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. 

 

“Khushi?”

 

In the next moment, she shook her head and cleared her throat, as if buying herself time to fully wake up.

 

“What?”

 

“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.

 

oOoOo

 

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.

oOoOo

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 Eight: Bounded Boundaries

Life is a movie. Death is a photograph

—Susan Santog

 

She sat with her cell phone in her hands. Unknown to her, her fingers were caressing the screen, unsure of the maelstrom of emotions raging through her. A feeling of lightness permeated through her, a feeling that felt alien, a feeling she had long forgotten, yet strangely familiar as if it were an old friend. She felt giddy, discombobulated with a quickened breath.

 

Arnav had offered to meet them at the airport. Khushi looked down at the last message he sent her.

 

Give me your flight details. I can pick up your Buaji from her home and can bring her to the airport to receive you. It will not be a bother, so don’t hesitate.

 

Her fingers moved restlessly on her phone. Her eyes remained on the screen, reading and re-reading his text message. Should she accept his offer? Prudence demanded that she decline.

 

But….

 

Why was there a but following her thought? Why was she making it more than what it was? It was a friendly gesture, something that she and NK did often to their friends and acquaintances as well. They ferried people to and from the airport all the time. Living as an immigrant in a new country made relations out of acquaintances, and community out of common shared experiences. That was all it was.

 

A glance down at the message on her phone reminded her that that was all it was, just a friendly gesture, nothing more to it. It was just something people did, an offer of help to people who needed it. She was reminded of the time, when people did exactly that for her when NK had died. She was a widow and that was all it was, a gesture of sympathy.

 

That was all it was, wasn’t it?

 

She looked up from her cell phone and looked into those laughing eyes and that dimpled smile. Naren… Khushi sighed with a sad smile. Why did he have to leave her? He knew her better than she knew herself. She needed him now. She needed her NK who could help her sort things out, sort these feelings out.

 

Khushi dropped her phone on the bed and picked up the frame and laughed at the irony of her own thoughts. Her finger unerringly finding his dimples while absently caressing his cheeks on the cold glass. She held her breath and closed her eyes tightly, for she knew what to expect – that searing pain that sliced through her midriff every time she thought of him. That sense of loss followed by grief that ignited in the pit of her stomach and triggered her tears.

 

But not this time.

 

She opened her eyes, surprised to find a smile remaining on her face alongside tears. She continued to caress his face, her fingers moving to his eyebrows, arched perfectly and to the crinkles around his eyes that were often ignored because of his dimples.

 

Slowly Khushi placed the frame back by her bedside. She had to start packing for their trip to India. This would be her first visit to India without NK, her first trip back as his widow. She was not ready to make this trip. Anxiety unfurled with force in her. Could she do this? Can she make this trip by herself? NK was the organizer and she executed his plan. That was how it worked between them. They were a team. Now she had to take charge, do everything. This is what it means to be a single parent. Little things that made a big difference.

 

Who would check the doors and windows to see if they were locked?

 

Who would check to see if their passports were with them and their boarding passes were printed?

 

Who would allow her to lean on them during the long flight?

 

Who would rub her feet when they get too cold on the flight?

 

Who would try to sneak kisses on the flight?

 

She sniffed loudly and sat down hard on her bed. She was not ready to make this trip. She did not want to go through another ‘first without NK’ anymore. She had friends here, a routine. She had managed to live without NK these last two years. She could live her life here without making this trip. Small sniffles turned into sobs she couldn’t control anymore. It felt like a dam had burst and all the tears she held back were out with force. Dropping her face down on her pillow she cried again.

 

She didn’t know how long she cried. She felt a hand on her head gently caressing and rubbing her back. She felt the mattress shift with the weight. It was Amma.

 

“What happened Chellam?”

 

Khushi raised her head from the pillow now marked with her tears. Her eyes and nose turned red, tears spiking her lashes. She looked into Manorama’s concerned eyes. Part of her wanted to lean into her mother-in-law’s arms and collect all that comfort she knew her Amma carried with her. Yet another part of her wanted to crawl back into her pillow and scream her tantrum in solitude. Grief was a confusing struggle, demanding companionship and isolation at the same time. But one look into the concerned eyes of Manorama made Khushi’s decision for her.

