LINE UP. LINE UP, NOW. ONE ARM’S DISTANCE.
Nikhil did a sketchy Hitler salute to make sure he was an arm’s length away from the boy in front of him.
The boy behind him either didn’t hear Rawson’s command or he heard him and didn’t care because Nikhil could sense him shuffling. Shah was from Jaipur. He was new. Nikhil wanted to warn him about shuffling but Bale and Rawson, the two PT sirs, were walking the lines and it wasn’t a good time to turn around.
The school was lined up for the Loyola Day speech. Three cassocks at the lectern waited for quiet. A white padre stood a little apart from them; he seemed to be watching Bale and Rawson make order. When Bale hit Shah on the ear to stop him from moving, the foreign father flinched. He closed in on the other padres, looking urgent. Nikhil could see Shah’s head now. It was at the same level as his right knee because Shah had fallen sideways, out of line. Nikhil could feel Shah’s dumb pain, hear the ringing in his slapped ear. At Ease, said Bale. At Ease already, Nikhil stopped breathing the better to be still, kept his shoulders squared, his hands linked behind his back and his thumbs crossed till Bale moved past him towards the head of the line. Shah began crying in shallow, strangled sniffs. He’d been the new boy for a term; he was older now.
School always had a white padre for Loyola Day who always made his speech in All India Radio-style Hindi. It wasn’t the same one every year either; the school must have trained a batch of foreign fathers in twenty four karat Hindi. As Father Mobilio began speaking—Respected teachers and dear students, which came out in Hindi as Mananiya adhyapakgun aur priya vidyarthiyon—Tandon, standing to Nikhil’s left, started slurring in High Hindi without moving his lips.
Avum hetu samudra setu shauchalaya mein linga varsha.
Kiya vachanbaddh stri nein pati ke mal ka sevan
Garbh nirodhak yawn sambandh ke viruddh tha Harsha
Atuhuh choda usne Edgar Allan Poe ka raven
Tandon could keep this up. It wasn’t particularly funny, but he always got someone to laugh. If nonsense didn’t work, his live commentary in strict Hindi describing Hippo and Home-Made having sex in the Staff Room generally did.
The padre speech followed a plan. First Ignatius Loyola, then Francis Xavier, then a long bit about the Society of Jesus and a shorter passage about the founding of the school. This fellow had reached the Francis Xavier bit and sainthood. Nikhil had read somewhere that the last time Xavier’s mummy had been shown to the public in Goa, someone had bitten off his toe - but catch the padres telling you that in any language. A mouthful of holy toe. Nikhil could feel its shrivelled pad pressing down on his tongue. Issh! He licked his lips to rub out the feeling.
He became caught up in the speech, hypnotised by the hyper-correct Hindi and the horribly fucked pronunciation. The brayed As, the brutally rolled Rs… he sounded like an early model speaking robot hurried into service. Nobody knew why the padres bothered. Tandon had a theory. Padres convert people in their own languages, he said. And hetu-kintu is what they think we speak.
At the lectern the foreign padre was struggling with the story of the school’s foundation. This school, he said, isn’t just the fruit of great labour. This school is the proving ground for the sacrifice and singlemindedness of St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Francis Xavier. Yeh vidyalaya keval shram ka phal nahin hai. Yeh Sant Ignatius Loyola avum Sant Francis Xavier ke tyaag aur tapasya ki karmabhoomi hai. He brought his palms together for emphasis.
In the middle row, Shah collapsed again, this time into Nikhil’s back - who staggered and grabbed a handful of someone’s shirt to stay on his feet. Shah, bhenchod! swore Nikhil. The drilled line broke and rippled into a whorl of interested boys, looking down at Bale’s victim. Nikhil squatted next to Shah who had fallen face first and was lying scarily still, like someone trying to look through grass and earth. He tried to roll him onto his back but it was hard; Shah’s shoulders turned but his waist and crotch stayed face down, sort of.
Bale walked up, tight and dangerous in his snug suit and narrow tie, looking unworried, non-guilty. Nikhil stood up and stepped back, silent. Sir, he fell, said Tandon. Flat, said someone at the back, fell from his feet, sir. Tandon mimed keeling over. Like a tree, sir.
Later, in the dispensary, Tandon claimed that Bale’s mask had slipped when he saw Shah looking dead, lying on the ground. He looked shit-scared. Like this. Tandon turned his lips down in cartoon dismay, keeping his teeth bared in a reasonable imitation of Bale’s brutal buck teeth which were always on show like a yellow radiator grille. Nikhil didn’t believe him. Bale was an animal. Nothing scared him.
They had half-carried Shah to the sick-room on the instructions of Bale, who didn’t accompany them. He’d have come with us if he was worried, said Nikhil. Tandon shook his head. That’s all show. He’s puking inside.
Sister Titus had Shah lying on his back on the high hospital bed. His eyes were open and she was getting him to count her fingers as she held up one, four, two, three, randomly. Shah came up with the correct answers. Was his head hurting? No. Was he feeling sick? No. Could he sit up? Shah sat up. He looked normal. Nikhil checked to see if one ear was redder than the other, or thicker. It wasn’t.
All right, lie down again, said Sister. No moving. You can go back to class for the tiffin break. Shah shut his eyes at once.
SHAH DIDN’T RETURN TO CLASS until well after the break, when Mrs Cowasjee had just finished dictating a problem for maths homework. Nikhil had copied it down approximately. It was a bathtub problem. Water poured into it at one rate and poured out of it at another. How long would it take to fill? This was the gist of it. Nikhil had written that down. The gist he understood. But in maths, unlike history or English comprehension, the gist wasn’t enough. It was nothing.
Mrs Cowasjee was an old woman who wore big blue beads around her withered neck like a foreigner and a large watch on her right wrist lashed on with a big black strap. She wore spectacles with strings dangling off their corners. She was sexless. She wore frilly front-opening shirts and knee-length skirts but no one ever tried to peek.
