“Hmm. And what did she say about their previous prognosis? We thought the treatment was helping.”
Khushi closed her eyes, trying desperately to focus on the medical jargon floating down the line and ignore the steady pounding at her temples. A sudden waft of the most delicious smell forced her to look up. She’d recognize that smell in her sleep. In fact, it was what she used to wake herself up every morning: Khushi stared at the indigo ceramic mug filled with a dark liquid, held in front of her. Hypnotised by the fragrant spirals of steam rising from it, she reached for the mug and took a careful sip, sighing in relief as the slightly sweetened mild Colombian brew coursed through her system.
“Khushi? Are you there?”
Khushi winced at the raised volume, pulling her phone slightly away from her ear.
“Haan, Mom, right here.”
Swallowing another mouthful of coffee, she refocused on her call, throwing a quick look of gratitude at the man who had dropped into the chair next to her.
“Okay, keep me posted. And let me know if you need anything– not that I can do much from here. Yeah, yeah, love you too. Bye.”
“Yeah, she had to be taken to the hospital last night. Breathing trouble. I’ve been telling Mom to bring her here for ages; Bombay has some of the best oncologists. But Nani didn’t want to.”
“You were okay with her doctor, weren’t you?”
“Yeah,” Khushi sighed, “Dr Nandi is very competent, and she always inspires confidence. I’m just fidgety ‘cos I’m all the way across the country and can’t do anything concrete.”
He gave her hand a quick squeeze and let go, leaving a slight tingle in her palm.
“Sure you can. You can listen to your mom fret and be the voice of reason. You can try to make your dad laugh like you always do. You can tell your Nani you’ll visit soon when she is well enough to talk to you.”
Khushi rolled her eyes, attempting a smile.
“You know what I mean. Anyway, she’s stable now. They’ve decided to keep her under observation for another forty eight hours before discharging her. And thanks for the coffee. It’s my favour–”
She stopped short, curling back into her seat, using the mug to warm her fingers.
A second later, his whispered “no problem” coincided with her heart pumping just a little faster and her ears heating up. It must have been the caffeine.
Arnav watched Khushi over the pages of the script he was supposedly reading. Curled up in one corner of the couch, she’d dozed off despite her best intentions. The late afternoon hit of caffeine must have worn off, leaving her fingers lax around her own script and the exhausted lines around her eyes visible under the layers of concealer. He really ought to wake her up– he knew there was nothing Khushi hated more than falling behind on work. They were nearing a crucial turn in the story which was at its halfway mark. Akash was paranoid about this show and there had been a last minute revision to some of the dialogues again. They were supposed to be memorizing the new lines but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Their work hours and her anxiety about her grandmother’s health were clearly taking a toll on her. He ached to put things right between them– to offer a shoulder to rest her head on, but he would not make things harder for her. He had promised to give her time and space to get used to having him around, to learn to trust him again, and he would not push her. He would stock her favourite brand of coffee in his room, he’d learn her lines as well as his to cue her in case she fumbled, he would encourage her to talk to him about her grandmother, but he would not cause her any more pain.
She looked so peaceful, he drank in the picture she presented. God knows, peace had been a scarce commodity in the last few years. Even their one night of stolen pleasure a year ago had been desperate, turbulent. And it had changed their friendship for good. No matter what he’d said to Khushi, he had been troubled by it. His self-loathing had intensified until he’d been unable to think about anything beyond his failures for days on end. Until…
Khushi stirred in her sleep, almost as though she were reacting to the dark turn of his thoughts. He shook his head and stood up, easing the kinks out of his shoulders and spine, and leaned over to Khushi’s corner of the couch. His fingers hesitated briefly, before he reached out and brushed a knuckle against her cheek. He couldn’t stop himself from touching her sometimes, despite his best intentions.
Her lashes immediately fluttered, the gold-dusted lids struggling with the weight of slumber. Arnav sucked in a harsh breath as her she tried to focus on him. Her mahogany eyes had flecks the exact gold of her eyeshadow. Her sleepy gaze seemed to glitter, infinite emotions flickering through, before she quite registered who was leaning over her. A moment later, her guard went back up and the Khushi Gupta of practiced smiles and good-natured prattle appeared.
