Nostalgia swelled as I entered the school. I ran my fingers along the rails of the rusting iron gates as I crossed them. Thirteen years ago, the very sight of these gates would fill my stomach with butterflies every morning; but not today. Once I passed the gates, I saw the parking lot for the staff to my left and the basketball court to the right. The main building in grey and white stood imposingly in front of me, reeking of the French colonial spirit.
I passed under the large arch in the façade, climbed the stairs to the left and walked along the long corridor, crossing one classroom after the other. Each classroom had large French windows. To my right the parapet, interspersed with large grey pillars, overlooked the lawn. The evening sun cast long diagonal shadows of the pillars along the corridor.
This is where I had first met ‘Mr. Devil’- also known as D. I was then in the 5th standard. One afternoon, when was I returning to the classroom, D crossed me and I wished him a good afternoon. Wishing a teacher when we crossed one was basic etiquette drilled into us. D did not respond. Instead he stood still and stared at me for a few seconds and then walked past.
No one knew what his real name was and nobody cared to know. D was in his early fifties and all he did in school was teaching the Bible. He was short, slightly plump, clean-shaven and smelt of eau-de-cologne. He hunched when he walked, carried an old and worn leather bag and swept back his sparse and grey hair from his forehead every now and then. D did not take any classes for me and I did not know much about him.
“But everyone knows that you are not supposed to say anything like ‘good afternoon’ to D. Whenever you cross him you just raise your hands and say ‘Praise the Lord’” Peter, my best friend enlightened me later.
My next encounter with D took place when I was in the 6th standard. There was a ground behind the building which had four large Flame-of-the-forest trees. The ground became a red carpet when the trees blossomed. We assembled there every morning to start the day with a prayer.
“Peter, have you completed the math homework?” I turned and asked Peter who was standing beside me, one day, as we sang the Morning Prayer. Peter did not answer but looked at me from the corner of his eyes and gave me a wicked smile. Just when we had completed the prayer, something lashed against my back and my skin burnt like it was on fire. I jumped and turned around.
“Don’t you dare to talk when you are singing the praise of the Lord” D stood there waving a large shiny cane, which had just ripped my back.
I had to attend D’s class the next year when the Bible class became compulsory. D both amused and scared the wits out of the students during the class.
D was known for owning the best cane in the school. Occasionally a class-leader from some other section would come to our class to borrow the cane and D would make his life miserable. One-day the class-leader from Section B came to borrow the cane.
“What is my name?” D asked and rolled his large red eyes.
“I don’t know sir. May I borrow the cane please”?
“How dare you not know my name?” D thundered and ran towards him with the cane held high in his right hand.
The class-leader ran to the end of the classroom and begged for mercy.
“Sorry sir, I don’t know your name sir. Pleaaaaasssssse”
D was in no mood to relent. “Did the disciples ever not know the name of Jesus Christ? How can you students be so disrespectful?” D ran towards the Class-leader who looked like a cornered rat.
“Bhootham … sir” He yelled out the Tamil word for ‘Devil’.
“What?” D did not realize why he cried ‘Bhootham’ even after the entire class broke into laughter. The class leader ran out without bothering about the cane.
Today, however, I went close to the parapet and looked down at the lawn. It was still the same except that the fountain in the middle had given way to a large silver oak tree. The tall betel nut trees around the lawn were gone too. But the edges of the lawn on all four sides were still stacked with petunias, chrysanthemums and hibiscus plants. “How could they not have a fountain anymore?” I wondered.
I walked further and entered the 7th standard class room. I looked at the third row where I used to sit near the window. The seat had a good view of the lawn. I wondered if the wooden desk was still the same. It looked pretty old and worn with names all over it scratched with a compass or a divider. I sat on the bench and ran my palm along the desk, feeling the worn wood mildly scratch at my palm.
Sometimes when D went on and on about how Jesus suffered on the cross, I would just look out through the window and watch the water rise high from the fountain to disperse the rays of the setting sun into a million pieces and form an arc of rainbow in the spray. It was beautiful sight.
But D caught me one day and crucified me… literally.
“Santosh, tell me who was the first disciple of our Lord?” D stopped teaching and asked me as soon as he caught me gazing out of the window.
“Present, Sir” I stood up and shouted. Peter, sitting next to me had nudged me and pointed me to D who was staring at me. “D is taking attendance.” he had whispered in my ears.
“Come here and kneel down Santosh and hold out your palms.” I was called out for crucifixion.
“This is how the Jews nailed Jesus’ hands on the cross.” D landed three raps on each of my palms with his cane.
“The Cruel Jews, this how they nailed his feet!” Three more raps on the soles of my feet and D had me crying for mercy.
“But Jesus never cried, Santosh. If you don’t stop crying, I’m going to hang you on the wall.” D thundered.
I came back to my desk, with my eyes full of tears. Peter looked at me with the most innocent face.
The next day my dad accompanied me to school and complained to the Principal. But nothing changed. Mr. D continued to enact the crucifixion in the classroom every now and then and one of us cried while the rest had fun.
Things got worse one day. It always rained a lot in Pondicherry just around Diwali. We’d keep the dripping umbrellas at the end of the classroom behind the benches. It was pouring outside and Peter lost his mind.
“Hussshhhh” He said to me with his fingers on his mouth and slid off the bench. He had a handful of broken pieces of chalk. D was busy reading a passage from the Bible and Peter crawled to the end of the room and hid behind an umbrella.
I kept looking at Peter from the corner of my eyes. He quickly came out from behind the umbrella, flung a piece of chalk onto to the ceiling fan and hid again. The chalk hit the fan, changed direction and whizzed past D’s ears hitting the blackboard.
