Winners & Losers

Timeframe: Written mid-January 2012 during the sangeet of Payal and Akash. An alternative look at the sangeet challenge between Arnav and Khushi..

*******

Part One: Winners

 

IMG_5437

 

‘Tum haar gayi Khushi Kumari Gupta…’ Khushi shivered as his whispered words caressed her left ear and sent ripple of awareness down her spine, leaving her dry mouthed and breathless.

She somehow managed to force a smile back onto her face and kept it plastered there as she accepted congratulations off various guests and tried to ignore Arnav as he continued to stand slightly behind her as he smiled perfectly graciously to everyone whilst causing her heart thud loudly with his words.

‘Jaha se hum dekh rahe hai, jeet toh humari hui Mr Raizada.’ She held up the circular statuette and tried to sound confident, hoping he hadn’t heard the quiver of fear in her voice; in truth she’d been expecting something like this from him from before she’d even set foot on stage.

She waited and when he didn’t reply she finally looked up at him, taking in the slight smirk and the wicked gleam in his eyes. Khushi swallowed and wished she hadn’t looked at him because now she couldn’t seem to look away. He took a step closer and she broke their eye contact and looked around worriedly. It frightened her that even in public and amongst all these people he wasn’t the slightest bit bothered about standing so close to her.

She felt his hand on her elbow and her mouth went dry again as he leaned closer and spoke almost pleasantly into her ear, ‘Hum dono ko pata hai ki ye tumhare haaton mein sirf meri waje se hai, varna tum toh kahi aur hi hoti…right? Toh ghoom phir ke jeet meri hi hui naa? Like I always knew it would.’

Khushi couldn’t answer, the words were stuck – who was she kidding, she had no words. Her smile was more like a grimace now; deep down she knew he was partly right although it was skewed logic, and she could feel her heart about to jump out of her chest at what it might mean. ‘Humme… Buaji bhula rahi hai!’

The nervous words fell out of her mouth as she tried to escape but she only managed to get one step away from him when she felt his hand on her arm spinning her around to face him and his words left her open mouthed. ‘Fine! Lekin kitni dher bhaago gi Khushi? Kabhi toh mere saamne aana padega… and then we’ll talk about our bet!’

Khushi’s eyes widened as Arnav gave another slow smile that somehow scared her more than his ‘get out’ ever had. He let go of her arm and gave her one last look before striding away into the crowd, leaving Khushi reeling as her mind wondered frantically how to talk her way out of this one. It wasn’t fair, technically he hadn’t ‘won’, she had – he hadn’t even danced! Instead his family had, along with professional dancers he’d hired with his money.

What would he want from her..? Her heart sank and she closed her eyes as she thought of all the ways in which he could humiliate her and her stomach fluttered as she remembered what had happened right before she’d gone up on stage; luck it seemed, had deserted her when she’d needed it most.

 

A little earlier that evening:

‘Humme lagta hai ke hum hi jeetenge Bhai, Nani ne toh kamal kar diya! And those dancers, wow!’ Arnav smiled and nodded a little distractedly at Akash as he continued to look around the hall. Nani had stunned everyone sure but he wanted to know what Khushi had planned; she’d been so confident the last time he’d seen her that for a few seconds he’d contemplated what he’d do if he lost… before he’d come to his senses and remembered he was winning so there was no point thinking otherwise.

The competition itself meant nothing to him – he didn’t give a toss about dancing – but he’d be damned if he let that slip of a girl taunt him about getting one over him in anything. There was simply no way in hell that was happening.

There was still some time till the girls’ side were due to perform but his eyes still hadn’t found Khushi; where the hell was she..? He let out an angry breath and frowned; why was he so bothered where she was? She was probably in some far flung corner of the hotel, practicing the dance moves she was so proud of.

Partly out of habit and partly to distract himself, he patted his pocket for his phone and realised it must still be with Anjali who’d used it to call her husband earlier. He stood up quickly; glad to have something to do other than wait around. They’d booked the majority of the ground floor of a hotel for the sangeet and the huge function hall was a bit of a walk from the suites they’d set aside for the people to get ready in.

