Back in class, we had to arrange our desks in a circle and talk about ourselves and what we were looking forward to in the coming year. Tanveen Miss, who had been the Class VII class teacher for as long as anybody could remember, seemed unnecessarily excited about this.

“We’re going to use today to get to know one another. Let me start,” she said and immediately began telling us about her dog, Bowbow, and her three children, whose names she didn’t mention.

I took this time to reflect on how small our class had become – there used to be about thirty-five people and now there were only eighteen, about a third of whom were new kids. I tuned back in to find that Tanveen Miss seemed to have lost everybody’s attention. “I look forward to a year of learning and...teaching. And exploring,” she added, looking pleased with herself.

A few people said that they were looking forward to making new friends. Mahrukh said pointedly that she was looking forward to using the basketball court again, since someone from this class whom she didn’t want to name had broken the basket last year by hanging from it just to show off, and we all looked at Suchi, who said nothing.

When it was my turn, I said “maths class”, because it was really the only thing I was looking forward to. After that, everyone said “history”, “science”, “English”, or “Sports Day”, and we were done pretty quickly.

Tanveen Miss quickly announced that she had another activity planned for us, which made me a little nervous.

She had taken a few classes for us before – she loved giving us activities, but they usually ended badly. “Some of you know the school grounds well; for some of you, it’s your first day. We have to learn to embrace our surroundings. Embrace your loved ones, your learning, your world. It’s like Ms Nanda always says,” she said dreamily, “to know, you have to feel. And today we are going to do exactly that. I want each of you to pick an object in the school grounds to connect with. Bond with it. Speak to it. Learn to care for it. Or simply learn to enjoy its silence. We’ll meet back here in an hour.”

“Miss, can I choose a desk?” asked Rajni, who had been dozing on hers.

“No,” said Tanveen Miss.

“Miss, pencil!” shouted someone else.

“No!” Tanveen Miss was getting visibly upset. “Outside. All of you, go outside.

The questions continued, though, and Tanveen Miss finally announced that we were to each find a tree to connect with.

As we trailed out of the classroom, I saw Tanveen Miss smile, pull out a book and start reading. This suited me fine, and oddly made me like her a little more, since I was planning to do the same thing. The only thing was to make sure I got to the spot I had in mind before anybody else did.

It was a large tree with plenty of shade. If Tanveen Miss were to come check on us, I could pretend that I was talking to it. Also, the trunk was covered in thorns and was generally known to attract snakes, so I wouldn’t be expected to go hugging it or anything. If this was the kind of thing we’d be expected to do from now on, I thought, it wouldn’t be so bad.

Everyone ran off in different directions. I could see that Rajni had found a loophole and was lying horizontal on a stone bench (which had a small plant growing under it), and was hugging it with her eyes shut. I had assumed that most of the others would have gone off in their groups to play, but surprisingly, most people had followed Tanveen Miss’s instructions and at the very least had found themselves something to sit near, or around, or on top of.

As I headed off towards my tree, I heard someone humming behind me and turned around.

It was one of the new girls, who I think was a hostel girl. She smiled at me, and I smiled vaguely back and kept walking, quickening my pace a little. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to her, I just didn’t want her to see my tree and take it. Okay, I didn’t much want to talk to her, either.

She seemed to be following me though, so I walked a little faster and settled down quickly under my tree. I pulled Pallavi’s email out of my skirt pocket and read through it again – I’d printed it out so I could read it without my parents looking over my shoulder. She said that she was missing home terribly and that none of her classmates were much fun and so on, but at least she sounded busy.

I was incredibly jealous of her for that. I was sitting under a tree.

In about ten minutes, I was sleepy and began to get that slightly panicky feeling you get when you’re exhausted and can’t do anything about it. I couldn’t lean back because of the thorns and I couldn’t lie down because of the snakes, so I muttered to myself, “I’mtired I’mtired I’mtired I’mtired”, which I do sometimes when I’m restless and don’t know what to do.

“Are you talking to yourself?” said a voice a little further away. It was the new girl who had followed me. She had found herself a big rock and climbed on top of it.

“No, I’m talking to the tree,” I said quickly.

“That’s all right then, I guess,” she said, frowning slightly. “That’s what you’re supposed to do. At least you two are getting along. Mine’s giving me the silent treatment.”

I looked at the tree she’d chosen. It was one we used to climb when we were little. The rock next to it gave us a leg up. We loved it, but it was struck by lightning once and now it had no leaves and the branches were charred and unstable. “Maybe because it’s dead,” I told her.

“It’s undead. A zombie tree,” she said, affectionately rubbing her hand against the crumbling bark. “Have you ever seen a zombie?”

“Of course not!”

“Neither have I,” she said sadly. “You’re Elizabeth, right? I’m Ayesha.”

Ayesha didn’t say anything after that, so I pulled out my notebook to write out a draft of my reply to Pallavi’s letter. I had gotten as far as “Dear Pallavi” when Ayesha piped up again.

“I think I need to sing to it.”

“So sing to it.”

“I was joking. God. Do I look like the sort of person who would sing to a tree?”

I told her I had no idea what kind of person she looked like, and anyway, I had read somewhere that playing music to plants helped them grow.

“Although,” I pointed out calmly, “this might not work in your case since you were stupid enough to choose a tree that’s already dead.”

“You’re really rude, you know? I was only trying to make conversation. What kind of school makes you do this stuff, anyway?”

This was the question I had been asking myself as well, and I had to admit I didn’t have the answer. I also knew that I had been rude to Ayesha, and thought vaguely that I should be trying to make friends now that I didn’t have any.

Suddenly, I wasn’t in the mood to compose that mail anymore. I pushed my notebook back into my bag.

Ayesha stood up in a huff, jumped off the rock she was on and began to stomp off, then turned around quickly when she saw Tanveen Miss walking towards us.

“How’s it going, girls?” she asked cheerfully.

I wasn’t sure what the appropriate answer to that was, so I hugged my knees and smiled.

Ayesha complained, “Miss, she’s distracting me! And she said my tree was stupid because it’s dead!”

“Everything is deserving of respect,” said Tanveen Miss, looking up at it doubtfully.

“I think she should apologise to it,” said Ayesha, smugly.

Instantly, I hated her. I glared at Ayesha, ready for a fight if it came to that.

“No need for that,” Tanveen Miss mumbled, looking at me warily. “Anyway. Looks like it’s going well.” She disappeared.

I was very glad when the bell rang half an hour later for class to be over.

On my way back to class, I saw Mahrukh hanging off the branch of a mango tree, shouting, “Miss, nothing’s happening!”

Two girls had gotten into a fight over a tree they’d both wanted, and had spent the entire period arguing and crying.

Poor Tanveen Miss was looking miserable.

Excerpted with permission from The Hill School Girls: Alone, A Coven, Duckbill Books.