It was a sprinkling sound that woke me up in the middle of the night! It was all dark around. I wasn’t sure how many hours of night had passed and how many were left for morning’s painful PT session. While I was trying to avoid the fear of PT, a peculiar smell filled my nostrils. I got down from my bed, the lower storey of a double-decker bed. Hunting for the switch in the darkness, I felt something wet under my bare feet. OH MY GOD, Rahul you peed again!
Tan…tan…tan…tan…I was off the bed in a flash. Oh the dreadful PT bell! I left the bed and bent under the bed looking for my shoes and socks. There was chaos all round. It appeared as if the hostel was on fire. But I knew it was nothing like that. It had happened yesterday and the day before yesterday as well, and it was happening from last seven years.
To be precise, it started in May 1995, the time when I joined Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya as a 6th class student. Nothing has changed in these four years; save the couple of inches & some kilos that I gained, the promotion of a sixth standard child to 11-grade teenager, and most importantly up gradation of a secret admirer to a qualified lover.
Ahh! I forgot the “peeing episode” – the nightmare that was haunting me from the day I joined Navodaya. Courtesy, a concerned mother who was shocked to see our double-decker beds in the hostel rooms. I still remember her words, “God, what would happen if my poor child gets the lower storey and someone from the upper bed pees.”
My grandfather, who had come to see me off, had laughingly responded, “Tell your child to sleep with an open umbrella.”
Everybody around had burst into laughter.
I didn’t remember what happened to my “pee-scared” mate but the idea kept haunting me for years.
Meanwhile it was the time to report in the ground. In the next five minutes, we were heading towards the play ground that had been a witness of so many broken limbs, dislocated joints, anticipated and unexpected wins, and heart-breaking loses.
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 Siya that she accompanied Siya 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 Pradesh. 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.
I picked up my plate and dragged Sanjeev, who was still busy in licking the Dalia, by his arm almost tearing his shirt, and rushed outside.
“Are you mad?” he mumbled.
Existing the mess gate, I looked up to the sky to seek blessings of the almighty. He’d been a great support today. The sun had shed his laziness and was ready to bless our planet with its light and warmth. I let the warm and pleasant sunrays fall on my face to flush away the stiffness caused due to the chill inside the mess. I wanted to stay there for more time absorbing the divine offering from the sun.
“Hello hero, are you shooting for Yash Chopra movie or what? We are already late” he cursed “Oho, the heroine is also there. Now I understood, what all this drama for”.
“Where,” I came out of my reverie.
“There she is cleaning her plate.”
I looked down. A couple of stairs down, a series a taps had been installed against the wall, where people wash their plates after their respective meals. Usually there were queues but since we are terribly late so it was desolated except for Siya and Megha. I saw Siya running her delicate fingers on the plate while a stream of water was falling freely over her fingers, flowing to different compartments of the plate and then spilling down. I wanted to feel those fingers on my face. Sunrays were illuminating her face. A gold nosepin adorning her sculptured nose was shining like a star. I could stand watching her like that for rest of my life.
“Move saale” Sanjeev pushed me.
While we descended the stairs to wash our plates, the two girls were climbing them. I looked stealthily at Siya. Our eyes met for a second. I looked away.
“Fuck, you traitor eyes. Can’t you hold on for some more time. At least, you should have let me see her more”
I felt as if Megha shook her head. She whispered something in her ear and they both giggled. On my stupidity, I guess.
“You are hopeless, man,” Sanjeev cursed again “You’d got such a great opportunity to open your heart and you spoiled it. Now hurry up. Latha is ready with his rampyari to break our ass,”
I looked back. Siya had disappeared into her hostel, and here I was standing like a fool who only knew to love, not to propose. The sun faded; some stray clouds engulfed it. I felt my enthusiasm fading. The cries of drums were approaching from the assembly hall. The rows of students from different classes had started to fill the assembly hall. Soon it would stop. That meant there was no way we could make it to the ground in time. I wished Siya’d make it in time. And as far as our fate was concerned Rampyari “we are coming”. I felt sorry for Sanjeev who, once again, would be paying price for the sins of his crazy and lazy friend.
“Ae maalik tere bande hum‘ was echoing in the serene surrounding of Paprola, a small town situated in the lap of the Dhauladhar ranges of mountains. Students, with their hands folded in a namaste, eyes closed and lips forming different shapes probably reciting the prayers; were standing class-wise in their respective rows, the shortest in the front and tallest in the last like a full stop.
All teachers with their arms crossed against their chests and breasts had aligned themselves as a boundary behind the rows of students. On the high-rise platform overlooking the ground filled with students were five girls delivering the prayers in the same devotional posture. A mic standing in the middle of semicircle, they were forming, ensured that the voices of five girls superseded the collective echo of rest of the school.
I was relieved to see standing Siya in the centre of semicircle. She possessed the most melodious voice in the school, which made her a part of every singing activity, starting from morning prayer to sing a welcome song when some dignitary visited our school.
And here we were, Sanjeev and I, at the edge of the platform with Latha, our principal, standing besides us juggling a long hard stick in his hands. It was a place reserved for latecomers where the whole school can watch and humiliate them. Though it didn’t matter much to me as I’d got used to this by then. Moreover, I was a class topper so my scores saved me the shame, one earned by gracing the space meant for latecomers. However that didn’t bothered our principal who won’t let us leave without two mighty blows on our ass after which we would do anything but settling our ass on hard wooden benches.
“Here come the chief guests,” Monu mocked from the last bench and the whole class burst into laughter.
By the time we entered the classroom after Rampyari served us two blows on our back, others had already settled on their seats, ready to knock us down with their comments.
“Ouch,” a faint scream escaped our mouths when we took our seat on the second-last bench of the middle row. I turned my gaze towards the first bench of the right row. I saw Siya suppressing her smile and whispering something in Megha’s ears.
“They must be making fun of me.”
It’s a big problem with guys. Whatever we do or say in the presence of our crush, we always look at her at notice her response, unaware that she must be noticing it. Let me tell you guys: no matter how much stealthily you catch the glimse of your girl she would know it. She would even know what part of hers are you looking at.
Anyway, this encounter with embarrassment was soon over when Meenakshi ma’am, our biology teacher, entered the classroom as the students had some more interesting things to focus at today. Our long wait was about to over today. The biology chapter, we waited our biology teacher to teach us for last six months was due for today’s lecture, Reproduction. There couldn’t be a better start for the day.
Meenakshi Ma’am, true to her name, owned a pair of beautiful eyes, fish eyes as our Hindi teacher had told the meaning of Meenakshi, the girl with eyes like that of a fish. She was in her late twenties and worn suites usually. Dusky complexion complemented by sharp features (of course the fish eyes) lean but adequately curvaceous frame, a height of 5 feet 6 inches and smile that always adorned her face made her believe as if God himself had sent her to teach us biology. I couldn’t imagine her teaching anything else though it scared us when she dissected a beautiful white rat with orange eyes alive intoxicated under the effect of formaldehyde and cut open his heart which was still beating.
“This rat must be a guy,” I whispered “only a guy’s heart can continue to beat even after being cut out of the body”
All students burst into laughter. From the corner of my eyes, I’d looked for Siya. She was smiling too.
“Pankaj, concentrate” Ma’am had given me a stern look widening her fish-like eyes and lips hinting a faint smile. She was my crush but Siya was my love.
