It was break time in between hectic rehearsals in a closed auditorium; a few actors huddled over the spread of fabric swatches placed in front of the designer, Chandra, as she finalised the costumes. 'Chandra, after dinner, we'll do a full rehearsal with the props,' called out the director. 'No, no, not today, I have to catch the last bus and head back to town. We'll do it the day after, I can stay here over the weekend though.' Her friend nudged her, 'Chandra, you must consider moving here, Laurencedale is a much better school than the ones in the town, it would be so much better for the kids!' 'Oh they love it there, Indu. They have so many friends, they are happy kids...use this fabric for the bustier, oh and the armour? Earthy tones work with the theme, copper?' Indu proffered a couple of fabric samples, 'This one, we'll go with this; that settles it then. Anything else I need to look at? We've been through the ornaments... I can get you that hand harness and we're done! Chandra, give it some thought, the standard of the schools in town aren't anything great, kids make friends easily, they'll make new friends...' Chandra grinned widely as she walked to the door, 'They're literate, Indu, and they are happy, they'll educate themselves as they grow, we just need to be around to support’. ‘Hands off parenting huh babe?’ ‘I don’t know, non-smothering mothering may be,’ she laughed.
Chandra navigated through the width of the bus terminus to the cafeteria. She wanted a steaming cup of coffee before boarding the bus and she had to be home for dinner with her family. That sweet reverie of a family dinner was broken by the vibration of the cell phone in the pocket of her jeans. She fished it out and the display announced her husband’s call. 'Hey, what's up?' 'Chandra, are you on your way? Listen, I'm stepping out for a bit, going to Valley Road, Haru is stranded there with a friend.' ‘What happened? Are they okay?' ‘They are, honey, I m going there to get them,' he ended the call.
There was a barricade cordoning off a portion of Valley Road, the first few television reporters to arrive on the scene were waiting with characteristic impatience on one side, on the other side was a fallen motorcycle, a schoolgirl sitting propped up against a roadside tree. Haru was shuffling in front of the cops, waiting for his dad. The kid looked terrified at the onslaught of judgemental stares piercing his usually self-effacing persona.
His dad cut through the commotion. 'I'm the boy's father. Can I take them home now?'
'Formalities are there. This boy has to answer a lot of questions and the girl's parents, where are they? We are taking them both to the station.'
'But I'm taking responsibility for them...'
'We are not booking them, I will need to handover the girl to her parents, she's a minor...'
'Her parents have gone out of town, she's my son's classmate. What formalities?'
Chandra's bus made a pit stop, the passenger next to her had sent her husband and son out for refreshments and continued her conversation with Chandra. 'This is what he drew for the competition, we are thinking of moving close to that school, so that he will have time for more activities.' Her son clambered on to the bus a few minutes later, her husband then settled the boy in his seat across the aisle from his mother and then turned to her and showed her a video clip on his phone, 'See this, it's going viral, this kid, this uniform she's wearing, is it Om's school's?'
'Looks like it, oh God! She is completely sloshed and abusive!’ The shocked woman showed the clip to Chandra and continued indignantly, ‘Such a bad name for the school now. We are paying such huge fees for the school because it is a good school…the parents, how callous! Don't they know where their daughter goes and what she does?!’
Chandra remained transfixed through all this, the inebriated girl in the clip was being helped up to her feet by another kid, perhaps her friend or classmate, even in the shaky video, Chandra recognised her son, Haru, the perplexed child trying to handle another child unaware of the can of worms being opened as their unfortunate accident was being recorded by a voyeuristic bystander who couldn't expend enough energy to help the victims get over the shock and compose themselves, lest he lose the opportunity to make the video!
The kids were all over the news. The politicians in opposition used this to highlight the failures of the incumbent government in curbing access of alcohol to underage kids. Not to be outdone, the incumbent government used this as the landmark moment where they announce prohibition in the state. A gloomy sense of déjà vu gripped Chandra as she was bombarded by the life this event was taking on in the social media. The MMS scandal from her past enveloped her and held her briefly. She relived the helplessness of being ostracised and tossed from a Delhi schoolyard to England to an ancestral village home. She shuddered out of it and told herself with conviction that she will have to make sure those mistakes are not repeated in this girl’s case. One mistake could isolate a person, and it is that isolation that most often becomes the fount of a lifetime of mistakes.
