Standing in front of a strictly functional dressing table, as Khushi brushed her damp hair, a small irrepressible smile played on her lips, which she tried hard to thwart by biting on her bottom lip. Her mind flitted back to the events of the last two weeks and even as her hazel eyes shone with something akin to triumph, her heart refused to settle down to a rate and rhythm that could be classified as normal or considered as healthy.
Exactly two weeks ago, sitting in the back seat of a Chevrolet Tavera, that had the MSF logo emblazoned on it’s white body, she had gazed at the evening outside, struggling to conquer an overwhelming melange of feelings, mostly melancholic in nature. Disappointment at his absence at the time of her leaving fiercely competed with her pride and naturally progressed to immense self directed anger for foolishly imagining, in all probability, nonexistent emotions in a person she was attracted to. A classic case of wishful thinking, that she had allowed herself to indulge in.
As the SUV sped along a highway connecting Srinagar to Pampore, she looked at the darkening scenery outside and after several moments of quiet, intense pondering, reached a decision. A process greatly helped by a cliched, beaten to death, Hallmark type sentiment, that had suddenly popped into her mind and proven that inspiration had a way of stemming from the unlikeliest of quarters.
‘If you love someone, set it free’
If it comes back, it’s yours,
If it doesn’t it never was..
“If you can feel it just as much…just as strongly as I do, you’ll have to take the next step, make the next overture. If you think it’s worthwhile, you’ll have to fight whatever holds you back, otherwise, there is no point. No point at all…”, were the thoughts running in her mind as the SUV entered the outskirts of Pampore, the ‘Saffron Town’.
And today, the way he had looked at her when she first opened the door, the way his eyes had tried to say something, they had not only awakened those butterflies who seemed to have found a permanent abode in her stomach, but also made her exhilaratingly hopeful that her heart had been right all along and that that it hadn’t fooled her by sending out wrong signals.
Looking at her reflection critically, she made extra little efforts to look her best, while a wave of heady, almost reckless joy made her spirit soar all the way to the sky.
A joy that was somewhat dampened by the memory of the momentous phone conversation she had had with Aman on the night of the boat ride. That phone conversation, still fresh in her memory, caused her sense of freedom at being able to wholeheartedly embark on a journey to explore what she shared with Arnav, to be tempered by a twinge of guilt.
“Aman, perhaps I should wait until I get back home, but I feel…now that I’ve finally made up my mind, I should not delay sharing it with you. I just wish, it didn’t have to be over the phone, Aman…”, she had begun in a strained voice after a few failed attempts at small talk.
There was silence at the other end, which to Khushi’s overwrought nerves seemed to last forever.
“Aman, are you still there?
“Yes, dear, I’m right here”, he had finally said in a lighthearted tone that made Khushi exhale the air, she hadn’t even realized she was holding in her lungs.
“Is there someone else?
“No..”, Khushi had said, before adding, “I mean…I don’t know…”.
“I’m sorry, Aman…I …”.
“There is absolutely no need to be sorry”, he had interrupted her in a firm voice, “You were always very forthright about your feelings or their lack actually, so let’s handle this like adults without bringing guilt or resentment into the equation..”.
They had moved on to talk awkwardly about other irrelevant things and Khushi hadn’t for a moment believed he was quite as unaffected as he sounded.
“It probably took enormous pains to be able to sound so gracious and unaffected”, she had later thought, shedding copious tears on her pillow. “He is such a gem of a person and just so darned understanding”, she had mused, “I almost wish I were able to reciprocate his feelings. Not only he deserves all the happiness in the world, I can’t shake off this notion that had I chosen him, my future would be a lot less complicated”.
Comforting simplicity vs intriguing complexity, the charm of a sunlit day vs the intensity of a mysterious night, clarity of a placid lake vs dark turbulence of a stormy ocean .
“How does one’s heart even choose between the two?”, Khushi had pondered for but a second before arriving at the answer that she had long ceased having a choice in this matter. An invisible force seemed to be acting on her behalf, causing every fibre of her being to be inexplicably drawn towards Arnav. He was her fate.
Tying a long silk scarf, patterned with paisleys in warm fall shades around her neck, she took a moment to study her refection, admiring the way it’s russet, sage and rust contrasted against the cream of the thin cashmere sweater she had paired with an old pair of dark denims. Picking up her purse and a small overnight bag, she took a deep breath to calm her nerves and bravely headed out to meet her fate.
Sitting on a small sofa in the living room, Arnav half listened to soulful strains of a Nusrat Fateh Ali’s Qawwali filtering in from the apartment next door. His mind swarmed with a chaotic melange of conflicting, turbulent thoughts.
