I am hopelessly in love with a memory. An echo from another time, another place.
It was the middle of summer and that had nothing to do with his frame of mind. After all seasons were a state of mind, weren’t they? There was a spring in his step and a smile on his face, unbeknownst to him. This was an unfamiliar feeling.
It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling.
He knew it.
He felt it, he was sure of it. While his heart remained mute, his mind recollected that memory, recognized that feeling. It was a while ago; a very long time ago.
He caught himself smiling yet again and quickly bit into his cheeks. He needed a distraction, something else to do, besides thinking about her. It was time to have a chat with Suraiya, he thought, quickly checking his watch for time. It was almost dinner time.
Striding through the long corridor, Arnav took two steps a time down the stairs, that curl in front of his hair moving in tandem with his bounce. It had been a while since Sumitra Raizada had seen Arnav in the manner that he was these days, she noted.
What was with him?
She wanted to know, but she also knew that he was not ready to reveal yet. This was the third time she caught him talking to himself and smiling. Her old weary heart couldn’t get enough of his happiness. He deserved it, every little bit he seems to have these days. She knew they would not make up for the days he had spent in pain, stoic and alone, unwilling to share his burden.
She was reminded of the days soon after Mohan was diagnosed with autism, those periods of utter despondency that sat on his shoulders as his gaze followed his little toddler. Maya was no help at that time, mired in her own struggles with postpartum depression. Arnav had to carry the weight of a new diagnosis of his only child all on his own.
This grandchild of hers deserved every bit of happiness he could find, she would make sure he had his share of it. It was a promise she made herself when she found him sobbing in his room for all the dreams he thought he had and for those he lost – his marriage, his divorce and his child with a diagnosis of autism. Her heart broke when he muttered those words into her lap.
She was not going to ask him about his smile, or about the twinkle in his eyes, she decided. She was going to enjoy their presence in silence.
Just like when they were babies. It was no different from then, watching them explore their worlds with curiosity and wonder. And it is no different now, watching him navigate his way through to his happiness with hope and impatience.
Finding his Nani’s gaze on him, he smiled and asked, “Nani, is Suraiya done with her session with Mohan? Isn’t it time for dinner?”
“Dinner will be ready in a few minutes, as soon as they are done. The little one is not too happy with her today.” She furrowed her brows and asked out loud, “Wonder what happened.”
Arnav was checking his phone and absently answered, “She came on a different day Nani. She normally comes Tuesdays, but she canceled. She is here today and he does not do well when his routine changes. Remember?” He looked up to find his Nani nodding her head, distracted. She had a frown on her forehead, a rarity that made him pause in his steps. If there was one thing he was sure about his Nani, it was her equanimity, something that saw him through many moments of unrelenting grief and doubt.
“What happened Nani? Is something bothering you?” Arnav sat next to her on the couch. Her favored seat in the entire house, he realized. He had not known her sit anywhere else except that particular seat. It was the corner seat that faced the entire house, while also allowing her to look over to the front entrance of the house itself. She ruled over her house from her vantage point, without raising her voice, without losing her calm. But she looked worried today.
He took her palm into his and brought her out of her pensive state. He repeated his question, “What is it Nani?”
Sumitra Raizada tightened her grip on his fingers and patted them gently. He looked down to her life worn hands, her skin thinned out near her knuckles, making them appear knotty. It was as if all the scars of anxieties she bore manifested themselves on her hands instead of her face. She looked so very fragile at that moment, that her wrinkles bespoke her mortality. Yet the strength of her grip belied her age and her fragility.
She shook her head and said, “It’s him.” She nodded her head towards the room where Suraiya was working with Mohan. “How will he manage? How will he live his life? Will he always need this kind of therapy? What will happen to him when we are all gone? When he grows up?” Sumitra Raizada’s eyes filled with tears. She wiped them away fiercely and quickly. She didn’t want to ruin Arnav’s moment of happiness.
“Nani, he will be fine. Mohan is a brilliant child. He will not only be fine, he will do great! These sessions are meant to help him with his speech skills, you know that.” He wrapped his arms around her and tried to reassure her with his hug.
