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The first time Meenaxi walked into our classroom, we gawked. It was unusual for a new kid to join during midterm. Besides she looked so pretty, like a porcelain doll, with her rosebud lips, flawless fair skin and the faintest hint of pink on her smooth cheeks. A fringe cut in the fashion of those days, hid half of her extra wide forehead, making her resemblance to a doll more pronounced. The rest of her long hair was plaited in two and neatly tied with ribbons, as the school rules demanded. She wore the regulation school uniform of blue and white, and yet managed to look different from the rest of us.

Why her parents thought it fit to suddenly take her off an upmarket school in Bombay and put her in one that was in the backyards of a sleepy little town down south was a mystery. Meenaxi never spoke about it. Once or twice, I did ask her albeit hesitantly, but she only smiled and looked away. It seemed something she did not like talking about. With the instinctive understanding of a sensitive twelve year old, I let it go. To me it seemed a horrible thing to do to a child, almost like abandoning, especially when her two younger brothers continued staying with her parents.

The fact that her Grandmother with whom she stayed seemed to be a strict old lady only compounded my apprehensions for Meenaxi. For some of you that might seem a fine arrangement. But having never stayed with anyone other than with my parents I had a thousand and one questions that I worried my little head over. What would her Grandma make for her when she returned from school? One day she told me it was upma. Yuck! Who wants upma after school? Curious, I asked her if she liked upma. She smiled in reply. There were more questions that droned in my head. Who would teach her? What if Meenaxi fell sick? Would she feel comfortable with her Grandmother? I think I was more anxious about Meenaxi not being with her parents than she herself. The glimpse of her Grandmother’s grim face I caught one day did not help matters any.

Meenaxi used to come to school by the school bus. On odd days she returned home with me in my Dad’s chauffeur driven car and I dropped her where the lane to her house started. It was on one of these occasions that I saw her Grandmother briefly. She didn’t say a word, just a stern look, and all my apprehensions resurfaced. I preferred for Meenaxi to travel with me more often. But since she did not want to keep asking her Grandmother for permission, it was only on rare occasions that we returned home together. I remember Meenaxi used to get really nervous if we got late by so much as a few minutes on our way to her place.

Meenaxi’s Malayalam was shaky at the best of times, after all Tamil was what she spoke at home, and so she preferred to speak in English in class. Of course our class had a gang of English speaking mems, as also the desis who secretly spoke the local language, evading successfully the speak-only-in-English-in-school policy by keeping to their own tight knit group. Then there were those like me, very few in number, who did not belong to either of these groups, who did not fit in anywhere and so were not welcome should be a better way of putting it, and spoke both languages without any show. Such of us were fewer in number and eventually gravitated towards one another. But the interesting part was that in spite of the gravitational pull, we kept our boundaries intact, never merging and moving to the sticking-plaster stage of friendship.

I don’t know what drew Meenaxi to me. Perhaps it was my kind face, more like my perpetually scared face I should say, because though I was the type willing to stick my neck out to say hello, I was also someone ready to duck under my convenient shell the minute anyone even thought of saying ‘boo’. But there is one thing about people like me. They analyse things down to the last period in a sentence that our observations many times actually surprise the bossy, articulate ones into dazed silence. Anyway, this is not about me, but about Meenaxi.

Meenaxi did her lessons, answered when asked questions in class. That’s about it. She never spoke an extra word other than that. That suited me fine. Most of our friendship consisted of sitting together comfortably in silence, doing our own thing, thinking our own thoughts. We shared story books and comics and sometimes talked about which one we liked best. Meenaxi loved to make pencil sketches and in me she found an ardent admirer of her art.

On rare occasions she let fall titbits about her life in Bombay, some incident from her old school, or of some place she visited with her parents, or something that was available in Bombay, something her brothers did. The last brought a change in her eyes. They became even softer, if that was possible, when she spoke of her brothers and some prank they played. And contradictory though it might seem, there was more sparkle in them as well. She misses them a lot. My young mind grasped the fact instinctively. What was more important was that my twelve year old brain realised with a start that at other times her eyes looked truly like those of a doll, lifeless.

Meenaxi was extra happy when the summer holidays approached. I remember her smile being a tiny bit extra wide. Her Dad was flying to the airport some miles away from our small town, and driving over; the very next day she was returning with him. I looked at her with my eyes wide. She was flying! That was so exciting. But Meenaxi, true to her nature refused to be excited, instead gave her sweet half-smile in return. She promised to bring back comics for me when she returned for the new school year two months later. I too promised to keep for her all the comics and story books I could wrangle my parents into buying. I was going to spend the holidays with my cousins and was in truly high spirits as I waved Meenaxi off in the school bus that last day of school.

The new school year started as is usual in these parts, with torrential rain. Dripping new umbrellas, new wet uniforms, new classroom, new teachers, new books. Uncharacteristically for me, I aggressively defended the rights to the desk and chair next to mine. That was reserved for Meenaxi. I waited for almost a week when it slowly sank in that she was not going to come. Had she taken her TC? May be she would join a little late due to some reason? I was too scared of the ferocious looking Ms. Sandra, the class teacher, to ask her if Meenaxi’s name was still there in the register. Weeks turned to months there was no news of Meenaxi. From that day to this, I have not heard from her, nor know her whereabouts. Yet, every once in a while my thoughts go to Meenaxi, especially when I see porcelain dolls.

Over at Write Tribe I saw a prompt from Richa for the 100 WordS On Saturday: “Every once in a while”. Though the intention had been to write 100 words, as is usual with me, my story wrote itself and this is the result. So, not linking. But thanks all the same, Richa and Write Tribe, for the prompt.

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