The weekend, blissful as it was, came to end precisely forty eight hours later – at the end of which Arjun flew back to LA and Khushi and Arnav returned to their Inn near the Wyatt Headquarters. Eventually, Arnav Varun double timed the two projects – one each with Khushi and Arjun each. He spent three days with Ivy Networks in LA and the two before the weekend with Wyatt. To say that Khushi missed him with the keenness of heartache would be an understatement. But the fact that she was hurtling down the slope of the final days before the end of the Wyatt Motors project, was a big help in these times. She found no weekends free after the one they spent with Arjun, Nishant and Divya – not to visit parts of the US she had so wished to including New York, LA and Orlando, neither to catch up with Arjun and probe into the status of his relationship with Tripti – as weird as that sounded in her head; and worse of all, not even to simply be with Arnav in the carefree manner that they both wished to. For the few intervening hours that separated any two eighteen hour work-days that Arnav spent in Detroit, they spent every waking and somnolent moment in each other’s company – talking, kissing and sighing deeply as they reached that point in their mutual passion that seemed to be the lakshman-rekha they didn’t seem to be able to cross.
And still before either of them realized it, it was time for her to head back to India, the project at Wyatt wrapped up successfully with compliments rained on the team for a job well done that Khushi knew would go a long way in establishing her as consultant of choice back in the Bangalore office.
Given she was heading back east and that she would lose time on her return, Khushi’s trip was planned on a Friday when she’d left eight weeks ago. Who would have thought then that the lack of one relaxed Friday evening and Saturday morning would bring her so much pain? The final client presentation was scheduled for Thursday in the middle of April and was followed by much celebration until the wee hours of the morning. Of course, this meant that Khushi and Arnav had absolutely no time with each other that last night. Friday went by in a bundle of energy with farewell meetings, wrap up activities including handing over working files and final documents to the Wyatt project teams. It was on the way to the airport (Arnav had insisted on driving her to the airport with little resistance from from) that they found their final moments of privacy together before they would be separated for more than a couple of months.
To say that the mood in the Escape was glum, would be a gross misrepresentation of fact.
“The invite for Humsafar came in last night.” Arnav was saying as Khushi collected a couple of deep breaths and tried to rein in the rising sense of panic at the impending distance that they would have to deal with now.
“You are planning to go?” She asked in surprise. Humsafar was the annual IE-V alumni event that usually took place in December. Khushi received the invitation every year and every year she ignored it with the painstaking precision of flippancy. She visited campus and her parents often enough to rarely feel nostalgic about her time at IE-V. But more than everything else, in the past, going to Humsafar was always accompanied by the fear of running into Arnav. Even if that situation had changed now, the fact that she’d lost touch with most of her classmates at IE-V except Arjun meant that there was nothing that attracted her to Humsafar.
“I keep thinking about going every year. Of course, most of time in the hope and fear of running into you,” He admitted with a rueful smile. “But this year,” He said and turned to glance at her quickly before averting his eyes back to the road. “We could go together.”
“Together?” She asked incredulously. Did he understand what that meant? Declaration to his best friends was one thing. Declaration to the world of known strangers was another. But going to Humsafar “together” meant declaring their relationship to her parents. And here she was, still holding on to three words – the lack of which didn’t even seem to bother Arnav Varun as much as it bothered her for not saying it out aloud. But then, this was also the man she loved who seemed perfectly content with getting hot and heavy for a few moments when their lips and tongues battled and mated and performed every other cosmic partnership ritual that could be limited to hands and mouths. It was driving her crazy. Enough to make her wonder about her own desirability in a way that she had stuffed under layers of rose-tinted romance in the last few weeks.
“Hmm.” He said with a thoughtful nod. “It bothers you?”
She took a deep breath and shook her head. “No. I just…I have never been keen on Humsafar or any other such events – I haven’t even gone back to IM-B yet though Arjun keeps pestering me to every year.”
He looked at her for a long second and then looked away, his face betraying nothing. But the wheels in his head were squeaking in her ears – in just a few weeks, she could claim with some confidence the ability to read his mind – that itself she knew was more romantic than most people could claim in a lifetime. Perhaps all this thought about what he saw in her was mostly stemming from the impending separation. She needed to let it go, for the sake of them both.
“My parents will be there” She said a couple of seconds later, re-directing her energy to the matter at hand.
He nodded slightly. “I realize that.”
They were treading on eggshells that she could easily sweep away from the path if she just so willed. What was it that stopped her, she didn’t know. Or perhaps she did rather clearly.
“Will you even be in India at the time? I mean can you predict your schedule that far ahead?” She asked instead, hoping that logistics was a way out in a manner that honesty could never equal in impact.
