“Yes, Lavanya, there were times when I loved you, when I tried hard to hold onto that love. But you never made it easy of me”.
“Arnav, can we try one more time? Just one more time? Please”.
“No, Lavanya. It’s too late. One can’t turn the clock back. Time moves on and with it, people change, everything changes”.
Khushi was oblivious to people staring at her pallor, her stricken expression, as she hurried towards the elevator. She’d waited for but a few minutes when she decided to take the stairs.
Even as her feet sped down the stairs, her thoughts were single-mindedly focussed on spilling some distance between herself and what she’d just witnessed.
She didn’t notice when the apartment key slipped from between her fingers, bounced upon the concrete steps twice and found a resting place in a dusty corner.
It was only after she was safely inside her car that she became cognizant of her surroundings.
She rested both hands on the steering wheel and took in a shuddering breath that seemed to burn it’s tract. She noticed her fingers were trembling and she clenched the steering wheel tighter. It is true, she concluded in hindsight. No one could’ve been absolutely sure- ever- of the non existence of that chance. Not her. Not Arnav. Not anyone else.
Their conversation played again in her mind, sealing, in her eyes, her culpability in the unintentional destruction of that chance. It reaffirmed her role, in her eyes again, in pushing a person to suicide.
She wandered through a maze of unknown lanes until her overwrought mind shut off completely after a while. After a while, when her phone beeped, she pulled into a desolate parking lot and glanced at the phone screen. It was from Arnav. Before she could even finish reading it, her phone rang.
“Lavanya signed the divorce papers”, Arnav’s bemused voice wafted over to her, “She dropped them off a little while back. I still can’t believe it”.
As much as she’d waited for this before, she couldn’t bring herself to rejoice in this news now. So soon after what Lavanya had tried to do to herself. So soon after what she’d written in the last note. The mere thought of it made her cringe.
She didn’t allow herself to feel anything. A marriage had just died and to a suddenly terrified Khushi, it seemed like it’s ghost would linger in her heart for the rest of her days.
“Khushi, are you still there?, Arnav’s concerned voice came to her.
“Yes, I am”, she said finally, her flat, unenthusiastic voice instilling an unknown dread in her listener’s heart too, the hollowness in her eyes still fresh in his mind from their last meeting.
“Are you feeling okay?, he asked after a pause.
“No…”, she replied her voice catching, “I…I just need time, Arnav. More time to get over all of this”, she said, her voice seeped in misery, “Time before I…we…can move forward”.
“Whatever Lavanya wrote in that note”, he said suddenly, “Whatever she alleged. Don’t take it to heart, Khushi. There was no truth to it. There was never any chance of reconciliation. Like I said before, don’t believe anyone else. Just believe me”.
Khushi’s eyes were anguished with confusion. She didn’t know who to believe anymore. Not Lavanya. Not Arnav, because she now knew he could say half truths, rightly or wrongly, to make her feel better. Not even herself, and for some reason that hurt the most.
It was still not about Lavanya or Arnav. It was still about herself. It was about being able to live by oneself, about being at one with one’s skin, one’s decisions and choices in life.
When she hung up after a stilted conversation, Arnav stood still with the divorce papers in his hands and an emptiness in his heart. He could feel every inch of the distance that was creeping up between them. With an impatient movement, he told himself it was just his imagination.
After a while…he stood before the bathroom mirror and faced his reflection. He saw a face that had added years stamped on it due to suffering. Hardened face. Blood shot eyes. Bitter mouth. He saw the extent of darkness and pure dolor that seemed to have seeped into his soul, that he kept hidden from the world.
He started when his mother rang the doorbell. With a sigh, Arnav opened the door to let his mother, whose arms were weighed down with grocery bags, in.
As his mother moved around his kitchen fixing dinner, he put her phone and glasses away to stretched down on the couch, his folded arm resting under his head, his mind preoccupied.
Later, when they were eating dinner, Arnav remembered to share the latest development in his life with her, “While you were gone, Lavanya came over”.
Astha’s hand paused and with an expectant face, she looked up from her plate.
“She signed the papers”, Arnav said, wondering why Khushi, and by extension him, didn’t feel the joy he thought they would when this happened.
Astha leaned back with a sigh. A smile lit up her fatigued face. She’d had her share of the last few days too, showing every sign of being mentally and physically drained.
When they were done with dinner, she said, “Arnav, can you please take me to the mandir. It has something to do with a promise I once made to god and myself”.
Arnav tried his best talking her out of it. It was no use. He had to finally give in to his diminutive but fiesty mother.
Later as they walked towards the elevator, Arnav glanced sideways at Astha and asked, “What are you going to pray for?
