Chapter One: Overture

For Ruchi whose faith in me and my writing never waned, in whose font I dipped many many times when my own fled. Thank you! 

June 10, 2014

With his palm fisted, Arnav Singh Raizada found himself poised to knock on the door while his eyes looked for a doorbell.


Should he knock or ring the bell?


Taking a deep breath he knocked on the door and rang the bell.


How could he explain his presence? What was he doing in front of her door?


He looked over his shoulder and found his cab driving away, a bit of a yellow blur at the end of the road. His fingers curled into his fist.  




He couldn’t leave, he told himself. He rang the bell, didn’t he? And he knocked. So he waited at the door.


Perhaps no one is home. What was it he felt? Relief? Regret?


Shifting on his feet, he looked around the townhouse. Row houses, lined one after another, not that different from each other on the first look, but full of color. The different colors gave each town home a distinction of its own, he thought. Big bay windows on each side of the front door framed the houses. If he leaned a little, he could look into the house.


Should he look inside? There were big windows that he could peek through.


Before he could answer, he heard quick footsteps towards the door and a feminine voice saying, “I’m coming”… “I’m coming”.


The door opened to a pair of hazel eyes. Yes, those hazel eyes, with grey flecks, he remembered those grey flecks. He tried counting them once.  Now they were looking at him, blankly with curiosity, with no speck of recognition. “Yes?”


“Khushi Kumari Gupta” he found himself saying locking her eyes with his.


“Arnav Singh Raizada.” She whispered back as if in auto response. He could see a slow recognition in her widened eyes. Shock draining all color from her face, blinking rapidly and taking quick breaths, she repeated, “Arnav? Arnav Singh Raizada?”  


“Hello Khushi, it has been a while.” he said, with a small smile.


They stood there in that moment, looking at each other. He waited for her to ask him in and when she showed no signs of doing so, he raised his eyebrows and pointedly looked at her and at the door.


“Oh, please do come in” she responded moving away from the door, allowing him to step inside.


A few quick steps inside, he found himself squarely in front of books and bookshelves, lined on every wall of the living room. A worn tan couch with a reading chair placed adjacent to the bay window framed one end of the cozy living room. A rocking chair with a throw was another seating option, positioned conveniently next to the book shelves. It looked like a home, Khushi’s home. Cozy and comfortable seemed to be the dominant themes here.  


He slowly walked around the low rectangle coffee table towards the couch to find Khushi standing next to the reading chair, her gaze assessing him, her eyes still holding remnants of shock at finding him, Arnav Singh Raizada, in her living room. As they found their places to settle into, they began to really look at each other, to take note of all that was familiar and to make notes of time’s travel on their selves.


Their eyes traveled with deliberate strokes. How long had it been since they saw each other? She was barely twenty when they first met. Mature curves marked the passage of time adding grace and beauty to her stature. Her waist length hair was shortened to her shoulders and her nose ring glinted when she moved. Age seemed to settle on her with muted elegance. His eyes noticed a thin gold band on her left hand; there were no other adornments on her.


Was it  two years since NK… Halting his racing thoughts and questions, he forced his gaze to swing back to her face.


“What brings you here?” She was looking at him with guarded eyes, unsure of her own reactions to his unexpected presence in her house.


Why are you here? How did you find me? Why now?  It took me a long time to..


She couldn’t voice them, but the questions were falling over each other like a domino set in motion. Throwing furtive glances towards him, quickly picking up books from the floor at the same time, she regarded him.


He was a beautiful man, strong jaw, a straight nose, a perfect profile.


Thick wavy hair framed his face, an errant lock finding its way on to his forehead, which he pushed away constantly. His face was leaner, harder perhaps, with greying temples. He looked older.


Older than what?


She forced herself to look away from him, not wanting to be caught staring. Now that she could think, she realized that she had no idea how old he was supposed to be. Age was the last thing on their mind when they were together.


When they were together.


Her breath caught in her throat and she swallowed dryly quickly squashing that thought. She was not going down that particular memory lane. She had left it behind, locked it and threw away the key. She had forgotten about it.  But there he was, sitting in her living room, looking at her. His face was one of those that was perfectly proportioned, symmetrical.


