Some loves are lodge themselves in the tissue of being like mercury , pervading every synapse and sinew to remain there, sometimes dormant, sometimes tortuously restive, with a half-life that exceeds a lifetime.
Maria Popova, via @brainpicker, Feb 23, 2019
Lunch was a noisy affair with Buaji contributing the most to the decibels. It was probably what Mira and Khushi needed at the moment, especially after that rending exchange. Arnav could see Mira, completely under Buaji’s spell, watching and following her every gesture. There was a smile on her face and she was eating with a happy gusto too. He marveled at the resiliency of children.
What was it that made them that way?
Was it that their worldview rests on hope? A belief that things will work out in the end?
Or was it because they are more forgiving of what life seems to foist on them without any choice?
Perhaps she felt his gaze on her, Mira looked at Arnav and her smile deepened. Her dimples caused deep creases on her cheeks as she looked pointedly at Buaji and then returned to look at Arnav and slowly closed one eyelid behind her glasses.
Arnav’s eyes widened along with his smile that he tried to force down.
Did she just wink at him? And did she point at Buaji’s loud rendition of neighborhood politics?
There was decidedly an imp in that child he mused, biting his cheeks to keep his chuckle in.
In that very next second, he was acutely aware of Mohan’s indifference to Maya’s rendition of a walrus. He knew that Mohan had innate challenges with these things. At that very moment, the differences couldn’t have been more stark and the reality of his son’s condition hit home, sharp. Even though his analytical mind protested, his heart felt the loss of what he couldn’t have with his son, ever. But he quickly tempered his thoughts and sentiments. This was neither the time nor the place. Quelling a deep sigh, he bit down on his tongue hard enough to bring himself back to the dining table and schooled his face hoping his emotions were his secrets.
With Buaji dominating the conversation, there was no room for anyone else. Arnav noticed that Khushi didn’t say much in the way of conversation. In fact, she seemed to be lost in thought, shifting her glances between Mira and him with an absent minded smile on her face. He also noticed that Manorama seemed to be aware of Khushi’s state and occasionally placed her hand on Khushi’s shoulder reminding her to eat. Perhaps it was the jetlag.
Arnav, finding a gap in Buaji’s monologue, interjected a quick question hoping to draw Khushi. “What are your travel plans Khushi?”
It seemed as if the sound of her name in his voice broke through Khushi’s stupor. She turned to look at him and met his gaze, with a lazy blink of her heavy eyelids. He could sense her reluctance, but he held on. There was something to those hazel eyes; they made him feel like they were just the two of them, and no one else around. He waited for her to respond and noticed that everyone around the dining table were waiting with him.
In the next moment, she shook her head and cleared her throat, as if buying herself time to fully wake up.
“Your travel plans? You know, places you are going and for how long you stay…” He couldn’t resist teasing her, but her struggle was real. He asked gently. “Jet lag catching up with you?”
She shook her head once again and muttered, “Yes, I will probably end up sleeping if I let myself go now.”
“Travel plans?” Arnav softly reminded her again. “I know that you landed just last night. But I want to make sure you have some time to visit us at home.” He didn’t intend to foist this intivation on her so quickly, on the very day of her arrival. But there it was, escaping from his heart and leaping into their midst. He looked at all of them now, feeling alarmingly warm in his face, and hoping no one pick up on his reaction. Perhaps it was the unexplained familiarity with the people who weren’t supposed to feel so familiar. His eyes sought Khushi’s but she seemed to focus on her plate, avoiding him and all he could see was faint reddening of her neck and ears.
Manorama chimed in answer to his relief. “We would love to, Arnav. Of course we have to meet your son and your Nani.”
“Did you know Nandu, Arnav has a son? Let me see… Mohan, right?” She sought Arnav’s glance for confirmation.
Arnav nodded his head.
“We were planning on visiting a few places in and around Delhi first. She was too little when we…” There was a pause, a breath, a sobbing breath from one end and a silent gulp from the other end of the dining table. “That is, when NK and I took her to show her around. So we have to revisit those places first. And after that we will go to Chennai.” It was the longest she had spoken that morning. It was also the first time and the longest she had held his gaze as she spoke. It felt as if the mention of her late husband helped her sit straighter and engage with him. He smiled and nodded even though he didn’t really know where he was going with his conversation.
