“I shredded the divorce papers”.
Dr. Neville Mallick, PhD, Psychotherapy, settled back in his leather chair and met Lavanya’s gaze. Her eyes held simmering defiance she made no attempt to hide, he noted with satisfaction, indicative as it was of a healthy participant-therapist trust.
“Hmm”, he said, before picking up his cup of green tea and taking a sip.
“What were you thinking when you did that?, he asked casually.
Lavanya, looking chic in a knee length brown tartan skirt, and indigo blouse, crossed her legs and looked at the raindrops splattering against window pane.
“I was angry…”, she said after a while and paused, “And…”.
“And?, encouraged Dr. Mallick, waiting patiently, while Lavanya tried to unravel tangle of thoughts raging unabated inside her mind. A web of conflicting yet inextricable linked emotions, unfathomable motives, and unpredictable reactions hounding a fast unrecognizable self.
“I want us to talk first and…I don’t want to just hand him what he wants”, she began haltingly, “while I’m living this nightmare, while I suffer every single day and he doesn’t seem to give a damn”.
“So you want him to suffer too?, her therapist asked casually, noting an evasiveness in her eyes that followed her question.
“I don’t know. I’ve always loved him…but he…he hates me now. After he found out…”, she said, tears rolling down her cheeks in long, shining streaks, “All those years counted for nothing. He left me after Aarav died. Right after my baby died”.
Pushing a box of tissues towards her, Dr. Neville Mallick let her indulge in tears, turning towards his key board to add notes to Lavanya Raizada’s extensive case history.
It was after quite a while that he managed to speak in a voice that was near normal, “He would have turned four in September, on the 7th”.
Khushi recognized the date. Stiffening, she tilted her head back to look up at him.
“The day you flew out of Cleveland.The day we met in Amsterdam airpor”, she said slowly, thoughts falling together like puzzle pieces to reveal a picture that was almost unbearable to look at.
“Yes”, he said quietly, the shadows in his eyes only a small glimpse of unfathomable personal hell he had to dwell in.
Even as Khushi’s mind struggled to encompass the enormity of his grief, she also thought of that other person who shared this hell with him. Memory of a face flashed across her eyes and conscience. She relaxed her fingers and stepped back with her eyes bewildered.
“Why are you here…with me?”, she asked quietly, her eyes welling with tears, “Shouldn’t you and Lavanya with each other? Being each other’s anchors…supports…sharing your grief”.
“I wish, Khushi”, he replied with a bitter smile, recognizing the accusation in her eyes, “I wish our relationship were as uncomplicated as that but life doesn’t always work like that. It is a long story”.
Silence stretched even as twilight gave way to light from a full moon above them. After a while, Arnav looked away from the lake and sighed.
“I think we should go back inside, it’s getting cold”, he murmured turning to walk back to the house.
Arnav was immediately accosted by his mother as he tried to enter discreetly through the open front door. He had arrived unexpectedly an hour ago, and after meeting his surprised yet ecstatic mother, he had gone upstairs to change. Seeing Khushi on the quay from his window had made his go against his better judgement to join her.
“Arnie, where were you?, Astha asked, elegant in a mauve silk sari. She was crossing the foyer to rejoin her guests in the drawing room.
“I’d gone for a walk”, he replied tersely in a voice calculated to discourage further questioning.
“Mr. Bhat told me that he was expecting you tonight”, she said with a hint of accusation in her tone.
“You informed him but didn’t think it was necessary to inform me about your travel plans..”.
“It must’ve slipped my mind. Don’t read too much into it”.
“Arnie, stop talking like this. Why are drifting away from me?, she said, placing a hand on his arm to forestall him, “Have you any idea how much your attitude hurts me?
Arnav turned to face her, his face suffusing with irritation, “First off, please stop calling me Arnie. Perhaps that’s the first step you need to take to stop thinking of me as a twelve year old. Second, yes, I’m mad at you, yes, I don’t feel like talking much these days. Please don’t tell me you don’t know why”.
Astha had had a chance to mull over their bone of contention while Arnav was away, “Arnav, I’m sorry if I’ve ever given you the impression that I don’t care about your happiness. When I ask for an attempt at reconciliation, it’s just that despite all that has happened and maybe because of it, my heart can’t help feeling sorry for Lavanya as well. She was a mother after all…And I guess I’m used to thinking of her as family. But of course, you are my son and it goes without saying that it’s your happiness that matters the most to me”.
