He had fallen in love with her, the second he had entered that small room in the basement of her crumbling apartment huddled into the Ballygunge Road of Kolkata, for the very first time. The room had almost always scented of sandalwood incense sticks. Her inky black hair was tied up into a loose bun that evening, letting astray about a fifty or so tendrils, a few sticking on to her face, and a few clinging on to the swanlike curve of her neck. A faint sheen of sweat glimmered softly over her ivory skin. Her eyes, those mesmerising hazel depths, held an extremely attentive, enthralled audience, even, in him. Those eyes would portray a colourful riot of a range of thoughts, expressions, each complimenting the way her hands would move, to the beat of her ghunghru adorned feet. And as she would move, a new song, an unheard melody would be created, especially for his ears. The tinkle of those silver jhumkis bobbing up and down, with the faint clunking sound that single pair of glass bangles sliding over those slender arms, mixed hypnotically with the chan chan of those ghunghrus. That pair of ghunghrus, a thick band of maroon nylon, and golden bells, embossed on them…they had been special to her, gifted to her by late mother. They had broken once, and he had bought her a new pair from the local mela at the Park Street. She had planted a kiss on his cheek then, which had fortunately been the first of the many to come.
He would watch her dance, every evening, after he rushed back from college. He would make sure to drive his creaking old bicycle, extra fast, than those worn out tyres would essentially allow. At times, he would get lucky, because her routine would start a little late in the evening, as she would get caught up in preparing dinner for her father and me. But she never missed her Kathak routine, not a single day, at least for the brief period, he had known her. She would begin it with the Vandana, which would be an invocation to the Gods, and end it with the Tihai, that spilled over effortless grace, ending the routine, with a dazzling smile on her face, and an upbeat atmosphere hovering over the house the rest of the night.
Initially, he used to hide behind those crotchet curtains that covered the amber yellow walls, and inhale the faint mixture of jasmine, intermingling with the sandalwood emanated from the agarbattis she would light up in the room, every evening. He was caught, a week later by her, and none too mildly. The consequences had been severe, resulting in no dinner for him for the next two nights. But the third night she had seen him feasting on plates of kebabs, rolled in paranthas, and gobbling down over two rasgollas after that, she had promptly complied to dinner the next night. And since then, she had let him watch happily, having found herself a devoted audience in him. Amidst that, and when she began to love him, even she couldn't recollect.
How they had met, was an entirely different story, however.
"We have found the new tenant Khushi!" Her father's voice streamed into the kitchen as she brushed back the tears stinging her eyes, overwhelmed by the heady scent of the onions, dunked into the bubbling oil, the kitchen a plethora of smells ranging from cardamom to turmeric.
"He'll be having your jiji's room beta, will you be okay with it?" Of course she wouldn't be okay with it. She had dreamt of moving into the comparatively spacious room of Payal's, ever since she had got married last week. She had dreamt of lying down under the only air-conditioner in the whole house, hanging on the walls of her sister's bedroom, but, it was not supposed to be, she thought resignedly. And they needed the money, for the basic necessities oh the house, and if she was to ever enrol herself into the famous Sarojini Nritya Academy of Park Street. Hence, Khushi, replied in the affirmative.
"You should know, that this was supposed to be my room, had you not shown up magically out of nowhere!" Khushi rattled on admonishingly at the unsuspecting and now, startled tenant, a little taken aback by the tall intimidating figure standing in one corner of her elder sister's room, with an halfway buttoned up black shirt and ripped blue jeans. He of course didn't satisfy her expectations of the innocent-looking-fat-man who she had assumed Arnab, as pronounced by her father, to be. He had turned out to be Arnav Singh Raizada, beholding an unnerving gaze, and an uptight, aristocratic face, that demanded attention, in every possible manner.
He had then asked her, if this is how she talked to all the men that had the privilege of entering her apartment. She had snorted, in an extremely unladylike manner, recited to him about the timings of the daily meals and then attempted to exit the room, only to trip down a stair, and fall haphazardly in front of his new room. Not being able to hide the laugh that had slipped into the alcoves of his face, he had watched her struggling with her dupatta, before she finally stood up, glaring at him in annoyance, and scuttled off to the ground floor.
She had, months later admitted to herself, that it was that laugh, infectious, in all its nature, that had drawn her towards him, in the very first place.
It was the last week of October, the scorching sun almost permanently invading the skies during the day, whilst the Durga Puja celebration were in full swing. He had carelessly, entered her room in the ground floor, without knocking, only to stop short at the exquisite site greeting his eyes. She had just finished tying the doris of her green tussar blouse, when he had entered abruptly. She had been too shocked too turn away from the mirror and face him, but, he stood rooted, a few feet away from her back. That arousing image of those tiny silver ghunghrus hanging from the green doris resting against the silky expanse of her back, enhancing the whole image of the maroon banarasi she was wrapped in then.
