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He couldn’t take his eyes off her. He hadn’t been able to for years now – when she was around, that is. His condition in her absence could hardly be described as pining. Away from her, he had been immune to her memory. It had helped that enough was going on in his own life at the time. There was Saira, B-school and eventually the mess at Greenstone. Not surprisingly now, it had only been once he had been in the lap of the Ganga that he had thought about her. Even then, it had been in the same vein as how he thought of his first guitar – a gleaming mahogany-red piece of wood with a hard sound and barely passable strings. It was by no means one that he would ever pick out of a store now. But it had been the one that he had learned music with. It was the one that warmed his heart when it echoed in the air. It was the one he had first held in that way that made his mother tear up – embarrassing and heartening him in equal measure.
She had come to him by this very riverside. in a flashing memory of unexpected wonder as his fingers had automatically played one of the songs he had once sung for her.
No, he corrected himself. He had not sung that song for her. At least that was not how it was expected to play out. And yet, the words, once out of his mouth and in her ears, had been nothing but. It was a guilt he had established for himself – one in a long series of faults that he now expressly counted in his own life-ledger debits and credits. Not surprisingly, his balance was largely negative at the moment. The months in the Ganga valley had not done anything – though his sister was sure it was THE answer to his life situation. But then Ti-Di had always been a ray of sunshine – annoyingly so on most days.
He picked up the beer and grimaced when he realised that the drink was now warm and bitter. Swallowing quickly, he put the bottle away and forced his gaze away from where she was – across the fire that separated them and very obviously not looking at him. Today, however, her interest in Arjun – and he knew she used it as often as she did – was no match for the conflict they were fighting. A part of him had wanted to tell her to come back later in the night so that they could resume the conversation. So that he could tell her at least about Saira. He owed her that. After what had happened four years ago. And after she had once again – taken the first step towards him. To say that he had been surprised to see that she had sought him out – what other explanation could there be for her presence by the bank today? And this when he was sure that he had screwed up whatever little chance he had to redeem himself.
He turned around, frowning at the intrusion more than at the usage of his childhood name – one that everyone other than his mother was forbidden to use.
Arnav looked up to see his now brother-in-law standing next to him, his face and expression hidden behind the darkness even as the moon peeked out of the vapor clouds in the sky and lit up the back of his head.
“DevDwar Point.” Aman said briefly and threw a set of jangling keys towards him, which he caught expertly.
“And Ti-Di?” Arnav asked even as he pushed himself up and looked around in search of his sister. She was however deeply engaged with the Speed Motors gang.
“She knows. Now let’s go before it’s too late by the time we get back.”
Arnav smiled at the older man and shook his head. “How did you manage to get her to agree?” He asked as the two of them stepped away from the rest of the crowd and headed towards the farther end of the bank, upstream where one of the helpers would be ready with a raft to take them across so that they could retrieve their vehicles.
Thirty minutes later, Arnav and Aman were both riding their respective Royal Enfield Bullets up the mountain, away from Shivpuri and in the direction of Devprayag – the place where rivers Alaknanda and Bhagirathi meet to be known henceforth on their journey as the Ganga.
(Image sourced from Google – Devprayag – where Alaknanda and Bhagirathi join to flow on as the Ganga)
Arnav had first visited Devprayag – taking the very route that they were taking in the night presently, two years ago. The sight of the sediment-laden brown Alaknanda merging into the emerald waters of the Bhagirathi was one he would never forget even though the bike rides up to Devprayag had become increasingly rare as the River had become a busier place.
Tonight, they would be headed less than halfway to the confluence – a place called DevDwar Point which was a large clearing in the mountain that gave way to a steep cliff densely populated with pine and deodhar trees – lush green almost all year round but especially verdant in this season. If they had been riding during the day, they would have even spotted different varieties of rhododendrons – all flowering and brilliant in the forest, adding splashes of color to already beautiful surroundings.
DevDwar Point had first been discovered by Aman on Arnav’s maiden trip to Devprayag. Despite its picturesque beauty, the place was unspoilt and almost hidden from the rest of the world – an achievement given how popular white water rafting had become in the last couple of years since Arnav had joined his sister and brother-in-law at the River. Ever since that first trip, Aman and Arnav used stolen hours from packed schedules to spend time away from the demands of a roaring business that the River was fast becoming. These trips were largely silent and unintrusive – both Aman and Arnav accepting the other’s need for quiet time. Aditi – uncharacteristically uncomfortable on motorcycle rides had never been able to appreciate what these time-offs meant for the two men in her life. To get her approval to get away – especially at night – was almost unheard of and hence, unexpected. Yet, now that Aman had managed it, Arnav knew only to be grateful for the time and space he needed to clear his head.
