It was little credit to her that the conversation with Arjun when they were alone in the tent after Aditi had enquired after her and left, was as normal as it could get under the circumstances. It had also helped that they had gotten through the surprise that came with the knowledge of Arnav having taken her to the doctor in Rishikesh for her tetanus shot and burn dressing, in Aditi’s presence. Arjun, to his credit had framed his response rather lightly and in jest. As opposed to what she was sure he did wonder in his head given how her feelings for Arnav had been a point of conversation between them so recently.
Once Aditi had enquired after her and left them alone, she quickly changed the topic between Arjun and her. Arjun was either perceptive enough to play along or was genuinely excited to fill her in on all the adventures of the longer rafting route. Either way, he obliged.
She smiled to herself as she watched him continuously following gazes as he paced in the tent and described how much more exciting rafting had been today than it had been the first time around. They had skipped cliff jumping at the start which Arjun said was Aman’s tribute to her injury and resulting absence. He had seated himself at the outer edge – on special request and had rowed with more enthusiasm than he was thought he was capable of. They swam in the free stretches of the river again and this time, Arjun declared, he stayed within the periphery of the raft – especially given he didn’t have distractions that could almost drown him. He said the last part with an exaggerated wink which made Khushi’s face flame with remorse as the full import of what she needed to do to him became apparent.
For the time that Arjun spoke, she kept her gaze averted and her face slightly turned away as she pretended to put her tent in order. How could she look at Arjun or let him look at her? Surely he would see the proof of her betrayal in the kissed glow that she could feel in every nerve ending?
Betrayal? No, she urged herself to believe otherwise even though she knew in her heart that she had wronged him. By not saying no decidedly when he had first declared his feelings. By promising – even if to herself only – that she would give them a chance. And finally by breaking that promise at the very first opportunity that presented itself. Even if it was in the form of love long brushed away in despair.
“Arjun,” She said softly as he paused in his narration. She had no clue why she had interrupted him. And yet, it seemed like she needed to talk. Perhaps it was time to tell him the truth. How was waiting going to help anyway? Shiv-ji – she prayed – help.
He stopped pacing and looked up at her, his eyes smiling like they always did. “You are going to ask me to shut-up, aren’t you?” He asked sheepishly.
She smiled and shook her head. “I can’t believe you are the same person who was stone-faced and rigid the entire time we were rafting together less than forty-eight hours ago.”
He grinned and came to sit on her bed as she stood by it, attempting to pack her things back into the large suitcase she had carried. “I was nervous about too many things that day.” He said quietly and then smiled at her, a strange, beautifully calm, uncharacteristic smile. “And before you ignore that, I was nervous about you most of all.”
She took a deep breath and looked away. “Arjun,”
“Kaveri,” He said softly and reached out to pull her by her hand and forced her to sit next to him. He nudged her shoulder with his and she had no choice but to turn and look at him.
“I still don’t understand,” She asked him as her eyes scanned his face for tells she knew from her four years. When he was joking, his brows seemed to touch his forehead, the cleft in his chin deepened. When he was serious – rare as it was – his eyelids would droop, almost as if he didn’t want people to see that side of him. When he was happy, everything about him shone – radiant. She had always joked that he was too light complexioned for his own good. She realized now that over the last four years, his face had changed. The color on his skin was more golden – perhaps the lack of indulgence that came with staying at home. His hair – he wore it short now, close cropped and almost military-ish in essence. He had always been more lanky than tall. Now, the edges seemed slightly more rounded. He was, without doubt, very easy on the eye. She should be so lucky to have someone like him by her side – wanting to be there – explicitly. And yet, here she was – breaking his heart and smashing it to smithereens by hiding the fact that she had broken it.
“I missed you. Just like you said you missed me. I guess the last six months made me think and here…it just became clearer.”
Oh God. It was her. She had said it. And yet the way he was replaying it now. What he had heard was not what she had said.
“And then, Pyaar dosti hai, remember?” He said with chuckle that was only half brimming with the usual lightness that came from such banter.
She plich-ed and sighed audibly in the same breath, suddenly tired that she hadn’t paid as much attention as she should have, to this side of Arjun that brushed everything under the light blanket of cheer that he carried with him. “You don’t even like that movie. I mean even I don’t approve of it when I am sane and rational.”
He chuckled at that and nudged her shoulder again. “Fine. It was stupid. But the man has a point. There is little difference between love and friendship. You need to share same values, an understanding of each other’s dreams, and moments of togetherness that never seem to wear out. And we…” He shrugged. “Can you deny that we have all of that?”
“It’s not that simple.” She said and looked away. She wanted to change the topic and just come out and tell him about Arnav. And yet, something held her back. It was of course, primarily her life long battle with confrontation. But it was also something else…She shook her head. No, she needed to say it. “The difference between love and friendship is one moment of shared physical awareness.” She looked at him again. “I cannot believe that you find me attractive, Arjun. I see myself in the mirror every day.”
“You mean you don’t see yourself in the mirror every day,” He pointed out with a twisted smile.
