Ranjit parked his motorcycle and walked to the entrance of the university, carrying the bag with sweets his mother had sent for his sister. His jeans kept trying to sneak away from the entrapment of his belly. It would have been best to wear the belt, he thought.
Visiting his sister there brought back memories from his days in college. The fervid, frantic, melancholic, and purposeful faces made him smile wistfully. The faces outside the gates resembled those within, but in there, there was a most refreshing guilelessness about them.
He was jolted out of contemplation when his sister flicked his forehead with her fingers. Ranjit rubbed the area as she embraced him softly and motioned him to walk with her, talking on her phone all the while. Her curly hair bobbed with her gait. She was way shorter than Ranjit, but he had to take longer than usual strides to walk alongside and not behind her. Quite a few faces around them turned their way, something Ranjit had gotten used to. Her fellow students in the university, however, had not got used to seeing the two of them together. Such was Ananya’s beauty that even her rainbow-coloured sleeved shrug, and the scythe-shaped birthmark on her neck, couldn’t draw any attention away from her striking features.
“How have you been?” she asked in a distant, urgent voice.
“Good. Where are we going?”
“To the cafeteria. I know how you like the samosas there,” she said.
“I just came to hand you the sweets mom sent for you. Uncle Nilesh went to our home last week and she sent her love with him. Besides, I’m not even hungry.”
“I am, and wouldn’t it be rude to just hand them over and leave?”
“Fair enough. My only sister deserves more love than that!” said Ranjit, pulling at her cheeks. She smacked his hand instantly and turned away. However, she couldn’t suppress her smile on hearing Ranjit’s gay laughter.
The cafeteria’s sparse space was packed with small tables. Ananya found a vacant seat. While she ambled through the narrow spacing, Ranjit’s case was rather different. He sucked his tummy in, sidestepped and swivelled, even tiptoed for incomprehensible reasons, to make his way. Before a jubilant smile and sigh of relief were about to appear came a raucous clattering.
Quite a few eyes turned towards him, and this time, Ranjit was conscious of the collective gaze he had attracted. He rushed to pick up the knocked over plates and apologize but was glad to see that the plates were empty. Nothing was spilled, and even the boy sitting at the table smiled reassuringly at him. Ranjit finally sighed in relief and smiled, although the smile expressed embarrassment rather than jubilation.
“On second thought, you can just leave the box here and go,” said Ananya. Ranjit chuckled, but this time it couldn’t affect his sister. He sighed again and produced the box from his bag.
“Why does mom keep sending me these? I always ask her not to!” she said, picking it up and frowning.
“It’s her way of conveying you’re always in her thoughts,” said Ranjit.
“Why not just say so over the phone?”
“Words often don’t do emotions much justice, dear sister.” Ananya was about to say something but checked herself. She closed her eyes, and for the second time that evening, was unable to suppress her smile. When Ranjit got back with a sandwich for her a couple of minutes later, she was still smiling. She wrapped her shrug tighter around herself.
“You really ought to get rid of that rainbow thing, Ananya. You’re not nine anymore,” he said.
“If only she would listen! I went as far as buying her a new, expensive one, but she wouldn’t have it!” said the person who joined them at the table. He stared at Ananya coquettishly, who put her face in her hands.
“How have you been, Praval?” said Ranjit.
“Good,” said Praval without shifting his gaze.
“Go away, guppy face,” said Ananya without uncovering her face.
“Guppy face?” said Ranjit without any intention of causing disgrace. Ananya appeared from behind her hands.
“Don’t you see the striking resemblance? Just look at him when he’s nervous; he’s the spitting image of guppy fish at feeding time!”
As she said so, Praval showed Ranjit and the others whose interest was piqued just what she was talking about. The consternation in his face was quite apparent, but the way it was exhibited caused rambunctious laughter in the cafeteria.
Praval pushed his chair away and pointed at Ananya. “Don’t you dare make a fool out of me!” he said. There was nothing intimidating about his appearance, but the way he spoke stifled the ambient laughter instantly. The silence was overbearing.
“Come on, Praval, she didn’t mean any disrespect by that. Learn to take a joke. You should be a bit more like your brother!” said Ranjit.
“And end up sharing an apartment with a fatso like you? No way!” spat Praval.
“We’re not just flatmates, your brother Vipin and I. We’re good friends too. But what I am saying is don’t get so worked up over a simple joke. Vipin and I chaff each other almost every day!” said Ranjit, snickering.
“No surprises there. It’s easy to see why anyone would want to make fun of you!” said Praval, trying to affect a smug chuckle but instead laughing like a deranged maniac. A wave of uneasiness swam into the cafeteria, and all eyes watched silently, waiting to see how it would ebb.
“Apologize,” said Ananya, getting up. The crispness in her voice gave even Ranjit a start, despite being familiar with her cold attitude. She didn’t raise her voice like Praval, but hers was way more vicious and menacing. Even though he was a strapping lad, Praval backed off.
“I will if you do first,” he said. He was careful to disregard the jeering in his voice, but he was less mindful of not pointing at Ananya in contempt.
She acted so quickly to twist his finger and push him away that no one could follow. One moment they saw Praval pointing at her, the next they saw him down prostrate over a table and chair on the floor. A moment later, everyone saw him holding on to a pair of jeans as well.
The next moment, Ranjit realized it was his.
He yanked it from Praval’s fist and pulled it up just as Praval picked himself up. The flustered baby face and the mortified guppy fish stood rooted to their spots as laughter ensued once more. Their faces made it impossible to discern who was more ruffled.