I knew the face as soon as I saw it. You see, I have an excellent memory for faces; now my general memory is not terribly good, as people who know me will attest, but with faces, I have photographic (see what I did there) memory. The problem with me is not the fact that I cannot recollect face — I recognize it immediately, but the fact that once I recognize face, it takes me some time to get to the name; in fact, it takes me a long time to make an association with why I know this face, why this face is etched in my memory. It was a good thing then that I saw the face that I saw when I saw it. I know that statement did not convey much; what I meant was that I was happy to have the time to think about the face which I recognized instantly, since the person attached to the face was still a-ways away. I knew that I remembered the face from a long time ago, at least 20 years, maybe more. I then traced back to what I would have possibly been doing 20-odd years ago and my memory went back to school. The pink uniforms (yes, even for boys), the red ties, ‘Veritas vos liberabit’ — the truth shall set you free (our school motto), the water bottles slung around our small slender necks, the big open fields, the blue buses, the large cast-iron gates, the church, the brown-cossack wearing priests, the malayalee-accented teachers….and then like a flash it came back to me.
What came first was the name — he was Nimish, Nimish Bangar. My memory of him was that of a slender boy, who hardly filled out half of his clothing; his mouth full of teeth, this hair straight and long and black — made effervescent by some gleaming brand of hair oil that smelled a little like gooseberry, his lanky legs sticking out of the short grey shorts that we were forced to wear, rushing into thin black socks, neatly pulled up as far as they would stretch; his legs ending in shoes that were two sizes too large. I remember he tied one of those red strings around his right wrist — something that many Indians are wont to do, as if a thread tied around a wrist would preclude any untoward incident from ever occurring — if only life were that simple. As soon as my mind imaged his memory, it shot right to that incident that had bound us; the incident that had etched his face deep into the recesses of my memory, so much so that amongst the 200-odd students who graduated from high school with me, Nimish’s memory would have been the one most deeply etched.
My mind forgot some details — the grade in which this occurred, for example, but narrated back to me the essentials. It was “short” recess — the break that the school provided students with at around 10.30 AM, so that they may get out of their claustrophobic class rooms and socialize with their peers. The break also allowed sufficient time for a little snack and a run to the rest room before the next set of lectures began. I remembered that the incident occurred in the corridor — the long dark passage that slithered between the well-light classrooms — basking in the warm light of the square classes, as though direct exposure to light would render it powerless over the small pre-pubescents who squealed and streaked across its surface. I remembered that I had finished the little snack that my mother had lovingly packed for me in a steel container and that the break time was about to come to an end. The incident occurred just before the bell rang, signaling that we were to return to the jejune litany of structured education. I remember chatting with my friends and suddenly Nimish was there — no, he was not a friend, just an acquaintance. Then the memory draws a blank, but something happened and words were exchanged. I remember the steel container clanking on the ground; whether Nimish pushed it off, or I dropped it — is a speculation best left untouched, but it did fall off. I remember rage, and I remember mocking — not from me, but from him. I remember the way his nostrils swelled up as he mocked me and the vain way he turned his head to leave. I remember the swell of anger and then it happened.
Our uniforms did not change between grades. We pretty much wore the same set of clothes every year. At that time, my parents could afford to get me 3 sets of uniforms for each year. Of course, all of us were growing children and the uniforms from last year barely fit most of us, but there were some of us who could manage to use the same set of clothes for a couple of years at a stretch. However, you know the truth about clothes. If you wear a set of clothes every day and wash them every day, they will start to wear, after all, they are just cotton. While most of us who went to school were not terribly poor, there were some who were not as fortunate as the rest, and these poor children wore the same set of clothes years on end — immaterial of how small it became. Those of them who were generally thin were at an advantage though. Immaterial of the size of the child wearing the clothes, the regular use of uniforms was evident to the observer. The pink would fade to a light-white and the clothes would eventually get so thin that one would be able to see through the clothes to the vest that the little kid would wear — his last vestige against the travails of poverty.
