Author’s note: Well, no, I am not dead, not vanished, nor is the story abandoned. I come to you with another installment of this storytelling. For those of you who are still here, I salute your faith in me. I am here for you, you bring me here with my chapters; I think, ruminate and write with you in my mind. So, Thank you once again for reading, for sharing your thoughts and for just being here.
This update would not have been possible without my Ruchi, to whom I dedicate every word of this story. These characters are hers and I borrow them. Thank you my dearest muse.
And @bluemystique is my cheerleader, who did not shirk her responsibility. I thank you as well.
And finally – You, my friend – thank you for reading. To my readers who have seen further down the road (in Second Chances,) this chapter is a deviation from the past. Why you ask? The story wants to take a different road, the characters want to respond differently this time! ❤
Who can remember pain once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see.
— Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
There is something to be said about that moment, the moment when the waiting ends and fruition is in hand’s reach. There is also something to be said about our inability to hold that moment in our fists, frozen, to be savored at leisure. Caught, as we are in that voyage from moment to moment, seldom do we spend more time than what we allow ourselves to feel, and experience that fruition. Is that what our seers advised, when asking us to live in the moment? Instead of grabbing it, freezing it? Like flowing water never to remain still?
Khushi looked at her daughter’s energy bouncing off her body, in waves. It seemed as though she was born with the wisdom that living required, living in the moment, catching those bubbles of happiness when she met them with no care to hold on for tomorrows. It was a car ride that had her excited to the point of jumping and there were so many reasons for this eight year old to be excited about a car drive in India. “Mommy! Look, I don’t have to wear a seat belt here.” Her bright eyes shone through her glasses and the humid heat curled her hair tighter than they could, forming little ringlets around her face, framing. “I can sit on Paatti’s lap. I don’t need a booster here mommy.” Her inquisitive fingers tried to roll the window down by pushing the buttons. Speaking a mile a minute, Mira was simply energy personified.
It was decided that morning that it was a good day to visit the Raizada house by Nandini Buaji and Sumitra Raizada. Telephone calls were made and decisions taken about how that trip was being made. Khushi found herself sandwiched between Buaji and Manorama while the little tyke found herself a friend in Gangadhar who helped her sit in the front seat with space to spare. It was a novelty for Mira to sit in the front seat as she couldn’t do the same back home.
There was a strange sense of dislocation, an unsettled feeling coursing within Khushi. It was as if the caffeine she consumed in the morning conflated upon itself and coursed through her body making her jittery, discombobulated. A part of her could no longer ignore it, although she tried with all of her might.
She was going to his house and she was going to meet his family. After all, it was just like any other visit. She was visiting a friend’s home, wasn’t she?
But it was his home, his family.
What difference could that possibly entail? He was a friend, and it was a friendship. That’s all it was.
This was not the first time she was visiting his house. The farmhouse, remember?
Her mind brought to fore memories, a few stolen moments of joy, laughter interspersed with desire, passion and a connection that she never anticipated and worse, never forgot. It was as if the roots had remained dormant for more than a decade and suddenly found sustenance, sustenance she never provided.
She was not prepared to go that route, she did not want to spend another second on that train of thought. Shaking her head to dislodge her journey, she reminded herself that it was neither the place nor the time, she chastised herself. She tried to look beyond Buaji, but Buaji’s ample body blocked the window she wanted to look out of. Manorama was to Khushi’s left and gently nudged Khushi to move towards herself. The two women exchanged a smile that spoke of their understanding.
The mid-evening traffic made it impossible for the car to move more than a few minutes at a time making the journey feel longer than it was. Khushi could hear Mira’s incessant chatter with Gangadhar. It seemed like there was a new friendship in the making between the two, transcending ages and languages. Her child gravitated towards these human connections like a bear to a honey pot. An extrovert, she was engaging Gangadhar in a conversation about driving and traffic rules in India while giving him a commentary on how it was different in the US. And what was more amazing than her eight year old was Gangadhar’s enthusiasm and involvement in this conversation.
