Stop staring, she told herself for the millionth time that evening and yet her eyes could do nothing to bide by her own sub-conscious mind. It was him – Arnav Varun – the Arnav that the camp manager had referred to. The Arnav who had broken her heart. The Arnav that she had pushed to deepest recesses of conscious memory. The Arnav who only existed in a perfect two-letter doodle and a now almost worn-out tape of obscure Bollywood songs.
To say that she had been shocked to find herself plastered against him in an undignified heap, would be an understatement. What was as interesting was that he didn’t seem to have known to expect her either. The inquiry that had died on his lips when he had recognized who he had saved, was proof of that. It wasn’t surprising. He would have known only if he had checked the names of all the participants of the camp. And there would be no need to do that in advance under normal circumstances.
They had pulled apart from the unintentional embrace a moment later with unparalleled urgency. It should have thrilled her that he seemed to be just as rattled as she was. Maybe that was the sign of a guilty conscience. Maybe he did feel bad about leading her on. Even if she had absolved him, a part of her felt avenged. And petty shortly thereafter. By the time she had looked away from him, ashamed of her own mean-spirited thoughts, Arjun had swooped in. His reunion with his erstwhile role-model was a lot higher on energy. And she didn’t know if it was the difference between Arjun and her or just the history they shared with Arnav Varun respectively, AV Sir’s response to Arjun was a lot less lackluster as well. Arjun Agarwal had clearly known exactly who it is that they would find at the River. It must have been the interesting piece of news he wanted to share, she had guessed then.
Khushi blinked and tore her gaze away from Arnav who was engrossed in a serious discussion with Aman Sinha, across the small clearing that they were told would double as their dining space and lounge for the next few days.
“Yeah.” She answered as Arjun plonked himself on the large cane chair lying vacant next to hers. “Why are you asking?”
Arjun looked at her and shrugged before he proceeded to dive into the food he had piled on his plate. Her own plate was now empty, the plain rice and spicy, hot dal tadka that she had served herself few mintes ago had been polished effortlessly. “You haven’t said a thing since we came in. Did you hurt yourself back there?”
“No…I didn’t…” She said softly, her eyes pivoting on an unknown fulcrum to find Arnav again. “I was a little shaken up…but…” She looked back at Arjun who was now regarding her curiously. “I am fine.”
He smiled and then grinned. “No, you are not. You are in shock at seeing AV Sir. Did I not tell you I had news? Did you ever imagine you would him here?”
“Not in a million dreams,” She whispered as she drew designs on her melamine plate with streaks of left-over dal stains.
She looked up a few seconds later even as her fingers finished tracing the now perfected logo on the plate, two letters woven together, the man they represented in front of her…it had to be a dream…What else could explain…
“You didn’t say hello.” Arjun said softly even as she continued to helplessly stare at Arnav who was now engrossed in a discussion with Aman, the two men flipping through papers, huddled close to a couple of gas lamps, flies buzzing around them without disturbing either like they were disturbing her and the others in her party. He looked completely at ease in this surrounding and yet this was the last place on earth that she would have expected to see them. Wasn’t he supposed to be drafting success stories in corporate India by now? He had, she knew, made it to the best Institute of Management according to all leading polls. What he had achieved, thereafter, she had refused to track despite persistence from Arjun but…this place….an outdoor training camp for young professionals….
“He didn’t say hello either,” She responded as she finally put her fork down and shrugged.
“Did something…” He began but changed course shortly thereafter. “I thought you liked him.”
She turned to look at Arjun at the strangely somber note in his statement. He didn’t mean…
“I have no specific feelings – positive or negative, Arjun. He was a senior in college. It was a long time ago. I am surprised to see him but unlike you, have never been in awe of him,” She lied casually, hoping her words were as convincing as they sounded in her own head.
Arjun, however, did not respond immediately, his eyes roaming over her face as if to ascertain the truth behind her declaration. She didn’t let her own gaze waver despite the slow rise of blood up the vessels in her face. It was dark and there was very little light, gas and oil lamps scarcely lit and arranged at significant distance from the each other, much to her relief.
