Anita sat at her desk, her eyes flickering with thought, a thumb and finger distractedly running on Aman’s bracelet like a rosary. After a while, her eyes quietened with the tranquility of decision. It had been two days since she returned from India but she had neither been able to shake off a vague restlessness nor able to pinpoint the reason underlying it. That it was different from her heartache, the angst of unrequited love, the angst of unrequited first love, she knew. That she felt alright. It’s fresh, jagged edges still drawing blood, it rested in a far recess of her heart. It’s abode was destined to get cobwebbed and it’s edges blunt with time but Anita had no way of knowing that. All she knew was she could learn to live with it…and move on in life. She was determined to.
But this restlessness was different…
Placing the bracelet back on her desk, she picked her phone up. A group picture taken at Isha’s wedding leapt out from the phone screen at her. As did Aman’s face. Her eyes softened lingering on his attractive features. His signature good-natured smile. His eyes. Her eyes were thoughtful as she gazed at him. With fresh perspective of experience, she found herself empathizing with him like never before. After all, she knew now what unrequited love felt like.
And just like that her heart cleansed itself of all bitterness. It beat with a life affirming vigor, wishing for Aman for it wished for itself.
She knew what she had to do.
Aman’s voice was surprised as he answered her call. It was a fine Saturday morning and he was still at his office, working on patient charts. He’d certainly not expected Anita’s call so soon after their last conversation.
“Anu? Is everything alright?, he asked, his voice tinged with worry, his thoughts veering, quite naturally, toward her father’s health.
“Yes, Aman”, Anita sighed, “Everything is alright”.
An awkward silence ensued to be determinedly broken by Anita. Her words were rushed but confident, “It’s just that I felt that I needed to say a…a…proper goodbye to you”.
“A proper goodbye?, repeated Aman softly, his forehead furrowing in perplexity.
“Yes”, said Anita. Her lips wobbled unexpectedly and she held her breath to quell them, caught unprepared by a sudden rush of emotions.
“I want to say goodbye without bitterness this time”, she continued after a while, “I…I wish you all the best, I wish you have a wonderful life”.
Aman was Incredibly touched. His throat ached as he said, “Anu. I’m really sorry for hurting you. I really am”.
“That’s okay. I’m okay now”, Anita interrupted him hurriedly, “And it wasn’t just you. I think we were both kind of stupid”.
“Perhaps you…a little more than me”, she added with a lightheartedness she didn’t feel, “but please don’t feel guilty about anything.
I’ve put it behind me. I’ve moved on and I hope you’re able to do the same. That’s all”.
Aman was quiet for a while. The emotions raging in his heart were too complex to be understood, too delicate to be expressed.
“Thanks Anu”, he said, leaning back against the chair. He felt a much needed lightness in his heart, “I really appreciate your calling me. I appreciate it a lot”.
Anita went downstairs after hanging up, her feet finding their old skip on the stairs, her nose sniffing appreciatively at the aroma coming from the kitchen. Sujata had already called her twice for lunch.
Navin sat at the table while Sujata was finishing setting the table. A large platter of Biryani awaited at the centre of the table with other accompaniments.
Even as Sujata pulled a chair, Anita threw her arms around Navin, impulsively hugging him from behind. Her loving, My Daddy was sweetly familiar and brought big smiles on her parents’ faces.
After bestowing her favors on Sujata next, she took her seat next to her. Even as she put the first forkful in her mouth, she closed her eyes and sighed.
“Who needs love when you can have Chicken Biryani?, she murmured.
Opening her eyes, she grinned impishly at her parents, “Just saying. No need to get worked up…Just yet”.
Her parents’ amused laughter was like music to her ears. With a warm glow of contentment, she sat back and watched them. How she’d missed moments like this. For the past one year, she reflected while chewing her food, such moments had become such a rarity in their home.
“It’s almost like old times”, she thought with longing before her eyes came to rest on Khushi’s empty chair, “Almost”.
Acceptance that it could never completely be like old times again hovered poignantly at the fringes of her consciousness. People grow up…move out…marry…and families are never quite the same again.
Reading her expression, Navin’s eyes softened. He said cheerfully, “We must ask Khushi and Arnav to stay with us for sometime when they return. Right Sujata? And of course, we have to make plans for their wedding too”.
