Strangers No More - A Love Story by MK Lam

The wound from a fire can heal quickly but the wound from a harsh tongue can never heal

Tirukkural, ancient Tamil treatise

Strangers No More - A Love Story
Strangers No More - A Love Story by MK Lam
The word kept echoing in her head as she rolled out the rotis. “Idiot!” Was she really an idiot? When Arjun had shouted at her, she was too shocked to react. He had accused her of being possessive, even neurotic before he turned his back to her. The pain over being called an idiot festered and gnawed at her insides. She tried to calm down. Neither the brisk walk around the neighbourhood nor browsing the Internet for the latest scoop on her favourite movie star had helped. It was such a silly issue to begin with. A day earlier Arjun’s sister Anu and her friend Lekha had returned home from one of their marathon shopping expeditions. When Lekha had shown her the green designer sari, Khushi had given her a perfunctory smile. The designer clothes, jewels, Gucci and Prada handbags were meaningless to her. But when Lekha gushed, “It was so sweet of Arjun to buy this sari for me – he knows that green is my favourite colour!” Khushi bristled. As Lekha continued in the same vein Khushi’s irritation increased. Didn’t her husband realize that Lekha had never gotten over her crush on him? How could men be so clueless? “It was embarassing when Lekha used to tag along wherever I went,” Arjun had confided to Khushi, when reminiscing about his teen years. “Her sister was Anu’s best friend in college.” Khushi couldn’t keep her voice from trembling that evening when she was alone with Arjun. “Why did you pay for Lekha’s sari? How do you think I felt when I heard about it?” But Arjun had clammed up with a belligerent look on his face and didn’t answer. “Arjun?” she had persisted. He had then lost his temper. “Is that what you think happened today? Are you doubting me Khushi?” The conversation went downhill from that moment with Arjun screaming. That’s when he’d flung the word that had been ringing in her ears since. “Idiot!” Khushi had tossed and turned on her side of the bed the whole night. Sleep eluded her. Lekha’s visit had raised the old bogey for Khushi—Did she mean anything at all to her husband? Her husband was quite the enigma. He struggled to express his feelings to people. There were those rare moments when he murmured “paagal” and gave her a fond smile – belying her fear that he was uncaring and making her heart skip a beat. Paagal – that always brought a smile to her face. But this “idiot” she could not take. Why did it hurt so much? “Idiot!” Their fight from last night kept playing in her mind like a broken record. Why had she not called him during the day and resolved the issue? Khushi found herself wondering as she carried the basket of rotis to the table. Then an insidious thought crept in. Was it really worth it? It had been a year since they had gotten married. She never realized when the malaise had set in, at least on her side. Between his work and his sister, Arjun hardly got any time alone with her. Anu was more than a tad possessive of her younger brother. Once when Anu had barged into their bedroom without knocking on their door Khushi had walked out in anger. She hadn’t realized how perceptive her husband was. Arjun had hunted her down to the neighbourhood park. In a rare display of affection, he had held her hands and confessed. “I know what’s troubling you – Anu can be demanding. Please don’t give up on us.” The warmth in his eyes had her quivering. The smell of something burning in the kitchen shook her out of her reverie. “Khushi, is that the dhal?” Anu called out from the dining room. “I’ll take care of it Di. Don’t get up!” Khushi salvaged the dhal just in time. She found herself wondering why fixing things in her marriage couldn’t be as easy. “Dinner is ready” Khushi called out. “Jalebis — my favourite desert! What’s the occasion Khushi?” Lekha squealed as she got to the table. When Khushi didn’t answer, Lekha felt a shudder of anxiety. Damn. It had been a mistake coming here on a whim. Meeting Arjun had brought back all those feelings to the fore. Guilt. That night there were two people seated at the dining table who felt the emotion in varying degrees. While Lekha picked on her dinner listlessly, Arjun stared at his wife miserably. “Jalebis? Is there any good news for me dear?” asked Devaki, Arjun’s grandmother, with a big smile. Khushi shook her head quietly and began to serve the food. Arjun shuffled his feet willing his wife to look at him. When he dragged her chair out to sit next to him she dilly-dallied before reluctantly sitting down. Lekha and Anu kept the conversation going with Devaki chipping in occasionally. Just when they had settled into a comfortable