Suman was my friend.
As a ten year old growing up in secular surroundings I learnt to never judge or question who my friends were. Therefore being friends with Suman was as natural as being friends with a girl next door. Her job of looking after two small children every day gave her plenty of time to play with us. In fact sometimes I felt that she looked after all of us along with those two kids.
Suman was a little older than us. Fourteen to our ten. She was tall for her age and definitely taller than us all . Slim to the point of thinness, she was always neatly dressed. I don't remember if she was good looking. But she had nice teeth and a lovely smile. She was like any other lower middle class teenager you might say. But she had the sharp tongue and pushy manners of a slum dweller when dealing with troublesome boys and we admired her hugely for it.
Being the oldest and ablest she won in all our games and was unanimously elected as our leader. She planned strategies for scaring off the boys from the streets. In retrospect I realized that they didn't really gather around to look at any of us ten year olds. We learnt choicest swear words from her and tried to spit far like she did. We all were her willing slaves and whenever we all shared any goodies, Suman got the lion's share.
Needless to say this friendship didn't go unnoticed by the family whose main aim in life was to bring me up to be a good girl. The skill of spitting the farthest is not something one requires to be a successful adult. My uncle was at the forefront of the brigade who kept an eye on us when we played hopscotch on the grounds. And if they ever saw Suman with us, playing or just watching, woe betide us. We would be severely pulled up, explained patiently about Suman's undesirability as a friend, be reminded of the positions our fathers, mothers, grandfathers, brothers and uncles held in the society. Any sign of nit or lice in my hair was blamed on the bad company I was keeping. I think Mom even got teary eyed once while blaming herself for not keeping a closer eye on me. And all this because Suman was my friend. They didn't understand that it was a natural attraction between the weak towards the strong. She was everything I had wanted in a friend or a big sister. And she was always there. Other friends were also facing similar problems from their families.
The collective siege on us just strengthened our resolve and we soon became experts at finding places away from the prying eyes, which in a housing society like ours, with large playgrounds was not a difficult task. Time went by and we were engrossed in our little world, playing and squabbling with each other with Suman always playing the mediator.
One day Suman didn't appear. We went to her employer's house to ask for her. We were told that now that the children had started going to school they didn't need Suman anymore. For the first time since we met her we became aware that Suman was not one of us and hated her employer for dismissing her so summarily.
She can still come in the evening to play with us, we thought. Every one plays in the evenings or so we believed. But evenings didn't bring Suman. We didn't have the courage to go looking for her in the slum where she was supposed to live. Bad people lived there we knew, people who drank and beat up their women and walked on the streets talking to themselves loudly and were seen lying on the streets unconscious. I was old enough to be afraid of the nameless things that go on in the slums. So we just waited.
Days passed and then months . We got used to Suman's absence. We by then had learnt to fight boys on our own. We had also learnt to be friends with them. Our games too had changed. Instead of hopscotch I was presented a badminton racquet and apart from beating a few boys a couple of times, I had no problems with the game.
One evening as we were busy with our game a friend called out-" hey look ! It's Suman ! " We all ran to the gate to meet her. It really was Suman, but a Suman we didn't recognize. She was dressed in shiny pink and green saree, a flashing nose ring, jhoomkas in her ears swaying rhythmically and bangles glittering on her wrists . With flowers in her hair and a tinkle of payal on her feet, she walked on the street. Her thin young body swayed with an insolent grace which shocked us into silence. An inner voice told me that she had become bad. But bad what, bad how, I dared not voice my thoughts. Suman with her sulky eyes elongated with a long line of kaajal, pouty red lips and heavily reddened cheeks looked obscene to me. I shrank back, feeling guilty for having witnessed her degradation this way.
My idiotic friend called out- "Hey Suman-You look nice ! Are you getting married ?" We all hushed her up hastily. Suman ignored us in complete disdain. With her chin up she looked straight in front of her as she walked away, leaving behind five confused little girls.
We returned to our game silently. By some tacit understanding, we never ever mentioned her name among us again. Once one girl tried to whisper to me that Suman had now become a prostitute. I hushed her up angrily and didn't talk to her for rest of the evening, as if by voicing that word she had betrayed Suman.
I never saw Suman again after that day.