For all those who have been with me from the very beginning and every day thereafter, you are the reason the River flows strong
“Singing is as much about breathing right as much as it is about rhythm and beat”
Arnav took a deep breath and tried the opening lines of the song again as his Guru-ji’s words rung out aloud in his ear. It was ironic that years later, he could still here his Guru’s voice and not the much younger man who was his teacher now.
Taking a deep breath, he adjusted the wooden instrument in between his fingers, easing them to position as he brought the flute closer to his lips and allowed the memory of the notes to fill his head before he could reproduce it.
In saanson ka, <breathe>, dekho tum paagalpan ke
Aaye nahi inhe chain
Mujhe yeh bolin, <breathe>, main raahon mere tere
Apne bichchaa dun yeh nain
His fingers moved with much greater ease than they did two years ago when he had started experiementing with something other than the guitar. The stiffness needed to play the flute came more naturally, the nimbleness of moving them just enough to allow a little harkat on a particular bit of music was more pronounced. But it was still nowhere close to how easy it was with his guitar. He tried to recollect the early days when the guitar string would cut through his index finger and leave it raw enough to scare him away from practice. But like a stubborn lover, it just didn’t come to him. It was almost like his guitar was playing truant with him for favoring another.
In oonche, <half breath in>, pahadon se <half breath in>
Jaan de doonga main, <breath out>
Gar tum na aayi kahin
He winced as he missed the note and ended up with a jarring squeak. He took a deep breath and let his hands fall to his lap as his shoulders, the flute balanced delicately between his now relaxed fingers.
“It wasn’t as bad as that sigh of despair, you know?”
Arnav smiled at the obvious exaggeration and swivelled on his bar stool to face NK who was walking in with two mugs of something steaming. “Given that I am going for a much more enthusiastic response than that, I think that groan was qualified.” He accepted the mug of dark brown liquid – too thick and too…He looked up and frowned, “What is this?”
“Hot chocolate” NK replied as he seated himself on the chair behind the large desk that was cluttered with many mics and earphones, a tangle of wires surrounding a thin, silver laptop with a bitten apple lying pale and unlit.
Arnav raised an eyebrow and eyed the brew skeptically.
“Divya made me a mug last week and it was the best thing I’ve tasted.” NK answered with a serious shrug before he took a sip and winced.
“Not the same, eh?” Arnav asked with a chuckle, suddenly much more nervous about what he held in his hand than most of what had his nerves tied in knots for the last four weeks. “And this is because you miss the drink or the maker?”
He chuckled at Nishant’s characteristic forthrightness and took a tentative sip. The hot, thick, beverage coated his tongue and slid down his throat. Not too sweet. Not as smooth as silk either. Suddenly he was eight years old and sitting in his mother’s large kitchen, the smell of winter’s burning heater charcoal, deep in his lungs. “Not bad,” He murmured, unable to keep the surprise out of his voice. Not bad at all.
NK smiled and shook his head. “Sometimes you to have to stop playing by the rules to really see what you are missing.”
Arnav took another deep drink from his mug and had to literally hold himself back from groaning in approval. Dammit.
“You look like you can use a real break – if that hot chocolate can do this to you. You should give the flute practice a weekend off. We don’t need to be ready for the next video for another couple of months. And we definitely don’t need to do it on the flute if you don’t feel ready.”
Arnav nodded. “I know. But…” He took a deep breath. “I practice only on the weekends and the last few weekends have been terrible. If my Guru-ji were instructing me now, I’d have been ripped apart. Riyaaz never had a day off when I was younger. Even when I was down with the flu. Sore throats and coughs were mere frailties to be put aside.”
“But your Guru-ji isn’t around, is he? This rule,” NK nodded in reference to his earlier statement, “is all your own now. You are allowed to break it.”
He raised his eyebrow bemusedly. “Are we doing another one of those obtuse philosophy sessions?”
“I don’t know. But just hear me out?”
NK was so serious that Arnav burst out laughing. “Dude,…”
“It’s like Hollywood and now for some reason a lot of new age Bollywood, Indian media – tell us that a proposal of marriage needs to be made down on one knee and with a diamond ring to boot. But if you decide to propose with a Steinway, why is that any less romantic or perfect?”
Arnav was surprised by the direction of the conversation, to say the least. “Now, I am hardly qualified to comment, but I guess it is romantic or not depending on what the one you are proposing to thinks about it.” He frowned as a sudden thought crossed his mind. “Nishant…are you…planning to propose?”
NK took a sip of hot chocolate and nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah I think so.”
