Return from School
A cold, gloomy evening of December in Madurai found Shiva trudging his way reluctantly home from the bus stop. His thoughts were occupied with the greatest problems in the world of a 12 year old, how to explain the low marks in his 7th standard quarterly examination to his mother and somehow escape the wrath of his father. Spectacles askew, hair tousled, shirt button and shoe laces undone he found a stone to work his frustration of not being able to arrive at a good excuse, kicking the stone from the bus stop through the lane and scaring the street dog resting in front of the grocery shop.
As usual his mother, Mrs. Janaki Raman, a short petite woman of 38, was waiting by the gate; upon setting her eyes on his face she knew the results of his examination. “Enna aachu (What happened?)” started the enquiry as the gate opened. “Sari va…kaapi kudi (Ok, have coffee)” said she on not receiving an answer for her query. He couldn’t bring himself to say yes to the coffee invite simply because his stomach was too queasy imagining the forthcoming events.
Shiva somehow managed to finish his filter coffee and evening snack of vazhakkai bajji ( Plantain bajji). His mother opened his school bag and fished out his mark sheets along with small stones and mud picked up from dropping the bag below a tree before running for the evening game of cricket in school. The taste of bajji and coffee vanished in the dread of expecting his father’s arrival. The roar of his father’s 1980 India-made Jawa motorcycle could be heard from afar.
His father, Mr. Raman, astern faced man with a twinkle in his eye which betrayed the inherent sense of humor which his otherwise stern exterior managed to disguise, parked his motorcycle, removed his shoes and came inside with the customary “Janaki..kaapi kudu” (Janaki..give me coffee). Mr. Raman, a manager in a previously British owned textile mill, had the habit of speaking with a loud voice after years of disbursing instructions over the noise of 100 incredibly noisy shuttle looms.
After his evening bath, pooja and coffee he asked the dreaded question to his wife “ennadi mark vaangeerukkan ivan?” (how much marks has he got?). The old grandfather clock gave a rickety 6pm chime. Mrs. Janaki, with her large eyes managed to increase Shiva’s dread simply with a shake of her head. She added “English, biology and physics good but Maths, chemistry, History and Geography terrible”. “Maths and Geography paper konduva…..question paper’oda” (Bring the Maths and Geography papers…with the question paper) asked Mr. Raman. The family had a long line of brilliant mathematicians and Mr. Raman was not pleased with Shiva’s continuous non-performance in Maths. Comparing the question and answer paper the interrogation started.
“Yethhanadhadavu unakku algebra sollikudukaradhu?(how many times do I have to teach you Algebra?) How are you able to do exactly opposite of whatever I teach you, in your exam?”
“illappa…marandhu….” (No dad..i forgot..)
“Saingaalam vandhu bajji saapda marandhiya?” (Did you forget to eat bajji in the evening?)
“How can you mark the Ganges river in South India and Kochi in Rajasthan?”
Shiva somehow managed to squeeze out a few tears and stammered something unintelligible.
“English’la yevalavu vaangina?” (How much did you get in English?)
Shiva, now perked up, “class first’pa”
“Daily English novel’a padicha vera yenna nadakkum” (This is what will happen if you read English novels daily)
This made Shiva remember the library book in his bag. He prayed for it to remain undiscovered.
The clock chimed 7pm. His grandfather arrived from his evening walk.
“Appa..andha marksheet’la neenga sign pannanum (Dad..you have to sign the mark sheet)..Ma’am asked for that.”
“No! I won’t sign!! You face the consequences tomorrow at school” said Mr. Raman in his customary loud voice which made more tears flow out.
Dinner was a quiet affair, with Mr. Raman discussing the need for Shiva’s (who was continually sniffing with belief his father wouldn’t start afresh after dinner) tuition with Mrs. Janaki. Grandfather was watching the news, as he had an early dinner, and nodding at the news anchor’s announcement of various issues.
The clock chimed 9pm and the household retired to bed.