“And I will make sure that he will be okay and so will Maya.” He pulled back to look into her deep set eyes. They were the exact shade as his own. “We are his parents, we will make sure that he is able to deal with whatever life throws at him and come out the other end successful.”
“But Maya is married to someone else now.” Sumitra’s brows had furrowed deeply.
“So what, Nani? She is still his mother. That will never change.”
“But what if she has another child? What about..”
“That doesn’t change anything. Maya is a wonderful mother, a good mother. You know that Nani.”
She looked at him with the same look of confused skepticism. She never could understand his affection and friendship for his ex wife. They had this conversation many times..
I don’t understand this thing between you and Maya.
She is my friend first Nani.
But she is the mother of your child. And she is married to someone else. And you are friendly with her and cordial with her new husband?
She fell in love with him Nani. How can I stop her from pursuing her happiness?
But what about your happiness my darling boy?
He never answered her last question, but she also knew that his answers never changed. His unwavering faith in Maya was almost enviable.
“But what about you, my boy? What about what happens to you Arnav? She has her husband. But what about you… what about your life? Your happiness?”
“Nani…” He began, unsure of how to reassure her. He had not seen her like this in a long time.
She shook her head and gripped his fingers tighter. “I want you to be happy. I want you to seek your own happiness and this time, don’t let it go.”
Sumitra Raizada raised her hand to his face, caressing his cheek and then his hair as she laid it on his shoulder. It was a moment of affection, affinity exchanged between a grandmother and her grandchild. For Arnav she was the mother he never had.
“I am happy Nani. And yes, I will seek my happiness.” This time. This time for sure. Arnav Singh Raizada was certain.
It was dark and quiet in the room, with the monotonous hum of the air conditioner switching on and off periodically. Khushi turned her head to see Mira fast asleep, curled into her side, her curls moving in tandem with the swing of the fan blades. She was her father’s daughter, sleeping with her lips parted and her mouth open. A wave of tenderness washed over her as she hooked her finger under Mira’s chin and closed her mouth. She turned to check on her mother-in-law and found her fast asleep.
So much for that walk in the sun. Here she was, the only one awake and jetlagged. Unwilling to watch the rest of them sleep, she got up and walked quietly to the living room. Her fingers held the cell phone, a second nature to her now, a habit that she had developed after Mira was born. She looked at the phone in her hands, reminded of the thoughtfulness of the gift. Given by someone she didn’t know very well.
Khushi shook her head, dispelling the thought that seemed tenacious enough to return more often now and forced herself to be in the present, in her favorite place in India. She had grown up here, spent her summers here when she was away from IIT. Buaji’s apartment boasted a small balcony that overlooked a small patch of community garden. The street lights were a muted orange and spilled over into the balcony. Stepping out of the air conditioned room made the breeze warmer than it probably was.
What was it about night time when all doubts took gargantuan forms in ways that made them real and visceral?
She looked down at the cell phone Arnav had given her and wondered why he did that. Why did he have to give her a cell phone? Why did he have to send a car? Why did he have to meet her family? Why this? Why now?
He is a friend, Khushi! Arnav is a good man, a good friend.
But they had not been in touch for a decade. Not a word was exchanged, not a phone call made. Both of them ignored the existence of the other. He was a stranger wasn’t he?
Yes he was, but…
No he wasn’t.. because…
Was there a label for such relationships when a decade’s worth of silence didn’t mute their connection.
She looked at the phone, willing it to ring, or say something… anything. She had forgotten this feeling, this small tendril of warmth unfurling in her, tugging her lips to smile. His kind eyes and his warm smile welcomed her in ways that she was beginning to recognize now. What was she supposed to do with it?
Why does life not come with a manual?
“Not able to sleep Chellam?”
She felt Manorama’s soft palm on her shoulder before she heard her. Manorama was one of those people who could not talk without touching the person she was talking with, especially if they were close to her.
Like mother, like son, like granddaughter.
She shook her head. “You woke up? I didn’t wake you, did I Amma?”
“You didn’t.” Manorama reassured quickly. “Insomnia becomes a reluctant companion along with aches and pains when you are my age.” Manorama smiled self deprecatingly. “But you… You have a long way to go, my darling.” She ran her hand over her back, gently caressing those spots between her shoulders. She felt her tension ease at her shoulders, tension she didn’t know she carried.
