And so she fell straight and only a little bit awkward — into the hands of twelve boys from the engineering batch of 2009 – who as Aman had predicted were as eager as she was to end momentary contact with her body. When she was back on her feet, her cheeks flushed with more exhilaration than embarrassment, she conceded to herself that this was the closest she was going to get to falling into somebody’s arms – twelve arms to be precise. It made her laugh even as she joined the formation as someone after her began climbing the wooden platform.
The day ended at a little after five in the evening, the sun well on its way back home. The group of them, exhausted and invigorated at once, made their way back to their temporary homes as well to wash up and change or simply lie on their cots for a while, before they could be served tea. As Khushi walked back to her tent, she looked up to see two helpers running up to Arnav with an assortment of brightly colored equipment or what she knew minutes later was standard rafting gear when she spotted a bright blue colored boat, a kayak she would find out later, being held at the bank by another person. It stopped her in her tracks. The day had been long and tiring and not just for Khushi and the rest of her Speed Motors colleagues, but surely for Arnav too? Why then was he getting ready for a trip down the river, she wondered. A part of her wanted to walk up and ask. Another part of her unnecessarily worried for mundane things like safety and the third part of her, just wanted to turn her back and walk away. During the day, there had been enough distraction to limit her straying gaze from finding its focus too often. There had even been enough diversion to keep her mind away from the fact that it wasn’t only her gaze that had been wandering.
Now her self-control seemed to have waltzed off to take a break from having been rigorously exercised all day.
So she stood in the path, mid-way from the beach volleyball area to her tent, her eyes fixed in the near distance. She watched rather shamelessly as Arnav pulled his T-shirt up over his head to reveal a black sports vest. It took her all her willpower to not notice the rippling muscle in his arms or the long gash near his left shoulder. She watched as he pulled what she hoped was a life jacket and a helmet. He kicked his sandals off and waved towards the help who seemed to extend another pair of what looked like sneakers. When he was dressed for the expedition, oar and everything, he looked up and straight into her eyes. She knew he was far enough for him to not see her expression or she his, but just having been caught staring was bad. She looked away quickly and turned her back to him, breathing out in small puffs as discreetly as possible before she walked into her tent and pulled the canvas flaps down. Her heart, however, knew to send a little prayer to her Shiv-ji as her fingers clammed with nervous energy at the thought of Arnav in the river so close to nightfall.
For the next few hours, she didn’t see Arnav Varun and tried her level best to remind herself that the man was, in all probability, married or well on his way to being so. Whatever it was that was going on in his mind, she couldn’t entertain any thoughts about him being anything more than a co-instructor for the program she was undergoing. She ignored the little voice in her head that tried to bring up last night’s apology. He was just being….Sincere? Presumptuous? Vulgar? She didn’t have a name for it, whatever it was. And it served no purpose trying to find one.
The first official evening of the program, was as eventful as the day had been – albeit a lot more relaxing. The CNBC team had spoken to a few of her colleagues in small five minute sessions – fishing for bites that would be interspersed in the final thirty minute documentary that was the expected outcome. She had not been one of those, and happily so – she assured herself. She had never doubted her ability to speak with clarity and immaculate diction but the idea of being on TV – even boring, low TRP business documentaries, made her uncomfortable.
The rest of her group had divided itself into two and delved into a fun but intense game of volleyball that she was least interested in. Arjun, true to himself, spoke to the CNBC folks and played volleyball. Thankfully, by now, he knew not to mess with her and so she retained her peace.
Now, just few minutes after another simple but exemplary dinner, the group was gathered around the fire, small groups and scattered conversation marking the transition from evening to night. If yesterday was tentative, today was stamped with certainty. The campers had fallen into a predictable schedule and companionship was a lot more definite. She had just about refused to comment on a controversial topic related to women in the corporate world when she heard a soft chuckle next to her. She turned to see a woman, not more than five feet in height and definitely half Khushi’s weight, smiling down at her. She was dressed in beige capri-pants and a large oversized shirt that almost engulfed her in it’s billowing expanse.
“Kaveri Gupta,” She said with an extended hand. “I have been waiting to meet you.” She said with a warm smile and slipped into an empty chair on Khushi’s right.
Khushi smiled back and took the woman’s hand, surprised that they were rough and un-dainty – the very opposite of the image that she presented overall.
“I’m Aditi,” She introduced herself as one of the helpers ran over and handed her a bottle of what Khushi presumed was beer. “You care for some?” She asked Khushi.
Khushi shook her head with a smile. “I am good, thank you.”
“Not legally allowed to drink or morally against it?” Aditi asked with a hooked eyebrow, the action so familiar, Khushi was almost tempted to ask her if they had met before.
