The father-daughter discussion had been sailing forth unabated for the past thirty minutes, showing no signs of losing steam. This was mainly because both parties were similar in temperament and their speech prone to unusual eloquence, when it came to having someone see their point of view.
“But Dad, you have always known that I had wanted to work for MSF and I had even informed you the day I had applied, actually asked you before applying. I remember quite clearly that you hadn’t expressed the slightest misgiving at that time and had actually shown considerable enthusiasm about MSF and it’s mission. And now that I actually have an opportunity, you’re backing off? How could you? You may think of me as your little girl still, but I’m not”.
“I wouldn’t have had any problem letting you take up this position if it were somewhere nearer, like somewhere in South America. This is Kashmir we’re talking about. The political situation there might have improved in the past few years but is very volatile still”.
“Well,”, sighed his daughter, a storm raging in the usually staid hazel waters, “Tell me of one thing in life that’s completely predictable, one place on this planet, where accidents don’t happen, where you can say with certainty you’re going to return home completely safe and sound”.
Navin gazed at Khushi musing fondly, secretly, and not for the first time about the uncanny resemblance she bore to a younger version of him.
“I agree nobody can foresee the future or make fool-proof predictions about it, but as your father, I have to protect you from circumstances that, purely statistically speaking, have a high percentage of actually occurring”.
Khushi was silent for a while then her eyes wandered towards a large picture frame displayed on the papered wall behind her father.
It was a picture of her grand parents, a much younger Navin and his younger sister, Madhu, short for Madhumati. A fading picture taken in the ‘aangan’ of their ancestral home in Lucknow, one sunny afternoon, almost thirty years ago.
Walking up to her father, she said gently, “Remember Dad, how Dada used to tell us about that time when you had first expressed the desire to come to States for further studies and how Dadi was dead against it. I’m sure, just like you, she must’ve been very worried, imagining all kinds of misfortunes…befalling you in a faraway strange land. And you were younger than me at the time”.
Highly tuned to her father, Khushi immediately noticed a shift, a shadow, in his hazel eyes. Shackles of guilt. Bane of immigrants.
Contrite at once, she threw her arms around him, “Oh..I didn’t mean to make you feel bad…”.
His father didn’t reply for a while. His mind traveled across a gulf in time and space.
“Baba was always so encouraging, even though there were many in our family who considered my inordinate interest in plants totally eccentric. I still remember that verse, Rumi’s, he would often quote to Amma, his eyes warm with wisdom and love – ‘Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray'”.
“There you go”, said Khushi straightening up with her eyes dancing, “I agree with Dadaji 100%”
Even as her father chuckled affectionately, the doors to the library burst open to a pretty fourty seven year old woman and an eighteen year old, who was her exact replica.
“Khushi! Why aren’t you ready? Were’nt you supposed to go out with Aman today?, her mother cried.
“Oh..shoot! I’ll have to rush now”, said Khushi, glancing at the clock.
“Don’t use bad words, Khushi”, said her mother in a strict voice, her brows knitted in a displeased frown.
“Mom, shoot is NOT a bad word”, Khushi protested, shaking her head and laughing.
“It is”, said her younger sister, Anita, to their mother, her somber face belied by a pair of naughty brown eyes.
“It’s also because of America ki Hawa”, she said, ‘America ki hawa’ being a term frequently used by their mother as the alleged perpetrator of various unacceptable behavior patterns among desi kids.
Even as Khushi chuckled, their mother, used to affectionate leg-pulling by her daughters, curbed her smile and said, “Don’t waste time, go”.
Pausing at the door, Khushi glanced at her father, who had returned to typing, oblivious to the noise and laughter around him, “So, it’s a yes?”, she asked, accomanying it with pleading eyes and her irresistible smile.
“I’ll try my best to convince your mother. And that is not going to be easy”, he said with a smile, while Sujata looked on questioningly.
