A part of her never wanted to go back to the celebration. But she had spent a little over fifteen minutes outside trying to take deep breaths and draw up the courage to head back in, when Arjun called. When she answered, he simply asked her to return and that he was waiting for her at the entrance. What he didn’t say aloud but Khushi knew he was offering, was his unwavering company for as long as she needed it, to be okay with the fact that Arnav Varun was now a near-permanent fixture in her professional life – she was hardly going to quit a dream job over a man. That he was now singing songs that had nothing to do with pacts made with Arjun and still about rivers and oceans.
“Five more minutes,” She whispered to him and breathed in deeply when she heard him okay her request. However, respite was not to be hers when in less than two minutes, her phone rang again – with Raagini on the other end this time, wanting to know where Khushi had disappeared to. Steeling herself, she walked back the same way she had come in. She kept telling herself that she was overreacting. It had been nearly a decade since she had foolishly fallen for a guitar wielding senior in college. It had been nearly half a decade since she had made the decision that a relationship built on her best friend’s broken heart and her own smothered ego, was not one she wanted to pursue. What did she expect would happen? That the man she had almost cruelly kept away from herself and from the possibility of anything at all, was still waiting for her to listen to his songs about rivers meeting oceans and come running to him? No. She was being ridiculous. Did she expect him to never sing again? Or for any of his singing to only mean something to her? No.
Arjun was waiting for her at the entrance, looking somber but neither worried nor angry. Had he really moved on from what had happened so much more effectively than she had? He had told her almost a year ago that he was truly over what he felt for her. Sure, it had been a moment of careless, frivolous banter and the declaration had seemingly come out of nowhere, but did that really mean Arjun felt nothing at all? Disloyalty, perhaps? After all, Arnav Varun singing on stages or by river sides – now by both – was to him just as meaningful as it had been to her. She may have loved, Arjun had worshipped.
“Stop looking at me like that. This is not about me. Not even a little bit.” He said as they stepped in and allowed the heavy doors to close behind her.
Khushi nodded. She couldn’t begin to doubt either her own feelings or Arjun’s at the moment. Not if she wanted to get through her time as an A&M employee with dignity.
“I know you’d much rather run away and go back to your room. But you know that is not the best idea. They may not immediately realize you are missing but all it needs is for one Senior Manager or Partner to realize you are not around and it would…’
“I know,” Khushi said with a deep sigh and then gave Arjun a brilliant smile which he acknowledged with an encouraging nod of his head. “Let’s go back to the madness.”
“See, if only you appreciated the potency of hard liquor at this time.” Arjun countered as they walked back in and loud music blared through speakers lined along the entrance.
Khushi rolled her eyes but couldn’t resist wondering if her evening might have been any easier with alcohol in her bloodstream.
Unfortunately for Khushi, her mother’s frequent diatribes against the ill-effects of intoxication and her obsessive need to control her emotions, were too strongly etched in her character. Fortunately, however, the singing session for the evening was over by the time she came to find Raagini standing by a pillar looking half bored and half amused with the crowd that had now taken it upon them to assault the clunky dance floor.
“This is a bad place to stand,” She said to her new friend as she came to lean by the pillar herself.
Raagini looked at her and shook her head. “Absolutely not,” she said and before Khushi could realize what was happening, pulled her by her arm and walked straight into the swarm of unrecognizable bodies that were copying with various degrees of success, Bollywood steps that the original choreographers would have retched at the sight of.
By the time the DJ had switched to older songs from the nineties that Khushi infact preferred infinitely over the new age numbers, she had found her way back to the edge of the dance floor, her eyes scanning the enthusiastic dancers especially Raagini and Arjun. The pair of them was almost incorrigible as they matched their steps to each others’ and evidently sang along in their croakish voices as they measured the dance floor, fought to stay in the center of all this atrociousness and emerged victorious every single time.
Eventually however, her eyes travelled the distance from her friends to the man who still seemed to have some strange inexplicable hold over her. Arnav Varun had stayed away from the dance floor for the most part. Unlike most other seniors of Indian and foreign origin who had moved their body for at least a few beats in the last hour, Arnav had resisted all efforts and stayed amiably but firmly at the periphery, clapping softly but never joining. He had eventually, some time after Khushi had stepped out of the floor herself, walked back to the bar where he was now seated with other senior members of the A&M practice. He was evidently the youngest member in the leadership. His sober clothes and rimless glasses, hair gelled and firmly in place was no cover for his clearly early success.