“We were thinking of going to Mathura first and then Agra.” There was a knowing smile exchanged between Manorama and Mira, who had been swinging her legs rhythmically, creaking her chair. Her cheeks had reddened from the summer heat and her curls bounced in sync with her creaking chair as she nodded knowingly.
“I wanted to know more about the story of my name.” She admitted shyly. “So, Patti and Bua-Patti said we have to go to Mathura and see the temple there. It is Krishna’s temple.” There was a deep furrow between her brows and she shook her head. “Actually…,” she drew a long breath in and said, “There are so many temples there. I get so confused. I have this book, ASR, that mommy gave me, and it says that there is a river…”
“Yamuna,” Manorama interjects almost seamlessly.
“… and yes, Patti. Thanks.” Mira turned swiftly from Manorama and continues, “that river is famous and it has so many temples around it. I believe that’s where Krishna was born. But it’s still a story, I think, but Patti and Bua-patti think it really happened. Anyway, my mommy gave me a book that my Appa used to read to me and I read a bit.” She shrugged.
Arnav couldn’t help but fall a bit more in love with this child. Her poor mouth couldn’t keep up with her intellect, thoughts running mile a minute. He swung his gaze from Mira to Khushi, who sat back with a smile on her face. He could see pride shining through.
“And…” Mira threw her little arms out for emphasis and concluded, “And the Taj Mahal is right there, close by. I can’t miss it, can I? Anyway, Mathura is for my name and Taj is for, you know, Taj!” Her eyes twinkled behind her glasses.
“Your name?” Arnav looked puzzled.
“The story of Mirabai, the poet? She sang songs and was a princess?” Mira’s raised eyebrows were hidden behind the fringe of her curls. “Patti told me all about her and I read about her in the book that my Appa gave.” Mira’s voice tapered off at the mention of her father. In the very next moment, Mira took a deep breath and continued. “But I want to see the place where she died.” Mira looked at her mother and said, “Sorta died, right mommy?”
“Where Mira became one with her Mohan.” It was Buaji who added the last detail.
“Died.” Mira shook her head resolutely at Buaji and assumed a stillness that ran contrary to her movements thus far. “She died Bua-patti. She was a human being and if you are a human being, you die.” Mira concluded with a deep frown on her face.
“If you are a mortal you die, darling.” Khushi corrected her. “Mortal means that you cannot live forever.”
“I know. My Appa was mortal and that’s why he died.”
A cold shiver ran down Arnav’s spine. It was the tone in which Mira stated, a neutral tone as if it was a statement of weather that day or a grocery list that needed attention. It was unnerving to listen to a conversation where death chimed in frequently with such persistent alacrity. It felt like a constant presence in their midst and speaking about it was as inevitable as breathing perhaps. But every time Mira spoke of loss or death there was a piercing pain in his ribs that stole his breath. That someone so young spoke of matters of death with such efficacy seemed like the universe had lost its laws of time and space.
“ASR! Your son’s name is Mohan and mine is Mira!”
The quick turn of Mira’s tone and energy pulled Arnav from his reverie. There it was, that yen for life in her ability to move between solemn and cheer. It never failed to catch him by surprise, this seemingly infinite flow of life and optimism from children, even though he had a familiarity to it, having a child of his own. Ah, but his own child was so very different from Mira. Even though he tried to not draw comparisons, his heart seemed to be bent on reminding him of what he could not have.
Returning to his reality, Arnav had to nod in agreement. He smiled and ruffled her hair, almost covering her head with his palm. “You know what that means, don’t you?” He asked Mira.
She shook her head, still under his palm. She giggled and said, “Your hand is heavy.”
“Sorry.” Arnav took his hand away and said, “I think it means that you two are going to be very good friends to begin with. Don’t you think?”
The answer seemed to satisfy Mira. She nodded with a smile and asked if she could be excused from the table. She was done with her lunch.
Mira’s departure seemed to set in motion the others to wrap up lunch. Much like how they worked together in Khushi’s home when he was visiting them there, Arnav joined the other three in clearing the table.
