“I almost wish I hadn’t gone down the rabbit hole and yet…and yet…”.
Alice, Alice In Wonderland.
Sitting on the verandah steps in the middle of the night, Anita was in a rare introspective mood. She looked back at her naive self in the past and wondered, like humans going through the never ending cycle of life often do, if she knew that person anymore.
She saw herself trying to push forward a friendship that had shown no such inclination from the very beginning. She had hoped, with all the optimism of the very young, that the sheer force of her wish would suffice, that it would make her dream happen.
And to give credit where it was due, it almost did didn’t it?
It almost did…and broke her heart, in the process.
“If this curiously numb sensation in my heart can be called that”, Anita mused with a sigh, looking at the moon.
“Of course it could very well be bruised pride, disappointment, humiliation, embarrassment, acidity or all of the above. How is one supposed to know? A broken heart…That sounds more interesting for sure”.
After their movie outing, she had been too affected by the various issues plaguing their home, her dad’s health scare and her older sister’s nightmarish love life, to give much thought to her own love life or rather the lack thereof.
Aman’s unexpected visit one fine Sunday in April brought the state of her own heart back in focus. The day had started rather horribly with her waking up late and coming down to yet another argument or rather a one sided tirade in the family room. It was her mom, who’d been discreetly probed by an acquaintance about something she’d heard about a certain Dr. Kashyap’s daughter.
The cray cray sisters and their clueless parent at work again, Anita had thought walking in with a murderous gleam in her eyes.
The sisters were well acquainted with their mom’s habit of spewing hurtful things when riled just as they were always sure of her eventual regret in their wake. But they had never experienced anger that was so intense or so long lasting.
It showed no signs of letting up, Anita had mused that morning, since that sister from hell had the audacity to show up at their door uninvited.
The fact that Di was going to meet Arnav at a park had added fuel to the fire but for once Di had been adamant.
“I have to go”, she’d said cryptically with the effect of her mother’s words discernible only in the fine creases of stress around her eyes and mouth.
“Sorry, mom, I don’t meant to be selfish but I have to meet him today”, Khushi had added in response to her mother’s demand for maintaining distance from Arnav.
“Couldn’t you at least put your relationship on the back burner until the dust from their divorce and Lavanya’s suicide has settled and Navin’s health has stabilized? How could you be so insensitive?, her mother’s words had followed Di as she’d continued to walk towards the door.
After the front door had clicked shut after Khushi, their mom had headed out for grocery shopping, which they all knew worked as a way for her to let off steam too.
It was late afternoon when Navin had settled into an afternoon nap that Anita decided to go for a run around the subdivision. It was only April, yet the weather was warm in keeping with the early spring they’d been gifted with that year. With the sun edging closer to the western horizon, the shadows had lengthened and the air had the slightest suggestion of a nip.
Running felt so good, Anita had thought with a sigh even as she stopped at regular intervals to wave or chat with people she knew or to just pet a friendly dog. It felt good to be out of the house these days, she had thought with a twinge of guilt. It just didn’t feel like their normal home anymore. Surrounded by an increasing number of broken, dysfunctional families and relationships, she’d always thought themselves to be different. She’d always felt blessed. But now, it seemed like everything and everyone had changed. Even Di. And she missed her old Di…and their fun times.
Her eyes spilled with rare tears even as her legs slowed down on seeing a familiar SUV pulling in their driveway.
Before she could’ve had a chance to completely wipe her face, Aman, slamming the car door shut, saw her.
“Darn it”, she’d thought pettishly, acutely conscious of her neon running shorts, sweaty T-shirt and hair hastily gathered back in an unflattering pony.
“Hey”, she’d said with a grin however, “Di and Mom are away and Dad’s taking a nap”.
Aman was stopping by to drop a bunch of referrals to save Navin a trip to their primary care office. Reciprocating her smile, he’d informed her of the same and extended his arm to hand them to her.
“Thanks, I’ll give them to him”
Aman had hesitated for a second, his eyes lingering on her face, before saying in a kind voice, “Your dad’s going to be fine. It’s a good thing that everything got diagnosed in time”.
“I guess…”, Anita had said thwarting a mad desire to fling herself at him and burst into tears.
“Why are you so quiet then?, Aman had said next with an amused smile, “Cat got your tongue?
Something shifted in her face at his words. It was perhaps the fear that the wind of change passing through their house might not leave her unscathed either.
