By eleven in the morning, Khushi had effortlessly settled in her old routine. She looked around the familiar work environment bemusedly, half wondering if Kashmir was a figment of her imagination.
It was a cold, gray day outside and the waiting room expectedly full of coughin, sneezin, wheezin individuals, particularly bad tempered beacuse no one liked being sick with the holidays around the corner.
Taking a ginormous swig of her Tim’s Triple Triple, she signed off on a chart and asked her medical asisstant, “Who’s next, Rukiya?
“Room 3. Sore throat, Dr. Gupta”.
Knocking at the door, Khushi entered, spouting her customary cheerful greeting, “Hi, I’m Dr. Gupta”. She extended her hand in a hand shake before continuing, “How’re you doing today?
Her patient, a seventy year old wizened man with an ill tempered face was however in no mood for social niceties. He had come expecting nothing short of a miracle cure before flying out to the West coast to be with his daughter for the holidays..
“If I were doing good, I wouldn’t be here, would I?, he replied sardonically, to which Khushi responded with her usual wry chuckle and well practised, “True that. So, how can I help you?, and so on and so forth the hectic day progressed, punctuated with brief lulls filled with healthy displays of camaraderie between the doctor and her two assisstants, sharing of amusing snippets of personal lives, mugs of coffee and venting out of small everyday woes.
And amidst all of this, between broken bones and cataract surgeries, sore-throats and pink eyes, patient charts and post op notes, a budding love story somehow managed to squeeze itself in too.
Nonstop exchange of texts with long, unpredictable pauses in between.
Good Morning. Hope I’m not disturbing you. Busy?
Yeah…on my way to round on five post ops. And I have a long operating list after that. And you?, typed Arnav, even as he strode down a long sterile hospital corridor, clad in navy blue scrubs.
Very. December and November are always the busiest, she replied, standing in front of a monitor that displayed digital X-ray image of someone’s wrist.
Were you able to catch some sleep last night?, she typed before turning to her MA and saying, “Can I have a comparison view, please?
His reply came after a long pause…to which she responded after an even longer one.
A little. Ma insisted on giving me an oil head massage last night. Much as I hated it at the time, it did seem to work
Grinning at the mental vision, this interesting bit of information conjured up, she typed, How is she doing?
She is good…and you should be able to see her soon. Your family invited her to dinner on New Year’s Eve.
With his innocuous text triggering a sudden surge of emotions in her heart, she replied, I know…Mom told me. I am heading back home, just got in the car. Talk to you later.
Drive carefully. The roads are really bad.
He was still in office, sitting at his desk, absently staring at his holiday schedule on the desktop screen. After a while, he pushed his chair back and got up. Walking up to the glass wall, he gazed at the snow flakes, silver and dark, an oblique blur against the twinkling lights of the skyscrapers.
It was one of those moments in life, when all demons, you’ve ever had to contend with, creep up on you, stealthily, insidiously, to weigh down your heart with pure, unmitigated despondency. Today however, that despondency was somewhat but not completely, diffused by thoughts of summer. And of eyes full of life and hope.
His need for Khushi felt similar to physical pain. It hit him out of no where and almost took his breath away.
It was going to be an awfully long winter.
“So, what’s new?, Ria asked after both Anita and her had slid their shopping bags under a high, round cafeteria table and perched themselves on stools. Their table was right next to the window, a great vantage point for the bedecked, glittering mall and it’s traffic. Resplendent in holiday decorations, the mall exuded warmth and cheer which was a startling foil for the weather outside.
“Nothing… same old…same old”, said Anita, taking a cautious sip of her coffee.
“Except that Khushi came back from Kashmir”, she added with a fond smile that lifted up her features, “I had missed her so much”.
Reverent silence reigned for a few minutes as both dug into generous slices of warm apple pie, the cafeteria-bakery was famed for.
Then, Ria launched into a detailed recount of her life as a freshman that in turn, triggered an in-depth discussion on the stress of keeping up with the various courses, was followed by a detailed dissection of the ‘dorm b**ches’, and culminated in venting out shared views on dating and other aspects of campus life.
“The problem is, and I’m not trying to judge anyone here, that most of these cute college boys expect you to jump in bed with them..after just a few dates…if not sooner. They have absolutely no thoughts of any kind of commitment in their minds and to be fair to them, they’re very open about it too. I know…a lot of girls are okay with that..but…it’s just not my cup of tea. Not the way we were raised either”, Ria said with a shrug, her voice trailing off..
