To the one of 11 years and the ones of one month too many – Thank you for being with me!
Kolkata, September 2015
Khushi sighed deeply even as a few drops of water splashed on her face, which she ignored unlike the three other girls sitting to her right, just a couple of paces away from the pool, who shrieked and promptly got pulled into the water volleyball game that was currently underway between the new recruits and the “youngsters” of the existing A&M team.
“Shit! I am getting the fuck out of here.”
Khushi turned to her left and saw another girl getting up and looking at her in askance.
“If you think they won’t pull you in, think again. Behind the shiny b-school badges, they are all just engineering school hooligans. The worst kind – mechanical engineering types.”
Despite the blatantly derogatory comment directed at her bretheren across the world, Khushi couldn’t help laughing out aloud even as she stood up from the bench and fell in step with the other girl who was now glaring at the men in the pool, her hair a mess of curls loosely pulled into a braid that was already coming undone. She was wearing a pair of grey trousers, a lemon full-sleeve shirt and a well-fitted jacket – almost a replica for Khushi’s own clothes except Khushi was wearing a baby blue shirt and was a lot more uncomfortable in her formal attire than the other girl seemed to be.
“I am a mechanical engineer, by the way.” She offered as soon as the two of them had stepped into the large auditorium that the entire A&M India Management Consulting team had been occupying just twenty minutes ago.
The other girl, turned around with the jerk and looked at Khushi with wide but completely unapologetic eyes. “Shit, really? Let me guess – only girl?”
Khushi smiled and nodded.
“Kitnay aadmi they, Kaalia?”
Khushi chuckled, instantly warming up to her colleague in a way that only Bollywood and especially Sholay could inspire.
“Sattar aadmi. Sirf sattar aadmi they mere paas. Aur woh sattar aadmi mujhe zindagi bhar yaad rahenge.” Khushi replied without batting an eyelid.
The other girl grinned. “Filmy! I like! I was very worried A&M is going to be a big bore. But…” she leaned in, “you do realize that sounded really wrong right?”
Khushi stuck out her tongue even as her cheeks warmed. “What can I say, mechanical engineering did rub off on me, I guess.”
The two of them chuckled and settled into a couple of chairs right by the door.
“How long do you think before someone comes looking for us?” Khushi asked as she looked at the door.
The other girl shrugged. “Most of them are well on their way to being drunk. I don’t think they’ll care much about the two of us. Now, if Miss Chandigarh was with us, my answer might have been different. Not that Miss Chandigarh would hang out with us.”
“No way, don’t tell me she really is Miss Chandigarh?” Khushi asked as soon as she realized who was being talked about – there was only one girl who might have been Miss anything – tall, skinny and astoundingly perfect in her grooming and appearance. Envy was petty and Khushi was hardly a saint.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if she was. If nothing else then Miss Defence Colony toh hogi.” She said rhyming colony with baloney as was typical of the city that housed the area.
Once again the two of them broke into chuckles. “Sorry, I am sure she is a wonderful person…but something about her just isn’t right.”
Khushi smiled but said nothing. She did agree, though.
“Anyway, before we go on and it becomes too embarrassing, let me introduce myself and ask what your name is. I am Raagini Ramanathan.” She held out her hand and shook Khushi’s quickly.
“Kaveri Khushi Gupta.’’ She said and waited for the usual reaction to come. She wasn’t disappointed. Stumped, was more like it.
“Hey, what is it with two named Gupta girls? You are the second one I have met in the last couple of years.”
Immediately Khushi’s eyes narrowed. Two named Gupta girls were not too common, at least not enough for someone to make an unrelated comment. “Yeah? What was the other one called?’
“Krishna Tripti Gupta. But we called her KT. It was also convenient because to call her by her full name was quite the story every time – then there is the gender confusion – we also had a guy called Krishna – terrible for the poor child. So you are better but if we were to shorten your name, you would have to be KK and I am sorry but that abbreviation is over-abused now.”
“Wait a second, you know a Krishna Tripti Gupta. And you call her KT. That’s my sister.” Khushi said incredulously even as extent of coincidence tumbled over her in heaps of grainy wonderment. “How absolutely weird is that?”
“Oh God! Really? No wonder you look so familiar. I have been trying to place your face all day today. I am just glad you didn’t think I was some sort of creep.”
Khushi shook her head. “Honestly I don’t think I even noticed.”
