For the Sanki Sisters – your Rivering is the sort of thing oceans of happiness are made of!
Khushi read her first romance novel at the age of sixteen – with her mother’s permission – as surprising as it was. Her Maasi – her mother’s sister – had given her a worn out copy of her own first romance novel from years ago. Maybe Gayatri Gupta assumed that romance from the late seventies was a better bet than a novel from the new millenium. She wouldn’t have been wrong, anyway.
At sixteen, the thought of the hero pulling the heroine into a passionate kiss was a thing of toe-curling intensity, one that had made her swoon in wonder and envy the girl with fictional DNA. At eighteen, with a few illuminating articles about consent – read and digested in the quest of being a true modern Indian woman who wouldn’t let a man decide what her fate would be, she had scoffed and suitably shuddered at all fifteen romance novels she had read in less than two years. That she still read the occasional romance and even enjoyed the occasional toe-curling kiss on paper, was however, no indication of her own personal beliefs on what was acceptable under the guise of romance. If anything, she had been quick to claim that if a man ever tried to pull what so many “heroes” in romance novels, films and TV shows did, it would be the end of him – if not physically then at least in her world.
Now she wondered if she believed that some level that this was never going to happen to her and hence was able to curl her lips in distaste at the thought of it happening to anyone.
Perhaps, she wondered, she was also not being very fair to Arnav Varun in her assessment of his “kiss”. One, it was hardly a kiss. They had brushed more skin than this in the last three days. This time, it just happened to be lips. Two, it was not really a one-sided affair like she wanted to believe it was. She had been ready to kiss him earlier in the day. And she would have if it had not been for some inconvenient muttering from his mouth.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, laying completely still, straight on her back in her tent even as faint night lights from the sky filtered in through thinned patches of canvas interspersed between sheets of tarpaulin. Every sentence they had shared just minutes ago, was playing back in her head in a continuous loop. And as the minutes morphed to hours, she realized that it was she who had sounded like a petulant child when she had spurned him. Maybe all this attention from two wonderful men was really getting to her. Maybe this is why women who had men swooning at their feet had such auras – sometimes even bitchy confidence, about them.
What the hell was she going to do? She had made up her mind about giving the possibility of a relationship with Arjun a chance. Why did Arnav have to come and ruin it by showing her promises of what could be? What did he mean by asking her how she would feel if she could have what she wanted? Now, irrespective of what she did, she would end up breaking either a heart-warming past of friendship or a toe-curling future of passion. Not to mention a chunk of her own heart.
No, she shook her head as she opened her eyes ago. What was she thinking? She couldn’t allow the lure of a distant dream the chance to salvage the past that was so intrinsic to who she had become. If she couldn’t do right by Arjun, what kind of a person would she be? Someone who opportunistically took what she needed and couldn’t step up when it meant something to him? No, she was not that person. She had not been raised to be heartless.
Don’t break my heart, Arjun had said. And she wouldn’t. Arnav Varun had changed nothing with his words or his kiss. He had made her think. And her will was now stronger. Maybe what had happened was for the better. Now she really knew who she wanted to be more than what she wanted.
As her eyes fluttered close, her last conscious thought however, was a little prayer of thanks to the universe for at least allowing her to sample what hopeless wishes that came true looked like. If nothing else, she at least had a memory. She could live with that.
If sleeping with Arnav’s face swimming in her dreams was difficult, waking up to Arjun’s hopeful and yet cheery one, was positively scary. She saw him at breakfast from afar and almost wanted to run away. She may have decided in her head but she wanted to give her heart the time to ease into her decision. But one look at his effort to keep things normal between them, was enough to make her want to give in and say yes right away. Or run far away so that she would never really have to give him an answer at all.
But Arjun was Arjun. He couldn’t let things be. So he walked over to her and pulled her by her hand to one corner.
“You have to stop looking at me like you want to run in the opposite direction.” He said softly.
She couldn’t help notice that nothing in his touch was remotely as disturbing as a certain someone else’s had been. Or exciting, that cruel little voice in her head prompted. She shook her head at him. “I am not doing that.” She assured him but looked away nevertheless.
“I have been wondering if I should have kept quiet all night, Kavi. And I can’t seem to regret that I did not. I know I made it awkward for you. But…” He leaned in closer even as she stole a look at his very serious face – she had rarely seen him like this. “I needed to find out. I have been wondering what we would be like for too long to let this go.”
Her heart twisted at the earnestness in his voice and the slight nervous edge he had when he most wanted to hide it. Like before a viva session with her father in Advanced Fluid Mechanics during their third year. She had attributed it to the nightmare that Fluid Mechanics was. Now she wondered if it was because it was her father.
“I promised you I would keep it normal and…” He broke into her thoughts and grinned widely. Too widely.
“Don’t do that…” She frowned at him.
“What?” He asked, bemused.
“Grin like this is nothing. It’s either a joke or it’s…”
“It’s not a joke.”
