He must have pondered over this for long. I can almost see his face, just as it was in his late teens, a series of expressions marching across it before breaking into a vile grin, as he proposed the name to the others. My name. I suspect he must have been the one to come up with the master plan too. Why don’t we-? he must have said. And the others, the less creative ones looking up to him, must have nodded in agreement, their eyes shining in admiration at the sheer brilliance of the idea.

Even in that age, they knew how to spark a rumour. These girls, they must have whispered among themselves, they don’t know how to start a fire, though they know very well to spread it. We need to show them the matchbox, the match stick and then gently suggest to them without seeming to, that these two could possibly ignite a fire or two.

The call came one sunny morning (yes, it was a Sunday). I was surprised – I was not expecting anyone to call. I was even more surprised to hear his voice. After some preliminary dialogs (carefully scripted, no doubt), he began in the utmost confidence:
Oh it’s nothing. I just thought I should let you know. I have been pretty worried, and I thought someone sensible as you would know what to do.
My red flag went up. I knew him of course. But for a moment, I admit I faltered. I wasn’t even twenty, for God’s sake.
It’s about – (he named a girl we knew). One of the guys (he named one) has a crush on her. Like a deep, terrible, unbearable crush, bordering dangerously on love. He cannot eat or sleep or sit or stand or study. I was just afraid someone would start to gossip about them or something. Don’t tell her. Don’t tell anyone.
I said okay, dontchaworry, my lips are sealed, and put the phone down. The red flag was still up and I wondered why.

It is important to note at this point that the dude knew nothing about me. Yes, you had figured it out when he suggested my extreme ‘sensibleness’, but otherwise too. If someone gave me a secret for safe-keeping, then I would protect it with my life (except when I blog about it a few decades later). It is also important to note that I am talking about a period on the other side of Y2K, and someone having a crush on you was like a disaster that has befallen you.

I went back and considered this bit of news. I felt sorry for my poor friend. What had she done to deserve a crush who could not eat or sleep because of her? What will her parents say if they heard this? No, there was no way I was going to tell her or anyone else. I did not want her to panic. I should not allow the rumour to spread, or anyone in the vicinity to gossip about her. My lips were sealed.

In the days that followed, when I met the dude who called me, I pretended as though the conversation on phone had never happened. When I saw the guy who had a crush on her, who looked all set to grab the attention everyone would soon shower on him, I narrowed my eyes, but I would pretend nothing was amiss. All the while I was looking out for some signs of people talking about it, ready to quell it at its slightest indication.

One week later – he could not contain himself any longer – he came and asked me how things were going. I hope you didn’t tell anyone about what I told you.
Of course not, I said shaking my head vehemently. Not a soul.

When his face fell, it came to me in a burst of clarity, what my survival instinct had been trying to tell me all this while. He had been trying to point out the matchbox and the match-stick and suggesting fire. He had hoped the fire would spread and engulf us all. He probably thought he could watch proudly from the sidelines as the affair he had orchestrated hit a crescendo. On the one hand, I could not believe that I had been so used, on the other, (in the safety of my room) I could not stop chuckling. God, he had so chosen the wrong girl, poor dude.

I did tell my friend about it, a few weeks later, after I made sure the story about the crush had become too stale and not even the sootradhar and the ‘crushed’ were interested in it any longer. And if I remember right, we both had a good laugh at their expense.