Raagini nodded. “Yeah, you did look almost dazed most times – I just hoped that it was because you are also stumped at finding yourself in this place. I can’t believe I am here.”
“You didn’t want to be here?” Khushi asked in surprise.
“No way. I didn’t even want to go to b-school. Or engineering before that. I would have just loved to be a primary school teacher. But you know parents. Especially teacher parents. They think one needs to get shiny degrees and jobs that pay above average to get “settled in life”. Raagini said with a wry smile. “Look at me, baring my life’s pain in the first meeting.”
Khushi shook her head. “Once I start whining, you will know you are not half as bad. And believe me, it’s just a matter of time.”
Raagini grinned. “Which school are you from?”
“Bangalore. You are obviously from Ahmedabad? I mean that’s how you probably know my sister?”
“Yep. So you are from Arjun’s batch.”
“You know Arjun as well?” Why wasn’t she surprised, Khushi asked herself with a smile.
“Yeah. I met Arjun in our first year when he came for Vishesh – our annual fest at Ahmedabad.”
“Oh goodness…you are Ramu,” Khushi cried out aloud in absolute astonishment. “Arjun told me about you when he came back from Vishesh. Apparently you are actually an IM-Bian who got stuck in the wrong campus. Or I think that is how he justifies feeling friendly towards you.”
Raagini chuckled. “I am Ramu – yes! And Arjun is such a hoot. He was so upset when you guys lost V-Quiz. I mean I think he might have punched the quiz-master and the man is a legend.”
“And an IM-A alum.” She pointed out drily. “ I am surprised Arjun didn’t call out favoritism on the stage.”
Once again Raagini chuckled. “Yeah I couldn’t care less about this A versus B war. It is so lame.”
“Oh goodness, thank Shiv-ji! I thought I was the only one who was this disconnected. I mean people take it so seriously and I am lost half the time. Even here…especially here actually” She said referring to the A&M crowd.
Raagini rolled her eyes. “People are idiots. Competitiveness is so ingrained in our DNA, we don’t even care if what we are competing for is completely worthless.”
“Anyway, so yeah, it is through Arjun that I got to know KT…we met properly only during Vishesh last year when we hung out pretty much every day for the two weeks that Arjun was there. Then after Vishesh was done, KT and I still just kept in touch. She was…is also part of Place-Com – so needless to say getting away from her is almost impossible for anyone on the campus.”
“This is so strange. I cannot believe it. You actually know Tripti…”
“Ah, she is Tripti at home – does that make you Khushi? Or do you prefer Kaveri? I mean what was your dorm name?” Raagini asked. “You know mine.”
“Ramu – it’s funny. Mine wasn’t half as interesting. KKG – but no one really called me that. I go by Kaveri. Khushi is…” She shrugged ignoring the little tug of something she didn’t actively pay attention to anymore.
“Yeah Kareena Kapoor sort of ruined a perfectly good name.”
Khushi chuckled again. “Ah, now I see why Arjun is a fan. How many people even know that movie?”
Raagini pulled herself to her full height – she was almost as tall as Khushi herself, “I can sing along with Hai Re, make no mistake. I might be besura but I will know the words and the inflections.”
“Yes!” Khushi exclaimed. “Although just to hear KK sing, one has to also put up with female voice – could that be any shriller…” She rolled her eyes as she stressed the “be”
“Also a Chandler fan…Just tell me you also love Sheldon Cooper and I will pledge undying love to you.”
Khushi made a face. “Sorry, I haven’t watched Big Bang Theory enough to be a fan.”
Raagini almost looked crestfallen before she straightened her back. “We’ll fix that soon. Watch with me and I will convert you.”
“I am already feeling so much better, Kaveri. This week seemed almost endless with all that talk about how we change the world one fucked up corporate firm at a time…Now I am relieved there are people like you around….Please tell me you are coming to the Bangalore office once we are done here tomorrow?”
Khushi nodded. “Yes.”
“Where are you from?”
“Banaras – I mean that’s where my parents live. You?”
“Difficult question. I am a Tamilian who grew up in Jamshedpur and my parents are now in Hyderabad.”
“Why Bangalore then? Why not Gurgaon?”
“I’ve been in Banglore for almost five years now. It is just so much more convenient. Plus I never liked living in Delhi much.”
“Can’t argue with that.” Raagini answered with a mock-shudder.
