Swifts turn in the heights of the air;
higher still turn the invisible stars.
When day withdraws to the ends of the earth
their fires shine on a dark expanse of sand.
We live in a world of motion and distance.
The heart flies from tree to bird,
from bird to distant star,
from star to love; and love grows
in the quiet house, turning and working,
servant of thought, a lamp held in one hand.
Despite knowing the basics and more of cooking, Anita, unlike Khushi, had never been overtly fond of it; truth be told, if there were a way to sail through life without having to cook a single damn thing, she would have grabbed it with both hands. However, baking was a different matter altogether. Baking was not cooking. Baking was an art, a passion, she would often say.
At the moment, she was pressing a nutty crust of flour, pecans and butter onto the base of a clear rectangular dish, her face intent as she smoothened it down with the back of a spoon.
Her mother, done with dinner, looked at her labor’s fruit spread on kitchen island with satisfaction in her eyes. Looking up at the kitchen clock, her brow furrowed worriedly, “What is taking them so long?
“The roads are bad, Mom”, Anita said, opening the oven door and sliding the baking dish in, “And sometimes it takes forever to find your bags on the carousel”.
As she set the timer and started working on the three different layers to smother the crust with, her mother, putting washed dishes away in cabinets, asked, “What are you making?
Anita lifted her head to look at her and grinned mischievously, “Sex In A Pan”.
As Sujata narrowed her eyes and looked ready to bite her head off, Anita lifted her hands up defensively, her irrepressible laughter filling the kitchen, “Whaat? That’s what it’s called. I didn’t name it”.
With a final shake of her head, Sujata left the kitchen, hearing her husband call her from upstairs. Navin still needed assistance with activities requiring fine motor skills like fastening of buttons etc.
While waiting for the crust to bake, Anita perched herself on a counter stool and swiped her phone to life with a finger pad.
After checking her email and replying to a couple of them, she was about to turn her phone off when an unknown force nudged her toward the narcissistic, self-loving but strangely addictive world of Facebook. She had a bunch of friend requests, a lot from random strangers, and some from high-school people who’d never bothered to interact while she was still in high-school, ignoring her overtures, sticking to cliques, comfort zones and boundaries.
“Why this sudden interest in me?, she thought with an inward eye-roll at the mystery that was human behavior before deleting them all. She had no morbid curiosity to satisfy and no time to waste on people irrelevant to her daily blur of thoughts, feelings and actions~ her real life. Her eyes moved further down the list and she saw Aman Aggarwal’s name. It took her by surprise.
Her finger stilled. Her mind paused. Her eyes flared with a subterranean storm. It constricted her heart with the ache that her first love had come to be.
Minutes ticked away as she stared at his name, a little angry at him for renewing her torment. She didn’t accept the request but could not bring herself to delete it either. Going against her better instincts, she visited his profile, gazing at his pictures, reading his wall and worrying if there were a way for him to discover that she’d visited his profile before exiting it quietly.
The last request piqued her interest and she frowned at it. The name sounded familiar yet she could not place her finger on it.
His profile picture showed what appeared to be an indie band comprising of three men and a woman with matching aviators against the sun and attitudes against the world. A bassist, a guitarist, a drummer and a keyboardist. Her confusion mounted as she was unable to recognize any of them. The caption read, “Politics On The Beach at Magnolia Fest’ 14, St. Augustine amphitheater, St. Augustine, Florida”.
Florida rang a bell. It unearthed eyes of shifting shades and the warmth of a stranger’s kindness. She accepted the friendship request and impulsively messaged him, realizing how stupid her question sounded the second she sent it. “You sat next to me on that Delhi to Amsterdam flight, right?
His reply came moments later as her mitts covered hands took the baking pan out of the oven and placed it on the island carefully, her nostril flaring in appreciation.
“Yes, Ma’am. Guilty as charged. And you, I presume, made it safe and sound to your destination?
“Of course, I did“, she typed with an inexplicable informality that’s generally reserved for long standing friendships, “Six months ago!“.
“Just making sure I’m not talking to a ghost”.
“Very funny“, she typed hurriedly with an eye on the clock, “Nice getting in touch with you again”.
“Same here. Take care”.
As the crust cooled, Anita shut a blind against the inclement weather outside, humming a tune under her breath. She would soon be seeing her sister, her best friend, again after what was the longest separation of their lives.
The fact that Khushi planned on moving to Florida and building a life there was something she refused to dwell upon. It was too painful for her heart already overwhelmed with this seemingly unending season of change. Anyway, she tried to soothe herself, didn’t she herself want them to move to a more happening place so she could visit them there?
After giving the crust sufficient time to cool, she brought it inside, shivering as she shut the door against the frigid air. She was soon lathering the crust with the pudding, whipped cream and cream cheese layers, one atop the other.