“I hear ya”, said Anita, with a grimace of distaste, “It’s mostly all about sex…though in a few cases, I do see long term relationships forming. But honestly, these instances are few and far between. I’m not cut out for this trial and error method of finding your special someone either. Di was the same”.
They both turned to gaze out of the window as swarms of humanity in all colors, shapes and sizes passed by their window.
With the usual and customary lack of inhibition of really close friends, especially those who’ve known each other since their baby carrier days, Ria asked after a while, “Have you finally gotten over that silly crush you had over Aman?
“Your would be jeeju’, she added with a shake of her head.
Her lips stretched into an indulgent, teasing smile as she waited for Anita’s response.
“Did I tell you that Di broke up with him?, Anita said, her eyes shining with mischief.
“She did?, her friend exclaimed, “And you crazy girl, why are you looking so pleased about it?
“Because”, said Anita with a sudden grin, “I’m going to try my hardest to find out if I’ve gotten over my silly crush or not”.
Ria looked at her with a worried frown, “Be careful, Anita. I don’t want you to get hurt”.
Propped up on pillows, Arnav lay in bed watching the 11:30 local news when his phone rang. “Khushi”, he predicted accurately with a ghost of a smile as he turned, stretched his arm and picked it up from the nightstand.
Sitting up in bed in flannel nightclothes, which Anita called old granny-ish, Khushi talked a little stiltedly tonight, trying to broach the subject that had been uppermost in her mind for the past two days. Ever since she had come to know of her mother’s dinner invition to Astha Aunty.
“The roads are pretty bad these days”, she said finally, “I hope Astha Aunty doesn’t have any problem driving over to our place, next week”.
With the reason for her stilted conversation, her mental disquietude suddenly crystal clear to him, his caramel eyes glinted in the lamplight even as he replied somberly, “Oh, she’s an excellent driver. Don’t worry about it”.
“Oh…good.”, said Khushi, even though unable to disguise the disappointment in her voice.
As he went on to talk about his day, Khushi half listened to him for just a little while before interjecting, “What if the weather is really bad that day?
“Hmmm”, said Arnav, a sudden glimmer of amusement flashing though his eyes, “You might be right. In that case…”.
Deliberately, he prolonged his pause, causing Khushi’s eyes to light up with hesistant, guilty, timid hope.
“I think I’ll ask her to take a cab instead”.
Unable to bear it any longer, Khushi decided to take a headlong plunge.
“Or you could come too”, she said, very quietly.
“Are you sure?
“Yes”, she said with a sigh, “I’m sure”.
“And the reason is just that you’re concerned about your Astha Aunty’s safety?”.
“Of course”, replied Khushi with a naughty smile, “What did you think? That I miss you…and want you to come”.
“That’s exactly what you think”, he drawled.
“You’re so vain”, she replied with a laugh, her heart, free of all traces of it’s former heaviness, struggling to break free of the chains holding it back and soar.
New Year’s Eve.
Astha looked up in surprise as his son’s phone beeped again, signaling the arrival of yet another text. One in long line of many. Quietly she observed as he shot a quick glance at the screen, not a muscle moving in his characteristically impassive face, and typed a brief reply.
After he had resumed eating his lunch, Astha asked curiously, “Who was it?
Arnav hesitated for an imperceptible fraction of a second.
“Khushi”, he replied with just a touch of defiance that didn’t go unnoticed.
Unable to decide whether to be pleased with his honesty or upset with his defiance, Astha let the matter drop for the moment. She was enjoying the recently recovered normalcy of her equation with Arnav and couldn’t bear the thought of it ending soon.
With a sigh, she spoke, “The weather is not bad today. Hope it stays this way, I have to go to Khushi’s place in the evening”.
“I’m coming with you”, said Arnav, getting up from the dining table and ignoring the look of surprise on his mother’s face as he walked over to his room.
Back in his room, an amused smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, as he remembered the worried, muddled texts, Khushi had been sending him since early morning, mostly containing instructions as to how he should behave or not behave in the evening.
Relax, Khushi. It’s going to be okay. You worry too much. See you soon.
Soon it was evening and Khushi climbed down the staircase with light steps, her eyes sparkling like emeralds. Once again, she wore the now altered sea green Anarkari, and with her hand tracing the wood rail of the staircase, she was suddenly encompassed by a sensation of deja vu.
As soon as she reached the foot of the stairs, the sound of doorbell resonated through their house; her heart settled into an erratic rhythm and her feet became glued to the floor.
