By the time Aditi had excused herself from Khushi’s side to answer her husband’s call, Khushi’s mood had improved greatly. Somehow, what Aditi had told her – about her own little love story – her first boyfriend – not Aman who was now her husband, made Khushi wonder if she had infact been moping around for four years. Not overtly, she reassured herself as she recalled the fun times in class, the good grades, the not-so-good classes, the tons of books she had wolfed down – even some of the Mills and Boon variety and a long list of things that had happened in the wake of Aarohan-2005. The only thing that she could be accused of was the inability to consider another person romantically – at least seriously. There had been the occasion where she had wondered if one of her classmates – not Arjun – was so inclined towards her. She had of course dismissed the idea for multiple reasons, most already hashed to death in her own head. And the fact that she had felt absolutely nothing positive about the person in question. Vishal Maheshwari had been a shameless flirt and more than one of her classmates had warned him against making the only girl in their class uncomfortable. Although she hadn’t needed anyone to defend her so, it had made her giggle with girlish vanity. A fact that had led to Arjun teasing her mercilessly for days without prompt and almost always after an encounter with Vishal.
No, she had definitely not moped her way through the last four years. And now, she felt almost sure that she would be able to fall in love – for real – when the right person came along, when she knew more about the person than just his pleasing exterior, excellent academic record and a golden voice. If that person was going to be Arjun…No, she shook her head. His outburst couldn’t possibly mean more than just a friend calling her on her waxing and waning interest in Arnav Varun. It had been a long day and Arjun had been out of his element. She needed to back off and let him be. And he was right…she needed to stop asking him for information on Arnav Varun. She didn’t need information on AV-Sir anyway. The fate of his relationship with Saira notwithstanding. That chapter was closed.
Smiling at her own insanely optimistic promise to herself – one long overdue, she pushed herself off the rock and dusted herself before walking up to the Ganga and dipping her bare left foot into the warm water – now a shade of glazed eggplant. Though she had jumped into the river, swam across her breadth in panic and eventually been rescued today, it was this act of dangling her foot against flowing river that felt cleansing. Maybe the Ganga did have a way of washing away sins. In her case, sins were self-inflicted but sins they felt like now. Her Shiv-ji would be pleased, she concluded and pulled her left foot back and repeated the exercise with the right foot. Unfortunately, her little holy dip meant she had to walk back to her tent with beach sand in her toes and shivers in her spine. Once in her enclosure, she quickly dusted her feet and proceeded to change – something she should have done right after coming back from the rafting trip, she realized as she peeled her sticky clothes off.
Forty minutes later, she was seated in a large cane chair, her legs pulled up under her, her stomach pleasantly full after a hot, spicy meal, her hair held up in a tight pony, all wisps carefully tucked in. In her oversized grey shirt and pyjamas patterned with large blue checks, she was relaxed and blissfully settled into the daily campfire ritual. Today, however, she was more the spectator than she was a participant. A part of it was because today singing had petered away and morphed into a game of dumb charades which as much as she enjoyed usually, she wasn’t in a mood for at the moment. It also didn’t help that while Arjun was still in the thick of all things celebratory – his new found partner in crime – Aditi on the opposite team, Arnav was nowhere to be seen. It was too dark for him to not have made his way back to the River on that kayak. Which meant that he was in whichever enclosure was his – presumably one of the tents on the other end from hers.
As she stared into the fire, for the first time – she truly wondered about him – the person beyond the boy-man she had fallen in love with. What had he done with his life in all these years? How had he ended up here – on a camp so far away from civilization? It couldn’t be just because he was nursing a broken heart. People didn’t actually do these things, did they? Devdas had the luxury of being written in a time when pining away to destruction was romantic. This was the new millennium – a decade into it – here people made lives for themselves. True, Arnav Varun was not exactly an ascetic pursuing penance in the Himalayas. But here in mountains – all alone – it was disturbing. Aman and Aditi at least had each other. But AV-Sir…Plus, he had never really seemed like an outdoors person back on campus. Or maybe he had been and she had not known. How did anyone ever get that fit without being outdoorsy, she rolled her eyes in envy.
