What sort of an un-funny joke was Shiv-ji playing on her? She had never been one to blame God for her miseries. She had never even been one to pray to God to ask for something either. When she was younger, there was perhaps a first rank or two that she had begged for. But soon – perhaps around Class X Board exams – she had decided to only ask for the strength to do her best. And for Him to show her the way that her life was meant to head towards. The only thing she had ever actively asked for was the health and happiness of her loved ones. And even then, she had an order Shiv-ji could follow when he assigned his minions their work. Arjun had started to feature in the list some time towards the end of first year of engineering. And he had stayed there – firmly entrenched in her list of loved ones.
He had been one of them and yet the phrase now meant something completely different.
Don’t break my heart.
How was she going to promise to try when she knew deep inside that she had already broken his heart? By never really get over the one who once broke hers and now seemed to promise to stitch it back together?
Khushi watched as her eyes, dry and listless, looked out at the river in the distance. It had been several minutes since Arjun had made his declaration and then left her alone – to mull things over.
There were no things to mull over. She had thought about it and she had dismissed it. And maybe she might have been able to extract them from the corner of her brain that was dedicated to hopeless dreams like an IE-Mumbai education or at least a size 10 figure – if not for a certain someone who had yet not returned from wherever it was that he had disappeared to. Or if he had come back, he was safely tucked-in in his bed because his charpoy lay as morosely deserted as Khushi herself.
She was such a fool. Why couldn’t she have been insanely angry with Arnav four years ago and as a consequence diverted all her energies to appreciating the person who she was now hurting for no reason at all? Instead she had buried her feelings deep within and focused on everything except dealing with them. The result was in front of her. Here she was – once again – waiting – quite literally at the moment – for Arnav Varun to answer her questions and change her life. Arnav Varun had his chance. He had a love story. And despite that he had led her to believe…
No, a voice in her head argued once again, digging up a debate had been long buried. He had not led her on. He had sung songs. If that was what it took to fool somebody and break somebody’s heart, then all of Bollywood was nothing but a network of heartbreakers. It was stupid to think that AV Sir of 2005 owed her anything except a cordial relationship that two people from the same Alma Mater with common history and geography share with each other. It was she who had decided she wanted to kiss him. It was she who had forgotten that he might not be unattached. It was she who hoped that he wouldn’t be. If only she had let it all go…If only she had banished him from her life…she would be…
Why not now, a little voice suggested. It isn’t too late. Arjun is here. Arnav is not. Arjun has feelings for you. Arnav – may or may not.
Maybe this is why Shiv-ji had made sure Arjun found his courage before Arnav could make his clarifications? Maybe the answer to all her questions was Arjun after all. If she put her mind to it, she could give it a try. She loved him like a friend. She might learn to love him like..like more than a friend. He had a great sense of humor. He had the right attitude towards life. He was always brimming with positivity. And most importantly in this case – he wanted her.
He wanted her.
Khushi had always been sure that she was meant to go through life alone. She was very ordinary looking. She was fat – irrespective of all the other euphemisms that others used. She focused more on academics than anything that girls were “supposed” to. She even questioned why and who defined things that girls were supposed to focus on – cooking, cleaning, beauty, grooming, arts, creativity – everything that she was bad at. The world she grew up in – from Bollywood to her relatively liberal minded parents – had told her that she needed to be a certain way to be a happy woman.
And Arjun – Arjun wanted to be with her despite the fact that she was the anti-thesis of what was expected of a girl. She needed to focus on that. She needed to count her blessings and make the right decision. Insane stuff like wanting to kiss someone who most likely had been in more than one serious relationship and was definitely nursing the heartbreak of one, was only going to make her regret who she was turning out to be – a spineless woman who couldn’t even save her own dignity instead of falling all over a man who was and probably always would be just a mystery.
Yes, she said to herself softly. Arjun was right. It would have been foolish to dismiss his proposition without a thought. She would say yes to him. She didn’t know what that meant. But she trusted her best friend and she knew she wanted to do right by him. She would give them a fair chance. She wasn’t going to declare feelings as strong as his. But she would tell him that she was willing to try. For once, she was going to ignore her ridiculous Bollywood overloaded brain and focus on what was staring at her in her face.
She pushed herself and slid down the rock and quickly dusted herself. Tomorrow was still a few hours away. And she needed as much clear head as she could get in the next few hours before she could face Arjun. She didn’t owe him an answer tomorrow but she didn’t want to wait much longer. She couldn’t allow herself the luxury of time. Especially when…She shook the thought away and started to walk back to her tent.
She saw him almost immediately. He was walking towards her, his stride urgent and purposeful but head hung low, his face hidden in the darkness. But she didn’t make the mistake of assuming that he hadn’t seen her. There was no way they could miss each other on this open river-side field. But she didn’t want to talk to him anymore. She had waited – too long if she were honest to herself. And now she was calling the wait off and changing her direction – quite literally as she turned to her left and continued to walk. She knew he would call out to her. What she didn’t know was that he would walk right up to her tent. Other than the tastelessness of his apology a couple of nights ago, there had been very little of him and his manners that she could fault.
