The holy fire- yellow, blue and orange, burnt in a steady blaze. The young couple, joined together by more than just a physical knot, orbited around it to Vedic verses.
Aman glanced across the mandap, his eyes resting once again on Anita. He looked very different from his usual self, his face bereft of it’s customary good humoredness, his eyes devoid of their trademark equanimity.
“What do you want from me?, Anita’s incredulous eyes had asked him and that was a question even he didn’t have a logical answer to.
Or did he?
He wanted her to continue calling him like she had for the past one year. At unexpected moments. To talk about a million random things.
And he wanted to continue pretending to be annoyed, sometimes amused, by her endless chatter.
It was only now, when this equation was on the verge of being permanently erased that he realized what it had meant to him. He realized the way it had imparted him and his bruised spirit strength. Immeasurable strength.
She had been his best friend and he hadn’t even known.
And what did he do in return?, he thought with disgust, he took advantage of her girlish crush, her naive expression of interest and kissed her.
Damn, she is only nineteen, what was he even thinking? All he should’ve done was to try and talk her out of it like a responsible older, much older, person. What had come over him?
He still didn’t know…
With his brown eyes reflective of his inner turmoil and his ears oblivious to the Sanskrit mantras, he replayed the events of the past few months in his mind.
The discomfort of guilt swept over him as he recalled their series of meetings after that first ice cream outing. How could he have failed to recognize or give due importance to what he later saw as clear cut signs of romantic interest?
He’d basically used her as a means to stay in touch with the going on in Khushi’s life, he thought, and that was the ugly, unvarnished truth.
To make his case worse, his heart twinged with remorse, there had been times, several times, when a look on Anita’s face, an expression in her eyes had made him pause and wonder…but with his single mindedness and selfishness in continuing with what he’d set out to do, he’d always chosen to ignore those signs. He hadn’t even considered that he might be inadvertently encouraging her..
He used to visit their home regularly those days and it’s palpable tension didn’t escape him for long. It didn’t take him much time to figure out the reason for it either. At first he’d thought it was just due to Navin’s health issues but the subtle changes he noticed in Khushi’s appearance and mood gave him clues to what his subsequent conversations with Anita confirmed. Although he tried to approach Khushi on several occasions, it was hard to get past the shell she’d withdrawn into.
He tried to convince his heart of the futility of it’s interest in Khushi’s life, especially at a juncture of life when he’d finally begun to free himself from the shackles of his brief history with her..
“This interest is morbid”, he would tell his heart again and again, “And if you’re still harboring even a little hope then you’re incredibly foolish as well”.
Yet, he hadn’t been able to stop himself, spiraling both himself and Anita towards a heartbreak that could’ve been easily avoided.
In those days of mental turmoil, he hadn’t even noticed what Anita’s words, her company, her positivity were doing to him…Mindlessly he would banter with her, not even giving her his full attention, not even realizing how much he would miss them one day..
And not even realizing…not even caring…that he was leading her on.
And two months later that eventful night happened. It was a week after he’d learnt from Anita about Khushi’s decision to move out of their home. Anita’s friends were throwing her nineteenth birthday bash at Bab’s Lounge and Anita him called the night before to invite him. It was clear from her uncharacteristically hesitant tone that inviting him had been a last minute decision.
He’d agreed readily however and surprised himself by not only offering her a ride but also spending an inordinate amount of time at the mall looking for the perfect gift for her.
“And he’d forgotten to give it to her”, he thought, an indescribable sensation flitting across his confused heart.
He glanced at Anita across the mandap, watching her shower rose petals on the newly weds, willing her to look at him. She did after a while, her eyes fiery, her chin high and her head tilted in askance.
“Don’t you dare feel sorry for me, Aman Aggarwal”, her eyes, her beautiful eyes, seemed to be saying to him.
Anita refocused her eyes back on Vinay and Isha even as her mind wandered down memory lanes to an evening, to moments, to a past she was trying hard to erase.
“I know it’s kind of last minute but my friends are throwing a birthday party for me tomorrow and I was wondering if you can come too?