Arnav grinned and put his mug down to lean forward. “You sound excited.”
“I am not.”
“That was sarcastic.”
NK said nothing but kept swirling the mug he had in his hand slowly.
Arnav realized that he was nervous and changed tracks. “She is going to say yes. As much as we would like to believe otherwise thanks to the movies of our revised times, neither Divya nor you have been in this thinking of marriage as an option, have you?”
NK took a deep breath and looked up at Arnav. “I don’t know. I thought it was a given but …what if she suddenly decides she doesn’t want to get married? Generally as a concept or specifically to me.”
Arnav laughed out aloud. The man was a specimen. “Nishant, both your parents are on your cases respectively to “settle down”. You have been both been whining about it for months now. All you need to do is introduce them to each other and the two of you can sit back and watch the show unfold.” Arnav chuckled again and picked up the mug to take another deep sip. “Ok, if you are still nervous, make her one of these. This is something else. I would have never thought.”
“So when is the big day? She is out all weekend, so not before next weekend?”
“The piano will be delivered on Thursday – so your birthday it will be” NK said with a small smile.
Arnav grinned. “My birthday is forever honored. And Jesus, you really bought her a Steinway?” Nishant Kumar Pathak had always been a little off the beaten track – even as early as his IE-V days but this…”She is going to be thrilled. Just two weeks ago, she mentioned that she was really looking to get herself a keyboard.”
“Yeah,” NK nodded, “I heard you guys. Where did you think I got the idea that has left me on the banks of bankruptcy? I am smart but even I have my limits.”
Arnav grinned again. “I am impressed, Nishant. I truly am. Ten years ago, the most I would have imagined about you courting a girl would have been you signing Khushi up for Hindustani vocals lessons.”
NK blushed a deep shade of crimson and then shrugged with a small smile, “She wasn’t ever interested, unfortunately.”
Arnav’s smile dipped as he realized they had unwittingly reached a topic he didn’t want to dwell on. Not unless he wanted to rip his hair out in large clumps. And he had been the one to guide the conversation here. What the hell was he doing? Why the hell hadn’t he spent some time on some sort of plan?
“You realize that it is pretty evident that you are the only one who calls her Khushi, right?”
It was on the tip of his tongue to point out that her family did too when he realized that he wasn’t sure they did? It was possible that he really was the only one. And that she hadn’t actually told him otherwise after that first time it had slipped out over a phone call. How thankful he had been to see Jen down the hall that day. So much for being calm and collected around her. But then, he had flown half-way around the world to be in the same geography as her for one day. A few hours, actually. Sure, there had been a client meeting and a firm event that he had always been part of since he had joined A&M. No one could point fingers at him for engineering anything – because he truly hadn’t engineered anything at all. But he had wanted to be there to see her, to feel that rush that had been simmering under his skin for too long. And he had allowed it to happen. When the boundaries had hinted at some give, he hadn’t forced himself to hold back from pushing.
“She still looks at you when you aren’t looking. Just the way you are looking at her when she isn’t. Nothing has changed in ten years.”
Arnav looked at NK in surprise. For someone who remained largely clueless about most things, NK was rather perceptive. And yet, theirs had never been a friendships of shared secrets. They had a common love of music and that is all it had ever been till the time they had reconnected after his investment banking fiasco. “Should I let Divya know she should be worried that you spend so much time looking at others – one of whom is a former crush?”
NK smiled almost wistfully, “No. I assured her it was a crush that ended a long time ago and I don’t lie.”
When Arnav’s eyes widened, NK chuckled softly. “She asked me the day before you brought Kaveri for our session, if I still felt something for her.” He shrugged. “I didn’t, thankfully. I think it is too pathetic even for me to harbor a ten year old crush.” He looked up at Arnav and winked sheepishly, “No offense”
Arnav’s blood heated to a near boil in response to that statement.
Because I fell in love with you five years ago. And you don’t love me, yet.
“I asked her to sing with us and she said no.” He found himself saying softly as his palms cradled the now lukewarm mug of hot chocolate. Thick milk skin had formed at the edges of ceramic, a dark, rich brown against scintillating white. “Sorry I should have checked with you. I don’t know what I would have done if she had said yes.”
“Like I would ever say no. ” Nishant replied, once again so sincere in his response that Arnav almost begged for advice. Perhaps NK had said it nevertheless. “She did sing with the group last time. As did you. So I guess it’s…” He shrugged. “But, that is what you want? To sing with her?”
