“Jon Stewart!, Anita exclaimed, her dark brown eyes narrowed indignantly, “So that’s a code name for Arnav! Neat, very neat!”.
“I’ll call you back in a second”, Khushi murmured into the phone with a smile and hung up.
She turned towards Anita and said, “Anu dear, do you want to go take a shower first?.
Warding off a sense of alienation that suddenly raised it’s head in her heart, Anita smiled impishly at her. Raising her arms, she made a great show of yawning and stretching herself “I’m tired, Di, I want to rest for a little while”.
“Anu, please, it’s important”.
“Important, yeah?, Anita wiggled her brows with an annoying little smile. She was clearly in her element and hugely enjoying herself.
“Anita Gupta, go to the bathroom now!”.
“What do I get in exchange for my…cooperation, Di?, she asked in a faux mellifluous voice that she knew never failed to grate on her sister’s nerves.
Rewarded with a flying cushion that she expertly dodged, Anita collapsed into giggles at the comically mad look on her sister’s face.
“Ok…ok…I’m going”, she said laughing, “Just one last question”.
“What?, asked Khushi in a slightly wary tone.
“Why Jon Stewart?
“There is no deep psychological reason behind it”, Khushi replied with a smile, “I just happened to be watching The Daily Show at the time”.
Hearing the shower running in the bathroom, Khushi stared unseeingly at the seemingly endless mass of turquoise water. The ocean’s surface was still today, it’s placidity concealing the power and the fury that lurked underneath, not too far from the surface. Taking it’s cue from the benevolent, salt laden breeze, it’s waves were gentle as they lapped at the sandy shoreline, raining it with it’s reassuring, salty kisses. While attentively listening to Arnav’s warm, incisively clear bass, a part Khushi’s brain admired the beach, glad that it was the off-season, the water still too cold and the beautiful sand not entirely obscured by vacation goers in bikinis and boardshorts.
“Yes, I am worried about Mom’s reaction. I’m sure they must be talking about me right now. I can take her anger but I don’t know how I’ll be able to bear her hurt and disappointment, especially because I know how much more vocal she’ll be about it. She was never the one to pussy foot around issues and tact is definitely not her strongest points”, Khushi said, with her a frown marring her forehead.
“Don’t get me wrong”, Khushi added quickly with a guilty twinge in her heart, “I love her, I love her just the way she is. I feel horrible for talking about her like this…”.
As her voice trailed off, Arnav said gently, “Of course, you love her, Khushi, just as I love my mother. It’s just that we’re not kids any more…and our parents are no longer these perfect humans we thought they were when we were children. They are humans…flawed humans just as we are. Our love is still the same… it’s just not blind anymore”.
“I almost wish we didn’t have to grow up”, said Khushi with a sigh and something about her tone made Arnav respond in an uncharacteristically impulsive manner, “Do you want me to come there?
“Here”, Khushi exclaimed with her eyes widening, “Tampa, you mean”.
“Where else, Khush?, replied Arnav amusedly, “Our choice was mutual and it’s only fair that we share the consequences equally too.”.
“Are you sure?, said Khushi with badly disguised relief, “You just came back from New York…You said you detested attending weddings…You’ll have to return to work on Monday because haven’t you already taken too many days off?”.
“True, but I can’t let you take all the flak alone and…”, he paused significantly, “Ma is there too, what if your parents decide to talk to her”.
“Oh my God, I didn’t even think of that!
Chuckling at her reaction and appearing singularly unfazed at the prospect of facing the impending flak as he called it, Arnav said “Ok…let me go check when’s the earliest available flight. I’ll talk to you later”.
She was about to hang up, when he spoke with his lips curving wryly, “By the way, your timing was absolutely perfect. You couldn’t have chosen a better time or place to share this …errm …bit…of news with your father”.
“I didn’t plan it, it just happened”, she replied defensively before hearing his chuckle and adding, “And it’s not funny”.
“I know, I’m sorry”, he said, sounding anything but and hung up with another chuckle.
