The next day was the day before Diwali and a Saturday. The women of the house had congregated in the family room and were busy with preparations for the festival. Plates of color for Rangoli were arranged on the table. The house had been decorated with flowers and lights, inside and out. Anjali glanced out the window as she spotted Khushi returning from somewhere.
‘Masiji,’ she addressed NK’s mother. ‘This Khushi girl – who is she?’
Masiji smiled. ‘Oh, Khushi is Mrs. Gupta’s daughter. They lived in India till about 4 years ago. Then they moved here. Her father was a businessman – very well off. They are from Lucknow. He met her mother when she was visiting India. They fell in love and got married. They had two children – Khushi and Payal. Payal is the older sister. She lives in Oakland, but she’ll be coming for the wedding too. Mrs Gupta is an American, but she has brought up the children with pukka Indian values. They are both beautiful girls. We all became friends after they moved here... I don’t know exactly what happened, but it was very sudden. Mrs Gupta’s parents live in San Francisco, so this was an easy choice for them. ‘
‘Excuse me for asking, but how come you never considered one of the girls as a possible daughter-in-law?’ said Naniji.
‘Oh, it’s not like that at all. Payal is almost NK’s age, but the age gap between Khushi and him was perfect. They started out as friends too and I had hoped… I don’t know what happened, NK doesn’t tell me, but on their very first Raksha Bandhan, she tied a Rakhi on him. They treat each other as brother and sister, even call each other bro and sis.’ She shook her head. ‘I’ll never figure that one out.’
Outside on the patio Arnav had been working quietly on his laptop. He was focused on the task at hand, but his ears perked up at Naniji’s question. He listened to Masiji’s response. So NK and Khushi were not..the imp started an impromptu jig. He shook his head to shake it out.
NK’s mom was speaking again. ‘I don’t know what it is. NK never talks about it, but he’s extremely protective about her. I know it’s something to do with why they settled in the US. None of the Gupta’s ever talks about it. It’s not like the girls had to be educated here or whatever. They’d already finished that in India’.
If Arnav could have seen inside the room, he would have been shocked to see the look on Anjali’s and Naniji’s face. They were looking at each other with a dawning realization in their eyes. Mamiji and Masiji headed to the kitchen. As soon as they were out of earshot, Anjali rushed over to Naniji and whispered. ‘Naniji, are you thinking what I am thinking?’
Naniji nodded. ‘She is perfect for Chotey,’ she whispered back.
‘Yes, but you know how Chotey is about marriage. He doesn’t believe in it.’
‘I don’t know, Anjali. Perhaps he hasn’t met the right woman yet. The one that will make him want to take the saat pheras and all that it represents.’
Anjali sighed. ‘You’re right, Naniji. We need to approach this cautiously or else he’ll run’.
Naniji nodded. It was going to be a difficult task. But Naniji was after all, his grandma.
Arnav frowned. The conversation inside had suddenly died down. He couldn’t hear anything anymore except some whispering. Strange!
Just then, NK came out. ‘Nannav, you’re still working! We’re supposed to be going out, bro. Come on, let’s go, let’s go. Time is running out, my brother!’
He sighed and closed his laptop.
The race tracks were about an hour from San Francisco - crowded, dusty and noisy. For once, Arnav soaked in the atmosphere. He loved cars, loved racing, although his schedule rarely allowed him the pleasure. The smell of grease and hot oil in the air was something he always felt comfortable with. They made their way to the pavilion. NK had their tickets and they made their way to their seats. There was an empty seat next to him. It was unusually hot for a summer day in Northern California. ‘NK, I’m getting some water. I’ll be right back,’ he told NK.
He found the food stalls and bought three bottles of water and headed back. He was totally unaware of the admiring glances the women threw his way. The off-white cotton shirt with rolled up sleeves showing off his forearms, and blue jeans were keeping him cool, while his usual aviators covered his eyes. Back in the stands he found NK and Akash and … Khushi?!
She had occupied the empty seat next to his. He could see her leaning forward, gesturing animatedly at NK, her ponytail whipping in the light breeze. Pale pink sleeveless top and white capris finished her look. He also noticed the guy in the seat next to her had his head turned and was watching her. He moved into the aisle coming to a stop in front of Khushi. She looked up at him, raised her eyebrows as if to say ‘What?’
‘Move over,’ he told her. ‘Sit next to NK. This is my seat’.
She looked at him strangely, but did as she was told. He sat down, and looked at his neighbor with a raised eyebrow. The poor guy turned away in embarrassment. The imp dusted his hands off. Hah!
She had been talking to NK about something or the other. Now she turned to him with a bag of caramel popcorn and offered it to him.
He shook his head. ‘Don’t eat sweets.’ Huh! Probably that’s why he’s so …so….acerbic – wow what a word!! ‘I can’t’. He amended.
