With the ardent hope that an early update can make up for my inability to live up to your expectations!
In the Spring of 2015, a few weeks after it was known that she would indeed be at A&M starting September, Arnav had made his long awaited return to the white waters of the Ganga. This time, there was no J, no Ti-Di, no River. DevDwar was a shadow of its pre-Tsunami glory, rough edged and dangerous. It was not a camp he helped run that welcomed him back to the mountains. And a solo kayak expedition in the day, was not the solace it once had been. By the time he had journeyed a couple of kilometers, his arms and stomach had been screaming in protest. His focus was nothing like it once had been. His confidence in his own ability to brave the rapids without tipping over had waned into nothing. To keep himself going for the half-track that he had signed up for in anticipation of rusty river skills, he had push himself hard. Every muscle ached, every bone squeaked, lungs constricted in sharp, painful protest.
And yet this, was harder, he conceded to himself with a sharp intake of breath as he allowed his lips to graze the corner of her mouth one last time before he pushed himself away from the wall that he had her pinned against in the attic. Especially when she opened her eyes, slowly like she was being roused from deep sleep or fervent passion and fixed him with that imploring gaze which seemed to demand more every time he tried to contain himself with less. How could he tell her that this was already testing, rather severely, the limits of restraint he possessed? That a little snap from here and now could only lead down the path of all the way and no less? How could he push her to give in when they were both still so fresh from the decade of heartache that they carried in their beings. There would be no coming back from any mistakes this time. And he was sure neither of them could afford that.
“Hi,” He said to her as she blinked away from his gaze and pushed her glasses up nervously. The gesture both worried him and entranced him in equal measure. He slid his hands down her arms and pulled her fingers into his.
As the warmth of her skin seeped into his, she smiled slowly and the uncertainty in her eyes flickered and died. “A little late for greetings, don’t you think?”
He smiled, his heart lifting in a giant expanse of relief that he had remind himself, was here to stay. They were in that place he had only wondered about in inexplicable fascination over the last few years. “Never too late for greetings,” He replied and then dipped his head and kiss the little spot at the base of her neck that was his nemesis. The quick look of drugged shock that flashed behind her glasses was rewarding enough to make him chuckle.
He tugged at her and pulled her towards the small sofa-bed that was currently, thankfully, more sofa than bed. They had slipped out of the den earlier in the evening and headed right to the kitchen where he had surprised her by leaning against the wall and pulling her right in for the kiss he’d wanted for hours, one she had made him wait for like he had rarely waited for little else in his life. He had always prided himself on patience, on control, on restraint. And this woman, this absolutely maddeningly mysteriously alluring woman, was challenging them all – one flick of an eyebrow at a time.
“This is so….strange…” She whispered as they sat on the sofa bed, his hand still linked with hers, their arms touching slightly.
“Is it?” He asked playfully, though he knew exactly what she was talking about. Heck, this was strange. Wasn’t it just last time that he was mooning like a lovesick idiot as he brushed his fingers against her sleep soft cheeks? “I guess strange is a step up from embarrassing.”
“It is embarrassing too.” She insisted. “We are in this house and yet…” She looked at him in accusation, failing miserably to convey any real anger if that was what she was aiming for. “You made a statement today. What if I hadn’t wanted to?”
“Thank heavens you wanted to,” He smiled sheepishly. They were in Nishant’s house but once they’d left the den after a declaration as silently public as that, he’d seen no reason to suffer their company when all he wanted – and he was fairly sure she did too – was to be with each other exclusibely. After all, he saw Nishant, Divya and now Arjun too often for his own good. Sometimes in life one just has to make bold choices, he reminded himself with a chuckle and shrugged.
“Believe me, Nishant and Divya have done this to me enough times for them to take offense now. As for Arjun…” He looked at her. “He’s had your attention far longer. I think he will be okay without it for a bit.”
He had clench his fists and hold back from catching her lips with his teeth when he saw her chew on them as she fought a blush as deep as the crimson blouse she was wearing.
