Nothing could make a girl happier, Khushi mused with a goofy little smile, going about her kitchen like a happy whirlwind, than having all nearest and dearest under one roof and that too in perfect – almost too good to be true – harmony. Her mother and mother in law sat at the island chatting away after a token offer to help and her husband knelt before their dining table adding another leaf to extend it. Anita was out in their backyard with Dad who had been steadily acquainting himself with it’s wide range of plant species since arriving the previous afternoon. The backyard had proved to be yet another common ground, Khushi noted with satisfaction, for him and Arnav to bond over – in the most organic – pun intended – way possible. Even the day reflected her mood, she sighed, looking out the kitchen window at patches of blue framed by greenery, scarce white clouds scattering in the wind.
She could hear workers from the event management company they’d sighed up for the Diwali party tonight already at work – festooning trees and shrubs with fairy lights, hanging lanterns from branches, erecting tents, setting tables and chairs on their wonderfully level lawn.
The sound of the microwave beeping snapped her out of the reverie and did Anita bursting back in – with poorly concealed panic – through the sliding door. To escape a bee that had been doggedly pursuing her she said by way of explanation, triumphantly holding up a bouquet of fresh flowers in her hand. As she proceeded to stick them – Alstromeria and Gerbera and Delphiniums – in a waiting vase, Khushi placed a dish of chickpeas Ma made earlier in the morning on the table and smiled fondly at her, “They never bother me”, she joked, “Even though I’m supposed to be the one with extra sugar in my blood”
“No, Dr. Gupta”, Arnav jumped into their conversation with his eyes grim, “Even you are supposed to have as much sugar in your blood as everyone else. And it has been too sweet for my liking these past few weeks”, he added, nudging her toward a drawer with a hand on the small of her back. Plucking an alcohol wipe from a drawer, he picked her hand and proceeded to wipe a finger tip clean for the glucometer lancet. Anita, carrying a stack of plates to the table, paused to quip, irrepressible as ever, her innocent voice at odds with her impish eyes, “Arnav bhai, you sound as if you’ve been sucking my poor sister’s blood”.
Ma, who was close by, laughed appreciatively, while Mom smiled and shook her head at the same time, as if to say, “When will this girl develop some much needed filters for her mouth?
As for Arnav, he smiled a little as he caught her eyes, his warm amused gaze dipping down to the crook of her neck, still slightly red from his ministrations from last night. As she blushed and cleared her throat, Arnav checked her blood sugar and replied to Anita at the same time, “Anita, don’t tell me you’ve been watching those terrible sparkly faced vampire movies?
Khushi chuckled as Anita flushed guiltily. She was or had been a big fan of the Twilight series – the movies – at one time – even to the extent of plastering her walls with posters and dabbling in fan-fiction writing online. However, she winked boldly at Khushi and said, “Twilight movies and me? Never. I only watch European art cinema. That too when I can’t get my hands on any Kafka or Murakami for – you know – just a light, fun read”.
Arnav laughed out loud, his eyes crinkling in fondness and amusement, the sharp majestic planes of his face softening. He ruffled Anita’s hair on the way to the dining table, “Kafka and Murakami”, he made an exaggerated derisive noise, “You got to step up your game, Anu”.
Their dad was still outside – having lost all sense of time, in all probability, amidst his new chlorophyll producing companions. Khushi stepped out to fetch him for breakfast, her lips still widened with smile. The workers had been busy, she noted, working with the precision and speed of a well oiled machinery to erect up blue and white tents and set tables and chairs, each clothed and adorned with yet to be lit filigree terra-cotta candles and colorful petals. She paused to talk to them about the arrangement of the tables for a while, the breeze soft in her hair and a prayer to the weather god – please, please, don’t let it rain – in her heart. Not that any meteorologist in the state expected anything but perfect weather tonight…even tomorrow…but still. No surprises, please.
Her dad stood on a flagged path leading to the deck and boardwalk to the beach and ocean, balanced on his cane, his body tilted toward one side slightly. The path was flanked by trees, shrubs and flower beds on either side and through the greenery on the left, one could catch the blue- green shimmer of waves. A handful of frangipani flowers – pink with yellow hearts – gleamed against the rough gray stones and even as she picked up one and sniffed at it, her dad said, “Plumeria Rubra”.
