Taking a sip from his coffee mug, Arnav headed towards the living room when the phone rang.
Stiffening a little at the name on the Caller ID, he picked the receiver with a frown, his eyes narrowed in wariness.
“I’ve signed the papers, Arnav”, spoke Lavanya without preamble, “Can I bring them to you now?
Arnav stared at the phone, his mind struggling to encompass the full implications of Lavanya’s words. Something that he’d desperately wanted for so long, something that had always managed to escape his tenuous grasp, was actually within his reach tonight.
“Yes, sure, I’m home”, he replied finally and followed it by, “When did you get discharged from the hospital?
“Just now. I’m on my way back home with Manya and thought I’d stop by to give those papers…”, she paused and added, “Like you always say there’s no point in delaying the inevitable”.
“I see”, said Arnav after a moment’s hesitation.
Shaking off a vague sense of unease at the prospect of her visit, he decided it made more sense to get his hands on those damned papers before she changed her mind again, “Do you need my address?
Opening the door, he stepped aside as the tall, stately figure of Lavanya, still frail from her recent ordeal, glided in.
Although she had the folder in her hand, he could gather from her demeanor that she meant to linger, to talk. Once in the living room, she quickly handed him the folder. Without a word. It was almost as if she were afraid of the fickleness of her own mind.
After carefully checking her signatures, he shut the folder, bent, and placed it on a nearby glass topped end table. Straightening, he looked at her and their eyes met. Inadvertently, both minds flew over the just ripped chapters of their lives. While there was regret and wistfulness in one set of eyes, the other registered relief, melancholy and a budding sense of freedom.
With Lavanya ceasing to have any control over his life and a future with Khushi to look forward to, Arnav was surprised to find stirrings of magnanimity in his mind.
Despite all he’d suffered due to her deceit, he wished well for her and that’s what he expressed to her after a moment’s indecision.
“Well, I wish you all the best in life, Lavanya”, he said, extending a hand, “I really do”.
“For someone who’s just treated life so irreverently, do you really think I deserve anything good from it?, Lavanya replied with a wry smile.
Her hand was deadly cold and after breaking the brief handshake, Arnav stuffed his fingers in his jeans pockets, his mind searching for a suitable response.
Objectively, he studied her face, reading the rather transparent torment her mind was experiencing in having to set him free.
It was unreal, he thought with a slow, incredulous mental shake, despite all that had happened, despite all the havoc her obsession had wreaked in several lives including hers, despite the torment it was causing her and her loved ones, despite the absolute lack of hope…she still wanted to continue holding onto him.
“It is unreal. It is abnormal”, he mused, his irises flickering in tandem with unraveling thoughts “And perhaps, that is the whole crux of the matter”.
“Mental disorders are as real, as tangible, as physical ones…”, he remembered a cardinal rule of mental health awareness with an added insight, “How easy to lose sight of this cardinal rule when your own emotions get embroiled, when your own interests and sanity are at stake?”.
“As a physician”, he spoke kindly “you need to acknowledge that a lot of your problems might be due to a personality disorders, even depression. And all of them need to be managed just as physical ailments are”.
“So you think”, she replied with a mirthless smile, “That my love for you was a just a flaw in my thinking”.
His eyes veiled over even as his dormant defenses kicked in with full force.
“When love crosses over the edges of sanity, it ceases to be one. It becomes a bad idea your mind is fixated upon”, he replied impassively.
“With hindsight”, Lavanya replied slowly, “I do realize that falling in love with you, someone who’d never shown any romantic interest in me, was a bad idea. But, it was one I had no control over. It was not a choice…”.
“There is no point in going over all of that again”, he interjected, feeling the first lashing of a wind heralding an emotional maelstrom. It was all too familiar to him. He mentally kicked himself for initiating this conversation with her.
“Please don’t stop me today, Arnav”, Lavanya said, “I need to get this out of me. It’s been festering inside me for too long”.
As Arnav exhaled forcefully and raked fingers through his hair, Lavanya continued, “Falling in love with you was never a conscious choice with me. It just happened and I walked around with this secret inside me for a long time, afraid to confess, afraid of being rejected. Then one day, that fall day at your apartment, I gathered enough courage and confessed”.