‘Yeah. I have to keep my blood sugar under control.’
She was surprised. Diabetes – and at this young age. ‘Oh!’ He smiled at her.
‘Don’t worry. I’m not dying of it. Just have to be careful, you know.’ She nodded.
He looked at the corn dog in her hand. God! She ate the most disgusting things! She was looking at the tracks now, where the cars were starting to make their way to the lineup. A drop of mustard was stuck on her cheek. He reached over and tugged a napkin out of her hand and wiped the drop of mustard away. ‘You had mustard on your face,’ he said. She sat frozen in place, barely breathing. He turned his attention to the cars.
But soon, he found himself watching her every excited gesture and yells! She was jumping up and down cheering the Ford team on. Team Mustang! Of course.
The sudden vibrating against his leg startled him. Khushi’s bag was near his leg, and her phone was ringing. He tapped her shoulder and gestured. She picked it up, glanced at it and then turned it off. He could see her hands start to shake. What was it? More importantly, who was it? He looked into her face. Her head was bowed and there were tears trembling on her lashes. NK was looking at her, too, a question in his eyes, and then he put his arm around her and gave her a hug. He narrowed his eyes. What was going on?
He didn’t watch much of the race after that.
In the parking lot, the men got into NK’s car while Khushi headed towards her own. They’d been following Khushi for a while when Arnav spoke up. ‘NK, who is Jaime?’ NK looked over to him in the passenger seat and said, ‘he’s Khushi’s cousin, her mother’s sister’s son. How do you know him?’
‘Met him last night,’ he replied nonchalantly. So… the imp said, I told you so.
‘Hey. He’s a great guy. We should get together and go out for a beer or something.’
‘Or something’, Akash agreed.
They got off the highway and were headed home. Khushi was just ahead of them by about half a mile. The road wound through a residential area with little roads leading off to the side. Houses stood back from the quiet two-lane road.
A car was coming from the opposite direction and moved into the left lane signaling a left turn. Khushi kept going straight. But the car didn’t stop. It just kept coming at Khushi. The three brothers watched in horror as she suddenly seemed to realize what the other car was doing. They watched in almost slow motion as the brakes came on in the Mustang. Then it spun, drifting away from the other car. Smoke rose from the back tires. The car spun full hundred-eighty degrees and came to a stop a few inches away from the curb, the engine still running.
The other car just kept going.
NK slammed the accelerator while Arnav heard a strangled ‘Khushi’ from his own throat as he held on to the dashboard. They screeched to a stop near the Mustang. Arnav was out and running even before NK had put it in park. He raced to the driver’s door, the blood pounding in his ears. He flung it open and she looked up. Her big eyes seemed to fill her face which was white as a sheet.
‘Khushi?’ he said, not knowing or caring where that tenderness in his voice came from. He held her hands and could feel them trembling in his. He leaned in over her and undid her seatbelt. ‘Khushi, are you okay? Are you hurt somewhere? Please tell me’. NK and Akash hovered over his shoulders. She shook her head, tears in her eyes. He helped her out, and she leaned in to him. She was breathing rapidly, and then said, ‘I think I’m going to be sick’. He helped her to the curb before she threw up. NK ran to get a bottle from his car. He handed it to Arnav who held it while she drank it down. He could feel her still shaking in his arms.
‘NK, You and Akash take her car home. I’ll drive back in yours with her,’ he took charge of the situation as usual. ‘Is there any damage to the car? Did either of you get the license? Who lets idiots like that on the road?’ He was fuming!
Akash had been inspecting the Mustang and shook his head. ‘No, bro. It’s fine.’ There were rubber marks on the street, but that was only to be expected.
Arnav and Khushi walked over to NK’s car with his arm still around her shoulder. She hadn’t cried, just tears pouring silently down her big eyes. He could still feel his heart racing.
NK looked at Akash and then at the two walking to his car. He looked at Akash again and said ,’Shall we go?’
Arnav waited until they’d made the U-turn before following them back home.
It was getting close to sundown when they got home. NK had parked her car in their driveway, and Arnav did the same. He helped Khushi out and then handed the keys to NK. He walked her to the door and rang the bell. A tall forty-plus lady opened the door and Arnav had a vision of Khushi would look like in about 20 years. She looked surprised to see them. Behind them NK was just driving off.
‘Aunty,’ he stopped. There was no point in worrying her. ‘Khushi wasn’t feeling too good, so I ..’ he had barely gotten to the end of the sentence before he felt a tugging on his arm. Khushi’s eyes were closed and she was starting to slide to the ground.
‘Khushi,’ her mother gasped.
He slid an arm under her knee and one under her back and lifted her up. She was so light. The imp just sighed. Her mother stepped back and let him in. He carried her up the stairs to what her mother gestured was her room. It was at the back of the house, looking over the hills and the swimming pool. He laid her gently down on the bed. As he straightened, he felt another tug on his shirt. Her left hand had curled around the collar of his shirt. He gently removed her hand and brought it down.
