For the River sisterhood!
Is there someone else?
Eventually it was that brief conversation held almost twenty four hours ago that was holding her ransom to the night, Khushi decided. Not the bungling mess she had made leading to an invitation for a late-night rendezvous or the journey down a musical memory lane that had left her buzzing with anticipation long after the fire had burned itself out.
Why had she stopped at that? Why couldn’t she have prodded some more? What did “No” mean? No, there was no one in his life at the moment or No, there was no one in his life ever before?
She rolled her eyes at her own naiveté. It couldn’t be the latter. There had been someone and that someone had a name. Saira. It was such a beautiful name. She must have been a beautiful person too – she had been AV Sir’s fiancée, afterall. And the man was all sorts of handsome. What did he even see in Khushi?
She wrung her hands together and continued to walk along the river. It was late, way past official lights out time. The campfire had been over for over an hour now. Everyone had gone back to their tents and once again, A River Runs Through It was plunged in partial darkness complete silence. And once again, Khushi was walking along the Ganga, her mind and thoughts in a tizzy – only this time she was physically alone. There wasn’t even a breeze to keep her company. Only the river, silently waiting with her as if having sworn solemnly to bear witness to her love story – if ever there was going to be one.
The evenings on the River had been an eventful to say the least. Especially since yesterday. First there was the conversation with Aditi that had forced her to question her own feelings for Arnav. Then there was the conversation with Arnav itself which had completely destroyed her illusions of the hero he had once seemed like. And yet, the real Arnav behind the achiever – was just as amazingly wonderful and irresistible as the campus demigod had been. Hell, she had been ready to kiss him. Without knowing whether he was still attached or not. What had she been thinking, if at all? If it hadn’t been for his gut wrenching admission of why he didn’t use the preferred half of her name to address her, she would have kissed him. And then she would have known if everything she was feeling was only in her head. Kisses were supposed to do that, didn’t they? And he…Okay so she didn’t know how someone looked if they were ready to be kissed but he sure didn’t seem like he would have bolted. She should have kissed him. In the light of the that “No” and everything that had followed right up to an hour ago, it just seemed even more futile that she hadn’t.
A chill ran up her spine and made her shiver. A light wind picked up almost suddenly as if only to rebel against her assessment of solitary company with her favorite River – slightly sharper this night. She wondered if it was rain she could smell in the air. It is in your head, she told herself and wrapped her arms about herself. It doesn’t rain in the mountains this time of the year – Aditi and Aman had mentioned on separate occasions while talking about the geography of the River. She fished her phone out of her pocket almost instinctively and sighed when she saw the “No Service” message on the top left. How she wished she could speak to Tripti right now. Even if she didn’t tell her sister about what was going on in her life, just listening to her crib (and crib she would) about college and her parents would have been enough to take her mind away from the mystery that Arnav Varun was proving to be.
She had seen Arnav leave with Aman when the rest of the group was deeply engrossed in the game of Dumb Charades that followed even as the No Chartbuster Antakshari had fizzled away. And she had felt his eyes on her every second between her adieu to him and his departure from the gathering. She was sure she had even heard a song playing in her head. Smiling to herself, she let her hands fall by her side and closed her eyes. She could feel the music her body, the words edging past each other to form the lines that described her state almost perfectly.
Kal bhi to kuchh aisa hi huaa thaa
Neend mein thi tum ne jab chhuaa thaa
Girate girate baahon mein bachee main
Sapne pe paanv pad gayaa thaa
Sapnon mein, behene do
Pyaasee hun main, pyaasi rehene do
She smiled as she turned around and made her way back towards her tent.
