Later that day.
While a hot breeze blew outside, three young girls sat on low stools of a sari shop, watching with fascination as it’s young assistant draped a sari around his body, allowing himself to be thoroughly inspected. He was helping Isha decide between two saris she’d earlier asked to be set aside.
Sardar Palace was one of the most sought after sari shop in Allahabad. It was located in Chawk, one of the oldest parts of town and a beehive of prospective brides and families during wedding season. It was June, one of the unlikeliest months for weddings, yet to their surprise, they found it crowded still, people entering and exiting it’s glass door in droves.
“So which one should I pick?, Isha asked, taking a sip from a chilled can of coke.
As Khushi glanced at the pretty beige and red one that the poor man was still sporting, Anita piped, “You are asking the wrong person, Isha Di. Khushi Di takes forever to decide”.
“Just to prove you wrong”, Khushi teased with a smile, “I’m going to show just how fast I can decide”. She picked the beige and red one, which thankfully was the last item on their shopping list of the day, and they all heaved a collective sigh of relief watching it being carried away for folding and packing . The wedding festivities were kicking off in less than a week and their house was already abuzz with all the nervous energy and excitement of an upcoming wedding. While the all important trousseau shopping had already been accomplished in Lucknow and Delhi almost a month ago, today, they were sent to buy sarees for Vinay’s aunts.
With shopping bags in hands, they stepped out in the blazing heat and slowly made their way to their car, which could only be parked at a considerable distance from the store. Isha had her cell phone stuck to a ear as she talked to Vinay, trying to explain their location to him.
“We are getting out of Sardar Palace and walking toward our car. It is parked right in front of Punjab National Bank. What took you so long?
Making their way through the crowed street, they appeared comically similar in their leggings and cotton kurtas and scarves loosely wrapped around downturned, sun-glassed faces as a protection from the sun and the hot wind.
It was a typical summer day in small town India and the air was vibrant with life expressing itself in bold strokes. An intriguing palette of colors, smells and sights blended with the merry jingling of rickshaw bells and irate honking of car horns.
A popular Hindi song belted out from a nearby shop, adding an unforgettable quality to the ambience.
Almost melting in the heat and intent on reaching their car as soon as possible, their heads whipped up in surprise when a young man in jeans and white shirt swerved and halted his motor cycle right in front of them.
“What the..”, Anita exclaimed as she teetered to maintain her balance after an abrupt halt.
Even as Khushi steadied her, Isha’s face lit up with a delighted smile. It was Vinay, her fiance and erstwhile class mate at MIT, New Delhi. His family lived in Allahabad just like Isha’s and had known each other for over a decade.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you all”, he said with a rueful smile before Isha interjected and introduced everyone to everyone.
Anita gazed at him with interest, her wistful heart glimpsing a faint resemblance to Aman. Even as her heart felt a now familiar twisting sensation, she said brightly, “Oh, that’s okay. I should’ve been looking where I was going”.
Aman was Vinay’s cousin and it was on her birthday, her extremely eventful twentieth birthday, she thought wryly, when they’d realized while conversing that their first cousins were marrying each other. And later, when she thought about it, she’d come to the conclusion that it wasn’t that surprising considering how their maternal grandparents belonged to Allahabad and had grown up together.
Her mind flying to the day of her birthday, she remembered how she’d cajoled him to come for the wedding but he hadn’t budged. Of course, she now doubted if he’d been listening to her at all that evening…
“What a fool she has been”, her young heart ached even as she moved a little toward the side of the road with everyone else.
Soon it was obvious that Vinay and Isha had their own plans for the afternoon and when they asked them to join, Khushi and Anita declined in chorus, knowing that the offer was only out of politeness.
“No, no”, said Khushi, her heart warmed by this very- much-in-love couple who tried hiding their love underneath a veneer of gentle banter, “You guys go ahead. We’ll join you some other time”.
And when their continued to insist, Anita came up with, “What Di really meant is that we don’t want to be kabab mein haddis“.
Laughing, Khushi added, “Well, there’s that and then, I really feel I’m coming down with something. My sore throat is coming back with a vengeance”.
A single glance at Khushi’s peaked face was all it took to convince Isha of her need for rest. Soon, she sat behind Vinay on his bike, her lovely kohled eyes sparkling with joy, her burgundy batik print kurti clashing against his white shirt.
