It was a cold winter morning in Delhi as I woke up to the usual rants of my father about how lazy I was. I slowly got up from my bed as I went over to the basin to look at my bored face. Just imagine continued illegible ranting in the background. I groaned at the look of my face. Strangely, I hated to get up to go to school but I also loved being at school. I did not have many friends. To be honest, I had no friends at all. All I loved about school was I felt deeply loved by my teachers. I felt appreciated. Yes. Call me Teacher’s pet. You are allowed to roll your eyes at me.
Well, that morning did not feel any different.I got dressed, checked my homework and packed my school bag. I was tying my shoe laces as my mom kept feeding me breakfast. But that day was not just a regular day as I thought it would be.
As I boarded my school bus, crippled with social anxiety, I kept praying for a seat alone but I couldn’t see any. I saw him there. A boy I had never seen before was smiling widely at me. With no other choice left behind, I went and sat next to him. At that time, I believed I was really the stuck-up that people told me I was. Now, I know I was an introvert and still am. I never liked to start any conversation. I have always had the social anxiety. Sitting next to the new boy, I felt the same. The fear was creeping out towards my extremities, making me sweat. But he was still smiling.
“Hi.” He said.
I gulped a pint of saliva and watched my hands, fidgeting at the hem of my uniform. I realized I had not replied to him and that he was waiting for an answer.
“Are you okay?” He asked.
As the superwoman I was, I did not reply to that either. As soon as the bus came to a stop, I got up and left. On my way to the classroom, all I could think of was ‘Why did I mess it up? Why couldn’t I talk?’ I entered my classroom and took the seat. I had always occupied the first bench in the classroom. However, I could not concentrate. My mind kept going back to my inner fears and worries.
“Niharika?” My teacher called out my name.
I adjusted myself to the real surroundings, looked around and stood up.
“Anita ma’am wants you at her office.” She said stressing upon every word in her sentence.
I straightened my skirt by smoothing it with my hands and walked out of the classroom with all the eyes on me. Apparently, she had been calling my name for five minutes, already.
I filled my lungs with the fresh air coming my way then and decided to let it all go. As I begin to walk briskly towards my science teacher’s office, I took a turn, lifted my head and there he was. The same guy, the guy with the wide grin, the guy who almost made me pee in my pants, standing right there in my science teacher’s office. My feet went cold and my hands felt numb. My mind was all frenzy. It felt like I have a load of hay inside my head instead of grey matter. I turned around and was about to go back on the same way I came from, when my teacher saw me.
“Niharika! We were waiting for you. Where are you going?”
I struggled to utter a few words but it felt like I was choking.
“I…I thought….ma’am…I thought…you are busy.”
She frowned at me for a second and then said – “Anyway, are you ready?”
Ready? I was not sure what she was asking me about and it has always been a struggle for me to mask my true expressions. So, my face twisted in confusion evidently.
“I believe you have already been told that you are going to represent our school in the science camp organized by a NGO?” She asked as if it was obvious.
“Uh…Yeah. Of course, I know, ma’am.” I said trying to dial down my shambled state of orientation.
“This is Varun.” She said, pointing at the wide-grinned guy beside me. My efforts to ignore him went down the drain at that moment. I tried not to make eye contact and shook his hand which he had already extended towards me. He was smiling even then. “He is one year senior to you and is going to be your partner. Him being the senior representative, you are the junior one. Now, that is obvious, isn’t it?” She said, giggling.
OH MY GOD. My mind was exploding.
“Pack your bags and be ready for Shimla tomorrow.”
SHIMLA?? WHAT ON MIGHTY HEAVENS?
“Take warm clothes and everything essential. Also, keep your letter with you which they mailed.”
I stifled my urge to ask what is even going on and stood there until she dismissed both of us to our classes.
That day, when I reached back home, my parents were ready with their supposed “surprise” and were disappointed by the look on my face. Apparently, my parents already knew and thought it would be great to give me a stroke like this.
“I don’t want to go, Dad.” I said quietly.
“Why?” my parents asked in unison, stricken with disappointment. I think my mom was more baffled than disappointed. Maybe she felt that why someone would reject something so important like this. I don’t blame her.
