This one is dedicated to my mother. For fulfilling every good-mother stereotype that movies have taught us about, and then some. Talking about her is the hardest thing ever because I never know where to start and where to stop.
Mother, best friend, partner-in-crime, tutor, shoulder to cry on, experimental guinea pig, infinite source of encouragement and faith, shield, fellow fangirl– she is whatever I need her to be and this list will go on forever.
This one’s for you Ma. I know you’ll silently stalk and read this.
Wiping her eyes, Khushi Gupta resolutely sat down at her desk, ripped a page from her notebook and started writing.
1st July, 2003.
I miss you. Why did I have to go to boarding school? I hate it here. Why wouldn’t Bauji listen? At this point everyone already has their own friends. Who moves schools in the tenth standard? I hate Dehra Dun. The silence is nerve-wracking. I miss the noise and people. I never want to live in a small town. The matrons are nosy and the kids are snobbish and unfriendly. The food is terrible. I miss your parathas and rajma-chawal and kheer. There isn’t any privacy in the dorms. How do I do anything with seven other girls in the room?
The classes are ok, I guess. Nothing I can’t cope with. But I have no one to talk to. They probably don’t even offer dance classes. It was raining yesterday and it was misty and so cold. I feel homesick and it’s just been a week. How will I last three years, Amma? I want to come home. Please.
The loud bell signaling the end of study hour made Khushi jump up, stuff the roughly folded letter into an envelope and run to dinner.
Sitting pensively at her desk, Khushi stared at the leaves of the tree in front of her window, fluttering gently in the evening breeze. Slicing a sheet neatly from her notebook, she picked up her pen.
1st September, 2003.
I have exams in about two weeks’ time. I hope I do well. I’m a little nervous about History. I suck at remembering dates and names. I don’t think I’ve told you yet. I made a friend. Her name is Anjali Singh Raizada. Fancy right? I asked her if she’s a Rajput princess in hiding. She laughed and said she’s from Lucknow. I hope I can go to Lucknow someday. It sounds like a nice place. Her Hindi certainly is better than mine. She cringes at my Delhi slang. I laugh at her prudishness. But we get along. I still hate Dehra Dun. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this place. Not that I know what the nightlife is like. Stupid curfews. In any case, who would I go with? Anjali would have a heart attack if I so much as suggested sneaking out. And the others still look at me like I have leprosy or something.
They do have a dance class. It teaches basic jazz and ballet. It’s not fabulous, but it helps. I use the dance studio and do my own thing. The teacher is this nervous looking young woman called Payal. She looked like she was going to burst into tears when I asked her why she didn’t teach Kathak with a name like that. But I felt guilty later and I apologized. Don’t look at me like that! I said I was sorry.
She’s nice. I guess. I want to come home, Amma. I miss you. I wish Bauji would unbend and listen.
With a sigh, Khushi folded the sheet of paper and put it away and opened her History textbook.
Khushi shut the lid of her last suitcase with a decided bang before slipping back to her desk and pulling out the recently purchased letter writing pad. The gentle morning sunlight played across her face and the faintest hint of a smile was discernible at the corners of her mouth.
30th April, 2004.
I can’t quite believe that the year has ended. At times, it felt like time had stopped altogether. But now, it feels like it went by in the blink of an eye. I can’t say I’m not glad that the exams are over though. It’s such a relief! I never have to look at another History textbook again, thank god! The teachers threw us a farewell party the day before yesterday. We had to wear sarees. I have never appreciated you more, Amma. It was a pain in the place you asked me not to mention in public. Anjali is a pro at it and she helped me. I wore that pink and gold Kanjeevaram-thing I brought with me. It looked alright I guess. Anjali was a vision. She wore the most beautiful emerald green saree made of this floaty-tissue-like material. Many of our classmates complimented us. But it was mostly Anjali’s presence, I think. It’s impossible not to like Anjali.
This one chubby matron, who is the nicest of the lot, put a little black dot behind my ear before I left. She reminded me of you. You would have done the same hocus-pocus. Anyway, the party was alright. The food was good (for a change) and the basketball court was decorated with fairy lights and paper lanterns and everyone had a really good time. I missed you though.
But the real surprise came yesterday. Anjali told me that her uncle was coming to take her out for lunch before he took her back to Lucknow. Apparently her uncle is this hot-shot businessman who lives in Bombay and never has time for anything. But he dotes on Anjali and makes it a point to fly down at the beginning of summer every year and pick her up from here, before spending a couple of weeks at their family home in Lucknow. So she wanted ME to tag along. She said that she’d finally made a friend her chachu would approve of and she had to introduce me to him. I was HIGHLY skeptical. No one’s uncle/aunt/mum/dad has ever approved of me. But she insisted and I was too tired to argue frankly.
