Aman gazed at Anita’s retreating back even as his mind replayed their earlier conversation. He was touched by her bravado, her amusing attempts to convince him and maybe herself that their kiss hadn’t mattered. Aman closed his eyes in a sudden onslaught of a guilt that had regularly niggled at his conscience for the past three months. How could he have allowed that thing between them to progress to that point? How could he have allowed himself to encourage what was probably nothing but a teenage crush? And worst of all how could he have disregarded the fact that Anita was Khushi’s younger, much younger, sister?
“What the heck were you thinking of, Aman Aggarwal?
Hearing a familiar soft laughter tugged his attention back to the present. His eyes strayed towards it’s source. A couple walked across the lobby with the man’s head tilted, his eyes silently caressing the woman who laughed at something he’d whispered to her.
An old rusty knife seared through his heart with the pain that the knife itself wrought superseded by the pain of his failure to leave it behind.
“You were a fool to hope again”, he berated himself, “And a total heel to play with Anu’s feelings without ascertaining what your heart wanted first”.
“You’re messed up, Aggarwal. You’re completely messed up”.
Meanwhile, Arnav and Khushi stood poised at the flower canopied entrance to the hall blissfully unaware of the looks, some curious, some admiring, that were cast their way.
“Shall we go?, Arnav asked with a half smile with both quietly aware of the significance of the moment.
He felt her take a deep breath and then reach for his hand to interweave their fingers tightly together.
“Yes, let’s go”, she replied with her answering smile radiating love, pride and a touch of defiance.
“Jab pyar kiya to darna kya and all that?, he said with his eyes dancing even as he tightened his grip on her hand.
Khushi laughed, her hazel eyes sparkling in merriment as they caught the light of the overhead chandelier.
“For someone who claims to loathe Bollywood, you surprise me with your knowledge every single time. It’s kind of suspicious. Astha Auntie might be right about you being a closet fan”, she teased, “Come on honey, admit it; it’s nothing to be embarrassed about”.
Arnav chuckled softly before quipping, “Honey, you got to know by now that this man can never be closet-anything”.
It felt strange to be so lighthearted, their eyes spoke from behind the sparkle of banter, to talk about silly, irrelevant things as if the past and future had ceased to exist and they didn’t have a care in the world. Khushi was suddenly terrified by this seeming perfectness and her heart sent up a silent prayer for them and their love. A prayer for a new beginning. A prayer for forever. Prayers were like breathing to her. Routine, vital and mostly reflexive.
“Earth to Khushi”, Arnav’s smiling voice tugged her back to the present. Khushi took a deep breath and a step toward the central aisle where her two aunts, Madhu and Sumita, judging by their sober expressions, appeared embroiled in a serious conversation.
With a ghost of a smile, he let her lead him…
The music resonating through the hall was loud enough to make a simple conversation an arduous task. A harried looking Sumita asked a passing nephew to get the volume down before turning towards Madhumati again. There was an effortless ease in their interaction. It hinted at a friendship that had not only survived decades of separation but also years of lying dormant under weight of adult responsibility or just life in general. Relentless initiatives to forge reconnections, conscious reigniting of dormant embers was what had kept their college friendship going strong well into midlife.
Madhu saw them first and as her eyes locked with those of her niece, a glimpse of a certain something in them made her sigh deeply. It was happiness laced with a quiet dignity that precluded all questions.
“Khushi, where were you? Anita has been looking for you?, Sumita said, her voice trailing off as her gaze dipped to rest on their linked hands.
Khushi waited for Arnav to finish greeting the two ladies before addressing Sumita. Her eyes shone with a confident smile as she began, “Maasi, I want to introduce you to Arnav again. This is Arnav, a very good friend of mine”,
Khushi’s eyes wavered for a millisecond as they caught a fleeting glint in Arnav’s. She cleared her throat, turned towards Sumita again and delved right into the thick of matter, “I guess more than a friend because we also happen to love each other”.
Arnav bowed his head to hide a smile and Khushi looked towards Madhu bua in a silent plea for assistance.
“Yes, yes, I know about them”, Madhumati said to her slightly bemused appearing friend, “It’s a long story but this is neither the right time or place to talk about it”.
A silent but eloquent exchange of understanding between the two friends’ eyes was followed by an awkward pause. It was broken by Sumita who, mindful of her duty as the host for the evening, smiled at Arnav and said, “Arnav, feel at home and I hope you have a good time today”.
“I’m sure I will, Auntie. Thank you”, Arnav replied sincerely and returned her smile.
