To old friendships and new beginnings – Happy Diwali everyone!
She didn’t even bother to assume she would be able to step past Aditi Sinha and walk away with a simple good night. Sure enough, the older woman simply asked her to wait as she hurried past her and quickly covered Arnav’s sleeping form with a thick duvet, her movement practiced and fluid even as her brother continued to sleep on unaware. Before Khushi could gather her thoughts, Aditi was making her way back to her. She came to stop right in front of her and looked up into Khushi’s eyes, her own dead serious in a way Khushi might have never expected.
“He is the one? The one who had a girlfriend?” She asked without preamble.
Would denying it make any difference? Arnav himself knew how she felt about him. How much worse could it be if his sister did too? And even if was a hundred times worse, she had no one to blame but herself, did she? She had volunteered that information. And now Aditi had figured it out.
“Oh my God!” She expelled with a long breath and shook her head incredulously. “And you’ve been in love with him for four years?”
Khushi’s face burned with mortification. When put like that she sounded like a complete loser. And while she might be one – she most certainly didn’t like anyone else pointing that out. “I have not been in…It’s not like I have been pining for the last four years. Even now…” She let out a deep breath. She was not going to admit to Aditi she was in love with her brother. Heck, she hadn’t even admitted that to herself yet. Again, that is. “I don’t know what to say,” She shrugged and let her shoulders slump.
Aditi stared at her and then smiled softly. “If someone had said this to me ten years ago, I’d have been telling her to mind her own business. Or at the very least I would have stomped out without answering.”
Khushi shrugged “I am a pushover. I always have been.”
The other woman stepped closer and frowned. “No you are not. Why would you say that? You are just nice enough to not tell me to fuck off. Perhaps partly even because I am,” She pointed towards where Arnav slept with her thumb, “his sister.”
She refused to blush even as blood surged up her neck.
“He fell asleep.” Aditi said with a sigh. “You guys leave in less than forty eight hours and he fell asleep. Really men I tell you…”
She forced herself to not blurt out something sappy like he looked tired or he needed the rest. She was pretty sure Aditi would laugh out aloud at something like that. So she stayed silent and wondered what this sudden midnight run-in with Aditi was going to turn out to be.
“Would you think very terribly of me if I were to ask more questions?”
Somehow, Khushi was fairly sure Aditi didn’t care much about what people thought of her. Still, for her to ask before firing away indiscriminately, had to count for something. So she shook her head, which thankfully Aditi accepted gracefully enough and then suggested for them to sit somewhere. They found one spot much further away from where Arnav was sleeping, perhaps intentionally picked by Aditi. And as expected, Aditi launched into her questionnaire – it was a surprise she didn’t actually have a sheet of paper she was referring to – as soon as they were seated.
“Have you met in the last four years?” She asked first, turning to face Khushi completely even as Khushi tried to maintain some level of sanity by pretending this was just another casual chat by the river.
Khushi shook her head again.
“No, I mean I guessed you hadn’t seen each other. The last four years..they’ve been hard on him.” She said softly. “Has he talked to you about…errr…damn…I wasn’t thinking this through. I have no clue how much he has told you.” She looked away.
“I know about his job…and I know about his…fiancée…” Saira. The name stuck to the roof of her mouth. She didn’t want to talk about Saira. Especially since Arnav had now confirmed that whatever happened was in the past.
“Ab9ut the job – he is being silly. He did the right thing. And if he got fired for it – the firm didn’t deserve him. He just needs to get back to the corporate world and he’ll be back to being the star he is.” Aditi bit out, her face angry like Khushi knew hers would be if this had been Tripti they had been talking about. Then she let out a deep sigh. “Saira…He told you about her. Of course he told you about her. He probably listed everything he did wrong. And made her sound like the most perfect person there was.”
Of course. That is what he would tell her. Of course it made sense that Saira was a wonderful person. Why should it begin bothering her? What had she expected to hear anyway? Why would he fall in love with, No, she corrected herself, why would he almost get married to someone who wasn’t worthy in his own eyes? Sure, he had also said he wanted to be with her….Khushi frowned. He had never said that. Or maybe he had – he had told her there was no going back, no forgetting about the kiss. That meant that he wanted them to be together, right?
Shiv-ji…this was insane. What was she doing?
“No he didn’t tell me about why they broke up.” She interjected before her head split into two. “He was going to…But he…” She turned her head in the direction of where they had left Arnav sleeping.
Aditi looked at her silently for a few seconds before she spoke again. “He blames himself for what happened with Saira. And…I’m his sister so it is okay if you think I am being partial to him. But I would strongly recommend you take whatever he says with a pinch of salt. He tends to blame himself for everything. The truth is that I am not sure why Saira and he were together in the first place.”
Khushi blinked and continued to stare at Aditi, unsure of whether she should be hearing all this from Aditi instead of it coming from Arnav. But then Arnav was right – he didn’t know how much to tell her and she was sure – given the direction Aditi was taking – she was going to prefer the sister’s version to the brother’s. Even if that made her a bloody coward. She was that without any doubts.
