Arnav’s musings were interrupted by the sound of Anita’s cheerful voice and her knuckles’ loud rapping against the door.
“Wake up, sleepyheads. It’s almost dinner time. Do you guys want to be up all night? Madhu Bua asked me call you downstairs for chai”.
Even as Akash groaned and turned with a mumbled protest, Arnav rose from bed and ran a hand through his slightly damp hair for order. He had crashed into bed in a pair of khakis and a long sleeved navy polo straight after shower. Picking up his glasses from the bedside table, he switched on the lamp and walked up to the door.
Putting the glasses on, he opened the door and smiled at Anita, “I was just about to come downstairs. I’ll wake Akash too”.
“He is already awake”, Akash’s sleepy voice floated from behind them, “And you had to make that infernal racket, didn’t you, Anu? I have a headache now. Thanks”.
“Oh, stop whining, Akash Bhai”, Anita rolled her eyes. “You don’t want to spend all your vacation time jet lagged, right? If you continue taking these super siestas, you’ll never be able to break the cycle”.
Folding his arms, Arnav leaned his travel weary body against the door jamb and tilted his head slightly towards Akash. With his mouth curving humorously, he said, “I’m afraid, I agree with Anita”.
“Of course, you do, Arnav”, Akash said with a teasing half smile. He sat up in bed and reached out for his phone on the bedside table. “You are such an opportunist b…so and so”, he finished with a grin, amending his language in consideration of Anita’s ears.
Although giggling at Arnav’s raised eyebrow, Anita’s heart was still mired in a dilemma. On one hand she was convinced that her sister’s happiness lay with Arnav and Arnav alone, on the other, she dreaded the possibility of having to witness her heartbreak all over again. Her silent pain had hit her in waves after waves of tangible emotions. It had shaken the very core of her soul. It was a visceral experience whose intensity ensured it’s permanent mark in the realm of memories.
Unaware of Arnav’s speculative glance, she turned to leave. “See you guys downstairs”.
On an impulse, Arnav stepped out after her and pulled the door shut after him. The sky was partially overcast and the terrace intriguingly ambient in the light of the multicolored strings adorning their room, parapet walls and railings.
“Anu, wait”, he called after her.
She turned and looked at him quizzically.
“Can we talk?”, he said, his face serious in the glow of stars and fairy lights.
“Sure”, Anita shrugged and the two of them slowly walked towards the edge of the terrace, where it’s low parapet overlooked the front lawn and the street beyond.
With his head bowed and his hands in pockets, his contemplative eyes were fixed on the crisscross of shadows on the terrace floor. They were cast by tall gulmohar trees that preened in a row on one side of the bungalow.
Reaching the parapet, Arnav turned to face Anita.
“Anu”, he said firmly in a tone that precluded any unnecessary beating about the bush, “Tell me what’s bothering you?
Never the kind of person who needed a lot of prodding for words anyway, Anita hesitated for a nominal second before launching straight into impassioned speech. His mouth quirked amusedly for a brief second before he intentedly listened to her.
“I’m scared”, she said, “Confused too but mostly scared. What if helping Di get back with you turns out to be a mistake? I don’t want her to get hurt again”, she blurted out with brutal honesty.
A brief spasm of emotion skimmed across his normally impassive features. He stepped up to the parapet and rested his arms on he metal rail. Seconds ticked away as he gazed down below at the front lawn, his faraway eyes apparently fixed on a wet grass patch that sparkled in the light of halogen street lamps.The air was hot and humid, it’s stillness broken by the chirping of crickets and the voices of passing pedestrians.
Anita glanced sideways at his angular profile, “You’ll probably tell me to mind my own business but why did you have to do that? I mean, why did you have to break up with her?
Her voice got more conflicted with every passing second. “That too at a time when we were all so worried about Dad. How could you? More importantly, why did you? When it’s apparent that you love her and that’s why you’re here?
Pausing, she grasped for words and then, threw her hands up in frustration, “It makes no sense to me. None at all”, she murmured, “What kind of love is this?
As he listened to her words, a myriad of emotions passed across Arnav’s mind, each blending seamlessly with the next. He looked back at their past, at the year flown by in what seemed a flash to him. A tapestry of emotions of every season. A complicated weave of tears and smiles. It was the unusual story of their unusual love.
It made his heart smile, it made it wrench and it made it introspective all at the same time.
His first love.
