The day ended sooner than Khushi had imagined it would just twenty four hours ago. Evening was now sweeping across the sky in a rusty carpet of light and dust. The A&M team had assembled in a large banquet hall which had been re-arranged to accommodate a small stage and audience seating facing it on one side. The other side was split into what looked like a small dance floor and a buffet area that was still only being set up. At the opposite end of the banquet hall from the stage, was a bar which was, unsurprisingly, the center of gravity of the event. Given what she had experienced in the last four days, she knew that it was not unusual for bars to be opened as early as this. But this was the first time that even the Class of 2014 was just as eagerly lined up at the counter, taking pandemonium levels to unprecedented highs.
The A&M team of coaches, instructors and participants, had gathered for what had been advertised widely as THE evening of letting one’s hair down. There would be, Khushi understood, a mixture of skits, singing and dancing by different groups of people – mostly existing A&M practitioners. The new batch was also asked to put up a show of some sort. Khushi, having already had her fill of such events for a lifetime, had stayed far far away, just as Arjun had, though Arjun’s resolution seemed to be specially restricted for her benefit – especially in the current situation – more than his own interest. The man, after all, lived on being in the thick of things and had never stayed away from such occasions in b-school. He was also, at the moment, right in the middle of the many queues that had merged into the crowd at the bar, visibly owning the process of getting people their drinks and making sure the petrified men behind the makeshift bar-counter stayed sane in the process.
For present company, Khushi had Raagini who was also very clear about keeping away from the chaotic but semi-formal song and dance session, confirming her happy assessment of the other girl. Raagini turned out to be a teetotaler – which is what Khushi liked to call herself though she was not averse to holding drinks on such evenings. Given their disinterest in the spirit of the evening, literally, the pair of them were seated strategically enough to allow them to pass comments on other; comments that ranged from from whiny to rude, but all in all hilariously cathartic.
“Once. And that was enough.” Raagini was now saying in response to Khushi’s question about her experiences with alcohol.
“Bad? It was atrocious. I had three drinks – one knowing it was vodka and the other two without. Foolish to trust friends with it I tell you. And the next thing I remember is waking up with a headache that I do not want to experience again and a complete loss of memory regarding what it is that I did.”
Khushi chuckled. This was precisely why she avoided any intoxication of any kind. Somethings just didn’t hold any appeal. “And what did you do?”
“Nothing. Imagine that. No drunken confessions of crushes or dancing on table tops. Apparently I am the kind of drunk who becomes quieter with every additional sip. Or so my friends were kind enough to point out after they called me a bore.”
“You sound almost disappointed.”
“The filmy-me is disappointed. I was always sure I’d be singing Zara Sa Jhoom Loon Main to any boy I meet under the influence.” Raagini completed with a sigh. “What about you? No trials ever?”
Khushi grinned and shook her head. “In b-school, the occasional parties I attended, I picked up a glass and held it in my hand the whole night – great way to keep people away. My dorm-mates obviously picked up on it quickly but they were nice enough to let me get away with it. Plus, most times people would be way more interested in dancing than monitoring my alcohol intake – so I was okay.”
“You don’t dance.”
“Err…I don’t want dance floors to crack open wide as I awkwardly try to imitate Bollywood dance steps.”
“Pfft.” Raagini said. “I love dancing. And if dance floors don’t split wide open when I dance, I think they are safe from you as well.”
Khushi rolled her eyes but didn’t press the point. She’s had enough rebuke from Tripti in the last five years to keep pressing the point about being overweight. And now she knew it was something she needed to live with as a result of her medical condition. Poly-Cystic Ovarian Syndrome her gynaecologist pointed out was a lifestyle disease and affected almost all urban women of reproductive age these days. All she could do was follow a healthy lifestyle instead of obsessing over weight loss. So she exercised fairly regularly and ate under moderate control – binges and laziness not accounted for. There was little more she could do and there was no point dying over what she couldn’t solve beyond a limit. Or so she told herself, once every self-pity session later.
“Are you trained?” She asked the other girl instead, deciding to keep conversations fun.
Khushi smiled. “No wonder. Now I am even more convinced about the resemblance to Madhuri Dixit.”
Raagini beamed. “I love her. I mean I really do – in the ‘I have considered alternate sexual choices because of how I feel for her’ kind of way. And you just said I look like her – I love you forever.”
Khushi chuckled. “God, I really did miss out on female company in college.”
Raagini nodded her head sympathetically. “I hear you. But surely b-school was better?”
Khushi nodded. “Infinitely yes. But I think I took almost a year just to get used to women in my surroundings. I did make a couple of really good friends. Now, if only I can keep in touch with them like one should with friends.” She said with a grimace. “I am terrible at keeping friends – fatal flaw.”
“Then God help us when our paths diverge. Because I am just as awful. And it would be such a shame.”
The two of them didn’t notice a presence behind them and were quite startled when the person spoke out aloud, taking advantage of an ebb in their conversation.
