He took in a deep breath as his mind still refused to register her retreating form, or just her presence before him.
He loosened his group on the handrail, but let his palm be wound around it as he silently followed her. With Khu’s fingers delicately entwined around his other hand, he urged her to stay quiet.
He followed her to a little cottage house. It was so typically her. It was small, delicate, almost fragile, but it looked homely, somewhat serene. It was the overwhelming simplicity of the structure that inspired wonder. An open garden led to a modest entrance into the cottage.
He had stopped a few steps before her as he had noticed Khushi take out a bunch of keys from her purse.
He waited a few minutes, waiting until she was inside, taking in the surrounding. He pulled up Khu close to him and went and stood at the door.
He trembled as his fingers lingered over the doorbell. He pressed onto it, but retracted his hand quickly.
No. He couldn’t do it. He didn’t feel ready just yet. He was about to turn around when Khu began pulling onto one of his sleeves.
“Dada, this is aunty house. Aunty found you. I want to meet.” She exclaimed with joy. She didn’t understand why Dada had been telling her to keep quiet.
He wished no one would open the door, and that he’d be able to quietly pick up Khu and leave. This had been a bad idea.
He immediately brought his hand to her mouth to stop her from saying anything else that might get them noticed, and swiftly picked her up. Just as he turned around on his heels, to walk away, he heard the croaking of the door.
And then a voice, ‘Ji?’
He breathed a sigh of relief as he realized it wasn’t her. He turned around slowly to face the woman.
“Does Khushi live here?” He asked, as if he didn’t already know.
The woman looked at him and Khu suspiciously, taking in their appearance.
All these years, other than the school she taught, no one had ever come home to meet her. She almost thought that Khushi didn’t have any family or friends; she didn’t even ever talk about them.
“Yes. I’ll just call her.” She said, before disappearing behind the door.
Arnav breathed a sigh of relief; glad he wasn’t asked any other questions.
He heard the woman shout out in the house,
“Khushi bitiya. Someone is here to meet you.”
Then he heard her voice. It was magical, the way her voice enraptured him.
“Who is it Dai?”
The woman peeked her head out of the door again, to ask,
“Who should I say is here?”, the woman asked. Almost excitedly, at her vivid imagination of who this guy could be.
“Err… Just say, an old friend.” Arnav replied. This is the question he didn’t want to answer.
Who could it be? Some old friend?
Khushi skid down the stairs quickly, excited at the prospects of who it might be. Nanhe ji, maybe.
Khushi paused on the steps for a second. She felt that strong gust of wind, the feeling she only got when he was around. Was it possible?
Khu ran up to Khushi and wrapped her arms around her knees.
Khushi looked down at the little girl.
Arnav breathed softly, “Khushi”
Then she turned around to see who had accompanied her, and she met with those eyes. Eyes, that used to be full of virtuous contempt, and now, was it sadness, emptiness?
“Why don’t all of you sit down? I’ll get you some drinks.” Reveled the old woman.
“Nahi, Dai, leave it. I don’t think they’ll be staying for long” Khushi retorted. Why was he even here?
The woman was a little irked by Khushi’s response. Why couldn’t this girl be a little social? She’d confined her life to her school.
“Arre. Beta, you don’t treat guests like that.”
She turned towards Arnav and gestured him to the Sofa,
“Beta, take a seat. And tell me, what should I get for you? ”
Arnav didn’t reply, his gaze was fixed at Khushi. He felt her penetrating gaze, as if, evoking every atom of her body.
The woman turned to Khu, “What will you have my little darling?”
Khu took permission from Arnav first, “Dada, can I have some milk?”
Arnav nodded, he didn’t speak, and he didn’t feel he had the right to talk in front of her anymore. But, he couldn’t even turn around and leave now. He had to fulfill his purpose. He had to talk. He, at least had to try.
“I’ll get you some milk. And I’ll make tea for both of you.” She said, and left them to themselves.
Khushi finally broke the silence, unable to bear his presence in her house.
“Why are you here?”
She quizzed him, when she was absolutely sure Dai was out of earshot. She didn’t want her to know about a past she had refused to remember.
Arnav’s senses were revoked, after he heard her voice. She’d spoken a sentence to him after so long. Even if she was bitter, he was glad to hear her address him.
“Khushi.. I came to.. ”
“Came to W-H-A-T?” Khushi screamed. She didn’t have patience anymore. Not for this man.
“I came to ask you, how are you?”
Khushi gave him a fake glassy laugh, “You came to ask me how I am? Sadly, I’m not as bad as you and your family left me.” . She was full of sarcasm, much like he used to be.
“Khushi.. I never.. I..”
He couldn’t believe it. He’d lost his way with words. He choked on air as words refused to come out of his mouth.
Dai was back from the kitchen with refreshments for everyone. She gave out the drinks to everyone. Khushi picked her cup and sipped the tea nonchalantly. Arnav just looked at her. She seemed so different. So, callous. Arnav huffed as realization dawned upon him, she reflected of him. She had become like he used to be.
“Beta, drink your tea.” urged Dai, who noticed the tension in the atmosphere.
“Ji.” He brought the cup to his lips, but Khushi’s voice stopped him.
“Dai, he doesn’t have sugar. He can’t have the tea.”
“I’ll make you another cup Beta.” Dai said, almost apologetically.
“Nai, it won’t be necessary, thank you Dai.” Arnav.
Khushi didn’t like this term of endearment between the two.
“Yes. He’ll be leaving soon anyway.”
“KHUSHI. That is no way to talk.”
Arnav placed the cup back on the table. He suddenly looked around to spot Khu. He’d almost forgotten she was here with him. Dai had put her milk in her bottle, and she’d dozed off on the couch whilst drinking her milk.
Arnav got up.
“Dai, we must leave. It’s a long drive back to Delhi.”
He moved up to Khu to pick her up.
“Beta, you can’t possibly go back this late in the evening.”
Khushi was just sipping her tea, pretending to not show the slightest interest in the conversation.
“But…” Arnav tried to reason.
“No. Not with your baby. You can’t do that to a child. Have you got any hotel arrangements?”
“No.” replied Arnav. He hadn’t planned this through. He was so thrilled about coming to Shimla, and meeting Khushi, he hadn’t considered the practicality of his plan. He had almost thought that he would meet her, pour his heart out to her, and then, she would agree, and come back with him to Delhi. This was totally unexpected.
“Then, you’ll stay here. With us. It’s only a matter of a night.”
Khushi’s mouth fell open as she heard those words. He. In her house. For a whole night. With his baby?
“But… Only if it’s okay with Khushi.”
He didn’t want to invite anymore scorn to himself.
“I said you’re staying here. That means you are.” she stated.
Arnav looked at Khushi, she still hadn’t cast a single glance at them. Then he turned to Dai, and muttered, “Thank you.”