“You need to manage Prashant Tiwari today,”
Arnav finished locking the door to his room and turned around, sliding the single key into the pocket of his kurta even as he swung his guitar and his backpack on either shoulder. “What did he do now?” He asked as he scanned Nishant Kumar Pathak’s characteristically somber expression.
“He didn’t do anything.” NK mumbled. “Yet.”
“Nishant,” Arnav said shortly, “Not in the mood for riddles. I already got a call about the Kingfisher stall.” He needed to call his sister to make sure they were well settled in the campus guest house before he could get to the Aarohan venue. He needed to figure out the real reason for their sudden presence on the campus. His mother and his sister, while always supportive and appreciative of his musical endeavors, were hardly the sorts to make surprise visits like this one, last Aarohan or not. And then there was the event itself. For the first time in four years and ironically, the last, he was least excited at the prospect of the evening ahead.
“Why did they call you?” Nishant asked curiously as the two of them fell in step and began walking towards the auditorium.
“Because Ramesh is busy with his project advisor today.” Arnav replied with a grimace. His mind was not prepared to firefight ridiculous campus issues today. But…
“You might as well have run for Student President, AV-Sir. At least then you would have had control over your schedule. How many times have you been pulled into these issue resolution situations already? And the year has not even kicked off in the true sense.”
Arnav sighed and adjusted his guitar. “Teething troubles,” He said hopefully. “I have enough on my plate for the rest of the year to play college politics.” He said and then turned to glance at his junior who still wore that blank expression on his face. “Now, about Prashant Tiwari.”
Nishant turned to look at him and for a second, Arnav thought he saw a deep blush creep up his neck. What…
He could have groaned, kicked his feet and thrown a tantrum right then if he had been his sister or Arjun Agarwal. But he was Arnav Varun. So he simply breathed in the reference to her that he couldn’t seem to shrug off anymore and waited patiently for Nishant to continue.
“She looks…” Arnav stared at NK in wonder as the man stuttered and gave up all pretense of trying to withhold a blush. “She is all dressed up today. And I’ve seen the way Prashant Tiwari is leering.”
Arnav almost broke out into a chuckle at the expression of absolute disgust on NK’s face. Except it didn’t feel funny. If anything…”Arjun is around, I gather?” When NK simply nodded with a wry, pulled down smile, Arnav continued to speak. “She’ll be fine.” After everything that was planned for the evening, Kaveri Gupta was going to have no time to waste on the likes of Prashant Tiwari, he wanted to tell NK. Or Arnav Varun, a small voice prompted in his head, which he ignored and focused instead on the disappointment in his junior’s face.
He reached out and swung an arm around his junior. “Such a goner.” Alas, your heart is going to get trampled. “I must tell all the women secretly crushing on you that they are wasting their time,” He said instead as he thought of Divya and the drunken confession he had been witness to last year during Aarohan. At the time he hadn’t been sure if it was the drunkenness that had shocked him more or the confession. Now, both made the sense. Dil, he told himself, is definitely worse than paagal considering what love stories – his own and those around him – looked like.
He saw her eventually under the spotlight, her hair glowing like burnished bronze around her shoulders. If it hadn’t been for Nishant’s heads up about how she looked that particular day, he would have most likely tried to smack himself out of a daze as he watched her sing the song that he had not been able to sit through even the first time. She sang flawlessly, her voice filling the near complete silence in the auditorium. And he felt himself smile in secret pride. Standing in the shadows between the stage and the seating area, beneath the wings and to her left, he knew she couldn’t see him. He could allow himself to watch Kaveri Khushi Gupta, the girl who seemed to have no idea how many people she had strung up in knots with her oblivious charm even if it wasn’t rooted in beauty in its traditional sense.
He watched as she allowed her gaze to roam around the auditorium as if searching. She was obviously new to the stage. He almost wanted to whisper in her ear that she wouldn’t be able to see anyone or anything while standing under the bright lights. Of course, he could do no such thing for the sake of his sanity and integrity, especially since the person who was straining to see her, was standing in the wings above, drinking in the visual of the mesmerizing avatar that his friend was today.
The song ended as the lights came on and he slunk back into the darker recesses by the edge of the auditorium. He was a mere implement this evening. He could watch. He could sing. But he needed to stay away. For the individual and collective sanity of all those involved – here in Varanasi and back home in Patna.
