the gut at what his words implied and he barely heard the rest of whatever he said through the white hot rage and the sound of blood rushing through his ears as he tried to control himself from ripping that smile apart.
He suddenly felt Khushi’s fingers squeeze his wrist as if she sensed he was about to lose it and he somehow resisted the urge to fling her away from him, feeling disgusted that seconds ago he had been moved by the relieved and almost trusting look she’d given him.
He focused his gaze on the offending piece of jewellery for a split second; it was still dangling from Shyam’s hand and as he looked at it, suddenly everything else seemed to disappear. Time stood perfectly still in that instant and there was only one clear thought in Arnav’s mind. He was lying.
Part Three – ‘Nightmares Revisited’
A strange calm had settled over Arnav as he watched Shyam lie through his teeth, saying the anklet was neither Anjali’s nor Payal’s and so it must be Khushi’s. He looked down to see Khushi frowning at the anklet still hanging from Shyam’s hand and he knew he was right.
She opened her mouth to protest but Arnav beat her to it, shrugging lightly and speaking in a deceptively soft voice, ‘Actually Jijaji… Khushi ne kuch dino se payal pehni hi nahi…’ He let those words sink in before continuing, ‘and anyway, woh sirf apni maa ki di hui payal pehn thi hai,’ He watched Shyam’s face heat up and twitch in confusion and in the back of his mind he noted that Shyam hadn’t been aware of that fact. Arnav raised an eye brow while pointing at the anklet with his free hand, ‘and that’s definitely not one of them.’
His words were met with silence and he felt Khushi grip his arm a little more firmly before speaking, ‘Haan Shyamji, yeh humari payal nahi hai.’ her voice was steady and had a final ring to it as she turned towards their door and met his eyes for a second. He wanted desperately to search those eyes, to see into her mind because he still wasn’t really sure why he was trusting her this time but for now he needed to focus. He slid his arm out of her grasp and stepped forward, putting himself between them before taking her hand and pulling her into their room, shutting the doors in Shyam’s crimson face.
Arnav turned around and resisted the urge to lean back against the doors because Khushi was watching him with a curious and determined look on her face. He wondered with a little dread of this was going to be one of those nights where she poked at his shaky defences, demanding explanations and answers; igniting a blazing row which inevitably ended with her tears and his seething frustration.
He head felt muddled by what had just happened, he didn’t know what he’d say if she pushed it but she didn’t and instead her question actually left him flustered, ‘Aap ko kaise pata tha ke humne kuch dino se payal nahi pehni..?’
Why did she have to ask the most awkward questions in such a forthright way?! She didn’t question why he’d recognised it as not being hers which is what a normal person might do; she went straight for the question that would pain him most to answer. There was no way he was telling her a truth which he felt ashamed to admit even to himself; how the sound of her anklets distracted him to the point of madness and he’d know them anywhere. And how as soon as he’d recognised that it wasn’t hers he’d also realised he hadn’t heard their tinkling sound at all lately.
Khushi was still waiting, standing in the centre of the room, regarding him strangely as all these thought flashed through his mind. He ignored her expression as he walked to the wardrobe and took out a top to change into, affecting a nonchalant expression while she continued to wait undeterred.
He didn’t bother looking to see what her reaction was as he quickly unbuttoned his waistcoat and shirt before pulling on the red top. He needed to be alone to sort out the mess his head was in so when she repeated the question he turned to look at her while he shrugged, drawling in a bored and deliberately infuriating voice, ‘Lucky guess…’ He saw anger flare up in her eyes at his couldn’t give a damn attitude and breathed a sigh of relief when she snatched up some clothes and headed for the bathroom.
Arnav turned onto his back a little uncomfortably and stared up at the shadowy ceiling, wide awake, his mind whirring. He’d silently taken the recliner tonight leaving her to decide between the bed and the poolside, telling himself that wasn’t relief he felt when she picked the bed. Since the first few turbulent nights filled with fiery arguments and mute accusations, they’d somehow reached an unspoken stand-off on sleeping arrangements.
