The evening had almost come to an end when the songs were all sung, when there were more participants than hosts of Aarohan on the stage. And though the lack of much female company around her was one she was working hard to expect and be comfortable with, somewhere close to midnight, Kaveri Khushi Gupta had found herself slipping away from the stage back into the darkened wings. The audience had now thinned in the auditorium, most folks lingering in groups of six and eight outside in the garden. Those who stayed in were the musicians and other aficionados – the kind of people that made life most fun on such days and nights.
She had waited and watched, now from the sidelines, more comfortable and yet strangely lonely as she looked on at the boisterous back slapping, formless dances and loud, raucous singing. It was funny and heart warming at the same time. What took away some of the sheen was the knowledge that it would all be over tonight and from tomorrow, life was all set to go back to its dull, boring version. One where music was limited to walkmans and earphones.
She turned around at the voice with a startled jump only to come face to face with Nishant Sir.
“Have you seen Arjun?” He asked breathing heavily as if he had been running. He had of course, been dancing, not running. Khushi smiled to herself at the sight of the most reticent, self-contained person on their team looking wild and uninhibited, curly locks falling all over his face like rockstars he so vehemently was opposed to in principal.
She craned her neck to the stage where she had last seen Arjun and realized that it had been almost thirty-odd minutes since. “No.” She shook her head apologetically as she looked back at Nishant Sir. “Sorry” She whispered and then bit her tongue as she imagined Arnav’s chuckle in her head.
“Arre, that’s okay. He must be outside. If you see him, tell him I have some really exciting news about AV-Sir okay.”
If she had been drinking something, she might have choked to death, especially given the twinkle in Nishant-Sir’s eyes as he whispered the words like he was sharing the juiciest piece of gossip ever. And given what had just happened earlier in the evening….Oh shit…Khushi swallowed again. What if everyone saw what she thought only Arnav and she had shared. What if everyone had noticed the way she was looking at him? What if…
Nishant Pathak’s question-marked voice barely managed to peek through the growing haze of hysteria that was quickly rising up around her like thick black smoke. If only she would stop burning now…
“Huh?” She asked, for once not bothered about sounding utterly dimwitted.
“I said, you really did well today. Do think about getting some vocals training like I mentioned. It would…” He smiled. “It would do you wonders.”
Khushi couldn’t help but mutter a weak thank you, still unsure of how to respond to praise especially when it was handed over with such open-hearted feeling.
Nodding back, Nishant Sir jumped into the stage yelling out for AV-Sir, who Khushi realized was nowhere to be seen. As always, she could help but sweep her entire periphery for any sight of that off-white kurta clad shoulders. When she didn’t spot him around, she felt her shoulders slump. It was late – almost midnight now and she needed to be home. Her parents knew to expect a delay in her return but post midnight was a stretch even for a special, rare occasion like this. Usually, Khushi was rarely concerned about staying out timelines given how little she ventured out of her home for social occasions – with or without her parents. Today, however, the thought of going home without meeting AV Sir made her feel…incomplete – for the lack of a better word. The evening had been such a whirlwind of emotion from anxiousness to awkwardness, from dejection to disbelief, from elation to euphoria – she had felt it all. And now…to imagine it all ending with just a solitary journey back home…was almost anti-climatic. One that made her romance novel-fueled imaginations die a cruel death.
And then there was the feeling – the sense that something was about to happen – that something was needed of her…It was hard to pin it to a word or even attach a positive or negative gradient to, but it was there – thick as the silence that sometimes filled her ears when she was deeply immersed in her thoughts.
So she stayed put in the wings, smiling as passers-by, exchanging small conversations with those to cared to stop by, waiting for Arnav Varun to show up.
Ten minutes later, however, there was no sign of AV-Sir. Or Arjun.
Defeated, she decided to make one trip to the wash-room and then when she retuned, if there was still no sign of AV-Sir, she would make her way back home. What she would do if she indeed did spot AV-Sir, however, she had no idea.
