Five years ago, four women met for lunch at an Italian restaurant in Chennai. What was supposed to be a relaxed meal between friends turned into an ugly-crying-finger-pointing-general-yelling session. In a while, we were the last ones left in the restaurant. The fight extended beyond lunch. The waiters seemed mildly interested in our drama, interested enough to stand around watching instead of chasing us out of the restaurant. So much drama. Girl gang drama. What might surprise you was that it was our first round of drama in over ten years of friendship.
American pop culture is really my only source of knowledge of girl gangs. This is probably true for you too. Sweeping past in school corridors parting the masses before them with the sheer power of their social status. Cool Girls. Mean Girls. Those Girls. They come in capitals.
Nothing in pop culture gave us a name. We came in lowercase, we came with stainless steel lunch boxes. We were the dabba girls.
For all the bullying we endured, we went through school years like it was a never-ending Spanish siesta. There was no drama, even in how we became friends and stayed friends.
We were four girls in a school full of — what we remember as — overachieving, attractive and naturally athletic girls, and we came together because no one wanted to hang out with us. We were misfits without the leather jacket rebellion that’s supposed to come two-in-one for folks who are Misfits/Rebels/Non-Conformists.
The group became a group in class eight: one pair of us had studied in the same class since prekindergarten and the other pair just a little after that, and we were put into a whole new section with others. We all hated each other at first, I think. I became friends with the girl from the other pair (we later bonded over Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar) thanks to our shared affection for books but more due to the embarrassing fact that she remembered seeing me in pigtails and on my tricycle, whizzing down my street. She told me that was her first memory of me and well, I was touched. Naturally, our kindergarten buddies were forced to talk to each other.
What did we have in common? We all wore unflattering glasses. We studied Carnatic music which made our parents’ friends approve of us but gave no cachet in school. We were obsessed with Tom Hanks and bad Tamil films. Two of us had shoulder-length hair and the other two grew it out. Our parents were distant and disappointing. We skimmed and frequently dropped below the average at studies. We were fed up with our compulsory swimming lessons — we still don’t know why, but I know I took to pushing people inside the pool and eventually the instructor because he had promised not to push me and he quite obviously broke it, as all swimming instructors do. We weren’t too enthu in mingling with the other girls in the pool, who were showing off their backstroke and butterfly stroke.
We also hated Colour Dress Day at school — every last Friday of the month. I know that the more I write, the more we sound like an emo band from the 90s — moody, prone to frequent bouts of anger and plenty of black eyeliner. But if only we were that cool.
But the minute we decided to become friends, that week when we were 13, the world became a much, kinder place. We always had each other’s backs.
Once, on a dull school day, when the teacher was a few minutes late, we were rendered restless; we watched the usual crumpled paper balls zooming into our faces, everyone’s pens were scattered all over the floor surrendering in defeat after a spirited game of ‘pen fight’ and we could hear shouts of “dei mama” making their way across the room.
Two of us got up to use the bathroom and a lanky sneering fellow was in our way—he refused to move. We were, in his opinion, a little too unattractive to be made way for. The more calm and genial one among the two just smiled and made up her mind to go all the way till the back, circle the last benches and get out of the classroom. Why fight over something trivial, she reasoned. My hotheaded friend, however, who stands out as the prime example for historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s words “well-behaved women seldom make history”, fumed and removed one of her old tennis shoes — they were almost yellow — and held it up to his face. Lanky was too stunned to react, and so were we. Usually, the loudest class on the floor (and in the school), we were suddenly silenced. Triumphant, my friends walked hand-in-hand to the bathroom, and Lanky rounded up his friends for moral support to shout some not-so-nice parting words.
The ‘ugly ducklings’, it seemed, had their way.
By then we had been friends for years. Nothing would make us glamorous rebels but together we were less afraid, more our weird little selves.
Remember I told you that we hated Colour Dress Day? Colour Dress Day was when when we were allowed to wear “traditional” clothes. We wanted nothing to do with it. In a sea of salwars, saris, pavadai-chattai-davanis and jibba-veshtis, the four of us stood out in our rather drab yellow-and-grey uniforms and dusty shoes. One morning, my wonderful Chemistry teacher (more about her later) walked past us, shook her head in that familiarly disappointed way and said, “Why maaa, you gaels have to rebel like this? Wear some nice clothes no — didn’t your parents tell you?” I piped up brightly, “Ma’am we didn’t tell them!” It was the last time she tried to make us better our selves.