Somehow, evoked by that arousing image, he had let his feet walk towards her, till they stopped right behind her bare feet. The only sounds reverberating through their minds would have been the faint ticking of the old grandfather clock and their rhythmic shallow breaths. He had bent then, his senses infused with the strong scent of fresh jasmine and his mind buzzing with the sound of his blood throbbing against his ears, and planted a lingering kiss on the place where those ghunghrus hung from the green silk of her blouse. His lips had moved, almost in a soporific stance, skimming over her skin, over her shoulder and had then, pressed his lips just below her ear, on the bend of her neck, as her jhumkis softly nudged his nose. All this while, her eyes had been clenched shut, absorbing, etching in her mind, these new sensations, coursing through her body, settling in the recesses of all her senses as tingling pinpoints of an insatiable fire. Her hands had fisted up the pallu of her saree, the golden work on the edges, creasing up, as his lips once again moved, grazing her cheek and parting with a tender pressure right at the corner of her lips, smudging the vermilion of the lipstick a little.
He had placed a soft, hesitant kiss on her mouth, the second, her father had bellowed from downstairs for them to hurry up. But those few long minutes had changed the course of their lives, forever, maybe.
They had fallen into an easy routine a few days after. She waked up an hour before him, showered and found herself in the kitchen, frying the usual morning batch of puris a little too enthusiastically than before. By the time she the egg-plants she would be frying, would turn a deeper shade of mustard, he would be sauntering into the kitchen, his wet hair sticking to his forehead and pull her into a warm embrace. When time permitted, they sought out a few stolen moments during the period between when her father would wake up and demand for breakfast. He would kiss her then, long and lingering, never wanting to let go of her taste, an intoxicating plethora of things he didn't recognize well enough, to put forth in enough words.
That summer went by, the days pleasantly cooler than before, bringing forth the monsoons, drenching the city in all its humungous glory. The last year of his college ended, and he was offered a well-paying placement with an automotive firm, in Delhi.
He had showed Khushi, when they had whiled away their weekends strolling on the shores of the Hooghly, the designs he had been working on throughout his course of automotive engineering at college. He had wanted to be a designer, designing cars, motorbikes and what not.
Arnav had looked at the stray strands of her hair beating against her face, at the force of the rustic winds coursing through the shoreline, as she flipped through his beaten down sketchbook, her crimson-painted nails grazing over each stroke of his graphite pencil, as her eyes lit up wondrously with every passing sketch of the many cars he had designed.
So when the new of his job had registered her mind, she had been deliriously happy, only later to realize that it meant that he would too be leaving, if he took up the job. That forlorn, morose expression marring her beautiful eyes had snapped something inside Arnav. A few hours later, he had promptly asked her father for her hand, to which he had complied, hesitantly, but still.
And so they had got married, her father being the only other person present in the tranquil surroundings of the small temple, amidst the soft chants muttered on by an old priest, a soothing song cascading through the first rays of sunlight filtering itself through the grey skies of dawn.
Delhi in all its jaded beauty somehow changed the exciting innocence of their relationship, leaving in its wake something monotonous, a dull ache. Not that any of them realised it at first.
He would return back from work at around nine. And since the time he would leave for office, and return in the late evening, she would while away her time, boring her eyes onto the television screen or whipping up new dishes from the magazines scattered away in their house.
She had, tried to look for a calm vicinity that she could adopt too, and vent the restless energy building up in her, dancing till her feet would stop. But, somehow that one-bedroom apartment, fitted in the suffocating street facing the Lajpat Nagar Market, refused to give her the serenity she sought.
But, all the restlessness would soon disappear the second, he would return, gathering her in his arms and falling asleep into a peaceful slumber, listing to her breathe, letting himself get lost, once again in the scents of jasmine.
That life lasted for a bare three months before he was recruited by Honda Motors, beckoning him to move to America. The company had only; however funded his visit and stay. Khushi had not given him a chance to voice his opinion, for she knew exactly where his dreams were destined. So she let him go, willing her mind to stay strong, and not breakdown before him.
The few initial weeks since his departure to America, he would call, a minimum of three times a day, some days, even more. They used to video chant, sent each other pictures, and he would fall asleep listening to her voice on the phone. But as his assignments increased, he travelled to new towns, met new people, the number of calls decreased, and at a fairly steady rate. She would make it a point to call him, every day, at least once, letting the void of her dull days, pass by listening to his voice. But, his tone seemed different, more clipped, more distant with each passing day. She would slowly realize when she was being dismissed whilst talking to him. So she stopped trying, acknowledging the fact the he was just busy.
The days went by. She missed him, missed waking up to those lingering embraces and his husky whispers of sweet nothings. She would engage all her time in looking through the few pictures she had of him, wallowing in the memories of their summer in Kolkata.