So the fact that she heard her name in the empty, dark alleyway that led from the washrooms back to the auditorium, made her clamp her hand to her chest as her heartbeat stopped and images of helpless heroines stalked by murderous villains, anklet-bearing ghosts or both, flashed in front of her eyes. The fact that the voice was the one that bore the capability to send her nerves into a tizzy with little internal encouragement, didn’t register till Khushi had finished her quick rescue summons to Shiv-ji and opened her eyes to see Arnav Varun’s silhouette in the alley that connected the auditorium to the emergency exit.
She scrunched her eyes together tightly to make sure she hadn’t slipped into a dream where Arnav Varun was stalking her in dark passages just to find means and ways to talk to her alone. That was not possible. Such things didn’t happen to her.
Or did they?
Involuntarily, she stepped back and much to her absolute and total embarrassment, stepped on her own dupatta (her favorite no less) and stumbled backwards.
Damn! Why couldn’t she be one of those girls who remained cool and collected on the outside no matter what tempest raged within? Like her mother. Her best friend from school – Manjari, Elizabeth Bennett. Simran. No Simran never really had a crush on a Raj, a small voice argued. She went directly to falling in love, didn’t she?
Why was she thinking about fictional characters like they were real people? When was she going to learn? She cursed herself and straightened herself and her habitually lopsided dupatta.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you but….” He said softly as he stepped into the light. Now she was able to see him clearly. It was him in that offwhite kurta that he looked so stunning in. He was here. But there was something different about him. He looked….somber….serious…the teasing, seductive fire she had seen in his eyes was gone.
“Is everything okay?” She asked instinctively, stepping forward toward him as her thoughts scrambled and gave way to concern. He looked…
“There is something I neeed to…” He took another step forward and Khushi’s brow furrowed. He looked around him as voices from outside filtered in and seemed to near them. “I have to be somewhere….my family….” He took a deep breath again. “I got this…for you…as a thank you for tonight….You know the conversation we had about obscure music from the last decade…I don’t know if you will like…I have it here, nevertheless…”
She watched dumbstruck as he extended an audio cassette encased in a plain, unmarked plastic cover. It looked new, fresh…incredibly tempting as the harbinger of sweetness that she had only imagined so far. And yet his eyes were hardly happy. What was going on? Why was he…?
“Please….” He whispered as he reached out to catch hold of her palm and place the mixed tape in it…
She had no idea what to say. Or do…
“I need to…” He took a deep breath and looked away, his lips moving in what was probably silent cursing.
“AV-Sir…” She began, not knowing how to ask again if there was something wrong. How did people express concern so easily? How did they mask how difficult it was to see the person you care about troubled?
She looked up at him, for the first time completely aware of how close he was, how his scent filled her lungs. All she could do was stare at his melancholy and wish it away immediately.
“Kaveri…Can I drop you home.” He asked abruptly a long, silent moment later.
It should have thrilled her that her less preferred name sounded as stunning poetic as it did when he spoke it. Except nothing other than the urgency in his request registered in her brain. She wanted to say no and that she would walk back on her own. The fact that she mutely nodded and walked ahead past him as he waited for her now had little to do with her wait for something momentous to happen. In a matter of minutes, something had changed. The air was not warm with anticipation anymore.
They walked in silence, the voices, loud and cheerful in the distance a mock reminder of the fact that they had both just minutes ago been part of the same merriment and now were literally walking away from it all. Khushi glanced a look at AV-Sir who was now walking beside her, looking straight ahead, his face set in a unseen mask, his eyes dark and intense. She wondered for a second why she wasn’t scared. This should have been scary, this sudden…There was alcohol being served just outside the auditorium and there were of course enough people who had that extra zing in their voice that comes with alcohol-led un-inhibition. She stole another glance at him, this time checking for any signs that might lead her to believe that he was under the influence – even as farfetched as it did sound in her own head.
“Shit!” He cursed softly, stopping midway suddenly and pulling Khushi out of her thoughts. “I forgot my bag backstage.” He said turning around, his eyes shifty and annoyed. And then he looked at her apologetically. “Just give me a second…I’ll be back.”
