No sooner had the lights dimmed, he flicked the switch on the mic off and stepped to the side. He had no idea what he was going to say to her but he knew he wanted to have her look into his eyes. He wanted to feel that thread that seemed to thrum between them – to make sure it was real and not just the adrenaline that came from adulation and applause. He dodged the small crowd of organizers that was headed to the stage to set up the instruments and walked with renewed vigor and purpose.
He heard her voice almost as soon as he crossed the edge of the stage and stepped into the wings.
“What are you doing here?”
She sounded – surprised and disappointed. For a ridiculous second, he wondered if Prashant Tiwari had infact gotten to her. It didn’t seem to occur to him that it was unlikely that Tiwari of all people, could inspire such familiarity in her voice. Fortunately, the other voice was feminine, loud and rather playful.
“I was in the audience and then I walked over to the green room.” The voice explained slowly as if the owner was clearly enjoying teasing her. “Oh and then I saw your friend and he pointed me to this place. I know you don’t have much time but…”
“My friend?” Khushi asked in confusion that didn’t last long enough to ease his condition. “Oh! Arjun?”
Arjun’s name should have been like a splash of cold water on his face. And if he were honest to himself, he would admit that it did slow him down in his tracks. But the words that followed his momentary deceleration, sent any doubts and questions that might have been lingering in his mind, out of the proverbial window.
“I just had to see you, Di. I mean, if that is who you have fallen in love with…”
He stilled and something in his chest exploded. The voice – she was talking about…
“Tripti!” Khushi’s voice exclaimed in evident mortification, confirming his suspicion. He had no idea why or what made him interrupt but he found himself calling out to her, as if he was unable to help himself. Of course he was unable to help himself. He should have known that about himself especially around her.
He waited as she turned to her left and slowly raised her eyes to meet his.
Once again, something, now pulsing in the bottom of his rib-cage lurched as her lashes swept over her dark eyes and against her glasses. It should have been comical the way her eyes seemed to be surprised at the barrier that kept her hidden from the world. Except it was strangely evocative, in a way that made him want to pull the frames off the bridge of her nose and watch her eyes widen in surprise.
“Oh! Err…I think I should go. I’ll see you at home, Di.”
It was her sister, he realized as the voice that was petered in and out of his now hazy awareness. He blinked and tried to look at the other girl – the one who had inadvertently let him in on a secret that he might have never truly known. But how could he let go of this gaze that he found with such effort in the first place. So it was she who blinked first and forced him to follow her gaze. And it was thus that he saw the younger girl make her way out of the wings and in the process stumble almost as if on purpose, against Khushi.
His hands shot out instinctively and grasped her wrists as she brushed against him awkwardly. “Careful,” He said redundantly, his voice inaudible even to his own ears as blood rushed to his fingers, forcing him to let her go as suddenly as he had held her. He swallowed and watched as she uncurled her fingers and released his kurta even as her scent filled his lungs. Everything about her shimmered as she looked back up at him again. In that moment, if Arjun had walked in and called him on his farce, he would have had nothing to say. He would have bowed in obeisance to his guilt and out of the ridiculous plan that there was no turning back from now.
“Are you okay?” He asked though he wasn’t sure if it was her or himself he addressed at that point. It didn’t help that his voice sounded like it was being groomed to polish coarse skin off stubborn heels.
“I’m fine.” She whispered even as she let her gaze slip away. In that moment of a lost connection, the world around them swooped in and sent the little dream shimmering.
“AV-Sir – up in two” Someone called out and he watched as Khushi stepped back and looked away, straightening her dupatta. He almost told himself to bite his words when he saw the small smile curve her lips. It was all he could do to not grin out aloud in juvenile victory snatched from an unseen enemy in an unknown war. “Ready?” He asked.
She nodded and looked back up at him again.