“What does a mother, any mother, always pray for?, she replied, “Tumhaare liye dher saari khushiyan, what else?
Arnav smiled a little. It dispelled the shadows away from his eyes and years from his countenance.
“One one will do. One one Khushi is enough for me”, he said gravely.
Khushi had almost reached home when her phone rang again. With her heart beats loud against her ear, she glanced at the screen. As the name registered, her forehead furrowed in surprise. It was Aman. Aman was her father’s primary care doctor too and a premonitory shiver ran down her back as she accepted the call. With her nerves stretched thin from the past few days, she was unable to keep the panic from her voice, “Hello Aman? Is everything okay?
His familiar voice was oddly reassuring. It seemed like it belonged to a different life…a different world.
“Hey, Khushi”, he said, “Do you have a few minutes?
“Yes”, she replied, even as her car exited from the freeway and curved onto a local road.
“I was undecided if I should call you about this or not”, he said, “Strictly speaking, I might even be violating patient privacy regulations and all that. However, I strongly feel you need to know this. I worry about Navin Uncle as he refuses point blank to follow any of my recommendations. And that, I must say, is very unlike him”.
“What’s wrong with him?, she asked with a hollow sensation in the pit of her stomach. “He’d gone to your office for just a physical, hadn’t he? That’s what he told Mom”.
“Yes, it was a physical to begin with but there are some symptoms he’s been experiencing for the past few days that I feel need to be thoroughly worked-up. For one, his blood pressure was very high, which could be because, he admitted, he hadn’t been taking his medications regularly”.
“How high was it?
“180/100, but what I found far more concerning were symptoms like constant headaches, transient blurring of vision, dizziness and a certain confusion that I noticed in him. I don’t know how long he’s been having these symptoms or if he’s shared them with you or not, but I recommended sending him to the hospital for a Transient Ischemic Attack workup”.
“What did he say?, Khushi’s voice was hoarse.
“He just laughed it off saying there was nothing wrong with him and that high BP always gave him headaches. Which might very well be the case but you know how important it is to rule a warning stroke out. I tried hard to convince him but it was a busy day and without my knowledge he got a MA to get him a Left Against Medical Advise form. While I was waiting for him to make up his mind and seeing other patients, he left the office”.
“I’m almost home”, Khushi managed to say after a deathly pause, “I will talk to him. Thank you so much for letting me know”.
“Don’t worry too much about it, Khushi”, Aman said, “I’m sure everything will turn out just fine. You know it’s just a part of excluding the most serious diagnosis protocol. Call me whenever you guys reach the hospital”.
“I will, thanks”, she’d said before hanging up. Something in her voice made Aman stare at the phone with a frown. She’d sounded so unlike the Khushi he’d known…and loved.
It seemed there was no reprief in store for Khushi that day. When she’d reached home, her mother waited in the family room, her strained face giving away the two hours she’d spent trying to unsuccessfully reach her and by extension imagining the worst possible scenarios.
Hearing the door open, she walked up to it. Their eyes met in silence. Ghosts of words filled the space between them, bridging it and making it insurmountable at the same time.
“Khushi”, her moms spoke first, her tone conciliatory with words weighing heavily on her conscience, “I didn’t mean what I said. I…I was overwhelmed…and I just said them in the heat of the moment”.
“And I?, said Khushi quietly, her face paling at her recollection of the events that day, “I was not overwhelmed? How am I supposed to feel when my mother prefers a stranger’s vitriol to the words I’m not given a chance to speak?”.
With an incoherent sound and a quick step, her mother bridged the gap between them and folded her in a hug. “I didn’t mean them, Khushi. I’m sorry”.
Khushi rested her head against her soft comfort for a moment. “And I’m sorry for being a disappointment to you”, Khushi said bleakly, her eyes bright and burning.
“It’s human to make mistakes”, her mother said after a pause, gently stroking her hair,“And it’s never too late to learn from your mistake and move on from it”.
Khushi raised her head slowly, stepped back and looked at her mother. As the full import of her words sank in, her eyes suffused with bewilderment.
Her mother’s eyes were soft and imploring. “I have nothing but your best interest in my heart. I’ve seen a lot of this world and I know, Arnav is not the right person for you”.
It was heartbreakingly clear to Khushi that her mother meant every word. That her day was far from over.
“I realize I might have made some mistakes in life”, she nodded her head, sparkling tears balanced precariously upon eye lids, “Unintentionally. Without meaning to. But Arnav is not one of them”.
Her eyes shone with tears and a confidence at odds with her worn out face, “Our love is not one of them”.
“Khushi, don’t make any hasty decisions. I just talked with Madhu. Do you even know why he married…. “.
Her mother continued speaking, while, without another word, Khushi walked away from her.
