Kalpana grimaced as Khushi handed her a pair of faux leather slippers with a colourful beaded strap that wrapped around the ankles.
“Would it kill you to wear appropriate footwear for once in your life, Khushi? I swear to god, wearing your shoes is the worst part of The Twelfth Night. This dress is fine– comfortable even, although I do think this shade of yellow washes us out. But everything would be fine with a pair of tennis shoes.”
“Stop complaining! That colour is great for our skin tone and those are my favourite slippers! Do you know how weird I feel without my hoops?”
Khushi looked morosely at her reflection in the full-sized mirror on her closet door. She had chosen Kalpana’s ‘Kalpana-est outfit’– a khari-print fuchsia patiala paired with a black tank top, a ratty long grey shrug, Kalpana’s silver skull ear studs and her black and white sneakers.
“With these sneakers and my missing hoops, I feel like a part of me is missing.”
“You mean the corns on your feet that will transfer to mine in half an hour? It’s not too late. We can still switch outfits.”
“No fucking way. We’re doing this. Now stop fidgeting with those beads and come braid my hair the way you do it.”
“It’s uncanny.” Lavanya looked them over critically. “In my head, I know who’s who. But I don’t think I ever really appreciated just how much your clothes contribute to your personas.”
Kalpana narrowed her eyes and flashed Lavanya a very Khushi-like feline grin. “It’s not just the clothes, Lavender Brown…we have a lot of practice mimicking each other’s body language and ways of talking too. It started out as a silly game when we were kids, but we’ve turned it into a legit art form over the years. It’s true it’s been a couple of years since our last switch, but luckily, it isn’t something you forget.”
“Would you really not have been able to tell us apart if we hadn’t told you about The Twelfth Night?” Khushi affected the slightly deeper, measured quality of Kalpana’s speech.
Lavanya shivered. “I’m simultaneously so turned on and so creeped out, right now. The things you two make me a party to…and all because of that brat, who totally hasn’t come to college yet, by the way.”
“Oh, let it go, Lavanya. She’ll grow out of it.”
“I better be amply rewarded for playing along with this ridiculous scheme.”
Khushi lowered her eyes seductively. “Well, you’ll just have to wait for Kalpana to do something about it later.”
Lavanya heaved an audible sigh of relief. “Okay, no, that was overdone. Kalpana flirts with far more finesse than you.”
“I really resent that.” Khushi resumed her natural, straighter posture for a minute and scowled at both girls in front of her before stomping inside the building.
Still grinning, the real Kalpana stepped up to Lavanya and whispered in her ear. “Khushi has lots of weird ideas but she’s right on one count– I’ll make it up to you later… any way you like.”
The promise of retribution in Lavanya’s eyes added an extra spring to Kalpana’s steps as she walked to her first class. She rounded the corner and walked smack into a wall of hard muscle. She reeled backwards and an arm immediately shot out to steady her. Standing uncomfortably close to him, with his fingers firmly anchored around a wrist, Kalpana found herself looking straight up into Arnav Singh Raizada’s dark eyes.
His facial bone structure really is remarkably attractive.
Kalpana pushed the errant thought out of her mind, and focused on her script. Giving him a small smile, she pulled her arm out of his grip. “I know you wanted to talk…and I do too. Basketball court at eleven?”
He nodded slowly, staring so intensely at her that she wanted to look away. She forced herself to continue looking him in the eye. “I…have to go now. I’m getting late for class.”
“No problem,” he finally drawled, “I’ll catch you later. By the way, I have a message for your sister, from Akash whom I just spoke to. He apparently lost his phone this morning and can’t call. Where can I find her?”
Burning with curiosity, Kalpana told him. “Kalpana was going to check out a book from the library. You’ll probably find her there.”
Khushi hummed softly under her breath as the librarian stamped her book and scanned it. Of course, she was careful to hum one of Kalpana’s favourite love ballads. So far, her cover hadn’t slipped once and no one had even hinted at any confusion. The more time she spent as Kalpana, the more liberated she felt. No ugly confrontations awaited her anywhere; no one would ask her uncomfortable questions. Whereas Kalpana, without Khushi’s messy feelings in the picture, simply wouldn’t care if anyone did. Win-win.