And with that, he was already walking away.
It was then that Khushi allowed herself to breathe again. And look at the cassette she was holding in her hands. She turned it around a couple of times, not sure what she was searching for but looking nevertheless. It was unmarked and unpainted. Anyone looking at it would know nothing of what it contained and though she was curious to know what songs AV-Sir had chosen to record in it, the real answer she wanted was why he had decided to give her this in the first place. He didn’t owe her any thank-yous. It was her honor more than his. And he really did have many other options even if Divya Ma’am wasn’t available. She had never been given anything by anyone other than her family. And even they had never really believed in surprise gifts. The only surprise gift she had received in her lifetime was her Walkman for her fifteenth birthday – she had not expected it and it was a weird moment in the Gupta household when she had squealed in joy and hugged her parents fiercely for the first time since she had entered her teens. AV-Sir had made himself permanent to her memory in one more way this evening. Smiling at the thought, Khushi turned around to see if she could spot him making his way as promised when she felt Arjun Agarwal’s hand on her shoulder a second before she heard his booming voice.
“Kavi, here you are and I have been looking for you all over.”
Taking a deep breath, she lowered her cassette-holding hand and covered it with her fingers even as she tried to school her expression into the bored but amiable one that she usually wore around Arjun. “I have been here all evening, Arjun. The question is where were you? Nishant Sir was looking for you…” She began, her voice unintentionally stern in the attempt to hide her nervousness at having Arjun by her side when she was waiting for….
“Yeh lo. I was helping you and you are….Uff Kavi…all evening you’ve been such a sport, happy, cheerful…you know unlike your usual schoolteacher…and now you are back.”
“I am not…” She shook her head, deciding against defending herself given a big part of his allegation was not completely untrue. “What do you mean you were helping me? I don’t remember asking for help.”
“See….this is exactly what I mean? I mean, sure, go ahead and ask me what I mean when I say I was helping you but…” He straightened his back and lifted his chin, uncannily like her as he spoke the words out aloud. “I don’t remember asking for help” He mimicked.
Arjun held his hands up and rolled his eyes. “I can’t win. So..well I was dropping Krishna home. Then I came back and ran into Nishant Sir and found out this absolutely awesome news about AV-Sir….”
Khushi held her hand up. “Wait…you were dropping Krishna home…You mean my Krishna…?” She asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Yeah your sister…Krishna Tripti Gupta” Arjun shrugged matter-of-factly. “She and a friend of hers – I think Professor Thiagarajan’s daughter…were planning to walk back alone and well…I couldn’t let them do that..It is pretty late…”
“How did you even know that they were going home?” Khushi asked, confused and now more nervous as she glanced back to see if AV-Sir was headed back.
“I saw them…Krishna said hello…I asked…. Arre…that’s not important. Didn’t you hear the second part of my statement? The news about AV-Sir…How can you not be curious? It is the best piece of gossip…AV-Sir the Ramchandra-avatar of IE-V apparently is more Hare Krishna than Hare Rama…” Arjun chuckled at his own joke and caught her wrist – luckily the hand that was free and unencumbered by heart-stopping music capsules – and pulled her towards the door. “Let’s go. I’ll drop you too and tell you all I heard. You were going home right?”
Khushi hesitated, suddenly scared of what she was about to hear and the fact that she had no reason except the truth that she was waiting for AV-Sir.
“No, I think I can manage, Arjun…you should go…Nishant Sir…”
“I met Nishant Sir and it is pretty late…we have strict instructions from AV-Sir and team that no girl is going to be allowed to walk back alone – even to the hostels.
“Arjun…” She began, extracting her hand from his grasp slowly when she heard footsteps behind her. She didn’t need to hear Arjun’s exclamation to know who it was.
“AV-Sir…” Arjun beamed, dropped Khushi’s hand and stepped forward to extend his palm towards Arnav who was now standing beside her silently. “Congratulations! Great news!! Party kab de rahe hain…Nahi pehle Ma’am ki photo kab dikha rahe hain. Of course, agar milwa rahein hain to even better.”