“You know,” Arjun continued as he looked at her with a twisted half smile. “There was a time, I really did think you…” He took a deep breath and looked away, smile still intact on his face. “I really thought you liked him…you know…”
She looked away now, not surprised and yet amazed that he had been that perceptive. Or you had been that obvious, the voice in her head drawled. She couldn’t disagree with herself so she smiled, picking up her fork to erase the barely visible twin alphabet logo on the plate, now drying given how much time it had been since she had finished eating.
“He was engaged to someone else.” She pointed out even as the voice in her head reminded her that she didn’t know that till it was too late. It was a reminder for herself more than it was a reason to her friend. “There was no way I…” She let her words trail away, unwilling to define what Arjun had shied away from. There was no point in it. “He is probably married now.” She whispered to herself and then realized she had spoken out aloud. Arjun however, did not respond, killing cruelly, hopes Khushi didn’t even know had reared their ugly heads in her foolish head.
Some time later, the group finished their dinner and dessert, put their plates away and gathered around a small campfire by the river, soft cool sand below their slipper clad feet for a quick briefing on camp rules and the agenda for the next few days. It was dark except for the distant gas lamps in each tent, the campfire they were seated around and the half moon above, glorious in its ivory shine, craters and all. There were a total of twelve tents on the camp that housed the fifteen Speed Motors’ employees and the four CNBC crew members in addition to the rest of the River staff.
Aman Sinha was, in line with his own declaration, the team lead and the key person managing the theory related to outbound training and extending concepts to corporate life. Arnav Varun and Aditi Sinha – Aman’s wife along with three helpers would be helping them execute the physical tasks with necessary safety precautions. They were reassured that all activities had been practiced and executed to precision countless times before and that no one was in danger of any physical accidents. In case of any minor injuries, the three of them – Aman, Arnav and Aditi were well trained in first aid and minor medical care. Aditi Sinha, however, was currently away in Rishikesh on a supplies replenishment trip, they were told. inThe program was set to begin early in the morning with a quick nature walk followed by a series of training and leaisure activities each of which would be introduced one after the other as the day progressed. White water rafting, the key sport everyone was looking forward to, was scheduled for Days 2, 4 and 5 with different routes of varying difficulty planned for each day. The longest stretch with navigation through class four rapids was scheduled for Day 5 and was optional and more for the enthusiasts in the group.
Khushi knew that she was going to sign up for it, she had promised to push herself after all. But there were already some in the group who seemed disinterested in anything more than necessary. Four years ago, she might have been one of those too, she realized. Maybe Arjun Agarwal’s company had rubbed off on her after all. She smiled to herself even as she picked up a smooth pebble from the beach absently. She turned her head to tell Arjun exactly that when she caught Arnav Varun’s eyes on her – a second before he looked away. The smile on her face slipped. He had been staring at her…
No! The voice in her head scolded, sharp in its silent rebuke. This is exactly how you fell for it last time, Kaveri. Stop. You have to stop. She took a deep breath and looked away as the briefing ended with the cheerful reminder that this was probably the group’s only chance to disconnect from the world with no cellphone signals or access to any other medium, and that they should aim to make the most of it.
Papers were then circulated around, consent forms that stated that each of them was responsible for their decision to participate in the events scheduled for the next five days and that the team at the River was not liable in case of any untoward incidents. Khushi smiled wryly to herself as she scribbled her initials on the form, shadows of her fingers playing with words on paper to create eerie shapes. No one but her would be responsible for any untoward incident with her heart. She had been the one to have it placed it so that it was crushed four years ago and she would be the only person to blame now if she were to fall again.
Shortly after formal conversation ended, the group settled down on large rocks and cane chairs, around the campfire, disintegrating into smaller groups of twos and threes. And with nothing to contribute to any discussions as her focus continued to remain stuck to the man with two names, her company was just her. She looked up at the clear sky, a few orphan stars scattered across the deep blue ceiling. She had no idea what time of evening it was. She had lost the habit of wearing a watch when she had lost her favorite one three years ago. She usually relied on her cellphone which, without access to any network, was lying somewhere in the tent that she had to herself.