silence at the table Anu turned to Devaki and said. “Nani, I’m going to Mumbai next week. Lekha and Khushi will take care of you...and Arjun of course!” Khushi’s left hand curled into a fist under the table. Was Anu so oblivious to what has happening around her? No way was she going to get stuck here with her husband, his grandmother, and another woman. Besides Lekha was totally inept in the kitchen. The brunt of work at home would fall on her shoulders. “My classes are beginning next week. We’ll have to get more help for housework.” Khushi’s firm tone brooked no refusal. “Classes, what classes?” Arjun frowned. “I’ve enrolled for a post graduate degree program at the university. Classes are in the evening. I may be home as late as 9 pm.” There was a stunned silence at the table. The Rathores knew that Khushi had topped the university in her degree program and had been planning to study further. But after her marriage to Arjun there had been no talk of going back. “I am so proud that you are continuing your studies beta” said Devaki. “Yes Nani. I had enrolled for the program a year ago. In fact Aarushi had come with me that day to pay the admission fees...” Khushi stopped when she realized she had talked about someone whose name never came up in the family conversations. Aarushi — Khushi’s twin, partner in crime, and the one chosen for Arjun. The girl Khushi had replaced, in a quirk of fate on the eve of the wedding. “You could have at least discussed this with me” Arjun whispered to his wife. He sounded hurt but she didn’t care. “When have we have had any discussion?” Khushi retorted. He froze at her words. The others sensed the tension between the couple and looked uncomfortably at their plates. The jalebi tasted like sawdust now to Lekha. Anu’s thoughts hovered around her upcoming trip and Devaki was feeling her age as the bones in her legs began to ache. Later that night when Khushi came into her bedroom, she was dismayed to see her husband waiting up for her. She had hoped that he would have gone to sleep. He reminded her of a caged tiger as he paced around the room—restless and ready to pounce on her. “What’s happening to us Khushi? I feel like I don’t know you anymore.” He sounded lost. “Did you ever know me at all?” she asked. He felt as if he had been struck hard on the head and reached out to steady himself. His parents’ marriage had been a nightmare. The fights, extra-marital affairs, and then their deaths had destroyed all his chances of a normal childhood. His sister’s one shot at marriage had ended in a disaster. No, he didn’t believe in the institution. But Devaki and Anu had pressured him to meet Aarushi’s family. “For my sake Arjun...” his grandmother had pleaded. He recalled meeting a slip of a girl for a short time. Aarushi had seemed tense and not keen on talking to him. Seeing the hopeful smile on his grandmother’s face Arjun had given the green signal. But little had he thought that fate would have something else in store for him. It was Khushi, Arushi’s twin he ended up with. Marrying Khushi had changed his life. In the short time they had been married, his wife had made him yearn for things that hadn’t seemed to be on the cards for him. Love and happiness seemed within his reach. But now he felt her slipping away from him. He sat down on his side of the bed—head hung and despondency written all over his face. Khushi who was done fluffing her pillows looked up to see her husband—the very picture of woe. And her heart cried out for him—the look of defeat as he hunched his shoulders. She felt the fool for picking a fight. “I’m an idiot!” She muttered to herself. “You’re not the idiot here Khushi!” he sighed wearily even as he lay down with his eyes closed. She gasped when she realized that she had spoken out loudly. Arjun and Khushi lay beside each other silently lost in their thoughts. It was going to be another long night for the two of them. Chapter 2: Metamorphosis Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought Matsuo Basho She came home exhausted. The heat was enervating. Two of her classes had been canceled because the teachers had fallen sick. When Khushi stepped inside the house the still atmosphere struck her. ‘Nani must be resting in her room,’ Khushi told herself. Lekha had already gone back to London and Arjun... she didn’t want to think about him as she headed towards the kitchen. When she opened the casserole, she was surprised. Had her husband skipped dinner? The rotis looked untouched. Pursing her lips, she filled two plates with food and headed to the bedroom. The tapping sounds of the keyboard echoed in the large room. As she stood in the doorway she paused for a moment drinking her fill of him. Sensing her presence, he looked at her. There was so much pain in those chocolate