It was still dark at 6 am amid winter chill of December. The ground was situated on the backyard of the girl’s hostel; flash at the window panes suggested that girls had woken up and had headed for same torture we were subjected to. I don’t think there would have been any boy ever studied in Navodaya who hadn’t tried to peek through those window panes to see some pretty faces in the backdrop but no one ever reported to see something fascinating as it was always impossible to look beyond those opaque curtains.
Two lampposts standing still amid the dense flood of fog were dimly illuminating the ground. The murmur of half-slept and half-awake mates sounded like bustling bees.
“Coach Sir will fuck us today”, somebody murmured from behind.
Soon we were standing in adjacent queues in our respective “houses”. Let me introduce you to the “house” concept. All the students of Navodaya were evenly divided into four houses – Kashi, Takshshila, Nalanda, and Ujjaini – named after the famous ancient Universities of India.
I belonged to Kashi House. After formal procedure of roll call – making PTI aware of the absentees in the morning PT session – got over, there came the deadliest thing of the day – the forced fitness regime in which we have to run our daily quota of 1 kilometer. Our starting mark began from the exit point of the gate, across a narrow concrete road which had a boundary wall on one side and rows of fields on other, terminating at the lonely building which probably belonged to the agriculture department. The road, which usually was used by school people and villagers, remained deserted at early hours. Though everything about this torture session was ass-breaking, there was a pleasant thing that made the pain a bit less painful. Girls also ran the same lane, side by side, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind.
Finally our murderous run followed by some routine exercise concluded by 7:00 am. It meant we had another 1 hour to dress up in school uniform, have breakfast and show up for the morning assembly session. Preparing for the classes was nothing short of a Herculean task. Five bathrooms and fifty children. Had Gabbar been a Navodian, he would have definitely said, ‘bahut beinsafi hai’. However some non-bathers made this a bit simpler for us. Winters were supposed to be the holiday season for bathrooms as rarely anyone dared to pay a visit on those dreary cold days.
‘Wake up, Panku. It’s 7:45. You are left with only half an hour to get ready and go for breakfast. Mess closes at 8:30’.
It was Sanjeev, my best friend. I got up bewildered like that over confident hare that had slept halfway during his race with poor tortoise and it was already too late when he got up. Tortoise had won the race only to leave whole hare community as a subject of humility and disgrace. Fortunately I wasn’t that late. I rushed to bathrooms with a toothbrush in one hand and towel in another. It would be a no-bath for today.
‘How do you manage to sleep after that torture of PT’, Sanjeev commented from behind.
Dressed in full school uniform, sky blue shirt and navy blue trouser with black shoes, he was combing his curly hair. I always wondered why he gave so much trouble to his stubborn hair that always looked the same; no matter how much water, gel and even fevicol for that matter he applied.
But despite all criticism, there was an advantage with getting late. Except for a few lazy species, the bathrooms were almost desolated. Soon I was in front of a mirror, crushing my teeth with a tooth brush. Brushing the teeth is the best time when you can stare at yourself contently. I looked at my just out-of-the-bed face. I saw a pair of big brown eyes looking blatantly at me with same curiosity as I had for them. Over grown hair was hanging loose on the ears, masking most of the forehead. Ajay Devgan cut, as friends used to refer my hair style, suited my dusky complexion and chiseled face.
“Hurry up Panku! We are left with just 10 minutes.” Sanjeev said grabbing his plate and glass. He was still waiting for me or rather busy with his hair. Whatever be the case, he was there to share the consequences of getting late for the assembly session.
From the list of prized possessions that we were issued at joining time in Navodaya, my school, plate and glass were the most precious ones as we had to carry them every time we visited the mess for our meals. Post meals, we washed it at a series of taps installed outside the mess, brought it back to hostel and kept it under lock and key.
It may appear a different world for anybody who is not a part of it but this was how it was and it would be.
Anyways, we carried our prized possessions and rushed out of our hostel. We had only 10 minutes to bury breakfast in our belly and join rest of the school at assembly area we had to hang around with a red ass for the rest of the week. While we made our way towards the mess, students were already heading towards their class rooms bearing the burden of knowledge on their backs. They gave us a pitiful smile and paced their legs only to make us aware that we were miserably late.
We hurried through the way to mess – a small lane constructed between flower beds, crossed by the solar water heater and approached a big white tin-roofed building with “MESS” written in bold and black on its head. Sensing the criticality of the situation, the idea of skipping breakfast had also crossed through our mind but it vaporized the moment I saw a pretty face at mess entrance. Suddenly I forgot everything – breakfast, getting late, Principal, the Rampyari (his stick he used hit our ass with) and of course the red ass.
It was Siya accompanied by her friend Megha who were entering the mess with their prized possessions. Siya was in her school dress, a blue skirt reaching her knees and an ill-fitted sky blue shirt, completed by a blue and white striped necktie and red school belt wrapped round her delicate waist. Her pony tail, tied firmly behind her head, was oscillating with the rhythmical movement of her footsteps and swaggering hips.