But the idea of actually socializing with hundreds of other kids around the country was scary. Not just one wide-grinned guy. Hundreds of them. Hundreds of kids who do not understand the terms ‘comfort zone’ and ‘personal space’. Terrifying. Gut-wrenching. I could have actually listed down a thousand adjectives for them to understand. But, I did not because I knew that no one would understand this weird sense of fear.
Instead, I said – “Never mind. I will go.”
Their faces instantly lit up and they did not bother to ask me any further questions.
Next morning, as I woke up, my parents were all ready to drop me to the destination where all the students were instructed to arrive. I got dressed in my casuals and my mom checked my packed bags to confirm that everything was there inside. My Dad gave me a camera and explained briefly how it works. He also gave one of his cell phones for them to contact me. As I sat in the back seat of the car, we started our journey to my self-destruction.
I don’t know when I dozed off but when I woke up, my parents were looking at me. They were oddly excited for some unknown reason. I am not; why are they? I wondered. I looked out the window and saw that we were in a parking lot which was filled with kids my age more than it was packed with cars and vehicles. There was a Volvo bus which was painted all white over which thin green tendrils with little leaves were painted on it.
We got out of the car and my parents guided me to the crowd where all the kids were grouped and some adult woman was announcing something with a white paper in her hand. I figured she must have scribbled her little speech in there.
“So, kids! This is a small attendance call as it is already 8.30 a.m.” She checked her watch as she said that. “I expect everyone to be here right now.”
After that, she called out the names and checked it on her list after every call. By the time, my turn arrived, I was already prepared to say out “Here, ma’am!” and “Present, ma’am.” I was trying to figure out which one to choose when she said –
And I said something like this – “Herenaam.”
I am pretty sure she frowned at me to make sure she was allowing a human at her camp base and not a seal flapping its arms at her, making illegible noises. And of course, as we are humans, the other kids found it funny and thought it was okay to laugh and embarrass someone. Words you don’t understand? Laugh. She is depressed? How silly? Laugh. Fat shaming? Laugh. Social anxiety? Laugh. I was flustered with shame and my face went cherry red. My Dad kept saying – “It is okay.” But I knew it was not. Nothing about me was just OKAY.
My parents made me board the bus, yes, that white / green zombie like bus and I knew, at that moment that I was way out of my comfort zone. I knew, at that moment that the trip is going to be a disaster. I sat at the far end of the bus and took the window seat to avoid any eye contact.
The bus started moving and my parents were soon out of my sight.
“I think you shouldn’t be embarrassed of yourself.”
I turned towards the voice and I saw that it was him. It was unclear still what triggered me but I let out – “I am sorry?”
“Oh. So, you can talk?” And his smile grew wider.
I swallowed a wee bit of myself with the saliva and turned to look outside.
“We could be friends, you know?” He said.
I did not reply to that either, even though I wanted to.
“I am just saying that it is not a big deal if people laugh at you. Sometimes, it is good to laugh at yourself. Have you ever tried that?” He went on.
At this point, I looked at him with his wide grin which could have lighted up one whole room and stifled my actual reply and said –
“You won’t understand.”
“Fine. No problem. Now, if you want anything, I am just here. Next to you.” He said and plugged in his earphones.
Well, maybe the earphones were not that good or the music was too loud, I could totally hear what he was listening to. It was my favorite song – “Wish you were here” by Pink Floyd. I looked down at his phone and saw that he was scrolling through his playlist.
“That is such a nice playlist.”
I have no idea how he heard me through all that music in his ears but he unplugged the earphones and just smiled at me. I smiled back.
“Thank you.” He said and his smile was audible.
We reached Shimla late at night and it was too cold to even move our muscles. I flinched as the breeze hit my face and took out my sweater from the bag to put it on. I closed the window and rubbed my hands together.
“Are you feeling cold?” He asked.
“What do you think?” I mocked.
At that moment, I realized that I really need to take some coaching to learn some people skills, especially small talk.
“Well, I think you are. Do you need my muffler?”
“No. it is okay. I am fine. Thank you.”
We got down the bus as it came to a stop. And as I got down, all I could see was a road stretching at the back and in the front. I couldn’t figure out why they would drop us here.
