We were seven when we met in Sanjaynagar Sahakari Vidyalaya, a municipal school in Pune.. Savitri and I had seen each other before, but I never had the courage to approach her. Kids from our chawl never played with me owing to their parents’ inhibitions. We lived across from each other in Sanjaynagar Chawl. Her mother did laundry and took up cleaning work at a couple of societies nearby while mine made chapatis for the kids whose parents were busy. Her father was a Rickshaw driver, who also ran a simultaneous, ironing business. My father, on the other hand, alternated between drinking and running a ‘recycling centre’ or put simply, he was a bhangarwala. He collected trash and sold it but didn’t make as much money as my mother did. Most of the trash in his shop consisted of bottles emptied by my father, and it was fair to say he went to ‘work’ when our one-room home had no space for new bottles.
In a place where no one was doing particularly well and where everyone was quite far from making ends meet, we were even farther. My household was notorious for its drunkard who downed enough liquor for the colony, while Savitri’s was as ideal as it could be, with hard working parents; they had saved up to buy a second hand TV and a fridge, her father was immune to the disease infested by “desi daru” in a place like Sanjaynagar.
I would be lying if I said I had friends. Parents wouldn’t be appreciative if their kids were friends with me, and well, people in the chawl knew everything that was going on is their neighbour’s lives., It seemed fair to me. After all, they all heard my father yell at the television well into the wee hours of early morning, , as if news channel panelists could hear his yelling.
Bad influence was around them already, and the last thing they would want for their kids was to be friends with the daughter of the drunkest of the drunkards.
But Savitri never had qualms about things like these – she shared her chapatis with me in school even when she had only one at times, she became my only friend and didn’t shy away from admitting it in front of other students, she even came to our place so the we could do homework together.
We played together, ate together and studied together. I shared my fantasies with her – going to a movie theatre, taking a trip to the mall, eating out at Relax which served the best Pav Bhaji in the city. But the one thing that we wanted really badly was to have a birthday cake. We were not sure why, of all the luxuries we could possibly want, we wanted cake. Maybe because everyone shared everything in Sanjaynagar, and cake seemed to be a reasonable choice, being something that is also traditionally shared. There were no birthday parties in the locality, none of us had had cake. I think a lot of us would be happy if our parents remembered our birthdays.
“We will have cake together; I won’t have it without you, and you don’t get to have it without me. Promise?” She held her hand out for me to take it and seal the deal. I did. It was more about experiencing it together than the taste itself.
She was the first and the only friend I made. Turning down invitations to play Dabba Aispas if I was not invited; she would refuse to leave till I was done with homework. And she would leave when the kids talked about me.
Even when she really cared about me like a true guardian, I felt jealous. Of what? She had everything I didn’t – friends other than me, a normal family, good relations with neighbours, a father who wasn’t a drunk.
Savitri had been spending a fair chunk of time with her mother, trying to teach her English. I was left alone with my father. My own mother was sceptical about that.
She had started taking me to her work in one of the societies. Often, she would get busy with the chores, and I usually ended up talking to the house owner’s daughter. She mostly asked me to bring her water, and bring it again with ice, and then with more ice. Noticing what I was being subjected to, her mother, asked her to invite me to her birthday.
My first birthday invitation.
I walked home that evening and dropped by Savitri’s place on the way. Seeing her busy reading to her mother, I felt something rise within me. I would never share a moment like that with my parents, my mother was always too busy and father, was, father. Dejected, I changed into a dress that my mother’s employer had given me for Diwali. It was the best I had; a white knee length dress with blue frills around the neck, and pink flowers all over.
On my way to the party, I saw Savitri playing langdi, hopscotch, with the kids from the chawl.
“Where are you going?” She asked as I approached them.
I stood there, staring ahead. I thought about our promise of eating cake together, probably watching the look on each other’s faces when handed the triangular pieces. Could I do that without Savi?
But. She was playing with other kids, something I could never do. The hundreds of times her mother came to meet our teachers and the way her father took an active interest in her life.
And the tiffin, she always had a full, content tiffin for school.
She could do without cake today.
Ananya Damodare is a third year student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison studying biology. Ananya has spent most of her life in Pune, Maharashtra. She hopes to pursue a PhD in molecular and cellular biology. Ananya enjoys reading, and believes that fiction is a way to humanize facts pervasive in other forms of writing. She has done a summer course in fiction writing at Brown University. Ananya enjoys volunteer at educational organisations, reading and is involved in neuroscience research at her college.