“The lesson to be learnt from this experience, doston, is that we must never let Dylan Mathias and Akash Jaiswal choose the movie.”
Dylan and Akash’s protests were drowned by the raucous agreements that followed.
“Speak for yourselves, boys, it wasn’t a waste for me, at least. Arnav totally took advantage of the darkness and felt me up.”
“I did not.” Arnav looked outraged. “I was passing you the popcorn and it was an accident.”
“Hey, did you hear me complain? We should do that again sometime. Only, let’s drop this lot, okay?”
Kalpana nudged Lavanya, indicating the deepening frown on Ayesha’s face, and Lavanya rushed to change the subject.
“Of course, all the tables are full.”
“Stop whining, Lavanya.”
“I never whine, you asshole. I’m stating a fact.”
“I still can’t believe we just watched that ridiculously expensive personal indulgence that is being passed off as a movie.”
“Kalpana, move on ya. Raat gayi, baat gayi.”
While Kalpana shook her head with disgust, Ayesha, who had been sullen and quiet through the evening piped up.
“I agree with Kalpana, actually. This was a disaster. How these movies continue to get made, I don’t understand. Wooden acting aside, did they even have a script? It looked like a free for all.”
Aman and Akash exchanged looks and grinned.
“Itna to tum bhi samjho…Ayesha, tum chahe jitna chaho…”
Khushi coughed loudly, trying to disguise an involuntary giggle and even Arnav cracked a smile.
As one by one, the boys joined in to finish the chorus, Ayesha looked even more pissed off. She was at a complete loss for how to respond to this kind of ribbing. The movie had ended ten minutes ago and the group stood at one corner of the mall food court, looking for a place to sit.
Arnav shook his head finally. “I don’t think we’ll get place here, guys, should we just go to Marine Drive? It’s really nice outside now.”
“I agree.” Khushi sidled up to stand next to Arnav. “You, me, long romantic drive by the Arabian Sea. Perfect.”
Khushi’s smile faltered as everyone turned to look at Ayesha. Fists clenched by her side, posture rigid, Ayesha was visibly angry now.
“Will you stop harassing Arnav, Khushi? I don’t know if you think it’s funny or cute, or what. Just because he’s too much of a gentleman to ever tell you to fuck off, does not mean you take advantage of that. I’ve noticed from day one how you flirt with him and pick on him. And also how uncomfortable it makes him. And you, fucking hypocrite that you are, majoring in Journalism, always taking about social justice– don’t believe in practicing what you preach among your own friends?! What if Arnav had been pursuing you like this while you didn’t want to be? You know what we’d call that, right? Fucking sexual harassment, is what.”
“Shut up, Ayesha!”
Khushi, still too stunned to respond, stood limply by Arnav’s side. While Arnav wrapped a reassuring arm around Khushi’s shoulder, it was Lavanya who had spoken up.
“While your sentiments are noble, you don’t know anything about our group equation. You barely met us a couple of weeks ago. You have no idea of the kind of relationship that Arnav and Khushi share, or any of the rest of us, for that matter. That was way out of line and you will apologise to Khushi and to Arnav right now.”
Incensed, Ayesha opened her mouth to argue again, but this time, it was Kalpana who cut her off. While calmer than Lavanya, there was no mistaking the sardonic bite to her words.
“And just to address another part of your accusation, don’t make arguments based on false equivalencies. By leaving out their specific relationship equation, and what constitutes appropriate behaviour in this case, your fundamental assumption is so wrong. A woman flirting with a close male friend who tends to be dismissive of it is not remotely the same as a man pursuing a woman who is unwilling. No one is saying men can’t face sexual harassment. But by throwing the accusation around flippantly like this, without considering that you may not be privy to everything between Arnav and Khushi, you do a disservice to both women and the men or rather, the man, you’re speaking up for.”
Ayesha bit her lip, flushed with embarrassment. “I… I wasn’t thinking straight. I’m sorry, Khushi. That was uncalled for. And I apologise to you too, Arnav. What you choose to put up with is entirely your business, of course. If you’ll excuse me, I have to leave.”
No one stopped Ayesha as she left the food court.
“That wasn’t even a real apology.” Lavanya looked ready to go after Ayesha, to bring her back and make her do it again.
Khushi cut in immediately. Her voice sounded slightly tinny and higher than usual. “Jaane de na, Lavender Brown. She’s had a rough day. She has a crush she doesn’t know what to do with, obviously. She lashed out. It was…hurtful, but whatever. I’ve heard worse. And…I hate to say this, but she may even have a point.”
Arnav finally spoke up, his attention entirely focused on Khushi. “While I do appreciate Ayesha jumping in to save my izzat from you, you half-a-foot shorter terrifying lecher, I think I’m managing just fine on my own. Don’t overthink it, Khushi.”
