Thursday, June 21, 2012

Footsteps In The Dark

Their trip had an ominous start.
Sreenath and his wife Sanjana left their house at half past three, in the cool darkness, aiming to finish the bulk of the driving before the day got hot and muggy, hoping to reach the resort around noon. He offered to drive at the start (‘you hate driving in the dark, right?’) and at the end too (‘not sure if you can take on the hairpin bends’). She agreed (without any protest about either, feeling groggy with insufficient sleep) to take on the boring middle. The previous night, they had planned to sleep early and packed well in advance, but his parents had come late to pick up the kids after ‘some unavoidable social gathering’. The girl and the boy – aged ten and eight – were to stay with his parents in the first half of the break and then with hers. It was well past midnight before they were packed off with the customary kisses, hugs and much-repeated ‘will-miss-you’s. To catch up on that lost sleep, Sanjana settled down on the back seat of the sedan with couple of cushions and a light blanket. She was fast asleep when the car got stuck in a mile-long traffic jam just half an hour into the journey.
Around two, a public transport bus and a heavy goods truck had collided head-on at high speed. At four, the dead and the injured were still being shifted and the police had cordoned off the collision zone. Traffic inched forward through the limited space available on the two-lane highway. There was blood, hastily and partially covered crushed bodies, scattered belongings and debris on the road and on the mangled remains of the vehicles which had, by chance, escaped a major fire or an explosion. Sreenath saw white-faced, wide-eyed people in the passing vehicles, some still waking up from that nightmare or slipping into one, most praying, crying, cursing, thoughtful, dazed, irritated or relieved; a few with guilty smiles and some laughing crazily. One of those faces must have been a reflection of his in the tinted glass of his car or that of a passing vehicle. He checked the rear-view mirror. Sanjana was curled up, blissfully unaware of the carnage without. He reached to the back and tucked the blanket well around that sleeping form. He thought about what she might do if he tickled her awake. She might giggle, turn around and continue sleeping. She might get up looking cross and then notice the accident zone. He was quite certain that she would wonder why he woke her up.
It took an hour or so to pass that zone. He then relaxed and listened to the comforting hum of the engine. He lowered the window a little, allowing the cool air to ruffle his hair. The stink of rotting garbage discarded on both sides of the highway made him raise the window immediately. He cursed the government for turning nearly everything – the once-clean state, the economy and his falling investments – into a dump just by doing nothing. He muttered to himself, with growing irritation, about the big plans to invest in monorail, ports, airports, increased subsidies and even a grand museum to store the large newly-found ancient treasure, all funded by a bankrupt state. When will the government start doing something – when the tourists stop coming or with the onset of a plague? He quickly decided that that train of thought would not do, at least during the trip.
The sky brightened, the moist and green fields whizzed past, villages and small towns lazed with hot tea delaying the morning bath and sharing the same old morning news. Street dogs chased the silent sedan till the edge of their territory. Soon after their wedding, they had visited some of these places, accepting the invitation of friends and relatives. They had borrowed his parents’ small car for those trips. Sanjana had played Hindi songs on the stereo. With girlish exuberance, she had talked about her new job and colleagues, or held his hand on the gear, or leaned towards him and kissed him on the cheek. They were nearly strangers then. Sreenath used to puzzle about how she could shift with ease from being a bubbly girl to a cool, focused professional. On her part, it took time to understand that he liked to drive enjoying her company along with solitude offered by silence, that he never used the stereo and that he was the same at home or at work. A decade or so passed and they had done well together, surfing the waves of liberalization with the new generation. He chose to be a pioneer here, in an area at least quarter of a century old abroad, and she played a role in restructuring and whitewashing old decrepit institutions of which there was no dearth. They lived comfortably, and by choice not extravagantly, and joined the club of debt-free double-income families with two kids and able support groups on both sides.
The sedan was cruising along a lonely, hilly stretch when the front tyre burst. Sanjana was awake then. When Sreenath took out the spare tyre from the boot, he realized that the workshop had goofed up during the last servicing. By mistake, the garage lot had placed the spare tyre of another car and, unfortunately, that of a different make. Sreenath took out a road-map from his back-pack and studied it. He told Sanjana to wait in the car. He waited for a while for a passing vehicle before deciding to walk to a village further ahead, about three kilometers from there.
Though she was accustomed to it, his sang-froid in a crisis still amazed her. If she had to list her husband’s ten virtues, she was sure that that quality would top the list. During their early days, he was a little different – he was unruffled during a crisis even then, but a worrier otherwise. She used to be amused, and mildly irritated, with the way he would tie himself into knots thinking about all the things that could go wrong. And, quite paradoxically, when situations did go wrong, he tackled it as if it was just normal. She remembered a rough boat ride, on a trip before their fist kid. She had curled up against him, and he had held her tight in a bear-hug. He had been cool and unperturbed, cracking jokes and even munching crisps as if the river was placid and not stomach-churning. But, before that trip, he had been most difficult – pestering the officials about the age and history of the boat and, of course, asking to see if the required safety rig was on board.
Suddenly or gradually, sometime in the years that rolled by, the worrier left leaving behind only the coolheaded or the coldblooded. She did wonder if that quality of his was because of some inner faith; or, because the outcome actually mattered little to him. She also thought about his list of her ten virtues and the quality that might top that list. Maybe, he did not have a list, she allowed. Or, assuming he did have one, she would have liked to know if he had been erasing any points lately.
Sreenath walked to the village and there, he felt he was doubly-blessed when he managed to hire an auto-rickshaw and the driver seemed to know of a good workshop ‘a few furlongs away’. First, they returned to the car, picked up Sanjana and the burst tyre. The car was left locked and sufficiently balanced on the jack and the ill-fitting spare tyre which served at least as a prop. The rickshaw driver was talkative and friendly, and kept them entertained. He was a storehouse of general information and even quizzed them about current affairs and latest events. He told them that he was studying for the PSC exam (‘dreaming of a government job to escape from this wheel’, he confessed) or at least a job with the police. He openly asked them if they knew people who could push his case with the police (‘necessary for the job, more than physical fitness’, he stressed and also added, ‘the written test is easy, not much of a mental job’). When they told him that they did not know any policeman, he sulked for a while (‘you look the type who would know’, his mutter was clearly audible). The ‘few furlongs away’ turned out to be a long ride on bumpy village roads. The couple noticed black posters at regular intervals on walls and posts. With some prompting, the driver explained at length, rapidly coming out of his sulk, about the recent political murders.
‘Whose posters are these, the murdered or the murderers?’ they asked.
 ‘The murderers, of course. How will the murdered speak?’ the driver guffawed and then, after taking measure of their ignorance, explained, ‘Both camps are murderers.’
 ‘In the old days, the retaliation used to be quick and the cycle could continue, fast. These days, with media not letting go of a story, everything gets prolonged unnecessarily. As if there is justice if it is delayed.’ He complained.