Sujata’s eyes were gently appreciative as she smiled at her husband in assent. They reflected gratitude for his constant strife to keep the family’s morale high.To keep it together. To steer it to safe shores to the best of his capability and judgement. To make the best of any situation their family found itself in.
While she had been useless…of no help to him or anyone else, she thought, her eyes lingering on the tell tale signs of stress and aging on his face. First, breaking apart under stress, then, indulging in the false security of a self-built shell- she’d ironically hurt those whose happiness mattered most to her, whose happiness she’d always striven to protect.
She looked at Khushi’s chair with a spasm of pain flitting across her features. Words. Careless words. Words thrown in anger wafted in from the past to haunt her. So did eyes flickering with hurt, reflecting a heart lanced with words.
And she’d always been such a source of pride to her. Such a perfect, dutiful daughter all her life. Surely that should have been sufficient for her to attempt surmounting her misgivings, to try trusting her…
Anita took a sip of water and said, “I miss Di and Arnav Bhai so much. I can’t believe I didn’t even know him until a year ago”.
A bit of good old PR would probably be good for him, Anita thought with an inward smile before continuing, “They are so perfect for each other. And the way he takes care of Di…”.
After Anita had spent the rest of the meal alternately eulogizing Arnav and casting mildly defiant looks at her mom, Navin put his fork down and smiled teasingly at Sujata.
Sujata sighed and smiled back at him. Her eyes were peaceful. Her heart hadn’t felt so light in months. Her heart flew to Srinagar to Khushi. It was filled with blessings, prayers and love she’d kept withheld for much too long.
After washing up, filing the dishes into the cabinet and the dinner leftovers into the fridge, Khushi walked up to the window behind the sink, slowly rubbing lotion into her hands. It was a beautiful night but then, every day, every night and every moment seemed beautiful to her these days.
“Is this a dream?, was a question she often asked herself, her mind sometimes unable to process this deluge of peace and beauty after last year’s dark turmoil.
With a smile hovering on her lips, she looked back on the past six weeks. The first six weeks of her married life. Her mind flooded with memories she wished she could label and save in bottles like perfumes. Memories of days that began with bright azure skies, rustling leaves and patio breakfasts facing the lake, continued with soul satisfying explorations of love, companionship and nature and ended, more often than not abruptly, with a passion that could wait no longer to be addressed, a passion that raged on till the first pink strip ripped the horizon.
With her cheeks flaming, she picked a blue ceramic vase and half filled it with water from the sink faucet. A bunch of long stemmed lotus buds lay on the counter beside the sink, their fat, pink tips gleaming in the yellow light.
Earlier in the evening, Arnav had bought it from a floating flower shop and filled her arms with it. They were in a shikara and the air was filled with smell of vegetation and hues of dusk. A breeze had swept Arnav’s hair off his forehead and the look in his eyes was another memory she wished she could save in a bottle with all it’s textures.
After carefully trimming their ends, she arranged them artistically in the vase. Carrying the vase, she walked over to the family room. Pausing at the door, she looked across the room at the wood mantle. A framed picture stood on it’s middle. Father and son with matching grins, expressions and T-shirts. It was the same picture Khushi found in an album a year ago.
Biting her lip to quell a surge of emotion, she walked up to the mantle, standing still and silent, her eyes reflecting the firelight from the hearth. Listening to the crackling flames and her hands still holding the blue vase, her mind flew back to the day she’d framed it.
It was a couple of days ago, a cold and rainy afternoon which had them housebound. After lunch, while Arnav had retired to the library to respond to some job-search related mails, Khushi had settled on the couch with the old album in hands. Slowly flipping through it, she’d come to the picture. Even as her hands stilled, it had evoked a multitude of emotions and memories…
Acting on an impulse she didn’t fully realize at the time, she’d mounted it on an old walnut picture frame she’d earlier found…and placed it on the mantle. But then, she’d stepped back with a worried frown, unsure of Arnav’s reaction and if he would find it’s presence too painful. She’d decided on returning it back to the album, when Arnav had walked in from the library, quietly coming to stand behind her. With a start, she’d turned around to look at him, her eyes flickering with worry.
