Longing is like the Seed
That wrestles in the Ground
Believing if it intercede
It shall at length be found
It was a long day and turning out to be longer than it should for Arnav Singh Raizada. Navigating through New Delhi’s traffic at seven in the evening was a true test of his nerves and patience. He wanted to be home, in his shower, scrubbing off the disinfectant odor that he carried with him post surgery. But he knew that it would take him another forty five minutes to reach home. Containing his sigh he reached for his cell phone without much thought and checked his messages.
No new message.
Disappointment sliced through catching him by surprise. He frowned at the phone and tossed it on to the passenger seat next to him. He wasn’t expecting a message from anyone, was he? Why was he impelled to check?
It was more than a week since he returned to India.
It was more than a week since he texted her that he had reached home.
But she had not texted him back.
Shifting gear quickly, he inched forward while his mind raced back to the last time he saw her. It was a bittersweet meeting after a decade. It was awkward for her, he could tell. It was awkward for him too. He hoped he was successful at hiding it from her. They parted with a tentative promise to meet again. He remembered her text promising him to a lunch or a dinner date during her vacation in Delhi. A reluctant smile tugged at his lips. But Khushi had not responded to him since then.
There was no text from her.
A frown that had temporarily taken leave from his brow returned with ferocity. Should he call her or text her again? He had written so many messages only to delete them at the very last moment. He considered calling Akash to check on Khushi, but stopped himself again. How could he explain himself to his cousin? What reason could he give Akash, when he had never, ever, mentioned Khushi to him? Lifting his free hand to his brow, he rubbed his forehead absently. For the first time, in a long time in his life, Arnav Singh Raizada found himself unable to do much about the situation he found himself in. Shaking his head in frustration, he willed the traffic in front of him to part and move so he could go home, go back to his sanctuary.
Another forty minutes and some very skillful driving later, he pulled into the driveway of Shantivan. It was actually his Nani’s home that he called his own these days. After his divorce from Maya, he needed a proper place that was a home for a baby and it made sense to move back to Shantivan. His Nani had insisted that she was too lonely, living in the mansion all by herself, and invited Arnav and Mohan to live with her. She argued that it made sense that Arnav move in with her so all three of them could stay together. Sumitra Singh Raizada was relieved when Arnav accepted her invitation. The silent mansion will experience some sound and merriment yet again she said. Shantivan witnessed all the young Raizadas grow up and move out to their homes.
Forcing himself out of his reverie, he got out of his car and checked his phone for messages.
Cursing softly under his breath, he pocketed his phone and strode towards his house.
“Papa! Papa!! It’s Tuesday but Mama is here. It’s not Saturday, it is Tuesday today but Mama is here.” Two chubby hands grabbed Arnav’s legs and a smile broke on Arnav’s face. Dropping his bag to the floor he lifted his son into his arms and buried his face in his curly hair. He could sense his son’s resistance, pulling away. Kissing his head softly, Arnav asked, “Mama is here today? Is it a surprise then?”
“Surprise?” Mohan’s eyes widened at the idea, his gaze never shifting from the Lego plane he carried in his hand. Surprise was so much better than unexpected or unpredicted for this six year old.
Gently squeezing his son, Arnav smiled and repeated, “Yes. Surprise it is.” Setting him down, he asked, “Should we go inside and say hello to Mama?” Mohan nodded with his head bent.
Striding quickly into the house, Arnav found his Nani and Maya deep in conversation in their living room. Sumitra Raizada was a regal woman who carried herself with poise and dignity. While age marked her with grace, life did not tread lightly on her. Her heart bore her scars secretly but her eyes revealed her wounds, albeit reluctantly. With her silver hair wound in a bun and with pearls around her neck and on her ears, Sumitra Raizada was a beautiful woman.
Arnav’s footsteps interrupted the two women as they turned to look at him, one with a wide smile and another with a gentle speculative look. Maya walked quickly to Arnav and gave him a quick hug, her face exuding warmth as she looked up at her ex-husband. He was a gentle giant to her five-foot-frame towering over her easily by a foot and then some. She used to joke that they made a Manhattan skyline profile when they stood next to each other.