She knew so little of him. And still she was so sure she had been in love? The thought rattled her. And then the beginning of a little doubt sputtered to life in her head. What if it had never really been love? Could it ever be – knowing so little of him as she did?
As the flames licked the wood and burst into shades of yellow orange and the occasional blue, the realization that what she had felt for him was probably just a crush pushed its way to her conscience. No! A voice chided immediately. She didn’t have crushes. Crushes were by definition physical in their nature. And what she felt…A shudder went through her spine. Hadn’t it been physical? Heck, it still was…What else would make her so aware of that gash on his arm – one that made her want to soothe the hurt it once bore away with a touch and a kiss. Or the way his face shone in the sun – a healthy shade of her favorite salted caramel.
Damn! Wasn’t it a fine time for the universe of her assumptions and beliefs to collapse around her? She grumbled under her breath and wished she had a little twig she could symbolically throw into the fire and see it burn.
She had not been in love? How was that even possible? She had been so sure. Till this morning when she had felt his hands on her waist. And now…She shook her head as if to clear her head but it was as if her mother was scrubbing her mind clean with that dirt-green mop that she used every Sunday to clean the mostly non-existent cobwebs off the ceilings and fans. The doubt that snaked in next was worse.
So she might not have been love. But what if he had been? With that girl named Saira? Even after all the signals that she seemed to have been reading into, what if he had truly been in love? All that Romeo-Juliet stuff – childhood friends – different, mostly warring religions – battles to seek parental approval – they must have meant something. And then to go and have all that end in being dumped? Deserved or not, being rejected was surely painful? Was it really that incredible to believe he was here hiding, licking his wounds perhaps?
And now was the time she had decided to give him grief about something that many other girls of her age would have passed off as nothing? It was nothing – a few songs, a now worn-out mixed tape….
She let her legs fall back down to the ground below and into her chappals. The loud laughter and wild gesturing that came with dumb charades was beginning to annoy her. She need to take a walk. And maybe find Arnav and see him smile or laugh or do something that assured her that he wasn’t heartbroken and lonely. That was a sad feeling. No one deserved that.
Smiling and shaking her head at the few others who looked at her and mouthed questions about her wandering, she walked away from the little setting. At the very edge, she saw Aman who was seated in a chair similar to the one she had just vacated, his eyes lazily watching the proceedings of the evening. He seemed completely engrossed in what was being played out in front of him. So it surprised her when she heard his voice call out to her.
“Don’t go too far out that side.”
She smiled and turned around to tell him that she had been that way before and that she wouldn’t lose her way when he shook his head first.
“No, the camp is safe except insects and harmless reptiles. But there is Varun practicing for his upcoming interview. That is a scary sight.”
Khushi would have stumbled a few years ago. And blushed to the root of her hair. She still did the latter, albeit not to the intensity as she once might have. Thanking her stars that Aman was really looking at her, she made a small noise, nodded with a brief smile and headed exactly where Arnav was expected to be found.
She heard him before she saw him. And she had to give to him – he clearly knew all the secret places that a river bank as open as the one they were in, could provide. For more than five minutes, she only looked around her in awe as he refused to be spotted. And then she saw the large rock away from the beach and realized that he had to right behind it. She had no idea she was going to actively seek him out when she decided to take a walk. But apparently that is what it had come to. So she took a deep breath and proceeded as his voice, muttering as it was, became clearer.
“I discovered the Ganga three years ago when Aman had just begun to get traction with a few key firms – many of whom are regular clientele at the River now. At the time thought, it was just a sport – something one does once every few years to keep the search for adventure within, alive. The idea of…” He faltered as Khushi reached the large rock and placed her hand on it. She hesitated. Maybe now was not a good time. Actually, no time was a good time. What was she going to say anyway? I’m sorry AV-Sir, your girlfriend dumped you? Yes, that would be perfect. A little rude perhaps, she told herself sarcastically and then took another step back when Arnav stepped out of the rock and stood right in front of her.
“Jesus!” He exclaimed as he stumbled. His hand shot out to hold the rock to steady himself, inches away from hers.
“Sorry,” She said hurriedly, her eyes taking in his wide ones, the shock on his face and the paper in his hand and the way his breath felt warm against her forehead. Damn! He was tall! She had forgotten how tall. This was making no sense! What the hell…”Sorry, sorry – I didn’t mean to…” Mean to what? Scare you? Intrude?