Khushi nodded absentmindedly. “I never do. I…I think we should get going too, Kalpana. Ma’ll start calling any second now. See all of you in college tomorrow, okay?”
Before Kalpana could answer, Khushi walked toward the escalator. She turned back one last time, her heart in her eyes. He was still looking at her.
“Kalpana Chawla, will you do something for me?”
Kalpana swiveled her chair around so fast, she almost gave herself whiplash. After the unpleasantness at the food court, Khushi had been uncharacteristically quiet and contemplative on their way back home. She had answered in monosyllables throughout and after dinner, most of which she had pushed around her plate, she had holed herself up in her room. Worried about her twin but not wanting to draw their parents’ attention to Khushi’s moodiness, Kalpana had given their mother a vague homework related excuse and left her alone. Now that Khushi had sought her out on her own and seemed willing to talk, Kalpana was ready to promise her the moon.
Okay, maybe not the moon. But anything within reason.
“Sure, what do you need?”
“I…need some time off. To recuperate. To get over my embarrassment. Heal my broken heart, etc etc.” She flashed Kalpana a small defeated smile.
Kalpana got up and pulled Khushi into a tight hug, her heart constricting with the helpless pain she knew her sister felt. After a moment’s hesitation, Khushi returned her embrace, resting her forehead on her shoulder. When she finally pulled away with a sigh, and a reassuring grin that didn’t reach her eyes, Kalpana shut the door to her room and pulled Khushi over to sit on her bed.
“Khushi, you’re overreacting. You and Arnav are friends…he’s never serious when he asks you to buzz off. It’s not like what Ayesha said at all!”
“I know. But…I had never even considered if my interest could be tiresome for him, and that he’s too nice to say so. I… I could’ve gladly had the earth swallow me up when Ayesha brought it up. I…like him. I may possibly be in love with him. How could I have not thought of this?”
“Khushi, calm down. Have you talked to him?”
“I…I texted Arnav a little while ago, apologising and telling him that I won’t bother him again. And he sent me this.”
She pulled out her phone and showed it to Kalpana. The last message had five words in it.
We need to talk. Tomorrow.
“I know what he’s going to do, Kalpana. He’s going to try and make sure I’m not overly embarrassed or anything about this episode. He’ll brush it off. But…I can’t. I can’t just go back to our old equation now.”
“Khushwant Singh…I don’t know what to say. I thought you were messing around and that you had a crush on Arnav. I had no idea you cared so much.”
“I…how could I not? Do you know what really happened the day he saved my life?”
“You mean…there was something more than the story I’ve heard a gazillion times?”
Khushi’s eyes filled with warmth and her smile became just a little less forced.
“And that was Rang De by Maati Baani. It’s 9 AM on the clock and we’ll be right back after this short commercial break with more of your favourite songs. Stay tuned to 93.5 Red FM, bajaate raho.”
Fuck and double damn. Not only was Khushi Gupta late and still facing a ten to twelve minute walk to class, she now had to stop to change the channel. If there was anything Khushi hated more than commercial breaks on TV, it was their radio counterparts. Spotting a barricade by the side of the road where she wouldn’t be in the way of the morning rush coming out from CST, Khushi stood in front of it, scrolling through the radio channels trying to find a song that she liked.
She had just settled on a station when a flying mass barrelled into her, knocking her several feet away and onto the ground with its momentum. With her ear phones still in place and an incongruously cheerful voice over the radio telling her to shut up and dance with him, Khushi lay very still, trying to wrap her head around what had just happened. As the buzzing in her head cleared and she opened her eyes, she found herself looking straight into another strikingly dark pair, set in a face with sharp cheekbones and a chiselled jaw. The face was attached to a body– a large and muscular one. Khushi bristled with indignation. How dare he? Was he…assaulting her? In the middle of a crowded road near CST! On a weekday morning! Khushi had just opened her mouth to scream, when he stood up in a quick fluid move, pulling her up with him. He carefully gave her a once over and with concern creasing his forehead, pulled out her earphones and asked, “Are you alright?”
Khushi paused, confused. This wasn’t usual assaulter behaviour…was it? That’s when she finally noticed the crowd gathering rapidly around them and the chilling scene in front of her. The barricade in front of which she had been standing seconds ago had been crushed by a cab, its mangled remains scattered over the road and partially embedded into the damaged front of the vehicle. The injured cab driver had already been helped out of the car by some people and had launched into a slightly hysterical explanation involving a faulty brake pedal, a sudden flat tyre, and a cab-owner who was Satan himself.
“Tum theek ho?”
As he repeated the question, Khushi looked back into the worried eyes of her saviour and for the first time in her life, found herself at a complete loss for words.