I remember measuring it. A small slip of a memory bubbled out of her. Shaking her head to rid of it, she waited for his answer.


“A conference actually, I am here on work. I am staying with Akash” he said. Quickly looking away, stopping to take a breath he continued, “And he told me about your husband… huh, Naren.” he said, finally looking up. “I am sorry Khushi, I didn’t know…” trailing off, letting his eyes convey his message.


Sorry – a five lettered word weighed down by the enormity of expectation rolled onto itself. A big job for a little word, thought Khushi.


What was she supposed to say? Follow the scripted exchange, say thank you? Thank you for what? For using a five letter word to express regret? Remorse? Sadness?  


Khushi looked at the pile of magazines and books that lay next to the rocking chair, as if the chaos and order that those books sat on held answers to the questions blazing in her mind.


Raising her eyes finally to meet Arnav’s, about to offer a perfunctory “thank you” when both of them were assailed by a series of staccato rings, in quick succession as if they were Morse code to have the door opened.


“That must be Mira” saying softly, Khushi opened the door when a whirlwind of a small form hurtled itself towards Khushi in a hug.


“Mommy!! Masila asked me to tell you that you were supposed to call her ASAP. She has something really important to tell you. Sydney’s mom wants to know if you can please call her to get a play day for me, tomorrow, please, pretty please? Is there something to eat? I am starving…Mommy, did you know that platypus is only one of two mammals that lays eggs? Patti is still on her way home walking…oh..” trailing off as she caught sight of a silent stranger sitting on the sofa.


Darting her eyes from the stranger to her mother, “Who is that mommy?” she whispered loudly. Before Khushi could respond, the little whirlwind walked towards Arnav beaming at him, seeming to have gotten over her shyness very quickly.


A shock of thick black curls framed a face replete with sinfully deep dimples on both cheeks that formed deep creases on each side of her face. Arnav’s gaze was arrested at her bright curious hazel eyes, that he found himself rising from the couch and extending his hand to shake hers.


“Hi, I am Arnav Singh Raizada.”


Looking from behind her spectacles Mira’s smile slowly transforming to a grin, she shook his hand, saying, “Cool name!” Pumping his hand with all the energy an eight year old could muster, she said, “I am Mira Gupta Krishnan. You can call me Mira,  and I shall call you, Arnav Singh Raizada.”


Finally finding her voice, Khushi exclaimed, “Mira.” Khushi pulled Mira back to herself,


“Huh Arnav, this is my daughter, Mira.”  Looking down at, she addressed Mira gently, “Honey, you should call him Mr. Raizada.”


“ASR is fine Khushi. Mr. Raizada is so …. officially old” said Arnav with a grimace, looking at Mira.


Silence fell awkwardly upon the three assembled like a wet blanket on a rainy day. Seconds ticked loudly while the two adults stood stiffly. It hadn’t escaped Arnav’s notice that Khushi was avoiding looking at him. He wondered what was going through her mind.


A decade’s distance stood between them. He thought he knew her well, even though it was for a brief time. But they could as well be two strangers in a room, meeting for the first time.


How does one contend with intimate knowledge about a stranger?


Quickly moving her gaze between her mother and the stranger in the house, Mira asked loudly, “I am hungry. Is there anything to eat Mommy?”


Breaking from her stillness, Khushi looked at Arnav and motioned him to join them in the kitchen.


“Toast fine Mira?” asked Khushi while sliding slices of bread into a toaster.


Lemon-buttery-yellow thought Arnav as he stepped into their kitchen. Two bay windows anchored the room with a square shaped dining table in the middle. A low chandelier hung on top of the dining table while the other walls were filled with black and white pictures. He walked towards the pictures to take a closer look at the faces, when he felt a tug on his wrist.


“That’s me and my Appa, when I was a baby” smiled Mira, looking at the pictures. “And that’s me and my Appa again, he was teaching me how to swim” this time, pointing to the picture frame. “My favorite is this one. I was trying to make a ponytail on his hair. He looks silly” Mira continued with giggles. “Mommy took all the pictures.”


