“Why aren’t you at a business school this year?”
Khushi sighed in relief as Arnav took charge of the awkwardness between them with determination in his voice and manner. They had finished the remainder of their lunch in silence after she had uttered the words she never really thought she would ever be saying to anyone, leave alone this man now sitting beside her on the rock they had shared two days ago. She had all but indicated that she was in love with him – enough to think of futures which didn’t seem promising given such diversity in geography. The ride in the mountains, the little trip down to Rishikesh and back had pretty much sealed her commitment to Arnav – which was little progress considering how much she had already been committed to him the last four years.
What was still bothering her was his reasons for being exactly where she was. Yes, there was the possibility that he was also attracted to her – which was ridiculous to even imagine. How could he be? She had seen herself in the mirror – as much as she avoided it. And she had seen him. He was at least an 8 on 10 in the looks department – this was her being stingy. And she was…Sure she wasn’t hideous. But she was fat. And with those glasses…at the most a 5. 8s didn’t fall for 5s. She had always assumed successful couples fell around the same range on most parameters – looks, upbringing, financial status, career prospects and success. It just made logical sense to think of romance in reality like that.
And yet with Arnav and her…What was it? How was she to find out? Asking would be pathetic. It would give away more of her than she wanted to. And not asking…well that just spelled disaster in her head.
What could she ask anyway? And what were the possible answers? What if he thought she was his best bet given he knew how she felt about him – and even if he wasn’t here nursing a broken heart, he did have a past history of having been rejected. Could she blame him if he was going with the safe option here? And if he was – was she okay with being the safe option, being taken for granted even? What about toe-curling passion – that kiss they shared earlier…even in her severely limited – correction – in her complete lack of experience, that was not one of someone making do with the best option they had…Yet, there was a conscious effort to put distance between them. What was that…chivalry or…
Ugh. Stop stop stop. You are losing it again, Kaveri Gupta. She breathed in again and forced herself to dedicate herself to the safer topic he had picked. He was trying. She was going to too.
“I messed up the MAT. I wouldn’t even get to Tier II colleges with that score.” She admitted ruefully as she pried her eyes aware from the little rock in the middle of the river and turned to look at him. Despite the heat, sitting by the river and watching it flow on uncaring how much things changed in the lives of those who spent their days on her banks, was refreshing. And somehow, it seemed to be the place that made the most sense when she was with him – not unlike how it had been on that ghat in Benaras once
He looked at her in surprise. “It can’t be English. Or Math. What did you mess up? Logical Reasoning?”
Her mouth swung open in surprise. “Why?” She asked with a frown. “I mean, why did you assume…”
“Your English is good. Your Math has to be good – you made it to IE anyway. So…” He shrugged easily. He wasn’t judging clearly but to assume her weak point was Logical Reasoning – she frowned.
“I have good diction. That’s not the same as good English – at least not in the way MAT defines it.”
“So you messed up English?” He asked again patiently.
She colored and shook her head. “No. It was LR.”
He chuckled softly at that. “And it bothers you that it was LR? It doesn’t reflect on your personality, you know. It’s a test. And it has patterns that can be mastered. You just need to have the right guidance.”
She snorted without thought. “Typical speak. Of people who crack the test.”
He laughed out louder this time and her cheeks flared. Damn, she cursed. “When you start preparing for this year – which by the way you should right away – I’ll help. I might have some material back at home. I can have it couriered.”
She smiled. He really was quiet the senior from college. It suddenly made so much sense that he was here conducting a program on learning and development. It seemed like such an inherent part of him right back to the Engineering Drawing book recommendation. “I don’t know if I will take the MAT again. I might take the IMAT.”
He raised an eyebrow at that. “And international MBA? That’s a splendid idea. It costs a fortune though. Student loans usually mean earning in dollars for a few years. Staying away from…er..home…you’ll manage?”
She watched him carefully, willing her heart to stop galloping like it had taken to in hope. Was that slight hesitation an indication that he might not…
“But if that is what you want to do. You certainly must. International MBAs are worth so much more. And with the world collapsing and India’s growth stories, there seem to be many paths heading back to the country – with adjustments on expectations of course.”
She shook her head. “I haven’t thought about it properly. My parents will flip, of course.” She shrugged.
“Come on. Both Dr. Guptas are such professionals. I am sure they want their daughters to have the best.” He argued. “How are they, by the way? Did Sir make Head of Department yet?”
Khushi smiled. “He is not going to. Ma says he doesn’t have the office politics gene in him. Plus, he really seems to be so much keener on research. Being HoD has so much else that needs attending to. He – he can’t even to turn off the lights before he falls asleep.”
“He is a true academician. He was such a brilliant guide for my final year project.” Arnav smiled as he looked away. “And he gave me an A, which is always appreciated.”
She chuckled softly.
“All my friends had warned me against picking him. He hasn’t given too many As and he is…well…said to be a little absent on projects.”
