“Love is so short, forgetting is so long.”
― Pablo Neruda
Lavanaya watched her silent friend and sighed. Khushi Kumari Gupta. Singh Raizada added her brain. She had returned nearly three weeks ago to Sheesh Mahal, as serious and silent as she was now. Accompanying her was Akash Singh Raizada, ASR’s brother, Khushi’s Jeeju, he had stayed for a week and then left reluctantly. The sudden appearance of somber and silent twosome had come as a surprise to Aman and Lavanaya. But Khushi did not want to talk about what had happened in Delhi and Lavanaya let her decide. After all who was she to say anything, the Sheesh Mahal belonged to Khushi’s husband didn’t it?
But where was he? Where was ASR?
Khushi had looked startled when Aman had put the question to her. And Akaash Raizada had cast a rather furtive glance at Khushi before telling them that his brother was busy. There was more to it, Aman and Lavanaya could make out. When ASR had taken Khushi with him away from Sheesh Mahal Mahal not more than two months ago, it had seemed that he would not let her be out of his sight ever again. Yet Khushi was back in Lucknow minus her husband?
Khushi had evaded Lavanaya’s initial attempts to talk about her family in Delhi. Lavanaya knew that Khushi’s memories were back, but what she remembered, Khushi did not tell her. As a friend she would have worried about Khushi had it not been for Khushi’s health which was remarkably improved. Khushi did not clutch her knee in pain so often, neither did she require rest every half hour. The limp was less pronounced … so much so that it often seemed to be part of her walk…graceful and slow. She excercised diligently – morning and evening – making sure that it would disappear in the long run. More than that – it was the glow on her face, the glow of health. The cheeks were no longer hollow, the colour no longer patsy. The frantic and bleak look in the eye had been replaced by a thoughtful one, with a soft twinkle often finding its way in the gaze when Khushi mischeviously teased Aman and Lavanaya about their courtship.
Yes, if it was not for the silence, Lavanaya would have been sure that Delhi had certainly agreed with her friend.
Despite the serenity, a strange emptiness marked Khushi’s days in Sheesh Mahal, especially after the bustle of Shantivan. With the hotel and the restaurant shut down, there was not much to do. It gave her time to think– too much time. Khushi spent days reflecting over the events of the past. In the days that followed the return of her memories, the presence of Arnav and of all the people of her past, all the harsh memories – everything had grated on her nerves with their neat clarity. The rejection by her family, Arnav’s irrational suspicion, the cold words, the distrust – it came back to her all so clearly. She had been angry and indifferent to the guilt. So indifferent that she did not want to hear justifications, she could not bear the apologies and tears and therefore, she had cut them short by forgiving and moving on, telling herself that these people no longer mattered to her.
But now, in the quitetude of her days in Lucknow, away from all the tears and the drama, she remembered the other times. Years ago when she had come to her Mausi’s house after her parents had disappeared, the way Payal Jiji would sit with her for hours, waiting for her parents though she knew they would never come; babuji teaching her how to make jalebis…even buaji often forgot that she was an intruder in the family and would rush to take care of her titaliya when she fell ill or someone hurt her. Those moments – sweet and plenty – they were as much a part of her life as the harsh memories of rejection. From where she stood now, distanced from all by time and experience, she saw people with good intentions but flawed, people who were good yet human, people who had once been her world, but now her world had spread far beyond them. They were still important, but her days did not begin and end with them.
And Arnavji? Her thoughts turned to that single name all the time despite her efforts to not think about him. Every single day of the first week in Lucknow, Khushi had gone over their final conversation, the day when ASR had finally given in to Khushi Kumari Gupta. Everyday she lived his pain and justified her own need for time.
‘So you …there will be no forgiveness for me, Khushi,’ he had said when she told her that she needed to go, to leave everything behind. His eyes reminded her of the day when he had first asked for forgiveness the first time, when she had offered sympathy on the death of his parents and he had shouted at her … like always. ‘No second chance, no atonement.’
His gaze bored into her, damp around the edges, accompanied by a slight waver in the voice…voice of a man waiting to hear the final verdict.
‘Arnavji, please,’ Khushi shook her head. For a man so smart and level headed in the field of business, Arnav astonished her with his complete lack of understanding when it came to matters of heart. ‘It is …it isn’t about forgiveness….If I could, I would tell you that I forgive you.. here and now, I am ready to forgive everything that happened. But what would those words mean if I still feel that anger, if the hurt still clouds my mind when you…..when you are with me. What would forgiveness mean if I only remember hurt and anger when I am with you.’
