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It was a Monday, the first working day after the ‘Eid’ holidays. A tall, good-looking man with charcoal black wavy hair, came into our class and introduced himself: “My name is Mathew Thomas, and I’m your new English language teacher.” He was forthright, yet unassuming. Then, a disarming smile spread across his thin, drawn-out lips, which we were completely unprepared for. There was a warmth about that smile of his. I immediately noticed that one of his upper incisors, the one right before his left canine, was slightly crooked towards the inside.
When he smiled, the monkey lines on either side of his mouth became prominent. Did his nostrils flare slightly as the smile wave swept across the class? I wasn’t sure, but Aslam, who sat next to me, said they didn’t. I was desperate to go one up on him, so I said the pristine white shirt Mathew sir wore was not custom made. This time I got him, I thought. He nearly laughed out loud, but on second thoughts perhaps, he didn’t. He only said the label behind sir’s shirt collar did not belong to the garment manufacturer, but to the tailor who had sewn it for him.
Aslam was adept at whatever he did. He scored over all the others in the class for Maths. He had a way with algebra equations and their application. Among all the subjects, Maths for me was the tough nut to crack. During the final exam last year, I felt I wouldn’t make it. The glare of the sun that perched up over the windows hurt my eyes. I looked down at the oxide-laid cement floor, the red hue of which had now lost its lustre, not knowing what else to do. Aslam must have been watching me. He slid his answer sheets onto the floor close to my feet. When I looked up, he only winked. I picked them up from the floor but returned to Aslam with only half of them, keeping the rest under my answer sheets to copy.
At home in the evening, I told Neenakka1 about our new English teacher. She was the eldest daughter of one of my father’s cousins. She had joined Parameswaran Pilla’s Janatha Tutorial College, which was only a short distance from our home. Pilla, with his neatly trimmed moustache that extended far beyond the corners of his mouth and a kinky inflexion in his speech, was the most eligible bachelor in the neighbourhood. Even after teaching hours, he kept tabs on each one of his students. On the following day, he would give a dressing-down to those who had shown up on his radar the previous evening. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which was deliberated in the class earlier, would be chewed over again. Neenakka had already failed three times at her senior high. This was her last-ditch attempt perhaps.
“O,” said Neenakka. She knew him, as there was a bit of history attached to his ancestral home. The germane incidents had happened four centuries ago. Pursued by his enemies, the future king of the princely state once sought refuge at Mathew sir’s great-great-grandfather’s house. Later, as he was leaving, the stranger thanked everyone and hugged the old man who had sheltered him at his peril. As time passed and upon ascension to the throne, the king reciprocated by honouring his hideout with an arched gateway, and a golden bell hung at its top. Ever since the ancestral home came to be known as the “bell hung house.” A bronze bell replaced the gold one in a later generation, though.
By mid-morning the next day, all school was abuzz with the fable, the evidence of which stood before everyone in cement and bronze. Vandalized, the bell now hung tilted like an unsolicited artefact. The graffiti on the front boundary wall of the house featured picturesque references to the male and female genitalia. The first period in the afternoon session was English Prose. Mathew sir was his usual self. We wanted to ask him but, faced with reckoning, everybody chickened out except Rajendran from the backbench. Sir began to laugh, and the entire class broke into peals of laughter.
My parents decided it was high time my math skills improved and shifted me to a private school. It was a sombre chestnut-brown three-story brick building with a lobby and a chapel on the first floor. On the right was the administrative office, combining the cashier’s counter, headmaster’s cabin, and Fr. Kappen’s minuscule workspace. A wooden stairway led to the upper floors that served as the residential quarters for friars and boarders. Scattered around were primer-coated white rectangular structures comprising rows of classrooms. In those evenings, when I stayed back in school for a game of shuttlecock, before crossing the gate, I would glance back at the admin building awash in an amber vignette, as the fading twilight turned into silhouettes. The entire vista reminded me of the open mouth of the Laughing Buddha with several front teeth taken out that I had seen on the cover of the National Geographic in Higginbotham in the railway station.
