I knew her for sixteen years. 10 years as my best friend. 6 undefined. Our most prolific memories were built on inventing a new language and writing an unpublished mystery novel.
I remember her glide into our classroom in a bright white georgette frock with golden pink puff sleeves and a chain of golden beads around her neck. Her fashion sense was way ahead of the ’90s. There was no doubt her jet black shiny hair would put Rapunzel to shame, the girls agreed. She was only short of a halo and wings.
First impression of the head-turner Alka Simpson.
We were a bunch of seven girls. Obedient, adored Enid Blyton to no end and commuted to school in the same van- Sri Gomathi. As experts in our convent’s disciplinary practices, we advised Alka.
“You ought to tie your hair into two pony tails with white ribbons. That’s the rule here. Pretty frock but you better get your shirts and pinafore ready.
And it turned out we were preaching to the choir. She was a perfect student that everyone envied.
An interesting fact about an all-girls convent education is we usually try to impress ourselves first, our teachers next, and then the girl beside us. I have always wondered how this hierarchy of impression would be in a co-ed school.
Alka was not only the most prettiest but also the smartest, which every class teacher declared after our first mid-term tests. The unicorn that she was had many girls discretely vying for her friendship. So it’s quite likely many came up with passive ways to strike a conversation. Like this one friend who brought homemade lunch for all of us when we knew it was Alka’s favourite.
I befriended her by chance. That year, after the school annual celebrations, my mom and hers became friends, and decided to share a ride back home. Since then we started having lunch together. Just the two of us.
The period right after lunch was the dreaded, sleep-inducing second language class. While most of my friends chose Tamil as their second language, I was stuck with Hindi for a good decade. Why? My mother and grand mother were pundits in Hindi and wished the same outcome for me. But I struggled like a fish out of water. I couldn’t appreciate the language in the way it was taught at school. Alka travelled in the same boat as mine. So we decided to do something to keep us up throughout those 45 minutes.
As much as a Christian school tries to inculcate self-discipline, a trait to rebel comes naturally. Rebel, we did, in petty ways.
We shared a love for solving crosswords in the Reader’s Digest magazine. We would sneak two copies of the book unbeknownst to the librarian as it belonged to a section meant for teachers. We hid it between pages of our Hindi textbooks so that our teacher wouldn’t suspect us. At the end of every Hindi class, we were a bit wiser in English.
We discussed homework and other girls, just like the other girls. This wasn’t, by any stretch, a legendary female friendship that captures the popular imagination. It was ordinary in many ways people call their’s extra-ordinary. We visited each others’ homes countless times as we lived a kilometre apart. We did projects together. We travelled in the same van. We exchanged friendship bands every year. We made promises to stick together forever. We pulled each other’s legs in the most innocent and endearing ways. We even made up a new language, partly inspired from French, with its own set of alphabets, words and grammar. She was Akunekesaku in our no-name language.
As we grew up, I realised our differences were quite ironic. She was a protestant who binged romantic movies and was fascinated by Naadhaswaram, a South Indian musical instrument played at the temples. I was a brahmin who didn’t do much TV and loved singing Christian songs. It was like we had our backgrounds mixed up.
She stood first in every test. Believe me, even in Moral Science exams. She set the bar high for an ideal student in many homes, including mine. I just got by with no-so-great grades, basking under the limelight of my super-achieving friend. I never dared to punch above my weight. Even if I did, I wanted Alka to take the trophy home.
“Why can’t you dream of getting the first rank in class for once?“
“I’ll think about standing second. Alka deserves the first rank, Amma.”
Our school choir needed more singers for Christmas celebrations. I nudged Alka to join. She wasn’t a good singer but she made for good company. One day, during rehearsals, our geography teacher stopped by our choir and mentioned to our music teacher that the scale in the song was off. One by one, we were asked to sing the starting lines of the song.
It was Alka’s turn. No sooner than she started singing we knew what was wrong. Lots of flat notes. To her dismay, the teacher pointed it out and aloud. She was asked to quit the choir immediately. I could already sense tears streaming down her face. It was an embarrassing moment before the other Christian singers. She had stitched clothes for the event and it was too late to ask her to leave. On the day of the event, she stood on the choral riser with us and simply mouthed a silent carol.
Puberty is a weird phase. It’s like a birthday that throws real surprises. In the summer of 2007, change was in the air. We were shuffled to different sections. She started moving along with girls who were overtly concerned on adolescent boys of the neighbouring school.
