Mira was the kind of girl that never tired of asking if I had plans.
What plans ya? What scenes ya?
My response was always: No plans ya.
She knew I had one, I didn’t mention it because it was so frivolous.
No egg puff or what? She’d then ask, narrowing her cat-like eyes.
On Friday afternoons, some of us girls from different departments who all took the same ladies special 29C bus went to have a coffee and egg puff in the canteen, before dashing to the bus stop at 1:45 sharp.
How fun, and then do what, watch the black and white movie on KTV with your grandmother, is it?
There never seemed any malice in her line of questioning, so I didn’t mind her asking. Again, the next Friday before packing her bags, before heading out to whatever cool party she was going off to with boys, she’d ask me, what plans ya, what scenes bro? Even though I had nowhere to go, no one to go with, I looked forward to her asking me about my weekend. She seemed to not judge me from one week to the next for not doing anything of consequence. And on Monday mornings it was my turn to ask her: where she went, what she wore, what she ate, if she remembered anything.
Who knows what I wore, machan; ate some shit dude; I remember being high hahaha.
Each of her answers would provoke the siren call, Scandal! Scandal!, inside but on the outside I’d grin wide, amused by Mira’s disregard for everything—she was so cool she didn’t remember what she wore. Both on the inside and outside I was happy for her. Always surprised by how adult she already was.
She was also the first well-read bad girl I knew. In school, those girls usually failed, and I took it as proof that there was divine punishment for having fun in life. Not for Mira, no. She spoke with great authority to our lecturers about whoever was at the heart of the text we were studying—Cassius, Thetis, Shylock, Silas Marner, Fatima and Vellaiamma, Dulna and Dopdi… And the lecturers all seemed honoured that this notoriously cool girl chose to engage with them. Even on the rare occasion that I raised my hands to say something, they ignored me and looked to her as she sat bored. You could see that she’d already parsed through these simple questions about life and literature, meaning and metaphor. I knew enough of the texts too, I wanted to be a writer, but even I felt they were right in looking at her. I could never speak as well as she did about them, and in a manner that seemed to not take any effort at all on her part. She was everything I would never be. I came from the kind of home that expected me to do everything I could to make myself invisible. If I asked for a fringe, or if I shaved my arms, my mother would provoke me with her, You think you’re a beauty queen or what? Mira was not one to remain invisible, nor one that could be made to feel ugly. She was gap-toothed like me but carried it off better than I ever could, it somehow looked good on her. She had short wavy hair, streaked here auburn, there brown, and it behaved as if under a spell, falling around her face in a manner that made her ferocious and beautiful at once.
Our friendship never went farther than that twice-a-week banter, though in a secret corner of my heart I nursed a longing for her to invite me to one of her wild, wild parties. I wanted to feel the thrill of being the bad girl, being with a bad girl. It didn’t occur to her to invite me, even though I showed a great deal of interest in her shenanigans, through the entirety of our first semester, in 2002.
At home, on the terrace, my best friend and neighbour, Vani, and I sat together, whenever we found time, which really was beginning to thin as we both had joined colleges in different ends of Madras, for our ritual. Femina from the local library, mixture, and Pepsi. We exchanged notes on the most scandalous girls in our respective all-women colleges. The girls with red hair. The ones that came to class drunk. The ones that did drugs. Lame drugs. Hard-core drugs. The ones that had boyfriends. The ones that described sex in gory detail but probably had it way fewer times than the ones that were shy, always cloaked in layers of dupattas around their face, as they rode off on heavy-duty bikes with their boyfriends of many years. Then we’d also make plans.
Where will you go when you have to kiss di?
The beach, I think, so many boats lying about for what?
You’ll do other things?
First let me find a boyfriend. Wait, you tell, where will you go?
I don’t know di, maybe this terrace only.
What a bitch. What if the watchman sees you?
He has seen us smoke cigarettes here and hasn’t snitched. He’s a decent man di.
Mira, Vani and I were different parts of the same “scenes” puzzle. Week after week when Mira went off to party with her cool friends from her cool upper middle-class school, Vani and I sat together on the terrace or in each other’s rooms, talking about what we would do if we were in Mira’s place.
First, I’d buy a decent black dress. Then I’ll shave. Then I’ll pick only the nicest looking boy.
You’ll only get boys who wear specs, you know that no?
No di intellectual looks are in. What if you get someone short?
I like short boys. What if you get someone ugly?
We’ll both probably only get someone ugly, that our parents choose.