She just didn’t have the strength to talk to her or to take up the uphill task of convincing her of Arnav’s and their love’s worth at that moment. It was when she reached the bottom of the stairs that she remembered her conversation with Aman. Her shoulders sagged. Her heart sank. She summoned strength from resources she didn’t know she possessed to turn and walk back to her mother, making a mental note to call Arnav later about the same.
One Month Later…
The mid afternoon sun warmed the red paver patio and after a better part of the morning spent in mowing and edging the lawn, Arnav sat on a stone step in a gray T-Shirt.
Strains of a Hindi song, one of his late dad’s favorite, wafted out from the patio screen along with the smell of his mom’s cooking. His eyes were filled with turbulent thought before a soft breeze carried the smell of lilacs to him.
His heart constricted with a longing that felt like a pain.
With an impatient movement, he rose and decided to go for a walk. Their thirty year old subdivision, meticulously planned within mature woodland, had a number of walking trails crisscrossing it like veins.
With his fingers stuffed in grimy, grass stained dark jeans, Arnav walked down a narrow, beaten down trail, his hiking boots squelching on wet mud and decaying leaves. Sunshine dappled on his sweaty T-shirt and an occasional breeze ruffled his hair. The oak and hickory trees showed delicate green brushstrokes on their bare charcoal branches. The much awaited spring was in the air yet his heart felt bereft of it.
The week after Lavanya had signed the divorce papers, Arnav had come to NJ with Astha for a three week vacation. Not only had this time off given him a much needed restful break, it had also helped him in giving Khushi the space she’d asked for to recover, recuperate and take care of her father’s health issues too.
His eyes flickered with worry as he thought of Khushi. What had happened to her? She still sounded so different, so unlike herself on the phone. Even a month hadn’t been able to change that. Even their daily phone calls hadn’t been able to change that. It was as if when Lavanya finally left his life, she took away Khushi, his Khushi, as a final blow to him.
His heart was consumed by a sudden anger that raged for a while, and when it cooled, it’s ashes tasted of an unknown dread, of guilt, and of fear itself. What had he invited her to his twisted life? What had he done to her?
He took a deep breath and slowed his steps. He had been trying his best to understand her seeming inability to move on from last month’s cruelties, to stop reliving it’s assaults again and again, to stop castigating herself for sins she didn’t commit.
He sat down on a makeshift bench of sawed log and gazed at a small algae covered pond in front. He recalled how he and even his mother had tried talking to Sujata but she was polite and uncommunicative with the former and totally shuttered with him. He could only imagine what she must be doing to Khushi. His mind simmered with barely contained anger again.
Pulling a chair and taking seat opposite her son, Astha helped herself to some excellently cooked lamb curry and Kebab. She loved cooking and with Arnav home for an extended stay of three weeks, she’d had a lovely time expressing her culinary creativity.
The fact that his vacation was almst over filled her heart with a touch of sadness. His return flight was early next morning.
“Is it good?, she asked, unabashedly fishing for compliments.
“Yeah, it’s awesome”, Arnav said, the well practised response falling reflexely from his mouth.
Astha surveyed him worriedly as he ate. His face looked strained and his eyes dark and unfathomable. She didn’t know what she’d expected after his divorce but this was certainly not it..
“How’s Khushi? How’s her father doing now?, she asked.
“We talked yesterday”, he replied,”He’s feeling better, she said, still going through a bunch of necessary tests and studies”.
Arnav fell into a pensive silence once again, his eyes flickering as Astha murmured, “Poor Khushi. What with Manya’s attack, her mom’s disapproval and her dad’s sickness, her life changed overnight”.
As a pale gold spring dusk flitted actoss their quiet neighborhood, Arnav gazed out of the library window, two fingers of his late father’s vintage bourbon in hand. This time of the day never failed to bring it’s gift of inexplicable desolateness and pessimissm to him. Somehow his present seemed bleaker, his past more ferocious and his future filled with cynical doubts at this hour. Today, it was more defined than ever before.
Taking a sip of the amber liquid, he turned and stepped towards the dark mahogany built in bookshelves that covered three walls of the warmly illuminated room.
An old book tucked away in a corner caught his eyes, instantly lighting them with a gleam.
‘The Valley Of Kashmir’, by Sir Walter Roper Lawrence”
Even as he extricated it from a neatly arranged collection of travelogues, memories of their first meeting slowly eased the knot in his chest. He smiled a little at it’s cover, his eyes distant and faraway.
He missed his Khushi – the person she was before, knowingly or unknowingly, he dragged her into the bitter murky waters- that was his life…and possibly changed her irrevocably. He had needed her like a drowning man needs oxygen. He still did.