For Nivi: What can I ever write that will deserve your verse. Perhaps over a lifetime, little bits will add up to be worthy of your magic!
When she waved him off outside her door, she finally understood what all the Hindi songs about waiting and restlessness were about. It wasn’t like she hadn’t been happy before. There were many moments of achievement in her life – she had worked hard for those and rejoiced when they came to fruition. There were just as many moments of disappointment too – ones she had worked just as hard for and yet had to deal with heartbreak and failure. But this…this sense of tranquility laced with a tang of anticipation was – like finding a five hundred rupee note in the pocket of an oft-washed pair of denims. The thought made her chuckle and break out into a little two-step as she closed the door behind her. It was a strange feeling, this sense of contentment in her chest – so warm, bright and wonderful that it scared her, the spring in her step notwithstanding.
The mirror she could see in the distance, didn’t help. Wasn’t having someone who loved her do special things to want to spend time with her, kiss her till she couldn’t think or breathe, make her aware of the physicality of desire and her own surprisingly eager need to explore it, supposed to cure her of her mirror-mirror-on-the-wall fears? Hadn’t this sort of been the converse validation she’d been looking for all her life? Why then did it feel like nothing had changed?
She took a deep breath and allowed herself to push away all thoughts that threatened to rain on her parade. “This is your problem, Kavi. You think too much. Sometimes you just need to go with the flow.” She reminded herself aloud imagining Arjun’s half exasperated, half sympathetic voice in her head. And then she frowned as introspection and vanity gave way to realization.
Where the hell was Arjun? This disappearing act was now beginning to scare her. She should have asked Arnav she realized. If only she’d kept her mind focused on other equally important things… She went over to the table and picked up her phone. She typed up a quick message and sent it to Arjun on all modes of communication. If she didn’t hear from him in till morning India time, she was going to ask Arnav, Tripti and everyone else who they both knew till she had an answer. “Idiot,” She muttered under her breath before she placed the phone down and headed to get dressed for work.
Morning eased into a bright sun. The day was well underway, brimming with to-dos and reviews, and she had still not heard from Arjun. To say that she was panicking would now be an understatement. So, when the phone rang from an unknown area code a little before noon, she answered breathlessly, hoping to jump right into asking Arnav – who was the only one who could possibly be calling her from within the States during work hours.
“Where is he?” The question slipped on her tongue and found voice before her brain could remind her to expect a stranger on the other end. Her face warmed as she heard silence on the other end.
“Look now I have to sing Main yahaan hoon, yahaan hoon, yahaan. You cannot get all…”
“Arjun!” She all but yelled into the phone and then realized Ken and Maddy were looking at her funnily. She mouthed an apology in their direction and rose from her desk to head to the pantry. This was going to be loud even in her most muted voice.
“Where the fuck are you? Is this some sort of joke?” She hissed into the phone.
“Woah, what’s with the cursing?”
“Ha! You are chastising me for cursing after the Mr. India act you pulled?”
Arjun took a deep breath. “I am travelling for orals, baba. It happened suddenly so couldn’t…”
“Couldn’t what? Couldn’t send one message that….” She swallowed her anger spit. “Wait…wait a minute…you are in the US? You are here for the Ivy orals?” She squealed. Nah, she corrected herself. She didn’t squeal. This was just some high pitched excitement.
“No. I am in Gurgaon.” He replied.
“The number is…”
“Since I don’t have access to the office VOIP, I’m routing the call through VPN to save money,” He interrupted. “I can explain it to you in detail. It is bound to come in very handy for the future, right?”
“Arjun…” She began…
“I promise, Kavi. I am not in the US. You think I wouldn’t tell you? I mean we tell each other everything now, don’t we?” He asked but the laughter in his voice was unmistakable. “By the way, when you answered the phone, who were you asking about me?”
Khushi’s face flamed. But she was not going to reveal her most treasured secret while at work and over the phone. Not when she could still feel the panic of Arjun’s disappearance in her finger tips. “Who said I was asking about you? I just happened to answer the phone when I was asking Ken about Jeff.” She lied easily.
“Ah yes. Ken. Of course. You’re a Barbie Girl, in the Barbie world….”