“We’ll start reproduction today” Meenakshi Ma’am announced.
“Really” I chuckled, not audible beyond two benches who responded in suppressed laughter.
“chup kar, saale. Keep quite, idiot. Otherwise, she’ll dissect you and show us your beating heart,” Sanjeev elbowed me.
“No worries, bro. I heart would be reciting Siya and at least she would know it then that how much I love her,” I was sounding like a typical aashiq, lover.
“Ok, Mr. Majnu. Keep quiet now. Let me concentrate,” Sanjeev folded his hands.
Actually, we were all very excited today. We were waiting for this for long now. A thousand times we had discussed and pleased in our dormitories with the thoughts – how would she pronounce the words like penis and vagina; how she would explain the procedure of intercourse. We were dying to see her face expressions when she would reach the page numbers, 340 and 345, that displayed the figures of breasts and penis respectively.
Though we had already seen the pictures and read the content a thousand times but we couldn’t resist the temptation of hearing something like that from a young female teacher in front of whole class that included girls as well. I still think if it was an obvious teenage behavior or we were extra desperate.
She started with asexual reproduction and talked about so many organisms like hydra, yeast and some slipper-shaped creatures for initial 35 minutes increasing the level of our frustration and killing our enthusiasm. While we were speculating the lesson plan of next 5 minutes, Ma’am’s next statement ruined our long-cherished desire.
“Students, I am sorry I don’t teach sexual reproduction in any batch. I know you guys are very intelligent. You will read and understand it by yourself”. I saw KLPD written clearly on the faces of my friends.
I was sitting alone in the empty classroom during the short break, a 20-mintue break after the fourth period to allow students take a breather or refreshment before the lunchtime which was scheduled after ninth and the last period. It had turned out to be a frustrating day for me till now so I was no mood of going out. I was still mourning cursing myself for being such a loser who could not gather the guts to even talk the girl, let alone the proposal of love. I wanted some mental peace. I had had my head resting on my arms crisscrossed over the desk to form some kind of nest. My eyes were closed and mind occupied with today’s unfortunate proceedings.
“Pankaj,” my name was never sounded that beautiful before.
I felt a sudden wave of electric current crossed through my body, rocking every part of it.
In a flash, I was on my feet. It was she. I mean Siya, looking at me with curious eyes. I hadn’t seen her from such a proximity before. But this time, I didn’t let my eyes stray. I continued to look at her. Her eyelashes were fluttering. Her black lenses had my reflection them. I wished she’d one in her heart too. Lips neither smiling nor sad. I couldn’t see beyond her eyes that were looking at me with intend, with a curiousity. But I couldn’t read them. I was dumbstruck. Stupefied.
“Ji, yes,” all I could mutter.
“Principal Sir is calling you,” and she turned back to her seat where Megha, whom I’d ignored till now, was sitting, smiling with her eyes and attention fixed on us. She said something in Siya’s ear. Siya elbowed her and they both giggled. And I felt like a stupid again.
I threw myself on the bench only to remember the wound which was still fresh. “Oh, Latha was calling me. Now what does he want from me? Sitting inside the classroom during the break is not crime, I guess.”
“May I come in, Sir”
“Come.” He was gazing at something outside the window. A grey sleeveless sweater and blue trousers were covering his tall frame. His blue-striped coat was hanging on the back of his chair. With his 6-feet tall muscular frame it was difficult to tell if he was in his early fifties. A retired army officer, he was known as a man of discipline and principles which he not only preached and but practiced as well. I’d never seen him laughing heartily. It was said in hushed tones that he’d lost his 15-year-old son in an accident which turned him cold as ice. Nobody liked him in the school, neither students not teachers.
“Sit down, Pankaj,” he ordered without turning.
I obeyed. There are something unusual about him that day. His voice lacked that usual command.
He turned…reluctantly, I guessed.
He reminded me Mohabbatein. “Raj Aryan, this behaviour won’t do in Gurukul” I imagined him saying. He’d other plans though.
“I’ve high hopes on you, Pankaj,” I was stumped. Agape. I wished I’d witnessed sunrise today. Sun couldn’t rise from East today.
“You are very intelligent but at the same time careless and undisciplined, which can affect your scores in the board exam,” I looked at his face if he was alright and not drunk. His eyes were focused on my face. But these eyes were not furious and piercing like always. They hinted a concern, a hope. His eyes were an assurance of what he was saying.
“Discipline is one of the greatest virtues of a student,” he kept on saying and I kept on ignoring. I’d other beautiful things to hear and see.
“Ok Pankaj, you can go now,” he said somewhat irritated. Probably, he’d sensed my reluctance.
“And, I don’t want to see you coming late ever again. Understand,” he growled. And it sent a chill down my spine. He was normal. Normal to be an abnormal.
Chapter 3 Lunch Break
As I came out of the principal office, a sequence of 6 bells, followed by a long bell was clear enough for me to understand that it’s the lunch break. And within seconds, the air reverberated with a loud echo of hungry children who were eagerly waiting for this bell to ring. Before I could make my way to the hostel as there was no use of going to class, the street leading to hostels area was full of children, mostly the juniors from sixth class who were learning to cope with the atrocities of hostel life. I am sure no parent in this world would call their children to lunch with a bell. And bell reminded me the Pavlov’s experiment of conditioning which he conducted on a dog.
I know you don’t want to know about any experiment as you are in the mood of a love story but this one’s interesting. So what happened is Pavlov, some scientist, tried to train a dog. He started dog his favourite food, a chicken leg. And every time he served him food, he rang a bell. He repeated this activity for a few times. Then, there came a time when he didn’t give him food but just rang the bell. And the poor dog in the hope of getting a bone had got his mouth filled with saliva. Unfortunately, we were in the same boat as that helpless dog was. Navodaya had made us the dogs who had their mouth filled with Saliva as the lunch bell rang and we ran like made to our hostels to bring our thalis and invade the mess in the hope of food. However, we were not fortunate like dog to get his favourite food as it was a matter of filling the stomach rather than enjoying the food. I am sure had the Navodayan food been served to the dog the experiment would not have been successful as he would have preferred to die instead of eating our food. We were served a Daal; no matter how many times you dive into the daal container you won’t find a single grain. It had been six years since I was eating that food but I could never identify the vegetable they cooked without asking. And what to say about the Roti, it came covered but burnt floor, which would never finish ever after several rounds of shaking.
But Wednesdays were different. Though breakfast was a big put off, lunches made up for it. They cooked Rajmah Chawal on Wednesday, the only dish we enjoyed.
Fortunately, it was a Wednesday.
“Thank God, it’s Wednesday today. At least I can some good food after Latha served me some tasteless lecture,” I thought after making calculations about the week day.
I didn’t wait for my friends. Waiting would mean to stand in a low queue and it was difficult to control my appetite. I just jumped into the herd on students running for the lunch and rushed towards my hostel. As I returned with my plate, there were some 50 juniors who were standing at the door of the mess with their plates. But I needn’t to worry. They were juniors. I simply ignored the long line and entered the mess. After all paapi pet ka sawaal tha..
As I picked the palta from the pateela to pour some rice to my plate, “No it can’t. How could it happen? She might be really hungry like me today. Does that mean we feel alike? Is it the another signal that we’ve been made for each other?”
