It was a busy Sunday morning at the zoo. Many people had come to see the new animals that were up for display. Among the new additions, was a prickle of porcupines. Porcupines, mostly nocturnal, were annoyed by the sunlight and attention showered upon them. With help from a group of young volunteers, the zoo staff constructed a wooden hut inside the enclosure to keep the porcupines.
There are kids who decide early what they want to be when they grow up. Then, there are kids, like me, who dread going to the barber because they don’t even want to decide the kind of haircut they want. Luckily, growing up I had to pick between short and medium haircuts.
Celebrations were in full swing as India turned 50. Schools, in particular, had elaborate plans. My school declared that the whole week leading to the 50th independence day would be celebrated. Each day there were events, competitions and the tricolor was everywhere on the campus. Tuesdays had a library period. We would sit at one of the long tables in the center of the library. Usually, the librarian asked us to pick books and read them for rest of the period. At the end, we would get that book issued for a week. I knew where my favorite books were. I had a sense of how books were categorized in the library. I had helped the librarian organize them once. I enjoyed reading and books were exciting.
However, that Tuesday, we had an art competition. It must’ve been told but I rarely remember such things. Some kids came prepared with crayons. Perhaps, the same kind of kids that know what they want to be. Perhaps, the kind that use multiple colors to write answers in exams. One for headings, another for answer and a special one to highlight things. I resorted to diagrams when I knew an answer very well. Otherwise, diagrams filled the space that an answer should have occupied but hasn’t. So, these kids started to draw. Since, the theme was Independence, they drew the Red Fort, soldiers, flags, and celebration.
The problem with art competitions is that they are, well, competitions. Their aim is to declare one expression better than the rest. Actually, it is difficult to compare expressions. Such competitions wouldn’t work if one kid draws a circle and another draws a square. So, they introduce themes and criteria must be set. This is a way of telling everyone to draw a square so they can be compared. We do not accept creativity without comparing. It would be overwhelming if kids were allowed to express. Art, dance, and even noise are medium.
I sat blank. All I could think of was a picture of Mahatma Gandhi from my Hindi text book. It was from a story by Gandhi. He didn’t have a watch so he used to guess time by looking at clouds. As with all guesses, it worked against him one day. He was late to school. He was punished despite telling the truth. One of his many experiments with truth.
Once, I was slapped despite being honest. It was reasonable, I thought, until a slap met my cheek and virtues met life. In fact, I was so convinced, that I had walked up to the teacher to explain that I couldn’t do homework because some guests visited us. They were in town to meet their relatives and we had to accompany them. We returned home very late and so, there was no time for homework.
“So, your relatives stopped you from doing homework?” She yelled and slapped me.
I returned to my desk with humiliation and confusion. Unlike Gandhi, I didn’t experiment with truth further. I stuck to lying whenever needed.
In the library, I started to draw Gandhi’s portrait. I had drawn it earlier, it started to look surprisingly well. The otherwise quiet and strict librarian watched over my shoulder. Then, she taught me how to shade the cheekbones. With a small piece of paper, she taught me how to smudge. I used that technique on the cheeks, the ear and forehead. Soon, there was a fair amount of interest in my drawing. Many stood around me watching as I gave finishing touches to the portrait. I felt happy and amazed that it turned out so good. When the time was over, we headed to our classroom. On the way back, I held the sketch with pride, occasionally stopping to show it to students.
A couple of days later, results were announced. Prizes were given for the first, then second and third place. Then, a number of consolation prizes were distributed. These were tiny gift wrapped boxes, just big enough to hold a light bulb. I didn’t get one. I don’t know why. Sometimes, I think they thought I cheated. Then, I think it was because they wanted colored drawings. Mine was a black and white pencil sketch. Maybe, the ear was disproportionately big, as our neighbor had pointed out. Maybe it was judged by people like my neighbor. I didn’t want a prize, but a consolation never hurts.
Eleven years had passed since I saw her last. So much had changed since. In fact, everything should have changed but didn’t. Isn’t that how time is supposed to work? I still wanted to know her.
I would appear a different person to those who knew me in school. Now, I talk more, fighting hesitations for good. I had amusing stories to fill conversations. More importantly, I realized that if you just listen to people they’ll feel the conversation was great. Humor was my best friend. Sarcasm helped say things while keeping a guard on feelings. I preferred facts over opinions. Actually, I avoided saying what I felt, until that day.
I had geared enough courage to ask her to meet. We were strangers acting as friends. She didn’t like me. Nothing close to a certain boyfriend who kept calling her. While she talked, I wondered what to say next. Kept reminding myself to not startle her with questions. We took turns asking and answering. Bouts of awkward silence threatened to bring an abrupt end to the meet.
“It was nice to see you,” she said.
Here it ends, I panicked, “Really?”
“Yes!” She shouted.
“Would you have preferred to spend this time with someone else?” That silence lasted for an eternity or two.
“I still remember your house and phone number. Those days, phone numbers were six digits. But even if they were twenty, I would have.” As I spoke, with little doubt and exacting details, she looked puzzled by this turn of events. I knew I had a couple of minutes.
I still remember her birthday, school bag and details which I decided not to mention, fearing it’d sound creepy. Back in school days, if you liked someone you wanted to know everything about them. You had to rely on your ability to memorize, there was no Internet. If you didn’t have anything to note, you kept repeating it until you can’t forget. This is how alphabets and number tables were taught. Perhaps, that is how I remember all this about her. Sadly, nobody taught how to forget. I miss not memorizing things now. However, these days I can start forgetting by deleting them from my computer or a website. Out of sight, out of mind. This couldn’t be done for this case.
“When I won my first debate you congratulated me. Since then, anything I write had to be good enough to deserve that handshake. By the way, I won a lot of them. Remember the Annual Day at school? We were made to do those stupid drills, everyone wanted to skip. I’d go to the art room. Once you sneaked in there. I was making giant red letter boxes for a play. I made you glue them together. You couldn’t notice but I had written your name on them. Clearly, the silliest thing ever done. Life isn’t half that fun now.
When you broke the net in tennis court. You kept crying while Kajal smudged all over your face. The stupid sports teacher shouted at you and called your parents. I wanted to hurt him but couldn’t decide why.”
Like always, I had no clue what she was thinking. So I continued.
“One day, we’re stuck in traffic. Then I saw you, standing on the scooter deck, in a blue saree. Must have been the first time you wore a saree. You looked wonderful. Later, when someone asked what my favorite color was, I’d say blue. I’d come up with these excuses to call you. Genius excuses by my standards. While rehearsals went smooth, calls met a fate worse than death.”
Finally, she smiled.
“I remember this day when stuck in traffic, I kept staring at you. You noticed and waved goodbye. I didn’t know what to do. I turned around as if looking for the person you were waving to! You made me act stupid. But pretending to look for someone that I wanted to be, I figured what I didn’t want to hear from you.
That is exactly what I came here to say. Goodbye!”
Can fear be squashed like a bug?
Here’s a short story I wrote. In an Abilene paradox a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many (or all) of the individuals in the group. Sometimes, the phrase “Road to Abilene” is also used to refer to this.