In a hip south Bombay college, she stuck out like a sore thumb. She had a lovely face and a figure that wasn’t bad either, what was strange was the way she was dressed. In a shiny synthetic dress that had such an old fashioned print. Wearing shoes and socks like school kids and her hair done in a strange reena royisque manner. We all cracked up and she knew she was being laughed at. She was nicknamed phoolmati and the name stuck with her.
Over the next two days we got to know that she was from Delhi and had moved to Bombay a month ago. That explained the lack of class I sneered. She was also a state level topper in the class ten boards and that had me interested. I was the one with brains and didn’t like competition in my class. I hated her some more. We made life miserable for her and sniggered so loudly that even I was ashamed. She just asked for it, would sit on the first bench, reach early, carry a lunch box from home and go home as soon as college ended. One evening we saw her Hitler like parents come pick her up and were sure she had to pray six times a day at home. She spoke a lot in class but only to the teachers. So from that day I also started answering questions. Clearly that lead to debates and we had to both grudgingly acknowledge that we had met our match. As I was later telling a friend I quite liked that, winning over someone who had the brains was always more challenging. She wore a salwar kameez the next day and all the guys swooned. She was looking lovely and if she had any sense she would stick to Indian clothes. She clearly didn’t since she wore a bizarre top with a side ponytail the next day. Sulakshana Pandit on a bad day! Yet she topped the impromptu class test that day. Clearly teachers and students alike were noticing her. As I grew more irritable, my gang grew more vicious with her. Sameer accidentally dropped his ice cream on her hair and she had a tough time getting it off, another time her name was “inadvertently” put up as a volunteer in the cheer leader squad, the only name from our class. She was livid and in tears as she faced the class and with folded hands begged everyone to spare her. That evening I took the gang out for beer and asked them to lay off, I wanted to play fair with her and win this one on merit.
As mumbaikars we knew that come June it could rain anytime so we were looking forward to it. So when one evening after an extra class we stepped out and saw the downpour we yelped in delight. She clearly looked petrified what with all the thunder and lightning. Someone suggested bhutta at bandstand and we set off. On an impulse I turned around and asked her if she cared to join us. She hesitated, smiled and said she would love to but her parents were coming to pick her up so she had to wait. We walked away and crossed the road. It had suddenly got dark and as sameer and I were the last ones as we got into his car we heard a scream, a heart wrenching, blood curling scream. We rushed towards the sound and saw her on the road in a pool of blood in the rain. The hawker said a speeding bus had knocked her down as she stood on the kerb. We rushed her to the hospital, with word for her parents to come to nanavati hospital. My dad knew the trustee there so we got immediate care in casualty and by the time her folks came she was conscious and the doctors said the injuries were not severe. Her parents thanked us profusely and said rima always spoke fondly of me. I looked surprised but apparently she had told her mother that I was very bright and really helpful. The latter came true today. It was too much horror for seventeen year olds to handle. I hugged her mom and cried.
We went to see her at hospital the next day and then everyday when she was home. Sam and I were heroes who had saved her life. Even the principal put up a personalised thank you note on the notice board. Clearly everything had changed; she had unintentionally given me my first taste of how good doing the right thing could feel. I needed to thank her but everybody around couldn’t stop thanking me. More so when I started making notes for her and making sure she didn’t lag behind despite missing classes.
It was really strange, I was teaching my rival and if she came second it would mean I was a bad teacher. She was a good student and we both scored exactly the same marks. I don’t think I would have been happy if she scored more than me, but the truth be told at that point I was glad I got a friend for life.
We figured that she was lovely. Just different. Awed by the big city, bright lights and intimidated by the bubble gum brats that we came across as. She had grown up in small town India what with her father’s transferable job. The family stressed on academics and the good girl never disappointed her parents. Standing first in class was a given. Books to read for pleasure weren’t available everywhere so a trip to the city was a treat. They didn’t have uninterrupted electricity to even run a TV set everywhere. I suddenly looked at Rima with new eyes. English was not the language spoken at home, she didn’t have the exposure most of us took for granted in our privileged existence. Yet she had read all the classics in English and Hindi literature while we were still at the mills and boons stage.
To her credit she didn’t lack confidence nor did she feel any less privileged that she hadn’t attended Michael Jackson concert in Bombay. She also wasn’t showing off when she showed us pictures of the lake at the family farm house in Punjab or the fact that she never had less than five pets till they moved here.
My new found friend taught me how to accept people who are different, despite their differences. A lesson I learnt as a teenager and try to remember once before getting judgemental on someone new. Of course I still call her phoolmati and we still meet up when she is in town or I am in Ohio where she is a known corporate lawyer. I still rib her about her awful dress sense!