One thing was for sure, he mused with bittersweet nostalgia, there hadn’t been anything cliched or ordinary about it. Take it’s very beginning, it had somehow found its way to his heart when he hadn’t even been looking for it. In fact, it was conceived at a time when his mind, paralyzed with pain, couldn’t have been further from it’s thoughts. At a time when his entire existence was a struggle to keep his head over water and not drown in grief and hopelessness which had seemed a lot easier at times. His success at managing to go about the business of living seemed nothing short of miracle in hindsight but a cakewalk compared to the nights.The nights were always the worst. They still were. Nights- a time when the din and commotion of life quietened and demons took advantage of exhausted minds to rear their heads.
Such had been his mental state when Khushi entered his life, his mangled up twisted wreck of a life. And such was his state when Khushi’s love entered his heart, his damaged, beating scar tissue of a heart. ”
Perhaps, I shouldn’t have let her”, he thought, despondency sitting heavy on his shoulders, the changes he saw in her tearing at his heart, “look what it did to her”.
Anita glanced at his silent profile again. With his eyes were fixed on a wooden bench swing at the furthest end of the lawn, he seemed to be miles away. Her fingers tightened on the metal rail as she found herself getting irked by his silence.
Just as she was about to remonstrate with him for following an intention to talk with silence, his thoughts found a voice. At first It wasn’t clear if he was speaking to her, himself or the night.
“Patience had never been one of my virtues”, he said, “And in my near desperation to have Khushi in my life after the divorce, I couldn’t understand her need for time. I just couldn’t. I guess I felt I’d been handed a raw deal by destiny for too long already and that I wasn’t wrong in my impatience to demand some happiness”.
“Quite literally”, he turned his head towards Anita with a ghost of a smile, his natural reticence trying to make light of emotions, “It was a twisted kind of entitlement. I’m sure the psychologists must have a fancy name for it. I guess with my blinders on, I didn’t even try to understand where she was coming from. Her holding back didn’t make sense to me and I didn’t understand her guilt”.
Arnav paused with his eyes far away. With the human brain constantly at work burying uncomfortable memories, he had to focus hard to recall his exact mental state at the time, “I’d broken up in anger and even now, I don’t fully understand the reasons for it. I remember thinking that perhaps she wanted to step away from my twisted world because she was sick of it’s darkness. That she was right in wanting to do so. I wanted her to stop me, to come to me, so perhaps it was a kind of reassurance that I sought from her but the gist of the matter is that I hurt her. On several occasions..I deliberately hurt her”.
With his eyes flickering with pain, he shrugged his shoulders and averted his face. His eyes held mild distaste at having to divulge his private thoughts, something he couldn’t have imagined himself doing until a few months ago.
He didn’t notice the sudden storm raging in Anita’s eyes. Vivid memories of the aftermath of their breakup floated in front of her. Images from the evening of her birthday hit her with renewed force. Arnav with his date and the bewilderment on her Di’s face. She knew she would never be able to erase that expression from her memory.
“You didn’t understand Di’s guilt?”, her voice was incredulous, “You didn’t understand her need for time and space after that suicide stunt your ex wife pulled off? Do you even know her?
Arnav turned and surveyed her furious face. Her eyes glinted with all the outrage of a protective angel. Considering it sought to defend a sister who was years older than her, Arnav found it endearing.
“Do you freaking know her at all?, Anita repeated, her fingernails impaled painfully in her palms, his mind fumbling for words to express the sudden barrage of thoughts and emotions, “You know what Di’s only faults were in this whole…whole fiasco. That she loves you too damned much and that her blasted empathy bone is too overdeveloped for her own good. She cares for every single person’s point of view and in being kind and fair to all of them, she often forgets being kind to herself. She was always like that”, Anita paused before past memories pulled her off in a tangent, “I remember when she was announced her class valedictorian in Middle-school, she couldn’t be happy because her best friend, whom everyone thought was the likeliest candidate, wasn’t”.
As Anita paused for a moment, Arnav swallowed a sudden ache in his throat.
“A lot of people might not understand her, especially in today’s world, but that’s how she is and that’s how she always was. It’s a shame that people like her get hurt all the time”, she added with a withering look at him, “she’s a gem and like they say not everyone can appreciate the worth of a gem”,
Arnav’s eyes softened as her listened to her earnestly eulogizing Khushi, sensing a deep rooted hero worship behind her words.
“You say you don’t understand her guilt?, Anita asked again, “Remember that evening when you and your mom had come over to our place for dinner?
