Sometimes I think life is but an exploration of love. Love in her many aspects. Love for people, for animals, for things and ideas and memories. All the religions in the world were born from this need, planted deep in the human soul. And because love is varied we have so many paths to the eternal. The wrathful becomes the merciful, the taskmaster turns into a friend. Is it not amazing that there are people who blow themselves up for the love of an ideal? Some rough it out in a tent for the love of a lost home. Some chase knowledge, beauty, truth, compassion, and some others wealth, power, fame. People fight for causes that do not touch their personal lives. And how many people do we know that have sacrificed their entire lives to win a single heart? What is all this yearning, this passion, this frenzy for, if not for that supreme kind of love? The question we need to ask isn’t “Am I living fully?” but rather, “Am I loving deeply?”
My journey of love began when I was five years old. The object of my admiration was a house. Every Sunday afternoon, there were three very happy people—my mother, my sister and I. Mother packed us off to Swati’s house. Swati was my classmate who lived with her grandparents in a mansion overlooking the sea. But the sea was not the main attraction. It was the house which I believed was enchanted. The ancient furniture cast ominous shadows in the unused rooms. It was like getting lost in Alibaba’s cave. The house was designed like a maze, which made it particularly suitable for hide-and-seek. And, every Sunday, the three of us made the most of it for hours together. By the time we were out of Kindergarten, Swati left school and I never figured out how many rooms that house contained.
When I started first grade, I met Shamita and we became the closest friends. Our arms stayed entangled as we chatted on and on about the subjects we loved the most, about this teacher who was a darling and that one who was a witch, about this or that boy who was teasing us. I would look into her large expressive eyes outlined with kajal and see a reflection of myself, a tiny me, devouring her words. Shamita lived with her aunts. She was in the grade above mine. Then, I was learning the alphabet and could not yet string letters together. My first word was the one she scribbled on the sand. After a few false starts I read it as “Motor”, feeling a little guilty for keeping the “h” out. Shamita corrected me. “Mother,” she said, and I repeated after her.
It was not enough to be friends. We needed to pledge to our friendship in a tangible way. We needed to have a secret between us. So, one day we dug a piece of land in the playground, no larger than a child’s fist, and hid our treasure there. Only the two of us would know about it. We had a sizeable booty by then—of shirt buttons, colourful plastic beads, a fragment of a glass bracelet, a well-shaped stone and a seashell. Every time we had a new trophy we went to the playground early and one of us dug hastily, while the other kept watch. I wanted to add my tooth to the loot, but she did not think it was precious enough. I accepted when she reminded me that her nail-polished toenail had failed my scrutiny.
One day I greeted her but she turned away. I had become invisible. I told myself she was unwell, or perhaps someone had scolded her. I could not possibly be the cause of her bad mood. I hushed my troubled heart and waited for the morrow. The next day brought no change. And the next. I knew then it was me. I pestered her but she would not even hint at what I had done. Not to know one’s fault is punishment enough, let alone being aware of the crime. Suddenly, I wondered if her grudge was there to stay. Was she planning to break our friendship forever? Was she jealous that I was showering too much attention on the new girl? Mishty was small and thin, and sickly too. I felt protective towards her, as though she were a pet kitten. Before any race, she became so nervous, she vomited or wet her pants. She never gained weight, although she did tame her nerves. Later, we were to sing this limerick for her:
There was a young lady of Lynn,
Who was so exceedingly thin
That when she essayed
To drink lemonade
She slipped through the straw and fell in.
Days passed but Shamita would not yield. Was she going to let our secret loose too? I ran to the playground and dug up the hole. Everything was gone! I accosted her. This time it was anger.
“How dare you take our treasure? Give back my half.”
“It’s gone. I threw it away.”
“You had the heart?” I asked, tears dancing in my eyes.
Suddenly, she buckled, “We’ll collect it again.”
“Where did you throw it?”
“Here and there.”
She had scattered our friendship in the air. But she was soon forgiven. We reconciled and kept our eyes open for trinkets. I had almost forgotten the intermission in our unbroken love. Then one day, as we played Chinese chequers together, Shamita saw her aunt approaching us. She leapt up and disappeared. I was puzzled. The aunt walked up to me and casually asked, “Did you see Shamita?”
“She was here a minute ago.”
“So, are you her friend?”
“Of course, she is my best friend.”
The next day Shamita looked beaten. “Listen, my aunts have ordered me not to be friends with you and your sister.” She said “you and your sister” as though my sister and I were, for all practical purposes, one person. As far as I knew, my sister, older by eighteen whole months, would not condescend to play with “tots” like us. I asked hopefully, “You mean, you aren’t supposed to be my sister’s friend?”
