With occasional gusts brushing raindrops off tips of leaves to spray them, Arnav and Khushi walked in a quietude that crackled with tension.
Arnav could sense the hesitation behind her smile, the holding back within their clasped hands and… the distance despite their physical closeness.
This distance was painful every inch of the way and Arnav was suddenly unsure of ways to bridge it with. While he’d been searching for her, he was confident of being able to slay her demons and make her believe in him again. But now, with her next to him and the hour upon him, his naturally reticent self felt an acute paucity of words.
After emerging through a back door in the kitchen, they’d found themselves on an asphalt path that gleamed in the light of street lamps from outside the boundary wall.
He glanced sideways at her profile. He could discern that his earlier attempt at lightheartedness hadn’t gone well with her. He hoped with a twinge of worry that Khushi hadn’t taken it as his insensitivity to the extent of anguish their breakup and his subsequent behavior had caused her.
It was just that he was tired. Plain tired of the darkness that had been following him for too long. How his heart thirsted for some normalcy in their relationship and how he longed for happy memories to balance all the dark ones with.
“Convince me”. These were the words Khushi had to Arnav with hopes of a magic salve to assuage her hurting heart with. Yet today, she found herself wondering what she was really looking for. She found herself wondering at the very existence of what she looked for.
Arnav’s dilemma was no less.
“Allow me”, he had said with confidence at the time. But today, he found himself fumbling for a way to achieve just that.
He glanced at her profile again. It was seeped in a melancholy that tugged at his heartstrings. It reignited not only his guilt but also disbelief at having caused such pain to someone who was, as trite as it may sound, he thought, his one and only reason for living.
“Do I even know myself?, he anguished with his insecurities returning, “How could’ve I treated her like that? She deserves better. She doesn’t deserve a damaged fucked up person like me. And how am I supposed to convince her of my worthiness, when I, myself, am not sure about it anymore?
A fog of pessimism threatened to sap his initial joy and hope at seeing her. Every thought in his mind began to make a beeline for the darker route.
In near desperation, he halted and turned to face her. Their eyes met to the accompaniment of heartbeats sounding close to their ears.
Without a word, he pulled her in his arms and rested his face against her neck. His arms tightened to the point of almost crushing her while his breaths, shallow and disjointed, warmed her soft cool skin.
His heart cried for acceptance while his mind declared that he, with all his scars and bitterness, was unworthy of her.
“Maybe I should’ve really let her go”, he thought as pictures of her and Aman from that night came back to haunt him once again, “She deserves someone who brings smiles rather than tears to her. Someone who’s uncomplicated. Someone who’s normal”.
Raising his head, he looked into her eyes. Into pain that lurked silently in their hazel depths. Into pain that he’d brought into her life.
“Maybe you’ll really be better off without me”, he said with a small smile on his lips attempting to mask the absolute truthfulness behind his sentiment.
Khushi returned his smile and shook her head. She was too choked to voice the conflict his words wrought in her heart. Even as they pulled at her with an irresistible magnetism, her eyes reflected a confusion over ways to address their issues and to navigate their relationship into future.
While she was fully convinced of the bigger picture- of the tenacity of their love and the surety of their will to keep walking together in life; these loftier views of life were somehow not able to keep her resentment at bay.
Memory of Madison’s voice haunted her among other things and much as she wanted to question him about small petty details about that night, strangely enough, it was fear of his answers, his notorious aversion to sugar coating, that held her back. Will she be able to handle the truth?
“Say something”, Arnav said with a tinge of anxiety, bending to press his lips against her mouth in a gentle kiss.
“Scream, shout. Yell at me”, he murmured against them in a strained voice, “Let it all out”.
He watched as she floundered for a suitable reply only to come up with a simple yet heartfelt, “I’m too tired right now, Arnav. I’m just so tired”.
Touched, Arnav unwrapped his arms and cupped her neck with both hands. With his eyes still with a quiet intensity, he scanned her face. His heart squeezed with remorse at the changes he saw in her while he cleared his throat, smiled and said with forced lightheartedness,”And I’m so glad you remembered me ultimately”.
Khushi chuckled while her eyes shone with unshed tears.
His thumbs caressed her cheeks, and his throat choked with emotions too deep for words.