Smiling at him, Khushi picked a white flower from a nearby shrub and handed it to him, “Jasminum Grandiflora?”.
Even as her father nodded and smiled back at her, his eyes – so similar to her own – gleamed quietly with contentment. It flowed directly into her own suddenly full heart. She hugged his arm tight. “Breakfast is getting cold, Daddy”, she said gruffly.
After brunch, Khushi and Anita knelt together over the foyer’s white marble floor, tracing out an intricate rangoli and adorning it with rice powder in every hue, flower petals and tea lights. They scattered fragrant votives and traditional earthen diyas all across the house while the two mothers prepared for the evening’s Lakshmi Pooja, lovingly setting it up in a corner of their spacious library.
Later in the evening, when it was time to start getting ready, Anita, falling back easily on her Dependent-On-Di’s-Opinion-For-Everything ways, knocked at their bedroom room summarily and barged in, neither seeming to notice her heightened color nor Arnav trying not to grin at a hastily opened book. She had a dress in each hand.
“Which one should I wear?, she said, “Tell me, quick”.
“They’re both good, Choti”, she said.
“Oh please, Di”, she groaned, “I need a decision here”.
As she placed the first dress in front of her and then the other, and then the first one again, her lips twisted in assessment, her stance indecisive for a long long time, Anita groaned louder.
“The red and black one”, Arnav spoke from his chair, managing to sound helpful but doubtlessly with an intention of bringing what he probably considered as unnecessary drama to it’s deserved end.
“Arnav bhai, did you even look at them?, Anita raised a skeptical brow, “Do you even know anything about women’s fashion?
“Of course, I do”, he said unconvincingly.
“Go with the pink and green one”, Khushi mouthed at Anita, her eyes dancing with mischief, “Arnav has terrible taste in Indian clothes”.
“I heard that”, Arnav said indignantly and as soon as Anita left, Arnav lunged at her, pinning her arm behind her back and tugging her flush against him.
“Did you just call my taste terrible?, he said, making his eyes glitter down dangerously – mock dangerously, of course – as one of their many preludes to foreplay. It never failed to make her nerves tingle deliciously, this one, and her heart pound like a runaway train.
She bit her lower lip and laughed, her eyes flashing provocatively, “And what if I did? What are you going to do?
“What am I going to do? Do you want me to show you?”, he whispered huskily, his eyes flickering with breakthrough amusement.
Even as she giggled and nodded and he tugged her closer, the door barged open once again after the briefest of knocks, allowing them barely enough time to disengage and leap apart again.
“Di”, Anita wailed, standing at the threshold, once again oblivious to her heightened color or anything else, “I forgot to bring my dress sandal. I’ll have to borrow one of yours”.
After Pooja, just when natural light began to wane to a pale gold, and the lamp lights – both inside and outside – glowed brighter, Anita went up to her room to check on her reflection once again, regretting it the moment she came face to face to it. She scowled at it. Her eyebrows were too thick in her opinion but not half as ridiculous as they’d seemed the few times she’d tried to get them shaped thinner. Her eyes were funny shaped, in her opinion, and her lips too wide. And her nose – nondescript was the word. Well, who cares?, she said to her reflection before flouncing away from it. It was all a question of percentiles, she reminded herself. Not everyone can be at the 90th percentile like her Di, and she should be thankful she was near the middle of the curve somewhere (Hopefully. On her good days, at-least) and not at the bottom. Of course, easier reminded than remembered…
Outdoors, the lanterns winked and swayed, the fairy lights glittered and the very first of guests – the conscientiously punctual ones – tricked in slowly. Anita, not too eager to meet a whole bunch of new people she wasn’t likely to keep in touch with, stepped out gingerly, her gaze searching for and finding her sister and her husband in the far distance. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they greeted guests, their faces animated as they talked and smiled and she couldn’t help but sigh in contentment – and something else – at the serenity shining forth from their features, at the surety that they belonged where they were – next to each other – and that there was no other place they’d rather be. Arnav bhai, who had looked rather dapper in Kurta earlier on had changed into a navy summer blazer over white open necked shirt but her Di, standing beside him, still wore the light green net sari paired with an embroidered forest green blouse she’d changed into for pooja. They deserved each either, Anita mused as she made her way to the boardwalk to drink in the last remaining dregs of sunset, of what remained of it. Just as they deserved every bit of happiness that came their way. Even the grandeur of an ocean sunset couldn’t keep her away from the lure of technology. She exchanged texts with Aarti and a couple other friends in Ohio, sent them a picture of the sunset and a selfie, grinned at them complaining about the weather back there and then paused and moved on to Facebook. It was his birthday, FB informed, urging her like an interfering aunt would, to wish him, to write something on his wall.