He muttered something about close to being even under his breath before he looked up at her. When he did, his face back into being that composed exterior that she was used to seeing. Strange, she thought to herself. She felt like she had only really seen him once before – in the corridors of Besant Auditorium.
Ha, her inner voice laughed. Love? Nice try.
“No, please don’t apologize. I was not expecting to see y…anyone here…” He said softly as he took a step back.
“And you were clearly deeply engrossed in your speech.” She responded, her voice just as gentle as his had been.
She must have really done well with all her hostility. Because what she now saw in his eyes was definitely surprise. As if he was half expecting her to turn around and run. She couldn’t blame him. She had done that rather often. In fact she herself had half expected to turn around and walk away.
“It’s not a speech,” He said with a resigned sigh. “It’s the blasted – sorry, it’s that CNBC interview with the River staff – J thinks I should be in the feature. I obviously don’t agree but…” He shrugged.
Khushi wondered why he sounded nervous. He had been on stage before and he was really good.
“I just don’t want to sound stupid. It is a big deal for J…”
“J?” She interrupted this time, even though she guessed he was referring to Aman.
“Aman – Ti-Di insists that Jeejaji sounds too formal. So it’s J…” He said and then smiled self-deprecatingly, “Ti-Di is Aditi – just…”
She grinned. “Ti-Di is self-explanatory!” And incredibly adorable, she added to herself.
He smiled back at her. As the moonlight caught in his eyes, Khushi noticed their true color for the first time. Black – the iris was that is. The flecks around it – minute as they seemed to be, were lighter – almost rich chocolate. Beautiful eyes. Unlike her own – which despite being big and doe-shaped as people had complimented her in the past, were hidden by high power glasses and hence no good for any purpose.
“Do you need help practicing?” She offered when the silence seemed to stretch. At this point, she was beyond being surprised or shocked by anything. Even herself. She had come to find him, hadn’t she? How was she going to make use of having done exactly that if she didn’t start conversations? Plus, she really did want to know more. And she was done asking others about him. Others were done telling her also, she mused to herself with a smile. “I am a good listener.”
This time he positively looked shocked. For a second, Khushi even wondered if she would see him run in the opposite direction. The thought amused her to no end. And emboldened her new decision.
“No, I don’t…” He began and then shook his head with a rueful smile. “I don’t think I want to sound this stupid more times than I absolutely need to.”
Khushi found herself smiling back instead of ending the conversation and turning away from this. She shrugged instead. “Maybe you should take a break and just say what you naturally feel or think instead of trying to rehearse.”
Arnav bent his head, folded the piece of paper he was holding and tucked it back into his pocket before he looked up at her and smiled. “That is good advice. And I usually would have done that. But this is…Aman and Aditi are really banking on this feature to help them market their offering. And I just want to be….they helped me when I needed it and I hope I can return the favor.”
Khushi looked at him in wonder. He clearly adored his sister and brother-in-law. She was even half jealous in that moment. Having been the older sibling, she was used to being the responsible one, the one who needed to lead the way – which Tripti took rather seriously in all matters academic and professional at least. She had always wondered what it would be like to have someone to give her advice, talk to her about any problems. So she did what she could. Despite everything else that she should or might have in any other situation or even just twelve hours ago.
“How did the River happen to you?” She asked, her eyes finding Arnav’s and holding like they never truly had before. She wasn’t surprised when something flashed in them. She willed herself to remain as calm as she was feeling at the moment, the crisp air around them a great lifter of spirits – especially adventurous ones hidden deep within shy, twenty-one year olds battling conflicting emotions.
He stepped away from her and seemed to take a deep breath before he looked askance at her. She wasn’t sure she nodded with conviction about her decision but a couple of minutes later, they were walking along the river bank, she next to the river and he beside her. She could still hear the strains of laughter and conversation from the campfire in the distance but if the others hadn’t mattered before, they were completely forgotten now.
She waited for him to talk, knowing somehow that her question hadn’t been dismissed or rejected and that Arnav Varun was only gathering the threads of what was about to follow.
So it was unnerving that the first words he chose to utter were was brutally naked as adjoining mountain on the cusp of spring.
