When Mayank walked up to them to tell them they had to leave for rafting, Khushi and Arjun were sitting on two separate rocks, their bodies taut with tension and eyes removed from each other. Despite the sweat that was now pouring down her back, Khushi knew nothing of the sun’s heat or the brilliance of day. What Arjun had just finished recounting to her, had robbed everything around her of normalcy that she treasured so much. Yet, the fact that there was a program underway and sessions that still needed her participation, was enough to make her file her thoughts and emotions away neatly till she had the luxury to let them wash over her again.
On popular demand, the final rafting course had been adjusted to the one the team had taken the previous day after the Flying Fox event. By the time Arjun and Khushi made their way to the rafts, the others were strapped in and ready. In silence, the two friends donned their life jackets and walked towards Aman’s raft which had two empty seats waiting for them. Khushi refused to lift her head and look for the man whose eyes she knew were fixed on them. When she had first come to the camp and tried to avoid Arnav, there was distress in her heart, restlessness in her thoughts. Now there was nothing except a deafening silence that promised to stretch forever.
By the time rafting was over for the day, Khushi was convinced everyone around them knew something was the matter between Arjun and Khushi especially since the former remained quiet and withdrawn. And in Aman and Aditi’s face, Khushi also saw knowledge that Arnav was right in the midst of things that didn’t just involve Arjun and her. It was perhaps testimony to their professionalism that no one – not even Khushi, Arjun and Arnav themselves, said or did anything to break the solemn instruction that the last day of the camp was supposed to be.
The group took a break after their return from the rafting trip. Khushi headed straight to her tent and didn’t emerge till it was early evening when they had been instructed to join for the final session with Aman. The session was marked with summary learnings from the last five days and ended with Aman presenting them all small mementoes of the River to carry back home. After the session, the CNBC team that Khushi had all but forgotten the existence of, approached Khushi and told her they wanted to film a few questions with her. Despite being taken aback and completely overwhelmed by the sudden request to be smart and presentable when she felt like a fool, as she was, Khushi donned her best professional face and finished her part of the filming well before dusk fell. If her answers appeared mechanical or her cheer forced, it didn’t show. If anything the director of the film had made a comment on how sorted and serious she came across on the video – a trait, he assured her would serve her very well when she made her way to the top rung of the corporate ladder someday in the future.
Shortly after the CNBC filming, she was approached by Aman who formally apologized to her about the Flying Fox incident and assured her that he would be reporting that to Speed Motors himself and even provide any reparations that may be required of the team at River. To say that Khushi was mortified, would be like calling the Ganga just another river. She rushed to assure him that she would never make a ruckus out of something that was part chance and a lot more her own fault. However, Aman might as well have been the Mountain God himself in that gentle but unsmiling way in which he told her to not blame herself and thanked her for her generosity where anyone else would be suitably outraged. At the end of the conversation, she welcomed the overwhelming rush of awe and knew that now had a role model for professional integrity for the rest of her life.
It was when Venus appeared on the horizon, bright and unblinking, single and proud amidst purple sheets of sky, that Khushi realized the real task of the day was at hand. She needed to face Arnav now and though she didn’t know how she would tell him, she knew exactly what she needed him to know. The hours of the day may have taken the sting away but the wound would stay for a long, long time.
She pulled her hair into a bun and took several deep breaths as she walked out of her tent. Her stomach was roiling like it did before a big exam. If there was anyway she could avoid this and just disappear from both Arjun and Arnav’s lives, she would take it in a heartbeat. How she would celebrate if she were to wake up now and realize that she was in a rather detailed and vivid dream. Unfortunately, the feeling of utter stupidity, the sense of hurt and betrayal from what both Arnav and Arjun had done – especially with both of them believing that they were doing what was best for her – was too real for this to be a dream. She should have known that it was too good to be true. Two men who she thought were near perfect just as they, both declaring romantic feelings for her – how was that ever going to be without clauses?
Her teeth gritted even as her eyes threatened to fill up. She couldn’t let tears fall. This was stupid. Two men had made a complete idiot of her. The last thing she needed to do was cry.