“Tonight…tonight I just want to…forget”, she said suddenly. While her lips trembled, there was a touch of defiance at herself, at life itself, in her voice, “Make me forget, Arnav. Kiss me”.
Her lips parted slightly in an instinctive invitation and a humid breeze ruffled the soft hair on her forehead. Arnav blinked in surprise before his irises darkeed with a thirst as old as time.
“Khushi”, he whispered, leaning in slowly, one hand raking through soft hair to draw her closer.
His tongue took time refamiliarizing itself with the contours of her lips before finally tasting them- sucking them like they possessed the sweetest nectar on earth.
“I missed you so much”, Khushi cried inwardly before wrapping her arms around his shoulders. Instinctively standing on her tiptoes, she drew him closer to eliminate the last remaining distance between them.
With her breasts pressed against his chest, she combed her fingers through the short hair at his nape in a way he’d always found incredibly arousing.
She felt him shiver as she nibbled at his upper lip, traced his Cupid’s bow with her tongue before emboldening it to enter the moist crevices of his mouth. With spiraling passion, their tongues dueled in a mad bid to drink off of each other that unknown elixir lovers and people in general search for.
Their kiss was more of a mutual catharsis than a cathexis. While it stoked the fires of their desires, it was also utilized by both as a much needed outlet for festering emotions, collective angst and pent up pain. It expressed eloquently in one of the most primeval languages what they’d never been able to find adequate words for.
She felt them shift, move to the shadows draping the house wall without breaking their kiss.
When her back hit the wall, he stilled and raised his head. His eyes were a shifting canvas of tenderness and desire while perspiration gleamed in tiny beads on his upper lip and forehead.
Taking in a deep ragged breath, he caressed her cheek. It was wet with tears that kept welling out of her eyes unabated, almost out of their own volition.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you…”, he began urgently, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he paused, painfully conscious of the inadequacy of his words..
“No…Arnav”, she stalled him with a torn voice. She didn’t want to revisit the past. Not just yet. At that moment all her exhausted self wanted was to ignore the various demons plaguing their relationship. Of course she understood the cowardliness of her ostrich like behavior just as she realized the surety of the morning sun bringing about a resurrection of the same demons.
She will face them some other time, she told herself. Soon, she promised herself. But for now, for just a little while, she wanted to steal a moment from the train of time and make it her own.
She wished they could be like those tiny people in a snow globe…their lives a single happy continuum, sans the pain of past or fear of future. Just beautiful moments capable of being rewound and replayed.
“Not now. Let’s talk later”, she elaborated after a pause after drawing in a deep shuddering breath.
While his eyes probed gently and sought explanation of this procrastination of the inevitable, he nodded in acquiescence at her silence and didn’t press further.
A spasm of emotions flitted across her countenance almost succeeding in crumpling it like a house of cards.
“It’s just that…I…”, she tried explaining, biting her lower lip in trepidation.
“I’m…”, she began again after a few moments before giving up altogether and tightening her arms around him in a fierce embrace, “Why does our love have to be so painful..so complicated?
Although as a question it was directed towards no one in particular, it’s anguish reached his heart with painful precision.
With an incoherent murmur, he engulfed her in his arms, unable to say anything in response. Anita’s words replayed in his mind.
“I don’t get this kind of love when all it ever does is cause tears…”.
“I did this to her”. Accusatory thoughts were quick to pound on his mind even as he drew her so close that it became unclear where his heartbeats ended and hers began, “I had no business pursuing her when my life, heart, mind…everything was a mess”.
With great effort, he put a halt to his negative thoughts.
“What is done is done. Dwelling over the past is not going to help now. She has entrusted her future in my hands and I have to make sure I take care of it this time”, he mused caressing her back with gentle hands and resting his head against hers.
Minutes ticked away with neither wanting to release the other and both oblivious to the soft drizzle that had been steadily falling on them.
“Let’s make memories, Khushi”, he said against her soft hair, breaking the silence after a long while, “Let’s make enough happy memories to help us live thorough the painful ones”.
Khushi relaxed and unwound her arms. Resting them on his shoulders, she looked up at him.
There was a strange fear in her eyes.
“God willing”, she said softly, her tone cajoling him to repeat the same.
