It was back to school for our final two years after our vacation. We were the first batch that was called Plus Two. To me, it was the beginning of the end of our innocence. The script unfolded at Assembly on the first day of our new academic year in the Chennai’s hot and sultry June.
My eyes wandered to the parallel row contemplating how quickly the wee ones in my class had become young ladies during the brief summer holidays. My introspection regarding their growth hormones was abruptly interrupted when a frail young thing swayed, first left, then right, before it swooned right next to me, between our rows.
I screamed “Miss!!!” which interrupted the Principal’s monotonous speech. All heads turned to this unexpected distraction. I knelt beside the swooned lassie, who turned out to be MN Arathi, my classmate since the fifth standard. MN stood for her father’s name, Madhavan Nair, but we called her “Mal-Nutrition” Arathi.
Our PT sir reached us soon with a water bottle and revived Arathi. I hardly noticed anything then except that I was holding a woman in my arms for the first time.
Two months was all it took to end my fifteen years of innocence. I was going to school, rain or shine, just to be around her. The school walls carried our names, a graffiti of an asymmetric heart with our initials on it.
Our exaggerated closeness eventually caught the attention of our teachers. Ambika Miss, our biology teacher, once made us stand outside the classroom for staring into each other’s eyes adoringly and playing “Who blinks first?” in her class.
Time flew. Biology practical board examination was underway. I knew Arathi dreaded dissection. I saw her fumble with her scalpels and her eyes found mine, pleading. However, I worked like a surgeon and swiftly completed the task, a precise post-mortem of the amphibian.
I wrote on my nameplate, “Roll number 1407”, which was Arathi’s number. In the pretext of dropping off my gloves into the trash can adjacent to Arathi’s table, I swapped our specimens, mine and Arathi’s, in a split second.
Thirty years later, at our school reunion, the now-retired Ambika Miss was narrating an incident that happened with one of her favourite students during the practical board examinations.
‘I clearly remember that day’, she said to the gathered alumni, ‘when Ranjit’s male frog specimen, dead and dissected, somehow hopped and found its way into Arathi’s table and the female frog that was assigned to Arathi crawled into Ranjit’s hands, quite determined to fall apart only in his arms’.
Then she looked at me and said, ‘Maybe I wouldn’t present you as a model student to the next generation, but what you did selflessly for someone who you cared for, risking everything, did move me. Teachers know everything. Barring you for the act would have been cruel. We also assess the intent and not just the results. God Bless you, Children!’