Night of Shadows,
City of Joy
"Was a long and dark December, from the rooftops I remember, there was snow.
Khushi plucked her earphones out as she wryly looked up at the night sky, a deep navy from the moonlight. The lyrics were all wrong - it was still November, for starters, and winters in Kolkata were only mildly cold, to put it politely.
Although, the people of the city "felt cold by the calendar", as her sister said. Come November and skull caps and mufflers would adorn the heads and shoulders of the daily commuter.
She sighed. She loved winters. Just not here.
Picking up her phone, she scrolled through her list of artists. Admittedly, she had grown out of her Coldplay phase, but her older brother had given her grief when she had shared a post on Facebook about their upcoming album, so out of sheer spite, Khushi had resolved to spend her sleepless night listening to all 45 Coldplay songs still on her phone. She did this a lot these days - not Coldplay - coming up to the roof to spend most of her night till sheer exhaustion made her trundle down to her apartment again.
She couldn't sleep. Her bed felt unfamiliar, and she had to share it with her sister, who conveniently forgot in her sleep that she was not alone in bed. The small apartment felt uncomfortable. The city itself felt like a stranger.
She sighed again, chose See You Soon from her playlist and pushed her earphones back in, leaning back against the elevated slab that separated the roof of her building from that of the next building. The housing complex they had moved to was planned in that way - every two buildings shared their roof.
So much sharing, Khushi thought, closing her eyes and letting the music fill her head. At least the night and its endless shadows were hers to keep company.
In a bullet-proof vest,
With the windows all closed,
I'll be doing my best,
I'll see you soon.
Amavasya. Moonless night.
Khushi rested her head on her elbows wearily, her knees drawn up under her forearms. She did not remember when she had last fought with her father. Heck, she doubted he had ever raised his voice at her. And it hurt so much when he did. He was barely holding it together, she realised, although he never let it on. Payal - calm, unruffled, stoic Payal - had talked back on Khushi's behalf and it had led to a shouting match unrivalled in the history of the Gupta household. Father versus the daughters. The son could only sit and stare.
Her mother had never raised her voice. Her glares had been enough. Even her brother had cowered under her steady, furious gaze.
She had run upstairs to the roof in a haste, desperate to find some air, and had realised much later that she had left her phone in her room. No music to soothe, then.
She slid her hands to her neck and pressed gently. Then, taking her hair - unruly waves hanging down her back - she swept it out front over her head, to sweep her knees. She combed her fingers from her neck to her forehead, slowly, unravelling any tangles, till her hair felt smooth. She waited for a few minutes, willing the unsettling clamour in her head to subside.
But it didn't. She threw her hair back, breathing heavily. It had always worked when Ma did it. What difference did it make if her hands soothed her hair, and not her mother's?
She pressed back against the dividing slab, the rough wall of cement digging into her shoulders and leaned her head back to rest it on the slab so she look up at the sky - it came up to just the right level - to find herself staring into an upside-down face and a bemused smile. She shot up to her feet faster than she could say, "Goddamn!"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you," he said. Khushi looked at him with suspicion. She had seen him somewhere.
"Do I know you?" she asked. Yeah, sure. Strike up a conversation with a creepy guy in the middle of the night, why don't you?
The guy squinted his eyes at her before shaking his head. "No, I don't think so."
Khushi slowly nodded her head and surreptitiously took a step back. He immediately put up a hand, palm facing toward her. "Please, don't leave. I didn't mean to creep up on you," he said. "I don't think you've ever noticed me, but I've seen you come up here every night." His eyes widened as he saw Khushi's stance become even more guarded. "No! I am not... I didn't mean that I was spying on you or something. I just... I didn't want to let you know I was here, but I couldn't resist it tonight, what with you waving your hair around like that." He grinned at the end.
Khushi wanted to smack herself. This guy had been up here on the other side and I never noticed?!
