the boys went into their classrooms after the prayers, Sula of Class IV
said to Makhana, "Learnt the multiplication tables set by Nilakanth, have
but just can't memorise the damn things."
we do? Lord Yama's own messenger he is." Makhana's face turned pale. Sula
laughed carelessly and handed something to him quietly. "Here, rub it on
"What is it?"
Go on, apply it on your hand, then the caning will not hurt."
your father?" Makhana was rather incredulous.
"May my father
die if I am not telling the truth. Look, I am also applying it on my hands."
The two friends
went on quietly applying the fat on their palms through the first four
periods and the recess. Nilakanth's period came after the recess. As soon
as he entered the Class room he look off his turban and placed it on the
broken down shell of a cupboard. Then he sat down, unbuttoned his coat
and shirt and began to scratch his hairy chest. Spreading out his
legs, he farted while asking the boys to recite the multiplication tables.
After six boys, came Makhana's turn. He did all right initially but
then be faltered. Nilakanth grabbed his ear and pulling him, dragged him
towards himself. Makhana stole a glance at his hands.
glistening with fat. But Nilakanth did not cane him. He surveyed the class
and his eye fell on Sula who appeared to be the most well built and tough
and he said. “Hey you, Sula fatso, come here. Give this Makhana a
ride on your back." Sula had been quietly trying to memorise his tables.
Hearing the order, he folded his book and put it back in the bundle on
the piece of cloth in which he carried them. He stood up and glancing at
Makhana gave a chuckle and lifted him on his back. Nilakanth pulled up
Makhana's shirt and began to cane the tender flesh with a thin stick. Makhana
screamed, "Oh father dear, oh mother mine? I'm dead. Sir, I'll memorise
it tomorrow, I promise I will. Oh my father, I'm dead. Sir? Masterji? Please
spare me today sir, may God send all your misfortunes upon me! Sir, Masterji!
May I die instead of you, Masterji! Tomorrow I'll have everything by heart,
you will see sir."
"Are you telling
the truth?" Nilakanth asked.
sir? If I don't have them at the tip of my tongue tomorrow, please skin
"In that case,
let's leave him," Nilakanth told Sula and then fumed to the class, "Will
all of you have learnt the tables till No. 16 tomorrow?"
everyone yelled - Sula the loudest.
who did not know them today, will now touch their ear lobes in shame."
Half a dozen boys did so and
At 4 p.m.
the two friends left school to walk home together. Just as Sula began to
say something, Makhana snapped at him, "Shut up, you??? I've seen your
friendship very well!"
“Ah, ha! Did
we carry you on our back of our own wish? We only did what Masterji asked
us to do."
off the sheep's fat indeed!"
"How was I
to know that he would hit your bottom? You should have applied the fat
on your buttocks - then it would not have hurt."
mouth shut or I'll break all your teeth!"
They had reached
the main road and standing there was the Convent School bus. The children
were alighting while their mothers waited for them. The boys and girls
were in uniform - white shirts, red neckties, red socks, black shoes and
green shorts or skirts. They all carried little lunch boxes. Something
happened to Makhana - he kept staring at a blue-eyed little girl. Sula
was watching a little boy with hair like silk and milk white legs. It appeared
that the little boy had not eaten his lunch because his mother was telling
him, "But why didn't you tell me that you do not like kofta? I would have
given you some mutton. Or a couple of eggs. There were some pieces of fish
left over from yesterday's curry you could have had those. But why did
you have to starve yourself?"
The boy only
smiled in return.
thought came to Sula and he asked, "What did they cook in your home today?"
"Just as wretched
as I thought!"
did not hear him. He was wondering, "Who could the blue-eyed one be? Whose
child was she?"
The next day,
when the bell rang and all the boys assembled in the compound for prayers,
Sula happened to look back. He turned deathly pale. He saw his father talking
to the Headmaster outside the school gate. His instinct was to dash out,
but the peon stood at the gate menacingly. The lump of fat still lay in
his pocket - he had not yet used it on his hands. After a while the Headmaster
returned and the peon shut the gate.
"Sula of Class
IV will step out," the Headmaster ordered. Sula's knees trembled as he
"Do you know
what this fellow Sula was doing at home yesterday?" the Headmaster addressed
the boys, swinging his cane.
the boys shouted at the top of their voices.
riot he has created at home last evening! Broken the pots and pans and
bitten his mother's thumb. And do you know why?"