You won’t believe this, Amma! I was expecting a middle-aged man with a beer belly and thinning hair who smelt of whiskey (like Bauji, I guess). Instead, this incredibly hot 26 year old guy turned up. Her chachu is almost 15 years younger than Anjali’s dad, so he’s only about 12 years older than us! He was really nice and took us out for lunch to this lovely little cafe. He didn’t talk much, but that suits me. He asked me a couple of questions about what I wanted to do. I really hate questions like that. He figured out soon enough that I didn’t want to talk and left it at that. Anjali really does talk enough for all three of us.
Before he left with Anjali, I politely thanked him (just like you’ve taught me) and he looked at me weirdly and said I could call him Arnav. No one outside the workplace called him Mr. Raizada. And then he smiled at me. He has the sexiest smile. Just saying. There really isn’t enough eye-candy at this school.
Anyway, I’m done packing and I’ll be home soon!
Zipping up her bag pack, Khushi surveyed the room one last time and turned to leave.
Shutting the door with a tired sigh, Khushi wiped her forehead, threw the small hand towel onto her bed and sat at her desk with a plop.
3rd November, 2005.
Trying downtown for dance classes was the best idea ever. Thank you so much for helping me think of that! Akash is a genius and is WASTED in this small town. I’m so glad I was able to resume training. Doing it by yourself just isn’t the same. You stagnate. Luckily my length and elevation are as good as ever, if I do say so myself. Akash said that I have the best turnout he’s seen in years! I won’t lie, I was flattered. This way, I might just stand a chance at the Juilliard auditions.
Thank god we get our own rooms during the 11th and 12th standard. Sharing with just Anjali isn’t that bad. She’s considerate and doesn’t annoy me too much. She even wakes me up when I oversleep in the mornings! Just like you used to. Damn it, Amma. It’s been one and a half years and I still miss home! Thank god I’ll be back for Christmas this year. I’m half way there now. I can do this. It’s hard but I remember what you said about hard times being transient and it keeps me going.
Oh I almost forgot! I met Arnav again last week. He’d flown down for a meeting and took Anjali and me out again. His PR manager and girlfriend Lavanya Kashyap was with him this time. She is beyond beautiful. Damn it. All the good looking, chivalrous men are taken. I swear Amma, I’m going to die alone with five cats. I had a good time though. I didn’t have to talk very much other than answer the usual polite questions. Lavanya talks almost as much as Anjali.
Don’t get mad, Amma but I found a little kitten that I’m keeping in a box in the unused storage shed. I promise I won’t get caught or get into any trouble. It’s the sweetest thing. Gotta go feed it now!
Grabbing her jacket, Khushi ran back downstairs.
Pushing herself determinedly off her bed, Khushi turned on the lamp at her desk so as not to disturb Anjali and carefully slid into her seat without a sound.
25th January, 2006.
I’m so mad right now. I’m just mad at the world. I didn’t get in. The one thing I wanted more than anything else I’ve ever wanted– I didn’t make it. Juilliard sent me a very politely worded rejection letter today. I didn’t even get a call for the audition! I wish you were here, Amma. I would put my head in your lap and you would stroke my hair and tell me that everything’s going to be alright. I guess you’ll just have to do it long-distance.
Thank god I’d applied to other schools. I kinda owe Arnav for that. He’s the one who insisted that I apply to at least five other schools. I’m going to call him tomorrow and thank him. I hope one of these schools comes through. I’m not sure about anything anymore. I miss you.
Ferociously swiping her silent tears away, Khushi folded the letter up and climbed back into bed.
With an almost nostalgic smile, Khushi surveyed her room– the empty closet, the bed stripped bare, the curtain-less open windows that let in the spring sunshine.
2nd May, 2006.
This is the last letter, I’ll ever write you from this room or from this school. Isn’t it strange? While I can’t say that this is my most favourite place on earth, I think I am going to miss it! I’ve made friends in strange places. With the hydrangea bushes below the window, with the kitten I nurtured, with Akash and Payal who are now engaged (how disgustingly romantic is that?), with the chubby matron of my old dorm, with the dance studio, with the little creek down at the edge of the campus, with Anjali.
And now for a long summer before I go off to the Pennsylvania School of Performing Arts. I had my reservations, and it’s not nearly as well-known as Juilliard. But it has a fabulous dance faculty and is home to the Spirit In Motion Ballet Theatre. I think I’ll fit right in. I must remember to send Arnav my contact details. He said he has friends there whom he’ll put me in touch with. I sure hope Bauji isn’t sulking anymore. I’ve been telling him for years but he never really believed that dancing is all I want to do.
I can’t wait to come back and laze around in my bed. These three years have been awfully hard without you. I missed you at every step.
Locking up behind herself, Khushi walked down the hallway with her bags, a solitary figure, her heels clicking down the empty corridors.
