Arjun turned around and groaned silently when he saw the group looking at him with varying degrees of expected amusement etched in their features. Still, he knew the drill. So he ran up the stairs to them – half sitting, half leaning against the farthest end of the terrace wall adjoining the cafeteria. As he skipped stairs, he made sure he kept his eyes averted from any of theirs. When he reached them, he bowed down low and swept his arms in exaggerated salaams – the prescribed salutation for the month. “Kya hukum hai mere liye mere aaka?” He called out loudly even as the group of them sniggered and hollered the choicest cuss words at him. He smiled inwardly but made sure to keep his face devoid of any amusement.
“You are a sport, kid. Tell your friends to keep up with you. Or this is just going to last longer.”
“I will tell them, Sir.” He said quietly.
“Chal, stand at ease. Didn’t call you over for a session. You did well last night. Relax now.”
Arjun heaved a sigh of relief but didn’t immediately raise his head. For all he knew, this was just another test.
“Tiwari, don’t you get tired? This is the third year of being a senior and still you sound like…”
Arjun blinked and lifted his eyes to see Arnav Varun come up from behind him and walk up to the group to take an empty spot on the parapet. He breathed in a sigh of relief at the sight of his favorite senior. There was something surreally comforting and reassuring about AV-Sir’s presence. The others seemed to look up to the no nonsense tone of his voice, the disapproval of things jeery and crude that filled ragging days and nights. In his absence, some sessions turned uncomfortably ugly. When he was around, however, decency reigned.
‘Tiwari gets off on it, AV. This year, I have to admit I am a little relieved. At least there is a girl involved. Last couple years I’ve been positively scared of entering his room after dark.” Another final year student chimed in from the left.
More laughter ensued, garish and loud. Arjun cringed at the talk – unabashedly rude and uncouth – especially the direction it was headed in.
“Chup kar saale,” Tiwari-Sir said carelessly even as he stepped forward and put an arm around Arjun. “She isn’t your girlfriend, right?”
Arjun blinked and considered pretending he hadn’t understood. The next moment however, he dismissed the idea and shook his head. “No, Sir. She is just a school friend.”
“And also the daughter of two Professors.” Someone else from behind Tiwari pointed out wrylu. “You know that Masterson Oil’s offer is conditional, right Tiwari? Gupta Uncle and Aunty can easily make sure your GPA tumbles into the gutters of the Ganga.”
Tiwari snorted but let his arm fall away from Arjun as he stepped forward with a careless shrug. “We have Gupta Uncle’s golden boy on our side, Rocky. Yeh kiss din kaam aayega. Plus Masterson Oil will put me on a ship in the ocean with a crew full of men. I have to arm myself with enough imagination.”
“You are pathetic, Tiwari.” AV-Sir spoke again, his mouth twisted in evident distaste. “You better stop in time. Especially the kind of stuff you pulled in class today.”
“I was just talking to her! But you had to swoop in and be the hero, didn’t you? If I didn’t know better, I would suspect you have intentions to be Gupta Uncle’s damaad, AV!
Arjun squirmed discreetly in Prashant Tiwari’s hug and looked up at AV-Sir’s face only to see him roll his eyes.
“I can be nice to a girl even without ulterior motives, Tiwari. But…don’t stress yourself over it. Some people are incapable of decency.” AV-Sir threw at the other man with a barely concealed sneer and looked away.
There was catcalling and loud cheering from the group as Prashant Tiwari and AV engaged in what was clearly only partially superficial friendly punch throwing. That Tiwari was a bit of a jerk and rather lewd, was a well known fact. And AV-Sir – he had the reputation of a hero. And everything Arjun had seen so far seemed to confirm it.
“Anyway, forget AV and his brand of decency. Agarwal here, is my boy,” Tiwari said as he threw an arm around Arjun and pulled him closer again. “That friend of yours,” He said with an oily lisp to his words, “she quite the maal, isn’t she?”
“Maal? Kya Tiwari…Behenji hai ekdum.” Someone shouted.
“Forget it, Dipen. Desperate times call for desperate measures. And everyone knows Tiwari is desperate if nothing else.” Another voice chortled loudly.
Arjun squirmed, this time evidently, and swallowed. His teeth found each other in an inaudible grind that echoed in his head but forced him to stay silent. He looked up to see AV-Sir’s face change in the same instant that bile rose up his throat.
“Abe BC, just because you like stick thin girls with no rack and nothing to hold on to…” Tiwari began and then turned to Arjun again. “But I know Agarwal here agrees with me. What do you say, Agarwal? She has a rack that could make nights interesting even in solitude, doesn’t she?”
He kept his eyes on AV-Sir’s face and took comfort in the muscle ticking in his jaw, the sudden brittleness in his eyes. He was not alone here.
“Have you jerked off to it yet, or not? That is sort of a rite of passage at IE-V, you know. You don’t truly belong to this place till you have graced the room with…”
“That’s enough, Tiwari. I think we are done for the day.”
