Khushi had excused herself to quickly freshen up and get ready, while Arnav sat down on the sofa, looking slightly dazed. What just happened now? He wondered. Khushi was standing close to you. An inner voice spoke up in his mind. She was looking at you with her beautiful big eyes. Arnav gulped as he remembered Khushi’s hands brushing his chest.And then she tried to strangle you with your tie, the voice finished smugly. Arnav pursed his lips at the last thought and rubbed his throat slightly. She really is a lunatic, he thought to himself annoyed.
The door clicked open behind him and Khushi walked out wearing a bright azure coloured dress reaching down to her knees. All traces of morbidity were wiped off her face. She looked positively… radiant! Her eyes were sparkling with just the right amount of kohl and were just as beautiful as he remembered them from their first meeting. He gazed at her in awe. The annoyance that had risen in him unexpectedly was nowhere to be felt. Then, Khushi smiled at him genuinely, all traces of her anger wiped off from her demeanour, and he immediately looked away, clearing his throat.
“Uhm, so you’re ready to go then?” he croaked shrilly. Khushi giggled.
“Are you alright Mr. Raizada? You sound a little uhm… girly,” Khushi cooed. Arnav narrowed his eyes, no wonder reliving the “chick advice” part of their conversation from earlier. He cleared his throat again.
“Yes I’m perfectly fine. After you, Ms. Gupta,” he replied sternly as he pulled the door open for her. Khushi smiled at him charmingly and got out of her house.
They silently walked towards the end of the corridor while Arnav was trying hard to concentrate on irrelevant things like what he had eaten for breakfast that morning, a piece of toast with orange marmalade, she smells good, what he was planning to do for the weekend, play golf with Nikhil, that colour looks good on her, and where he had parked his car, under that clump of trees near the entrance gate, her long hair is so beautiful.
As soon as they reached the lift lobby, he felt a restraining hand holding him back, preventing him from walking towards the staircase. He glanced down at Khushi’s hand, accompanied with a funny feeling in his stomach. He finally met her eyes with his inquisitive ones.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Khushi asked. Now, in another situation, another setting, perhaps that question could have been flirty. But right now, with the wide eyed look on Khushi’s face, it was far from being romantic.
“Uhm, taking the stairs?” Arnav replied back tentatively.
“Why do you want to take the stairs when there’s a lift?” Khushi asked with her eyebrows raised and pressed the button summoning the lift to the 8th floor. Arnav stared at the numbers blinking on the digital display next to the button. Wasn’t the lift out of order?
“It was just some weekly maintenance work,” Khushi answered looking back towards the lift. Arnav looked at her in amazement. Had he asked that question out loud? They both got inside the lift. The moment the doors of the lift snapped shut, a heavy silence hung between them. Khushi was blissfully staring straight at the closed doors of the lift whereas Arnav was sneaking glances at her again. What the hell are you doing? He mentally reprimanded himself. This is the woman who’s out there to make your life a living hell. Don’t you dare look at her or talk to her or-
The lift doors opened with a ping. Khushi walked out first, Arnav following her close. She raised her hand to wave at the caretaker who smilingly waved back at her. Arnav’s eyes narrowed at him. He immediately withdrew his hand and his happy facial expressions changed to the morose one he had witnessed earlier that morning. Weird.
“So, Ms. Gupta. Where would you like to go? I’m not well verse with this neighbourhood but there’s this Thai restaurant I know of. Or Italian if you’re up for it,” Arnav launched immediately as Khushi and he got into his sleek black Fortuner. She looked at him amusedly.
“I thought I was the one taking you for lunch?” she asked which shut up Arnav. Damn! He thought irritatedly. Then resting both his hands on the steering wheel, he turned to look at Khushi.
“Okay, so where to?” he asked politely. Khushi buckled her seat belt in place.
“Pull out to the main road and turn left,” Khushi commanded, sinking comfortably in her seat. Arnav obliged and they set off. It had been excruciatingly warm all afternoon, but now it was steadily becoming cloudy, probably indications to an early evening shower. Khushi chanced a glance at Arnav who was looking broodingly straight ahead towards the road with utmost concentration. Unused to silence while travelling, Khushi started fiddling with the music system controls at front of her.
“What are you doing?” Arnav immediately shot at her. Khushi flinched at his tone and looked back at him sheepishly, her hand still outstretched towards the deck.
“Uhm, I was thinking of putting on some music?” she replied warily.
