Thank you for reading. Thank you for waiting. Thank you for coming back.
And Happy, happy (belated) birthday to Lavz! May all your dreams find realisation this year!
There was no way she could change now. Khushi stared at the black turtleneck and jeggings lying on the bed, silently mocking her. She had just been about to change out of her skirt and blouse when the knock had sounded at the door. Never in the her wildest imagination, had she expected to see Arnav Varun standing on the other side of the threshold, his eyes glowing with borrowed brilliance in the sky outside. If there was one thing that could make her even more nervous and disinclined to meet Rajat Garg, it was Arnav’s presence knocking at her door. Shiv-ji really was making sure she rotted in hell for all her mistakes, wasn’t he?
She walked over to the full length mirror on the bathroom door and stared at herself, now even more aware of just how unfamiliar her clothes felt on her body. What had she been thinking picking this for her…date? No, she shook her head even as she fastened the two other silver hoops onto her bare earlobe. The term seemed, felt so wrong – perhaps now more than it had before. Date? No…This wasn’t a date. It couldn’t be. This was a meeting. Something she had never imagined she would do in her lifetime. A conversation with Tripti from a long time ago teased her memory.
I cannot imagine anyone would fall in love with me. And I cannot imagine marrying for anything but love. Some situations are hopeless.
Tripti had responded to that statement with a song, as was the case for most of their conversations from the time.
Pyaar kiya nahi jaata, ho jaata hai
Dil diya nahi jaata, kho jaata hai
She couldn’t fault Tripti or Bollywood. Of course she had had no control over her heart. It was lost, perhaps forever if that little exchange was anything to go by.
Except this time….
It won’t work, Khushi. It didn’t for me. It won’t for you.
She didn’t need to ask him out aloud what he had meant even if it had made him want to scratch his face in anger. She wished he wasn’t right. She wished he didn’t know he was right. But…she took a deep breath. There were things even she couldn’t ignore with her head-buried-in-the-sand attitude. Like the fact that he had just offered, no insisted he would drop her so that she could meet a potential husband. Of course, he didn’t know that but her silence and his response had both clearly zeroed in on the exact nature of her imminent meeting.
Taking another deep breath, she glanced at the clock only to realize that she was running late. Hurrying up, she quickly applied a dash of lip gloss, the palest shade she had been able find in the store. She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and winced as her lashes hit the glass and left a trail on the clean surface, forcing her to clean her vision again. She brushed her hair to fall in waves evenly around her face. For once, she seemed to be having a relatively okay hair day. The reflection that stared back at her from the mirror almost looked feminine in the split second before she let her gaze slip away. Mirrors were never going to be her best buddies, there was no point trying to connect with a lifelong stranger.
She then slipped her feet into strappy sandals, thankfully low platform heeled ones that assured her she wouldn’t be tripping or twisting her ankles. She picked up her trench-coat and the small sling bag that she was putting to use for the first time since Tripti had gifted it on her birthday a few months ago – when Arnav Varun was still a distant memory even if a heart-rending one.
She hurried out of her room and block, clutching at the keys to the Escape in prayer. Of course, no prayer was going to help, was it? Arnav Varun was leaning against the black SUV, his head bent as he seemed to be reading something on his phone. In his beige turtleneck, indigo denims and navy jacket, he looked as immaculately turned out as ever. Before he could look up at her, she walked over to where he was standing, by the driver’s side.
He looked up just as she reached him, clearly taking his time to acknowledge her presence. The look in his eyes, unencumbered by glasses, was so casual, the conversation – rather the little aggravating warning of sorts that he had just issued minutes ago, seemed to be a figment of her imagination. Except that his eyes blazed, unblinking as he surveyed her appearance again, deliberately – in a way that made her want to squirm – only for the first time in way that wasn’t completely unsavory.