He was about to reach for his cup of water when Buaji placed her left hand on his shoulder and gave him a puzzled look.
She turned to look at Khushi and asked, “Khushi, why is it we never got to meet Arnav before today?”
A seemingly innocuous question stopped both Arnav and Khushi in their tracks. Their gazes met forcefully, awareness creeping between the two of them. He knew that Buaji was shifting her glance between the two of them and was waiting for an answer. He slowly raised one of his eyebrows imperceptibly to nudge Khushi into giving Buaji an answer.
Khushi’s eyes widened and she said, “Err.. Buaji, Arnav is Akash’s cousin. That’s how I know him. He studied in the US and … er …used to visit Akash at the hostel in IIT.” Khushi’s voice tapered off while her eyes moved between the two women, actively avoiding Arnav’s.
Buaji nodded her head, satisfied, and turned to Arnav and said, “Thank you for your help last night, it was very nice of you to send your Gangadhar to pick me up from here and take me to the airport.” She gave him a smile and continued, “Gangadhar is such a nice person, a god send.” Manorama and Buaji exchanged looks and nodded at each other, as if in agreement.
Manorama walked over to Arnav and took his hands into her own. She had to look quite a way up to his face and reminded him of her age and her fragility. “I am a little tired now, Arnav. I hope you don’t mind if I go and rest for a bit? I am sorry that I am abandoning you during your visit. But this jet lag is worse for those of us that are older than you sprightly people.”
“Of course. You must be tired after that long journey. I should get going and let you rest.” He looked around to travel worn faces, guilt rearing its head.
Manorama shook her head. “You stay for as long you want. I am just glad you are here.” He watched as Manorama exchanged a smile with Khushi. “I am going to rest a bit chellam.”Saying she slowly ambled away, favoring her right leg. Buaji followed right behind Manorama, leaving Arnav and Khushi to themselves.
It was just the two of them and all of a sudden all his fantasies of imagined conversations and exchanges stood at the threshold of possibilities. He could feel his breath quicken at the thought. But at the same time, there was a chasm of thirteen years between them, wide and visible and altogether insurmountable. Lives lived and in Khushi’s and Mira’s case, lives lost as well. It was a double edged, bittersweet knife, poised with painful potential of cleaving new paths and yet, tearing old vines for those very paths. What a strange place to be, a place lacking in comfort and continuance, a place that he thought would give him the things he had always craved came with such high cost?
The drag of wood on the floor snapped him back to his reality. It was Khushi, moving the dining room furniture to its place. She threw furtive glances at him as if she were waiting for him to start a conversation. He could sense her reserve but he could also see her curiosity peeking through her lashes. He waited for her to initiate and he was quite content to watch her, for now.
She cleared her throat and ventured slowly, “Arnav…” She stopped. There was a tangible awkwardness in her voice. He could tell it was creating an unease in her. He didn’t like that, he didn’t want to be the cause of her discomfort. He hoped she saw him as a friend at the very least, someone she could be comfortable with. If nothing else, this was a good place to start, he thought.
“Err… Arnav?” She looked like she was biting her smile away.
“Are you jet lagged too?” Her lips pulled singularly to one side as she smiled. “I thought we were the ones traveling across longitudes. Anyway, that cell phone..” She began.
“Now, don’t start. It was nothing…” He didn’t want to make a big deal out of it.
“I know. Thank you.” She stopped and smiled at him. “I just wanted to say thank you. That’s all.”
They exchanged a smile. There was a moment of silence that acknowledged their presence to each other. A glance exchanged. He could see the battle in her eyes – a battle between her defenses and her reserve. That awkwardness stood sentinel to the time that they needed to bridge. It was going to be a long journey, he knew that. But he was prepared, this time.
“Tired? You must be sleepy now and I should probably leave soon as well and let you sleep.”
“No. You don’t have to leave.” Khushi closed her eyes immediately, cringing. He could see her cheeks warm in response. “Er… I mean, I am jetlagged, but I am going to stay up for as long as I can and see if I can adjust to the times here.”
