The words slipped out of her mouth amidst jangling nerves, ice-cold palms and a stomach that growled and twisted painfully with anxiety.
“Where is he?”
For a second after she had realized she had spoken aloud, she thought Arjun had missed the question. It was only when she had allowed herself to exhale that she was faced with the fact that he had not. Her relief was useless – just as her restlessness seemed to be.
Now she really wanted to roll her eyes even though it was perfectly normal that Arjun wasn’t synced to her chain of thoughts. It would have been weird if he had known exactly who she meant. Because that would mean that someone other than her stupid heart knew who the sun in her universe was.
“AV Sir.” She replied after considering and dismissing just as quickly, the idea of changing the topic and escaping the answer. She didn’t want to escape. She really did want to, rather she really did need to know where AV Sir was. If for nothing else, then for the fact that they were to sing together soon and his absence was disconcerting in the context. What if there were last minute changes needed? What if she needed to review the order of songs once just to refresh her memory and prepare herself?
Yeah, right, that little voice intruded again. Last minute changes on an impromptu singing session where you are nothing more than a mere extra supporting the college hero?
“He was here just a few minutes ago. Why?”
He was? She suddenly turned around and scanned the crowds as if she expected to see him smiling at her, just like that. “I haven’t seen him at all this evening and I just wanted to check if there were any last minute changes.”
The little voice in her head sniggered. She ignored it and the fact that her voice was rushed and her mind reeling from the images her eyes were processing at inhuman speed. He was nowehere in sight. He had not been all evening. Then how come Arjun said he had been around just minutes ago? He was either avoiding her or…teasing her…and both had diametrically opposite implications. She wanted to dismiss both given the importance both placed on her existence in his world. But…
“Whatever you need to discuss with AV-Sir, Kavi, we can deal with later. We need to get this song done first. Dammit, how did you manage to sing even once? I am dying of nerves here.”
She narrowed her eyes and looked at Arjun. “You are dying of nerves?”
Arjun didn’t look up from the piece of paper he was holidng. “Haseeno se keh do kahin aur jaayein….” He muttered the lines under his breath as if trying to memorize them. “Drama queen,” she muttered to herself. He knew all the lines of all the songs there were in the Bollywood universe. “I thought nervousness was for sissies” She pointed out, shamelessly borrowing his words from a previous conversation.
This time he looked up. “I didn’t say that?” He smiled sheepishly at her.
“You did.” She replied plainly and then shook her head. “This is insane. This song is going to be…so embarrassing. Why…why did I ever agree to sing this?”
“Embarassing? No way – this is going to be epic. If there is no whistling – call me Karan starting tomorrow, okay?”
Khushi frowned in confusion. “Karan?” She shook her head. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“You are losing your touch, KK Gupta. You know how they say mark my words or Nnaam badal dena…you know how it goes…and I am Arjun – Karan Arjun…” He shrugged and shook his head in childish annoyance. “This explanation giving is killing my master word play attempt, Kav”
“What?” She wanted to slap her hand against her forehead. “I don’t even know what to say anymore, Arjun,” She emphasized. “And just so you know…talking about whistling as a response to the song…is not helping.”
“Stop it, Kavi. I need to memorize these lines again. I don’t want to look like an idiot on stage.”
“You don’t…?” She began before throwing her hands up in the air. “I am the one who…never mind…let’s just get this over with. I am so done with all of this Aarohan business….I mean I am done. Done!” She muttered and put the paper she was holding, away. She didn’t need to memorize lines. She would remember this song for a lifetime.
And where the hell was Arnav Varun?
“Are you nervous or irritated, by the way?” Arjun quipped, his eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Because I saw nervousness the last time. Now you just look cranky.”
Khushi shrugged and dismissed the question.
“Kavi, okay I am sorry I am being annoying. But this is a fun song. We need to…Stop worrying if this is embarrassing. So there will be whistling…” He raised his hand to stop her when she began to interrupt him. “There will be – and that’s a great thing. This is supposed to be one of those evenings. And you really have to stop over thinking everything. You are going to be a hit today. The song you sung earlier was phenomenal, this one will be amazing and with AV Sir – if you are not crowned Queen of Aarohan at the end of this….” He paused dramatically, “Call me Karan starting tomorrow – okay?”