Then, he added with pride, ‘They really move with the times. Taking into consideration modern surgical techniques, they have changed their ways. These days, they not only hack off limbs but burn the hacked limbs too. No use for surgery then, right? Of course, that is only when they do not kill, and only try to teach a lesson.’  
At the workshop, a recalcitrant though skilful mechanic grudgingly took on their task, constantly grumbling that a mechanic does not fix tyres, a job he considered to be well below his station. The couple and their guide waited at a nearby makeshift tea-shop, having tea and surprisingly fresh buns. There, the driver whispered to them that the workshop mechanic moonlighted as a hired killer. Later, the couple were taken aback when the mechanic refused to accept their handsome tip and surly insisted on taking only what he charged which seemed abysmally low by city standards or by their estimate of a hired killer’s needs. Their rickshaw driver, on the other hand, was quite happy to accept that tip (plus ‘extra help for exams’). He did help Sreenath change the tyre though only by handing him the tools.
It was nearly noon by the time they were on their way. Sanjana took the wheel and Sreenath sat next to her, reclining backwards as much as the seat allowed. They were at least six hours behind schedule. He closed his eyes.
‘Tired?’ Sanjana asked, though it seemed redundant.
He laughed.
She could guess the meaning of that mirthless laugh. After their wedding, they had delayed the honeymoon trip (‘work should come before pleasure at this stage’, their unanimous decision). It was after persistent goading from both sets of parents that they finally went, after nearly eight months. Her parents thought of it as a necessity to have ‘good news’. His parents’ view was based on comparison (‘you can also do what he does’, they had told Sreenath in Sanjana’s absence, the ‘he’ being Sanjana’s elder brother). ‘He’ and his wife (both in the US then) had honeymooned in Hawaii and Sanjana’s parents had shown Sreenath’s parents honeymoon photos of that delighted, compatible couple. This insistence on trips later became an annual exercise. Her parents did stop after the advent of the kids. His parents persisted till her sibling’s no-fault divorce (‘incompatible’, her brother had explained succinctly and her parents had protested ‘how can a man and a woman be incompatible?’). By then, the annual trips had become a custom for the couple and later, for their kids too. Every year, the couple and their kids visited a new place, on package tours or otherwise – Cyprus and Prague, whirlwind tour of Western Europe including Lake District (6D/7N), North East India, Lakshadweep, Kandahar and Uzbekhistan (before kids), Sri Lanka, South East Asia, China, Australia, South Africa of course, Brazil and Guatemala but not US (since her brother had covered that). These seasoned globetrotters could handle the motions of modern day tourists like it was daily routine. But, their honeymoon was different.
Sreenath planned that well. Luck seemed to be with them when the travel and the accommodation were upgraded. But, as soon as the honeymoon started, just everything went awry. After using the swimming pool on the first evening, Sreenath suffered an eye infection and a miserable cold for a day or two. Then, for a few days, Sanjana was irritable and out of sorts with a toothache and associated mild fever. It rained on the two days they planned to go sightseeing. For the impatient and frustrated young couple, the trip got registered in memory as ‘fine food, dysfunctional a/c and bad sex’. The trip improved a little when they got more than each other’s company and were befriended by a seasoned married couple (‘around forty or so’) with who they shared drinks on couple of occasions. The young couple envied, and also admired, the other pair’s elegance and comfort with each other (‘we will be that’, they promised, renewing their not-yet-old marriage vows with ‘to walk hand-in-hand, when we are old, agreeably silent and comfortably together’, imagining themselves in picture perfect postcard scenes). But, on the stage of that honeymoon, matters turned critical when Sanjana accused Sreenath of giving undue attention to that admired older woman, and Sreenath refused to respond. The young couple returned home, silent, bruised and glad to have other company. In the years that followed, they never suffered so nor did the issue of infidelity ever raise its head, but that memory refused to fade away.
Then, recently, his parents rocked that boat and suggested that the couple should go for a second honeymoon. Hers had seconded the motion. The couple had been surprised. Her brother was still divorced and single and so the inspiration must have been some other source. Sreenath had responded to the suggestion with that same mirthless laugh.
Couple of nights later, the couple decided that they should try it out – a trip without the kids, a second honeymoon. (‘What the heck’, they seemed ready for the ominous.)
The journey proceeded smoothly. Around two, they stopped and snacked on lightly buttered cucumber sandwiches and shared a bottle of fruit juice. The car was parked near a temple pond.
‘Want to jump in, Mrs.?’ he asked.
‘After you, Mr.’ she challenged.
‘Tempting, so tempting,’ he said.
They got ready to move on. While she drove, Sreenath kept talking to Sanjana to counter the soporific effect of the hot afternoon. The dialogue continued in automatic mode – about forgettable memories, anecdotes, books, movies and music, avoiding topics related to relatives, friends and work.
About five, they exchanged seats. The car left the plains, past the bank of a sad, dry, sand-mined river, leaving behind dusty roads cutting through paddy fields shrinking with each passing season yielding space to rubber or concrete. He maneuvered the hairpin bends slowly, with rocky depths on one side and on the other, the untouched, uninhabited forest. They lowered the windows and let in the cool, hilly air. Midway, after the eleventh hairpin curve, they paused, got out of the car and watched the sunset. He drew her close and kissed her. They hugged each other briefly, mindful that they needed a change of clothes and a good shower after the long, tiring, sweaty day. When they returned to the car, it was already dark and their weariness was obvious.
‘Where would you like to be now? I mean, if you were not tired and all that.’ He asked her.
‘At a rock concert, letting my hair down, having good rowdy fun,’ she replied. ‘And you?’
‘Walking in some garden, one of those lovely ones in large cemeteries, remember the Pere Lachaise or the Highgate? Walking from one gravestone to the next, that would be nice’
‘That is morbid.’
‘Depends,’ he paused, ‘it could be romantic, too.’ 
A few silent seconds later, she asked, ‘With who?’
He remained silent. In the dark, the driving was slow and careful.
They reached the resort around half past eight. At the gate, they collected the key to their cottage. The watchman informed them that their meal was in the oven. They had called the owners earlier and arranged for this, explaining their delay and exhaustion. The lights in the Old House where the owners lived, half a kilometer from theirs, were barely visible through the woods that separated the two buildings. They took in their well-traveled suitcases and backpacks. The latter had the usual – change of clothes, toilet kit and medicines, e-reader, i-pod, camera, writing material and such – though nothing of their office work, not even their laptops (‘no internet connectivity’, the resort website stressed as if it was the highlight of the place).
Sreenath showered first and then slipped into a bathrobe offered by the resort. They felt too lazy to unpack. While Sanjana used the bathroom, he laid the table in the dining-cum-kitchen and surveyed the stuff in the oven and the fridge. He poured himself a peg of single malt from a bottle in the kitchen cabinet. Sanjana came out in a large bath towel. She picked up a spare blanket from the cupboard, wrapped herself in it and left the towel to dry in the bathroom. She came to the kitchen and sipped from her husband’s drink. They had a quick but nourishing meal, the first proper one that day, of rice, breads, couple of Indian vegetarian and meat dishes they were too tired to identify, and finished with iced kheer topped with chocolate sauce and nuts. Then, they slept.
