|The sturdy black leather shoe scraped across the road in mute protest; Jaya allowed herself to lag as far behind her father as she dared. His long legs would force her feet on any normal day to skip beside him, a natural exuberance lending the performance the air of a carefree dance.
But today was not a normal day, it was her first day at yet another new school. She did not know why her father was so excited about 'The Move' - all that talk of packets of pay - who wanted to be paid packets? Given a choice, she felt chocolates and toys would make the best payment.
She hated new schools. At the last one, the girls were all giggly masses who spoke a different language. Really different. Something called Gujarati - more like the grunting of the ungainly camels so common to Ahmedabad. So different from the musical inflections of her native Tamil. They had made fun of her ankle-length 'pavadai'; a beautiful colourful dress that she had even worn to Girianna's wedding. They had shut up when she had rattled off answers to each and every question asked in class, sometimes even before the teacher had completed the question. But they hadn't liked her, no, not even the teachers. Why they could not even pronounce her name, mangling it to 'Jaypriya', not the fully rounded syllables of 'Jay-a-Priy-aa'.
Jaya's under lip quivered and was firmly clasped by the more determined upper one. She dashed an impatient hand across the film forming in front of her eyes. She could make out her father talking to someone at the end of the cool dim corridor; she let her eyes roam over the unfamiliar walls. Pillars were upraised to a high carved ceiling, but it was not those that arrested her eye. No, her gaze jumped to the colours on the walls. A wide strip of paintings wound their way right up the massive stairs.
The efforts of 'Anish Std I' jostled that of 'Maya Std VI', in no particular theme or order; fishes in the sea swam next to a village sunset, Lord Rama drew a bow besides a circus elephant. She smiled at the vivid and attractive bits that made up the whole.
A face loomed above her, one that was quick to stoop and peer into the scowl that was back on her face.
"Come on Jaya Priya, let us go in to the classroom. Wave to your father now."
She may have got the name right but I will not let her know I like anything. I will not even smile or wave good bye to Daddy.
A stiff form marched into the room, expecting to find hushed silence and row upon row of hostile gaze turned on the intruder.
The room resounded with chatter – soft - but chatter nonetheless. A few heads turned, others went on with their work. The children sat scattered around little square tables. Like dining tables for four.
Teacher doesn't shout 'Silence'?
Teacher didn't. She led Jaya to one of the tables with three children seated at it. One had hair that looked reddish against the bright sun that streamed into the room. The other girl looked like a boy, with hair so short it seemed impossible that a perky red bow should be perched on the crown. The last was a fat fair boy with a mop of curls and such a cheeky smile that her lips curved into an involuntary response.
"Renu, Vijayanti, Eric, this is Jaya Priya.'
The red-haired girl drew out the fourth chair, the other one flashed two dimples, while Eric - no name confusion there - widened the grin to its maximum.
"Hi, you want to paint or do the puzzle? I warn you, the puzzle is a dilly!"
Jaya turned to authority, she was not used to this kind of informal schooling. She saw only the receding back making its way to a clump that was rather noisier than the rest.
"We can do either?" Amazement mingled with anticipation, she forgot to be unhappy.
"Oh, yeah, you can even do modeling with clay if you want. The first few days are for making friends."
So Jaya took up the puzzle which they had discarded. It had angular pieces which were supposed to join to make a cube. Her dexterous fingers and agile mind had it assembled in three minutes flat. Eric's awed admiration inspired her to bend her eye over his painting. It was made of tiny black and white squares that spiraled and disappeared off centre.
'Why," she crowed, "it is like travelling in outer space, like the view from within a rocket! Is that what it is?"
Well ... it is whatever you want it to be, but I like your thinking!"
And that was the first moment of friendship, one that lasted years and sustained itself across separating oceans.