It was the end of October. Not only did the wind now have a decided chill to it, it was constant in it’s attempts to coax leaves off of branches. It’s multihued parcels billowed in the sky or rustled noisily over a browning earth’s surface. While birds flew over and away toward warmer climes, for Arnav and Khushi it was the season for visitors.
About two weeks earlier, Arnav had received another email from Lavanya. It was a much delayed response to the one he’d sent on Aarav’s birthday.
“Hi Lavanya”, he had typed, while Khushi prayed downstairs. “I can’t help thinking that keeping distance would be best at this point. However, I’m willing to meet if you think it will benefit in terms of helping you move on with your life”.
He had hesitated after that. Fingers remained poised over keyboard as wariness battled long and hard with empathy.
He had added more words. A few, stilted words.
“Today must be as hard, if not harder, for you as it is for me. I wish you peace. I hope you’re able to come to terms with this void…this pain. I hope you’re able to feel his presence, feel his well-being, like I’m beginning to, and be somewhat comforted by it”.
Arnav was unaware of the emotional storm, the upheaval, his words had unleashed in Lavanya.
Her reply, however, couldn’t even express the tip of the iceberg. She was convinced that she would only be able to do it in person.The need to let it all out was painful in it’s urgency and her words did succeed in conveying that.
“Thank you. I wish the same for you. And I forgot to congratulate you and Khushi on your wedding. Wishing you all the best.
I’m going to be in India for a week end of October. Would it be possible to meet you?. I just want to get it over with?”
After a day was subsequently decided upon over the phone, Arnav found himself feeling the same. He just wanted to get it over with as well.
Days passed by like the flipping of a book’s pages and it was only with slight trepidation that Arnav and Khushi waited for the said day’s arrival. They were too cushioned in new found security, too cocooned in fresh love, to feel more than that. However there were moments, rare moments begotten by this very same security, when Arnav allowed his thoughts to wander toward the past. He would look with curiosity at the person who’d been his good friend, his study partner, during three long residency years. The one who was headstrong but intelligent. Opinionated but amiable. Liberal but responsible. Whose dry sense of humor made up for the occasional mood swings, the unapologetic self centeredness he would sometimes glimpse.
What happened to her?, he would wonder, because the person he had had to marry was almost never her…
The day finally arrived. Similar thoughts ran through Lavanya’s mind on the way from her hotel to the Raizada mansion. As the wrought iron gates opened and her taxi curved around the drive toward the carved walnut front door under the columned portico, she tried her hardest to focus on what she’d come to do.
Although it’s wasn’t easy for her because every angle, every facet, of the charming house she approached reminded her of her unrealized dreams, she’d realized the futility of fighting against destiny. You can scream until skies rip asunder, violate your body until rivers of blood flow…but destiny remains unshaken. You can lose yourself in the mad pursuit of what was clearly unreachable all along…but destiny remains unmoved.
Your struggles just end up hurting those who still love you…who’ve always loved you.
With an inward shiver, she recalled the haunting emptiness in her father’s eyes at the hospital. Will she ever be able to forget it? Will that be another cross, amongst many others, that she’ll have to carry all her life?
Never again, she whispered to herself, her eyes clenched shut, her nails digging into her palm. She could never hurt him or Manya like that again.
She was finding herself after a long time, like Neville said, and she couldn’t afford letting anything or anyone loosen that grip.
Astray leaves swept the paved drive noisily as she climbed up the two steps to the front door. She took a moment to admire it. A shaft of light slanted on the aged wood to reveal it’s exquisite wood carving.
It wasn’t long after she pressed the door bell that it was pulled open from inside.
With her husband becoming increasingly taciturn and brooding as the morning progressed, the onus of keeping things normal had inadvertently fallen on Khushi’s shoulders.
She opened the door of her home with confidence and a clean slate of a heart. Reassured by the calmness of her mind, the steadiness of her heart, she smiled, preparing to receive their guest with due respect.