In all her anxiety, nerves and irritation that belied unprecedented anticipation of the moment she would finally see the person she really wanted to – Kaveri Khushi Gupta burst out laughing and only half in exasperation at Arjun Agarwal’s statement.
“See that is so much better!” Arjun quipped as he gave her a thump on her back, making her cough as tears spilled out of her eyes and laughter ebbed.
“Let’s go sing,” She said with a dramatic sigh. Arjun Agarwal really was something else.
Arjun’s little pep talk may not have been life altering but it was also true that five seconds after she had begun singing, nerves disappeared and embarrassment seeped into her cheeks to glitter as warm patches of rose on her slightly-fairer-than-average Indian skin. It didn’t bother her that there was more whistling than she imagined. Maybe because the claps and the cheers were a lot more celebratory than they were teasing in nature. That Arjun was with her on the stage and seemed determined to not allow her an iota of doubt with his effortless rendition of the intermediate prose that was central to the song, was no small matter. When they finished singing and waited (Arjun made sure she couldn’t escape the moment they finished – like she wanted to) for the noise to die down, Khushi felt her heart hammering rather pleasantly in her chest. Even Arjun’s unchecked grinning and curtesying seemed rather harmless in the aftermath.
Now if only, she could find the one person who could lift her spirits in the blink of an eye…
The “if only” lasted longer than she had hoped for. Arnav Varun remained missing long after the laughter and noise gave way to the final two performances of the evening, both just as much fun as Khushi and Arjun’s had been and yet held no significance for Khushi except being the fillers she had live through till her time to sing with Arnav made its presence felt.
“Kavi, it’s almost time for…”
“Arjun, where is AV-Sir?” She interrupted her friend as he sauntered over purposefully towards her. She really did need to know now.
“You still didn’t see him? I just…” Arjun turned around and looked over to the opposite side of the stage which was now swathed in darkness. “He just congratulated me on our performance. He thought it was the best of the evening. Really…”
Khushi’s teeth clenched of their own accord and anger she had not known for a while surged through her veins. What was this supposed to mean? What the hell was…
“Anyway, I was coming over to tell you that AV-Sir wants you to wait before you join him on stage. There is a little change of plan. He wants to do a few songs…”
“If he doesn’t need me to sing, believe me I am more than happy to oblige. It is pretty late…” She quipped tersely, pretending to glance at her watch when she couldn’t care less what the time really was.
“What?” Arjun asked, bending slightly to scan her face. “What has gotten into you today, Kaveri? I thought your bad mood was all gone after our song – you really seemed to be enjoying yourself earlier and now…”
At once, Khushi felt ashamed for behaving like a crabby boor especially since Arjun was always nothing less of wonderful to her, soothing her nerves. But this thing with Arnav…”I’m sorry, Arjun..I just…this session with AV-Sir..it is bothering me..We haven’t had proper practice sessions in the last week or so and I haven’t seen him all evening…And now you are saying that there is some change…”
Arjun shook his head and smiled. “Relax, baba. All he said was that there was a slight change. And he even asked me to apologize to you on his behalf. I am sure he will do that in person after the show as well. There’s just a lot going on in the background. The Final Year batch had negotiated a stall with Kingfisher…”
“Kingfisher? Why would they…” Khushi began when it suddenly dawned on her. “Beer?” Khushi asked, her eyes wide in her face as the alcohol conversation she had with AV-Sir, jogged her memory.
Arjun nodded. “It was all done and then suddenly the University Student Affairs Dean’s office withdrew permission for alcohol on campus. Big ruckus outside. AV-Sir is apparently on the Student Management Council and was called there…It’s all sorted…They finally have permission – apparently just for a couple of hours after the program has ended…so…”
Khushi rolled her eyes. The way Arjun was talking, it seemed like Arnav had won the war against world hunger.
“Yeah I know you are not impressed but imagine what a dry Aarohan would have meant?”
“Safety?” Khushi volunteered. “Appropriate for an educational institution? Sensible decision?”
“Not fun.” Arjun replied just as wryly.
“Whatever,” Khushi shrugged. “So what do I…”
The words trailed off as she glanced back at the stage, her eyes still searching as the sound of guitar strings amplified manifold pierced through the air around her. The stage still remained dark. The audiences however, quietened and settled down for the beat of a heart before a roar of applause, hoots and cheers sprung back into the air.
