Navin’s eyes were cold as he said in a low, flat voice, “Can you elaborate on that statement?
Arnav placed his cup on the table, sighed and settled back in his chair.
“If your feedback includes asking me to turn my back on Khushi because that’s what you decide is best for her, I’m really sorry but there is no way I’ll be able to incorporate this particular suggestion in my…our future plans”.
Navin watched as he uttered these words with utmost conviction and sincerity but somehow managed to sound apologetic at the same time too.
Quickly thwarting a flicker of amused appreciation in his solemn eyes, Navin continued dryly, “And would you mind sharing these future plans with us?
Arnav took his time answering this question, his eyes absentmindedly focussed on a chipmunk scurrying up a nearby hibiscus tree.
“We haven’t really discussed the details yet, but we look forward to, we hope for a common future”, he said after a while, “A reasonably happy common future”.
The deliberate omission of the word ‘marriage’ from his reply didn’t fail to escape Navin’s notice. The fiercely protective instinct of a father came to the fore and obviated any social need to be tactful or delicate.
“Does marriage feature anywhere in your plans?, he asked tersely, an impatient frown marring his forehead.
“Like I said before, Khushi and I haven’t discussed it yet”, Arnav replied, unfazed by his question, “Now is not the right time for it”.
Navin’s eyes lit up with triumph as he repeated his words slowly, “Now is not the right time for it”.
“Exatly. I agree 100%”, he continued without mincing his words, “With one marriage not yet dissolved, it’s generally considerd in bad taste to make plans for another. And now that you’ve acknowledged indirectly the very existence of this marriage, can you be truthful and also admit to the inappropriateness of allowing another person, another relation in your life now? In the shadow of a preexisting marriage?
“With all due respect, I disagree. I still stand by my belief that this marriage doesn’t exist except on paper. Had I been fortunate enough to reside in another state with more reasonable divorce laws, it would’ve been annulled even on paper a long time back.. Not a single law on earth can keep an ailing marriage alive if either of the partners lacks the will to do so”, he continued with Khushi’s thought making him soften his tone a little, “And since you said that you hated hypocrites, let me share my honest views on marriage as well”.
“Marriage rites, marriage certificates are society’s stamp of approval on a commitment that should be allowed to remain personal”, he began disparagingly, “And I consider these superfluous if the persons involved are truly and deeply committed to each other. If either of them lacks sincerity and enters a marriage with wrong intentions or expectations, no amount of rites or signatures can make their relationship work”.
As the surrounding air thickened with tension, Arnav hesitated for a moment. Remembering a pair of hazel eyes, he conitinued in an assuaging tone, “But having said that, I do realize that Khushi’s views on this particular topic are diametrically different from mine. If it makes her happy to have our relationship stamped, I shouldn’t have any problem going along with it”.
Navin stared at him with his eyes swirling with conflicting emotions. Appreciation of his unmistakaeable sincerity and honesty, a rare commodity in today’s world, vied closely with irritation at his arrogance and annoyance at his assertiveness.
“Thank God for small mercies, huh?, Navin said sarcastically.
With his lips quirking in a tiny, apologetic smile, Arnav said, “I’m sorry if I came across as arrogant…or disrespectful…uncle”.
“Not at all”, Navin replied with a ghost of a smile illuminating his eyes.
Relaxing visibly, Arnav took his glasses off, inspected it for smudges and put it back on. “Is there anything else we need to talk about?, he asked amiably.
With his face impassive, Navin replied, “Just one more thing. Sujata and I think it would be best if you and Khushi refrain from meeting each other until your divorce is finalized. Your mother agrees with us too”.
“And this is absolutely non negotiable”, added Navin after a pause deriving an almost sadistic pleasure at Arnav’s resigned expression.
With his face distracted, Arnav ambled down the corridor towards his room, his mind replaying the conversation he’d just had with Khushi’s father. His cell phone beeped when he was midway. With a half smile he extracted his iPhone from his jeans backpocket, marveling at Khushi’s uncharacteristic patience, which had stopped her from calling him until now.
