There was a girl in his mother’s private parlour.
Seated on the old, antique carpet with her legs tucked under herself, she seemed to fit perfectly into the picture. And Arnav stared at her with widened eyes, startled by her presence and captivated by her persona.
Surrounded by ornate armchairs and cushioned footstools in varying shades of orange, red and shiny brown with freshly polished wooden edges, she complemented the traditional Indian feel of the room in her own little outfit of red chudidar leggings and white kurti, complete with a fluttery red dupatta.
Her open, wavy hair, splayed all over her upper back, shimmered in the sunlight from the single window in the room, giving it a brownish hue though he was convinced that it was of a much darker shade in reality.
Her skin glowed golden, making her look almost surreal and goddess-like. Her plump cheeks had a lovely pink tinge to them, a youthful vigour apparent in her whole countenance. He longed to stroke his finger against those cheeks. To find out if they really were as soft as they appeared to be.
She had a slight, delicate frame, like that of a porcelain doll, and Arnav felt a vague sense of protectiveness as he realised how fragile and easily breakable she must be.Even motionless, however, there was a grace to her, which had enthralled him as soon as he had beheld her. The way she held herself upright. Her back fearlessly erect. Her long, swan-like neck stretched to its full length in confidence. And her small shoulders pushed back a little even as she leaned over in intent study.
Ripping his eyes away from the enigmatic girl for just a second, he quickly took in the object of her attention.
The girl had her pretty little head bent over his mother’s sewing basket. Her small, fair hands stroked the fabric of the zardozi work that his mother always kept working on with adept, relentless fingers. A slight, content stretch of small, rosy lips adorned her mouth as she ran her fingers over the smooth silk and the rough thread that always tingled his fingers on contact. Her own white kurti and red dupatta had beautiful silver and golden chikan work on them.
Arnav was stricken by how real this girl looked. How alive. Every subtle movement of her hands, every flutter of her eyelashes, every gentle rise and fall of her rather small chest seemed unusually magnified. In all his life, Arnav had never experienced anything like this. This awareness of something being real. It was as if, after years of functioning on a level of aloofness that made him unmindful of the reality of another person’s existence, even his own, he was finally grasping the true concept of creation for the first time. For the first time, fully conscious of someone’s existence. Someone’s presence near him.
He struggled to deal with every new emotion that crashed onto him. Wonder. Adoration. Awe. And an itching need to be closer to her.
Standing in front of the mirror on the wall outside the parlour, Arnav’s eyes took in the ethereal girl whose image was being reflected by no less than five mirrors positioned inside the parlour before it reached the one he was now looking at, spellbound. It was impossible to control the fascination that always coursed through him whenever the mirrors of Sheesh Mahal succeeded in fooling him with close-up images of people and objects that were nowhere close to where he stood. This girl, for instance, must be in the far corner of the parlour, he knew and yet he felt as if she was right in front of him. A living, breathing, moving painting.
He was aware of every ragged breath he took while he stared at the mesmerising creature. He had run all the way from the stables to tell his mother about the sparrow’s nest and now, this strange girl who was where his mother was supposed to be, was somehow making his lungs feel like they had been washed in warm water, beaten on the washing board and squeezed tightly to shirk off the water resulting in such a wrinkly state that they could hardly retain any air in them.
He couldn’t blink, his eyes were glued to her. He couldn’t walk away, his legs had turned to jelly. And he couldn’t remember which muscles to move in order to force his mouth shut.
How could someone be so beautiful?
In the same instance that his mind processed this question, the first concrete thought since his gaze had fallen upon her reflection, she looked up.
It was a slow, fairytale-like lift of her long, fluttery, brown eyelashes that made his heart skip a beat before his eyes settled on what the delicate hair-fringe had been hiding all along. Hazel. Several shades lighter than his own chocolate-coloured eyes. He stood captivated as those hesitant yet slightly amused orbs stared soulfully into his own. Unblinking.
If he had been more of the Romeo kind, he would’ve said that time stopped in that moment as they looked through each others’ ‘windows to the soul’ for the first time. That it seemed like this was what they both had been waiting for their entire lives. That every event in their short lives had taken place simply so they could end up here, in this split-second of inexplicably deep connection.
But Arnav was no Romeo and this strange, beautiful girl no Juliet.
And as she tilted her head a little, her smile widening, blinking softly, he turned on his heel and ran away…
Arnav awoke with a groan and a wave of resentment. This was the third consecutive night that he had relived the same memory in his dreams. The third morning that he had woken up with his mind fresh with her image that refused to fade even after so many years of bitterness and under the accompanying multitude of so many other, painful memories.
He gritted his teeth at his brain’s irritating tendency to retain unwanted, ridiculous information about her that he struggled to forget and which seemed to be designed specifically by some mysterious, masochistic part of him to torment him to his deathbed.
Lying in his bed, his eyes still shut and his body tense, Arnav recollected her features with loathing. White hot rage flashed through him as he recalled each detail in sharp clarity.
That seemingly innocent face which symbolised the mind-numbing suffering that he had been forced to endure all these years and which he still wasn’t free of. All the horrors of a childhood that had been snatched away from him too quickly. The lies that she had fed him, the false promises that he had fallen for so easily had heralded his own doom as he had realised, too late, the price one had to pay for blindly trusting someone. The excruciating memories and the emotions brought on by them. Pain. Abandonment. Fear. Insecurity. Betrayal. That terrifying sense of isolation.
How could she succeed in seeming so real even in his dream? Was it a mistake to count on time to tone down the vividity with which she appeared to him even now? Had bedding so many gorgeous, wild women in an attempt to taint his memories of her been a futile exercise which had done little other than satisfying his physical needs?
Was his hatred of her not strong enough for him to be able to erase her from his mind?
Impossible, a clipped voice muttered in his head. He had spent years despising her with his stone-cold, dead heart for everything she stood for. His hatred of her was anything but weak. It was what fueled him everyday. A need to prove to her, prove to the world and prove to himself that he really was better-off without her. Without all of them.
And yet, every day brought with it a new, long-buried recollection of her. Of her musical, velvet-smooth voice, of her tinkling, innocent laughter, of the buttery soft skin of her hand, of the way she used to say his name, of the way her lips had felt against his own.
Arnav clenched his jaw and squeezed his eyes shut tighter.
She was etched into a part of his soul that he could not rip away. Her playful, sweet ways were not something he could bring himself to hate, even now. He despised that crazy, beautiful girl. Not just for what she had put him through, what she had done and not done. But for being a part of him that he was incapable of discarding. Of forgetting.
And maybe he did not actually want to forget her either?
At least not the sensitive, mischievous girl he had known so well before that night when he had lost everything, including her.
No. She was one of the few good memories of his life. Precious, even in her ruthlessness.
He could not simply let go.
Frustrated by his own contradictory emotions, Arnav turned onto his stomach in his bed, burying his face in the pillows, hoping she couldn’t reach him while he hid himself so.
But Khushi… Well, she had never failed to surprise him.