Anjali had said she’d left the phone on the bed so he didn’t look around the now empty room as he walked straight to the bed and found his phone. He was already checking a second email as he turned to leave when suddenly heard an odd jingling sound coming from outside the window. He walked to the floor to ceiling sheer white curtains and flung them open them to see it wasn’t a window but a solid wall of glass panes, with doors leading out to a stone courtyard dotted with benches and trees.

He could make out a figure in the evening light with their back to him and he shook his head when he recognised her; who else would it be?

He unlocked the doors and slid them open, stepping out silently to see Khushi standing half in and half out of another set of doors a few metres away from him. It looked like they led into a darkened empty lounge area. She had her back to him… sort of; he couldn’t tell because she was moving around in an odd way.

Arnav cleared his throat and Khushi froze at the innocuous sound which seemed as loud as a bullet in the still night air.

‘Nanheji?!’ The sheer hopefulness in her voice at the stupid name put his teeth on edge and he gritted them to keep from growling. ‘Jijaji..? Mamaji…?’ her voice grew less and less hopeful with each name till it faded away completely and she sighed, finally twisting around to face him, still leaning against the half open door.

‘Humme pata tha ke aap hi honge,’ she sounded thoroughly fed up as she met his eyes and muttered ‘Humari toh kismat hi aisi hai…’ Arnav frowned at her tone of voice and her choice of words in relation to him, ‘Pata tha toh itne logo ka naam kyu le rahi thi?!’ It was unbelievable how easily she annoyed him – sometimes all she had to do was be there.

Khushi didn’t reply; instead she folded her arms and said, ‘Aap Jiji ya phir Anjaliji ko yahaan bulayenge?’ in a very polite voice. ‘Meherbani karke,’ she added as an afterthought and Arnav stared at her. Something wasn’t right he thought as he narrowed his eyes and looked at her properly; taking in the open hair falling in loose waves around her face and the pale pink heavy ghagra choli outfit she was wearing.

She was leaning against the door and Arnav frowned as he tried to figure out what was strange about the way she was standing. He slipped the phone into his pocket as he walked towards her and she jumped a little although she didn’t move away from the door, ‘Aap wahi ruk ye…’ He asked why in a puzzled voice but she folded her arms again mutinously as he looked at her more closely.

For a second he was speechless as he realised what the problem was; then he bit back a laugh as he saw Khushi’s face go a deeper shade of pink than her outfit and she refused to meet his eyes.

‘Khushi… how do you always..?!’ He shook his head in complete amazement and felt a sudden and unexpected warmth flood through him as he looked at her, an indulgent smile still dancing around his lips – he would bet his entire wealth that in the whole of Delhi only Khushi Kumari Gupta could find herself suddenly and inexplicably stuck to a door with no input from anyone else..!

***

‘Haan haan humme pata hai ki ye sirf humare saath hi ho sak thi hai, phir se batane ki zaroorat nahi hai! Ab aap jaa ke kisi ko layenge?’ Arnav leaned back against the opposite pane of glass and folded his arms slowly as he watched her. All his earlier annoyance had melted away and it occurred to him that he could just leave her here till the performances were over and that would be it; game over.

They’d never win without her; everything was already running late and some of the guests would be leaving soon. This area was deserted and if he closed the curtains in the room again, no-one would even see her if they came looking…

He shook his head in reply to her and stayed where he was as he shrugged nonchalantly, ‘Actually no, I’m fine right here…’ He gave her a smug look and then had another thought, ‘Lekin agar tumhe meri madath ki zaroorat hai, then you can always ask…?’ He raised an eyebrow and Khushi glared at him like he’d known she would and he fought back another laugh as she wriggled against the door angrily. They both heard a tinkling noise and Arnav looked down to see tiny glittering beads fall to the stone floor as she caught herself on some embroidery and instantly stopped moving.