They were both seated in the small living room area. Khushi opting to sit in the single cushioned chair opposite Arnav. The afternoon Delhi heat was slowly seeping inside the apartment, slowing everything down in spite of the fact that the apartment was on the lower level and there were at least two more storeys above their flat. The fast whirring of the fan added to the low hum of activity and it seemed to put Khushi into a sleepy state. He could see her sinking slowly into her chair, but putting up a valiant fight to stay awake.
“Khushi?” Arnav’s low tone seemed to fight through her sleepy haze.
Khushi quickly straightened in her chair and said, “Yes, yes. I am awake, I am awake.” She stood up from her seat and said, “I think we should go out. If I stay home, I am going to fall asleep.” She looked around the apartment and said, “Let me see if Mira is awake, may be a walk in the sun will help.”
She threw a quick look at him and frowned, shaking her head walking away and he found himself alone in the small living room in the middle of a summer afternoon. His searching looks found a group of photographs on a wall. The arrangement of those photographs reminded him of Khushi’s kitchen when he visited her not a month ago. He got up and walked towards the wall, curious.
It was another wall of photographs, some in color, but most in black and white. They were candid pictures of Mira, mostly, but included photographs of other people as well. Many were of NK as well. They seemed to span a few years, he could tell from Mira’s pictures. There was one that his eye caught. A solemn looking girl in two braids, standing in between two adults. All three of them had their eyes crinkled against the sun. He leaned closer to peer through the glass that blurred the image. It was Khushi with, he presumed, her parents. Something about that photograph had him look unblinking until he could feel the dry prickling of his eyes.
“That’s me with my parents.” Khushi’s soft tone surprised him. He did not notice her walk into the room.
“I thought so.” He shifted his glance between her and the image. “It’s not very obvious though.” He looked back at the photograph, moving infinestimaly closer, as if the movement would bring the picture into sharp focus.
“What?” Khushi moved closer to the photograph.
“That.” He pointed to the picture. “That picture of you. How old were you?” He turned to find her closer than she had been. She was looking at the picture. He wanted to look away from her even as she looked up to catch him staring. He had been staring at her the whole morning. He held his breath, wondering if he should move.
“You don’t think that looks like me?” She turned her eyes. He could see the grey flecks in her eyes; he counted them in his head almost unconsciously. The breath that he had held in his chest now rose to his throat and he moved a step back at the same time she did. All at once, thirteen years worth of time and its distance sat in the space between them. He could gather his breath again and found relief and disappointment simultaneously.
In his mind’s eye, he kept casting and recasting that blurred image of her that he didn’t know he carried all these years. That fresh face with lean muscled body with long hair didn’t sit with the woman who stood next to him. She was the same, yet she wasn’t. She had grown into this person that he knew and did not know at the same time. It was as if shadows of their past cast darkness around the light and smudged his knowledge of who he thought she was.
He was staring at her, but he couldn’t help himself. Coming back to himself he pointed to the picture and said, “Mira looks nothing like you.”
A look of surprise flashed across her face, quickly followed by a frown. “What do you mean?”
“Sorry.” He apologized. “I didn’t mean that in any other way except to say that I am unable to see resemblance here.” He turned back to the photo of Khushi and mused, “Something about this…” and was surprised to hear her heave a big sigh.
There was a long silence between the two of them. “I can’t recognize that person in me.” If he had not been standing close to her, he would not have heard what she said. But he did. She was lost in thought too.
He nodded, “I think I understand what you mean. There are pictures of me and Anjali before the accident…I can’t recognize myself in those pictures as well.” He stopped when she turned her head to look at him. “Anjali is my sister.” She smiled and nodded.
“This arrangement looks like the one in your house, in the US.” He said. They both smiled at each other again.
Khushi chuckled and said, “It is, isn’t it?” She walked back to the couch and sat heavily and continued. “It’s because it was created by the same person… NK put them up.” She nodded. “I take them, he puts them up.” Her smile vanished from her face. “He used to put them up” automatically correcting the tense, and in all likelihood reminding herself of his absence.