Nikhil stared at his notebook, thinking that the friendliness of a certain sort of maths question made it harder to understand. With stuff that went a2 - b2 = (a+b) (a-b), he knew where he stood. He had to mug up the steps; if two squared letters equalled four unsquared letters, it wasn’t for him to reason why. But the bathtub problem (or the one about two trains rushing at each other and a bell ringing, that was another killer), because it told a story in English, made him wonder why anyone would try to fill a bathtub with a hole in it.
This was a reasonable question in the real world but mathsworld was peopled by loons who bathed in stopperless tubs, fed by taps connected to waterfalls that delivered water at such a rate that no one bothered to plug anything. In mathsworld this was a normal problem about everyday bathing, not an arbit question for madmen. His father, who had been to New York, said that if you filled a glass under an American tap, it foamed like beer. New York was part of mathsworld; in Nikhil’s normal life there was running water between 6 and 11 and then between 4 and 9. A thin string of water, braided by the feebleness of its flow, would unravel, slowly, into the bucket and pool till it filled.
When Shah came to the door of the classroom and knocked, Cowasjee smiled and nodded him in. Tandon began clapping. Shah grinned and rubbed the ear that Bale had slapped as if to explain his absence. Shah was new and he wasn’t successfully new; he hadn’t made a friend yet and no one with any sense would have given Bale a reason to hit him, but he had one reliable talent: he could do maths. And he sat next to Nikhil. For the last month, class tests had been a walkover. Nikhil had had to work in mistakes to keep his test marks from improving too abruptly. He hadn’t asked Shah for his homework to copy yet, though. For that he needed to be friends with Shah and he didn’t know if he could make friends with someone who sweated a lot and wore rings.
Bale didn’t like rings either. The class met Bale again at the end of the school day because Friday ended with a double period for swimming. Bale didn’t like anything that wasn’t skin or uniform.
I DON’T LIKE ANYTHING THAT ISN’T SKIN OR UNIFORM, Bale bellowed in his hup-two-three voice when he had them lined up for inspection after the shower. He was rubbing his thumb on Madhukar’s collarbone to test for dirt. There was none. Madhukar was white and delicate and perma-clean. Bale rubbed him more than he did the others. The rubbing frightened Madhukar so much that the moment he entered the pool he walked a few steps along the wall till he reached the end of the shallow end and pissed into his trunks. For minutes, or so Tandon claimed.
Venkatesan stuck his tongue out when Bale got to him. He was nervous because he was wearing his sacred thread and Bale didn’t like anything that wasn’t skin or uniform. Bale picked it off his shoulder with his finger and thumb and held it like an unclean thing.
This was white once, he said in a hoarse stage whisper. Now its yellow, you bugguh, because you’ve been sweating into it for years. Years. Non-stop! And now you’re going to dirty my pool with its juices, Venkatesan?
Oh. So you’re going to take it off?
Can’t sir, whispered Venkatesan.
Bale shook his head.
Then it’s the deep end, Venkatesan. I can’t let you filthy the shallows, can I? There’s so little water there, Venkatesan, and so many boys. Go stand on the diving board.
Venkatesan stuck his tongue out again and stayed where he was. Bale waited.
I can’t swim sir, please.
You have your holy lifebelt on, no? The diving board, Venkatesan.
The diving board Bale was pointing to wasn’t the flexible plank that hung low over the pool but the new five metre high platform that Bale had pushed the padres into building, to help the school compete in inter-school diving competitions. The pool was small, which made the frame structure loom ominously. Students weren’t even allowed to use it yet because Rawson, the other PT master, who hated Bale, had written to Father Noel complaining that it was too high for the pool’s deep end.
Venkatesan smeared his hands over his face and tried to smile at Bale.
I’ll take it off sir.
Bale nodded towards the changing rooms, pretend-casual, but Nikhil knew that the bastard was honking inside. Still smiling his terrified, trembly smile, Venkatesan retreated.
The class got into the pool with more than half the alotted time left, which was was good. When Bale was being really military, double period swimming could end without anyone getting wet. After defeating Venkatesan, he spent another five minutes halfheartedly picking on Shah, who had a chit from Nurse Titus excusing him from entering the pool because—though this isn’t what the excuse letter said—Bale had half-killed him.
He first made him shower and change into trunks. Then he noticed that Shah was wearing an amulet on his left arm. What’s this? he asked, fingering the little rectangle of black cloth laced tight round the boy’s bicep. Shah, in his dim way, said that it was a taveez, which gave Bale the opportunity to say ‘tar-wheeze?’ Nikhil was beginning to get fed up when Bale livened things up by asking Shah what he was doing wearing an amulet when it wasn’t part of the uniform and he (Shah) wasn’t a cutcock.
Cutcock was Bale’s private term for katua, which, in turn, was a rude word for Muslim. Nikhil knew that Bale traded on being a crazy man, but saying something as unsayable as cutcock was pushing his loony license to its limits. He must have thought so too because he let the class file into the pool and spent the rest of the period showing off, diving from the high board and doing running lengths underwater.
Sitting in the school bus on the way home, Nikhil could smell the chlorine of swimming pool water in his hair. His eyes itched and the pads of his fingers felt shrivelled. His hair squeaked when he ran his fingers through it. He’d shower when he got home with his deep-yellow egg shampoo. The first shampoo he had used had poured like water. The new one felt molten in his palm, like some precious boiled-down essence. Even its twisty bottle felt heavy, sculpted. Sunday was shampoo day but he didn’t think his mother would notice that he had shampooed twice in a week. Sometimes he tilted a cap of water into the bottle to make up the level. He didn’t do it often, though. To dilute a thing whose power lay in its concentration seemed wrong.