Arnav took a deep breath and rose from his bar stool to plonk himself on the couch. He raised his legs on to the ottoman lying conveniently by his legs and let his head fall back. He stared at the ceiling. “The only way to overcome a bad memory is to replace it with a good one.”
Thankfully, NK did not ask him to elaborate. He wasn’t sure he could go through another vocal recounting of all his mistakes starting from the night of Aarohan.
“Is her presence on your project a part of this replacement plan?”
Arnav chuckled out aloud, wryly. “You know, a part of me wished I had actively planned for it. Because then I’d at least know what to do. At the moment, I am lost. What was I thinking? I am her Manager. I say or do anything, it can be classified as sexual harassment…A&M is very serious – of course rightly so – about making it a comfortable workplace for its women. And I…” It was driving him insane to not say what he wanted to, to not do what he could so easily…Like in the car last night, in this house two weekends ago. She had been so alive, it made her radiant like she had usually only been in Arjun’s company or in purely professional settings before. It was a test of his resolve to not allow himself and her a memory of what once flared with such ease. It would be brighter now, he knew. He could feel it in his own blood.
“You think she will call the A&M integrity helpline on you?”
Arnav closed his eyes and took a deep breath as his lips twisted into a smile, almost thankful for the absolute seriousness in NK’s voice. Anyone else in Nishant’s place – Divya for instance, would have watered down the question into a joke. Nothing about this was funny. Or perhaps the whole thing was one big, cruel laugh. “No, I don’t think she will. But I am still her Manager and she…she is good at this job – Even if the thought that she is powerless in our relationship because of my position in the firm, crosses her mind – I couldn’t…I wouldn’t be able to live with it.”
“You could always roll her off the project?” Nishant said.
Arnav shook his head even though he was fairly certain NK was only banging out options and not really making a suggestion. Taking her out of a project she was acing because he couldn’t control how he felt – no…
“You could leave. Hand it over to someone else.”
“Not an option.” Arnav replied once again. “Even if Jen wasn’t involved. Which she is.”
Nishant chewed on his lips and shook his head. “Yeah. You are screwed. Now I see why the flute’s being troublesome. Incidentally, how many more weeks?”
NK rolled his eyes. “Four? That’s not much. I thought we were talking months here.”
Years, Arnav said silently.
Eventually, he couldn’t find it in himself to stay the entire weekend. By late Sunday morning, he found himself bidding Nishant adieu and driving back in his rental – picked up again at personal cost since he had left the Escape for Khushi. He wasn’t sure what it was but something told him that it was imperative he be back at the Inn. What he would do once he was back, he didn’t know. If she bolted when she saw him at her doorstep, he couldn’t blame her. But it was driving him crazy. A part of him almost wished he could just steam roller his way through their lives and ensure she had no option of saying no when he asked her out. Surely, she could see that this was the best he could do without compromising the situation they were in?
Unless she genuinely didn’t enjoy his company.
The thought was disturbing and yet not something he wanted to believe was true. Perhaps it was his arrogance showing through the cracks but she didn’t look uncomfortable when she was with him anymore. He had given her space those first few days – on the calls and eventually in person. He had waited for the wariness in her eyes to dim. And it had, he couldn’t be wrong about it. She engaged in conversation of her own accord – so much more often than she ever did in the past. There were moments, of course, when something flared and singed through his skin but never enough to make him back off anymore. He didn’t want to hold back more than he was required to. He wanted them to have spent time together to be able to take any next step at all. And they had. These last four weeks were technically more hours than they had been with each other in the preceding decade. And there had been the weekend they had spent together at Nishant’s place. Even with his resolve having snapped rather cruelly that Sunday morning, things had stayed sanely balanced even though something inexplicable had changed in their shared equation. And now there were four more weeks before she would head back and before he could sever their professional paths in a way that was appropriate. He needed to make every day count even in its normalcy. And perhaps if that meant a little heavy handedness,…He gritted his teeth at the unsavory thought and then pushed the anxiety away as the roads flew by in a blur of anticipation. What was that saying about all being fair in love and war?
An hour later Arnav found himself standing outside Khushi’s room – the afternoon sun shining bright outside in a beautiful day that hinted at spring lurking around the corner. There was still a chill in the air and sunny days could easily turn into sudden snow, light showers and grey skies but the worst of the winter was clearly past.
He knocked on the door and waited, heart hammering in his ribcage even as he schooled his face into a calm he didn’t quite feel. He heard soft footsteps behind the door a second before the door opened and Khushi stepped out, her eyes wide in her face. Her glasses sat askew on her nose and he realized that her eyes were darker than usual even as she adjusted them in place. She was wearing kohl. The memory of smudged ink that lent her an aura of disarray sneaked up on him – a long ago night of kisses and conversation.
