One of my earliest childhood friends was a pretty Chinese girl called Siu Liu Soon. In nursery class, we were largely inept with foreign names. So after a while, despite her severe protests, she became Shiuli Soon to us. It made perfect sense; shiuli is the Bengali term for a small flower with ivory petals and delicate orange heart and stalk, with a mild yet pervading fragrance. Siu Liu looked like a shiuli flower – petite and fragile.
For some strange reason, we gravitated towards each other and were soon as thick as thieves planning on a big bank burglary. It could have been because we hung around together quite a bit. We were in the same class, we took the same bus to school and spoke largely in Hindi and English. The latter was a language we showed keenness to pick up early on.
Her father was a dentist. It is somewhat bewildering that in my childhood, most Chinese fathers were dentists, shoemakers or restaurant owners. And most mothers ran beauty parlours! Her house was on the way to mine. Every day she got off the bus first, waved at me cheerfully near the entrance of her house and then disappeared through the door of her father’s chamber. From there, was an entrance to their private living quarters. It intrigued me to no end, wondering what went on behind the opaque glass door of their house, with its bright red and yellow signage that read Soon & Sons.
I even faked a toothache once, hoping my parents would take me to Dr. Soon. At least, I would meet my friend’s father and see his chamber for myself. Perhaps, after the check up, I would venture to tell him that his daughter and I were in the same class in school. And perhaps he would casually ask me to hop inside and say ‘hello’ to Shiuli. Ah, finally I would see their mysterious house, or so I thought.
My mother examined my oral cavity critically, asking me to open it so wide that the sides hurt after a few seconds. But she would not allow me to snap shut till she’d looked and scanned in all possible directions.
“Nothing. Just a new tooth popping out, I think,” she remarked while dismissing the ordeal.
She gave me a clove from her spice box and asked me to keep it pressed between my gums. There was not even the remotest mention of a dentist’s visit.
Shhh…it’s a secret
One day, during recess, Shiuli signalled to me rather conspiratorially. She was carrying a notebook and her pencil case along with her lunchbox and bottle.
“What is it?” I asked, already excited at her secretive expression.
“Shhh! You come with me,” she said. “I have something new and fabulous. Bet you haven’t ever seen it before!”
By now, my curiosity was sufficiently piqued, and I ran alongside her to the farthest end of our school compound. The school buses were parked there, laying in wait for the day to get over and ferry us back to our homes.
We squeezed in behind an Ashok Leyland painted in the yellow and green school colours and squatted, out of everyone’s sight. The place smelt of old rubber tyres, grease and diesel. We didn’t care in the least. A one-legged crow hopped around and viewed us with interest. Far out, we could hear girls shrieking and whooping in joy and dismay by turns as the basketball court became animated, thanks to an ongoing match.
My eyes were fixed on Shiuli as she opened her large pencil case with trembling fingers and out spilled so many slender colourful pens. She picked a blue one and held it up triumphantly for me. It was a magnificent Police Strobe colour with a dazzling white cap. I looked at it without blinking as she whipped off the cap and started scrawling in her notebook. It seemed to flow effortlessly on the paper, that was soon covered with a mass of lines and doodles.
I think my voice shook a bit as I asked her,” What are these? Let me use one!”
“Of course!” she handed me the blue and asked me to select another colour. I chose hot pink.
“They’re coloured pens. Sketch pens. Not crayons or pencils. They won’t break. You don’t need to sharpen them. Aren’t they pretty?” she explained gushingly, proud and excited at the same time. “My uncle in England sent them across.”
Then, she ripped off a page from her beautiful notebook, much to my horror and handed it to me. It was something I had been explicitly warned against at home. It seemed notebooks became “weak” if their pages were dislodged – much like I would be if I were dismembered.
Then, we both started drawing, blissfully unaware of time and place till the bell rang and we went reluctantly back to our classroom.
It became a secret pact with us. Every day, we would disappear during lunch recess and draw to our hearts’ content. She was a budding artist and her houses, cows, buses and cities looked considerably saner than mine. I was just elated using her sketch pens and creating zillions of abstract doodles in all colours.
Spilling the beans and afterwards
But secrets have a nasty habit of revealing themselves. One day, a driver came to check on his bus at lunchtime and caught us there. Maybe he’d been observing us for a while. Or perhaps someone had tipped him off. He reported us to our class teacher, who in turn, asked us sternly why we kept disappearing at lunch every day.
Our teacher asked to see our childish drawings, frowning all the while. It was not a pleasant look. She decided to have a word with our Art teacher, who in her capacity, gave us a long and boring sermon on why we should stick to oil pastels at our age and not sketch pens. It would, she said, inhibit our artistic capabilities and we didn’t wish that to happen, did we?
So, Shiuli was asked emphatically not to bring any sketch pens to school, or they would be confiscated. The next day, her pencil case looked thinner and sagged around the corners. I knew why. There would be no more hideouts and frenzied drawing sessions during lunch break. But the joy we’d felt over those few days was boundless and will last a lifetime for the both of us.