‘What’s wrong with her?’ Her mother asked. ‘What happened?’ She stroked Khushi’s head.
‘Um… she had a little …um… incident on the way home. She’s fine, ‘ he hurriedly assured her. ‘But she probably needs to rest.’ He looked around awkwardly. ‘Um.. I should go…Please let us know if you need anything, a doctor or something.’
She nodded absently, looking down at her little baby, hardly noticing him letting himself out of the door with one last look over his shoulder at the pale face lying on a white pillow.
The stars were out in full force. The hubbub over Khushi’s accident had died down. The boys lay on loungers out by the pool desultorily talking. Anjali and Nia came out to join them.
‘Khushi’s better,’ the latter announced. ‘I just talked to her. She was more worried about the car’. They smiled relieved that all was well now. ‘So Arnav, Akash, we’re planning on a picnic next week. Drive up to Napa Valley . Spend the day tasting wine and some good food.’
‘Sorry, Nia,’ Arnav said. ‘I am leaving the day after Diwali for Atlanta. I’ll be there for about two days, and then I’m coming back for the wedding’.
‘Chotey,’ his sister protested. ‘You’re barely spending any time with us.’
‘Di, I told you before we came that I would be working from here. ‘
‘I know, Chotey, but I can hope, can’t I?’
‘Ya, Di’, he drawled. For a second his glance went up to the second floor of the house next door. The lights were on in most of the rooms….. except hers. He leaned his head back against the lounger and closed his eyes. A picture of her face as he wiped the mustard off it, drifted into his mind. The imp looked at him with one eyebrow raised and a smirk on its face.
Diwali dawned crisp and clear. Khushi woke up early as usual. Her near brush with an accident the day before had left her exhausted. But she had woken up with renewed energy. There was clarity to the day that she hadn’t noticed before. She quickly got ready for her morning swim. As she came out on the deck, she noticed a fleck of grey on the hillside. Someone was out and jogging. She frowned. That other day also someone had been out there. Who was it? She debated going down now, but then decided to do it anyway.
She did her usual ten laps and then climbed out of the pool. As she turned around, she saw Arnav jogging around the corner. He stopped and slowly turned to her. Changing his route, he took a swig out of his water bottle and walked over to her, holding her gaze. ‘Hi’, he said.
‘Hi,’ she replied.
‘Are you okay?’ his caramel eyes were searching her face.
She nodded and shivered a little in the cool morning breeze. He leaned down and picked up her robe, held it out to her. She slid her hands in, feeling the light brush of his fingers on her skin, she shivered a little more.
‘You should go in. You’ll catch cold.’
She nodded and started walking away, then turned around. He was still watching her. ‘Would you like some coffee?’ she asked. ‘I put a pot on before….’
He hesitated a moment and then nodded. They entered her house through the kitchen. It was still and quiet. He seated himself at the island, perched on a bar stool and watched as she walked over to the counter. The fragrant smell of coffee filled the kitchen. She got mugs and poured him a cup. ‘Black, please,’ he said.
‘I’ll just get changed and be right down’. He nodded.
Five minutes later, she was down, dressed in a pale pink churidar suit. Her hair was still wet, so she had left it loose. She poured a cup for herself and added some honey to it.
‘I’ve never seen anyone put honey in their coffee,’ he said. She did eat and drink the oddest things.
‘I like the flavor, it’s kind of smoky’, she replied.
‘Khushi’, he stopped. ‘I wanted to ask you something.’ She looked inquiringly at him. ‘What was that phone call about?’ She looked puzzled. ‘The one you got at the races yesterday’. She looked down and then looked up, daggers flashing in her eyes.
‘It’s none of your business’, she said through gritted teeth. His eyes narrowed and now she could see him starting to get angry. Just then her phone rang. The trilling sound broke the tension. She kept looking at him as she picked up the phone and held it to her ear. ‘Hello?’
‘Hello,Khushi,’ the voice whispered. ‘How are you? I miss you so much’. She drew in a sharp breath and turned away from Arnav. Her breathing quickened. ‘Why are you so far away? But don’t worry, I ‘ -she cut that hateful voice off.
Taking a few deep breaths to control herself she turned around. She didn’t know that he had noticed the tension in her body. The way her breathing had changed. The way her hands were shaking. His face was inscrutable when she looked at him. He opened his mouth to say something and then shut it. He looked down and then said, ‘I should be going.’ He opened the kitchen door. ‘Thanks for the coffee’. She nodded, watching him go.
Her mind didn’t linger on him. In fact, she was looking at the number of unknown calls she’d received. Five calls! Her self-control was starting to fall apart. She put her head in her hands and thought – what do I do now? After a few minutes, she went out on the deck and called NK.