As much as she did think otherwise, she did catch a few winks. Hours of wondering just where he had hidden her things and being grateful for not keeping diaries for recording person emotions finally gave way to sleep while the sky was still inky. Morning came with the fresh sounds of the river rushing by as if in a hurry to get the day going, strangely louder than she had been in the night. If not for the annoying sound of her alarm going off, the sunrise would have been nothing short of perfect. Aman Sinha had told them to expect an earlier morning in the mountains than they were used to in the cities. But he had not mentioned just how fresh and crisp the air would be. He had not mentioned just how glorious the sky would be as it tried on different colors from its wardrobe before settling on a favorite piece of blue for the day. A part of her wanted to do nothing but sit where she had sat last night and simply look out at the river, the mountains and the invisible horizon beyond.
Unfortunately, this was no vacation.
If anything this was turning out to be a rather cumbersome mix of her personal and professional lives, one she had never really envisioned in all the months between that Aarohan night and the one she had just woken up from. So taking a deep calming breath, she collected her things and went to finish her morning ablutions. Shortly after half past six, she was dressed in a pair of comfortable tracks and a loose T-shirt complete with her comfortable running shoes and socks. She had tied her unruly hair into a low chignon. When she looked at the small three by three inch mirror in her tent, her face looked fresh, scrubbed clean and devoid of any shadows under her eyes. Maybe it was the mountain air that despite little sleep and a lot of stress, nothing really showed on her face. War-paint, she mused wryly before she had straightened her things, made her bed and headed out to the clearing that served as the dining area.
Not surprisingly, she was not the first one to reach the canopy where breakfast was being served. The staff at the River, with the absence of one person, was present, huddled in small groups even as the two young men who had helped with the luggage last evening bustled about with items of freshly prepared food. A couple of her colleagues were also already seated and tucking in a hearty meal. The air was rich with the aroma of fresh toast, deep fried pooris and spiced potato curry. If the smell was anything to go by, the morning breakfast was going to be as delicious as dinner the night before and she couldn’t wait.
Her stomach growled in anticipation as she walked over to the small table where a light but more varied than she had expected, meal was laid out. Whoever said being in the mountains worked the appetite, really did know what he or she was talking about. Or maybe it was just the absence of snacking, especially late night ones that had been the bane of her existence since she had first started staying up late, years ago.
She took her plate and found herself heading away from her colleagues even though they smiled at her and gestured for her to join them. She didn’t feel like company most times in a day. Mornings however, were absolutely sacred. Very rarely did anyone, even Tripti and her mother get a barely civil word from her before 9 am. And today, in the wake of an eventful evening and an unsettling night, she needed her alone time.
She quietly ate her breakfast, savoring every bite as she looked out at the sandy bank and the river beyond. The sky was glittering in crystal clear azure with the sun already beginning to peek out from behind the mountains facing her. Traces of morning mist were still visible over pristine jade waters. The beauty of the place had been highly muted last evening, she realized as everything around her came into sharp focus. It was stunning.
For no reason other than pure sense of overwhelming grandeur, a sense of complete insignificance that was always associated with the wonders of natural habitats, she could feel a sudden burst of tears pool into her eyes. It was silly, she realized as she smiled and popped a bite of poori and sabzi in her mouth, countering her emotions with the succulence of food – her favorite weapon and biggest weakness.
“Varun,” Aman yelled out from somewhere behind her, breaking into her thoughts and dragging her eyes to the person in question, much against her own will.
