Three days and many boring lectures and laboratory sessions later, Khushi was still reeling under the impact of that smile and the deluge of questions that it had brought upon her poor unsuspecting heart.
Had he known he was smiling at her?
Did he actually mean to smile at her?
Did he recognize her as that Mech. First Year girl?
Did he know her name now?
Or was it all just a simple gesture of bonhomie coming at the back of music and merriment?
Of course, some – and by that she meant her sister, would say that Khushi was overly complicating things for herself by thinking so much. But they wouldn’t know that a restless heart was fertile ground for the birth of ideas, possibilities, scenarios and the thread that binds everything together – questions.
Sighing, Khushi closed her eyes and inhaled the scent of freshly awash river. She heard its gushing sound, teasing her auditory senses in a way that was so different and yet not completely unpleasant, from the sound of waves crashing against the shore. She had always preferred the ocean, its endless bounty a source of never-ending imagination. And yet in the three years that she had now been in Banaras and after having witnessed the mighty Ganga in all her avatars, she had to admit that the river was growing on her.
She opened her eyes and stared at the vast expanse of water in front of her, more than a couple of kilometers wide, almost giving the impression of being an ocean with a purpose, one that didn’t have the time to stand and stare, one that had a destination to find and miles to cover while on the way.
“I have a feeling we are not in Kansas anymore, Toto”
Khushi turned to look at her sister who had just skipped over to join her on the top most step of the famous Assi Ghat. Thanks to the fact that it was one of those rare non-holy days and that it had rained rather heavily for hours earlier in the day, the ghat was rather scarcely populated, allowing the Guptas to linger around for way longer than they usually would have. It was at these moments that the family of four was grateful for the fact that the university campus that housed IE and many other colleges of various disciplines was less than a ten minute drive from the ghat.
“Definitely not Kansas, Dorothy,” Khushi agreed and pulled her knees up to tuck her chin between them, keeping her eyes focused on the pale, watery sun that peeped out of dense clouds. “But I think I still prefer the sea. At least it is blue.”
Tripti cleared her throat. “I think you are getting confused. We lived in Mumbai not Maldives. Or even Goa. When did you ever get to see a blue sea? Or a clean beach?”
Khushi shrugged. “There were days. I choose to remember only those.”
Tripti sighed loudly. “I have decided. I prefer the river, Di. It is so much more….purposeful…like it takes itself seriously..Sort of like you…I like that.”
“Thank you for that backhanded compliment, sister.” Khushi smiled at her sister’s very grown up statement. “Are you sure you are only fifteen, Krishna Tripti Gupta?”
Tripti chuckled and nodded in the direction of her parents who were deeply immersed in a conversation about some fluid mechanics topic that one of her father’s student was basing his doctoral thesis on – as always academics claiming its rightful place as the topic of conversation for their occasional river side get-togethers. “It’s their fault. Their obsession with rivers and the names they gave us as a result makes me generally wiser when it comes to river philosophy.”
Khushi smiled. Their double names, one based on the name of a river and the other based on the emotion their parents claimed they felt at each of their births, was a favorite pet peeve for the sisters, especially for Tripti who was saddled with a first name more commonly reserved for the male species – a constant source of heartache.
Khushi turned to look at her parents and chuckled silently as she saw her father trying to draw up what she could assume were equations and line diagrams on the air in front of them. Even better was her mother’s absolute attention as if she could actually see what Shiv Gupta was writing so furiously in empty space.
“So, are you now going to tell me about college?”
Khushi frowned at her sister, surprised at the sudden and very purposeful change of topic. “What?”
Tripti made a clucking noise as she shook her head. “I have been waiting for an IE, Varanasi update for over two weeks now. And there has been not even a squeak from you. That makes me think there is something interesting going on. Spill.”
Khushi snorted. “What! I did tell you about my awesome two weeks. I am being referred to as that Mech First Year girl. I met Arjun Agarwal – remember him from school? Anyway, he is my lifeline. And the classes…well I definitely cannot complain that I am not being given special attention. Because all profs seem to be teaching me specifically. It’s so much fun.” Khushi rolled her eyes sarcastically.