Slipping her earrings out of her ears, she pulled the pins out of her hair and sat at her desk, still in the sparkling red dress.
26th November, 2008.
This evening was magical. Don’t laugh. It really was. The show was a tremendous success. It was so well received! And the director himself complimented me on my rendition of the Sugar Plum Fairy in our version of The Nutcracker. I can’t believe he even noticed among the hundreds of brilliant performances tonight. But he said, and I quote, “You’re a soloist, Ms. Gupta. Most people are background dancers. But you? You’re a soloist.” I felt like a giddy thirteen year old. I know you’re super proud of me. You always had faith in me. Even when no one else did. I wish Arnav could have come. He often has meetings up at New York. That’s how he visited me last spring.
The after party was a lot of fun too. I was hanging out with the usual gang. I’m home for a bit to pack a change of clothes and then I’m off to spend the night at Eric’s. He said that this calls for a special celebration. Don’t worry Amma. We’re always careful. There’s too much at stake.
This is the happiest I’ve been in years, but I miss you.
Changing into a pair of shorts and a sweatshirt, Khushi grabbed her overnight bag and ran out.
Khushi sat cross-legged on her bed, as still as a statue.
The only movement visible was a sheet of paper clutched tightly in her hand that fluttered occasionally in the light breeze blowing in through the open window of the darkened room.
26th April, 2010.
I’m sick. I’m so sick of everything. I can’t do this anymore.
I’ve been lying to you and myself and everyone else for years.
It’s him, Amma. It’s always been him. I just didn’t want to see it.
I broke up with Eric today. I felt awful. But I had to. It would have been very unfair to him to have carried on like this. I almost felt like I’d been using him for three years. But I do care about Eric. Just not as much as I do about him.
Eric didn’t see it coming. He’s still in shock I think. He hasn’t said anything at all.
I don’t know how it happened. He’s just been around for so many years.
I thought it was a silly school-girl crush I would outgrow. Only I didn’t.
Six years isn’t normal for a silly school girl crush. Even I know that much.
He’s just… been him. Supportive. Helpful. Chivalrous. Quietly funny. Understanding. Whatever I needed him to be.
I’ve been writing to him for years now, Amma. Ever since I finished high school. He doesn’t always reply. He usually just drops me a few lines.
But it keeps me going. He’s the only real friend I’ve ever had.
Yes, Anjali… But Anjali never understood me. Not like he does.
He came for the graduation dinner. With Lavanya.
And all I could think about throughout, sitting at that table with the two of them and Eric, was how much nicer it would have been if the two of us had been alone. I never say much. So nothing seemed off. Except his eyes. Like he could see right through me.
Lavanya is a wonderful person. And I hate her with an intensity that scares me sometimes. But not nearly as much as I hate myself.
I’ve been offered the position of Principal Dancer on the Jenna Hayes Dance Company in New York.
I’m going to take it. Everything seems to be coming together professionally. Only everything seems to be falling apart as well.
I wish I could be with you right now. I miss you so much, it hurts. I’ve never been very good with words, but just this once I wish I was.
Would I be able to tell him how I feel? Convince him how right we would be together? Or would he dismiss me as a silly girl who hasn’t seen enough of the world? I hate that I would do it in the blink of an eye if I thought it would work. Lavanya and Eric be damned.
I’m really tired Amma. I leave for New York tomorrow. I’m sorry, I really didn’t think I’d be able to handle coming home this year.
She continued sitting still, holding on to that sheet of paper, into the wee hours of the morning.
Khushi sat in the green room specially designated for her, her white leotard and full skirt shimmering gently around her lithe form. She stared unseeingly at the mirror, amid the dazzling lights. Her face was unnaturally pale beneath the make-up. She doodled little flowers mechanically around the edges of the sheet of paper she’d been scribbling on.
31st October, 2011.
I don’t know what to do.
He came to watch the show. Out of the blue.
I haven’t seen him since Graduation a year and a half ago.
I haven’t stayed in touch. I couldn’t. Call it self-preservation.
I haven’t seen him yet. I don’t think I could have pulled off Juliet as confidently if I’d known he was in the audience, watching me with those burning eyes of his.
An usher came up to me half an hour ago with the most beautiful bunch of pink rosebuds with a little card nestled among them. It just said “Dinner at 10? –A”. I’d recognize that handwriting anywhere.
Why is he here, Amma? I don’t want to see him. And yet I do. If Lavanya’s with him, I’m going to throw something.
I’m not going.
After staring at her own agonized face for another five minutes, Khushi got up with a weary sigh and picked up a black cocktail dress to change into.
Khushi sat in her long, high-necked night gown at the window of her small studio apartment bedroom, leaning back against wall. The lights and sounds of West Side Manhattan whirled by below. Her eyes however kept darting back to the sheet of paper lying on her bed, weighed down by her cell phone.