Surveying her face, Aman had sighed and caught her arm by the elbow. Nudging her towards the passenger door, he opened it for her.
“What are you doing?, she had asked surprised, “Where are we going?
His voice was roguish as he leaned in closer and said, “I’m kidnapping you. I’m sure, as a business it will be far more lucrative than medicine”.
That roguish voice did not sit well at all with his boyish good looks at all and made Anita giggle uncontrollably.
“You need to take up Kidnapping 101 first”.
They grinned at each other for a little while yet it had seemed like an eternity to Anita. Buckling her seatbelt, she had wondered wistfully if he’d felt the frisson of awareness between them too.
“I’m in the mood for ice cream”, he’d said with a smile, turning toward her, “How about you?
“I’m always in the mood for ice cream”.
Soon, they were sitting outside a neighborhood ice cream place that appeared to be particularly popular with teens. It had a cheerful, sunny ambience and soon, Anita found herself relaxing, sitting back in a carved metal bistro chair and enthusiastically digging into a sinful confection of chocolate ice cream, nuts, whipped cream and chopped caramel candies.
Sunlight slanted over them and caught the gold flecks at the tips of her eyelashes.
“Why were you looking so upset?, Aman had asked him and gently encouraged by him, she saw herself pouring her heart out sharing all their home’s troubles with him. Wise enough to restrain herself from divulging too many details, she did end up recounting her mom’s and Khushi’s regular altercations and her mom’s unreasonable conviction that Arnav was bad news just because he’d recently gone through a particularly messy divorce.
Anita paused in her recollection to take a deep breath. It had been so foolishly easy for her to presume that the concern she saw in his eyes was for her…
How incredibly convenient it had been for her to live in a bubble of delusion? A fool’s paradise.
But if it was all a delusion…why did he…what was that?, she thought with a fresh surge of confusion and pain as memories from her birthday began coming to her again.
“And I don’t even want to know”, she replied to herself with a defiant lift of her chin, “He was being a jerk like all men probably are and I’m not going to give a damn about them anymore. Love is so overrated anyway”.
She snapped out of her reverie as Khushi lowered 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?
Anita’s eyes wavered for a split second before she said with mischievous smile, “Anderson Cooper”.
“Anu…spill the beans…now”, persisted Khushi, not allowing herself to be distracted by her jokes.
“Di..there is nothing left to tell”, said Anita, too embarrassed to share what she now thought of as her unbelievable stupidity with anyone. At least not now, she thought, while the wounds were still raw.
“I don’t want to talk about it right now”, she added, “But I promise I will one day”.
“Were you hurt?, asked Khushi, picking her hand and holding it in both of hers.
Touched by the steely concern in Khushi’s voice, she said, “No, nothing of that sort happened. He just wasn’t interested in me. That’s all”.
“He must’ve been blind and you’re too young for relationships anyway”, said Khushi overwhelmed by a sudden deluge of maternal protectiveness, “You’re just about to enter your sophomore year, honey, and the next three years are going to be really crucial for your future”.
“You’re right, Di”, said Anita really meaning it, “And I’m not even sure if what I felt was really love. It was probably just a crush”.
However, despite her bravado her heartache wafted out in tangible waves. Throwing her arms around her, Khushi hugged her close. Her baby was growing up and she could feel the growing pains on her behalf.
“I’m sure there is someone better destined for you, Anu, Someone who recognizes your worth. Someone who loves you back like you deserve to be loved”, Khushi comforted her, her hands stroking her head, “And it’s only a matter of time before you two find each other. It’s all predetermined. You will know. You will know when it happens. And when it does you will find yourself focussing all energies into trying to make it work. Into clearing all doubts. Into overcoming all hurdles. You’ll feel compelled to. It will cease being a choice. Your very reason for living, living not existing, will come to depend on it. And you won’t even realize…how or when…
The soothing cadence of Khushi’s voice pulsated through the night air, gently lulling their restless blood into a stream of serenity.
They didn’t even realize how late it was until an orange cleft streaked across the dark horizon and the air filled slowly with buoyant birdsong.
Khushi woke up to a flurry of activity in the entire household. Preparations for the evening’s function were underway in full swing. Furniture was being moved around and away, food was being prepared and phoolwallas were already busy creating a floral backdrop at one end of the room. There was a strong smell of roses, jasmine and marigold in the air and Khushi sniffed appreciatively pitching in after a quick breakfast. Her eyes, of course, kept going towards the staircase at the back of the house.