Anita sighed after adjusting her dupatta for the nth time with a handful of safety pins. If there was something that got on her nerves, it was a slippery dupatta that refused to stay put around her neck. After a while, she stepped back a little and critically studied her reflection in the dresser mirror, turning her face first one way and the other. After a few minutes filled with another round of hairspray, a minute detailed inspection of her expertly made-up beautiful, slightly up-slanted eyes, she decided grudgingly that she will have to do. It was a pity that she wasn’t a natural beauty like Khushi, she thought with an inward sigh, and had to work twice as hard to look good. To her credit, this thought was unaccompanied by even a single shred of envy,
And she looked her best today in a sleeveless ochre yellow anarkali suit with embroidered bodice that complimented her earthy golden complexion.
Waiting for Khushi to emerge out of the bathroom, Anita sat down in a comfortable arm chair by the window and gazed at the breathtaking sunset, painted by mother nature with the ease of a master artist, one brilliant brushstroke at a time.
Taking a picture with her phone camera, she suddenly noticed the date.
Memories slowly wafted to her, of a dinner exactly one year ago, where two families were introduced to each other by a common friend.
Without even a moment’s hesitation, she called him.
“Hello there. How are you?, she began in her characteristic, cheerful, singsong tone, her eyes sparkling with a smile, “Please don’t tell me you’re lying in a darkened room, with the curtains drawn together and a sad song playing in the background”.
“Haha very funny”, replied Aman with a inward eye-roll, walking away from the din of a crowded bar counter, mug of draft beer in hand, “I told you I’m not really cut out for a jilted loved act. I’m at Ashley’s with a group of friends so really, there is no need to feel sorry for me”.
“Trust her to remember the date”, he thought wryly flopping down in a couch in front of a large LCD screen.
“Sorry for you!, Anita exclaimed, “Of course, I’m not sorry for you. Since you’re my friend, I’m just calling to check on you”, she added matter of factly.
“I’m your friend?, Aman repeated teasingly, “Really. When did that happen?
“Ouch. That hurt”, replied Anita with a grimace. Without missing a beat, she added wickedly, “Actually…I think I might not be able to babysit Aryan after all”.
“No!, cried Aman with mock horror, “Don’t say that. If you back out, Anju will expect me to step in. My worst nightmare will come true”.
“Of course, you’re my friend”, he played along, “How about you’re my best friend forever. Happy?
“Hmm. I’ll think about it and let you know in a couple of days”, she responded with a sly smile.
“Phew, thanks”, said Aman with exaggerated relief.
After taking a sip of his beer, he sobered a little and asked in usual lighthearted tone, “So what else is new?How’s college?
“We’re in Tampa for our cousin’s wedding and it’s simply amazing out here. Makes me seriously wish that of all 50 states, our parents hadn’t chosen boring, dull, flat Ohio to move to”.
Her one-sided monologue droned on for a few more minutes, consisting mainly of an exhaustive comparison of the quality of life in the various states but perodically deviating to topics as diverse as Adam Levine, Dhoom 3, Devon Street, Fifth Avenue, Indian savories, and then ending abruptly with, “Holy crap! Look at the time. Sorry to cut our conversation in the middle like this, but I’ll have to go now. Talk to you later”.
Aman stared at the blank phone screen with his eyes slightly glazed, “I was wrong about her”, he mused.
“She is not a little crazy, she’s totally crazy”.
An hour later, two gorgeous young ladies walked down the brightly lit hotel corridor, their stilletoes digging in the plush carpet, the hem of their chiffon dresses swaying in perfect rhythm with their graceful gaits. Khushi’s suit was emerald green and similar in style to Anita’s. Sleeveless, almost ankle length anarkali and with its bodice embroidered with silver and black silk threads. Turning many heads en route and not just because of the exotic nature of their stunning attires, they finally reached the door of their parent’s room, which was just three rooms away from theirs.
“I’m sure Dad must’ve told Mom “, Khushi whispered, pausing at the door.
Anita just sighed and shot a look of silent support, her heart pounding in sync with her sister’s.
Closing her eyes to send a quick supplication up, Khushi raised her knuckle and knocked at the door. Their father opened the door with his face uncharacteristically impassive and without a word, the two of them entered the room and walked across it to take seat in the patterned chenille upholstered sofa.
As Navin stood in front of the mirror and fastened the buttons of his high collared beige kurta, Khushi cleared his throat and asked, “Where’s Mom?
“In the bathroom”.
“Does she know?, she asked after a pause.
“Yes”, Navin replied, his gaze fixed on his reflection.
They both looked up expectantly when the bathroom door clicked and their mother walked out, looking very elegant in an off-white silk sari with a broad turquoise and gold border, her hair neatly arranged in a low chignon.
