August 2005, Varanasi
Different people on campus were known for different things. There was Prashant Tiwari and his famous adult CD collection, of course. There was Shaurya Jaikumar who supplied to all those so inclined, the choicest high quality English erotica. Mallesh Pal was his counterpart for erotica in Hindi. And Bhojpuri. Rejji George and Susheel Pandey owned the weed supply on campus. When Holi was around the corner, they even knew to change their business to the more geographically relevant intoxicant – bhaang, supplied of course with outsourced thandai. Then there were those with the more innocuous – boring essentials as some would so refer to them – specialties to offer. Like Sudarshan Bhatnagar and his collection of English pop audio cassettes and CDs – all the way from Abba to Eminem. There was Vishwanathan R and his collection of question papers from the last two decades of semester exams and surprise quizzes for every branch.
Arnav had never really claimed the title of owning the largest collection of Bollywood music but he knew he could out bid anyone who might want to stake a claim in the space. Few people knew that they could practically expect to come up to him and ask for the obscurest of Hindi music and he would have it. His collection – alphabetically arranged, serially stacked and religiously replaced after every listening – formed the contents of an entire wooden cupboard in his room while his essentials (books and clothes) lay stuffed in suitcases and cartons.
When Arjun had casually asked him what he would put in a list for wooing a girl, the junior had no idea what he was unleashing. And Arnav himself wasn’t sure he had taken it as seriously till first realized his inability to locate one of his favorite 90s tape. Two hours of having emptied every cassette holder he could to check, was barely enough indication of his insanity when he pulled out his rarely used cell phone and placed an even rarer call on it.
“Don’t call me that” He warned running his fingers through his hair in frustration enhanced by his sister’s use of his least favorite name.
“What’s wrong?” Ti-Di asked even as she ignored his retort as always. “You never call me.”
“Do you have my Khamoshi cassette? I can’t find it.”
There was a moment’s silence. “Khamoshi? You don’t have a Khamoshi tape. You have a Best of Hemant Kumar….”
He bit back his teeth. “Not that Khamoshi, Di. The new Jatin-Lalit one.”
His sister burst out laughing. “Munna, Munna, Munna…I cannot believe that you know me so little to think I would waste any time on frivolous phuljhadi music. Why would I borrow your cassette and worse, why would I not return it to my slightly OCD-troubled brother?”
When he didn’t say anything, his mind already churning to think of other people who might have it, his sister spoke again. “I cannot believe a twenty something young boy of such intellectual capacity is agitated because he cannot find a tootie-fruity…”
“Di, I’m warning you…”
“I’m scared, Munna. I’m so…”
“Okay, bye Ti-Di.” He said and he disconnected the call. He took a deep breath and sat down on his chair. He just needed to retrace his steps. If he tried to recollect carefully, he would be able to recollect…
The phone rang sharply, disturbing his focus with what he was certain was his sister’s mothering avatar blazing through sonic waves.
“Yes, Di?” He said as he spoke absently into the phone. Had he lent it to someone? It wasn’t possible…
“How’s Aarohan practice coming along?”
Arnav blinked to push his search aside and smiled. He needed to focus on the call. When Ti-Di stopped teasing and starting asking seriously questions about things that interested him, it was time to pay attention or be subjected to the most pervasive inquisition there could be without physical violence. “It’s going well. And I am perfectly fine. So this can stop now.”
“What? A sister cannot be interested in her baby brother’s…?”
“Hardly a baby, Di. I’ve been a whole head and then some taller than you for the last six years or so.” He argued.
“Is Divya singing with you for that After-piece like last year?” Aditi pressed on again like a woman on a mission that she usually was.
Something about her question didn’t sit right in his head. But at the moment calling it out would only make matters worse. So he let it slide. “No, she is attending a wedding in Kanpur. There’s a girl who’s joined Mechanical Engineering this year and she sings well so she is…” He stopped as he realized that he knew what was wrong. “Did you speak to Sara?”
There was a moment’s silence before Aditi sighed and spoke. “I called her. She calls me every week and she hadn’t for the last two so…Is everything okay with you two?”
“What did she say?” Arnav asked. Saira and he had decided they would not share the news of their break with Aditi or anyone in the family till they knew if it was permanent or otherwise. He had specifically requested that she not discuss this with his sister. So…
“That you were busy with Aarohan and that she was busy with Mid-terms and Anatomy. Nothing that made me nervous enough to call you. ”
He almost breathed a sigh of relief when his sister spoke again.
“But now I am not sure.”
“Ti-Di, everything is fine. Just because she isn’t calling you doesn’t mean things are wrong between us. It’s all okay. She is right – she is busy with her work. I am busy with mine. The only one who seems to be jobless…” He held his words just in time as his volume trailed off. His sister didn’t deserve to be at the receiving end of his confusion.