“I don’t like music.” Arnav replied back stoically. Khushi gaped at him wide eyed.
“What do you mean you don’t like music? Who doesn’t like music?” Khushi asked shocked. Arnav glanced at her with narrowed eyes.
“I don’t like music,” he repeated a little sternly. Khushi pursed her lips.
“Right. No wonder!” she muttered under her breath.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Arnav immediately retorted. Khushi looked at him with a patient look on her face.
“You are not the kind of person who would like to- “
“EXCUSE ME?” Arnav’s voice suddenly rose irritatedly. “Not the kind of person meaning? What do you know about me to comment something like that? Is it wrong to prefer peace of mind after spending 12 to 14 hours at work? I wouldn’t expect you to understand anyway seeing how you are not sitting for meetings, running around for clearing permits, travelling abroad for sealing deals while constantly being scrutinised by the so called business analysts about how or what you are doing wrong. So Excuse me, if I prefer driving in silence from home to office and back!!” Arnav vented off in one go, his breathing coming out ragged. In the pin drop silence that followed, he was left wondering, where did that come from?
“You missed a left turn back there,” Khushi remarked casually as if they had been talking about the weather. Arnav stared at her for a moment. Did she not listen to anything he just said? Ahhh!! That is what makes me so mad! She’d ask questions but she’d have no interests to listen to answers. “Uhm, you are going to miss next left turn as well.” Khushi replied calmly looking at the road.
Arnav immediately veered the SUV towards the left, leaving a string of drivers honking angrily behind them.
“I don’t know if anyone’s told you before, but music is a great stress buster,” Khushi murmured as he accelerated again. “You just need to find the right notes which suit your mood.” Arnav let out a deep breath. She was not going to give up.
“Are we there yet?” he asked her impatiently. Khushi looked around the neighbourhood and scrunched her eyes as if figuring out where they were.
“I think we are close. I definitely remember this red building from the time I had come here last,” Khushi replied staring at the monolith they had just passed. Arnav looked at her in disbelief.
“You mean to say you don’t know exactly where this place is?” he asked her exasperatedly. Khushi looked at him doubtfully and immediately followed it up with a sheepish grin. Arnav groaned. “Right, no wonder!” Khushi’s grin instantly wiped off at hearing his mocking voice.
“What is that supposed to mean?” she retorted indignantly. The irony of the repeated conversation wasn’t lost on the two of them.
“You are a woman. And it is a well known fact that women can’t remember directions or read maps,” he replied scathingly. Khushi’s mouth widened at this blatant critique of the female species. She glared at him.
“I don’t know what things you read, Mr. Raizada, as that line you just said seems right out of a wannabe relationship counsellor’s attempt at a self help book!” Khushi replied sarcastically.
“Well, the wannabe relationship counsellor’s naive thoughts seem to be right on the point, as you are a woman and you are lost and you don’t know where to go,” Arnav commented back derisively.
“Stop the car!” Khushi ordered suddenly. Arnav stared wide eyed. What the hell? “I said, stop this car right now!!” Khushi yelled impatiently this time. Arnav quickly pulled to the side of the road and braked hard. The car stopped with a screech. Arnav stared at her holding on to the dashboard, head bowed down, breathing hard.
“What’s wrong? What happened?” he asked fearing she was suddenly feeling sick. Khushi suddenly looked up at him and beamed a smile.
“We have reached!” she said happily and quickly unbuckled the seat belt and got out of the car. Arnav gaped at the co-driver’s seat that she had just vacated. This is how she tells me to stop? Giving me a bloody heart attack right in the middle of the road? Arnav shook his head exasperatedly.
“Are you coming Mr. Raizada?” Khushi called out and Arnav turned off the ignition and got out of the car. As he locked the doors and turned around, he stared with his mouth slightly open. From the looks of it, he was standing in the middle of a residential area. Right across from him, Khushi was running to a stall on the road. A sandwich stall! Arnav stared in utter disbelief. So this is where loony decided to buy me lunch. Frikkin’ brilliant!
Khushi turned around that very instant and summoned him to join her. Arnav sighed and crossed the road. The stall read “ASIF’S HOT DOG STEIND”. As a rule, Arnav never trusted any place which messed up the simplest of spellings. He looked warily at Khushi.
“Uhm… Ms. Gupta?” he started. Khushi looked back at him enquiringly. “Are you sure about this place?” Arnav murmured eyeing the man standing behind the stall wearing a fluorescent green shirt and a dark green cap. Khushi looked at Arnav as if he had gone mad.