‘Waise tumhare paas zyaada time nahi hai Khushi…’ He tilted his head as they both heard faint cheering coming from the function hall and Khushi closed her eyes before finally sighing and asking him to help her.

He walked over to her calmly and stood in front of her, looking at her closed eyes for a second. Her hair whispered in the breeze and all of a sudden he realised that she was totally at his mercy and there was no running away from him this time. His mouth went dry as he watched her, and a number of possibilities flashed through his mind, none of them PG. Khushi’s eyes were now open and she seemed to be reading his thoughts; her mouth was slightly open and he could see she was blushing even in the darkening evening light.

***

Her helplessness drew him to her like a magnet and he forgot why he was there as he reached up to touch her pink cheek. His fingers caressed her skin and after a few seconds, her eyes closed and she turned her face into his hand before another faint cheer from the sangeet brought her to her senses; making her pull away a little and look up at him with confused eyes.

Arnav blinked and mentally shook himself as he tried to get a grip; what was he doing? He moved his hand to her shoulder and she continued to watch him with wide eyes before giving into the light pressure and turning around so he could see where she was caught.

Khushi moved her hair out of the way and Arnav held his breath as he tried not to look at the skin her low neckline was exposing. This was such a bad idea, why hadn’t he just gone and called someone else?

He closed his eyes for a few seconds; no, he would not break and he would use this as an advantage later; he just had to focus. ‘Good luck…’ something inside him sighed as she twisted her head round and he pulled his eyes away from her back to look down at where the low dori of her blouse was tangled badly with the door jamb; it might have been easy enough to free but he could see that she’d probably made it worse by tugging at it all this time.

He ran his fingers lightly over the material thinking the easiest option would be to tear it… or maybe just to remove it completely… Khushi jumped as though she’d been shocked even though he hadn’t touched her or said a word. ‘Stop squirming!’ he kept his voice low to cover up the thoughts that were still lingering in his mind and when she moved again he sighed angrily and put one hand on her shoulder to keep her still, making sure his hand was resting on her hair rather than her bare shoulder. It didn’t help much, her hair felt softer than anything and it made him work faster at freeing the twisted pieces of string from the door.

Finally he let out a breath as he managed to untangle it without tearing anything but then went still again as he saw the pieces of string still in his hand were undone. ‘Khushi it’s…’ She could probably feel what he meant before he’d finished his murmured sentence because she quickly reached around to take the strings from him, her fingers brushing his.

He watched as she clumsily tried to tie the thing but her fingers were shaking and after her second failed attempt, Arnav reached out, ‘Main kar de tha hoon!’ he muttered as he took the strings from her firmly before carefully tying the two pieces together, closing his eyes briefly when his fingers brushed the skin of her lower back.

They both stood frozen for a few seconds before Arnav leaned in; he closed his eyes again as he breathed in the scent of her hair and tried to focus as he whispered into her ear softly, ‘Maine kaha tha na – agar kismat ne tumhara saath nahi diya toh..?’ Khushi trembled against him and remained where she was for a moment before she slipped through the doors and turned to look at him from the other side, her eyes glittering in the darkness.

She didn’t acknowledge his words but he could see her cheeks were still pink as she backed away from him slowly before tearing her eyes away and running towards the music they could hear faintly, leaving the sound of her anklets still ringing in his ears.

Arnav let out a breath and ran a hand over his face; what was he doing challenging this girl when he couldn’t even keep a lid on himself with her around? He looked down at his hand, unwillingly remembering the softness of her skin, the smell of her hair… he shook his head and stopped those thoughts dead. None of that mattered he told himself; he was winning this challenge and that was it. Whatever happened on the dance floor he figured he’d already won by default when he’d found her here and pretty soon she would know it as well…

 

Part Two: Losers

‘Congratulations Khushiji!’ Khushi smiled a little distractedly at NK, who didn’t seem at all bothered about losing. ‘Aap ka murda’s ne toh sab ka dil peet liya!’ He gave her a beaming smile but Khushi didn’t have the heart to correct his ‘peet’ to ‘jeet’; she couldn’t believe it had happened again. How did she always end up in these situations? As if getting herself stuck to a door wasn’t bad enough but to be found there by him of all people! She closed her eyes and tried not to remember the way she’d been so aware of him the whole time… and the things she’s seen in his eyes when he’d touched her face… ‘Khushiji?! Aap kaha soh gayi..?’

