To the half of you who knew this would happen – and the other half who will groan when it does and want to throw something at me – thank you for being here and making the River more than a story!
She turned around at the plea in his voice and took a deep breath. “There is nothing…” She began softly, annoyed that even when she was angry, it rarely came through in her voice. Except when it was Tripti. Or her parents, on occasion. “There is nothing to explain.” She said firmly. “Really” She added for good measure a second later as her eyes met his disbelieving ones.
“I am not doing this to embarrass you.” He said softly.
Wasn’t he? Then what was this going to achieve? Even if he did think she had feelings for him, why bring them up?
“I am not embarrassed. Just that there is no…” She could feel herself getting worked up and she hated it. She may or may not be a weak-willed but she definitely didn’t like to show it to the world.
“I heard your sister that night.” He interrupted.
She frowned at that. “My sister…?” What was he talking about? It made no sense. “What…” She began and then suddenly remembered…Tripti had said something about her having fallen in love that evening and he had appeared shortly thereafter. How had she forgotten that little detail? Damn! Of course he had heard Tripti. Her sister was not known for her soft-spoken-ness. And Khushi herself had wondered even then if he had heard that comment. She jogged her memory for any straws that she might be able to clutch at and used the first one that came to mind.
“She was talking about Arjun.”
He took a deep breath and looked away. She could see that his palms were now clenched into a fist and lay tense against his thighs. He was changed into a relaxed t-shirt and knee-length chambray shorts, clearly night clothes. Why hadn’t he just gone to sleep in his tent? Why did he…
“No, she wasn’t.”
That scraped at her, a frown burrowing through her forehead, even though she knew she had lied. He had no way of knowing Tripti was referring to him. Her sister had not taken any names. And she had mentioned Arjun in the conversation. Even if this was a flimsy counter, she needed to hold on to it.
“She was.” Khushi restated with a slightly more confident voice and then shook her head. “How is any of this helping? I have no idea why you are feeling guilty. There was nothing…”
His mouth tightened enough for her to be able to see despite the complete lack of light around them now. He was not more than a living shadow and yet, she could feel his nerves sizzling in the air between them.
“I just want to apologize, Khushi. For not mentioning that I was engaged to someone else. For leading you on to believe something…even though I had no intention of doing so.”
Khushi’s face flamed. How dare he say he wasn’t doing this to embarrass her and then go ahead and do exactly that? “You did not lead me on. I wasn’t led on. I am not an idiot.” She hated that her voice was quivering even if with controlled energy.
“I never said you were. But there were two of us that evening. And I know…”
He did not know. He could not know. “Sir,” She began
“Arnav,” He corrected her immediately and she cursed herself. What was she calling him Sir for? College was over. He had not been her senior for years now.
Ignoring his edict, she continued with more patience than she knew she was capable of. “I don’t know what you think you did to me. But let me assure you that…” She paused. What the hell was she going to assure him of? “We sang a few songs together. Sure, they were mostly romantic. But I didn’t think anything of them. I did not believe that you were singing them for me.” Lies. Such lies. “As I said, I am not an idiot. The only thing that caught me by surprise that day was that you were engaged…and I would have been as surprised if the news had been about Arjun or Nishant Sir.” She had always been a good liar. It came from being someone who couldn’t share her innermost feelings with even those she was closest to. And today, she was doing a great job – even according to her own standards. It was evident to her in the way her words were rushed and jumbled. She was pretty sure Arnav couldn’t hear her as clearly as people usually did. But in the moment, it didn’t matter. Nothing did.
“Not many people knew about Saira. Just a few of my friends and Ar….”
All these years she had stayed away from finding out what his fiancee’s name was. And now she knew. Saira. It hurt. Even now. Even though she was no eighteen year old in the throes of an appalling crush. She wanted to hold her hand up and ask him to stop talking. Instead she folded her arms over her chest and shook her head.
“It doesn’t matter. I don’t know what I can do to make you believe me. But the truth is that you don’t owe me an apology. I was not led on.” She enunciated the words. “And,” She took a deep breath. Maybe the words needed to be said out aloud. “I don’t have any…” Shit, this was so awkward. “I am sorry if I ever let you believe that I have any…feelings for you….I never did. We – everyone in first year…looked up to you because of all your achievements….Admiration…Even Arjun feels that way about you.”
