For the two who began their journey 36 years ago by the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi.
He waited for the muted onslaught as Nishant turned around, a small smile curved on his lips and eyes full of brightness that reeked of nostalgia.
“You must bring her next week. It will be great to meet her after so many years. She doesn’t sound like she has changed at all. ”
Arnav smiled and looked away as he went back to his guitar and strummed the chord. “You’ve invited her.” He said by means of reply. His extending any invitation was hardly going to work. In any case he had used up all his leeway with the driving routine. Perhaps Nishant’s insistence would do the trick.
“Why didn’t you bring her this week? It is boring as hell to be alone in a strange country – you don’t need me to tell you that.”
Arnav stiffened for a second as guilt squeezed between his finger and plucked the guitar strings in cacophony. He needed to take a break from practice. His eyes were burning and his muscles ached. He had hardly any sleep and his body was telling him that a migraine was around the corner. And he couldn’t afford it – not in the first few weeks of his first project in his elevated status as Senior Manager. “I didn’t want to overwhelm her. We’ve had a pretty rough week at work. Jen is in Dracula mode now that she’s done me a huge favor by picking us over Murphy’s. Their Head of Consulting for the Americas was at the HQ for the orals.”
“Ha, like she did it out of the goodness of her heart. Murphy was probably quoting 2X of what you guys did.”
“Of course. But that’s not how Jen sells the story”
Nishant fell silent for a second and then mock-shuddered. “I don’t know how you do it, AV. I meet Jen once in a quarter for our program review and even that is too much. Not to mention the hours you put in.”
“Not all of us can leave at half past four in the evening. Not when hot shots like you ruin your homes and call us to fix the mess.”
NK rolled his eyes but didn’t argue otherwise.
Arnav smiled again and put his guitar aside. “Sorry this weekend is turning out to be a waste.”
Nishant shook his head as he came and plonked himself on the large leather couch. The pair of them were in the basement which Nishant used as his music den – a place very high on Arnav’s list of favorite nooks in the world. “You need a break. You need a life. The next video can wait.” He reassured him in that very Nishant Pathak way – stilted, half lost and yet fully earnest. “By the way, Divya told me what you said to her.”
“Of course she did.”
“She is my friend first, AV-Sir.” Nishant replied with a small smile.
Arnav raised an eyebrow at the suffix that seemed to still linger between them but let it go soon enough.
“So what’s the plan? Never to date again? Or perhaps date only a specific person?”
Arnav rose from his wrought iron chair and came to sit in the matching leather recliner opposite Nishant. “Neither.”
“Come on, AV! You had perfectly great dates if what I hear from Divya is right. And yet…”
“When are you going to grow out of being Deepak Tijori to my Sanjay Dutt, NK?” Arnav laughed as recalled their favourite comparison – one bestowed by Arjun a long time ago. “You know that I am the advisor by profession. I know how to think logically – I do that for a living. And what I am doing is based on a structured thought process.” Ha! He was getting rather good at lying. Structured thought process. Was he even capable of that in this crazy scenario with Khushi?
Nishant laughed wryly, “I can’t believe I am saying this to the mighty Arnav Varun but perhaps that is the whole problem – this logical structuring approach you take to everything in life. You cannot tell me that you don’t realize that relationships don’t work like that. There is subjectivity involved and that needs a different, sometimes thickheaded, brute-forcish approach.”
Arnav burst out laughing at the earnestness in Nishant’s voice. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Nishant looked stumped for a second and then shrugged. “I have no fucking clue.”
By the time Arnav was back on the road later that night on his return trip to the Inn, his nerves were taut and stretched, half in anticipation and half in a messy tangle of guilt and gumption. He was glad he had made the decision to leave the rented car behind for her and get himself another one at his own personal cost though getting a cab might have made more sense economically. The drive from NK’s place to the Inn – an hour of nothing but half-empty roads and unhindered speed, would help him prepare for the coming week. And he didn’t mean just work though that was going to pick up pace.
He switched the local radio station that was playing on the car stereo off and let the moving vehicle be swathed in silence as everything that was churning in his head settled down. He had no idea why he had told Nishant about her being in Detroit. He had no idea why he hadn’t done it sooner. He had no idea what he was doing at all. For almost a year now, he knew this situation that he now found himself would present itself. He had known then that it would happen even if he hadn’t known how or when. And he had “made it happen” in the only way that he knew how this time – picking up opportunities when they presented themselves and never thinking too much about the image of the end destination he had in mind – if he did at all.
Are you still waiting?
Arjun’s question may have lost its echo in space but it had firmly planted itself in Arnav’s head. It was a question he had not allowed himself to ask. He had always been one to measure words to people and situations – even himself. Arjun, as always, had no such compulsions and out he had come with the words, piercing.
