Posting on mommy’s birthday – this one is in the hope that someday I will write something she would like to read!
For the first time since she had come to the River, Khushi could hear nothing of the Ganga flowing nearby. Her head was full of voices – all jumbled and hazy even as the burn on her skin seeped into her bones and seemed to spill into her veins. She could feel pain throbbing in the blood vessels leading up to her fingertips on the left side. It had been a few minutes since Aditi had forced her to gulp down a couple of painkillers and it would be a few more before any relief made its way to her brain.
The last hour or so had passed by in a complete blur. She had mutely allowed Aman and Aditi to disengage her hair and then pour what she assumed was at least a bucketful of water over her shoulder. Taking pity on her completely drenched left half, Aditi then brought her back to her tent and administered burn first aid in a sequence of urgent, almost desperate steps. She had even remained quietly undisturbed, when Aditi had asked her permission to push her bra strap over her shoulder and then pointed out that she would have to snip away parts of Khushi’s T-shirt to clean and medicate her wound. It didn’t matter that when Aditi was hacking away at her clothes, Arjun had walked in, his face set grimly as he came to crouch down and sit in front of her on his haunches. The extent of what had happened finally sunk in when Arjun took her hand in his and in an uncharacteristically calm voice proceeded to tell her how her hair had gotten caught in the hook and resulted in pulling the friction-heated rope closer to her neck and eventually brushing against her back long enough to burn through her T-shirt and into the skin. Aditi muttered, her voice shaky and breathless – that Khushi was lucky to have been wearing a rather thick T-shirt which now hung haphazardly mangled on her body – it had protected her back enough to only result in a first degree burn.
“You will have a scar, though.” The older woman said glumly as Khushi turned to look at her.
It was the unmasked combination of guilt and fear on Aditi’s face that made her realize just how detrimental such an accident could be for Aditi and Aman – for the River. She wanted to rush forth and tell her to relax and be reassured that she would never even dream of holding it against them, let alone doing anything else to harm their reputation. It was after all her fault. She had been distracted. Whatever her reasons, it had eventually been her who had decided not to take something like this, as seriously as she should have. She had allowed her mind wander and she would be the only one to pay the price.
“I am so sorry, Kaveri.” Aditi said, unexpectedly bringing a round of fresh tears in Khushi’s eyes which she expertly blinked away. “I’ve put an over-the-counter antiseptic. We unfortunately don’t have silver nitrate. That’s what Arnav has gone to get from Rishikesh.” She blinked and looked away. “He was so sure this wouldn’t happen. After he hurt himself a year ago on a Flying Fox test run…”
“That’s the scar on his hand. It’s a nasty one.” Arjun chimed in soberly. Khushi blinked and looked away. It was weird to be connected to him like this – with one common shared experience – and not a pleasant one at that. It was worse, however, to imagine anyone else in as much pain as she was in at the moment, least of all someone she…
“Yeah. His was a third degree burn. We had to take him to Rishikesh immediately after first aid.” Aditi filled in softly even as she went about putting the first aid kit away and following that up with hovering over Khushi. “Aman was right then, we should have killed the Flying Fox from our program after the first time it happened. I just…” She looked straight back into Khushi’s eyes. “I am really sorry.”
Khushi shook her head even as her throat remained choked. “Please don’t…I wasn’t paying attention…I just…You don’t have to apologize. Really. And I am….I will be fine. I feel okay now.” She knew she was not being entirely truthful. Her hands were still shaking and the burn itself was screaming in her ears. But it was true that everyone else had followed instructions and zipped through easily. She blinked and turned to look at Arjun. “You should go. The team must be waiting for the rafting. I’ll change and come.”
Arjun frowned but before he could say anything, Aditi chimed in. “You can’t go rafting today, Kaveri. That wound needs to remain open. Anything that covers it will hurt like crazy. You won’t be able to wear a life-vest. And it’s definitely not a good idea getting river water on it – the chance of infection is low given your burn isn’t deep but we shouldn’t risk it. In fact, it might be a good idea to…when did you have your last tetanus shot?”