Anita sat on the edge of Khushi’s bed, watching as her older sister stood in front of the dresser mirror, screwing on a pair of marcasite and pearl drop earrings. She looked gorgeous in a knee length, crochet lace, A line dress in black and her favorite pair of strappy, silver high heels.
Applying some lipgloss in a singularly mechanical manner, she was totally unprepared for Anita’s question, put forth in a matter of fact monotone.
“Are you going to say yes?
“Umm”, Khushi stalled as she carefully put the wand back in the lipgloss bottle.
“I’m still trying to decide..”, she added after a pause.
“Still deciding? Here we have Mom all settled on the color of your wedding lehenga and you say you’re still deciding!”, Anita said with an eyeroll, “Aman is going to be here any moment now and you’re still deciding. Di, you seriously amaze me sometimes”.
“It’s a big decision, Anu, probably one of the most important ones of your life”.
“It all sounds so freaking cold and mechanical”, cried Anita, getting off the bed with an impatient movement.
She walked over to the window overlooking their drive and front yard. Gazing at the swaying branches of a maple tree, she said in a quiet voice, “I hate this semi arranged – marriage crap, I’m going to keep waiting until I fall in love with someone or not marry at all”.
Aman sat back in his comfortable leather chair and gazed across the table at shadows flickering on Khushi’s face. They were cast by a red candle placed in it’s center in a glass hurricane. Warm breeze ruffled her hair from time to time and errant strands were adjusted back in place by unintentionally graceful motions of her slender hand.
They were at Penthouse 808, an open rooftop restaurant offering great food and ambience with an awe inspiring view of the Cleveland skyline as an added bonus.
It was dusk with the sky streaking with colors and the skyscrapers flickering into life. Both Aman and Khushi appeared to be on tenterhooks, finding it difficult to settle into the easy camaraderie they had always enjoyed. At times smiling awkwardly and at times initiating yet another inconsequential conversation that petered into a dead end.
When they were done with dinner, Aman waited for their wine glasses to be refilled before straightening in his chair and sighing audibly.
“Khushi”, he said quietly after holding her gaze. A certain quality in his tone made Khushi put her glass down and focus full attention on him.
“You know Khushi, when we were first introduced some five months ago, I had agreed to it more to humor my mother than anything else. I made her promise that if this didn’t work out, she would quit searching suitable matches for me. And I could have never imagined…”, Aman paused with a self-depreciatory grin, “That Aman Aggarwal would actually find himself falling, falling in love, with his mother’s choice “.
Khushi gazed at Aman with her eyes full of conflict. His words were sincere and his eyes clear and honest. She truly wished that her heart found it easy and natural to reciprocate his love in equal measure.
All she felt for him was a warm affection and the innate honesty in her nature didn’t let her pretend otherwise.
“I know, Khushi. I know you don’t love me”.
As Khushi stared in surprise, he smiled.
“Not yet…”, he said, with the two confidently uttered words carrying a subtext of happy possibilities.
“I do know you don’t love anyone else either and that you like me enough to have brought our relationship thus far. As far as I’m concerned, that is enough for me for now. But what about you? Is that enough for you?
While the full implication of his question seeped through her mind, she remained quiet, gathering her thoughts together to frame an appropriate answer.
“Like most girls voluntarily entering an arranged marriage, there are times when I feel, just like my parents do, that nothing can beat this wonderful friendship we share in providing a strong foundation for our future together, for marriage, for love, but then, there are moments when I can’t help feeling that perhaps you deserve better than this. You deserve to be with a girl who is absolutely sure…”, her voice trailed off even as her eyes broke away from his to blankly stare at a flickering billboard nearby.
Leaning forward a little, Aman placed a hand on Khushi’s tightly balled one.
“But I’m absolutely sure, Khush”, Aman said in a voice laced with emotion.
As Khushi looked back at him, he cleared his throat and continued briskly, “But having said that, let me assure you that under no circumstances, do I want you to feel cornered or forced to arrive at a decision”.