Arnav and Maya were friends first, two medical students struggling through their years of education. The love that she thought burned initially morphed into a stronger friendship between the two of them after their amicable divorce. This friendship surprised everyone, including Naniji. Kailash, her husband, was more accepting of this friendship, though he claimed to not fully understand it.
Maya was a neurosurgeon at the same hospital that Arnav practiced, opting to specialize in clinical research more than patient care, although her research was often in addition to patient care. What this meant was that Maya was often overworked and exhausted with little or no time for anything else. So, when it was time to decide on Mohan’s care after their divorce it was a foregone conclusion that Arnav would be the primary caregiver for their son. While Maya knew that it was the most pragmatic decision she had taken, it was not an easy one on her heart. Guilt and recriminations took residence in her as she lived her decision. Was she a poor mother? Did she place her career above her own child? There were nights when these demons rose to prominence; but then there were evenings like this one when her insecurities were allayed by the camaraderie she shared with Arnav as a parent. He never, not once, made her feel inadequate as a mother to Mohan nor did he pass judgment on her choices. For that and for so much more that this gentle giant brought to her life, Maya was grateful.
Unwinding her arms from his middle, Maya looked up at Arnav’s face. His eyes spoke of his exhaustion and something else, something that seemed to bother him. But there was a small smile on his face and she knew that it was for her. Mohan was hovering behind his legs, trying to get Arnav to carry him again.
“What brings you here on a Tuesday? And where is Kailash?” Arnav asked as he lifted Mohan into his arms. Raising her hand to ruffle her son’s hair, Maya replied, “Kailash is on call tonight and is at home. I was hoping to catch you at the hospital today, but you were so busy. I thought I’ll stop by and catch up with you. And you can drop me home later?” Arnav nodded his head tiredly.
Twinkling her eyes at her son, she asked, “Let’s get Papa to change out of his work clothes, yes? Want to play Legos with Mama?” She knew that her bait would work when Mohan nodded his head excitedly. Exchanging a knowing-parent look with Arnav, she led her son towards Mohan’s Legos. From the corner of her eye she found Arnav checking his phone and shaking his head. She was going to talk him soon she promised herself.
Feeling almost human after a hot shower, Arnav walked quickly across the first floor towards the stairs. Midway through his strides he noticed that he had left his cell phone in his room. He should go back to retrieve it, he was sure he should. What if there was a message? He shook his head at the urgency that ran through him, a visceral experience of expectation soon followed by disappointment when there was no message. He stopped, closed his eyes and took a deep breath as if coming to a decision, and walked purposefully away from his bedroom and his cell phone. He was not going to wait for any message any more.
The dining room was cackling with laughter and sounds of cutlery as if there was a rowdy party in progress. Arnav walked slowly towards the noise and stopped short of the sight in front of him. Maya had two spoons stuck on each end of her mouth and was grunting and laughing intermittently to a solemn six year old who refused to acknowledge his mother’s crazy antics. At the head of the table was his Nani, with a look of tolerant bemusement that was particularly reserved for Maya. He could tell that Maya was trying to get Mohan to join her. But his six year old maintained his solemnity through his dinner.
With his eyes still focused on his plate, Mohan reported, “Mama is trying to be a walrus. But she is not a walrus. She is a human.” Unfazed by her son’s apparent lack of interest in her antics, Maya continued to grunt at Arnav, waving her head from side to side with glee.
“You really need to stop trying to get him to do these things, Maya. He isn’t going to join you, you know that.” Arnav chuckled as he sat next to Mohan. “But if it makes you feel any better, you are the best walrus that I know of. Isn’t she, Mohan?” Arnav now addressed Mohan who continued to eat his meal with a single-mindedness unusual for a six-year-old. His parathas were sliced into perfect squares, eight in total. There was a fork in one hand, a spoon laid out on the side next to the cup of yoghurt. Not in the cup, but next to it.