She looked up to see Arjun and AV Sir sitting together across the circle, engaged in a pleasant but somber conversation. Despite the fact that the number of lamps had now been reduced considerably, Khushi could see Arnav’s form clearly illuminated by the orange glow of the fire in front of her. He had changed, she noted. At twenty one or close to, he had been boyishly handsome. There was very little about him that could be termed so anymore. There was a roughness to his features, face, arms…His eyes, sunshine irises too far from her to be seen at the moment, were more muted than they had been. The person she saw didn’t remind her of the hero that she had known in college. Here was a grown up. Maybe it was the stubble that he clearly sported regularly now. Maybe it was the healthy sun in his skin. Whatever it was, it made it difficult for her to connect this person she saw now with the same person who had crooned silly Sonu Nigam Indi-pop numbers with utmost sincerity one evening many years ago. The only thing that hadn’t changed was his hair. He wore his hair as neatly cropped as ever. Except for the waves falling over her forehead and into his eyes.
Shiv-ji, she prayed with a sinking heart. He was as stunning as ever. And if she continued to stare at him so…Shah Rukh Khan had said it years ago and who was she to disagree with Shah Rukh Khan himself….Pyaar ho jayega.
She looked away and inched closer to the little group on her left. Thankfully enough, the conversation had now veered to Bollywood songs and it was hardly a few minutes later that the different groups had merged into a circle and singing had commenced. Knowing Arjun, Khushi prepared herself for a complete riot, her mood already looking up as the songs filled the air, voices not melodious as she would have personally preferred but the enthusiasm contagious nonetheless. Not before long, Khushi found herself singing along softly, her voice barely audible over the other male voices around her. When she finally allowed herself to look at Arnav Varun though, she could see him sitting with Aman, watching the group with detached amusement, a wry smile on his lips. A part of her wondered if he would join them in song. The same part of her waited for several more minutes as music morphed and muted around her. But all she heard was the gently ripple of flowing water, liquid clashing against wet pebbles like coins being tossed in an earthen pot. He remained silent, not singing, talking little and definitely not looking at her. It was enough to throw a dampener on her spirits.
She needed to get some sleep to be bright and early in the morning. This was just the beginning. She had five days to get through. And there was still the part where all the anger she knew she felt deep within, would come bursting out. Shuddering, she muttered something about being tired and slipped away quietly even as the music continued to play behind her.
Somewhere close to midnight or so she guessed, Khushi woke up with a start, her heart pounding as she felt twisted her fingers into a fist, forcing herself to forget the dream. It was always the same one even if the number of time she had woken up remembering it was a handful – two hands – one in the other, fingers weaving in and out in gentle caresses, the tingle in her dream as real in the pit of her stomach as the pulse in her temple. And though the dream had always been just this and no more, she knew the hand she saw was Arnav’s. It had to be. Because it was the only to explain why she woke up thinking about him every single time she dreamed so.
Clenching her palm into a tighter ball, she allowed her short, clipped nails to dig into her skin. She didn’t want to feel the imagined warmth. And she definitely didn’t want for her heart to be beating this fast. It would explode in her chest. Given her weight – slightly reduced as it may be compared to eight months ago – she was probably high at risk for heart disease even at this age. No sooner had this thought zipped through her mind, she clucked and patted her head in self-reproach. She was being stupid. She just need to shake the dream off. Getting up from the meagre but comfortable single bed, she reached out to the small side table and picked up her glasses. Sliding them up her nose, she rose and walked over to the opposite end of the tent – big enough to accommodate upto three adults and currently occupied by only her – the only advantage of being a lone woman amongst so many male colleagues. She poured herself some water and took a few sips, careful not to drink enough to have to walk all the way to the bathrooms on the other side of camp in the night. It was chilly, the flaps that made doors to the tent swayed slightly as a light breeze rustled through the pale white curtains draped over canvas. It was a pretty looking, cozy little tent, Khushi concluded, beautiful in the way not many other accomodations had been. Feeling more composed than she had been few minutes ago, she walked back to the little bed next to hers and picked up her Walkman. She could use some songs to lull her back to sleep. When she pressed the play button however, nothing happened, alerting her to the fact that the Walkman was empty.
And opening her to the realization that her favorite mixed tape was missing. As was her diary and her favorite Chinese ink pen – the one she had broken in with utmost care and now wrote like a silken dream. Damn, she realized shortly. She had them all in her hand when she had gone for dinner and then during the briefing. When she had walked back to her tent in a hurry to get away from someone, her hands had been empty. Damn, she cursed again and quickly walked over to the door flaps, pulling them apart to step outside, bracing herself for the cold. She needed to get her things back else morning mist would ruin it. Not to mention her things being found and discarded by the River staff. She couldn’t afford it.