"He told his
parents that he wanted hot rice and curry!"
and curry? Ha ha ha . . ." all the boys laughed.
have asked for these things?"
"If they give
you cold rice, that is what you should eat. If they give you greens, that
is what you must eat. If they give you nothing, you must keep quiet - isn't
proceeded to cane Sula - a dozen times on each hand and finally asked the
Maulvi Saheb to bite his left thumb. Sula bore the pain of the beatings
somehow, but the bite drew a shriek from him and he fell down in a heap.
Two hard kicks from the Headmaster sent him back to his place in the line.
began. Two boys from Class V - Javed Ahmad and Ashok Kumar stepped forward
and started to sing in Urdu; Lab pe ati hai dua banke tamanna meri,
zindagi shams ki soorat ho khudaya meri. This wish comes as a prayer
upon my lips. Oh Lord, make my life like that of the candle.
The rest of
the boys repeated the words after them as loudly as they could. Sula, his
voice choked with sobs, sang through his tears, Door duniya ka mere
dum se andhera ho jai, har jagah mere chamakne se ujala ho jai! May
the darkness of the world be dispelled through me. May there be light everywhere
that I shine.
over, the boys went to their respective classes. Seeing Sula's small, reddened
eyes, Makhana's heart softened towards him and all of yesterday's anger
was washed away. What if his own father were alive today? He would also
have been coming to school sometimes to have him thrashed. Good that he
had only a mother. She beat him, no doubt, but would not come to the school
with a complaint. But the very next moment he remembered Nilakanth and
he also remembered that he had still not memorised the tables. Asking Sula
for the fat did not seem quite tight. Besides, he had no faith in it any,
more. The problem exercised his mind, but eventually he thought his own
remedy the best: he took the Goddess Kali’s name seven times and tied a
knot in his shirt.
recess, Nilakanth entered the classroom. As usual, he took off his turban
and put it on the broken down cupboard, slipped his feet out of his pumps
and sat cross-legged in his chair. Scratching his head, he asked the boys
to recite the tables one by one. While the first boy was doing so, Makhana
suddenly stood up.
has hit you now?"
his little finger, " "Pass", sir."
indeed! Sit down at once or I'll thrash you."
down, but, after a few minutes stood up again, "Sir, Mastetji, I'm bursting!
Terrible "pass" sir!"
before me! Or I’ll draw it out through your bottom! "
'Sir I'm telling
the truth, Masterji. It is the big "pass", sir!"
looked Makhana square in the face. Makhana's eyes seemed to glitter with
tears. He thought that he was telling the truth and so let him go. Once
in the toilet, Makhana began to think- there certainly was something in
the business of tying a knot in your shirt, or why else would he get the
urge for the big "pass" all of a sudden? Hadn't he already relieved himself
at home in the morning? Actually, the great Kali is not the one to leave
her devotee in a tight situation?by the time he went back to the classroom,
Nilakanth's period would be over.
The last bell
rang at 4 p.m. Sula and Makhana left to go home. Reaching the main road,
Sula would have continued to walk on, but Makhana stopped him with, "Wait.
Let's stop for the Convent bus."
"To hell with
it! We only get a beating later on." Makhana was quiet. Sula took his arm
and pulled him along. But Makhana's feet refused to budge. Eventually Sula
left on his own. He had taken only a couple of steps when he saw a few
people gambling. He stopped to watch the game.
After a few
minutes the Convent bus came. And out trotted the children in their shorts/shirts/socks/shoes/ties.
After five or six children came the blue-eyed girl. Handing over the lunch
box and attache case of books to her mother, she tightened her skirt belt.
Makhana's heart pounded against his ribs as if the Headmaster had made
him do eight runs of the school yard. As he was looking at her she disappeared
with her mother in the halwai's alley.
next day, school went well till the recess when suddenly the cry went round
that two boys had drowned while bathing in the river near Habba Kadal.