“And I refused”, interjected Arnav, his mind traveling through the padlocked realms of his past friendship with Lavanya, “That should have been the end of it, I hope you realize that”.
“I always realize what I ought to do but that never stops me from going ahead and doing just the opposite. Especially where you are concerned. I wasn’t able to move on with my life”, she replied, her voice gruff with pity for her herself, for her unrequited love, “I tried though. Even though it hurt me every day, I tried a lot because somewhere I sensed a real danger of what I felt for you turning into an obsession”.
Arnav was already getting tired of the conversation. He was tired of revisiting the past, he was tired of the intricacies of Lavanya’s mind, her long windedness, her utter self centeredness; just the sight of the blue Manila folder made him stiffen his upper lips and listen with barely concealed impatience.
“Then, Jason came to visit me during the holidays. He’d always loved me, a feeling I was never able to reciprocate. I don’t know if you remember or not, but I used to often discuss him with you. That December, I decided something. I thought by accepting Jason’s feelings for me, by accepting him in my life, by bringing happiness to the remaining days of his life, I would be able to erase your memories, your thoughts from my mind. But Jason was astute enough to see through me. I still remember his words. He said it’s a whole lot better to live and die without love than having to make-do with feigned or forced love. He died in June from complications of Neuromyelitis Optica”.
Arnav sighed, feeling sorry for Jason, a fleeting sense of sadness pervading his heart.
“This was two weeks before graduation night”, said Lavanya.
“I don’t want to talk about that night”, bit out Arnav with sudden vehemence, “What’s the point in bringing that night into our conversation right now?
“Because”, began Lavanya, her eyes smarting with tears, “After I leave tonight, after I leave your life forever, I don’t want you to remember me, if at all, as a lying, deceitful woman who trapped you into marriage”.
Arnav stared at her with skeptical, weary eyes, a little thrown by the conviction in her voice, a little amazed by how little he and his feelings featured in the mind of someone who professed to still love him.
“I swear Arnav. I swear upon Aarav’s memory that when I learnt I was pregnant, I did believe that you were responsible for it. You can call me foolish, you can call me psychotic or delusional but that’s what I truly got myself to believe in at that time. I did not deliberately set out to trap you into marriage…not on graduation night, not when I called you about my pregnancy”.
Pausing for a moment, Arnav surveyed her face, his eyes calculative. He was almost convinced of the veracity of her words. However, he also realized, with even stronger conviction, that this did not change anything.
Not him. Not her. Not their relationship. By the time he’d come to know about Aarav’s paternity, their marriage was all but over with each day a grueling test for survival.
“Okay, I believe you”, he said, wearily, wanting to put an end to the conversation at any cost, deliberately stopping himself from mentioning that she could have told him all of this the day Aarav was born and she came to know of the truth.
“But that doesn’t change anything”, he added, firmly meeting her gaze, not wanting to start yet another cycle of deluded hope, “Because for most parts of our marriage, I didn’t even know about Aarav’s real paternity”.
“I know that doesn’t change anything”, said Lavanya with her tears finally spilling over, “Because the real issue was always me. Who I am as a person. I was never able to make you care enough for me…”.
“Lavanya”, interrupted Arnav in a frustrated voice, realizing their conversation was veering close to the graves of memories, he’d buried in the deepest confines of his brain, “Quit living in the past”.
“I will”, replied Lavanya after a pause, “I really will, but there is something I want to ask you today before I leave your life forever. Something I hope you’ll answer with utmost honesty”.
Even as Arnav inclined his head slightly in question, his alert eyes gleamed with wariness.
“There were moments in between our never-ending fights , not many I admit, but there were moments when we’d seemed almost happy”, began Lavanya haltingly, “Almost like a normal couple. Laughing together at something Aarav did. Taking him to the park. That Tennessee trip. The day Aarav first started walking. There were a few times, a handful of them, when you’d even said you’d loved me. Did you…did you ever, even once, mean those words?
“Lavanya”, Arnav raised his voice even as he grappled with a fresh stab of grief lancing through him, his earlier resolve to be gentle with Lavanya all but forgotten, “Why are you asking me these mindless questions? What do you hope to achieve ? You know I love Khushi and that’s all that matters. That’s all that should matter to you”.