“Fuck, I fell asleep. I must be more tired than I’d thought. Are you done with your lines? Please tell me you’re not. I’ll never live it down if Arnav Raizada is more on top of things than I am.”
He smiled at her, deliberately lifting one corner of his mouth higher than the other, deepening the slight dimple that appeared in his right cheek. Those few seconds of sleep-drenched vulnerability had shown him that Khushi was not nearly as unaffected by him as she would have the world believe, and he would press every advantage he had. If it was the ripple of sexual awareness between them, so be it.
“No, I’m not done, Obelix. Figured I’d get a head start and then wake you up.”
He was close enough to notice the faint sheen of sweat moistening her forehead, the quickening of her breath, and the gold in her irises melding into black. A heartbeat later, he straightened and returned to his chair.
“I…you…it’s absolutely ridiculous that you still call me that. I don’t eat that much.”
Khushi refused to look at him, making a great show of turning the pages on her script instead.
“Khushi, you could out-eat me on most days. I assure you, it’s very impressive. And I suspect that’s why you dozed off– the biryani Akash brought for dinner.”
“You suspect right, you horrible human being, but I was starving and I love Akash’s mom’s biryani. I shouldn’t have eaten so much of it, of course. Karma will punish me with major bloating. I’d better tell Sharmeen to switch tomorrow’s saree to an anarkali.”
Her sheepish grin and teasing twinkle made his breath catch with bittersweet longing. Under the bright lights and reflectors, with the background hum of the set, and the smell of fresh sawdust and paint swirling around, an awfully corny The Perks of Being A Wallflower quote flashed in his mind. Arnav chuckled. There were some things a thirty three year old man, desperately trying to woo a woman with an inconvenient sense of humour, just did not say out loud.
Khushi studied the masses of leaves and the gaily painted pot with interest. It was new– that is, it hadn’t been there three weeks ago when she’d picked him up on her way to meet Akash for dinner. Swirls of blue, green, and violet covered the ceramic surface of the pot while the leaves were frothed over with newly bloomed white chrysanthemums. Like snowflakes in the Bombay ‘winter,’ she mused, squatting to admire the flowers better. Muffled conversation flitted in and out from behind closed doors and the flower pot glowed in the otherwise dark hallway. Just as she straightened up to ring the bell, the door opened and a tall woman in a mauve tussar silk stopped short. Khushi’s face broke into a grin and she stepped forward to embrace her.
“Avni didi! How are you? My god, it’s been ages.”
The older woman seemed to stiffen further, barely returning her hug. The smile on Khushi’s face faltered as Avni Raizada Prakash didn’t quite match her enthusiasm.
“Arnav didn’t… tell me you were in town. How long are you staying?”
“Just leaving. Now, of course, Arnav’s foolhardiness makes perfect sense. He never could keep his head on his shoulders where you were concerned.”
Khushi flinched slightly at the venom in Avni’s voice.
“Di!” Arnav stood staring out of massive windows in his living room that afforded a panoramic view of the Arabian Sea. With his sharp reprimand, Khushi belatedly began to register the angry splotches on Avni’s cheeks and the tense set of Arnav’s shoulders. She took an involuntary step backwards.
“This obviously isn’t a good time. I’ll…talk to you later, Arnav. Nice seeing you, Avni didi.”
“Oh, please don’t leave on my account. Like I said, I’m done here.” Without a second look at Khushi or Arnav, Avni swept out of the apartment and down the hall towards the elevators.
A second later, Arnav turned and strode to his door where Khushi stood uncertainly on the threshold. He wouldn’t quite meet her gaze as he clasped one hand and pulled her in, shutting the door behind her.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to leave? We can watch this movie next weekend. I’ll call Akash and cancel.”
Arnav sighed, rubbing a weary hand over his face. “No…that’s unnecessary. We haven’t had a day out in so long, I’m exhausted and I need to take my mind off things. Let me go get my wallet and keys and we can–”
The insistent ring of Khushi’s cell phone cut him off.
Khushi glanced apologetically at him, answering the call.