“I should let her know …before this goes any further. She might not even want to take this forward, after she knows…Things are moving way too fast…I have to stay in control…I can’t afford not to…”.
A whiff of rain-soaked lilacs snapped him out of his reverie and he looked up at her as she stood in front of him, encompassed in an aura of intangible positivity and something else that his heart always felt irresitibly drawn to.
“Hope I haven’t taken too much of your time”, she said contritely, her lovely eyes trying to gauge his somber expression.
“It’s alright”, he said, getting up with a graceful, almost feline movement to tower over her.
Even as they glanced at each other, an uncomfortable silence filled the room, broken as expected by Khushi.
“So, how was your visit to Saffron Fields?, she asked with a little smile.
“It was good”, said Arnav distractedly, his mind preoccupied with gathering his thoughts together to have that talk with Khushi…
“She needs to know..”, an urgent voice spoke inside his mind..
“When do the flowers come out?, Khushi tried again.
“Not any time soon..”, was his annoyingly cryptic reply.
“Dude, can you make a little more effort to have a decent conversation here?!, Khushi thought exasperatedly, “Quiet people can be so tiresome..”.
“I mean next month. End of October”, Arnav amended even as his eyes suddenly steeled with the intensity of resolve. He took a sudden step towards Khushi, making her instinctively move backward, the back of her legs hitting the edge of the coffee table.
“Khushi…”, he said in an urgent voice, coming to a standstill excruciatingly close to her.
“Hmm”, she replied, heart pounding at this sudden invasion of her personal space.
“We have to talk…”, he said, his eyes boring into hers..
“Yes, I think so too”, she whispered, gazing up into his eyes and trying to decipher their intriguing mix of emotions.
“There is something I want to tell you…”.
“What?, asked Khushi, her cheeks suffusing with warm color. A shiver of sweet anticipation ran down her spine.
“I…I…”, he faltered, then looked away to hide the sudden pain in his eyes.
As Khushi continued to look expectantly, he turned his face towards her again and spoke with his voice deep with determination.
“Khushi, I am…”.
The shrill, high pitched sound of the doorbell, resonating in the small apartment, interrupted him in mid sentence and the frustrated profanity he uttered made Khushi chuckle in amusement on her way to the front door.
It was Mohan, sent by Mr. Bhat to find what on earth was taking them so long. After having waited patiently for a good forty minutes, Mr. Bhat was getting understandably antsy.
“Damn, I had forgotten all about Mr. Bhat”, Arnav murmured with a grimace, while Mohan offered to pick up Khushi’s bag.
Moments later, they had all climbed down the two flights of stairs to reach the basement parking lot, where the Range Rover waited, Mr. Bhat sitting in the front passenger seat. With Arnav and Khushi settled in the backseat, and Khushi’s bag stowed in the trunk, Mohan deftly maneuvered the SUV out of the parking lot and onto the main road and in no time at all, they had hit the highway enroute to Srinagar.
With Mr. Bhat and Arnav deep into conversation about the intricacies of saffron farming, Khushi gazed out the window at wide expanse of hilly rural-side awash with pale light of half a moon.
Whenever there was a pause in conversation, Arnav would turn to face Khushi again, but then, Mr. Bhat, who seemed undeterred by Arnav’s monosyllabic replies, would address him again and it would start all over again.
Feeling his frustration, Khushi suppressed a smile and took advantage of one such pause to speak to him. Adjusting her position to face him, she asked, “You were going to say something?
Her tone carried a beguiling mix of innocence and mischief.
Arnav took his time answering her question, studying her face in the semi darkness. His gaze softened with tenderness and…regret. As it surveyed her eyes, he realized that what he had to say to her was not what she expected. Wouldn’t it be wiser to just leave her alone until the mess he was in was cleared up? Wasn’t he being selfish…and impatient in wanting to…?
A tide of need caught him unaware and breached through his defenses. He extended his arm to cover her hand, resting on a denim clad thigh, with his. His fingers curled around hers with…a desperate possessiveness.
The unexpectedness of his action made her catch her breath. She looked down, her heart racing, her fascinated eyes fixed on his hand completely covering her tiny one.
“Arnav”, she whispered, “What did you want to say…
“When we reach home”, he answered, almost glad when Mohan turned the music on and obviated the need for conversation.
For the rest of the journey, while a song played in the background, both gazed vacantly at the ghostly landscape, immersed in restless thoughts yet intensely aware of the person next to them.
