For all my old friends and new:
Thank you all for being so warm and welcoming. I hope I do not disappoint
Varanasi, August 2005
“They probably won’t kill on Day 1, Di. I think your best black and red salwar-kameez can wait a day or so.”
Khushi’s eyes flicked to find her sister’s expressionless face staring at her in the mirror. “Congratulations on another fantastic ode to sarcasm, Trip. You have earned your right to watch another episode of House MD.” She said dryly, matching her sister’s deadpan expression to the T before she straightened her dupatta and smoothed her hair back unsuccessfully, sighing even as curls escaped the tight pony and hung loosely around her face. Maybe there was someone who would someday call her rebellious curls wisps of honeyed hair that framed her face and softened her features. Maybe someday, she would even be distracted enough to not pay attention to the mane of unruly waves that rested on her head. Till then, she was going to have to deal with her life being a series of bad hair days. Fat, bad hair days, she corrected herself, frowning at her image in the mirror. “I happen to like this set. Black makes me look thin.”
“It also makes you look like the behenji I know you are not.” Tripti rolled her eyes and shut the book she was reading with a loud snap.
Khushi bowed slightly and rolled her eyes with just as much exaggeration as her sister had. “Thank you for that compliment, Trip. But you know…”
Tripti sighed. “Yes, I do know. I have been hearing you say that for five years now.” She tucked her chin in and deepened her voice in an uncanny imitation of Khushi. “You don’t need to prove to anyone that you are not a behenji. You don’t care if anyone does think you are a behenji.”
Khushi smiled and rearranged her dupatta, smiling as the deep red chanderi glittered against her cheeks. She really did love what she was wearing.
“It’s the first day of college, a day of new beginnings, a day of complete and utter freedom. You get your own two-wheeler. You FINALLY start getting pocket money. You don’t need to wear this god-awful uniform anymore,” She said, looking down distastefully at the white shirt and grey skirt she was wearing, “and THIS is what you choose?”
Khushi turned around to face her sister and sighed. “What should I have chosen instead?” She asked, one hand on her hip. “A little orange dress that barely covers my butt, a white frock that no girl has any business wearing post puberty or a Scottish-band type red and black checkered skirt with a knotted shirt?”
“Rani Mukerji looked awful in that orange dress. She looked awful through the movie while we are at it” She held up her forefinger to count one. “Only you can think of Ayesha Jhulka and Khiladi and that awful white dress,” She counted two. “And I know Pooja Bedi looked more like new slut in town and not new kid in college, but the shirt she wore was tucked in, not knotted at the waist.” She ticked off three and then Tripti shook her head. “This is what happens when you watch as much Bollywood as you do. How many times do I have to remind you that life is not a bad 90s film?”
“Exactly, my dear Watson.” Khushi replied with a smirk. “It’s just the first day of college. Not my chance at finding the love of my life. So what I am wearing is perfect. Now if you would excuse me, I have new beginnings waiting for me.” She said sweetly before picking up her backpack and walking out of the small room that the sisters had shared for more than three years now.
“All the best, Di.” Tripti yelled from the room and Khushi smiled.
As Khushi walked out of the meagre staff accommodation that had been her home for almost three years now, she felt her heart pound in her chest loudly. The truth was she was nervous as hell about her first day in Engineering college. And not nearly a tenth as excited as she would have been if it her first day was attending the college she had grown up in.
As she stepped on to the freshly laid road lined with thick Gulmohars that shone a splendid verdant in nature’s ode to the upcoming monsoon season, she sighed, blinking back sudden unexpected tears that sprung into her eyes at the memory of a different campus – one that had been just as spectacular as the one she was in at the moment and yet so much more than her current home could ever mean.
Institute of Engineering, Mumbai was not only her home, the past that held the memories of a lifetime for Khushi, it had been Khushi’s only future. Three years ago when her parents had decided to take up higher academic positions in the Institute of Engineering in Varanasi, citing career stagnation reasons for both of them in Mumbai, Khushi had been heartbroken. But the move away from her home and her dream only strengthened her resolve work as hard as she could. She had promised herself that she would return to her city and her favorite campus one day – this time as a rightful part of its illustrious student base.
If there had been one thing she had worked towards consciously in the last three years and sub-consciously since she could remember, it had been a seat in one of the most prestigious engineering schools in India – one that Tripti and she had grown up in as her parents pursued their careers. Shiv Kumar and Gayatri Gupta had been professors at IE, Mumbai teaching Thermodynamics and VLSI Design respectively for more than a dozen years.
