Timeframe: Written late July 2012, based around the end of their contract marriage.
He sat in the living area; his back straight, face devoid of expression, staring intently at the laptop screen in front of him with eyes that refused to stop burning. He did this every evening after work and made sure he stayed there for a short period of time else they’d start coming to his room one by one to make sure he was ‘ok’… to which he never really had a response because they only had to look into his eyes to see how ok he was.
Now he could feel them moving around him quietly, concerned, talking amongst themselves; his family.
Someone set down a mug of coffee next to him which he ignored; he heard Nani sigh but he didn’t look at her. He avoided all of their pitying eyes and focused on the little clock in the bottom-right corner of his laptop: 22.15. Another 10 minutes he decided, just as someone threw themselves next to him, causing him to look up in surprise.
‘Nannav mere bhai! Aaj bhi itni late…?’ NK ignored the furious glare he received and carried on doggedly, determined to bring Arnav out of his funk today at least; he had never been one to give up on hoping for miracles.
‘C’mon Nannav, ek din ke liye you couldn’t take the day off…?!’ He waited but got no response so he risked putting a hand on Arnav’s shoulder, ‘Ok mere bhai, never mind, h-‘ Before he could finish Arnav shot to his feet and closed his laptop with a snap.
‘I’m fine NK.’ Arnav didn’t let NK finish what he’d opened his mouth to say and brushed away his concern before he turned and strode up to his room, leaving them to think whatever they wanted. He didn’t let out a breath till he got to his room but once there he found no peace in its semi-darkness either.
He sighed as he put down his laptop and moved to the wardrobe. He pulled off his grey tie and began removing clothes from the wardrobe on auto, trying to ignore the gaping spaces which he couldn’t get himself to fill in all these days. The spaces were just there waiting, cold and empty like he was…
I can’t think of all that right now; not again, he thought, not tonight. Instead he slid the wardrobe door shut quietly and focused on putting one foot in front of the other, going from the wardrobe to the bathroom to take a shower. But once he was done and there was nothing else to do but think, he simply sat on the edge of his recliner, holding his silent phone in his hand and staring blankly out into the darkness.
‘Aaj ke din bhi kya Laad Governor bane rahenge..?!’ He swallowed hard at the lilting voice that was always inside him, struggling to breathe evenly as he tried and failed not to think about all the ways in which he’d managed to reduce his life to this.
‘Ae Sanka Devi! Kya kar rahi ho itni raat ko? Soh kyu nahi jaati?!’ Khushi jumped as Buaji prodded her in the ribs and looked down at the phone in her hands guiltily before she stopped twisting it nervously and straightened up.
She let Buaji fuss over her and made the right noises till she left her alone in the darkened room and Khushi sat up in bed. She ignored the creaking underneath her and as she picked up the phone once again, her eyes unwittingly fell on the empty space next to her. It had always been her side of the bed since she could remember but now even though it was empty, it was someone else’s.
She didn’t even need to close her eyes to see him, wearing white perhaps, or maybe grey… Sleeping on his side with strands of hair curling over his forehead, one hand tucked under his cheek and another reaching out for her…
Khushi shook her head to rid herself of the vivid images, swallowing the lump in her throat and covering up the empty space up with a blanket. Not that it helped much. During her first few nights back home she’d tried sleeping there but it’d felt wrong, then she’d tried putting pillows there instead but that felt even more wrong so she’d given up and admitted defeat; she knew nothing would fill that space and she just had to live with it.
She shifted again and the loud creak brought with it whispered memories, ‘tumhari side jo hai, chup kaise reh sakti hai..?’ The husky voice made her heart ache and the phone in her hand beeped in protest as her fingers dug into the buttons. She looked down at it again and told herself it didn’t matter; in the weeks since she’d left him, he’d called every night even though she never answered. But she hadn’t really expected it to ring tonight; that choice was hers to make.
‘Aaj ke din toh tum Arnavji ko ek phone kar sakti ho Khushi..’ Payal’s pleading words from earlier in the day rang in her mind. Her sister couldn’t bear to see either of them so miserable but Khushi had held fast in her stance.
Their marriage was over. She’d honoured the 6 month contract and then she’d tried to leave with as little fuss as possible, waiting till he’d gone out of town for a couple of days but the aftermath of the truth had rocked both families and she hadn’t been able to hide from it for long. But she’d stuck to her decision; she had already caused him too much pain, she knew he was torn so she’d decided to take herself out of the picture and make it a little less difficult for him.