Nodding her thanks at the librarian, she strolled out of the library and immediately came face to face with the last person she’d wanted to see that day.
Arnav had obviously been waiting for her. He leaned against the wall right outside the library, an unfamiliar victorious glint in his eyes and a small smile threatening the corner of his lips. Khushi had the strangest sensation of being on a roller coaster as her stomach swooped and executed a couple of loops.
Just as she was contemplating her odds of being able to run away without getting caught by someone several inches taller and at least ten times stronger and more agile, reality set in. She wasn’t Khushi, she was Kalpana! This was the whole point of the switch! He probably hadn’t been waiting for her at all.
She immediately relaxed her shoulders into Kalpana’s slight slouch and gave Arnav a vague smile. If anything, he seemed even more amused.
I must truly have been a pain in the ass if he’s in such a chipper mood today.
Khushi’s stomach stopped doing cartwheels and settled down, leaden with guilt and heartache. She fought to keep a pleasantly neutral expression on her face.
“Hey Arnav! What’re you doing here?”
“Waiting for you, actually. I had something rather personal to discuss. Since you don’t seem to have class right now, take a walk with me?”
Khushi was so taken aback by his response that she gawped at him for a whole minute.
“Kalpana? Is everything alright?”
“Ye–es, of course. Uh…what did you want to talk about?”
“Come with me and I’ll tell you.”
As far as Khushi knew, Arnav and Kalpana had never had a direct, one-on-one conversation in their lives. And he was so uncharacteristically cheerful and calm in this absurd situation, that it felt like she was in a parallel universe of some kind. One where there was no polite excuse to refuse his request with.
“Okay…where do you want to go?”
“The basketball court should be empty right now.”
It was a beautiful, clear morning, even though a few stray steel coloured clouds promised rain later in the day. With most people in class, and it being too early in the day for the usual groups of people who liked to hang around the court, she could’ve almost believed them to be completely alone. Khushi firmly shut the door on rose-coloured fantasies involving the two of them. Sitting next to Arnav on the stone steps of the little shed where extra sport supplies and some broken furniture was usually kept, she waited morosely for him to speak.
“I wanted to talk to you about Khushi, actually.”
This was just a morning full of surprises, wasn’t it?
“Talk to me about Khushi? Why? You should talk to Khushi about Khushi. She’s apologised, hasn’t she? That is, she told me she had. She’s awfully sorry, y’know. As it often happens, she wasn’t thinking things through.”
If Kalpana sounded oddly close to tears, it is to be hoped that Arnav didn’t notice.
“I’d really much rather talk to you, if that’s alright. I don’t want to…bother her. How’s she holding up?”
Khushi could have gladly put her head down on her knees and sobbed. She should’ve foreseen this. The considerate person that he was, she should’ve known he would seek out Kalpana first.
“She’s… fine. I mean, she’s naturally a little upset. Nothing a little time won’t fix.” As Khushi tried to frame a nonchalant answer to his question, she realized that this was the perfect moment to get her message across. “You’re… right. You absolutely shouldn’t talk to her for a few weeks. Maybe months. For that matter, avoid talking to me in front of her too…that might upset her as well. You should just keep away altogether. Yeah.”
“That might pose a problem, Khushi.”
“What problem?” Khushi turned her head to look at him, and realized a fraction of a second too late that she hadn’t corrected him. As her eyes widened in confusion, he carried on as though nothing had happened.
“I have a couple of tickets to go see Ishaani perform live at the NCPA tomorrow night, and I was hoping you’d go with me. We could sit on either ends of a row, but I’d much rather you sit next to me. It’s not a movie, but I think we’ll enjoy this concert more.”
Dropping all pretense, Khushi stood up, her eyes bright with tears. “I apologised, Arnav. What more do you want? Is this your sick idea of a joke?”