“So, how did it go?, her anxious voice asked, “What did he say?
“What did you expect him to say, sweetheart?, Arnav replied shoving his card-key in it’s reader.
“That we should stay away from each other until your divorce is finalized?
As Arnav assented, Khushi sighed and said with a touch of wistfulness, “Well, this is the same course of action, I’d decided on at first, but then, circumstances…made me steer myself towards this totally unchartered territory”.
“Khushi”, Arnav’s voice was like a velvety caress as he walked across the room and drew the lined silk curtains apart, “I know that wasn’t an easy decision for you. I never even thanked you for being there for me when…”.
With a desire to steer his mind away from dark thoughts, she interjected him, “I don’t regret it, Arnav, not even for a moment. You loved me, you needed me. I loved you, I was there for you. End of story”.
Totally unprepared for the sudden misting of his eyes, Arnav cleared his throat even as his mind discerned the shadowy outlines of an oil rig in the far distance of the Gulf, he struggled to express even a fraction of what was going on in his heart.
“You’re coming to Caladesi Island, right?, she asked, straightening up as the bathroom door opened and Anita emerged in a warm cloud of steam and floral fragrances.
Payal’s family had invited them for a late afternoon-sunset beach party at the famed Caladesi Island State Park, one of Florida’s few remaining undisturbed barrier islands. They were told that Mr. Malhotra had rented the whole island for five hours for this private function. And to make this day special and memorable for his only daughter, he had carefully handpicked the state’s most renowmed event managing firm.
“Awesome. See you soon”, Khushi hung up hurriedly, mindful of Anita’s silent antics which included questioningly raising her arms with her mouth agape and pointing at the wall clock.
“You’ll make us miss the ferry.
Showered and changed for the beach party, Arnav was about to head out when he heard a knock at the door.
It was his mother. Dressed in khakis and a blue kurti top, and with her shoulder length hair neatly arranged, she looked pleasantly fresh as she took a seat on the edge of the bed.
“Ready, beta?, she asked with a distracted smile, ready to explode with suppressed, unasked questions that bubbled away in her mind.
“Yeah”, Arnav murmured, putting his glasses on.
“Ma, do you have space for these in your bag?”, he asked, holding out his aviators’ case.
Wordlessly taking it from him, Astha unzipped her handbag and slipped it inside while Arnav glanced at her expression and smiled.
Sitting down next to her, he said pokerfaced, “Go ahead, ask me”.
“What did Khushi’s father say?, she asked anxiously.
“That Khushi and I should refrain from meeting each other until my divorce was finalized”, he replied with an impassive glance at her.
“And what was your reply?
“I agreed”, Arnav replied with a light shrug.
“You agreed?, Astha repeated in surprise.
“Yeees”, Arnav reiterated before adding, “Why, is that a problem?
Astha’s eyes were full of hurt and complaint as she replied, “Why should that be a problem? This is something I’d always wanted too. That you never pay any heed to my suggestions and advices is a different matter altogether”.
“Constant complaints and criticisms are different from suggestions and advises”, retorted Arnav, “And do you know what’s the main difference between these two sets of behaviour? The latter carries a subtext of acceptance which the former lacks. You never accepted Khushi as a part of my world or our relationship as a part of my life”.
“That’s not true at all”, Astha protested, “I’ve always liked Khushi a lot and you know that. She’s like a daughter I’ve always wanted. Although Lavanya and I never had any problems, so to speak, you know how her personality was. Very reseved. With her, I was never able to reach a degree of closeness, I’d always hoped for with my daughter-in-law…and Khushi…Khushi was very dear to me even before you came in the picture”.
