At school we had a subject called S.U.P.W.: Socially Useful Productive Work. From standard VI to XII, all we did in our S.U.P.W. classes were various forms of creative craft. Throughout the years, the various assignments I had to submit for my S.U.P.W. evaluation deteriorated in degrees of sadness. My woolen doll was cross-eyed; my penguin was fat; my squirrel had a very pronounced, meandering stitch zigzagging across its back. However, the one item on my S.U.P.W. itinerary that ever looked beautiful (and perfect to my fragile adolescent taste) was the flowers we made from stockings.
I didn't start on a perfect note however. On the very first day of this new assignment, I arrived in class with my things only to discover that all my classmates had bought such wonderful stockings. Mine were monochromatic, and looked distinctly dull in comparison. On the other hand, my classmates had procured stockings whose colours faded from a dark shade to a lighter one from one end to the other. As a result, by the time the flowers were made, theirs had the hue of freshness and innocence near the base of the petals. Mine only opened wide and stayed dull. This was how they remained until a friend interfered and showed how I could bend the supporting wire to shape my petals like a half-opened rose. I went home and practised this new tactic on all the flowers I had made, and was awed with the result: they now looked like the multitude of flowers my classmates had made, save for their dull colours. Part of the crowd, yet removed because of their dullness. Ecstatic by my result, I bought more stockings, this time, careful to let the owner of General Stores know that I wanted stockings whose colours faded from a darker to a lighter shade. As my flowers began to look perfect, they seemed indistinguishable from the rest of the perfect flowers made by my classmates. My parents would often applaud my beautiful flowers, with their half-opened petals, and long, elegant pedicel made of green tape, and I would feel dizzily proud of my handiwork.
During the last days of winter that year we had our School Fete, and in the absence of our seniors, who were preparing for their ICSEs, we were entrusted with the job of organising it. I would be manning the momo stall with my friend on D-Day, and we would all pitch in to decorate the school for the event. We spent several weeks planning, having meetings, making lists, and distributing duties to each other. We ran into each other at Bidhan Market while buying streamers and coloured cello-tape. I mastered the art of making decorations with streamers. Someone came up with the idea of pasting our S.U.P.W. flowers on the pillars of the north balcony, and we returned home on the penultimate night to make bouquets of our flowers. I laid my flowers on the bed, admired each of them for hours, adjusted some petals, and slowly and with extreme care, made bouquets. I couldn't help but feel as if my babies were being put up on display to be admired by the world, and I held the final results before the mirror, carried them to my parents' room, displayed in various poses, before carefully putting them in a polythene bag to carry to school the next day.
I still remember School Fete that year. It was hectic, and the first time our batch had got such an important responsibility. My friend and I made several trips up and down the corridor, carrying massive hot containers of momo, and alternately manning the counter. By four o'clock I was completely knackered. Just as the crowd finally thinned, the blow came. Someone told me the flowers had gone.
Our table was so strategically placed, that I could make out the outline of my bouquet. Many times over the course of the day I would find people looking at it and admiring it, and I would myself count the number of the pillar on which it hung. When I first heard that they had vanished, I looked at the pillar. I couldn't see anything, and I blamed my poor eyesight. I jumped into the grounds, and ran towards the balcony. I can still remember being absolutely numb as I saw the bare pillar. I counted the pillars, hoping that this wasn't the one, but I was wrong. Besides it wouldn't have made any difference: all the pillars were bare anyway; all the flowers had gone. I didn't begin to cry right then. I looked around frantically, asking classmates if they knew anything about the flowers. Every one was clueless, but none as distraught as me. My friend from the stall finally joined me, and together we went round the school, looking for the flowers. My flowers. When at length she spotted a little girl, not more than six years old, with a stockinged flower, did she call me. It didn't take me a fraction of a second to discover that it wasn't my flower, but I reprimanded her sternly, and asked her if she knew about the others. She didn't. I found a classmate playing in one of the game tents, and handed her that flower, for it belonged to her. She had no clue, and muttering a jubilant thanks, rejoined her game. It was then that I started crying. And I went on crying in the car all the way home, telling Maa how unfair life was; and I cried myself to sleep that night.
The next day at school, I seemed to be the only one who was concerned about the missing flowers. Throughout the day I interrupted conversations involving predominantly the subject of cute boys from the neighbouring schools, to ask about the flowers. The one reply which made me cry again that night was from the girl who topped our class every year. She never read books, she didn't know what "good music" was, and watched only blockbuster Bollywood and the ubiquitous K-serials which were so popular in the beginning of the last decade. She said, "I knew this would happen. So I didn't give any flowers. I didn't buy streamers too. What is the point? Others are working. Let them work. And being in a stall, my god! So much work. I was a volunteer, and I stood in the shade of a games tent till noon, and then went home with my father. I didn't even become so sunburnt like you."
I never took a picture of those flowers. Nearly ten years later, I don't even remember how many I had made, and what their colours were, except for a violet one, which I had made from my first batch of stockings, and which I especially adored.
Why, after all these years, on a very hot and humid May day, which is also Robi Thakur's birthday, did I remember those flowers and those lonely winter days?