The girl in the candy-striped uniform rose, black eyes flickering nervously. Her thick, frizzy hair was pulled tightly back into a long, heavy plait but wisps of hair had escaped and framed her face in a halo of tiny curls.
She came up to the teacher’s desk and stood fidgeting with her uniform. “Yes Madam”, she said timidly.
“Vijaylakshmi”, said the teacher, opening a magazine, “I read your essay in the children’s page. I liked it. It’s very good. You seem to like writing”.
The girl nodded shyly, twisting the handkerchief in her hands.
“Your essay is titled ‘My Friend and I‘. I think you should read it aloud to the class”.
The girl blushed. “Do I have to, Madam?”
“You don’t have to, but I would like you to”.
The girl looked at the teacher uncertainly and said, “Yes, Madam”, and took the magazine from her teacher’s hand.
“My Friend and I”, she read. “Both my friend and I are from the South. She is from Vellore and I am from Madras. Everyone here calls us Blackie. My friend doesn’t mind, but I do. My friend says, “So what if they call us Blackie. Let them doesn’t bother me. Don’t you know: Black is Beautiful!’ When I took at her large sparkling eyes, her straight black hair falling softly on her shoulders, I feel, yes, she is beautiful. But not me, not with my awful frizzy hair.
I tell her, ‘Black is beautiful is just a slogan’. ‘Okay, Agreed’. She laughs. ‘But how do you like this: Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder?’ I like it! It almost sounds like a poem. I wonder where she reads all this. I’ve never come across such beautiful words in the books I have read.
“My friend says, one has to be bold. She is, but I’m not. She can walk over to a group of children and say, “Hi, I’m Indira and this is Vijaylakshmi. Everyone calls us “blackie”. You can call us “blackie” too, if you like, otherwise Indi and Viji will be fine”.
“I wish I could do that but I can’t. I’ve tried but I can’t bring myself to say the first ‘Hello'”.
“With her I can do many things. I run and win races. I cook and make tasty snacks. I jump into the deep end of the pool. I climb the tallest tree. But when I stand in front of it the next day, alone, it looks dangerously high. I wonder how I ever managed to climb it.
My friend says, “That’s what friendship is about. Doing things together. That’s what friendship does to you, it gives you strength to be what you want, and a little more too”.
“I wonder what our friendship means to her. Whether she feels about me as I feel about her. That’s something I have never asked her and I think I never will”.
The girl closed the magazine and gave it back to her teacher, who said, “These are beautiful lines on friendship, Vijaylakshmi. I am glad you have such a good friend. Do we know her? Is she in our class?”
The girl dropped her head and shook it slightly.
“In our school maybe?”
The girl didn’t answer.
“Does She live in your colony?”
The girl stared down at her black shoes silently.
Then raising her eyes, Vijaylakshmi said bravely, “No, she doesn’t stay in my colony. I do not have a friend”.
A hush fell over the classroom. No one moved. Forty pairs of eyes looked at the girl standing near the teacher’s desk, head bent.
Out of the uncomfortable silence rang a cheerful voice, “Yes, you have”.
A girl rose and walked down the aisle to the teacher’s desk. It was Nimmi Khanna, the most popular girl of the class. She held out her hand and said warmly, “Yes you have, Viji! – me!”