A&M had to be the firm he had had an offer from all those years ago. The one that he had intended to accept and to leverage so that he could give their relationship a chance. She couldn’t help but wonder, with more curiosity than wisftfulness she hoped, how that might have been if she had been any less pig-headed about their chances. Almost as if he could hear her question or perhaps feel her eyes on him, Arnav Varun turned, rather sharply and looked directly at her. He was too far away for her to know if he was seeing her and yet she couldn’t help but feel that she had been caught staring, that it might be construed as continuing interest or at least curiosity towards him. She couldn’t afford it. Not this third time. She needed to be the smart girl she had promised herself she would be years ago. She smiled to herself, uncaring that he might think she was smiling at him, and looked away. She was going to make it and she was going to make it big in this world of her dreams. No Arnav Varun was going to distract her this time.
He swept his finger over the screen and looked at the app – still and unblinking with no notifications. Annoyed, he turned the phone on its head and picked up his beer to drink deeply before placing the bottle back on the paper-coaster. She really could be so stubborn when she wanted to be. How did her family deal with it? He wondered, despite having witnessed it firsthand so often in the past.
He turned the phone and brought the screen to life with his thumb. He clicked open the chat thread he had going with her and almost typed a message before cursing and deleting it. He turned the phone back on its head again, wincing as he heard the screen jar against the wood of the bar counter.
And Kavi thought guys had it easy in relationships, he laughed to himself. His friend really was as clueless as he once thought she only pretended to be. For a girl who was as smart and level headed as she was professionally, she really could be really daft with frequent bouts of self-doubt pinching that beautiful smile off her face. He closed his eyes and smiled, happy that he could now think of Kaveri with nothing but fondness and warmth. Now if only he could make…
His thoughts were interrupted by a low beep of his phone which one would think rang in his rib cage given how his heart beat picked up. Stupid, really. And it was all because of her.
He flipped the phone over with a smile which slipped only slightly as soon as he saw who the message was from. The smile, however, morphed into an indulgent grin as soon as he saw the one line against Kavi’s name.
I cannot do this alone.
Arjun smiled and typed a quick reply. Come back down. We’ll talk. And drink. He had only hit send when the reply came.
Not tonight. I need sleep.
Good night, he typed again. And then on a whim, added more words before he could let her escape for the night. Don’t dream of guitars. He realized how far they had come for her to even reach out like this. And how typically Kavi it was to have chosen the phone way to do it. Silly girl, he mused as took another sip of his rapidly warming beer. He really did love her. At last. And not the flimsy filmy love he had imagined once.
Taking a deep breath, he opened the other thread and gave in to the urge.
You are being stupid.
Surprisingly, the reply was almost as quick as Kavi’s. Like she was waiting for him to say something first. She probably was.
In that moment, Arjun really wanted to be in front of her so he could thread his fingers through her hair and pull her close enough to see that rare slip of awareness in her eyes. Instead, in his mind’s eyes, he could see her frown at her phone, her face all scrunched as she glared at his name.
Book tickets. He typed quickly. He wanted to see her again. No, he corrected himself. He couldn’t wait to see her again.
This time the response was much slower. He had almost given up when the phone buzzed again.
Abhi mood nahi hai
Arjun groaned and allowed his head to fall on the bar counter even as his stupid heart trilled. Kavi was right. This girl was going to be the death of him.
“I know that groan.”
Arjun lifted his head and allowed himself a quick smile before he turned to look at the owner of that voice. He had been, after all, waiting for this moment just as much.
He saw Arnav Varun, now changed into a t-shirt and khaki shorts, slide into the seat next to his. For a moment, it was almost like being back in college, in that auditorium that seemed to have stolen some part of their souls. Only it was nothing like. The shadow of bitter bile – the taste of what he had dramatically termed betrayal, teased the roof of his mouth. And then it was gone. Arjun was so stupid. Arnav Varun had technically done nothing wrong. Except falling in love with the same girl he once thought he was in love with. Yes, there was a time five years ago when Arjun had wanted to smash his teeth in for not telling him where things stood with him and Kavi. Oh, how his blood had boiled then!
He ground his teeth and then winced as he realized how petty this emotion was.
“I apologized, Arjun.” Arnav said softly, his eyes fixed on something in the distance – perhaps the glittering bottles or the lights that seemed to sparkle too bright at this time.
Arjun smiled slowly. “Mujhse ab pehli si mohabbat, mere mehboob na maang,” He said slowly, his lips curved in half a smirk as he waited for Arnav’s reply.
“Faiz? Really? Whatver happened to Bollywood?”
“Not all of us have the luxury of singing our way through people’s hearts.” Arjun quipped. “Or heartbreaks” He couldn’t deny that it felt good. To be this petty. He turned to look at the smile slip from Arnav’s face and breathed in deeply.
