Chapter 14 : When Reluctant Met Resolute

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.


Yes, finally.  


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?” 





A note in times of trouble

Greetings my dear friends.

I come (not with an update, but) with a note wishing all of you (no exceptions) and your universes the best. These are times of trouble, and the changes that we have been asked to make, be it at home or at work, are monumental for some of us, and mundane for some. I am grappling with this change and preparing.

I know that I am slow in my updates, but this has slowed me a bit more. I am in my SC-world, I am thinking and writing but I need to set my professional ducks in a row before I have the privilege of sharing my private passion with you.

Thank you for your support. I wish you all the very best that this universe may grace us with. Her bounty is infinite, I am seeking for tenderness and love for all of us. Let us keep each other in our reflections.



Chapter Thirteen: Trysting with Midnights

I am hopelessly in love with a memory. An echo from another time, another place.
—–Michael Faudet


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.


“Cool Amma?”


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.




Chapter Twelve: Prelude

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. 


“Yes Khushi?”


“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. 


“You remember?”


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..

Chapter Eleven: Incipience

“Dum spiro, spero” While I breathe, I hope

–Latin proverb

There was something torturous about waiting, especially for those who held the reins of their journey and paved their own karmic path. Waiting required unwavering faith, more than patience; faith that the next moment will bring fruits of all the minutes spent waiting, a moment filled with a sense of anticipation, filled with a sense of hope. Arnav Singh Raizada was known to pave his own karmic road and this waiting was totally new to him. He was not good at waiting, he realized, as he navigated through the streets slowly filling up with people and their automobiles. He sighed and quickly shifted the gear higher and tried to speed up his return home from the hospital.


Arnav was not on call the previous night, but had been called in for an emergency. He was prepared for it, it was part of his life now. But there were times when there were fleeting moments of selfish resentment at having to drop everything and rush. He was in the middle of having an early dinner with his son, who had been unusually talkative and particularly seeking his attention. When Arnav had to pry his little fingers off of his t-shirt there was a small part of him that didn’t particularly care for his professional obligation. But his Nani had come to his rescue, distracting his little one with a new unopened box of Legos and Mohan’s loyalties shifted seamlessly, much to Arnav’s chagrin. The memory brought a wry smile to his lips.


A distant honk broke his reverie and he shifted to a lower gear nimbly avoiding an errant auto rickshaw, carrying sacks of what looked like red onions and potatoes, not a usual means of transportation for these vegetables, he noted absently. A whiff of hospital antiseptic residue from his clothes increased his urgency to go home and shower off the remainder of his late night.  


A physician’s job never ends at the end of the day, he learnt that as a resident and knew it as a practicing cardiologist now. He wouldn’t change his career for anything, even though it often disrupted his routine. There was something of personal healing that he himself went through when he was part of someone else’s healing process, and one of the many reasons did turn out to be a long night for everyone on the case, with things deteriorating for his patient very quickly. It was a routine test, but it triggered a series of heart attacks and ended with a complicated surgery.  The story for his patient ended well, unlike that of many others; Mira’s tear-filled eyes reminded him achingly.


The day was barely beginning. The sky streaked a mystical orange on a blue expanse that shifted with every passing moment. Arnav let his eyes leave the empty road briefly to catch a dark silhouette of a flock of birds making their way across. The stark contrast of dark shadows  and something about their harmonious flight sent a twist to his stomach. It felt like a strange sense of loss running through his spine, only to settle softly in his ribs. 


Why now? 


Perhaps it was a restlessness, a relentless itch under his skin that he had fought to keep under tight wrap since last night. No, countered his internal voice, it was a month ago, since he stepped foot into her house. He shook his head absently, oblivious to the fact that he was alone in this conversation, it was even longer than that, the feeling of solitude forced upon him, that he had to accept and live with. Loneliness had been his most faithful and loyal companion for most of his life, far longer than the people he invited to share his life with him.


Was it possible to pinpoint the exact moment in his life?


No, he wasn’t going to do this, not slip into melancholy. There was no reason to fall into it, not now when things could be different. Arnav took a deep breath, shifting in his seat and shifting his car into a lower gear to stop at the light. He had driven on these roads for so long that he knew his way around without conscious thought. His eyes traveled back to the skies to trace the last of the birds. He could see the sliver of black disappear from his view and he stepped on the gas pedal, his mind already home. 