Khushi leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes. The few hours of sleep she managed to get last night was not enough to thwart the fatigue that came with the hours of international travel. The worst part of the day was, as NK put it, the post lunch coma that made all her muscles and bones weigh a ton. She marveled at Manorama’s ability to make these trips to the US, and manage the exhaustion that resulted to accommodate more activity in her day like she was today. Draped in her pale lavender Lucknow-sari, and pearls on her ears and her neck, she was, in Khushi’s eyes, poise and grace.
“Tired Amma?” Khushi felt Manorama’s legs with her hands to check to see if her swelling had come down.
“I am not tired Chellam, I slept well last night. Unlike you.” Manorama noticed the small dark circles under Khushi’s eyes and tired lines around her eyes. She was worried about her daughter-in-law in the immediacy of the moment and in the distance of her future.
Manorama knew that the real struggle of being a widow began only when the dust of everyday battles ceased and when life assumed a semblance of normalcy. That ceaseless weariness that came with being alone, without companionship was what widowhood was like. Here was this vibrant young woman who had to renegotiate her life being single all over again with a young child. While the loss of her own son was never farther than her next breath, her broken heart was further bruised when she thought of the years of loneliness that Khushi was sentenced to.
Manorama wondered if there was something she could do to change Khushi’s destiny. Why did Khushi have to live her life sentenced to loneliness? But the question was, would Khushi be willing to make changes in her life? Is that even possible? And the bigger question was where would that leave Manorama when the chips of life finally fall and settle? What would happen to her?
She pulled her daughter-in-law to herself and wrapped her arms around her and said, “Try to sleep for a few minutes until we reach their house.”
The comfort of a warm embrace and the cool air conditioning in the car lulled Khushi into a fitful slumber. She couldn’t remember if Arnav spoke of his Naani when they met all those years ago. She tried to recall their conversations as she slipped into that space between sleep and wakefulness.
The feel of the wind in her hair and her body plastered to his back as he wove through those dusty roads on his motorcycle…
Those twilight hours when they sipped hot chai at the roadside Dhaba…
That unabashed warmth in his eyes that lulled her into doing things to him that she never would have otherwise…
She opened her eyes with a start, feeling the pounding of her pulse. She looked around to find herself still safely ensconced in Manorama’s embrace. The incongruity of her memory along with her mother-in-law’s arms around her struck a raw nerve in Khushi. She squeezed her eyes shut tightly, willing her mind to erase the memories that she has awakened.
That was in the past. A past that happened a very long time ago. It didn’t feel right to acknowledge either those memories or those sentiments with NK’s mother’s arms around her. It felt like infidelity.
Was she cheating? Who was she cheating with?
Shaking herself mentally, she roused herself from her drowsiness and straightened, sharing a small smile with Manorama. “Not really sleepy anymore Amma.”
Gangadhar seemed to find ways and means of weaving out of congested spots on the road. But Khushi wanted to settle her nerves before she faced Arnav, to find her equilibrium before she met his family. This was neither the time nor the place for these errant thoughts.
Shantivan loomed in front of them, the huge gates standing sentinel to the mansion behind. They all watched the gates open as Gangadhar pushed the remote buttons on his car-visor. Mira’s gasp was audible in the car, while Khushi heard silent versions from her mother-in-law and Buaji. That Arnav and Akash were wealthy was no secret to Khushi, but it was never a matter of note or conversation between them then when they all were students. Living in the US distanced them from the visible markers of socio-economic boundaries that were taken for granted realities in India. But, watching Mira’s round and widened eyes at the twelve-foot ornate gate move as in slow motion to open reminded Khushi of the divide that separated Arnav’s reality from her own. It wasn’t as if she had to worry about her financial security. NK had made sure of that, made sure that she had enough to support herself, Mira and Manorama. Her fingers sought his ring, clenching around it, drawing reassurance from a piece of metal that he left behind.
Buaji shifted in her seat with such enthusiasm that she jostled Khushi from her reverie. Khushi shared a smile with Manorama as they unwound themselves from the car. Sumitra Raizada stood tall near the foyer, smiling her welcome and right behind her, holding on to the edge of her sari pallu, was a small boy who seemed reticent to come forward, but too curious to stay away.