“Feel better now?” Arnav asked as he turned to look at Arjun even as the bartender placed a chilled bottle of beer in front of him.
Arjun chuckled mirthlessly. “Is this your way of telling me you are still the saint?”
Arnav took a swig from the bottle and allowed the silence to settle before he looked sideways again with a smile, “Some people are born saints, others achieve sainthood and the rest have sainthood thrust upon on them.” Then his smile slipped, “If I remember right though, someone once accused me of only pretending to be a saint”
Arjun winced inwardly but allowed his face to remain expressionless.
Pushing his guilt back, he realized that the older man was making an effort and it would be childish of him to not respond. Here was a man who had more than apologized for his “betrayal”, had only been gracefully accepting of the hurt lashings that Arjun had meted out to him in generous measures, had even this morning been the one professional enough to come up to him and break the ice…Even if he wasn’t the golden boy Arjun once thought him to be, he was something. Whatever Kaveri’s equation with him had been in the past and was going to be in the future, he – Arjun, needed to be an adult.
“I was not expecting to see you here.”
Arnav raised an eyebrow. “I thought you were the networked one.”
As opposed to Kaveri Gupta? Did that mean he had looked Kavi up? Did that mean he was still…
Arjun smiled softly at the half-complete thought and looked away. He took a sip of his beer and grimaced – The drink was now warm and bitter. He was about to indicate for the bartender to hand him another bottle when Arnav spoke again.
“Something stronger? Seniors buy at A&M”
Arjun raised his eyebrow. He was more than pleasantly high at the moment. And he wasn’t sure Arnav Varun was the senior at A&M he wanted to be piss drunk with. He was about to decline Arnav’s offer when the older man interrupted again.
“For old times sake.”
Put like that, all thoughts of refusal flew right out of the proverbial window. They settled on bourbon shots, not surprisingly both their preference over tequila which they both thoughtlessly labelled as a girl’s choice before flushing beet red at the comment. Arjun thanked his stars that Kavi wasn’t around or he would have earned an hour long lecture on how such things were all small rungs in the ladder of sexism that kept the men and women in Indian society repressed and restrained.
The liquid burnt through his throat and stung against his irises, spiking his lashes and making his blood buzz. When he turned to look at Arnav, he saw the older man almost wistfully smiling to himself, not even a little disturbed by the strength of the alcohol that was pleasantly heating his innards now.
“Shaadi kar li aapne?” He asked even as his flicked his gaze to look any signs of domestication on his face and then chuckled silently at his own thought. As if.
Arnav looked at him with a slight frown and then shook his head.
“Budhaape ka wait kar rahe hain?”
Arnav Varun chuckled. “I’m in the prime of life, my man.”
“Prime of life. I am hoping that means you are thirty one. Because the only other prime number is thirty seven and that is…?”
“Still hilarious, Arjun.” Arnav Varun commented wryly. “But yes I am thirty one.”’
“I’m not the one whose hair is greying, though.”
Arjun put his hand up to his hair and instinctively looked at his reflection in the mirrored cabinets behind the counter and the bored bartender. “My hair is not…”
Arnav laughed out aloud this time. “You really haven’t changed even a bit, have you?”
Arjun looked at him unblinkingly. “I have in some ways. Hopefully for the better.” I don’t love the girl you loved once like you and I both thought I did. I know what she wants now. And though she says that isn’t you, what if it is?
Arnav smiled. “And you? Since you are talking to me about getting married, is that what is on your mind? Was that the groan from earlier?”
Arjun took a deep breath. “Too soon for life confessions, AV-Sir.”
“Touche!” The other man said wistfully and looked away.
“Another round?” Arjun suggested this time and the two of them got themselves more whiskey to pour down their throat; loosening their tongues, stripping off reservations that had apparently been little more than dust motes floating through sunbeams.
They stayed at the counter for more than an hour. In the duration, neither of them brought up Kaveri Khushi Gupta, the girl who had once brought them together and then torn them apart. Or perhaps it was their own foolishness around and about someone – who if anything despised thoughtless ridiculousness above all.
After the first few minutes however, the temptation of bringing Kaveri Gupta into the conversation, was trampled by the rediscovery of what might have been a lasting friendship. What still could be something worth keeping for a lifetime.
The backdrop to their talk changed from the bar to the parapet by the Ganga which shimmered with a knowing smile as she sighed her way to her final destination.Fresh night air replaced the alcohol that they had been so liberal with. And conversations continued.
They spoke of their journies to the current geography and career that they found themselves in. Arjun listened with droopy eyes and an alert mind as Arnav described the goods and not-so-goods of A&M as an employer. He spoke of his own journey from Speed to IM-Bangalore to A&M with eagerness of a child to his parent, something he only realized once the conversation was over for the night and Arjun lay on his bed replaying the sense of weightlessness he felt.