As Astha’s eyes welled, Arnav bridged their gap without a word and folded her in an embrace.
“It’s okay, Ma, I understand”, he said, his voice thick with emotion, “But can you please trust me? Believe me when I say that I know what I’m doing, that a divorce would be in the best interests of both of us?
“I’ll try”, Astha said gruffly and smiled up at him, a hand caressing his stubbled cheek, “Anything to see my old Arnav again. So I’m able to die in peace”.
Ignoring the ache in his throat, Arnav attempted to lighten the situation with lighthearted humor than once came effortlessly to him, “Ma, are you trying to pull a Nirupama Roy on me?
Astha’s smile was teasing as she replied, “For someone who professes to hate Hindi movies, don’t you think you are too well versed in Bollywood trivia?”.
Arnav laughed without replying and opened the door for her. Closing the door behind him, he scanned the crowded room, his eyes finding her at once. She was sitting by the window, a plate in hand, hurriedly finishing dinner before leaving for Pampore.
She looked up, and across the crowded room, their gazes locked for a moment. They looked away atvthe same time, a process greatly helped by Arnav’s staff, who having spotted him, were beginning to drift toward him one by one.
After dinner, Khushi decided to find Astha to remind her to call the driver for her. It was already late. As she waited for her to finish talking to a guest, a whiff of a familiar cologne and unruly heartbeats alerted her of his presence.
“I know, it must be getting late for you”, Astha said worriedly on seeing her, “I had sent Mohan on an errand but he’s still not back. I don’t know what’s taking him so long”.
Khushi decided to go upstairs. Acutely conscious of his presence, she was somehow unable to meet his eyes. It filled her heart with an unbearable sadness.
Arnav made no attempt to talk to her either, quietly studying her face with his eyes indecipherable.
An hour later, there was still no news of Mohan. A worried Khushi waited in the portico, wondering if she should call a cab, surprised when a black sedan pulled beside her.
Arnav was at the wheel, she noted with surprise. He gestured for her to get in, “I can drop you, Khushi. We just heard from Mohan. Our SUV broke down and he’s trying to get it fixed. We don’t know when he’ll be back”.
The car was soon on a moonwashed highway, busy with large trucks at this time of the day. As one overtook them to the accompaniment of it’s loud horn, Khushi swallowed and shot a sideways glance at his aloof profile.
“Do you have any experience driving here?
Glancing back at her, his face broke into a grin that did funny things to Khushi’s heart as always.
“Isn’t it too late to ask that question?
Smiling a little, Khushi averted her eyes and didn’t reply. Her mind was preoccupied with an internal debate.
To ask or not to ask…
They were half way there, when Khushi finally broke the heavy silence that had settled around them, “What was his name?
“Aarav”, he replied quietly, his eyes fixed on the road ahead. Khushi frowned. She wondered why the name seemed so familiar. It was after a while that she connected it to the message scribbled on Arnav’s book. With a strange sensation in her heart, she realized that, in all probability, Aarav was named after his great grandfather.
There was so much she wanted to ask but couldn’t. Fear of invading his privacy, making his healing wounds bleed…and a need to maintain distance kept her sitting in silence, her heart heavy, her fingernails impaling her palms.
She though of Aarav’s smiling face and her heart constricted with emotion. And he wasn’t even my own flesh and blood. Just how much pain is a human heart equipped to hold before it gives up on life. Shooting him a surreptitious glance, her throat choked. She marveled at the strength and invincibility of the human spirit.
The car skidded to a halt and she snapped out of her reverie. She looked around her with dazed eyes. The car stood by the side of an isolated dirt-road, and when Arnav walked around to open her door, she stepped out as if in a trance.
He led her to the side of the road. It sloped down gently into a valley and the view sucked all her air away.
They could miles and miles of saffron fields fading into the horizons. The moon was a large yellow disk above them, it’s light unfurling the crocuses into a fluttering violet sea.
It was surreal. The night. The view. Their presence there. The odd calmness in their hearts.
“This is unbelievable”, she whispered, a fragrant breeze in her hair.
“Do you smell it?, he said, standing beside her, his arms resting on the railing.
“Yes”, she replied quietly.
“When I was a kid, my grandfather once brought me here”, he said with a faraway look in his eyes, “It was a long time ago but I still remember his words- This is all yours, Arnav. No matter where you go, one day you will come back to it. After-all, you have saffron in your blood”.