“Take your time. Think it over and let me know”, he added with a smile, “Whatever your decision , I’m man enough to handle it, so no worries..”.
Smiling gratefully, she felt her heart soften with warmth for him.
“Isn’t this love?, her confused heart asked. If only Aman hadn’t declared his love to upset the balance, she thought, If only they were both at the same place in this relationship, this warmth she felt in her heart would’ve worked just fine to lay the foundation for a future relationship.
“Can I let you know after I return from Kashmir?, she asked in a thick voice, her throat aching with unexpected tears.
“Yes, I was just about to tell you. You won’t believe what happened today. I got an appointment letter from MSF. Remember how I’d once told you about MSF and how much I wanted to work for them at least once in my life”.
Aman gazed at the shadows flickering on her animated face again, half listening as she talked about MSF, dreams, Kashmir and saffron fields.
A month later…
A black minivan sped along the freeway en route to Hopkins International Airport. The person behind the wheel was getting more and more antsy with every passing moment.
“Don’t eat any street food. There are so many diseases you have absolutely no immunity against.”, said her mother from the backseat. Khushi mostly considered it amusing that her mother believed she knew more about health and diseases than she did, but today, already grappling with pre-travel jitters, she found herself getting her feathers ruffled.
“Mom, you seem to be forgetting something?”, she said with gentle sarcasm. “Not only am I an adult but also a fully qualified doctor. I can take care of myself. And it’s not even like I’m going to India for the first time”.
Her mom made a disparaging noise, implicitly expressing what she thought of her twenty five year old daughter’s ability to take care of herself.
“You’re so absent minded and forgetful”, she murmured worriedly, “Why are we even letting you to Kashmir all by yourself? Why doesn’t anybody listen to me in our house? Especially you, Navin”.
“What did I do?, her husband protested from the front passenger seat, turning to glance back in an absentminded, questioning manner.
“What did you do?, his wife asked sardonically, “Nothing except playing the good cop with our children as usual. Giving in to their unreasonable whims and fancies”.
“Hey…I’m still here”, Khushi laughed from the driver’s seat.
“It’s going to be okay, Sujata, Madhu’s friend will come to receive her at Srinagar airport. She has even offered to have Khushi stay with her. You did say you felt much better after that phone conversation with her”.
“Mom…we’re almost at the airport”, said Khushi gently.
The goodbyes were quite expectedly a little teary, this being the first time a member of the Gupta family was going to be away from home for so long. After checking her luggage in and procuring her boarding pass, she walked over to where her family was still waiting in the lobby. Sitting on a plastic seat next to her mother, she noticed her woebegone face and slid a loving arm around her.
“It’s only for three months, Ma”, she said with laugh, hugging her close.
“Why is it so important for you to go, Khushi?, her mother asked with a sigh.
“Because, if I don’t, the thought that in-spite of being handed an opportunity to work for MSF, that too in a place I’d always wanted to go, I didn’t grasp it – would plague me for the rest of my life”, she replied softly.
After a final round of embraces and goodbyes, she lined up for security and after passing through it without major hiccups, almost an hour later, she decided to go in search of some coffee.
She was soon sitting in the waiting section near her exit gate, coffee cup in hand, dressed for comfort in ballet flats, leghings and tunic top. She took a sip of coffee and closed her eyes in appreciation of that first caffeine tingle on her taste buds.
When she opened them, the seat in front of her was taken by a person. He was immersed in a book. Her attention was instantly captured by it’s title.
‘The Valley Of Kashmir’, by Sir Walter Roper Lawrence.
After studying the worn out book front for a while, her eyes rose to the person behind it. Her breath paused for a fraction of a second in surprise.
She was unable to decide what surprised her more, the fact she was seeing him again or that she actually recognized him from their previous brief ‘encounter’ at a traffic light.
Almost a month ago.