Often the object of desire, when desire is transformed into hope, becomes more real than reality itself.
The shift in the roar of the jet engines marked the end of their seventeen-hour journey across oceans, continents and time. Khushi could sense a collective heave of sigh that seemed to echo through the cabin. There was a sense of urgency among the cabin crew, with their practiced maneuvers around impatient bodies and cramped aisles.
This was the moment that most travelers seemed to wait for, the moment that often began with the idea of going to or returning from a place,… a destination. That moment when the destination seemed to be within hand’s reach when breaths were bated as necks craned to look down the cold fogged windows from the clouds to see the lights of their favored lands.
Mira’s cold palms clutched her mother’s and Patti’s as the plane began its descent. She was not a fan of take-offs and landings. She used to climb into NK’s lap and burrow into him, and NK would wrap his arms tightly around her as if to absorb her into himself. It was her favorite sight, two heads of curls huddled together, their curls seemed to twine together. But now she was a few years older and much taller. Even though Khushi offered to hold her in her lap, she insisted on just holding her mother’s and Patti’s hands. Her eyes softened as they ran over Mira’s rumpled curls and her sleep tired eyes behind her glasses. There were no dimples in sight at the moment. Khushi knew that Mira was tired and exhausted, but willing to put up with the discomfort for just a little longer. She removed the hand rest between their seats and pulled her child into her arms.
“It’s alright. Just lean on mommy with your seat belt.”
Mira snuggled into Khushi’s arms and promptly fell asleep. Manorama saw the exchange with a smile of her own. It was a long journey for both of them she realized, not just in terms of the distance they traveled, but that they traveled without him. Her heart warmed at the sight of the young mother cradling her child in her arms.
After what seemed like eons, the plane touched down and slowly taxied to the bay. Within minutes, muted lights brightened in the cabin and the roar of activity replaced the quiet somnolence. Passengers who were patient for hours on end, had little of it left and were lined up in aisles to disembark. Khushi sported a sardonic smile at her fellow travelers opting to rush to the closed doors while she waited. She knew that it was going to be a while before the doors were opened and the entire slew of passengers got to get out of the closed confines of their plane cabin.
“Is Nandu coming to the airport, Khushi? It is too late for her. Poor thing. I asked her to send a driver and not show up.” Manorama and Nandini Buaji had come to be more than just relatives, especially after NK’s father died. Both women, although living in different parts of India, became anchors for each other, called each other often, visited each other frequently and even traveled together. It appeared that widowhood helped form a close sisterhood for these two, offering quiet companionship and surprisingly, freedom and autonomy as well.
“No Amma. She insisted on coming. So, she is probably here waiting.”
“Did you give your friend our flight details like he asked?” Manorama’s brow furrowed briefly and she shook her head, “I don’t remember his name. Have you heard from him? Is he going to be here as well?”
Khushi was surprised that Manorama remembered her conversation with Arnav about their travel. But then, she shouldn’t be surprised, she realized. Both NK and Manorama had incredible abilities to recall. Her skin felt suddenly tight on her bones, a discomfort at the uneasy juxtaposition of NK and Arnav, in thought. She could feel a warmth rise from her core to the tips of her ears and forehead. She grit her teeth to maintain her eye contact with Manorama.
“Yes, I did send him our flight details and he offered to pick up Buaji and then pick us up. But I asked him to not bother coming to the airport.”
She did send him her flight details, after waging an emotional war with her heart and mind.
“It’s just a kind and a friendly gesture Khushi, why are you making more out of it than it really is?” Lavanya had challenged her, “Unless it is more than what it is.”
Fair enough, she thought. Instead of texting him, she quickly emailed him her itinerary. Surprised to not hear from him, she wondered if she had sent it to the wrong person.
It was when Arnav texted her and asked if her flight details were a state secret that she realized that he was expecting her to text, not email him.
If your flight details are indeed a state secret, then you leave me no choice but to commit all kinds of crimes to acquire it. 🙂
Crimes? Although the temptation is quite strong, I would hate to see a friend in hot water. Sadly it isn’t a state secret, and neither are my email messages. I sent you my itinerary, a couple of days ago. Check your email. 🙂
Khushi remembered that it was late at night, the night before her travel. She should have been in bed, asleep. But as always sleep was elusive. So, she waited for him to respond, although, she rationalized, waiting was just accidental if one was waiting for sleep. The words on the book she held in her hands blurred themselves, unable to hold her attention. It wasn’t long before her phone vibrated.