 

“I cannot go back without him. I don’t want to go back without him. I don’t want to do this without him.”

 

“Mommy?” Mira’s tremulous voice broke through Khushi’s grief. Her head shot around and she looked to find Mira’s crying face, tears running down her cheeks. She stood by the bedroom door her face pinched with fear and grief.

 

Khushi stood and opened her arms and Mira flew into her mother’s embrace crying.

 

“Sshh, honey, it’s ok. We will be ok.” Khushi consoled her daughter, dropping kisses on her head while rubbing her hands on her back. “I am ok now and you will be too,” she reassured her distraught daughter.

 

We are ok, we will be ok soon.

 

Manorama patted the mattress next to her to ask Khushi to sit next to her. Both, mother and daughter, settled on the bed next to Manorama, Mira cuddled in her mother’s lap.

 

“What happened to you mommy?” asked Mira in a tentative voice. “Are you missing Appa?” Tears gathered on her lashes behind her glasses as she looked up at Khushi.

 

Holding her daughter’s gaze, Khushi nodded her head slowly as unrestrained tears flowed, unwilling to hide her grief from her child.

 

“Me too,” responded Mira, with fresh tears rolling down her cheeks. “I miss him all the time. Even when I am not thinking about him, I miss him. I wish he could… I wish I could…”

 

Mira’s voice trailed off as she laid her head on her mother’s chest. Her right thumb creeping into her mouth, a habit she quit when she was a toddler. It broke Khushi’s heart to find that her child resorted to this comfort to tide through this grief. Her arms tightened around Mira as she rocked her back and forth, soothing her child and in the process soothing herself as well.

 

Manorama’s eyes filled as she witnessed this exchange between the younger generations. She knew what she had to do.

 

“Come here you two,” she said, wrapping her arms around both of them. She slowly ran her hands on Khushi’s back and Mira’s alternating between the two of them, murmuring borrowed reassurances. Slowly raising Mira’s chin, Manorama said quietly, “He is always there around you, when you need him, you have to think of him and he will give you strength.” She nodded slowly and continued, “He is with me whenever I think of him.” She slowly reached out and placed her palm on Mira’s heart and said softly, “He is here.”

 

“That isn’t enough. I want him to hug me, I want him to touch me, and tickle me like he used to” she said unwaveringly. “I want to touch him. But he is never going to come back. Never ever. But I want him to.” Mira burrowed into her mother’s chest further.

 

Both Manorama and Khushi exchanged a look of understanding, the three of them tied together by that one man who died an untimely death. All three of them bereft of Naren Krishnan’s presence in their lives, their loss tangible.

 

With a shuddering breath, Khushi stood up with Mira in her arms and said decisively, “Time to get those suitcases out sweetie! We have presents to pack and a plane to catch.”  And miles to go before we sleep. She pushed her own melancholy to the margins of her being and pasted a fake smile on her face for the sake of her daughter. Fake it till you make it.

 

This quick listing of tasks seemed to have worked with Mira. She raised her head from Khushi’s chest, excitement slowly creeping into her sad eyes. “Did we buy all the gifts mommy? Did we buy for everyone?”  She lowered her voice conspiratorially and asked, “Did we buy for your friend, ASR?” Her big brown eyes sparkled behind lashes still spiked with her tears from not too long ago.

Khushi couldn’t stop the warmth that stole up to her neck to her face.

 

Why does she feel discomfort at the mention of his name, damn it?

 

She took a deep breath and said, in an equally low tone, “I think gifts are for kids only, adults can gift themselves, but kids cannot, right?”

 

“But Bua-Paatti is not a kid, and we got her stuff, didn’t we mommy?” The logic behind Mira’s question was unquestionable. But the seemingly innocuous question made Khushi’s heart pace and blood run hot in her face. She was keenly aware that Manorama was watching this exchange between herself and Mira. A feeling of awkwardness descended upon Khushi. But it seemed that Mira’s grief was put in abeyance for now and Khushi was grateful for this uncomfortable line of questioning by her soon to be nine-year-old.

