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Ahmedabad, October 2014
It was not her. It couldn’t be. She looked….different. He really needed to get those glasses now. The migraines were becoming worse and far more frequent. And he was suddenly, outside of hazy unnerving dreams, “seeing” the girl whose heart he had broken by smashing it against his own.
“Anurag,” He called out to one of the consultants on his team before he ended up walking up to her to check if it was indeed… “Is that the Placement representative for A&M?”
Anurag hurried over to him with his sheets of paper – resumes and case studies which were used to administer the interviews. “She is the Secretary of the Placement Committee. After all the fighting to get a Day zero slot for recruitment, they finally gave us the same slot as Murphy’s and they’ve assigned the Secretary to us. Of course, the Head of Placement has been assigned to Murphy’s. But still…It’s all thanks to you, of course. Our illustrious alum…”
Arnav held back a stab of annoyance that came unexpectedly at his junior’s cheerfulness. “What’s her name?”
“Krishna Tripti Gupta. And weird name notwithstanding, she is some sort of a rockstar on campus. She made PlaCom Secretary in her first year – can you believe it? Even for IM-A, this is unorthodox. Her current grade is also apparently top of the class. Why?”
Krishna Tripti Gupta. Her sister. His heart squeezed and bled into his veins as his pulse jumped. He wasn’t completely losing his mind. Small mercies. “Why isn’t she interviewing with us?” He asked as his brain raced to process the information and began to think of what he would do with it all.
If his junior found it weird that he was asking after a person who wasn’t even on the interview list, Anurag didn’t show. After all, stories of people who hadn’t applied to or made it to the first shortlist firms released; but had impressed the panel on campus, bagging interview chances and offers thereafter, were not uncommon even if they weren’t exactly ethical. B-school placement day was a jungle and there were no rules as long as fancy job locations and seven figure salaries were made available for the newspapers the next morning.
“She isn’t interested in Consulting, apparently.”
Arnav frowned. The current process he was overseeing in his new role as head of Campus recruitment was to fill Summer Internship positions offered to MBA First Years. In many cases, this was taken more seriously than the Final placement for Second Years. Bagging a great internship and getting a Pre-Placement Offer before Second Year, enabled peace of mind that few people could boast of. Arnav had not been one of those people but he knew many of his batch years ago who had been, and he knew how envious he and the rest of IM-A had been of those lucky few. “She’s already decided she doesn’t want Consulting? Investment Banking dreams, I guess” he commented drily.
Anurag chuckled. “No! That’s what’s worse. Apparently she wants Corporate Finance roles. How a fresher with no work-ex has that much clarity of thought, I don’t know. I am almost glad she interviewing with A&M. We need interns with flexible spines,” He joked with an exaggerated wink.
Arnav smiled back and turned his gaze back to Tripti Gupta who was busy directing students with a stern and yet kind look on her face as she checked her sheet and then spoke with the A&M volunteers and then talked to the students waiting anxiously as the A&M interviewing process trundled along in the six interview rooms allocated to the team. Arnav had just taken a break from his panel after having interviewed five students and having shortlisted none. “Corporate Finance. That’s a shame. Investment banking, I would have still understood the temptation for.
“I was talking to her a few minutes ago, extolling praises of A&M and Consulting. She very kindly directed me to shortlist her sister who plans to apply during Finals later this year. Apparently, Tripti is the not Consulting oriented Gupta in the family.”
The coffee he was holding in one hand didn’t slosh and leave angry burns on his skin. And yet, his brain seemed to have picked up the message to trigger pain from a thousand boiling molecules piercing his skin. “Her sister.”
“I’m telling you that girl is…” Anurag said with a speculative smile curving his lips upwards.
“Anurag,” Arnav said in a low, hopefully-not-evidently-urgent voice.
“Huh?” Anurag said, tearing his gaze from Tripti Gupta, half dazed, half struck.
Now Anurag Sharma gave Arnav Varun a slightly curious look. But by this time Arnav was beyond caring. “Her sister is here? Final Year?” He pressed on, the need to know, now overpowering every other emotion there was. It was three years since he had heard her voice – the one that had declared love, the one that had sounded so broken that it had scared him away, the one that crept up on him when all he wanted to do was make that life out of the mountains that she had once taunted him of wanting her with.
