An hour ago, I had been the luckiest person in my class—the ‘rising star’ as the they called me. And what was I now? Nothing. I was nothing more than a piece of paper with six straight A’s.
We had our results today. I applied a tika on my forehead, touched the feet of the Ganesha idol at my desk and caught an auto rickshaw to my college. Some of my classmates waved to me, others shook my hand even before our mark-sheets were handed out. ‘We all know you are 1st!’ they cried excitedly.
I flashed my teeth and rushed to the corner where my friends were huddled in a group. ‘Make way for the Superstar!’ cheered my best friend, Niyati, grinning broadly. Sejal applauded enthusiastically.
‘Drop it,’ I shrugged and perched myself on the pavement beside Niyati. I tried my best to steer the conversation away from the results but sooner or later, we found ourselves worrying for our annual results.
‘I’ve done B.K in just two days! Don’t know if I’ll pass or not!’ Niyati exclaimed.
‘Economics was horrible,’ I admitted, ‘I’ve faked everything in those brief answers,’ trying not to sound too hopeful.
‘Oh, you are definitely going to be alright!’ said Sejal, slapping my arm playfully.
The bell rang at that moment and I was spared the trouble of answering as everyone lined up outside the gates in nervous excitement. I followed Niyati and Sejal inside and climbed up to my class. Niyati and I sat at our usual place on the first bench.
Our class teacher walked in and we all sang ‘Good morning, teacher’ and settled down in silence, all eyes fixed on the bundle in her arms. She laid the mark-sheets down and cleared her throat. ‘Please collect your mark-sheets as I call out your name.’ She began calling our names.
Thank God, I thought breathlessly, she’s not announcing our scores. Niyati’s name was called and I heartily joined in congratulating her. She was waving her mark-sheet in the air, thrilled that she had managed to secure 92/100 in B.K.
I felt my heart pumping through my ribs as I stood behind Priya. I moved forward and our teacher grinned at me. She displayed my mark-sheet to the class, ‘Yes, this time too, our topper has topped the class with 95%! She is first!’
My class broke into a tumultuous applause. Niyati slapped my back, ‘I knew you’d be first!’ I grinned.
Fifteen minutes later, I was descending the stairs with Sejal and Niyati, excitedly discussing our results and how soon the year had passed. Niyati had put her arms around our necks as we walked out of the gate.
‘Hey,’ called my friend Varsha. I stopped and turned as Sejal and Niyati walked forward.
‘I heard you’ve topped again! Congratulations!’ she smiled, extending her hand.
We turned. A large crowd was gathering outside the gates. I hurried along with the others. We were pushed this way and that-right into the midst of the circle and when I saw the sight before me, all my exhilaration deserted me.
Sejal was lying on her back, her head bleeding severely. She was gasping for breath in Niyati’s lap. I kneeled down beside her.
‘That truck—we didn’t think he would suddenly turn this side, Sejal was standing here and it-it hit her…’ Niyati explained as began fumbling in her bag for something.
‘The driver must’ve been drunk!’ said one.
‘Well, do something!’ said Niyati urgently.
‘Don’t you know what is to be done when someone meets with an accident?’ yelled Niyati irritatingly.
‘N-No,’ I whispered in a rather small voice, realizing the full meaning myself.
‘Move!’ Varsha ordered, shoving me to one side and tying her dupatta around Sejal’s bleeding forehead. ‘We need to take her to the hospital!’
Niyati spotted a scooter in front of us with its key plugged in. ‘Look, whoever’s scooter that is, we are taking it now, we’ll return it as soon as Sejal is in the hospital!’ she called, throwing me the keys.
I caught them after they fell to the ground. ‘Please tell me you can at least drive,’ said Niyati hotly as she swung Sejal’s arm around her shoulder and stood up.
‘I-I haven’t learnt it perfectly,’ I said truthfully. Some people gasped in surprise. Dimly, I was aware that I was ruining my image of the ‘model student’ in their minds.
‘We don’t care about a perfect thing here! It’s Sejal’s life that matters most!’ cried Varsha.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t think twice before answering, ‘Get behind me!’ as I swung my leg around the scooter and kicked the stand. Varsha helped Niyati sit with the unconscious Sejal between us. I breathed and prayed to lord Ganesha to help me carry them to the hospital safely.
I switched the ignition on and turned the scooter. I slowly pushed it onto the road and accelerated. The handle swayed as we bounced on a speed-breaker. I remembered what my father had taught me about breakers and slowed the accelerator to stop our fall. The handle was still not staying straight. I had never driven a scooter without my dad behind me; let alone drive it triple-seat carrying an injured patient.
Niyati kept yelling in my ears to speed up and for the first time, I turned the accelerator to its maximum speed and stuck my finger on the horn. We rushed past bikes and cars, we even had a close shave with an auto rickshaw. I slowed the accelerator as we moved into a crowded street where I dared not drive beyond what I could control.
Either my prayed had been answered or I had instantaneously gained some driving skills, I didn’t know or care. I gave the signal, took my scooter to the middle of the road and drove into the open hospital gates without getting any of us on the ground.
Niyati jumped down, yelling, ‘Emergency case! Please, is anyone here?’ at the top of her voice as she supported Sejal. I turned the scooter off and parked it. I rushed forward to help Sejal. The hospital staff hurried towards us with a stretcher and within minutes, Sejal was inside the OT with the doctors examining her and the nurses bustling about her.
‘W-we’ll have to inform Sejal’s parents!’ panted Varsha, running up to us. Niyati nodded and unlocked her phone and began scrolling for Sejal’s number. ‘I-I’ll just come,’ I said to the wall and without waiting for a reply, ran down the stairs and onto the hospital grounds.
It was the worst time of my life: I sank onto the wooden bench and let my restrained tears drip noiselessly into my lap. My throat was dry and my breath was coming in sniffs and sobs. A pleasant gale of wind blew around me but I did not care; what did I care about? What was I? I did know anything beyond my textbooks, which, now seemed like piles of scrap.
‘You OK?’ asked Niyati’s voice.
I wiped my face with my sleeve and turned. ‘Yeah, sorry, I’m just shaken slightly…’
Niyati rolled her eyes and came in front of me. I looked away from the stern look her round, brown eyes were giving me. Yes, she is going to say that I am completely useless, I thought.
To my surprise, she kneeled down before me and took my hand in hers. ‘Listen, no offence, but you’re a bit too obsessed with your academic performance.’
‘I know, I just--’ I said quickly.
‘Never mind! I just want to tell you that apart from all your goals, ambitions and obligations, there’s a priceless thing called life, which as you might have noticed, does not depend on a piece of paper; no matter how many A’s it carries!’
‘I understand. I’ve been so stup—’
‘I’m not done yet!’ she said, standing up and placing her hands on her hips, ‘you forgot your fear and drove us to the hospital with your inexpert driving safely, which was really—brave of you. So yeah, well done.’
I stared up at her. Then, we both grinned faintly.
Varsha hurried up to us. ‘Hey, you both! Sejal is calling you inside! Come on!’
I took Niyati’s hand and we walked up the stairs into Sejal’s ward.