“Where is he? Why is he not coming down?, she thought peevishly even though she remembered perfectly her demand for time and space the previous evening.
While Anita, Isha and a bunch of her friends were busy getting the music CDs together for the evening, Khushi murmured an excuse and rushed upstairs before she could be held back, yet again, by somebody.
She was surprised to see their room bolted from outside.
An unreasonably intense panic rose up from the pit of her stomach. His words came to her. “Are you sure you wouldn’t be better off without me?
“If you leave me again, Arnav Raizada”, She thought vehemently, her nails digging into the flesh of her palms, “I will kill you. I will just plain kill you”.
As she climbed downstairs again, she passed her aunt, who took a long penetrating look at her face and said, “Akaash went out with Arnav to help him get settled in a hotel”.
“Oh…”, said her niece and a silent look of understanding was exchanged between the two.
“Sumita and Manohar tried their best to get him to stay with us but he was adamant. At Sumita’s insistence, he did promise to come for dinner tonight”.
Sighing with relief, she thanked her aunt for letting her know and braced herself for the questions that she knew were sure to follow. She was pleasantly surprised and grateful when Madhumati, who was notorious for her lack of tact and delicacy in their family, limited herself to just one question.
“Do Navin and Sujata know about Arnav?
“Yes, Bua, they do”, she said and perhaps her eyes expressed more than her words because Madhumati surprised her yet again by her perceptiveness.
“I guess all that divorce drama is the problem”, stated Madhu with a grim face before pausing and impulsively gathering her in a hug.
“Let me know if you ever need me to talk to Navin and Sujata. I’m sure you will”, she said, dropping a kiss on her hair, “I know Arnav and his family very well”.
Cocooned in her aunt’s hug made Khushi realize just how much she’d felt deprived of a mother’s love.
While her eyes burnt with hot tears, her aunt continued to talk, reminiscing about the years she and Astha had spent together in New Jersey.
“I’ve known your Arnav since he was a little baby. Akash and him were inseparable as children. I remember how Astha used to complain about him being given excessive freedom by his father and how he was becoming way too Americanized for her liking. But he never gave his parents a reason to be anything but proud of him. And he did grow up to be a responsible and respectful young man. He was a little too blunt and straightforward at times but Astha used to boast about how he never did anything behind their backs like so many people from his generation do. I guess his heart was always in the right place…and that’s what counts in the long run. He was always such a mischievous and fun loving boy that looking at him now makes me wonder if he really is the same Arnav”.
Khushi raised her head and looked at her aunt. Her eyes were bemused and grateful at the same time. She could have never imagined finding an ally in Madhu Bua, whom probably a lot of people misunderstood, she now realized, because of her loud and blunt manners. Just as she was concluding that looks can be deceptive and that one should never judge a book by it’s cover, her aunt turned her burgeoning realization on it’s head by suddenly reverting back to her regular unfiltered self.
“I’m sure it wasn’t Arnav’s fault that he was tricked into having ‘you know what‘ by that crazy woman”.
“Except foolishness perhaps”, she added acidly for good measure.
“Bua”, she protested, her face flushing with embarrassment, “How can you talk like that?
Her aunt winked in reply and left her standing with her mouth agape. Strangely enough, that talk made her chest feel a lot lighter and avowing to purge all her so called demons as soon as possible, she went downstairs to contribute towards the sangeet preparations that were already going on in full swing.
There were endless things that needed to be done despite it being a small, intimate function of about 20-25 ladies; and in a way being busy helped Khushi regroup and recuperate because it afforded her mind that rare luxury of a perfectly blank mind. Her eyes did keep going to a large antique wood and brass clock on the wall however and everything time the doorbell rang, she rushed to the door to open it.
“You’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you?, she thought with even as the golden haze of dusk blanketed the landscape outside and all the strings of lights adorning the old bungalow were turned on to magical effect, “Just to make me miss you”.
After assisting a giddily happy and not even a bit nervous Isha put on dainty flower jewelry – earrings, tika and kangans, she and Anita helped her settle in a specially decorated seat for pictures. Dressed in a simple yellow chloridar kameez trimmed with delicate gold gota, their cousin had never looked so beautiful to them and the two sisters gazed at her with suddenly moist eyes. What is about weddings, thought Khushi, blinking back tears, that makes you so maudlin for no apparent reason at all.
Seeing her fighting tears, Isha jumped up from her seat and hugged her close.
