She could feel the tension in the stretch of her neck, stiff and painful as she struggled to look anywhere but at him. Why wouldn’t he just walk away? Hadn’t he just promised that it wasn’t his aim to scare her. Well, this was scaring her out of her wits. Because if he continued to stand where he was, she was bound to do something stupid. Like ask him why he had broken her heart. And he had not broken her heart. Her heart was perfectly fine. Her dreams might have been shattered. But those had been foolish dreams anyway. She had new dreams now. Ones that didn’t involve sunrise irises and guitar playing fingers
“Do you mind if I joined you?”
She looked up at him and shook her head hard, enough to make her eyes water and head spin. Why, Shiv-ji, she beseeched silently. Why was he asking to join her? Why couldn’t he just go? Wasn’t it bad enough that she would have to deal with him during sane, insipid, uninspiring hours during the day? Must he intrude in the silence and beauty of the night too? When her defences were close to non-existent…
“Thank you,” He whispered and slid on the smaller rock next to hers so that she was now looking down at him. Even that was…Ugh…No, she shook her head mentally. What was done was done. Clearly she had decided to stay back and not take the first opportunity to run. Even if it was thoughtless and rash. For some reason he seemed to have done the same and here they were, sitting by the same river they had once sat by years ago. And yet everything was so different. The river itself, for instance. It had taken several steps back in its journey. Just like the two of them seemed to have in their relationship.
If there was one.
“Does it ever get boring?” She asked impulsively as her gaze scanned the scene before her, bluish-white foam against glittering rolls of the river. “Does all this beauty ever just become….background…something you don’t notice at all…except when you put your mind to it.”
She was proud of herself for having stepped out of her zone and initiate conversation. And being so casual about it. Her voice sounded…normal. She was finally able to act like an adult. It gladdened her that she could be one. A verbose one at that.
“How about I ask you that when you are in the middle of one of the activities tomorrow.” He countered, his voice mildly teasing when he spoke. As if he was testing waters too.
She smiled at him and looked away, choosing not to respond in the fear that she might not be able to do as well as he was. If she tried to make light of this situation, it was going to fall flat on its face. And she couldn’t afford that. She had to keep it together. It was the only way she could survive this week.
She frowned and turned to look at him only to see he was staring at the water, his palms crossed and twisting gently in front of him as his forearms rested on his knees.
“This place…” He clarified. “It never fails to amaze. Not even when you are jumping of a cliff into the depths of the river…It hasn’t in more than two years and I doubt it will now.”
It was what exactly she had hoped to hear, she realized. Anything else would be positively depressing. How could such splendor evoke anything less than a poetic ode to its charm? She smiled at herself more than him and looked straight ahead again. “Two years is a long time.”
“Four years is even longer.”
For a second, she thought he was making fun of her. She had stated the obvious after all.
However, one look at his profile confirmed that he was not joking. No where near it. His eyes remained serious. His mouth pleasantly set but firm, unsmiling. He had been able to smile more easily before. Or at least that is how she saw him all those years ago.
They looked at each other and smiled before both of them looked away.
It was she who broke the silence that followed first. She didn’t want silences between them. Because silences were tricky. They could take on meanings of their own. And she couldn’t afford meanings. She needed trivial, irrelevant, superficial words. Words that didn’t mean anything more than their ability to fill voids of sound.
“I still wear glasses” She replied with a smile as she held her glasses and pushed them up her nose.
He chuckled. “Okay, so maybe not externally.”
Ouch! It hurt. What would it have cost him to have noticed her reduced weight, as little as it was. Or that she wore her hair differently now. The braid and tightly pulled back hair was gone, wasn’t it? She knew how to let her hair loose now. Literally even.
“You are frowning.”
She eased her brow and turned to him with a wry smile. “Damn! Here I was thinking I had morphed from the ugly duckling to at least a not-so-ugly duckling, even if not the swan.”
He laughed out loud at that. “Sorry, I am not good with compliments.” He shrugged but there seemed to be a certain stillness in his eyes, unnervingly clear as they were at the moment – like the onyx necklace her mother wore so often. He looked so sincere. Just like he had all those years ago. Maybe he hadn’t changed that much after all.
