For all those who left because they got tired of waiting for me to find my River rhythm,
For all those who lost interest every time I sought a break,
For those who left and still found their way back,
And most of all
For those who started with me on this journey and stayed the distance,
It means something to me that I have been able to bring this to an end. Thank you all for seeing me through it
She looked at the time for a fifth time in less than five minutes and cursed under her breath for being as anxious as she was. Once glance at Arnav told her that she was alone in feeling the way she did. And while it wasn’t surprising given the difference in the relationship they shared with Shyam individually, it made her frown and panic as the time of their intended catch-up with Shyam Anandraman neared.
“If you want us to wait till we speak to your parents, we can, Khushi. I’ve said it before and…”
She shook her head. “No.” She said shortly, unwilling to elaborate for the fear of throwing up like she was sure to if saddled with anymore pressure than she was in anyway. Of course, in an ideal world, she would have told her sister first about her new relationship status and future plans. Then she would have – somehow – gathered the courage to speak to her parents and if all went well, telling Shyam and others in the office would be redundant after wedding cards were sent out – albeit months down the lane.
However, she lived in a world of office romances that had implications on professional ethics, a world where her parents were a two-flights and half a day’s distance away, a world where she’d managed to fall in love with the only man whose personal integrity standards were borderline challenging her father’s – and that was saying something. So while she had managed to croak out her not-so-secret affair to her sister and Arjun – over separate calls and without trying to ask for updates about them in the same breath, she had decided to put telling her parents off till there was a chance for her to do it in person.
And here she was, waiting in Shyam’s office where she had been just a few months ago with a blinking red light standing in from the flesh and blood man who was by her side today.
“He isn’t going to fire either of us, you know.” It was true that A&M had a very open attitude towards office romances – it was encouraged albeit with some measures in place to protect the firm and the coworkers from what could easily transform into unpleasant situations for everyone involved.
She turned to look at him and frowned at the twinkle in his eyes that matched the amusement etched in laugh lines around his mouth and beneath his scar. “Easy for you to say. He is almost a friend to you. For me – he is the head of A&M India – there are four career levels separating us.”
“Seven. He is a Grade 3 Partner.”
“Thanks,” She commented wryly. “That was helpful.”
“I aim to please,” He whispered softly making her blush and look away.
She cleared her throat. “There are levels in the Partnership?” She asked instead and then shook her head. A&M’s hierarchy was not important right now. “You, I was saying, also have the advantage of having spoken to him once already.”
Arnav raised a knowing eyebrow at her and she snorted and looked away. They’d spoken about Khushi meeting Shyam when she’d first returned from the US – an idea that Khushi had dismissed instantly given how there was no technical reason for them to declare something as intimate. She was wrong, of course but for some reason Arnav had chosen to indulge her and she wasn’t one to look gift horses in the mouth.
Arnav reached out for her hand and squeezed her fingers slightly in what should have been reassurance. Except, the tiger had now tasted blood. Even a simple touch sizzled with the speed of a lightening bolt and filled her head with images that were completely inappropriate for the setting around them. She pulled her hands away and rolled her eyes as he smiled to himself and looked away.
“Pyaar kiya toh darna kya, Miss Gupta.” He whispered as he leaned sideways whilst still looking away from her.
Unfortunately, it was the exact moment that Shyam decided to make an appearance. Immediately Khushi scrambled to her feet and wished Shyam a hurried good morning which he returned pleasantly enough but she would be a fool to miss the little smile on his lips as he looked at her and then turned to look at his protégé.
“And good morning to you too, AV.” He said joyfully. “You don’t waste any time, do you? Bright and early as always.”
And that was about the extent of his informality in the conversation that followed. Unlike what she had expected, the talk turned out to be centered on her and what the disclosure of their relationship meant to her more than what it meant to Arnav. Shyam told them in pleasant but no uncertain terms that the project at Wyatt would be the first and the last one where she and Arnav worked together. This was an eventuality that they had expected was prepared for and so it came as so surprise. The fact that both were asked to send an email to HR confirming their mutual consent on the relationship, wasn’t surprising either. Shyam also made it clear that Arnav would be asked to stay away from the appraisals of Consultants – her current level in the organization, in the current year and then on, for every level that she might progress to during the course of their combined stay at A&M. Of course, he would be able to provide his comments offline and via email. Arnav seemed to have expected this too and simply nodded while Khushi struggled with the guilt of what this meant for every Consultant who worked with Arnav and counted on his verbal support during year-end performance appraisals.