“I’ve changed some songs.” He said as their gazes twisted together into an intangible weave. He had to remind himself to breathe as he allowed the words to settle between them. Suddenly the past few days of searching and planning, meant nothing. All he wanted to do now was feel her voice alongside his own as music rippled around in little joyous waves. Every song he knew he had planned for the evening, so many so specially selected for her, of her choice, engendered a curiosity he hadn’t felt so far. They may not be his selection, but it would still be his voice matching hers.
A small smile curved his lips as she stayed silent but didn’t tear her eyes away. He found strength in that unwavering gaze. “The plan,” He explained, “is for me to go up first for the opening songs and then you can join me when it is your turn to sing. I am hoping you will know when.” He was all but challenging her and fate to tell him answers to questions he hadn’t posed yet.
He needed to slow down.
“But I am okay if you don’t want to…” He offered quietly.
Her back straightened as he watched. “I am okay” She assured him and he couldn’t help but smile as he extended a sheaf of papers towards her.
When she looked at it curiously, he explained in a single word. “Lyrics.”
She smiled at that as if amused by the idea. “I don’t need them.” She vowed confidently, accepting his little challenge with more eagerness than he probably deserved. Except in that moment, what he deserved had little to do with what he wanted.
He nodded with a smile and turned to walk away from her. He was almost at the edge where the wings gave way to the stage when he half-turned to face her again. “In case, I forget later, thank you for singing with me today.” He said softly and almost soared a couple of inches up in the air when he saw her face transform with an unrestrained smile. Closing his eyes for a second, he willed his breathing to return to normal before he walked on to the stage and a million halogen lights came alive. Quickly strapping his guitar on, he took his centrestage seat and the light came back on. He gestured to the band behind him with a quick thumbs up and struck the chords of the guitar decisively.
A voice somewhere announced his presence most dramatically. “Ladies and Gentlemen, presenting, Arnav Varun”
He needed to find Arjun, he thought to himself as he hurried away from the stage just so he could get back as quickly. Trust his sister to summon him away from where he most needed to be. When he had stepped out of the spotlight, all he had been focused on was Khushi. He could see her standing by herself, smiling at those who were raining compliments on her even as her eyes kept veering back to him.
If it hadn’t been for the message Ti-Di had sent for him to meet her before she fell asleep, he wouldn’t have attempted leaving the auditorium. But Ti-Di and her penchant for exaggeration had always been formidable opponents to his best laid plans. The junior who had come up to pass on the message from his sister hadn’t been able to stop laughing as he relayed the dramatic message from Ti-Di about how she absolutely couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer and that not seeing him would keep her awake till she made herself ill – all this when they had come all this distance for him… Arnav had stopped the younger man at this point and rolled his eyes before he decided to make a quick trip to the guest house.
Of course, that also helped him realize that he owed it to Arjun to meet him and tell him…His descent down the stairs of the auditorium slowed as his nervous heartbeat slackened into the normal rhythm of reasonableness. What was he going to tell Arjun? That suddenly it didn’t matter that the songs had been picked by Arjun? That when he sang, he sang every word like he meant it? Every time the reference to her name in a song, every mention of emotion he was scared to name brought forth the revelry that Arjun had imagined for himself but for very different reasons.
The evening around him dimmed as he walked away from the brightly lit auditorium and along the dark roads leading through the campus towards the guest houses. A gust of imminent rain filled his lungs as trees shook in their places and rustled through the night. What was he going to say to Arjun? Perhaps, nothing was needed at the moment. Perhaps, he could wait till Arjun spoke with Khushi. Once Arjun did, whatever Khushi decided would only make his work easier.
Or maybe…maybe could speak with Khushi first?
And say what? A voice taunted him, strangely Saira-ish in its timbre.
If he didn’t know what he would say to Arjun, what he might say to Khushi was even further out of his grasp in the moment. What did one say in such situations? When Saira and he had decided they were more than friends, it had been natural even though it had been Saira who had made him aware of how things were different between them. They were friends one day and they’d been more the next. In moments of awareness, there had been saplings of hesitation that never really took root given how easy Saira made it for them by being who she was till the day she suggested they take a break. The idea of a break too, was so inherently her. “If things don’t seem to be working in your favor,” she’d said onece, “You step away and gather your thoughts. Then one way or the other, you know what you need to do.”
