You left me, sweet, two legacies, —
A legacy of love
A Heavenly Father would content,
Had He the offer of;
You left me boundaries of pain
Capacious as the sea,
Between eternity and time,
Your consciousness and me.
There was something otherworldly about flying, being suspended at thirty thousand feet in the air. Cocooned inside a metal bird with the constant roar of the engines provided her a surreal sense of security from the things that haunt while on the ground. Perhaps it was that physical distance that the plane provided from the grounding earth that made it possible for those elusive memories to percolate to the surface of her consciousness. It was dark inside the cabin and their flight was scheduled late at night from the flagship airport in Washington DC.
Khushi turned on her seat to look at the two seats next to her and smiled at the sight of her daughter teaching her mother-in-law how to operate the on-board entertainment system. For a soon to be nine-year-old, Mira was a patient teacher, helping her Patti figure out the buttons and touch screen. She was just like NK, a teacher through and through. In fact, she had many of his mannerisms – when she was deep in thought she pulled the curls near her temple as if to straighten them.
Khushi had a distinct memory of NK sitting in their living room reading chair with his head buried in a book that he held in his one hand, while the other pulled on his curly hairs by his left temple. She teased him often that he would have partial and preferential baldness, running her fingers through his curly hair.
“But you will still love me when I am bald. Won’t you?” asked NK pulling Khushi into his lap, the book now forgotten.
Smiling into his eyes, Khushi said, “Hmm… I may have to think about that.” She teased him. There was an answering smile on his face that brought to the fore his dimples that tempted Khushi to feel their depths with her fingers. Tracing his dimples she asked, “I thought you knew that I have a thing for bald men? Bald men are sexy NK.”
“Say my name… Naren… not NK, just Naren.” She could feel his stubble on the soft skin of her neck, just below her jaw.
“Naren” she whispered into his neck, placing small kisses on his Adam’s apple. “Let’s see if I can remember some of them… Yes…. Patrick Stewart to start with, most definitely Andre Agassi …” her voice now a mere whisper. All conversation fell aside when NK gently tilted her head upwards towards him before he slowly claimed her lips in a toe-curling kiss.
“Samuel Jackson’s name is definitely worth mentioning.” Khushi murmured against NK’s lips as she tried to continue, but all was forgotten when NK… no, Naren scooped her up in his arms and strode to their bedroom.
“Mommy! Are you sleeping already?” Mira’s voice piped up with her hands gently shaking her. Khushi didn’t realize that her eyes were closed. She responded automatically saying she wasn’t, clearing her throat while trying to control the roil of emotions coursing through her. A part of her was content, living in her memories that she felt resentful for being forced back into her seat.
Khushi forced a smile to her face and said, “I was just winding down after all that rush of getting onto the plane sweetheart.” Reaching over to check if Mira had her seat belt on, she continued, “If you want to sleep, we can move these hand rests up and you can stretch out on me and Patti.”
Khushi looked over Mira’s head to catch Manorama’s eye. But her mother-in-law was busy with the movie she was watching. But as soon as Mira stretched out, Manorama settled to sleep after switching her entertainment off.
The darkened cabin seemed to demand a quietude on the part of its passengers. All that was left now was the insistent roar of the engines that absolved any other sound that defied the induced somnolence.
The tiredness at the end of her day’s activities settled on her. She was grateful for Manorama’s presence, the last couple of days when the travel related frenzy reached its height. Between Mira’s travel vaccinations and packing and between making sure their mail was held and other loose ends tied there was not a moment to rest much less dwell on their ‘first trip back without NK.’ At the same time, every act by itself reminded her of his absence when she had to do them instead of him.
Khushi could recall all the platitudes she was offered as part of her widowhood – this too shall pass my dear… take one day at a time, my dear… nothing like a routine to set you back in life my dear… Try not to cry my dear; he wouldn’t want you to, now, would he? Time heals all wounds... Those platitudes were harder to tolerate right after NK had died. She recalled how angry she would get, how her rage would make her dig her nails in her palms, how she would just scream silently in her head that she hoped that her grief would never pass if it meant that she would forget him.
She never wanted to forget him. Never ever.
If she could, she would live in those moments behind her closed eyes, live for those moments when she would find him in her dreams, in her thought, locked in, firmly forever. Death and grief were not wounds that vanished with healing. They were unending holes that remained in her body and soul for as long as there was breath in her. Whoever thought that she could just move on never lived enough, never loved enough, never lost enough. The sharp resentment at the implied expectation that she must move on boiled through her as she tried to even her breath.
A brief jolt of turbulent air, jerking the aircraft, brought her back to her seat, she opened her eyes, checked Mira’s seat belt. Breathing deeply, Khushi closed her eyes to welcome the oblivion that sleep appeared to offer.