“I thought you would ask for Mumbai. Isn’t your family there?”
“They moved to Lucknow a few years ago. And even if they were in Mumbai, it would have been my last option. Marna hai kya? If I live with them now, I’ll be sending you a shaadi ka card in three months.”
Arnav chuckled. “Given you asked me about that, I guessed that was an option you are open to.”
“I am. Just not to their choice.”
Arnav raised his eyebrow but didn’t ask Arjun to elaborate. Evidently, his rebuke from earlier about it being too early for life confessions had hit home.
They grew silent again as they stared at the river in front of them, the import of the evening finally making itself un-ignorable.
“When did you know that we were being hired?” Arjun asked at last.
“I saw the shortlist before it was released to your campus. I was on campus when your offers were made.” Arnav didn’t miss a beat as he replied without looking at him.
Arjun looked at him in surprise. “No, you weren’t.”
Arnav looked at him with a half smile. “I wasn’t part of the leadership at the time so I wasn’t making speeches. But I was there.”
“I was there. I met everyone from A&M. Kavi was on the Placement Committee.”
Arnav smiled but said nothing.
“What does this mean?”
Arnav Varun shrugged. “Why should it mean anything? I am the recruitment lead. IM-Bangalore is one of our key campuses. You had great interviews. I had nothing to do with that.”
Arjun turned such that he was now straddling the parapet and facing his senior. “Are you still waiting?” He shook his head incredulously. “You can’t be still waiting.”
“Too early for life confessions, Agarwal-Babu.”
Arjun let out a strained guffaw and shoved his hand through his hair. “The song earlier today – that was…for her benefit, wasn’t it?” When he had sent that text to Kavi, it had been more about telling her that he knew nothing of the song or the singer’s motivation this time. But now, no, since the moment he had seen Kavi get up and walk out, he had known he would put this question to Arnav.
“It was a song. Apparently I have the singing curse.”
“You have to stop talking in riddles. What are you saying?”
“I am not saying anything, Arjun. I am not doing anything either. I haven’t in the past, I don’t plan to in the future. You are asking questions, I am answering. That’s it.”
Yeah right. Arjun snorted in his head but was careful not to let his disbelief be evident.
Arnav however, seemed to be done with the conversation now. “I should go. I have a flight to catch in a few hours.” He turned around and jumped down from the parapet.
Arjun frowned. “You are going to Bangalore, right?” On Monday, earlier this week, he had only sardonically guessed that Arnav would be sharing the same office as Kavi and him. By Tuesday evening, he had known for sure. “Which flight are you taking? We thought there are no morning flights from here?”
“I’m headed back to the US. I’m in the middle of a project.”
“I thought you just came last night.”
“I came to Delhi on Monday. Had a few client visits. Came here and now…”
“So you were here just for a day? And you came all the way from the US?”
Arnav shook his head with a wry smile. “Aren’t you listening? I had client…”
“Perhaps I am listening too carefully. God, AV-Sir…this is…”
“Bye, Arjun. And don’t cook up scenarios that don’t exist. You may have been right once. You won’t be anymore.”
Arjun chuckled out aloud even as Arnav turned and started walking away. “Are you telling me or yourself, AV-Sir? After that song, I cannot believe you are still pretending.”
He didn’t look back.
“I told her.” Arjun shouted when Arnav was almost twenty feet away. “I told her you smoke. She hates smokers.” And I am fairly sure she still loves you. Don’t make her choose.
Whether Arnav laughed or ignored his statement or both, Arjun wasn’t sure. AV-Sir, continued to walk away and disappeared before Arjun could really process what had happened or what he was going to do now.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Chhod Aaye Hum Woh Galiyaan
Singers: Hariharan, Suresh Wadkar, Vinod Sehgal, K.K.
Music: Vishal Bharadwaj
Jahan tere pairon ke, kanwal gira karte they
Hanse toh do gaalon mein, bhanwar pada karte they
Teri qamar ke bal se, nadi muda karti thi
Hansi teri sun sun ke, fasal paka karti thi
Chhod aaye hum, woh galiyaan
- Next update may be delayed. Please check the Index page for update schedule some time after the weekend.
- The last part of the River song – filmed on the visual of Om Puri and memories of violence are too raw, pure to be linked to a story as superficial as this. I must apologize to someone for taking that liberty – who better than my friends to do that amidst.
- Thank you all for reading! As always, I am grateful for your presence, in silence and in all your words, you make my story-telling more than anything it was ever supposed to be!