“You sound jealous.” She said softly, her words surprised and yet faintly tinged with dismissal. He was grateful for the latter. The last thing he wanted was her to freak out about something as stupid as a tinge of envy. Envy – he preferred the word infinitely given how much more rational it sounded. But it was not, if he was honest with himself, envy he felt. It was envy’s rustic cousin that singed in his chest every once in a rare blue moon. Jealousy wasn’t his favorite emotion – he had rarely felt it in the past. His sister always maintained younger siblings were less susceptible to jealousy especially if they happened to be as smart as or smarter than their older siblings. But then, Ti-Di was prone to outlandish generalizations as these and he knew better than to assign any value to her statements.
“At this point, I have a feeling I am in a better place than him.” He said with a shrug and then wondered how much she had guessed about Arjun’s state of heart. And if she had…
“You know about his love life.” She said absently, her eyes focused on his collar but not clearly not seeing him. “Of course, you would. It just makes sense that I am the last one to…”
He frowned. “I don’t…” He raised his hands and then shook his head. “I don’t know anything at all that he told me, Khushi, because he didn’t tell me anything. But you can’t blame a man for using his head.” He said lightly, hoping that the playfulness in his voice was enough to diffuse a potentially volatile situation.
“How can you guess about Tripti and him and say it’s your head working over time? You don’t even know Tripti.” She said incredulously, now looking at him with narrowed eyes.
She did have a point. But what was he supposed to say? So he shrugged. “I must be psychic.”
She continued to look right at him, her entire focus directed at him and him alone – a feeling he treasured beyond measure, and rolled her eyes. “Sure.”
He laughed and placed a kiss on her shoulder making her shiver again. God, he could get used to this. If he wasn’t already, that is. “It bothers you?” He asked. “Krishna and Arjun?”
She looked at him queerly. “You also know he calls her that…” She paused and then her eyes became unfocused, like she had slipped a million miles away. “He always has. It almost makes it seem like it’s a different person he speaks to, speaks of…But she isn’t. She is Tripti. She is my little baby. She always had a crush on him but…He decided he had a crush on…well….” She bit her lips and looked away. “Now he says…no, he didn’t quite say it. He just implied that it’s not him who is confused but her…it makes no sense and I don’t know how to help. I hate feeling like this.”
His heart skipped a beat the earnest desperation in her voice and the fact that he was privy to it, that he was with her in this somehow. They were on the same side. They were not the problem anymore. And if anything, they could be the…He shook his head. “You can be there for them. But no, you cannot help them. This is for them to figure out.”
She snorted. “What does that even mean – being there for them? Watch with hands folded neatly? That’s…”
“Tough…yes it is.”
“Not the word I was going for.” She commented wryly.
“Nevertheless,” he insisted, “That is the best you can do. Watch and promise not to judge either of them.”
“Even when I will probably agree with only one of them and most likely think the other is an idiot?”
He nodded. “Even then, yes.”
She narrowed her brows further at him. “Of course, you are the younger sibling. You don’t get it.”
“I get it because I am the younger sibling.” He smiled and shook his head. “I do not want to generalize, every dynamic is different. But…I don’t think I need to tell you that it can be annoying to have people meddle in your business unless you specifically ask them for help.”
Her eyes softened and for a second he wondered if she understood just how personally he’d lived through the advice he was doling out so generously. When he had recounted the Aarohan days to her, he’d skimmed over a lot of what really went behind. He wasn’t naïve enough to think that the pain of the past decade was over and that there would never be any angry, sad or wistful recollections of their mistakes in the future. Over the course of their lifetime, of course, she would probably ask for more detail. Or maybe he would be the one who would feel she needed to know more. Perhaps, someday when Ti-Di decided to include her right in to her grand scheme of discourse and direction, he’d even share with her what well-meaning but misplaced advice and action can lead to.
“I am worried about them.” She said simply but her grip on his fingers tightened reassuringly as if she’d heard every thought that had just crossed his mind. Did she realize she was doing it? Did she realize how easy it was to believe that she understood what he wasn’t really saying out aloud?
“Do you like them? Arjun and Krishna?” He asked instead, sinking right into the task at hand. He really was in his element when he helped people think.