“December is usually travel light. Most clients are on vacation. It can be worked out if needed.” He said quietly. “I am also planning to find more work in India once I am back from Ivy. Shyam needs someone to help him sell in the domestic market. He’s been asking for a while.”
She knew about this to some extent, of course. More and more of their multi-national clients were seeking support for their operations in India. Practitioners – especially those in mid-management levels and upwards, also sought low travel, or at least domestic travel options. Building a strong practice in India made sense for A&M on almost all fronts. But she wasn’t middle management. She was new and this was time for her to rest her wings for strength and sustainability. “I want to continue to work in the most interesting projects that come my way – irrespective of geography.” She said softly. She didn’t doubt that he would understand but then everything had to be said at least once, didn’t it?
He looked at her with narrowed brows. “Of course. I don’t mean to imply that our being together is greater than what you need to do for your career at this point. We will manage without life altering career decisions.”
She smiled. “Easier said than done.”
He laughed ruefully. “Like most other things except three little words that some people seem to sadistically love to hold on to in their gut.”
She raised an eyebrow at him though her heart was hammering in its imprisonment. “Karma is a female dog, haven’t you heard?”
“Female dog! That’s definitely one way to render an insult useless!” He laughed. “And touche!” As his laughs subsided, a deep sigh took over. “The time zones aren’t going to help. This is going to be crazy. Why did I have to say yes to Ivy? I should’ve let them figure out a way without me.”
She wanted to grab his face and kiss him smack on the mouth for how adorably upset he looked with his lips pulled down almost comically. Somebody should have mentioned that love was a roller-coaster in no uncertain terms, she said to herself. And then remembered that this was exactly what most Bollywood song in the nineties was about, almost. Kabhi hanste hain, kabhi rote hain. Pyaar karne waale toh, she mentally chuckled, deewane hote hain
“It’s just two months.” She told herself as much as she told him. “With Arjun by your side, it will fly by in no time at all.”
“He isn’t as much of a kisser though.”
Her eyebrows shot up to her brow as her chuckles grew to full fledged laughter and cheeks warmed with a rush of fresh oxygenated blood. “Should I be worried?” She asked playfully, her eyes tearing up with mirth at the absolute unexpectedness of his retort.
He shrugged and then looked at her and winked. Shiv-ji, she loved him. She loved him so damned much. How was she ever going to get to a place where this feeling that was bubbling in her chest settled down into something routine and mundane? She looked away from him and crossed her fingers as inconspicuously as possible. The rest of the ride passed by in a volley of light, meaningless conversation. The feeling of melancholy, however, only seemed to grow deeper and thicker as they neared the Metropolitan airport where she would board her flight back home. By the time they were at the terminal, parked and steering their way to the entry, silence dominated the space between them. Every touch of his hand as he caressed the small of her back, pried her suitcase from her fingers and pulled her closer to himself as they walked, seemed to grasping at moments that were going to be their solace for the next few weeks.
When she looked at him in those final moments before she had to absolutely leave, her eyes shimmered and threatened to spill. Crying was ridiculous. Crying with goodbyes was worse. And yet, both Tripti and she always shed some tears – mostly in private – when they bid loved ones adieu – it was a Gupta sister tradition that they were both loathe to admit to anyone except the other.
“I am going to miss you, Khushi.” He whispered as he bent forward and pulled her into a kiss. The kiss was desperate and urgent. She felt the sweep of his tongue as sharply in her navel as it singed through the pulse in her wrist. She kissed him back fervently, hoping that everything she couldn’t yet say in words – for reasons she didn’t want to dwell on in the moment, found its way to his bloodstream and eventually his heart.
“I’ll miss you too.” She whispered against his mouth as his thumbs caressed the spot behind either ear. “Come back soon.”
He smiled against her lips and kissed her lightly again. “I love you.” He said as he looked into her eyes, pushing her glasses on the bridge of her nose before she did it herself. “Khushi,”
“You trust me when I say that I love you?”
She frowned and looked at him queerly. How…
“You know that I mean it forever, right? Irrespective of what you say or not. Irrespective of whether others know about us or not.” He kissed the corner of her mouth. “This is it.”
She knew what and why he was saying what he was. And she knew why she was in a place where it had come to this. But this was not the time for thoughts that would ruin the moment. Now was the time to savor what he was lavishing upon her without question – those could and would come later. “Nice try.” She whispered in a husky voice with what she hoped was a teasing grin. “But five months,” She said as she cleared her throat and stepped away from him. “is non-negotiable.”
“Witch.” He said with an exaggerated but indulgent smile.
“Thank you.” She replied saucily and picked up her suitcase and bag. She was going to miss him with an ache worse than the one in her chest right this moment, she realized as she waved to him and stepped through the glass doors and one step closer to putting thousands of miles between them.