“God willing”, he said with a tiny smile while memories of cruel vicissitude, of the touch of a tiny hand, darkened his eyes with a pain that was seeped deep in his soul.
Their eyes exchanged vows and wavering smiles and before a loud rumble of thunder accompanied with cascading rainwater made them spring apart with a shriek from Khushi and a colorful expletive from Arnav.
As she turned to rush indoors, Arnav extended his arm with a laugh and caught her wrist in a firm grim.. Through the sheet of falling rain, Khushi could discern his dancing eyes.
“We’ll get soaked”, she protested amusedly, tugging at her hand.
Letting go of her wrist, Arnav caught her shoulders and nudged her close against the wall. The roof’s overhang afforded them some protection from the elements.
“We already are”, he said, looking down at her, warming her with the humorous glint in his eyes. His lips quirked as he picked up a wet tendril from her forehead to prove his point.
Her breaths escaped fast and shallow through her parted lips as his hand lingered on her cheek before tracing a light path down the smooth column of her neck.
“I’d always wanted to kiss in the rain”, he said with an endearingly boyish smile.
His smile widened at the surprise in her eyes.
“I wasn’t always this grim old soul I’ve become now, you know..”, he said lightly but his voice trailed off with a faint tinge of melancholy that tugged at Khushi’s heart.
With indignant emphasis, she said, “You are not a grim old soul. Not by a long shot”.
In response, he bent his head to press a kiss and a smile on the delicate contour of her collar bone.
A waft of wind sprayed them with raindrops even she turned her head to the side with her toes curling.
His mouth traced a scorching path on the side of her neck before taking her earlobe in his mouth. He did things to it that caused her heart to almost fly out of her ribcage.
In perfectly synchronous movements, Khushi drew him closer and Arnav slammed his lips on hers.
While the rain slowed to a gentle drizzle again, their kiss picked up tempo and reflected the insatiability of their desire.
Her lips had soon turned full and plump from his ministrations and his hand found it’s way in through the high slit of her kurta and firmly cupped the dip of her bare waist.
His caresses were increasing in urgency but he stopped abruptly and raised his head. The rain had stopped and both realized it was time they went back inside.
Khushi called Anita to unlock the back door next to the stairs and they were able to return to their rooms without drawing unwanted attention to themselves. A myriad of thoughts and emotions rushed their minds as they changed into dry clothes. While Khushi questioned the prudence behind her deliberate procrastination and even briefly considered forgetting the past to just move on with him, the major thought plaguing Arnav’s mind was his utter distaste at the secretive nature of their relationship.
Coming close to the heels of this thought was his decision to move to a hotel the next day. In his mind, it was suddenly seemed unacceptable to take advantage of his hosts’ hospitality while they were still unaware of his relationship with their niece or the real reason behind his coming to Allahabad.
“And much as I want to hold her hand, take pride in our relationship in front of the whole world, I know it’s not my sole prerogative. I’ll leave it up-to Khushi”, he reflected, facing the mirror, running a comb through his wet hair, “I’ll let her chart the course of our relationship this time. Allow her to navigate it at her own pace and within her own comfort level”.
Putting the comb down, he shoved his hands in his jeans’ pockets and stared absently at his reflection in the mirror. He couldn’t help wondering with considerable intrigue and a touch of excitement how Khushi planned on taking their relationship forward..
As he left the room, he concluded his noble intentions with a characteristically honest dialogue with self.
“Although I think this is an absolutely ridiculous situation for two adults to find themselves in”.
“Yeah? And who do you think is responsible for it ?
Dinner was an uneventful affair with both Arnav and Khushi self-absorbed in thoughts and the rest of the group busy ironing out the various details of a small ladies only Sangeet function that was to be held at their home the next evening.
While it was already being an uphill task keeping his innate impatience under check, Madhu Aunty made matters worse by suddenly remembering and questioning Arnav’s purported change in careers.
“Sorry?, Arnav narrowed his eyes in confusion. It was clear from his expression that he had no freaking clue what she was talking about.
Akash came to his rescue with a totally inadequate, “I was joking, Ma. Just wanted to keep Arnav’s visit a surprise”.
It was a reply which convinced neither his mother nor his friend. While Madhu ended up guessing, without an iota of doubt, the real reason behind his unexpected visit, Arnav just felt tired of the whole situation. With his face grim, he repeated his earlier resolve of moving to a hotel in his mind.
