Kolkata, September 2015
She groaned and turned to lie on her stomach; sliding the phone she was holding in her left hand under the mountain of pillows her head was propped up against. She let snuggled deeper into the softness under her head and smiled. Her mother would have disapproved of the bedding. She would complained endlessly about how it wasn’t good for the back, the neck and practically every perceivable body part. But what was the point of being in a plush resort if she couldn’t even enjoy basic comforts such as three ultra-soft pillows under her neck and being away from Ma.
She closed her eyes at the thought and willed herself to sleep only to open them what only seemed like an eon later and check her phone again.
“Screw it” Khushi muttered to herself and quickly pushed the covers back to jump out of bed. As her feet made contact with the cool, faux-brick tiled floor of the unfamiliar hotel room, she stretched her arms wide, allowing every nervous crick in her arms to ease itself out.
Except nothing was going to ease itself today, she thought to herself glumly as she allowed her arms to fall back to her sides with a loud floppy sound.
As if on cue, her mobile beeped, the sound almost garish in the way it pierced through the stillness of an imminent dawn. She stepped back to slide her hand under the pillow and extract the phone. She didn’t need to swipe the phone open to see who it was.
Since you are already up, can you please wake me up at 6.30? I have an early class today.
On any other day, she would have smiled at the message and shaken her head in wonder. On any other day, she would have swiped the message open and replied with as much enthusiasm as the message was sent with.
Today, however, the knowledge that her sister knew exactly how miserable she must be to have woken up an hour and half before she needed to, didn’t bring her any sense of relief, warmth or consolation.
“Stop being so dramatic, Khushi” She chided herself and walked into the in suite bathroom to begin what she knew was going to be a long, long day.
Forty-five minutes later, she was seated, fully dressed and more nervous than ever, in the breakfast lounge of the plush resort. She could see the expanse of the Ganges from the open lounge, still grey in the prelude to dawn and yet so gentle and soothing in its flow, it made Khushi want to walk over and stare at the water and do nothing else. The river was at its serene best as she saw it, a vast change from how she was used to seeing her favorite river in the past few years.
Smiling softly, she turned her head away and glanced around the lounge. As expected, breakfast service had not yet started. In fact, the breakfast staff at the resort had only started to filter in a couple of minutes after Khushi had occupied a corner table, well hidden by a pillar. As she watched the staff began to meticulously go about their respective tasks, the mundane-ness of their activity seemed almost soothing to Khushi’s well-frayed nerves.
In those moments, Khushi envied everyone who was going about their day according to pre-defined, familiar, comfortable routines – those that they had been following for years without break.
If only she could be one of them today…
They said change was difficult. For Kaveri Khushi Gupta, that was the biggest understatement of her life. If there was one thing she hated, it was change. So much so that she could count on her fingertips, every major change that had occurred in her life as far back as her memory could go. Worse, she could recount every one of the days associated with the change with bitter clarity that rose in her throat like bile.
At one point, she had even considered the possibility of a mild case of Asperger’s.
Her mobile beeped again and Khushi picked it up, this time smiling as she read the brief text
Are we on Asperger’s yet?
The smile turned into a chuckle as she breathed in deeply and quickly typed up a reply.
Stop reading my mind.
As she expected her phone beeped with a reply before she could place it back discreetly on the table.
I wish I had the power. Unfortunately my talent is limited to years of forced company with you and a lot of access to your whining. And of course, My Name Is Khan.
Khushi grinned again and pressed the “call” button on her phone, not surprised when she heard her sister’s slightly groggy voice even before there could a ring tone.
“Good morning, Di.”
“You asked me to wake you up. So…” Khushi said drily. “Wake up.”
“Thank you, Di. You are the world’s best alarm clock. Even if you are a little too high strung for your own good.” Tripti said sleepily, her voice ringing with open amusement Khushi knew could be directly attributed to her state. “So, do you feel like throwing up yet?”
Khushi’s stomach growled in answer and she shook her head. “Not yet. Right now, I am just hungry. I just wish they would open the buffet soon.”
Tripti laughed. “Food is the answer to all problems, yeah?”
Khushi made a face. “It most certainly is the answer to nerves.”
“I never understood why new beginnings bother you so much, Di. I mean I understand nervousness about something unfamiliar but you aren’t twelve any more. How tough can it be?”
Khushi closed her eyes and sighed. “Let’s just say new beginnings scare me, okay? Change is my big fear. Like lizards are yours.”
As expected, there was a shriek from the other side of the phone. Khushi could see her sister’s horrified expression and her balled up position at the end of her bed. “Why? Why would you do that? I don’t need to start my day thinking about lizards…” Tripti said breathily, her voice quavering as she spoke. “You are mean. I hope you have a rotten week. Bye.”
“I will, don’t worry. Bye,” Khushi said with a wry chuckle and placed the phone on the table guiltily. She had been slightly mean. Tripti’s fear of lizards was legendary but real. It was a cheap shot to bring it up. In her own defense, however, Khushi couldn’t deny that her sister had been asking for it, what with all the teasing.
