Sunnu a novel by Suman Kumar

Chapter 17

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The quarterly exams were approaching and Vandhana was worried about it. I never could understand why people were so worried about exams. It is just a testing mechanism to rate how well you have understood the subjects.

"Don't panic, you are going to do fine," I kept telling her.

"I want to get the first rank," she mumbled.

Now this was a topic I loved to hate. "Do you know that Edison had pathetic grades in school?" I asked her.

"I am not Edison."

"There, no one can be Edison or Einstein, but the fact remains that you need to be original instead of just trying to memorise and mug up the subjects.

"Bye, Sunnu. I got to go home, it's getting late."

I saw her to the gate. "Hey, don't worry. You will do fine," I cried.

She looked back and said, " I am not worried about myself, Sunnu. I'm worried about your grades."

I stood there, trying to figure out the exact meaning of those words. Women have a strange way of putting things across. They love circumnavigating. I just shrugged and went inside. Suresh cocked his head up from his book and raised his eyebrows.

"What? What are you looking at?" I screamed.

“I never said anything,” he said defensively and continued.  “You know, the guilty are always thinking, 'maybe he knows, maybe they found out'."

"Found out what?" I shouted at him.

"I don't know, maybe you know it!" he smiled and said.

I shook my head vigorously and shut myself in the room. I tried catching up with Math, but gave up. It was difficult to concentrate.

The guys were making fun of me. Basha, Biju and Sethu took digs at me. They complained that I was not hanging out as I used to earlier. She was just another friend and when I told them this, they laughed at me.

"Who are you trying to fool, Sunnu?" Sethu asked me. "Hey, What do you think is going on? You are in love!"

I was astounded by their imagination. "No, guys, come on! Love! You guys are incredible."

"We will see," they said. "Yeah, yeah, we'll see!"

I really didn't know what love meant. The love that they showed in the movies was stupid. Rich boy meets poor girl and they sing duets in Kashmir. I was not an immature adolescent. I considered myself mature for my age. I have read Yendamuri, the famous Telugu author, and I knew what infatuation was. I would not indulge myself in such silly things.

"Infa... what?" Biju asked me when I tried to enlighten them on maturity.

"Sunnu, there is a big difference between being mature and trying to be mature,"

Basha said, levelling his eyes with mine. "And I think you are trying to do the latter."

"Oh, shut up," I said and I never spoke to them about what I felt over the whole thing. The hassle was, I could not bring Vandhana into the gang. She was uncomfortable about the whole idea. So, I had to tackle two sets of friends- the guys and the girl. Vandhana would ask me if I could go out for a movie with her and that would clash with the cricket match. Basha, Biju and Sethu were in the team now. The senior boys who had started the team were in college and were not as actively involved in the team activity, as they were earlier. Moreover, as I was the vice-captain of the team, I had the responsibility of managing the team when Raja, the skipper, was not around. I juggled between my two worlds and of course, the school gang was already gossiping about Vandhana and me.

I told her about this. "They think that we are boyfriend and girlfriend."

"You are a boy and I am a girl and we are friends." That was the simple reply she gave. I decided to leave it at that.

Vandhana's birthday was on September the eighth. They were having a small party at her place and I was invited. I bought her a card and an earring set, made of black metal that cost me thirty bucks.

"I am not cutting the cake without you," she declared when we were coming back home from school, on our bicycles.

"I would not miss it for a million dollars," I said.

James Hadley Chase paperbacks influenced my language a lot these days. 'Sonofagun', 'sucker', 'baby' were some of the words that were found in my vocabulary of late. Now, a million dollars was a different thing, and the flood lit tournament that the DC's, our cricket team, was playing, was different. I would be crucified if I missed the match that was being played on September eighth, at six, in the evening – the first match under lights. Vandhana's party starts at six too.

"Cut the sissy crap and be a man, pardner!" said Johnny Barnabas, our ace batsman.  He slapped my back in the ground after practice. American paperbacks, I guess, affected him too.

"I will be there. Tomorrow," I said, unsure of my words.

"You'd better be. We'll throw you from the Turtle Neck if you don't show up,"

Barny said, lighting his cigarette. He was the first boy in our gang to graduate to cigarettes and I hated it. He smoked a lot.

"Why don't you kick the habit," I used to ask him.

"It's a guy thing, you know," he used to respond.

All the boys were awe struck by Barny. He had a girlfriend, a girl called Susan, from Little Flower. He was a cult figure among the boys; an epitome of the free spirit, independence and machismo. Whatever it was, I knew it right there that I had a situation on hand. I was in a fix, as Chase would have put it. I dragged my cricket kit home that evening, thinking about what to tell Vandhana. I took a shower, changed, got onto my bicycle and rushed to her place. I wanted to tell her that the match was too important and that I couldn't show up for the party. I parked my bicycle and opened the gate.

