I stood outside the school gate of my six-year-old son berating him for losing a question paper. The security guard stationed interfered, whether Eddie was my child. As long as I was within the school gate I respected their jurisdiction and even applauded their alertness, but this was too much. I had been waiting for a bus for ten minutes at least, outside the gate, haranguing my boy, who had been listened meekly, hardly the act of a kidnapper.
I felt he was being officious, and sarcastically quipped, “Would I be scolding someone else’s child?” Red-faced, he marched back to his post in a huff.
That’s when a petite lady, in tan denim and a purple plaid shirt accosted me. She had a clean glow on her face. Her eyes were bright. Her long sleek brown hair was tied in a ponytail. Behind her trailed her mini-me, a tiny five-year-old girl with a cloud of soft, thick black hair, also in a long ponytail.
She heard me out patiently as I recounted the “bossy security guard” episode and made the right sympathetic noises.
“They act without thinking at times,” she empathized, and I ended up telling her how often this happened before. How a guard had forced us to get up from a stoop but the following day he was letting people sit there again.
God! It felt good to laugh with her over their idiosyncrasies; we ended up planning for a coffee later.
I had little time that day and another son to pick up from a different school, go home and cook a simple lunch for them. It was exam season; schools were over at half past ten for one boy and eleven AM for the other. As both schools were within a range of ten- minutes walk, I had just enough time for a quick chat before hopping on a bus to my other son’s school. From there it would be either an auto rickshaw, a bus ride home, or an Uber if none were available. The after-school hour is a rush. I must serve my boys' lunch by one PM.
These details might seem boring, but they had a role to play in my swiftly developing friendship with Zara.
Zara and I were from totally different worlds despite having the same upper-middle-class upbringing in India. We had both led comfortable sheltered lives of privilege, equipped with an English medium convent education, which significantly increased our exposure to global affairs in the eighties and nineties and affected our world views, but… there all resemblance ended.
When I say increased our exposure to global affairs, I don’t intend to sound snooty. It is a fact that a convent education, along with hobnobbing with the Anglo-Indian and Chinese boarders acquainted us with western movies and music, and we mimicked them, in following the Grammys, and the Oscars avidly. Had our parents sent us to schools in the vernacular medium we would perhaps have learned to love a different world, closer to our roots, but it broadened our horizons then, in those particular times, when the world was not so open and accessible to Indians.
Mother tongue and culture we imbibed as a natural and organic part of our lives, but to it was added a window into another world, which marched and sang for Human Rights, with Bob Geldof, and debated Women’s Rights.
Zara had grown up to the same music and saved up money to buy cassettes stilettoes and denim miniskirts. Both of us had fallen in love and chosen our life partners instead of an arranged marriage.
She had married into wealth, and I married a self-made man, who was still “making it”.
In adult life, these differences creep up acting like a wall of privilege, a deterrent to remaining fast friends.
She wanted to eat sushi, and shop at organic macrobiotic outlets with me. I begged off and she had to settle for a KFC or McDonald’s or a Café Coffee Day outlet that, in India, was still expensive, just not haute cuisine. I had to save up to go out with her something I looked forward to. So did the kids who had bonded.
We loved each other’s receptive minds and so we both adjusted. Sometimes I forced her to sit and have a coffee for ten rupees in the subsidized school cafeteria instead of buying a coffee for one fifty rupees from the Barista.
She looked amused at my efforts to economize but was a huge sport about it.
It was a time of fun and frankly, and of tender innocent happiness. One of my boys was in a co-ed school with her daughter Leia, who was in kindergarten, while my boy Eddie was in grade 1. It was charming to see her puppy dog adoration for my cutie Eddie. Every day after her classes were over, around fifteen minutes before his, Leia would wait at the door to his classroom ready to take him by the hand and drag him out. Eddie was on the shy side, but even he smiled as the little girl leaped around him even picking up his satchel in her hurry to get us all out of the school gates! Once outside she campaigned, with earnest huge brown eyes, “Aunty Jinnea, can’t you and Eddie come to our house today?” I had to gently explain I still had to pick up Royce, and Zara would interject, “Let’s go pick him up together! It’s on the way to my house, and we can chill out with mint tea or fruit juice at my place. Take an Uber home before it gets dark.”
Charmed, starved for good company in a lonely new city, I ended up agreeing half the time.