A small smile teased his lips. She was in IM-B. She had made it to one of the best business schools in the country. She hadn’t spared any moment since that last phone call in the aftermath of a failed relationship. His heart swelled with cliched, even if misplaced pride a second before an unexpected, half-mad laugh tore through his throat at the thought.
Relationship? What right did he have to label whatever bound him to her as a relationship. He could have had one. If only he hadn’t decided to let a past failure and present guilt scare him away from a very obtainable future.
“When are we opening up for Finals application at IM-B?” He asked Anurag and then realised his life had suddenly clicked wheels back on track even though it was one he had least expected to stumble upon again. He didn’t know what, how or to which end he was going to traverse the path. But he knew he couldn’t, that he wouldn’t veer off again. There may be no end or no destination waiting, but it was a journey he had to make – to either churn the waters and cast away the poison or find what he knew he had been looking for all along.
“Three weeks from now.” Anurag answered as his gaze pivoted back to find Tripti Gupta, who was now laughing out aloud at something a panel member who had just stepped out said.
“Tell her we appreciate her help with today’s process.” He said as he stepped away and back towards the interview panel that was incomplete without him. “And Anurag, stop leering. Focus on getting us the right people. Tell Tripti Gupta we hire the best and that so far, IM-A is coming up short.”
“Yes, Sir” Anurag Sharma saluted with a half stomp and a full grin, before he headed to speak to Tripti Gupta.
He had no idea what he was doing on campus today of all days. Did he plan to meet her? To let her see him on a day when she was most likely nervous and wrought from the worries of a future that would rarely ever feel as momentous as it did today? Didn’t he know from experience that Placement Day was one of the most harrowing experiences of business school education in India even if one happened to be the one whose name would feature in the news as the highest grosser of the batch?
He took a deep breath and crushed the urge to head out for a smoke. In the years since his time as a staffer at the River, he had smoked only a handful of times, each time only as an indulgence he wasn’t particularly proud of now that his only company had sworn off it thanks to his newly minted parenthood.
He watched impassively as Anurag Sharma, his most trusted Recruitment team aide from A&M briefed the panel on the process and schedule for the day. He let his mind wander away from the frequently used speech that was being bolted out by his junior with much-appreciated enthusiasm. Recruitment was a thankless job and he was lucky to have people like Anurag help him manage A&M India’s expectations from leading Indian business school campuses. God knew, it was no mean task dealing with smart people and their swollen heads.
He raised the shortlist in his hand and allowed his gaze to rest on the name that had brought him here today.
Kaveri K. Gupta.
There was star against her name – indicating that she was a candidate of choice based on all the interactions A&M folks had had with her over the year during different informal and formal interactions – a practice that allowed them to focus on good candidates but also helped them manage losing out to their competitors who were also vying for the best talent from these campuses.
And then he allowed his gaze to travel up to the top of the list where he saw the other familiar name. Arjun Agarwal. There was, not surprisingly, a star against his name too. When he had first seen the shortlist a day before it was released to the campus – about two weeks ago – he had laughed out aloud at the sight of Arjun’s name. He was still with her. Arnav’s stomach had churned with envy even as the wind had slapped him for his pettiness at the time. Now, it just seemed so endearing – bittersweet almost – to know that Arjun and Khushi really did seem to be destined for a life of shared milestones.
Perhaps, in his absence, things had finally turned between them too?
“AV, any final thoughts before we start?”
Arnav thanked the universe for saving him from his own jealous alter-ego that had unexpectedly taken up residence in his soul, and put the shortlist and thoughts of Arjun and Khushi in the same breath, away.