“I’m so glad you were able to come”, she said with a catch in her voice.
“Me too”, Khushi said with a wavering smile even as Isha gestured to Anita to join in the hug too.
“You go get ready too. Your Arnav should be here anytime now”, she whispered with a wink.
It was almost time for the function to start and still no sign of either Arnav or Akash. Dressed in an emerald green chiffon sari with her hair falling down her back in cascading waves, she looked frail and ethereal as she went up to the terrace, away from the din of music and festivities, to call Akash one more time.
She had been too distracted to think of getting Arnav’s number and all her calls to Akash had gone unanswered so far. Standing in front of the parapet with her eyes fixed on the double wrought iron gates, she rang his cell phone again and her persistence finally paid off with Akash receiving her call with a cheerful hello.
An overpowering relief caused her to launch into an unreasonable and largely incoherent tirade that was unceremoniously interrupted by Akash’s amused voice, “Sorry, my phone had died on me so I couldn’t answer your earlier calls. And Arnav here is asking if you’re missing him”.
Irritated by Arnav’s soft laughter in the background, she said, “No, tell him, I’m not missing him at all. I was just calling to check on you”.
Ignoring her cousin’s laughing yeah right, she continued, “Where are you guys anyway? What did you do all day?
“Hmm…Arnav will be with you shortly and you can ask him all you want”, was Akash’s short reply before hanging up. He was right downstairs in his mom’s room.
“Will be with you shortly…”, Khushi repeated and then caught her breath as a warm, familiarly rough palm slid over her waist to rest splayed over her belly.
A warm voice whispered close to her ear, “So you weren’t missing me at all? Liar”.
“Arnav”, she gasped both in surprise and at this sudden tactile attack. She turned around to meet his smiling eyes while trying her best to not pay attention to the way his languorous fingers played with her waist chain. They seemed to be having difficulty leaving it alone.
“Stop doing that”, she protested weakly, remembering her earlier resolve to purge out all her demons, all her festering emotions…once and for all. His touches seemed to be exorcising them at a phenomenal speed but she knew only a honest, no-holds-barred conversation would work as a more permanent solution that both of them sought.
“Arnav, please listen to me”, she pleaded and his fingers stilled on perceiving the seriousness of her tone.
“I couldn’t sleep the whole night and realized that procrastination, ignoring the elephant in the room is not going to help matters at all”.
“I couldn’t sleep either”, said Arnav with his eyes darkening, “But I thought you wanted some time…so I left you alone”.
Khushi’s heart softened at what she correctly perceived as an intention and an attempt to change his innate nature for her. How many people are willing to do that these days, she thought with her eyes moistening.
“Last night”, Khushi began slowly, “I was afraid to continue our conversation because I was suddenly scared stiff of your answers as well as my reaction to them. But I’m mentally prepared for the worst now…I think..I think I will be able to handle it somehow. Let’s just hear it and get it over with”.
Arnav narrowed his eyes in abject confusion.
“Hear what, honey?
Exhaling in exasperation, she decided to not mince words for once and crudely spell it out for him.
“1st, 2nd or …more?”, she asked hurriedly and followed it with half scrunched eyes which was her way of bracing herself against his upcoming response.
“Huh? His eyes reflected his utter cluelessness about the thoughts running amok in Khushi’s mind.
“How far did you two go?
Tired of the running-around-the-bush game which had been going on for too long, she enunciated each and every word clearly and interjected perfect pauses in between. The pain and fear in her eyes were consolidated into steel.
Arnav stared at her for a long time, then, slowly…tenderly.. his eyes softened.
Comprehension took form like dew drops at night.
“Khushi”, he cupped her face and searched deep into her hazel depths. His voice was so beautifully tender that for a moment, Khushi forgot to breathe. “You silly, silly girl, when I said we didn’t do anything, I meant just that. Nothing. Zilch. Nada”.
“Not even a kiss?”, asked Khushi with her querulous lips seeming undecided whether they wanted to cry or to smile.
“Not even the whisper of a kiss”, he replied, his voice a silken caress. The fierceness of her subsequent embrace made her bones melt.
After a while, Khushi raised her head from his chest to look at him again. Her eyes were peevish.
“Then why didn’t you tell me so last night?, she cried, “I couldn’t sleep all night”.
“I wanted to”, his lips quirked, “but you wouldn’t let me finish”.
“That’s because I got scared by the guilt I thought I glimpsed in your eyes. It made me think of the worst”.