After Sumita had excused herself to take care of other pertinent tasks crying for her attention, Arnav wondered cynically as to how much of that affection would remain after she’d had a chance to compare notes with her sister, Khushi’s mom. Not that it mattered to him, one way or the other, he thought; but with a rush of concern for Khushi, he hoped for things to remain pleasant, even if on the surface only, for Khushi’s sake.
“In fact”, his eyes steeled over with resolve, “I will try my best…no, I will make sure, absolutely sure, that they did. Khushi deserves no less”.
Madhumati’s voice interrupted his reverie. She was addressing him, he noticed, with a teasing gleam in her eyes.
“I’m going to call Astha tonight”.
“I’m sure you will, Madhu Auntie”, Arnav grinned at her and then remembered with dismay and ample guilt that he needed to call her as well. He had called her before leaving for Africa informing her about his sudden plan explaining in the least number of words possible that he was going to visit Khushi who was on a MSF assignment there.
As their little group moved towards a round, white cloth covered table to take seats, Arnav’s recalled his last conversation with Astha with his eyes softening.
“Why did she have to go to Africa?, Astha had asked in a mystified tone having given no clue about their breakup by her even-more-now-than-usual taciturn son. Her tone had suggested, he was able to recall now with a twinge of amusement, that perhaps sanki was the right word for her after all.
“She’ll come back with me”, had been his inadequate and impatient reply which had triggered a matching outburst of impatience on the other side of the line.
“I’m getting sick and tired of both of you. I keep asking you to let me go speak to her parents and get things to move forward in a proper way and you’ve stubbornly persisted in evading the topic for over four months now. If you both have decided to permanently keep parents out of the loop, out of your personal life…just let me know. I’ll stop bothering you and wasting your time. I understand you might have outgrown the need for a mother in your life”.
“Ma, you are being unnecessarily melodramatic”.
“I’m going to permanently move to Srinagar and spend the rest of my days there. You can live your life the way you want to with no interference of any sort from me. A mother can tell when she’s not wanted by her son anymore”.
“Oh please, for God’s sake. I know you’re doing this on purpose”.
“I have no problem with your talking to Khushi’s parents”, he had added irritatedly after a pause, “But let me find Khushi first and make sure it’s fine with her”.
“Did you two fight?. In an instant all the rancor in her voice was replaced with worry whose intensity highlighted just how much she wanted them to happy together. It showed just how much she valued this second chance in her son’s life.
“Everything is going be alright, don’t worry”, his bleak words at that time had tried to console his own heart more than his mother.
“Take care, beta. And yes, have faith in God. Everything is going to be alright. It’s high time it did. Call me when you reach Uganda”.
“Central African Republic, Ma, not Uganda. Where did you get Uganda from?
Soon Aakash had joined them too, pulling a chair to take seat across from them. Settling back in his chair, he crossed his legs and directed an amused glance towards them. His eyes lit up with satisfaction at the happiness that surrounded them like a visible glow.
“Everything is good?, he asked with a smile that was replied by a smile and a nod from the other side.
“Thank you, Aakash Bhai, for all your help in bringing us together”, Khushi said with a big smile before adding a teasing, “Although I must commend you for the level of trust you have in your friend”.
“Hey…that doesn’t sound very flattering”, Arnav mock protested with a laugh before adding, “I think more than trusting me, he trusts you, your choice and your ability to take care of yourself”.
“A combination of both, I guess”, Aakash smiled a little, “While it’s true that you’re no babe in the woods, I’ve known Arnav for a long time too”.
“Long before you came into my life”, Arnav added with a teasing half smile at Khushi.
“Dude, those were some of the best years of our lives”, Aakash said looking back at their childhood years.
“Yeah…those were the days, man”, Arnav concurred meeting Aakash’s eyes across the table.
“Ok..ok”, Khushi interrupted them with a chuckle at this full-on bromance, “I get the idea. Now tell me more about it”.
They were unexpectedly interrupted by Madhu who’d been listening to their conversation with an indulgent smile until now.
“I just remembered something”, she said with a broad smile, her eyes dancing with amusement, “One summer, many years back in New Jersey, when Navin and Sujata were visiting us and Aakash must’ve been around eleven, Arnav had come over on his bike. I don’t know if anyone remembers this or not, but I have a distinctive memory of all of you playing in the backyard together”.
While they all looked amused at this interesting piece of information, none of them admitted to having any memories of the said day.
“I don’t remember anything”, Khushi’s smile was rueful, “I wish I did”.
