New Delhi, Late February 2010
There was nothing in the world that a decadent chocolate cupcake with salted caramel buttercream frosting couldn’t solve. Okay, so maybe she was exaggerating. Maybe the dessert that she was wolfing down couldn’t “solve” her problems. But it could help her ignore them. It was helping her ignore them. That it might be adding to the problem, was another matter and not really applicable at the moment. Rational thought would have to wait. She shrugged even as the caramel wrapped itself deliciously around her tongue and thickly layered the roof of her mouth
“You asked me to remind you that you are on a diet.”
Khushi ignored the voice that had been her constant companion for four years and counting, with practiced ease. She twisted the steel fork she was holding and put in it her mouth, devouring the rich cake that still remained plastered on to the metal despite her best efforts.
“Kaveri Gupta, you are on a diet and this cupcake is going to…”
She sighed contently and put her fork down, licking her lips to make sure her face was as presentable as it could get when caught in the middle of a session of pure indulgence. “I am always on a diet, Arjun. One cupcake is not going to make a difference. Plus, it is either this or I punch that insufferable jerk in his face.”
Arjun chuckled as he settled down next to her, his plate heaped with fruits – the healthy option that should have been her choice too. Except Arjun Agarwal didn’t have a sweet tooth and she…well every bone in her body was sweet – why single out just the thirty two visible specimen that shaped her jaw and gave her face character – as her mother would say.
“Look, I am all for kicking the word “diet” and all its forms and tenses used so incorrectly by the Indian aunty population, out of the dictionary. You don’t need to watch what you eat. You just need to make sure you get exercise. And in any case, didn’t Mr. Shankar just compliment you on how you look so much slimmer in just eight months? Why do you want to punch him?”
Khushi gave her friend the look he now officially termed the K-roll and threw her cutlery down on the fine-china she was holding with an uncharacteristically delicate clang. “That is rude. What do you mean “Aunty” population? You do realise someday – soon – you will be part of the Uncle population”
Arjun smirked and shrugged, clearly unfettered by such glum visualisations of the future. “He said you lost weight! Not that you put on some more.”
“And you think that should make me jump up in joy?” She breathed in exasperation. “Now all I can think about is how fat he thought I was when we joined eight months ago. I mean, why….Why does the first thing people have to say to me be about my weight? So far I rationalised it by concluding that it was only my proudly forthright relatives who said such things – for my own good of course. But this is….this is my work place and Ganesh Shankar is the head of HR for one of India’s leading car manufacturers, for God’s sake. He could have mentioned the stellar feedback I received for the cost reduction program I executed in July. Or the dealership I helped revive by doubling car sales during Diwali. He has NO business commenting on….
“Shaant gadadhaari Bheem….shaant….He was only being….you know friendly….”
“This is not friendly.” She pointed out sternly and then let her shoulders slump. “Do you think there will ever be a day when people will not talk to me about my weight?” She asked no one in particular and pushed the plate away from her as the guilt of having ruined her healthy eating spree began to dawn on her.
“I never talk to you about your weight.”
Khushi smiled at that despite her black mood. It was true. Arjun Agarwal never commented on her weight. On most occasions he seemed rather happy about having company in indulgence – especially of the fried batter variety.
“Well, if you don’t count all the times I have to respond to your whining about weight and eating and exercise, that is.”
The smile turned into a scoff following by a loud snort. She could not, however, argue with the absolute truth, could she? So she let it slide. It was time to move on to more important things. “So did you find out? Is it Goa? Is it? Please tell me it is…For Tripti’s sake…please tell me it is Goa.”
“Your sister is a complete whack job, I am sorry to say. The level of interest the two of you have in each others’ lives is unhealthy, you know.”
“Just because you share two words a month with your brother…” Khushi countered with a superior smug look. She knew for a fact that Arjun secretly envied the fact that she and Tripti were close, something that he didn’t share with his brother – for no grave reasons except it seemed like they hadn’t been brought up that way. For Shiv and Gayatri Gupta who had stayed away from close family all their lives due to their career choices, it was imperative that their children shared a strong relationship. It was the one thing that the entire Gupta family was intensely proud and fiercely protective of.
