She was surrounded by people the moment she stepped into the class.
“Hey! Good to see you again!”
“Where’d you been?”
“Missed you, yaar!”
“We had like SO MUCH fun at the party!”
Piya smiled brightly at her classmates, answering questions and allaying concern by turn, tilting her head to one side in a display of mild, friendly curiosity.
Someone had died. No, no one very close. Some distant uncle she had barely known. There had been a funeral. Funerals had to be attended, of course. It was only proper, especially when someone in the family passed away. Not died. People didn’t die, especially not when they were part of the family. That would be a rude thing to do. They merely passed away.
Piya put down her school bag on the desk beside Swati, her usual partner, who launched immediately into a detailed account of her last date with her newly acquired boyfriend, a senior, and a member of the school band. Piya smiled excitedly at all the exciting parts, clasped her hands to her bosom and giggled shyly at the romantic bits, blushed where blushing was expected and sympathized where someone required sympathy.
By lunchtime, her jaws were aching. Not that this caused her smile to falter, of course. Nor could you have detected any sign of distress on her face as she threw her head back to laugh heartily at a rather crassly sexual joke one of the more popular boys had cracked, to the shocked laughter of the entire class.
Piya smiled a lot. At everything. Everyone. Her smiles didn’t discriminate. She had learned from experience that it was the best response to almost anything. No one could fault you for a smile. Plus, you didn’t need to worry about misunderstandings.
Words could be misinterpreted, remembered, dissected, then reproduced to mean something entirely different. Not the same with smiles. A smile could mean anything you wanted it to mean, and no one could blame you for smiling wrong, could they?
There were different kinds of smiles, of course. The warm, open one for greeting friends; the slightly shier but equally friendly one for acquaintances and newcomers. The small, sympathetic one comforted someone after a breakup or when their parents had fought like Nisha’s frequently did.
The excited, happy one for when close friends hooked up and the expectant, encouraging one for inviting confidences of such super-secret hook-ups, news of which inevitably spread faster than wildfire anyway.
But people liked to feel special, to feel like their lives and stories generated interest, happiness, anticipation, and apprehension. They only listened to other people’s stories and mishaps so they could tell their own, after all. Piya knew this, and she had no problem catering to that desire. It wasn’t even all that tedious.
She liked stories, and some of her classmates were really good at telling theirs’ – spicing them up with all kinds of dramatic twists and turns, fairytale romances and heart-rending angst, mystery and adventure all wrapped up in a single afternoon’s trip to the movies with a certain cute boy they had met on Facebook.
Nodding and smiling appropriately at all the right places was a small price to pay for such engaging entertainment. As you have probably noticed by now, Piya smiled a lot. Near constantly, though with some fine distinctions between one smile and the other, distinguishable to a keen observer.
That didn’t matter, however, as she was surrounded by teenagers; who, by being teenagers, didn’t much care to spend their time observing and interpreting other people’s expressions unless there had been letters, of course! If there had been letters, and blushes and stammered confessions, then you may well be observed through lowered lashes and secret glances in between classes or during recess. Still, in that scenario, the observation was focused on something else entirely. And that was a complication of a different kind.
She hadn’t always smiled so much. In the beginning, she rarely had. I mean, why would you smile anyway? If something were funny, you’d laugh, and not many things were that funny anyway. A funny memory or a snatch of a conversation accidentally overheard might make you smirk or maybe even giggle in extreme cases.
The point of smiling always eluded her, though. The only time she had genuinely wanted to smile was when her sister had climbed toddling onto her lap. Her little sister was warm and soft and fuzzy, and it made Piya happy to see her, hold her and rock her. It wasn’t funny as a joke or exciting like an adventure story. Just happy. Just enough to make her want to smile.
But Piya only had one sister, and she only toddled so much. And she soon realized it wasn’t enough to smile only at her sister, only when she wanted to. If she didn’t smile at guests, Mother would scold her for being rude. If she didn’t smile at school, Ma’am would get worried and call Mother, and then Mother would scold her for being rude again.
And then the other kids would call her a freak and a grumpy cat, and random strangers would look sympathetically at her anxious parents and recommend doctors and give her sweets to make her smile. Well, the sweets weren’t so bad, truth be told, but Piya eventually decided that even toffee wasn’t worth the hassle that not-smiling seemed to cause for everyone involved.
After all, smiling wasn’t about being happy. Not really. People said it was, but they didn’t mean it. Smiles were equipment. Like…like forks and knives! Only you didn’t use them to eat with. You used them for people, to handle them like you handled Maggi with a fork, wrap it round and round the fork so you could pop it into your mouth. Not that you’d want to pop people into your mouth, of course. But that was a different kind of handling, though quite as simple when you knew how. If you knew how to use your smiles like you used your fork, people wouldn’t be hard to handle at all.
Smiles were making silent people talk, nervous people comfortable, sad people less sad than they had been before the smile. They were for making Nisha stop crying when her parents fought, for making Swati tell her stories about her new boyfriend and for making the new girl stop fidgeting on the last bench.
They were for hanging out with friends and talking to boys and charming the teacher into granting them half a free period. Like a spoonful of food, they required a cautious balance, of course. But once you’d managed it, you could do pretty much anything you wanted with it.
Piya smiled expectantly as she strolled out of the school towards the bus stop, listening to Rashmi tell her story about the seniors she had caught snogging in the attic that afternoon (what she had been doing in the attic during school hours was, of course, anyone’s guess).
It was an interesting story, if slightly repetitive around the snogging part, and she felt herself relax in the cool, crispy air of late January. Her smile dimmed slightly as her muscles relaxed, but that was okay. Rashmi was too engrossed in her story to notice anyway. And, after all, it was an interesting story.