For my very own Shiv and Gayatri and 35 years of forever!
Khushi had always been fond of roadtrips. The love came from the same place her love for Hindi films and songs came from – her parents. With limited means at their disposals, their trips were hardly frequent and yet the five long road trips that the Guptas had undertaken in the last decade would easily feature in each of their lists of top family moments of their lifetime. Sure, the trips had rarely been argument or fight free – How could they when Shiv Gupta only realized occasionally that he lived in the physical realm where issues couldn’t be solved by thinking about complex equations and dreams of a possible Newtonian breakthrough? How could they when it was exactly those times that her mother chose to face the fact that her spouse was hardly the traditional errand-running husband that her own father once was?
There was the VaishnoDevi trip after Khushi’s Class X results which ended with their parents not talking to each other for a week thereafter simply because Shiv Gupta had forgotten to ask Gayatri Gupta if she wanted tea on their drive back from Jammu. A trip to Bangalore and Mysore for a family wedding the previous year when the car had broken down just as dusk was settling in and they were still a hundred kilometers from Bangalore, causing panic and fear till they were rescued by a rare highway police patrol van, scary looking officers who turned out to be rather helpful – a lucky accident Gayatri Gupta had reminded them again and again, sucking all the fun out of their onward and return journey. And the Pachmarhi trip the summer before that when they had realized only once they had reached the functional State Tourism guest house that they had made reservations for the same date the month after. Of course, neither Shiv nor Gayatri were willing to accept blame or actively find a solution till Khushi and Tripti pulled them away from a shouting match in the lobby. The manager had taken pity on the embarrassed teens and made the knowledge available that there was a cottage – priced significantly higher of course, that was available right away. It was the best holiday they had taken together, a fact that no one was willing to concede despite the twinkle in their eyes and the color in their skin when they return to the drudgery of academics a week later. The last trip they took together – to Darjeeling, just last summer had of course been much better. Shiv Gupta remembered to stop for tea with permission, reservation dates were checked and re-checked, the car had been serviced and the drive – uneventful. Till of course, Gayatri misplaced her bag which contained their wallets. The family had explored every option from calling a friend to send some money their way to pawning the little jewellery they had on them when the kind jeep driver who had taken them to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise that morning, returned to say that their bag had been found under one of the seats.
Yet, memories of the four of them singing a range of Hindi songs in the uneventful parts of each of the above journeys, arguing over who the best singer, music-maker, actor, director was yet another time every time, gorging on snacks till their tongues felt scraped and stomachs threatened to explode, eclipsed every thing else.
With her Walkman plugged firmly into her ear, her favorite audio cassette playing music she loved for more reason than one, Khushi looked out at the dusty-brown trees passing her by, tractors carrying overflowing bundles of hay, a lone hut standing in the middle of a maze of small green fields here and there, with a wistful smile. She missed them so much. She had been away from home for what felt like forever, having lived in three different towns on her own with Arjun as company only for two out of the total of eight months since her graduation from IE-Varanasi. Four and half years ago when she was getting ready to decide which college she would go to, the choice had been made easy by the option of staying at home, with her family. Eight months ago, when it was time to join Speed Motors as their only female Graduate Engineer Trainee and only other managerial-level woman (all others being assistants or staff level Human Resource personnel), there was no choice but to fly out of the proverbial nest. She had always wondered what it would be like living on her own. It was nothing like what she had imagined. It came with more responsibility and more freedom – and she wasn’t entirely sure she enjoyed either too much. In the last eight months, she had only spoken to her parents and seen Tripti exactly once – when she had made a short visit to surprise Khushi on the Rakshabandhan holiday – their own personal joke given they didn’t have a brother.
It was somewhere along this train of thought that the tape ended and as the Walkman prepared to auto-reverse with a click, her earphones were yanked out of her ears rather unceremoniously. Preparing herself, she turned to look right into Arjun’s shining eyes.
“I have interesting news.”
“Oh?” She asked with a raised eyebrow, the sarcasm in her voice (at Arjun’s enthusiasm), barely masked.
“I tell you that I have interesting news and that is all you have to say? Oh?”
“You have been here in this vehicle for two hours now. Whatever news you have, you have had for a while. So I am just waiting for this to play out.” She pointed out simply, amused to see Arjun’s face fall rather dramatically.
