Both looked away at the same time, with the silence enveloping them uneasy and crackling with anticipation and yearning in equal measure. His face steeling with resolve, he turned towards her again and asked in a casual voice, “So you’re all set for your assignment?
As intended, his words opened the doorway of the mundane world and effectively shattered the spell, that ethereal night had gripped them in for a few dreamlike moments in time.
“Yes”, answered Khushi, before clearing her throat and adding, “I’m excited”.
His simmering conflict, his silent resolve to keep things friendly yet impersonal, his withdrawing into a shell again, his obvious unwillingness to change the nature of their current equation were all uncannily clear to Khushi.
“The first two days are reserved just for orientation. Real work is expected to start from Wednesday”, she continued, without missing a beat, grateful for her carefully cultivated aptitude for maintaining a cheerful, dignified exterior even in the most taxing of situations.
“And you’ll be working at the MSF clinic in Pampore?, he asked in an interested voice, studiously modulated to sound impersonal.
“Only on Fridays, rest of the days, we’ll be traveling to nearby villages on mobile clinics”.
“That will be quite an experience. Some of these villages are nestled in high meadows, among unbelievably picturesque settings”, he said with a small smile, even as under the boatman’s expert maneuvering, the boat made a U turn and embarked upon it’s return journey.
“Yes, I’ve heard, and I’ll be seeing patients outdoors too whenever weather permits. But realistically speaking, I’ve heard both work hours and daily patient volumes are so daunting that they leave little time to appreciate the surroundings”, she said with a return smile, before adding, “But then, I’m not here on a vacation so can’t complain. I knew exactly what I had signed for when I took up this assignment”.
Silence reigned once again after that. Both busied themselves in watching other lantern lit boats pass theirs, some carrying people, and some diverse cargoes like flowers, stacks of reeds, vegetables, fresh steaming tea and even souvenirs.
After a while, the little boat came to a standstill beside the Raizadas’ private quay. Arnav got off of the boat first with a sleek movement, ignoring the generic disembarking instructions being uttered by the boatman.
It was Khushi’s turn next and standing up, she saw that Arnav held out his hand for her. Their eyes met for a fraction of a second as she allowed her hand to be engulfed by his and herself to be helped onto the quay.
After he had paid the fare, they walked back to the house in silence, listening to the waning sounds of paddle cutting through water and the distant cries of river birds circling over the lake in vast swathes.
Later in her room, Khushi sat in bed with a largely ignored book held in hands, gently musing on how the lips and eyes of a person could speak in two entirely different languages. She was unable to stop thinking about a pair of intriguing eyes and certain fleeting expressions she had glimpsed in them. Expressions that gave the impression of having broken free from some secret, ghostly shadow, which normally lurked in their caramel depths to keep them tethered. Expressions that whispered that he was not quite as unaffected as he liked to portray. Expressions that fed hope that perhaps he could feel this inexplicable connection just as clearly as she could.
After a while, Khushi sighed and picked up her phone.
“It should be 2 in the afternoon there”, she swiftly calculated in her head before proceeding to call Aman.
Arnav sat in front of the library desktop with his face intent with concentration and his eyes steely with resolve. A crystal glass filled with the usual amber fluid lay next to the keyboard untouched as his fingers flew typing out an email. After pressing the send button, he leaned back against the soft leather of his chair and picked up his drink.
His eyes flickered with worry as links of thoughts were meticulously laid out in a chain.
Rochester Heights, Ohio
It was late afternoon in September. Although still pleasantly warm, just a touch of color in the surrounding groves of Oak, Maple, Birch and Ash served as a gentle reminder that summer neared it’s end.
The ‘Fox Cove’ picnic area of the park, that included a couple of sheds, a play area and a small lake, was resonating with sounds of laughter and conversation as people of all ages enjoyed a barbecue thrown by the Agarwals to celebrate the eight birthday of their oldest grandson.
“Where did Anita go?, asked Navin as he piled his plate with food.
“I have no idea”, replied Sujata, pursing her lips in annoyance, “In all likelihood, she is still sulking because I made her change her dress”.
Spotting an acquaintance, she arranged her features into a smile, thinking how difficult, taxing and headache inducing it was to raise children these days.
Anita was not only sulking, she was fuming mad. She stood on a weathered wood footbridge that ran across a small lake. Crumbling the remains of a bun, she tossed it on the water’s surface, watching as nearby ducks and geese pounced on them in a predatory fashion, not above nipping each other viciously to lessen competition.
Had it been some other day, it would have made Anita smile, but not today.
Someone calling her name made her look back, questioningly. It was Aman, standing at the other end of the bridge, his manly physique cutting a neat figure in shorts and a Tshirt.
“Hey…your mom’s looking for you”, Aman shouted, out of breath from the volleyball game he had been playing before being asked by Sujata Aunty to help find Anita.
