She found herself standing by the black Wyatt Escape a few minutes before it could read 1pm on her phone clock, fighting every instinct to look up and see if she could spot his room. Her face was freezing and she couldn’t even blame him for it – after all, it was she who decided that she preferred freezing to death to anxiety-bred acid in her gut. She looked at herself in the distorted mirror that the polished exterior of the black SUV and cringed at the sight of her extremely pale face except for two high spots of weathered pink on her cheeks. How did people survive in this weather every year and year after year, she wondered even as she paced up and down the pavement, half hoping that he wouldn’t show up for ten minutes so that she could walk away and attribute her no show to his tardiness, instead.
No sooner had she thought about it, she looked up and around only to spot him walking down the flight of stairs. She took a deep breath and waited as he walked over quickly, his face cast pleasantly and the rest of him groomed just as perfectly as he had been this morning except for a slightly windswept mane that still managed to glitter in the feeble winter sun.
“Now or on the way back?” He asked holding up a bunch of keys.
Never? “The way back” she replied and then stepped over to the passenger side, waiting for the beep to announce the unlocking of the vehicle. Except, he walked right up to her, coming to a standstill so close she had to take an imperceptible step back. She looked at him in silent question and saw his eyebrow shoot up for a second before something glimmered in his eyes.
“Left Hand Drive, remember?” He said softly, his eyes now amused even as his face remained straight and expressionless.
Her cheeks flushed. So much for promising herself to be unruffled. “Yeah, I forgot..” She mumbled even as she hurried away on to the other side and seated herself within before she could make any more such glaring errors.
For a rental, the SUV was extremely well-maintained and gleaming. Then again, there seemed to be a distinct lack of dust in the air here and hence no surprises that black remained black and not really a dirty charcoal like it turned into back home.
“This is an automatic. So easier to drive.”
“But this?” She pointed to the gear stick and realized it was a lot more basic – Reverse, Parking, Neutral and…
“Drive – this is for, well, driving. The rest of the controls are all mirrored. I’ll talk about some things that you need to be aware of when we drive out and we’ll do a few runs together starting the return trip. Okay?”
“No. But fine.” She said grumpily.
A deep chuckle surprised her into looking at him and making a face as involuntarily as anything she had done around him.
“I know I am being a pain. But this is necessary.” He said even as he backed out of the driveway and rolled the vehicle soundlessly onto the roads.
“I think I heard that.” He commented without looking at her as he turned the wheel beneath his fingers and merged into the scanty traffic on the freeway.
Khushi ignored that comment as best as she could and turned her head to look outside. This was technically her first real view of America – even if it was only Detroit – and she wasn’t going to let Arnav Varun intimidate her by pretending to read minds. Of course he couldn’t read minds. He probably just guessed – correctly – that she wasn’t taking very well to his overbearing attitude. Good.
They stopped at a network store to get her a phone and local number. She still had to bite her tongue and hold herself from fainting when she heard the call charges for the plan she was getting. The fact that she had been warned against currency conversion and comparison clearly hadn’t prepared her for how instinctively it would happen. Nevertheless, at the end of their first stop at a mall, she was equipped with a small, functional smartphone and a working local number. On Monday, before they headed to the client office, Arnav told her that she would need to head to the bank to get her account opened and finish all the other paper work related to getting a social security number, etc. He would, of course, go with her to help get all this done like every Manager was expected to do for any employee travelling to the US for the first time, he told her. If getting governmental work done in India was a scary task, doing the same in the US felt almost Herculean. So, chicken as she sounded in her own head, she was glad to have Arnav’s assistance and she hoped her tone indicated it.
After a quick round of purposeless discussion on what type of place she would like for lunch, Arnav gave in and made the executive decision of choosing an Italian place – a chain that would be best suited for her vegetarian preferences. The meal itself was a somber affair, nothing like the only other real meal they had shared along a river, years ago. They ate in silence interspersed with short bursts of conversation mostly about the logistics of how the project was expected to be executed and the rest of their team – both A&M and Wyatt. Any other day and with any other person for company, she would have made the effort to find things they had in common so they wouldn’t have to spend Sunday lunch talking work. And yet, given how much Arnav and she really had to talk about, it was a blessing to have an excuse to do the opposite.
After lunch, Arnav asked her if she wanted to walk around the mall – which she still couldn’t reconcile was a single level piece of real estate, spread horizontally not vertically, built of stone and brick instead of glass, and mostly in the same muted tones as most other buildings.
“A sign of the recession that hit in the early 2000s and then again about seven years ago,” Arnav reminded her. “This place, this city, most of all, saw it come crashing down. So many people let go of, so much unrest. You can still feel it in the air in Detroit.”
She looked around her in wistful wonder at that thought and shook her head, indicating that she was ready to head back to the hotel. When they reached the SUV again, she had hoped he had forgotten his little oath to get her to drive in the US. Of course, nothing of that sort was about to happen for her. How could it? Shiv-ji hated her.