Ah email, of course! Sorry, didn’t think of it. Looking forward to seeing you again Khushi. Safe travels.
Please don’t bother to come to the airport so late in the night. In fact, I am asking Buaji to send our regular driver with the car that we rent. We can make our way home without inconveniencing everyone.
There was silence from his end for a while. She was sure he wasn’t going to respond. She tried to go back to the book that she was struggling to read.
No way I am waiting another ten years. See you soon.
Her heart plunged to her stomach reading that cryptic sentence and then started to race.
What did he mean by that?
Khushi was brought out of her reverie when Manorama shook her shoulder to point to the now empty aisle for them. She woke Mira gently and gathered their carry-ons along with Mira’s violin. Her little one had decided to bring her violin so she could continue playing while on vacation. She signed internally, like father, like daughter. Their music followed them wherever they went.
It was another good two hours before Khushi, Mira and Manorama walked towards the exit doors of the airport. Khushi could see eager eyes and broad smiles on the faces of people waiting to see their loved ones. Khushi’s eyes scanned for Buaji when Mira plaintively asked, “Mommy, can you see Bua-Patti? Is she here? I want to go home, I am really tired Mommy.”
“I am looking honey. Just a few more minutes and then we will be in the car. Can you hold on for just a little longer?”
Mira nodded her head and held on to Manorama’s hand. Khushi looked at her mother-in-law, whose gait seemed to shift to a small limp, favoring her right knee. These long flights seemed to take a bigger toll on her every time she traveled, especially with her arthritis.
“Amma, do you need a wheelchair?” She quickly scanned the large lobby of the airport and said, “Amma, why don’t you sit down with Mira and stay with the luggage, let me find Buaji and will come back to get you.”
Manorama gave Khushi a grateful look for being so sensitive to her needs. Who said blood was thicker than water? She is my daughter, through and through. “It is alright Chellam, if you go out of this lobby, they may not let you back in. I can walk. Let’s find Nandu.”
Now all three of them looked, scanning the crowds to find this elusive Buaji.
But Khushi’s eyes were surreptitiously seeking a tall figure in the midst of the crowd. What was going on with her? He was being polite at the very least and friendly at the most. There was no way he was going to show up at the airport. She quietly reprimanded herself for harboring fancy hopes. That was that. But her eyes seemed to have a will of their own, moving, searching the crowd.
“Didi! Didi! Khushi-Didi!”
Two lean arms took over the luggage cart she was pushing. It was a diminutive man, shorter than Khushi, probably in his late twenties. Khushi expected to see their Buaji’s usual driver, Ahmed-Bhai, but this was certainly not Ahmed Bhai, grabbing her cart from her.
“Namaste Khushi-didi” he started, turned towards Manorama and repeated his greeting, “Namaste Auntiji. I am Gangadhar, Raizada-house driver. Arnav Bhai sent me to pick you up from the airport.” He made a quick namaste with his hands and resumed ownership of the cart. “Come this way please. Your Buaji is waiting in the car. I didn’t want her to stand, so I was waiting for you here.”
He didn’t come to the airport after all.
Khushi’s eyes remained fixed on Gangadhar as she let the knowledge of Arnav’s absence sink keenly into her. Disappointment sliced through Khushi so fiercely that she found herself closing her eyes tightly. It knocked the wind out of her body. It took her a few moments to calm herself down.
She was shocked that there was a small part of her that had hoped and wanted to see him at the airport. She was so sure that she had walled herself within reason and prudence that his presence at the airport was not necessary.
Lost in her own thought, she felt a tug on her wrist. Mira pointed to Gangadhar walking ahead of them with their cart.
The man simply took over. Khushi and Manorama were left standing, gaping at the speed with which Gangadhar maneuvered them around crowds, navigating their way past haphazardly parked carts, people hugging, and even small potholes. Within minutes he had them walking briskly towards a white SUV parked with Buaji waving her arms with great joy.
Moving like automatons, Khushi and Manorama looked at each other as if to check their sense of reality was still intact. But when they saw Buaji rushing towards them, Gangadhar was momentarily forgotten.