 

“Buaji is not like ASR. Buaji needs help from us.” Mira nodded her head sagely at her mother, apparently in agreement with her mother’s sentiment.

 

“Right. Off to get those suitcases.” Khushi wondered what her silent mother-in-law’s inscrutable expression was all about.

 

OoOoOoOoOoOo

 

The house was in disarray. There seemed to be open suitcases stationed in different rooms placed strategically all over the house, with things stacked next to them as if they each held a boarding pass to go into each suitcase.

 

Khushi stood in the living room taking stock of the mess and heaved a sigh realizing that she needed to take charge of this impending travel. She walked towards the bookshelves and pulled a small notebook and began her list of things to do. NK made fun of her notebook and her lists. He was a list maker too, but his lists were in his head. And he boasted a memory of an elephant – he never failed to remind her.  

 

Feeling weary and tired she rubbed her forehead. Not many realize how tiring, no, exhausting it was to grieve. She waited for her eyes to fill with tears, but her eyes remained dry. Did she exhaust all her tears?

 

She was that tired.

 

Enough! Mentally shaking herself out of this weary stupor, she quickly sat down to create a list. A ping on her phone made her reach for it.

 

Are you supposed to come over or am I?

 

Shit! Khushi smacked her forehead. She was supposed to go over to Lavanya’s to hand over a copy of her house and mailbox keys. She had completely forgotten about that in the midst of all the tears all three of them had shed today.

 

Sorry Lav, I was supposed to but got held up here at home.

 

She was sure Lavanya was going to pursue this line of questioning when they got together. Nothing escaped notice where Lavanya was concerned. So Khushi decided to come clean.

 

We all got a little sad packing today, another ‘first without NK’ happened. But we are fine now.

 

She didn’t want to worry her friend.

 

Alright, will see you in 30. May have to bring my brood with me as André isn’t here at home.

 

That’s fine, Lav. Bring the twins, Mira could use a break. And yes, expect the house to be a mess 🙂

 

I love you Khushi, you know that. Right?

 

How does one get over the inadequacy of labels and even language sometimes, she wondered. How could she live without her friends? Khushi took a sobbing breath in, gritting her teeth. She was not going to cry anymore.  

 

I love you too Lav.

 

Khushi shook her head impatiently at herself and stood up purposefully as if to shake her despondency off. She strode towards the music player and ran her finger along the list of music CDs and slid a disc in. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro blared from the speakers, instantly flooding the room with high energy sounds of high-speed violins chasing her from her shadows. With borrowed energy, Khushi began packing with meticulous rhythm, forcing cheer into her disposition. She was deliberate in choice of music, opting to play Mozart rather than Rehman. Although NK was of the firm opinion that Rehman was contemporary Mozart.

 

Even when she tried to cordon him in her mind, NK managed to sneak right back into the forefront of her thoughts.

 

Armed with the list in her hand, Khushi set out to distract her grief-stricken mind to the task, preparing for another ‘first’, in a series of firsts without NK.  Soon Mira and Manorama joined Khushi, armed with their own lists and together there seemed to be a renewed energy from Mozart’s violins filling the townhouse and its inhabitants. Suitcases were beginning to show signs of getting ready for their trip and the ambient mood in the house seemed to shift with the fast-paced violins. There was lightness in Mira’s face as she looked through her list.

 

“Should I bring my violin, Mommy?”

 

Before Khushi could answer Mira’s query, the doorbell rang with muffled voices that couldn’t contain their excitement. Twins and Lavanya, thought Khushi, her face creasing a small smile.  With her smile growing, she opened the door to let the boys in and hugged Lavanya, ushering her in as well.

 

“We come bearing good tidings and cheesecake that the twins helped me bake” Lavanya extended what looked like a cake box to Mira. Mira had a sweet tooth that she inherited from Khushi and cheesecake was her favorite.

 

“Thank you Masilav” Mira threw her arms around Lavanya’s waist, gave her a quick squeeze and bounded to the kitchen with her cake. “Paatti, the twins are here, and cheesecake…” Khushi and Lavanya exchanged a knowing look. That cake was about to be devoured in minutes.