They shook hands and exchanged awkward pleasantries with Khushi musing fleetingly on the sheer surrealness of the moment.
For a brief second, her mind also registered surprise, bewildered surprise, at the sheer attractiveness of her husband’s ex wife. She was tall, shapely and fashionably dressed, her raven hair falling in clever layers, her beautiful eyes and dimples flashing at her.
And just as Khushi invited her in and stepped aside, Arnav’s quiet footsteps and scent signaled his presence. She looked up at him. His eyes rested on her face briefly, surveying her expression and conveying an apology for his earlier bad mood.
Reassured by her quiet smile, he took an imperceptible deep breath and turned towards Lavanya.
Khushi watched quietly as they shook hands like strangers, unable to prevent her sensitive heart from receiving inexplicable strains of sadness.
An awkward silence followed and stretched to the point where it began to jar on her nerves. And to her consternation, she seemed to be the only one bothered by it. With an inward sigh, she led them toward the living room, spouting inconsequential talk about Kashmir, the weather, and whatever came into her mind on the way.
By the time they settled on couches, the encompassing tension had stopped crackling loudly and by the time Om Prakash brought in tea and refreshments, it had quietened enough to recede to a tolerable distance.
Sitting on the armchair by the fireplace, Arnav took a sip of tea and grimaced imperceptibly. Clearing his throat, he enquired about Lavanya’s job and family.
Hearing them engage in an impersonal but civil conversation about job search, Khushi placed her porcelain teacup on the end table. She looked out the window at the late afternoon sunshine and slowly exhaled the air she’d been holding back without realizing.
Arnav shot a glance and drew her into the conversation too. His eyes suggested he was mentally kicking himself for getting talked into the current situation.
They talked for a while and it wasn’t long before their conversation piece had been thoroughly done to death. Their voices petered into silence again but it was a tolerable silence this time. The tension, that never went away completely, remained at the fringes.
Lavanya looked around the room, stilling as her eyes came across the picture on the mantel. She had been too preoccupied to notice it earlier.
As she gazed at it quietly, Khushi, who was sitting next to her, swallowed a sudden lump in her throat. She could feel a vortex of pain, a suppressed tempest that raged inside Lavanya.
It hit Khushi in almost tangible waves. She realized she wanted to bury her demons. She realized she wanted to talk to Arnav. She also realized that she needed space…
With studied casualness, she rose up from the couch. Holding Arnav’s gaze, she murmured, “I’m expecting a phone call. I’ll be right back”.
With his eyes glued to her retreating back, Arnav felt an acute sense of unease enveloping him. Despite being next to the fire, he felt cold. With difficulty, he thwarted an impulse to call her. To ask her to stay…to not leave his side.
“The sooner this is taken care of, the better”.
Tearing his eyes away, he looked across the room at Lavanya. His mind registered the torment in her eyes. His features relaxed slowly.
“You wanted to talk about something”, he asked.
Lavanya was silent for a while. A part of her wanted to flee from their beautiful home, that picture on the mantel, and all the demons they threatened to arouse. While another part wanted to face them all. Even the ones she’d kept hidden and unacknowledged for so long.
She’d realized that facing them with honestly was the one and only way to vanquish them. The only way she could face herself. The only way she could live.
She suggested they go for a walk and after a brief hesitation, Arnav agreed.
The sun had begun it’s descent from the zenith and the shadows of trees were long and dark. The wind was chilly. It carried the sound of waves lapping against grassy banks.
In silence they walked toward a bridge running over a narrow stream. It’s crystal waters gurgled over smooth rocks before merging into the lake.
It wasn’t long before her protracted silence began grating on already overwrought nerves. Reaching the middle of the woods bridge, he halted to face her. His eyes flickered with exasperation.
“Like I’d said before, Lavanya”, he began tersely, “I don’t think there is anything left to talk about. I don’t mean to be rude but I really don’t understand the purpose of… “.
“I want to say sorry to you “, she interrupted, her words tearing out like muslin from thorns, “That’s all”.