Arjun shook his head. “Well I don’t think it is Goa. But I don’t know. They are weirdly secretive about the location for some reason.” Then he frowned. “Why is she hoping its Goa? It’s not like she can join you for a holiday? This is a training program, not a spring getaway.”
“She has this fascination for beaches lately. She says she is tired of rivers…” Khushi began only to be cut off by Arjun.
“For once, I have to agree with her. After seeing the rising levels of filth that the Ganga is in Banaras, the ocean does does sound more appealing.”
Khushi looked at Arjun curiously, not for the first time wondering what it was that Arjun and Tripti shared. There was a time four years ago when she was sure Tripti had a huge crush on her friend. However, as time had passed and Arjun had become more integrated in her world, those doubts had melted away. For all practical purposes, Arjun and Tripti had rarely even been in each others’ company without her – at least that she knew of. And on the occasions that they had been together, if anything, they only seemed to be channeling opposite ends of whatever argument that was playing out in the world, with Khushi playing the mute judge who chose to ignore them both but only after having been cruelly thrashed by both parties for having defected to the other side of enemy lines. Now how was she to blame if she had been cursed with the boon of the ability to see both sides of logically structured and well-presented arguments?
Nevertheless, the underlying fact was that nothing in Tripti’s behavior suggested she harbored a crush on Arjun Agarwal anymore and the man himself didn’t have enough free time from his not-so-dangerous liaisons with members of the opposite gender to indulge in the pursuit of a child. Not that Krishna Tripti Gupta had ever been a child. No, Sir. If anything, she had been on numerous occasions been scolded rather severely by their mother for being older and “wiser” than her age permitted her to be. Only to be spoken back to with a rather sensible even if highly confrontational counter argument questioning the basis of the rule that seemed to link wisdom to age instead of just superior being which Tripti was sure she was.
“I tried talking to her about it, by the way but she was very adamant about following your footsteps like she always has. She is not going to join any Business Education Test prep classes. She is going to work for a couple of years before taking a good shot at the BET.”
It was only when Arjun was done with his statement that Khushi realized he had still been talking about Tripti while she had slipped away on her own Trip.
Khushi sighed and shook her head. “Well, for me at least, joining Speed Motors is not a choice made deliberately. My BET results were abysmal to say the least.”
“They were okay, Kavi. You had calls from the Tier II colleges, you just decided to be a snob because this year the IMs didn’t give you a call.”
“At my score, they wouldn’t give me a second look, forget getting a call. And you can call me a snob but these things matter. I am not settling for something when I know there is a chance I can make it to a better school. And the trend is catching on in India – where MBA is making a lot more sense with some work-ex behind you. So my decision to join Speed is hardly strategic. If only you with your IM-K offer had decided to go on instead of…”
“You want to be the only smart one who made the decision of working before MBA education, eh? Too bad, I am all set to give you tough competition. Don’t forget, I beat you to the gold medal.”
“By one percentage point on the CGPA.”
“Jo jeeta wohi sikandar, Ramlal-ji” Arjun countered with a smirk.
Khushi smiled and shook her head. The loss of the gold medal hurt even though she had lost it to one of her best friends. It was, if she were honest to herself, the reason Khushi had decided she would not settle when it came to B-school admissions. Her parents had been surprisingly supportive with her choice. It had been her mother who had pointed out the rising trend of work-ex enabled MBAs and Khushi had latched on to it like the proverbial drowning man to the life raft.
“Ramlal-ji was the one who said it the first time around, Mr. Agarwal, to Asrani’s character. Damn, I cannot recollect his name for the life of me. It’s time for a Jo Jeeta…revision, I think.”
Arjun chuckled. “Anytime, anywhere. I live to keep the movies alive.”
Khushi winked at her friend and joined in on the laughter. Soon, others were also done with lunch, dessert included. And it was time to go back to the post lunch session – back to the world of presentations and spreadsheets. They had two more days of this to go through before they would know where it was that their Outbound Leadership Training Program was scheduled to be.
