It was the twenty fifth of June, 1996. Ria woke up early, excited to start her day at her new school. Her father had got a transfer and had moved to Bangalore earlier that month. She had taken an instant liking to their new locality. It was in the outskirts of the city and there was lush greenery all around. There was not much traffic. They lived in a little township that was self-sufficient with a school, hospital, movie theatres etc.
Her mother wanted to take her to school on the first day, but her father had always wanted her to be independent. So Ria rode her bicycle to school right from the first day. She reached the big gates of her not so big school and took a deep breath. She entered and parked her cycle in the parking lot and searched for her classroom. It was on the first floor and it was nice and big and well lit from huge windows which also provided scenic breaks during a boring class. Ria loved it right away. She took the first seat in the middle row and sat down.
Five minutes later, the other students started pouring in. A tall thin girl with long braids sat next to Ria and smiled at her. “Hi I am Adila”, she said. Ria smiled at her. “I am Ria. I am new here”. “Yeah I noticed. You’ve joined quite late. You’ve got lots to catch up on”.
“Oh I know. I was wondering if you could brief me on everything”.
“Sure”, she said and smiled.
A group of very noisy boys entered the class and one of them pulled Adila’s braid. “Grow up guys”, she said annoyed.
“Hey, who is this?”, asked a tall dark guy leaning on the desk in front of Ria. “I am Ria”, she said smiling.
“Newbie?”, he asked trying to sound cool. Ria nodded. “Where you from?”, he asked.
“I am from Calcutta”, she replied. “Hmmm…. Calcutta. You a Bengali?”, he asked.
“No. I am basically a south Indian, but my parents were there for a very long time. We moved to Bangalore just a couple of weeks ago”
“Oh nice. My name Sandy by the way”, he said extending his hand. “Hi Sandy”, she said taking his hand and shaking it like the way she had seen her father do.
The first bell rang and it seemed to have no impact on anyone in the class. A couple of girls were fervently trying to finish their homework. The boys in the last bench were flying paper planes. Two other boys sitting in the other end of the class were discussing some new movie and doing an impression of the actors in it. The class was noisy as ever. Soon a short plump lady entered the class and rapped her cane against the table. “Will you ever learn to be quiet?”, she asked. “I don’t know why I get this class first thing in the morning to ruin my mood.” She was evidently annoyed. The boys in the last benches giggled.
“You must be Ria?”, she asked looking over her spectacles. “Yes”, said Ria.
“I am Mrs. Majumdar, your English teacher. You haven’t missed much. You can catch up quickly. Sit sit. Ok class, have you finished the assignment I had given you last week? Adila collect the homework copies from everyone and leave it on my table. Now quickly everyone open your text books to page number 11.”
Adila went around collecting homework copies. She had trouble from the last bench bullies who were trying to tease her as always. The period ended quickly. Ria turned to Adila. “So, tell me what is next. How much have I missed?”
“See, this is our time table”, said Adila showing her the back of her school diary where the class time table was written down. “We have geography this hour where we are doing continents and oceans. The next hour we have Math where we are doing Algebra. It’s easy don’t worry. Then we have a lunch break. After which we have History, we are doing the Carnatic wars and then we have Hindi followed by games”.
“Ok, and I also need your notes.”, said Ria.
“Yeah sure. Do something, I’ll give you the notes I have today and the rest maybe you can come by over to my house and collect it today or tomorrow.”
“Cool where do you live?”
“Hey I live in fifth avenue too.”
“How do you come to school?”
“I rode my cycle to school.”
“Oh! Lovely! I have a cycle too. Tell you what. On our way back home, you come with me, I’ll show you where I live and you can come whenever you want.”
“Awesome. Thank you Adila.”
“You are welcome. Just do me one favor and stay away from those jack asses”, she said pointing to the boys in the back benches.
Ria giggled. “OYE”, called out one of the guys from behind. “Listen, newbie, don’t go by what she says else you’ll end up a geek like her and not know what fun is. I suggest you pick up your bag and shift base here.” Ria smiled back politely.
