The evening ended before she could train her mind to ignore the threat of ruin that was looming large over her heart. And yet, despite her absolute sense of despair, she couldn’t but notice the difference in the ways Arjun, Arnav and she were handling the evening. Arjun remained himself for the most part, laughing and singing even as his volume remained muted and eyes permanently averted from her and Arnav. Arnav stayed in the distance, as if to remove himself from the sphere of her presence. As for her, Khushi hoped she participated just enough to ensure that she didn’t insult Aman or Aditi – for whom the evening though just another milestone of professional success, was more important than it was to anyone else.
When dinner was done with, Khushi bid Aman and Aditi farewell, ignoring the curious glint in the latter’s eyes and hurried back into the tent. For the first and last time during her stay on the camp, Khushi remained away from the Ganga in her nightly sojourn. By morning, her bags were packed and her mind was closed to everything except the return journey. She felt the need to be connected with her sister and her parents stronger than before and looked forward to be reintegrated with phone networks, her family and the world in general – a world where Arnav Varun was just another human being who just happened to share ownership of her Alma Mater.
When she was seated in the large SUV – sans Arjun who had already settled into the other vehicle, she looked out to see Arnav standing in the distance, his hands folded across his chest and his eyes fixed on her unblinkingly. For a brief moment, she couldn’t help but wonder how this farewell might have been if Arjun had not revealed what he had. And then, it was gone, only to be replaced with acute vaccum in her chest, one that forced her to look away and urge the vehicle to move on as quickly as it could before her eyes gave up and spilled over.
The first time Arjun and Khushi spoke since their last conversation on the banks of the Ganga at the River, was three days after they had returned to Delhi and their life at Speed Motors. As predicted by Arjun, no one from the Graduate Engineer Trainee group at Speed Motors, was offered a full time role in Sales and Marketing – that is no one except Arjun himself. His project involving the revival of a dealership in Lucknow during the months before the River week, had caught the fancy of the Head of Sales who had approved an exception and recruited Arjun Agarwal as the first ever under-graduate Area Sales Manager to be based out of Lucknow and responsible for a third of Speed’s sales in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Kaveri Gupta, on the basis of her marquee project involving identifying cost saving opportunities in the sourcing function of Speed Motors was recruited by the Supply Chain organization for their plant in Bangalore. While she had been disappointed that she had not been considered for a position in the Sales and Marketing function, the Head of Supply Chain at Speed Motors had fussed over her enough during their final role allocations for her to be convinced that she was being sent to a place where she was wanted, even sought after.
It was at the station where Khushi was just boarding the Rajdhani Express to Bangalore that Arjun surprised her with his presence and they spoke – a first among many reparation conversations that would follow over the course of the year. To say that Khushi had been thrilled to tears to see her friend handing over a box of her favorite cupcakes from a patiserrie they had discovered and patroned extensively during their time in Delhi.
“I’m sorry” they had both said together when Arjun had finished helping her put away her suitcases beneath the berths and had plonked himself on the seat in front of hers.
“When are you leaving for Lucknow?” She asked tentatively even as she tried to process just how long the journey to normalcy was going to be – especially with the distance that they were forced to deal with now.
“Tonight. I can’t believe I am going to have to stay with Mummy – Papa and you get to be in hip Bangalore. And you don’t even drink. Bangalore is completely wasted on you.” Arjun remarked with a frown. And then he shook his head once before he smiled at her. “I’ve missed you. We are going to fix this.”
She nodded, her throat choked enough to prevent her from speaking.
“I am going to get over how I feel for you. And I promise you that we will have a better friendship when I am done.”
It was then that she had burst into tears and for the first time not cared that someone was witnessing exactly how she felt when she felt it. “I promise we are going to be friends now.” She replied.
“Ek ladka aur ladki…kabhi kabhi sirf dost bhi ho sakte hain…okay?”
They had chuckled then, hers a watery but immensely grateful chuckle and his, one of such open vulnerability – Khushi wanted to give him a big hug and never let go. “We will talk about everything, you know that right? This…” She pointed to the box of cupcakes, “doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten about what happened.”
Arjun rolled his eyes. “And there she is. Spoilsport. Okay, Madam-ji. We will talk. And remember, we will talk about everything.” He emphasized.
She had known then that he had meant that they would discuss Arnav Varun. But thankfully for her, the train had given its customary pre-departure warning jerk and that had prompted her anxious avatar to take over and literally push Arjun out of the train. When the train had finally started to pull away from the station, Khushi waved goodbye to her friend with tears in her eyes and hope in her heart. The journey to Bangalore and to a future of recovery, had begun well.
The little farewell at the station, had been effective – the thread by which a four plus year friendship hung precariously. And while the thread had been strong to contain what might have otherwise imploded, Arjun and she had to work hard to restore some semblance of normalcy in their friendship.
