The house finally fell silent sometime after midnight as everyone retired for the night after much singing, little eating, some drinking and a lot of laughter. In the quiet of the room that Khushi was sharing with a couple of others, she could finally hear the beat of her heart and of memories that were merging seamlessly with her Aarohan ones and shining brighter than ever. Though the book she was reading on her phone was glittering in invitation, fiction for the first time, seemed pale in comparison to life around her. She shook her head and sat up, pulling her hair into a loose knot. The two others in her room, a couple she hadn’t spoken to much during the day but who had been pleasant enough for her to feel okay about sharing space with, were fast asleep – thankfully noiselessly.
She smiled as she thought of a slightly embarrassed looking Nishant Pathak who had erred his way into apologizing for having little privacy to spare as a result of which she was forced to share space with strangers. Quelling the question about the sleeping arrangements of those who weren’t strangers, she had laughed and shaken her head at Nishant-Sir’s sense of formality. Wasn’t it bad enough that the man apparently did this almost every weekend? He needed to be given an award of sorts. Smiling at the thought, Khushi pushed her thick blanket away and pulled herself up from the mattress on the carpeted floor. She was, she realized, too wound up to fall asleep – something that rarely happened to her. Straightening her night clothes, she tiptoed out of the room and padded down the stairs, grateful that the wooden paneling did not creak under her weight.
Thankfully, the large living room in Nishant-Sir’s home, was unoccupied and thereby free for her to spend some time reading in. There was a faint light coming from somewhere – most likely the den-cum-recording studio in the basement but Khushi ignored that and settled herself on the couch, pulling her feet up to her chest as she opened her Kindle.
About three chapters later, just as her eyes were drooping close, the light from the den was joined by a soft strain of now familiar music. The identification struck her instinctively – Arnav. He was singing? At this hour? She looked at the time on the top of the page as if to verify her sense of surprise at the ungodliness of the hour and ended up curious as only she could be in situations as these. All her instincts told her to pick herself up and walk back to her bed for the night. Except, when had she ever learned to do that? Wonder threaded with a lure she didn’t want to explain or explore, pushed her up from the couch and propelled her along as the sound neared.
Shart lagi hai mar jaane ki
Jeena hai toh pyaar mein
Deh kahin bhi ho mera
Jaan rakhi hai yaar mein
As she neared the den, she realized it was not him singing live. It was a recording. Why would he…
She reached the door to the den that was slightly open when the music stopped all of a sudden, sending her heart into a lurch. Shit! If it was Arnav inside, she needed to turn on her heel…
“You really should sing this. His voice sounds like it was meant for this song.”
Divya Ma’am, Khushi realized even as her mind failed to register the part where she referred to Arnav in the third person.
The beating in her chest slowed to a painful pause. Divya Ma’am.
Her hands clutched into a fist as she tried to hold the sweep of shock at bay. She shouldn’t care. Of course it was Divya Ma’am. She was the one who had sung with him at all the Aarohans before she had. It made sense. It made so much sense.
She swallowed and stepped back, hoping to be as silent as she had been so far.
“He says it’s too personal.”
She had only taken a step back to realize it was not Arnav who had replied. It was Nishant-Sir. Oh! She realized before the nerves hit again. Shit! Even if it was just Nishant-Sir, she really needed to head back. What the hell was she thinking eavesdropping in the middle of the night? Didn’t she know that those who eavesdropped rarely overheard anything positive? This was going to end badly..She could feel it in her skin…
“I guess you could say it is to him what Teri Deewani is to me.”
Inspite of the situation she was in with her legs backing up stairs slowly, her lips cracked a small smile as she heard Nishant-Sir’s words. Teri Deewani…How many times down the years had she told herself exactly what he had just said. Teri Deewani was Nishant Kumar Pathak’s song; had been since the first time she had heard him sing it.
“What Teri Deewani means to us, you mean.”
It was certainly a night meant to shock her out of her wits. Did it mean what she thought it meant?