“You must’ve been only five at the time”, Arnav said slowly with a frown even as an image of a hazel eyed little girl with an index and middle finger firmly in mouth wavered into form in front of him. He wasn’t sure if that were an actual memory or just his imagination…but the image warmed his heart and made his lips curve into a tiny smile.
It was almost time for the bridegroom side to make their grand appearance and Sumita beckoned at Madhu from a distance. While she rose from her chair to join her friend, Khushi looked around for Anita with her eyes swirling with worry. She had texted her twice after reaching the hall but received no reply so far. She called her with a frown only half listening to Aakash and Arnav talking about high school years with a great deal of manly merriment.
“Remember that infamous bet of yours?, she heard Aakash say with a guffaw, “You were so damned confident of winning. Your face was hilarious when you lost. Do you still have the ink?
“Yes, I do”, Arnav said with a grimace, “Man, am I glad I was able to bribe you into letting me choose my own design”.
“And remember all those crazy dares?
Luckily for Arnav, he was saved from Aakash’s repertoire of cringeworthy anecdotes by a fortuitous phone call from Payal. As soon as he’d left their table with a mischievous wink at his friend, Khushi turned towards him.
“You have a tattoo?, Khushi said as soon as Aakash was out of earshot, “I don’t remember seeing one”.
Arnav looked into her eyes with his lips twitching amusedly. His eyes glinted with not so secret thoughts and stained her cheeks with a reflexive color that she’d still not learnt enough sophistication to voluntarily curb.
Seeing Anita approach their table, he crossed his arms and while his eyes danced, he murmured with an intriguing smile, “I guess you’ll have to explore me more thoroughly next time”.
“You bet”, she replied slowly, shooting him a purposely suggestive sideways glance that made him grin lazily, his veins pumping with excitement.
Anita arrived at their table and flopped down on a seat next to Khushi. Her joie de vivre that she normally wore like a second skin was conspicuous by it’s absence.
“Where were you, Anu?, Khushi surveyed her sari and then her face, “I texted you so many times. Let’s go to the room where Isha is getting ready. It won’t take long”.
“It’s okay, Di”, Anita replied, pouring herself a glass of water, “One of Isha Di’s friends was able to help me. I was in her room. That’s where I’m coming from”.
“Are you sure, Anu?”, Khushi’s eyes flickered with a twinge of guilt as she felt at once the shift in her sister’s vibe.
“Of course, I’m sure, Di”, Anita flashed her trademark mischievous grin, alleviating Khushi’s anxiety to a certain degree, “If you think I’m sulking because you’ve been spending my share of time with Arnav Bhai, I am not”.
“Our Anu is too cool for that”, Arnav joined their conversation with a smile, the our before Anu not going unnoticed or unappreciated by either sisters.
“Exactly”, said Anita looking pleased and she would’ve probably added more had she not heard an old lady sitting at a nearby table beckon Aman by his name.
Khushi turned to look too with the faintest of emotion flitting across her features. The last time they’d met was at Anita’s birthday party and the state of her mind and circumstances then had been drastically different from what it was today. A storm called Arnav had wreaked havoc on her heart, mind and existence that evening and it’s aftermath was felt not only by Anita but Aman as well. She remembered how Aman had offered the unconditional shoulder and support of a friend and tried hard not to pass any judgement on Arnav.
He was walking up to them now and turning towards Arnav, Khushi tried to prepare him for the impending motions of introductions and social pleasantries.
“That’s Aman. He is Vinay, Isha fiance’s cousin.”.
Arnav’s face was impassive as he murmured, “Small world”, not mentioning he’d seen him once before.
Aman’s eyes flicked towards Arnav even as he came to a standstill near them. The dislike in his eyes was somewhat masked by the fatuous sheen of a social smile.
Khushi greeted him warmly without showing any sign of remembering their last meeting or the circumstances it had taken place in.
With a smile, she introduced him to Arnav watching as they shook hands and exchanged perfunctory words.
The two men sized each other over clasped hands and while Arnav looked at his handsome, good natured face and wondered what on earth had made Khushi reject him for him; Aman struggled to keep his dislike concealed in his dark eyes. Whatever little he’d seen of Arnav at the bar that evening had led to him form a staunch prejudice in his mind. Khushi’s tears and his own unrequited emotions hadn’t helped matters either.
Within a few minutes it was clear to Khushi that the two men had no real chance of hitting it off.
“So do you practice near Cleveland?, Arnav tried again with a generosity of spirit that perhaps rests much easily on the winner of the moment.