‘Khushi kho gayi NK…’ She froze for a second but didn’t look up at the face that went with the soft voice that had joined their little group along with Akash and Anjali. She couldn’t look in those eyes or he’d know what she’d been thinking about; instead she forced a bright smile and looked at NK.

‘Hum toh yahi hai Nanheji…’ They were back at the Raizada’s house and although the party was smaller, it was still going strong with lots of laughter and some dancing from the guests.

She saw Nani standing to one side talking to OP, gesturing and pointing towards the back of the house, ‘Humme Naniji se kuch kaam tha, hum abhi aate hai.’ She handed the winners statue in her hand to Payal who was standing next to her and finally risked a quick sideways glance at Arnav’s face before she made her exit, feeling his eyes following her. She felt panicky after looking at him; he hadn’t seemed angry or impatient. He’d looked calm and relaxed… like someone who knew exactly what he was doing.

‘Naniji, kuch kaam tha?’ She needed a distraction and if there was something to be done away from here she’d happily do it. ‘Nahi Khushi bitiya, aap chinta mat ki jiye…’ She went on to explain it was due to rain and she’d left some things on the roof so OP was bringing them in. ‘Hum unki madath kar de the hai!’ Khushi jumped at the chance to escape into fresh air for a little while… and plus it would give her time to think of what she was going to say to him when he came to her; she had won the competition fairly and she wasn’t about to admit defeat on a technicality!

***

‘Om Prakashji aap jaayi ye, hum dekhte hai ki kuch reh toh nahi gaya.’ Khushi smiled at OP as he left and then climbed the stairs to the roof slowly. She knew there was nothing left to take down but she wanted to be alone with her thoughts for a little while and the roof was peaceful enough… also with less chance of running into danger than the poolside. She could see storm clouds in the distance; Nani was right, it was going to rain heavily very soon but for now the air was cool and still so she stayed where she was.

As she breathed in the night air, Khushi looked unwillingly at the spot where she’d finally found out she’d been lied to and betrayed for so long and she walked towards it slowly, wondering absently how a place could feel so different depending on who you were with. Right now it was so peaceful and as the moon peeked out for a second from behind the rolling clouds, it felt as different as it could from that day.

She let out a long breath, feeling the tension slipping away; she’d worry about everything later, she decided. She’d just closed her eyes and raised her face to the cool breeze when she heard a slight rustle behind her and froze; her moment of tranquility disturbed and her heart in her mouth.

Khushi knew who it was without turning around and she was surprised to find that after the initial shock, her first feeling as she sensed who it was, was one of relief. It was strange that however nervous he made her and however worried she was about facing him, deep down she’d always felt safe around him and that was something she couldn’t lie to herself about.

She closed her eyes again and gathered herself – she couldn’t be thinking these things now! She waited for him to speak but he didn’t say a word as he came and stood a few feet away from her, looking out at the heavy rain clouds thoughtfully.

She watched him, wondering what went on in his head; his face was always so hard to read but sometimes she saw things in his eyes which scared her as well as making her unexplainably sad. There was a lot of anger but also pain; she wondered again what made him so bitter towards everything and remembered his reasoning that the world was a cruel place and would always remain that way. The way he’d said those words had made her wonder what had happened to give him such a bleak outlook in life…

Khushi blinked and tried to focus on the present; right now he looked relaxed with his hands in his pockets and his face clear of its usual frown. He was wearing black and red and throughout the evening she had been surprised and a little annoyed to see more than one woman eyeing him appreciatively – not that he’d seemed to notice. Or maybe he did notice but it just didn’t affect him..

