For Appu – Happy birthday! May this day bring a year and a lifetime of love, laughter and a life less ordinary at your doorstep!
August 2005, Varanasi
He had barely let his plectra touch the string of the guitar when the room to his door burst open and revealed a disheveled, bright-eyed Tiwari. Arnav let his eyebrow rise in a hook and waited for his over eager friend to make clear the reason for his presence so close to dawn on the other side of the day.
“The unthinkable has happened, mi-lord.”
Arnav bit back a yawn and stared at his friend in barely civil indulgence. His patience for theatrics was usually limitless, especially here in IE-V. But it had been two days since he had come back from Patna and after the initial euphoria of freedom had given in to evanescence, the guilt had begun to gnaw at his soul. He needed to call Saira. Even if it was just to say hello. She would expect that from him. This…”break” was just her being…
“Arnav Babu – dhyaan do. First year mein phool khila hai. Keechad mein kamal.”
Despite his resolve to remain collected and the fact that his lips turned down in disgust at the crudity of Prashant Tiwari’s language, Arnav’s brows rose in curiosity. Bad idea. Tiwari lived on these slips.
“Ah,” Tiwari said with a knowing, half-leer, immediately confirming his assessment. “Now that’s more like it. Sant-Saahib is after all human, it would appear.”
“Bakwas kam karo, Tiwari. We are Final Years now. At least ab toh behave your age and seniority.” Arnav warned albeit more pleasantly than he wanted to.
“There you go. Saintliness is here again.” Tiwari said, making a face. “Ab aur bolun ya bhaashan dene ke mood men hain aap?”
“Boliye. Jaise aap bina bole maanenge.”
Prashant Tiwari grinned and walked up to Arnav’s bed. He almost plonked himself on it before raising his brow in a smirk. “I can sit, right?” He asked teasingly. “Virgin bed still?”
Arnav groaned and pulled the chair by his study table for Prashant to sit instead.
“I meant self service virginity, Babua.” Tiwari said with a deep chuckle. “Tumko chidhaane mein ab mazaa nahi aata Babu. Badal gaye ho chaar saal mein.”
Arnav rolled his eyes. “Drama ho gaya? Ab ya toh batao hume jo bataane aaye ho, ya bhaago yahan se.”
“Haan,” Prashant Tiwari began, crossing his legs and bending forward as if to relay the world’s most important secret. “List dekh ke aaye hain. One girl. There’s one girl.” He whispered and then closed his eyes and folded his hands in divine gratitude. “At long last. The famine is over. Bholenath ne meri sun li. Kaveri K. Gupta naam hai.”
Of course it had to be about a girl. What else was he expecting to hear from Prashant Tiwari? Arnav took a deep breath. “Poor girl. She’s going to have a tough time.”
Prashant scoffed. “Kya tough time! Remember there was one Madam in the Third Year when we joined. She was the queen of the college. She bloody ragged me till my ears bled, you know. Prof. ko propose karwaya tha, remember? And not just any one – Professor Gupta. Woh toh thankfully uss din Gupta Madam achche mood mein thi…Nahi toh meri…phat ke haath mein gayi thi, saale.”
Arnav grinned. “Payal Mishra. She went to IM-A eventually. Mech’s superstar – many Profs still swear by her. Yeah, she was nice to me..”
“Everybody is nice to you. Woh toh she and that…who was that singer from her batch who were an item?”
“Haan. Woh toh the news that she and Akash were an item came to our notice early on…
“You caught them making out…” Arnav pointed out drily. “And you wonder why she was mad at you.”
Tiwari guffawed. “Har kutte ka din aata hai. Meri itni ragging jo li thi. Anyway, in the absence of that piece of information most of us were convinced she was going to jump you and rid you of your virginity in IE-V.”
Arnav made a face. “What is your obsession with virginity, Tiwari? It’s like you cannot talk about anything other than sex.”
Tiwari rolled his eyes. “Maa-baap pakad ke kisi se shaadi karwa denge college se nikalte hi. I don’t want to be in a state where I have to learn from tutorials.”
“Like you don’t already spend enough time “learning” in your room with all those CDs?” Arnav offered with a sly smile.
“Saale…Karna padta hai.” Prashant Tiwari cursed. “And waise aap kya jaante hain CDs ke baare mein? I knew it! All this Gurudev-ness aside, hain toh aap bhi Mech ke kameene hi.” Arnav chuckled painfully but took the chance to change the topic back to the lone girl of the batch. It was decided some time later in that conversation that they would make an appearance in the First Year class when the new batch joined.
He heard her name a second before he saw the boy next to her elbow her rather hard. Arnav frowned in surprise. She had friends already? Perhaps that was why the poor thing had chosen Mechanical?