He saw her almost immediately. How could he have ever confused her with Tripti? This girl in the distance, tall and seemingly unflappable, dressed formally for the occasion, the expression on her face pleasant except the small tell of fingers tightly gripped against the small folder she was holding. And her eyes. Even with glasses keeping them shielded, he could see how large and wide they seemed to be. A sudden memory of her lashes curving against the glass when she pushed them up the bridge of her nose, curled his fingers into a fist. He had laughed and pulled them off before kissing her lips soundly, capturing her gasp of surprise just long enough to make her blink and her skin darken in that familiar shade of warmth.
How had he assumed he would be able to forget about her? How had he assumed he would be able to feel for someone else even an iota of how he felt for her?
She looked up from the floor – still her favourite point of focus and though he knew she couldn’t see him clearly from his position behind the large column of stone, he stepped back and turned away. He couldn’t spoil this day for her.
He stayed away from the process, making sure that neither Khushi nor Arjun were sent to the panel he was running for any of the rounds. He held himself back from asking his colleagues how either of them had fared. He did find out sometime during the day that Khushi was infact also a member of the Placement Committee at IM-B, not unlike Tripti was at IM-A. It made him smile and thank his stars that the IMs across the country had a uniform rule of ensuring those on the Committees couldn’t interact with the interviewing members of firms that had shortlisted them. That he should have felt like a stalker, an idiot who was seemingly content watching and not talking like the adult he was, never entered his head once he had imagined Khushi’s stricken face and possible bid to escape his company.
By the end of the day, as the A&M recruitment team on campus assembled in a room to discuss the final offers being made, Arnav knew that what he had hoped for had come through without any interference from him. Except if that thing about universes conspiring to make things happen was true. He did, however, have a conundrum he didn’t expect in the least to solve.
“They have the same profiles. Let’s pick one. We need five or six from this campus and the others are all already pegged to different service lines.”
Arnav watched as Anurag Sharma circled Kaveri K. Gupta and Arjun Agarwal’s names and waited patiently as his seniors debated.
“If you ask me to choose between two candidates of equal merit and opposite genders, my vote is always for the girl. We need our diversity.”
Arnav cringed as one of the three Partners from the Bangalore office offered his advice to resolve the dilemma. Thankfully, Shyam Anandraman, the head of A&M India spoke before Arnav could, saving him from the unpleasant task of correcting a senior from work. “Let’s not use that term, please.” Shyam then turned to Arnav. “Thoughts?”
He knew this would happen. And he squirmed as he realised that he had the power to turn this anyway he wanted – power he had used many times in the past – it was a matter of business need. It was not personal. It couldn’t be seen as so.
Except in this case.
“RDX was very clear he needs people with Automotive experience. Our US offices have very few Consultants and Senior Consultants with Automotive Manufacturing and Sales experience. If he were here, he’d be okay with both.” Arnav said softly. This was the best he could do. What he said was true and impartial, after all.
Another Senior Manager standing to his right snorted. “RDX wants to fill the entire practice with Auto folks. Let’s pick Kaveri. She was good. And Raman is right, we need our ratios to stay high.”
Shyam turned to Anurag Sharma – who was the most recent alum from IM-B. “What do you say? You probably know both from last year?”
“Arjun is the resourceful one. Kaveri is the quiet but smart worker. I don’t know her much but they are friends and this is going to be…”
Shyam shook his head. “We cannot waste this much time on every campus, guys.” He turned to Arnav. “What happens if we hire them both from here?”
Arnav held on to the sigh of relief in his chest. “Calcutta is next. It’s usually our worst shortlist to final offer ratio. We’ll be fine, numbers-wise.”
Shyam nodded. “Both. Let’s go.”
Arnav let his breath out and watched as the group of loosened ties and suits filed out of the room to announce the final list to the students waiting outside.
“AV. Joining us for the announcement and welcome dinner, right?”
He looked up to see Anurag standing at the door as the last member of the A&M team left the room. Arnav shook his head. “I have a call. You guys go ahead. I’ll be heading back to Chennai tonight. Shyam knows.”
