PSA: A friend asked me to write this a very long time ago. (Sorry it took so long, H!) This is not my usual brand of fluff and giggles, hence the warning. If suggestions of infidelity, marked resemblances to people we may or may not know, and questionably written sexual content make you uncomfortable, then this story may not be for you, my friend. I’m looking at 3 parts, and the next one should appear soon.
“Ekdum fresh concept hai, Madam. This story and this jodi…audience paagal ho jaayegi, Madam. Next year, you’ll be the Favourite Bahu, Beti, Biwi– all the awards, Madam. Meri guarantee hai!”
Exhaling wearily, Khushi Gupta reached for the contract. “Jha saab, I’ve already agreed, haven’t I? Don’t worry, I’m not backing out. I will have my lawyer look over the contract, sign it, and have it returned to you by the end of the week. Alright?”
“Of course, Madam, of course. I trust you absolutely. Aap hi ke bharose, I am making this show, Madam. Chalte hain.”
Leaving the quiet, bespectacled writer behind to gather the paperwork and follow, Shyam Manohar Jha swept out of the room.
“You know he’s worried because it’s obvious that you’re having second thoughts.”
Khushi cracked a small smile at the young man shuffling with the papers on the coffee table. “I’m not having second thoughts, Akash. And I certainly am not doing this show because ‘ekdum fresh concept hai’– frankly, it’s not. I’m doing this only because your narration of the first five episodes had me intrigued. And I trust that you will be able to tell an engaging story and wrap it up satisfactorily in a year’s time. Remember, Akash, I will not extend my contract.”
“Yes, of course, Khushi. I’ve been clear on that point with Mr Jha. He didn’t like it. But when I made it clear that this was the one condition on which I’d work with him– not to mention approach the two of you, he reluctantly gave in. I’m sure he’s going to try to tempt us into making this a longer venture, but rest assured; I have no intention of dragging this one.”
“Has…he…signed the contract yet?”
Akash paused, looking up at Khushi. “He has. He returned it a couple of days ago. And he sent me a message saying he looks forward to working with the two of us again.”
Engrossed in typing something into her cell phone, the only indication that she had heard was a vague nod. But Akash could guess at how much it had cost her to ask that last question.
“Khushi…cut him some slack. You know what he’s been going through…”
Slipping the phone back into the pocket of her ratty jeans, Khushi forced her lips into a tight smile. “When have I ever been demanding, Akash? Perhaps that has been my biggest folly all along. Anyway, that is water under the bridge. I look forward to working with you as well. Just like old times, no? If you’ll excuse me, I have a yoga class right now.” Uncurling her lithe form from the cushy armchair near the window, she walked out without a backward glance.
Stifling a yawn, Khushi stretched her arms as far behind as the tight blouse she was wearing would allow. Huffing as it didn’t do much to ease the kinks in her shoulders, she slumped against the cushions again. This had to be the part she disliked most about her job: the endless waiting around while a shot was prepared. And damn her makeup and the elaborate knot in her hair that wouldn’t even allow her to snuggle into the couch and go to sleep. She stiffened ever so slightly as the couch dipped with the weight of another figure.
“Payal said they’re almost ready. Hopefully, this won’t take too long and we can wrap up in a couple of hours.”
Khushi hummed softly, unwilling to make eye contact, content with staring listlessly at the routine chaos of the sets in front of her.
“My condolences on that outfit. It seems no matter how ‘pathbreaking’ a show is, heroines still may not dress down ever.”
Khushi snorted. “Indian TV– whatever the language– has a long way to go before that happens. And our show isn’t all that pathbreaking anyway. A Macbeth adaptation set in the bloodsucking corporate world. Vishal Bharadwaj meets Madhur Bhandarkar meets Shyam Manohar Jha.”
“Ouch. While he’d be flattered by the Vishal Bharadwaj comparison, Akash would be wounded by the Bhandarkar parallel. When did you become this cynical about Hindi TV content anyway? Wasn’t that my department?”
Khushi finally looked her companion in the eye, offering him a brittle smile. “You haven’t been around for a while, Arnav. Things change. People change.”
Arnav Singh Raizada held her gaze, face as deceptively blank as ever. Only, as attuned to him as she was, Khushi could detect a glimmer of wry amusement in the bone-deep weariness in his eyes. “As profound as ever, Khushi Gupta. I’m glad that hasn’t changed.”