It was when she was decorating it with piped cream and sliced strawberries and writing ‘Welcome Home Di and Arnav Bhai” with love and decorating gel that the door bell rang.
She licked her fingers inelegantly and rushed toward the door. Opening it, she welcomed the travel weary couple at the door with such childlike effusiveness that their eyes stung and their laughter rang through the frozen night like silver bells tolling.
Arnav and Khushi stepped into the warm foyer with their eyes flickering with flame on the pooja thali Sujata welcomed them with. Even as they were hugged as one unit by first Sujata and then, Navin, Khushi looked around the foyer and found it infused with a cleansing light; she found the taint it carried recede to the shadows.
While Arnav lugged their luggage upstairs, Khushi wafted through her home, allowing her hungry heart to soak in it’s sights, scents and spirit, catching on and commenting on any changes she noticed.
Embraced by the familiar warmth of the kitchen, she perched herself on a stool and admired Anita’s creation as she put finishing touches on it.
“This is so sweet, Anu”, she said gruffly, not only reading the welcoming words but also feeling the love that flowed behind them.
“I wanted to bake a cake but didn’t have enough time. Aarti came over in the afternoon and you know how much she likes to talk”, said Anita fondly of her friend.
Khushi’s eyes twinkled in amusement, “Unlike you”.
“Yes, unlike me”, reaffirmed Anita with a grin, “So anyway, I had to make do with this. I know you used to love it. I hope you still do”.
“It’s Sex In A Pan, right?, Khushi mouthed a whisper, chuckling at it’s ridiculous name,
“And I’m sure I’ll still love it”.
Anita was a picture of poker faced innocence, notwithstanding the swirling mischief in her eyes, as she looked across the island at her, “I wasn’t sure, Di. I mean, you’re probably used to the real deal now”.
Khushi’s eyes widened before she pursed her lips playfully and slid off of the stool to get to her, their hearts joyous at this normalcy they’d missed so dearly without even realizing.The pretend skirmish and laughter that followed brought smiles galore to their parents’ faces – Navin, as he sat with a book at the dining table and Sujata, as she flitted around the kitchen getting dinner together.
Moments later, Arnav ambled in, showered and changed, comfortable in his skin and space as always and in a way that was quintessentially his. He came to stand beside Khushi, his presence in her home bringing a pleasant tingle to her heart and fingers.
“Look what Anita made for us”, she said to him, consciously drawing him into the warm folds of her home and family, acting as a bridge between the two ties of love and blood.
“It looks good”, he smiled at Anita, “What is it?
“It’s a layered dessert”, said Anita demurely, causing Khushi to start laughing again.
As Anita giggled too, Arnav looked from from one to the other with his eyes puzzled, “Did I miss something here?
“I’ll tell you later”, said Khushi even as they all proceeded to the dining table at their mother’s behest.
Dinner was a merry affair, satisfying stomachs as well as souls. They bonded over words and food with conversation gushing in between silences appreciative of Sujata’s cooking, which, Khushi noticed with warmth and amusement, was mainly centered around Arnav’s tastes and preferences now. Observing them discuss their upcoming reception in New Jersey, Khushi could smell the beginning of a great friendship already.
Their reception was in ten days and while Astha was already there preparing for it, they planned on joining her in two days after a brief stay at Khushi’s home.
“When do you guys leave for Florida?, Anita asked.
“Arnav has to join right after the holidays in January”, replied Khushi, “But we’ll have to leave right after the wedding to take care of things like finding a place to live…getting settled in etc”.
“The wedding’s going to be so much fun”, interrupted Anita with a sudden surge of excitement, “Everyone’s going to be there. Aakash Bhai and Payal Bhabi, Isha Di and Vinay Bhai, Madhu Bua, us and of course, you and Arnav Bhai”.
“I’m so glad we’re invited too”, Arnav teased Anita, his eyes amused at her infectious excitement.
“Well”, Anita retorted without thinking, her eyes gleaming naughtily, “You almost didn’t get invited”.
A heavy pause lasting just a second followed as multiple glances flicked toward Arnav to gauge his reaction.
Arnav didn’t seem to mind however, wholeheartedly appreciating the joke with his laughter- deep, attractive and self depreciating- warming the hearts of it’s audience.
After dinner, they hung out in the family room until late in the night, alternating between watching inconsequential TV and engaging in equally inconsequential conversations.
Arnav picked up a family album from an end table and flipped through it. After passing through some moments from the eighties, his eyes stilled at a picture. They took on a bemused expression slowly.
A hazel eyed girl of about five stared back at him with an index and middle finger firmly in her mouth.
“So it wasn’t my imagination. Our paths did cross all those years ago”.