An hour later as he stepped out of his shower, he heard his cell phone ring. Without a second thought he hurriedly picked up the phone. It was Maya. He quelled a sigh of disappointment. He seemed to be forming a strange alliance with this emotion lately and a certain hazel-eyed face came into his mind’s eye immediately.


“Hello Maya, what’s going on? 


“Hey! So, Suraiya texted me and asked if she could reschedule her appointment with Mohan. She isn’t feeling well today.”  Arnav could hear the traffic commotion behind Maya. 


“That’s fine, I will text her and reschedule. Are you driving?”


“No! Kailash is.” Maya’s voice was laced with puzzlement. There was a significant pause before she responded. “You know that I don’t drive anymore. Why are you asking?”


Yes, of course. He knew that Maya had stopped driving unless it was a life-threatening situation. He shook his head to clear his obvious befuddlement. It was probably the long sleepless night at the hospital that was messing him up. He shouldn’t have asked her that question. She was not going to let it go, he was sure.


“So, how did that emergency go last night? Did you get back just now?” Maya asked.


“It was long and complicated. But it was ok in the end. And yes, I got back just a little while ago. Maya, can I call you back later if there’s nothing else? I just got out of the shower and I need to get dressed.” And eat his stomach protested. 




Arnav heard a quick intake of breath and he paused in his action to disconnect. Maya was known to do this often, wait a breath or two before she hung up or continued the phone conversation. He was used to her, used to it, so he waited.


“Er…” She began, then quickly rattled off. “I heard from Nani that GD went to the airport to pick up your friends very late in the night? Was it an international flight, because only international flights come in so late. Right Kailash?” Maya’s voice was quickly replaced by a male voice.


“Hello Arnav, we are at the hospital now and I am disconnecting the call. You can thank me later. Enjoy your day off.” That was Kailash. He could hear Maya’s outraged murmur and a quiet click of the phone call disconnecting. Arnav shook his head, laughed softly and thanked the man silently as he put the phone back on his night stand. He needed to eat his breakfast soon. He could feel his blood sugar falling low, and he got dressed quickly.


With his head bent over his phone, fingers working busily on the keyboard, Arnav strode down the stairs. Sumitra Raizada gave her grandson a long look. There was something different about him, she was unable to put her finger on it. It was a rare occasion when she and her oldest grandson shared a morning meal. He was either rushing to the hospital during the weekdays or was off running in the morning during weekends. But he was here today and she was glad.


Arnav looked up from his phone and said, “Good morning Nani, have you seen GD this morning?”


“His name is ‘Gangadhar,’ and what a beautiful name it is! Call him by the name that his parents have blessed him with.” Sumitra felt compelled to lecture on the merits of names given.


Arnav sported a sheepish grin and said, “Yes Nani. But have you seen Gangadhar this morning?”


“He was here. He dropped Mohan off at school and has gone to fill petrol in the car. He should be here soon.” Walking towards their dining table, Sumitra Raizada asked, “Are you going to have breakfast with me today?”


“I would love to join you Nani, if you haven’t eaten yet. Should I check your BP first before you eat?”


Sumitra Raizada had developed hypertension, not unusual for a person of her age. But Arnav was not one to make light of her health. He turned to walk back to his room to get his electronic sphygmometer when he was stopped by Sumitra.


“Not now my darling, let me enjoy your company first without being your patient. It’s been so long since you and I talked.” Slowly pulling him towards the dining table, Sumitra continued, “Why don’t you tell me about your trip to the US?”


She gave him a pointed look and said, “It has been that long. And while we are on the subject of health, how are your blood sugar levels now?” His diabetes was her defense to his demands to check on her health. 


Arnav has developed Type II diabetes a few months after Mohan was born. His physician attributed it to the stress of Mohan’s birth and situations he had to deal with thereafter. But he had worked hard to keep his blood sugar under control with exercise and diet. His Nani’s strict and orderly regiment of menus and meal times had worked to help him maintain his health. His diabetes was also one of her many ammunitions against his concern for her health. It was a counter argument for his insistence on checking on her needlessly, in her opinion. She was a tough partner in this exchange of theirs and he loved her for it. 