Khushi grinned. “They weren’t wrong. He complains endlessly about being picked as a project guide. At the end of Second Year, he told me categorically that I was to not even entertain thoughts of him as a potential project guide. And that I was also to let my classmates know he wasn’t available to mentor any of them.” She chanced a look at his profile. “He must have liked you.” Not that it was difficult for anyone to like him. Even her father.
He looked at her, his smile slipping slightly as his eyes darkened under the sun which chose to peek out of a stray cloud at that very moment, throwing mustard beams that seemed to glide on water as the river turned green from grey.
“Anyway…” She spoke too quickly, hoping to break the little spell that could go nowhere under her own instructions. “International MBA is a distant shot. I was looking at domestic options – a cousin of mine went to School of Business in Hyderabad this year. He is all praise. But for that I need at least two years of work experience. So there is time.”
She looked away and clasped her palms together. There was so much to do yet. And yet, somehow…nothing seemed more important than this moment here. It was stupid and very unlike her but wasn’t love supposed to be like this? And maybe he would be the type of boyfriend who would help her be better than who she was…
Oh God. AV Sir. Somehow the term didn’t quite suit him. But if not that, what would he be to her? Hum Aapke Hain Kaun…The thought crossed her mind and made her giggle before she could check herself.
She shook her head quickly and schooled her face.
“Where is your sister? She must have finished school now?” He asked.
Khushi smiled at the thought of Tripti. “She is in Second Year now. At IE-V”
“IE-V?” He asked incredulous. “Not Mechanical?”
This time she positively laughed out aloud. “No, no. She saw me and decided she could never do without her girlfriends. It helped that she had a better rank. She managed to get Electronics,”
“So she gets your mother as a Professor.” He said with a grin. “The Guptas are quite at home at the IE-V, aren’t you?”
She grinned at him. “We are. And to think all of us were miserable when we had to move from Bombay.”
“I am not surprised. Mumbai is strangely addictive. Despite the little time that I spent there, I miss it sometimes.” He said softly and then smiled wryly. “But that can also be because it was the first time I spent any time in any big city. Patna, Benaras and then Ahmedabad.”
“And now Rishikesh,” She remarked. She could see why he had come here to nurse his wounds after that career debacle he had admitted to. Mountains and rivers had a way of realigning perspectives – at least in the short run. And then there was the heartfelt admission of wanting to repay his sister and brother-in-law for their kindness. Yet, he had mentioned something about this not being their only time together. It had been playing, quite joyously on her mind since that little admission minutes ago. “But there is more?” She asked tentatively.
“The River operates only twice a year for about two-three months – February to May and then October and November. Winters are too cold and Monsoons too erosive for the mountains. So we head down to the city. All three of us do short term projects, attend courses, sell more work. I have been working with a few firms off and on. And,” He turned to look at her. “One of them has asked me if I would be willing to join them full time.”
She raised an eyebrow in surprise. “And you are thinking of taking it. Wouldn’t Aman and Aditi…”
He smiled. “Both of them want me to go get a real career going. This, they argue, is not my dream.”
She looked at him curiously. “And it is important for everyone to have their own.”
“Isn’t it?” He countered with a bemused smile.
“Maybe some people will not have that luxury?”
He shook his head. “Every dream doesn’t have to be about starting something on your own. It can be about building a thirty year career from scratch. It can be about earning the freedom to do what you want. It can even be about being passionate enough to make mistakes continuously.”
He sounded so wise, so beautifully sorted at the moment – the AV Sir he was once. The one who talked about dreams and hopes and being excited about new worlds. She smiled in quiet victory. He was still there. And even more irresistible with the wounds and setbacks – physical and otherwise. “Where is their office – this job you are going to accept?” She asked.
“They have offices in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. I can choose. Though they would, I think prefer for me to be in Delhi.” He replied and then turned to look straight into her eye, the impact making her reel. Was it always going to be like this, she wondered? Even if this is how they lived for years – by the riverside. Talking. “You don’t know where you will be shipped off to. After this program?”
She shook her head. “I am going to ask for Marketing and Sales. That would be in Delhi – their headquarters.”
“But is Marketing and Sales open to GETs?” Arnav asked.
She shrugged. “Arjun says it isn’t. But why would they make us go through that stint if it wasn’t?” She countered much like she had with Arjun. “He is so sure I will get saddled with R&D….” She fell silent before the sentence could roll itself out from her voicebox. And powerful it was. Enough to spread like grease between the two of them, marring the stupor of evening silk spun around them from the golden weave of the sun.
A few moments later, he waded through the sticky heap of unresolved Arjun between them. “He never said anything at all? Nothing in four years?”
He was talking about Arjun. And he was saying what everyone had been saying. He had seen it too, then. Everyone saw it. Why had she been unable to believe it then?
“You never saw it coming?” He insisted.
“I have been mistaken often in interpreting others’ feelings” She admitted.
Once again silence yawned and stretched its fluid arms between them. She allowed herself to stay mute as her eyes fixed at the color changing sun that seemed to be on schedule in slipping behind the mountains.