They continued to talk for several more minutes, exchanging personal history, geography and Bollywood. Khushi learned soon that like her, Raagini also had working parents, a math teacher mother and an engineer father. She also had a younger sister though Raagini’s sister Rachna was almost seven years younger than her. Raagini herself was a year and a few months older than Khushi. As she spoke to the other girl, Khushi grew amazed by how much they seemed to have in common – a distate for large gatherings, an affinity for books, the unwillingness to take center stage but doing well nevertheless, when they had to. The last point was exemplified by the fact that Khushi had been declared the best presenter at the end of their four-day long consulting engagement simulation and Raagini had bagged the prize for the best elevator speech. An elevator speech, Khushi conceded was far more challenging given they had less than two minutes to convince a senior Partner playing the role of a client to give them a follow-up meeting. Raagini had convinced the head of A&M India Strategy Consulting practice no less – Khushi had been impressed and awestruck. To know that underneath that sharp mind, there was a goofy side almost completely in sync with her idea of fun, was almost too good to be true.
While she couldn’t share Raagini’s optimism about the rest of the week given what she knew was awaiting her tomorrow, she was hopeful that she would be able to get through the two hours with grace and that it would be the end of it. After all, she had come to know now that Arnav Varun spent almost all his time in the US delivering some of A&M’s best work for A&M’s most prestigious clients. He was here only for the week and would only make an appearance for the session and the drinks and dancing evening planned for the closing ceremony. The closing ceremony was an annual event that marked the year end for A&M and the end of the new batch’s orientation program and was expected to be the much-needed evening of blowing off steam for the A&M team. At the end of it everyone would head back to their home cities and back to the back-breaking work that Management Consulting was going to be – or so they were told no less than once every hour for the last four days.
Yes, she decided. She was not the naïve lone girl mechanical engineer or the love-struck idiot of five years ago. Five years – that was long time for anyone to forget about a couple of kisses and a relationship that never took off. She was sure he had forgotten too. She hoped he had. She had, after all, given him no reasons to remember.
Khushi walked out of the little cottage that housed her room and on to the large, well manicured lawns lying in front. The sound of the already muted Ganga in her final few moments before she joins the Bay of Bengal, was almost non-existent in this part of the resort. She took a deep breath as she looked up into the clear skies. Stars twinkled in the distance, flimsy clouds floated by even as the scent of wet earth and dewy grass filled her lungs. The crunch of loose gravel under her feet, felt welcome in the silence of the night – the only natural recurrence that now separated her and what lay on the other side of dawn.
She needed to speak with someone. The evening had passed by in Raagini’s company but with nightfall, she was alone again, buzzing with nervous energy. She slipped her hands into her pocket and fished out her phone and quickly placed a call to her sister. Unfortunately, only an unwelcome, jarring busy tone greeted her eager ears. She clenched her teeth and put her phone back. She was almost at the edge of the little white wall that separated the resort from the River bank when she heard Arjun’s voice and whooped in silent relief.
“What is wrong with you – you know better than to think I called to talk about…”
Khushi’s steps slowed. There was something in his voice that told her that this was not a conversation he might be okay with her eavesdropping on.
“Seriously?” He asked again even as he came completely into her view. He was holding the phone against his ear but his head was hung low almost as if in defeat.
“Fine. Call me when you feel like we can have a conversation.” He said after a while and forcefully disconnected the call. He slipped his hands on the wall along which she was standing several paces to his left and Khushi thought she heard him swear.
“God! This one has you all tied up in knots doesn’t she?”
He jumped back from the wall, quite literally and narrowed his eyes even as she walked up to him.
“Kaveri Gupta – you are going to be the death of me.”
Khushi rolled her eyes as she walked over to lean against the wall, facing Arjun. She stayed silent for a minute even as she let her eyes stay glued on Arjun’s face. He was flushed, his eyes bright, his hair a mess like he had used his finger to comb them into a charming disarray. And there was a tightness in his jaw. She knew that expression. “I think this mystery girlfriend is doing a fine job of killing you – I might not need to bother ridding the earth of you.”
“There is no mystery girlfriend.” He said softly and looked away as his hands stayed on the wall and his body swayed gently on the ball of his feet.
She frowned. “I have had this nagging feeling for a while now, Arjun. Don’t deny it. We had decided we won’t hide things from each other.”