She looked…? What was the word to use when his heart had all but stopped beating for a second? In the last four weeks, he had become accustomed to her professional appearance, a far cry from the half disheveled, half innocent, fully fresh countenance that was Kaveri Gupta in IE-V and eventually at the River. Once, he had been able to see every expression painted exactly on her face. He didn’t need to hear her speak to know what she was thinking. Awe, joy, doubt, determination – and eventually…love – the word still twisted his innards – were all unabashedly displayed, even if unknowingly. But when he saw briefly in Kolkata and now in the last four weeks, she had become every bit the consultant. Formal wear was embellished with formal expressions. Everything was measured and crisp.
Except when she smiled. He had seen even Jeff react to those smiles warmly. A Partner more kind and fatherly than most, Jeff Stevens was still mostly brisk and to the point. Except when it came to conversations with Khushi. It had shocked him to hear Jeff ask her one day how old she was only to tell her that she was just a few years older than his own daughter.
He had to tear his gaze that had slipped to her bare feet, unpainted toes and forced it to travel back up from the long legs only half-hidden by a flared white floral skirt that skimmed her knees and a black blouse that scooped around her neck in a way that made her collar bones stand out, tempting enough to make him want to lean in. He could still remember how her pulse jumped against his lips at the base of her…
“You are back from Nishant-Sir’s place.”
Her eyes were nervous even if it wasn’t evident by the obvious statement she’d just made. She hadn’t expected to see him and she was thrown. For some reason, being able to rattle her when she had him in a tizzy, was oddly reassuring. “I thought we could have lunch.”
Excellent, he told himself wryly. What is the point of beating around the bush? Even if it means scaring her away.
“Ermm…” She began, her eyes scanning his face but never darting away. He held her gaze. It was the closest it came to touching her like he wanted to – he could admit it to himself now. “I cannot…I mean I thought I mentioned….I have to meet someone.”
That is why she was dressed. That is why she was wearing two small silver hoop in one ear while the other one stayed bare. He curled his fingers into a fist to hold himself back as his fingers tingled. He needed to focus. She was meeting someone. And it was no relative, no friend, no casual meeting. This was something else. It was evident in the way her cheeks flushed and her left palm curled around her right forearm. Guilt? Heat flashed through his chest and sneaked up his eyes. He still couldn’t tear his eyes away from hers. What sort of a ridiculous dance was this with them at opposite ends? “Who?”
Her eyes widened in surprise. Of course. He hadn’t even expected to ask that question out aloud himself. Heck, he wouldn’t have asked her about it in any other situation. She didn’t need to answer him. She wouldn’t answer him. And sure enough, her eyes hardened and she blinked once, her arms crossing across her chest in defiance.
He took a deep breath and stepped away. He had almost turned on his feet when something, the devil that he couldn’t seem to extract from his mind, forced him to say the words. “It won’t work, Khushi. It didn’t for me. It is not going to, for you, either.”
He knew he didn’t have to explain himself. And so he nodded again. “I’ll see you downstairs when you are ready.”
“I’ll drop you wherever you need to go.” He couldn’t wait for her answer. The need to wrap his arm around her waist and pull her up to himself so she wouldn’t have a chance to go anywhere, was too powerful. He didn’t know when the feeling had been cemented in his heart. Perhaps it was two years ago, or five or perhaps even a decade ago. If there was any doubt ever, there wasn’t the scope for it any more.
He was in love with this proud, strong, absolutely enchanting girl.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Satrangi Re
Album: Dil Se
Singers: Sonu Nigam, Kavita Krishnamurthy
Music: A. R. Rahman
Tu hi tu, tu hi tu, jeene ki saari khusboo
Tu hi tu, tu hi tu, aarzoo, aarzoo
Chhooti hai mujhe sargoshi se
Aankhon mein ghuli khaamoshi se
Main farsh pe sajde karta hun
Kuch hosh mein, kuch behoshi se
Dil ka saaya humsaaya,
Satrangi re, manrangi re
Koi noor hai tu, kyun duur hai tu?
Jab paas hai tu, ehsaas hai tu
Koi khwaab hai ya parchhayi hai
Next Update: Will be delayed. The little one turns 6 this Friday. (June 2011 was rather life changing for me, I realize!) Thank you for bearing with me. Please check the Index next Monday for details on the next update.