The bell at the end of the recess was rung late and the teachers had all
the boys assemble in the compound and fall in line just as they did for
prayers. After a while, the Headmaster came and delivered a lecture. The
boys must not go to the ghat to bathe in the Veth because the river was
infested with crocodiles; the crocodile is a riverine animal and resembles
a lizard but is much bigger in size and as soon as a boy enters the Veth,
its jaws close on his legs and he is dragged down; from the word "crocodile",
came the phrase, "crocodile tears" . . . .
the Second Master came and proceeded to put the stamp of the school on
every boy's thigh while the Headmaster spoke on: "The school stamp is being
put on your thighs so that every morning we can examine it and if it is
found missing or washed away from anyone's skin, he will be given a tharshing
with stinging nettles."
When the Second
Master was through with the task of stamping, the school was declared closed
for the day.
As they were
going home, Makhana said to Sula, "Supposing we tell them that we had a
bath under the tap? How can they tell?"
you think they are fools? Don't they know there is no water in the taps?
What wisdom will you show them then?"
his shorts up and said, "Look, how well this brand of a slave suits us!"
legs of goats hanging at the butcher's shop stamped similarly?"
main road, Makhana stopped, saying, "Today we were saved from Nilakanth
the Crocodile's period."
"Did he ask
you your tables?"
"No, I too
was saved by the skin of my teeth."
"By my father's
death I swear"
"How did you
me to press his head."
For a while
they were silent and then Makhana spoke, '"The bus has not come today."
"How can it
come yet? Weren't we let off early? Come, let's go."
the Crocodile will certainly demand the tables."
developed a certain faith in the efficacy of the shirt knot. So he replied
carelessly, "Oh, come on. Tomorrow is a long way off."
carne and went and so it went on for a long time. The Form Master was supposed
to check the boys' before the prayers every morning and he asked them to
show him the stamp. It had gone in several cases and on some only a faint
mark remained. But it was still fresh on Makhana's and Sula's thighs as
if newly made. There were welts of grime around the mark, throwing it into
greater relief. The Form Master understood that these two had followed
the Headmaster's order; to the letter, while the others had had an occasional
dip. He was very pleased with them, and letting them off, asked both of
them to go to his house where a carpenter was at work.
Sula and Makhana
went off enthusiastically. They were to keep handing the material?frames,
planks, and nails to the carpenter as he worked, fill water in his hookah,
tobacco in the chillum, place a live charcoal from the kangri on it and
take puffs till the tobacco was properly lit. Carrying beams, Makhana's
shirt got torn. Sula had been wise?he had taken his off and worked in his
At about 4
p.m., the two picked up their bundles of books and left to go home. At
the main road, Makhana's feet automatically came to a halt. Sula gave a
chuckle and stopped too. After a while the Convent bus came and the children
descended. Today they were in their winter uniforms?black shoes, red socks,
grey flannel trousers, grey sweaters, white shirts, red ties and dark cherry
blazers. On their top left coat pockets was the school badge. Makhana strained
his eyes but could not locate the blue?eyed girl.
let's go. It is late and I am cold."
to wake up at Sula's remark. He too was feeling cold and the two turned
a month or so, the school closed for the winter vacation. When it reopened,
there was still some snow around. Before the bell rang, the boys played
and had snow fights. Sula and Makhana buried a number of boys in the snow
and thrust snowballs through the shirt fronts of several others. Then they
made three snowmen, resembling the Headmaster, Nilakanth and the Maulvi Saheb. In the bustle of the game, they came into their own and seemed to
realise their worth for the first time. Hardly anyone escaped their attention.
The high point of the morning was their dragging Ashok Kumar and Javed
Ahmad of Class V on the snow. This thrilled them with an animal pleasure.
Their happiness lasted till the fourth period. For the first two periods
no one turned up to teach them. The third was Maulvi Saheb's. He demanded
walnuts from the Shivratri festivities from the Pandit boys and forgot
to check the work assigned for the long winter vacation. But the Second
Master in the fourth period demanded work. The pallor of death spread on
the faces of several boys. Makhana quickly tied a knot in his shirt. Sula
did not have the lump of fat with him. He looked appealingly at the Second
Master who made all the boys, including him and Makhana, who had not done
the winter assignment, stand up. Then he beat the stove pipes wish a stick
and collecting the accumulated soot, smeared their faces with it. The Monitor
was ordered to take them round all the classes. Makhana heaved a sigh of
relief at having escaped a beating. Now he was fully convinced of the secret
power of the shirt knot. As they went down the stairs, he told Sula, "Saw
a film with my cousin on Shivratri. There was a black giant in it just
see your own face! You look like the devil himself!"
