“Because I can’t go on like this anymore”, he said tersely, holding her gaze , “I can’t have you pretending I don’t exist, that nothing happened between us, silently rebuking me, judging me with those eyes of yours…without even…”.
He paused and swallowed before continuing, “Without even asking me a single question”.
Khushi surveyed his ravaged face and found her heart thawing into immense compassion for him. Her heart was still drawn to him like before, she realized with a slight sense of shock, unbothered and unfazed by his marital status.
Moreover, it was already groping in the dark to find excuses for his behavior, for the situation they’d found themselves in.
She took deep breath to keep her voice steady, “There is no need for questions because nothing can excuse what happened, what we allowed to happen, in the library”.
“And I agree with you. I’m not here to argue about that”, said Arnav gently, “But it wasn’t intentional. It was a mistake. I had every intention of sharing my relationship status with you that day. That was what I’d wanted to talk about. That I’ve been legally separated from Lavanya since January. That we’ve been living separately for over a year. That our divorce proceedings are underway”.
Khushi believed him. She knew without doubt that this was what he’d wanted to talk about that day…before one thing had led to another…and they had ended up kissing…which somehow made the subsequent revelation of his broken marriage more of a shock than it would have otherwise been.
With a fresh stab of guilt, she remembered her impulsive words, “Are words even necessary?Why hadn’t she thought about ascertaining his relationship status first?. Why was she so naive in thinking that his interest in her precluded the need for such questions.
“There were so many occasions, where we were alone together, when you could have told me…”, she stated weakly, sitting down on a chair and gesturing him to do the same.
Settling into a chair, he passed a hand across his weary face, “You’re right. But it’s just that I never felt any need to do that until…that day”.
“Why?, she asked, swallowing, her eyes large and tumultuous.
“Because I was too busy fighting my feelings for you. I didn’t even want to accept or encourage them…let alone act on them. It was only when I came to pick you the other day that I realized how futile my efforts were. And that was when I decided to talk to you”.
Their eyes met and held, “And you know what happened after that”.
Khushi cast her lashes down and struggled with her aching throat, her stinging eyes. How beautifully that evening had started…with hope, first steps and a million dreams for the future.
“The reason why you wanted to fight and defeat those feelings is still there”, she said, her voice shaking imperceptibly, her eyes staring confusedly at a small vase of meadow flowers on the coffee table.
She sounded very young and vulnerable and Arnav’s heart ached with guilt and protectiveness for having to make her go through all of that.
Rising from his chair, he bridged the distance between them; his eyes willed her to look up at him.
And when she did, what she clearly saw in his eyes, what he showed to her, made her eyes well with tears.
Without a word, he bent to pick her hands and tug her up to stand before him. After surveying her face with a softened gaze for a second, he pulled her in an embrace, his arms tightly would around her.
Khushi fought a temptation to rest her aching head against his chest, to relax in the comfort of his embrace, before disengaging his arms and taking a step back. It was necessary to state matters in black and white just as it was important to realign her already confused moral compass.
“I understand you’ve been legally separated from Lavanya for about a year and that your divorce is underway”, she said slowly, “But these facts don’t change another important fact that you’re technically still married”.
“My heart is free”, Arnav said intently, “It’s doesn’t feel married because the day I decided to move out, culminating our longstanding emotional separation with a physical one, was the day our marriage ended. As far as I’m concerned at least. I believe marriage is much more than a set of signatures on paper or empty recital of vows. I don’t believe these alone can either make or break a relationship”.
“I believe in both signatures and vows”, she stated simply in response, “Even though I agree there is much more to marriage than just these, I believe that marriage as an institution is important. It is made of threads, however tenuous, that keep two people together, that keep doors to reconciliations open”.
“Not true of every marriage”, Arnav said bitterly, “Not when these threads are misused as traps or shackles”.
Khushi was silent , her eyes confounded and dulled, her heart filled with a forbidden ache. She didn’t know what to say…what to think even. Her raw confusion wrenched his heart.
Stepping closer, he cupped her face with both hands. “Khushi, don’t say anything if you don’t want to. Don’t even think. Just hold on to that dream in your heart and trust me. I will be back”.
The small flicker in her eyes was hope in his heart as he let himself out after that.
It was nearly three in the morning when Arnav reached home and as he opened the front door to let himself in, he was surprised to find his mother waiting in the dim lit foyer.
“Oh, there you are…”, she said in a relieved voice, following it with an angry, disjointed diatribe, “Where were you? Have you any idea what time it is, and you didn’t even care to inform me before leaving…or call me to say you’d be late. You know how worried I get when you drive in India”.
“I was about to call the police”, she finished, looking close to tears.
With his mother’s stinging words, her percieved lack of trust in him still rankling, Arnav glanced up at his mother in a cold, expressionless manner, uttered a brief, “I’m fine…”, and sidestepped her to continue walking towards the staircase.
Astha put a hand on his arm to stop him.