Khushi held back her chuckle and plich-ed into the phone.
“Anyway, I just wanted you to know I am alive – even if barely. Don’t go ballistic with all these notes and voice messages and…”
“You, Arjun Agarwal, are an absolute pig. I hate you. Go to hell. And I hope you lose your orals just for being this mean to me.”
Arjun chuckled. “Nah, not a chance. This one we are winning.”
“What client is this? And how come you are working on this new client instead of Ivy?”
“I’ll tell you everything later in your evening today. Abhi I have to go…it’s late here…Take care okay?”
Khushi sighed and nodded. “Fine. You don’t love me anymore either. I get it” She said with a terrible attempt at a pout, repeating their favorite joke.
“That’s right, I don’t.” He confirmed seriously and chuckled a quick farewell before hanging up.
Khushi heaved a sigh of relief and locked her phone. Now she could get through the rest of the day peacefully.
“How was it?” Khushi asked into the phone as soon as she answered Arnav’s call – this time it was his name flashing on the screen. It was almost ten in the night and she was beginning to wonder if she would be able to speak with Arnav at all before his birthday ended. Since he’d left earlier in the morning, she’d only received two messages from him – one before his flight to L.A. took off and one once he’d landed.
“It’s been more than twelve hours since we spoke and the first thing you ask me about is work? I am hurt, Khushi.” He said so seriously, for a second she wondered if he really was. Then she decided there was no way it could be true.
So she shrugged to herself, invisible as it still was to him, and said, “Yes” into the phone. “Priorities.” She added when she heard him chuckle on the other end.
“You mean smart bwoy…” She offered with a smile and was pleased when his chuckles became deeper and more pronounced.
“I actually mean I love you?” He asked, his voice strangely a whisper when compared to how the conversation had been shaping up all this while.
“I…” She began instinctively and then realized what she was about to say with a mortified grimace. Just this morning she’d declared that she wouldn’t be disclosing her life’s most important secret over a phone call to her best friend and now…she had been about to blurt out her most important disclosure thoughtlessly to the one it was meant for, over a phone call. She cleared her throat. “Did the team at Ivy, or at least our own folks from A&M know that it’s your birthday today?” She asked instead.
“The small group here knows. We are going out for drinks in a bit.”
She smiled, glad that he wasn’t alone on his birthday. But then, if this had been her, she’d have been groaning her way to a party when sitting alone in her room and reading or watching some show or even just a Friends re-run for the thousandth time would have been more fun. “And how was it? Do we know which way they are inclined?”
“Not yet,” Arnav answered. “I am not very sure we’ll get this one. Murphy had their head of North America Automotive fly in for the orals.”
“Why are you laughing?” He asked curiously.
“When I asked Arjun about his orals today, he was a hundred percent sure A&M would win. And he is not even the lead on the bid.” Khushi said with a shake of her head. “He is so insane. When he makes Partner someday, A&M should seriously consider selling out.”
“By the way, if we do win, are you planning to bring him to the US?” She asked.
He cleared his throat. “Er…” He paused and then cleared his throat again.
She’d not intended to put him on the spot with the question – it had been innocent but now with this evident discomfort, this could be fun she concluded. And Arjun thought she was the one with rigid rules about right and wrong. Ha ha! “You do owe him a project in the US” She teased, referring to his disclosure that he had picked her and not Arjun when he’d had a chance.
“I do, yes.” He said slowly. “Yeah, I guess it is safe to say that if I have a chance to staff him on a project in the US now, I won’t let it go.”
Khushi smiled. Ha! Like anyone could put Arnav in a spot. Earnestness should be banned, she murmured before sighing into it herself. “Then I hope Ivy comes through. That way he’ll be here before I have to head back and I might just get to visit at least one interesting place before Tripti nominates me for the most boring person of the new millennium.”
There was a whole minute of silence on the other end as Khushi imagined the happy eventuality of Arjun’s arrival in the States and then realized something was off.
“Hello?” She said into the phone.
There was shuffling on the other end and Arnav’s voice came a throat-clearing moment later. “Yeah.”
