Ambar never had any friends, and he had been aware of this fact long before children even realized things like that. It wasn’t the fact that no one ever came calling to their single room apartment where he lived with his mother (except the doctor on sick visits) that brought him to this conclusion; it wasn’t the way his mother flinched imperceptibly and tightened her grip on his hand despite her brave façade when the other women deliberately ignored her whenever she took him out. It was the fact that Ambar could hear his mother cry into her pillow every night after she thought he had fallen asleep. With a child’s intuition, Ambar knew it was his fault. The dark glares he drew from the matrons, the condemning word ‘bastard’ following him everywhere only confirmed his belief.
“What did I do, Ma?” Ambar asked his mother after they returned home, trying to fight his tears. “Why does no one talk to you? What did I do?”
The bag of chocolates they had bought slipped from his mothers’ fingers as she froze. Then with a gasp she fell to her knees and hugged Ambar fiercely. “Never say that,” she whispered harshly. “Never think that. You are the best thing that happened to me. You have done nothing, darling.”
As Ambar hugged her back, failing to curb his sobs, he felt his mother tremble and then give in to tears.
Shalimar Nagar boasted of residents whose mental views were strictly orthodox at best, and as a single mother Ambar’s mother was a pariah. Ambar was something worse than a stray dog, though he yet didn’t know that fact. His life was lonely, his whole world centered on his mother. She worked as a clerk all day, and Ambar let loose his wings of fancy on little pamphlets. But that was before he had to finally leave the shield of his Ma. He had to go to school.
On the first day of kindergarten, even though he hadn’t yet experienced the cruelty even little brats could show, Ambar was miserable. Because he was surrounded by about fifteen other children who were wailing. The woman who stood in front of the classroom was patiently waiting out the little storm, but to Ambar she looked bewildered. At 4, he considered himself too old to cry, yet he was overwhelmed by the tears pouring out, from boys and girls alike. He could feel his eyes burn and sniffed manfully, trying to rein himself. He heard another sniffle near his ear and looked around.
A chubby girl stood next to his desk, her curly black ringlets gathered neatly in two little ponytails. She wasn’t crying yet, but she looked miserable too. “Why is everyone crying?” she whispered.
Ambar felt awkward, never having had anyone to talk to except his mother. So his reply was a hesitant –”I think they miss their mamas.”
The girl tilted her head to one side as she considered his answer and then promptly burst into tears, throwing him aback. “I miss her too!” she sobbed.
Panic overrode everything in Ambar’s mind, because he had made her cry. Jumping to his feet, he fumbled in his pockets and pulled out his plain, clean handkerchief. He started to extend it towards her, but stopped. The girl was wiping her face with her own napkin, a tiny but pretty one with flowers printed on it. Ambar fidgeted as the girl blew her nose into her little napkin with a decided finality and looked at him. “But my mother says if I want to become something in my life, I have to go to school.” She pulled herself to her full height (Ambar thought she was tiny) “I’m going to build a puppy farm. What about you?”
“Why do you want a puppy farm?” Ambar asked curiously.
The girl hesitated for a second and then leant closer and whispered, “Because cats make me sneeze.” Ambar nodded.
“Well, what are you going to do when you grow up?” The girl prodded.
Ambar shook his head. “I never thought about it.”
“Well, there must be something you want.” The girl insisted.
Ambar thought for a moment and then said, “I would like to build a chocolate factory for my mother.”
The girl considered this and then nodded approvingly. “That’s a very good aim, and if we keep that in mind we won’t be that miserable.”
Both of them nodded in agreement, and by the time the girl had returned to her seat, both of them had forgotten that the one who had comforted them had in the beginning gone to the other looking for comfort herself.
And then, in the lunch break Ambar entered the world of human ruthlessness.
As soon as the teacher – Sister Anne – left the room, three boys, each bigger than the last, surrounded Ambar’s seat.
“So.” said the boy who had introduced himself in front of the class as Nishit Garewal. “You’re Ambar Sinha. I’ve heard about you.”
“You’re the bastard, aren’t you?” smirked Sparsh Mehta. The whole kindergarten class was silent, with some primitive knowledge that a hierarchy was being established. Everyone was quiet as Ambar stood alone confronted by three bullies twice his size.
“You’re a quiet one, aren’t you?” Vishal Joshi grinned menacingly. “Didn’t your mama teach you how to speak? Or is it because you have no daddy?”
As kids they none of them knew exactly what was it about Ambar that made him different, but they were clever enough to pick up nuances from the adults. As Vishal taunted Ambar about his father, the whole room drew a breath as one, the atmosphere turning tensed.