Her gaze fell on Khushi, paused for a split second and then moved on as she busied herself with last minute tasks, finding her purse, putting her shoes on.
Propelled by tumultuous emotions as well a desire to get it over with, Khushi got up, walked over and said in a pleading tone, “Mummy, talk to me. Please. I know you must be angry and disappointed…”.
“Do you care?, Sujata suddenly lashed out at her first born, pouring out all her hurt, disappointment and anger in those two words.
Flinching, Khushi stepped back a little, her eyes fixated on the fire flashing from her mother’s eyes.
“When you decided to go ahead and get involved with a married man, did you ask me? Did you talk with me? Did you for a moment consider what effect it would have on me, on your father, on our family? And what’s the point of telling us about it now? What do you want us to do? Be happy for you? Give you our blessings?
“It wasn’t like that..”, Khushi interjected in a torn voice, the very foundation of her self belief dangerously shaking, “I didn’t just decide one fine day to get involved with a married man. Our emotions…got slowly entangled with each other…and we didn’t even realize. I didn’t know he was a married man when I first met him…And he wasn’t really one, not in the truest sense of the word. He was legally, irreconcilably separated…almost divorced…which I believe makes all the difference. And yes, I do want you, I do want you and Daddy to be happy for me. Happy because I found someone in my life whom I love more than my life and who loves me back. Happy because the man your daughter loves is a goodhearted , intelligent, honorable human being…”.
“So honorable that he couldn’t have waited until his divorce was finalized to get involved with another woman. Yeh bahut sharaafat hai“, her mother responded with her voice laced with bitter sarcasm.
A sudden wave of despondency and hopelessness suddenly hit Khushi, washing away all her courage and energy. Staggering, she sat down on the edge of the bed, still immersed in her own stream of thoughts.
“Yes, I love him …but I want your blessings too”, she murmured, gulping back a sob even as a tears ran down her cheeks, and wetted the column of her neck.
She was immediately joined by Anita and Navin, who bridged the intervening distance in a heartbeat to sit on either side of her.
“Mom, please give her a break”, Anita cried, handing Khushi a tissue, an incorrigibly superficial part of her brain worried about her sister’s eye makeup, “There has to be a perfectly good reasoning behind her decision. And I know my Di enough to know that any person she choses has to be an absolute gem. Seriously guys, where is parental trust when you need it most?
Navin just sat next to her without saying a word and his mere silent presence offered Khushi immeasurable support and solace.
Torn between his mind and his heart, his responsibility as a father and his compassion as a human being, his loyalty towards his wife and his tenderness towards his daughter, Navin thought carefully before speaking. He realized the perils of the ground he was about to tread on, the various societal, familial, parental, religious, legal considerations he needed to be cognizant of while performing the duty that was expected of him. The duty of the captain of a ship.
“While I agree with your mother that you haven’t made the best of decisions in getting emotionally involved with someone whom I consider a ‘still married’ man, I believe it’s time to leave all these debates, these arguments behind us and work towards reaching a middle ground”.
“A middle ground?, Sujata bristled, “You mean you’re going to approve of her alliance with that…that man, knowing…”.
“Then what do you suggest I do?, Navin interjected, his voice cold enough to freeze a volcano, “Get them both stoned to death or hire an assassin for Arnav. Lock Khushi up in a dungeon or disown and permanently alienate her from our life. Tell me, what do you think is the best solution?
“No need to be so dramatic”, Sujata glared at him, “We could try to make Khushi realize what a big mistake she’s making. Entering into a relationship with a man who has so much preexisting baggage”.
“She is 27 years old, Sujata and I have no doubt that she made this decision with her eyes wide open. Knowing her very well, I know she will stand by it”.
Sujata lowered herself into a chair with her shoulders slumped defeatedly and observing her, Khushi felt a surge of love and compassion flood her heart.
Walking over to her, she knelt down in front of her and caught hold of both her hands in hers.
“Mummy, I’m sorry. I really am for making you go through this. And I’m sure you’ll like Arnav once you get to know him better”, Khushi said, looking up at her mother, her soft eyes large and beseeching, “I know you just want to see me happy. Believe me, my happiness lies with him”.
Sujata sighed and looked only a little mollified, “Your Daddy and I will have to talk to Astha tomorrow. I hope you realize how embarrassing it will be for us”.
