At the end of the first week in college, Kaveri Khushi Gupta had come to two iron-clad conclusions. One that she was destined to be singled out as “that Mechanical Engineering” girl for the rest of stay in IE, Varanasi and the other that she had found in Arjun Agarwal , till then not much more than an unimportant classmate, a friend for life.
And it was the extremes of these situations that helped her get through what was, in her own dramatic words, possibly the most trying period of her life.
Not only had she become the one person who everybody with a basic level of awareness of the day to day goings on of the college knew; she was also relentlessly subjected to questions that ranged from idle curiosity to intense awe, averaging on teeth clashing idiocy. So much so that her responses had become staccato and automatic, nevertheless deterring none of her inquirers – professors and students alike, from shaking their head and wishing her luck.
Yes, she had chosen to study Mechanical Engineering
No, she didn’t know that there would be no girls in her class. Or in any of her senior batches
She was fine and she would be fine for four years.
Yes, she would try and apply for a branch upgrade to Electronics at the end of the year.
Yes, she would lift hammers if that’s what studying mechanical engineering meant.
At home, things were no better with both her parents alternating between worrying themselves sick at their daughter’s unique predicament and being completely blasé about it.
Tripti, however, had completely agreed with Arjun’s point of view that this would someday be a great story to tell and that the momentary discomfort that Khushi felt was just that – momentary.
Khushi, on her part, disagreed (vehemently) with her sister but let her comments slide to avoid getting trapped in a battle of words and views with Tripti.
Amidst the storm that was her life though, she continued to catch glimpses of the mysterious AV Sir all around the campus. If she were to be absolutely honest with herself, she had actively started to look out for the defining shape of the back of his head, the slightly taller silhouette amidst raucous crowds, the lazy but supremely confident swagger that defined his gait as he walked through the corridors of IE. She knew nothing of him except that he known as AV to his batch-mates and as AV Sir to all of hers, a name that would catch her ear when it was being shouted down the alley outside her classroom or amidst the chaos in the college canteen at lunch time. He had not walked into her classroom after that first day but the number of references to him highlighted that he was one of those who was popular across branches and batches; and for the right reasons, not because he had the honor of being the only one of his gender in a class full of the opposite.
Khushi looked up to see Arjun set down two plates of samosas topped with luscious green coriander chutney and two cups of steaming hot tea. She continued to look at her friend as the chaos around them swirled to a peak in characteristic lunch time routine.
“AV-sir. That’s his name.” He explained as he settled down on the chair in front of her. When Khushi didn’t give him a suitable acknowledgement, he shook his head and continued.
“You know him… the senior who came to our class on the first day? The one who briefed us about ragging.” Arjun asked, stuffing a samosa into his mouth without caring to be civil with food.
Khushi schooled her features to remain blank and frowned as if in confusion all the while thankful that Arjun had no idea just how quick her heart beat had become.
Arjun clucked and sipped his tea. “Arre, he asked you to sit down while the rest of us kept standing? The person who is responsible for the special status you enjoy while the rest of the class gets ragged into confessing their deepest secrets in front of everyone and participating in the most humiliating dares?” He continued, almost annoyed that Khushi didn’t remember.
“Oh…him…” Khushi said with impromptu carelessness. “Arnav Varun. Two names. Sounds weird.”
Arjun guffawed, unintentionally spraying fried pastry from his mouth all over the table. “So says the girl called Kaveri Khushi Gupta.”
Khushi made a face and dusted herself with a shake of her head. “Gupta at least makes it sound like a name. Arnav Varun just…” She shrugged again.
“He is probably from Bihar. They do that to avoid getting pegged as a particular caste. Big problem in that part of the country, I hear.”
“How?” Khushi asked. “And why?”
Arjun frowned back her even as he chomped away.
“How and why do you know that about Bihar, the two names concept…” She shrugged.
