By Savitri Narayanan
“How good to see you Nootan!” called out Ankita, “Haven’t seen you for so long! Thought you must’ve gone away somewhere! But here you are – a happy monkey on the tree!”
“Wait for me, Ankita didi! I’ll go with you too!” said Nootan as she slid down from the mango tree. She loved that cozy spot; to revise a lesson, to read a story book, to eat a fruit or to do nothing – the upper branch of the mango tree was her favourite nook.
Ankita glanced at her fondly and waited as Nootan slid down the branch to join her.
“Watch out! A monkey’s coming! Be on the run!” she teased as Nootan opened the front gate and came out. Hand in hand they walked to the shop, chatting all the way.
Being neighbours they used to meet often – in Anshu uncle’s shop, in the village temple, in the park or in the bus-stop. But that was before the lockdown. Once the online classes started, life got restricted. They rarely were outdoors together or played in the park in the evenings.
“So, what are you up-to these days?” asked Ankita, “anything exciting?”
“The most exciting thing I was waiting for didn’t happen,” was Nootan’s thought but what she said was, “You won’t understand!”
It had been a year since Nootan had passed Class V, got the TC from the village Primary School and joined the secondary school on Market Road. Ankita was a year senior, already a student of Class VII there.
It had been Nootan’s dream to follow Ankita there, sporting the brand-new cream and blue uniform and carrying the new school bag. But none of these happened. The school year was coming to an end but Nootan had never once stepped inside their classroom!
“Why are you going to the shop? What are you buying?” Nootan was eager to make conversation as they walked along, hand-in-hand.
“I need an eraser,” said Ankita. “Surely had one in the geometry box but can’t find it now! It’s vanished!”
The neighbourhood grocery store had evolved into a meeting point for the neighbourhood children and grown-ups alike. A pencil, a lump of jaggery, a packet of milk, a torch cell, a bath towel – Anshu uncle seemed to stock everything! Usually those who were there on errands hung around to chat.
“School must be so much fun, right?” asked Nootan.
“Yes, of course! It’s so much fun!” There was a glow in Ankita’s eyes, “Why don’t you come to school too?”
Instead of answering, Nootan burst into tears. Taken aback, Ankita looked around to see if anybody was watching.
“Tears are no solution,” said Ankita with the command of a senior student in her voice, “What’s the matter! Why are you crying?”
Soon they found a quiet spot on a park bench and Nootan told Ankita about her home-situation. Her parents were reluctant to send her to school so opted for online classes.
“Whether online or offline, your teachers teach the same books!” said her father. “There’s no need to go to school!”
Seeing how disappointed Nootan was, he continued, “Why expose yourself to the virus! You’re used to online classes by now; just focus on your studies!”
Mother felt sorry for Nootan but didn’t dare argue with father.
Ankita listened quietly. She thought for a while and then asked, “Nootan, what do YOU want to do? What’s YOUR wish?”
“I want to go to school – board the school bus, like you!”
“Are you sure? Do you really want to come to school?”
“Yes, of course!”
This led to a long conversation where they discussed various aspects at length.
“You might get Covid!”
“I am healthy and strong; will take all precautions!”
“The virus might still catch you!”
“The doctors will know what to do!”
“Your parents love you; they want to protect you!”
“But I want to go to school and study!”
Ankita got up and hugged her friend. “Nootan, you sound so sure!” she said. “Nobody can stop a determined mind!”
Next morning, Nootan too boarded the school-bus, sporting the new uniform and carrying her new school bag. For a moment Nootan felt as if she was floating among the clouds!