By the end of the conversation, Khushi found herself mentally recalibrating her own ideas of a romance by inserting the practical necessities of a shared profession to the ever growing list of reality checks that life was turning out to be. Life – at least hers, she had to admit, was more Mani Ratnam than Yash Chopra. Thankfully, she smiled to herself, the background music in either case remained of her preference and type.
Later that afternoon, she found herself wading through the lunch time crowds at the canteen, her eyes refusing to leave the sight of Arnav who was sitting with a couple of other Senior Managers a few tables from where Raagini was seated. She most certainly did not want to eat with Arnav at work – so it was extremely ridiculous that her brain refused to take the break that her heart so desperately needed. As if on cue, her phone buzzed and she shifted the plate she was carrying to one hand to look at the message.
Dekhti hain, jis tarah se, teri nazrein mujhe
Main khud ko chhupaaon kahan?
She chuckled to herself softly. One glance at Arnav’s table told her that he was adept at finding a way to keep track of her a lot less obviously than she was. So she quickly typed up a response and stuffed her phone into her wallet, determined to not let him distract her any more than he did without her assistance.
By the time she reached the table, Raagini was watching her with a small smile, almost knowing in its slightly defined curve.
When they were both seated and well into their meal, Khushi gathered the courage she needed and looked up at her friend.
“You are getting married.” Raagini stated before Khushi could open her mouth.
“No!” She said immediately and then couldn’t help but glance at her left to see Arnav still deeply immersed in a conversation a few tables away.
“No? You have been agitated since morning and then…you almost killed me when I suggested joining the others for lunch…So I figured there was a declaration coming. Since you are not married, that was my first guess. If you had been, I’d have ventured a guess about you being pregnant.” Raagini reasoned.
Khushi chuckled and then took a deep breath. “Well…there is a declaration…but no…nothing as drastic as a wedding…and definitely not a pregnancy” She said, crossing her fingers.
Raagini’s mouth split into a wide grin. “Now I really, really cannot wait. Spill it out.”
“I didn’t want you to hear the rumors from someone else so…”
Raagini’s eyes widened. “So it is true?”
Khushi’s eyes narrowed in an equal and opposite, very Newtonian response. “What?”
“How?” Khushi asked, dumbfounded. She put her spoon down and gave up all pretense of wanting to eat at all.
“It is true??” Raagini nearly squealed.
Khushi blinked and looked away, fighting a mighty blush and a great tsunami of embarrassment. “Er…”
“Oh. My. God” The other girl enunciated. “In eight weeks?”
“No!” She interjected. “Not in eight weeks…I mean…” Well what was she going to say? As much as she hated the fact she fell in love with her boss…no that was weird…Project Manager…it was true. Except the sequence in which those two things happened. Khushi swallowed.
“Wait a second,” Raagini said thoughtfully. “You and AV are from the same college, right? This is more than a decade old? From IE-V days? So back in Cal…”
“Okay,” Khushi stopped her friend. “This is a long story. A really long story. I never thought I would ever recount it to anyone. But if I have to tell you,” She took a deep breath, “I think I will need a more private setting and perhaps even alcohol.”
By early evening, it was almost as if there was little else that people had to say to her or about her. Her imagination or otherwise, she found herself being whispered in the wake off, smiled at, congratulated, even teased. If there were those who wondered how AV and she managed to make a couple, she didn’t find out or care to go looking for. It was bad enough that she still struggled with the incredulous how of their relationship.
“Okay, out with it.”
She turned to look at Arnav who was focused on edging the car out from its unbelievably tight parking space but clearly attuned to her. “What?”
“You have an opinion about the car I drive. I’d like to know it.” He remarked as he shifted gears and drove out of the parking, swerving and turning as the vehicle pulled out of their office. It should have been weird getting out of office together like this but strangely enough, the day’s happenings seemed to have worn her out of her embarrassments.
“I do not!” She lied. “I was just hoping to see a Bullet I think. Or a Harley…”
He looked at her as the car came to a halt at the exit for them to swap their IDs. “My Bullet is parked in my apartment. And no… I am not buying that. You positively had a grimace when I hit the electronic unlock.”
“You…And you commented on me and my nazrein?” She said wryly referring to his message from lunch time. When he smiled mysteriously and didn’t bite the topic-changing-bait, she shook her head in defeat. Clearly she wasn’t very good at masking her feelings anymore. How the mighty fell! “I don’t like this manufacturer.”