No, don’t say that…
Growing up we were never around boys, and the few times that we were, we flirted nice and good with them, but rejected them even before we became friends. They were too short, too tall, too stupid, too boring, too studious, smelt horrible, were all pimply, etcetera.
Those first three months of studying BA English vanished in a blur. Of getting to know the mob of 70 girls in my class, and trying to find some space to fit into one of their gangs. That’s the first thing one learns about girls, they hunt in packs. The ones that didn’t fit into any group were treated brutally, as non-entities. In my class, there were two cool girl gangs (Mira was in one; no way I would fit in either), your average up-for-a-good-time girl gangs (there were many of these but I didn’t like any of them), the speak-English-only gang (ugh), the Hindi gang (always carried great food, so I kept them close), the Tamil gang (I liked them for all the jokes), the speak-three-languages-comfortably gang (this was me and some other random girls, and we all sat together).
You could cut the oestrogen in the air with a knife, add the teachers and the principal and other staff inside the college. It was maddeningly exciting, but also terribly boring. All days were the same until they weren’t. Some drunk girl threw up in the last row, and the entire class was marched up to the principal’s room and everyone, all 70 of us, was branded “shameless”. We routinely made lecturers, hardly five years older than us, cry. We also pretended there was a snake in the class whenever we wanted to drive the young women teaching out of the class. We were mean, happy, funny, and then the fights broke out, gangs split up, girls swapped seats, best friends became sworn enemies, it was all so hectic.
Then Mira stopped coming to college. For a day, then two, then five. As a week went by, I worried about her. When I asked one of her friends: No clue machan, her family is super strict, the landline doesn’t work I think. Three totally unrelated sentences, that’s all I got from her.
I reported everything to Vani that evening.
Strict family? How does she party like this?
What do you think happened?
You think they’ve stopped her from going to college because they found out she goes to parties?
Soon our conversations about Mira’s scenes were entirely replaced by our fears of what had happened to her. Our magazines were replaced by newspapers, and we began to watch the news very carefully. To see if she had eloped with someone or if something gory had happened to her. We had a laundry list of gory things, that we were warned would happen to us all if we didn’t fall in line.
Remember Abha from our school di?
You think Mira also ran away with some random man?
What if she was raped with those horse tranquilliser things di?
What if she got AIDS, doing drugs?
What if she’s dead?
What if they’ve trafficked her?
After six more days in anguish Vani and I could just not handle it. I got a little brave then, went to the office room, bribed the lady there with some canteen samosas, and took out Mira’s home phone number, address, and her father’s name. First things first. We tried calling the landline, no answer.
That week Vani and I met every day. It was as if we had gone back in time. Back to our early teen years before the fear of board exams took over our evenings, back when we were inseparable, living in each other’s home practically, talking endlessly about things that we deemed very important. The only new element was the worry that shadowed us constantly, and yet we drew comfort in each other, from each other.
I smiled despite myself those days, for having won a bit of my friend back. I’d felt her slipping through the cracks, into a new group of her own, changing ever so little every time I saw her. A new catchphrase, a new line, a new way of speaking, of seeing, of finding something we used to love together uncool suddenly, of finding something we loathed very appealing. She’d fit snug into one of those gangs in her class, and had made, terrifyingly for me, many close friends just one semester in. She’d kept me around, informed always, yet I felt left out. Until Mira disappeared.
We’ll go visit her house, I begged Vani, and even though at first she was unsure, she soon began to see the thrill of it. One Sunday afternoon, just as our mothers were about to nap, which is when we knew we could irritate them into agreeing to anything with our whiny voices, we told them we were going to Pondy Bazaar to buy bras and took the bus straight to Besant Nagar. We reached the street on which her house was and stood there not knowing what to do for at least five minutes. Then we each bought a Max orange stick ice cream from the Kwality Wall’s guy and chatted him up to see if he knew anything.
That house? There’s been a death, he said, and we both froze. Vani dug her nails into my arm. I put my free arm around her shoulder. And stood there waiting for the word to come leaping finally free from my heart to my mouth.
The grandmother. She was very unwell, and then died last week. They’re doing the rites somewhere else I think, no one’s been home since.
On a Wednesday, Mira showed up to class to a quiet but warm welcome from her group of girls and many hugs. I wanted to give her one too, but when I went near her desk, one of her rich friends looked at me with a quizzical brow, like I was sullying the air she breathed.
That Friday I waited for Mira to pack her bags, and as she looked at me before leaving, a weak smile on her face, no question was forthcoming. So I said, Come, have coffee in the canteen.
Krupa Ge is a writer based in Chennai. She’s the author of What We Know About Her (2021) and Rivers Remember (2019).