“I have enough stuff to add to my daily calorie count. Beer just doesn’t make the cut.” She said. It was only half a lie. Of course Khushi didn’t drink because she couldn’t imagine what her parents’ reaction would be. And then there was the entire concept of relinquishing control over her tongue – which in turn meant her secrets. Unwillingness to add extra calories were a distant third. In the situation, though, like most others, she used her least controversial reason to her defence.
Aditi laughed and shook her head at the helper – Sanjay – who walked away.
Khushi continued to speak as soon as the two of them were alone-ish again. “I have been waiting for you as well – at least since we heard that you would be one of the instructors.”
Aditi looked at her and smiled. “Yeah, extended supply replenishment trip down to Haridwar. I got in just earlier this evening – you guys were still in the program.” She took a swig of the liquid and allowed her gaze to skim the rest of the group seated around them in a makeshift circle around the fire. “The only girl among so many men. How are you enjoying all the attention?”
Khushi chuckled. “Thankfully, the attention stage is over. I now blend into the crowd. Unlike the first year of college. I think I was in culture-shock for one whole year” She said honestly, trying to ignore the little flutter that erupted under her skin every time she referred to that first year.
“Oh?” Aditi asked in surprise. “What did you major in? Not Mechanical?”
Khushi nodded with a wry smile. “The one and only.”
“Oh” Aditi said with a frown and then clucked in understanding. “Of course, you are all Speed Motors employees – of course you would be Mechanical or Manufacturing”
“Surprisingly, our college had enough women in Industrial Production. Which makes no sense – Mechanical is in fact lesser physical labor than Production – I know that for a fact.”
“That is of course, assuming that physical labor is a problem.” Aditi pointed out much to Khushi’s embarrassment.
“I am not really a physically active person,” She said softly and bit back the urge to point out her size as proof.
“Then this week is going to be a lot of fun for you,” Aditi teased. “But Aman tells me you did the trust fall and the mini-rappelling pretty well.”
Khushi smiled as her skin warmed over. “He is being kinder to me than I deserve. But yes, I did enjoy myself. I didn’t expect to.”
Aditi shrugged. “The programs are most fun for people who come with an open mind. Im glad most of you, according to Aman and he rarely is wrong, are pretty open to new experiences.”
“Are you an engineer too?” Khushi asked.
The other woman fake-shuddered and shook her head. “No, baba! I couldn’t study physics or math to save my life. In any case, one in the family is more than enough I think.”
Khushi laughed wryly thinking about how her parents would vehemently disagree with Aditi if they heard her. The fight after Tripti suggested looking for alternate professions when it was her turn to find herself a graduate school, was still fresh in her mind.
“B.Sc, M.Sc. then what – Ph.D? Being a Professor and ruining your life knowing exactly what awaits you?” Shiv Gupta had roared. “And earning measly salaries for rest of your life. No!”
“Papa, B.Sc. from Stephens! It could mean anything in the future – Management Consulting, Advanced Analytics, hell even Writing.” Tripti had shrieked back only to have their mother hiss in disgust at her volume and line of argument.
Needless to say, Tripti had lost the fight. It hadn’t helped that she missed the Stephen’s cut-off by a narrow margin. So IE-V it had been, much to Tripti’s disappointment – although she managed to find a seat in Electronics and missed the golden chance (in her own words) of being the only girl in a class full of boys. A month after Tripti had joined IE-V, however, she had declared, secretly of course, that IE-V might have been the best decision after all.
Khushi smiled at the memory and looked away. Now almost everyone around her had a bottle of beer in his hands. Arjun, she could spot from a distance was animatedly talking to Aman who had a looked of bored indulgence, not unlike what one would have for an enthusiastically naïve younger sibling. Khushi would know – she wore that expression more than any other around Tripti.
“Which college did you go to? I haven’t even had the chance to look at your profiles yet.”
“IE-Varanasi” Khushi replied. “Arjun,” She pointed to her friend in the distance, “and I are the only ones from IE-V this year.”
“Really?” Aditi exclaimed. “I didn’t know there were any IE-Vians in this group. Munna never mentioned…” She looked at Khushi and frowned in contemplation. “Which year did you graduate in?”
Before Khushi could answer, Aditi slapped her palm against her head. “Redundant question. You are a GET which means you graduated last year – in 2009?”
Khushi nodded and looked away. Was this really headed where she thought it was?
“Wait a second, that means Munna must have been in the final year when you joined. Oh wait…Mechanical…of course….” She turned to face Khushi completely, “You are the first year mechanical girl who sang with him in the Aarohan of 2005?” She nearly squealed with excitement. “I remember Munna talking about you. And he didn’t…Let him come back here and I will…Ever since I got married, the idiot has stopped talking to me.”
Khushi knew that her heart was in her mouth. And yet she needed to confirm what she already knew. “Munna?” The endearment should have been hilarious. It would have been in most other situations. Maybe she would find it funny a few months later. At the moment though….
