Khushi, thrown off balance by his unexpected question, struggled to remember exactly when she was returning back to work. For the life of her, she couldn’t.
“Thursday”, she remembered after a while and flushed in embarrassment at how foolishly hoarse her voice sounded. Catching the half amused, half encouraging expression in his eyes, Khushi gathered herself together with a determined hand and added, “We’re planning on visiting Orlando for a couple of days after the wedding”.
“How about you, Arnav?, Anita pitched in, “Don’t tell me you have to return to work on Monday?.
For someone who didn’t know better, the relaxed casualness of her voice, the effortless familiarity in her tone would have easily suggested a long standing friendship with the person addressed.
The aurora borealis that surrounded them started to fade and recede a little.
“Yes, I’m afraid I have to. I have a red-eye booked for Sunday night”, Arnav smiled down at her.
Astha sighed and turned towards him, her eyes soft with concern, “That makes three flights in three consecutive days”.
“Yeah…I’m exhausted”, Arnav replied. After a second’s pause when the somberness in his eyes was belied by a gleam lurking in it’s depths, he continued smoothly, “But it’s okay, I know how badly you wanted me to come”.
Although she hadn’t experienced it for many long years, Astha was no stranger to his son’s brand of deadpan humor. There was a time when it used to be an intrinsic part of who he was. Just like Arjun.
With her eyes locking with his son’s for a moment, she suddenly realized just how much she’d missed it. This lighthearted, humorous side to his nature which seemed to reappearing miraculously after years. Long after she’d given up hoping for it, she mused with her heart squeezing in sudden gratitude.
The voice of the person whom she strongly suspected was the reason behind this miraculous metamorphosis pierced through the her thought-clouds and brought her back to table. To cold reality and practical considerations.
“So you’ll be here for the whole day tomorrow”, Khushi uttered significantly, the inflection in her voice all but carrying and placing the ball in her father’s court.
“Daddy, please say something”, her silent plea followed her uttered words closely, “I can’t bear this tension anymore”.
Oblivious to her words, Navin remained lost in thought and silence descended upon the table once again. Everyone’s attention was momentarily caught by the commencement of a high-energy, robust dance performance by the bride’s brother and cousins.
Across the table, Navin’s weary eyes gravitated towards Sujata’s morose ones and communicated in a silent eye-language that had been perfected with frequent practice after 28 years of marriage.
Then finally, he turned towards Arnav and spoke in a voice that was civil but lukewarm, “What time is your flight, Arnav?
“4:30 AM”, Arnav replied and held his gaze, waiting for him to speak.
“We have to talk but I don’t think this is the right time or place for that”, said Navin solemnly. Almost immediately, the air surrounding them relaxed and sighed in relief and the aurora borealis disappeared to it’s rightful place in the northern skies. Everyone at the table could breathe a little better..
“I agree”, assented Arnav with a nod, thinking with an inward smile how it was fortunate that his sense of timing was a lot better than his daughter’s.
“Maybe tomorrow after breakfast”.
“Sure. Sounds good”, Arnav agreed politely and his accompanying half smile was greeted by a barely noticeable flash of warmth in Navin’s eyes.
With the most pressing matter on the day’s itinerary out of the way, Navin went back to focussing his eyes, not attention, on the dance floor while Khushi flashed a relieved smile at Arnav.
“So what are you guys planning to do in Orlando?, he asked conversationally, returning her smile with a slight quirk in his lips.
“We’ll be there just for a couple of days. We’re planning on covering two parks, Epcot and Universal”, Khushi answered, finally able to relax and revert back to her normal self.
“Wish we were going after July though”, Anita joined in, her voice a tad regretful.
“After Diagon Alley’s grand opening. But, I’m still looking forward to going to Hogsmeade again. It’s awesome…an out of the world…experience. This will be my second visit to it. Di’s first. She was studying for an exam last time we came here”, Anita continued enthusiastically, “I wish it were my first visit too, I’m almost envious of you, Di”.
Khushi met Arnav’s gaze, an indulgent smile adorning her lips, “Anita is the biggest Harry Potter fan there is”.
“So are you”, Anita protested.
“Not as crazy as you are”, Khushi replied.
“At one time you were”, Anita rejoinded with a wicked smile, “Remember…that time..when you plastered…”.