If she had been him, she would have challenged herself on so many points. If there was nothing there, why did everything change between them after Aarohan? Why did she refuse to even meet his gaze thereafter?
“You kept the tape.” He said softly, taking a small step closer and forcing her to look up. She shifted in her place, transferring her weight to her right leg.
“I happen to like the songs. Some of them were favorites even before I heard them on the tape.” She said, happy that at least some part of this conversation was true. “Thank you for going through the effort to put them together.” She added for good measure and tried to smile. When her lips refused to comply into a curve, she opened her mouth to ask why he had given her the tape but decided otherwise. “It has nothing to do with you personally other than that.” And that was the end of the explanation that she was going to give. This conversation had already stretched way longer than she had wanted it to.
She waited for a long second, making sure she wasn’t the first one to blink. He needed to believe that she had never been more than mildly intrigued as far as he was concerned.
Sure, she might have wanted to explore what would have happened if she had just acknowledged his apology and accepted it gracefully. But…She frowned at the thought. Maybe that might have been a better approach. It may have meant a little soul-baring…
And a LOT of embarrassment, her conscience reminded her.
In the few seconds that she took to go through the little what-if, however, it seemed that Arnav Varun had been convinced of her argument. He was now nodding and saying something about having bothered her and about being really sorry for having assumed more than what was. She watched incredulously as he looked at her with a smile that barely reached his eyes. She heard him tell her that she needed get back to her tent and get some sleep, that it was going to be a longer, harder day tomorrow and that she would need all her energy. She must have nodded because he was already looking away from her and picking up his things – two thick blankets and a pillow, only to throw them on the measly little charpoy.
He had not followed her out into the night. He had not been waiting to apologize to her. He was here to sleep under the stars – presumably like he did every night she guessed by the evenness of his handiwork as he went about setting up his bedding. Or maybe Arjun had given him the idea today – whatever it was, it was not in her honor. Get over it, she scolded herself softly. Mumbling a quick good night, she turned around and walked away, grudgingly accepting that her face would always burn in endless mortification around this man.
In the hours preceding dawn, between intermittent states of sleep and wakefulness, Khushi found herself alternating between anger and remorse. Anger because he had forced her to speak about something she had avoided speaking about even to herself. And remorse because in retrospect, her anger seemed completely unjustified for everything except her own sense of discomfort. He really did seem to be sorry for how things had been left between them. She had been lying of course. There had been a thread of sorts and it had been broken. He may not have actively hidden the information about his girlfriend at the time but omission to report had long been established as active lying itself. And it was a punishable offence in her world. Even if the punishment was as ridiculous as disallowing the defendant the ability to apologise. People were allowed to wield whatever power they could in their solitary territory of reign.
When dawn came, it brought with it, renewed vigor – to go through the program with the sole aim of mastering it – like everything else she had been raised to excel in. Thankfully for her, the day started early and without Arnav Varun. Aditi Sinha was in-charge of leading the group on a nature walk trail and for some reason, maybe it was the lack of similarities in physical appearance, it was easy for her to forget about Aditi’s connection with Arnav. Khushi found herself right at the head of the single line that marched on the narrow beaten path up the adjoining mountain. She walked in silence, not unlike the rest of them. There was something about morning by the hill and all the sounds that it brought, that made them want to listen. Even Aditi, who had been nothing but chatty last evening, was a somber, quiet version of herself. To her relief, Arjun, who was bringing up the rear of the little formation that was trekking up the hill, was too far away to be heard clearly. Though, Khushi could say with some confidence that the mutterings and occasional guffaws could be attributed to her friend.
Upon their return to the camp almost ninety minutes later, they were all given exactly half an hour to get changed before they could have a quick, preferably light breakfast before they could head out for the rafting session. So about an hour later, Khushi found herself strapping a neon life jacket on, her hands finally trembling in anticipation of what was coming up, more than the presence of a certain someone around her. Aman and Arnav were going to lead one raft each and the groups had been divided and assigned at random even as the teams were gearing up. Khushi and Arjun were in the same raft – with Aman, much to Khushi’s inner sigh of reprieve. The CNBC crew had been assigned to a third raft which was going to be led by one of senior camp helpers – Ramcharan. Aditi was to sit this one out, a fact that troubled Khushi more than it should have given how much experience she now had in being away from female company.
