Updates are appended at the end.
I’ll admit. It was the shock of seeing a girl taller than me for the first time in my life that attracted me to her. I wasn’t short. Five foot nine was quite average, at least for my age. But she was nearly six feet tall.
The first time I met her was at the entrance of the private tuition we had both ended up in. It was the beginning of the session and I had just taken off my shoes. As I was placing them in the shoe-rack outside the door, she came up beside me and bent down to take off hers.
I stood there frozen, shocked by the fact that her ass came up to my stomach. It must be her shoes, I told myself. When she takes them off, she’ll be shorter. A girl can’t be taller than me, right?
Don’t judge me… Growing up in an all-boys’ school had given me strange notions about the other gender.
When she straightened up, her head still cleared mine. Hunching her shoulders, she quickly walked into the room.
Thinking back, I must have creeped her out by standing at attention to bring out my full height while she took off her shoes.
Entering the room after her, I found that aside from Mrs. Chaudhry, we were the only ones there.
Mrs. Chaudhry was a neat woman with her iron-grey hair tied up in a bun. A retired college teacher, she gave private tuitions to school students to fill the financial gap left by her inadequate pension. She taught very few people in really small batches at her apartment. Two classes a week. Only enough for her to deal with her monthly bills.
I took my seat opposite the whiteboard and brought out my notebook and pen as the girl talked to her. Seeing that they were discussing how she had fared in her finals and which of the questions had already been discussed in class, the girl had probably been taught by her even last year.
When they were done, Mrs. Chaudhry turned to me. “Hello there. It’s your first time in my class isn’t it? What is your name?”
“Well, Arun, I’ve heard good things about you. I hope you’ll benefit from my class. Let’s just wait a little for the other two to arrive, then we can start.” She said.
“Oh,” she introduced, “This is Sneha. She has been with me since last year. Get along with her, yeah.”
I turned to the girl to introduce myself, only to find her looking at me sullenly with her hands clutching the strap of her sling bag.
“Sneha?” asked Mrs. Chaudhry, confused.
“That’s my seat.” She muttered. “I’ve been sitting there all of last year.” She looked at me expectantly as if her words were enough to make me move.
So, of course, I did what I would have done if one of my friends at school had asked me to switch seats for such flimsy reasons. I sneered and ignored her.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her grip on her strap tighten. She had slung the satchel cross-wise and the strap dug into her cleavage, doing interesting things to her chest and even more interesting things to my testosterone pickled brain.
I didn’t know enough to understand what I was feeling but I knew that I wished I had shifted my seat when she had asked.
Mrs. Chaudhry smiled awkwardly and went back to scribbling in her notebook while Sneha grumpily took her seat at the end of the rectangular table farthest from me.
After ten minutes of sullen silence, the other two finally arrived. A boy and a girl.
I knew the guy, or at least, I had seen him before. Surya had come to our school for an inter-school basketball tournament. He was pretty nifty with the three-pointers, nearly causing an upset. He had made quite the impression on the court and, seeing him up close, he made quite the impression now, towering over the girl who had entered alongside him.
Neelava, on the other hand, was a petite girl with a bubbly personality. I wouldn’t call her chubby exactly… more like she had retained all her baby fat. And boy, was she loud. In my opinion, she opened her mouth way too wide whenever she spoke. I swear I could see her tonsils on her ‘ah’s.
It was only later that I found out why Sneha was so hung up about that seat.
Mrs. Chaudhry taught in her dining room. The rectangular table served as our desk while she taught using the whiteboard tacked onto the wall adjacent to one of the broader sides of the table.
Ma’am was left-handed, and whenever she wrote on the board, anyone sitting on the two seats on the right side of the table would find their sight blocked by her body. And anyone sitting on the two seats at the shorter edges of the table would be dazzled by the tube-light.
The seat I had taken was on the longer side of the table opposite to the whiteboard with the tube-light shining down from behind me. It was the only seat which gave perfect visibility of the board without the headache inducing glare.