Madhukar slid into the seat beside him
I’ve got Blue Mauritius, he said. Nikhil looked at him.
Really? he asked, trying not to seem too eager.
Madhukar unbuckled the two stubby, metal-tipped straps that held the flap of his rucksack together and pulled the book out. Nikhil reached for it with the flaring excitement that only a Billy Bunter novel produced in him. He had been looking for Billy Bunter and the Blue Mauritius for a year now.
He held the book in both hands.
I’ll give you Billy Bunter’s Beanfeast tomorrow, he promised.
Madhukar nodded and began doing up the buckles of his bag again. He had a narrow face, pointy chin, thin spectacles; everything about him was sharp but in a reliable way. He stared at the stars at night from the terrace of his flat in Moti Bagh with a homemade telescope. People said that he had made a transistor radio, with his father, which actually worked and caught short-wave signals.
The cover of the book wasn’t as brightly painted as some of the best Bunters. It had Billy Bunter running in his checked trousers, waistcoat, piped blazer and striped red-and-white socks, looking fat and frightened but Nikhil had expected something seafaring; he’d imagined Bunter in a pirate’s kerchief in a sailing ship because Mauritius was an island and the sea was blue. This one had a blue stamp on the cover instead.
Still, it was mainly yellow like the others were. Nikhil had a fantasy about owning all the Billy Bunter novels, three shelves of the Cassell edition in matching yellow dust jackets. Some genius in the school library, probably Mrs Mathur, the librarian, who, unlike the padres, had children of her own, had gone and bought two complete sets. Nine shillings and sixpence each one. A rupee was roughly a shilling. His father made two thousand rupees a month. A whole set would cost one-forth of a month’s salary.
The bus dropped him a third of the way down Pindari Road. He walked under the shade of the neem trees that lined the road, scrunching over the sprinkling of little yellow fruit the trees had dropped on the pavement. They gave off a natural bad smell that lasted a whole season. Reading while walking gave him a headache but he had no choice; once he got home he’d have to sit down for lunch and someone would object to him reading at the table.
He was thirty-two pages into the book and relieved that the Indian character hadn’t popped up yet. The fool was called Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, the Nabob of Bhanipore. He didn’t mind Frank Richards knowing nothing about Indian names; but he hated being bored by the Nabob’s conversation. The hopefulness of the Esteemed Owl is terrific - did English schoolboys find that funny? He hoped they didn’t because if they did, reading Bunter would become less comfortable, like sharing a book with aliens.
He cut through a large vacant plot into Pindari Bagh. The dhobi used the scrubby emptiness as a drying field. Makeshift clotheslines strung between crossed bamboo poles were hung with bedsheets wrinkling in the sun. Saris, held up by clothespins, rippled along their six-yard lengths like trapped flags. He stopped to pull up a handful of prickly spears from a clump of wild grass growing by the gutter running along the road that led to his house. They looked like ears of something; wheat? corn? He didn’t know though he should have because India was an agricultural country and India’s people lived in her villages. He knew that when he threw the spears on people’s backs, they stuck.
He could see his house across the round park now, even the ochre and white jars of mango pickle in the balcony on the upper floor. He liked the sameness of the house fronts: white-washed facades with a broad course of red brick running vertically up the middle, double-windows with deep-green shutters, the ground floor obscured by the hedge that enclosed the front lawn. But it was more than a hedge: it was a world alive with bright, basic flowers, weightless butterflies and still chameleons, impassively changing colour.
He rang the doorbell and waited. C-1/37, the adjacent house, was a mirror-image of C-1/38 except for the white samoyed trying to pull the porch’s pillar down as he strained to slip his leash and kill Nikhil. He had bitten him once, two years ago when Nikhil hadn’t been old enough to wear long trousers to school in summer. His legs were trousered now, but he was pleased to see Bhagvan Singh, the cook, stretching to reach the top bolt. As he shut the door behind him, Tipu’s gibbering hate was sliced off mid-snarl and Nikhil relaxed.
IT WAS HALF PAST TWO. Cricket in the park was two hours away. The warmth and action of the school day drained away like a dream as he stood on the Star of David woven into the centre of the drawing room durrie. It was a mustard rug with a dark green border woven, according to his mother, in a jail in Mirzapur. The Star of David was a puzzle. When his cousin wasn’t home to laugh at him, he liked to stand, after school, in the empty space at the centre of the intersecting triangles on the off chance that something science fictional might happen. It was also something to do; it kept him from counting the lumps beneath his skin and kept out the fright of dying young.
He got off the star and lowered his maroon satchel into its central hexagon as a placeholder. Then he wandered into the kitchen without meaning to; it was the only place in the house, that at this dead time of the afternoon, had any sounds coming out of it. Bhagvan Singh was sizzling zeera in ghee, which was the hissing tik-tik sound that had pulled him in that direction.
Five minutes, said Bhagvan Singh, as he crumbled boiled potatoes with his fingers and dropped them into the karhai. Nikhil watched carefully as he seasoned the frying potatoes with pinches of this and that—salt, dhania powder, amchoor—to see if he was measuring stuff out or going by instinct. The cook should have used the little brass spoon that sat in the masala box, he knew; his mother didn’t like him to use his fingers.
Nikhil ate lunch alone, with the radio playing in the background. His cousin Pushpa never got home before three now; she had to change at ITO and buses dried up around lunchtime, according to her. He didn’t mind; it meant he didn’t have to fight to listen to the afternoon radio play. Pushpa usually won, so instead of a play, he usually had to suffer her humming along to Radio Ceylon’s film songs. The afternoon play on Hava Mahal was The Necklace again. He knew it by heart now, down to the sound effects used to signal scene changes, the passing of time and travel.