The headmaster Fr. Kuncheria was a short, stocky man who had small, kind eyes and a Van Dyke beard. Senior students said that he never left his beard unkempt. I suspected he must have been using a goatee mould. At the start of the school assembly on Mondays, he always addressed the audience as friends. On the other hand, some of us had endearingly tagged him as Faku!
At the start of every semester, a sense of paranoia gripped the students. It hung over the entire school like a hat. Faku in his laboured gait would drop by each class, carefully skirting the pool of muddy water formed on the ground from the previous night’s rain, with the preceding semester’s mark list and a cane in each hand. Students who had failed many subjects would be asked to extend their hands to facilitate the cane’s smooth movement through the air before it landed over their palms. By the time Faku was through with the isometrics of the season, at least two of his right-hand fingers would require bandaging.
Fr. Kappen was a fairly thin, handsome man. Wiping the dust accumulated over his horn-rimmed eyeglasses with a faded yellow linen piece of cloth, he would tell us that Dickens did not conceive Great Expectations for us to copy Q&As from one another.
During one of the Monday assemblies, Faku announced the preparations for the school magazine and encouraged us to submit our creative contributions. Out of the many poems I had scribbled in my scrapbook, I too submitted one. Early next semester, after class, Fr. Kappen asked me to see him in his cubbyhole workspace next to the headmaster’s cabin. He held my hands when we met, saying the editorial committee was proud to run my poem in the magazine. Before I left, he kissed me on my forehead. Did his kiss last a few moments longer than was necessary? I remembered the muted murmurs among the boarders in the class that he was gay.
Nagappan Nair sir ran a special Maths class for students like me who did not do well in the first-semester. There were a dozen students from various divisions in sir’s special class. He had a sizeable collection of Maths question papers from the board exams and other schools. After we had all arrived, he gave us questions to juggle and then would return at the end of the hour. In most cases, one question paper would last for three classes or even four.
Kaimal’s indigenous hospital specialized in neutralizing snake venom. Even though there was no designated bus stop in the area, the olive-green town bus never failed to pull up a few meters before the hospital. Vimala and her younger sister Vasantha always arrived at the scene first. As the bus took a sharp right-hand turn after it crossed the western entrance of the dilapidated old fort, from the house that stood right obverse to the hospital, Aparna would step out with a white pug at her heels, her hair neatly clipped at the nape with not a strand out of place, her eyes hooded under long, curved lashes resembling the leaves of a coconut palm. The soles of her golden sandals with toe springs made an eerie squeak at every step she took. As her parents lived in a rich island country in the Far East, she had to be with her grandmother back home. I couldn’t figure out why she didn’t acknowledge the commuter sisters who lived next door, especially since both households shared ties to the island country. Meanwhile, when Devaki, her cheeks full of pimples, some quite ripe, boarded the bus at the next stop, her attitude abruptly changed. As much as I didn’t want to judge her, it seemed she was only at ease around patronising people.
I used to engage in shuttlecock practice on an indoor court a kilometre away from home and only a stone’s throw away from Kaimal’s. There were no town buses ferrying passengers on that route so early. As a result, my only option was to cover the entire distance on foot by starting ahead of time. On most days when I crossed Kaimal’s, Aparna would typically be at the rear entrance of her grandmother’s kitchen facing the backyard, disengaging her thick curls with a hairbrush. Every time I tried to make eye contact, she would look away, though on some days I felt there appeared a faint smirk over her generous lips. Did I imagine it? Perhaps I did because I was never sure.