Sanjana woke up around eight. For a moment, she felt disoriented in that strange, dark bedroom. The curtains were closed. She turned to the right and found her husband’s side of the bed empty. She heard footsteps outside the room and assumed that it was Sreenath. Though she felt fresh and energetic after the good night’s sleep, she remained in bed, happy to laze without pending chores or deadlines. Maybe, her husband was in the bathroom and he would come out, greet her with breakfast or a hug and a kiss, even though she didn’t like to kiss or breakfast before brushing her teeth. After fifteen minutes, she got out of bed and went to the bathroom, realizing that she was alone in the cottage. When she came out showered, feeling strangely morose and a lot less eager, she heard the front door opening. She could hear Sreenath moving to the kitchen.
‘Where were you?’ she asked.
‘I got up early and went for a walk.’
‘I brought breakfast from the Old House. Come fast, I am starving.’
‘Let me dress.’
‘Do that later, will you?’ he rushed her.
She was in the kitchen ten minutes later, dressed. He brewed fresh coffee while she unpacked the hamper. There were bottles of fresh juice, tubs of sweet yoghurt with fruits, boiled eggs, fried sausages, croissants, jam, butter and a variety of pastries and cup-cakes.
‘You could have called me,’ she said, nibbling a pastry.
‘You looked so peaceful asleep.’
‘Guess you wanted to go alone.’
‘Want a tour of the place this morning?’ he asked cheerfully.
‘I think I will prowl around. Probably meet the owner at the Old House. Only the wife was around when I collected the food. She told me that they are waiting to meet you. When would you like to meet them?’
‘Should I?’
‘Come on, don’t be difficult early morning.’
They ate silently after that. When they had cleared the table, she said, ‘I miss the kids.’
‘I called them from the Old House. They were busy getting ready to go to the Water World. I talked to my parents.’
‘I hope they won’t catch anything out there.’
‘With your mother and mine around, that’s unlikely. Your parents are also going along. They have hired a SUV.’
‘Sounds like good fun, would have been lovely to be with them. Feels strange without them,’ she said.
‘Them? Kids or parents?’ he asked.
‘Kids, of course,’ she replied.
‘Anyway, strange or whatever, I think it’s good to be away for a while.’
‘I don’t feel that way.’
‘Don’t or can’t?’
‘It’s just different for you and me.’
‘Oh crap. Here comes the good ol’ wireless connection within and without the womb, spiritual blah-blah between mothers and kids, huh?’
‘It is not that.’
‘Well, they miss you as much as you miss your mother.’
‘All I am saying is that I miss them.’
‘All you are saying is that you can’t admit that you don’t really miss them.’
‘I bet you don’t.’
‘Maybe not – in fact, yes, I am quite glad to have the space and time.’
‘Preferably, without me, too, right?’
‘With you,’ he said.
‘Then, why did we come to this place of all places, in the middle of nowhere?’ she asked.
During one of her official foreign trips, he had taken leave and stayed at this resort alone. They never talked about it. Sanjana had not even shown any interest in seeing the photos of that trip. But, when the issue of second honeymoon came up, she had suggested this place. Maybe, she wants to share his experience; or maybe, she wants to disturb those memories, he had thought while agreeing to her request.
‘You chose this place.’ He reminded her and then added, ‘And, I didn’t stay in this cottage.’
‘I told you that I want to stay in that cottage.’
‘I know. But…’
‘You don’t want to share that with me, do you?’
‘Aw, come on.’
She remained silent, glaring at him, holding back tears.
‘Come with me,’ he said.
‘Let me show you around this cottage. We have not even gone to the drawing room, have we?’
‘I will see it on my own.’
‘Do what you want.’
With that, he stormed out of the dining room. She could hear him collect some stuff, zipping his backpack and windcheater and then marching out of the cottage. She wanted to tell him to stay. She didn’t.
She moved to the bedroom and opened the curtains. The sight on that side, of the lush dense forest and wild flowers, soothed her. The morning light, filtered through the leaves, danced on the carpeted floor and the bed. She then went to the drawing room. It was a large uncluttered cosy room, the dark rosewood of the furniture strangely blending well with the chrome of the audio-visual system and the leather of big armchairs that could seat two hugging figures. There were Venetian blinds in the front. These were closed and the room was lit by reading lamps near the armchairs. She pulled up the blinds and the natural light softly invaded the room, revealing the near-transparent French windows that separated the drawing room and the balcony in front. The view took away her breath, and made her move a few steps back. She realized then why Sreenath had not stayed here on his previous visit, and also why he chose this room, for her, if not for them.  
She opened the French windows and stepped out. She had known that this cottage was near a cliff but she had not realized how close it really was to the edge. The hanging balcony was a marvel. It was a floating construction with a transparent, open volume of reinforced fiber-glass and steel. The pillars and supports were hardly visible below or above, giving an unobstructed view all around. Sanjana stood at the center of the square floor. She felt as if she was hanging in mid-air, floating with zero gravity. At the back, she could see the forest, the rocks and the imposing granite face of the hill. Below, there were translucent clouds, a thin film over the collage of green and brown fields and the blue-green water of lakes, ponds and a river. And around, on the other three sides, there was nothing but space. She could fly, she was flying, she thought. She gave a whoop of joy. She turned, hoping to see Sreenath there, to share with him her happiness.
Sreenath was not there. She knew that he would not stand there, looking at her on the balcony, even if he was in the cottage. His vertigo would not allow him to go near the balcony.
She did not let that thought dampen her spirits. She rushed inside, got her writing material and came back to the balcony. Seated on the floor, right at the middle, she wrote about all that she felt then, all that she wanted to share. She played with haikus, tried other forms of poetry, included symbols and imagery to capture the experience. She knew that it had been a long time since she felt so full of life.
Then, she heard footsteps from within the cottage.
‘Is that you, Sreenath?’ she called.
The footsteps receded from the inner rooms. It seemed to move towards the roof, climbing the walls, clambering and approaching the balcony from above. She moved inside with her stuff, closed and locked the French windows, drew down and closed the blinds and then moved away. She wondered if she had imagined it all but she could not shake off the clinging feeling that someone or something was lying on the roof, peeping within through unseen gaps or holes. She was scared. She reached for her mobile forgetting that there was no network coverage in that resort. She then picked up the old phone in the drawing room, for internal calls, and got connected to the Old House. Sanjana spoke to a young lady, and asked if Sreenath was in the Old House, and she was told that he was. When Sreenath came on the line, all she could manage to say to her husband was,
‘Please come here, now.’
