It was a sultry winter morning in January. A chill breeze was blowing on the school ground as I wrapped my arms around myself, drawing a steadying breath.
‘Nervous?’ asked Shilpa, leaning forward kindly. I dimly glanced up at her graceful body and how the plain white shirt and black jeans suited her so well. A soft pink lipstick made her face bloom like a lily. She was holding herself with so much ease that I almost felt envy of her.
‘N-no, I’m-I’m fine,’ I replied, looking away from her and glancing at the azure blue cloudless sky above.
‘You’ll be fine! You are the best English speaker in our class!’ she tried to encourage me.
I shook my head; she did not know. She did not know what it was to have so many expectations from you, what it was to have all your seniors (including one particularly distinguishable person) staring up at you, standing in front of all your teachers, right in front of the principal, dressed in clothes you barely feel comfortable, to be trying make-up for the first time and dancing—when you are extremely shy of moving your body in public. But she could not understand.
Our school was hosting a farewell function for the SSC students with a few entertaining events including dance and a few acts. Most unfortunately, I could not worm my way out of this event like I had done since the past nine years.
I had tried to pick the least unpleasant activity, thinking that acting would not be quite different from just speaking a stupid dialogue and moving your arms and legs somewhat. Much to my discomfort, when I had tried the auditions with my friend, the others had howled with laughter as I had uttered the dialogue almost mechanically.
‘Seriously? This is a funny dialogue! You need to speak it with ease,’ Vanita had giggled. Feeling my cheeks rather hotter than usual, I had speedily walked out of the terrace and sprinted down the stairs. I sat down on the last stair and sank my head onto my hand.
‘Why can’t I just do something simple—like say a speech or something?’ I asked out loud. There was a sound of muffled laughter. A 10-year-old girl was standing at the top of the stairs, unsuccessfully trying to stop smiling. She cast a quick look at me and rushed past me, her two plaits flying behind her.
Great. Just great. Now she is going have a lovely laugh with her friends and very soon the entire school will know that their class leader is a nut who loves talking to herself, I thought sulkily. I shook my head and began descending the stairs, my head occupied in conjuring a way to escape this torturous spectacle. I was almost down on the ground when—
‘Watch where you’re—Oh! Priya! H-how nice to see you!’
My mind snapped back to reality with that deep voice. Why was it that whenever you are in a bad mood you seem to run into the only person who could make your mood worse?
‘F-fine, thanks. How were your prelims?’ I asked breathlessly, and cursing myself almost immediately because mam had already told us that he had performed dismally in his English paper.
His smile lessened slightly and he just said, ‘Good,’ and went up the stairs. This was really the limit. Honestly, one of these days it was hard to find some peace and quiet at school. I decided to proceed to the ground when I had a eureka moment. Why not?
I ran back to school and up the grey stairs. Clutching my chest hard, I saw my class teacher surrounded by a group which I secretly called ‘The Smart Sociables’. I broke through them and approached her. ‘Miss, can I please do the anchoring for the farewell programme?’
My class teacher smiled at me. ‘Yes, in fact mam had suggested that I should take you for the welcome speech. You may do it with Shilpa.’ I heaved a sigh of relief. ‘But,’ my class teacher added, ‘you will have to participate in either the dance or the skit, OK?’
A stone dropped in my stomach. I nodded and glanced at my friend. She beamed at me. I walked to her. Brilliant. Now I was getting a bonus speech along with my fair share of dancing.
Shilpa and I had finalized a speech and when we had gone to get our speech checked by mam, with my luck, the only person in front of whom mam started criticizing my repeated mistakes happened to be the person I had embarrassed that morning. Every dog has his day.
Fast forward to a day later, I was standing in the corner of the stage, all the seniors gathered in fancy clothes. Our Principal mam was just sitting in the middle of the first row and I could feel her keen, intelligent glance surveying me closely. Next to her, needless to say, the person I least wanted to perform for was sitting in the first row, a wide grin pasted on his face.
‘Priya! Shilpa! Come on!’ Ajay called.
We glanced at each other and silently nodded. I adjusted my waist-belt and walked onto the stage, feeling increasingly aware of my shoelaces that were slightly loose. Heart pounding inside my ribs, I looked up and felt as if a hundred laser beams were flashing on top of my head. I looked sideways at Shilpa and nodded; her eyes too were round in fear.
‘Welco—’ I began and stopped instantly. Even though I had a mike curved by my cheek, my voice was barely audible in the speaker. Raised eyebrows met my eyes. Turning to Ajay, I saw that he was running to me. ‘Oh no!’ he mumbled, ‘we have screwed it up!’ Without warning, he slid his hand around my neck and began fumbling with the wires. My look must have been dramatic as the audience were giggling sheepishly.
A few seconds later, Ajay realized what was happening as he stepped back and rubbed his hands on his jeans. ‘Err…sorry. I’ll just give you the hand-mike,’ he said and returned to his corner.