Mira turned to Khushi and asked in a low tone, “Is that Mohan?” Before Khushi could respond, Mira walked quickly towards them with a brown bag in her hand.
“This is for you, if you are Mohan.”
Mira’s dimples appeared on her face as she smiled and extended the brown bag to Mohan who continued to hide behind Sumitra.
Perplexed at Mohan’s reserve, Mira turned to look at her mother. Khushi joined them soon after with her hands folded in a namaste, ready to greet the elderly lady, although her eyes sought for that familiar figure of Arnav Singh Raizada.
Khushi’s “Namaste, Mrs Raizada” was greeted with a warm “Ah you must be Khushi Gupta, Arnav’s friend.”
Sumitra Raizada then turned towards Mira and said, “And you..” pausing to run her hand over Mira’s head, continued, “Must be Mira.” The entire time, her other hand held Mohan by his shoulders behind her, an armor of protection.
Sumitra Raizada extended her free hand to Khushi’s namaste and gripped her hands as she shook her head. “Call me Nani like everyone else.” At that moment, Khushi could trace Arnav’s eyes to his Nani and was struck by her beauty and grace.
“Aren’t you going to take this gift from me?” Mira’s voice piped, her arms weary from holding the heavy gift packet for this long. The two older women joined them soon and the foyer was now busy with everyone except… Khushi’s eyes searched surreptitiously.
“Let’s move into the house,” So saying Sumitra Raizada led the group into the house. Manorama and Nandini Buaji walked behind her, continuing their introductions and conversations. Khushi noticed that Mohan had not let go of his great grandmother’s hand and continued to hide behind her sari, peeking occasionally at the visitors. There was a marked look of concern on the little boy’s face and Khushi’s curiosity was piqued.
She knelt down to the level of the young child, gathered Mira close to her and addressed Mohan in a soft voice. “Are you shy? Because I am too.” She tried to meet the boy’s eyes, but found herself looking at the top of his head. It looked like Mohan was ignoring her, but Khushi’s professional acumen noticed that although he was not looking at her, he responded with a small nod.
Maintaining that soft tone, Khushi continued, “I find it very difficult to talk with so many people around. So, I pick one person I want to talk to. Is that what you do?”
Still clinging to his Nani’s sari pallu, Mohan nodded in agreement.
“I am Mira’s mom, Khushi. This is Mira.” Khushi made the introductions. Pointing to the bag that Mira was holding in her hand, she said, “I believe this gift is for a little boy whose name is Mohan. Is that you?”
Again, Mohan nodded his head, but made a quick peek at Mira and Khushi. All three of them seemed to be in a world of their own, focusing on each other. But Khushi’s eyes were quick to catch a pair of legs in Khaki pants stride up to them. She knew that it was Arnav and she quickly stood to greet him.
Her eyes drank in his face, his warm smile and she extended her hand to shake his.
Arnav looked at the hand she extended, broadening his smile.
“Hello Khushi. Finally you are in my home.” His palm enveloped hers and he held her hand without shaking it. His eyes held hers, and she was reminded again how his gaze made her feel like they were in a cocoon, just the two of them.
But the world descended on them in the very next second. Mira tugged Arnav’s hand and said, “Hello, ASR” and Mohan grabbed his father’s leg with a, “Papa!”
With Mohan’s cry and Mira’s greeting, all eyes fell on Arnav and the two children, further pushing the little boy into his reticence. Arnav quickly knelt down and pulled Mohan into his side with his arm and gathered Mira into his other side for a hug.
“Hi Squirt! It is so good to see you,” he murmured into her hair, gently squeezing her. Mira had wrapped her arms around Arnav’s neck at the same time.
“My Papa. This is my papa” Mohan’s young voice rang through the living room walls.
“Yes, I am. And this is Mira and that is Mira’s mama, Khushi. They are papa’s friends. Can you say hello to them?” Arnav gently unwound Mohan’s hands from himself and coaxed him in front of the two that he was introducing.
