For VG – the River would not be the same without you!
If cliff jumping was packed with the rush of a solitary exploration of thrill, rafting was personification of what team work looked like. In their complete and utter surrender to instructions being called out by Aman, the group in Raft 1 was lost to everything except how the PVC plastic entrapment of no meagre size steered its way through a mighty river. The Ganga was every bit the majestic princess in the hills as she was the queen mother in the plains of Banaras. Here there was a youthful bounce to her curves and bends. Even in the stretch between two rapids, the current seemed as strong as the water was relaxed on the surface. When the raft neared the first rapid, the thrill mixed with slightly nervous anticipation in Aman’s voice was enough to put all their senses – sixth included, on high alert. As the raft waved and bumped through frothy white water jumps, their arms stilled and moved alternately on each side of the raft as per their leaders chant. When the rapid was traversed successfully and the raft was back on its smooth glide along sparkling jade waters, the group burst into shouts of victory. Aman, laughed at their exuberance, clearly living what he had confessed were the best moments of his career in their shared merriment. He then, told them they could all give their oars a rest and look back as Raft 2 made its journey through the same rapid.
Living it was one thing; watching, another. As the group saw the oars go silent and live in a pattern similar to what they had just executed, there were small gasps and loud shouts in Raft 1. Khushi, bit her lips to avoid putting her nails between her teeth as she saw Arnav at the head of the raft, steering the oars with no pause that the others had been able to enjoy. The blue raft, bounced and jumped against white water, almost dangerously on the edge before it was all over and they were close enough for the their expressions to be clearly visible to their predecessors.
Khushi looked away before she could meet Arnav’s eyes, unwilling to either succeed or fail in her effort to keep him unaware of her entanglement. People shouted out to each other on both rafts, laughter and cheering marking the successful completion of the first rapid – even if it was the most innocent of them. Few minutes later, the instructions were back as Aman steered them to rafting across the plain water stretch and prepared them for the next set of rapids.
It was after the third rapid had been manoeuvred that Arjun decided to speak. And when he did, nothing ever was the same again. The confidence he seemed to radiate in experience brought a new flavour to the session. Jokes turned ribald and familiar tribal cheering found its way between the two rafts. The gentle skimming between two rapids even turned into a mock-race as Arnav’s raft moved in close enough to reach out and touch and yet remained behind Aman’s, as if in secret instruction. It was seeing Arjun in his usual cheerful element that Khushi realised that not only had she been surprised to see him clammy and closed, she had also hardly spent any time with him since they had arrived. In the last six months, with no Arjun by her side to discuss people and goings on, run ideas by before implementing them, even sing ridiculous songs with, she had realised how much she missed having him around. In the absence of female company, she had somehow become exclusively closer with Arjun. Arjun in college and Tripti back home had what had kept her going in the last four years. It had scared her in the third month of their employment with Speed, her first extended period without Arjun, to know that she had come to depend on someone other than family this much. And yet suddenly, in the wake of everything else, all she wanted to do was seek him out and lapse into their meaningfully irrelevant conversations – about Speed, the world, the future and Bollywood.
So when Aman told them that the next stretch between rapids would be very long and gentle; and that the adventurous of them could take their time to laze in the river, Khushi knew that she would have to coax Arjun into joining her.
It was no easy task of course.
“I am not about to die in this river, thank you very much,” He said as he remained seated on his seat even as the others around them began lowering themselves into the water.
It took him an endorsement and a more than gentle nudge from Aman – again – to even consider making contact with the water. As a first step, he gently fell into the water, back first and kept his legs tucked under the beading of the raft, which Khushi mimicked. However, before they knew it, their legs had slipped away from the raft and they were now floating away from the boat, sun streaming into their eyes and bodies blissfully being caressed by a resting river. Arjun didn’t speak for several minutes during which they had slipped away from others’ earshot.
Khushi turned to look at him as she straightened herself and gently moved her arms to stay afloat and move little. The raft was in visible distance and she knew that when Aman’s call came, they would be able to simply wade their way back. “You are uncharacteristically quiet, you know”
Arjun’s eyes were closed as he floated in his back, brows knit in an effort to minimise sunlight exposure to his eyes. “I am scared shit.” He mumbled under his breath.
Assuming she had heard incorrectly, she asked him what he meant to which he finally responded with eyes open and brows raised. “I am not a swimmer and I am floating in the Ganga with a rapid almost approaching. This is scary.”
Khushi laughed. “The rapid is more than four kilometers away.” She reminded him. “And it is just a rapid – the easiest one – it’s not the Niagara Falls.”
“Okay, stop. Talking about Niagara at the moment is not helping in the least.”
Khushi chuckled but nodded her head nevertheless.
“But I have to say, you are uncharacteristically upbeat. Clearly getting you to Rishikesh is the best way to unleash the adventurous side of you.” Arjun remarked with a curious glint in his eyes. “First that jump this morning…you did it before all others….I was shivering in my knees even when I was almost the last one and knew that nothing bad was even remotely possible. And now…My arms are aching and I am the athletic one between the two of us.”
