The other day there was a sudden ring and a friendly voice on the phone. Unfamiliar yet somehow disconcertingly expectant. Sort of demanding almost.
“Hi,” said the voice.
That was me in my most careful, professional manner at the unexpected intrusion, hiding that of which I’m quite not sure of myself. Wary.
“Do you know who I am?”
This time the voice was decidedly playful.
A memory stirred deep down. A memory from those times when one did not have to attempt to hide oneself behind layers. When all interaction was spontaneous if not genteel. A time before we had measured out our lives with coffee spoons.
Fortunately, life had covered that natural ability to connect to the unknown at the core like the protective layers on an onion. Smooth, dry and useful.
“Now who on earth is going to be playful at this time of day,” I thought. Perhaps this is an acquaintance and the playfulness is an admirable conversational art?
So I replied in a polite but somewhat confused tone.
“Umm. Can’t say. Who?”
A crackle in the line. An indistinct gap.
Then the voice faltered but managed to say a name in a very old, girlish tone that shook itself out of almost two decades of memory’s cobwebs in my brain.
This was a very long distance call. Not just geographically distanced but temporally as well.
This was my old school friend Mandira!
“What?! Mandira!” My To-Do list (in text format) lay open on the laptop and I sprung out of my couch.
Except that I didn’t spring actually. I would have in those old days. But age and experience had tempered the teenager into a more socially adjusted person.
A blank of a few seconds when we almost heard those twenty years swish by as in some rickety old time-machine.
Did we know what to say to each other?
A few images flashed through my mind.
The black receiver of an old, black, cradle phone with a number dial and a mechanical ring. Me standing against the wooden ledge on a long verandah reaching the phone with difficulty. Three young girls giggling at a restaurant on one of our first trips alone without being chaperoned by parents for dinner during Durga Puja. Us waiting at the school water cooler in anxiety as the bell for the class period went off in the distance.
Not particularly extraordinary kids in a not particularly extraordinary school but in an extraordinarily cherished phase of life.
She started the conversation. She had seen my pictures on Facebook. She had found so-and-so on my friends list. That is how she had called me.
So how have I been?
How do you condense two decades of life in a twenty-minute conversation?
Like a blurb on the back cover of a book, of course. All the important parts mentioned in either a professional or a chirpy tone.
Mine was chirpy.
Except that we both knew those weren’t really the important bits. The parts that got expunged and wouldn’t fit into the resume were the parts that those two schoolgirls were always moved by the most. The parts they giggled about, felt depressed about or showed support for.
“So what about you? How have you been?” I asked her.
While I had moved around a lot in two different countries, she had remained in the exact same house in the exact same place in the city where our school still is. It was, perhaps, easier for me to imagine her in the school uniform sitting in one of the same rooms I’d visit her in.
But she wasn’t the schoolgirl anymore of course. Her twenty-minute blurb talked of tragedy that had struck and her fortitude through it all.
Except that you couldn’t have a tragedy in twenty minutes. Only a blurb.
And a chirpy blurb it was too.
Two teenagers talked of twenty years of their past lives in twenty minutes on the phone between Calcutta and India.
For those few minutes we got to be two girls in the maroon-and-white school uniform in the dusty school lawns, perhaps ten-year-olds in Class V trying to get on the merry-go-round when the PT (Physical Training) teacher wasn’t looking or young ladies in Class XII gearing up to face the embroidery teacher’s wrath for the shapelessness of our table napkins.
For twenty minutes we got to be teenagers blissfully hopeful about the next twenty years to come.