“So how’s everyone?, Aman pulled a dining chair and took seat opposite of her, “Uncle, Aunty, everyone?, he asked casually.
“They’re good”, Anita replied. With a sudden, painful twinge of perception, she added, “Di is good too”.
The hurt she was exposing her heart to, the perils of the path she’d chosen were just beginning to dawn upon her young mind.
“And, what’s his name? Arnav. How’s Arnav?, Aman asked, pretending to forget a name that was emblazoned in his heart with burning letters.
“You know about Arnav”, Anita stared at him, her eyes widened in surprise, “When did Di tell you about him?
“The day we met after she came back from Srinagar? Why?
“Nothing”, she murmured even as she wiped Aryan’s face with a wipe, “Just asking”.
Leaning back, Aman crossed his arms and studied her downcast, studiously expressionless face with a knowing glint in his eyes.
“Aha”, he teased, “So you weren’t the first person Khushi confided in and that’s what’s bothering you”.
“No, it’s not”, Anita retorted, annoyed at him for reading her mind so effortlessly.
“Am I really that transparent?, she paused and wondered with dismay for a brief moment. Just a moment, before her inner imp took over and thought, “Don’t delve too deep into my mind, Aman, you might be surprised at what you find there. And that’s an understatement”.
“Almost twenty year olds don’t think like that”, she met his gaze unwaveringly, her tone laced with a subtle warning to quit treating her as someone less than an adult. Someone less than an equal.
Aman’s eyes flickered in acknowledgement and rested on her up-slanted pixie eyes for a short while.
“Although she’s no where close to being as beautiful as Khushi, there’s something about those eyes”.
Surprised at this unexpected thought, Aman frowned, mentally shook his head and asked, “That’s a big gap between you and Khushi”.
“I know right. Eight years”, Anita replied,”Highly suspicious if you ask me”.
“Suspicious?, Aman narrowed his eyes in puzzlement.
“Yeah. Though Mom and Dad deny it, there’s something about the sheer vehemence of their denial that makes me wonder if I were an accident”, said Anita with a sigh.
Aman stared at her trying to gauge if she was really as serious as she sounded.
“You actually went and asked your parents if you were an accident”.
“Of course”, she grinned, remembering her parents’ expressions, “Don’t you suppose I have a right to know if I were an accident? I mean, doesn’t it kind of put a question mark over your entire existence”.
Even as Aman chuckled in amusement, their conversation was suddenly cut short by Aryan demanding attention by dropping a bowl of his leftover dinner onto the floor. Grinning with toothless glee at the two adults scrambling hastily to their feet, he dropped the cup too with a deliberate little movement of his star-fish hand.
“You little monkey”, Aman laughed, picking him up from the chair, while Anita rushed to get a paper towel to clean the floor with, “You really need to stop doing that”.
It was Aryan’s bedtime and as Aman handed him to Anita their fingers brushed lightly and their eyes met and locked for a brief second.
An imperceptible swirl of brown irises. A silent shift in perceptions. A budding awareness. All achieved within the span of a single second eye-lock.
It was only when Anita was upstairs, getting Aryan ready for bedtime, that Aman realized he still didn’t know what had made him sit down and talk with Anita in the first place.
To find how Khushi was doing…
With bitterness rising like bile and bringing a bad taste to his mouth, he flopped down on the family room couch and grabbed the remote from the end table. While his favorite Shark Tank played on screen, all he could see with his mind’s eyes was a pair of unforgettable hazel eyes.
The same pair of hazel eyes shone brightly upon Lavanya’s barren mindscape like never-setting twin suns. To her, it seemed they were mocking. Mocking at her hopes. Mocking at her dreams. Mocking at her. Relentlessly, they haunted her from the time she first saw them flashing on Arnav’s cellphone screen more than a week ago.
“Her Arnav”, she sobbed silently even as disconsolate thoughts chased each other in circles inside her aching head.
Yet again, she grappled with the idea of there being another person, another girl in Arnav’s life. Although struggling to accept it as a concrete, absolute reality, in her heart of hearts, she already knew. She knew, even while anxiously waiting for a private investigation firm, she’d hired to run a background check on Khushi Gupta, to get back to her.