By the time she had sung her second song of the evening, he had almost convinced himself he was doing the right thing. The song, as flirty as it was, sounded downright delightful in her uncharacteristically playful voice and Arjun’s utterly besotted rendition of the teasing lines. Many, including Nishant, commented with varying amounts of envy, on how perfectly Arjun and Kaveri complemented each other. Prashant Tiwari, too, seemed to have forgotten about the little incident in the auditorium where Arnav had let his emotions slip. He cursed Arjun rather bawdily and yet seemed to strangely accept the Arjun-Kaveri pair as the order of the day.
Ignoring the sense of rising discomfort in his chest, he walked up the small flight of stairs. It was the last few minutes before he needed to be on the stage, singing with Kaveri Gupta. And he needed these last few moments to gather his wits.
He turned around mid-climb to see a third year running up the stairs with a huge beaming smile.
“Huh?” He stared at his junior in confusion.
“Just met your sister and your mother. They shared the awesome news. Quite the chhupa-rustom you are, AV-Sir.”
“What are you talking about?” He asked with a frown.
The junior chuckled and shook his head. “Ti-di asked me to allow her the opportunity. We can talk later.
Ti-di?” He asked with a raised eyebrow.
The junior, who for the love of Bholenath, he couldn’t remember by name, grinned sheepishly. “She asked me to call her that,” He said with a shrug.
Of course, Arnav ackwnoledged. What else could one expect from his sister? Universal Di. That’s what she referred to herself with reference to him and all their younger cousins and his friends.
“She asked me to tell you that they are both heading out for an hour – Vishwanath-ji darshan. They’ll see you directly at the guest house after the program given you will be busy.”
They werent’t going to come listen to him sing? Which is why they claimed they were here in the first place? Arnav frowned even as he nodded and sent the messenger on his way. Something wasn’t quite adding up…
He saw Arjun standing in the wings, his eyes fixed on someone in the distance. Someone, he smiled to himself wryly. He knew who it was going to be without having to see and confirm. He allowed his eyes to follow Arjun’s line of sight and saw her standing in the wings on the other side, half illuminated by the glow on the stage. She was still but even from the distance, he could make out that she was looking for someone. It was most likely Arjun. And still it made no sense that the younger man was standing here on the other side and waiting…for what?
“Arjun,” He called out as the next pair of singers made their way to the front of the stage.
Arjun turned around to look at him and let out a deep breath a moment before his face twisted with what Arnav now knew were tell-tale signs of typical Arjun nervousness. “Goodness, AV-Sir. Where were you? I’m just so….this is not going to work at all. I really think we should cancel….”
Arnav took a deep breath. A little part of him wanted to give in to Arjun’s sudden panic. But the saner, AV-Sir-soaked essence of his soul seemed to think otherwise. He found himself encouraging Arjun indulgently “You guys were great. Really.” At least this was the truth.
Arjun shook his head. “No really, AV-Sir – I think we should just stick to your original list.”
His original list? No, if Arnav did infact have a choice and didn’t need to pay heed to practical matters, he would go with the list that was now wound in magnetic tape, encased in plastic and placed in a transparent cover that sat nestled in his pockets. No, there was no turning back anymore. And definitely not because Arjun Agarwal had stage fright. People deserved to be happy in the way they wanted to. And Arjun…Best friends made the best life partners, hadn’t he claimed famously once when defending his own life choices to his parents, only to be scoffed at and dismissed ruthlessly? “Arjun,” He interrupted his junior again, keeping his voice firm and no non-sense. “You know how NK always says she holds back when she is singing. She didn’t today – not for this song.”
Arnav waited as Arjun stared right back as if allowing the words to sink in. The panic in his eyes began to dim as his shoulders straightened. It’s a worth shot finding out where things stand, he urged mentally.
“You are right. Of course, you are right.” Arjun said with a slow smile, his voice gaining strength as his eyes cleared and beamed again.
Arnav smiled and nodded. “Go get her.”
It was only when Arjun had turned away that Arnav wondered if all this good cheer was infact just a façade to hide perverse hope that Arjun might end up failing in his endeavor.
“Arjun, where is AV-Sir?”
He stilled as soon as he heard the question, an answer to so many of his own, a balm to nerves that were rapidly being stretched over jagged ends of alternating hope and self-reassurances. But it was the urgency and slash of annoyance in her question that thrilled him the most. She was looking for him. The eyes he had seen searching around her, had been looking for him. Everything he had been telling himself all evening, all week, all month, seemed to fly right of the window.