Arnav cocked his eyebrow skeptically, “On one hand, you like Khushi a lot, on the other, you keep dropping hints of hopes for a reconciliation with Lavanya. What do you expect me to do?, he continued with a sardonic smile, “Move to Utah with both of them”.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Arnie”, Astha chided him in a dignified voice, “I’ve long given up hopes for a reconciliation and I remember clarifying this to you almost three months ago in Srinagar. And I do accept Khushi as an indispensable part of our lives. I’m happy to…because I did notice all these changes she’s brought about in your personality, in your life. She’s giving me my old Arnav back”, she paused, took a deep breath and continued, “But I don’t accept your relationship. Not yet. I believe that a new relationship should always be started on a clean state. I believe it’s inappropriate to start another relationship within the shadow of a preexisting one, and to be very honest, I’m disappointed at you for allowing this to happen. You should’ve atleast thought of Khushi, considered the repurcussions she would ultimately end up facing from her family, from the society. I notice that her mother hardly ever speaks to her and while I totally empathize with Sujata’s mental state, I can also imagine the amount of heartache Khushi must be going through”.
Getting up, Arnav partially shoved his hands in his pockets and looked down at his mother, his eyes dark with tumultous emotions.
“Looking back, yes I do see a lot of things I could’ve done differently. But then, hindsight is always 20/20”, he said with his eyes pensive, “We look back at the past with the clarity of hindsight, we can even look ahead at the future and visialize it with glasses tinted with hopes and wishes”.
“But present”, he continued, raking his fingers through his thick, slightly damp hair, “You don’t really see present beyond the immediate surroundings. You just live it. One moment at a time, one choice at a time, struggling to deal with, to cope with, whatever life throws at you. In your bid to survive, it’s possible that you end up making some selfish decisions”.
He paused for a moment and shadows of excruciating memories flitted across his countenance, leaving behind footprints of a familiar sadness.
“But I didn’t bring her into my life, serendipity did. One has no control over who enters one’s life and who leaves it…”.
The sheer melancholy in his voice smote Astha’s heart like a dagger. Getting up, she embraced Arnav in the warmth of unconditional maternal love.
“I’m sorry, beta. I didn’t mean to hurt you…”, she said with his eyes filled with wet remorse.
Afraid that she was about to cry all over his shirt, Arnav willed himself to snap out of melancholia and cut her off in mid sentence, “That’s okay, I don’t mind”.
Firmly removed her arms from around him, he said a tad curtly, “Let’s get going now, we’re already very late”.
A small, white and red ferry called Magnolia waited at the boarding dock for Caladesi Island in Dunedin, Florida. Hot sunlight reflected off it’s grimy white body and it made a striking picture against a merging background of green waters and blue skies. Full to the hilt and raring to go, it thrummed with vibrations as the ferry driver turned it’s motor on. A few seagulls resting on it’s roof flapped their wings in fright and dived towards the sky, jointly partaking in a raucous symphony.
Sitting on a hard wooden bench that ran all around the boat, Khushi rested her elbow on the metallic rails and kept her anxious eyes glued on the wooden pier that connected the marina to the boarding dock. She looked as stunning as her surroundings, dressed in a white, turquoise green and peacock blue maxi skirt paired with a sleeveless white cropped top and accessorizing with a chunky turquoise necklace and comfortable wedges.
“Where on earth are they?, Anita sitting next to her wondered out loud.
It was after another five minutes that Arnav and his mother made an entry and gazing at Arnav stride down the pier, Khushi had to remind herself to remain angry with him. Aware that several feminine eyes on the boat were similiarly entranced by his magnificence, Khushi couldn’t help but feel a thrill of ownership.
He was dressed in dark jeans, aviators and a white, collared, button up shirt with it’s sleeves rolled up to the elbows. And as if that was not enough, a salty breeze blew against him, gently ruffling his hair and plastering his shirt against his stone hard abs.
With a sigh, Khushi averted her gaze. She shouldn’t forgive him so easily this time, she admonished herself as the very last passengers hopped onboard and ‘Magnolia’ commenced it’s short, 20 minute voyage to it’s destination .
The journey was a noisy, cheerful affair as everyone had come to know everyone else during the festivities of the last two days and were now looking forward to this last ‘after-the-wedding’ celebration.
Arnav’s eyes narrowed in perplexity when Khushi greeted Astha warmly as usual but just shot a cold, half hearted ‘Hi’ in his direction.
