I was invited to the annual function of our school as the chief guest. After my novel’s overwhelming response, calls and heartfelt wishes poured in, even from the ones I didn’t expect any calls from. I was glad that the book could play a part in reminding both the parties of each other’s existence. It was even more gratifying to realize that people were aware of my book- they were aware of my endeavour as an author. Amongst those calls, some were from my teachers from school. Bipin Sir, who used to teach us social sciences, was the first one to give me a call. I could sense the delight in his voice and he informed me that the school was planning to invite me as the chief guest for their annual function. My joy took a quantum leap that very minute. I took a moment to let the news sink in, before quickly agreeing to it. Getting invited to my Alma-Mater as a guest was really special. To achieve something in life is one thing- but to earn recognition for it is a greater high altogether; that too, from those people who have known me since my childhood, who have seen me grow right in front of their eyes. It was a huge validation for my new-found success – a pat on my back that I probably needed.
On the day of the event, I headed straight towards the Principal’s room after reaching school. My interaction session with the students was scheduled to be in the second half, after the tiffin break. But my excitement made me reach much earlier. The Principal’s room seemed like an enormous banquet hall- almost the size of our ground. Her desk was placed in one corner of the room with a wooden name-plate put on top of it, and a big oval conference table rested on the other corner. Empty chairs, in perfect symmetry, surrounded it. Each of the tables had a small decorative flower basket. The room was bordered with cupboards from all sides. Their upper part was covered with transparent glass and the lower part was wooden. All of them were filled with books. But the most salient feature of the entire room was the photographs hanging on the walls, which made it seem like a photo exhibition gallery. I got up and started taking a stroll around the room, often letting my eyes roam around those photos. I took a trip down the memory lane- when we were studying, that room used to be a storeroom. Principal’s room was on the first floor of the building back then and the second and the third floor were yet to come into being. That storeroom used to be our favoured spot whenever we played hide and seek. The peon’s table and the small waiting cabin occupied the exact spot now where there used to lay a bunch of abandoned desks and benches earlier, which I used to use for hiding under.
I went near to the photos to have a closer look, with my arms behind my back and wearing a benign smirk on my face, which was over pouring with nostalgia by then. Ma’am entered the room that very moment and the smirk on my face was smoothly transferred to hers, taking along a bit of nostalgia with it too. She put some files on the table and sat on her chair. But her eyes kept dawdling around the photos.
“Can you find yourself in any of those,” she asked.
“I am trying to, Ma’am,” I replied.
“Look at the other wall. I think there are several of your photos on that one. There should be one in the big frame. When you and your batch-mates secured state ranks.”
“Yeah, I saw that one,” I started moving towards the photo as if I had to oblige what Ma’am was saying, even though I had seen it before.
“What a proud moment it was for all of us! How many of you were there? I mean, how many of you got ranks?”
Just when I was about to reply, she herself continued, “Eight, right? Yeah, eight out of 20 ranks were from our school. Can you imagine? That was our highest ever. No other batch could repeat what you guys did.”
I was listening to all of it with a slight sense of awkwardness. But that didn’t stop Ma’am from carrying on with her words of praise- “Your batch was special. There were many brilliant students… Your batch also had a few dummies, nevertheless. But still, most of you were quite good at your studies.”
I was trying to avoid partaking in any conversation with Ma’am as I was at a loss of words to shape a perfect response. The best I could come up with was a smile, with an added gesture of nodding my head at times. Ma’am got back to leafing through her files and I kept looking at the photos as I had nothing else to do to kill time. I wanted to meet the teachers as I had not been to school for more than five years. But most of them were new faces and a very few of the ones who used to teach us were still teaching. Visiting the school after such a long time felt like meeting a person whose soul I was familiar with, but not the physique- as if it was the same old soul trapped inside the body of an entirely different human being, and that old soul, too, was almost on the verge of losing its earlier essence. After passing out, I kept going back to school on different occasions- sometimes for saraswati puja, sometimes on annual functions, once during the sports week when a cricket match was played amongst the alumni. But after I moved out of Assam, I had hardly been to school. At most, I would drive by it on the odd occasion whenever I had some work nearby. In these five years, the school has changed quite a bit. There are two properly finessed four-storeyed buildings now which were under construction during our times, along with another newly-built one on the opposite side of the ground. The canteen resembles a food court of some big shopping mall- tables lying all-around a big hall. The menu lies on top of every table and even the canteen staff has uniforms now. The entrance gate has also changed. It looks like a huge entrance to some old Mughal monument. The number of buses has increased. There were only six when we studied, and we could say what number the bus was just by looking at the headlights. The only thing that didn’t change was the ground. It looked exactly the same as it used to back in the day. There was still no grass on it. One had to water it at least once a day so that the dust would be under control. Irrespective of the season, people would always feel that it rained there just a few moments back. The Royal Poinciana tree still stood tall on the corner of the ground- and the Devadaru trees still surrounded the ground like a perfectly sketched boundary of a rectangle.