It was ridiculous plan that had brought them to point where they were today. To engage in anymore was a sure-shot way of killing even the spark of a chance that flickered in his heart as fledgling hope. But there was no way he could miss the opportunity to be in Calcutta for the Consulting Fundamentals session that all new hires underwent in the first few days of joining A&M. The introductory meeting with the India leadership of a potential telecom client came through almost as if it was divine intervention. What kind of a fool would he have been to let the opportunity go after having done nothing for more than half a decade? What kind of fool allowed fear and guilt to keep him away from the girl who had been driving him insane for years now?
And yet, when it was time to walk through the doors and face her, he found himself stumbling and grasping at any excuse he could find to delay the inevitable. He used a completely unimportant call to gather his wits and stack his thoughts and actions neatly enough to ensure she had no opportunity to balk and run. And so when he walked in to the room as the new batch of 2015 was heads down and deep in their assessment of personality traits, he had the extra moments she wouldn’t have, to find her and allow his face to betray what he couldn’t once he found her gaze. When he spoke, he directed his voice to withhold its quiver and ensured his eyes fell on hers only when it was nothing more than a professional glance between former acquaintances.
When he approached her during the coffee break, he wanted to start by wishing her on her birthday – one that had just gone by and the ones in the intervening years that they had been apart. But the words he uttered were ones that made no sense in his head but could be faulted for nothing more than professional courtesy.
But when he was forced behind the microphone, the song had come from the place that was mirrored in her eyes even though he couldn’t see her face clearly as he belted out the words that twisted his heart and yearned to reach their destination.
He had no option but to leave that evening and wait for the day when the chance to work with her would present itself. He was gambling with the biggest decision in his life and hers. And yet, when he saw her get up and leave, his heart had swelled with hope. Petty and dramatic, foolish and naive, childish and vain, hopeful and hopeless. He was all of these things and more. But he needed her to see him for who he was. And he needed her to know that this is what she had once claimed to love. Even if she didn’t anymore. Even if all this came to naught now. One way or the other, a decade after he had first realised he would never understand what bound them so, it was finally time for all or nothing.
Late January 2016
“How soon do we need to turn this around?” Shyam asked as Arnav finished briefing him about the potential project he had helped Wyatt Motors carve out for Consulting help.
“In a couple of weeks.”
Arnav shook his head out of habit even though he was on the phone and out of Shyam Anandraman’s sight. “Jen is going to open this to Murphy. They’ve always been the Consulting partner of choice for strategic assignments. It is a big deal for Jen to even consider bringing us onboard.”
Shyam chuckled. “You sell well, AV. I knew that when I hired you as Senior Consultant instead of hiring you as a Consultant five years ago.”
Arnav smiled. “We need a crack team. And I need someone to help on the proposal right away. I have Ken to support me here but with one person to hold it together in the India time zone will give us enough time to turn out a high quality deliverable.”
“You have someone in mind? Depending on how risky this is, I would recommend using one of our first years.”
Arnav took a deep breath, having expected the conversation to veer to this point. “Arjun Agarwal and Kaveri Gupta both have extremely relevant profiles.”
“Hmm…I remember the debate about these two back in December” Shyam said. “Do you have a preference already? I am okay with your choice.”
“I am working with Arjun on the Koboya’s Customer Segmentation proposal. He is very good. And RDX is making Kaveri build demand analytics model in the anticipation of the work from MAC coming through.”
Shyam laughed out aloud. “I heard. She must be really good. The last time RDX was creating work to keep a resource locked was you and Pricing Analytics for Wyatt.” He took a deep breath. “Which one of them is travel ready?”
“Both.” Arnav answered. “I’d prefer Kaveri, though.” He bit down the temptation to explain his choice. He didn’t have an explanation that Shyam couldn’t counter. But from what he knew of his senior, Shyam Anandraman didn’t care about staffing decisions when it came from those he trusted implicitly. Arnav had earned his right to be one of those people. “I am also hoping I can count on you to help her work through.”
“As long as you don’t make me travel for delivery. I have seen enough of Detroit to last me a lifetime.”
Arnav smiled again and shook his head. “Jeff will be here to deliver. I’ve spoken with him.”
“Okay. Hang on. Let me call Ms. Gupta right away. We should get started tomorrow morning India time.”
“She is working for RDX. I think she’ll be glad to close at ten tonight.” Shyam laughed. “Give me a minute.”