She swallowed and bit her lip, startling when a pair of arms closed around her.
“What are you doing here all alone?, Khushi asked. Her soft eyes – a lovely golden green in the fading light – looked worried, almost as if she had access to every secret thought in her mind – every hidden vault, every locked crevice, every bolted niche.
“Geez, Di, you startled me”, Anita said and averted her eyes, “I was checking Facebook”.
“Well”, Khushi grabbed her hand and tugged her along, “You didn’t come all the way here to check Facebook”, she said bossily, “I want to introduce you to my friends. They’ve heard so much about you”.
As Khushi swung her from one introduction to another, she began to enjoy herself because all of Di friends – especially Debanti Di – were warm, funny people who took to her immediately just because she was Khushi’s sister. And then, there were pani puris and fresh jalebis under a food canopy and really, Anita paused and considered, it’s awfully hard to be melancholic with them around. Especially being melancholic for no apparent reason or worse, an apparently insane reason like it being somebody’s birthday.
She snuck her way to the boardwalk again and rested her arms atop the wooden rail. The sun was a fiery orange half dome now and the waves crested with darkness. More and more artificial lights turned on and perched a little above the ocean upon a flattened cliff, their backyard garden seemed a bit like an unreal mystical land. She shook her head and frowned, deciding that rather than moping around for no good reason like an idiot, sending him a casual Happy Birthday text would be infinitely more sensible.
So she whipped her phone out and did just that, keeping it deliberately light and casual. One friend to another. No big deal. “Happy Birthday, Arian! Have a good one!”.
She thought for a while, her thumbs paused over the screen, and added a birthday cake emoji. After another few seconds, she deleted it and added the double pink hearts one. She deleted that one almost at once. She added another exclamation mark after Arian, paused again, and deleted the exclamation mark too. She scowled at the screen and swore out loud. Then she deleted ‘one’ from Have A Good One’ and substituted it with ‘life’. ‘Have a good life’ She pressed send and pressed the phone to her mouth, fiercely grappling with a sudden stupid lump in her throat.
Their new house was exactly six houses down the street from his dad’s, Arian noted as he strode toward it, toward the house he must have passed countless times on his bike as a kid. His footfalls slackened as he approached it’s illuminated facade. He took a deep breath and halted, looking up at it, it’s structure backlit by a brilliant pink and orange dusk. This couldn’t really be happening, a part of him seemed inclined to believe, smiling ruefully, loosening a tie he was no longer sure he should have worn. Well, he straightened with resolve, this has to be done. If for nothing else, for the sake of his own mental sanity, for getting rid of an illusion, an obsession, he seemed to have conjured out of thin air slowly in the past two years, centered around a person who was in many ways still a stranger, a person whom he had met just once. Or twice, maybe? Smiling to himself, he followed the signs toward the back of the house, shaking his head at his heart that hadn’t behaved like the way it did since eight grade, when he would crush hard on his Math teacher.
The backyard swarmed with people, gaiety, music, and with not a single familiar face in sight, he paused near a tree, leaning against it, increasingly sure of the fact that his impulsive decision to come here tonight was one of the worst ideas he’d ever had.
He scanned the crowds, hoping to catch a glimpse of her and once or twice, he imagined he’d spotted her until the person turned more toward him to prove him wrong. A strange restlessness enveloped him. It even flooded most of his earlier awkwardness away. He had to find her. He didn’t come all the way here just to turn back again. He’d allowed this strange game of masquerade and shadows to continue for far too long.