As Aman replied to his question, his eyes kept veering towards Anita’s bowed head. Arnav followed his gaze once and his eyes rested on Anita for a moment. There was something unnaturally stiff about her posture. Apparently engrossed in her phone, she didn’t join in their conversation or even look up for that matter.
When Aman left their table, Khushi lowered herself next to Anita. She looked at her sister’s frozen profile with a speculation and a dawning realization in her eyes. Biting her lower lip in concern, she pondered for a while before deciding against questioning her or cajoling her to bare her heart. Anita’s words came to her and her heart went out to her with a painful tug.
“I don’t want to talk about it right now, Di. But I promise I will one day”.
With the grand arrival and welcome of Vinay, looking dashing in a beige brocade bandhgala, and company, it was inevitable for the party to pick up both momentum and energy. Khushi and Anita were soon embroiled in the whirlwind of the various traditions and festivities which involved welcoming the guests, helping Isha approve of what had been done to her in terms of make-up and accessories, assuring that she looked absolutely drop dead gorgeous in her leaf green designer lehenga and working with the party planner, coordinating with other cousins and friends to pull off a perfect, memorable entry for her. They’d also set up reminders on their phones to remind Sujata Maasi of the various things she’d asked to be reminded of at various stages of the party.
Arnav had to be left to his own devices for most of the evening and when Khushi swung by his table for the nth time to check on him she was teased mercilessly by Aakash bhai.
“He’s exactly how you’d left him…let me see…”, he’d said with an exaggerated look at his watch, “Fifteen minutes ago”.
Even as Khushi ignored Arnav’s amused smile and fixed Aakash with a blankly eloquent stare, he’d continued unabashed, “Yes, he’d had the appetizers. Yes, he was able to find the water bottles. No, he’s not getting bored and he’d better not because if he is or even if you ask that question again, I will consider it as an insult”.
With a chuckle, Arnav moved his chair back and rose, towering over Khushi despite the gravity defying height of her stilettos.
“Can we go out for a minute?, he asked softly before gently nudging her with a hand on the small of her back.
A perfectly simple question said in the most casual of tones yet it caused her heart to pick up pace in a manner that caused her to shake her head at her own foolishness.
We’ll be right back”, he said to Aakash before leading her out of the thrumming banquet hall.
They walked up to the lobby, hesitated for a second and then seeing a side glass door, headed towards it.
It opened into the garden with a path of round stepping stones, each stone accompanied by a small accent light, starting from the door to lead to a large patio. It was paved with reddish flagstones and surrounded by shrubs entwined with fairy lights. On one side was an arbor with it’s wooden framework almost smothered by climbing rose bushes.
Music wafted out to them as they climbed up two steps to reach the patio and turned towards each other.
It was a beautiful night once again…
The sky was black velvet studded with diamonds and the moon hidden behind an ancient banyan tree to their right.
Bathed in silence and the glow of the universe, they listened as a new song started inside the hall. With a smile, she went into his arms, softly humming the tune, sighing as he wrapped his arms around her.
He smiled as her hips swayed in rhythm to the song next, ultimately succeeding in cajoling him to match his movements with hers.
“You are not as bad as I expected”, Khushi raised her head from his chest and smiled at him, her eyes brimming with joy and mischief in equal measure.
Raising his eyebrow at this offhanded comment, he unwrapped one arm and picked her hand from it’s resting place on his chest.
Holding their clasped hands together, he laughed at her surprised eyes to say, “If we have to dance, we might as well do it right”.
“Now where and when did you learn to dance?, the surprise in her eyes changed to amazement after a few minutes.
“Can you handle the truth, Khushi? Can you?”, Arnav teased receiving a sharp smack on his shoulder in return.
His deep laughter resonating through the silken air was the most beautiful sound in the world for her.
“Twirl?, he said after sobering up but the purported twirl ended up into turning a complicated task that resulted first in entangled arms and then in Khushi teetering precariously in mid motion.
“What were you even doing?, she laughed as Arnav saved her from falling in a seamless, swift movement.
“Trying to impress you”, he said grinning at her starry eyes, his arm holding her body bent backwards at the waist.
Even as he helped her up, he said, “And that’s enough dancing for today”.
They walked over to the fragrant arbor to sit on the bench under it. Listening to the sounds of the night, they sat wrapped in gentle musings for a while before Arnav remembered the purpose of his dragging her away from the party like this.
“I think you should go back inside”, he said, “I’m sure you’re being sorely missed. And actually that’s what I’d wanted to talk about, the reason why I’d brought you here. Khushi, stop worrying about me and just enjoy yourself”, he bowed his head and picked her hand, “It’s your cousin’s wedding. I understand”.