“Uh huh. She is not a walrus, she is a human. Mama is a human. Humans are not walrus.” murmured Mohan, darting his glance from Arnav to Maya. He was a solemn child, quite unlike Maya, who seemed to have a personality that was electric with energy and glee. Maya gave a sheepish smile to Arnav, shrugged and said, “There is a child in this house and if it has to be me, then so be it.”
The rest of the dinner continued with conversations between Maya and Arnav about their day in surgery and their cases while Sumitra looked on contentedly around her table. Her eyes rested on Maya, a diminutive five-foot figure with a personality that extended beyond her physical frame. Her curly hair pulled into a firm ponytail and her eye glasses sliding down her small nose, she looked like an overgrown child herself. Sumitra had grown fond of Maya in the years she had gotten to know her and was shocked when Arnav and Maya announced their divorce. What confounded Sumitra even more was that this couple had gotten closer to each other even after their divorce. She didn’t understand their friendship, and certainly didn’t understand how Arnav and Kailash could be civil with each other. Whatever happened to bitterness and acrimony that often accompanied a divorce?
It was Nani’s turn to read a story to Mohan, a nightly ritual that the little one insisted on maintaining under all circumstances. As the youngest member of the family dragged the oldest to his room, Maya and Arnav settled in their usual chairs in the balcony overlooking the small rose garden that Sumitra tended with great care. Maya fished her phone to check for messages, her fingers flying as she typed her messages. Arnav’s mind raced back to his own phone that sat by his bedside table. Will there be a message from her? Should he check?
It was that look again in his eyes that caught Maya’s attention, a look that seemed to settle somewhere between lost and a restless yearning. She caught him at an unguarded moment, when his defenses were down. In any other moment, Arnav Singh Raizada was a master at masking his vulnerabilities.
“A busy day?” Maya began. She knew better than to get straight to the point with Arnav. While he faithfully followed the rule of no prevarications with others, the same didn’t work when it came to him.
“Yes! Two angioplasties scheduled. The first went well, but the second got complicated. We had to deal with cardiac arrest in the middle of the procedure. The patient is okay now, but for a while, it looked bad.” That explained his exhaustion, thought Maya. She nodded in sympathy.
“Yours?” echoed Arnav.
“Not as eventful as yours. My trials are going to begin soon. We were given the ok yesterday. We are already three weeks behind in our cycle.” Maya’s specialty lay in Alzheimer’s disease, and it was a subject that was close to her heart. But the research trials also meant that she was going to be on call when she wasn’t in the hospital. Arnav knew and understood the pressure that Maya lived with constantly, pressure to show positive results to her funding agencies.
“But I don’t want to talk about work. Let’s talk about your trip, Arnav” Maya steered the conversation with a smile.
Raising a quizzical brow, “It was quite good, very fruitful” he replied. In more ways than one. He looked away from Maya’s persistent gaze. It was a beautiful night, the skies replete with New Delhi’s city lights and a few twinkling stars that managed to peek through.
“Oh, are you playing coy Raizada? I want all the details, tell me everything that happened and all the people you met. Come on!” Swatting at his arm for emphasis, Maya pulled her chair closer to Arnav’s and opened her eyes wide.
“There really isn’t much to tell” he began, but Maya’s determined look meant that she will doggedly pursue this interrogation. Heaving a sigh in resignation, Arnav continued, “Well, the first two days of the conference were really interesting and quite good actually. There were really good research findings, which I think will interest you.” Maya nodded as if to ask him to continue. “I was invited to their regional conference in Denver, sometime next year?” He wasn’t sure if it would be worth his time, but there were reasons to go back to the US that weren’t there when he was invited. His heart quickened at the thought, but he squelched it quickly. “They wanted me to lead a panel discussion on new grafting techniques.” With a shrug, he paused and looked at Maya to see if she was satisfied with the degree of detail he was providing her.