“If you girls think no one has noticed this growing friendship, you would be very mistaken.”
Khushi and Raagini both instinctively stood up when they saw the head of A&M Consulting’s India practice standing by them with a drink in hand. That Arnav Varun was standing with him, his own hands holding a glass half-empty, only added to Khushi’s nerves.
“Hi, Shyam” Raagini said softly, her eyes meeting Khushi’s briefly as an unspoken wonderment at being singled out passed between them.
Shyam Anandraman, the short but stately senior who had been brutal in his role as a client during the case simulation last week, smiled at the two of them and raised an eyebrow. “No drinks for either of you?”
Both shook their heads quietly, still completely at a loss on how to deal with the senior-most person from their new employer walking up to them for a casual chit-chat. This was Networking 101, the subject both girls hated with a passion and had spent many minutes whining about since their friendship took off two days ago.
“So both of you going to be performing tonight?” Shyam asked.
“No,” Khushi said softly.
“No talent to speak of,” Raagini chimed in, quite untruthfully, which Shyam clearly disbelieved – evident in the look he shared with Arnav, who to Khushi’s great relief was not looking at her any more than the situation warranted. That is until Raagini continued to speak. “Unlike AV who we know will be singing later today?”
Khushi’s eyes flew to meet his very quickly before she looked away.
“AV, I thought we are going to get some relief this year at least?” Shyam asked as he slapped Arnav, quite unselfconsciously despite having to reach up quite high to get to Arnav’s shoulder. The difference in height between them was quite noticeable and yet something in the way Shyam Anandraman carried himself, made it evident that he was the boss. “And how do these girls know of your singing talent? I thought you barely made it in time for this party?”
“I spent the morning with this batch on team building.” Arnav pointed out as if to make it clear that he was here not just for the party.
“He’s both of our senior from college and b-school respectively.” Raagini added as an answer to the other half of Shyam’s question, blissfully unaware of the growing edginess in Khushi’s now icy fingers.
“Good God, AV. Nepotism at its worst this is. How many of your juniors do you now have on the team?”
“I also give you the best performers and lowest attrition rate as a result, Shyam. Just saying.”
Shyam turned around to the girls with a genial smile. “Now you have a lot of live up to. Or we’ll have to rethink about AV himself.” He then turned to Arnav again. “We are getting both of them to Strategy?”
Arnav looked at him and then at the two of them and then shrugged. “Raghu already wants them for Supply Chain. We’ll see. Plus, we have to at least pretend their opinion matters.” He said with a smile which was vaguely directed at both Khushi and Raagini while not meeting either’s eyes.
“Don’t get fooled by that peaceful exterior. He is a terror to work with. Choose Strategy at your own risk.” Shyam said softly and then shook his head. “Enjoy the evening and mingle a little bit more – it might just be helpful.”
With that the two men, short and tall and yet each exuding the sort of grace and depth that seemed to be so inherent to this profession, walked away, saying something between themselves.
“What was that?” Raagini wondered aloud even as the two of them continued to follow Shyam and Arnav who had now walked up to another group.
“I think that was not-so-subtle feedback to get off our butts and go “mingle”.” Khushi said with a deep sigh.
Raagini made a face but the two of them moved nevertheless in the direction of the bar counter and decided getting something to drink – even if it was non-alocholic – was the only way to stay inconspicuous.
“What the nation’s obsession with talent nights is, I will never understand.” Khushi grumbled as Raagini and she settled down into a couple of chairs right in the middle of seating area amidst other groups – none of whom were looking half as troubled as Khushi was at the prospect of another night of listening to Arnav Varun sing. Like she hadn’t had enough of that to last her seven lifetimes. “Every institution I have been part of after school. Engineering, Speed Motors, B-School and now A&M. I don’t get it.”
“As long as I am not required to participate, I am completely in favor of these. You either get amazing performances or enough material to laugh about.”
“Optimist.” Khushi said with a grimace and looked around her to see if she could spot Arjun. Sure, they had spent the last five years after the River making sure they were close but not cloying. But his disappearance this evening was discomforting. She wanted to see his face and know that she was okay to feel strange about this sudden turn of events. Arnav Varun singing – how was she going to get through that, of all things? Shiv-ji, she beseeched. Stop testing my resolve. Why does my life go around in circles every few years? And why do I always end up here? Waiting for him to sing?
Thankfully, the collection of performances that followed was informal enough to allow her snatches of time filled with laughter and amusement. There was a skit by a few A&M practitioners who acted out the journey of a newly minted MBA with CEO-coaching dreams ending up pouring coffee for Partners. There were a couple of dances and even a few song perfromances by the new batch of A&M – most of them fairly good. And yet, the strum of a distant guitar was enough to set her teeth on the edge.
Arnav Varun, his guitar and his singing, were still some sort of legend at A&M – not surprisingly. The first time he performed was with an Expat Partner who sang a Bollywood number with atrocious and yet adorable diction. Given that the Partner was fairly young and rather dashing to look at, the attempt was met with enthusiastic applause and loud cheering.
