Steve would never forget the day he first met Tina. It was June 15. Their school had reopened a week back. It had been a lousy week – damp, soggy and terribly dull.
That day was no different. It was drizzling since morning. Steve had been drenched the previous evening and had caught cold. To add to the gloom was the fact that it was Monday and the first period was Maths. Steve hated Maths and he hated the Maths teacher – Rama Rao even more. Rama Rao was an insufferable bore and his classes were a real torture.
Steve was feeling drowsy. He looked out of the window at the cricket ground. How he wished the rain would stop and he could go out and try the new bowling action which his cousin Pete had taught him in the holidays.
"Can I come in Sir," Steve heard a sweet voice.
A young girl of Steve’s age was standing at the door. She was slim and fair, with a small sharp nose and bright sparkling eyes.
"Why?" Rama Rao snapped.
"I... ", she stepped back startled and then gathering up her courage said, "Sir I have just taken admission today and the Principal asked me to sit in class 8 A."
Rama Rao stared at her for two full minutes obviously irritated at her for disturbing his class.
"Come in," he grunted and went back to the black board.
Tina mumbled thanks and walked in. She found the seat next to Steve empty and sat down.
"Hi! I’m Steve," he smiled.
"My name is Tina," she said. She had a beautiful smile. It reached right up to her eyes, lighting up her entire face.
During lunch break Tina and Steve got talking. Tina’s father was an officer in the State Bank of India. He was transferred from Nagpur to Hyderabad three months back. His family had shifted last month. They lived in Tarnaka quite close to Steve’s house.
"Steve can I borrow your books for a day? That will help me catch up with whatever was taught last week," Tina asked Steve during the last period.
"Sure, but actually nothing much was taught, hardly a few pages."
* * *
Three days later Tina and Steve were busy chatting. It was the first period and the English teacher Mrs. Mamta Dey hadn’t come.
"Hey Tina! How are you? When did you join?" Steve turned around. It was Andy.
"Hi Andy," Tina said jumping up and rushing to meet him. "I joined on Monday. It’s great to see you," she said shaking his hand. "How are you feeling now? Dad told me that you were down with fever."
"Yes it was quite bad. I was stuck in bed the entire day. Mum wouldn’t allow me to move out of the room."
Andy – Andrew Smith – was in Steve’s class. He was tall, burly and red-faced with a loud voice and great sense of humor. He was fourteen – a year older to Steve. Andy was terrific in sports – cricket, football, athletics and almost everything else – but was poor in studies.
Later Steve asked Tina, "How do you know Andy?"
"Oh! He’s a great friend. Our dads work in the same bank. In fact it was Smith Uncle who told dad about this school."
A few days later one evening Steve was wheeling his cycle out when he saw Tina standing waiting at the gate.
"I think the rickshaw puller has got stuck somewhere."
"Why don’t you come with me. I’ll drop you home," Steve offered.
"Are you scared I’ll kidnap you," he laughed.
"Don’t be silly," Tina said, coming forward.
Just then Andy, who was racing by on his moped, saw them, swerved back and screeched to a halt.
"Hey Tina! What’s up?"
My rickshaw hasn’t come and I..."
"Come with me. I am going towards Tarnaka. I’ll drop you home and have some pastries in your house. The one’s aunt gave me last time were really yummy."
Tina waved to Steve and climbed on to the moped.
"See ya, Steve," Andy yelled and sped away.
Steve kept staring after them feeling strangely angry at Andy. He had very much wanted to give a lift to Tina -- to go to her house and meet her family. He liked Tina very much and wanted to be her best friend. But Andy .... he had spoilt everything.
* * *
Gradually Steve found himself disliking Andy more and more. Whenever he wanted Tina to pay attention to him Andy would appear, play some silly prank or crack a joke or imitate some teacher and make Tina laugh. He would invariably end up hogging all of Tina attention.
Tina, Steve could see, was really fond of Andy. He was jovial, fun loving and a real extrovert while Steve was shy and reserved. Andy was tall and well built, great in sports and very popular in the class. Steve on the other hand was not all that good-looking. Moreover, he was just about average in sports and was no match to Andy in popularity. Of course Steve was better in studies but did that really matter?
If only Andy shifted to some other class or better some other school then Steve would become Tina’s best friend.
Three days before Christmas Steve told Tina," I am having a party on Christmas Eve. It is my birthday. You should come."
"Sure I will. Andy will of course be there no?" she asked.
Steve had no intention of inviting Andy but now he had little choice.
"Y..yes, I was planning to tell him today."
Steve caught Andy in the football ground and invited him.
