Khushi opened the iron gate and stepped on the road. No one had come to see her out. Pressing her fingers against her wet eyes, she cast the last glance at the house. She had thought she would heal the breach. How mistaken she had been. Sujata was right. Some wounds could never heal. Only if her aunt had the courage. She sighed and checked the watch. Arnav had told her that he would take about an hour. She still had time and she needed to be on her own to come to terms with what happened, to collect her thoughts. The trail around the house called her. It promised a long solitary walk up the hill. Perhaps the exercise would do her good.
She had taken a few steps when she heard someone call her name. She turned around.
‘Wait a minute!’ it was Shlok, his long strides eating up the distance between them. ‘There you are. I thought you would be in the market. But then after a meeting like that one can hardly go shopping.’ He made a wry face and gestured towards the house.
Khushi shrugged and turned away. She was angry and disappointed. But what could she say this teenager who hadn’t even seen her mother?
‘Hey, wait! Don’t be angry. Sudha bua sent me after you.’ That made her stop. She looked at the boy through the narrow eyes, wondering whether he was lying. ‘Sudha bua…er…you know, my bua, your mausi.’
Khushi nodded. ‘Why? Why did she send you?’
‘Gawd, how much like Baba you sound! Why are you here? Who sent you?’
Khushi huffed and turned away. She disliked being compared to that bitter old man who had no a bit of kindness in him.
‘Hey wait!’ he called out
Khushi kept walking not wanting to keep up with his juvenile conversation.
‘Ok Ok,’ he joined her. ‘You are angry. I get it. Baba is like that. He is old. One can’t change him now. Too set. And he has been miserable since dadi passed away. Can’t adjust to life without her.’ Shlok went on with the conversation alone, not needing Khushi’s inputs. ‘He was driving mom and dad against the wall and they called bua. But it isn’t easy on Sudha bua also. She can hardly stand up to him.’
Khushi listened on silently, still unwilling to talk, but his words thawed some of her anger.
‘So we are struggling. And then you turned up and baba blew his fuse. The problem is no one stands up to him. I tried but then dadi and my mom told me it was disrespectful. SO no one has every told him that he is wrong,’ Shlok paused and Khushi felt his sidelong glance. No except Sujata bua years ago.’ The words stopped Khushi in her tracks. ‘And he has never forgiven her for it.’ Shlok finished quietly.
Khushi turned to look at him. He wasn’t as juvenile as she thought. He looked backed into her eyes with uncommon seriousness. ‘You know my mother,’ she asked.
‘Of course, I know. Dadi talked about her, Bua, even father. I planned to come to meet you when I go to Delhi to study two years later. When dadi was on her death bed and I promised I would bring Sujata bua if she lived for some more time. She didn’t believe me.’ His voice broke. Shlok had clearly been close to their grandmother. ‘Even Sudha bua misses her. I think dad would also like to meet her sometime.’
Khushi nodded, not knowing what to say.
‘Come, there is a small cafeteria nearby. We can get to know each other, Khushi di,’ he asked uncertainly. ‘I can call you that, right?’
Khushi smiled, her heart warming to Shlok’s chatter as they made their way to the café. ‘How is Sujata bua? Dadi said she is married?’
‘Yes, my stepfather is a doctor?’
‘And he is a good man? Not the ogre-like stepfather of fairy tales?’
Khushi laughed. ‘No. No. he is the nicest man in the world. Tell me, Shlok, how old are you?’
They had been in the café for about twenty minutes when she received a message from Arnav.
‘Let me know if you are ready. It is going to rain.’
Indeed it was. The clouds were gathering fast and there was a chill in the air. Khushi quickly told him she was ready to leave and the name of the café.
It took him another fifteen minutes. By the time, the breeze had turned into a dust storm. She had been standing out, chatting with Shlok when the SUV rolled around. A frown and compressed line of his mouth told Khushi that Arnav was not in a good mood. After rather terse introductions, she took her leave, promising to be touch with Shlok. As soon as she had climbed into the seat, the car took off. Fat droplets of rain dotted the windscreen.