With Anita and Isha elsewhere occupied, Khushi, sitting cross legged on the bed, decided to take advantage of the rare privacy to Skype home. It was poignant the way her dad responded almost at once. Like he’d been waiting for her. It set aflame a dormant ache of her heart.
It was early morning in Wixom and Navin was in the library, not at his customary position behind the keyboards but seated on the chair that used to be Khushi’s favorite.
Since Khushi had left home, his footsteps would often pause outside the double glass French doors of the library. Almost of their own volition. He would never be able to prevent himself from peering inside and each time he did that, the emptiness of the chair would claw at his heart with renewed vigor. He would imagine her sitting there, talking nineteen to the dozen, sharing everything and anything about her day and her life with him. And he would see himself listening to every word and every inflection, his busy fingers pausing only when he felt absolutely compelled to respond.
He would hear his fingers’ soft tap on the keyboard and Khushi’s voice as she said with a beaming smile, “You know Daddy, that is the most beautiful sound in the whole world. It helps me think”.
Once, many years ago, Sujata had suggested with a blend of jest and accusation that he loved Khushi more than Anita. Although his heart had been utmost convinced of the lack of veracity in her statement, it did succeed in making him indulge in some serious introspection. It had resulted in a conscious effort to shower extra attention on his little Ninja, as he often addressed Anita, lest her carefree heart be clouded with similar doubts. It had also resulted in the conclusion that it was a certain selflessness, a certain resultant vulnerability in Khushi’s nature that had always appealed to his protective instincts. A diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes at age eight and her stoicism in dealing with the same had also helped in fostering these instincts.
And thus ensconced in his musings, Navin had been sitting on the old upholstered chair gazing out the window at cars sliding by like life itself and his heart aching for it’s two missing pieces, his two girls. When did they grow up so big?
He saw shirtless joggers with earplugs, energetic dogs on leashes and birds hopping about on the freshly mowed grass; and when Khushi called, it didn’t take him long, not even with his functional left hand, to open the iPad and press and swipe his way across the oceans to her.
With their faces lit up with involuntary smiles, they just gazed for a while, basking in the warm glow of each others’ presence. His father’s features blurred and danced for a second even as she smiled and sniffed at the same time, “You’ve taken over my favorite chair, haven’t you? ”
His answering smile was like a balm to her soul.
“And your iPad too”, her father replied with a twinkle in his bespectacled hazel eyes which were a shade darker than Khushi’s. The slight slur in his speech caused her heart to squeeze with pain as always.
“How are you doing? What did Dr. Sharma say yesterday?
“The usual medical mumbo jumbo doctors say”, he replied with a teasing glance, “trying to keep patients happy and save their bank balances from lawsuits at the same time”.
“Please be serious, Dad. Tell me, what did he say?
“He’s happy with my progress. Says I might be able to recover about 70% function on my right side. My physiotherapist is going to try weaning me off from the walker onto the quad cane next week”.
He paused observing a spasm of pain flitting across Khushi’s features.
Accurately reading her mind, he said firmly “So what If won’t ever be able to type again, there are so many activities of daily living that I can or will be able to perform without assistance.Things we humans take for granted until coming within an inch of losing them. Eating, drinking, going to the bathroom, moving from one place to another”.
“You’re right”, answered Khushi who despite being a doctor had been praying for a more miraculous recovery, “How’s Mom?
“Tired, I guess”, Navin said with his eyes softening, “Eighty percent of her time she spends fussing around me and the remaining twenty percent in alternatively worrying and praying”
“And no”, he continued answering the unspoken question in her eyes, “She hasn’t had any miraculous changes of heart. She still thinks that Arnav is the biggest mistake of your life. And she’s still mad at you for leaving home, it’s just that she has withdrawn in a shell and doesn’t talk about it anymore”.
Khushi cast her lashes down to veil the conflict in her eyes. “Not even with you?, she asked, circling an index finger around the start button of her phone.