“Shall I rub your back? Will you try to sleep?” Manorama asked softly. Khushi gave her mother-in-law a hug and shook her head.
“Insomnia is a familiar foe of mine too Amma.” Khushi smiled at her Amma. “You know, when NK used to have papers and proposal deadlines, he used to work through the night. I used to stay up with him. That was probably the first time in my life I realized how silent silence could be.” She looked away at the orange light from the street.
“But it didn’t scream like it does now.” She said, almost to herself. “It didn’t matter that we were not in the same room, or even in the same building. It was a quiet kind of silence, a gentle kind of silence. Now, without him, it just screams into my head.”
“I am used to it now, the screaming, I mean.” Manorama nodded her head almost distractedly. She was not a stranger to the loudness of that silence. She felt it more with her Naren’s passing. She looked at Khushi to make sure she knew what she was referring to. “It isn’t something that ever leaves me, not even for a second. I look at a child and remember my Naren as one. I look at a young man, and I remember my Naren at that age. I look at an older man and wonder how my Naren would have… ” Manorama couldn’t continue. Tears found their way down her weathered cheek.
Khushi’s arms found their way around Manorama. Both of them rocked each other in silence. It was hard to live with grief, she knew. It was like an untenable rock bound to her neck, weighing her down at moments like this. Yet it was a comforting pain when she needed that contact with NK. But there was something in watching Amma cry over NK, that wrenched her own heart and gut. While she lost her husband and a friend, Amma had lost her only child.
Meanwhile the tear-worne eyes of Manorama sought Khushi’s, a daughter she had inherited through her son. The sag of her young shoulders, the premature grey that seemed to peek out of her hair seemed asynchronous to the skin and frame that Khushi carried. Manorama’s kinship with grief was acceptable, but not Khushi’s, not on her young shoulders. Perhaps it was time to have that conversation she had been planning for the last few days, especially since she had begun to notice how Khushi lapsed into her memories. Manorama was worried that Khushi opted to live passively with her memories. She knew that she needed to talk to Khushi.
She led her to the living room couch and patted the seat next to her. She waited until Khushi sat, fiddling with her cell phone. Manorama wondered if Khushi was aware of the fact that she was caressing it. She felt torn, but she knew it was the right thing to do, to talk to her. She clasped Khushi’s wandering fingers and held them in her lap. The phone slipped from their grasp, but Khushi caught it and clasped it to her chest. This time, Manorama brought both Khushi’s hands and the phone into her own. She had to gather her words, had to make sure that she didn’t say the wrong thing. It was too important for Manorama.
“You know, darling, you cannot live your life like this. You cannot live in the past.” Manorama stopped. She had Khushi’s complete attention. “You are too young and you have your entire life ahead of you. Even though it is tempting to stay with those memories that you have accumulated, it is important to live here, with your child, live your life for here and now, you know.” She patted Khushi’s palm that she held in her hand and raised her eyes to Khushi’s pained look.
Khushi pulled her palm from Manorama’s grip and shook her head. “I don’t know where you are going with this Amma and I don’t want to know. But I don’t have a choice, do I? I cannot give up, I have to live, for Mira and for you, whether I am here or living in the past as you put it.” She stood up, her heart was beating fast. She tried to keep her tone from being accusatory. She was not free to fail or quit at life anymore. NK made sure of that when he left their daughter and his mother in her care. She had no choice but to live for the two of them.
“Come, sit down next to me. I know you are angry and upset.” Manorama patted the spot that Khushi had just vacated.
In a placating tone Manorama repeated, “Fine, I will not ask you to live here or live now, okay? I will stop my bhashan, I promise.” She looked up and smiled deeply, flashing her dimples. Khushi tried to keep her anger alive, but who could resist that smile?
“No bhashan?” Both of them exchanged grins. Manorama pulled Khushi closer to her and said, “Let’s talk about something else.”
She then pointed to the cell phone and said, “Tell me about your friend. Tell me about Arnav. No… it is Arnav Singh Raizada. Mira was right, it is a cool name.”
