Varanasi, December 2016
“You did what?” She exclaimed as she paused stuffing clothes into the washing machine.
The silence on the other side stretched for a moment after which she heard the small smile in his voice as he spoke. “I think I shocked her just as much as you sound shocked now.”
“Shocked? No, no – I am not shocked. Why would I be?” She said sarcastically, her heart hammering in her chest. She had believed they had time before they needed to broach the subject with the respective set of parents. At the very least, she’d assumed a conversation preceeding the simultaneous announcements in Delhi and Benaras.
“I couldn’t help it, baba. She was pestering me about going to meet some relative’s relative who has a daughter of marriageable age. It got to me and I did what was needed.”
“You did what was needed. Right.” Khushi stated wryly. “It’s a good thing a short temper is not one of my vices.”
“It isn’t?” He teased. “I must have missed the memo, love.”
“You just showed your mother my picture – a terrible one from Facebook that has no business being out in the world except Arjun is a jerk to have tagged me – and…I cannot believe it…” She shook her head, unable to finish the statement in a flutter of nerves. She hated having her picture taken. Worse, she hated other people looking at her pictures and not saying anything pleasant that might be honest.
“It’s a beautiful picture.”
“I am laughing like a lunatic. I don’t think that counts as…”
“That is the exact definition of beautiful.” He argued firmly.
“Okay, stop saying that word. It makes me uncomfortable. And,” She shook her head, “in any case, I didn’t think I would say this ever but it wasn’t the worst part. What you said was….please tell me you are joking,” She pleaded as she sat on the bed and let her shoulders slump.
“I am not joking. And all I did was show the picture and tell her that she was looking at her future daughter-in-law.”
“All you did!” Khushi exclaimed again before shaking her head. In a flurry of adrenaline, she rose and left the small utility area, walked through the kitchen and came to her room, closing the door behind her. A minute of stand still later, she proceeded to pace about her room, not seeing the familiar surroundings that had been her haven for years, the room that had witnessed her feelings for this man on the phone wax and wane more often than the moon had in the last decade. “I thought you were such a gentleman, such a hero…where did that person disappear?” She wailed withholding the fact that this unraveled version she now had by her side was far, far more appealing than the mystery he had ever been. Okay, she corrected herself, perhaps she was exaggerating.
“I love you, Kaveri Gupta.” He said. “Even if you are trying to be mean to me, it isn’t working.”
“What now?” She asked she allowed her thumb nail to slip between her teeth.
“I don’t know. She’s taken the iPad to Papa.”
“Oh my god!” Khushi said again as she clenched and unclenched her unencumbered palm.
“You didn’t think my father would be involved in this?” Arnav asked, now clearly laughing at her.
“You think this is funny?” She asked with narrowed brows.
“If you listen to yourself, I’m very sure you’ll see what I’m seeing. Wasn’t this exactly what we’d hoped to achieve on this trip? Sure it got pulled ahead by a day or so…”
“You barely reached home two hours ago!” She countered.
“I blame my mother. How was I supposed to know she is waiting to unleash two and a half years worth of angst about my marital status in our first in person conversation?”
Khushi took a deep breath. She’d completely forgotten that it was his first trip in two and a half years. And while they hadn’t talked a lot about it, Khushi knew that Arnav’s relationship with his parents, especially his father wasn’t a very happy one in the aftermath of Saira. Time had clichédly dulled some of the rough edges but many still remained.
“How are they?” She asked softly. “Thrilled to see you?”
“Yes.” Arnav replied. “Thrilled is a little bit of an overkill for my parents but I think they are happy. Even my father.”
Khushi smiled. “It’s a matter of time.”
Arnav seemed to think about her platitude for a moment. “It’s the matter of a daughter-in-law I think.” He said softly.
Khushi smiled some more and sighed once again. “I am not nervous at all.”
To this he chuckled. “I have to meet my Professor, my project guide at that, as his daughter’s suitor. You cannot beat that.”