Saturday was a declared holiday for our schools. The schedule was different for Aparna and Devaki that week. When it was time for the bus to show up after school in the afternoon, I waited by the bus stop near my house, pretending I was just passing through. When the bus arrived, Aparna did not notice my presence, but Devaki did. She arched her eyebrow, gesturing to Aparna of my presence. Aparna was laughing when she looked at me as the bus moved forward. All I could remember was her pearly whites. Was she glad to see me?
One fine morning, the Public Works Department decided to fix the approach roads to our educational district. Most bus routes were diverted, ours was closed for traffic. Aparna, Devaki, and I had to walk to school and back. As they headed home in the afternoon, the girls took a by-lane that cut across the main road halfway between their homes, leaving the next hundred meters for them to trek on their own. I would walk all the way around Aparna’s house, then return just to bask at that moment when our paths crossed. As the sound of my footsteps drew closer, I could tell that she was becoming edgy. Over the following week, her attitude changed. Leaving me without a chance to confront her, she would fix her gaze on the ground and walk by. The experience made me feel like a rookie. It was as if she always had the last laugh. The PWD contractor completed his work on our route early. The old olive-green warhorse was back on the road like before.
As their convent school was not a recognized exam centre, our school was the next best thing for its students. On the last day of the exam, I walked both of them to the bus stop. As the bus arrived, I stepped aside. She was feeling awkward, yet she didn’t look up or thank me. In one gust, the candle flames within me withered. After them, I too boarded the bus, for the last time in my life, from that bus stop.
The bus conductor sounded the double bell, signalling to the driver that it was all good to go. Our schools, the bus stop, and the murky olive-green Leyland bus plying the dark arteries of the town with the twilight ricocheting over its front glasses faded into my past. Nagappan Nair sir proved his mettle. I scored 97% for Maths in the board exam!
My parents never considered the impact it would have on us children when they shifted residences every other year. This time, we moved to our suburban ancestral home. For me, the university was an hour’s journey away by train. Aslam, once again, was back in my company.
The library staff displayed letters for students that arrived by post over the letterbox in the atrium. One afternoon, while I was getting out of the library, I noticed a letter bearing my address pinned on the soft board. An unknown girl by the name of Jameela Beevi was the sender. Although she was originally from the city where my university was located, she now lived elsewhere. She and Aparna were classmates at a university in the old city I had left behind. At Aparna’s behest, she had tried to track me down through her elder brother, but with little success, so she took another shot on her own. It caught me absolutely off guard. Maybe I was relishing in the sweetness of Aparna’s denial that led me to deprive myself of what I had hankered after, ever since I had first seen her at the kitchen door opening into the backyard of the house that stood opposite Kaimal’s. I did not write back to Jameela.
My parents felt that commuting morning and evening daily took up too much of my time. At the beginning of my sophomore year, they put me up in the university hostel. Aslam, however, continued to commute by train. My mother would often send me goodies and bed linen through him. On some afternoons, we would drop by the coffeehouse near the hostel. It was not the pancake and the coffee that drew us to the place, but its old-world charm, complemented by the intricately carved furniture. On such Fridays, when I would skip the last two afternoon sessions and reach home early, he would lie for me, explaining to my father that the presenters supposed to be conducting the last two sessions had not turned up.
I drifted akin to a ‘pappus’ here and there in search of whatever I didn’t have a clue about. Though I did not neglect my studies, the days had gotten humdrum. In reality, time doesn’t pass, we pass. I think that’s one of the saddest things I’ve come to learn. And God knows anything I’ve learned has been the hard way.
Only my father had the export license to sell merchandise to the tiny island state that sat closest to our region in the sea. Because of heavy rains flooding the port from where the merchandise was shipped, all my father’s goods were cast away, resulting in significant financial losses. Wearing his warmest smile over his sleeve, he landed in the capital city of the island state, eventually winning over his business partner who agreed to share the losses. My mom said he came home with more goodies than he could carry. I have vague memories of the 5 Kg Horlicks bottles, the gold-rimmed colourful timepiece that was adorned at the centre with a steadily sprouting bloom, and the gold ring with my father’s name written over its green enamel head.
