1/9 – The One With the Lunchbox
With the ice cream in my hand, I asked Gowtham to make himself comfortable. He sat rigidly on his chair looking intently at me. I felt like The Godfather and instead of stroking a cat, was sucking on the spoon. After a brief moment of silence, Gowtham said,
“AT… Is this about Paati…. or… ”
“Kanna… These are anecdotes… stories… lessons… and sometimes even figment of this old man’s imagination… but in my head, most of them are almost true with added elements of dramatisation. My life wasn’t exactly that adventurous… i lived in a time when only the people were simple yet smart… “
“AT… That was a cheap shot… aana okay, Startungo”
“Like most of my stories, this too is about a girl… As always, she was exquisitely beautiful and infinitely charming… I must have been about your age then, probably a couple of years younger.
That day was the first day of the academic year. I had worn my new uniform; it was crisp and almost perfect. I always felt excellent in my whites and blues. Though, the uniforms were hand me downs from my elder cousin, they were new to me and that’s exactly what mattered.
Amma had oiled my hair into a sloppy mess of a style that was quite the rage in those days. I had just the perfect smear of vermillion across my forehead and walked to school with a spring in my step and a song in my head. My choreographed walk to the school gates came to an abrupt stop when I heard a loud thud just behind me.
I saw two of my friends fighting with each other near the mango tree, just outside the gate and they were now rolling on the ground trying to gain the upper hand. I wanted to go and help resolve the fight, but unfortunately my uniform was new. One of their rolls somehow disturbed the gait of the prettiest girl I’d ever seen in my life.
Just like in films, everything else around her became a blur. I could see the bag fly away from her hand while she was falling backwards in ultra slow motion. Her big round brown eyes became all the more bigger, her really long hair was now all over the place, a rosy blush flushed her cheeks, her bindi was the only thing in place, and for a fleeting moment, our eyes met. I hated gravity for what it just did right now. Everything became normal speed again and my success in the track and field events at school helped me reach to her first, beating rest of the crowd.
She looked at me like a scared and cornered rabbit with those eyes, those brown eyes; hazelnut was the right term, those eyes gave me quite a lot of sleepless nights. I then extended my hand, lifted her up and collected her bag from the guy who had come second. The bag was dirty and her lunch was wasted. I dusted her bag off with my shirt and apologised for the unruliness of my friends.
“Arjun”, I looked at her like she was the object of all my hopes and desires
“Me… I’m Aashima”. She smiled.
Those two guys were still fighting.
I went to my class; we bade a temporary goodbye because she had to meet the headmaster.
Paying heed to the words of my Amma, I settled into an alien territory, I felt all lost but had to take the plunge. This was the year I’d decided to take my studies a bit more seriously and nothing else embodied this fact more than sitting on the first bench. Well, as I was trying to dust off the brownness from my white shirt, I sensed a familiar smell. A fragrance that was more of a waft of freshness that reminded me of all the goodness in the world. Aashima walked into the class, smiled and sat on the table next to mine.
I now had one more reason to believe my Amma was awesome.
As the classes progressed, I used every possible opportunity to make eye contact with Aashima and every successful glance presented itself with an effervescent smile and a ball of paper hitting the back of my head. My friends were disgruntled that I had not said more than a ‘hello’ to them and were even more livid with the fact that I had not yet introduced them to her. I counted the seventeen balls of paper on my feet, looked at them and sniggered.
The lunch bell struck and I had to once again use my expertise in the track to escape the guys who were now done trying to hurt me with paper. During the second round around the ground, I got reminded of the fact that she didn’t have her lunch. I called for a truce with the guys, assuring that talking to her about them was my first priority.
I ran back to the class to see her sitting all by herself and staring at her palms. I walked ‘casually’ to my place, opened my lunch box and offered her some. She looked at me with those rabbit eyes again and declined the offer. I tried to drill some sense into her head and after a brief session of cajoling, she asked me to give some in the lid of my box. I couldn’t stop looking at her eyes when she had my lunch and realised that she might have been very hungry. I gave her some more which she gladly accepted. We shared our lunch and she had a very high opinion on my Amma’s cooking.
One more reason to reinforce my opinion on the awesomeness of Amma.
As the school term progressed, she still behaved aloof with almost everyone in class and the guys from the neighbouring classes used to come to our class just to get a glimpse of her. She became the topic of discussion among the classes very soon. Girls kept their distance from her primarily because she was the cynosure of attention and secondarily, she was always prim and proper with extremely minimal make-up and apparel that made her all the more appealing to the guys. Somewhere deep down the darkest crevices in my heart, I knew that Aashima getting all this attention should have made me jealous or even the least bit irritated. Surprisingly, none of this happened because there were two things that we did exclusively with each other.
- We always waited for the other outside the gate near the mango tree. We walked together till our class, though we hardly spoke to each other except exchanging the customary smiles and those glances that told a lot more than it should have.
- We ate together.
