“I want to have a happy family when I grow up.”

“But what do you want to be?” Seema looks at me through her owl-rimmed glasses. She seems puzzled. She’s already decided that she wants to be a doctor. “That only, to have a happy family,” I smile firmly. Seema nods in a half-hearted manner. For someone who’s so smart, I think she’s being rather stupid not to be able to understand something so straightforward. But I like her a lot – she has a quiet listening face.

Seema’s my second-best friend in school, after Amy, whom I’ve known since Nursery. Amy and I share a bond, which is why she is my best friend – we can find something funny in almost anything.

Sometimes it starts with a giggle. Preeti Miss is reading from our social studies book, “Hundreds and thousands sacrificed their life for one common goal – freedom of India from the British.” The room is hot and stuffy. Preeti Miss has been reading for a while and we are bored silly. Amy and I always sit beside each other. Now we lean over our textbooks, our arms almost touching as we try to stop ourselves from sprawling right across the table. “We owe our freedom fighters our free and easy lives today. We must salute them!” We catch each other’s eye – something about this sentence strikes us as being hilarious.

Amy smothers a chortle. “The freedom fighters’ satyagrahas, sacrifices and the tortures they endured have resulted in the freedom of our motherland.” Our shoulders shake heavily. We don’t dare to look up, or at each other, or anywhere for that matter. The rest of the class passes in an agony of trying to keep from exploding with laughter. At last, Preeti Miss finishes and leaves the classroom. We collapse on to the desk and howl with abandon. Seema had joined school earlier this year. I did not know she existed till almost the end of the first term! (Amy and I sat in the middle of the classroom where all the noise and action lay, Seema sat right at the back, unnoticed and friendless.)

During the first term tests, we had been seated beside each other – both our last names start with R –Rao and Raza. That’s when I’d first noticed her properly.

My usual practice was to get done with the tests as quickly as possible. I would jot down whatever I thought was the answer, and then spend the rest of the time drawing elaborate flowery designs at the back of the question paper. Preeti Miss always urges me to “go through my work” when she sees me doing this. I insist I’d already done that, though of course I’d not. And continue drawing till the bell rang and the test was over.

On one such afternoon, bored with the patterns that I had drawn, shaded, and then scratched out with a vengeance, I had looked across the room and my eyes had fallen on Seema. She was engrossed in drawing an endless set of perfectly straight lines with her ruler, which she’d taken out of the neatest pencil box I’d ever seen. Everything was in order – pencils lying meekly beside each other, their tips razor-sharp points, two milky white erasers lying ready to be pressed into service and most shocking of all, the sharpener was resting exactly in the groove meant for sharpeners! Seema had looked up. Caught in my intent scrutiny, she had stared at me a little like a rabbit in a headlight.

I had grinned at her. Something about the serious face, with curly hair that stuck out of her hairband, greatly appealed to me. Slowly, she smiled back. That afternoon, Seema had joined our lunch group. I don’t call her Seema. I call her “Hery” because of her hairy arms. She knows I’m only being affectionate, so she doesn’t mind. No one else calls her this, of course; I wouldn’t have it. When the bell rings to mark the end of lunch, Amy runs up. Amy never walks if she can help it. A sulky classmate trails behind, carrying Amy’s pink Barbie lunch case.

“Let’s skip back to class,” Amy links her hand in mine. I dump the ugly three-tiered tiffin box that Mama insists I carry and my big fat water bottle into the girl’s arms, and I encourage Seema, “Give it to her.” I am dragged off by Amy before I can add another word. The girl follows sulkily. It’s her turn today, and I wish she’d have a better attitude. After all, no one’s forcing her or the other girls to carry our stuff around, they’re the ones always volunteering their services. Seema follows, carrying her own lunch box and bottle.

Who’s Afraid of a Giant Wheel?

Excerpted with permission from Who’s Afraid of a Giant Wheel?, Zainab Sulaiman, Duckbill.