Ahista chal zindagi, Abhi kai karz chukana baaki hai.
Kuch dard mitana baaki hai, Kuch farz nibhana baaki hai.
Raftaar mein tere chalne se kuchh rooth gaye, kuch chhut gaye.
Roothon ko manana baaki hai, roton ko hasana baki hai.
Kuch hasraatein abhi adhuri hain, kuch kaam bhi aur zaruri hai.
Khwahishen jo ghut gayi is dil mein, unko dafnana baki hai.
Kuch rishte ban kar toot gaye, kuch judte-judte chhut gaye.
Un tootte-chhutte rishton ke zakhmon ko mitana baki hai.
Tu aage chal main aata hoon, kya chhod tujhe ji paunga?
In saanson par haqq hai jinka, unko samjhaana baaki hai.
Aahista chal zindagi, abhi kai karz chukana baki hai…
With her lips still widened in a grin, residue of the heartening conversation she’d just had with Khushi and Arnav, Anita placed her phone back on the polished table top next to a large cup of coffee. Taking a slow sip, she looked around the crowed cafeteria, lingering to kill the two hours before her connecting flight to Cleveland.
She was admiring a pair of impossibly high heeled red shoes from afar, marveling at the effortless elegance it’s wearer hurried down a passage, when discerning a shadow on the same gleaming table top made her turn her head and look up into a pair of fine gray eyes.
“Mind if I join you?, he asked, his voice pleasant yet impersonal, his eyes crinkled in a smile. With a reciprocating smile, Anita said politely, “Sure”.
There was a sense of ease in his presence which Anita assumed was due to their shared journey to Amsterdam. Even though their time together was mostly spent in silence aside from a formal introduction and a brief exchange of small-talk, his familiar face was oddly reassuring in the surrounding sea of strangers.
“When’s your connecting flight?, he asked, ripping together the tops of two packets of sugar and dropping them into his coffee.
Even as Anita told him the time, a part of her noted with mild surprise that his eyes were actually tinged with green and not gray as she’d previously thought. Or maybe it’s just the reflection from the green Packers sweatshirt he’s wearing?
“How about you?, she asked, mentally shaking herself for the frivolous thoughts, groaning inwardly when a subtle flickering in the twin objects of interest, so to speak, communicated their awareness of her interest in them. It was an hour earlier than hers, she was told amidst stirring of sugar and even as she cleared her throat and took a sip of her own coffee, she remembered from their earlier on flight conversation that he was headed toward Daytona Beach, Florida.
“So what were you doing in India?, he asked pleasantly, settling back in his chair. Anita raised a hand to push a strand of unruly hair beneath her ear and the muted overhead light reflected off of her silver and ivory bracelet.
She launched into an animated reply with a force of habit compelling her to impersonate her own self, an innate fighting spirit compelling her to ignore the emptiness residing inside her heart.
Even as she spoke, her companion couldn’t help noticing her still puffy eyes or their dark circles which were at odds with the lightness of her words.
“Those eyes”, he frowned, studying the uncommon up slant of her eyes and oddly bothered by it, “They look so familiar. They remind me of someone”.
Puzzled by his intent frown, Anita stopped abruptly in mid sentence, wondering if she’d bored him by talking too much.
“Nice”, her companion murmured, dragging his attention back to his coffee cup, “That must have been…fun”.
Anita finished her coffee, took a deep breath and decided it was time to take her leave. Even as she opened her mouth to say something suitably polite, Arian, becoming aware of her intention, felt an inexplicable urge to stall her for some time.
“Which part of India did you go to?, he asked with uncharacteristic haste and upon receiving her answer, folded his arms to settle back with a more suave , “Allahabad was supposed to be on our itinerary too but then we had to make some last minute changes. You know what happens when you’re traveling with a group of college buddies. Most of them half mad”, he concluded with a disarming grin.
“Which cities did you guys go to?”, Anita asked fascinated with the aura of sheer free spiritedness in his engaging narrative.
Continuing smoothly after a minor obstacle in the form of pronunciation of six Indian cities in quick succession, he recounted how they’d traveled via planes, trains, buses and taxis, stayed mostly at homestays and basically had the time of their lives.
“One of us could speak Hindi which was a great help. But not even that could save us from some unbelievable shit we landed ourselves in”, he broke out laughing.
“What kind of shit?, Anita asked, trying to thwart the image of another smile, the sound of another laugh, the resultant ache they evoked from searing her defenses.