Kalpana snorted. “Okay, so this much I’d figured out for myself. It was highly unlikely that your dramatic narration was exactly what had happened. The question is what did he do to make you go all starry-eyed? He didn’t…really carry you to college in his arms?”
The day’s strain and the slightly dubious expression on Kalpana’s face finally took its toll on Khushi. She lay on Kalpana’s bed, gasping with laughter.
“Your face, Kalpana Chawla. No, he did not– much to my regret. But what he did was even nicer.”
Khushi willed herself to speak, to answer his question, but for some reason, her muscles refused to obey. Immobilised by shock, she stood helplessly in front of him. Luckily, he seemed to understand her plight. Instead of waiting any longer for the words that would not come, he gently caught hold of her hand and began leading her away from the crowd. Khushi followed without any protest. She couldn’t have even if she’d wanted to. Even now, her legs seemed oddly detached from her body– like they weren’t her own. She was having trouble making them obey her but his wordless mastery of the situation made things easier. He walked slowly, mindful of her shaky steps and ten minutes later, she found herself seated at a corner table of a fast food place across from the station. She wasn’t entirely sure when they’d crossed the road or where her protector had disappeared to, though.
As though he’d heard her unvoiced question, he appeared in front of her with a glass of Coke Float. The frothy Coca Cola had begun to overflow and drip onto the tray, making a sticky mess around the glass. He pushed the tray towards her and handed her the spoon.
Refusing to dwell on what had almost happened, Khushi focused all her attention on taking small bites of the ice cream. He sat by her side in silence, patiently waiting for her to finish. It didn’t occur to her to offer him a spoon until she’d drained the glass.
As sensation returned to her limbs, she felt slight tremors running through her. Recognising her body’s delayed response to the trauma of the near-accident, she waited for them to subside. Finally, she looked up and smiled at her new friend. He was still sitting by her, observing her closely.
“I’ve seen you around college. Second year, right? What’s your name? I’m Arnav Singh Raizada. Third year.”
“Khushi Gupta. Thank you.”
Khushi knew a simple ‘thank you’ wasn’t nearly enough to express the depth of her gratitude or remotely make up for what he had done for her. But at the moment, anything else sounded trite and shallow to her.
He seemed to understand, however, and inclined his head.
“Don’t mention it. What do you want to do now? I was going to college to play basketball with some of my friends. But if you like, I’ll walk you to the station again.”
“Oh, no.” Her decision was instant. “I’d really rather not. I’ll go to college with you and hang around until my friends get out of class, I guess.”
“Do you want to come watch LEBaBa play?”
He grinned. It lit up his face so suddenly, Khushi was dazzled.
Kalpana spluttered over a sip of water that she’d just taken. “Le–What?”
“LEBaBa. It’s the acronym for the ‘League of Extraordinarily Bad Basketball’ players. It’s what they privately call themselves– although, they’re really not that bad. Anyway, between going to Gokhale’s class by myself or freaking out alone over what might have happened while everyone else was in class, I chose his basketball game. I sat by the side, watching this group of strangers play…and suddenly they weren’t strangers. They goofed around the court as much as they played and insulted each other and it was just so…normal. In less than twenty minutes, I was back to my regular self and laughing with everyone else. At the end, I elected to come home instead of going to the canteen to hang out with Payal and Lavanya and he actually offered to drop me home. All the way to Oshiwara! It’s not like he lives close by or anything. Obviously, I said no and he…smiled at me and said I was welcome to come by anytime.”
“And you were a goner? You fucking sap.”
“Well, not immediately. Although, I was very taken that day. He was just so kind and competent and goddamn hot too! Do you know how rare that is in a guy? Of course, you don’t. Well, let me tell you it is.”
“So you started stalking him?”
“I started going to watch him and his friends play basketball on the afternoons that I don’t have class. And I just…fell deeper.”
“Did you see that last shot? It was so close.”
“Are you kidding me? My eighty year old grandmother has better aim. You were a mile off, Krishnan.”
“Shut up, Raizada. Your grandmother was a state level basketball player in her day. She could beat any of us hollow.”
Khushi turned to look at Arnav with awe. “Your grandmum was really a state level basketball player?”
“Nothing. I’m wondering how you still suck so much.”
Khushi got a face full of water from Arnav’s bottle for that one.
“Anyway, I had never seen Lavanya that drunk in my life and I’m not sure I want to again. There are some things that you just don’t need to know about your sister’s sex life.”
Arnav nodded sympathetically. “Yeah, I get you. It’s like the time Di had snuck her boyfriend into her room this one time our parents were away. I was in 11th grade, and doubtless, wasn’t supposed to know. Anyway, I got up for water in the middle of the night and was scarred for life by the sounds coming from Di’s room.”
Khushi shuddered in solidarity. She held up her beer bottle. “Here’s to mindful, considerate carnal activity that doesn’t traumatise family.”
He clinked his own against hers. “Amen.”
