In Thursday morning’s class the insanely beaming teacher asks us to speak on why each of us is special. Every child must have secret specialty hidden somewhere about them, or primary schools would cease to function. Freckle-faced Simran is special because of her purple pencil-box with Mickey Mouse on it. Joydeep, clumsily fixing the spectacles on his nose, is special because his class-works never fail to return an A+. Anurag, stodgy and heavy-breathing, is special because his mum bakes the best chocolate cakes in the world.
I try to lower myself into my desk till the teacher’s eyes inevitably spot me. ‘You, Chintan! Tell your friends why you are special, won’t you?’
‘Um. I’m not,’ I give her a stupid, confused stare as I drag myself up to stand. ‘Really,’ I add by the way of emphasis, taking care to sound just the right amount of pathetic.
My classmates duly dissolve into peals of laughter. Someone snickers behind my back. The teacher quips, ‘Oh, my poor boy,’ and proceeds to silence the uproarious class. With a sigh of satisfied resignation, I sink back into my seat and return my attention outside the window, where a guava tree sways gently in the summer breeze just outside the school wall.
That guava tree is my regular refuge. Its highest branches – so thin that even a cat can’t balance on them – are a dreamy nook of intertwining light and shadow. The leaves dance lightly in the breeze, tickling your skin continuously, making you flicker and ripple at the edges. You can see for miles from up there. You can occasionally let the air current dislodge you off your branch and gently float about in circles above the city, shimmering transparently in the sunlight and not upsetting any cosmic balance anywhere in the world. You can even take a peaceful nap, save for the trouble of the rare collision with a bewildered bird in mid-flight. While the rest of my class learns the mysteries of multiplication, I spend my afternoons on the top of the guava tree dangling my legs.
It’s a good thing that the teachers have given up on me. No one bothers me any more if I spend the entire day dozing on my desk, or staring glassily out of the window. Some children are born… a little slow, as it is politely said. It’s not anyone’s fault, especially if those particular anyones are being paid good money by the parents of the said child to keep him at their school.
‘What’s up, eh, Chintu Master?’
I turn my head to look into the wild, grinning face of Anita inches away from mine. It amazes me how Anita always manages to look scruffy – even her shimmer has a grainy quality to it. Anita is twelve and agile like a monkey. When she wants, she can slip through cracks in windows and holes in fences as if her body did not possess any mass at all.
Back in school Anita studies two classes above me and scores even worse. Anita is a certified retard. Her parents spend thousands of rupees running from child psychiatrist to counsellor and back again. Anita doesn’t care. She dislikes that other life far worse than me. She despises every bit of it.
This particular afternoon Anita is puffing on a small, oblong item that looks to me suspiciously like a beedi. ‘You’re smoking,’ I tell her reproachfully.
‘Ah, yes,’ Anita gives me a toothy grin. ‘Wanna try?’
‘No, thank you,’ I grimace, angrily adding, ‘This your newest hobby, is it? What would your parents think if they found out?’
‘Who cares? My parents think I’m a drooling, babbling retard,’ Anita shrugs. She sways her legs furiously. ‘A stain on their blood.’
‘That’s because you’ve never spoken to them, Anita. You’ve never even uttered a word! You’re so smart, maybe you could even pass off as a normal kid if you tried. Why don’t you make the effort?’
‘Well, who wants to be a normal kid? My sister was a normal kid and she will be married off as soon as her college is over and be someone’s miserable housewife all the rest of her life. I say a zanit’s life for me!’ Anita grins widely and stretches.
I don’t answer, so Anita drags at her beedi happily and rattles away, ‘Say, did you hear of that massive power failure in Bombay yesterday? That was Manish Iyer, you remember him? Tall dark guy with a severe case of acne, used to go to DAV Public? It’s unbelievable the things he does with technology! And that doctor in Vellore whose pants spontaneously caught fire last week? Such a roar! That was a girl called Preeti Mohanty from Cuttack. Just a little older than me. Her folks had taken her for treatment out there.’
She laughs aloud by herself, swaying her head like a transparent dusty doll. Then she suddenly notices my silence and pokes me in the ribs. ‘Don’t you think they’re the coolest, Chintu? When I grow up I’ll be cool like them! Hey, what’s up, kid? Want me to punch that long face out of you?’
‘Those people sound just as horrible as you,’ I return her glare.
Anita smirks at me and aims the remaining beedi at a sparrow perched a few branches away from us. She misses, and the beedi lands in our school courtyard. ‘Then what do you want to do, sit on a guava tree like a sad little ghost all your life?’
‘I don’t know, Anita,’ I tell her. ‘Don’t you think we zanits could do better things than playing nasty pranks on normal people? We can do so many good things, useful things... we can help people, can’t we?’
‘And what good will that be to us? They’ll never find out who did those things.’
‘They would, if we told them,’ I tell her. ‘We could all tell them. There are so many of us.’
‘Hahahaha, you think they would? Is that really what you think?’ Anita laughs out at my face with sudden viciousness, and then her voice turns dark, ‘Listen, kiddo, how old are you? Ten next month, eh? There’s a lot about the world you need to learn. You’ll tell them, and they’ll believe you, a bunch of slow-brained, drooling, stuttering children who can’t tell mama from papa? They’ll lock you up in asylums for life, and you’ll be thankful if they do that, because at least in asylums they leave you alone. Or else they’ll send you to laboratories and cut you up, try to find out what’s special in your genes and how they can replicate them. They’ll keep you under watch, stick things into you, make laws and invent devices to ban you from going where you want and doing what you like… You’ll never, never be able to fly about by yourself!’
She pauses to catch her breath, and then dangles a finger in front of my nose, ‘If even one of us gives away, all of us are destroyed. Never forget that! A zanit keeps his lips zipped.’
I stare at her in horror, the callous, cheeky Anita I knew peeling away into this new, ferocious person who sounded so much like as adult. ‘Where – where did you find out these things?’
She reaches out and pats my cheek with her small, rough hand. The unprecedented gesture of affection takes me by surprise. ‘We all find out, Chintu Master,’ she sighs, ‘You’re still too young to worry about these things. Enjoy your stupid guava tree! I’m here for you, no?’
The school bell rings below us and Anita’s face lights up with another grin. ‘Well, here they come! See you around, Chintu Master… Ta!’ She puckers her lips and throws me a flying kiss – knowing perfectly well that it embarrasses me – does a couple of somersaults in the air above the guava tree and glides off smoothly towards the school building. I will follow her after a few minutes: the older classes are released before the younger ones so it will still be a while before a teacher gently nudges me to leave my seat and start walking towards the gates.
For now I dangle my legs at the guava tree and wonder, How difficult is it to be special? All you need is a mum who bakes the best chocolate cakes in the world. How difficult is it to not be special? I did not choose to be a retard, I did not choose to be a zanit. I cannot tell if I would’ve taken this, given a choice. I know Anita will say she would, but would she either, honestly?
But a zanit keeps his lips zipped, even to his own kind. So be it, then. So be it.