Khushi made a face. “Thank you for calling me lazy so innovatively.” Then she swept her hands about her, as if parting the river and shrugged. “I promised myself this would be fun. And water is my element – I am most comfortable around it.”
“Of course you are,” Arjun grumbled. “I am so not. This is…”
She frowned at that. “What is the matter with you.”
Arjun looked away and shook his head. “Nothing. I am just…out of my depth. Literally.”
That made Khushi chuckle again, this time with Arjun. “I missed you.” She confessed instinctively, her mouth curved into a wistful smile as she continued to stare at Arjun.
Arjun, however, looked at her with a blank expression and clouded eyes.
“What?” She asked when the silence was too long and the heat in her cheeks was more than the vapours of mist around her.
He shook his head with a strange smile and looked away.
In that moment, Khushi knew that something had changed between them. That what she had only glimpsed earlier and too infrequently to be taken seriously, was more than what she had bargained for. She shouldn’t have uttered the words about missing him – even if it was true – it could easily mean a lot more than it did. What if he felt something for her? The thought sounded ludicrous enough for her to burst out laughing – or at least hope that he would like he always did. Except this time, there was no brushing things away. Arjun, almost insistently, refused to allay her fears by breaking the impasse and saying something, anything that would dissipate the sudden tension in the air between them. So it was up to her to diffuse the situation. So she blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
“You think we will get our first choice in location and function when we get back?” It was a ridiculous question regarding their final assignments for the rest of their career at Speed – one they had already beaten to death. But in the moment, it was the only thing that would help.
Arjun looked at her and shook his head with a smile before he wiped his face and sighed deeply. “You know the answer, Kavi.” He said softly as he moved his arms to stay afloat. “They will not give us Marketing and Sales – those are exclusively post graduate posts. And it is unlikely you will get Sourcing or Plant Operations given….” He shrugged, “You know that they think these are non-women friendly functions. So that leaves…”
“I will quit R&D if they give me that.” She vowed, her breath heavy as she spoke. “I hated that particular project the most. And I have no aptitude for design. Plus it will add no value to an MBA when I get one. No way. I will…”
“See you had the chance to cozy up to Ganesh Shankar and you decided otherwise,” He pointed out with a wicked smirk, clearly with the intention of riling her up. Thankful that he had somewhat returned to being his normal self, Khushi was about to comment on his own final assignment when they heard a dull sound in the distance.
“What was…” She looked around even as Arjun wondered what had caught her attention in the background. The realisation hit with a sweep of stringy current against her bare feet. For a second, she thought, she had brushed against a water snake or a river weed. She was about to scream as her heart skipped a beat when she heard Arjun’s loud shout of dismay
She looked at him and opened her mouth to say something when she was reminded of her own comprehension. They had drifted too far away from the rafts, almost at the other end of the wide river. She could see the two rafts in line with each along the other bank. Almost everyone was in the rafts and the few who weren’t, were close enough to be in a matter of minutes.
“Shit.” She echoed as she instinctively began to move in the direction of the raft. “Arjun, just try and swim this way,” She shouted over her shoulder as she tried to wade through the river. The current, however, was strong enough to hinder her progress and enough to make her worry – about Arjun more than she did about herself. What had she been thinking? How had she completely and selfishly forgotten that Arjun didn’t know how to get himself out of such situations because of lack of basic training. And she herself? All the physics that told her to swim diagonally upstream so that the current would push her straight ahead to the rafts was proving to be useful.
“Damn, Kavi. I think we need someone to come rescue us. This is impossible.”
The arm muscles that Arjun had mentioned before in the context of rowing, were making their presence felt now. Every fibre stretched and screamed as she tried to swim her way – fast enough to fight the current and slow enough to make sure she was still with Arjun.
“This is the safe part of the river,” She muttered more to herself than she did to Arjun. “The rapid is far, far away. We are going to make it.” It was just going to be extremely embarrassing to have the rest of their gang and the River staff, Arnav included, watch patiently as they swam to safe shores.
“I am going to call for help,” Arjun told her moments later when they were still a good distance away from the mid-point between their original positions and the rafts.
Conceding that the time for foolish pride was over, Khushi nodded though Arjun had already begun waving and shouting out for help. She knew it would be Arnav who would come to help them before she actually saw him dive into the river and swim his way towards them. He made it look so easy that she now actually felt completely stupid at having given in to Arjun’s panic. And her own. Damn, she cursed in her head, realising that this was the second time in the day that he was coming to “save” her. Excellent strategy to keep away from him, Khushi, she scolded herself as she watched patiently as his arms sliced through the water and his head bobbed one side and then the other. To save herself some embarrassment, she continued to swim in his direction, urging Arjun to follow her using basic hand movements that parted water. However while Arnav covered meters in minutes, Khushi and Arjun only struggled to stay in the path that Arnav was following to get to them. And so, it was Arnav who found them first and as easily as he had swam across the river. He came to a halt in front of her and allowed himself to float for a second before he looked at her and then at Arjun.