"Oh! Sure, maan, I’ll come...," he began and then slapped his forehead. "Hey maan, I just remembered, there is a dance competition in our club. I have to go for that. Tina will be there too -- she is my partner. I have already given her name, but the ass that I am, I forgot to tell her. But never mind she won’t say no."
"But Tina has already promised to come to my party," Steve said barely managing to control his anger.
"Wait, wait. There is a way out. The dance competition will be over by 7.30. It is in Habshiguda Club quite close to your house. By 7.45 we’ll be at your bash, okay?" Andy said slapping Steve on his back.
Steve was wild. Even on his birthday Tina couldn’t spare time for him. Andy had to interfere and spoil his plans. There was however nothing Steve could do except curse Andy.
* * *
It was Christmas eve and Steve was sitting in the drawing room of his house. The party was in full swing. All of Steve’s friends were there except Tina and ....and naturally Andy. He had promised they would be there by 7.45 -- it was now nine and still no sign of them.
"Damn him," Steve cursed under his breadth. Andy must have totally forgotten or more likely he was doing it on purpose to spoil Steve’s party. Andy was probably getting possessive about Tina. He didn’t want Steve to be friends with her. Poor Tina, without realizing what was happening, was allowing herself to be manipulated by Andy.
He looked up. It was Tina. She was wearing an emerald green frock and her hair was tied in a pony tail. She looked really innocent and cute. Andy was standing beside her.
Tina spotted him and came rushing.
"Many happy returns," she said shaking his hand.
"Thanks," he mumbled not quite forgiving her for coming more than an hour late.
Andy joined them shaking Steve’s hand and thumping his back.
"Where’s the birthday cake, maan," he bellowed.
Steve mumbled something and went in. He told his mum to serve Tina and Andy and came out to the verandah. He was boiling inside. He wanted to get back at Andy for spoiling his party. Andy’s moped was in the driveway. On an impulse Steve went into the garage, took a screwdriver from the tool kit and walked to the spot where the moped was parked.
Steve’s uncle was a two-wheeler mechanic. His garage was Steve’s favorite hang out and he had learnt quite a bit about the mechanism of scooters and mopeds.
Andy’s moped was parked between a scooter and another moped. Steve bent down and quickly worked on the brakes. Within a few minutes he had fixed the brakes. Now when Andy would apply them they wouldn’t work and he would go crashing. It would serve Andy right for messing up his party.
He went in washed his hands and then entered the drawing room.
Tina came up to him. "Steve, I think you are angry with us for coming late.
"Why should I be angry? You and Andy must have been too busy dancing with each other to even think about me. That rascal Andy promised me that he would get you here by 7.45. Like a fool I believed him and look what happened?"
"Steve don’t just jump to idiotic conclusions. We were not busy dancing. In fact we have come here straight from the Gandhi hospital."
"Yes. Andy’s mother has been admitted. She was suffering from mild fever for the last couple of days. Yesterday afternoon the temperature suddenly shot up and she started getting convulsions. She was taken to the hospital immediately. I had gone with mummy to see her this evening. Poor Andy, he had been running around the whole day. On seeing me he remembered the promise he had made to you. Even though I wasn’t keen to come to your party he persuaded me.
"Tina, if you don’t go Steve will really be disappointed. It’s his birthday maan, we guys shouldn’t let him down. And we won’t tell him about mum. Poor fellow will feel bad. Why should we spoil his special day. I’ll drop you, wish him, have a piece of cake and then rush back," he told me.
"Where is Andy?" Steve asked looking around desperately.
"He has gone back to the hospital. He asked me to make some excuse on his behalf and left."
"Gone back! Oh! My God. What have I done," Steve wailed.
"Why? What happened," Tina asked.
Steve rushed out followed by Tina.
"I...I.... have to catch him...the brakes. I tampered with his moped’s brakes..." Steve blabbered.
"You idiot. How could you be so vicious- "
Steve didn’t wait for her to complete the sentence. He just picked up his cycle and took off. Steve drove like crazy, praying to God Andy was safe. He took a short cut and within five minutes was on the main road leading to Gandhi hospital. He kept searching the road for any sign of accident. Just as he reached the hospital Steve saw Andy coming out of the scooter parking area.
"Andy are you okay?"
Steve told Andy what he had done and stood their hanging his head in shame. He didn’t know how Andy would react. But even if Andy hit him he would have to tolerate. After all there was little doubt that he had behaved like a miserable wretch.
"Hey come on Steve. Don’t stand there acting as if you have committed a murder. These things happen. It was only a misunderstanding. Probably in your place I would have done the same thing."
"You...you are not wild with me Andy. Will you still remain friends with me?"
"Of course maan. Now push off. Tina must be chewing up her nails in tension."
