Grey clouds loomed overhead as I stepped out of the auto-rickshaw and pulled my bag into my arms. Handing over the money to the driver, I joined the other girls and rushed into my college gates as the sky began pouring down.
‘Come on, students! Please stand in a queue!’ ordered our class teacher over the chaos. I hastily cast around for my classmates and found Shivani there with Pranali. I walked over to them and we exchanged greetings and discussed how we had each spent our vacations.
‘Of course, I’ll teach you Final Accounts as soon as we have a free lecture!’ I was saying to Shivani when a hand was laid on my shoulder.
I turned and saw that it was Niyati, my partner-cum best friend. I grinned at her. ‘Niyati, how are—’ I began but she caught my wrist and led me away from Shivani and dragged me after her where she was standing with Brinda and Rani.
All of them clapped my back and I asked how their tuitions were going. They were just about to reply when our class teacher announced that we had to proceed to our class. Hastily, we all squeezed into the queue and ascended the first floor, feeling as if we were climbing the stairs to Virar railway station.
‘What!’ exclaimed Niyati indignantly, ‘after one year of hard-work, they’re giving us the same classroom?’
Laughing, I dropped my bag on the first bench and we settled ourselves. An excited chatter was going round the class as several people were busy telling each other the places they had visited in the summer and of the rush they had to do for getting up so early after two months of vacation.
Our class teacher walked in and gave us long and dreary lecture of how important our XII Board exams were and why we should be forgetting everything else and focusing solely on our studies now. Niyati was poking me for time.
A few more days and we were all settled in. It all felt like second nature as I walked into the white building every day and Niyati and I chatted all day about how the girl at the back was performing antics when sir had called on her for forgetting her ID.
Our Economics lecture had just ended and Niyati checked if the others were occupied in their jobs. She then shoved her bag aside and shifted closer to me.
‘You see that guy at the back? The one wearing a smart-watch?’
I craned my neck and nodded.
‘Well, he sent me a friend request on FB.’
Since I did not use social media (my parents being strongly against it), I blinked my eyes for her to continue. She proceeded in a whisper—
‘He asked me to meet him after college! And he’s telling he wants to talk to me.’
‘What did you say?’
‘I told him to come and meet me when I’m with you all. I mean, what in the world could it be that he can’t tell me in front of you all?’
And that was the reason I found myself sitting on the pavement outside my college, beside my best friend Niyati who was slowly talking with Satish. A weird tingling was going on in my skin as I found myself facing the blank stares of passers-by, sometimes as blank as I felt myself.
On the pretext of checking something, I began rummaging for nothing in my bag. I slid my books this way and that, checking their random pages for a non-existent paper.
‘What are you looking for?’
‘Oh! N-nothing!’ I replied hastily. ‘I’m just checking if I wrote my Management notes!’ I lied promptly and continued turning the pages of my English textbook. My hand just found my phone sitting at the bottom of my bag. I slid it out and just when Niyati had glanced at the other side, seized my opportunity to play my ringtone. I paused it and kept it on my ear.
‘Yes, mom! I’m coming right now! Don’t worry, I’ll bring the bread!’
‘Niyati, I’ll have to go now,’ I said, swinging my bag over my shoulder. She jumped up beside me. ‘Yeah, I’ve got to go too! My tuitions!’ she exclaimed and joined me as I walked out of the gates. I bid goodbye to her and turned to the auto-stand.
Our Management teacher was absent and I had taken the chance to complete my Accounts notebook which was untouched since last week. Niyati was sitting beside me, looking behind and grinning sometimes while at other times, she merely put her head down on the desk and stared as I drew the pro-forma of the Profit and Loss Account.
‘You know, the other day, Kinjal was teasing me about Satish. She was telling he was my BF.’
I nodded to show that I was listening.
‘When in reality, he’s just my BFF. We go on really long walks and he’s really funny—’
I did not hear further. On the mention of BFF, my insides had been stabbed with a cold dagger. How? Just how could a stupid guy she had met literally days ago become her BFF? I had been with her for six months. It was me who had completed all notes with her, me who had explained all concepts to her at the last moment, me who was always ready to help her and now, suddenly, this new person was her BFF?