brown eyes. “Why haven’t you eaten? You know it’s not good for your health given that you have diabetes,” she admonished. Had it been a month, maybe more? Since they had fought at the dinner table with the rest of the family watching? The chasm had only gotten wider. Why had she reacted so viscerally? In hindsight, being called an idiot seemed so inconsequential. If she were to count the number of times Aarushi had shouted at her and called her names... No, it wasn’t that at all. She had reacted like a woman lashing out in pain. It didn’t help that Arjun was reticent by nature. On the first day of her classes he had insisted that the driver pick her up from college. “Even if my feelings don’t matter, think about Nani. At her age do you really want her to worry about you?” He’d glared at her expecting her to put up a fight and when she nodded meekly he had looked at her with disbelief. “If there’s any delay, call me. Even if there isn’t, call me…” he had quipped with a wry smile. She had been laughing as she stepped into the car. Khushi shook her head and set the plates on the side table. Arjun was observing her movements silently. “Eat now. No excuses.” “Someone’s bossy today, huh?” Arjun smiled briefly before he started digging in. They ate in companionable silence. “So how are the classes? Are you enjoying the program?” Arjun looked at her. She regaled him with tales about funny teachers, rambunctious students and canteen incidents when she had let her hair down. “Not quite the propah Rathore bahu” she giggled. Arjun envied her for a moment. The easy camaraderie with friends, having roadside finger foods on a whim, or catching a matinee on the spur of a moment seemed like things that he had dreamt of doing a long time back. His life had changed overnight after his parents’ death and he had thrown himself into his work to provide financial stability for the family. “Di is heading back tomorrow.” Khushi was surprised when she heard the news. Anu had planned to stay in Mumbai for another month. So what had happened that her sister-in-law had moved up her return? Khushi headed back to the kitchen to put away the dishes. “Do you need help here?” he came up behind her. She felt her breath hitch. “No, almost done. Go on, I’ll join you in a few minutes.” Arjun hovered around till she wiped the last plate. When he lifted her and carried her to bedroom she blushed and prayed that they wouldn’t bump into Devaki. When she protested about being heavy he gave her a smouldering look. That night two bodies writhed in ecstatic delight on a king-sized bed that moaned and sang louder than usual. • “I’ve found my calling. I can’t wait to tell you guys about it,” Anu gushed. She’d just walked into the house. Obviously her trip to Bombay had been eventful. “I met Savita, one of my classmates from high school,” she continued. “She runs this NGO for unwed mothers.” Anu could hardly contain her enthusiasm, “And I’m going to open a branch here - not too far from home.” She would have continued in this vein, given her excitement when she looked at her brother and sensed his reluctance. “I’m not going to let go of this opportunity Chotte!” Arjun grimaced when he heard her address him as Chotte. Did she have to call him that even now and in front of his wife? It was all right when he was a teen and it had given him a fuzzy feeling. But his sister was caught in a time warp. “All right Di. Let me look at it and see how we can get you started immediately” he said. His sister and wife beamed at him. As Arjun turned to Khushi, Anu nodded at the two of them and headed to her room. He then noticed the brochure on Khushi’s lap. “Are those the details for the multi-cultural show? Why don’t we look at it together?” He sat down next to her on the sofa. The annual general body meeting of the Arjun’s company, AR Group was coming up in a few weeks. This was the most important event in the company’s annual calendar and this year was being held at the city’s largest stadium. AR Group was a giant in petrochemicals, textiles and communications. Khushi had her work cut out for the big day as she was the organizer. Time flew as the couple got engrossed in the event planning. Khushi felt that they seemed to be more in sync than before. Khushi sensed the shift in his attitude and embraced it with fervour. Are we really becoming a team in more ways than one? she wondered. Chapter 3: Prejudices Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible. Maya Angelou Something was bothering Khushi. She picked at her breakfast with a wan expression. Arjun tried talking to her a couple of times and she gave him monosyllabic replies. “I need some space,” she said before getting up from the table. Space. Arjun knew the value of space in a person’s life. When the women in his family