“Okay..thanks for letting me know”, shouted back Anita before turning to face the lake again.
Few moments later.
“What’s wrong, kiddo?, Aman asked. Something about her body language had compelled him to walk down the bridge to stand beside her. Over the past six months or so, he had come to know Anita as Khushi’s garrulous, mischievous younger sister, who was perpetually and sometimes gratingly high-spirited. A quiet Anita was an unusual sight.
“Nothing”, came her waspish reply, “And I didn’t care much for that kiddo”.
Leaning against the wooden rails, Aman gazed at her face speculatively.
“Sad that Beiber’s going to be deported to Canada?, he asked with a sly glint in his eyes.
“He’s not…and I couldn’t care less”.
“What?!, said Aman, pretending to be shocked, “You’re not a belieber anymore?
“Oh..go away Aman, you’re not funny”, she said, exasperatedly.
“Let me try again. Freshman blues?, he asked with a serious face.
After keeping silent for a while, she turned towards him on an impulse and said, “I hate my life”.
Suppressing a smile with difficulty, he waited with a suitable, sympathetic, big brotherly expression on, knowing that Anita was never the one to be satisfied with just a sentence.
“I hate it when parents…no scratch that…desi parents… insist on treating their eighteen year old college going children…like..like..”.
“Children?, Aman supplied helpfully.
“Imbeciles. Interfering in every single aspect of their lives”.
“I also hate it”, continued Anita warming up, “when after years of brainwashing by your parents, you can’t help sticking out like this socially awkward sore thumb on campus..”.
“Socially awkward sore thumb?, Aman repeated with delight, breaking into a guffaw.
“It’s not funny”, Anita glared at him.
Sobering, he smiled at her and said, “Well, as far as interfering parents are concerned, I’m 26, a practicing physician, yet that doesn’t deter my mom at all. Remember two things. One, you can’t change or exchange your parents. Two, I’m sure you love them enough to want them to stay in your life. So there is no point in getting mad about every little thing, you’ll just wear yourself out. Sometimes, allow them to interfere to make them feel good about themselves, and at other times, put your foot down. Picking your battles wisely…that’s the key”.
“You sound just like Khushi. You guys are so alike, it’s not even funny…”, said Anita, staring at his handsome, good-natured face.
“Really? You think so?, asked Aman surprised.
As Anita nodded in assent, Aman’s eyes stalled on her pixie like features for just a second before saying, “And that reminds me, I have to call Khushi. We’ll discuss your freshman blues some other time”.
“Hope you’re feeling a little better, kiddo”, he added teasingly before turning to leave.
Childishly sticking her tongue out at his retreating back, Anita thought morosely, “That I have been guiltily nursing a crush on my older sister’s ‘almost fiancé’ is yet another of my problems in life”.
“Wonder what you’ll have to say to that?”, she whispered to herself with a sudden giggle.
The meeting with Mr. Qazi was long over, yet Arnav lingered in his office not wanting to go home just yet. With a small cup of ‘kehwa’ in hand, he glanced up at the tarnished brass clock on the wood wall in front of him. It was almost four. At five, Khushi was supposed to leave for her apartment in Pampore, which was about forty minutes from their home in Srinagar.
“We met earlier today and I’ve already wished her all the best for her assignment and all,”, he mused, recalling their awkward little conversation at breakfast table, “There is absolutely no need for me to be present when she leaves…”.
“It’s better this way”, he decided emphatically, leaning back in his chair and pulling his laptop towards him.
“No need to encourage this …this..thing that’s been brewing under the surface for way too long”.
The sun had long sunk in the waiting lake waters, when his car pulled in the driveway of their home. As he crossed the threshold of the front door, he could feel an indescribable wave of loneliness wash over him.
Loosening his tie, he strode across the foyer and opened the drawing room door on the left. He was surprised to find himself hoping that the MSF van, which was supposed to pick her, got delayed in the evening rush of traffic. The room was however empty and Arnav paused for just a second at the doorway, imagining her sitting curled up next to his mother, a book in hand, trying to read and watch TV at the same time.
“Arnav Bhaiya, do you want your dinner now?”, he heard OP ask from somewhere behind him.
“No, not right now”, he replied before pausing and asking, “Where’s Ma?
“She went to visit a neighbor”, replied OP, “And Khushiji left too”, he added with a tinge of regret in his voice.
Later in the library, sitting before the desktop, Arnav struggled to keep his mind clear of all thoughts of a hazel eyed stranger, who had a way of looking at him like she could penetrate right through his soul and see all the secrets he kept hidden there, who made his world seem a little less dark, his burdens a little less heavy and his life a little less joyless, just by being around him, whose eyes lulled him into a pleasant state of oblivion…a mild intoxication…
Straightening up, he raked his fingers through his thick mane of hair.
“I’m going crazy. We’ve literally just met”.
