Boy Meets Girl
Circa 1982. An undistinguished school in a little provincial town in Southern India. It is his second week in this new school. 10th grade history class is in progress. The subject: the occupation of India by the British. The teacher, one of the two he likes, is polling the class for an answer to the question, “When was the British East India Company formed in India ?” 1601, 1605, 1603, 1600. Like auctioneers or bingo players, one by one, each student recreates history in his vision.
The front row is occupied by girls, four of them, the only ones in this class dominated by boys. One of the girls answers “After 1600″. The answer takes him by surprise. He finds it clever, inventive, its way of being right without being drop dead precise. The teacher didn’t after all ask for the exact year. Even the teacher’s impassive face registers surprise at this answer, before his eyes move on to the next student.
His family had just moved from one provincial town in Southern India to another. He hated school, hated moving town every few years, hated making new friends, hated the interviews and the uncertainty of admission, hated joining mid year, hated learning new languages, hated the inevitable catching up he had to do with the new syllabus, and the struggle to always top the class, in test after test, exam after exam, year after year. Driven, ambitious, proud, boastful, rather round and fantasizing he’d grow up to be an Einstein with credentials to prove it. He had written a 220 page novel in seventh grade.
She is rooted in the same provincial town, lived there since she was a year old. In second grade, she made a discovery that changed her life. She learned accidentally that you only needed to get 35 marks out of a 100 to pass a subject. School was now bearable. No more worries about trying to score as much as possible and worrying if she’d pass. 35 seemed easy. School was something you had to endure as a child, just like the vegetables your parents made you eat. But she had little to complain about life. Life was wonderful. The only regret was how little time there was to play.
Something about the girl had attracted him the very first day he joined her class. Maybe it’s because she is the fairest of them all and lightness of complexion is highly regarded in his house. She thought him a plump sissy, a mama’s boy, because his parents had escorted him to the class the first day. Who does that in 10th grade except a sissy, she thought.
The Platonic Years
Three months later, she and he are thick friends. This despite the taboo against boys and girls mixing together at school. The two sexes didn’t even talk to each other, just marinated in their pubescent hormonal stew. They became friends because he was attracted to her and managed to find a way to talk to her and befriend her. Her parents are doctors. Oh joy ! This meant she has a telephone at home and now the wires could make the distance between them disappear. They spend an hour each day talking on the phone. He’s never known anyone like her. Why do I find her so attractive, he wonders. Reading Byron’s “She Walks In Beauty Like The Night” , he thinks he knows why.
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent! – Lord Byron
A year later, high school is over. Leaving the school they shared to separate colleges, he worries their friendship is over. What reason could he give for calling her every day now ? But they keep talking. He makes up excuses to call her up, questions about the common pre-university syllabus. She loves talking to him, sees through his pretence of excuses and he eventually gives up the pretence. No subject is taboo when they talk. Meanwhile, he’s preparing for the entrance exam to India’s premier engineering schools. Too focussed on his studies and what considers stepping stones to a highly visible and acclaimed career, he doesn’t think about the effect of his getting admission to one of those schools. Would they remain friends despite the separation ?
Two years later, his academic dreams are in tatters. He fails to make it to the premier engineering school. Even worse, overconfident, he makes a series of silly mistakes in the pre-university exams and just barely makes the grade for admission to provincial engineering schools of the same state. She tops the district in the pre-university exams. All through the agony of waiting for results, admission uncertainties and heartbreak of the results, they keep talking. When she hears his scores and his hurt, she says, I wish you had gotten my scores. They talk an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon, seemingly unable to run out of conversation. Every now and then, they disagree about something and sulk silently on the phone, but they don’t stop calling each other. She surprises him by calling him even when she goes out of town on vacation. When he comes up short in resourcefulness or courage in calling her when he is out of town, she calls him up.
They both get admission in schools in the same town, he in engineering and she in medical. Their friendship continues unabated, growing stronger. Despite punishing schedules, they find time to talk every day, even if its for 10 minutes. His parents yield to their friendship after they demand a meeting with her family. Her parents and his become good friends. Deepavali is spent together, every year, now. Even a new year or two. She is the best friend he’s ever had.
Four years later, at the cusp of adulthood and independence, towards end of his bachelor’s graduation, the unexpected happens. They have a falling out over a misunderstanding. His father’s transfered again. His engineering school over, he leaves town, heartbroken over the end of the most beautiful friendship of his life.
He gets a job and moves to Paris. She falls in love and gets married. He learns about the marriage from a friend’s letter. Gets bitter, angry and confused. He meets a girl in Paris and they fall in love. The amazing friendship is dead.
A year after the breakup. His relationship is not going well. He is trying to save money to go study in the US, needs recommendation letters, transcripts and such from his schools in India. Still friends with her brother, thinking he can ask his help in obtaining these documents, he telephones her home. She picks up the phone. His heart stops when she speaks like nothing has changed. How is your married life, he asks. It’s over, she says. How is your relationship, she asks. It’s not going well, he says. Over the next six months, they talk like the old times. Though he has little money, he spends it all on phone calls, the savings for higher studies forgotten. When the money runs out, he goes to work on weekends to use the office phone to call her up.
Six months later, he’s back from Paris. He goes to her hometown to meet her. They can’t stop talking for three whole days. Two weeks later, she comes to his house in Bangalore to write an exam and stays for a week. They talk through the night, two nights in a row, sleeping only when their eyes cannot keep up with their minds and their mouths.
A little less than two years later, we got married. One day, when our love was still new, you sat next to me and showed me a phrase from an issue of Reader’s Digest. It was from Robert Browning’s famous poem, Rabbi Ben Ezra. You said to me, “Grow old with me, the best is yet to be”. Every year, we renew that promise and each year you prove to me that growing old with you is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Happy anniversary, Shanthala.
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