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?’(

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