The presence of her picture in Arnav’s phone was all the evidence she needed with the additional tidbits of information she received from the firm just serving as means for merciless mental torture. Acting like powerful demons, they evoked painful, heartbreaking images and shredded her already fragile mental balance to jagged pieces.
Being on the same flight to India in September.
Staying at his ancestral home in Srinagar.
Trip to Tampa.
Raking agitated fingers through her thick mane of hair, she inhaled a long shuddering breath.
“You can’t do this, Arnav. You can’t do this to me. You’re still married to me”.
After a while, she picked her phone from the spotless glass top of the coffee table in front of her. She lived at her father’s house now, her and Manya’s childhood home and from each and every direction world and life beckoned her. Streaming sunlight. Memories on the mantle. Her and Manya’s childhood pictures on the wall. Her father’s voice wafting in from upstairs.
They urged her to break free, to let go, to step out of the self imposed darkness of her personal prison.
Hesitating for just a second, she called Arnav.
Deborah Carter, a 78 year old with short, thick snow-white hair, gazed at her eye doctor with her face rapturous with delight.
A day earlier, she’d had a cataract removed from one of her eyes and was now visiting her doctor for a post op follow up.
The almost miraculous improvement in vision never failed to bring smiles to wrinkled faces or warmth to Arnav’s heart.
“Now that I see your face clearly, Dr. Raizada, I realize what I’d been missing all these months”, she said with a youthful glee, her frail body perched up on the examination chair.
As Arnav smiled and swung the slit lamp out of the way, he could hear her daughter chuckling behind him.
His phone rang at the same time and he delved a hand inside the pocket of his white coat to turn it off.
“If I’d known you were this good looking, I would’ve added some extra sugar to the zucchini bread I baked today”.
Without fail, on each and every visit, Mrs. Carter either brought a fresh baked bread or a cross stitch fridge magnet for him.
“I love zucchini bread”, her doctor lied smoothly without batting an eyelid, “So I will take it even without the extra sugar”.
While he was still talking to her, his phone rang again. And again, he turned it off with a slight frown marring his forehead. It deepened considerably when the phone burst into persistent sound for the third time.
Fishing the still ringing phone from his pocket, he glanced at the caller ID.
“I should have known”,thought Arnav with his lips pursed. He has just stepped out of the exam room and was heading towards his office. Once inside the privacy of his office, he took the call.
“Yes, Lavanya”, he said, tersely, settling back in a leather, swivel chair, “I was with a patient and there was no need…”.
Cutting him short, Lavanya came straight to the point. Stilted with urgency, her husky voice sounded strange and very unlike her normal well modulated one.
“Do you love Khushi?
Taken by surprise, Arnav’s eyes flinched for a split second before steeling over into rock solid pools.
“Khushi has nothing to do with what’s going on between the two of her. Kindly, keep her out of it”.
“You haven’t answered my question”.
“Where we both are standing right now, there’s no room for either asking questions or expecting answers”.
“So you do love her?
“You can believe whatever you want”, he bit out, hung up and angrily tossed his phone on the table. Leaning back, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
When his phone rang again almost immediately, he stared at it with disbelieving eyes. Muting it, he put it back in his pocket, looking up when a medical assistant peeked in through the ajar door and informed that the next patient was ready.
By 5 O’Clock, his phone had 22 missed calls. The odd mix of grim frustration and helpless resignation on his face gave away the fact that he wasn’t entirely surprised by Lavanya’s behavior. That he had probably experienced worse in the past.
Reaching his car in the parking ramp, he opened the door, slid into the driver seat and stared unseeingly at the grey wall in front of him.
The next time his phone vibrated, he took the call, his eyes twin orbs of ice.
“If you call me one more time, just one more time”, he warned in a deceptively mild voice,”I’m going to report you for harassment”.
“Then why the fuck you aren’t answering my question?. Lavanya’s voice was shrill, rushed and hysterical. Voice of someone occupied in the nerve-wracking task of treading on a tightrope between obsession and oblivion. Holding on and letting go. Devil and the deep blue sea.