Once again, Khushi smiled at her own childishness. Some days she had remind herself that Tripti and she weren’t twelve and nine respectively. And yet, Khushi loved every minute of absolute ridiculousness that she shared with her sister. Knocking on wood quickly, she pushed her chair back and decided to walk up to where the buffet spread was being laid. She could smell the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and that marked the end of her patience.
As she was pouring herself a large mug of strong, black coffee, she felt a presence next to her. Turning her head, she looked up to see familiar warm brown eyes smiling down at her.
“Arjun!” She exclaimed. “When did you get here?” She asked, giving him a hug with her one free hand.
“Late last night. My flight got cancelled and airline didn’t have another flight to Kolkata. I had to pester, threaten, yell, plead – the airline to get any other airline, any other flight they could. It was such a nightmare. Don’t ask.” He said wearily, reaching out to pour himself a cup of hot tea.
“I told you to get in earlier. But no….”
“No lectures, Kavi. My head is still pounding. I couldn’t sleep last night. To top all my travel woes, they’ve given me a smoking room and it just…” He shrugged his shoulders as if shaking a coat of smoke off his shoulders.
It should have surprised her that even after all these years, Arjun couldn’t bring himself to call her Khushi. He was the only one who called her Kavi. And it was endearing. She was Kaveri to the world, Khushi to those she loved and Kavi to Arjun. A twinge of emotion she had long forgotten pinched her. If only… Khushi shook her head to clear the train of thoughts that she knew would follow.
“Awwww, poor you.” Khushi said as they walked back together to the table Khushi had to herself. “No wonder you here already. You didn’t make it to breakfast even once in the last two years despite my constant pleading…”
“Pleading? More like bullying..” Arjun scoffed as he slid into the chair.
“Is it bullying if it doesn’t work?” Khushi asked rolling her eyes.
“Yes.” Arjun replied and then took a giant swig of tea. “I feel better.” He said with a dramatic sigh. “Anyway, how are you? Throw up yet?”
Khushi banged her palm against the table softly. “It happened once and that too because I had food poisoning. Stop badgering me both of you.”
Arjun frowned and looked around him. “Ermmm, Kavi – both? Has it come to hallucinations now?”
“Very funny.” Khushi replied. “I meant you and Tripti. She asked me the exact same question. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought you guys came up it together to annoy me.”
Arjun chuckled and went on to drain his cup of tea. “I can’t wait to get started.” He said as he put the cup down. If there was another thing that hadn’t changed in all the years that had gone by, it was his seemingly never-ending supply of enthusiasm. “I hear that orientation week at Alridge and May is one of the best in the industry. Very intense. In fact a couple of our classmates who started at MacMurphy’s last week were saying that they are adopting the A&M Week Zero at Murphy’s. Can you imagine?”
Khushi shrugged. “Stop talking like Murphy’s is God’s gift to the Management Consulting industry. I always preferred A&M.”
Arjun let out a snort. “I know we are here and everything, Kavi but A&M doesn’t come anywhere close to what the consultants at Murphy’s get to do, especially how much they get to charge their clients. Last I heard, their average billing rate is three times A&M’s at each level. There’s a reason for that, you know. They get the better talent.”
“And they breed the bigger jerks. I don’t care for MacMurphy honestly. And unlike you I never wanted to be placed with them. So…”
“Sure you didn’t.”
Khushi frowned, her brows knitting in fierce battle as she did. “I did not!” She exclaimed. “How can you forget? The first time we met the Murphy reps at the Consulting Club inauguration, I told you that they were rude and full of themselves. They may be the smarter ones but I wouldn’t want to spend one day with that firm.”
She knew that her voice had risen in volume considerably like it did when she spoke with feeling. And this was a topic she felt strongly about. Management Consulting had been her career of choice since she had first worked with a bunch of consultants in her first job as a R&D engineer at a leading car manufacturer. And once she had found her way to the Institute of Management, her dream had not only sharpened but also acquired a name – Alridge and May – one of the best Management Consulting firms in the country – one that was known to be different because it focused on employees as people and not just as the assets that rake in dollars. Khushi colored slightly and looked around to make sure she hadn’t attracted any attention to herself with her rant. Thankfully for her, it was still ten minutes short of 7 am and the breakfast lounge was still as sparsely populated as when she had first arrived.
Breathing a sigh of relief, she flicked her gaze back to Arjun. To her surprise, he was grinning from ear to ear at her.
“You did that on purpose.” She said, narrowing her eyes.
“Only so that you would realize that you wanted to be here. That this new beginning is a good one. And all the nervousness that’s making you chew your finger nails down to their roots, is ridiculous. Now, you can thank me by getting me a muffin from that tray.”
Khushi turned to look in the direction that Arjun was pointing at and quickly rose from her chair, ignoring Arjun’s guffaws as her stomach growled indecently.
“I need food.” She announced and quickly headed towards the buffet spread, not aware that her earlier nervousness had already disappeared into thin air.
A couple of hours later, they were finally seated (next to each other as expected), in the large boardroom that had been reserved for the new batch of consultants of 2014 at Alridge & May.
