“Mommy, look! It’s a shooting star! Quick, make a wish!”
I look down to see my 7 year old daughter’s face all scrunched up, hands joined together in prayer, muttering soundlessly as she peered up eagerly at the night sky.
A memory from a long time ago sprang forward. Of another night, in another country. Of another face which had radiated much the same excitement.
Jiji, Jiji! Toot ta hua taara. Jaldi, jaldi , jaldi…
An insistent tug at my hand brings me back to the present.
“Mommy, what did you ask for?”
Jiji, tum ne kya maanga?
I shake my head in amusement at her inquisitiveness as I bend down to hug my baby girl. My Inaara.
“It’s way past your bedtime young lady. Let’s get you indoors and in your jimjams.”
I march the protesting child inside as she continues coming up with reasons as to why she should be allowed to stay up. “What if the star is coming to wish me for my birthday tomorrow? Won’t it be sad if I’m not there to say thank you?”
It is with much effort that I control my laughter at some of her even more outlandish scenarios.
After much splashing in the bath and more tall tales being fabricated, I am finally able to tuck her in bed. An indulgent smile crosses my face as I see her clinging on to her favourite doll, Poori Kumari, the keeper of all her secrets. It had been a first birthday present from her favourite Maasi, largely the reason why it occupied pride of place in her heart.
Hearing the door open, I drop a kiss on her forehead and turn around to see Aakash walking in. “Daddy…” her sleepy whisper echoes with her adoration for her father. I look on fondly as he bends to kiss his darling Inaara good night. A sight that never fails to gladden my heart.
Their bond reminds me of my own with my father. A quiet love which was firm but always fair. A man whose geniality hid a strong core of fierceness where his family’s well being was concerned. Something which nearly cost him his life all those years back. I whisper a prayer thanking Devi Maiya yet again for pulling us all back from that abyss.
Later that evening as I sit in the lounge with a cup of tea, I look across at Aakash who is engrossed in a book. His glasses sliding halfway down his nose before he absentmindedly pushes them back up.
All of the sudden another memory rushes through the mists of time. Of a room in Laxminagar. Of Buaji’s glasses perched wickedly on an inquisitive nose and of fluttering eyelashes…
A soft laugh escapes me, causing Aakash to look up at me quizzically. Seeing me shake my head he throws a smile at me and goes back to his book.
Jiji, aap dono iss se aage kuch bolte bhi ho kya?!
Khushi… It’s only been a couple of days since I last spoke with her, but I don’t know why I’m feeling overwhelmed with so many memories of her today. Maybe, I do though.
She was of the same age that Inaara will turn tomorrow when she first came into my life. She had looked at me warily with those innocent hazel eyes, when Babuji had urged her to go with me to what would now be mine and her room.
“This is your Payal jiji, bitiya.”
I don’t know what she had seen on my face, but she had put her hand in my outstretched hand and curled her fingers around mine. I remember feeling a fierce protective instinct rush through me as I looked at that tiny hand in mine.
It had been months before the wariness in those eyes had made way for laughter. Months before the hesitant tinkle of her dainty payals had turned into a mischievous melody that made all of our hearts sing. Months before the silences were filled with chatter. But, the darkness of the night still brought with it remembered pain and loss. When she would curl up against me, shivering, praying to Devi Maiya to take the demons away.
But, they did come… a Rakshas disguised as a Rajkumar… and a Rajkumar disguised as a Rakshas…
And when she needed me the most, to my eternal regret, I doubted her. I who had been her confidante, the receptacle of all her thoughts from the moment those tiny hands had curled in mine, had doubted her actions. I know she has forgiven me, in fact knowing her she wouldn’t even think there was anything to forgive, but I don’t know if I can ever forgive myself.
That turbulent period in our happy go lucky lives had taken away so much from us, but it had also given us so much.
I still don’t know exactly why Arnavji and she took that step to get married the way they did, but I’m sure it must have had something to do with Shyamji. There had been a strange tension between her and Arnavji in the initial months. Much as Khushi had waved away my concerns, I had not been convinced. I could not speak to Aakash about it because for him, Bhai’s word was final. It still is. And I understand that.