Yet sleep proved to be elusive. The turbulence of the plane found an echo in the churn of her grieving mind. Khushi found herself drifting between wakefulness and sleep, the in-between world where memories reigned free without judgment. She sought their transient pleasure much like an addict to a fix. Unfettered, her mind sought memories of their last trip to India when Mira was six years. At that time, little did she know that her next trip would be without him, her NK.
A sliver of a memory slipped to the forefront – both father and daughter poured over the safety card that the airline had provided. NK helped Mira understand how the jet engines worked that Mira completely forgot about her fear of flying.
But why do they have engines under the wings Appa?
Well, how else will this bird fly? It needs its wings powered. So, we have to put the engine where the power is needed most, under the wings. Do you want to learn how a plane flies?
Can I fly a plane when I get as big as you?
You can do anything you set your mind to darling.
Mira’s eyes grew round with wonder as she looked up into her father’s eyes. Hazel eyes met dark ones, but their expressions couldn’t be more similar. All things science and engineering were wondrous and sacred for NK. And he tried to bequeath his love for that knowledge to his young child.
NK had always been an explorer, loved to try new foods, new places. It was more of a desire to know more than anything else. He was a sincere student of life. He was unabashed in his curiosity, to know and to learn… And that curiosity took him all the way through to his doctoral degree and into his academic career as well. In just a few years of his teaching, he earned awards and accolades for his teaching. The hall where his memorial service was held was filled with people he met, colleagues, students, and friends.
There was so much she learnt about NK after his death. All those who assembled for him, at his funeral, sought her out to either to give her something they had written about him or had shared their feelings and sentiments about his teaching and research. She was so sure that she had their entire lifetime to learn about her husband. Now all she was left with were these snippets of memories, cards, and things that she was to hold.
He promised her old age, but he left her behind. Like everyone she knew and loved, he too left her.
The feel of a tear rolling down her cheek woke Khushi. She slipped her hand into Mira’s to hold her daughter’s in an attempt to reconnect with her NK. That feeling of being forsaken was a familiar devil. It lurked within her, dormant for the most part. NK had managed to allay those insecurities with his constancy, his enduring presence.
But here she was, alone again.
Feeling her mother’s palm in hers, Mira snuggled closer to Khushi, sliding and moving into her mother’s lap. Arms tightened around bodies and solace was exchanged without any restraint. Khushi knew that she was a survivor, she was sure that she will find the shore to this ocean of grief. Nuzzling her daughter’s hair, she rested her head back and closed her eyes again.
Naren Krishnan… NK to most, even to her, but Naren when it was just the two of them. He was first and foremost her best friend.
She lay curled up in her bed, hurting from the wound she had inflicted upon herself. She said no to him, refused to believe that there was any possibility of a future together with him. She wounded herself and wounded him. She knew that things like these never lasted. Relationships didn’t last, people never stayed. Abandonment was a constant, she was intimately familiar with it. That knowledge was her shadow. But he didn’t understand. He didn’t fight her demons. He didn’t know how and she didn’t know how to teach him. The image of his eyes reddened from her refusal and her rejection and his motorbike vanishing in a cloud of dust, making it impossible for her to breathe. But he didn’t put up a fight for her, for them. Instead, he acquiesced. She wanted this moment to be her last as she sobbed a breath.
Her bed creaked under the weight of another and she felt two arms pull her out of her comforter, unrelenting in their hold. She was in no position to see, much less talk to another person.
It was NK.
She resisted, tried to twist herself out of that hold, but he pulled her insistently towards himself and held her against himself. She would not allow herself these tears, she had no right to them. She brought this on herself, didn’t she? She brought it on him! She didn’t want NK to see her like this. She didn’t want anyone else to see her like this.
“Let me go” she whispered hoarsely. She couldn’t recognize her own voice. “I want to be alone. Please leave me alone.”
But he wouldn’t listen and didn’t leave her side. He stayed with her for God knows how long, putting himself at risk of being expelled from IIT. It was a women’s hostel after all and he stayed with her flouting all of those golden rules. He sat next to her silently, offering his arm first, then shoulder and finally his quiet stolid embrace. There were no strings attached to what he offered, no questions asked, no demands made for any answer. He was there. And no matter how many times she fell apart, he helped put her pieces back together.
Naren Krishnan, a friend who refused to let her give up, scaled every wall she put up and broke every restraint she threw his way. Without telling him everything, she told him all, dissuaded him from harboring anything romantic with her.
“I have nothing to offer you,” she said, looking down at their entwined fingers.
She turned her head away from him, unwilling to break his heart any more than she already had. She tried to pry his fingers from her own, but he tightened his grip.
“I don’t want anything you don’t have Khush” he countered, slowly pulling her into his embrace. She stayed with reluctance, but the warmth in his eyes made it impossible for her to maintain her distance. There was no demand in his arms. But she couldn’t lead him on.