Well cognizant of her sister’s talent to recall and regale embarassing stories from the past, Khushi ruthlessly cut her off in mid sentence and meeting Arnav’s highly amused gaze asked,
“Have you read the series?
As Arnav assented with a nod, Anita immediately asked, “Did you like it?
Coming from a die-hard fan, Arnav was aware of the loaded nature of the question and his eyes swirled with pure devilry as he pursed his lips and toyed with the very tempting idea of riling up a true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool Potter fan.
“It was okay. A good read. A memorable good read even.”, he replied with a shrug, adding casually, “But not a patch on Tolkein’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy which many scholars agree it was somewhat influenced by”.
“It wasn’t”, Anita cried, his face indignant, “The very obscure similarities are purely coincidental”.
Laughing inwardly, Arnav could almost sense the untimely demise of a beautiful friendhip that had just come into being.
“I agree with Anita”, Khushi pitched in with all the zeal of an ardent devout, “With both stories belonging to the same genre and inspired by Celtic mythology, these obscure similarities are not really as surprising or as significant as detractors make them out to be”.
Gazing at the intensity on his sweetheart’s lovely face, Arnav grinned and wisely decided to back track, “Okay ladies, stop pointing your wands at me. I’m just messing around “.
“That was a tried and tested ruse to smoke all the potter-heads out”, he added with a chuckle.
“I don’t know if the Potter series was influenced by Tolkien’s works or not but I agree with Arnav, it’s not a patch on Lord Of The Rings trilogy”.
Totally stumped by an unexpected inclusion of an unlikely participant in their conversation, Anita and Khushi turned to stare at their father, the expressions on their faces almost comical. After a brief pause filled with invisible neon exclamation marks, their conversation cum debate commenced again and with double the steam this time around.
Finding a pause in a significantly more sedate conversation she was having with Astha, Sujata turned her head sideways to glance at Arnav’s sharply etched, extraordinarily handsome profile.
She saw a dangerously attractive man. A man who emanated a magnetism that pulsated almost tangibly in the surrounding air. While this fact should have been a source of pride to her in normal circumstances, it saddened her. She saw it as the reason, maybe one of the reasons, why her little girl had deviated from the values she had so painstakingly inculcated in her children.
Previously ignored memories floated out to her with all the clarity of hindsight. The vibrant glow on Khushi’s face, the guilty quivering of her eyelashes, the marks on her neck.
She felt frustrated, she felt angry, she felt hurt. She felt like a failure as a mother.
The anger she had earlier felt towards Arnav returned with augmented intensity.
Listening to the lighthearted banter he was engaged in, she thought about the poor child he had lost only a year ago. Her bitter, derisive mind was quick to judge and cast aspersions on the father in him.
Observing his amused half smile, she only saw a callous, selfish, insensitive person behind it. A person who’d not only abandoned his grieving wife but also gotten himself involved with another woman with what she thought of as indecent haste.
“What kind of a person would do that?, she thought disconsolately, her heart lurching in anxiety, “And where’s the guarantee that my daughter wouldn’t be treated the same way?!
With rising impatience, Khushi glanced towards the bar again. He was still there. Still leaning against the granite counter with a glass in hand, still engaged in conversation with the two school friends who’d marched up to their table after dinner, confirmed that it was really him, then swept him off towards the open bar amidst an explosion of cheery bro-talk.
And he hadn’t glanced towards the table ever since. Not even once.
While it was somewhat understandable, Khushi reasoned, that he was enjoying some time-off from what must’ve felt close to the Spanish Inquisition to him, what the heck happened to that worthy promise of facing the consequences equally.
Anita broke her reverie with, “Di, I’m going to get a drink. Do you want something? “.
Wrenching her eyes away, Khushi looked nto Anita’s eyes and they seemed perfectly guileless, in fact too suspiciously guileless to her.
Arnav looked up from his glass as Khushi ambled across the hall towards the bar, looking uncharacteristically tall in gravity defying stilettos. Their gazes clashed and Arnav’s eyes crinkled for a second reading their simmering petulance before admiringly sweeping across her person. Little did he know that his high-school buddies flanking him on either side were similiarly occupied, albeit surreptitiously.
“Damn, Akash’s cousin is hot, one of them murmured in a low voice.
