Just another day at college. The recess bell rang at 10.30 and my classmates stampeded out of the physics lab, buzzing excitedly about the things they were going to eat, how their stomachs growled all through lab session or how someone had started dating someone.
I waited until the last of the boys filed out and then, I packed my things and made my way to the canteen.
Hundreds of students chatting merrily occupied the tables, content in their own groups. Smells of vada pav, schezwan pakodas drifted through the open kitchen stalls. Some tables had couples grinning mischievously or feeding each other while others had boys banging tables in a game of antakshari. Girls were sitting in tightly-knit groups with their heads pressed together in the latest gossip.
I drew my chemistry practical notebook closer to my chest and made my way outside the sandwich stall.
‘Two veg frankies, please,’ I ordered.
The waitress cast her usual suspicious eye around and nodded. Apparently, she thought I had a secret boyfriend hiding somewhere inside my Verma’s solutions to Organic Chemistry, Grade XII.
The sealed frankies tucked under my books, I turned right out of the canteen and emerged onto the grassy ground. I felt the grass depress as my sandals took one step after another. A few boys playing volleyball gave me quizzical looks as I made my solitary way up to the white building.
Climbing upstairs, I walked the deserted corridor and found my destination.
The I.T lab at our college was a small rectangular room with wooden flooring. A projector was hanging from the ceiling beside two fans which were probably there for cooling it, as they never cooled any of our heads. The computers were arranged in a pointed U shape, small rectangular monitors with keyboards and mouse.
I walked to the left corner, opened the window to let a sultry hot breeze in and approached the third last P.C. Sliding the chair behind, I dropped my bag and opened my I.T textbook along with the frankies. My eyes ran over the HTML coding as I began eating.
I blinked. No, I thought, this isn’t going to be useful.
It has been three months since my college started. I had walked back to college after a year of COVID-19 restrictions. It seemed like a dream when we were asked to remove our masks. I was finally going to have something regular.
My first month had been nothing short of heaven. I had grown so much closer to my partner Niyati that in the recess (we started having it just this year), we used to go on the grounds together for a stroll, chatting about the boring Physics sums and the periodic table. In free lectures, when I wasn’t in a mood for completing my books, we used to discuss about each other’s families or how our elder sisters always bossed us around. College life was so much happier than school life. I had begun craving those hours I spent sitting on the first bench with Niyati, even though she was just lying on her Biology textbook, snoring.
Then, all of a sudden, she had started becoming friends with Satish. Initially, she had taken me to meet him but then, their friendship had grown so strong that she started going out in the recess with him. She had started calling him her ‘BFF’. It seemed a bit irritating at first but the storm was fast approaching. Niyati started going and coming with him altogether, she probably forgot me. Then, when she had confronted me in the library, I had said things I didn’t mean to, but were probably poisoning my insides since the first time Satish’s name had been mentioned between us.
A wall now stood between us. She did not sit with me. She had picked up her bag without meeting my eyes and now sat right at the back of the class, munching Lays in our Chemistry and Bio lectures. The only lecture she did come front was for English because our Principal Sir took that and she did not dare sit at the back in front of him. And, she needed answers to the questions he shot at a few chosen students in my class.
Initially, some girls from our class sometimes came over to ask about our assignments or to understand some tricky Physics sum from me. But it was all a flash in the pan. I had learnt the truth. I had been deserted by the only one I had whole-heartedly accepted as friend, the one I had shared the deepest secrets of my spirit, the ones I had not even shared with my sister. I had confided all my insecurities in her. And she had left me. Desolate. Friendless. Alone.
Every day I sat on what used to be in some previous life, my favourite bench. No one ever came up to me. But I could see everything. I could feel the eyes darting to me, lips whispering behind palms, fingers pointing behind my back to show just how big a fool I had been to make a best friend of someone. I had tried sitting in the canteen but groups always asked me to sit ‘somewhere else’. Eyes bore onto the empty seats around me. Tired, I had started avoiding the canteen altogether.
One day, I had stumbled upon this room. It was my haven. People said computers were more efficient than humans. I agreed. These computers were the only ones who gave me company. They did not run away to more ‘interesting’ people. They did not have disinterested ears. They were there, always.
I shook my head. The tears I had wanted to stop had inevitably come. They always did. I wiped my cheeks with the back of my hand and rubbed my eyes. They stung with the masala on my fingertips. I gulped some water. Even though the frankies were remotely spicy, my nose was runny.