“Of course I’m sure,” she spoke with conviction. “Asif Bhai is the best hot dog maker in all of CHV Nagar. And it is damn delicious! You’ll see,” Khushi replied enthusiastically, turned to the vendor and placed her order for two “spesal Hot dog”.
“Ms. Gupta, I better not fall sick eating this okay?” Arnav said threateningly. Khushi shook her head at him dismissively. As soon as “Asif Bhai” handed her the Hot Dogs, Arnav took out his wallet to pay for them.
“Oh no, no no! This is my treat, I told you!” Khushi exclaimed and started fishing in her tiny purse. But Arnav, being the gentleman he was, couldn’t permit it.
“Relax, I’ll take care of it,” he said and took out a 500 rupees note. Both Asif Bhai and Khushi stared at the note. Asif Bhai murmured something about not having change. Arnav looked back at Khushi disbelievingly who, from the looks of it, was trying really hard to suppress her laughter.
“Relax, I’ll take care of it,” she sweetly replied. Arnav ground his teeth at hearing the mocking in her voice.
Armed with their “spesal” hot dogs, Khushi started walking away from the stall, humming to herself. Arnav had no choice but to follow her.
“Where are we going?” he asked curiously after following her silently for five minutes. They had been walking on the footpath, but the way was becoming less and less crowded. A huge fenced wall was running parallel to them on one side. After another five minutes of walk later, Arnav got his answer. There was a gap in the fenced wall ahead of them. Khushi turned to look at him, winked conspiratorially and disappeared. Arnav stood stock still.
“You are supposed to come inside Mr. Raizada!” Khushi’s cheerful voice floated to him.
“Khushi, this looks like a private enclosure and you are trespassing. I’m not coming in there!” Arnav hissed back at her. Khushi was crazy to get herself into trouble, but he was sure as hell not doing anything like that.
“Okay I’ll hand you your hot dog, you stand there and eat it,” Khushi’s casual retort infuriated Arnav. I literally ran from my office, to meet this psycho after climbing 8 flights of stairs only to realise she had been howling over her lost phone. I stayed back for lunch at her insistence which turned out to be a shabby Hot Dog stall and now I’m being pestered to eat alone standing on the foot path which stinks of piss! How the f**k did I get here? He seethed to himself.
Finally, letting out a frustrated sigh, he followed her through the gap. He found himself in a dense thicket of bushes. A small path was outlined in front of him, leading to an opening in the end. Judging there is probably where Khushi must have headed, he wades through the vegetation, placing his forearm protectively over his face. Going through all this bloody trouble just to eat a hot dog. What the hell? I feel like a dog myself, Arnav thought frustratedly.
Taking a few more steps, Arnav finally walked out into the open and brought his forearm down to see the mysterious place Khushi had brought him to. His mouth dropped down in shock.
He was standing in the middle of an extremely beautiful community garden. Houses surrounded them on three sides, with the steel fence forming a sort of boundary wall behind him. There were a number of trees distributed all over the place. Small wrought iron benches too were scattered under the shade of few of the trees. The grass below his feet looked fresh and green. There were flowering plants along the buildings which bore vibrantly coloured flowers. It being late afternoon, no one was around. It was blissfully…
“Peaceful, isn’t it?” Khushi’s voice came from somewhere behind the awestruck Arnav. He turned around to see her smiling warmly at him. Knocked speechless, he merely nodded. Khushi walked to the nearest bench and sat down while Arnav gazed at her from a distance. She looked up at him beckoned him to sit down next to her.
“How did you find this place?” Arnav asked as he took his hot dog from her and sat down.
“One night after eating hot dogs over at Asif Bhai’ stall, I thought I was being followed by two goons. So I started running like hell!” Khushi exclaimed. Arnav stared at her dumbstruck. “It was dark and I had no clue where I was going when I found the gap in the fence and snuck in. This place saved my life I’m telling you!” Khushi finished seriously. Arnav was still looking at her clearly awestruck by her story. He had only seen it happening in movies before. Khushi burst into laughter.