Uncle Ghani, my father’s business associate, also offered him the distribution rights of some of his products, like tea, coffee, saffron flowers, and a few other spices for which the island state had earned a reputation. My father had a moderately large warehouse built on a lot that belonged to us and also purchased two medium-sized pickup vans. We converted one of our shops in town into a showroom where our products were on display. Customers placed their orders in the showroom, and we delivered the merchandise from the warehouse. My father entrusted me with the new venture.
My liking for what I was doing grew over time. I also brought in Aslam and put him in charge of the warehouse. In two years we broke even, and in another three we opened distribution outlets in practically all districts in the state. One evening, while going over the week’s transactions and stock replenishment, Aslam mentioned diversification. I thought, why not?
Neenakka’s father used to own a confectionery. After his death, Neenakka’s mother took over. It was a burden for her, but she had no choice. When I talked to her about it, she agreed to support me with the know-how and the workforce. That’s how Neenakka became a party to our new line. Its dynamic was mutually beneficial. I needed Neenakka’s experience, and she was only glad to accept my initial two percent offer.
The expanse lay rollicking in the moonlight like a fully clad portly matron in slumber. A lonely sparrow chirped from the low-hanging branch of the mulberry tree behind the unlit lamppost. Were 11 years far too long to find out what one wanted to do with one’s life? Even as our brands became household names in the state, our distribution network expanded beyond its borders and into exporting. We had copiously increased our product range and were into manufacturing. Our quarterly market share always showed a steady upsurge. With a little luck, we made this thing work big time.
Late in the evening, Aslam telephoned to say that Gangadharan chettan2 was in town on a brief visit from the wealthy island country with his wife. Despite being several years older than us in college, he was the non-playing captain of our shuttlecock team. Two years running, we were runners-up in the zone finals. On behalf of our team, Aslam arranged a dinner at Xavier’s for the visiting pair the following evening. Then again, I was in for a surprise. Who would have imagined Ganga chettan and Aparna as a couple? Outside, a dog barked. When I looked through the glass window, I saw a white pug running away.
We were regulars at Xavier’s. Most of the hotel staff knew us, and it showed. Besides our special guests, only four of us from the old shuttlecock team were present. As he knew about my unrequited love bytes from the beginning, Aslam had made sure that I sat next to Aparna. She wore eyeglasses. The rimless pair of specs made her appear suave. The diamond studs she donned blinded me like the sun, yet she had all the darkness of the night about her.
My previous experience with knives and forks was limited to eating cutlets and omelettes at restaurants like the Indian Coffee House. When it came to meat, I began fumbling, primarily because I held the knife in my left hand instead of my right. Nobody noticed my dilemma except Aparna. After looking at my plate and then my face, she smiled reassuringly. To my great relief, she then made a benevolent disclosure that her palate could not savour good food unless eaten by hand and cast aside the knife and fork from her plate.
Only halfway through dinner, chettan had consumed more than half a bottle of ‘Rasa Shiraz,’ which proved its worth as the finest from Xavier’s cellar. At 25 degrees Celsius, chettan was feeling cold. Aslam asked one server to turn off the air conditioner, draw aside the curtains, and fling open the glass windows. In the small garden outside, a breeze blew over the Lilac shrubs, making their conical clusters of purple petals shiver. It was as if there was a spring in their steps dancing to the breeze’s rhythm. As the mild fragrance of the Lilac’s pale-yellow anthers wafted in the air, chettan started sneezing. It looked like he was pollen sensitive. Aslam spared the server this time and shut the glass windows himself. Under the table cover, Aparna’s fingers tapped my knuckles. Like a crooner, she whispered, “Why didn’t you respond to Jameela?” What the heck? Aslam watched poker-faced from across the table. I looked her in the eye. They were the same eyes that hung around the door frame of her grandmother’s kitchen long ago. I felt a string go taut in my chest and glass splintered in my stomach. Did I screw up?