Why? Why did this happen every single day? Each day I meticulously pored over volumes of self-help books, pages of motivational quotes and listened to a thousand different influencers talking about motivation and happiness. Then why? Why did I always end up here?
I wanted a way out of this. I wanted to run away and hide somewhere no one could see me. I did not want to come back. I did not want to cry. I did not want any of this. I just wanted everything to end.
The bell rang. I sniffed and wiped my eyes. Within minutes, my classmates would begin filing in.
‘Oh, hi, Sonali!’ said Karishma as she took the computer next to mine. ‘How did you come here so early?’
‘I left the canteen fifteen minutes before the bell,’ I lied promptly. Niyati dropped into the seat beside Karishma. She whispered something in her ear and both of them grinned mischievously. I looked away as if I was really engrossed in the crow cawing loudly on the peepal tree outside. Riya walked in and looked almost dejected as she saw me at my usual seat and took the one to my left.
The teacher walked in and our coding session began. Riya leaned over me and started mouthing something to Karishma and Niyati. I tried my best to be normal but very soon, I felt as if I was intruding the jolly time of friends.
‘Listen,’ I said to Karishma, ‘if you guys want, I can move over to Riya’s P.C.’
‘Sure. Please do!’ said Niyati excitedly.
‘That’s so sweet of you!’ said Riya as she stood up.
My eyes met with Niyati for a split-second and I thought for one second that she really did not say that.
I stood up.
‘Miiiiisss, may I come in?’ came an enthusiastic voice.
All heads turned. There he was. I rolled my eyes and took my new seat, the second last P.C.
‘Pranay, why are you always late?’ our teacher groaned as he sauntered around the class in search for empty seats.
‘What can I do, miss? The vada pav stall was soooo occupied that I could not lay my hands on one till the bell rang!’ and nearly making me jump, he pulled the empty chair beside me.
‘Hey, errr…what’s her name?’ he asked Riya, who mouthed my name and giggled.
‘Sonali, what are we supposed to do?’
‘Open Notepad and start coding,’ I tried to keep my voice as normal as possible.
‘In the start menu.’
I looked at him and took in his dark-brown eyes, jet black hair and the cheerful grin on his face. The inside of my ribcage suddenly became 100℃ hotter than it had been a moment before. I instantly withdrew my gaze.
‘Please show me how to open it! Look, I don’t have a P.C at home so I don’t know anything!’
I opened my mouth and closed it. I slid my left hand from my keyboard and shook his mouse before opening notepad for him.
I smiled, suddenly aware that my face had been sweating since morning and that I probably looked like I hadn’t slept in weeks.
Over the next few days, my eyes met with Pranay multiple times. At times, I would find myself planning lessons for him. He would often smile at me in class or when he was banging tables with his friends. He even began coming and sitting in the row next to mine and whenever our Chemistry teacher took orals, he raised his dark eyebrows to ask the answers to me. I did not know what was going on and I did not know how to handle this.
Our PT professor walked in and announced, ‘Pick up your bags and get going! We are leaving college early today!’ Confused, I swung my bag around my shoulder and joined the throng out of the class. Once out on the grounds, I suddenly remembered that mum was going to leave for my mama’s house and she had told me to call at home if she would come to pick me up or I’d have to stand outside the college for the rest of my day.
I caught up with Sejal. ‘Can I borrow your phone?’ I asked. She shrugged and shook her head. ‘I didn’t bring it today; you see I’m going home straight now. Anyway, bye!’ and she left with Pranali, leaving me alone.
Turning, I saw Shivani and Brinda. None of them had a phone. ‘Go and check with Niyati. I think she’s got one!’ The knot in my chest constricted slightly but I cast around for my ex-best friend. I did not have to look much further as she was just a few paces away, standing beneath the cypress tree laughing with Satish. I turned away. I was not going anywhere near there if it was the last place on earth.
Hopeless, I thought I could use the college office phone at last and re-entered the admin lobby. I sprinted to the admin office and punched the wall in frustration. Why was it that whenever I wanted to use something our admin office had to be closed?
‘Don’t skulk around here, there’s a staff meeting going on,’ said the peon coldly as he carried a tray of tea cups in the staff room.
I returned on the grounds, desperately looking for someone I could rely on. Most unfortunately, I was utterly friendless. I let out a sigh and shook my head. That’s when my gaze fell on Riya. She was talking to someone on a phone.
Heart leaping, I dashed to her. ‘Hey, can I please borrow this phone? I need to urgently call at my home?’