Was he still waiting?
Is that why she was here on a project with him? Is that why he had told Divya what he had? Is that why he had to fight this hard to keep his eyes from straying every time they were in a room together – which was more often than not – literally every waking moment in the day? It was ridiculous. He sounded like an idiot. Heck, he was an idiot. To moon like this when the path was, had always been so simple. She had showed him how simple. And what had he done. Taken his shoes in his hands and run like he was in a comic strip that failed to incite any laughs – intentional or otherwise.
Suddenly the silence in the car was too much to handle. So he picked up his phone from the dashboard and clicked the Music library app and then the little album titled “After Aarohan” – one he allowed himself to indulge in very rarely and yet was the only kind of music he cared for at the moment. It was the album he had once had taped into an audio cassette and given it to her.
September 14, 2010
He knew this was a bad idea the moment it had struck twelve on the clock and the date had changed before his eyes. It was funny because till eleven fifty nine last night, the memory had not even made its presence known to him. And now he could do nothing but think about what the day meant. How was he going to focus on the training that was underway? The fact that he had finally stepped out of his sister and brother-in-law’s shadows and was making his way back to the corporate world? Towards what he had worked so hard for all these years?
This is insane, he told himself even as he stared at the screen on the phone with her name on it. He never should have stored the number. He never should have asked J for the updated contact list of all Speed Motors participants. He had not only made evident his complete lack of control at the time, he had also made it impossible for himself to forget about her the way she wanted him to.
That she was angry was not what troubled him. After all he had made a ridiculous decision to help Arjun with an insane plan. And he had always known that look in her eyes when she looked at him. It had backfired and if he were honest with himself, it had backfired long before he had seen her in the wings as he sung that first song.
What he didn’t understand, what he couldn’t wrap his head around was why she didn’t see that he was almost exactly where she was now? And where in God’s name had that question about Saira come from? Why the hell did Ti-Di have to tell her whatever she did about Saira? Why the hell hadn’t he been man enough to do that himself? What was all that shit about not wanting to burden her with what couldn’t help them? Saira was a reality between them five years ago. And he should have addressed it. And he should have come clean about Arjun. But….How could she not see that he couldn’t have disclosed Arjun’s story till he did? How could he lay bare the extent of someone else’s effort without the person’s explicit permission?
He took a deep breath and put the phone away. He couldn’t not call her today. And yet he would go insane if he didn’t. He had to. And her birthday was the best occasion to make one last attempt. Just like his birthday was the best occasion to make the first. A sharp pinch of steel lodged itself deeper in his chest as he recalled the disappointment of her not having wished him on his day. And she had remembered. He knew that. How he knew that he wouldn’t even try to understand, but he did.
The day rolled on as his nerves tightened and stretched around the sharp edges of his mountain-honed bones. By the time he could place the call on his cell, his chest was beating loudly in his heart and evening had molded itself around the earth. The phone rang for what seemed like forever. And he saw her in his mind, her hands holding the phone and looking at the number on the screen – knowing it was him because of course she hadn’t stored it but had still memorized the way the digits looked when they flashed on the screen. He saw her hands hover over the keypad, tempted to reject his call. And yet, he knew she would answer.
And when she did, her voice came through the speaker pores near his ears, her voice soft like he could feel her breath on his skin. It was enough for him to lose his head and almost issue warnings about not letting her get away with running. And yet, he didn’t want to be the one forcing her to do what she didn’t want to do. Perhaps it was ego, perhaps it was more.
“Happy birthday,” He said softly as he opened his eyes and stared out of the balcony at the half purple sky. It was a moonless night in Delhi irrespective of where the moon actually was in its orbit. The smoke around him was enough to obscure any pale yellow half-blobs in the sky – moon and halogen alike.
“Thank you.” She said a small moment of silence later. He smiled as he realized he could almost hear her berate herself for having been petty about not having wished him when it had been her turn.
“I hope you had a wonderful day.” Say you didn’t. Say you thought about how it might have been if that last evening by the Ganga had never happened.
He almost called out to her when she spoke. “It was a normal working day. And…” She hesitated, “It was okay.”