It annoyed her now that he could read her so easily, that she didn’t have the ability to hide her true feelings from him.
“Nothing.” She said tersely even as she turned slightly to look at him. He looked utterly disheveled, windblown hair and evidently damp clothes. There was something pinched about his features. He looked like a lost schoolboy and an exhausted man both in one go. For a milli-second, her heart lurched. And then she remembered that if it were left to her traitorous lurching heart, she would have kissed him earlier in the day. And been ruined to even consider the option that Arjun was offering.
“I am sorry if you waited too long – J needed some help…”
“It doesn’t matter,” She replied as she looked directly into his eyes. She didn’t care anymore if she was being rude to him without warrant. She needed to do this for herself. And she didn’t owe him anything. He didn’t owe her anything either. This…was best left incomplete. She opened her mouth to wish him good night and closed it sharply in silence, turning away and stepping closer to the door of her tent
“Ka..” He seemed to be unsure of what to call her once again. “I thought we could talk…Earlier today…I thought…”
She steeled herself against feeling terrible about what she was doing. “No,” she shook her head. “We have nothing to talk about. I don’t…I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to know. Whatever it was…If it takes this much effort, it is probably not meant to be, not worth it. We should forget about it.” She took a sharp breath in, “I should forget about it. Before I screw more things up for me and those…those who really do matter…”
She shook her head. “AV Sir…” The force of habit was such a hideous thing. Even if she could think of him as Arnav in her head, in her address he probably would always remain AV Sir – the one who had asked her to sit in a classroom full of boys; the one who had been engaged when she thought he was singing romantic songs for her. A part of her had looked forward to asking him about that night – about the songs. That was before Arjun had declared he wanted to be with her. Now everything was different.
“Arnav,” He supplied for the second time in two days.
“AV Sir,” She repeated with more conviction. “I need to get some sleep. I need to…”
“What happened here?” He asked, this time his voice was laced with agitation she had rarely noticed in his speech before.
She frowned and looked at him. “Nothing.” Everything changed in a blink. “Nothing happened here. Just because I don’t want to talk anymore doesn’t mean something happened. I am perfectly capable of making decisions without having external events force my hand. I should have told myself this years ago. If I had, I might have been able to see for myself before Arjun had to tell me how he felt. If I had, I might have been able to be happy that I have someone as wonderful was him who likes me. If I had, I might have been able to forget about you four years ago…”
She stopped even as her clichéd heart hammered against her ribcage. Her eyes felt heavy as the enormity of what she had just revealed dawned upon her. And then her forehead burst into flames as she conceded that she had only revealed in words what he knew to be true anyway. This was hardly earth shattering news for him.
This time she turned away more decisively and lifted the flap of her tent to walk in when she suddenly felt her forearm being grasped and tugged at. One moment she was blinking to prepare her eyes for the darkness of her River sanctuary and the next she found herself staring into his moonlit eyes, his breath a strange mixture of mint, coffee and something else she couldn’t place.
“You can’t say things like that and walk away, Khushi.” He whispered as his breath fanned her face and made her head swim.
She struggled to extract her arm from his hold and freed herself a second later even as the tussle in their limbs morphed into a battle of their gazes. “You have nothing to worry about. You’ve even apologised for how I feel. You are in the clear, I assure you. You always were.”
“I didn’t apologize for how you feel.” He scanned her face and thrust his fingers through his hair before cursing. When he looked at her, the emotion in his eyes was unrecognizable. “Arjun? He said something?”
She frowned for a second as his question rattled her already jumbled nerves. There was something about that phrasing…Or was it the fact that he had so accurately guessed the source of her distress? Had he been around to hear Arjun? It wasn’t possible – there had been no one – she would have known if there had been anyone nearby. Especially him.
“And you…Is he…is that what you want?”
That tore her up. How dare he question her about what she wanted? Wasn’t it already unfair that he knew exactly what that was? It made her want to break something. It made her want to hurt…
“It is what I could want.” If I tried. If I can see beyond just you. And I will. I need to. She needed to believe it. To be fair to everyone involved, she needed to believe it with all her heart and being.
He didn’t let his gaze waver even for a second even as his jaw tensed with her declaration.
“And what if you didn’t have to make that choice? Even if what you really wanted was available?”
The memory of Arjun congratulating him on his engagement came screaming back to her. When she wanted him, he wasn’t available. Arjun had been – even then. Even if that was not exactly Arnav fault, was she supposed to throw everything she held dear away because he decided he was ready now? And was it fair that he seemed to be able to use her feelings to manipulate what could be between them to his advantage?