“I was fired – from Greenstone Inc. – my first ever employer,” He said softly, his voice steady and unwavering – as if he had practiced saying this to himself several times before this instant. Khushi looked at him blankly, her mind reeling with the piece of news. The firm he named was not particularly known to her except she had heard of it in reference to top paying jobs out of business school. The admission of professional failure – at least as society defined it – was gutting, especially when Khushi realised just how high the pedestal she had placed him on was. It almost seemed unfair now, she conceded, when the truth of his very human story and experiences was being disclosed in a way she had not assumed to be possible in her lifetime. There was something erosive about unraveled mysteries especially when they highlighted how banal their sources could be.
He had been a new associate hired with the said investment banking firm right out of B-School. True to the nature of the industry, the work hours were long and the financial implications of even small decisions, high enough to ensure qualification of this work as high-stress, high-risk and high return. He had done exceedingly well the first few months, he admitted, showing flair for evaluating the right financial metrics that made merger deals for their clients look as honest as possible. In the second half of the first year of his employment, he had been working with a telecom giant that was considering acquisition of a publicly traded smaller network equipment manufacturer. Knowing the nature of sensitivity of such deals and transactions, he was rather pumped to be put on something this significant as quickly as he had been while most of his peers were still burning both ends of the candle with grunt work – complex spreadsheets and little real client facing time. It was a rude shock however, when he discovered that his manager’s boss – a director of the firm was using knowledge of this impending acquisitions to trade stocks for another completely un-related HNI client. Uncomfortable with the direction in which things were headed, he had asked to be kept away from the project and be given something less controversial to do. In the three months that followed, his stellar performance had been labelled whimsical and immature with inconsistent strokes of brilliance. The actual firing had almost been expected and had come with a gentle nudge rather than a hard decision and hasty removal at the end of the performance appraisal for the year.
She didn’t understand the exact technicality of Arnav’s situation but she knew it didn’t matter enough for her to ask for lessons. Khushi heard his story with a shudder in her spine and a grateful sigh for small mercies that came with traditional jobs and uncontroversial expectations, and a growing unease about a future that involved possible travel down the same path.
“I had come to the River six months before I was let go. I spent three weeks here and fell in love with this place. I had come to relax and somehow ended up being fascinated by what J and Ti-Di have here. I never thought I would be here professionally. It seemed so impossible at the time.” He took a deep breath, his gaze never wavering from a point in the distance that she couldn’t see. “I came back to the River in completely different circumstances and somehow, J just knew what I needed. He made me take a couple of courses to be an instructor. And once I started, there was not stopping me. It helped that I could contribute to their work. Having spent a small amount of in a leading investment bank had its advantages. I could bring in leads – many of which converted to actual sales,” He shrugged, more to himself than as a reaction to what he was telling her. “It was what J needed. And it was exactly what I needed and now there is nothing else I would rather be doing.”
She smiled softly and bit back an urge to remind him how lucky he was to have Aman and Aditi and the River to fall back on. He didn’t need reminders – it was evident in the way he poured his soul into the venture. But she wondered if this was in fact an easy escape from what would have otherwise been a painful journey back into the world that he had spent years training for and was good at. Whatever the case though, it half gladdened and half saddened her that it was not just a broken heart that he was nursing here in the mountains. For all the brilliance and promise that he had been in IE-V, a few months and years in the real world had been enough to wipe it clean. It was a shame, a deeply depressing thought that made her want to put her hands around him and tell him he was still as much of a hero as he once had been. Or at least hope that he had someone in his life to tell him so – even if it was not Saira.
His words, now directed at her consciously, brought her back to their conversation and she smiled at him bemusedly.
“You are a good listener. I was….” He looked away again and then smiled at her. “I have been struggling with this because I have been wondering if I am here only because I am not elsewhere.”
It was exactly what she had been thinking and yet hearing him say it made her realize that she didn’t believe it. “Maybe that is why Aman wanted you to do the interview.” She offered as they reached the end of the little path where they would have to turn back to the camp.