31st October, 2011.
It’s the strangest feeling, this being in love business. I can’t say I like this continuous uncertainty and these crazy highs and lows. You know me. I like order and predictability.
I went for dinner after all. But you probably knew I would, didn’t you?
Lavanya wasn’t there. It was just the two of us, like I’ve wanted for so many years.
We hardly talked. Neither of us is very talkative. But the silence didn’t seem to bother him. Me? I don’t know. I was just happy to see him. It had been too long. He looked as good as ever. Except for a couple of greys, I don’t think he’s changed at all in the past 2 years. His face may be marginally more angular. Don’t smile condescendingly. God knows I’ve spent enough time looking at him or his pictures.
We ate dinner quietly, like I hadn’t gone incommunicado for almost two years. He asked me the usual perfunctory questions about work– complimented me on my performance. He’s only ever needed a handful of words from me to understand me. I asked him about his work. I couldn’t bring myself to ask about Lavanya. He told me about the project he’s been working on. I assumed that’s what had brought him to New York. Then he told me that he’d broken up with Lavanya soon after my Graduation. I didn’t voice my surprise. He didn’t volunteer any more information.
He offered to drop me home. And then, at the door of my apartment, he kissed me. Kissed me like no one has ever kissed me before– not Eric, not that silly Laksh I had dated briefly in high school.
I kissed him back. If this was a momentary thing, I was determined to make the most of it– consequences be damned.
And then he pulled away almost reluctantly, still holding me close though. He said that I was never allowed to go away from him again. That he’d known right after my Graduation dinner that he wasn’t in love with Lavanya, when all he’d wanted to do was tear Eric to pieces for holding my hand under the table. That he was going to come and talk to me about us before I’d disappeared without a word to him, until he saw an article in an Indian newspaper, the previous week, about the Jenna Hayes Dance Company and their star dancer– an Indian girl called Khushi Gupta.
I regret having to tell you that I started crying at this point. And he kissed my tears away and stayed with me until he felt confident that I was emotionally stable enough to last the night on my own.
I hate unpredictability, but for once in my life, I’m happy with this chaos.
As her cell phone started vibrating, Khushi walked over and picked it up. The screen flashed Arnav’s name. With a dazzling smile, Khushi answered the phone.
Ensuring that Arnav was fast asleep, his imposing body stretched across the pillows like a feline’s, Khushi carefully slipped out of bed, wrapping her dressing gown around herself.
Padding barefoot to the study of their rather lavish New York apartment, Khushi took out another sheet of paper.
1st February, 2013.
If I were ever asked to explain what complete bliss feels like, I’d point to this moment.
He proposed. I hadn’t really expected him to. Truth be told, I don’t care about marriage. All I want is him. Whatever it takes.
But he said that he needed to make an honest woman out of me and ensure that I had no escape clauses at the same time.
Bauji is going to be so relieved. Remember how he threw a hissy fit when I moved in with Arnav? The man moved to New York for me. It’s the least I could do from my end. We’ll come back for the wedding though. I don’t think Bauji’s still entirely happy with our relationship, but he’ll stop complaining now. Hopefully. I did once ask Arnav if our age difference bothers him.
He laughed and said that the only reason he didn’t feel like a cradle-snatcher was that I’m an old soul in a young body. A sexy one. He says outrageous things like that all the time. I never tell him, but it thrills me to no end.
Damn it, Amma, I wish you were here with me to hug me and congratulate me personally. I’d give up anything (except Arnav) to see that expression of unadulterated joy on your face.
Just as Khushi was folding the sheet of paper, she felt his arms wrap around her in a protective embrace. She leaned back against his bare chest, reveling in the feeling of the barely leashed strength enveloping her.
Arnav nuzzled his nose into the crook of her neck, kissing it softly.
“Writing to Amma?”
He felt Khushi hum her reply against his chest as she turned in his arms.
Tightening his arms around her, he ran his hands through her hair and down her back in a reassuring motion. Then holding her hand, he put the folded sheet away into the chest that housed almost ten years’ worth of letters and swept her up into his arms to carry her back to bed.
Leaning her head against his shoulder, Khushi sent a silent wish out to the stars, thanking her Amma for watching over her always. Just like she had promised she would ten years ago.
Mother’s Day is celebrated on different days all over the world. In India, it’s the second Sunday in May. Commercialized or not, I say we all take our mothers for granted most of the time and this day is a reminder to not do that.
When was the last time you hugged your mom and told her how much she means to you?
Do it today. Preferably every day.
Yes, this is very vaguely inspired by Jean Webster’s Daddy Long Legs. It’s a fabulous book and I suggest you read it ASAP if you haven’t already.