“I…I hope you don’t mind”, she’d asked him, her eyes anxiously scanning his face.
Wordlessly, he’d stared at the picture for a while, his face inscrutable, his eyes unfathomable.
“Arnav”, she’d rested a hand on his arm and said, “I can put it back”.
Then he’d turned to look at her, the darkness in his eyes lifting as they rested on her face, his tiny smile tugging at her heart in it’s mixture of pain and courage…grief and hope.
“It’s okay”, he’d said quietly, “This was one of Aarav’s favorite picture. It’ll be a shame to keep it hidden away”. Khushi had gone into his arms without a word, her overwhelmed heart thanking the creator of universe, the giver of wounds who also gave relief to those who sought it.
With a sigh, Khushi returned to present and placed the blue vase next to the picture, her eyes caressing the little face with a prayer, wishing for him the happiest possible place in the universe.
Later she drew the curtains against the night, settling on a sofa with a cushion on lap, transitioning to the mundane of life with the click of a TV remote.
She looked up with a smile when Arnav walked in, his presence affecting her as always with a happy frisson.
Arnav took the remote from her hand, placed it on the end table and stretched on the sofa with his head resting on her lap. Turning to watch TV for a while, his eyes closed under the soothing touch of Khushi’s fingers in his hair.
Khushi turned the TV off and looked down at him. He seemed unusually quiet, she thought, her fingertips tracing the old stress lines around his mouth.
“Did you hear from Dr. Shiener again?”, she asked, referring to Arnav’s Program Director and friend at Cleveland Clinic. Arnav had received his enigmatically worded email yesterday which had just asked him if would be interested in relocating to Florida.
“Yes, I did actually”, Arnav opened his eyes to look at her. His lips curving into a smile, he said, “He asked if I would be interested in taking over as the Program Director of a freshly minted residency program at a brand new Cleveland Clinic facility in Palm Beach”.
With alluring visions of abundant sunlight, turquoise seas and palm trees bringing a dreaminess to her eyes, she asked, “So, what do you think?
“What do you think?, he countered with a grin, his eyes surveying her eyes, his hand feeling a silken strand of hair between a thumb and finger.
“Well”, she said sedately, thwarting with difficulty what she considered her immature excitement, “There are many considerations that need to be taken into account. Relocation to a different state is never a piece of cake”.
“True”, Arnav pursed his lips in agreement.
“We’ll be far from our family”.
“I agree”, he said somberly.
Khushi exhaled in disappointment and held his gaze thoughtfully for a few moments.
“Just short flights away, actually”, she said slowly before adding excitedly “And I love Florida”.
Arnav laughed softly and said, “I know. I already said yes. I have a meeting scheduled for December and if everything goes well, I can start in January”.
Dazed by an onslaught of a million dreams and rendered speechless, Khushi bent to press a kiss on his lips, a hand slipping under a collar to cup a warm neck.
“Then why were you looking so…glum?, she asked softly, raising her head.
A shadow flitted across his eyes before he raised himself smoothly to sit up beside her. Meeting her questioning gaze, he marveled at her uncanny ability to read his moods, before sliding her onto his lap, wrapping her in his arms and kissing her.
“I’ll tell you later”, he whispered against the corner of her mouth before leaning in for another kiss, his tongue lightly tracing the contours of her swollen bottom lip.
With an incoherent murmur, Khushi wrapped her arms around his neck, their tongues engaging in a duel as they devoured each other, their desire not taking long to reach it’s zenith.
She shivered as he unbuttoned her black and white polka dot blouse she wore over jeans, his hand stroking the column of her neck, shoulders, and upper slopes of breasts, his moments insistent and repetitive, her skin like silk under his rough palms.
Impatiently, he slid the blouse off of her before readjusting his position to grab the bottom of his blue polo shirt and slip it off. As his muscles hardened with movements, Khushi stroked his corded shoulders and arms, pressing moist kisses against the side of his neck.
Inhaling sharply as she sucked at his ear lobe, Arnav slid the black sateen straps of her brassier down her arms to reveal her breasts. Alternatively cupping them and arousing their nubs with his thumb, he bent his head to take a straining peak in his mouth.