Both of them sat at the table and Leeladhar, Gangadhar’s younger brother, began serving them. Sumitra Raizada firmly believed that a family that ate its meals together solved its problems together. Even when it was just her and Mohan, she insisted on some degree of ceremony and Mohan seemed to have an appreciation for it.


Arnav knew that he was lucky to have Sumitra Raizada in his life. His Nani had to raise her two grandchildren when Arnav and Anjali’s parents died in a car accident when they were just fourteen and twelve years old respectively. It wasn’t easy for her, as a recent widow, having to raise two teenage grandchildren on top of losing her daughter and her son-in-law. But she was a survivor and a fighter and she had prevailed for him and his sister. There was little surprise that Arnav found a natural affinity towards his Nani. It was Anjali who struggled with both, with their parents’ death and her teenage years.


He was truly grateful for the blessings he had in his life. Looking at his Nani across the table, he was overcome with emotion. He reached across and held her hand with his free one. Startled, Sumitra Raizada looked up to find her grandson offer her an embarrassed smile. She squeezed his hand and returned his smile with her own.


“I’m sorry Nani, if I have been so busy that I have neglected to spend time with you. It’s just that…” Looking away, Arnav tried to take his hand out of his Nani’s grasp. But she held his hand and nodded as if asking him to continue.


Something… no, someone seems to have taken residence in his thoughts lately that he was …..


He shook his head instead and said, “It’s nothing Nani. I’ve just been preoccupied with things.” He never could lie to her blatantly when he was a child and he couldn’t now even as an adult.


“Suraiya will not be able to make it today for her session with Mohan. I have to reschedule it Nani.”


Nani nodded her head. Mohan needed these sessions. She could see that they were helping him communicate better than he did before. It was Arnav’s initiative and Mohan’s pediatrician’s recommendation that brought Suraiya into their lives. The little boy had some challenges, she knew. Both Maya and Arnav were great parents and somehow that never changed even after their divorce.


Sumitra Raizada looked closely at her grandson and decided to ask him that question that was niggling in her mind since last night.


“Gangadhar mentioned that he went to receive some friends of yours at the airport last night. He came back late and I haven’t had a chance to talk to him after he got back. Did your friends land and reach home safely? Do they have family here in Delhi? Is that why they aren’t here, in our house?”


Arnav raised his head to answer and found his Nani’s direct gaze unnerving. He felt his blood rise in his neck and he quickly dropped his own eyes.


What the? A curse rang in his head. He was a grown man for Christ’s sake!


He straightened his back and met his Nani’s gaze, “Yes Nani. This is a friend of mine from many years ago. I met her in the US when I went there, this time. She lost her husband to a sudden cardiac arrest.” He looked at his Nani and found sympathy in her gaze. 


“Oh! That is sad, Arnav.” 


“She has family here, her Buaji stays in Delhi” Arnav continued. His spoon made mindless designs on his plate while his mind’s eye saw the faces of Mira and Khushi.


“She was traveling with her daughter and mother-in-law and flew in really late. I offered to pick her up, but couldn’t go at the last minute because of an emergency. So, GD.. err.. Gangadhar went instead.”


Sumitra Raizada nodded her head in agreement and continued eating. But she was quick to notice the warming of Arnav’s face at the mention of these friends. Sumitra’s curiosity was piqued, but she had the advantage of wisdom and patience that came with her age. She decided that she would wait and learn slowly.


“Have you heard from them?”


“No, Khushi .. That’s her name.. She hasn’t called yet. But am sure she will soon.” Arnav took his phone out as if to check for messages. He looked like he had something else on his mind. He leaned back in his chair and asked with an unusual hesitancy, “Nani, I would like to invite them over here for lunch or dinner sometime. Is it okay with you?  I was hoping that Mohan can meet Mira, Khushi’s eight year old daughter?”


“Of course Arnav.. this is your home as much as it is mine. You can invite anyone you like at any time.” Sumitra was surprised at Arnav’s request and more so with his tentativeness.  Her eyes perused his face for clues as a thought crossed her mind. 


“What beautiful names, Mohan and Mira.. as if they were made for each other.”


I wish…..


Quickly squelching that errant and unfinished thought Arnav looked around to see if he could spot GD, and said, “I’ll check with Gangadhar. Is he back yet?”