“Because it isn’t Speed Motors?” He asked slyly as the car revved up again and joined the traffic outside. They had decided to head to his apartment this evening given he hadn’t yet been to it since he’d returned and because Khushi was dead curious to see how and where he currently lived given the stunning place he had decided to go ahead and purchase. With her approval. Shiv-ji, she whispered to herself, threatened by the enormity of the implication.
“No. If anything I don’t like Speed cars. They are too…boring.” She replied. “There is something off about these folks. Unlike Speed, they don’t seem to want to make an effort to understand the Indian market and adapt. This entire my way or the high way approach isn’t very appealing.” She debated. “Of course, that must be the exact appeal for you.” She added a second later.
He looked at her and raised an eyebrow.
She grinned back at him and shrugged.
“Why haven’t you bought a car for yourself yet?” He asked.
This time she deliberated on the question for a longer moment. “No particular reason. I stay fairly close to work and autos are convenient.” She didn’t mention that Tripti had been eating her head to get a car for herself – something she always wanted to do given how deeply she loved driving and the sense of independence that it provided.
Of course, as if completely in sync with her thoughts, her phone began to ring loudly in the fairly quiet interiors of Arnav’s car. Taking a deep breath in acknowledgment of her present company, she answered the phone following Arnav’s curious glance.
“Give me his number.”
She glanced sideways at Arnav, well aware who Tripti was referring to. “Whose number?”
“The Prime Minister’s” Tripti replied wryly. “Of course your boyfriend’s.”
“Don’t use that word.” Khushi said as she rolled her eyes. “And why?”
“Okay, lover it is then. And duh, Di. Because I want to talk to him.” Her sister replied.
Khushi shook her head. “Not going to happen. You can do that in person when the time….is…right.”
“In your words – not going to happen. And you are forgetting that this is just me being nice. I can always connect via Facebook – he has an account unlike you, do you know that?” Tripti quizzed. “And when I send him an invitation to connect, you think he will ignore it? An invitation from his future saali?”
Khushi bit back a smile. “Hold your horses, Tripti Gupta.”
“You do that. It suits you better. I love flying and I am quite excited about this flight.” Tripti quipped. “Now…about that number.”
Khushi took a deep breath, aware that Arnav’s entire focus was centered on her one-sided replies. “Let’s talk about this later.” She almost desperately pleaded.
“Why? What are you doing right now?”
“Err…” Khushi hesitated. “I told you I will…”
“Aha!” Tripti shouted into the phone. “You are with him right now. Of course. I am such an idiot. Di…finally…give him the phone…”
“What the hell, Di? What am I going to say that you are so worried about?” Tripti asked indignantly. When Khushi simply waited in silence, Tripti sighed. “Fine, I see why you might be worried but…come on, I promise to be nice. I’ll just say hello.”
Khushi shook her head. “No. I don’t trust you.”
“What?” Tripti exclaimed. “Yeh sunne se pehle main mar kyun nahi gayi,”
“Drama band karo.”
“Phone Jijaji ko do.” Her sister argued and this time Khushi had no option but to look at Arnav who was now unabashedly smiling at the road ahead of him. Of course, she was fairly sure that it wasn’t the traffic in Bangalore that had Arnav’s attention and amusement.
“He’s driving,” Khushi whispered in concession but she knew she wasn’t fooling anyone, not especially the man behind the steering wheel.
“Achcha” Tripti chuckled. “Very nice. Itni late evening mein drive karke kahan ja rahe ho tum dono?”
Khushi refused to answer. But then by this time, Mr. Arnav Varun’s patience had met its timely end. He looked at her and shrugged. “Put her on speaker and I’ll say hello.”
Caught with nothing else to hide behind, she asked Tripti to wait for a moment and put the phone on speaker and held it up to him while struggling to keep her arms from shaking in absolute nervousness.
“Hi Jeej!” Tripti called out cheerfully even as Khushi’s cheeks caught fire. “Trip!” She exclaimed but both her sister and her…Arnav were beyond caring. “I am so, so glad to have finally spoken to you – ten years later!” Tripti continued.
“Likewise” Arnav said with a quiet chuckle. “Some conversations are worth all the build-up.”
“I like you already!” Tripti replied and Khushi could easily hear the full blown smile in her voice.
“I am so grateful for that.” Arnav replied to which her sister only giggled.
“How are you spending your final days of freedom before joining us in the corporate world?” Arnav asked softly and in that instant Khushi felt a blanket of warmth surround her heart. There was an awkwardness in Arnav’s carefully selected words as much as there was a need to please in Tripti’s desperate attempts at humor. And they were doing it for her. She – she was the link between these people and both of them knew exactly how important the other was to her – and were making an effort to establish a bond. It would take time, she knew. But it heartened her that there was something inexplicably heartwarming about this interaction.
