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Arnav smiles tiredly at his grandmother who walks in to his room with a tired smile of her own to match. With all possible amenities available in Raizada mansion, his grandmother insists on doing some chores on her own. Arnav understands it as necessity to exercise control and thus rarely comments on the topic.
"Are you okay?" She sits next to him and runs her hand in his hair. He involuntarily closes his eyes, welcoming the warmth and the tenderness of touch. He sighs deeply not realizing how much he has missed this familial physical contact.
"I don't know." He says honestly. The days leading up to his parents' death anniversary left him raw and broken. It was in those days everyone in his family hated him extra hard and lashed out their tongues little more loose.
"I never blamed you, you know that right?" The pressure on his scalp increases as her tone turns into the no-nonsense one.
She has lost her only son and a daughter-in-law she cherished. He wonders why she doesn't hate him as he was directly responsible to their deaths.
"Why not? Everyone does," he says bitterly. He misses the shocked look on her face as he bends down to untie his shoes. "You never say it in front of anyone else, just in the privacy of our conversation. I am sorry if I call bullshit." It isn't the bitterness but the resignation in his voice that alarms her. She hastens to fix it before the chasm that had separated them had turned to an abyss. She hadn't realized it till this very moment.
"Hey, look at me. Look at me." She twists him to make him face her. She takes his face between her palms, forcing him to look at her. The despair she sees in his eyes is devastating. "I am sorry I never spoke on your behalf. I..."
Arnav shifts and scoots away from his grandmother. She mourns the loss of contact in the privacy of her mind and realizes that this conversation is more than a decade too late.
"It's not that I blame you Arnav. After everything that went down, we dealt with one crisis after another. Anjali's wedding took things to different directions and we couldn't do much during that time. You remember how unstable Anjali was during that period. Saying anything positive towards you would have ended disastrously. And now there is just too much hostility in our house. Once it calms down -"
Arnav's laughter is bitter and is razor sharp. "Anjali wasn't the only who lost both parents, grandma. I did too. She was unstable, yes. I advised you to take her to a therapist to deal with her grief. You made it sound as if I called her crazy and then you threw a hissy fit in front of not just our family but our extended family too. You know that wasn't what I meant but you didn't bother correcting Anjali's assumptions over this. She thinks I branded her as crazy. I didn't grandma, you know it." His grandmother recoils at the verbal barrage. Arnav's eyes have lost their sympathy that was once found in abundance. When the family members were pointing at him and calling him "cruel" and "unworthy", he had quietly carried on about his day. She hadn't seen the depth of misery that he was swimming in and concentrated on the noisy one. His sister. What have I done, she worries.
"Please." He says, his hand fisted and spine straight to the point of shaking in tension. She knows this is how Arnav holds himself when everything around him falls apart. "Get out." His voice is steady but he gives away the disappointment in waves. She wishes it wouldn't be this easy to recognize disappointment. All she has to do is now look in the mirror and in there she would find one.
His grandmother wishes him a soft goodnight and closes his room door shut behind her. Once the sound of her footfalls become distant, he collapses on his bed in his office clothes with one shoe off. Desperation gripped him from the insides as he urged tears to come.
Like everything else in his life, even tears betrayed him by not making an appearance.
Fourteen years ago, April
"I am the happiest dad on this planet, Mr. Jha."
"I can see that, Mr. Raizada. At twenty-two years your son is already a Rhodes scholar and is one step away from taking over management." It's the usual things best friends say when the sons turn out to be smarter and sharper their fathers. "Seriously Vimal, I am very glad Arnav decided to join our company. Now Shyam will have someone from his own age group to work with."
"Not just work Shankar, they can compete and inspire each other. We must be lucky to have our kids working next to us, making plans, dreaming the dreams..." Shankar Jha sighed at the obvious romantic sentimentality of Vimal Raizada.
Scotch settled down their throats as the giggles and happy noises from their respective wives resonated with the tinkling of ice in the sharply cut glasses they used. The harmony was never this romantic.
"Arnav isn't taking over management Shankar." Vimal insists seeing the flash of panic that had lit behind his best friend's eyes. It has been only two months since Arnav decided to start working for Raizada industries as it was expected but neither men had anticipated the ruthlessness or the brilliance with which he had tackled the problems. It wasn't only Shankar who was exhibiting some level of paranoia. There were half a dozen board members meeting in private and discussing the tornado that was Arnav Singh Raizada.
"He won't be able to either. Then again, you never know the ideas kids these days can come up with. I or my son don't want to be in a position where our advancement is severely hindered." Shankar Jha pauses and calculates his next move. "I don't want us to lose what we have built."