While a part of her questioned if she was forever condemned to a life of what-ifs and comparisons, another part reprimanded for indulging in the regret for what-could-have-beens. An awareness of the futility of this exercise succeeded in piercing through the haze of pain that surrounded her. With renewed vigor, she clamped upon hope that was still impertinent enough to raise it’s foolish head.
Blinking her eyes, she refocussed her attention on the stranger sitting across from her.
“Shit ranking pretty high on a scale of shittiest shit a person can find himself in in a foreign country”, he chuckled, a deep, infectious sound that widened her lips into an amused smile.
Subsequent moments flew by as the two took equally morbid pleasure in recounting the most interesting misfortunes to befall them during travel, recent or past.
When this particular topic was effectively wrung dry, they moved on effortlessly to others, covering a wide range from politics to movies to academics.
And just like that, Anita Gupta found herself in the middle of an airport sharing a childhood dream and it’s peculiar link to her indecisiveness in career choice with a stranger she was never likely to meet again.
“I remember when I was in kindergarten, our teacher asked what we wanted to be as grownups. Everyone came up with these really cool professions. At least we perceived them as cool at that time. Being an astronaut, spy or a police officer ranked consistently high and I remember, my answer would always be astronaut”, she laughed self deprecatingly, “It’s been so many years and sometimes I feel I still haven’t been able to move on to a more…regular profession. I still haven’t been able to zero down on a profession that excites me more or just as much”.
Immersed in her own musings, she remained unaware of a wave of surprise and something else flit across his eyes momentarily.
“Well, what’s wrong with wanting to be an astronaut anyway?, he said casually with a smile, “I’m sure they’re regular people like you and me too. Maybe a little more passionate about what they do than most people”.
“I guess”, she said slowly with a smile, “It takes considerable gumption to take your fascination seriously and even more to make it your actual life-goal “.
“Oh come on”, he chuckled, “You’re making it sound as improbable as a letter from Hogwarts”.
She laughed with him. “Perhaps traveling in space is the closest one can get to real magic”, she said, her tired eyes crinkling with amusement. The realization she was having too good of a time with a stranger did dawn upon her however and was immediately followed by self-chastisement.
“For crying out loud, this is not how a person nursing a broken heart is supposed to behave”, she thought indignantly, convinced of her shallowness.
Clearing her throat, she looked at him, her gaze steady as she fumbled for suitable words to take her leave with. She was spared the effort by Arian sighting his friends and rising enthusiastically to attract their attention. He had earlier mentioned to her his luck in getting a seat at the last moment. He had missed his original flight, she was told, without any elaboration on the reason, which had caused him to separate from his group.
There was a shift in his aura, in his eyes, as he looked away from his approaching buddies to look at her again. Like an invisible hand snapping it’s fingers in front of him. Like the saneness of reality closing in on him.
He extended his hand with a friendly smile, his handshake firm, impersonal and final.
“It was really nice talking to you, Anita. I didn’t even realize it was time to board our flight”, he said.
After pausing imperceptibly, he added, “Well, have a safe flight”.
“You too”, Anita said, her lips widening in a smile, her heart recognizing and warmed by the sincerity in his voice, “You have a safe flight too and it was really nice talking to you as well”.
After he left, Anita, who had more time to kill, wandered around the airport aimlessly, peeking into shop windows and buying a large package of tulip bulbs she hadn’t really wanted to.
When she finally reached her boarding gate’s waiting area, the pre boarding had already started. She went to stand in line in front of a glass wall, hand holding passport and boarding pass resting on the extendable handle of cabin bag, bright sunlight slanting in through the clear glass. The silver charm on her wrist winked at her and a sudden rush of yearning caught her by surprise. Her breath hitched and her fingers curled tightly around the handle.
The line was moving at a snail’s pace. Taking a moment to compose herself, she looked up casually to spot her co passenger once again. Right at the very back of the waiting area. Even across the sea of humanity resting listlessly on hard seats, his tall, well-built physique and short clipped copper hair were difficult to miss.
He was with his group and even from that distance she could sense their high spirited bonhomie. A tall girl stood next to him and even as Anita looked, she turned and hugged him.
Appearing completely at home, she rubbed his back in soft, up and down movements.
Anita looked away quickly. To her relief, the line was beginning to pick pace. She was almost at the gate when he walked up to her again.
“You’re still here?, she said with a smile.