Unhooking her brassier and tossing it aside, he stood up, wrapping her legs around him in a single, seamless movement. Even as she linked her slender fingers behind his neck, he swooped to mark her skin, taste her curves.
The way Khushi whispered his name during lovemaking was always the earth’s sweetest sound to Arnav and he murmured in approval against her soft, scented skin, his tongue laving a love bite. She arched her back, her chestnut hair catching flames, cascading like a fiery waterfall behind her.
They made love in front of the fireplace again, skin against skin, heat against heat, love mingling with passion, emotions with primeval needs, and culminating in a crescendo that satiated their bodies and soothed their souls.
Later in the night, as they lay upon the bed, her head fitting into the curve of his shoulder, a hand resting on his bare chest, he told her about Lavanya’s email, his deep voice piercing the stillness of the night.
With her hand, she could feel a change in his breath pattern. It was a sign of rising disquietude, the norm whenever Lavanya was mentioned, a conditioned response to her sighting on the horizon.
“Why does she want to meet me? What’s even there to talk about? What the fuck does she mean by one last thing before I can really move on…or at-least try to?
Khushi lifted her head and sat up slowly. Sitting in her gray pajama bottoms and tank, she gazed at his stormy eyes, their caramel irises glittering formidably in the lamplight, his brows wrinkled in a frown. She was also able to glimpse a flicker of nervousness in their depths, realizing, with a pang, and perhaps fully for the first time, the extent of power he believed, or had once believed, Lavanya held over his life.
“I don’t know”, Khushi said slowly, “I’m getting good…positive vibes from her words. Maybe she wants to apologize or something?”.
“Apologize?, Arnav scoffed in his best sarcastic voice, “Nope. She doesn’t do that. Because to be able to apologize a person needs to get out of her self-centeredness. A person needs to stop feeding on a daily dose of self-pity and stay in touch with reality”.
“People change, Arnav”, Khushi said gently, “Experiences can teach and mould a person. It happens with almost everybody”.
“Well, for her own sake, I hope so. But I don’t think I’m going to agree meeting her. Last time we met, it was all about her. A litany of excuses and loads of self pity…”, Arnav replied bitterly, recalling how their last meeting had ended with Lavanya unbelievably hoping and asking for another chance for them, “And no apparent remorse for her suicide drama or anything else for that matter”.
Khushi’s eyes flickered at the harshness of his words but she refrained from saying anything this time, recalling with a shudder the series of events that had followed the last time she had suggested their meeting.
Exhaling, she slipped between the covers to lay down again. Her head on his shoulder again, her hand placed on his chest, feeling his steady heart.
“I’m sorry if that sounded harsh”, Arnav said after a while, “But I’m not a very kind person like you”.
“And that’s a lie”, Khushi said at once, her voice soft but impactful.
She felt him stiffen a little.
“Excuse me, I don’t lie”, he said with much dignity and equal pride, “In fact, I never do”.
“You do lie about yourself a lot”, she said, raising her head to look at him and chuckling at his expression.
“I call them honest lies”, she continued somberly, running an index finger down his cheek.
Arnav shook his head and burst out laughing, his spectacularly white teeth gleaming in the dim light, the fruity cadences of his laughter making her smile involuntarily.
“That was an atrociously cheesy oxymoron”, he said, his eyes a warm, languorous caress on her face. “Never ever describe me by one”, he commanded.
“Well”, she laughed, “If cheesy oxymoron is what you deserve, cheesy oxymoron is what you’re going to get. Simple”.
Wrapping his arms around her delectable form, he turned suddenly to pin her under him. His eyes were positively lascivious as slid a thin strap over a creamy shoulder and said, “Right now I’m not in a mood for cheese. I want…”.
He paused…and grinned naughtily. Bringing his lips close to her ear, he told her exactly what he wanted in purely gastronomical terms bringing a rush of color to Khushi’s cheeks and butterflies to her stomach.
“Dr. Raizada talks dirty beautifully too”, was her last bemused thought before all coherent thoughts left altogether, “Another oxymoron”.
It was toward the end of another long, sleepless night that Khushi hesitatingly alluded to their earlier topic of discussion.
