Arnav hated Diwali.
He hated the sound of the loud firecrackers. His diabetes wouldn’t allow him to eat any of the millions of sweets floating around at this time of the year, but he hated them anyway. He hated the intricate rangolis made by loving hands at every corner. He hated the candles and diyas lining every windowsill and porch-step of the Laxminagar chawl he lived in. But most of all, he hated the little twinkling fairly lights that all the residents insisted on stringing all over the chawl every year.
And he especially hated it all this year. Diwali seemed to be mocking him. Even the stars– his only solace on lonely nights were hidden by the dense smog and light pollution that Diwali brought with itself. Diwali was meant to symbolize joy, usher in prosperity, but for him, Diwali had always spelled loss. He had lost his parents fifteen years ago on a Diwali night. A stray rocket had found its way with unerring precision into the fuel tank of the car his parents were in, as they drove home after a Diwali party. Seventeen year old Arnav had been in the car too. But the Fates had planned an existence crueler than death for him. The force of the explosion had thrown him from the wreckage– alive but badly burnt. He had survived with the left half of his face and body horribly scarred and disfigured, even after all his surface wounds had healed.
Arnav had carried the legacy of that accident with him for fifteen long years– in more than just scarred tissue. He had built a wall around himself. One he wouldn’t let anyone breach. Not that anyone wanted to. After all, if his disfigured face hadn’t been enough to keep people away, his volatile anger and gruff manner certainly were. He owned the Laxminagar chawl he lived in. He didn’t have to live there. But he chose to. It was far easier among the loud, uncouth, ignorant people of Laxminagar who were upfront about their revulsion and fear, than among the carefully concealed hypocrisy of the upper-middle class neighbourhood he had grown up in. So he lived in Laxminagar and operated the middling textile exporting business his father had left him from his dark apartment. Alone. And although he would never admit it– lonely too.
Until she came along.
A whirlwind of colour and chaos in his carefully ordered, somber life.
The first time he had seen her, he had been in a particularly bad mood. A rather important deal that had been stuck in the pipeline for ages had fallen through. The persistent knocking on his door had done nothing to improve his state of mind. He had opened the door, fully intent upon giving the knocker a piece of his mind. Only when he had opened the door, he had forgotten what he had planned. A girl stood outside. Correction. The most beautiful girl he had ever seen stood outside– a small smile playing on her cherry lips, her nose-pin glinting in the afternoon sun, her hands playing alternatively with the end of her long thick braid and the cotton dupatta of her very ordinary pink printed kameez. The late-afternoon sun directly behind her head created the illusion of a halo. He had blinked. Halos weren’t real. He had learned that the hard way. And he waited for the repulsion to appear on her beautiful face, for her to cringe involuntarily and take a step backwards, while she tried to mask it afterwards.
Only it never came.
She continued looking at him with that melting smile and said in a soft musical voice, “Buaji isn’t feeling too well, so she sent me to pay the rent. I’m sorry if I disturbed you.”
That’s when he realized that her big, beautiful eyes, although shining with a serene light, looked at him unseeingly. She was blind.
He didn’t know what had possessed him to invite her in for a cup of tea. But later he had been glad that he had. She had accepted his offer of tea and in return had become his angel of light. She had slowly broken through his carefully constructed walls and found her way to his damaged core. She had become his first friend in over a decade. She had brought laughter and sunshine and even colour into his life. Both literally and figuratively. Her afternoon visits had soon become the highlight of his entire day and he found himself looking impatiently at the clock everyday around 3 ‘o’ clock.
Khushi had just graduated and was visiting her old maiden aunt Madhumati Gupta– one of his tenants, for some time. And within the first few days of her arrival had become the darling of the entire chawl with her winsome ways and lilting laughter. The residents were amazed at how Khushi bitiya had managed to win over even the khadoos-gussewala makanmalik. They didn’t even subject her to the usual gossip that would have arisen from a young unmarried girl going to visit a bachelor– irrespective of how much older or grumpier he was, everyday.
And it was all going to end today. Another Diwali. Another loss. Only he wasn’t sure if he would survive it this time.
Khushi had finally disclosed the purpose of her visit to him the day before yesterday. She had come to live with her aunt specifically to visit an eye-specialist in Delhi. Her father in Lucknow had finally managed to save enough money to pay for an operation that could potentially restore her eyesight. And it was with that hope she had come here.
He hadn’t responded when she had told him. And she hadn’t asked for a reaction. If she had been hurt at his lack of interest, she had masked it well enough.
Arnav couldn’t tell her that it wasn’t that he didn’t care. It was that he cared too much. For he had fallen in love with her in the month that he had known her. How could he not? How could anyone not succumb to her charm and light? She treated all the other boys in the chawl– the ones that fell at her feet, with laughing indifference. But he had dared to hope that he meant more to her. Had dared to hope that she could see into his soul, and had recognized the love starved man that he really was. The man for whom his family had meant everything once, the man who never threatened his poorer tenants with eviction for failing to pay their rent on time, the man who had spoken so menacingly to that lafanga Raghu for daring to talk rudely to his old father while drunk, that Raghu had shuffled nervously around him for weeks.
