Khushi flinched at the vehemence in his voice, twisting her fingers nervously as she stood before his table, beads of sweat forming on her temples. She wanted to run out of the room but her fear turned her limbs immobile. She kept her eyes fixed on the floor, blinking back tears of shame. “I-I’m sorry, s-sir,” she stammered. “I can-I can put this right. Just give me one more-”
“NO!,” Arnav yelled. “You’re not getting any more days to put it right. This company has a very high standard and we expect our employees to maintain it. If this,” he waved disgustedly at the chart, “is what I’m going to get from our best designer, then I might as well hire a new team.”
Khushi sniffed a little in irritation. Oh, try doing that, you little b*****d! I’d like to see it. She was still trembling with fear but her resentment for him made her expression turn a little defiant.
Rage blinded Arnav as he looked at her scrunched nose. His hands fisted in front of him, his jaw clenched as he tried to reign himself in. But the damage was done. The need to destroy everything in sight had already overtaken him, like it did too often. To an outsider, he would have resembled a wrathful god, but deep within him, he felt a horrible beast rear its head in displeasure, determined to crush anything that came before it. Letting the beast guide his actions, Arnav picked up the design with a jerk, his hands crushing the paper between his fingers. And tore it in half.
Khushi watched, horrified, as her design was ripped into pieces by his unforgiving fingers. All those days of effort, of stifling her pain to create something that she loved so much, piled up in a mound of meaningless, worthless shreds. She felt a burning in the back of her throat as she staggered back a little under the furious stare of her boss.
Arnav’s eyes spit fire at her. His nose was all flared up. He could almost feel the smoke coming out of his ears. He breathed heavily. In a voice dripping with hatred, he shouted, “Take this worthless piece of crap and get out of my office! NOW!!”
Khushi’s mind went numb with fear as her heartbeat accelerated. Her cold, sweaty hands started shaking and the room seemed to spin. There was a horrible sinking feeling in her stomach. Her chest constricted suddenly, unnaturally. Anxiety overwhelmed her as her lungs were gripped with suffocation. It seemed like the end of the world to her. As her limbs were bathed in her own sweat, she frantically attempted to catch a breath. Each muscle in her body seemed to be weighed down with fear. Each part of her body was trembling like a leaf. She couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. She was going to fall but couldn’t do anything to steady herself. Her boss stood up, his eyes widening as he strode quickly to her, his anger now gone, concern replacing it.
“Khushi?!” He grabbed her before her knees gave way. She was gasping, the horrible rasping sound filling the office, going crazy with fear as he led her to a chair and sat her down.
Khushi closed her eyes and instantly felt like she was drowning. She was shuddering all over, her heart was ready to leap out of her chest which seemed to be crushing under some strange weight. Every cell in her body seemed to be gasping for air.
He was telling her to take deep breaths, to calm down but his words hardly registered. She waited for the panic to subside and as she forced herself to concentrate on the charming face with that heartbreaking grin, her lungs slowly filled with air and her heart slowed.
Taking a deep, shaky breath, she opened her eyes and looked up at the worried face of her boss, Siddharth Verma.
Arnav watched Lavanya as she gathered her ruined design and stalked out of his office, seemingly unaffected by his outburst. He knew she would be back the next day with another design, having learnt to disregard his crude words over the years. She would wait for his unreasonable anger to cool down before approaching him again. She was smart that way, Lavanya.
Struggling to calm himself, Arnav laid his head back on his chair. His rage lessened in its furious intensity and remorse filled up in him for lashing out at Lavanya over a design which hadn’t really been that bad. She had only committed the innocent mistake of disturbing him when he was drowning himself in memories of her.
A name that signified happiness. Joy.
But a name that plagued him in the most wretched way possible.
She was standing beside his sister, giggling merrily over some anecdote that he had failed to hear. Her small earrings were dancing with each excited bounce of her head. Her eyes were twinkling, her mouth pulled back to reveal a set of perfect white teeth. He felt strangely light, watching her laugh so.
His mother saw him spying on them from outside the old, half-open, wooden door and called him in.
Like a deer caught in the headlights, he jumped a little, startled, his eyes widening and would have run away again if only the girl hadn’t turned her head in his direction quickly and grinned at him mischievously, almost challenging him to come nearer. His fourteen-year old ego fired up at once and he charged into the room, his feet thumping softly on the carpet and feeling stupidly reckless when his heart hammered at the sudden proximity to her.
His mother introduced them, but he heard nothing other than her name.
“Khushi…” he repeated after his mother, the name, such a common word that he had spoken countless times in a single day, suddenly meaning so much more, exciting so many new emotions in him, tickling his throat at the kh’, melting his heart at the sh’.