“I know what I will see. So I don’t pay attention.” She countered and then shook her head. This was not about how she felt about herself. “Moreover, I have seen the girls you dated. They were the two most sought after girls from our batch – from an aesthetic appeal and otherwise. I have personally overhead at least five people from our class cursing you because you got to be with Surabhi.”
Arjun laughed and shook his head. “Kavi, you are crazy. Is this your version of being jealous?”
She frowned. Was she jealous? No, she was not. She had never been. When Arjun had dated, she had missed the time he would have otherwise spent with her but never enough to wish he hadn’t dated.
“Don’t answer. I can see the no written all over your face.” He said with an exaggerated sigh and then turned around to face her fully. “Look, first of all. You are attractive,” He put a hand up to stop her from interrupting, “You are in a strange, non-Bollywood way,”
“Thank you,” She said wryly which he ignored.
“And maybe half the reason is that you have no clue that you are. Do you know how many people would have given an arm and a leg to have you date them?”
“Arjun,” She began. “Don’t…” She turned to face him too, both of them sitting with one leg folded and under them while the other swung gently in the air, skimming the floor of her tent. “I was not fishing. You don’t have to make this up to…”
“I am not making this up. Nishant Sir – remember him? The man was I think this close to coming up to asking you out.”
“He asked me. If we were going out. In second year.”
She stared at him with wide eyes. “And you said yes? Is that why he didn’t…” She shook her head. This was ridiculous and so typically Arjun. “This is not true. I know that.”
“He didn’t because have you seen yourself? You walk around with nine feet walls around you. You don’t even look at people who happen to be in your path. And those glasses – they are such a convenient curtain. The fact that your parents were – are – Profs…It’s easier solving world peace problems.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you asked if I am attracted to you. And the answer is…”
She shook her head, looked away and put her hand up. “Arjun, please don’t…”
“Then don’t ask such questions. Even if it is your convoluted way of telling me that you aren’t attracted to me.”
She couldn’t look back at him. He was right in a way. She wasn’t attracted to him. She might be if she tried. But she knew she didn’t have to always try. After all, she was attracted to someone else. And that was as instinctive as breathing. And it had clearly stayed unchanged for four years.
“Thankfully, Kaveri” Arjun continued with a smile in his voice. “My vanity is stronger than your ability to break…”
“Don’t say it.” She interjected urgently and narrowed her eyes as she looked up at him. “Let’s talk about something else.” She urged and then shook her head at him even as he opened his mouth. “Even if I was the one who started it.”
“Maar dalo, Kaveri Gupta.” He said as he gave her shoulder another nudge.
“Chhe…” She clucked and pushed him away. Then she rose to get back to her cleaning even as Arjun continued to stare at her with a curious smile.
“Okay, then tell me about the motorbike trip to Rishikesh.”
She kept going with what she was doing even as everything stilled in her head. She had asked for this. She wanted to dismiss it as nothing. But if she did that, he would know it was more than nothing. She needed to give him the truth and still keep enough away…till when she didn’t know…Shit….
“How did he convince you to make the trip? I am impressed.”
“He scared me. With tetanus. And lockjaw.” She answered as truthfully as she could.
Khushi looked up to see Arjun staring at her in confusion.
“Lockjaw. It is the symptom of a tetanus infection. Basically your jaw seizes and then these seizures can spread to the rest of your body – it causes bone fractures and can be pretty…” She explained and then colored as she realized he was staring at her like she was mad. It was not an unusual response. Most people were surprised by her almost unhealthy obsession with biology. Especially given how removed it was from her life.
“Arre Wikipedia, why do you know this?”
“Err…because I did pass Middle School Biology.” She replied with a roll of her eyes. “And I like Biology.”
“Tum pagal ho, Kavi. Seriously, I never realized you are a hypochondriac” Arjun said incredulously.
“I am not a…”
“And,” He said without missing a beat even as she huffed at his accusation. “AV Sir – he knew it would work with you. That is…” He looked at her, his eyes scanning her face as if looking for clues that were flashing bright red in her cheeks. She watched, without tearing her gaze from his. If she needed to tell him – this was as good a starting point as any.
But before she could say anything, he was already getting up and stepping away from her.
“Arjun,” She called, suddenly as nervous as she should have been right at the beginning of this conversation. Don’t break my heart.
He turned to look at her. “I need to go change and freshen up. I just wanted to make sure you are okay. And you…” He smiled strangely before shaking his head. “I’ll catch up with you later, okay?”
She nodded mutely, knowing that this was not the time for her to speak to him about saying no, much less for telling him about Arnav.
By the time skies went on to don their inky coats that evening, Arjun was back to being his usual Arjun self – laughing, cheerful and brimming with banter – with Khushi and everyone else around them. Except now, Khushi was fairly sure she saw the visible ticks of strain in his temple as he went about the group recollecting anecdotes from the rafting trip that he filled her in on and yet didn’t seem quite as eager as he was before to do so.
