Khushi oblivious to the forthcoming upheaval in her life was enjoying the day with her sons. They had gone to the elephant park; a place which was closest to the zoo that she could find for her sons to visit in Allahabad. Of course there was big Zoo in Lucknow, where she had grown up. She so much wished to take her sons there, but that was not possible so they made to with Elephant park out here. It was sort of petting zoo where one could pet and play with rabbits and horses or climb on to the stone elephant’s tail and slide down its trunk.
It gave her heart great pleasure to see her sons laugh and cheer each other when sliding down. She sat down on a bench and watched them. How quickly had they grown up and she didn’t mean only in age. Aarush was showing signs of understanding and maturity at such a small age and Ayush didn’t take long to pick up on the vibes in the room. If Khushi was ever sad or upset, he’d know it immediately and both the kids would try to find out the reason and make her happy.
They never asked about their father after that one time about six months back when she told them, she hadn’t told their father about them. They had asked her the reason and she had to simply tell them that it was for everone’s happiness that she had not told him. Khushi knew that at the moment they were contented with her and didn’t really want a father but soon—her heart thumped faster at the glimpse of a couple of years ahead when they’d start playing sports and would definitely wish for a father to cheer them up. Khushi herself was not much of a sportsperson but both her sons showed distinct signs of liking sports. Aarush was into football while Ayush really liked basketball.
Khushi was roused from her thoughts by a loud greeting from her neighbor and her daughter who had just arrived at the park. The daughter made a beeline to play with Khushi’s sons who stopped sliding down the elephant trunk themselves and first of, helped her do it. Khushi smiled warmly at their gesture.
“It’s good to see you sitting quietly like this Khushi. Every time I see you, you’re always busy with something or the other.” Her neighbor, Sarita saw the picnic basket and grinned, “A picnic ?”
Khushi nodded happily, “It’d been so long since I took the boys out for a picnic. Thought I’d do it today. I’ve been very busy with the shop, that’s true. What with Navratre, Durga Puja time, Dussehra and then Diwali, I’ve been overloaded with orders for sweets. Tum toh jaanti he ho na, kitna kaam hota hain.”
Sarita patted her on the shoulder, “Yes dear, I know. The old lady must be so happy to see you running her shop successfully from heaven. People swear by your sweets. “ She looked at Khushi’s kids playing with her daughter and added, “Your sons behave beautifully Khushi. Sometimes I wonder how you get the time to raise them, teach them good manners and keep up with running your shop.”
“All is the grace of God I say Sarita. It is not easy to raise them but I love them to bits. I would never want my life to be any different.”
“But-“Sarita hesitated then ploughed on, “what about their father Khushi? After some time they will definitely need a father. What will you do then?”
Khushi stiffened at her words. “Why would they need a father? Hum hain na. Hum sab sambhaal lenge. I know I can do it.”
Sarita shook her head sadly, “You may say that Khushi but sons always need fathers after a certain age. You can’t do the things your sons would be able to do with their fathers. Sab kaam tum akele nahi kar sakti ho Khushi.”
“At last! Someone who agrees with me.” A drawl that broke Khushi’s skin into goose bumps came right from behind them. She shook her head as if to clear her ear and looked at Sarita, “You said something?”
Sarita was looking at a point behind Khushi. Khushi turned her back, her senses prickling but she not giving in to them. No, it was not possible! She had been careful all along. It couldn’t be.
Arnav stood behind her, a lazy smile upon his face as he looked at Sarita. Khushi heard her friend gasp in shock and surprise as she exclaimed, “You are Khushi’s husband!”
Arnav nodded his head in acquiesce and came forward. “The very same. How did you know?”
Sarita gave him a huge smile and looked back at Aarush and Ayush playing with her daughter, “Your sons look exactly like you; that’s how I knew.”
Arnav gave her a tight smile, “You say so? I hope their sensibilities also resemble mine. If they are like Khushi when it comes to life; I’ll have a lot of work ahead. ”
Sarita looked at Khushi and her brow furrowed in concern. “Khushi, are you okay?”
Khushi looked at Sarita, shock and hysteria evident in her eyes. She wanted to scream and laugh hysterically at her while shouting, “Do I look okay to you?” but she sat rigid, her body still in shock. It was a good thing she was sitting or else she’d have fainted dead away. As it was, she sat still, her heart thundering in her ears, oblivious to her surroundings. Arnav was standing next to her and though her body tried to tell her it was really him a part of her mind refused to believe that he could even be present here. She closed her eyes and muttered, “If I don’t look at it, it will go away.”
“What will?” Sarita’s bewildered tone reached her ears but she didn’t open her eyes.
“I will. She thinks I’m an image projection of her night mare and if she doesn’t look at me, I will disappear. Still very much into childish antics I see Khushi.”
Arnav’s scorn made Khushi’s eyes open. She quailed at the anger directed towards her. He sounded ready to murder her. For the first time since his voice had penetrated her senses, Khushi looked up at him and immediately wish she hadn’t. He looked exactly as she remembered him although there was a hardness about him that reminded her of the first time they’d ever met. He had grown leaner than before too, a part of her noticed. Maybe he was working too hard, maybe he had gotten back to his old ways. Dressed as usual in a suit, he looked the epitome of handsomeness and somehow it smote her heart to think of him as not hers any more. His eyes-her heart nearly gave up at the look on his face. She looked away. She could not meet his eyes that held a variety of emotions; uppermost being anger and hurt.