Looking at the bike weaving it’s way down the crowded street, Khushi was suddenly overcome by an embarrassing desire to burst into tears. Right there. Right in the middle of a crowed street. The smell of frying jalebis and the sight of a leisurely ambling cow did nothing to help.
Taking in a deep shuddering breath and swallowing an aching lump in her throat. Blinking her eyes, she was thankful for her sunglasses.
While memories seemed adamant to fly her to a day in Srinagar, a night in Cleveland or a hallowed space of moon and shadows, she tried her best to protect herself by keeping her feet firmly on the ground. His voice, deep and somber with that occasional lilt of humor pierced through the half constructed fortress around her heart.
“It has to be love“.
A flood of memories and sensations followed. His smell…his touch…his feel..his heartbeat. How will she ever forget? How can she ever forget him?
Close on the heels of yearning, hope intervened with hesitant reminders of the number of times he’d called after that fateful night. Calls she’d been too devastated and angry to accept at that time.
Angrily, she muted that nascent hope. Will his regret change the reality of what he did? Will she ever be able to erase that woman’s voice from her mind? Will she ever be able to trust him again?
Not only was she too scared to embrace hope, her pride and self-worth demanded she turn her back to it. And she did with imagined intimate images of Arnav with that woman helping her to strengthen her resolve. They provided her with the necessary strength to stay afloat and not drown in misery.
They had almost reached the car when Anita’s voice severed her train of thoughts, “Have you decided what you’re going to wear for Mehndi?
Turning her head towards her, Khushi glimpsed acute concern in her soft pixie eyes. She took a deep breath and her features softened with an affection that was almost maternal. With an uncanny understanding of her silences and unspoken words, she was trying to divert her thoughts toward happier domains as usual.
Thank God for Anu, she thought, flashing her a misty smile. Perhaps that’s why it’s said that no matter how grim your life seems at any point of time, if you look carefully enough, you can always find something to be grateful about. Like in her case, having a sister like Anita.
“I think, that Lehenga Maasi gifted me last week”, she said after swallowing some of the tears that clogged her throat, “How about you?
“I haven’t decided”, replied Anita, struggling to shake off the heaviness of her own heart, “I have a couple of things in mind, I’ll show you when we get home”.
As they slid in the back seat of a white SUV, their driver, Anil, who was taking a nap in his seat with the backrest tilted back, woke, rubbed his eyes and asked, “Ab kahaan chalna hai, Didi?
‘Ghar, bhaiyya“, she replied, before turning toward Anita to initiate a perfectly ordinary conversation. Knowing how much her sadness, all that had been going on in their home for so long, affected her, she resolved to be happy, even act if necessary, for the next ten days they were going to be in India together.
When Anita and Khushi reached home, the sun was lower in the horizon and the shadows had lengthened. The sound of Azaan from a nearby mosque mingled with the flutterings of pigeon wings.
Opening a door in the verandah, they entered the drawing room, noticing on the way- strings of lights being draped along the outlines of the house, walls, pillars and trees.
Their aunt and uncle were sitting at the table in the adjoining dining room, their cups of tea in front of them, their years glued to cell phones, their expressions harried as they took care of a million and one things that went into pulling off a successful wedding.
Given the short notice, both families had decided to keep festivities small and restrained and their stress levels manageable. The first function, Mehndi, which was to be held in their house itself, was coming up in three days and was the reason behind her Aunt’s frustration with the florist, who appeared to have mixed up their flower preferences with that of another client.
Nearing the end of her conversation, she looked up to see Khushi and Anita walking in with arms full of shopping bags. Still talking, she smiled at them and signaled them to place the bags on the coffee table.
Soon, they were sipping iced pana, a refreshing green mango and mint drink their aunt made them drink each time they came in from outside. It was protective against heat stroke, she would insist, and it certainly seemed like it really was besides being so awesome tasting. They showed their shopping to her.
“I bought this sari too”, Khushi said, pulling out a chiffon sari from it’s packet, “What do you think? Can I wear it for the main wedding day?
Sumita took her time inspecting the sari, running an expert finger over it’s bejeweled border, feeling it’s material between a finger and thumb before pronouncing with a smile that it was perfect for her and for the occasion.