 Sreenath arrived within five minutes, panting after the sprint from the Old House. She told him about her frightful experience, admitting that she could have imagined everything. Sreenath listened to her, holding and calming her. Then, still holding her hand and keeping her close next to him, they searched within and without, nearly everywhere. He did not go near the balcony, not even opening the blinds covering the French windows. They sat together in one of those armchairs, her legs lying over his, his arms around her, caressing and kissing.
Around one, they requested for room service and ordered a simple lunch of soup, satay, noodles, mushroom, baby corn and bamboo shoots sautéed with pork in a light sauce and finished with lychee and ice-cream. They slept till tea-time and even then, lazed, sipping tea in bed, watching a comedy on TV, laughing.
‘What did you do this morning?’ she asked.
‘I talked to the owner. He is really into architecture, and he is in love with Naples. It is stunning – his knowledge about urban architecture, new and old, and you should see his collection of books and photos. Amazing.’
‘I think I saw that on the balcony. It is marvelous. Have you seen it?’
‘Did you try?’
‘What do you think?’
‘Chicken!’ she teased.
‘Look who was scared,’ he parried.
Her mood changed, recollecting the events of that morning.
‘I wrote a lot this morning,’ she said.
‘Do you want to read it?’
‘Of course.’
‘Maybe, some other time,’ she hesitated, as if unsure, or waiting for some show of enthusiasm.
‘Come on, show it to me.’ Sreenath prodded.
She gave him her notebook and sat close while he studied it, slowly, silently.
‘It is nice,’ he said.
‘Just nice?’
‘Very nice. Lovely.’
‘That’s it?’
‘Come on, Sanjana.’
She took the book from him and got out of bed.
‘What do you want me to say?’ he asked.
‘Don’t sulk.’
‘Why did you stop?’
‘Stop what?’
‘You used to talk. At least, try.’
He remained silent.
‘You used to even try reading between the lines. Now, not even the lines seem to interest you, right?’ she asked.
He did not know how to tell her whatever she wanted to hear. It was true that he used to read a lot between the lines. Too much, in fact, he felt. And that too much used to suit him. But then he had started wondering if the writing was otherwise. She had realized that part and how he seemed unsure if the writing was innocuous, favourable or uncomfortable. Then, with time, the effort and the involvement in interpreting and getting it right or wrong – all that became avoidable.
She moved to the drawing room and then to the balcony, her space. He showered and read a book lying in the bedroom. Around five, she came back within and asked him,
‘Shall we go for a walk?’
He took her on a tour of the resort. He vaguely recollected that the owner and his wife ‘lived in the Middle-east or Libya or somewhere like that for nearly thirty years’, and that they used to be ‘in the real estate or construction or some similar business’. The owner inherited the land from a bachelor grand uncle (‘everyone should have one’), an entrepreneur of the old days, who had ‘occupied’ this hill. The lower regions were still used for agriculture, and like the old days, the servants of the house and the other workers on the plantation lived there. The rest was kept as it was or nearly as it was – a virgin forest, without the three buildings. The Old House was built by the grand uncle, a stone structure with heavy wooden furniture and basic modern amenities added later, and the owner and his wife lived there. A cook and an overseer stayed in outhouses behind the Old House. The two new cottages were added by the present owner, to put to test his interest in architecture – in the west, near the cliff, their cottage; and to the east, about a kilometer from the Old House, the cottage where Sreenath had stayed during his earlier trip. By word of mouth, the place became an exclusive boutique resort. Sreenath took her to the other cottage. It was further downhill and beside a lake separating the resort and the next hill. There was a small wooden dock in front of that cottage and a rowing boat tied there.
‘Tomorrow, let’s row to the far end of the lake. You will like it there, I think,’ he said to Sanjana.
‘What’s there?’
‘Let it be a surprise.’
‘Yes, let it be.’ Sanjana said excitedly, holding his hand tightly. She was amazed by the beauty of the place. Her balcony was better, she evaluated, but this was a very close second.
It was dusk by then. They watched and photographed the changing colour of the sky and the lake till it was nearly dark. Then, they walked back to the Old House to have dinner with the owners. They shared a simple meal of thin, light phulka, steamed rice, dal, beef stew, fried chicken, salad and a tangy preparation with spinach, potato and coconut. Sanjana liked the old, amiable couple. During the meal, the four conversed freely about the resort, architecture and the trip. The old couple was amused by the account of the rickshaw driver. When they touched upon politics, each one defended their stand stoutly, finally agreeing to disagree. Sanjana was surprised to find that the old man was nearly aligned with her center-right views while his soft-spoken wife was left-leaning and definitely more actively rebellious working with the workers’ groups in that area, compared to Sreenath’s moderately socialist (‘armchair New Left’, he admitted) views. After the main course, they moved to the front porch with bowls of homemade ice-cream. Then, they had a choice of brandy and almond liqueur. The owner rolled cigarettes for himself and Sreenath. Sanjana shared her husband’s cigarette. The four hardly talked there, enjoying the silent company and the sound of the wild. Around half past nine, the younger couple thanked the owners.
‘Please come for dinner tomorrow too,’ the owner requested, ‘I will try to fix up a barbeque here – fish, lamb, brinjal and corn. How does that sound?’
‘Thanks a lot – that would be lovely.’ The younger couple said together.
‘We plan to use the boat tomorrow, early, around nine.’ Sreenath informed.
‘Please do. I will keep a picnic basket ready for you. Collect it on your way,’ the owner’s wife said. Then, when they were leaving, she hugged Sanjana and asked about that morning.
‘I heard that you experienced something weird.’
‘Yes, it was weird.’
‘She is not really sure if it was a product of an overheated imagination,’ Sreenath joked.
The old man took Sanjana’s hand and comforted her, ‘One has to get used to the wild. It is like getting used to life within concrete jungles, where we pay no heed to endless footfalls on the staircase or the feeling that eyes peep through windows or keyholes, right? It is the same here – with the sound of footsteps in the dark, the feel of eyes looking, the strange sights and the acoustics, silence too. It took me a long time to get used to all that.’
‘He even thought that it is some act of God,’ the owner’s wife added with a smile.
‘Her creativity must have overflowed on that balcony,’ Sreenath quipped and also added, ‘she is really crazy about that.’
‘It needs a poet to understand it,’ the owner said.
‘Well, if you get really crazy with your husband, you can push him onto that balcony,’ the owner’s wife advised Sanjana, with a kind smile towards Sreenath, ‘that should make him go crazy.’
When they were walking back to their cottage, Sreenath asked Sanjana,
‘When did you tell them about my vertigo?’
‘I didn’t.’
‘Then, how did they know?’
‘You must have told them. You even told them about my poetry.’
‘I did not.’
‘You must have, when you told them about my fright this morning?’
‘When did I tell them? You were with me all the time.’
Back in the cottage, they watched a DVD they had with them – an episode of Foyle’s War. Midway, Sanjana asked him,
‘You actually think that I imagined everything this morning, huh?’
He remained silent, apparently absorbed in the crime show. After that, they went to bed. In the darkness, she told him,
‘I didn’t imagine.’