Tripti giggled. “Really, Di. I don’t know how you get caught in these situations. Remember the time you got saddled with two roles in the same play because Mr. Khedekar decided he couldn’t trust anyone else with his precious play? Of course, it would have been fun if at least one of those was a lead role.”
Khushi swatted her sister’s arm playfully but shook her head good-naturedly anyway. “They need girls who don’t weigh more than the hero for lead roles. That’s okay.”
This time it was Tripti’s turn to snort. And Khushi’s sister didn’t pull any punches when she did. “Bullshit. You are not fat. How many times should I…”
“Of course you would say that. You are programmed to think and say that. You are my sister after all.”
“Not just me. Baba has always said you aren’t fat either…”
Khushi raised an eyebrow.
“So none of our opinions count because we are related by blood? What sort of Mechanical Engineering special logic is this?”
Khushi smiled sheepishly and shrugged.
Tripti frowned at her angrily for a long moment and then shook her head. “Anyway, this is a never ending argument because you refuse to see reason. So let’s go back to the topic we started off with. Haan, when I asked for an update, I meant something spicy, romantic, dreamy. Tell me about handsome seniors or classmates. You know, the college ka hero types with guitars slung over shoulders and girls sighing at every dimpled smile casually thrown their way.”
Khushi’s heart flipped and did a quick somersault in her chest. How…how had Tripti known? Had Khushi said something unknowingly? Spoken in her sleep perhaps?
Struck by the stupidity of her musing, she shook her head. No, she couldn’t have, she assured herself. She had been very careful. After all, didn’t she know just how relentless Tripti could be? She had still not forgotten her sister’s constant teasing when she had discovered Khushi’s first crush from school…and what a disaster that had turned out to be.
“Again, what crap!” Khushi shrugged. “College ka hero? Guitar? Songs? Too much Bollywood, KT. Real life is a little more boring and mundane, okay?”
“Of course not,” Tripti said forcefully. “You know Nisha Runwal? My classmate? Her brother is studying medicine at IMS and he is such a hero…acoustic guitar, band and everything. I am sure IE has those guys too…And as long as they can sing…Aur kya chahiye…Di…you are such a loser…Focus on the right things…The time for padhai-likhai is over…that’s all we’ve done all our lives anyway….”
Khushi threw her hands up in the air. “Oh God! Wait till I tell Ma and Baba about all this advice you are giving me Dadi-amma. Kya dialogues hain….Where do you get all this from?”
“You always were a tattle-tale, Di. Loser! And you better take my words seriously. Nahi toh Ma and Baba toh uss type ke bhi nahi hain that they will look for a boy for you. I promise you, you’ll have to spend a very unromantic and single status wala youth.”
Khushi groaned and threw her hands around her sister’s neck, pulling her into a huge hug. “You need help, sister. Jaadu ki jhappi from me….Stop…stop….”
Tripti kept screaming, wiggling her way out of Khushi’s embrace and the two sisters convulsed into a bout of uncontrollable laughter. Tripti wrenched herself out of her sister’s hold and stumbled as she got up and ran, still screaming. Forgetting in an instant that she was eighteen and beyond these silly siblings games, Khushi followed her sister, sprinting clumsily in her flimsy slippers as a catch and run session ensued on the cemented platform, finally drawing their parents attention even as the Ganga scuttled by chuckling to herself along the ghat.
Khushi snapped the book close with a loud bang and threw it on the bed carelessly, staring at it for a good two minutes thereafter.
She clicked the tape recorder that was playing some of her favorite romantic numbers shut with a silent curse.