“Of course, I am guilty”, he said with a grimace, her upturned face close to his, “I’m guilty of that fleeting moment in my apartment when I allowed myself to feel the basest, most demeaning kind of desire. I am guilty of inviting her to our home for the stupidest, most fucked up reasons possible. It was the first time I’d picked a stranger from a bar and most definetely the lowest point of my existence. And most of all, Khushi, I’m guilty of having hurt you by my actions”.
“So there wasn’t even a little bit of desire driving him to take her home that day”, Khushi mused with a curious elation in her heart. “It was anger..”, she thought remembering their brief meeting at the bar.
“An anger that sought to destroy the last threads that held their relationship together at that time. An anger that sought to burn bridges…and destroy his very soul in the process?, she thought, searching deep in his eyes, “Just because I wanted some time and space to sort my issues out, he was so freaking hurt that he lost faith in my love for him?
With her bewildered eyes fixed on his, she mused if she’ll ever understand, fully understand, this intriguing man she had fallen in love with. Or would he always remain unfathomable and unpredictable like his namesake.
With a resigned sigh, she rested her head against him again. While her body relaxed in the warmth of his proximity, Arnav tightened his arms and buried his face in her hair.
It was a beautiful night with the terrace floor awash with moonlight. A full moon peeked from behind a Gulmohar tree, it’s silver blending with the fairy lights to conjure an ethereal ambience. The humid air was abuzz with the incessant chirping of crickets and music.
“Arnav?, she said against the pristine white kurta he sported very becomingly today.
“Yeah?”, replied Arnav nuzzling against the ultra sensitive skin behind her ear.
Khushi swallowed in trepidation. She couldn’t possibly keep on interrogating him like that. It had to stop somewhere.
And yet, another thought beckoned her from the back alleys of her mind, niggling her with it’s persistent demands to be addressed. It puzzled her too because at face value, that memory didn’t seem worth wasting a thought on.
“He’s in the shower right now“. Madison’s voice replayed in her ear.
“Why did you have to take a shower while Madison was still in the apartment?
Arnav raised his head and met her eyes. He appeared a little taken aback by her question. A dark memory flitted across his eyes before being shuttered out.
“Khushi”, he spoke with the voice of a man to whom patience had never came naturally. Dropping a lingering kiss on her forehead he said, “No matter how many questions you ask me, the truth will still remain the same. I think, honey, you’re looking for excuses that can reduce the culpability of my actions. But I don’t want to offer you any because I don’t believe in excuses. Aren’t excuses a commonly used ploy to get out of owing full responsibility? Isn’t it more honest to admit one’s mistakes, own full responsibility for them and try your hardest to not repeat them in future?”.
Khushi’s heart surged with a complex mix of love and irritation. Love at his endearing straightforwardness and irritation at his maddening refusal to cut himself any slack.
Untangling herself from his embrace, she started pacing the terrace. Arnav watched her with interest for a while and then finally decided to intervene. He parted his lips to say something but Khushi spoke first. “It’s very well for you to say that you don’t believe in excuses, but how about me? I don’t want to hear made-up excuses either but I do want you to at least say something in your defense. I do want you to share your feelings and thoughts with me so I can understand that complex brain of yours better…”
Even as she continued with her passionate tirade, Arnav leaned against the parapet, resting his elbow on it’s top rail. Despite the seriousness of the situation, Arnav’s eyes couldn’t help veering towards the splash of moonlight on her bare waist and the glittering chain around it.
With much effort, he focused his attention back on her words and replied quietly, “Isn’t a promise of never hurting you, never repeating the same mistakes again, enough? And you did say something about wanting to be convinced. I’m ready for that. Tell me what you want me to do”.
Khushi paused for a brief moment and closed her eyes in resignation. Maybe the commonly held presumption about men hating having their feelings dissected was true. Like so many women around the world, maybe she’ll learn to live with it too.
“Go on, tell me”, Arnav crossed his arms, “I’m waiting”.
“What am I supposed to do?, she thought amusedly, “Hand him a ticket for relationship infringement?
Crossing her arms, she decided to play along for a while, “No, you tell me…what all are you prepared to do?
She’d almost forgotten what this lightness, these effervescent bubbles in her heart, felt like.
“Anything, sweetheart”, Arnav replied before wisely adding, “Anything within reasonable limits, of course”.