As Steve was about to leave Andy asked him, "Hey Steve, there is one thing that is puzzling me. You are great with bikes. If you had fingered my bike’s brakes they would have stayed fingered. Then how come...." he paused and then added, "I got it. In all this confusion I forgot one thing. Come with me."
Andy let him inside the parking lot and pointed to a Luna.
"Was this the bike you tampered with?"
"Of course not. This is a Luna. Your bike is a TVS."
"I was right then. Actually my TVS had a puncture so I borrowed the neighbor’s Luna."
"Oh! God that means I messed up someone else’s bike. Let me rush back," Steve said and sped away.
When he reached home he found the TVS still parked in the drive way.
"Thank God," he muttered under his breath. The screw driver was still in his pocket. He bent down and within a few minutes the brakes were back to normal.
"Is he okay?"
Steve looked up. Tina was standing, her face tense.
"Yes. By mistake I had tampered with this TVS that belongs to someone else. I have set it right now."
Tina turned around and waked away.
"Tina, I’ll drop you home."
"Leave me alone Mr. Steve Chapman. I never ever want to talk to you. You make me sick," she said and strode out leaving behind an utterly miserable Steve.
* * *
"Hey Tina, let’s go and wish Steve a merry Christmas," Andy said.
Tina had gone to the hospital with a bouquet of flowers for Andy’s mother who was now feeling much better.
"Andy, for God’s sake don’t take that fellow’s name in my presence. I don’t want to see his face. And I don’t understand one thing Andy -- Steve was so mean and nasty yesterday and yet you want to go sniggering to him and wish him merry Christmas."
"Tina, you should realize that Steve is extremely fond of you. I have known him since we were in class three. He has never thrown a birthday party. He is a very shy sort of fellow who has very few friends. This year’s party was only for you. When you didn’t turn up he naturally blamed me and decided to pay me back. I am not defending his action but for one mistake you can’t damn him forever. I know what Steve did was really mean. But at least he had the courage to admit his mistake. He could have kept quiet. But the minute he realised he was blaming me wrongly he felt guilty and owned up. Believe me Tina it is not easy to admit one’s fault. It requires a lot of courage."
Tina didn’t utter a word. She just kept staring sullenly at Andy. Apparently she still wasn’t convinced.
"My uncle is a priest. He sometimes invites me to attend his sermons in church. Tina, I am not a religious person but I go because he is a terrific speaker and tells great stories. One day he was relating the story of the crucifixion. Do you know what were Jesus Christ’s last words on the cross? ‘Forgive them o’ Lord they know not what they do’. Imagine Tina, Jesus forgave even those unkind, inhuman scoundrels who had nailed him to the cross in such a savage manner. Don’t you think there is a lesson in it for us? Moreover, today is Christmas. This is the day to spread the message of love and friendship, not an occasion to nurture grudges.
* * *
Steve woke up. It was Christmas morning and yet he was feeling miserable. Tina’s words had kept echoing in his mind the entire night. He had kept tossing and turning and hadn’t slept a wink.
He somehow managed to drag himself from the bed and sat in the drawing room. The whole house was agog with excitement. His kid sister and brother were jumping up and down opening their Christmas gifts and squealing with delight. His mum was busy in the kitchen while his dad was ringing up his friends and wishing them merry Christmas.
The bell rang. Steve got up and opened the door. Andy was standing outside. Steve turned around and started walking back to the sofa.
"How is your mum, Andy?"
"She is much better, Andy said.
"Look who’s come," he added.
Steve turned back. It was Tina. Dressed in bright pink, she looked adorable.
"Merry Christmas," she said smiling at him and sending his spirits soaring.
A Note From Ramendra Kumar
Isn’t it a lovely coincidence that the two most important festivals of two great faiths are falling within a gap of ten days! And isn’t it really sad that because of a few misguided and vicious elements the people of two great faiths are at loggerheads with each other?
If one looks at the basic tenets of all religions one finds they are the same - love, peace, non violence, understanding and forgiveness. And yet more wars have been fought, more blood has been shed in the name of religion than over any other issue. Isn’t this really ironical!
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth - most of humanity seems to be obsessed with this kind of tit for tat. But can we not change this equation to - ‘love for hate’, ‘peace for war’ and ‘forgiveness for revenge’. If we all could learn even a little bit of these noble values enshrined in our religions wouldn’t the world be a far, far better place?
Also find in this edition of Natkhat a candid expression by 7th grader Swasti Shukla from Cupertino, California "I Hold in My Hand" in which she offers a potion to overcome the tragedy that took place on September 11, 2001.
And before I sign off Id Mubarak and a Merry Christmas to all of you.