‘Last week was then and this is now. Then I was girl with a blank space in place of her memories. You told me you were my husband. I believed. You told me you loved me I believed.’
‘It is still the truth.’
‘But you cannot pretend that whatever happened before, did not…that it does not matter. Or is it that my suffering, my feelings still don’t matter to you? I need to go because I cannot live with that hurt and anger…they choke me, they will choke whatever is left…of me…of our relationship. I cannot promise to come back because, the state I am in, now, at present, I can’t see beyond that anger and hurt between you and me…will I see anything else when I am away, I don’t know. I can’t promise. Please Arnavji, try to understand.’
He didn’t want to. Arnav shook his head stubbornly wanting to shake off the thoughts that her words were arousing, her reasons, her feelings that he understood – almost against his will.
‘I might never be the same Khushi completely…but if I don’t go, I will never find out. You will never find her.’ Khushi said the final words.
‘No,’ and like always, he had left with that single word hanging between them.
Once again, silence regined between them for the days that followed till one evening, two days later, Khushi walked in on her husband, his shoulders slumped and lines of tiredness etched on his face.
‘Khushi,’ he called from the poolside as she was about to settle down for the night.
As she walked out in the open, Arnav watched her curiously. The colour which had been returning to her face was waning. There was no hint of smile, no teasing twinkle in the eyes, a weariness had replaced the limp in the walk. Her last words had scared him a great deal.
I might never be the same Khushi completely…but if I don’t go, I will never find out. You will never find her.
He turned his gaze back to stars when she came to stand next to him. The brightest of stars whom they had designated as their parents; her parents…had he asked her once how she faced them everyday? His words came back to haunt him…as they always did. How difficult he found it…to face them now?
‘Khushi, when…when you were not here, I promised them, our parents, that once…only once, if I could find you, I would not let sadness touch you…no tears, no sorrow. I did not realize what that meant…then.’ She did not answer. ‘You are not happy, are you?’
The question did not need an answer. What made him ask? Probably a faint dying wish that she would deny and he could hold on to that thread of hope.
‘Go then, Khushi.’ He murmured not willing to look at her even when Khushi gasped and turned towards him suddenly, unable to believe that she had really heard the words. He stood like a stone. ‘Go. But…but there are some conditions.’
Of course, Khushi shook her head and walked away. Of course, there would be conditions. He would never give her what she asked so easily.
‘Listen, first. Don’t walk away when I am talking to you.’ Khushi stilled, unwilling to recover the distance back to him. ‘You…you go to you friend…to Lavanaya and Aman at Sheesh Mahal. I will not try to meet or contact you…but you …you must understand that I cannot let you go like that.’
‘Go to Lucknow. Take your time. But you must tell me what you decide….for yourself, for us, our marriage, our future. I will wait, Khushi. That is it…that is all I ask. Go to Sheesh Mahal. You liked it there, didn’t you?’
Khushi had nodded her nodded faintly…and Arnav had walked out. She had not seen him for the next three days as she prepared to leave. But she sensed him…everywhere, in the silent acceptance of the family, the details of the journey, in the concern all around, in the manner in which she smoothly moved from Delhi to Lucknow.
True to his word, he had not called. Neither had he tried to approach her in any way after their conversation under the stars that night. She had asked him to leave her alone…he did.
Khushi, on the other hand, often grew restless. The urge to talk to Arnav would come over, an urge to ask for explanations, for his reasons for so many things that she failed to understand. Why had he pushed her away so hard? Why had he disliked her so intensely from the beginning? Why was he always angry then? All the questions burnt in her mind…but none more so than the longing to hear the husky voice close to her ear, feel his breath on her nape, the feel of his warm palms as they excercised her leg. In the nights, she remembered the heat from the embers of desire stoked by their togetherness; lying on the cold bed all alone, she tried to re-live the feeling of belonging that he would conjure up, just by putting his arms around her. In Lucknow, the place where she had spent a cold and painful year alone, she remembered how much she valued what he offered.
She often spoke to Payal, asking about the house and family. Payal replied affably, though she missed her sister everday. It was only when they talked about Arnav that Khushi could sense Payal’s dissatisfaction. Initially Payal had evaded Khushi’s enquiries. But one day she had irritatedly asked the question that seemed to be crux of their strange relationship.