Twenty minutes later, she found herself battling a fate worse than any other. She couldn’t, for the life of her keep her eyes open. And Mr. Shankar, the insufferable jerk as pointed out before, just wouldn’t stop talking. So much for celebrating the end of boring afternoon lectures, she thought to herself even as she struggled to stay awake and continue to feign interest in what was being said. As good as she had become in the latter the last four years, it just didn’t seem to be enough at the moment. She stopped twirling the pen in her hand and decided to write just in the hope of finding some relief from the invisible force tugging her eyelids down in a way that sleep at night never did – at least not as uncontrollably.
When her pen met paper, as it once had in a moment of uninspired boredom and complete lack of conscious thought four years ago and every other one thereafter, the result was two letters woven within each other, one the upside-down seen-in-a-lake shadow of the other except for the carelessly scribed transverse line that cut through diverging ones in the latter. The doodle was perfect. Someday, if Arnav Varun needed a logo for a company he wanted to name after him, it was there – ready for the day he found her and asked for it. Khushi stared at the doodle on the blank piece of paper and absently circled it. She had once believed that a broken heart hurt with every mention of the thing that broke it. And yet, she had been able to reach the stage where thinking about Arnav Varun was more like a lazy harmless habit that she couldn’t kick and not the gut-wrenching pain that it should have been. She closed her eyes briefly and let herself remember that Aarohan day and the way he had briefly glanced at her while uttering the most gut-wrenching powerful lines she had ever had anyone say to her in real life.
Kabhi gaur se meri aankhon mein dekho
Meri jaan tumhara hi chehra chhupa hai
He had said that to her. And yet he couldn’t have. It had not made sense then and it didn’t make sense four years later. Maybe this is how somethings were meant to be – mysteries that would never be solved. Like the Bermuda triangle. Except, there was nothing sinister about her heart-break. In fact, it wasn’t even really heart breaking anymore. Just wistfully incomplete.
Khushi blinked and forced herself to focus on Ganesh Shankar’s gaze which was fixed on her with a mildly curious smile. God, this was embarrassing. Of all the times in one’s life to be caught day-dreaming, did it have to be in front of corporate bosses who could be deciding her future?
“First things, first. Call me GS. Sirs and Ma’ams are best left behind in college.”
Hear, hear, she muttered under her breath.
“And we may be years behind the new software kids on the block in calling each other by first names but at Speed, we do very well with initials. Which means you will be KG soon, which I am not sure is adequately representative of your capabilities but is immensely hilarious.”
Needless to say, the small group of twelve boys around her chuckled and she joined in with a tight smile. Later, of course, she would replay this comment in her head and wonder why she hadn’t pointed out that she would be KKG and not KG given the wisdom of her parents’ two name choice. At the moment though, the brilliant retort was still finding shape in the sub-terranous layers of her consciousness. At the moment, anything that would get her out of the daydream allegation, was welcome.
“So, you think you will be able to deal with all the rigorous outbound activity pitted against – in some cases – all these men in the room here?”
Exactly what kind of activity was he talking about here, she worried for a second before she smiled and shook her head. “I’ll manage,” she replied sweetly even though what she really wanted to do was…how had she put earlier? Yeah, punch his face.
“Excellent. I do wish to see you as a CXO-level executive someday and the video footage of you going head-to-head with these boys here would be nothing short of inspirational.” Mr. Shankar’s voice boomed across the room.
Khushi’s fake smile dimmed as regret filled her. So much for her resolve to not judge people based on single conversations. Ganesh Shankar was being perfectly nice…Sure it was his job as the Head of HR but…Wait a second…what did he say…
“Video?” Arjun asked aloud before she could reach the same conclusion a second later.
Ganesh Shankar turned to look at him, his bespectacled eyes glinting impishly. “You mean I didn’t mention that your trip will be filmed for a short piece on CNBC for the segment on Unlocking the Future?”