“It is a good name” Sumitra Raizada muttered, although her face sported a teasing glint as she shared a look with her grandson. Arnav’s face broke into a big grin. “Yes, Nani.”  In that moment Sumitra Raizada saw the full circle of time. In that moment, it was Mohan’s grin on Arnav’s face, a son’s smirk reflected on his father’s face. She stood up and dropped a kiss on Arnav’s head and ran her hand down his back. They are never too old for this, she thought as she walked into the kitchen.




There was a loudness to the land, a level of sound that made its presence known no matter what time of the day or night it was. But it was the type of sound that marked if it was day or night. Khushi was woken up from her sleep by the steady rhythm of pressure cooker whistles and blaring news reports from the television sets of her Buaji’s neighbors. On one side was a softer bhajan rendered by one of the music stalwarts that her Buaji liked to listen to every morning, and on the other side was the incessant ringing of the bicycle bells announcing eggs or bread or leafy greens to be sold.


Khushi closed her eyes once again, reveling in the way memories were cascading over her. She used to call out to those vendors by name when she sat on her Buaji’s small apartment balcony those early morning hours she spent studying. She knew each vendor by name and knew their life stories in some instances, much to Buaji’s  chagrin.


Why was it that when she left India, she left all these memories as well? Why was it always that every time she visited, these memories returned like homing pigeons? Why was it that they felt familiar like old shoes? 


She stretched, or at least she tried to, but was firmly ensconced in Mira’s arm that was around her chest. She turned her head and saw the top of her curls and sweat beads forming on her forehead. The rotating fan was trying its best but thankfully Mira’s exhaustion kept her oblivious to the heat and humidity.


Slowly extricating herself from her child’s arms, Khushi walked towards the table with her toiletries. Her eyes caught sight of the cell phone that Arnav had sent through his driver. Her hand slowly reached for it. The newness of the phone gleamed at Khushi as she ran her fingers over it, repeating as though her fingers could discern things that she couldn’t.


What was she supposed to make of this gesture? Why did he send his driver? And send the phone with him? She knew now that he would have been there at the airport if not for that emergency. What was she to make of that?


She knew that she had to call him and thank him. Making a mental list of things to do, Khushi walked towards the bathroom. She could hear voices from Buaji’s living room. Buaji’s phone conversations were notoriously loud. NK used to make a joke out of her rather loud voice.


I think Buaji would have made a great Captain in the army.


Buaji must have been the town crier in her previous life.


Buaji doesn’t need that damned instrument, I think that the whole city heard her announcing that we are here!


Biting her lip to keep from smiling too broadly, she walked towards the living room to catch the rest of the phone conversation.


“Oh! That was such a nice thing you did! Thank you so much for sending the car. Gangadhar is a gem of a person. He made our lives so much better last night, he simply took over.” Buaji’s ample arms were gesticulating grand blessings.


Khushi quickly realized that the person on the other end of the phone was none other than the one on her mind and tried to leave the room as quietly as she could. It looked like Buaji was listening to something that Arnav was saying.


“They are asleep right now. I will ask her to call you when she wakes up. She has your cell phone with her. I just wanted to thank you personally dear.” Buaji turned to find Manorama standing by her and she nodded her head towards the phone.  


“And Arnav, I was wondering if you could come over for lunch today? That way you can meet Khushi and Mira and I can offer my gratitude.” There was a pause and Buaji continued, “No! I insist. You know our address. We will look forward to you coming over then.”


That stopped Khushi in her tracks.


He is coming over for lunch? Today? Here? Didn’t he have to go to the hospital or something?


She shook her head and rushed into the bathroom. She needed all the time she had to ….




He was just a friend. Buaji was returning his kindness with her own. That was it. That was all it was.


Not wanting to dwell anymore, Khushi quickly went about getting ready for this meeting that she was not prepared for.




Buaji was bustling between the kitchen and the dining room. The corner of the living room closest to the kitchen hosted a small dining table. Manorama was in the kitchen, preparing the meal and both older women quickly dismissed Khushi from the kitchen. She wished she had something to do. She looked around the small apartment and there was not much she needed to do. It was spic and span, with colorful cushions that Buaji embroidered herself. There were photographs of Buaji’s late husband, pictures of her parents and one picture of herself with her parents just a few months before they were killed in a bus accident. There were so many framed photographs of Mira from all ages and a few with NK. All the photographs of Mira were taken by NK and every time he visited Buaji, he would fill her walls with photographs of all of them. It was his silent gratitude to her, for accepting him into her ample heart. 


