A pair of sleepless bloodshot eyes floated in front of her as soon as she closed her eyes again. Besides the obvious weariness in their enigmatic depths, there was something else that intrigued her and pulled at her heart strings like a strain of melancholic music. It communicated emotions, her heart instinctively felt without any need for words or explanations.
“Isn’t it too early for a walk? It’s still pitch dark outside”, she was possessed by an inexplicable restlessness, her eyes stripped of sleep, “The grass must be wet too from all that rain”.
On an impulse, she got off of the bed and walked up to the window. Drawing the heavily embroidered curtain aside with one hand, she opened the door that led to a small balcony. She stepped out under the still overcast sky in her bare feet. She inhaled sharply, greeted by a gust of cold air and breaking out in goosebumps. With her fingers curling around the wood railing of the small balcony, her eyes, sleepless yet again, scanned the sprawling grounds at the back of the house.
The garden lamps were turned off for the night and it took a while for her eyes to adjust to the darkness and even longer to locate him. A process that was greatly helped by strong gusts of wind that parted the dark clouds, allowing the moon to peek through and light up the skies.
His silhouette, finely edged with silver, stood on the quay; a lone figure gazing at the swirling fog encompassing the lake and the mountains beyond. Instinctively, her fingers tightened around the railing even as a powerful vibe of pain and despondency, emanating from his person, crashed against her heart in tangible waves.
With the clarity of hindsight, she realized that she was intrigued by this very vibe on their previous encounter too, except that she hadn’t been able to recognize it before.
Quite inconceivably, she felt his pain, a virtual stranger’s, like her own. A silent cry tore itself off from the core of her being. “Oh Arnav”
The wind picked up pace and ruffled their hair. With a sudden movement, Arnav turned around and looked up at her, almost as if he’d sensed her gaze. She was unaware of the stunning picture she made, a slight form perched on the balcony, beautiful mass of chestnut hair glistening like a beacon under silver light.
Their gazes locked and held for what felt like eternity to Khushi. All Khushi could hear was the pounding of her own heart. All else was silence.
Arnav was the first one to break away from the eye-lock and as he turned his face towards the lake again, Khushi hugged her arms against the cold and went back inside.
Later as she lay in bed, she could not stop wondering about the reasons, the vagaries of life, that had changed a small, fun-loving boy into this enigmatic man, who kept his pain well hidden beneath his reticent exterior. It was an hour later, just as she was drifting off to sleep, that she heard the his faint footsteps on the carpeted corridor outside her room. She hadn’t even realized she was waiting for him to come back inside safely.
Arnav turned the brass knob to enter his room. Walking over to the bathroom, he opened a cabinet to pull a bottle of sleeping pills out. Unscrewing a water bottle, he filled a cup and popping a pill in, swallowed it with a single gulp of water.
“I’ve been taking way too many of these”, he thought even as he put the bottle’s cap back on, “And they don’t seem to do a damn thing anymore”.
After changing into nightclothes, he pulled the bedcovers back and slid in with a sigh. His temples throbbed from a combination of chronic insomnia, travel and relentless mental struggle to steer his mind away from memories. Even now, they had the power to sear his consciousness like a dagger.
Tonight, something felt different. An oddly calming image rose beneath his closed eyelids. Moonlight and a pair of hazel eyes that seemed to be watching him, following him, saying things to him…
Folding an arm beneath his head, he took a deep breath, elusive tranquility rippling through his senses. It wasn’t long before he had drifted off to deep sleep.
Best sleep he had had in more than a year.
Next morning, Khushi and Astha sat at the dining table, eating breakfast, while warm sunlight slanted in from a large window and fell on the polished wood of the dining table top. The window overlooked the front lawn, filled with colorful blooms.
Looking through it, Khushi could see a ‘maali’ watering them with a spray hose with the water droplets catching sunlight and splitting it into little rainbow circles.
Eating a soft, melt-in-your-mouth aaloo paratha, Khushi couldn’t keep her eyes from veering to the door at regular intervals. Khushi and Astha were supposed to leave after breakfast for another of their shopping cum sightseeing expeditions and Khushi’s heart, which seemed to be in a particularly mutinous mood today, wished she would see him once before leaving.
As if on cue, the door opened and the object of her reluctant musings strode in, looking elegant in a gray pinstripe business suit, white shirt and a blue and silver tie. Their eyes gravitated towards each other almost like it were a law of nature, yet Khushi was unprepared for the acceleration in her heartbeats again. Giving undivided attention to her breakfast seemed the most prudent course of action to give her heart a chance to settle down.
“Morning”, he said, pulling a chair and settling in.
“Arnie…”, his mother began before hastily correcting herself, “Arnav, are you going to Mr. Qazi’s office today?
“Yes, Ma”, he said, “There are so many legal formalities that need to be taken care of and not enough time. I am lucky to have been allowed a three month sabbatical from work. I can’t ask for more so whatever has to be done will need to be done within this timeframe. That I’m completely clueless when it comes to dealing with the legal system here is not going to help matters either”.
