I know you’re still awake. I was near Manya when you called her. Call me back. Please. Lavanya’s decision had nothing to be with you. That note was a lie. We’ll get through this, Khushi. As long as we’re together, we will. Have faith in me. In us. Call me.
Every word on the phone screen penetrated through the fog, encompassing her numb mind, and slowly seeped into her consciousness. She stared at them with a yearning, a painful yearning, that stormed through her eyes and tugged at every single fibre of her being.
Have faith in me. In us. Call me. Please.
They offered her hope but her castigating mind pronounced her undeserving of it. They promised her warmth but her guilty heart pronounced her unworthy of it.
“You stole”, long tenacious fingers of self-accusation dug into the very nidus of her consciousness, into it’s core of self-belief, and laid the facts out in the most basic of terms “You took something that didn’t belong to you”.
“Last Chance. What right did you have to take our last chance away from us?
“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
“Because she wasn’t wrong”
Rising from the library chair, she walked out of the ajar library doors, fingers pressed hard against an aching temple. Her eyes were dry, her throat parched and much as she wanted to cry, to wail, to howl, to relieve some of the suffocating pressure that weighed her chest down, she couldn’t.
After getting a glass from the kitchen cabinet, she pressed it against the fridge’s water dispenser, finding the tinkling noise of falling water oddly comforting.
Without warning, her own words reached her, traveling to her from it’s frozen abode, suspended in the realms of past. An abode which also housed, besides her words, wishes, dreams, fear and rain.
“I don’t know what the future holds, Arnav, but I want you to know that I’ll be by your side every step of the way”.
She bit her lower lip and held her breath even as a single, silent tear escaped her eye and bounced off of the surface of water she held in her hand.
With her mind being tugged from multiple directions, there was another voice, albeit a small one, that struggled to rise above the din and clamor. The voice of self preservation – the instinct to preserve sanity.
Arnav was in the elevator going up when his phone rang. The relief he felt on seeing Khushi’s smile on the screen was so overwhelming that he felt paralyzed for a while, wordlessly staring at her crinkled hazel eyes.
A whispered “Khushi”, was all he could say after accepting the call.
“How are you?, came her voice. It sounded distant, stilted, oddly different.
Ignoring her question, Arnav chose to go immediately to the heart of the matter, “Don’t let that note affect you, Khushi, don’t let anything Manya might have said get to you. That note was a malicious lie. A deliberately vindictive, last resort attempt to destroy what she couldn’t have. Don’t take it seriously, Khushi”.
“Khushi, are you still there?
“Say something, then. I want to hear how you feel…”.
“I don’t know what to say. I can’t think”.
“Everything’s going to be okay, baby, believe me”, spoke Arnav even as the elevator came to a standstill with a jerk, “I’ll take care of everything, you don’t have to worry about anything”.
When his assurances were met with silence yet again, a wave of irritation flitted across his strained features. “For God’s sake, say something”, he said, emerging from the elevator and heading towards the ICU.
Arnav heard her take a long shuddering breath before replying in a long drawn out, agonized sentence.
“Don’t you realize, Arnav. This changes everything”.
As she hung up, Arnav stared at the screen with his eyes turbulent.
He took a deep breath, curbed the burgeoning panic in his heart, and commanded himself to remain calm.
“She needs time”, he told himself, “She must be under shock right now. she needs time to get over it”.
Astha looked up as Shashi walked into the now empty waiting room, quietly greeting her, and taking seat beside her. Despite his earlier vehement invective against Arnav, Astha bore no grudge, and enquired about Lavanya’s progress with commendable equanimity. Not that she needed to ask because his relaxed demeanor alone was sufficient to reassure her.
When Arnav and Lavanya had first announced their decision to marry, she, along with Arjun, her late husband, although thrown off by the suddenness of the news, hadn’t been entirely displeased. It had seemed like a good match at the time. They were good friends, after all, and in the same profession too. They even knew her parents, who were also from UP, well, with Shashi Kashyap having lived in New Jersey for several years before moving to Ohio after his first wife’s death.
After the wedding, their interaction had been infrequent to begin with, and with Arjun passing away after a sudden heart attack, this frequency had gradually petered off to bare minimum.
“Arnav is here too”, said Astha, “He’s downstairs talking with Manya. He couldn’t receive your call last night because his phone was broken”.
As Shashi remained skeptically quiet at this news, Astha couldn’t stop herself from saying, “Well, that’s the truth. I know my son, he never lies. In fact, he’s too honest for his own good sometimes”.
Shashi sighed and turned to look at her, “Do you even realize, Astha, that your son has completely ruined my daughter’s life?
Closing her eyes for a moment, Astha fought for self-control. A hospital waiting room was just not the right place for a slanging match.