The wine glass in chettan’s hand was half empty. He raised his glass towards us and, as if making a toast, declared, “One for the road,” and emptied the goblet. Soon after, he started sweating. I hoped he wouldn’t puke. I asked another server to turn on the a/c but adjust the thermostat one point higher so that chettan won’t feel cold.
Aparna kept the small pudding bowl back on the table after emptying it. When I looked at her, she was licking her lips and blushed.
“Mm.. very much. Didn’t you notice it was my second helping?”
“I’ve been watching. You ate very little, nor did you taste the wine. Why?”
“Was giving you company.”
“I like to watch too, others savouring goodies.”
“You don’t like to, for yourself?”
“Yes, when I make others content.”
“I get it. By the way, do you know why I am here?”
“No, you tell me.”
“Remember my grandmother’s house, where I lived during school days?”
“O, yeah, I do.”
“A developer is interested in converting that property into apartments.”
“What about your grandmother?”
“It’s been two years since she is gone. She wanted me to have it before she died.”
“So, you want to burn all the bridges behind you?”
She gave me a long, hard look. “Do you have a problem with that?”
“No, I don’t, I’m sorry,” I tried to avoid an impasse.
Chuckling softly, she tried to patch up, “Don’t be.”
“Loving life is one thing, but being greedy for it is another,” I wanted to push her.
She knew better and, hurriedly, she switched wavelengths. “Are you giving up on me because I breathe down your neck all the time?”
Giggling, she stroked the hair over her right ear. Apparently, she was flirting. I did not bite, though.
“You know the drill, don’t you?”
“Why didn’t you hold my hand, even if under the table?”
“Come on, give me a break.”
Suddenly, I noticed a glow in her eyes, the glitter that appears when light reflects over moist veneer.
At that moment, I wished the world had stopped spinning on its axis.
“Look, yesterday I met uncle Kaimal. He was cool. He showed me around his lab, where anti-venom was processed. Before I left, he also gave me a vial of snake-venom.”
The disbelief in my eyes must’ve prompted her to say, “Don’t you think you owe me credit for being a specialist physician?”
“Of course. Regardless, what would you need snake-venom for?”
“You’ll soon find out,” she said in a way that was more like a tease than a direct response.
“Thanks for the heads up,” I replied.
She was caught off guard by my sarcasm. “You..” she hissed while pinching my thigh.
Even as she scurried toward the powder room, she mumbled under her breath, “I’ll be right back.” Outside, I heard the dog’s familiar bark.
A couple of minutes later, when she returned, I couldn’t help but notice that she had untied her hair and let the silken dark tresses fall free over her shoulders. She seemed so certain of what she was about to do that she acted like a humanoid instead of her usual self. She was good at this, switching over from one identity to the other.
Her hand came down under the table cover again to make me clasp something sharp and tiny before withdrawing. Trying to judge her would be a misnomer. Suddenly, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. What I was holding in my palm were her diamond studs. They felt wet. I took a peek, only to find that they were doused in a lemon-yellow broth. She may have washed them with liquid soap to rid the studs of perspiration.
Chettan was half-asleep. I was relieved to find out that the driver from the tourism department was already in the lobby to take them back to the hotel. We accompanied them to the vestibule and to where the car was waiting. It had started to drizzle. I had not realized until now that the rain could smell like ice cream. Thunder rumbled. The liveried driver had an umbrella open. I took it from him and helped chettan into the Merc’s backseat. Walking half-circle, I picked up Aparna who was waiting outside the revolving door to the hotel lobby, and let her too into the back seat. While she was sliding through, her lissome derrière brushed against my knuckles. I gulped, but recovered quickly. Chettan had already started snoring. One end of her chiffon wrap had sunk beyond the car’s floor sill. I scooped it up from the carpeted floor and placed it providently over the seat as if it were a dove. In the small glow of the moon snooping through the narrow glass roof of the hotel porch as her witness, she pressed my hand so hard that with the diamond studs still in my palm, it hurt, and daubed her cheek against mine. Her breath smelt like ice cream. I felt a dampness on my cheek. Perhaps the drizzle wetted her face that I missed, or was it a tear rolling down? I didn’t dare look into her eyes. Before closing the door, I told her, “Be good.”