“Then don’t laugh it off, like that.” She scolded him. It seemed to bother her today that he might have put on the cheery mask more than once in her presence. She didn’t want that. If she wanted to think about Arjun the way she needed to, she needed to see the real him. Not this…jester he tried to be at all times.
“See, now that I like better.” He said, his grin easing into a more indulgent smile – one that she knew now was genuine. She could feel her lips curving up in sub-conscious response.
“What?” She asked with a fake frown.
“This – you being…well,” He shrugged, “You.” A second later he added with a little glint in his eyes. “With me.”
She felt her cheeks turn pink. And it was not entirely an uncomfortable feeling like blushing had always been for her.
“I like that you can be honest enough to call me out when you think I need to be. It is so refreshingly different from the polite, diplomatic person you usually are.”
It struck as odd that Arjun liked about her what she was with very few people. And then it made sense because she was infact this honest about her feelings and responses to only two people in the universe – Tripti and him. Arjun did know her better than anyone else. And she – she liked him so much. Loved him even as a friend. Was it really going to be such a big jump from that to being his…?
Being his what? Girlfriend? Was that the term to be used? Lover? Someday – wife?
Her already warm cheeks positively glowed with heat now. And out of nowhere, the memory of a fleeting kiss stole up her spine. This was so wrong…
“And I also like that I can make you blush like that.”
She looked at him and blinked rapidly. She couldn’t say yes so quickly. It was so…She decided she needed to honest with him – about her feelings for him even if not about everything else. “Arjun, I need time to think…”
He smiled and shrugged. “As long as you aren’t mindlessly dismissing this as one of my many pranks. Because it is not one. I promise.”
She sighed. No, it wasn’t a prank. He wouldn’t prank about this…
“Ab chalo, I’m starving.” He seemed to shrug something off and pulled at her wrist. She looked at her wrist where his fingers curled against her skin. He looked back at her and raised an eyebrow. “What? I can’t do this while you are thinking?”
She stared him with a wry expression, amazed that he could be so…Damn! He really needed to stop doing this. “Arjun…” She started severely.
“Listen, I am not going to let you think in isolation. If you say yes, things will be different. I can’t play fair till you make your decision. After that…well…” He shrugged with a small smile. There was no hesitation in his voice. He seemed so confident that she would say yes. And she knew she would. But something…
“No is also an answer, Arjun.” She whispered quietly. In normal circumstances she would have avoided saying anything till she had to. But the hope in Arjun’s eyes – even as aligned as it was to her own decision – was scary. And there was the feeling of losing all control. She needed him to know that she might decide otherwise. She needed herself to know that she had considered saying no and rejected the idea because that is what she wanted,
He looked at her with a deep sigh and tugged at her wrist. His fingers were caressing her pulse almost unthinkingly as he looked into her eyes. She shifted nervously scared that if he looked long enough, he would see Arnav’s kiss in her eyes. And whatever else she could do to him or not – she couldn’t do that. However, she needn’t have worried about Arjun seeing anything in her eyes. Even with their gazes locked, it felt like he wasn’t seeing her at all. It was…it was a weird thought for it to make an appearance then but suddenly she wondered if he was really thinking of her when he decided he wanted to give “this” a chance.
“I know no is an answer. I know that you are completely free to say that this is not what you want. And I will have to accept it and live with it if it happens.” His voice was almost a whisper as he looked down and she saw his foot find a stray pebble and kick it. She tugged at her hand, just so he would look up. What was she doing? What were they doing?
Before that train of panic could hit her full force, however, Arjun had looked up. This time, she knew he saw her. It was evident in the little imp that his eyes always had around her. “But I can’t believe it.” He shook his head. “I have to believe that you are going to say yes. I have to…If only to have you think about it seriously.”
With that, Arjun turned away and began walking towards the breakfast spread with her hand in his and her tongue hanging out of her mouth. They went through the morning meal as if nothing had changed between them. Arjun laughed with their colleagues, mimicked Ganesh Shankar and a couple of other senior leaders from Speed Motors, guffawed with Aditi when she came over to brief them about the day’s schedule, made fun of her when she gawked at Aditi and unblinkingly asked what a Flying Fox was. She would have forgotten just what Arjun had said to her last night and quite categorically again this morning, except for the fact that suddenly every little inch of distance between them was noticeable. She felt his gaze on her for the first time, the touch of his skin against hers after years. She noticed how he stayed in her orbit, how despite being completely oblivious to her otherwise, he made sure he paid attention once she had said something aloud. Her cheeks remained flushed – less with worry about the Flying Fox and more because of this sudden change in Arjun. Or was it always like this? Is that why Aditi assumed they were together?
Did that mean Arnav had also…She hissed in her head when the thought popped in her head on their way to the woods where the Flying Fox was set up. Couldn’t the man stay away from her thoughts for a few hours? He clearly seemed to find ways to stay away from her physically rather often. Like at the moment, for instance…where was he?