Khushi’s face flushed. Was Arnav upset about what she’d just said? It was unlikely but…Shit! Shiv-ji…was she supposed to ask him out for a weekend to some visit worthy location on the mainland? How? How did that even work? And….God…this is what happened when one spent a lifetime without having had a romantic relationship. She knew nothing about how things worked and people her age and many years younger played this game so smartly and efficiently. Heck, they even had dating apps now in India – something her American sitcom addled brain had scoffed at and dismissed as a thing of science fiction (and she was usually bullish on the usual things of science fiction like driverless cars, et al)
“Khushi, I have to go. Cash,” he said referring to another Partner at the firm, “is waving me over. I don’t think you’ll be up by the time we are done here. So wish me once before I go…please…”
She was such an idiot. Who the hell talked about going sight seeing with a friend when they were speaking to a new…well boyfriend had to be the acceptable term here…and one who’s birthday it so happened to be. “Happy birthday, Arnav” She whispered and forced all the love she felt in her bones to seep into her wish. I love you. She added silently and promised herself she would eventally make up for all the time she was taking for no reason at all.
“I love you,” He whispered. “My song for today is Tujhe na dekhoon toh chain”
Khushi smiled and shook her head. “I used to love it.”
“At least the song gets the declaration I am waiting for.”
“Good night.” She said softly. “Have fun at your party. Talk to you tomorrow.”
“See you day after,” He corrected matter-of-factly before hanging up.
Eventually, they decided to meet at Nishant-Sir’s place directly on Saturday – not Khushi or Arnav’s first choice by their own individual admission though it was only Arnav who said it out aloud. So Khushi drove across town on her own, the drive setting her free in a way that could only be explained in the context of the big change in her life. The nerves that would have accompanied her in the past were replaced by the flutter of a thousand butterflies in her stomach, the thought of seeing him again after almost forty eight hours. The thought was enough to send her into a tizzy of self-deprecatory chuckles. After having avoided him for five years, she was exaggering the pain of one thousandth of that duration with such drama. When, she wondered, as the car tinkled with all the songs she had actively avoided these last five years, would seeing him become something her heart could handle without threatening explosion into her veins? Did either of her parents still feel that skip of beat when they saw each other after a certain time lapse? Or was this one of those naya pyaar hai, naya intezaar occurrences that would fade away with time only to thrum in her fingers in moments of snatched nostalgia?
When she pulled up into Nishant-Sir’s driveway a little before noon on Saturday, however, the visual that greeted her sent all her longings and wonderings stuffing back to the corner of her brain. She saw Nishant Kumar Pathak and Divya Sahay, laughing as they pulled out weeds and other overgrown plants from their yard, their faces tilted towards each other in a manner of such comfortable companionship that she couldn’t help just sit and stare. They were both completely oblivious to the engine that was roaring just a few feet from them. She didn’t need to see the Steinway to know that the proposal Arnav had talked about, had been made. And accepted.
Smiling to herself, she turned the ignition off and stepped out of Escape. It was Nishant-Sir who saw her first and almost comically jumped back from his fiancée as if they had been caught making out.
“Congratulations!” She shouted out at them both and burst out into peals of warm laughter as they shook hands and exchanged hugs and did that a couple of more times before the gardening was abandoned and the trio headed into the house.
“So, are return congratulations due?” Divya Ma’am asked when they were both seated in the den with mugs of steaming coffee – of the South Indian filter variety courtesy Divya’s best friend who had come visiting in the intervening weeks between Khushi’s last visit and now. “Rather, are we allowed to congratulate you just as openly as happily as you did us?”
Khushi’s bored blood stream eased its way through the capillaries under the skin of her neck and jaw, heating her face with lazy precision. She blinked and struggled to toss her brain about for a suitable response. None was made available by the little nasty imps that routinely took up residence in her cerebral cavity.
Thankfully, Nishant-Sir chimed in with a soft but reproachful “Tche” that evoked a laugh from Divya Ma’am and successfully transformed the conversation to information seeking of the slightly more innocuous variety.
“He’ll drive down from the airport directly,” Khushi answered, struggling to keep her face straight and blush-free. “He should have landed by now.”
“This is going to be fun,” Divya Ma’am wiggled her eyebrows suggestively. “I cannot wait.”
“Divya,” Nishant-Sir interrupted only to have Divya Ma’am make a face at him.