"Hi!" someone hooted from the terrace.

She was up there. I climbed the stairs and was confronted by three other girls.

"Sunnu, this is Chitra, and she is Pravallika and this, over here, is Pam, Pramila."

I said hi to them. They were whispering something among themselves and giggling. Silly, I thought.

"They are going to be there for the party, tomorrow."

"I see," I said.

I wanted to tell her that I won't be there for the party, but I wanted to adopt diplomacy. "Can I ask you something, Vandhana?" I said, wearing my best smile.

"Yeah, what is it?" she asked.

"What will you do if I don't turn up for the party tomorrow?" I asked, grinning.

She was silent for a moment. "This is the best day of the year for me and I expect all my best friends to be there. If you don't turn up..." I waited. Face it, she is an intelligent girl and she won't say anything stupid. She knows that unless there was something exceedingly important, I would be there for the party. “...I will never talk to you for the rest of my life, ever!" she finished. There was a hush. The three girls were watching us. It was a beautiful topic for gossip.

"Never mind er... I will be there for the party, ok? Well, I got to go now, bye!" I said my goodbyes to the other girls and left. My mind was racing. There had to be a solution. "Think, think," I urged myself.

After dinner and some preparation for the quarterly exams, I lay in bed, thinking about a solution for this problem that was looming large over my head. I slept it off, unable to figure out a way.   The next morning in school, I was unable to concentrate. Our English teacher, Mr. JV, snapped his fingers at me and said sternly, "Pay attention or get out of my class."

I mumbled an apology and put on an expression of extreme concentration and pretended that I was listening to him. After school, I went to Basha's school and caught hold of him, as he was about to board the school bus.

"Come with me," I said.

"What's up? Trouble?" he asked.

"No," I lied, pedalling the bicycle through the church street.

We went to a snack bar and found a corner table. I ordered some samosas.

"Tell me Sunnu, what is the trouble?" he asked me again.

I hesitated at first, and then explained everything to him. When I finished, he had a huge grin on his face.

"What?" I asked him, irritated that he found my problem funny.

"Boy! You really like her, don't you? You didn't even wish me on my birthday!"

"See, I don't have to prove that I am your friend, ok? She is different. Girls are different," I justified my stance.

"Sure, more so if she happens to be your sweet heart!"

"She is not my sweetheart, Basha!" I shouted. "And I don't want to fight with you now. I want you to give me an idea, one which will work," I demanded.

"Try this, you'll finish the match by ten, isn't it? Tell her that you went to Tirupathi and couldn't come back on time as there were no buses available."

"Next!" I dismissed the idea straightaway.

"Umm...let me see, how about telling her that you were down with fever?" he continued.

"Basha, I want an idea, a real idea."

The samosas arrived and we started eating them. After what appeared to be ages, he spoke again. "Meet her by five-thirty, give her the gift and wish her. Then tell her that you will be back in an hour."

"Substantiate," I ordered.

"Simple, you come over to the match, and if we are batting first you can go back to the party as you will be playing down the order, and then come back to the match in an hour."

"What if we are fielding first?" I raised the obvious doubt.

"You bowl a few overs, tell the umpire that you've pulled a muscle and you retire. Then go to the party while we put a substitute in your place and come back to bowl the final spell."

That was a comprehensively brilliant idea. I managed a smile first. It slowly formed into a grin, and finally, we were laughing our heads off.

D-day. Raja warned everyone about being at the venue on time as the match started at six, sharp. We were playing a tennis ball match for the first time and we were not sure about how the ball would behave in the under lights, and on a concrete pitch. Moreover, the umpires were strict; they were very particular about discipline. I lied to Raja that I had a slight sprain in my ankle; a preparatory measure to make it look real. After school, I came home and gift-wrapped the earrings. I wrote an elaborate birthday message in her card. I was ready. I pressed my favourite black T-shirt and my denim jeans. I was all set. I also packed my whites- the cricket outfit- in a plastic bag. I had another two hours to kill. I played with Mickey while Suresh and Mom watched my excitement. They shrugged at each other.

I was not bothered. I knew I was going to pull it off. I was not going to hurt my best girlfriend, no, a best friend who is also a girl. At the same time, I was also going to play in the match. I practised my birthday line in front of the mirror.

"Happy birthday, Vandhana!" No, that sounded too ordinary. "I wish you celebrate at least another two hundred birthdays!" Unrealistic and I sounded like a grandpa. "May happiness happen, wherever you happen to be." That was brilliant. I saw it on some poster, so I decided to sweep her off her feet with my line.

I was at her place by five-thirty, as planned. She was standing there, talking to some other friends who had arrived early.

