Aarti was a mystery. She was one of those girls you read about in stories like this. The girls that are nothing but bad news. You know that you should stay away – keep your head down and walk away. But you know how hard that is. In the end, we’re always attracted to the bad things.
The moment I met her has been engraved in my mind. There are a few moments in our life that we can look back on and say – that is when everything changed. Meeting Aarti was one of those moments. There are times when my memories of Rishikesh feel realistic – almost as if I was standing in the middle of one of those crowded by lanes of the holy city. Almost as if I might bump into Aarti any moment now.
‘Fuck.’ Aarti hissed, audible to the firangs, who shot her a dirty look.
Aarti didn’t care. She continued picking up the flowers she had dropped when I had rammed into her.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t see you.’ I said, when she didn’t respond, I continued. ‘Isn’t it a little insensitive to curse audibly in a holy city?’
She looked at me with her piercing brown eyes and raised eyebrows. ‘You must be new here.’ She paused. ‘You need to buy me more flowers. I can’t take these ones to puja anymore.’ Aarti said as she got up. That’s when I first noticed her. She was wearing a white kurta and a blue salwar. Her long messy hair complimented her face in the most wonderful way. ‘What are you looking at? Come.’ She snapped, irritated.
‘You guessed right. I am new here.’ I stammered. To be honest, Aarti was a little intimidating. ‘My name is Junaid.’
‘I’m Aarti.’ She said as she sprinted ahead of me to the flower vendor. ‘Where are you from?’ She asked.
‘Mumbai. Have you ever been?’
She smiled as she took the parcel from the vendor. ‘No. But, I have always wanted to go. I have heard wonderful things about Marine Drive. The ocean has always been my favourite.’ ‘ Mine too. ‘ We started walking towards the temple for the evening aarti on the banks of the Ganga. ‘So, Junaid, why have you come here?’
I had come to Rishikesh to “discover” myself – whatever that meant. But I debated against telling Aarti that. The last thing I wanted her to think of me was a clichéd city guy who watched way too many indie films. ‘Just for a holiday.’ I shrugged.
Aarti laughed out loud. ‘A holiday?’ She paused, laughed again. ‘ Nobody comes here for just a holiday. If you’re here for the weed, just say so. It’s pretty good stuff.’
I laughed and we walked in silence for a while. ‘So where are you staying?’
‘There’s this tiny motel near Laxman Jhula. It isn’t much but it’s okay.’
‘We’re here.’ Aarti said, pointing to the temple where she was headed.
I was a little disappointed. I wanted to spend more time with her-I wanted to get to know her. I felt like she was someone I could open up to.
‘Well, it was nice meeting you, Aarti.’ I said, and started walking back to the main road.
‘ Junaid!’ She called out to me. ‘Why don’t you join us? You can’t go back to Mumbai without going to a Ganga aarti with Aarti.’ I laughed and ran back towards the temple – towards Aarti.
I didn’t believe in God. Both my parents were atheists and I had grown up knowing and believing that there was no God. I had spent twenty one years of my ridiculing aartis and poojas. But, sitting there in the middle of the aarti, I was moved. I felt different.
I looked around me and all these people – foreigners and Indians alike, were so immersed in the aarti. They all believed in something great and they were so passionate about it. It was beautiful.
‘Hi.’ Aarti settled down next to me.
‘The aarti. It was surreal.’ I managed, splashing the water with my feet.
‘I know. It’s been a little more than a year since I first witnessed an aarti – and I still get that feeling of renewal every time I sit here.’
I pointed to a cemented platform that was constructed halfway into the river. ‘What’s that?’
‘There used to be a twenty foot tall statue of Shiva there.’
‘Cloudbursts. The whole statue broke down into pieces that fit in my palm. They built that platform soon later – they have yoga sessions on it now. You should come for a few.’ She said, not making eye contact with me at all.
‘I wish I could, but, I’m leaving tomorrow. I have to get back to my job.’
Aarti didn’t say anything. ‘What do you do?’ I waited until she looked at me to continue. ‘Like, for a living?’