Maybe a big part of her dream was having been brought up by parents who had spent countless minutes every day discussing just how brilliant the students they were teaching were. Maybe she never had the luxury of a different dream. Maybe there was still something she could…
Khushi shook her head forcefully. She didn’t need this trip down self-pity lane. She had enough of that with her appearance. Her ability to do well academically had always been the counterfoil to her insecurity about how she looked. And it was her own hard work that had helped her clear the Combined Engineering Exam with a rank good enough to merit admission in the Institute of Engineering, Varanasi. After all, the college she had secured a seat in, was one of India top colleges too. Plenty of students from IE, Varanasi made their way to high paying jobs, top rung MBA schools across the country, and Ivy league post graduate schools in the US. It came down really to what she was willing to work towards now, what she willing to dream of now.
She clucked loudly and shook her head again, dispelling the trail of gloom that her thoughts were turning into. She was not going to whine. After all how many students were lucky enough to even have what she did? Plus, she wouldn’t have to leave her parents and sister to attend college in another city. She wouldn’t need to stay in a hostel – facts that weighed heavily on her..well her parents’ final approval of IE, Varanasi.
Yes, there were enough reasons for good cheer in her life, if only she chose to focus on them. It was a choice she was going to make. It was a day of new beginnings. Tripti was right; her opinion on Khushi’s apparel of choice notwithstanding.
Two hours later however, Khushi was sure Bholenath was testing the strength of her resolution to remain optimistic. Any nerves she had felt in the morning as she was getting dressed for her first day in college, was child’s play compared to the maelstrom in her heart at present. If Tripti had been standing next to her, she would have helped Khushi pick up the jaw that had fallen to the floor. Unfortunately for Kaveri Khushi Gupta, her sister was soundly snoozing in a History class several kilometers away and she was on her own.
Why Shiv-ji, she began in her head, her inner voice breaking into a sob when…
She turned around, her head still buzzing with the knowledge that she had just become aware of.
“It is you!”
Khushi blinked and tried to focus her gaze on the face that was peering down at her curiously. And yet…
“God! What a surprise! I knew your parents had moved to Varanasi but to find you here…and to be classmates again…”
Khushi frowned and blinked a couple of more times. A second or so later, the face came into focus, dark coal eyes framed with thick lashes, a face that seemed as boyish as it had been the first time she had seen him about a decade ago. “Arjun?”
Arjun Agarwal’s face broke into a wide grin. “Thank god! I would have hated to realize that I am not that unforgettable after all.”
Khushi smiled. Arjun Agarwal had been her classmate for five years – Grade 5 through 9 in the school Khushi had attended in Mumbai. And though she couldn’t exactly call Arjun Agarwal her best friend or even a close friend, in light of the realization that had dawned on her just minutes ago, she was sure he was going to be her lifeline for the next four years.
“Call me Khushi. I don’t care much for my first name.”
Arjun grinned, the dimple in his left cheek deepening in boyish handsomeness as he did.
Khushi frowned at the thought. Since when did Arjun Agarwal fall in the handsome category?
“Unfortunately, I have thought of you as Kaveri for too long to switch so quickly. Maybe in due course.” He shrugged pleasantly. “But I have to say I never thought this day would come, especially after that horrible khud-khushi joke Mukund Deshmukh cracked in Class 8.”
Khushi chuckled at the memory of the boy, their classmate from school who had been the recipient of Khushi’s only boisterous incident in school – a slap across the cheek following months of loaded teasing and innuendos thrown her way.
“Of all the things to remember about me,” Khushi said, shaking her head.
“You should be proud. Brilliant student is sort of a boring description,” Arjun winked.
Khushi didn’t respond to the compliment, uncomfortable with praise as always. Turning back to the class, she took one step in when the realization that had been sidelined by Arjun Agarwal ’s sudden appearance struck again with a vengeance
Something of her inner turmoil must have shown on her face. “What? What’s wrong? You look like you just realized…”
“That I am the only girl in this class.” Khushi finished dejectedly as she turned back and allowed her gaze to sweep through the classroom full of more than seventy boys, all of whom were staring at her in just as much shock. Well done, Kaveri Khushi Gupta, she congratulated herself. Well done. Serves you right for defying your father’s better judgment, she muttered in her mind. And your mother’s. Mechanical Engineering. What were you thinking?
“Awesome!” Arjun exclaimed and walked past her into the classroom, tilting his head in a bid for her to join him. “Can you imagine what sort of a life story that will make someday when you are a big-shot corporate boss somewhere?”