“I am not in that frame of mind NK. I may never be.” She warned.
He just remained looking at her with his steadfast gaze, unwavering in his stand.
“I love you… All of you… This you..” He pointed to her pale unadorned face, slumped shoulders and broken spirit.
He had waited for her to heal while he did everything he could to heal her. Akash and Lavanya joined forces asking no questions, offering silence and support when she asked for nothing, but needed both. All four of them graduated and moved to the US to pursue their postgraduate degree. Lavanya and Khushi ended up in the same university while Akash and NK went to a different one.
She couldn’t take a chance, she couldn’t lose him too. If NK left her like the rest, she would lose her will to live.
That changed nothing for NK. He wooed her with consistent conviction. She couldn’t close her heart from his love anymore. She tried to broach her past with him, but he wanted none of it.
Firmly pulling her back into his arms, he said “Khush! Your present and every nanosecond of your future is what I want. I will never stop you from sharing your past with me. But please don’t feel compelled to tell me things. ”
She couldn’t believe that a person could be this selfless in their love. Wasn’t he even a little bit curious? She tried to tell him again.
“I was involved very briefly…”
He cut her off, tightening his arms around her. Her back was flush against his chest, his chin now resting on her head. “I know that Khush. I was there, remember.”
She turned towards him, looking up into his beautiful eyes, to seek his beautiful heart. Is he for real?
“Don’t you want to know what happened?”
He shook his head. “I don’t need to know what happened and with whom. You can tell me, only if you want to. Don’t tell me because you think you owe me. You don’t.”
She couldn’t stand it anymore. He deserved to receive all the love he was offering her at the very least, if not more. A streak of self-loathing sliced through her. She was taking advantage of him and he deserved to hear the truth from her. “I am not sure if I love you as you love me NK. I am not sure if I know how to love at all.” She rose from where she sat and walked away from him, creating distance once again.
She didn’t know how to, she was unsure of its permanence. She did know how to cope with life’s battles… Alone. That was her life’s lesson.
He sat right where he was, without moving. Perhaps he knew intuitively that she needed some space to hear what he had to say. He called out to her loudly and said, “You are here, with me. I love you. You know that. I will teach you to love me. I have enough love for the both of us Khush.”
And he opened his arms to her like he always did when he saw her.
How could she not respond? How could she not gravitate towards his endless love, his light, his dimpled smile, his generous heart?
A year later they were married. She became a part of his world, his family. She transferred to his university so they could live together as man and wife. Lavanya moved with her and all four friends reunited. That small dinky graduate apartment became their home filled with books, laughter, music, and passion. Yes, passion, a lot of it. NK… no…
Naren taught her how to love again…
What started with a tease and laughter quickly changed into something more. Khushi could see NK’s eyes darken, his dimpled smile dissolve. Unsure of this change, Khushi continued to smile tentatively and took a step back. With a quick tug of her wrist, NK pulled her back hard that she slammed into his chest. His hard body was a surprise to her.
But why now?
She thought she was familiar with him, his smell, his touch and the feel of that thin gold chain he always wore around his neck. This was her NK. Before she could find her answers, she felt his fingers curl around her neck pulling her with gentle insistence, drawing her face closer to his. She felt his fingers moving from her neck into her hair, threading them slowly over her hair and then her scalp as if he was cupping her head.
She felt her skin frizzle with something new, goosebumps bursting on her arms. Her eyelids growing heavier by the minute she raised her arms to his nape to caress his curls. With his thumb under her jaw, she found her face lifted and his breath on her brows and eyes. A soft warmth began to unfurl in her stomach, rising upwards and finally into her blood. He was going to kiss her, a sigh escaped her parted lips as she waited for his mouth to descend on hers.
“Open your eyes” he insisted gently rubbing his lips over hers. Her eyelids felt too heavy, she shook her head. “Look at me” he whispered. Pulling back when she desisted, “Look at me Khush, I want you to look at me.” The urgency in his voice lightened her lids. “I want to see you see me.” She slowly raised her lashes to meet his gaze. There was no remnant of mirth in his eyes. His eyes darker than the moonless sky and they were searching and seeking secrets in her own.
With their gazes locked, he met her mouth with his own and they kissed. Everything about that kiss felt new. Nothing was familiar. There was an insistent intensity to his lips, moving on hers, his tongue finding and mating with hers that seemed to demand her presence. She couldn’t stay on the sidelines anymore. She met him as an equal and kissed him back.
Hands and lips moved to discover and rediscover familiar bodies and known spaces. Yet every movement felt different. A new language was spoken between the two. Touch muted their thoughts and overrode doubt. Khushi felt the blanket on her bare back and her nails dragging mercilessly down on his.
