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Smita Sahay


Smita Sahay: The Promise





As I enter school, there is neither the clang of the bell nor the shuffle of lingering students or the PT teacher’s whistle as she calls out to her brood. It is as if I have unsettled the quiet of a temple in clacking stilettoes.  No little girls singing ‘Ring-a-ring-a roses’, no teachers hollering ‘Silence! Pin-drop-silence!

The wall-paint has dulled, surfaces look dusty and blackboards hazy. The mosaic floor needs polish and the wooden furniture some varnish.  I reach out to touch a desk but I can’t. Everything is covered with an invisible sheath.

I glide through corridors and up the giant staircase looking for photographs; bulletin boards display the photographs of Cabinet members. This wall faces the grand staircases shaped like two arcs of a giant circle, coming towards but never meeting each other. I search for a while and find it near the top: the Cabinet of Class of 1997. It is the last board on the edge of this wall before it breaks into tall stained glass French widows. Framed in glass is the old glossy picture taken immediately after the oath taking ceremony: we, the School Cabinet members standing dutifully at attention behind our teachers sitting in the front row. Fourth from the right, in the second row, stood the Captain of the Blue House, Shiv Manjari. And three places to her left, in the center of the photo stand I, the School Captain. Why can’t I see Shiv Manjari’s face? The landing is not as full of sunshine as I remember. The air around this photograph is frozen – cold, solid.

***

Our school had tiny square tables, red, blue, yellow and green, with four matching chairs around each, probably making the KG classrooms look like giant boards of ludo. Shiv Manjari was our Class Leader. Hands on hips, Shiv would go to the Teacher and point, “Miss, Tripti is talking” and without looking up from the books she was busy correcting, Miss would grunt, “No, Tripti, don’t be a bad girl”, or “Manishi, do you want to go out of the class?” The reprimanded child would blush, stammer a “Sorry Miss, sorry, Shiv Manjari”, gulp hard and sit, quiet and subdued. Shiv would start prowling again, on the lookout for talkative culprits. I can see her straightening her glasses, arranging the pleats of her skirt, tapping the palm of her right hand with the teacher’s wooden ruler, distributing notebooks as the teacher called out names, climbing onto the stool to pull out something from the cupboard... She was always at the front – doing or speaking – always important. I don’t remember much about myself. I had red-framed glasses, black bobby pins and a runny nose. I don’t remember having a best friend to share books if I forgot to carry mine. And the teacher never remembered my first name. It was always, “Chopra, did you submit your note book”, or “Chopra, why were you absent?

One day she said, “Chopra, you are going to be one of the trees swaying in the forest when the dancers come on to the stage.” She pointed to a small group led by Shiv Manjari. I remember telling mummy about it as she fed me and wiped my nose. “I will have to wear a velvety green leafy costume.” I tried to hide my smile as I showed her Teacher’s instructions. All afternoon I rehearsed being a tree, holding my hands up in a V above my head and swaying from side to side. I was going to be on stage beside Shiv Manjari.

***

I light my cigarette and fire up my laptop for a working Saturday, absent-mindedly thinking of Shiv. I could never smell pencil shavings, warm crayons, candy like erasers and the chalk on the blackboard without thinking of her. This morning it is the other way around – flinching, I remember things I have not thought of in a long, long time.

***

The Teacher yelled, exasperated. “Chopra, clean your nose with your hanky. Why do you always have a cold? Trees don’t sneeze!”

The next day, I was no longer a tree; I was no longer going up on the stage for the Annual Day program at all. That made three of us from class to not be participating – the second girl had resumed classes after a long sick leave and the third one was our Mali Bhaiya’s daughter and was never selected for stage programs.

Shiv Manjari later refused to hold out my notebook, “I will not touch it. Your nosey must be everywhere on it. Yuck!” and everyone, including the Teacher, laughed, though she did wag her finger at Shiv Manjari and say, “You shouldn’t laugh at your friends, children, not when they have a cold,” but Shiv only giggled harder as I walked over and picked up my notebook.

***

My husband’s call brings me to the present. He has a job interview. He wants me to call up the CEO of the manufacturing company, a friend of my boss, to drop in a good word for him.

“Oh yes, sure. I will call Mahesh and see what I can do. Best of luck, Girish. Listen, I’ve to go finish some work. Bye.”

Of course I am doing nothing of the sort. I don’t even remember which job he is talking about. Is it the one for writing scripts for corporate films?

His creativity, his views on world literature and the thousands of pages of books he would stay immersed in had once fascinated me. Not any longer. I am tired of a sloppy Peter Pan for a loser of a husband who, to make matters worse, is forever dismissive of everything that is important to me. What does he know about holding on to a job? All he has done in his life is teach! He liked teaching creative writing to children. People who don’t do teach. And people who can’t even teach get fired.

