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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

We were just kids...

I still remember the first time I met them. We were just moving into the flats. The apartment door was open, unopened boxes lay all around, mum was busy with the house warming milk on the stove. I didn’t understand much of what was going on – I must have been in 5th standard. There were no guests. Just our family and a few cousins. There was a box of sweets though and I remember walking out of the Kitchen munching a piece. There they were – peering in cautiously at the front door, with all the curiosity of a bunch of primary school boys. I suppose I was told to and I remember holding out the box of sweets to them. The boy from F2 below, broke off a small piece politely and ate. The one from next door – F5 took a whole sweet with an impish grin lighting up his face.

Of course, we became the playtime gang. The boy from F5 had a younger sister too, whom he took care of and tormented with equal enthusiasm. They’d call out to me from their verandah and I’d go to ours to talk to them. We made our plans that way, talking through the metal grillwork that kept us from tumbling out. We all went to different schools, but on evenings and weekends, we’d gather the rest of the kids in the apartment complex and go to the terrace to play. Bugging the watchman was a favorite game. We also made up a lot of conspiracies and had fun pretending we knew a lot more than we did. Our games were odd – it mostly involved running around like crazy. Occasionally, we played sane games like running and catching or hide and seek. We climbed up the water tank and tried to pluck tiny mangoes. We went to the most unreachable places for an adult (like the narrow spot between the motor shed and the house) and carried on with our make believe world. Sometimes, we had picnics on the terrace. Most of all, we united to hate the kids in the apartment building opposite ours. No reason. We hated them because they were there, I think. And they did tend to put up silly plays and stage fashion shows with dupattas draped around themselves. We stood at our terrace and jeered at them. Unkind, but we were kids.

Apartments are a rich source of politics. They have association meetings where they argue over whose kid broke what and who should pay for what repair and complain about the watchman’s negligence and hold lengthy conversations about the upcoming water scarcity. Then there were tussles amongst people staying on rent and those who owned their apartments. We kids knew somehow if any of our parents didn’t get along with each other. Those kids would stay away from each other too or maybe we were made to. We had a tough time when our friends had relatives with kids visiting. Suddenly they would want to hang out with their cousins and quite forgot us. It was hard – but we were kids with short memory spans. That helped.  Our little gang went through all of that as well.

A few years later, both families moved away. It was weird – not having any more play mates. But, after a while others moved in – kids who went to the same school as I did. We became the new terrace gang. There were more girls now and we were older. We mostly sat around the terrace chatting about this and that. The boys were younger kids who devised their own games now. We still made fun of the kids in the opposite apartment, though. We were still kids, after all.

There was a weekend when we were on the terrace as usual - wandering around, looking at the world from our perch three floors above the road. A new boy walked in and like kids all over the world, we stared at him unabashed. Was he moving in? We hadn’t seen any trucks laden with furniture all day. But we made no move to talk to him or even smile at him. We just stared and continued wandering around. To our surprise, he followed us to the other side as well and stood there leaning against the water tank, watching us. There was something intense about the way he looked at us – not the trying-to-be casual look of a new kid who wants to join the game. For about half an hour, he hung around – a little distance away from us and we ignored him. He met my glance a few times and held his gaze steadily. I looked away, puzzled. When I looked back up, I heard a voice calling out from below – I couldn’t hear what was said, but someone was calling him. He left the terrace and I heard him run down the flights of stairs. Something clicked – maybe it was the voice, or his gait or that familiar rhythmic rush down the stairs. And I was running too, leaving four very puzzled people behind.

‘Hari’, I called out as I ran down the stairs. I could never match his pace even two years back. I kept calling out his name till I reached the ground floor and realized he had already left. It wasn’t my fault. He looked different. He could have spoken to me. It had been so long. But even back then I knew, it was cruel of me. To forget.
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