Another thing that kept us fiercely bound to each other was our predictable, utterly reliable routines. After school, we’d all rush home to change, eat and head to our respective tuition classes. The other three, since they lived in the same area, went to the same teacher for one subject, while I attended mine with a different classmate. When we’d come back to school the next day, I’d be clueless of everything that took place in their tuitions — they were with the popular kids so naturally they were privy to some high-quality gossip. Between the four of us the only gossip we could muster was about whether the new Vikram film made the cut or not. Or whose mother made what snacks for Deepavali — your murukku has more butter, mine’s a little dry, I suppose. We needed other gangs for drama and gossip. I went to the same tuition class as my school seniors and so I came armed with a different kind of gossip, one that was more adult-y, more kosher. But I was secretly jealous of the other three, albeit a little. Mostly, I was just waiting to hear more gossip about fellow classmates. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Class nine. The now-familiar soundtrack of our lives — the importance of next year’s board exams — was now running on full-volume. It didn’t matter whose house we were spending time in. Out of embarrassment and in an attempt to avoid lengthy conversations about my future, I almost always studied a good two-to-three days before my exams — I was consistently an average student. I did well only in English and Sanskrit. On the side though, I was recruited by my Sanskrit teacher along with friend number 3 to participate in Bhagavad Gita competitions. They were the only competitions I ever won. On weekends when we used to go for said classes, friend number 3 and I would have the most fun. When we were put in charge of the juniors, we’d bunk classes and go for strolls at the park nearby, arrange water fights to cool down during the summer or take naps under the asbestos sheet on the terrace.
After a set of exams (unit tests, perhaps), our class teacher, who also taught us chemistry, pulled aside friends 2 and 3 and me and told us not to hang out with friend number 4, who was struggling with studies. Apparently, her low marks in most subjects would transfer through our friendship and into our papers and soon, we’d be failing in class too. We were shocked. Our attitude had been to help her however we could. She sang beautifully, had oiled hair, wore a pottu everyday and breathed Carnatic music. She was friend number 4 in the gridlock that kept us safe in the world. The teacher’s Darwinian instructions left us sad, angry, dumbfounded. It also put us in a big quandary. Should we tell friend number 4 and make her sad too?
She did find out eventually. Red-eyed, tear-stricken friend number 4 wanted to take herself out of the equation. As if board exams in Chennai was a World War 2 movie. Go on without me. Save yourselves. Many days of consoling and reminding her what our friendship had been through — lonely field trips, bonfires and school projects (my class had deemed us too uncool to “sit with them”) — she calmed down. The four of us were back again.
By the time we were 15, lunch became the only time in school where we could catch up freely with the day’s events. While the rest of the school milled about, moving from class to class, standing in line at the canteen or sitting on the stairs, the four of us confined ourselves to our seats at the back, opening our dabbas and indulging in some light chatter or heavy strategising — often figuring how to tackle our English teacher.
Our English teacher, like our Chemistry teacher, harboured a resentment towards us. How is it that four rowdy-meets-dowdy back benchers did well in English? Outwardly, we seemed disinterested; friend number 3 was infamous for forgetting to bring her textbook, friend number 4 tried her best to listen often ended up lightly snoozing in that post lunch class, and friend number 2 and I were so consumed by Shakespeare that we had our own party (approximate usage of the word) at the back.
The routine roughly went like this: once the teacher entered, she’d always ask us to turn to a page number, following which friend number 3 would sit nonchalantly at her seat and try to look her best to be occupied. The teacher would question the whereabouts of my friend’s book before sending a smirking friend number 3 out of the class. She would gleefully give us a thumbs up on her way out and we’d try our best to not guffaw. The teacher would then proceed with her class. If friend number 2 and I wanted to answer a question, waved our hands in the air frantically, we’d be met with a disdainful stare from said teacher and towards the end of the class, would pick on us for not attempting to take part in class. Soon, I started joining my friend outside the class, the pair of us looking too happy to be punished.
What if I hadn’t met the other three? Sometime in class seven, there was a glimmer of a school life that may have gone another way.
The popular girls looked at me during lunch one day. They invited me to join them on their bench as I had a white-out pen to share.
In class 7, I was doing badly in school. Clumps of my hair fell out every time I touched it. Sometimes it fell out in class. I had no one to talk to. But with the white-out pen for half an hour I imagined erasing the dabba girl and starting over.
What happened next, as they say, will surprise you. Or perhaps it won’t. We were already learning to live by our report cards.
