As their gazes met, he succeeded in arranging his features into their usual and customary inscrutability. That was however belied by the suppressed laughter swirling in his caramel eyes.
He looked away for a second to regroup but in vain. It wasn’t long before the humor of the situation caught up with her too and before they knew it, they were both standing at the roadside laughing helplessly, uncaring of the curious stares they were being showered with from all directions.
Khushi stared at his relaxed, smiling face and felt a pleasant warmth pervade her heart.
She recognized it as contentment..
Contentment at being responsible for making him briefly forget whatever it was that haunted him day and night. Stangely akin to the satisfaction she derived professionally on being able to heal, cure or at least alleviate an ailment, except that it possessed an unusual intensity, which made her wonder, for the first time, at the inexplicable connection she felt with the person in front of her.
Arnav was surprised. Surprised like a child who curiously scrapes an apparently dead branch in fall and unexpectedly discovers greenness underneath it’s lifeless surface. He tried to remember when was the last time he had laughed like that and for the life of him, he couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember at all.
Sobering as suddenly as they had erupted into laughter, they smiled at each other. Even as the sun seemed to shine brighter over them, both felt a significant shift in their equation that was sealed by their unruly heartbeats.
Reaching their car, they discovered that Mohan was still not back and even as Arnav called him again, Khushi sat down on a concrete bench under a roadside tree nearby. It was late afternoon now and sunlight sieved through the leaves and branches and dappled all around her.
Hanging up, Arnav cast a glance at her and after hesitating for a fraction of a second, he walked up and joined her on the bench. While the road’s traffic reflected on Arnav’s aviators, Khushi crossed her denim clad legs and vacantly gazed at the multitude of people and vehicles swarming on the road in front of them, striving hard not to recall how his arms had felt around her. Or his scent.
As she was mentally shaking her head, her companion, who had been somewhat similiarly occupied decided to break the silence with small talk. Small talk was safe. Small talk was good.
“You are Aakash’s cousin?
Surprised, Khushi turned towards him, “Yes, how do you…”, she began before realization dawned, “Oh..of-course, you grew up in New Jersey too”.
“Yes, we went to the same high school. And Ma was good friends with your aunt, Madhu Aunty”.
“Yeah, I know. So were you and Aakash Bhai in the same grade as well?
Nodding in affirmation, he continued, “Actually, we were pretty close growing up. We were even in the school basketball team together, but then you know how it is…college and all..gradually we lost touch”.
“So, how is he doing?, he asked.
“He is in Phoenix, working as an IT consultant for AVNET”.
“He’s getting married in December”, she said, thinking, “I’m so looking forward to the wedding”.
With a smile, she recalled the last phone conversation she had had with Madhu Bua, about two months ago.
After Madhu had called them at their house in Wixom and broken the good news to her dad and mom, she had specifically asked for Khushi and Anita and goodnaturedly instructed them to start practicing for sangeet. Ruthlessly bulldozing over all their alarmed protests in her usual domineering way. “Considering you both are the only sisters he has, you will have to dance at his wedding..bas”.
“That’s wonderful. I will have to call him now”, his deep baritone penetrated her reverie, “And your assignment ends end of November so you’ll be back home by December, right?.”
As Khushi nodded in assent, she felt a sudden flutter of sadness just at the thought of leaving Kashmir.
A frazzled looking Mohan, who had been wandering in the endless maze of alleys searching for Khushi, made an appearance, making Khushi feel horribly guilty. Deciding she owed him an apology as well, she apologized to a visibly surprised Mohan and soon they were all seated in the car again, and on their way to a famous shopping district of Srinagar.
Having experienced firsthand, just how lacking Arnav was in the patience department, and having an intelligent insight into the maddening nature of her own shopping style, she whipped out her phone and very prudently deleted more than half of her shopping list. You’ve got to pick battles wisely in life, she thought even as their gazes met in the rearview mirror for a fleeting second.