Khushi’s operation had been conducted yesterday. It had gone off well. Madhumatiji had called him on his request. He may be selfish but he cared too much to not ask.
Yes, he was selfish. He admitted it freely. He had selfishly not wanted Khushi to undergo the operation. Not because, he didn’t want Khushi to see the world– the world that had been bright and beautiful to her despite her blindness. But because he didn’t want Khushi to see him. Couldn’t bear the thought that when she could see him, she would no longer want to visit him, no longer want to be around him. He could live without her love. Her absence would kill him.
He stared unseeingly out of the window, lost in thought. Khushi had come back from the hospital in the afternoon. He had seen her step out of the taxi with her trademark dancing step. Her beautiful eyes glowed even brighter than usual as she greedily drank in everything around her, like she couldn’t get enough of the world. But she hadn’t come to see him in the afternoon.
He sighed. Best get used to it. The only faint light in his dark house came in through the open window he stood in front of. He never turned any lights on in his house on principle every Diwali. And he certainly wasn’t going to turn any on today.
So engrossed was he in his thoughts that he missed the faint sound of tinkling anklets as she unceremoniously entered through the door.
The soft voice broke his reverie however.
“Arnavji, why is your house so dark? It’s Diwali! It’s practically a law to light up your house on Diwali! Wait a minute. I’ll be right back.” And she vanished through the door again. She was back in 5 minutes holding something in her hand. Arnav, with his eyes accustomed to the darkness, saw that it was one of those decorative Diwali candles and a matchbox.
Within a second he was at her side, and had shot out a hand to cover hers, preventing her from lighting the candle. In the semi-darkness, he could only see her dark brown eyes glinting up at him questioningly.
“I don’t like lights on, especially on Diwali.” His voice was low and rough.
“If you never let the light in, you become accustomed to the dark and you start fearing the light.” Khushi whispered. “I want to see you Arnavji. I have seen everybody I have met in this chawl over the past month, except you. And I want to see you.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Khushi.”
“What if you don’t like what you see?”
“That’s impossible. Do you know that I’ve been dying to see your face from the very first day I heard your voice?”
She made to pull away from his hand but his grip only tightened.
Khushi sighed. “Alright, I won’t light the candle. But can I still see you?”
“What?” Arnav asked in some confusion.
Khushi gently unclasped her hand from his and placed the candle and matchbox on a table that she knew was nearby. Then she stepped closer to him and raised her right hand to his face. Very gently with her fingertips she started tracing the contours of his face. Her fingers never faltered for a second as they ran over the chiseled jaw and cheekbone on the right side and then over the ruined scar tissue on the left side.
Arnav had frozen instantly at her touch, but as her fingers gently ran over his face, he felt as though she was physically rubbing out the scars– not from his face but from his very soul. He sighed and placed his hands on her slender waist and pulled her closer to him. He couldn’t help it. Her presence seemed to soothe and heal him like nothing else could.
She had stopped tracing her fingers over his face and now gently held it in both her hands. “Arnavji, I understand why you don’t have faith in Devi Maiyya, I had hoped however that you would have faith in me.” She stood on tiptoe and hesitantly pressed her lips against his. Arnav reacted almost instinctively. He held her head in place with one hand and pressed her smaller and more delicate form to his own with the other, before kissing her back hungrily although reverently.
She broke away from him after a minute, not without a shade of unwillingness and turned to leave.
She hadn’t moved two steps when she heard a match strike the edge of its box and saw a warm yellow hue suffuse the room. She turned and saw Arnav lighting the candle she had kept on the table.
Arnav closed his eyes for a second to steel himself against her rejection.
When he opened his eyes, he found Khushi looking at him with unadulterated joy and tenderness in her eyes, memorizing each and every detail of his hideous face.
As the light of the solitary candle glowed on her beautiful face, he was suddenly reminded of the first time he’d seen her– when he’d thought that the sun had created a halo around her head. He knew now that he hadn’t been mistaken. She had stepped into his life like an angel fallen from above and rescued him from his personal hell. He held his hand out towards her, uncertainly, very hesitantly.
With a smile, she bounded right into his arms, enveloping him in a bone-crushing hug. “Happy Diwali” she whispered into the side of his neck. He held onto her tightly and smiled into her hair.
It was a beautiful Diwali.
Diwali or Deepavali is the festival of lights in South Asia. It holds different significance for different people all over the subcontinent, but some of the popular myths associated with Diwali include the return of Ram to his kingdom Ayodhya after his exile, welcoming Ganesha (wisdom and luck) and Lakshmi (wealth and prosperity) into your home, Kali– a form of the mother goddess– destroying all evil on earth, etc. Today Diwali is celebrated by Hindus as well as non-Hindus, because Diwali is much more than a religious festival. It signifies the destruction of evil and the triumph of good, it signifies the recognition and embracing of one’s inner light and dispelling the darkness of ignorance. It symbolizes joy.