“Is that the latest in hair styles?” Shruti heard the mocking voice--Rina’s. She knew it was deliberately kept just loud enough for her to overhear.
A low snigger followed. It was Nikki, another member of the ‘Gang’.
“Hair style?” Rashi commented in her affected drawl. “Doesn’t look like one.”
More giggles--from Tanu. “I think it looks great, yaar,” she squealed.
Shruti’s thin face flamed but she tried to pretend that she hadn’t heard. Meals were becoming an ordeal for her at boarding school. Because she had been unlucky enough to have been given a seat near the ‘Gang’ at the dining hall.
“Who’s your hairstylist, dear?” Rina’s voice was artificially sweet. A pause, broken only by their giggles and Rashi saying, “You really want to try her or--him?”
“What do you know--she really is dumb!” Rina again.
Shruti wanted to burst into tears. But she bit her lip and stared into her plate. It was the only way. If she showed any reaction, they’d tease her even more. Mercifully, the bell rang just then. Scraping their chairs back noisily, they all dashed off.
Rina, tall, hefty and hard eyed, was the leader of the gang. The others were Rashi, snooty and stylish, Tanu who looked cute and friendly but could be quite nasty and Nikki, small in size but otherwise equal to any of them. They considered themselves ‘hep’ and exclusive and despised anyone who was not like them. Part of their hep act was to break as many rules as they could get away with. Rules were dumb, they said. The whole of class ten feared them because when they were in the mood they could tease the ones they considered ‘behanjis’ mercilessly. But of course, there were many who secretly envied them for their daring and would have joined them if they had had the guts.
But Shruti would really have preferred to stay as far from them as possible. “I can’t stand it any longer,” she told Puja, her best friend, as they walked down the graveled pathway that led from the spacious dining room to the stone walled class room block. She blinked back the tears that sprang to her eyes remembering her ordeal.
“They’re utterly unbearable, I know,” Puja said, her wide forehead creased in a sympathetic frown. “Why don’t you ask Sister to change your place?”
Shruti sighed. “She’s bound to ask why. If I tell her she’ll haul them up. And then I’ve had it.”
“That’s just it,” Puja nodded gloomily. “You’ll simply have to stick it out till next term.”
Easier said than, Shruti thought, gazing morosely at the sloping red roofs of the school buildings--a sharp contrast to the clear blue sky. She didn’t mind that they left her out of the conversation--or the card games they carried on defiantly at the dining table, hiding the cards when Sister came around. If only they’d leave her totally alone! Was it too much to ask?
But that very night something happened. Something that Shruti could not have imagined in her wildest dreams. Something that completely changed her relationship with the gang.
They’d got mutton cutlets for dinner. And Rina hated mutton cutlets. However, it was a rule, strictly enforced, that you had to eat everything on your plate.
“Yech!” Rina said, making pukey sounds. “I’m not eating this muck.” And she flung her cutlet under the table.
It landed straight under Shruti’s chair. And Sister Margaret happened to come around just then. Hawk eyed, thin lipped Sister Margaret. Her sharp eye fell on it.
“Who threw this?” she demanded, furious.
There was utter silence.
“It-it wasn’t me--Sister!”
“Who was it then?” The steely gaze bored into Shruti. Shruti gulped.
Inadvertently her eye fell on Rina, who sat there stiffly, a peculiar smirk on her face. And as their eyes met briefly, Shruti almost gasped. She caught a glimpse of something...something like fear...
Rina afraid! Shruti’s head almost swam with shock. But the cold voice rang out again. “Yes--who did it? Shruti couldn’t reply. Her mind was awhirl. It was unbelievable. Who could have thought that brassy, daring, Rina could be afraid! But of course, Sister Margaret could be very, very strict. And Rina had had a warning from her just the other day. If she were caught the punishment would be really severe.
Suppose Shruti told...What a chance to get even! But--somehow--she couldn’t. “Obviously, it’s you,” Sister rapped out. “Since it’s under your chair. Pick it up and eat it!”
Shruti was horrified. This was the ultimate humiliation. Tears sprang into her eyes. She stared helplessly at Sister, then slowly picked up the cutlet asnd swallowed it somehow, under her watchful eye, though she almost threw it up.
“That’s better,” Sister said, moving on.