She preferred my lunch, even though she had her own. Her reasons were all a mask for the obvious. She liked me and it was evident in her effusive praise for my Amma, especially because of the fact that she used to prepare lunch for me and then went to work in the railway station. I wasn’t a fool and I clearly understood the hints. I knew I was in love and her behaviour made me understand that this was reciprocated unequivocally. It also made my Amma happy that I finished my lunch everyday
We never spoke after school because she was from a different locality and left as soon as the bell struck. I stayed close by and used to train with the guys after school. Though I did adore her, there were some things that I couldn’t stop doing. I knew that she wouldn’t want me to do it too.
Our talks during the lunch hour would predominantly be the lavish praises she showered on my Amma, the classes that day and clearing the doubts we had in our studies. Sometimes, we would talk about our dreams and ambitions. I spoke in great lengths about my wish to become a doctor, engineer, pilot and a policeman. I wanted to be everything and she listened to it without batting an eyelid and flashed that smile of hers every time I said something amusing, like the time we spoke about my wishes to go round the world visiting places where there are beautiful beaches, castles, princesses and dragons.
I knew we were in LOVE.
It was going all the too perfect. A story between the average kid in the class, the most beautiful girl in the same class and one other thing called FATE.
Like with most of my stories, an unexpected twist was right around the corner and this time it came in the form of Deepavali.
The day before the school closed for the festivities, I walked out of school with her and asked if she could meet me tomorrow and celebrate Deepavali together. She suddenly became restless, looked at me with those eyes that were not of a rabbit anymore, replied in the negative and left me red-faced. Not one to take ‘NO’ for an answer, I silently followed her. After trailing her for half hour, I found the locality where she stayed and I came back home patting myself for a job well done.
The next day I woke up pretty early and did all the rituals that were a part of the festivity. I had been pestering my Amma to get me a new dress for this Deepavali at least because it had been three years since I’d got a new one. This was not any other day. This would be the day when Aashima and I would see each other in anything other than our uniforms and I wanted it to look my best. I knew she’d be dressed impeccably and I couldn’t be any less. Of course even in matters of the heart, pride is a major player. After my breakfast, Amma handed me a brand new red shirt and a khaki shorts. I loved the combination and even though it seemed a couple of sizes bigger, I knew this would be better in the long run.
I walked down to her place feeling like the King of the world. I had taken the sweets prepared by my Amma to share it with Aashima, continuously ironing the creases on the shirt with my palms and was guessing the colour of the dress she would be wearing. I was hoping it would be red; she’d look radiant in red.
I reached her locality and started searching for her home. From the pointers she had given me during our conversations, I was looking all around to find the yellow coloured door and green coloured windows but I couldn’t find it at all. I started loitering around the locality for some more time when I finally caught a glimpse of her. She was coming out of this house that wasn’t exactly yellow or green. I called out her name, but she didn’t respond to my calls and was walking in a somewhat odd way.
I followed her till she entered a completely off putting home. The thatching was open in quite a few places and the place seemed to be in an eternal state of disarray. I couldn’t pluck the courage to go and meet her. Her home wasn’t anything like what she said and I was angry for being lied to. I saw her taking our uniform along with her to the nearby pond after telling something to her neighbours. I went around to her neighbour to enquire about the whereabouts of her parents and to get a clarity on the events that had unfolded.
“Paati… I’m Arjun. Is that Aashima’s house?”
And then I heard a story. Aashima’s story. I never knew what was the opposite of ‘fairytale’. But I had just heard the elaborate version of it. The summary of the long story was that, she was orphaned very early in life and was now doing menial jobs around the locality to fund for her schooling. She was too proud to ask for financial help from any and was managing the day with one square meal that she prepared with her own resources.
The only problem she had was with her uncle, who was constantly pestering her to get married to him or atleast give him the money that she earned. But she wanted to study and was constantly subjected to abuse by that devilish brute for the same. I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. It was too much to even comprehend at that age and Aashima was living through this.
I hated myself for the first thought that crept up in my head after listening to the entirety of the horrors faced by Aashima on a regular basis.
So it wasn’t exactly Love from her side, it was just desperation, pride and hunger. I didn’t like myself for even entertaining such a thought, but the seeds were sown. What was supposed to be love slowly turned into SYMPATHY for this tortured girl.
When I had seen her that day, she wasn’t wearing her uniform and ironically the dress she wore did have splashes of red in various places. It didn’t make her look radiant, it didn’t make me feel happy, it didn’t accentuate the colour of her cheeks when she smiled, it didn’t improve the innocence of her rabbit eyes, it didn’t match the colour of her bindi, it didn’t make me want to play with the curves of her hair.
It just made me indescribably weak. I placed the sweets on her doorstep and walked away without looking back. i thought I felt the piercing gaze of her beautiful brown eyes on the back of my head. I had tears welled up in my eyes and I just couldn’t look back to check whether it was real or just a figment of my imagination.
Aashima might have actually seen me walk away that day, or recognised the taste of those sweets or simply just known it from the neighbour, because…
She never came to school again