Arnav watched from the corner of the room that he was occupying as she looked right to the boy, surprised annoyance flashing on her face. Nope, he told himself. Not a friend – at least not one that might have influenced her choice of branch.
Kaveri. The name suited her somehow. He let his lips curve into a smile as Prashant Tiwari, Chaitanya Singh and a couple of others from his batch filed in after him. Needless to say Prashant Tiwari headed right up to the front bench where she was seated and stood right in front of her, leaning slightly.
Her face became blank and slightly pale and for a second, guilt seared through him. He should have kept Tiwari away from this class – the idiot had no concept of personal space. Or perhaps he understood too well. Kaveri was going to have enough on her plate without a lecherous senior to contend with.
“Are you guys going to sit there and gawk at us like blubbering idiots? Stand up.” Chaitanya thundered, as his voice rough and grating for effect ricocheted off the thin walls of the first year classroom. Immediately, there was loud shuffling and screeching in the class as the class of 2009 stood to honor the presence of their seniors in their class. As soon as the noise died down, Prashant Tiwari looked at him and winked. Two others walked out with serious looks on their faces and posted themselves as sentries at the entrance.
Arnav’s eyes veered back to the girl dressed in black and red, her eyes lowered even as she straightened her dupatta and struggled to keep her face blank. If she looked up, he wondered if would be able to see what she was thinking in her eyes. He would. Despite her glasses he realized he was strangely confident of the eventuality. Confident enough to want to put it to test.
Look up, he urged silently and then rolled his eyes at himself. This was ridiculous. Perhaps, all this hanging out with Prashant Tiwari had turned his brain to crap. Perhaps all the build up about Kaveri Gupta’s joining that had ensnared the rest of Mechanical Engineering over the last couple of days had gotten to him.
“Do you know who we are?” Tiwari asked her and Arnav saw all the seventy odd boys in the class roll their eyes. He couldn’t help smile even as he waited to hear her reply. His smile widened at the slight straightening of her spine and look of absolute revulsion that flashed on her face. It was a grimace that seemed to suggest an air of superiority that intrigued him. She was going to be okay on her own. He hope he was right.
“Seniors.” She said softly, her voice completely at odds with what he had witnessed in her manner. Tiwari, of course, burst out laughing.
“Well done. Seeing you here, I was beginning to worry if you had any idea what was happening around this place. Daydreaming needs to wait for the lectures. When seniors are in the classroom, you need to focus. Okay?”
Her hands gripped the table harder as Prashant spoke, his voice managing to vex Arnav out of his ephemeral fascination. Why this person was his friend, Arnav couldn’t say at the moment.
“Do you know why we are here?” Tiwari asked again with a grin.
Before she could speak however, her nudging friend on her right spoke up. “Ragging, Sir.” Immediately the girl closed her eyes, as if in pain. Rightly so, he concluded, given what Tiwari and Chaitanya ended up saying just after.
“Oho! And are you her official spokesperson?” Tiwari asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Or boyfriend?” Chaitanya prompted with a loud chuckle.
He had no idea why he spoke then. Perhaps it was just to have her look up and prove him right.
And she did – as soon as he uttered the words, only half in jest. “Tiwari, shut it.”
Her eyes found his and blinked lazily. And as he held on, behind her surprisingly low glare glasses, he saw her dark, large eyes widen – as if she was surprised to see anyone with any intention other than troubling her.
It rankled. And he reacted further, not caring that such dialogues were bound to catch up with him later in the day. “Let her sit.” He said softly to Tiwari even as he tore his gaze away from her and walked over to the other side of the classroom. With a deep breath, he faced the first year classroom and ignored the hopeful way in which they were all looking at him. Everyone except her. She, her face red with embarrassment, crumpled into her chair as Tiwari mocked him and her in the same instant “Madam-ji, please sit.” God, he’d have to endure the insufferable jerk later. What was he thinking?
He forced himself to ignore the look of absolute horror on her face as she looked at her classmates all standing, from under lowered lashes. “We are not here to rag. Well, not today anyway,” He said to the new batch. “Quick introductions – we are all from Final Year Mechanical Engineering. So technically your senior-most seniors. Traditionally,” He explained, more to himself than to the younger ones, “Final Year is the first to take stock of the new batch. You won’t see much of us for the rest of the year. So this is our best opportunity to say hello.” She didn’t look up when he smiled and his gaze swept across the room.
“Oh and your third years wanted us to let you know that they will be here later today with a list of rules for the next couple of months, all of which are easy to follow and completely harmless. Cooperate, be nice and at the end of the month, we’ll throw you the best Fresher’s party First Years have ever seen in this college.”