“I haven’t changed, actually.” She said with a smile. “I don’t think anyone really changes. Not in any way that counts at least. Especially me. Every year on my birthday, I truly wonder if I have ever been younger than the age that I now have to fill on forms thereafter”
“But I have changed?” He asked, his tone indicating his raised brow and smirk-curved lips. “I must be special.” He whispered looking away, softly enough to make her wonder if he had actually uttered the words.
She blushed nevertheless. Damn! He could have let go, couldn’t he? But nooo….Mentally shaking her head – again, she considered changing the topic. There was after all the name of the camp that had been twisting her gut with poetic beauty. She could ask him about it. She could ask him about the plan for tomorrow. She could ask him how they managed to get supplies across the river. She could ask him how he had come to know Aman and Aditi Sinha. She could ask him when she could meet Aditi – the only other woman there was expected to be on the camp.
Except none of these questions mattered.
Great, she told herself. So now you have nothing to say. Excellent. So much for adulthood!
“It’s because I didn’t sing earlier today?”
Her head whirled to look at him, her eyes large behind the glasses she wore. Enough to have her eyelashes brush against the thick lenses. How had he known it bothered her? How had he know she had even thought about it?
He looked at her and chuckled, his eyes catching the moon as he did. It threw her off. “I guess you are right. People don’t change that much after all. Your face still gives you away completely.”
“Damn!” She whispered with a smile. “I’ll just have to work harder.”
“Damn!” He replied just as softly. “I shouldn’t have said it out aloud.”
He was flirting with her. And as angry as she had assured herself she was with him, she realized she was not. She wasn’t even very nervous anymore. Maybe this was a good decision. A casual talk even if it did come with pretense of normalcy, was doing wonders to her ability to hold herself on check.
“So why weren’t you singing tonight?” She asked, taking her cue from him.
“The answer is not as revealing or full of suspense as you think it is, actually.”
She ignored the fact that he had read her almost one hundred percent accurately once again and waited for the answer.
“Simple – it’s been a long day. We’ve been preparing for the next five days for more than two months now and all the while hosting other groups – fortunately tourist ones. And like all corporate sessions we organize, there is just so much physical exercise involved, that even something as harmless and easy as antakshari drains the body.”
She looked at him in awe. He sounded…How could he argue against her observation that he had changed? This…man…sitting by her, was not the AV Sir she once knew. There had been something almost untouchable, heroic, and perfect about AV Sir. The Arnav sitting next to her seemed worldly, wise and weathered. Maybe even a little tired. And disillusioned. The last part scared her. It would be a shame if he had become even a little cynical. That hopeful young person she had known and admired, was a beautiful creature, a sight to behold. She remembered that one meaningful conversation they had shared. How eager and excited he had been at the prospect of going out into the world and putting himself to test. What then had made him give all of that up and literally go into the mountains? Sure, on paper the trajectory sounded inspiring – a IE, IM educated man in his mid twenties quits the corporate world to explore the wilderness – to bring essential elements of survival and team building to the new entrants to India Inc. But wasn’t there an element of escapism in what he had done. How much she wanted to know about him, about what the last four years had been like for him. If only she could bring herself to open herself to risk again. If only…
She took a deep breath. No. She was not going down that path. It wasn’t worth it.
“If you are trying to scare me, it’s not going to work. I am going to be in the front of everything you guys have planned this week.” She declared fervently.
He laughed at that and shook his head. “See, you have changed. You’ve come a long way from that first day in IE-V with Prashant Tiwari gearing to pull you into a ragging session.”
She chuckled, hiding her surprise at the fact that he had remembered. So?, her inner voice argued. In all likelihood Prashant Tiwari also remembers that incident. It doesn’t mean anything. She agreed with herself. That is what she needed to tell herself. Nothing meant anything. Nothing at all. Especially the fact that he was sitting next to her on a moonlit river, seemingly at ease with sharing pleasant companionship away in the wilderness.
“Do you want to walk?”
She looked at him as he slid from the rock and stood up, towering over her as he looked down at her.
“Along the river. Sitting in one place for too long makes me nervous.”
Khushi let out an ungainly snort. Of course sitting made him nervous. Because she absolutely loved sitting. Or better yet, sleeping. Anything that was about not moving. Sighing softly, she shook her head and slid down her rock as well. She might as well walk. Maybe it would help after all.
So they fell into step and walked up to the edge of the river before turning left and walking along its flow. Thankfully, she had chosen the river on one side, just so she would have something to look at other than him. What the hell was she doing anyway?
