3 weeks later,
It was only the first week of December, yet the whole Midwest was already enshrouded in a thick sheet of snow, portending a particularly rough winter and resulting in record high sales of snow blowers and shovels.
Few flurries drifted down from an overcast sky, as seen from the window of cosy, well stocked and well used kitchen of the Gupta family. As Sujata carefully ladled out Shahi Paneer in a serving dish, she instructed to Anita, “Make sure the spices don’t get burnt”
“They won’t, Mom”, said Anita, with slightly misplaced confidence, given her long history of culinary accidents.
Carefully, she watched cumin seeds and whole spices sizzle in hot oil, before adding frozen green peas and springing back to avoid oil droplets from splattering on her shirt.
“Why don’t you put the lid on when you do that?, her mother said, shaking her head.
She was making Matar Pulao, one of Khushi’s favorite dishes. In fact, all the dishes that were made earlier today were her favorites.
“That’s enough food to feed an army”, Navin had exclaimed, before leaving to pick Khushi up from the airport.
“I don’t know why but she’d looked really thin and weak on Skype last week”, Sujata had replied, even as her worried eyes lighted up at the thought of her Khushu coming back home today..
After three long months..
Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.
Khushi’s fight landed at 7:30 in the evening, amidst the scattered twinkling lights of the greater Cleveland area.
Having retrieved her luggage from the baggage claim area, Khushi walked down a long corridor towards the arrival lobby, pushing her trolley in front of her. Her face, bearing signs of an exhausting flight, was redeemed by a decided sparkle in her eyes. Not only was she looking forward to seeing her family again, she was ecstatic at the thought of being on the same side of Atlantic as Arnav. So what if they couldn’t meet till June, she raised her spirits up, at-least they’ll be in the same city. And this thought was oddly comforting to her.
Reaching the lobby, she scanned the wide space with a small smile playing on her face, trying to spot her father. Her eyes zeroed in on him in no time at all, and moments later, they were reunited in a happy embrace, with her father inquiring about her journey, and Khushi answering him, wondering at the same time, at that inexplicable sense of comfort and security, which is uniquely associated with the mere presence of one’s father.
Soon, their family Toyota Sienna sped along a meticulously salted I-75, which was flanked on both sides by high snow banks that gleamed in the yellow glow of the street lamps.
“Goodness!”, Khushi exclaimed, hugging her arms, “It’s snowed so much already and it’s only the first week of December”.
“Meteorologists have predicted a particularly rough winter this year. One that’s expected to break all records,”, said her father, driving carefully on the right lane, and avoiding changing lanes as much as he could.
“This is just the beginning”, he said and then, added with a smile, “How was Kashmir?
“Heavenly”, said Khushi, her eyes wistful and faraway, “It almost seems like dream.”.
As if on cue, the soft piano notes of her phone’s ring tone burst through the surrounding air, and even without looking at the screen, Khushi knew who it was. With a nervous pang in her heart, her fingers curved around the phone and she stared at the screen with her heart quickening. Her father shot her a surprised glance and asked, “Answer it. What are you waiting for?
It’s said that almost every single day of your life, you grow and evolve into a different person, and that every single day, you discover new things about yourself. Today, even Khushi discovered something new about herself, something she wasn’t particularly proud of. Just how good she could be at lying, if need be.
“It’s Rachel”, she said, her heart thudding with a mixture of nervousness and pain, “I’ll call her back when I get home. I’m too tired to talk to her right now”.
Her father’s unquestioning acceptance of her clumsy lie spoke volumes of his blind trust in her and made her heart wrench with pain. It was quite clear that the person, whom her father had sent off, three months ago, to embark on a journey to a distant land was not the same person who sat next to him.
She had changed, perhaps irrevocably, and it hurt.
With her heart heavy, she sent out a text reply to Arnav.
Hello. I reached safely. I’m with my dad right now so can’t take your call. Will call you soon. Love you.
No worries. Take your time. Love you too.
“No, you need to have more, Khushi”, said her mother, completely overruling her protests and trying to dole out more Butter Chicken onto her plate, “Look at you. Thin as a stick. You need to put on at-least 10 more pounds”.
“10 pounds. God forbid”, said Khushi laughing, neatly lifting her plate away from her mother’s reach.
“How has your blood sugar been, Khushi?, asked her father.
“Not bad, Dad, not bad at all. Just a few highs and a couple of lows. Nothing serious”.
