6 years since 6 June 2011, the day that started it all! Sigh – Who would’ve thought!
She woke up with a huge, inexplicable smile. And though it was barely a few hours since she had closed her eyes almost unwillingly, there was something pleasant abuzz in her head. It was a few minutes before she realized that her glasses were missing and that she had been sleeping on the couch in the living room, a thick duvet keeping her warm even though the room was fairly chilly.
Thin, dull light filtered in from the large French windows behind her. A look at her phone told her that it was still just half past six in the morning.
And that there was no Arnav or his iPad on the couch in front of her.
She pushed the duvet off her and bit back a shiver as the warmth dissipated around her in a rush. She folded the blanket and placed it on the couch before straightening her clothes and heading up to the powder room downstairs to finish her morning ablutions. A few minutes later, she was in the kitchen, still the only one seemingly awake in the large, crowded house that breathed heavily in echoes of distributed slumber. The counter was clean. Arnav had clearly cleaned up sometime between last night – earlier this morning, infact – and now. She looked around and contemplated making herself a cup of tea. Nishant had reminded her repeatedly that none of the facilities in the house were protected by formal boundaries. Her stomach growled impatiently in agreement and she decided that brewing some tea was hardly the worst violation of manners and privacy that she could be held responsible for.
She measured water and milk for two cups of desi chai and placed the vessel on the cooktop, as the smile on her face curved back into place. As her mind went over the happenings of yesterday, her sense of pleasant stupor returned. Music filled her ears as flashes of a motley group flitered in and out of her memories. Even the tremor of longing that accompanied the songs that Arnav had tormented her with, didn’t seem to touch her at the moment. All this despite having slept barely a few hours. She was happy and it was…surreal to be aware of her happiness with technically no visible change in her life.
It was the Nishant-Sir and Divya Ma’am’s pairing, she concluded as she watched the brew simmer and morph in front of her eyes. The scent of rich Darjeeling filled her lungs. Whatever Arnav Varun said or didn’t say, however matter of fact he made their story sound, in her head it was no less than the best kind of real romance. And it still surprised her – not in a way that made her disbelieve but in the way that she hadn’t expected it to happen.
Or maybe…just maybe it was the late night chai that was still coursing through her veins. Who said tea couldn’t be intoxicating? She even fell right asleep as if to prove a point.
Raat ka, nasha abhi, she murmured with a small playful smile, aankh se gaya nahi
Tera nasheela badan,
Baahon ne chhoda nahi
Aankhein toh kholi magar
Sapna who toda nahi
She smiled and twirled in her head. Haan wohi, woh wohi…She grinned sheepishly as the song tumbled out of her mouth as intuitive as ever.
Saanson pe rakkha hua tere hothon ka
Sapna abhi hai wohi
And then she turned around to quickly ensure she was alone as she hummed the opening lines without music. Of all the things in the world, she didn’t want…
Nah, she flicked her hand in the air. What was that she had promised herself? Arnav Varun was not going to rule what she could do or not. Taking a deep breath, she placed the strainer on a fresh tea mug.
Tere bina bhi kabhi
Tujh se machal leti hun
Karwat badalti hun toh
Sapna badal leti hun
Someday, she told herself, she would make a list of the sexiest songs of Hindi cinema and put this right on top. As much as she cringed at the Hindi words for the human body thanks to how crude they always sounded when used in dialogues, there was something about this song, penned by the Master himself that made her focus on how the music singed through her senses.
She picked the saucepan by it’s black handle and poured its contents into the cups before realizing that she had in fact made tea for two…
Tera khayaal aaye toh, she sang as she stuck her out at her own absent mindedness, balkha ke pal jaata hai
Paani ke chaadar tale
Tan mera jal jaata hai
Haan wohi, who wohi
Saanson pe rakkha hua tere hothon ka
Sapna abhi hai wohi
She placed a coaster on top of the second cup and picked hers up to take it to the island counter where she had been seated last night. Instead of sitting though, she pushed the stool to her side and stood facing the window that led to small backyard, grey, white and brown at this time of morning. It was such so beautiful – even with all the color leeched out of the air.