Khushi shrugged and winced. Shrugging was clearly the wrong thing to do. So she shook her head. “I don’t remember.”
“Not in the last year then? Okay…” She bit her lower lip and blinked rapidly as if processing a million thoughts. “I guess…Maybe we should take you to the town for the shot and the doctor may prescribe antibiotics in case…Damn, Arnav should have been here. I am such an idiot…”
Khushi watched as Aditi looked out of the tent, her mind clearly churning with options. She turned her head to look at her wound. There was slight blistering already but Aman had said that it was to be expected and that it was a good sign. It didn’t look like she needed a shot. “I don’t think I need a tetanus shot or antibiotics…I mean I’ve had many kitchen burns – never got any shots.”
“This is more than a kitchen burn, Kaveri Gupta.” Arjun scolded.
She frowned. She hated people fussing over her. It drew too much attention to her, put everyone on alert, and disturbed others’ schedules. She had always been the type to recuperate in isolation – it was the quickest way to get back on her feet.
“Arjun, seriously. You should go. Even if I can’t go – everyone else needs to go for rafting and that includes you.” She turned to look at Aditi. “Aditi – please I really am fine. I can stay on the camp. Please don’t change schedules on my account.”
It eventually took thirty minutes for Aditi and Aman to conclude that they did need to go and finish the program for the rest of them. Aman had looked at her wound again and agreed with Khushi that she didn’t need a tetanus shot or antibiotics given the burn was not deep. There was however the question of leaving Khushi back by herself on the camp. Arjun offered to stay back but was shot down by Khushi and Aditi both – Khushi because she didn’t want Arjun to miss out on the second rafting experience – especially since he had been very excited about it unlike the first time around and Aditi because it just didn’t make sense to leave one participant in charge of the other. Aman and Aditi couldn’t stay since they were already short two people – Arnav and Mohan. Eventually, it was decided that Khushi would be fine on her own since all she needed was to rest in her tent. The cook – a woman Aditi referred to as Asha Chachi whom Khushi or any of the others had seen only glimpses of – would be on the camp to prepare food for her and help her with anything else she needed.
She stayed in the tent as Aditi, Aman and Arjun walked out and away from the camp – half in pain and half out of rising embarrassment that finally seemed to be making an appearance as the state of her torn T-shirt and exposed skin dawned on her. She didn’t need to be, of course. None of them had made her aware of her state. Not even Arjun – who just this morning so much as declared that he would make sure she understood that things – and by which she was sure he meant physical things – would be different between them.
Was it okay that she was so relieved that he wasn’t aware of her state of undress?
“You are not undressed, Kaveri Gupta. Women wear lesser and still remain decently covered. Look at you making a fuss out of a bared shoulder and some.” She scolded herself loudly as she walked up to the tent and threw the flap open to see the last of the rafts drifting away along the bend downstream. A part of her was sad to see them go. Four days ago, she had not imagined having to stay out when she would have been happy to participate. And now…She took a deep breath and hobbled back to the bed – her feet still shaky from the encounter. She walked up to the small mirror hanging by a nail on the far end of the tent and turned around to look at her wound. It looked awful and felt even worse if that was possible. Still, it was the mangled T-shirt that bothered her most. Sighing, she walked up to her small suitcase and rummaged through it till she found a large shirt she used as a night-shirt sometimes and decided to change.
She got out of her t-shirt with significant effort and greater pain but managed to get if off over her head with little chafing along the bruise. Aditi had already pulled her hair up into a high bun and wrapped a rubber band around it. If she were a smaller person, she decided with a pout, she might have had the luxury to go bra-less. Unfortunately for her, she was destined to stay uncomfortable as her left bra-strap stayed pulled down her shoulder. She pulled on her white shirt, wincing as the cotton brushed against her back. She let several top buttons open and pushed the shirt back down on the back so that her back remained largely unhidden.
She stared at her reflection in the little mirror and made a face even as she pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. The lack of blood in her face only made her look even more severe than she usually did. The only thing feminine about her was her neck and the presence of very prominent collar bones.
And her hands.
