There were times when being an introvert paid. This morning was one of those times and Khushi couldn’t be more grateful to herself. Of course, if it hadn’t been her own stupid heart that had handed itself over to the man in question and never really recovered, she wouldn’t need to be grateful for the cover of her own silence. She let her pen scratch zig-zag patterns on the paper in front of her and drew horizontal strike-offs through them. The damned things still looked like the two alphabets she didn’t want to see and it made her want to scream. Where the hell was the conviction from last night when she needed it the most. He would walk in to the damned board room anytime now and she still needed to find that restfulness that she so prided herself on being able to fake effectively.
“Tumhe kya hua, Kaalia?”
Khushi turned at the sudden intrusion only to see Raagini looking at her curiously. With her hair pulled back into a braid and most of her curly hair still tucked into her scalp since it was just the beginning of their day, she looked fresh ready to take on the world. There was something innately pleasant about Raagini’s face – unblemished and cheerful, open and honest. Her eyes though small in her face, twinkled with mirth, like they had never known anything but this light heartedness than seemed to radiate from her. Khushi couldn’t help smiling back at her new friend. “I am ready to end this week and this insanely endless list of powerpoint presentations that we have been subjected to.” She said with a shrug. It wasn’t all a lie. The week had been rather grueling with training interspersed with the real life case simulation which had kept them awake right up to the middle of interceding nights and woken them up early in the mornings till they didn’t know dusk from dawn.
“Tell me about it. And then they go ahead and end the week with team building. Like we haven’t had enough of HR globe in b-school.”
Khushi nodded but only half heartedly. Unlike most of her classmates in b-school, Arjun included, she didn’t quite mind the “globe” subjects where decision making was a lot more subjective and right-brained than otherwise. Though her scoring was always better in the other subjects – it was in subjects like Marketing, Organizational Change Management, HR and the likes that she had truly felt alive. So while Arjun Agarwal found his niche in Finance, Kaveri Gupta ended up majoring in Marketing and Strategy – a fact that amused the two of them to no end for finally having found points of divergence only to be recruited with A&M together just months later.
“The only solace is that we have AV for the session.” Raagini said with a small smile.
When Khushi looked at her with what she was sure looked like annoyed surprise, Raagini went on to explain. “He recruited me – so he obviously has great taste.” She said with a smirk which despite the context, Khushi couldn’t help smile at. “He’s an IM-A alum,” She went on to explain unnecessarily. “And apparently he leads recruitment for the Strategy practice here. And being the senior-most IM-A alum, he always makes it to campus events.”
Khushi swallowed as she let Raagini’s words settle. Of course she remembered that he was an IM-A alum even though she had ignored the reminder every day since Tripti had made it to the same institution nearly eighteen months ago. But, he headed recruitment? Did that mean he knew Arjun and she were being shortlisted, interviewed, selected…? The process had kicked off almost ten months ago when Khushi had submitted her application for the opening at A&M. Had he known since then? Did he have anything to do with….No, she shook her head. She had given a great interview and there had been Partners who had interviewed and selected her. Even if Arnav was the rockstar he seemed to be still, he couldn’t possibly wield that kind of influence.
Then she frowned. Why was she assuming he even wanted to recruit her? What if it had been the other way around? What if he had discouraged her hiring? Perhaps even Arjun’s? What if both of them had made it despite and not because of Arnav’s position on the recruitment team?
No, she shook her head again. He was not a petty person – that’s the one thing she was rather sure of even after all these years.
So perhaps he really had been indifferent to it all. That Arjun and she had made it to A&M, had nothing to do with Arnav Varun?
Oh damn damn damn the man! Why couldn’t he just leave her life alone without reappearing at regular intervals like a bad penny?
“Hello, hello? Ghar mein koi hain?”
She snapped out of her reverie and nodded. “Yeah I know…him. He is an IE-V alum too.”
“Of course!” Raagini slapped her forehead. “Arre baba – our worlds are rather interconnected, aren’t they? And clearly leading recruitment means filling your firm with your juniors – if not from b-school then from engineering.” Raagini commented with a chuckle, much to Khushi’s dismay.
“I’m sure they are more ethical than that.” She said softly.
“Haan, consulting firms are better than the big investment banks, yes. But you can’t tell me that you don’t know these things matter?”
Khushi shrugged. “Networking is an abused word. But yes, during placement week, it did become rather apparent that those who had spent time “expressing interest” repeatedly and with dedication, did seem to have made their presence felt. I didn’t bother with any of those so needless to say the big three were out of the question for me.”