Khushi’s eyes traveled all over these photographs and came back to the one when she was twelve. She walked closer to the wall that housed that picture. There was something about that photograph that always drew her. It felt like she was looking at a stranger, not at herself. There was something in that image of herself that she could no longer recognize as her own. That girl in the photograph looked like her. But there was a disconnect there, the older Khushi couldn’t recognize the girl in the photograph. 


Is that even possible? That girl looks like me, but I don’t remember being her. Does death steal emotional memories as well? 


Her eyes were glued to the picture when she felt a tug at her arm. It was Mira, with a look of question on her face. With impatience, she pushed the sweat dampened curls away and asked, “Why are you looking at that picture like that mommy?”


“Like what honey?” Khushi wiped Mira’s sweat with the sleeve of her kurta and pinned her curls back.


“Like you don’t like it. Aren’t those your parents? My Nana and Nani? Don’t you like that photograph mommy?”


“Yes, they are your Nana and Nani. I like looking at it. Sometimes, like today, I find it hard to recognize myself in that picture darling. That’s all.” Khushi reassured Mira. 


Mira nodded her head sagely. “You mean you don’t remember the feeling of being that kid in the photograph?” 


Shocked at Mira’s intuitive understanding, Khushi just nodded her head. How could her young child pick up those emotions so effortlessly at such a young age, she wondered. 


Distracted by her iPad, Mira quickly went back to the game she was playing. She looked adorable in her pink shorts and white top with spaghetti straps, glasses sliding down her slim nose due to sweat.


She looked up at her mother and asked, “When is ASR going to be here? Is he coming to lunch?”


“Soon” Khushi responded. She decided to text Arnav instead of calling.  


Hi and good morning Arnav! Thank you once again for the car and Gangadhar’s help last night. He was a life saver for us, a wonderful person. And thank you for this phone you sent through him.


Within a few seconds there was a ping on her phone.


Welcome Khushi. It was no bother, both  – car and the phone as I told you before. I couldn’t make it, had an emergency at the hospital. Hope you, Mira, and Aunty were able to sleep a bit?


Yes we did, thank you. I guess we will see you in a little while. I hope this isn’t inconvenient for you.


Seeing you or having lunch with you and your family?


What was she supposed to say to that? She cursed herself for walking right into that one. Damn it.


I meant driving all this way in this traffic.


When you’ve flown miles and miles across oceans and time, what’s a little traffic? 😉 See you in a little while.


She was left gazing at the phone.


He was a master at having the last word, she remembered. It was a running joke between them, who could squeeze the last word in. She bit her cheeks to stop her lips from smiling.


“Why are you smiling mommy?” Mira’s question brought her back from her reverie and she realized that she was indeed smiling. She shook her head silently and said, “ASR should be here soon.”


She walked into the kitchen to see if she could be of any help. She needed to find something to do before she lost her mind. 


Manorama came out of the kitchen at the same time, wiping her hands. Khushi looked at her mother-in-law’s tired face and said, “Amma, you should have let me help you. Will you please sit down now? I can set the table and clean up the kitchen.” So saying, Khushi quickly led Manorama to the couch and pushed on her shoulders gently to have her sit next to Mira. She pulled the coffee table closer to Manorama and raised her legs to rest on top of the table. She could see her mother-in-law’s swollen feet from the long flight. She was sure her arthritis had flared up as well.


She felt Manorama’s hand on her head and when she raised her eyes, she could see a wet sheen in her eyes.


“What happened Amma? Are your legs hurting a lot? Shall I call the doctor?” Concern tumbled in the form of questions, one over another. “Where are your medicines? Did you take them this morning?”


Manorama shook her head and said, “Who said blood is thicker than water? You are my daughter in exchange, you know? When you married my Naren, I got you as a daughter in exchange. You are my daughter in every way possible.” Sniffing her tears away, Manorama pulled Khushi into her arms with Mira and Nandini Buaji watching the exchange.  


Khushi allowed herself to be enveloped into Manorama’s embrace. It was a place that was closest to her memory of her own mother, right next to her Buaji.  But noting the time, she gently extricated herself and said, “I better get the  kitchen cleaned and ready before ASR shows up.”