They reached the small, imperfect square of uneven, boulder-ridden piece of land a little under an hour later. The ride had been quiet but simmering with an unspoken thrill that came with riding in the mountains at night with nothing but a three-fourth moon and two single headlights to guide the way. The feel of the wind against exposed scraps of skin despite the helmet and leather wind cheaters worn, added to the freshness of the experience. But once at DevDwar point and comfortably seated in the boulder with indents that made for almost comfortable seats, all else was forgotten. The sight of silver beams bouncing off pines down the valley and the distant chuckle of a newborn Ganga. The air was light and invigorating. The only noises were the constant murmur of the night and an occasional howl of a wailing canine or a wild wolf – it was hard to tell.
Arnav didn’t need to look at his brother-in-law to know that he was holding out a lit cigarette* – these rare occasions of silent togetherness the only time the two of them let their vice find its way through the layers of physical and mental discipline. Aditi was vehemently opposed to smoking. It was her one crib during her time in Delhi University. She had no idea – at least that she had expressed openly – that Aman and Arnav indulged in this particular nasty habit.
Smiling at his imagined expression on her face for the day she found out about his smoke bond with her husband, Arnav took the cigarette from Aman and put it to his lips. The drag was not deep and yet the rot of smoke through his lungs was painfully and paradoxically relaxing. He had first smoked six months after he had joined IE-V. It had been an experiment, not unlike many others that he and those who joined with him, pursued in those initial months. Thankfully, he had never needed the intoxication enough to even be considered a smoker. And yet, in times like these, he felt totally at ease dismissing his vice as a rare indulgence that he knew he could do away with at will when he so chose.
He handed the stick back to Aman even as wisps of smoke escaped his lips and fused into the air.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Arnav frowned and looked at Aman. “About what?”
Aman remained silent and Arnav knew that the older man had guessed his secret. It was not surprising. Aman had known Arnav almost all his life. Even before he had become his brother-in-law, he had been a role model, someone Arnav had looked up to in his growing years – the older brother he never had. “There is nothing to talk about.”
Aman chuckled wryly and took a deep breath. “The majnu-avataar suits you. I was almost beginning to miss it.”
Arnav made a face. “You are hilarious.”
Thankfully, Aman didn’t laugh though Arnav wouldn’t have held it against him if he had. This was clearly a trip designed for conversation. He should have known to trust Aman to do this. He had always known what to do for others – the only reason why even in a conventionally inclined family like his, Aman and Aditi’s romance and subsequent nuptials had been so easily accepted and blessed by all. For all the sophistication that Arnav thought he had brought to his feelings, he wasn’t immune to the expert eye that was his brother-in-law – in matters of work, love and life.
“Did Saira know about her?” Aman asked as he passed the cigarette back.
Arnav took it and put it in between his lips for another puff. He thought of an old Dev Anand classic about letting worries fly away in wafts of smoke and then acceded defeat to surprise that finally made its presence felt with Aman’s impeccable insight. And it was this reason that he had no option but the truth for this and every other conversation with his brother-in-law.
“She knew of her.” He admitted and then followed it up with more for good measure. “There was nothing to know about, anyway.”
He let the words hang in between, not bothered about Aman’s acceptance of his explanation. It was the truth. Saira knew only as much as he did. And what did he know?
“I am surprised.”
Arnav blinked in confusion and disappointment. “Because she is not,” He hated to use the words but it was one that had come up too often in her context even though it mattered very little to him, “conventionally good looking?”
Aman turned to look at him this time, his face barely visible beyond the glowing orange circle of toxic embers. “It would have mattered to many. And especially when Saira…she was…” He shrugged.
“I wasn’t in love with Saira because she was beautiful.” Saira had been truly stunning – everyone said so and she had always known it. She wore her beauty proudly. If anything, her confidence had only made her even lovelier. And Arnav had not been immune to it. He was hardly a saint. But it was not the only reason he had been with her. Sometimes, however, he didn’t know how or why Saira and he had been a couple. But they had been – to the best of their ability and deepest of ardor that teenage could bring with it.
“Were you in love at all?”
He took a deep breath and winced as the question found its mark and twisted. “That’s unfair.” This time the smoke in his lungs was more welcome. The burn in his chest, less so.
Sometimes, Arnav wondered if Aman was really sorry for doubting the depth of his feelings for his ex-fiancee. After all, he had been the one with the most reservations – even though his were mostly silent as opposed to his sister’s more vocal, vehement ones. “Has there ever been anyone else for you?” He asked softly and then shook his head. It was a stupid question designed to do nothing. “Don’t answer that.” He added quickly thereafter.
“You don’t want to know anyway.”
Arnav smiled and shook his head. “I can think of you without thinking of Ti-Di. It was thinking of you as a couple that was unnerving.”
“I think you did okay. I was sure you would throw a hissy fit…”
“You are getting me confused with your wife, I think.”
Aman clucked. “I wonder what Aditi has to say about that.”
Arnav smiled and looked away. This type of banter – especially about Aditi – was almost routine between them, had been for years.
“Before you judge me though, let me clarify that I am not vain enough to think conventional definitions of beauty are the sole drivers of attraction.” Aman said seriously, forcing Arnav to look at him again.