Tere gale milne ke
Mausam bade hote hain, she continued as she waited for the hot brew to cool down to more agreeable temperature. Her fingers involuntarily traced a familiar insignia on the table and she scribbled all over even if in playful warning.
That a voice joined hers the next moment; that she had been standing with her back facing the entrance of the kitchen, was obviously destined. Or maybe conjured into reality by her own imagination.
Janmon ka vaada koi
Yeh gham bade chhote hain
Her voice trailed off as his strengthened, two tracks criss-crossing and separating as a distant train rattled on somewhere in her memory. He walked in slowly, his face and hair glowing like he had just been running. Though his T-shirt and tracks different from last night, he wasn’t dressed for running out in the cold. Which probably meant he had
Lambi si ek raat ho
Lamba sa ek din mile
Bas itna sa jeena ho…
She swiveled on her spot slowly and looked up, tilting her neck to look at him as his voice trailed off and he slid into the empty space next to her. “Good morning,” He whispered as he scanned her face. He placed one hand on the island counter to her left, blocking her return swivel back to her cup. Surprised by how close he suddenly was, she made to move to her right when he pushed himself away from her left and blocked her exit on the right instead.
She looked at him in confusion. What…
“We’re even.” He whispered in her ear. She could feel his breath on her cheek. And a shock of memory flashed through her chest,
“You fell asleep.” He replied as he continued to stare at her. His eyes were darker than the night that had been dispelled barely an hour or so ago. “We’re even.”
Her eyebrows shot up as he realized what he was referring to. “We didn’t decide to spend the night together last night.” She retorted and then colored crimson as she realized what she’d just said. Looking away from him, she shifted to her left, hoping to put some distance between them and a little rational thought in her head. Except, Arnav didn’t look like he was in any mood to comply.
There was thick, impenetrable silence in the air in that moment as his gaze fell to her lips and caught her eyes again as she held back the impulse to stare back at his mouth.
“Khushi…” His voice was textured like sandpaper, jagged and low. He leaned in, his lips barely above her own. “Look at me”
Shit, she realized as her eyes opened in shock and found his own unfocussed and so close. How…when… She blinked and looked at his mouth, now merely whispers away from hers. “Tell me to stop now or we are never going back from this.”
Don’t. Don’t… she urged and then wondered fleetingly what she was hoping for.
“Stop.” She whispered as the moment froze and silently melted into her veins. Why? Why had she said the word? She didn’t want him to stop. She…Her throat clenched as she blinked and shifted from her place.
It was then that her phone rang like a plot trope in a bad Hindi soap. Both Arnav and she glanced at her phone in the same instant. His gaze veered back to her when she realized she wasn’t really seeing what was flashing on the screen either. The moment stretched to two before she recognized the caller and acknowledged her inability to ignore her. She picked up the phone, her hands brushing against his covered arm. “Hello?” She answered as he pushed himself away from the island behind her and stepped back to give her space.
“So rahi ho?” Her mother’s voice effectively fell around her like the curtain she needed to hide herself from him.
She picked up her cup and without meeting Arnav’s gaze for more than an apologetic moment, walked out of the kitchen. “Nahi, Ma.” She said, clearing her throat. “Chai pi rahi hun.”
“Where have you been? Baba and I have been waiting for a call from you. You haven’t called in three days. And Tripti hasn’t either.”
She breathed in deeply and closed her eyes as she walked to the edge of the living room, as far from him as possible. This early morning phone call, the second time Gayatri Gupta had called her since she had landed in Detroit, had to be her mother’s subtle way of making sure she was safe amidst strangers. If Khushi hadn’t mentioned staying with friends, she was sure her mother would have waited for her to call like always. Sometimes she wondered if sharing too much detail on her coordinates was harming her parents’ sanity more than it reassured them. “I was going to call later today. How are you both? And why hasn’t Tripti called?”
“I don’t know. She said she has a submission on Monday. That girl is going to drive us crazy. We never know where she is.”
