As Arnav turned his glance towards the younger sister, Anita asked with a straight face and an impersonal, interested voice, “Arnav, what kind of a doctor are you?
“A good one, I’d like to believe”, he quipped, his sharp eyes noting with interest a fleeting gleam of mischief in her eyes.
“I meant your specialty”. Anita corrected herself with a smile, even as Khushi walked over to the fridge to fill the glass with water.
“Do you do Lasik?, she asked with a sudden grin, “I’ve been meaning to get rid of my contacts for the longest time now”
“Yes, I do”, said Arnav with a tiny smile that started off as amused but soon transformed, subtly and seamlessly into a clever, calculative one.
“Do you have your eyeglass prescription with you?, he asked, casually leaning against the island, his tone strictly matter of fact.
“I’m sure I have it somewhere. I’ll have to look for it”.
“Try to find it so I can have a look and see if you’re a candidate for LASIK or not?, he instructed in a brisk, businesss like voice.
“Bravo, Dr. Raizada. That was neat”, mused Anita with glinting eyes as she turned to go upstairs, wondering slightly dazedly if she should believe what her instinct was telling her or if she should just dismiss it a product of her over active imagination.
With Anita sent off to find something, that, Arnav knew from long experience, had an invariable tendency to be misplaced by people, and sounds of relaxed conversation filtering reassuringly from the family room, Arnav glanced at Khushi, even as she turned around with the glass of water in her hand.
Not wasting any time, he walked up to her, took the glass from her hand and placed it on the island. For a moment they just studied each other, their faces aglow with glimmer of pure happiness, their hearts bubbling with joy.
Then, without warning, Arnav caught her by her waist and and drew her close. With an inaudible gasp, she instinctively rested her palms against his shirtfront, her unprepared heart going into painful overdrive.
“Arnav! Anyone can come..”, she whispered incoherently, her hazel eyes wide with panic, “Anita..already…”.
Ignoring her protests, he leaned in and dropped a short gentle kiss on her parted lips.
“Happy New Year, Khushi”, he mumured against the corner of her mouth. His husky voice was a caress in itself while the unbearable prickling at the back of her neck served as a potent reminder of the effect he’d always had on her.
When he raised his head and looked at her, Khushi’s suddenly moist gaze alterately focussed from one to another of his intriguing eyes and instinctively recognized the loneliness, the need in them.
“Happy New Year to you too”, she replied in a thick voice, her eyes swirling with emotions and thoughts too jumbled for her to successfully unravel.
Arnav was about to say something when hearing footfalls on the stairs made Khushi’s adrenals shoot off adrenaline and she gave him a sudden and surprisingly strong shove with both her hands.
“So how do you think healthcare reforms will affect Ophthamology in the long run?, She asked in a serious tone, thanking her stars for being blessed with quick reflexes.
Quick to catch on, Arnav’s eyes flashed with suppressed mirth even as he crossed his arms and responded in kind, “I guess, like all other specialities, the three major misgivings that we’ve had regarding these laws are professional autonomy, access to technology and of course, their effect on office revenue… “.
Unable to find her eyeglass prescription as predicted by Arnav, Anita stood at a little distance from them and listened to their conversation with her face mirroring her confused thoughts…
“Maybe it was my overactive imagination…”, she mused, “Maybe I just need to cut down on sappy chick-flicks or something”.
Arnav’s baritone jolted Anita out of her reverie.
“Were you able to find the prescription?
“No, I’m afraid not. I know I have it somewhere”, she replied, in response to which Arnav whipped his wallet out from the back pocket of his jeans and extricated a business card from it.
“No problem. Call my office to make a pre Lasik assessment appointment and we’ll take care of everything”, he said, his eyes smiling.
Just as Anita took the card from him and studied it, they were joined by the rest of the group, and soon they were all seated around the table, partaking of a delicious, home made spread.
Khushi was seated right across Arnav and they couldn’t help their glances from clashing from time to time. Luckily for Khushi, the aroma of saffron emanating from a dish of biryani inspired her dad, who sat at the head of the table, to initiate a conversation on this elusive spice which though littered with botanical terms and references to the book he was writing, Plants and Legends, was much welcomed by her.
Gradually, Khushi relaxed and was able to talk to Arnav, unselfconsciously, and in what she hoped was a suitable impersonal, friendly way expected of acquaintances. Feeling Anita’s hawk like gaze on her, an impish look entered her eyes , and she deliberately steered the conversation towards the infamous healthcare reforms again. A knowing flicker of amusement in Arnav’s eyes was answered by a glimmer of a smile in hers.
By the time dessert was served, Anita was almost convinced she had imagined it all.
