Chapter 8: Signature
27th September, 2017 - Saptami
"You still haven't told him about it?" Bhaskar looks at Shaon in awe.
A year and a half has passed since our last days in Diamond Sparks School; almost three years since the incident all my close friends know I refer to as the 'Riya Incident'. Maybe a lot of it wasn't her fault, maybe some significant bits actually happened because of her, but in my mind it just got named after the spark that crisped my life, probably because I still haven't figured out all the gasoline sources.
After the incident, the entire batch had to spend another eighteen months together. For better or for worse, that incident wasn't the only memory I carried when we received our farewell... or the worst, for that matter! I hardly have any contacts from DSS anymore. I guess the only few friendships I salvaged while leaving school, I managed to ruin in the last one year. And I say that because Shaon isn't my friend from DSS. We shifted there together. As you can guess, Shaon and I are still pretty tight.
As always, we are together for the Puja Vacations, and by 'we', I not only mean a bunch of friends from the school Shaon and I first met in, but also a few from DSS. Yeah, well, Shaon is still friends with some of his buddies. We are out now, pandal-hopping in a group of eight, and as is always the case with bigger groups, we inadvertently have broken up into sub-groups of three and three, with one frequently shuttling to and fro, and another busy chatting on his phone. Bhaskar, Shaon and I are walking ahead of the rest, reminiscing and talking about days from when we were together in school, with periodic inputs from the 'shuttle', Aarush.
"Of course, I haven't," Shaon replies. "I never found a reason to. Ani has quite a few good memories with people, that I didn't want to spoil."
"Excuse me!" I eye Shaon with judgement flaring through.
"Okay, how much do you know?" Bhaskar intervenes before I can mentally strangle Shaon.
"I know about Partha being jealous, and maybe that's why Dhruv couldn't stand me. Other than that, nothing significant, really!"
"Wow!" Bhaskar exclaimes.
"What happened?," Aarush speaks up, suddenly clinging on to Bhaskar's and my shoulders from the back, and shoving his face between us.
"Will you stop being a tennis ball?" Shaon cracks into laughter seeing Bhaskar and me lose our footing because of the sudden weight. "Stay here, things are gonna get interesting any time now."
"Of course, they will. You never told Ani the best bits..." Bhaskar speaks excitedly. "Or arguably the worst!" his excitement falls.
"Oh God!" I exclaim. "Why do I feel like I should be scared?"
Silence! Bhaskar clears his throat, clearly as an act.
"Shreya was involved, wasn't she?" I ask.
"You are enough removed from those teenage emotions you had for her. Maybe you should judge, after you hear the whole thing," Shaon pats my shoulder.
"Before the whole thing though," Aarush speaks up, "I think Ani should get a recap of who had crushes on who, 'cause if I'm not too wrong the only couple his eyes ever caught were Shreya and Shit-dhant." Shaon and Bhaskar burst into a fit of laughter. I have a couple of seconds of ear-to-ear as well.
Three years after all of that, now finally, talking about it with friends doesn't seem as bad. I remember the feeling I was going through for the first few days. The Monday, I remember was the worst because I didn't know why everyone hated me, until Tuesday arrived and I knew exactly what everyone was thinking about when they looked at me from a distance, and that was a new level of worst. Now, most of the details are a blur. And more important than anything else, the current company, I know I can trust. I know, Bhaskar and Aarush have never been too close to me in school, but they are Shaon's friends, and that is enough for me.
"Okay, stop with that 'shit' joke," I say, "pun intended."
"Stop showing off that you remember the Figures of Speech," Shaon punches my arm. "Tell us how much did you know about our classmates' crushes?"
"Okay, I need to think."
"Good. Think about it," Aarush comments. "We'll commence this after visiting Sarat Colony's Pandal. We're lucky the queue isn't that long yet."
Ten minutes later, we are walking out the exit gate. We stop and click groufies and selfies, me being the camera guy because who needs a selfie-stick when Anirudh still owns a hand. I even click a few profile pic materials for a few of them. We start walking again, this time split in groups of four and four, with me, Shaon, Aarush and Bhaskar now being the lagging group.
I can see the four ahead giggling and discussing last night's movie. For a moment I consider if I want to spend the evening talking about an incident that matters no more, or just have plain fun discussing weird CGI monsters that are funnier than they are scary. But then, I have dated two other women since I left DSS, but Shreya never really left my thoughts. Can I really afford not to know the truth anymore?
"David had a crush on Riya," I speak up, interrupting Shaon's crash course on how to operate his camera.