She looked at the two-feet-wide slab between the stranger and her. "Umm, I wasn't doing anything like that. And um, I don't feel very comfortable about this whole... situation." She looked up at him, but his expression gave nothing away. He had an angular face with sharp features - that was all she could discern in the darkness. And he was tall. Quite tall.
The guy nodded and made to turn around, but stopped himself. "I'm Arnav, by the way. I hope we meet again - in daylight."
Khushi nodded, and nothing more. This was giving her the heebie-jeebies. She just wanted to get back to her room and tell Payal everything ASAP. She didn't wait for him to leave but heard his footsteps echo hers as they departed in opposite directions. He hummed a tune as he left.
Payal was fast asleep, confined to her side of the bed for once. Khushi crept in beside her and reached out to shake her awake, but she stopped when she saw the frown between her sister's eyebrows as she slept. Khushi gently soothed her forehead with her thumb and pressed a kiss on the top of her older sister's head, and the latter promptly threw an arm around Khushi, tugging her closer.
Khushi sighed and laid back, preparing herself for a long night. She had recognized the tune the midnight stranger on the roof - what was his name? An.. Arnav! - had been humming, and the song came unbidden to her mind now.
Only blue or black days,
Electing strange perfections in any stranger I choose.
Would things be easier, if there was a right way?
Honey, there is no right way.
She pretended not to see him. But pretension had never been her strongest suit.
She lowered her eyes to her phone and kept them there as dark blue floaters came into her view.
She cringed at the over-enthusiastic voice and quickly glanced at the security standing at one side of the gate. The jovial man was smiling at some anecdote his younger assistant was regaling him with. Khushi rolled her eyes and forced herself to look up.
She looked down at her phone immediately.
Khushi reluctantly looked at him now, calling herself an a*se in her head for behaving like a hormonal teenager. So what if he was an ungodly level of handsome? That was no reason for her to refuse to look at him - because she feared for her heart.
There was a calculative look in his eyes - which were a goddamn hazel. Hazel!! She had never seen irises coloured with any more an exotic colour than brown. Except for that one girl back in Delhi who had cat eyes and weird grey-brown irises.
Hazel wasn't weird. Hazel was a very nice colour.
"Not that I mean to pry, but I didn't get your name last night," he said, a half-smile playing on his lips. Khushi tucked her hair back behind her ears self-consciously.
"Oh, the irony." The wry tone in his voice made her frown. He was a good few inches taller than her. The long-sleeved blue shirt and tan pants made him look so much brighter than the dark guy she had met on the roof.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you never look very khush," he said, chuckling. Khushi merely stared at him, and she realised she must have given him her mother's look because his smile dropped instantly. "I'm sorry, I didn't know that would offend you." She merely turned away, checking her watch again as she waited for her brother to bring their car up and take her to college.
Arnav was fidgeting next to her. Fidgety people made Khushi nervous. A nervous Khushi was an irritated Khushi. She turned back to him.
"Look, I don't know who you are. I don't even know what you were doing up on the roof last night. I also don't know why you are so insistent in trying to talk to me when it's clear that I don't want to. Thank you for trying to be a good person, but I don't even want to know what you're trying to do here."
Arnav had straightened up to his full height somewhere in the middle of her rant and she had to admit it was kind of intimidating. His hair was half-straight, half-wavy and a lock flopped over his forehead. His face stayed blank for a moment after she finished before breaking into a grin that made her want to squint against its brightness. She realised he had those kind of faces that went five levels up on the handsome-meter when adorned with a smile.
God help me.
"Wow. You really like to talk. Uh-uh!" He held up a hand, like the previous night, when she opened her mouth to retort. "Listen, I'll make you a deal. Since we both need the roof to get through our insomnia, how about we just stick to our respective sides and forget that the other person might be up there on the other side?"
She only stared at him with her deer eyes, processing.
"Cool! See you tonight!" And he was off before Khushi could say, I don't think that's a good idea!