Even as her lips curved into a mischievous smile, his own followed suit. What wouldn’t he do, he wondered, his heart softening with supreme gratitude, to prevent that smile from straying too far from her lips this time?
“And I’m going to consider that a blank rain check”, Khushi laughed before being tugged by the waist and having her laughing mouth captured in a searing kiss.
The sound of her cell phone’s ringtone finally drew them apart. It was Anita asking her to come downstairs ASAP as the festivities were about to start.
“You’ll come to the Mehndi ceremony tomorrow, right?, Khushi paused at the door and turned around for yet another embrace. Even the prospect of such a short separation appeared daunting to her.
Arnav dropped a peck on her cheek and nodded, “I’m staying at the same hotel where all the wedding functions are going to be held”.
Khushi descended down the stairs with her high heels clattering on the marble. She wondered anxiously what route their relationship would…and should take next. There was still so much to be discussed, so many decisions to be made, a future to be planned.
“Our future”, she halted for a second and repeated the two words, her eyes dewy with wistfulness. But soon, thoughts of Isha beckoned her. This is a special day of her life”, she thought, and she owed it to her to be a part of it. Like really be a part of it. She’d soon adjusted her features and mood to be a part of festivities she now stood in midst of.
It was a long night of fun, traditions, singing and dancing and it was way past the middle of the night when Khushi snuggled her head into her pillow with each muscle of her body aching. She sighed in contentment at finally being at a liberty to let her thoughts dwell on Arnav…
“Everything’s alright now”. This was her last thought while drifting to sleep with the clamor of questions at the back of her mind left largely unacknowledged.
While it’s generally believed that many dreams are mere random firing neurons, it is also true that some are roads to the mysteries of the subconscious mind.
They travel deep into the subconscious via spectacular paths making connections between ideas and intuitions, facts and emotions, memories and aspirations.
And sometimes, in this process of tying different facets of the human experience together, an answer is formed…
That night Khushi dreamt she went to Saffron Fields again. It was the same nightmare she’d had numerous times before without the slightest amelioration of it’s impact.
As always it was mysterious and fearsome. A baffling amalgam of sounds, ideas, images and emotions in quick succession.
The same burning fields, and the same sepia hued mountains, the same acrid smell of burnt saffron and…the same profound sensation of loss.
Her heart pounded just as painfully at the Phoenix emblazoning the smoky skies and cried just as piteously at the flames melting the precious flowers…
She heard a voice today. A dearly beloved voice that caused tears to emerge from beneath closed eyelids and her heart to feel the devastation of a heartbreak again…
“Let’s break up”, There was fire raging in his eyes too, “We’ve known each other well enough to warrant a goodbye kiss”.
She could see his eyes as he leaned in closer and her heart shuddered with a thunderclap of pain.
There was a plea in his eyes. Plea of a desperate man. They reminded her of a drowning man.
She could clearly read what they said today.
“Say you need me as much as I need you. Say you don’t want me to leave. That you won’t be better off without me”.
“Stop me, Khushi”.
His unspoken words seared through her heart leaving a burnt smoking track in it’s wake.
Even as her throat constricted and tears ran unabated, her dream decimated geographical distance in the matter of seconds. She was in his apartment. And she knew it was that night again.
Images shimmered, fused and blended together…
A door opened.
A shadow entered, and Khushi, an invisible spectator, realized with her heart wrenching that it was Arnav. He was almost unrecognizable. He turned to face the bathroom mirror and what she saw in his reflection squeezed the breath out of her lungs.
The umpteenth degree of human misery in all it’s nakedness.
He turned on the faucet and bent over the vanity. His body shuddered violently once or twice as he emptied the entire contents of his abdomen.
The reek of alcohol and vomit was overpowering, yet superseding it all was the scent of misery.
And then, she heard the sound of the shower and the fan.
She stiffened…before realization hit her the very next moment even in her dream. She was really there.
He was in bent in front of the vanity again, facing the mirror, his hands resting on either side of the basin.
His body wracked, his breaths convulsed, his eyes outpoured tears as he cried in a way, raw and primeval, that she’d never witnessed before, the sound of the shower masking his noise like it was intended to.
Standing there, silent and invisible, she cried with him…before somehow breaking all barriers of time and space to take his hand.
She heard his voice again…
“When I was a kid, my grandfather once brought me here. It was so long ago but I still remember his words. ‘This is all yours, Arnav’, he had said, ‘And mark my word, one day you will come back to it. After-all, you have saffron in your blood”.
