His hands were wrapped tightly around his father’s waist. His cheek crushed against his father’s spine, as they slowed down rapidly to go over a speed breaker. A light mist covered the city and the roads, as father and son moved on a scooter which emitted smoke and sound in equal volumes.
The boy gripped on, looking plain terrified. He was not worried about his father driving rashly; which was near impossible. Not because his father was a careful man, but mostly because the scooter could not overtake a snail on sleeping pills. He was not even worried about the fact that it was the first day of upper grade school. That meant no more kindergarten, no more bossy old hags hanging around you, no more school meals, no more of that cajoling and petting and prodding that had almost driven him crazy.
The terror lay at the bottom of the bag that swung back and forth at the handlebars, as his father weaved through the non-existent traffic. He flung a look of deep disgust at it.
The car swept into the school campus, making a wide arc. The smart chauffeur gave a glance at the boy watching grumpily, sitting in the back seat. He got out and opened the door for his little master. The little master opened the door from the other side and stepped out. He then walked to him and said, “Uncle, it is fine. Can you please walk me to the classroom?” he asked in a small voice, all grumpiness gone.
The chauffeur looked at him in surprise, but recovered quickly, “Give me two minutes to park the car, sir,” he said. He quickly found a free parking spot and ran back to the little master, who by now had started walking towards the building. The chauffeur took both the bags from him.
They reached a single building that was set apart from the others. All first, second and third standard classes were housed in this building that was adjacent to a small playground. The little master eyed the ground yearningly, as he took back his bags. There was no spring in his step.
The father and the chauffeur looked at their receding backs and smiled to themselves.
‘TRRRRRRRRRIIIIINNNNNGGGG,’ a piercing squeal sliced through the drone of the teacher’s stentorian voice.
She had no inclination to stop and went on, engrossed in completing the sentence; ignoring the sounds of shuffling that had suddenly enveloped the classroom like a bunch of bees who had just discovered that their queen was dead. After what seemed like the time taken for Sachin to hit the 100th century, she said, “That should be enough. You can leave for lunch now. It is for one hour. Make sure you collect your notebooks on the way out,” she said. All the boys, hunger pangs striking at their very being, hurriedly stuffed their books down their bags, threw their pencils into their boxes and made their way to the area where their lunches awaited.
He too followed them, every step weighed down by dread and portent humiliation. His nemesis was not something that could be reckoned or argued with. He looked around the classroom and his eyes fell on one boy who was still scribbling something furiously in his book. His Faber-Castell pencil shone in the afternoon sunlight, his shirt without a single crease, in contrast to the multiple creases on his forehead.
A white cake floated by.
The tree in the middle of the playground stood stoic, spreading its motherly branches across the ground. Bunches of students gathered into newly formed gangs; gangs formed by neighborhood love, gangs formed due to same bench love, gangs formed from having had the same answers in class, gangs who became gangs in the purest meaning of that word.
He stood around, unaccepted and confused. He deliberated with his 4-year old brain and decided to sit by himself.
He made his way to one end of the tree, just outside the periphery of the shade and used his legs to clear out the dried leaves and ants. He took out a small towel that his mother had packed and spread it on the ground. He sat down, unaware of the pair of eyes that were on him. He took out his lunchbox from the basket and opened it. It was a two-tiered box. A spoon was stuck to its side.
The top part contained a sliver of lemon pickle, red and intimidating. He shivered and opened the lower part. The white cake stared back at him in defiance. He stared back at it with increased defiance.
Dehydrated curd rice.
He stuck his spoon in it and took it out, sprinkles of caked rice sticking to the spoon. He stifled the nausea, which grew overwhelming by the minute. Suddenly, a shadow fell over him. A hand came from nowhere. The hand held a cup of fresh curd; which was promptly dumped on the rice. He looked up at the shadow. Another spoon, a silver one, appeared out of nowhere and fell upon mixing the rice with a great sense of purpose.
He smiled. The hand’s owner remained intent on the task at hand, like a kid building the Lego set of a Rohit Shetty movie scene. And once the job was done, he took out the silver spoon and gave it a thorough lick, eyes partly closed in bliss.
Nausea bought an unreserved ticket and caught a train to the Himalayas to spend the rest of its life in meditation and penance. He plunged his own spoon into the box and slurped it. Taste buds exploded and angels sang. A touch of the pickle, gently placed on the tongue, pushed the overall feeling to ephemeral heights.
His nemesis had been successfully routed. Alexander would have been proud of this culinary conquest.
But he had something left to do.
He held out his lunchbox to the shadow’s owner.
After ten minutes, an empty lunchbox had two spoons, cleanly licked with the efficiency of a Eletrolux vaccum cleaner. Forgotten. The owners were in an animated conversation about Pokemon.
It was the beginning of a seventeen year-old friendship.
Which is still going strong.