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Friday, August 15, 2008

Tour de France- Part VII

The new girl in her classroom was tall, big-framed, with a well-developed bosom. Suji was intrigued by the implication- how old was Paula, where was she from? Paula sat at her desk, lips compressed grimly, eyes ablaze with a silent fury. She had smooth gleaming dark cocoa skin, complemented by tiny springy curls clustering close to the scalp. She was always dressed neatly in a navy blazer, knee length skirt and white blouse. Her unbending taciturnity defeated everyone. Even the teachers could barely elicit anything more than a monosyllabic response when they addressed her. At playtime, while the other kids would whoop and holler exuberantly as they chased around the playground, Paula kept her silence under an old oak tree.

Suji approached her again. “ Hi, Paula.”

“Mmmmpf.”- an indifferent nod. “Isn’t it nice weather today? Do you like to swing?”

Silence. A shake of the head.

“I’m eight years old. How old are you?”

Withdrawal.

“I’m from India. Where do you come from?”

Paula turned and walked away from the tree to the other end of the playground.

Shrugging, Suji pulled out a book from under her sweater, settled comfortably against the tree trunk and started to read. The smuggling of books out during the play break had become a regular feature of her day. Recess time outdoors was an annoyance, not a release, she had decided, particularly in the absence of any playmates.

Suji still had to go through the routine of gymnastics class and breathless, panting runs around the tracks. Gymnastics classes were held in a large translucent bubble, where all the other girls came attired in leotards. Suji was the only one in a tee and shorts. She watched enviously as Helle, elegant in her purple leotard, classic Nordic features and blonde topknot, gracefully cartwheeled her way across the floor and ended with a back flip. Suji’s trials at cartwheeling weren’t getting anywhere, though her attempts at a handstand were showing slight improvement. She spent more time listening to the lovely classical music wafting from the speakers than actually trying any tumbling. Balance beams, uneven bars and Roman rings were drudgery of the worst kind, she lacked the muscle power to lift a respectable height on the pommel horse and gave up after a desultory attempt or two. The gym teacher shook her head and tsk-ed at the ineptness. Suji couldn’t care less if she got a failing grade in this- this was the very least of her priorities at school.

Track running was unpleasantness of a different kind, in the crisp cold air. She ran for about 50 feet before her lungs gave out, slowing her down considerably, wondering whether she would ever reach the end of her track.

But the nature walks to the nearby Parc de St-Cloud were sheer delight and filled with myriad surprises along the way. They would put on their coats and trudge through the woods, arriving at an opening with a grassy field, and let loose, picking up odds and ends for their nature journals on the way. They chased across the field, teacher sedately following, to a sun-dappled path which ended in a small outdoor playground with paint peeling off the slide and swings, unlike the carefully painted equipment back at school. A brief rest and recess later, they walked back the way they had come, toting their writing pads, pencils and paper bags filled with found objects. This was Suji’s idea of outdoor fun- Fresh air, sunlight, brisk walk.

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