‘Why Khushi? Why do you ask about him? Ab kya faraq padta hai?’
‘Jeeji, is that what you think? That I am here because I don’t care?’ Khushi was hurt.
‘I don’t know what to think, Khushi. Ok. Since you ask I will tell you. He takes his medicines on time. He is not drinking as he did when you first disappareaed. Yes, Akaash told me about it. He goes to office, comes back, plays with Aditi…So I guess that means…he is..he is fine.’
‘But he is not, Khushi. He does not talk about you…told us not to badger you with talking about him. But since you ask every time, Khushi, I don’t think he is ok. He is…he is lost…lost without you. Speaks even less…he still pretends to be arrogant and powerful, on the phone, in the office. But it’s a shell, a mask…I see him sitting at the poolside, staring at the sky. His heart is not here…its in nothing here…neither the house, nor the work. He isn’t even living…he merely …exists here,’ Payal sighed.
There was silence on the other end.
‘Let’s …let’s speak about this some other time Khushi.’ Payal paused wanting to change the subject. ‘Khushi…are you happy…in Lucknow, I mean? Still love that town, don’t you?’
‘I don’t know, Jeeji. Love and happiness puzzle me these days,’ Khushi chuckled wryly. ‘But…but I am okay.’
‘You…you are talking care of yourself…right. The physiotherapy, medicines?
‘Yes, Jeeji. Don’t worry about all that.’
‘Ok. I will worry about other things. By the way, NK bhai, wants to talk to you. But not on phone. He asks if it is okay to visit. You can take him around Lucknow.’
‘Yes. Of course. Tell me when he is coming.’
Payal mentioned the day next week before disconnecting.
NK looked around happily. Khushiji was fine with his visit. Great, he could use some time without interruptions with Khushiji, to set a few things straight, which his stubborn bull of a cousin should have done long time back. Beyond Payal bhabhi patting his shoulder, NK met the stormy eyes of the aforementioned cousin. First he would have to set a few things straight here…he sighed.
Arnav looked at NK with anger and stalked away. So it was okay for that fool NK to visit Lucknow while he was exiled form the town, from Khushi’s presence. Sometimes, as much as he tried to put it down, the anger threatened to take over completely as it used to once. His bane, better be on his own to recollect his emotions, tend to the hurt heart than saying things that he would regret later. He closeted himself in his room, their sanctuary.
A knock sounded on the door before the foolish cousin entered slowly and closed the door behind him.
‘So, Nannav. I am meeting Khushiji. Next week.’
It rubbed the stubborn, angry one the wrong way. ‘Get out, NK.’
‘Are you sure? I thought you might want to send some message or something.’
‘She wants to be left alone. And unlike you, I am respecting her wishes.’
‘But, Nannav, when she says she wants to be left alone, she means that you have to wait for her. And you need to tell her that you are waiting. A small message… something to show that you miss her.’ NK fumbled for words to explain the dynamics of a relationship to his brother.
‘I don’t understand.’ What NK said made no sense to Arnav. Leave me alone, meant leave, me, alone. Didn’t it? Or was there some complex meaning behind it, the meaning that NK was trying to explain? Somehow, Arnav could not help but feel that NK advice actually made sense. Not that NK needed to know that.
NK shook his head and turned to leave. Nannav was no help. He would have to manage it on his own…somehow.
‘Can you….will you give her this?’ the uncertainity in the normally steady voice made NK turn around. Arnav was looking intently at the silver anklets that he held in his hand. When he raised his head, the uncertainity was mirrored in the eyes.
‘Wow, Nannav. You are not as bad as I think. You brought that for Khushiji.’
‘They..they are exactly like her mother’s anklets. She said she had to sell them them when she was in Lucknow,’ he handed them to NK. ‘And… tell her…tell her, I also have this.’ He searched through the wardrobe before coming out with another box. It had a mangalsutra, not unlike the one he had put around her neck, angrily, yet it had tied them together. ‘Tell her this..this is waiting, if she wants it.’
‘Nannav’ that was all the warning Arnav got, before his cousin collided with him, sniffing and tearful as he hugged him. ‘I will, I will. Don’t worry, Nannav. I will be your Pehelwan…you know, like in the Ramayana, Ram sends Pehlawan to look for Sita and give his message. I will carry your message to Khushiji,’ Nk hugged Arnav tightly once more before wiping his eyes and leaving the room dramatically.
PS: The chapter title and the quote at the beginning are both from the poetry of Pablo Neruda