Ma’am asked me whether I wanted to have a cup of tea. Just when she was about to summon the peon, I politely declined and took that opportunity to go out of the room telling her that I would be back in some time. As I was moving towards the canteen, I chanced upon Barman Da, the accountant of our school. He took a fleeting moment to recognize me at first. But when I mentioned my name, it immediately struck his mind and he tagged me along to his room. It was the same room. As far as I could remember, only the positions of the cupboards had changed- and perhaps increased in number too. He himself didn’t change much either apart from a bit of grey hair growing here and there. He told me that he had an assistant now and pointed out to the guy sitting at the other desk of that small room. He wasn’t aware of my book. He wasn’t aware that I was invited for the talk either. I asked him to join if he could. He smiled back mildly saying that he had too much work. “The school would come to a halt if I stop working,” he threw a cheeky smirk at me. “These meetings and talks are for you people. Not for us. But I’ll still try. After all, I’ve seen you since you were this small,” he gestured my height with his hands. “It will be nice to see you on the dais,” he added.
I was sitting towards the corner of the canteen which looked quite deserted. With the classes going on, there was a dearth of people inside the canteen. There were a few group of teachers, none of whom I knew, scattered at random. As I was taking the first sip of my tea, I caught sight of a guy who seemed strangely familiar to me. I was doing my utmost to recall who he was, but couldn’t join the dots in my head. He was working in the canteen as a waiter. Just when I was straining my memory to figure it out, someone shouted out his name- “Rana, two cups of tea.” It struck me then, Rana was his name- my classmate.
Rana and I were classmates for three years. He was two years senior to me initially, but he failed the exams twice in the eighth standard and winded up in our class. Rana was the son of one of our school’s bus drivers- Deka Da. We didn’t know what Deka Da’s actual name was- we used to address him by his surname. Most of the employees, in fact, were rather known by their surnames amongst the students- Deka Da, Barman Da, Sharma Da etc. Rana had a very towering persona. He was tall and muscular; and looked much older than his actual age. That earned him his nickname “khura”, owing to his uncle-like image. He used to be amused by it too. He himself often addressed the rest of us as his nephews. He was the obvious choice for standing in the back during the morning prayers and also when the class group photos were clicked. He always stood out from the rest because of his physical mien. The other thing that made him stand out was his academics. He was terrible in almost every subject. He himself wasn’t much interested in studies. He was one of those “dummies” that principal Ma’am often referred to. Even his roll number was the last amongst all the students in our section- 38. But Rana really excelled at painting. Our school used to have the Saturdays reserved for the extra-curricular activities and I was in the same painting class as Rana. Most of us would try to sit around him on Saturdays because he used to lend us a hand with our drawings after he was done with his own. That was the only subject he scored well in. In fact, he always topped. But it never extended its shine to his mark-sheet. His painting expertise would always be eclipsed under the tremendous pressure of the half-yearly and annual tests. The ingenuity he showcased with the brushes somehow could never earn as much importance as Science or Maths or English did.
My tea was getting colder as I was trying to form some eye-contact with Rana. I didn’t know whether he recognized me, or even noticed me, for that matter. It was just about ten years that I was seeing him. And I had changed quite drastically in these ten years. I grew taller, a little healthier and grew quite a thick beard too. But he was more or less the same. He must have tanned a bit, but was as tall and healthy as he used to be. He walked in the same manner, with his shoulders exquisitely upright. His hair was slightly shorter and there was still no sign of facial hair. He used to get scolded for having long hair back in school. It was considered a breach of etiquettes back then. His other features and qualities must have also altered minutely if not much. But I never noticed him that well enough to even gauge that. He was never a part of our friend circle- Our gang. I didn’t know who his friends were- or, who were the people he was close to. He was not in our WhatsApp group. I didn’t remember him ever being mentioned by anyone in the group conversations in those ten years. I wasn’t even sure if anyone knew or cared about where he was or what he was doing. The only interactions I had with him during our school days was during those saturday classes and sometimes during school week as his physical strength was one of our strongest weapons in many of the games we played, especially kabaddi and tug-of-war. The other memory I had of Rana was travelling together in my car after school was over; even though on rare occasions. I was always dropped at and picked up from school by our driver, whereas most of the other kids travelled either by school bus or by the city transport buses. Rana’s home was in the same direction as mine. I never knew exactly where he lived. But I remembered dropping him, time to time, near the Noonmati Petrol Station while going home. Whenever I saw him walking home after school, I would ask him to hop in. He would oblige sometimes, and refuse politely on some other occasions. Whenever he travelled with me, he would quietly sit at the back without speaking much. He was anyway a man of few words. At least, I remembered him that way. Sometimes, I would try to engage him in a chat about the songs I usually played in the car. But he never passed any comments and usually listened to whatever I played. He seemed lucidly indifferent towards it. The maximum he would speak was about the exams every now and then and how unnecessary he used to find them.
