The practice wasn’t bad at all—until it was time for the boys to join in. We finished the first song in three hours, since all the girls were pretty decent dancers. The boys (mostly Dev) wouldn’t stop whining about how it was unfair for them to be forced to sit through the girls dance routine, but Ananya was both a fabulous choreographer as well as an unwavering teacher. She didn’t let the boys budge.
And finally, when the boys did join us on Radha, hell broke loose. We were divided into pairs—I and Dev, Arjun-Leia, Adarsh-Ananya, Ajay-Lavanya, Dhruv-Ahaana, Gyaan-Aadya, and since the boys outnumbered the girls (and the bride needed a more central positioning), Ayush-Tara-Aman. As though pre-planned, all the boys—except Arjun—seemed to be dancing bad on purpose. I knew Aman and Ayush were great dancers. Tara often mentioned how they participated at all their university dance competitions and managed to do quite well. But even they were acting like buffoons, headed by Dev of course. Every time Ananya showed us a step, they would over-exaggerate it comically, and then one of them would topple over dramatically. The others would eventually collapse with laughter. It continued for an hour or so, until Ananya was close to tears and Arjun snapped. It was scary how quickly all the boys fell into line, their sniggers wiped off. Arjun’s nostrils were flaring as he reprimanded all of them. He also looked quite hot as he did this. His face turned red and a vein throbbed warningly in his temple. Nobody so much as squeaked after that.
‘This is not a choice. We’re doing this for Tara’s wedding and I want to you all to stop fooling around!’ Silence persevered. Leia gripped Arjun’s arm in an attempt calm him down, and it worked.
‘We’re sorry.’ The boys said in unison. Dev took a step forward towards Arjun.
‘I don’t want to be Stuti’s partner.’ What?
‘Why not?’ Arjun asked politely, but it was quite obvious how exasperated he was. Dev shrugged nonchalantly.
‘We’re not compatible as dancers.’ I gawked at Dev. Where is this coming from?
‘Dev…’ Arjun irritatedly began to say, but Ananya intervened.
‘Bhai, can you just switch with him? As long as Leia doesn’t mind.’ Arjun looked at Ananya and then me and then Leia.
‘No, I don’t have a problem.’ Leia blithely said. Arjun looked back at me and raised his eyebrows. I blinked and stared in confusion, even though I knew exactly what was happening.
‘Well, okay then.’ Arjun said, throwing up his hands in surrender and marching over to me. A swarm of butterflies took over my belly.
‘Hi,’ he smiled widely. ‘I’m your new partner.’ I smiled back giddily. Dev winked at me from beside Leia. I realized he had done this on purpose.
‘Are you sure Leia’s okay with this?’ I asked Arjun. Leia was already chatting animatedly with Dev.
‘I’m pretty sure she is. Are you okay with this?’ I nodded in a casual manner, trying not be too obvious about my belly whoops.
‘Dunno, can you keep up?’ Arjun let out a laugh and then winked at me. Jesus.
‘All the girls, back to position!’ Ananya called out. ‘Resume the last step of Navrai!’ The girls sauntered into their spots. I was on Tara’s left and she mouthed ‘you’re dancing with Bhai!’ at me. I blushed in disbelief.
The first 30 seconds of Radha was again just the girls dancing—the boys were supposed to ‘glide in’ once the background music began. And even though I knew Arjun was a pretty good dancer, it was completely different when you were his dance partner. He was so natural at this! His body language transformed from the moment he ‘glided in’ onto the dance floor. An easy, happy smile settled on his face. I was so bewitched for a second that in our first two attempts, I forgot I had to catch hold of his hand and twirl in towards him at Radha likes to move that desi Radha body. In fact, the second time Arjun had extended his hand to me, I’d simply stared at him stupidly.
‘Stuti?’ he’d murmured, still smiling. We’d fallen back by the time I recovered and had to restart the whole thing again.
‘From the top!’ Ananya screeched, sounding more and more like an eagle.
‘No problem! I’m sure Stuti doesn’t mind.’ Dev said. I rolled my eyes at him, but couldn’t help but grin simultaneously.
I finally managed to cinch Arjun’s hand in our third attempt, twirling at gracefully as possible to him. The step ended with my back against him, his arm around my waist.
‘Third time’s the charm, right Khanna?’ Arjun chuckled. I gazed into his beautiful brown eyes, quite sure he could hear my heart thudding loudly. Ananya stopped the music.
‘Great, so I think we can take a break now. Let’s resume in one hour.’ she sighed and immediately dropped to the floor. But I just started enjoying this. The boys scuttled away to eat.
‘Hungry?’ Arjun asked.
‘Not really.’ I sat down on the carpet.
‘Me neither. I ate too much for breakfast.’ He flopped down next to me. Leia waved, she and Tara sitting next to a sprawled Ananya. Arjun waved back.
‘Should we join them?’ I asked.
‘In a bit. I haven’t spoken to you in ages.’
‘Having a stable girlfriend changes a lot of things I suppose.’
‘She isn’t that kind of a girlfriend. I mean the crazy insecure type. We give each other enough space. She’s really quite chill.’ I fell silent at that. Even though Leia was quite chill, I don’t know why Arjun had to justify that to me.