“All right, kids!” The announcing woman yelled again. I figured out later that she was one of the organizers slash hiker. “So, we have to walk ahead from here to the camp base.” She pointed towards a slope going up alongside one of the mountains. It looked like a pretty rough, muddy and narrow way.
“Collect your bags and start walking.” She said and started to walk towards the slope.
“Well, come on. Do you need help?” Varun asked looking at my bag.
“I am fine.”
I think I should have said “Yes, I do” because it was really hard to walk with your luggage on a slope going up. My Nike shoes were saying “JUST DO IT” but hey! It was not that easy.
If you obey, it does not mean you are weak.
We reached a table land and it was beautiful. The plateau was set up with so many tents and a bonfire in the middle. There was a canteen on the other side looking out at the place of bonfire and the tents on either side.
It was so beautiful that I could not help but let out a gasp.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Varun asked.
I turned to look at him but he was looking somewhere else.
Of course, as I was lost in my own thoughts, the woman was already allotting the tents to everyone.
“Come on.” Varun said.
We went over and as soon as we reached to join the group, she said – “Varun and Akshay, Tent no. 5.”
He moved to look for whoever Akshay was and he found him. It took him no time to mingle with him. In a matter of five minutes, they were already laughing together.
I wish I could do that. I thought to myself.
“Niharika and Alia. Tent no. 6.”
My heartbeat rose to a peak and I started looking around for my destined stranger. Just by then, someone patted on my shoulder.
“Yeah. It’s me, Alia.” She said, in a not-interested tone.
“Hello.” I said, trying to be social.
“Whatever, loser.” She said.
It struck me so hard that I could not even do anything about it. All my life, I have been called names. It was not new but the pain was new. It always was. Afresh. I choked down on my tears and did not let any touch my cheek.
There is something about dominance. If you obey, it does not mean you are weak. It just means you don’t want to fight back. Being bullied and pulled down by people renders you tired, effortlessly tired. It makes you believe that it is better to let it go than fight back. It gives you the false belief that you cannot do anything about it. But in reality, you can but you just don’t want to. Dominance is rendered speechless when you would.
We were all sent back to our tents to get some rest after dinner that night. To start our early morning trek, we were all informed to get up as early as possible the other day .
As I reached my tent, Alia was sitting there with one of her friends talking about how she so wanted to camp with her and how she unfortunately ended up with me, a loser. I tried to sit through all of that, with my book open in front of me, but I just could not handle the meanness.
The Pain that bleeds through heart, hurts the most.
I stood up and walked out of the tent to find that almost everybody had camped in and slept. The tears kept flowing and I kept walking. After walking a little into the dark forest behind and then, I heard a voice.
“I was just a tent away. You could have called me.”
I gasped out of shock and cried even more bitterly.
“Hey. What’s wrong?” He asked and came over to comfort me. He was smart enough to carry torchlight with him while walking alone in a stranded dark forest when everyone else was sleeping.
“Nothing. It is just…nothing.” I said and tried to stop crying which just turned into silence with little sobs in between.
He held my hand and said – “It is okay.” Almost a whisper.
“You know what? I have a plan.” He said as I remained quiet.
I watched him under the tiny bit of light hitting his face and realized he was still smiling. It was still a well-managed smile if not the wide grin he usually puts on.
“Let’s watch the stars.”
He walked ahead, holding my hand and came to a stop as he saw a clearing to look up at the sky and said –
“Lie down. It will be fun.” He said as he lied down himself.
I lied down too. I was glad I did. The stars were stretched out on the sky like glitter on a dark blue paper. It was the most beautiful painting I had ever seen. The only difference was it was all real.
“Why do you talk to me?” I asked in a hoarse voice.
“I… what do you mean?” He asked.
“People call me a loser. Back at school. Here. Why do YOU talk to me?” I asked.
“Because, you are my friend. And I don’t think you are a loser.”
I remained quiet for a while, trying to comprehend what he said.
“Just because you are different, it does not mean you are a loser.” He spoke up.
I looked at him and he was smiling. The same wide- grinned guy. I smiled back. Years and years, I was filled with questions and I found my answer under a sky full of stars.