Astha greeted Khushi at the door with warm affection and informality reminiscent of a reunion with a long lost friend. Arnav, standing next to them, observed quietly with an amused half smile at first. Then, watching them talk, he felt a wave of sadness. Although he had been too immersed in his own troubles to be of as much comfort to his mother as he would have liked, he was aware of her immense loneliness…sadness at the spate of misfortunes that had followed their family in recent years. First his father’s death and then….Her touching attachment to Khushi seemed to somehow highlight that empty space in her heart.
It was dinner time and Khushi picked at her food. A mixture of excitement and nervousness coursing through her veins had effectively ruined her usually healthy appetite.
Remembering how his hand had felt over hers, she looked up at him. His eyes were focused on his plate and his expression was aloof and thoughtful. With rising confusion she wondered what was going on inside his mind.
Absentmindedly staring at him while she thought, she did not notice his mother looking at them with worried eyes.
After dinner, she walked towards the library where he waited for her. She felt a contact lense irritating her eye. She must have gotten some dust on it, she thought gently rubbing her eye lid.
Standing outside the walnut wood door to the library, Khushi wiped her moist palms against the denim of her jeans, took a deep breath to calm both her frazzled nerves and racing heart, and raised her hand to knock.
“Come in”, his deep voice replied at once.
She opened the door and walked inside and Arnav, who stood by a window, placed a crystal glass he held on a nearby table, and turned around to face her.
Khushi felt shy and tongue tied. With nervous movements, she first tucked a strand of hair beneath her ear, then rubbed her eye again with the heel of a palm.
She felt her lens shift and her vision blur.
“Great”, she murmured before trying to get it out of her eye.
“My lens. I’m trying to get it out”, she said..
“Stop rubbing your eye like that”,he said, a little scandalized at the way she was manhandling her eye, “Wait for me. I’ll go wash my hands and be right back”.
He returned to stand close and pry her watery left eye open with his thumb and index finger. Asking her to gaze in all possible directions, he searched for her lens, while Khushi couldn’t prevent herself from instinctively raising her hand to her eye, over and over again.
“Would you please stop rubbing your eye?, he said irritatedly, catching hold of her right wrist in a tight grip.
“You need to work on your bedside manners” said Khushi lightly with a smile while striving hard to keep breathing normally, her senses acutely heightened by his proximity and warm scent.
His fingers lingered on her skin, light as feather, caressing, brushing aside fine strands of hair; she hadn’t even noticed that her lens had been successfully retrieved and discarded.
Taking a deep breath, she met his gaze, only to be mesmerized by an indecipherable intensity in his eyes.
His left hand still held her wrist while the back of his right fingers were still busy brushing away imaginary strands of hair.
“Arnav?, she whispered. An emotion she believed she recognized in his eyes took her breath away.
“Hmm”, said Arnav in reply, his fingers finally breaking away from her skin, and his hand reluctantly releasing her wrist.
Khushi found it unbearable to be bereft of his warm touch, his tender fingers. Swallowing, she allowed herself to be washed away by wave of tenderness, want and recklesness.
Stepping closer, she raised her hand to gently cup his face, her fingers caressing the unmistakeable signs of strain on his face.
“You wanted to say something?, she asked softly.
Resisting an impulse to pull her close, he parted his lips to speak, deciding there was no way he could avoid talking about it, about them, now.
Khushi surprised him by raising herself on her tiptoes, resting her hands firmly on his shoulders and touching his lips with hers.
“Are words even necessary?, she murmured against his firm lips, her own curving into a little smile.
With rational thought leaving him for a moment, he swore unintelligibly and drew her close. Deepening their kiss, he tasted her for a moment, drinking off of her sweetness with a thirst that made her legs turn to jelly. Then he released her just as suddenly and stepped back.
Agitatedly raking fingers through hair, his eyes were tumultuous with conflict, “Khushi, we need to talk first. After you hear what I have to say, you might not even…want..”.
He paused and looked at her again, his eyes intent with a plea…a prayer.
A knock at the door made them start and face the door with dazed eyes.
“Come in”, Arnav said finally.
Astha’s eyes were enigmatic and her face somber as she addressed her son, “Arnav, Lavanya called while you were gone. She asked me to have you call her back”.
With her words seeming to be impregnated with a meaning other than the obvious, Arnav headed out of the room without another word. At the door, he paused and glanced back at Khushi.
His eyes held that same plea…that same prayer again.
Khushi felt a hollow sensation in the pit of her stomach as she cleared her throat and asked, “Who’s Lavanya?
“She is Arnav’s wife”.