She strained her neck to see if she could spot him in the distance. She couldn’t. It was only Aditi and Aman who were both dressed in black River Tshirts and beige shorts, standing with hands on their hips.
By the time they reached the clearing in the woods, Arnav Varun had been relegated to the back of her thoughts – especially aided by the knowledge that he had gone down to Haridwar for the day. But not before she had wondered if he had left on her account. It should have given her some measure of relief to know that she could influence him so. It didn’t come.
Instead she focused on the activity for the day, which was, if she might admit at least to herself, the scariest one yet. Flying Fox was a misnomer. This exercise should have been called Tarzan 101. And it should have been restricted to those who wanted to test their primate origins. People like her – all one hundred and sixty plus pounds of her, couldn’t swing on a mobile metal hook zipping along thick ropes between trees. It was just not one of the things she needed to do to prove anything to herself or others. It didn’t help that Aman, Aditi, Arjun and everybody else around her now assumed that she would take this particular activity in her stride and complete it with ease – like she had done many others.
When Aman and Aditi took chances to give demos with clear instructions on keeping their body and neck straight and simply let physics do its job, Khushi’s fear evolved into pure terror. It didn’t even look simple – there was clearly skill and luck both involved. And she had very little balance on both. The fact that Arjun volunteered to go first and swung from one tall tree to the lower end of the opposite one with lissome grace and came out eyes shining, did not help.
When it was her turn to climb up the tree using a rope stair, her legs were positively shivering. She was sure that everyone could see her tremble as she joined one of the helpers – Ramcharan – up on the tree and put on her safety gear, stumbling with the harness, wires and straps that had to be significantly loosened to fit her. The rest of the team, standing on the other end – the lower side where she would land, was watching silently – or maybe it was the thrumming in her head that drowned out every other noise. So much so that Aman had to shout up at her twice to make sure she had heard his final instructions even as she reached the edge of the thick branch and allowed Ramcharan to clip the metal hook to her harness.
“Keep your hands away from the rope. Crouch and jump straight ahead – like you would into a swimming pool”
She looked down nervously. The height of the tree was in fact lesser than the cliff she had jumped from. And the rope was inclined – progressively edger closer to the earth as it swung from one tree to the next. She swallowed as her palms turned to ice and her stomach churned. She was going to get stuck in the middle between the trees. It was going to be so embarrassing…
“You can’t get stuck in the middle – gravity remember?”
She would have appreciated Aman’s accurate assessment of her fears on any other day. Today, all she heard was a low rumble from somewhere below as Ramcharan urged her to take her position and jump. But Ramcharan was no Mohan and this was no exhilarating cliff-jump. That was about weightlessness, this about every gram of her body that made up the person she was. The only solace of the moment was that there was no Arnav Varun around to witness her humiliation.
She should have known something would go wrong when that thought crept up on her and stole her breath. The moment she jumped off and heard the metal hook sliding along the rope in a jarring mirror of friction, she knew she was in trouble. For the first few seconds, it seemed like the hook just did not move ahead under her weight. She blinked and tried to remember what Aman had said. And then realized that she was holding her arms frozen to her chest. So she let them loose and spread them like a bird – accelerating her descent many fold – too suddenly for her liking. The next few seconds blurred past as she felt herself twist and the metal hook turn. The forest around her reeled in as leaves and branches blurred in front of her eyes and made her dizzy. This was not right. She was supposed to swing straight through but she was now twisting left and right. She felt a tug on her neck and realized that her hair had gotten stuck to something and was pulling at her skull. Her eyes closed – only half in pain as voices of panic screamed in her ears. Her eyes hurt with the effort she was putting on keeping them shut when she finally felt hands on her trying to still her and quickly disengage her hair and eventually her from the hook.
“Shit, Aman,” She heard Aditi scream. “The rope – her neck….Hurry!”
It was only when she heard Arjun’s swearing that she felt the first sting on the left side of her back just below her neck and shoulder. Her skin singed and her breath filled with the smell of burnt cloth even as her eyes smarted and she was pulled away from the harness and to a corner.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahi
Album: Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahi
Singers: Anuradha Paudwal, Kumar Sanu
Music: Nadeem Shravan
Dil hai ke manta nahin
Mushkil badi hai, rasm-e-mohabbat
Yeh jaanta hi nahin
Oh, dil hai ke manta nahin
Dil hai ke manta nahin
Yeh beqaraari kyoon ho rahi hai
Yeh jaanta hi nahin
- A very very happy birthday to Sia (siashah021). Have a wonderful day and year ahead!
- A very happy Independence Day to all fellow Indians!
- Please check Babbling Brooks for a new piece from Bhavi – this time Aman!
- Next update may be a little delayed. Have a tough week coming up. Will try my best to post next Monday as per usual weekly schedule. If there is a delay (hopefully not!), I will post a note on the Index page.