Khushi burst out laughing at the incongruity of a juvenile adjective from this aged woman.
Manorama chuckled and said, “Come on, you don’t agree? It sounds like some Maharaja’s name.” Manorama straightened her back on the couch and sat up straight, pulling a stern expression on her face. “I feel like I ought to bow or curtsey when I say that name out loud.” She cleared her throat and announced in a mock baritone, “Arnav Singh Raizada!”
Both of them dissolved into laughter. In between their giggles, she asked, “You are not offended by my joke are you? He is your friend, no?”
Khushi shook her head and said, “You know, when I first met him, he introduced himself as ‘Hi, Am Arnav Singh Raizada’ and I immediately curtsied and said, Your Highness, I am Khushi Kumari Gupta.”
Manorama and Khushi burst out laughing again. It was a light moment, a moment when there was no other thought, nothing that weighed them down.
“He seems like a nice fellow, a nice man.”
“That was what I was thinking too.” Without much thought, Khushi responded. “He is a good friend.” She pointed to the cell phone and said, “See this, the car he sent last night and he came over today …” She trailed off, realizing that she was speaking her thoughts out loud to her mother-in-law. She quickly looked at Manorama to gauge her reaction and found her looking at her kindly, as if she understood.
“I liked him. No, I like him” Manorama said. “Did my Naren meet him? Did he know Arnav?”
Khushi stilled at Manorama’s question. She wasn’t sure if she knew how to answer her. She lowered her eyes to the phone she held in her hand and tried.
“NK knew of him Amma, I think. Akash is Arnav’s cousin and it is through Akash NK would have known Arnav?” Khushi shrugged and tried to gauge Manorama’s reaction. All she found was curiosity. “But Arnav was more my friend than NK’s Amma.”
NK had not wanted to know anything from her past. He made that very clear to her. She tried telling him but that was one conversation she never had with NK.
“I lost touch with Arnav after the four of us left for the US. I am sure he must have kept in touch with Akash. Anyway, he found me now when he visited the US this time. Akash told him about NK and that’s how…” This conversation felt awkward for Khushi, a sliver of guilt seeping into her. How could she explain her past with Arnav to her mother-in-law?
“It takes a very special friendship to survive the distance of time Chellam.” Manorama stood up and gently ran her hand on Khushi’s head. “I am glad you have friends in your life. They are our anchors when we have to navigate this life by ourselves.” The last two words of Manorama were drowned out by her yawn. Both chuckled quietly. “I am going back to bed. Don’t stay up too late.” Manorama ambled back to the bedroom.
Khushi’s fingers continued to play with the cell phone. She looked at the instrument he thoughtfully sent through Gangadhar.
Well, was it friendship?
She wasn’t sure. She wasn’t sure if it began as friendship all those years ago. But there was something incendiary between them. The thought sent a shiver down her being.
They were lovers.
There… She said it to herself, finally acknowledging to herself. So what now? With the passage of time, was what remained friendship? That easy camaraderie they shared, the comfort of each other’s presence? But there were moments when she thought it was not just friendship.
Did she want more than friendship? Did he want more than friendship?
There is no way I am waiting another ten years.
She remembered that text he sent her when they were exchanging her itinerary. And then earlier in the day when he visited her, he kept insisting that she didn’t have to do this alone.
You are not alone anymore… You don’t have to do this alone…
What did he want from her? She had nothing to offer, nothing more than friendship. She did not have anything else to offer. And she was sure she didn’t want anything else. She took a deep breath and looked down at the phone she was still clutching in her hands.
Khushi opened her eyes. She didn’t realize that she had closed them, savoring the memory. At the same time there was a niggling feeling that she was trespassing on feelings and memories that were no longer hers to own and recollect.
I am a widow, damn it. I have no right over those thoughts or sentiments. Not now, not ever. All I have, or can have, are my memories of my Naren.
She took a deep breath to still her runaway thoughts. It was friendship. That’s all it was. He was offering solace as one friend to another. It was a moment of kindness, that’s all it was.
But it wasn’t always friendship that bound them. In fact it was … What was it? Perhaps there was no name for it. Whatever it was, it was magical. Yet not enough and perhaps too late.