As Arnav nodded in assent, she continued with a slightly smug expression on her face, “Well, just by observing the way you guys were talking and looking at each other, I knew something was cooking between the two of you”.
Ignoring his raised eyebrow, she added, “I was almost 100% sure because you guys were seriously overdoing all that conversation on healthcare reforms”
While Arnav chuckled Anita said something that brought about a shift in his mood. “But when Mom mentioned later that night that you were married, I gave up on my idea without another thought, without even half of another thought.The idea of Di falling in love with a married man was inconceivable to me, my parents and Di herself. Do you get what this says about us…our family, the beliefs we were raised with? So Di falling in love with you was a big deal, a seriously big deal, for all of us. While I trusted Di’s reasons for embracing a previously inconceivable idea without knowing about them, and understood them when she shared them with me, my parents, especially mom, took it as a failure of her parenting. It was a shock for them, something she could’ve never expected from her of all people, maybe that’s why she is so harsh on her”.
Arnav’s eyes were alert with an odd intensity as they mulled over Anita’s words, while Anita’s voice tapered off to gather her thoughts together.
He found himself looking back at the same set of events under a different, more illuminating, light. “How does one reconcile an inconceivable idea, an idea that goes against your life long beliefs, with a loved one’s plea/ demand for it’s fruition? Wouldn’t guilt sprouting in a corner of their subconscious stratosphere be a natural byproduct?, he mused, his heart recalling the circumstances of their first coming together, their first night, and beginning to grasp, perhaps for the first time, both the enormity of his request and the magnanimity of the giver.
And how does one reconcile the beauty of first love with the unwanted weight of this guilt?
He recalled Khushi’s face as she’d come knocking on his door one morning in Tampa. He also recalled the description of her nightmare…
“Those burning fields“.
“How could you not understand her guilt?, Anita’s indignant question interrupted his reverie, “And her need for time to sort her life and her emotions, out? How else is a person supposed to act when your boyfriend’s wife tries to commit suicide and blames it all on you? And…and…”, Anita paused and swallowed, her face wracked with emotions, “her sister comes barging on your door, calls you all sorts of ugly names and disrespects you and your parents in your own home. And to top it all, your own mom agrees with their accusations. How did you expect her to act? Her voice acquired a tinge of sarcasm. “Get over everything in a couple of weeks and be ready to be carried into the sunset for her happily-ever-after. Try stepping into her shoes. Events like these can probably scar people for life, how can you even expect her to act sane or normal after all of this?
A sudden look of fury on Arnav’s face brought Anita’s speech to a halt and misconstruing his reason, she pursed her own lips.
“You’re getting mad by all this plain speaking but guess what, I’m not in the least bothered by it. You got to hear this”.
Focusing his attention back on Anita and her belligerent stance, a look of amusement crossed his face.
“I’m not mad at you, honey”, he said mildly, filing away Manya in a black folder of his mind, “And I realize, I’ve already realized what you’re trying to tell me. That’s why I’m here, right?
A shadow of pain crossed his face as he realized just how out of sync the two of them were in the immediate aftermath of Lavanya’s suicide attempt. Ruthlessly focused on pushing the divorce, he had been unable to see that. He had been unable to see beyond his acute need for Khushi in his life. Heck, he had needed her like a drowning man needs oxygen.
He still did…but life seemed to have taught him to grow gills and be able to swim underwater as well, he thought drily.
The gentle assurance in his voice dissolved some of Anita’s angst too. Relaxing visibly, she said, “I don’t want Di to get hurt again. I.. I won’t be able to bear it. I’ve seen it once..and…”.
As her voice choked, Arnav stepped forward on an impulse and hugged her.
“I won’t be able to see it again”, she burst into tears on his chest, a part of her brain wondering at the incongruity of the situation, where comfort was being unhesitatingly accepted from the very person who was deemed responsible for providing a reason for it’s need.
“Anu…Shhh”, his voice was big brotherly, fatherly even, and gruff in its effort of keep his own tears at bay, “Believe me when I say that it hurts me just as much, if not more, to see your Di in pain. To see her tears. Because you see, despite all the tears I’ve caused her, I love her. A lot”.
Intuitively, she recognized the honesty in his simple words. The sincerity in his emotions reassured her a little although a million concerns still swirled in her heart.
