It was late afternoon with shadows lengthening on the sprawling grounds of Khushi’s late grandparents’ ancestral home. Or Nani’s house as they used to fondly refer it to as children.
It was a late-Victorian style bungalow with a red brick and limestone mortar facade and a colonnaded and arched verandah that ran along three of it’s sides. Over the years, it had gradually settled into, what can be only described as, a graceful dilapidation.
The sky was overcast with clouds. The resultant humidity was alleviated, to some extent, by a cool breeze that fanned them from time to time.
From her vantage point in the verandah, her eyes followed the meandering asphalt driveway, reaching the solid wrought iron gate at it’s end.
Admiring the beauty of the two gulmohar trees, which flanked, sentinel like, each side of the gate, she listened to her aunt’s soothing drone, watching the red blossoms drift down with every sway of the branches.
Memories of childhood summers spent in this dearly loved house wafted to her leaving a trail of bittersweet nostalgia in their wake.
The sound of sudden downpour snapped her out of her reverie. Memories of another rain, in another time, in another continent, swept through her in a trembling wave.
“Today is February 24th, 2014 and Arnav and I are celebrating my birthday sitting in the backseat of his SUV…It’s a beautiful rainy night…a night to remember…I can hear the raindrops splattering on the roof and the windows…....”
Even as the clouds rumbled and the raindrops hammered and bubbled on the asphalt, those pleasant memories were suddenly dissipated by his angry, bitter voice.
It pierced through her mind with the resultant pain she’d come to expect. She felt his hands gripping her arms, saw the flames leaping off of his eyes and with superhuman effort she wrenched her mind off of them. She realized her aunt was asking her something and clearing her throat, she turned to ask her to repeat the question.
There is rain and then, there is the passionate, dramatic cloudburst of monsoons, which, as an experience, etches permanently on a mind’s canvas. There is unmatchable satisfaction in watching ocean-loads of water pouring forth from the skies, washing the dust off of trees and quenching the summer-thirst of earth. It brings an indescribable relief – almost a healing of sorts to the beholder.
Khushi and Anita, who’d spent three summer months every school year of their childhood, in this large, rambling bungalow, had a myriad memories associated with it. In a way, this house and it’s inhabitants had contributed greatly in molding them into who they were today.
It had been nine and seven respective years since Karthik and Sumitra had passed away but their legacy continued to cling, like ivy to brick walls, to the hearts of their two daughters, Sujata and Sumita, and many grandchildren.
Karthik Agarwal, a strict disciplinarian, who used to take great pains to hide his essentially soft heart behind a tough facade, had decided to settle in his ancestral home in this sleepy old city after retiring as a Divisional Railway Manager in the Indian Railways. His gruff, reluctantly caring nature, was offset by the warmth and effusive indulgence of his wife, Sumitra. Together, they’d touched the lives of their children and grandchildren in a million ways, leaving behind their permanent handprints on their souls when they died.
Sumita was an older, mellower version of Sujata. Relaxing in the drawing room with a cup of evening tea in hand, she smiled indulgently hearing the sounds of excited voices and laughter coming from Isha’s room.
“Although I’m disappointed about Suji and Navin not being able to attend Isha’s wedding because of Navin’s health”, she said, looking across the room at her husband, Manohar, whose face was hidden behind the latest edition of Daily Pioneer, “I’m so glad Khushi and Anita are here. Because of them, this house seems so much livelier, just like a house with an upcoming wedding should be”.
Isha, their only daughter and a recent graduate from NIT, Delhi, was home for her wedding later that month.
As her husband replied with one of the many hmmms that she’d learnt to decipher over the years, she glanced around the large drawing room and sighed with contentment. It was furnished with the comforting familiarity of antiquated pieces grouped around a fading persian rug and adorned with heirlooms and ethnic artifacts.
Modest rosewood sofas and hand-carved tables, plantation chairs with gracefully scrolled arms, old-fashioned filigreed bronze table lamps, a vintage Steinway upright piano against a silk draped window-they all added to the old-world ambience of the room and the house in general.
Sumita loved this house. It possessed a soul, a distinctive character, with it’s each nook and cranny possessing a tale worth telling and it’s air bursting with memories.
Having inherited it from her parents, they’d decided to move into it when Manohar was appointed as a judge of the Allahabad High Court six months ago. Despite the house needing an inordinate amount of care, they’d never once regretted their decision.
A loud, resounding thunderclap just above their house brought her out of her peaceful, end of the day, reverie.
“June is the worst possible month for a wedding. Especially with this early monsoon we seem to be having”, Manohar commented, folding his newspaper and putting it away on a side table.
“I know”, replied Sumita calmly, “But Vinay has to leave for America in September and it’s somewhat understandable that he didn’t want to wait. We’ll just have to keep all the functions indoors”.
“Which will be a big pain in the neck”, grumbled Manohar, getting up to shut the windows.
The wind was speeding up and the dark clouds were being ripped by fierce forks of lightning in quick sucession. The rain was about to recommence after a short break.