Khushi chuckled as all three of them tried to speak at the same time, a myriad impatient questions swimming in their collective minds.
“My turn now”, chimed in Anita, jokingly raising her hand.
“Once your turn starts, no one else gets a chance to say even a single word for the next hour or so”, her mother teased, shaking her head.
“Were you able to find everything on my list?, Anita asked.
“Yes, I did, Anu”, Khushi sighed, “And you must thank Astha Aunty for that. She is so unbelievably patient. Didn’t mind taking me out for shopping at all…and as you guys know already, I’m not the easiest person to go out shopping with”.
“Tell me about it”, said Anita with mock shudder, earning an equally mock narrowed eyes look from her older sister.
“Does she live by herself in Srinagar?, asked Sujata.
“And by that Mom means”, said Anita with an impish grin, “Does she have a son of …umm…marriageable age?
Navin’s amused chuckle at this remark was snipped in the bud by her wife’s mock frigid glare.
“Oh…I’ve given up on Khushi”, Sujata said acidly, “After she refused a gem of a person like Aman, who was so perfect in every way, I don’t know what she wants any more…”.
An uncomfortable silence followed her words, and wincing inwardly, Khushi bowed her head, using her fork to sweep away some whole cloves to the periphery of the plate. While many equally acid responses danced on the tip of her tongue, she struggled with all her might to rein them and succeeded.
Pouring herself a glass of water, she resisted a sudden melodramatic urge to rush upstairs to her room, throw herself on the bed, and cry to her heart’s content.
“Sujata”, said Navin in a tone of voice, he rarely used with his wife, “Let’s decide on never bringing this topic up again. I don’t think there’s any point in harping on the same thing over and over again. It doesn’t help with anything, including whatever it is that you hope to achieve”..
“Navin, I’m not her enemy. I only want what’s best for her, but…”, she paused, her eyes softening at the sight of Khushi’s bowed head, “You’re right…what’s done is done..”.
“Di, did you know, Akash Bhai’s wedding has been postponed to Feburary?, spoke Anita, tactfully orchestrating a change in topic.
“I don’t know about that…but you won’t believe where it’s going to be at? Tampa. Don’t forget to apply for days off”.
“I won’t. Madhu Bua will literally kill me if I don’t go”, said Khushi with forced enthusisasm, unable to shake off a strange bleakness, that having entered her heart, now seemed to be firmly settling in. Nothing was the same anymore, she realized. It was almost as if her life, her world, her personality, her dreams, her aspirations had been divided into two starkly different phases.
Pre-Arnav and Post-Arnav.
Having experienced the strokes of myriad hues his nearness was capable of coloring her world with, his absence made her existence seem colorless and lack-lustre. Her heart throbbed with yearning. His voice, his smell, his smile, his touch, his confidence, his humor, his pain, his broodiness…all of him.
Showered and changed into her night clothes, Khushi drew the aqua blue curtains together to shut out a frozen, snowy night. Walking upto the bed, she sat down on it’s edge and glanced around fondly at the room she’d had since she was a little girl. With the decor having evolved over the years, the medium sized room was, at the moment, furnished with dark walnut queen bed, nightstand and dresser and brightened by a pleasant color scheme of aqua blue and coffee brown.
Slipping under the covers, she propped the pillows up and settled herself comfortably against them. Then, with impatient fingers, she picked her phone from the nightstand and called Arnav. While she waited, a part of her brain worriedly noted the lateness of the hour, but she didn’t have to wait long.
Hearing his husky hi caused her eyes to automatically light up and a smile to tug at the corners of her shapely mouth.
“I hope, I didn’t wake you up”.
“You are welcome to awaken me anytime you want”. She could hear the half smile in his voice.
“Were you really sleeping?
“I wish I were, but you know already what a big insomniac I am. I’d just gotten into bed”.
“Are you following my instructions? The whole bedtime routine? Warm drink, good book, no laptop or TV in bedroom”, she asked.
“Yes, Dr. Gupta. But they don’t work on me. I’m a complicated case, you see'”, he replied, his voice warm with lazy humor, “But don’t worry, I just took my faithful pill and should zonk out in a few minutes…”.
“You take way too many of those. You’ll become dependent, if you aren’t already”.
“Even becoming dependent is better than having your brain explode from lack of sleep, right?, he replied quietly, suddenly making her heart wrench at the bleakness she sensed in his voice.
“When are you going back to work?, he added, swiftly changing the topic and demonstrating an innate reluctance to talk about himself.