And Khushi’s hyperventilation, was back.
With a vengeance.
“You have got to be kidding me!” Khushi exclaimed as she flipped through the program schedule that had been placed in front of her.
She looked up to see the rest of the rather quiet conference room looking at her, all of its occupants having come together instinctively to shush her unintentionally loud voice. She felt her face flood with color and smiled sheepishly at the others before mouthing a quick apology to the coordinator of who was looking at her with a bemused smile.
Khushi looked sideways to see Arjun flipping through the schedule and a few pre-read materials that they had been given at the start of the seven day orientation program. For a moment, she almost considered not telling Arjun about her discovery. He wouldn’t understand. Or maybe he would understand too much and then…
“You should be thankful you have four days to prepare yourself. What if that session had been the first one? Imagine that.”
Khushi narrowed her eyes at him suspiciously. “How long have you known?” She asked in a hushed whisper, thankful for the fact that the day hadn’t been kicked off yet. She needed to calm herself. As if it wasn’t enough that this was her first day on this job, the job of her dreams – one that would give her everything she had been conditioned to long for.
Arjun continued to read through the sheaves of paper in front of him. “About five minutes.” He answered without bothering to lift his head and look at her.
Khushi tilted her head to one side and raised her eyebrow in disbelief.
“Don’t give me the K-roll.” He said dryly, still continuing to keep his eyes averted from her gaze. “I saw the name a couple of minutes after we were given the agenda. And the only reason I didn’t bring it up is because I knew it would come up anyway.” He said drily. “And I am not lying.” He insisted a second later, finally lifting his head to look straight at her.
Khushi continued to stare into his eyes, scanning through them to see if she could spot anything that…
“I would have told you had I known, Kavi. At least give me that much credit. I haven’t actually been following his career you know?”
Khushi let out an ungainly snort. “Yeah, right. The term groupie was relevant at a point, if I remember correctly.”
“Anymore.” Arjun quipped, his voice forceful and simmering with something she hadn’t heard in a long, long time. “And groupie? I know we use the term rock star liberally but might be too much.”
Immediately she looked away. Every once in a while something came up to remind Khushi of just how thread-bare her relationship with Arjun had become at one point. The occasions had become fewer and farther in between in the last couple of years and still…
“You are not lying.” She repeated softly, more to herself than to her friend. She shouldn’t have doubted him in the first place. But when destiny had decided to make her life miserable at predefined intervals and one common recurrence, what choice did she have but lose sight of her basic instincts about people?
“You know, if only you had given your curiosity free reign in the past couple of years, you would have known too. Well, you would have at least known to anticipate this. Only you can be this surprised about an event with greater than ninety percent probability of occurrence, especially in age of social networking”
Khushi drew herself up to full height. “I am against social networking in principle and you know that. And please give me credit – I tried to like Facebook, pun intended. But I am sick of people flaunting what they have on one more platform. Pictures of exotic vacations, weddings that should strictly belong only to Karan Johar films, …”
“You like Karan Johar films.” Arjun interjected.
“Only Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and that is…” Khushi shook her head and held up her hand. “That’s not the point. I am sick of all these supposedly fantastic things happening to people. And have you seen the amount of PDA in there? It makes me want to throw up…” Khushi gagged exaggeratedly. “My life is miserable enough, thank you very much.”
“There you go again!” Arjun whispered, his voice brimming with barely concealed exasperation. “Your life is not miserable.”
Khushi snorted again. “It’s an expression.”
“It’s not. You are just being a pessimistic idiot as always” Arjun concluded as went back to his reading.
Khushi continued to stare at her friend, her thoughts alternating between wanting to whack Arjun sharply for being too honest about his opinion of her and wanting to run away so that she would have to face what the week held in store. Unfortunately for her, she knew that neither was truly an option – the former because every word Arjun had uttered was true – she could be unrealistically pessimistic with very little warning; and the latter because, this job, this new beginning was everything she had worked all her life for – a career of her choice, financial independence and the path to a comfortable, even luxurious life
She looked down at the piece of paper in front of her, her eyes glued to the name that was threatening to disrupt her world. Again.
She should have known. She should have expected. After all if there had been one common thread that linked all her new beginnings in the last decade, other than nervousness and nausea, of course, it had been this…this name.
She allowed herself to read again, this time slowly as she digested every syllable
Friday, 2 pm – 5 pm
Session: Working In Teams – The Power of Synergy
Instructor: Arnav Varun (Senior Manager, Service Area: Strategy)
“Which office, Arjun?” She whispered. She didn’t have to look at Arjun’s what-do-you-think expression to know the answer to her question.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Aye Ajnabi
Album: Dil Se
Singers: Udit Narayan, Mahalakshmi Iyer
Music: AR Rahman
Tu to nahin hai lekin teri muskurahatein hain
Chehra nahin hai par teri aahatein hain
Tu hai kahan kahan hai
Tera nishaan kahan hai
Mera jahan kahan hai
Main adhoora tu adhoori jee rahein hain