“Hello Sham Babu!” babuji opened the door. Sham stood there with a stiff posture.
“Come in!” Babuji invited him. He came and sat on the chair. “You were to come next week!” he asked Sham.
“Yeah! My work got over!” he looked around. Buwaji came out. “NandKishore..! Sham Babua, how are you? “She asked him fondly. He nodded.
“Aree, Payalia, get tea for Sham Babua!” Buwaji screamed. Sham smiled at Babuji. Babuji returned the smile. Sham grabbed the opportunity.
“Uncle Ji, I had been to Lucknow!” he opened the topic. Babuji looked nervous.
“Uncle Ji, why didn’t you tell me earlier? I would have done something..!” he asked babuji. Babuji had no answer.
“Uncle Ji, you still consider me as an outsider…!” Sham was hurt. Babuji felt guilty.
“No Sham Babu! I just wanted to keep it from everyone else!” he said in a small voice.
“Uncle Ji, don’t worry! I have filed an application on your behalf. Nothing will happen, your shop will remain with you!” he assured. Babuji nodded. “Thank you, Sham Babu!” he said with gratitude. Buwaji came forward with tears in her eyes.
“Sham Babu, you are an angel to us. Our savoir…!” she joined her hands. Sham held them in his and said, “Buwaji, you know! An orphan like me craves for love! I feel one among you!” he had tears in his eyes. Babuji was grateful.
“Aree, where is Khushi ji?” he asked taking a chance. Buwaji raised her eyebrows and glanced at Shashi. “She is attending a conference in Nainital!” said babuji. Sham looked shocked.
“Conference? Alone?” he asked in surprise.
“No! She has gone with the office people!” clarified babuji. Sham looked relieved.
********* ******** ********
Khushi had made her way up to front row tables. She looked around in that darkness. The VIP Press and Media section was cordoned off. She squeezed herself in to it and smiled at a particularly grumpy looking reporter. He looked at her. She pointed at the vacant seat. He shrugged. She occupied that seat.
“Mr. Arnav Singh Raizada…! Waiting for you!” she murmured. ASR’s eyes were searching at the back. His name was announced. Khushi looked around. Lavanya was at the middle of the front row staring at her ASR unblinkingly. She looked pretty in that dim light. ASR looked at her once and she nodded clasping her palms and smiling at him. He returned the smile and took the podium.
He was flawless, forceful and very well rehearsed. He was touching upon the points of his printed speech and was elaborating. Khushi was waiting for her moment and to everybody’s surprise her phone rang.
“CHALO MAYYA KE BHAVAN, BHAVAN BHAVAN…CHALO…!” She rummaged into the bag to take out the phone. Everyone looked at her. The organizers looked upset. Despite the instructions to switch off the phones, her phone had ringed. She took out the phone and clumsily tried to switch it off, and in the process made the ringer louder… She looked around guiltily.
“Enough!” he snarled and her phone was switched off. He took a deep breath and continued. One of the organizers approached but seeing her sitting in the VIP Press area went back. They couldn’t afford to offend any of the reporters. Khushi had got the immunity. This was unexpected to her. She grinned inwardly. “Shabash, Khushi Kumari Gupta..! Bulls eye!” she thought patting herself.
His speech continued. He made a path breaking statement emphasizing the need to take the fashion to the masses and everyone clapped. When the clapping subsided, Khushi raised her hand and spoke loudly in her flawless Hindi
“JANAAB, KYA AAP PHIR SE DOHORAA SAKATE HAIN? JO AAP NE PEHELE KAHA..! KYA HAIN KI HAMAIN PRATIVEDAN DENA HAIN..! Sir, would you please repeat what you said just now? I have to write a Report …!” she said loudly and clearly.
Organizers were in a tight spot. They knew his hotheadedness. He never entertained interruptions in his speech. They knew for sure that he will leave the dais and barge out. They couldn’t do anything with the reporters and ASR cared the least about the reporters. They prayed hard crossing their fingers.
He stared at her. She raised her eyebrows with a polite smile. Others took it in its stride. A reporter can interrupt the speaker. The organizers wanted good reports and publicity in the news papers and TV. Audiance ignored the interruption. Lavanya tried to see who it was but Khushi was covered in the darkness. ASR glared at her and in a calm deadly tone repeated what he had said earlier.
“DHANYAWAAD! Thank you!” she said politely. People looked happy with a Reporter’s politeness. The rest of the program went uninterrupted. ASR continued, but somehow had lost the rhythm.
He was smoldering … he had to control his rage. He kept glaring at her. She looked innocent and was taking down the minutes furiously. He was clenching his fists. He was waiting for the program to get over. He would kill her …! Khushi knew the danger.
“Be careful, Khushi Kumari Gupta..! KhunKhaar Sher Shikaar Karega!! A cannibal Tiger is waiting for your flesh..!” she said to herself. “Don’t go in front of him..! Hide yourself Khushi Kumari Gupta!” she was all set to run away from that place before the program got over.