Almost but not quite..
The rest of the evening rambled on in similar serene manner and it was past eleven when after a spate of Happy New Year and Good Night exchanges in the foyer, the two guests took their leave, and Navin closed the door after them.
While sleet drummed on the roof, and the sounds of the ball being dropped at Times Square emanated from the family room television, kitchen was a flurry of after party activities.
Khushi stood before the kitchen sink loading the dishwasher, while Anita and her mother took care of the leftovers, scraping them into tupperware and storing them away in the fridge for future use.
Their father pitched in too by what he jokingly called providing them moral support with his company.
“Nice family”, he said, filling a glass with water to take his daily blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol pills with.
Swallowing his pills, he grimaced and added, “Arnav seems to be a really nice boy too”.
Stiffening a little, Khushi was glad that she had her back against them.
“Yes, I liked them too”, Sujata murmured and then, added, “If I knew Astha was coming with her son, I would have called his wife and invited her too”.
“How do you know he’s married?, Navin asked.
“Madhu mentioned that to me some time back “, Sujata answered, opening the fridge door.
Khushi’s hands stilled and her heart raced painfully. The fact was the same, her heart was the same, yet the way it had reacted to her mom’s utterance of this bitter fact threw her off balance. Examining an idea, that her emotions had compelled her to accept, under a different light and suddenly finding it far more unacceptable than previously believed.
After a while, their parents went upstairs to bed, leaving Khushi and Anita to finish washing up. As soon as they left, Anita walked up to her and said laughingly, “This is so ridiculous, Di, you might even want to smack me after you hear it. I had no idea Arnav was married so when I noticed you getting all flustered when Arnav walked in on us bickering in the kitchen, my imagination went into overdrive, and for a moment I thought there was something brewing between the two of you”.
With a self-depreciating chuckle , Anita headed off to the family room blissfully unaware of effect her innocents words had on her sister’s heart. Reaching the family room, she flopped down on the couch, picked up the remote and called Khushi, who was still in the kitchen.
“Di, let’s have The Voice, season 4, marathon”, she shouted enthusiastically, “We don’t have to wake up early tomorrow, how about pulling an all -nighter?
“Not today, Anu”, said Khushi, coming to stand at the doorway and looking at her sister with an undecipherable expression in her eyes, “I’m going to bed, my head is hurting”.
“Breaking Bad, Sherlock? , Anita tried waving several proverbial carrots in front of her nose, “Or we can even watch a desi movie if you like”.
Smiling a little, Khushi shook her head, “Some other time, my head is really killing me”.
Khushi whispered that word softly to the still, frozen night. Changed in a nightie that reached up to her mid calf, she stood at the window, gazing unseeingly, one hand pulling back the aquablue silk panel that flanked it.
“To Anu, it’s inconcievable that I could get myself romantically involved with a married man. …a still married man. And isn’t that the truth? The whole, unedited, bitter truth? A truth that can’t be wished away, ignored or even set aside. A man is married until…until he is not”.
“Wasn’t this idea inconceivable to me too? At one time”, she thought, “How did I change so much?
Her heart felt heavy with unaccustomed melancholy, her throat was painful, yet, in a completely contrary manner, she yearned for the comfort of his arms holding her, his voice reassuring her that everything was going to be alright…
Later, she lay in bed, tossing and turning, her head throbbing in pain and it was close to one when she finally turned on her side and picked the phone up from the bedside table.
Not even realizing how late it was, she called him. She could hear the surprise in his voice.
“Khushi…is everything okay?
“Yes..”, she replied, her voice swamped by an unexpected urge to cry.
Disregarding her yes, he demanded, “Khushi, tell me what’s wrong? Did anyone say anything to you?
“No”, she began before finally giving in to the luxury of tears.
“I just wish our..our love weren’t so …difficult..I wish we’d met under different circumstances”, she said in between tears.
After a short silence, Arnav said, “I’m sorry”, too affected by her tears to add anything else to those two words.
“You don’t have to be sorry. I mean, why should you be the only one sorry? It’s not as if you forced me to love you. I’m an adult and I made all the decisions with my eyes wide open”, she said contritely, wiping tears off of her face, “Promise you’ll never say sorry again”.
“Only if you promise never to cry again”, he replied, with the smile that accompanied his words somehow reaching her and coaxing her lips to curve into a smile too.
January, 11th, 2014.
Never the spirit was born; the spirit shall cease to be never;
Never was time it was not; End and Beginning are dreams!
Birthless and deathless and changeless remaineth the spirit forever;
Death hath not touched it at all, dead though the house of it seems.
