Authors: Manu Joseph
IN THESE CIRCUMSTANCES, AS he listens to the beatings in the next classroom, Thoma Chacko feels a liquid gloom in his groin. He considers how hard it is to be a bright person. He imagines the sheer length of human life, the many years ahead of him. He is twelve, he has a long way to go. Will Thoma make it? Unni had always tried to reassure him, he even said maths was about to get a lot easier. He said the home minister, who is responsible for happy homes, would soon pass a law changing the value of pi from 3.14159 to just 3, making it easier for all Indian children to calculate the area of a circle. That was what Unni said. But then it was probably a lie, like the many other things he used to say.
Every day, Thoma tries to improve his mind, but he does not possess the Power of Concentration, he is a Wool-gatherer. He stares at the open textbook for hours and is distracted by the pain of the parallelogram, which is slanted for ever. His nails scratch the page to straighten its tired limbs. It affects him, the great arrogance of the Equilateral Triangle, the failed aspiration of the octagon to be a circle, the eternal suffocation of the denominator that has to bear the weight of the unjust numerator, the loneliness of Pluto. And the smallness of Mercury, always a mere dot next to a yellow sun. In this world, there is no respect for Mercury.
Every day, Thoma tries to memorize Interesting Facts but his
head is porous. There are only two impressive facts he knows. For some reason they have stuck in his head – the full form of KGB, which is Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti, and Pele’s real name, which is Edson Arantes do Nascimento. Every day, Thoma hopes a miracle will occur and Mythili Balasubramanium will ask him, ‘Thoma, what does KGB stand for? And I wonder if Pele is his real name.’ But miracles do not happen in Thoma’s life, even though he is Christian.
The thought of his bleak future brings the apparition of a woman to his mind. She has black decaying teeth. It is his future wife, a fate foretold to all the boys who are not very clever. But when he becomes a man he wants a pretty wife. She would have long braided hair, she would be in a red cotton sari, and a tight blue blouse, and she would be somewhat scared of him. On the days of sorrow she would put her nervous head on his shoulder and cry, inaudibly, and just for a few moments, not long. He would never beat her, he would speak to her with respect, he would treat her well, he would never penetrate her.
But would she find Thoma handsome? Is Thoma handsome? Like Unni? It would be really wonderful if there was a canvas tent where a boy could go in unnoticed, probably wearing a mask. Inside, a panel of men and women would ask him to remove his mask. They would inspect him carefully and pass the verdict – handsome, or not handsome. Thoma wishes there was a way he could solve his doubt for ever.
There is a calm, methodical beating in the next room. An occasional thud, like the sound of a dictionary falling on the floor, followed by a brief silence, as if for appreciation. Then another bang, the unmistakable sound of a hand landing on the bent back of a boy who has failed in science or maths, or both. Sometimes the blow is soft, sometimes hard, depending on how much flesh there is on the boy. Thin backs are louder than
fat backs but the pain travels longer through the fat. There is now a loud blow, a sad grunt and silence after that. The silence grows longer than expected. It does not end. Thoma is sure that H.M. Dorai is done with the eighth standard and is now walking towards the seventh. The time has come. Thoma stares hard at the desk, he does not look around, but he can sense that the other boys have stopped moving. They wait.
It is improbable that Thoma will be thrashed today because he has not failed in any subject in the monthly tests. Somehow, he usually manages to pass, barely pass, but there is always a chance that something can go wrong. They always pick on something he has written in the tests. Mistakes that he does not fully comprehend. For example, his answer to the question: ‘If the base of the triangle is 3.87 cm and its height is 5.13 cm, can you find its area?’
‘Of course I can,’ Thoma had written.
A slap for that, he does not know why. Then there was the laughably easy question, ‘Which living thing makes its own food?’
Gloria Miss had caned his palms several times. ‘Not Mariamma Chacko, you idiot, not Mariamma Chacko. Which living
, which living
? Is your mother a thing?’
The correct answer was plants, she said. Which is absurd.
Science is hard because it cannot be fully understood, it can only be accepted, like catechism. Maybe he should become a writer. But writing is hard, too. As a writer, Thoma must write like this: ‘He faced the western winds’. But how would Thoma know if a wind were a western wind? It terrifies him, that even writers must know a set of facts, that even writers must have information. Thoma does have information, but it always turns out to be wrong information as opposed to right information, which is useful.