“To us, yes.” There was something warm, deeply personal and rich in Nishant-Sir’s voice as she heard shuffling that made her retreat with greater haste than she had imagined was possible without her tumbling down the stairs like a bad stock. And yet, her face was carved into a widening smile that she knew would be very difficult to wipe off. Nishant-Sir and Divya-Ma’am…No…She shook her head. Nishant and Divya. Now it made even more sense. She slapped her head with her hand as she hurried up the steps chuckling to herself. And walked straight into Arnav Varun at the top of the stairs.
Of course it had to be Arnav Varun. She knew that even though she could only see his outline in front of her, soft light falling in two parallel beams illuminating the top of his head and his chest. Who else did Shiv-ji place in her path with so much ease and such frequency? It was possibly this reason that prevented her from screaming out loud like an extra in a bad slasher film.
She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and looked up at Arnav Varun who was looking at her in as much shock as she probably had looked at him when this had happened years ago by a gushing River-side.
As if on cue, music filtered in briefly between them and wrapped itself around her like her mother’s favorite warm woolen shawl.
Mera hai kya jo main haar dun
Jaan teri hai, tujhpe vaar dun
Arnav’s sunrise eyes glowed as his gaze shifted in the direction of the den and then came back to rest on her face.
“Nishant-Sir and Divya-Ma’am.” She whispered, her voice lowered instinctively in response to the partial darkness around them.
He looked over her shoulder again, as his eyes dimmed in understanding and a small smile curved up his lips. Looking back at her, he stepped back and allowed her to follow him to the other end of the small house that led into a small kitchen which was flooded with light. When had he come down? And why had she not noticed the lights go on? Shiv-ji! It was a good thing she wasn’t a spy or a peep. She clearly wasn’t equipped to be either.
“Couldn’t sleep?” He asked softly as he walked into the kitchen, his back to her.
“I was reading when I heard…” Her heart was thumping loudly as the surrealness of her situation dawned on her. She needed to keep her head, she told herself. For instance, she couldn’t think about the songs he had sung. For her. She couldn’t think about how he had rushed out of the den and stayed away for many, many minutes.
She looked at him in surprise, all her thoughts flying out of her head. “It’s almost 1 a.m.” She pointed out as if in deference to a strange check-list of do’s and don’ts in her head.
He raised an eyebrow as if to say “So?” and Khushi nodded with a sigh. It wasn’t as if she was sleepy anymore anyway. Nishant-Sir and Divya-Ma’am! How often did that happen? And heck, she had something she could tell Arjun now. She was sure he didn’t have a clue! Her face split into a mad grin.
“Is that because you are happy or surprised?”
She looked up to see Arnav measuring out two cups of milk and water into a saucepan and placing it on the stove.
“You are smiling like you just found unaccounted-for cash in your pocket.”
She couldn’t help grinning at that. “I am both.” She answered. “In equal measure. Nishant-Sir and Divya Ma’am! I would not have thought.”
He chuckled as he glanced at her before adding tea leaves. “Sugar?”
She shook her head. “Not for me but if you have tea with sugar I don’t mind…”
She walked up to the large island behind the counter, pulled up one of the breakfast chairs that was lying around and climbed on to it. Thankfully, Arnav’s attention was still focused on the tea to notice her clumsy climb. By the time, he had strained the tea into mugs and placed one in front of her, she hoped she was a picture of careless ease. She frowned a little as she realized she was. This…didn’t feel weird. Maybe it was because with the sudden discovery of new romantic liaisons, they were suddenly together – well, not together together, just alone together…Argh.. She looked up at him and then shook at the complete surrealness of the situation. “How?” She asked simply, not quite sure which how she wanted the answer to.
“You want me to tell you how NK and Divya got together?” He asked with a half amused smile as he walked to her right with his mug of tea and stood leaning against the counter at the far end. Just below the bright yellow lights, his hair shone even as it fell in waves across his head. In a deep red tee and black lounge pants, he practically glowed, his skin golden and the long forgotten gash on his arm, visible again in all its glory.
“No, of course not.” She answered with a smile as she toyed with the handle on her mug and then shook her head as she realized she was lying. “Actually, yes.” She looked at him. “I would love to hear their story. And asking them would be…” She shrugged. “I don’t know either of them really well.”