With all havan-rites completed, the flames slowly dwindled in the fire-pit and Shashi Kashyap’s living room resonated with lines from Bhagwad Geeta. They were being recited by a slightly built, elderly man, whose countenance shone with the unmistakeable glow of knowledge and wisdom.
After taking a sip from a glass of water, he read on, “Our real self, the soul, is immortal. We may sleep for a little while in that change called death, but we can never be destroyed. The wave comes to the shore, and then goes back to the sea; it is not lost. It becomes one with the ocean, or returns again in the form of another wave. This body has come, and it will vanish; but the soul essence within it will never cease to exist. Nothing can terminate that eternal consciousness. Send your thoughts of love and goodwill to your loved ones as often as you feel inclined to do so, but at least once a year perhaps on some special anniversary. Mentally tell them, “We will meet again sometime and continue to develop our divine love and friendship with one another.” If you send them your loving thoughts continuously now, someday you will surely meet them again. You will know that this life is not the end, but merely one link in the eternal chain of your relationship with your loved ones“.
Dressed in all white, Lavanya sat on the floor next to her father. Her face was streaked with dried tears, and her eyes seemed to be staring into a distant place and time. They were surrounded by their close friends and extended family.
A framed, garlanded picture of a two year old looked upon the proceedings..
It was Aarav’s first death anniversary.
January, 11th, 2014.
Settling in her chair, Khushi turned the desktop on and glanced back to smile at Rukiya to thank her for her compliment. The office new year party was right after work at a nearby Italian restaurant so she had dressed up suitably in a dusky rose silk blouse over brown tweed pants.
Logging onto her EMR account, she typed in her username and password.
There were no patients yet, she first noted, before checking her cellphone again for the nth time. Seeing there was still no reply to the text she had sent out earlier, a small worried frown creased her face. A short exchange of texts first thing in the morning, before things got really busy for the two of them, had become a routine of sorts. He never took this long to reply and Khushi’s eyes looked worried even as she saw her first patient, a sheepish looking young woman with vaginal discharge. Khushi waited patiently for another two hours, telling herself that maybe he’d had to attend to a call from ER. She used the next gap in between patients to walk over to the break room.
She called him and heaved a sigh of relief when he finally answered her.
“Where were you?, she launched headlong into her stash of complaints, “I was beginning to get worried. Did you get my text? Are you okay?
“Yes, I’m fine, Khushi”.
Something different about his voice made Khushi ask, “Are you sure?
“Of course, I’m sure”, he replied, “I’m actually going to be in a conference for most of the day, but I’ll call you after it’s over”.
Khushi couldn’t bring herself to be completely reassured by his words and after he hung up, she struggled with a vague sense of unease for the rest of the day. For once, she was thankful for a busy day that kept her on toes and left little time for thinking and worrying.
Her shift got over at four and after signing off on her charts, wishing the new team a pleasant shift and putting her coat and gloves on, she finally stepped out into the already darkening parking lot.
As a blast of frozen wind stung her face, she sped to her car, whose red and black body gleamed in the very last sun-rays, providing a welcome contrast to the colorless background of bare branches and gray skies.
Sliding inside the car, she turned the ignition on and waited for the car to warm a little before pulling it out of the parking lot. The Italian restaurant, where the party was, was right around the corner and she still had plenty of time.
Her phone rang, bringing an instant sparkle into her eyes. Eagerly she took her right glove off and fished the phone out of her coat pocket.
To say she was surprised to see who it was from would be an understatement. Astha Aunty. After brief exchange of greetings, her worried voice came straight to the point.
“Khushi, did you talk to Arnav today?
“Yes…”, replied Khushi warily, trying to predict where this conversation was heading to.
“Was he alright? Did he sound okay? I’ve been trying to reach him all day today but he hasn’t answered any of my calls. He’d taken a day off today to come to New Jersey for the weekend but then he changed his mind at the last moment. He did text me in the morning to inform he wasn’t coming, but I haven’t heard from him since”.
“Is everything alright, Astha Aunty, why do you sound so worried?
Still sitting in her car in the dim-lit parking lot, Khushi hung up and took a deep, shuddering breath. Her eyes swam with tears while a single thought dominated her anguished mind in the aftermath of that heart rending conversation with Arnav’s mother.
“It’s Aarav’s barsi and Arnav was trying to hide it from me”.
She intuitively understood that innate reticence in his constitution that didn’t let him share his pain with anyone. Not even his mother.
“Not even me?, her hurt heart asked, recalling night amidst saffron flowers, when he had overcome that reticence and trusted her with his innermost thoughts, fears and emotions. When her neck had become soaked with his tears.