‘What is the opposite gender of ram?’
It is amazing that every single person in the class had got the answer right, as if everybody had copied from a single source. ‘Ewe’. That was the answer. ‘Ewe’? How do people in Madras know such facts? Thoma’s answer was ‘Sita’. He received several slaps for that.
The boys wonder why H.M. Dorai has not arrived yet. Then they hear a loud thud in the next room. He is still there. They exhale in relief and that makes Gloria Miss laugh because it is inevitable that he will come, there is no escape. She is standing in front of the class, smiling, nodding her head. She is standing with her arms folded, so her breasts are bulging out of her blouse. He feels sorry for her because everybody knows she has breasts. It must be shameful. How do women go through life?
H.M. Dorai steams in, rearranging the air somehow. The stillness and the silence of the room collapse and in their place there is now a new stillness and a new silence. He looks as if he does not have much time and he knows what he must do. He has mad eyes, his gleaming black hair appears to tumble off his head as comic tides. And he has no arse. He places his thick cane and other things on the table and reads out eight names from a piece of paper. The boys rise and go to the door. They stand there, looking serious. He has chosen only those who failed in both science and maths. He looks at the boys and rolls up his sleeves. ‘Attention,’ he says. ‘And the special guests of the evening are …’ He calls out a name. The boy marches, swinging his arms, lifting his legs high, chanting, ‘Left, right, left.’ He is crying now and his ‘left, right, left’ sounds like a song. He stops in front of H.M. Dorai and bends his back. Dorai circles his hand on the boy’s back, and lands a hard blow. The boy stomps his leg, salutes, shouts ‘Thank you’, and walks back to his seat.
H.M. Dorai calls out the next name. When he is finished with all the eight special guests, there is a Silence of Anticipation. He should go away now but Thoma knows something is wrong. Dorai’s eyes had rested on him for a brief moment, and when they wandered away they had taken his image with them. That is not good.
Dorai takes his things from the table, and looks straight into Thoma’s eyes. He snaps his fingers and says, ‘Come with me.’ He stands outside the class and waits. Thoma goes to him. Dorai puts his face very close to Thoma’s.
‘Thoma,’ he says, ‘your father called me yesterday. Do you know why?’
‘I do not know, sir.’
‘He is asking questions about Unni. I told him I’ve nothing more to say, your father is asking a lot of people about Unni. Why?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’
‘Why is he asking questions about Unni, why now?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘People tell me that he has found something about Unni. Do you know?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I have no information,’ Thoma says.
Mariamma opens the door for Thoma with an absent-minded smile that holds him in its affection for a moment before she drifts to the other people who are not present. They exist in another time, when she was young and people were so important to her that she still remembers everything they told her. She answers them back now, after all these years, and they probably respond to her, wandering alone in their vast rubber forests in a
faraway place, smiling at her memories sometimes, returning her scowls sometimes.
Unni told Thoma that their mother had a Condition, and that it had a name, as if the fact that it had a name was very good news. Thoma has forgotten the name Unni had mentioned. It had sounded important, though very male. ‘It is not a serious condition, Thoma, a lot of perfectly happy people have it.’
She is in the kitchen. Her sari is hitched up on one side, the hem bunched into her waist, and Thoma can see a long sliver of her bare, formidable thigh. So much of a woman’s legs he sees only at home. Mariamma, her lips curled into her mouth, wags a finger at the overhead cupboard. ‘Annamol Chacko,’ she says, summoning once again Ousep’s mother. ‘So you didn’t like my tea. You and your nine dumb daughters, you sit and whisper among yourselves and giggle at my tea. You say to thin air, “This is a cup of tea made by Mariamma, this is the tea made by an economics postgraduate.” And all of you laugh.’
She sees Thoma staring at her and first smiles in embarrassment, then bursts out laughing. Her sudden happiness fills Thoma with a Sense of Wellbeing. Other days, her voice is loud and it trembles in the air like a wail; she takes the full Christian names of Ousep’s mother and all his nine sisters, and on rare occasions she talks in a formal way to her own mother and someone called Philipose. When she is that way, her lip is curled in, head tilted upwards, and her index finger wags. And she is unmindful of everything around her. Unni could change her mood just like that, make her laugh and extricate her from the Torments of Memories. Unni would crack a joke, and she would reclaim her pretty face from the angry scowl, and begin to shake with laughter. But Thoma does not have the gift.