There was a struggle on her face he could see, the pinched corners of her eyes and the straight line of her lips. She hid her eyes from him, moving them away from his view. It was a struggle for control, control of her tears and her emotions that he could glean. It was intrusive on his part, but he couldn’t help himself. Riveted, he watched her swallow and straighten her back. She took a deep breath and pasted a smile on her face.
“Should we go for that walk now?” she asked, moving towards the door.
It was a hot afternoon, it was, after all, the end of June in Delhi. The mugginess with heat made the afternoon stifling for a stroll in the sun, but here he was, strolling nonetheless with a friendly stranger who was jet lagged enough to embark on this crazy walk.
Their walk took them through crowded streets of the market and Arnav was grateful for his white polo shirt and jeans. Making use of his shades to hide his glances, he noticed that Khushi wore a light green Lucknowi-kurta over her jeans, her short hair swinging in tandem with her gait.
It was not everyday that Arnav Singh Raizada got to walk the streets of New Delhi with Khushi Kumari Gupta. His lips stretched into a wider smile that he couldn’t withhold anymore. It was strange and surreal for him, that she was here and she was walking next to him. The solemn tone of their earlier conversation seemed to fade in the brightness of sunshine.
He could see her profile, that small diamond nose pin catching the light as she moved through sun and shade. She didn’t have that nose pin when they were together the last time. That was new, he thought.
Thirteen years is a long time to accumulate new things.
What else was new he wondered. He had this one chance to find out. His second chance. He matched his gait to hers. It felt natural for him to reach for her elbow, help her navigate through the crowd.
Surprised she looked at her elbow and then at him. ‘What?’
He raised his eyebrows and pointed to the bistro to her left. “How about we stop here? Coffee?”
Her cheeks had a tinge of pink on them. Her nose was dotted with beads of sweat; she looked like she was hot.
“Had enough of a walk in the sun? Or want to get roasted some more?”
“Speak for yourself you weeping willow!! I am made of sterner stuff,” pat came the reply. A few more steps later, she muttered. “More like one-upping.”
This felt easy and comfortable, a familiar pattern, a rhythm to their conversation.
“Still talking to yourself I see.” Arnav walked ahead of her and opened the door.
“Still stating the obvious I see.” Khushi gave him a brilliant smile in quick repartee.
He gave a shout of laughter, “You haven’t changed in all these years?” Without looking at Khushi, he quickly scanned to find a table for them. Spotting one, he turned to look at her and noticed that there was no remnant of smile on her face. She looked like she drew shutters down her face, all animation vanished from her face.
This was awkward and uncomfortable. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to address the shift in her or just let her be? Perhaps, he thought, sit first. His hand reached for her back, but she shifted away from him in a small movement. They both walked towards the empty table at the far end of the bistro. The table was small, with just enough room for a pair of elbows and a pair of coffee mugs. There were crumbs on the table and the chairs which were quickly picked up by Khushi, who managed to find some paper napkins.
The bistro was milling with people who had no business drinking hot beverages on a hot day. It was the innate knowledge of the native that brought an understanding of this seemingly disparate choices. But here he was with someone who seemed beyond his understanding, yet remain within the reach of familiar, tantalizing in a way that he could not explain. He waited for her to say something, unwilling to fill their silence with his awkwardness.
Khushi shook her head quietly, breathing deeply. She turned to look at Arnav after a moment and said quietly, “I’ve changed Arnav. Changed completely. Nothing is the same anymore. It never was and it isn’t any more.” She looked out of the glass window next to her chair and said, “Nothing.”
Her elbows were on the table with enough room for him to reach her hands. They were warm, almost hot, but dry. He pulled their hands towards himself and waited until she turned to look at him. He had removed his shades and tucked them into his pocket. But he waited patiently without saying anything.
She sighed and tried to extricate her hands. But he tightened his hold on her and shook his head. “You don’t have to do this alone.”
She responded by shaking her head more vehemently. “Yes. I do.” The silence that ensued seemed awkward for her. She cleared her throat and asked, “Should we have that coffee you were talking about earlier?” She pasted a smile on her face and pulled her hands insistently.