Her house was huge, cool, and comfortable, the drawing room stretched on into a lovely veranda, where Zara and I relaxed and chatted over her delicious freshly brewed mint tea. The house had four bedrooms, and only one child, Leia. Eddie Royce and Leia ran from room to room jumping ecstatically on couches, rolling on the beds and floors, three of them, all except the master suite and the drawing room which had expensive crystal table décor. Other than these two off-limit areas, the trio had the run of the rest of the huge house. It was their playground. Eddie and Royce rejoiced at the sheer roominess of it and were charmed by Leia’s infectious laughter and spirit. In the back of my mind, I knew it was no small thing for my sons to have a place other than our tiny cramped two-bedroom flat to frolic in. Eddie was six and Leia and Royce were five. It was an idyllic friendship of innocence and high spirits.
Zara was aware that I wrote, and she kept pressing me to get published. She mailed me samples of a short love story she’d penned, and I was happy to find a fellow mom who did not bore me endlessly with details of recipes cooked or paranoia about her child’s academic standing. I confided in her about things that were intimate and difficult to share, like my need to find the like-minded company and my hubby’s detached disinterest in all things literary.
She was more pragmatic and did not hanker after matching of minds. She called her husband, ‘Jaan’ and ‘Jaanam', over the phone, (Life, dearer than life respectively), bent on keeping romance alive in her marriage. Her husband seemed to lack her joie de vivre somehow, though he smiled sweetly and was very accommodating and chivalrous to all his wife’s friends. Zara had also moved into the city just over a year ago, but courtesy of the high places her husband moved in, and the upscale residential area they lived in, they got invites to exclusive club gatherings and soon had a coterie of affluent friends. At her daughter Leia’s birthday, I met many of them. Zara prefaced every introduction with a description of my writing abilities or my status as an amateur poetess. Looking back, it feels like in high society a poorer person needs a calling card, and a valid pass key to establish her credentials. I thought at that time, she was being innocent, charming, and naïve in assuming everyone was interested in poetry or in a would-be writer. Now after a few years of negotiations in every layer of society, I have come to a conclusion. True, not everyone likes poetry, but they do like a poet in their guest list.
I am sorry to put it this way because Zara was truly sensitive, and delicate, and she had her own way with a quill, yet she felt a need to justify her association with me to others. Even on a momentary brief encounter on a lift, she introduced me to a lady as “my writer friend”, while said lady turned her froggy eyes at me.
This was such a small thing, who cared? We discussed her religious customs as a staunch fire worshipper, and mine as a worshipper of fire, amongst a million other elements of nature. Pantheism, monotheism, polytheism, and the atrocities of repressive Wahabbi-ism and Taliban, I felt relieved to be able to talk about the heavy-duty stuff with her.
Zara was not an empty airhead, nor a socialite who was keeping me around to make her look good. God no! She was a sweet woman, a good friend, and more than me she had hindsight. She knew the Dos and Don’ts of society, unwritten though they were. So, she confided the story of her romance and marriage but avoided any mention of anything that would jar, anything amiss. She never came to me with a fight, a sob story, or any disagreement at all. I had babbled on about my first crush at 16, but her life prior to meeting her husband seemed almost antiseptic! Like she had woken up like sleeping beauty in her pristine glass chamber, brought to life by her husband’s kiss.
She burst out laughing hard almost falling off her chair at the café where I observed this fact about her gravely. Her eyes twinkled teasingly and pleasingly. “Girl wouldn’t you like to know?” she said with a wicked glint in her light brown eyes. Foxy charming lady! I felt very close to her at that moment, blessed with that same sense of quiet mischievous humor and attention to ironic details.
On an impulse, I invited her to my home after school one day. Her eyes lit up with pleasure, as Leia went berserk with joy! We bundled Eddie, Royce, and Leia on our laps in a tiny, cramped auto and bustled home to my shabbier downtown neighborhood, jerking over quite a few potholes! Zara and Leia kept up an engaging chatter, Leia gabbled on charmingly, while I observed Zara, paying attention to every detail of our surroundings, her friendly non- judgemental grin intact. Her eyes shone with happiness that I had invited her, and I congratulated myself silently for trusting my gut instincts. She was a keeper, an angelic being above petty concerns of materialism and social status.
Upstairs, she grinned even broader seeing my pile of laundry plonked on a sofa couch which I hastily removed to offer her a seat. Leia was stunned at how tiny our apartment was and came and declared it to Zara, in nice frank confidence. I asked her if she would like hot chocolate and she promptly agreed. I busied myself making ginger tea and hot chocolate simultaneously.