“And you are not in the least curious. That is not like the Kaveri Gupta I knew in college. Corporate life has changed you, Kavi. And I can’t say I like the change.” Arjun finished dramatically, his fingers caught between his lips and head flung to one side in the impersonation of the 70s leading lady.
“And corporate life has not changed you even a little bit, Drama-Queen Agarwal. How I wish it had!”
“Pagal hai kya? Do you know how many Hindi film buffs I found in all of Speed? It’s almost as if they secretly look for a Bollywood inclination in the screening process.”
“Well going by that logic, I think that applies at the citizenship level to the country itself.”
Arjun seemed to consider the answer and then shrugged it away. “So you are not going to ask me about it.”
Khushi shook her head. “If you are bursting at the seams with the information, there is an easy way out. Tell me without waiting for me to ask. And if not, we will find out when we get there, wont we?”
“Tu badi bore ho gayi hai, Kavi. This is the effect of staying away from my company all these months.”
Khushi chuckled, “People took me a lot more seriously in the last six months than they did in the first two, you know.”
“And that my dear, has been your problem all along. You give way too much importance to what others think of you. Which by the way, you always get wrong. People take you seriously. I assure you. I don’t know if it is the glasses or the fact that you talk very little and sound very serious when you do…”
She hated the fact that Arjun really did know her that well. Indeed, his assessment was correct. For all the outwardly declarations of not caring what anyone thought about her, she really did sometimes feel like a little lost girl who only wanted the people around her to nod and approve everything that she did. It was something she needed to work on. And God knew, she was trying. If only it was as easy as acknowledgment. “So you really are calling me a bore.” She exclaimed instead to her friend, curving her lips downwards in a sad pout. “Yehi thi tumhari dosti…yehi tha tumhara pyar?” Khushi replied with a little drama of her own – earning her chuckles from Sameer and Mayank – the two others who were in the same SUV as Arjun and her, both till then and shortly after Khushi’s dramatic question, engaged in a bitter argument about the carving out of Uttarakhand from the larger Uttar Pradesh state.
To her surprise Arjun did not reply, his face suddenly blank and eyes darker than she had ever really seen them be. And then he leaned in, his voice dropping to a deeper timbre as he whispered in her ear. “Tumne abhi sirf Gabbar ki dosti dekhi hai…”
To say that she was taken aback would be an understatement. These incidents when Arjun flirted with her were hardly common place and yet every time that he had in the last four years, she had been rattled. In those moments, it would make her wonder if a part of Arjun was in fact serious. And then she would see him with someone else or he would go back to being his carefree, buddy self and it would be forgotten. She had even wondered, on multiple occasions, if some part of her would actually be okay if he did feel something for her. And on each of those occasions she had shrugged the thought away, comparing herself and her largely un-attractive – at least in the traditional sense – form and the girls she had Arjun with. Yet now….
She blinked and looked away. Why wasn’t he laughing or teasing her or doing whatever it was that he had done in the past to make the moment go away?
“What? No come back?” Arjun continued to whisper in her ear. She wanted to slide to her right, away from him even though his proximity was not really uncomfortable – it never had been once she had gotten used to the casual back-slaps and his infrequent arm-around-her-shoulder gestures. Nor was it unsettling like…No! She chided herself. This was not the time to think about him.
Clearing her throat, she leaned away and looked at him in the eye, her voice steadier than she had expected it to be. “Gabbar didn’t have any dosts. Check your dialogue and then…” She looked away, “we can talk.”
She had no idea why she had said that or left it open enough for him to consider coming back to. She most certainly didn’t feel anything for Arjun more than friendship. Even ignoring the fact that she had been unable to whip up romantic notions for anyone in a long time, considering Arjun seemed…wrong somehow.
Arjun chuckled finally, shook his head and straightened in his seat, plunging head first immediately to the argument that Mayank and Sameer were back on track with. Khushi took a deep breath and looked out, gingerly placing the earphones back in her ear even as her fingers automatically pressed the play button and familiar music came back on.