“Oh my dear Mano!” Buaji grabbed Manorama’s wrists and pulled her slight body into a hug. She exclaimed her name yet again, paying no attention to Manorama’s reciprocal greeting.
In the next breath she cried, “Oh! My dear darling Bacchi!” Buaji’s ample arms pulled Khushi into Buaji’s ample bosom. Being a few inches taller than Buaji, Khushi had to bend down to be in that embrace. The discomfort of the hug was insignificant to Khushi as she found a home in Buaji’s arms. Fat tears rolled down on Buaji’s face, as she gathered her niece into her arms. This was Khushi’s first trip since NK’s passing and although Buaji was in constant touch with Khushi and Mira via Skype, it wasn’t quite the same as having the child in her arms. Buaji was wont to let Khushi go, sniffling loudly into Khushi’s bent neck.
Manorama’s eyes moistened in empathy, but she noticed that Mira’s patience with the travel was wearing thin. She saw that Gangadhar was gently coaxing the little girl into the SUV, along with her violin case which she refused to part with.
Manorama then moved closer to Khushi and Nandini and said, “I think we should get into the car before we get a parking ticket. Let us get going Nandu.”
Manorama’s coaxing got Nandini to let Khushi out of her arms, but she held on to her wrist as they ambled towards the SUV.
There were too many emotions coursing through Khushi that she found herself letting go, of having to manage the luggage, the child and all that came with being the one holding it all together. This was India and she was certain that her Amma and Buaji were more than capable of taking her and Mira home. She settled in the back seat with Manorama and with Mira in the middle while Gangadhar helped Buaji into the front passenger seat.
It was almost dawn when the SUV coasted along the now near-empty Delhi roads towards Buaji’s house in Lakshmi Nagar. The dark skies infused with street-light-orange seemed to give way to light blue in the visible city horizon. The last half hour of her travel felt surreal for Khushi as she leaned back on the plush leather headrest.
He did not show up, but he sent his driver? And Gangadhar picked up Buaji?
Khushi realized that there were so many small kindnesses wrapped into these two statements. She was grateful, she felt grateful. But she had specifically asked him not to bother. She informed him that Buaji organized these trips to and from the airport every time they traveled. But Arnav had insisted on her travel itinerary, said something about not wanting to wait another ten years. Then he sent his driver. She shook her head silently, unsure if she knew what was going on with her and with him and with them together.
As Buaji and Mira reacquainted themselves with the help of Manorama, Khushi looked out of the window, not really paying any attention to the passing scenery.
“Khushi-Didi, here is a packet that Arnav Bhaiya asked me to give to you.” Gangadhar handed a small brown package to her turning partially to reach her in the back seat. “He had to go to the hospital, there was an emergency.”
“Is that from your friend, ASR? Mommy? Is he in the hospital?” Mira asked looking concerned in spite of her exhaustion.
Before Khushi could respond, Gangadhar piped in, “Oh no no! Arnav Bhai is a doctor. He had to go to the hospital to take care of someone.” Looking onto his rearview mirror, Gangadhar reassured Mira. With a nod, Mira slid against Khushi and closed her eyes. But in the next second, she opened her eyes and said, “What is in that packet Mommy?” Her eyes moved from the packet to her mother’s face. “Aren’t you going to open it?”
Khushi quickly opened the package, aware that there were three sets of curious eyes watching her.
It was a cell phone with a note stuck to it.
Why would Arnav give her a cell phone? She had a phone with her. What is going on here? He sent a car, and now he was giving her a cell phone?
Khushi stared at the cell phone with a complete lack of comprehension. Before she could form another thought, Buaji chimed, “Oh what a lovely and thoughtful gift. I wondered why Arnav asked me about your cell phone details while you were in India.” Buaji shifted in her seat, now facing the rear, said, “You know, Mano, he is such a nice young man. He called me this morning to ask for my address, reassured me that I didn’t have to rent a car for tonight.” Now she turned to Khushi and asked, “Was he your friend when you were in Delhi? I don’t think you mentioned him to me ever.”
“Mommy, what is on that note?” Mira reminded everyone of the note that lay inside the box unread.
Khushi answered Buaji’s question first. “Remember Akash, Buaji? My friend from IIT? Arnav Singh Raizada is Akash’s cousin.” Buaji nodded slowly, her memory slowly filtering into her face. “He visited us when he came to the US recently.” Now Khushi looked at Manorama as if to seek approval of this memory. Manorama gave her a small smile and nodded her agreement to Nandini.
