I attended one of those schools where much care was taken to segregate the genders – the girls sat in a row of their own. The guys played on a ground of their own. Our roll numbers were segregated too. The last girl was roll number 22 and it was boys all the way up to roll number 45.
At roll number 23, I straddled the precarious divide between the two genders. Having no interest in numerology, I ascribed no particular importance to this odious prime number until I was assigned the table to perform Chemistry experiments.. with Samyukhta – roll number 22.
She was by far an unlikely girl to fall in love with but hormones work by way of optimizing the chances of mating and she had won bonus points for proximity. Every Tuesday, at 2pm, we would wait in line outside the lab for the old lady to open the creaky doors. After a barrage of instructions, which included graphic accounts of how acids could potentially eat your skin and flesh, we would walk over to our assigned tables in pairs of two. We were the only mixed gender pair in the Chemistry lab and it would inevitably have me glowing with feelings that I barely recognize even today. I suppose it was mostly pride and embarrassment but the they were barely discernable from each other.
Samyukhta was your stereotypical girl. Soft hands. Soft voice. Soft manners. She couldn’t operate the Benson burner. She was too delicate, too finicky. So we had agreed on a delicate arrangement of our own. I lit her fires. All of them. She washed the beakers and the flasks. I pipetted her chemicals, I dripped the acids for her. She washed the flasks with care, casting anxious looks as I adjusted the titration instrument or held a beaker of sulphuric acid close to her. “Be careful” she would gasp. Not once or twice but a hundred times each month. Perhaps, it was that which impregnated me with the preposterous idea that she cared for me. That I mattered for her.
It was during the flame tests that she gasped her loudest, loud enough the forty odd pairs of eyes to turn around and look at me.
In retrospect, I understand that Samyukhta had provided me sufficient gender contrast to gravitate strongly towards my gender. She had provided me an elbow room to nudge my way into young manhood. During the few months that I had spent with her, I had acquired a risky edge and my voice had grown a notch deeper. So, it didn’t occur to me that in my feverish attempts at producing the most spectacular sparks, I had supplied an ounce too much of the zinc powder. Or maybe it wasn’t zinc after all but one of those other chemicals that burnt with a deep red infused with a touch of green. My hand retracted itself, I shrieked as the sparks grew louder and brighter, and as I leaned on the old wooden furniture that held old glass bottles and beakers, there was a clatter of glass breaking, of chemicals spilling onto one another, of scattered ashes and flames. A hand held mine tightly. I opened my eyes. Samyukhta stood by my side, holding my hand for a minute too long. “Are you alright?” she asked.
Soon, the lab administrator arrived and reinstated with vigor the perils of haste in a chemistry lab. The Chemistry teacher arrived soon afterwards and provided a dose of her concerns.
The other students had snuffed their burners. I could hear them whispering. I wondered what they’d talk about. I could tell that my ears burnt red. The burner by Samyukhta’s side was still aglow. The others filed out of the lab for the Physics lecture while Samyukhta titrated all by herself and while I stood with my eyes on my toes as the two old ladies stood berating me.
When I walked in the classroom later, I saw only one face. She had a smile on.