After pouring milk over his cereal, he continued, “It might take sometime to find my feet, but of course, I have Mr. Qazi and Mr. Bhat to walk me through it”.
“Will you be home by lunch?
“I believe so”.
After a pause, Astha asked worriedly, “Were you able to get some sleep last night?
“Yes, Ma”, he said shortly even as his eyes veered towards Khushi’s once again, both pairs flickering subtly in joint remembrance of last night’s moments that seemed surreal and almost a dream in the bright light of the day.
“So what are your plans for today?, he cleared his throat and asked her, frowning at himself for staring at her.
“We might explore the old city later today. But only if Astha Aunty feels better”.
Arnav turned towards his mother at once, his eyes filled with concern.
“What’s wrong, Ma?
“Oh..nothing…Just a cold”.
Feeling the back of her hand with his, he said, “You seem to have slight fever too”.
“I really think you should rest today, Aunty. We can visit the old city some other day. There is no hurry”, Khushi said.
“I agree with Khushi, you need to rest. There is no point in overexerting yourself”, her son said in a firm voice.
“I guess you both are right. I just wanted to make good use of the remaining two days, Khushi is going to be with us. But of course, there will be weekends too”.
Looking out at the glorious day, Astha sighed, “I hate the thought of Khushi being cooped inside the house on a day like this”.
“Oh that’s perfectly fine…I’m sure …”, Khushi began in a reassuring tone. She was interrupted by Astha in mid-sentence.
“Why didn’t I think of this before? After Arnav returns from his attorney’s office in the afternoon, he can take you”, she said, smiling at Khushi, “You can go to the old city first and I will instruct him where to take you for souvenir shopping after that”.
Khushi shot a quick sideways glance at Arnav and something about his suddenly stony expression made her want to giggle.
However she cleared her throat and said, “Please Astha Aunty, don’t worry about it. I really don’t want to bother him…”.
“It’s okay”, he said suddenly, making Khushi look up at him in surprise.
“Be ready at two”, he added, his face as impassive as ever, before pushing his chair back and getting up. As he headed out of the room, a pair of hazel eyes followed him, reluctantly admiring his fluid, confident stride.
Stepping out in the open sunshine, Arnav put his aviators on and tried his best to discredit a sudden wave of guilt rising from his heart.
“It’s just a day”, he told himself, “Just one day. There was no way I could’ve refused without sounding downright rude.”.
The meeting took much longer than anticipated due to reasons as manifold and diverse as excessive redtape, Mr. Qazi’s tendency to chitchat instead of just sticking to the program, Arnav’s shaky Hindi as well as relative unfamiliarity with legal jargon that had suddenly encompassed him.
Sitting in Mr. Qazi’s office and signing unending sheafs of paper, he wished he were back in the familiar environ of an OR, one eye firmly pressed on the eye piece of an operating microscope and his entire attention focussed on what he liked doing best. Restoring eyesights.
When he reached home, it was already past two. He was informed by Om Prakash that Astha and Khushi had already had their lunch and that his waited on the dining table. While hurriedly eating lunch, he asked OP about everybody’s whereabouts and was told that while Astha Memsahib took a nap, Khushi ji sat in the drawing room waiting for him, in fact he was specifically instructed to tell him so.
Walking into the drawing room, he found Khushi settled in a chair by the window, apparently immersed in the perusal of a magazine. Hearing him, she looked up and even as her heart picked up pace, something that was fast becoming a habit, her lips curved into a little smile.
“Oh, you’re finally here”, she said, stating the obvious.
“Are you ready?, he asked.
Khushi, who had taken a while in deciding what to wear, and now looked her best in jeans, white shadow work kurti top, silver hoops and neat hair, couldn’t help feeling a little indignant. Don’t I look like I’m ready? Why is this man hellbent on ruining my self esteem?
“Yes. Shall we leave?
They first stopped at a bank where Arnav had a brief meeting scheduled with an accountant. As Mohan tried to find a parking spot on the street before the bank, Arnav, who sat on the front passenger her seat, glanced back at her.
“It might take me around thirty minutes or so, you are welcome to come inside with me if you want..”, he asked, his voice polite, his face as inscrutable as ever.
Khushi declined his offer politely and watched Arnav get out of the car and cross the congested road to reach the bank.
When he returned about forty minutes later, he was told that Khushi ji had gone inside a nearby alley. Settling back in the car, Arnav looked around and recognized it as an area acclaimed for the variety and quality of it’s traditional copper-ware.
An hour later.
Sharp sunrays streamed in through the car’s windshield making Arnav shrug his suit jacket off and impatiently toss it on the back seat. His tie followed suit just a minute later.
“Unbelievable”, he muttered impatiently under his breath, “Where is she?.
He glanced at his watch, a Maurice Lacroix that had belonged to his late father, and felt his temper shooting up steadily.
“And where the hell is Mohan?
Thirty minutes earlier, Mohan had been sent on a mission to locate Khushi only to maddeningly disappear too. He had already called them both and left frigid messages.
He waited for another fifteen minutes. By it’s end, his eyes were icy with suppressed fury. With an expletive, he got out of the car, slamming the door shut with unnecessary violence.