“Here, these are your gifts. I’ve been holding on to them for so long. They are yours and you should take them. Don’t you want them?” Mira extended the brown bag to Mohan once again. This time, Mohan gave his father a quick look seeking approval and when he saw his father nod and smile, he took it from Mira.
“What do we say?” Arnav gently reminded Mohan.
“Huh, Thank you?” Mohan said quietly, his eyes still focussed on his toes. He then looked at Khushi briefly, extending his hand and said, “Thank you Mira-mama.”
There was a look of surprise on Arnav’s face as he shifted his glance from Mohan’s extended hand to Khushi. His son had never sought to shake anyone’s hand on his own till this very moment. In fact he rejected being touched by anyone other than a small group of family members. Here he was, extending his hand and seeking to shake Khushi’s hand.
Khushi realized that this was a big moment for Arnav more than Mohan. Her eyes noted Arnav’s astonishment and another emotion she could not recognize, but was quick to hold Mohan’s hand and respond.
“It is very nice to meet you Mohan, and you are welcome. Mira and I hope you will like your gifts.”
With these preliminaries completed, everyone moved towards the couches and chairs and conversations began slowly. Gangadhar and Leeladhar brothers sprung into action hustling between the kitchen and the living room with refreshments.
Arnav knew she was looking at him. He could feel her gaze on his back. He had avoided meeting her eyes. He could see her questions, cascading one after another. He knew she would have questions for him, he had been expecting them. He could have told her about Mohan earlier, he had many opportunities. But he couldn’t get himself to talk to her about Mohan, his ASD.
He looked around the house, his eyes traveling across the big living room. Leeladhar and Gangadhar were busy serving tea and snacks to the guests. His Nani was busy chatting with Khushi’s Buaji about their shared love for Lucknow, while Manorama was looking on and listening. His eyes took in the easy conversation that seemed to be going on between the three elderly women. Khushi’s attention was split between the play between the two children and following him with her eyes. Manorama was rubbing her left knee absently, running her hand from her knee to her ankle. He noticed that her feet looked swollen. He walked towards the three women and slid the small cushioned stool right under Manorama’s legs to elevate her left leg.
Surprised, Manorama jerked back saying, “Thank you Arnav, but I don’t need it.”
“If you keep your leg elevated, that swelling will go down.”
Manorama quickly pulled her leg back down from the stool and insisted, “Happens every time I travel for that long in that airplane. I am fine, really.” She sounded a bit embarrassed even though she offered a small smile, her eyes shifting between the other two women and seeking Khushi out.
He hadn’t meant to embarrass her with his attention. He saw her swollen leg and felt compelled to say something to help. It was almost as if she was no different from his Nani, that dispensing medical advice was almost a regular conversation.
“Where is Khushi?” She murmured under her breath, wondering. She looked around the vast formal living room, which was surprisingly warm and inviting at the same time.
Nandini pointed silently towards the two children who were busy with the gift packages. It looked like Mohan had gotten over his reserve with Mira and the two children were busy with his new Lego set.
Sumitra Raizada looked wistfully at the two children playing and caught Manorama and Nandini Buaji exchanging looks between them.
“He seems to have overcome his shyness.” Manorama remarked softly.
“Mohan has autism.” Sumitra Raizada replied in the same tone. “He has trouble interacting socially. Those are just one of the many challenges he has to face.” She exchanged a look with Manorama, who leaned towards Sumitra and quickly took her hand into her own.
“Looks like he has no trouble with Mira.” Buaji remarked quickly.
The three of them looked at the two children silently.
A part of him was grateful for his Nani’s forthrightness when it came to acknowledging Mohan’s autism. She never made any excuses for it and as far as she was concerned it was nothing to be ashamed of apologized for. It was just there. It needed attention, just like Mohan’s curly hair needed attention after a shower; needed to be combed out. It was just there.
Not for Arnav, though. Had never been just that for him. There was a part of him that resented that very exchange between his Nani and Khushi’s relatives. He couldn’t explain his resentment, resentment that bubbled inside his gut and eroded his trachea like bile into his mouth. He resented everytime he had to share Mohan’s autism with anyone. Why did he have to explain? Why couldn’t people just accept him the way he was, why did they need explanations about his little boy’s behavior?