“Khushi,” God how he had missed saying her name out aloud. It rolled on his tongue like happiness itself. His lips curved as his eyes hurt and a dull throb began behind his eyes. He needed water. He needed… “Can we talk now, please? I’m…”
“Please…please don’t…I know you don’t understand why I am….Please…”
Her voice was breaking and he hated himself for doing this to her. What sort of an absolute irresponsible jerk was he – forcing a girl like this when she had made it amply clear that he had nothing to say that she wanted to hear? When had he become one of those men who couldn’t accept what was being made explicit? “Why? I don’t understand, Khushi. Why? I was stupid but was it so bad that you can’t bring yourself to see reason? What happened during Aarohan was ridiculous – my worst decision-making. And I have made some terrible decisions. But that doesn’t change…”
She repeated his question, her voice tremulous in a strange, un-Kaveri way. He had never seen her anything but collected – except that once when he had walked into her tent and she had been in physical disarray. How would he ever forget that?
“Because you don’t love me yet. But I do.” Her voice filtered into his ear, strong and calm. “I love you. I have for years. That’s why.”
Whatever it was that he was expecting to hear from her, it wasn’t this. To say that it felt like she had slapped him was understating the sting he felt in his skin.
“I told myself at the River that it was not love. But after…the time we spent, I couldn’t deny it. But I also couldn’t delude myself into believing that I ever had a chance at being on an equal footing with you. See how it all panned out? I am still in love with you. And you don’t love me, yet.”
His throat flooded with air that seemed to choke his windpipe into a sailor’s knot.
“I know. You will tell me that it is not possible to fall in love like that. I can hear in my head how stupid it sounds. You said it too – and I agree – I don’t know anything about you at all. And perhaps I am that stupid. Who falls in love over a few songs? But…” She took a deep breath. “I have no doubt about what and how I feel. And that’s why…that’s why…Because you don’t love me..yet and whether you do someday or not…that Aarohan night – the fact that all that was for Arjun – will always remind me of the time that I was alone in feeling the way I did.” She stopped. “I don’t know why I am saying all this.”
It was simple. This was simple. She loved him. All he had to do was say he loved her and this would be over. He wanted to laugh out as a splinter of insanity pierced through his chest.
“Please don’t call me. Let’s forget about this. I want to forget about being this stupid. I want to forget about how irrational I am. I am sure you want to forget about…I mean I sound like a psychotic idiot – the kind of women films make fun of. The only way to forget about all this is to end this here now.”
He knew he wanted to say something. Except he had no idea what. What was one supposed to say to a declaration as urgently crazy as this was? She was wrong. She couldn’t possibly love him. What sort of love was this that couldn’t see beyond its own hurt?
He hurt her. Because he wasn’t in love with her, yet.
“I am so sorry.” She said, biting back an audible sob. “I don’t know why I said all this. I didn’t want to…And it is not fair to you…I know because I have been there…”
Arjun. She was putting herself where Arjun was. And him where she was. This was all kinds of twisted. Surely the two situations were different? She felt nothing for Arjun and he…what did he feel for her? Physical attraction? He could taste the memory of kissing her…How could that be a bad place to start?
How could it be the right place to start when she felt so much more? Perhaps she was right. Perhaps this really needed to end here. Perhaps this was for the best.
“I am sorry,” He whispered, so softly he was sure she didn’t hear him. And before he could repeat himself, the phone had been disconnected and the only sounds in his ears were the evening vehicles homeward bound and beyond.
When he pulled in to the driveway of the Inn later in the night, a part of him simply wanted to walk up to her door and apologise for having run away that day. Fool. He had been a fool. He wanted to tell her that. And then he wanted to pull her close and ask if she still loved him. It was a ridiculous question and one that could have the answer he hoped for only if he was Lady Luck’s favourite child. He knew better and yet he wanted to do it. And when she said no – because how could she say yes – he wanted to shake her and call her bluff – even if it was not one.
And as always he didn’t. Just like he didn’t bang on her door the day she had come in from Bangalore. No, he had made peace with standing outside her block with clenched teeth till his head hurt. He had curled his fingers into his palm, forming a painful a fist as his nails dug into his skin. He had been worried out of his mind and yet all he had done was bark at her on the phone. And she had prickled up instantly making him feel like an idiot. What was it about this girl that made him act like a complete moron?
By the time he had parked his rental and made it to his room, his body was singing with nervous energy. It was time to hit the pathetic excuse for a gym that the Inn had. He was going to need to keep up with his exercise schedule just to stay sane for the next seven weeks.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Main Hoon Hero Tera
Singer(s): Salman Khan (and auto-tune)
Music: Amaal Mallik
Raahon mein bhi, har kadam
Main tere saath chala
Haththon mein thhe, yeh haath magar
Phir bhi raha faasla
Seine mein hain chhupe, ehsaas pyaar ke
Bin kahe tu sun le zara
Dil hai yeh sochta, phir bhi nahi pataa
Kis haq se kahun bata
Ke main hoon hero tera?
Next Update: May 8, 2017
Thank you all for reading!