The bell rang for the tiffin break and the ground was flooded with students in the blink of an eye. Teachers and students came rushing to the canteen and it turned into a market-place within seconds. I quickly gulped down the remaining sips of my cup of tea. Just when I was about to stand up from my seat, a few of my teachers came towards me with extremely jovial faces. I stoop up, bent down and touched their feet one by one. There were a bunch of students also, lurking around us with the definitive purpose of overhearing our conversation. Different questions and opinions from different directions came frolicking towards me- “when did you arrive”- “you look so matured now, but what’s up with this beard? I can’t understand what is wrong with your generation! Everyone keeps a beard nowadays”- “we were just discussing about you. I read your book just a few days back. It is so wonderfully written,”- I was listening to all of it bearing an awkward smile on my face. I kept turning my head towards whoever was speaking and just stood there with my smile as an unwavering response to everything they said. The students were also ogling at me. I could have a hunch that Rana was looking at me too. But it was so crowded that my view was totally blocked. He was just slightly visible through a small gap I could figure out in the huge assembly of people. He was taking orders and serving food. But I wasn’t particularly certain whether he looked at me because he recognized me, or he did it because I was being treated like some kind of a star at that moment. I wasn’t even sure if he was aware that someone was being invited to deliver a talk- that “someone” being his classmate- his childhood friend. Just when my mind was delving deep into a world of its own, flying away from the physical reality of that moment, Bipin Sir spoke, “go a little easy on him. Save your questions to ask him later. We have him for the entire event.”
The visual of the ground seemed somewhat familiar. It served as a tunnel linking me to my ten years younger self. Coming out of the canteen, I stood on the ground for a moment near one of the devadaru trees. There were small discrete groups scattered all across the ground. All of them were busy in their own tiny playgrounds. There were around five to ten cricket pitches. Any wooden plank that could be found was being used as the bat and the ball varied from group to group. Some played with the green Cosco ball, some used a little harder red Maruti ball and the younger kids were playing with a plastic one. The broader wooden planks were used as the stumps, along with a pile of bricks at the non-striker’s end. A few of the students were playing football on the side with a plastic bottle. Small bamboo sticks were put on one side and two big boulders on the other to decide the width of the goalposts. At times, the cricket players would set foot in the territory of the football players inadvertently and on other occasions, the opposite would happen. They would direct furious howls towards each other adding to the already loud soundscape of the ground. The girls were busy playing a bunch of other games forming groups of their own. Some were running around playing dhora-dhori (tag), and a couple of others were occupied with kho-kho on the opposite side. Two boys, who probably didn’t get their batting chances, joined the girls later to play dhora-dhori. A few others were sitting under the Royal Poinciana having their snacks. That was the ideal spot to be in for any spectator as one could see the entire ground from there. The rest of them spent the tiffin break in the corridors. Students gathered in front of each of the classrooms in all four floors. They were standing in groups- some having their tiffin, some looking at the ground from their preferred spot and some gossiping amongst themselves predicting the probable future of the most-talked-about romance of their class. All I could see at that moment was not individual faces, but a bunch of enthusiastic kids passionately engaged in whatever they felt like doing. Their individual presence wasn’t of prominence at that point. Rather they seemed like just a bunch of sky-blue shirts and grey pants & skirts loitering all around the school.
