For Priya (ladkikijhy) – who would’ve thought?
Some time during the night, sleep crept up and cast its magic dust on them even as they talked. They had covered a variety of topics starting from favorite color to his first year at IE-V to her favorite parts of the campus – the library, the ghat and the canteen. And yet when sleep pulled them away from the little cloud they had been cocooned in, it had been in the knowledge that there would be more words and one day – perhaps even comfortable silences.
When Khushi opened her eyes to the clearer sound of the morning river, she was sprawled against his chest and he was half lying down on the floor and half leaning against her bed. She was shocked that they had fallen asleep like this – unaware of how or who had been the first to give in to slumber. As she straightened herself and pulled away from him, she realized that all her limbs hurt, especially her hand which she seemed to have slept on. She looked at him in distress – she had actually put all her upper body weight on him all night – and now his neck was tilted at an odd angle, enough to scare her it would snap into two. If she felt this much discomfort – he was going to wake up with worse.
Without thought, she leaned in closer and put her hand on his shoulder to gently whisper his name – aware that this was the first time she was calling him by his first name. It felt intimate and yet fairly expected – after all she had slept through the night in his arms. Her cheeks flushed like they had never tasted blood before as the absolute ridiculousness of her own thoughts teased a smile at her lips.
His eyes opened and Khushi waited as she watched him blink, those sunrise irises slipped in and out of view and his eyes focused on her and widened in surprise.
“It’s going to be morning, soon.” She said softly.
He straightened silently and both of them rose in unhurried but definite movements, clearly signaling the end of the night that still seemed to sing in her ears, a song of tingling nerves that seemed to be so ingrained under her skin that there were seconds when she didn’t even notice them.
“It’s not yet four.” Arnav commented softly as he glanced at his watch. He rotated his neck and winced as he acknowledged the cricks she had known he would wake up to. “I’ll head out now.”
Before anyone could see him leave her tent. It didn’t need to be said and yet there it was, present in big bold letters. A part of her was thrilled with the secrecy – worlds had a way of intruding cruelly afterall. The other part of her was thick with tension. It was the last day at the River for all practical purposes – they would leave mid-morning tomorrow – that left her with no time at all. And she had the very unpalatable task of giving Arjun her answer and hopefully carving out a path from here that would preserve what she had and could with both Arjun and Arnav.
And perhaps spot a flying unicorn and a glimmering rainbow to neatly wrap up the dream in a shiny little golden package of everlasting sunshine
She quashed the little voice in her head with a visible shake. “I’m going to speak with Arjun today.” She declared loudly, more to herself than to Arnav. First thing in the morning.
He looked at her blankly and nodded after a long moment. “You should tell him about us. You mentioned he asked once. He will again.”
She almost wanted to smile at the absolute authority in his voice when he said us. But now the nerves were back to being strung and brittle. So she shook her head stiffly. “It won’t help him. I’ll tell him eventually but not…not today….” How did one tell her best friend that no she couldn’t consider his romantic proposition because she has infact already accepted an unspoken one from the very person she had declared vehemently being uninterested in.
“Time isn’t going to change anything, Khushi. How he feels about us today will not be different from how he feels three months from now. If anything, three months from now there will be the added guilt of having kept it hidden.”
She shook her head. Arnav was not wrong. But surely having had the time to process her rejection would prepare Arjun a little at least for news about her acceptance of someone else? And then, he did promise to help make things normal. He would try. And so would she. And in the course of the time that she knew it would take for their relationship to heal, she would try to be more open about her feelings – exactly what Arjun had accused her of not being. She would change something. And he would be able to see that she had done it with the intention of trying to do right by him. Of course, he would. Now…here at this camp…the break would be too severe…and perhaps lasting? No, she couldn’t afford that. She couldn’t lose Arjun completely.
Arnav took a deep breath and opened his mouth to say something and decided otherwise even as she stared. Then he smiled at her, a strange regret in his face as he looked at her silently for a long moment. She tried to smile brighter than she knew she would naturally. This was hardly goodbye – just a temporary recess so that they could start afresh soon. “Will you fall asleep at the charpoy today as well?” She asked as she tried to inveigle an invitation for another, possibly a last rendezvous by the River.
This time the smile did crack open wider than before but it seemed like a shadow of sorts had stationed itself between them for some unknown reason. “I won’t. Whatever happens – I will wait.” He said softly and then whispered a quick bye and turned to hurry out of the tent, leaving Khushi surprised and slightly scared.