Effing good-looking pole of positivity.
Here I am, lost in the light of the moon that comes through my window
Bathed in blue, the walls of my memory divide the thorns from the roses
It's you and the roses.
It was the third night after Arnav had confronted her. He wasn't so bad, as she had discovered. Keeping aside the fact that she only met the guy in the dead of the night - her father would have her head if he ever came up to look for her - Arnav was a good companion.
He was pretty silent 90% of the time, for starters. Almost like he knew she came up here for just that. Silence.
He also had a good collection of music. They had a lot in common, apart from that. He made the same complaints about his older sister that she made about her brother. He had both his parents, though, and that was something she could never compete with.
She liked his wry sense of humour, and could sense his sunny grin whenever she rolled her eyes at his pathetic attempts at cracking a joke. Okay, they weren't pathetic, but Khushi just couldn't bring herself to smile anymore.
She never did get around to telling Payal about him.
Khushi closed her eyes as she felt him stand up, looming over her semi-prone body on the slab. They had never got around to sticking his deal, anyway. That night he had silently climbed over the slab and stared down at her patiently until she joined him.
"What's your heartache, then?"
Khushi opened her eyed in a flash and looked up at him sharply. She let the sharp tug inside her pass before she answered.
"None of your goddamn business."
Arnav merely smiled as he crouched down beside her legs, still a good foot away. "You do realise cursing is not an alternative for venting your emotions?"
She sat up till she was facing him properly. Narrowing her eyes, she quirked an eyebrow and asked, "What's yours?" Arnav's face went blank again - something she had come to realise meant that he was going to make a split-second decision - before he looked slightly away.
"One of my parents is having an affair. Only I know about it. Discovered it by accident." He looked up at her, eyes shuttered. "A heavy conscience is hard to sleep with." He held her gaze till she was forced to look away.
"I'm sorry," she said softly.
"What for?" The catch in his voice was gone. "I've made my sacrifice. It's your turn now, Khushi." She merely shook her head. Arnav tilted his head in a wordless question. She looked away. He traced a finger on her knee. She stood up with a jolt.
"I might as well go back. It's quite late."
"Never too late for us." Khushi scanned his face but his expression was fathomless. His hazel eyes were almost brown in the darkness. She turned to leave.
"Tell me your secrets, and ask me your questions.
Oh, let's go back to the start."
She whirled and stared at him in abject wonder. He was still sitting, hoodie pulled over his head. But his eyes were focused on her - and what a lure they were.
"Running in circles, comin' up tails,
Heads on a science apart."
He held out a hand. She was going to take it, she knew it. She knew it by the hammering beat of her heart. She knew it by the certainty in his deep, musical voice. She knew it as she felt heat rush through her body, warming around her eyes.
She knew it as she felt a smile creep up, unbidden, unexpected.
Arnav didn't wait for her to take his hand. He stood up and closed the distance between them in a single stride before slipping his fingers through hers. Khushi bowed her head as he kept singing, softer, the words floating above her head. He pressed her hand, making her look up. His mouth quirked at the corner as he saw her trying hard not to smile.
"Well, I didn't know that was all it would take to make you smile. Oh, the wasted nights." Khushi shook her head at him, unable to stop smiling. She took a deep breath and he stilled. She wondered how he seemed to know how to put her at ease. She didn't even know his last name.
So she told him, the midnight stranger she met in shadows. "Mother. Died. I didn't want to leave home. Dad uprooted us to come here."
She kept staring at a point below his ear until he squeezed her hand again. Taking in his expression, she was secretly relieved to not find pity staring back at her.
"Well," he said. "Then he probably brought you to the right place."
"What do you mean?"
"This is the City of Joy," he said, and smiled.
 Afterglow - INXS
PLEASE SEE NOTE IN NEXT POST.
Edited by maverickmartin - 5 years ago
Topic started by maverickmartin
Last replied by Anupama.