Something in Khushi eyes or perhaps the lack of something caught her attention.
Her smile was a little too bright, her voice a little too cheerful but her eyes were dark and vacant.
“Khushi”, she said, putting the sari back on the table,”What’s wrong? Are you feeling alright?
“Nothing Maasi, just a headache. I think I might be coming down with a cold or something”, she replied, adding with a smile, “And I’d better stay away from Isha”.
“And me too”, said Anita, leaning away from her, her face scrunched.
“Well, since it’s not your wedding it doesn’t matter if you catch a cold or not”, Khushi teased, picking up glasses to take to the kitchen.
“I’ll take them”, Anita took the glasses from her, “You go rest. And it does matter because a) colds are one of the biggest nuisance on earth and b) a red nose doesn’t agree with my already spectacular beauty”.
“You know you are damn cute, Ms. Gupta, so stop fishing for compliments”, said Khushi lightly even as her eyes softened.
Their banter continued even as they reached Isha’s room, bags in hands.
“Why do I feel that cute is just an euphemism for ugly but bearable”, Anita said with a grimace flopping down on a rocking chair by a window.
There was something about her tone that caught Khushi’s attention. It was very unlike her. She was never the one to wallow in complexes over things she couldn’t control. There was a new wistfulness in her eyes that tugged at her heart. For the first time she wondered if she was hiding something from her. Immersed neck deep in her own troubles, she thought guiltily, perhaps she hadn’t been as attuned to Anita as she normally was.
“You are beautiful”, she said, still keeping her tone lighthearted, “And not just because of those lovely eyes or that little nose of yours. With you, it’s so much more…”.
Anita crossed her arms and leaned back, her mischievous grin back much to her sister’s relief , “Ok…keep going. Don’t stop until I tell you to. How about a few words about this ebony…satin…sheet of hair?”.
As she flicked her hair back comically, they burst out Laughing and didn’t hear their aunt enter the room.
“I forgot to tell you a good news. Madhu and Aakash will be able to join us for all the functions after all”, Sumita said with a fond smile, “She called earlier today after you all had left for shopping. They are coming by road and Madhu said if they leave on time, they might be able to reach in time for breakfast. And Aakash said something about a friend of his joining us too for a few days”.
“Yay”, said Anita, “I’m so glad Madhu Bua and Aakash Bhai will be able to join us. Last time I checked, Aakash Bhai hadn’t confirmed, saying they’ll try to come for just a day”.
“Wow, we’re going to have a pretty full house from tomorrow”, said Khushi, “Will his friend be staying with us too?
“It’s up-to him”, her aunt said with a sigh, “We’ve got rooms block booked too in a nearby hotel for out of town guests. But of course, Madhu and Aakash have to stay with us. I will insist that they do”.
Sumita and Madhu’s friendship went back to several decades, far before the time Sujata and Navin got married. It was decades ago in the late seventies when their nana was posted in Lucknow for a few years. Sumita, Sujata and Madhu used to attend the same college and while Sumita and Madhu were in the same class, Sujata was two years junior.
In fact, it was because of their friendship and the ensuing visits to each other’s houses that Khushi’s dadi had developed a liking for their mom. Over a period of time, this liking had evolved into a wish to bring her into their family’s fold as Navin’s wife.
“Madhu can take the second guest bedroom since the first one is being readied for Isha and Vinay”, murmured Sumita, already making plans in her head, “And Aakash can take the room on the terrace. His friend can either share room with him or stay at the hotel”.
Isha joined them at that point, breezing in the room and informing with a radiant face that Vinay was waiting in the drawing room to meet them before leaving.
One thing was sure, mused Khushi as she rose to head to the drawing room with everyone else, it was impossible to wallow in misery in a household with a wedding coming up in few days.
Madhu and Aakash did arrive in time for breakfast and by ten everyone sat around the dining table with laughter, easy conversation, reminiscences and plans wrapped around them like a happy mist. As they partook of hot pooris, aaloo subzi and endless cups of tea, Sumita sighed with a hostess’ satisfaction and thought rather prosaically that Jai Prakash, their trusted cook, was worth his weight in gold.
“When is your friend coming?, Sumita asked Aakash, passing him a dish of suji halwa.