Vimal smiles easily. "I will never let that happen. We have lost too much, sacrificed too much and have paid way too much price to be where we are now. Arnav is my son. He won't cross the line if it comes to that." The confidence Vimal Raizada has in his son is breathtaking to watch. Shankar only hopes his best friend is right. Otherwise it wouldn't be just their jobs but everything they have come to hold dear would be lost.
"I sure hope so Vimal. You keep an eye on him, yeah?" Shankar wasn't satisfied yet.
Vimal laughs at his friend's paranoia. "Even if Arnav finds out, which I assure you he won't, he will come to me first. You and I will convince him and everything will be fine. He has immense amount of love and respect for me Shankar. Trust me on this. Arnav will support us till the end." Vimal's confidence reduced the panic that had settled in Shankar's breast.
"How about we get Shyam to work with him couple of days a week? Just to see the direction he is taking," Shankar stresses.
Vimal thumps his friend's back and nods. "If it makes you feel any better, go ahead. In fact, I think it's a brilliant idea. Arnav will learn things quicker with Shyam around as Shyam has been with us for three years now."
Shankar sighed in relief though they weren't there yet. His son would give them periodic reports and steer Arnav away from the problematic area of Raizada industries.
Raizada industries had spread its wings and tipped its tail in many domains. However, their mothership was rooted right in defense business. They were one of the leading contractors of firearms for the army - both innovative and adaptable to rapidly changing international market. Arnav was only finding out the complexities of doing business with government and army being their client. The stakes were high; lives of soldiers were dependent on the weapons they delivered, national defense was directly involved and there were politicians haggling to be part of their brand.
No, Vimal wasn't worried and expressed amusement whenever Shankar caught young Arnav watching the two older men with narrowed eyes. Arnav was borderline genius and had high moral compass. Shankar hoped for everyone's sake that the business remained intact and under the rug as they wanted.
Years later, he would realize the length Arnav would go to when it came to integrity as an individual and a businessman. Shankar would understand very late, Arnav's capacity to raze the world and everything he holds dear because it was the right thing to do.
"Arnav?" Lavanya is surprised to see her ex-boyfriend on her doorstep. She notices his rumpled clothes, heavy set eyes and tired face. Wordlessly she moves aside and holds the door open for him to get in. Arnav lingers for a moment more before he drags himself in.
"Can I crash on your couch tonight?" He finds razors stuck in his throat, chopping of words as they escaped from captivity. "I will be gone by morning, promise."
It's Arnav's first time coming to her apartment after they put their relationship on hold. He finds it awkward to be asking for things that he did less than three months ago. He respects Lavanya too much to take things for granted irrespective of how close they are as friends.
"It's my parents' anniversary tomorrow." He offers distractedly. Lavanya's shoulders relax and she nods at his request. Grabbing his wrist, she ushers them both to the couch and gently pushes him down.
"Sit here for a second, okay?" She rushes towards kitchen without backward glance. When she comes back few minutes later with a glass of juice and half a dozen crackers, Arnav hasn't moved. Arnav isn't a fidgety person in general but there has always been energy buzzing around him. Even in stillness, there was activity and life cocooning him in its arms. Now, he looked bare, broken, beaten, chewed and spit.
"Eat a couple of crackers and finish this drink," she pushes the tray towards him. He glances in her direction and nods. The blankness in his face squeezes her stomach. She waits patiently for him to finish eating. She arranges pillows and blankets, shuffling around him giving him a sense of freedom and also belonging. She knows in her heart that come what may, they will first and foremost will be friends. They may never get back together, they may never get married and make a family. They will still be best friends and family. And for that, she is forever thankful.
"Thank you," he says quietly. She nods in his general direction and waits till he settles. He removes his shoes and belt, neatly placed next to couch. Even in his threadbare moments, he respects Lavanya's house rules. She wants to scream at the people in his house. Yell till her voice dies. Claw at their faces till read covers her hands. "Look at this wonderful human being. Look at what you are doing to him. Stop. Please stop blaming him for things he couldn't control. Stop looking at him as a murderer. Stop treating him as less than a human being because he is stupidly moral. And brave. And fiercely protects what is right. Please...just stop."
"Lavanya?" He asks softly. She gulps down the lump in her throat. She forces a smile on her face since she knows she won't be able to stop crying once she starts talking. She shakes her head when his questioning gaze lingers.
"It will be fine." He says mechanically. He doesn't believe it. She allows him the dignity of the lie. For now, that's all she can offer. "I will leave early in the morning. I will meet you day after tomorrow. Okay?"
It's for her sake he is sharing his plans. She is grateful for that.
"Goodnight," he says softly and settles down. Lavanya sits there for several more minutes in the dark and whispers her own "Goodnight Arnav" and disappears into her room.
