“Isn’t he married? I remember your mother mentioning something like that”, Navin continued, his face a fleeting picture of confusion, which cleared as he continued, “She must’ve been mistaken”.
Khushi’s eyelashes flickered as she struggled to hold her father’s trusting gaze , “Dad, he is almost divorced”.
“He was almost divorced when I first met him”, she quickly added, not wanting her father to even consider the possibility, not even for a second, that she was responsible for wrecking a home, for breaking it apart.
Her heart pounded as she watched his father’s face freeze into immobility. Transforming into a mask that was painted with colors of shock and disbelief. And highlighted by brushstrokes of hurt. Although his reaction wasn’t entirely unexpected and she had braced herself against it, Khushi felt a wave of guilt, remorse and sadness ripple through her. With her heart aching, she watched his light brown eyes flicker with hurt and disappointment. After a few moments when the hurt gave way to suppressed anger, she almost sighed in relief.
It was a lot easier to bear your parents’ outright anger, she realized that day, than to watch them hurt.
“Last time I checked”, said Navin, his normally pleasant voice low and thrumming with sarcasm, “Almost divorced was the same as still married”.
“Not all the time”, Khushi said, licking her suddenly parched lips, warding off the cloud of self doubt that had begun to hover over her mind. Forcing herself to think clearly, she said slowly “A lot of it depends on perspective too. Almost divorced and still married can be as different as a half full glass can be different from a half empty one. And Dad, are you going to pass judgement on me…without hearing me out?
Without answering her question, Navin turned his head to look out of the window, a vein ticking at the angle of his rounded jaw. After a few seconds, he looked back at her and asked darkly, “And what about his wife? Does she see herself as still married or almost divorced?
It was time to lay all cards on the table…good..bad and ugly, Khushi decided and took a deep breath.
“Lavanya doesn’t want a divorce, she hasn’t signed the divorce agreement papers yet”, she stated slowly, cringing at the expression on her father’s face, “Arnav thinks that this refusal partly stems from anger, bitterness and a desire to harass…and partly from a desire…a hope…for reconciliation”.
Navin watching her face closely, noticing how her eyes dimmed with swirling hazel clouds.
“And what right do you have to take that hope away from her?, Navin asked forcefully, his lips pursed in a grim line, his eyes gleaming disapprovingly from behind black rimmed glasses.
Her eyes flinched as if physically hurt by his question. Her eyes shone with a thin film of moisture and her heart became swamped with self doubt.
“Arnav gave me that right..”, she answered, her speech slightly hurried, the quiver in her voice almost imperceptible, “His love gave me that right. He believes his marriage ended the day he walked out of their home, almost a year ago, and filed for legal separation. He believes he is mentally, physically and spiritually divorced from her already…and…”.
With an impatient grimace, Navin interrupted her in midsentence.
“Arnav believes this…Arnav believes that… What do you believe in?, he asked cuttingly.
“I believe, I now believe, that if a person doesn’t want to stay in a marriage, he or she shouldn’t be forced to by laws. Neither by manmade laws nor by purportedly divine laws. I say purportedly because I now believe that any law that defies the law of rationality can’t possibly be divine. I’ve realized that keeping two people tied together in a marriage can’t be good for anyone. To the person who wants to free himself from a failed marriage, it brings frustration, bitterness and rebellious feelings. While it merely delays the inevitable and prolongs the agony of the other person. Allowing her to wallow in false hope, keeping her from attempting to move on”.
“I’m sorry, Dad, but this is what I believe. This is what I believe now”, Khushi added at the end, her eyes expectant as they scanned her father’s face to gauge his reaction.
“This is still not you, Khushi. Not the Khushi we raised. It’s still Arnav who’s speaking from your mouth”, said Navin with a sigh.
Khushi was surprised by what he said next in a very quiet voice, “I remember reading somewhere that relationships and marriages can be like that mythical bird, Phoenix. At a particular moment in time, they might look completely and irreversibly dead. Lifeless, formless, crumbled into ashes. It may look so convincingly dead that a passerby, blissfully ignorant of it’s inherent nature, might very well conceive the idea of planting flowers around it”, Navin’s voice trailed off to a significant pause.