It was a peculiar play about a woman who borrows a diamond necklace from her friend, loses it and spends ten years of her life working like a drudge to buy her a replacement - and then finds out from the friend that it was made of paste. But in Hindi, the story didn’t seem that unlikely; he could see his cousin being stupid in that way. It was why Hindi films couldn’t be made in English. He liked the play, it filled him with sad pity and kindness.
Pushpa hadn’t returned by the time he finished lunch, so the transistor radio was still his. He carried it up to the roof because the shortwave reception was best there. Setting it down on the parapet, he tried to catch the BBC’s Test Match Special by turning the tuning dial in slow motion along the centimetre long line that represented 31 metre band on Shortwave 2. It was never easy; Radio Peace and Progress filled 31 metreband like a megaphone in a small room, drowning out feebler transmitters. Then he heard it - a whisper of proper English almost lost in the amplified American accents of Radio P & P’s Russian broadcasters. He was lucky that it wasn’t Radio Moscow that hogged the airwaves next to the BBC’s frequencies because its announcers sounded so English that he’d have wasted a lot of time wondering if he was in fact listening to BBC. Finding the right frequency was easiest once play began because cricket commentary just sounded different from every other kind of talking.
From where he was standing on the roof, Nikhil could see the triangular field where he played cricket every afternoon. It was too early, though, there would be no one in the park; not even Naren who attended the government school nearby and walked down to the park as soon as school broke at 3.30, half an hour before everyone else.
Nikhil fiddled with the radio so he wouldn’t feel bad about not trying hard enough. When he had heard enough gabble and static he picked it up and left the hot roof for the fanned coolness of the drawing room. He pushed a fat leather pouffe on top of the Star of David and sat crosslegged on it. He knew he ought to change out of his uniform because he needed one more wear out of it before it went to the dhobi, but if he changed now there would be time to think about undone homework and unsigned diary remarks and fear. So he didn’t. The Blue Mauritius opened where he had bookmarked it with the jacket flap; Harry Wharton waited.
Half an hour later, he felt calm, tuned, as if he were growing out of the leather pouffe instead of just sitting on it. Even a scene with Quelch and a cane didn’t break the mood, though it could have. He had three unsigned diary remarks which he hadn’t showed his mother, and when he was found out in school a Quelch-like caning at the hands of a man in a cassock was certain. There was more class to being hit by a man in a gown and mortar-board, he thought, a kind of dignity.
Father Noel had no dignity at all, though. He was shapeless like most padres were except for Father Manning, who had been a marine and looked like one. Father Noel had white hair, a dark face and violent hands. He had caned Nikhil ten times: for lying about homework, not bringing his diary to school, blunting his chisel in craft class, wearing black socks instead of grey, losing a library book, copying in a class test, marching out of step during drill, reading forbidden fiction (Trustee from the Toolroom by Nevile Shute), running down corridors and walking in class (he had stepped over to Tandon to borrow a sharpener during geometry without asking permission).
Each time Noel’s hands would grasp both of his, his fingers moving even as he held Nikhil’s hands. He’d let one go to reach for a wooden ruler, inches on one side, centimetres on the other. Why did you do it, boy, (or didn’t do it, depending), he would ask, always smiling, his thumb moving like a windshield wiper over Nikhil’s palm, why, why?
Then he would test Nikhil’s palm with the edge of the ruler, no more than a tap, no backlift, no follow through. It didn’t hurt, but it was terrifying, it was his cue for madness. The tapping was done when Noel raised his ruler hand ceilingward to let his cassock sleeve slip his forearm. Then his question became condensed into hain? which he timed to coincide with each strike: hain? whack! hain? whack! till he was bringing the ruler down from over his shoulder and the hain? was followed by screamed pain as Nikhil shouted aaah aaah Father! Sorr so-aaah faat…and so on.
Quelch wasn’t like that. He didn’t touch Bunter with his hands, he used a proper cane and he caned him on his bottom. There was a system to it and Quelch never said anything. It wasn’t personal.
Between reading Bunter and reflecting on his own school life, Nikhil had forgotten the time, but outside C1/38 it was already four. Chandu, a very short boy in shorts and leather sandals was looking through the hedge, hoping that Nikhil would let himself out of the front door without his having to shout out to him. When that didn’t happen, the small boy consulted his watch, threw back his head and sang out Ni-khil in a large voice. He settled down to wait. In the six minutes that it took from the time he called out to the time the front door opened to let Nikhil out, he caught three hedge-based butterflies by cupping his hands around them. He wasn’t carrying his matchbox so he let them go.
Nikhil joined Chandu outside the house. Neither said anything; Nikhil was wearing his wicket-keeping gloves and holding a seasoned bat, its blade glistening olive after ten days of being rubbed with linseed oil. He gave his friend a single glove to wear and they walked together to the triangular park where the cricket happened. The evening was warm, the bat was nearly new and there were two and a half hours of daylight to be used up.
The park was a tall isosceles triangle. At the acutest angle where the two equal sides met stood a tubewell station shaped like a cylindrical room. The pipe jutting out of it thrummed as they walked passed and began spouting water into the gutter that bordered the park. They stopped to admire the terrific force of the water. Every house tap in America produced water at this rate. It seemed too much.
There was a gap in the park’s hedge halfway down one side where a culvert bridged the gutter. Instead of vaulting the gutter and pushing through the hedge, Chandu used this old person’s access. They were early—there was no one else there except for Naren in his government school uniform: white shirt, blue shorts and sketchy shoes. Naren had a cricket ball in his hands, which was unusual. Nikhil had never seen him with any cricket gear before. Must have found one, he thought. He took the glove back from Chandu, put it on and got Naren to lob easy catches at him. Naren underarmed two skiers then threw one hard at him, chest high. Fear, not alertness, got his gloves up to the right place and the ball stuck in them with a nice thunk.