“Dude, forget about his name. The man is a hero. Complete rockstar.” Arjun said emphatically, thumping the rickety table and spilling some of Khushi’s tea on the laminated surface.
Khushi raised an eyebrow at him but remained silent, allowing him to continue.
“Contender for the gold medal by a significant lead. His current CGPA is the highest the branch has seen in more than a decade. He’s got two offers in hand – one from Wheels Auto – with placement in Germany, no less and another from a Korean machinery major – they came recruiting for the first time and picked up just one student. But he apparently doesn’t want either…he is studying for the Common Entrance Test and people are willing to bet their first jobs that he will receive calls from all six Institutes of Management this year.”
Khushi listened to Arjun patiently even as AV-Sir’s ranking in all her lists (real and fictional) spiraled right up to the top. Her friends from school and her sister had always mocked her for placing that much importance on academic success but the truth was that with every achievement being highlighted, Khushi’s awe only grew
Awe? More like a crush, Khushi Gupta, a small voice teased at the back of her mind.
Ignoring it, she shrugged again. “If he wanted to pursue management studies, why take up those jobs and kill someone else’s chances? And why study engineering in the first place?”
Arjun looked at her incredulously and threw his hands up in the air. “Because it’s what anyone in his shoes would do? Because the CET could go anyway and it’s good to have a backup? And Management – well because that is the path to truckloads of money and a cushy job and eventually the chance to be a biggie CEO or CFO or something someday?”
Khushi knew Arjun was right. Well, she corrected herself, he was at least normal for wanting the things that they were conditioned to want. In fact, this was exactly the kind of path her parents dreamed for her. And she for herself. Who was she kidding? She was impressed. Highly impressed.
Khushi cleared her throat. She couldn’t let Arjun know that though. Because…well, she had no clue why she wanted to hide that particular piece of information from her friend but it seemed important and Khushi decided to cling to that approach like a life raft.
“Yeah well. I think it’s a waste of four years of education. I mean…Wheels Auto? Do you even know what that means? And in Germany – that means they must have been recruiting for design. He could have had a chance to do something really cool. But,” She shrugged.
Arjun seemed to consider her comment for a second before he shook his head. “You may have a point but..without a …aren’t you going to eat your samosa?” He asked, eyeing her snack as he did.
Khushi shook her head. “Help yourself.” She had eaten nothing but samosas and kachoris for lunch all week. This was definitely not the path to losing weight – one of her personal goals – to be achieved during her tenure at IE.
“Thanks. I still don’t know how you can say no to these. I mean I have no idea how I am ever going back to the pathetic excuse for samosas you get back in Mumbai.” Arjun said, taking a large bite of Khushi’s snack.
“I need to lose weight.” Khushi muttered, glancing down at herself and tucking in her stomach with all her might.
“Huh?” Arjun asked, leaning in.
Khushi shook her head. “Nothing…you were saying…”
“Oh haan,” Arjun said, polishing off the rest of the samosa with enviable ease. “I was saying that I see your point but I have been speaking with so many of my older cousins, my Dad’s friends. They all say that at some point management becomes bigger than technical stuff…so it would make sense to have a degree in it, wouldn’t it? Kick start the process.”
Khushi shrugged again. “Maybe. But it’s definitely something one should think about before making a career call, I think. Plus MBA would mean more studying. I just got done with CEE for Engineering entrance. I think I am done with competitive exams.” She said, sighing deeply as she sipped on her tea.
“Now that I totally agree with. Though honestly, I thought you would make it to IE, Mumbai or Kanpur. What went wrong?” Arjun asked casually.
It hurt. Despite her promise to herself, Khushi found her heart sinking as the sliver of a forgotten dream seemed to taunt her. “I don’t know. I think I messed up Physics. I must have. I always do. Which is ironic given both Baba and Ma are so good with it.” She said softly. “I did manage to get Aerospace in Kanpur but…you know that better branch concept. Plus my parents are here and this is just…” She shrugged. “Easy.”