“Suitor?” She interrupted with a laugh. “What are you reading? Jane Austen?”
“I can say lover, Khushi, if you so prefer.” He chimed without missing a beat. “It would be true.”
Khushi blushed and thanked Shiv-ji he wasn’t in front of her to see her redden so. He hadn’t commented on her ability to change colors so easily but she was sure he hadn’t missed it.
“Anyway,” He continued, “The point being – this – having a student fall in love with his daughter must have been his worst nightmare.”
“I am certain he never gave that a thought. And an IE-ian son-in-law? And you to top that? I would be surprised if his reaction is anything worse than shock. I, on the other hand,…”
“An IE-ian daughter-in-law and you to top that…”
Despite the obvious flattery in that statement, Khushi grinned. “You are unbelievable.”
“I hope so.” He replied. “Now go tell Drs. Gupta about us while I get ready to face the music here.”
“I am going to wait till later this evening or perhaps tomorrow morning. This is…too nerve wracking. I cannot…”
“No lectures. I don’t want to hear about how procrastination is the root of all evil…”
Arnav laughed. “Okay. I won’t say it. But it won’t change…
She rolled her eyes. “Bye, I have to go now. Ma will be back soon. And I have to go fetch Tripti in a bit.”
“I love you.” He whispered as he bid her goodbye.
“I love you, too.” She answered, her words brimming with lightness that she had never assumed she would associate with this phrase.
The sound of their cutlery punctuated the obvious silence in the dining area as the four Guptas ate their last meal for the day. Conversation was light and mostly pleasant – as Khushi knew it would be as long as they all tapped in on their shared procrastination gene. At the present moment, Tripti had just finished telling them about the completion of her probation period and the fact that she was now eligible for a host of benefits from her organization which she completely intended to leverage – the topmost being the ability to buy a car of any value at zero percent interest. Not surprisingly, Gayatri Gupta had not called Khushi out for not having purchased one yet – in the Gupta household frugality was a virtue.
A sharp nudge in her thigh broke her train of thoughts. Khushi frowned at her sister who was munching on a carrot stick a little too deliberately for her comfort. When Tripti turned to meet her eyes, the nudge became even more visible. If her eyes could speak, Tripti’s would be screaming for her to start talking. Of course Khushi couldn’t be bothered about it. Ignoring the warning in her sister’s look, Khushi reached out for the raita and proceeded to serve herself with great precision and even greater focus.
“I am so glad to see you eating healthy, Kaveri. You’ve lost some weight. Well done.” Gayatri Gupta said with a small smile even as Shiv Gupta looked up at her and frowned.
“You lost weight?” He asked as he tried to assess his wife’s compliment. “I don’t see any difference. Of course, I still cannot believe you are almost thirty! Weren’t you just six?”
“A year more to turn thirty,” Khushi sighed but smiled at her father. The trouble was that in all his absolute good intentions of not paying attention to how she looked or how much she weighed, her father was no better than her mother.
“I don’t know how you are doing it, Kaveri Gupta.” Tripti shrugged. “Clearly you’ve figured out some sort of exercise schedule that is working for you. Because forget the weight, what is up with your hair? When did curls become waves?”
Khushi rolled her eyes but grinned at her sister. If the price of not talking about Arnav was uncomfortable compliments, it was a small one.
“It’s good. I am glad you are taking care of how you look.” Gayatri said softly and in an instant Khushi bristled. “Don’t scowl.” Her mother chided. “I know you don’t like to hear it but being well-groomed and looking nice is important…especially now.”
Khushi put her spoon down and stared back at her mother. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“You know what that is supposed to mean, Kaveri. I don’t know what you are looking for or what was wrong with Rajat but you cannot deny that it is time for you to get married. And Tripti will need to follow suit shortly thereafter. We have been very patient and I completely understand…”
“Gayatri…” Shiv Gupta interrupted softly but by then, the fire on Khushi’s left was already blazing.
