We had always ‘stamped’ her as ‘a little weird’ . Skinny, stooped and extremely reserved, she looked more like a young boy than the 18year old girl that she was. We started college together, and while the rest of us busied ourselves mingling, making new friends, and taking in all the new sights and sounds, so to say, of ‘college life’, Satchi would sit in a corner with her rucksack, occasionally rummage in it for a book, or just simply stare into space. Her face always had a peculiar , expressionless look on it – like Mona Lisa minus the hint of a smile-(I told her that , much later) –as if she had nothing to say or contribute to anything. If that face could communicate, hers would probably be saying- “Leave me be to see the world go by...” . And we gladly obliged.
But don’t get me wrong here. This isn’t your regular ‘dowdy-girl-enters-college-and-is-shunned-by-the-pretty-snobs’ story (we weren’t that pretty anyway!). Any attempts at conversation form our side would visibly put her on ‘alert’, and the only information we could get out of her in the first 2 months of college was that she was from a quaint village in the interiors of Nagaland. Her English was broken , and so heavily accented that it was often impossible to understand. Besides, the girl looked like she just wanted to be left alone.
Satchi wasn’t friendless , though. She had an exclusive set of friends outside class- a group of North-Eastern Indians like herself, who would huddle in the same corner of canteen everyday at lunchtime.
But the everyday hum-drum of class and after class college activities invariably forces intermingling down one’s willing/unwilling throat, and slowly, it seemed as if Satchi was opening up and becoming less wary of people around her. By mid-sem, she had started speaking in class, could sometimes be heard laughing loudly, and wouldn’t hesitate to ask me for a pen if she ran out of ink. She had moved her seat to next to where I sat , and we used to talk a lot; about our families back home, boyfriends, pets, and more. By second sem , she was quite comfortable with everyone in class , and the class, with her. She was often the butt of jokes centred mostly around her accent, or her gait, which she laughed at, as much as the rest of us did. People often joked about how dogs that ran into Satchi’s kitchen were never seen again! Political correctness had never really struck us much then, nor did it strike her. If she got really peeved , she’d tweak my bottom or kick some one else, playfully. And so, ‘that funny girl from … what’s that place again?’ soon joined the ‘club’ , serving as full time entertainment with her ‘funny’ language and ‘strange’ ways.
Satchi and I, notwithstanding our personalities, which were poles apart, strangely hit it off better than I had imagined. She was quiet,shy and always a little inhibited, and I was, as my mum often put it, ‘more exuberant, loud, and noisy than I should be growing up to be’. Through the next one year, we hung out at camps, shopped, went to parties , concerts, and holidays together. You wouldn’t call us best friends because at the end of the day, we each had our own well-established circle, and friends to go back to and hang out with. But when I think back now, I know she was special to me , and I to her.
After fourth sem, when college closed for summer most of us headed back home. I decided to stay back to work at an advertising agency in Bombay. Satchi left for home with a long list of Naga delicacies to bring back for the rest of us – ‘titora’(pieces of pickled herbs) , sunflower seeds (a very useful diversion during boring classes) fermented beef pickle, and yes, even dog pickle!
Through summer, I was busy with my internship, which I found extremely challenging ,a lot of fun and an opportunity to meet a lot of interesting new people . Time just flew as it always seems to , when you’re having fun, and soon, it was time to start our last year of college. And to tell the truth, I was really looking forward to college again.
Final Year meant new subjects and dropping some old ones ; it also meant a whole lot more work . Classes picked up from exactly where we had left off without much of a breather. No one noticed Satchi’s absence; it wasn’t really a big deal since outstation students came a couple of days late all the time. College and assignments took up most of my time, along with my sports and music commitments.
A week later , there was a report in the newspapers, about a train from Assam to Bombay which had been stopped in Bihar a few days back , it’s passengers dragged out , beaten , some raped. One passenger had reportedly died. The whole issue originated because of reservations in Assam Railway Employment for Bihari candidates, because of which unemployed Assamese youth cried foul about being denied enough employment in their own homeland. The issue had apparently attained mammoth proportions and eventually precipitated into the train-looting incident. As I folded the morning paper shut, I shook my head in disapproval and muttered something about how regressive our society was even after 56 years of independence. That much said, I proceeded on with my day’s activities as usual.
Later in the day, the class was abuzz with news about Satchi , and how she had been caught in ‘some terrible incident’ and was in hospital. Satchi had been in the train I read about. A group of us went to see her and learnt about the nightmare she’s just lived through.
Life had changed. And not just for her.
Adversity often does that to you, I guess, when it comes up, close and personal- it changes your life. There was sadness, a few tears, and genuine sympathy but the visit was very short. Probably because it was overshadowed by a underlying feeling of distinct discomfort. Discomfort all of us were feeling at having been shoved into circumstances we weren’t ready for, far removed from our perfectly happy , carefree existence. I didn’t know what to think. Or whether to think or not. I didn’t want to start because there was so many questions exploding in my head with no answers anywhere in sight, that without exaggeration, I can say that I seriously thought I would go insane that day. I returned and just stopped thinking about my friend.
She started attending college a month later. And everyone gathered around her with flowers, well wishes, cards, asking her superficial questions about how she was and updating her on the latest teacher-temper-tantrums. Later that day, we had a small ‘Welcome Back Satchi’ party with all students and staff. The question – ‘How are you doing, really?’ was carefully steered very much clear of. And can you blame us? That was, I suppose, our way of dealing with the tragedy. We were only 18 and unprepared to handle anything of this magnitude.
As she tried to put her life back together and move on , I think all we did was make the task a little more difficult for her, unwittingly. There were no more jokes cracked at her expense. Plastic, mechanical smiles that masked the discomfort we were feeling in her company, always greeted her whenever she turned to face anyone of us, and we became too polite too suddenly. Too much had changed too soon. It wasn’t long before the inevitable started - she started retreating into her shell . She started coming to college infrequently and frequently fell ill.
I never really talked to her beyond the occasional ‘hey, how ya doin’ . Maybe there wasn’t an opportunity, or maybe none of us wanted to make one. I often wondered how she was doing, really. We stopped hanging out, and things went back to the way things were, before. It was almost as if I’d woken up from a dream, back into real life. The year went by fast.
One day, at the end of the year, I was cleaning out my locker. Satchi walked in 5 minutes later and was rummaging in hers. After she had finished , she came up to me and said- “Nayan, I had got you the pickle you wanted from home, but I lost it in that confusion….” She paused. “my mum just sent me some by parcel- would you like some?” I couldn’t find words. I simply nodded.
It’s been a while and we’ve both gone our ways from then; we did exchange addresses but neither has kept in touch.
I often wonder if Satchi ever asks herself if life is fair. How many times she must have been plagued by the ‘Why Me’ question? And how does she sleep at night? And who does she go to for the answers?
Sometimes I wish I had some of the answers myself.
I got a letter from Satchi last week, a reply to my birthday card and letter I had sent on her birthday, September 29th last year (!) Lazy procrastinating bum...! Maybe, I told myself, there’s still a lot that hasn’t changed. Satchi’s trying for the Civil Service exam next year, and has promised to visit me this Christmas