One day she accidentally stumbled across a small dance workshop being held at the open air theatre surrounding the town library. She slipped in through the creaking doors, as a matter of hesitant choice, and found reason and a glimmering hope of happiness in her life, again.
Arnav had missed the sight of her face, her eyes, that seemed to look more tired with every passing day, or hearing her voice every single moment in that one year. But each time he thought of calling her, something or the other would spring up, taking him away from her, her thoughts, momentarily.
That day when he when he finally took leave for a month, to visit India, he didn't call her up, wanting to look at the delirious delight that would envelop her face. He returned home, to however an empty house, with no sight of the woman he loved. Thinking that she might have gone to the local market, he went into their bedroom, only to be greeted with her scent from every corner. He opened their wardrobe, and gently grazed his hand over her sarees drinking in the sight of the pastels; he had missed far more than he could account for. He heard the main door open, and he held his breath, whilst walking out of the room and into the dining area.
She looked radiant. Her cheeks flushed, lips playing out into a hesitant smile as her eyes finally landed on him. Her feet were still throbbing from the last dance routine, Amish had made her do, but she still willed them to move forwards before she slumped against Arnav's chest, unconscious of the silent tears streaming down her face. His arms, enveloped her, drawing her in, resting his face, against her cheek, as his hands combed her hair, his fingers still shaking.
"Where were you?" Arnav asked softly, as his taste buds relished his wife's cooking, the aromas, he had missed for long since feeding on the Ready-To-Eats America had bestowed him with.
"Oh, with Amish…" Khushi didn't notice his eyes dart to her face immediately, as she continued further. "…he is helping me with my Kathak routine, the one I'm going to perform towards the end of this month," she spoke on, her voice bubbling with enthusiasm and a sense of rejuvenated excitement at Arnav's return.
"It doesn't matter now Khushi, I want you to come to America with me, when I'll be leaving at the end of this month, we'll finally be together!" Arnav spoke, failing to understand why his breathing suddenly became slow, hitched in anticipation of her answer.
He watched her face, slowly lose all its earlier flush, leaving behind its flaxen residues. Then something, he had never seen in her eyes before, erupted, its flames rising slowly.
"I can't. I can't Arnav…come with you to America…because; finally…finally after we left Kolkata I have found a life here. I have found my dream, my love for the dance. I left it then, for your dreams, and I don't regret it for a moment, but I can't…I will not leave Delhi now. I can't leave this only chance I have got to fulfil my dreams. I…I'm sorry Arnav." She had got up from the table then, the tears stinging her eyes, falling with any holds onto her lap, as Arnav looked on.
He felt angry. Hurt, even, but somehow in that state of mind he refused to acknowledge the rightness of her voiced thoughts. Booking the next flight back to America, he felt that night, without glancing back towards their room.
But as a week passed, and then the next, that tear streaked face of Khushi haunted his mornings and his nights. Her memories made him realize, that all the money, all his dreams had their brightness dulled the instant they would feel the absence of Khushi in them. They meant nothing, those dreams gave him no joy, if he didn't have that one person in his life to share them with.
He had loved her. He had seen his dreams with her. He had fallen in love watching her work towards her dreams, watching her dance. His heartbeats fell into tune with that unsung melody he had last heard at that room in the basement of her apartment at Kolkata.
As he stepped into the theatre, he found himself in the backstage, his feet taking him towards the green room as another familiar sight greeted him.
This time, she was in the process of tying the doris of her zardosi choli, as her midnight blue lehenga sashayed behind her. Her hands stilled as she saw him behind her, through the mirror. But only this time, she turned away from the mirror and found herself pressed against his chest in a matter of few seconds. She mumbled a few incoherent Sorrys. "I don't know what came over me…please forgive me Arnav…" He had shushed her with a genteel tenderness, and showered her face with ephemeral kisses. The last one had him coursing through the treasures of her lips, and drawing in the source of strength, the energy he needed back in his life.
A while later, about ten minutes before her performance was to commence, her fingers worked through tying up the doris of her choli.
"Will you stop crying Khushi? Those beautiful eyes will be needed on the stage for your dance. Shh, don't stop me today. I…I have taken up a job at Delhi, its nothing attractive, but still satisfying. No buts Khushi, I'm not leaving you again. Me and you, we will fulfil all our dreams, but together. I…you, we can't live without each other. Get it?" She had embraced him in between his rambling tirade of words, and sobbed, yet again. He had lifted up her face and wiped away her tears and somehow with a skill he didn't know he had before, lined the hazel eyes he had fallen in love with hopelessly, with the kohl pencil. She had smiled up at him, her lips moist, before he continued, pressing his lips against her forehead, "…go, give the performance of your life, Khushi!"