She looked at the clock, it was close to midnight and the world she was in was asleep. But she knew that Lavanya would be available. Quickly she texted her new phone number and checked on Pallavi’s pregnancy. Just as she was about to get back to her bed, there was a message from the man who seemed to have taken residence in her thoughts lately.
Hi! Hope you are asleep.
How was she supposed to respond to this text? Her brow furrowed as she typed her message.
Yes! This is me sleep-texting. 🙂
There was something in the way he made her feel. She remembered that feeling from a long time ago; like she was free falling, off of a high cliff. The rush of wind on her face and her outstretched arms. It was risky and it felt wild and it certainly felt free. She shook her head at her cell phone because she knew she had opened that door.
Sleep-texting? What else is possible while asleep, I wonder! 😉 So, what happened to that stroll in the sun? Not helping with your jet lag?
Yes, there it was, that smirk could be seen even in his texts. It never failed to show up. She grinned wickedly.
Yeah, so much for that stroll in the sun. Perhaps it had to do with the company I kept! But why aren’t you asleep?
Do you then accede that you lose sleep over me?
Ha ha ha ha.. Don’t you wish!
I do, actually.
Her heart skipped a beat reading the last text from him.
Why was it so easy to fall into this banter with him? She felt like a small piece of iron next to a magnet.
But she had to stop him. This was not appropriate for either of them.
You have to stop this. Please?
Nope. Not going to.
That took less than ten seconds for him to respond.
Khushi kept reading his text again and again, trying to glean if there was anything that she was missing in his message. She decided to ignore it, like she had been since morning. She tried again.
You didn’t answer my earlier question. Why aren’t you asleep?
You may not like my answer. 🙂
She shook her head at the latest one. Her smile returned to her face. If this was how he wanted to play it, she was ready.
I guess you’ll never know, since you didn’t share your answer… :)…. Oh, I have been meaning to ask if it would be convenient for you and your Naniji if we visited your home tomorrow evening? We leave for Mathura the day after. Amma and Buaji would like me to arrange this visit before we leave.
Sure. That will be great. Tell me what time and I can ask Gangadhar to pick you folks up. And…Why don’t I ‘share my answer’ with you when I see you next?
It was time to steer the conversation to safe waters, she decided.
No, we will find our way to your house. Don’t worry about sending Gangadhar. How is little Mohan? Mira is looking forward to meeting him.
Will he play along? She wondered. She left her phone on the couch and walked to the kitchen to get herself a cup of water. She had to try to sleep, she decided. He needed to sleep too. Leaning by the kitchen counter, she looked outside the window, not really paying any attention to what was outside.
She could feel her blood thrumming through her body and her mind fully awake. She felt alive, she felt a small wave of happiness. She hadn’t felt that in a long time, almost three years. She had forgotten what that was like, to be on razor’s edge, think and respond quickly, with wit. It was a good feeling, but she wasn’t sure about it.
He made her feel this way. He made it so easy to…
What is it with late nights, dark rooms and telephones that make implausible conversations possible?
Quickly gulping the rest of the water in her cup, she walked back to the couch, expecting him to have responded. But there was no text. With a whiff of disappointment, she muted her phone and walked back into the bedroom to give sleep another chance. He must have slept, she thought. He needed to sleep.
An insistent whirr of her phone drew her attention, she quickly grabbed the phone from the nightstand and checked.
Went to check on Mohan. He is well… and any more about him… you will see for yourself tomorrow.
He sleeps by himself in a separate room? A big boy?
It took Mira many months to be able to sleep through the night after NK passed away. It was not until just a few weeks ago that she slept by herself in her room.
There was another whirr and this time there was a picture of Mohan sleeping on his side with his face tucked in what looked like Arnav’s shoulder.
He is. But today, his Papa is planning on sleeping with him. Don’t ignore me. And let me know what time and Gangadhar will be there.
The image of Arnav’s son asleep in his arms melted her insides. There was something to this rediscovery of their friendship, she thought. It was a rediscovery of a forgotten treasure, a renewal of their connection. But first, she had to tell him.
No, we will show up on our own. Good night Arnav.
Good night Khushi. I am glad you are here.
Neither of them gave sleep another chance.