Even Arjun’s response, undecipherable now for tone and inflection, couldn’t bring him back from the dark side any more. He should have known then that the evening was doomed. He was a being of rationality and reason, of well-meaning intention and level-headed emotion. This…this feeling of euphoric delirium was alien to him as a declaration of affection had been years ago.
“You still didn’t see him? I just…” Arnav ducked idiotically even though Arjun turned around and looked over to the opposite side of the stage which was now swathed in darkness. “He just congratulated me on our performance. He thought it was the best of the evening. Really…” He trailed off, clearly uncomfortable with stretching the truth to this extent. “Anyway, I was coming over to tell you that AV-Sir wants you to wait before you join him on stage. There is a little change of plan. He wants to do a few songs…”
“If he doesn’t need me to sing, believe me I am more than happy to oblige. It is pretty late…” Khushi quipped tersely and Arnav’s innards twisted with guilt cramps. He almost stepped out of the shadows to put her fears to rest, at least to the extent he could, when Arjun continued. “What?” He asked, bending slightly towards Khushi. “What has gotten into you today, Kaveri? I thought your bad mood was all gone after our song – you really seemed to be enjoying yourself earlier and now…”
Arnav’s delusion cracked in that instant and shattered when she replied, her voice confused and anxious in eager measure as they aimed to soothe. “I’m sorry, Arjun..I just…this session with AV-Sir..it is bothering me..We haven’t had proper practice sessions in the last week or so and I haven’t seen him all evening…And now you are saying that there is some change…”
They were idiots. And they were going to make a mess out of this. He should have listened to his instinct and refused to participate in this charade. He wasn’t sure why he was even involved anymore. Except that singing with her was…it had been liberating like little else had been in the last couple of years. There was something in the openness with which she sang that made it matter that he was able to thread his own music with hers.
“Relax, baba. All he said was that there was a slight change.” Arjun spoke lines they had rehearsed just a few hours ago. “And he even asked me to apologize to you on his behalf. I am sure he will do that in person after the show as well.” Arnav laughed to himself as his eyes burned. Apology. Yes. There would be one. If only he could figure out what he was apologizing for. “There’s just a lot going on in the background. The Final Year batch had negotiated a stall with Kingfisher…”
It was his cue to step away from this conversation. He should have turned away from the words the moment she had questioned Arjun about his whereabouts. He quickly climbed the rest of the stairs walked up right to the back of stage where he knew they would be waiting for him. Time for thought was over. After Aarohan, his last for a lifetime was here and Arjun and Kaveri notwithstanding, he had a job to do. And he would focus on that.
She was looking for him.
The thought came unbridled as he was accosted by the rest of his After Aarohan crew. He quickly handed over the revised list of songs that Arjun and he had come up with. As expected there was little groaning and much rejoicing as the instrumentalists and other vocalists like Nishant glanced through the list. It was Arjun’s list afterall. The man did have the best sense of selling when he put his mind to it.
“Main yahaan hoon?” Nishant asked with a raised eyebrow as Arnav unlocked his guitar case and extracted his instrument. “Going for the kill in the last instalment, are we?”
Arnav smiled and walked up to the dark stage, right to the edge where a small mic was hanging from above.
She was looking for him.
The song that was Arjun’s favorite, suddenly slid under his skin and turned under his invisible coat of large heartedness into a moment of pure selfish thrill. He let one set of fingers caress the strings on his guitar while the other set plucked at them, sending sound waves of beauty rippling through the auditorium.
She was looking.
The audience quietened and settled down for the beat of a heart before a roar of applause, hoots and cheers sprung back into the air.
He allowed his fingers to strum the guitar again, this time more confident and knowing in the way the music seemed to envelope this moment him and her in its folds, thick and unyielding. The guitar strings strummed again, this time as the keyboard joined with its pronounced notes.
His voice thrummed – deep, resonant and faintly simmering with something he could almost define if he looked to his left and caught her gaze.
Jaanam, dekh lo
The tingle of a note escaped his lips as a faint golden light illuminated burst from above his head, falling around the corners of his guitar and his head bent slightly, hiding more than just a knowing smile on his face.
Mit gayin dooriyaan
It was he had travelled a million light years from the moment he had said yes to Arjun and now. She was a far away lamp then. She could be his lighthouse now.
