“Khushi!, Navin called out from the library, covering the mouth piece with a hand, “Someone on the phone for you”.
Having just returned from work, Khushi had changed into a baggy sweater and leggins and was heading towards the kitchen to get dinner.
Walking into the library, she asked, “Who is it, Dad?
“Someone called Manya Kashyap”, was her dad’s distracted reply causing Khushi to pick up the receiver with a puzzled frown.
“Hello? This is Khushi Gupta”.
“Hi. This is Manya. Lavanya’s older sister. You do know who Lavanya is, right? The sarcasm was somewhat diluted in it’s digital version but still impossible to miss.
“Yes”, replied Khushi with a quick glance at her father, her heart jolting with trepidation. Quick to recognize the foreboding lurking in Manya’s tone, she mentally braced herself.
The long overdue hour of societal reckoning, ravenous in it’s demands for pounds of flesh, was here.
Ignoring the sarcasm, she asked in a forced confident tone, “What can I do for you?
“Can we talk?. There is something I have to show you”, replied Manya curtly, “As a matter of fact, I’m already on my way. Should be there in a few”.
Anticipating their meeting to be anything but amiable, Khushi wished she could somehow shield her parents from this impending unpleasantness. She could muster sufficient strength to face the fire alone, she thought, but dragging her parents into it was unbearable.
“Could we meet somewhere else?
Her suggestion met with silence as Manya deliberately ignored her question and hung up without another word.
Placing the receiver back on its cradle, Khushi took a deep breath and walked over to her favorite chair by the window.
As she quietly sank in it, Navin’s fingers, flying over the keyboard, paused in midair. With his eyes narrowed with concern, he tore them away from the computer screen and turned to look at her.
For a few brief moments, he surveyed his daughter’s face, taking in the shadows in her eyes, the frozen immobility of her face.
“Who was it?
“Lavanya’s older sister”.
Navin frowned absentmindedly as he struggled to recall who Lavanya, whose name he’d only heard a couple of times before, was.
As realization slowly dawned, he settled back in his chair and fixed her with a piercing stare.
“Arnav’s wife”, he stated, unaware of the unintentional cruelty of his words.
“What did she want?, he asked, his eyes filled with curiosity and paternal protectiveness in equal measure.
“I don’t know”, replied Khushi huskily, her head bowed, toying with the saffron thread that was still tied around her wrist, “She said there’s something she wanted to show me”.
“Did she sound upset?
“I think so”, she looked up to meet his father’s eyes and continued, “I wanted us to meet somewhere else…”.
A spasm of irritation flitting across his lamp-lit features, he interrupted her in mid-sentence, “No, it’s better this way. I want to know the reason behind this unexpected visit too”.
“I’m afraid it’s not going to be pleasant”.
“Well”, Navin’s eyes were stony as they held her gaze and paused meaningfully, “That’s not entirely unexpected, is it?
The very human desire to say, ‘I told you so’ was fighting a fierce battle with a father’s protective instinct even as his heart filled steadily with worry.
“I guess”, replied Khushi softly and averted her gaze. After a while, she took a deep breath again and squared her shoulders, a gesture reflective of her inner monologue.
“I’m going to stand by my decision. Our decision. And while I do empathize with Lavanya, I’m not going to belittle our relationship by being apologetic about it”.
Silence fell and stiff minutes ticked away. Immersed in thoughts, both listened to tires crunching on the icy road in front of their home. A steady stream of cars as people returned from work.
Despite her resolutions to remain calm and composed, she started when the door-bell rang. And rang repetitively. Seeming loud and aggressive to her ears, it threatened to stretch her already taut nerves to snapping point.
With her eyes smoldering with exhaustion, fury and unshed tears, Manya was already regretting her impulsive decision when Khushi opened the door.
Ignoring Khushi’s greeting, she entered their home, walking in long, purposeful strides, determinedly thwarting the surprise she’d felt on seeing Khushi.
With her hair tied back in a messy bun and her face freshly scrubbed, Khushi emanated an aura of youth and vulnerability, which was somewhat offset by the poise and dignity of her bearing.
A picture that was completely at odds with the stereotypical image of a husband-stealing-siren, envisioned by Manya.
Standing under the outdated brass chandelier of their foyer, the two women faced each other. As their gazes clashed, Khushi extended a conciliatory hand. She was however stunned into immobility by Manya’s expression. She had fully expected, even prepared herself for negativity, but the sheer magnitude of hatred, she glimpsed on the older woman’s face, threw her off.
“I have good news for you”, Manya spat, her features contorted with a vitriolic cocktail of contempt, rage and grief, “Lavanya attempted to end her life last night. She is in the ICU, her body fighting for a life she doesn’t even want anymore”.
Nothing in the universe could have prepared Khushi for this. It’s unexpectedness was evidenced by the last shred of color draining out from her face.
“I’m sorry”, she barely heard herself, her voice nearly drowned by upwards surges of warm blood. She didn’t even notice when her parents joined, coming to stand on either side of her, seemingly buttressing her.
Ignoring Sujata’s offer to move to their living room, Manya continued with her passionate diatribe, her complexion blotching, her nails impaling into the flesh of her palms.