“Varun….Arnav….Damn him and his ek hazaar naam. Wait…what was it that the juniors called him…Haan AV-Sir…Hilarious! AV-Sir!!” Aditi laughed. “He took it rather seriously too for a while I think.”
Khushi smiled as her face threatened to crack.
“Don’t tell him I called him Munna, okay. He will kill me. I am supposed to not let people know that he is my baby brother. Nepotism, you know – that he works for Aman? Saala-Jeeja and all that..”
Of course, he was.
Of course. Aman Sinha was Arnav’s brother-in-law. Aditi Sinha was his sister. Of course.
This trip was going to be the death of her. It was bad enough to be in Arnav’s presence. And now to know that his family – sister and brother-in-law, no less, was going to be right there…Argh, she wanted to scream out loud. Shiv-ji was really being his cruel best to her at the moment. And she really, really wanted to know why.
She shook her head mutely and looked away.
“What a small world. I was there for Aarohan that night…We had all come down to surprise Varun with…” Aditi’s voiced trailed away as the smile on her face dimmed slightly. And then she seemed to shake away whatever it was before she turned to smile at Khushi. “Imagine – we might have met each other that evening. Then it would have been a really small world.”
Khushi had no idea what to say so she looked at Aditi and smiled as brightly as she could. And then quickly changed the topic to ask Aditi about her educational background and how she came to set up A River Runs Through It. And though it came with the memory of Arnav having suggested it, the response Khushi got from Aditi when she complimented the latter on the choice of name for the camp, more than made up for her question.
“I think I had the name figured out in my head way before we finalized on the concept of Outdoor Training for Corporates. I mean – it is…well…it is a Brad Pitt movie but I never saw that but the name as a nice musical ring to it. And this place we have here,” Aditi said looking around the flame lit surroundings, “The Ganga literally runs through the mountains – so apt!” She said with a dreamy sigh, making Khushi smile.
Aditi looked at her and smiled sheepishly. “I should be more humble about it, right?”
Khushi shook her head. “Not at all. You should be as proud as you are, if not more.”
Aditi chuckled and raised her bottle of beer to Khushi. “I like you. Even if you are a teetotaler – and believe me that is the biggest compliment I can give anyone.”
“I count myself lucky,” Khushi replied softly before the two women began to laugh. Shortly thereafter, the two women lapsed into a bout of interactive silence as the rest of the group around them began to shuffle and shift.
“Antakshari” Arjun yelled from across the campfire and was immediately met with a combination of excited endorsements and some very audible groans. Being in neither category, Khushi was free to note that while Aditi had been vociferously supportive, Aman’s groan had been the loudest. And yet, the look they exchanged was almost too intimate for Khushi’s comfort. She looked away quickly as the discussion shifted to division of teams. Aditi, who Arjun continued to refer to as Ma’am inspite of repeated instructions to do otherwise, was Arjun’s perfect companion. Between the two of them the game had already taken on the spirit of competition no group of young and old in India could deny when it came to Antakshari.
“What about girls vs. boys?” Aditi suggested a good five minutes of haggling later – during which Arjun had boasted endlessly about his prowess of course.
Khushi looked at her and grumbled inwardly. She loved Antakshari, no doubt. A disastrous memory of the last time she sang in front of an audience had not colored her alone time humming. She had even engaged in fun Antaksharis on campus and with her family. She wasn’t going to allow Arnav Varun to taint her love for Hindi film music, even if it meant the memory of sunrise irises every time she sang any of the Aarohan songs. But this….this sudden enthusiasm that she would now be forced to share because of Aditi Sinha’s suggestion – which was already being implemented as the boys shifted to the opposite side of the camp, was too much to handle. Especially when Arnav could walk in and join their group any time now.
Where was he, anyway?
No! Her inner voice scolded. You are doing it again. You don’t care where he is. You DON’T care.
Yes, she told herself. She didn’t care. She was going to sing. If Arnav showed up and sang….dammit, it was his problem. She DID NOT care.
So the game began with the customary couplet that kicked it off even though the starting song always had to be one beginning with the M sound. Arjun, who Khushi was sure, had rigged the couplet pointing to make sure the M was him, started with a grating but popular song that made her stick her tongue out in dislike. As catchy as it was the image of a bike-stunt hero and a heroine wearing a candy-floss colored frock – frock for Shiv-ji’s sake!, was too much to bear. It was, she decided, her duty to bring the standard of this game up. So at the end of the first song, when it was Aditi and her turn to sing something beginning with H, she was all set to revive an old Dev Anand classic when Aditi beat her to the punch and sang another popular 90s college classic. Basically Bollywood’s version of Facebook fraandship requests, she thought to herself with a chuckle. This one, however, Khushi did like. It was peppy in way only 90s songs knew how to be, absurd lyrics not withstanding.