I kept thinking and she helped herself and took her seat with Megha in tow as usual. You know, what the big.loest reason for boys’ trouble is; they give a damn if whole world is on fire but think too much if there’s a girl involved. And it’s an ICU case the girl involved caught the fancy of their fantasy.
But one thing was sure; she hadn’t noticed me. Otherwise, she wouldn’t had dominated her juniors. She was a new Siya to me. I’d never imagined even in my nightmares that she could bully her juniors like that. It was a long line and she was just not bothered. There was a junior who’d not seen her didn’t give her the way. And the way she gave her a look would have scared hell out of her. So, she was not a goody goody girl who was an angel of goodness to me. She had surely got some traits of a devil but I loved this devil. She couldn’t do any wrong. I wouldn’t have complained even if she’d killed me in front of my eyes. That’s only problem with the writers. They can think of anything. See how I made a devil out of an angel, my angel. And I lost myself, again like a thousand previous times, in her antics. Her spoon – I don’t think there couldn’t be anything luckier than that spoon. I can take a million births to become her spoon but only after I made her mine in this birth. And there were no second thoughts.
Lost in her dreams, I could not realize when she finished her lunch and left the mess. But it was a great afternoon. Today, I came to knew about a new Siya, sweet and salty as they say in that biscuit advertisement. The already tasteless food had lost its remaining flavor. I swallowed with difficulty what I had served to myself and exited the mess in the hope of seeing her at water taps, the place designated to clean our plates after the respective meals but that was enough luck for the day. She had probably left to her hostel. I reluctantly cleaned my plate and headed towards the hostels.
“Bhai, you had your lunch too early today? Didn’t even wait for me? By the way what did Latha say,” I met Sanjeev on my way to hostel.
“Haan, yaar. Would tell you once you come back. Vaise, the lunch is pathetic today,” I smiled sheepishly and he contracted his nose in his signature style.
I reached my hostel, changed to after-school clothes and laid down on my bed. There were some 35 minutes for the afternoon prep, the post-study self-study session that occurred between 3 and 5 pm, thanks to an early lunch. I didn’t know when I fell asleep while thinking about Siya.
The evening was about to say good bye to the sun. While lazy sun casting orange hues was about to take refuse behind the distant Dhauladhar ranges outside, a pair of beautiful eyes was looking at me with intent inside the classroom. There was no one in the classroom, expect for two love-filled hearts. In the pin-drop silence, we can clearly hear the loud beating of each other’s hearts. Her rosy lips were adorned with an intoxicating smile. The time had stood for us. I could see students outside and inside transfixed as a statue as if God had asked them to freeze as they do when they play game. Soaking in the blessing of the moment, my eyes were fixed to her face. We both wanted to say a lot of things to each other but none of us said anything; probably we did not want to spoil the moment.
“Pankaj…Pankaj…,” suddenly somebody had said Sanjeev to move.
“Sanjeev, go away please. Don’t disturb.”
“Abe, get up you lazy pig,” Sanjeev was shaking me as if I was asleep.
And, I was…actually. It was a dream. The most beautiful dream of my life.
It was still afternoon, as I peeped through the window pane.
“I thought you had left for the class. Now hurry up. Pathak Sir is calling you. You are half an hour late to the prep. Fortunately, Latha is not around today,” Sanjeev had said some hundred words in a flash.
I quickly gathered myself, wore my PT shoes and accompanied Sanjeev towards the classrooms. More than the scare of getting late, I was grieved for the premature demise of a beautiful dream.
I had good repute with Pathak Sir. I was a Hindi topper and he admired my writing skills.
“Nalayak (his favorite takia kalaam), Kumbhakaran ki aulad, had a good sleep, no?,” Pathak Sir was not bothered if whole class is listening to him.
As I entered the class, a flood of laughter welcomed me. I couldn’t dare to see at Siya. But, I guessed she was laughing too. I thought about the dream again and wished if it could come true. But I knew dreams were the dreams. They appeared only to tease you for your desires but never came true and to leave you with a nostalgia, the longing for a desire that could never be fulfilled.
Rakhi, the festival of brother-sister bond was approaching. And love, of course sibling, was in the air. As Rakhi approaches, the girl hostel got busy in a unique task, the task of identifying and locating to-be-brothers for the upcoming Rakhi. The criteria used to be simple. There were two in fact. First, he was a brother material, not boyfriend. Second, either he was a stalker or the girl had predicted a love proposal from him is in making. And as they say prevention is the best cure.
And surprisingly, the similar plan also used to do rounds among the corridors of boy’s hostels. And they usually were losers who already knew they were running a lost race. They might have achieved anything in their fantasies but in real they didn’t deserve even a slap from their crushes. And that’s why they hitched upon a plan on Rakhi. I didn’t know if it happened elsewhere but in Navodaya it was tradition that was observed every year. Since its establishment in 1987, eight batches had passed out but we’d stories of such losers from every batch. And the losers who made our 2001 batch proud were Tejinder and Shamit who were selected by girls for this honour and the one who approached the girl out of sheer desperation was Randeep. Though I was also the proud recipient of the award, I’d been selected in the very first year when we were too young to have qualified for any category so I assumed I probably belonged to category in which the boy was a brother material not boyfriend.
It was a different day, drastically different from the remaining 364 days and 6 hours that makes a leap year after 4 years. If I cut the crap then I would say she was looking beautiful like never before. Black sari with polka dots, high heel, and hair tied in a bun made her look older than her age. She was irresistible. Entered the class in her new found avatar, students including me greeted her as we did to our teachers who entered for their respective periods.
“Good morning, sit down students,” she said with elegance.
And we all did what he said. After all she was our biology teacher for the day, the teachers’ day, when teachers took rest and students played their roles. Even Latha, our principal, was replaced. It’d started from morning but I was waiting for my favourite period for the day. 4th period, Biology. And why not, my Siya was our biology teacher for the day. I’d seen her in Morning Prayer session and since then I didn’t want to see anything. She was irresistible as I said. I didn’t know if it were the clothes or the role or something else but she was a different Siya today. She was looking so dazzling that a mere sight of her was making me so nervous that in my heart I’d rejected myself.
“Students, we’ll study Colocasia today. Do you know what does we call it in common language?” she had come all prepared.
I focused on her face. It reflected no feelings. Seeing her confidence it was almost impossible to figure if she was a XII class student, not a biology teacher.
And then she broke the reverie of my thoughts.
“Pankaj, what do we call Colocasia at home”
I was so much lost in my thoughts that I couldn’t figure out that she was referring to me.
“Pankaj, Pankaj! Are you in some kind of dreams.”
And then I took a notice. Her face expression had changed from sweet to being annoyed.
“Yes, Maaaaaam” I stood up in desperation.
“Where were you lost? Can’t you focus. Tell me the answer. Guys, nobody will tell him what was question.”
Saqi” Ashmit, the captain of our cricket, threw the ball to me. I caught it at mid wicket where I was fielding.
“Show them some spin. Make them dance on your tunes,” Ashmit patted me on the back.
They called me Saqi, named after Saqlain Mushtaq, the famous off break bowler from Pakistan. I didn’t remember when did I get this name but I kind of liked it and I took pride in that; afterall I was the best spinner in the school.
Cricket is the only game that we used to play during our play period, the 2 hours between 4 pm to 6 pm when we can play or have fun but not-to-forget only within the school campus and that didn’t include the hostel area.
But we made full use of these two hours and as I could remember I’d only played cricket in these 2 hours since joining the school, unless it rained or we didn’t had bat or ball.