It was time for the big moment and the podium was temptingly adorned. When we were in school, it used to be just a makeshift raised platform. It was changed into this massive concrete open stage having a proper pavilion with a capacity of at least 500 people. It was a little intimidating to even look at it. I didn’t imagine the event to be organized on such a grand scale. There was a huge table ornamented with flowers, with my name written on a paper in both English and Assamese. There was a standee on one side of the stage with the cover of my book, and another on the other side with my photo printed on it along with a brief description written on the bottom-right corner. I couldn’t help budging closer to read what was written. There were plastic chairs set up in two long rows for the teachers to sit in the small space between the stage and the pavilion. There were still around 15-20 minutes for the program to start and there weren’t too many people around the stage till then. But I could see the students coming out of their classrooms with teachers accompanying them to avoid much chaos. The stage reminded me of the day when the results of the tenth boards were out. Everyone gathered aroundthat very stage on that day also. Everyone was immensely proud of our batch- the golden batch. Eight of us were amongst the state rank holders. Media houses didn’t let us breathe even for a second. There were reporters all around interviewing all of us. We were being clicked every moment. The teachers, our juniors, our batch-mates, their parents, all the employees- earnest greetings came flying towards us from every direction. We were felicitated with garlands of flower and gamosas. As a matter of fact, even my father had to wait for five minutes to talk to me because there were so many people encircling me. Even my parents were surrounded by people constantly and their phones too didn’t stop ringing. I remembered how Rana came haring towards me that day when he saw me, with a huge grin on his face. But he had to wait too. He was also looking at me through the little gap he could find in the huge assembly of people, just the way I was looking at him in the canteen ten years later. After a couple of minutes, he hugged me tightly congratulating me for my results. I was so engrossed in the celebration of my own that I couldn’t even care to ask him about his results. I completely forgot that it was his results day as well; just the way the entire school and the media forgot that there were around hundred others apart from the rank holders who appeared for the same exam.
While I was interacting with the students, my mind kept going back to Rana. I saw him once standing at quite a distance from the stage when I was addressing the audience. But I could clearly see him looking at me. I realized that he recognized me- I was pretty sure this time. He most likely bore the same sort of a grin on his face while looking at me delivering a speech. I was asked by many students to narrate anecdotes from our school days. And somehow, my mind kept hovering around Rana only. I kept searching for interesting stories related to Rana in the casket of my memories, but couldn’t find much. As the interaction session was coming to an end, I kept looking around from time to time, to see whether Rana was still standing there. I couldn’t spot him apart from that one time. I was hoping that the session would conclude soon so that I could go talk to him, or at least see him once. I didn’t have any idea of what I would say to him. But I still craved for meeting him once hoping that I would probably come up with something when I do. After the event ended, I walked towards my car, which was parked near the canteen. I somehow, with utmost hassle, carried all of the things myself to the car and put them on the front seat- things I got as tokens of felicitation- a gamosa, a japi, and a memento. I was putting myself together to go to the canteen to meet Rana. I still hadn’t figured out how I would greet him, or what I would talk to him about. But I was firmly convinced that I needed to meet him at least once. Just when I was about to turn, I could see Rana already drawing closer. I was hoping that he himself would trigger a conversation. And to my utmost relief, he did. And all I did was just stand there with a feigned smile, swiftly trying to hide my anxiety.
“You have changed so much man,” he started. “This beard… I was trying to figure out whether it was really you. Remember how we used to tease you for not having a single facial hair?”
“I was also guessing whether it was you or not! It’s when someone called you by your name, then only…”
“It’s been almost… How many years? Ten years? Ten years, right? It’s been almost ten years, man…”
“Yeah… Ten years… Almost ten years…”
“By the way, I like your car. Is it new?”
“Yeah… Yeah, it is. I bought it a few months back.”
“Yeah… Looks like it.”
Our conversation over other trivial things didn’t escalate much from this monotonous exchange. He asked me a few things about my life and I did too, in response. Both of us didn’t actually have much to say to each other. I had so many things stirring inside my mind. But somehow I couldn’t let them out. I wanted to get his number and ask him about Deka Da. I wanted to ask him whether he was still pursuing painting. I wanted to ask him if I could drop him home, or rather near the Noonmati Petrol Pump. But I didn’t- I couldn’t. There was an invisible wall between us made up of ten years of time, and a whole lot of other things, which refused to fall off. I thought of myself for a fleeting moment- how comfortable and cushioned I was in my own privileges that I perhaps lost the ability to even connect to a fellow human being, that too, a childhood friend. I got in my car and was ready to leave. I was slowing down the entire process so that I somehow could come up with something to talk to him about- so that I could break out of my discomfort and ask him all the things I genuinely wanted to ask. I lowered the glass of the left window. I smiled. He smiled back. I, once again, thought of making a fervent attempt of asking him to hop in so that I could drop him home. But I didn’t- I couldn’t.
Adhiraj Kashyap is from the city of Guwahati. He is professionally a filmmaker and is currently studying Film Direction at the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). After completing his master’s in Physics, he opted to run behind his passion instead and decided to take formal training in Filmmaking. His interest in literature has grown with time and the format of short fiction has always attracted his attention more than anything else.
Photo by Husniati Salma on Unsplash