It was a narrow yet bustling alley, flanked with shops selling the famed Kashmiri copper-ware, on either side. These tiny shops overflowed with a profusion of intricately handcrafted utensils. Stacked up cooking pots of various sizes vied for space with samovars, pans, tea kettles and quaint decorative items valued as souvenirs or gifts. Amidst this reigning chaos, allowance was made for refreshment too, with tea stalls, bakeries, savories and ‘mithai’ shops doing brisk business.
Halfway down the alley, Arnav realized the futility of his mission. Finding Khushi here would be nothing short of finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, he thought, his jaw tautening with frustration. He was about to turn back, when miraculously, he caught sight of her. Standing before a mithai shop looking interestedly into an oil filled wok sizzling with jalebis.
While waiting for the shopkeeper to return her change, Khushi slipped a hand inside the brown paper bag she held, taking a golden jalebi out.
Carefully navigating through pedestrians, bicycles, cows, stray dogs and carts selling vegetables, he finally reached her. Standing close to her, he watched as she took another bite and closed her eyes in pure bliss. This was the proverbial last straw.
“What the hell?
Jumping, she looked up at him, half eaten jalebi in hand.
“I’ve been waiting for you for the past one hour and here you are, calmly standing in the middle of this blasted street. Eating a freaking Jalebi”, he stormed, his framed eyes flashing in annoyance.
“I’m sorry”, she said, taken aback by this show of unbridled temper.
“I lost my way”, she said with an injured air, “These alleys are like a veritable maze…they are all interconnected to each other and look exactly alike. It took me a while to come back to this one, the starting point. I wanted to call you but then realized that I don’t even have your cell number”.
With that she popped the remaining jalebi in her mouth and licking her fingers clean.
“Anyway, let’s not waste anymore time”, she said briskly, “Let’s go”.
Gazing at her, Arnav relaxed, annoyance in his eyes replaced by a humorous glint.
“I still don’t get how jalebis entered the picture, Dr. Gupta”, he said following her as she hurried towards the entrance.
“I have Type I Diabetes, Dr. Raizada, and I was merely correcting my hypoglycemia”, she answered with dignity as they maneuvered their way through the chaos.
Walking around a cart selling peanuts, Arnav sighed and said, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have talked to you like that”.
“You should be”, she retorted ungraciously but then, turned and held out the brown bag.
“Want to try some? They are hot and really good”.
“No, thanks”, he said, watching with a raised eyebrow as she shrugged and took another one out for herself.
“I think you might be overcorrecting your hypoglycemia, Khushi”.
Meeting his gaze, Khushi smiled a little and said, “You might be right. These jalebis will be quite literally the death of me one of these days. Can you please hold this bag for me, I’d be a lot safer that way”.
Somberly accepting the bag from her, Arnav’s eyes lingered on her face many moments longer than necessary and Khushi’s suddenly found her insides melting in totally unexpected ways.
None of them noticed a hapless cow, who after being shooed away by an irate vegetable vendor, had broken into a nervous cow-gallop. They didn’t see her charging at them in a thick cloud of dust.
Later on, Khushi remembered little of the sequence of events that followed, except that she noticed the live missile first, which not only led to an instantaneous firing of adrenaline response but also her clutching her startled companions’s shirt front for leverage and pushing them both out of it’s way.
“What the f***, exclaimed Arnav as he struggled to maintain his balance, which would have been impossible had it not been for the support of an old brick wall that stood on one side of the street.
Moments passed as both struggled to get their wind back, hearing their tachycardic hearts pound loudly against their ears.
When Khushi got her bearings back, she found her face closely pressed against a hard chest and her fingers cluching the shirt that covered it. She raised her head to look straight into a pair of bewildered caramel eyes.
Relaxing her fingers, she tried to draw back but realized that Arnav’s arms were wound around her waist in an intimate, vice like grip he showed no sign of relaxing.
Her cheeks reddening and her heart hammering in her chest, she cast her eyes down. She noted to her dismay that his pristine white shirt was crumpled and stained with the mushed up jalebi she held when the ‘incident’ occurred.
“What the hell was that about, Dr. Gupta?, he asked interestedly.
“What? You don’t know?, said Khushi, her eyes widening with exasperation.
“I just saved you from being …being…trampled by a cow, Dr. Raizada”, she informed him noting with dismay how hilarious that sounded, “And if you don’t mind, could you please …erm…release ..me?”.
With his eyes aglow with humor, Arnav studied her face, taking in her messy hair and her lips glossy with sugar syrup from jalebis.
Self-consciously, Khushi sucked on her bottom lip a little to rid it of the syrup and Arnav was suddenly posessed by a mad desire to do the same.
Coming to his senses, he released her at once.
“I messed up your shirt”, Khushi said the first thing that came to her mind to defuse the awareness that simmered between them.
“That’s alright”, he said even they began walking side by side.
“Atleast I didn’t get trampled by a cow”, he added pokerfaced.
They had but taken a few steps when something made Khushi look sharply at Arnav. With his shoulders shaking, he was struggling to contain his laughter.