“No”, he shook his head, “But don’t worry, like I’ve said before, she will come around soon. Ultimately she will. I know she misses you a lot and it’s only a matter of time until her stubborn heart realizes that she has nothing to gain by alienating you from herself. Stubborn it may be but it’s a mother’s heart after all”.
Even as Khushi bit her lower lip and struggled with sudden emotions, her father watched her bowed head and said softly, “It’s just her overprotective nature that’s making her behave this way, Khushi, she’s not a bad person…”.
Khushi whipped her head up indignantly.
“Of course I know she’s not a bad person. You don’t need to say that…”.
They smiled at each other a little in a silent exchange of understanding before Khushi cleared her throat to voice the reason for this atypically early call. She hoped and wished with all her heart that after her long outpouring of emotions at the time of moving out, his Dad will be more understanding.
“Daddy, Arnav is here. He came today. Akash Bhai told him where I was.
“I thought he might be”, her father replied unfazed.
“Why..I mean…how?, she struggled to frame a coherent question in her surprise.
“Just an instinct”, he smiled amusedly, “That’s what usually happens after a fight if the involved parties truly care for each other. One of them, ideally both, has to make a journey, physical or metaphorical, easy or arduous, to reach the other again”.
As she paused and wondered at the innate truth in her father’s words, her father asked, “So is everything alright again?
“We haven’t talked yet…and I’m sure we have a long way to go”, she paused and smiled a little shyly, “but I’m sure about my destination”.
“After you two have resolved all your differences, tell Arnav to call me”, Navin said with a sigh.
“I will and…Daddy..”, she paused to swallow an ache in her throat, “Tell Mom… that I love her”.
After she hung up, it was but natural that her mind traveled back to that evening in April when she had broken down in front of Anita and Navin and bared her heart and soul to them.
It was a late evening in April, ten days after Navin got discharged from the hospital. With nature’s own healing and rigorous physiotherapy, he had regained enough function on the right side of body and face to be able to talk coherently, eat with assistance and ambulate with the aid of a walker. It was a humbling, soul stirring relief for the family badly shaken by his unexpected paralysis following a hospital procedure. With his doctor assuring them of the probably of his regaining eighty-ninety percent function back with time, there hearts were full of hope.
He had been sitting in a small couch in the bedroom watching TV while his three girls, as he liked calling them, fussed around and about him. It was Saturday and Anita was home. Her face was childlike and uncharacteristically subdued as she sat with her arms tightly wrapped around his. From time to time he looked up to glance at his wife’s strained face.
Unaware of his thoughtful eyes, she organized the post discharge clutter of medicines, personal care items and physiotherapy aids.
Khushi was downstairs making tea for him.
Although they tried their best to keep it away from him, the ongoing tension brewing between Sujata and Khushi hadn’t escaped his notice.
When Khushi came in with two tea mugs balanced on a small tray, he observed how Sujata picked a mug from the offered tray without meeting her glance.
A glimpse of misery rippling across Khushi’s face led to an impulsive yet firm decision. He needed to address this issue right away, he thought. It had been allowed to fester for too long already.
An intimate encounter with mortality had left a renewed respect for time in it’s wake. One can never predict when the sand grains of one’s hourglass will suspend in mid motion, leaving tasks unfinished, smiles unfurled, words unspoken…
After Sujata, who hadn’t been sleeping well, left the room to take a much needed nap, Navin glanced at Khushi. She was restlessly pacing the room, pausing at intervals, toying with objects and setting perfectly placed things right.
“Khushi”, he said quietly. It made her turn with a start.
“Come here”, he said patting the space next to him with his left hand.
“Talk to me”, he encouraged after she had gingerly settled next to him.
She remained quiet for a while, her gaze fixed steadily ahead but her breaths noticeably irregular.
“If you’re thinking that sharing whatever is bothering you will be bad for my health”, he said perceptively, “Then let me assure you that nothing can be worse for me than seeing you and your mother like this”.
His eyes softened as her eyes filled with tears at his words and she struggled in vain to stem them.
“Do you want me to leave, Di?, said Anita sitting up.
“No, Anu”, she said in a choked voice, “You’re fine. Don’t go”.