"Debatable," he hands the camera over to Aarush, apparently confident he can handle it. "He jumped on and off that ship quite a few times. Also, not important, otherwise you could have started with Aarush's crush." He pats Aarush on the back.
"Yeah, we all know about that one," I giggle, dramatically batting my eyes at him. He seems too busy with the camera to pay any attention to us teasing him. Or maybe, he just found it wise to not promote it any further. "Anyway, so, important ones, right? The first signs I read of Shreya growing feelings for me were in March of twenty-fifteen. So, whatever happened later that year between us, shouldn't have in any way affected the Riya Incident. The Riya Incident was August of twenty-fourteen. I know Harpreet had a major crush on Dhruv. So, her name coming up might have been Dhruv's idea. He could have convinced her I suppose."
"Harpreet?" Bhaskar looks confused. "Harpreet Kaur?"
"Yeah," Shaon clarifies. "Kamalika told Ani that she had heard about similar incidents related to Harpreet and Shreya."
"As in, Ani misbehaved with her?"
"Yes," Shaon replies. "Never again this came up, not to the knowledge of most guys, at least. I checked with the girls, and the few who knew said the word was Ani pushed against her in the audience crowd of some event, which apparently she straight denied when asked about. So, the rumour never grew. And yes, given the word did circulate among the girls for a bit, high chances are they originated from Dhruv. He must have even spoken to her about playing along, and she must have initially agreed given her feelings for him. He wouldn't go ahead without getting a thumbs up from her. But then she must have felt otherwise about the whole thing, so she denied."
"Woah, we didn't know about that," Aarush looks genuinely surprised. I notice he has switched the camera off.
"At least you guys know how Shreya's name came up," I reply. "Will anyone tell me about that?"
"That's the best bit, hold on!" Shaon smiles a wicked way. "First tell me, do you know why Dhruv was so keen on pulling you down?"
"Because he is Partha's friend?"
"So were Rohan and Ojha," Bhaskar replied. "Although, yeah, Rohan had his own reason as well."
"Anyway," Shaon continues. "Yes, partially because of his friendship with Partha, but more than that he had reasons even more personal. First off, Riya was like his childhood crush. He had been on and off that ship quite a few times, never really getting any romantic attention from her. Now, that was why he never really could tolerate David with Riya. And then she speaks about her experience with you, and it's the perfect way to get her attention." Shaon takes a breath from his fast-paced monologue. "Also," he continues, "he never really liked you because of all the attention you got from the girls in general. Their entire group disliked you for that reason. They pull somebody's hair and that would lead to a ruckus, but you pull Sharmistha's or Shreya's hair, and they used to chase you through the corridors to playfully place a few punches."
"Okayyy...," I process it all through my reply. "I think I always knew that subconsciously. It just inherently makes sense, although it really doesn't. They trusted me. They were cool with me. They felt safe with me. What was my fault, you moron?!" I curse Dhruv. Like he can even hear me!
"Okay, calm down, Angry Bird!" Of course, it is Shaon!
"By the way, Rohan's reason was also because of that incident with Sharmistha," Bhaskar says. "He always had a thing for her, but he just couldn't approach her before Partha did."
"Seriously?" I crack up. "Partha was jealous of me, while Rohan from his own gang had a thing for Mistoo!" I spit words between laughs.
"No need to be so dramatic about a barely funny premise," Shaon grabs my shoulder. "Not like your life hasn't been a joke while in DSS."
"Ahem," Aarush fake coughs. Bhaskar starts giggling.
"That story can be timed for discussion tomorrow," I avoid the topic of my short-lived romantic life in the school. "Not like you guys don't know the overall picture. If anything, you need details. So, shut up, and tell me how Shreya was involved."
"Hold on, Romeo! There is one more person to talk about before we talk about her," Shaon declares.
"And that is... drum roll please..." Bhaskar only makes the suspense more irritating. "Ankush, the topper!"
"Wait what?" I am genuinely surprised. Ankush never felt like the guy who would participate in such a plot. Okay, fine, 'plot' might be a strong word, but it really was. In any case, Ankush was all about learning more and gaining skills and talking nerd about Twilight (yeah, I know).
"Yeah, he had two separate reasons, or at least that is the conclusion we came to, 'cause he's too smart to admit his reasons to anybody," Shaon explains. "But he was involved, and that much other involved people have vouched for."
"One very obvious reason would be to reduce competition, but might be too much of a below-the-belt-move for him," Aarush takes over. "We aren't very sure about how insecure he was about you being a 'question box' in class. But, of course, he couldn't be sure about whether this 'new guy' would aim for his first position before the Finals came up."