Even during our marriage, Aakash had wanted to wait for his Bhai before proceeding with the rituals. At that time I had equated it with me wanting my sister to be with me at an important milestone. But it went beyond that. The more I saw of Arnavji, the more I realised just how much of the responsibility of the family he shoulders. We all adhere to his decisions because he has earned that right.
Today, it is because of Arnavji that Aakash and I are content in our quiet world here in the States. He had been able to see that being away from Delhi was the only way for both of us to come into our own. For Aakash to learn to take his own decisions. For our relationship to flourish. He had asked Papa ji to set up the branch here soon after we got married, well knowing of Maa ji’s nature.
It had been a wrench to be away from all that was familiar and more importantly from Khushi. I remember him reassuring me before we left that he would always look after Khushi. And he has stayed true to his word.
There is an innate honesty in both him and Khushi. And the same determined instinct to protect and care for their family and their loved ones. He had been the first person to come up to me to quietly ask if I was okay after the Radha Krishna debacle at the Mahila Samiti function.
Where he may be more astute in reading people, my Khushi will always think with her heart. I’m glad she has her Arnavji who gives her the freedom to be what she wants to be.
“Khushi meri patni hai, woh jo chahe kar sakti hai, jahan chahe ja sakti hai…”
The Khushi I see today is all that her name, Khushi Kumari Gupta Singh Raizada, conveys. A woman of note. Not to mention, Sankadevi, Titaliya. The one who flitted from one prank to the other dragging me along on her various escapades.
“Jiji, chalo na..”
When could I ever resist her for long. Although I still am unsure how she persuaded me to do the Naagin dance at Bitto didi’s wedding! Centre stage has always been my Khushi’s position while I have been content to bask at the sidelines. A listener to her raconteur. A long suffering, yet compliant, guinea pig to her gleeful teasing.
“Khushi ki bachhi!”
“Daal daal kachhi!”
As her Arnavji says, “Paagal hai, par cute hai.”
And, as I know, “Bachhpan se.”
I look out the window at the twinkling stars that are so beloved of her and thank Devi Maiya for granting her her wish.
“Humnein sirf itna maanga ki hum sab iss tarah saath rahe, khush rahe, aur hamari zindagi hamesha jalebi ki tarah meethi rahe.”
Hearing a soft snore, I see that Aakash has nodded off. A swell of affection fills me as I walk over to gently shake him awake. “Shall we go to bed? It’s still a couple of hours until it’s time to wish Inaara at midnight.”
“My baby is growing up so quickly. I can’t believe she’s going to be 8! I hope she isn’t too disappointed Khushiji isn’t here to wish her this year. Although, I’m sure she’ll have the entire family at Shantivan assembled and ready at exactly midnight our time to facetime. With Bhai being made to come home from the office in the middle of the day as well!”
“That she will!” I laugh at Aakash’s words, imagining her doing just that. But I still wish she had been here with me like she is every year. The jury is still out on whose smile is bigger on this day every year, Inaara’s or mine.
I look at the family photographs lining the wall along the staircase as we walk up to our bedroom. My eyes lingering wistfully on one of Khushi with a 5 year old Inaara. This had been taken at the Zoo just after she had scooped up a running amok Inaara in the penguin enclosure. Both of their faces radiating joy.
Hearing the unexpected ring of the doorbell, I place my hand on Aakash’s shoulder. We’re both surprised given it’s late, but there’s a part of me that smiles knowingly.
Could it be?
I ask myself, staying still as he climbs back down and heads to the door.
I see him glance at the camera and even before he turns back to me, I know.
The title is both a name blender for Khushi and Payal and also a reflection of the mood of my whimsy. The credit for which, and for making the whole story presentable, as always goes to Jignasha ❤ She just gets me, every time ❤
Khushi’s daroongi lekin karoongi attitude allowed us to see her love more easily. But, Payal, I feel, loved her just as much in her quiet, understated way.
I would love to hear what you feel 🙂