Never Forget a Ruby

Never Forget a Ruby
Never Forget a Ruby
Never Forget a Ruby

She was not a friend, nor a classmate, nor a social sibling –the veil under which some people fraternised in the college. We were graduating in the same year and we both had English Literature and she was in the other section further down the hallway.

Although the timings for the classes were the same and fixed, the teachers kept throwing us out of synch. Professors of literature were like rivers in flood, forever overflowing their topics and time. Once on the clouds, there was no knowing when they’d release their wards back to terra firma. It was often then that when we stepped out of our class the other chamber would be a vacuous hollow. Or its doors would be shut, its denizens still grappling with the agony of a Hamlet or a Prufrock.

We first met when Professor Raina merged his classes due to his upcoming trip to Europe. The first of those lectures began with a scramble for neighbours of choice which was soon followed by the rush to grab the last of seats. It was critical to collect every uttered syllable by the Delphi’s priest if one had to fare well in the finals -no one knew T. S. Eliot better than the tall, grizzled man.

I was sitting on the front bench to the right of the lectern with two more students whom I don’t remember. She came in late, stood briefly at the door, scanning the mass till her eyes stopped at us. Moving quickly towards our seat in even steps, she smiled at me, ‘Mind if I sit here, Nietzsche?’

There was a burst of guffaws. She was the ace marksman of the year.

I stood erect and bowed. ‘You’re welcome, Cleopatra!’

The cackling got louder. And the names stuck.

We ended up being a gang of a dozen irreverent students adept at holding quick kangaroo courts.  She was the natural queen of the proceedings and I was the acknowledged cynic of the pack. A month long strike by the teaching staff loosened our shackles further. We chattered our heads out in the disused classrooms, loitered around the dry fountain and haunted the bustling, semi-dark canteen.  Our daily gazette thundered ahead full steam as we dissected the high and the mighty of the college as mercilessly as we pillaged the hapless hoi polloi, day after day.  Friends, foes and lovers; flirts, creeps and lechers; lecturers, professors and guest speakers: few could escape the noose of the hungry theatre.  And all the time we were referred to as Cleo and Nietzsche. We had invented names for most others too, within and without the circle.

There were times though when we fell apart, like the one when we squabbled about Sonia. It was also the only time she had addressed me by my real name. We were scattered on the steps of the Faculty of Arts when Sonia walked past working her hips subtly. Her jeans clung to her from the waist down and she was wearing a black sleeveless top that said “Right Here”.

‘She needs to master her riches sooner than later.’ Cleo intoned even as Sonia was barely out of earshot.

‘Why tamper with nature?’ I countered. ‘The next day you’d want her to wear a hijab.’

Cleo’s face was a slideshow in purple. Nothing moved, no one spoke further for a few minutes.

Ruby, the real name of Cleo, came from a Muslim family and it was rumoured she was married at just sixteen and separated from her husband the next year. Some said her husband wanted her to move in veils even in the house and that is how the marriage had ended. Her mother ran a small boutique in Agra and her father lived somewhere in Delhi with a new, younger family, never bothered about his earlier life. Her mother dispatched her from the bitterness to a new city, to the freshness of studies. She was staying at the Girls’ Hostel.

‘Samir, I know how it feels to be incarcerated in hijab and I wouldn’t wish it on my enemies against their will.’ She said with a husk in her voice. ‘But don’t be shocked if you run into girls who find it liberating. Sonia would do better by not splattering her youth like a tree in storm.’

‘I am sorry, Ruby!’ I hastened to apologise. ‘I am sure you are right about all that.’

The teachers’ strike ended soon after that and Professor Raina had already left for Vienna. We didn’t meet for a long time till one afternoon when I chanced upon her coming down the stairs of British Council Library in company of Hemant Singh. I froze and my heart lurched for a moment. Hemant, the acknowledged wolf who didn’t even pretend to hide his smoking hormones, was my neighbour at the hostel. Hemant, who had his guts and gray cells all in his groin, was the stock supplier of ‘super stuff’ sleazy magazines to the whole community. He pretended to read ‘regular stuff’ too and had managed to borrow my copy of Gone with the Wind a year back. It was a hardbound MacMillan edition whose face I would never see again. Instead, he dumped on me a cheap paperback issue whose pages were yellowing already. ‘Sorry, mate! Lost the one you gave!’

She cheered up visibly at my sight and we stood together making small talk. Hemant was quick to pick the cue as we both ignored his questions and he slipped away quietly after sometime. When I told her about my plundered volume she clucked and muttered under her breath, ‘Filthy swine!’

We stayed together some more time but she seemed a bit listless with a forlorn look in her eyes. Suddenly, she made me jump with her question, ‘Tell me, Nietzsche, did Scarlett O’Hara love Rhett Butler?’

‘I am afraid not, Cleo!’ I said, racking up my thoughts on the mammoth work.

‘What about Ophelia?’ She asked next.


‘Yes, Ophelia! Did she love Hamlet?’

‘Some grasshopper, aren’t you!’ I thought of Hamlet with those gnawing glaciers upon his heart, it’s a wonder he was even breathing. And that poor girl Ophelia, ripped apart between her seething brother and the mad suitor.

‘What’s come over you, Ruby?’ I looked into her eyes.