By the time I reached the mess she had comforted her on one of the tables and chairs with her breakfast. While I was stealthily catching a glimpse of Siya and was trying to figure out what she was eating, Sanjeev complained.
“Oh shit, they cooked Daliya again,” Sanjeev said contracting his nose.
I turned my gaze on Sanjeev only to realize that we’d already reached the serving counter where a cook was serving us “daliya” from a big container.
On any other day, we would have preferred to skip the breakfast and opted for a Navodaya-patent “samosa sandwich” at Hariya uncle’s tea shop. It was a great delicacy for ever-starved species like us who found it both tasteful and affordable. We made it by sandwiching a samosa between two bread pieces and complementing our patent recipe with green chilly sauce. It was our breakfast for Wednesday, the day on which we were served with Daliya in the breakfast.
But that Wednesday was planned by destiny itself as everything, even the bad, was working in my favour.
First we forgot that it was a daliya day and came for the breakfast despite running late only to find Siya appearing for breakfast so late, something very unlikely by her punctuality standards. The God definitely had some great plans for us that day.
Defying Sanjeev’s contracted nose and unwillingness to have daliya, I let cook serve that viscous thing on my plate and took our seat at one of chairs lying in the ghostly mess so that I could catch every expression of Siya.
She had her left elbow resting on the table in vicinity to the plate, served with daliya, with her head slightly bent in the direction of plate, which dropped a truss of hair from the right to shadow her forehead and the right eye. She dipped her spoon in the middle compartment of her plate, filled it with daliya and carefully put it in her mouth and then pulled the empty one out.
I envied and wished if I could be the spoon she was licking.
She appeared busy in eating or rather swallowing. While I was thinking that she was unaware of my staring and secret temptations, I noticed Megha playfully elbowing Siya. Her suppressed smile and naughty face expression revealed that I’d been caught not just for the moment but on every occasion when my fickle eyes had surveyed her beauty.
She didn’t react to her friend’s act and kept concentrating at the plate however I could sense a blush-induced pinkness on her cheeks. Meanwhile, Sanjeev continued to curse the Daliya and cooks for discovering such a dreadful dish.
It had been four years since this hide and seek of eyes had been continued. Like it happened yesterday, when I had seen her the very first time. “Hothon se choo lo tum mera geet amar kar do”, an old hindi number, she was singing. Well, I don’t know if it was the magic of the song, her voice or her charm that made inroads to my heart. We were in sixth standard then. She was clad in a green printed salwar kameez. I always wonder how we boys tend to forget what we had in breakfast but boast a sharp memory when it comes to the girls’ dresses.
She was looking very beautiful. I don’t know if it is right for a sixth grade student to talk about beauty but she was beautiful at the first glance and at every glance after that. In fact she remained to be the most beautiful girl in the class, school or even in world. I think every lover has to say the same about his first love.
Thousand episodes of – I looked, she looked back and I looked away; she looked, I looked back and she looked away – had been passed but none of us had dared to look into each other’s eyes and pass the first test of a budding relationship and move to the next level – talking.
Yeah, that was true. We’d not shared a single word in first four years probably because none of us had the courage to bear a “No”. Being a girl, she could take the leverage to expect me to make the first move but I didn’t know what I was waiting for.
But this Wednesday was different. Her body language, her blush, the way Megha teased her and the way he responded – all had an intoxicating impact on me. I wasn’t that dumb to ignore the leaves of love, mohabbat ke patte, Mohabbatein was just released. The daliya day had worked wonders for my depressed confidence. The world around me had gone silent and stationed. Daliya tasted nectar, the hard bench beneath felt like a bed of roses, cooks appeared as valents, the eardrum-tearing sound from the pantry was the band music, mess felt like a palace and she was my princess.
“Are you staying here for rest of the day” Sanjeev woke me up from my dream.
I saw Siya and Megha getting up and heading towards the exit. Siya was walking with heavy feet. I felt as she didn’t want to leave. My heart was pounding heart. Something inside was trying hard to come out.
No doubt, it was a great opportunity for me. There was nobody in the market who knew us. Though the Megha, the fevicol girl, was glued to her as usual, it hardly mattered as she would come to know this anyway. I was so used to Megha’s presence with Shagun that she accompanied Shagun even in my dreams.
I reminded myself the long wait of 6 years, the time when I was a student of 7th standard. I reminded myself the pain and anxiety I felt for my one-sided love. I reminded myself those 4 months, left for the final exam, that would conclude our hostel life. After which we all would return to our homes based in different parts of Himachal. And if still I didn’t expressed my feelings, I would never ever get a chance for that and my six years of pain and anxiety would transform into lifetime scar of unexpressed love.
And finally, I thought of the theory that girls never initiate. It’s the boy who have to make the first move. I remembered Sanjeev’s golden words, though he himself had not talked to any girl, when he’d said girls did not like men who couldn’t dare to propose a girl.
“Talk to her at the earliest or someone other would do it before you.” He had said.
I believed him. After all she was the prettiest girl in the school. I had already seen her talking and giggling with Kinchit though it didn’t bother me much as he was considered as a girl in boy’s skin.