But if Khushi thought that the years had changed things enough to have Arnav Varun step away from the limelight and allow someone else to shine, she was sorely mistaken. All the chaos and the lack of coordination that made engineering college fests like Aarohan feel like they might have been Indian Idol finales, died when the banquet hall was plunged into darkness and a single spot light shone above Arnav Varun – once again seated on a bar stool, cradling a guitar even as karaoke music from the song sputtered to life and the loud chatter in the hall hushed into silence.
The fact that there was no amateur band and that he was relying on karaoke music from the original, the fact that there was no sound-design inclusive auditorium but a large banquet hall with paper thin partitions, the fact that she was not the same eighteen year old but a decade older with more cynicism than hope in her heart – none of it seemed to have muted the impact of what came on.
“Now this will be the best part of the evening, thankfully.” Raagini drawled in her ear even as the the music tinkled with precision, a slow soulful start to a song she knew would be from her favorites even before she had heard the opening piece. Some things never changed.
Arre aankh se boond gira koi
Chingari ka tukda jala koi
Umeed ko aag laga zara
Sehra ki pyaas bujha zara
His voice sizzled through the words and the music like it always did. And yet there was an edge that she had either forgotten or was never before. Could everyone hear the fire in the words, the droplet of river water that he was singing about, the thirst that still parched her throat?
Umeed ko aag laga zara
Sehra ki pyaas bujha zara
Ghan itna baras ke galne lagoon
Mein paani ke upar tarne lagoon
Behene de mujhe behene de mujhe
Behene de mujhe behene de
Behene de mujhe behene de mujhe
Behene de mujhe behene de
Behene de ghangor ghata
Behene de paani ki tarah
Saagar mein jaa girna hai
Behene de nadiyaan ki tarah
Perhaps it was beauty of their geographical situation, of the river she knew was flowing outside waiting to meet the ocean like the song she had once sung and he was now singing, eulogized with such gusto. Perhaps it was the poetic desperation of her name that was a River and his the ocean that she had once found out in a night of question and answer, the only few hours of romantic bliss she had ever known. Or would know, in all likelihood.
Shart lagi hai mar jaane ki
Jeena hai toh pyaar mein
Deh kahin bhi ho mera
Jaan rakhi hai yaar mein
It had to be her favorite lyricist, in her opinion the greatest poet Hindi song had known in years. Who else could write about yearning of such potent proportions?
Wherever my body be,
My life rests with my lover
It brought forth images of fairy tale demons with souls stored in green parrots. Of horcruxes built by breaking hearts, perhaps.
Beh ja beh ja, hai saagar ka kehna
Beh ja beh ja, hai nadiyaan ko behna
Patte se tapakti boond ki awaaz sunai di thi
Nadiyaan mein tapak aur gum ho ja
As the opening lines were repeated again, the audience broke out in claps and catcalls. Even deja-vu would be a mild word to describe what and how she was feeling at the moment. The only solace was the fact that she was far, far away from the stage and there was no way he could see her or the fact that her face was white, her finger nails blue and her skin broken out into goosebumps.
Mera pal pal ang ang bhar diya
Tune jaan pe junoon saa kar diya
Mera hai kya jo mein haar dun?
Jaan teri hai, tujh pe vaar dun!
Promises. Such promises. A decade ago she would have been floored. Then half that same period later she would have known the words were never meant for her. This dance was hardly new. Her crazed heartbeat too picked up old patterns of forgotten rhythym. She needed to go. She needed to run.
Doob gaye jo suna hai saare
Tere dere aatey hai
Dil ko chullu mein bechare
Doobkiyan gote khaate hain
Beh ja beh ja
Chal tod kinaare ko
Beh ja beh ja
Dhar le majhdhaare ko
She rose quickly despite Raagini’s surprised look and slid out of the row of eager listeners and walked down the makeshift aisle. She was grateful still for the darkness around them and yet she couldn’t have cared if he had seen her walk away. She didn’t even know if this was anything to do with her. All she knew was that she didn’t need this. She needed to get some air.
She kept walking even as the music became distant in her ears and the din fell away and gave way to silence and the humid air of the night. She kept walking as gravel crunched under her feet, as snatches of unrelated conversation filtered in and out like the playful moon on a cloudy night.
It was only when her phone beeped shrilly in the stillness of the night that she came to a stand still.
She took a deep breath and pulled out her phone to see the notification on the locked screen.
She had known somehow that it would be him. Who else…
This, my dear Kavi – was all him.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Behne De
Singers: Karthik, Mohammad Irfan
Music: A. R. Rahman
Song Title: Yeh Dil Sun Raha Hai
Album: Khamoshi (The Musical)
Singers: Kavita Krishnamurthy
Music: Jatin Lalit
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
Meri sadaa mein, bole tu
Yeh koi, kya jaane?
Geet mein hai, saaz mein hai
Tu hi tu, nagma kahan?
Next Update: Wednesday, Mar 1, 2017, late night IST