“Are you wondering if I can come…or do you want me to come?
With her words causing her heart to flutter, she replied, “It’s the same thing”.
“It isn’t actually”.
“Well, of course I want you to come. That’s why I called you”.
She hadn’t really been surprised when at the end of their conversation, Aman offered to pick her from her place. His recent apparent interest in her and in wanting to spend all his free time with had planted innumerable seeds of hope and dreams in her virgin heart.
Anita remembered the state of her heart that day. She’d somehow known that something momentous was about to take place and it had filled her heart with a contrary mix of happy anticipation and panic.
“What if their relationship changes from friendship to something more tonight? Is that what she really wants?
Was something that she’d had to relentlessly pursue for about a year really worth having?
Irrespective of the debate in her heart, she’d dressed with care, looking at her reflection with a huge smile and even blowing a kiss to it.
Taking a deep breath, Anita paused and steeled her heart as she remembered the appreciation she’d probably ‘imagined’ she saw in his eyes when she opened the door to him. Just like she’d probably imagined the way his gaze had locked with hers while he expressed a desire to meet her parents before leaving.
It was a warm, breezy evening and even as the car sped towards the Lounge, the Sun shone brightly in their eyes. A strange exhilaration filled her heart without any warning at all. It prompted her to drop down her defenses and expose her heart.
Anita cringed as she saw herself herself expressing interest with everything but words. Aman hadn’t seemed to mind either and a new awareness had sprung up between them, cracking in the intervening spaces, surprising them both with it’s potency.
It wasn’t long before their friendly banter had evolved into a full fledged flirtation between a man and a woman.That continued even after Khushi joined them later in the evening and filled Anita’s heart with a fresh sense of hope. It reinforced the idea that Aman had finally gotten over his past…gotten over the dreams of a future that was not meant to be.
Although it pinched her heart to see her sister’s sadness, Anita had never once stopped believing that Arnav and her sister were meant for each other and that it would only be a matter of time before they weathered the current storm in their lives and emerge hand in hand from it.
So it was with a fairly unencumbered heart that Anita had allowed them to reach to that…point..
Not that she’d expected it. Not by a long shot.
Aman had wanted to teach her to play pool and she had been more than willing to learn. Every time he bent behind her to adjust the way she placed her hand on the fuzzy, green surface, a million butterflies fluttered inside her stomach and every time his instructions resonated close to her ear, she almost forgot to breathe.
Perhaps it was fate that made an idiot spill his drink over her new dress and made her head toward the restroom with a frown and a spate of swallowed profanities.
She took a long time trying to salvage her dress because just as she was returning she met Aman on the way…in a relatively secluded corridor.
“Are you okay? I came to check on you”.
“Yeah, I’m fine”, she said even as their eyes found their way to each other and locked in a way they’d been doing all evening, “If a heart filled with an intent to murder is considered fine”.
“What did I do?, Aman said in mock horror, leaning his shoulder against a wall and Anita just grinned at him..
“Well if you hadn’t agreed to come to my birthday, I wouldn’t have been standing by the pool table. And if I hadn’t been standing by the pool table, that drunk idiot wouldn’t have ran into me”.
“So it’s all my fault”, smiled Aman and something in the way his eyes lingered on her fast moving lips had set her heart racing…
“Yes”, she’d replied in a voice that sounded different even to her own ears. She remembered how Aman’s smile had faltered and disappeared and how her breath got sucked from her lungs when he took a sudden step towards her.
It wasn’t a particularly long kiss. It possessed an urgency which brought it to an abrupt halt just as it had begun to beget animal passion from one side and a euphoric response from the other.
It was Anita’s first love and first kiss…and it was unfair on destiny’s part that the moment she set her dreams free was the moment they got crushed.
When Aman stepped back, she’d smiled at him, her foolish heart expecting to see an answering smile or even hear beautiful, reassuring words maybe. His eyes had been tumultuous and full of regret instead.
Anita swallowed a lump in her throat and stepped back to allow a person to pass in front of her. The last vow was in progress and the surrounding crowd was slowly stirring in action.
