They were in the same class. In my class.
She was the quintessential behenji in a hip crowd. Plaited hair, salwar-kameez and a sharp brain. In accordance with her curd-rice genes, she took copious notes, had a near-perfect attendance record and consistently high grades. She told me once that her ambition was to become like ‘one of those Matunga Tamilians’.
She meant the kind that preened in a new kanjeevaram at every wedding, pattu-recital, arangaitram and poonal-ceremony. The ones that shopped in Matunga market and had kaapi at Madras Bhavan. The ones whose accent bespoke Tam-Bram-Americana. The ones who worked for multinational software companies in Silicon Valley. Or married someone who did. I didn’t like her. I never liked wannabes and the ruthlessly ambitious ones always scared me. Her obsession with the pinnacle of real TamBramhood bothered me.
He was Mr.EasyGoing. One of the many small-town boys who made it big by getting a toe-hold in Mumbai, starting with a college admission. He hated mathematics but managed it better than several of his classmates, owing to his engineering background. Engineering in something quite unfashionable like…instrumentation? Textiles? I forget, it didn’t bear remembering anyway. He was dazzled by the glamour of Bollywood, the smartly dressed girls around, the flashy cars and cool clothes that his Mumbai peers owned. He had a rustic wide-eyed charm along with the sweet modesty of someone who knows he is just a moth in a crowd of butterflies. I liked him. Everyone did.
It seemed symbiotic. She was authoritative, demanding and bossy. He followed her around meekly, doing her bidding, snapping to her orders. And things always turned out well with high marks for everyone. We called him her P.A. Only because we liked him too much to call him the more realistic-but-demeaning ‘puppy-dog’. He bore it in good humour, as he did everything, smiling shyly. And all was well.
An entire year later, we had moved on to more serious things than other people’s admirers. Ardent admirers had metamorphosed into abusive boyfriends, cheating rogues and impossible cads. I looked across the canteen to her, a tinge of envy in my gaze. She had always had him right under her thumb and she wasn’t even that nice! And he was devoted to her.
Later that evening, I wandered back into the canteen for a quick bite and to pore over my books in solitude. The library was always too crowded and charged up with nervous adolescent tension during the exam fever. The canteen, emptied of its regular raucous crowd (now frequenting the library) was the peaceful haven I needed to concentrate.
As I sipped my tea, I looked across to the few occupied tables. They were sitting at a table in the corner. I would have moved on, except he spotted me and waved. So I waved back. And shouted a HI! across to both of them. Oddly enough, neither responded.
She had her head down on the table and turned away from me. I thought I could lip-read him telling her that he was speaking to me and that she might look up any minute. She didn’t. With a surge of annoyance at her impossible rudeness, I looked back into my book. Then he called out my name. I looked up to see him frantically gesturing for him to come over. What a bother.., I sighed and shut my books.
As I walked the few feet over I suddenly had a premonition that something was terribly wrong. He wasn’t smiling. And she sat stone-cold in her seat, head down like she was dead. Only when I neared their table close enough to sit down did I hear the soft anguished voice. I had to force her head up from the table. She looked awful. Hair awry and eyes swollen, alarmingly red. And a voice like I had never heard before. She was murmuring,
He says he is going to leave me. He says he is leaving. I asked him why did you say you loved me? He says he was just joking. And he is leaving.
I looked up at him, frank embarrassment at being privy to a private conversation. And I was startled by something I had never seen on his face before. It was cruelty. Sheer, cold cruelty. He was cutting her up with a knife and he knew it. It was deliberate. And then, before my eyes, Mr.Nice Guy cooly got up, dusted his palms and walked out of the canteen.
For an hour I sat with her, a girl I had never liked, while she poured her heart out to me about the crimes of a guy I thought of as a jolly good fellow. The dreams, the hopes, the expectations – everything that had lain under the ruthless ambition. All her drive and zeal to do well. Her plan to carry both of them out of their lower-middle-class status. The gargantuan family expectations that they had to fight to do what they wanted one day. And just before the very end, just before the final exams, he had cut her out. He hadn’t meant a word of it. It had all been a sham. And she was devastated.
The first exam was the next morning. I kept a watch on the door, wondering if she would make it. She did. Face badly puffy, she drifted in unobtrusively. And across the room he sat, laughing and joking with his friends like nothing had happened. He didn’t bat an eyelid as she walked in, deeply wounded dignity intact and sat down in the seat in front of him. And then the test began.
In the second week of the exams, he was seen chatting up two girls from the other class. And by next month it was rumored that he was seeing one of them. The P.A. joke faded out and was never raked up again, even while other mortifying love tales were dug up at every alumnus meet.
But something shifted for all of us in that one month. All the boys from her “I’m a tomboy!” days seemed to be saying with their sneering glances, “It served her right.”
And what about the girls? She had never had any friends among us. We never discussed it across our cliques and no one ever said anything to her. But none of us ever spoke to him again.
She graduated with top marks and found her footing in a job-tough market. Marriage happened a year back, to another man of her own choice. Of him, I know nothing more and have no desire to, any further. It’s good to want something and wonderful to get what you want; just not at the cost of stepping on someone else’s toes – or heart.
She once introduced herself on stage with –
When it rains, I feel the rain.
The others just get wet.
Perhaps she never knew that there were people who would hold out an umbrella for her. But then again, she probably didn’t need it. Real women don’t cry – they just feel the rain on their faces.