It was almost as if landing an opportunity to work with Arnav had unearthed a portal to the AV world that she had managed to completely stay removed from in the last four months. And this time, she couldn’t even claim any credit for deliberately staying away. She hadn’t gone actively looking for infprmation but when it came her way, she let it filter into her consciousness like she would information about any other prolific member of the A&M society. But now, it was almost like there was nothing anyone else could talk about. Her batchmates – the new recruits of A&M looked at her in awe that she was unaccustomed to – some of them had even gone on to say the words out loud – “You are so lucky.” The unsaid part was fairly clear too – and not just because Arjun had spelled it out for her. She was lucky to be working with AV. And she was luckier still to be travelling to the US on a client project so soon
She had touched-wood enough initially and then decided the jinx Gods had better things to do than come to her rescue every time she ‘felt” her “good” fortune would be robbed solely by others’ envy.
It was true, she couldn’t deny for too long. And it was true for both reasons. Firstly, she would be the first person to travel to deliver a client project – which was almost certain to come through given how stellar the proposal presentation had been. And then there was the chance to work with AV. If nothing else, just having been witness to him presenting their proposal to the client was enough learning to merit a year of inspiration purely based on memory of those sixty odd minutes. And this despite having been on the phone and thousands of miles away from the room where Arnav Varun spoke about what they planned to do for Wyatt Motors. Every word had been laden with confidence of a man who had delivered excellence and carried a secret knowledge of being smarter than everyone else in the room. And yet, there was humility in the way he responded to questions – especially doubts that the client stakeholders had – few as they had been. The fact that Shyam Anandraman had stayed silent through most of the presentation, talking only when explicitly asked to by Arnav himself, was the seal of approval from the highest authority in the firm. And who was Khushi to need anything more than that.
So here she was, all set to travel in less than a week and only now truly panicking at the thought. Of course, she was not stupid enough to panic because this meant being in the same physical space as Arnav Varun. No. The last couple of weeks had been proof enough that they could talk professionally and be mature adults. Of course, so far, except one occasion, they almost always had Shyam in the conversation – an effective buffer if there was ever one.
The one time that Shyam had been delayed in joining the call, had not been the smoothest sailing. Khushi had in hastily uttered words, informed Arnav that Shyam had asked them to wait for him for a few minutes. Arnav had been silent for a second and then easily asked her to excuse him so that he could place her on mute and use the bonus minutes to get his morning coffee. Khushi had in turn muttered a quick okay. In the few minutes that had followed, her pulse had soared and her stomach churned. She knew there was no reason for her to feel any of what she was feeling and yet…Thankfully, Raagini had walked in just then and upon learning that Arnav Varun was on the call, gone on to strike up a conversation with him just as easily as she was able to with most folks. Minutes later, Shyam had walked into the small team room and Raagini had walked out, leaving Khushi’s world upright and manageable once again.
“How about this one?”
Khushi took a deep breath and turned to pay attention to the seventeenth blouse that Raagini was holding up. “Let me check if they have a size.”
Raagini clucked disapprovingly. “Arre, first decide if you like it. We can look for sizes…”
Khushi sighed. “I am used to buying things because they are available in my size and not because I like how they look – on me or otherwise”
“You know when it comes to most Indian stores and brands, I agree with you. I have the same challenge as well – in case you had forgotten. But this,” She swept her arms in a half-circle around her, forcing Khushi to scan the store they were standing in. “This is a plus size woman’s heaven.”
“You mean this is a rich, plus size woman’s heaven,” Khushi retorted even as she looked at the price tag and shuddered. “Three thousand for a blouse. We have to get out of here. I am not about to spend half my monthly salary in one shopping expedition.”
“Well, you had better be ready.”
“Raagini,” Khushi whined, “I thought you didn’t like to shop.”
“I don’t. But Shyam was right. And I am beginning to think we have been a little thick-headed about this for too long.”
Khushi made a face and walked on as she placed the burgundy blouse Raagini was holding up, back in its place. Raagini was referring to the unfortunate incident that had prompted this current shopping trip in the first place. About a couple of months ago, over lunch – a particular terrible menu at the cafeteria where they ate their meals, Raagini and she had decided to resume what they had both admitted had been a failed exercise routine ever since they could remember. Since then, every morning, the two of them had spent forty five minutes walking briskly with little gossip but truckloads of motivation that can only come with company in misery. On one of these outings, they had accidentally bumped into Shyam Anandraman who was, much to their surprise, walking out of a popular weight loss clinic. Khushi and Raagini had both intended to slink away, at least as much as their frames would allow, to spare Shyam – someone they both held in awe – any embarrassment of having been seen so. However, Shyam had spotted them first, grinned an almost boyish grin and offered to buy them breakfast.
“I am five kgs lighter than I was a couple of months ago. It’s celebration time,” Shyam had declared and both Khushi and Raagini had been too shocked to say anything except agree.
Breakfast had been at a nearby five star that A&M teams usually picked for their team outings, farewells and other social events. And it had been a lot more conversation than eating – which was perfect given what all three of them were working towards.