He’d come as expected, storming in like a hurricane, offering no excuses or explanations, ignoring her families protests and simply demanding to see his wife.
At first It had been easy for Khushi to turn the tables and lie, saying she could never forgive him for what he’d done – because he’d flown in all guns blazing as usual; furious and trying to force his will on her. But it had been much harder for her to hold up the lie once the angry mask disintegrated and she could clearly see the despair in his eyes as he pleaded for her to just come home.
She’d come so close to breaking in that moment but had managed to turn away, repeating to herself that it was for the best and he would be better off without her – the whole family would be able to put the pieces back together without her there as a constant reminder.
She hated lying but she’d only lied so that he’d let her go. After that he’d tried to see her on more than one occasion but she’d always refused, knowing she was breaking both their hearts. He wanted another chance but she couldn’t risk facing him otherwise he’d know the truth; that he didn’t need another chance because he would always have her heart.
A clock chimed somewhere outside and Khushi looked at the glowing digits of her alarm clock; 23.30.
There was no need for her to call. She’d already gone against her better judgement today thanks to NK’s prodding. He’d been the most supportive but he also kept up the constant chatter about Shantivan so she knew that although some things were settling back into normal routines, Arnav was distancing himself from all of them more and more as the days went by.
She’d given in finally when he’d told her sadly that he hadn’t seen ‘Nannav’ smile in over a month… ‘I wish tumhe duniya ki saari khushiya mile…’ His heartfelt words echoed in her mind and she sighed, putting the phone down while still biting her nails; there really was no need for her to call…
Arnav sighed as he snipped off a thorn from the foliage in front of him and endless words ran through his mind in a voice clear as day, ‘shaitan apni podho ka bohth khayal rakta tha… sundari ko bohth darra tha tha… pal mein shaitan, pal main raj kumar…’ He closed his eyes and put down the pruning shears before looking around, desperate for a distraction.
For the first time he noticed that his garden was green and blooming, dotted with splashes of colour from the roses he’d planted after she’d gone. But seeing it did nothing to ease the ache and only made him wonder how the same hands that had driven her away could bring so much life.
He didn’t know what to do anymore, he’d tried every way to get her to talk to him but she was hell bent on avoiding him… He knew she loved him, he’d seen it, felt it but he couldn’t ignore the fact that he had hurt her countless times and in countless ways and he wasn’t sure if she could forgive him either. He knew it was selfish of him to want her back after everything that’d happened but he couldn’t let it go because everything was meaningless without her.
There was a knock on the door which he ignored as he walked into his room and picked up his phone, not surprised to see a few work e-mails but no calls. The person knocked again and before he could answer, the door opened and a head appeared. ‘Nannav mere bhai, tum andhere mein kyu betein ho?’ NK barged in just as Arnav muttered a short ‘cos it’s almost midnight’ more out of annoyance than anything else.
‘Relax Nannav, main batti jalane nahi aaya, I came to give you a present!’ Arnav rolled his eyes, ‘I don’t want anything from you, go to sleep NK.’ He tried to shove him back out but NK held up a small gift-wrapped package as if it would save him.
‘It’s not from me! I..uh, mujhe kahi bahar mila tha, it’s for you!’ Arnav glanced down at the bright purple sparkly package which had no tag and frowned but he took it just to get rid of NK, ‘OK thanks, bye.’
‘Wait! Aren’t you gonna open it? Mujhe bhi dekhna hai!’ Arnav gritted his teeth and resisted the urge to throw the box at NK’s smilingly expectant face. ‘Fine.’ He ripped open the package and suddenly froze with his eyes wide open until after a long moment a faint smile touched his lips when he remembered the annoyed promises she’d muttered to herself of how she’d mark this day…
‘Mosquito repellent coil?! What the..?!’ NK’s incredulous words cut off abruptly as Arnav’s brain grasped onto the bit of hope in his hands, trying to figure out what it meant and he asked urgently, ‘Where did you get this NK? Kiss ne di?!’
NK shook his head disgustedly for a second but his next words confirmed it for Arnav and his face broke out into its first smile of weeks, ‘Usse pata tha ke tum smile karoge!’ He frowned for moment and then sighed, ‘You know Nannav, tum dono bohth hi ajeeb ho…’ NK shook his head again, as if it was all beyond his understanding and then patted Arnav on the shoulder before he turned to leave, ‘Happy Birthday Nannav.’