She took a deep shuddering breath in a last valiant attempt to compose herself before giving up and finally giving in to tears. A myriad of emotions crossed her father’s and sister’s faces as she cried as they’d never seen her cry before. Deep body wracking sobs that vented months of pent up stress and angst.
Her voice was almost incoherent yet words flowed out as effortlessly as tears.
When her visibly moved father tried comforting by wrapping his left arm around her shoulders, in no time at all she was reduced to a hurt child in need for parental comfort.
“Why can’t Mom see my point of view? How can she hurt me like this? Today she said I was selfish…selfish because I keep bringing me and Arnav up at a time like this? She said I don’t care about you or her or anybody except my own selfish demands. All my life… I listened to her, took her advise on every single decision of my life. From choosing a college to…to…choosing a hair color. But that doesn’t count for anything. Nothing at all. For the first time in my life, I am asking her, I’m asking both of you, to trust my choice, to trust my judgement. Believe me when other people are slandering me. Believe that I would never be selfish enough to knowingly put another woman in harms way”.
She paused as Anita came to sit by her other side and held out a tissue box to her. Wiping her nose, she started speaking again. There was so much that needed to come out.
“Yes, our love story is unconventional, yes I went against my beliefs by loving Arnav in that gray zone between marriage and divorce.. I accept that… but instead of thinking that I changed for the worse, instead of making me feel like the worst criminal on earth, why can’t you and Mom try to understand what made me do it? Why can’t you believe that if a person like me went against our beliefs, it must’ve been something huge, something worthwhile, that made me do it. To trust me. Ultimately it all boils down to trust, doesn’t it?
Navin’s eyes reflected her pain even as he listened to her pouring her heart and soul out.
“After what Lavanya did, we all wanted different things. Mom wanted me to break up with Arnav, I wanted time to sort the whirlpool of emotions churning in my mind and…and you two to stand by our side, you wanted me to step back from the situation to sort out my muddled thoughts, and Arnav…Arnav..”.
She paused remembering their last meeting in the park. Her heart wrenched and fresh tears welled in her softened eyes. “He just wanted me. He just needed me in his life”.
“And I tried…”, she said after brushing her tears from her cheeks, “I tried keeping all of you happy but failed miserably. Mom thinks I’m the worst daughter on earth and Arnav lost trust in my love. He’s not talking to me, not even replying to email. Maybe he really did breakup with me…”.
Even as Khushi’s voice trailed off, it’s desolation wrenched the hearts of it’s listeners.
“I don’t know what to think anymore. I just wish I could move out. Go away from it all”, she added after a pause.
Her father rested her head on his shoulder and gently stroked it. His next words surprised her.
“Maybe you really should, Khushi”
As she raised her head to look at him, he said in all seriousness, ” A little distance can do wonders sometimes. It brings clarity to vision and puts everything in proper perspective. It might be good not only for you and Arnav but for Sujata as well. I believe that people who truly care will always find their way back to each other”.
Khushi turned her phone off and slid off the bed. After plugging it in for charging, she went to stand in front of the dressing table to untangle her still wet hair. As she ran a brush through the long silken strands, she heard Arnav’s deep voice wafting from the drawing room.
She sighed. Her heart hadn’t felt this light in ages. She knew if she relaxed her hold…it would soar as high as the clouds.The temptation to brush all issues under the rug and just run to seek refuge in his arms was daunting to say the least. However she realized that she couldn’t just wish those issues away. They were there. They were real. And instinctively she felt it was of utmost importance to acknowledge and address them with due gravity.
Taking a deep breath, she walked up to the door and opened it. There he stood, tall and elegant amidst fluttering curtains and her eyes found his in no time at all. Even as they smiled through their eyes, the sound of their heartbeats became one with rain drumming on the tiled roof.
“Khushi, how are you feeling now?, her aunt’s voice summoned her.
Madhu Bus watched with interest as Arnav followed her niece and casually took seat next to her.
Without waiting for an answer to her first question, Madhu moved on to a second with all the tact and delicacy of a bull dozer , “So do you remember Arnav now? I just remembered something. You two must have met each other in Srinagar too, right?