He needed some space, some breathing room. He walked to his study, his long legs striding away to one of the smaller rooms in Shantivan on the main floor. He needed a break from all the questions that seem to follow him. He needed to find room, some space to reconfigure his thoughts.
She looked around the formal living room, big enough to hold multiple conversations, areas where seatings were provided with comfort and intimacy in mind. Her eyes searched for him. He was there with Manorama, she noticed that he slid a footstool for her to rest her swollen legs. It reminded her of his thoughtfulness, his kindness, just like his gift of a cell phone to her or sending his car to the airport.
But then, he vanished without a word with her. He had invited them to his house and now he went MIA on them? How odd, thought Khushi and also a bit rude, wasn’t it? What was more odd was that he chose to not talk about something that would have been a natural conversation between the two of them. She was a speech therapist for chrissake and his son was someone she could see in many of her own patients. There were so many questions she wanted to ask. Why had he remained silent? Why didn’t he tell her about his son’s ASD when he first met her, especially when she said that she specialized in ASD therapy.
It was natural that her questions and her unnatural curiosity where Arnav Singh Raizada was concerned, led her down a corridor, past the common living spaces of Shantivan. It occurred to her, after she had passed two closed doors and an open hallway that she was probably intruding. She was a guest, visiting his family for the first time and here she was, in the inner sanctum of his home, uninvited.
Why was it that she crossed all lines and broke all boundaries where he was concerned? What was it about him that made these lines permeable and boundaries fragile?
But now that she was on a trail of pursuit, she was not one to back down. Khushi let her hand trail along the wall full of photographs, some pictures of old homes and some black and white portraits of stiff-looking people. They were portraits of mustachioed men with elaborate turbans, standing in rigid poses with women adorned with flamboyant jewelry. A part of her wanted to linger and learn more about the photographs, but the need to find Arnav and ask him questions forced her to resume her search.
A series of glass windows by what looked like a formal dining room made her pause. All she could see were a set of shoulders in a white polo shirt. In quick footsteps, she walked through the doorway of the adjacent room and found herself in his study. There were two chairs in the walk-out balcony that was attached to the study. Arnav stood by the open french doors, oblivious to her presence and unabashedly she took advantage and let herself study him.
He was on the phone with someone, nodding absently. He was running his fingers through his hair, the action pulling at his shirt, giving her a peek at the muscles moving underneath. All she could hear was an absent “Hmmm” to whatever was being said on the phone. Debating if she should make some noise so he knew her presence, she called his name out loud.
“Arnav?” Khushi’s voice was soft and questioning. She stood at the entrance to his study, still unsure.
“Arnav?” She spoke his name louder the second time, walking into the room.
He turned to face her but stayed on the phone, continuing his conversation. “I have to go now. Call me if anything changes.”
She tried not to be deterred by his frown and gave him a small smile. “Hi.”
He slanted his head in acknowledgement and raised his eyebrows in question.
“Er…” Khushi began. There was something odd about this conversation she was having with him. In fact, this entire visit was an oddity in her mind. But Khushi was a dog with a bone. “I saw that you had disa… left I mean, so I, er…” She trailed, spreading her arms to point to the room around her. There was not much she could read on his face. His eyes were inscrutable and his mouth was a firm line. In any other context or with any other person, she would have retreated.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” She walked slowly into the room, her dupatta trailing behind her. She wanted to see his face up close so she could read him better. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what?” His face did not move a muscle and his eyes were blank.
She was surprised by his response. Was he deliberately being obtuse? But why? She took another step closer to him and stopped. There was a low table that stood between them.
“About Mohan. I am referring to Mohan.”
“What about Mohan?” He turned away from her now. She could see his profile framed by the window and the light spilling from the window. It cast his face in a shadow.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“Tell you what exactly?”
This was the second time in the last few minutes he repeated the same question. Perhaps it was time for her to retreat. Or, this was his way of warning her to not broach the subject. Regardless, she had to ask. She had to.