The first day of class was as boring as I expected it to be and I had to do my best to stifle my yawns by the end of the session. Looking around to distract myself from the seductive summons of sleep, I found Neelava resting her chin on her palm with her elbow on the table. Her closed eyes spoke of her ongoing visit to the land of dreams.
The way her elbow swayed dangerously made me apprehensive. She would be cracking a few teeth if her chin slipped off her palm.
To my side, Surya seemed to be paying great attention to the whiteboard with his arms crossed across his chest. Only his glazed eyes spoke of his absence from the material plane.
Sneha was busy taking notes.
Sighing, I spun my pen a few times before returning to my note-taking.
After that day, the race for that prized seat developed into a childish rivalry between us. I don’t know about her, but arriving early and claiming that seat gave me a strange sense of accomplishment. It didn’t enjoy taking notes, or anything. All of it could found in our books anyway. But it felt good to irritate her.
Watching her grimace when Ma’am erased the whiteboard before she could finish copying everything down due to her sight being blocked, gave me a perverse sort of amusement. For some reason, the girl never could bring herself to interrupt the lesson to take notes.
The best part was when I nonchalantly passed her my complete notes with a smug ‘Need this?’
It never got old. Especially since she did it right back on the days she managed to occupy the seat.
The thing is, chemistry wasn’t a subject I was weak in. In fact, I didn’t need remedial tuitions at all. It was just the typical failing of Indian parents. Oh, the children of all my friends are taking tuitions, there must be something magical about it. I must send my son to one. Let’s ignore the fact that he consistently tops his batch academically.
If not for my interaction with Sneha, I would have stopped going a long time ago.
But I must say that even though the tuition was academically unnecessary, even with just the four of us, it broadened my social horizons beyond just my school, connecting me to three other school communities through them.
Surya, like me, studied at an all-boys school while Neelava and Sneha both studied at all-girls institutes. I didn’t know how it was for the others as they had been to more tuitions, but this kind of co-ed environment was new for me.
It made me aware of the many opportunities I had been missing.
The thing is, I was kind of a snobbish nerd at school and the teacher’s pet.
That didn’t make me very many connections. By the time I got to know of events, the selections were already over, leaving me high and dry.
Surya had his fingers in many pies and it was through him that I learnt of upcoming inter-school events.
With his prompts, I managed to snag opportunities and participate in various fests and competitions. My social circle increased. I met many people. I met many girls.
Somewhere down the line, I realized that none of them got me as excited as her.
It was the last class before the week-long Diwali vacations. I had timed my confession so that there would at least be a week before we next met. Time enough for me to lick my wounds in the case of a rejection.
I had planned to just straight-up ask for her number after the class gave out but that plan was thrown out of the window when I saw her come in.
She was wearing a dark-blue saree over a matching blouse. The gauzy fabric gave a hazy glimpse of her bare midriff and that along with her updo that revealed her nape as well as added a few inches to her lent a mature and sexy feel to her look.
She looked so adult… it was oppressive.
“All dressed up today?” remarked Mrs. Chaudhry.
“Oh, I’ll go to a party at my club right after class. Mother will pick me up from here, so, I’ll have no time to change.”
“The Calcutta Club.”
“Ah. A friend of mine was telling me about this party. Something to do with swimming.”
“Yes. I won the second prize for the freestyle at the event they organized at ILSS. It’s a get-together combined with an award ceremony.”
A short conversation, but one which told me so much. She was a part of a club. She went to parties. She was a swimmer. And she was damn good at it.
It made me aware of how little I knew about her. Other than our childish tussle over seating arrangements, we hadn’t even spoken much. What the hell was I expecting?
Taking her seat, she shot me a surprised glance before bringing out her notebook.
To soften her up and make her more amenable to my request, I had deliberately left the prized seat blank. It had seemed so clever when I thought of it the first time but now it just seemed so weak.
Caving under the pressure, I gave up my plan of asking her face to face. Surreptiously tearing out a strip of paper from my copy, I wrote my number on it.