“Well, on the third day, I skipped the conference dinner banquet and spent the evening with Akash and Pallavi. Did you know that Pallavi is pregnant with their first baby? She is in her third trimester now.”
Maya shook her head and asked, “How is she?”
“Good. Happy. They both seem really happy with each other. Her parents live right by them and help out a lot. And Akash has good friends there. They seem happy with each other.” Arnav paused for a moment, seemingly lost in thought. His face softened and a small smile touched his lips.
“And?” Maya laid her hand on his arm forcing him to face her. Something must have happened to Arnav when he was in the US, thought Maya. He was not a daydreamer by any means. But his occasional jaunts into his thoughts were quite telling indeed.
“What? Nothing, absolutely nothing.” Arnav shook his head to add emphasis to his denial. When Maya drew her skeptical gaze at him, Arnav turned wistful and said, “I wish there was something to tell Maya.” He shook his head, “There really isn’t anything to tell.”
“Oh, yes, there was a reunion party sort of thing with my cardiology buddies. Remember Stokes and Gabriella?” When Maya gave a questioning look, “Gabriella? The one who dumped that ice bucket on Stokes when he asked her out on a date in front of the whole class?” Maya now nodded her head in remembrance. “Well,” he continued, “Stokes and Gabriella got married and have four children now! Two sets of twins.” He finished with a flourish. Arnav and Maya looked at each other with a grin. Yes, that ice bucket didn’t quite work the way Gabriella wanted it to.
“You didn’t meet Akash’s friends then? Doesn’t Lavanya live there now?” Maya asked.
“No, I stayed with Akash, but didn’t meet Lavanya. But I did get to meet one of his other friends. Actually the wife of one of his friends.” Arnav leaned forward and clasped his palms together. He sighed and said, “NK.” He met Maya’s glance briefly but looked away as he continued. “Naren Krishnan was one of Akash’s best friends from Delhi. He passed away a couple of years ago, very suddenly. It was sudden cardiac arrest. He was only thirty five. Anyway, I met his wife and daughter.” He turned to look at Maya and continued, “I don’t think you know her. Khushi and her daughter Meera.” He leaned back in his chair with a sad look in his eyes.
There was a stillness to Maya as soon as he finished. “Khushi? Khushi… er… Wait, is it Khushi Gupta?” Maya asked.
Arnav turned, surprise etched on his face. “Yes. That is her name. How do you know her?”
“The Khushi?” Maya was relentless in her questioning. Her face had a comical look of surprise and comprehension at the same time, as if she couldn’t believe what she knew.
“What do you mean, the Khushi? I didn’t know that you knew her. How do you know her?” Arnav’s brow furrowed deeply as he continued to look steadily at Maya.
“I don’t know her, Arnav. I need you to confirm if she is the Khushi.” Maya countered. “You were the one who spoke of her, a very long time ago. Do you remember the time you got shot?”
When they were students in Boston, a few of their friends, Maya and Arnav walked from their dorms to the nearby convenience store. It was late at night, almost midnight. They were taking a break from their studying. After getting what they needed, everyone, except Arnav, left the store and waited outside. Just then a couple of high school kids ran into the store and pulled a gun at the store clerk to rob the cash. The hold-out went completely wrong very quickly and Arnav was caught in the crossfire between the store clerk and the two kids. A bullet hit Arnav’s shoulder just as the cops entered into the store.
“Yes” Arnav said rubbing his shoulder absently. “I do remember that. But what does that have to do with Khushi?” he asked perplexed.
“You were bleeding profusely and were down. You were passing out. Every time you came to, you would say that name, over and over. Khushi! Khushi Gupta!. No one knew who that was.” Maya looked at him squarely and said, “You kept saying that name the whole time you were in and out of consciousness, even in the hospital. But never anything else. Just that name. You obviously don’t remember? Do you?”
Arnav didn’t answer her immediately. His eyes stayed locked with Maya’s as if in a battle to recall something that he couldn’t believe happened. “I kept calling her name out?” he asked in disbelief. He took a deep breath and looked away. Seconds passed as silence stayed between both of them. He whipped his head back and asked Maya softly, “Why did you never tell me this before?”
