Asma and Aruna

They would meet everyday as they hung upside down on the jungle Jim in one of 

the vast playgrounds of St Mary’s Convent School, Poona Camp. Asma Syed and 

Aruna Pandit – two shy ten year olds, thin as a reed, with tight plaits and scrubby 

knees. They drew closer thereafter since both were the ‘single friend’ type while 

all other pals remained on the periphery of this nucleus.

A bunch of giggly girls, wheeling their bicycles, walks past the Bishop School for 

Boys that is next to St Mary’s. On the compound wall sit a group of adolescent 

boys who talk extra loud and become more boisterous as the girls pass by. Those 

were the times when that’s as far as it went. These were five minutes of high 

adventure for the girls and the routine was repeated almost as a ritual every 

weekday at 3.30 when school concluded for the day. Then, as the girls turned left 

and then right and the boys ran off to their football, the girls lapsed into 

their chatter again. As each ones home approached or her way parted, she 

mounted her bicycle and rode away eventually to leave just the two of them as 

they summarized the events of the day and plans for tomorrow. Finally, Asma 

went down Sachapir Street and Aruna cycled the remaining distance home. In 

their respective houses their routines were almost identical – a change of 

clothes, a hearty meal and after some frugal homework they were on the phone 

to each other chatting nineteen to a dozen.

As childhood took tentative steps towards youth this budding friendship 

revealed the wonders of a relationship beyond the family. They stood together in 

the line at the tuck shop, shared rat sweets and striped sugar candy and 

walked hand in hand round the playfield as they sucked on orange ice sticks that 

coloured their tongues. If Miss Pavri screamed at Aruna for not learning her 

French conjugations and when Sister Mary Anslem went red in the face, took 

Asma by the shoulders to give her a shaking for not getting a simple spelling 

right, then they would soothe each other by silent glances that said “hold on, 

never mind, this too shall pass and we will laugh again.”

During holidays they were in each other’s houses. Mayaram, the cook in 

Aruna’s home would feed them aloo subzi and hot rotis off the tava when they 

finished playing with the dogs in the garden and then they would go up and 

listen to her sole earthly treasure – a Beatles LP – on her grandfather’s 

gramophone.

Asma’s mother was small and frail and a loving soul. Her father was very 

tall and, on Sundays, he would cook the most delicious meat and fish that got 

polished off in no time and the bones went to Gapid, the dog. Oblivious to the 

blazing sun, Aruna and Asma would thereafter roam about and chat in the 

courtyard along with her elder sister with their much younger siblings Rukhsana 

and Bhai Saab in tow. Aruna’s two brothers were in a boarding school and in 

Asma’s home she found the pleasure and security that a ‘full house’ affords.

It was an age of innocence when no eyebrows were raised in either house on 

learning the names of their daughter’s friends. When Aruna was as welcome into 

the orthodox Bohri household as Asma was into the strict Brahmin one. A time when the two friends made a world of their own which they thought would more or less last their lifetime.

It was mid term IXth standard when Aruna’s father was transferred out of Poona 

and after many heart wrenching goodbyes and cross my heart promises to write 

a letter a week, the two friends parted.

Aruna got busy adjusting to a new city, new home, school, teachers and friends 

but she looked forward to the coloured envelopes that came with a Poona 

postmark and that contained pages and pages of a familiar even hand detailing 

all the events of the week – shenanigans of our common pals, walks down Main 

Street, aunts arriving from Surat, cousins getting engaged/married, kid sis down 

with measles, the sun, the rain, summer, winter and everything else in between. 

Aruna replied with equal fervour.

Somewhere in the course of the next five years as they both passed out of school 

and entered college – Asma to graduate in Home Science and Aruna in Political 

Science – their ways parted. No, they both didn’t pull away. Asma remained the 

same sweet girl she always had been. She faithfully and regularly wrote, often 

complaining, sometimes even sharply, that Aruna did not reply. It was Aruna 

who grew impatient with small talk about aunts and cousins, brothers and 

sisters.

