Literature & Fiction | 43 Chapters
Author: Reijul Sachdev
A death at a school, A trail of clues as haikus Makes rivals team up. It’s just another day at Green Hill Academy. That is, until two boys, Sohum and Suraj, stumble upon the corpse of their classmate! Along with the corpse, they find a journal containing haikus (17-syllable poems) at the scene of the crime. Too bad Sohum and Suraj are like fire and ice! Suraj is popular, sporty and the class topper. Sohum is fat, unpopular and Suraj’s biggest....
For each beginning,
A blade of grass is left crushed,
By the first footstep.
I should probably start at the beginning. But beginnings are very hard to define. And since I don’t want to trample on any grass (or feelings or feet!), I will start somewhere in the middle. Being a romantic at heart, I will start with my first heart-break. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Not another school love-story! Plus, this one doesn’t even have vampires to spice it up! But, let me tell you something about this story. Nothing is what it seems at first.
Well, okay. That’s not technically true. When I asked the girl of my dreams if she would be my girlfriend, she flat out turned me down. Not that I was the best-looking guy around, but I thought we were pretty compatible. She’d held my hand through movies and stuff. She’d let me carry her bag. She’d even mentioned how she liked the earrings I gifted her. Okay, I was fat and had a huge beard and was the biggest nerd around. But give me a break! Nobody’s perfect. That applied to her too. She was hardly a dazzling beauty! She was average looking with black eyes, raven hair, streaked with brown, and an impish face. She was also a Bengali. I am a mongrel – half-Bengali and half-Punjabi. But my dad had been brought up in Kolkata, so I was more comfortable with the Bengali side of my heritage. Like all good Bengalis, she loved ‘maachh’ (fish), Marxism and marks. I liked fish and had topped the class till the beginning of 10th Grade. More about that in a minute. So, anyway, I mustered up the courage to finally ask her if she would be my girlfriend.
My classmates had warned me time and time again that the ‘lucky’ (read ‘unfortunate’) girl who I ended up with would only take me on as a charity case. But I figured I was doing her a favour. After all, almost everyone else in our class was dating. We were good friends. We came from Bengali families. Both of us often chatted together, in Bengali. I figured I was in with a good shot. However, when I asked her, she started laughing. I’d love to say her laugh was beautiful, but the words would choke me. It was like a horse neighing. No offence meant to horses everywhere. I am a proud member of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). In any case, once she was done, she told me she’d already agreed to be someone else’s girlfriend. I was stunned. I mean, who was desperate enough to want to go out with her (losers like me don’t count)?! The ironic thing was that soon after we finished this conversation, her new boyfriend would wind up dead…
Bet you didn’t see that coming! In any case, let me back up a bit further to the actual conversation between me and my ‘non-girlfriend’. At the time, I (Sohum Chawla) was studying in Grade 10 in Bangalore at an ICSE school called Green Hill Academy. In case you’re wondering, there weren’t any hills nearby. But the school was in the middle of nowhere. I guess that’s what accounted for the ‘green’ in the name. Now, as everybody in India knows, Grade 10 is one of the least fun years of school life. You have to sit for your first set of national exams, i.e. your ‘board exams’. Any Indian student will also tell you that the ICSE board exam is probably the hardest in the country. It’s an all-India board (like its government counterpart – the CBSE). It’s definitely harder than any of the state boards (though, if you have Bengali grandparents, they will insist that the West Bengal state board exam is the hardest of all!) and is arguably tougher than even the CBSE exam. The time period I’m talking about is well in the past, when 100% wasn’t scored effortlessly and the correction was strict enough to ensure that even a school topper rarely crossed 95%. Of course, your parents and other dinosaurs would have told you of a land before time when toppers would score in their seventies. But we’ll leave the distant past to that generation.
Anyway, this girl (Anjali) and I had been friends since 9th Grade. Anjali had joined school in 8th Grade, while I had been there since 7th Grade. Our school was actually brand new. It was so new that it hadn’t even been officially recognised by the ICSE Council yet, which meant we might not be eligible to write our board exams! We were, in fact, the ‘guinea pigs’ of the school. In other words, we were the first batch of students appearing for the board exams. When I had joined school in 7th Grade, it was the highest grade in the entire school! So, while it was fun not having any seniors to boss us around, we also had no clue what to expect in our exams. No helpful hints, no saving secrets, no…well, you get the idea (I’m also running out of alliterations here!). By the way, most of the teachers there were teaching students for the first time in their lives. So, they didn’t exactly know how to control a bunch of unruly teenagers!
