Every evening the young Fisherman went out upon the sea, and threw his nets into the water.
When the wind blew from the land he caught nothing, or but little at best, for it was a bitter and black-winged wind, and rough waves rose up to meet it. But when the wind blew to the shore, the fish came in from the deep, and swam into the meshes of his nets, and he took them to the market-place and sold them.
Every evening he went out upon the sea, and one evening the net was so heavy that hardly could he draw it into the boat. And he laughed, and said to himself `Surely I have caught all the fish that swim, or snared some dull monster that will be a marvel to men, or some thing of horror that the great Queen will desire,' and putting forth all his strength, he tugged at the coarse ropes till, like lines of blue enamel round a vase of bronze, the long veins rose up on his arms. He tugged at the thin ropes, and nearer and nearer came the circle of flat corks, and the net rose at last to the top of the water.
But no fish at all was in it, nor any monster or thing of horror, but only a little Mermaid lying fast asleep.
The Fisherman and his Soul - Oscar Wilde
My legs pumped faster. I swung higher, the iron chain creaking weakly in protest, touched the white sky, stenciled with blue clouds. Sunlight enchased patterns on my chequered school-skirt and the ends of the blazer wrapped around my waist.
I slowed till the tips of my ballerina flats brushed the ground. I looked down, away. "Yes?" My heels crunched twigs and dry leaves.
The shiny plastic seat squeaked as Saba dropped her perfectly-shaped ass on it. "How's it going?" she chirped brightly. Manuevered her manicured fingers, admiring - and letting me admire - the way sunlight danced off the shimmering nails. A clean coat of clear polish.
Neutrally I said, "Fine. I guess." I didn't want her to get the wrong impression, think I was in a mood or anything.
She'd already slid the binder out from her Stella McCartney bag. Equations swam on the printed sheets that peeped out. "Be a darling," she murmured, depositing it on my lap. Riding high on her thighs, her skirt fluttered provocatively as she ran to rejoin her group. The swingset was pretty far from the tree-shaded badminton court they hung out in - but not far enough. I could hear the girls giggling. It made me nervous.
I flipped through the worksheets. She hadn't bothered to answer too many questions - and those which she had were mostly crossed-out. The margins, though, sported elaborate doodles.
I could do most of these off the top of my head without roughwork. I tsked, delving in my pocket for a pen.
I was three-quarters through, when the first of the three warning bells rang. I shouldered my backpack and headed for the school. The boys - who'd have to dash to make it to their campus on the opposite side of the road - still hadn't budged from the court. Mynahs twittered madly amidst the margosa leaves. In sync, the girls played with their long hair, short skirts and neon-coloured cellphones. Well I hadn't expected Saba's posse to be the type to be worried about missing class, had I?
There was a guy sitting in the hollow of a margosa tree, a little apart from the others but still close enough to be a part of them and not a spectator. He had the unmoving eyes of an observer. A slight, leaf-laden branch fell on his lap. He didn't look down, but with a sharp, quick, economical jerk, his fingers snapped it into half.
It had been so perfect that I winced. Paused awkardly where I was, one leg stretched to take a step.
He swerved suddenly and he shot me a crisp, clear smile. I looked down and away, hurrying forward.
The second warning bell rang.
I fiddled with my pen, bored. I'd done all the assigned sums in record time. Calculus was damn easy if you knew the formulae, it was just like adding and minusing under a fancy name. Judging by the befuddled expressions on most of my classmates' faces and the harassed one on Neha Ma'am's as she fixed innumerable errors, they didn't think so. I tried to scoop my hair up into a bun and weave the pen in but it wouldn't hold. A chunk held up but most of it fell. The reflection from my steel ruler proclaimed it weird - I couldn't even mess up my hair sexily.
Araiya stabbed my shoulder. "Prettiful," she cooed, fluttering her eyelashes at my copy.
"Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics," I said mildly, handing it to her automatically.
She made a face. "I'm not that bad in Math. Save your skills for Sanah and Saba," she announced, waving her own copy at me.
"Ooooo," I squealed, keeping my voice low-pitched so as not to attract Neha Ma'am's attention. "Alliteration."
A faint line creased her forehead. I hurried to explain, one part embarrassed, one part smug, "Like using the same letters - um, 'forest's ferny floor' say."
"I thought that was anaphora," she said, shrugging. I wondered whether she memorized the glossary of literary terms at the back of our assigned poetry book. "Whatever - I didn't join Science to brush up on my English. Actually that's what I wanted to talk to you about - you know how strict Swati Ma'am is about grading our papers, my marks totally sucked last term. I was hoping you could tell me what reference books you follow for Macbeth? Didn't you get second place in Literature on the test she took?"
"First actually," I said tightly. First in English. And in Physics and in Maths and in Economics.
"Oh yeah," she said and her eyes made another 'whatever' at me, though she was still smiling politely. "But," she added brightly, "Katlyn beat you in Chem didn't she?"
"We all have our weak points," I acknowledged. Admitted? "And I can't tell you what ref books I follow for Macbeth cause I don't do any. Maximum SparkNotes. I don't take tutions either, so you can't take my Sir's number."