Simply put, Khushi wasn’t used to appreciative looks. She was used to leering – from men on the streets back home who couldn’t stop staring at her chest – irrespective of how conservatively she was dressed. She was used to judgment – mostly from family – near and far, on how and what exactly was missing in her ability to dazzle. Khushi’s mother, for instance, couldn’t ever stop herself from pointing out what could be better in the way Khushi looked – perhaps that was her self-inflicted role as the “fixer” of all her daughters’ problems. Her father, on the other hand, couldn’t for the life of him fathom why she ever needed to wear anything other than a salwar-kameez and dupatta. Of course, her father couldn’t fathom why anyone would spend more than a couple of minutes to dress anyway – which is exactly how much time he gave to clothing – given his wife had been laying out his clothes – for every occasion – routine or revelry – for as long as Khushi could remember. Her aunts from either side of the family pitched in with their how-pretty-she-could-look-if-she-could-just-lose-a-little-weight comments.
She was just as used to obliviousness too. Her friends – the few she had before IE-V – ignored her appearance almost as easily as she ignored their ability to hold conversations that stretched beyond bitching and boys. By the time she’d found women again in IM-B, it was too late for her to take anyone who spoke of appearance seriously anyway.
“I can drive myself.” She said as a lifetime of anger threatened to burst through her skin. She blinked and looked away from him as she contemplated sliding into the vehicle and getting far, far away. How much of that gaze could she take anyway?
“I have to pick up things from the mall.” He said easily even as he pushed himself off the vehicle and held his hand out.
“I didn’t mention a mall” She said, frowning deeply as her heart tumbled dry in her chest. She held on tighter to the keys in her hands.
“I’ll take my chances.” He parried easily without blinking.
Ha! Like it was any mystery. There was but one mall in the neighborhood and one didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure it out. “I thought you have a rental of your own.” She pointed out, now holding on to the keys like they were purveyors of sanity itself.
“I do.” He replied briefly and let his outstretched palm stay where it was.
There were fights she wasn’t going to win ever. As much as she hated it, this was one of them. Not when she had an appointment to keep and an anal upbringing to live up to. She carelessly dropped the keys in his hand and literally stomped her way around the vehicle to slide into the passenger seat. Twenty minutes, she told herself after she spoke out the name of the mall but held on to the identity of the restaurant. Twenty minutes is all she needed to stay calm and then she would be where she needed to. This madness that he seemed to be insistent on unleashing would need to be picked up and tackled again. But for now…
“I’ve been on three dates in the last five years.”
Khushi refused to turn to face him even as the vehicle slowly pulled out of the parking lot of the Inn. “I didn’t ask.” She bit out.
“For the first couple of years,” He continued as if she hadn’t spoken at all, “it was mostly because I didn’t want to date and I didn’t have the time needed to devote to something personal.”
“I don’t want to know.” She insisted.
“I was a new Senior Consultant. I was working with RDX in his Partnership milestone year – which means he was a hundred times as crazy as he is right now.”
She kept her gaze straight ahead and ignored the flutters in her stomach. She didn’t want to hear what he was saying but clearly he wasn’t interested in what she stated explicitly anymore. He had been careful to exactly what she wanted once and look at how beautifully she had disfigured that time of their life.
“When I met Divya and Nishant two years ago – we began having a few of these get togethers – After Aarohan is a product of all those weekends. Divya asked me one weekend if I was open to dating and…” He took a deep breath. “I wanted to know if I was. I wanted to see if it was the mountains after all.
The words she had hurled once in anger – they had struck deeper than she had intended then. It made her stomach churn. She had hurt him and he had taken it seriously. This proof of some sort of weird power she seemed to be able to wield over him, was disconcerting.
“I said yes. It didn’t work. I don’t even know if I tried to make it work with either of the women. I don’t know if I wanted it to work – maybe I really didn’t.” He turned to look at Khushi, his eyes grazing her cheek like he was touching her with his fingers. She could almost feel the calloused skin against her cheek – it was enough to make her turn to look him straight in the eye.