“I don’t know why these teachers take so long to come to class. The class is only for forty minutes, and they come in ten minutes late all the time. What are we going to learn in half an hour?”, mumbled Adila to herself.
“GEEEEEEEEK” came voices screeching from behind. Ria couldn’t stop laughing. She had half a mind to join them behind. She hated being a geek. She was good in academics and knew how to have fun too.
The headmistress taught geography. She was a woman well into her fifties. She tied her peppered hair in a bun and wore silver rimmed spectacles. She walked into the class and everyone fell silent instantly. She was a good humored woman; but then again, who wanted to mess with the headmistress?
She smiled at Ria. “Good to see you dear”, she said.
Ria smiled back.
“You have quite a bit of catching up to do. But I am sure your class mates will be of help. Besides you can come to me anytime you need anything.”
“Thank you ma’m”, said Ria.
“Ok class, before we begin, I have some news for you. We are going to have an exhibition in school and each class gets a theme. Your theme will be volcanoes. I will divide you into teams and you can work on your projects. You have enough time. The exhibition is in September. So you have enough time. I want you all to put your best foot forward. And another thing, the sports day is in August too”, she chuckled.
The entire class groaned. “Your sports teacher will brief you about the sports day. Now to divide you into teams. Let’s see, we have twenty six students. So Adila, Arun, Anu and Chris will be on one team. David, Diya, Farhan and Ganesh will be together. Hitesh, Imran, John P and John D’Souza will be together. Kirti, Kavya, Lavanya and Manoj on one team. Manjunath, Neil, Priya and Paresh together. Ria, Sameer, Sanjay and Sandeep will be together. And Sunil and Tripti will be together. I have teamed just the two of you together because the work I have set aside for you two doesn’t need more than two people on it. I’ll brief you about what you have to do at the end of the day. I’d like to take just half an hour of your time. Now, let’s resume our class. Can someone tell me, what the seven continents are?” Adila looked at the clock. There was just fifteen minutes left for the class to end and the question answer session normally took ten minutes. What was she going to teach in five minutes she wondered? Adila hated wasting time. She was Miss Perfectionist.
The bell rang and the headmistress left after a very unproductive class. Ria turned to Adila. “What’s next?”, she asked.
“We have a break for ten minutes after which we have math. We started fundamentals of Algebra yesterday. It seems to be fun. After that we have Hindi and then its lunch break. In Hindi we are going to start a new lesson today. Then we have History and then games and then we can go home.”
“How am I going to catch up with so much?”, asked Ria. “Don’t worry. I’ll help you. Actually you haven’t missed much. Just about a chapter in each subject.”
“Thanks Adila”, said Ria as the math teacher walked in groaning and panting. She was very fat and she sweated a lot. “Sit down sit down”, she said even before the class stood up to wish her.
“Can someone give me some water”, she said in a hoarse whisper. Adila handed out her water bottle. She took a few gulps and miraculously seemed to turn normal.
“Quickly, what is (a+b)(a-b)?”
Ten hands shot up. “All of you say it together”, she said turning to the board to write it down.
The ones who knew it sang it out rhythmically and the others were relieved that they were being shadowed by the nerds. Ria had done this in her sixth standard in her previous school and was relieved that at least here she hadn’t missed anything.
After math, it was lunch break. The boys ran out very noisily some tugging Adila’s hair and some teasing her, few others targeted the other girls in the class. They were well defined brats. Ria seemed to like them somehow. They seemed like a fun gang. She looked at Adila who was so irritated with them at all times. Ria thought if one more guy teased Adila, he would most definitely get a thrashing from her.
Ria and Adila had their lunch together inside the classroom. Ria wanted to go out and explore her new school. But Adila was a spoil sport. She hated to leave her bench unless it was absolutely necessary. Ria didn’t want to seem rude on the first day and so decided to sit around with Adila. She managed to copy down a few pages of notes in English. “You have a beautiful handwriting”, said Adila.
