WHO’S THAT GIRL?
20 June 2001
Sherwood College, near Marine Drive, Bombay
Sameer, in a smart white shirt and faded blue Levi’s jeans, strolled out of the class with one hand tucked in his pocket, and a five-subjects-in-one notebook in the other hand. He felt relieved on hearing the sound of the bell a few minutes back. It’s been a long and tiring first day in college, packed with boring lectures bringing to an end a day which began with much excitement and anticipation for many. The nattily dressed students pick up their books and walk out of class cheerfully, making plans to go for coffee or the latest Spiderman movie that is playing at Eros Cinemas nearby. It’s threatening to pour outside and students are quickly filling out of the old building that housed the classrooms for students of management studies.
He ponders on the accounting lecture by the frail professor who struggled to complete solving a question while trying to maintain silence among the disinterested students in the classroom. A smile comes to his face thinking about the group that had managed to sneak out of the classroom soon after the attendance. He wonders whether this is what it’s all about. Many like him studied night and day and used all their connections possible to get a seat in the prestigious Sherwood College. Despite scoring 80% in his HSC exams, his Dad had to pull strings to make sure that Sameer was one of the chosen few. Some others were not that lucky and had to take admission in lesser-known colleges in the city. He opens the door of his new Palio and gets in with a frown, realizing that he is going to feel lonely back in Bombay with his close friends choosing to move to the US for higher studies. He is an introvert and had spent the last few years in school hanging out with a select group of friends.
While driving out he bumped into his former rival and now classmate, Vikram Khanna, who graduated from St. Martins, who is walking up to his Lancer with a beautiful girl in tow. His gaze catches Vikram’s, they do not know each other beyond the interschool football tournaments where they played for opposite sides.
‘Hey Vicky, good to see you man. Look forward to playing on the same team,’ he says.
‘Likewise brother, see you around in college,’ Vicky replies with a friendly wave.
Sameer turns to look intently at the girl with Vikram. She gives him a shy smile before getting into Vicky’s sedan. He remembers bumping into her outside class this morning.
His phone rings, it’s his Mum on the other end. ‘Hi Mum, I’m driving, on my way home. I should be there by five.’
‘Ok, I’m just stepping out. I have left a sandwich for you in the fridge and some juice too. Hope you had a nice day at college beta. Did you meet any of your classmates from school?’
‘Was alright Mum, it will take getting used to. Just a couple of people from school, not really the ones I’ve known or been friends with. I’ll get home and talk, I don’t want to get into trouble!’ he says worriedly, noticing a traffic policeman at the signal ahead just outside college. The signal turns green and he steps on the accelerator as the drizzle turns into a heavy downpour and people rush to take shelter under the roofs of shops and restaurants on either side of the road.
He turns on his wipers with thoughts of the beautiful girl in class he would definitely like to get to know. She comes across as sweet but reserved. Maybe I should go up and say hi tomorrow, he feels as he drives on thinking about the day gone by.
Earlier that day...
Tania walks swiftly down the corridor looking for the classroom for first year BMS students. She rushes past a classroom and realizes that this was the room she was directed to by the office downstairs. She turns around quickly and bumps into a smartly dressed student, knocking his notebook out of his hand and dropping her mobile phone as well.
‘Sorry, are you ok? I’m in a rush, the signs are so confusing,’ she says with concern while going red in the face.
‘It’s ok, it happens. I’m lost myself. You have a nice phone,’ he says bending down and picking it up before handing it to her. He notices she has soft brown eyes and a friendly countenance, carrying herself with grace and humility. She is something else, he thinks.
‘Thanks, I think the first lecture is starting,’ she says in a friendly voice and rushes into the classroom. He walks in behind her and sits on the opposite side of the classroom from her. He looks in her direction with interest and is smitten by her presence. He cannot concentrate in class. He likes the way she keeps pushing her long tresses behind her ears, and the expression on her face during the Economics class when the lecturer seemed to be contradicting himself. He notices her looking in his direction for a moment with a friendly smile while they sit two tables apart at the noisy cafeteria for lunch. He wants to walk up but is intercepted by a classmate.
‘Hi yaar, I’m Tanveer. I saw you in class earlier today. Can I sit here?’ he asks.
‘Sure man, go ahead. I’m Sameer Ahuja, nice to meet you,’ he says while shaking hands.