She smiled as she placed her fingers against her neck. Tripti always said that she had beautiful hands. She usually dismissed her sister’s praise. But she couldn’t deny that her fingers were thin and long – the hands of an artist – even though there was nothing artistic about her. She used her hands a lot too, she knew. Tripti would often joke that when she spoke, she gestured and as a result people rarely looked at anything other than her hands and her eyes. Eyes, Khushi knew no one could really see beyond her glasses. But hands, yes.
She smiled and shook her head, turning it left and right in a rare moment of vanity as she stretched her neck further and finally let her hands drop when the minute of carefree self-appreciation threatened to quickly spiralled out of control and gave way to feelings eternal dissatisfaction with her appearance.
What did Arjun see in her?
She took a deep breath as she walked away from the mirror and plonked herself on the bed, grimacing as bruise stretched and dug into her skin.
Arnav had a similar accident last year. She remembered seeing that gash on his arm – long and dark – almost roguish in essence. It gave the appearance of something elusive – she didn’t know what to call it but it had been incredibly sexy.
And now she would have one very similar mark down her back. Except hers would look like someone hit her with a whip. “Ouch,” she muttered, cringing at the thought of more flayed skin. Shaking her head, she reached out for her Walkman and plugged her earphones in her ear. As the music from the tape filled her ears and made her smile, she reached out for the novel she had carried with her and began reading. She didn’t want to pay attention to the songs or think of the man who had challenged her decision to keep this tape and implied it had meant something to her. The man who was not committed to anyone else at the moment. The man who had kissed her – and told her in so many words that what she wanted, might now be possible.
Arjun, she reminded herself as she let her eyes travel back to the first sentence on the page open in front of her. She needed to think of Arjun.
That helped her for exactly five minutes more even as the words in black ink blurred and her eyes drifted close.
It was not draining batteries killing her favorite music into a slow warped sound, but the call of her name being used in a conversation somewhere in her vicinity, that woke her. Two voices were crackling outside – urgent and indistinct. But only one of them made her jump up.
She blinked and allowed her eyes to adjust to the bright light in her tent as she used wiped her mouth clean of embarrassing sleep drool and pushed her shirt up and away from her wound. The throbbing in her back was now more like a rhythmic pulse, the burn far deeper in her skin than it had been. Her back, neck and upper arm muscles on the injured side felt stiff and painful but the burn itself didn’t sting as much as it had. The meds had helped and she could focus on other things of import. For instance it was beginning to dawn on her just how hot insides of camp tents could get during the day. Having never spent the late morning and early afternoons inside, she had no idea how oppressing it would get. But now, the clothes were sticking uncomfortably to her body.
The answer to both heat and the imminent appearance of Arnav in front of her was to get out of the tent. She quickly swung her legs down and stood up, pulled her earphones out and let the now silent Walkman fall back on to the bed. She quickly adjusted her shorts and was wiping her glasses with her shirt when the flap of the tent opened.
She should have said something about him barging in like that when she could have really been – No, no please, not undressed, she urged her mind to change that word. It made her cheeks warm and forced her to lower her eyes when all she wanted to do was face him with confidence. She quickly put her glasses back on and blinked as she struggled to see anything except the dark silhouette at the entrance framed by glaring gold of the sun outside. She wished she hadn’t been as much of a mess as she was at the moment. Her shirt was still pulled away all the way to her neck and hanging loosely on her back, riding up her front enough to expose sections of her generous mid-riff to the gentle stream of air that he had brought in. Her hair was falling out of the makeshift bun and her eyelids were still heavy from mid-morning sleep. She had every right and reason to point out his lack of regard for her personal space. But all she could think of now was the kiss dancing on her lips and the hopeless words he had last left her with.
It should have been weird standing like that in a stifling hot tent and staring at each other.
Except it wasn’t especially since neither of them seemed to know what to say. Or do.
So she stayed where she was – at the edge of her bed, knowing there was nothing she could expect her limbs or her brain to do. And hence it was Arnav who walked up, his gaze never leaving hers till he was standing close enough for her to see her streaks of wind in his hair and grit in his otherwise sparkling eyes. He smelled of mountain and sun and fresh river water, dark patches of wetness all across the front of his T-shirt – like he had rafted across in a hurry.