Till the end of 9th Grade, I had been the class topper. I had also been the nerdiest kid around. If you imagine a hairy slob of a nerd, you’re probably picturing me. I had zero muscle mass. I couldn’t play a single sport. As one of the girls in our batch had teased me, I couldn’t even catch a ball! I was a massive ball of fat. Like someone had once joked, I didn’t walk, I “waddled”! I always had my head buried in a textbook and had thick glasses. To top it off, I had this massive moustache and beard which I refused to shave, despite my mother’s occasional threats that she would throw me out of the house if I didn’t! So, you now have an idea of how hideous I looked. The only good thing I had going for me was that I was tall (though definitely not dark and handsome!).
Anjali was short with a long ponytail and sparkling eyes. She was a less attractive, Bengali version of Audrey Hepburn. If you don’t know who Audrey Hepburn is, shame on you! Go back and watch ‘My Fair Lady’! By the way, I’m not calling Anjali “less attractive” because she said no to me. I’m just being honest. (Well, okay. Maybe it was partly because she said no to me!) On the positive, she had a great sense of humour, loved to chat with me and didn’t get along too well with most of the other students (just like me!). On the negative, she was into romantic stuff like Valentine’s Day, the whole chocolate-and-flowers routine and all that drivel. Plus, she basically used me to improve her marks. I, kind of, knew she was using me and didn’t mind it. On the other hand, I hoped that her feelings would develop into something more concrete as we spent more time together. Soon, the inevitable jokes started floating around. People told Anjali that she should carry elephant tranquilizer if she were dating me. They told me to lay off the carbs, so that Anjali wasn’t buried under layers of fat. But I had Anjali and I was happy.
Everything seemed okay till Grade 10 began. A new boy was admitted to our class. We were all a little surprised. He was younger than everyone else and had been admitted in a board exam year. What could it mean? I found out soon enough. It was the beginning of all my troubles in the form of a Tamilian Brahmin, named Suraj Iyer…
This story seems to be sprawling all over the place. You know how when you’re driving a car, you find the perfect spot to park and begin reversing your car to enter the lot, then you realise someone else has beaten you to it? But you keep going round and round, trying to find a vacant spot till you eventually realise that every spot is taken! That’s exactly what seems to be happening with this story. I keep thinking I’ve discovered the perfect point to start, but have to keep beginning again because it isn’t! Let me start with when we discovered Suraj’s hidden talents. But, before that, let me begin with a description of Suraj himself.
Suraj was short, skinny and had a very boyish look. He looked like a 6th Grader. Compared to me, he was a pipsqueak. Unfortunately, for me, it was a case of David versus Goliath! On the first day of class, he didn’t have any friends, as everyone gossiped about what had happened during the holidays and chatted about what lay in store for them in the year ahead. I made it a general policy to try and look after those who were ignored by the rest of our class. Yes, by “rest of the class”, I mean the cool kids. However, most everyone was cool, except for Anjali, Suraj and me! That lasted for only one day. After that, Suraj became the virtual Emperor of the class.
Coming back to the first day, when I met Suraj, he seemed socially awkward and had a weird tic, marking him as a misfit. He had a tendency to turn his head to the right and blink every few seconds. I felt like we would soon be good friends. “Don’t worry. There’s not much ragging here. They only dress you up like a girl and force you to walk around during lunch, so that the junior classes can laugh at you!” I said, by way of greeting. Suraj looked terrified. I laughed. Anjali slapped me painfully on the arm. “He’s just kidding. People here are a little stuck-up and snobbish. But you get used to them. There’s no ragging, though people might ignore you all the time. Don’t worry. You can always hang out with us!” she said, smiling unnecessarily at him. Suraj twitched nervously and then muttered a “Thanks”.