Led by the
Monitor, they came to Class V first of all. Seeing them, the boys and the
teacher burst into laughter, in which they also joined in sheepishly. Their
next stop was Class IV which was be taught by Nilakanth, who boxed their
ears. A few boys started to laugh but Sula gave them such a malevolent
look that the smiles froze on their lips. After this the Monitor took them
to Class II, which was being taught by the Maulvi Saheb at that time. He
showered blows on some and obscenities on others. While giving Makhana
a hard blow he admonished him, "Don't you dare forget to get the Shivmtri
In the Upper
First, Makhana quietly pinched the arm of the Black Giant next to him and
a cry escaped him, at which the Master gave him several hard slaps. In
the Lower First, Sula upset a bottle of ink belonging to child sitting
in the front row, but the child was too scared of him to even utter a whimper
of protest. When they were back in their class after the round, the Second
Master made them catch their ear lobes to express shame and with firm instructions
to get their work with them tomorrow without fail, dismissed them.
went by, then another tomorrow and so it went on for the next five years.
The name of the school was changed. It became the Government Lower Middle
School. But it still had only five classes and Sula and Makhana still remained
in Class IV. The warm autumn sun was very pleasant and these two had been
put to work by the Maulvi Saheb. Sula was scratching his back and haunches
with his nails. Makhana was squeezing out the pus from the boils on his
thighs. The Maulvi Saheb's eyes were half-closed with relief. The other
boys were engaged in games of noughts and crosses played on slates. The
Monitor stood at the door on the look out for the Headmaster. This was
the last period and they were let off after this. Makhana bought a cigarette
for one paisa from the shop outside the school and the two friends took
rums taking puffs from it.
hurry. Let's leave the books at home and play with marbles," Sula said.
finish the cigarette first. On the main road someone might see us smoking."
lie, you rogue, if your father were alive, you would make him fill tobacco
in your chillum, I'm certain. I
bugging you?you think it is too early for her to come!" Makhana just grinned.
Finishing the cigarette, they
the main road. The Convent bus had arrived. The children descended and
then left with their mothers. The bus left, but Makhana and Sula remained.
Makhana asked Sula to buy two - paisa worth of roasted soyabeans. "There
she comes!" Sula's exclamation made Makhana forget to munch. His heart
beat faster as he stared at her unblinkingly. Reaching the halwai's shop,
she dismounted her bicycle. Her attache case of books was on its carrier
and in her hand she carried a hockey stick. She wore white socks and PT
shoes. Her white skirt hemline reached just above her knees. Over her white
shirt, she wore a red nylon cardigan. Her hair fell over her shoulders.
"How she has
grown! How different she looks!" Sula nudged Makhana.
eyes are the same?as blue as ever," Makhana drew a deep sigh, "What a little
girl she used to be!"
Just as little as we used to be. But they say she is to appear for her
matriculation this year."
your father?" Sula seemed to jump out of his skin.
"May my father
die if I tell a lie," Makhana swore.
"This is what
is called luck!"
she is the captain of the school hockey team too."
thought of something. He asked, "Hey listen, didn't they take four annas
from each of us for sports equipment last month? What did they do with
where this chap has gone!" Makhana was furious, "I’m talking of something
serious and he is off on a totally different track - after all, what can
one expect from him!"
year the name of the school changed again. Now it was the Nehru Memorial
Government Lower Middle School.
Makhana, "What does this Nehru Memorial mean?"
dead, that is why our school has been named after him," Makhana answered
"Oh that I
understood very well but what does "Memorial" mean?"
"How the devil
should I know?"