Arnav blinked slowly. He was caught off guard by her unexpected words, her uncharacteristic paucity of speech. He’d expected excuses…excuses…and more excuses. He’d expected another concerted and protracted effort to present her point of view. Yet another effort to make him, to coerce him, to see what she wanted him to see about her. All in the guise of an apology of course.
Breaking eye contact, Arnav rested his arms on the worn out rail, his eyes sweeping the vastness of the lake.
“That’s okay”, he said after a short while, “You don’t need to”.
Then his eyes narrowed in puzzlement. He turned to face her again. “And why now? You know I’ve moved on…and..”.
“And you have no need for my apology”, Lavanya finished for him.
“If you want to put it that way”, said Arnav with a flash of annoyance, “then yes, it’s true. I want you to move on, I want you to have all the best in life, but I don’t want your apology. Or like you said, I don’t need it”.
“I believe you”, replied Lavanya looking away. Her knuckles whitened as she gripped the rail tight, fighting to keep her emotions and tears in check.
“And I think”, she said after a while, “You’ll believe if I told you that it’s my selfishness, my self-centeredness, once again, that makes me want to apologize one last time”.
Arnav flicked a sideways glance at her profile. It was wary and curious at the same time.
“I’m doing it for me, Arnav”, she said with an odd, previously unseen, glitter in her inky eyes.
“All my life”, she continued with a watery laugh, “I’ve been driven by my wants and my desires. And today is no exception”.
“Please quit talking in riddles”
“To put it simply”, she continued, tears escaping invisible barrages to spill over in shiny streaks, “I want to move on with my life…I want to live…but this weight over here”, she said putting a fist over her chest, “is not letting me”.
Arnav’s eyes flickered confusedly as she paused, struggling to gather herself together, to embark on the daunting task of stripping one’s soul bare in front of another.
“The last time we met each other, all I was concerned with was trying to make you change your perception of me, trying to convince you…and more importantly myself…of my…my…non culpability in all of this. The whole thing that transpired between…”.
“It does not matter anymore”, interrupted Arnav. His eyes were irate. He was struck with dread. He did not want her to go down that route again. He did not want his demons to be fed again.
“Please let me, Arnav”, said Lavanya, “All these years you’ve been nothing but honest, brutally honest at times, with me, and today I want to return that favor”.
Taking a long shuddering breath, she brushed back her hair with slightly shaking hands. Her words tumbled over one another as she said,
“All these years I tried my best to break you. All these years I tried unknowingly to punish you for not loving me back like I wanted to be loved”.
Whatever Arnav had expected from Lavanya, it was certainly not this. His eyes flinched with surprise before swarming with the darkness of unwanted memories.
Exhaling sharply, he averted his gaze, his fingers curled around the rail, his eyes focussed on the distant horizon.
“That too after you’d been the best possible friend to me, blindly trusting me, offering to marry me”, added Lavanya with her voice breaking.
Her eyes shed tears. Her mouth bled words. Her heart’s burden continued to rip, melt and flow.
“And after I… I’d deliberately disrespected our friendship by taking advantage of your buzzed state that night”.
“I was equally to blame”, Arnav murmured.
“No”, Lavanya shook her head, possessed by a inner force to set the record straight, “It wasn’t something you would have acquiesced to in a sober state”.
“I wasn’t drunk”
“You weren’t completely sober either. But I was. And…”, she bit her lip, “Had I been in your position, you would’ve never done what I did. You would’ve never taken advantage…”.
Arnav shrugged with a frown, his habitually self-critical mind agreeing reluctantly with the obvious veracity of her argument
“Anyway, there is no point in revisiting the past”, he said, “And like I said before it’s time to let bygones be bygones, learn from mistakes and move on”.
After a pause, he turned. Meeting her gaze, he said in a gentler tone, “Lavanya, irrespective of our past, I wish you all the happiness in life”.