When Chandra entered the home of the girl, Dipu, about an hour later, her husband and son were there. Dipu’s parents were rushing back from the nearby twin city they were visiting for a wedding. The cops sent the girl home with her grandmother who lived with them, but one of the cops was waiting in the house till the parents arrived. The girl was in her sleeping. When her inebriation wore off, she was going to wake up to the nightmare unfurling around her. Chandra noticed Dadi's scandalised outrage being poured into the phone, she went up to her, took the phone from her hand and said, 'Bachchi hai, she made a mistake. It is not unforgivable! '. Dadi raised her voice, then mumbled and went to check on Dipu.
Chandra went up to Haru, who was patiently waiting outside his friend’s room and gave him a hug. Chandra did not want to leave just yet, she wanted to wait and speak to Dipu. Dipu had woken a little later, confused and with a lot of questions, Chandra had taken some green tea to her bed. ' I know you are lost right now, I want you to listen to me very carefully, you made a wrong decision today, overcome by your circumstances. Unfortunately, it got out of control, but I want you to remember that this is not the end of the world for you, okay? Don’t let this mistake define your life.’
Dipu meekly nodded.
Haru, meanwhile was on the phone, their school friends group on a chat forum was constantly buzzing. ‘Everyone is coming, Niki can pick you up on the way…talk to your parents, c’mon yaar, please, we need to be with…’ The doorbell drowned his voice. Chandra stood at the bedroom door and saw the girl's parents storm into the house. The mom walked straight towards Dipu’s room, while the dad thundered, ' Why are you people here, we just want some peace and quiet!' The mother had already started screaming at Dipu, 'Did he get you drunk? Why did you go with him?' she pointed an accusatory finger at Haru.
Before they could explode in full parental rage, the cop summoned the parents to sit down. He had to brief them about the happenings of the evening. 'Your daughter left the house this morning, went to a mall where she had arranged to meet two girls from her class. They hung around there till afternoon, procured alcohol from an outlet in the mall and took it to the house of one of the girls. They probably started drinking around 3 o’clock. An hour later they wanted to return to their respective homes as if they were returning from school, without raising an alarm, but this girl was too drunk and not in her senses, so they called this boy and asked him to take her home. He picked her up and the two left with the girl riding pillion on his bike. At Valley Road, she lost her balance and fell. A crowd gathered around. She could not stand and became very abusive. The traffic police called us to the spot as it is a case of public nuisance. We took both kids to the station; his father came and brought them both here. Luckily for your daughter, this boy instead of running away from there, stayed and called his father for help. Since the girl is underage, my duty is to hand her over to the parents. His father has paid the fine. We cannot book the girl under any charges, but we are letting her go with a severe warning. She was not even in a position to understand anything spoken to her. She was fully sloshed! The other kids who were with her at the mall say she was scared to face you as she didn't do well in some exam to go abroad. They also say that she was interested in a boy in her school but he has a different girlfriend. Kids these days are out of control!'
Dipu’s mom sat petrified through the whole session, and her dad finally mumbled, 'I'll repay what he paid...the fine,' his voice trailed off, and the cop left.
Chandra turned to the Dipu's mom and said in a steely voice, 'You owe my son an apology.' Dipu’s mother was still in some shock, she only managed to look in Haru’s direction, who oblivious to all this was still busy on the phone. Dipu’s dad meanwhile placed a hand of solidarity on the shoulder of Chandra’s husband, 'Dhillon ji, sorry. Thanks for the help, to you and Haru.' As he turned to Chandra, she said barely hiding her anger, 'You owe your daughter the biggest apology, for being the kind of parents the child can't talk to.' An awkward silence ensued. Haru opened the front door as if to shoo away the tension with proper ventilation, a bunch of their school friends walked in and quietly went to Dipu’s room. Dipu’s father warily walked to her room to check on them. Niki was spiritedly goading Dipu to rehearse her lines for the school play. Dipu read but faltered, the day's events had finally sunk in and weighed her down. ‘I can’t face anyone at school, I’ll skip this term. I’ll directly sit for the exams,' she announced. Niki knew she had to be authoritative. ‘Shut up, yaar, we are all gonna be around.’
Haru quickly joined in. ‘Forget today’s screw up, Dipu’. Ana quickly got them back on track, ‘The script needs a lot of work, we’ll need some help there. Anyway Dipu, you read for Nick Carraway now, c’mon!’ Dipu read with a steady voice, ‘The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole life fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly’.
Dipu’s father realised his daughter still had a choice other than stare helplessly. He softly told his wife to bring refreshments for the kids. He then turned to Chandra, “Chandra ji, the kids are rehearsing for a play, adaptations of novels for the stage can be quite the challenge, they may need some help there. We could chip in perhaps?’
During a rehearsal everyone learns to pick up their cues.