The mission was to De-cliché the romantic prompt — “If you’re a bird…I’m a bird.” From The Notebook.
John had always thought her brave. The way she walked with her head held high. Agni. Courageous in the face of fire. Courageous in the face of fat. She walked tall with heavy, sure footsteps. As graceful as a hippopotamus, Sunny always sniggered. Well, he had always thought that hippos were graceful creatures. Her hair always looked unwashed to him. Sunny told him that it’s over-washed but under-conditioned, that’s why the frizz. Sunny was small and scrawny for her age but had two glamourous elder sisters who knew everything there was to know about hair, skin and beauty. “Tanya di always says John has beautiful eyes. You should get contact lenses, she says.” Sunny sat next to him just before school assembly and passed him her breakfast of peanut butter, jam and banana sandwiches. “Aha. Are you sure you don’t want to eat this? Sun?” John asks her. “No way. You can finish it.” Sunny replies, jumping off the parapet they were sitting on and stood in the typical Sunny fashion, which meant that he should hurry up and finish the food.
John was trying to chew and ignore Sunny and stare at Agni walking to their class. This was his morning ritual. His secret morning ritual. He wanted to tell Sunny about his long-standing crush on Agni, but Sunny hated her without knowing or understanding fully why she hated her. At almost 13, Sunny was older than him by a few months but still looked about 10. Agni looked like an adult. She was plump and soft where Sunny was stick thin. Agni was the tallest person in their class, where Sunny was among the shortest. Agni was taller than John by a head, but he knew that soon he would grow tall and big. “Puberty was around the corner for you, John.” Tanya didi had said. Sunny had gotten angry at her sister and had thrown a kiddy fit. Puberty was definitely not around the corner for Sunny. John knew it instinctively that telling her about his crush on Agni would rift them apart in an unnameable way. Sunny would see it as a betrayal. Of John leaving Sunny alone in their shared childhood and venturing out in the adult world on his own.
Agni walked and a few class 10th guys stared at her. They looked at her very differently from the idiots of the 7th standard. Some of these idiots were hanging outside the classroom and as Agni made her away to her class, the guys started chanting, “Agnass, Agnass!” Agni’s ass. Get it? As she got closer, the chants got louder and louder. The girls of their class stood silent and still. Some sniggering cruelly. Some looked at the guys angrily but none protested. This was a regular thing here. John’s blood boiled. Every time this happened, he wanted to punch someone. Hit all his classmates and ask them to stop. But he never did. I am a coward, He thought. Just like Naina, the class monitor or Geetanjali, the nicest girl in the class and Sunny who hated it when the boys behaved badly.
We are still children, he thought, ashamed. Cruel, idiot children. Agni walked on calmly, with almost a knowing smile on her face. This probably affected the bullies worse than anything else. This was her crime. Her refusal to cry or complain. Her insistence on treating them like ants in her way. They screamed louder. John threw the sandwich aside and walked towards the crowd.
Sunny ran after him, “Don’t, John. Leave them.”
“Like hell, I will.” He said.
He ran headlong into the crowd and butted his way into the classroom. It was just him and Agni in the room, with most of the class watching from outside.
“Hi, Agni.” He smiled and waved.
Agni looked up at the beautiful boy in front of her. Her racing heart sped up even more.
“Hello John.” She smiled as if nothing was the matter. As if there was no mob of bullies outside the classroom. The boy she had been pining silently for years was now speaking to her, but she kept a tight rein on her heart and face. She refused to break into a blush.
“Do you want to sit with me?” He asked.
“What about Kaushik?” She asked.
“We will ask him to go sit next to Purnima.” He said.
Agni didn’t succeed. The blush spread across her high cheekbones. She looked at john and he was blushing too.
“But why?” She asked.
“I will tell you later.” He muttered; his courage on the verge of giving up.
“Why would you do that?” Sunny screeched in the break. 2 periods had gone by in awkward silence. The entire class trying their best not to stare at Agni and John. But something had shifted and these 32 children knew it. Felt it, every time they looked at the heads of John and Agni bent together over a text book.
“I thought you liked sitting next to Kaushik.” Sunny was now shaking her head as if her ears were filled with water.
“I like Kaushik. But Agni needs a break.” John said.
“She needs a weight-loss plan.” Sunny said.
John growled a low growl. “Stop it, Sunaina.” He said.
Instantly, tears filled her eyes. “You will fight with me for her. For that fat cow?”
“Stop it. Stop calling her that. What is the difference between you and those guys in the morning?” He said.
“You want her, kya?” She asked.
“What? What are you saying?” He said. The heat returned to his cheeks.
“Do you want her to be your best friend now?” Sunny asked looking and sounding like the child that she was.
“You are my best friend. You always will be. I just want to be nice to Agni and I want you to be nice too.” He said.
“What? The 3 of us will hang out now?” She was still upset. “I will look like a sparrow next to her.”
John laughed. “If you are a sparrow…I am a sparrow.” He said.
“Yeah, two small sparrows on a hippo’s back.” She laughed.
He laughed too and put his arm around hers and started to walk towards the play grounds. He will have the rest of his life to learn how to be a man and love a woman, especially one like Agni was going to be.
But now, Sunny and he were going to play Table Tennis in the game room.
– Arunlekha Sengupta
Read more of her works in our book – ‘Of Blood and Ink’