“Then why this emotional distance between us?, she asked herself with tears spilling over from her eyes and running down in long streaks, “Why are you cutting me off from your emotions?
Her honest heart didn’t have to search long for the answers.
“No, it’s not him. It’s me. It was I, who deliberately distanced myself from his emotions because of my guilt and insecurities…”.
In wake of this realization raged a tempest in her heart. It threatened to throw thoughts, values, morality, emotions and everything else that stood in it’s path into complete chaos. Only one thought reigned supreme over this inner, conflict ravaged landscape.
“He needs me“.
Taking a deep breath, she made a last ditch effort to think rationally. She struggled to recall all those formidable reasons, all those worthy considerations that had succeeded in holding her back until now.
Today, for reasons unfathomable, she found them not only lacking in conviction, but completely powerless.
Powerless against the call of her heart.
With her fingers trembling slightly, she picked her phone again and searched for his address that she’d once saved as a part of his contact info.
His mind was numb.
After struggling hard all day to prevent his thoughts from entering forbidden territories, his mind felt numb with a combination of pain and exhaustion. His struggle was an output of an instinctive human need for self preservation. A need to stop himself from sinking into an abyss. A need to stay sane.
It was a matter of survival.
But he was no superman and expectedly, his struggles hadn’t been consistently successful. Not by a long shot. The effect, the aftermath of those moments when he had failed were evidenced by the deep etched lines of his face, the absolute nothingness in his eyes.
He was still dressed in his work clothes. A blue shirt, black dress pants..and a loosened tie around his neck. Even with a glass of whiskey in his hand, he was unable to relax and sat with his body unnaturally taut, staring blankly at the flickering TV screen.
When his phone rang, he reached out and turned it off without even a glance.
After a minute, the shrill sound of doorbell filled his apartment, but he turned a deaf ear to it..
Whoever was at the door rang the bell repeatedly with irritating persistence and showed no signs of letting up. With his eyes blazing with sudden rage, he got up, strode to the door, and opened the door.
“Hi..”, said Khushi in a hesitant voice, her eyes somberly studying his face, her heart quickening nervously.
That he was surprised to see her was evident in his eyes but there was something else in them too..
“What are you doing here?, he asked gruffly, making no attempt to move from the doorway..
A ghost of a smile lit up her hazel eyes.
“Is that how you welcome your guests? Aren’t you going to let me come in?
“Of course”, his eyes flickered, “Come on in”, he said, moving out of the way and letting her come in.
He waited as she unbuttoned her coat, shrugged it off and took it from her.
As they walked to the living room together, there was an uneasy tension that simmered between them and kept Khushi on tenterhooks. She felt unsure of herself, not knowing how to approach him, what to say to him.
Not knowing how to bridge the gulf that had suddenly sprung up between them.
Silently, she sat down on the white leather couch, while he picked up his empty glass from an end table and turned a table lamp on with a click. He gazed down at her strained face and asked, “Can I get something for you?
She shook her head, her eyes unseeingly fixed on the TV screen.
As Arnav carried his glass to the kitchen, her gaze followed him and upon hearing the sound of a liquid splashing in a crystal glass , she frowned in consternation. This was clearly his second drink if not more..
Taking a deep breath, she rose from the couch and headed toward the kitchen.
He looked up in surprise as she walked into the kitchen, coming to a standstill right in front of him.
“Arnav..drinking won’t help”, she said quietly, “It never does”.
Stiffening a little, he picked up his drink with a slow, deliberate movement, “I don’t remember asking you for advise”.
As he raised his glass to take a sip, he was taken aback when with a sudden deft movement, Khushi removed the glass from his hand and stepped over to the sink, with the clear intention of getting rid of it.
“Don’t do it, Khushi”, warned Arnav, his eyes grim, and his mouth set in a thin line.
Undeterred by his tone, she poured the amber liquid down the sink and turned back to face him.
His face was dark with anger and the fire in his eyes caused her heart to jolt with a touch of fear.
“I don’t allow anyone…anyone..to take liberties with my personal matters”, he bit out.
“And I can’t see you like this”, she replied, her vision blurred due to tears.
With a suddenness that took her breath away, Arnav stepped in to eliminate the distance between them and pulled her flush against him with a vice like arm around her waist. As she glanced up and met his eyes, he cupped her neck with a sports roughened palm, tilted her face up and leaned in to capture her lips with his.
It was not a gentle kiss, it was rough and wild, demanding and passionate. The kiss of a disturbed man…desperate for respite, a way to escape his demons..
First his tongue plundered her mouth exploring the moist crevices within, and then, he thirstily sucked at her lip, with the relentless pressure of his hand on her waist demanding a response from her.