Khushi couldn’t help smile a little despite the cloying optimism of that statement. She couldn’t say she knew much about Arjun’s personality but if this was an example of how cheerful he could be when all she wanted to do was crawl into the earth, then…
“Front bench, I assume?” Arjun asked as he swung his backpack off his shoulder and threw it casually on the front bench in the middle of the classroom, the only one that had been conspicuously left empty by the rest of their classmates.
Khushi sighed and walked around the bench over to the other side.
Front bench? Even in college? Tumhara kuch nahi ho sakta, Di.
Yep, that is exactly what her sister was going to say later in the evening. Khushi groaned as her shoulders slumped. She slid into her seat, trying to ignore seventy odd pair of eyes that refused to focus on anything but her. She knew that Arjun was talking to her, saying something about how it was a mirror of gender ratios in most engineering schools. But she couldn’t care less. How did these things happen to her? How in Shiv-ji’s name was she supposed to remain positive in such situations?
Khushi stumbled to her right as Arjun’s elbow dug into hers. Frowning she turned her head slightly, surprised that Arjun was taking such liberties less than five minutes into their re-acquaintance. However, before she could say or think of anything even remotely sensible, she saw a group of boys enter the class, the swagger in their steps and the smirks of their faces telling enough for her to guess who they were.
And immediately the nervousness that had been relegated to the back of her mind for the better part of the morning, came back as bile in the base of her throat.
She was the only girl in this class.
“Are you guys going to sit there and gawk at us like blubbering idiots? Stand up.” One of the boys thundered, his English heavily accented with more than a touch of Uttar Pradesh heartland.
Immediately, there was loud shuffling and screeching in the class as the class of Mechanical Engineering, future batch of 2009 stood to honor the presence of their seniors in their class.
There was silence in the room as the group walked through the class even as two of their colleagues stayed at the door, presumably to watch out for faculty members who could interrupt their cosy little introduction to the newest class.
Khushi tried to keep her heart from jumping crazily in her ribcage by taking deep breaths. This was just the kind of situation that she hated – one that put her in the spotlight for no fault of hers, not giving her enough time to be prepared for being the center of attention.
“Do you know who we are?”
Khushi suppressed the shiver that ran down her spine and looked up at the voice that came from her left.
She swallowed, unsure of how to phrase her sentence in a way that wouldn’t “offend” the inquirer.
“Seniors.” She said softly and immediately, the person who had asked the question burst out laughing.
“Well done. Seeing you here, I was beginning to worry if you had any idea what was happening around this place. Daydreaming needs to wait for the lectures. When seniors are in the classroom, you need to focus. Okay?” The boy laughed.
Boy? Khushi wondered. Were you supposed to call Engineering students, seniors, boys?
“Do you know why we are here?” He asked again, his face giving away amusement at her situation.
Khushi swallowed again.
“Ragging, Sir.” Arjun piped up and immediately Khushi closed her eyes painfully.
Why? Why did he have to do that? Did he not know some simple first day, ragging escape rules?
“Oho! And are you her official spokesperson?” The boy asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Or boyfriend?” His friend asked with a loud chuckle even as the rest of the first year class remained silent.
It was thus, with Khushi’s heart thudding loudly in her chest when she finally heard the words that were about to change the course of her life. Or something less dramatic.
“Tiwari, shut it.”
There were voices that one couldn’t ignore. The one that had just made itself audible did not quite succeed in shutting Tiwari up but still made Khushi want to crane her neck to locate its source.
Not that she needed to crane much.
She found the owner of that voice almost immediately, surprised with herself that she had not noticed him all this while. He was taller than most of the occupants of that room, his face lean and strangely angular without being boyish – sharp, striking, one you couldn’t tear your eyes away from quickly. Deep set coal eyes, glittering with a strange quality – knowing, intelligent.
“Let her sit.” He said softly to the boy he had addressed as Tiwari and walked over to the other side of the classroom, before facing the students, all of whom were now focused only on him.
Tiwari looked at Khushi and chuckled. “Madam-ji, please sit.”
Khushi felt blood rush to her face, warming her up uncomfortably even as she mindlessly crumpled into her seat, trying to not pay attention to the sound of silence interspersed with chuckles. Or to the fact that she was the only one who was comfortably seated while the rest of her class remained standing in anticipation.