She smiled bemusedly. “Of course. My sister and my best…”
He shook his head. “I didn’t ask if you loved them. I am sure you do. I am asking if you like them. As people.”
Her eyes widened in understanding and she watched him deeply thoughtful for a second before she slowly nodded.
“What do you like about them?”
“They are both fiercely loyal – that terms fits both Trip and Arjun like a glove. Tripti is also very clear about what she wants – and she understands the choices she needs to make to get to that. I have always admired and envied that about her. And,” Her eyes took on that faraway look again, “I guess I can say that about Arjun too. I’ve always believed they were very similar. And that’s why it worries me even more. Both of them can be so pig-headed about what they think.” She blinked and looked at him.
He chuckled. “As well-masked as it is, it sounds like you trust them to do what is best for themselves.”
She smiled unsurely and shrugged slightly. “I didn’t say that at all.”
She shook her head but her eyes were laughing now. She was a proud woman and it was one of the things he loved about her even though he knew it wouldn’t always be as alluring as it was right now, especially when he would find his own pride placed in opposition. A part of him, he had to admit, was also looking forward to that side of their relationship when it did reach that stage.
“But there is something I think you should know.”
He raised an eyebrow and glanced at her in askance.
“I am terrible with surprises and you’ve done it twice in less than a week. First with the midnight appearance on your birthday and now Arjun.” She was looking at him worriedly. “If that is the expectation…”
He burst out laughing at the absolute unexpectedness of her comment.
“Don’t laugh.” She said with a frown. “I come from a family where surprises – even simple ones – are seen as bearers of heart attacks. We’ve never had something even as simple as the surprise birthday gift. So I have no idea how to do it to someone in the future…”
“Stop, stop,” He closed his eyes and tried to contain the chortles. “You don’t have to return everything you get, you know. That would be a very difficult way to live – a running general ledger of relationships.”
She pulled her hand away from his and her lips turned down, as if he’d trashed her favorite song by comparing it to Himesh Reshammiya.
“Sorry,” He said soberly as he reached out for her fingers again. “I didn’t mean to make a joke out of it but…you know what I mean, right? There are no expectations as long as we are both who we really are and nothing less.”
She smiled slightly and then let out a deep sigh, muttering something under her breath. He wanted to ask her to say it out aloud. He wanted to know every little thought that scampered around like wild mice in her head. But if she was already calling him high-handed, he needed to tone it down a little. Where was this side of him coming from anyway? He was always the kind of person who believed his imagination of what was going on in a person’s mind was more than enough to compensate of their lack of revelation. And now…
“So is this something you get from your family? Ti-Di does seem like the kind of person who would be terrific at arranging surprises.”
He looked at her and shook his head. “Ti-Di can’t keep a secret to save her life. The need to tell someone is too strong for her to handle. She wanted to surprise J with a surprise birthday party for his thirty-fifth birthday and,” He chuckled out aloud, “she told him just as he walked in on us planning – the very first day. No, definitely don’t get it from Ti-Di.”
She laughed, the deep, husky sound warming his blood in a manner that had to be entirely inappropriate given they were at a friend’s house. “Then?”
He looked at her sharply at that. “Wait a minute, why does it have to be someone who inspired me to be this way? How boring do you think I am?”
She grinned and then bit her lip as if suddenly conscious of how easily he’d guessed her secret.
“J,” He conceded with a rueful smile. “He is the master of fun surprises. He sent my parents a TV on their anniversary last week – just like that. The number of times he shocks the hell out of Di by turning up when she least expects him to – especially given how much he travels…”
She smiled indulgently, her eyes warm and bright enough for him to see the memories of her time at the River swimming through her head. He couldn’t wait for them to go back to the Ganga in the Himalayas some day. Perhaps DevDwar finally…
“Do you mind if I ask you about Saira?”
It was the tentativeness of her question that jolted him out of his idle reverie more than the topic she chose. He shook his head and reminded himself that they were, despite the decade gone by, still very new to this relationship that had them knotted for so long.