Now there was definite buzz in the room and Khushi’s blood was cold enough to start freezing any moment now. She could feel bile churning through her stomach. Here she was, the person who hated looking into a mirror and by extension any captured stills of her that might ever be taken, and she was going to be….Why….Why…Shiv-ji….
The answer, however, came from from the man named after Shiv-ji and his mythological offspring, pride and unbridled joy coursing through his words as he updated the room that Speed Motor’s three-year old Outbound Learning and Team Building program was sort of a pioneer in the Graduate Engineer Trainee space – an extremely rare feat for an old-school automobile manufacturing company. Usually the manufacturing sector, still dominated by Indian-owned firms, lagged the rest of the corporate sector in terms of HR practices. Characterized by six-day weeks, inhuman shift timings to account for long travel times to plant locations outside of the nearest town, low proportion of managerial staff versus shopfloor labor, manufacturing jobs were hardly dream-jobs for students on campus. Except those who were lured by the thrill of physically creating something.
Khushi was one of those, unfortunately for her. Because it meant having to face subtle rejection from many other firms who didn’t even shortlist her. Presumably because they assumed that women just wouldn’t be up to plant jobs – faculty and classmates supplied as reasons with pitying shake of their heads and offered well-meant but not-so-well received advice to concentrate on getting an MBA instead. Or joining a programming course to land a software job.
Khushi smiled apologetically at the grey haired, jolly man still walking them through the details of the trip as she added another resolve to her already bulging list of resolutions. She would make this trip count. Video or not, she would not back off from participating in any activities – individual or team. And someday in the future, there would be a proud footage of her going head-to-head with a bunch of twenty-something boys, and smashing it out of the park.
“It’s Rishikesh. Not Goa” Arjun announced at dinner later that evening with a clang as he dropped his heavy bag onto the makeshift metal table, bringing every one of the other eleven boys rushing around them in a circle.
“Goa? Yeah right. Because Speed Motors is THAT interesting. It was a stupid guess. We are in Delhi – it was bound to be somewhere we can drive to!” Someone beside her scoffed
“But Rishikesh? That is so dull.” Another voice groaned as Khushi tried to process the information.
“Dull? Are you crazy? Rishikesh means we are going white water rafting. On the Ganga! A cousin of mine recently went on a trip with his classmates. I’ve seen pictures. It is downright beautiful. Goa’s got nothing on it.” Someone else exclaimed, thumping the table excited and Khushi listened with growing fascination.
She didn’t agree with the last part of the statement. But the rest of it was not completely un-true. Sure, she would have been instantaneously happy with Goa – mostly because Tripti had built it up so much. But…Rishikesh…rather Shivpuri as Arjun was pointing out at the moment, had recently become famous for rafting and all sorts of other mountain-related outdoor activity. Something she had never done in her life before. And honestly might never have voluntarily agreed to even in the future. And then there was the Ganga. How could she not be happy about it? Her river – right at the source…almost…Pristine mountain stream, unsullied by human filth, in its journey through the mountains – the kind of things romantic Hindi songs were made of.
Yes, she promised herself. She was going to make this trip count. Come what may.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Jhonka Hawa Ka
Album: Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam
Singers: Hariharan, Kavita Krishnamurthy
Music: Ismail Darbar
Kagaz pe meri, tasveerein jaisin
Kuch toh banaati hogi na?
Ulat palat ke dekh ke unko
Jee bhar ke hansti hogi na?
Hanste hanste, aankhein tumhari
Bhar bhar aati hogi na?
- Part II: River of Joy begins with this chapter. Many of you had correctly guessed that Part II would not be back to the Prologue but to another meeting sometime between the ten years that separated Aarohan and the Prologue. So here it is. I know some of you are worried about what AV Sir would be like when we see him next (divorced, widowed, married…phew!). All I can say is that this is, at the end of the day, a love story. And the by line says it all – Journey to the Sea. Rivers travel many years and different lands to reach the ocean. As much as it might be frustrating, may I please request you to sit back and enjoy the journey? :)
- Next Update: Monday, April 25, 2016, late night IST
- Chapter Index: I have added a chapter index page – you can find it on the top bar just above the header image