“We are not here to rag. Well, not today anyway,” He said with a chuckle. “Quick introductions – we are all from Final Year Mechanical Engineering. So technically your senior-most seniors. Traditonally, Final Year is the first to take stock of the new batch. You won’t see much of us for the rest of the year. So this is our best opportunity to say hello.” There was something very pleasant and unintimidating about his voice. And despite the R-word, Khushi felt at least a little more at ease than she had been just seconds ago. And she was sure that if she looked up, she would see a smile on that face. She couldn’t look up though. Nope. Not with Tiwari still too close for comfort.
“Oh and your third years wanted us to let you know that they will be here later today with a list of rules for the next couple of months, all of which are easy to follow and completely harmless. Cooperate, be nice and at the end of the month, we’ll throw you the best Fresher’s party First Years have ever seen in this college.”
She didn’t know about her classmates. But she believed him. He didn’t sound like the seniors she had heard of while growing up – the ones who used the only opportunity there were destined to get in life – this time at college – to exert power – sometimes cruelly so – against those below them. She wanted to look up and find the owner of this voice again, secretly dreading the fact that she had actually seen nothing of his face to remember after this moment.
And yet, it was not to be.
“AV,” Tiwari called out urgently, interrupting her train of thought and forcing her to look up. He hung his head out of the classroom once before he looked in again, this time impishly terrified. “Mishra-ji,” He pointed at the corridor to his right, “He must be their Applied Mechanics Prof. this semester. We need to leave.”
At Tiwari’s declaration, the group of seniors quickly shuffled towards the exit even as Khushi and her new classmates watched the person who had been addressed amble his way out of the class casually, his face betraying none of the tension that now adorned his friends’.
“Welcome to IE,” He whispered loudly, winking in the general direction of the class even as his face broke into a teasing smile.
Khushi’s breath caught in her chest as he shook his head and followed his classmates out of the room, the group of them laughing their way through the corridor even as the classroom they left behind remained steeped in silence.
“Apparently, final years are supposed to be first years’ guardians of sorts. It’s the third years who own ragging rights at IE. There was some incident at IEV a couple of years ago after which ragging completely changed to this more docile format.”
She should have known Arjun would waste no time in collecting completely unnecessary information. And she would have if she had remembered more than just his name from school. As Khushi looked at her new old friend wryly, he shook his head and cleared his throat.
“Not that any of this concerns you. You have been kindly excused from all ragging. You must thank AV Sir personally some time.” Arjun said seriously. “Let her sit.” He mimicked. “What a gentleman!”
Khushi rolled her eyes and tucked into her samosa and chutney. Thank him? Yeah, right. She wanted to turn back time and somehow wish that little line away. In three little words, he had singled her out and brought her to everyone’s attention. For the rest of her stay at IE.
“I can’t believe you didn’t know that Mechanical Engineering is not a branch girls seem to voluntarily take up. There is no girl in any of our senior batches either. What were you thinking?” Arjun asked incredulously as he sipped on his tea.
They were seated in the cafeteria as the lunch crowd milled about around them. All through the morning, it was the only question that had been thrown her way. And one she had been asking herself with just as much energy. What had she been thinking?
“I wasn’t thinking,” She answered a second later. “And I am going to pay for four years now.”
“Ah come, you will be fine. The class is just a little unsure of how to react to you at the moment. They’ll be okay soon. Wait and watch.” Arjun said with a careless shrug.
“I couldn’t care less. All I want is for everyone to stop staring at me and whispering behind my back. I almost want to tape my name to my forehead so that they would stop calling me “Mech first year.”” Khushi said drily.
As if to confirm what she had just said, a couple of students walked by their table, whispering “Mech first year” rather too loudly for either of them to ignore.
“See?” Khushi said with a shake of her head. “Four years.” She sighed. “Four years of this crap. Why? Why Shiv-ji?”
Arjun cleared his throat. “Shiv-ji? The God or your father?”
Khushi looked at him expressionlessly even as he grinned at his own little joke. “The God.”
“Ah” Arjun said softly, trying to bite back the chuckle that was waiting to burst forth. “But you will be famous. Batches before ours and after ours will know you. You are going to be a celebrity at IE-Varanasi, Kaveri Khushi Gupta!”
Khushi groaned and allowed her head to slump on the table. How was she going to get through this hell?
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Ek Din Aap Yun
Album: Yes Boss
Singers: Kumar Sanu, Alka Yagnik
Music: Jatin Lalit
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Dil ki daali pe kaliyan si khilne lagin
Jab nigaahen nigaahon se milne lagin
Ek din iss tarah hosh kho jaayenge
Paas aaye toh madhosh ho jaayenge
Maine socha na tha
Next Update: Tue, Mar 3, 2015