Payal Malhotra’s father owned a chain of budget motels in Florida and neighboring states and it’s success was reflected in the magnificence of their 3.4 acres estate home, which was situated in Avila, Tampa Bay’s most exclusive, gated, private country club community.
The bridegroom’s party was small and consisted of Akash, his parents, his aunts, uncles and cousins from father’s side, Navin, Sujata, Khushi, Anita, a handful of Akash’s bachelor friends who’d flown in from out of state and few friends with their significant others and children. They had all rendezvoused at Four Seasons‘ lobby and arrived together at the bride’s house in a fleet of limousines. Entering the grand foyer, they were warmly welcomed by Payal’s family, the smell of roses and jasmine garlands adorning the foyer, the soft glow of scores of tealights and the sound of Hindi wedding songs playing in the background.
The evening promised to be a memorable one, filled with fun, laughter, music and bonhomie.
Akash introduced all his cousins to Payal and her younger brother, Raj, who though amiable and good humored, was an incorrigible flirt.
“And this is Raj, Raj Malhotra”, Akash had introduced him with a sly grin, “And he has still not found his dulhania”.
When Akash introduced Khushi to him, his eyes had lighted up with a flash of appreciation before he grinned mischievously and said, “Are you sure your name is not Simran?
“No, it’s not”, Khushi had replied in a firm tone which she softened with a tiny good natured smile, “And it’s not Pooja or Suman either”.
After a round of socializing and scrumptious appetizers, the mehndi ceremony started in their humongous and spectacularly decorated walk-out basement. Payal and Akash, resplendent in ethnic finery, made a stunning couple as they sat perched on a carved wood jhoola decorated with solely flowers, smiling good naturedly as family and friends touched their palms with henna paste and got pictures taken with them.
As Khushi and Anita went through the expected motions, Khushi saw her mom engaged in a conversation with Astha Aunty in the periphery of her field of vision.
Her heart lurched as she thought, “I hope she doesn’t decide to talk about us right now”.
After standing behind the couple with Anita and getting a picture taken, she retired to a relatively quieter corner with Anita, right at the very back of the basement. Leaning against a marble colonnade, she started typing a text to Arnav.
“Did you find a seat?
Khushi was about to send the text when Madhu Bua descended upon the two of them with a suddenness that made them jump in fright.
“Why are you two hiding behind a pillar?
She was accompanied by a smiling, smartly dressed middle-aged woman whom Madhu Bua introduced as the wedding’s event manager cum choreographer.
“After dinner, she will help you practice your dance performances for tomorrow’s reception”.
Bulldozing over their agonized protests in her usual hearty manner, “No excuses. Both of you will have to dance, bas. You are my only hope. Manohar’s nieces can’t dance to save their lives and Sujata had spent so much time and money on your Baratnatyam classes…You can’t let all of that go to waste, can you?
“Wow…Di is a damn good dancer”, thought Anita and she sat relaxedly on a couch with a group of high spirited girls they’d made friends with over the course of the evening.
It was late in the night and while the elders had retired to the first floor, the young crowd stayed in the basement, either dancing themselves or watching other people dance.
Supervised by the choreographer, Khushi and Raj were dancing to ‘Teri Ore’ and although Khushi was mechanically going through the well practiced motions, a glazed expression in her eyes indicated that her heart was miles away.
When Khushi’s phone beeped, Anita picked it up.
Hey sweetheart…how is it going? Good news, I just booked a flight, should be able to make it to the reception
And it was from Mr. Jon Stewart, of course.
Anita stared at the screen, her eyes swirling with amusement and pure devilry as she struggled to talk herself out of a particularly naughty impulse. She failed, like most of the times.
She knew Khushi’s passcode because of the simple reason that Khushi never made any attempt to hide it from her. “And that’s likely to change soon”, she thought with a wry smile even as she jabbed in the passcode and began answering Arnav’s text.
Your sweetheart is busy dancing. Can I help you?, she typed with a big grin on her face.
“And may I ask who the heck are you?, came back his indignant reply which made her giggle uncontrollably.
Someone you’d better stay on the good side of, Dr. Raizada, if you know what’s good for you!
“So you know. Khushi told you?
“Yes, I know. Our whole family knows”.
“How’s Khushi ?
“I thought you just said she was dancing”.
“She is trying to dance her worries away”.