“You must plan a Bangalore trip before you start,” Arnav was saying as Khushi snapped out of her reverie of gratitude.
“Absolutely. Or worst case, we will always have the chance to meet at Humsafar! I have hoped for that to happen all these years, you know.”
Khushi’s eyebrows flew north at Tripti’s admission though Arnav seemed to have almost expected this.
“We will definitely meet at Humsafar this year,” Arnav promised as he winked at Khushi. “But don’t let that keep you from…”
“No…I won’t. I’ve waited…” Tripti trailed away for a second and then resumed with just as much energy. “I’ll make the next earliest trip down, Jeej, I promise. And I want a full evening of singing, Okay?”
She watched as Arnav smiled, his eyes twinkling as if in response to Tripti’s address. “With your company, I would be delighted. As it is your Di seems to have little interest in joining me…”
“Di likes some bhaav, Jeej. That is tip number one for you.”
Arnav chuckled. “Thank you, Krishna-ji.” He replied. “I count on you.”
“Hamare saath rahenge to aap aish hi karenge, you must remember that.”
As Arnav and Tripti exchanged promises and other pleasantries, Khushi smiled to herself and looked out of the window, unseeing the traffic outside even as her lips curved and her heart thudded in eager anticipation of a lifetime of such evenings and more.
It had been a full five minutes since she’d been introduced to the first love of Arnav Varun’s life and yet she wasn’t able to find the strength to tear her eyes away. The six feet wide, three feet tall cabinet shimmered before her unblinking as she let her eyes graze the hundreds of fonts and words – most of them familiar. This, she smiled to herself, was his IE-V famous audio cassette collection. He had not been joking. If anything, his claim was almost too humble for the reality that was staring her in the face. She stepped forward and reached out to the Ks and found the Khamoshi cover. Taking a deep breath, she pulled it out to look at the familiar faces and fonts and pushed it back into place. It was strange – to be able to feel physically – a piece of their shared past – one that she had believed she would never have access to. Overwhelmed by a sense of wonder and gratitude, she stepped away and turned to survey the small music room that by his own declaration was Arnav’s favorite part of the world, second only to the equally illustrious DevDwar – now unfortunately ravaged and apparently unavailable in its former glory. It was a basic room. There were no embellishments, no pictures or posters on the walls, no knick-knacks on shelves and table tops. There was a guitar placed on a cushion table, the newly acquired flute lying in its impressive case by its side and a large keyboard placed on its own table adjacent to the other two.
She drifted to the guitar like it had a pull of its own. And it didn’t surprise her that it was the instrument she had chosen instinctively. Had Arnav Varun been an Arabian Nights demon, his soul would rest in this contraption of wood and string. And with the pluck of finger, she would be able to feel every little thought that trotted about in his head and flickered in his eyes when he looked at her. If there was any mercy at all in the universe, all this and more would happen now, she told herself as she reached out and let her hands feel the gleam of mahogany – burnished bright and rich.
For some strange reason, as soon as her hands found the wood, her eyes fluttered close. Suddenly she found herself far, far away from Arnav’s urban apartment and right in the middle of the mountains with the River babbling by. The crisp mountain air was palpable in the little fancy that had captured her inspired imagination. If she so tried, she knew she would almost see the half moon hanging in the purple skies above as if still waving farewell to the retired sun.
Chupke se sun, she whispered, is pal ki dhun
Iss pal mein Jeevan saara
Sapnon ki hai duniyaa yehi,
Meri aankho se dekho zara
She frowned as the heartbreaking music she remembered from the original song filled her memory. No, she shook her head. As beautiful as the opening lines were, this was not the song she wanted for this moment. So she allowed her brain to shuffle through the infinite playlist she had in her head and pick another song. When it came to her, she chuckled to herself at how ridiculous she would look if Arnav stepped in and found herself sorting through invisible song titles in the air. She smiled to herself and opened her eyes, walking around the instrument to push the curtains apart and allow the fading orange of the city stand in for the memories of the mountains.
Chupke se, chupke se
Raat ki chaadar tale
Chaand ki bhi, aahat na ho
Baadal ke peeche chalein
Jale katra, katra, she sang, wrapping her arms around her waist.
Gale katra, katra
Raat bhi na hile aadhi, aadhi ye
She paused and waited as a smile stole up her cheeks.
