“Ma?, he asked, quickly taking in her acutely distressed countenance and stepping forward worriedly, “When did you come? Did you try to call me earlier on? My cell phone broke”.
Picking her bag from the floor with one hand, he wrapped her in the warmth of a protective arm and gently nudged her inside the apartment.
“What’s wrong?, he asked again, her silence propelling his anxiety to an even higher plain. Almost close to panic. Usually a person, who vented out troubles and relieved stress by efficient utilization of an acerbic tongue,
Astha’s uncharacteristic silence was seriously perturbing to a son, well versed in her idiosyncrasies.
Reaching the living room, Astha weakly sank into the cream leather couch and Arnav sat down next to her.
“Lavanya attempted to take her life last night”, she said finally, shifting to turn towards him, her gaze fixed on Arnav’s expressive eyes, “She’s in the ICU, still in a critical condition. Dr. Kashyap called earlier in the day. He sounded extremely upset. Quite understandably so. Said he was unable to get in touch with you”.
Astha’s eyes smarted with her son’s tears as without a word, Arnav leaned back against the couch, his eyes tightly clenched.
“Yes, I do. Deal with it”.
Words. Cruel words. Destructive words.
Words he’d flung with unpardonable carelessness considering he was fully cognizant of her nature.
Words, whose ghosts now hovered over his guilt ridden mind like vultures over a carcass.
Astha extended a hesitant hand and placed it on his balled fist. Instinctively, she knew that what remained to be told, what needed to be told next, would hit him even harder.
“In her suicide note, she has blamed …Khushi”.
With his breath trapped in his chest, he turned to look at her.
His guards stunned into inaction, he didn’t even attempt to mask the emotional upheaval churning in his heart. It reflected clearly in his caramel eyes. They shone with the hunted, bewildered expression of a desperate man who suddenly sees his only chance of happiness, of life itself, slipping away from between his fingers. Vanishing like an illusion that his cruel fate had perhaps delighted in conjuring up for him.
He knew very well the calamitous effect this unfortunate news would have on Khushi. On her benevolent heart. On her sensitive psyche. It would break her. Possibly, irreparably.
And it was all his fault. Again.
In his overwhelming need, his near desperation for her presence in his bleak life, he had inadvertently allowed her to be in harm’s way.
As is often the case with humans, a heart’s painful turmoil found expression in the easiest emotion. Anger. Anger directed towards self, towards fate, and towards everything in between.
“Go on. Say it”, he said bitterly, removing his hand from his mother’s clasp,”Say it’s all my fault. Say I deserve this. Say you told me so”.
“Say something”, he rose from the couch, angrily demanding a response from the woman, he owed his existence to.
He stiffened in surprise when his mother got up without a word and engulfed him into a silent embrace.
If her response had surprised him then his surprise dug into Astha’s heart like shards of broken glass.
The pain was almost unbearable.
If a son is surprised by his mother’s unconditional love, her conditional support, at a time like this, she thought, then it’s certain that something went wrong, very wrong, with their relationship.
Gently, she stroked his hair, wordlessly comforting him with the healing of a mother’s embrace. Gradually, she felt his body shudder, tense and relax alternately, grappling for control. She could almost feel him harnessing his seemingly inexhaustible supply of strength to stoically curtail tears.
“Sab theek ho jaayega, Arnie”, she spoke numerous words, but somehow, they all seemed inadequate and devoid of conviction, “Have faith in God”.
With the idea that God hated him and took perverse pleasure in tormenting him threatening to take root in his mind, it required strength again to hold on to his faith.
“I shouldn’t have said those words to her”, he spoke half to himself, “I didn’t mean to say those words to her. But she just wouldn’t leave me alone and I got mad. Why couldn’t she just accept that I’d moved on in life, that I was trying to build a life again with someone else. That no matter how hard we tried there was nothing left to salvage in our marriage”.
“What did you say to her?, asked Astha, wearily, sitting down again.
“I said”, Arnav replied, running a harried hand through his still wet hair, “That I did love Khushi. And that she will have to deal with it”.
Astha’s forehead furrowed with confounding thoughts and emotions. Unsuccessfully, she tried to hide her unease at what she perceived as the inappropriateness, the insensitivity of these words. That was her perspective. A perspective that lay on an underpinning of her lifelong values, experiences, faith and upbringing.