Hum se tum dosti kar lo
Yeh haseen galati kar lo
Aao na, haath milaao na
O baby aao na, baat suno
Aditi emphasized the word “baby” in an uncanny imitation of the male singer’s voice. Arjun, up to the challenge as always, responded in a high pitched voice saying Na, na, na and the entire crowd burst out laughing.
The game continued with much gusto. And though she did sing and participate with her usual energy levels, nothing could match Aditi’s excitement. If she was Arnav’s older sister, she was at least five years older than Khushi. But nothing in her voice or mannerisms would indicate she was even a day older than her. Younger, someone would have guessed, if enthusiasm towards Antakshari was any sort of measure. And her voice….If she hadn’t already known Aditi was Arnav’s sister, hearing the soulfulness in her voice – even as she sung the most superficial of songs, she would have likened her talent to his. Khushi had always placed greater value on women singers and their voices. She knew now that envy was a part of her evaluation and admiration.
So it was almost thirty minutes later that they finally found themselves stuck with the letter G (as in Goat) and looking at each other in worry as Arjun threatened with customary tick-tocks.
The stroke of genius was immediate and exclusive. The words came to Khushi, in full lyrical glory and with impeccable accuracy. And maybe it was the utterance of the first flirty and yet fairly naïve song in a long time but everyone around her fell silent and allowed her voice to float in the half-moonlit night, the only music to her company – the sound of a rolling river nearby.
Gazab ka hai din, socho zara
Yeh deewanapan, dekho zara
Hum bhi akele tum bhi akele
Mazaa aa raha hai
The promise was real. She was having fun. Inspite of everything else, in that moment, she was caught in that little bubble that must have been her inner spirit of some sort.
So she repeated the lines with greater passion than before, encouraged by the looks of admiration and pleasant surprise around her.
Gazab ka hai din, socho zara
Yeh deewanapan, dekho zara
Hum bhi akele tum bhi akele
Mazaa aa raha hai
She was about to stop then, the S-cue for Arjun on her lips before Aditi shook her head. “Let’s finish it. It’s too good a song to be left half sung.”
Was it the gentle praise in Aditi’s voice? She didn’t know. But she did continue to sing.
“Dekh lo, humko kareeb se
Aaj hum mile hain naseeb se
The words were so beautifully etched. The song had always been one of her romantic favorite duets. About letting fate take its course between two people destined to be together and still not be together. When she sang, she sang with feeling. Like she always did.
Yeh pal phir kahan, she asked with a smile, looking around her.
Aur yeh manzil phir kahan?
Indeed, this was a moment that may never present itself again – carefree and full of camaraderie and nothing else.
Aditi joined her then as the two women sang the opening lines again, their voices perfectly in sync with each other. In that moment, Khushi knew she missed her sister and all the singing times they shared – moments which had been far and few in between in the last couple of years and presumably for the years going forward.
Gazab ka hai din, socho zara
Yeh deewanapan, dekho zara
Hum bhi akele tum bhi akele
Mazaa aa raha hai
Arjun and Sameer immediately lapsed into the intervening piece of music, making people around laugh and / or groan in their limited success at mirroring the notes of pianos, violins drums and trumpets. Khushi took the little break to look at Aditi again who was now winking and making kissing faces at Aman who, Khushi was sure, was blushing to the root of his hair. It was a hilarious sight to watch the man who had been their well-spoken, articulate instructor by day, throwing looks mixed with exasperation and unmasked adoration. It was a look she had seen her parents share on few but significant occasions. She smiled and looked down.
Which is why she missed seeing Arnav walk up to where Aman was sitting, right behind where Arjun and Sameer were mimicking trumpets.
But when she heard his voice, there was no mistaking her recognition or reaction to it.
Kya kahun, mera jo haal hai
Raat din, tumhara khayal hai
Phir bhi jaan-e-jaan
Main kahan aur tum kahan
She had no choice but to stare at him even as those around them broke into a applause and Arjun mentioned something about dashing entries as always. She had no clue whether she was angry, sad or just plain helpless in the realization of the fact that in four years, nothing had truly changed. Her own words came to mock her cruelly as the flames flickered and blazed in the distance separating her from him. Maybe nothing ever really changed.
A heart broken once, knew no better the second time around.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Yeh Dil Deewana
Singers: Sonu Nigam, Chorus
Music: Nadeem Shravan
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Dil paisa be-peer hai, who ek tasveer hai
Main kehta hun tod de, kehta hai zanjeer hai
Koi kachchi dor nahi hai, main kya karun?
Dil pe koi zor nahi hai, main kya karun?
Note: Next update might be delayed a little as I see a tough week coming up. I will try to get it up latest by Wednesday, June 1, 2016