 

Lavanya grabbed Khushi by her arm and asked urgently, “Do you have concealer?”

 

“What? Concealer, why?” Khushi looked blankly at Lavanya.

 

“Yes, concealer.” Lavanya pushed her hair away from her shoulders to reveal a red mark. Khushi peered closer. It looked like… “Is that a hickey?”

 

“Sshh, will you keep your voice down? I don’t want the whole neighborhood to know that I have a hickey. I didn’t know, until Neron pointed it out when I was belting him in the car.” Lavanya pulled Khushi towards her bedroom and closed the door. “Concealer? Do you have any? Where do you keep your makeup stuff anyway?”

 

“Lavanya Mendez! A hickey? Eh?..” Khushi wiggled her eyebrows, teasing her gently as she extended the concealer to Lavanya.

 

“It’s just a hickey Khush. Not like you haven’t had one in your life.” Lavanya mumbled into her shoulder as she struggled to find the bruise but failing to.

 

Taking the concealer from Lavanya’s hands, Khushi moved closer to cover her blemish. “Looks bad Lav. It might take a few days for this to go.”

 

Lavanya sighed, but there was a small smile on her face. “He gets wild sometimes. But I needed that.”  

 

Khushi looked at Lavanya’s face, noting the dreamy smile on her friend’s face, the softening around her eyes. Lavanya looked happier now than she had the last few days.

 

“What happened? All not well with you two?” Khushi’s voice carried concern.

 

Lavanya sighed again. She looked away from Khushi as she walked slowly to the bed and sat down. Lines of concern resurfaced around her lips and her brows furrowed.

 

“I wasn’t going to talk about me today,” Lavanya began with uncharacteristic lack of surety.  “I wanted to be here for you today. I know this trip is hard for all of you.” Lavanya’s voice trailed off, but her eyes looked like they dammed turbulence she felt inside.

 

Khushi squatted down next to her and grabbed her hands. “What’s wrong? What’s going on Lav? What happened? Did you and Andre fight? We can wait on my issues for a bit Lav.” She muttered looking away, “It’s not like they are going away anytime soon, are they?”

 

Lavanya puffed her cheeks, breathing in deeply and frowned. “I want another baby and Andre wants to wait. We had a fight. We weren’t talking for almost a week. I was miserable, he was miserable and I didn’t know what to do.” Words tumbled out interspersed with quick breaths as if she was slowing herself down.

 

Khushi gathered her friend into her arms and consoled, “It’s ok. It will be ok. Sshh..” She was aware that things were rough between Lavanya and André lately. As always, Khushi waited for Lavanya to confide, not wanting to intrude.

 

Moving out of Khushi’s arms, Lavanya threw her arms up and cried, “He doesn’t want another baby at all, Khush. He says he is happy with these two. He says he wants me. He won’t even consider having another one. How is that fair? We always talked about having a lot of kids, you know. I have always wanted more kids and I thought he did too. So, now that the twins are three years old, I want another one before it is too late. I don’t want to wait any longer. He says he wants me, but he has me. I am not going anywhere. What does he mean by wanting me?”

 

Lavanya paused her tirade to take a breath and looked up at Khushi. “What are you smiling at?” Here she was upset and crying and Khushi found it funny? Furrowing her brows fiercely, she got up from the bed and opened the door to stomp out.

 

“Hey! Wait. Lav.” Khushi ran behind her friend and dragged her back into the room. “No, I am not laughing at your misery. I am sorry.” Holding her lobes in apology, Khushi pushed Lavanya back to sit on the bed and sat beside her with her arm around her shoulders. She turned slightly to take a long look at her friend, raising her hand to brush a few errant pieces of hair away from her eyes.

 

Lavanya had obscenely long and thick lashes that caught her bangs when they fell over her eyebrows. She was a stunningly beautiful woman, almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones that accentuated her slim long nose that pointed to those perfectly shaped lips, a full lower lip that she was chewing now. Khushi could sense her restlessness from the way she was twirling her wedding ring.

