“Bas Ma. I have everything. I told you I finished immigration. I can’t do that without my passport, can I?” Khushi said with a mock roll of her eyes. “And just because Tripti forgot her passport before her flight to Singapore, doesn’t mean I will too. I make lists. Just like you do.”
Gayatri Gupta sighed on the other end. “Be careful. And call or send an email as soon as you reach the hotel in Detroit. I’m hearing terrible things about that city. Don’t venture out at night by yourself.”
“Mummy,” Khushi interjected, “First, stop listening to your students. They exaggerate for effect. And you, more than anyone else, know that I don’t get out of my room unless there is fear of starvation. And Detroit is no Singapore. So don’t worry. I’ll go to work and come back and do that for eight weeks and then I’ll come right back.” She left out the part where she totally intended to spend at least one weekend in New York catching up with one of her friends from school. And perhaps one trip to Orlando…Harry Potter World after all…Now if only she could get over the inertia that came with being Kaveri Khushi Gupta.
Gayatri Gupta chuckled on the other side. “Is this plan Tripti approved? She would kill you if you didn’t have some fun at least.”
Khushi laughed. “Your other daughter is mad, Ma. I don’t discuss details with her unless I am in the mood for lectures. Anyway, chalo, bye. You have the address of the Inn where I am to stay and you can get the phone numbers over the internet. I’ll be out for at least twenty four hours. So please don’t start panicking till then.”
“Okay. Bye. Have a safe flight. And keep up the exercise schedule”
“Bye, Ma.” She said ignoring the last part about exercise. “And tell Baba to be around during call times. Doesn’t he care at all that his daughter is travelling half way across the world unassisted?”
Gayatri snorted and mimicked a low, half-drawl. “Kaveri is a twenty eight year old, IE-IM educated global consultant who advises large corporations how to run their businesses better. I think she will be fine.”
Khushi beamed. Her father did have the most unconventional ways of showing how proud he was of his children. And these unguarded moments of revelation from Gayatri were rare. All in all, despite his gross exaggeration of her contribution as a consultant (she did clean up spreadsheets and slide-decks more than anything else), it was just the kind of fillip she needed before the trip. “I love him. He is the best.”
“Haan haan, kyun nahi?”
Khushi chuckled at her mother’s standard response and quickly bid her a final goodbye before disconnecting the call. She looked around and found herself a seat near departure gate number fourteen which was now teeming with people, all exhibiting varying degrees of excitement. There seemed to be as many families as business travelers and almost no single women with backpacks slung on their shoulders and nervous flutters in their ribcage. She took a deep breath even as she extracted the paperback she had decided to finish – a thousand page monstrosity she had vowed she would read to further her mind and rediscover the love of books that she had pretty much given up on in the last couple of years.
Five hours and one flight change later, as the Airbus 380 operated by one of the leading airlines of the Middle East took off from Dubai, she finally rest her head against the head rest. She shifted to make herself comfortable, grateful for the aisle seat she had fortunately been able to bag. Her eyes had screened every possible co-passenger they could have, immediately noting all those who had continued with her on to New York from Bangalore – a surprisingly large number. And yet, it was the appearance of those of different racial origin – lighter or much darker skin; fairer or mahogany hair; blue, green and ebony eyes, that forced her to acknowledge the fact that she was in fact crossing the proverbial seven seas for the first time in her life. It filled her with excitement even as the person waiting on the other side flitted in and out of her consciousness – now more a voice she had heard in the last few weeks than the person she remembered from ten years ago. Or even five years ago.
She would now see him in less than twenty four hours. He was staying in the same hotel where she was booked. How anyone managed to stay in a hotel room for months together, she couldn’t fathom. But perhaps that was the cool, sexy part of being a consultant that even she had to admit, held some sort of Facebook appeal.
And so opened the door to all the questions that had simmered in her head for months now without outlet. She had spoken to Arjun about dealing with her feelings while continuing to work with Arnav professionally. But it had still been her – words chosen carefully, emotion revealed just enough to ensure she didn’t lose her sanity and most of all – a tight rein on her curiosity. Reins that now slipped out of her hand and escaped out into the fluff of cloud and bright yellow sun outside.
Where was his family? Likely still in Patna. And Ti-Di and Aman…A River Runs Through It must have become either something spectacularly busy or perhaps morphed into something else…It was almost as if white water rafting had exploded in India’s face since 2005. Now there were white water rafting camps along every major river in the country. Maybe they even had a child now, Khushi wondered with a smile as the image of a little girl in pig tails running up to her memory of a woman barely taller than a little girl herself, flashed in front of her eyes. Though, if Aditi and Aman did infact have a child or two, it was tough to imagine they still ran something as isolated and potentially dangerous as the River.
She took a deep breath and allowed her eyes to close as a barrage of emotions rushed up her throat and filled her mouth. Aditi and Aman’s child – Arnav’s niece or nephew – a little being that might have been connected to her if only she had allowed herself to be stronger than she had been. And yet, given how they had eventually parted ways – would, rather did Arnav even see her as the weak one? Or did he see a girl who manipulated and twisted what she had and threw it away – all because life wasn’t turning out to be a Bollywood romance?
