Kavya walks into the big classroom, knees trembling, eyes busy scrutinising her shoes. The teacher introduces her to the class and asks her to sit down. Kavya is more than a little frightened. She has been through this before. In her previous school, she had to walk right down to the end of the classroom on her first day, and not a single girl budged. Then, the teacher had to find a place for her. The shame of it still makes her cheeks burn. Today, she walks very slowly, and to her huge relief, the girl in the third bench moves over. She plops down.
The girls around her don’t know yet, but Kavya sits alone with the knowledge that her classmates will ignore her, just like her classmates in the old school! Today, Kavya is something of a sensation, since she is new to the class. She also has the exotic appeal of a girl from another city. But Kavya knows that she will become invisible in a few days. She hunches her shoulders and shrinks a little into herself, as if to hurry up that day.
Later at lunch, many of the girls approach her and try to get friendly, but Kavya is tongue-tied. This ordeal shakes her, and she looks with longing at the tree in the yard outside. How much time would it take her to climb that tree and lose herself in its branches? She has done that often in her old school, it is not that difficult really. What a shy girl at school really requires is a nice big tree with low-hanging branches that she can climb. With a book tucked in her belt. And then she can dangle her legs, read her book and watch the other kids. The real kids. Kavya thinks of herself as a little imaginary. She is not sure that she really exists the way the others do.
The same evening, before her bus leaves, she examines the tree in the yard. There’s a strong branch there..and there.. and here’s one more facing the wall. Good. The old school had a hawk-like ayah who played spoilsport every time she saw Kavya on the tree. She has seen the ayah in this school, a tiny, defeated creature who seems a little scared of everybody. This ayah might just not notice it if Kavya sits on the wall-facing branch. And what’s this, a knotty bark with a couple of footholds! Not a very easy climb altogether, Kavya thinks, as she sizes it up. But Kavya is a past master in the art of tree-climbing.
The next morning, Kavya coaxes her dad to drop her off to school early. She says that her class teacher has arranged extra classes for her to catch up with the other kids. She gets to school and loses no time in running to the tree. A few efforts at clambering and a couple of bruises later, she settles down on the branch. And just like that, she is so relieved that it almost makes her happy.
That afternoon, before the other girls have been able to group around her, she has whisked off to the tree. She has balanced her lunch on one thigh and is now eating, with a book by her side. Some curious kids have noticed her already and there’s some finger-pointing happening around her. But Kavya has long since discovered safety in pretend deafness. Earlier, it used to hurt her a lot, the taunts of her old classmates and the nicknames they gave her. Monkey, chimpanzee, gorilla..that class-topper with that horrid, evil smile even called her an orangutan, and she had to look up the dictionary to learn what that was.
But now, the hurt has lost its sharpness. She just munches on as the other kids mutter excitedly. Judgements are flying around, and the kids are trying to decide whether Kavya’s strange tree-climbing ways are cool or uncool.
The argument in the school yard sways this way and that.
‘She doesn’t talk at all, I’m sure she is so boooring’, says the first girl.
‘She must be so brave na, to climb up that tree? I’m so scared I’ll fall..’, gushes another.
‘Do you think she can climb that tree too?’, wonders a curious soul, pointing to a coconut tree outside the school compound.
‘Let’s shake that branch and make her fall’, says the leader of the bullies.
And right then, Kavya’s guardian angel springs into action, and gently sighs a wish into the ears of one of the debaters.
This girl singles herself out from the huddle and comes to the tree.
‘Can I come sit with you? Can you help me climb up?’
Kavya freezes, mid-morsel. A painful gulp or two later, she says yes, because she is not used to saying no. She doesn’t really want company.
And before she quite realizes it, she has helped this other girl sit next to her on the branch. The two girls test the strength of the branch gingerly. Safety established, they gawk at each other for a few moments. Kavya offers her parathas to the other girl, in a desperate attempt to postpone interaction or avoid it altogether. But her plan backfires! This smiling girl says thanks, introduces herself, and breaks into an effortless monologue.
Kavya is astonished. She has already seen, even in her occasional and careless observations of her class, that this girl is popular. Why is a popular girl sitting with her on a tree and chatting? Kavya’s sense of what is fitting in this world has just been jolted rudely.
Even stranger things happen next. The popular girl has swayed public opinion. Many of the other kids suddenly want to climb the tree too. One more girl struggles to climb up and almost falls. In the tension of the moment, Kavya finds herself screaming instructions to the hapless girl and holding out her hand to haul her up to safety. And in the simple, black-and-white world of this primary school, this act settles the argument. The kids have decided that Kavya is cool, a brave girl who is unafraid of ayahs and unbothered by the prospect of injury.
A few weeks later, we see Kavya at lunch, up on the tree. She is silent, but there’s a smile playing on her face as she listens to the two girls chattering away next to her. She has left her storybook in her school bag.