As Khushi’s eyes softened in silent understanding of what he was trying to convey, she cleared her throat and said, “How about we go out somewhere tomorrow? Just explore, do regular touristy stuff…and maybe eat out somewhere? The wedding reception is not until eight in the night so we can have the whole day to ourselves”.
“Sounds like a plan”, he said, smiling at the infectious happiness, “I’ll pick you up around nine tomorrow”.
As they rose up from the bench to part ways, Arnav snaked an arm around her waist to draw her close. As he looked down, the mischief in his eyes was clear even in the mellow light of the garden lamps.
“Talking about exploration and at the risk of sounding of sounding immodest, I think I might be way more interesting than any city. Just saying”.
With her cheeks flaming at this outrageous remark, she shook her head before saying with an answering gleam in her eyes, “We’ll see about that tomorrow”.
After Khushi had gone back inside, Arnav glanced at his watch and decided to call home. When his mother didn’t pick up the phone, he left a message, concise but reassuring of his wellbeing, and decided to try again in the morning.
Which was what he did early in the morning as soon as he stepped out of a nearby general store with the packet of cigarettes he’d gone out to buy after resisting the urge for almost two days. He had been a smoker for many years before Aarav’s birth when consideration of his little lungs had made him give up smoking, cold turkey, and without any struggle at all. The emotional upheaval of the past few months had made him pick up the habit again although he tried hard now to maintain abstinence, going for days at times without a smoke.
Having arranged for a car and a driver last night with the help of the hotel front desk, he now walked towards Khushi’s house, where he’d instructed the driver to show up at nine sharp.
It was a pleasant morning with the temperatures uncharacteristically mild and the skies a periwinkle blue and he was nearing the imposing gates of the bungalow when his mother called.
Not wanting to miss talking to her once again, he paused on the side of the road to FaceTime with her.
He smiled when her mother’s face appeared on the screen, her worried eyes spitting fire at him. He was at once assailed with guilt at his thoughtlessness in neglecting to assure her of his wellbeing before.
“You never even bothered to call me after reaching Uganda. How could you, Arnie? Do you even realize how worried I was?, Astha’s eyes glared across the iPhone screen
Arnav closed his eyes for a split second.
Ignoring the Arnie, he corrected her in an uncharacteristically patient voice, “Central African Republic, Ma, not Uganda”.
Astha hardly heard him as her eyes peered over his shoulder at a familiar tableau of early morning street life in small-town India.
“Uganda looks just like India”, she said in a slow, surprised voice causing Arnav’s lips to twitch into an amused smile.
“It is India”.
“What are you doing in India?, Astha exclaimed, one part of her brain noticing his relaxed features and accurately deciphering the reason for it.
Arnav paused for a second, struggling against his reticence and first instinct to clam up and talk only in irritable, cryptic sentences.
“To cut a long story short”, he said finally in a mild voice, “I found Khushi and everything is alright”.
“Is that a green light to book a ticket to Cleveland?
Averting his eyes from her mother’s suddenly twinkling eyes, he kept his features studiously impassive.
“Sure”, he said casually, “If that’s what you want”.
Waiting outside the gate in dark skinny jeans and a sleeveless white chikankari kurti, Khushi’s face lit up upon catching sight of Arnav. He was still at some distance from her, giving her a chance to admire at leisure the confidence of his bearing, the feline grace of his stride. Sporting dark jeans, a well fitted Prussian blue Burberry polo and his favorite aviators, he smiled as he approached her.
Coming to a standstill in front of her, he took in her oxidized silver earrings, her glossy lips, her darker than normal eye makeup.
“Ready for the exploration?, he tilted his head slightly and looking at her reflection in his shades, Khushi smiled trying to imagine the mischievous glint that must be accompanying his words.
She smiled and poked him lightly on his chest with a pink tipped finger, “I’m ready, Dr. Raizada, the question is will you be able to handle it?
Even as he grinned appreciatively, their car pulled up beside them and they were soon settled in it’s back seat, watching the world recede and the tires crunch up miles of the black asphalt meandering endlessly in front of them.
They’d soon left the city behind with paddy fields stretching on either side and dusty trees with gnarled trunks joining branches to form a canopy above the road.
Resting her head against the backrest, Khushi glanced at his sharply etched profile, his eyes focused on the fast moving scenery outside. Her lips curved into a smile at the memory of their first meeting.
Without turning his head, Arnav caught her hand in his.