A shadow fell on her just as she stepped on the sandy bank. She looked up to see Arjun walking towards her, his eyes tired but just as startled to see her as she was to see him. Of course, she realized. He probably had things to say to Arnav as well. Maybe they had even argued…or plotted – most likely discussed how she felt…The thought was enough to set her face into grim, unseemly lines. She could feel the slow burn of anger seep into her fingers. Immediately, she looked away from Arjun and stepped aside.
For a second, it looked like he was about to say something when he suddenly shook his head and walked on by her, leaving her arms in a sudden tremble as the air between them tingled. But she didn’t have the luxury of heartspace to deal with Arjun at the moment. They would have time. At the moment, she needed go end a ridiculous dream – all over again.
She found Arnav standing by the river, his back to her. He was dressed in the same clothes as she had last seen him earlier in the evening. He turned around almost as soon she stepped on a patch of smooth with that small, crackling noise that always seemed to accompany her footfall on the stony-shore.
She paused and stayed where she was, for a second, inexplicably overwhelmed by the rush of emotion that seemed to swell in her chest.
He took a step forward and stilled as he scanned her face. She couldn’t complain that she hadn’t been told how expressive she was anymore. The comment was fresh in her mind. Too fresh. And perhaps, for the first time, she was glad her face conveyed her emotion. If it made him keep his distance, if it forced him to stay silent and let her talk, she would take it. Because she needed to talk first. She didn’t want to hear from him. Nothing he could say would change anything anyway.
“Whatever,” She began softly, “we started, I don’t want it to continue – I don’t think it can lead anywhere worthwhile.” She bit back an “I’m sorry” as she blinked and tried to gulp down her anxiousness. Same time tomorrow, you’ll be far, far away from all this, Kaveri Gupta, she reminded herself and looked at Arnav’s face again.
“I’m sorry,” He began, his voice thick and low. She could feel it in her bones. And yet, it scraped through like sandpaper on blackboard.
She shook her head. “There is nothing for you to apologize about anymore. You have already apologized for not telling me about your engagement then and I am not sure anymore if that was even warranted under the circumstances”
“There is.” He replied evenly. “If there was a chance I could go back in time, I would not have done what I did. If anything I would have at least…”
“What happened four years ago, is not…” She pointed out as she halted his speech. “You were engaged to someone else…Your sister mentioned that the relationship didn’t end till much later….So you decided to help Arjun because…I don’t understand what you both hoped to achieve but I can understand why you might have thought it was a good idea. You owed me nothing and it seems like the two of you were closer than I had imagined…”
Arnav continued to stare at her, his eyes blank and face devoid of expression. “I couldn’t have told you about the songs without having mentioned why they got changed…even five days ago…it was not my story…”
She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t know whose story it is…It just isn’t mine. And I don’t want it to be anymore. It is too complicated, too entangled…I wasn’t even prepared for a simple relationship and this…”
“Relationships are rarely simple.”
They certainly weren’t simple for him, yes. “They have been for me in the past.” Technically, she didn’t have any relationships to talk of other than blood ties. But now was not the time she wanted to bring that up. But…“At least that is how I would like to live my life.”
“So you want to give up on this because things aren’t simple?”
“I am not sure there is anything to give up in the first place.” She took a deep breath to quell the tremor in her voice and soften the volume that had risen unexpectedly. “I am just going to focus on repairing the relationship that I have had longer. I have known you for less than five weeks all put together. I have known Arjun for more than five years…” It is his betrayal that hurts more but it is his friendship that I have needed longer.