Resisting a strong impulse to throw her arms around him, hold him tight, and apologise for everything, Khushi dropped her lashes, tracing the pattern of her saree border with a finger. “Speaking of changes…are you surprised the show is doing as well as it is? It’s only been a month, I know, but we have so much stacked against us. I mean, we have the dreaded late night slot, we have to contend with the success of our last show, and two key people from our so-called ‘golden quintet’ are missing. Jha is nowhere near the producer that Anjali was. And although I’m going to sound like the bitter ex, Payal is a far better director than Aman.”
She sensed him shake with a suppressed chuckle. “I think your definition of ‘bitter ex’ is a little skewed. Now, if Aman had claimed that position it would be one thing…”
Khushi stiffened involuntarily. “We’re not going into that, Arnav.”
“You do know that we’re going to have to have this conversation sooner or later.”
“No, we’re not.” Khushi turned around to look at him again, not bothering to disguise the hurt and anger simmering underneath her words. “You have some nerve…don’t talk to me in that patronizing tone; I’m not the one who went incommunicado for more than a year after…” She bit her lip, dropping her gaze. “Anway, you have no right to show up and demand a conversation…closure…whatever it is that you want, after all this time.”
“I had actually hoped for us to be able to just talk…share stuff…like we used to.” Khushi shivered at the ice in his voice. “I’m not remotely excusing my decision to not stay in touch for so long– and it was a conscious decision alright. I know it was unfair to you. I’m sorry, Khushi, but my marriage was falling apart around me– and I was doing my best to pick up the pieces of my life. Do you think I didn’t want to talk to you? That I was somehow blaming you for the mess in my life? Do you really know me so little? I only–”
“Arnav Sir, Khushi Ma’am, shot ready hai. Payal Ma’am aapko bula rahi hai.”
There was a sudden uncomfortable silence in the void after the production assistant sent to call them had left. Taking a deep breath, Khushi pulled herself off the couch, and began shaking out the pleats of her saree and coaxing stray hairs behind her ears. She was conscious that Arnav had stood up too, and was waiting for her to finish. With a sigh, she gave up fidgeting with her pleats and looked at him. The easygoing, cheerful mask was back in place and he gestured asking her to lead. His next words, however, made her stumble to a halt again as he brushed past.
“It’s taken me the longest time to sort through my feelings and baggage, and make some semblance of sense of my life. We’re not done here. We are going to talk later, Khushi. We need to. Please?”
Khushi hummed her latest earworm’s refrain under her breath as she waited for her cab. It wasn’t raining at that very moment, but the air smelled of rain. The overcast skies, the static building in the air, and the stifling silence of 2 AM did nothing to dispel the tension within. The app on her phone told her that her cab was still seven minutes away.
“Yaar!” She paced nervously in her corner of the street, willing the cab to move faster, and cursing her infernal luck. So caught up was she in her internal grumbling, she almost didn’t notice the silver car until it came to a stop right in front of her.
The window on the passenger side rolled down as Khushi’s stomach executed an ungainly flop. How could she simultaneously avoid and want desperately to see the same person?
“What are you doing here, waiting around at this time? I thought you’d left at least five minutes ago. Where’s your car?”
She flashed Arnav a sheepish smile. “I have a flat. And I don’t have a spare. Don’t worry, I’m just waiting for a cab. It’s only six minutes away.”
He shook his head in resignation. “Of course. I should’ve known. Cancel your cab, I’ll give you a ride.”
“That’s really not necessary, it’ll be here soon! You don’t have to.”
“Will you not argue for once? I don’t trust those cabs…especially at this time. Cancel it and sit.”
“Arnav…it’ll be a huge detour. Let it go, I’ll be fine!”
“Khushi, the longer you argue with me, the more trouble you’re making that cabbie go through. I’m not leaving you here, period.”
Losing the will to prolong their argument, Khushi opened the passenger door and slid inside.
“God, you’re so bossy. Millions of people use these cabs all the time.”
“I’m sure.” Volunteering no further comment, he pulled away from the kerb.
Slipping subconsciously back into old ways, Khushi turned the air conditioner off and cracked open the window.
“Would you also like my jacket? It’s lying on the backseat.”
Khushi managed a credibly straight face in front of the exaggerated deference in his voice. “None of your sarcasm, Arnav. It’s not that hot. You’ll live without the AC for forty five minutes.”
“In the Bombay mid-monsoon humidity? Not likely. I should leave a note behind somewhere right now– so people know who to hold responsible for my untimely death from dehydration.”
In the shadowy confines of the car, Arnav missed the mischievous twinkle in her eyes. “Not ‘who,’ Varun Sanghvi, ‘whom.’ Your Harvard educated self’s grammar is appalling.”