Slow, oye, slow! he called out, scared and pleased at once. He could smell the leather of the gloves, the different, rawer leather smell of the ball, the musk of grass cut days ago, the ripe stink of the water fizzing from the sewage hydrants buried in the long grass near the flower beds. They made up the smell of cricket.
As they played catch at the margins of the field, a high four-wheeled buggy pushed by a servant man, trundled down the road past the culvert, making the rolling, squeaking noises of a pram. Chandu looked at his watch; it was 4.15. Naren abandoned the game of catch to jog after the buggy. The buggy pusher tried to wave him away but Naren ignored him. Inside the giant pram lay a grown man making faces. Naren spent a minute every day talking gibberish to him, trying to get him to make the astonished-looking moue that amused him. Nikhil tried not to look at the thing inside. A man in a pram who needed a shave made him think of babies with pubic hair. He sometimes wondered who his parents were and why they never walked him.
By 4.30 another four cricketers arrived, seven in all; an odd number which meant they couldn’t play teams. They fell back on numbering. Chandu turned his back while Naren mimed one to seven with his fingers behind him. Chandu assigned each mimed number to a player, not knowing what it was. Nikhil got two which pleased him: it meant he would get to bat second. He was looking forward to testing the stroke of his newly seasoned bat.
But Naren was number one. The fat Pande boy was missing; he brought most of the kit so this meant that the only bat available was Nikhil’s beauty. He handed it over to Naren, who examined the blade reverently and assumed his stance. He played a string of brilliant shots to a series of unbowled balls before walking up to the crease and settling in.
Before Chandu opened the bowling with his looping leg breaks, the players met in a huddle to fine-tune the rules. As always, no runs were allowed for shots behind square on either side. Someone suggested no onside runs because there were only five fielders. This was voted down.
Nikhil’s new bat made a sweet thunk sound as Naren scored fourteen off Chandu’s donkey drops in four balls; three fours and a two. Excited, he crouched lower and lower in his stance, thumping the crease with growing menace as Chandu ran in to bowl.
Standing behind the stumps, proud of his bat and irritated that a bhaiyya like Naren had first use of it, Nikhil had an important thought: the present was the thing. As Chandu paused before running in to bowl the penultimate ball of his over, as Naren crouched and shifted and thumped, as he, Nikhil, wedged his fingers more securely into his massive gloves and hunched into a keeper’s semi-squat, he saw with a sharpness that he hadn’t felt before, that cricket’s power consisted of keeping its players (and everyone watching) in a state of now. In his school satchel lay his maroon diary with unsigned teachers’ remarks burning like a fuse, a maths copy blank with not-done homework and the near future was certain to bring pain and other things but cricket made his now so much denser than his then, that the near future didn’t count.
Chandu bowled. Naren, snorting with eagerness, skipped down the pitch to cross-bat it out of the park. Behind the stumps Nikhil had a privileged view of the toe-end of the bat hitting the ground as Naren miscalculated the length of his bat’s arc. The impact didn’t make a blunt sound as it should have done—it made a sharpish noise. Everyone stilled.
Nikhil snatched the bat from Naren and tested the splice, without hope. It creaked. Without a word, like mourners at a child’s funeral, the players dispersed. Nikhil walked home in silence, Chandu a few steps ahead of him, his ‘now’ dissolved, the future leaking into his present in great clouds of ink.
BECAUSE THE GAME HAD ENDED earlier than usual, he caught his parents getting out of the Fiat, just back from work. His mother looked as crisp as she had done in the morning in her starched, mainly white khadi sari with its stiff pleats, her black handbag and hairnet-neatened bun setting her apart from the comfortable housewife mothers his friends had.
She walked straight out of the car into the house, ready to manage the evening. His father went to unlock the garage doors and saw Nikhil as he turned around. Still holding his bat, Nikhil looked on as his father drove the car in and pushed one of the large green wooden doors shut.
Thank you, sweetheart, said his father, shutting the other one. He spoke like that all the time—if it wasn’t sweetheart, it was darling. Nikhil liked his manner, especially in the evening as the non-school part of the day drained into darkness. He was a large man with a full head of grey, non-receding hair, simply turned out in a bush shirt and grey trousers with turn-ups. Unlike Nikhil’s mother with her bandbox neatness, he was almost theatrically rumpled and creased at the end of the day.
How was the cricket, he asked, smiling down at his son. Nikhil held up his beautiful bat, not trusting himself to speak.
Splice? asked his father. He nodded
Don’t worry, darling, we’ll get another one.
It’s new, said Nikhil in a steady voice.
Never mind, said his father. We’ll ask the Dragon.
Inside Pushpa and his mother were standing at the dining table, cutting raw mangoes into quarters. Pushpa was better and quicker at this than his mother was, and this interested Nikhil because Ma did everything well: she cooked, knitted, sewed, embroidered, made lace with a tatting shuttle, drove a car, managed the house, worked as a sound engineer at the All-India Radio, kept up with every single relative, both hers and his father’s, managed his school life and paid every bill without once being late. She was formidable. But Pushpa was better with the mango cleaver; it had to do with the blurry speed with which she rotated the pieces after halving them, to make them horizontal for the second stroke. It pleased him, this betterness; it made his mother seem less like a fort.
Kiki’s written about a match for Bitto, said his mother, not looking up from the cleaver board so it sounded broadcast but wasn’t. And? asked his father, accepting the prompt. Picking up an inland letter lying open on the dining table, his mother reviewed its contents.
The boy is teaching Hindi literature in Delhi University, his older sister is settled, the father is the head of the agronomy department at Banaras Hindu University.
A teacher? said father with enthusiasm. That’s good. Why Hindi literature, though? Still, at least he isn’t a pleader or an insurance tout. Or a moneylender.
For all his father’s absentmindedness in marriage market matters, he had total recall of failed negotiations. There had, in fact, been potential sons-in-law who had been LIC officers, lawyers and bankers.