“And yet you are here.” Arnav looked at her unblinkingly as he sipped his tea.
“I didn’t want to get done with a US trip without doing anything fun. This seemed like…” She shrugged honestly, “the best and easiest option.”
He continued to stare at her, thankfully though not in the way that made her want to look away. Now, it was almost as if he was trying to see into her head, like he had never really seen her before. “Nishant and Divya,” he said a second later, pausing as if trying to gather his thoughts.
She smiled to herself and shook her head. “Sorry if you don’t want to talk about…I mean.. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“Less than five minutes.” He remarked with a half-smile of his own.
“Less than five minutes before you severed the link between what you want to say and what you actually end up saying.” His mouth curved on one side in a small smirk. “Tea.” He nodded at her untouched mug.
Surprised by his comment, she decided to ignore it and focus on the more unobtrusive part. “Too hot. I don’t like burning my tongue with hot liquids. That lasts for hours and ruins everything.”
Once again he frowned slightly in that incredulous expression, like she had said something completely unexpected. She almost felt like asking him what it was that was running in his head.
Before she could say anything else though, he pushed himself up to sit on the counter, his legs dangling in air. In that moment, suddenly, he looked so boyish, it was almost like someone had dropped a sledgehammer on her chest.
“She was always interested, even back in college.”
“In Nishant-Sir?” Khushi asked in surprise.
“I’m sure Nishant will be heart-broken to hear that much surprise in your voice.”
Khushi blushed but refused to look away. “That’s not what I meant. I just always assumed it was…” She couldn’t possibly finish that statement.
He smirked with a raised eyebrow but didn’t ease her discomfort by interrupting her confession.
“And he wasn’t interested?” She asked instead, when he didn’t speak. Stupidly, given what she knew his answer was going to be.
“He was…pre-occupied with the idea of someone else…” Arnav said slowly, breaking his sentences into short, deliberate phrases.
She ignored the flutter in her chest at the words. She knew what he was implying. She didn’t believe it but she couldn’t completely ignore the existence of the idea. Arjun had made sure of that, hadn’t he?
“Anyway, they met again here three years ago when Divya was at Ann Arbor. When I met them a couple of years ago, they were seeing each other already.” Arnav said with a small shrug. “That is the extent of my knowledge on that subject. Is that good enough?”
Khushi grinned instinctively. “It will have to do.” She said as she picked up her now warm tea and took a large sip.
She nodded, happy that she didn’t have to lie this time. It really was good, strong, desi chai. Just how she liked it.
This trip was turning out to be quite the discovery.
“What is the story behind Phoolon ka Taaron ka?” She asked as she searched her brain for a topic that would shape this conversation appropriately. Who knew what would happen if they let silences reign? Especially when she was trying this hard to forget about the songs of today. And the look in his eyes. Thankfully, at the moment, there was nothing to suggest the afternoon had even happened. Perhaps she was over thinking. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Arnav sighed and shook his head. “Of course you’d remember to ask about that part of the day.”
She realized he wasn’t actually looking at her and there was something…”You are embarrassed. Now I really do want to know.” She did. It was better than the part that would leave her red-faced and lost for words, anyway. That was the only explanation for how easily she had said it out aloud. Ten years ago….No, she shook her head. What was the point thinking about ten years ago all the time. Grow up, Kaveri.
“It was one of our first ragging sessions in my First Year.”
“And you were asked to sing.” She completed thoughtfully. “That doesn’t sound too…”
“There was alcohol involved.” He said wryly though now there was a small smile on his face as his eyes met hers. “A lot of alcohol.”
Ah! Khushi grinned up at him. “And?”
Arnav cleared his throat. “I had to sing it for the Girl’s hostel warden.”
Khushi burst out laughing. “For Bhavani Didi?” She asked as the image of the very un-matronly thin, tall almost always disapproving woman flashed in her head. “Oh God. Did she call the Dean?”
“Errrr…” Arnav hesitated. “No, she knew why I was there. She just decided to ensure I had a wholistic experience about what being ragged meant,” He said as he air quoted the last word. “She called me in, made me wash my face and gulp down a liter of water. And then she made me sing for all the girls in the hostel. The songs were picked by Final Year and Third Year girls. None of whom let me forget about it for the rest of their stay in IE-V.”