“Did you continue your Aarohan stints in your IE-V time?”
Aarohan. Did she really think no references to their connections would ever come up?
“It got axed in our third year. I thought you might have…” No no, she was not supposed to reveal she had thought of him. Stick to the plan, Khushi, she reminded herself.
“Didn’t really keep in touch with many juniors. Just NK and a couple of others occasionally. And NK didn’t mention Aarohan being axed.” He replied.
The question about why he hadn’t kept in touch almost slipped through her teeth. “Nishant Sir , fought it in his final year. We had one but it just didn’t seem to be what the rest of the college wanted. There were more Pink Floyd and Metallica enthusiasts who seemed to mushroom all around campus. And somehow Aarohan got tagged as a Mechanical Engineering event. That didn’t help. After Nishant Sir graduated, there was no one to argue for it.” She shrugged as a twinge of regret filled her heart. She hadn’t cared about any of this. She had refused to participate in Aarohan in her second year – in what she realized soon after, was its final outing. Even though Nishant Sir had specifically asked her to sing. No other event ever held the same interest once Aarohan was shelved. Sure, there were English songs she liked and even listened to rather enthusiastically. But hard rock, metal and head-banging had never been her idea of fun. So the rest of her stay at IE-V after AV Sir had graduated, had little to do with music. Except for all the singing that Arjun continued to annoy her with even till today, of course.
“You must feel terrible.” She asked softly as she looked at him with a wistful smile.
He shrugged. “We always knew it would end. There was no Aarohan before my super Seniors’ time. It was only a matter of time before something else replaced it. And the Pink Floyd junta never really liked us. We were too desi for them.” Arnav chuckled as they continued to follow a faint clearing amongst pebbles.
She looked away as they walked along the curved bank by the river. The camp was situated right in the centre of the Ganga gorge – walled by mountains on either side, right on the bend. So few hundred meters, later, she could see the river turn into the distance, the sound of her flow different with every step Khushi took. She couldn’t keep her eyes away even though all she could see at this time of night were faint silhouettes of the adjacent mountains and vegetation, thick and thin in patches.
“Are there many other camps here in Shivpuri?” She asked, wondering how a place of such secluded existence even existed in a country as populous as India. The route from Delhi to Rishikesh, for example had not been bare of civilisation for even a few meters. It had almost been claustrophobic when she realised that the real fun of a road-trip – stretches of land far away from towns and cities – land where stories of the impossible could be imagined with ease – of heroes and heroines romancing, of magic tales and talking animals – was not to be at least on this trip that she had embarked on.
“There are about ten to twelve major campsites along the eighteen kilometer stretch from Shivpuri to Rishikesh. We have a little bit of an advantage because we are quite a bit upstream compared to the others. Our longest rafting route is almost exactly eighteen kilometers and will take us right up to Lakshman Jhula.”
She turned to her left to look at him, he was looking straight ahead, his profile revealing nothing. And there was so much she wanted to know.
“I love the name – A River Runs Through It. It sounds…”
“Poetic.” He filled in, surprising her.
“Yes! That is exactly what I said to Arjun.”
He smiled at her. “Aditi will be thrilled. She fought J – I mean, Aman tooth and nail to name the place so. He – and I cant say I disagree with him – couldn’t understand why any camp, rather any commercial establishment, would be burdened with a such a long name. But Aditi,” He chuckled, “She has always been so stubborn – mules would be proud.”
“What’s the point of having a place like this and not even being able to indulge yourself to a little?” Khushi supplied with feeling.
“Which is exactly what Aditi said too.” He turned to her. “Tell her you love the name and she’ll be offering you a lifetime membership of the River free.”
Khushi smiled. “I would happily take it up.” She replied happily before the meaning of her words dawned on her. A lifetime of the River…Would that mean a lifetime of access to…”I hope she gets back soon. It would be good to have some female company in this place.”
Arnav laughed again. “I thought you’d be completely at home with the boys now?”
She rolled her eyes. “Only enough to not jump when they slip into colorful hindi gaalis as easily and as often as I use Hindi film dialogues.”
“That sounds terrible.” He commiserated, even as his voice smiled.
“The first time this one person did it – we were outside the Production Workshop and the lab assistant was being a bit of pain – and this guy just…” She shuddered. “When he realized I was right there, he sheepishly grinned and welcomed me to being one of the boys.” She recollected the event with HD clarity. It was a definitely a definitive milestone in her IE-V journey.