I spun the pen with my fingers, the transparent plastic body glinting under the light of the tube-light mounted on the wall just behind me. With every flick of my fingers, I set it rotating on the joint of my thumb, catching it at the end of every spin. The plastic end and the pen’s cap were black, the colour of the refill, the colour of its ink.
Every time it stopped, it pointed the same way. At her.
My hand slipped into the pocket of my pants and touched the tightly folded piece of paper. Today would be the day.
My leg vibrated with nervous energy. Digging my fingers into my thigh through my pocket to still it, I looked up at the board where Mrs. Chaudhry was writing out another chemical equation. The Bayer’s Process, I see.
Breathing out, I set about taking notes. What would happen, would happen. There was still an hour of class left.
The minutes were long and dreary and I became more and more nervous as each one passed. To alleviate my jitters, I began to take inventory of my preparations.
I had taken care to wear my best T-shirt and jeans combo, back-combed my hair, and I had even spritzed on some perfume. That was teenage me’s idea of putting my best foot forward.
I had thought that it would have been enough, but seeing her then, I realized how woefully inadequate it all was.
Why the hell did she have to have a party that day. If she was in her casual wear, it would have been so much easier.
To make matters worse, Surya had decided to bunk class that day, meaning Neelava wasn’t busy mooning over him and had reverted to her bubbly persona, sticking to Sneha.
How the hell was I supposed to pass the chit onto her with this huge obstacle barring my way?
Thankfully, the class ended before I could have a nervous breakdown and Ma’am kept Neelava back for doing badly in her mid-terms.
Sneha was in a hurry to leave for the party so she hastily stuffed her notebook into her bag and made to leave. Internally pumping myself up, I followed.
We put our shoes on silently at the rack. That day, I had specially worn boots that added a couple of inches to my height. Even for a party, she was wearing flats. This made our heights nearly equal. She might just be self-conscious of her height, I thought.
The chit of paper was already in my fist, getting crumpled and sweaty from my palms with every passing second.
The more I delayed, the less confidence I had and the less I felt like giving it to her.
She was walking down the stairs.
Did she have to walk that fast?
The second set of stairs.
My heart was beating hard. It was now or never.
Damn it all.
Quickly rubbing the piece of paper on my shirt in my armpit to get the perfume on it. I prayed to all the Gods that were bored enough to listen that the ads for Axe had some ring of truth to them. I didn’t want a fucking angel crawling all over me. Just this girl would do.
Taking the stairs two at a time to catch up to her, I shoved the chit into her hand, much to her surprise. “Call me on Diwali.” I blurted out before making a dash for it.
It was only when I was leaning against a wall, a few streets down, that I was able to finally relax.
When my heart was no longer trying to beat out of my chest, I looked up at the overcast sky sectioned off by the glowing skyscrapers.
I decided right then and there… If she didn’t call me, I wasn’t going back to that tuition.
And I’d fucking sue Axe.
To anyone who has grown up in Bengal or thereabouts, the idiom “Like a moth to the flame” will seem inadequate. Whoever coined that term clearly had never seen the sheer suicidal tendency of the harbingers of Diwali – the night-bugs.
These tiny insects with lime green wings and black heads only came out at night in the days counting up to the festival of lights. Their bites would leave your skin itching and inflamed. When the sun rose, they would vanish. The only symbol of their existence would be the thousands of insect corpses strewn under every source of light that had to be laboriously swept up by whoever was unfortunate enough to be doing the chores that day.
Since my elder sister was busy studying for her entrance exam to medical college, most days that was me.
Unlike most families, mine refused to employ servants for the housekeeping. Something to do with building character and self-sufficiency. I called bullshit. One of the only good things about overpopulation in India was its cheap labour force.
Employing a servant would not only be extremely economical, it would help support a family as well as free up my time for worthier pursuits – like finishing that book I’d borrowed from the library last week.
I grumbled as I swept up the last of the detritus that had gathered below the tube-light in our living room onto the dustpan. Carrying the implement laden with corpses to the mass grave that was the dustbin, I pressed down on the paddle with my foot, making the lid spring up. Dumping the bodies, I let go of the paddle and the lid snapped shut with an air of finality.