He brought it up later in the night when they finally got into bed to rest their backs, stretch their muscles and have one of their half-asleep conversations that a lot of times, they only half- remembered in the morning. It yielded unexpected results.
When she’d rested her head with it’s freshly washed damp hair into the familiar groove of his shoulder and her small hand on his chest that he said with a yawn, “You know that day at the airport wasn’t the first time we saw each other?
“I know”, said Khushi almost but not quite sleep-talking,”We met…saw….crossed each other at a traffic light before that”.
“What are you talking about?
When Khushi’s sleepy monotonic reply had petered off, perhaps it was a reflection of his life, his personality, or a combination of the two, but he didn’t sound much surprised.
“Kind of apt”, he murmured.
“Us meeting at a crossroad”.
“Yeah. I guess”, she said, before forcibly keeping her eyes open to ask, “Then what were you talking about?
After Arnav had finished explaining it to her with characteristic brevity, perhaps if was a reflection of her personality that she lifted her head to stare down at him, half the sleep vanishing from her widened eyes to be replaced with delight.
His eyes were already closed. He appeared to be asleep but that didn’t deter her from shaking him to ask, “What else do you remember?
Frowning in protest, he responded in his sleep, his speech fragmented, his reply a reflection of his sleep-muddled thoughts “You were following us around….Annoying us. Not letting me sleep”
With a laugh, Khushi snuggled up to him again, a palm caressing his rough cheek until sleep took over completely and her fingers gradually relaxed.
Two days later, Khushi visited his New Jersey home for the first time. It was like a journey in itself, an exploration of his childhood and personality, a chance to explore the mighty oak from where the acorn had fallen.
The more she looked, the more she found, a process greatly helped by Astha whose quiet happiness at having her in their too large house touched her like very few things in life can.
Her eyes travelled up and down and across the built in bookshelves in the library, each title, the collection in totality, speaking volumes about their owners.
She pored over pictures after pictures of what appeared to be a typical privileged childhood of an only child; recurrent moments of mischievous exuberance made her acutely conscious of the marks choices and life leave behind on personalities in varying degrees.
She recognized the deep bond he still shared with his late father, understanding like never before his need to keep his Maurice Lacroix on his wrist.
She knelt before dusty boxes with him, rummaging through collections of music CDs and watching him wax eloquent about comics collections and game souvenirs with loving eyes. She skimmed her slim fingers across the keyboards of an old piano he once took lessons on and by the end of her first day there she had wedged an entire childhood into her heart.
At dinner time, they helped Astha set up table and get dinner to it, with Khushi wanting to hug her for the way she asked Arnav for help with every kind of chore there was and with an air of it being the most natural thing in the world.
Khushi watched with fascination as Arnav prepared a simple salad, slicing cucumbers on a chopping board with all the aplomb and concentration of a seasoned chef.
Sensing her eyes on him, he looked up to wink at her, “I make the neatest salads in the whole world”.
“And”, chimed his mother from behind him, “that’s a good thing because a salad is the only edible item you can make without burning the house down”.
Arnav chucked amusedly before saying, “Ma, I think you’re jealous of my salads. Grow up”.
Astha smiled widely, her heart dilating as she took in the relaxed lines of his face, the lambent serenity in his eyes.
Struggling with emotion, she said gruffly, “You should stop wearing glasses. It makes you look old”.
Arnav looked across the island at Khushi, his eyes swirling with devilry, to say, “But your bahu finds me sexy with glasses. Right, Khushi?
Even as Khushi blushed with embarrassment and rolled her eyes, Astha suppressed a smile. Smacking her son playfully on the back, she said, “Stop embarrassing the poor girl. And that’s more than enough salad for the three of us”.
The next days flew by in a blur with every minute filled with thought, plan or work relating to their upcoming reception. If they thought things were crazy at that time, they didn’t know what hit them on the day before reception, when extended family descended, almost at once, from all corners of the country.
It was like a mad house with music, laughter, non stop conversation and spirits running high.
As much as the bridegroom appreciated their presence and sentiments, it didn’t take him long to be secretly sick of it, his heart already in the most beautiful F-word in the world with his wife all to himself.
But in the end, it was worth it. The glow of happiness surrounding people who mattered to him and people who had come to matter a lot to him in a short period of time was worth it all.
Morning saw them in a temple again, surrounded by family and friends, going through the marriage rituals again, but with the comforting rain of parents’ blessings this time.
It was so different, Khushi mused as they went around the crackling fire again with her wearing the same red sari, yet so similar to their sublime merger amidst the mountains.
The mountains that had loomed around them at that time was today replaced by the steadfastness of a father’s love.The soft twilight that had drenched them then was now the light in their mothers’ eyes and the breeze that had weaved around them then was now Anita’s teasing banter….