Girish would always shake his head, “I will never understand the dog-eat-dog attitude of corporate world. That is why I never ventured into it. What is so special about a promotion, an award, and overseas assignment? Such shallowness!

I would always bite my lips to stop myself from retorting, “And is a review of one’s book life changing? Is a tiny little award a spiritual, nirvanic event?” I can never tell him about my day, my work, my new client, or that the last year’s Excellence Award should have been mine. The slut was sleeping with the VP, but the awards newsletter lauded her ‘proactive involvement and selfless contribution to Corporate Social Responsibility in addition to exceptional year on year rating by her supervisor’. But I can’t tell him. He won’t listen. He will look at me with something like pity in his eyes, not because I was not promoted, no, but because ‘I haven’t gotten over it.’ He got fired and was laughing about it at dinner. That worthless son of a…
I have seen his joy when his artist and writer friends come to visit; “they look up to me as their intellectual leader”, he says. Together they converse in low tones, giggles and random references to obscure writers and books, which I can neither discern nor get. Not that they talk to me or when I am around, but the moment they think I am out of earshot, out come the weed joints amidst loud, raucous jokes. Are they making fun of me? I have listened in to their conversations a few times without catching any reference to me. But it always feels that they are making fun of me, that he is making fun of me, for something – maybe for not knowing those writers, those books, or for being the ‘quintessential corporate stooge’ as he lovingly calls me.

***

I was in Class II when I stood first. I held a ‘rank’ for the first time. Class teacher, classmates and mummy-papa were surprised. I beamed as the teacher called out my name and asked the class to clap for me. She said to my grinning mummy-papa, “I am very happy with her progress. You must have worked really hard with her. She is very quiet, but then I can’t complain, when most of the children are just too talkative”, and she gave them a quick laugh.

Shiv Manjari no longer refused to touch my notebooks, teachers remembered my first name and I got selected for being a leader – not class leader, but cupboard leader, library leader etc. Once when I sneezed hard, in the middle of a carol rehearsal, and my glasses fell and broke, no one laughed till Shiv let out her annoying chortling giggle, muttering, “and there we go again, nosey girl”. Resisting the impulse to bang her head onto the piano keys, I went and sat with the non-participants while the singers practiced to her tune. This time many girls weren’t participating and I made friends with Zaheen whose coir like hair made girls laugh, and two other girls whose names I didn’t know. The four of us would happily play Name-Place-Animal-Thing through the two weeks those carol practices lasted.

Our class didn’t win a prize. The Class Teacher and the lead singer Shiv Manjari were disappointed. I was thrilled. My heart swelled as the results were announced. Two weeks of games, three new friends, and no prize for the class in the stupid carol competition. School was suddenly fun.

***

My phone rings. It is my boss. “Yes, Mahesh. By Monday Mahesh. Sure. Yes, of course”. I mention nothing about Girish’s job. My promotion is due next month and that is the only thing I am asking of my boss. And why does he, the intellectual leader, need me, the corporate stooge, to do him a favor? That too by jeopardizing my own promotion? Doesn’t he understand the delicate balance of given and taken favors? I can’t risk failing. Avanti Chopra does not fail.

I remember the dream.  Shiv was part of a large group of Bengali girls who would whisper among one another and lapse into fits of giggles, leaving everyone around bewildered and a little resentful. I can see parts of her - white shirt, cobalt blue box pleated skirt, short socks, slim limbs, bare knees, black eyes, sharp jaw… She would throw her legs apart while walking and she was left-handed. But I can’t recall her face; I remember the ‘Weeping Nude’ from one of Girish’s fancy art books.

Every time I achieve something, I think of Shiv. Where is she? What is she doing? The last time I heard, she was teaching music to schoolchildren, while I earned my B.Tech. from IIT, Bombay. The time I got my first job, the time I got promoted and the time I won the Young Employee of the Year award – every time I thought of her. I have been thinking of her all morning. Does it mean that my promotion is close? Thrilled, I cross my fingers.

***

I caught up, replaced and finally surpassed her with each passing year in school. There was a deafening cheer when I was announced the School Captain. My friends chanted collectively, ‘AVANTI AVANTI AVANTI’. Where was she? Did she hear it? The girls picked me up on their shoulders and carried me around the Assembly Grounds. Onlookers clapped, teachers laughed and Sister Wilhelmina wished me luck for a ‘successful year in office’. Teachers trusted me. The Principal thought I was the best School Captain in a decade. And junior students idolized me.   

The ICSE projects were a big deal, and strangely, a month after the deadline, when the corrections started, I found that Shiv’s journal was not among the ones stacked in the cupboard. Where was her journal? Hadn’t she submitted it? Would it affect her grades? Would she flunk? Exciting possibilities! On the pretext of rearranging the cupboard and listing its contents, I informed the teacher of three missing journals, two of which I was sure were already with her. I was testing the waters.