Now would be a perfect time for him to appear like he always seemed to – especially at this time of night. Maybe he was a vampire, she chuckled, thinking of Tripti’s recent fascination with the genre. No, no…she shook her head, remembering that she was the eternal scaredy cat who couldn’t stomach even what Arjun claimed were terrible, funny-not-scary movies made in the genre, bad excuses for sleazy content and not really horror films. “No, Shiv-ji, please forget I said anything about vampires or ghosts,” She muttered to herself and forced herself to remember the song that had been so much more thrilling to sing and imagine
Halke halke kohre ke dhuen mein
Shaayad aasman tak aa gayi hun
Teri do nigaahon ke sahaare
Dekho kahan taka a gayi hun
Kohre mein, behene do
Pyaasi hun main, pyaasi rehne do
Yes, she decided. She would wait. And when he came, they would talk. Maybe there was something to all of this…And if it was now in the past – did it really matter? What if he really did like her now? He couldn’t be immune to her. He would have been a lot more relaxed around her if he was, wouldn’t he? The fact that he looked so – what was the word – disheveled – not physically but emotionally – meant something, didn’t it? Just guilt about a few songs sung together couldn’t do this to someone, could it? And then there was the way he sang with her. The song he picked. The way he looked at her…
She stopped and smoothed her sleep shirt and checked pajamas. She had taken care to wear her best night clothes today – the pair that was actually a night wear set and not just a random t-shirt and a clueless pajama thrown together because they were too frayed to be worn elsewhere. She had washed her face and brushed her teeth – something her mother had been urging her to do every night since her thirteenth birthday. Her hair was pulled back into a high pony, as neatly as her wavy hair would allow. Her glasses were scrubbed clean and finger print free. She knew she looked fresh and in her world – that was the best anyone was going to get.
Now if only Arnav would come along…
It was just as the thought had crossed her mind that she heard the sound of footsteps to her left – the boys’ tents. Her throat closed and blood rushed into her face. Damn…what happened to being careful what you wished for, Kaveri Khushi Gupta, she said under her breath even as the footsteps neared. She took a deep breath and unclenched her fist before turning to face him. Shiv-ji, help please, she urged with closed eyes.
“Aankhein band karke aadhi raat ko yahan bhoot bhaga rahi ho?”
She opened her eyes with a start only to see Arjun looking down at her curiously.
“Nope, Shah Rukh Khan is here to meet you.” He said wryly. “Of course it’s me, Byomkesh.”
“I prefer Poirot if you want to go there. And I really wish,” She countered wryly. She reminded herself that she was not disappointed to see Arjun. He was her friend. Even if did feel now that two of them were treading on broken eggshells these days. “The two of us are not the only people on this camp, you know. It could have been anyone. Especially of the supernatural variety. Which is why I was praying,” She smiled sweetly even as the ridiculousness of her own comment settled in her mind. Trust Arjun Agarwal to show up at the most inopportune moment.
“At this time, who else would be crazy enough to want to meet with you, Khushi”
That threw her off. “Khushi?” She asked out aloud, her eyes now popping out of her head. She had given up asking him to call her Khushi instead of Kaveri and all its forms that Arjun seemed to prefer. And now…Something clicked at the back of her head and made the tips of her fingers and toes tingle. She didn’t know if pleasantly or otherwise. “You are calling me Khushi,” She stated softly, suddenly not very sure that disappointment is all she felt seeing him here. At this time of the night, as he said.
“You really are getting better with this detective thing, you know. I had almost given up.”
He was closer now, enough to make her want to step back and look away.
“You really are upset seeing me here. Were you waiting for…someone else?”
She looked up then and shook her head, guilt piercing through her veins. Despite the lightness in his tone, he sounded…hurt. What the hell was she doing? She was being terribly rude to him. Hadn’t she decided she would be a real friend? That she would spend more time with him? She had missed him so much when he was not around. And he…No, she told herself with a determined smile. She was not disappointed to see Arjun. He was her best friend – she didn’t have any of those anymore. The ones from school had drifted away. They had different lives – ones that didn’t even remotely intersect with hers. Arjun – he was all she had and she wanted to be one of the, if not the best friend he had as well.
“Of course not, you stupid person,” She said with a smile and tilted her head. “Who could I possibly wait for? Chal, we’ll sit by the rocks. I have been walking too much. Anymore and I will be hungry again,”
Thankfully, Arjun accompanied her without further question and they found themselves sitting on the beach by the river, both of them facing the Ganga in companionable silence.
“Why are you walking along the river, by the way? I thought you said you were really tired.”