Why, she groaned silently? Why did the author have to do that? The story was progressing nicely, it was just the sort of romance reading that she liked, simple and yet laced with enough passion and drama to make it interesting. And then the standard staple descriptions came along – the heroine’s fair, alabaster skin that glittered against the hero’s darker tan, petite waist that could snap under just a forceful hug, eyes large and doe shaped that remained big and wide every time there was any sort of proximity – willing or otherwise, hair shiny and wavy, rippling down her back or spread across a pillow – beauty that could put any real woman to shame and make them want to throw something at someone.
Why was beauty such an integral part of romance? In these books, in the movies…almost as if those who didn’t fall under these standard moulds didn’t deserve a love story that would make someone’s toes curl. Or was it that people who didn’t look good didn’t find love at all, let alone a love story that inspired?
She looked up and saw her reflection in the mirror. The bushy, sable hair was tied up in a messy knot. She was wearing a baggy T-shirt and calf length pajamas that screamed comfort. And hid her extra kilos superbly. She pushed the pair of spectacles up on the bridge of her nose and shifted her head to see if there was any angle that allowed her to see her eyes and not the horribly pale tubelights that reflected in glass.
Stop frowning and cheer up. Only if you feel good, will you look good. Sulking faces can be fixed with a smile even if everything else is genetic.
Her mother’s constant refrain echoed in her head – one she hated. Her mother didn’t understand. After all Gayatri Gupta was the epitome of understated beauty. She carried with her a quiet elegance that Khushi secretly hoped would be hers one day. Maybe when she was in her forties, she would finally have some semblance of quiet beauty too. Maybe in crisp cotton starched sarees, her ample body would finally find its flattering reflection. Maybe….
A loud clang rang out in the otherwise silent home, making Khushi jump. She glanced at the clock and frowned. Her mother and sister had left for emergency grocery shopping less than ten minutes ago. It couldn’t be them so soon. Which meant it was either someone to do with domestic utilities or someone to meet her father – neither of which category was particularly pleasing to her mind given that it would only mean extra work for her.
Sighing, she got out of bed and ambled out of the room towards the main door. As she did, she saw her father sitting at his work desk with his head bent over some book. “Baba, did you even hear the doorbell go off?” She asked but didn’t wait for an answer – which she knew from her experience of being his daughter was bound to be a resounding no. She was certain he hadn’t even heard her question, let alone external intrusions of the mundane like door bells.
Shaking her head, she walked up to the door and pulled it open forcefully, aware that her face was probably set in a scowl not unlike the one that would have adorned her father’s face if he had been the one to hear the doorbell, if ever.
They say that when you want something with all your heart, the universe conspires to make it happen. Of course, they don’t mention that Murphy probably has a more powerful corollary hidden somewhere that when you do not want something to happen, it most certainly will!
How else, Khushi wondered, would anyone explain the presence of Arnav Varun, to-be gold medalist and model final year Mechanical Engineering student, standing outside her doorstep looking almost as stunned to see her as she was to see him?
Khushi ignored the way her hand tightened over the metal of the door knob, the way her heart cartwheeled in her chest and the way her mouth suddenly felt parched.
It must have been quite a scene, she would think later and curse herself because it was he who cleared his throat – maybe a couple of times before Khushi could register any of it.
“Erm…this is Professor S.K.Gupta’s residence?”
That voice. That VOICE. She knew he was speaking and all she could hear were the distant strains of a song that till recently she only pictured with a famous Hindi film actor and his playback artist.
“Professor, Shiv Kumar Gupta….of Applied Mechanics?” He repeated, shifting slightly so that the fading evening sun peeked out from behind his head and cast a soft orange glow over his features. Maybe it was the change her in her visual field or maybe it was just her sanity returning, Khushi stepped back inside her home and nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
Mumbling something incoherent about getting her father, she hurried back into the house, finally exhaling as the reality of the situation dawned on her.
He was here. At her doorstep.
“Baba, there is …someone to see you.” Khushi said softly, standing behind her father’s chair. When Shiv Gupta didn’t reply, Khushi shook herself visibly and said more forcefully. “Baba,”
Finally, her father lifted his head and stared at her, scowling as he did. “What?”