“Thank you”, said Ria trying to write down as much as possible. She was wondering at the back of her mind if she had made a mistake by sitting with a girl who was just not like her. She didn’t want to seem too rude by trying and sitting with someone else. But again Adila was a perfectionist which meant that she’ll help out Ria academically.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the boys clamoring into the class again. She felt sorry for Adila who was their target all the time. One dusky looking guy with gorgeous hair and big bright eyes sat in front of Ria on her desk. “Hi”, he said.
Ria smiled at him politely. “I didn’t catch your name sorry”, he said.
“I am Ria”, she said. “I am Sanjay”, said the dusky boy. He sounded quite gentlemanly even at such a young age. “Hi Sanjay”, said Ria not sure of what else to say to him. “You need any help with your notes or lessons or anything, don’t hesitate to come to me”, he said. “Sure, thank you”, said Ria. “Ok so I’ll see you around”, he said and walked back to his place.
“Stay away from him”, hissed Adila. Ria wanted to hit Adila on her head with her school bag. What was wrong with this girl? She disliked everyone in class.
“He seems alright”, said Ria.
“They all do seem alright in the beginning. Once you get to know them better, they’ll make life hell for you.”
Ria was disappointed with Adila. She made up her mind to make friends with this Sanjay guy. Not just Sanjay, she made up her mind to make friends with every single person in that class. She would sit in different places everyday so she gets to know everyone well.
The Hindi teacher came in and greeted the class. She had a very nasal voice. The boys kept giggling from behind. “Shaitano (devils)”, she said throwing a piece of chalk at them which never hit its target. They burst out laughing and she laughed too. She seemed quiet friendly.
“Theek hai ab page number chabees kholo (Alright, open page number 26)”, she said. “Kabir ke dohe(Kabir’s couplets).’Kabira khada bazaar mein maange sab ki khair, na kahu se dosti na kahu se bair’ What does this mean? This means that the poet Kabir is standing in the market wishing well for everyone who are neither his friends nor are his enemies. Boys, write it down, what are you looking at me for? This is just the translation. Can someone tell me what it means, what is the poet trying to convey?”
A hand shot up from the back. “It means that you must be neutral with everyone and wish them well even if you don’t know who the person is. You must not breed enemity unnecessarily and if you don’t really know someone well, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wish for their well-being.”
Ria felt like it was apt for Adila. She turned back to see who had answered it, it was Sanjay.
“Very good”, said the teacher. Sanjay sat down smiling. Ria smiled at him and he winked back at her. She turned to the front giggling. Adila met her with a sharp look which Ria chose to ignore.
“Ok class, here is your assignment, I will give you the translation of all the couplets, I want you to write down the meaning of each of them and give it by my next class with you. Is that clear?”
Half the class groaned. “And no copying mind you. I will be able to make out if you have copied and both, the one who has copied and the one who has allowed the other to copy will be punished”, she said. “Copier and Copyee”, snickered Sanjay from behind.
The class groaned again. “Badmash bachhe ( naughty children)”, she said smiling at them fondly.
Her eyes fell upon Ria. “You are a new face here”, she said. “Yes ma’m. I am Ria and I joined today”, she said. The teacher smiled at her and touched her cheek fondly. “I am Mrs. Prabha. You haven’t missed much. If there is anything you haven’t understood you can come to me anytime. Sit down”, she said.
Ria decided she liked this school. A lot more than her previous school where the teachers used to come in like robots, finish the lesson and walk out. There were no interactions between students and teachers. The teachers didn’t even know any student by the face. Here, if there was one face missing or a new face in the class, the teachers noticed it instantly. This was what Ria wanted. She never wanted to leave this place and secretly wished her father doesn’t get any more transfers till she finished high school.