“Get the door, Khushi”, Her mother’s impatient shout spurred her into action.
Opening the door, a delighted smile lit up her features and soon she was greeting Astha with the kind of warmth and enthusiasm that’s usually reserved for close friends.
Over Astha Aunty’s shoulder, Khushi saw Arnav come to the door, his hair slightly wet from icy drizzle. As their gazes locked, Arnav winked conspiratorially, his eyes full of lazy amusement; her features froze in outrage. So much for all those detailed instructions.
Even as she took Astha’s coat from her and Arnav stepped inside the foyer, they were joined by the rest of the Gupta family, all wearing their best social smiles. With Khushi being the connecting link between the two families, the burden of introductions fell on her, and never in her life had something as simple as introducing people to each other seemed such a stressful task, fraught with all kinds of dangers.
After Astha Aunty was duly introduced to her mother, father and Anita and the air became thick with pleasantries being exchanged, she turned towards Arnav and said in a well rehearsed, casual voice, “And this is Arnav, Astha Aunty’s son.”.
Quite deliberately, she avoided looking at Anita.
Fortunately for Khushi, Arnav was immediately taken under the wing by the only other male in the little group, her father, and soon they were all comfortably settled in their cosy, tastefully decorated family room with a fire blazing away in the fireplace.
Sujata and Astha hit it off really well and since both liked to talk, they dived into a conversation right away, largely ignoring the kids but making intermittent feeble attempts to draw them into the conversation from time to time.
Gradually Khushi began to relax. She could hear her father and Arnav discussing the healthcare reforms and if Arnav was bored by her dear father’s rather long winded discourses, she thought, casting a surreptitious glance at him, he showed no signs of it.
How much she had missed him, she thought wisfully, her gaze inadvertently lingering on his profile much longer than she had intended.
Sensing her eyes on him, Arnav turned to look at her and their eyes had but met for a fraction of a second before she quickly looked away.
Khushi’s heart wrenched painfully as she wished they didn’t have any reason to behave like strangers in front of her family…that they didn’t have any reason to pursue what they knew would be considered forbidden by them.
The wall bearing the double sided fireplace separated the family room from the large kitchen plus breakfast nook area and after a while, Khushi murmured an excuse and disappeared behind it. Closely followed by Anita.
The appetizers were already served, the table was already set, all the various dishes and nans wrapped in foil were keeping warm in the oven, salad was chilling in the fridge ready to be dressed.
Khushi took the salad and a bottle of raspberry vinaigrette out from the fridge and set it on the kitchen island. As she shook the bottle, Anita said, “Wow…Arnav is so unlike how I’d mentally pictured him”
“Really?, said Khushi casually, unscrewing the cap.
“He is not dull and boring. Not by a long shot. I’m surprised at you”, continued Anita, casting a suspicious glance at her sister’s poker face.
“Well, I think he is..”, replied her older sister and added for good measure, “Look at him…going on and on about the healthcare reforms. Seriously”.
“Di, Dad is the one who’s going on and on about the healthcare reforms”, Anita leapt into Arnav’s defense, much to Khushi’s secret amusement, “And I thought Arnav was being really nice and respectful by listening to him and not attempting to cut him off”.
“Whatever..”, said Khushi in a deliberate attempt to rile Anita up, struggling hard to contain her laughter.
As Khushi drizzled dressing over the salad and tossed it, Anita shook her head and said, “I just don’t understand you sometimes. You don’t seem to like anyone. I think, I’m beginning to understand Mom’s frustration”.
“Maybe”, Anita continued with a wicked gleam in her eyes, “We’ve been barking up the wrong tree or trees…”.
“Huh? Khushi paused in her tossing to look across the island.
“Maybe your…umm…orientation is skewed..”, she finished with a naughty grin.
“Anita”, Khushi squealed in shock.
“I’m going to show you exactly how skewed I am”, she said, walking around the island to get to a badly giggling Anita.
The two sisters were involved in an undignified skirmish involving a lot of attempted choking and tickling, when they both froze hearing a manly clearing of throat behind them.
With a cocked eyebrow and an amused smile, Arnav looked devastatingly handsome in a blue and white checkered shirt and dark jeans. And when his gaze locked with Khushi’s, she couldn’t prevent her face and neck from flooding with a rose color.
Something that wasn’t missed by Anita at all.
“Can I get some water?, he asked, his eyes lingering on Khushi’s flushed face.
“Yeah, sure”, she said, before turning her back to him and opening a cabinet to take a glass out.
It was Anita’s turn to clear her throat.