We had a very vast ground to play, not smooth though as required for a game of cricket. In fact it was not a playground but a series of different ladder-like fields that terminate at a rivulet marking the limit of our access though we’d to breach that limit every time someone hit the ball to a long six. When it comes to field setting, we choose the middle field for our pitch. While the offside fielders stood two fields up and legside one stood 2-3 fields down waiting for the ball to come tumbling at him.
Finally, I was ready with the ball waiting for umpire’s green signal to bowl. It was the third over of the innings. Usually, I bowled the fifth one but I was called early by the captain as the first two overs had costed us 30 runs with both the bowlers punished badly. The batsman who was in song was a legside player and legside was a downhill in our ladder-like playground. He was just guiding the ball and was hitting boundaries easily.
The first ball I bowled him was a leg spin, wide outside the off stump. He chased it but to his surprise the ball spun and bounced more than what he’d expected. All he could manage was a feeble push, tossing the ball towards me. I had to dive but I took it clean. Our complete team burst into applause and came running towards me to congratulate me. I felt pity for the fielder who was standing three fields down. By the time he reached I was ready to bowl the second delivery and others had taken their positions. Anyway I shook hands with him. Let him pat my back and waited for him take his position but he was fast this time.
Before I bowled the second delivery, Ashmit who was standing at mid-on, came rushing to me and whispered into my ears, “dhyaan se daliyo, bowl carefully. Girls are also watching this match. Now it’s a matter of pride. We’ve to win this game”
I looked around and found 5-6 girls of our class perched on elevated land behind the wicketkeeper, the best place to watch a cricket game.
My eyes were looking for a particular face and there she was, in the centre, clad in blue track pants and black jacket with some fur-like thing wrapped around the collar area. A woolen rainbow-coloured cap was covering her head and ears to make her look cute like an angel. It’d always been difficult for me to remember the names of girls’ dresses. I’d read so many novels of male authors and I always marveled at their knowledge of girls’ dresses which they name and describe as a pro.
So, she was wearing something like a jacket which had a collar adorned with fur. Behind her back, sun was packing his baggage for the day and was lazily heading towards the horizons, leaving behind some orangy hues. The cold breeze of a winter’s evening was disturbing her hair, hanging out of her cap.
“Come on, Saqi, come on,” Puneet, our wicketkeeper, threw me back to the pitch from my beautiful world.
Dreamily, I bowled my second delivery. It was a wide.
Opponents cheered. Almost hypnotized, I saw up to record her reaction. She wasn’t cheering. I was relieved and at the same time nervous too. I’d to meet her expectations.
“Control your line, Saqi,” somebody shouted.
Suddenly everybody had become so vocal; even the one in the kalapaani, I mean at the boundary, three fields down near that rivule. It is the change that the presence of girls bring into any atmosphere, making everything so lively and cheerful. And as we say, men will be men. They can’t afford to miss any opportunity to attract girls’ attention.
As somebody had instructed, I controlled my line; in fact I bowled beautifully scalping their 5 batsmen in my three overs and she’d cheered everytime I had beaten the batsman or took a wicket. I was on cloud nine that day. Unfortunately, I didn’t get support from other bowlers and they gave us a target of 72 runs in 10 overs, which wasn’t that difficult target for our strong batting line-up but it wasn’t easy either. But that was none of my business. I was not the kind of batsman one could his money on. I was a bowler and I’d done my job. Now I could sit back and relax and enjoy the chase. I wished I had the courage to enjoy rest of the match with girls.
The second innings started. Our captain, Ashmit, and Prikshit started the innings and started well. Together they accumulated 20 runs in 4 overs and this was a descent start, provided we’d all wickets in hand and that’s when the downfall began. We lost six wickets in next 3 overs. Now we needed 27 runs in the last 3 overs. And guess what who was sent to bat. Me, Pankaj, who was scared of fast bowling as a rat is scared of a cat.
I was sent because I could hit the ball miles but that was a rare occasion. As I took guard, I saw their most fierce bowler warming me. Everybody knew I was scared of pace so they introduced their fastest bowler. I captured a last glance of Siya before facing the first delivery. She’d had her hands folded in a prayer. There was a hope evident on her beautiful face. She wanted us to win and more importantly, wanted me to guide the team to the win. I wished if she knew my reputation against fast bowlers.
The first delivery went past me almost kissing my head. My heart beated like a drum. I saw at her once again. It appeared as if she is reciting some prayer. I didn’t know what happened to me but I felt a strange confidence. I could this match for my team. I could win this match for her, for Siya. I didn’t move when the next delivery came to me. It was a bouncer again but I was prepared. I hooked it to onside with all my might. It was a four. The next two balls went to fours again. The best thing was I’d our captain, the best batsman in the team, as my partner. After I hit Punj, their best bowler, for fourteen runs in one over, it was a cake walk to him. I just had to run for a few singles and doubles, after that we won the match with 2 balls to spare. I didn’t know how pulled it off but there’s one thing that could never forget how Siya danced with joy with my every shot; how her friends had to pull her down every time I hit the ball for runs. One thing was sure she liked me but how much it was still in the womb of future.
The team took me on shoulders when we won the match. I’d played a big part in team’s win. We’d won so many matches in the past but this one was special as it was the first match that was witnessed my girls and our pride was at stake.
“You played very well,” we were returning to the assembly ground for the evening roll call when she’d said this. I tried to say ‘thank you’ but I couldn’t. My vocal cord failed me. I wanted to say her that you made my life my saying these few words but I couldn’t and it was not the first time my voice had failed me. There were some miseries waiting for me in the future. However, I was happy to hear her when her words were meant for me, only me. And it happened the second time in the same day. It was a special day. The sun had reduced to a semicircle with its half already dissolved in the darkness of night. Tomorrow would be a new day…a new life which would bring some new surprises. I’d cracked the omens. She would be mine soon…very soon.
I leaned on the half-closed grill of my hostel, and almost avoided the fall as the grill slides towards the corner. While I managed to gather my off-balance legs, I gazed at the under construction teacher quarters, around 50 meters away from my hostel, under the shadow of sky, painted red by the setting sun. It showered in the evening, which has made the un-cemented red brick walls of under-construction building look blood red. The gust of wind coming from the north sent a chill through the body. It was a calm evening, save the chirping of the birds bathing in the water-filled pits.
I extended my gaze to meadows spanning down the horizons and wondered about the laziness of the evening. But it was short-lived and what followed the very next moment still sends chill down my spine. Suddenly I saw a figure-on-fire that erupted like a volcano out of the corner room. The lump of fire wandered aimlessly on wet ground before landing into a water-filled pit.
Before I could come out of the trauma of what I’d just witnessed, I’d already made my way into the crowd who happened to be the spectators of the same horrific scene. My dreaded curiosity turned into a scream. What appeared to be mass of fire, had transformed into a burnt naked body of a female resting motionless in the mud.
“Her husband burnt her alive. Poor woman. Her husband is a drunkard. Where is he? Beat the bastard. Somebody call the police. Let’s take her to hospital.” I overheard some voice from the crowd.
Two persons – perhaps her colleagues at work – came forward, lift her, wrapped her naked body in a dirty sheet, and slowly dragged her out of the campus, probably to the nearest health care facility. As I saw them disappear from my sight, I was curious to know if she survived or succumbed to her burns. I wanted to know what happened to her husband. But, my questions went unanswered as the bell for the evening roll call had rung and the urgency to reach there on time had engulfed all other queries for the moment.