"Fortunately for him, you didn't, and hence the next year you guys actually started bonding well," Shaon smiles a weird way. I am genuinely starting to question these theories now. These people wouldn't lie to me, I know. More than that, they really didn't tell me anything when things could turn worse because of it. They are only telling it now when I don't talk to those people any more anyway. And yes, the more I think the more it more it makes sense. But are they really capable of this? Or was it just a stupid teenage hormones thing? I don't know!
"And the second reason?" I ask.
"Remember who he crushed on?" Shaon asks back.
"His crush?" I squint, trying to fire up my brain cells further. "Did he ever... Oh shit!" It starts coming back to me. This crush thing was not from the time we were in DSS. It was before that, and we had only heard stories about it. By the time we joined, Ankush was too motivated towards his studies to care about 'stupid crushes' anymore. "Of course... Riya Paul!"
"Yes, and our guess is this second reason might actually be more driving than the first," Aarush explains. "He wanted justice for Riya, but since she didn't lodge a formal complaint, his next idea was to get onboard with the others in spreading the word everywhere he could, including to studious juniors who had no business with our class other than seeking academic help from him."
"Aasheen told you that?" I poke his arm teasingly, as smile cracks on my face. Aasheen was a junior at school, who is currently Aarush's 'text friend', to say the least.
"Yes, but let's not go there. Let it at least become a thing first," Aarush blushed. "Can we get back to how Shreya was involved, please?"
We all have a pretty good laugh at that. The ones ahead of us slow down to participate in the laughter. Aarush just smiles and blushes, knowing full well he has no way out of this other than letting it die out naturally.
And it does. But by now, we are all onboard a 'TukTuk' rickshaw. Yeah, eight of us on a vehicle that normally holds six people including the driver. I am sitting on two people's laps despite being the tallest, because apparently I'm also the lightest. Boy, this ride has got to be scarier than the events we were discussing!
Half hour later, we are strolling on the street outside Shaon's place. On our right is an open wide field. If we walk another another hundred metres, there will be fields on our left as well. It's all eight of us. Three among us have no context of what we are talking about, and yet are happy to participate. Dev from DSS, who wasn't part of our discussion all evening, is slightly unhappy because he was left out of the trip down memory lane.
"The words you heard from Kamalika," Shaon talks seriously, "the ones about Shreya saying that you misbehaved with her as well..."
"They came directly from her, didn't they?" I finish his dragged out sentence. Just the thought of it makes me want to grab something and sit down. It's too much to take in, really. If she did feel that way about me, why would she be with me a year later? What did I do that she felt bad about? All the stuff she told me about Siddhant not liking the way I mingle with her, were those really her feelings?
"Yes," Shaon holds my hand. "Remember when I told you that I don't trust Sid even though you were friends with him?"
"Uh-huh," I nod.
"You shouldn't have either," Shaon looks me in the eye. "He only made friends with you after that incident to throw off the scent. Yes, Dhruv messed you up. Yes, Partha couldn't stand you. But you wouldn't be broken if Shreya had your back. And she wasn't left a choice. I mean, I guess, she could have shared her dilemma as she did every other thought, so that at least emotionally you knew she was with you, but I'll leave that judgement to you, if at all there needs to be one."
"So, Siddhant blackmailed her. Understood. With what?"
"No one knows," Shaon lets go of my hand. "Could be a simple 'I'll leave', or something way worse. For the kind of obsession she had with him, I guess even 'I'll leave' would have sufficed."
"So, that's it then?" I feel a lump in my throat. I swallow. "I am close to three girls and so, the popular guys lose their shit! I am slightly good at studies, so the topper loses his shit! I unintentionally touched a thigh or saw a pair of boxers, so the protective male figures lose their shit! Oh and might I mention, things got sorted with both of those ladies on a personal level. But no, 'I am the man' complex!!! And worse than all of that, I like a girl, like her enough to respect her choices in life and help her maintain a relationship with another guy, and even that guy loses his shit?!"
"Told you, Shit-dhant," Aarush perfectly ruins the emotional moment for me. We all laugh like crazy. It's almost midnight. We are out on the street, laughing our asses off over a 'shit' joke, as our voices echo back at us from across the open field we are facing.
Based on real events.
Original series idea: Aninda K. Nanda
Written by: Aninda K. Nanda
Proof-reading and Suggestions:
Sayan Mandal, Shaona Kundu and Tales, Fables and Fantasies Team
Promotional Art and Illustration:
Aninda K. Nanda