My confidence severely shaken, I cleared my throat and began addressing the audience. I finished my welcome speech with difficulty when the most un-awaited moment of the day unfolded. Shilpa and I glanced nervously at each other.
‘Right,’ I whispered to her, ‘let’s sing this lullaby.’
We faced the audience (it was taking every gram of courage I possessed to look at a hundred faces in the eye) and began:
We welcome, we welcome, we welcome you today!
We are happy to have you in our midst today!
Oh! Let the troubles be away—
For today is a very happy day!
We welcome, we welcome….
We sang until almost everyone’s faces stretched into grins. Even our Principal mam was positively smiling. ‘Alright,’ said Shilpa, ‘let us begin with our first performance: a dance performance by IX-B girls.’
Without waiting for another second, I dashed off the stage and into the corner until Rashmi came up for her compering. I hid myself behind the stage and clutched my neck in relief.
‘You were amazing!’ Disha cheered as she passed by. I hastily gave her my well-practiced smile. Why was everyone so intent on reminding me how horribly I had performed? Why couldn’t they understand that I was not like them? That I was not normal like them? That I had never been treated the way they were? That my parents were over-powering and always did everything for me? That I barely knew basic social customs, I was horrible at talking and I could never speak my opinion at one point? I was super slow in thinking, I was very fat and—
‘Priya?’ Shilpa’s voice called, ‘our dance performance is coming up.’ I shook myself out of my reveries. Come on, let’s crush the remaining limbs of my broken reputation. And I stepped out.
I put on my sunglasses (which made me slightly dizzy) and took my position. The opening beats were breaking in and we slowly started. Since I was right at the front, I tried my best to not draw any attention to myself. One good thing about the sunglasses was that I didn’t have to make eye contact…which made me feel strangely free.
The performances continued on with me standing in one corner with my best friend. Neither of us had any interest in watching the dances. Once the performances were over, I heroically offered to help bring the refreshments (because I wanted to vanish) and started handing the plates of potato wafers, chhole puri and the 10₨ Havmor Ice-cream cone. I didn’t even pause to accept a kind ‘thank you’ that one person said to me.
As our seniors were filling their stomachs, I eagerly waited for mam to signal that the party (I called it ‘hell’) was over so that I could return to my otherwise peaceful existence. This however, was not due until an hour later as our class teacher announced that our seniors would dance themselves now. I rolled my eyes.
My eardrums were blasting again with Neha Kakkar and Baadshaah’s voices. So many of my classmates, did not mind it and were eagerly joining the seniors. That was it; I could not take it any longer. My head was aching and if I did not get out of here, I might have unplugged the speaker into silence. I turned to go when—
‘Hey, Priya!’ Why don’t you come join us for a dance?’ called a cheerful voice I recognized quite well.
I turned. There he was, grinning excitedly, a joy radiating around him almost as if he were floating in the sky. He was having the time of his life.
‘No,’ I said much too fiercely, ‘I mean, I-I have to go…’
‘This is our last day at school! Come on! You did such hard work for this!’ he protested.
‘Yes, it is. But for you. Not me. I am drained, exhausted. You think I’m enjoying myself? Every second I spend in this booming noise makes my head throb like a hammer on a nail. I am definitely not—’
‘I can ask Ajay to lower the volume…’ he began but I held up a hand to silence him. The dam of my patience had collapsed.
‘Have you ever thought how I feel? How completely out-of-place everyone here is intent on making me feel? Yes, no one says it on the face; but I feel it. Everyone thinks I am a weirdo, teases me for being a ‘nerd’ and ‘too boring’ and… (I paused for a breath) no one understands how I feel! Just carry on with your enjoyment!’ I turned and started ascending the stairs.
‘Priya,’ he said calmly, ‘no one hates you. It’s just that you are not as sharing as we all are—and it’s not a bad thing. You don’t explain to us what’s going on in your head, then how can we help you? How do you expect us to unravel what’s brewing in your brain? We are not mind-readers!’
‘I-I…’ I found my voice stammering.
‘You can enjoy your solitude if you like, but there’s such a thing called ‘happy memories’ with loved ones which you might never get to relive again. After all, the choice is yours,’ and he strode away without another look.
I stood rooted to the spot. His words were echoing in my mind. Was he really telling the truth? Was I not explaining myself to people enough? I recalled how kindly Shilpa had encouraged me that I was the most brilliant student in my class, how Disha had genuinely given me a compliment. Was I really taking the wrong meaning of it?
‘Pranay! Pranay!’ I called, sprinting down the stairs after him. ‘I’m—I’m coming for the dance!’
He turned and slid his hands into his pockets, giving me a superior grin and bowed low. He clasped my fingers and led me. My best friend was dancing with her sister, stopped on seeing me and gave me an almost ghostly look when she saw with whom I had come. I left his hand and joined her, turning to give him a genuine smile which really conveyed all the things I had not said.