It was a bit sad, really. All these critters living such short lives and spending most of it in the pursuit of the light, only for it to kill them in the end.
My phone vibrated in my pocket.
I nearly dropped the dustpan in my haste to answer it. Propping the broom up against the wall, I brought it out. It was a Nokia – yes – one of those infamous brick phones, with a physical keypad and everything.
This was before my parents trusted me with a smartphone. I’d been trying to get them to approve my requests for an upgrade with little success.
I checked the caller ID; It was an unknown number. I gulped. Could it be…
Accepting the call, I brought the phone up to my ear nervously.
“This Diwali, ****** presents you with the best rates for mobile-data. Just dial *121*11# toll free to get the list of offers. Get preferential benef – beep –”
Disconnecting the call, I just stood there for some time, listening to the beeping of the phone. I felt dead inside.
Tossing the phone aside onto a couch, I took up the broom and set about cleaning up the rest of the room. Diwali might be the festival of lights but it was also the traditional time for cleaning the house and replacing the old and worn out stuff with the new. The equivalent of Spring cleaning in the Indian sub-continent if you will.
My virulent cursing of all forms of tele-marketing provided a pleasant rhythm to which I swept the floor. If the slaves manning the oars of the ancient ships had been allowed to curse their masters, I’m sure they’d have made much better time across the Sargasso. Better than any sea shanty, I swear.
Everyone has to wait for something important at some point in their lives. Be it the interminable wait outside the maternity ward, the wait for the results of your application, or simply the few minutes it takes for the number of the winning lottery ticket to be displayed in full….
Time seems to stretch out like a noodle and loop all around itself.
At first, you’re bored. Maybe you yawn once or twice even though you aren’t sleepy? Then you find yourself tapping your foot and fidgeting. That escalates to full-blown pacing and soon, you’re wearing a rut into the floor. After a while you stop caring about the results. Good or bad, you just want to know.
That was my state in the days preceding Diwali.
I regretted ever adding the phrase ‘on Diwali’ to my words to her. ‘Call me,’ was such a short and sweet statement… Why couldn’t I just stick with that? Oh, I knew why… It was because I was a dramatic sop who had blown everything out of proportion. I had wanted our first casual conversation to be on a memorable day. Really? I was asking for her number, not her effing hand in marriage. Was there a need to go through so many hoops and turn such a simple situation into this fiasco?
And, if I was being honest with myself, the way I had gone about it had made it abundantly clear why exactly I wanted her number. It wasn’t really any different from if I had sprung a ‘will you go out with me?’ on her from out of the blue. If she called, she played for keeps… unless she was as dense as my Nokia.
Actually, she already had my number. She could call me any time she wanted to. She didn’t even have follow my injunction. If she did call me on any of the days before Diwali, it would mean that she wasn’t interested in upholding whatever sentiment I had put into my actions. It would mean she wasn’t interested in me. Not in that way.
So, I spent the days up until Diwali with the twin swords of Friendzone and Rejection hanging above my head. No wait in my life has been as agonizing.
By the time the date of the festival of light finally rolled in, I had become practically stuck to my phone. I was sleeping with it under my pillow and carrying it to the bathroom lest I miss any call. The period of time before midnight on the day prior to Diwali was the toughest.
Watching the minute hand of the clock tick past the vertical, leaving the hour hand behind, had been – disappointing. My phone had remained silent, as had I.
When the clock dial read quarter-past-twelve, I finally let out a breath of relief. At least I had my answer. My perfume smeared chit was lying at the bottom of some trash can right now.
The knowledge was kind of cathartic. I had failed, yes, but I wouldn’t have to suffer this infernal anxiety anymore.
My sleep that night was the most relaxing I’d ever experienced.
I woke the next morning, utterly refreshed and bursting with life. Having cleaned my teeth and washed my face, I hummed under my breath as I walked out of the bathroom.
“If you weren’t a guy, I’d think that it was your time of the month. Really, brother, cut it out with the mood swings. You’re creepy.” Said my sister as she pushed past me into the bathroom while scratching an arm. I heard her mutter, “Damn bugs…” before she slammed the door in my face.
