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From once upon a time

My mind takes me back to my school days in Delhi. It is a co-educational school. We are in Class 9. It is that stage when we girls become ‘aware’ of the boys. Even though we have been together from primary school, we have now stopped talking to them or playing with them. We feel shy with each other. If at all there is any communication, it is restricted to the study subjects. We sit separately. There is this boy who looks older than the rest. He has joined the class only that year. He keeps to himself most of the time.

One day after school when I am sitting in the school bus with my friends waiting to go home, this boy comes over to the bus and hands me a book saying, “I know that you are planning to do medicine after school. I thought this book will interest you.” And then he walks away. A girl sitting next to me wants to have a look at it. She opens the book and out pops a letter! The girls around are all atwitter. Then and there they read the letter through. He has written all about his family and himself. I don’t remember now whether he had explained why of all people he had to write to me about all this. All I remember is feeling acutely embarrassed in front of all those giggling girls.

I go home and at an appropriate moment confide in my mother about the letter and hand it over to her. The next morning when I get ready to go to school, my father tells me that he would be coming over to the school that day to meet the Principal. I feel terrified, guilty, embarrassed. Is this letter a reflection on my character? What would the Principal think? That in some way I have encouraged this boy, given him the courage to write to me, hide the letter in a book and hand it over to me? I am sure the entire school is going to get to know of this. I could die of shame.

Sure enough, towards noon the peon comes to fetch the boy to the Principal’s office. Question marks are on the faces of my classmates except for my very close friends who know what the matter is. A little later the boy comes back, crestfallen. He goes to his seat and sits down. He does not reply to his friends’ frenzied whispers. I feel terribly sorry for him now.

Later in the evening, at home my father assures me that there will be no more trouble from the boy. The Principal has warned him and threatened him with expulsion if he does anything similar again.

We don’t even look at each other again till we are in Class 11. On the last day of our school life, we say goodbye formally like with every other classmate.

Cut to the time I am in Class 10. Our immediate seniors in Class 11 are on study leave before the start of their Board examinations. There is this boy from the eleventh who travelled in the same school bus as I along with his two younger sisters. His sisters travel now without him as he is on study leave. One day the elder of the two hands over a book to me with a note from her brother. He has requested me to return that book to the school library and I do so. On the way home in the school bus I tell the girl that I have returned the book to the library. The next morning the girl gives me another note from her brother! It contains several “Thank you-s written all over it. The familiar fear and embarrassment flood me.

That evening I reluctantly confide in my mother about this note. She asks me some questions and then advises me to ignore it. Her reasoning is quite logical. One, the boy would not be coming back to school as he is in the final year and is soon to take his Board examinations. Two, this sort of infatuated behaviour is not uncommon among adolescents.

I follow her advice. The next day the girl tries to hand over another note from her brother. I refuse to take it and tell her to return it to him. After that there is no further incident and I heave a sigh of relief. It is short-lived, though! A couple of days later, a boy from my own class asks me to accompany him to a small courtyard near our classroom. As I enter the place, I see the senior boy hurriedly vanishing behind a wall further off. My classmate then turns to me with a note in his hand telling me the senior had asked him to hand over the note to me, so please take it! I firmly refuse. The matter ends there. The next year I write the 11th Board examinations and leave Delhi for good with my family as my father has taken up a job in Chennai.

I enrol in a nearby college for women for my graduation. I am 19 when I graduate. My mother has embarked on the job of hunting for a suitable groom for me. I am excited at the prospect. A few of my classmates are already married or engaged and that feels very romantic. A friend of my mother suggests a prospective groom who lives in the next street. There is excited talk between the two ladies about the boy’s qualifications and job, about his family. He is a chartered accountant working in a well-known company, and lives with his widowed mother. His sisters are married. What more could one ask for? Horoscopes and photos are exchanged. My mother is a little perturbed that the boy’s star is ‘moolam’, which is not viewed favourably. She brushes aside her misgivings as all the other parameters are fine.

My father makes a formal visit to their house to invite the lady and her son to our home. The lady says that has to wait till her brother is able to come down to Chennai. She does not wish to make the first visit as she is a widow.

While we wait for the brother to visit Chennai, a ritual starts. Every evening the ‘boy’ drives slowly down our street in his car honking the horn in a particular fashion. That is the time when the entire family — with the exception of father who is yet to return from work — is out in the front of the house enjoying the sea breeze and watching the traffic pass by. After a few days it is evident to everyone that he is doing this to attract attention.

My brother immediately starts teasing me mercilessly. I feel terribly shy but excited. It is so romantic. I can remember the make and the number plate of the car even today. That was the impact of those moments.

Months pass. I am on cloud nine. I wait eagerly to see him pass by every day. I miss him on the weekends. There are a few other little incidents which make me very confident that this alliance is going to work out. His mother invites my mother to their home and asks her to bring me too. The way she talks gives me additional assurance that it is only a matter of time before the alliance is finalised. I am truly happy and consider myself fortunate. My uncle on a visit to Chennai is taken to their house by my father to meet the boy. My uncle beams at me on his return and wishes me good luck. Nothing possibly could go wrong. No wonder I build castles in the air. Little knowing that all those castles would come tumbling down in a short while. In the meantime I join an evening course in journalism, which effectively puts to an end to the excitement of the ‘car ritual’ when the guy returns home from office.

His uncle arrives in Chennai one day. It is arranged for him to visit our home. We expect the boy also to come with him for the formal meeting-up. He doesn’t; only the uncle comes. I am bitterly disappointed after the terrific build-up. The uncle explains that his nephew would come another day. For the first time, I feel a little dark cloud hovering on the scene. We talk informally over coffee and snacks and he takes his leave a while later. There is no further communication from them.

A month later we get the news that the boy’s alliance with another girl has been fixed. I remember that moment vividly, the moment when my heart broke. I remember weeping silently that night in bed. All the pain I had carefully bottled up in front of my family burst out. It was utter misery. Suffice it to say we received an invitation to the wedding, which my father attended. Later this guy moved house, and so did we.

Years later, the same guy apparently driving down the road on which my parents lived and noticing my father’s name plate on the gate, had come in and spent some time catching up. My two little kids happened to be there and were introduced to him, I believe. I felt sorry I was not there. I could have met him face to face.

I am now in my sixties. I have watched my own children experience love and go through heartbreaks. Today I think about the incidents in my youth in a new perspective. To my two schoolmates who wrote notes to me: If you happen to read this, know that I never meant to humiliate or harm you. To the young man who appeared in my life when I was 19: If you happen to read this, tell me what made you break my heart into a million pieces?

r.rema@yahoo.com

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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 11:13:37 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/from-once-upon-a-time/article28620697.ece

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