‘Mujhe yun hi dekh thi hi rahogi ya kuch bolo gi bhi..?’ Khushi jumped and went red as he suddenly spoke without looking at her and before she knew it he’d turned and was walking towards her unhurriedly, throwing her thoughts into total chaos… why had she been staring at him all this time, why hadn’t she run when she’d had the chance?!

‘It’s not like you to be so quiet Khushi Kumari Gupta…’ His honeyed words sent a shiver down her spine. Khushi realised she was walking backwards and suddenly stopped after a couple of steps, deciding to hold her ground, even though the ground felt like it was unsteady under her feet. Something flashed in his eyes and he stopped a foot away, only just invading her space but thankfully leaving her some room to breathe.

‘H-humme kuch nahi kehna, hum toh bas jaa rahe the…’ Her words sounded feeble even to her own ears and she wasn’t surprised when he took no notice of them. ‘Tumhe bol ne ki zaroorat bhi nahi hai, kyu ki jeeta toh main hoon right?’ He gave her an annoyingly triumphant look and Khushi heard sudden thunder in the distance which seemed to mirror her feelings.

‘Aap?!! Aap kaha jeete?!’ She saw him clench his jaw as anger flashed across his face but she held up a hand, her own anger spurring her on to dangerous ground. ‘Aap ne humari madath ki iss ka matlab yeh nahi ke aap jeet gaye! Koi aur bhi aa sakta tha humari madath karne…’

Arnav narrowed his eyes and moved closer; Khushi did her best to stay where she was under the heat of his eyes. ‘Lekin aaya toh main hi tha naa?’ He asked in a dangerously soft voice, ‘Aur agar main waha nahi hota toh tum log haar jaate…’

His logic made no sense to Khushi, there was no way he could know that no-one else would have come and maybe she would have managed on her own, without his help. She said as much, glaring up at him and he gave her an ‘unbelievable’ look, before bursting out angrily, ‘Oh really? Tum? Kya kar le thi tum? You’d have had to take the whole damned blouse off…’ Suddenly he stopped and Khushi went even redder because they both knew there was no way she would have done that.

He blinked and seemed to shake himself, ‘None of that matters; tum sirf meri waje se jeeti so the real win is mine!’ Khushi wanted to throw something at him, how could anyone be so pig headed?!

‘Arre yeh kaha ki jeet hui?! Aap toh naache bhi nahi the… aur kaise naach the, aap ko toh naachna hi nahi aa tha!’ Khushi glared at him with eyes spitting fire, not really caring what she was saying anymore – he drove any sense she might have out the window. She opened her mouth to carry on but he’d had enough; he placed two fingers on her lips so she couldn’t speak and came so close their noses were almost touching as he looked down at her.

‘Maine kab kaha tha ke main naachoonga?’ Khushi looked down at the fingers still on her mouth and then back up at him as she swallowed nervously. They heard a roll of thunder much closer than before and Khushi jumped a little as he gave a dangerous smile and continued, ‘Aur tumhe kiss ne kaha ke main naach nahi sakta..?’

Khushi blinked as she felt the first few drops of rain hit her face and her eyes widened when Arnav suddenly reached down and took her hand, before spinning her expertly a few times and then dipping her effortlessly, leaving her breathless as he leaned over her, his face inches from hers.

‘Aap…yeh..’ Khushi lost her breath as he pulled her back up sharply against him, his lips brushing her forehead as he adjusted his stance to look down into her eyes. She felt his hand on her bare waist and her hand automatically responded to his as it found its correct position on his shoulder like she’d been taught so recently. That was where her expertise ended however and she barely had a moment to think before he began to dance with her like she had never danced before.

There was no music, only the sound of thunder and the occasional flash of lightning but they didn’t need it as they moved, both moving together as one, as though they had been doing this for a lifetime. Khushi had no real idea what she was doing; she was simply following his lead and going willingly wherever he took her.

She didn’t know when the heavens opened and it started to pour down with rain, she wasn’t aware of anything except his eyes as they blazed into hers and his hands as he spun, twisted and dipped her around the empty rooftop for what could have been minutes or hours.