His silence continued.
‘Why can’t you say something?’
‘What should I say?’
‘That you don’t have anything to say…’
‘…to me,’ she completed.
‘Sanjana, please don’t start.’
‘Why do you turn away? Is it like your vertigo? Some fear you don’t have to face if you just avoid?’
‘What am I avoiding?’
‘What about us?’
‘It seems as if you are just putting up with it, resigned to live with it, out of duty or something else.’
‘I live with it because I want it.’
‘But you can feel it, can’t you? How it feels so lifeless?’
‘Sanjana, now you are imagining things.’
‘I wish I was. Tell me the truth. Don’t you feel that it is over?’
‘Is that what you think?’
‘I think you are settling for whatever is there, continuing with it because that is easy, even if it is so little.’
‘That’s what you think. Not what I think. And you have always been fixated on that, right from our wedding day.’ Sreenath was losing his cool.
‘But I was right even then. You did say that you considered arranged marriage only because the love option did not happen.’
‘But that’s true for everyone, isn’t it?’
‘Not for me.’
‘Yeah! Swear, shout and cut it short!’
‘Try to get some sleep, will you?’
Then there was silence.
The next morning, they were silent at breakfast , hardly noticing what they had. Around nine, they set off on their planned picnic, still not talking. They picked up the lunch basket at the Old House. It was a cool, bright, blue day perfect for their hike. They made it to the other cottage in quick time. Standing on the wooden dock, they took photos of themselves and the area around the calm and inviting lake. They untied the rowboat together. Sreenath rowed alone at first with Sanjana sitting opposite, facing him. Then she moved over to his bench and sat next to him. They rowed together, with his right arm around her and holding her oar too. It took them an hour to reach their destination at the other end, diagonally opposite to the dock and cottage. There, they pulled the boat onto the pebble beach. They tied the boat to a tree-stump. From the beach, it was a five-minute uphill hike to the secluded pond in the flat rocks around, fed by a small waterfall upstream, that whole area shielded partially by the shady canopy of old trees. Like kids with too much to choose from, they clambered over the rocks, checking out and taking their time to pick their spot. They laid a sheet on that flat rock and basked in the semi-shade, sipping lemonade and sharing a chocolate.  They stripped, put on their bathing suit, jumped in and swam in cold, clear water.
‘Couple of years back, couple of foreigners got into some problem here,’ Sreenath said, lying on his back, eyes shut, his hands and feet tapping lightly the surface of the pond, sending circles to the edge.
‘What happened?’ Sanjana asked, treading water near him, between underwater dives to explore the life below.
‘They were caught for being obscene in the open.’
She laughed, then curious, ‘But, who caught them here?’
He shrugged, ‘Some jealous fool.’ He then opened his eyes, looked at her with a broad grin on his face and asked, ‘Well, do you want to get caught, Mrs.?’
‘Ready if you are, Mr.’ she replied with a laugh.
They stayed there till three and then rowed back. They walked back to their cottage, showered together and rested till it was time to dress for dinner. They were famished, ready for the barbeque and the chilled beer. After the meal, they played Scrabble with the old couple, shared a joint and listened to old songs, some blues, and then jazz and before they left, it was some scratchy record with psychedelic stuff, probably Syd Barrett when he was totally doped.
The couple walked hand in hand, happy, content and if they had remembered then, they would have found it amusing that they looked quite like that older couple they had envied during their first honeymoon.
Quarter of the way to their cottage, they got caught in a cloudburst. They stood under a huge tree and waited till it reduced to a light shower. They heard the footsteps when they were about to step out from the shade. They stood still and the footsteps died down, too. Then, from that direction, they also heard a snarl and heavy panting, like that of a rabid dog. Sreenath held Sanjana close, his left arm around her shoulders, his right ready by his side for any attack. She could sense that he was tense and watchful. The panting got closer and the snarling louder. They heard footsteps then, separate and moving fast towards the snarling. They heard the sound of beating and then loud, disturbing moans of pain. The source of those moans moved away from them. The footsteps once again stopped. The couple surveyed the trees around, expecting to see a figure standing there, staring at them. They started walking to their cottage, the rain a mild drizzle. They could hear nothing other than the sound of rain drops falling from leaves and branches onto puddles, their feet rustling dead leaves or the snapping of dry branches or twigs. They saw no one but they could sense that they were being watched. They did not rush but when they reached their cottage, they were breathing heavily, wet, cold and flushed.
He stripped off his wet clothes and slipped into the bathrobe. He helped her remove her wet clothes. She wrapped herself in a blanket and then excused herself, taking their wet clothes to hang it on a line in the bathroom. She washed her face, arms and shoulder, taking deep breaths and steadying herself. She noticed the imprint of her husband’s metal watch-strap on her shoulder. She then went to the bedroom, still wrapped in the blanket, and found it empty. She moved to the drawing room. The room was dark but for the eerie moonlight that flooded the room. The French windows were open and Sreenath was not within the room.
She rushed to the French window, expecting to see the worst, a strangled cry in her throat. There, on the balcony, Sreenath was slowly moving to the center, with his eyes closed. She wondered if he could actually beat vertigo by closing his eyes. Near the middle of the balcony, he stopped. She walked up to him and held him.
‘What are you up to?’ she asked softly.
He placed a finger on her lips, as if to silence her. Without opening his eyes, he kissed her on the lips, lightly. He then sat on the floor, reaching for her, blindly. She knelt on the floor, in front of him. He drew her closer, nearly lifting her on to his lap. She sat astride, facing him, with her arms on his shoulder, their foreheads touching. She could see the face of the imposing cliff, the dark forest and the empty expanse all around.
‘Do you think someone is watching us?’ she asked.
‘You know very well that I am not in a position to check,’ he said, eyes shut, his arms enveloping her, pressing her closer.
‘You keep your eyes closed, Mr.’
‘Thank you, Mrs.’

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Because Of The Rain

Vivek Chandran (VeeCee) was in class eight in 1985. He was fourteen years old; attentive and enthusiastic, though not brilliant, in academic and extracurricular activities; rather mature and reasonable for his age; pleasant with a disarming dimple-cheeked smile; and, popular amongst students and acceptable to teachers, at least, most of them. If he had been a precocious teen, his actions on that rainy day in July would not have shocked and surprised as much as it did.
He got caught in the library during the games period, an hour before the end of that school-day. It had rained incessantly for a week and the grounds were flooded. Unable to play outside, his class had split into three groups. The lucky few managed to grab the limited facilities for indoor games in that boys’ school. The majority remained in class, glad to have three quarters of an hour, unsupervised and free. The remaining half a dozen or so, including VeeCee, chose to spend that period in the library.
They were the sole occupants of the library at that hour, barring the ghostlike presence of the thin, silent, ubiquitous Librarian. Amongst the students, she had gained the sobriquet Caspar. She was helpful to the students who frequented the library. The students had grown accustomed to her discomfiting presence as she wafted between the well-lit areas around the tables, hers and the students’, to the shady confines of the shelves. The young visitors expected to see her kindly face looking over their shoulder with guileless curiosity.