It’s no use talking to you, said his mother.
No, I approve. An Aggarwal academic; what could be better? What’s the delay?
His wife hesitated, not sure if he was being serious. But she needed his advice.
The boy isn’t a Hindu.
Nikhil’s father put down The Illustrated Weekly. You mean he’s a Jain, like Sukhdev? Sukhdev was his mother’s cousin’s husband.
His mother shook her head.
His father removed his reading glasses. She had his whole attention.
You’re saying that Kiki’s future damaad is a Muslim?
His mother didn’t dignify that with a reply.
Anwar Aggarwal, he said experimentally. Muzaffar Mithal.
Pushpa giggled. Very funny, snapped his mother. The boy claims he’s a Brahmo. It’s because of his mother. She’s a Bengali.
His father looked robbed. A Brahmo! You’re worried because he’s a Brahmo? Tagore was a Brahmo, for heaven’s sake.
How’s it different? My great-grandmother was a Brahmo as far back as 1860, sitting in Madras.
This must have been after she married your great-grandfather. That doesn’t count. It must have been like joining a club.
How does her being married make a difference?
Because a Brahmo wedding doesn’t happen around a fire. Your great-grandfather’s parents wouldn’t have allowed the marriage if she’d been a Brahmo before the wedding, because it wouldn’t have been a Hindu wedding. If they had gone through with a Brahmo ritual no Hindu would have married their son, your grandfather. Your father wouldn’t have been born. You wouldn’t be discussing Cheenu’s marriage and Nikhil wouldn’t be listening to this silly conversation.
She stopped and turned her left hand to look at the watch centred on the inside of her wrist. You know I have no prejudices. I married you.
His father was clicking the arms of his spectacles together. He was enjoying himself.
Yes! You married a Madrasi. Think of what Mithal mothers are going to think when it’s Nikhil’s turn. Nice looking boy, educated mother, Madrasi father.
I won’t get married, said Nikhil, revolted, forgetting for a moment his ruined bat, his unsigned diary remarks and the inevitability of punishment in the third period tomorrow when Ojha found him out. And he would be found out. You need marammat, Ojha would say, beady, black eyes glinting with malice, reaching for her pad of teacher’s chits to write a note to the vice principal. It would be his ticket to a beating.
By the time Nikhil had fought off this trailer for tomorrow, the conversation had changed course. He half registered talk of a summer wedding for his cousin if the boy measured up. Pushpa said something and his father laughed. His laugh was excellent: big, easy and he actually went ha ha ha without sounding fake, though Nikhil was pretty sure that sometimes he spun out a few ha-has for effect. Nikhil couldn’t laugh at length unless he was physically tickled.
Then, without him knowing it, without a memory of getting up from the leather pouffe or sitting down at the dining table or eating, they arrived at the end of dinner. The clanging of steel thalis and katoris being collected from the table, the din of metal being washed, signalled the end of parole. The nine hours of night that insulated him from school didn’t count because he wouldn’t be awake to hoard the slowness of time.
HIS PISS ALARM WENT OFF earlier than usual because he was scared. He locked himself into the lavatory and squatted. Through the window he could see the park clearly in the summer light. So few know the hell of massing day, he thought, and felt better. The growing Turd slides slowly into Pee.
As he ironed his once-worn uniform trousers after his bath, he smelt starch, masala dirt and steam from the water he had dampened them with and felt sick. He stopped without having done the inner halves of the trouser legs. When he put them on the creases were blurry and the inside halves looked crumpled but seen in profile he was respectable. He powdered his face with his mother’s pink tin of Pond’s Dreamflower to make the starch smell go away.
At breakfast he forced the omelette down, fighting the onion smell by muttering the Elegy to himself. For a mad moment he considered telling his mother everything—showing her the diary remarks, saying how often he masturbated in a day, describing Miss Rosalie Singh’s cone-style breasts… but he didn’t. In the eight minutes it took him to walk to the bus stop, his almost-confession brought pseudo-relief. He managed to think of other things and by the time he reached the stop he had finished adapting the first stanza of the poem to fit his circumstances. When the bus arrived he found a window seat and spoke his verse out of the window into the air whipping by.
So few know the hell of massing day
The growing turd slides slowly into pee
Hellwards the school boy makes his teary way
And finds, in all its starkness, Misery.
The second line needed work; it sounded dirty though it followed the sounds of the original pretty closely and that was something. His father would have liked the last line. He could hear him now: lovely, darling. I like the way it departs from the poem but keeps to the music. Shame he couldn’t show it to him; he wouldn’t approve of turd and pee.
The bounce from the poem didn’t survive the routines of assembly which began with Our Father and ended with Jana Gana Mana. Nikhil knew the Lord’s Prayer better than he did the National Anthem. Not because the padres had ever indicated that they liked it that way, he just knew that some things were more important to life in school than others. Monitors walked down the lined up rows of uniformed boys, checking for one arm’s-distance, long hair, unpolished shoes, socks that weren’t school grey.
He liked the sound of ‘trespass’. If he hadn’t gone to a padre school, he would never have had the chance to say a line as clever as ‘forgive us our trespasses’. He liked the idea of saying sorry in advance. He prayed for Ojha to be absent; that would buy him a day and if he managed to be sick this evening that would take him into the weekend. Tomorrow was the second Saturday of the month and a holiday. He’d be safe till Monday. Monday sounded like Mussoorie. Monday was like being delivered from evil.
Walking up in double rows to his third floor classroom, Nikhil tried to confront his fears. Why was he scared? So scared, that is. He’d been caned before. Often. Also in Senior school, the padres didn’t hit them as hard as they did the little ones, not since Sher Singh Suket disarmed Father Monteiro and caned him instead. It wasn’t the hurt or humiliation of being hit; it was the horror of being caught out by a lunatic like Ojha. He parked his bag in the space between his chair and the wall and breathed in sharpened pencils, used erasers, the new smell of blank notebooks. Schools had an odour to them, like hospitals did. Both made him sick.