“Your veranda is so nice”. Zara walked over from the living room to my open kitchen and stepped on some water that I had spilled in my hurry to make tea. Her shoe-clad feet made my ceramic floor muddy, and she was embarrassed. “Don’t bother, I will just place a mat on it,” I firmly reassured. “Let me peel and grate the ginger babes,” said my helpful friend.
Like two sisters we chattered away, making tea and hot chocolate and served the kids in their room, before retreating with our tea to the living room.
“I am so sorry, Zara, my house is a trifle untidy, with the monsoons, I can’t risk leaving the laundry out”. I apologized shamefaced.
Zara kindly assured me the mess was minuscule, but I could see her gape at the chaotic books piled here and there, the kids’ toys under her feet everywhere. She had a full-time maid who cooked cleaned even juiced her drinks for her. She was herself a proficient chef in the kitchen and a very tidy person.
“But you write!” she exclaimed with an understanding smile, as if that explained and excused even Stygian pig sties.
Her charm never wavered. A hostess and guest with absolute command over social skills, she was warm cordial and did not overstay her welcome. At around 6 pm, two hours later, she gathered Leia and left homewards.
We met so many more times after that; it would not be fair to say that was the starting point of the end of our friendship. No, she just went into social overdrive with her considerable, even formidable charm, at Eddie’s school, no longer content I guess, with my company, or that her daughter had exclusively latched on to Eddie’s. She pushed her daughter away from Eddie subtly, exhorting her to mingle with other children, in front of my hurt and puzzled boy. Who could blame a mother’s instinct of wanting better for her child? I had when I expressed my joy that Leia and Eddie were fast friends. Leia still stubbornly insisted on picking up Eddie after class. One day, unaccountably, the teacher firmly reprimanded her. Though classes were over, she said that Eddie could come down on his own; Leia need not come up to escort him. After that Zara started entering the school by another gate and changed the waiting spot for her daughter’s dispersal. The school grounds were vast.
I hardly ever met her anymore. We both had so much on our minds, with our children getting shuffled to different sections in higher classes and having to make new friends that we did not mind. Leia crossed over from the other side of the school to our side to sit beside me every once in a while and looked at me with her bright clear eyes. “Why don’t you come to our house anymore aunty? Will you come today? With Eddie and Royce? I like playing with boys, but I have a new best friend now, a girl. I love her. Mommy is good friends with her mother.”
I smiled at the seven-year-old, at a loss for words, as Zara came up huffing and puffing and crossly snapped. “Lei, I have been looking all over for you! Mia and Aunty Rita were so hurt, you weren’t there to say bye! She turned to me with a bright kind smile, “Hi Jinnea! I am in such a hurry, hubby’s bringing home guests for dinner.”
This was our usual exchange for the past year or so, Leia’s extracurricular, hubby’s dropping in with friends from work, I got the message, delivered in her lazy gentle drawl; Zara was far too busy for our afternoon get-togethers anymore.
“Mommy, can’t Aunty Jinnea bring Eddie and Royce to our home? I want to play with them.”
Zara smiled apologetically at me as if her daughter was making a boo-boo and had said something utterly tactless. Somehow we were both complicit in our understanding of this fact.
“Mommy is busy today darling, she’ll call us another day, when she is free, go on home now! Be a good girl listen to mommy.” I bent and soothed her as her face crumpled into tears of confusion.
I think what felt a little hard was that Zara did not immediately leap in with a “Yes babes, let’s plan something next Friday or Saturday, is that good for you?”
She threw me a bright grateful grin that lit her heart-shaped flawless ivory-hued face to glossy perfection, then tossed her ponytail back, grabbed Leia’s hand, and made a dash for an auto that was just skidding to a stop outside the school gates.
The next summer Zara sent me a text message from a different city where they had moved to. She said I had been out of town, and she was sorry she didn’t get to say goodbye.
Leia had made a plastic heart with some colorful jigsaw pieces and presented it to Eddie sometime during the previous summer.
We keep it in pride of place in our living room showcase.
It is still there though Eddie does not touch it and looking at it reminds me of how strangers sometimes become friends and then friends become strangers.
But they leave a little bit of their hearts behind.
(Written for Reedsy Prompt Strangers becoming Friends and Friends Becoming Strangers on June 5 2021 and was published by Imp Spired Press in November 2021as a collection of short stories titled, ‘In Between Pauses’)