They were at Saffron Fields again and she felt herself getting drenched with relief, hope and moonlight.
She could even smell the hope in the air. Or was it saffron?
It took her a while to realize there was someone else with them, that Arnav’s words had been addressed to him..
She knelt on the soft grass and gazed at the beautiful little person in front of him. With her heart full of wonder, she picked a small hand and traced the small fingers one by one. She could feel their softness beneath her fingertips…and with it the profoundness of Arnav’s loss.
She turned towards Arnav. In her sleep, she could hear the silent, heartrending cry that rose from her heart towards the skies.
“Oh, Arnav. How do you bear this? How can you even walk with this weight on your heart?
Khushi frowned as somebody shook her. She heard Anita calling her over and over again.
She opened her eyes and Anita’s face swam in front of her. Her eyes were wide with fear and anxiety.
“You scared me, Di. You were crying. You were crying so hard in your sleep”.
As Khushi stared at her dazedly, her mind still in the twilight zone between dream and reality.
Anita held out a candy bar for her, “Maybe you’re hypoglycemic. You haven’t been checking your blood sugars regularly these days”.
“I’m fine, Anu, I just had a dream..”, she said distractedly, her forehead clammy, her mind still reeling from the hangover of her vivid dream, “What time is it?
“It’s almost twelve. We’ll be leaving for the beauty salon in a little bit. You’re coming right? To get your hair done?”. Preparations for Mehndi, which was scheduled to commence at two in the afternoon, were already underway.
With a quick movement, she slid off of the bed.
“No, I don’t want to go”, she murmured shoving her feet in slippers.
“I can’t, Anu. I really have to go see Arnav”, she said turning towards her. There was an urgency in her voice that caught Anita’s attention.
“Is everything okay?, Anita asked anxiously,”You’re going now. Like right now”.
Khushi nodded to both, quietly walking up to the wardrobe to get her clothes out.
It was nearly one and looking stunning in a pink silk lehenga choli with a contrasting dupatta, Khushi stood in the shade of a palas tree at the gate, waiting for the driver. After waiting for another ten minutes, she made an impatient grimace and decided to walk. The hotel was just down the street anyway.
Few moments later she sped the best she could in her high heels, blissfully oblivious to looks ranging from appreciative to lecherous, just as she was to the swirling mass of clouds approaching from the East.
Snippets from her dream flashed in front of her. She saw Arnav’s reflection in the mirror again. Her eyes watered and she spoke softy to herself, “What you believe of yourself, what you have the world believe of you…it’s not true, Arnav. It’s s lie. It’s all a lie”.
Soon she’d reached the hotel, a small, modern, four star boutique hotel with an unassuming facade. It’s yellow exterior walls were lined with Ashoka trees and a modest plaque next to the guarded double gates declared ‘Edelweiss, Hotel And Banquet Facility’ in shining brass letters.
Without paying attention to her charming surrounding, she walked down the semicircular driveway to reach the colonnaded portico. Her heels clattered on the marble steps as she ascended them to reach the glass double doors.
Entering the elegantly minimalistic, marble tiled lobby, she stopped by at the reception to ask for Arnav’s room number.
Her heart quickened as she finally found herself in front of Arnav’s ground floor room.
She had to knock several times before the door opened.
Wearing a half buttoned white shirt, dress pants and a frown, Arnav opened the door. His hair looked like they’d been hastily towel dried.
Khushi watched as his expression underwent an almost magical transformation on seeing her.
“Khushi”, he said softly, snaking an arm around her waist to pull her inside. After shutting the door, Arnav turned to look at her, his eyes leaping immediate concern at what he saw on her face.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart? Is everything alright?
He watched as her lips wobbled and her eyes filled with fresh tears.
“Arnav”, she began, “Arnav, I…I love you”. This wasn’t even close to what she’d planned on saying to him…but words seemed to completely fail her for once.
As Arnav’s eyed softened with a mix of tenderness and amusement, Khushi decided to use a different language altogether. Grabbing hold of his collars for leverage, she took him by surprise as she forcefully slammed her lips against his.
Arnav staggered for a moment before steadying himself with a hand on the wall behind him. It didn’t take him long to recover and fiercely circle his arms around her curves. With a laugh he tugged her close. His heart melted as she cried and tried to kiss him passionately at the same time. His heart soared and his lips smiled against hers before he decided to take matters in his own hands. He didn’t even realize that a deep yearning of his soul was just being fulfilled.