“Where were you?
Arnav turned to face her then, his features taut with barely concealed irritation, his stance reeking of defiance.
“I had gone to see Khushi …”
Without waiting for her response, he turned to leave and had just reached the bottom of the stairs, when he heard her voice from behind. It dripped with sarcasm he’d inherited in full measure.
“Well, I hope you know what you’re doing with your life”.
“Actually, I do”, he said with an arrogant tilt of his head, “After a long time, I know exactly what I’m doing with my life. I filed for divorce last week”.
The regret on her face led to a fresh sudden of anger, especially because since his arrival in Srinagar, his mother had persistently tried to discuss the possibility of a meeting, a reconciliation with him.
“And reconciliation is not an option”, he added, “So please quit trying to change my mind”.
“I guess Khushi is the reason, the possibility of reconciliation has ceased being an option”, Astha said with a sigh, her brown eyes filling with conflicting emotions.
“No Ma, contrary to what your brain is imagining right now, Khushi is not the reason”, he said, his voice deceptively patient, his gaze direct and unwavering, “Because as far as I am concerned, reconciliation was never an option, never was and never will be”
“And”, he began and paused for a split second, devil and defiant streak egging him on, “Even if she were the reason, I don’t see why that should be a problem”.
“Don’t get me wrong, Arnav”, Astha shifted gears with an inward sigh, “I like Khushi, I really do. It’s just that I wish circumstances were different…I don’t want her to get caught in an unpleasant situation and get hurt”.
“I’m sure Khushi will appreciate your concern”, Arnav said sarcastically, ruthlessly thwarting a voice that rebuked him for his rudeness, “But you forget she is not a child. She is a smart, mature individual, well equipped to protect her interests, to take care of herself. And of course, with the level of trust you have shown in me lately, if I say that even I don’t want her to get hurt, that wouldn’t really mean anything to you, would it?
Sensing his hurt, Astha took an instinctive step towards him, “Arnie, of course, I trust you. I didn’t mean that. I know you would never hurt or deceive anyone intentionally”.
“Many thanks for this touching vote of confidence”, Arnav said with a little sardonic smile, still not completely mollified, and Astha, who was well versed with her son’s temperament, gazed at his retreating back and decided that the best course of action at that point was to just leave him alone.
One week later,
MSF camp, a remote mountain village, 65 miles from Srinagar.
High up in the mountains, where the crisp air scented with meadow flowers and colored with the brightest hues of gold, a cleared up field in a tiny village was a flurry of activity centered around a large van. It was the MSF’s ‘Clinic On Wheels’, it’s bright orange logo emblazoned on one side.
After an hour of what later turned out be an example of organized chaos, several stations were set up, close to each other, while a line, that had started forming early in the morning, as soon as the COW was sighted, had soon burgeoned into a serpentine river of humanity, seemingly endless in nature.
Thus a day, typical of MSF field operations, began, and Khushi was soon in charge of the physician station, which consisted of a small folding table, set under a deciduous tree, laid out with a doctor’s paraphernalia, a chair for Khushi and a small stool each for patient and interpreter.
After the briefest of history and examination, Khushi would either scribble a prescription on her script pad and send them over to the makeshift dispensary or direct them to the testing station, where selected instant tests like urine exams and blood film exam for diagnosing malaria were performed. The more serious patients were sent to the referral desk, where arrangements for transporting them to hospital were made.
In a separate booth, local health care workers were busy with the unenviable task of vaccinating small children, the surrounding air shuddering with their yells and cries.
Khushi worked nonstop, enjoying the sun, the breeze, the mountains and most of all her work, deriving satisfaction on many different levels.
She decided to take a fifteen minute break after five straight hours of work and was soon sitting on a giant river-rock, a little distance away from the sound and fury. She gazed at an incredibly panoramic view of a green valley with a mountain stream meandering through it.It passed close to where she sat, it’s crystal clear waters gurgling musically over smoothened river rocks.
Eating her sandwich, she called home, nervously biting her lip when her mother answered the phone. When Khushi had first shared her decision to call off her ‘almost engagement’ with Aman, her mother had slowly gone through a whole spectrum of emotions over the last couple of weeks.
She was shocked and furious initially and Khushi was able to bear her relentless tirade with good natured equanimity. Over time, that anger had petered out to bitter disappointment that lurked close to surface and showed up in conversation at unexpected times.
Meeting Aman and his family the previous day at mutual friends’daughter’s wedding had brought Sujata’s suppressed feelings to the fore again, and today, she seemed to be in a particularly snappy mood.
“I have no idea what you are looking for. How could you refuse a person like Aman? It’s not even as if there’s someone else you like”.
With her heart quickening guiltily, Khushi remained quiet, heaving a sigh of relief when her father took the phone, gently reprimanding his wife for being unnecessarily harsh, especially when Khushi was so far away from home.