“What I wanted,” she started, carefully emphasizing the past tense, “was an illusion. It never existed.”
Her words found their mark as he paled under her gaze. She didn’t know she was capable of hurting. But at the moment, the complete departure from her usually non-confrontational self didn’t bother her.
She held his eyes for a long moment as she watched his face change and yet she refused to see more than what she was feeling.
“You are making a mistake, Kaveri”
The deliberate, pointed use of her first name was not lost on her. Good, she thought to herself. If this was what was needed, so be it. And yet every word he had just uttered, struck her like a whip. And she wasn’t going to be whipped anymore. She was not a floating log – she was the river itself – she should have always been. If anyone had the ability to decide the course her life needed to take, it was her
“No,” She shook her head, “I am only going to fix it now.” Before it is too late and I lose a friend too.
Their gazes clashed and pushed against each other’s only to crash against iron-clad wills. This time, it was she who looked away, suddenly tired. Had it only been a couple of days she had spent here at the River? Had she met Aditi only a day ago? Had the night he had apologized been just a day before? It felt so much longer, so much more draining than any physical activity. her eyes pricked and she blinked before she found herself stepping away from him.
“You really aren’t going to give us…me a chance – to explain about four years ago?”
She felt like a heel even though she knew she didn’t owe him anything. There was only one person she owed anything too. And it was herself. Her – the fat girl who had always wondered what being loved by someone other than family would be like, the new teen who had been laughed at when her crush had been discovered in school. The sounds of laughter as the object of her affection had scoffed at the possibility of her crushing on him years ago echoed in her head. It was not a memory she had allowed back into her consciousness even though she knew it was what drove her and her reactions.
Before she could say anything, she felt his hands close around her wrist. A sharp tug later, she was pulled flush against him, her face now barely inches away from his. His eyes – inky as the sky above – glittered almost dangerously. It was a side of him she had never seen – not even just moments ago. “If we had kissed earlier today, would you still have considered Arjun’s proposal?”
His words wrapped themselves around her heart and squeezed so hard, she found it difficult to breathe. He was being careful not to point out that it would have been her kissing him if at all. And yet, her temper flared.
She pushed against his grasp and glared right into his eyes.
“If I kiss you now, will you still consider Arjun’s…”
The words seemed to die as she realised how close he was, their breaths mingling even as river and mountain sang in the space between them. Her eyes felt so heavy, her lashes lowering even as she struggled to push him or pull herself away from this madness that he seemed so intent on suddenly. What was he doing? And why wasn’t she fighting him harder?
“You wouldn’t” She whispered.
His mouth seemed to twist into the ghost of a self-deprecating smile. “You don’t know anything about me.”
It was like being stung as the enormous accuracy of his words weighed down on her. She shook her head. “You wouldn’t.”
For a long moment, he stared at her, his eyes unblinking as he seemed to weigh the consequences of his decision in his head. And then something changed. It flashed between them like a lost promise. “Khushi,” He whispered as his lips grazed hers in the briefest of moments.
It was like exploding into a million pieces, every bit of which buzzed in her blood and screamed in her ears. It frightened her that she could feel this way about something that only she would classify as a kiss. Why…
“I know you don’t need my advice – I am the last person you will take seriously at the moment. But,” His voice was barely whisper. “What you are planning to do – it is not fair to anyone…Not to Arjun and,” There was a sharp intake of breath between them as her fingers curled into her palm, “Definitely not to you”
She wanted to laugh out aloud. Fair? Yeah it wasn’t fair. Nothing was fair. And now she wanted her share of being unfair. She said nothing and watched blankly as he put more distance between them. She wanted to run into her tent before she threw herself at him again.
A few steps and he turned away, the sound of pebbles under his feet almost the same as her breaking heart. She almost reached out to call him back when he turned. The moon had disappeared behind a cloud. And though the cloud did have a literal silver lining, darkness was fast filling her vision. She could see nothing of his eyes and his face anymore.
“I wish you luck. I hope you never regret the decision you are making.”
With that Arnav Varun, turned and walked away.
They seemed to have been dancing the dance of not knowing which way their heart swayed for years. And yet, there was a sense of finality in his departure now. It was exactly what she wanted. The tears that blurred her vision, were just the tantrums of a greedy heart.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Kahi Aag Lage
Singers: Asha Bhonsle, Richa Sharma, Aditya Narayan, Chorus
Music: A. R. Rahman
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Pyaar bada, harjaai hai
Par pyaar bina, tanhaai hai
Dil mat dena kehte hain, sab dil dete rehte hain
Jab neend chura lete hain, rat jage mazaa dete hain
Khushiyaan isi ke gham se
Raunak isi ke dam se
Na ho yeh rog, toh saare log, le lein vein jog
Note: Please do visit Babbling Brooks for a new Arjun-Kavi OS by AlwyzT.
Next Update: Aug 8-9, 2016; midnight IST