‘Don’t worry! Girls come and go. Talking of Espresso!’ She flashed a huge smile at me, cocking her head to a side. I noticed she had her hair cropped shorter in crisscrossing layers that framed her heart-shaped face in a cute way. Before we could talk more, her roommate’s moped stopped by our side and they rode away.

Continued in ‘The Man from Baker Street’.


  1. Wow! What an amazing start Uma. I loved the way you developed the chemistry between Cleo and Nietzsche. Sonia also helped as a third character to get their conversations go deeper. Overall a fine build up to what sounds like a gripping tale. I am hooked my friend!

  2. In my language USP… the sketches of the characters and the scene is done ? amazing !! Eagerly waiting for the dialogues, the punch and the moral along with the colours and your copyright marking on the fabulous story !
    As i told you.. your characters are live … so much I related when Ruby expressed herself picking up the word hijab !!
    The intermissions in your tale set me free to imagine self made stories with your characters …

  3. The beating around the bush, the perouetting around the bend , the skirting round the periphery. love does seem to take its time to elicit a confession! Cleo, I wonder where the similarity lies, and Nietzche ? Well, sooner the better, you tell us…dying of curiosity!

  4. The going is great. It is always better to wait for Garam Roti, wait for the atta to ferment a little heaving up making the dough softer than earlier. Umashankar jI People like me who could catch computer facility for being in town for 2-3 days in between their work in remote forest, it is really very hard to wait. Anyway I prefer to wait.

    1. Pradip ji, you seem to be well versed with the journey of the dough to ‘Garam Roti! They say the fruits of patience are sweet. Thank you!

      That is an interesting schedule you have, romantic to the hilt. I am sure it inspires you to write a lot.

  5. Not fair to leave this story half way Uma Shankar. We had a professor named Raina and he taught us T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland. But he was short and stocky. 🙂

    1. Sorry for the discomfort, the sequel will follow.

      Your professor Raina seems to have missed the train here. Better luck next time! 🙂

  6. Hi Umashankar

    College romance reprise?

    You have sketched out the characters so well. Given your penchant to surprise readers with unexpected twists I am sure the denouement would be interesting.

    Killer Serial …. waiting for the next one with bated breath and fluttering eyelids.

    1. “Well, I’m on my way
      I don’t know where I’m going
      But I’m on my way
      I’m takin my time but I don’t know where
      Good-bye to Rosie the Queen of Corona
      See you me and Julio down by the school yard.”

      Thus spake Paul Simon.

      1. What a song ..Paul Simon, take a bow!

        But that song suggests a different kinda twist. 😉

  7. Lovely story woven around interesting characters. More power to your pen, Uma.

  8. Waiting to read the next part…I love the playfulness in their friendship 🙂

  9. Getting my popcorn ready while I wait for the next part. Love the characters, the conversation and the suspense of wondering where this is leading……..

  10. Whenever I read your stories, I don’t read them. I watch them. Such is the kind of aura your writing creates.

  11. the style of writing is such that one is left to wonder whether they are there on paper or moving in your eyes. have been reading off and on a couple of ur posts first time thought of expressing my view too. Though feel a little dwarfed to comment on someone who write absolutely beautifully. Lovely post would keep following ur writing in future too (more for tips 😛 :P)

  12. You are some fine writer, Uma… Great title for this one, too…I laughed out loud at your description of the English profs going on and on…(I teach English lit and am sooooo guilty!)

  13. Love it, Uma. Reminds me of my medical school pals and hijinks. I think you met your match in Cleo, but Ruby can hold her own, too. Waiting to see what happens next…

  14. That mate should have given you an equal replacement, if he even lost the book as well. I’m a huge fan of Cleo. She is strong, independent, and best yet, has self respect. Not that Sonia doesn’t, I just personally don’t know why some women have to put it ALLLL out there, especially with a billboard to advertise the obvious. I think written words like that on clothes are repulsive, especially on the behind.

    I’m not Muslim, but I can see why hijab can be liberating. It doesn’t happen now that I have a wedding ring or even an office job, but I used to hate when strange men would start inappropriate conversations or questions to me if I was dressed up in a suit or dress. I’d sometimes go home first, wash off my makeup, change into old, baggy clothes to go grocery shopping or do laundry. No one bothers me when there’s nothing attractive to see.

    1. Charlene, we have all kinds on God’s Earth.

      As for hijab vs putting it all out, either extremes could be dysfunctional. Eventually, it boils down to personal preferences. Both have upsides and downsides. I hugely appreciate your invaluable input.

      Thank you for liking the series. Many, many thanks!

  15. I never studied English literature and Hamlet etc went way over my head (being honest is good, right? :P), but I feel like I should give it a try again sometime.
    It is a good start. About the hijab part, well, we might find it restricting, but some women who actually wear them find it comfortable and liberating. They know better,I guess…
    Waiting for the second part…

  16. Thoroughly enjoyed part 1. So wonderful the way you have developed the interaction and tension between the characters. Ruby/Cleo’s questions about Scarlett and Ophelia are very intriguing. Will be definitely reading part 2!

  17. This is fantastic. The wit and charm woven so well in the story. By the way, Ruby is one girl you wouldn’t want to cross, what a strong character. I loved this.

  18. Uma, so happy to see that you’re still getting great comments on your writing. Even though I’ve let Good Golly Miss Molly go, I have a new site that’s just about music, mostly jazz, not a lot of writing. Maybe you want to stop by one day.

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