Sometimes, childhood reminiscences can act as an elixir to temporarily cure a battle-weary traveler’s pains. Isha’s room, that she now gladly shared with her two cousins from US, was a bright space filled with the positive energy of three young girls strolling down the bittersweet lane of childhood memories.
“And remember those sword like thingies that grow on gulmohar trees”, Khushi said, her hazel eyes sparkling in sharp contrast to the shadows beneath, “how we would spend entire afternoons pretending to be swashbuckling pirates. I still remember the jingly sound it used to make”.
“And remember how Nana used to yell at us, saying it was too hot to play outside”, continued Isha, a petite girl with a beautiful earthy complexion and large vivacious eyes.
“Come inside at once or you’ll catch the loo”, finshed Anita, dissolving into peals of infectious laughter that both sisters couldn’t resist joining.
“When I first heard that word I imagined-I was very little-“, said Anita in between gulps of air, “a big port-a-potty on legs chasing us”.
“And I used to love our mango marathons”, said Khushi after they’d sobered up after a while, her mind going back to the numerous times their grandfather would come home with basketfuls of small, ripe mangoes that he insisted were meant to be soaked in cold water and eaten in bulk by a unique process of first squishing it into pulp and then sucking it all out.
“They were like little stressballs”, said Anita with a lopsided smile, “I used to loved the squishing part way more than the sucking the pulp part”.
Isha glanced at her younger cousin amusedly, “Yes, I remember that and the scolding you used to get from Suji Mausi”.
“And then”, smiled Khushi, “we would go to Nani and snitch on her, not giving her a moment’s peace until she mock-scolded Mom in front of us”.
“I miss them so much”, she added after a while, a sentiment that echoed in her companions’ hearts as well.
With the raindrops drumming on the rooftop, Khushi’s reminisces slowly changed into melancholy tinged ruminations. She reflected on her childhood and young adulthood, when her heart had not only nursed innocent dreams but had naively felt entitled to them.
Her throat ached as the happy memories fled and left her with the cold reality of the present. It closed in upon her with all it’s crushing weight.
Some say it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all…but at the moment, the pain of heartbreak and loss was so soul shattering and bewildering that Khushi wished that she’d never loved at all.
She wished she’d never known what love was.
Arnav’s words from the past drifted over to her. They seemed to mock at her state.
“Something to remember me by. Although I have never considered myself particularly optimistic, I’m not willing to sing a requiem for my dream yet. Our dream?”
She remembered the small walnut wood shikara, she’d found his note in almost a year ago.
She still had the boat. She still had the note.
But their dream was lost.
Bowing her head, Khushi bit her lip to stem the tears in her throat, toying with an old sheet of newspaper in the hope that Anita and Isha would continue with their bantering and not notice.
Taking a shuddering breath, she struggled to prevent her thoughts from traveling down that painful route yet again. Displaying typical masochism of humans, her mind refused to obey. An array of sharp edged memories emerged and flashed, loosely connecting together to form a grotesque mosaic.
It was Anita birthday, May, 6th, 2014.
She was at Bab’s Underground Lounge in Downtown Cleveland with a group of Anita’s friends. Aman was there too, a fact that had only elicited a mild surprise from her. She was far too focussed on presenting a normal, socially appropriate demeanor for appearances’ sake. Dressed in a black jumpsuit with a sequined, sleeveless bodice, V neck and a belted waist, she turned many heads as she made way through the crowd to an intimate seating area for small groups. Although black suited her normally, today it only accentuated the pallor of her face.
Sitting back in a leather couch she nursed a glass of red wine, joining in the high spirited conversation from time to time, oblivious to Aman’s speculative eyes that kept returning to her face.
She remebered the Enrique Iglesias number that had pulsated in the basement dance floor, making her head throb painfully.
Later, their group had drifted to the pool hall that was right adjacent to the mahogany and granite bar with red leather seat bar stools and dim, moody lighting.
As Aman and Anita took positions across a pool table, cue sticks in hands, she only half heard their back and forth teasing banter. Her eyes were unseeing focussed on the light from an overhead Tiffany pendant lamp that flooded the green surface of table.
It was a few moments later that an unseen, inexplicable force had made her raise her head and look straight into a pair of blood-shot eyes.
He sat on a bar stool, half turned towards them, an arm resting lightly on the counter. The surroundings blurred, faded and muted as his gaze locked with hers, firmly holding it for a few heart racing seconds. Then with his jaw tautening, he’d turned his back towards them.
“Earth to Khushi!, Anita and Isha said in unison and even as she looked up with a small, forced smile, Isha picked up the paperboat that Khushi had absently made without realizing.
She smiled at it, a finger tracing it’s contours fondly. In that moment, she and Khushi relived the same memories…
The excitement with which their childish figures would kneel over puddles of monsoon water and set sail these little paper boats.
The joy when it successfully swayed and glided over ripples of water. The pain when it fell apart and sank in midstream.
Later that night, sleep was elusive as she lay next to Isha in the darkened room and heard raindrops pattering against the window pane. The memory of her phone call to Arnav later that same night crashed through her defenses again. The answering hello, low and husky, replayed in her ears as if she were listening to it in real time.
She buried her face deeper in the pillow, her breaths convulsing as she fought with tears