“He told you.”
Khushi waited for a second before she answered. “Not in so many words.” She cradled the phone against her ear and slung her bag on the other shoulder even as she continued to walk. It was the end of her first day back in the Bangalore office and since she wasn’t staffed on a project yet and because Raagini was in Tokyo on her first project just like Arjun was on his, she was free at five in the evening – still early to call Arnav in LA. So she called Tripti. Not that she hadn’t spoken to her sister since her return – she had – in short bursts. Today, however, Khushi’s patience had finally given way and she’s broached the topic she’d turned up and down in her head many million times before she’s let the question spill out so inelegantly. “I would have preferred hearing it from you.”
The snort on the other end of the phone was as familiar as the tone of Tripti’s reply. “Don’t start that now, Di. Irrespective of who broke the news to you, you’d have found a way to be upset.”
Khushi bristled and then sighed defeatedly. Of all the things in the world, the last thing she needed was to be angry. Tripti, however, was clearly quite at the end of her patience too. They hadn’t fought in so long that she’d missed the signs of an impending one. And so it was coming to her as a surprise. One she was not prepared for. “That’s not fair…”
“Fair? You want to talk about fair? How is it fair that you are asking me about Arjun – who I have no future with – when you won’t tell me about Arnav Varun?”
Khushi’s tongue rolled and stuttered on the words, her brain conjuring angry images of Arjun when Tripti continued as furiously as ever. “No, your precious Arjun Agarwal didn’t tell me a thing. Call this the sister intuition thing that you claim to be so good at.” She said dryly, the twigs snapping into sparks in her voice.
“If this is how you want to talk, Tripti, I am not interested.” Khushi bit out, now battling with anger of her own only half attributable to outrage at Tripti’s rudeness. The other half of her anger was, of course, thanks to guilt. Of the two of them, it had always been Khushi who said less, kept more to herself. Perhaps it was her self assumed rule of older siblingness or perhaps just who she was.
“See? There you go! I am asking you outright, not mincing any words and still you choose to…”
“I can’t tell you okay?” Khushi interrupted with an unnaturally high pitch of voice. Her heartbeat was pounding in her ears. Everything she’d been battling with in her head, suddenly seemed to be too much to take.
“I can’t tell you because I haven’t told him.” She burst out.
There was a thirty second silence punctuated with the sound of auto-rickshaws and two wheelers headed home for the day.
“And before you ask me why I haven’t told him how I feel, I don’t know.” She confessed. “I am scared. It is all too much, too good to be true.”
“He hasn’t said how he feels?”
Khushi swallowed and blinked back sudden tears. She hated this ridiculous helplessness. What the hell was she doing laying this all on her younger sister when she’d set out to help her in the first place?
“By the silence, I am guessing he has.” Tripti said softly. “And he doesn’t really seem like the kind who would be insincere from what I’ve heard. So the question really is about why you don’t believe him.”
“I don’t doubt…” She began and then realized it wasn’t true. She may believe his words but she didn’t understand how or why it was even possible. And then there was the fact that despite all the soul searing kisses, there was something that was holding Arnav back. She shook her head. This was ridiculous. She knew no one could help her, especially her sister. This was for her to solve on her own. This was for her to trust herself and the fact that she had something that attracted him to her. Whatever that was.
“You know, a long time ago, I told Arjun that you weren’t in love with him. You know why?”
Khushi took a deep breath. “Trip, this is not about Arjun. I am telling you even if he ever felt anything…”
“No, it’s not about Arjun. And I’m not saying what you think I am. So just listen.”
Khushi wanted to laugh out aloud. Her sister did have the most inspiring grandma voice when she really wanted to use it. “I’m listening.”
“You know why I said that you didn’t love him?” Tripti asked softly, the earlier rebuke in her voice all gone. “It wasn’t because I could see that you had fallen in love with Arnav Varun and never really fallen out of it. I think in time and if your AV-Sir had not come traipsing back into your life as often as he did, you’d have moved on from him. But you would have never moved on to anyone.”
“Trip,” She began only to be cut off by Tripti again.
“And it’s because you don’t love yourself, Di. I told Arjun exactly this years ago. You didn’t love him or anyone else because you could not – you still can’t – bring yourself to love you.”
“Tell me it isn’t true. Tell me you still don’t look into the mirror for more than two seconds at a time.” Tripti insisted.