Khushi saw Arnav accept Arjun’s handshake even as Arjun remained the only one who continued to talk as her brain tried to process what Arjun was saying.
“Nishant Sir told us that your parents are here to surprise you with their acceptance. I didn’t know ki aap Romeo-Juliet type ki ladaai lad rahe the ghar pe…No wonder IE-V girls were never good enough for you…You must be relieved now…Shaadi kab…Oh…”
With that he turned to Khushi and smiled. “Kavi – Congratulate AV-Sir. His parents have finally accepted his love story. They are here today to surprise him…That is what Nishant-Sir wanted to tell me…Bose is waiting to party all night…” He concluded, referring to their hostel
Khushi swallowed, not knowing what to say, where to look or how to react. Wasn’t this the moment when her heart should be breaking into a thousand pieces? She could now sing all those heart-break songs with real feeling….Which was her favorite…Why couldn’t she remember any song at the moment…what was that Shah Rukh Khan-Kajol one…
She turned around and muttered congratulations under her breath with a small smile, looking only at the silver buttons on AV-Sir’s off-white kurta and the cloth strap that hung loosely on his left shoulder – his bag, the one that he had forgotten backstage.
She couldn’t look into his eyes. She couldn’t extend her hand…her right was after all holding the mixed tape he had given her. Oh, she thought to herself. Maybe she needed to return it…Or wait…How had she assumed it really meant anything other than what he said it did…
And what about the rest of the evening? What had that meant?
For the next few minutes Arjun and AV-Sir talked – rather Arjun talked and AV-Sir replied in monosyllables. She wanted desparately to believe that his lack of enthusiasm came from regret and guilt at having led her on. Except, he had not really led her on had he? Maybe she was the one who assumed too much. When was she ever going to learn?
She looked at Arjun with a small forced smile.
“As usual, you were lost in your dreams. I was saying let’s go. I’ll drop you and then I need to hurry back for the continuation of the party…”
“I’ll manage, Arjun…” She tried to insist.
“AV-Sir is here – he is the one who made the rule…Sir – aap bolo – Ms. Gupta has decided she is aaj ki ladki…”
Before AV-Sir could say anything, however, Khushi shook her head and said. “Ok…chalo…it is getting late.”
She tried to look at AV-Sir in the eye – after all she wasn’t guilty of anything was she? Except falling in love with him and having assumed he returned the feeling, a small voice argued and foiled her plan to catch his gaze. So she muttered a whispered goodbye in his direction and began walking towards the door even as Arjun, surprised as he might have been at her reaction, shouted out his own goodbye as he followed her out of the auditorium.
The walk back home was hardly a silent one. How could any time spent with Arjun ever be that? So she didn’t have the luxury to dwell on what had happened. When she reached home, Tripti took over and raved about Aarohan and about how well she had sung,,,and about AV-Sir and how anyone would be stupid enough to not fall in love with someone like him. If she had been any less tired than she now was, she would have wondered if he had heard Tripti’s comment about her being in love with him earlier in the evening. Sleep, however, came rather quickly even as Tripti continued to talk.
She dreamed once again of interwoven fingers, sunrise irises, guitar strings and Shah Rukh Khan;
She woke up with tingling hands and a heavy heart.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Iktara
Album: Wake Up Sid
Singers: Kavita Seth, Amitabh Bhattacharya
Music: Amit Trivedi
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Sun rah hun sudhbudh kho ke,
Koi main kahani
Poori kahaani hai kya, kise hai pata
Main toh kisi ki hoke
Yeh bhi na jaani
Rut hai yeh do pal ki ya, rahegi sadaa?
Next Update: Apr 11, 2016, late night IST
As an uncharacteristically heart warming ad on Disney said – “Agar dil tootega nahi toh usse jodne wala kaise milega?”
(translating takes the essence away. So even if you don’t understand fully, I urge to go with the flow :))