What her insecurity couldn’t do, her sudden awareness of desire did with greater success. She avoided Arnav as much as she could over the next few days, making sure that her exchanges were limited to the songs they sung together and an occasional smile or word uttered in greeting. She refused to sing the way she had in the past too. Now, she focused on everything except the presence beside him when they practiced and yet ensured that she remained as pleasant as she could so that it would not alert Arnav.
Arjun’s presence helped a little. Khushi wasn’t proud of the fact but it was true that she pretty much used Arjun as a shield during sessions that needed her active participation almost as much as she used her books in sessions where she just needed to hang around in the auditorium waiting.
She had even avoided staying late for practice, having stated her need to leave before it became dark clearly the second day after that walk in the rain. As a result, there had never been any need for Arnav to offer to drop her home, something she missed with an ache that was unreasonably deep for something that had the history of having occurred exactly once.
To Arnav’s credit, he didn’t seem to be completely oblivious to this not-so-subtle change between them. Occasionally, Khushi would catch his eye and wonder if that glint in those sun-ray irises was Arnav studying her as if to unearth her secret. Of course, she forced herself to believe that even this was more her own need to assume that her pretend indifference was not met with indifference from his side. He couldn’t suspect anything because outwardly there really never had been anything she had done differently. He himself had commented on her reticence more than once in the past. That much was enough for him to hopefully remember that walk as an aberration.
“You must really be stressed about Mid-Sem.”
Khushi looked up as the voice from her thoughts stepped into her reality and shook her out of her little reverie, as always.
Arnav Varun was looking down at her, his mouth twisted in a pleasant smile which strangely enough didn’t seem to reach his eyes. Or so she imagined.
“Huh?” She asked rather dumbly, clutching the book she was holding a little more tightly than she needed to, in the hope that her pulse would hold at its normal rate instead of soaring up as it was threatening to at the moment.
“The text book you are holding.” He said with a nod of his head towards the Basics of Civil Engineering text book she was holding. “Upside down”
Khushi’s face flamed as she looked down at the inverted text. She wasted no time in turning it back to the way it was meant to be read by humans and tried to smile through her embarrassment. “Sorry,” She whispered and looked away, opening the book despite being aware that she was being rather rude doing so in another person’s presence.
“Thank God, you said it. I was beginning to worry you had lost your trademark apology already.”
He was teasing her, referring to a previous conversation about her sorry-saying habit. Khushi’s heart refused to listen to her and tore out of the self limiting restraints to pump furiously in her chest. She could hear the din of rebellion in her temples. She looked up and smiled again, hoping that he would take the hint and leave. He had done that before today with envious ease, had he not – much to her hypocritical disappointment.
“So you are done with Electrical? How was it?” He asked as he took his seat next to hers, raining on her wishful thinking by stubbornly refusing to leave her alone. She was secretly pleased, of course, till her lips tingled in the memory of an inappropriate dream and the shadow of a smile that was beginning to play on her lips faded.
“It was okay. Arjun managed to get hold of some previous year Mid-Sem papers…that helped.”
There he was again, Khushi’s favorite shield for such occasions – Arjun Agarwal.
“Ah the simpler times of previous year papers and expected questions. Wait till third year when open book exams are the order of the day.”
Despite herself, she couldn’t help asking what she realized a second later, was a stupid question. “That should be easy, no?”
He chuckled. “You think they test you on stuff you can find in the books? Open book is worse. It basically means –Ha – let’s see what you can do. Positively evil. Professors carry a little bit of Satan in them, I think.”
Khushi’s eyes widened as she involuntarily shrunk back. There was no reason to take that comment personally just because her parents were professors. Not everything was about her. He was teasing. And she knew that. And yet…
“It was a joke! I don’t mean your parents, of course!” Arnav interjected almost immediately, his tone laced with humor and hands held up in front of his chest in mock-defence.
Khushi blinked and shook her head wanting to tell him that she knew he was teasing, joking. She was being overly tetchy because of what she was feeling for him. However, at the moment, she was, once again and unreasonably even, stumped by the accuracy of his response to hers. She was either extremely expressive or he was beginning to read her better than any one else she knew. Whatever the case, it was a big problem for her. What if he was able to see just how he affected her even physically now? The goosebumps on her arms may be hidden by the long sleeved kurta she was sporting today but what if he noticed just how her eyes seemed to be glued to the expanse of his tanned arms revealed by the rolled up navy shirt or how she couldn’t seem to stop staring at the brilliance of his uniquely patterned eyes, the small little scar at the corner of his left eyebrow, the fact that the pair of jeans he was wearing seemed to be molded to his skin.