“Woah! I thought you guys would let us get through at least one dinner without this talk!” Tripti interjected. “And where did my wedding come from? I am not getting married for two years at least.” She declared. “Might I also add that I will choose my own groom, while we are at it?”
“Don’t talk to me like I am opposed to the idea of you finding your own groom. I have been….We both have been very open to that!” Gayatri Gupta commented, her voice rising like it almost always did with Tripti.
“Sure you have. As long as he is a baniya, and has a professional degree and a stable job, preferably in the US or somewhere outside this country…” Tripti counted off wryly.
“What is wrong with that? Of course you won’t understand till you have children of your own – we’ll talk then.” Gayatri Gupta exclaimed. “And there are many, many boys who fit that description to the T and are very eligible.” She turned to look at Khushi. “Your friend Arjun, for instance.”
Khushi felt Tripti freeze by her side as her shoulders slumped in exasperation.
“Mummy, how many times am I supposed to…”
“It’s just an example.” Gayatri interrupted Khushi, this time albeit a lot more calmly. “To Tripti’s point…”
Khushi glanced at her sister and sighed mentally at the cold set of her mouth. There was no point of dragging this any further. If for no other reason than to improve her sister’s mood, she needed to say the damned thing out aloud.
“Actually,” She spoke, clearing her throat and joining her fingers in a twist on her lap as she quickly looked at her parents before glancing at Tripti. Her sister’s face, of course, transformed instantly and she leaned forward. “There is something I need to tell you both.”
“He didn’t remember?”
“Not at first, no.” Khushi replied as she kept up her pace and strolled through the campus, dawn light casting its familiar lines over buildings and empty roads around her.
Arjun laughed out aloud in her ear and tsk-ed exaggeratedly. “Does AV-Sir know?”
Khushi shook her head with a smile. “Yes.”
“Must’ve broken his heart.” Arjun chuckled.
“Hardly. He was just relieved the conversation is done with. And honestly, Papa remembers very few people. It was a wonder he was able to recollect the title of Arnav’s project when he finally did remember who Arnav Varun was.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Arjun teased.
“He loves you, Arjun Agarwal. How and why I have no idea. But he really does think the world of you. As does Ma. She hinted at her approval of you as a potential son-in-law again at dinner last night.” Khushi said with a sense of propriety that was fast weakening on the subject given how reticent both Tripti and Arjun were about the subject of their relationship. That there was still one, or the hope pf
“Well, her daughters haven’t been interested, what can I do or say.” Arjun quipped.
“If you keep referring to his daughters in plural, Arjun, I am not sure I can fault Tripti for holding out on you.” Khushi said as a flush of anger, irrational or otherwise, crept up her spine.
“Of course.” Arjun commented wryly. “No one can fault the great Krishna Tripti Gupta. She is flawless. She never fails to remind me of it, either.”
“Arjun,” Khushi started only to have her friend interrupt, this time the frustration evident in his voice.
“You started it, Kavi. And I know why. I know you want to know what is happening. I know you want to know where this is going. But there is nothing to tell. And so I would prefer for you to just get that, for once.”
“For once?” Khushi said, unable to keep the hurt from her voice. She had after all been trying her level best to keep her nose out of this matter. But…
“I didn’t mean it literally, Kavi. Unlike you I do not know to choose the perfect word and phrase every time. So please don’t read too much into it.”
Khushi took a deep breath and tried to rein in the rising sense of disappointment. She hated being right in the middle of this tussle between her sister and her best friend and as much as she loved them both and wanted them to solve their difference, there were moments like these that made her wonder if it was worth it. And if it wasn’t, what did it mean for her friendship with Arjun? He had made a tough journey to hold on to what they had once. She wasn’t sure expecting him to do the same this time was fair. She wasn’t going to stop being Tripti’s sister. And she did love her little baby so much. Did this all mean that she was…No, she shook her head, this was not the time to be selfish. This was the time for her to give Arjun the space he needed.