And thus, the shopping expedition went by relatively uneventfully with Khushi surprising herself by making record short work of her edited shopping list and Arnav surprising her by showing a previously unseen helpful side.
It was past six and Khushi sat on a wicker chair in her balcony, a mug of tea in hand, silently watching another spectacular sunset unfurl in front of her eyes.
They had returned about an hour earlier and after entering the foyer together, she had paused at the foot of the stairs and turned slightly towards him.
“Thanks”, she had said with a smile, noticing that he looked oddly distracted, his eyes shuttered and faraway.
Besides an acknowledging nod and a hint of a smile, he had made no attempt to linger and strode down the length of the foyer to open a door that Khushi knew opened into the library.
As the breeze grew cooler and softly ruffled her hair, Khushi gazed at the vibrant colors, her hazel eyes lost in thoughts. They floated in her mind in the form of seemingly disjointed sentences.
“Something…someone.. in his past”
“Something that’s never too far from the surface and never leaves him alone for long. It has to be something big, something life altering”, she mused, recalling the events of last night and what she had glimpsed in his eyes.
“Grief? Someone he loved….?
She was unable to finish the sentence as indecipherable emotions washed across her heart, leaving it aching with a gentle melancholy in it’s wake.
Arnav gazed at the same sunset from the library window, a crystal glass half-filled with amber liquid in his hand. One hand shoved in pocket, he took a large sip, struggling to drown a pair of hazel eyes, guilt and a number of other emotions that whirled unceasingly in his brain, painfully pounded at his temples.
“You must be f****** out of your mind to even think along those lines”.
But it was one of those days when one’s heart absolutely refuses to cooperate and digs it’s heels in like a stubborn child. Even as he finished mentally reprimanding himself, yet again, a startlingly clear image of a face floated before his eyes.
Untidy chestnut hair, lips glossy with sugar syrup and a faint scent of lilacs.
The scent of lilacs reminded him of his childhood in New Jersey, where a lilac shrub bloomed outside their family room window every spring.
In his mind, it’s fragrance was inextricably linked to his childhood. To happiness…
After finishing her tea, Khushi decided to check on Astha Aunty who was still resting in her room. Knocking at the door, she waited until she heard a faint ‘come in’ and then opened the door to step inside.
Seeing Arnav, sitting in a chair next to his mother’s bed, made her halt her footsteps and say, “Oh, I can come later…”.
She didn’t want to be this annoying houseguest who never lets her or his host have even a moment of peace or privacy.
“It’s alright, Khushi. We were just talking, come join us”, said Astha, gesturing towards an empty chair next to Arnav. She was sitting up in bed, a cup in hand and looked considerably better, more like her usual self, after her long, undisturbed siesta.
“How’re you feeling now?, Khushi asked sitting down, acutely aware of Arnav’s presence and gaze as always.
“Much better but my throat is sore and I have these knots on my neck. I was waiting for you to come and have a look at them”, Astha said seriously.
Arnav looked at his mother with an eyebrow raised, his eyes flickering with sudden humor, “You could have asked me, Ma”.
“Oh, you’re an eye-doctor, what do you know about throats?, his mother said dismissively, making Khushi chuckle softly.
Turning towards him, she met his gaze and said in a mock serious tone, “That is very true”, her hazel eyes dancing impishly all the while.
She got another of his signature half smiles in return and reveling in the rewarding warmth that rushed through her heart like summer breeze, she got up to examine Astha.
After dinner, Khushi went upstairs thinking she’d better gather all her stuff together considering she was supposed to move to her apartment the next day. Her heart felt leaden and for reasons she didn’t want to dwell on . She had just had a taxing post dinner phone conversation with her family, when her mom had first gushed about Aman and his family, and just how considerate they were being in willing to wait for her return before deciding on the marriage date, and then shared that Aman’s mother had specifically called her to ask what Khushi’s exact plans were.