Many days after the incident, the Librarian recounted to her close companions that VeeCee had chosen his usual seat that day. It was near the window with an enviable view of the endless fields of paddy, tapioca and coconut trees that surrounded the school campus. The blue-green distant hills on the right and the shimmering blue sea to the far left added to the grandeur. The Librarian remembered that VeeCee had sat gazing through the window for nearly ten minutes, as in a trance. She admitted that she too had looked at the scenery and found it sublime. The rain-soaked lush green fertile fields; trees and plants swaying; grey clouds that looked comforting rather than threatening, pregnant, sturdy and seemingly permanent; and, a strange late afternoon mist settling like a diaphanous veil over the face of those hills – she listed all that to convince her listeners that it was truly sublime. Some of her listeners had wondered if she was trying to connect the sublime with that which involved VeeCee. She said that VeeCee sat like a statue, inert except for a tiny, beatific smile and that his face had looked peaceful or ecstatic or suffused with some inner pleasure. She could not be sure which and then added that VeeCee had seemed weird.
‘It got weirder,’ she further remarked.
VeeCee woke up from his reverie. He abruptly turned away from the window and shifted his undivided attention to his notebook. A tone of disappointment and accusation entered her mild voice then. She explained how she had felt irrationally disturbed as she watched his concentrated efforts for nearly fifteen minutes. Curiosity or some sense of duty made her go to his table to check on his activity.
‘How I wish I had not…’ she confessed.
What she saw on the page of VeeCee’s notebook made her totter, feeling faint, and she barely managed to stifle the retching brought on by repugnance.
The Librarian recovered quickly. When she snatched the notebook, VeeCee politely rose from his seat, with a puzzled look on his face but without a word of apology or explanation or protest. The Librarian ordered the other students to return to their class. Then, after locking up the library, she took the silent VeeCee and his notebook to the Principal’s office. There, she told VeeCee to wait in the outer chamber where the Principal’s peon had his seat. She knocked at the door of the Principal’s inner office and entered.
She placed the notebook in front of the Principal and then stepped back, half-way towards the exit. She pointed at the book, her eyes averted from it fearing that a look might implicate her in the sordid affair. The pointed accusing finger shook as her nervousness increased. Later, she admitted with shame that she had thought that that simple act of pointing at the book would release some poltergeist from within.
‘I know it is irrational… but… in those circumstances, it felt so plausible…’
The Principal took in her state and then his eyes followed that pointed finger. On the desk, the closed notebook appeared acceptable, innocent and harmless, and on the cover the name and class of the owner, printed in bold, black letters, stared back defiantly.
‘He’s outside,’ the Librarian whispered to the Principal. Then, without another word or gesture, she slipped out of the room. The Principal wondered for a while if she had been an apparition, gliding in and out of his room.
The Principal was a stout, middle-aged man with a clean, expressionless face and an immaculate coiffure of jet black hair and silvery white sideburns. He had viewed the goings-on as if it was ordinary and commonplace. When the school management had chosen him for the post, they had been clearly impressed with his imperturbable demeanour and measured way of speech. In the staff room, many likened that selection with a politician’s choice of a bureaucrat-cum-majordomo. The students referred to him as the Hangman.
He leaned back in his chair and stared at the notebook without touching it. His fingers drummed noiselessly on his taut pot-belly. He let out a sigh. Just two weeks had passed since he had resolved the last crisis. A student of class nine had complained that a teacher had made inappropriate advances towards the student during an excursion. It had taken all his skills in diplomacy and tact to deal with that affair secretly, fairly and, of course, conclusively. The student was dismissed from the school, his parents coaxed to accept the transfer certificate without any protest, and the errant teacher reprimanded privately and barred from all excursions for two years.
He let out another sigh before reaching for the notebook. He flipped through the pages of rough notes, doodles and innocuous sketches of nature and buildings. He reached the page with the matter of interest and after a brief glance he closed the book but continued to hold it. He let out another sigh before pressing a bell on the desk summoning the peon. The latter appeared instantly as if he had been waiting at the door anticipating the bell. His shifty gleaming eyes and eager rabbity face, which still bore traces of his recent snack of tea and some powdery biscuit, seemed to indicate that he had already gleaned much of the recent developments.
The Principal told him, ‘Find the Head Teacher and ask him if he could meet me… immediately…’
The Head Teacher was the Principal’s man Friday in most matters and also his point-of-contact with the staff. The Principal believed in the efficacy of keeping a layer or buffer between him and the general populace.
He decided not to contact any of the management committee regarding the current problem.
‘This affair should trouble as few people as possible.’ He thought to himself.  He then dismissed the peon with a final order,
‘Get hold of the boy’s parents too and tell them that I want to meet them.’ He did not have to spell out the name of the boy. Meanwhile, the concerned boy waited outside, ignored and ignorant of the machinations within.
The Principal opened the book again at the relevant page. He studied the pencil sketch on that page. It showed the lower half of a nude woman lying on a bed with crumpled sheets. The perspective was that of a viewer who knelt on the floor between the splayed legs, staring straight ahead. The buttocks were just a little away from the edge of the bed. The right leg was bent and that knee and thigh rested on the bed. The other leg, straight and taut, stretched. That foot barely touched the floor, like that of a ballerina ready to rise on the toes to twirl or take off on some ecstatic moves. Every detail was explicit and eerily lifelike. The muscles, softness, hair, creases and folds made it seem as if one could touch and taste the real. The sweat, wetness and state of arousal seemed palpable.
He closed the notebook and placed it on his desk, right at the center. He then poured himself a glass of water from a beaker and took careful, measured sips. He heard a knock, looked up and stared into the perpetually grim and unsmiling face of the Head Teacher. Without invitation, the visitor took the seat to the right of the Principal, away from the glare of the afternoon sun, looking at the man seated opposite straight in the eye. The Head Teacher was a trim figure, a few years senior to the Principal. He sat on the chair symmetrically, without tilt or stoop. His visage and attire aligned well with a complete soldierly appearance.
Reaching forward, with his elbows resting on the desk, the Principal moved the notebook slowly towards the other.
‘The Librarian saw him with this.’ When he said ‘him’, he tilted his head towards the door and the Head Teacher gave a brief nod in reply.
The Head Teacher turned the book towards himself and flipped through the pages, clicking his tongue in an irritated way when he saw the doodles and sketches along with the rough notes. He then reached the relevant page. The unflappable ‘military’ man gave a strangled cry and quickly pushed the notebook away from him, spluttering,
‘Good God! How… Why… Where… Who? O God!’
The Principal raised his right index finger to his lips, signaling to his aide that he should hush himself. The other tried hard to regain his composure, sweat appeared on his brow and also darkened his shirt at the armpits. The Principal poured a glass of water for the felled soldier and allowed a minute or two of contemplation and silence.