With a soft phew and a quick finger swept under the collar, his companion expressed his wholehearted agreement with him.
Startled, Arnav shot quick sideways glances at his recently reunited buddies and seeing their expressions his jaw tautened while his caramel eyes froze into little chips of ice. Even as he grappled with certain violent thoughts that suddenly flooded his mind, Khushi and Anita reached them and after a generic smile and a ‘hey guys’ busied themselves in ordering soft drinks for themselves.
As Khushi and Anita waited for their drinks with their backs against them, Arnav’s eyes fell on Khushi’s back. They widened a little. Besides the thin, pink band of the blouse’s strap and the glittering waist chain, it was completely bare from the waist up and looked sinfully sexy. And it was becoming increasingly clear to him that he wasn’t the only person in the party who thought along those lines.
Just as he’d tersely decided to walk up and ask to cover her back, Akash and Raj, unable to resist the allure of the watering hole joined them.
“I’m so glad you were able to make it, man”, Akash said to Arnav for the nth time that evening before proceeding to introduce him to his brand new brother-in-law, Raj.
Arnav shook hands distractedly, his mind focussed solely on Khushi and Anita, who were now returning back to their table, drinks in hand.
“Khushi”, Raj stalled her as soon as his besotted mind was able to come up with a suitably believable excuse to do so.
Khushi turned back with an inquiringly look on her face and without missing a beat, Raj shot her an excellent impersonation of a boyishly rueful grin and said, “I’m nervous about our performance. I’m so sure I’m going to mess up”.
While Khushi reassured that it was going to be okay and it wasn’t that big of a deal anyway, Raj insisted on her teaching him one more time how to maneuver a particularly troublesome dance routine.
Effortlessly seeing through him, Arnav’s brain was a haze of vulgar cuss words even as he watched with disbelieving eyes, Khushi relent and set about demonstrating, guilelessly and matter of factly, the way to perfectly execute a sway, glide, twirl and catch routine.
“There. It’s so easy”, Khushi said to Raj before feeling Arnav’s warm gaze lancing through her aura and turning towards him.
Her eyes widened seeing all that fury seething in their caramel depths.
Moments later, as she turned and left, she could hear him summarily take leave of Akash and follow them with determined footsteps.
Falling in step with her, he said cuttingly, “That guy is an idiot”, which, judging from the intensity of the sentiments swirling in his heart, was a colossal understatement.
“I know”, Khushi assented, highly amused at this glimpse of something novel, which showed all signs and symptoms of a being a classic case of jealousy.
“But he’s a harmless idiot”, she added with a smile.
Approaching their table, Arnav came to a standstill.
“Don’t dance with him”
Khushi stared at him for a full second before chuckling amusedly and saying, “Arnav! I can’t just back out at the last moment and that too without any valid reason. It will look so bad. And it’s just a silly dance anyway”.
Icy caramel and sparkling hazel locked and clashed in a silent battle of wills.
“Arnav, it’s not a big deal”.
Anita, a willing victim of this crossfire, pursed her lips and looked away, her eyes dancing with suppressed mirth.
It was unfortunate that The Master of Ceremonies, one of Akash’s friends, chose that very moment to announce the much awaited, last dance performance of the evening and Khushi had to leave hurriedly with an anxious smile and a whispered, “Arnav, I’ll be right back”.
As the melodious tune of ‘Teri Ore’ boomed through the hall’s sound system and an indulgent audience watched in rapt attention, Khushi endeavoured hard to focus on coordinating her movements with the beats. She tried her hardest to avoid looking towards their table. She failed a couple of times and in-spite of the distance and the dim lighting was able to discern the iciness in his piercing stare. It was fortunate that she was a natural dancer and was able to pull it off despite her distracted, anxious mind.
When she looked a third time, towards the end of the song, his chair was empty.
Khushi’s heart quickened in perturbation as very discreetly, she slipped out of one of the french windows. Her shoes clattered across the beige marble patio and down the five steps as she skittered down to reach the turfed ground of the meticulously maintained, aesthetically landscaped gardens.
It was full moon and a cool, salt laden breeze undulated over the rising tide, disarrayed the palm leaves, ruffled the magnolia and the frangipani trees and slammed against Khushi’s warm skin with the scents it had gathered along the way. Taking a deep breath, her hazel eyes carefully scanned the gardens that stretched interminably and sloped down gently to meet the distant silver beach.