“Killjoy…” I muttered.
Not letting the wet towel dampen my mood, I yelled for mom when I found the dining table devoid of food. “Moom. Where’s breakfast?”
“Get it yourself. I’m fasting today and I can’t touch any eatables.” She yelled back from our veranda which she had converted into a shrine replete with small statues and images of several Hindu deities. She was engaged in the morning aarti (worship).
I sighed. More work for me. If housekeeping was a graded subject, I’m sure I’d top my class. “Daad. Help me with the breakfast.” I yelled.
“He’s out. He was called up due to a case at the emergency ward. He won’t be back before noon.” Replied mom. “And stop yelling. Do you want the entire neighbourhood to hear you?”
How convenient, I thought as I set about preparing breakfast. Dad was a doctor. An anaesthetist to be precise. He was one of the few reliable ones in a profession where a single extra millilitre of narcotics could mean the difference between waking up in the middle of an operation and never waking up again. He often got called up for emergencies at the hospital he worked at.
A private hospital, they had no concept of holidays.
Father’s absence meant that I had to make breakfast all on my own. My sister? The sly thing would hole herself up in the bathroom until she was sure I was done with the breakfast before coming out. Not that I could blame her since I’d have done the same if I had remembered about mom’s fast today.
I kept it simple with scrambled eggs, buttered toast and milk. Rapping on the bathroom door, I called, “Get out of there before you stink yourself to death. Breakfast’s done. You’re washing the dishes.”
Carrying my breakfast over to my room, I threw the windows open and let the wind play through my hair.
The best feature of our house, in my opinion, was the projecting grilles on the windows. It meant that instead of the grilles being stuck to the window frame and the windows opening inwards, the grilles formed a cage with the sill at the top and a ledge at the bottom, allowing the windows to open outwards.
I climbed through the windows and then closed them, creating a perfect little alcove to sit in. It was like sitting in a cage tacked onto the side of the building.
Leaning my back against one corner of the grille, I enjoyed the sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach that warned me of the danger inherent in that posture. My room was on the third floor and the subconscious fear that the ledge underneath me would crack under my weight was thrilling.
Despite the numerous times I’d been scolded by my parents for doing it, it was a thrill I couldn’t give up.
Biting into my toast, I looked out over the surroundings.
The window faced the main road from across a plot of land that was under construction. It was planned to be an apartment complex but now, merely the foundation had been laid. The original owner had apparently sold it to multiple contractors and then high-tailed it to Dubai with the cash. Right now, there was a legal battle raging over the plot of land and until a victor could be determined, it would remain undeveloped.
Which was great as it meant that I had an unimpeded view of the road from my vantage and we would be spared from the headache inducing construction noises for some time.
The morning air was a bit hazy. Not fog. It was too early in the year for that. It was the smoke from all the fireworks that had been lit in the days preceding Diwali forming into an all-encompassing smog.
Diwali might be the festival of lights but over the years, it had also become a festival of fireworks. Every family who could afford it would gather on the night of Diwali and light fireworks together to celebrate the occasion.
Those with greater enthusiasm started nearly a week prior. By the end, the entirety of India would rise a few ranks in the air pollution rankings but who cares, right?
Finishing my meal, I busied myself with preparations for the night.
Along with my sister, I festooned the grilles of our house with rice-lights and LED strips. Some had become defunct during their stay in the shelf since last Diwali and I tried to see where the problem lay and attempted to fix it. Some had frayed insulation. Some had shorted lights and others had problems with the controller.
With my trusty toolkit by my side, I, Arun Fixit was on the job. After shocking myself silly once, I put on my dad’s latex surgical gloves and dove back into my enterprise. In the end, most of the stuff was reusable except for a few hardcases that had to be trashed and replaced by new ones.
It was already time for lunch.
Thankfully, my sister still retained some semblance of conscience so it was her craftsmanship I consumed along with dad who had returned from the hospital.