Lavanya was quiet after that, her eyes reflecting the hollowness that comes from the simultaneous deaths of a cherished delusion, last cherished delusion, and last vestiges of self esteem.
“This question might seem mindless to you but it’s answer is important to me”, she cried, her face washed with tears , “It’s important for my self esteem, for what I think of myself as a person. I need to know the answer to this…had Aarav really been your son, had I not been bogged by a fear of being found out, had I been free of my demons and insecurities…then, was there a chance, a tiny chance, of things being different?”.
A compassionate man despite the carefully maintained outer veneer of toughness, Arnav was moved by the bleakness in Lavanya’s words.
“Listen, Lavanya”, he said in a gentle voice, “Are you sure you want to know the answer even though there’s a strong possibility that it might not be to your liking?
“Yes, I do, because if I don’t, this question will haunt me for the rest of my life”, replied Lavanya, “And knowing that you set a great deal by honesty, can you blame me for hoping that you’d meant those words? That you weren’t lying those few times when you’d actually used the word ‘love'”.
There was an intriguing gleam in his eyes as he met hers, a need for compassion dueling with an innate need to be truthful, “I wasn’t lying when I said those words to you…”.
He stiffened and paused when Lavanya hugged him with relief, “Now I can walk out of that door with my heart a little at peace. You know why, Arnav? Because if ever in my life, I meet someone like you, I’ll have hopes of him loving me back. I’ll have hopes of inspiring love in him. Your words just gave that hope to me”.
“So you did love me”, she continued triumphantly, “So there were times when you did love me”.
“Let me finish, Lavanya”, he interrupted her.
Resting a hand on a shoulder to cushion her words, he said, “”I wasn’t lying when I said those words to you, but the person who’s standing in front of you, today, is not the same person who’d said those words to you. The person who said those words to you…didn’t even know or understand what love was”.
Arnav’s eyes were reflective with images of himself as a fresh faced Ophthalmology resident. Irreverent and carefree. Mocking of things he’d not yet experienced or understood.
“You know Lavanya, I have serious doubts about the authenticity of this whole concept of romantic love. 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”.
“There were times when I felt I loved you, when I said I loved you, when I really believed it to be true. So, speaking from that old Arnav’s point of view…yes, Lavanya, there were times when I loved you, when I tried hard to hold onto that love. But you never made it easy for me”.
Lavanya looked up at Arnav, her eyes moist and wistful. She knew what she was about to ask was foolish. However, she was developing an insight into her behavior patterns, beginning to know herself a little, and realized the utmost necessity of asking that question to ensure a proper closure for herself. She knew it was better for her sanity to ask and be refused than to never ask at all and live under a perpetual cloud of ambivalence.
“Arnav, can we try one more time? Just one more time? Please”.
Arnav sighed. He was too familiar with, too sick of her maddeningly fickle mind to react. Yet, he recognized the importance of nipping any burgeoning delusion in the bud itself.
“No, Lavanya. It’s too late. One can’t turn the clock back. Time moves on and with it, people change, everything changes”.
He was back in Srinagar, a bleak figure standing at the far end of the old quay, his silhouette rimmed with moonlight. He could feel the chill of the breeze, hear the cry of a lone nightbird. Once again, he relived that inexplicable pull that had made him turn back and look into her eyes.
“Like I changed”, he said, his heart serene, his eyes murky with emotions, “And understood what love really meant when Khushi came into my life. Suddenly, I knew that the emotions I’d felt before, emotions I’d mistaken for love, were not really love. Like a blind man who’s never experienced light, it was me conjuring up love’s appearance in my mind. When the real thing struck me with all it’s impact, I just knew it had to be love. I just knew it couldn’t be anything else”.
“It has to be love, Khushi“.
“And I really believe”, he said looking down at Lavanya, his voice kind, “What you feel for me is not love. It’s a delusion. It’s an idea, an addiction, that your mind has become conditioned to fixate upon”.
“I know Lavanya”, he added intently, “I know what love looks like and this is not it”.
Gradually, her fingers uncurled, her breaths steadied and her stance relaxed. Without a word, she took a step back from him.
The air was grave. The phantom notes of a funeral dirge ebbed and flowed around them. They carried a paradoxical comfort, a dignity, in their finality.