The little boy clutched his mother’s hand more firmly as the school loomed in front of him. He didn’t like this idea one bit, but at the same time, he didn’t want to protest or play tantrums like some of the other children. The massive three-storied ivory white structure seemed to threateningly grow in size with his every step towards it. The man in khaki standing outside the iron gates, with his widespread moustache and three-day stubble, appeared to have his eyes fixed on the small boy. The lane was made one-way during the start and close of academic days at the school. School vans, autorickshaws and other vehicles thronged and jammed the road, creating and intensifying commotion. He could see boys and girls of all age coming in cars of all models. There was something different about them. He could see himself apart even from the children of his own age, though he quite couldn’t figure out how, or why. The dress was the same, but it was the only thing that agreed. His mother was wearing an old and cheap Co-optex sari, while the other mothers were wearing bright flashy dresses of all sorts; he guessed they should be mothers on seeing how the little boys and girls were holding on to them as he did onto his.
Holding his mother’s hand strongly, he entered the school premises, dressed in the new uniform prescribed by the school and carrying a small bag strapped across his little shoulders. There was a small temple to his right. The first son of Lord Shiva sat motionless amid coloured stone bowls of all his favourite delicacies made appetisingly with the same stone. Behind his elephantine head was an aureole of divine yellow. Bringing his palms together and closing his small eyes, the boy prayed to the idol what every child entering school for the first time would naturally pray for. After a brief attempt to silently cantillate a half-remembered prayer taught by his mother, he turned to her side. His mother bent down in front of him and kissed him on his cheeks. She slipped her hand into his trouser pocket and ensured that it contained a neatly folded napkin – just like how well-bred children went about. Having said all about how to behave, for the umpteenth time, she kissed him again. Tears rolled down her cheeks, and on seeing this, he could no longer contain his. Having hugged her, he took the step. The step towards what everyone called ‘the future’, another that he didn’t understand.
The car slowed down and stopped right in front of the school gate. The little girl in the front passenger seat opened the door on her side, but didn’t get down; she was afraid to jump down. Her father stepped down from behind the wheel, went round to her side of the car and lifted her. He seated her gently on his right forearm crossed against his chest. The little girl’s mother, in the last few days of her twenties, sat still in the back of the car busy checking her face in a handheld mirror produced from her Helen Kaminski designer handbag. She stepped out only after attaining a narcissistic satisfaction from the reflection in the mirror.
The girl could see boys and girls of about her height enveloped in a dress like her own. She sensed something was wrong. On entering the premises, and after scrutinising the bold letters of the school name etched on the front wall of the building, she understood where her parents had brought her. The comprehension made her wail uncontrollably. Her mother, on the trail of her husband, couldn’t stand the thought that her daughter was crying against joining school. She turned her disapproving eyes away.
After efforts by her father and a teacher who happened to pass by, the little girl was finally put to silence, though she didn’t lose the look of contempt for the place.
A group of teachers who seemed to be in charge of the new arrivals called out names, and she noticed boys and girls joining long lines reserved according to sex. She was taken by one of the teachers to the ground where many of her age were already standing, looking at each other strangely. The matrix contained three lines for boys and two for girls. Since she had made it at the final minute she was put in the last line of the girls’ section. Next to her line was the first of the boys`. Not knowing what to do, she turned to her right. The boy standing beside her was calm, unlike many others. He was just staring in front of him. She followed his line of sight to see a woman clad in a sari that looked like it had often been worn by her in the past. She guessed it must be the boy’s mother, and wondered if he didn’t miss her.
And that was how Aarthi met Shiva.
Once all the children were grouped into sections of two, they were led to their classes by their respective class teachers. Everyone was silent and felt uncomfortable in the company of one another. Aarthi was silently weeping while moving with the swarm of other schoolchildren. Shiva was watching her closely. Next to him was a girl of nearly his height. She was dressed in the regular school uniform of a red-and-white checked shirt tucked into a red skirt. Her hair was tied into two little pigtails reaching her shoulders. Increasing his pace a little, he went forward and set his eyes on her small-featured face. She had thin eyebrows over two shiny, pitch black irises and a dominating hooked nose. Her lips were trembling, and tears were rolling down her rosy cheeks. The pink circles on her cheeks looked prominent due to her fair complexion; it seemed as if they had just been painted by a brush. A strand of hair was hanging loosely over her forehead, detached from the neatly combed hairline and forming a curve between her two eyebrows. But he didn’t know why she was crying, that too after reaching first grade.
Having been taken to the class, they were asked to sit down in little plastic chairs laid in an orderly manner. They were of all colours, and Shiva took a bright red one. On turning back, he found he was the only person sitting in the classroom. All others were staring at the room as though they had been brought to a haunted house. When the children finally developed the courage to occupy the chairs, he found his neighbour to be Aarthi.
The teacher said she would be recording the attendance the first thing every morning. Little Shiva knew what it was; he simply had to raise his hand when his name was called out. He had learnt this in a small unauthorised school behind his house where he had done his kindergarten among children of his type – children in the presence of whom he had never felt out of place. The class teacher, a lean and tall lady, opened a long, bound book and ran her finger through the length of a page. She began calling out names.
‘Aarthi,’ she called out at the top of her voice, craning her neck to see who would be answering the call. The girl sitting next to Shiva, he noticed, started crying suddenly, and this time very violently; he couldn’t understand why. The teacher came running towards her and consoled her. It was a part of her occupation – something that happened at the beginning of every academic year. When the girl had finally settled she was asked if her name was Aarthi, to which she nodded. Aren’t you just supposed to raise your hand when your name is called out? Shiva wondered silently. The teacher, having resumed her seat, put a tick across Aarthi’s name and went on calling the other names. Shiva turned and saw his classmates answering their calls, differently. They were saying ‘Yes, ma’am,’ and ‘Present, ma’am,’ he observed. He wondered how he must answer when his name was called out – his mother hadn’t advised him on that. When the teacher reached his name, his hand shot up involuntarily; he didn’t know what to say but. The teacher gave him a smile and resumed her calling.