“See? I knew I like you for a reason.” Raagini grinned even as the chatter around the class quietened amidst the sound of footsteps shuffling into the large training room.
Khushi closed her eyes briefly and looked straight ahead, wishing that she had had the foresight to pick a seat other than the front row like Arjun had.
“Good morning, everyone!”
Her eyes flew open as soon as she realized that it was not the voice she had been expecting to hear. And sure enough, the man standing in front of the class was no AV. She let out a deep breath and immediately turned around to search for Arjun. She found his gaze on her as soon as she turned and a small silent wave of understanding passed between them. She let her mouth curve into a grateful smile and turned back to face the instructor who was filling the class in on the fact that Arnav Varun was stuck in a client conference call that was running over and hence would be late for the scheduled session. Temporary relief though it was , Khushi couldn’t help uttering a small prayer of thanks to Shiv-ji because it seemed like He understood just what it meant for her to have postponed the impending agony. Shortly thereafter as the A&M class of 2015 began their umpteenth introduction to their latest instructor and colleague, Khushi’s entire demeanor relaxed soon she found herself completely immersed in the proceedings.
Khushi put down her pen and looked up to see that she was the first few to have finished the assignment. She looked to her left to see Arjun still struggling with his piece. The class had been split into groups of twos or threes based on those who came from the same business school and hence had known each other long enough to conduct an exercise that had them evaluating each other’s personalities for both positives and negatives. Khushi looked at her notes and for a minute worried if Arjun would be surprised by what she thought were his strengths and weaknesses. Then she smiled to herself. No, she thought. Arjun would know exactly what she had written. She on the other hand, was bound to be surprised by at least one thing on Arjun’s list. As far as emotional quotients go, there was at least this level of awareness she could claim for both of them.
“You guys look like you are writing the Corporate Finance paper at school.”
It must have been comical to see both Khushi and Arjun whip their heads around in the direction of the voice that had sliced through the immersed silence in the room, the voice that she had first heard almost a decade ago as it had instructed a rowdy classmate to “shut it”
To say that nothing could have prepared her for the sight of him, so familiar and yet so new, would have been utterly inadequate. The last time she had seen Arnav Varun had been with betrayal glistening in her eyes, disappointment in his and the sound of a gurgling river in the backdrop.
She tore her eyes away from him even as he walked through the aisle and made his way up to the center of the room. Her heart was now pulsing in her temples and her hands had dropped to her lap, crumpled into intertwined knots behind the cover that the desk presented. She knew she couldn’t keep her eyes averted too long. But she needed the few seconds to prepare herself for the real jolt that she knew was awaiting her.
Swallowing the dryness in her mouth, she forced herself to look up at the man now standing in slightly to her right. If her heart skipped any beats at the sight of an immaculately dressed man, hair suitably gelled in place and face set in a pleasant if formal expression, they weren’t fatal. Or perhaps she had died a little again without knowing it. Irises she knew to be sun-rise flecked were dimmed in their radiance behind rim-less, anti-glare lenses that sat almost daintily on the bridge of his still sharp nose. If this was the same man who had a long, angry gash, one that almost mirrored the one she carried on her back, on his arm, she couldn’t tell from the dapper visual that she was now presented with. If this was the man who had once pulled her into his embrace and kissed her till she couldn’t think straight…
She blinked rapidly as mortification filled her cheeks with carmine. Of all the things she had to remember, did it have to be how it was to be kissed by him? Oh why in Shiv-ji’s name did she have to live with that memory in the first place?
It was in that exact moment that he looked straight at her.
No, she told herself several minutes later when the session had resumed and people had started talking about their self discovery exercise, time had not come to a stand still when their gazes had clashed momentarily. It had been one of eventuality – something that was bound to occur in the universe with certainty that even electrons weren’t allowed the freedom of. Yes, he had known to expect her. Yes, he had even been prepared to see not just her but also Arjun. It was evident in the way the rest of the session progessed – unhindered, professional to a fault and completely devoid of any undercurrents that might have been. He even called Arjun out to share their assessment of each other and remained expressionless as Arjun – just as professionally talked about what the two of them had chosen for each other as feedback. In the event of his scrutiny, she even forgot to commend herself for correctly predicting the eventuality of being surprised by one each of her strengths and weaknesses that Arjun had listed. (He thought her creative – a word she wouldn’t have dreamed of for herself, and unpredictable – again something that went against her basic philosophy of being open and honest in every interaction.)