Arnav felt like an intruder, trespassing on private memories and moments. With a wistful look he gazed at the array of photo-frames that anchored one side of the kitchen’s wall. He could immediately see NK’s dimples reflected in Mira’s. They shared not only their dimpled smile, but also thick curls that framed their faces. They were a unit, a family. He never gave that word too much thought, as much as he did, looking at those pictures. But then, he never realized that he never had one, with the exception of Mohan.


“Mira, where is your Patti? Didn’t she come back with you?” asked Khushi sliding the plate with toasted bread slices towards Mira.


“Masila dropped her off near the park, she’s walking back home” replied Mira, biting into her toast.


Turning to Arnav, “Patti means grandma in Tamil. Manorama Patti is my grandma, she is my Appa’s mother. My mommy doesn’t have a mommy, or an Appa. Do you have a mommy and Appa?” asked Mira.


Shaking his head to say he didn’t, Arnav was grateful for Mira’s chatter filling the silence between him and Khushi. “I don’t have parents living either” he replied, his eyes following Khushi as she moved around the kitchen. She was avoiding his direct gaze, he noted.


“That’s enough questions for the day Mira.” Directing her attention to Arnav, “Can I offer you something to drink or eat?”


“Coffee will be great, thank you. No su..”


“Yes, I know. No sugar. No milk. Just black.” Khushi said quietly.


“You still remember?”


Khushi looked up to find Arnav’s inscrutable gaze at her.


“It’s nothing” shrugged Khushi, turning away to reach for a mug. Yes, she did remember. Why did she remember after all this time? She had kept him at bay. In fact she was sure that she had locked him away in the far recesses of her soul that the distance of time erased those memories.  But one look at him and the gates she built seemed to crash with memories gushing through the cracks.


“No, it’s nothing, it means nothing” she muttered to herself. Quickly filling the mug with the dark coffee from the carafe, Khushi handed it to Arnav.


“Am sorry for barging in unannounced like this, Khushi. I just wanted to see you before I left” said Arnav softly as if trying to get past another awkward moment between them.


Taking a sip of coffee from the mug, he could see her struggle.


But then he always could.


He could read her every expression, her every move.   


“Leave for where and when?” asked Khushi turning towards him, all her attention now directed at Arnav.


“Leave for Delhi, where I live. I am visiting here for a few days. I told you earlier, I am here for a conference and reunion. I am staying with Akash and I leave tomorrow night.”


“Tomorrow night” she whispered, more to herself than for others. So soon?


“I didn’t know that” she said speaking softly.


“But then I know nothing, nothing about you” she said, looking up. Why did her stomach drop at the idea of him leaving? Why should she care if he stayed or left? He wasn’t a part of her life until this morning when he showed up at her doorstep unannounced. He wasn’t a part of her life, period, she thought. Her fists were clenched along with her stomach and she quickly realized that she didn’t want to be in the situation she was in right now.


“Why are you here ASR?”


“I told you, I wanted to see you.”


“Why? Why now? Why today?” Khushi demanded in a tone that took her by surprise. She didn’t realize that her voice had risen and now Mira was looking at both of them. Her eight year old’s face devoid of all smiles and dimples, eyebrows furrowed in concern.


What was going on between her normally mild mother and this stranger?


“I am here because I wanted to see you, Khushi. I just found out about NK and wanted to ….” Arnav left the sentence unfinished as he shifted his glance from Khushi to Mira only to find the little hazel eyes behind her spectacles lose their sparkle. With a quick step, Arnav walked to Mira’s side, placed his palm over her left hand resting on the counter.


“I am sorry about your father.. your Appa” he said softly to Mira.


“Thank you” she nodded her head, looking away from him. In that moment, he was struck at how much she looked like Khushi.


“Did you know him? Were you friends?” Mira turned and asked with watery eyes.


His heart squeezed at the sight of her teary glance. I am a heel, he thought to himself. “I knew him a little, I am not sure if I would call myself his friend” he said. Fixing his gaze on Khushi he added, “I used to be your mom’s friend, a very long time ago.”


“You guys haven’t met in a long time? Is that why you are surprised Mommy?”