The rest of the time till evening went by in a tizzy of activity. Earthen lamps called diyas had to be spread across the household (there was a trick to it… you had to put a hundred and one on the day prior to Diwali an on Diwali you could put as many as you wanted to… but we just did the latter one). The fireworks had to be put out in the sun to get warm and remove the damp so they wouldn’t be duds. Designs made out of rice-powder called alpanas had to be drawn on all the entrances of the house.
It was hectic… but enjoyable.
When night fell, we all donned our fancy new clothes and mom and sister lit the diyas while dad lugged the fireworks up to the roof. I was about to follow him up with buckets of sand (safety first) when my gaze fell upon my phone which I had left neglected on my bedside table.
Hesitating, I pocketed it and followed dad up the stairs.
We were soon joined by the girls and we took in the sight of the city resplendent in lights of many colours from our roof. It was a new moon night as all Diwali’s are. The only flaw was the haze that covered the city, blocking out the stars.
My sister lit a firework with her sparkler – a rocket with a whistle attached. They were popularly known as ‘banshees’ or screamers for the noise they made on the way up. I watched it whistle into the sky and explode in a shower of sparks.
We are all like the fireworks, aren’t we? There are those that simply live their lives. A nine to five job, a wife, a child and a few tourist trips here and there to take the edge off the monotony. They just blend into the background. Neither invisible, nor eye-catching, visible in the reflected lights of the city, they are the smoke.
Then there are the heroes, the visionaries, the entrepreneurs… the fireworks. Some make a lot of noise on the way up. Some reach the top silently and last for a long time. Some emit all their light in a short burst of brilliance. Some explode loudly once they reach the zenith. While some fail to ever reach the top, petering out or exploding prematurely.
But whatever their nature, the next day, they are charred lumps scattered over the rooftops of the houses. Trash to be gathered and disposed of. Just like the suicidal night-bugs.
I walked over to the pile of fireworks and chose a rocket. It was one which would burst into brief magnificence once it ascended the sky. Ironically, for a society that preached ‘slow and steady wins the race’ it was the most expensive of the bunch. It seems that people love their temporary heroes.
Unwrapping it and setting it upright by putting the stick that was attached to it into the mouth of a glass bottle, I lit the fuse with a burning sparkler and stepped back to a safe distance.
In a shower of sparks, the fuse caught fire and when the fire reached the body of the rocket, it took off with a ‘pop’ and a jet of flame. I followed it with my eyes as it climbed higher and higher, leaving a trail of smoke denser and whiter than the ambient smog which slowly blended into it, making the smog denser.
Heroes and visionaries left improvement in their wake.
My phone vibrated in my pocket. An unknown number. Another promotion call…
Accepted the call, I brought the phone to my ear without removing my eyes from the sky.
“H-hello,” came a soft voice from the other side.
High up in the sky, the firework bloomed in a flower of vibrant flame.
For her, I learnt how to text.
The thing is, I had never texted anyone before. I never felt the need. If I wanted to communicate something to someone, I felt that a voice call did the job much more efficiently. But in the case of Sneha, I found a factor other than efficiency that dictated my actions. Embarrassment was a new emotion for me. I had always been confident – or more likely, oblivious. When I was asked to take the stage and be the narrator for a school play, I pulled it off without any of the talk of stage fright that even the guy playing the tree seemed to suffer from. Even when I lisped a word or fumbled a sentence, I just powered on. This nervousness… the accelerated heartbeat, it was all new for me.
I realized then, that I cared about what Sneha thought of me a lot more than what an auditorium full of strangers did.
I found texting much easier. It gave me ample time to compose my thoughts and revise my responses to convey exactly the image of myself that I wanted her to have. Or, that is what I told myself when I tried to justify the hours I spent on a single conversation that should have lasted a few minutes at the most.