“Yeah, our flight got delayed”, he said, hands shoved in jeans pockets, his eyes those of a man trying to make up his mind.
His words were followed by a pause and Anita looked at him curiously. Facing the sky, his eyes appeared light blue, she noted. Giving herself a mental shake, she said, “I hope it’s not too long of a wait”.
“I hope so too”, he said distractedly and since she was just one person away from the gate checking counter, he added with an air of resignation, “Well, Goodbye, and good luck…with everything. Hope you have a wonderful life”.
There was something in his voice that made her closely survey his face. Her irises widened with realization. He knew. He was awake last night.
Their eyes locked for a few seconds before hers softened with gratitude. Her eyes thanked him before her lips did. Just before being summoned by the lady at the security booth.
“Have a wonderful life”, his words echoed in her ears as their plane took off, soaring high towards the glittering sun.
She took a deep breath. She felt a sense of ownership for her own life. A sense of control, at-least partial control, over it’s steering wheel.
Everything was going to be okay, she told herself, irrespective of what the higher powers had in store for her.
She smiled at the affirmation that resonated deep within her.
It was Empowering. Liberating. The wind beneath her wings.
It was their last day in Ireland. Their faces were relaxed as they strolled in the extensive gardens, it’s lush greenery bifurcated by the craggy shadow of the medieval Blarney Castle.
With the sky partially overcast, the Sun played peek a boo, keeping a characteristically Irish tight rein on it’s pale sunshine.
With an artificial waterfall hissing in the background of a cleverly atmospheric bog garden, they walked down a boardwalk, their hands occasionally brushing each other. The boardwalk was flanked by bog plants on each side and a willow tunnel awaited them at it’s end.
They handed after a while, their arms resting on the wooden rail, their eyes fixed on a group of yew trees in a small island.
Neville turned to look at Lavanya’s profile. It looked deceptively peaceful and he knew one only needed to scratch the surface to bring the facade tumbling down.
Yet, he waited. He waited.
As her therapist he would do all the talking, counseling her, walking her through the path of self-realization and change, trying to empower her with the capability to change.
As her friend for the past six-seven months, he had offered her just silence. The silence of mundane words and pursuits. The silence of living on life’s surface without delving too deep into it. They had traveled extensively, watched movies, games and people walking by, talked about inconsequential things, or just sat still, allowing sun to rain it’s warmth on their faces.
Instinctively, with only anecdotal evidence to go by, he’d counted on the many powers of this silence. The power to heal and reveal. The power to provide insight…to penetrate into the very nidus of a person or an idea.
“I don’t deserve you”, Lavanya said, turning toward him, her voice agonized, her facade crumbling in heaps like a worn-out building, “I don’t deserve your friendship”.
Neville inhaled deeply and leaned against the rails. His face was intent as he said, “Has it ever occurred to you that I might be falling in love with you? That I’m intrigued by you? That I want to protect you, heal you?
She remained silent, her lips still and her heart smothered under guilt, regret and pain.
She had come a long way in the past six month.
With each new day, she was able to look back at herself with added clarity of vision and added insight. The failed suicide attempt and subsequent divorce was able to hammer in like nothing else could the futility of her love, her obsession, for a husband who didn’t want her. She was finally free of the self-serving lies she’d told herself and the world to keep him tied to her. She was finally free of all delusions.
It was liberating and damning at the same time.
She could see herself and her actions much clearly now and every realization and every insight was followed by a personal indictment.
“How can I allow another person into my life when it’s hard to live with my own self?, she cried, “You have no idea about the things I’ve done…about the lies I’ve told…about the pain and destruction I’ve caused. You don’t know half the things about me, Neville”.
Neville watched as she paused and closed her eyes, a spasm of unbearable pain crossing her features.
“I wasn’t…”, she said with her voice choking, “I wasn’t even a good mother to my poor baby, my Aarav…”.
As tears streamed down her cheeks, Neville caught her hand to lead her down the boardwalk to the willow tunnel. He made her sit on a bench under a tree and held her, alternately letting her cry and comforting her by talking about depression…and how it can effectively paralyze a person.
But Lavanya surprised him by wanting to own responsibility for her choices, actions or their lack thereof. She was convinced that only complete honesty could exonerate herself from the suffocating weight on her chest.
After a while, she straightened up and accepted a tissue from Neville to wipe her face with.
“It’s Aarav’s birthday next week”, she murmured, her arms aching to hold him, her heart burning to love him like he deserved to be loved.