“You are a kill-joy, NK.”
“A kill-joy you’ve agreed to marry.” Khushi pointed out and then bit her tongue. She shouldn’t have said that. Now…
“Aha!” Divya Ma’am raised an eyebrow. She then turned to Nishant-Sir and clucked. “See? Gloves are off. Now you…” She gestured with her hands for him to back off, “She doesn’t need saving.”
Nishant-Sir rolled his eyes but Khushi didn’t miss the smile on his face – like a secret he was holding on to, one that he shared with Divya. She had always enjoyed watching couples – sometimes almost voyeuristically. There was something beautifully romantic about how couples – stage of their relationship notwithstanding – seemed to have a visibly invisible connection adorned with secret smiles, private words and phrases, brief but lingering touches and gazes that spoke volumes even in silence. Now she suddenly realized that Arnav and she might be this obvious to others too. Heck, last time there was nothing obviously stated between them and Divya Ma’am had still seemed to know. Now…
“Achcha baba, I cannot believe that I am supposed to be the fun person in this quartet.” Divya-Ma’am said with a chuckle, shaking her head at both Nishant-Sir and her. “There’s no need to look horrified. Kaveri – I won’t pull your leg. In any case, pulling you leg without Arnav makes little sense. When he is here though…” She shrugged. “Anyway, there is something I’d like to get your opinion on…” She said as she rose and walked up to a small uncovered closet of sorts and extracted a long steel and wooden, expensive looking case – one that might have held something as precious as the Elder Wand in a different world. “We can’t obviously do much if you don’t like it but…” Divya Ma’am brought it and placed in Khushi’s now extended hands. “We got this for Arnav’s birthday. What do you think?”
Khushi unclasped the steel buckles on the sides and opened the box to reveal a shining long silver instrument she recognized as a flute a few seconds after her eyes had adjusted to its image. “A flute.” She whispered and looked at Nishant and Divya in awe. “It’s beautiful.” Now THIS was a gift. She had so much to learn.
The couple heaved a sigh of relief, which Khushi would laugh at in memory a few months later. “When you buy a Steinway, you get to see a range of musical instruments and this…seemed so perfect. We just couldn’t resist!” Divya Ma’am said excitedly.
Khushi smiled at that and looked at the flute again in amazement. She was scared to even extract the thing from the box and they were going to… “He…plays?”
Thankfully, neither of them looked surprised by her ignorance. Shiv-ji, she groaned miserably. For someone who was intensely private, this was a new experience having near-strangers know and witness the evolution of a romantic relationship. But then, she realized, this thing she shared with Arnav, had hardly ever been hidden, was it? These people she had just labeled near strangers, had been there right from the beginning, even if they hadn’t been on the entire journey.
“Yeah. And despite what he will say when he plays, he is really good. Some people are just…gifted with music.” Divya Ma’am said warmly. “Part of the reason I even wanted to take piano lessons…which…” She waved proudly at the majestic Steinway that was now the pride of the den, “…is because Arnav has been so inspiring with the flute.”
There was so much she still didn’t know about Arnav. But strangely, this time, unlike five years ago, she felt more anticipation than anxiety that came from ignorance. Smiling at the slight flutter of nerves in her fingers, she looked at Divya Ma’am. “I’m sure you will be great with the piano, Divya Ma’am.”
“Ma’am? Abhi bhi Ma’am? Do you call Arnav Sir too? Because I can see why that would work for him. It does for some of these guys…”
Someday I will stop blushing, Khushi promised herself silently as she smiled and ignored Divya’s question and the need to look at her phone.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Mere Haath Mein
Singers: Sunidhi Chauhan, Sonu Nigam
Lyrics: Prasoon Joshi
Jitne paas paas, dhadkan ke hain raaz
Jitne paas boondon ke baadal
Jaise saath saath, chanda ke hai raat
Jitne paas nainon ke kaajal
Jitne paas paas, saagar ke lehar
Utne paas tu rehna humsafar
Tu jo paas ho, phir kya yeh jahaan
Tere pyaar mein, ho jaaoon fanaa
Next Update: Wednesday, Oct 11, late night IST
Not proof-read – please excuse typos!