“Monday…”, she replied, quickly looking up as she heard a knock on the door.
Bidding a hasty goodnight, she hung up just in time to see Anita push the door open and enter inside.
“Di, can I sleep with you?, Anita asked, even as she slipped inside the covers, without bothering to wait for her answer.
“Somethings never change”, Khushi thought, her hazel eyes soft with gentle amusement as she watched Anita fluff the pillows, looking completely at home.
“As if you’ll pay any heed to my refusal”, she said tartly, however.
Anita half heard her because something placed on the nightstand had caught her attention, and curiously, she extended her arm to pick it up.
“Saffron Fields…finest saffron from the valleys of Pampore”, she read the gold emblazoned letters, before prying the lid off of the small plastic box to sniff at the content.
The subtle fragrance wafted out and had soon encompassed Khushi, carrying her mind back to a night that had irrevocably changed her and the course of her life…
“Di, did you get a chance to see a blooming saffron field?
“Yes, I did”, Khushi replied with a wistful smile, “It was beautiful”.
“Madhu Bua was telling me that the person you stayed with, Astha Aunty…she owns a saffron plantation. How cool is that.Does she run it all by herself? And is this saffron from their plantation?
Khushi’s eyes veiled over and she cleared her throat before replying, “Yes, it’s from their plantation called Saffron Fields and her son helps her run it”.
“So she does have a son?, said Anita with a chuckle, “Smart of you to withhold that information from Mom”.
Something about her older sister’s expression made Anita study her face closely. Her pixie like features were suddenly calculative and she decided to tread carefully.
“What made you suddenly decide that Aman was not right for you?, she asked.
“I just did”, said Khushi, cautiously, “It was when Mom started pushing me towards an engagement that I realized I couldn’t do it. I also realized it wasn’t playing fair with Aman to keep him hanging like that. Even though he claimed he had no problem with the arrangement and that he didn’t mind waiting. I had never led him on to believe I loved him, but still, I feel really bad for him. He is such a great person and I didn’t even try to stay in touch after that phone call. That was insensitive of me”.
“How can you not fall in love with him?, said Anita suddenly, taking Khushi by surprise.
“I mean he’s so perfect for you. You guys are so alike”, continued Anita, her green eyes large and innocent.
“Well..”, said Khushi, “Perhaps, you need not necessarily fall in love with someone who’s perfect for you”.
“Hey..I thought you didn’t believe in this whole concept of falling in love. Let me quote you…”, said Anita with her eyes dancing with mischief. She continued in a pompous tone, purported to be an impersonation of Khushi, “Love, which slowly blooms from a solid base of shared interests, matching temperaments and similar family backgrounds, is what my parents want for me. And I agree with them”.
“ Life is not a Yash Chopra movie, period“, finished Anita with a giggle.
“Idiot. My views are still the same. I just said that to answer your question. Now go to sleep. I can hardly keep my eyes open”, said Khushi in a bossy big sister voice before turning the bed side lamp off.
“And I never talk like that”, she said indignantly, resting her head on the pillow.
Listening to the howling wind and the mysterious creaks and groans their attic always produced in cold weather, the two sisters peered through the darkness, their minds too occupied with jostling thoughts to give in to slumber.
“So there is absolutely no chance you could get back with Aman?, asked Anita after a while.
“No”, replied her sister absentmindedly, her mind preoccupied with a pair of intriguing brown eyes.
“But I should really meet him once and have a proper conversation”, Khushi added with a twinge of guilt, making a mental note to call Aman the next day.
After that, silence reigned in the room once again, only to be expectedly broken by Anita’s innocuous sounding query.
“What is he like?
‘Who?, asked Khushi puzzledly.
“Your Astha Aunty’s son”.
“Why do you ask?
“Just like that..”.
“Hmm…”, said Khushi, smiling impishly under cover of darkness, “I don’t know. I didn’t really notice him much. I guess he’s one of those really, really quiet and…boring type.”.
“Oh”, came Anita’s slightly disappointed voice in the dark, proving what a mind-boggling array of emotions a monosyllable like Oh was capable of conveying.
“You have to make that decision, Lavanya, and you know what decision I’m talking about. A conscious decision to try. Every accomplishment, big or small starts with a decision to try”, said Dr. Mallick, holding her gaze and speaking in short, succinct sentences, “Try to let it go. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. I’m most certainly not trying to belittle or trivialize your grief and everything else that you’re experiencing right now…but deciding…just deciding…that you want to let it go is the first essential baby step. And everyone has to make this decision to try to be able to move in the right direction. The direction that heads towards survival”.