Arnav was so startled, the needle of the speedometer dipped abruptly low before picking up again. “Not all of us went to posh South Indian boarding schools, Miss Grammar Nazi.”
A second later, his shoulders began shaking with silent laughter. “God, I can’t believe you brought that up, of all things. Varun Sanghvi from Harvard: simultaneously India’s leading fashion industrialist and possessor of its most terrible wardrobe.”
Khushi joined in his laughter, leaning her head back against the seat. “You know what would’ve been fun? If in this show, I got to play the foreign-return businesswoman and you played the rustic small-town boy with a heart of gold. But noooo, you still play the ambitious corporate climber, and I only get the ageing owner’s manipulative niece.”
“Come now, you’re getting to play a heroine with decided shades of grey. How rare is that on Indian TV? And a character inspired by Lady Macbeth, no less.”
“I know, I know. I do like this show. I’ve just picked up your nasty habit of dissing desi TV.”
“Cheer up. There’s still plenty to diss. Like 100 episode success parties. What the fuck? No one else in the world does that, I’m sure.”
“Probably. But I’m not going to lie, I enjoyed myself tonight. I actually like these parties.”
“Of course, you do, Sahana Iyer. Admit it, background aside, you identified with Sahana.”
“I did. It’s true. I loved playing Sahana– almost as much as you disliked playing Varun.”
He turned his head slightly to grin at her. “I didn’t always dislike playing Varun. I just got tired of him. Bloody monotonous.”
“Chalo, the prodigal son returns. Your obsessive fan following welcomed you back with open arms even after your almost five year break from TV. And that weird Kuch Ishq Jaisa reunion in between totally doesn’t count.”
“The pot shouldn’t talk about obsessive fans. I hear you got sent a roomful of flowers and chocolates just this morning.”
“Please. They were nothing compared to the truckloads of stuff you receive daily.”
“Oye, I receive virtually nothing next to you. And I don’t even want to know how many ‘appreciation threads’ you’re leading by on tvchaska.com.”
“I wish! I’ve been working almost constantly over the last five years, after Kuch Ishq Jaisa ended. And all it takes is one sneeze for you to shoot to the top of their rankings– hiatus or not.”
“This is a circular argument. I’m going to drop it here, before we end up actually participating in our own fan wars.”
“Your casual arrogance is always refreshing.”
“So I’ve been told, Khushi, so I’ve been told.”
Khushi shifted uncomfortably at the sudden grim turn in his mood. “Hey, I didn’t mean to–”
“I know, don’t worry about it.”
After a moment’s silence, Khushi swallowed and began again, “I…I’m sorry about you and Lavanya, Arnav. I know you’ve said that you don’t hold me responsible for any part of it, and I’m certainly not self-centered enough to continue wallowing in some kind of assumed guilt. I heard everything you said that night about sinking ships and judgment and morality. And I do understand. But…” Khushi trailed off, fumbling for the right words.
“But what? You can’t bring yourself to believe me? You think I was just trying to absolve myself of guilt?”
Khushi stared at the hands clasped on her lap, worrying her lower lip, and minutes passed before she replied.
“No. I don’t think that’s what you were doing. Or maybe just a little bit, I don’t know. But I believed you then, and I believe it now. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m sorry things became so awkward that I couldn’t stand by you when you needed a friend the most. I was fucking pissed off about the way you went off the grid. I still am a little, I think. But I’m not stupid enough to blame you alone for that. We were equal participants in whatever happened. And I hate that we kinda proved Lavanya right.”
Khushi cut him off as he opened his mouth to argue.
“No, hear me out. I know she’d already filed for divorce at the time, and you guys were bitter as hell and not even trying to reconcile anymore. I know all her accusations were baseless, if we consider bare facts. But it’s so much more complicated than that, isn’t it? Just the way we ended up sleeping together had this almost inevitable quality for me. It wasn’t a ‘oh, we need comfort right now, let’s try this.’ It was more of a ‘we can’t fight this anymore’ moment for me. I may be imagining things, of course. When am I ever all that sure of my own feelings, forget anyone else’s? But I don’t like to think about what this uncertainty says about me. And about us– our relationship as we’d had it up to that point. You get what I’m saying?”
Silence stretched between them again, as Arnav considered her shaking words, an achingly familiar crease between his brows. In the end, he exhaled heavily.