As he took a sip of water, his eyes met Khushi’s concerned ones across the table.
“Let’s not delay having that talk, Khushi”, his eyes seemed to be pleading, “Let’s move on and leave the wreckage of our destruction behind. Allow me, help me, cut those strings that hold you back. Strings that prevent you from becoming wholly mine even in my arms. Strings that cut my heart every single minute because they owe their existence to me”.
Khushi’s eyes reflected the silent storm raging in his eyes.
“I’m scared, Arnav”, her eyes darkened with pain, “I’m scared of asking you these questions that’ve haunted me for so long but more than that, but I’m scared of your answers. I know they’ll be brutally honest and rightfully so… but I don’t know how… I’ll react to them”.
“Di, Maasi is asking you something”, Anita’s interrupted their silent musings, making Khushi realize her aunt’s unsuccessful attempts to catch her attention.
After dinner, Aakash and Madhumati went upstairs for what promised to be a long enlightening conversation, while Arnav stepped out feeling wicked for being a little amused at his friend’s plight.
His phone showed a missed call from Srinagar that he’d been too preoccupied to return earlier. It was from Mr. Asif Bhatt, his plantation manager, whose integrity and acumen in managing the day to day affairs of Saffron Fields Inc was a blessing he was eternally grateful for. It was one less thing for him to worry about. If it hadn’t been for Mr. Bhatt, Arnav had often mused, he would’ve been forced to find a buyer for something that had far more sentimental than commercial value to him. He had called him soon after landing in India to inform him about his arrival so as to give him ample time to prepare for his visit to Srinagar.
And then, there had been another pressing matter he wanted them to touch base on…
Minutes ticked by as their conversation, not an easy one for Arnav, continued for a long time and left Arnav with a sensation of a shift, subtle and as yet undefinable, within his heart. It’s pain showed signs of being tempered by a peace that he’d never expected or even thought possible.
He stepped up to the edge of the verandah with his features relaxed. Standing under a whitewashed arch, he gazed at the western horizon where an almost full moon was peeking through a crack in the clouds. It’s light rimmed the gray masses on either side and splashed across the mosaic floor to reveal it’s colors. His shadow, long and dark, trailed behind him, dissecting the patch of moonlight into two.
There had been many times in the past eighteen month when he was told, by way of consolation, that Aarav was there somewhere. That death wasn’t an abyss one lost their loved ones to.There had been many nights when he’d groped, with an all consuming desperation, for a hold on this belief. When he’d prayed with all the grief of a devastated father to just be able to feel his presence…once
He remembered the first time he’d felt like someone up there was actually paying attention to him. The first time he’d come even near to being consoled.
It was that night in January…and Khushi.
“Then believe, Arnav. Believe that Aarav is there somewhere in a happier place. Believe that it was all a part of a plan. Believe that this plan has reasons that our minds can’t even begin to encompass”.
“Do you really think he’s there somewhere?, he heard his voice, ” And that he’s happy?.
“I’m 100% positive, dear”.
If it was the sheer strength of her conviction that had consoled him that night, it was a subtle shift deep within himself that brought him peace today.
He could feel him.
Perhaps for the first time, he could feel him.
Bittersweet relief pervaded the holes in his soul and caressed his scars. A conviction was conceived for no apparent reason that his mind could conceive.
Yes, his Aarav, his baby, was far away from him but he was there.
He really was there…somewhere.
“Daddy, I wanna go to the moon. In a blue rocket”.
They were camping out in backyard, father and son, lying on their backs facing the summer sky, a faint smell of toasted marshmallows lingering in the air.
Arnav saw himself, a very different him, grinning at the full moon they could see through the screened roof of their tent. He had just finished reading him a book about a teddy bear and his adventures with a blue rocket.
“You’re going to leave your Daddy behind?”, he had mock protested.
“You can come with me too”, Aarav had placated him in a kind voice, his eyes fixed on the moon, “My rocket will have room for you too”.
“I can’t leave work, bud”, he’d replied somberly with his eyes dancing, “I’ll need to make money to pay off that blue rocket of yours”.
Crossing his arms, Aarav had thought hard with a frown marring his cherubic face.