It didn’t help that in the distance, Arnav Varun seemed to be withdrawn into a shell more visible but just as well-defined as the one that was spinning around Arjun in thick streaks of growing silence. She could feel every bone in her body screaming in protest as she continued to walk along the bank, away from everyone and yet never distant enough. Arnav, she knew would not approach her yet. He would meet her later once everyone was comfortable snuggled in. Arjun, on the other hand, seemed to avoid her as discreetly as possible and eventually told her that he was planning to turn in early because he was utterly exhausted. When she had stared at him in mounting worry, he had put an arm around her and pulled her closer for a brief moment and urged her to not think more of it than it was.
It was almost eleven her phone-now-being-used-only-to-tell-time told her, when she decided to step out of her tent and walk towards the bank of the Ganga for her midnight rendezvous. In some way, the distance Arjun had put between then this evening had helped immensely even if she was just as guilty as she had been in the evening. However, the predominant emotion now seemed to be one of fluttering butterflies in the stomach and recurring flashes of blood-warmed fever. Thanks to her bandaged wound, she now was decently clothed – once again in the best pair of night clothes possible – closely matched pajamas and a sleep-shirt that she could spare. Her hair was, unlike the last time she had anticipated a meeting like this, open – a fact she regretted just minutes after stepping out of the tent. It was particularly windy tonight and her hair was uncomfortably plastered all over her face even as she struggled to pull them back into a self-tied knot.
She walked all the way up to the river and then turned to her left – in the direction of where she knew Arnav’s charpoy stayed hidden. She refused to let her lips curve into a smile that was knocking against her senses. She fought the memory of urgent kisses that threatened to force her hand into breaking the resolve she had so confidently thrown between Arnav and her. It is just going to be talking – and mostly about Saira. It is by no means intended to be a romantic night under the stars. Don’t forget that, Kaveri Gupta.
Nodding to herself as the warning settled into her thoughts she slowed and gently hobbled down the little slope by the large rock when the charpoy came into view. And with it, it’s owner.
On his stomach, facing her even as one arm curved against the squished part of his face and up over his head. One leg curved and the other remained straight, heel up. His eyes were hidden – one by the charpoy and the other by his eyelid.
He was fast asleep.
The smile finally broke through the self-imposed restraint. He looked positively gorgeous, sleeping like that in total abandon, as if sleep had finally defeated him in a battle long contained. She stepped closer, now careful to keep her footing light. Once she was close enough to touch the edge of the charpoy, she crouched, bringing herself level with his sleeping form. She now saw his long eyelashes resting against his cheeks and the gash on his arm that had intrigued her, teased her and now called out to her in their shared pain. A part of her simply wanted to stroke the skin and ease even if just the memory of pain away – perhaps in an effort to let go of some of her own that she could sense under her own skin. Another part of her wanted to do so much more – and not everything was as simple as a mere stroke of skin on her palm. A kiss. Many kisses. A sweep of her tongue. Many sweeps… Her face flushed again at the direction of her own thoughts and the smile shifted.
She forced herself up even as her eyes remained stuck to Arnav and that scar along his arm. The wind swirled and made her shiver. But it seemed to have no impact on the man sleeping in front of her. He was clad in jeans and the black River t-shirt. And he probably had just fallen asleep which was probably why the nip in the air didn’t bother him. But it would get chilly pretty soon. And he…She walked aside, telling herself that she wasn’t being filmy even as she looked for a duvet or dohar of some sort to cover him with. There was his guitar and a bottle of water. But no sheet.
She chewed her left thumbnail in thought even as she ignored the urge to bend down and press a small kiss on his cheeks – not one of passion but just…
She took a step back instead and turned away, shaking away the little pinch of disappointment that came with the knowledge of lost time together. He was sleeping like he needed the rest. That should mean more than his being awake and eager to meet her.
Just one more night by the Ganga.
She walked quickly now as the voice in her head sighed and groaned. She was hardly a few metres away from the charpoy when she heard footsteps. But before panic or embarrassment of any order could fully dawn on her, she was facing Aditi Sinha, the latter looking as shocked as Khushi knew she did.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Yaaron
Album: Pal, Rockford
Singer: K. K.
Music: Leslie Lewis
Teri har ek, burai pe, daante woh dost
Gham ki dhoop, toh saya bane, tera woh dost
Nache bhi woh, teri khushi mein
Yaaron, dosti, badi hi haseen hai
Yeh na ho toh, kya phir bolo yeh zindagi hai?
Tan man kare, tujh pe fida, mehboob woh
Palkon pe jo rakhe tujhe, mehboob woh
Jiski wafa, tere liye ho
Arre yaaron, mohabbat, hi toh bandagi hai
Yeh na ho toh, kya phir bolo yeh zindagi hai?
Note: I ducked Asli Duniya this week. But I know it has slings all ready to be hurled my way. So the timing of the next update remains undecided. Even if I do manage to post next Monday (Oct 10, 2016), it will be a short one. Thank you all for being so patient and for being here week after week!