His mother surprises him with a packet of cashew nuts, and says, ‘The doctor, Thoma, the man with the rose garden, he is
dead. It was heart attack.’ They sit facing each other across the dining table and eat. She does not place the cashews in her mouth as economics postgraduates normally do, she flings them in. Unni used to call her ‘Village woman’.
As a girl, she tells him as if she has never told him this before, she used to walk down the banks of a narrow silver stream with her friends, collecting fallen cashews and pebbles, and when the laps of their skirts could take no more they used to throw away some of the cashews. She cannot accept now that she has to actually buy cashew nuts.
She repeats things. That is her nature. ‘Hunger is the best side dish, Thoma.’ And when he is desperately studying on the morning of an exam, she will say, ‘This is what you do, Thoma, you study just hours before a test. When you are about to shit, you search for your arse.’ She used to tell Unni almost every day how big boys should behave with girls. Boys must not harass girls, must not Pass Indecent Remarks, must not stand too close to girls, must not stand too close to even little girls, must not touch them. All that has stopped, of course, because Thoma is too young for the lessons. There is something else that she does not mention any more. When she heard that the child of a working mother had got hurt by falling or was hit by a bicycle or knocked down by a cow, she would gather Unni and Thoma and say, ‘See, this is what happens to the children of working women. You are safe because your mother is always around, don’t ever forget that.’ With Unni gone, she has lost the right to say this any more.
‘How come we are eating cashews?’ Thoma says. ‘Sacred Heart Family Store won’t give you cashews without taking money. It is not an Essential Commodity. Did you pawn another bangle?’
‘I don’t have any more bangles to pawn.’
‘Did you sell your blood?’
‘No, Thoma. A lot of women came to our home to watch the doctor’s house. And they decided that they wanted to phone their husbands, they wanted to know that their husbands were all right. They gave me a rupee each. When a man dies in the neighbourhood, women think of their own husbands. I too had a long loving thought about your father.’
‘So I am eating cashew nuts because the doctor died today.’
‘Strange Are The Ways Of The World.’
‘Strange are the ways of the world, my boy.’
‘The Lord Moves In Mysterious Ways.’
‘The lord moves in mysterious ways.’
Thoma goes to stand on the rear balcony and watch the doctor’s house. There is a crowd outside the main door, talking softly about the death as if they don’t want the dead man to know that he is gone.
He eyes the balcony to his immediate left, which is just three feet away. There is nobody there, but she may appear any time, tossing her hair and holding a clip in her mouth as she normally does. He can feel his heart hammer against his chest.
When girls toss their hair and hold clips in their mouths, when they run their hands down the back of their skirts before they sit, when they shift a lock of hair from their face and stuff it over their ears, or cover their mouths when they have to laugh, when they do these things that have no name, and when he hears a female chorus sing ‘
I have a dream
‘, Thoma’s chest fills with ache and he wishes them well in life. Is there a movement in his body that can fill a girl with such love? Do women long at all for men the way men long for women? The cold fear inside him at the sight of Mythili, are women capable of such agony inside them, do their throats go cold and do they feel a deep wandering sorrow?
Mythili Balasubramanium arrives the way he had imagined, tossing her abundant hair, bunching it high above her head as if she is about to pull herself up by her hair. And she is holding a clip in the scowl of her mouth. She has large clever eyes. Sometimes she draws her eyes standing on her balcony, making each eye bulge and underlining it with a fat pencil as if to say, ‘This is my eye, here is my eye.’ She does such things, including rustling her hair, only on the rear balcony. Her mother does not let her stand on the front balcony if her hair is not tied. She is still in her school uniform – green pleated skirt and white shirt with frills at the chest. She is much older than Thoma, she is sixteen. Like most people she does not have any respect for him, he knows that. He is after all from a weird, sullen home, the home of Unni, whose name she does not utter any more, though she used to be very fond of him. At the time of Unni’s death, three years ago, she was just a harmless little girl.