Arjun nodded. “Makes sense. IE, Varanasi is great. I am lucky I even got to be here. And I think your parents were right. Aerospace would have been very narrow in focus, would it not? Though I am not sure they expected to have you be the lone flag bearer for women kind in Mechanical, did they?”
Khushi groaned. “No. I don’t think they did. Though Baba did say something about skewed gender ratios being pretty commonplace across engineering schools in the country. Now why would he not tell me this before,” Khushi said exasperatedly. “I tell you, it’s a bane having absent minded professors for parents.”
“I assure you it’s better than over enthusiastic parents who swear by being over-involved in your life.” Arjun said dryly.
Khushi grinned at him and opened her mouth to say something when loud cheering from a table to her right distracted her.
Turning her head she saw a bunch of fifteen odd students, (all boys, of course), crowding around a table that couldn’t have seated more than five people at a time.
She didn’t know if her pulse had picked up in sheer anticipation or if it was the sight of him that did it but there he was – Arnav Varun as she now knew he was named, amidst loud whoops and rigorous back-slapping, cradling a guitar in his arms, two long fingers poised at the strings as the other hand hovered over the other end.
“Oh yeah, and apparently he is an amazing guitarist and an even better singer.” Arjun added, looking towards the table in awe.
Khushi groaned inwardly. Guitar? She wanted to throw her head down on the table and weep. This is all she needed to finally cement her intrigue. For all her pretense of disinterest and disapproval, she knew she had fallen – hook, line and sinker.
And as if to stamp an approval on her realization, the strains of familiar music erupted and the otherwise noisy cafeteria erupted into loud cheer. Clearly, this sort of an impromptu session was commonplace. And he was the hero.
Guitar strums filled the air and a couple of people seated with Arnav on the table joined him using the table surface as a set of drums.
“Doston”, he said out dramatically, grinning as the dimple in his left cheek deepened. “Aaj college ka aakhri din hai…”
A couple of people laughed out aloud and someone yelled from somewhere in the small cafeteria, “Wrong song, AV-sir…There’s still a few months to go for your farewell”
The strumming continued, as did the drums as more people joined the crowd around the table, making it difficult for Khushi to see properly. And yet, she couldn’t move from her seat.
“Aur aanewali zindagi ke liye sabne apne liye kuch na kuch socha hai…”
More cheering followed as people yelled incoherent retorts from across the room.
“Par maine apne liye kuch nahi socha…”
Khushi craned her neck to see him laughing as he finished the dialogue, ducking as his friends clapped him loudly on the back and jeered his declaration. There were shouts of “Hero”, “AV-Sir” from the room that added to the sudden mood of celebration in the small cafeteria.
“Haha, AV – no way…Jhoot mat bol…” Someone yelled from the table in front of the one Khushi and Arjun were occupying. Clearly he was someone from the final year batch. Maybe some other branch. Given what Arjun had said of AV-Sir, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that he was popular across batches…Guitarists were always popular…there was something about that musical instrument. That and drums. Khushi sighed as she craned her neck some more.
“….Aur aaj mujhe baar baar…ek hi khayal aa raha hai….”
More cheering and loud yells followed with more students gathering around and halting their lunch time chatter to listen in. Khushi now noticed that a significant number of women from different branches and different levels of seniority were beginning to stare at the singer. She bit back the temptation to roll her eyes. Of course, he had to be popular with the women.
“Papa kehte hain, bada naam karega”
Beta hamara aisa kaam karega”
The crowd had started to clap in rhythm with the song, making it difficult to hear his voice but the guitar and the table drumming was as loud as ever.
This was one of those songs that defined the concept of college education and filmy romance in Bollywood. Underlined by the fact that the actor had found while filming this song, the love of his life, had always added to charm of it. In all her practiced cynicism, she had never imagined that the world would allow her to see so many people come together in something as simple as a Bollywood song rendition. These were the things that Tripti expected college to be made of, things that Khushi had argued vociferously for years that were only the Hindi film industry’s way of glamourizing something as mundane as education. Or was it the other way around?
