She looked out of the window. She looked out of windows a lot, although, mostly, she found the act vaguely unsatisfying, like a half-promise not kept. As if she was owed an explanation, which she was not, by the system of things, about why things were the way they were, why her daughter was ill and why some things turned out one way and some another. As if some day there’d be an Explanation in the shape of an angel, maybe, dancing with amazing crystal grace and clarity on her front lawn, and she’d go out with open arms and an expression of utter relief on her face, saying this is it, this is it after all. Not that she wasn’t a practical woman, completely aware that the neem tree outside would shed yellow leaves in March or sigh sweetly when the first moist winds blew in July. All that would happen, just as surely as everything else happened. Or not, actually. Or not. Not everything happened. Some things, surely, didn’t happen.
Grippin, for example.
The school is graceful red brick, edged with yellowish sandstone, built in the late nineteenth century by an Italian architect. Frizzoni, or was it Fellini? You go up a gravel path lined with gulmohars, and there it is, surrounded by a huge garden, heavy with bees and roses in winter. Sometimes the yucca flowers, its amazing plastic bells and dagger leaves drawing the children at lunch-time. Not that anyone dares actually step into the gardens. They all congregate on the gravel path which goes right round the school building, under the watchful patrolling eye of the “Tiffin sister.” She is large, and wears flip-flopping white slippers. Her thick red ankles look ridiculous and a little obscene, mercilessly exposed from under her too-short habit, and her kindly flat face is disfigured by a large purple birthmark that has stamped her left cheek to eternal pity. Who knows what she thinks as she chivvies the children or covertly takes a well-thumbed paperback novel out of her pocket?
The garden as it flanks the school is fairly formal, laid out in orderly beds and trim little hedges. But behind the school, it is another world. The trees crowd thickly around the little chapel and sick-room, and a narrow path winds through forever, it seems, into a mysterious dark distance where no sunshine ever enters, away from the school, away from the tinny feel of Eng. Lit. and Moral Science lessons, away from the ammonia reek of the Chem. lab.
Rads and she once evaded the Tiffin sister and ventured into that alluring virgin forest. It was lovely and deeply cool, even in mid May, and they went right into the seducing greenness of it, hearts beating out of control, it not being in their power to turn back, not now, not now that they were so far into it, into the velvety softness of an almost spring even though it was May in school, and then they saw the well with the strange carved stone ledge around the lip. The ledge was low, broad and mossy, patterned with fleur-de-lis, and almost attractive enough to sit on, were it not for the danger, or maybe because of the danger. A gasp of pleasure went throbbing through them as they accepted forbidden fruit. It was so beautiful. Why was there a well here, and why on earth was it edged with sandstone patterned with fleur-de-lis? Rads, always the boldest of their group, went right up on the ledge and looked into the well, working her eyebrows up and down in the comical fashion which meant that she was really impressed, overcome with the depth of it, down, down, to the distant dark disk that was the calling water, but Laila pulled her back and they suddenly found themselves running, faster and faster, back into the normalcy of school and the protecting keep of the Tiffin sister.
Laila was fifteen when the new boy joined the school. For two days Class 11 B held themselves aloof, watching and pondering. They looked at his red schoolbag. Red? There were other decisions, too. His hair, for one, which fell over his forehead, movie-star fashion. Then they suddenly realized that the new boy was not waiting for their decision, but was smoothly, with utter aplomb, sliding into what was practically an all-girl group, because Nippo the nerd hardly counted.
Was he talking to her? How should she react?
He smiled, and moved closer to her.
The class watched them surreptitiously, aware that Vipin was breaking unwritten rules of engagement. Refusing, in fact, to let them apply.
“Not that one. That’s nitric. You need sulphuric.”
“Oh. Um...thanks,” she said, a little embarrassed. Chemistry isn’t everything, she told herself with a touch of belligerence. It’s not even anything. He’s kind of cute, though. And smart enough to know his acids, from the look of it. Uh huh.
“Look, let me show you how.” And he took over her table.
Vipin entered into membership with the charming skill of complete self-confidence.
Rads started a diary, unbelievably, sobbing into it every night for about a month, and Priya actually lost some weight.
But she, Laila, became his real friend, she, and Nippo, who didn’t count. For one thing, Nippo was a nerd. For another, Nippo was male, and everyone knew that boys shared boy stuff with other boys and it didn’t mean a thing. What she meant was, look at that brother of his. One year younger, totally pulverised by pimples into one big pimple, nobody in school even knew his name, really. Hard lines on him, actually, what with his brother and all. Rads did try a bit. Hi, and all. How was the movie? Yeah, gripping. Did you read the book? Yeah, gripping. God, he was so pathetic. Gripping! She always wondered later why he said it twice, and with such emphasis...maybe he’d just learnt the word? Or his mind had frozen up or something. Or he was that kind of boy, the kind who said Yeah gripping to a pretty girl trying her best to include him. Well, he had it coming. Vipin and Grippin. Subtitle: The Lovelock and the Pimple. Anyway, the point she was making was that Vipin always towed his non-existent pestilence of a brother around and didn’t that prove that she was more important than Nippo?
Grippin was really good at origami, always fashioning those pointy white birds with complicated wings that seemed to be on the verge of flying off, as if the passage of a few seconds would translate their existence to another language, in which they were to be seen not here on a table but against a blue sky, reaching out effortlessly. Maybe it wasn’t the birds, though. Maybe it was him. His pimples.
It had been raining on and off all morning when she and Rads had the crazy idea of checking out the well again. At least, Rads did, while Laila made half-hearted noises of discomfort and Nippo went oh-no-no-no-no, and his thin lips went wibble-wobble in dismay. But Rads said it was really important to see how the well looked in the rain with the sandstone all wet and the trees dripping overhead and the way she said it, they just had to go, even Nippo. She was like that. And Grippin, he was there too, staring at Rads in that quiet pimply way of his, and sort of went along because no one said no, because in any case, who talked to him much.
They ran there, slipping a little, and Nippo going what if there are snakes, there could be snakes all the way and there it was, the Grail, and they stopped, unsure of what to do next till Rads climbed up on to the sandstone ledge and stood there, posing, smiling, with the spirit of conquest in her eyes.
And Grippin, poor sod, he was an acolyte as he stepped on to the ledge beside her, for the first time in his life trying to be one of his origami birds, his socks bunching wetly around his pathetic ankles, seeking desperately for a defining gesture that would prove his existence to Rads, right there on the fleur-de-lis, and then they saw him slipping, slipping frighteningly, unbelievably beyond the lip, not even screaming and no! Not smiling, because surely they hadn’t been that mean to him, surely no gesture was worth more than the unborn ghosts that floated out of the well, the son who maybe had a lovelock, the wife who maybe turned towards him in contented sleep in the unforgiving cold of an Allahabad winter, the song he never heard, the book he’d have loved...
She looked out of windows a lot, but there were never any explanations, and none had ever, really, been promised.
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