After that, I sort of forgot about him till lunch. I was sitting alone, waiting for Anjali to show up. “Is this seat taken?” asked a voice to my left. I turned to see Suraj standing beside me. “No! Sit down. I should warn you, the food here sucks!” I told him. “I guess that’s one thing common to all schools,” he joked. We both chuckled. Yeah, I was beginning to like this guy. “By the way, are you and Anjali…like, a couple?” he finally asked, after toying with his food, while I shovelled mine down. I nearly choked on the last mouthful. “No. Why?” I answered, not entirely sure I wanted to know the answer. “Well, she seems like a nice girl and I would hate for her to have to settle for second best,” he replied, like that explained everything. “What is that supposed to mean?” I asked, sounding colder than I had meant to. “Well, I heard you’re the class topper, but you’re going to have to settle for second place now that I’m here. I mean you’re smart and all, but you’re no genius,” he replied, casually insulting me to my face! “And I suppose you are?” I asked sarcastically. “Actually, yes. I have an IQ of 180. So, technically, I am a genius. Plus, I’m a state-level basketball player. That’s why I’m pointing out the obvious,” he coolly answered. “Wow! Who’s your role model? Iron Man? You’ve certainly got his modesty! And you might be a genius, but life here isn’t that easy, without friends. Just wait and see!” I said angrily and walked off in a huff. I couldn’t wait to wipe that smug, self-satisfied look off his face.
Turns out, he wasn’t exaggerating. The next day, we started basketball try-outs for the school team. Suraj was amazing. He was like poetry in motion. Despite being short, he was able to slip past every opponent and shoot beautifully. By the end of the day, he was one of the cool kids. That was fine with me. But, as we boarded our buses and prepared to leave, I saw him chatting with Anjali. When I asked her about the incident later, she admitted to enjoying his company. Now, I was mad. He wasn’t content to hang out with the cool kids. He wanted Anjali too. Was I being paranoid? Okay, maybe a little. But, was he being a jerk? Absolutely! However, he still had to prove his academic excellence.
The perfect opportunity came up next week. We were studying Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ in English Literature. We had just finished the first two scenes. Our English teacher (who was a living contradiction, being a seriously funny man!) decided to hold a pop quiz. None of us, including me, had studied for it. I vaguely remembered some of the lines and quoted them, but I was pretty sure everyone would do equally badly. The next day, our English teacher handed out our papers with a stony face. I had never seen him look so serious. “I’ve been teaching English for ten years. Never have I seen such a brilliant answer script!” he exclaimed. I was sure he was talking about me, but he pointed at Suraj and continued, “That’s why I’ve decided this deserves a 20/20!” I had only managed a measly 15/20. True, it was the second highest, but that wasn’t much consolation. Suraj had quoted an entire section of the text, complete with semicolons, commas and all the other punctuation marks! Not only was he great at English, he was a Maths whizz too. Soon, it was obvious to everyone that he really was a genius. Anjali seemed to spend more and more of her time with him and less and less with me.
Anyhow, now that we have found a vague starting point, namely Suraj’s annoyingness, let’s jump ahead a few months to the conversation I was talking about. The one between Anjali and me. The tragedy was that while I was obsessed with Suraj, I didn’t see how I was losing Anjali to someone else entirely…
That Monday started out pretty normally. Okay, not really. My heart was hammering loudly in my chest and I felt like a time bomb. Today was the day! The time had finally come. I was going to ask Anjali to be my girlfriend. I figured the two of us were pretty much a couple in any case. She had begun hanging out with Suraj more and more. I wanted to make a move quickly, before Suraj stole something else that belonged to me. You’re probably wondering what all the fuss was about, but I had never asked a girl to be my girlfriend before. Being turned down wasn’t the worst possibility though. Being turned down for Suraj…now that really hurt!
My parents were as liberal as Bengalis and Punjabis can be. They knew about Anjali and me. I had even told my mom that I was going to ask her to be my girlfriend today. She had insisted that I carry a pair of her old earrings as a gift for Anjali to celebrate when she said, “Yes!” My mom was one of those perennial optimists who believed that everything would work out fine. Let me correct that – she was one of those ‘annoying’ perennial optimists. She was convinced that Anjali would love me forever and ever. I was having minor heart attacks in the meantime. So, yeah. Everything was pretty good. Anjali, poor (or as my mom would say “lucky”) girl, had no idea what was in store for her. I just hoped both of us wouldn’t be unpleasantly surprised.