She rolled her eyes and then turned around gingerly, biting back half a sigh of relief and half a stab of disappointment as she realized that Arnav had not, infact, followed her out to the living room. She walked up to where she had dozed off last night and lightly fingered the duvet she had folded and placed carefully. He had covered her with it sometime last night. Was it his own? She groaned mentally at the thought and cursed herself once again for asking him to stop. And then she cursed herself again for wanting to continue. She couldn’t let things get muddled like this in one weekend away from sanity. Even if he…he had been disappointed she fell asleep last night? What had he been hoping for? And more importantly, why? How was any of this – this walking into her space and making her want to reach out and refresh her memory of his kisses – how was it sane? What was he trying to…
“…meet today for lunch?”
The question in her mother’s voice tumbled into into her thoughts abruptly. Shit! She’d drifted away from the conversation at hand. And now she would have to pay for it. “Sorry, Ma. I wasn’t paying attention. Say that again?”
“Baad mein phone karun?” Her mother asked, annoyance lacing her voice slightly. Gayatri Gupta hated repeating herself by her own admission and the three of them knew it well enough to steer clear of situations that would mandate such travesties. At least Tripti and Khushi did. Shiv Kumar Gupta – well, Khushi’s father was half deaf – more out of disinterest than disability. It was one of the many complains her mother had about her father. Water off a duck’s back, of course, as far as her father was concerned.
“Nahi. Sorry. Ab boliye. I’m listening.”
“That guy Rajat – the one you were talking to. He is also in Detroit for the next four weeks. His mother called and suggested you two meet today for lunch. Chali jao.”
“Kaveri,” Gayatri Gupta warned and Khushi immediately felt panic swell under her skin. Shit. She had completely forgotten about that stupid mess than she had agreed to.
“Ma, I can’t. This is not the time for all of this. I am on my first client project. I cannot afford to…” What? Be distracted? Because that was already…She quelled the voice in her head.
“But you are spending the weekend with friends from college.” The skepticism behind that word was unmistakable. “I am sure you can take the time to go meet this boy.. You said he was okay.”
She clenched her teeth silently. Why couldn’t she have said he was awful? Why did she have to live up to some ridiculous rule in her head about being nice about everyone until armed with evidence to prove otherwise?
“We talked about this. I told you we’d be perfectly okay if you had someone in mind. Arjun bhi…Hume koi problem nahi hai.”
Khushi’s eyes almost popped out of their socket. “Arjun? Mummy…What is wrong with you? Where is this coming from?” She asked, now fully awake even as her body ached with wrong posture and lack of sleep. At least, that was what she was going to tell herself.
She heard Gayatri inhale sharply.
“Ma, you asked me once…”
“That was a long time ago. You have been together for so long. If things have changed…”
Khushi ignored her mother and continued. This madness had to end right now. “They have not. I assure you there was nothing then and there is nothing now that warrants this discussion. Arjun is a friend – I don’t know how else to say it. Please stop this right away. And I cannot meet Rajat or anyone else till I am here. Please don’t make it difficult for me.”
There a second’s silence and Khushi could almost taste her mother’s frustration on her own tongue. “You said you were open to this, Kaveri. You are twenty eight years old. You need to get married some day. Please, don’t make this harder than it needs to be. It’s not like we know how this..this whole thing works either. But I do know that unless you meet people, nothing is going to happen.”
Argh. She wanted to pull her hair out. Did her mother have to remind her that her parents didn’t have a clue how arranged marriages worked because they, even in their absolute unromantic-ness had found each other and saved their parents the trouble? And she hated this note of absolute despair in her mother’s voice. Why did everything have to come down to this always? Gayatri Gupta was now two sentences away from pointing out that soon Tripti would be done with MBA as well and that meant it was time for her to be married too.
“Fine.” She gave in, like always. “But I don’t have his number handy.” Ha! Like a flimsy argument of that variety was going to help.
“I will send it to you. Please meet him. And please make effort to dress up.”
She clenched her teeth noisily this time. There it was again. As if just meeting this person was not enough. Making an effort to dress up was also critical. “Not today. I’ll check for next week.” She was officially angry and she knew her mother was on short fuse as well. Till she actually got married, this was going to be as awful as it had been for the last six months. To think she had hoped that she would get at least a year or so of living on her own terms after b-school!
