Old and New

We met in the third standard. We were seven or eight, and she had just moved to Goa from Bombay. She always brought really good tiffin for recess, and everyone in class would run to her when the bell rang. Standing at her desk, she’d hold court – handing out sandwiches, telling so-and-so to share this much or that much with someone else. This didn’t change over the years. I could cut her out of our third standard classroom; one hand on the desk, the other instructing our classmates to do something or the other, her whole self, assertive; and put her into our sixth or eighth standard classroom, and it is the same picture.

She keeps that part of me that has been content to live by the stories we read; isolated moments that silence the flurry of growing up, because we’d read about moments just like those in Mallory Towers, or The Naughtiest Girl in School, or Sweet Valley. I can see us running up and down the staircase in middle school, out of breath, chasing a couple of boys from our class who had pulled our hair, or stolen our tiffin, or said that they liked one of us. If we caught them, we’d hit them and laugh. Later, we talked about how one of them really did like one of us, because one of them had really told the other one of us that he did; the next time, the chase would end with knowing smiles.

In the sixth standard, we found ourselves in the same class again; thrown into it with hooligan classmates we unhappily recognised, we sat together and began talking about our colour pencils; I’d just gotten a set that had different colours at either end; she showed me the ones from the last year that she had sharpened, thrown in with the new ones she had bought. It is the first day of the year after the summer, and there is an excitement in the air that smells of the rain, damp desks, and bright green leaves. In wet sandals, we push ourselves up in our chairs every so often, in anticipation of a new class teacher; the hall outside is dark with the shadows of the monsoon that take the day too early. The day is new, and we’re glad that we got to school early, because that means that we also got the best places to sit.

Depending on how I look at a major portion of my life, she is as much protagonist, or completely absent. There are days when she hasn’t existed, and there are people we didn’t mutually know, or like, and whole chunks of time when she hasn’t defined – or even been a part of – something that has been important to me. But it is difficult to tell a story without mentioning her; I am surprised sometimes, at how often she comes up; there are parallel shades of my life that she never wandered into, parallel shades of myself that, both, scoffed at the things we held important, and needed them.

I don’t know her whole story. There are parts of both our stories that Enid Blyton never wrote justly, and the times they’ve emerged in conversation, they’ve always been frozen by awkward silences which extended the same palms that would meet denim soon after, sweaty. But I have come to trust these silences. After twelve years, they have become an important part of us, and are even reassuring now. They have grown to acknowledge the things that are difficult to say; now, the awkwardness says more than it doesn’t say; it is like it is repeating, “Take your time, I won’t ask”.

Today, I wish I was back home; I wish I was looking at my phone, cursing at how little time I have to bathe and get ready; I wish I was putting on my very short denim shorts, all the while thinking about where we’d go for lunch, and what we’d eat. Today, I wish I could depend simply on how long I’ve known her.

Because there’s a lot I need to tell her. There’s a lot I need to say in one sentence; there are people I need her to good-humouredly ridicule in passing, and things I need her to be fascinated by for not more than a minute. I need us to just enjoy our lunch.

On the way back, I’ll bring him up. I’ll tell her about how he reminds me too much of another boy we both knew, who managed to break up our group. I’ll tell her about how he is too perceptive, too present; I’ll tell her about how he is getting invited to the same things he once invited himself to, just like the other boy we knew. I want to tell her that I don’t trust him, because there are moments when I do. I watch him with them, and I am afraid that I am seeing something that they don’t seem to be seeing, and how could we have been so stupid? His words are too loud or too soft; too proper, or too harsh. I want to tell her that I’m scared that I’ve seen this happen before.

Like the other boy we knew, he wears a shadow of darkness that he will expel for only one of us. The rest of us, we will watch as she understands him, as he cloaks her slowly when we’re sleeping, and says he’s keeping her warm when she begins to look at us from within its folds. I want her to tell me that I’m not being paranoid; I want her to remind me of how many times we ended up saying, “We should have said something earlier”. I want to tell her that I’m saying something this time, even if they don’t hear it right away; even if I’m wrong.

She’ll look at me, then, and we’ll both sigh. She’ll ask about college.

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