You know where this is going. In my anger I tugged at Nimish’s shirt as he walked away — to confront him perhaps — but in my haste I forgot to take the thin-ness of the material into consideration and in that one instant, with almost no force being applied, I managed to rip his shirt apart just as the bell rang. The back of his shirt was completely ripped, hanging out behind him, just as one of those affected limbs hangs off the disabled. He turned to me aghast and in a moment his sneer had turned into shame and tears of embarrassment ran down his cheeks in streams that settled on the still-intact front of his shirt. We rushed back to class, as I internally congratulated myself on extracting revenge, all the while pitying his penury and his lack of means to afford decent uniforms. I was pleased with myself until the teacher walked in. One look at Nimish’s forlorn face and his tattered clothes, and she demanded an explanation. My honesty kicked in and before someone could rat me out, I stood up and confessed. The teacher glared at me — partially in surprise, for I was one of the “good” kids then. She looked back at Nimish and took a moment to make her decision. Looking back, it seems to me that the decision that the teacher made was perfect. The punishment was ideal and apt and would deter other students from such uncivilized uncouth behavior in the future — the ideal punishment. However, at that moment, her punishment seemed far too cruel, far too sadistic. I stared at her in disbelief (she was one of my favorite teachers) and I remember re-running the words through my head in order to ensure that I did not hear her wrong. As I stood there waiting, Nimish hesitated as well — I would like to think that he was partially embarrassed by the punishment as well. Our hesitation prompted the teacher to repeat her decision in a louder, firmer voice and we grudgingly walked out of our seats to the front of the class. In front of the whole class of 50-odd students (including girls), both of us took out our shirts and exchanged them. I tried to make the best of the situation by tucking in the ripped back at the top of my vest and Nimish tried to fill his entire body into my large shirt. The teacher looked at him and asked him if he had another shirt, and Nimish, growing smaller every instant replied that he did not. The teacher decreed that Nimish was to keep my shirt and I was to keep his, as a constant reminder. Wearing his shirt was insulting enough, but to part with my new, neatly ironed shirt for his piece of rag-cloth was too much. I broke down and cried, right there in front of the whole class — in front of Aparna, on whom I had had a crush for a long time. At that moment I did not care. I just wanted to get out of the class and go home — but I could not.
I remember managing to go through the entire day somehow — the students whispering behind my back as I passed them during odd-hours, my friends trying to console me. Aparna and her clique walked by, she looked at me and then turned to her friends and they giggled. At that moment I hated her so fiercely that I would have wrung her neck, had I known how to. My crush was wiped off in an instant. As I waited for my father’s BMW to come and pick me up after school, I saw Nimish walk across the railway tracks near our school — the first steps of the 20 minute walk back to his house. I remember that I cursed him and his kind. I, who had been brought up in the lap of luxury, was wearing the rags of a boy who could not even afford to pay for the school-bus to take him home! At that moment I wished the worst misfortunes that could befall mankind on him and his family. Imagine this rag-wearer decked out in my newly bought, clean shirt! My mind could not get over the embarrassment and when the car came around, I took off the shirt and threw it into the gutter near the school before I got in, yelling at the driver to take me home in the cocooned German comfort of the air-conditioned car.
And then, in a flash, I was back to the present again. The face had not changed much over all these years. He was still the same lanky person that he had always been, and his hair still gleamed, his mouth was still full of those crooked teeth. The only thing that had changed was his gait. It was not the walk of a poor, beaten man, but the walk of a self-made human, one who was confident of himself and his abilities. This was the walk of one who had seen penury and had faced life with all his will and had succeeded in the fight against the vagaries of life. He had lifted himself out of the poverty that life had thrown at him with his own hands, and he was confident that were he to go back to that state today — yes go back, for he seemed to be extremely successful with his Gucci shirts and Armani watches — he would be able to lift himself back again. As he got closer, I became a bit nervous. Maybe he would recognize me. Maybe he would know me from all that while ago — after all, if I could remember who he was, maybe he would remember me too. Then I consoled myself with the thought that I had changed a lot. There was a thick beard, and my head had long hair. There was the cap that I was wearing and my jackets…no no, he would never know it was me! As he got closer I walked up to him and he turned towards me, his expression just like the countless that I see everyday — disgust and repulsion, and I looked up at him through my red alcohol filled eyes and lifted my grimy hands that still housed tattered remnants of woolen gloves, and through my broken rotted teeth and stench-filled mouth said to him, “Spare some change mishter?” He threw a quarter at me and hastened away as I went back to my small sack at the corner of the bridge, pulled out my bottle of whisky and went about trying to drink myself to death; after all, having traveled for years in a BMW, it is difficult living as a bum.
Yes, Mostly fiction — Mostly. I never did own a BMW and I never was rich! 😉