In a week the land's great thirst would be satiated completely. The day stretched ahead, promising and beautiful. I talk of a time when even a black and white TV was a rarity in Jhimli. We gaped at the ghostlike moving images that floated on the screen and thought we had arrived. You could count the people who owned a TV on your fingers. Our needs, dreams and aspirations were so few. In some ways those days in Jhimli form my experiences of life in an unspoiled and untaught age. Everything was rather raw and callow, but touchingly innocent as well.
Maitreyi and her kid brother were two of the few friends I had. Unlike the kids we saw when we grew up, we did not live around the phone. Our mothers let us call each other sometimes and it felt like an adult privilege to be able to do so. The phone was common, but still an instrument we were in some awe of in Jhimli. Maitreyi's family had created a major stir in our little town when they moved in from Himachal Pradesh, because they owned a lime–green colored, three-wheeled vehicle. People would peer out of their windows when it passed by, making a very characteristic sound. I had unwittingly managed to attain celebrity status because she became my friend and sometimes her father would drop me home in that quaint three-wheeled thing. I did feel a little self-conscious sitting inside, not too comfortable under the glare of public scrutiny of the vehicle and its occupants.
On Sundays the two of them would come to our house to fetch me, dragging their cycle for good measure. We would watch the “Secrets of the Sea” together. Maitreyi's family owned a black and white TV with a cover that folded like an accordion. That was the high point of our weekend when the cover was drawn aside to reveal the dark blue screen. At 9:00 a.m. the TV station at Delhi would begin transmission. It was fascinating to just sit there and wait for the signs of life. From a sleepy town, we had become one with the rest of the nation, throbbing with a common pulse.
Maitreyi's mother was a terrific cook and would have a big breakfast ready and waiting for us when we reached. Watching the “Secrets of the Sea” had an air of religious solemnity about it. We sat together in their pretty living room and maintained deferential silence as we saw the marvelous realm under the ocean, the magic and mystery of deep sea diving. It did not matter that we missed out the colors. Our imagination could fill it in liberally.
There used to be commercials, but not like the ones you see today. They were simple to the point of being rustic, but we loved it all the same. Maitreyi's brother, Mriganka, mimed some of them and had us in splits. I write like I have all the time in the world to tell a story. But those days had a spell cast on them. They flowed ever so gently, completely in tune with nature's cycles and rhythms. We were unaccustomed to pace of urban life and largely insulated from its pressures. Coming to live here after spending some years in a big city, I sometimes found the slowness quite benumbing. But Jhimli grows on one. I realized this only after many years of living there.
Maitreyi and I were good friends and sometimes very good friends. My loyalty was often suspect because I was never too deeply involved in the friendship. For Maitreyi it was as though her life depended on it. She would sit in the classroom with a sullen face for the whole day if I did not say "Hi!" to her before she did. She studied Bengali with me instead of her own mother tongue -- and even that does not begin to show the depth of her feelings. A loner she was and a loner she has remained after all these years. Waiting for that one friendship that would satisfy her soul.
Unfortunately, I could not make the grade even though she had given me more than a fair chance. But we were kids then. I saw her last when we were fourteen. Sometimes she would call in the evening after a whole day of being peeved at something I did or did not do. My mother would rush to comfort her and berate me at length for my callousness. It is not as if I did not care, but sometimes I needed space of my own. And that has been the recurring theme in my life -- my need for space and the way it has hurt the people I care the most about.
We became teen-agers within a few months of each other. Suddenly we were big girls and not just kids any more. Mriganka was still a mere ten-year old and ceased to fit into our scheme of things. We had girl-stuff to do and chat about. The pariah in our threesome joined Sid (Siddharth) and gang and soon enough he was playing the mindless games that only boys play. We treated him with elaborate disdain and he was quite bewildered at the sudden change that had come over us. But sometimes, on winter evenings, when we huddled together in the out-house, which Maitreyi had converted into her den (complete with a floppy mattress, soft rugs, plump cushions and lovely wall hangings), and shared a plate of pakoras, that her mother would so thoughtfully serve with homemade ketchup, we would be pals like good old days. Mriganka would imitate Lalitaji in the Surf ad and we'd ask for an encore.