Riya hesitated. ‘Ummm,…it’s Pranay’s phone…’
I looked around and saw Pranay laughing with his arm around his friends’ neck. He had his back to me.
‘Let her take it, she just wants to call at home,’ suggested another girl and Riya handed the phone over to me.
I took the phone and saw Pranay’s smiling photo on the wallpaper. Hands shaking, I turned the dialer on. I typed the first few numbers of my mother and realized that I had forgotten the rest of the number. Mentally snapping, I typed my own number as a last resort.
My mum answered the phone. ‘Hello, mum? Are you coming?’ I breathed.
‘No,’ said my mother, ‘I’ve left. Grab some food and go home. I’ve left the keys with Sushma kaki.’
I hung the phone and handed it back to Riya. ‘Thank you so much.’ I turned to see Pranay but he was still engaged with his friends. I turned and left the grounds.
At home, I poured myself water and changed into pajamas. I opened my phone and saw Pranay’s number. Feeling a little butterfly flutter in the pits of my stomach, I saved it. Then, while eating, I was still thinking about how I hadn’t thanked him for helping me when all my friends had deserted me. I made up my mind to thank him the next day.
There was the usual chaos in our Biology lecture. I was sitting in the right corner on the first bench while Pranay was in the left corner in the middle benches. I still hadn’t thanked him. Suddenly, he called my name.
‘Can I have your Bio notebook?’ he mouthed. I stood up and he came up halfway. I handed my book to him. Before I could say anything to him, his friend called to him and he turned away. I returned to my place.
I saw the second hand on my clock ticking slowly. Finally, the bell for recess rang. Pranay stood up and came to hand over my book. I walked to him.
‘Thank you,’ he smiled.
I smiled back. ‘Thank you.’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘Umm, you see, I had to call urgently at home and I had used your phone without your permission so, sorry and thank you.’
His lips stretched into a grin and shook his head while walking away. I stared at my feet, my cheeks suddenly feeling hot.
Over the next few days, my sense of awkwardness about talking to him slowly vanished and now, I did not find the urge to run away. Even in my empty hours in my room, I found myself planning about teaching him this or informing him about that. Quite surprisingly, my urges to burst into tears and curl up beside my bed were also reducing. Something was happening that I could not understand.
Fifteen days had passed and we were about to fill our Board exam forms. Our professor had distributed the forms on the previous day and had asked us to bring them duly filled. I was sitting on the second bench as Yasmin had shifted to the first bench in the absence of Inayat (her best friend). Since it was the second lecture, Niyati was sitting with me with a smug expression on her face. She was constantly turning backwards.
‘Psst,’ came a whistle from my left. I turned and saw that it was Pranay. I nodded to show that I was listening.
‘My form is only half-filled. Can you fill it?’
I motioned him to hand it to me. To my surprise, he slid on his bench and indicated the seat on his right. Reluctantly, I went to him and saw that he had not filled his X seat number and his XI seat number and his bank details.
‘Shall I fill it?’
‘Sure.’ He handed the pen to me. I filled and he stood next to me. I tried not to let my hand shake. I had never felt my pulse rise so much, not even when our Principal Sir had been standing over my paper for over five minutes. I arranged his documents and handed the form back to him and returned to my seat, hoping that adrenaline wasn’t making my face red.
The bell for recess rang and I slowly packed my things, waiting for the rest of the class to file out as usual. I gulped some water and with my biology practical book under my arm, I made my way to the canteen.
‘Two veg frankies, please,’ I ordered. I handed two twenty-rupees notes and grabbed my frankies. While doing so, my biology practical book slipped from under my arm and landed on the floor. I bent to pick it up when another firm hand held the other corner of the book.
I raised my eyes to meet Pranay’s now familiar ear-long grin. He stood up with my book. ‘Aren’t you going to get up?’ he smirked.
I noticed that I was still staring blankly at him. I blinked furiously. ‘No, I was just…’
‘Ah, I love frankies!’ He grabbed one from my hand and taking my practical book, he sat down on one the adjacent tables and indicated a chair opposite. I sank into it and waited.
He opened his and started chewing, still grinning at me. Not to look super awkward, I opened mine and started eating it. By the time the last morsel of my frankie was in my mouth, I was shaking in laughter.
This was first time since Niyati and my friendship had broken that I was sitting in the canteen and my biology practical book was lying closed.
'You know,' he said, 'you should smile more. It suits you.'
And as a good friend does, I obliged him, a warmth spreading round my chest as it had done when I had opened myself up to Niyati for the first time.