“Oh you should see your face, Mr. Raizada! You actually fell for my stupid story! Hahahaha!” Arnav’s eyes widened watching Khushi rock back and forth in glee, then he pursed his lips. Of course! Only an idiot like me swallows whatever she comes up with, hook line and sinker. Still gasping with laughter, Khushi adds, “Actually a friend of mine lives in one of those buildings. The last time I had come over, he showed me around this garden.” Arnav’s ears pricked up. He? “We were playing Frisbee when it disappeared behind those bushes and when I went to retrieve it, I found that opening in the wall.” She finished explaining and bit heavily into her sandwich. “Mmm… this is so good!” she mumbled closing her eyes.
Arnav stared at her for a moment, getting distracted by her moans. Tentatively he bit into his sandwich as well. It really was delicious. “This is good.” He gruffly accepted. Khushi beamed at him, with bits of the bread stuck between her teeth. “I told you!” she replied going back to her eating.
For a woman who had the ability to make him run up the wall, it was a rather decent meeting. They ate their sandwiches in silence, Arnav more so, as he kept staring around the multitude of plants and greenery around him which he hadn’t experienced in a long time. “This reminds me of my childhood home,” he suddenly blurted out. Both Arnav and Khushi froze; he at having shared something private with her; she at having heard him share something private with her. Both fell silent again.
“So who else do you have in your family?” Khushi probed a few minutes later. Arnav cursed himself for having opened his mouth earlier.
“I have a sister. She lives in Mumbai,” he replied. His clipped voice told her that is all she was going to get out of him today and so she respectfully backs away. Another few minutes of solitude pass.
“Well this has been fun!” Khushi exclaimed suddenly and got up from the bench. Arnav looked at her in surprise as she crumpled up the wrapper of her Hot dog and threw it in the dustbin. He mimicked her actions. “I know you are a busy man, Mr. Raizada. So I wouldn’t keep you away from work any longer.” Khushi said to him earnestly. Arnav thought to himself, I didn’t mind it at all.
“Thank you for the lunch, Ms. Gupta. This was… nice,” he finished lamely. Khushi smiled back at him.
“It’s alright Mr. Raizada. You don’t have to thank me. As your counsellor, I have your best interests at heart,” Khushi said cheerfully. Those were the same lines she had said to him back in Avlon a few nights ago. And which would be repeated again for a long time to come.
The evening was setting in fast and the road next to the park was crowded with playing kids. They both started walking back in companionable silence. Arnav was feeling relaxed in a way he hadn’t felt for a really long time. And saying this on a weekday was a pretty big deal. Just as they reached Asif’s Hot Dog stand, Arnav turned to thank Khushi once more for the afternoon. But Khushi was looking at him dumbstruck. Arnav looked back at her in confusion. Then he realised that she was actually not looking at him but her wide eyes were fixed at a spot over his shoulder. Curious to the core, Arnav too turned around.
The curiosity in his eyes was suddenly replaced by abject horror.
“WHERE THE HELL is my car?” he yelled.
“Ohh that was your car?” Asif suddenly spoke up behind Arnav. “The traffic police towed it away.” He explained. Arnav stared at him in utter disbelief.
“What do you mean, TOWED IT AWAY?” he thundered.
“Sahib, this is a no parking zone. Didn’t you see the sign when you stopped the car?” Asif replied looking at Arnav as is he had gone nuts. Arnav glared at Asif first and then his gaze went to Khushi who was looking amazed.
“YOU!” Arnav bellowed. Khushi jumped. “You told me stop the car here. This happened all because of you!” he pointed his finger towards Khushi.
“What? How could this be because of me?” Khushi retorted. “I asked you to stop here, not to park here!” she rolled her eyes.
“Don’t roll your eyes at me! I lost my car. That Fortuner is my favourite frikkin SUV!! Ahh!” Arnav started pacing right on the main road, looking completely agitated. Khushi looked at him,pursing her lips, obviously trying to control her laughter. Unlucky for her Arnav turned around that very moment and caught her covering her mouth. His eyes narrowed.
“You think this is funny? I need my car back, right now!!” He demanded.
“It must be in the Police Impound by now, Mr. Raizada. You’re most welcome to go and get it,” Khushi replied and started walking towards the direction of her home. Arnav grabbed her arm and pulled her towards him. She crashed onto his chest and gasped in shock.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” he sneered at her.
“Home!” she replied in alarm.
“No you’re not! I’m going to the Police Impound right now to get my Fortuner back. And YOU… you are coming with me!” Arnav’s eyes blazed with anger. Khushi opened her mouth to retort back something, but for the first time, he didn’t let her. “Ms. Gupta. You got me into this situation. Now, you’ll get me out of it. We are going to the Police Impound and that is final!” Arnav declared.