He was still holding the box, wishing there was more – a note, anything to show it was more than just a gift, that it meant more. He looked down at his phone; 23:45. Should he call her? She hadn’t answered in all these days but maybe tonight… He took a breath and dialled in her number from memory but then thought she was probably asleep so he cleared the screen when suddenly the phone rang. He looked down at the blank screen in confusion and realised it was the cordless phone on the table that was ringing and not his mobile.
‘Hello?’ Khushi’s eyes widened and as her heart started beating too fast she resisted the sudden urge to slam the phone down.
It was just hello and he sounded just as abrupt as ever but she felt tears spring into her eyes as she tried to calm her heart down. ‘Hello..?’ There was silence for the longest time and now she held onto the phone tightly till she heard a sigh, ‘Khushi…’ She wasn’t surprised; she was just relieved to hear his voice saying her name again after so long. ‘Kaisi ho Khushi?’
All Arnav could hear was rustling but he knew it was her, had known it almost instantly. He felt like anything he said might scare her off so he waited until it got unbearable and he tried to get her to respond, ‘Kuch bolo gi nahi Khushi? Finally bolti band ho gayi..?’ He heard a sharp intake of breath and then, ‘Kya?! Nahi hum toh…’ She stopped again and Arnav felt a mixture of relief and longing run through him at the sound of her voice, so full of indignation and yet he could still hear her tears.
‘Don’t cry Khushi… meri yaad aa rahi thi iss liye phone kiya?’ He closed his eyes and enjoyed the bittersweet ache as heard her mutter incoherently for a minute and then tell him categorically that she was not crying, ‘humme sirf aap ko janam din ki badayi deni thi bas!’
He heard her take a shaky breath and then say quietly, ‘aap sapne dekhna chod dijiye Mr Raizada.’ Arnav stood up and walked to the window. He looked out at the garden thoughtfully, feeling oddly calm as he wondered if he should push his luck and risk her hanging up, but in the end he could’t help himself. ‘Aur tum apne aap se jhoot bolna chod do Mrs Raizada.’
‘Ab hum sirf Khushi Kumari Gupta- hai!’ She sounded firm enough and he could easily see the stubborn glint she must have had in her eyes but he heard the involuntary pause after ‘Gupta’ and a wistful smile crossed his face, ‘You’re wrong Khushi… tum hamesha Mrs Arnav Singh Raizada hi rahogi, I can promise you that.’
He let that sink in for a moment but didn’t let her cut in when she tried, ‘Thank you for the gift Khushi – I’m glad tum ne apna vaada nahi bhula… Mujhe wish nahi karogi?’
Khushi blinked in confusion, her mind still reeling at the turns one simple phone call had taken in a matter of minutes. She wondered if they’d ever have a normal conversation where one wasn’t challenging the other. He prompted her again and she decided to ignore everything else and focus on why she’d called, suddenly intensely aware that she wouldn’t be speaking to him again.
‘Aap ko apni janam din mubarak ho Arnavji,’ her voice broke a little as she continued softly, ‘Devi Maiyya aap ko duniya ki har khushi de.’ She swallowed back tears and waited until he replied in a soft voice which seemed to reverberate through her, his words filling her with despair and longing even as her heart sang, ‘lekin duniya mein meri toh sirf ek hi Khushi hai.’
Khushi couldn’t reply, her throat was too thick with tears and she was scared of what she’d say if she let herself speak. Maybe he understood because he waited a little longer and then sighed, ‘Goodnight Khushi.’ She heard the click and then let her tears fall. She knew it had been a bad idea, the present had been stupid enough but the quiet certainty with which he’d said she would always be his wife had scared her and thrilled her in equal measures.
She felt lost and she missed him more than ever but part of her felt almost revitalised after hearing his voice and underneath it all she was just happy to know he was safe and well. And that he’d smiled after seeing her silly gift…
Arnav hadn’t expected her to reply so he’d said a quiet goodnight and put the phone down. He leaned his forehead on the cool glass of the window and closed his eyes, not knowing which emotion to feel first – the joy of hearing her voice after so long, pain that she was still angry and hurt or confusion that she expected him to find happiness without her… He pushed himself away from the window and saw it was midnight; his birthday was over but for the first time he felt that maybe all hope wasn’t lost.