Her attention was diverted before Arnav could say anything as their sons came running forward. “Mommy!!!”
Khushi heard Arnav’s breath hitch in his throat as he looked at his sons. Aarush and Ayush looked at him with curious eyes and then Ayush, being the shy one hid himself in Khushi’s dupatta. Aarush stood still as he looked at the man standing before them and then slowly moved close to Khushi and held her hand. This movement was not lost on Arnav who was visibly moved.
Sarita looked from the children to Arnav and then at Khushi. She knew when to opt out in case of danger, yet her friendship with Khushi was strong, she moved closer to Khushi and whispered, “Should I stay?”
Khushi could barely speak. She simply shook her head. No point in dragging Sarita into the mess that was hers and hers alone. She braved up to smile at Sarita and say, “You go ahead home. I-I must sort this out. Don’t worry, I’ll be okay.”
Arnav’s mouth tightened as he heard her last statement. Yeah sure, she’d be okay from him-until they got away from prying eyes and overhearing ears of their children. To think that he had two sons and Khushi had dared to leave him without ever telling him—he controlled his rage with some difficulty and nodded his good bye at Savita.
Once Sarita was gone, Khushi looked at him and said, “It’s best we’re off too. Soon it will be dinner time for Aarush and Ayush.”
“Aarush and Aayush.” Arnav replayed the names in his mind and almost sat down on the bench. She had named them as per the mutual decision that had been taken a long time ago, while they were only just thinking about how life would be like as parents. How many dreams had he dreamed with her? A big family; at least four children- two girls and two boys if possible; with girls being elder to boys. He and Khushi mostly fought about who’d come first, girl or boy and here he stood; a winner not just once but twice over with two sons.
Arnav looked at his sons and then at Khushi, a determined glint in his eyes, “By all means, guide to your house and we’ll talk there.”
“Mommy—“ Aarush began but Khushi cut him short by holding his hand tightly and saying, “Let’s get home Aarush and I’ll –I’ll try to explain who-“
“I know who he is. He’s our dad, isn’t he?” Ayush piped up before Khushi could say anything more and heard Arnav’s sharp intake of breath. She looked at him and saw him gazing at Ayush, an expression on his face that Khushi knew well. He was going through a wave of emotions and he was trying to hide it, unsuccessfully.
She took a deep breath and with another hand, held Ayush’s hand, still looking at Arnav and with a calm she didn’t feel she said, “Yes. Yes Ayush he is your dad.”
Chapter – 2
*EARLIER THAT DAY*
Khushi opened the old box she had kept hidden up in the attic for so many years and not looked at it. Much against her wish, tears slid down her cheeks. She brushed them away, annoyed with herself for being such an emotional person. She sat down on the stool kept close by and took out her wedding dress, moving her hand over it lovingly. It had been such a joyous occasion despite all the hiccups. She held the wedding dress in her lap and picked up the wedding album covered nicely with a cling film and removed the film carefully. She wasn’t sure how many minutes she had been sitting there for, crying silently while she looked at the pictures in her wedding album. How quickly had things moved from happy time to sorrowful, she thought.
It was five years today since she had left Arnav Singh Raizada, her husband. Not that she had left him because she didn’t love him. On the contrary, she had left him because circumstances had forced her hand to do so. She had not known then that she would see him every day despite having left the city where he resided. She would have moved away to a different continent but it had not been possible to migrate despite all the help she had had on hand.
It was about two months after Khushi had left Arnav, his house and all her loved ones that she had found out she was pregnant. Having left no choice but to endure the pain all alone, she had moved to Allahabad, a city about 115 miles away from her beloved Lucknow where her Amma Babuji resided.
No one would think of her moving to a city where she didn’t know anyone and by no one she meant her family and Arnav. In their eyes as well as Arnav’s she was gone forever. It was in Allahabad that she had given birth to her sons, with none of her family around for support. Some kind friends she’d made at the beginning stayed with her until she came back home from the hospital with her sons, drained physically and mentally. She had given birth to dizygotic or fraternal twins.
Khushi being a religious person had gone to a priest when the time was right, got their horoscope made, done the needed puja to thank Devi Maiyya and pray for the safety, health and long life of her sons and had their names kept- Aarush for the elder one and Ayush for the younger one.
As they grew older the ache in Khushi’s heart over Arnav intensified. There were too many times when she was reminded of Arnav- times when he got annoyed, when he got hurt, when he was happy and especially when he showed care for his loved ones. They were so much like him! Both of them had similar polite manners and the same charm; only Ayush, the younger one was a little impulsive like Khushi at times. Most days he followed his elder brother around and let him happily boss over.
She wiped her tears away with the end of her dupatta; determined not to cry anymore. Arnav must have moved on with his life like she had planned he would and she-she needed to move on too. Not that she hadn’t tried to do so. But this was no big city and where could she move on to with two boys in tow?