At times like this when he was focussed on fear, his classmates faded into murmuring, see-through shadows. In the first class of the day, Delgado tried to draw a block mountain on the blackboard and failed. So he abandoned Geography for Sex Education and told speculative lies about masturbation till the bell rang. The period that followed his, Peking Man’s English lesson, was the last station before Nikhil’s train reached the hell of Ojha Central. Peking Man looked like a cement drum in a frock, a cylinder with a brutal haircut that condensed her stubbiness. Today, though, she seemed a comfortable, motherly figure because she, like Delgado, was not-Ojha.
She held The Road Ahead, their poetry reader, in her left hand and read from it.
Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold
Her skin was white as leprosy
The nightmare Life-in-Death was she
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.
Peking Man mistook this for a itemization of how white women were white so the lines came out sounding like a sequel to an earlier complaint: my lips are brown, my hair is black, my skin is brown, I look like a man and no one notices me - while her lips were red, her looks were free…etc. After a lot of this the bell went. Gathering her things, she reminded the class of the moral of the story: don’t kill creatures great or small because the dear god who loveth us he made and loveth all. She balanced the attendance register on top of a cradled stack of brown notebooks. And the albatross in the poem, she said, backing through the door, is Jesus.
Once she had left, trailing chatter died. Died at once. The spike in rumbling noise mixed in with desk slams and laughter that happened between classes didn’t happen. IX E waited on Ojha in silence. Nikhil grimaced, stretched his lips, firmed them.
She was young as teachers went, about twenty five. She wasn’t married: there was no sindoor in her hair, no clinking bangles on her wrists, only a ring and that on her middle finger. She was small, shorter than Nikhil, who was 5 feet 4 and a half inches. Her hair was pulled back into a small oval bun that rested low on the nape of her neck. Her brows were clearly marked, her eyes, small and black, were defined by surma. She wore no other makeup but her lips stood out because they were wrinkly and full in a face that was smooth to the point of blankness. The second most striking thing about her was her shininess: her forehead gleamed like a mirror. But it was the lopsidedness of her face that impressed her students, an asymmetry that was underlined by the centred parting in her hair. Her face bulged out on the left; she looked as if she had a paan permanently tucked into her cheek. There was something wrong with Ojha.
All at once, she was there. She had materialised in a white sari with gold at its edges and a matching blouse, looking like an evil parody of a Malayali bride. She brought with her a pocket of clove-scented air which quickly colonised the classroom. Nikhil could also smell a muted whiff of pickle, as if the slickness of her face was the left-over glaze of mustard oil.
Apni patthya pustak teesre abhyaas pey kholiye, she commanded. They opened their Hindi text and found the third lesson. As she spoke Nikhil watched her mouth, waiting as always, for the moment she’d shift the quid of paan from the bulging cheek to the other one, but she never did.
Pehle paanch prisht chup chaap parhiye. Obediently, the class settled down to read the first five pages in absolute silence. Nikhil allowed himself to hope that she had, by some freak, forgotten about checking diary remarks. He had two Homework Not Done remarks from her in his diary which he hadn’t got his mother to sign for fear of being hit by her. There was no telling what Ojha would do when she found out. She had been known to slap boys on the face with the flat of a ruler. Reading in silence was a reprieve.
Only it wasn’t. A minute into reading silence, Ojha walked up to his chair in the fourth row and put her hand out. “Diary.” He reached into his bag and pulled it out, wanting to say to her, before she discovered the starkness of his disobedience for herself, that he hadn’t got it signed, but he found his mouth was trembling so he said nothing. She looked at the page then reversed the diary and held it up by a corner in front of his face.
Yeh kya hai?
He was still sitting in his chair so he tilted his head in an automatic reflex to read the diagonally dangled book. He meant no impertinence but her eyes slitted with rage and she smashed the back of her free hand across his face. That was new, he heard himself think, even as he tasted blood in his mouth. Ten years in school and he’d never seen or felt a backhander before. Her ring had nicked his nose at its bridge; was it bleeding? Visible blood might stop her.
But there couldn’t have been blood because she didn’t stop. She found his ear with the same hand, her finger and thumb skimmed the cartilege delicately till they found the lobe then they pinched and twisted creating such torque that if he hadn’t rotated his head with the motion, she might have ripped his ear off. His head was down by his knees but facing upwards, while Ojha stood over him still holding the diary up with one hand and his head down with the other, her face clenched with the effort of causing him pain, Durga and Saraswati merged into one mad mother goddess.
She might have held that pose for minutes because she was crazed, like a shrike or a wolverine, but ten minutes into class, the end of period school bell rang. That was the other thing that had never happened before in the course of his life in school. It was so unexpected that Ojha let go of his ear. Amplified static rustled in the intercom. They heard the Principal, Father Philipose, clear his throat in his remote padre office. Ojha turned her back on her class the better to look at the speaker fixed above the blackboard and under the classroom crucifix.
Senior School classes will walk to Main Field in single file for special assembly. Fuddu Philipose paused but the intercom kept crackling; he wasn’t finished. Immediately.
They walked down to main field for their second special assembly in two days. Tandon walked beside him, breaking single file.
Nice backhand, he said.
Nikhil said nothing. He was wondering, shakily, why the bell hadn’t gone off two minutes earlier.
Why’s Fuddu called another special assembly, asked Tandon, not expecting an answer. You think he’s going to announce his engagement? Father Fuddu s/o Father Fuddu’s father weds Father Mobilio s/o Mobilio Pure White Person. We bless them by singing the national anthem. They kiss. The PA system plays Come September. We march back to Ojha’s class. She tears your other ear off.