“Oh, hey, Akash! Yeah, I’m at Arnav’s– we were just about to leave. What? Oh, fuck. No…no, don’t be silly, you have to. Yeah, let’s shoot for next weekend. Take care of Aunty and keep us posted.”
Khushi disconnected the call, looking up with a frown.
“Akash can’t make it; Aunty had gone out for a walk and a couple of thugs on a bike snatched the gold chain she always wore. She’s unhurt, luckily, but badly shaken up and also insists on filing a police report right away.”
“Damn. That’s awful. Is Akash taking her now?”
The silence stretched awkwardly between them until Khushi cleared her throat.
“I guess the movie isn’t happening today, so I should head home…”
“Or you could stay? I’ll cook us dinner.”
Arnav looked at her so hopefully, it broke her heart to say no. But she knew this wasn’t the best idea.
He shook his head with a wry smile. “Do you want me to invite the neighbours to chaperone? They’ve been angling for a chance to hang out since I moved here last year. Make their day.”
Khushi snorted. “That casual arrogance again. How charming.”
“I would like some company this evening, though. I mean it. And I’d much rather it be you than the Patels.”
Disarmed by his sudden swing back to sobriety, Khushi found herself nodding. God, when would she learn?
“Arnav…I have to ask…why is Avni didi mad at me? I haven’t seen her in like two years!”
His knife stilled for a moment before he continued mincing the garlic.
“She’s not mad at you. She’s mad at me– we had a slight disagreement and you just happened to show up and ruin her dramatic exit with your chirpy greeting.”
A scrunched up scrap of paper towel hit him squarely at the back his head.
“Nice shot, Obelix. You’ve been practicing throwing paper balls into waste paper baskets in your free time, or what?”
“Yeah, things on set can get awfully monotonous and the last script I worked with wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.”
“Oof, you’re on fire today. Or is it the wine? That’s your second glass, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s my first, and don’t change the subject. She distinctly said something about me being linked to something foolhardy that you’ve done. I want to know what she thinks I’ve instigated you to do.”
This time Arnav put the knife down and turned around to face Khushi. She sat cross-legged on one corner of his granite counter, staring into the ruby depths of her wine glass. There was nothing remarkable about their conversation except a quiver of hurt in her voice had alerted him, and he didn’t know how to answer her question.
“Don’t even bother lying to me to spare my feelings. I can handle it, I’m a big girl. So what is it? Your divorce? This show? This apartment? Our ratings? What is she angry about?”
Always uncomfortable with silences, Khushi looked up to find him studying her warily.
“It’s actually none of the above. Well, not directly. It’s about an offer for a movie that I declined.”
“Yeah. Believe it or not, the ratings and online engagement generated by this show have been enough for some producers to forget about my Bollywood debut debacle and offer me a couple of films. I’ve learned my lesson, however, so I said no to all of them. Even if any of them were interesting– which they’re mostly not– I wouldn’t leave this show in the lurch. Not this time. I’ve promised to stick around for a year and I will.”
Khushi put her glass down on the counter beside her and folded her hands primly, paraphrasing his words slowly.
“You’re being offered films again, which is unsurprising, and you’ve decided to not take any of them up until you finish this show. So what’s the big deal? We’re more than half done. We have, what, four months left?”
“The big deal is one specific movie. I had a conversation with…Meher Malik some days ago and she wants to me to play the protagonist in her next film. The catch is that she wants to start shooting in a couple of months– before my contract for Ghulam ends.”
Khushi parroted his words again.
“Meher Malik wants you to play the protagonist in her next film but in two months?”
“Yeah…so I sent her my regrets. I’m willing to consider it after we’re done with Ghulam, but not before. But she’s persistent. She managed to get in touch with Di, who is apparently an old classmate of Meher’s sister, to get her to talk me into it. I said the same thing to Di that I said to Meher, and to you just now. She didn’t like it.” Arnav ended with a shrug.
“Okay, firstly, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that you could potentially be working with Meher Malik. Meher Malik. I’m such a fan, god. Secondly, convince her to push the film back another couple of months, na. You’ll be done by March! If she’s desperate enough to get Avni didi to come all the way from Delhi to talk to you, surely she’s willing to push her film back a little?”