Perhaps, he supposed again, this forced break from the high of the preceding hours was going to be as cathartic as Saira claimed it usually was.
He breathed in his indecisiveness and hastened his pace. The sooner he could finish speaking to his sister and head back, the better it would be for his own sanity.
“She didn’t want to fall asleep without telling you,”
Arnav blinked hard as he turned away from the door that his mother had just disappeared into – with a huge smile on her face and relief in her brows.
“Munna?” He saw his sister staring at him with those ever knowing gaze and knew that he had given away at least part of his biggest secret – one that was going to have to stay just that now.
“You shouldn’t have told everyone on campus before you told me.” He said softly. The anger that should have punctuated his statement was missing. What was the point of it anyway?
“Why?” She challenged and he knew she suspected enough to make his life miserable. “There is something wrong, isn’t there?” Aditi asked as her brows came closer in a familiar knit.
He took a deep breath and forced himself to smile. “Don’t hold me accountable for reactions that are born of shock, Di.” He said as he fought the urge to rub his tired eyes. “It just hasn’t sunk in, that’s all.” He assured her.
Aditi blinked and for a moment, Arnav was sure she was going to pursue the conversation in the direction he didn’t want it to head in. But something, perhaps it was fatigue of the years that had gone by flickered in her eyes as she smiled. “It had to happen, Munna. You are his favorite child. How long was he going to hold on to this ridiculous stance? Plus, he really missed Ahmed Uncle all these months.”
“He didn’t come with you. He hasn’t called me either,” Arnav pointed out as he sank into the chair in the small adjoining living room.
“You know how he is. His ego is too big to handle more than this. If this relationship needs to be repaired, it will have to be you who will need to make the effort.” Aditi said as she sat down on the other empty chair in the room.
“I have been trying for months, Di.” Arnav said with a deep sigh. “And,” He shook his head, “It will have to be me, yes. Just that…I just hoped…”
Aditi reached out and covered his hand with hers. “One step at a time,” She said softly. “You know the rule with him.”
Arnav smiled and nodded.
“But, Munna,” Aditi started as the silence between them began to stretch comfortably, “Whatever this funk is that you seem to have gotten yourself into – I hope you will snap out of it before Raeesa Aunty tells Saira. Amma and I cheated so that you could know first.”
Arnav swallowed, his throat burning with shame and regret. He clenched his fists, now certain that his sister knew something was off with him – not just between Saira and him. And she’d bought him time by telling him their path was clear before Saira would know. Perhaps this emergency trip down was…
“If I didn’t know you better, little brother,” Aditi said softly, “I’d have asked the question I think you know I want to ask.”
Arnav wanted to laugh out aloud. She was right. If she knew him…if he knew himself….If…that’s what this entire evening was going to come down to – a big, giant if…
“Anyway,” His sister continued, shaking herself to sound infinitely more cheerful than he was sure either of them felt at the moment. “You go back to that Aarohan of yours and enjoy. I’m sure the news of your impending wedding has spread by now. All your friends must be waiting to celebrate with you. Amma and I will see you at breakfast tomorrow and then tomorrow – your time is all ours, okay?”
He nodded his head. Right or wrong – she’d saved him from being the person he wouldn’t have recognized in the mirror when the euphoria of the unattainable settled. He thanked her silently, pinning her with a weary smile that she didn’t return before he prepared to head back.
For months that would follow, Arnav would think back to the night and everything leading up to it, to figure out what and at which point he should have done something differently. He would indeed come up with answers – all leading to just one badly-made decision. But the night of Aarohan 2005 brought nothing but a see-saw of emotions that wrung him dry after flinging him to unwarranted highs and unexpected lows and everything in between.
As he reached the auditorium again, the chill crept up his spine and spilled into his fingers. It was when he thrust his clammy hands into his pockets that he re-discovered the mixed tape he had been carrying. And it was then that he knew that whether he did anything else or not, he needed to hand the tape to her. Perhaps she would know then that he wished things…No, he shook his head as he trudged up the stairs, he couldn’t even wish things were different. After all, what had happened tonight was what he had once wished for too – fervently.