However, before the official rafting day could begin, Aman asked the group if they would be interested in cliff-jumping their way into the Ganga – an activity not technically related to the program but one too good to miss, apparently. He pointed the cliff and the jump-location at a distance. Judging purely based on how it looked, Khushi wanted to vote no and hope that they would proceed to the team rowing event instead. However, in the wake of her promise to herself, she found herself to be one of the first people to vocally vote in favor of the exercise. Arjun, to her surprise, was rather squeamish about the whole thing. So much so that Khushi found herself teasing him for a change, a fact that was widely welcomed by the group. The teasing, however, made no impact on Arjun – usually the first one to fall for boyish dares and pokes implying cowardice. It was only when Khushi had naturally and unknowingly transitioned from teasing to coaxing that Arjun decided to give it a go. Of course, it also took a little motivation from Aman himself, who assured Arjun and a couple of others in the group that with the life-jacket, they were in no danger, even if they did not know how to swim. In the end, it was Khushi who found herself leading the little queue of eager and not-so-eager cliff-jumpers – Arjun included. The trek up the narrow winding path up the mountain was interspersed with conversation, excited and full of wonder. It was only Khushi who walked up in silence, yet again, her heart thumping as she neared the jump location. From the River staff, it was only one of the helpers – Mohan who had followed the group. The CNBC team, she could see in the distance was already mounted on the raft, their cameras poised as they seemed to be clicking and recording test runs. Arnav and Aman, with one helper each, were steering the rafts to a location only slightly away from where they were all expected to make contact with water.
A distant sound of a shrill whistle brought her attention to its source. Aman, now standing up by the raft near a pebbled indent into the curving river, was waving at her – presumably to get started.
“All the best,”
She didn’t see who it was that had wished her from somewhere behind her back. All she could now see was the edge of the cliff, smooth and surreal. The location was well chosen for an uninterrupted fall. The cliff wall was nearly straight and the water below, emerald and shining, was almost still as a lagoon that the river had eased into. The place seemed to be designed for such adrenaline-rush inducing activities. Khushi, took a deep breath as her feet dislodged a few tiny rocks and sent them crashing into the water. They made no splash, such was the height where she now stood – almost as if standing on the fourth floor of a residential building somewhere. Her heart was in her mouth, thudding against her teeth.
“Madam, sochiye mat. Ek minute se kam mein aap paani ke upar aa jayengi.”
It must have been Mohan who had shouted out that final instructions. She didn’t know exactly because before she could really let the words sink in, Khushi had forced herself to take a deep breath and jump off the edge.
For a fraction of a second, the lack of solid earth under her feet did not even register in her brain. Till she felt the little tug in the pit of her stomach. Keep your back straight, she told herself even as the surroundings flew past her in a blink of brown cliff and patchy green vegetation. Weightlessness of free fall, she thought to herself, in awe of the subject she had most hated, ironically given her choice of profession. Before any further thoughts could enter her head, she instinctively held her breath as her body went crashing through the surface of water. It was now like falling into a bottomless pit as she felt herself being pulled downwards. When she tried to open her eyes under water, she realized she hadn’t taken her glasses off and they had, surprisingly stayed on, wobbling only a little bit as they hinged on her ears. She could now see the dark, murky water around her, light filtering in through from above only enough to remind her it was day.
It was then that panic set in. Shouldn’t she have been floating upwards now? She struggled and tilted her head to look up, towards the light. Her pulse began to pound in her head as breathlessness began to squeeze her lungs. And then just as suddenly as it had started, she found her descent arrested and her body began to float upwards. What must have been seconds, seemed like ages as her mouth opened and closed under water, her lungs contracting painfully till she felt head tear the surface of the river and come up in short bursts of breath even as she felt a tug around her waist. Her glasses were now askew on her nose, dangling by her left ear. And so the face she should have seen clearly and pushed away instinctively, remained blurred and in her personal space for a moment too long. Long enough for her to register the presence of alien fingers on her waist, misty breath mingling with hers as water streamed down her face and her hair and evaporated as it caught the sun’s heat.