“Arjun, we need to talk.”
She rolled her eyes at how corny the dialogue sounded even as she fiddled with the single poori on her plate and looked up once again in the direction of Arjun’s room. Usually, Arjun’s consistent late-coming – irrespective of the importance of the event in question – only amused her. Today, it was annoying. Why couldn’t the man be on time for once in life? Here she was unable to even push one poori down her throat even as her stomach growled in hunger and he…Arjun was in all probability just waking up to the fifty seventh wake-up reminder of one of his tent-mates.
“We need to talk.” Khushi scoffed silently. No one actually used those words, did they? And yet, the phrase now had almost self explanatory status now. So perhaps…
“Good morning, Kaveri Gupta.”
She looked up to see Arjun standing in front of her, fresh and ready like he was waiting to take on the world. She blinked rapidly to make sure she hadn’t conjured him up when she heard his low chuckle and was assured he was real. Oh God. He was real. And she was….She rose with the plate in her hand and then quickly set it aside. “Arjun,” She began, all thought of incredulous dialogue and over-used phrases flying out of the proverbial window as soon as she found herself drawn up to full height and staring into her friend’s eyes.
He shook his head and took a deep breath. “Oh no no….I haven’t even eaten yet, Kavi. And judging by that look,..I told you I don’t want the answer till the end of the trip.”
“I….” She looked around them and realized that a full breakfast area was not the venue she wanted for her talk with Arjun. A part of her, the one that hated confrontation and put if off as much as it usually could, cheered silently and suggested she push the discussion out. But the other part, the part that had been almost oblivious about the importance of Arjun’s friendship in her life, was raging forth. There was no time to wait. She needed to rip the bandaid off. She needed the wound she was about to expose to heal.
So she caught hold of his wrist, ignoring the look of absolute shock on Arjun’s face which on any other day might have elicited never-ending laughs from her, and walked out of the tent. She kept walking, grateful that Arjun seemed to have taken the hint and was following her with no resistance at all. She blinked as her fingers imagined his increased pulse agains the bulging veins at his wrist. She came to a stop by the edge of the Ganga, sharps sounds of river against rock in merging with the roaring of blood in her ears.
They faced each other as she let his hand go and waited for his face to become clearer beneath the increasing harshness of the morning sun. She knew what she had to tell him and yet she had no idea what she wanted to say. So she started where she knew how to. “I tried.”
“Did you? Really?”
The tone had changed between them in time that it had taken her to bring him to the edge of the river – literally and otherwise, she realized.
“I have no proof of it, Arjun. You have to trust me when I say I did.”
He chuckled painfully. “I should have known.” He took a deep breath and let his head hang in silence for many long moments before he looked up at her. “Fuck, I did know it.”
“Arjun, look I know you believe that you feel something…” She couldn’t even say it out aloud to him. Damn! “But I am not sure…I mean I don’t think you really you felt…”
“Oh no, Kavi.” He said sharply. “You don’t get to do that. There is no getting away from the fact that my feelings are real. As much as either of us would like to think, how I feel is not imaginary.”
“Arjun, I didn’t mean…”
“Of course you did, Kavi.” He bit out. “So now at least are you going to tell me there is someone else? That there always was. For you.”
There was no playing around with unnecessary words, she realized. It came to a boil like water that had stayed silently on low, blue flame for too long on a winter night. But still, it caught her by surprise and she shook her head even though she wanted to tell him. Either way, she was going to be the villain. She was already.
“Come on, Kavi. You don’t think I deserve the truth? It’s him. I know. I have always known. And not just because you are unvelievably easy to read. Because I saw it. Four years ago. And in the last four days.”
She watched in absolute silence as Arjun’s face darkened unlike she had ever seen it before. She wanted to shake her head, rub her eyes and wake up before this got worse. “This is not about how I feel about anyone else, Arjun. This is about the fact that I cannot bring myself to consider the option you presented. And I thought no was an option…”
Arjun closed his eyes and shook his head. “No was always the only option, Kavi, wasn’t it? Although you kept assuring me he wasn’t in the picture, he has always been the only picture in your head. But I am the idiot….I always just took your word for it. And I waited. Hoping that you would be able to be indifferent to him one day – like you claimed to be. Despite coming this close to telling you that night…I waited…I am the idiot…” He turned away and cursed loudly.