‘Bhai, don’t touch the hair that fall on my forehead, ok!’ I was looking myself into the giant mirror hanging in front of me at one of the barber’s shop in Paprola market, the city where I completed my 7-year schooling.
‘Let a tuft of hair fall on right side of the partition. Make it an Ajay Devgan cut’ I reiterated as I tilted my head first right then left examining my overgrown hair falling on of my ears.
Ok! As you like’ the expressionless barber said and started to sprinkle water all over my head to wet the hair.
While I was imagining myself in Ajay Devgan cut, something beautiful in the mirror dissolved my thoughts.
‘Oh sh*t’ I murmured.
Shagun had just walked through the lane outside the barber shop.
Barber had already trapped a tuft of hair in his comb over my head.
‘Leave it bhai. I have to rush. I have an emergency. I will be back in 10 minutes’ I announced.
I ignored the confused look at Barber’s face and freed myself from the white silk apron wrapped around my neck and hurried through the shop. Barber said something but I was not interested.
Soon, I was standing in the middle of the lane, trying to trace the direction Shagun had moved. My mind did some quick calculations based on her direction of movement, reflected in the mirror. I applied every theory from incident ray to reflected ray, line of sight to mirror image. I thought about every possible sh*t I studied in physics and never understood but I couldn’t locate the direction she disappeared in. It was finally the ‘Pappu Pan Shop’ that came to the rescue as I remembered her crossing by the same shop.
I saluted ‘Pappu Pan House’ as one salutes India Gate and ran in my target direction only to find her and Megha, her best friend, buying some charts and sketch pens at Karan Book Depot, the most popular stationery shop in the town.
While I stopped to catch my breath, the very thought of facing her made me nervous.
‘Now what?’ somebody inside me asked.
‘I’ll definitely talk to her today.’ I convinced myself.
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.
Unaware of my presence, she was busy in buying the stuff for practical’s exam due for next week. I forced my feet towards the shop. They were heavy. I climbed the three steps before landing in the shop. I felt butterflies in my stomach. She had her back towards me. Her pony tail, tied with a purple band, was hanging loose down her neck.
She was wearing a purple Salwar Kameez matching her band. I wondered why girls were too match-conscious. I saw myself. I was wearing an ill-fitted blue striped shirt hanging lose over my grey bell bottom jeans. The black floaters destroyed the last hopes of any match. I wished if I could show her my blue handkerchief, matching with the shirt, to get some brownie points for my matching sense.
I pretended not to see her and stood by her side.
‘Uncle, give me a thermocol sheet and cardboard paper’ I told to shopkeeper.
I felt two pair of eyes catching a glimpse of mine, one of which was by far the most beautiful in the whole world. The gaze just lasted for a couple of seconds. Now it was my turn to turn around, saw them and say ‘hi’ in a surprised tone. I turned but looked away in a split second. I tried again but it again ended up as a mere rehearsal. My vocal cord had skipped the word in nervousness. Before I could do more stupid, something unexpected happened.
‘Hi Pankaj’ a feminine voice interfered my rehearsal session.
Probably they had caught me in my fits of stupidity. It was Megha who broke the ice. She was my favorite girl for the moment. First time in last four years, I noticed her looks. She was of same height as was Shagun. Rounded face, fuller lips, dusky complexion, prominent eyes and slightly swollen beaky nose made her beautiful by any standards but I had already found my dream girl and I was not the one to lose my focus.
So Megha spoke, ‘Hi Pankaj’.
‘Hi Megha’ I’d almost dropped the thermocol sheet that the shopkeeper handed me. I was trembling like a dry leaf under the effect of breeze.
Then there was a pause but I could feel my heart, beating like a drum. Nobody spoke. The yawning silence was embarrassing for me. Everybody was expecting other to stir the silence.
Then somebody spoke. None of us.
‘Aapka ho gya?’ (Are you done with your shopping?). It was a small shop and we, in a state of trance, couldn’t notice the presence of another customer behind us waiting for his turn.
‘Oh! I am sorry. I am almost done’ I said in embarrassment.
Thank God he came. Otherwise, I’d no idea what I would have said or how I would have behaved in this state of nervousness, I thought and got aside to made way for him.
I turned back and with heavy steps headed towards the exit.
Don’t go. Make use of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a voice exploded in my head.
My head was about to burst. My heart was sinking. Somebody was pricking a nail inside me.
‘God! Why have you made me a coward? Since it’s you who have made me like this, handle it by yourself. Now I am leaving it on you. You will be responsible for my sufferings.’
He seemed to have heard my pleading. Yes. He did.
‘Pankaj, are you done with your shopping or still left with some chores to complete in market’.
I owe you, Megha.
‘Yeaahh, I am done. Just leaving for the hostel; the barber’s confused face flashed in my mind for a second.
‘Great! Let’s walk together’
‘Oh God…Is it actually happening? I love you Megha for this. Hey! Hold on Pankaj. You love Shagun. Don’t get carried away by the nuisances of circumstances.’
‘Ok’ All I could say but it seemed my heart, liver, kidney and stomach all had started to jump in joy and I began to feel butterflies in my stomach.
Within minutes, we were walking on the street, leading to our hostel. Shagun on extreme right, Megha on her left, and then me deliberately falling two steps behind, to watch Shagun walking gracefully, but slightly susceptible for my presence at the same time.
‘Speak up…speak up you moron,’ somebody inside me shouted.
But it was no more needed as Megha, to my ecstasy, spoke again.
‘You topped in pre-board no?’
‘Accha uske lie, TThhank you’ I blushed.
‘Congratulations Pankaj’ WOW! Everything became beautiful suddenly. I felt music in the ears. The melody of her voice dissolved in my ears, traveled all through the heart and found a place to rest there. My ears refused to hear any other voice after listening to that melody. It was Siya.
But they couldn’t resist any other voice for long as in the very next moment sound of a horn almost tore my eardrums into pieces.
I didn’t know what magic those two words had spelled…or it was the impact of her taking my name…making it so special…And then the miracle..
I was confident like never before…I felt a strong desperation to express my feelings…It was a now-or-never situation for me. I felt a sudden urge to speak…my body started shaking with excitement…I felt a bubble inside me…AND it BURST!
‘I LOVE YOU’ was what I wanted to say but ‘I like you’ was what I said.
Was I mad? This wasn’t what I was supposed to say.
I felt like a participant who came all prepared to stage and forgot everything on the mere sight of audience.
So ‘I like you’ was all I could manage to say.
Then the eerie silence like the one before a storm!
It was the time to face the consequences of my reaction to that recent fit.
Suddenly, my excitement turned into embarrassment. Everything around me became blurred. I was deaf and numb. I wanted to run away from there.
Why did I do this? A feeling of guilt filled my heart.
Just when I was about to do something stupid, my ears felt the melody again
‘I like you too, Pankaj’
Is it a dream or a dream that had come true? Somebody please pinch me. No pinching would not be enough. Hit me. I guess I am in a slumber. This is not a real world. Then, I felt a pair of wings on my back and the very next moment, I was in the clouds that were cold and moist.
‘Pankaj…Pankaj’ I woke up from the dream…dream that had come true.
It was Megha.