"Really?" she said. Really?
The lunch bell cut through my "Yeah" and Neha Ma'am scribbled some homework sums on the whiteboard before leaving. In place of tiffin-boxes, vats of lipgloss and pocket-mirrors - officially prohibited on school premises - popped out. Food was so cliche. People like Araiya of the heavy-framed glasses, who did not think so, drifted to the other classrooms to join their friends for tiffin-time. Normally I sat with Araiya or Saba - if she invited me, in a rare burst of magnamity - but today I didn't think I'd be welcome. It was okay - I was fine sitting alone too.
I took the stairs two-at-a-time, passing the floors that represented stages of childhood. There was more giggling and gossip on the upper floors, more laughter and racing on the lower ones. On the ground floor, the teachers were dragging kindergarteners into neat lines to be collected by their guardians and taken home for nappy-time. Pin-straight lines, pinpricked-stiff faces - they looked like a row of little mannequins. Corpselike. The granite crest of St. Anthony's Academy for Young Ladies blazed above them.
The kiddie corner was empty, except for a couple of Class II kids arranged in a meditative circle on the jungle gym. Self-importantly, one was saying, "Flames is old. It doesn't work. Lakme does - you add up the number of letters of the person you love-" A chorus of giggles - "to the number of letters in your name, and then you cross out the vowels..." I sat down on the rim of the sandbox, scooping up sand. It was warm, bright. It sifted through my fingers like crystallized sunshine.
"Vaaaooh-wails," one sang. "And then if you're score comes to ninety - Parveen, how do you add them up again? - it means you and the person you love will be together forever. But if it's eighty to ninety, it only means you'll be good friends-"
"And below forty means you'll hate eachother," one announced solemnly. She shuddered, for emphasis.
I picked at the kebab rolls Bihu, our cook, had made for me. Ma liked me to take 'healthy food' to school - fresh fruits, salads wrapped in sandwiches - but I hated it. I was healthy enough. I didn't need to starve myself into beauty.
A shadow cut through the tepid sunshine that warmed my legs, and a blazer landed with a faintly indignant oof on the rim of the sandbox. Clearly, it was an aristocratic blazer. With St. Anthony's Academy for Young Gentlmen's honorary badge emblazoned on it, it had to be.
I could sense my blazer warming to it, as to a kindred spirit.
"Hellooooooo," he chirruped. He dragged out the word like a girl in middle-school - you know, the type who dots her i's with little hearts and most of whose Facebook photo-albums feature the word 'Random'.
"Hello," I replied. I drew my knees closer to myself. I felt awkward, hemmed in, stifled. A little scared even. My breath came out quicker, in short, noisy puffs like the time Swati Ma'am made me enact a passage out of Julius Caesar in class. My gaze locked resolutely on my tiffin-box, on the capsicum slices that poked out from the foil paper. From the corner of my eye I could see his hand trailing loosely on the sleeve of his blazer. I looked away, at the girls on the jungle gym.
They were staring at me - at us. Giggling.
I shut my tiffin-box, trying to do it quietly. "S'matter?" he asked brightly. "Not hungry?"
I shook my head. A negative was always the quickest answer.
"Then I'll have it," he said, "Shame to let good food go to waste."
If it had been one of my classmates, I would have protested. Vehemently. I wasn't the tiffin-sharing kind. I liked my food - keyword being my, though people like Sanah thought it was the food part I clung on to more. But this was different. I couldn't just tell this boy who I didn't know that sharing wasn't caring in my book. He'd waggle his eyebrows or ask me why and I'd have to say something and I'd hate that and say something wrong or stupid and...
I gave it to him.
The swings were toasty-warm in the sunshine. I couldn't hold the chains - iron, high coefficient of thermal conductivity - so I settled for pushing myself back and forth. Two very unsubtle Class IX kids were crouching in the hedges, dribbling saliva over eachother's face. Sanah would have told them to improve their technique.
"Isn't it a gorgeous day? Doesn't it simply make you want to scream 'supercalafragialisticexpialadosius' at the top of your voice?"
Now I was beginning to feel really nervous. ''Stop stalking me," I said stiffly.
"That word has such negative connotations," he chirped. "I'd rather be called a... Contemporary Anthropological Interactive Observer." Obviously he thought he was cute. He was not - by now he was now thoroughly scaring me. I half-suspected Aziza, cheated out of a first rank in Physics, of hiring a bubbly conman to even our score.
"Excuse me," I said coldly, preparing to depart with the hauteur of an insulted bridge-playing, tea-sipping British baroness.
I quickened my pace, not deigning him the dignity of a backward glance. Though I wanted to. The lure of a backward glance can be irresistable.
"Don't you want your stuff?"
Especially when the object that is determined to arrest your visual attention is in possession of your lunchbox. I turned around, and for the first time I really had a good look at him. My mouth shaped itself into a perfect 'O' and he beamed beatifically. "Oh, so you dooooo remember me?" Delight oozed from every orifice of his body. It was The Margosa Dude from the morning.