There was silence again. But when Aditi spoke, her voice was lighter than before. His sister could win Oscars for her dramatic mood changes – mostly fake but at the moment, playing along seemed to be easy as pie. Perhaps because of the topic his sister chose for the conversation? “So tell me about this girl? Good singer? Gharana-type?” She asked. “And wait…did you say she joined Mechanical Engineering? Nikal padi tum log sab ki toh. How many ghayal so far?”
“I’ve lost count,” He laughed. “She sings well. And her knowledge of songs and lyrics is something else. You would be so jealous of losing your position.”
“Bah, I most certainly disagree. I am the queen and tum log 90s ke bachche ho. I start all the way from early eighties. But I’d love to meet this girl…maybe someday…”
Arnav smiled and shook his head.
“Munna,” She started and his smile dimmed. “I am going to talk to Papa. I think this has gone on for too long. You…Did Saira tell you about…”
“About the kheer episode.” Arnav completed. “Yes, she did.”
“I spoke to Amma too…she says Papa refuses to see reason. There is no logic to the log kya kahenge argument anyway. Raeesa Aunty spoke to Ahmed Uncle as well and he is just as stubborn. Though she thinks he will give in if Papa does. I told Amma I’ll talk to Papa when I am down in Patna over the weekend. If nothing, he will at least starting speaking to you. How long has it been since…”
Arnav interrupted. “Don’t Di. There is too much that has been said and done. Anything more will simply push everyone over the edge if they are not already there. And Papa and I are fine.” We will be.
He was not sure his sister had heard his request but he didn’t want to press the issue any more than required. So he changed the topic and asked about his soon to be brother-in-law and their impending wedding.
Much later, after he had decided, heavy heartedly to replace the Khamoshi song he wanted to put in the mixed tape with least known one from Dil Se, he found the cassette he was looking for in his music system. It was all he could do to not whoop like he had found treasure. The list he had put together was back on track and before dawn, the mixed tape had been recorded and placed in its cover. What he would do with it, he didn’t know. Having agreed to help Arjun woo Khushi, it just seemed wrong to hand it to her without telling Arjun. And yet, once he did tell Arjun, how would he explain its existence, especially given how many times Arjun seemed to come up with the theory that Khushi did infact have feelings for him?
Something had changed and he wanted to know what. She didn’t look at him anymore and it bothered the hell out of him. What made her gaze so powerful he would perhaps never know. But…he missed the way she searched his face like she was waiting for something. She was an ace at making things seem normal as long as she used her voice and her body language. When she allowed him to look into her eyes, he could see everything she was trying to hide. Or so he wanted to believe.
He ignored the little voice that told him that this was the way it was supposed to work; that this way no one would hurt because after all wasn’t he helping the only one who was any sort of certain about what was unfolding in his life?
“Iss pyaar se unki taraf na dekho, pyaar ho jayega, Babua!”
Arnav blinked and tore his gaze away from Khushi who was decidedly not looking at him. In that moment, it was almost as if she wasn’t even aware of him.
He looked up to see Prashant Tiwari grinning down at him.
“Ab aaya samajh mein, Arnavji.” Tiwari continued when Arnav said nothing.
Damn! He had allowed his guard to slip and of all the people in the world, Prashant Tiwari had been there to trap him. “Bakwaas ke mood mein nahi hain hum, Tiwari.” He bit out.
For a second, there was silence and it seemed like he had succeeded in shrugging Tiwari off. Of course, no such thing was about to make his life easier. He should have known. “I thought you were serious about that girlfriend you hide from everyone, Sant-Sahab.”
It was the edge in Tiwari’s voice, one that tore to shreds his conscience of clarity, which tugged at him. He stayed silent, knowing that what came next would not be pleasant. Perhaps that is what he needed.
“Hota hai.. That’s why being a hero is a double edged sword. There has clearly been no dearth of women who are interested in you. And perhaps committing to one so early on was too easy.” He explained as if trying to iron out the kinks in a grand plan of the universe. “Perhaps this garb of decency you wear with such ease was the wrong one to choose. You could have had a dream run here in IE-V if only you’d chosen to….” Tiwari chuckled. “You still could. Who’s going to tell…And others may say anything but Ms. Gupta maal toh hai…”
“Shut the fuck up, Tiwari.” He bit out as he glared at his friend. He pulled his clasped hands apart in his lap as he rose and decided to make things normal again. If nothing else, then he had a point to prove.
Tiwari’s laugh followed him as he weaved his way around the chairs in the auditorium to her. Tiwari was a jerk. He knew that. He wasn’t about to take his words to heart. There was nothing unsavory in what he was doing. He liked Kaveri Khushi Gupta and that was that. Why did he have to feel guilty about that?
He took a deep breath and forced himself to relax as he approached her. When he saw her, he couldn’t help smile. “You must really be stressed about Mid-Sem.”
Khushi looked up at him and for a second his heart soared as he found her gaze and saw her eyes widen slightly. Before he could shrug off his misgivings from the past few days, however, the shutters came down and something undefined glinted before she blinked and looked away.