‘Siya liked you for last six years but she could never express as you never spoke to her. You never even saw her or hinted anything about your feelings.’
I could see Siya, almost red in blush, hitting her with her elbow.
‘Are you crazy? It’s so embarassing, pagal,’ she said in a hushed voice, still loud enough to reach my ears, ‘let us reach hostel. Batati hun tujhe’
‘If you hadn’t said first, she would have said this today,’ she added to my happiness and haplessness at the same time.
Damn…I wasted what could have been the most beautiful days of my life…Why didn’t I open my heart six or even 2 years earlier. I imprecated myself.
And here comes another thought!
What if I’d said ‘I love You’ instead of ‘I like you’. Would she have accepted it? Ok I will say it now? I should not be satisfied with just ‘like’. I want to hear the magical word – Love that I’ve waiting to hear for past 6 years
But this time I didn’t felt desperation or an urge to speak. I did not want to spoil the pleasure of the moment with a ‘NO’.
Let’s live the happiness – I’ve got today – to the fullest. Leave the rest on tomorrow. I persuaded myself.
I don’t remember how the day passed.
The next time I regained my consciousness was at night when I was lying on my bed, thinking about the proceedings of the ‘day’ that had passed like a dream or the dream that had came true.
There was no sleep in my eyes that were wide open. I revisited the dream day with open eyes. I was playing the scene, when she’d said ‘I like you too, Pankaj’ in loop. Everything was still fresh. Her voice was loud and clear.
It had turned midnight now…the visual’d blurred…the voice’s fainting…I was going to fall asleep. Was it an end of the dream or the start of another dream? Neither did I know nor did I want to know…
The grill gate of the Satluj House Hostel shut with a loud thud. It was a kind of trigger for us. Manoj looked at Ankush with a meaningful smile. Ankush signaled me the very next moment. I, in turn, signaled to Sanjeev, who was sitting on the lower set of our double-decker bed. I saw Manoj getting down from his bed and heading towards the corridor. After two minutes Sanjeev made his way outside followed by Ankush and I respectively keeping 2 minute gap each. As planned we all met behind the Yamuna hostel, the darkest place in the whole campus.
It was Ankush’s idea. We were having our lunch in the mess.
“Let’s watch a movie this Saturday night. The Robin Cinema in Paprola runs late night shows every Saturday.” he had enthusiastically said.
Neither did we live in the Stone Age nor did we belong to Harappa civilization but this was the period before the VCD revolution. Also, as our school was located in a small town in Himachal Pradesh where there was not even a single single-screen movie theatre. But I always believe that crow story that concluded with a moral, where there is a will there is a way. We had the will to watch latest movies and the way came in the form of Robin Cinema, a small hall that shows latest movies on a 21-inch Samsung TV connected with a VCP or video cassette player.
I don’t know how many of you have seen or remember this ancient electronic device. Anyways, for us, Robin Cinema was like finding Mallika Sherawat in Vatican City. It ran two shows daily, from 10 am to 4 pm. However, we had come to know last week that it ran late night shows on Saturdays secretly for hostel students and we were on our way to it for our night-out.
“Are you crazy, Latha will break our ass” Manoj, the ever-scared species among us, backed off.
“I am in. What about you Panku” Sanjeev joined in.
“Ok, I am ready.” I didn’t want to join the league of Manoj.
Ok, I will also join but I am doing it for our friendship.” Manoj said.
Ankush had drafted the master plan.
“Security starts locking the grills of hostel at 10 pm, the time when the hostel lights shut off. He locks Satluj hostel first followed by Yamuna, Kaveri and then Kashi that is ours. It takes him 10 minutes to reach Kashi hostel. We have to leave the hostel in these 10 minutes. No teacher comes for inspection after 10. Manoj will leave first, then Sanjeev, followed by me and Pankaj respectively. We will all meet behind Yamuna hostel where nobody will see us. Also, the secret way to market begins from that place only.” Ankush had sounded like a mastermind planning a bank robbery.
We accepted him as our uncrowned leader and obeyed him like his sincere students.
At sharp 10:15 pm we all were standing under the shadow casted by Yamuna hostel building under moon-lit sky. We crossed the rivulet, made our way through the paddy fields, reached the end of the field where we met with the small lane formed by the footsteps of the farmers. The lane led us to a small concrete bridge. We crossed the bridge where knee-length dew-smudged bushes welcomed us. It was again our mastermind Ankush who guided us through the bushes that ended up at the bank of another rivulet. The rivulet was planted with evenly distanced square blocks. We carefully put our alternate foot on alternate stones finally jumping to the other end.
I crossed first, Ankush followed and then Sanjeev joined the suite.
“Oh shit”, Manoj shouted.
“Scoundrel Ankush, you are after my life. It was your idea.” Manoj, the timid one, complained who had had his feet landed in the rivulet
“Had I put a gun over your head. I just asked and you agreed. You are responsible for your misery and by the way if we can cross easily, what’s wrong with you. Huh” Ankush retaliated.
“Come on friends. What are you doing? Manoj, walk carefully” I mediated.
It was again Ankush’s idea to take the alternate route as anybody can watch us on main road.
After crossing rivulet, we saw wire boundry at our head. I bent to my knees then back and made my head to touch ground. I first transferred my head to other side then back, hips and finally dragged the legs and feet and soon I found my complete body on the end landing myself on a concrete road. Everybody did the same. All crossed without any ado. It’s the Ankush this time who got his shirt stuck to the wire of the boundary. Manoj helped him out.
Now we were just around half kilometer away from our destination. Within next ten minutes, we were at the door of Robin Cinema. I saw my wrist watch for the time. It was 10:15. We were on time. We had to reach there by 10:30. After that, one of worker at the Cinema will put a huge lock on the door so that nobody would be able to smell what was cooking inside. Ankush knocked at the door. Somebody from inside half-opened the door and asked “who are you”
“We are Navodians” Ankush whispered.
“How many are you”
“Ok come in”
He made some more space in the door for us to slip in and latched the door. It was all dark inside. The person who had welcomed us at entrance lit a lighter and guided us towards the benches on the right side of the hall. In that dim light, I saw some more figures seated on the benches lying on both sides of the hall leaving a gallery in the middle. I felt like a fugitive finding a place to hide from police which was after me. The benches growled as we made ourselves comfortable as if annoyed by our intrusion at their sleeping time.
A couple of minutes later, the same lighter came alive at the back illuminating the closed door. The man with the sallied through the aisle between the rows of benches and stopped in the front of a 21-inch Samsung TV. I heard the sweeping sound of a video cassette slipping the video cassette player. It was the time before the introduction of CD players in Himachal. Those big video cassettes with blurred picture quality were our only access to latest movies but since we hadn’t seen the better we’d the best and we were contend with the same.
Finally the TV came alive. I was sitting so close to the TV that the sudden flash of light forced me to drop my eyelids. While, I opened my eyes slowly, I noticed images changing on the TV screen finally revealing the name of the movie, KASOOR. I straightened my back and shifted my focus to the screen. We’d already heard of some hot and sizzling love scenes with Lisa Ray and Aftab Shivdasani.
Just when Aftab had broke open the door of Lisa Ray’s house and they’d started kissing crazily, a loud thud at the door grabbed my attention. My felt my heart sinking. I sensed as something bad was going to happen. The staff at the hall switched off the TV. It was pitch black again. The darkness was devastating. Somebody knocked at the door again. Louder this time. Followed by a familiar voice, “Open the door.”
