A sudden gust of wind fluttered through the pages of open textbooks and blew several loose sheets of paper off tables. The skies darkened further even as a menacing rumble drowned out Professor Gokhale’s words. Excited whispers and muffled laughter bounced around the classroom, adding to the din, until the short, bespectacled man at the front of the class looked up with a frown creasing his forehead.
“That’s enough! Are you all second year college students or second standard school children? It’s just a thunderstorm. Miss Gupta, kindly shut the window.” He finished with a pointed look at the student sitting closest to the large, wooden window at the back of the classroom.
Miss Gupta dutifully rose from her seat. She struggled with the catch for a minute before turning around with an apologetic smile.
“Sorry, Sir, the catch appears to have swollen up because of the moisture in the air. It won’t latch properly.”
Professor Gokhale huffed in annoyance. “Mr Jaiswal, please assist Miss Gupta.”
As Akash Jaiswal approached the window, Lavanya Kashyap raised an eyebrow at him from beside Kalpana Gupta’s empty seat. Akash returned an imperceptible nod.
After another minute, he too faced the class with a slight shrug. “Kalpana’s right, Professor. It won’t shut.”
“Very well, let it be and return to your seats. And the rest of you, act your age and settle down.”
Surreptitiously high-fiving Akash as he walked back, Khushi Gupta passed a discreet slip of paper onto the desk behind her.
That was inspired, Kalpana Chawla. Props to Akash for playing along, of course. I give it ten minutes before Gokhale loses his mind and dismisses class.
A minute later, a scrap of paper floated onto Khushi’s lap.
You’re welcome, Khushwant Singh. Now the rest of us can get chai and you’ll have an extra thirty minutes to ogle your Stud. In the rain. Don’t swoon.
Khushi grinned into her notebook, scribbling her reply.
If I do, maybe he’ll carry me off and have his wicked way with me. In the rain. Be still, my heart.
True to Khushi Gupta’s prediction, Professor Gokhale snapped his book shut with a disgusted snort in exactly seven minutes. By the time the class sauntered out, all gleeful chatter and jubilant laughter, the wind and rain had gentled to a shy breeze and steady patter. Kalpana lagged behind slightly, trying to zip up her overstuffed backpack while Lavanya waited patiently near the door with Payal Kalsekar. As Kalpana finally caught up, she looked around for her twin.
“Where’s– did she really leave?”
“First thing.” Lavanya rolled her eyes. “I think you need to talk to her about this concept called Self Respect. What she sees in that all-brawn wannabe thug, I’ll never know. That too, one who is completely impervious to her blatant flirting.”
“I think that’s part of the charm,” Payal laughed, “that he’s apparently impervious. And he’s a wannabe IPS officer ya, Lavanya, not thug.”
Lavanya sniffed in disdain. “Cops, thugs, very little difference for the most part.”
Kalpana intervened before Lavanya could begin her favourite police-state rant. “Khushi, as you two well know, is unapologetically superficial. She thinks he’s hot and that’s that. Ab chalein?”
Payal and Kalpana both stifled a giggle as Lavanya muttered under her breath and stomped off, leading the way. “Straight people.”
All in all, sitting on one of the empty benches to the side of the basketball court, Khushi Gupta was happy with how her day. And she was even happier with his appearance. Thank god for clueless boys who wore flimsy white t-shirts to play basketball in the rain. Gorgeous, clueless boys, she might add. Tilting her head to one side, she blatantly checked him out from under her umbrella. Slick muscles tensed and rippled on his back, under his see-through wet shirt, as he feinted to one side and passed the ball to a teammate. Seconds later, the ball was back in his possession and he dribbled it towards the post, leaping up to dunk the ball into the basket. A well-timed breeze lifted his t-shirt a couple of inches to expose the tanned planes of his stomach and a sprinkling of dark hair leading south, disappearing into his low slung shorts. Khushi sighed.
“Enjoying the view?”
Khushi started, looking up at a smirking Akash who dropped onto her bench. She returned a cheeky grin of her own and focused on the game again. The ball was moving back and forth between players with dizzying speed.
“Why do you ask rhetorical questions, Akash?”
“I’m curious, was the window-lie an elaborate plan concocted by you and Kalpana to get you extra time to come check out Arnav?”
“Please. My sister is sweet, but she isn’t that sweet. All of us wanted out of Gokhale’s boring lecture, especially with the weather like this. Mine is a happy bonus.”
“Some guys have all the luck. Why don’t you ditch that bastard and go out with me some time?”
Khushi snorted, carefully following Arnav who was guarding Aman as he scored a spectacular three-pointer. “At least wait until he’s within earshot so I can make him jealous, yaar.”
Akash sighed dramatically while a group of sweaty, rain-soaked basketball players started drifting off the court and towards them.
“That was a fucking good shot, boss.”
Aman Krishnan nodded his thanks at Akash before winking at Khushi. “With such a pretty cheerleader coming to watch me play all the time, my game’s bound to improve.”
Khushi laughed, her trademark silver hoops swinging against her cheeks. “Chalo, at least you admit that my presence improves your game. Warna I was sure all it improves is some people’s macho posturing.” Her gaze deliberately met Arnav Singh Raizada’s, who was looking at her with familiar exasperation.