“Try me,” she laughed. But then, as always, the identity shift showed up with the promise, “Don’t you worry, I got this.”
As the car shifted into gear, its engine revved like a wildcat. I stood on the quarter moon-shaped granite step leading towards the porch until the car’s taillights merged into the soaking evening traffic. The streetlights were hazy from the fine rain falling. The white pug was at it again. This time it was running after the Merc. A truck swirled, crushing the little dog under its huge front tire. The pug kept up with its course as if nothing had happened.
Sadly, sometimes we must let go of someone we can’t imagine life without. Being so different on the outside from what you are on the inside is awful. I struggled to contain the chagrin brewing within me. What could I possibly have said in my defence? That I once broke myself, and I’m still working on making myself whole? A man always has choices, doesn’t he?
Placing his arm over my shoulders, Aslam said, “We got to settle the bills.” That again made the two of us. We went back to the diner, where we just had our evening meal. On all four corners of the eatery stood ornate pedestals holding white-painted earthenware pots that housed Lilac plants in full bloom. The cold airwaves from the a/c vents propelled a bunch of fallen flower petals from the plants that drifted overhead where Aslam sat counting the currency notes from his wallet. The Lilac petals landed on Aslam’s hair first and then all over his tunic, making him appear like the doppelgänger of a movie hero from a vintage dream sequence. I pushed my contactless debit card towards him, saying, “Let it be on me.” Aslam remained noncommittal.
I sat there staring at the white ceiling. At the far end, a lizard was gearing up to catch a small fly. As the predator drew close, the prey flew away.
A dark red droplet fell on my twill chinos. I looked for its source and soon realized it was my palm. The blood continued to drip. My eyelids felt heavy. I could not hold my head straight. I suddenly remembered the connection with the white pug. It was the same dog that followed Aparna when she came to board the town bus to school. One day it got caught between the bus tires, making Aparna hysterical, the only time I had seen her go out of control. What makes it appear again now?
The arranged marriage of Aparna and Ganga chettan had fallen apart long before she collapsed over the steering wheel of her car from cardiac arrest while waiting at a traffic light on the way home from work. Despite being an interventional cardiologist, chettan, who sat next to her, could not resuscitate her. After being convicted of second-degree, chettan hung himself in his prison cell.
Five years ago, Xavier’s had become defunct.
Didn’t Aslam know?
I always wanted to build a house beside the lake with her. It would’ve been a place where we could grow old and fat together and be buried in the lakeside meadow when we died. When it rained, the water would seep through the deep copper soil beneath which our remains lay sans the measure of life. If not for our absence, the world would forget about us. At least we’d have had each other. It’s not what time takes away, but what it leaves behind. Would it have been too much of an ask?
In a daze, I tried to locate Aslam, who was slain by a client owing a long-standing debt in a warehouse row, not long after we entered the confectionery line. Then it was dark all over. Standing in the doorway of her grandmother’s kitchen with the wind in her hair, she was smiling at me. Her sultry eyelids fluttered. I was fairly certain she was glad to see me this time. As if the words were stuck in her throat, she stammered. Her whisper in my ear was warm and doting: “I could not bear it, to have you taken from me again.” Her words left me stranded, like a rabbit blinded by the headlights of an oncoming vehicle in an obscure mountain pass. Was it just my ears deceiving me, or did the white pug bark? The rain outside sounded like a lullaby. The diamond studs were in play.
1. Akka = elder sister
2. Chettan = elder brother