"To me it
sounds like an obscenity."
hell is the matter with you?" Makhana lost his temper, "I'll report you
to the Headmaster?tell him that this fellow is abusing the leader of the
"Oh ho! Did
I abuse him on my own? They themselves have given this obscene name to
that bother you? You just keep your mouth shut."
prayers, the Headmaster made an announcement: the Maulvi Saheb was retiring
from service that day; he would not be coming to school the next day. Then
he spoke at length of his competence and gentle qualities. The boys understood
nothing of it. The Headmaster then made a request for the Maulvi Saheb
to say a few words of advice to the boys, at which he stepped forward and
began, but broke down after just a few words. Taking a piece of cloth from
his sherwani pocket, he wiped his tears. Placing the same cloth on his
nose, he blew hard and drew the snot on it and rubbing the cloth between
his fingers till it was absorbed, folded it afresh and put it back in his
the stairs of the class, Makhana asked Sula, "Hey, why did the Maulvi Saheb
he weep? The poor man must be feeling bad about leaving his job." Sula
it be that he was sorry about beating us so much?"
is why, who knows."
riddance! God has delivered us from him."
"Oh but will
he who comes to replace him be any better for us? All these bastards are
came to Class IV as usual in his period. He was eloquent : "My dear boys,
you will be very happy to see me gone. You must have a lot of resentment
against me because I used to beat you, but remember a teacher's beating
is not a beating, it is like being given food and nourishment. And this
stick is not a stick, it is a giver of wisdom. I had no hatred for you
rather there was love for you all in my heart. That is why I liked to drill
sense into you with this, my symbol of wisdom."
The boys listened
in silence. He went on and on and finally concluded with, "All right, now
1 shall hit each one of you on the hand with this stick for the last time,
so that you will always remember my love for you."
Saheb retired, but there was no immediate replacement for him. The next
day, the Headmaster himself took their class. As his glance fell on Sula,
he seemed to remember something, "Hey, you there. What's your name?" "Sula,
Sula, get up and go to my house. Do you know where I live?"
Now listen, our servant went home to his village yesterday. Why don't you
go and take our cow out, lead her to some garden." Sula rose with alacrity
and asked, "Sir, shall I leave my books here or take them along?"
"No, no, take
the books with you. At 4 o'clock you can go home from there. But wait.
Take someone with you."
"I can take
Makhana with me, sir."
"And who may
Makhana rose with a grin.
very good. Run along then, both of you."
The two picked
up their load of books and left. They went to the Headmaster's residence
and drove the cow out, leading it to a distant field. The cow began to
graze, her mouth clinging to the green grass, while the two started playing
you see how fat the Headmaster's wife is?"
she grow fat? With a cow at home, she must be drinking milk by the bucket
the servant would be back after four days. Well, why should we mind? That
is four days well taken care of! And if they ask us to write a composition
on "Cow" in the examination, just think of it!"
"Oh yes. Look,
this cow really has two cars, two eyes, four legs and one tail! Don't they
also write, 'a cow chews
does that mean' ?"
is something to do with dung."
Besides, if the Headmaster is pleased with us, he will certainly pass us,
composition or no composition," said Makhana.
I’ll get the marbles with me. There's no fun in this hop?scotch."
be fun." Makhana jumped with joy in anticipation.
On the fourth
day, while playing with marbles, a sigh escaped Makhana and he said, 'The
Headmaster's wife said their servant would be returning from the village
" That means
we shall have to attend school tomorrow?"
became wobbly with dismay.
"But let us
loaf tomorrow too. We shall tell them at home that we have to take the
Headmaster's cow out again."
now you are talking sense!" Makhana's spirits soared and he shouted, "Here
- that's my turn!"
came and went and so it went on for another five years.
It was the
14th of November, Jawaharlal Nehru's birthday - Children's Day. Sula, Makhana
and all the other boys of the Nehru Memorial Government Lower Middle School
were taken to the stadium by the Masters. The huge stadium gate had been
decorated with arches of flowers and bunting. Many cars and jeeps lined
both sides of the road, which was sprinkled with water and lined with lime.
Policemen moved around busily in their crisp, freshly laundered uniforms.