She hung up gruffly after a quick inquiry about her father and typed a message to Tripti knowing that she would respond soon. Your parents are annoying.
Sure enough the response came almost immediately. And as always, it was as knowing as Tripti usually was. Aur karo haan for arranged shaadi. Perhaps Arjun did have a point about her sister actually being more Krishna than Tripti.
“Is everything okay?”
Khushi turned to look at Arnav who glanced at her for a second before directing his attention back to the road. “I’m fine. Why?”
“You have been frowning since morning. And you are…” He reached out and tugged at her wrist with one outstretched finger. “…chewing your nails again.” His voice was full of ill-concealed disapproval.
They had left from Nishant-Sir’s house about ten minutes ago and thanks to some traffic, apparently unusual for a Sunday evening, there had been focused silence in the car till now. The day had turned sour the moment Khushi had disconnected her mother’s call earlier in the morning and the taste of it stayed in her mouth throughout. It was almost as if the fun of Saturday had to be neutralized by a Sunday that dragged along, every laugh bringing with it fresh panic as Khushi was reminded of her promise to her mother. She had received Rajat Garg’s phone number from Gayatri some time during breakfast and a little after lunch, a text from Rajat himself had shattered the illusion of her near perfect weekend. She had been unable to enjoy either the singing or the laughter and inane banter that went around. Even the visual of Nishant-Sir and Divya Ma’am under the revised parameters of their relationship – rather her knowledge of it, was not half as pleasing as it might have been if Gayatri Gupta had chosen to inquire about mundane things like weather and food and left the conversation at that.
No, everything was not okay. Unfortunately, the last person she would likely say that to was the man behind the wheel.
She almost unwillingly let go of the half bitten nail and folded her fingers into a fist she could place on her lap. Her skin flushed and blood crawled up her neck. Damn! She had gotten rid of this habit years ago. Or so she convinced herself. This periodic reminder of sorts was not fun. Especially not when it came from him.
“Ti-Di used to bite her nails well into her teens. My mother was permanently trying tricks to get her to quit. According to her, it is a habit that brings bad luck.”
Khushi blinked in surprise. Had he just volunteered to expand their conversation to people she knew, knew of? What was that supposed to mean? And why the hell had she been so petty? She had wondered about his sister and brother-in-law. Why hadn’t she asked him? What did she think would happen?
“My mother gets very annoyed too.” She conceded, “I…It’s not a habit anymore but sometimes…”
“Which is why I asked if everything was okay. I wouldn’t have if I knew my head would be bitten off.”
“I did not…” Her face flamed as her rejoinder faded away. “I don’t like that question. It serves no purpose.” She volleyed with feeling.
“You don’t like people asking you if you are okay?”
When he put it like that…
She took a deep breath. The topic needed to change. “How is Aditi?” She asked as she glanced at him quickly. “And Aman? They are still at he River? In Rishikesh?”
He didn’t look at her and his face remained plain but the second long silence was telling and a dull shiver crept up Khushi’s spine.
“No. They live in Delhi now. The River…” he turned to look at her once quickly. “It got washed away in the Himalayan Tsunami a couple of years ago.”
Shock pervaded through her senses as she struggled to make sense of the information he had just thrown at her. The River – it didn’t exist anymore. It was…”Are they okay?” She asked and took solace in the fact that he had started with the fact that Aman and Aditi were in Delhi. They had to be okay. The Tsunami…She remembered with clarity how difficult it had been at the time the event had broken across news channels to not think about what might have happened to the River. She had prayed that none of them were hurt and worried herself sick when she had seen that image of the immersed Shiva in Rishikesh. And yet, she hadn’t ever imagined that it might be this bad. How had she been so sure they hadn’t been harmed? How had she convinced herself at the time when fear was so easily clawing its way up her spine when she knew they were all okay? She turned to look at him.
