“Tell me about him, please, Rohinidi” I said excitedly. Adding just a ‘di’ instead of the ‘didi’ behind the name, means the same (elder sister) in Bengali.
The excitement in my voice was more gallows curiosity, than excitement. By now I had a mad crush on her and it had begun to hurt some. And here she was, telling me about this French-Canadian music student she was going steady with.
But being only 13 and living in a time and place where romance between folk of two different cultures was almost unheard of, even in movies, the thrill of hearing about such a romantic liaison first hand was something so novel that it overshadowed my disappointment.
God, Rohini looked beautiful. She lay stretched out on the grass which sloped down to the water’s edge and lazily chucked a pebble in. The water was still and the ripples seemed to expand all the way to the other side and bounce right back at us. It took a while for the surface of the water to become like a glass slab once again.
There she lay, those light brown eyes open just a slit, to guard against the glare of the turquoise blue sky above, her knees drawn up, hitching her shorts up even higher, oblivious to the world. I noticed that there was not even a tiny bit of make-up, lipstick or nail polish on her. She hadn’t even bothered to wax her legs. They seemed covered by a silky down of hazel hair that one would notice only if one was real close.
Oh, what’s the use? I lied. Rohini had a flowing skirt on, not shorts. The earlier picture, at the beginning of this piece, it didn’t happen. She couldn’t have had shorts on. 1960s India would have made it impossible for her to walk around in tight shorts. Instead, she wore a flowing frilly skirt that reached down to her ankles. When she lay back on the grass, she took care to tuck her skirt tightly round her all the way down. Don’t ever take my words to the bank. Unless you are taking them to the Lehman Bros.
But she did have that skimpy sleeveless top that had thin black stripes running down the middle. There, I’m glad I got it off my chest. When I lie, I can’t hold it in me for too long. Here is how Rohini actually looked that sunny afternoon by the lake. Its not really her, but a pretty close likeness……
“There’s nothing to tell,” said Rohini,” We have just started going out together.” She was referring to her French-Canadian.
It is only much later that I came to realize that ‘going out together’ was not the same thing as ‘going steady’. It was like the ‘boot camp’ of a romantic liaison. You first go out together and then you go steady and if the relationship has survived, you become ‘an item’. That’s when the girl you are an item with moves in with you.
I was struck by the matter-of-fact tone in her voice. If I had been in love, I would be bubbling over. I would be screaming out to the world, unable to contain myself. Maybe it was possible to just go out together without being smitten.
I followed up my line of thought with, “That’s it? Aren’t you going to get married or something?” As a small town Indian boy, I was a dead giveaway. Maybe it was the era, but I couldn’t imagine life as a couple beyond marriage.
For a fleeting moment her face became grave and then she burst out laughing,” Are you crazy? Marriage? I’m only 17. Besides, I have so many plans and so does he.” She gave me a playful shove and grinned and said, “You mustn’t be so curious.” She had this open, wide, big-toothed grin.
We fell silent for a while. I know what I was thinking but I wasn’t sure of what was on her mind.
We were lying on our backs in the grass a foot or so apart, when all of a sudden Rohini turned, lifted herself up on her elbow and leaned over me. She was so close that her breath clouded my glasses. If I had lifted my face up half an inch, I would be kissing her on the lips. She fished out the pendant she had on and dangled it right above my nose. It was a heart shaped greenish stone and since it had been residing deep inside her sleeveless top, it had a smell of Ponds talcum powder on it.
“He gave it to me before I left.” I began hating Mr. wassisname French-Canadian then.
Suddenly Rohini began telling me about him. On the one hand I was curious and on the other, I hated having to listen to her talk about another guy. Jean-Jacques Petit was doing his first year in BA at McGill, his forte – the fiddle. He was going to take a shot at joining the Montreal Philharmonic. He was the only son and his parents, immensely rich folk, had extensive property at Gaspé, a picture perfect region in the north of Quebec near the mouth of the St.Lawrence that I would have the good fortune to visit on holiday many decades later.