The students let out a somewhat controlled laughter. D looked up at the fan.
“Why are you ugly brats laughing like Herod? It is just an insect that came inside due to the rain.” D shouted, frowned and continued to read.
The second chalk hit the fan and then, hit the window pane noisily and D realized that it was no insect but a chalk being hurled as a missile from the other end of the classroom. D was so wild that day that he literally climbed the desk and ran to the other end hopping over desks and randomly landing blows over the shoulders of the students as he ran. He reached the last row and discovered Peter, who, like an ostrich, had turned the other way and now sat facing the wall hoping that D would not find out.
D caught Peter by his arm and landed blows randomly all over him. We lost count of how many. When he finally stopped, it was because he was tired! Peter fell down on the floor! D was summoned and issued a warning the next day when Peter’s parents came to school and launched a firm protest.
Today, as I exited the classroom and continued to walk along the corridor and reached the stairs on the other side leading straight to the physics, chemistry and the biology labs. The entire school seemed to resonate with the smell of aging timber. But this place smelt putrid. It was understandable.
One day when I was involved in a physics experiment, D came to the lab and specifically asked for me. I carefully placed the weights on the desk and went outside.
“What is your dad’s phone number?”
“Do you want the home number or the office number, sir?”
“Give me the home number.”
D did not say anything after that and went back. I kept thinking about this episode. However, I was confident that I had not done anything wrong recently. Hark! Could it be because I’m Peter’s best friend?
Familiar cologne welcomed me when I reached home that evening.
“You are in service and you can definitely help me, Sir.”
I was shocked to see D sitting in our hall. He was sitting on the edge of the sofa with his elbows on his thighs and palms together. Dad was still in his Police Inspector’s uniform. Apparently he had just returned from the station.
“But Mr. Stanislaus, this isn’t as easy as you think. You have to think about your daughter’s life.”
“But she is going through hell sir, … and we are going through hell!” I could not believe D could call someone ‘Sir’. “They beat her so bad that she has fractured her arm. We are a middle-class family. How can we pay the dowry that they expect? We have already given them over a lakh in rupees. However they want more”
“Mr. Stanislaus, they were an ordinary family last year when you gave your daughter in marriage. But today the boy’s dad is an elected member of the legislative assembly and it is not as simple for me to arrest him and place him behind bars.”
Dad continued, “This is like removing a piece of cloth that is tangled in thorns. We have to be very careful and sensitive.”
Then dad noticed me standing near the door. “Santosh, go to your room and do your homework.” D did not look up at all.
I was too excited the next day when I saw Peter.
“I know D’s name. It is ‘Stanley Sauce’.”
“Stanley Sauce! Isn’t it a strange name!” said Peter. I revealed to him what I was privy to.
“Hmmm, that perhaps explains why he is losing it every now and then. He has no guts to stand up for his daughter and takes his anger out on us.”
Things got worse as days passed by. Mr. Stanley Sauce got into this rage every now and then and crucified one student or the other. He sometimes did not speak at all and would only tell us to prepare for the exams. But sitting behind his desk he would keep a stern watch over the classroom and would be quick to pull out any a student that made the slightest noise.
However, I was never punished and only Peter and I knew the reason.
One day Mr. Stanley Sauce did not come to the class. He did not come for the whole week and we wondered what had happened. On Friday evening when I reached home I heard Dad say.
“Poor Mr. Stanislaus, His daughter is no more. She was burnt. The boy’s parents say that it is an accident due to gas leakage in the kitchen. However we know the truth and we can prove nothing.”
“You should pay him a visit.” said mom.
“I did. He has lodged a complaint in the station too. But there isn’t much that can be done.”
I came down the stairs and reached the ground. The four Flame-of-the-forest still trees stood there today. But they weren’t in bloom now and the ground was covered with dried leaves. I crossed the ground and reached the Chapel. The Chapel smelt of candles and flowers. I went close to the altar and sat on the first bench. I looked at the altar in front. A large cross hung on the wall in an intimidating manner, keeping vigil over the entire Chapel.
Mr. Stanley Sauce returned to school after ten days. But he never taught us anything. He just sat behind his desk and watched us. He continued to punish us every now and then.
“You rotten scoundrel, you swine, you are a shame on the face of the earth. God created you only so that you could torture the innocent souls. But blessed are they who are persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!” He’d yell.
It seemed like his life’s mission was to crucify us. But his blows were definitely getting weaker.
The following week, someone found Mr. Stanley Sauce in church, kneeling in front of the altar, resting his head on the desk in front. First he did not bother to disturb a man saying his prayers. But after ten minutes seeing the man not move at all, he touched the teacher’s shoulders. Mr. Stanley Sauce confirmed his doubts by falling down side ways. We were given a holiday the next day. We spoke about for some time and soon forgot about Mr. Stanley Sauce.
Peter and I are still in touch though. It’s been eight years since I left school. We catch up once in a while over a drink and bitch about our teachers. Mr. Stanley Sauce is definitely there at the top of our list. Peter has other interesting tales though, most dealing with his college professors.
I came out of the chapel and walked along the administrative block looking at the large framed pictures of the founding fathers. I saw Mr. Stanley Sauce’s picture at the very end. He was smiling, for a change. He looked younger too. I raised my hands above and said, “Praise the lord” one last time.
ANTON DSILVA is a software consultant by profession, aspiring to be a professional writer one day. As a reader, he has been deeply impressed by the works of Kafka, Camus and Dostoevsky. He is currently working on an anthology of short stories that focus on the joys, thrills and perils of being part of the epic that is India.