Our collection of baubles and trinkets started to grow. Sometimes we traded our stuff. I still have a pair of tiny pink hair-clips with baby elephant patterns that Maitreyi got for me from Delhi. They were too impractical to use but really pretty. School work however, increased at a much faster pace and, more often than not, we did not meet on Sundays. Doordarshan's repertoire was growing, but we were being hurtled into an adult world where one prepared for a career that left us lesser and lesser room for anything else. We now studied with an end in view and not merely for pleasure.
Of course the future was a nebulous haze and we had no clue which way we were headed. Yet, despite ourselves we boarded something along with every kid our age, that raced headlong towards a gold rush. In a few years the destination would become discernable to some of us at least. Maitreyi always heard the beat of a different drummer and pursued dreams that not everyone would understand. Her sensitivity was compelling and frightening for its intensity. I often thought she needed to hold her emotions in rein because very few would be able to value them. It took so little for her to feel hurt and pained. She often felt lonely and misunderstood, and I wondered if anyone had ever fathomed her in the first place.
On my thirteenth birthday, Maitreyi had come in early in the day to help my mother bake a cake. Soon enough she dragged me, 'Lazybones', as she always called me, to a shop round the corner to buy some party decorations. Thanks to her efforts, by noon the living room looked vibrant and colorful. She had written out colorful invitations a few days ago and our friends had been impressed by the artwork. I was touched by her wonderful spontaneity and warmth. I must have thanked God, however briefly, for giving me such a wonderful friend. My thirteenth birthday was nothing out of the ordinary but her presence had made all the difference. It was nice to know that my being alive meant something to a complete outsider. I came to truly appreciate and value our friendship that day.
Sometime before Maitreyi's family moved from Jhimli to Simla, her father took us kids out for a children's movie showing at their club. Her mother had already relocated and was preparing for their arrival. I was wistful knowing that this would be our last outing -- I'd never see the lime-green, three-wheeler again. Other people would stay at this house which Maitreyi and her mother had so lovingly decorated. These delicate lace curtains would go and so would Mriganka's dilapidated cycle that leaned against the verandah. He often came to my house on this cycle with missives from his sister in those days, when we still did not have a phone. He would wait with a serious look on his face, as I wrote down a reply. Mriganka was a sweet little kid.
We would never have those moonlight picnics at our house when our mothers cooked such lovely food but we were so tired from playing our crazy games that we had no appetite for food. I would miss a very good friend -- perhaps the best I ever had.
I had worn my favorite dress that evening (one of the many my mother designed and tailored for me in her old fashioned sewing machine. Her endless imagination let her create so much beauty out of the seemingly ordinary). I still remember the deep-purple color with multi-colored, polka dots and lace around the collar. I loved my new dress. This was the first time that I was wearing it. I had worn the cardigan I usually wore to school because I thought the color matched.
Maitreyi looked a little concerned over my attire and suggested that I should change into something better so that I did not feel awkward at the club. She had her whole wardrobe at my disposal. I knew so little about the world outside that things like fashion were outside my lexicon., but there is a way even an immature and inexperienced eye can know and understand. She had a whole lot of fashionable clothes that were professionally tailored. They had finesse and grace but lacked my mother's loving touch. I shared my parent's wardrobe, which was enough room for the little I possessed. I never felt the need for any more.
We were thirteen going on fourteen, our eyes full of dreams and often such eyes fail to see the obvious. Till that moment it had never occurred to me that we were middle class folk and did not fit in Maitreyi's society. We could be playmates in childhood but a friendship of the later years was probably impossible.
I knew that day that she meant well and only wished to see me look my best -- in her own way. Because she insisted I changed into her cardigan but still wore my purple, polka dot dress like an emblem and badge for what I was all about. I have forgotten about the movie or the other details of the evening. I wore a happy smile and she never knew how much I had been hurt. We parted ways soon after.
An empty chair in the classroom marked where she used to sit. I missed her during the Bengali lessons and on the way back home from school. After a few days we had a craft exhibition and when we got back to regular classes the void had been filled in the new arrangement of furniture. It was like she had never existed except in my imagination.
For many years after that we have kept in touch. There were letters (hers always came in beautiful hand crafted stationery), cards, friendship braids and little gifts sometimes. Maitreyi has turned out to be a very beautiful and accomplished woman. Her language has culture, class and breeding and the unmistakable stamp of a very expensive finishing school. I don't know if we have remained the friends that we once were, but I definitely have a lot of old memories that are still dew drop fresh.