I plucked my tiffinbox from him and began to stalk away. He jumped out of the swing and bounced along beside me, setting his pace with mine. I clutched the box closer to myself. If the worst came to the worst I could use it as a metal shield. Or I could wield it a la mace and smash it against his face. The edges were made of steel, prickly if you grazed your hand accidentally against them, painfully sharp if you deliberately set out to attack someone with them.
The question is not if you are paranoid, it is if you are paranoid enough.
"It's Sri right?" he bubbled.
I grunted, not bothering to ask how he knew my name. Lots of people knew my name, because of Baba. It was kind of cool and saved me the pain of introductions. I classified him under the headrolls 'fan', 'stalker' and 'lameass', thus eliminating the need to classify him under the far more intimidating 'teenage male'. That being done, I whirled around and delievered the prima donna right home - well, as well as I could bereft of Ray Bans and blow-dried hair. "Execuse me," I said, stressing the words more than I had the first time. "But who do you think you are? I don't need groupies like you clucking around me, so get out of my life please."
Now that had been delievered with the right amount of celebrity sangfroid. Plus, poised bitchiness, don't forget the bitchiness, but don't forget the poise either. I felt so grown-up.
I breezed through the courtyard, flicking my hair like a star at a premiere.
Sunlight splashed from the glass-panelled classroom walls, in streams and drops on the polished wood. Graffiti was for the plebs. St. Anthony's liked it's stuff swanky n' span.
"Who was that, who was that, who was that?" Saba chimed.
I pretended to be deeply absorbed in Supply and Demand. I'd even donned my glasses - the one with the Caution-Do-Not-Wear-Around-Boys frames - to project a more studious attitude. In Eco class, I liked to snuggle up to Miranda Ma'am like a good little teacher's pet. In Physics class, I played the part of the girl genius, complete with frazzled hair and a pen that could cause seismic vibrations at the speed with which it moved.
"During tiffin. I saw you. With a guy." She fluttered her hands, ineffectually, but attractively, in the general vicinity.
"He was a guy. I'm a girl." I imitated her gesture. "We flock. We mate. Hormones."
"Class Eleven?" she demanded, getting down to business. "What's his name?"
"How should I know?" I asked her sullenly, retreating behind my book again. "He stalked me. I bet he had an autograph book on him."
Saba, thwarted in her capacity of matchmaker, looked despondent. "Dude," she said, licking the remnants of the mango-flavoured gloss she'd applied at the beginning of the day. "How come you never hook up with anyone?"
"Dude, how come you always hook up with everyone?"
"Not everyone. Nearly, but not everyone," she protested, looking pleased at this evidence of her promiscuity. "I have some uh, standards. Ethics too. So, there's this new kid Srijan dragged over this morning, he seemed kind of out of it, shy and I-"
"Thought that he'd be right up my street?" I shielded my face with my textbook. "I don't want your remnants."
"If you'd just let me finish, I'd have told you that he was cute, perfectly adorable really and-"
"Given me his number and somehow blackmailed me into calling him. And then you'd just sit back and munch Cheetos as we sang the chorus of 'Love Story' and angsted together on the merry-go-round."
She masked her guilt with suitably-applied revulsion. "Do you even read the calorie tables on those things? Can you ever imagine me munching on one of those-" She almost choked on her scented spit. Clearly, the prospect was too macabre for her to imagine. "His name's Ayush, 'kay? Ayush Barnes-"
"Barnes?" I repeated. "Barnes? As in Barnes and Noble?" It was the first idea that struck me and I was impressed - and touched - that she wanted to hook me up with the heir to a thousand bookshops.
"No, not that Barnes," she snapped. "God will you leave off thinking about books for a moment? It's not natural. His dad's-"
"Well that settles it. Sri Barnes is a suckerofic name. It sounds like something you'd fish out of a pornstar's baptism font."
She Looked at me for a long moment. Saba's getting very good at The Look - in time she hopes to take on her mother's mantle of Bully-in-Chief of the family, armed with the power of Missile-Launching Eyes. She's a lot like those sanyasis of the days of the Ramayana who used to mediatate in the forest in hopes of attaining Enlightenment and Laser Vision. Then when they attained it, they'd glare at pigeons and cause them to spontaneously combust. Next level: humans.
I bet Saba's mom used to meditate a lot.
"I do not get you," she said, sounding like an injured wife who'd just found out her husband was cheating on her with her brother.
"Lucky for you," I told her, "Your brain would burst if you did." I took out a marker and began to highlight passages at random in the book to show her just what I thought of her eyerolls.
Like a bursting dam, the word that she'd managed to suppress for so long rose to her lips in a a long-drawn sigh of suffering. "What-ee-ah-vaaaahr."
A/N: I shall dump everything, everything I've always wanted to in this story. That includes a symphony of winged tigers, celebrities dripping with chocolate sauce, hidden passageways, haunted washing-machines, matchmakers, swivel chairs, Xanatos Roulettes and nursery rhymes.