Manorama nodded her head while noting the rush of pink into her daughter-in-law’s cheeks. The animation in her face and the color in her cheeks brought a sense of relief to Manorama. It reminded her of Khushi when her Naren was alive. Looking at Khushi walking into the kitchen now, she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to glean from this observation.


Soon the kitchen was cleaned and the dining room looked like it was ready to host a lunch party. There were sounds of a violin being tuned and played by young Mira, a new Minuet that she was learning. The fans were whirring at precarious speeds trying to dispel the afternoon heat. It felt like Khushi’s heartbeat matched the fan’s speeds even as she tried to take deep breaths to calm herself down.


Waiting was a bitch. She was never good at waiting. She was of the kind who’d rather be the first in line and get the injection instead of delaying it.


Really? Waiting to meet Arnav Singh Raizada is the same as getting a shot? This won’t do, Khushi, go find something else to do.


She walked into the bedroom that Buaji had assigned to the three of them, and quickly began unpacking her suitcases.


The bell rang and along with that sound, Khushi felt her heart slip and drop to her stomach. If she thought that her heart raced earlier, it felt like it was about to cease now.


Stop it. Just stop this.


Khushi reprimanded herself and walked to the door to open it.


He’s just a friend. That’s all it is. Just a friend. Remember, just a friend.


A mantra repeating itself in her mind, she opened the door with a smile affixed on her face.


The sun hit her eyes as soon as she opened the door. All she could see was the shadowed silhouette of his tall figure and a low husky voice, “Khushi Kumari Gupta.”


Khushi moved away from the light and opened her scrunched eyes to see a pair of warm ones gazing down at her with mirth.


“Arnav Singh Raizada!” She said softly, returning a smile that felt more human than the one she had earlier. “Really nice to see you again, come in.”


Should she shake his hand? Would a hug be inappropriate?


Before she had the time to decide, Mira had sidled up to Khushi’s side and peeked over her mother’s arm and offered a shy greeting herself, “Hi ASR!” Her face partially hidden behind her mother, offering only a part of her smile.


Immediately he knelt down and offered his hand to shake hers. “Hello Mira! How are you? I am so happy to see you.” When Mira offered her hand to shake his, he tilted his head a bit and said, “But I was hoping to see the whole entire you.”


Mira giggled as she came around her mother and grabbed Arnav’s neck for an impulsive hug. 


Surprised he drew her close to himself with care and returned her hug as he rubbed her back. It looked like both of them felt at home in that hug. There were three pairs of eyes witnessing this exchange between Arnav and Mira and none of them were unmoved by the child’s unabashed display of affection.


Buaji bustled out and busily exclaimed, “Come inside beta!” Chastising Khushi, she said, “Get our guest inside Khushi. He is sitting on the floor at the entrance.”


“Hello Arnav. Please come inside..” It was Manorama now. 


Arnav disentangled Mira’s arms from his neck. But kept his arm around her shoulders as he walked inside the house. And Mira didn’t seem to object to being close to him. 


Khushi stayed at the door, transfixed at the sight that her daughter made with this tall man, walking alongside as if she had done it all her young life. It raised her hackles and mobilized her from her trance. She quickly moved behind Arnav and placed her hand on Mira’s shoulder.


Mira turned around and said, “Mommy! You are pulling me.”


Before she had a chance to respond, Manorama chimed in. “Nice to see you again in Delhi. Thank you so much for Gangadhar and the car.”


Arnav, whose attention was on the exchange between Khushi and Mira, moved his eyes to meet Manorama’s.


“Namaste Aunty. It was no problem at all. My Nani asked me to tell you that she would love to have an opportunity to meet with you soon.” He moved his gaze to include Buaji first, Mira next and finally rested on Khushi. “All of you, sometime soon. I hope you will find some time to visit us in Shantivan.”  


Arnav had left his gaze to rest on Khushi. He could see that something made her uncomfortable. He made room between himself and Mira and looked around the living room to sit. His move seemed to catalyze the rest to rearrange themselves in the room, making motions of finding a spot for him to sit. In all the maneuvers by Buaji and Manorama, Arnav realized that Mira found a seat next to him. Manorama and Buaji moved to the kitchen under the pretext of getting lunch organized, leaving the three of them alone.