The first few calls were made at distinctly long intervals. The calls themselves lasted less than a few minutes and were largely populated by extended silence. The fact that they still had a few common colleagues to talk about helped a great deal. And despite how awkward it was, both Arjun and Khushi kept up trying to fill silences with debates on film and politics and general opinions that sometimes weren’t even strong enough to defend in the first place. There was now an unspoken need to ensure effort from either of them was always in balance – something Khushi was guilty of having taken for granted in the past. On his part, Arjun was the one who initiated the conversation about the past and how he was aware of his mistakes – especially in keeping from Khushi everything that he assumed she wouldn’t like. While he did not explicitly talk about his feelings, the occasional reference to how he felt were not brushed away. Instead, the unsavoriness of those moments of complete exposure were allowed to take shape in conversations and at least acknowledged if not resolved.
The first breakthrough came when the Speed Motors Class of Financial Year 2009-10 met for the first year end party in Delhi nearly four months after their deployment to their respective functions. To say that Khushi was thrilled to see Arjun was a gross understatement. And for some reason that neither of explain the reason for, their friendship seemed to be stronger and more defined. The awkwardness Khushi thought she would feel because she knew how Arjun felt for her, dissipated in a few hours following their reunion at the Speed headquarters. Mr. Ganesh Shankar and his continued penchant for singling out Khushi in his addresses to the team, contributed significantly in this direction and both Arjun and Khushi heartily thanked Mr. Shankar for his role in their lives.
It was close to the first anniversary of their time at the River that Arnav Varun made his presence felt explicitly between them. By this time, Arjun and Khushi’s conversations had gone back to being almost carefree and unhindered – with the exception of one area – rather this one person of two aqueous names. And in one carefree moment of levity reminiscent to that from their IE-V days, Arjun – of course it had to be him to do it finally – told her that Arnav Varun had contacted him, for the first time in months.
“He called me.” Arjun had said even as the two of them had fallen into a comfortable silence following a discussion about IE-V and the many things they remembered without preamble when together. “A week ago.”
Khushi couldn’t claim that she hadn’t been expecting Arnav to come up for discussion for nearly twelve months now. And still when knowledge of his contacting Arjun came, carefully put forth and still bubbling with tension at the edges, it threw her off-course. Her first reaction, silent as it was always going to be, allowed the conversation to unfurl with little caution.
“I was half afraid he wanted to talk about you. Though, I should have known really. He was never one to talk about how he felt. All the time that he knew exactly how I felt, all I had were guesses.”
Khushi had listened quietly even as her pulse had quickened. She knew Arnav hadn’t called Arjun to talk about Khushi. He had called her himself three times in the last twelve months and after the third call, she had known that she had put paid to any future attempts of conversation.
For a second, the silence that stretched between Arjun and Khushi amidst the din of new Bollywood music that neither of them really cared for, seemed to have asphyxiated the birth of an awkward conversation. And in their IE-V or River days, it might very well have been that. But this Arjun and this Kaveri were different people. They were ones who now admitted openly that the past five odd years of IE-V and the River were hardly ones of real friendship. There had been too much secrecy, too much self conscious avoidance and fear that held them back. Those walls had been crumbling bit by bit in the last twelve months. And so Arjun had taken a deep breath and elaborated even as Khushi was about to open her mouth in obvious question.
“He wanted to apologize to me. For never having explicitly told me how he felt for you. Especially since he always knew how I felt.”
Khushi had turned to look Arjun then, once again worried as she always was in this little moments of unveiled emotion. But Arjun’s face was calm. There was none of the turbulence that had once sent her world crashing. He had changed in the last twelve months. A part of her, even wanted to believe that he had outgrown what he felt for her. Except, she still remembered just what Arnav and Arjun had both implied once – that she had miles to go to achieve the emotional maturity and astuteness that she inherently prided herself on.
“He didn’t talk about you. At all. I didn’t either. Although,” Arjun paused to look at her with a pained smile. “I think he might have been hoping I would. I mean, there was hardly a conversation I have had with him in the past that hasn’t been about you in some way.”
Khushi swallowed painfully but forced herself to keep her eyes locked with Arjun’s.
“Sorry, I don’t mean to freak you out. I wasn’t exactly declaring undying love in every conversation. Just that you were always there.”
This time Khushi smiled a little and allowed her gaze to rest on his right palm like she hoped one day she could allow her hand itself to. And then she spoke, crushing the inherent need to hide and keep to herself. It was a promise she had made to herself and to their friendship.
“He called me too. For the last time, I think.”
Her eyes flicked away from Arjun’s this time.
“He is not one to give up, Khushi.”
“Isn’t he?” She said before she could check herself. Was she blaming him for not pursuing her when she herself had made in abundantly clear that she had meant it when she had said she wanted it to end between them. “He is smart enough to not pursue something if he is convinced that there is nothing to pursue.”
Arjun looked at her unblinkingly. “He just has to take one look at you to know you still feel…”
“I have never denied how I feel about him. But I have decided it is not enough to take things forward with.”
Arjun shook his head. “Look, I am the last person who…” He shook his head. “As clichéd as it is,….” He trailed off and shook his head again, with a wry chuckle this time, “Dammit, I feel like Salman Khan of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai…And I don’t fucking remember that cheesy dialogue he had in the end.”
“Arjun,” She began.
“Fine, I’m not generous enough to belabor this point. But I think you are being stupid.”