“Why the weight loss center?” Raagini had asked finally, forcing Khushi to breathe a sigh of relief as the elephant in the room – pun not intended, she assured herself – was finally acknowledged, rather tackled head on.
“Feedback from the Partner admission process.”
Khushi knew her eyes had widened even in her own head and she had been unable to keep her face from twisting distastefully.
“To lose weight?” Raagini had practically squealed.
“It’s not that bad,” Shyam had said, laughing at her apparent disgust. “I wasn’t asked to lose weight before I made Partner. My work was enough for that.”
“It doesn’t bother you?” Khushi had asked, her resolve to keep personal questions to herself melting in the face of such open disclosure.
“Why should it? Appearances matter. We meet clients, talk about really important things – jobs and livelihoods, organizational futures – they depend on things we say. I know I might sound presumptuous but unless we take ourselves seriously, why would anyone else? Why would our clients?” Shyam had said, his tone serious and deep in way that was usually reserved for the more important things he had to say to people. He was a stickler for time, for instance. As a rule, he would reach every meeting, every call scheduled at least five minutes early – something so many people Khushi knew needed to learn.
“As long as our work is thorough, how…”
“How much time do you spend on formatting a slide once the content is frozen?” Shyam had interrupted Raagini as he looked at them both.
Both girls had grinned sheepishly – both knew the other was very particular about having perfectly laid out slides – clean and grammatically accurate – an attitude, they realized was not as common as they once thought it to be at least for their profession. And the fact that Shyam Anandraman – the head of A&M Strategy Operations – knew this about them, proved exactly how much it was valued.
“It’s the same concept. You groom yourself to the best of your ability. You keep yourself fit – weight doesn’t matter. I chose to kick start the process with the Center because I am also medically closer to an age where these things start to matter. But the ground rule is – you take yourself seriously for others to do the same. And that includes how you look. It’s a reality of life. Appearance will never be greater than what you can do but it is not be discarded either.”
The conversation had veered off after to different topics, mostly ranging their families but Shyam’s words had found their mark. Not that Khushi liked to acknowledge it.
“You have to admit though, he is biased. I mean he does want to put his best foot – rather foot soldiers forward.”
Raagini chuckled but shrugged as she leafed through the shirts hanging in different racks, her eye half closed as if in deep concentration.
“It feels wrong.” Khushi admitted eventually, more to herself than to Raagini. “When I was growing up, my mother clamped down everytime anything related to beauty came up.”
‘Because it would distract us from our padhaai.” Raagini completed with a half-wry smile as she picked up a leather skirt that would miss her knees by several inches. “My mother didn’t let me have my eyebrows shaped till I was in college, can you believe it?”
“Ditto,” Khushi agreed. “And I am Krur Singh in my natural form, I have to tell you.”
Raagini burst out laughing even as she let the leather skirt slide down to the floor. “Krur Singh.” She bent over and continued to guffaw even as Khushi felt her cheeks warm. “It’s been years since I spoke to anyone about Chandrakanta.”
“Anyway,” Khushi continued once their combined laughter ebbed. “Somehow I grew up thinking that focus on how I look somehow lessens my focus on how smart I am. So I actively stopped thinking about it.”
“And then we made it to business school where we have spectacular looking women – people actually – who are also simply brilliant – geniuses in fact. I hated that.”
“Yes!” Khushi agreed. “I wanted to tell them – hey you can’t be pretty and smart – then what am I!! And now there is this person who says…well he didn’t say beauty, he said grooming but for years it was the same thing.”
Raagini took a deep breath and sighed. “We are one screwed up pair of girls. I think we need therapy.”
Khushi nodded with a small smile. “As Gregory House very wisely said, we are all screwed up by our parents. I don’t know how any therapy can fix that.”
“He was very wise, indeed. Also, sexy as hell. Sarcasm is such a turn on.” Raagini said with wiggling eyebrows. “Bollywood on the other hand would easily pick this moment, as the one where a brainwave hits our heads and we walk into a parlor and ta-da – makeover and stunning beauties. Seriously Kavi, before you leave – let’s go…full salon day. Let’s go crazy. We may not have hair that can be pleated into a U-shaped tube but goodness we could use some jaw drops.”
Khushi stared at her friend with an open mouth and quickly turned around and walked away before Raagini could get any crazier. Salon day with makeover just before she was headed to the US. No way.
No fucking way.
“I cannot believe I won’t get to see your shopping from today.” Tripti cried into the phone.
“Can you believe you are even getting a chance to say these words to me?” Khushi retorted even as she surveyed the damage to her bank account which now lay splayed on her single bed, taunting her with the cardboard tags peeking out from under necklines and hemlines. “I cannot believe some of these things I’ve bought. I mean I bought skirts for Shiv-ji’s sake. Skirts!”
“Di, you have killer legs. I mean remember how Mom and I always comment on how thin your churidars always are…”
“Yeah, compared to the rest of my body…”
“Whatever. It doesn’t matter. You will look stunning. And you are really tall or have you forgotten?”