She expected them to gloat afterwards, to hoot and jeer at what must appear like a victory for them. But they remained silent, to her surprise. And the silence stretched, shameful, uneasy. As Shruti brushed her tears away, from the corner of her eye she saw Tanu throw a reproachful glance at Rina. And she was utterly flabbergasted when Rina said suddenly, in a gruff voice, “I’m sorry, yaar. I should have owned up.” Shruti was so amzed that she could only stare.
And overnight she found that she was one of the ‘Gang’! They were absolutely friendly now, invited her to join their card games, shared their imported chocolates with her. Shruti was bewildered, confused. She really didn’t want to play cards at the table. She thought it quite idiotic. You could play cards at other times. Why at the dining table? But it was their style. To do things that were forbidden. And--in spite of herself she was thrilled. Thrilled to be one of the ‘Gang’. It definitely was a relief not to be the butt of their jokes any more.
“Don’t tell me you’ve really become pally with them?” Puja asked, astonished, as Rina waved a friendly hand to Shruti in the playground.
“Well, sort of,”Shruti admitted with a sheepish grin.
Puja looked uneasy. “Be careful, yaar. Don’t get too involved. You’re not really their type.”
“What do you mean?” Shruti snapped peevishly. She did not care for the implication. That she wasn’t smart enough to be one of them.
That night as they went up to the dormitory, Rina whispered, “We’re going up to the box room after lights out. Be ready, we’ll call you.”
Shruti’s heart lurched. The box room! People whispered that they went there to smoke!
Puja had warned her...She was right. It would be crazy to get into trouble for something she didn’t want to do. But could she refuse? She’d no longer be part of the ‘Gang’, then, but one of their victims again...
It was cold in the box room, dusty too. but Rashi had brought a blanket. They perched on a broken old sofa--assorted junk lay around them. Shivering, Shruti tried to puff at the cigarette Rina offered. She choked, spluttered and coughed violently. The others giggled.
“It takes some time to get used to it,” Nikki said, blowing out smoke rings with expert ease. But Shruti was terrified. Suppose the cigarette was drugged...What had she got herself into?
“Well, folks,” Rashi drawled. “Since Shruti’s new, she should get the next ‘dare’.”
Shruti groaned inwardly. She knew about those dares, silly practical jokes--sown up sleeves, pebbles in shoes etc. etc.
“I suggest,” Rina said. “Thorns in Sister Margaret’s bed. A sort of revenge.”
Revenge, Shruti thought bitterly. I should be taking revenge on you. Still the next evening she found herself trying to break off a branch from a particularly thorny bush without getting pricked herself.
“What are you doing?” Puja asked surprised. Miserably, Shruti told all.
“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” Puja replied. “Mean, too. And if you’re caught...”
“But I have to!”
“No you don’t!” Puja replied firmly. “Only if you want to!” She walked off, leaving Shruti standing there, thoughtful.
Puja was right. She didn’t have to do it. But if she didn’t, they’d harass her even more than before... On the other hand...they’d force her to do all sorts of things. Things she didn’t want to do. And--the question that buzzed in her mind was--did she really want to be stuck in the ‘Gang’ forever? Either way she’d suffer...
Suddenly Shruti flung the thorny branch away, hard.
“Hey, I thought you were supposed to be collecting thorns, not throwing them,” Rina stood there, towering over her.
Shruti froze. What was she to say? That she was opting out of the ‘Gang’? It was easier to think of it, than actually say it. Then something flashed into her mind. That glint of fear in Rina’s eye...She was not invincible! None of them were actually...
Shruti stared back determinedly. “I don’t want to,” she said. “And I don’t want to do all the other dumb things you all like to do!”
Rina gasped. So did the others! “How dare you--you-dummy--”Rina spluttered.
“I’m not a dummy,” Shruti replied calmly. “It’s you all who are dumb--though you think you’re so smart!”
Then she waited for Rina’s reply. But there was none. Rina’s hard eyes seemed to blur as she quickly turned on her heel.
“Let her be, gang,” Shruti heard her say. “Who cares about her!” But her voice seemed to quaver, as though deep inside she weren’t so sure any more.
Shruti drew a deep breath. She felt comfortable, ever so comfortable inside. The ‘Gang’ would never trouble her again. She knew that for sure.