In the second part of the series the author Dr. Saumya Shankar Chowdhury narrates about Ashutosh’s first encounter with Mridula in the college with whom he falls in love surely but silently……….the awesome narration of the author undoubtedly brings memories to many of us of our first love……..
Illustration by Sid Ghosh
Ashutosh usually sat by the window or an open door from where he could spit the betel juices at frequent intervals. Being late on that day he had to sit in the third bench, which was the only vacant seat he could find. It seated ladies who were always jotting whatever the Professor uttered.
Ashutosh somehow managed to hold on for a few minutes but the spice in the betel leaf was almost eroding the insides of his cheeks. He silently tore a piece of paper and put the contents of his mouth in it. He folded the paper, as if practising origami and was about to give his creation the shape of an aeroplane letting it take off via the ventilator, when he noticed his immediate neighbour look up from her notebook and twitch her eyebrows at him.
Ashutosh felt his ears going red and he lowered his gaze and slipped the paper aeroplane into the folds of the folded umbrella. He couldn’t help noticing that the girl was wearing a white cardigan and a purple scarf and looked at him with big eyes. He didn’t know whether to avoid her gaze or otherwise and tried to concentrate on the lecture. He could not put his mind in it and was relieved when the professor opened the attendance register, signalling the end of the class with the customary dusting off the palms and blowing the snuff from his nostrils into his much used handkerchief.
The first year students came out in droves, in a hurry to attend the next lecture in the other wing. Ashutosh made a dash for the class room, the sheaf of papers rolled like a pirate’s spy glass and sat next to the window, but it was of no use then as the masticated paan was within the folds of the umbrella. It was the English lecture, starting with a chapter from R.K. Narayan, whose language was a lot easier to comprehend. He could not see the girl who had sat next to him in the earlier class. He was lost in the vivid descriptions of the ‘bachelor of arts’ for the next hour.
The Professor, an oily haired gentleman, kept his eyes closed for most of the time and his voice reached a crescendo with the increasing sounds of the raindrops falling on the roof. He had been a staunch supporter of Gandhian values in his youth as was the rumour, but had become a communist with the changing times. Ashutosh hardly understood politics to join in the debate in the canteens, where the first year students still avoided the bastions of the seniors.
The morning brush with the girl on the bench, which went no further than the impromptu twitching of eyebrows, filled in him a curiosity largely undefined in his now stirring subconscious mind. The rain had stopped. He had attended five classes. The attendance gradually dwindled in the second half as most of his classmates left for more adventurous pursuits. But the girl was there and as if by accident, he happened to sit next to her, the second time in the day. He had to move closer to the girl, for the lecturer had asked all the students to occupy the vacant seats in the front, and a few had shifted to his left. His arm brushed with hers and in the clumsy movements which ensued out of a strange awkwardness, he felt his elbow touching something very soft, softness he had never felt before, a softness which caused some parts of his youthful existence to stiffen.
The girl closed her notebook. Was she going to get up to go? He saw the name on the cover…Mridula….she was shifting her feet. His thigh was almost touching hers. Ashutosh looked the other way. He felt foolish. His attire was little shabby compared to most in the class. He used to put mustard oil on his scalp as was the hereditary custom in their household. He looked at his dirty fingernails and started chewing them. The girl gave one glance and continued to pay attention to the lecture. Ashutosh touched his elbow in a clumsy gesture.
The guy sitting to the left of him smiled. He was probably a Khasi. Ashutosh smiled at him. He had a few friends from the Khasi and Jaintia community and most guys who attended school and college were rough on the exterior, but once they became friendly, they were really good to go along.
Ashutosh was daydreaming when the final bell rang. The guy next to him smiled again, ’Hi! I am Jeffrey Shullai Lyngdoh,’ he offered his hand. Ashutosh wiped his palm on his sleeve and shook hands with him warmly. ‘Your name sounds odd,’ Ashutosh blurted out and immediately regretted saying so. Jeffrey could sense his discomfort and said, ‘It’s ok! You are right. I’m a Khasi and Jaintia cross.’ Ashutosh laughed at the last word. It was the common term for off springs of parents belonging to different communities. In Shillong one would often come across terms such as cocktail, hybrid(pronounced haibreed) or cross, as Jeffrey had so casually mentioned, the accepted nomenclature for his ilk.
The professor went on with his lecture which most students, yawning by then, had ceased to follow but the girl next to him was immersed in taking notes. As if getting a cue from the students, the two letter initialled gentleman stopped abruptly, and wiping the black board with a duster which no longer had the sponge in it, walked away in a huff.
Ashutosh learnt that Jeffrey stayed in Mawlai. He left on a scooter with another guy, a Nepali, by the name of Ram Bahadur Thapa, who was introduced to Ashutosh and shook hands with him vigorously. Ashutosh liked the easy going nature of the two guys. They were not from his community. But he had a strong feeling that they were going to be his friends. It was always better to avoid friends from his community. It would be better if he did not come across any classmate of his. So far so good!
It was four in the afternoon and the classes were over for the day. Ashutosh had nothing to do. He did not like to go home as the arguments would start with his parents over his undecided future. He had no friends as they did not find him interesting at all. He was none the worse for it as he was too shy to mix with people and took a lot of time to open up. He lazily walked towards the paan shop and spent another rupee over a paan with tobacco and lit a Capstan cigarette, his sheaf of papers and umbrella in one hand and the cigarette on the other.
To be continued
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Dr. Chowdhury is an avid writer, who in his professional life is a medico for the past 20 years, currently with a Central government Public Sector Undertaking. His first anthology of short stories, Barak To Doyang, was published by the National Library, Guwahati, in 2012. Besides writing, he has a keen interest in music.