For a moment, she was sure he was going to say something suitably sarcastic. Her body hummed with anticipation. Instead, he turned to Akash. “I thought you had class at this time, Jaiswal. How did you get here so early? And why didn’t you join us if class was cancelled?”
“Arrey, we do have class at this time. Thanks to this random storm and some clever maneuvering by Kalpana, Gokhale let us go early. But not early enough to make it in time for the beginning. So I figured I’d come watch, at least. You know, with the regular fans.”
Arnav’s expression darkened at the teasing note in Akash’s voice. “Hilarious. If you’re all done with your juvenile jokes, can we go get food? I’m starving.”
Aman answered on behalf of everybody. “Haan haan, calm down, bhai. Khushi, tu nahi toh teri behen hi sahi. Did you say Kalpana is also at the canteen?”
Before Khushi could answer, Kevin cut in. “Paagal hai, Aman? Do you have a death wish, messing around with Kalpana? Lavanya Kashyap is just waiting for a reason to bite your head off anyway, ever since you accidentally spilled coffee on her assignment last year. Just give her further reason to slip rat poison into your coffee, why don’t you?”
Aman shuddered visibly. “Fuck, I forgot only. She’s not still holding a grudge?”
“Tere ko chance lena hai?”
“Much as I like Kalpana Gupta, I like my own life more.”
Dylan gave him a conciliatory pat on the back. “Hota hai. The best ones are either gay or taken or both. Or crushing on one’s unappreciative asshole friends.”
Amid laughter and continued ribbing, the guys determinedly walked off, leaving Arnav to gather his towel and water bottle and walk with Khushi. It had finally stopped raining and Khushi almost regretted it, as she put her umbrella away. They could’ve shared her umbrella to the canteen, Raj Kapoor-Nargis style. Then again, Grouchy McSexyPants would probably have refused to walk under her umbrella anyway.
“Say it, you’ll feel better.”
He scowled at her, swinging his backpack over one shoulder. “What?”
“Don’t get me wrong, your silent brooding is beyond attractive, but you’ll feel better if you just say whatever angry things you’re framing in your head and not saying to me.”
“Khushi Gupta, you’re fucking impossible.”
Khushi neatly fell into step beside him, as they made their way towards the college canteen.
“Not at all. On the contrary, I’m extraordinarily easy where you’re concerned, jaaneman.”
The corners of her lips twitched with the effort of holding in her laughter, and he shook his head with a resigned sigh.
“What will it take to get you to shut up and stop annoying me?”
“You’ll have to do it physically, I’m afraid. Preferably with your mouth.”
She turned her head to look at him, her eyes bright with mischief and challenge, meeting his heated, unsmiling ones. The amusement slowly faded, replaced with a delightful shiver running down her back, as the intensity of his gaze held her captive. He turned away first, walking into the canteen without a backward glance.
“He raced against time itself, recklessly endangering his own life, until he got to me. He pushed me out of the cab’s way in the nick of time, using his body to shield me. Not a moment too soon, ‘cause the cab crashed into the barricade I had been standing in front of within seconds. And because I was too overcome with shock to talk or move, he swept me into his arms and carried me to college.”
Lavanya and Kalpana groaned simultaneously while Payal covered her mouth to swallow a fit of giggles. The first year from Payal’s drama club looked at the hero of Khushi’s story who was sitting a few tables away, with a healthy amount of awe and romantic stars in her eyes.
“Ayesha, don’t listen to Khushi. The line between slight exaggeration and outright lies is very blurry for her.”
Ayesha looked rather disappointed. “You mean, Arnav didn’t save Khushi’s life?”
Khushi looked insulted. “Hush, Lavender Brown. Much you know about it. He very much did, Ayesha. My friends are just salty that they weren’t around to see him in action themselves. Kalpana was sick at home that day, and Lavender and Payal were already in class. I’d been running slightly late na.”
“Lavender?” Ayesha looked curiously at Lavanya. “Didn’t you say your name was Lavanya?”
“It is. Master storyteller here thinks giving us all ‘famous people’ nicknames is cute. Unfortunately, she couldn’t think of a famous ‘Lavanya’ and the closest she came up with was a fictional character’s name.”
Payal grimaced. “I’d rather a fictional character’s name than what she gave me.”
“What did she give you?”
Ayesha chuckled. “If it’s any consolation, Payal, you’re ten times the actor Payal Rohatgi ever will be.”
“Wow, that’s really not any consolation.”
“Please, you all secretly love it. It’s like we’re in a Mean Girls-esque clique. Stick around, Ayesha, and you’ll get one too.”
“Run as far as you can, Ayesha,” Lavanya advised with a kind smile at their junior, “you don’t want to be the Cady to Khushi’s Regina George.”
“Lavanya, you doth protest too much. I think you love your nickname the most.”
“I really don’t,” Lavanya fervently assured Khushi.
