of mice and women

when I was 14, I was crazy about books. fiction, obviously. My neighbour had this new 3 in 1 Famous Five book she had just bought. Her parents were the rare sort of family that actually BOUGHT books, instead of letting their kids haunt the local lending libraries. She was a bit older than me, but we were both still at the Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew (Case Files) stage of womanhood. I had stealth access to my moms Mills n Boon stash, so I had only an impending sort of concept of titillation. A lot was remarkably clarified in the Sidney Sheldon phase a year later.

Around this time I had also borrowed another book, a Three Investigators I think, from a school friend, who had taken a month off from school to go for some holiday. I brought both books, my treasure, to school, to have something to do during Hindi class. The 12th class students were just clearing out of the morning session, when I plopped my books on the desk and went for a wander. I came back 10 minutes later, and the classroom was cleared. The books were gone. One of my classmates, a boy I barely knew saw me search, and said, are you looking for the books? Some 12th class boys just took them. I was at this time, very upset and very frightened. Mommy would be very angry if she found out I lost them. So would my neighbour. So would my classmate a month later.

I marched to the Vice Principals office with the boy witness, and asked that he get the books back. He said he would have us in the 12th classroom tomorrow early to identify the culprits. boy witness said he would come early. We all scanned the 12th classroom the next day, but boy witness couldnt identify them any more. we tried for 5 days. he still couldnt tell. no one came forward to return the books.

The next month passed in a kind of thick ether, through which I couldnt manage to thread my voice. My neighbour asked for the books once, but I stalled her. I was sick with worry and fear, although I probably looked about the same to the rest of the world – morose. But my days were filled with nightmares of being called a thief, sinking my family in debt and being expelled from school. I tended to dream big.

Then a month later, my classmate returned. A week later she asked for her book back. I stalled her. Then she started asking every day. My days were filled with reasons for how I lost it, why I couldnt find it. Then another friend of hers broke the coconut. Dont you know? She lost it. Part of my fears came true. She got very angry and called me a liar and a thief. I didnt tell her my story. it sounded thin, even to me. It was humilating and sunk my non existent street cred a few feet lower. Even polite chit chat with the other girls ground to a halt and I just sat inside my ether and waited for my neighbour to go next. She didnt. I think she realized I lost it and let it go. For a fellow reader, who hadnt yet read the book, it was a rare kindness.

That story never got better. I was already weird and awkward and the kid who always had stains on her shirt, but now life at school got much worse. My school friend always treated me with contempt since then, and she was a popular girl, so that meant, all the other girls, except the confirmed kooks, avoided me too. No one would sit next to me in the bus, and any trips to parks or museums meant hours of planning for me, to appear like a normal part of the school group, and NOT walking by myself. darting behind group after group before they noticed I was there. taking refuge with a fellow confirmed kook during bus rides or presentations.

I swam in that ether for a long time not knowing how to cross to the other side I saw every day. Laughter and jokes and a shared reality, common ground, a stake to the same life.


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