She saw him immediately and fingers tingled as the visual filled her senses. It was not just the Ganga gorge that had its beauty hidden by the lack of sunlight. Arnav Varun, now being referred to as Varun only, was just as striking in the morning. Dressed in military shorts and the navy River t-shirt with half sleeves rolled up, he looked positively flawless as he worked with a couple of other helpers carry wooden planks and other things she didn’t recognize, to somewhere on her left – presumably the large clearing with only sand and no pebbles. His skin glowed as the rays of the sun fell on his arms and bounced off his raven hair. There was truly nothing about him, at least physically, that reminded her of the off-white kurta clad boy-man she had swooned over. She had never been one to drool over brawny men. And yet, she couldn’t deny that her response to his appearance was positively feral. True, he would not really qualify as brawny but the presence of hard angles and muscle, grazes and cuts on his arms gave Arnav an almost rugged exterior – exactly what one would expect from someone who spent his time outdoors. She dragged her eyes away from him and turned to look at Aman to check if her response was nothing more than sudden awareness of the male species in an ode to her age and complete lack of experience. Aman Sinha, she couldn’t deny was just as much of a brilliantly sculpted specimen of the opposite gender as Arnav Varun was, if not more. In his own khaki shorts and a black River T-shirt, he looked as weathered and beautiful like the mountains behind him. Being older by several years – she guessed by the greying temples, even gave him a George Clooney-ish suaveness that was still missing in Arnav. And yet, her eyes couldn’t help swivel back on their axis to find him, her thoughts finally giving way to the look in his eyes when he had handed her the tape. It was a look she had seen before, one that screamed knowledge of her innermost feelings. He had even said so much. She hated herself for being that transparent.
She looked away, her appetitie suddenly fading as the turmoil she had contained for too long, threated to unleash upon her again. No more night walks and talks, she promised herself and rose to put her plate away, smiling at the lanky boy who rushed take it off her hands. “Thank you,” she said softly, happy with the look of pleasant surprise that crossed the boy’s face. It always saddened her how much unexpected basic courtesy and politeness still was for those who served others with more means.
No sooner had she turned back to join her colleagues as more of them filtered in, she saw Arjun sauntering in, carrying a piece of what looked like video shooting equipment. He was followed by three others she didn’t recognize but assumed were part of the CNBC team that was going to cover the five day program. He saw her and nodded his head and she waited, knowing that he would walk up to her. Once again, Arjun was all she needed. With him by her side, she would be safe – from herself more than anyone else.
“Dude, you need to wake me up every morning for the rest of our time here, okay. I almost overslept…Imagine I might have missed the food…” Arjun rattled off before he tugged at her arm and forced her to accompany him as he went on to pile his plate up with pooris. “I am so hungry.”
“Why didn’t you set an alarm? Or ask one of your tent-sharing mates to wake you up?” Khushi asked as they walked together to join the rest of the group.
“His alarm wakes up everyone other than him.” Mayank replied as the group adjusted their chairs to make room for the two new entrants. “And as if that is not enough, on the rare occasion that he does hear it, he promptly presses the snooze button and then sleeps on through the snoozing.”.
Arjun grinned with his mouth full and shrugged.
“Believe me, all of us tried taking turns to shake him awake. But Kumbhakaran here…” Sameer said with a shake of his head.
Khushi chuckled at the exasperated look on the three faces in front of her, not surprised that Arjun seemed least bothered by having caused any inconvenience to those he shared space with.
“Well, just be glad I don’t snore. Imagine how much worse it could be if I did.”
“Man’s got a point,” Someone noted as the others chuckled and nodded vigorously as other conversation resumed in different parts of the group. Khushi turned to Arjun. “You introduced yourself to the TV crew already?”
Arjun swallowed his mouthful and looked at her as if she had uttered a most demeaning slur at him. “Of course. These guys will choose who to focus on…and you are lucky you are the only woman and of course they will have to focus on you. Think about us poor boys. If I am not on TV, how will I face all my awesome relatives who are waiting with bated breath in front of their TV sets?”
She rolled her eyes. “How do they even know?”
“I told Ma, she did the rest. You know how it goes.”
She shook her head this time. “Arjun, tum paagal ho. You are mad.”
“So I have been told by you as much as others. And in more languages than just the two you used. But…” He shrugged. “What am I without a little madness?” He took a deep breath and put his plate down by his chair, licking his fingers as he did. “Where did you disappear last night? You missed my impeccable renditions of the best of Suniel Shetty.”
“Thank God. I don’t think I can stand your Hai Huku recitals anymore.” She replied. “I was so sleepy. I turned in almost as soon as I hit the bed.”
“Well, if you didn’t toss and turn for at least thirty minutes on those threadbare mattresses, you must have been tired.” He commented as he straightened his spine and twisted his upper body slightly. “I have sore back already. And there are three more days to go.”