“And yours too.”
“Because my aunts think you are ill-mannered.”
“I don’t know.”
Maybe she was being polite and spared me the truth. Or perhaps she did not know herself. Anyway, I never found out. I had a hunch though. Mother rode a cycle that had a special seat padded and lengthened to hold us both. While mother ferried us between school and home, we had devised a brilliant game. As we passed by people talking to each other, we eavesdropped on their conversations and repeated it, loudly – I mean really loudly – so that they heard us from a block away, still mimicking them. We screwed our necks around and laughed at their injured looks. Perhaps Shamita’s aunts were victimised. Or worse, our reputation may have made its round in the small-town grapevine. It was a small community of two thousand people, where such non-events could become news. Anyway, Shamita and I had a pact. We would remain friends, but would be wary of her aunts. This new thrill strengthened the bond between us.
Once Shamita and I were standing on the merry-go-round and chatting when it started rotating. We wanted to jump down but it was already too late. Alarmed, we looked around and found Amit and his gang of hooligans spinning the merry-go-round. They sneered at us as we screamed at the top of our voices. Soon the cries turned into desperate sobs. My hands started sweating. If I was going to slip I would become a human rocket. And if I hit the wall, I would not remain human for long. We screamed and screamed for what seemed like a lifetime. Then the whirlwind abated. Somebody had saved us. It was Raja, Shamita’s classmate. He was the bully of all bullies, but in a good way, like Robin Hood. He could stand on the topmost bar of the jungle gym – stand straight I mean – balancing on the thin metal bars. His hands free. I imagined one day he would reach up and pluck a cloud from the sky. I felt dizzy half way up that jungle gym. So I knew exactly how much courage it took to pull that feat off.
But others thought it was cheek. Master-da, for example. He was the head of our Physical Education Department. Once a pehelwan wrestler, he had participated in the Indian freedom struggle too. By the time we got to know him, he was on a downhill slope. His strong frame swayed on his bowed legs as he made his way through the playground. We followed the tradition of wishing him, “Namaste Master-da,” and he answered back in Bengali, “Nomoshkar,” no doubt thinking it was Sanskrit. Once when we were having groundnuts that were attacked by ants, he said, “Bachhalog badaam bach kar khao, andar me pipilika hain,” (“Children, choose the groundnuts carefully, there are ants inside them”), spoken in a blend of Hindi, Sanskrit and Bengali. As crazy luck would have it, once or twice when Master-da passed by, freezing every child into respectful attention, Raja was busy teaching one of the bullies a lesson. The bully’s wails caught Master-da’s ears and Raja was given a gutta—a masala knock on the head. Master-da’s guttas were notorious. Only a seasoned head like Raja’s could withstand them. He survived quite a few of those guttas without flinching. Something must have told him he was right. Master-da did not ask why the bully was being punished. If he had seen us girls crying that day, trapped in that infernal merry-go-round he would have given Amit the gutta.
After a few of these encounters, Raja was expelled from school. For being the most upright and intrepid kid for miles around. We were shocked. How could Master-da do it without knowing the facts? Why didn’t the adults ask us? We would have all sided with Raja. His mother begged on her knees to have him pardoned. There were just mothers in the small-town. His father worked far away in the city, just like mine, so he could not come to beg. Raja joined a school where the rich and spoilt kids went. Their fathers, ethnic Indians, were granted French citizenship because they had fought against the Indian government, alongside the French. All it meant was easy passage to France and a hefty pension. They, nor their brats, had to work. They lived off the French tax payers. Wherever they went, there were rumours of drugs and alcohol abuse. Eve-teasing was their favourite sport. They had noisy motorbikes. We hardly saw Raja as he avoided our school district. His older sister and brother were in our school and I can imagine he grew up with considerable tension; perhaps cruel taunts. The grapevine said they saw him whizz past in a motorbike—the first sin. Soon someone imagined one would spy a cigarette between his lips and then a lass in the back seat. That would spell his absolute doom. The end of the respectable family of two good children and a dutiful mother. When he was twenty, Raja disappeared from home. For years, the family lied. “He has joined his dad in the business,” they’d say. Finally, when the mother was dying of cancer, they printed notices in newspapers asking, requesting, beseeching Raja to return, just for once. Maybe she wanted to apologise. But her last prayer remained unanswered.