They had come to what seemed like the very end of habitable camp area. So they turned around and began to retrace their steps.
“You must have enough material to make a wonderfully, hilarious book someday.” He commented.
“More than” She agreed.
They walked for the next few minutes in complete but agreeable silence. Somewhere along the night, amidst irrelevant conversation and insignificant exchanges, the edge had been taken away. She couldn’t say she wasn’t aware of every little movement by her side but she could count on her conviction and his gallantry to get through the next few days with grace. And so when the next few minutes played out the way they did, there was very little Khushi could do to prevent herself from being completely taken aback.
“Kaveri,” He said as they almost neared the spot where they had started from.
Smiling, she turned to look at him almost ready to tell him – again – to use her preferred name instead of her official one again. Her smile however, slipped away as she stared into the glittering mysteriousness of his intense scrutiny.
“I owe you an apology.” He whispered as they came to a standstill, facing each other now as the wind picked up a notch and whispered warnings in her ears.
She couldn’t, for the life of her, look away and brush off the comment. She wanted to be able to pretend that she didn’t know what he was talking about. She wanted to be able to act surprised at his apology. She wanted to say that there was nothing that had happened between them that warranted even acknowledgement let alone an apology.
Instead she let her eyes drop and blink a couple of times as an old wound was scraped and teased into a little twinge of pinching regret. She could hear the sound of an applauding auditorium and the echo of a soulful voice hinting at deep, heartfelt feelings of something so preciously unattainable.
“I don’t know what…I didn’t realize…” He was struggling with his phrases, his voice urgent with regret – of a kind she didn’t know was possible. “I assumed you knew about…It was not common knowledge…But with Arjun around….”
She looked up at him and realized that he had stepped closer, enough to shield her from the breeze that skimmed the little invisible boundary that surrounded the two of them in it’s formless existence. She should have felt vindicated then, in the knowledge that she had been right, that he had known what he was doing to her. And she should have felt embarrassed for the same reason. Shiv-ji knew she was embarrassed back then to even consider the possibility of having bared her innermost feelings to someone – THE someone who held the key to everything. And yet, she felt only an overwhelming sense of panic. Why was he apologizing now? Was easing his conscience worth putting hers into a tizzy? If he really did know how she felt at the time, couldn’t he be…
She shook her head. “I am not sure….” How could she lie about not understanding what he was talking about? She couldn’t. She looked at him quickly before taking a step back. “I should go. Early start tomorrow and it…” She looked at her wrist in a rare moment of forgetfulness about her missing watch and cursed herself in her head. “It must be pretty late. You should….” No! She didn’t need to tell him what he needed to do. She needed to go. And she needed to go now.
She took a step away and whispered a quick good night before she turned and started walking away.
“Kaveri,” He called, making her heart twist into a grinding halt before it started pumping in her ears. He remembered everything. And that was a scary thought.
“I think you were looking for this.”
She turned to see him holding out her diary, her pen and…
She looked up into his eyes in panic and hope that he had not recognized….
It was too late. The knowing look in his gaze was telling enough. He had recognized the tape. And he now knew even more than she had surmised. She quickly reached out and took the things from him. Before he could say anything thereafter, she hurried away, her quick noisy steps masking the growing beat of her drumming heart in her ears.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Dil Se Re
Album: Dil Se
Singers: A R Rehman, Chorus
Music: A R Rehman
Lyrics: Gulzar (corrected)
Do patte patjhad ke, pedon se utare the
Pedon ki shaakhon se, utare the
Phir utne mausam guzare, woh patte do bechaare
Phir ugne ki chahat mein, woh sehraaon se guzare
Woh patte dil, dil, dil the
Dil hai toh phir dard hoga, dard hai toh dil bhi hoga
Mausam guzarte rehte hain
- Next Update: Monday, May 16, 2016 – late night IST
- Story Recommendation: If you aren’t reading The Finish line you are missing out on a fun, sassy romance as real as life. Only Twiggy can tell a story in the most unconventional of settings and make it so much fun. Enjoy!
- Shyam: Please excuse the typo in the last chapter. There is no Shyam in the story (at least not yet!) Arnav Varun was talking to Aman when Khushi was staring at him.