became too clingy, he would growl with frustration. “Can’t a man get some time for himself here?” He went to the garden, his favourite corner of the house. The best memories of his childhood was the time spent with his mother in the small garden of their house. He would tag along with her as she talked to her plants every day. “Khushi, is anything bothering you?” Devaki was perturbed. Her grandson’s wife looked despondent today. In the last few weeks she had begun to notice her grandson smiling more often. She had even surreptitiously cracked her knuckles and prayed for her grandchildren to be happy. But now looking at the gloomy couple she sighed. While Devaki was still lost in her thoughts, the doorbell rang. “Nani, are we expecting any visitors? Who could this be?” Khushi asked as she walked to the front door. Soon as she opened the door, Khushi let out a cry of delight. “Amma, you?” Her mother Gita was standing outside holding a colourfully-wrapped parcel in her hand. When Gita walked in Devaki’s eyes lit up. “Gitaji, please come in. This is a wonderful surprise.” The two older women sat on the sofa in the living room exchanging pleasantries. “Aunty, when did you come? Why didn’t Uncle come along with you?” Arjun materialized at Khushi’s elbow and sat down across Gita. “No beta, I came to wish Khushi on her birthday...” There was a pause before Arjun burst out. “What? I didn’t know. Khushi, why didn’t you tell me?” He stared at his wife accusingly. “I’m not big into birthdays Arjun.” Khushi avoided meeting his eyes. She looked at Devaki beseechingly. “Nani, I need to show Amma something in my room. Can you excuse us for a few moments?” When Devaki nodded her head, Khushi dragged her mother to her room. Mother and daughter hugged each other tightly after closing the door. “I’ve been thinking of you the whole day and Aa...” Gita whispered. The image of a laughing girl flashed across both their minds at the same time. While Gita recalled a girl who turned the kitchen upside down in a matter of minutes, Khushi remembered a co-conspirator who slunk out of the classroom with her when the teacher wasn’t looking. Aarushi. After Khushi and Aarushi had joined college the latter had slowly begun to withdraw into a shell. Their father Sunil Gupta believed that Aarushi had become serious about her academics. “I wish Sunil and I had paid more attention, perhaps she wouldn’t have...” Gita’s voice wobbled. Mother and daughter held each other in silence. “Khushi, beta I wanted to give you something for your birthday..” Gita was the first to speak. “How can you expect me to feel good Amma? I thought at least you would understand.” The agony on her daughter’s face was heartbreaking for Gita. “We can’t change the past beta. We have to look forward. Aarushi took matters in her own hands without giving us a chance to understand. You are punishing yourself for your sister’s actions.” “Amma, why didn’t she talk to me? Her sexual orientation would have never mattered to me. I was her twin, her other half. We drifted apart in college as we were in different groups. I never imagined she needed did I miss the signs?” “If only she had realized we would have supported her” Gita wept. “Your sister assumed that we would judge her harshly. I still have nightmares seeing her body hanging from the ceiling...” She looked at Khushi with tears streaming down her face. “You know she always hated to see anyone cry...” Khushi gave a wistful smile. “Please accept this gift Khushi” Gita gently put the package in her daughter’s hands. It was the heartfelt plea in her mother’s voice that made Khushi accept the package. She was taken aback to see the exquisite pearl set inside. “It was your grandmother’s. You know how she struggled to make sure your father got a good education. Your father bought this set for her with his first paycheck.” Khushi trembled when she picked up the strands of pearl from the box. She had heard so many stories of her doughty grandmother from her dad. Widowed at a young age, her grandmother had been courage itself in human form. ‘Dadi, if I can become half the woman that you were...’ When Khushi walked back into the living room, Arjun who had been speaking to his grandmother stopped in mid-sentence. He silently admired picture that Khushi presented, with the pearl necklace around her neck. When he saw Khushi’s relaxed face, he realized he’d been holding his breath and felt relieved. As Arjun listened to the sounds in the kitchen he found himself thinking, ‘whoever said that families who cooked together stayed together’ certainly knew what they were talking about. The mood in the kitchen was a reflection of the joy pervading the Rathore mansion. When Anu came back home from her office, she gravitated towards the sound of laughter and was pleasantly taken aback. Her brother was unrecognizable. There were traces of flour all over his face and hands. Rivulets of sweat were dripping from his forehead and he had this panicked look on his face as he was trying to knead some dough. When he saw Anu, he got alarmed. “Di, please don’t start your Chotte dialogues. Not today, certainly not in front of my mother-in-law here!” Anu felt the tears of joy threatening to flow down her face. The scene, absent for too long in their home, looked so natural. So domestic. It was the normalcy that the Rathores had been craving for all their lives. She looked at Khushi with gratitude. Bed time came all too soon for Khushi. As she was lying in bed hugging her husband, Khushi gently asked the question that she’d been working up to ask. “Have you noticed the change in Di after she started working at the NGO?” “Hmm...yes. I’ve never seen her so relaxed since our parents died. She’s become quieter and more focused. “What happened to Di? Was she badly affected?” “Di had a nervous breakdown. Nani and I tried our best. I was only fourteen then and terrified that I was going to lose her too. It took a lot of medical help, prayers and support from everyone to pull her out of it. She’s always been a bit fragile and when she married that womanising cheat it became worse.” It was a day of revelations. Chapter 4: Goals Perform your prescribed duty, for action is better than inaction. A man cannot even maintain his physical body without work. Bhagavad Gita (3:8) The week leading to the AR Group’s annual event had Khushi burning the candle at both ends. When she wasn’t catching up on project work assigned by her teachers in college, she was on the phone with the company’s PR team. She had managed to rope in an actor and a cricketer to be the keynote speakers at the function. When Anu asked her about the caterers Khushi murmured, “My classmate’s uncle has taken over this task and...” “Khushi has gone through the menu with him,” Arjun piped in. “You’ve started completing one another’s sentences! Hmm...?” Anu laughed. Devaki commented, “Khushi reminds me of a butterfly that keeps flitting around...” “More like a bullet train Nani!” snorted Arjun with a hint of pride in his eyes. Khushi didn’t respond to their teasing. Her eyes dimmed for a fraction of a second. Her parents had often referred to their twin girls as the butterfly and the bee. “Khushi, what are you wearing for the event? Have you selected a sari?” Anu was a woman on a mission. Saris were her forte. “Let’s go shopping, I know just the place. I can visualize you in that shade of blue or green with the peacock motif-what do they call the colour? Rama’s blue?” “No, Di. I’ve already got my wife a sari. She’s going to wear that.” Arjun sounded firm. Khushi and Anu gaped at him. “I think there’s going to be a thunderstorm today. My brother has bought a sari for the first time. When Lekha couldn’t find her credit card the other day, he paid for her sari and didn’t even look at it. You know how crazy she’s about that colour!” Anu’s words eased a tight knot in Khushi’s chest. When she turned towards Arjun, he winked at her. “Close your mouth—I don’t want you swallowing any flies!” he whispered with a naughty smile. She was dying with curiosity about the sari that he’d had bought for her. “Where is it?” she asked him. He merely shrugged his shoulders. She stomped her feet at the sphinx-like expression on his face. In her haste to get to the bedroom, she tripped over the sofa. “Careful! Watch where you’re going!” Did she imagine the panic in his voice? His words were a caress to her gladdening heart. Gorgeous. She stopped as her eyes feasted on the sari lying on the bed. It was a deep red—made in the finest of Kanchipuram silks with a black border. The gold zari in the border and the paisley pattern on the body added to its allure. She picked up the blouse that accompanied the sari. It was a designer creation with intricate embroidery on the front and sleeves—it made up in oomph with the niggling amount of material in the back. She was puzzled. But how on earth had he gotten it stitched? That was when she noticed her old blouse placed next to the sari. Did he actually look for a blouse in my wardrobe? If this is a dream, let me never wake up. The morning of the AR Group event saw two harried women running around the house for different reasons. While one worried about the logistics, transportation and media coverage, the other pondered whether her sari and jewellery would befit the occasion. Khushi smiled at her sister-in-law indulgently as the latter constantly sought reassurance about her appearance. In moments like these, she felt older than Anu. Arjun had pulled out all stops to make this event memorable to the family. Sitting next to her in the