It was Maya’s turn to look away quietly. She shrugged, but her actions belied her intent. It looked like she was opening doors to a past that dimmed the light in her eyes. It wasn’t a moment that she wanted to relive. He was so close to dying that evening.
Gathering her strength said, “I asked you many times, Arnav, many times. I didn’t know who this Khushi Gupta was. You never mentioned her before, ever. Not to anyone, and certainly not to me. And I thought we were best friends.” Raising her eyes, she looked steadily at Arnav. He could see a muscle move in her jaw, strain apparent on face. Albeit, she continued, “We didn’t know if she was someone significant,… a family? I wasn’t sure if you wanted us to inform that person. I asked you many times Arnav. I did. You never said anything except that name” She nodded emphatically.
“And then Akash came to the hospital and said that he would call your family. He took over. I stayed with you in the hospital. But Arnav, you were so out of it then, that I don’t think you even heard us. So, we chalked it up to delirium.” She shrugged and gave him a small crooked smile. “I don’t like to think about those days, you almost died.” She looked away from him, taking a long measured breath as if to relieve her of the pain that those memories still brought.
Leaning back in her chair, having regained her composure, Maya gave him a brilliant smile that noted her intent to doggedly pursue her line of inquiry. “So, tell me now, it is the Khushi that you met now, right?”
Arnav felt numb with shock. The sound of his own voice becoming soft in his head. He couldn’t sit anymore and he found himself leaning against the low parapet wall. What did that mean? He called out to Khushi when he was shot? He didn’t remember any of it. That was such a long time ago, wasn’t it? He felt Maya’s gaze on his face and her palm on his shoulder. He turned to look at his friend who had kept this piece of information to herself in all this time. What did that mean?
“Why didn’t you ask me about Khushi before today, Maya? Why did you never bring her up after that shooting?” It didn’t make any sense to Arnav, especially because right after that shooting his relationship with Maya transformed, changed from friendship to love. They married each other, not too long after that accident. That she would bring this up now, almost in passing, was bewildering for Arnav. They were married at one time, exchanged secrets between them, but had none between them he thought. He blinked quickly, wondering if he knew his wife, no, his ex-wife at all.
“It didn’t matter then, Arnav. You never mentioned that name before the shooting and you never said, not one thing, after you came out of your accident. So, I didn’t think much of it. Why is that important now?” She gave him another pointed look and said, “You still haven’t told me if this Khushi is that Khushi.”
Long moments passed in silence between Arnav and Maya. One waiting for the other to respond, while the other waiting for something that he didn’t quite know what yet. It was a long time ago and he felt like he carried the weight of more than one lifetime. Maybe it wasn’t all that important after all? Maybe it was time to reveal those secrets that he too had kept from Maya.
Turning his head to look at Maya, he said softly, yet firmly. “Yes it is. It is that Khushi I met now.” There, he said it.
“Come on, its late, let me drop you home before I get too tired to drive.” He rose from his chair and offered his hand to Maya to help her out of the chair.
“Wait! What did you say? Did you just say that you met that Khushi and that Khushi is the one from your past?” Maya yanked his hand back towards herself forcing Arnav to sit back in his chair with a thud.
“Arnav Singh Raizada! You and I are not moving from this chair until you spill all your beans.” Maya continued to mutter to herself.
It was uncanny, at that moment, she looked exactly like their son, Arnav thought. Or was it the other way around? He wasn’t sure. That frown and that pout. His heart tugged with intense affection for this pixie-woman with a brain to contend with. She was full of contradictions, and she was his good friend. But at this moment, she was fixated on his explanation. And from the look on her face, she wasn’t going to let this conversation go.
“Alright, what do you want to know?” He crossed his arms across his chest preparing himself for a battle.
Meeting his challenge with her own, Maya said, “Everything.”
Was he ready unlock his past? What would come out of it? Shouldn’t the past remain in the shadows of his memory?