The boys from the Nehru Memorial Government Lower Middle School were not
allowed to enter from the impressive front gate. They were asked to come
from the gate at the back. Sula and Makhana were dumbstruck at the sight
inside. There were flags all around?red, blue, yellow, green, pink, purple
- fluttering in the wind. On one side in chairs sat men in expensive suits
and women in bright coloured dresses. In front of them in neat rows stood
boys and girls from different schools in their distinctive, attractive
uniforms. At the other end stood the band in dazzling attire. Their drums
and bugles shone brilliantly in the sun.
and several other boys were made to sit in a corner at the back, far away
from the colour and pageantry. They tried to sneak ahead quietly, but a
Master happened to notice and swinging his thin mulberry stick, pushed
them back. But Makhana kept rising on his haunches to catch a glimpse of
the show, while Sula was happily engaged in a game of pebbles with another
the people in chairs stood up. Someone announced something through a megaphone
and the uniformed boys arid girls stiffened to attention. Someone dressed
in pure white arrived. Smiling, with folded hands, he bowed before everyone
and took his seat on the sofa in the front. Sula quietly threw a pebble
bastard's father is dead?" Makhana was enraged. "Nobody's. It is I who
threw it at you," Sula
"I say, who is that?"
"Must be someone.
"Is he the
one who will give away the pears?"
anything about pears being given away?"
was saying that we would each be given two pears over here."
your father?" Makhana was pleased.
The man in
white went to the rostrum and unfurled the flag. Everyone stood up. The
children saluted and so did the band. The people took their seats again.
The man in white began to say something.
"What is he
saying?" Makhana asked Sula.
"Who the hell
understands anything?" was Sula's reply.
speech, the man went back to his seat on the sofa. The people clapped.
Watching them, Sula, Makhana and the others also clapped loudly. A little
girl climbed up on the rostrum and sang a song. She was also cheered. Makhana
and Sula too applauded. Then came four or five boys, who also said something
and received loud cheers. "Oh I'm feeling tired with all this clapping,"
said Sula. "You get tired too easily," Makhana snapped at him, "these poor
fellows are not tired with all this lecturing and you are exhausted merely
a group of girls who performed the "roff".
was a mass drill by the uniformed children. At the end it was once again
the man-in-white's turn. He climbed the rostrum again and began to give
away the prizes to the boys and girls. Every recipient of a prize was cheered
lustily. "Hey, when will they give the pears?" Sula asked.
I know? Maybe they give or maybe not," was Makhana's reply.
"Oh, but why
won't they? When they could give prizes to these guys, why should they
faint when it is our turn?"
with your stomach, as usual. One would think you were starving!"
"By God, I
have eaten nothing this morning."
you have tea? "
"When I left
home they had not made it yet."
quiet. Look, another girl has received a prize. Clap for her, will you!"
find me wanting ? ready to die for her," Sula clapped loudly.
At 11 o'clock
the whole show was over. Sula and Makhana walked out and stood outside
the stadium gate, while the vehicles moved out. The two friends counted,
taking bites from a pear …
forty-eight, forty-nine, fifty, fifty-one . . . . .
"To hell with
it! What will we get with all this counting?
It is just
giving us a headache."
there so many cars and jeeps in this city?"
there are only these? There must be four times as many!"
your father's death?"
"By my father's
death I swear. To hell with them all! Didn't you say they would give us
two pears each? Why have they, given us only one?"
I know? Maybe half the pears were carted home by the Masters."
Did you see the people in that car?" Makhana almost screamed.
"No. Who was
it?" Sula asked.
blue-eyed one. Perhaps she had brought her daughter here in the car."
"Did she have
her husband with her too?"
"Was he the
one who used to have hair like silk and milk-white legs?" Sula sighed.
"Oh yes, the
they have grown? "
a child too!"
they have had? It must be twenty-two or twenty-three years since then."
that. It is an age ago."
"I swear by
we grow up?"
"How do I
know? How can I say anything? "
"Do we have
to go to school tomorrow? " Makhana asked after a while.
"What do you
think? They have given you a holiday today - you expect them go give you
one tomorrow too?"
"I just wondered
if they might."
if they might indeed! They who would not even give us two pears!"
is no getting away from school tomorrow?" Makhana sighed.
The next day,
as the boys started to go to their classes after the prayers, Sula of Class
IV said to Makhana: "Learnt the multiplication tables set by Nilakanth,
"No. You have?"
but just can't memorize the damn things."
shall we do? Lord Yama's own messenger he is," Makhana's face turned pale.
carelessly and handed something to him stealthily, "Hero, rub it on your
hands, then the caning will not hurt."
your father?" Makhana was somewhat incredulous.
"May my father
die if it isn't the truth. Look, I am also applying it on my hands."