“I mean I am not saying there was no external motivation. There always was. When Arnav and Saira were only kids, Amma – our mother – used to tell Raeesa Aunty – Saira’s mother that if not for the difference in religion, she would ensure she had Saira as her daughter-in-law someday. Both Amma and Raeesa Aunty would have a hearty laugh about it. And somewhere I think neither women really cared about the difference in our religions. But Papa – and Ahmed Uncle – both of them in equal measure, warned their wives against such loose talk in front of either Arnav or Saira. When they neared teenage, the talk died down and all of us thought nothing of it. But clearly Saira didn’t forget. When she was fourteen and declared that she was going to pursue a career in medicine, all hell broke loose. Though Ahmed Uncle was as broad minded and well-educated as one can expect, he was completely against a career as strong as medicine for his daughter – mostly because it would make it very difficult to find a groom for her in their community. She was nudged towards the arts, history – commerce at the most and Saira panicked. She came to me one day and asked me if my parents would ever disapprove of Arnav’s wife studying after marriage if she wanted to. I assumed – and this is probably my mistake – that the question was just one posed by belligerent teenager to arm herself with proof that there would be in-laws in her community too who will choose to be as broad-minded as my parents would be with their daughter-in-law. I said yes and the next thing I knew was Saira declaring – albeit almost two years later and only to me at the time – that she and Arnav were a couple and that I was to help them sail through the storm that the families would create once the knowledge was made available to them. To say I was surprised was putting it mildly. Arnav had never indicated that he was even remotely romantically aware of Saira. I tried talking her out of it but she assured me that this was mutual.”
“So there never was anything?” Khushi asked before she could check herself and winced when she saw Aditi’s pitying smile. There was naïve and there was naïve. And Khushi was both, going by the look in Aditi’s eyes.
“Unfortunately they were a couple. Arnav confirmed it. And I know Arnav cannot lie…rather he does not lie on principle. I was just away from home so often – college, then eventually work – that I never knew when it all changed between them.”
Khushi’s spirits fell and still she hoped it didn’t show on her face. Whether she was successful or not, she wouldn’t ever know.
“Initially, I just reconciled their relationship with my opposites attract theory. But they weren’t just opposites – they were at polar ends of every character spectrum there is. Every couple at least needs something in common – and they had nothing. Because I was always close to Saira – she would tell me about almost everything that they fought about – and like an idiot I even tried solving them. I just needed to make sure they were okay. This was my little brother and his future wife, after all. But…once Arnav went to IE-V – things just got worse. He found this new star status in college – and the acceptance of light – mostly Bollywood music that no one in our family ever really gave him. Least of all Saira.”
Music. Of course. It is what she linked with him – what she would always. That is what he saw in her. “But he once told me he was trained in music. If music was such a taboo…” She began with a frown.
Aditi shook her head. “Papa and Amma are very old school. It comes from being a part of the Patna society that they are so integrated with. Their idea of music excellence is just as any else – structured – he went through years of Hindustani classical training and our parents were so proud of him but any filmy singing and our parents would just clam up. And he…” She smiled and looked away. “He was always the perfect child of our parents. I was the rebel, the girl who is never truly part of the family…”
Khushi’s gut twisted. That sounded…
“Yeah, I know that look. And I know it’s terrible when you hear it. But we have patriarchal societies back home – like we do in most of the country. At least our parents – they are good people – they never made any visible differences between how they raised Arnav and me. But…he was the one who bore all the responsibility of being the good son. It didn’t help that the he is brilliant, polite to a fault. Even when he was a little boy, Papa and Ma had to say it once and Arnav did whatever he could to make it happen. When the news of Saira and his relationship broke – it was a shock – for most of us. Our father was…he didn’t speak to Arnav for almost two years. Nothing Ma and I said to him ever mattered. And I don’t even think it was the Hindu-Muslim angle with Papa. He just couldn’t believe his Arnav – his Munna – had let him down like that. Arnav…idiot was not even eighteen – and the way he handled Saira and Papa – one would think he was thirty. And then when things didn’t work…none of us let him live that down…” Aditi looked away but not before Khushi saw the sheen of tears in her eyes.
She stayed silent as always but not because she didn’t have anything to say. But because she was finally convinced that she didn’t want to know anything more about Saira. If this was how the entire episode could affect Aditi – who, whatever said and done, was an outsider to the event – what would it do to Arnav? And didn’t Aditi just say it – he was not even eighteen when they first got together. How difficult was it to imagine that they made an error in judgement? If someone were to tell her to consider Ruchir Shah from school as a potential life partner now – how would she react? And yet in that year she had turned thirteen – a life with Ruchir might have been the only thing worth any trouble at all, in her opinion. Sure, she was possibly oversimplifying the Arnav-Saira situation but now that it was over, how did it matter how complex it had once been? And how was her grilling Arnav about it, going to help. He had been right earlier today. Whatever he said, was going to serve no purpose at all. She just needed to know one thing. “When did they break-up?”
