Regret by Ananya Dasgupta
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Inman Square. S&S. Punjabi Dhaba. Amory Street. Not much had changed in the past twelve years.

 

I was waiting to cross the road at the intersection of Cambridge and Hampshire Streets. A smartly dressed woman, perhaps in her twenties, was sitting on the bus stop bench. She was staring at me with an unreadable expression on her face. There was something familiar about her.

 

‘Hello,’ I smiled.

 

‘Hi. I am Kayla. Do you remember me?’

 

*

 

I had been on a dependent visa, with no permission to work.

 

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I walked down Cambridge Street to attend undergraduate courses at Harvard University. The classes were so big that no one ever realised I wasn’t a student. I always sat on the top tier. The big-eyed astronomy professor would sometimes dash up the classroom, right into the face of an unsuspecting student and shoot out a question. I tried to bury myself into my seat as much as possible. Then one day I didn’t go back.

 

A frizzy-haired linguistic expert waxed eloquent about the intricacies of the human brain. He was brilliant and stuck to his podium. I finished his course. On those days I ate lunch at the Science Centre cafeteria. There was a boy with Down Syndrome, cleaning the tables. I never got to ask him his name but he always smiled and said hello.

 

On most other days, I watched Gilmore Girls on tv.

 

*

 

Kayla and Jordan lived at the east end of Cambridge. Far from Harvard. They had six siblings and a mother who had three jobs. They walked four miles to school every day. On some days their mother would give them a dollar each to take the bus. Jordan would buy himself a Dunkin’ Donut instead and walk home.

 

*

 

I found the Cambridge School Volunteers by chance. The pleasant lady asked me to meet her at the Rindge and Latin High School. A former journalist, wife of a Harvard professor, I fit their requirements well.

 

‘Can you start from next week? We have a couple of students who need some urgent after-school tutoring,’ she said.

 

I could have started that day itself. But I decided not to seem too eager.

 

‘I’ll have to check but I think I might be able to do it,’ I said, feigning thoughtfulness.

 

‘That’s great. I will let the principal know,’ she said. ‘She will get in touch with you and then you can fix the day.’

 

She thanked me for volunteering. I thanked her for giving me the opportunity.

 

That afternoon I heard from the principal. We decided on Mondays. I was put in charge of two siblings, Kayla, in the 7th grade, and Jordan, in the 6th.

 

In the evening I met my friend Fatema at the Whole Foods Market on Prospect Street. She was from Bangladesh and had worked at the cash counter for the last seven years. She told me about all the new Bengali books at the public library branch at Central Square. I told her about my new volunteer job. She didn’t share my excitement.

 

‘You might find it difficult,’ she warned.

 

*

 

Martin Luther School, Putnam Avenue. It took me half an hour to walk to the school.
I was asked to wait in a room opposite the Principal’s office. There was a long table surrounded by chairs. I sat at the head and waited for my new friends.

 

There were no smiles. They didn’t even look at me.

 

‘Hi Kayla and Jordan,’ I tried to sound enthusiastic.

 

‘Hi,’ the girl, with her hair tied tightly in a ponytail, sat down a couple of chairs away. The boy pulled the chair next to her and slumped down.

 

‘Hi Jordan,’ I tried again.

 

‘I want to be a basketball player,’ he declared, still not looking at me.

 

‘Oh that’s excellent. You know I can’t play basketball. Perhaps you can teach me,’ I said.

 

‘You are too short.’ he retorted. He was still not looking at me.

 

‘Yes, that’s true. Anyway, right now I am here to help you with your homework. Do you think I can look at your books?’ I asked.

 

‘No.’

 

Kayla had already taken out her mathematics homework.

 

‘Do you need help with the number line?’ I asked her.

 

‘If you want to help, sure.’

 

*

 

Kayla could be pleasant, though she never smiled. She yearned to do better but never had time to complete her homework. Her mother depended on her. But she enjoyed her mathematics. If she was in a good mood, she asked tricky questions. Sometimes I didn’t know the answers.

 

‘Perhaps I will go to Boston University,’ she told me one day.

 

‘Maybe you will,’ I said. I didn’t think she believed me. I didn’t either.

 

Jordan was a different story. He didn’t want to learn. He thought he didn’t need any help. Even though his school planner had almost 30 do-s.

 

I brought my favourite books to read to them. I told them about India. About tigers, the Taj Mahal and tandoori chicken. Jordan just sat there, with his school bag tightly shut, his lips pursed, chewing gum. Often, he stared out of the window. And sometimes he pretended to have fallen asleep.

 

*

 

‘Of course I remember you! Though I can’t say I would have recognised you if you didn’t tell me your name,’ I confessed.

 

She smiled, ‘Yeah, it’s been many years.’

 

‘What are you doing?’

 

‘I work at the CHA Cambridge Hospital. I got into UMass, you know. Are you surprised?’

 

‘No, no not at all. I am so happy to hear that,’ I said.

 

*

 

‘Are you going to take the bus today?’ Jordan asked me one day. I was pleasantly surprised because he never talked to me. That day he had brought a basketball into the room and had bounced it off the wall. Non-stop.

 

‘Usually I walk. Why do you ask?’

 

‘Maybe we can come with you?’ he said

 

I thought if I paid their bus fare, he might decide to take out his books. As we walked up to the Harvard Square bus stand, he said, ‘We love donuts! Can you buy me one?’

 

A few weeks passed. I bought them chocolate-kreme filled donuts, sometimes ice cream at J.P. Licks, and their bus tickets. But Jordan didn’t change. He hardly ever acknowledged my presence. He made at least one rude comment every day about my appearance and my accent. Nothing I said or did made any difference. I kept telling myself that he was only a child and that I should ignore his comments. But I couldn’t. I just wasn’t good enough.

 

I was getting increasingly unhappy. My Monday troubles trickled into rest of the week. So one day, rather impulsively, I told Kayla and Jordan I was going to walk home and they were welcome to join me. Also, there would be no more donuts.

 

I immediately knew that the bricks I might have laid on the bridge had collapsed. The next day, Jordan looked at me bitterly and said, ‘Most people’s tutors are either black or white. She is neither. She is strange.’ Kayla remained silent.

 

That day I cried. I decided to quit. I told the Cambridge School Volunteers I was going back to India. I didn’t leave a message for the Principal at the school. I didn’t even meet Kayla or Jordan to explain my decision.

 

*

 

‘What about Jordan? He plays basketball?’

 

She looked down.

 

‘Not really. I don’t know where he is. He went away to New York and we haven’t heard from him since.’

 

Her bus arrived. She waved at me and left. I stood there. The pedestrian light went from red to green over and over again

 

*


Ananya Dasgupta began her career with The Telegraph in Kolkata, India, and has extensive experience as a journalist. She worked as an editor with the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research Archives in Mumbai, where she was responsible for the TIFR Oral History Project. She co-authored the book A Masterful Spirit: Homi Jehangir Bhabha 1909-1966, Penguin Books, 2010, and is the author of the children's book There's a Hole in my Galaxy, Pratham Books, 2019.