Shiv stopped me in the corridor later that day; she glared at me, “Avanti Chopra, what did you tell the Class Teacher? She is asking me all sorts of questions! They are going to take away my house captaincy. My project work is lost. I will have to rework it.”

It sounded like I had struck. Finally it was time to even things out with her: for things involuntarily remembered, episodes forcibly forgotten and the pinching, cutting sediments of days that had turned sour only because she had been present. Straightening my shoulders, piercing her with a blazing gaze I spoke in my most solemn, good-student, dutiful-leader voice, “Shiv Manjari Mukherjee, you did two wrong things – first, you did not submit your project work, and second, you are lying that it went missing from the cupboard.

Wide eyed, she gulped hard. “Didn’t you hear what I said? My file has been stolen from the cupboard, after I submitted it.

I narrowed an eye and hissed. “And why would someone do that - steal a mediocre nobody’s journal?”

“Who are you calling a mediocre nobody?” She yelled tremulously.

“Or should I ask, why would someone steal the work of a student who never stands first? Or second? Or third? Oh, but you did once, in KG, didn’t you?” I laughed harshly. I was no longer the School Captain. I was no longer even Avanti. No, I was Chopra – the first-nameless, ever-sneezing, laughed-at Chopra of KG II whose green velvet tree dress was a lumpy cushion in the guest room. And then I transformed again, from a red-glasses, black-bobby pins clad toddler into an adult who understood in a flash how the world worked – the law of conservation. Success did not lie only in standing first or winning that gold medal. Success also meant never to be made fun of. 

Her chin quivered and, before I realized, tears were flowing down her cheeks onto her chest. Shocked, I extended my handkerchief but, petrified, she backed away from me, turned on her heels and scurried toward the toilets. I swayed for a moment, blinked after her, looked around the empty corridor to see if anyone had heard, then made a beeline for the Teacher’s cabin.

***

I log into my Facebook account after ages, seeking reprieve from work. I have been promoted today. I update my status, “‘Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life - think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.’ ~ Swami Vivekanand. Happy to share that I am the youngest Project Manager my firm has ever seen

I scroll down my timeline and my heart starts hammering. A month-old post by Zaheen where she has tagged fifteen or so school friends. RIP. RIP? Who? How? This can’t be... She can’t be… must be a mistake. Shiv Manjari – the palm-tapping, carol-singing, class-prowling Shiv Manjari? This couldn’t have happened! The post is one month old. I see flashes - Girish’s interview, the dream.

Trembling, I turn off my computer. Icy hands squeeze my heart and I find breathing difficult as questions hit me like bolts of lightning. Had she ever noticed me? Had she remembered my Class Leader badge? Or my School Captain badge? Or my Best Outgoing Student trophy? I try to breathe. Had she ever thought of me at all?

Of course she had. My heart starts hammering again. She had promised.

***

The Principal and the Class Teacher summoned Shiv. She wrung her hands, wailed and moaned in intelligible Bengali as I peeked into the cabin. At the next morning assembly, Sister Wilhelmina, her habit rippling in the October breeze, spoke in her throaty lilt “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, If a soul sin, and commit a trespass against the LORD, and lie unto his neighbour…or hath deceived his neighbour…and lieth concerning it, and sweareth falsely; in any of all these that a man doeth, sinning therein: Then it shall be, because he hath sinned, and is guilty.”And went on to say that she did not tolerate liars in her school, least of all among the School Cabinet; such a student who not only missed the project deadline but also lied about it would receive the lowest marks in her internal assessment, which will affect her ICSE grade.

Shiv was stripped of her House Captaincy, the entire School witness to it. White-faced through it, sweat pouring from her forehead, unblinking eyes blazing into space, nostrils flaring tremulously, she clenched and unclenched her jaw. Shiv stopped coming to school after that. A black dot was placed on her picture in the photograph of the Cabinet of Class of 1997 hung on the wall facing the grand staircase.

Four months later, I saw her on the first day of the ICSE Board exams when two school nuns were leading us into the Chapel for prayers. She waited outside the high polished doors, refusing to enter, while we knelt down and prayed. As we trooped out, she fell in line with me. Inexplicably fearful, I couldn’t look at or talk to her. What was she trailing me for? With spreading unease, I walked faster, pretending to try catching up with the group of girls walking ahead of us.

“Why are you running away from me? Don’t you remember me?” she whispered hoarsely.

“I am not running away. We have an exam in twenty minutes in case you don’t remember.” I felt dizzy.

With haunted eyes and twisted mouth she spoke evenly, “Oh, I remember. I remember everything. I will remember everything. And I WILL remember you, Chopra. Till the day I die. I promise.”

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