Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Paper Plane to the Devils from "Hell"

(Warning: Looong post!)

The end of another school day and its time to go home. They gather on the stone pavement, their polished shoes soiled, uniform carelessly stained with the afternoon food, and toffee wrappers stuffing their small pockets. It’s the middle of nowhere, this stone pavement, in front of someone’s little house. The pavement lines a very small road where scooters honk past them but they are oblivious. It won’t be a long wait for the “van-man.” Meanwhile, they engage in light conversations: their uncomplicated lives revolving around passing rumors. These conversations are fleetingly held, there is no stuff to them. But it is these the trivial talks that hold them together, building a steady friendship that may last a lifetime.

The “Van Man” honks a multiple times as soon as he arrives. It is his way of announcing his urgency, and of letting them know that he hasn’t got all day.
“Hurry, hurry, I have three more schools…”
They pick up their bags and squeeze into the backseat, five in the place of three. The Van has been maintained in a good condition, its sickly green color and the Venkataramanaswami sticker on the back tinted glass still intact. It’s a decent van see? In “veerry good condition” he says (although the same cannot be said for the five poor souls crouching in the backseat.) There is a quick inspection before the engine roars to life, and the van disappears into the winding by lanes of South Bangalore.

They are talking loudly in the back again. The “Van Man” glances at the high-schoolers creating all the ruckus. He sighs. Why can’t they behave? Isn’t that what they are trained to do all day long—obediently sit with their hands on their knees and simply listen to that overbearing teacher up front? What makes listening to his simple commands so different? But he doesn’t know the secret the school kids do. He doesn’t understand what happens as he drives: all he can hear is incoherence. But it is in that incoherence that so much is understood….in that jumbled madness of loud voices, awkward positions and smell of burnt rubber, they are learning to discover themselves. Here, they are truly themselves, letting go of all their stereotypes in leather-beaten (dis)comfort. Laughing, swapping life-stories, creating memories….in that twenty minutes of shared fate, they are learning to get the best out of any “sticky” situation. They are mastering the talent of extracting happiness out of difficult situations such as these. And the “Van Man” thought that there was no meaning to the incoherence in the backseat? Maybe he should look harder…until then, this shall remain a precious secret.

The backseat of that van is a place of small miracles….Two pipsqueaks of girls discuss their Nancy Drews, growing up together. The Eight Standard kids plot to steal Gandarva’s pencil-box just for the fun of it, and Manasa finally finds someone to whine with her: “There is too many mud in my shoes yaa…”

Life changes for the high-schoolers on examination days. They are forced to go home with gooey-eyed kindergarteners of all shapes and sizes who cannot tell the difference between a neatly pressed uniform skirt and a leather-beaten backseat. It comes as no surprise to the others that the little kids should try to snuggle into their laps as they continue to cry themselves hoarse. The high-schoolers are angry at this disgrace. No one wants a screaming child on their lap. The children are apparently supposed to be in a state of confusion too-finding five extra bodies solidly occupying their territory is no mild shock to a five-year old. The children continue to scream helplessly. The “Van Man” screams back at them and leaves them suspended in the chaos.
The high schoolers also complain, but no one listens. It is a known fact that the extra years discredit their rights—just because they are scrawny teenagers now, they are expected to bear this a little bit better than screaming five year olds. The high schoolers are upset. But it is impossible not to feel a genuine sympathy when one of the snot-nosed little ones clings tightly to the two girls in the backseat with terror clouding his brown eyes. They feel sorry at his helplessness. The next day, one of the book-loving girls in the backseat donates her old colouring book to the five-year old. Rishabh writes his name on it and smiles back warmly at her. The book-loving girl knows she will never forget that smile.

The kids scream so much everyday now that that its’ unbearable. The elders in the Van find a more dignified way of expressing their anger. The Van has been bought from Hella manufacturing company, the sticker above the left window says so. They work together to scrape off the “a” with their fingernails, rechristening the little rectangle on wheels “Hell”. Giving a name to all their anger makes things a little bit more tolerable. In hell, difficulty is acceptable, and the screaming of kids can be considered a celebration. After all the hard work, the high-schoolers lean back, satisfied.....

.........It’s been over an year, and a lot has changed for “Hell”. The two best friends in the backseat have deviated from Nancy Drews into more serious types of novels. Gandharva has gotten used to having his pencil box stolen everyday…but some things still stay the same. The high-schoolers continue to play their pranks, calling names at the passerby, delighting themselves in the knowledge that the harassed man cannot punish them for their mischief in any way.
“Kalllesssshiiiiii……did u forget to shave this morning??” they yell at the blue scooter and speed away even before the tired looking businessman has time to look back. The rest of the afternoon is spent flinging meaningless accusations at everyone through the tinted glasses of “Hell”. After all, living in “Hell” is no pleasant experience, and they are to keep up to expectations---Hell is a place for devils, and they are deciding to be just that. They don’t realize this is wrong to be doing this, this is simply their idea of fun. And it makes the girl who gave the colouring book to Rishabh giggle beneath the bedcovers at night. She is in no hurry to grow up, and belonging to “hell” remains one exciting experience...

On the last day of school, the devils from Hell decide to celebrate. It will be the evilest of rituals, tearing up their spent class note books to make paper rockets….lots an lots of them. All the awful formulas, discriptions of famous wars and plant anatomy sketches will be forgotten in revengeful celebration…the paper rockets are to be thrown at random people. Even the book loving girl has sacrificed her geometry book today. But the last day, the Van does not arrive on time….the last day, they don’t live in “Hell” together. They never get to fling paper planes at others and clap their hands in delight. “Hell” has dismissed them. The demons don’t realize this will be the last time they shall be seeing each other together again. They disperse quietly, all celebration subdued. And “Hell” dies that very day….the little sticker on top of the left window in that green van frowns sadly at the missed opportunity.

No one would have ever thought that the demons from Hell would become anybody worthwhile. They were the immature fools, struggling to grow up together. No one ever imagined that the prankster of a boy who always stole Gandarva’s pencil-box would go on to become a very responsible school-leader. The timid girls in the backseat went similar ways: One of them entered medical school, determined to save lives and the other came to the United States to pursue her BS and hopes to work for the healthcare industry. The little boy Rishabh is probably in fourth standard now, and might be a very good artist already. Perhaps, the devils from hell were not devils after all….they were all angels, who simply didn’t know their worth. Although they didn’t know it then, those twenty minutes in “hell” came to define school-life for some of these high-schoolers….those days in hell were not to be easily forgotten.

You know, I shouldn’t be missing Hell this much. It was uncomfortable, that van. I had a thousand reasons to complain. But maybe, some things in life are just too strange. I still miss going home with that cheerful crowd, I still remember school by it. We never threw those paper-planes at anyone that last day, but I want to fling them towards everyone from “Hell” now: there is just one small difference. My paper planes are different. They’re not made out of old notebooks, but made with love and best wishes. I hope my paper-planes don’t crash into someone else’s pockets. I hope that they fly….fly higher with every single dream of the angels from “Hell”. May my paper plane stay afloat to applaud when every angel achieves something big.
I wish my friend Medini from the backseat of that Van the best of luck at medical school (You are still welcome to drop by my house to borrow those Nancy Drew’s for your little sister!) and hope every other person from “Hell” continues to live the colourful lives they do now. I yell at all of you through my tinted glass...... This is just to let you know I miss you very much.... I sincerly pray my paper plane reaches you! Happy Friendship Day to all of you!!!

The timid book-loving devil from the backseat.