‘Ma was not happy about this.’ Arjun said, his voice lower now. I raised my eyebrows in question.
‘About me bringing Leia here. She said and I quote, that I would be offering fodder for family gossip.’
‘What about Uncle? Did he say anything?’
‘Nope. Not to me at least. Maybe he was avoiding another row.’ I pursed my lips. Arjun leaned in a little bit.
‘What do you think about it?’ Not again.
‘Are you asking Stuti or your guidance counsellor?’ The truth or diplomatic reasoning?
‘Both, I think.’ Why not just Stuti?
‘Um, that’s tough.’
‘Well, what would my guidance counsellor say?’
‘To take an appointment. And also deposit the fee.’ Arjun laughed.
‘And what about Stuti?’
‘She’d wonder why you’re asking her.’ His face sobered down.
‘Because she’s my friend and I value her opinion very much.’ His face was only a little away from mine and I wondered what it would be like to kiss him. I’d always thought about it, even back when we were young. He had beautiful, full lips. But of course, a friend doesn’t kiss another friend. Especially when this other friend already has a girlfriend.
‘I think you both look quite nice together.’ Really now.
‘Yeah. Since you’re all tall and handsome and she’s so cute and short…’ I trailed off lamely. Arjun was smirking.
‘I’m tall and handsome? Gee, that helps.’ I smacked his arm and he laughed.
‘But that’s not what I want to know!’
‘What do you want to know?’ I felt irritated. I hate discussing this.
‘Whether it was a good decision to bring Leia here.’
‘Does my opinion matter?’
‘Yes it does.’
‘Does my answer change anything?’
‘No, but it will help rectify any future plans.’ I sighed deeply.
‘Maybe your mother is right.’
‘The fodder concept. Now that you have-’ I lowered my voice ‘-brought her here, obviously the relatives are going to wonder what’s cooking here. What more, you’re even sharing a room. Total non-sanskaari. And bringing your girlfriend to a family event, especially when you’re Indian, can mean only one thing.’
‘Shaadi.’ I was relieved to see Arjun roll his eyes at that.
‘The main reason why I brought her along was shaadi, just not ours. She really wanted to see an Indian wedding. A situation like this is considered normal in the States!’
‘You’re not in your States right now.’ I venomously said. ‘In India, people don’t look at it that way.’
‘How do you look at it?’ I hesitated before answering. If I wasn’t careful, I could end up saying something stupid.
‘It’s your life. So I think you should be allowed to do what you want.’
‘Which is exactly what Indian values stand against.’ He smiled. I shrugged.
‘I got something for you. From US.’
‘A gift from the States? I must be blessed. What is it?’
‘Surprise.’ I clicked my tongue.
‘Come on…’ I put forward my open palm, expecting him to fish it out from his sweatpants’ pocket. He looked at me like I was an idiot.
‘It’s in my room, stupid. Why would I carry it around?’
‘Would you like to have it right now?’
‘Baby, we’re going up to the room for a bit. You guys want anything?’ Arjun asked Leia, who shook her head. Tara wiggled here brows at me and I resolutely ignored responding.
‘We’re going to head to the dining hall in 2 minutes.’ Ananya groaned.
‘Splendid, we’ll see you in a while.’ Arjun said. I dug my hands into my pockets once again in preparation. We walked swiftly across the lawns. Luckily, the Sun was out for now, and the back of my neck gradually warmed up.
‘What do you think about the hotel?’ Arjun asked.
‘It’s lovely. Even prettier than the pictures on the website.’
‘I felt the same when we arrived here last week. Couldn’t stop gushing over the rooms.’
‘And the bathroom? It’s surreal!’ He laughed. I was reminded of Kabir taunting me about my bathtub love.
‘Towels are pretty damn fluffy too. Had to punch a few walls to feel manly again.’ We were in the lobby now and my gaze immediately travelled around to look for Kabir. He wasn’t in sight. Possibly entertaining another guest.
‘And the staff is so helpful too.’ I murmured without a thought.
‘A little too helpful.’ Arjun tartly said. I turned to look at him, but he was staring straight ahead. I said nothing as we travelled up the lift, and to his room.
‘Do I get any hints about this present?’ I asked, as he swiped his key card and held open the door with a large smile.
‘Sorry Mademoiselle. None at all.’ The room was balmy, the heater humming ostentatiously in the corner. I took off my jacket and my sweater too, grateful for the warmth. Arjun was rummaging through his cupboard—the sound of a bag being unzipped, followed by a rustle of plastic and paper. He emerged with a large red plastic bag, the letters ‘B & H’ emblazoned on the front in thick white font. For the first time in years, a sheepish Arjun Solanki shuffled towards me, and handed me the bag much like the 16-year old Arjun who had once brought me purple orchids when I’d fallen sick. I peeped into the bag. Inside was a box wrapped in brown paper and white string.
‘Should I try guessing?’
‘I highly doubt you’ll get it.’ I fished out the box.
‘Is it…’ Nothing rattled inside the box. ‘-a jewellery box?’