As he joined the crowds, he received congratulatory messages ranging from teasing, shocked, surprised, happy and yet felt nothing except a sense of impending misfortune. He saw Nishant Pathak by the wings when he suddenly knew what he needed to do.
“Congratulations, AV-Sir!” Nishant said with a small smile, though it was a gaze full of questions bestowed on him as he offered his wishes.
“Does Arjun know?” He asked as he shook NK’s hand. Arjun needed to know. Once Arjun did, he would know to tell her. And then… “Tell him,” Arnav said to NK without waiting for an answer. “I don’t want him cribbing about not knowing,” He continued lightly, hoping it would fool his junior.
Nishant smiled bemusedly but nodded.
“Have you seen Khushi?” He asked next, hoping that in the wake of Arjun’s mention the question wouldn’t raise NK’s curiosity any more than necessary.
“Kaveri? I think she is waiting for Arjun to drop her back home. She just went towards the washrooms,” Nishant pointed and then fell silent as Arnav nodded and turned away.
He placed himself in the dark alleyway that joined the washrooms to the auditorium and waited for less than a minute when he spotted her walking out of the ladies room. Without paying attention to the skip in his chest, he called out her name and cursed silently when he saw step back and stumble backwards as her sandals caught her ill-adjusted dupatta.
If it was any brighter in the area, he was sure he would see panic on her face. He hated himself for doing this to anyone, much less this girl who had him tied up in knots and seemed to know nothing of it. At the moment however, he had no patience for decency that was his favored cape. His spell of providence was limited; his presence in her company would soon be unwelcome.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you but….” He said softly as he stepped into the light. He saw the spark of recognition spread warm pink across her otherwise pale face. He waited as her expression eased and then in less time than it took for him to decide to close the distance between them, her gaze transformed into one of questions, worried. He might have celebrated the knowledge in other circumstances. Now…
“Is everything okay?” She asked, stepping forward toward him.
“There is something I neeed to…” He took another step forward and watched her brows furrow. He looked around him as voices from outside filtered in and seemed to near them. “I have to be somewhere….my family….” He took a deep breath again, not sure what he was trying to say or succeeding in. “I got this…,” He extracted the mixed tape from his pocket and held it out instead, “for you…as a thank you for tonight….You know the conversation we had about obscure music from the last decade…I don’t know if you will like…I have it here, nevertheless…”
He waited as she seemed to scan his face, her eyes worried as her mouth tightened as if she was…She was going to say no, excuse herself and run away. She should. She was the sensible one, wasn’t she? Except it scared the hell out of him for reasons he didn’t want to examine. “Please….” He whispered as he reached out to catch hold of her palm and place the mixed tape in it…“I need to…” He took a deep breath and looked away, cursing silently. What was he doing?
“AV-Sir…” She began and looked up at him. It was then that he realized how close she was, how her scent filled his lungs again. Her eyes were trained on his, full of softness that he didn’t deserve. And yet, he was a selfish bastard, wasn’t he? “Kaveri…Can I drop you home.” He asked abruptly a long, silent moment later. Yes, he was selfish. He needed to take what he could. Soon there would be nothing.
The fact that she mutely nodded and walked ahead past him as he waited for her should have sent a frission of relief through his body. Only his limbs stiffened further warily. What was he doing, he asked himself again in despair.
They walked in silence, the voices, loud and cheerful in the distance a mock reminder of the fact that they had both just minutes ago been part of the same merriment and now were literally walking away from it all. He walked on knowing that she was taking any chance she could to glance at him, perhaps trying to figure out what he was thinking, or what he wanted to say. He wished he could tell her prepare for the worst given he himself didn’t know what the end of this journey would look like.
“Shit!” He cursed softly as a mindless detail interrupted his silence. “I forgot my bag backstage.” He said turning around, his eyes never meeting hers. “Just give me a second…I’ll be back.”
