Mission Valley School, despite the name, wasn’t a relic of the Raj. The neo-Gothic brick buildings of our small campus did remind one of a different era, but the British missionaries—for whose children the school had been originally established—had decamped long ago, leaving behind only traces of their colonial education system. I suppose we did live in a kind of Anglo-India, though the emphasis was clearly on India, with the Anglo part influencing our lives mostly in subtle ways. We spoke English frequently, and our library was neatly stocked with books by English authors ranging from Dickens, Austen, Maugham and Greene to perennial favorites like P.G. Wodehouse and Enid Blyton. And yet, more than “bloody hell” and “bugger off,” our speech was flavored with colorful Indianisms.
Although not familiar with Indian history, Arun became an enthusiastic participant in class, and he made great progress with Hindi, our second language. His popularity soared, above all, when he excelled in cricket, which he had never played before. Arun introduced us to baseball, whose rules—like a lot about America, that distant but fascinating country—were mysterious to us. In fact, until Arun’s arrival, America had registered in our lives only in the form of movies and comic books, which we passed around and read avidly.
Arun became our interpreter of all things American. And it wasn’t just students who peppered him with questions. Once, in our world history class, we read that Mount Rushmore had sculptures of four U.S. presidents who represented the period encompassing the first 150 years of the nation. Arun then added that a place called Stone Mountain in Georgia featured the carvings of three Civil War leaders who had been heroes in the South but villains in the North. Our history teacher, I remember, was just as intrigued to hear about it. Years later, when I moved to Atlanta, one of the first things I did was to visit nearby Stone Mountain and gaze at the carvings of those Confederate leaders.
There was another side to Arun, I soon realized. But that part of his personality only emerged when he was with Mohan and me.
My favorite time of the day was before study hour. Every weekday, after classes and outdoor activities, we would either bathe or wash up and then have tea and snacks in the dining hall. What followed—before darkness fell and the lights in our school came on—was a delicious stretch of time we called free period. We lounged about, listened to music, read, chatted, and played games like caroms, ping-pong and chess. In those final months, I often hung out with Arun and Mohan. What we enjoyed most was to walk up to Top Point, the highest section of a terraced field where our staff grew vegetables, and sit near a locked shed containing gardening tools. We had a spectacular view of the town.
Students were discouraged from going up to Top Point because of its remoteness, but we went anyway, knowing that nobody else would be around, to enjoy the scenery and smoke a cigarette while chatting. Once Mohan brought a joint, mostly to impress Arun—who smiled and politely took a couple of puffs. Mohan didn’t repeat the offer.
The best moment at Top Point—the moment we all waited for before heading down—was when the evening train departed for the plains. Steam engines had been phased out on the broad gauge lines, but not here in the Hill District, where a century-old meter gauge line snaked up to our town. Three toots announced the so-called toy train’s departure every evening. As it gathered speed, with the sound echoing in the valley, we would watch the chugging engine belch smoke—which curled lazily before vanishing—and wait by the shed till the train also disappeared from sight. Then we would rush back.
One evening, while we were waiting for the train to leave, Mohan asked casually, “AB, did you have a girlfriend in America?”
“Yes,” he said. “I dated some girls, and had a girlfriend.”
To my embarrassment, I heard myself say, “So you knew her intimately?”
Arun smiled. “Yes, I knew her intimately, as you put it.”
I felt a stab of envy, though I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s true that Arun had been circumspect about his relationships with girls. He’d sometimes talked about his American friends, but never girlfriends. And while Mohan and I had privately wondered about his experiences with girls, we hadn’t broached the subject because we didn’t (or at least I didn’t) want to dwell on our inexperience. Being ignorant would be better, I felt, given how often I thought about girls.
The wound festered, making me uncomfortable. Until now I’d only admired Arun and thought it was cool—a word we’d recently picked up—that we could be close friends. But we belonged to different worlds, I suddenly realized. I had never even held hands with a girl.
“Do you have a girlfriend now?” Mohan asked.
Arun smiled and, without saying anything, stubbed out his cigarette. Three sharp toots punctured the silence; it was time for us to get back. We stood up to watch. A muffled clackety-clack drifted upwards from the twisting railway tracks, accompanied by plumes of smoke. Soon, the chugging train disappeared under a thick blanket of vegetation, and the reverberations stopped.