The rain fell incessantly, as Khushi, changed back into sweatshirt and jeans, stared out of the window. Her room overlooked the lake and she could discern it’s rain swollen waves and the wet quay gleaming in the yellow light of garden lamps. Her shoulders were slumped even as guilt gnawed at her heart with it’s relentless claws. Her thoughts had been too occupied by a stranger and too less by the man she was supposed to marry and spend rest of her life with.
On an impulse, she picked up her phone from the nightstand and decided to Skype him. Aman was off line however. He’s probably getting ready for work, she thought, noting the time.
Sitting on the edge of bed, she texted him a light message, her heart assailed by a restlessness that she couldn’t fathom at all.
“Missing you”, she added as an afterthought, her fingers pausing as she realized what a farcical falsehood that was.
Deleting it, she gazed at the screen with her mind blank, not understanding a sudden, inexplicable urge to burst into tears.
“It’s probably PMS, she decided after a while, rubbing her stingling eyes with the back of her hands.
Arnav paced the drawing-room, his hands in pockets, his eyes contemplative. He paused from time to time to focus and comment on whatever caught his interest.
“This papier mache elephant is still here”, he said halting before the fireplace and picking it from the mantle, “I remember playing with it”. He studied it with a half smile, absentmindedly toying with it.
His mother, sitting in a chair by the fireplace, studied him with sad eyes. Firelight illumined her features revealing a person who appeared markedly different from the cheerful facade she presented to her young guest.
“Arnie”, she said, softly.
Something in her voice made Arnav look up from the colorful artifact he still held in his hand. His eyes were intent and guarded as he met her eyes.
“Ma..I don’t want to talk about it”, he cut her with a frown in a brusque voice.
Astha was quiet for a moment, her eyes indicating of the emotions churning inside. Then, in the manner of someone who can’t hold back any longer, she said, “Arnav, talk to me. It’s not healthy to keep everything bottled up. Talking can help. It really can”.
With a flash of impatience, Arnav put the figurine back on the mantle. His voice was quiet as he said, “MA, if you don’t stop, I will leave right now “.
“Can you at least…?
“Ma stop…just stop”, Arnav interrupted her, his eyes stormy with frustration.
Turning his back, he walked over to the french windows. He gazed at the sheet of falling rain, at shadowy trees swaying in the wind, with unseeing eyes.
Astha looked at his back. It was taut with tension; her vision blurred with tears.
After a few moments when the ticking of a wall clock sounded ludicrously loud, Arnav turned and walked back to his mother.
Bending on a knee before her, he caught both her hands in one of his. His eyes were contrite as he said, “I’m sorry, Ma. I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have spoken like that”.
Astha studied his upturned face with soft eyes, her heart wrenching at the tell tale signs of suffering she saw there.
She cupped his rough cheek gently, “I just want you to be happy, Arnie”.
“I’m fine, Ma, I truly am, you worry too much”, his lips curved in a smile that his mother rarely saw these days. It brought to her mind the person he once was with painful clarity.
“It’s been almost a year now and I guess…life has to go on”, he said with a slight shrug, his eyes warmed by the blazing hearth close by.
The sound of the door opening made him rise to his feet and sit in a nearby chair. Crossing his legs, he picked a book from an end table and opened it. He glanced up, when Khushi entered, his eyes stilling on her face again, his mind, teased by an unexplained sense of familiarity and noting irrelevant things about her features without even meaning to.
Astha smiled at her, donning effortlessly her social mantle once again.
“Khushi. We were waiting for you. Dinner is ready”.
Pulling a heavily carved dining chair, Khushi settled in it. She tried her best to avoid looking at Arnav, which was difficult because he sat right across from her. Astha, sitting at the head of the table, passed a dish to her. As Khushi ladled out food on her plate, Astha said, “Let me see, that much rice would be 45 carbs, right?
“Correct”, said Khushi, reaching for pager-sized insulin pump hooked to her jeans’ waistband. Giving herself the requisite amount of insulin based on total carbs, she said, “You’re getting good at it”.
Turning to Arnav, Astha said, “Khushi is teaching me carb counting”.
“That’s…wonderful”, her son murmured, his eyes meeting Khushi’s for a fraction of a second as she reached for the water pitcher.
Halfway through dinner, their driver came in with a book in hand. “Arnav Bhaiya, I found this when I was cleaning the car. Is this yours?
Astha, who was closer, held her hand out for the book.
Khushi’s fork paused halfway to her mouth. Her eyes fixed on the cover she almost knew by heart. “You are hell-bent on losing that book, aren’t you?, she thought irritatedly.
“It’s the book Papa gave you a month before his death”, said Astha, her voice soft with nostalgia and reverence.
Khushi swallowed her morsel and followed it with a sip of water. She kept her eyes strictly focused on her plate.
“On my fourteenth birthday”, assented Arnav taking it from her, “I almost lost it on the way here. Someone returned it….”. His voice petered with incredulity as his overwrought brain made the connection it had been fumbling for all evening. With his eyes flaring with realization, he looked up and across the table at Khushi’s bowed head.
Sensing his thought process and gaze, she flushed with embarrassment. She wished she had reminded him of their earlier meeting instead of faking ignorance like a petulant child. Now he probably thinks I’m petty and immature….Damn. And why should it matter what he thinks of me?…Double Damn.
Despite it all, she was drawn to his eyes with a force that was magnetic. She read recognition in them and also incredulity at the freak coincidence that had made them meet and remeet in the way they did. What took half her breath away was the unexpected change in their temperature. The accompanying enigmatic upturn of a corner of his mouth took away the rest.
She wasn’t in a hurry to forget his rudeness at Amsterdam however; keeping her response limited to a tepid half smile of acknowledgement, she wrenched her eyes away toward Astha.