Texting on my trusty brick was an exercise in patience as well as an exercise for my thumbs. If any of you have used phones with numerical keypads, you would remember that they had no provision for a full-size keyboard. The way they were laid out was that each numeral was associated with three letters and symbols. So, if I wanted to get ‘a’ I had to press the 1 key once, twice for ‘b’ and thrice for ‘c’ and if I overshot the letter in my haste… not to worry, they were cyclic, I just had to keep pressing the key till the desired letter came around. If I wanted the number 1, I would have to long-press the key. Similarly, 2 was bound to ‘d’, ‘e’ and ‘f’ and so on…
So, you can imagine how tiresome it was to type out those texts. Yet, I have clear memories of writing out a message that reached nearly 500 words, only for me to reconsider it and scrap the whole thing in favour of a ‘Good night.’
I had it bad. I had it really bad.
Despite all the hours I sank into them, our conversations were about inconsequential things. The shows we had watched, the jokes we had heard, the piles of home-work we were accumulating… when I scroll up my log of messages and re-read those conversations and compare them to the ones we had later, I can clearly see the progress of our relationship.
Both of us were two submarines in the boundless darkness of the oceanic depths. Our lights weren’t strong enough to cut through the shadows and reveal the other to us completely, so we had to ping each other with different tones and messages, trying to find out what evoked a response. We were fumbling, hoping to get lucky and understand what and who the other really was.
This awkwardness peaked when we met in Mrs. Chaudhry’s classes.
The first class after Diwali was the most nerve-wracking. I had arrived earlier than her and bound by habit, occupied the chair of our contention. When she arrived, it was too late for me to shift seats and I wasn’t even sure if that was the way I wanted to go. The entire class, I felt like I was sitting on needles, especially since she seemed to be avoiding eye contact. Those were an extremely long couple of hours. But they were helpful in a way. They helped me work off a lot of the anxiety I had built up over the course of the week. By the end of the session, my mentality had relaxed. I had stopped fidgeting and was paying full attention to the class.
I had told her to call me on Diwali… she had looked up the Hindu almanac for the exact hour on which the festival of lights began before making the call. There had to be a reason she was so conscientious. I don’t think anyone would go that far to accommodate a random guy who had shoved a perfumed piece of paper in their hands.
When class gave over, I just threw caution to the winds and opened up with a remark about the latest episode of the TV show she had been talking about in her texts. We ended up chatting all the way down the stairs. Just like last time, I felt that she was taking the stairs too fast but for very different reasons.
In India, the academic calendar is arranged a bit differently for schools compared to colleges. It has to do with the varying lengths of the vacations and the need for the schedule to be modified to fit the cultural demands of the populace.
Instead of two long vacations a year and several interspersed holidays, we had three vacations. Summer, Puja and Winter. Instead of a two-and-a-half-month-long summer break as is the norm, our summers breaks were only a month long. To compensate, school was off from the middle of October to the middle of November. That coincided with the most widely celebrated festival in the sub-continent: Durga Puja and included Diwali which came twenty days later.
After all the excitement of Diwali was over, I was back in school, a mere cog in the machinery of Education. The tedium of a scheduled life has a way of grinding down the enthusiasm of even the most cheerful bloke. The novelty of having a girl to text soon wore off under its heartless tread and soon, it was but a part of my daily routine.
I stopped caring so much about giving her the perfect image of me and just texted her whenever I felt like it, and with whatever content caught my fancy. Going over my chat log, I can clearly demarcate this phase of our relationship.
We were curious about the other party. We asked questions. At first, they were about irrelevant details like ‘What is your favourite colour?’ and ‘What is your favourite food?’ I seriously cringe whenever I read these messages. I mean, seriously, how many times has your ‘favourite’ colour changed since kindergarten? I remember liking yellow at a certain point of time. Godforsaken yellow! Can you believe it?
As for ‘favourite’ food? It changes every time I visit a restaurant. Actually, my memory for tastes is extremely weak and I really cannot recall anything about how even my last meal tasted except for some qualifying adjectives like good or unpalatable. So, I remember that I really REALLY liked the biryani at Arsalan. But I also really really liked the phuchkas sold at the roadside stall near our school. As to which was my ‘favourite’? Who knows?
I’m sure Sneha’s favourites changed as often as mine. So, the knowledge that blue was her favourite colour and her favourite food was a sweet known as kaju barfi did nothing for my understanding of her. Neither did the answers I texted her in return help her understand me.