“You really don’t what?” Aman pulled up a chair from the next table and squeezed in between Khushi and Lavanya. Ayesha noted with a spark of excitement that the hero of Khushi’s story and his friends were done eating and had abandoned their table in favour of theirs, even though the hero himself looked rather unhappy about it.
“I really don’t want you butting in, Aman.”
“Rude. I didn’t come over to talk to you anyway. How’s it going, Payal?”
He winked at Payal who steadfastly focused her attention on adding sugar to her coffee.
“You must be Aman.” The chatter around the table died down as all the boys turned to look at Ayesha.
“I am. But you’ll have to help me with your name, kid.”
Ayesha frowned. “I’m only two years younger than you. I’d rather you didn’t use that tone with me. My name is Ayesha– Khushi was just telling me about all of you.”
A sly smile on his face, Aman turned to look at Arnav quickly. “Was she, now? And did she tell you about the time Arnav here saved Khushi’s life a couple of months ago?”
As laughter broke out around the table, Arnav slapped a hand onto his forehead.
“Not that fucking story again. Ayesha, whatever Khushi’s told you is grossly embroidered. It wasn’t anything as dramatic as what she must have said.”
Khushi leaned behind Payal to look at Arnav. “And just how do you know what I’ve been telling Ayesha? Been watching me, have you? Finally confessing your undying love for me, are you?”
“Experience, no, and no.” Arnav deadpanned, while Akash hooted.
“Uff, you’re even hotter when you’re practicing your cop-persona. Don’t worry, love, you just have to clear the exam. They’ll hire you in a shot.”
As everyone around the table sniggered, Arnav rolled his eyes. “That wasn’t even funny, you guys.”
“Don’t think I don’t know why you don’t laugh at my jokes, stud. It’s so no one can say ‘hasa toh phasa,’ right?”
As the table convulsed with laughter, Arnav stared back at Khushi, face shuttered and unsmiling as always. Looking back and forth between Arnav and Khushi, Ayesha, who hadn’t laughed, looked thoughtful.
The first excitement of the monsoon had faded, and the endless grey dreary days, the traffic snarls, the heavy humid air, the permanent splotches of mud on the hems of trousers and salwars had all begun to grate on everyone’s nerves.
Khushi was pacing up and down the deserted corridor outside the auditorium where the drama club met for rehearsals. “Yaar, how much longer?”
Kalpana checked her phone for the fifth time in as many minutes. “She texted ten minutes ago saying she’ll be out in five. But you know what her club’s like. The president is impossible to please.”
“We’re going to miss the beginning of the movie, at this rate.” Lavanya had a small furrow in between her brows.
“Will all of you chill? When has Cinescope ever begun any movie at the hour? What we’ll miss are reels of pointless trailers.”
Khushi stopped to glare at Kevin. “I happen to like the trail–”
The door of the auditorium opened and Payal ran out, panting for breath. “Sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry.”
“Finally! Okay, if we run, we may still be able to catch the trailers.”
Payal looked around apologetically, not moving an inch.
“I’m so sorry, you guys. I got Michelle’s permission to come out and talk to you for a second, but…I can’t go. Rehearsals have sucked balls today. Michelle is hopping mad and has said she’ll make us practice all night if we have to. I only just managed to come out to tell you all in person.”
Kalpana was the first to break the disappointed silence that followed Payal’s words. “It’s fine. We know you can’t control this. It’s cool.”
“But…I was thinking. Since we already got a ticket for me, why don’t you all take Ayesha with you? Michelle is keeping only the core cast back. Everyone else has been let go. She’ll be out in a minute.”
Kalpana automatically looked at Khushi who gave her a rueful smile and nodded.
“Yeah…I guess. If that’s okay with everyone else?”
Noncommittal murmurs followed and Payal beamed. “Great! I’ll go tell Ayesha. Poor thing’s had a rough day– Michelle was especially hard on her.”
As Payal disappeared inside again, Lavanya looked heavenward. “Payal is too nice for her own good. And ours. Now we have to put up with the precocious brat for three hours.”
“Oh, come on, she isn’t that bad.”
Aman shook his head. “Kev, we’re not questioning her niceness. She can be…a little full of it. I’m sure she’ll snap out of it soon. But at the moment–”
“Aman, don’t sugarcoat. She’s been a downright bitch to Khushi on at least three separate occasions in the last two weeks. Like we don’t know it’s because of her thing for Arna–”
Khushi intervened. “Lavender Brown, you know it’s nothing I can’t handle. And give her a break. She’s suffering the agonies of a new crush. I sympathise heartily.”
She smiled sweetly at Arnav who looked away immediately, muttering under his breath. “Here we go again.”
Note: It feels like eleventy million years since I last wrote any kind of Celebration, no? It’s not like there hasn’t been stuff to celebrate either. I just couldn’t seem to put a pen to them. Anyway, I wrote this over the last week and while it’s my usual brand of shallow fluff, I really enjoyed writing it. As always, I won’t tell you what we’re celebrating right away but there are hints aplenty everywhere. The story’s actually all done, so I won’t make you wait pointlessly. The only reason I’m breaking it into 3 parts is because I feel it’s a tad too long for one post. Parts 2 and 3 will follow in the next couple of days. Until then!