“Arnav, whether your decide to meet Lavanya or not, it’s your call. I’m not going to tell you what to do. But I want you to know that I will support whatever you decide”.
The next couple weeks were beautiful in terms of both weather and content. The newly weds explored Srinagar and vicinity at a leisurely pace, basking in serenity and sunshine, seeking silence more than noise, stillness more than motion. They also fell in love with that old mansion by the lake. It had soon carved a special niche in their minds as their first home as a couple.
Painfully aware of the speed of flying time and reluctant to go back to the States just yet, Arnav brought up the subject of extending their stay until saffron harvest time.
They were sitting on the steps of the historic marble pavilion at Shalimar Gardens, seeping in the tranquil old world ambience, watching sun conjure circles of rainbows in the water fountains, listening to wind in the chinar trees flanking the brick pathways.
He wasn’t really surprised when Khushi agreed readily.
“It would be foolish to not make the most of our unemployed states”, she smiled. It was like a dream come true for her because she’d been secretly longing to experience blooming sheets of purple crocuses again too.
Khushi didn’t bring up Lavanya’s email again although there were moments when she came close to asking if Arnav had replied to it or if he intended getting in touch with her again.
As Aarav’s birthday approached, Khushi started noticing subtle, intermittent changes in Arnav’s mood. Small things escaped his mask of normalcy at times to reach her attuned heart.
Small things like silences stretching longer, smiles cracking at the edges, mind wandering to distant lands, their lovemaking acquiring an unmistakably different quality.
The resultant pain her heart felt was amplified by the knowledge that his mask was maintained mainly for her benefit, that he felt he owed it to her to keep his darknesses away from their life that had just started.
So when his lovemaking was different…urgent in essence, intense in demands, intangible in needs, she understood it as a silent expression of his pain. Wordlessly, she matched him by handing over her entire being, by a sublime giving that was maternal in essence. She would tell him with her heart, body and soul that he was hers with all the weight his soul carried. That there could never be any masks between them.
And just by the way his eyes burnt when he looked down at her, she knew that he understood.
When the sun of Aarav’s birthday dawned, Khushi had the entire day planned in a step by step fashion. She was to determined to hold Arnav hand, metaphorically speaking, and walk him through it. To somehow summon all of universe’s benevolence to comfort him with, to ward away the forces of despair she felt lurking at the edges of his existence sometimes.
She got up before him, quietly slipping out of bed with the eastern horizon still streaked in dawn colors. Showering and changing, she walked down the stairs, across the foyer and towards a door at it’s back.
It was a small prayer room, Khushi had seen Ma use during her last stay. It had a beautiful and tranquil with an intricate woodwork which seemed to have decades of incense fumes seeped into it’s grains. Quietly lighting a lamp in front of the Goddess’s idol, she joined her hands, bowed her head and simply prayed.
Intense beams from her heart focussed turn by turn on little Aarav, Arnav, Lavanya and Arnav again. On peace, love, life and eternity.
When she finally emerged from the room, her eyes were wet and her heart stronger.
Soon after breakfast, they left for Saffron Fields- the school. It was built about 6000 feet above sea level in a small Himalayan village not easily accessible by public transport. It was the first of many that would dot the surrounding mountains in the coming decades. Grateful villagers already talked about how it was born out of a father’s tears for his little son, of grief channelized into positive energies, of ancestral fields of saffron harvested for hope…
Many felt it was as poetic as the land they lived in that every crocus blooming amidst the decay of fall, and every strand of the fragrant spice it yielded…contributed toward the future of their children…
On the way to the village, Arnav referred to Lavanya’s email again. He’d finally sent out a reply earlier in the day.. After a pause, he looked out of the window to elaborate, “I said we’ll be in Srinagar until November and that we could set up a meeting after we return if she wants”.
Khushi’s eyes softened and when he turned to look at her, she smiled to reaffirm her support for his decision. The significance of the timing of his response was not lost on her. Khushi knew that despite all his rancor and misgivings born of experience, he wished nothing but healing and all that was good for Lavanya.
It was mid-morning when they reached the school, a large white structure with blue sloped roofs and an enclosed playground. It was built on a slight slope with a stunning vista of mountains as it’s backdrop.
It had started with five classes, KG till five, and five teachers, all from nearby villages. It’s long term plan was to grow with the children up to a high school level.
