“You look pale as a ghost. Are you okay?” The auditorium was empty when we arrived and Raj made me sit on one of the seats. “I am fine,” I said, “just out of breath from all the running.” He sat down next to me and took my shivering hands into his. “I am sorry I put you through that. It was just some fun. I didn’t expect you to tell him the truth. Not when he already knew it was a Dare.” I was glad to see he was smiling. “I don’t know what got into me, Raj. Maybe your tiny speech from earlier made a difference.” He looked mighty pleased with himself. “Ha! Didn’t need that divine intervention after all, did you?” My mock angry expression made him laugh. I glanced at my watch. 4:10 pm. “Raj, it’s just 4.10! Why did you bring me here so early?” I asked, surprised. He grinned at me guiltily. “I thought this was the best way to get you out of there. I figured you would want to avoid the embarrassment….” I pulled him into a tight hug before he could finish.
The auditorium doors opened, and the volunteers and participants began pouring in. Suddenly, it hit me. “Raj, what am I going to do now? By tomorrow, practically the whole school will find out! How will I face everyone? Shashank? You saw his face? What would he think about me? I can’t….” Raj tried to calm me down. “Listen to me, that’s not important. What’s important right now is winning this competition. Just empty your mind of all other things and concentrate. We can deal with other things later.” That wasn’t very reassuring. “But Shashank….” He interrupted me mid way. “Shashank is a sensible guy. He won’t make an issue out of it, I promise. Now go. And good luck.”
The atmosphere backstage matched my state of mind—a nervous wreck. Extempore was difficult and dreaded by everyone. An organizer carrying a bowl of folded slips urged us to come forward and pick one. Inside the slip were our respective topics and the order in which we would be called on the stage. We had exactly five minutes to prepare before they summoned the first participant. I struggled to open the slip with my sweaty fingers and the first thing I noticed was a large ‘7’ written in black. I sighed with relief. My topic was simple and a little focus was all I needed to ace this round. But where was I to find that focus, when all my thoughts were clustered around that one big question.
The announcement for participant number 7 shook me out of my stupor. “Participant number 7, please wait in the wings for your turn,” a busy volunteer ducked his head inside the green room and announced. Was it time already? I hadn’t thought of anything to say. I was too preoccupied by the turn of events to think up matter for my speech. There was a thunderous applause from the audience, and the announcer called upon participant number 6. So I still had some time left for emergency measures. A panicking volunteer rushed me to the wings where I waited for my number to be announced. I could see the first three rows of the audience from where I stood, and it made me nauseous. I quit the last-minute preparations and resigned my fate to god. The audience broke into applause for participant number 6 as she finished her impromptu speech. I saw a girl in the first row stand up and cheer loudly. Probably an SR, since the front rows were reserved for them. Suddenly, my eyes focused on the person sitting beside her. Another SR. My stomach churned…it couldn’t be….
They had to literally push me on to the stage for I had frozen to the spot. They interpreted the horror on my face as stage fright. But it isn’t stage fright when the guy you have just confessed to liking in front of a swarm of people is seated in the front row to hear you speak extempore. Yes, Shashank was there, sitting tall and painfully handsome in the front row with an unreadable expression on his face. As I walked to the centre of the stage, his eyes met mine with an intensity that made me forget why I was there. “You may begin,” the announcer said. I closed my eyes for a split second and listened to my heart thumping against my chest. Just like before, the words somehow found their way out.
(Contd. in the next post)