It was a harmless message. A school reunion and a friend asking if I would come. I dived straight in. “Will he be joining too?” “He” was this boy who had walked into my classroom one morning in primary school. He was shy and didn’t look around. He had spiky hair, big eyes and the softest-looking skin. I have thought about him almost every year, and having lost touch, I always wondered what happened of him. Once, when I did get his telephone number, it turned out to be a wrong one.
But the prospect of a school reunion was exciting. Would he have married? Would he have become a father? Is he still the angry young boy or have the years calmed him down? Did he become an architect or a bank manager? Would he still remember me?
In school, one of my favourite pre-lunch exercises, on days that my mother packed them in tiffin, was to figure out who liked okra. I would then choose a seat next to the one who didn’t like my favourite vegetable. One day, he sat near me. I remember his answer. And, more importantly, I remember that smile. I sulked, and still shared the okra with him.
School days were as unremarkable as our benches. Everyone came to school for various reasons. Mine was to beat boredom at home. He was one of the few who came to study. Our only interactions were during lunch hour, as most days he would choose to sit with other boys. Yet, he was different. English tutorials? No. Geometry lessons? No. Homework? No. Okra? Yes.
This went on for a few months. Then came a fancy-dress competition. A friend and I dressed like beggars. He warned me I would make a fool of myself, that it was never good to mock poverty. He was right. The school teacher disqualified us. The next morning, for the first time, he sat next to me and scolded anyone who tried to make fun of me. No one fooled around him as he was our in-house angry man.
Then one day, he said it. “You look pretty”. It was my birthday and I had decided to leave my hair open. At first, I thought I had not heard it right, so I asked him again. He walked away. I met him later and gave him an extra “birthday chocolate”. He sat quietly doing math, but eagerly asked me the day’s plans. I spoke about my dad making pav bhaji and mum making dessert. I think I remember him looking sad for the first time. In the three years he was with us, I never remembered the class monitor announcing his birthday.
Weeks turned into months. Studies took over, and then, as the exams neared, we all went on leave. I only spoke to him twice after that, once after the exam and once when he told me he had got admission in another college.
Would he still remember me?
“Viru is no more…he expired in an accident few yrs back along with his family…” flashed the reply in my inbox. If he was alive, he would have objected to the laziness in not typing full words. Also, he would have pointed out that humans do not expire! Cold, unused peanut butter does! Not a boy with the softest skin and the warmest heart.
That moment, I found myself on a school bench watching a boy find a seat. He crossed the room without lifting his head as the teacher took his name. He stumbled at each row, finding no seat for the “extra student”. He stopped at the second-last bench in the corner row, his bag and his eyes still down.
It hurt to think that just this year, like every year, I had thought he was alive and mustered the courage to find him. Since then, I have struggled to bring back memories, but there are only flashes I get — of a smile here, or his tilted gait, or the way he always had his books covered in brown paper and then plastic. Or his anger. Or the way he caught me stealing a book from the library and then walking me back to return it before I got caught. I feel gutted to know that in my memories, he will always be 16. Always the angry boy, who I loved to share my okra with.
In the years since, I have fallen in love several times, with men who smile and some who scold. The day I finally found Viru in my inbox, I understood a little late in life, that he was the one who made me realise that I had a heart, and that it beats. It took me over 20 years to realise that I was just not sharing okra.
To me, he will always be Virendra.