We were elected House Captains for our respective classes. Named after catholic nuns, I was leading Carmel, the yellow house. Alka for Lourdes, the green house. We sported two badges on our pinafores. One that said House Captain. A red one that said Rank Holder. To everyone’s surprise, I had started making into the first five ranks in 7th standard. It was magical to have a quarter of Alka achievement’s. To be a class leader, a rank holder and inevitably- a teacher’s pet. I enjoyed it with a sense of responsibility but it was fleeting.
By then, we had invited two more girls to join our humble lunch gang. A chubby, bubbly girl who’d miss an exam to watch Roger Federer play and a tall, lean girl who was crazy about the sitcoms F.R.I.E.N.D.S and SClub7. There was a minor squabble on one being insulted as too fat and another being re-insulted as too tall. We patched them up and peace resumed.
Little did we know in a years’ time, Alka and I would fight over something that would lead to our fallout.
For obvious reasons, the faculty in most girls’ convents are interested in their students’ academic performance over extra-curricular activities. My school did not encourage participating in events held by co-ed schools although they did encourage competitions within our own. The invitation letters from the neighbouring schools were never shared with the students as it was deemed to potentially invite trouble. So there was a narrow scope for someone who had an artistic inclination to gain recognition beyond our school and those from the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. A few of us directly reached out to our principal in a bid to change the status quo.
2010-2011 was a golden period. That academic year started with students participating in cultural programmes of many schools, co-ed included. For a change, Alka went out of her lane of home works and exams. By all means, it’s an extra-ordinary feat for a studious person to tread new waters. It was well known to the entire school that she was eying on State Rank in the board exams. Teachers had a lot of expectations on her. Heck! My family and I had a lot of expectations for her. For a sure-shot State Ranker to cut some slack was no big deal.
We were in separate teams representing our school. We qualified for the finals of a general quiz conducted by the QFI at Holy Angels. Ezhil, my junior and I won the first place in that quiz. I also won the first place in western music with my school music band. For the next few weeks, I was on a roll winning as many as 5 prizes in mathematics, music and quiz. Madras Christian College. Shishya. St. Bede’s. St. Michael’s and many more. This was a period unlike any other. It gave me a sense of who I was besides academics. Alka was aware of me winning these competitions yet she made no word. Not even a bad remark.
It killed me that someone I’d called a best friend all along for 12 years did not recognise me for what I was good at. She stopped having lunch with me. I worked up the courage one day, put it across point blank and asked her why she was ignoring me.
“You never helped me win the quiz. You could have shared the answers with me as my best friend but you dint. Can’t believe someone who is average at studies wins competitions. You’re trying too hard to match me. You never will.“
Not hearing words of encouragement from a best friend was not bad enough, but being told I’m unworthy of it was the final straw. That day, after hearing this ridiculous reason from someone I held so high, often above myself, I got so depressed. I ran to the terrace of my school and began to cry.
The longer I tried to save this kind of a friendship, the higher the cost of reputation. The more visible it is, the more disastrous the end. Everyone in my school, right from juniors to seniors knew I hung out with the smart and beautiful girl Alka. I had to wipe all of that in a crucial period when students were busy preparing for the board exams. I was 16 years old with no one to call my best friend. What the hell did I do during school?
In hindsight, I was taken over by her identity so much that I failed to discover my own.
I walked back to my classroom and lied to my class teacher that I was hiding the black board for the girls seated behind me and that owing to my height, I should be moved to the last bench of the class.
I no longer sat beside Alka. The lunch gang split into two factions. One with me and the girl who loved Roger. Another with Alka and the girl who watched sitcoms. No more lunch. No more birthday wishes. No more plans to publish a mystery novel we wrote about three friends in an island. No more no-name language. No more calls to her landline. No more discussing the episodes of So Weird that we had enjoyed together. No more first-ranker Alka. It felt like the death of someone I knew for a lifetime. School was and is a major part of life. Losing 10 years of trust and hopes to a person is akin to losing a limb.
Was the friendship even worth saving though? Absolutely not. If someone is toxic to you, you don’t try to lessen toxicity. You remove it.
As girls who studied in a girls’ convent would attest to, we have a high sense of self-respect that people can’t try tarnishing. Not to mention, I get quite vindictive for the right reasons. I wanted to challenge her and myself. I got so engrossed in science and math. It changed me for good. I had earned the privilege of bunking classes from teachers to take part in these competitions while Alka insidiously strayed from her lofty academic goals. It was a complete 180 degrees turnaround in a matter of few months and a matter of a quiz. Now, with a brother who is extremely good at quizzing, it’s clearer to me why people have endless infighting over quizzes.