“That’s the catch. Meher’s been working on this film for a while and the producers insist it go on the floors right away. This way it’ll be done in time for an Eid release.”
“Okay, that sucks. But you can’t breach contract anyway. Jha drew it up watertight!”
Arnav looked up at the blue stained glass lamp hanging from one corner of his kitchen ceiling.
“She’s willing to cover the cost of me breaching contract and get the production team’s lawyers to broker a deal with Jha. Apparently, this is a conversation that she’s already hinted at with Jha… and he is not unamenable. She’s serious.”
“That’s…wow. I…this is huge. I don’t know what to say. I mean, obviously, I’ll miss finishing Ghulam up with you. But this is…amazing!”
Arnav stared back at Khushi, incredulous. “Haven’t you been listening to what I’ve been saying, Khushi? I’m not doing it. I don’t care how far she’s willing to go to have me in her film– I’m not even considering it if it involves me breaking contract for Ghulam. That’s why Di’s mad. She thinks I’m being shortsighted and a stubborn idiot.”
“Are you…sure about this? Don’t…make a decision emotionally. If Meher can broker a deal with Jha to get you off your contract…it might be worth thinking about. This is big for you.”
“I don’t fucking care! I’d have thought you, of all people, would understand, Khushi.”
Arnav stalked over to the refrigerator to retrieve a pack of bacon and a handful of vegetables before returning to his chopping board.
Khushi slipped off the countertop and walked up to him. A slight pause in the chopping was the only acknowledgment he gave her. She hesitated for a moment before placing a light hand on his shoulder.
“I do understand, which is why I’m asking you not to be hasty about this. This Meher Malik film….it’s everything you’ve ever wanted.”
“No, it’s not, Khushi. No, it’s not.”
His low response was immediate and Khushi pulled her hand back as though the white cotton of his shirt had singed her.
She walked back to her seat and hoisted herself on to the countertop again, ignoring his words.
“Well, I fail to see how Avni didi thinks I had something to do with this refusal when I…” She bit her lip, her eyes clouding over. “There’s more to this fight, isn’t there? She implied that I’ve led you to make bad decisions before too. She…she…thinks I have something to do with your divorce.”
Arnav dunked cups of the rotini into boiling water, and grabbing a spatula to transfer sizzling bits of bacon from the frying pan to a plate lined with a paper towel.
“Arnav. Does your sister think I’m some kind of homewrecking husband-stealer?”
“What B grade films have you been watching, Khushi? Homewrecking husband-stealer?”
Khushi clenched her jaw. “Can you not be flippant for once? This is important to me! I’ve always gotten along well with Avni didi and I don’t get why she suddenly doesn’t like me. If she thinks you’re staying on with Ghulam because of me, and that I’ve got something to do with other decisions she doesn’t approve of, it’s not a fucking stretch to imagine she links me to your divorce. So, does she?”
He snapped the stove off before facing her again.
“Yes. Yes, she does, okay. Di and Lavanya were best friends. They’re still close. She thought Lavanya was exactly the anchor I needed. Di has never trusted me too much to make the right personal or professional decisions, and the divorce was the last straw. Our relationship’s been strained since. I don’t know exactly what Lavanya hinted to Di about you and me, but it’s been enough for her to question my decision to both take up Ghulam, and stay with it. And no, before you ask, Di doesn’t know about our one night of indiscretion. No one knows about that. But that likely hasn’t stopped her from imagining that we’ve been having a raging affair all along.”
He turned the stove back on, tossing the garlic into the pan.
Khushi buried her face in her hands, whispering through her fingers. “God, what a mess. How did we end up like this?”
“Who needs soap operas when we have real life, huh?”
That elicited a watery chuckle. Khushi swiped at her eyes, and pushed herself off the counter. “Here, let me drain the pasta for you, Gordon Ramsay.” Balancing the pot over a colander in the sink, Khushi glanced over at Arnav who was stirring the simmering sauce.