A perspective she couldn’t help even if she tried to. No matter how much she wanted to see her son happy. No matter how much she’d come to increasingly realize that her son’s real happiness lay with Khushi, not Lavanya. No matter how much she’d come to secretly wish and pray for an uneventful, peaceful end to their dysfunctional marriage…
For her, there was no escaping the fact that Lavanya was his wife until divorce and that she wanted to give their marriage one last chance. There was no escaping the fact that Arnav had chosen to, had even wanted, to marry Lavanya at one time.
Given the delicacy of the situation, she swallowed her words with difficulty. However, she failed to stem her true emotions from reflecting on her exhausted face, whose every line and furrow seemed more defined today than ever before.
Arnav studied the myriad strokes of emotions on her face, realizing just how ruthless his words sounded in light of the ensuing events. Just how heartless and callous that made him, and more importantly, Khushi seem.
That was a moment of clarity, one of life’s rare defining moments, for him. An ordinary, undramatic moment that is nothing like a flash of inspiration under a special tree, nothing to make one pause in the business of living. Just something as quiet, as insidious, as the next breath. And just as vital.
For the first time in a long time, he felt the urge, the need, to explain, to present his case.
While he’d always considered himself impervious to the judgments and the opinions of what he saw as an essentially hypocritical world, a strong need to shield Khushi helped him surmount the natural reserve in his character.
“I have no idea how she found out about Khushi. After Tampa, we’d resolved to stay away from each other until the divorce was finalized. And to be honest, the credit for this decision goes solely to Khushi. She even convinced me to meet up with Lavanya so the two of us could sit down and work towards reaching a closure of sorts. Of course that never happened, although I tried my best to convince her to move on, to stop hoping for a reconciliation”.
“To make her see that there’s no point”, Arnav paused, shoving his restless fingers into his jeans pockets and turning his head to gaze out of the window, the glittering skyline reflecting from his glasses.
“No point in flogging a dead horse”.
“But it has always been difficult for her to accept ideas that don’t suit her”, he continued with a bitter grimace.
“But you did marry her”, Astha countered..
“Whatever the reasons might have been at that time”, she murmured, her eyes flickering with poignant memories of the day little Aarav was born. A supposedly premature baby, who had looked anything but to her experienced eyes
“So she does know”, Arnav’s eyes registered only mild surprise as they solemnly surveyed his mother’s transparent face.
“Yes, you’re right”, words tumbled out taking advantage of a rare breach in defenses, “I did marry her because of an unplanned, unexpected pregnancy”, he stated in an oddly unemotional voice, “It’s a chapter from my life that I’m not very proud of. A chapter I wish I could rewrite”.
Astha sighed and averted her gaze.
Silence reigned for a few moments and then Astha turned towards him, her eyes curious, “I knew you two had been good friends.Wasn’t that enough to lay foundation for a successful marriage?
“I tried, Ma, as much as I could. Initially I felt trapped, I felt resentful, there is no denying that, but after Aarav was born, I did make an honest attempt to make our marriage work. I did try to love her as my wife, as the mother of my son. There were moments, few scattered moments, when I almost thought I’d succeeded”.
He paused and surveyed Astha’s face, trying to gauge her response.
“Then what went wrong?, she asked with a frown.
“It’s hard to explain”, replied Arnav, his eyes a canvas of memories.
“It was always difficult to convince her of the honesty of my efforts, of the sincerity of my overtures. She had a habit of always attaching more significance to what I couldn’t do than what I did. She would grasp at the most innocuous of my words and sentences, misconstrue their meanings and motives and allow them to haunt her for days on end. She would relentlessly confront me until she got me to say what she wanted to hear. And even then, she wouldn’t be convinced”.
“Her mind was cracking under the enormous weight of her insecurities, fears and lies, I wasn’t aware of at the time”, he said in a quiet voice, sitting down next to his mother wearily.
Glimpsing the questions in Astha’s eyes, Arnav took a deep, shuddering breath.
“Aarav wasn’t my ..my biological son and Lavanya had known that all along”.
The ride to the hospital, where Lavanya was admitted, was oddly comforting in it’s length. It gave them a chance to collect their thoughts and mentally brace themselves.