His words, his voice, it’s cadence came back to her with a cruel clarity.
“I’m sorry…Anu. I don’t know what came over me. I shouldn’t encourage you like this. Please forgive me for being a complete idiot and…a jerk”.
Without a word, Anita had walked away from him, feeling cringingly cheap and forward and devastatingly foolish.
She went out and sat down on a bench under a tree, her breaths painful and her heart a burning hole.
It was a hellish night for both sisters, Anita smiled with dark humor, returning to Present and glancing at Khushi who was handing the garlands she’d been carrying to their maasi.
The vows were over and the air fraught with emotion at not only this convergence of two fates but also at the symbolic goodbye to follow..
Both Anita and Khushi smiled unsteadily as Isha rolled her eyes at her mother’s tears and whispered loudly, “I’ve lived in a hostel for 6 years, Mummy. This isn’t any different from that”.
There were tears in Isha’s eyes as well. Both of them knew that this was different.
If weddings are characterized by high spiritedness and organized chaos while they’re happening, the period immediately a wedding is characterized by the after effects of a goodbye.
A mix of flatness and melancholy. That they had to leave India soon didn’t help of course and for Khushi the prospect of another goodbye albeit short term the next day made matters so much worse.
After having seen Isha off some ten minutes earlier, they stood in the lobby with a group of relatives, somehow managing to keep tears at bay and maintaining conversation with a great deal of effort. All they wanted was to collapse in beds but had to wait while their aunt and uncle wrapped things up, talking to the hotel management and paying equal attention to all relatives lest someone be rubbed the wrong way.
None of them noticed Arnav walking up to them.
Coming to a standstill in front of them, fingers in pockets, posture erect and relaxed, he smiled his trademark half smile. With his eyes skimming over their faces “You guys are still here?
“Arnav”, Khushi’s face lit up with the glow of invisible candles, “Why are you still awake?
“I went to sleep and woke up two hours later. Can’t go back to sleep now”, he replied before asking, “And why are you both looking so sad?
None of them replied for a while before Anita murmured, “We hate goodbyes I guess”.
Khushi suddenly looked close to tears and Anita didn’t look too far either and after looking from one face to other, Arnav gave an amused laugh and pulled them both in a hug, “What a sorry looking duo you are today. You both are welcome to use my shoulders for crying if you want. I’ve been getting a lot of practice lately”.
Even as they chuckled, Anita mused at the strangeness of the fact that a person she hadn’t known a year ago felt so much like family now. Something told her that their bond would only grow in the coming years.
“By the way, congratulations”, she said after a while, her lips stretching into an excited smile, “Di showed me her ring. It’s beautiful. I can’t wait to get all the details from her. How you proposed, what her reaction was…”.
Arnav’s face was poker faced as his eyes locked with Khushi’s. To Khushi, the naughty gleam was impossible to miss.
Even as she colored faintly at memories of her new found boldness, Arnav said in a deceptively somber voice, “Yes, make sure she doesn’t leave anything out”.
While Khushi narrowed her eyes at him, they were signaled by their uncle from a distance. It was time to leave.
Even as Anita left them, they stood still, gazing at each other wistfully, their eyes spilling with longing.
Their silent conversation was interrupted by Aakash and Madhu Bua who were leaving for Lucknow early next day. Khushi watched as Arnav and Aakash man hugged and exchanged good byes and reassurances of staying in touch. Her bua pitched in with good wishes and messages for Astha even though they regularly talked on the phone.
“See you at the wedding”, said Aakash as they turned to go.
“Whose wedding? asked Arnav genuinely puzzled.
“Your, of course”, Aakash grinned at him before winking at his amused cousin.
With Anita flailing her arms urgently from a distance to summon her, she turned toward Arnav and tried again, “Can I please come with you?
His reply was gentle but firm. “I’ll be fine, Khushi”, he said softly, “And I don’t think it would be good idea for you to accompany me to Srinagar. It won’t make any sense. Not after that conversation we’ve just had with your father. It would be counterproductive to what we’re trying to achieve here- appease your parents so your mind can be at peace for once”.