To get to her? Ha! Wishful thinking, Khushi, she laughed at herself wryly. He couldn’t even have known about her accident till he got to the camp.
Her eyes dropped to the gash on his bare arm – long and angry all the way from bicep and just above the wrist – as his scanned her face and slid down the side of her neck to the place where she had allowed her shirt to fall away from her body. Suddenly she was aware of nothing but an invisible crackle in the air between them.
He stepped closer and lifted his right hand to push her shirt further away and bent forward, almost in a half hug. She forced herself to keep her eyes open even as they threatened to give in to his proximity. For all the times she had sniggered at fictional women who did, she was pretty sure she was this close to swooning into his arms. So she straightened her back and forced herself to not shudder when his fingertips brush against her neck.
“It hurts worse than it looks, doesn’t it?” He whispered hoarsely as he pulled his upper body back and stared into her eyes.
Her throat was dry and it was not just the heat. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth and refused to let her respond.
“They should have taken you to the doctor. This needs a shot.”
She looked up into his eyes then and shook her head. “No, I am fine. It…it probably looks worse than it is.”
“It won’t work. I know exactly how it is.” He said as he indicated to his arm which was still holding her shirt by the collar. “The pain killers are masking the pain for now. But it will wear off before the next dose. And the skin that is blistering will break. That will puts you at risk for infection. A shot is practical.”
She glanced at the bruise and looked back up. “Aditi…” She began and changed her mind, her shoulder and back now throbbing with the hovering touch of his hand. The blood in her veins was gushing into her ears. It was almost as if a curtain of intense emotion was falling thickly around her. It was in the way he was holding her clothes, in the way his frame seemed to ease into her space. It would be so easy to let herself fall into his embrace. It would be easier still for him to wrap his arms around her. “Your sister,” She continued, “said yours was worse…Mine is only a first…” She didn’t want to talk. She didn’t want to stand here and be tempted like this. She needed to step away. She needed him to go.
“We are going to Rishikesh,’ He declared as his fingers pulled at her shirt.
She shook her head without looking at him. She wasn’t going anywhere with him. He was driving her crazy. Like all her feelings weren’t enough – now he had go and tempt her like this…He knew she had made her decision. Why then was he doing this to her?
“You need to get that shot, Kaveri.” He whispered stepping closer. If she so much as breathed, she would brush against him. “And it’s just a forty minute ride away. Arjun will know it was necessary, if that’s what you are worried about.”
She looked up at him and felt a sliver of anger bubble up to the surface of her stretched nerves. How dare he say that? How dare he use Arjun’s name like a taunt? How dare he assume…
When she looked into his eyes, however, the words on her lips died. His eyes were blazing, his sunrise irises the very image of flame itself. His face was set, his lips pursed into a straight line. And yet there was a tremble she could see as clearly as the lashes that fringed his lids into curves. He really did have the most beautiful eyes.
“Are you with him now?” He asked as his fingers curled into her shirt and tugged.
She didn’t want to tell him that she was but that Arjun didn’t know it yet. So she shook her head.
“Would you really have kissed me that evening?”
She didn’t want to tell him what he already seemed to know so well. So she nodded ever so slightly.
“Can I kiss you now?”
She didn’t know what to say to a question that was as much a kiss of his breath against her lips as it was one of asking of permission to do more. So she stepped forward, put her hands in his chest and touched her mouth to his.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Tere Dar Par Sanam
Album: Phir Teri Kahaani Yaad Aayi
Singer: Kumar Sanu
Music: Anu Malik
Lyrics: Qateel Shifai
Bin tere koi aas bhi na rahi,
Itne tarase ki, pyaas bhi na rahi
Ladkhadaayee kadam, chale aaye
Tere dar par sanam, chale aaye
Tu na aaya toh hum, chale aaye
- One of my absolute favorites from the 90s the song I use here. I have waited to use it and please don’t be surprised if it shows up again in the future
- I will pick up exactly where I left in the next chapter.
- Next update: Sunday, Sep 4, 2016 – late night IST