The next moment, Khushi found her hand in his and with one sharp tug, she was back on the step next to him. The sudden pull made her sprawl inelegantly against his torso, and he wrapped his other arm around her waist to steady her. Suddenly, she was too close to him– too close to his face, too close to his body. As her breath quickened, she lifted her eyes to his. She was so close, she could see the grain of his stubble, the little flecks of gold where the sun bounced off his eyes, and she could smell the heady mix of forest and mint– his aftershave and toothpaste. With a little twinge of nervousness, she noted his fading amusement and the grim lines around his mouth.
Very gently, he pushed her away from him although her hand remained in his.
“Why would you think this is a joke?”
“Well, what am I supposed to think? Till yesterday, you did nothing but dismiss my feelings. And then…Ayesha pointed out what an asshole I was being so I said sorry and decided to back off. And today, you suddenly want to go out with me?”
“I don’t ‘suddenly’ want to go out with you, Khushi. I’m doing what I should’ve done weeks ago. What you have been doing for two months. Telling you how I feel.”
Khushi used her left hand to swipe at the tears drying on her cheeks–for some reason, he wouldn’t let go of her right one– and looked out toward the rustling leaves of the deodar trees lining the boundary wall.
“So…are we on for tomorrow?”
She turned towards him again with a tired smile.
“I guess. It depends.”
“On how well you explain the meaning of this.”
It was Arnav’s turn to squirm. He began stroking his thumb across the back of her hand, focusing all his attention on the task.
“You know how you thought I was joking right now?”
“That was my problem for all these weeks. I thought you were joking every time you said something outrageous or asked me out.”
Of all the possible explanations Khushi had expected to hear, this was nowhere on the list.
“To quote you, what was I supposed to think? We met and became friends. You’d come watch our basketball games and horse around with us. All the guys flirted casually with you and you returned it in kind. And then one fine day, you turned all your attention to me! You exaggerated the story of how we’d met until it sounded like a damn Bollywood movie. You took perverse delight in saying suggestive things loudly in front of everyone. I figured you were doing it because you’d noticed that I wouldn’t mess around with you, like the other guys. And honestly, if it had been anyone else, I probably would have been right there with Aman and Akash and Dylan. But I liked you, Khushi. And I couldn’t fuck around like that– it messed with my head. I was in this impossible position where I was so turned on by the attention from you, but knew that you didn’t mean it. That’s why I dissed you all the time. And it was only yesterday, when you reacted the way you did to Ayesha’s careless words that it finally occurred to me that you hadn’t been joking. Your apology text sealed the deal and I knew I had to talk to you in person.”
His head snapped up. “What?”
“So…you’re saying, my relentless pursuit had appeared to be a joke to you, and it was my apology and decision to back off that convinced you I was serious?”
“It sounds really stupid when you put it like that, but pretty much. Yeah.”
Khushi bristled, trying to tug her hand out of his. “That is so fucked up, Arnav Singh Raizada. And it is stupid.”
When he refused to let go, she huffed and gave up. Now that she was vocally angry, he seemed a lot more relaxed than he had any right to be in the situation.
“Come on, Khushi, give me a break. I’ve been fucking conditioned by movies and shows and books to expect girls who drop subtle hints about their feelings and wait for guys to make the first move. Nothing in pop culture had prepared me for a girl who is a friend for a few weeks and then suddenly starts pursuing me with this kind of dogged good humour. I was confused and…scared that I was reading too much into your words. I cared– I care too much to kid around about this.”
The earnestness and touch of defiance in his face made Khushi’s heart stutter a little before it picked up again. As his words gradually sank in, her stomach resumed its roller coaster ride and she felt a rather alarming desire to do a happy dance. She contented herself with a slow, Grinch-like grin.
“Bottomline, you’re basically saying that you like me. And you want to go out with me.”
Mirroring Khushi’s, Arnav’s lips too stretched into a wide, dorky smile.
“Yeah, I am.”
