One of my most memorable friends was a girl I will call Deepa. Deepa had a white complexion, chubby cheeks tapering towards a double chin, and black eyebrows that arched perfectly over translucent, large brown eyes. It took me years to realize that her innocent, wide-eyed look was attributable to her shortsightedness, which her vanity prevented her from wearing glasses for.
I met Deepa on the first day of ninth grade. I had timidly arrived at my new school to face wealthier girls with superior clothing and even more superior attitudes.
Deepa was the queen bee. One of my most vivid memories is of Deepa performing a dance during recess, while we girls formed a tight circle around her. She would throw her arms about, stick her chest out, and twirl in an almost obscene manner, as her skirt rose higher and higher, revealing her crisply starched pantaloons.
Deepa had an uncle who was a scientist in the United States. This was enough reason for me to fall in love with her, but she had other attractive attributes as well. She could speak English; she wore bright red socks held up to her knees with elastic straps; and wrapped nylon scarves around her head.
Her most prominent characteristic was that she did not live with her parents, but with an assortment of aunts and uncles in a sprawling, red-tile-roofed bungalow shaded by an acacia tree. She had a room of her own, decorated with knickknacks from all over the world. Deepa’s aunts, all single women, held classy jobs. Deepa fashionably went away in the summertime to visit her parents, who, from the way she talked about them, were stand-ins for real parents.
Deepa received an allowance every month, which we spent at the ice-fruit vendor’s stall every month, and which I tried to outdo by stealing money from my mother’s kitchen drawer.
On my birthday, which fell on the Republic Day, I coerced Deepa to visit me after the flag-raising ceremony at school to feast on shrikhand and puris my parents had prepared. Taken aback by her status as a dignitary, Deepa nevertheless played her part well, sitting on the edge of the sofa in our living room, and eating daintily with a spoon off a flowery dish normally reserved for adult visitors.
I admired the boldness with which Deepa snubbed the boys in school and talked to grown-ups as an equal. I, on the other hand, could excel at debate competitions, but would dread encounters with adults outside of school, so much so that I could not summon up courage to knock on a friend’s door to ask if she could play.
Deepa was my hero. I imitated her. I cocked my head while talking to the girls from the “B” class, I addressed the boys with the utmost of disdain, I even wore ridiculous red socks. Alas, that was where our physical resemblance ended. For, while Deepa was stocky, I was skinny beyond anemic. While she wore starched blue uniforms, I couldn’t get my mother to wash mine in time. While she wore stylish embroidered wool coats sewn by the best tailor in Nagpur, I went to school shivering rather than wear my mother’s hand-knitted sweater, which a middle school teacher had quipped, contained every stitch in the book.
I would have given anything to be Deepa.
A few months after ninth grade began, my mother woke up one morning, crashed to the floor, and took to bed, never to get up again. She was said to be suffering from a nervous breakdown. I learned to cook, to pay the bills, and to ignore my mother’s daily pleas to take her to the doctor, because, in addition to other paranoias, my mother suffered from hypochondria.
It was in ninth grade that my studies became the only joy in my life, besides my friendship with Deepa. I had discovered that despite her articulateness, Deepa lacked rigor in her studies, so I tried to help her by doing her math homework and by passing her bits of paper with answers during tests.
One day, in the recess, I told Deepa about my mother. Her reaction was inscrutable. Still, I loved her as I had never loved a friend before.
No wonder then that I did not notice her put-downs, like when she took my place in the ceremony in which our education minister presented her with a notebook from an American student, or when she took home the debating trophy that we had won together.
Towards the end of ninth grade, I began to notice in Deepa’s math notebook problems from chapters far beyond the ones we had covered in class. When asked about them, she would shrug her shoulders and say, “They’re easy. Just read the book.”
Then one day, another girl in class approached Deepa and asked her about “Ghate Sir.”
“Who’s Ghate Sir?” I asked.
“Our tutor,” the girl replied. It turned out that Deepa and this girl had been receiving private tutoring since the beginning of ninth grade.
I realized then that there were things about Deepa that I did not know. That, in fact, I would never be as close to her as I had wished to be.
It was my first experience of betrayal.
I continued to love Deepa, of course. But ours was not the kind of friendship I had originally wanted.
Still, I adored her, long after I had become a merit scholar, long after I had gone to America, long after I had experienced other betrayals, far more crushing.
I forgave Deepa, because I suspected that her betrayal had been passed on to me from other sources, like her parents, who remained an enigma. I began to sense that, in fact, she did not really know who her parents were. Alas, Deepa came to symbolize for me over the years the loss of innocence.
I am still seeking that perfect friend, that someone I can completely trust and reveal myself to. As Nehru said, the journey is worth the effort, even though the end may not be in sight.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.