"Hi!" I called to her.

She turned around. She was wearing a red frock, which had too many frills. It was breathtaking. I couldn't decide whether she was adding beauty to the outfit or if it was the other way round. She moved towards me gracefully, her smile lighting up the entire neighbourhood.

"Thanks for coming," she said.

"My pleasure", I said and extended my hand. I shook her hand, struggling to deliver my line. "Happiness may.... No.... May happy happiness...sorry... may happiness happen wherever you happen to be."

Phew! I almost messed it up. I gave her the gift and her eyes lit up.

"Ohhhh, Thank you so much!" she said. I was happy that she was happy and all that.

Chitra came along and said, "Hi Sunnu!"

"Hi Chitra!"

"How long did you take to practice that line? It was very, very good," she said and burst out laughing.

Anti-climax! I ignored her comments as I had other pressing engagements on hand.

"Vandhana, I have to go now. Dad asked me to get something from the town, but I'll be back in an hour." Silence.

"Ok, don't hurry. If it is important, you can come late. The party will go on till eleven, tonight." She was an angel.

"Thanks for understanding. I will try and be back as soon as possible." I said, shaking her hands again. Her friends were raising their eyebrows and nodding their heads at each other. I felt as if a huge boulder had been taken off my chest. I rushed to the ground and changed into the whites in a jiffy. We lost the toss and were asked to field.

"What happened?" Basha hissed.

"Cool man, cool! I will play the match and go. I told her that I had some important work in town, and she said that I can come in late as the party will go on till the night and by the way, she was delighted by the gift." I finished in one breath.

We took our positions in the field. I took the ball and bowled as if I was on fire. I finished my quota of five overs with the figures of five overs-no maidens- sixteen runs-four wickets. A fantastic performance! We bowled them out cheaply for ninety-eight runs. I dragged Basha to a corner and told him the entire thing. He was happy. Our openers went to the crease. We were in the tenth over and were sixty-six for no loss. We were going to wrap this match faster and I would be able to get back to the party by nine-thirty.

"Hi!" someone patted my shoulder. I turned around and found my nemesis standing right in front of me. Nikil, of all the people in the world, was standing there, smiling at me.

"Superb bowling!" he complimented me.

"Uh... er… Thanks. You didn't go to the party?" I asked.

"Naw! I got bored and I knew there was a match tonight, but I never knew you were playing," he said.

Oh God! What am I going to do now? I wanted to ask him not to tell Vandhana that I was playing in the match, but that sounded cheap, so I dismissed the idea.

"Ok, Sunnu, I got to go," he said, and left.

I wanted to stop him and gag him and put him in the kit bag, but he disappeared on his bicycle. I was tense. I had lied to her! Damn! I had lied and I would not be surprised if she filed a case on me in the Supreme Court. She hated liars. She even stopped talking to one of her friends because she had lied. The match was over by nine and I said goodbye to the guys and pedalled as fast as I could to Vandhana's house. The party was still going on. I threw my bicycle on the ground and rushed in. Nikil was talking to Vandhana, who had a dangerous expression on her face. My legs got heavy. I dragged my feet and stood before her.

"Liar, liar, pants on fire!" Pravallika sang, and they burst out, laughing.

"Can I have a word with you, please," Vandhana demanded.

"See, I can explain..."

"Shut up!" She dragged me to the terrace.

"You lied!" She had tears in her eyes.

" Vandhana..." I tried, again.

"So, the stupid match was so important? Leave that, why did you lie? Do you think that I would have minded if you had told me that you were going to the match?" That was a tough and a dicey question.

"I don't think you would have kept calm if I had told you that I had to go to the match," I mumbled.

"Well, Mr. Sunnu, you thought wrong! I thought you were a special friend, my best friend. But you lied to me and all my friends now think that you are a lying fraud." She wept. I kept quiet. She was worried about those stupid girls.

"I don't want to see or talk to you anymore," she said, looking at me.

"Er.... See, I can explain."

"Just get lost, will you?" she cut me in the middle. I nodded.

What the hell does she think of herself? "Fine!" I said and left her place.

She wanted to control my life! I would never allow any one to control my life. And this concept of 'best friend' really sucked. I really couldn't understand the fact that you have to stay away from your other friends if you had a best friend. I thought a best friend was one who took you as you are and never tried to posses you. I thanked Yendamuri for giving me such maturity. I was happy that I could see things in a different light; different from the way my peers saw them. That night I could not sleep. I rolled in my bed. Reason and emotion clashed. My heart was telling me that I was wrong, but my mind reasoned that I had good reason to have done what I did. When I woke up the next morning, I realised that I should not have lied. My heart won. And I lost. I lost a friend, for all practical purposes.

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sunnu 2001©Suman Kumar.R.