“What does that note say Mommy? The note?” Mira’s curiosity was unrelenting, her tone short of patience.
Khushi made a point of looking and reading the note, even though she didn’t need to. She read it out loud for the entire group.
“I am not sure if your phone from the US works here. I am sure you could have gotten one yourself, but here is one for you. Talk to you soon – A”
She looked up at everyone and said, “That’s what the note says.”
Buaji nodded benignly while Manorama gave Khushi an inscrutable look. Mira lost her interest in the conversation and slid towards Khushi to lean.
Khushi switched the phone on without another thought. She decided that she would deal with the phone and the folks around the phone later. As soon as the phone came on, Khushi noticed an unread text message.
This phone is not a big deal, Khushi, so I hope you will not make it as one. 🙂 I didn’t want to be too presumptuous, so I didn’t add my number to your contacts. But you have mine now. I will leave it up to you to decide. This phone number is yours and your call-information is also solely yours. The bills are yours as well. 🙂
Khushi tried to hide a small smile that hovered over her lips.
He knew her. Even after all these years.
It was an uncomfortable place to be; that he knew her and that she was aware of his knowledge. There was an intimacy to this thought and Khushi wasn’t sure if she was comfortable with that intimacy.
A deep sigh slipped through her as she placed the phone back in the box and leaned back in her seat. Exhaustion crept over her body and mind like darkness after twilight. Her mind was comfortably numb, a pause button pressed to her thoughts and the roiling emotions beneath. A cool breeze blew through the open window, punctuated by an occasional horn sounded by trucks zipping past precariously.
It would be good to be back in Buaji’s house. It was her home for a decade and then some. Locked up memories will not remain remanded, but will demand freedom soon, she knew. But not for a little while longer. Another sigh found its way out of her.
Arnav walked out of the OR, pulling his surgical cap off and tossing it in the sterilization bin, ready to meet with the anxious family members. Today he had some good news to give the family. His patient will recover, he was sure, if no other complications set in. With a practiced kind smile on his face, he walked up to the family to share the news of their relative’s hopeful prognosis.
Leaving behind a happy family to experience their joy and relief at the good news he gave them, he walked into his office to retrieve his watch and his wallet from his desk. But then, he knew that there were occasions when he had lost his patient and had to deliver the saddest news to that patient’s family.
Not all come through as successfully as this patient did. Immediately, he was reminded of Mira’s tear-filled eyes and her need for solace when she leaned into his arms. He was reminded of Khushi’s red rimmed eyes, with her tears coursing down her face in that restaurant. As a physician he realized that he was not privy to the events that unfolded with the family members, after his delivery of bad news. While he was aware of it, he felt it more keenly when he saw it in the eyes of that little girl with hazel eyes. He sighed quietly.
Dawn was making its presence felt in the sky with the pink streaks fading into the bright blues and yellows alongside the cacophony of vehicles on the roads making their presence known, or more appropriately, heard. The supposedly silent zone around the hospital was not entirely immune to the loud blaring of horns on the street. Arnav checked his watch again, this time noting that it was almost seven thirty in the morning. He needed to get home and check on Mohan.
They must be sleeping in Buaji’s house. They were in the same country and same city as he was. They were in the same time zone finally damn it!
The knowledge thrilled him. He had to acknowledge that thought that had been swirling in his mind for a while now. He was not able to go to the airport as he wished. Perhaps this was better for all of them. It would have been awkward for her. Her mother-in-law was traveling with them. He knew that she would probably be upset with him about the cell phone he sent her.
Will she text?
History proved that she would take her own sweet time to text him. His impatience could not be contained any more.
Should he call her?
What would be the reason for his call? He shook his head silently. He turned into a blithering idiot in seconds where she was concerned. Sporting a sardonic smile, he laughed at himself. She will call, no doubt at all, he knew that. He will wait for her call like he had been doing the last few weeks, he decided.
A quick note:
I apologize for this long silence my dear friends.
Too many reasons, too much to tell.
Too much travel as well.
I am trying to write when I can
So, bear with me and my silence?
This story will be written
This story will be told
I hope you will read it
And walk with me till the end. ❤