Tanveer tries to make conversation with him by asking about his family, his school life and excitedly telling him about his dreams of becoming a big banker while Sameer looks preoccupied. ‘My dad was a banker once. He started his own financial and investment advisory firm twenty - two years ago,’ Sameer says with his eyes on Tania who is chatting animatedly with Vicky. ‘Wow! That’s great yaar. You’re lucky you can take over your dad’s business. He can advise and mentor you in your career. I wish I knew someone like that,’ he says looking downcast. ‘Well, I would be happy to take you over and get you to meet dad if you want to talk to him.’ ‘Thanks yaar! That’s very nice of you,’ Tanveer says before biting into his sandwich. ‘No sweat man,’ he replies watching Tania and Vicky get up and leave the cafeteria.
They seem quite comfortable together. I wonder how Vicky lands such beautiful women! Though she doesn’t seem like the type he normally goes out with. He had seen Vicky at a suburban lounge a couple times in the past month with a different girl in tow on each occasion. She wasn’t with him then, I would remember that face.
On a train,
Churchgate to Andheri, Bombay
Tanveer quickly jumps into a train that is about to leave Churchgate for Andheri. The local train system is something that he realizes will take a lot of time getting used to. He was told in the morning by his landlady to try and take a fast train back to Andheri, and to leave before five in the evening. He sees people rush in and scamper about to occupy the bench-like seats as though their life depends on it, and then quietly settle down to read popular tabloids or magazines. He looks up at the noisy fan above his head where he is standing, and takes a step back when a couple of other commuters jostle for space under the fan. He tries to move away from the open door of the train to avoid getting wet from the downpour that is beginning to grow heavier outside. I hope it stops pouring! I don’t have a raincoat and have to walk for fifteen minutes from the station to home, he worries.
He looks at his Bata shoes and feels insecure about the way he dressed on his first day to college. He wore newly stitched shirt and trousers from Smart Tailors in Sholapur while his classmates were dressed in funky t-shirts and ripped-at-the-knee trendy jeans. The girls wore figure hugging tops baring their midriffs, something which scandalized him, given the conservative sense of dressing among women in Sholapur. He feels out of place in the new environment and realizes he needs to adjust to the way others dress and talk in his class. Unlike in Sholapur, people here went about doing their own thing without long discussions on their future and career plans. From the conversations he overheard in class, his batch mates were busy planning parties and booking tickets for the upcoming Bryan Adams concert.
Most of them also happened to know each other from school or through a common circle, unlike him who knew nobody in his class. He had set his sights on coming to Sherwood College five years ago in school, and had worked relentlessly towards scoring 95% in his HSC exams to make it to the elite list of those who made it to Sherwood. He found it tougher than he had anticipated convincing his parents to allow him to come and study in Bombay. The high college tuition fees and living expenses in the metropolis were a cause of worry for his struggling parents who had to provide for their two daughters who were still in school.
On getting admission after applying secretly, he worked towards cajoling and persuading his conservative parents who believed he could go to an affordable college in Sholapur or another small town nearby. He tried convincing his father by telling him that five of the top twenty business leaders in India are among the alumni of the elite Sherwood College. After some more persuading, his father grudgingly agreed to let him go, considering that it might take the boy ahead in life and help the family escape the vicious circle of a lower middle-class existence.
He remembers his dream of coming to Bombay, and the goal to strike it big as a leading banker. He wants to rise and succeed in life. His aim is earn a lot of money, given that he has grown up in a family with significant resource constraints, to support his dreams and aspirations. He aspires for all the things which he believes will make his life happier than it has been. He dreams of a swanky penthouse and the latest Toyota car. I’ll get there soon, he feels.
Clinging tightly on to the bar overhead and watching commuters get on in droves at the Dadar station, he feels he has to do more to make new friends in class. He watches with surprise the manner in which commuters push their way in and an equal number push their way out of the compartment. He feels suffocated and struggles to get an inch between himself and the guy standing next to him who is shouting on the mobile phone with his sweaty armpit in Tanveer’s face. He takes a deep breath and wonders about the guy who walked in late this morning and hung around with the beautiful girl he wanted to talk to, in class and again at lunch. He had seen them leave together too. He seems like her boyfriend, though I wonder what he was doing flirting with the girl with a nose ring sitting in the last bench. What a guy, if I had a beautiful girlfriend like that I wouldn’t be trying to flirt with women, I have a lot to learn about these people from Bombay.