“Uh oh …here she comes. Gotta go.TTYL”.
Later That Night.
“So…that’s it”, concluded Khushi. She was lying on her side and facing Anita’s bed with the two beds separated by a nightstand. She had just finished regaling her younger sister with a PG 13 version of her love story, “Never in my life did I once imagine that I would find myself in a situation like this, but then, certain circumstances in life hit you like a whirlwind and just force you to reassess and rethink yourself”.
Anita sighed deeply and rolled on her back, her young romantic mind filled with visions of moonlight and saffron blossoms. Mountain roads and exotic bazaars. Quays and willow trees. Soul-connection and floating lights..
Grief and solace.
“True love is so rare”, Anita spoke wistfully in the dark, after Khushi leaned over and turned the bedside lamp off, “If one is fortunate enough to come across it, it’s foolishness to turn one’s back and walk away”.
“And that is the whole point, Anu”, Khushi said, gazing up through the window at the full moon, “Even if you keep letting it go, if it’s meant to be, it will always come back”.
“Hmm”, Anita murmured into her soft pillow, “Not entirely sure about this letting go business. What if you let it go and it never comes back to you?
“Then you’re better off without it”, replied Khushi with her eyelashes fluttering as slowly she drifted off to a deep sleep, the last conscious thought in her mind being that of Arnav’s arrival the next day.
Next morning, breakfast was a pleasant affair full of cheer, excitement, delicious food and interesting conversation. The entire wedding party had gathered in the elegant breakfast lounge for their complimentary breakfast. Sitting in small groups, the guests soaked in the breathtaking vista of the sand and the sea and the golden sunshine, splashing in from crystal clear glass panes.
Khushi, Anita and Akash’s other cousins looked on amusedly as Akash’s friends mercilessly ribbed him all through the breakfast, making him surrender completely after a while and partake his meal with a beatific smile, which, of course, acted as fresh ammunition for his friends.
Recalling something, Akash turned towards his mother, who sat at a nearby table with Navin, Sujata and Astha. Her husband, Manohar, sat at another table with his sisters and their spouses.
“Ma, I’m sure Astha Aunty must have told you, Arnav is coming too. He texted me last night, his flight will land at 7:30”.
It was quite ridiculous the way her heart behaved every time his name was mentioned, Khushi thought taking a sip of coffee, her ears strained to catch her bua’s response.
“Yes, yes, I know”, Madhumati said, “Astha told me. Make sure somebody goes to the airport to meet him”.
“My childhood buddy”, Akash explained, looking back at Khushi and Anita.
Anita nodded with a suitable, mildly interested look on her face while Khushi seemed to be interestedly staring at the bottom of her empty coffee cup.
Breakfast was soon over and most guests had left for their rooms to start getting ready for the wedding ceremony. A small, intimate affair, it was scheduled to be held that afternoon at a local temple.
Khushi and Anita paused at their parents’ table which was now only occupied by three people. Their patents and Astha, Khushi noted, her heart quickening with indescribable misgivings.
“You both can go to your room and start getting ready”, Sujata dismissed them with a look that brooked no arguments.
With the two out of earshot, Astha and Sujata looked up and met each other’s gaze. They’d already had a cryptic, veiled kind of conversion the night before, pertaining mainly to the hot soup their respective off springs had landed them in. The expressions on their faces suggested that this was possibly one of the toughest, most awkward situations of their lives.
“I should’ve probably approached you earlier”, Astha began, the brightness of the sunlight accentuating the fine lines on her worried face, “I’ve known that these two were developing an …attachment…for almost 4 months now. But I kept putting it off thinking that perhaps it would be more appropriate if Khushi talked to you first. I didn’t have any right to advise Khushi but I did talk to my son on several occasions. Tried to make him see that it’s not wise to lay the foundation for a new relationship with the shadow of an old one still looming over it. But you know how kids are these days…”, her voice trailed off as a sudden wave of helplessness mixed with acute yearning for her late husband hit her with an intensity that it almost felt like physical pain..
“I wish you were here, Arjun…”.
“What do you think about the whole situation? How do you feel about it, considering you must quite understandably feel a certain amount of loyalty and even emotional attachment towards Arnav’s…wife..almost ex wife”, Sujata asked, cringing inwardly at how indelicate her words sounded to her ears.
Astha sighed and met her gaze.