“Does Mohan have ASD?” Khushi asked quietly. She waited for his response. It was an awkward ten seconds, each beat louder as they ticked on. But she couldn’t hold longer. “He is on the spectrum isn’t he?” And more softly, she continued, “Aspergers, that’s what I would guess. Definitely high functioning. His speech though is so …” she murmured almost to herself. She knew, she recognized it. It was quite obvious to her and she wasn’t sure why he would not share that with her. This is what she does day in and day out. His silence on this matter was baffling to her.
“And you know this how? Just after just one meeting?”
Words fell on her like sharp icicles, shattering into a thousand pieces of glittering knives. Confused by the cold fire in his tone, all she couldshould do was, “Wha…”
“And you spent how long with him? A few minutes? You diagnosed him that quickly?”
Arnav turned to Khushi finally and walked towards her. His eyes were hard, almost opaque and blank, but there was a twist to his lips that spoke a lie of a smile. It was altogether an ugly expression Khushi thought and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to know about the emotion that lay behind that expression. But she wanted to clarify, explain.
“What? No! Not at all. I am not diagnosing him. I am asking, that’s all. I thought… wait, what?” She took a step back. She shook her head, her hand rising to lay emphasis on her No.
“High functioning? Hmmm.”
Something flashed across his face and in the next second his face was a stone, erased. He was disappointed. It shouldn’t matter if he was, but it did. It was confusing, but she felt nudged by her compulsion. She drew in a breath to explain. This was not how this conversation was supposed to go.
“You called him high functioning. High functioning. I am led to believe that the term you want to use is neurodiverse. Isn’t it? Being on the spectrum is not necessarily a disability, is it? In your professional parlance, isn’t that the convention?”
She took another step back, almost involuntarily. It felt like a slap on her face, a rebuke. Even though he never raised his voice, it cut through her like a cold knife. She nodded. “Yes. Yes of course.”
Part of her wanted to turn around, walk away and never come back to either the conversation or the man she wanted to have this conversation with. She was a professional and a damned good one, humility be damned. So why was she letting herself be talked to as if she were an undergrad intern, failing at her job? Another part, a part that knew, just wanted a confirmation from Arnav that she was right, that Mohan was on the spectrum.
“Listen, I just want to know so… I don’t know why you…” She trailed off. “I just don’t know why you are being…” Khushi took a deep breath, closing her eyes as if to reset the conversation. “Listen. Arnav,” she began. “Just a second.” Let me breathe. Let me think.
“Why? Because you know? You can tell?”
“In fact, yes. I can, I can tell. And, I am… I want to help, if I can. Just like you, I am a professional and…”
The sound of someone clearing their throat drew their attention to the door. Khushi moved back to find a face framed with a pair of glasses and short curls. Her eyebrows were raised and she moved her eyes between the two of them.
At that very moment, Arnav’s phone rang. “Oh, it’s the hospital. I have to take this.” He moved away, his voice brisk with questions. Khushi stood awkwardly unsure of how to move from one very disturbing conversation to making an acquaintance with a stranger.
“Eh…” She offered a tentative smile to the woman and was about to offer her name as well when Arnav joined, pocketing his phone. Whatever that was, that she felt a moment ago seemed to have dissipated, for Arnav’s face assumed his usual
“Hi! Kailash and I thought we’ll drop by and say hello. We were on our way back home from the hospital.” The woman offered a smile to Khushi, but walked straight to Arnav and slipped her arms around his waist and offered him a hug. “Is everything ok? Do you need to go?”
Arnav nodded, “I have to leave now.” There was an easy familiarity in her approach to him and in the way she held him. Khushi did not like the discomfort the thought and the sight gave her. She mumbled a “Hi and … excuse me” and tried to walk away from them.
“Khushi, I would like you to meet Maya.” Arnav’s voice rang through the room, halting her exit. She turned to find him extricating himself from Maya’s arms. “And Maya, this is Khushi Gupta.”
This is Maya, his ex-wife and Mohan’s Mom.
Khushi saw Maya exchange a look with Arnav and ask, “The Khushi Gupta?”