It was the season for rebellion, family ties were to be scoffed at as restrictive 

conventions. The two girls were growing in different directions. Aruna could not 

write to Asma about what she was reading, thinking, hearing, feeling. She met 

teachers inside and outside college who opened a whole new world of exciting 

possibilities and interpretations. The world needed to be changed, they could 

change it, and if they could, they would. Revolution was just round the corner, 

this corrupt order was about to collapse and if all that was needed was a push – 

then they were ready to leave aside everything else and push.

“She has wheels under her feet,” said Aruna’s grandmother, “she comes in from 

one place and is off to the next.” Meetings and campaigns, wallpapers and 

posters, street plays and protest marches – in all this to and fro-ing, where was 

the time to write to an old friend who was not now a comrade in the battle?

So the years went furiously by. College, university, friends, job, love, commitment, marriage, child – like a circle in a spiral spinning us away from our 

pasts and hurtling us ever onwards to our destinies.

In the month of March this year Aruna went with husband and son for a short 

trip to Poona. The boy had just finished his board exams and this trip was just a 

wee window of a holiday before they would again be immersed in a two year 

grind of preparation for his medical entrance tests.

Aruna dragged the two of them to the cantonment where she had grown up and 

as they passed Sachapir Street, she could not resist the urge to get off at Ibadat 

Manzil. The cottage had long since been pulled down and a multistoried building 

stood in its place. She inquired with the watchman about the Syed family. He said 

they lived on the top floor.

“There was a girl, Asma?”

“She is there right now.” he said

Aruna was excited as she went up the lift. The door was opened by a small sweet 

young woman and Aruna asked for Asma.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“I’m Aruna, an old school friend.” Aruna replied.

She said nothing.

“Is Asma not at home?”

“Yes, she is. Come in.” said she.

Aruna sat down and asked for Asma again.

“She’s inside,” said the young girl who was the wife of Asma’s little brother, Bhai saab.

“Is she not well? Can I go and meet her inside?”

“She’s in mourning,” said the young woman, “she lost her husband two months 

ago and she is in mourning.”

Then Asma came out and without a word they embraced. When the words came 

they came unbidden. Like most things in Aruna’s life this meeting too had not 

been planned. She kept talking as the thoughts came into her mind sometimes 

coherent sometimes not. She said she was sorry again and again. She said she 

had wanted to apologize for having treated her wrong, for having thrown away 

something so precious, a pure and innocent friendship sacrificed at the altar of 

sophistry. Asma said that maybe it was God’s will that he had sent her to comfort 

her today.

Aruna sat before her, holding her hands tightly and with tired eyes they briefly 

caught up with each others’ lives. Asma had married late and settled comfortably 

in Manila. There were no children. When the end came her elder sister rushed to 

her aid and helped her put together her life again. Now she was here. She would 

be in isolation for some months more. She had not thought about what she would 

do thereafter. They exchanged phone numbers and addresses. Aruna saw a spark 

in her eyes when she asked Asma to call and said that they would have long 

chats. Then Aruna left.

Aruna has called several times since. She spoke with Asma’s younger sister and 

her sister in law. Asma couldn’t come to the phone, she was praying – there were 

other women around and she couldn’t be seen chatting. Yes, Aruna understood. 

She will keep trying to speak. There is so much to say, so much to listen to. There 

is still too much unsaid.

Over the past thirty years and through successive clearing out of drawers, Aruna 

has still not discarded those coloured envelopes with a Poona postmark. 

Whenever she rewrites her telephone book she always begins with Asma’s 

phone number -26879- although Poona does not have five digit numbers any 

more and this number will no longer connect to Asma.

For a person who staunchly asserts that she regrets nothing in life, there is this 

one thing Aruna regrets and regrets bitterly – When there were tears in your 

eyes and I was needed to to say, “hold on, this too shall pass and we may smile 

again,” I was not there to say it.

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