Somewhere in that hour, one of the popular girls handed everyone else in the class report cards tabulating their coolness factor for the month, and one of the criteria included grades, the others being the hipness of the music we listened to, the variety of lunch we brought to school…
For the first time in my 12-year-old lifetime I realised that being by myself wasn’t so bad after all. If I had to fill in a report card to be cool, I couldn’t afford it. I threw away my white-out pen. The next day, when I was asked for it, I shrugged and showed them my sparse pencil case. No one wanted to talk to me anymore.
Teenage courtship in my school was wildly dramatic. Perhaps it’s the same everywhere? One lunch hour, a senior stood outside our class 9 classroom and ordered one of the four of us to ask the “prettiest girl in the class to come out”. I recall my expression being close to WTF before walking away. But the boy wasn’t thwarted by our rejecting his errand. He walked in with the swagger of a determined Tamil hero, knelt down before the “prettiest girl” and asked her out. We mimicked vomiting for a few minutes and threw our heads back and laughed. Boss, kneeling down is to ask for hand in marriage in the movies, and even that was overrated, we said loudly to each other. Not that anyone heard.
Hey, we were not haters. We’d have even liked to be lovers. It’s just that all our crushes amounted to nothing — we were queens of unrequited love and our objects of affection were either disinterested in us or interested in someone else. Friends number 2 and 3, the sneaky beings, never admitted their crushes to us; they claimed they never had any, something us other two serial-crusher selves found hard to believe.
In fact, the pinnacle of drama in our friendship happened in class 9 when for a few days where it seemed like friend number 4 and I had a crush on the same guy. We had a few moments of heartburn and incensed arguments. Then we realised we weren’t even talking about the same boy. The one I liked was skinny and tall and she had her eye on a round jolly-type person. We had just pointed out to a clump of guys and giggled and said “the guy who is really good at basketball”. End of cliffhanger.
We never listened to our parents, but board exams really did change our lives. Just not in the way our parents were warning us about. The board exams were the last time all four of us were in a classroom together. Friend number 4 transferred to another school, friend number 2 went to a different class. Friend number 3 and I continued together, taking our association from nursery till class 12.
In class 12, friend number 3 and I became lab partners (for physics, chemistry and computer) and we worked on making dyes for our final chemistry project. I don’t know about my friend, but I was perhaps a little too enthusiastic about it. Five years after the project, I still had vintage camera roll containers filled with dye samples: a moody blue, yellow and orange azo dyes; I had to throw them out only because they were getting mouldy. If I had my way, they’d have travelled with me from Chennai to Mumbai and then Bangalore, finding a special place in my bookshelves.
Making our beautiful dyes stained our hands and our uniforms. But never our lab coats. For some reason, they were pristine white, save for cigarette-like holes caused by standing too close to the Bunsen burner or playing with matchsticks.
After Chemistry lab we were always late for the next one. When our incensed Mathematics teacher demanded explanations, we’d show her our hands and inform her that we’d come to just drop our books and that we’d really need to scrub the dyes off, eat lunch and then attend her class. I think the boys of my class — usually considered the troublesome monkeys — were nonplussed as to how two uncool characters got away with it each time. We’d just say our lines and dash away before we could be stopped. Who’d want to stop us?
After that big fight at the Italian restaurant — we were around 23 — I thought about the other girl gangs in school. The picturesque Mean Girls clique of my class went through many friendship breaks-ups over their years in school. The fights were all dramatic and entertaining, at least to us voyeurs. We never ever found out what they fought over — perhaps boys, grades and fleeting coolness — but when a fight broke out, the four of us consumed it like you’d watch primetime television, making mental notes to discuss once school was over. Occasionally during big breakups, estranged cool girls would talk to us. Separated, they seemed human and surprisingly articulate on bad Tamil films in the 90s. Together, they pretended regional films and music didn’t exist — if you weren’t listening to the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC or Guns n Roses, you might as well have been extinct.
Our friendship, which survived in the high school ecosystem, didn’t survive out of it. The original pairs that came together didn’t survive, and we started speaking to the one we were actually comfortable speaking to.
The four of us are no longer as close now as we were seven years back, and hearing this made me wonder if we had metamorphosed into the popular girls — we finally had our share of drama, three years after school.
At that Italian restaurant: friend number 4 was incensed that friend number 2 had been going through something major in her life but had decided to not share much with us. Friend number 3 and I shrugged and got back to moodily picking our pizza, but a few minutes later we all got into it and all of us cried.