He nodded. “They were not at the camp when it happened. June through September was always city living time for J and Ti-Di. But…” He took a deep breath as memories flickered behind his rapidly blinking eyelids. “J decided he couldn’t just sit and let everything die. He knew people were trapped, he knew how bad it could get and he….he went to help. There were so many people from the River who were still around, even if not on the camp. He couldn’t imagine them hurt for the lack of help. So, he signed up for a rescue volunteer camp. Ti-Di…she was pregnant at the time and so there was no way he could take her and…”
Khushi stared at him in astonishment. Never. She would have never imagined.
“We didn’t hear from him for days. Di was almost out of her mind with worry and I was travelling, here in the US.”
The helplessness he must have felt at the time was still evident in the way his voice shook.
“A day short of two weeks since he left, J called. He returned only about a month later. For many days after that, he didn’t speak to any of us. He was okay physically, just tired and weak. But his eyes…they remained haunted for days. And Ti-Di was out of her mind with anger, worry, dismay – I don’t know what else. I think if it hadn’t been for Shlok’s birth…” His voice trailed off, making Khushi shudder as she imagined that the end of that sentence might have been. She didn’t know what to say. She wished she could reach out and hold his hand. But…
“Shlok?” She asked instead with a tentative smile. Aditi and Aman’s baby. His nephew. Not niece like she imagined it would be but just as endearing even just in idea.
Arnav’s face split into a huge smile as the bad memories faded like magic. “Aditi and Aman’s two and half year old. My nephew.”
She grinned right back at him. His smile was so reassuring, it made her want to stretch the moment, make it last. “You know that there are no good “Mamas”, right? Shakuni, Kansa – Hindu mythology is fairly clear about how that relationship plays out.”
He laughed and shook his head. “But then,” he shrugged, “I get to call him Bhaanje with a lazy eye and help him spin evil designs for his enemies.”
This time Khushi laughed. It was evident that he adored his nephew. He didn’t have to regale her with stories. He didn’t have to show her pictures in his wallet. And she somehow knew he could do both if she asked.
“And he is finally at an age where I can handle him. When he was a baby, I just didn’t know what to do.” He admitted with a wry smile, making Khushi chuckle again.
“Oh no, I think babies are so much easier to handle. Once they are little people…it’s scary. Even between Tripti and I, when we have cousins and their kids visiting, our roles are fixed. Below two and above fifteen for me and anyone in between is Tripti’s territory. It works best for everyone involved.” She said seriously.
Arnav chuckled and the smiled almost to himself. “Balance is good.”
The words were whispered with such feeling that she turned her head with a jerk and immediately felt her strained muscle stretch in pain. She winced and blinked quickly as tears threatened the corners of her eyes.
“What….” He glanced at her and then frowned worriedly. “Is it okay to ask what happened to the neck?”
Khushi rolled her eyes, ignoring the heat in her face and placed her hands against her neck, trying to will the crick away. “Twisted my neck last night. Now moving my head is a mission I need to plan for before I execute.”
“I have a gel that works well with muscle strain back in my room.” He offered a moment later.
“I have one too. I just need to get to it. And sleep properly tonight.”
“You should said something in the morning,” He said quietly before clearing his throat. “Nishant probably has one of those too.”
She shook her head, ignoring the little reference to the morning. “I can’t stand the smell of muscle relaxants. So I didn’t want to…Plus…just a matter of time…” She shrugged. “I’ll get to the room and I’ll be fine.”
He fell silent as the SUV zoomed through the interstate amidst alternating beams of pale yellow and darkness.
“I tried to wake you up last night.” He said a few minutes later as her fingers twisted into small, loose knots. “So that you could go back to your bed and sleep.”
He tried to wake her up. Like she had once tried to wake him up by a River. So much was different between then and now and somehow suddenly it felt like nothing had changed. How had this happened? How had all her carefully constructed plan fallen to smithereens? She closed her eyes and told herself to stop it. This was a slippery slope and one she couldn’t afford to lose her balance on – not now. She needed her sanity. Irrespective of whether he seemed to be hurtling towards abandoning all of his own.
“Yeah I always sleep like a log. Chai, coffee – never worked to keep me up. Especially during exams. All my friends and classmates swore by these beverages.” She knew she was rambling but her voice sounded controlled in her head. That had to be a good sign. So she kept it up. “None of them worked for me.” Yes, go ahead. Think of me as a weirdo. Anything will do right now.