His argument did make a lot of sense to her mind but as Khushi’s head touched her pillow that night, her heart couldn’t stopped being tugged by the ocean loads of grief he walked around with…
Next morning Anita and Khushi woke up to a house that seemed poignantly desolate after a long week of wedding festivities and all the excitement that went with it. They felt bad for their uncle and aunt but were soon reassured by their inspirational ‘glass half full‘ attitude. With each other’s support, they strove to keep their sense of balance and succeeded at it too. Their nest was empty but they took it in their stride with enviable positivity; sentiments that were reinforced by a long, reassuring phone conversation with Isha earlier in the morning.
After breakfast, Khushi retreated to the privacy of her room to call Astha. “About time I did”, she thought with it being something she’d been wanting a free moment for ever since she and Arnav had got back together.
“Got back together physically”, she corrected herself, looking back on their journey with a content smile, her eyes aglow with a loving gratitude for their love, “because despite it all, emotionally, we’d remained next to each other all along”.
Astha’s eyes glowed with contentment too as they focused on Khushi’s face. She responded to her warm greeting in a loving voice that brought to Khushi’s mind their first meeting in Srinagar.
With a rush of nostalgia she could feel the Srinagar air in her hair, Astha Aunty’s pride in regaling her with the various natural bounties of Kashmir and kindness in taking a complete stranger under her maternal wings.
With the screen blurring a little, Khushi blinked her eyes several times to clarity. Her voice was gruff as she said, “I’d been wanting to call you, Astha Aunty. I’m not sure if you already know about this or not…Arnav asked me to marry him yesterday”.
“I do know”, Asha said with a sigh, “Arnav called just a few hours before you to tell me. Which was surprising because usually it takes him much longer to finally get around to telling me about anything”.
Even as Khushi’s eyes turned apologetic on Arnav’s behalf, Astha added with a fond smile,
“But that’s okay. My Arnie has always been a handful but I know how to handle him”.
Khushi’s mind flew to Srinagar again, reliving a memory with a heart full of warmth and amusement.
“How many children do you have, Aunty?
“I have one boy. Arnie. I would’ve liked to have more, but then, there was some complication at labor time, and I had to have an emergency hysterectomy done. Not that Arnie ever gave me a chance to miss having other children in the house! He was always such a handful, kept me on my toes all the time”, said Astha, her warm caramel eyes softening.
“See all these gray hairs, I always tell him, ‘they’re all because of you'”.
“Yes, he can most definitely be a handful sometimes”, Khushi concurred returning to Present, her soft smile resonating with that of the older woman, their hearts united with a boundless, unconditional love for the same man.
Even as Astha’s smile radiated warmth and welcome, her voice got thick and wavering, “I’m so happy for both of you, Khushi. It’s high time Arnav got his share of happiness too…and with you by his side I’m sure he will. You are bringing my old Arnav back to me…and I can never thank you enough”.
Khushi’s eyes spilled with tears.
“Stop. You’re making me cry, Aunty”, she protested with a laugh.
“And you’d better stop calling me Aunty”, Astha commanded wiping her own tears away.
“I’ll see you in Cleveland next week, Ma”, Khushi smiled at her.
“That’s more like it”, Astha returned her smile before adding, “What time is Arnav’s train tonight?”.
“In 5-6 hours, he’ll be leaving for the railway station”, said Khushi, her eyes clouding. Her earlier misgivings about letting him be by himself on Aarav’s birthday came to the fore.
The emotions swirling in her eyes were mirrored in Astha’s although she didn’t voice them and moved on to a seemingly unrelated topic.
“I hope Arnav finds a job soon”, she said, adding with a touch of sadness, “I’ve heard there are not too many jobs these days for…ophthalmic physicians…I believe that’s the term for ophthalmologists who don’t perform surgeries”.
“Ophthalmic physician?”, Khushi was totally at sea, “Is Arnav looking for a new job? I thought he was on a sabbatical from Cleveland Clinic”.