She didn’t. Instead, the two sentries posted at the door, spoke urgently. “AV,” Tiwari called out urgently, “Mishra-ji,” He pointed at the corridor to his right, “He must be their Applied Mechanics Prof. this semester. We need to leave.”
At Tiwari’s declaration, the rest of his friends quickly shuffled towards the exit even as the new batch, including her, watched him make his way out of the class. “Welcome to IE,” He whispered exaggeratedly, winking and smiling in the general direction of the class even as his gaze swept across the room again and settled on hers, visibly shocking her eyes to widen enough so that her lashes brushed against the glass wall, as if surprised by their sudden imprisonment.
He walked out of the door feeling strangely stirred. It was a thought he didn’t allow to linger.
“Is she pretty?”
Arnav took a deep breath and bit back the roll of irritation that unfurled in his stomach. “What does that have to do with anything?” He asked as he straightened his back and held the phone correctly over his ear.
“That she will fall in love with you is a given. I just want to make sure you don’t fall in love with her.”
Saira’s voice had none of easy teasing that a dialogue like this would usually entail.
The break had clearly been a good idea. He should have kept his end of the deal and not called. But something had egged him on to make that call almost a month after they had decided to test waters with a break. And now she was calling back. And idiot that he was, he had to go and tell her about the new girl in Mechanical Engineering. And the fact that she was going to sing. With him. That he had asked her to.
Why? How was telling Saira going to make any of this easier? What was he looking for? Some sort of stamp of approval for wanting to test this thread that seemed to tug at him when it came to Kaveri Khushi Gupta.
Khushi. She had asked him to call her that. His stomach flipped as the memories of meeting her flashed in front of his eyes. The surprise of having her open the door to Professor Gupta’s house. The physical strength it took to not stare when he was with Dr. Gupta discussing his final year project – one that counted for one whole credit no less. The force that lured him to her side and engage her in conversation even after he had been responsible for physically injuring her.
“You said this about Divya and nothing of the sort happened.” He replied with a small, fake smile. It was imperative to bring this conversation back on track.
“How do you know?”
He took an audibly deep breath this time and stayed silent, unsure of what he could say that would not derail this conversation any more than it had already been.
“So? Is she pretty?”
“People don’t fall in love with someone because the person is pretty. Or handsome.” Arnav said softly, closing his eyes.
“Yeah? That’s why I fell in love with you.” Saira teased. Except there was nothing remotely jovial about her voice. Instead, there was that edge that he had come to expect now.
“So why did you fall in love with me?”
Of course. Of course, he repeated under his breath. This was the question that was drumming behind every other one. It had to come to this. As much as he had avoided it…
“Or wait,” Saira said, her voice barely above a whisper. “Did you ever fall in love with me at all, Arnav?”
Anger, rare and misplaced as it was, boiled up in his gut and spilled into his throat. “I fought my entire family for you…”
“For me?” She interjected angrily.
“For us…” He corrected himself though he knew the damage was done. “I haven’t spoken to my father in years now, Sara. Why do you think?” His voice may not have risen like hers hadn’t but even he couldn’t miss the bitterness in it. Or the evasion. He had never said the words. And it wasn’t oversight. He knew he cared for her. He loved her too – how could he not – he didn’t know of a time without Saira in his world – she was as important as his parents or his sister. But the words…Why couldn’t he just say them? She had said them enough number of times – coyly, hopefully, ardently, pleadingly. And he…
“You know that is not the answer I was looking for.”
“I cannot have this conversation, Sara. Not every time. This is exactly why we decided to stay away…”
“I decided.” Saira interrupted. “And you called me first, Arnav.” She said, her voice now slightly louder, angry.
“I should not have. Just like you pointed out when I did. And yet today…”
He waited as he heard her take multiple deep breaths. Her voice wobbled when she spoke next. “I was upset that day, Arnav. Ammi made Uncle’s favorite kheer after ages and I…I forced her to let me take it to your house. He..He didn’t even look at me. And I overheard him telling Chachi that my parents were trying to….that Ammi was trying to use me to twist their hand in the matter…that…” Her voice broke and guilt seared through Arnav. He was an ass. He was the one who got to run away from Patna when things got tough. Saira stayed and she endured what he of all people, knew the extent of.
“Sara.” He whispered as he heard her sob. He had rarely seen Saira crying in all the years they’d known each other. But ever since their relationship had ceased to remain a secret, the number of occasions had exploded exponentially – that was extent of the viciousness that had been unleashed in their families and lives. At least before this particular extent, he had been around to hold her. Even if the reason she had broken down had been him…”Sara, please…”
“You are right, Arnav. I shouldn’t have called. We should stay sane and broken up instead of…Go sing. Go play your fucking guitar and be the hero… Just…go”
The line went dead before he could say anything.