Shiva started on his novel with the night lamp on. The square 2 bedroom house was quite. The only noises were from the insects in the front garden, a vehicle or two of workmen returning from their evening shifts and the whistle of a nighttime watchman. Shiva heard a muted knock on his door. “Shiva..kadhava thora”(Shiva..open the door) it was his grandfather who made his bed in the hall as he was a very light sleeper and woke at 3am daily.
Shiva opened the door for his grandfather, a wrinkled replica of his father with the twinkle in his eye even more pronounced. Grandfather had a sheet of paper in his hand. “Unnoda marksheet’a kudu” (Give me your mark sheet) asked grandfather in an urgency which made Shiva scurry and get it into grandfather’s hands. “Ippo poi thoongu (now go and sleep)…you can collect the sheet from me tomorrow morning”. Shiva returned to bed and escaped the troubles of a 12 year old by imagining himself to be the lead investigator in the novel he was reading before nodding off to sleep.
The clock made an un-oiled, 30 year old raspy, metallic chime for 4:30am. Mr. Raman rose from his bed with the usual “Janaki…Kaapi kudu” (Janaki..give me coffee). It was time for his daily ritual of witnessing his beloved Goddess wake from her slumber in the “Palli Arai” (Bedroom) of the ancient Meenakshi Temple. Mrs. Janaki woke reluctantly, as she had for the past 14 years. Her only motivation, unlike her husband’s love for the Goddess, was to ensure Mr. Raman got his filter kaapi and the hot water for his bath.
After his bath, Mr. Raman got into his “uniform” of white dhoti and checked shirt. Just when he picked his Jawa’s keys did he notice his father staring at him from chair.”Take a look at this before you go” said his father pointing to a few sheets of paper in a wooden stool usually reserved for his kaapi. Mr. Raman hated to be bothered when leaving to the temple in the morning. Unable to escape the stare of his father he took the papers and started on them.
He found them to be in Hindi and assumed them to be Shiva’s exam papers. “Read the essay” said his father in a reprimanding tone which Mr. Raman found annoying. “He turned to the essay sheet which was supposed to be about a balloon seller. The teacher, during correction, had marked a paragraph in red ink and written “Meet with parents” in the column nearby. Instead of the balloon seller, the paragraph was about Kapil Dev’s bowling action.
“See what your son has written. I’m not going to sign anything or go to meet any teacher. He deserves to be punished” said Mr. Raman to his wife. “Take a look at the first sheet” said Mrs. Janaki flushing red at the “your son” phrase”. Mr. Raman, expecting another remark by the teacher turned to the first sheet. Written in faded blue ink under “Student details” was
Name: Raman. S
Shiva woke to his mother’s voice screaming “Shiva, wake up” followed with a loud knock on the door. Shiva knew his father would be at the temple for his daily ritual of viewing the town’s Goddess being brought from her bedroom and would arrive only after he left for school. His dread of facing his Maths teacher, the lissome Mrs. Srinivasan, increased multifold upon realizing he still had not got the document signed.
That was when, with a jolt, he remembered his grandfather had his marksheet. Grandfather was on his chair with his morning newspaper going through the same news he had heard yesterday with the same reactions. “Thatha…marksheet yenga?”(Grandpa…where’s the marksheet?) asked Shiva. “Indha (Here)..dont ask your father about this” said grandfather with a smile. Shiva found the signature of his father in the required column.
Mr. Raman returned from the temple in his Jawa. He had an hour to spare before he rushed off to the mill. He found his father still with the paper. “Did you show him the mark sheet?” asked Mr. Raman with a mixture of annoyance and continued when his father did not reply “why did you do this”.
Grandfather slowly lifted his head from the newspaper, looked sternly at his son and said “Some people need to be regularly reminded of their own childhood and face their own mark sheets”.
Rahul Dhinakaran is from Chennai and has been working on a series of short stories based on his Childhood in Madurai.