It was a dark, frigid night with light snow and sleet raining steadily from a starless sky. With weather-appropriate caution, Arnav’s black SUV sped on the freeway, it’s windshield wiper working nonstop to sweep striking snowflakes.
Inside, silence reigned. The two occupants sat enveloped in solemn musings.
From time to time, Astha would glance sideways at her’s son’s taut, stubbled profile and each time her heart would swell with sorrowful regret.
If only…if only…if only..
All those years, what her son needed most from her was trust and all she could give him was judgement…
It was when they were approaching the hospital that a sudden thought crossed her mind. “Why didn’t you bring up this concealment of paternity issue in court? I’m sure that would..
“No”, Arnav interrupted tersely, his fingers clenching the steering wheel.
“I can’t bear the thought of his name being discussed in court”, he continued bleakly, periodically glancing sideways at Astha “Being dissected by lawyers, being dragged into the ugliness of a divorce.
“He will always be my son, Ma”, he added emphatically, “Biology can’t change that”.
As Arnav refocused his eyes back on the road in front, Astha’s eyes spilled with sudden warm tears. With her heart wrenching, she turned her head to gaze at the approaching lights of a sprawling hospital complex.
“Always my son”, Arnav repeated silently even as the approaching hospital brought back a suffocating divulge of memories. Memories that clawed and tore at the scabs of his wounds and made them bleed again..
Lavanya’s angst reflected in her deliberately violent footfalls as she entered the kitchen. Coming to a standstill, she watched quietly as Arnav poured milk in a glass.
Their eyes clashed across the island as he raised his head to briefly glance at her.
Her brewing mental agitation swirled up into a storm at what she perceived as indifference in Arnav’s stare.
As he walked over to the fridge, plastic milk jug in hand, she bit her lips and strode across the wood floor to stand in front of him. Her stance was aggressive and confrontational.
“Why don’t you give me a chance to explain myself? I can…”.
His bloodshot eyes glimmered with warning as he looked up with his jaw tautened to meet her belligerent gaze, briefly.
“Move out of my way!”
“No! You will have to listen to me”, continued Lavanya, her voice childishly stubborn in it’s gnawing desperation, “You will have to listen to my reasons for hiding Aarav’s paternity from you for all these years”.
“Move-out-of-my-way, Lavanya. Don’t make me say it again”.
“Would you at least look at me when I’m talking to you?, Lavanya shouted in frustration, her face darkening, veins popping on forehead, “Doesn’t our marriage mean anything to you? Don’t all those years we were together mean anything to you? Wait, I already know the answer to that. The only reason you married me was because I was carrying your child…a reality that even all those years couldn’t change. And now..now that you know that Aarav is not your son, you have no interest in trying to make our marriage work. Our marriage doesn’t mean anything to you. I don’t mean anything to you. Aarav doesn’t mean anything to you. You are a heartless bastard, that’s what you are”.
With his face displaying fearsome fury, he stepped forward, making her halt in mid sentence and retreat hastily.
“Shut the fuck up”, he blazed, “And leave before I do something I’ll regret all my life”.
Lavanya left shortly after, shutting the door with a slam that rocked the entire house. Arnav stood by the fridge for a while, running fingers agitatedly through his hair, taking deep, calming breaths.
It was a small, hesitant sound first that made him slowly emerge from the quagmire of dark bitterness.
Soon after, as the sound grew louder, a wave of heart-rending realization slammed against his rib cage, making his feet dash towards the source.
Aarav sat on the stairs, all but forgotten, his tear stained face small and terrified, clutching his teddy bear close against him.
Arnav had soon picked him up in a fierce embrace.
“Hush…It’s okay, baby. Daddy is here”.
At that time, Arnav wasn’t sure how much of their altercation Aarav had actually heard or comprehended, but he was never able to forget the innocent question he’d asked him while happily eating his breakfast.
“Daddy, you will always be my daddy?
The sudden choking in his throat had allowed him to give only the briefest of replies.
Finding an empty parking spot on the fourth level of the Visitors’s Parking Ramp, he expertly maneuvered in his car, parked, and turned the engine off. After a moment’s pause, he drew in a deep breath and turned to look at Astha.
There were issues to be resolved, people to be taken care of, a life to be lived. He didn’t have the luxury to give in to weakness.
“Let’s go”, he said, his caramel eyes firm and resolute.