And she colored visibly looking quickly down at his own feet as the sound seemed to echo in the resonating silence…
So ironical, he thought, bitterly. That the girl who was named after happiness should have stolen the very same from him.
That the word that should fill him up with warmth made him choke on his own emotions instead.
He gritted his teeth.
Maybe if he could find a big enough drawer in his brain, he would just stuff all of her inside it, so he would never have to feel this way again. So that small interruptions in his recollections of her wouldn’t make him mad with rage.
His eyes flew open at the familiar endearment and he turned around in his chair as the woman clad in a dark blue rich cotton sari limped into his cabin, a small smile on her face. There was a poise to her, more apparent due to her attire – the small black blouse and the black-bordered sari was nicely pleated and pinned to her shoulder, giving her a remarkably professional look. Even the limp of her prosthetic leg couldn’t take away from her inherent grace and she seemed to float forward. He stood up quickly as she neared him, frowning slightly.
“Di, I thought you would be at the hotel? The wedding is today, right?”
Anjali Raizada smiled at her little brother’s concern. He should have realized by now that she was very well capable of handling her problems on her own. Facing countless setbacks in life due to her crippled leg, her unmarried status and a long history of family drama had made her a strong woman, handling emotional and physical pain with an unmatched courage. But Arnav had never ceased to feel that nasty bubble of anxiety whenever he sensed trouble in the smallest aspects of his sister’s life. Ever since the day she had took him by his hand and pulled him up to his feet in an attempt to teach him how to walk, he had fallen in love with his sister. And a ferocious protectiveness overcame him whenever he saw even a brief look of vulnerability on her beautiful face.
A tenderness in her eyes, Anjali sat him back down on his chair before taking her own seat opposite him.
“I need to ask a favour of you, Chote. Please don’t say no.” She pleaded with him with her eyes more than she did with her words and Arnav let himself give her the smallest of smiles.
“Anything for you, Di. Just say it and it’s done.”
“Well, you know I have a wedding to take care of today. And I can’t really be in two places at once…” She looked at him nervously as he raised an eyebrow.
“What is it?” He prompted.
Anjali took a deep breath. “You know Mrs Goswami? She helped me get my wedding business started.”
“Yeah, what about her?”
“It’s her daughter’s engagement party today and I promised I would go…” She trailed off as he started shaking his head quickly. “Chote, I know you hate all these things. Engagements, weddings, birthday parties… But Mrs Goswami is a really good woman and all these traditions mean a lot to me, you know that. And I wouldn’t have asked you if this wedding wasn’t at the same time as the party. Can’t you just go for a little while? Give them my best compliments? Please? You promised.” She blinked rapidly at him, trying to look innocent, a trick she had used many times to make him give in.
It worked like magic. Arnav felt a lump rise in his throat as he took in his sister’s pleading face. He couldn’t deny anything to her. Not after all they had been through. Not after everything that had been snatched away from her and which he was incapable of returning to her. Ever since he was fourteen years old, he had felt a responsibility towards her. A responsibility that was independent of her acquired strength and financial freedom. He couldn’t just forget the dried tear streaks on her cheeks, her swollen eyes, ashen face and quiet sobs from that night. He couldn’t just let go of the need to guard his sister from every little sorrow in the world. This was what had made him doubtful and filled him with a deep sense of foreboding when Anjali had declared her wish to take up wedding planning as a career. He was afraid that planning someone else’s wedding would make his Di remember how much she herself had dreamed of getting married and how brutally those dreams had been crushed. But when Anjali spoke about weddings, a strange light seemed to enter her sad eyes, one that he had lost all hope of ever seeing again. They had gleamed with unspoken desires and unacknowledged ambitions. The girl in Anjali had spoken like a woman through her soft, compassionate eyes. And Arnav had given in then, like he did now, with a burning throat and a hazy vision.
Anjali grinned widely at him, her eyes twinkling, her previously nervous countenance lighting up at the simple Okay’.
She got up and reached for him, hugging him tightly before quickly floating out the door, calling out a Thank you!’ over her shoulder.
Anjali hobbled carefully down the stairs as her brother watched over her from the glass walls of his cabin. She sent him a sweet, indulgent smile as she headed out the door of his stylish office.
She hurried to her car, checking the time on her cell phone and rubbing her throbbing temples. As her driver veered the car towards the hotel where the wedding was to take place, she sighed. The all-too familiar sensation of her heart almost exploding with loss filled her up.
She should be used to this. Didn’t it happen every time the time of a wedding drew closer? Every time she remembered her own feelings on that night so many years ago. Of hopeful anticipation. Of repressed excitement. And then all of it culminating in so much destruction. So much grief.