One morning he’d woken up outside realising he was soaked to the skin from a heavy rain shower and she’d lost it spectacularly when she laid eyes on him, saying she’d had enough; this was ridiculous even for him and she was going to tell Anjali to sort him out. He’d ignored her, angering her further as he walked away coldly after biting out that she wouldn’t dare do anything of the sort. But that night he’d taken the bed and left the spare duvet on the recliner while it continued to pour outside and she’d accepted the unspoken gesture simply and without fuss. Since then they’d alternated every so often, neither mentioning it even when they argued but neither choosing to sleep outside again either.
Arnav sighed and shut his eyes, willing sleep to come but his mind refused to switch off after what had just happened. He’d wondered all along if giving Shyam a second chance had been pointless but tonight he’d confirmed it for him; the fact that he’d so openly tried to insinuate that he was still somehow involved with Khushi made Arnav’s stomach roll and that was it as far as he was concerned. He would get him out of their lives once and for all but Anjali’s pregnancy was already proving difficult and complicated enough, he needed to figure things out coolly… he could tear him limb from limb later.
‘And what about Khushi..?’ He shifted restlessly as the quiet voice prodded him again and he frowned to himself in the dark. Her behaviour had thrown him completely, in fact now that he thought about it, the whole atmosphere when he’d turned corner had been off somehow… not at all what he’d been expecting. He felt a little off-balance, like there was something he was missing…
He heard Khushi mutter something in her sleep and sat up, still feeling too conflicted to attempt sleep.
He’d unwillingly learnt a lot of things about Khushi since they’d started sharing a room – like the fact that she often muttered things in her sleep; he’d heard his own name more than a few times, as well as ‘Rakshas’ and her favourite, ‘Laad Governor’. He knew she liked to water his plants when she thought he wouldn’t notice and had once hidden one behind the furniture after Lakshmi ate it. He knew she always pinned her hair up before going to take a shower and came out with it open , dripping water over everything… he knew she only wore her mother’s anklets.
It was such a small thing; he didn’t know why it was bugging him so much above everything else. So what if Shyam didn’t know about it? Maybe it hadn’t come up, maybe they’d been busy with other things… he felt his teeth grind and he pushed down on the rising anger, till the red mist cleared and allowed his brain to start functioning again. He forced himself to lie back down on the recliner, pulling the blanket around him to distract himself; he was being foolish, clutching at straws because he wanted it to mean something when really it was all meaningless.
He closed his eyes, trying to ignore the rustling coming from the bed indicating she was restless too. Sleep came slowly and fitfully, with new nightmares to enhance the old ones but as he tossed and turned, dreaming about the evening’s events, his mind continued to throw images of her relieved face at him. Making him remember how easily she had come to him when he’d held out his hand, holding on without hesitation, despite everything he’d done to her.
As Arnav slept, his subconscious mind finally let go of the blind rage he’d been lost in and allowed himself to relive the incident again and her voice rang in his head, panicked but clear as a bell, ‘Hum ne kaha na humse door rahiye!’ He remembered how he’d heard something in her voice that made him react instantly and now his sleeping brain identified what exactly he’d heard – raw fear.
His eyes flew open and he sat up suddenly, his heart pounding. Images flashed through his mind like a kaleidoscope; the sheer relief on her face when she’d seen him, walked towards him, the way her hand had tightened on his arm while the creep spoke, not letting go.
And more besides those; including that evening at the function they’d all been at, how she’d moved to stand almost behind him when Shyam joined their group. Realisation flooded through him in waves, leaving him shaky and utterly confused; she was afraid of Shyam? He looked towards the bed, fighting down the urge to wake her up and ask her what she’d been so afraid of; it didn’t add up with what he’d seen that night, none of it did.
Sleep was lost to him now and instead he sat watching her sleeping form as if it would give him the answers he sought. He’d always thought of her and Shyam as equally guilty of treachery but now his resolve felt shaky and he wasn’t so convinced… maybe they still were but he had to be sure. He heard the high note of fear in his mind again and felt a new level of burning hatred for the man sleeping a few doors away. He knew the irrational protectiveness he felt was most likely misguided and maybe he’d hate himself for it later but no matter how painful it was, he had to find out the truth once and for all..