day of the last exam, I hunched over my desk, holding a pen between my slippery fingers. The classroom was hot and airless. I looked up at the clock, feeling the tension in my gut as I calculated that I had only half an hour to answer the essay question. I looked around the classroom. It was empty except for a few students and Ranjan Bose, who was chewing on his pen. He wiped the sweat from his glasses with his shirt-tails and looked at me with a strange expression.
I turned to my paper, feeling uneasy. We all wrote as fast as we could. I finally finished and flexed my stiff and aching fingers. ‘Time is up,’ Mr Swaminathan snapped and snatched the paper from my hand. There had been no time to double-check my answers.
Outside, in the afternoon glare, I squinted in relief. The last two weeks had been hard and they were finally over.
‘Rahul, how did you do?’ Ranjan asked. ‘Did you think the exam was easy?’
‘No, not too easy. But I answered all the questions.’
‘Did you know the answer to the question about how many seats there are in the State Legislature?’
‘Yes, I answered that correctly.’
Ranjan’s face went dark and his lips tightened. ‘I hate this,’ he muttered. ‘Mum and Dad will be so upset if I don’t get full marks.’
I reached out to him, to reassure him that, regardless of the score, I was still his friend and wanted to see him overthe summer vacations. He roughly pushed my hand away. I felt a rush of guilt.
‘You never know. Maybe you got it right,’ I said. He scowled, turning away.
And that is when I saw the first man I fell madly in love with.
‘Ranjan …’ A handsome young man with a deep voice approached us, his strides long and graceful. His deep, tanned skin glowed from the heat of summer and drops of sweat clustered on his forehead and smooth upper lip. His lips were pursed, giving his jaw a determined look—I was keenly aware of their berry-redness. Then they curved in a friendly smile, showing white even teeth. The half-sleeved shirt he wore was open at the chest, displaying more smooth skin, and his forearms were finely muscled, the veins outlined in iridescent blue by the sheen of perspiration that covered them. His hair was dark and matted against his temples and neck.
I stared at him as the cacophony of voices receded and time slowed down.
‘Rahul’—I heard Ranjan’s voice, coming to me from far away—‘this is Shubho dada, my brother. Do you remember him? He just came back from a student exchange programme in Spain.’
‘Hello, Shubho dada …’ Shubho had been a shadowy figure for me. Three years older than us, he was always busy with his own friends and had been a stranger to Ranjan’s friends. Now, his face had thinned out and he looked more like a man than a boy, he was much taller and athletic. Shubho had been the new star of the football team before he left for Spain, having scored more goals for our house team than any other player in the history of the school.
I liked the change in him in the months he was gone. He seemed so confident, strong and dashing. How I wished that I was grown up and manly too—not so skinny! And yet, unbelievably, right in front of me was Shubho, shaking my hand vigorously, patting me on my back and tousling my hair as he said, ‘Rahul, you are growing up to be such a handsome boy! Watch out for those girls, they will get you!’ He laughed.
I was speechless. My eyes were glued to the skin showing at his neck. I forced myself to look away. I hoped to God that Ranjan had not noticed my mortification. But he was chatting casually with his brother, slinging his satchel of books on his shoulder and preparing to leave.
They made a fine pair. Ranjan was tall just like his brother, but he wore glasses and was thin. Not particularly athletic like Shubho, he was generally easy-going and good-natured. Except when put off—then he had his mother Dr Bose’s peevish personality. But he had befriended me when I joined