“It was not meant to be. I should have known. I am not…” She bit back her words. “I should have never even considered the possibility. I mean look at him…I don’t know if what he felt was ever serious enough. And though I wouldn’t know serious or otherwise, he definitely did. He went through an entire relationship – almost got married and then let her go…And I…I don’t even know why he was…”
She had let the thought taper off into silence. Her mind was a whirlwind, as it always seemed to be when she thought of Arnav. And she thought of him endlessly. He sprang up in her head without warning most times and left her reeling till she physically shook her head and moved on different thinks.
“You realize that you have based this entire decision on assumptions, right?” Arjun had quipped softly without looking at her. “And hurt ego.”
She looked at him and knew that he was right. Many would easily question her decision to put an end to a relationship solely because she felt cheated… what the hell was she thinking? Why was she feeling guilty about ending something that had no basis in anything but lies and secrets – even as childish as they were?
“You forgave me.” Arjun pointed out, almost as if he could hear exactly what was going on in her head. He probably could. They had, more frequently than occasionally, been able to guess exactly what the other was thinking, feeling or about to say.
“We had a longer relationship. We had something to forgive and forget for. You forgave me too. You are my best friend. The only real friend I’ve had in a long, long time.”
Arjun smiled and looked away. “Krishna is going to be very mad if she gets to know.”
Khushi smiled right back. “I don’t know when I am ever going to get used to you calling her Krishna. It’s unnerving.”
Arjun shrugged. “It suits her. She sounds like she knows the secrets of the universe – which she probably does anyway.”
Khushi’s eyes narrowed. Not for first time, Khushi had noticed the note of something very private in the way Arjun spoke of his perception of Tripti. It was too intimate. And yet, Khushi knew there couldn’t be anything to her stupid suspicion. This was just old doubt and new guilt mixed with hope, mixing holographic ideas in her head. So she ignored it and the other conversation that had just preceded this one and went on to change the topic to something a lot more mundane and fun. And Arjun, bless his soul, complied as she hoped he would.
By the time it is the third anniversary of their River trip, Arnav Varun and the week by the Ganga was a bitter sweet memory that Khushi rarely allowed herself to indulge in. Of course, force of habit meant that she still found herself scribbing the AV insignia on random pieces of paper that always ended up in the trashcan before she could be tempted to keep them safe – after all, the decision had been hers. She could hardly behave like a jilted lover.
The odd references between Arjun and her to Arnav Varun had been largely uneventful. If Arjun had felt more strongly about her thickheadedness, he didn’t let her know. Perhaps Arnav Varun would always be the character-defining crack in the ceramic of their friendship.
By the summer of 2013, Arjun and Khushi had both managed to get acceptances into three and four eminent schools of business in India respectively. That they both choose to go to the same school was no surprise anymore. However, this time, the fact that Insitute of Management, Bangalore was the ‘best’ school they both had access to, was the bigger factor in keeping them together. For Khushi, there was also the added attachment of being able to continue to stay in Bangalore – the city she had quite fallen in love and hate with.
By the end of first year at IM-B, any residual feelings of awkwardness that Arjun and Khushi carried from their River days had dissipated. Arjun had begun dating again, though his love life largely remained a secret to Khushi – mostly by design for their own individual and collective sanity and for the solidity of their friendship. Khushi’s romantic liasions remained largely non-existent even as few people managed to capture her fancy as someone else once had. She went on exactly two dates – with only one explicitly being a date that had even ended in an awkward kiss, never to be picked up again. The other was mostly coincidental and perhaps a little too dull for Khushi to pursue. Except that when it was over, those around her seemed to be convinced it had had romantic tentacles.
Whatever the case, romance of the toe-curling, film song-singing type was a phenomenon that didn’t make a reappearance in Kaveri Khushi Gupta’s life till she saw the words printed in Arial 10 point font on a crisp white A4 sheet five years after she had last seen the person behind it.
Instructor: Arnav Varun (Senior Manager, Service Area: Strategy)
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Samjhawan
Album: Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya
Singer: Arijit Singh, Shreya Ghoshal
Music: Jawad Ahmad, Sharib Toshi
Lyrics: Ahmad Anees, Kumaar
Main tenu samjhawan ki
Na tere bina lagda jee
Ve changa nahion keeta beeba,
Ve changa nahion keeta beeba
Dil mera tod ke
Ve bada pachtaiyaan akhaan,
Ve bada pachtaiyaan akhaan
Naal tere jod ke
—– End of Part Two —-
Here is wishing everyone here and all your loved ones – friends and family – a very very happy 2017. May the new year bring with it hope, love and laughter in abundance, strength in heaps and infinite perseverance in moments that throw the happier ones in sharp relief. Happy New Year!
It’s time again in the River’s journey to head to a dam and conserve energy for the final leg of her journey. Simply said, I will be taking a break at this point to shape and sharpen the story so that it can be told the way I had hoped to tell it. I will return with Chapter One of Part Three: Journey To The Sea on February 8, 2017.
Till then, to all those who have been here since the beginning, to those who have just joined the journey and to those who couldn’t find what they wanted here, thank you for your support and feedback. The River and I would be nothing without you