Then, the Principal asked, ‘Do you know if there is any material in the library… like this…?’
‘Of course not!’
‘Correct me if I am wrong… we have not had any of those new sex education programmes, have we?’
‘Here? Of course not!’
‘Yes, that’s what I thought.’
‘This has to be something external.’
‘Yes, it must be… do you know if such stuff is going around here?’
‘Definitely not! Is it available even outside?’
‘I hope not. I know I might sound crude… forgive me… nobody you know here, is it?’
‘Oh my God! Definitely not!’
Then, the two remained silent, each one waiting for the other to raise the next obvious question. The Principal finally yielded,
‘Anything in the Biology class…?’
‘Definitely not in the texts… we can be quite sure about the teacher… still…’
‘Ah yes, we should check. We should make sure that this has nothing to do with us.’
‘Will you check with the Biology teacher?’ the Head Teacher asked, eager to relinquish that responsibility.
‘I think it would be best if you deal with the teacher,’ the equally evasive attack.
‘Yes, I agree… of course… but… given the gravity of the issue, shouldn’t we both be present when we deal with her?’ the careful parry.
The two men stared at each other unblinking, each refusing to yield any ground, waiting and thinking about the next move. They knew that they would never ‘deal’ with the Biology teacher, singly or together. She, a thirty six year old martinet, was the unofficial guardian of the school’s spirit and soul. She made the boys (and the rest of the staff) feel the need to pray well (to save themselves from her wrath). The old boys of the school still talk of how the days under her guardianship helped in their later life outside the school - no crisis or hardship ever seemed strange to them. In fact, she was the only one who could affect the equanimity of the Principal and make the Head Teacher seem saintly rather than martial.
‘We could try to approach the matter through her husband,’ the Principal suggested.
‘Of course yes!’ The Head Teacher agreed immediately though with equal measures of relief and anxiety. He knew that that was the only way to deal with the difficult matter. If there was any other solution, the two men there would have tried to avoid the husband, too.
The Biology teacher’s husband was the Physical Training (PT) instructor. He was a man who rarely went along with the views of the management or that of the two men in that room or even that of his wife. It was also known that he owed his place in that school to his wife. Nobody dared to go against him fearing her.
The Headmaster rang the bell for the peon and once again, the peon appeared at the door instantly. The Principal barely managed to complete his summons for the PT instructor before the peon was on his way out, leaving the message
‘The parents are on their way… twenty minutes…’
The two men in the office looked at each other, acknowledging silently that they had very little time.
It took eight frantic minutes for the peon to find the PT instructor. The latter was enjoying a clandestine smoke in the shed behind the school garage. That was one of his many hideouts on campus, conveniently far from the Principal and his wife in the staff room. It took another minute for him to find a mouth-freshener and still another to find his dilapidated umbrella. He resisted the peon’s efforts to rush him. He arrived at the Principal’s office, looking as unhappy as a pup left out in the rain, with disheveled hair and his customary comfortable costume, a frayed and faded colourless tracksuit. The two senior men in the office viewed his state of dishabille with distaste.
‘What has VeeCee done?’ the PT instructor asked. He was rather fond of the boy in whom he saw a younger version of himself, a version long forsaken – lazy at practice, enthusiastic and skilled, preference for individual rather than team events, a maverick and, worst of all, a dreamer.
The Principal picked up the notebook, opened it at the offending page and handed it over to the new entrant on the scene. The PT instructor studied it carefully. He scratched his brow, ran his hand through his uncombed hair, thinking.
‘It is very good,’ he said finally.
‘What… do you mean… it is very good?’ the Head Teacher immediately protested.
‘That… it is quite perfect… isn’t that obvious?’ the PT instructor responded.
The Head Teacher’s face showed signs of convulsive anger. He poured himself another glass of water, gulped it down and then confronted the other,
‘Do not forget that you are a teacher and that there are kids of an impressionable age here…’
‘There are no kids in this office, right?’ the PT instructor challenged.
‘Yes, yes…’ The Principal intervened, trying to calm the two.
‘Quite perfect he says…’ the Head Teacher muttered angrily, ‘All my life… as a teacher… as a father of four… I have never seen anything like that… that…’ he exploded, nearly choking on his own words.
‘Ah! I thought so…’ the PT instructor remarked with a wry smile.
‘Enough!’ The Principal silenced the other two.
Then, after the three had calmed down and acknowledged the actual arduous task that lay ahead,
‘We have to be sure, you see… and I think you are the best man…’ the Principal cajoled.
The PT instructor remained still and silent, feeling uncomfortable.
‘First… since you are the one who sees the students outside class… and on much friendlier circumstances than most…’
‘I am not partying with them… I am also teaching…’
‘Of course, of course… I just wondered… only because sports give a more conducive air… and… you do take them for Meets outside school and such… do you know… if the students distribute stuff of this sort…’
‘Are you referring to porn?’
‘Oh… hmm… you know…’
‘I have not seen any student, or teacher, with it.’
‘Wonderful…’ the Principal let out a sigh. He still had the crucial topic to broach.
‘But… this… is not porn…’ the PT instructor remarked.
‘That is a moot point…’
‘Isn’t it obvious… the art involved is amazing…’ the PT instructor continued.
The PT instructor knew that he would be wasting time and effort if he tried any further, the non-argumentative ‘moot’ and the disinterested ‘whatever’ effectively signaled the closure of that discussion.
‘Second… and more importantly…’ the Principal paused to make sure he had the other’s attention, ‘could you ask your wife if she taught anything related to this in the Biology class?’
‘Yes, of course… only vaguely related, I know… but we have to be sure, you know… maybe, when she taught the class about reproduction?’
‘She doesn’t teach reproduction.’
‘She doesn’t?’
‘She leaves that topic for self-study.’
‘Ah, really… how appropriate… but then… maybe, she gives references...’
‘References…? She…? Nothing beyond the texts, I am sure.’
‘Of course, of course…’ The two senior men were nearly beaming with approval. ‘So, from what you say, we can safely conclude that she has nothing to do with this…’
‘If only that was not true… that would be the day...’ The Biology teacher’s husband replied.
‘Anyway, just to be on the safe side… just to be doubly sure, you know… please ask her, will you?’
‘I will try.’
‘Good, good… that’s settled then.’
The Principal then thanked and dismissed the two teachers. In the outer chamber, the Head Teacher walked past VeeCee giving him a glare reserved for the condemned and despicable. The PT instructor patted the boy on the shoulder and left, without a word to the boy, sad and resigned to seeing such again and again.
While the Principal waited for the parents, he looked at the sketch again and wondered about the source. He had heard of creative inspiration but believed in it as much as he did in voodoo. A week or two later, when he heard about the Librarian’s description of that which happened before the sketch, he did wonder if the sketch was some type of vision.
‘After all, people do get divine visions, right?’ he asked himself then.