The season of culturals came to a pause. Then came the kind of competition I never wanted to put myself through in school. Preparing for exams.
There were three certainties in school: exams, more exams, and abysmal marks from our English teacher, Miss Ramani. Of all the exams I prepared, I was sure I was always under-prepared for English. She was known to give the dementor’s kiss to our English papers. Our seniors prophesied everyone would fail in the first mid-term test in English and would continue to do so until the day of board exams. This was the most intimidating rite of passage in a convent school. The very sight of her commanded military respect. She would tease us walking in with a big bundle of our mark sheets only to start taking the next English lesson.
What terrified us more than seeing a cipher on the paper was the whole performance of distributing the mark sheets. She would hoist the worst paper into the air, roll her eyes, read out the marks or the lack of thereof, state the ways it was rubbish, finally announcing the roll number it belonged to. The ultimate seal of disapproval.
If I’m not wrong, I even remember her shoving the papers before the students found their way to her desk. My worst memories of school would pale in comparison to this act I was about to witness, I thought. This was my first English test in 12th standard.
She closed the textbook and lifted a mark sheet. My stomach turned. I remember chanting a small prayer that it shouldn’t be me.
Silence please! This is the worst set of papers I’ve corrected in my entire life. Only 5 students have passed the exam… and the highest is 69. Please learn from this paper and take notes. It shows she has paid attention to my lecture. It shows presence of mind. Roll no: 57, come and get your paper.
I kept replaying these words over and over again the entire day. Never in my school I had received an appreciation of that kind, especially for English. Sam, who was a bench-mate, whispered a wow and followed with I want to see your paper first. This was the first of many public approvals from my teachers.
Miss Ramani gave me the confidence to write, speak and be heard. Something I lacked when I was friends with Alka. If you’ve come this far, you must be curious of Alka’s marks. She scored a 11 in that paper. And in the end, she never came close to a State Rank in the board exams for which she’d been burning the midnight oil for ten years.
School was going to close for exam holidays in a few days. We were practising salt analysis for one last time. I had left my lab coat at home and I was wondering from whom I could borrow. I was also running a mild fever that day. Miss Marissa, my chemistry teacher with a wicked sense of humour, walked by noticing me. She suggested I borrow it from Alka who had just finished practising. We shared a light moment laughing. Everyone seemed to know how the two girls had changed over the course of 12 years. From best buds to nobodies.
I still couldn’t forgive her for her stinging words and couldn’t bring myself to ask Alka for a favour. So Miss Marissa borrowed it on my behalf and handed it to me.
As a last lecture, Miss Marissa gave us a pep talk on life and why marks ultimately aren’t a good judge of who we are. She was our class teacher, chemistry teacher and our Moral Science teacher. Out of the blue, in front of 65 odd students, she called Alka to come forward and stand beside her. Then she called my name. I pretended to sleep. She asked another girl to wake me up and bring me next to her.
And then she said, “Hug.” She pressed on with it.
The class burst into peals of laughter. “Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it…”
I avoided eye contact with Alka and told Miss Marissa I was running a high temperature and that I dint want to pass that off to others. She was disappointed.
The school bell rang. As we walked out of the class, carrying our heavy school bags and hearts, Alka lounged forward with teary eyes and gave me a hug. “I’m so sorry.”
It’s been eight years since that happened.
I entered college with a scholarship for the next four years. She followed me to my alma mater with an education loan. We chatted a bit once. I expressed my surprise of her transformation from school to college. She said, “Vandana, I continued to stagnate. It was you who changed. You changed for the good at the right time. Look at me now. What’s the point in hoarding good grades as a kid?” She followed me on Instagram. I unfriended her on Facebook. Then, she asked me why I did that. Now, Facebook has snooze posts which I currently use. In this generation of an always ON culture, it gets difficult to get away from what you don’t want.
She bought the same smartphones that I had in college twice. Travelled in the same college bus as I did. We had lots of mutual friends. The friendship fizzled out though our paths overlapped.
She’s a totally different person now. She likes cosmetics, Bollywood, fancy restaurants and posing for pictures. She din’t tell me. Instagram did. She now posts pictures of another girl, as pretty as her, from her new IT workplace and captions her her best friend.
To me, the memory of Alka is always that of a girl who was the prettiest and the smartest in school. Our only contact today is to mechanically like each other’s pictures on social.
What we really mean is sorry, we can’t get deeper than this.
A former student of Rosary Matriculation Higher Secondary School. Names were altered for this real story.