Four Days before the Saturday Night Social
It was after school hours. Almost an hour ago, either Krishna or Jimmy had rung the bell, a continual pealing that seemed to release a spring in the backs of the boys and girls, who jumped out of their chairs and proceeded to throw, without ceremony or compassion, their books into their satchels. It was then useless for a teacher to try to be heard, or to beat the table despairingly with the back of a duster, raising dramatic puffs of chalk-dust, for the boys hard-heartedly assumed deafness; one or two ‘good girls’ who raised their arms even now, a full twenty seconds after the bell, to ask a relevant question, further irritated the teacher, who, her hands powdered with sediments of green and white chalk, wanted to be upstairs in the teachers’ common room, pouring tea from her cup into her saucer and very slowly sipping it. Preparing, like Atlas, to lift a tottering load of brown-paper-covered exercise books full of long, ingenious bluffers’ answers, she, in a moment of mischief and vindictiveness, said to a ‘good girl’: ‘Lata, will you please carry these for me upstairs?’ So impenitently angelic was the girl that she agreed without a murmur of resentment, with an air of perpetual readiness, even.
Mud-stained boys were now, at half-past four, coming in through the main gate after having played rugger, walking with both a tiptoer’s tentativeness and a plodder’s crushing stride in their studded boots. Only one girl, but the prettiest of them all. 7D’s Charmayne, had stayed back, accidentally, to admire this spectacle. The rugger tryouts had taken the trouble, on-field, during the scrum, to wrestle and hug the earth completely, and by the end of it, to return with an unfaultable cosmetic exterior of dirt, sweat, and plastered hair. Not an inch of clean skin, and on their bodies, uncreased cotton, was to be seen, and, on coming through the gate, they were confident of having presented their most redoubtably sluggish, most uncompromisingly slovenly, most acutely male selves to Charmayne, who, however, refused to look directly at them, perhaps out of shyness.
One of the boys, mounting the two steps to the corridor, regarded his left boot, whose lace had come untied. Elegant, casual, and drooping, the untied lace seemed to him a stylish touch, like an illegible but masterly signature, and he left it as it was and clattered off.
Gautam had stayed back with Khusroo because Khusroo had coaxed him into believing that dancing was something that could be learnt. ‘There are no steps, believe me,’ he said. ‘You just have to move, and enjoy yourself.’ And this matter, of moving, and being able to enjoy it, had taken on some importance because the first Senior School Social of the year had been announced, and the date set for Saturday. ‘But you must come,’ insisted Khusroo, who had never shown much interest in Gautam’s spiritual or social evolution. ‘You should come,’ he had said with genuine, though inexplicable, eagerness. Gautam had been, at first, resistant. He could not see himself, much as he would have liked to, wantonly positioning himself a few inches away from a girl, and then, with aplomb, shivering and shaking ecstatically before her. Perhaps he would not mind if she did not look at him, but, contradictorily, perhaps he would mind. Such introspective furrows were left to be smoothed out by Khusroo, who tried to convince Gautam of the ordinariness and rationality of it – that dance was not a wayward display, but a necessary pleasure. Yet Gautam would not have changed his mind had not Anil, at five foot and half an inch, had the temerity to say: ‘Of course I’m going’ – as if it were a right it would be foolish not to exercise. If Anil, at his height, could suffer to relinquish the shield and protection of his white school uniform for the daring intimacy of his social clothes, so could Gautam.
So here they were, standing in the corridor near the gate, in front of one of the Standard 9 classrooms, by the back door to the Chemistry laboratory. The temperature had fallen, imperceptibly, gracefully, to 27 degrees, till the school itself seemed raised to a timeless stratosphere that was neither heaven nor earth, a place rained upon by coolness. The sun became tolerant, and suddenly sunlight was reflected in blinks and flashes, now here, now there, off hidden hospital windows across the street which earlier in the day no one would have guessed even existed. In the trees just outside the school walls – trees whose branches climbed prolifically over roofs and partitions, and ranged freely everywhere like a band of irrepressible trespassers – sparrows had begun to chirp all at once, loudly, excitedly, and probably informatively. Now that the school was empty, it seemed that the life around it had begun to imitate the intent, sometimes shy, play of the schoolchildren, with light bouncing and glancing off one hospital window to the next, chasing certain routes and eluding others, and the invisible birds shouting to each other.