Finding seats and settling in, Arnav glanced in her direction time and again but to no avail. She kept her eyes studiously averted. She is doing a damn good job of ignoring me, he thought bemusedly, and I haven’t the slightest idea why.
After a while, his eyes glinted mischievously behind his aviators as he typed and sent her a text. Watching her read it, Arnav suppressed a desire to laugh out loud. The expression on her face was priceless.
“Are you on your period right now?, his text had read.
“No, why?, she replied, curiosity getting the better of her.
“Just trying to diagnose this sudden, unexplained mood-swing”.
“Well, it would be better if you stuck to eyes, Dr. Raizada, because your diagnosis is way off”.
A burst of excitement and interest erupted among the passengers as the ferry approached the virgin island, slowing down to dock. Sighing, Khushi put her phone back in the bag and stood up, her eyes clashing with Arnav’s and conveying that something was seriously bothering her.
After docking on the marina side of the island, the group began to walk to the beach on the other side. Arnav fell in step with Khushi, catching hold of her wrist to slow her and increase the distance between them and their parents who were a little distance ahead of them. Anita, somehow sensing that something was the matter, left them and caught up with her parents, earning an approving look from Arnav.
“What’s wrong?, he asked as they slowly headed towards the beach, walking side by side on a sloping, concrete pathway, their long shadows stretching out in front of them.
Time was short and Khushi decided to skip the entire nothing-tell-me-nothing-tell-me routine and come straight to point. Very conscious of her parents, who were still within viewing distance, she replied, “You and dad have been making all kinds of plans about my future without even bothering to keep me in the loop. I hate it when people take me for granted and make decisions that affect me without even asking me first. I know its just a formality in most of the cases, but still…I want to be asked first”.
Listening to her own words, Khushi colored furiously. That had just sounded like I were fishing for proposals.
Khushi recalled the conversation she’d had with her parents earlier that day. With her dad giving an account of his conversation with Arnav to her mother, Khushi had listened with rapt attention, frowning when Sujata had impatiently interjected and asked, “What about marriage? Does he believe in it?”.
“He said he doesn’t but just for Khushi’s sake, he’ll have no problem going along with it”
It was an answer that had satisfied neither the mother nor the daughter. And for entirely different reasons.
The beach was in full view now and it’s beauty was sublime. Silver, powdery sand glittered under the late afternoon sun and stretched uninterrupted for as far as the human eye could see. While the turquoise waves fringed with froth crashed onto the beach, surfers could be seen gliding in the tumbling waters.
Coming to a standstill, Arnav turned around to face her. Listening to the cries of the seagulls and the rhythm of the crashing waves, he surveyed her face intently. He read several things. A touch of color on her cheekbones, a wistfulness in her eyes, a touching desire to be proposed to, a need to have atleast some semblance of normalcy in her love story. It all made her seem very, very young.
And she is almost six years younger than me, Arnav thought with a pang, perhaps a lot younger in terms of experience.
“Khushi”, he spoke with uncharacteristic impulsiveness. Extending his arm, he caught one of hands in a firm clasp and continued gruffly, “What can I ask you? You’ve already given me everything without asking. All I can ask is if you’ll let me stay in your life so I can spend the rest of my days in trying to give all that you want, all that you deserve. So Khushi, will you let me remain in your life? For the rest of my life?
The sudden sheen of moisture that sparkled in Khushi’s eyes gave him all the answers he needed, but he tightened his hold on her hand, silently urging her to respond with words.
Sniffing, Khushi wiped her cheeks with a free hand and then looked up at him with her face misleadingly intense and serious.
“Now say all of that in Hindi”, she grinned impishly, “I don’t know if you remember your promise or not but I’m still holding you to it”.
With his lips curved amusedly, Arnav crossed his arms and slowly shook his head. Khushi laughed and rushed off after her parents, glancing back over a shoulder after a few steps to say, ‘You only have four hours”.