They reached main field and began lining up in rows. The rows straggled today because Bale, Rawson and Chaku weren’t policing them, cuffing boys into line. All the teachers were strung out in a double row behind the concrete lectern. Something’s up, said Tandon.
The Principal stepped up to the lectern. He was a tall, aloof-looking man, who wore square gold-rimmed spectacles and spoke English as a Malayali-American might. Unlike Noel, he never beat anyone but managed to seem austere and scary in a distant way.
He tilted the microphone up and began without preliminaries.
We’re here to collectively mourn the sudden and tragic death of Mr Reginald Adolphus Bale, in a swimming pool accident this morning. Mr Bale was the school’s senior PT master and he had been with the school since its foundation twelve years ago. On behalf of all of us, the school extends its condolences to his bereaved wife, Mrs Patricia Bale, who teaches, as you know, in Junior School. He will be deeply missed. Mr Bale will be buried in the Catholic Cemetery by the school’s Tennis Court gate tomorrow morning. His body is laid in the dispensary where we shall pay him our last respects. After dismissal, classes starting with VI E will walk through the dispensary in single file and in silence. At this solemn moment I will expect every Senior School boy to conduct himself appropriately. Line monitors will lead.
By the time their turn came to march past Bale’s dead body, senior school was sibilant with whispers. Even before they entered the dispensary Tandon and Nikhil knew that Bale had died of diving off the swimming pool’s new platform right into the concrete of the not-deep-enough end. Someone - Rawson? Chaku? - had seen it happen.
The mesh door of the dispensary with the automatic door closer had been propped open with a wedge. As the entrance sucked in the shuffling queue, Nikhil, who hadn’t seen a dead person before and who never allowed himself to looked at run-over dogs or randomly dead cows after the first unavoidable glimpse of inertness, began to swallow at the thought of walking past a dead man he knew in a narrow room, the point of being in which was to look at the dead man. He stepped out of the queue and joined it again, this time with Tandon in front of him.
Relax, said Tandon. He won’t be headless or smashed or anything. Fuddu wouldn’t let sixth standard kids see him if he was. He’ll be fine.
He’ll be fine. Venkatesan, who was two boys behind Nikhil, mimicked Tandon in a shaky falsetto. He’s not fine, you… gandu. He’s dead. Venkatesan’s pink tongue flickered in and out of his mouth as it did when he was nervous or tense or frightened, which was a lot of the time.
Then they were inside. Nikhil dealt with the experience the way he dealt with frightening films. He nearly closed his eyes and peered through eyelashed slits while blinking; he snipped the building horror of the movies into a slide show of blurred stills. Hospital green curtains. White drip stand. Hospital smell of phenol. The back of Tandon’s head as he stopped to take a good look at Bale. Bale in a gauze turban. Bale’s forehead dented vertically down the middle. Skin whole but the left half, even in the blink of an eye, plainly half an inch higher than the left. Half Bale’s head was a horst. Blink. Blink blink blink like a motorised camera till he emerged into the sunlit verandah outside the dispensary.
Venkatesan followed him out and wrapped himself around one of the pillars that held up the verandah, breathing hard. Poor fellow; it could have been him. Or Tandon. Or any one of them, seeing what a random choot Bale was. Had been.
IN THE SCHOOL BUS GOING HOME Nikhil gave Madhukar Billy Bunter’s Beanfeast, without agreeing a date for its return which was unusual for him. When he got off the bus he walked down the middle of the road to avoid crushing the neem fruit that carpeted the pavement.
At the dhobi ghat, he went face first into a drying bedsheet with his eyes wide open, hoping to see the world go white but he blinked. He let the cloth slide over his face as he walked through, resisting the urge to take the sheet into his mouth and suckle its wetness. His nose stung where Ojha’s ring had scraped it.
The trouble with Bale dying was that he’d never again see him do silent lengths underwater, with the water above him mashing his body into wavering shapes. He’d been a tightly muscled swimming machine and seeing him broken had been strange. It would have been easier if his skin had split, if there had been a wound but he had been whole on the surface and cracked inside.
Crippled would have been all right, good even, for all the times he had hit them, but to be useless and totally non-doing because of falling once was too much. Like being killed by Ojha for not doing homework. The next games period they had, the man wouldn’t be there and since he had always been there, he’d now be permanently absent.
The house came into view but instead of staying on the road as it curved round the park, he walked into the park, towards the tree with two trunks at its centre. He looked about him before unbuttoning, then settled down, fork to fork, sighing with relief as the piss dammed up inside him since the dispensary visit began to paint the neem’s dry bark a darker brown.
He could have held it in till he got home but doing it in the open air felt right, after what had happened. It needed words but he didn’t have them. Their end-of-school prayer, the one they said in chorus when the last bell rang, We give Thee thanks, O Almighty God, didn’t sound right. Ramayuh, Ramabhadrayuh, Ramachandrayuh, vedhasé, the end-of-day prayer his father had taught him, sounded actively wrong.
He buttoned up in silence, and headed home to C1/38. A chant he had heard last winter on the BBC began to sound in his head. It meant nothing but its sombre rhythm seemed respectful. It made the samoyed’s yapping seem distant as he waited for someone to open the door. Manchester City 1, West Ham United Nil. Ipswich Town 2, Burnley 1. Southampton 3, Huddersfield Town 2. Arsenal 4, Blackpool Nil. Leeds United 2, Nottingham Forest 1… He didn’t follow football but he knew the clubs’ names by heart from listening to Sports Roundup night after night at 11.15. As he shadowed Bunter and Jennings and William through winter nights by the light of the bedside lamp, cuddled in his quilt, he’d let the radio speak out English place names for minutes on end like a prayer. It seemed like a good way of sending off Reginald Adolphus Bale.
That afternoon, he didn’t play cricket. He wanted to, but his bat, like Bale, was dead.