Khushi’s body erupted in goosebumps and even as her eyes darkened, he continued, “And just as the flowers are about to bloom, the Phoenix rises again, consuming everything around it in it’s fiery, unforgiving flames”.
His words and their cryptic meaning sounded lyrical and portentous to Khushi. They conjured up a terrifying picture in her overimaginative mind. Her heart slammed painfully against her ribcage.
A flight attendant’s face appeared in her field of vision politely enquiring if she would like some water and Khushi snapped back from the dark place she had got tangled in for a few moments.
With a sigh, she said, “I understand the point you’re trying to put across, Dad, but our case is different. Their marriage was never a normal one to begin with. How could it be when it’s very foundation was laid with lies and deception?
“You are assessing facts from just a single point of view, not considering that each story has two sides. His wife’s point of view might be diametrically opposite to his”.
Combing her fingers through her thick hair frustratedly, she spoke softly, “I’m sure it is. And believe me, I really feel for her too but that doesn’t change the hard facts. That doesn’t change the fact that she deliberately lied to force his hand into marrying her, that he doesn’t want to stay married to her, that she…”.
“Lied about what?
Khushi paused, mentally weighing whether she should reveal the circumstances which had led to Arnav and Lavanya’s marriage to her father. It didn’t take her long to decide against it. For the time being at-least. Taking the liberty to share details about someone’s personal life without seeking their permission first didn’t sit well with her. And then, it wasn’t the easiest conversation to have with one’s father either.
“I’ll have to ask Arnav if it’s alright to share it with you”, she answered wearily.
She was suddenly swamped by an indescribable desire to give in to tears. Why had her life become so complicated?
The conversation had at last begun to take it’s toll and her nerves were intolerably frayed. An uneasy, strained silence crackled interminably between the two of them. After some time, Navin turned his head and asked, “Do they have any children?
“They had one…Aarav”, began Khushi and then, without warning, tears escaped from her eyes and rolled down her cheeks leaving long shiny tracks in their wake, “He died a year ago. He was only three. He drowned”.
Navin surveyed her face quietly. While his troubled mind registered that the situation was more complicated than he’d imagined, his heart paused and softened. Not just because it was a father’s heart.
There was something incredibly moving about a human crying another’s tears.
Yet, life and experience had taught him to not take decisions based on emotions alone. He was uncharaceristically economical with words when he comforted her.
“Khushu…this is not the best of place or time to have this conversation. I want you to just reax now…we’ll talk some other time”, Navin said in a kind voice that caused fresh tears to well and overflow.
Few moments later, while Khushi carefully wiped her eyes, Navin said worriedly, “Of course, your mother will need to know about it too”.
As father and daughter exchanged a significant look, Navin continued, “Isn’t Arnav’s mother going to be at the wedding too? I think I remember her and Sujata discussing it when they came for dinner”.
When Khushi assented, he further asked, “And Arnav? Is he coming too?
“No. He just came back from New York”, Khushi replied without thinking and bowed her head to sip water and to hide her sudden blush.
“Wish he were there too”, Navin murmured, “It would be best to take care of this as soon as possible”.
Grateful to see her father in his normal, mellow mood, Khushi listened and wondered what taking care implied but wisely holding her tongue, she decided to forgo further probing.
Opening her book again, she stared at his spidery handwriting and gradually, her clenched muscles relaxed, her nerves soothed, her self doubts started melting away again.
She could almost smell saffron in the air.
Saffron and it’s fields where for the first time in her life, right had ceased to be absolute and wrong had suddenly seemed redeemable.
San Diego, California.
Lavanya wiped her runny nose with a tissue before sipping another spoonful of the piping hot chicken noodle soup placed in front if her. It was early afternoon and Lavanya relaxed with Manya in the well-lit, brightly dining room of her town-home. It was gloriously sunny outside and almost dazzled Lavanya’s sun starved eyes.