‘—and we’re done. Hey, are you even listening?’ Niyati asked, slapping my arm and blocking the view of my Profit and Loss Account.
‘Yeah, I heard you,’ I said shortly. ‘You’re right.’ Niyati opened her mouth to say something but shut it again.
‘Umm…Sonali, will you please come here for a sec? I can’t understand this sum on the Bills of Exchange,’ said Rakhi, tapping hesitantly on my shoulder.
Not wanting to remain with Niyati, I got up. ‘Sure. Why not?’
Over the next few days, my insecurities rose like the slow surging of the sea. Niyati was steadily growing her friendship with him. It wasn’t that I despised him; but every time we came across in corridors, I coldly ignored him. I did not even acknowledge as if we had a mutual friend. Earlier, Niyati used to walk the grounds with me. Now, she didn’t even bother to offer me. She just went with him. After college, instead of waving goodbye to Satish, she had waved to me and gone with him.
I had gotten up early, washed my hair and let them loose where they cascaded around my waist in loose curls. Carefully sticking a red bindi on my forehead, I had clicked my silver-belt Titan watch around my wrist and looked at myself in the mirror.
‘Good,’ I whispered to myself and stepped out of my house.
As soon as I got to my college, Brinda began coughing on seeing me in so much style. Rani’s eyes were wide in surprise.
‘So, what’s the special occasion today?’ asked Brinda, twinkling mischievously.
‘Is it someone special—?’
At that moment, I heard Niyati’s laughter behind me. I turned with a grin, ready to say, ‘You remembered my birthday!’ but I didn’t.
‘—very funny! Such a funny joke!’ she laughed, punching his arm playfully. She spotted us and waved him goodbye and walked up to us. Surveying me, she said that I was getting ready for my first date. I did not say anything but checked in my watch and proceeded to the gate.
For the first four lectures, I hardly spoke to Niyati. I didn’t even make eye contact. At last the much-awaited bell for the break rang and a throng of students rushed out of the classroom. I closed my book and zipped my bag. Without a look, I exited our class and made for the library.
Walking among the shelves, I scanned for the book, trying to keep myself away from the novels section where a copy of Anne of the Island was already calling out to me. I opened dusty racks and coughed at the yellowed pages. Soon, I was almost about to give up on the book.
‘Psst,’ called a voice behind the shelf I was looking. I peeped through the spines of Great Expectations and Around the World in Eighty Days. It was Niyati.
‘What’s the matter?’ I asked casually.
‘That’s what I should be asking you. I’ve noticed these few days that you’re not how you used to be. You’re being all distant. Is everything OK?’
‘Yeah, perfectly fine.’
‘And you’re ignoring me.’
‘No.’ I found the book, slid it under my arm and walked out of the library.
‘Don’t lie,’ she said immediately. ‘I can read—’
‘No, you can’t,’ I said calmly. ‘Had you been able to, you would not have made a best friend out of someone you just met two months ago.’ I
‘You too?!’ cried Niyati. I could somehow sense it was not out of resentment; but out of exhaustion. ‘Even you think that?'
'He isn't my BFF! I really prefer your company to his--' she exclaimed.
'Don't bother to lie, Niyati! He has already spoilt you! You no longer pay attention to important things, you're always giggling with him. You won't even bother to be with your real friends. And he's your BFF?'
'Is this what you think about me?'
'I thought you were different—’
‘Well, you’ve found out that I’m not. Brilliant. Congratulations.’
‘I can’t believe we’re arguing over this,’ she said coldly and pursed her lips. ‘How can you be so childish? You’re really—’
‘Fine. Go then; just go.’
Niyati looked as if she wanted to say something but she folded her arms in defiance and walked away.
I ran in the opposite direction and sprinted down the stairs, onto the very pavement Niyati used to sit in our breaks. The cool breeze always reminded me of her laughter. This was the very pavement where Satish had met her for the first time.
I raised my neck to the heavens and sniffed. Confirmed of my solitude, I slid down on the pavement and let my shielded tears roll down my cheeks. The library book I had borrowed was already getting wet with the increasing pool that fell atop its cover.