“The text book you are holding.” He said with a nod of his head towards the Basics of Civil Engineering text book she was holding, her fingers pale at the tips that were clutching visibly harder than needed. “Upside down”
He watched as her face bloomed with warmth when she looked down at the inverted text. Her hands fumbled as she turned the book back up and muttered a quick “Sorry” as she opened the book and began to flip pages. He knew he was being dismissed and he wanted to know why. Perhaps it was the wrong question to pursue. But…
“Thank God, you said it.” He found himself saying with a smile instead. “I was beginning to worry you had lost your trademark apology already.”
She looked up and smiled bemusedly, perhaps hoping that he would take the hint and leave.
“So you are done with Electrical?” He asked as he slipped into the seat next to hers. “How was it?” He knew he was stubbornly refusing to leave her alone when she clearly wanted him to. Why? Was there any truth in what he thought he read in her songs; in what Arjun had more than hinted at?
“It was okay. Arjun managed to get hold of some previous year Mid-Sem papers…that helped.”
“Ah the simpler times of previous year papers and expected questions. Wait till third year when open book exams are the order of the day.” He tried to keep his voice light. Perhaps banter would bring back some of the innocence that seemed to linger between them before it was all gone. Why? What had changed? And if something had, how was this entire singing for Arjun thing going to play out?
“That should be easy, no?” She interrupted his agitated thoughts and forced him to chuckle.
“You think they test you on stuff you can find in the books? Open book is worse. It basically means –Ha – let’s see what you can do. Positively evil. Professors carry a little bit of Satan in them, I think.”
He realized what he had implied as soon as her eyes widened and her back stiffened. Well done, idiot, he cursed himself before he spoke quickly to reassure her. “It was a joke! I don’t mean your parents, of course!” He held his hands held up in front of his chest in mock-defence.
Khushi blinked and shook her head. She looked away and her hands fidgeted in her lap. He saw her shift away from him like his presence bothered her. It lingered bitter on his tongue and twisted his gut. Look at me, he wanted to say so she would for even just a moment. She cleared her throat and looked to her right. Perhaps she was hoping that she would see Arjun and he would come to her rescue like he always did. And that would be perfect. That is exactly what he was hoping to help Arjun with, wasn’t he?
He needed to go. This weird sort of distance she seemed to be intent on putting between them was probably for the best. What did he want with her anyway? He may be on a break with Saira but he couldn’t ignore the underlying assumption that the break was never meant to be infinite. He didn’t do such things. He wasn’t the type of person who would break his commitment to someone he loved. And he did love Saira. He did.
Arnav took a deep breath and turned to look at Khushi who looked pale and clammy. Like…
She turned almost in the same instant, her eyes glowing behind those glasses. And for a second, there was no curtain anymore. He held her gaze and found her holding right back. Something flickered a second before she closed her eyes – a heartbeat longer than a blink and still it was enough for his fingers to curl before they lifted as if to…
She opened her eyes, blinked rapidly and stood up so quickly, the moment shattered around them like a million particles of unintended betrayal.
“Are you okay?” He asked, aware of how inane it sounded in that throaty texture his voice seemed to reflect around her.
“Is it okay if I skip our practice today?”
He had freaked her out. Shit! With all his silence the past few days and now this sudden need to be…How would he ever give her the tape? Heck, how would he even begin to tell her that he put one together with her in mind? And how the hell was he going to face her once the ridiculous singing drama for Arjun was done? Even if everything did work out for them – which he wasn’t really sure anymore it would at all?
If there was any truth in knowing when and how things between two people changed – he knew it. Tiwari was right. Fuck! The bloody pervert was right and he…he who prided himself on being decent, respectful…He stood up, towering over her as he did. He was about to take a step towards her when she continued hurriedly, confirming any suspicions he had about her altered behavior around him. “I am not feeling too well.”
She was lying. He wanted to prod and offer to take her to the clinic or back home if she preferred. Even as he struggled to find that thread of connection with her again, she took a step back.
She was running away from him. She was the smart one. He needed to be too. “Of course.” He said as he watched her turn away and hurry out of the aisle and the auditorium. The sense of loss in his finger tips was as alien as the flutter in his gut.
He swore mentally. What the hell had just happened?
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Kabira
Album: Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani
Singers: Rekha Bharadwaj, Tochi Raina
Lyrics: Amitabh Bhattacharya
Kaisi teri khudgarzi
Na dhoop chune na chhaon
Kaisi teri khudgarzi
Kisi thor tike na paaon
Ban liya apna paigambar
Tar liya tu saat samundar
Phir bhi sookha man ke andar
Kyun reh gaya?
Next Update: Monday, Aug 14, 2017; late night IST
Note: Like Chapter 15 in Book 1 and Chapter 23 in Book 2, this Interlude will have four parts. Two down, two to go before we get back to the present. Thank you for bearing with me while Aarohan 2005 comes full circle with Kaveri, Arjun and now AV.