“Apparently I have. I allowed Raagini to persuade me into buying heels. I mean how will I spend full days in these monstrosities. I have no clue what came over me.”
“I am so proud of Ramu. She did the unimaginable. She made my sister shop.” Tripti enunciated as dramatically as ever.
Khushi rolled her eyes.
“Log in to your Skype account. And model them for me.”
“Over my dead body.”
“Definitely not over your dead body. I mean if you are dead, pretty clothes aren’t going to help, are they?”
“I didn’t buy pretty clothes. I just bought different clothes.” Khushi said vehemently. And then sighed softly. Some clothes – especially a pale peach layered chiffon blouse and a similar sky blue one – they were pretty. At least she didn’t get a hair cut and color like Raagini had insisted she do.
“Admit it, Di. You are a little happy. You bought pretty things.”
“They all look pretty on the hangers. On me… Shit, what was I thinking?”
“Di, please grow up. Wear your fun business formal clothes. Be a super stud consultant. Blow everyone out of their minds. Get asked out. God, I wish I could just write your America story.”
“Pyaare Mohan, tum paagal ho paagal.”
“Nahi sahib, ab toh hum bilkul paagal nahi hain.”
“Ab toh kya matlab,” Khushi continued with a laugh. “Pehle paagal the kya?”
“Log aisa kehte the sahib but humne kabhi nahi maana ki hum paagal hain.”
The sister convulsed into laughter over the phone even as Khushi plonked herself on the bed and fell back against her pillows. “I’ll miss you Krishna Tripti Gupta. And I cannot believe I won’t be here when you come to Bangalore. I’ll leave the keys with Arjun, okay. In case you want to use my place.”
Tripti went into a tizzy of coughs and sputtered as she spoke. “Not staying at your place, Kaveri. I’ll stay on campus. I even have an IM-B buddy assigned.”
“Who is it? If not me, at least Arjun would know.”
“Forget about the logistics of my stay, Di. I’ll be there for less than forty eight hours. Even if you were here, I am sure I’d have hardly gotten to see you – what with the schedule A&M makes you keep.”
“But I will still miss seeing you.”
“I was in Bangalore less than two months ago. And then we went home for Diwali. I think we’ve seen each other enough. Now go see some US of A and come back and tell me stories.”
“Sometimes you are exactly like Ma. So khadoos. And you are right. You are in Bangalore too often these days. What is up with that?”
“If I am like Mom, you are exactly like Papa. Jumping from one topic to another without warning or relevance. So infuriating.”
“You are useless.”
“You are useless.”
“I am not smirking. I don’t even know how to smirk.”
Khushi bent forward and twisted Arjun’s head around so he could see himself in the mirror on the wall opposite to where they were seated. “That expression on your face. That’s a smirk. And I hate it. So stop.”
“Tch, tch. Poor Kavi. So tensed about going on a trip most A&M-ites would give an arm and a leg for.” He teased and then winced dramatically, “Oww…you broke my neck I think.”
Khushi rolled her eyes but said nothing. Arjun continued with a half exasperated sigh. “Uff, we talked about this. This thing you are going for, it is a professional arrangement. Of course only for as long as you want it to be. Because he…I’m telling you…Behne De…”
“Fine, fine. I am kidding. I am kidding.”Arjun replied even as Khushi reluctantly put the gleaming spoon back on the plate and placed it by the bedside table. “You’ve been working with him for what three weeks now. Has it been uncomfortable even once?”
Khushi took a deep breath.
“You told me it was totally normal. You said it. And I know you weren’t lying. Because you didn’t volunteer the information and when I asked you weren’t glib or sarcastic. You simply answered.”
“I don’t want to go.”
Arjun grinned at her. “That’s just you being you. Inertia” He shrugged. “It always happens to you.”
“Why aren’t you on this project with me?” Khushi whined.
Arjun’s grinned mellowed to a smile. “Because this is your story.”
Khushi rolled her eyes and stuck her tongue out. “For the last time, my life is not a story.”
Arjun chuckled and put his dessert plate away. “I can’t wait for you to be back with interesting news.”
When Khushi threw a pillow at his head and followed it up with another even as he got up and backed out of the door of her apartment, Arjun held his hands up saying, “What! I mean news of having delivered a great project, of having wowed the client, the gora Partners who will call you Kah-very, you know.”
Later at night, her phone buzzed with a message from Arjun. “Come back with interesting news and I might just give you some myself.”
Before she could finish frowning, her phone buzzed again. “Don’t even bother calling me or asking me what I mean. I am not telling till you get back from Detroit.”
Detroit, Khushi sighed as she let her phone slide back to the table top with a small thud.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Dil Chahta Hai
Album: Dil Chahta Hai
Singer(s): Shankar Mahadevan, Chorus
Music: Shankar, Ehsaan, Loy
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Kaisa ajab yeh safar hai?
Socho toh har ek hi bekhabar hai
Usko jaana kidhar hai?
Jo waqt aaye, jaane, kya dikhaaye?
Next update on Mar 27, 2017 – late night IST! Thank you all for reading!