Arnav nodded his head but was aware of what she was doing. He let his palms let go of hers. He had decided that he was going to wait. He walked up to the register to place their orders and came back soon with a cup of black coffee for himself and a tall glass of iced tea for her. He pushed her drink towards her and was gratified to see the look of surprise on her face.
“A slice of lemon?” She raised her eyebrows.
“You like that, you always asked for it. Didn’t you?” He asked with seeming nonchalance.
Arnav raised his cup to his lips, then gave her a long look and shrugged with a small smile.
“So, what are your plans while you are in Delhi?” He leaned back in his chair.
“Probably show Mira the usual sights. She has a list of places she has picked, probably Qutb-minar and Red Fort.” There was a small smile on her face now, “Delhi metro for sure. She has been talking about it forever.” She looked up to meet Arnav’s gaze and nodded. A silent understanding acknowledged about children and the magic of train rides.
“And the railway museum, definitely. She used to pick these places with NK even when she was just …” Khushi halted abruptly and swallowed the rest.
There it was, her struggle yet again. She looked like she was waging a battle with her tears. Arnav could see muscles move her cheeks as if she was grinding her teeth together.
“When she was just a little one?” Arnav helped finish her thought.
Khushi nodded her head slowly. “She is …. just like her father, curious to learn about everything and anything.” She finished with a painful smile on her face.
“Is this your first visit to India without NK?” Arnav asked quietly.
She nodded, keeping the smile pasted on her face. But he could always read her with ease. The distance between her smile on her lips and its stark absence in her eyes spoke volumes.
“I have to relearn to do this alone all over again.” She looked vulnerably delicate to him at that moment and he wanted to reassure her. If she didn’t hear him the first time, she was going to hear it again.. So he repeated a bit differently. “You are not alone Khushi. You never were.”
This was not going to be without a fight. It was a fight even all those years ago. He didn’t pursue it then, he didn’t know how to and she left. This time, he was prepared; this time he was not going to give up. This time, he had all the time in the world to persuade, there was no need to rush. He leaned back in his chair and said, “You are not alone, not anymore.”
Khushi looked at her watch with a puzzled look on her face and shook her head. “I forgot to change the time. What time is it?” She asked Arnav.
It was as if he didn’t speak at all. She was not going to acknowledge what he was telling her without telling her.
“Time for me to drop you home and for me to leave. Ready?” He looked at his watch and then told her the time. His cell phone rang at that moment. It was Suraiya. Switching his look between Khushi and his phone, he said, “I have to take this. Is that ok?”
She nodded to say yes. She tried to give him privacy, angling her body away from the table and looking out of the window. It didn’t take him long to reschedule his appointment with Suraiya. And he could see that she was checking out his reflection in the window glass.
A spark of happiness tugged at his lips, She was totally checking him out. He knew he had changed since they saw each other thirteen years ago. He had more grey in his hair and he worked hard to keep himself fit with his diabetes.
“Like what you see?” He asked.
Khushi’s face turned red, heat rising from her neck to her cheeks while she tried to hold his gaze behind his dark glasses.
“Hm.. “ she said, as if considering his question seriously. “Not bad” she retorted with a smile. “Not bad for an old friend.” Her lopsided smile bloomed into a big grin.
He grinned in return. It was what he said when he asked her to lunch the time he showed up at her doorstep unannounced. She remembered! He could see that this time, her grin reflected the happiness she felt. He felt satisfied.
Before he could respond, she whispered, “Thank you, thank you for everything, for the car, the phone, the walk.” She was happy and she knew that he was responsible.
He tilted his head slightly and regarded her silently for a moment. “This pleasure is entirely mine.” She couldn’t break away from his gaze. His eyes seemed to be telling her something.
Soon they both walked out of the bistro. She looked better now than she did when they stepped out earlier in the afternoon. He looked at his watch, it was time to go home and check on Mohan and Suraiya.
A/N: I know that I am an unreliable writer when it comes to updating this story. I appreciate your presence here, your time to read and share your thoughts with me. Thank you. All I can say is that I intend to see this story completed.
Many many thanks to Ruchi (@arshi67) who is my muse, my shadow and my sounding board for this story. She is Second Chance’s alpha and beta. All remaining mistakes are mine, and mine alone..