“You must’ve caught it on the plane”, Manya said, softly gazing at her younger sister and taking note of the small, positive changes she thought she could discern in her demeanor, in her eyes.
“I bet. The person sitting on the other side of me had sneezed and coughed all the way here”, Lanyana said dryly before adding, “I love this, it’s so good…
As her voice trailed off, Manya asked suddenly, “So what have you decided? About the divorce?
Lavanya’s eyes remained focussed on her soup bowl as she replied on a tangent, “Arnav called me. He called me last week. He wants us to meet after I return back to Ohio”.
The subtle subtext of hope wasn’t missed by Manya and she wasn’t entirely convinced by the legitimacy of it. Her dark eyes flashed with bitter skepticism.
“Don’t you think it’s foolish to pin your hopes on a husband who…who cruelly abandoned you when…you were suffering through the lowest point of your life?
“After I was cruel to him”, she said flatly, “After the terrible things I said to him”.
Lavanya recalled the words, the cruel terrible words she had hysterically spouted to rip his soul apart, to shred it to pieces. To hurt him as much as she was hurting…to vent out some of the fire that was consuming her from inside.
“You must be so happy, right? Finally you have nothing or rather no one to keep you tied down to me, least of all a child, who wasn’t even yours. A child you stopped loving, a child you disowned the day you realized he wasn’t yours without even considering that he was innocent, that he loved you, that he didn’t deserve to be punished for something I did. Was this is what you’d hoped for, prayed for all along? Maybe this is why you never bothered to get the pool covered, maybe this is why you hadn’t bothered to stop him when you saw him slipping through that door…
It was the day after Aarav’s funeral and her words were met by a deathly silence that had ricocheted through the smoldering wreck of a home, of a marriage.
The warmth of Manya’s embrace brought her back to present.
“I drove him out”, Lavanya said, sitting down in a chair she was lead to, her eyes distracted, “I drove him out of our home. Now that my thoughts have more clarity, my heart more peace, I look back and realize how stupidly wrong I was. He had always loved him..even…even though…”.
“Even though?, Manya promped with a puzzled expression on her face.
Averting her gaze, Lavanya remembered that even Manya wasn’t privy to fact that Arnav wasn’t Aarav’s biological father. All she was aware of was her unplanned pregnancy being the reason behind their hasty marriage.
She wasn’t privy to her lie, her unintentional lie.
“Even though he had married me just because of the pregnancy”, she murmured, her mind already far away from her physical presence.
She could almost smell Arnav’s, her Arnav’s familiar cologne, almost feel the strength of his arms as he carried her upstairs and carefully put her down in the newly decorated nursery.
The nursery was a bright space, with it’s light blue walls adorned with a border that displayed pictures of little, smartly dressed teddy bears engaged in sports of different kinds. Cheerful pictures hung from the walls while a crib, changing table and rocker in pristine white were arranged around the room in welcome.
While she took Aarav out of the carrier and laid him carefully in his white painted crib, she had felt Arnav’s gaze on her. Very clearly, she remembered the sounds of the wall clock or was it her heartbeat as she had looked up and met Arnav’s gaze. Holding it, she had tried to read what she was allowed to glimpse.. There was no room for doubt in her heart this time. There was something new unfurling in their caramel depths.
To Lavanya, it had spelt hope…and triumph.
The moment when he’d taken that very first step towards her was permanently engraved in her heart. A step towards the mother of his child. A step towards normalcy.
“We need to talk, Lavanya”.
A black Lexus RS purred along a scenic ocean-front boulevard en route to Four Seasons, Tampa. The turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico shimmered on one side of the road, while a grassy median covered with stately palm trees flanked the other side.
Opening the car window, Anita stuck her head out a little and inhaled deeply, her pixie face rapturous.
“I smell salt…I smell Magnolias..I smell…”.
“Rotting seaweed and sea gull poop?, Akash, their cousin who was driving the rental car remarked with a chuckle. He was very fond of his two younger cousins and their families had spent several summers together.