“Four more. And God knows how given how down-to-earth your parents are, but you are a spoilt brat, Arjun. That is what it is.”
Arjun clucked her accusation away. “But seriously, Kavi. What a bore. No more sleeping before midnight at least starting today. You better be prepared.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.” Khushi retorted, ignoring the little snigger in her head. “At the moment, I am more interested in knowing what the day is going to be like.”
“No rafting today. But as long as we don’t have theory sessions, I am all set. It would be a crime to be in a place this beautiful and just listen to lectures about team building and leadership.”
“It is a crime to listen to lectures on team building and leadership anyway.” She remarked wryly as Arjun choked on his tea and sputtered all over her.
The program began at 8 am that morning, or so the group was told given everybody had been directed to put away their phones and watches. The CNBC team was introduced first and the group was briefed to forget that cameras existed. They were all expected to focus only on the activities to ensure each activity served its purpose and so that all responses captured by the camera would be completed unaffected. Khushi chuckled at Arjun’s fallen face only to have him mumble something about unfairness. Aman Sinha, however, caught Arjun’s comment and retorted wryly about being sure the camera would find him given his penchant for drama, putting the entire congregation at ease before the day formally began.
The introductory session was kicked off by Aman with an impassioned speech about the value of being outdoors and how it forces one to take a deeper look at their most primitive responses as individuals and as teams – something that would serve them well if they extended their learnings to their corporate lives. Unlike what the sessions back at office were, every little bit of what Aman said felt honest and real. The content was delivered with conviction that made the group of them want to believe. After months of being with Speed Motors, Khushi had experienced a brush of disillusionment that came with knowing how bone-tired and disinterested in new ideas many of those she worked for, were. Now listening to Aman, and Arnav on the occasional instances that he intervened to cite examples from his professional experience, she believed that there was at least the possibility of a more exciting workplace. And the confidence that some of the change was going to come from the thirteen folks sitting here on the banks of the Ganga under a brightening sun and warm mountain air.
About an hour or so later, the team was gathered in the small clearing of pristine sand beach where an elevated platform put together with unpolished wooden planks was standing. Khushi knew the moment she saw it that this was what Arnav had been working on earlier in the morning.
“The Trust Fall,” Aman’s voice boomed as they all gathered around and speculation flew about in a flurry of words.
She was sure she didn’t like the sound of it the moment Aman said the words. But when he went on to explain what was expected of them, Khushi was positively dismayed.
“One of the biggest drawback of the Indian education system is that it prepares you only for roles which need you to be individual contributors. Organizations are by definition, machines which will only work if all the parts come together. That is how teams become important. However, in order for the team to function as designed, there are a few critical factors. Trust, as you can imagine, is the glue that binds teams and organizations together. Just like in relationships, however, trust can only come when the individual is willing to let go of personal inhibitions and open himself,” Aman explained as he looked around and came to a stop as he saw her, “or herself to the power of those he or she works with.”
Khushi smiled uncertainly even though she was now completely used to be being addressed separately or spoken to exclusively even in large groups. Shifting her weight to the other leg, she looked away only to see Arnav look away from her even as he began walking up a makeshift staircase to the platform. She had to remind herself to stop staring as she dragged her eyes away, knowing that it was a futile effort. A part of her wished Arnav would take a more active role in these sessions just so she would have an excuse to keep looking at him.
“The Trust Fall” is an exercise to practice letting go of all fear and trusting, as the name suggests, your colleagues to save you from hurting yourself.” Aman continued as Khushi saw Arnav walk up to the edge of the platform so that he was now towering over the lot of them.
Clapping his hands, Aman quickly turned to arrange them in two parallel lines facing each other and standing at the opposite corners of the platform. He then made then raise their arms to the chest level and instructed them to arrange themselves such that there was hardly any space between any two sets of arms.