“Yes. That’s it. I mean, that’s right” Khushi exhaled with relief. Smiling at Mira, she asked, “Will you please check if Patti is here yet?”


“Sure Mommy” Mira said and walked out of the kitchen leaving Arnav and Khushi alone.


Slowly walking towards Khushi, Arnav said softly “I am sorry Khushi.”


“Yes, you’ve already said that twice. Thank you”.


“I mean, I am sorry not just about your loss”


“What do you mean?”


“For showing up like this, for making you uncomfortable” he extended his hand towards her.


Was he going to touch her? His eyes held a warmth that she didn’t want to acknowledge.


Why now?


Nervously she said, “I am fine, just fine.”


Quickly walking away to create distance, she was about to unload the dishwasher when the phone rang. Looking at the relief written on her face, Arnav took his steps back to the other side of the kitchen, giving her room to answer the phone call. He should leave, he thought. He had no right to stay any longer than he did already.


He did what he came for, expressed his condolences.  He could see the visible signs of stress on Khushi’s face, tightness around her lips revealing the strain that his presence was creating for her. She was speaking softly into the phone, pushing her thick hair behind her ears. It sounded like a confirmation of a playdate for Mira.


Arnav began, “I think..”


“Would you..” Khushi, speaking at the same time, stopped, motioning him to continue.


“I think I should leave now Khushi. Thank you for the coffee” Arnav began walking out of the kitchen.


Khushi followed him, her heart racing.


No, don’t leave yet.


Quickly she quelled her thoughts and nodded in agreement. “Thank you for coming.”


Standing facing each other Khushi allowed herself to finally look at Arnav. He was a tall man, an easy six feet of frame that reminded her of steel that his pale blue polo shirt and khaki pants couldn’t hide. That errant lock of hair settled on his forehead again. He was a beautiful man she couldn’t stop herself from thinking that. His eyes could speak a language of their own. Warm caramel to molten honey, she remembered how they changed hues based on his emotions and moods. Right now they were two pools of warm honey, that seemed to offer warmth. She refused to read anything more in them.


A raised eyebrow brought her back to the living and Khushi realized that she had been caught staring at Arnav. A slow warmth rose from her neck to her face.


What was the matter with her?


She wasn’t the blushing kind, but he always did shift her axes.


Feeling flustered she raised her eyes to find Arnav giving her an amused look as if he knew what was going through her mind.


Yes, he did that too. He could read her easily.


Neither had noticed the arrival of Manorama Patti who now stood transfixed near the doorway, watching her daughter-in-law look alive with color in her cheeks. Her attention moved to the man who seemed to have something to do with Khushi looking animated… like she did a few years ago.


Clearing her throat to announce her arrival, Manorama said, “That was a good walk.”


Bounding in right behind her was Mira who announced loudly to Manorama, “Patti, this is Arnav Singh Raizada” pointing to Arnav and continued, “He is Mommy’s friend from a long time ago. He’s here to say hi to us. Doesn’t he have a cool name Patti?” Clearly happy with her introductions, Mira beamed a grin at Manorama, revealing those dimples again.


“Hello.” She smiled at Arnav setting free those now familiar dimples in her cheeks. Three generations of dimples, he thought.


“Namaste,” responded Arnav with folded hands, surprising Manorama with his greeting. “I was on my way out.”


“Oh, if you are Khushi’s friend then you have to stay for lunch. No?” Manorama turned to Khushi as if to have her reiterate the invitation.


“Thank you, but no, I cannot stay.” Moving towards the foyer Arnav bent to put his shoes on. “I just wanted to…”


“Say hello. Yes, you did mention that many times now.” Three sets of eyes, two expressing shock and the third looking confused.


This is ridiculous. Why am I reacting like this? He has been nothing but polite and certainly doesn’t deserve any rudeness.


Taking a deep breath to calm herself, Khushi gave a quick smile to no one in particular to make light of her tone.


“But you should stay for lunch if you can. It isn’t anything fancy though, I have to warn you.” Pleading with her eyes, she offered a silent apology to Arnav. “Please stay” she said softly.


He nodded quietly with an inscrutable look. “Thank you, I will.”