“Khushi? Don’t worry about anything, just concentrate on your work”, he said, “Yes, we were a little disappointed with your decision, but it’s hardly the end of the world. Khushu, are you still there?
“Yes, dad, I’m here”, she said, her eyes stinging with tears.
Sensing her emotions, Navin changed the topic, “So did you get a chance to visit the famous saffron plantations of Pampore yet?”.
“Not yet”, she replied with her heart aching, “I will try to in a couple of weeks when it’s harvest time”.
Lastly, she talked with Anita, her inconsequential, funny chatter bringing a smile to her face, like it was intended to, and making her miss her with all her heart.
“Guess who I met this weekend? she said, carrying the phone upstairs to the privacy of her room, “Your almost ex“, she added with a chuckle.
“Well, what else would you call your almost fiance you break up with?
“It’s not funny, Anu”, she said and then asked worriedly, “Was he okay?
“He looked far too happy if you ask me”, she drawled, “And I went and told him he had no business looking so normal when he’d just been dumped by my sister”.
“Tell me you’re kidding”, Khushi exclaimed shocked
“Not in so many words”, Anita replied laughing, “But something to that effect”.
“What did he say then?
“He just joked that he was not really cut out to be a tragic hero who whiles away his time, pining for lost love”, Anita replied before sobering and saying, “Di, I know you. I know how horribly guilty you must be feeling after breaking up with him. But he’s fine. He truly is. He really doesn’t seem to be wallowing in the pains of unrequited love, so to speak”
“I hope so”, Khushi murmured although she knew that the brightest smiles, the bravest words, the toughest facades, sometimes hide the worst kind of pains.
Few days later, Khushi was reminded of these thoughts again. She was getting ready for bed when her phone rang. Just seeing a name on the sceen caused her heart to skip a beat. She had to wait to get her bearings back before she answered.
“Khushi”, he just said her name to her hello sounding relieved. It was as if he had doubted if she would even answer his call.
“Hey..Arnav”, she said mechanically.
“Hi…How are you?, he asked.
“Good, how about you?
“I’m alright”, he said and paused, “I am at the Delhi airport right now, waiting to board my flight”.
“You’re leaving?, she couldn’t stop herself in time, “But weren’t you supposed to be here for saffron harvest?
“I was supposed to but I can’t stay here any longer”, he said, “I can’t survive another day without my work. It is driving me crazy”.
“Oh…”, said Khushi, not knowing what to say or how to deal with the deep melancholy that was closing in around her heart.
“Bye, Khushi. Take care”.
“You too”, replied Khushi and ended the call, struggling with a desire to weakly give in to tears.
That weekend Astha called her again and absolutely refused to listen to any of her excuses. She was adamant. Sounding distraught, she said, “I won’t listen to any of your excuses this time. You will have to come, bas. I miss you. It’s been so long”.
Khushi had given in after several attempts to resist, and now, she stood by the window of her old room, gazing at the familiar dusk and the floating lights that flickered on one by one. The vista seemed surreal as ever and the memory of their shikara ride little more than a dream.
She stood there for a long time, and when the sun was completely submerged in the lake, she shivered a little and walked over to the bedside table to turn the lamp on.
She saw it at once. A small, intricately carved and detailed walnut wood shikara placed on the nightstand. Even as she held it on her outstretched palm, she saw a folded note tucked inside it.
She sat down on the edge of her bed and took the note out with slightly unsteady fingers. Unfolding it, she stared at the untidy handwriting in the lamp light.
“Something to remember me by. Although I have never considered myself particularly optimistic, I’m not willing to sing a requiem for my dream yet. Our dream?”
At the same time,
Cole Eye Institute,
Arnav sat behind the desk of his private office in a crisp blue shirt and silver tie, his white coat hanging on the back of his leather swivel chair. Immersed in screening online applications for Ophthalmology residency program, he looked up absentmindedly when Karen Klein, the program coordinator, knocked perfunctorily at the slightly ajar door and walked in.
“Here is the schedule for next week’s interviews”,she said, carefully placing a print out in front of him, “I’ve emailed it to you as well”.
“Thanks, Karen”, he said, glancing at the sheet, “And could you please send me the lecture schedule too”.
“I sure can, Dr. Raizada”, she replied with a smile, before adding, “Do you want some coffee? I was just going to make some”.
“Coffee would be great, thanks”.
“Just so you know, there’s lunch in the conference room too, courtesy of Alcon. It’s from Olive Garden”.
Later, Arnav stood before a glass wall, sipping coffee and gazing unseeingly at the traffic on the busy road in front, two floors beneath his office. A truck whizzed by with an advertisement for a famous brand of yogurt, prominently featuring a happy looking cow, displayed on it’s side.
Quite suddenly, his thoughts lightened up and entered a territory filled with memories of sunlit hazel eyes, bustling bazaars, cows on rampage and scent of sugar syrup and lilacs…
His lips curved into a grin. He took another sip, deciding it had never tasted sweeter.