The air outside was surprisingly only crisp, not cold. Walking quickly, she made her way through the pebbled path onto the cool sand beach. The sound of water was now crystal clear, tinkling as the river rushed through the tame end of the Ganga gorge. There was no other sound in the air. The skies were deep purple, the moon hiding behind the mountain on the opposite side of the river. Stars twinkled, sprayed across the sky in scattered specks. It was beautiful. And on any other day, no…tomorrow night, she promised herself, she would come only to enjoy the view, not correct her absent-mindedness. Having put that out of the way, she hurried to the area where some chairs still lay scattered, the bonfire hissing away as glowing embers sparked occasionally, smoke swirling up in faint curls.
Several minutes and several rounds of the congregatory circle, later, she still couldn’t find what she was looking for. And now, her heart was sinking. She couldn’t afford to lose the tape. Not that tape. She bent to look under the chair closest to her, squinting to make sure she was seeing right. Wild panic and a sense of loss that usually accompanied the discovery of every misplacement she had endured, pervaded her senses. Deep disappointment coursed through her veins. Her mother was right. She really was the most careless person.
Sighing, she kicked off her slippers and dropped down on a smooth rock nearby and drew her knees close to her chest, staring out at the glimmering stream in front of her. If not for the loss of a couple of her favorite materialistic possessions, she would have been able to admire just how stunning it was. And so, so peaceful. The complete lack of noise was almost surreal. It would take her a lifetime she realized, to forget this feeling, this view before her.
Tomorrow, she promised herself. Tomorrow she would come and sit by the river in solitude and enjoy it for what it was. Maybe she would have located her tape and her favorite pen by then. Maybe she would be able to listen to her comfort playlist here…What else could be better?
Feeling a little more confident than she had just been, Khushi began to lower her legs when she heard a faint sound behind her.
Shit, she cursed as her chest tightened and swelled with terror. She let out a silent shriek in her head as her heart jumped in her chest. Shaking in fear at the sudden intrusion, she turned around, muttering chants to invoke her favorite God under her breath.
Only to come face to face with the man of her dreams. Or was it the man who owned the hand of her dreams?
“What’s wrong? What are you doing here?” He asked, stepping closer. “It’s late…”
Even though she now knew it was him, fear continued to thrum in her body. She swallowed and tilted her head to look up at him, her eyes boring through his.
“I left my things here earlier,” She confessed. “I…I need to get them…”
He stared at her, his eyes never leaving her gaze for even a moment.
She wanted to ask him what he was doing here. She wanted to tell him that he had changed. She wanted to jump in joy as she spotted the guitar in his hand. She wanted to step back and run far, far away from him. So she stayed seated where she was, still as dumb as she had been as an eighteen year old. The thought ended her daydream and spurred her into action. Or in this case words.
“If I left something here, would someone have picked it up and put it in lost or found or something?” She asked, hoping to keep this chance midnight run-in as casual as she could. If he was going to play cool, she was ice itself. In any case, what was he acting all indifferent about? He was the one who had made a fool of her. If anything, it was she who needed to remain aloof while he tried to mend things. If he wanted to mend things. If he believed that things needed to be mended. Tche, she clucked silently again. So many ifs. She was going crazy. She needed to go.
“Never mind,” She whispered. “I’ll look for it in the morning.” She slid down the rock and rose quickly, realizing only a second later that she was standing just inches away from him. And it was unnerving. So she stepped back and turned away. “Good night,” She wished him out of courtesy and started to walk when he called out again.
“You don’t have to leave. Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you away.”
That stopped her. It shouldn’t have. He was just saying it out of courtesy – the same she had extended by wishing him a good night.
Yet, she turned and stared right back at him, hating herself for the fact that she had lost her resolve. She didn’t want to go. She couldn’t go into her tent and be alone again, fall asleep only to dream about interwoven fingers.
So as he stepped away from the rock, she walked back towards it.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh
Album: Dil Apna Preet Parayi
Singers: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Shankar Jaikishan
Yeh roshni ke saath kyun,
Dhuan utha chiraag se?
Yeh khwab dekhti hun main,
Ya jag padi hun khwab se?
- Sorry for the delay! I am in a different time zone and my writing clock has gone for a complete toss!
- Next update: Monday, May 9. 2016 Late Night IST