When she meets him for lunch two days later as initially planned, she is surprised to see the softness around his eyes. It indeed gives rise to a bout of jealousy that she squashes it harshly. The pettiness leaves their mark on her skin and the disappointment that invites itself over settles down just below the skin and right above her heart.
"Is it okay if I sit quietly in a corner for the rest of the day?" He winces at his too-direct and brusque approach which probably sounded like a cross between serial killer and a stalker.
Khushi glanced at him and took in his disheveled look into her stride. "Bad day?" She is wearing a dark brown band across her head that is studded with solid golden colored abstract geometric shaped embellishments. The chaotic arrangement of them is noisy and he finds himself intrigued.
"It's my parents' death anniversary today." He stands in middle of the shop surrounded by watches. The chaos in his mind, the rattling of his ribs, the beating of his heart, the shivers in his back, the tautness in his muscles, rushing air in his lungs - they all synchronize their activities to the rhythmic sounds in the shop.
Khushi watches him for a moment and then points at the adjacent counter. "You can hangout over there."
"Thank you." He says sincerely as relief washes through him.
When they speak again, four hours had passed and they had eaten a quiet meal together. Nothing extravagant, Khushi had shared what she had prepared in the morning. Payal's absence went unexplained.
"Quiet can be violent." Khushi says, leaning back from her work station and stretching her back. She lets out a satisfied groan when bones pop and muscles get a nice stretch.
Arnav smiles. "Someone once told me that people mistook my reserved nature for shyness. Both have quietness in common but they are inherently different."
Khushi slumps on the counter drawing an involuntary smile from Arnav. He realizes he is smiling only half a minute too late.
He remembers the gift he planned for Aman. "Do you know where I can buy grandfather clock?"
Khushi sits up straight when she hears his question. Arnav doesn't control the laughter that erupts from his throat. "That got your attention?" His voice has a pleasant teasing lilt to it. Khushi nods vigorously.
"I kind of want to customize it." Arnav hedges on. Khushi is intrigued and now the interest on her face is several inches thick. He chuckles at her enthusiasm.
"What kind of customization?" She ignores her fingers that are itching to pull out pencils and paper to sketch and draw and plan. She holds herself still hoping to sound more dignified and less of a loon.
Arnav's smile is now downright melancholic. "Art customization mostly. I don't have exact plan in my mind but I want it to be special." Khushi's silence urges him to expand. "The three of us have been best friends for decades. Couple of weeks ago one of my friends took us to his lake house and told us it was going to be our home. He loves antique pieces and is always in search for new items. I offered to find him a grandfather clock."
"Your friend is a kind man." Khushi replies in a tone Arnav cannot decipher. He smiles inwardly and nods, his eyes looking at a spot on the counter. "As are you Arnav." He looks up and sees her calm determined face that holds no confusion or idyllic adoration. She speaks as if she was stating a fact that had been etched in her bones for years. He finds his lips curl automatically whenever she is around. He doesn't decipher that.
"How about something unique and something he is never going to see in market. Ever." A smile blossoms on his face in response to her confident offer.
"Show me," he challenges, ignoring the thrill that takes over the shiver in his spine.
"Let me get my laptop," she responds and scampers without waiting for a response.
He refuses to check the time, which unfortunately is an impossible task to perform while sitting in a watch shop. He doesn't want to think about the drama that would be unfolding at Raizada mansion in lieu of his disappearance. This would start a nightmarish time at his house for few weeks before the emotional and angry insults would reduce to rude ones. He made his peace early in the morning in front of his parents' memorial. That was enough for him.
"This." He jolts back to the moment when he sees laptop in front of him. "This is what you will give your friend."
Arnav looks at the website she has opened for him and his jaw drops. "You've got to be kidding me. This isn't possible."
Khushi is brimming with unbound enthusiasm. "It is. The site explains how and gives step-by-step instructions."
"Can you do it?" Arnav asks, hopeful. Aman would love this. Lavanya would demand one for herself.
Khushi gives him a thumbs up. "It will take a month or two but it should be possible." Arnav smiles wanly in response. A light fluttering settles in his ribcage as if someone has caged a hyperactive little bird.
"Wow." He says, eyes glued on the laptop, looking at the clock and the work that has gone into it.
"I know." She says, proud and elated.
"I can't believe you are going to make me a Weasley clock from Harry Potter movies!" He smiles again. Khushi smiles at his enthusiasm. It feels contagious like a disease that acts instantly and offers pockets of happiness in expanse of bleakness. The lightness he is feeling is new.
It almost feels like joy.
Weasley clock was reproduced by a student at Duke as a Christmas present to his family. It wasn't run by magic but by software and phone apps. To anyone interested, here is the link: Weasley clock. Scroll down to find software (code), app details and step by step instructions to create it.
Apologies for not commenting for a while. Life, is a bit hectic.
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