The seating pattern in the class was alphabetical. So she sat next to me in class V in Bulandshahr, UP, in the year 1958. I remember her even today as a very pretty girl, fair and petite with very attractive features but a strange kind of sadness always enveloped her. I don’t recall having ever seen her smiling. She was very quiet too. Even when spoken to, her replies were in monosyllables only. As a nine year old, I could care two hoots for a girl who was not interested in talking or playing with me; I had many more friends to keep me occupied.
In the school, we also had a system of midday meals when the entire class would sit in the same order and nice, hot healthy meals were served to us which we had to finish. If Miss Varma, the principal of the school, noticed any unfinished plate in her rounds, the student had to undergo rigorous punishment. This created tremendous pressure on all of us to finish the meal before we could run off to play for the remaining time during the lunch break.
One day, as I quickly finished the daliya (porridge) and was about to buzz off, she who used to sit next to me here also, pushed her untouched plate towards me and asked me, “Please, can you eat this too?”
I frowned, “Why? Why don’t you eat it? If Ma’am sees us, both will be punished.”
“No. I can’t eat,” she looked desperate.
“But why? Why not?” I was getting impatient getting delayed for the playground.
And suddenly what she said froze me, “How can I eat anything when my children are hungry for two days?”
“Your children? Are you mad?” was my stunned response.
“Yes, my children. I have four of them. They live in Ayodhya,” she said with sadness welling up in her eyes.
“I used to live there near Saryu River where my husband used to row a boat for his livelihood. I died in child birth when my fourth child was born.” Tears were flowing down her cheeks now.
I noticed Miss Varma moving towards us from a distance and quickly exchanged my plate with hers.
“Ranjana, why are you so late in finishing your meals today?” admonished Miss Varma.
“Sorry Ma’am. I had gone to the toilet first,” I replied as I carried on eating.
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And I wondered why her parents could not bring over her children to stay with her. Today I understand how difficult it must have been for them.
Next year, my father got transferred from Bulandshahr and I left the place never to meet this classmate of mine. But even today at times I wonder whether she still remembers her previous birth or time has erased her memories of past-life. Do re-births really take place? Are we all carrying some baggage of our previous lives with us? Why is it that I meet a person for the first time and feel as if I have known her for ages? Or I meet a person for the first time and simply dislike him even without talking to him. What is it in him that puts me off? Do we have “old” connections with the “new”?