Coming back to Shamita. We were playing kabaddi—thirty ten-year-olds, boys and girls, alike in shape, spindly legs jutting out of green shorts and white sleeveless banyans over chests where our ribs could be counted. Shamita ran into the opponent’s court repeating, “Kabaddi, kabaddi.” The crowd swarmed around her and she flayed her arms. Whoever she touched would be out, unless they prevented her from reaching her side of the court before losing her breath. Suddenly, we heard a ripping sound. Dead silence followed. Then we heard Shamita whimper, hiding her face in her hands, tears sliding down her cheeks. The coach came running, “Was anyone hurt?” Nobody was hurt, only a large piece of Shamita’s banyan was hanging down, exposing a part of her back. There was a tiny hole in the fabric and someone had poked their finger into it and ripped it apart. Just for fun. The boy who did it looked stunned. “It just gave way…” he stammered, “I did not mean to…” But why did he pry his fingers into it? Was Shamita ashamed her banyan had a hole? Did it expose more than her body? Perhaps the fact that she was not well off? But others had holes in their banyans, too. My banyan alternated from being yellow with age, and blue when mother washed it with neel.
The next day the boy’s parents sent a new banyan and Shamita was made to accept it in front of everyone. The incident should have ended there. In a few days our vacation began and I said goodbye to Shamita. We would have to live through another annoying interlude in our friendship, just as we had done twice before. We were still too young to start writing letters. “But really,” we consoled each other, “one and a half month will simply fly by.”
On the first day of the new session I pushed through the crowd of children, eveyone talking about the vacation all at once. I circled back to the first lot of kids and went around again. Shamita was not there. Why was she not looking for me? Was it her aunts’ order again? Finally, I found a coach and asked her if she had seen Shamita. The coach was busy attending to some kid who didn’t know how to buckle his shorts. She answered casually, “Shamita has left school.”
I repeated the words, dazed, “Shamita…has left school?”
“Yes, she is not going to come back.”
Nobody had cared to inform me. Or prepare me for the shock. I felt lonely standing amidst the joyous crowd. I was abandoned by my friend, by adults, by society, by love. For weeks, I roamed around like a deflated balloon, dragging myself, trying to laugh. I looked at the spot on the ground under which our treasure lay. I didn’t feel like touching it. It was our friendship that was buried there. I would let it rest forever.
It was then that I started imagining I had a special friend, a fairy, complete with wand and wings. I talked to her and shoved her under the bed whenever Mother came into the room. Adults did not belong in my world. Sometimes I asked the fairy to fly to Shamita and find out if she was alright. Did she like her new school? Did she have good friends? Did she think about me? Did she miss me? Shortly after, we were shown a film: Born Free. It was a movie about a tiger cub found in the wild. Its mother had died and the little one was raised by humans. The cub’s name was Elsa. So, my fairy would be Elsa too. I have a feeling I actually craved a live playmate such as a tiger cub, but Elsa, the fairy, would work till then.
Shamita’s older aunt worked in the community dispensary. When I graduated from college and was leaving town, I gathered courage and walked up to her,
“Good morning, I am Lopa. I used to be Shamita’s friend.”
“Oh, you are Lopa?” she exclaimed amiably, much to my relief. My sister and I had stopped that game of mimicry ages ago and it was only fair to give us a second chance.
“Shamita asks after you.”
“She does?” My heart was filled with gratitude. “Where is she?”
“She is doing her masters in chemistry.”
I was delighted, “I am going to do my masters too—in physics.”
Another decade passed by. One day back in my small-town I met the younger aunt—the one who had accosted me a long time ago, wanting to know if I were Shamita’s friend. Several of us were peeling eggs at the students’ mess, where we joined hands as volunteers. She was standing right next to me. I didn’t introduce myself, nor did I speak to anyone else. I tried to be as invisible as possible.
Suddenly, the aunt asked, “Aren’t you Lopa?”
She made me jump. “Yes,” I mumbled.
“Weren’t you Shamita’s best friend?”
I looked at her across all those years—and forgave her. As a child, I used to imagine adults had a lot of power. They could make and break people at will. Like she stole Shamita away from me, from this school, like she broke our hearts. But as we sat cracking the eggs together, as two adults, I knew better. She was trying to raise somebody else’s child, when she was just a child herself. Two lone women with a little girl, against a world of men.
I nodded, “Yes, I was Shamita’s best friend. Where is she now?”
“In Bardhaman. She just had a daughter.”
I saw a girl of ten, strands of hair across her forehead, an orange gown hanging down to her heels, platform shoes, and a diamond-shaped bindi. She was elegant – a lady – even as a child. As I looked up at her from the bottom of the stairs, she turned around and waved goodbye. This is how we used to part after the recess breaks. I adored her, my fairy. Love in her many aspects had cheated me many times, and perhaps had many more games to play. But at that moment, in the kitchen, I was at peace. I had aged, but Shamita would remain ten forever.