“I haven’t driven anything bigger than a thousand cc engine back home.” She pleaded to deaf ears. “How am I going to drive this…this monstrosity?”
“What sort of a mechanical engineer are you?” He asked with a dry, unamused smile. “It’s the easiest thing to do in the US. Come on now. We are less than five miles from the hotel anyway. We’ll be there before you can blink.”
“I’m going to get us both killed.” She replied as she stared at the vehicle and fought down the urge to throw up on the sidewalk even as the keys rested heavy and threatening in her right palm.
“If you do, it won’t be in a road accident.”
It had to be the nerves of the moment that made her forget about that little comment till much later at night. It was only in the silence of a cold winter night that reminded her of another similarly uttered dialogue. Except then there had been reassurance. We won’t fall. They had, though. A sharp splinter of wood twisted in her heart in a brief flash.
In that minute in the present though, she looked at him and frowned. She took a deep breath and forcefully opened the door on the driver’s side, the left and buckled herself in even as Arnav walked over to the passenger side and slid right in. She ignored the way he looked – so calm and serene like he didn’t have a care in the world. He had to be scared on the inside she was sure even if he seemed as unflappable as he did.
As the machine purred to life, she breathed in again and put the gear shift awkwardly into Reverse – shifting the stick in front instead of in a standard H to the back – and eased the vehicle out of the parking. Arnav continued to silently speak instructions, which back at home, she would have rolled her eyes at, perhaps even swatted at angrily and used as leverage to never drive him anywhere in the future. However, about twenty minutes later, she was parking in the hotel lot, her heart somersaulting happily in her stomach.
“See, now that was not so bad was it?”
She looked at him as he unbuckled himself and got out of the SUV without waiting for a response. She switched the engine off and put the vehicle in neutral and got out. She walked over across the vehicle to the other side, locking it as she did. When she reached halfway where Arnav was standing, she held out the keys, which he took from her, his fingers brushing against hers ever so lightly.
“I’ll see you tomorrow morning at quarter to eight. The office is a five minute ride. We should get in by eight.”
She nodded and stepped away.
“It’s going to be a long day tomorrow and long days for the next eight weeks. Rest tonight.” He whispered, his eyes scanning her face as he closed his palm almost deliberately around the keys.
“I will.” She said and stepped back one more time.
“You are sure you won’t want dinner tonight?” He asked.
She was sure she didn’t want more time in his company. If she spent any more time with him without work to keep her thoughts kosher, she was going to snap into a thousand pieces.
“I am sure.”
“Alright. Good night, then. See you tomorrow.”
“See you tomorrow.”
The next day was indeed long. The week much longer still. If Khushi thought she had seen how hard work could be sitting in India and trying to solve problems for those spread around the world, travelling a few thousand miles to sit in front of them and listen to them talk about what they needed help with, was an eye opener in every sense of the word. After a hurried start on Monday morning which began with a lot of paperwork all done to allow her to work and get paid in the US, the schedule quickly settled down into introductions, conversations and debriefs. Rinse, repeat.
She met her immediate team – Ken and Maddy who formed the technology half of the Wyatt-A&M project team and Jeff Stevens – the Partner with kind eyes and an easy personality – one that immediately put her at ease but didn’t cease to amaze with its brilliance – rarely but effectively exhibited. Arnav and she remained joined at the hip – the business experts as the key clients at Wyatt liked to refer to them – something that made Khushi extremely uneasy even know she knew it was part of her role to think and act like she knew what she was doing even in the moments she didn’t quite.
The clients at Wyatt – for the rest of the week, it seemed like she was storing in her head a host of first names and last names, faces and eyes, voices and accents she had only encountered through TV Series and limited telephone interactions in the last few months of being with A&M. The list of interviews, each of which was loaded with information that seemed important, relevant, rubbish and useless all at once, was endless. The day was scheduled by every hour of every minute – a nightmare for the person tasked with blocking calendars and meeting rooms and ensuring people attended the discussions. Khushi almost felt sorrier for the Project Management Analyst from Wyatt Motors who had been assigned to the team, than she did for herself. Amy Wise, the red hair, blue eyed, middle aged woman, however, had to be the luckiest PMO analyst in the business for having the good fortune of dealing with Arnav Varun on the other side – a fact that Amy was evidently aware of given how easy the relationship between the two seemed. Amy was not the only one who thought the sun shone from behind Arnav Varun’s head. Michael Stone – Mike – their Project Manager from Wyatt – a middle aged man with four kids, a dog and a beautiful wife going by the picture on his desk, was clearly a member of the AV club too. The two men clearly had a working relationship that was older than this project and it showed in the way they spoke, joked and argued in cycles as discussions progressed and deliverable outlines began to take shape.