“If that’s the case, which it’s NOT, then why can’t your daughter just forget about him and move on in life?
“That’s what we’ve been trying to make her understand for the past year”, he murmured bitterly before pulling out Lavanya’s note from his pocket.
Without a word, he handed it to Astha.
“What do you think of this?
Astha’s eyes skimmed over the note taking in not only the words but also the indentations caused by the writer’s pen.
“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?
“Poor Khushi will be devastated if she comes to know about this”, was the first thought that leapt from her turbulent mind.
“This is what I’d been afraid of all along”, she mused, “This is why I kept telling Arnav to wait until after the divorce was finalized. To not expose themselves, especially Khushi, to all this ugliness…all this mudslinging”.
“I know Khushi very well”, she said firmly, “She is my best friend’s niece and very dear to me. She has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with their impending divorce. And all this supposed dirt that this PI has dug up on them, it doesn’t mean anything. Khushi and Arnav were on the same plane to India in September but they didn’t even know each other at that time. Khushi stayed with me in Srinagar because she was working for MSF and I was her local guardian”.
“Dr. Kashyap”, she turned towards him imploringly, “What Lavanya needs most right now is to understand that their marriage is over. She needs to untangle herself from the past and look towards the future”.
“Do you even understand what she’s going through right now? What being abandoned by your husband while coping with your baby’s loss can do to you? To your psyche, your reasoning, your mental health? Her only fault is that she can’t stop loving the man who destroyed her–and turned her into the mess she is right now”.
“I beg to differ”, Astha interjected, her soft eyes flashing with sudden anger, “I think it was the other way around. Your daughter destroyed my son’s life…”.
Bristling, Shashi began to speak but raising her hand, Astha raised her hand again,, “Let me finish. I had never intended to tell you this but I can’t have you dumping all blame for their failed marriage on Arnav’s head. He is too much of a gentleman to say anything so let me speak on his behalf. I’m sure you are worldly wise enough to have realized the reason behind their hasty marriage. It was because Lavanya was expecting a child. But…”, she hesitated and met his gaze, mentally bracing herself for his response to what she was about to tell him.
“Though he loved him dearly and still loves him, Aarav wasn’t his son”.
The initial shock on his face was swiftly replaced with rage. With his face darkened, he stood up, finding himself suddenly incoherent with anger.
“I…I could have never imagined that you and Arnav would stoop so low. To come up with such a cheap, lowdown allegation at a time like this…”.
“It’s not an allegation, Dr. Kashyap, it’s a fact backed by necessary scientific evidence. Even your own daughter admitted to it. Had Arnav wanted to take this to court, he could have done that to expedite divorce. But he will never do that because he can’t bear the thought of dragging poor Aarav’s name through the dirt of divorce proceedings”.
Shashi’s eyes were blank for a while as Astha’s words slowly sank in with all their weight, all their implication.
Feeling sorry for him, Astha added in a gentle voice, “What’s done is done. It’s time to forget the past and move forward…I wish you would make Lavanya understand that too”.
Sitting down again, Shashi ran his hands across his fatigued face, looking up as Arnav’s tall figure made an appearance in the door jamb.
An tense silence, filled with anticipation, pervaded the desolate waiting room.
With their last interaction, their last conversation, still fresh in their memories, the two men assessed each other.
It was a year ago, the day after Arnav had filed for legal separation from Lavanya. He was in his new apartment, unpacking, when he’d received a call from Shashi.
His tone had been conciliatory at first, expressing his empathy for Aarav’s loss, urging him to be patient and have faith in God, suggesting a meeting where the two families could sit together and try working things out.
Drowning in grief, perhaps he was in no state for a rational conversation, but his response had been terse and emphatic to the point of rudeness.
With a characteristic economy of words, he had made it clear that as far as he was concerned their marriage was over and nothing and no one could make him change his mind.
His eyes flickered as Shashi rose from his chair to leave the room and came to halt near him.
As their eyes met for a brief moment, Arnav was surprised by a singular lack of negativity, something he had fully expected, in their expression.
Instinctively, he extended his hand and without a word, Shashi accepted it.
“I discussed her case with Dr. Saxena”, Arnav added, “She is progressing well”.
“Yes, he told me”, Shashi replied, his brief smile tinged with sadness, before leaving the room.
Arnav observed his retreating back for a few moments and then deliberately turned to face her mother.
Observing his expression, Astha said hurriedly, “Yes, I did. I had to”.
His eyes flashing with annoyance, his lips pursed, he said, “Ma, you should have at least asked me first!”.
“Sorry, beta, but I just couldn’t let them think so badly of you”.
“I don’t care”, Arnav shrugged his shoulders with feigned indifference, “And you should know how much I hate it when you make my decisions for me”.
Yes, this is how her Arnav always was.