It was over as quickly as it had happened. When she was floating in the little naturally carved jade pool, her neon life jacket bobbing about her chest, she felt cool air rush into the widening space between her and the person who had come to make sure she was okay. The weight against her waist disappeared. She straightened her glasses only to see Arnav swimming away to the bank. Aman, still straddling his raft and the bank, slightly ahead, was now asking her if she was okay, to which she responded with a vigorous nod. This was followed by swift instructions for her to waddle to the left so that in the light current, she would be able to find her way ashore. When she finally pulled herself up on the slightly rocky beach by the river, her shorts dripping and T-shirt uncomfortably plastered against her body under the cover of her life jacket, she only saw Arnav looking up at the others and yelling instructions to remain ramrod straight and let buoyancy do its work before they decided to struggle and panic underwater. It was not a rebuke but she didn’t miss the note of annoyed concern in his voice. She knew it so well because it was the Gupta’s standard response to emergency – fear morphed into anger and irritation that led to quarrel more than it did to reassurance.
When the person after her (Sameer), had jumped into the water, with a loud, boisterous shout, no less, she realized that the interval between his jump and when she saw his face sputtering above water, was hardly a matter of seconds. Mohan’s assessment of a minute had been off by at least half that duration. It was foolish of her to have panicked. And yet, hadn’t Arnav done exactly the same? When he, at least, should have known better? Now, however, his stance was as aloof as it could be, almost obviously so. It bothered her that she was noticing all this when she should have been rejoicing in reclamation of her personal space. This was too familiar – the tussle between the two of them. And last time, she had been the one left in tatters.
She waited, her arms crossed across her chest, her eyes trained on the masses dropping into water in front of her. A while later, Arnav was as good as forgotten as she found herself cheering those jumping after her and silently accepting the compliments of having led the way to a great experience. Presently, Arjun was poised at the edge. Even at a distance, she could see his face scrunched up in tension. Since it was so rare to see her friend like this, Khushi found herself rooting for him loudly with the others. When Arjun emerged out of the water, his face petrified, she was grinning from ear to ear.
“I wish I had a camera,” She said to him as he walked up to her, his clothes dripping even as his hands hung loosely by his sides. “This is the best expression you have worn in all the years I have known you, Arjun.”
It must have been enough to shake him out of his state because the next thing she knew, she was being drenched in the water flying off his head as he shook it intentionally at her. She swatted him on his bare shoulder rather forcefully and with a loud groans of disgust.
When the group had spent more than the allowed amount of time sharing their personal experiences and euphoria in an outbreak of endless cacophony, decisive claps from Aman and Arnav – brilliantly synchronized – broke them apart and herded them into the rafts. The first few minutes were spent with quick recaps on the details of their rafting route. They would be rafting through the Shivpuri-Rishikesh stretch – a sixteen kilometer trek right up to Lakshman Jhula. It would take them through mostly Grade II and Grade III rapids – a few of them imaginatively named Roller Coaster, Three Blind Mice and Terminator. They would also skim through a Grade I rapid named Sweet Sixteen in acknowledgment to its universal appeal just before they slid into the plains. Next they moved onto technical instructions for the rafting stretch itself. They were shown to their seats based on some predetermined logic that they were not privy to. Body weight, swimming abilities and risk appetite, Khushi guessed as she took her seat on the river-side of the raft in the middle row. Arjun was to her left and in front. Next, they were handed their oars and Aman showed them how they were supposed to grip their oars while rowing. Instructions were clear. They would follow Aman’s command at all times. A practice session would be first as they covered a three kilometer stretch right up to their first rapid.
When Khushi glanced at the other raft, she could see the other group and Arnav going through the same motions. When she looked away and grasped the smooth wooden oar in her grip, she knew then that for the rest of the rafting expedition, she would be too busy to notice anything.
River Song Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Iss Pyaar Ko Main Kya Naam Doon (Rabba Mere Rabba)
Album: Mujhe Kucch Kehna Hai
Singers: Sonu Nigam, Chorus
Music: Anu Malik
Tanhaai betaabi, meri saugaatein hain
Mere in hoton pe, bas teri hi baatein hain
Kuch na keh paane ki, yeh kya majboori hai
Nazdeek rehke bhi, yeh kaisi doori hai?
Khamosh hoton se kya paigaam doon?
Bechain dil ko kaise aaram doon?
Iss Pyaar Ko Main Kya Naam Doon? Happy Anniversary of Madness #5 to you all. A show that has me writing fiction and prevents me from thinking about the most innocuous Bollywood numbers without thinking about mohabbat, nafrat and love with no names – here’s to more!
Next Update: Monday, June 13, 2016, late night IST