“I hope it stops raining tomorrow”, she said with a smile, “I don’t want to waste even a single day before my job starts”.
“Even when your job starts, you’ll still have weekends off, won’t you? And you are spending all your weekends here with us, bas. I insist”, said Astha with endearing authority.
Turning towards her son, she attempted to draw him into their conversation, “Khushi is joining MSF field office in Pampore next week”.
“Oh really?”, he said seriously, before turning towards Khushi, “That’s wonderful. I’ve heard they’re doing a good job. How long is your assignment for?
She noticed his voice. Deep. Resonating. Gravel. Silk.
“Three months”, replied Khushi after hurriedly swallowing and wiping her mouth with a napkin.
“I wish you didn’t have to move to an apartment”, Astha said with obvious sincerity, “It’s so nice having somebody to talk to”.
Touched, Khushi smiled at her,”I’m loving it here too, Aunty, but it would make a whole lot more sense to live closer to Pampore. This apartment building, where the entire MSF team shacks up in, is just fifteen minutes away from the field office. MSF, typically, arranges for accommodation, meals, transportation, everything”.
“Their field office is actually very close to our plantation”, added Arnav.
“Oh, is it?, Khushi said, her lips curving into an involuntary smile.
“When the harvest starts, we’ll take you there. You’ll love it”, Astha said remembering her wish to see saffron fields in full bloom.
The conversation was mostly about saffron after that, it’s fields, the spice, it’s various uses, with Astha and Khushi being the main participant and Arnav, who appeared to be a man of few words, contributing by supplying them with monosyllabic gems from time to time.
Later, like always, Khushi sat in the drawing room for a while before she thought it was polite to go upstairs to her room.
The rain had stopped and the outside air heavy with moisture and chirping of crickets.
Settling in one end of a sofa, she toyed with her iPad, texting, social-networking, catching up on news ranging from political to inconsequential celebrity gossip. She glanced up at the TV from time to time. It played Astha’s favorite show, a nation wide talent search for singers.
The opening strains of a favorite song made her turn her iPad off and put it away on the coffee table. They were both enjoying a particularly beautiful rendition of the song when Astha was summoned by the maid. After she left, Khushi continued watching when the show ended, she stifled yawns and flipped channels, with the aim of fighting jet-lag and delaying her bedtime until 10 O’ Clock at-least. She didn’t want to wake up at an unearthly hour once again.
Three yawns later, the door was pushed in noiselessly, and Arnav walked in, a mug of coffee in one hand and a book in another.
Standing in the doorway, he looked for his mother and noted his absence. Glancing at Khushi, he hesitated for a second before walking over to her.
As he lowered himself on the other end of the sofa, Khushi straightened reflexely, awareness returning in full force.
Ashamed of her reaction, she crossed her legs and arranged her features to present a cool, poised picture to the world.
Keeping her eyes on the TV screen, she feigned deep interest in the progress of a heated and near deafening political debate. With a sip of coffee, Arnav leaned back and joined her in watching the debate, chuckling when the anchor proceeded to shout the head off of an invitee to what was ostensibly a discussion panel.
“Unbelievable”, Khushi smiled at the screen and found herself relaxing. The smell of coffee reached her nostrils; they flared slightly in appreciation.
A thought struck him after the second sip. Suddenly facing her, he said, “Do you want coffee too? I should have asked you earlier”.
“No thanks”, she said, half looking at him, “I avoid drinking coffee so late”.
“Normally I do too”, he said with a grimace.
After some more minutes, and some more shouting inside the TV, she turned slightly toward him to say, “If you want to watch something else…go ahead. I’m just killing time”.His face looked weary, she noted even as she spoke, and there was something in his eyes that suggested a part of him was present somewhere else mentally.
“Oh no, you’re fine”, he said, opening his book. After just a few minutes however he closed it and got up, his almost familiar restlessness reaching her again.
Towering over her, he hesitated for a second before saying, “I don’t remember if I thanked you earlier or now…but thanks for returning my book that day, Khushi”.
Khushi looked up at him, realizing he was trying to make amends, but all she could think of was how special her name sounded coming from his lips.
“You’re welcome”, she said feeling unusually tongue tied…and her already uneven heart turned erratic when he smiled, his first real smile, at her.
And after he’d left, all she could think of was his enigmatic eyes…and the secrets they seemed to guard.
It was two in the night and Khushi was wide awake despite all her efforts to fix her circadian rhythm. After tossing-turning restlessly for a while, she muttered a profanity and sat up in bed, her hair wild and her eyes turbulent with frustration.
Thirsty, she decided to go down for a drink of water, descending down the dim lit stairs in her pajama bottoms and a worn out T-shirt.
Reaching the kitchen, she poured out some water in a glass, and carrying it, decided to go to the drawing room to see if something good was coming on TV.
Settling on a sofa with her legs tucked under, she watched an old Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan movie from the nineties, remembering to keep the volume low. She knew most of the dialogue by heart anyway.
Two hours into the movie, her eyelids grew heavy and after catching herself nodding for the nth time, she decided it was safe to go to bed again.
Getting off of the sofa, she turned the TV off and walked sleepily towards the door with a yawn. Only to slam hard into a person entering the room. Wincing, it took her a few seconds to get her bearings back. And when she turned her face up, it was to peer into a pair of bloodshot, sleepless eyes.
It was clear she wasn’t the only one who was sleepless in Srinagar.
“Sorry”, she said a little breathlessly, “I wasn’t looking”.
“That’s okay”, he said distractedly before stepping to the side and walking past her. She noted he was dressed for outdoors.
Khushi was halfway up the stairs when she heard the sound of the french windows being shut.