Coming from a family that had just started to adapt to city life of Lucknow, I had my own complexes. I felt everyone else had a richer father and was better looking than I was. I never felt comfortable entering Archies while most kids my age would confidently reject greeting cards Archies were so proud of. (I still find myself out of place in a gathering or an expensive restaurant, partially because I still cannot pay and partially because of my belief that I cannot pay)
So paranoia set in when I received an invite for the champions’ felicitation party from Rotary Club, Mussoorie. I was on the list for having snatched the intermediate division cup to my own disbelief. Fortunately, once again, Prashant Singh came to my rescue by offering a perfectly stitched and ironed pair of grey trousers. I opened my cupboard, in hope that out of 14 shirts that I had my name on, at least one would be fit to wear for the party. Luck was on my side and now black leather shoes were the only entity left to be arranged. The entire pre-lunch session went by in judging classmates’ shoes, which could fulfil two basic criteria – they should be as less worn out as possible, and more importantly, fit my feet. I spotted Sadhan Mridha and his shining-like-a-glass-top beauties. I hesitatingly asked for the favour, which he unhesitatingly denied. That was it when the dam broke. I started imagining coming from a very poor, surviving-on-a-budget-fit-for-refugees family. My head hung so low it could have touched Sadhan’s feet. Fortunately, the usual OG lunch resurrected the situation. We were trained by seniors to eat (hog) more when angry or upset, instead of the usual day-scholar tantrum of not eating at all. Post lunch, I looked at my shoes and my little ego directed me to put some polish on them. However hard I tried, they were no match for the Naughty Boys Sadhan was wearing. But I told myself how those very shoes had supported me through my hard days, and decided to take them on an outing to Mussoorie, along with other Inter School Champions. The team also included winners from Girls’ School, which sent me further into an abyss of depression, for it was very early in life that I learnt I had no charm to sway the angels. In factI had developed a conscious bubble of arrogance just to hide my inability to hold a memorable conversation with the opposite and more confident gender. As the School Mazda roared and negotiated the steep incline over our beloved valley, I was perhaps the only champion who could have been mistaken for an attendant. Girls joined in at Jharipani and the weather definitely improved for the rest. For me, the clouds were just beginning to engulf my tiny soul.
Rotary treated us well. After a very short introduction, handing over of certificates and humming through the National Anthem, I vent my anger again at the menu card, and made sure not to look up, just in case anyone wanted to know who I was. I had had a bad day, and I could not do anything to feel good about my financial failure to get a new pair of shoes. My house master had a meagre amount in my name as the allotted pocket money, which surely wasn’t enough to even buy me a packet of cream biscuits, let alone the brand Bata. On the return journey, I held the same lofty standards of ignorance for the conversations in the school van. I kept gazing out of the window, soaking in the cool wind and blankly staring at the dancing lights of the Doon Valley, as our Mazda meandered through the mountainous road.
Back at school, boys were moving in a straight line through the corridor that led them to the dining hall without any fuss. As I crossed the Head Master’s office –the unofficial LOC demarcating the junior and senior section – Pankaj Kumar Singh had an all important and highly sentimental question ready for me –Mausam Gupta aayi thi? Mausam was a stunningly bright girl from Mussoorie International School, and I had feigned to ignore her during the party owing to my poverty. Of course, she did not need to feign, she actually overlooked me. I must have sounded rude, because mid way through my response to PK, I felt a painful hob (kick for the unaware) on my not-so-curvy backside. On any other day, I would have responded with a certain colourful adjective and moved on, but not this day. This day, I was below the poverty line. Tears welled up and seemed determined to flow. After dinner, as was the healthy tradition, senior boys took the route through the back pitch for a lazy walk. I took the right turn and went straight to Patel House Garden, from where I could see every single bulb in every single Doon valley household. As tears had their say, I started seeing my mom, with her sari on her head, braving the heat and dust as she walked home from the station after her duties as a government school teacher. She tried to say something, and in that instance I felt a hand on my shoulder, with another query, though a more gentlemanly one – kya hua? When I took the right turn to PHG, I had expected not to be found. But then, friends miss you as much as you miss them, and so Kanishka Mallick’s hand had found its way to my shoulder. We started walking from in front of the HM office to the front pitch, and reached right down to the curve in front of the Principal’s residence. I do not remember our conversation, possibly because we did not have one. Through that silent walk echoed the beauty of a priceless friendship. I was a millionaire.
– Sudip Bajpai (1996 Batch)
This content has been reproduced from a Facebook post by Sudip Bajpai on April 26, 2018.