“This date you are going on…”
“It’s not a date.” She corrected before he could make any more assumptions.
“But it is romantically oriented.” He stated with engineered precision.
“My mother met his through a matrimonial website.”
Silence filled the car and she realized that he was breathing loudly enough for her to hear. Glancing at his face though, she still couldn’t see what he was thinking.
When the vehicle pulled into the mall’s parking lot, Arnav got out and was on her side of the vehicle in mere moments. He held the door open and allowed her to step out, stepping to her frame, her own personal space as he did, unapologetically this time. “There is a lot I need to say, Khushi. I cannot because I am your Manager on the project. And because you are meeting someone with the prospect of spending…” He took a deep breath, “of spending a lifetime with him. It isn’t fair.” He said after a few minutes. “Of course, I cannot change what you want to do or what you think is the best. I once said that you were being unfair to everyone involved. I was wrong. You know what you are doing. All I am saying…” He paused for a moment, “I have an answer for what you last said to me five years ago. If you are willing to listen. Just listen. I expect nothing else.”
His eyes still remained glued to hers for a second before they grazed her mouth. He almost leaned in, like he was about to kiss her – in broad daylight, in full public view. Her eyes widened as her ribcage rattled noisily in her chest. The years were nothing in that moment.
“Some scars,” He whispered as pushed her hair to one side, revealing her shoulder, bared by the deep scoop of the blouse she was wearing, “cannot be hidden.” The wind stole into her clothes and made her shiver.
The scar. She had arranged her hair in such a way that she knew it wasn’t visible. Plus she was facing him. There was no way he could see the now fading but still visible mark of twin ropes down her shoulder. But he had known. He remembered. And he used it effectively. It was all she could do to not visibly tremble from the proximity of him.
When she forced herself to look back into his eyes, he stepped away from her and donned his sunglasses, hiding himself from her scrutiny. “When you are done, give me a call. I’ll be here, waiting.”
There was no way the meeting, the date, whatever the hell it was that she had signed herself up for, was going to go well. Not after that start to the day. To begin with, Rajat Garg was late – an almost unpardonable offense in her book of manners. Khushi placed herself on a table for two and was twiddling her thumbs for fifteen minutes, trying her best not to dwell on what Arnav had said or what he hadn’t. When Mr. Garg did arrive, the first words out of his mouth – though after a quick apology for showing up late – was that she looked better in real life than she did in her pictures. She had, of course, shared no pictures with him. And while she was on Facebook, there were no pictures there for him to have checked out. Which only meant that her mother had sent her pictures to his and they had subsequently made it to him.
She smiled at the statement, though it was amply clear that such statements could at best be classified as back-handed compliments. She would know.
Given that their server had been waiting for her party to join her, they placed their orders almost as soon as Rajat was seated. A part of her was disappointed that he had been courteous and kind to their server. Where were the flaws when you so desperately needed them to hide behind?
“Is this the first time you are meeting someone like this?”
She blinked at the statement, annoyed that she was this transparent even to a practical stranger. “Yes,” She replied. “You’ve met others?”
“Back in India, yes. It didn’t work out. Of course, that’s why I am here.” He chuckled and she realized that it was not an unpleasant laugh. In fact, there was very little about him that was unpleasant. He was smartly turned out – perhaps even a clothes horse given the number of brands she could spot on his accessories. Not exactly handsome but better than average looking. If he was concerned about how she looked, he definitely had good reason to.
As soon as the thought flashed in her head, she winced and scolded herself mentally. She had promised herself she wouldn’t beat herself down in comparison to anyone – even if silently. It was her biggest promise to herself. And she had just failed her own internal surprise exam.
“How long are you Detroit?” She asked, changing the topic from why or how often they had done this to things that could at least get her through lunch.