“Don’t you talk that way about my mother.” Ambar said quietly.
“Why won’t we talk about her? Are you ashamed of her? Or is she ashamed of you?” Nishit cracked his knuckles in anticipation. Ambar could hear the blood thundering in his ears and his hands fisted. He had no idea what he was doing, except that hitting Nishit’s face with that stupid missing tooth seemed like a great idea and –
“Oh my god!”
The high pitched exclamation took everyone off course and Ambar turned around to see the girl in the desk right behind his – the girl who had been talking with him earlier – was jumping in excitement.
“Oh my god, can you believe it?” she squealed to the girl in the seat next to hers. “Mama told me she’s packed a surprise for me, and look! These are imported chocolates! My uncle must have sent them from France!”
The whole class’s attention was seized and everyone rushed to gather around her seat to have a look. Ambar could see little golden balls nestled in her Barbie Princess tiffin box.
“Get out of our way!” Sparsh snarled, pushing away others, and then the three bullies towered over the girl.
“Hand it over.” Nishit displayed his threatening missing-toothed smile. The little girl’s smile wobbled and faded. “Can’t we share?” she asked timidly.
Vishal snatched away the box as Nishit and Sparsh just laughed, and the three of them pushed their way out, moving to their back corner of the classroom. The others made a few sympathetic noises and returned to their seats to finish their lunch. Ambar watched as the three bullies guffawed in their corner, gobbling the chocolates and tensed.
“Don’t even think about it.” The little girl declared and Ambar frowned at her.
“They stole your tiffin.” Ambar said angrily.
The girl shrugged. “I wanted them to take it.” She noticed his confusion and added exasperatedly, “They are bullies who were picking on a fight. You’d have been beaten up badly. Papa always says bullies are idiots – and greedy. So I just distracted them.”
“I could have thrashed them,” Ambar declared stoutly, though privately he knew he couldn’t have. The girl just rolled her eyes.
“I have tons of cousins, and I know these sorts of things. You don’t need to thank me.”
Ambar flushed. His mother had always told him that good boys were humble and polite and never hesitated to thank people. “Thank you,” he mumbled.
The girl smiled brilliantly at him. “Now, that wasn’t difficult, was it? I’m Khushi Mathur.” She held out her hand. Ambar grinned and shook her hand. He glanced at her empty table and leaned down to rummage in his carefully packed bag and drew out his own tiffin box.
“You lost your lunch because of me.” Ambar said hesitantly, holding it out. “I don’t have imported chocolates, but if you want we could share.”
Khushi smiled happily and opened the box. “I love sandwich!” she declared, and held out one of the two sandwiches to him.
After classes ended that afternoon, during the journey from the pre-school building to the gate, Khushi informed him that she was an only child (“Only till now; from whispers going around in my house I suspect a baby is going to arrive.”), her mother was a journalist (“She knows about everything.”) and her father was the Police Superintendent (“It’s just like being Batman” she explained ). By the time they reached the gates Ambar was feeling a bit light-headed. Then Khushi suddenly ran and hugged a woman.
“Mama!” she turned and grinned at Ambar. “Meet my mama, Ambar.” She looked up at her mother. “Mama, this is Ambar. He consoled me when I cried in classroom because I missed you, and then shared his tiffin with me when some bullies snatched mine.”
Ambar flushed guiltily at Khushi’s re-telling of the events and glanced shyly at Mrs. Mathur. She was a pretty woman who smiled at him. “It’s nice to meet to you, Ambar.”
“Nice to meet you, ma’am.” He said shyly and looked around, searching for his mother. When he found her coming towards him, he ran and hugged her. “I missed you ma!”
His mother looked at his happy face and smiled back. “I missed you too. How was your day?” she said just as Ambar heard Khushi’s voice, “Is she your mama, Ambar?”
Both mother and son turned to look at the tiny Khushi dragging her mother towards them. Mrs. Mathur gave Ambar’s mother a fond smile mingled with exasperation as Khushi declared, “Nice to meet you, Aunty. I’m Khushi, Ambar’s friend.”
“She saved me from bullies,” Ambar told his mother. Mrs. Mathur grinned at Mrs. Sinha. “My daughter takes some time getting used to, but I see your son managed.”
So on the first day of school, though Ambar did get his first taste as a victim of cruelty, he managed to get a friend both for himself as well as for his mother. And in my opinion, can’t be many more possible auspicious beginnings for the journey to chocolate factories and puppy farms.
N.B.: Ambar means ‘the sky’ and Khushi means ‘happiness’.