Even as he said those words he realized that, to a large extent, he owed this uncharacteristic magnanimity to Khushi, to her presence in his life. Had he still been floundering in the dark seas of hopelessness, he wondered, could he have forgiven Lavanya just as easily?
He didn’t have an answer to that.
“I really do”, he reiterated watching Lavanya struggle to regain her composure, battle against the fresh emotional upheaval, the heartache, that his kindness wrought. Who would have thought that kindness could hurt so much?
“Thanks”, she said with difficulty, “Now I just have to find a way to forgive myself”.
“Thanks for agreeing to meet”, she added with the painful realization that there was nothing left to talk, that it was time to leave…
Preparing to leave, she took a deep breath. She extended a hand, “Goodbye Arnav. I wish you…happiness too”.
“I wish you Khushi…now and always”, she added with a brief flash of her dimples.
In that fleeting moment, Arnav had a glimpse of her lost friend. Someone he’d never expected to see again..
They shook hands wordlessly and on an impulse, he added, “Don’t be too hard on yourself, Lavanya”.
Those words were all it took to shake the foundations of Lavanya’s already threadbare composure. It crumpled, disintegrating like an old, worn out structure does, raising in it’s wake a cloud of hitherto settled dust.
“But that’s what I deserve”, she cried, shaking her head, her eyes tortured with a soul’s deep agony, her words quivering with regret, “I was so wrapped up in my fears, my stubborn wants, that I couldn’t even cherish a woman’s biggest blessing. My motherhood. My baby. I wasn’t even a good mother to Aarav. I don’t even have the right to grieve for him”.
Aghast, Arnav stared at her, his eyes filled with pity, his own eyes shining with tears. The enormity of her regret, the weight of the cross she carried reached him in palpable waves.
“You were both his mother and father”, she continued, “You were the one he cried for when he was sick. You were the one he ran to…when upset. And to think…I said those words…”.
“Let’s forget the past”, Arnav interrupted her, his voice desperate, his face blanching with pain. Her words tore through the scabs of his wounds. “Let’s just remember that our Aarav is in a happy place right now. Let’s just remember that he loved us and that he would want both of us, his daddy and his mama, to be happy too”.
His words filled a painful hole in her soul. Instinctively, she sought comfort from him, from the father of her child. The man who had been destined to bless her child’s short life with his boundless love.
Instinctively, she sought to share the only thing that remained between them. Their grief.
“No human deserves to suffer like this”, was Arnav’s predominant thought as he comforted her, gently reminding her of numerous times and ways she’d been a mother, reassuring her about the indelibility of moments, instances and their sum which had constituted her motherhood.
With blurred vision, Khushi watched them from the bedroom window. Across an afternoon colored with fall, sunshine and poignancy. Perhaps it was a testimony to her journey, to the distance travelled, that she barely noticed their embrace. Her heart was preoccupied with concerns about it’s beloved…
Later, Lavanya walked toward the house alone, her countenance and eyes oddly at peace. Wind whipped her dark hair. Dried leaves crunched under her feet. Without a backward glance, she walked away from him with the image of him standing on the bridge, his hands resting on the rail, his eyes focussed on the stream, permanently imprinted in her mind.
As she walked, she realized she was glad, perhaps for the first time, to see he’d found happiness in life. She was glad to know he wouldn’t be left alone on the bridge.
It took a weight off of her chest.
“Perhaps”, her steps slowed to keep pace with a gently wavering epiphany, “This is how love is supposed to be. It is not supposed to be an obsession to acquire but to give. Even when that giving means giving up”.
The timing of her epiphany was ironic. With an unsteady smile, she entered the family room through the patio.
She had just picked her handbag from the couch when Khushi entered the room.
Words were sparse and their smiles awkward as they looked at each other. Lavanya surveyed the younger woman briefly. Quite naturally, she felt a twinge of envy for her delicate beauty and the almost poetic way it was offset by a strong mantle of dignity. However, it was nowhere near the violent storm seeing her picture on Arnav’s cell phone had conjured some months ago…
“Thanks for having me”, she said, wanting to leave their house as soon as possible.