As her sobs subsided after a while, he added with a determinedly lighthearted voice, ” What’s with tears and the Gupta sisters? And it’s okay, you can sniffle all over my new shirt if you like. That’s a small price to pay for causing all these tears, yeah?
Raising her head, she stepped back and looked at his shirt guiltily. With a smile, Arnav fished a tissue from his pocket and offered it to her.
Accepting it, she blew her nose and looked at him again. “I don’t get you two”, her voice was agonized, “I don’t get this kind of love when all it’s ever done is cause tears. I want Di to be happy”.
“And I promise, I’ll spend the rest of my days trying to keep her happy”, was Arnav’s somber reply that was lightened by a smile in his eyes.
A smile that reached his lips when Anita demanded, “I want you to be happy too”
“With happiness by my side, it shouldn’t be too difficult. And I will definitely try my best, Ma’am”.
Anita surprised him with a sudden hug, “Arnav Bhai, I think I’m going to like you after all”.
“Thank God for small mercies”, he murmured even as his lips quirked in amusement, “And as soon as I’m able to forgive you for sending me on a wild goose chase to Central African Republic, I think I’m going to like you too”, he added with his eyes narrowed in mock menace.
“Eeek…I did not”, Anita cried in dismay and horror, “I’m not that crazy. Believe me, it was a gap in communication. After we talked, I left for India myself. If was only after Di called that I learnt about it”.
“I’m telling the truth. You’ve got to believe me”
They were soon joined by Aakash, who joined forces with Arnav to mercilessly pull Anita’s leg. Together they went downstairs engaged in easy banter and exuding a general bonhomie which erased all traces of their earlier intense conversation.
Arnav’s steps were impatient as he descended down the last few steps, his parched heart hungry for Khushi. For all the laughter and the cheer that encompassed him, the loneliness in his heart remained an immovable constant. A constant that he knew only Khushi could reach and touch.
As they reached the drawing room, Madhu Aunty, Khushi’s bua, spotted him. “Come sit here, Arnav Beta. Tell me how Astha is doing? Has she decided to move to Cleveland yet?
Arnav walked over to the drawing room, where Madhu, Sumita and Manohar relaxed around TV and conversation and took seat next to her.
“She is doing well, Aunty, but she refuses to move in with me. She could never develop a liking for Cleveland and I don’t blame her”, he replied with a sly look at Anita, “It’s such a dead place”.
“Hey, Anita exclaimed by way of token outrage at insult of one’s hometown before saying drily, “Actually I have to agree with you. I feel the same way even though I’ve lived there all my life. Di, on the other hand, loves Cleveland. She says it’s the memories associated with a place that count. But I really feel, you guys should move to a more happening place like New York or Chicago or Tampa so I can visit you there”.
As Akash coughed, she quickly realized that Madhu Bua didn’t know anything about Arnav and Khushi.
“Visit you and Astha Aunty, I mean”, she added lamely before taking off to help Isha set the table for dinner.
After a while Akash went out to call Payal in the privacy of the verandah while Madhu, Manohar and Sumita kept up a constant stream of small talk taking care, like conscientious hosts, to involve him too from time to time. Although nodding politely as needed and answering perfunctorily when addressed, Arnav didn’t really hear them with his whole attention focused on the closed door behind him.
His restlessness didn’t go unnoticed because after a while, Sumita asked, “Do you need something, Arnav?
“No, thank you. I’m just tired”, he replied, acutely aware of Madhu’s interested eyes.
He rose from his chair at the earliest opportunity and walked over to the window behind the piano. It was a large window flanked by fluttering lace curtains and opened to the side of the bungalow. Coming to a standstill by the window, his attention was immediately captivated by a row of treetops illumined by halogen lamps. While they swayed and ruffled in a humid breeze, the air smelt strongly of wet earth, night jasmine and anticipation.The rainclouds were poised over the earth ready to shed their weight again.
And rain it did. On the grass, the mud, the asphalt and the tiled roof. The raindrops bounced, bubbled, splattered, producing music that was unmatched by any man made instrument.
The sound of a door being opened, the sound he’d waited for so long, wrenched his attention away from the aesthetics of nature. He turned his back to the window and it’s billowing curtains.
Khushi appeared at the door and hesitated for a brief moment. Then her eyes gravitated towards his like a law of nature. As he had fully expected them to.
She had always looked beautiful to him and today was no different. It had always been so much more than her mere physical form to him. With freshly washed hair, a simple floral patterned lawn kurta and leggings, she was like an oasis to his travel weary heart.