backseat of the limousine, Arjun couldn’t stop looking at his wife. She was a vision in red. The only jewellery she wore was the mangalsutra on her neck and his mother’s coral bangles on her dainty hands. His wife looked like a gift from the Gods. He was certainly going to end up like a blithering idiot at the event if he didn’t rein in his emotions. When he wrapped his hand around his wife’s shoulders after they stepped out of the car, the shutterbugs went wild. “Keep smiling and moving sweetheart.” His husky voice blanked out her initial fear at the cameras and the volley of questions aimed at her. She was vaguely conscious of being guided to her seat in the front row. In the first hour there was a riveting dance show by a troupe from Mumbai performing to the latest Bollywood hits with a famous actor leading from the front. Then the dashing cricketer made a fervent pitch for raising funds towards an orphanage in the city. When Arjun took the stage Khushi preened. He held the audience spellbound with his magnetic personality and speech. When he thanked his shareholders and employees she desperately rummaged her purse for a tissue. She would have missed it if she hadn’t looked up at him. “The one person who’s responsible for making this event such a success. My wife, my life – Khushi.” His twinkling eyes and open smile almost undid her. Later that night when she lay nestled in his arms, the events of the day seemed surreal. She was basking in a glow of contentment. “Arjun, is marriage all about finding your way through a labyrinth?” she asked aloud. When he didn’t respond she looked at him. He was fast asleep with a hint of a smile on his face. Chapter 5: Endings There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story. Frank Herbert It was almost over. Khushi’s finals were coming up in a week. It seemed like yesterday when she had reacted so virulently at a word thrown in a fit of anger. She still had a lot to learn about the man she was married to. It was like peeling the layers of an onion. It had taken her a month after her birthday for the dam to burst. She had wept in Arjun’s arms as she talked about Aarushi and what had transpired on the eve of their wedding. The catharsis had completely drained her and the strong arms that held her that night had rocked her gently to sleep. He had persuaded Gita and Sunil Gupta, Khushi’s parents to go on a trip to the holy cities of Benares and Hardwar. The Guptas had returned home a month later rejuvenated in mind and spirit. The loss of their daughter Aarushi lingered but it was more a dull ache. • When Anu Rathore took over the NGO little did she imagine how this would transform her life. Much to her brother’s astonishment she proved to be a formidable force while interacting with people at work. “Chotte, I need to do this on my own, so don’t hover! If I stumble, let me learn to get up on my own.” For the first time, Anu’s Chotte backed off. Besides Arjun knew his wife wouldn’t let him hear the end of it if he intervened. But even Arjun and Khushi were caught on the back foot the day Anu brought home a guest. “This is Amit Khanna. He’s the lawyer who’s been helping me with the case involving those unwed mothers from Patna.” The anxiety in her eyes betrayed her feelings about the lawyer to Khushi though the others didn’t cotton on. When Anu insisted on making the tea and snacks for their guest, Khushi’s suspicions coalesced into certainty. Her sister-in-law needed all the help that she could get right now. Khushi had the unenviable task of bearding the lion in his den later that night. Predictably enough Arjun pounced on her as she entered their room a few hours later. “I’m going to run a background check on this Amit Khanna. Are you certain she’s interested? Unless I’m fully convinced, I won’t give the green signal...” As he rattled on, Khushi dreamt of weddings and the sound of shehnai ringing in the background. There was a silly smile on her face as she nodded off. • When the bell rang Khushi jumped up from her seat and raced out of the building. Finally she was done with her exams. There he was leaning against his car and grinning like a Cheshire cat. When the other girls in the campus stared at him unabashedly she wanted to tear their eyes out. ‘He’s mine, back off girls!’ she wanted to scream. Then she saw the glint in his eyes. Dammit, he was enjoying the show and reveling in her bout of jealousy. “You’re not the only one here cornering the market. I had a hard time dropping you off every morning when I saw those boys ogling you!” he whispered when she walked upto him. When he looked into her eyes, he saw a reflection of his own feelings. How, When, Where—none of that mattered. Arjun and Khushi had fallen in love.


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