She considered the question. The need to openly tell Arjun what was going on in her head and heart – about Arnav and all the mysteries that seemed to surround him, and know what he had to say, was so acute, it threw her. How she wish she could have spoken to someone – not just herself. Maybe Arjun was the right person. And maybe he even had some of the answers that Khushi was looking for.
Something and she didn’t know what – not in the moment at least – held her back. “It just seems like such a waste to sleep when everything around is so beautiful.” She said and then waited for Arjun to come back with a joke about how sappy she was being.
“You are such an incurable romantic, Kavi – I am surprised you aren’t with someone already.”
She turned to look at him in surprise, noting with ease the fact that he had used his usual form of addressing her. She half expected him to burst out laughing at her any moment. When he didn’t and continued to look ahead, she smiled and shrugged. She may not be able to talk about her exact feelings – but something about what Arjun was saying, hit a chord.
“To be with someone, someone needs to want to be with you too, you know.” She said softly and closed her eyes briefly as Arnav’s face swam before them. He had looked…He had looked like he would have kissed her back. She couldn’t be wrong about something so significant.
There was silence in the wake of her statement – one that allowed her the time to savor the feeling that Arnav’s thoughts brought with them – and then push them back so she could concentrate on the company she did have at the moment. “And then, there are my parents and all their,“ she shrugged, “emotions and relationships can wait – you need to find a place in the world first…”
“I want to be with you.”
“…make sure you are financially stable lessons…” She stopped as the words he had spoken out crashed against the hollow blame she was placing on her parents.
Her brows knitted into a deep frown. She stopped talking and turned slowly to look at him. “Wh…”
The question didn’t leave her lips. It was the look of perfect stillness accompanied by the visible tension in his body that shook her out of her self-imposed blindness. “Arjun,” She whispered and hoped that he would look at her and laugh off what he had just said. She needed him to do that. Fear – hitherto unknown – began to claw its way up her spine.
“Don’t make me say it again.” He said with a small forced chuckle. “It’s bad enough to have managed it once without…” He turned to look at her. “Don’t tell me you didn’t hear what I said. Or that you don’t know what I mean. I know you do.”
That was the thing about friends. No, she corrected herself. That was the thing about Arjun. He knew her as well as she knew herself. Better perhaps. He was, in fact, almost as good as Tripti.
“Say something. Because I don’t think you understand just how unbelievably nerve wracking this is.”
No, she agreed with him. She had no idea how nerve wracking it was. Mostly because she hadn’t even been able to go past just having feelings. Let alone being brave enough to express them. And to the person who she had feelings for? No, Arjun was a much braver person. She – she was a coward. And yet, he…he wanted to be with her. “Arjun,”
He laughed out now, his laugh laced with a groan as he looked back at her. “You have say more, Kavi. Just saying my name again and again is not…” He took a deep breath. “Unless you are going to say something stupid like you don’t know where this is coming from. Or that you have never thought about it or wondered what it would be like. Because, call me arrogant but I know that isn’t true.”
Khushi shook her head. “Arjun, I don’t know what…”
Both of them were now facing each other, gazes locked. “Okay, tell me this. Have you ever thought about how it would be for us to be together?”
She looked away uncomfortably. Either answer, the truth or a lie, were going to be difficult at this time. She didn’t want to give him hopes or ruin what they had. Oh goodness…
“I have thought about what this will do to our friendship, Kavi. And I know that I can be an adult and be friends even if….” He took a deep breath. “Even if you don’t feel the same way. I just couldn’t go on without knowing.”
“But, Arjun…where,” She shook her head. “I know you asked me not to say it but where is this coming from. Why suddenly now?”
“It’s not sudden.”
She couldn’t understand. Yes, he had flirted with her on and off since first year of college. But…” You have had other girlfriends, Arjun. I am talking multiple numbers here. We spoke about them just today. And I have seen you with them…And…You can’t tell me you still felt something…” It was so weird to say these words, “for me during all those…” She rubbed her forehead, smoothing the skin between her brows. A slow drumming had erupted in her head now, the beauty of the night and the flowing water in her ears lost to the storm that was unraveling in her world.
His eyes were shining even as the pale light of the incomplete moon glinted off his face. He looked strangely radiant, his dark hair striking in their contrast against his much lighter skin.