“I’m going to miss you, here, Agarwal. I never thought I would make it to Humsafar without you.” She said softly.
“I know.” Arjun sighed. “I never thought you’d be the one to go back first, either. But…” He cleared his throat.
“I am almost hoping for this to be another one of Arnav’s surprise things.” Khushi said with a sad smile, verbalizing what was swirling in her head since Arjun had disclosed his unavailability for Humsafar.
Arjun, on the other hand, laughed out aloud. “You know what they say about men changing once they get what they want, Kavi.”
Khushi made a face. “Ewww, Arjun. That’s just…”
“Relax Kaveri Gupta, it was a joke. And I blame you – hearing you call him Arnav is enough to make me lose all sense of propriety.”
Khushi rolled her eyes and turned back towards her house where her sister still slept on as her parents prepared to head out for the day’s classes.
“Anyway,” Arjun spoke into her ear, “what are next steps now? An engagement of sorts?”
“Some sort of ceremonial confirmation,” Khushi admitted. “We cannot get married for the next year given I am due to travel in January and there is no way Arnav will say yes to a Summer or Monsoon wedding. This obviously makes my parents very nervous because I won’t be married when I turn thirty next year. But,” She shrugged, “I don’t think they want to make the effort of placing their wishes in contradiction with anyone else’s – except Tripti and mine, of course. I’m telling you, if there was ever a doubt on where I get my non-confrontational genes, there isn’t anymore.”
“How sensible is dragging this around for more than a year, Kavi?”
“Not very,” Khushi conceded. She couldn’t tell Arjun that she’d already been at the receiving end of a mini inquisition last night about the exact nature of Arnav and her relationship, the conversation severed only by the extreme awkwardness that Gayatri Gupta found herself battling, in the suddenness of Khushi’s declaration. “But given I have more than eighty percent of my weight loss goal still waiting to be achieved, I can use the time.”
Arjun groaned. “You plan on being a pain to eat out with for the next year? God bless AV-Sir and me.”
“Well,” Khushi commented wryly, “Given that you are moving to the Mumbai office in April, there is not much you can say without forcing me to bring up accusations of treachery.”
“True.” Arjun replied. “Anyway, I better be off. I have a call at seven. Perhaps I can catch a ten minute power nap before it.”
Khushi smiled. “Okay.”
“All the best with the singing.” Arjun wished her. “I hope Humsafar is what Aarohan could never be.”
“If you had been here, it would, Arjun.” She replied just as easily as Arjun had wished her.
“Next year, perhaps.” Arjun offered weakly and Khushi felt a familiar tightness in her heart.
“Next year.” She stated with her fingers crossed. “Bye, Arjun.”
“Bye, Kaveri,” He said and just as she was about to disconnect the call, she heard him speak again.
“Kavi,” He said as she placed the phone on her ear again.
“I love her, you know. Like I never loved you. Whatever she or you may think, I love her like I’ve never loved anyone else before.”
Khushi felt tears claw at her throat as they slid down from her eyes and squeezed her heart painfully. “I know.” She whispered.
“Don’t tell her I said that. She doesn’t like hearing it.”
“She’s an idiot,” Khushi whispered.
“What does that say about me?” Arjun said with a short laugh before he finally went on to disconnect the call, leaving Khushi’s mind silent and heart empty as she spotted a weak silver sun knocking at the horizon.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Dheeme Dheeme Gaaon
Singer: Kavita Krishnamurthy
Music: A. R. Rahman
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Zindagi mein tu aaya toh
Dhoop mein mila saaya toh
Jaage naseeb mere
Anhonee ko tha hona
Dhool ban gayi hai sona
Aake kareeb tere
Pyaar se mujhko, tune chhua hai
Roop sunahara, tab se hua hai
Kahoon aur kya, tujhe main piya
Teri nigaahon mein hoon
Teri hi baahon mein hoon
Khwaabon ki raahon mein hoon
Piya piya piya….
Next Update: Monday, Dec 25, 2017, late night IST