This time, something snapped inside. “I don’t look into the mirror because I know what I will see. I have grown up hearing every version of a flaw that there remotely is in my appearance. I don’t love myself. You are right, Tripti. How can I when at twenty eight years of age, I haven’t had one person ever say anything nice about how I look? Never, Tripti. I am not joking or exaggerating. Except you – no one has ever said anything about how I look – not when I make an effort and definitely never when I have not. I know you don’t understand how that feels, Trip and I am so glad you don’t. Because…” She paused and took a deep breath as tears slipped down the corner of her eyes and spilled on her shirt
“Di, people are crazy. If they haven’t…”
“It’s not just people, Tripti. Our own parents have never….ever….”
There was silence at the other end and Khushi knew that she was wronging her sister by unloading so much of her baggage on her when she of all the people in the world was the one person who brought her any semblance of pride in herself.
“You know Ma, Kavi.” Tripti said, using her name like she always did when the conversation turned serious and one of equals. They had always been that. And Khushi knew to be grateful for that in her life. She may have her issues but she wasn’t idiotic enough to not count her blessings when they were this evident. “She has her own issues about how she looks. She’s passed that on to…”
“I don’t even know what kind of lipstick shade looks good on me.” Khushi said sadly. “Can you believe it? I am twenty eight years old and I get scared of walking into M.A.C because I feel like an idiot when a salesgirl asks me what shade I am looking for. I loved walking into a Walmart just because there wasn’t anyone hovering when I wanted to pick up make-up. And I did. I know I’ll probably never use all of that but…”
“I know, Di. I am right there with you. The idea of being interested in being beautiful was trashed so often when we were kids – it’s difficult to change all of that without motivation. But Di, it has to start somewhere.”
Khushi shook her head. “Chhod na, Trip…”
“No, Di. Bahut chhod diya. Now get hold of your life, get hold of yourself. You are an amazing person. AV-Sir is lucky to have you. Believe me. You are kind, generous, smart, confident, truly liberated and modern in thought…And you…you look like a million bucks, Di. When you smile, there is little that can…”
“Stop,” She said firmly.
“I won’t.” Tripti argued. “Have you seen yourself? Do you know how many times I’ve wished I had the grace with which you carry yourself? Do you know how beautifully poised you appear in a crowd…”
“Ha! That’s because I am a giant…”
“No. Stop that. Don’t say it. Even if you believe it. Don’t say it. Not even to me. When I am paying you a compliment, just say thank you. When you start saying thank you, you’ll realize there are more people saying nice things. They may not be exactly what you want to hear but they will not be nothing either.”
Khushi smiled at the strength of her sister’s voice and crossed her fingers in gratitude and prayer.
“I love you, Di. And there are so many more who do. If AV-Sir is one of those people, trust him to know better than the ten others who have no better business than to run you down – even if it is our own parents.”
Khushi listened to her sister for a long moment, crushing every instinct to dismiss her words. How often had they spoken about this? She knew all of it. And yet…”I called to talk to you about Arjun, Krishna Tripti Gupta.”
“And we will. Eventually. Trust me when I say that I know what I am doing. And though you are…you were – rather his love for you was something I was worried about…it isn’t why Arjun and I have issues.”
The last part of the statement was uttered with such evidently false bravado that Khushi knew it to be untrue.
“Trust me, Di. I know what I am doing.”
“Will you talk to me when you feel like you can?” Khushi asked. It tore her apart to not steam roller her way into the issue at hand. But she was who she was and pressing someone for details when they weren’t willing to part with them, was as unfamiliar as it was to find something about herself to be happy about.
“I will.” Tripti promised. “If you promise not to canvass for your friend.”
“He is my friend and you are my sister. Whatever I will be saying will be…”
“Don’t I know that!” Tripti grumbled. “Which is I need you to give me some time. I promise I will sing for my supper soon enough.”
Khushi chuckled. “Arjun sings terribly. Please tell me that isn’t the reason.” She was an idiot making light of something that had two of the people she loved so much tied up in knots. But Shiv-ji knew not talking about it was going to drive her insane with worry. If there were relationship threads she was stretching to the limits of liberty, these words were it.
“I cannot lie.” Tripti answered wistfully.
“I love you, Tripti Gupta.” Khushi said a second later. “Thank you.”
“I love you too, Di. So fucking much. I am so glad you found your AV-Sir at last. He had better work hard at keeping you. I can’t wait to meet him and have the Ross talk with him.”
Khushi burst out laughing. “If he hurts me, you will…
“Hunt him down and kick his ass, yes.”
Ditto, Khushi vowed as she made a mental note for her next conversation with Arjun.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Aye Mere Humsafar
Album: Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak
Singers: Alka Yagnik, Udit Narayan
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
Ab hai judaai ka mausam
Do pal ka mehmaan
Kaise na jaayega andhera
Kyun na thamega toofan
Kaise na milegi, manzil pyaar ki?
- Next Update: Monday, Nov 6, 2017, late night IST
- Thank you all for your lovely messages to the last chapter. The River is because you are.