She could still hear the faint sounds of the party, the music and the conversation that blended with the sharper outdoors sounds.
Ocean, birds, breeze.
By a fortunate stroke of serendipity, it didn’t take her long to locate him. Even though his back was turned against her, that confident stance, that proud posture was unmistakably his. He was not too far from her, standing with hands shoved in trousers’ pockets, apparently gazing at the relentless crashing of the swollen tide onto the moon enhanced sands.
Her eager footsteps were silent as her thin heels dug into the ground, making her difficult to walk. Impatiently, she knelt down on the grass and took them off one by one. When she got up, her sari seemed too long, so sighing, she paused for a moment and tucked it higher.
The sharp blades of the dew moistened grass tickled her bare-feet and a smile danced on her lips as she shimmied down the garden and finally reached him.
Standing in the shade of a flowering Jacarandas, Arnav didn’t hear her approach and when he was suddenly embraced from behind, he started and reflexly clasped each of her hands in his.
Realizing who it was, Arnav removed her hands and turned around to face her. His still icy eyes were unsmiling as they met hers.
Undaunted and undeterred by his grim countenance and infact a tad tickled by it, Khushi stepped into his personal space and loosely slid her arms around his neck.
Curbing her smile, she asked lightheartedly, “What are you doing here all alone?
“Nothing”, he replied gruffly, averting his eyes, “Just needed some fresh air”.
Pretending to believe him, Khushi nodded solemnly before straightening the knot of his tie and adding, “And why are your hands still in your pockets?
Arnav narrowed his eyes and inclined his head slightly, “Excuse me?
“I mean, shouldn’t they be holding me?, Khushi looked up and met his puzzled gaze, her eyes flickering with mirth.
She watched intently as warmth crept in the frozen caramel pools and melted some of the ice away. Sighing, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close.
Resting her head against his chest, she was unable to curb her giggles any longer and hearing them, he asked irritatedly, “What is the joke?
“You are so funny when you’re jealous”.
‘I was not jealous”, he said with much dignity, “That is just ridiculous”.
“Yes..you were”, Khushi nodded, looking up at him with a wide smile.
“Of course not”, Arnav disparaged, “I’ve no reason to be jealous of …that…moron”.
“Stop laughing”, he continued ill-humoredly, “It’s not funny”.
“You should look at your face”, said Khushi in a sentence punctauted by helpless laughter.
“Alright”, Arnav said grimly and swept her body flush against him, “You asked for it”.
As he slammed his lips against her smiling mouth, Khushi felt a familiar thrill pound through her veins and with a shudder and a sigh, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and pushed her body even closer.
Hungrily he devoured her mouth, sucking and nibbling her bottom lip, his tongue aggressively plundering the moist crevices of her mouth. His hand were posessive as they traveled down the length of her almost bare back, caressing the soft smoothness of her curves, feeling her flesh, tugging at the strap of her blouse.
Coming up for air, he rained kisses down the column of her neck while his warm fingers toyed with her waist chain and sent a frisson of desire down her spine. Khushi flattened her palms against his chest and pushed gently.
“Arnav”, she protested as he bit at her full lower lip and salved it with his tongue, “We should go inside”.
Arnav made an incoherent sound of assent before he drew her closer for another kiss, whose passion turned Khushi’s knees into jelly. An impatient hand snaked throught the thin sliver of space separating them and reached her breast. Even as it moulded it and teased it’s hardening peak, it was the sensation of his arousal rubbing against her stomach that brought them back to their senses.
Stepping back, they rested their foreheads on each other, little rueful smiles curving their lips as they waited for their awry breaths to normalize. Sighting a nearby wood bench that was placed in the shade of a Jacarandas tree and faced the ocean, they ambled over to it. Sitting in companionable silence, they listened to the sound of the crashing waves, the chirping crickets and the rustling leaves.
Khushi rested her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes. Lulled by the solid comfort of his proximity and the tranquility of her surroundings, all her misgivings faded and she allowed herself to reflect on their future, the future of her dreams, which suddenly seemed just a breath and a heartbeat away.
It was odd, she mused, how a person’s perception keeps fluctuating while the reality remains fixed. Arnav stretched his arm around her shoulders and drew her close.