Before she could reply, Sunita firmly pulled Anita back in and instructed her to shut the window.
“Mom is always afraid that if I do that a passing car will drag my head off with it”, Anita, laughed and then looked sideways at Khushi, her usual partner in crime.
“What’s wrong with you today, Di? Anybody would think we were going to a funeral. Look at your face and Daddy’s too actually”, Anita rattled on, floating high on a giant bubble of beginning-of-a-vacation happiness.
“I just have a slight headache”, Khushi murmured and then pulled herself together to join in the back and forth banter that Akash and Anita were engaged in.
“You’d better get over it, Khushi, “, Akash said with a smile, “Be ready to dance the night away at Payal’s home tonight”.
Four Seasons, Tampa, was a stunning ocean front resort, it’s gleaming structure curved around a crescent shaped beach of the Gulf Of Mexico. Wide exanse of tranquil odiferous gardens, home to several pools, surrounded the hotel on all sides and gently sloped at the back to meet the silvery sands.
It’s huge L shaped lobby, a picture of contemporary sophistication and subtle caribbean touches was gloriously sunny and offered breathtaking views of the beach and the coastline. Several museum quality paintings by local artists adorned it’s walls.
While Navin checked in, the rest of the family relaxed in the comfortable couches and chairs of the lobby lounge, where they were shortly greeted by not only Madhu Bua and her husband, Manohar, but also Astha, who was Madhu’s best friend and like family to her. They’d come down from their rooms to welcome them. As a part of the hotel’s wedding package, all out of town guests had rooms on the same floor.
Astha had arrived just a few hours earlier from New Jersey and even though she embraced Khushi as warmly as ever, there was a subtle awkwardness between them that underlined the common issue the two of them kept hidden in their hearts.
It was after a few minutes of normal, lighthearted conversationthat everyone decided to go up to their rooms, to get ready for ‘Mehndi’ that was to be held that evening at the bride, Payal’s house.
The ocean shadows undulating on the wall, the brightness in the air hinted at their room’s proximity to ocean; upon entering it, the two sisters admired it’s sleek sage and gold interior for a few moments before walking over to the window.
The curtains were drawn back allowing sunlight to stream in and gazing out, they were rendered speechless by the majestic view. The white sand of the crescent shaped beach was dotted with palm trees and catching the sunlight, it glittered like white gold. Froth fringed turquiose waves lapped over the shoreline, one after another, tirelessly, unceasingly.
As Khushi sighed, Anita glanced sideways at her dreamy expression and said, “There is something seriously wrong with you and I’m kind of hurt that you’re not sharing it with me”.
Sighing again, Khushi plopped down on the bouncy mattress and said wryly, “Today is confession and revelation day for me, I guess”.
As Anita looked on with a puzzled, slightly irritated expression on her face, Khushi met her gaze, held it and declared without preamble, “I love Arnav and I told Dad about it today’. That Anita was startled, befuddled and bewildered by this news was an understatement.
“Don’t judge me, Anu, please”.
The almost unnoticeable crack in her sister’s voice brought her back to earth and she focused her eyes back on her sister’s distraught face.
“Of course, I won’t judge you”, said Anita, emphatically, “I know you, there has to be a perfectly good explanation behind it”.
Sitting down next to her, she gave her a lightning hug, pretending not to notice the moisture in her eyes. “I mean I promise not to judge you”, she continued slyly after a short while, “Only If you give me the whole story…How..when..why…where…I want every damn detail. Now”
She paused, suddenly remembering something and going off on a tangent, “OMG, I just realized my gut feeling was absolutely right that day”.
“You are so chalaak, Di”, she gazed at her with something akin to admiration in her eyes, “The way you kept throwing me off of the scent”.
Their conversation was interrupted by the musical ringtone of Khushi’s phone and Anita leaned over to pick it up from the nightstand. After cursorily glancing at the screen, she handed it to Khushi.
“Who is this Jon Stewart who’s always calling Di these days? Barely a second after this thought was conceived, realization dawned in upon Anita.
“Jon Stewart. Of course”.