They had games the next period. Adila walked out grumbling. She found the games period an utter waste of time. She anyways went back home and played with her dog and kittens for an hour, so why waste forty minutes here as well? Ria couldn’t stop wondering how could someone not like games period.
“Line up line up”, said the games master Mr. Anil Chadda. He was a tall well-built man and had a voice that made you wonder what just happened. No it wasn’t a voice that complemented his body. He had an extremely squeaky voice and only the ones in the first row could hear him. He had to use a microphone more often than not. Ria started laughing when she heard him squeak. Adila gave her a rude stare. Ria was starting to dislike Adila already.
“Line up according to your heights. Boys and girls two separate lines and one arm distance vertically and two arm distance horizontally”, he squeaked. Ria was happy that Adila was way taller than she was and had to stand at the farther most end of the line.
Sanjay was standing beside Ria in the boys’ line. He smiled at her as they measured two arm distances between them.
“So, where are you from?”, he asked. “I am from Calcutta”, she said. “Well, basically from Mysore but dad keeps travelling all over”, she said.
“I see”, he said nodding. He had the air of a grown up about him. There was something in him that wasn’t in other twelve year olds. He was far more matured for his age and far more intelligent too. And she liked his command over the English language when he spoke.
“Silence”, squeaked the games master again. “I have an important announcement to make”, he said as he adjusted the microphone. The whole school was gathered.
“Is it this way every games period?”, asked Ria.
“No, it’s usually just one class per period. But I suppose there’s something important coming up and that is why we are all here”, replied Sanjay.
“We have a very important day coming. The Sports day. Those of you who are familiar, you know that we have our sports day every alternate year and the Annual day every other year. So both the occasions are very important. This year we will have the Sports day and we have a lot of events chalked out. From tomorrow for the next one month you will have games practice in the first half of the day and regular classes the second half. I need the class monitors to give in names of students participating in various events in a couple of days. The list of events will be up in every class notice board by tomorrow morning. But for now I am going to need the names of runners so that I can start practice early tomorrow morning. Will you volunteer or should I hand pick you?”
He waited for a few minutes. No one volunteered.
“Ok”, he said as he started walking about amongst the students.
“You”, he pointed out to a boy here and a girl there and he picked up Sanjay and Ria as well. He picked Adila and she politely refused saying she wanted to see the other options first. “Such long legs and of no use”, he said tapping her legs with his cane.
“So those of you who I’ve chosen will be practicing from tomorrow. Your practice starts at seven in the morning. I want you to report here by 0645. Am I clear?”
“Yes sir”, groaned a few voices here and there.
“I am sure this will be fun”, said Ria. Sanjay gave her a weird look.
The rest of the hour went in the games master explaining about sports day and what was expected of them and all that.
At the end of the day, Ria picked her bag and mounted on her bicycle. “Hey, you want to come over to my place to get some notes?”, asked Adila.
“I’d love to. I’ll go home, freshen up a bit and then come over. Would that be fine with you?”
“Sure. I’ll come with you until some place I can guide you to my house.”
Adila showed Ria her house and to their surprise they were neighbors.
“I’ll see you in an hour”, said Ria as she rode towards her house.
“Hey, how was your day”, asked her mother taking her bag from her and kissing her on her cheek.
“This school is so much fun mamma”, said Ria.
She went on to explain all that she did in school and about Adila and the games master and Sanjay and everything. Her mother listened to her patiently.
She had her milk and snacks and went over to Adila’s house to get her notes. Adila’s mother was a very warm and motherly lady. She forced Ria to have some snacks and fussed over the girls. Adila’s father owned a bakery down the road and it was always crowded till late night. Adila seemed normal at home, not like the jerk she was in school. She played for a while with Ria, showed her her story books and her dolls and stuffed animals. She had two little kittens and a dog for pets and never seemed to let them down. Ria was surprised at this Adila and even loved her. She wanted to know why Adila was this ways in school and why did she not like her classmates. But she thought she’ll reserve it for another time. It wasn’t decent to ask such things on the very first day.