A mesmerizing, spectacular sunset unfurled in front of their eyes, inexplicably imploring each and every soul to wind down and reflect. A reverent hush descended upon the island. It had been a truly memorable party with good music, delicious food and an open, well stocked cocktail bar. The food and the bar were housed in colorful, windscreen protected tents, which was fortunate because after sunset, the gentle sea breeze had burgeoned into a furiously lashing gail. The guests were widely spread out across the beach with some gathered around a crackling bonfire, some strolling alongside the waves, some sitting in camp chairs in groups, enjoying both the sunset and the conversation at the same time.
While a ballad played softly in the background, Khushi pulled her chair closer to the fire. There were young people of all ages sitting close to the bonfire and having a rollicking time playing juvenile games like ‘Frog‘ and ‘Dead Fish‘. With the flickerimg flames reflecting on her facd, her eyes gravitated towards Arnav once again and willed him to look at her. He and Akash were strolling alongside the lapping waves, hands in pockets, engaged in what gave every appearance of being a lighthearted conversation.
Barefoot, windblown and with the cuffs of his jeans rolled up a little, Arnav made a beguiling picture silhoutted against the darkening dusk..
“Four hours are almost over”, she thought with a frown, “It’s almost time to head back to Tampa. I can’t believe he’s ignoring me like this”.
“Your time is almost up“, she texted him.
Reading the text, he just turned towards her and grinned in acknowledgment, his mind occupied in trying to remember a Hindi song he’d last heard years ago. Like a slippery eel, the song had been playing hide and seek with his mind for a long time.
It was while they were all on the ferry, headed back to Dunedin, that Arnav had his Eureka moment. A quick Google and Youtube search later, he finally sent her a text with a satisfied smirk.
“My love, I don’t need to ask you anything(in any language) because, I’m sorry, but your answer doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether your reply is yes or no. As far as I’m concerned no is not even an option. You are already mine. Period.
Khushi was sitting right across from him and their gazes locked as she put ear plus on and listened to the song. As her lips curved into an amused smile, Arnav grinned in response and the rest of the world ceased to exist.
“Do you know that this movie was about SRK playing a creepy stalker and this song is a stalkers’ anthem of sorts? I’m going to presume that you didn’t know, didn’t mean that“, she sent out a reply.
“When you’ve known me longer you’ll learn that I mean everything I say”
“Aha, so you’re a Tyrion Lannister fan”.
“Aha, so you watch Game Of Thrones”
Their back and forth, inconsequential bantering continued for the rest of the way and it was just as well because it took their minds off of their impending separation.
After returning from Caladesi Island, Khushi showered, changed and crashed into bed, declining even to got out for dinner with the rest of the family. With a contented smile she had snuggled into her pillow, her mind overflowing with vibrant images, unforgettable moments and evocative sounds and smells of the stunning island.
In her sleep however, her long ignored and thwarted subconscious reared it’s insecure head once again, demanding it’s pound of flesh.
She dreamt she was in Pampore again. A shadowy form amongst the saffron fields gliding through the blooming purple flowers. She could feel the fragrant breeze rushing through her hair and her flowing long curls trailing behind.
The air was sepia hued and warm, she noted suddenly, coming to a standstill in her dream, frowning in her sleep. Without warning, an acute sense of foreboding imbued with a heart-stopping precipitance and strength slammed against her.
The sky and the mountains beyond were sepia too, she realized with increasing trepidation, their faces glowing and flickering eerily. She smelt the smoke next and forced herself to glance down towards the earth. The entire field was on fire, the flowers wilting and melting in front of her eyes as the flickering flames consumed them.
“Arnav!, she screamed in pure, unadulterated terror but as is common in dreams, she was unable to produce any sound, making her thrash restlessly in her bed.
With a start, she woke and sat up, her body covered in perspiration, her heart slamming against her rib cage.
The realization that it was just a dream made relief course through her veins like a salve but she was still unable to shake off the suffocating sense of foreboding and her restless heart refused to be placated.
Turning towards the nightstand, she glanced at the clock.
It was 3:00 AM, she observed, Arnav must be getting ready to leave for the airport. Getting off of her bed, she picked her hoodie from the back of a chair and put it on. There was a sense of urgency in her movements as she shoved her feet into slippers and headed towards the door.