After a filling breakfast, I caught the bus and kept daydreaming about how to ask her. Should I go with something like “How you doin’?”. Or was that too much like Joey in the TV show ‘Friends’? Maybe I should look to Johnny Bravo for inspiration! I tried to remember the best (or rather worst) lines from that old cartoon. How did Johnny Bravo handle rejection? If Anjali said, “I already have a boyfriend”, I would counter with “You look like the kind of girl who could use two!” I must admit I love Johnny Bravo, mainly for nostalgic reasons. The serial was definitely sexist and objectified women, but I had grown up on it, so I still reverted to Johnny Bravo’s sage words of advice in times of crisis.
While I was pondering what to say, we had arrived. I was the last off the bus. I bumped into Suhel. He was also a classmate of mine – one of the few I was friendly with. He was a pretty moody guy. He was a great football and basketball player (though not as great as Emperor Suraj, of course!). He was also a bit of a poet. I had once come upon him scribbling in a journal in an empty classroom at lunchtime. This was at the beginning of Grade 10. Being curious, I had peeked over his shoulder. I saw a few lines of verse. At first, he was angry at being spotted. He got up and looked like he was going to hit me. Of course, that would have probably hurt him more than me. But that’s beside the point. He had never got so worked up about anything before. Finally, he cooled down and made me swear not to tell anyone his secret. He admitted to me that poetry was his passion. He discovered haikus at the beginning of Grade 10 and began this journal. A haiku, he explained, is a Japanese form of poetry consisting of 17 syllables spread over three lines. The first and last lines have 5 syllables each, while the middle one has 7. I was a safe person to confide in because no one else would listen to what I said anyway. Plus, I hated gossip. So, I never really had any leverage over him. But, after this encounter, we tried to avoid each other as far as possible.
I strolled past him. As I was passing, he asked, “How’s Anjali?” That was the last thing I had expected him to say. I stared at him for a full ten seconds before asking the obvious question, “Why?” He just smiled a knowing smile and said, “Tell her to be careful,” and walked away. That was the first surprise of the day. The second was my conversation with Anjali herself.
I bumped into her at lunch. I hadn’t had a chance during the morning because she was busy chatting with Suraj. Finally, I had her alone to myself. I casually sat beside her and draped an arm around her chair, pretending to be stretching. Yeah, it’s the most cliched and lamest move in the book, but I figured I might as well go all the way. After some playful banter, I took a swig of juice and worked up the guts to ask her. “So, there’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about. It’s been on my mind for a while. In fact, you can probably guess what I want to say…” I waited expectantly, hoping she would get it, but she continued to look clueless. “Okay, in that case, let me be blunt. We’ve been friends for a long time. We’ve dated and had fun together. So, I was thinking that it’s time to take the next step in our relationship…” Why was it so difficult for her to understand what I was hinting at? She continued with her blank stare. Finally, I said, “Look, I like you, okay? As more than a friend. So, I was hoping you’d agree to be my girlfriend.” I muttered the last few words, but she heard them all right. She began laughing (like a neighing horse, as previously mentioned). She threw back her head and laughed for a long time. Then, she broke my heart, by saying, “Sorry, Sohum. I like you too, baby. But, I’m with someone else now. I’m Suhel’s girlfriend, as of yesterday…”
I would love to say that my keen intellect helped me counter with a particularly apt quip. Unfortunately, I came up with the brilliant, “Huh?” I then proceeded in a similar vein, saying indignantly, “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” “Well, I was going to, but I wasn’t sure when was the right time,” she replied coolly, as if we were discussing the weather. I hate to admit it, but I exploded. I know how people always tell you that rejection is never as bad as it first seems. You should never do something hasty, or you’ll end up regretting it. Frankly, they are probably right. But it doesn’t help when you’re the one who’s getting dumped. I lost my temper. “Oh, I get it! When you were all alone, you turned to me for help, thinking I was desperate enough to prop you up. Now, you think you’re a diva or something and only want to hang out with the cool kids. I should have guessed from the start. You were just toying with me till you attracted one of the jocks! I’m right, aren’t I?” I got up from the table with a sudden jerk. My chair fell down behind me. All at once, there was pin-drop silence in the canteen. It was as if everyone was listening to our conversation. Yet, the funny thing is I had never felt closer to Anjali. I guess that’s how shallow our relationship was.