They spoke alternately almost the entire time they were seated at the table. Perhaps silences were too intimate too soon. Unlike what she expected from their very brief interactions – which were mainly centered on polite conversation, he was neither scintillating nor completely boring. There were things they had in common – they both went to Indian engineering colleges and business schools – those were experiences that could bind any two individuals with a fairly robust connection. They also had younger siblings and very similar family backgrounds – his parents were public servants and not academics but the values were rather similar as she could gather from bits and pieces of conversation.
Of course there were enough points of disconnect too. The biggest, most disappointing and yet most liberating of all was the fact that he was neither a Bollywood fan nor a music aficionado. He admitted to being far more interested in non-fiction content – documentaries, sports – media channels that remained covered in cobwebs and dust on her television remote.
It was something that could have been worked on.
If only there had been no Arnav Varun in the picture. Arnav Varun and his honeyed whispers about lasting battle scars. She needed to remember that she had bared her heart to him and he had bolted out of the door. Only no such shame seemed to be tingeing her senses. She was either completely self-aware or she was completely immune to a sense of self when it came to him. She had wanted him to bolt, hadn’t she? Who the hell declared love like that? Especially when she knew that he was not in the same place as she was?
“Have you been in a relationship?”
The question came as suddenly as it was expected to. The conversation had meandered around it and finally cut through the chaos to settle in deep, simmering waves.
She looked at Rajat, his face amiably set and not really intruding.
“I had a girlfriend in college. It was serious but it didn’t work.”
Her silence had prompted him to speak first. Perhaps he had assumed this was not a question that could be asked without full disclosure. It was a decent thing to do. Except now she had nothing but a bunch of questions that could only be answered with an overall cryptic “It’s complicated”. Had she been in a relationship? Yes, she had. Was it over? No. These were fairly clear. It was the third and fourth questions of the lot that made the difference, made her presence on this lunch date a laugh, an unfair cruel joke on everyone involved.
Could it ever be over?
Did she really want it to be over?
The final one, she had assumed all these years, was a resounding yes. Perhaps if Arnav Varun had not showed up on the radar again, it might have even stayed solid for the rest of her life. But now that he was back in her life… A part of her wondered what would have happened if she had infact moved on with someone and this ….this situation had happened then? What if Arnav Varun had reappeared when she was married and committed elsewhere? The thought was scary.
“I’m sorry. You don’t have to answer the question right now. I just thought it makes sense to get that out of the way, since we haven’t really talked about it before.”
She shook her head guiltily. “Please don’t apologise. It’s…” She looked at him and took a deep breath. She needed to be honest. She needed to do the right thing. Deception, she knew, hardly helped anyone. “There is someone I used to…” Like? Did what she felt for Arnav warrant that tame a word? “I don’t know if I can call it a relationship. It was never that official. But…”
“It’s complicated?” Rajat Garg asked with a half wistful smile.
She smiled back but said nothing, grateful that she had an out she didn’t deserve.
“Anyway, I hope the fact that you are here means that it is not something that is expected to linger?”
The rest of the lunch date trickled by in the aftermath of that cheerfully stated assumption, one that left Khushi in tatters. By the time Rajat was offering to drop her home, she was a bunch of nerves, half angry, half frustrated and fully confused. She thanked Rajat for his thoughtfulness but excused herself by lying about wanting to spend some time in the mall shopping. There were things strangers allowed one to do that preserved one’s sanity at times like these. So with a friendly smile and wishes for a good evening but no promises or questions of future dates, Rajat Garg left Kaveri Khushi Gupta to figure what she wanted that Sunday afternoon and thereafter.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Ruth Aa Gayee Re
Album: 1947 Earth
Singer(s): Sukhwinder Singh, Chorus
Music: A. R. Rahman
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Geeton ki mauj aayi, phoolon ki fauj aayi
Nadiya mein jo dhoop ghuli, sona baha
Ambwa se hai lipti, ek bel bele ki
Tu hi mujhse hai duur, aa paas aa
Next update: Monday, Jul 10, 2017, late night IST