“No, you’re not imagining things. I do understand what you’re trying to say. I don’t like it. I’m not sure I agree even. But I understand. I do, however, think it’s more than that. We were best friends, Khushi. I cared–care–about you very much. I’m not sure when that affection grew into something else. And it did, Khushi. I make no bones about it. When I kissed you, it wasn’t just because I was seeking comfort–although I won’t deny that either. I find you…attractive…in a way I never had while we were working together.”
Khushi concentrated fiercely on the little hand ticking on her wristwatch, unable to look up. Her pulse had mysteriously notched up. She closed her eyes and fervently hoped he wouldn’t notice. She hadn’t bargained for the things he was saying.
“Come on, Khushi, I thought you wanted me to be honest. How can I be, without talking about how I feel about you? It took me a while to sort things out in my head. And I deserve everything you throw at me for my radio silence, for leaving you alone to deal with any confusion, any hurt…any regrets that may have followed. That is not what friends do. Presumptuous as this sounds, heck, I would have deserved it if you’d forgotten me entirely in the meantime, and started seeing someone else…”
His voice caught on the jagged shards of the last words, and Khushi flinched. She couldn’t resist turning her head to look at him this time. His fingers were clenched tight around the steering wheel and tension radiated from the set of his shoulders. Khushi hastily turned her face to the damp breeze whistling in through the open window, clasping her hands together before she did something stupid like touch him.
“Anyway, back to what I was saying– yes, that night was deliberate and not as accidental as we perhaps would have liked to think. But neither had I spent years planning and getting to that point. I have always been direct with what I want.”
Khushi realised with a jolt that the car had come to a stop in front of her apartment complex. She made no move to open the door. Instead, she gathered the slipping folds of her composure and flashed him a brittle smile.
“And what is it that you want now?”
He answered in a heartbeat. “A second chance. I know I fucked up the first time. And I want to…make amends. If…you’ll let me?”
“Since you’re being so honest with me, I’ll return the favour. Here’s the thing, Arnav. I may not be seeing anyone else right now. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t moved on in a different way. I…yeah, I still have this weird physical reaction to you sometimes, like a schoolgirl in the throes of her first crush. You’ll mess up your hair or maybe wink at me over an inside joke. And my heart will skip a beat. But that’s no secret anyway, right? My attraction to you has always been obvious– to me, certainly, and perhaps to you as well. But when you dropped off the grid like that, especially with our history? I was hurt. And angry. And more importantly, I…don’t trust you…anymore. I can’t rewind, no matter how much I wish to. And…I have to confess, I’m not sure I do want to.”
Khushi felt a telltale sting of moisture in her eyes, mirroring the hurt shining in his.
“I know I’m saying all these horrible things right now, but I need to. You’ve had time and space to figure stuff out, as you said. And so have I, Arnav, so have I. Unfortunately, we haven’t come to the same conclusions. I’m glad to have you back in my life as a colleague– you always have been my most favourite costar. Even as a friend, if not the best friend that you once were. But I’m afraid I can’t offer you anything else.”
A tear dangerously close to escaping the fetters of her lashes, she opened the door and stepped out without waiting for a response. It wasn’t until she’d taken the elevator to the 11th floor and unlocked her apartment door that she allowed herself to slouch against the wall, swiping roughly at her cheeks. Every nerve in her body begged to be allowed to crash into the comfort of her bed and slip into oblivion but the force of habit made her trudge to her bathroom, kicking her stilettos off on the way. Almost an hour later, she lay in bed, hair damp and face scrubbed, staring at the rhythmic whirring of the ceiling fan, willing it to lull her to sleep.
Her phone screen lit up, the vibration of an incoming call loud and jarring in the 4 AM silence.
Khushi sat up in bed, cradling her phone, staring at Arnav’s name flashing on the glowing screen. After a minute, it stopped ringing, putting an end to her dilemma. Faintly disappointed, she turned to place her phone on the bedside table before it vibrated again, this time, with a text message.
I’m sorry about the way I’ve handled a lot of things in my life, Khushi. And harsh though it was, I can’t fault you for any of the things you said. Any more than I can really fault myself for doing what I thought was for the best in a bad situation. And I promise I’ll do better this time.
Khushi frowned at the cryptic lines on her screen. Just what did he mean by he’d do better this time? Did he mean he’d be a better friend? Or did he mean he’d be a better…no. She shut the door firmly on that line of thought. She’d made herself very clear to him and Arnav was many things, but stupid he was not. Sending out a silent prayer of gratitude for the next day’s holiday, she lay back in bed resigned to staring at the ceiling before falling into an exhausted sleep as dawn broke over the horizon.