After the vote of thanks, the bright lights were on and Khushi tried to merge herself in the crowd. She constantly kept an eye on the cannibal tiger and maneuvered through the crowd. She had no intention to have dinner in the conference. She clutched her bag and tried to walk past the group.
“Chamakili… What are you doing here?” Lavanya asked her in rage. Khushi fumbled.
“Woh... I .. I.. I mean registr….!” She stuttered.
“She is registered for this conference…!” came a deadly voice. And Khushi waited shutting her eyes closed for the pounce of the cannibal Tiger for her flesh. Her body stiffened.
“Hello Mr. Raizada!” someone greeted him. She took a sigh of relief. The crowd would protect her. She looked around and took a step forward to move into the crowd. He gripped her wrist with his left hand and she was dragged behind.
“He coolly shook hands with the acquaintance clutching her wrist behind with his left hand. She looked at his stiffened back. “CHALO KHUSHI MARANE KE LIYE TAYYAR HO JAO..! Khushi, be ready to die, now!” She said under her breath.
“Oh! No! Not so soon!” he gritted his teeth. She shut her eyes close. His grip had become bone crushing as he continued talking to people in that crowd dragging her along behind him. She tried to wrench her hand in vain.
“Chup Chap Khadi Raho! Quiet!” He hissed. She winced. “Lavanya ji, where are you? Please..Please!” She prayed hard. Her Lavanya Mayya came to her rescue...
“ASR! Where were you?” she came and ASR lost his grip on Khushi. She ran backwards and merged herself in the crowd. “I must go back to the hotel, as soon as possible!” she resolved. She looked around and found herself in the dinner queue. She grinned. Devi Mayya had made arrangement for her empty stomach. She took a plate and moved in the queue keeping an eye on that cannibal.
“What the.!” She was shocked. All were non vegetarian dishes. She twisted her nose in disapproval.
“shee! How can people eat..! “ She murmured moving ahead in search of a vegetarian dish and finally could find Dal Chaval! She was frustrated. She skipped that and went to deserts section and grinned.
“Sweets? Ice-cream? Cake? Wahh!” she looked around in excitement. She took double scoop of ice cream to begin with and went at a corner to have it leisurely. Someone placed a hand on her shoulder and she dipped her nose in the ice-cream bowl.
“Forgot to put the spoon to your mouth?” the cannibal turned her forcibly. She tried to lap it up with her tongue in vain and then tried to wipe her nose with her immobilized other hand. He had gripped it. Her nose went cold with the ice cream and in fright. She twisted her nose with irritation.
“Leave me..!” she pleaded looking around in embarrassment. He stared at her ice-cream dipped nose.
“You need some lessons in mannerism and etiquettes, Ms Khushi Kumari Gupta!” he hissed closing the gap between them.
“Lavanya ji!” Khushi called out looking ahead. He looked back and she freed herself with one jerk, freeing the ice-cream in the plate also. It dripped on her white dress and her entire body went cold. She shirked it with futile efforts. He smirked and went away. She clenched her fists in rage. She lost her apatite and came out in search of a vehicle to go back to the cottage.
It was late in the night. Khushi grew anxious. The couple had not returned. She was pacing restlessly in the verandah. It started raining again. She couldn’t go inside alone. She was scared.
“Why did I do this to him. What if he had gone somewhere with Lavanya..? What will I do? Khushi, you stupid girl… what will you do if he left you alone in this rain…?” she was praying till midnight sitting on the cane chair and rocking nervously.
“Sorry, ASR sir, please.. Please come back! I am ready to take any punishment..!” she touched her paining wrist. “Beat me up… but please don’t leave me alone here!” she started weeping in fright. It was very cold and she wrapped herself in shawl not wanting to go inside.
Somewhere past midnight..
“Khushi..!” someone was shaking her. She got up with a jerk. “Sir?” she called out in fright and froze looking at ASR and Lavanya.
“What? What happened?” she asked aghast. She came forward to support.
“She is drunk!” he said. Khushi tried to support swaying Lavanya. She was out of control, delirious and was teetering.
“Lavanya ji… what happened?” she looked at him forgetting everything.
“Take her in!” he said gravely and she nodded. Lavanya had gone beyond control and had lost her self-possession. Khushi supported her and brought her in. She made her sleep on the bed and removed her stilts. She was still babbling. Khushi didn’t know what to do. There was a tap on the door.
“Order black coffee for her and give this to her!” he gave a tablet. She tried the room service frantically. The rapid rain was adding to their problems.
“Awuu! Oh!” Lavanya was clearly in pain. She was clutching her stomach sitting up in the bed.
“Lavanya ji.. What happened?” Khushi asked holding her to support. She was not in a position to speak. She muttered something with half closed eyes and fell unconscious. Khushi didn’t know what to do. She dialed a number in panic.