Eventually he came to a stop in the middle of the rooftop, pulling her hard so she was resting against him, inside the circle of his arms. Neither of them had said a word and even now all she could hear over the rain was the sound of them both trying to catch their breath. She felt drunk and lightheaded all at once but she couldn’t look away from his eyes which were filling her world with molten fire. She didn’t know what he’d done but it had felt like more than dancing and she didn’t think she could ever put that feeling into words.

 

IMG_3047

 

She felt his hand move from her waist to her back and she shivered more from his touch than the rain as moved his hand up her back slowly and into her hair. He brought it round and moved some of the wet strands out of her face and then left his fingers in her hair as his eyes burned into hers; dazed and filled with something that made her tremble. His face was so close she could count his eyelashes if she wanted and she could feel the way his heart was racing, matching her own.

He leaned his face closer and for a moment she thought he would kiss her but instead he closed his eyes and rested his forehead on hers. She felt his hands tighten in her hair and on her shoulder as he dragged in breath after breath and after a few moments, she felt his breath on her cheek as his breathing got steadier.

Khushi couldn’t think; she knew she should move away but her body refused to respond, she wanted to stay where she was, in his arms. He finally lifted his head and she blinked away rain as she looked up at him, feeling lost and yet somehow like she was where she belonged.

She suddenly realised it had stopped raining as abruptly as it had started and it was eerily quiet as they watched each other almost warily, neither seeming to know what had just happened.

Arnav recovered first and Khushi could see the moment his iron will took over when his eyes hardened and he tightened his jaw. She swallowed, waiting for harsh words which never really came. Instead he untangled his hand from her hair as his eyes continued to watch her face and he seemed utterly focused on the way she closed her eyes briefly while his fingers traced her wet jawline.

His eyes suddenly gleamed again and there was a faint smile on his lips as he leaned closer and softly repeated the same words he had spoken to her earlier in the evening, his lips leaving a feather-light trail of fire along her cheek and on the sensitive skin by her ear. ‘Tum haar gayi Khushi Kumari Gupta…’

He moved then, letting go of her shoulder, reaching up to remove her hand from his collar and Khushi’s heart stopped as she realised with a sudden crushing certainty that she had in fact lost. He lowered her hand to her side, his fingers caressing her palm for a second before letting it go. Khushi felt a shudder run through her at his touch and she got the overwhelming feeling that she had already lost so much more than just this chalenge.

***

Arnav watched Khushi’s face as she took in his words; she seemed lost, her eyes following his dazedly. He was glad she didn’t seem to be thinking clearly, it gave him time to pull together the composure that had deserted him the moment he’d pulled her close.

He had no idea what had taken over him but somehow he’d managed not to go over the edge completely. He couldn’t think clearly at all when it came to her, no reason, no logic, it was all just madness. He took a step away from her, finding it hard and trying not to let the lost look in her eyes affect him. He knew it would haunt him later but for now he needed to get away and gather his thoughts.

He took in a deep breath, trying to clear his mind but everything seemed to drenched in her. He told himself he was being crazy and he looked up to see that Khushi seemed deep in thought now, looking into the distance at something he couldn’t see. He ignored the voice in his head screaming at him to go back to her as he turned on his heel and walked to the stairs slowly; something nagged at him and he turned back, ‘I’ll let you know what I want… soon.’ He spoke quietly but she looked up and met his eyes silently.

Arnav was surprised for a second when she gazed back at him steadily, no trace of her earlier fear or nervousness. She seemed calm all of a sudden and it unnerved him. He turned away, feeling confused as he walked down the stairs; he pulled off his wet tie and told himself that whatever else had happened, he should be happy because he had won.

Except then why didn’t it feel like winning? He remembered the way it felt to have her in his arms. And to be falling into her eyes as she clung to him while he spun her around in the rain; like they were both two parts of one whole. As he walked away from that it didn’t feel like he’d won anything; instead it felt as though he was losing more than he could put into words..