The words were spoken like an apology – one she had, for once, not been fishing for. And yet, now that it was there – she wanted to hear more. In vindication of her eighteen year old heartbroken self. She blinked and turned to look at him, hoping that he wasn’t. She didn’t want to look into his eyes. After all she didn’t need to see or hear the regret – just needed confirmation that there were indeed two people there four years ago.
“I just didn’t know what it was. And there was…”
Would they ever be able to leap across the two names that lay between what was and what could be between them, she wondered.
“I know I owe you some answers about Saira. About what we had and what went wrong and how…” He turned to look at her, his eyes troubled and dark. His face was cast in a mesh of fine lines and worry planes that made it difficult for her to breath as she looked at him. “I’m not trying to get out of that. It’s just that I don’t know…what I should say and what would make things only worse between us now.”
She shook her head, the words she had wanted to say and yet couldn’t till this moment, slipping out with enviable ease. “You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.” She hesitated for a second. “You don’t have to tell me anything at all.” She said softly. He was right. There was no way to know what was important and what wasn’t. How was anything about Saira going to help? The only thing she wanted to know was what happened four years ago between them. And he had almost answered it. He had felt something for her enough to be confused. As long as there was no Saira anymore…
“You can’t mean that, Khushi. There must be something you want to know. Ask me what you do. And I promise to answer honestly. I can tell you everything and yet I know portions of the story have no bearing on us except to erode the shine of what…”
Of what they were feeling. She completed the sentence in her head as his words trailed away. She saw him glance at her hand that placed on her left and just inches away from his thigh. For a moment, it seemed like he would reach out and take her palm in his. She wanted him to. And yet…He was right. There were two things she needed to know. And she was not going to let stupidity take over and let things remain unsaid.
“Do you still miss her?” She asked softly.
He shook his head without missing a beat. “No. Not in the way you mean. I think of her fondly. We’ve known each other all our lives. There are moments…” He hesitated again. “…of friendship, just being together – that are linked to my happy days. That’s all.”
She blinked and looked away. She knew his answer was as beautifully human as he was. And yet she couldn’t wonder if she would have preferred a single unequivocal “no” like he had uttered when quizzed about his romantic availability.
“See, this is why…” He muttered something unintelligible under his breath and then spoke again. “If I were to see her again – and I have once since we officially ended our relationship – I would feel nothing that I wouldn’t feel for a childhood friend.”
She nodded even as she felt like an immature idiot who needed declarations as strong as this to feel better. She should have known not to force him to say it. Even if he didn’t sound like he was forced. And she should have known better than to voice the question she knew she was going to ask next.
“Why did you…” She checked herself before she could complete that statement. She didn’t need to know, she assured herself. He had just declared that chapter was over in his life. That should be enough for her. “No,” She shook her head. “Nothing.”
“Why Saira and I broke up.” He supplied nevertheless, catching on to her faster than she could rein her stray thoughts and impromptu questions.
Silence screamed in her head following the promise of a twisting knife in his words. Enough to scare her. “You really don’t have to talk about it. I don’t want to know. You are right. What good can come off of it?”
He smiled ruefully and shook his head. “It’s…it’s best to let secrets all out with people who care about each other. It damages – even the most innocuous ones…” He looked away, his shoulders strained and his profile set. “I just couldn’t be what she wanted me to be and…” He took a deep breath. “It’s a long story. And…” He turned to look at her. “I can hear the rafts. The team is back.”
Khushi turned her neck immediately and sure enough she could see a file of men walking down on the other side, rafts were making their way on to the other side – Mohan and another helper who must have stayed behind on the camp or come back with Arnav – she didn’t know – at the helm of each raft.
She jumped off the rock and realized that the little day straight out of her dreams had been rudely cut short. She needed to talk to Arjun. And yet…her palms turned cold. She turned to look at Arnav – who not surprisingly – was on his feet as well, and focused on reality waiting to intrude on them.
Before she could avert her eyes, his gaze found hers and caught. She felt his fingers curl around her wrist a second before she had to lift her eyes to stay connected with him, as he stepped closer. “Meet me tonight?” His hands slipped to her palms and fingers linked. She could feel a thousand currents of air swoosh past them in electric friction. A thrill ran up her spine and curved on her lips.
This was not over.
She nodded with a small, tentative and not completely happy smile.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Aur Kya
Album: Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani
Singers: Alka Yagnik, Abhijeet
Music: Jatin Lalit
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Dhadak raha hai dil mera
Jhuki jhuki si hai palkein yahan
Jo dil mein ho, woh keh bhi do
Jazbaat maange zubaan
- This chapter is for all those who used the phrase “stolen moments” in their comments on the last couple of chapters!
- Next Update may be delayed. I will try my best to update on Monday, Oct 3, 2016 but I do have a rough week ahead at work. Please look for a note on the Index page.
- Please excuse typos!