Arjun sighed and let his head drop again. “Yes. Please go on. Hold my eight year old mistake over my head like a dangling sword.”
Khushi winced and then nodded. “Achcha baba, sorry. Tell me when you are ready okay?”
Arjun looked at her and smiled.
“Ah see – so there is someone.”
Arjun rolled his eyes. “Is this how annoying I was in college?”
“Ha ha. You are hilarious Kaveri Gupta.”
Khushi bowed slightly and shrugged. Then she chuckled, “Have we changed personalities for this part of our story?”
Arjun rolled his eyes. “If someone is writing our story, it has got to be a rather boring one. And no, this is just you being overly cheerful to hide the fact that your hands are cold and blue despite it being humid and fucking untolerably warm right now.”
“It’s not that bad, Arjun. At least it isn’t raining. And coming back to our usual reactions. Ha ha.” She said with a small grimace. Of course, Arjun was right. “I am not nervous.” She stated out aloud, for herself to believe more than to convince Arjun. “Why should I be?” She continued as she drew a pattern she shouldn’t have on the grass. “It was a long time ago,” She said as she erased the invisible pattern on the grass forcefully.
Khushi looked up at Arjun with narrowed eyes. “It will be awkward yes but I am not an idiot anymore. I will be fine. More than fine. I am a professional – a management consultant. And he…he is a Senior Manager – how did he make senior manager this quickly.”
Arjun sighed and then turned around to lean against the wall, just like her so that they were now side by side facing the same direction. “Apparently he joined as Senior Consultant and made Manager in a year. He is still quite the legend. So fucking annoying.”
Khushi smiled at that. “You did have a crush on him, didn’t you?” She said.
Arjun turned to her with a raised an eyebrow. “Yeah I was the one with the “crush”.” He air quoted. “ I guess I left the more serious feelings for my best friend.”
She continued to look at him and realized that they both knew his statement could be interpreted two ways and both were just as true. “Have you been in touch with him?”
Arjun shook his head. “Like I said – if I had been, I would have told you.”
Khushi nodded. “He is in the US almost all the time. It will be okay. It’s not like I am going to see him everyday in Bangalore.” She said, repeating what Arjun had told her two days ago in another similar conversation.
This time Arjun said nothing. When Khushi looked at him again, he was looking at her in that very Arjun-eque way. “There is something I haven’t told you still though. I just didn’t think I would ever need to.”
When Khushi opened her mouth, Arjun stopped her. “I know I know…this is what got us all into a mess the last time. So I am telling you now. He smokes.”
Khushi frowned again. “What?”
“Arnav Varun, the love of your life, the man you won’t move on from or give another chance to…”
“He is not the love of my life. I haven’t seen him in five years. I have moved on. I have been on dates since. Romantically designed dates.”
“Two. Two dates.”
“Haan toh no one else asked me out.”
Arjun rolled his eyes.
“Don’t do that.” She said irritatedly. She hated it when Arjun brushed it off every time. “It is true. People don’t ask me out. And that is a fact. In any case I have given Ma the go ahead.”
Arjun didn’t say anything to that.
“What? No comment on the great Indian arranged marriage bureau?”
“Just like you had no comment on the smoking.”
Khushi made a face. “You should have told me this in college. Believe me, we wouldn’t be here. So typical. Of course. Guitar, music, engineering….Smoking fits right in.” She shuddered and then straightened her spine. “Ok good. Thank you for telling me. I have no time in the world for smokers.” Even if I do trace initials of one of them in my sleep. No. I am done.
“Famous last words?” Arjun quipped softly even as he crossed his fingers behind his back.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Yeh Jo Mohabbat Hai
Album: Kati Patang
Singers: Kishore Kumar
Music: R. D. Burman
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Toote agar saagar, naya saagar koi le le
Mere Khuda dil se koi kisi ke na khele
Dil toot jaaye
Toh kya ho anjaam?
- Thank you – to those who have been here through the days of no updates and to those who return today – I don’t know if I deserve your love but I treasure it
- As a wise River friend said: Whatever the content of this update, it is probably going to end up disappointing. As always – I ask for time :)
- In case some of you are wondering (and I know who you are :)), I have taken the liberty to adjust some dates to make up for the unbelievably long time I have taken to write this story.
- Next Update: Wednesday, Feb 15 2017, late night IST (Monday updates shall resume soon-ish)