She hadn’t spent any conscious time on thinking about the three phone calls that Arnav had made. But now, when she was literally forced to do nothing, there was no way to avoid confronting what she knew would be self pity, guilt and shame rolled in one as her brain coaxed her to evaluate her decisions. She needed to do this to face Arnav like an adult would. She needed to do this to move on from the rut she was stuck in. After all what was the point in okaying her mother’s Shaadi.com plans if she was never going to let herself look at someone like she had once looked at Arnav.
It came on suddenly, out of nowhere, amidst a high concentration session of rushing to meet a deadline for her new boss. She had allowed her eyes to glance at the time on the clock at the bottom right of her screen and there below it was the date. She would have realized eventually, of course. Perhaps when she would walk into the costing meeting that was scheduled for later in the day. She could see how that would go. She might have opened her diary and jogged her mind for the date that would go on the top left of a brand new page. And there it would have been. Just as it was now.
Arnav Varun’s birthday, the one she had secretly hoped she would be celebrating with him just a few days ago. Instead, here she was, thousands of kilometers away, all the way in the other half of the country, and enough heartache to want to do nothing else but forget about the significance of the calendar and resume her life as she had so successfully managed to.
The rest of the day passed by in a blur, the memory of Arnav Varun more piercing than it had been in the three weeks that had gone by since she had seen him last, his arms crossed and his eyes boring into her soul – like he wanted to rip her heart out and force her to show just how jagged it was at the edges.
That evening, she didn’t feel like calling Arjun though it had been a few days since they had spoken. It was her turn to call this time – he had the last time and childish as it sounded, they had fallen into an unspoken schedule of alternately initiating calls – almost symbolic of both of them working equally to restore what they had once shared. So when the phone rang, shrill in the silence of the room she rented as a paying guest, she jumped and then turned it over without looking at who was calling. When the rings died and resurrected just seconds later, her brow creased and she picked up her phone, realizing that it could be from home too.
An unknown mobile number flashed against a dull screen even as the stubby keypad glared against the backlight. She wanted to reject the call and yet she had no clue why she did the opposite.
“Hello?” The annoyance in her voice was barely concealed.
He didn’t need to introduce himself for her know it was him. He knew that just as well.
She didn’t know what to say and so she repeated her greeting, her hands now shaking. “Hello.” Her fingers urged to just click the button so close at hand and end this misery of not knowing what to do. And if she did that she knew it would be over. He would not call her again. Those who always chose to do the right thing also had demonic egos that were brittle as her chipped nails. Wouldn’t she know?
“How are you?”
Fine? Okay? Good? She was all those things. How was she supposed to answer? Perhaps she could just wish him Happy Birthday. And let him know she remembered? Give him more ammunition than he already had? When had this become a war she was fighting to not lose?
“I’m in Delhi. Can we please meet tomorrow?”
She didn’t want to meet him. And it was a weekday. He might have the luxury of taking time off when he could. She on the other hand…Damn it! What was she thinking? She…she was not even in Delhi. If she had been, what would she have done?
“We can meet in the evening after you finish work.” He said softly. So softly that she could hear him breathe, like he was in the room with her, his breath fanning the nape of her neck. There was absolute silence in the background, unlike the street outside the house she stayed in – it buzzed all the way up to midnight and then fell silent almost as suddenly as sleep usually claimed her. “Or,” He hesitated for a second, “We can meet on Saturday if that works…”
“I live in Bangalore.”
He didn’t know, that much was evident by how the silence on the other end deepened. Which meant he had not asked Arjun. Perhaps Arjun and he didn’t talk any more. Khushi and Arjun hadn’t reached the point where they could talk about Arnav yet but it was only fair to assume that Arjun was hurt by Arnav’s betrayal – yes that is how he would have seen it. That is how she would have seen it. That is how she had seen it.
“They didn’t give you a Sales and Marketing role.”
It was unfair that he sounded as disappointed as she had felt. Had he really believed she would get what she wanted? Fool! Just like her. She had believed she would get all what she wanted to, too. Like she believed she would get him.
“Supply Chain – I am part of their Vendor Development team. I work out of the plant outside of Bangalore.”
“You’re liking it there.”
It wasn’t a question. And she wasn’t surprised it wasn’t. Just deeply saddened that it was…that it still had the capacity to look this perfect. “It’s okay.” She lied.
Silence fell again. And again, it was he who spoke.
“I will make it to Bangalore too. Just,” He breathed in deeply, air scraping through the distance between them as it morphed into sounds in her ear, “just not this weekend. Maybe next. Till then,” He paused again, “can we talk about…”
“It’s not a good idea. I am sorry,” She bit her tongue at the apology she owed him anyway, “I mean…there is nothing to talk about. I…we should forget about…” About what? Each other? Those eighteen kisses? The color of his skin against hers? The way their fingers weaved in and out of their entangled palms?
