Sheetal was the tiniest girl in her class, and she knew this all too well. At thirteen, while her fellow classmates at Saint Augustine High School were sneaking to the local tailor shop after school in order to get their extra school uniforms fitted, mostly to accentuate their newly acquired over the past summer, Sheetal continued to attend class day in and day out in the same set of duds she has worn since class four. When the school year started in early June, she didn’t once imagine seventh grade would turn out to be so hard.Roma, Seema, even Parveen, who was the second shortest girl in her class had arrived at the threshold of what the adults called “womanhood” before Sheetal could so much as stumble anywhere close to it. At four feet eight inches in height and forty three kilograms in weight, most of which was bone mass, Sheetal could have just as easily fit into any current fifth year classroom without drawing too much attention to herself.
It all started in the second week of first semester of seventh grade, the monsoon had by then arrived in full earnest. It was Sheetal’s favorite time of the year. Much to mother’s chagrin, Sheetal had until then, on most days left her rain coat at home. She loved to walk back after school in a fine drizzle, often choosing the longest route possible. Often on these after school jaunts, she was accompanied by her two best friends Roma and Seema, who like her preferred to ditch their rain gear in favor of getting drenched in the late afternoon showers that left muddy puddles on cratered streets.
Sheetal had devised a game of sorts, where the person who jumped over the most puddles along the way would be declared the winner. The two losers would then buy the winner an ice candy from the strategically located ice-cream stall that stood at the cross road where each of them separated to take their individual paths home. Sheetal loved this game. Although she was the shortest girl in her class, she was perhaps the strongest, maybe because she was the smallest, that she overpowered most of her classmates. What Sheetal lacked in stature, she more than amply compensated in grit. She lunged across each pot hole with all her might, willing her squat legs to reach far. She got safely across on most occasions, without having to plunge calf deep into a muddy puddle, while Seema and Roma struggled to get across. After having bought her a frozen treat on three consecutive occasions the previous season, Parveen realized that she did not stand a chance against Sheetal’s nimble leaps and had long stopped competing. The money saved by not partaking in this foolhardy endeavor was spent on buying guavas and chips that Parveen nosily ate in front of her three friends and shared with no one. She pointedly ignored the meaningful glances her friends cast her way as she deliberately chewed on one chip after another.
Sheetal loved the feeling of the cold, sweet ice lolly graze her tongue at the first bite. Nothing thrilled her more than the goose pimples that formed on her arms as she bit into her icy, tangy prize on those balmy afternoons.
The day had already dragged more that it should have by Sheetal’s account. She impatiently looked at the clock, wishing with all her might for the last bell to ring. It had started to drizzle an hour back, and in the last several minutes the rain had started to pick up pace. She had won the last two games, and was hoping to turn her winning streak into a hat trick. The clock struck four. Sheetal sprinted across the room at the toll of the last bell, and landed at Roma and Seema’s desk.
“Let’s change it up a bit today, the person who jumps across the largest puddles today wins. The winner will of course buy me-I mean one of us an ice cream sandwich.” Sheetal quickly corrected herself.
Roma and Seema were slow to gather their books, Sheetal tapped her foot impatiently as she watched them languidly pack their bags. They did not appear to show the same sense of urgency that Sheetal did.
“Hurry up already, the rain is beating down at a nice pace, we should try to catch some showers while it stays that way”. Sheetal said.
“I can’t, I can’t today, I am just going to take the bus home instead”. Roma said, Seema did not protest and nodded her head in mute agreement.
“Well why not?” Asked Sheetal in disbelief, they had been playing this very game for the last three monsoons. The first time they had played it they were in fourth grade. It was the first year their mothers had collectively agreed to let them walk alone after school on discovering that the girls lived in the same vicinity and could keep an eye each other for most of the way back home. Sheetal found it hard to believe that her friends had suddenly lost interest in their favorite after school activity.
“We are just not in the mood, okay?” Seema said.
“What? What do you mean you are not in the mood? How can you not be in the mood? Look we don’t have to play for an actual prize, okay? Let’s just play?” Sheetal said desperately.
“Drop it Sheetal, we are not kids anymore okay? These games, these games are for children. We are adults now. We are women now. My mom said she would trash me if I came home wet, with my uniform clinging to me”.
“What’s wrong with going home with a wet uniform? They are just clothes, they will dry by tomorrow, besides we all have a spare one at home”.
“You are not like us, you will feel differently too, when you get there.”
“Get where?” Sheetal asked.
They flashed Sheetal a sad smile as they walked to the classroom door.
Sheetal took the bus home that afternoon. Mother was pleased as she walked through the door, with not a splatter of rain water on her.
She stood in front of the mirror in her bedroom, with nothing but a thin white petticoat on. Her school uniform stood on a hanger strung to bedroom door knob, dry. Her face crumpled but only for a second. She shook away a tear. She thrust her shoulder back in determination and said out loud, “I must, I must, I must, I must grow my bust”. Sheetal said it again, she wanted to be like her friends.
Drip, drip, drip came the sound of the water flowing down from the gutter of the roof to ground indicating that the rain outside was still coming down at a regular pace. The curtains were drawn, Sheetal had no interest in going outside.