“You shouldn’t have strayed away. Especially when one of you cannot swim.” His words were soft and controlled but the annoyance behind them was unmistakable. Despite the rivulets of water streaming down his face and drop sticking to his long lashes, the rebuke in his eyes was evident.
Embarrassed that not only that she found herself in such a situation so shortly after the first, she remained mute and allowed Arjun to apologise – which he did rather profusely.
“Here,” He threw a rope, she hadn’t seen he was carrying, to Arjun. “Just hold on and swim with me.” Then he looked at her. “You can swim right behind me – follow the same course that I do. If you try going straight to the boat, you will end up at least five hundred meters further downstream…because of…”
“The current, yes i know” Her voice was sharper than she had intended, anger bubbling in the pit of her stomach. He didn’t need to be all condescending. She was as qualified as him even without the gold medal.
For a second, she thought he was going to say something when Arjun reminded them through chattering teeth that they needed to get back to the raft. With a single nod directed at both of them, he began to swim away with Arjun and Khushi wading and swimming respectively behind him. When they reached the red raft, Arnav waited till Aman pulled Khushi and Arjun in, one by one, before he headed back to the his own raft. The rest of the excursion, went off as smoothly as one could expect. But to say that she enjoyed the last rapid as much as she had enjoyed the first five, would be a lie. Her rowing had remained as dedicated as before but something had changed and she felt it in the slight tremble of her body as the look in Arnav’s eyes came to torture her out of her sense of solitude.
About an hour after the rescue mission, the three rafts were bouncing gently along the now wide river as signs of civilisation and temples became visible in the distance. Aman pointed out the faint Lakshman Jhula in the distance, the main temple and several ghats, scarcely populated at this time of the day. Tired by the adventure of the hours before or simply awed by the rejoinder of the real world, she didn’t know. But the group fell silent. Water bottles were passed quietly and the rafts were manoeuvred deftly to the bank on the opposite side of the ghats. There Mohan and a couple of other River staffers were already standing with packets of dry food and warm fruit juices. Getting out of their lifejackets, the Speedsters tore into their grub even as the River staff worked to put rafts and other gear to order. There were several other rafting camps now visible nearby – most of them evidently tourists taking advantage of the best rafting season that was presently underway.
Shortly after hunger and thirst were conquered and nature’s calls answered in make-shift facilities that the camp hired for its post rafting freshening up purposes, Aman announced that two SUVs were ready and waiting to take them back to the camp where they would have a couple of hours to rest before the team had to gather again for a rafting debrief and today’s training sessions. They were also told that since the number of SUVs was lower than they needed, Aman and Arnav would take two of them on their bikes back to the camp. Needless to say, Arjun jumped at the offer and called shotgun on riding with Aman. Khushi rolled her eyes at the shift in loyalties in Arjun’s world and joined the SUV passengers on their uphill climb to the motorway. When she reached the main road however, to her dismay, the SUVs were stuffed to capacity with deadbeat engineers, CNBC journalists and their equipment. She felt her teeth grind into each other as her mouth tightened. Chivalry, as much as it was a double-edged sword, was a dead concept. She looked on is exasperated disappointment as the boys avoided looking at her even though she was sure they all knew that she needed to sit somewhere.
“Come with me.” Arnav said, almost into her ear. His voice was perfectly normal and yet the little hairs on her neck rose in unwarranted awareness.
A motorbike ride. In the mountains. With Arnav Varun. The man who she had no control over her feelings for and had convinced otherwise.
No! She shook her head as she whispered. “I am sure there will be space for just one more”
Arnav came up in front of her and looked at the two vehicles now revving as the drivers adjusted gears and looked at him questioningly.
He turned to look at her. “There is no way you can sit in the back.”
He was right, it was too cramped and having her sit would mean two others sitting on laps would have to be pulled out.
“You will be okay in the front seat?” He asked as he skimmed over her appearance too quickly to be termed rude.
She looked at her own clothes and grimaced. Wet t-shirts and knee length shorts were not her clothes of choice. If it had not been for instructions sent by the River on training wear, she would have been in long track pants, at least. Nevertheless, anything was better than riding with him. So she nodded.
Arnav let out a barely audible sigh and walked up to the SUV in the front and asked the boy sitting in the front seat to come out and ride with him so that she could take his place. The change was made quickly and Khushi slipped into her seat and adjusted her shorts to cover as much skin as she could. When she looked up, she saw Arnav Varun stride away to a parked Royal Enfield even as Aman and Arjun were already astride another similar one.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Ramta Jogi
Singers: Alka Yagnik, Sukhwinder Singh
Music: A. R. Rahman
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Mann mein lagan yeh laagi, jag chhoota
Jag chhoota, jiya bairaagi;
Yeh baat wahan tak na pahunchi,
Yeh chot jiya par na laagi;
Yeh dard zubaan tak na aaya,
Yeh tere dil vich ki aaya?
Thank you all for being so so so kind to this story despite the pace and everything else that seems to inspire hair-pulling. I am so grateful to have you all here.
Next Update: June 20, 2016, late night IST