She had been fortunate in Allahabad since when she arrived, she had found a place to live on rent for cheap. Not only that, her land lady; an old woman who was declared cranky by the entire neighbourhood had stood by her strongly when she had given birth to her sons and given her an occupation. She had been the wife of a sweetmeat maker and she had been delighted to find that Khushi was sweetmeat maker’s daughter.
Once Khushi had proved she could make mouth-watering sweets; especially Jalebis, she had been given the responsibility of running the shop. When the old lady died a year back, Khushi had come into possession of the shop as per her will, with no living family present in the old lady’s life. Since then Khushi had made a great success of it. Allahabad knew where to go when they wanted delicious Jalebis and other sweets on festivals.
She thanked her ever present Devi Maiyya for all the good that had been bestowed upon her, muttered a prayer for Arnav and wiped the last of her tears. It was time to go down and get to work.
*A FEW HOURS LATER*
Khushi closed the door of her house as they all went for a walk in the park with their dog Sandy. The kids were allowed to walk Sandy and hold his leash as long as they both held each of Khushi’s hands. And that was how Arnav first saw them together.
Two kids stood by the door of the kitchen, quietly watching the woman making jalebis and muttering to herself. They looked at each other, their expressions identical and grinned at each other, “Looks like Mum is again thinking about us and has stressed herself.”
It was just yesterday when the playschool where both the kids went to had called Khushi. The kids were too naughty, they said. Obviously Khushi being Khushi had shouted them down and told them in no uncertain terms that her sons were angels personified. They couldn’t ever hurt anyone’s feelings. The playschool teacher had warned her that if the kids would continue to be naughty, especially to girls, they would have to be punished.
Both Aarush and Ayush were well aware that the teacher would be doing nothing of the kind. They were their father’s children in that way. One smile and one look from them, a small request made politely worked wonders with the teacher-always! But their mother, Khushi Singh Raizada was unaware of her sons’ abilities.
For once, Khushi was not stressing herself out by thinking about her sons. She stood by the stove, dipping the jalebis into sugar and muttering to herself, “I should have never opened that damn box. I should have simply forgotten what day it was today instead of going into the attic, opening the box and crying my eyes out remembering him. I need to be sensible about everything. Past is in the past and my future—“her eyes misted again as she thought of her sons “-my future lies with bringing up my sons and making them capable and smart—like their father.”
“She remembered the PTA meeting from yesterday and despite herself grinned. Her sons were sure hell to manage but she wouldn’t have them any other way. Charmers and absolutely brilliant. She admitted to herself that she may have behaved a little hot headedly with the teacher but then, which mother could hear her sons being called naughty monsters? She knew they were naughty but they were like-pixies. Naughty and yet possessed a good heart.
She took out the last of jalebis from the pan and turned off the stove. Suspicion had crowded her mind. The house was just too quiet considering the fact that both her sons were at home. Fearing the worst for her work room and the study, she moved out of the kitchen and at first, peeped into the work room. To her relief, everything seemed to be fine. Now for the study where Khushi kept most of her books, her cherished memories of Amma and Babuji as well as Payal and Akash. They were the last of the photos she had of them. The children knew of course who they were, with the exception of their father- a photo she kept hidden from them at all times, in her study table drawer.
Not finding them in the study either, Khushi was intrigued. It was unlike the boys to be so quiet. Could they be in their room perhaps or had they-heaven forbid! Despite her warnings gone out of the house with their dog Sandy. She hurried up to their room and let out a breath of surprise as they found them on their respective tables, studying!
She looked at them lovingly from outside the door. Aarush and Ayush both were four years now and so much like their father in looks and manners, only they had their mother’s smile and her eyes. At the noisy breath she exhaled, both the kids turned to look at her with smiles on their faces.
She felt an ache in her heart to again realize that Arnav would never know that he had sired two sons-so much like him. They were just as uppity when someone challenged them or hurt them, they never showed off their intelligence but used it when required and possessed a great sense of understanding. They both loved humour and good music. They preferred English music to Hindi and -Khushi sighed soundlessly. They sometimes made fun of the songs she liked-just like their father used to. Oh Arnav! If only things were different, we’d be with you right now.
“Hi Mommy! We’re ready for the walk with Sandy.”
Khushi entered their room cautiously, knowing they always winded her up. Parents do when they know their kids loved a laugh. She was a grown woman and yet her sons were as smart as their father in winding her up by their arguments and their pranks.
“We’ll leave in some minutes. What are you two up to?”
“Oh we just thought we’d finish the homework this evening so that we can enjoy the weekend.” Aarush replied sunnily, his smile bringing an instant reply from Khushi.
“This weekend is the zoo and picnic weekend. Of course!” Then she added briskly as she opened their wardrobes, “All right. When you’re done with your homework, come down and we shall go for a walk. Make sure you wear the sweaters I’m laying out for you right now when you’re down. It’s almost winter and it’s starting to get chilly.”
“Yes Mommy.” Came two replies. Khushi ruffled their hair and gave them a kiss each on the top of their head and left them to go downstairs.