She threw her arms around neck with a gleeful laugh. “About fucking time, Arnav. God, who knew you’d be such an adolescent boy in this matter. If this is the best you can do, you’ll never catch any bad guy worth his salt till you’re fifty.”
His arms tightened around her waist and she could feel him press his lips to her temple. “I’ll be sure to consult you every time I have a new case, Einstein.”
“Speaking of Einsteins, how did you know I’m me? No one except our Mom, and maybe, Lavanya, has ever seen through The Twelfth Night.”
“Excuse me? The Twelfth Night?”
“You know– the switch. Like Viola and Sebastian from The Twelfth Night. I was supposed to be Kalpana, and she was supposed to be Khushi for today.”
“That is a ridiculous idea. While her clothes did fool me for a bit, within two seconds of talking to ‘Khushi’ it was obvious that it was Kalpana pretending to be you for some reason. And I could make a fair guess as to why. So that meant I had to look for ‘Kalpana.’ Did you really want to avoid me that badly?”
Khushi nuzzled into the crook of his neck. “I’m sorry. I was bravely dealing with heartbreak, okay.”
He tangled his fingers in her hair, messing up her braid. “No, I’m sorry. For being oblivious.”
“It’s okay. Lavanya said I have no finesse when it comes to flirting.”
“I hate to say this, but she’s right. But it doesn’t matter anymore. Now that I know you’re serious, you can say as many suggestive things to me as you want.”
“Can I ask you another question?”
“Does my sledgehammer flirting really turn you on?”
He pulled away slightly to look at her, smirk firmly back in place. “This is a very inappropriate place to show you just how much, so this will have to do for now.”
He lowered his head and pressed his mouth to hers. Parting her lips with his own, he stroked at the inside of her bottom lip with his tongue. Khushi closed her eyes and shivered. She anchored herself by fisting her hand around the collar of his shirt. Not that he would’ve let her fall. His arms cradled her to his chest, where she could feel the hard thump of his heart with every breath. When she broke away for air, he curled his fingers around the nape of her neck and pulled her right back, brushing her lips with his.
“See why stamina is helpful?”
Khushi laughed, a bubble of joy swelling within. Kissing Arnav Singh Raizada was every bit as delicious as she’d imagined it would be.
“It’s a Gupta sister rule. Tell him Lavanya.”
Arnav scowled, still shielding his plate from Khushi’s outstretched fingers. “I don’t believe it. You constantly make up rules to suit yourself.”
Kalpana worked hard to maintain a straight face. “Khushi’s right. Dating a Gupta sister means always sharing food with us. Khushi has dibs on half of anything you’re eating.”
“She has definitely eaten more than half my fries.”
“Yeah, that’s ‘cause I didn’t eat any of your burger. So I’m making up with the fries.”
“You don’t like fish burgers.”
“That’s entirely besides the point. Now hand those over.”
Arnav looked helplessly at Lavanya.
Lavanya nodded with the long-suffering patience of a saint. “It’s true. Welcome to the dark side, Arnav…Goswami.”
Note: And we’re done! Much as I would’ve enjoyed a Comedy of Errors (Shakespeare bhaisaab really liked his twins) with Kalpana, Khushi, Arnav, and Lavanya, I feel it would’ve been inconsistent with Arnav-Khushi’s relationship for Arnav not to see through the deception.
So what are we celebrating, you ask? Those who follow me on twitter may already know this, I’ve been on a 90s Akshay Kumar binge. In the last three weeks, I’ve literally watched 37 out of the 45 movies he was lead actor of up until 2000 (and will no doubt watch the remaining soon). Most are rewatches, although I have discovered some hilarious, more obscure gems. Now, I know there are so, so many problematic things about his films, but I was suddenly reminded of one bit I un-ironically loved. And today we’re celebrating the trope of the feisty, hoop-wearing journalist who is very upfront about her attraction to the alpha-male, sullen cop. Said cop is, of course, not a chauvinist in my world, but merely uncertain and sweet. While Raveena Tandon may have needed saving by the end of those movies, Khushi Gupta doesn’t, and she gets what she wants. Heh. That’s really it.