“I’m sorry, Arjun.” She whispered softly. And while he didn’t hear her apology, something he had just said rattled in her head as Arjun’s words replayed in her thoughts. “Came close to telling me how you felt that night…which night?” She knew her question had not fallen on angry unhearing ears. It was evident in the way his shoulder stiffened. She expected him to dismiss her question as unnecessary now. Instead he turned, his eyes suddenly bloodshot and almost wild.
“Are you guys together yet?”
She stayed silent this time. She knew she couldn’t deny it any longer. And yet confirming it, still seemed cruel. Arjun was angry with her. And he clearly had every right to be. She had led him to believe she was unattached when in reality she had never been. She had done to Arjun what she had accused Arnav to doing to her four years ago…
“So that is what this is about?” He mocked her with a cruel smile – one she didn’t recognize as Arjun’s. “Something did happen on the trip to Rishikesh yesterday, didn’t it? And you still told me there was nothing. And now you feel guilty. So here you are…” He shoved a hand through his hair. “This…this talk is to ease your conscience isn’t it? So you wouldn’t feel like you are breaking my heart?” He cursed again. “Oh wow, Kavi…I really don’t mean anything at all to you, do I? I wasn’t wrong. I was always just a convenient excuse to have around. Perhaps you always did know how I felt about you Kavi. How couldn’t you? Everyone did. Even the mighty AV-Sir. Infact he said so. He even offered to help me propose to you, did you know?”
She waited for something to change around her. Such accusations and declarations were meant for stormy nights and churning waters. But everything around her was as normal as it had been minutes ago. The morning was crisp and fresh, the sky brilliantly azure, the sun a blazing yellow on its way to becoming golden with heat. There was slight breeze and a River chuckled along. It was a beautiful day. Hardly one for such dramatic confessions. And yet, here it was – laid bare and stripped of all civility.
“You didn’t wonder why the list of songs got changed, Kavi. It didn’t even strike you as odd that it was me who told you about it.” He said softly.
“You were the only one who told me anything. Or not.” Khushi replied blankly. “And you are the one who decides when it is okay to tell me whatever you deem fit at the moment. Or not.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“It is supposed to mean exactly what I said. And there is no need to swear.”
He looked away and swore again, this time under his breath.
Where had the cheerfulness with which he had wished her good morning just minutes ago, disappeared to? When he looked at her and spoke, the hard edge in his voice was gone but his eyes still remained brittle. Fractured. “I changed it. We changed it – AV-Sir and I…so that it would be what…you wanted…what you would enjoy…The songs I selected were going to be a precursor to a declaration of my feelings.”
“I don’t understand.” She said a minute later. “You changed the songs. You selected them. All of them?” The question should have quivered and dissolved into tears. But it thrummed in the space between them – strong and sure.
“All the ones that weren’t on your original list.”
She blinked and tried to tear her eyes away from him. But where would she take her gaze to if not on Arjun? What if she saw in the distance the person who was so present between them? The person who apparently had always known how Arjun felt – enough to offer – no actually help him out?
“He always knew I felt more than just friendshio for you, Kavi. And I always wondered if he did the same. I even asked him. That’s when I found out about his girlfriend. And I wanted to tell you. But I saw the way you looked at him when you thought I wasn’t paying attention. And I know that look. Because I wished it for me. He assured me there was nothing, that there could never be. So I decided to not tell you. I hoped that once I told you about the songs after Aarohan, it wouldn’t matter. I am not proud of it, Kavi. I can hear myself. I know how ridiculously desperate and selfish I sound. But…”
But in that moment, it was not only Arjun’s desperation that was making its presence felt in her heart. It was also the words he had so carefully chosen to throw her way. Almost as if he wanted her heart to break. Like his was breaking. She could hear the tinkling in distance. And she didn’t know where it was coming from anymore.
He assured me there was nothing, that there could never be.
It was the last part of the sentence that drew lacerations in her skin. That there could never be.
“He suggested singing the songs on your behalf? For me?’ How was that ever going to work? And if he was the one who suggested it….She blinked rapidly as another thought made its appearance, sneaking up her spine to make her shiver. Is that why he had apologized? And is this what he was going to tell her that night after Aarohan? Not about Saira? This had never been about Saira? He had told her himself – they had taken a break that last year he was at IE-…
“He wanted me to sing. But…” Arjun laughed bitterly. “Main aur meri awaaz, Kavi. I could barely get through the lines with you that evening. So I…I asked him…and he said he would…He did…except I never imagined that when he sang, he would sing like he meant every word. Those words were going to be mine” He took a deep, uneven breath. And she felt in her chest. A small shiver ran up her spine, unannounced, unwelcome, unsavory.