When did they shed their clothes? Neither knew nor cared. Senses awakened to a symphony of an unrestrained show of faith in each other’s touch. Her body was an instrument for him to be fine-tuned. With desire laced with devotion, he brought her alive.
“Don’t close your eyes Khush, look at me.” He was her anchor in this tempest and she opened her reluctant eyes. “I love you” she whispered.
“Say my name.”
“I love you NK”
“No, my name” he insisted.
“Naren” she whispered. A bout of shyness spread warmth to her face as she found him devouring her with his eyes. “I love you Naren” she repeated as if it was a vow. She watched him catch his breath in his throat as he tried to swallow. “I love you Khush” he echoed. “I have always loved you… only you” he declared. Blinking against his blurred face, she freed the tears that had pooled at the corners of her eyes. Emotions swelled as passion ruled their breath and pulse while time stood still as a witness.
“Naren” His name became her guiding light as if it was a chant that gave her courage to traverse these unchartered waters. She whispered his name as they journeyed together. He matched her whispers with his own “Khush” as urgencies took precedence. Screens that held them back were torn down as hands, legs, and bodies danced to their desired melodies. It was as if there was no more doubt, no more distance between these two bodies and souls. Rising and falling to the cadence of their passions the two lovers finally found each other. Soon thereafter sleep claimed spent bodies and minds.
Back in their apartment, unpacking their picnic basket and blankets, Khushi and NK moved around, throwing furtive glances at each other when they thought the other was not looking at them. All at once, Khushi felt like a new bride, unsure of herself and her husband. She saw NK pick up the heavy basket in one heave and her eyes were drawn to the clean lines of his biceps, partly exposed under his short-sleeved T-shirt. The memory of her lips moving along those firm muscles quickened her breath.
This is NK, my best friend, for god’s sake she reminded herself, trying to walk past him.
“Hey,” NK said softly, snaking an arm around her waist pulling her to himself.
“Hi.” Blood rushed to her face, making her curse in her head. Shit, am I blushing?
“Aren’t you going to look at me Khush?” She heard a smile in that voice. She felt his fingers hook under her chin, trying to raise her face. She couldn’t look at him, she just couldn’t. Resisting his fingers, she shook her head.
“You are never going to look at me again Khush?” Now he was definitely teasing her.
With a determined breath, she looked up into his face to counter his dare. But there was no teasing in his eyes, just love, inviting her with his dimpled smile. Feeling at ease at once, she leaned into his arms and raised her fingers to trace his dimples. Not satisfied with her fingers, she quickly raised herself on her toes and dipped her tongue into his dimple, testing and tasting its depth.
Surprise registered on his face, soon followed by desire. NK quickly turned his face to catch her tongue with his own and soon they were in each other’s arms. Neither paid heed to the manner in which they divested each other’s clothes. Neither knew how they found themselves in their bed. Nothing mattered anymore except for their need for each other. “Naren” she whispered into his ears, biting his lobe as if his name carried a secret code to breaking her restrain. She punctuated every caress, every bite, every touch, with a “Naren” as if saying his name gave her the freedom to love him like he wanted her to love him like she wanted to.
Later, much later, Khushi woke to find herself tucked in the space between his chin and shoulder. She slowly rolled herself a little away from him so she could see his face while he slept. She marveled at how he slept with an abandon. Her eyes trailed alongside his eyes, his lashes and his lips.
He was her friend, he had always been her friend, but she saw him with new eyes today. He was her husband, yes, she knew that. Today he was her lover. A shiver ran through her. Her eyes lingered on the long column of his neck, rough with stubble, but bruised where her teeth met his skin. It seemed as if something changed between them in the last twelve hours. Easy comfort seemed to be replaced with something electric.
She made love to him today with no restraint, something she never did before. She cringed a little with shyness. He demanded her full presence with his lovemaking. She felt a reciprocal demand of her own, she desired him unequivocally. The thought brought a smile to her face.
And all that passion brought Mira into their world, barely a year after their marriage. He gave her everything she had, her Mira and her Amma. He had given her a family that she always sought without conscious thought. He had given her hope and courage, taught her to dare to love again. She had to live if only to hold to his legacy and his piece of soul – their daughter.
Khushi was grateful for these quiet moments, trysting with her Naren with no interruption.
But she was regrettably right after all. Naren Krishnan loved her like no other. But he left her, although not of his own choice. It was the inevitability of loss in her life, like a faithful shadow that never left her… it was always people that she loved that left…..
She opened her eyes and sought her mother-in-law two seats away. Manorama had Mira’s feet clasped in her hands. Both Mira and Manorama were fast asleep. A deep sigh rose through Khushi’s being. She will be okay. She was sure she will be. She has to be. With that thought she finally allowed herself to fall asleep. It was a long flight to New Delhi.