She cleared her throat and looked to her right, hoping that she would see Arjun and he would come to her rescue like he always did. No sooner had the hope flashed in her head, she realized that it had been ages since Arjun, Arnav and she had any sort of interaction. Was Arjun actively avoiding her when she was with Arnav? She shook her head. The question was ridiculous. Of course, Arjun was doing nothing of the sort. In fact there had been nothing in Arjun’s manner to suggest that he knew how she felt. After that initial teasing that he had attempted – in Arnav’s presence no less – had been as fleeting as Khushi’s interest in Arjun himself.
Khushi frowned. Maybe that should have been an indication of sorts? It was not like Arjun to drop something that he had leverage with so easily.
But even if Arjun did suspect her feelings for Arnav, why would he alter his behavior? It made no sense. And now the barrage of unnecessary questions was beginning to hurt her head.
Involuntarily, she looked to her left and right into Arnav Varun’s glowing irises. For a second, she thought she saw his hand twitch, his fingers tighten into a clasp as the glow dimmed and darkened. She felt her gaze drawn to his mouth – lips slightly parted in a way that lent softness to his face. And her eyes closed of their own accord.
She opened her eyes, blinked rapidly and stood up quickly enough to give herself a head rush. She needed to leave before she did or said something stupid.
“Are you okay?”
He asked that of her too often. Why did he have to do that? Why couldn’t he just leave her alone?
“Is it okay if I skip our practice today?” The words tumbled out of her mouth in a rush. She saw the confusion in his eyes as he stood up, towering over her as he did. He looked like he was about to take a step towards her when she continued hurriedly, aware that if he had any suspicions about her altered behavior around him, she was confirming it now with her hasty retreat. “I am not feeling too well.” She lied, hoping that he wouldn’t ask her for details or offer to help or escort her back home. Or did she secretly want that?
Oh God! She was losing her mind. Without waiting for her answer, she took a step back.
No sooner were the words out of his mouth, she turned away and literally ran out of the aisle and the auditorium, her heart leaping in her mouth even as her palms broke into sweat. She could feel blood pumping through her limbs, the corner of her lips, skin of her cheeks. She felt disconnected from her own body even as the shadow of a dream grazed her mouth and settled in in the pit of her stomach.
By the time she was home, her face was schooled to perfection and her head deeply mired in the Basics of Civil Engineering. Even the usually perceptive Tripti didn’t have any clues to analyze. Kaveri Khushi Gupta was finally a master in the art of hiding her feelings from everyone who mattered.
Khushi didn’t look up from the 2003 Engineering Drawing question paper that Arjun had cleverly sourced from a Second Year. They had just finished their Civil Engineering Mid-Sem and were now, predictably so, sitting in the cafeteria.
Khushi shrugged. “I need to get through ED, Arjun. I can’t flunk.”
“You are not going to flunk. Basically because you are Kaveri Gupta.” Arjun said holding up his index finger in counting. “But more so because you absolutely cannot flunk Mid-Sems. You will have to wait for End-Sems to do that.”
Khushi snorted and shook her head as she nervously made a quick note about practicing projection of solids in her notebook.
“Really? You won’t go to practice? Aarohan is less than a week away.”
“And I am talking about missing two days – today and tomorrow. I am sure it is not the end of the world. In any case, I have practiced enough with the orchestra. And I can practice solo at home when I have time.”
“And what about AV-Sir?”
Her hands refused to still in shock. She wasn’t surprised his name came up. It had to.
“What about him?”
There was a moment’s silence which finally made Khushi look up. Arjun was peering down at her curiously. Once again, questions from the previous evening reared their head, only to have them quashed mercilessly by Khushi’s determination to behave like an adult.
“You have to practice with him too, right?”
“He should be okay with me not being there for a couple of days.”
Arjun considered the reply and then finally asked what Khushi had almost been waiting for him to. “Is everything okay?”
She resumed her note-taking as she scribbled something into her notebook even as she shrugged. “What do you mean?”
“I thought you liked these sessions.”
Khushi shrugged again, hoping that her attempt at aloofness was working. “I never really wanted to be a part of Aarohan. Somehow you conned me into…” She held up her hand and shook her head as Arjun attempted to interject. “You did. But yeah it is fun in a way. I said yes to AV-Sir because I had no reason to say no. But nothing comes at the cost of exams. I am a nerd, what can I say.”
“Whoa, whoa” Arjun pushed his chair back noisily as he raised his hands up. “Aren’t you in a great mood! Padhai-khor chashmish is back where she truly belongs – with padhai.”
“Say what you want. It is true.” Khushi said, rolling her eyes and hoping to God that they were done with this topic.
“But really, you are that worried about ED? I thought AV-Sir had suggested a really good book?”
She should have been surprised. But it was almost as if her own ridiculous behavior when it came to matters concerning AV-Sir had armed her with an unknown burst of cattiness. She welcomed it with open arms. Anything was better than being a blubbering idiot. “Because AV-Sir suggested the book, I am supposed to automatically understand every thing that it says?” She retorted with a hooked eyebrow, skipping over the part where she asked Arjun how he knew about an exchange with AV-Sir that she definitely had not shared with anyone else. “He may be very good but doing well in the ED Mid- Sem is still levered on my capability not his recommendation.”