Aditi took a deep breath. “Just before Arnav graduated from business school. Although I am not sure they had truly been a couple like they had once been for a long, long time. Sometime after the night we arrived unannounced at the campus – Saira stopped talking to me about him. Not when Arnav asked for time to finish studying before the wedding. Not when they told us all it was over. I had assumed it was a sign of their relationship having finally become serious but perhaps it was just a sign of there being no relationship at all.”
A near dead relationship for two years after that Aarohan night. Her chest squeezed even as she tried to quell the realization that was now bubbling up her stomach. Music. Her. Aarohan and what had happened…What if they had broken up because of…
“I like you.”
She blinked and looked at Aditi who was now smiling at her in that familiar, Aditi way, a little twinkle in her eyes. “Huh?”
“Nope I am not saying it again. Though I must say I am very, very surprised you both are together.”
Before Khushi’s face could fall at that incomplete statement, Aditi pulled her hand into hers and tugged at it.
“I don’t mean that in a bad way – I mean look at your…has anyone told you how expressive your face can be?”
Khushi smiled a watery smile even as she gently pulled her hand away.
“I’ll explain. I..and you will soon realize this about me – I love to come up with absurd theories and then go look for data to back them up. Like I have this insane theory about the next big leap for the River coming from Management Consulting firms that recruit from business school…” Aditi trailed off even as Khushi’s brow narrowed. “Okay that’s not relevant here. So I was saying….I always assumed that couples work best only when they are opposites. My parents, Aman and I, Munna and Saira…I mean….” She paused and bit her tongue. “Sorry…”
Khushi shook her head. “It’s fine. You don’t have to apologize.”
“See?” Aditi piped up. “This is what I mean. This is almost exactly what Arnav would have said.” She said excitedly even as Khushi frowned. “He really would have. And any conversation with Arnav would have gone one exactly like this. With me talking and he indulging me every once in five sentences.” She raised her hands up in the air in mock-exasperation. “You are so…alike in temperament. And that…I have never seen that. It’s like…Edward Ferrars and Elinor Dashwood…They never made sense to me. Now Marianne and Colonel Brandon – that was…it was…expected – Also because the man is literally mooning over Marianne for half the story.”
Khushi struggled to follow what Aditi was now saying and it embarrassed her. Clearly she was talking about fictional characters…this – other than the rambling about her brother – was exactly the kind of thing that smart women did – talk about Classics the way she talked about Bollywood.
“You haven’t read Sense and Sensibility?”
Khushi shook her head morosely. She really was going to get back to reading. Real fiction. Harry Potter re-reads didn’t count.
“Okay, you must. And if you don’t want to read, catch the BBC series. I have two words for you – Hugh Grant.”
Now Khushi smiled. Grinned, actually. “I love Hugh Grant.”
Aditi smiled superiorly. “That. That is what surprises me. You do look like the sort of person who would like Hugh Grant. You already love SRK. What the hell do you see in that idiot?”
Khushi’s grin dimmed into a smile but it stayed firm on her face, much to her own surprise. If she had been a heroine in some romance novel, she would have said the words that were taking shape in her thoughts at the moment and grimaced as soon as she heard it played back in her head. Have you seen your brother? “The real question is what he sees in me.” She said softly and looked away.
“Ask him someday. Men get totally stumped when you throw this their way. Trust me, I’ve tried. Unfortunately, Aman has caught on now. The last time I asked, he said he loves the shape of my eyebrows. Thankfully, I don’t shape my eyebrows so I can’t say he is secretly crushing on my parlor-wali.”
Khushi chuckled and then started laughing out aloud as Aditi joined her.
And then there was no stopping them. The conversation meandered around topics Khushi hadn’t discussed or even considered discussing with anyone except Tripti in almost four and half years. From beauty treatments to hormonal imbalances to period trouble, Khushi found herself talking about everything she had long hidden away as things she needed to deal with on her own and in isolation, things that had no place for the men who she shared her professional world with and hence had no business holding her back. This sudden, weirdly initiated talk was turning out to be eye-opening in so many more ways than she had expected. Just like the talk they had had a couple of days ago – which had led her to question assumptions she had filed as absolute truths in her head. Khushi smiled inwardly even as her gestures became more pronounced and her volume more definitively a match for Aditi’s.
Neither woman noticed the presence of a shadow behind them or the smile that stole up surprised, sleepy eyes.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Chupke Se
Singers: Sadhana Sargam, Chorus
Music: A. R. Rehman
- Happy Diwali to all of you by the River and to all your loved ones. May the light in your lives shine stronger and brighter each year.
- Since it is Diwali weekend and because Asli Duniya couldn’t even care about that, I don’t see myself being able to update next week. So next update will be on Nov 7, 2016. Thank you for your patience – I understand this is the first story where I have been so tardy with updates. I promise you it bothers me infinitely more than it possibly bothers any of you.