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We all remember that one incident from our adolescence that left us at our lowest, don’t we? One that made us feel sorry for ourselves. Sorry that we didn’t so much as raise a finger, when we should have done a lot more. Sorry that we let ourselves get cornered so badly there was no plausible way to get out. Sorry that, more than anyone else, we let ourselves down.

And, many a times, that “incident” is a physical altercation. One in which, it’s safe to say, we were on the receiving end of the beating.

Or at least that is what it was for Shanky Vai. He who was bullied quite often and frequently. Like the time when a senior from high school – the definition of imbecility if there was one – punched him squarely in his marbles in the basketball court at school because he didn’t look down, as he was instructed to, when the senior passed by him. And, to compound the problem, Shanky didn’t apologise when the bully gave him a chance to.

Although incidences like these had happened in the life of Shanky far too many times to count, it isn’t the unforgettable incident we are speaking of.

Let’s not dwell too much into the specificities of what happened in the altercation in question; which would end up being one of the two fights he would remember years from then, the other being an argument with a childhood friend the day his father passed away two years later.

In the grand scheme of things, the specificities don’t even make much of a difference. But it may help to provide you with an outline: Adya Parin was Shanky’s good friend throughout middle school. Their professor at the Astronomy Club even called Adya the “Venus to Shanky’s Earth”; the two bore the same physique, build and body language and behaviour. From behind, you couldn’t tell the two apart.

Anyhow, Adya had said something rather disrespectful about a girl in their class, who in fact was his ex-girlfriend; calling her… well, let’s just say it was something unwarranted. Shanky, whose intent we can’t decipher and can only assume wasn’t malicious, ratted Adya to the girl. This girl then confronted Adya; which, as you would expect, caused a deep rupture in the friendship between the two boys.

Even leading to a physical altercation.

And I don’t think I need to tell you that physical fights between teenage boys are not pretty.

Sustaining a fracture to his leg in the aftermath, Shanky was advised bedrest for the entire summer break. Lack of physical activity, exacerbated by the hours he spent in front of the television watching football, becoming an Arsenal fan, saw him put on ten kilograms.

But, worst of all, it hampered him emotionally. Made him… retreat in the shell where acknowledging his own emotions became difficult because it was just so dark in there.

Shanky had lied to his parents about what had happened. He told them some seniors at school ragged him. His mother, having seen her share of seniors ragging juniors at the medical institution she not only taught in but was also a dean of, urged Shanky to report it; even threatened to do it herself if he wouldn’t. But, fortunately, it didn’t take much for Shanky to dissuade her. Maybe she saw through him, saw the lie he was desperately trying to conceal; and understood the underlying dilemma.

His dad, though, seemed to not much care about the injuries his son sustained. “It’s some light razing, that’s it,” he said. “Trust me, ragging used to be worse, much worse, when I was a kid.” And then Shanky’s father, who Shanky’s friends in the neighbourhood called The Chill Dad, went on a nostalgic monologue about the painful, and yet what he remembers with fondness, days of his childhood. Like the time when, after school hours, he was ordered to stay back and parade around the school grounds in his underwear. When Shanky asked his father why he tolerated such behaviour, he admitted he was chickenshit. “But,” he added, “it did me a world of good. Toughed me up, made me… me.” Shanky wanted to tell him just how arrogant he sounded, in comparing a fractured leg to what might have been mortifying but certainly did not qualified as injurious; but he held his tongue.

Even Meera, the youngest of the three Vai siblings, saw through her brother’s supposed lies. Something about Shanky’s demeanour – especially him not seeing her in the eye – when he told her the supposed cause of his injury was… off. But she didn’t press him further.

Shanky kept the actual reason from his three neighbourhood friends too. Of the three, Mompy did try to press him a little, but Shanky didn’t budge. Bandem, the childhood friend Shanky would spar with on the day The Chill Dad died, and Anpag only hung around at the back while Mompy sat next to Shanky. It’s difficult to say how ashamed Shanky really felt being on the receiving end of the beating he had to endure. Because, if he did, would he not confide in them? Them who, being his age, would perhaps understand him best?

The cast around Shanky’s leg was cut open a week before the break ended. By the time school commenced, Shanky could walk; though with a visible limp. Still, he was advised to “keep it easy” by his doctor, who agreed to give him a note to sit out his physical education classes.

That was good with him. He didn’t want his classmates – particularly Adya – seeing him struggling to lug all the weight he had gained during the break. The wounds might have healed, but the emotional scar still burned fresh in his mind; like all of it had happened just yesterday.

The trouble – or as his father, known as The Chill Dad for a reason, used to say, “the bitch of it” – was that the embarrassment, the sheer humiliation of it would stay with him. Like a parasite that, feeding off of him, only strengthened as time rolled by.

The real bitch of it, however, was that the farther he went from it, the stronger its hold became.

You may escape your boyhood, but perhaps the boyhood never escapes you.

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