“Khushi, I am sorry. I said this at the River and I am saying it again. Just because I didn’t call all these days doesn’t mean I was any less sure of what I was saying the last time we spoke. I just couldn’t leave the River – there were groups staying with…”
“Please don’t…I know…I am not saying no because we haven’t spoken. I am saying what I am because that is what I want. Too much has happened for us to try and fix. Somethings are not meant to be. Especially not when the foundation is…” Arjun’s broken heart, her broken ego and his broken hopes – the words rang out again – like echoes that didn’t seem to die as much as she tried to strangle them.
He said nothing for a few minutes as she held the phone against her ear. “I’ll call again when my Bangalore trip is final.”
“Arnav,” She whispered, almost to herself. “Please don’t come.” I don’t want to meet you. I don’t want to forget how foolish I have been. I don’t want to remember how foolish I still am. And she disconnected the call.
The food carts arrived again even as her eyes burned slightly. How could remembered hurt still do this to her? Or was she manufacturing pain where there was none at all? Was she a masochist? Would anyone other than her even understand why she felt what she did? Or were Arjun and Tripti right after all? Was she just holding on to something because it fit into her mapping of her own life – one where getting exactly what she wanted and being happy for it and believing she deserved it didn’t all happen together even if any one of these boxes were ticked? And if yes, then when and why had this started? Was it when being first in class was never enough when it came with anything below a perfect score? Was it when every occasion she dressed up, only ended up in someone tell her what was missing?
Or was really just plain stupidity?
She smiled mechanically as the plastic-smiled air hostess who placed her special vegetarian meal in front of her and asked her for her choice of drink, which she replied to in the negative. The next few minutes were spent looking for a movie she could watch while eating and without thought, she settled into what she didn’t know yet was going to be her routine for the years of travel that awaited her.
When the phone rang one rainy June evening, the last four digits – ending with 0803 – his birthday digits – told her who it was before she could scrunch her face and wonder if it was him – much like she had several times over the last week.
This time her voice was softer and more tentative. The feeling of utter helplessness coupled with the guilt of being too petty to hear him out, made her stomach churn even as she waited for him to speak the words and tell her what she was most scared of – that he was in her city, that there was little scope for her to escape without being a total bitch. And yet why did she feel like she owed him anything. Why couldn’t he understand that she wanted to be left alone? Surely this was almost tantamount to stalking?
A dull sob tore out of her throat silently and bubbled in her mouth. Stalking? What was wrong with her?
“I am not in Bangalore.”
Her lungs collapsed in her rib cage and air rushed out in a whoosh.
“Tell me you want me to come and I will. I want to. But not if you don’t…”
Her bones squeezed and tightened around her heart. “It’s not a good idea.”
He laughed, a slightly corrosive laugh that set her nerves on the edge with a taint of fear and heaps of despair. She was being ridiculous, unyielding. And yet what option did she have. If she told him she wanted him to come or even if she said he was free to do what he really wanted to, what excuse would she have to stay away from him? But she needed to stay away. She couldn’t allow herself to be where she had already twice been in her life. It was not a pleasant feeling to know that she had been fooled. And then again.
“How is…the River? Your sister? Aman?” She asked the question she best knew would be innocuous enough to remain civil and yet distant enough to convey what she wanted to.
“Everyone is fine. Ti-Di, J, Mohan, Asha Chachi…” He trailed off. “I cannot pretend to have a normal conversation.”
She swallowed. “I…”
“Bye, Khushi. You are right. This is not a good idea.”
And the line went quiet after a quick shuffle and forced long beep.
The tears collecting at the corners of her eyes, fat globules that she knew would leak down her face and fall on her outstretched palm, were only partially thanks to the movie that was only just ending on the screen in front of her. She knew now that the movie she had played had little to do with entertainment. She had willed herself to find a good way to account for grief that she couldn’t simply credit memories of Arnav Varun with. The film she had chosen had been an instinctive choice – one she had seen before and knew would tug at her heartstrings and allow her the freedom just plain emotional intelligence didn’t seem to.
She took a deep breath and straightened her seat even as lights came on, harsh and too suddenly in the cabin as co-passengers woke-up around her and the airline staff began raising window panes to reveal a brilliant yellow outside, clear and sharp. The middle leg of her journey was also coming to an end. In a few minutes she would be on American soil. And waiting for her as she landed in New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, was either a life full and brimming with opportunity – of every kind. Or one that would finally force her to change course and explore what she had only superficially touched so far – a life of closure, of new paths and new destinations.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Tujhe Bhula Diya
Album: Anjaana Anjaani
Singers: Mohit Chauhan, Shruti Pathak, Chorus
Lyrics: Kumaar, Vishal Dadlani
Dol pal tujhse judaa thha,
Aise phir rasta mudaa thha,
Tujhse main khone laga, juda jaise hone laga,
Mujh se kuch mera
- Detroit times start with the next chapter. Kindly hold on to the chappals :)
- Next Update: Apr 3, 2017, late night IST