His eyes darkened and she thought she saw his hands jerk but the next moment he was still again. And then his face relaxed for a second before his eyes softened and he took several steps towards her. When he spoke, his voice was softer, his tone almost beseeching. “Khushi, I am sorry – I don’t know how to say it better. What I did back then was ridiculous. I knew it even then. I cannot explain why I agreed. Perhaps I thought it was for the best. My head was a mess. I felt something for you and it was so wrong at the time. There was Saira…and even though we had taken a break – it was her suggestion, not mine, at the time I wished the break was more permanent – I hated myself…I needed to do something to stop myself from doing something insane…And Arjun – he did….does feel strongly for you – it seemed like the perfect solution. And changing the songs and singing them as a precursor to Arjun’s declaration…it seemed harmless till I got on to that stage and then when I heard Tripti say those words…I knew then that the perfect solution could have been perfect only if you felt the same way about Arjun as he did about you. I knew Arjun planned to tell you how he felt and a part of me was hopeful – even confident that you wouldn’t agree. I had hoped to find you after that and tell you that it was a mistake. But…Ti-Di and Amma showed up and suddenly every need for the break that Saira and I had decided to take was gone…” He shoved his hand through his hair and looked away for a long moment as she collected her now wildly throbbing pulse. “I knew then that it was over even without a chance. But I still wanted to be the one to tell you about being engaged and perhaps apologize for what I might have led you to believe – even if it was all true. But by then…”
By then Arjun had found her and her heart had been broken.
“When I saw you here…I cannot explain why I didn’t take a look at the participant list but I didn’t and I was thrown. But even now, Arjun was still around. I almost expected you both to be together. When I tried to apologize and you assured me there was nothing, I told myself all was done and dusted. And then…two nights ago it changed so quickly. And then changed again when Arjun finally declared his feelings…This time though…”
She didn’t want to hear more. Everything sounded so…so easy to accept…like she could really close her eyes and exonerate him for what he had done. And yet, it wasn’t that easy. He had thought of nothing but himself in all of this…perhaps this is how people did think…House did say that, didn’t he? Everybody lies? And everybody is out to look out for themselves. Like that episode where Foreman swiped Cameron’s case and published a paper….
She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. What the hell was wrong with her? Why couldn’t she just focus on what she needed to do and get the hell out of this conversation?
“Look,” She interrupted, ignoring the way her voice rang out harshly in the otherwise silent evening. “I know it’s not really me you….want…I mean you are still fresh from what happened with Saira…and that was clearly a big relationship in your life.” She ignored the look on his face as his lips pursed and eyes stormed. She needed to go on. She needed to say all of this. “And then you’ve been here all by yourself in the mountains literally….and I…I have hardly been smart about revealing what I feel for you – then and now…I can understand how convenient it probably is…to consider…” She struggled with the words and yet powering through was the only option. “To consider us as a possibility. But surely….you just need to get back to the world” – to be the super star you are – She bit back Aditi’s words and used her own instead. “…when you take up the assignment you mentioned…I am sure life will come right back on track and you will find someone…”
Her courage finally gave out and escaped her lips in a deep sigh and her squared shoulder, slumped.
Her words rippled in alternating waves of desperation and anger simmering between them. She had used her words rather effectively. She could see it in the way they found a mark with Arnav and flashed in his sunrise eyes. He had just been apologizing, even declaring his feelings with utmost honesty. And she had slashed a dagger through it all.
“Let me get this right.” Arnav replied, his voice soft and barely audible. “You are saying that whatever I am feeling for you is rebound from what I had in a previous relationship that has been over for more than three years now.”
“That I am attracted to you because I am some sort sexually frustrated person who hasn’t been in female company for some time and can’t help but jump the first girl he sees on the camp which is his workplace no less.”
Her face flushed. “I didn’t say…”
“That I am taking advantage of the fact that your feelings for me are as transparent today as they were four years ago.”
She swallowed. When put like that…
“But clearly I have not been aware of your feelings at all, Khushi. Because I might have been an idiot but to think that your opinion of me is so low…”
She shook her head as her throat clogged. “I don’t…”
“There are only two options here, Khushi. Either you think I am some sort of conceited, immoral jerk who is taking advantage of an innocent or that veiled as your dismissal of yourself, is infact – ego – that gives very little consideration to what others feel, say or mean.”
She stepped back instinctively as the unfairness of his statement hit home. It was worse that Arjun had said something very similar when she had tried to point out that she was hardly worthy of anyone’s interest, let alone their disappointment following her rejection.