“You’ll have to be a big boy, Daddy”, he’d said finally in a firm voice, “I won’t take long. Moon is not that far anyway”.
“But I’ll miss you”. Arnav’s voice had been a perfect imitation of his son’s whining voice.
“Oh, stop being a cry baby, Daddy”, his son had replied with a pout.
Arnav had laughed and laughed until several tears of mirth had tumbled down his cheek and his cheerful baritone had resonated under the canopy of sparkling stars.
“He is my son, alright”, he had thought with a wide grin, Arnav remembered clearly as if it were yesterday.
Arnav’s eyes reflected the moon under a different sky and flickered at the memory. His lips curved in a smile that had pierced through innumerable tears, cut through unfathomable pain to be finally able to reach there.
There are very few things in life that last forever but even in the surety of it’s transience that smile was a new beginning never the less.
“I miss you, bud”, his heart spoke with each aching beat, “But I don’t want you to miss me too much. I want you to be happy, always happy, where ever you are”.
Swallowing hard, he reined in his thoughts from veering down the old beaten path that usually led to a space empty with despair and dark existential questions.
He owed that to Khushi. His Khushi – whose life and happiness had become so inextricably tied with his.
He couldn’t allow himself to be so self absorbed in grief and so blinded by needs so as to ignore what she needed, what she deserved, from him.
He wouldn’t allow that to happen again, not after he’d experienced what it did to her. He’ll have to stronger, better, just for her.
A breeze, Eastward bound, caressed his brow and brought with it the dark and potent smell of rain soaked Raat Ki Raani blossoms. Even as his nostril flared slightly in appreciation, a pair of arms wrapped themselves around him from behind.
Strains of an old Hindi sing wafted towards them from a distant loud speaker.
Khilate hain gul yahaan, khil ke bikharane ko
Milate hain dil yahaan, mil ke bichhadane ko
Khilate hain gul yahaan….
Kal rahe naa rahe, mausam ye pyaar ka
Kal ruke na ruke, dola bahaar ka..,
Chaar pal mile jo aaj, pyaar men guzaar de
Khilate hain gul yahaan
Arnav’s eyes flickered their pain away before engulfing one of her hands in his and turning around to face her.
“Nothing. Was just waiting for you”, he replied, his eyes glinting with a smile that stripped clear all remnants of their earlier turmoil.
Khushi’s scanned his face, his mask, for a long time, her eyes deep and serene with thought. And just like that, without any preamble, Khushi picked up the thread of their silent, dining table musings. Like it were the most natural thing in the world.
“I didn’t mean to procrastinate, Arnav”, she said, the natural wet gleam of her eyes appearing more pronounced in the moonlight, “It’s just that I’m…”.
As she struggled to articulate her fears, Arnav pulled her into his arms, tightening them to fully ensconce her in their warmth.
“I understand, Khushi”, he said in a voice thick with emotion, “You have every right to take your time just as I have no right, not anymore, to be impatient”.
Their conversation was fast heading towards the dreaded zone and Khushi felt her heart pound against the ribcage. “It has to be done”, she reminded herself, “Better to rip the bandaid off in one go and get it over with”.
With memories from that night beginning to rip her mind apart again, she looked up at Arnav with tortured eyes. They pleaded for the reprieve of a reassurance or a promise. Anything to help soothe those demons away and let her live in peace.
“Why?. Her question finally tore itself from her lips in a heart rending cry.
Her fingers curled into his shirt front as she gently shook him to elicit words.
“How could you do this to us? To our love? How could you’ve lost faith in our love? In my love for you?, her voice rasped in pain and her words tumbled over one another, “Help me understand, Arnav. Help me understand why we broke up…why you kept me locked out for so long…why you looked at another girl and took her home with you. I’m trying…I’m trying so hard to wrap my mind around the fact that you did this while still loving me. I want to understand Arnav. Please…help me…help me erase those memories from my mind. So I can live in peace”.
Arnav’s face blanched as her pain pierced his heart, leaving behind a bleeding trail of self directed anger in it’s wake. It had never been in Arnav’s nature to be lenient or even remotely kind towards himself. And he didn’t allow himself to make an exception today.