Astha sighed, “He probably didn’t want to worry you. That’s typical of him”.
“Worry about what?, cried Khushi, her eyes flaring with anxiety.
Astha’s reply stunned her into muteness. Even as her face froze, her eyes reflected myriad emotions traversing through her mind in quick succession.
“It might get better, Ma”, she whispered, her heart squeezing painfully, “It has to get better. He should not give up hope like this”.
Her pain and restlessness increased with every passing minute and it was couple hours later when both Anita and Khushi were on the terrace under an overcast sky that Khushi was able to voice it in the form of a decision.
While a humid wind rushed through the palas and gulmohar trees and a row of birds swung on a nearby electric cable, Khushi turned toward Anita with her eyes urgent.
“Anu, my love, I hate to do this to you but would you mind if I went to Srinagar with Arnav?
Anita was surprised. Her eyes were bemused as she said, “I don’t mind Di. You don’t even need to ask”.
“But if I go you’ll have to travel alone tomorrow”, said Khushi, pulling her in a hug, her eyes sparkling with tears, “And I know how much you were looking forward to our return journey. It’s just that Aarav’s birthday is in two months and no matter how much I try to placate my heart it keeps pulling me towards Srinagar, convincing me that I need to be with him on that day”.
Touched, Anita said, “Then follow your heart, Di. Your heart is a wonderful thing. I have full confidence in it”.
Her words were just what Khushi’s tears needed to come spilling out in streams.
“Anu, do you even realize what you’ve done for me?, she said cupping her little sister’s face, “What your unflinching faith in you Di does to her? And I’ve never even thanked your properly. I’ve never even done anything for you in return”.
“Stop Di”, said Anta, blinking furiously to keep tears, which she hated with a vengeance, at bay.
“If I starting counting what you’ve done for me since childhood days, we’ll be standing here all day. And anyway, that’s what sisters are for so I’m not even thinking of thanking you. Not even for those times when you let me sleep in your bed, assuring me that it was perfectly normal to be scared of sleeping alone at eighteen”, she smiled with an errant tear rolling down her cheek.
Through tears the two sisters smiled at each other before Khushi’s smiled flickered and disappeared at a niggling thought. Her eyes were somber and hesitant as she said, “Anu, I know what you’re going through…”.
A look exchanged between the two made it clear to Anita that Khushi had somehow guessed her secret. The reason for her heartbreak.
“It is Am…”
Anita interrupted her with her cheeks flushing with fiery color. It was too embarrassing…too raw…too painful…too cringeworthy still and she was not mentally prepared to vocalize it yet.
“Di, do you mind if we don’t talk about it right now?
The distress in her voice pinched at Khushi’s heart and she pulled her in a warm, comforting hug again.
“No, I don’t, chutki”, she said after a pause with her voice muffled, “Whenever you’re ready, I’ll be there for you but just remember one thing. You are awesome and don’t let anyone, including yourself, make you believe otherwise”.
They were quiet for a few moments listening to the loud cawing of crows, distant whirr of trucks on highway and their aunt’s voice scolding a maid coming from downstairs.
“Enough of rona-dhona, Anu”, Khushi said briskly after a while to which an outraged Anita replied, “Excuse me! You did most of the crying. I barely shed half a tear”.
Chuckling they sped downstairs. There was so much to do, Khushi thought, before dropping the bomb on Arnav. She wanted to call home before leaving but with the time difference acting as an impediment to the actualization of her intention, she had to postpone it albeit with a touch of regret.
However this regret did not extend to her decision. Irrespective of the reaction she expected from certain quarters, she did not question it any way.
She knew where her priorities lay just as she was confident of making the right decision under the circumstances handed by fate.
With just a few more hours remaining before their train’s departure, it was turning out to be a race against time.
Khushi had always believed in traveling light and that along with her predilection for organization came in handy that day. She was able to get her large suitcase packed in no time at all, making time in it’s middle to call Arnav twice and leave a voice message after the second call.