The rest of the drive was as uneventful as it could get. They had left Delhi around noon after a quick but heavy brunch. So it was almost three when they stopped for a leg-stretching break at Muzzafarnagar. The road so far had been excellent but the drivers warned them that things would slow down hereafter owing to a single lane road leading up to Haridwar right up to Rishikesh and the mountain climb thereafter to Shivpuri. It was almost five by the time they reached Haridwar. A quick pit-stop for tea later, the five SUVs were back on the road to Rishikesh, not-quite-effortlessly fending off a split in the group with half the folks wanting to take a longer break and visit the famous Haridwar ghat – the precise spot where the Ganga left the mountains for her journey through the plains. Khushi and Arjun, having spent enough time in Banaras and its ghats, stood firmly opposed, especially given the time of day when it would be crowded to the hilt for the Sandhya aarti (evening prayers). And then there was the nearly fourteen kilometer mountain climb that was best done before dark even if it wasn’t exactly a treacherous route like so many others in the Himalayas were famous for. The two Human Resource staffers who were travelling with them as chaperones had nodded at the IE-V alumni thankfully and hustled the rest of the group back into the cars.
So it was almost seven in the evening when the first of the white SUVs in the convoy finally turned into the narrow, kuccha road that steeped downwards towards their camp. The skies were almost complete in their transformation from day to night, an inky purple with wayward streaks of rust splashed above them like the work of a master’s wilful prodigy. When Khushi finally emerged out of the SUV as it came to a pebbled stop after what seemed like ages of forcing her to carry her heart in her mouth, it was everything she had imagined and yet nothing like it.Though the days had started becoming longer and warmer in the Northern Hemisphere, the air now had a nip that forced her to bunch up her shoulders and cross her arms against her chest. She should have carried a shrug she realized uselessly as the rest of her colleagues filtered out onto the short rocky plain in front of them.
Amidst sounds of stretching limbs and shutting vehicle doors, the distant rumble of water, gurgling against rocks, was unmistakable. It was nothing like the sound of the gentle splash that she made when the Ganga ambled along the ghats of Banaras. That was the sound of a coy woman and her shy anklets. This that Khushi could hear now was a teenager having found recent mastery in her favorite form of dance, wearing her treasured pair of ghunghroos, trying a pirouette in her Kathak costume.
She could see the plain in front of her dropping again towards the source of the sound, the river itself. And finally the moment she had been waiting for was upon her – her doubts, misgivings were gone and she couldn’t wait to get to the camp. Assessment or no assessment. Physical activity or otherwise, this was an opportunity of a lifetime and she was going to have the time of her life. She could feel it in her bones. Or maybe it was just the cold air, a wayward damper crossed her mind, making Khushi laugh.
“What? What’s so funny”
She turned to look at Arjun who was adjusting his backpack on his shoulders, looking at her strangely. “Nothing, I am just excited.”
She shrugged. “It takes time with me.” She said as she walked back towards the car to retrieve her own backpack. “How are we going to get all the bags to the camp? There is nothing here so I am assuming the camp is a good distance away.”
Arjun nodded. “I think Camp staff should be headed this way already. The bags will go across the river in a raft. Like we will.”
Her eyes widened. “We will need to get on to a raft right away?”
Arjun laughed. “I thought you were excited.”
Khushi rolled her eyes. “I am. But…” She looked down at her long black kurta and purple churidar. “I am not exactly dressed for white-water rafting.”
“Girls.” Arjun coughed earning a slap from Khushi – something she regretted almost as soon as her palm had connected with his shoulder. She needed to stop doing that. When had it become okay to be so physical with someone? She had never been a touchy-feely person. Maybe it was her family – they didn’t believe in hugs and kisses and unexplained holding of hands. And Arjun…Arjun Agarwal had worn her natural defences down and suddenly, she wasn’t sure it was the right thing to have happened.
“Did you just put me in the same category as other “girls”?” She asked mock-angrily. “I thought I am a Mechanical Engineering ka banda…” Before Arjun could reply however, she turned to look at the others who were already helping the drivers unload luggage off the cars. “We should help,” She said and started walked back to the vehicles as Arjun joined her.
Ten minutes later, the thirteen Graduate Engineer Trainees and two HR staffers were all standing with one bag and one backpack each, wondering how they would contact the Camp staff when they spotted two young men – boys actually – walking towards them wearing what looked like Camp uniforms.
The two boys quickly introduced themselves and told the group that they would need to take the bags and walk down a narrow path to the river bank from where they would be loaded on to a raft and carried over to the other side – exactly like what Arjun had said. So with the flashlights in their hands and bags distributed between the seventeen of them now, the group began walking.
“A River Runs Through It.” Khushi read off the t-shirt of one of the boys walking in front of her and smiled. “That’s….poetic…”
“Because it is a Brad Pitt movie?” Arjun asked from behind her as they gingerly trekked down the path, kicking pebbles unintentionally as they walked.