“What the fuck do you hope to achieve by my answer? His tightly contained anger was beginning to burst open at the seams.
“Just answer me dammit”.
“Yes I do!
His voice was loud, his eyes turbulent and a vein leapt at the angle of his tautened jaw, “Deal with it”.
His words collided with deadly, impenetrable silence at the other end of the line and even as a cold shiver of misgiving ran down his spine, he tossed the phone angrily on the passenger seat.
Darkness had already fallen upon the glittering urban landscape when his SUV snaked around the ramp and entered I-75.
In his fuming head, he could still hear the incessant ringing of the phone, which hammered on his consciousness and almost drove him crazy. With an impatient movement, he extended his hand and turned the radio on.
Nights in white satin
Never reaching the end
Letters I’ve written
Never meaning to send
Beauty I’d always missed
With these eyes before
Just what the truth is
I can’t say any more
‘Cause I love you
Yes I love you
Oh how I love you…
When the phone actually rang, he picked it with his face contorted in pure rage.
“Goddamn it, woman. Why can’t you leave me alone?”, he roared, aggressively racing his car on the left lane and overtaking a pickup truck in the middle lane.
He recognized Khushi’s concerned voice, softened by surprise into almost a whisper.
With his body relaxing a little, he exhaled a long, warm breath, “Oh. Khushi. I’m sorry, I thought you were…”.
“Are you okay, Arnav?, she cut him off, her voice high pitched with worry, her eyes abnormally large in her peaked face.
“Yeah. I’m fine”.
“No, you’re not”.
Sighing Arnav replied, “I’ll call you when I get home. I’m on the road right now”.
Meanwhile in her bedroom, Lavanya rocked herself in a chair, agitatedly. Back and forth. Back and forth. Tirelessly. Incessantly. She was fighting a losing battle with her inner demons and trying hard to resist picking her phone again. Trying to find a way to get him to say what she wanted to hear.
That it was all a mistake.
That Khushi was just a friend.
That he wasn’t telling the truth when he said that he loved her.
“You know Lavanya, I have serious doubts about the authenticity of this whole concept of romantic love”, Arnav had once said to her during residency, his words accompanied by a sardonic smile, “An overpowering emotion that hits you out of nowhere like a bolt of lightning sounds suspiciously like the byproduct of a creative mind, an idle wishful heart to me. And what I find more unbelievable than the concept itself is the certainty with which the afflicted souls are able to diagnose themselves”.
“Damn, I’m in love! Holy Crap, it has to be love”, he had added with laughter rumbling deep in his chest, “Seriously? I wish somebody could tell them this. Sorry to break your bubble but this is more likely to be a case of Programmed Delusion. A classic one at that”.
These views had morphed into somewhat similar ones when he became her husband.
“Why the hell is this four letter word so important to you, Lavanya? Why?! And If you do hear me say it, how will it change our relationship? How will it affect our equation? How will it affect the way we’ve jointly decided to lead our lives?
“And today…”, Lavanya whispered to herself, pausing in her back to forth rocking for a moment, “He said, Yes, I do. Deal with it”.
“Deal with it”.
With her mind replaying his callous words on a loop, she raked her long fingers through her raven black hair. Wrath pumped through her arteries in an all consuming deluge. It brought a much needed color to her wan cheeks and warmth to her icy cold hands and feet.
“You are still married to me”, she screamed, “How could you two do this to me? How could that bitch allow it to happen?
She picked up the phone.
Arnav was heading towards the elevators from the parking ramp when his phone buzzed. It was Lavanya, he confirmed, glancing at the screen with blood shot eyes. A sudden loud profanity tore away from his mouth, and with all his pent up frustration, he forcefully flung the phone away from him. Crashing on the concrete floor, the phone silenced at once, it’s screen turning black and lifeless, splintered into smithereens.
Realizing his folly the very next second, he walked up, knelt down and picked it up.
