Our gang was a large one, 4 girls, 7 boys, the eldest just finishing school, while the youngest had just stepped into class one. I was in the fifth standard then, and so were most of us, around 10-11 years old. Being kids, obviously, we did not think that boys and girls are much different apart from the fact that girls can wear shirts and pants but boys cannot keep long hair or wear a skirt. From cricket to lock and key, from football to hide and seek, from kho-kho to WWF simulation fights, we did all together as a group. And perhaps, the most valuable time spent together was around half an hour every evening on a yellow bench, sitting and chatting about all the things important to a 10 year old.
Things, however, were drastically different from our parents viewpoints. Call it generation gap, conditioning of the mind, upholdment of Indian values, whatever, boys and girls were as different as chalk and cheese for them. Yes, they thought the ‘modern thought’; did the ‘correct things’; but still they could not fathom friendship between ‘grown-up’ girls and ‘grown-up’ boys.
Most girls ‘grow-up’ more quickly than most boys, and our group was not the ‘exception’ that proves the rule. However, from the ‘predujiced’ lenses of our parents, it was blasphemy. Quite words with the daughters (who given the changes they were growing through, unquestioningly followed their mothers), a stiff warning to the boys, broke the spine of the gang. The elder boys understood the deal and gave us half cooked stories to our queries like -‘You know, she thinks we are all stupid fools since she came first in her class’, ‘blah-blah’. But then, none of us were convinced.
So it was, leading to the Durga puja of 1996. The joint games played by the gang had turned into a more ‘rough’ boys only games, while the girls played whatever it was that they played with dolls and mini kitchen sets.
It was the second Durga puja being celebrated in the apartments, and each of us had our pockets full of excitement, eager to be present everywhere all the time, eager to show off new clothes, roam the neighborhood. Also, for the first time we were given more ‘responsibilities’ during the pooja. Decorate the pandal, the stage, make announcements, serve the prasad etc. All in all, we were geared up for an exciting 4 days of Durga puja.
Also, by then, if not sworn enimity , there was some spite between the ‘boys-group’ and the ‘girls-group’, for the then foggy reasons, whatever that was, to us.
The girls had decided that they will come down to participate in the festivities at 9AM, but we boys, lazy as ever, decided 11 AM, just before the ‘pushpanjali’, was an earthly time to go down. However, amma, unaware of the separate plans, made us both (my sister and me), go down by 9:30AM. So, there I was, in a awkward position, so to say, but I had been friends, not long ago with these girls, and so thinking quite objectively (and unemotionally), and it being Durga puja, I pulled up a chair and joined the ‘girls-circle’, and started chatting with them.
Over the years, as we grow up, we develop ‘layers’ of ‘shell’ around us, impermeable to certain feelings. Though, they are not unbreakable, they are good defence mechanisms to protect our feelings, emotions etc…
However, to a small 10 year old kid, her greatest strength and her biggest weaknes is her innocence, the shell is yet to be made.
By the evening, I had become quite comfortable with the ‘girls-group’ again. Probably, realizing that they have not turned into blood-sucking devils, and more so, given everything, we had been good friends just 6 months back, I spent more time seated on ‘my’ chair in the ‘girls-circle’, rather than on ‘my’ chair on the ‘boys-circle’. Early into the evening, I refused a trip, gallivanting into the bylanes of the neighborhood, ‘pandal’ hopping, with the ‘boys-group’, deciding to spend that time with the girls-group.
All boys gangs make serious rules, especially about prioritizing ‘girls’ before group events. My punishment, was that ‘my’ chair from the boys-cirlce will be removed.
New friends or not, I was eager to return to my flock (Also, I was getting a ‘trifle’ bored with the antakshari). As soon as the boys returnded, I took ‘my’ chair to join the ‘boys-circle’, but I was refuese my place. Confused, I stood there for a minute extra, trying to understand the ‘joke’, when one of the boys quipped -‘Hey, you cannot sit here anymore- you are a girl’.
Thus began a particular half hour in my life, forever fresh in my memories.
Shocked, shattered, desperately trying to hold my tears in public, I tugged amma’s sari, demanding to go home. As soon as I entered, I started crying uncontrollably. When I finished unfolding the story of my day to amma, she stormed down to confront the ‘boys-group’, to make them apologise to me.
As the boys came up, my sister also came up, followed by the girls. It was a short time before the mothers of all the kids were also in our drawing room.
I was sitting on the sofa crying. As the boy, who actually made the remark, came up to me to apologise, he also burst into tears, explaining how I had angered everyone else, by spending the whole day with the girls, who had not as much as bothered to tell the boys a ‘hi’ during the past six months. Girls are never the ones to be left out, especially when it comes to a contest of tears. My sister, always cries whenever I cry, but her tears, bought along tears of the other girls, unknowingly sorry for the past six months. The other boys, being boysm did not cry, but were uncharacteristically quiet,
Among all the innocent tears, all the mothers also realized the folly of essentially separating a bunch of innocent friends. Moist eyed, they knew that they had been prejudiced, parochial, narrow minded, ambigious to the problem, not forthright with their answers.
All’s well that ends well. A new set of rules (avoid contact sports), formulated then and there, withour as much as a word being spoken, restored the ‘gang’ again.
We happily trotted out of the house, myself redeemed again as a member of the male gender, the girls and the boys mingling with eachother again. Yet, we were still unaware of the actual reasons for the drama that unfolded. Ensconsed in our innocence, we returned back to the pandal. But back in the house, elders learnt a lesson from innocent children.
Within no time, in a bigger circle of chairs, another game of antakshari started, only this time, it was boys v/s girls…
‘To kill a mocking bird’ is my favorite novel, because it beautifully captures the magic of innocence and highlights the heavy price of years of prejudice has to pay.
Today, as I sit watching ‘Puja-pandals’ on TV, my mind drifts to the gang. People have changed, enimities have been made, but still from among the 11 of us, 5-6 are still as good friends as ever.