Khushi stood behind the rattan couch opposite to Mira and Arnav, watching her daughter, who, despite being a bit shy, chose to sit right next to Arnav, and that too closer than she normally did. Curiosity got the better of the mother at her child’s natural preference. 


Children seemed to be willing to take risks with relationships with great ease.  She wondered if they mended faster than adults.


Catching Khushi’s gaze, Arnav raised an eyebrow as if in question.  She shook her head with a small smile on her face. Resting his arm around Mira’s slim shoulders, Arnav asked, “Aren’t you jetlagged? Not sleepy?”


Mira shook her head shyly. Her bright eyes behind her glasses shone with happiness. “Your driver…” Mira turned towards her mother and asked, “What’s his name Mommy? The man who brought us home from the airport?” 


“Gangadhar” replied both Arnav and Khushi. “You can call him GD, although you better learn to call him by his full name, Gangadhar, in front of my Nani. She gets really upset with me when I call him GD!” Arnav concluded with a grin on his face. 


“You are scared of your Nani?” Mira asked with wonder in her eyes. There was someone that could inspire fear in Arnav Singh Raizada? The young mind could not fathom such a possibility. Then quickly reminded of her earlier query, Mira continued, “GD, said that you had to go to the hospital for an emergency?”

Arnav could see that Mira’s question had a part that she couldn’t seem to articulate, but her face and eyes conveyed her anxiety. It pinched his heart that a child so young keenly felt the consequence of an emergency in a hospital. He took his time reassuring her. 


“Yes. He is fine now… My patient.. He will be fine.” He scooted closer to Mira and took her hands into his own. “Do you want to know what happened?” He was sure she had questions. He hoped he had the answers, nay, he hoped he had the courage to give her honest answers.


As he waited for Mira’s questions, he found Khushi had moved to sit next to her daughter, close enough that Mira could lean behind into her mother’s lap. He looked up to find her eyes shifting from her daughter to him, wary and anxious, her hands drawing Mira closer to her. In that moment, all three of them were in a tight circle, with Mira in the middle. 


“Do all of your patients get better?” Mira’s voice thinned towards the end of that question.


Arnav shook his head. “No, not all of them get better. Some patients don’t make it. But some do.” He stopped and waited for Mira to process what he said.


“What happens when they don’t make it?” Her look was resolute. She looked like she wanted to know.


He met the child’s gaze with honesty and said, “We try everything we can to help that patient. But if he or she doesn’t make it, we feel very sad and then have the sad job of informing their family.”


He could see Mira’s eyes filling with tears and Khushi’s eyes as well. There was a lump forming in his own throat. “Is that what happened to your Appa?” He helped her ask the question himself.


Mira nodded quietly, her tears spilling down her cheeks. He found Khushi nodding almost unconsciously in agreement. It was a sight that rendered a blow to his heart. He wanted to wrap both of them into himself and absorb their pain. Instead, he reached out and pulled Mira into a hug. 


Enfolded in each other, all they heard were sounds of their lunch getting ready, cups being filled, low tones of conversations between Buaji and Manorama. When Mira took a deep shuddering breath and tried to wriggle out of the embrace, both adults moved back self consciously. 


Khushi quickly dashed her tears away from her face. She had been transfixed, unable to say anything, watching this exchange between her daughter and Arnav. It was a new kind of pain that her heart had to endure when she witnessed her child express grief and pain to someone other than herself.


“You know, I am glad that your patient is feeling better. I am really glad that you were able to help  him, ASR.” There was a tentative smile on Mira’s face.


In that moment, Arnav Singh Raizada fell completely and irrevocably in love with Mira. She had wormed her way into his heart with her renewed sense of hope. His face broke into a big smile and he nodded his head in agreement. There were no words necessary as Khushi and Arnav exchanged a look and a smile. In that moment, they were two parents marveling at the wisdom that children bequeathed to the world. And in that moment, there were two more, watching from the kitchen, who bore witness to the happiness that these young people could have, if they chose to. 



AN: A very belated seasons’ greetings. I hope the festivities were full of love, warmth, and joy. I cannot thank you enough for reading this story, reading my sporadic, inconsistent writing and updates. Some days words are a deluge, some days they leave me parched. A steady stream would be a blessing. 🙂 Until next time then. ❤