He said nothing for a long moment but there was a small smile, indecipherable as always, on his face. Then he spoke again, “Is Tripti still against Consulting as a career option?”
Wincing as her neck screamed in protest as she tried to tilt it to look at him, she felt her eyebrows shoot up.
“I never unwear my recruitment hat. We need the numbers.” He said with a smile and a shrug.
Except she didn’t care about his motivations for keeping tabs on recruitment. His knowledge of Tripti’s choices, on the other hand…
“How do you know she isn’t interested in Consulting?” She asked instead, frowning deeply. What was he doing? What was he saying?
“I saw the IM-A resume list come in yesterday. She’s not on it. And last year – I was there for Summers,” He explained, referring to the internship recruitment program at the IMs which was almost as rigorous as final placements after course completion, “She was on the placement committee. I know every big Consulting firm wanted to see if she would show up in their list. If I am not wrong, someone from Murphy’s even asked her to interview without a shortlist. Which is typical Murphy,” He concluded wryly.
“She couldn’t care less about Consulting. She wants to be in corporate finance. CFO someday, apparently. I don’t understand the draw but she is very clear. She has always been.” Khushi replied with a small smile as she recollected all her career conversations with Tripti.
“It’s always a shame when we don’t get the smart ones. Losing to Murphy and Baxter is okay. Losing to Consumer Product majors is a shame.” Arnav replied but by now the most relevant questions had come rushing back to the fore of Khushi’s infinite ponderings.
“You met Tripti last year?” She asked out aloud. What was the point letting these questions go anyway?
He looked at her quietly and then shook his head. “I didn’t meet her. I saw her.”
“And you recognized her?” She asked incredulously. As far as she knew, he had seen Tripti once. In the wings of the Aarohan stage.
“She looks like you.”
Khushi laughed at that, mirth and anxiety churning together in her stomach as the vehicle glided along silken ripples of concrete. “No she doesn’t! She is half my size. Our skin color is different – I look washed out and she glows like…” She shook her head. “It must be the glasses. Though I am surprised that she wasn’t wearing her lenses at the time.”
Once again there was silence in the aftermath of her statement. This time no smile played on Arnav’s lips. If anything, his brow was creased into a small frown which made playback her words till she realized that she had inadvertently spoken of how she felt about her appearance. She had, to her recollection, never made that apparent to anyone except Arjun and now Raagini. Raagini was a kindred soul. It was different. What had she been thinking saying this to Arnav? Wasn’t it enough that she had once foolishly confessed she loved him only to have him run like there was no tomorrow? Moreover, she consciously didn’t fret over her weight and size as much anymore – or at least kept it to a minimum? Why did she have to let are her carefully constructed control go with him of all people?
“Though I guess,” She continued breathlessly now, desparate to dispel the words she had let slip, “You aren’t the first one to say so. When I was in final year at IE-V and she was in first year, this TA for Engineering Drawing, apparently paused while teaching a substitute class and asked her if she had a sister in Final Year Mech.” She laughed at the memory of Tripti’s indignant replay of the scenario despite the reason she was bringing this up. “I still think she was making this up, though.”
She looked away outside of the window at the end of that statement as clenched and unclenched her palms to relieve the rapidly building crunch in her gut. She knew he was aware of her now and she knew something had been unleashed not-so-quietly these past forty eight hours. And now she had no idea to go back.
And then there was a bridgegroom viewing session in the offing.
Suddenly a week of back-breaking project work seemed very welcome.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Bol Na Halke Halke
Album: Jhoom Barabar Jhoom
Singer(s): Mahalaxmi Iyer, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan
Umrein lagi, kehte hue
Do lafz the, ek baat thi
Woh ek pal sau saal ka
Sau saal ki, woh raat thi
Kaisa lage jo, chup chaap dono
Pal pal mein poori, sadiyaan bitaayein?
- Next update: Monday, June 12, 2016, late night IST
- That is a LONG chapter! Please excuse typos!