When the class took a coffee-break, she and Arjun shared a quick glance before heading out their separate ways.
She was waiting for the uniformed staffer behind the counter to hand her a cup when she felt his presence next to her. It bothered her that she could still sense his person with such clarity when time and distance should have but buried this instinct with immovable layers of leaden cob-webs. She remained still and continued to watch the man with the black waistcoat pour a milky brew – weaker than she cared for – into a gleaming white cup.
She had the coffee in her hand when Arnav asked for cup as well and allowed his hand to rest lightly on the table, just inches away from her cup.
She bit her tongue down as the unwarranted thought flickered and died in her head. She didn’t care whether there was a ring or not. If anything, the lack of one only disappointed her. She had once carelessly assumed that a chance with an unattached man, this unattached man, was worth taking. Not this time. Not ever again.
Knowing that she couldn’t exactly avoid looking at him without giving away that it affected her as much as it did, she turned to her left and looked at him, only to find him looking at her. This time, the second hand on the clock must have paused for at least half its impending rotation. The barrier of lenses did nothing to shield her from the impact of his sunrise irises – just as brilliant as they had ever been.
“Hi,” She blurted out without thinking of possible options or waiting for him to break the silence when it was evident that it was he who had chosen to approach her.
He smiled, the arch of his mouth barely grazing the arc of his eyes. No, she realized. The years had been a farce. He may have moved on. She may claim to have too. But there it was, in the blink of his lashes – thick and prickly between them – the last words they had ever exchanged.
“How are you?” He asked almost offhandedly, as his smile turned wry and his face became blank again, high cheek bones – hard and unfazed, the eyes almost unseeing.
She nodded and whispered something unintelligible even as the cup rattled softly on the saucer beneath. If only she could sip that coffee, as unappealing as it looked at the moment. Something, just anything to stop the invisible shaking.
“Welcome to A&M. It’s a great firm. I hope you find everything you want here.”
He said as she allowed her eyes to return to him after having roamed around about the crowded pantry.
She watched open mouthed even as the instinctive thank you died on her lips. The words, volleyed her way by so many others she had met this week, had been uttered as gently as she had ever heard anything from him. They seemed friendly and without a trace of anything that might pass as undercurrents. And yet, there was no genial, benevolent smile on his face that might have once been. This…was almost as if he only wanted to get over with that first awkward conversation and go on to being colleagues – professionals. He had once used that word with her. She knew it meant something to him. As it did to her.
He nodded as he received his own cup of coffee and stepped away from her, never looking back even as she struggled to bring her own senses back in control.
She continued to watch as he headed right to the group that was standing by the entrance to the training room, Arjun right at the head and talking animatedly, as always. She watched, her eyes glued to the pair of them who came face to face and before she knew it were shaking hands and exchanging tentative smiles. She saw Arnav say something to Arjun following which Arjun chuckled wryly and shook his head. Even from the distance, she could see Arjun’s eyes wary and distant and yet his entire stance almost hopeful in the way it tilted towards Arnav Varun. Crush or not, when she had had her heart broken, he had not only had his smashed to bits but had also lost his hero to a sense of betrayal that could only come from a bond much deeper than she had ever known. A part of her was now glad that the two men seemed to be programmed differently enough to be able to start over without the awkwardness that she would struggle with for life. The other part of her, envied both Arjun and Arnav for their ability to at least attempt to rebuild what lay broken.
She watched for one last minute as Arjun said something to Arnav and the rest of the group chuckled even as Arnav shook his head as if secretly glad that somethings never changed.
She looked down at her coffee and decided it was not worth her while, afterall. Placing the cup and saucer back on the counter she had picked it up from, she headed towards the rest room to freshen up before she could head back to class.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Chalo Ek Baar Phir Se
Singer: Mahendra Kapoor (Video posted here has Sonu Nigam’s voice blended with Mahendra Kapoor’s in a tribute)
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi
Na main tumse koi umeed rakkhun, dil nawaazi ki
Na tum meri taraf dekho, galat andaaz nazron se
Na mere dil ki dhadkan, ladkhadaaye, meri baaton mein
Na zaahir ho, tumhari kashmkash ka, raaz nazron se
Thank you all for coming back with such open hearts. Paraphrasing the mighty Jack Nicholson, let me just say – “You (all) make me want to be a better writer/friend/human being”
Next Update: Wednesday, Feb 22 2017, between 9pm-10pm IST