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
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
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
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.