Domineering. Headstrong. Prickly as a nettle but with the best kind of heart there ever was.
“I’m tired”, she said, “I think we should go back home now”.
Shashi Kashyap opened his eyes to the sound of the door being opened and the graveyard shift nurse walking in, wheeling equipment cart in front of her.
Tired out, he had fallen asleep on the recliner, and his first confused thought upon waking up was that of disappointment and dread. No, this isn’t a nightmare, he thought,this is reality—a harsh, previously unimagined reality that was a thousand times worse than his darkest nightmare.
His forehead furrowed, his eyes clenched, he was unable to prevent a million memories from charging at him. Contemptuous and derisive, each proclaimed his failure as a father.
He was unable to deny that he’d done very little, over the last ten years, to bridge the distance that had inadvertently crept between him and his daughters. Embroiled in his new relationship that was rocky to say the least, tangled in his new responsibilities, he was never overtly bothered by the decline in the frequency of their real, person-person interactions. Something, he hadn’t realized then, that no amount of virtual meetings, mails or phone calls could compensate for.
Ten years ago, when he’d announced his decision to marry his office manager, Christine, he’d been very grateful and proud of the way both 23 year old Lavanya and 28 year old Manya had reacted to the news. They had expressed their happiness for him and reassured him of their willingness to embrace her into their family.
It had not been, by any means, an easy decision for him, but with the two girls having left for college to pursue careers, the prospect of entering the twilight phase of life alone, had suddenly terrified him…
He’d thought that Christine would filled that void in his life that, busy taking care of the two motherless girls for most of his youth, he’d never even realized existed.
His first wife, whom he’d dearly loved, had died in a car accident when Lavanya was barely eight and Manya, just thirteen. He was devastated. It was only the thought of his girls that had imparted him with the strength to gather his shattered self together.
Initially, it was a daily struggle for the grieving family to get their lives back on track after being so violently derailed. And Shashi gave them his all. Utilizing every single resource at his disposal, he’d struggled relentlessly and selflessly to bring the smiles back on their faces- and to keep them there.
Thus, he spent his entire youth, not even realizing when his girls blossomed into beautiful young women, and the only payback he ever needed or desired was their happiness. The happiness of his ‘two princesses’, as he used to call them.
A spasm of pain clouded his eyes as he raised his head and studied Lavanya, her body still, her face pale, her wrist bandaged.. A life twisted beyond recognition. A life considered worthy of annihilation.
Even as he watched, her eyes fluttered and opened. Dazed and blank, they gazed in middle distance. The confused eyes of a traveller, whose spirit rests in the gray zone between consciousness and oblivion.
“Lavanya”, he was soon sitting beside her, tenderly patting her cheek, tears of relief pricking the back of his eyelids.
She blinked, her gaze slowly focussing on her father, a tongue darting out to moisten her parched lips.
“I’m thirsty, dad”, she spoke in a surprisingly clear voice, spurring him into action, his tired body invigorated with the lifeblood of hope.
After a meticulous physical examination by Dr. Saxena and the Neurology Fellow On-Call, Lavanya lay on the hospital bed, semi-propped, slowly sucking on ice chips. It was past midnight and she was just beginning to realize the enormity, the implications of her decision. One rash decision taken in one unforgiving moment in time.
The weight on her shoulders compounded with every passing second. Even though her father didn’t say a word, his slumped posture, his defeated eyes, his hand’s unconditional warmth, it’s weight on her forehead, made the words he didn’t say, close in upon her soul, almost crushing it. Little did she realize that although this weight will lighten with time, it was something she’ll need to carry for the rest of her life.
Summoned by Shashi, Manya walked into the room after a short while and unintentionally broke the communication impasse.
Subtlety had never been her forte and rushing to take seat at her bedside, Manya clasped her hand and burst into an tearful, emotional tirade, her rushed words almost tripping over one another.
“Why Lavanya? Why? Didn’t you, for a moment, pause to consider the effect your act would have on me, on Daddy? If you’d really gone, our existence would’ve been like a punishment to us, a punishment worse than death. Why can’t you realize that he’s not worth it? No man is worth it. Why can’t you just let him go? Just forget him, for God’s sake”.
“That’s enough, Manya”, Shashi remonstrated, his eyes reflecting the harrowing experiences of the past 24 hours, “She needs to rest”.
“No, let her speak”, interjected Lavanya, her voice feeble and tormented with guilt, warm tears spilling from her eyes, “What she’s saying is right, absolutely right. It’s not that I don’t realize the futility of holding onto something which, I know in my heart of hearts, can never be mine, but believe me, I can’t help it. I just can’t. I’m sorry…I’m so, so sorry”.
Without a word, her father drew her in a hug, his heart wrenching when she cried, “I want to get better, Dad. I tried getting over him but I couldn’t “