They both took a sip, looking out at the grey sea, lapping at the sand, a few feet away.
“I heard you wrote a kickass article for the college magazine, Khushi.”
Khushi casually flipped her long hair over a shoulder while secretly glowing with pleasure.
“Did you read it?”
“Nah. Too many big words. Do you memorise fifty words from a thesaurus every morning?”
Khushi punched his upper arm and pulled back immediately, shaking her hand and yelping in pain.
“What the fuck, Arnav? Do you spend all your life at the gym?”
“You could do with a few sessions at the gym yourself. No strength, no stamina. You’d go down first thing in the zombie apocalypse.”
“Wow. You do realise that I’m the norm and you’re the mutant? Plus, it’s okay, you have enough strength and stamina for the both of us.”
A sudden awareness crept into his eyes and he stilled.
Khushi’s eyes widened and she started laughing. “I meant you’d save me from the zombies, Arnav, you sicko.”
But her cheeks were flushed with colour till long afterwards.
“Open it and you’ll see.”
He looked at the big blue envelope with his name across the back and finally inserted a finger under the flap, tearing it open. Inside, was a handmade collage of bright orange basketballs, random cop characters from movies, pictures of him with various friends, stills from Nike ad campaigns, pictures of biryani, and Metallica lyrics, among other things. On the backside, a loopy hand had scribbled the words: To Arnav, here’s hoping the next year brings you more of your favourite things. With love from Khushi.
Arnav looked up, eyes narrowed. Khushi was waiting for him to react, unconsciously fidgeting with her rings.
“Well? Do you like it?”
He gave her that sudden smile that always seemed to stop her heart and pulled her into a hug. “I fucking love it. Thank you, Khushi.”
Khushi melted into his arms, shushing the butterflies in her stomach. “There’s a giftcard inside the envelope too. Don’t accidentally throw it away, ’kay?”
“You didn’t have to.”
“I know. But I wanted to. Happy Birthday, Arnav.”
When she reluctantly pulled away from him, he was still smiling.
And then, I decided that I would take matters into my own hands to see if he feels the same way about me… you know, Hindi film hero style? I presumed that even if he didn’t like me then, maybe he would someday. And he certainly shouldn’t be hesitant because of a lack of encouragement on my part. Itni dosti toh thi…nahi? Sure, he never reciprocated. But he didn’t stop being my friend either. We were…caught in limbo. And I was okay with it. I guess…I hadn’t stopped to think if he was too.”
Despite Khushi’s flippant tone, Kalpana didn’t smile this time. She lay down next to her sister, staring at the glow-in-the-dark stickers of the solar system on her ceiling.
“I’m so sorry, Khushi. What do you want me to do? Should I make your excuses to Ma and your professors tomorrow? I don’t know if Ma will buy it, but she may not ask too many questions if it’s only for one day.”
“No, that would make things worse. I have to go to college tomorrow and pretend that it’s not a big deal. It’s the only way to ensure people forget about this as soon as possible.”
“Do you want me to ask Lavanya to stay by you all day? That will ensure everyone forgets everything ASAP.”
That made Khushi laugh again. “Now, that’s an idea. But no. I know this is unfair…but I’m actually asking for The Twelfth Night.”
Kalpana actually sat up to stare at Khushi in astonishment.
“Why? And just how will that help?”
“I…just need a break from being Khushi. But someone has to be Khushi. I know this is cowardly, but I can’t. I can’t face him tomorrow. I need a little time. I won’t be able to be both sincere in my apology and nonchalant about my own feelings– and he’ll see through it. And while he may be relieved that I’ll no longer be pursuing him, he’s too nice to not consider how I may be dealing with this situation. And I will not have him feel sorry for me. So I want you to be Khushi. Just for tomorrow. Deal with this for me. Assure him I’ll leave him alone but I’ll still be his friend. Don’t prolong the conversation. Help me walk away.”
“Khushi…what would I even say? This is so personal! He’ll know in a shot that it’s not you.”
“No one except Ma has ever been able to tell us apart when we’ve done this, Kalpana. Please. And it’s not that personal. Not anymore, at least.”
Kalpana chewed her lip in uncertainty.
“Do you really think it’ll help?”
“It will. Please, Kalpana?”
“Oh, alright. We’ll have to tell Lavanya, though.”
“Naturally. I’m not making out with your girlfriend behind the bushes.”
“We do not make out behind the bushes.”
“Your loss entirely, then.”
Note: One high-five to everyone else who likes Akshay Kumar from the 90s. And the ones who don’t, baahar miliyo. (No, don’t. I’m too Bengali to make the effort.) And thank you to everyone who complimented the banner. Means my time spent learning Photoshop last semester wasn’t a complete waste– even if this isn’t quite what the professor had in mind. Two down, one to go.