Khushi pursed her lips in annoyance. Without even a glance, she could sense that he was being amused at her predicament.
“Yes…”, Khushi replied with forced nonchalance, “But then, for some reason I didn’t recognize him”.
“It must’ve been because of my stubble, Aunty”, she heard him say as she rose and left for the the kitchen to join Anita and Isha.
Anita and Isha had been cooped up in the privacy of the kitchen for the longest time having a long, enlightening and entertaining conversation.
It had all started with Isha innocently dropping a bomb on a totally unprepared Anita. Luckily Anita was busy warming a dish in the microwave so her expression was hidden from her cousin.
“Vinay told me that his cousin Aman will be able to come to our wedding after all”.
“Nice”, Anita responded, stirring the dish and putting it back in for another round.
“I hope it won’t be awkward for Khushi”, Isha said hesitantly, “Aman and Khushi were engaged at one time, right?
Considering her mother was the one who’d told her sister about Aman and his family and helped in setting up a meeting between the two families, Isha was fully aware of their history.
“Almost”, Anita replied turning towards her even as the memory of her first kiss wafted to her like a bittersweet breeze.
“Di was still thinking about it when she decided to call it off. But they are still on friendly terms”, she said without meeting her eyes, “So it won’t be awkward for either of them”.
“Good”, smiled Isha, “I was a little worried about that”.
Sighing, she leaned against the kitchen counter and then, her face lit up with an impish smile that seemed to run in their family.
“What do you think of Arnav Bhai?, she asked pokerfaced, “He seems to be a really nice guy and of course, his movie star good looks don’t hurt either”.
“Isha Di”, Anita put her hands on her hips in mock disapproval, “Stop looking at guys. You’re getting married in literally three days”.
“For Khushi, silly”, Isha said, “I don’t know why but I feel that Arnav Bhai likes her already. Classic love at first sight, maybe?
Biting her lip to quell her smile, Anita asked, “Really? Why? I haven’t even seen them talking to each other”.
“Maybe it’s my romantic heart on an overdrive again”, Isha sighed, “It was just an expression in his eyes while looking at Khushi that made me wonder”.
“What kind of look?, Anita asked seriously, suppressing a giggle.
“Kind of…”, Isha glanced at the far distance to find an answer, “Kind of like my best friend gazes at her new born twin girls”.
They broke into uncontrollable giggles at that and they’d wiped their tears and drank water straight from bottles from the fridge, Anita hesitated and said.
“Should I tell you a secret?
And she did, a short abridged version of it, which caused Isha’s smile to widen with delight as well as pride at having guessed a part of it correctly.
When Khushi entered the kitchen to get water, she glanced at their unnaturally frozen faces, faces of people almost caught talking about the fresh entrant into their space.
“What’s wrong?, she asked suspiciously before opening the fridge to get a water bottle out.
Before they could answer, Arnav entered the kitchen too. He hesitated at the doorway cutting a fine figure in his khakis and well fitted black polo, his sharply etched features thrown into sharp relief by a slant of yellow light. It was clear by his expression that he hadn’t expected a crowd.
He glanced at Khushi standing with the water bottle in her hand and cleared his throat.
“Can I get some water too?, he addressed her in his attractively deep voice.
As Khushi handed him her bottle without a word, Anita couldn’t stop herself from openly laughing.
“Did you just use the same excuse again?, she said naughtily.
Arnav’s smile was bittersweet as he remembered his first visit to their house at New Year’s Eve. So much water, so much pain had flowed under the bridge since that visit.
Turning toward Khushi, he said, “Let’s go for a walk, Khushi”.
“It’s raining”, Khushi said impassively.
“You can borrow umbrellas from me”, Isha offered.
“We have just one “, added Anita.
“We don’t need any”, Arnav said with a chuckle, “because if you look out carefully you’ll notice that it has stopped raining”.
He turned to face Khushi. Smiling a little, he caught her hand in his firm grip.
“Let’s go”, he inclined his head in question.