“You think this is my first choice? You think I wanted to risk ruining our friendship?” He shook his head with a self-effacing smile. “I tried to forget about how I was feeling. I convinced myself I was the only one feeling it. I am not saying I dated to forget you – life is not as filmy as that as much as I would like to imagine. I went out with Surabhi and Geetika because I liked them – both of them – enough to want to see where it would go. But…” He let his head fall into his chest and appeared to take deep breaths before he looked up. “You were always around, Kavi. And it always seemed like…”
She swallowed painfully. It always seemed like? What? That she liked him back? Had she done it – even without intending to? Led him to believe that she might feel something? The four years Arjun had been in her life flashed in front of her eyes – one slow-motion film reel at a time. In her search for a friend, a shield, a partner-in-crime sometimes, had she involuntarily stepped beyond the boundary reserved for platonic relationships? No one incident came to mind but every little thing she had done, now seemed suspect. Telling him she had missed him, telling him she didn’t like classes when he bunked them, forcing him to come along when she needed a cup of tea even when he said no, touching him – even as plainly as she had. She blinked as her eyes smarted. She had ruined it. She had…It had to be her…”I didn’t mean to…” She began
Arjun made a sudden movement and caught hold of her palm for a second, his hand soft and warm over hers. She looked down and blinked again. This…She stared at his hand covering hers…She didn’t feel anything…At least not the same way as…Even as she struggled to finish these half statements in her head, he pulled his hand away and she pulled hers back into the crook of her body.
“You did nothing, Kavi. If anything, there were times when I really wondered if I was anything more than a convenience for you…”
She looked up at him in surprise. “What?”
He smiled wryly again. “It was probably my insecurity more than anything else, Kavi. I am not…I am not blaming you…Just…Fuck – this is insane…” He shoved his hands through his hair. She wanted to slap his shoulder for using the F word aloud.
Except, she couldn’t do that anymore.
“I shouldn’t have said anything…” He said urgently even as she berated herself silently. “I should have listened. Of course you don’t feel the same way. If you did, this is not how this talk would have played out, would it?” He was now looking ahead and talking more to himself than to her. His body was stiff enough to crack.
And her heart – was officially breaking into a thousand pieces. When AV Sir’s engagement had come to light all those years ago, she still had the solace of having always been in the right. Now, no more. She had broken her best friend’s heart. And he didn’t even think she thought of him as her friend. The worst part, she had to admit, was that his accusation was more true than otherwise. He had been a convenience. He had been a shield. She had used him as both rather liberally. Only, she had never done it with malice. But then, her inner voice argued, inability to be emotionally aware of the other is close enough to deliberate cruelty, isn’t it?
“I can’t ask you to forget what I said. I know it cannot be brushed away. The truth however, is that I don’t want you to forget. I want you to think…”
She looked at him. He was still not looking at her. But now, she couldn’t look away. This was Arjun. Her Arjun. Her best friend. The one she once thought her sister had a crush on. The one she had evaluated romantically and decided otherwise because of some stupid notion of grand passion. It would have been so easy if her hand had tingled at his touch just now. It would have been so easy if she could just reach out and give him a hug…
“As a friend, I am asking you for a favor, Kavi. Think about what we would be like. Don’t say yes or no till you have. I will wait. For as long as it takes….” He then smiled – more at himself than at her, it seemed. “Not forever…I don’t want us to get stuck here and ruin everything. Maybe till the end of this trip.” He turned to look at her. “If your answer is still no…I am the one who changed things between us and I promise I will bring us back on track – irrespective of what it takes to do that. But…” He searched her face. “Don’t break my heart.” He whispered half laughingly. “Unless you have to”
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Dil Toh Paagal Hai
Album: Dil Toh Paagal Hai
Singers: Lata Mangeshkar, Udit Narayan
Music: Uttam Singh
Iss dil ki baaton mein jo aate hain
Woh bhi deewane ho jaate hain
Manzil toh raahi dhoondh lete hain
Raste magar, kho jaate hain
Next Update: Monday, Aug 1, 2016, between 9-10 pm IST