Arnav waited, pacing in the small office that was made available to the A&M team at Wyatt Headquarters in Detroit. He heard Shyam’s soft voice and smiled as he imagined the surprise on Khushi’s face as she received her summons. It was late and Shyam’s guess that she was still working was probably bang on. He took a deep breath and waited as Shyam disconnected the phone and excused himself for a minute till Khushi made it to Shyam’s cabin.
Less than five minutes later, the little commotion at the other end of the conference bridge told him that she was in the room. “She’s here with me now AV.” Shyam said as Arnav’s pulse quickened and his pacing halted. “Let me just give her context and we’ll pick up the discussion.”
“Sure. Hi Kaveri.” He said by way of greeting, keeping his voice as neutral as he could.
“Hi.” She replied, her voice sure but soft enough for him to guess that he had managed to surprise her out of her wits. He also didn’t fail to notice that she didn’t speak his name in any of its forms she had knowledge of. It also made him wonder if she had ever called him by his name all…
“So, AV is on the verge of selling his first big deal as Senior Manager.”
“Let’s not jinx it yet, Shyam.” He responded to Shyam’s exaggerated praise with a second’s delay.
“You better get Jen to sign the Statement of Work in four weeks from now, AV.”
Arnav chuckled on the other end but said nothing. Shyam, however, went on to describe the nature of the opportunity in detail. He spoke about the client, the project itself, what was expected of her. He ended by preparing her to travel in case they did end up winning the work. Till that moment, what he was working towards had not been very clear. In the instant of silence followed by Khushi’s still soft acquiescence, the incredulousness of their impending partnership became real to him.
“Ok. Then that’s settled.” Shyam was saying. Arnav forced himself to ignore the sense of overwhelming emotion he couldn’t name or define. “AV, send Kaveri the client communication and deliverable from the project we did for America Motors. I’ll share the latest pricing toolkit with both of you. Put a storyboard and send by the end of your day. We’ll pick it up and let’s start reviewing progress starting tomorrow evening in India.”
“Sure, Shyam. Khushi, I’ll send you the material tonight. And I’ll also send you my conference bridge details. Can you please set up the calls?”
It was the sound of hesitation in Khushi’s response that made him realise that he had called her Khushi and not Kaveri. He closed his eyes and closed his fingers into a fist. Damn. Now if only Shyam…
Nope. Hoping that Shyam would miss something like this was like hoping he would fail to keep track of every one of his three hundred strong team of Consultants through Senior Managers at A&M India. Arnav took a deep breath. “It’s her middle name.”
“It is my middle name.”
They spoke at the same time, cutting Shyam off. It was enough for their senior to chuckle out loudly.
“Ah! Are we all supposed to call you Khushi, then?” Shyam asked Khushi.
“Shyam, I have to hang up.” Arnav took the slight break in the formality of their conversation to buy himself the composure he had been so sure of retaining with little effort. “I can see Jen in her office. Let me call you back.” That he did see the person in question and that he did need to speak with her, was purely coincidental.
He didn’t wait to hear Shyam bid him adieu before he disconnected the call and hurried after Jennifer Hart, training his mind to switch gears and relegate anything he couldn’t deal with at the moment to a corner that he would only access when there was nothing else pressing upon him and his time.
River Song, Music and Lyrics:
Song Title: Rehna Tu
Album: Delhi 6
Singers: A.R. Rahman, Benny Dayal, Chorus
Music: A. R. Rahman
Thoda sa resham, tu hum dum
Thoda sa khurdura
Kabhi toh ad ja, ya lad ja
Ya khushboo se bhara
Tujhe badalna na chaahun ratti bhar bhi sanam
Bina saajawat, milaawat, na zyaada na hi kam
Tujhe chahoon, jaisa hai tu
Mujhe teri baarish mein bheegna hai, ghul jaana hai
Tujhe chahoon, jaisa hai tu
Mujhe teri lapat mein jalna raakh ho jaana hai
Next Update: Monday, Jul 24, 2017, late night IST
Please excuse typos!