“Don’t you know any Indian boys?” I couldn’t fathom why a girl would want to be with someone so different from us.
At 17, a girl is usually already thinking like an adult and more so, if she happens to be living in the west. But I didn’t know all that. I just felt a bit peeved when she once again dissolved into laughter.
“Why are you laughing at me like that? I just asked you a simple question.” I was getting annoyed. Rohini had fallen back on the leaves when she lifted up once more and this time, she leaned right over me and kissed me, alas on my cheek.
She held herself steady right there, over me. We were behind a copse of bushes, thank God. There was no one around. “You are so cute. Did anyone tell you that?” she said.
Rohini was right. I really was a very cute kid. Pardon me? Yeah, I know. You look at me now and you wouldn’t know I was an adorable kid, but I really was. Everybody was touching me, hugging me, kissing me, pinching me, all the effin’ time and I hated it. Maybe that’s what made me so shy and introverted.
I was paralysed by her proximity as she continued,” And about Indian boys over there, they are all hothochcharas. They are vulgar, desperately trying to compete with each other at being obnoxious.” Rohini almost spat the words out. (Hothochchara is Bengali for ars—le).
We fell silent for a second time. A group of four college girls walked by and as they passed us there were peals of giggles and whispers. In 60s’ Kolkata, a boy and a girl alone on the grass, with the girl almost smothering the boy, was scandalous. Who was going to marry a girl like that, they were probably saying to each other.
“And you? Its your turn. South Point is co-ed. Is there a girl in there somewhere? Come on, there must be a girl there who has a crush on you. I know I would….” She giggled. She hadn’t fallen back but held steady inches away from my face. She slipped the knot at the back of her head and immediately strands of her hair began to cascade down all over my face. Rohini moved her head from side to side and let the strands brush over me, tickling my ears and my cheeks. I reddened and squirmed. It was delicious.
She laughed at my discomfiture and right then I noticed two young men stopping to gawk at us. We must have been a sight, though Rohini was oblivious. Lolling around on the grass right up close to a boy, even a 13-year old who hadn’t yet been acquainted with a hard-on, might not have been a big deal back in Quebec. But here in Kolkata, this kind of display was sheer dynamite.
I rose, perhaps a bit too quickly, and what I had feared all along, happened. She was so close, my lips pressed up against hers. Instead of backing off, Rohini just parted her lips and let my lips bump up against her lily-white incisors. I fell back in shock and quickly wiped my lips with the back of my hand and she just laughed.
After what seemed an eternity, she let go and lifted up, but not before she whispered softly,’ Cutie-pie…” She sprang up and brushed herself off vigorously, “Now let’s go get those phoochkas before it gets too late. We don’t want Ratna Mashi to be home before us.”
We were quiet on our way back. Me, I was in love. Folk have a feel of the pulse on their wrists and their necks and I was one big throbbing pulse all over. Thank God it’s Friday and I don’t have to sit down to homework, I thought to myself.
Phoochka, something I relished having, like any other kid those days, was bland and tasteless, all my senses having otherwise engaged themselves. Afterward, as we walked back home, Rohini slipped her fingers into mine, looking up and smiling at me as she did. Just before we turned into Hindustan Park, we disengaged and walked on, now a respectable foot apart.
At home, Keshto informed that my aunt had called to say that they had decided to dine out and Rohini and I shouldn’t wait up for them. Keshto couldn’t understand why Rohini let out a ‘whoopee!’ at that.
Later, while Rohini was laying out the Monopoly on one of the many side tables that were scattered all over the terrace, Keshto appeared from the kitchen, wanting to know whether it was okay if he laid out the dinner on the table and left to visit friends. Rohini and I looked at each other. A million words flew through the ether between us at that moment. Or so my adolescent brain surmised.
“Of course,” said Rohini, her eyes ablaze with mischief,” Take your time, Keshto kaka, don’t be in a hurry to get back. We’ll have a round of Monopoly and then I’ll help Jobbu out with his biology homework upstairs.”
Yooks! And I hadn’t even taken biology in Class-9. 😀