The guitar strings strummed again, this time as the keyboard joined with its pronounced notes.
She felt his voice in the tips of her fingers before she heard it, deep and resonant, very uniquely Arnav in its essence and yet faintly simmering with something that she had never truly felt outside of a recorded song.
Jaanam, dekh lo
The tingle of a note shivered down her spine as a faint golden light – spotlight she had only imagined once on this very stage – illuminated a single figure seated on a stool, guitar cradled in his arms and head bent slightly such that his hair fell over his eyes and hid his face from her view.
Mit gayin dooriyaan
It was as if she had travelled a million light years from that first moment weeks ago in her new classroom. He had been a dazzling comet then. He was the sun now.
Main yahaan hoon,
He looked up at the audience and then in the blink of her eye, glanced as though straight at her before turning away and completing the line
Yahaan hoon, yahaan hoon, yahaan
Silence spilled over as the voice and the music dimmed for a finite moment. And then gold burst through the world, spilling out of her eyes as it did
The whistles that erupted in the auditorium, drowned out everything around her. Not that she needed it to. Her heart had stilled and every noise dissipated into nothingness as she acknowledged the choice of song and that momentary glance.
He knew she had been looking for him. He knew how she felt about him. What else could explain the song, that slight smile, the glitter in his eyes?
“There’s a way to make an entrance!” Arjun said loudly, clapping her back and effectively ending her little solitary sojourn into the possibility of the impossible.
Except this was no dream.
The song was no illusion. It wasn’t just two lines she imagined in a situation more fantastic than she had ever expected her very ordinary life to be.
Jaanam, dekh lo; Mit gayin dooriyaan
Main yahaan hoon, yahaan hoon, yahaan hoon, yahaan
Kaisi sarhadein, kaisi majbooriyan
Main yahaan hoon, yahaan hoon, yahaan hoon, yahaan
He had chosen what had been firmly entrenched as the ultimate song of seduction in her list of all time favorites since she had first heard it just a couple of years ago – a lover’s boisterous declaration of knowledge, of borderline arrogance that stated he knew just how the object of his affection felt about him. And in the wake of what she had been through all evening and since that day she had been kindly excused in a gallant gesture of unnecessary chivalry, it seemed like a resounding response to her endless quarry of self doubt and despair.
She stood rooted to her spot as the music spilled, festive as he replaced many of the original supporting notes on his guitar and chuckled along as words of adulation were thrown at him from the audience. He didn’t look at her after that one moment, but every word seemed to be uttered with specific meaning just for her. If this was her foolish imagination overplaying what she shouldn’t overplay, then she was gladly a fool.
Tum Chhupa Na Sakogi Main Woh Raaz Hoon
Tum Bhula Na Sakogi Woh Andaaz Hoon
The beautifully plucked notes of the teasing wooden instrument he held in his arms reminded her just how much of a fool she was. A fool who has assumed she could keep how she felt hidden. Her secret had never been hers. He had known. For days, perhaps. How?
Gunjtaa Hoon Jo Dil Mein To Hairaan Ho Kyon
Main Tumhare Hi Dil Ki To Aawaz Hoon
A small smile cracked through her frozen lips. The echo of her heart?
Sun Sako To Suno Dhadkanon Ki Zaban
Main yahaan hoon, yahaan hoon, yahaan
Never had she been so beautifully seduced into what could easily be a trap she realized. And yet, what was the proverbial moth if not a willing prey to the glory of the flame.
She smiled, her eyes glittering as everything around them melted away including the questions that had plagued for her mere seconds ago. There was no one that mattered anymore, not Arjun who stood in mesmerized silence beside her, not the hundreds of students who saw nothing more than the one who held them entranced in his music. And yet, it thrilled her that no one really knew what was going on?
A small voice threatened to intrude her illusion, she closed her mind to it.
Main hi main ab tumhare khalayon mein hun
Main jawabon mein hun, main sawaalon mein hum
Main tumhare hare ek khwaab mein hoon basaa
Main tumhare nazar ke ujaale mein hoon
A slight tilt of his head, a glance that didn’t find her eyes – every gesture was pronounced, every little movement, an ode to the spell that now seemed irreversible in its effect.