Main yahaan hoon,
He looked up at the audience and then in the blink of an eye, turned right and glanced straight at her, catching the look of awestruck disbelief in her face, before turning away and completing the line
Yahaan hoon, yahaan hoon, yahaan
Silence spilled over as the voice and the music dimmed for a finite moment. And then gold burst through the world, filling his world with its brilliance as it curved around him to the right. The whistles that erupted in the auditorium, drowned out everything except the thrill of being able to put words to feelings – something that he always struggled with except when he was singing. And boy, was he singing now?
Jaanam, dekh lo; Mit gayin dooriyaan
Main yahaan hoon, yahaan hoon, yahaan hoon, yahaan
Kaisi sarhadein, kaisi majbooriyan
Main yahaan hoon, yahaan hoon, yahaan hoon, yahaan
When Arjun had suggested this song as the opening, he had jumped out of his seat in vehement denial. Perhaps it was the fact that the lyrics were too knowing and in the situation neither Arjun nor he could claim that kind of knowledge. Now, with the words caressing the air between them, he knew why he had been scared out of his wits. Not only had he always been able to guess what her eyes suggested, he had almost wanted his guess to be accurate. And now…
He was aware of every movement on his side as the music spilled out of his fingers. He replaced many of the original supporting notes on his guitar and chuckled along as words of adulation were thrown at him from the audience. He didn’t actively look at her after that one moment, but every word was now uttered with specific meaning just for her. What this meant for every second here on, he didn’t know. For now, however, her secret was his.
Tum Chhupa Na Sakogi Main Woh Raaz Hoon
Tum Bhula Na Sakogi Woh Andaaz Hoon
Gunjtaa Hoon Jo Dil Mein To Hairaan Ho Kyon
Main Tumhare Hi Dil Ki To Aawaz Hoon
What arrogance was this and where was it coming from?
Sun Sako To Suno Dhadkanon Ki Zaban
Main yahaan hoon, yahaan hoon, yahaan
The moment morphed when from the corner of his eye he saw the change on her face. A smile, small and tentative as it was, broke out and crinkled around her wide eyes behind those glasses. A whole year lay ahead. One whole year that suddenly seemed brimming with possibilities that only music and melody could bring with it.
He smiled to himself, his head dropped to his chest and he heard himself breathe in softly. There was no one that mattered anymore, not Arjun who stood in mesmerized silence beside her, not the hundreds of students who saw nothing more than the hero he was to them and for them alone, not – a little voice whispered in his ear – Saira or anyone else back home who held him to standards he had lived up to without thought.
Main hi main ab tumhare khalayon mein hun
Main jawabon mein hun, main sawaalon mein hum
Main tumhare hare ek khwaab mein hoon basaa
Main tumhare nazar ke ujaale mein hoon
He tilted his head slightly and knew she knew he meant to glance at her.
Dekhti ho mujhe, dekhti ho jahan
Main yahaan hoon, yahaan hoon, yahaan
As the music died and the words trailed off into thunderous applause, every reason his mind had come up to keep whatever was happening at bay, vanished. Nothing mattered more than the moment that was lurking in his eyes and waiting for her to join him. A few minutes and hours more and he knew he had a chance, a chance he couldn’t define but wanted to take nevertheless.
“Good evening, IE-V” He hollered into the microphone, his voice booming with a ring he was fairly sure found it’s inspiration in a river skipping along to meet the ocean.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Moh Moh Ke Dhaage
Album: Dum Laga Ke Haisha
Music: Anu Malik
Lyrics: Varun Grover (Mr. Grover happens to be an IIT-BHU (Varanasi) alumnus. Go figure!)
Tu hoga zara paagal, tune mujhko hai chuna
Tu hoga zara paagal, tune mujhko hai chuna
Kaise tune ankahaa, tune ankahaa sab sunaa
Tu hoga zara paagal, tune mujhko hai chuna
Tu din sa hai, main raat, aana dono
Mil jaayein, shaamon ki tarah…
- Next Update: Sunday, 20 Aug, 2017, 9-10 pm IST
- Also, I wrote something – call it a Distributary of the River if you will. For all those who haven’t read it yet, presenting Trysts with Tripti. I don’t understand the full extent of what I have set out to achieve with this – so please bear with me! My first priority will remain wrapping up the River as planned.
- Creepy or not, I still love Main Yahaan Hoon :P Indulge me please :P