After a memorable morning came and went, evening was not far behind and at around eight in the evening while stars shone down upon a frozen world, Arnav stood up from his ornate seat to welcome his bride.
With his handsome face somber and his eyes intent, he cut an intriguing figure under the ambient lighting of a Four Seasons’ grand ballroom, the magnetism emanating from his person making him the cynosure of all eyes. He wore a beige Jodhpuri suit with burgundy silk and sequins detailing, the colors complementing those of Khushi’s outfit. He carried it well, looking chic and self-assured against a background of burgundy orchids and champagne roses.
As the opening strains of a song filled the air, everyone in the hall rose, their eyes gravitating toward a door at the back of the hall.
Given Khushi’s habit of playing music while working around their home, especially kitchen, in Srinagar, Arnav recognized the song. He smiled. It was one of her all time favorites, he recalled her claiming at one time.
Mere Haath Mein Tera Haath Ho Saari Jannatein Mere Saath Ho.
Tu Jo Paas Ho Phir Kya Yeh Jahaan
Tere Pyar Mein Ho Jaaun Fanaa
Jitne Paas Hain Khushbu Saans Ke
Jitne Paas Hothon Ke Sargam
Jaise Saath Hain Karvat Yaad Ke
Jaise Saath Baahon Ke Sangam
Jitne Paas Paas Khwaabon Ke Nazar
Utni Paas Tu Rehna Humsafar
Mere Haath Mein Tera Haath Ho Saari Jannatein Mere Saath Ho…
She walked down the aisle slowly, her head covered with burgundy gauze, her neck, ears and wrists with gold jewelry and her stunning beige and burgundy lehenga trailing royally behind her. She was accompanied by her parents on each side and her eyes sparkled with an achingly beautiful mix of tears and joy.
It brought a lump to his throat. It made him regret not being more enthusiastic about a day that meant so much to her. He wished he hadn’t refused to practice for a first dance. He wished he’d done more to make this day even more special for her.
Their eyes met across the hall and even as their lips curved widely, their smiles wavered and Arnav swallowed to drown a sudden onslaught of emotion.
“Fuck”, he muttered under his breath, embarrassed by the whisper of tears he felt in his own eyes.
Approaching the stage, Khushi read both his lips and mind. She chuckled in amusement, her mirth a touching contrast to the tears welling in her eyes.
With a grin, Arnav came down the stage to receive her from her parents. He saw faith and serenity in Navin’s and Sujata’s eyes that touched him in a way he was unprepared for. He cleared his throat as they embraced him with genuine affection. His eyes shone with tears he’d been keeping at bay for so long as he said gruffly, “Thank you. I promise I will never give you any reason to regret”.
“I know you won’t, beta”, said a visibly moved Sujata,
Khushi gazed at them with her eyes filled with wonder and her heart softened with gratitude.
They had all come such a long way…and in what seemed like a flash of time in retrospect.
Soon they’d taken seat next to each other while the program commenced with Aakash at the helm as the master of ceremonies.
The program proceeded without a glitch with Aakash keeping everyone awake and entertained with his style, wit and sense of humor. Engrossed in the program, Khushi didn’t really notice when Arnav summoned Anita and whispered something in her ear or when Anita’s lips widened in a conspiratorial smile.
Several speeches, roasts and dinner later, Aakash announced their first dance and Arnav glanced at her confused face with an enigmatic smile on his.
Rising from his seat, Arnav looked down at her in the soft amber light, offering her his hand and silent reassurance.
Khushi’s eyes were bemused as he led her toward the dance floor, her lehenga trailing on the steps behind him.
The hall darkened when they reached it and she blinked in surprise. She peered at his face in the semi darkness. His eyes glittered back at her.
“I thought…we were not going to dance”, she whispered.
“Why shouldn’t we?, Arnav said, tilting his head arrogantly. He knew there must be people in the audience who gossiped about them, who pronounced judgements behind plastic smiles and fake hearts.
Taking her hand, he rested it on his shoulder and pulled her closer with his right arm, “Why shouldn’t we celebrate our beautiful love…revel in it…flaunt it…in front of the whole world? And most importantly, why shouldn’t we do something that will make you happy?
As the full import of his words became clear and she struggled with tears, the spot lights turned on, drenching them with it’s silver light.
He joined his left hand with her right and when the song started, Khushi’s lips curved in recognition. It was a song they’d playfully danced to one beautiful fall evening in Srinagar.
A/N: Dear readers,
Here’s where I stop today with a promise to post Chapter 2 on 7/14/2016. Hope you liked this part. Please share your thoughts with me, your likes and comments are the biggest reward and motivation I can ask for ❤ ALS UPdate will be posted on Thursday Evening, US Time.
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