“Fuck, Kavi. Fuck. This is ridiculous. I knew you were going to say no, Kavi. I always did. I think it is part of the reason I never said anything all these years. Even Kr…But…this no…the one you are saying now…is because of him, isn’t it? Even now. After four years.” He bit out even as he thrust his fingers through his hair and then slumped onto a rock nearby. “And look what I am doing. I am doing exactly what I promised you and myself I wouldn’t. I am ruining this between us. How are we ever going to go back from this? There is no chance in hell, Kavi.” He looked up at her and shook his head. Then he rose in one quick move. “I need to get out of this damned place. I hate this bloody camp. I knew this was going to be life changing. But not like this, dammit. Not the fuck like this.”
He looked into her eyes and then swore aloud. “You are crying. Damn, Kavi. Please don’t do this…”
Khushi put her hands to her cheeks and brushed away a tear that surprised her with its ferocity. She never cried in front of anyone. It was a skill she prided herself on. Even at the age of thirteen when her parents had forgotten to wish her first thing in the morning on her birthday, she had locked herself in the bathroom to cry – even if just for five minutes that it took her entire family to realize it was her special day.
Arjun stepped forward and seemed to reach out to touch her – perhaps even pull her into a hug. But the feel, the warmth of his touch that she now realized she would recognize even if blinded to anything else, never came. Instead a deep sense of shame, a slow burn she couldn’t categorize yet as anger or betrayal, rose up her heckles.
“So this entire declaration of your feelings here – this is because Arnav is here too?” She asked, voicing the question that should have been put out there sooner. Perhaps even by years.
Arjun looked up at her incredulously. “Of course. That’s what you would think…” He smiled bitterly and shook his head. “He made me nervous, yes. The way you look at him made me nervous. That might have screwed up how I said what I wanted to. But I always wanted to. I had decided to in the time we spent apart – the last six months – the first time in years that I didn’t have you around. And when you said you missed me too….” He chuckled mirthlessly. “But that is my mistake. I assumed too much….”
She had said that just two days ago. And she had known it had been processed differently from how she intended. She should have been more careful. Except, this was not about this camp and something that had changed here. How Arjun felt…it was much before the River. And all the while, there had been so much she had been idiotically unaware of. “You knew everything about him,” She whispered. “And you claim you felt that much for me. And still you decided to keep everything from me. He decided to keep everything from me. You both made decisions and with such clarity and didn’t bother to even think of…” They had spent a whole day and a whole night together. Why hadn’t he…She wanted to be angry with them both and yet all she felt was a sense of desolation, a sense of complete disconnect from either men who claimed to feel deep feelings for her. How then, was she the one hurting like this? How then, were they all hurting like this?
No, she shook her head. Arnav Varun was not hurting. Sure, he was probably guilty. But he was the only one who seemed to be getting exactly what he wanted. Four years ago. And now. Then again, was she really someone he wanted? Or was it just easy given how evident her feelings for him were? Was he doing to her what she had decided to do to Arjun by giving them a chance? Is that why it was easy to go from “there could never be” to “giving this a chance”?
“I was scared and stupid, Kavi.” Arjun said as he looked down and let his head fall into his dropped hands.
She smiled joylessly at that. “And still you judge me, condemn me for being exactly that? You hid how you felt for me because you were scared. But I am not allowed to do the same?” Her voice rang out clearer than she thought it could be at a moment like this. “You are right, Arjun. How can we ever go back from this? Because this…this feeling of being an absolute idiot is not one I can forget very easily. The worst part is, I don’t think I want to.”
She shook her head and stepped away from him. She deserved his censure for having taken him for granted. But he wasn’t going to get away with making her feel like a fool. She may have been one but the two men who claimed to feel something for her, had big parts to play. And for the first time with little doubt, she knew instinctively that she needed to get away from them both.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Tanhayee
Album: Dil Chahta Hai
Singers: Sonu Nigam
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Kyun aisi ummeed ki maine, jo aise nakaam hui
Duur banayi thi manzil toh raste mein hi shaam hui
Ab kahan jaaon main? Kisko samjhaaon main?
Kya maine chaha tha aur kyun kismat mein aayee
- Next update on Monday Nov 21, 2016 – late night IST
- There is more before we finish Part II.