‘Shut up and open it.’ I tugged at the knot on the box and the string fell through easily. I removed the crinkly paper, opened the white cardboard box, and gasped.
‘Do you like it?’ Arjun scratched the back of his head with a shy smile. I nodded wordlessly. It was a Polaroid camera—and not just any, but the Sun 660 AF. Exactly like the one I had back in high school. I had stumbled upon it in my grandfather’s purana trunk that had spent ten years sitting atop the rusty Godrej cupboard in our storeroom. The camera was nestled between a musty monkey cap and a pair of heavy brass scissors, alongside many other possessions. I was thirteen when I found the camera with its neat engraving ‘Prakash Khanna’ (my grandfather) next to the shutter button. I’d immediately rushed off to Palika Bazaar then, to obtain films, and donning a Dev Anand golf cap (also unearthed from the trunk), had spent a good chunk of my summer vacation—and pocket money—on photographing everything and anything. Monkeys sitting on the roadside in Paharganj, the icecream vendors at India Gate, the old kohl-eyed Uncles who sold kites from basement shops, nothing was spared. I still had a shoebox full of photos from back then. The camera was used on every possible occasion for nearly 3 years, until our maid Vimla accidentally knocked it down my bookshelf while dusting the rooms. I never forgave her for that.
‘How…how did you find this?’
‘New York has a lot of things that Palika doesn’t.’ Arjun smiled. ‘A friend of mine is a photographer, and I had him get me this anniversary edition. I know how much you loved your camera.’ I bit my lip nostalgically as I carefully took out the box cam. I turned it over in my hands, feeling its grooves and buttons. My finger halted on the little engraving on the side—Stuti Khanna.
I blinked back tears. I was deeply touched. This was too priceless a gift.
‘This must have cost you a fortune.’ I said thickly, my throat feeling oddly choked up.
‘Insignificant in front of the happy tears in your eyes right now.’ I bit my lip again to stop the tears from spilling, but it didn’t work. I set down the camera on the desk and threw my arms around Arjun, mumbling thank you over and over again. It was odd to feel the rush of butterflies alongside the bubbling nostalgia at being reunited with a childhood trinket. Arjun remembered.
‘Well I didn’t think you’d be this happy,’ Arjun murmured into the top of my head. ‘Warna I’d have brought you a couple of more of these.’ I incoherently murmured something about unexpected surprises.
‘At least you can forgive Vimla Aunty now.’ I looked up at him and we laughed. I felt his chest rumble against mine. He wiped a tear off my cheek.
‘Your nose. It’s so red.’ he said. He was looking very intently at my mouth. I swallowed hard, suddenly aware of how closely we were holding each other.
‘It’s the winters…crying in winters really takes a toll on my facial features…’ I weakly laughed. He didn’t. His gaze shifted to meet mine, one arm clasped around my waist. He brushed back my hair with his other hand, his fingers pausing on the side of my face. Goosebumps rose on my skin. What was happening? Very slowly and deliberately, he lowered his head. I closed my eyes instinctively, my hands gripping the back of his cardigan in a firm grip. His lips softly kissed the corner of my mouth. My heart expanded exponentially against my ribcage. I opened my eyes the tiniest bit to squint at him; the musk scent was overpowering all senses. His forehead touched mine, and he whispered, ‘I never stopped having a crush on you, Stuti. I simply forgot how much I liked you.’
I blanked out faster than a blackboard being wiped with a wet cloth. If there was anything I could say to that, I did not know. I had no idea how to collect myself together and respond to that. All I did was stare at him, breathing through my mouth like an infant. He nuzzled my cheek.
‘Arjun…’ I managed to say. He looked at me. I forgot what I was going to say next.
‘Um…’ And for some inane reason, I wondered what Kabir Durrani would think if he saw me here like this.
I think you’ve got a little crush on Mr. Manager, idiot.
Karan Johar made a sudden reappearance in my mind, making his trademark grimace, one leg crossed over the other.
Seriously, Stuti. You spent all these months, no years, vying after this boy, and now you’re side tracking? All because Kabir showered you with a little attention? Pathetic. What is this, one of my movies?
But what about Leia?
‘But what about Leia?’ I said out loud. Arjun moved his head back, looking away for the briefest second before turning back to me.
‘I really don’t know. I kind of got spontaneous right now.’ I took a deep breath—bad idea, it brought in so much Arjun-smell—and unwound his arm from my waist, stepping away.
‘I’m not entirely sure how to deal with this,’ I said, looking at my feet. ‘But I don’t want to do this at your sister’s wedding.’ Silence hung poignantly between us. And then—
‘Do you feel the same way about me as I do about you?’
I glanced at his face and then at my hands. Why was it suddenly so difficult to say yes? Since when did I begin doubting my attraction towards Arjun? Was this because I didn’t want to hurt Leia by owning up to anything?
‘Maybe. I’m confused. But…we can talk this out after the wedding. Right?’ Say yes, say yes…
‘Okay. You’re right. Now is not the time.’ He dug his hands into his pockets. ‘But…’ He seemed uneasy.
‘Stay away from Kabir Durrani, won’t you?’