Nimma and I knew each other even before we started school. We were neighbours, the same age and joined the same school, the same day. She spoke only Kannada and I knew only Tamil. We used some gestures in the beginning and slowly we conversed in some kind of Bambaiyya Hindi like – ‘aayenga’ ‘jayenga’, using only the masculine gender. We learnt English, Marathi, good Hindi, in due course, but we still converse in our old Hindi like some kind of code language.
We were inseparable, and fortunate to be in the same class. Different sections, at times, and the same, many times. There were many ‘katti’ batti’ phases – lasting from 30 minutes to 24 hours. We made more friends. We walked home together – gossiping about friends, teachers, neighbours, chasing ice wagons or bullock carts at the back of which we placed our bags. But in the last stretch, only Nimma and I were left. First, we stopped at my gate and talked. Then we walked to her gate and talked some more. After we reached our homes, we called out from the window to check on homework. ‘Tumhare paas Athavale hai kya? (Maths text). Dondo hai kya? (French book), Wren and Martin? These books being heavy, we often took turns to carry them to school.
On lazy afternoons, we walked under some shady trees, picking raw mangoes, jamun, some strange seed we ate as ‘badaam’, and a stranger black and red beadlike pip, which we swore were the devil’s eyes. We saw ghosts under the huge tamarind tree and if we saw someone with heels in the front and toes at the back, we were to run. Those were days when there was no border between fantasy and fact!
When we grew a little older, we carried our infant brothers on our hips and stood at the end of the lane, amusing them with passing vehicles. We discussed the pros and cons of having brother or sister, the fears their tearing our books when we were at school and many important things.
One day, Nimma nearly died. It was a rainy day, in our fourth year of school. On our way home, we were both washing our dirty shoes, with our feet inside them, in a wayside ditch which had turned into a pond. The rain was pouring. Suddenly Nimma screamed. She had slipped into the water. I was sure she was dead. I screamed too. In no time, some passersby pulled her out of the water and brought us home safely.
That night I slept badly. Next day I was a changed person. Not that I understood the value of friendship then, but I certainly could not think of life without Nimma. Over the years, we learnt to appreciate each other and love unconditionally. Though our lives ran different tracks, we lived far away from each other, no telephone, mobiles, only the occasional letter or news through family or common friends. Nimma married, had children, family joys and woes and health issues to boot. I remained a spinster, busy with jobs, travel, spiritual pursuits. But we never lost touch. A minor tragedy taught me a lot. Sixtysix years later, 2000 miles apart, and in the last stretch, we are still best friends.