Farvari ki sardiyon ki dhoop mein
Moondi moondi ankhiyon se dekhna
Haath ki aad se
Neemi neemi thand aur aag mein
Haule haule maarwa ke raag mein
Meer ki baat ho
She felt him a second before his arms went around her waist, covering hers. He snuggled his face into the crook of her neck and placed a small kiss as his fingers teased the edge of her shirt at her waist, grazing skin.
“Don’t stop,” He whispered almost as soon as she tried to turn to look at him. “If you won’t sing with me, at least sing for me.”
“Sing for you?” She whispered as she turned her head and felt his evening stubbled graze her cheek.
Din bhi na doobe, raat na aaye
Shaam kabhi na dhale
Shaam dhale to subah na aaye
Raat hi raat chale
She smiled as she realized she was, incredulously so, living the moment of her song. In that moment, all the cynicism of her teenage years, the heartache of her early and mid-twenties- every thing faded away. It may or may not last forever – this feeling of bliss – but for now…
Chupke se…laga ja gale…
Raat ki chaadar tale
He tightened his hold on her and kissed her neck again as his fingers reached out to release the buttons that kept her shirt in place, staring from the waist up and brushing his knuckles along the length of her torso. If she was to burst into flames by just this much, he was to blame. There could be no more denying it. She turned in a second and allowed her arms to pull him into a hug, fierce as the blood thrumming in her ears
Even without letting his hold slacken, she knew he had stilled in the unexpectedness of her embrace. “I’m not allowed to you ask you if you are okay.” He whispered in her ear. “So you have to tell me if you are not.
She smiled against his lapels. “Give me a minute.”
“How about a lifetime?” He asked almost immediately, the words clear and unrestrained like the person he was now.
She looked up into his face and saw him looking at her seriously. In his sunrise irises, however, was love so strong and sure that it made her mentally stumble. Despite the fact that the strength of his feelings were as fervently mirrored in her own, it surprised her. “Is this a proposal?” She asked nervously.
He shook his head seriously. “No. I need to time to think of something that will beat the Steinway.”
She frowned. “I don’t need…”
“I know. It was a joke.” He said unconvincingly. “This is not a proposal…but given that we just told all of A&M about us,”
“And Tripti and Arjun”
“And Ti-Di and J” He added with a smile which she returned, “I think it only makes sense that I say out aloud now before I am accused of more arrogance…that this is me unabashedly assuming that we are together for a lifetime, that a wedding will follow sometime soon and a marriage for the lifetime thereafter.”
She chuckled and stepped back to his embrace, kissing his neck as she let her cheek graze his chest.
“Is that a yes?”
“I thought it wasn’t a proposal.”
He sighed deeply and tugged at her shirt, forcing her hand to fall away so the two pieces of cloth that were so precariously balanced on her curves followed suit. “I’ll just have to find a way to get to that yes creatively.”
Her mouth curved into an incredulous O for a second and then she reached up to kiss him, nipping at his lower lip sharply even as her body pressed into his.
“Curtains” He rasped, pulling her against himself, his hands splayed at the small of her back. A small shiver ran through spine and the bare skin covering it erupted in gooseflesh. “Lights” She whispered as he waltzed her back to draw the blinds. He paused to look at her for a second and then nodded. He’d promised her he wouldn’t let her wallow in self-pity where she deserved none – not about her body or herself. She was not naïve enough to believe that he would fully succeed but it was the intention that counted. And they would battle – perhaps for the next decade or the rest of their lives, she was sure of it. His good intentions and her years of experience were destined to be arch enemies. However, in this moment, this now of such potency, this now of such promise, there was more to be said and more to be felt than a war of wills. Smiling as she broke off their kiss, her eyelids heavy and drugged with the ministrations of his love, she whispered into his ears, this time with nothing but conviction and the joy of the words themselves.
“I love you, Arnav.”
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Rehna Tu
Album: Delhi 6
Singers: A. R. Rahman, Benny Dayal
Music: A. R. Rahman
Lyrics: Prasoon Joshi
Rehna tu, hai jaisa tu
Thoda sa dard tu, thoda sukoon
Dheema dheema jhonka, ya phir junoon
Thoda sa resham, tu humdum, thoda sa khurdura
Kabhi toh ad ja, ya lad ja, ya khushboo se bhara
Tujhe badalna, na chahoon, ratti bhar bhi sanam
Bina sajawat, milawat, na zyaada na hi kam
Epilogue: Curtain Falls and Swan Songs (I) on Monday, Dec 18, 2017 – late night IST