As for herself, Khushi felt like she was a sponge being soaked in the ocean, one little wavelet at a time. She listened and learned and did that every waking minute she spent in and outside Arnav Varun’s company. This was not the man she had once believed herself in love with. That man – even by the River – a long gash running on his forearm, eyes as brilliant as the sun – was an idea – something she had built up in her head in college first and had molded and refined to perfection by the mountain Ganga. This man she worked with, ate with, drove alongside, brainstormed with, reviewed with, – this man was what professional jackpot was made of. No wonder he was such a legend. He remained as sharp and focused as he was kind and firm. When she took her work product to him, he was hardly a pushover about it. He used cutting words where required and yet every little piece of feedback he provided, seemed to have been thrown to make her think harder, work smarter.
She didn’t have to worry about falling in love with this man again. You couldn’t possibly fall in love with someone this brilliant – one who finally made her feel inadequate and yet motivated to be more than she had ever expected herself to be – all in the same breath. Perhaps Arjun did have a point after all. Working with him was the only way to truly move on and she hoped that she was finally there.
Khushi stared at the message that popped up on the right corner of her screen. She looked up and sighed in relief as she saw Arnav engrossed in a deep discussion with Ken and Madhu about their findings and how those needed to be integrated with her’s and Arnav’s.
Watch what you say. We are still working.
A full-teeth smile emoticon popped up under Arjun Agarwal’s name as the A&M Instant Messenger continued to shine brightly on her screen. Idiot, Khushi thought to herself with a smile.
What are you grinning about, Agarwal?
The fact that “we” are still working.
Coming back to what I wanted to ask. So? How is he? RDX days truly behind you now?
Khushi smiled and typed into the chat window. No comparison. Zameen and Aasman
You mean Taal and Saagar? Of course, no prizes for guessing who the Saagar is.
Khushi grinned again and allowed her fingers to click away. You are completely mad.
That I am. I am trying to nudge the girl I once thought I was deeply in love with, towards the man who I thought had betrayed me by falling in love with the same girl.
Khushi’s smile dimmed. Whatever she was expecting Arjun to say, it was not this.
Before you say “Arjun” in that deep throated Rani Mukerji imitation, let me say it. We were all idiots. But if there is any chance something can still be salvaged, please take it.
Khushi stared dumbly at the screen. She lifted her palms and placed it on the laptop, fingers poised to type and yet mind blank as the walls around her.
Anyway, I don’t want to rattle you and you..no wait… “we” are working – so go on, get back to him…I mean it.
Khushi rolled her eyes. Typical, she typed. Drop bombs and disappear. Don’t spend any time on explaining how or why you are talking to me about imaginary love-stories-in-waiting at eight in the morning.
What can I say, I am still hungover from the team party last night – which you should be very glad to have missed. There was tons of Govinda dancing. Ramu and I had a blast.
This time Khushi sent a rolling eyes emoji in Arjun’s direction.
Oh…I almost forgot. Guess what I found on Youtube. He pasted the link next. Watch tonight. You are in for a…well surprise is a super mild word.
Okay. You have a good Saturday and I’ll go die for Wyatt Motors.
Die easy, Kavi Gupta.
Khushi looked at the link that Arjun had sent across and though she knew she wouldn’t be able to watch the video at the moment, she needed to know what the video was about before her curiosity took her ninth life and left her at Yamraj’s mercy. So she muted the volume on her computer and clicked the link.
The video opened up almost immediately. The title pulled at her breath and stole it from right under her nose – quite literally. “After Aarohan Covers: Feat. AV and Nishant”. The video – a polaroid filter applied to a setting with two lead singers in the foreground, fairy lights in the background and many other unfamiliar faces flanked on either side – slammed into her chest and made her jaw drop in more awe than any one living person was allowed to inspire in another.
She looked up the same time as Arnav spoke from somewhere on her right. “Khushi?”
She flipped screens guiltily and turned right in a sharp jerk to look at Arnav who was still walking over to where she was seated. If he saw the slight blush of worry at having been caught in her face, it was not visible on his. And yet, it wasn’t very likely that he had not seen her on the YouTube page. All she could hope for now was that his eye sight was in fact worse than it had been five years ago and that he hadn’t seen his own face staring back at himself from the screen.
She gathered herself and leaned forward to indicate that she was now completely focused on the conversation about work that Arnav clearly was heading towards her for.
They spent the next forty odd minutes finishing up work after which Ken and Maddy declared that they were too hungry to go on any further – even if just to sleep – without a refueling.
So, at ten-thirty on a Friday, the first week of her stay in the US and of working with Arnav Varun, fifteen hours a day without break, came to an end. And with the end of Week One, came more discovery and revelation. She may have famously declared she was done ten years ago, then again five years ago and then again five months ago; Shiv-ji, unfortunately for her, didn’t seem to have been fooled.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Do Lafzon Ki Hai
Album: The Great Gambler
Singers: Asha Bhonsle, Amitabh Bachchan, Sharad Kumar
Music: R. D. Burman
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Dil ki baaton ka, matlab na poochcho
Kuch aur humse, bas ab na poochcho
Jiske liye hai, duniya deewani
Ya hai mohabbat, ya hai jawaani
Next update on April 22, 2017, late night IST. The delay got pushed out – kuch aur humse bas ab na poochcho!