“Kaun hai, who’s this,” somebody from the staff tried to answer in a sleepy voice.
“We are from Navodaya. Open the door. We know some of our students are inside.”
A chill ran down my spine. My heart skipped a couple of beats. I wanted to disappear from there. I felt like breaking the wall and escaping through it. Though I knew they must be having the details of missing boys. They would have conducted a roll call at school before coming here. There was no escaping.
“Nobody is here. We are only staff sleeping here,” the staff member gave a last try.
“Get the bastards out or I’ll summon the police,” somebody roared and the echo kept traveling in the air for few seconds. I’d almost had a heart attack. It was Latha, our Principal.
In next five minutes, we were standing in a line in the middle of the lane like the fugitives who’d been caught. Apart from us there were 10 more students from the Navodaya. We hadn’t noticed their presence inside till now. They were the juniors. “Get into bus. It’s standing on the main road,” Latha ordered.
After another 10 minutes, we were all in the middle of the playground in the murga, cock, position with our asses held high as if saluting the Principal. I am sure you would all be aware of a murga position. Every time anybody’s ass hung low, he got a blow from Rampyari at his back. It was 11:30 pm in the night. The songs of betels and cries of crickets were the only noises disturbing the sleep of night. It’d been over half an hour since we were in that murderous posture. My legs had started to tremble out of pain. My arms had gone numb due to lack of blood supply. But I guess, all were in the same miserable plight.
“Sorry,” somebody mumbled, almost crying, followed by more, and then in the unison. I participated too.
“Sorry,” Latha growled.
“Hadn’t you felt sorry when you’d decided to commit this crime, huh,” Our respective house masters were informed and they’d arrived to shed their frustration of missing their sleeps. Every housemaster reached his pupils and showered punches and kicks, like we see in bollywood action movies, on us. More than feeling the pain of kicks of punches, I felt relief for coming out of that torturous posture. Just when I was hoping this torture would get over. One of the teachers shouted, “Down everybody down. Back to your positions,” Either they’d have got rid of their frustration or their hands would’ve started aching but either way our torture was not over yet. Was it what they call third degree? But we hadn’t murdered anyone.
“Go to your hostels”, one of the housemasters yelled.
Before we could feel relieved, he exploded again.
“And get paper and pen.”
Our heart sank. Finally it was going to happen which scared us the most. It was the time for the confession which would remain on our character like a scar. It was the time for us to write an application, acknowledging the crime we’d committed and expecting the mercy from the almighty latha. Even if we were lucky to get it, the application would remain like a certificate of our sins and haunt us for rest of our tenure in the hostel or even after that, who knew.
Within next 10 minutes, we were all sitting in row behind each other on the concrete lane outside principal residence. And latha was hovering on us like with his lath swinging in the air.
“Sumit, aren’t you writing,” he roared.
Sorry sir, it won’t be repeated again. Please forgive me this time,” a terrified Sumit begged but his words feel on deaf ears.
I’d understood there was no use of pleading. It’s better to finish this torture as soon as possible. So I’d already started writing the application. While others who had also decided the same were waiting for me to finish so that they can copy. No other what is the situation, toppers create the content and cheaters copy.
And for me it was another opportunity to showcase my writing skills; I didn’t want the same opportunity though.
Subject: Application for forgiveness.
I am a student of class XII in your school. Tonight I, along with other students, was caught watching a movie in Paprola market without permission. I understand the severity of this crime so I seek your forgiveness for this mistake. I assure you it won’t be repeated in the future.
I shall be very thankful you.
Yours obedient student,
Roll no. 626
“And don’t forget to write the contact numbers of your parents in the end,” latha put the last nail in the coffin.
I could not control my laughter as I wrote ‘your obedient student.”
“Pass on if you’ve completed,” Manoj whispered from behind.
“Bhai, don’t stick the same,” I murmured back.
“Abe, you are not sitting in an exam. By the way, you would have got 10 out of 10 if it were an exam,” he still managed to find some humour.
Finally the ordeal was over. Applications were collected and we were asked to go back to our respective hostels. Limping and groaning I reached the hostel and hit the bed. Before sleep could embrace me, I couldn’t help what thinking, “How would I face Siya in the morning”.
However, I am unaware a more serious problem is awaiting we outlaws in the morning.
It was a new day. The sun had left his bed and had started its course of the day. The fierce darkness had already dissolved in the brightness of the day. But the outlaws of the previous night were still feeling the heat. We were hiding our faces since morning. The PT session had passed calmly. Apart from a few whispers and murmurs, and few search-light eyes, all had gone well. We were strictly avoiding any eye contact. We’d skipped the breakfast and had our band-samosa nashta at Hariya uncle’s khokha, makeshift shop.
We were astonished when even the prayer session didn’t deliver any dose of further embarrassment and shame for us. Latha behaved as if nothing had happened. We were wondering if the last night’s ordeal was a dream. But we all could not have the same dream so we ruled out the possibility of a dream sequence. While we were expecting a shame broadcast of our act, the inmate parade was also on the cards. Surprisingly, or I would say, magically nothing like this happened though it was clear that the news had spread like a wild fire as girls’ eyes were on the boys’ cherry picking the culprits.
Even teachers behaved normal. Had there any notice been circulated that the boys had had their share of punishment and embarrassment so let them be. But it was quite unlike latha. Was it the peace before the storm. And to our shock it was.
Just when we were thinking of relaxing, peon entered the class with a list.
“Madamji, Principal Sir has summoned these boys.”
My heart sank. Legs started trembling. Throat was choked. I could hear my heart beating like the parade drum. I was almost crying when I heard my name.
“Pankaj,” a feeble echo reverberated at the girls’ side. Even they were shocked. It takes year to make reputation and a bad decision to see it ruined.
I felt numbness in my limbs. It was impossible to stand up. I wanted to cry, cry at the top of my voice. But the only option I had to join others in the Latha’s office.
With heavy feet we headed towards principal’s office. Now what? Would he continue with last night’s torture or he would terminate us straightaway. Questions and fears were doing rounds in our brain.
All speculations and scares came to an end as we climbed the stairs to the administration block that housed staff rooms, auditorium, documentation departments and the one we feared the most, principal’s office.
The ground beneath my feet slipped as I saw my grandfather outside the admin block along with other parents and guardians, possibly, of the last night’s culprits.
“So principal has called them to take us back home,” Manoj said almost crying.
“Now we won’t admission in any school,” Ankush expected the worst.
“My dad will break my legs,” Sanjeev proved there’s even worst to the worst.
The parents who had seen us coming were looking for their respective achieve. Sanjeev was right. His father had already started the exercise. Some had pulled their children from ears and had started their enquiries. So the verdict was out. Latha had informed the parents about their children’s crime. I could not see others fate as my grandfather had located me already. Seeing no other option, I headed towards him to face the consequences. My grandfather had never even shouted at me, forget beating.
“It would be a new experience,” I thought.
I looked at Dadaji. Our eyes met. He didn’t look agitated. In fact, He had the same affectionate look and calming effect in his eyes, I’d been enjoying since I could remember. I was confused.
I approached him and touched his feet.
“Ayushman,” his voice had same lovingly tone.
“Why are you so frightened, my dear,” he said. His face was adorned with that very-well known smile.