He began walking toward the hub of activity and was accosted midway by none other that Dr. Raizada. Khushi Raizada. She seemed delighted to see him and if she had found his phone call earlier that week odd, his practically wangling an invite strange or his presence unexpected, she was too gracious to let it show.
“Thanks. I’m so glad you were able to come”, she replied to his ‘Happy Diwali” with a warm smile. She really was a sweetheart. And as usual, he couldn’t help surveying her features hungrily for traces for her. Her husband joined her and he was just as welcoming in his own economical way, asking about his life in Chicago, gesturing toward the food and drinks, urging him to make himself at home and help himself,
After they moved on to other guests, he heeded to their suggestion – lunch was a long time ago – and decided to check out the food first. After all, one needed to fortify oneself before searching for magical creatures. And she was nowhere to be seen. He did run into a guy he knew vaguely from college – an annoying prig who’d just joined medical school and who wouldn’t fucking leave him alone or stop talking when all he fucking wanted – with madly increasing impatience – was to find her. Where are you?, he thought with a frown, pushing his plate back on the table. Even as he looked around for her, his phone beeped as in in response. His heart flipped before settling into a loud thudding rhythm.
“Happy Birthday! Have a wonderful life!”
Summarily excusing himself, he rose and buttoned his coat and decided to search for her in earnest. “Thank you. Where are you?, he texted as he walked, weaving his way toward the outer, relatively sparsely populated, edges of the party. The phone remained silent and hands in pockets, he walked around the party in a slow circle, across fading twilight and alongside the crash of waves, dodging lanterns hanging from tree branches. A song he didn’t understand a word of fluttered in the wind. And then he found her purely by chance for she wasn’t within the circle but outside of it, standing at a small deck that stepped down onto a boardwalk leading to the beach, identical to one at his dad’s house. Although he could just see her profile, he was sure this time. She was near yet far, standing alone, seemingly lip synching the song with all her heart.
The fact she was oblivious to his presence here was thrilling and disturbing at the same time. He knew he owed her an explanation but all he could think of right now was that she was hear him – within a few paces, and fewer heartbeats and she was just as he had remembered, just as he had imagined although how he felt at the moment was something he could never have imagined or dreamed. He leaned against a tree again, preparing to look at her, to drink her in, to his heart’s content before making his presence known. Her face wasn’t the prettiest at the party but there was something about it that made it unforgettable to him, something about the alignment of those features that tugged at his heart, that made him feel something – something not unlike to what music did.
Long moments passed in complete silence. It was only when the sun plunged into the ocean that she sighed and straightened and his own body tensed with anticipation.
She still didn’t turn around but checked her phone instead. As she typed something, he bowed his head and grinned. He was certain she was replying to him. He fished his own phone out his pocket.
“At a Diwali Party. What are you doing for your birthday?
“I’m at a Diwali party too”, he sent out in reply, his heart quickening when she finally turned around to face him. She still didn’t see him however. Even as she walked straight toward him, her eyes remained glued to her phone screen. She paused, just a couple paces from him, and frowned at the screen, probably at his latest text. A filigree lantern from a branch near him swayed in the wind, bathing her in it’s glowing patterns.
He straightened and crossed his arms, his breaths unnaturally shallow.
“Anita?, he called softly.
He felt her eyes widen before she whipped her head up and her gaze collided with his. She blinked once or twice as if doubting her vision before walking slowly toward him.
“God. I can’t believe this”, she said softly, her eyes flickering across his features, their obvious delight battling with questions and confusion. And then, she smiled widely and said, “Hi Arian”. She remembered.
As she extended a hand toward him, a little shyly, he chuckled and pulled her into an embrace and even as she gasped in surprise, his blood flooded with a heady euphoric joy. “As fellow Mile Highers, don’t you think we known each other a little too well for a formal handshake?.
Dil Ko Banade Jo Patang Saanse
Yeh Teri Woh Haawaien Hai
Aai Aise Raat Hai Jo
Bhahut Khushnaseeb Hai
Chahe Jise Door Se Duniya
Woh Mere Kareeb Hai
Kitna Kuch Kehna Hai
Phir Bhi Hai Dil Mein
Sapno Mein Jo Roz Kaha Hai
Woh Phir Se Kahun Ya Nahi
A/N: Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts 🙂
Next chapter, next Thursday, same time.