Khushi couldn’t stop laughing as she imagined the scene in her head. In most situations, this, she concluded, wouldn’t be half as funny as it was given the people involved. Arnav Varun, Bhavani Verma…She looked at him and tried to control her rather shameless mirth. “It’s funny,” She confessed a second later as her reaction.
Arnav smiled ruefully. “I have been told it was funnier when witnessed in person.”
Khushi laughed again. “But, this is how you got noticed for all the singing, didn’t you?” She guessed.
“I don’t know if I should be thankful for that.” He said and then something lifted in his eyes and Arnav’s smile deepened. “There was a girl in the Third Year – Mech, I mean, the year I joined. She was one of the key members of Aarohan. And she is the one who came up with the idea of After Aarohan.”
“Oh! Payal Mishra. Yes, I’ve heard of her.” Gross understatement, of course. For most of her first year, it was all she could do to not have someone – mostly Profs and Assistants – point out how she reminded them of Payal Mishra who was the only girl Mechanical Engineering at IE-V had seen in half a decade. “She was a legend.”
“As I’m sure were you to all those who came after.”
Khushi snorted into her tea and quickly apologized but not before she saw the chuckle on his face. “Yeah, right.”
“Why is that so hard to believe?” He queried as he drained his tea and placed the cup back on the counter.
She shrugged. “Not hard to believe as much as completely ridiculous.”
When he said nothing except raise an eyebrow, she continued to explain. “It seems like a very sad claim to fame – being the only woman in class. It hardly helps. If anything I missed out on having girl friends. First IE-V, then Speed Motors…The first few months at IM-B, I was constantly shocked by how many women there seemed to be.”
Arnav chuckled and looked at her in that strange way again, like he was trying to figure her out. Which was surreal. She was, by personal claim and external validation, a very easy person to read and understand. Except Arjun who came up with weird declarations about “walls”
A small yawn stole up her throat as she finished her own cup of tea. And as expertly as she tried to hide it, Arnav saw her and jumped off the counter.
“You should get some sleep.”
She shook her head. “I think I will read for a little while before I do.” She said as she rose from the chair she had pulled up. “Can I read in the living room? I don’t want to end up disturbing Amit and Manali.” She said as she looked out of the kitchen thoughtfully as residents in her skull and rib cage battled. Sure, she didn’t want to go back to the room and risk waking the two people sharing the room with her. And what about the reluctance to let this little warm make-believe world of easy interactions go? “I mean I am asking you because…”
“Of course.” He interrupted with a nod and the two of them walked out of the kitchen.
She found herself taking the large coffee colored lounger even as Arnav settled down in the matching couch on the other end. “Do you need the light?” He asked and she shook her head a second before she realized he couldn’t actually see her.
“No,” She whispered as the silence of the night pressed on with greater urgency here in the darkened living room.
She had just switched her Kindle back on when he spoke again. “I’m glad you decided to stay. And sing.” His words were barely above a whisper either. But it was almost like he had spoken in her ears. A small bolt of sensation screeched through her senses and erupted as gooseflesh on her arms.
“This is a fun group to be with,” She replied softly into the darkness.
A second later, his iPad screen came alive even as she tore her eyes away from his glowing face. The words on her Kindle swam in and out of focus as she struggled to read. Not too long later, sleep fluttered on her eyelids as they closed unwillingly. The last coherent thought she had was to not give in to the temptation of glancing at him every two seconds. Or of walking right into his arms.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Ajnabi Sheher Mein
Singer: Sonu Nigam
Music: Anu Malik
Baat hai yeh ek raat ki
Aap baadalon pe lete the
Hmm, woh yaad hai? Aapne bulaaya tha?
Sardi lag rahi thi aapko,
Patli chaandni lapetey the
Aur shawl mein, khwaab ke sulaaya tha?
Ajnabi, hi sahi, saans mein sil gayi
Next Update: Monday, May 29, 2017, Between 10-11 p.m. IST