Ten. Ten minutes to go, and I was one essay away from the finish line. They had requested Mrs Sinha to give us a real question this time, because what business did third graders have with rewriting Snow White from the Wicked Witch’s viewpoint, or imagining life with superpowers but just one day. What business, indeed. In her wisdom, my frizzy haired bunny-toothed class teacher asked us to write on ‘My Best Friend’. For ten marks.
Nine. Nine special names I shortlisted from my school, dance class and society. Only two of them were from my class, and I turned my head to find them, to wink at them to let them know that my essay was going to be about them, or probably about the one who returned my wink first; but both of them had their heads down. The supervisor scolded me for attempting to cheat. I got back to my essay, determined to not let the pesky teacher disrupt my winking plans. After all, was it even real friendship if you couldn’t risk getting a minus five for it.
Eight. Eight Mississippis I counted in my head, and turned again to do my winking. Parinda and Akansha were looking up now! They were winking at each other. I knew that wink. That was my wink. I smiled cheek to cheek, waiting to welcome their winks at me and I waited and waited as they went on to write their essays again, with their noses drowned in the answer sheets. For a moment there, I remember, only being able to hear the scratching of forty different pencils on paper. Nothing but soft lead scratching against coarse white paper, favourite names, and games and pyjama parties and ice creams… The boy sitting right in front of me, had written four names, perhaps wanting to displease none of his group members. All of their spellings were wrong. On an afterthought, he erased one name and added two more. All the spellings were still wrong.
Seven. Seven years old I was back then, and even so, I knew none of those pencils was scratching my name on paper. Not he, the guy I had gifted my Digimon playing cards to, because he didn’t stink like other boys. Not she, the crying girl whose hair I helped plait in the bathroom even without her asking me to. Not them, those classmates I lent my books to. Not them, those classmates I shared my maggie, my bread rolls, my rajma rice and my chutney cheese sandwiches with. It wasn’t the greatest feeling on earth, understatement. But fuck them, eight-year-old gits. What did they know about friendship.What did they understand about sacred bonds and unbreakable promises. Friendship was Calvin and Hobbes. Friendship was Sam and Frodo. Friendship was Krishna and Sudama. Friendship was Dorothy and Toto!
Six. Six names were left on my shortlist. I scratched out two more, one hadn’t returned my copy of Naughtiest Girl At School yet and it didn’t look like she was going to at all. The other had really great hair, my mother always compared me to her. She couldn’t even tie her shoelaces. Who the fuck cared if she was good at eating broccoli.
Five. Five minutes before the nasty supervisor came snatching for our answer sheets. I didn’t have time to inky-pinky-ponky anymore. And so I began to write about my best friend. I wrote about the songs we sang, only to one another because our voices were too off key for everyone else. I wrote about the games we invented, or at least believed to have invented, the gardens we frequented, how in empty jam jars we documented all our happy memories by drawing them on paper and rolling them into tiny scrolls with our fingers. We would sneak into mumma’s wardrobe, apply her darkest lipsticks on each other’s lips and then kiss the ends of our memory scrolls before putting them in our jam jar. Because what else did sealing with a kiss mean. I wrote about our fights too. Over the party I went to in spite of you not being invited, over my dress that you borrowed and spilt pomegranate juice on, over your new car that I lost during a picnic, over my inability to reply to your letters when I was sent to my aunt’s for a summer. For every fight we fought, we dropped a button into the jam jar. Most of the time, we stole them from my brother’s shirts, giggling all the way, our tiffs dissolved in silly laughter.
Four. Four days that we spent at the summer camp where I first met you. On the rocks near our riverside camp, someone had found ‘Killer Roy is coming for you’ written in red one night. By the next morning, there were some campers screaming that they had seen Killer Roy, and some were already crying for their parents. The teachers were busy escorting students to the portable loos because they were too scared to go alone. Around a dead bonfire, all fragments about Killer Roy were collected, collated and circulated. By lunch time the camp was in deadly danger from a bear-riding, one-eyed, yellow-teethed, blood-smeared bandit who ripped peoples’ eyeballs out for the fun of it. We were the only two sceptics in the lot, so obviously we were the stupidest too. No one wanted to include us in their extravagant safety plans, in their fighting techniques or crying groups. But that was okay. We pulled our sleeping bags to a warm corner and when I woke up next morning, your hand was in my hair. You were the only one who liked my hair as they were. We went to bath together but the river was flowing with a new rage that day. So we sat on the rocks, dipping our feet in the gurgling water, holding each other’s hands, keeping safe distance from the ‘Killer Roy’ rocks even though we didn’t believe in them. Foamy waves tickled our soles as they crashed on the rocks, as if the rocks hadn’t turned up their homework after repeated warnings. You asked me if I was scared of anything. Jokers, I whispered in your ear. But you were screaming before I completed my word. You jumped up, hysterically pointing at the ‘Killer Roy’ rocks, where there was barely any mark of horror story left. The river seemed to have washed away the red. We went closer, bitten by curiosity. I scraped the last remains of an R with my fingers. It didn’t feel like blood, I thought, (even though I had no way of knowing that then) and smelt it. It smelt familiar. So I put the finger in my mouth. You shrieked. The next second, I was shrieking louder. It was toothpaste.
Three. Three seconds before the bell rang I finished my essay. Right on cue, the large nosed supervisor was at my desk, frowning in a way so odd that I now think she might’ve been trying to smile. I didn’t mind. I was proud of the essay I had written. It was era-defining, to say the least. Fuck you Parinda and Akansha for not making me a part of the wink. I had a best friend and I had written a glorious essay in memory of a glorious friendship, something you two never deserved anyway. I walked out of class with my head held high, happy songs circling in the background of my off-key voice.
Two. Two out of ten marks was I rewarded. Along with a referral to the school psychologist. My best friend, the teacher had concluded, was imaginary and my imagination was dangerously superfluous, to say the least. While all other students were busy going over to each other’s desks and announcing their best friendships with unnecessary glee, I walked up to Mrs Sinha’s desk and demanded an explanation for her obviously poor taste in literature. I even pointed out to her how I could spell ‘extravagant’ without any mistakes. Which git in the class could do that, uh. None! Except for Akansha maybe, she was smart with spellings. There was a heinous amount of pity in the teacher’s eyes, when she pointed out that the virtues of my vocabulary kept aside, the essay had no meaning to it because in my three long paragraphs, never once had I mentioned my best friend’s name. The first line of the essay was practically, My best friend’s name is ____. She made me promise I’ll visit the psychologist with my parents.
One. One day, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, I will fill that blank. I have waited thirteen years for it. And I have it in me to wait for another thirteen.