“Khushi”, he weaved his fingers through her soft hair and hugged her close against him. For a moment, a long moment, he was silent. To Khushi’s pounding heart, the whole universe seemed to still in anticipation in that one moment.
After what seemed like an eternity to her, he finally spoke.
His voice thrummed with emotions that seemed to have been forcibly uprooted from the deepest, most inaccessible, recesses of his being.
“If I delve deep inside, I can probably find a whole lot of complex, twisted reasons for my mindset…my foolish, destructive mindset at that time. But I don’t want to do that, Khushi, because as far as I’m concerned they can neither justify my behavior nor my choices.They’ll be nothing more than excuses…pathetic excuses”.
“What I want to do today, what I think is more important “, he continued after a pause even as she raised her head and met his gaze, “is to promise you that I will never hurt you again. That I will spend the rest of my life loving you like you deserve to be loved”.
Even as his hand cupped her cheek gently, the simple sincerity in his low voice washed over her heart like a soothing salve. They should be enough, she reasoned, her eyes welling with tears, but they fell short of placating her demons. They wanted more. An undefined more..
She cast her lashes down and stared at the white collar of the shirt he’d changed into after getting wet in the rain. It contrasted against his very sexy column of neck and Khushi suppressed an urge to press her lips against his skin, to breathe in his scent.
Taking in a deep breath, she finally met his eyes and asked. Words were urged out before they could get entangled in either doubts about her need to know or fears about his response.
“Did you?, she said, her lip bit in trepidation, her voice almost a whisper, “Did you feel desire for her?
She felt him cringe, his well-deserved embarrassment emanating from him in palpable waves.
And she saw her answer, or thought she did, in his eyes.
His eyes’ deep regret while replaying that fleeting moment in the foyer made Khushi’s imagination to jump ahead and sear her mind with painful images.
First base? Second base?
“What exact did he mean by his ‘we didn’t do anything?”, she thought drowning in a fresh wave of hurt, “And do I even want to know?
“It didn’t take me long to come into my senses”, spoke Arnav even as Khushi struggled to disengage herself from his arms in a perhaps much delayed haze of anger.
“How lucky for me”, she hissed, her eyes blazing with vehemence, her heart coiled in a tight burning knot.
“It was just a moment”, he began, desperately tightening his arms, “Let me explain”.
“I don’t want to know”, she said, angry tears smarting her eyes, splayed hands pushing against his chest, “Spare me the gory details. And let me go”.
“At least let me finish speaking, Khushi”
“I just want to be left alone for a while. Please”, she cried, her palms straining against him once again, and this time Arnav freed her without a protest, his features taut with strain.
After the verandah door closed after Khushi with a loud thud, Arnav hesitated for a few indecisive moments before turning to face the sky again. The wind had further dispersed the clouds revealing the moon in all it’s unveiled glory.
It was a long night for both Arnav and Khushi wherein sleep was elusive and every advancing minute weighed down by pain and longing.
While the rest of the household slept in a house darkened with windows shut and curtains drawn to keep the moon out with; Khushi tossed and turned until the wee hours of the night before sitting up in bed with an impatient grimace.
She decided to go out for a breath of fresh air to calm her restlessness with.
After quietly closing the door, she stepped onto the verandah, her eyes widening at the sight of another sleepless person who was already sitting on the steps. She stood still for a moment and just stared at her. It was Anita. With her chin resting on a hand, she was quietly gazing at the night sky.
She looked up with a start as Khushi wordlessly eased herself beside her.
“Why are you up so late?, she asked shifting to face her.
“Look who’s talking”, Khushi murmured without meeting her eyes.
Anita sighed and went back to her perusal of the glittering constellations. Wrapping silence around them, Khushi joined her too.
The night breeze smelt of earth, rain and flowers and with it’s every gust the two pairs of eyes softened with wistfulness.
“Almost wish we could go back to our childhood days”, Khushi’s whisper broke the silence of the night after a long while.
“I know right?, Anita whispered back with feeling.
There was something undefinable in her voice that caught Khushi’s attention. Turning towards her, she studied her features, her soft hazel eyes swirling with concern.
As Anita turned too and met her gaze, Khushi let out a deep sigh.
“Who is it?
And in a different part of the house, Arnav faced the dark horizon, waiting for a strip of mixed colors with all his soul.