Something rustled between them in that little moment of unguarded reactions and honest conversation. Or maybe it was the bleakness she had seen in his beautiful eyes just moments ago. And the little glint of relief that now seemed to be reflecting in the upward turn of his lips. Her smile faltered as she acknowledged how her heart was now beating in her pulse and egging her to do something she would have never dreamed of.
She stepped forward and raised her face to look up at him. It would be so easy to brush her lips against his, she realized. Her mouth almost tingled in anticipation as she heard a sharp rush of air whoosh between them. Which one of them had taken a deep breath? It could have been either or neither. She took another step forward and this time she was sure she saw him say something.
Except there was no sound in her ears now. Just the thrill of anticipation, of a little flame that was licking at the tip of her nerves. What would happen, she wondered, if she did kiss him? She knew she wouldn’t regret it. It would be her first kiss. And there was no one else she would rather kiss.
His voice permeated the little sliver of satin that was wrapping itself around her senses. She wanted to tell him she still preferred him calling her Khushi. She raised her hand, unaware that she had. Her fingers were almost grazing his T-shirt. “Khushi,” She whispered simply.
He looked at her, his eyes searching her face almost urgently. “I didn’t think you would want me to call you that….not after…”
She looked back into his eyes, a little glimmer appearing in hers without preamble. She blinked quickly, keeping the tears at bay. He called her Kaveri because he didn’t think he deserved to call her Khushi? He had called her Kaveri that night. He had known he was about to talk to her about Saira – break her heart. Was that what he would have told her that night if Arjun hadn’t exposed his secret when he had?
She looked away from him even as a tiny droplet rolled into a sphere at the corner of her left eye. The impact of what he said and what she was about to do dawned upon her with a spray of fine mist from a breeze that skimmed the surface of the river, forcing her to step away. How could she have forgotten all of that? There had once been someone else in his affections. What if there still was? How could she have declared – even if just to herself – that she wouldn’t regret kissing him? What did she know of him and his feelings at all?
She stepped away some more and the river came screaming back in her ear. “How could I?” She muttered under her breath as she struggled to keep her gaze away from his. What was that saying about fooling someone twice? She took a deep breath even as her body flooded with heat. “We should go back.”
She turned and started walking, her pace unhurried but determined. The sounds and lights from the camp neared even as he fell in step beside her in silence. When they had almost reached the place they had started from, he reached out and held her hand, his grasp light against her wrist. Her eyes were smarting now and her breath heavy in chest. Her throat felt full – like it did when she was watching a particularly heart wrenching movie. Before she could extract her hand from his, he let it go.
“We really need to talk.”
She shook her head. They didn’t need to talk. She couldn’t deal with him. It was as simple as that. No amount of courage was going to help her. Not where he was concerned – she had tried everything in the last couple of days. Maybe some relationships were just meant to be this way. The weight of her own feelings was too much to ignore. She turned away from him again, this time more decisively.
She took a couple of steps away when she realized she was being utterly ridiculous. That there was only one thing that was bothering her at the moment. And it was an easy fix if he really wanted to “talk”. So a couple of steps later, she stopped and turned around as the sound of loud shouts became clearer than the gentle chime of the river.
“Is there someone else?” She asked out aloud, making sure the words were out before she could rein them back in.
He looked at her for a long moment and then shook his head. “No.”
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Ishaqzaade
Singers: Shreya Ghoshal, Javed Ali
Music: Amit Trivedi
Lyrics: Kausar Munir
Dil pe jo bhi, bair beeta
Teri khair pe waar diya
Jal jalaakar jo bhi jeeta
Tere pyaar pe haar diya
Humko khud mein shaamil kar le
Ab toh khud ke kaabil kar le
Rang tumhare, rang jaayenge
Sang tumhare, sang jaayenge
- Thank you all for the wonderful birthday wishes for my little one. She loved turning five and the Husband and I still can’t believe she is that many!
- So, it seems that the River has, true to its form, unleashed bursts of wonderful new life. Three of my lovelyfrien ds from this journey have spun threads of silver from the undercurrents of the Nadiya. I bring them to you here – hopefully with their permission. Please do visit Babbling Brooks to read more. I don’t want to say whether or not they are anywhere close to what I have planned, but it is what they took from the story and hence in many ways more important than the story itself.
- Next Update: Monday, July 11, 2016, between 9-10pm IST