“Survival?, repeated Lavanya, her eyes blood shot and puffy from lack of sleep.
“Yes, survival. The instinct to survive. It is one of the most primeval instincts in human beings. No matter how difficult and dark the circumstances are, on a subconscious level, almost every human being wants to be able to survive through it. Even you. The fact that you are sitting here talking to me is a reflection of that instinct”.
“Do I really want to let this grief go?, Lavanya said softly, “So soon. Wouldn’t that mean that I didn’t love him enough? Wouldn’t the fact that I was able to forget him too soon mean that my love for him was…weak? I already know what a bad mother I was when he were alive..
Even as she broke down again, Dr. Mallick listened closely, jotting down quick, largely illegible notes at intervals. He addressed her partly rhetorical questions in detail before moving onto the next concern, “And why do you feel you’re not able to let Arnav go? Why do you want to keep holding on to someone who doesn’t want to belong to you?
“Because I want another chance. Another chance to make him love me. I’m not ready to give up yet. I will make him love me”, she said bleakly, her eyes veering toward the same window again. It was another day…another season.
Two days before Christmas.
The wheels of Arnav’s black Beamer skidded slightly on an invisible patch of ice before coming to a standstill at a red light. It was two days before Christmas and quite expectedly, chaos and congestion reigned supreme on the roads. Even a forecast of heavy snowstorm hadn’t deterred people from desperately venturing out to take care of last minute shopping.
Astha sat next to him, her phone stuck to her ear, having a phone conversation with someone. A little snippet of conversation caught Arnav’s full attention and he shot a curious sidelong glance at her.
“Oh, you don’t have to thank me at all. It was my pleasure having her, she is such good company”.
“Yes, I’m here for just two weeks. I’m going back to New Jersey after that”.
“Thank you…but you really don’t have to..”.
Hanging up after a while, Astha glanced at Arnav’s aloof profile, her face uncharacteristically expressionless as well.
“That was Khushi’s mother. She’s invited us to dinner on New Year’s Eve”.
Arnav shrugged his shoulders in response, and then, spectacularly succeeded in maintaining his mask of indifference.
Astha opened the door to her son’s large and empty refrigerator to arrange freshly bought groceries inside. A gallon of milk, a carton of juice, eggs and bread. The most basic necessities that no fridge should be without.
“How does he even survive?, she muttered, putting a cereal box inside the pantry, “There’s only so much restaurant food one can eat. And it’s so unhealthy too”.
Astha had arrived in US two weeks ago, and after staying a forthnight in her house in New Jersey, she was invited by Arnav to spend the holidays with him. She had arrived in Cleveland the day before, and right now, after Arnav had retired for the night, she was keeping herself busy stowing away groceries she had earlier insisted, rather demanded, Arnav take her shopping for. She had firmly overruled all his protests and turned a deaf year to seemingly legit excuses like two days before Christmas chaotic traffic, frigid weather and snow storm warning.
After everything was neatly shelved away, she opened a new pack of loose tea leaves to made herself a cup of tea she had been craving for.
Later, sitting in the colorless living room with a cup of tea in hand, she mulled over the phone conversation she’d had with Khushi’s mother in the car.
Few minutes later, Arnav walked into the living room in a T-shirt and track pants, his hair rumpled.
“Why aren’t you sleeping?, he asked, sitting down on the couch next to her, and picking up the remote from a glass topped end table.
Turning the humongous, wall mounted TV on, he flicked through the channels until he reached football.
“Will you come to Khushi’s house?, his mother asked suddenly.
“I don’t know…”, Arnav answered without looking at her “Probably not”.
Arnav turned slightly to meet his mother’s gaze, “Because…and I’m sure this will please you immensely”, replied Arnav, his voice laced with mild sarcasm, “Khushi is what you would call a good sanki girl and she refuses to meet me until my divorce is finalized”.
“Sanki?, repeated Astha, her eyes flickering with a mixture of puzzlement and nascent mirth.
“Yes, isn’t that the word you always use..?, began Arnav, watching in amazement as his mother dissolved into peals of laughter..
“Sanskari, you mean”, she said finally, wiping a tear from the corner of an eye.
Astha hadn’t laughed so much in a long time, and her heart suddenly felt a lot lighter.