“Oh yeah! I hadn’t thought about that. I do like Brad Pitt but…The name is…We have to cross the river to get to the camp.” She explained as her feet slipped slightly and threw her slightly off balance. Straightening herself, she continued to walk, more carefully than before and resumed what she was saying. “So the river lies in between the real world and this….detached little camp where time stops…A River Runs Through It…If you don’t call that poetic,” She shrugged.
“I am glad you have a romantic bone or two, Kavi. I really am.” Arjun teased. Thankfully, there was nothing in his tone to suggest any confirmation of the doubt that had planted itself in her mind. She shook her head forcefully, hoping to clear it of all trashy thought. Thinking about ridiculous stuff was not on her agenda this coming week.
When they reached the river bank, the sound of water was difficult to ignore. The roaring had a strange alluring music to its rhythm. Combined with the fact that it was now officially night time with a faint silver moon – little more than half but hidden behind light clouds, outlines of mountains all around them, not as formidable as what she had seen in Darjeeling but majestic all the same – the setting was pure magic. It was in the air, the water and the sky.
“Welcome to The River, Speedsters.”
A booming voice caught their attention as Khushi saw a man in the same midnight blue T-shirt and beige pants standing by three large rafts, struggling to stay afloat in the river. It was then that she noted that the campsite was located at the river bend on the opposite bank, giving it the advantage of a longer coast.
“I’m Aman Sinha, the Camp Manager and your Lead Trainer for the next five days.” He announced, forcing her gaze back to him instead of the wonderous scene behind. He was tall and rather athletically built. Mid-thirties or even older, she guessed, fully aware that she was probably completely off given her unbelievably inaccurate estimations in such cases. “The CNBC team has already arrived and well settled into the camp. It’s a pleasure to meet all of you finally. We are going to have a great time and we will get to know each other better starting tomorrow. But for now, can I urge all of you to put all that young blood to good use and load up the rafts with your luggage and yourselves so that we can make our way to the tents across. Please wear the life vests being handed over by Ramesh and Tejpal before you climb on to the rafts. Arnav will see you on the other side.”
Her heart would have stopped if it wasn’t beating so hard to stay alive. Arnav? Surely more than one person could have that name in the world? And yet, hadn’t Arjun said he had interesting news to share just hours ago? She swallowed painfully and looked around her, trying to spot Arjun. Arjun, however, was busy with the river-crossing arrangements and ended up on a different dinghy from her, one that left for the other side before hers did.
The next few minutes went by in a blind jiffy. Amidst the little chaos around wearing life vests and loading bags onto vests and eventually climbing on to the raft itself, there was little time for thought. And when there was nothing else but water beneath them, thought was replaced by thrill, of jerks and dangerous bends as the rafters steered the rubber dinghy across strong currents following a path undecipherable to the layman that she was despite four years of mechanical engineering and four courses of fluid dynamics.
When they pulled up at the shore on the other side, Khushi’s hair was generously sprinkled with Ganga water, her right half sufficiently drenched. When she stood up on the wobbly boat and tried to walk, it was with one single aim – to not fall headlong into the heavy currents of the river beneath her feet.
And maybe it was because she was praying for it to not happen, that it did.
One minute she was refusing an unfamiliar extended hand, convinced that she could make the jump out of the raft and on to the sand without assistance, and the next thing she knew, her leg had slipped, her balance was gone and she was falling right side first into the narrow gap between the boat and the beach when something grabbed her by her waist, fingers digging into her flesh as her feet fumbled and found earth but not before she had collapsed into a hapless bundle against another human being.
“Are you…?” A voice began only to end in a whisper, rattling the bars of an uncaged memory. She looked up in shock, straightening her crooked glasses on her nose, only to find herself staring into a familiar pair of sinfully dark chocolate eyes with sunrise flecks.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Tum Aa Gaye Ho
Singers: Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar
Music: R. D. Burman
Kahan se chale, kahan ke liye
Yeh khabar nahi thi magar
Koi bhi sira, jahan ja mila
Wahin tum miloge
Ke hum tak tumhari dua aa rahi thi
- This is not a cliffhanger. If you really want to know what cliffhangers are – you should be reading Story by Expelliarmus (if you aren’t already, that is!) :P <sheepish grin>
- Next Update: Monday, May 2, 2016