Even as fresh tears rolled down her cheeks, she said softly, “Most of the good, happy moments he had in his short life were because of Arnav…”.
“And Arnav…”,she cried after a short pause, her voice cracking with regret, “His only fault was that he tried to be a good friend, he tried to do the right thing by me…that too after I’d abused our friendship like no half decent person should”.
“And guess what Neville”, she turned toward him with a bitter smile , “I loved Arnav…I loved him so much that I tried my best to break him into little pieces. I tried my best to slowly break him apart. I almost succeeded but that wasn’t enough so I tried every thing imaginable to keep him tied to me. To keep him miserable. And that’s how I love people”.
As Neville made to speak, she stalled him, “And that’s why I can never love again. I will never love again, Neville. I’m scared of the word love”.
“Did I ask you to love me?, he replied quietly,”Why can’t we continue doing what we’ve been doing for the past few months? Living one day at a time, sharing moments, smiles and thoughts, letting hearts sprout emotions if and whenever they want to?
“What’s the need to label emotions anyway?, he said with a smile, his eyes softening with protectiveness, his cheek furrowing in a dimple.
As his words sank in, her eyes became hazy with regret. With an overpowering heartache, she wished she’d accepted the sincere emotions Arnav had been able to offer in their ill-fated marriage.
Without letting her insecurity demand for more.
Without insisting on labels all the time.
A waft of breeze drew her attention back to Neville. Her eyes warmed with sincere gratitude.
“I don’t know if I could have made it without your support, Neville”, she said, “But…I need time to think. There is something I need to do first”, she continued placing a balled fist on her chest, “to relieve some of this weight. To be able to breathe”.
Arnav frowned in his sleep, a harsh sun beam filtering through the crack in the curtains to slant across the side of his face. Opening his eyes, he stretched slowly. The dawning awareness of a soft, warm presence intertwined with his body brought a contented smile to his face.
Burying his face in the crook of her neck, he drew her limp body closer, listening to her steady breathing and nuzzling slowly against her skin.
Waking up to an onslaught of scents and sensations, Khushi held him close, her slender fingers running through his hair, her heart bursting with happiness. She listened to the sound of the ticking clock and heard the rustling of leaves, not knowing that the minutest details of this moment would forever remain imprinted in her mind.
After a while, he looked down at her, his eyes infused with an odd glitter. With a sigh, he brushed her hair off her forehead and beneath her ear.
Running his thumb across her swollen lips, he glanced at the fierce love marks dotting her body and his eyes flickered with contrition.
“It’s okay”, she said with a smile before his apology could reach his lips. With her smile broadening, she flicked his nose with a finger.
“Your nose is red from my sindur”.
“Well”, he said teasingly, “From what I remember of last night, I expect to find it in all kind of interesting places”.
He chuckled when she blushed and changed the topic, drawing his professional attention to her irritated eyes.
“From wearing contacts for too long”, he diagnosed loftily, shaking his head in disapproval when told that she’d remembered to take her contacts off in the wee hours of the night. “One of these days you’re going to end up abrading your cornea”, he said.
“Or I could get lasik done by you”, she said softly, her gaze holding his, memories of her conversation with Astha flaring in their hazel depths and melting them with their import.
“Yeah…sure”, he said, averting his gaze.
Khushi cupped his face and willed his gaze towards her again.
“You’ll do just fine, Arnav”, she said, her moist eyes at odds with the confidence in her voice, “I know you will”.
Arnav swallowed and closed his eyes for a few seconds. Enough time for the stinging behind his eyelids to burn into nothingness.
Opening them, he sighed and stated, “Ma told you”.
“Yes she did”, Khushi teased him with a smile, attempting to lighten the situation even as a small tear rolled down her cheek, “Between the two of us, you will never be able to hide anything anymore”.
Halting her tear with a finger, Arnav just smiled in response and Khushi spoke again to reiterate her point, “I know you’ll do just fine, Arnav. Promise you’re not going to give up on operating. Promise you’re going to look for a surgical position”.
Touched, he smiled at the earnestness in her voice, his eyes serious as they flicked from one hazel orb to the other.
“Alright… I’ll try”, he said gruffly at last.
With a rush of emotions, Khushi hugged him close to her bosom.
“Everything is going to be okay now”, she whispered, her breaths convulsed with restrained tears. Hope flew in and perched quietly on their shoulders.