“I’ll be even crazier if I don’t nip this…thing…in the bud..”.
He spent the next few minutes ruthlessly cutting himself into shreds for even entertaining such thoughts when his life lay around him in shambles. At the end of it, he had issued a self-decree, that absolutely forbade him to entangle another person’s life in the mess that was his life.
He was able to gain some meaure of success in carrying out this self directed decree, though the sheer mental effort that went into achieving that began to take a toll on him.
“Arnie”, Astha said the following Friday morning at breakfast table,”Are you feeling alright? You don’t look well”. She glanced worriedly at fine lines around his mouth and shadows under his bloodshot eyes.
“Yes, Ma”, he said with suppressed impatience, “I think I might have caught that cold from you”.
The mention of her illness reminded Astha of Khushi, whom she had been missing so acutely that it stumped her. She found it hard to believe that just two weeks back, she hadn’t even known about her existence. “I guess I had always wanted a daughter like her”
“Sons are wonderful but…they are so ..so…uncommunicative…I guess they can never be a friend like only a daughter can”.
“Today’s Friday”, she murmured with a smile, “Let me call Khushi to find what time I can send Mohan over to pick her”.
Arnav’s hand stilled on the handle of a pitcher of water, his body tensing as Astha picked her phone to call Khushi.
After the usual exchange of pleasantries, Astha came straight to the point.
“Khushi beti, what time can I send Mohan to pick you up?
“Oh…no…I was so looking forward to Friday. Not even tomorrow?”.
After talking for a few more minutes, Astha hung up and looked at Arnav gloomily.
“She says she won’t be able to come, there’s this weekend seminar she wants to attend instead”.
Arnav got up with a sudden movement, “Well, she’s not here on a vacation”, he said in a funny, abrupt manner before heading out of the room.
“What’s wrong with him?, wondered Astha, watching his retreating back with perplexed eyes.
By next Friday, his resolution had already worn thin; his self directed decree showed signs of ignobly crumbling and his heart, relentlessly, selfishly obsessed with and thirsted for what his mind had categorically forbidden.
The fact that Mr. Bhat, his manager, had called yesterday and made a plan to take him on his first visit to their saffron plantation in Pampore wasn’t helping matters either.
Even as he was immersed in conflict, his mother enteted his room and asked apologetically, “Arnav beta, I know it might be out of your way, but since you’re going to Pampore anyway, could you pick Khushi up on your way back?
Not a muscle ticked in his inscrutable face as he said, “It will be out of our way, but I guess we can do that”.
After a few moments he added, “Can you please let her know that I’ll come to get her around six? And get her address too?.
The sun was slowly disappearing behind the mountains that nestled the small suburban town of Pampore, also known as ‘Saffron Town”. A Range Rover Evoque ran down a winding mountainous road, it’s gleaming white body reflecting the hues of dusk. Arnav sat in the back seat with Mr. Bhat, both engaged in a conversation pertaining to their common focus of interest, ‘Saffron Fields’.
Mr. Bhat, a middle aged, bearded man with a dignified face had been the sole manager of ‘Saffron Fields’ for more than two decades. He was almost a part of their family. The enthusiastic gleam in his eyes gave away the passion he held in his heart for saffron farming..
They were returning after a long day spent in inspection and exploration of acres of mountain slopes that came alive every October with a profusion of fragrant purple crocuses. They had also toured adjoining facilities that dealt with harvesting, drying and packaging of saffron-the costliest spice in the world.
It was dark by the time they reached Khushi’s apartment complex. It wasn’t long before Arnav stood in front of a white painted door, pressing the doorbell.
After waiting for a while, he rang the bell again. She seemed to be taking an impossibly long time in opening the door.
“I should have called her before coming”, he thought and was about to ring the bell again, when the door opened by an extremely apologetic Khushi. Her face was framed by wet hair tendrils and her eyes were contrite.
“I’m sorry, I was in the bathroom and I’m afraid, it’ll take me another few minutes to get ready. Why don’t you come in and wait inside?, said Khushi, realizing at once that time and distance seemed to have done absolutely nothing in lessening the magnitude of his effect on her.
Arnav was caught unaware by a surge of emotions as well. Honeyed sensations flooded his erratic heart, rushing through his veins like the amber liquid, he was getting too fond of.
“Sorry”, she repeated, peering at his face, illumined by the ineffectual yellow glow of low wattage bulbs, to better gauge his mood.
“That’s okay”, he said finally and followed her inside.
Taking a seat in the small drawing room, Arnav stared at Khushi’s retreating back with a sense of defeat.
Just one look.
That’s all it took for two weeks’ worth of resolves, strategically placed mental roadblocks, and defenses to come crashing down like house of cards and for his thoughts to become wayward again.
That’s all it took to realize the unbelievable intensity with which he had been missing her.