Drumming his belly, he made his final decision on the matter. It was not right, period. Vision or inspiration or whatever it might be, it was just not right. It went against the guiding principles of the school and probably against the ethos of the society. He decided that such acts and thoughts had no place in that school, within that world of young, innocent minds with a bright and prosperous future ahead.
The Principal was standing near the window, reflecting on the matter, when the peon escorted the parents to the office. The parents looked nervous. They had seen their son standing in the outer chamber but they had not stopped to talk to him. Even if they had wanted to, the peon would have blocked them.
‘The Principal should not be made to wait,’ the peon had warned them.
The Principal asked them to sit. He remained standing near the window, with the afternoon sun behind giving him a halo. He knew that his chosen position made visitors, looking up at him with the sun in their eyes, more nervous.  
He explained to the parents, slowly and clearly, that their son had been caught sketching objectionable stuff. He opened the notebook and passed the sketch to the father, trying to keep it away from the mother’s sight. The stunned father could not close the book before the mother peeped over his shoulder. The mother collapsed back into her chair, keeping her eyes averted from the men. The father placed the book on the desk and sat with his head bowed.
The Principal let the matter stew in its own juice for a while. During that pause, he studied the couple sitting in front of him. He was familiar with them but only as much as most of the other parents he had chance to meet during school functions. He vaguely remembered that they were well-educated professionals, the father an engineer and the mother a doctor or lecturer or whatever. Like most parents there, they were middle-class, progressive, well-traveled and rather ambitious with their kids. The father was in his late thirties and the wife a few years younger. But, like old couples who tend to resemble each other and behave similarly, the two dressed in neat, formal and well-used clothes; both had allowed flab, a slouching posture and careless eating with minimal exercise; and, even their hair and face gave the same mousy, anxious but distant look.
While observing them, the Principal wondered about his own classification of parents, especially those that came to meet him in such circumstances, under three main types and how most fitted in with just minor variations. The largest category, according to him, was quite willing to accept his decisions and rather glad to have him take that responsibility. Then, there were the defiant lot, too sure about themselves and, worse, too sure about their children too. The last lot had the reasoning and doubting type, searching for explanations and uncomfortable with authority. Fortunately, their skepticism usually extended to their kids most often. The Principal decided that this couple in front of him belonged to that third group. He was confident that, whichever the type, they would eventually adopt his thinking. They would probably conclude that it is justifiably right or merely convenient. Or, they would just accept the fact that any fight could not go any further.
Much to his credit, the Principal never viewed his position as that of power. It was obvious to him that bureaucracy and such unquestionable hierarchy provided both the foundation and scaffolding for a good, uniform and well-functioning society. But, in private moments, he did wonder about how he would behave if he had to put on the parents’ shoes and sit in their seat looking up at someone like him. Once or twice, he saw himself discarding his unflappable nature, reaching across the desk, grabbing the Principal and slapping him loud and hard. One such thought brought an end to his musing.
The parents listened to the Principal’s decision, agreeing silently, nodding their heads already burdened with shame. The Principal took hardly ten minutes with the parents and then rang the bell for the peon. The peon escorted the parents and the boy to their car, making sure that the group met none on the school campus. The notebook remained with the Principal.
The small family did not talk to each other in the car. The father left the mother and son at a relative’s place. He then raced home and searched his son’s room and the rest of the house for any material that could explain that sketch. The tiring clueless search threw no new light on the matter. He then went and collected his wife and son.
Later that night, after a hurried and silent dinner, the parents and son retired to their respective rooms. The parents talked to each other for the first time after leaving the Principal’s office.
The mother could barely hold it in any further.
‘Do you still have that magazine?’ she asked.
‘What magazine?’
‘The magazine I found under our mattress when I returned after delivery.’
‘That was… what… 14 years back!’
‘Do you still have it? Or other such stuff?’
‘Of course not… anyway, that was not mine… I was just safe-keeping for a friend…’
‘Oh… really…?’
‘Don’t start…’ the husband threatened.
‘By the way… you have not been walking around the house… you know… like that… have you?’ the husband asked.
‘What? How could you even suggest that?’
The husband remained silent.
‘It is not me… you noticed the difference… didn’t you?’ the wife's voice was shrill.
‘Hmm…’ the near-silent reply.
Then, there was silence. They did not sleep. They did not check if their son had slept. Sometime during the night, the father or the mother or maybe both cried,
‘Oh, what will we do with him?’
The details of the story came out soon into the public domain. The peon told his version to his mates and to some eager ears amongst the teachers and students. The Librarian confided to her close companions and they confided to others. The PT instructor never asked his wife, the Biology teacher. He did not have to. The Head Teacher talked to his wife about it, after censoring the inappropriate, and narrated a version of the affair as a parable to his four well-disciplined children. Thankfully, it never reached the papers. The Principal had taken care of that. Vulva Chandran (VeeCee) turned into a story that climaxed then on that rainy day in July.

Notes:  Because of some reason…

  1. I have not fled India, said MF Husain in his last interview, The Times of India, June 9, 2011. ‘There are more than 900 cases on me and for the last 12 years I have been paying my lawyer 60-70,000 rupees per month because I have not fled from Indian legal system.‘(
  2. Icons of grace, Frontline, Vol. 29, Issue 11, June 02-15, 2012. ‘Folk goddesses in pre-Aryan days, yakshis went on to become protective deities in Indian religions ‘ (
  3. Chorus of unreason, Frontline, Vol. 29, Issue 11, June 02-15, 2012. ‘Political parties across the spectrum get into a tangle over an innocuous cartoon in a school textbook’(
  4. Salman Rushdie has found peace – but the Satanic Verses 'affair' won't go away, The Observer, January 29, 2012. ‘The terror of Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa has faded but the challenge it posed to artistic freedom has not, as a brush with the Indian authorities has shown‘ (
  5. Vatican Scolds Nun for Book on Sexuality, The New York Times, June 4, 2012. ’“I can only clarify that the book was not intended to be an expression of current official Catholic teaching, nor was it aimed specifically against this teaching. It is of a different genre altogether.”‘ ( 
  6. EMS shouldn't mind the small things in GOST: Das, Express News Service, November 18, 1997. The noted Malayalam novelist and critic Kamala Das, in an interview in a regional magazine, has said that while she was of the opinion that Namboodiripad should not have made such a hue and cry over the alleged references to him in The God of Small Things, she was personally not in favour of writing a book about those who were alive.' ( 
  7. Harvard Faculty Debates Free Speech, Harvard Magazine, December 8, 2011. ‘In the end, the faculty decided overwhelmingly that Swamy had crossed the line between free speech and hate speech—that the actions he advocated (restricting Muslims’ right to vote, razing mosques, and more) rose to the level of inciting violence and deprivation of others’ rights—and his courses were stricken from the catalog of offerings for this coming summer.‘( 
  8. Internet censorship listed: how does each country compare?, The Guardian, April 16, 2012. ‘Where is the internet the most open? Where is it the most restricted?’(