“We should come here again”, he murmured looking down at her, “Just you and me…some other time”.
Turning her face up, she met his steady gaze and smiled at the silent promise she recognized in it.
“I’m worried about your meeting with Dad tomorrow”, she vocalized the thought that had been constantly niggling her.
“Why?, she repeated with a laugh, “Because the two of you are so diametrically different. Different in your attitude towards society, your views on relationships, spirituality and religion, the importance you attach to traditions. Just too many seemingly irreconcilable differences and to make matters worse, both of you possess matching confidence in your beliefs too”.
“Diffrences are never irreconciliable”, he replied, his eyes surveying the swirling turbulence in her hazel pools, “There’s always a middle ground, you’ve just got to have the will to look for it. And while I’ll always stand by my beliefs, I do understand that you can’t live with your beliefs in a vacuum. One has to look at the bigger picture, be cognizant of the belief systems of everyone in that picture and give due respect to their beliefs too”.
Khushi stared at him for a few seconds, “You know what, I was wrong”, she said slowly, “You both are so different yet so alike. Kind of similarly different, if you know what I mean”.
“I don’t”, Arnav chuckled and got up, “And lets go back inside before your mom sends out the death squad for me”.
“Why only my mom?, Khushi pouted as they headed back to the ballroom. She hadn’t got any chance to mull over it but she was already a little bothered by what gave every indication of being a shaky start of a long term relationship.
“Because”, began Arnav, his eyes swirling with wicked humor, “Your dad, I’m sure, will at-least allow me a fair trial before hanging me”.
“Arnav!, she protested perfunctorily, before their joint laughter pierced through the stillness of the night.
Lavanya’s dark eyes were blank as they stared at the iPad screen. Her mind was far away, floating in long lost realms of time.
“Middle-ground”, she murmured as Arnav’s voice broke through the barriers of time and place and reached her. Lucid and crystal clear as ever.
“Our expectations from this marriage might be different, Lavanya, but what’s important is that both of us want this to work. Work towards reaching a mutually satisfactory middle ground. We already have this solid foundation of friendship we can build upon”.
With a sigh, Lavanya gathered her scattered self together, one piece at a time, and focussed her mind back on the iPad screen.
It displayed an airline reservation website.
Arnav and Navin had decided to carry their breakfasts to the adjoining brick paver patio, which besides offering a spectacular view of the lush garden and the glimmering ocean beyond, afforded considerably more privacy too. The skies were azure, the sun brilliant as it bathed them in it’s golden warmth and provided them some comfort from the chill of the early morning breeze.
“I don’t believe in unnecessarily beating about the bush”, Navin settled back in his ornate wrought iron chair and met Arnav’s gaze across the table, “So setting social niceties aside for the time being let me begin by stating that I’m displeased, extremely displeased with the whole situation. And that might be an understatement”.
“I can understand where you’re coming from and I respect your views”, Arnav paused for a split second before recalling Khushi’s exhaustive instructions and adding, “Uncle”.
Navin’s face was unsmiling, his sleep deprived eyes blood shot as he continued, somewhat glad at this opportunity to vent his feelings out, unfettered this time around by a fatherly concern to spare the feelings of the recipient.
“I won’t get into this still-married…almost divorced argument, which quite frankly doesn’t hold any water as far as I’m concerned. You might consider these laws, both religious and legal marriage laws..archaic, obsolete or irrelevant in today’s world, but in my opinion, these are necessary to maintain some semblance of order and discipline in the society. I know you don’t agree with me and experience has taught me that even if I sit here all day trying to convince you, you still won’t agree with me”.
“So”, Navin paused to take a sip of his orange juice, “I’m not going to waste our time doing that. Let’s just focus on the future and the most pertinent question of all. Are you even interested in receiving our feedback and incorporating it into your future plans? If not, there is no point in continuing with this discussion “.
After taking a sip from the Starbucks cup he held , he looked up and met Navin’s gaze. Two equally confident gazes, one caramel, one hazel, both of them unwaveringly direct. “I won’t be able to answer this question without being completely true to myself and I’m afraid my answer might come across as disrespectful”.
“I hate hypocrites, so go ahead..be true to yourself”.
“That totally depends on the nature of your feedback”