“I like Khushi. She is a very lovable child. Thoughtful, considerate, sensitive with none of the brashness that’s so common amongst young people here”, she said with a little smile, “But, having said that, you’re right I do feel a certain amount of loyalty towards Lavanya too. I don’t know if you’re aware of the tragic circumstances under which they separated, but it makes my heart rend for both of them. Both have suffered tremendously in this past one year. For the longest time I nursed hopes for a reconciliation, not only because I wanted them to be together in this diffucult time, but also because I thought it was the right thing, the correct thing to wish for”.
“But now I have reconciled myself to the fact that their marriage is all but over. There is no way Arnav will even think about a reconciliation. In his mind, he is already divorced. Even before Aarav, their son passed away, their marriage had never been a particularly happy one…”, Astha murmured, wondering if she should share what she’d presumed was the reason behind Arnav’s sudden, surprising decision to marry Lavanya.
She decided against it. It was just a presumption after all and she didn’t want to add more oil to the fire of prejudice she could sense raging inside their hearts.
Navin took his glasses off, placed them on the table and ran his hands over his exhausted face, “I guess it’s time we started looking towards the future. Like I was telling Sujata yesterday, we shouldn’t waste any more time debating with them but rather work towards reaching a middle ground. A middle ground that’s acceptable to all of us”.
Astha assented with her features relaxing in relief.
“Arnav will be here in the evening. Maybe we can all sit together and have a talk”.
Arnav was not in the best of moods. His flight had been delayed at the last moment, his head was pounding and having missed his lunch, he was ravenously hungry. He stood in front of the hotel mirror, his face grim and ill-humored as he absentmindedly tied his black tie around his neck. The prospect of attending a loud wedding and meeting the parents, so as to speak, did nothing to alleviate it.
Getting it wrong for the third time, he angrily unraveled it and flung it on the dresser, his unmentionable profanity breaking the silence of the empty room.
An hour, three texts from Khushi, one sandwich and two tylenols later, he reached the lobby in a slightly more sociable state of mind. He turned many feminine heads as he strode along a corridor towards the Grand Ballroom. And that was no wonder because clad in a custom tailored black suit that highlighted his physique and a white shirt that complimented his freshly-shaved-stylishly-gelled handsomeness, he emanated an aura of animal magnetism that was hard to miss or ignore.
With the ballroom coming in sight, he could hear the music filtering through the double teak doors and when he opened them and slipped inside, a loud blast of pulsating Bollywood music slammed at him and made him cringe inwardly.
Ignoring the two girls who were not only dancing with much aplomb on the dance floor but seemed to be enjoying it too, Arnav stood against the wall and looked around him, trying to spot his table. He had been told of his table number beforehand.
The large ballroom was aglow with dimmed crystal chandeliers and soft elegance. It’s walls, covered with champagne-colored silk and art deco sconces consisted entirely of french windows on one side, which offered panoramic views of the garden, the beach and the ocean beyond. Champagne silk clothed banquet round tables and chairs were arranged around a stage and a large oak dance floor in two separate groups with an aisle in between. The stage and the individual tables were adorned with mauve orchids and light green hydrangeas, that complimented the bride’s outfit.
Finally spotting his mother, he was just heading towards her when an odd feeling in his gut suddenly made him turn his head towards the dance floor.
Then slowly, a highly amused grin curved his lips and postponing meeting his mother, he leaned his shoulder against the wall, his crinkled eyes fixated on the dance floor, whose proceedings he seemed to be finding hugely entertaining.
It was uncanny the way her eyes immediately found their way to his. Almost like homing birds but to disastrous consequence.
“Di…what are you doing?, Anita muttered under her breath as Khushi fell out of sync, her heart beating wildly. Something that made somebody’s grin become even wider.
It was fortunate that the song was almost over and while Anita returned to their table, Khushi murmured something about getting a drink and made her way towards the back of the room.
Arnav’s heartbeats shot up as he observed her threading her way through the tables, a stunning vision in a pink, dangerously transparent sari that offered tantalizing glimpses of her bare midriff and navel. A thin sparkling chain, encircling the curve of her bare waist, caught his attention. He was unable to tear his eyes away from it, watching as it dipped, rose and twinkled in rhythm with her gait.
“Hi”, she said shyly, coming to a standstill in front of him, her complexion almost blending with the color of her sari.
“What’s that thing you’re wearing?
