Shona was beautiful. Not in a painted way. No unguents or emollients would ever touch that virgin skin. The beauty was in the tips of her fingers as they danced when she explained a math problem. It was in the light that bounced off her unruly curls as she giggled unabashedly or shook with mirth. It was at the corners of her eyes, the way they crinkled when she outlined fiendish plots to overthrow the class monitor. Sumeet thought often that he would dissolve into her if he ever had the chance to touch her. He always kept his hands to himself, fearing that if he did, even by mistake, make contact with Shona, his last boundary would break. And he would just melt into atoms, evaporate into the mist that coated her face.

Shona inspired nothing but intensity. Being calm was being half-baked in her book. Each moment demanded grabbing, did it not? Each butterfly had the world to see before it died, and look wasn’t the sun setting with so much more to do this day? Sumeet would have willingly followed her anywhere. The edge of the world was a cliché why, he would even skip chemistry class if Shona asked.

Sumeet snapped shut the heavy folder on his lap and sat up straight with a heavy sigh. The pain in his jaw had reached his temple now and this patient file had not helped. He massaged his throbbing temple, stunned by the crosswinds of fate that had brought him here. Here he was, over a decade later at this particular nursing home, a freshly minted neuropsychiatrist just beginning his career. Fated, inevitably drawn towards Shona. Shona, whom he had displaced more than lost as their childhood waned. Shona, whom he had never gathered the courage to finally touch.

He could remember their first meeting vividly, as if it were yesterday. He shut his eyes and sat back. Instantly his mind was flooded with memories. There he was, the new boy in class, trying to stay out of the way of classmates who appeared confident, so bustling and cheery. At fifteen, this move to another new town had felt like a betrayal; Sumeet had been unwilling to leave his old life behind. He was a shy boy and had just begun settling in at his last school, making friends, understanding the delicate teen hierarchy of his classroom. And then, just when he had started feeling at home, his father had informed him about yet another work transfer. Another transfer, another town, another sackful of memories to leave behind.

Sumeet had never been much of a rebel, but he had tried to show his parents his dissatisfaction nonetheless. He had experimented with small acts of rebellion, his actions neatly prescribed within a periphery he was comfortable with. Sometimes this meant showing up late at the dinner table. Sometimes, he would bring his lunch back home from school uneaten, the lovingly packed parathas returned to his mother’s kitchen in a congealing mass. But ultimately, Sumeet’s pragmatic mind had realized the futility of his actions, categorised them as silly and as having an effect only on himself. Apart from leaving him hungry and discontented, they changed nothing. Especially not the transfer. And so, he had accepted the status quo and packed up his room.

Soon, it was the first morning at his new school. Sumeet had combed his hair carefully, trying to paste an exact amount of fringe down onto his broad forehead in unconscious imitation of his favourite Hindi film star. Now he stood outside his new classroom, the nervous new boy waiting for the teacher to walk in first. As he waited, he peeked inside the vast room and eyeballed his new class fellows. Such a varied bunch they were, and so loud. This was Sumeet’s first time in a coeducational school, and he gaped with undisguised awe at the girls all around him. They were everywhere, flitting around unconcerned as if totally unaware of the effect they were having on his hormones. At his previous school, before he left, Sumeet and his old classmates had discussed his to-be coed classroom at length, picking up and chewing on every girl-related situation with horrified and titillated glee.

“Aye, what if you have to sit next to one?”

“What if she smells?”

“Are you stupid? All girls wear perfume.”

“They like men, not boys, bro. Be confident …”

“Listen, you have to look under a skirt for me, dude I made a bet with my brother. He said all girls wear bloomers under their school uniforms instead of panties.”

“Don’t make eye contact, okay? They’ll think you’re being extra-friendly and complain to the teacher. They’re trouble, man.”

“No, dude! Find a desk right next to the hottest girl …”

“Yeah or get a hot lab partner at least!”

“Pray to Hanuman and keep your thoughts pure …”

The advice and ribbing had continued until Sumeet had left. Sumeet had laughed and smiled along with the others, but taken away nothing from the banter except a firm resolve to leave the girls in his new classroom strictly alone. He needed to settle in, study hard and prepare for his board exams. His academic career lay stretched out in front of him, a long, solitary road he must trudge through to reach his ultimate goal of becoming a doctor. Girls were an unwelcome distraction strewn across this road like pebbles beneath his walking shoes.

And now, here he was, outside a classroom brimming over with them. Sumeet felt like he couldn’t draw in air. He hadn’t expected to be so affected by these girls. They looked so normal, yet were altogether alien to him. He couldn’t get enough of their strangeness. He looked agog at the way their skirts swayed around their knees when they walked, how their uniform blouses looked clean and white and stretched taut across their shoulders. He noticed a buffet of hairstyles: ponytails, pigtails, turned-over plaits, oiled bobs and blunt-cuts. He noticed their sizes and their colours and how they stood giggling in groups or sat carelessly on the wooden benches, clueless that their feminine ways were making his stomach lurch.

Excerpted with permission from “The Pillory” in Instruments of Torture, Aparna Sanyal, HarperCollins India.