They spent the rest of the afternoon there, walking through the facility with Mr. Bhat. and the principal, pouring over the blueprint in his office, discussing future plans, discreetly watching eager faced children in classes and playground, reflecting on the meaningful and the mundane- that was life, and generally letting time slip by peacefully.
Both Arnav and Khushi found their minds touched by the project in unexpected and profound ways. Both knew it would remain very close to their hearts in the coming years.
They felt an inexplicable sadness saying goodbye to it at the end of the day. Even as the building receded and their SUV jolted over the rough road, Khushi found her mind returning to the same day a year back. She turned to look at Arnav’s profile, his sunglasses clad eyes focussed on the outside view, her eyes moistening at the peace she could sense.
Mr. Bhat, deeply impacted by the the poignancy of the day, took them under his wings after the visit. He had called them a day earlier to formally invite to dinner.
It was nearing dusk time by the time they reached Srinagar. The shop and street lights were turning on as their SUV navigated through congested roads to reach the lake.
Mr. Bhat had a large family with three sons and two daughters with three of them still living in and around Kashmir. One of his sons owned a houseboat he rented out to tourists on Nagin Lake. When it was in between renters, they also used it for family events and parties.
Having never been inside a houseboat before, Khushi was charmed by it’s intricate woodwork, romantic views and ambient lighting. His wife, two sons, one daughter and their families welcomed them warmly, almost overwhelming them with their kindness and hospitality. But it was exactly what they needed that evening. The comfort of human company, the ordinary noises and motions of home life. With the sound of happy, playful children of every conceivable size and age resonating in the background, they looked around the doll-house like houseboat, exploring it’s various levels, lingering on the deck to watch a sunset on the lake.
“We should definitely rent out a similar houseboat before leaving”, Arnav said with a smile, looking sideways at Khushi’s enraptured face.
“Yes…you should”, a group of children agreed in chorus startling them. They looked at each and laughed. They’d hadn’t even noticed that they were being discreetly followed.
After dark the women folk disappeared somewhere in the boat to prepare for dinner and Khushi found herself alone in the living room. A beautiful nine old girl carrying a tiny baby kept her company and amused her by her attempts at polite conversation. Arnav, Mr. Bhat and sons had left to look into a neighboring houseboat which had a chance of being available for early rental.
Khushi began to enjoy the two young people’s company, entertained by the tiny baby who cooed and smiled every time she looked his way.
Confident that a friendship had been struck between their beautiful guest and her brother, the little girl handed the little bundle to Khushi with a smile and a promise to return in a little while.
He was alright at first…not really noticing that a transaction had been made and Khushi held him gingerly unsure of how wobbly his neck still was.
But then he took a good look at the person holding him. His face crumpled, his lips wobbled and a disproportionately loud wail erupted from his little lungs.
Khushi murmured comfortingly, made soothing rocking movements, but to no avail. She was about to panic when Arnav walked in and took the baby from her arms, his hands confident yet tender, his eyes amused at Khushi’s plight.
The moments that followed seemed to progress in slow motion. The world receded and ceased to exist. Standing still, Khushi watched Arnav, forgetting even to breathe.
She couldn’t take her eyes off of his hands. So masculine yet so tender as he held the tiny baby against his shoulder, quietening him in a heartbeat. Holding him with the kind of expertise that can only come from practice.
His voice mesmerized her. As did the words he murmured to comfort him. Little, gentle endearments that sounded like they must have rolled off of his tongue a million times in the past.
When she remembered to inhale, it was a silent sob.
“You have to hold them like this”, he smiled at her..his smile slowly dimming with every word, “Gentle yet firm because they need to feel secure as well as loved”.
He closed his eyes tightly. His Adam’s ape moved up and down as he waited for the burning in his chest to subside, for the familiar pain to recede to the edges of existence again.
Taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes and looked at her, his eyes sweeping across her pale face.
“And I’m sure”, he continued in a voice thick with emotion, firm with belief, “My baby is there somewhere, somewhere in the universe, secure and loved just as this one is”.
Uncaring of where she was, Khushi wrapped her arms around them. With all her heart she could feel the universe smiling down on them.