“Sorry!!, she spluttered, “Are you sure? Considering you are the one who drove my sister to this extreme step, I find it hard to believe. Anyway, what are you even sorry for? Sorry that you and Arnav carried on an illicit affair behind her back. That you stole a woman’s husband when she was already struggling to cope with the loss of her child, struggling to stay sane. Is that what you’re sorry for?
“When I met Arnav”, Khushi spoke quietly, desperately summoning all hidden reserves of strength and self belief. Reserves, she didn’t know she possessed until now.
“When Arnav and I first met, he’d already filed for divorce. He was legally separated from Lavanya. And much as I empathize with Lavanya and you, I refuse to consider myself responsible for their marriage’s dissolution”.
“Empathize?, Manya looked at her with incredulous eyes, “By carrying on a affair with a still married man you ruined any chance of reconciliation they might’ve had. You ruined any chance of happiness, however seemingly impossible, that my sister might’ve had. You ruined her life. You pushed her to suicide…
“Can we sit and talk?, Navin intervened at this point, his voice firm yet weary.
Glancing at his worried face, Khushi felt a hot lancet ripping at her heart. Her dad struggling for control in any situation was something she’d rarely experienced in the past. So accustomed she’d become to look up at him as a figure, a friendly figure of authority.
It was unbearably painful to see him like that.
For a girl, there are only a handful of things more heartbreaking than witnessing helplessness on your father’s countenance. To be responsible for that helplessness is perhaps one of them.
Too preoccupied and too agitated to give heed to Navin and Sujata’s futile attempts at placation, Manya continued with her vociferous accusations and pulled out a sheet of paper from her handbag.
“This is meant to be her farewell note”, she said with trembling lips, handing her the single sheet of paper.
In a daze, Khushi took it from her.
Wordlessly, she stared at her name which was repetitively scribbled all over the page. The boldness of the font, the indentations they’d left behind on the paper, hinted at not only the strength of the writers grip but also the intensity of her mental agitation. An icy shiver ran down her spine as her eyes reached the bottom of the note.
Arnav is still mine. He is still married to me. What right did you have to take him away from me? Why did you take our last chance away? Why?
“That’s all I wanted to show you”, Manya said, snatching the note paper from Khushi’s strangely lifeless fingers, “And to say that sluts like you who trample all over someone else’s life to build their own can never be happy. Because such bitches forget that Karma is a bitch too”.
No sooner had the door clicked shut after Manya, Khushi took a step, an unsteady step, towards her parents. Her shocked mind was blank, wiped clear of all articulate thoughts, yet, the desire to express, to be understood, flickered in her eyes in acute desperation.
“Daddy…it wasn’t like that at all”, she began before the sight of his unnatural pallor brought her speech to a screaming halt.
“Are you alright?, she stepped up urgently, her voice cracking with concern.
His dad didn’t reply. All words seemed to have left him too. Without meeting her gaze, he gently removed her hand from his arm.
“It wasn’t like that at all…Trust me…I’m not the person that Manya was talking about”, she persisted incoherently and was taken aback when Sujata, who’d been unnaturally quiet until now, stepped forward in a swift moment. Grabbing her by the arm, her fingers digging deep into her flesh, she swung her away from Navin.
“Because of you”, Sujata bit out, her eyes leaping flames of previously unseen anger, “Because of you, your father was humiliated in his own house. Because of you, he had to put up with a stranger abusing his daughter and couldn’t do anything about it”.
“Why didn’t you and dad say anything? Why didn’t anybody tell her to stop?, the tears that she’d valiantly kept at bay until now flowed freely.
“Because she wasn’t all that wrong“.
Never before had their home seemed so quiet, so motionless. The silence was dark and deafening. Ordinary household sounds-the ticking of a clock, the opening theme of Sujata’s favorite soap, the heat blasting off of the vents, they all appeared unnaturally loud and jarring to Khushi’s overwrought ears.
Standing at the foot of the stairs, she stared at her parents’ retreating backs with wide, unseeing eyes.
She blinked as Sujara’s words erupted in her mind again and left behind a conflagration of pain.
“She wasn’t wrong“.
Through the steam and the hiss of shower, the relentless ringing of the door bell hammered at his aching head, spiraling his already black mood to new heights..
He’d had a grueling day at work. Two incidences of Posterior Capsular Rupture, common complication of cataract surgery, but one he hadn’t faced since his training days, had forced him to admit to something he’d been stubbornly ignoring for the longest time now. A new, barely noticeable surgical tremor in his hand.
Having to navigate through the day without his cell phone hadn’t helped either in improving the overall quality of the day.
“At least that’s taken care of”, he emerged from the bathroom dried and changed to the concurrent sounds of the door bell and his new phone ringing in the apartment somewhere. He’d stopped by at the Apple Store after work to turn in his damage-insured phone and pick up a new one.
As the door bell’s ringing resumed after a short pause, Arnav hurried towards it, the anger in his eyes giving way to the clarity of curiosity and a tinge of concern.
Opening the door, he blinked in surprise at the obviously distraught person standing outside.