“Now, please be very alert and make sure that you catch him okay. I don’t want to loose my very talented assistant.” Aman said seriously as Arnav turned around and stood with his back facing them. In a blink and miss moment, however, she saw Arnav gesture at Aman behind his back in what was presumably a rude finger sign. That was enough to evoke catcalls and booing from the boy surrounding her. Khushi bit back a smile and waited, her arms beginning to ache already as she shifted. She was safely placed the outer end of the arrangement which meant that she would mostly only end up brushing against his hair…Not that she was certain his head was safer than any other part of his anatomy. Exhaling to avoid the blush in her cheeks from spreading, she quickly pushed her glasses up her nose and looked on. Aman counted to three and just like that, Arnav let himself fall, his body straight as stretched fibre cable. The lot of them, expertly caught him, none of them clearly feeling any part of his weight on their hands for several moments after he had landed on their collective outstretched arms. It was the sudden movement of his head against her wrist by which he caught her gaze that led her to look away, her heart beating in her ears as he straightened himself and was back up on his feet.
“That was simple enough, wasn’t it?” Aman asked and as expected almost all of them agreed wholeheartedly, the excitement at having done their part well clearly shining on all faces in front of her.
“So, what are we waiting for? Let’s fall our way to trusting each other. Everyone goes once – I assume we don’t have to talk to you guys from prestigious engineering schools about queues and waiting your turns. Keep your bodies straight and give yourself up. Believe me, this will be one of many activities you will participate in this week that you will remember for the rest of your lives.”
Khushi rolled her eyes mentally. She was going to remember this week for the rest of her life anyway. She didn’t need to make a spectacle out of herself for it. This activity was insane. It was easy for Arnav – the man was all muscle and bone, not an inch of extra weight on his body. She was in all likelihood heavier than him by tens of kilos. And she was a woman…Surely they didn’t expect her to go through with this…
She stepped back and watched as others decided the sequence in which they would get it done. A part of her wanted to…
“You look worried.”
She whirled around to see Aman standing by her, looking at her curiously. “I…” She cleared her throat. Wasn’t this exactly what she was hoping for? “I am just…a lot heavier than….”
“This exercise has nothing to do with weight. All you need to do is fall straight. When Arnav fell, tell me, did you feel any weight on your arms? Even on impact?”
She shook her head. “I assumed that was because I was near his head.”
“Oh, Arnav’s head weighs more than his body, I assure you.” Aman said wryly.
“You had better watch your leg pulling, J. Unless you want to do this program by yourself.” Arnav interjected, much to her surprise, as he came and stood next to her.
She refrained from looking up at him. All her carefully built bravado would shatter if she did. She didn’t need that at the moment.
“Look, these people…you trust them?” Arnav asked softly a second later.
Khushi didn’t need to think before she nodded, focusing only on the words and not the voice that shaped them. The men around her…boys really…had been nothing but nice and respectful to her. They had accepted her presence as normal, included her in all conversation, nothing to suggest any reason why she needed to be physically uncomfortable around them. And then there was Arjun for Shiv-ji’s sake. These people were her friends.
“So go ahead and do it,” Aman urged, perfectly in sync with Arnav’s question and her response. “These people will surprise you by being completely professional about it. Believe me, they are more nervous having a lone woman in their midst than you are about being in the middle of them.”
Khushi smiled at the gentle reassurance in Aman’s voice and nodded. She then turned to look at Arnav once very quickly before resuming her place in the formation as Arjun, not surprisingly, took the lead and climbed up the platform
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Nazrein Milaana, Nazrein Churaana
Album: Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na
Singer: Bhargavi, Annupamaa Krishnaswami, Benny Dayal, Darshana KT, Naresh Iyer, Satish Subrahmaniam, Shweta Mohan, Tanvi Shah
Music: A. R. Rahman
Lyrics: Abbas Tyrewala
Aankhon mein koi hai basa, jaane kyun lage yeh dil khaali,
Jaan lo kyun yeh dil baja raha, ek haath se taali,
Hothon se jaane kya kaha, phir bhi dil ki baatein hai dil mein,
Yeh raha tera humsafar, kisko dhundhe dil ki mehfil mein?
Jaan hai phassi, kaise naa hassi, aaye haal dil pe?
- To all of you who give so much love to this tale – with comments, more comments, silent likes and most of all – everlasting patience with the pace and storytelling – thank you! I understand that this story is slow. Unfortunately – this is the way the story is intended to read and hence even knowing your frustration with it, I am unable to help. I have never been able to tell a brisk story I guess. Maybe that should be my next challenge!
- Next Update: May 23, 2016