‘I help out in an ashram down the road.’ She looked back. ‘Guruji lets me eat and sleep there – in return, I help him by cleaning and running errands …’ Aarti looked down at the bag of the fallen flowers.
‘…like getting flowers for poojas?’ I completed. ‘Wait, you didn’t grow up here?’
She tried to suppress a smile. ‘No. I grew up in Delhi. Seventeen years there. Then, I couldn’t live there anymore. So, I bought the cheapest ticket I could find to Rishikesh and came here.’
‘What about your parents?’
‘I’m really sorry. I- What happened to them?’
‘Oh, no! They’re fine. They’re just dead to me.’ She smiled. ‘You hungry?’
We walked through the now empty Laxman Jhula market in silence. My throat had dried up.
‘I’m sorry I brought up your parents.’ I said looking at her- she looked upset, like she was about to cry.
‘I’m starving, let’s go to Chotiwala for dinner.’
‘So, what do you do? Back in Mumbai.’
‘I’m studying engineering’
‘Is that what you want to do?’ She asked as we sat down on a table in a restaurant called Chotiwala.
‘What do you mean?’ I drank some water while Aarti ordered.
‘Is that what you want to do for the rest of your life? Engineering?’
I didn’t say anything. I knew that I didn’t want to work a corporate job for the rest of my life. I wanted to write.
‘I want to write.’ I said. Aarti was the first person I had told about this secret fantasy of mine. ‘Clichéd?’
‘No. Not really. Not if you actually want to do it.’ She took a bite from her chole-puri. ‘What do you want to write about?’
‘I don’t really know. I want to write about the little things, you know? Nothing to complicated or tough to read.’
‘Give me an example.’
‘I might want to write about this moment right here. About you, a girl that I met 5 hours ago – a girl that I can’t seem to understand.’
‘Hmm.’ that’s all she said.
After dinner, Aarti and I walked down to the Ganga. She wasn’t calm and graceful like she was a few hours ago – now, she was turbulent and boisterous. The Ganga reminded me or Aarti- graceful yet intimidating. Just like the Ganga, there was so much about Aarti that was yet to be discovered- to be learnt. I looked at her. She was sitting on a rock about ten feet high; smoking a cigarette.
‘This is the place where I first saw a dead body.’ Aarti pointed to a spot in the river.
‘I was sixteen. I had come here on a holiday with my… and I remember I noticed something floating right here. I asked a local what it was; he calmly responded with – a dead body. He said that she might have committed suicide – the dead lady. Jumped down from a rock like this and just not come up to the surface. Living one moment, and ceasing to exist the next.’
She passed on the cigarette to me. I had quit a long time ago, but, I still took it.
‘I wonder what it feels like.’ I said, blowing out smoke.
Aarti raised an eyebrow. ‘Please don’t tell me that you’re this scarred man that cannot be saved because we all know that that’s just bullshit.’ I passed the cigarette back to her.
‘Oh, God, no!’ I said defensively. ‘I wonder what jumping in feels like. Letting yourself go – even if it is just for a few seconds. I haven’t been able to that. I haven’t taken risks. It’s high time – I should start.’
She looked at me intently. ‘Let’s find out.’ She said flicking her cigarette.
‘Wait what?’ I exclaimed. She was standing up now, pulling me up with her.
‘Lets find out what letting go feels like. What jumping in feels like. What taking risks feels like.’
She held my hand and we jumped in. I didn’t even think twice. I let go. In that moment, I felt free. I felt liberated. I felt inspired. I felt passion. I felt love. I looked at Aarti, laughing, trying to get the water out of her eyes. Somewhere between her anger and her silly laughter, I think I had fallen in love with her. I felt the intense urge to kiss her – to let her know that I had fallen for her. This time, I grabbed her hand, waded closer to her, and kissed her. Tonight was all about taking risks, right? Aarti gave in for a moment and then pulled away.
I didn’t believe in God. Both my parents were atheists and I had grown up knowing and believing that there was no God. I had spent twenty one years of my ridiculing aartis and poojas.