Classes didn’t commence that day. Two teachers, out of the four they had, came and introduced themselves, and asked the students to do the same. Shiva couldn’t help noticing Aarthi’s face every time she gave her introduction. It was consistently dull. The bell for the lunch break rang at eleven sharp. The teacher who was handling that hour asked everyone to have their lunch and left promptly.
Shiva could see lunchboxes being opened. They were in all colours and shapes. He put his hand into his bag and took out his. It was a round stainless steel box. He turned towards Aarthi, not wanting to open it immediately. She was looking down at her hands resting on her lap.
‘Aren’t you going to eat?’ he asked, more out of curiosity than of concern. She turned towards him slowly. Her eyes were still wet. He didn`t know what to say, so he simply repeated the question.
‘I don’t want to,’ she replied. And just as such she resumed her pose.
‘But… you have got to,’ Shiva said, now more out of concern. His precocious attitude towards his neighbour was against the nature of his age. Unlike his classmates, who were playing tantrums true to their mental development, Shiva was overly serious – not only this time – but on a daily basis. We can’t know if it was either the familial problems he had to experience at such an early age or whether it was a hereditary characteristic derived from his mother’s line that had hardened the child beyond his age, but what remains for us to grasp without question is his extraordinary psychology, which we will continue to explore throughout his life.
Aarthi again turned to face him. He seemed to be the only mature boy of his age in the whole classroom. There were children jumping and running all around, and she could even see a boy pulling the tress of a girl sitting in front of him. But here was a boy, acting more matured and understanding. She could even feel his concern for her in his voice. Being highly self-opinionated and money-minded her mother moved amongst people whom she called ‘her kind’. In the height of her snobbery, she felt she was superior to all but her elite class, which consisted of minds very similar to hers. Aarthi really never took to her mother. She found her father’s company more satisfying than anything; now she was missing it badly. And next to her was a boy whom she felt herself relating to her father.
’Why aren’t you eating?’ Aarthi asked.
Shiva felt difficult to answer that, and so smiled in reply.
‘Let’s eat together then,’ Aarthi said, visibly jubilant, a smile entering her face for the first time that day. She opened her pink bag that had a Barbie face projecting out of its front cover. Shiva saw Aarthi take out her lunchbox. It was oblong in shape, and of the same pink colour. He liked it and kept looking at it. Though he knew his mother couldn’t afford such luxuries he didn’t complain; he simply understood. Only when he came out of his established boundaries did he see how different the rest of the world was. He observed not all fathers were drunkards like his. He observed the peace and unity in every household unlike his, where not a day went by without his father triggering off a bitter quarrel out of every lousy excuse possible. All his mother would ask of his father was to find a job, and all he would do in response was to shout and verbally abuse her, disquieting her mind to the point of vexation. The boy would stare at this daily ritual, holding his mother’s hand; but surprisingly, such conditions of his survival didn’t develop in his mind any resentment towards his father. He loved both his parents equally.
‘Aren’t you eating with me?’ Aarthi’s pleasant voice dropped into his mind, bombarding his thoughts.
‘Oh, yes,’ he replied, waking up. He opened his lunch box hesitantly. The boy sitting to his right stopped eating and stared at Shiva’s box with his mouth full. His look was strange, and slowly he started to laugh, not taking his eyes off the box. Shiva felt very uncomfortable and turned towards Aarthi. He was surprised to find her taking a spoonful of his Upma. She took the spoon to her mouth and en route spilled some of the food. She started laughing at it, and without any meaning, dropped the spoon into his box and hugged him from her seat.
It was the second time that day someone had hugged him affectionately. He could understand the first one, but this... he wasn`t sure. All he was certain of was that it was filled with the same affection and warmth that he felt with his mother. After what seemed like an eternity, little Aarthi let him out of her grip and started giggling. Shiva looked at her, completely astounded. He realised there was something beautiful about her at that moment; a beauty that he could compare with that of his mother. He remained staring at her, dissolved in her sudden outburst of vivacity. He would later refer to this moment as his first ever tenaciously formed memory; like an indelible pickle stain on a white shirt.
‘Eat now,’ she said.
Shiva obeyed; still not out from the all-of-a-sudden act of his neighbour. He felt special.
The periods that followed were all introductory classes. And when at last the clock above the blackboard struck two-thirty the bell rang, replacing order with chaos throughout the primary school building. The teacher in charge gave instructions that weren’t listened to, and left the class. Aarthi packed her bag and stood up, looking at the first and only friend she had made that day. Shiva followed her lead and got up. She caught hold of his hand and started walking towards the doors with a cheery demeanour, exactly the opposite of how she had walked through them in the morning. Shiva wondered if the reason for the characteristic change was him.
They walked slowly, each detesting the thought of breaking the other’s company. Having reached the grounds they could see parents standing in front of the open gates, all invariably carrying an effulgent smile and waiting to receive their respective wards. Some children found their parents quickly while the rest of the children were found. On nearing the crowd, Aarthi turned to Shiva and bade him goodbye, still holding his hand. He returned the farewell, not wanting to, and somewhat sure that that was the case on her side too. She slowly loosened her grip on him, both physically and emotionally.
Shiva went in search of his mother and found her easily – as the odd one in the crowd. Aarthi ran towards her father who hadn’t spotted her yet.
She didn’t know she had changed a life forever.