“I know, J…”
“I did marry your sister, after all.”
The chuckle in his voice was evident and Arnav shook head. “You know, sometimes I really do wish she hears you when you think you are being tastelessly funny.”
“Oh, she hears me alright. Why do you think I had to borrow your charpoy the other night? I just made a joke about…”
Arnav raised his hand. “Bas. I don’t want details. I try to be cool but she is my sister and this,” He waved his hand indicating the space between the two of them, “will always be weird.”
Aman laughed out loud even as Arnav smiled. Silence fell again as they shared the last few drags of the cigarette. When the embers died, Aman crushed the brown tip and wrapped the remains in the tissue that held the ash and put it in his bag. Aman had always been very particular about littering – the one thing that enraged him to no end. His litter rules in the camp were unapologetically stricter than many other camps and applicable to employees and guests equally. Arnav had seen even some very educated men and women flush under Aman’s gentle but crushing reproach. It was the only reason Arnav didn’t point out the hypocrisy of littering the air with tobacco smoke.
“It’s the music,” Aman intruded into his thoughts once again with sagacity that had always been so innately Aman. That everyone around him counted on.
Now, Arnav looked away. He didn’t know whether to acknowledge the assessment or deny it. Because while the songs were definitely a key contributor to how he felt and to what had happened in the past, it troubled him that it might be the only thing there was. He knew nothing about her. And he was scared of another relationship where he knew nothing. “Saira hated it” He whispered more to himself – still as surprised as he had been when he had first realised how Saira felt about the one thing he truly loved.
“Or maybe she hated the fact that there was something you loved so much, that she couldn’t relate to.”
Arnav knew Aman felt that way personally about his sister’s interest in music. But Aman was to Aditi what Arnav had once hoped Saira would be. He knew now that he had probably been unfair in his expectations of her. What was a source of pure bliss had become a constant tussle between the two of them. In hindsight he knew that the path he had chosen to avoid this tussle was destined to end only one way. The more she resented it, the more he hid it from her. And in the process the thread that held them together had snapped. It hadn’t helped that it was in this storm that he had chanced upon Khushi. No, he acknowledged, not for the first time. She was the proverbial last straw. And Saira had known.
“I know I don’t need to tell you but think before you do anything – one way or the other.” Aman said softly even as leaned forward and pulled his knees to himself, hugging them with both arms.
“I know the camp has rules, J.”
“I didn’t think you don’t, Munna. And that’s not what I meant.”
Arnav nodded slowly as realized what Aman was referring to. “You think I should take the Alridge and May offer?”
“You know that you are always needed at the River, kid. You have been key in what we have been able to achieve over the last couple of years. But the River is not your dream. It is mine. And I know you are capable of finding your own and getting to it. I am not saying A&M is the path you need to take but I don’t want you to hide indefinitely because something once went wrong with the path you chose.”
A younger Arnav would have hugged his Aman Bhaiyya and thanked him profusely for being what he needed at any moment in life. Now, he just looked at his brother-in-law and smiled even as Aman slapped his back with a loud resounding thump. The thank you was twisting in his voice box, itching to leak out of his mouth and fill the space between two grown men. He cleared his throat. “You just want to make sure your sales pipeline is always full.” He said softly, hiding expertly the fact that he would miss having Aman and Aditi around him a lot more if and when he took up the A&M offer and bid adieu to the River.
“I wouldn’t be a savvy entrepreneur if I didn’t think long term, would I?”
Arnav chuckled and took a deep breath before pushed himself up from the rock they were sharing. “I’m going to take a walk. Will back in a bit and then we can head home.” He picked up the shining keys from the ground and stuffed it in his left pocket, while extracting his pocket torch from the right. He turned to his left where he could take his usual trail down the cliff till a marked point about fifteen minutes away. He was just about to step down into the rocky path when Aman called out.
“A&M has offices in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, right?”
He smiled to himself before he turned around to look at Aman who was staring straight ahead. The little smile however, was evident in his words. “Yes.”
“You can decide which office you want to join?”
“Hmmm. They are okay with me joining any of the three though Delhi is the biggest office.” He answered before turning away when Aman spoke again.
“And where does Speed Motors posts its new GETs?
Arnav let the implication slide. It was not a question he wanted to think about right now. “How am I supposed to know, J?”
Aman laughed softly, his voice brimming with undercurrents Arnav ignored, unsuccessfully. “How, indeed, Munna.”
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Chhookar Mere Mann Ko
Singer: Kishore Kumar
Music: Rajesh Roshan
Tu jo kahe jeevan bhar
Tere liye main gaaoon, tere liye main gaaoon
Geet tere bolon pe
Likhta chala jaaoon, likhta chala jaaoon
Mere geeton mein, tujhe dhoondhe jag saara
Next Update: Monday, July 18, 2016; between 9-10pm IST
*Smoking is injurious to health. Unfortunately engineering schools in India still give birth to many lifetime smokers. It is not cool. And it kills.