 

“Is André completely against having another child?” Khushi asked softly infusing calm into the conversation.

 

Lavanya nodded her head while continuing to chew on her lower lip. She looked at Khushi’s unwavering gaze and slowly shook her head. “I don’t know for sure if he is sure about this. He says that he misses me when we have little ones. Now that Gagan and Neron are slightly older, we aren’t always consumed by what the babies need. We have time for each other and I understand that’s what he wants. But I grew up as an only child Khush. You know that. I don’t want my kids to be lonely like I was. That’s all.” The tears that stopped, began to gather at the corners of her eyes. Khushi stayed silent to let Lavanya sort her thoughts out and waited.

 

“Didn’t you want another child after Mira?” Lavanya’s question surprised Khushi. “I mean, you and NK were married for almost nine years. Mira was born within the second year of your marriage. Didn’t you want another child after Mira? Didn’t you have this conversation with each other?” It seemed to Khushi that Lavanya was seeking affirmation rather than information.

 

“Yes. Yes, we did.” Khushi answered quietly.

 

“Then?” Now Lavanya was interested. There was curiosity in her tone.

 

“We couldn’t.” Khushi looked away from Lavanya. There was a lump forming in her throat.

 

She leaned across Lavanya and picked up NK’s photograph from the side table. “I couldn’t conceive. He wanted another baby so badly. He was an only child too. When Mira turned two, we tried for more than two years.”

 

Her fingers were now tracing those familiar lines on NK’s face, moving from his eyebrows to his nose and down to his lips and finally to rest on his dimples. “In fact, he wanted seven so he could have one for each swar. Mira was ma. There were six more he wanted.”

 

“Let’s have one for each swar Khush.” His fingers were moving from her neck to her shoulders now.

 

“Seven?” She couldn’t help but whisper hoarsely. His fingers seemed to have a life and mind of their own. They were certainly making music with her body.

 

“Think of all the hard work we have to do in order to have them.” His lips replaced his fingers. She didn’t realize then, but she agreed with him many times with a resounding ‘yes.’  

 

Khushi was lost in her thoughts now. Her voice a mere whisper. “But I couldn’t conceive. Just a year before he died, we found out that I had fibroids and that was what was causing my infertility. I got that taken care of and then got on birth control pills to regulate my hormones. I was supposed to be on them for a few months and then we were going to try again. But he died instead.”

 

If Lavanya wasn’t sitting right next to her, she couldn’t have heard anything that Khushi was saying. Khushi was speaking to herself at this point. And Lavanya could see the pain and sorrow etched in her tightly pinched eyelids and her lips.

 

“Khush” Lavanya wasn’t sure what she was going to say.

 

“It’s a hard thing to live with Lav. The what-ifs and if-onlys. They are the curse that those of us who are left behind are left to carry. I can’t go back and change it, I can’t negotiate with it. Death is a bitch Lav. It’s a fucking bitch and I have to live with it.”

 

Lavanya nodded her head in agreement.

 

“If you want another baby, then talk to him Lav. Talk to André. I am sure you two can work this out.”

 

“We will.” Lavanya’s face creased a small smile as she held her fingers up to quote as she said, “And we talked” pointing to her hickey. “That’s what the world needs, a good, hard fuck. That’s what we both needed.”

 

Now both women were giggling and swatting each other’s shoulders, when Lavanya said firmly, pointing her fingers and waving them at her,

 

“And I recommend its palliative properties to you, Khushi Gupta Krishnan. A good hard fuck is what you need too.”

 

“Lavanya!! Keep your voice down, there are kids around. I am not quite ready to have the ‘talk’ with Mira yet.” Khushi reminded her, giggling.

 

Neither noticed Manorama walking away quietly leaving the two friends to their intimate conversations. It was the first time in a long time that Manorama was reminded that Khushi was a young widow, not quite thirty-five years. But the widowhood that Manorama was familiar with was a long and lonely road. Manorama’s legs felt heavy along with her heart as she slowly ambled back to the kitchen to the children.