“He’s coming by the Awadh express”, replied Aakash with a quick look at Khushi. A glimmer of amusement flitted through his eyes and was gone before it could be noticed or commented upon.
While everyone else didn’t look particularly interested, Anita being Anita, looked at her cousin with her infamous curious cat expression.
“Where is he from?
“From New Jersey”, Aakash replied shortly and before he could orchestrate a change in the topic, Anita spoke again.
“Why does he want to attend a stranger’s wedding? Isn’t that kind of odd?, she asked interestedly, “And of all the places in all of India, why Allahabad? Does he have family here?
Looking nonplussed under this barrage of questions and the combined impact of six pairs of eyes, Aakash spoke the first thing that came into his mind.
“No, he doesn’t have family here but he has… a special interest in Allahabad. Especially in…”, he racked his brain to recall what Allahabad was most famous for, “In Triveni Sangam. He’s gathering material for a book, a travelogue, I believe”, he finished lamely and mentally kicked himself the very next moment.
Seriously, couldn’t he have done any better that this? What was he getting himself in for? And Arnav too?
And before any more questions could be fired at him, he found an unexpected ally in Anita. The very person who’d pushed him in this soup in the first place.
“How about making plans for today?, she said excitedly deliberately changing the topic, “Maasi, if you don’t have any chores for us, could we go somewhere fun in the evening?”.
“Of course, you can”, Sumita smiled at her.
“To the mall to watch a movie?, Isha suggested.
“How about Triveni Sangam?, she said with an unmistakable slyness in her voice that only Aakash caught.
“Your friend could come too”, she added innocently, meeting his eyes. The little wink that accompanied her words widened Aakash’s eyes in surprised realization.
That minx has guessed who this mysterious writer-friend is, he thought with grudging admiration for his little cousin.
Sunshine filtered in from the open window as Khushi sat in front of the piano, absentmindedly trying out a tune she’d heard on TV the night before. It had been playing in her mind ever since.
With her cold worse, she rested while Isha and Anita scurried about in the dining room, setting the table.
Aakash Bhai and Manohar Uncle were on their way to to the railway station to pick Aakash’s friend while Maasi and Bua were in Maasi’s room discussing Isha’s trousseau and catching up in general.
Dressed in yoga pants and a faded T-shirt, Khushi felt and looked miserable. Her nose was red and shiny, her hair tied back in a messy bun and all she wanted to do was to go to bed to take a nap. Which she couldn’t without eating lunch because of her diabetes.
The door bell rang and was immediately followed by Anita shouting from the kitchen.
“They’re here. Get the door, Di”.
Grumbling a little because Anita was so much closer to the door than she was, she walked up to the door. With her head bowed and her eyes vacant, she opened the door wide and stood a little to the side to allow everyone to pass.
A whiff of a musky scent, a familiar warmth of someone’s proximity made her head whip up and her heart crash against the chest-wall and stop. Was she hallucinating?, was her first bewildered thought, her widened eyes transfixed by a tall athletic form filling the doorframe, “After all, isn’t there a limit to the amount of stress a person can take?
She closed her eyes to clear her head.
And when she looked at him again, he held her gaze, his eyes misting with a relief that made him feel lightheaded himself. The upheaval raging in her eyes wrenched at his heart. They were filled with water, steel and fire all at once.
With Akash and Manohar behind him, they blinked, swallowed and broke their eye-lock. With a tiny smile, Akash stepped forward and spoke to Khushi, “Khushi, do you remember my friend Arnav? He was at my wedding at Tampa”.
She looked from Akash to Arnav, dazedly trying to decide if his presence was a freak coincidence or a plan cooked without her knowledge and consent. With her mind in overdrive, she didn’t even realize when she shook her head and inadvertently denied remembering him.
Biting back an amused smile, Aakash was about to say something when Arnav intervened, touched by the confusion he glimpsed in her eyes.
“I don’t blame you”, he said lightly, “It was a big wedding”.
Even as Anita and Isha joined them, he offered his hand with a faint smile, “Arnav. Arnav Raizada”.
With his hand engulfing hers, Khushi’s heart flew back to their first ever meeting in Srinagar. The bittersweet expression in his eyes told her that he was with her in the same space of time. While his warm clasp brought back intimate memories, her eyes, brimming with pain and anger, asked him a million questions.