Khopdi we called him. It meant skull. In his case it meant numbskull. His real name was Pankaj. Nobody knows who gifted him this horrible name, but it was right after Nukkad was aired for the first time on Doordarshan where they had a drunk character named Khopdi. Pankaj was not a drunkard though. He was just a kid, a year older than me. I was in eighth and he was in ninth. A rich kid with porcupine like hair. Although he had no dum he loved picking fights. I considered him a friend, not a good friend, just somebody I hung out with or walked back home from school with. He had a girlfriend too, Meena. Atleast he thought of her as his girlfriend. She had other plans though.
Meena was a well-endowed, fair, long haired, horny, dumb-as-a-rock Gujarati girl who had failed a few times and was six years older than everybody in Khopdi's class. She was the quintessential spoilt, last bencher, stay-away-from girl. The girl who has had "experience" with guys. Khopdi and Meena hung out like boyfriend-girlfiend, holding hands, taking pappi and what not.
Enter Suleman. Suleman bhai he was called. He and his nine brothers owned an illegal tabela (place where mum-bhaiyyas maintain their prized possessions a.k.a black beauties a.ka. bhains a.k.a buffalos). Suleman bhai was supposed to be a goonda, mavali, angootha-chaap, tapori, hafta-collector and generally a great guy to hang out with. He could be found spread out on a khatiya in front of his tabela. His tabela was halfway between our residence and our school. It was actually an oasis in our daily treks between school and home. Our walks were very exciting wherein we passed the "good" middle-class localities where people had their own toilets and then we passed the "bad" localities where people - men, women, children and dogs alike - took a crap out on the open roads. You must have heard of the saying "The world is your stage and you are the actor" but where we walked "The world is your sandaas and you are the hagria" made more sense. I am not kidding. This is before the sulabh-sauchalay days where now you can pay one rupee to take a dump. We literally went through shit during our school days. His tabela was a haven where we could rest a little bit, drink some water and prepare for the struggle through the humongous piles of shit and smell that lay in vast expanse before our eyes. But thats besides the point.
Suleman and Khopdi were chaddi-buddies (term plagiarized). At one point Khopdi used Suleman to beat up some boys who were harassing Meena. Suleman in return asked Khopdi to "intro" him to one of the school girls because "uska dil aa gayaa ladki pe". The girl was 15 and Suleman probably 30. It didn't work out.
The real masala began when Meena failed her ninth grade (again!). Khopdi, dumb as he was, did manage to pass and moved to the next grade. I moved in the same class as Meena who still kept her seat on the last bench. Unfortunately I too was placed amongst the last benches. The first few days were normal with me staring out the window to my left, steady like an iguana, while teacher after teacher taught sleep-inducing subjects on warm humid sweaty afternoons. One day by mistake I turned right and caught Meena staring at me. At that time and age I hadn't discovered girls as objects of interest (I was a late bloomer) so I just ignored the stare. For the next few days the stares just increased, in terms of duration and shamelessness. First she used to look away as soon as I caught her. Now she continued staring and also began to smile a little. I found this very amusing and not the one to be backed down stared right back at her. It turned into a game and at one point it became so intense that we sat out entire hour long classes just staring at each other. Of course the stares were interspersed with smiles, winks, eyebrows movements, lip biting and what not. Never a word spoken or a move made as I still didn't get the purpose of all this, just that it was devilishly exciting.
A move was made after all. One evening my dad handed me a jhag-mag purple envelop containing a pink card. He had already opened and read it because in Indian families your mail is my mail is public mail. It had a few kisses and hearts drawn over it and said in a caligraphic script "Pulkit, I am hopelessly devoted to you". I snatched the card from my dad's hands and rushed to the toilet, the only place where you could get some privacy. While taking a crap I wondered who could it be. Why would my secret admirer not write her name on it. And then I saw it. Snugly ensconsed between two kisses was written "MEENA". Holy shit. This was the first (and only) love letter I got. What do I do now. How do I respond. It was all so confusing. This was my friend's girlfriend. But I didn't really like the friend and I didn't really like the girl ! So I decided to get the maximum mileage out of it.
Next morning in the first class when the teacher was done with roll calls and Meena and me were in the midst of our first session of stares I sudddenly stood up and announced "Pooja Miss I have a very serious problem. I am getting love letters from a girl in this class. I can announce the name and expose the culprit." Again, since there is no concept of privacy in India the teacher asked me to announce the name. I pointed my finger right at Meena. She still kept staring at me and now the entire class of sixty students was staring at her. She had no idea what hit her. After a few minutes she burst into tears. She was taken to the principal's office and reprimanded. I was instantly a hero for exposing a lover. (of course in hindsight it actually exposes my immaturity but back in those days, a middle-class no-love-business mentality was hard to shake off).
In my pursuit of heroism I had completely forgotten about her boyfriend Khopdi and of course Suleman Bhai. For a few days I avoided them by taking a different, longer, route to get home. Finally one day they caught me. It had to happen. Meena was present, still staring at me but with anger this time, the winks were gone. Khopdi was furious but he didn't scare me; I could take him anytime. Suleman Bhai was what made me poop in my chaddi. I was sure that Meena had cooked up a story that made me look like the villian outraging a woman's modesty. As my defense I wanted to educate them on the illicit activities between me and her but quickly realized that my kharaab time was going on and kept shut. After a few well deserved jhaapads from Khopdi and Meena, Suleman Bhai asked everybody to stop. He was a cool Bhai after all. I was made to apologize profusely to Meena ben and the matter ended there.
After I graduated SSC and went to college, Meena ben got married to a rich gujju jeweller, Khopdi went to work at his dad's business and Suleman's tabela was demolished. While navigating the streets of Borivli every so often I passed her and her jeweller husband and I still felt our eyes lingered at each other a bit more than what seemed accidental.