He had noticed Vikram exchanging text messages with another girl he had managed to exchange a few words with during the break. The crowd behind him literally pushes him to jump off the train when it comes to a halt at the Andheri station. Is this what living in this big city is about? he wonders while walking hastily towards the decrepit walkway to get across from the platform to Andheri East on the other side.
Earlier that day...
Tanveer walks into class, soaking in the campus buzz. The atmosphere is young and energetic and he is quick to meet his new classmates. He notices most of the desks in the front rows are taken and he walks ahead as he spots a vacant seat next to a pretty brunette with cropped hair and a nose ring. She looks like a VJ on TV, he tells himself as he musters the courage to ask her if he can take the vacant seat next to her.
‘Hello! I am Tanveer from Sholapur. I have just moved to Bombay...’ he says softly, conscious of others watching him.
‘Sorry you got the wrong number! Dude, this seat is taken, maybe you can sit elsewhere, there’s no one in the row behind,’ she says and starts to turn away when she hears his phone ring to the Pehla Nasha tune. He takes it out of his front pocket almost pretending he doesn’t know where the phone came from and watches the girl grin at him with contempt. I should have kept this damn phone on a silent mode, he rues.
His Nokia phone is an old bulky model with a two inch antenna that makes it look more like a walkie-talkie and less like a mobile phone. It is one of the first few models that were introduced in the Indian market, much before the mobile mania took off. He recently bought the obsolete model off his friend Chandru in Sholapur. He stares at the screen, embarrassed to look up at the brunette who is looking at him with disbelief and, as he walks ahead, he looks at his mobile screen and is not surprised to find that his mother is trying to reach him. He sits a few rows behind, takes the call and mumbles, ‘I’m in class, I’ll call back later.’
A short while later, he notices a good-looking guy walking up to her. He puts her at ease with his charming smile and easy-going manner and says, ‘Hey, I’m Vikram Khanna. So where are we going tonight, someplace where we can get to know each other?’
‘Well I don’t know Vikram, maybe Spice Chimney? I stay close by so it’s easier to get there,’ she replies with a flirty smile, playing with her bracelet and holding her notebook against her chest.
‘Friends and people I like call me Vicky,’ he says and adds, ‘How about Pizza by the Sea? They have a great wine list and good music too. Give me your phone and I’ll store my number.’ He takes the phone from her hand and types his number while she stands there looking flattered. He walks away with a swagger after telling her, ‘See you tonight, and do bring your stunning smile with you. Also call me when you get home so we can work out what time I should pick you up.’
‘Hey, I’m Niharika by the way,’ she calls out before he turns around to walk towards his beautiful companion who has a frown on her face, not too pleased on seeing him flirt with Niharika.
‘I know. I heard so during the roll call in class. See you tonight babe,’ he says and walks ahead. His beautiful companion doesn’t seem pleased and, realizing this, he says, ‘Tania, stop looking at me like that. You look adorable when you smile.’
Tanveer sees Tania’s frown turn into a smile in a jiffy and he hears her say, ‘Sweet talking people as always. I’ve known you for ages. I’m not going to get swayed by your smooth talk and flattery.’ She did get swayed by his smooth talk. She could not stay irritated with Vicky for long.
Tanveer is staring at them and Vicky is aware that every other guy in college envies him. He gives Tanveer a wry smile and winks at him as he walks past him, noticing that Tanveer is still staring at him, probably in awe. Tanveer thinks to himself, ‘Yaar, this guy is a stud! Maybe I should use my money saved from the summer job to buy Converse shoes like he is wearing. I wonder who this beautiful girl is. She has been hanging out with him all day.’
Tania’s home, Cuffe Parade, Bombay After getting home from college...
Tania and Vicky walk into her room and sit by Tania’s window sill, watching the rain come down heavily, flooding the street outside her building. The rains limit the view from the window to the building across the street, the downpour blocks the normal glimpse of the sea that is visible beyond the buildings across the street. Tania calls out to her maid and asks her to bring two cups of coffee and some biscuits. Vicky sits back, enjoys the stormy weather and replies to some of his text messages with a mischievous smile. Tania who recently got back from Hong Kong after visiting her older brother and his family who live there, is pleased to be back in Bombay and enjoys the rains. A couple of her school friends moved to the US for higher studies, some of them stayed back but couldn’t manage to get admission to Sherwood College because they could not match Tania’s 87% in HSC nor did they have Vicky’s connections who managed an admission despite getting a meagre 58%.
