It was the last day of school and just at the bell rang for the day announcing the end of the last paper, I rushed to the teacher to hand over my answer sheet. It was 11 in the morning and just like the lovely early morning weather, I was hoping for an encore. Alas, the rain gods had other things on their mind. They ensured that the few bad clouds hit each other in the middle of the scorching summer heat and lo and behold, rain started pelting on the unsuspecting victims across the city. My mother always believes that when it rains off season, some thief is getting married. I was to prove her wrong much later that some thief wasn’t getting married but was looting a Church in Hoshiarpur and not far from our school.
As the kids huddled together in the safety of the school building waiting for the sky to stop crying, I dared to venture close to the exit to see if Harleen was around. Yes, she was there standing at the porch safely guarded from the rain by its roof. There was something about her that was compelling today. I looked at her, from afar, I could see her eyes were droopy much like the cartoon character Droopy Dog’s. I stared at her for some time not wanting to go across and talk to her knowing well that other classmates and probably teachers will notice us and add up two plus two and make it five. Eh? Now I don’t know how that is possible.
Anyway, I leaned back against the door frame and continued to look at Harleen. Harleen was my age and even her height was the same. But what differentiated her from me was her physique. She was a bit on the plump side and weighed probably 10-12 kgs more than me. She was fair, had a chubby cheek and a dimpled chin. Yes, I sighed in defeat. She was a poetry in motion (yes, I had heard this cheeky line on television). She had a brother named Ranauk, 6 years her senior and in junior college. Brute of a boy I’d say. Always giving me a dirty look whenever he saw me with his sister. Not that I blamed him. So back to Harleen, Harleen was a soft spoken girl with a demure nature but when angry, she could babble at 100 kms an hour at the top of her voice which could be shrilly at times and piercing ear drums within a 10 mile radius.
The heavy rain had now transformed itself into a slight drizzle. Students started to leave the safety of the school building to go back home. Some kids took to the rain water puddles like pigs taking to the sewage water. As if on cue, Harleen turned around and looked over at me. Our eyes met and lingered on for a few minutes. She kind of tried I think to smile but she faired badly at it. Well, she seemed a bit upset I thought as I walked across towards her. She turned around and started walking towards the school gate and as she reached it, with my big strides I was there besides her walking side by side.
We walked in silence for some time soaking each other’s presence.
How was your paper, I asked.
She didn’t seem to hear it.
Would you like an ice cream? I asked her glancing at the ice cream cart by the side of the road.
Again silence. She was definitely not her usual self. They say woman when silent has a thousand things running around in her head. Who said I don’t know but he must have really studied a woman very closely I thought as I stared at Harleen’s tensed face as we walked, two strangers at that moment.
Suddenly out of the blue, Harleen turned towards me and slapped me hard, tears now clearly visible in her eyes.
“Hey what did I do to you?” I asked her obviously taken back by her display of strength. My cheek were burning with rage where had palm had connected with it.
“You… you also don’t care for me. Nobody cares for me”, she said sobbing.
I wasn’t sure how to reply to this emotional outburst. Some of the onlookers and passerby’s had started giving us curious looks. I had a deep premonition that the earth was about to open up and gobble me over as I stood still deeply shamed with embarrassment. No, the embarrassment wasn’t on account of Harleen’s tears but her spicy connect with my face.
“My father doesn’t care for me. My mother is lost in her own world of chole batures and that devil of a Ranauk, forever chasing that bimbette Julie.”
Hearing of chole batures kind of made my mouth water but I quickly gulped it back inside and turned my attention on her.
“Calm down Harleen. Tell me what the problem is.” I asked her.
“You… you are my biggest problem.”
“Now what did I do to you?”
As if on cue, she seemed to recover. “Sorry, you didn’t do anything. It’s just I had to blame someone.”
“Then blame your good-for-nothing father”, I blurted and instantly regretting it.
“Yes”, she screamed. “You also blame my father for everything. So what if he’s a drunkard and a good-for-nothing. At least he doesn’t ask my mother for money nor does he beg or steal.”
“Then where does he get his money from to indulge in his favorite pastime?
“How will I know?” She genuinely didn’t have an answer to my Kaun Banega Crorepati question. But then I didn’t give her the four options.
The conversation seemed to have run dry as we both stood still unsure what to say next.
We walked the rest of the journey in silence. As we took the turn towards her house, she turned around and looked at me earnestly.
“Fateh, would you marry me and take me far from my home?”
I was dumb founded. Was this the big question that all the older boys often spoke about? Even on television or in films, this kind of a situation didn’t come all of a sudden and in our case, it was like being pushed into giving the graduation exam at the age of 12. She could tell that I was speechless looking at my mouth agape.
She stood still, both the hands on her hips waiting for an answer and I was pretty sure, she wasn’t going to take a ‘No’ as she stood staring at me, her big eyes digging deep in mine, trying to read my thoughts. I surely liked her but wasn’t sure about love. And worse, I didn’t even know what love was. And marriage? Well isn’t that something that took place when you are big and old enough?
Well I calculated my words delicately. “Sure Harleen but not now. First we need to finish high school.”
“Hmm, that’s fine with me. Even I need to finish my high school and then we can get married, take up jobs and live happily ever after.”
She surely had been watching too much of Shahrukh Khan films these days.
I heaved a sigh of relief and then again there was a long awkward silence between us broken ultimately by the shrilly screams of Harleen’s mother. Like daughter… like mother.
We quickly looked across at Harleen’s house. There was a police jeep standing outside her house and a couple of cops dragged a drunk Manjit to the waiting jeep. Manjit uncle is Harleen’s good-for-nothing father.
“Yes, take him away and lock him up for good. I don’t want that thief of a man back in my house.” Screamed Harleen’s mother, shaking her hand viciously.
I looked across at Harleem with a triumph look in my eyes to say see, your dad steals stuff to support his drinking habit. Her face looked ashen and it seemed she would collapse any moment. I quickly held on to her arms but this time, her palm connected with my hand with a big sting. Whatever be situation, Harleen surely maintains her physical characteristics. I then turned to look back at the scene outside her house and wondered what Manjit uncle had done now.