“No problem”, said Khushi pleasantly.
They shook hands and Khushi accompanied her to the front door, unable to prevent herself from feeling an overwhelming sense of relief.
Lavanya halted when they reached the door and turned to look at her. Her eyes reflected her mind’s conflict. It debated with it’s self, trying to arrive at a decision.
“I shouldn’t have mentioned you in my note”, she said tersely, “What I wrote wasn’t true. I’m sorry”.
Khushi’s hazel eyes flared at the sheer unexpectedness of her words. It took a few seconds for her to regroup herself. After swallowing a rising wave of sharp edged memories, she finally said, “And I’m sorry if you felt I was encroaching on your space”.
Lavanya was quiet for a while. Her eyes were distracted as she turned over Khushi’s words and the myriad emotions they evoked in her mind.
“Arnav was never really mine”, she said huskily in reply before turning and stepping out of the door.
After Lavanya left, Khushi went out and crossed the leafy, grass-covered ground in long, swift strides. Out of breath by the time she reached the bridge, she smiled uncertainly when he heard her footfalls and turned toward her. Her eyes surveyed his features, her mind attempted to gauge his mood.
“Are you okay?
Her protectiveness crinkled the corners his puffy, blood shot eyes. He drew her close, fiercely molding her body against his.
“Now I’m okay”, he replied somberly.
Their lips curved into slow smiles. Their eyes agreed on not discussing the visit, of not detouring to the past.
Words were superfluous as they embraced each other and that beautiful fall day, their hearts beating in affirmation of the present.
A week after Lavanya’s visit, the first week of November, Astha arrived for her annual sojourn in Srinagar. As always, she was in time for saffron harvest, a time traditionally associated with joy and cheer in their family, a family whose history went back to several generations of saffron farming. It was also a time that was permanently linked to a multitude of frozen memories in Astha’s mind. Memories of people she’d once shared her life’s journey with. Memories of all the happiness she’d found there.
And now, with her son finding happiness that had once seemed elusive, she could sense good fortune smiling after a long, painful hiatus. It had been long dark night and Astha was prepared to welcome every scrap of light with a heart full of gratitude.
As her plane hovered and dipped over the sprawling city of Srinagar, she looked forward to her stay with a contented smile. She looked forward to making new memories…
She was unprepared for the rush of emotions that accompanied her emerging from the airport and spotting Arnav and Khushi amidst the waiting crowd.
She was immediately hugged by Khushi. She appeared to be having trouble keeping her tears at bay. She couldn’t help recalling their first meeting.
Astha cleared her throat and brushed her tears away, her eyes meeting a pair of dearly loved caramel eyes over Khushi’s shoulder. They glinted with wicked amusement.
Stepping up with a chuckle, he engulfed them, two petite ladies who ruled his universe, in a bone crushing embrace, laughing at their sentimentality on the surface, wanting to see them smile in actuality.
“Look at Nirupa Roy finally meeting her match”, he teased prompting them to laugh through their tears.
The glow in their hearts was warmer than sunshine, warmer than the fiery chinar trees as they drove back home.
After settling in, Astha didn’t delay in organizing a small Puja at their home. It’s purpose, she said, was not only to invoke the gods for continued blessings and good fortune but also to invite local relatives and friends to introduce Khushi to.
Khushi, looking exquisite in a traditional silk sari and gold jewelry of Astha’s choice, slipped into the role of a Raizada bahu with commendable ease, effortlessly mingling with people and warding off their occasional curious queries with amiable but firm replies.
Arnav, at best a reluctant but polite participant, couldn’t wait for the day to be over. He spent most of the day in his father’s first cousin’s company. An elderly talkative man with passionate views on every possible topic under the sun, Arnav was fond of him. And then, his lengthy rants allowed him to tune out from time to time, his gaze resting on his wife like a law of nature.