School was the same as always. Except for the joyous screams of the class, mostly obligatory. And the pats on the back too hard, birthday bashes we fondly called them. They were many more than would have been usual. It wasn’t because I was so much more popular. Although that could be it. Popularity after all is the result.
Aniya and I started school together. Were always in the same class. As inseparable in school as we were at home. Always together. Aniya, being the girl she was, was high in the list of popularity. Especially with the boys. Their envy of me was thus obvious. I knew this with certainty, because Aniya made it her job to find out about all such, and share them with me. It was our favourite topic for discussion over the weekend nights. Just how many were jealous of me, over her.
It was my birthday, and despite their happiness for me as friends, they wouldn’t let the chance go by when they could act on their suppressed feelings. Beat me up with Aniya looking quietly. It was the only day of the year when they could get away with it. As it turned out, none were tiring of it even to the end of the day. Every time the teacher would look away, toward the board, out the window, into the book in hand, a low thud would crack at the silence, followed immediately by hushed snickers. By the end of the day Aniya had moved from stoic silence, to held in anger to slight amusement. All the while, holding my hand in true spirit of untiring companionship.
The end of the day couldn’t have come quicker, couldn’t have been more welcome. It did come with the final birthday bumps which involved a bunch of guys lifting me off the ground, holding me up while everyone got their kicks in. The cheer that accompanied the bumps was unforgettable. Masking my yelps at each painful kick. And when they finally let me off, it was to the dismay of Aniya’s stern disapproval. There was only so much hurt she was going to allow.
“Let’s go,” she said, taking my hand as she led us out where our dads were waiting.
Twice a year they would both be waiting at the gate after school. Today was one of the two occasions. When we were younger, we would go running up to them, leaping into their open arms, wailing in joy as they lifted us off our feet in a whirl. We were too old for that now. I certainly was.
“Let’s get out of here,” Aniya ordered, getting straight into the car, but not before pushing me in. Neither dad nor uncle said anything, quietly following orders. The women of our families were strong, especially mom. And mom couldn’t have a better student than Aniya.
“The bumps?” uncle asked, earning a grunt from Aniya in reply. “Bad?” he asked, giving me a sympathetic smile.
A quiet shrug accompanied by small shaking of my head was the reply. “Slightly worse than last year.”
“Only slightly?” she asked, angry at me for having spoken wrong.
“Come on honey, that’s no way to be a good wife,” dad pitched in, throwing Aniya off completely. “At least our dear Ani should get a good wife, don’t you think so?”
As she went quiet, uncle burst out laughing. And just like that everything changed. School was forgotten. Aniya’s anger left behind. We were rushing home. Change, and we would be off. To the party, the dinner that defined the birthday celebration.
School rules allowed for dressing out of uniform on birthdays, but I stuck to the uniform. Which was why, the first thing to do reaching home was to rush to my room, shower, and change into the clothes we’d bought me for the birthday. It was one of mom’s rules, that dad and everyone else agreed with readily. On birthdays and special occasions we would be in new clothes. It was thus no wonder that each of us had overflowing cupboards. Mine was mostly jeans, and tees. All of which were liked by all, especially Aniya. She was the one who had the final say on what I was to buy and wear. The clothes this year had taken especially longer to decide. The whole Saturday, we were in the mall. All six of us running about the stores, hardly a tee or a pair of jeans that went by un-judged. The last hour all had given up, resting with coffee. It was just Aniya and I still standing. She stood by the trial room door, handing me the final shortlists to try on. We were the last at the billing counter, probably the last to leave the mall. The last of our energy having deserted us long back. But we were happy. We had bought my birthday clothes. And none was more pleased than Aniya. And none more tired than the pair of us. Getting into the back of the car, we collapsed on each other, lost to the world as we slept.
Following an especially short shower, I was out putting on the new tee and jeans that mom had laid out on my bed. I wasn’t the most handsome boy I had ever seen, but even I loved what I saw in the mirror. I looked good. Was it because of the grin on my face? The happiness I seemed to be drowning in? Whatever it was, I certainly wasn’t the same as everyday. I would have spent longer, trying to figure out what was different if Aniya hadn't come waltzing in. She had changed into matching light blue jeans and tee, the exact same shade of blue as mine. Though not as new. It was my first pair of torn jeans, so very like the many pairs that filled her cupboard, and the exact replica as the one she was wearing.
“Don’t we look adorable?” she asked, as she joined me at the mirror, twisting into the posture from one of her favourite posters.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Such an adorable pair.”
“Couple,” she corrected, in a soft whisper just loud enough for the two of us, mimicking dad’s tone.
A good laugh followed. At the end of which she took my hand, her fingers closing around mine tightly, as always leading us down. As was tradition, the gifts were handed before we left for dinner. I knew what I was getting, mostly. Dad had bought me the Waterman fountain pen we had been pouring over last month at his favourite pen store. Dad had a love for pens that could rival any other, his collection nearing thousand. Mom had got me an unlimited subscription with the electronic library I loved. So very like her. She knew me the best, even better than Aniya. But then she was my mom, who can possibly beat her.
Uncle and aunt had got me a year’s worth of sodexo passes, essentially plugging the biggest drain of my pocket money. Of course they knew that the greater part of the coupons would be Aniya’s. They were her parents after all, who could know her better.
Last was Aniya’s. The one I was waiting for with the most anticipation. To be met with empty hands, a smile reaching the ends of the universe, and a tall shrug. Walking over, hugging hard, she whispered her present. Only for my ears. And it was the best. Hugging her back, harder, was my appreciation. My acceptance.
“Ok love birds, we should get started now.”
It was aunt who spoke, beating dad to the punch and surprising everyone. We all broke out laughing, even more at the embarrassed shade of pink Aniya and I were in. If only they knew.
“Alright, let’s go,” Aniya agreed, leading everyone to the car.
Reaching over, mom pulled me close. She smiled her question, and I answered with the tiniest nod and a smaller smile, reaching around her to let her know it couldn’t be better. I couldn’t be better. That was more than mom could ask for. Pulling me impossibly closer, kissing my head lightly, she led me along.