It was more of us copying what we had seen in popular culture about the perfect relationship. In every sitcom ever, there is an episode where some guy gives the favourite something (flower, food whatever) of his ex to his current girlfriend and that sparks off a conflict that will last for several episodes. So, I guess, that was us trying to head off such problems in advance. We were adorable.
As the month of November rolled past and winter vacations knocked at the door, we had started to grow more comfortable. Now we were asking questions like where do you live? What’s your family like? How do you waste your free time?
I learned that Sneha hadn’t always lived in Kolkata. Their family had settled here when her father had been transferred from Bokaro four years ago. She told me about her experience of living in the hectic bustle that was known as the steel city. She confided in me that she much preferred the organic distribution of Kolkata’s buildings to the geometric concrete jungle that overspread Bokaro where every corner looked the same.
She told me about how she had boarded the wrong school bus when she was in Class 5 (11 years old) and ended up in a different school, only realizing it when her name hadn’t come up during the roll call.
She hated the urban development that was going on in Salt Lake with a passion. With how it was being planned, all the circles and squares reminded her of her time in Bokaro.
I told her that I had a sister two years my senior, who was now studying for her medical entrance exams. That surprised her as her sister was the same age as mine and was preparing for her entrances as well, just in the field of engineering. It was as if we had found fellow travellers in a desert and we bitched about our sibling’s mistreatment of us to our heart’s content. That really drew us closer, I think.
December rolled in and I found out that she looked just as great in her winter wardrobe as she did in her summer wear. In all honesty, I have never seen someone pull off the cardigan and skinny-jeans look with such aplomb. It had to be her legs. they went on for miles.
I had never been conscientious about my looks before. I barely bothered to run a comb through my hair when I went out. My idea of matching clothes was whichever was closest at hand. But for one day in a week, I began to worry about my appearance. The day I went to the tuition.
In the end, I had to resort to a most desperate measure… I had to seek assistance from my dear sister. From the expression on her face, I was sure she suspected something but thankfully, she didn’t pry and helped me pick out outfits. Of course, I wasn’t silly enough to ask for help only on the day of the tuition. I asked her to help out whenever I had to go out for some reason or the other. In return, I had to do her share of the chores. I think I managed to convince her that my teenage self-consciousness had finally kicked in.
I’d like to think Sneha dressed up for me too. I sure found her more attractive than I had before… though that might just have been my changed perspective.
On the same day school gave over for the Christmas Hols, Mrs. Chaudhry too declared that classes would resume after the new year. Which meant that we wouldn’t be able to meet for nearly a month.
Sneha had come to class with a cold that day. She had bags under her eyes, her nose was red and her voice was heavy. That vulnerable appearance stimulated the primitive part of my brain that had instructed our caveman forefathers to interpose themselves between the hungry lion and the females of their tribe. That coupled with the impending month-long separation… For the first time in my life, I wanted to give somebody a hug.
Me… my family… we aren’t very physical in our show of affection. You’ll find families everywhere that hug each other for the smallest of reasons. Wake up in the morning? Good morning hug. Have lunch? A hug for preparing the food. Before going to sleep… a hug to keep the nightmares away. But in our case, I don’t really remember the last time I even touched anyone. So, that feeling was quite new for me.
As I was walking down the stairs by her side, listening to her recount some funny incident that happened in her school with her voice heavy from the cold, I just… reached out and grabbed her hand.
I don’t know. It was so spontaneous. I wasn’t thinking when I did it. I regretted it right afterwards. What if she pulled away? I was sure my heart would break.
Both of us stood still as statues on that stair. My heart was pounding in my chest.
Then she snatched her hand out of my grip as if she had touched something filthy. Ever had a car crest a rise on a road and then for a brief moment you feel like your stomach is dropping? That’s how I felt.
“Idiot!” she hissed at me…
“You’ll catch my cold!”
I think I melted right there.
In the end, I did catch her cold… but weirdly enough, it made me happy.