Sometimes Anjali wished she could muster up the kind of hate that had become an inseparable part of her brother since that fateful night so long ago. That she could just shut herself up from every heart wrenching emotion that she was forced to endure.
The ache in her head became more pronounced and her thoughts started getting muddled up. She reached into her bag for the aspirin that she usually took before each wedding. Her hands fumbled around among her needfuls but she found no plastic encased tablet. She asked the driver to look for a medical store as she pressed her cool fingers against her forehead, breathing heavily.
When the car stopped, she grabbed her wallet and quickly got out. Anjali shuffled to the store, her pain making her eyes water.
And as she neared the door, it opened quite suddenly, making her stagger back. A vision in purple whizzed past her as she stood catching her breath and from the brief glance at the stranger’s face, Anjali felt as if she had seen it before. But maybe she was just hallucinating. Maybe it was just the headache fuzzing things up in her mind. As the girl disappeared around the corner of the street, Anjali slowly shook her head and raised her hand to open the door.
Khushi saw the elegant woman stumble back as she tore past her but failed to register her features through the haze of emotions.
She paused in front of the wall of the deserted street and opened the bottle with trembling fingers. Shaking the bottle gently, she took out two tablets and gulped them down her dry throat. Steadying herself against the wall, she took in a deep breath.
As waves upon waves of unbearable feelings washed over her, her eyes filled up with warm tears and she broke down.
Khushi felt like she was falling down an endless pit, surrounded by darkness where faceless monsters lurked, trying to reach her with their cold, creepy fingers.
It could not get worse than this.
It was sheer agony. To think about him in her waking hours, while trying to pretend to be normal. But it had been necessary. Because if she hadn’t thought about his comforting face, the panic attack would have gone on until she suffocated to death. Instinct had made her pry out her memories of him from that closed up part of her brain so she would survive.
But now that she had done so, she was weighed down with the guilt again.
She needed him. She needed to make it all right. To put it all right. But she didn’t even know where he was.
All she had of him now was a single name. And her frenzied searches for the owner of that name had yielded nothing other than a deeper sense of regret.
Blood rushed to her cheeks as she heard him say her name for the first time. He made it sound so different, giving it an intensity she never knew it possessed. She looked down at the carpet, beside where his feet were.
As she stared at his sneakers, her mother entered the room and said something excitedly. In the resulting commotion of everyone rushing out the door, no one paid attention to the two of them, neither of whom had budged from their positions.
The sneakers started stalking towards her, slowly, deliberately. She felt her breath quicken as she stepped back a little and they stopped.
Khushi looked up at his face. He was staring at her like that again, slightly breathless. And his eyes shone with something else that she couldn’t exactly identify. Mischief? Amusement? Joy? Or all of them?
For a second, they stared at each other like they had done just a few moments ago, speechless with strange new sensations. And then he spoke.
“Arnav… Arnav Mallik.”
Khushi let her smile break out over her face as she felt his eagerness to introduce himself, not realising that his mother had already told her his name. His eyes sought something in hers. A reassurance, perhaps, that his name would be as special to her as hers had become to him.
But for the rest of her life, whenever she thought of him, she would remember the Arnav of this moment, telling her his name, making it apparent that he wanted to make her remember him for ever…
Hiccups rocked her as her sobs subsided slowly. She needed to suppress the memories again. Just until the night.
She felt more in control of her grief now, her muscles buzzing with an unnatural excitement. Her heartbeat was quick, her breath rapid. She felt slightly jumpy suddenly. As her mind went into the familiar overdrive that she was always grateful for for lessening the pain, she straightened herself and started making her way to her office building. Her boss had given her one last chance to redo her blueprint for the house. She wanted to do it right this time.
New ideas bumped around in her head and she felt exhilarated. She would show them. Show them what she was capable of.
She now walked with a gait so assured that no one would have thought her to be even close to the broken girl who had been leaning against the wall just a moment ago.
Heels clicking on the immaculate tiled floor of the office, she reached her desk. She fished out a fresh chart from the drawer and set to work with determination.
For the next few hours, Khushi’s pencil scratched the single piece of paper onto which she poured out all of herself. She made bold strokes of her pencil, constructing columns, designing rooms, planning corridors, not stopping for even a second. The building came alive on the paper, rising up and above the paper as she worked dedicatedly. She drew and redrew on the same paper, experimenting different styles, styles no one had ever dared to do before. She did not just construct someone’s house. She ripped out a part of her soul and made a home for a complete stranger.
And once she was done, she looked down proudly at the design, born from a part of herself that always itched to burst out of her chest and become a whole new being, unlike any other.
Just as she was preparing herself to fair out her heartfelt creation, her phone beeped with a new message.
“Coming tonight, right, my love? ;)”