“It’s your age to watch movies. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of your father. Now, how much study you boys would do. Some fun is also required. I hope this won’t affect your scores,” he faked some seriousness.
“No dadaji, I’ll top this year too,” I could not remember when I experienced such happiness.
“That’s like my beta,” he gave me a soft peck on my cheek.
Then he handed a bag full of fruits and some home-made sweets and said “Eat well and take care of your health. You are already looking pale.”
“Now go to your classroom. I’ll handle your principal,” he continued.
On my return, I felt as if I’ve conquered the world. I was flying. I wasn’t embarrassed anymore. My dadaji is not disappointed of me and nothing else mattered.
“I top for sure, dadaji,” I repeated my promise in my head.
I was the first one to join the class. I made a serious face as I faced teacher, which changed to a blossoming smile as I turned my back to him. All who could see my smile were shocked.
“Tension has made him mad,” they must be thinking.
I tried to steal gaze at Siya. She looked sad and that saddened me as well. Emotions are infectious in love. But did she love me? But did she love me? And even if she did, would she continue to do so?
“She would for sure. These little things can’t affect the true love,” I tried to console me.
The woolens had started to take a refuse in the dark corners as we entered March. Flowers and fragrance were ruling atmosphere. While the sun was getting cruel with every passing day, love was about to find its habitat. We, Siya and I, were coming close. We, to the surprise of others, had already started to study together although I wasn’t sure if it’s working in our favour or was going to make our life hell.
I loved her from the moment I’d seen her the first time. I waited for almost seven years to seek her attention or make my presence felt. But now I was desperate. I couldn’t wait another seven years to know what she thought of me. I was left with only four months to open my heart and know what’s in her heart.
After so many failed attempts of proposing her, it was the time to try Plan B to get close to her heart. But what should be the plan B, even I didn’t know that. When I couldn’t think of a Plan B, the almighty came up with a Plan C; it was somebody else’s plan though.
Beautiful girls have so many secret lovers but there’s only one whom the girl loves. On that fateful eve of January 13, when we’d been gathered for Lohri celebration, many guys of our class had been congratulated me. While I was considering these as Lohri wishes, the destiny had other plans.
“Bro, tum to chhupe rustam nikle, you proved to be a dark horse” Sanjeev said in a contemptuous tone.
“Bhai, I don’t run races. Don’t throw riddles at me. Say it straight” I was losing my cool.
“How did you do this? How did you woo the prettiest girl in the school,” Sanjeev’s eyes widened, “I knew you loved her but securing a place in heart was a separate thing,” he continued.
I was bewildered and annoyed at the same time.
“Sanju, Tell me it in straight. Enough mystery for today.”
“Don’t tell me, you don’t know this?”
“Abe nhi, jaldi bak, tell the crap.”
“Ok, then hold your heart. You may get a heart attack,” I gave him an angry look as he continued, “Kinchit had met Siya today. They were preparing some house activity when seeing her in good mood, Kinchit asks her if she likes any boy in our class. She initiated hesitated and then she opened up,” Sanjeev paused and waited for my reaction.
“Abe bakega?” I was restless.
“Pankaj? But we are two Pankajs in the class,” I heart was not beating.
“Kinchit had asked the same question, which Pankaj?”
“Sanjeev any more suspense and I’ll faint”
“She said ’26′” Sanjeev whispered.
I was so nervous that it took me a while to acknowledge that he was referring to me. And once I did, I lost myself. I was so happy to be sane. I wanted to shout, I wanted to dance, I wanted to fly. I wanted to express my ecstasy but since I was too shy to do anything from it, I heartbeat increased. I felt as if I would explode as I was unable to contain my happiness inside me. In madness, I ran towards the hostel. Straight to bathrooms. I locked myself inside the bathroom and opened the taps. And as the water fell on the floor making a noise, I put my hands on my heart, allowed the excitement to vent out.
It began with a smile and it widened. “Yes! she liked me the most in the class. I’m no more the one of guys she liked. I am the closest and the most important. I jumped in joy. throwing the fist in the air. “Yes, she like me,” I repeated. And I wanted to repeat it again and again.
She’d done her part. Now it was my turn to make the next move. And I was confident like never before. I wanted to confront her as soon as possible so that I can see into her and feel her feelings for me. I quickly left the bathroom, existed the hostel and headed towards class rooms. It was 6:30 pm already. Our evening prep session had started.
I was running…running ruthlessly through the aisle between beds lined up on both sides in the hostel room…now in the corridor hurrying outside where a gush of wet winds welcomed me…Almost breathless, I ran past all four dormitories, to the road with paddy fields on one side and a wall on the other which stood witness of my eternal love for Siya who was going away from my life forever.
Like it happened yesterday, when she’d turned down my proposal and left my heart in tatters. If she’d broken all strings, why she did it today? Why she lit the dead flame again.
“Fuck”. My foot stumbled over a stray stone and my body hit hard on the concrete road but it couldn’t deter my desire to meet her the very last time as a lover, not as a ‘nice guy’ whom she couldn’t call a boy friend. I got up and started running again in utter desperation as if running for life. My arms had bruises, my face borne blood but heart borne the ecstasy to see love in her eyes for me, only for me. She didn’t only like me; she loved me.
Suddenly my wounds had got healed and it happened that very morning when I was packing my bags to bid adieu to my school forever. It was our last day at school. I had no regrets. I had spent some great time here with my friends. But I wasn’t happy. I hadn’t forgotten Siya and I didn’t think I would ever be able to do it. The scars of one-sided love haunt you forever. But it wasn’t a love story.
“Panku, Siya had sent a letter for you” I was ready to submit my no-dues form when Sanjeev appeared with a paper.
“Yes bro, Siya. I’d gone to say goodbye to Amish Sir when she gave me this letter. She was leaving for home. She saw me and handed this letter to me.”
With heart beating like a drum, I unfolded the layers of the letter.
I am sorry I broke your heart. I don’t know why I couldn’t dare to acknowledge your love. May be my conventional upbringing ceased me from admitting my love but today when we are separating forever I couldn’t hold myself from accepting that I love you. I love you from the day I saw you. I love you for the last seven years. Not a single second had passed when I didn’t remember you. I love you Pankaj…I love you. I am feeling light now. If our love is eternal we will definitely meet at some point of life when there will be no restrictions, when there will be no reason to say ‘No’. And that day will come for sure. I wish you could see. I am smiling…after four months.
Yours and only yours,
Screech…the breaks of a car, which is about to run over me, brought me to the present. I was about to reach the bus stand.
“God please do some miracle. She shouldn’t get the bus” I prayed.
Miracles rarely happen in real life and I wasn’t that lucky either.
The bus stand was deserted. She had left. My heart broke once again. The stroke was mightier this time. I felt a lump in my throat. Something was desperate to come out and I broke down once again after four months.
Tears welled up in my eyes and the downpour began. The downpour of grief, of a broken heart.
“Don’t waste your tears. You would get plenty of these opportunities to shed tears after marrying Siya. She is very bossy. Understand.”
It was Megha who had emerged from nowhere.
I thought you would take some time to reach so I’d gone to enjoy a plate of Samosa. Had I known you would act like a Devdas I would have waited for you. Anyway, take this. Siya has left it for you. She couldn’t stay for long. Her parents were with her. Thanks God mine haven’t arrived yet.”
She gave me a piece of paper.
There was something written on it.
“This is my number, 233537. Call me. I am waiting. Love you.