Her little message was pleasant and a tad apologetic. It informed him of her decision to accompany him to Srinagar…
While waiting for his call, Khushi decided to tackle the rather awkward task of letting her aunt and uncle know of the sudden change in her travel plan…and the reasons behind it.
Although visibly surprised, her aunt seemed impressed by the sincere emotion as well as confidence in Khushi’s voice. The talk went way better than expected as a result and ended with her aunt affirming her trust in her. She did however add a caveat that Khushi should inform her parents as soon as possible.
With everything progressing in such a satisfactory manner, Arnav’s call proved to be somewhat of an anti climax.
“Nope”, came his grim voice without preamble,
“You can’t come, Khushi. It’s out of question”.
“Arnav, I’ve already decided”.
“Khushi, let’s not argue about this”, said Arnav with a weary sigh, “Not now…when I’m just about to check out”.
“Wait for me”, said Khushi in a panicked voice, “I’ll be right there. You can’t leave without meeting me”.
Arnav smiled a little walking over to the bed, shutting the flap of his large Tumi bag and zippering it all around.
He shook his head remembering Khushi’s voice message, chuckling at the optimism in her voice.
“Did she really believe she can just hop onto a train at the last possible moment?
It wasn’t long before he heard her knock on the door and opened it with a raw eagerness. This is going to be tough, he thought hungrily pulling her in with an arm around her waist,
“Maybe I should join in the madness and just let her come with me”, was his last thought before their lips joined, their tongues alternately dueling and exploring, their mouths drinking thirstily off of each other.
“You are a drug, an addiction, Khushi. Wish you came in an injectable form”, he said, raising his head, his breaths ragged, his eyes swirling with an incredibly sexy mix of humor and desire, “So I can have my regular Khushi fix wherever I am”.
“No need to go to such lengths, dear”, said Khushi with his own brand of deadpan humor, “Because I’m coming with you”.
“Khushi, sweetheart,”, said Arnav in a painstakingly patient voice, “We’re done discussing that, okay?
“Arnav, sweetheart”, replied Khushi, her smile sweet, her eyes pleading, “Can you please open the door and bring my suitcase in?
“You’ve got to be kidding me”, exclaimed Arnav before releasing her and opening the door, his eyes incredulous as they saw her suitcase there.
Shutting the door, he turned to face her again. With his lips pursed in an intimidating line, his eyes were cold like icy caramel.
“Is this some kind of a joke?, he bit out angrily, “One has to plan ahead before traveling. You can’t just hop onto a train on a whim. You have no tickets, no reservation…and what about your parents? Do they even know about this?
“If we go early, we can get a ticket at the railway station. And I didn’t call home yet because of the time difference. I can always do that from the train”.
“Unbelievable”, Arnav shook his head, “What’s the point of calling them from train? They won’t be able to do anything about it anyway”.
“Well”, said Khushi firmly, “It doesn’t matter when I call. My mind is already made up. Nothing can change that”.
“There is no point in riling up your parents again”, said Arnav, taking a deep breath for patience.
“I’m an adult. I have the right to believe in myself, to follow my heart, to listen to my conscience”, replied Khushi, her eyes aglow with a quiet self-confidence.
Arnav stared at Khushi. An unfathomable expression skimmed across his face while his eyes were oddly intent, “Why are we speaking each other’s language, Khushi? What the heck are you doing to me?
Sudden tears filled her eyes and with an inaudible cry, she stepped up and slid her arms around his shoulders.
“I don’t know anything”, she cried against the collar of his navy polo, her breath mingling with his cologne, “All I know is that I won’t leave you alone on the seventh. I won’t leave you alone ever”.
Instinctively his arms folded around her and his eyes thawed and rippled with conflict.
With the clock ticking forward steadily, Arnav had no choice but to give in to Khushi’s inflexible resolve to accompany him.
“If there are no tickets or berths available which will most likely be the case”, he warned after they’d settled in a taxi, their luggage stowed in the trunk, “You’ll have to return”.
“You won’t share your berth with me?”, said Khushi with a puppy face, her eyes dancing with mischief which did nothing to elevate his mood.