Vicky keeps his mobile phone aside and tells Tania, ‘What a day, I barely survived the economics class.’
‘I know, we did all this two years ago Vicky! It’s like going backwards,’ she says with a pout, taking off her hair band and letting her shoulder-length hair loose.
‘Who cares about this degree anyway, babe? At the end of the year we need to mug up a few things here and there based on previous trends and pass the exams. I hear it’s a breeze, especially after the rigorous lessons we went through back in school. Our classmates seem like a fun bunch though. I saw a few guys checking you out, they seemed to be interested in you. No, wait a minute, I think I got it wrong! Maybe they were looking at me, nowadays you never know!’ he teases her with a mischievous grin.
‘Yeah sure, I saw the girls checking you out. But I don’t go to college to do all this! Unlike you, I was trying to pay attention. First you end up coming late to college, missing a few lectures and walk in looking droopy. Then you get busy flirting with that girl shamelessly. It was the first day of college, get serious! I called your place at 8 am and you were still fast asleep, you were supposed to pick me up! Luckily I got a cab.’
‘Relax, I’m used to sleeping till eleven. It’ll take me some time to start waking up so early. Maybe you can cover for me till then,’ he says beaming and adds, ‘I am the first to do things that are important for me. Remember, babe, the early bird gets the worm. I’m taking Niharika out tonight.’
‘You’re incorrigible. You had to go and flirt with someone didn’t you! You just broke up with Pooja two days back. Is there something like ‘taking a break’ for you?’ Tania says with mock sarcasm.
She is extremely fond of Vicky despite his laidback attitude and casual approach to relationships. She is glad that he is around in college as the rest of their group has gone in different directions. It’s going to be less lonely and more fun with Vicky around, she realizes.
‘About Pooja, you know that she decided to go to the UK for a course in media. If she was around I would still date her for a while. But with her there and me here it doesn’t make sense, does it? You chill, we’ll set you up with someone nice. Someone as nerdy as you, like maybe that Tanveer dude,’ he says jovially.
‘Shut up! Go easy on this one, try and make it last a month or two at least. She’s a classmate remember, she’ll be with us for three years. Also, I don’t need to be set up with anyone mister,’ she says making a face at him and asks with curiosity, ‘He’s the guy who was dressed in a formal shirt and trousers, right? He seemed to be quite out of place. I saw him walk up to chat with a number of people. He stayed away from me though.’ She gets up to turn on the music.
‘Ha ha, poor chap, obviously he’s intimidated by you, as most guys are, Tania. You have that don’t-mess-with-me look or possibly guys feel you are difficult to impress,’ he says contemplatively.
‘Many back in school thought you and I were dating,’ she says with a gleam in her eyes.
‘My lover... That’s not such a bad thing, is it?’ he says with a wink and takes a sip of his coffee. He adores Tania who has been his best friend since the third standard in school.
‘Yeah sure, one more to your growing list of conquests... No thanks! Shouldn’t you leave? You have to change and pick her up, right? You don’t want to be late on your first date,’ she says. Vicky notices that it’s past six, finishes his coffee and gets up to leave. ‘Have fun and get to class in time for the second lecture at least. I’m going to give you a wake-up call.’
‘Yes mum! Any other requests?’ he asks as he turns around and walks back to give her a hug.
She hugs him and pushes him away, ‘Leave now, and go have fun tonight.’
‘You enjoy reading that fat book next to your bed,’ he says before patting her cheek and walking away.
She changes and goes back to sit by her window with a book, thinking for a moment about the day gone by. She wonders about the guy whom she bumped into on her way to class. He seems sweet, I wouldn’t mind him walking up to me and saying hi. Sameer comes across as suave and intelligent to her. There was something in the way he looked at her with his intense eyes, which made an impression. She remembers her cheeks getting flushed and she turned her gaze away from his before Vicky walked in to take the seat next to her. Maybe he was going to walk up and ask if he could sit next to me, she wonders. She hears her Mum call out to her to come down for dinner.
‘Who’s that girl?’ is a prelude to the bestselling debut—‘Love, Life & All That Jazz...’ by Ahmed Faiyaz. Available at MRP Rs 150 at bookstores nationwide.