On another day, her father’s lost to the world attitude would have earned him a lecture from her. Today, however, there were more pressing things on her mind. And they had two-letter initials.
“There is someone to see you?”
Shiv frowned. “Must be Kashinath from the lab. I asked him to bring me…”
Khushi shook her head. “No…no…it’s a student…”
“A student?” He repeated, as if surprised. It wasn’t an unwarranted reaction. In the three years that they had been on the campus, there had been exactly two students who visited their home and both had been well-planned and expected. Her father wasn’t a very gregarious professor, like many others whose homes were well visited, each visit largely welcomed. Her mother, more socially adept than her father, also preferred to meet all her students, lab assistants and colleagues outside the confines of her home.
Shiv Kumar Gupta pushed his chair back and quickly donned his glasses before hurrying towards the main door. Khushi took the opportunity and rushed back into her room, taking deep breaths in and out as she plonked herself on the bed. Her mind was still whirring with panic. What was he doing here? What was he doing here? And she….she glanced up at the mirror, groaning as she saw her unkempt self. She pulled the clip that was holding her hair up messily and allowed her hair to fall over her shoulders. Why, Shiv-ji, why would you do this to me? She whined, looking up at the ceiling. Why couldn’t she have been at least well groomed?
And then it hit her. She was behaving like she…No, she couldn’t. She wasn’t one of these silly girls who couldn’t deal with their crushes. She wasn’t one of those silly girls who had crushes in the first place. She didn’t have time for all of that. And just because this guy asked her to sit in a class full of standing students…and sang like a dream….
Stop it! Hadn’t she learned in school? Crushes were a waste of time. Her strength lay in her head and she would focus on that. So what if he was in her home?
Oh God! She muttered under her breath. He was in her home!
Her reverie ended with her father’s unnaturally loud voice. Clenching her teeth, she quickly scooped up her hair into a neat pony, adjusted her clothes and hurried out.
She found her father and Arnav Varun huddled over the couch with many bundles of paper surrounding them. She waited as her father continued to talk to his student, who not surprisingly, glanced in her direction a couple of times but stayed silent. Trust her father to call her and then get immersed in work again
She cleared her throat. Unfortunately for her, it was Arnav who looked up again. Why hadn’t she realized his eyes were dark, so intense, glittering, piercing, like the midnight sky?
Blinking she turned her gaze to her father who was still pouring over the papers. “Baba,” She said softly, ignoring the fact that there was a pair of eyes still trained on her.
Thankfully, Shiv Gupta looked up and frowned. “What?…Oh,” He turned to Arnav. “Do you want some tea or coffee?”
Arnav shook his head. “No, Sir. Thank you. I am…Just some water would do.”
Khushi nodded, without waiting for her father’s instruction and turned around to head towards the kitchen. Stumbling across the cabinets, she quickly extracted a couple of glasses and filled them with water. Fumbling some more she finally located a tray and carried it out, muttering herself to make sure she didn’t spill any water as she walked.
She offered Arnav the glass and this time, there was no scope for doubts, questions or misunderstanding as he smiled at her and whispered “Thank you.”
Khushi stepped back and looked at him once by which time he had already turned his attention to what her father had started talking about again – something about force diagrams and viscosity coefficients.
She turned around and escaped once more to the sanctuary of her room. Plonking herself on her bed, she picked up her romance novel and opened it, reading no word or no line, forgetting all about her annoyance at clichéd descriptions of beauty and handsomeness. She forced herself to tune out the soft voices that she could still hear. Or the strain of that song that was still playing in her head.
Papa kehte hain?
She smiled to herself even as her face turned a shade of deep, warm rose.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Aisa Lagta Hai
Music: Anu Malik
Singers: Alka Yagnik, Sonu Nigam,
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Koi chehraa nigahon pe chhaane laga,
Koi ab roz khaabon mein aane laga
Aayi rut jo nayi, jaage armaan kayi,
Mausam koi ghazal jaise gaane lagaa