“Not funny”, he growled, turning his face toward the window, worried about missing the train as the taxi wormed it’d way through a jam at a snail’s pace.
“We should have left at least fifteen minutes earlier”, he said to which their driver agreed morosely.
Few things are as nerve wracking as almost missing a train which Arnav and Khushi almost did. There was no time to get a ticket, no time to argue, no time to think. With the coolie deftly threading through the mad chaos of a railway station at a breakneck speed, and without a backward glance, they had to either keep up with his speed or risk losing sight of both him and their luggage.
They had just a few seconds to spare when they reached their AC-1 compartment. Not even time to heave a sigh of relief. While the luggage was being lifted onto the train by the porter, Arnav fished his wallet out to pay him, not noticing that Khushi, who was feeling hypoglycemic, was buying a packet of biscuits from a nearby vendor.
The train was already moving when he boarded the train under the impression that Khushi was already on it.
Luckily he was still at the door aimlessly gazing out at the slowly receding platform when he caught sight of Khushi dismayed face.
He heart beat wildly as he saw her rushing through the crowd to catch up with him.
“Give me your hand”, she said urgently, in between breaths, her heart panicking as she felt the train picking up some speed.
Arnav hesitated for a second, “I’ll get the train to st..,
“Give me your freaking hand”, Khushi shouted angrily and purely on a reflex, Arnav swore and extended his arm, firmly grasping her hand to pull her up.
They were both out of breath as they faced each other, her bemused hazel eyes locking with furious caramel ones.
“Are you fucking out of your mind?”, he said, his speech rushed, his tone fiery, “You could have lost a limb or your life…why couldn’t you have waited for me to pull the chain or something?
“The train wasn’t even that fast”, she said in a mild voice which was somewhat successful in cooling his boiling anger to an icy simmer.
Soon they’d hauled their bags to their compartment, stowed them under a berth and settled in.
Feeling dizzy, Khushi opened her packet of biscuits while Arnav opened a book to chase his ill temper away with.
It wasn’t long before the train had picked up speed, it’s carriages rolling side to side in gentle, lulling movements. The city lights receded as it sliced through the night air and thundered toward the open countryside, it’s powerful headlights splashing on the twin tracks in front…
Sounds of crackling paper filled the air as an elderly man, sitting across from them, unfolded and flipped through a newspaper. His wife looked up and smiled at her, a pre-conversation smile that usually precedes a breaking of ice between people traveling together.
After retuning her smile, Khushi glanced sideways at Arnav again. His profile was aloof, his eyes focused on the open book he held. His suppressed fury escaped in eloquent rippes.
She cleared her throat and put her little packet of Parle G biscuits away. She leaned a little toward him and their shoulders touched.
“What are you reading?, she asked softly, a direct question he couldn’t possibly evade.
“Redeployment”, he said tersely without looking up.
“Is it good?
“What is it about?
Even as he shut the book in a pointed manner and directed his icy gaze at her, the ticket collector ambled inside their compartment.
He watched as her face froze, her eyes widening with sudden panic. He pursed his lips, effectively suppressing a smile.
“Get ready to spend a night in jail”, he whispered wickedly, although well versed with the various penalties for ticketless travel in India.
Taking a deep breath, Khushi turned toward the TC. Clearing her throat, she addressed him in an impeccably polite voice.
Arnav looked on amusedly as she spun a long drawn out tale about their having gotten married the day before, her last minute decision to accompany her husband to Delhi, their getting stuck in a traffic jam and thereby running out of time to buy a ticket.
Somehow overcoming language, accent and regional barriers, Khushi not only managed to persuade him but also awaken his paternal instincts. After a brief lecture on the penalty for ticketless travel, he accepted the cost of ticket plus penalty from Khushi and studied the seat allotment list with a thoughtful face.
Ten minutes later, they were sliding open the door of a two berth coupe, hazel eyes clashing triumphantly with amused caramel ones.
The small coupe was lit with a bluish night light with golden orbs twinkling through the tinted window..