Incongruently, he first thought of Khushi’s birthday wishes, her voice, her dreams that lay buried amidst the wreck somewhere.
With his Adam’s Apple bobbing, he clenched his eyes shut, holding on to the damaged phone, waiting for the stinging behind his eyelids to pass.
Perhaps it was Arnav’s grave, distracted mood, perhaps it was the memory of the conversation she’s had with her mother a few days back, but Khushi just couldn’t fall asleep that night.
Snatches of the two conversations kept niggling at her mind, heart and soul, sapping her of hope and energy and encompassing her with a deep fog of gloom.
“Lavanya knows about you. I’m worried what her delusions will make her do now. But don’t worry about it, I’ll handle her”.
“Is marriage just a legal contract between two adults? How can you trivialize it so? Are those the values I’d raised you with? When did you stop believing in it’s sacredness? When did you stop believing that the rituals and rites of marriage are divinely ordained? That the Saat Pheres actually mean something? Lavanya is still Arnav’s wife. As long as she’s wearing his mangal sutra around her neck, as long as she has the right to wear his mangal sutra around her neck, she is still his wife. However unpalatable, however bitter this truth might be to the two of you”.
Bound by her promise to Arnav to keep Aarav’s paternity a secret, there was little Khushi could say in their defense. The tears of helplessness that rolled down her cheeks silently implored her to trust her, to not judge her too harshly.
Acutely conscious that she was forgiven not absolved by her mother, this fact affected her more than she could’ve ever imagined.
Her mother thought she had sinned.
This thought didn’t let her aching heart have a moment’s peace.
Just as she thought that things couldn’t get any worse, that the worst was over, the next day happened…
With the wrath and the madness of an apocalypse, it wreaked havoc upon several lives, distorting them into unrecognizable shapes and leaving a desolate trail of wreckage in it’s wake.
Pushing the transparent glass door open, Manya Kashyap walked inside the dim lit room. There was an air of reverent hush in the room and it’s silence was intermittently pierced by the bionic sounds that a ventilator hooked to her sister emanated.
Her long fingers clutched the sheet of paper, their father had dazedly handed to her, in the waiting room.
“Why, Lavanya? Why?, she whispered brokenly, crumpling into a chair at the sight of her sister’s bandaged wrist, “No one is worth this. No man is worth this”.
Curiously, she relaxed her fist and placed the sheets on a table. Smoothing them out with her palms, she first read the note with a myriad expressions scurrying across her face. Turbulence in her dark eyes accurately reflected the magnitude of ongoing mental storm. Accompanying the note was a single sheet synopsis of facts a private investigation firm had dug up on Khushi Gupta.
Hearing footfalls, Manya looked up to see her father join them and take a seat next to her.
His strained, tear stained face bore every evidence of the worst night of his life and his eyes seethed with barely suppressed fury.
“That bastard is not picking up his cell phone”.
Silence reigned in the room for a while which was broken when an ICU nurse walked in with her paraphernalia to record vitals, change IV bags and check on the ventilator settings.
When she’d left, Manya rose from her chair abruptly.
“I’ll be right back”, she murmured heading out of the room with determined steps.
Walking down the sterile hospital corridor that lead from the ICU towards the elevators, Manya had her phone pressed to her ear.
It was late afternoon and Navin had been sitting behind the library desk top as usual working on the manuscript of ‘Plants And Legends‘
The fact that the first rough draft of his proposed book was nearing it’s completion had imparted fresh impetus to his flying fingers and enthusiasm to his bespectacled eyes.
Consulting his field notes from time to time, he was typing an engaging chapter on Aloe Vera, Aristotle and Alexander, when the home phone kept on the desk rang.
“Can I please speak with Khushi? Khushi Gupta?
“Sure. May I know who’s calling?
“This is Manya”, Manya hesitated for a short while before adding, “Manya Kashyap”.
“Khushi!, he called out, covering the mouth piece with a hand, “Someone on the phone for you”.
Having returned from work not too long ago, Khushi was on the stairs coming down when she heard him.
Walking into the library, she asked, “Who is it, Dad?
“Someone called Manya Kashyap”