“I…had no idea your family didn’t quite side with you over the divorce. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not that they didn’t side with me, per se, just that they were disappointed that I couldn’t…save the marriage, I guess. Ma loved Lavanya. Di and Lavanya– best friends, like I said. And Papa was fond of her too. They were upset, as well as embarrassed when we split up. And given my rep for doing things on a whim, they were sure I’d regret it in a few years. All the way from Delhi, they didn’t see the slow disintegration of our relationship. They had no idea.”
Khushi looked away, emptying the freshly cooked pasta into a serving bowl.
“I can’t imagine…what…if Mom or Dad had expressed even the slightest disappointment or anger with me after Aman and I broke up. I mean, of course, we weren’t married, and hadn’t been together as long as you and Lavanya either. Still. With Jashn tanking and Aman deciding to call things off… 2014 was a hard year for me. And I can’t imagine how I’d have got through all of it without my family, y’know? You guys were there, yeah, but not quite the same. You and Lavanya were already going through a rough patch. Akash was busy with Dhoop-Chhav, and Anjali with Woh Rehne Wali Sheesh Mahal Ki…”
Tossing the stir fried vegetables and bacon bits into the pasta, Khushi offered Arnav a small smile.
“Just saying, I whine a lot more than you do.”
Arnav had been following her movements carefully for a while, and he reached out to still her hand and take the bowl from her.
“That’s true. I’m the strong, silent type. It’s part of my irresistible appeal. As are my cooking skills.”
“Sundar, susheel, and gunvaan. Phir bhi divorced. Kalyug, I tell you.”
Khushi winced as her stylist accidentally pricked her while fastening her pallu with an ornate brooch.
“Sharmeen, yaar, I feel like a voodoo doll. You prick me thrice a week, on average. Either get the pins on those brooches sharpened or bloody replace them.”
“Haan, haan, keep your pants on. I’ll get it done. Shekhar bhaiyya, finish her make up jaldi. I have to go see what to do about Avantika’s mysteriously vanished dupatta.”
Khushi threw her head back and laughed at Sharmeen leaving the room, muttering under her breath.
“Shekhar bhaiyya, aap na please blush thoda kam lagao. Kuch episodes se main full–”
Khushi broke off, frowning at her phone. It was unlike her mother to call this early in the morning. Her gut tightening with nervousness, Khushi answered the phone.
Arnav, always grouchy in the morning, was about half way through buttoning up his shirt when the knocking on his door became too insistent to ignore.
“Sharmeen, let me finish getting dressed, damn you.” Wrenching the door open with a scowl, his expression instantly changed to one of concern.
“Khushi? Tum theek ho? What’s wrong?”
With an inaudible gulp, Khushi shook her head and stepped into his room. “Ma called.”
Arnav gave the door a quick shove before closing the distance between them. “And?”
“Nani’s gone.” The hollow words echoed around him, as Arnav inhaled sharply. Without preamble, he tugged her into his arms.
Khushi pressed her cheek against his chest, drawing in shallow breaths. “She started slipping at dawn. They tried to resuscitate her for a few hours but it didn’t work. She’d asked us not to put her on life support if it came down to it. She’s gone, Arnav.”
He tightened his arms around her, rubbing her back in slow circles.
“I should’ve…gone home before this…I should’ve gone home the minute Mom said they’d had to hospitalize her again. I didn’t.”
Khushi’s voice caught on the last syllable, and she shuddered.
“She’s gone and I didn’t say goodbye.”
Arnav rested his forehead on the top of her head. “Have you booked your ticket yet?”
“No…Mom just called. There’s so much…I have to go home. I have to help Mom and Dad. I have to speak to Akash and Jha. I have to pack. I have to…get through today.”
“You have to go home right now, yeah. I’ll take care of the rest. I’ll speak to Akash, Payal, and Jha. And I’ll ask Sharmeen to pack a change of clothes for you. And then I’ll give you a ride to the airport.”
Khushi clenched her fingers into the soft folds of his shirt, releasing another ragged breath. “Okay.”
A/N: I must thank all of you for your patience and apologize again for the delay. Graduate school schedules and writing fanfiction don’t mix. Last chapter soon. Cheers!