“That thing around your waist”.
“A piece of jewelry”, Khushi replied with a puzzled frown, “Why?
“It makes me want to do things to it”, he said, his face impassive, his eyes swirling with mischief.
“What kind of things?, asked Khushi, an amused smile playing on her lips.
Extending his hand, Arnav hooked his index finger under the chain and gave it a sharp tug, “Like tearing it off with my teeth maybe”.
“Arnav!, Khushi stepped away from him, her cheeks flaming red, her body prickling at his warm touch.
After looking around her, she said in an exaggeratingly patient voice, “Arnav, do you remember why you’re here?
“Argh…don’t remind me”.
“I’m worried, Arnav. Please be serious”.
The throbbing anxiety in her voice reached his heart, causing an immediate shift in his demeanor.
“Sorry Khush, I didn’t mean to trivialize the issues that face us. And there is no need to be worried about it. We’ll get through this together”.
“My parents are already so prejudiced against you”,Khushi began, biting her bottom lip.
Shrugging his shoulders, he said wryly, “If you try to look at things from their perspective, it’s quite understandable. My own mother would probably agree with them too”.
“It’s so unfair”, said Khushi, suddenly looking close to tears.
“And that’s life, my dear”, smiled Arnav.
“Can we tell them about the whole truth behind your marriage? The lie it was based on…”.
“No”, Arnav interjected forcefully, his eyes flashing with sudden fire.
Khushi watched with trepidation as his face froze into a formidable, proud mask while a vein leapt agigatedly on his forehead.
“Aarav was my son, he was a Raizada ..and I will not allow anything or anyone to change that. Ever. Not even for a minute”.
Taking a deep breath, Khushi swallowed a sudden lump in her throat and whispered, “I understand”, while her eyes spoke, “If it were possible to love you any more, I would do that today”.
Their gazes joined, the smiles in them intermingled before he nudged her with a light hand on the small of her back and said briskly, “Let’s go join everyone”.
Their table was probably the quietest of all, and it was just as well that the wedding wasn’t being held at their home towns. There were only a handful of people who cared enough to notice their grave expressions and the absolute lack of conversation at their table. An air of tension that pulsated around them like aurora borealis was starkly at odds with the cheerful, festive Hindi song playing in the background.
After being very coldly greeted by all the occupants of the table except Anita, Arnav had sat down in an empty chair between Sujata and Anita. After a long, uncomfortable silence, Arnav cleared his throat and glanced across the table at Khushi. A ghost of a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth and caused his eyes to crinkle in amused affection. She looked like a porcelain doll in that pink sari, he thought, and right now, as expressionless as one too.
Sujata extending her hand and reaching for a glass decanter pulled him back from his reverie and helpfully, he picked it for her, politely poising it to pour water for her.
Pointedly ignoring his offer, she took it from his hand, her facial expression declaring in no uncertain terms what she thought of him. Arnav sighed, reading it very clearly on her face.
The devil who led my innocent daughter astray.
A few awkward seconds later, he cleared his throat and tried addressing Navin, who sat next to Khushi. Unfortunately, his overture was met by a distracted monosyllabic response that firmly nipped a potential conversation in the bud.
As for his own mother, her expression or rather the lack of of it suggested that she was seriously considering disowning him.
Taking a deep breath, Arnav crossed his arms, and settled back in his chair. Falling into stony silence he braced himself against what promised to be the longest, most uncomfortable evening of his life.
Several moments later, his phone signaled the arrival of a text and he fished it out of his coat pocket.
“Sorry! I’m sure Mom didn’t mean to snub you like that”.
“That’s okay. I understand”
“I just noticed, why aren’t you wearing your glasses?”.
“Trying to impress you…Arnav was about to send this last text, when Anita leaned sideways towards him and murmured wryly, “It is so obvious that you two are texting each other”.
“Well, we’re not really trying to hide it”, he murmured back, his eyes flickering with mirth.
“Why don’t you talk to her directly then?, Anita whispered back, her eyebrow arched in a challenge.
“Good point”, said Arnav in an appreciative tone and put his phone back in his pocket, ignoring Khushi’s very curious text that read, “What are you two whispering about?
He looked up, met and locked Khushi’s curious gaze and asked in a loud, clear, casual voice, “So when are you returning to work, Khush?
Almost Immediately he felt three pairs of eyes boring into him.