“You came here with your mind made up to end this, Khushi. You didn’t even consider giving me a chance to explain…and not just now…even two nights ago when I wanted to explain, you couldn’t run away fast enough.”
He could have slapped her it would have hurt less. But she did know what hurt more. And it morphed into fire and flashed in her eyes even as her blood burned to ash, bitter and coarse in her mouth. “That night…the songs we sang together….that you were singing on Arjun’s behalf…meant something to me. Clearly much more than it ever meant to you. It is the basis of what I felt then and how I feel now…” What was the point of hiding anything now? He knew. He had always known so much more. “So yes, I did come here with my mind made up.” She didn’t owe him the chance to explain. Not again. Fool me twice, shame on me – she reminded herself and lifted her head high up to meet and hold his gaze.
“And what about the fact that I told you you weren’t mistaken that evening? What about the fact that I said that I still feel that way about you. Everything else that I just said…”
You. Everything is still about you, she wanted to scream. She swallowed painfully. “You can’t feel…” If you felt anything for me at all, you would have told me about Saira then, about Aarohan now. She wanted to say the words out aloud but what purpose would that serve? Either he would apologize – following which she would have no ammunition to protect herself from being so cruelly fooled again – or he would state every reason there was – Arjun primarily – to excuse himself and thereby worsen how she felt about this whole thing. “You can’t possibly feel anything for…”
“Yeah? And you know that because? Because I haven’t said that I love you yet? Is that what it is? Or will you dismiss that as easily as you have dismissed everything else?”
Was that it after all? Was she really one of those women who couldn’t believe a man unless he said those three words? If he were to say the words right now, would that change anything at all?
“I cannot say I love you, Khushi. Because I don’t…”
She smiled tightly and shook her head. “I know…”
“See? This is what you want to hear. So you don’t even want to let me complete the statement. I don’t love you…yet.” He spelled out and closed the distance between them in two long stride and pulled her hand into his. “But I am this close to losing my mind because I know it’s just a matter of time.”
Her entire frame trembled as his warmth seeped into her skin and his breath fanned against her lips. His lips were less than a hair’s breadth away from her’s. Had it been just last night that she had kissed him with such abandon and allowed foolish hopes to flare in her heart. Such an idiot she was. An idiot who didn’t need time to fall in love with him because she had been in love with him for years and would have unblinkingly assumed a lifetime of blissfully ignorant togetherness if not for what Arjun had revealed.
“Were you in love with Saira?” She said as she looked into his eyes, her wrist still caught between his fingers. “Did you ever tell her that you love her?”
His grip loosened. Her guess had found its mark. It had been bothering her since that talk with Aditi. And now it was clear. He had never considered himself in love with Saira. Sure, he had probably been attracted to her – infatuated – that was the word people used, didn’t they? And yet he was willing to go the distance – fight with his family and hers, marry her despite knowing he wanted the break they had been on to be permanent – because it was what Saira wanted, till she didn’t. How was Khushi to know if what he was doing now was not similar?
He stared at her unblinkingly as their breaths continued to twist into invisible, unbreakable chains between them. “You really do want this to end right here, don’t you?” He whispered with a humorless smile.
“This…” She whispered right back before breaking their connection and stepping back enough to put permanent distance between them, “never should have begun.”
They stood there for several silent minutes before she realized there was nothing either of them had to say to each other anymore. Noises from the camp filtered in as the celebrations of Speed Motors team’s last night kicked off. So she let her body slacken as she turned away and walked away from him.
He didn’t stop her.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Ab Naam Mohabbat Ke
Singers: Alka Yagnik, Udit Narayan
Music: Jatin Lalit
Ek pyaar ke mujrim se
Ulfat bhi kare toh kaise karein?
Tumhe tut ke chaaha tha
Nafrat bhi kare toh kaise karein?
- Please excuse typos! Not proofread!
- Next update – Chapter 25 and End of Book Two: Dec 31, 2016 – 9-10pm IST