AV-Sir’s voice was rough and short, words cut from glass and without the adornment of even fake amusement there had been just minutes ago. There was lesser noise around them, almost as if the rest of the group knew that there was trouble brewing.
Prashant Tiwari, however, ignored his classmate and the sense of dread evident in the air around them. He continued to tug at Arjun’s neck with the arm that was wrapped around it. “I don’t fantasize about girls smaller than a 36C, Agarwal. Now, you wouldn’t want your senior to break his rule, would you?”
Arjun refused to shake his head but allowed his eyes to meet Tiwari’s briefly. It was enough for Prashant Tiwari to continue.
“So go ask her what her size is. And report back to me. By tomorrow evening.”
Before Arjun could look up, AV-Sir was standing by his side and pulling Prashant Tiwari away from Arjun.
“AV, don’t be a spoilsport,” He said even as others gathered around him but seemed to siding with AV more than they did with Prashant.
“Dude, she is a Prof’s daughter…” Someone began.
“Two Prof’s” Another corrected even as AV-Sir stared at Prashant Tiwari who was now red in his cheeks and neck. His eyes were flashing.
“Even if she was just another girl, we are not stooping to this level, Tiwari. If for no other reason, then for the fact that final years are not meant to rag. So this stops now.” AV-Sir said, his voice soft, firm and crystal clear with an inflection no one could miss. This was final and not open to argument. Arjun let out the breath he had been unintentionally holding for longer than he could remember.
“Dude, I am not…”
“Seriously, Tiwari. I think we are done for the day. Let him go.” Once again, there was no scope for argument in the instruction. And Arjun found himself free and suddenly several breaths lighter as air seeped into the space between Prashant Tiwari and him. And before he could look up to ask if he was dismissed, AV-Sir’s hand was on his shoulder and gently nudging him in the direction of the stairs behind him. He heaved a sigh of relief and allowed himself to be steered away.
“Thank you, Sir.” He whispered a few minutes later even though they were now down two flights of stairs and far, far away from the rest of the group.
AV-Sir halted as Arjun turned to face him. His face was still set in stone, eyes unreadable.
“If Tiwari or anyone else troubles you or her, let me know. Though, I don’t think there will be a problem especially because there are two Professors involved.”
Arjun nodded, grateful for AV-Sir’s open protection – not for himself but for Kaveri. He had never imagined that she would be in any trouble, least of all because of him. After all, as AV –Sir had just pointed out, she was the daughter of two professors – one from their own branch.
“Tiwari usually gets bored of ragging in a week or so. I didn’t anticipate…” AV-Sir broke off and looked away. “I’ll tell NK to keep an eye on him. But till then, stay away and make sure she does too. When he stops being a jerk, he will be nice enough. Goodness knows what’s gotten into him.”
Arjun wanted to retort wryly with a four-letter word but let it go because it still involved Kaveri. “Thank you, AV-Sir.” He repeated just as sincerely and silently thanked his fate for having put him in the same place as Prashant Tiwari this evening.
AV-Sir nodded without a smile and hurried away.
“Sir, please. Not logistics. I’ll source talent. I promise I already know all the bathroom singers.” He urged even as the little group looked at him with varying degrees of amusement etched on their face.
“We’ll do auditions like every year, Agarwal. Don’t create roles that don’t exist.” Nishant Kumar Pathak dismissed without looking up from the list he was making.
“If you rely only on auditions, Sir, you’ll miss out on the best talent there is.” He said now looking at AV-Sir – who had quickly become the one person Arjun looked up to amongst the seniors. NK Pathak – with his gruff exterior and somber eyes – was a distant second.
AV-Sir raised an eyebrow in askance.
“For e.g.,” He continued with a broad smile. “Kaveri Gupta, AV-Sir. She won’t even know of Aarohan if I don’t tell her she is going to sing.”
“She sings?” AV-Sir asked.
“Very well. Chashmish Gupta ko dekh ke lagta nahi hai…but she is phenomenal. Always sung in every school choir – lead singer.”
“Is she trained?” NK-Sir asked.
Before Arjun could shake his head, Prashant Tiwari – who had been strangely subdued since that awful evening, piped up. “Arre yaar, someone help this man sort out his priorities. Of all the things that you would care about in a girl, which one does NK go for? Classical music training!”
The little group laughed out aloud, including AV-Sir who punched NK-Sir in the shoulder good naturedly even as NK-Sir reddened but smiled back.
An hour later, when it was just AV-Sir and Arjun working through the schedule for Aarohan, the conversation resumed. “How long have you known her? You seem really close.”
Arjun smiled. “We were in school together till about four years ago when her parents shifted to IE-V. But we were never close back then” He said softly even as the warmth he felt every time he thought about Kaveri, flushed through his skin. It was an unknown but pleasant feeling, one he didn’t want to analyze.