When had it started, he would wonder days and months later, the slide that began with a slip and ended in a tumble that left him unhinged for years? Was it the day he had heard her singing for the first time in the canteen? Or the day she had declared how she felt in a song about rivers and oceans? He remembered with crystal clear clarity, the sense of overwhelming emotion that was as evident in her voice as it echoed in the auditorium. And he had in the moment remembered with just as much clarity the words Saira had spoken to him mere hours ago.
That she will fall in love with you is a given…
Love? Maybe it was not that yet. But could he have ignored the way her gaze as sought his as she almost whispered the poem in his ears?
Yes, her rendition of a beautiful song of a young girl falling in love was milestone in the downward spiral he had placed himself and her both in inadvertently. It had been enough even then for him to escape the physical presence of her and what she seemed to stoke effortlessly.
And yet, it was he who sought her out to sing with him thereafter. When Divya told him she wasn’t available for After Aarohan, he hadn’t wasted any time in replacing her with Khushi. It was as instinctive as heading out of the hostel building every morning into the academic block for the day’s classes.
To add to it all now was Arjun Agarwal and his obvious romantic interest in his childhood friend. It was endearing as much as it was exasperating to see and listen to Arjun Agarwal deny and confirm and do more of that in cycles. He had first noticed Arjun’s interest in jest. He was after all only trying to count on his fingertips how many around him seemed to be smitten with her. And this was when there were so many others who spoke rather unfairly of her looks – casually dismissing her when compared with others of her gender from other branches.
She seems to be everywhere, Nishant Kumar Pathak had commented in near frustration as he had allowed Arnav to see what others, including Kaveri Gupta herself, would probably never see. And yet, what did Nishant know? After all it was not Nishant who had found her behind the door that should have revealed his Project Guide and not his mysteriously alluring daughter. Nishant was not the one who had found her in the library and recommended Engineering Drawing books to help her with a troublesome course. Nishant was not the person who had found her singing on the University Ghat or in an empty auditorium that seemed to be smiling indulgently at them on a lazy afternoon. No, it was Arnav Varun who had sought her out every time and had not-so-secretly reveled in what her silences seemed to promise.
I just want to make sure you don’t fall in love with her.
Saira’s words were days old now and yet the echo only seemed to be getting stronger. He wanted to convince himself that Saira was prone to exaggeration and that love wasn’t as simple as she thought it. He would know. Perhaps she did too, now.
“Hello, hello…AV-Sir…earth to”
He blinked and looked up from the list Arjun had handed him a few minutes ago.
“You don’t like the songs?”
Arnav looked down again and focused his gaze on the words scribbled neatly on a carelessly torn ruled sheet of paper. “You have surprisingly good handwriting.” He commented as he once overed the songs Arjun had selected. For Arnav to sing to and with Khushi. On his behalf. Shit.
“True. Not all of us are geniuses with a penchant for insect crawl handicraft.” Arjun teased and Arnav smiled. “Anyway, back to the topic,” He said as he sipped his tea, their third cup of the night. “What do you think?” Arjun pressed on again and forced Arnav to reply.
“It’s a perfectly good list. And most of these are popular songs. It will be a breeze.” He said honestly and then took a deep breath. He needed to ignore this feeling of unease that seemed to be stuck in his throat at this ridiculous arrangement he was helping Arjun with. It was the best thing to do. Especially given all the insanity he seemed to be prone to around this new girl with a golden voice and those large, wide eyes that never seemed to want to leave him alone.
“But it is not the list you would put together?” Arjun asked shrewdly.
Arnav smiled. “Given both of you claim to be such Bollywood experts, I’d have thought you’d pick songs few other than the two of you would know…I mean…” That’s how I would have done it. He bit back the temptation to say the last part out aloud.
“What would your list have looked like then?”
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Main Koi Aisa Geet Gaaon
Album: Yes Boss
Singers: Abhijeet, Alka Yagnik
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Agar kaho toh main sunaaon
Tumhe haseen kahaniyaan
Sunogi kya meri zubaani
Tum ek pari ki dastaan?
Ya main karun, tumse bayaan
Ke raja se rani mili thi kahan?
- Next update on Monday, Aug 7, 2017, late night IST
- To those who aren’t already ensared by Anu’s magic, I bring to you her master piece – writing I stare at in awe, read in reverence and struggle to label as just another piece of fiction. She says Odyssey is her first piece of work. But if this is how someone starts, imagine what paths lay waiting for her magic to unveil! Anu – here’s to many, many stories of fascination and fine form that is your signature.