 

But the conversation continued in the bedroom between the two friends. Lightened moods and laughter shared made it possible for an elusive memory to coalesce between them.  

 

“Do you remember your first time, Khush?” Lavanya was not looking at Khushi, so she missed the startled shock that passed on Khushi’s face.

 

“What?”

 

“Your first time, the first time you did it?”

 

Khushi quickly looked away from Lavanya when she knew that her friend was going to stick her steady gaze, which always left her exposed. She wasn’t sure where this conversation was going and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to travel along.

 

“Do you?”

 

Evasion wasn’t always the cowards’ way out. It bought some time that Khushi needed to navigate this travel. It looked like she was going to go down that route with Lavanya anyway.

 

“Hm.. yes, but it isn’t worthy of being a memory.” Lavanya laughed wryly. “What about you?” Now Lavanya fixed Khushi with a gaze that she was afraid of.

 

Khushi remained silent. Moments went by but not very quietly and Lavanya nudged her shoulder with her own, she turned to her and shook her head slowly.

 

“What? You don’t remember or you don’t want to talk about it?” Lavanya persisted.

 

“Don’t ask me to go there Lav. I don’t want to.”

 

Khushi avoided Lavanya’s gaze, keeping her eyes on the dresser across the room. She took a deep shuddering breath to hold back the tidal wave of memories from crashing in on her. It was a long time ago, and this was not the time to reminisce. She was not ready for this now, she wasn’t sure if she would be ready, ever. She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth, regulating her breath to calm down.

 

“This has to do with that Arnav, when he came to visit Akash that summer in Delhi, doesn’t it?” Lavanya waited for Khushi to respond.

 

When she didn’t, she continued, “You were involved with Arnav before NK, right? In fact, if I remember right, you sidelined yourself from everything and every one after Arnav left. What was that about? I always wondered. But you looked so wounded and sad that I didn’t have the heart to ask then. I always wanted to, you know.”

 

There was a quiet speculative look on Lavanya’s face. Her mental gears were grinding faster than Khushi’s breath. She knew that Lavanya would not quit her pursuit, once she made up her mind.

 

“Something happened between you and Arnav Singh Raizada all those years ago, Khush. Something really important and something really significant.” It was a statement with no question in its vicinity.

 

There was no room for doubt in Lavanya’s statement.

 

Khushi stiffened and stood up abruptly to mark an end to the conversation and walked into the bathroom to put away the concealer. She wasn’t ready to talk about Arnav or her past. Not at this time. There were battles she had to prepare for – their first trip to India after NK’s passing. Mira’s tears reminded Khushi that her child’s broken heart still bled. They all needed to heal. She stood leaning on her sink, and looked into the mirror and saw Lavanya at the door, her gaze fixed on Khushi.

 

“Please don’t ask me Lav. I already told you that it was something that happened a long time ago and had no future. It wasn’t meant to be. Both, Arnav and I knew that then. There is nothing there anymore. He is a different person with a life of his own in another continent, on the other side of the globe. And I am a widow on this side of the globe who has lost her love to a cardiac arrest and needs to do yet another first without him.”

 

Khushi clenched her teeth and shut her eyes tightly as if to rein in her confusion and tears that seemed so close. This day had to end without tears. She felt Lavanya’s arms go around her shoulders and was pulled into a tight hug.

 

“Alright. I won’t ask any more for now.” Lavanya felt Khushi’s stiff body soften at her reassurance. “Are you going to give me your keys? Is there a list of things I need to take care of when you aren’t here?”

 

Silently thanking her friend for this reprieve, Khushi nodded her head walking out of the bathroom to find the second set of keys to give to Lavanya. Mundane was what she needed at this moment and the list of tasks was the perfect panacea. This, she thought, she could do. She could do this with Mira and Amma by her side. Lavanya joined her and they both walked out of her bedroom, arm in arm.

 

oOoOo

Author’s note: Thank you for all your good wishes and condolences. I appreciate your patience. I didn’t intend to stay away this long, but I am happy that I am back and hope to continue with the posting every week like I did before. ❤ I hope you will join me.

As always I am grateful to @arshi67 for being my alpha and beta for this chapter.