AV-Sir nodded. “She is adjusting okay? I can’t imagine how it must be – wonder why Dr. Gupta didn’t advise her against Mechanical.”
“Arre kya Sir. She is so lucky. Except in class, of course. All profs seem to teach her exclusively in class. The other day, you should have seen the Workshop TA. He couldn’t stop offering to help her with the sledge-hammer and she couldn’t but bristle every time he did. It’s hilarious.”
AV-Sir smiled and looked at him curiously before he looked down and resumed writing. “Don’t force her if she doesn’t want to sing. Let’s not make her life more complicated than it already is.”
Arjun laughed out aloud. “Not a chance. Kaveri Gupta is going to sing. Even if I have to resort to absolute drama to make her do what she loves so much!”
“Where did you disappear? And just when Kavi was singing. You missed it, Sir. She was phenomenal. I think NK-Sir is half in love.” Arjun said as he walked back in to the auditorium.
“I heard her.” AV-Sir said, his eyes never lifting from the notepad that his fingers were scribbling on. “She’s very good.”
Arjun sighed and plonked himself into the empty chair beside his engrossed senior. “I thought you would be more excited than this? You didn’t like the song? I know Iss deewane would have been a lot more impactful but she did quite…”
AV-Sir looked up, his eyes strangely vacant. “She sang well. And Iss deewane would have been fun but the song she chose was soulful. A lot more suited to her…” He said with a slow smile.
Arjun grinned. “You should have been here to tell her that. I think she was looking forward to your feedback.” He had no idea why he was saying this but it seemed to make sense suddenly, words were putting to form what had only been a vague mist in his head.
AV-Sir’s smile slipped and eyes narrowed. “Agarwal,” He warned softly and Arjun immediately chuckled and shook his head.
No, he told himself. This was stupid. He needed to let this go.
“Surbhi Singh? Really?”
Arjun looked up and saw AV-Sir staring at him with half a smirk and a glint in his eyes.
“I do think she is the most beautiful girl on the campus.” Arjun avowed with a slow smile.
“But that’s not who you keep staring at when she is around, do you?”
Arjun’s face flamed uncharacteristically but he shrugged. “That was not the question asked.” He tapped his temple suggestively. “I have to be smart. Especially considering the situation…”
AV-Sir’s brow furrowed. “Situation? Not Tiwari again?”
Arjun shook his head. “Not like before, of course. Pata nahi aapne kya kiya…He’s a changed man. But I do think he likes…..” He cleared his throat.
AV-Sir smiled softly though the look in his eyes remained inscrutable as ever. “She sure has a lot of Mechanical Engineering tied up in knots.” He looked at Arjun with that unwavering gaze that was so inherently him. “But you, Agarwal babu, are leading the cause, aren’t you?”
“Haha, Sir. Nice try but not true,” He lied through his teeth. “Plus, I have a feeling she is crushing on someone else.” He returned AV-Sir gaze with an equally unblinking one of his own – doused in implication that the older man didn’t miss or dismiss.
“This has an official term in psychology, you know. It’s called projecting.”
Arjun rolled his eyes. “Yahan Engineering Drawing samajh mein nahi aa rahi. Aapko psychology lessons yaad aa rahein hain.”
This time AV-Sir chuckled. “Guess who else said the same thing.”
Arjun raised an eyebrow. “Wonder why she said that to you” He countered.
Both men fell silent thereafter. Arjun looked away first and shook the ridiculousness of the moment away. He was accusing AV-Sir of something he didn’t even know meant more than just a mystery to him. And AV-Sir himself, was responding like he was fighting similar battles. All this Aarohan and being with Kavi all the time was making him act like an idiot. He had always liked Kaveri. Yes, back in school some of his friends had suggested he felt more for her. It was something he tried to never take seriously – they had been kids – heck they still were. But mostly he had ignored the nudges because it didn’t feel organic. Perhaps seeing her after all these years had thrown him off. Yes, that had to be it. He never had any feelings for her except camaraderie that comes with nostalgia and shared history and geography. And he was not going to let this change unless it came more naturally than externally influenced like it seemed to him now. All these people talking about them being a couple…that was it – when enough people said it – one could be fooled into thinking it true. He just needed to be more thick-skinned than he was being at the moment.
Plus, he really had seen the way Kaveri’s face had fallen when she didn’t find AV-Sir in the auditorium. Whether he was anything else or not, he had always been a greater reader of minds – especially of those who mattered to him.
He turned to look at AV-Sir and frowned. His senior was looking straight head just as blankly as Arjun felt within.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Suno Na
Album: Jhankaar Beats
Music: Vishal – Shekhar
Lyrics: Vishal Dadlani
Duur ho kar bhi, duur tum nahi ho
Paas ho lekin, paas kyun nahi ho
Tanha tanha sama, mehki mehki hawa
Keh raha hai jahan jo
- Anu – now you know why the Errrr… :)
- Next update: Monday, Nov 28, 2016 late night IST
- Please excuse typos!