Dekhti ho mujhe, dekhti ho jahan
Main yahaan hoon, yahaan hoon, yahaan
She didn’t wait for the song to end to fall in love all over again, this time seemingly forever. As Arnav Varun’s voice softened and the music faded into thunderous applause, every reason her mind had come up to keep whatever was happening at bay, vanished. There was no embarassement, no shame, no fear. In that moment, Kaveri Khushi Gupta was free like she had rarely been in the years that had followed her first brush with the idea of love and romance. Nothing mattered more than the moment that was breathing in her chest.
“Good evening, IE-V” Arnav hollered into the microphone, his voice booming with a ring she was fairly sure she hadn’t heard before.
A loud good evening response rang through her crowd. It was like she had forced a bolt of the energy that seemed to fill her soul, through everything around her. In that moment, she was as separate from them all, as she was connected to them. And it all channeled through this one person who stood right in the center of it all – tall and luminous.
“He looks like a rockstar on that stage, doesn’t he?”
It was a throaty little giggle that someone very feminine had uttered somewhere from her left as she brushed shoulders against someone else who was trying to catch a glimpse of what was happening.
It sounded so far-fetched that it was true, Khushi realized as she let her gaze stay anabashedly fixed on Arnav as he placed his guitar away and walked over to the front and centre of the stage.
“Aarohan has been part of IE-V for longer than Dean Shastri. It has been more popular than Professor Asif’s saffron checked tie. It has been more fun than the TAs Annual Holi special dance performance. And most of all it has been as soulful and full of talent as the Annual IE-Med Vistaa.”
A loud cheer enhanced by a million catcall, mainly restricted to the side that housed most of the seasoned IE-Vians, seemed to boost the grin on Arnav’s face. Khushi smiled wryly, it was just the kind of the thing that she had glimpsed so many times in the last month that she had been here – the subtle reference to “greener pastures” out the engineering fraternity. Even Arjun had once mentioned something about Vistaa and some girl who was dating one of their Computer Science batchmates.
“I can see most of the first year faces staring blankly at me now.” Arnav said as the laughter ebbed. “Don’t worry, kids, by the time you are here smiling indulgently at the first year batch four years from now, you will exactly what I mean.”
The audience clapped now, this time more poignant than teasing.
“We have seen an amazing selection of singers this year at Aarohan. Needless to say, the legacy of Bollywood rests in very able hands for the future.” He said as he paced around the stage, comfortable like a lion in his jungle. “I am not surprised though. We do background checks on all of you after the Test to make sure you are not all about ranks. If you are then we send you to Kanpur. Why do you think we don’t have any ranks from 1-500 here at IE-V?” He winked as he pretended to whisper in reference to the other IE housed in their state.
Laughter roared again as it spattered around her.
“So given all of you first years have done so well, here we more experienced IE-Vians are – now trying to assure you that your seniors aren’t as bad either.” He said seriously as a few folks clapped again. “After-A started four years ago when our seniors decided they wanted to extend our ragging just a little bit more by making a few of us sing impromptu. So if you don’t like what is to follow, you know who to blame!”
More cheering followed as Khushi marveled at the humility that seemed so beautifully genuine for a person who could just as easily have been arrogant as many with his talent were, and gotten away with it.
“So, without much ado, let’s give it up to more masti and more music. Welcome to IE-V – your home for four years, your family for life!”
The lights went out as there was shuffling, sound, clapping, cheering and laughter. And just as she was about to turn to ask Arjun what was going to happen, she felt someone reach out and grab her hand, giving it a little tug that she felt in the pit of her throat.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: O Re Piya
Album: Aaja Nachle
Singers: Rahat Fateh Ali Khan
Music: Salim Sulaiman
Lyrics: Piyush Mishra
Nazrein bolein, duniya bole; Dil ki zubaan
Ishq Maange, ishq chahe; Koi Toofan
Chalna aahiste, ishq naya hai
Pehla yeh vada humne kiya hai
Note: Those who are here with this update – I cannot thank you enough for bearing with me. This can’t have been easy – seeing me through long absences and unexplained silences. I know you could have chosen to walk away and I honestly understand why all those who might have, did. I am hoping to now stick to weekly updates continuously till I finish this story. I am writing continuously (as possible). And I will finish this tale
Next update: Monday, 28 March 2016, Late night IST