Soon they sat in silence on a gentle grass slope, watching the fields against the surrounding silhouettes of mountains.
It seemed the most natural thing in the world when Arnav extricated a picture from his wallet and wordlessly passed it to Khushi.
Khushi’s heart was numb and her eyes still as she stared at their smiling faces without a sound….unprepared for the shock of his following words.
“He drowned. Drowned in our swimming pool”, he said, and nothing could have made them more impactful than the flat tone they were uttered in.
With her eyes widened, she looked up with a jerk. His face was inscrutable and his eyes dazed like he couldn’t believe his own words.
“And that day our marriage, what little remained of it, died too”, he said after a pause.
“Why?, she asked before she could stop herself.
Arnav mulled over the question for a little while, his gaze sweeping the fields, before replying, “I guess, a marriage built over lies, deceit, resentment and compromise doesn’t have any real chance of survival to begin with”.
She waited for him to elaborate and he did after a few moments of internal debate and hesitation.
“Lavanya and I were good friends once. Although the idea seems almost laughable to me right now. We were both ophthalmology residents and the facts we were both from the greater New Jersey area and our families knew each other, helped kickstart our friendship. At that time, although I dated on and off, I had neither the time nor the inclination to get into a serious relationship, and when Lavanya showed an interest in taking our relationship beyond friendship, I had refused. I was grateful when she took my refusal sportingly. Apparently, at-least. And as expected, our friendship was not the same after that”.
He turned to study her face, to gauge her reaction as he continued, “Then a night towards the end of residency changed everything. It was the the night of our graduation and I was at a bar with a group of friends. Lavanya was there too…”.
Averting his eyes, he paused imperceptibly before adding, “Few wrong choices later, I woke up in her apartment. And a month later, when Lavanya called me and said she was pregnant with my child, I didn’t for a moment think that she could be lying…”.
As Khushi’s eyes flickered with surprise, he said, “Aarav wasn’t my biological son. And I discovered that when he was two. While having a conversation with one of Lavanya’s friends, I don’t even remember what it was about, I found out her blood group. Even the most basic knowledge on how blood groups work would have sufficed to tell me that Aarav couldn’t possibly be my son. Later, I got it confirmed with a DNA test”.
“But by that time”, he paused and swallowed, his eyes turbulent with emotions too deep and painful for words, “I’d discovered something. I’d found that a father-son bond is above things such as DNA or blood groups. And just because I didn’t want to lose him, I tried to see if we could still make our marriage work. But Lavanya’s guilt and insecurities coupled with my resentment led to everyday fights”.
A flash of pain spasmed across his features as most dreaded memory reared it’s head, “We were fighting that day. Too busy fighting to notice that. Aarav had slipped out from the patio door”.
He paused, his breaths, labored and Khushi glimpsed the darkest hell of grief, guilt and self-recrimination in his eyes. It seared through her heart and mind.
“He must’ve slipped out through the door”, he said with a raw anguish that tended her heart, ” I should have been paying attention. I should have…
“Stop”, Khushi cried. She was holding him now, trying to stem the stream of pain that flowed from him.
“Lavanya said, I wanted him to die…”, he said, bitter tears wetting the skin of her neck. Khushi comforted his wracking body, her face anguished, her hands desperate to make him stop. The rawness of his emotions was almost unbearable to him.
“That’s not true. I’m sure she didn’t mean it”, was all she could say, aware of how empty and inadequate they sounded.
After a long time time spent in silence punctuated only by heartbeats, breaths and the rustle of wind, they moved away from each other.
He he paused when his face was close to hers, his eyes filled with moonlight and something else as he leaned in to kiss her lips.
It was a short yearning kiss and when he raised his head to look at her…their eyes joined hope and courage, smiles and promises.
She raised a hand to touch his cheek lightly. His eyes flared with emotion before he bent for another kiss.
Perhaps there really was enchantment in the saffron breeze as the folklore claimed, mused Khushi, because never in her life had destination seemed more important than the way and wrong so perilously close to right.
And just as she found herself responding to him, he broke away. “We should probably go now”, he said with a strained half smile, his eyes puffy and bloodshot.
Khushi was right beside him as they climbed up the gentle slope, the back of their hands gently brushing each other. His fingers reached for hers and clasped them. When she returned their pressure, he tilted his head sideways and looked at her, his small enigmatic smile melting her insides.