“But mom, Aman and I already have an understanding about this whole thing and he is willing to wait until I return. He has no problem…”.
Her response had only succeeded in making her mother irate.
“You can’t keep everyone hanging like that. If you have no reason to say no, then your answer should be yes. You are just taking advantage of Aman’s good nature”.
With her mother’s words pinching her heart, she stood before the carved wood wardrobe taking her clothes off of hangers. It just took her a little while to neatly fold them and pack them in her suitcase. Since it was still too early to go to bed, she decided to go downstairs to the family room to sit with a book and maybe mull over things, trying to arrive at a decision.
However, after unsuccessfully trying to either concentrate on her book or make sense of her muddled thoughts, she was possessed by a nerve wracking jitteriness. It made her get up suddenly and decide on going for a walk.
Unlatching and opening the french windows, she stepped outside on to a low brick paver patio. She inhaled deeply to fill her lungs with the crisp mountain air. It invigorated her senses as always. The garden lamps were still on and in their yellow light, she could clearly see the quay. It was just a short walk from the patio.
She decided to walk to the lakeshore and soon stood at the very end of the concrete quay, hearing the waves gently lap against the grassy shore. The wind was chilly. It made her break out in goosebumps. Wishing she had remembered to bring her jacket, she hugged her arms and gazed at the lake. The view was breathtaking. It was something she was fast getting used to in Kashmir. A million orbs of light floated on the lake’s surface reaffirming it’s status as the hub of the city’s activities, both commercial and recreational.
Too deep in thoughts to hear soft footfalls behind her, she started when a voice spoke close to her ear.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?
“Yes”,she whispered feeling strangely tongue tied while a million butterfies miraculously appeared in her stomach, slowly fluttering their wings.
Even as the breeze picked up pace and whipped their hair into disarray and a myriad of incomprehensible emotions and inexplicable thoughts swirled in the tumultuous silence surrounding them, they made an apparently serene picture, gazing at the lake together. They watched as a long, narrow shikara, with a colored, cloth wrapped wooden roof, floated close to their quay and paused gently. The boatman, dressed in the traditional Kashmiri phiran, shouted at them, asking if they needed a ride.
Khushi’s heart pounded against her ribcage. On an impulse, she turned to face him and meet his gaze. She couldn’t believe her ears as she asked, “Shall we?
The silence that followed was heavy, punctuated only by the erratic beating of Khushi’s heart.
Arnav’s face was custimarily impassive, yet his eyes were turbulent, giving away the fierceness of a conflict raging in his mind.
When after what had seemed like eternity to Khushi, he summoned the boatman with a little hand-gesture, she found the answer she had been searching for all evening.
She still didn’t understand the strange draw she felt towards Arnav, nor did she know if it would be something lasting and worthwhile or not. She had seen enough of the world to realize that it was still too early to label this nascent emotion with a word like love.
But there was one thing she did know, and know with a surety that surprised her to the very core of her being.
There was nothing else she wanted more from life right now than to give whatever it was between her and Arnav a chance.
Stepping gingerly onto the boat, she settled against the comfortable cushions at one end of it, while Arnav sat down on a wooden seat that ran in the middle. With the boatman sitting at the other end paddling effortlessly, they had soon left the shore behind and entered a busy, heavily trafficked area, more towards the center of the lake.
Cool spray rose each time the wood paddle hit the lake waters and now and then, a gentle breeze carried it to her face to caress it. From their vantage point, the vast expanse of the lake was like a kingdom of floating lights of different hues and intensities. Khushi felt a little like Jasmine, entering a whole new world on a magic carpet. Smiling a little at her whimsy, she stole a glance at the person sitting opposite her. She watched breathlessly as a fascinating interplay of lights and shadows illumined his sharply etched, enigmatic profile.
Turning his face towards her, he briefly met her gaze even as the silence that enveloped them was pierced by the strains of a song wafting from a houseboat they passed.
A strange little ache settled in Khushi’s heart.