Some would have said that my decision to stay in Hyderabad after the university closed—during the peak of summer—to work as a girls camp counselor was nothing but sheer folly. Each Indian city has its own brand of summer heat. The Hyderabadi heat scorches, especially in the afternoon when the sun sizzles mercilessly—venture out in those hours and you feel like the husk that is left behind after the oil is extracted. That summer even going outside before noon caused the pores on my body to work excessively, leaving me to ponder over the body’s mechanism for manufacturig so much of liquid. But there I was, looking forward to my duties as a counselor.
We had nearly a week of training, complete with mock sessions. Afterwards I asked another counselor for directions to the school, which ended in utter confusion—I was left with a notepad full of crude hand-drawn maps that made less sense every time I looked at them, and which suggested a different route every time. If there were anything like map divination, I would have been the maestro of that art by the evening, endeavoring to decode those lines and forks.
After a few calls I finally managed to get clear directions—punctuated with identifiable landmarks—to the school. Headed there, my imagination was overactive, trying to construct the school and the kind of students that I would find. As a counselor I would give spoken English classes. I said a prayer in my mind for my students to be girls who understood and spoke a little English, since I did not speak the local language, Telugu.
I got down from the rickshaw, walked past a police training academy, and heaved a little sigh of relief—a landmark! I walked further into a narrow lane. There was no trace of a school anywhere. I passed a small shop and asked the shopkeeper. He pointed upwards and I looked up to see a big hoarding that announced the school’s name. The entrance, however, still remained a mystery. I wandered around and found a narrow staircase, right next to which stood a house. I began to understand—the school was located above the house! (I would find out later that one of my students lived in this house right below the school. What misfortune, if she ever decided to bunk classes someday!) A set of locked grills barred my way. The shopkeeper finally took pity on me and called out towards a row of apartments across the way. An elderly woman came out and let me in. Then I waited.
Whichever god had caught hold of my prayer from the rickshaw did not cast it aside. My students were responsive and enthusiastic. They loved the camp—unlike their normal classrooms the camp had games and lessons, and sometimes lessons taught by means of games. They had many questions for me, as well. When I told them I was from Kerala and spoke Malayalam, their eyes widened. “So you travel alone from Kerala?” someone asked. They all wanted to hear about my twenty-four hour train ride into Hyderabad—all but one. This girl was somewhat aloof; once I even found her crying in class. When I tried to find out the problem she simply shook her head. She wasn’t interested in group activities; instead she sat apart and colored pictures.
Sometimes I started our day with a spoken English activity. One person would say a sentence, the next person would add something to it, and in this way the class would create a story. Afterwards I said that the class could act it out—make a little play out of it. This proclamation of mine created trouble that I did not anticipate in any way—everyone wanted a role. While our original story had consisted of one king with one wife and a son, the new version gave the king two wives and two sons, with the added masala of three ghosts, and a few animals thrown in for good measure. Of course I videotaped the entire affair. I could watch it today, hoping to catch a glimpse of the girl, but she is not there.
It was after the play that I noticed her sitting alone—the always-aloof girl. I found myself wanting to win her over, and to my surprise, I learned that her sister was also a camper. These two sisters were (forgive me for resorting to the cliché) as different as chalk and cheese. Where one was the most diligent, the most obedient student in the class, the other just seemed uninterested. When she stopped attending the camp altogether I wanted to know the reason. Questioning her sister, I came to know that she was being kept at home by her family, to celebrate the beginning of her womanhood. Her sister told me that most probably she would not return. She said that all the relatives had been invited, and that her sister was being fed a special dish, specially prepared for this occasion. I had heard stories about girls being made to sit on palm fronds while the relatives gathered around them and fed them sweets. I was astonished at magnitude of the celebrations.
Camp went on, drawing near to its close. As our final task, the counselors were instructed to train the girls for a day of performance; they could all invite their parents at the camp’s close. Dance practice was well underway when I turned to see the girl, dressed in a shiny green salwar (the likes of which can be found in Indian bazaars that extend into streets, adorning black or white plastic forms that have been molded to resemble a human female). She wore glass bangles on both arms, which clinked whenever she moved her hands. A golden necklace—too yellow—with a green stone in the middle formed the neck of her attire, which was completed with large dangling earrings. I thought of the girl who had come to the first classes clad in simple skirts. The girl standing before me now resembled a bride dressed for her wedding eve. I’ll never forget that change. It would be seen as something harmless by anyone else—she was just a girl dressed up for a party—but for some reason it affected me deeply. I have still never succeeded in placing my finger on why this transformation affected me so much. She had come to join the dance practice, and I didn’t say no.
Before the final performance I asked all of the girls for feedback on our classes. I didn’t ask them to write their names on the notes, but still I could tell—I had become familiar with their handwriting by then. The girl who went missing wrote in the form of numbered points:
1. She is very innocent.
2. I like you because you wear jeans every day.
I kept all of the notes that I got from the girls that day. To think that my worn pair of jeans had endeared me to such a child!