By the time he came back, however, damage was all set to take over.
“No, I think I can manage, Arjun…you should go…Nishant Sir…”
He saw Arjun almost immediately and knew that this was it, that the little detour he’d been ready to risk despite everything, was never meant to be.
It was for the best. Of course, it was for the best.
“I met Nishant Sir,” Arjun was saying, “and it is pretty late…we have strict instructions from AV-Sir and team that no girl is going to be allowed to walk back alone – even to the hostels.
“Arjun…” Khushi began as he neared her.
She was waiting for him. She was going to hate him. And he…he would deserve every bit of that hate.
“AV-Sir…” Arjun beamed as he looked up and over Khushi’s shoulder. “Congratulations! Great news!!” He said, his eyes at odds with the cheerfulness of his voice,” He stepped forward to extend his palm towards Arnav. “Party kab de rahe hain…Nahi pehle Ma’am ki photo kab dikha rahe hain”
He watched as Khushi’s face paled even further in the dim lights, her eyes wide as she heard and processed Arjun’s words. I’m sorry, he said silently and knew even then that it wouldnt be enough.
“Nishant Sir told us that your parents are here to surprise you with their acceptance. I didn’t know ki aap Romeo-Juliet type ki ladaai lad rahe the ghar pe…No wonder IE-V girls were never good enough for you…You must be relieved now…Shaadi kab…Oh…” Arnav watched as Arjun continued to ramble, now turning to Khushi to bring her in to the conversation. “Kavi – Congratulate AV-Sir. His parents have finally accepted his love story. They are here today to surprise him…That is what Nishant-Sir wanted to tell me…Bose is waiting to party all night…”
If he had ever any questions on what heartbreak looked like, it was answered with the small smile on Kaveri Khushi Gupta’s face as she muttered her wishes to him with a small smile, looking everywhere except straight at him. Look at me, he wanted to say. Look at me so you know it isn’t what I…
For the next few minutes Arjun talked and he replied in monosyllables. A part of him wanted to end the conversation and send the two of them on their way. Arjun had an evening of declaration waiting for him. And Khushi…she could have something…even if she didn’t…
“God,” Arjun said suddenly, bringing Arnav’s attention back, “We should really get going” He said as he looked at his watch. “I’ll see you back at Bose?” He asked Arnav and seemed to know just how difficult it was for Arnav to nod in that moment. So he stared blankly at Arnav for a moment and then turned to his friend. “Kavi….”
The dull, spaced out look in her eyes disappeared as she turned to look at Arjun with a small, clearly forced smile.
“As usual, you were lost in your dreams. I was saying let’s go. I’ll drop you and then I need to hurry back for the continuation of the party…”
“I’ll manage, Arjun…” Khushi started and then fell silent.
“AV-Sir is here – he is the one who made the rule…Sir – aap bolo – Ms. Gupta has decided she is aaj ki ladki…”
Before he could say anything, however, Khushi shook her head and said. “Ok…chalo…it is getting late.”
She then tried to look at him directly and failed. He swallowed painfully as he watched her clutch the mixed tape in her dupatta covered hand and mutter a whispered goodbye in his direction. Before he knew it, Arjun and his Kavi were out of his sight.
Eventually, it was not NK’s heart that had been trampled on that night. And it had not been Khushi or Arjun who’d trampled it.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Saanware
Singer: Arijit Singh
Lyrics: Amitabh Bhattacharya
Pehle kyun na mile hum
Tanha hi kyun jale hum?
Milke muqammal hue hain
Yaa thhe tanha bhale hum?
Na humara hua, na tumhara hua
Ishq ka yeh sitam, na gawara hua
- Phew! That was a long chapter. Thank you for staying with the trip down memory lane. I’ll see you back at the Inn in Detroit in the next chapter
- Next update: Aug 28, 2017 – late night IST
- The River song today is a recent, unexpected discovery. Something about it just seems to fit here. Hope you enjoy it – I don’t think this is as popular as most River songs are with you all.