It didn’t matter. In that moment, the atmosphere in the canteen, the singing, the hero with the guitar, the admirers, the girls who couldn’t stop giggling, blushing or staring, all screamed celebration in the exact manner that threw Khushi off and pulled her into the depths of their charm.
“He is something, isn’t he?” Arjun said with an awestruck smile.
And that was enough to break the little spell that had woven itself around her in golden threads. But before Khushi could react, the song continued, keeping her glued to her seat.
“Mera toh sapna”
His voice fell, husky and low as some girls wolf whistled and Arnav winked at them with a smirk
“Hai ek chehra…”
“Kiska chehra, AV?” Someone shouted with cupped hands around his mouth, his voice echoeing around the room
“Who’s the lucky girl, AV?” Another voice boomed from another part of the room.
“You are breaking hearts here, AV-Sir!”
“Dekhe jo usko…Jhume bahar…” He continued, swaying slightly as the rhythmic clapping, strunning and drumming continued.
“Gaalon pe khilti, kaliyon ka mausam”
“Aankhon mein jaadu…hothon pe pyaar…”
As his voice rose to a crescendo per the song, the room erupted again, in loud, whistles and cat calls.
Khushi felt a shiver run down her spine even as goosebumps erupted all over her arms. She felt her stomach flip like she had been on a giant ferris wheel.
“We should go. We’ll miss our…” She whispered but she might as well have saved herself the trouble. Because Arjun Agarwal had risen from his seat and was walking over to the table where AV-Sir and his friends were seated.
“Arjun,” She called out but she knew that in all the merriment around her, her voice, already hesitant, would be drowned.
Sighing she looked on as the song ended with loud clapping reverberating across the cafeteria, with faces known and unknown cheering on the impromptu session and a few even demanding an encore. Anyone who witnessed the scene wouldn’t imagine that this was the middle of the day with classes still awaiting all those who stood clapping, shouting, even mouthing the lyrics of their next demand no better than they would at a karaoke night in a club somewhere in town.
No sooner had the thought flashed through her head that Khushi realized she had an Electrical Engineering lab session to attend at half past two. One look at the watch was enough to remind her that she, and Arjun, needed to head towards the lab which would take them as much time as they had on hand, to walk to. Rising from her seat, she picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulder, adjusting her dupatta as she did. Her stomach growled with the want of food and she took a deep breath, happy that she had managed to avoid a meal that would do nothing but melt directly to sit on her hips.
Sliding across the chair and out of her seat, she cleared her throat and walked hesitantly through crowds towards where the singing had just resumed, this time another song that was a guitarist collegiate’s moment of shining. Arjun, her friend and life raft, was standing right next to the group of seniors, gawking at the man in the center who was still crooning in his velvet smooth voice. As she approached the table, a couple of students looked at her and whispered words to themselves (“Mech. first year”, what else?), making Khushi change her mind. If Arjun wanted to miss lab less than a month into college, it was his problem. She needed to get a move on.
She changed her direction towards the exit, maneuvering her way through the jostling crowds, ignoring the way people around her, girls and boys alike were singing praises of he-she-did-not-want-to-glance –at.
Just like that, she raised her head and looked directly at him.
And the unthinkable happened.
He was looking at her, his eyes crinkling in good humor as he smiled, the dimple in his left cheek deepening just as the color on her face.
Kaveri Khushi Gupta was a dead woman.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Album: The Great Gambler
Song: Do Lafzon Ki
Music: R. D. Burman
Singer: Asha Bhonsle
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Dil ki baaton kaa, matlab naa poochho
Kuchh aur hum se, bas ab aa poochho
Jis Kke liye hain duniya deewaani,
Yaa hain mohabbat yaa hai jawaani