Arjun pushed his chair back some more. “Fine! I’ll tell the gang that you are off for a couple of days.” He stood up. “You need a samosa, Kavi.” He declared with finality. “With extra imli ki chutney. And adrak wali chai.” He said. Before Khushi could respond, he was already walking to the self service counter. She took a deep breath as she concluded that the Aarohan practice conversation had finally ended. She had even managed to take a break from what Aarohan practice was turning out to be for her. And she was now going to focus on the ED Mid-Sem, from the prescribed text book – which she was determined to master. She didn’t need distractions in the form of recommended magic ED help. Or Aarohan. Or songs. Things were about to change for the better. She was determined.
At the cafeteria self-service counter, Arjun Agarwal heaved a huge sigh of relief as he ordered an extra kachori and double-chai for himself.
The dreams continued despite an overdose of Engineering Drawing and the distinct lack of AV-sighting. A kiss that ended before it began, intertwined hands that left their warmth in her fingers long after night had acceded to dawn, fluttering eyelashes that rested on honeyed cheeks, the fragrance of citrus – if Khushi thought running away from Arnav was going to bring her peace, she realized her folly pretty quickly.
However, she trudged through her AV-free days with the determination of a war soldier. And soon, the day to rejoin the world where AV was the sun of the solar system was upon her.
In the wake of an self-rated above average performance in the ED exam, she walked into the familiar auditorium half way through the day’s practice session, only to realize minutes later that her unspoken wish had been fulfilled.
She must have really done well in her attempt to avoid Arnav Varun because she was now at the receiving end of the politest cold shoulder in the history of everything. There was of course, nothing to overtly suggest that Arnav was done indulging her childish whims. He sang with his usual enthusiasm. He smiled and laughed as much as he ever had. Once he even broke into an impromptu 90s chartbuster when the orchestra decided to have some fun with seeming interconnected pieces of music.
However, it couldn’t be coincidence that he disappeared exactly when she was due to sing her song. Or the fact that in the three full hours that she spent in the auditorium, Arnav directed exactly five sentences to her, all of them uttered with polished carelessness and restricted purely to scale, tone, lyrics and sync as they practiced their duets. He even offered to practice the duets with her first so that she didn’t have to waste her precious study time waiting for him to practice the songs that he had to sing solo anyway. And this was said with such sincerity that Khushi could bet that even Tripti – who had an uncanny knack of telling exactly when sarcasm or snub was lurking beneath seemingly polite conversation, couldn’t fault Arnav’s intentions.
It wasn’t just that day. Whatever it was or wasn’t that she had started and Arnav was following with unparalleled enthusiasm, continued for the rest of the days that led up to Aarohan. He even took a couple of days off in between, leaving her imagination in a tizzy as she conjured up every possibly situation there was to explain his absence.
The rejection, rather the payback was every bit as painful as Khushi might have expected if she believed that this was headed her way. It might be clichéd to describe her state as arrows of pain spearing right through her chest but that didn’t make it any less true. It hurt. Plain and simple. The fact that there was only one person she could blame – herself – for this situation, didn’t do anything to mollify her now rebellious heart.
She had held her own in front of him, of course. Agreeing to his suggestion of finishing duet practice sessions quickly so that she didn’t have to wait, even thanking him for it as politely as he had made the suggestion. And then there was Arjun. Her friend, her savior. He cracked his usual jokes, made her smile, made others laugh – even Arnav. Music played in the background and yet all she would remember of the days between her ED Mid-Sem and the final Aarohan evening would be the tinkle of breaking glass that came from somewhere in the region of her heart.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Manmarziyaan
Singers: Shilpa Rao, Amitabh Bhattacharya, Amit Trivedi
Music: Amit Trivedi
Lyrics: Amitabh Bhattacharya
Yun to solah saavan, aaye gaye
Gaur nahi kiya humne
Bheega man ka aangan, iss martaba
Kya jaane kya kiya tumne
Dil mein jaagi, ishq waali
Zid ki maari, bholi bhaali
Be-adab si, par gazab si
Hosh khoya, par sambhali
- I thought I wouldn’t need to clarify but given how many of you want to read Arnav’s POV, let me just say that it (lack of his POV) is intentional. I am not being a tease. It is just how I have the story set-up. After all, how often is it that we know what those we really care about are thinking – of us, of the world, anything? Do remember being enamored by someone and never really knowing what that person thought of you? If yes, then this is what I am trying to get to. If not, count yourself amongst the lucky ones :)
- I managed to get this update up in a week! Phew! No promises but I will strive to keep the momentum going. Wish me luck!