“Where is she?” Khushi asked softly, “I mean…now…have you seen her after…”
Arnav took a deep breath. “She lives in Dubai with her husband and four year old. They are both doctors. I think they both practice too – at least she did before her daughter was born.” Ti-Di and Saira had reestablished connect a couple of years ago around the time of Shlok’s birth. It was one of the things, he believed, that had saved her sister’s sanity when J had disappeared to the mountains. “I haven’t met her since the wedding got cancelled – it is better this way, I think. My parents have shifted from Patna, sold their house there and everything. Papa does some consulting work for the State. So Delhi works for them. Plus they get to be around J and Ti-Di, Amma helps with Shlok…”
She stared at him sadly, as if she could read his mind about how much he regretted the distance between his parents and him in the aftermath of what had happened with Saira. Things were improving but he was aware enough to know that the cracks would always stay hidden beneath the surface. Someday, soon enough, he would have to tell her more about how things stood between his parents, especially his father, and him.
“You were together for two years after IE-V – you really would have married her if she had not…”
He sighed. “Yes, I think I would have.” What was the point lying to her? Not that she would be fooled if he did.
She nodded quietly and he knew she understood. “The man she married – he is Muslim?”
He smiled at her perceptiveness and nodded. “Sunni Muslim. Saira and family – they are Shias. After me, however, Ahmed Uncle was more than happy to give his blessings.”
And then, as if he had been waiting for this moment for years, the words of memory simply poured out of his mouth. “Those two years after IE-V, though we seemed to have everything solved for, we weren’t together in the true sense of the word. If I was struggling, so was she. The only difference being that she hadn’t yet met Yassar – her husband now – yet. For her, just knowing that there was something different with me was…the eventual, final straw. And she knew without me having to tell her. We pretended to be okay but rarely even spoke of more than the mundane. It didn’t help that I had B-school extracting its pound of flesh on the side.” He threw his head back and closed his eyes, pulling her on to his chest as he did. “It was in those long silences of forced togetherness – a need to preserve what we had fought for – that I think both of us realized that it was the romance of the forbidden, the thrill of inter-religion marriages, the need to realize naivete that comes with idealism, that was what kept us going all along.”
Silence filled his mind as he finished talking. For a long moment, he stayed immobile, listening to the sound of their mingled breathing in the quiet of the night and the small space in the attic. And it was then he realized that he was at last at peace. This little trip down broken memory lane, was easier than it had been in a long, long time. And for this, he had this wonderful woman in his arms to thank for.
“I love you,” He whispered and tightened his arm around her when her fingers tightened around the lapels of his collared T-shirt in response. Someday, she would tell him she loved him too. Till then, these little gestures were everything he needed.
She raised her head to look at him when he called out her name in a moment of unadulterated yearning. And it was all he could do to not take everything she was offering. He dipped his head and kissed her mouth, her throat, the swell of her breasts. He caught her sighs with his lips and fisted her hair till her eyes fluttered close. And just like that, his body went into overdrive, straining against her in such abandon that he was almost embarrassed.
Jesus, she was driving him insane and she seemed to have no clue she was!
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Haareya
Album: Meri Pyaari Bindu
Singers: Arijit Singh
Lyrics: Priya Saraiya
Khuli aankh se dekha woh, haseen khwaab hai tu
Dil mein jo utar jaaye woh, pyaari baat hai tu
Tere naam ka nasha, nasha hai zubaan pe chha gaya
Iss bekhudi mein doobne se main khud ko na rok sakeya
Dekheya main phool dekheya, khushboo ke nazaaare dekheya
Par tere jaisa na koi, dekheya main
Lagta hai baahon mein teri, bikhre bin rehna hi nahi
Mujhe ishq yeh karne se, ab koi bhi na rok sakeya
- Next update: Monday, Oct 30, late night IST
- I know a lot of you expected *more* from the chapter. I apologize for disappointing you!
- With this the chapter, the River enters the final phase of its journey (and hence the return to the Monday schedule!) I do have a few chapters to go but if all goes well, we will be bidding the River adieu before the year comes to a close. Let me take this moment to thank each and every one of you for helping me get here. There was a moment during the journey, when the fear of never being able to see it through, was as real as these people are in my head.