Friday, October 10, 2014

Outside There's a Boxcar Waiting

I fell in love twice the summer I turned 13. With two teenage brothers whose names rhymed. I fell in love simultaneously with their identical eyes and their matching boy-band haircuts. We were visiting our fathers who were posted in the Kashmir valley and we shared a tin-roofed barrack divided by a wafer-thin wall. I could hear them laughing at night after we returned from the mess dinners and they would wait outside my door every morning so that we could walk down for breakfast together.

It felt like we were the only three carefree teenagers in the whole valley that summer. We took day trips in olive-green jeeps with armed escorts just to visit some village with the best palangtod milk cakes. It was a surreal time - machine guns, land-mine detectors and ID checkpoints and three denim-clad kids from Delhi being ushered in and out of militarised zones. We would play antakshari with the soldiers in our car. Someone would end up having to sing a song beginning with 'ha' and they would invariably start with, 'ho gaya hai tujhko toh pyaar sajna...' before someone (me) would cut it short and say, 'no, no, no, no, it starts with 'na jaane mere dil ko kya ho gaya.'' We would end up fighting, calling names, threatening to throw each other out to the 'militants' and that would be the end of the game for the rest of the journey.

They were not much older than I was - one was 14, the other 15 - but they were more foreign to me than anybody I'd ever met. While I read Agatha Christie novels checked out from the library under my father's name, they would buy pirated discs of English movies I'd heard about but never been allowed to watch. They listened to music I had no context for and they wore 'imported' sweatshirts with hoods drawn over their heads as they skulked about the lawns, discussing NBA scores.

I was fascinated by them, observing their mannerisms closely as we played two versus one badminton, staring out of a gap in my curtains at them as they gave painstaking instructions to the barber who would come over to the barracks' verandah to give them their fortnightly haircuts.

My mother forced me to get a haircut from that same fauji barber one afternoon despite my protests. The barber gave me a 'mushroom' cut, which would have been bad enough, but he used a razor to trim all the hair from the bottom of my 'mushroom' to my neck. Like Skrillex, almost, but that wasn't a thing in 1998. By the end of that awful ordeal, I was in tears. I ran away from the verandah and sulked for a minute in the drawing room in the mess before the brothers tumbled in, helplessly holding on to each other as they laughed at me. The 15-year-old spent the rest of the day running his fingers across the back of my head, giggling at the prickly hairs that remained. Every time his hand touched my neck, I got goosebumps down my arms. I was painfully aware of him touching me, so careless and so deliberate - no boy had ever been that bold. It wasn't a comfortable feeling, but it wasn't bad either.

The next day, while the older one watched The Lost World in the mess, the younger one took me to his room to show me a collection of stamps he apparently traveled with. As I flipped through the cardboard pages of the stamp book, he reached for my hand and held it as he talked about the Queen's head on a purple British stamp. I blushed furiously, my hand suddenly clammy and I made an awkward exit from his room. From that day on, he became quiet. He wouldn't joke around with me like his brother would. Instead, he would stare at me across the dining table while we ate stale toast and fried eggs. I would try and engage him in conversation and he would give cryptic answers, look me in the eyes for an uncomfortably long period of time before yanking his hood up and walking off.

A few days after the stamps incident, I found myself in the boys' room again, alone with the older brother this time. He had asked me to come in with him to fetch his basketball. Once there, he talked about how he planned to make the school basketball team and how he has been training for it for a year. He showed me some muscles going down the side of his leg, near his knee and proudly detailed how he had developed them. He asked me to see for myself and again, I was amazed at his confidence, at his casual request. I remember feeling shocked when I tentatively put two fingers on his knee and traced them down his leg. This wasn't casual for me. I felt faint, and he kept asking, "Hai na? I told you!" He jogged out dribbling his stupid basketball and I stayed back just to catch my breath.

After that, I was terrified of being left alone with either of them because I had no idea what they might say or do and what I might say or do. I still spent all my time with them, watching TV or playing in the lawns or going out to other battalions for parties but I avoided being anywhere with just one of them.

Meanwhile, one afternoon, after a particularly loud game of tag in the lawns, I returned to the verandah to my mother as she sat having her tea. She had been watching us play and as I flopped into the chair next to hers, she quietly observed into her teacup, "Yeh ladke bade hero nikle, yaar."

One evening the three of us were in the TV room fighting about what to watch as usual. The younger one left the room briefly to find some snacks and Pepsi. The energy in the room suddenly shifted and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the older one flip channels mindlessly as he turned to look directly at me. "Scout, I have a question for you." I looked at him enquiringly. He carefully returned his gaze to the TV and asked ever so slowly, "Do you like me or my brother? I don't understand. And I don't want to... you know?"

My heartbeat slowed down and then quickened, my pulse throbbed in my ears and the room zoomed in and out of my vision as I tried to respond coherently. "Haha, what do you mean! Haha. I mean, haha..."

He kept staring at the TV as I stumbled through the fog until finally he relaxed into the couch and said, "Doesn't matter. Do you want to watch Zee Horror Show?"

That night, I heard them singing Dire Straits songs through the wall that separated our rooms. I lay in bed, excited and nauseous and horrified. I couldn't wait to see them the next morning and I couldn't wait to never see them again after the summer ended.

And it did end a few weeks later. Uneventfully, obviously. We all parted as friends and we made vague promises to stay in touch. Maybe our mothers might meet up in Delhi, bringing us together again. Maybe not. Maybe they might transfer to my school. Maybe not. It didn't matter. Summer was over.

A few months after we returned to Delhi, they called on the landline. Over the phone, they sounded exactly like each other and I couldn't tell which one I was speaking to as they took turns to talk. My mother watched me keenly from the kitchen while I giggled into the phone in the dining room. We spoke for a few minutes and then we said goodbye. I sat down for lunch, pink in the face. My mother placed a steaming chapatti on my plate and asked, "Kaise hain dono sher?"

Ab batayein bhi to kya batayein, Mom.