Ankit looked up – then lowered his moist eyes- and kept wriggling his toes in his cheap canvas shoes. He wanted to say many things, many words: No, Wait, But, How..
And all the words jumbled at the tip of his tongue- like little children trying to squeeze out of the narrow side gate of Malgudi Primary School at the last bell.
Sanjana sat in the corner at the very edge of a low wooden bench. Yes, the bench meant for children awaiting punishment in Principal's office. She raised her hand to say- But Ma'am, I was no where near.. But Ma'am raised her hand to silence her...
Yes, that was the biggest scandal of the 1989 in this sleepy little town. Funny, saucy and sad...
This is how this whole thing was related to me during a bus journey. The person sitting next to me, who had difficulty buying his ticket, opened up when I mentioned that I too some time get stuck on words- especially destination. While everyone dozed off as the bus moved through verdant valleys, we kept on reminiscing about our childhood.
So, Ankit was this little cute and mysterious boy in class 5. Mysterious- because he could tell you the square of 45 or 65 without pen and paper- but had difficulty telling which city was the capital of India! Quick witted in the play ground but pretty dumb inside the class room. He had problems speaking sometime and Jayant was his only friend. Jayant was the only child who intuitively knew when to be silent so that Ankit could finish whatever he was saying laboriously- and also, when not to look at Ankit's face! In fact, they were famous as friends in the school. If you were looking for Jayant- just find Ankit- and he will be close by and vice versa.
Ankit felt confident whenever Jayant was around, no matter what. In fact they both sat in the front row together. If Jayant was asked a question, Ankit was always able to give him a hint - using his eyes and gestures. Roll calls in the morning assembly was another situation where the two friends helped each other- sometime by giving the proxy or by just giving a push. Saying “Yes Ma'am” was difficult for Ankit without a helpful shove from his friend- especially when he was distracted in some boyish prank.
That day, Jayant was nowhere to be seen during assembly. Ankit was looking for him anxiously. Roll call was about to begin. He was not worried so much about himself – but about Jayant missing his roll call. Girls' line stood next to the boys'. He turned around to look back at the line- looking for Jayant. No sign. Principal arrived. Everyone stood at attention. Ankit again turned nervously to look back for Jayant – and to sign him, to come ahead in the line, next to him. His head brushed the girl standing next to him. He heard a snicker. He looked back- no sign of Jayant- but he saw the wide grinning face of the class bully.
Someone whispered: He kissed the girl! Did you see?
Just a whisper, some more snickering.
Principal screamed at the top of her voice: ATTENTION!
There was pin drop silence suddenly.
But there were a little insistent whispers too- gathering like monsoon clouds.. Ankit could hear it still. Back of his head and neck tingled. He could feel all eyes on him- as if piercing him right through to his bones.
Roll call came and went – he just kept his eyes closed and tried not to sway too much.
By third period, the news spread and the contents changed. In first period, it was: Ankit kissed the girl. By third period, it was: Ankit kissed Sanjana! Sanjana was that cute girl in the class, whom everyone was very fond of. By lunch time, some teachers were looking at Ankit with a strange expression. Jayant – his tower of strength- was sick and absent that day. Ankit kept on wondering what to do. He swallowed his spittle and kept on looking at his book harder, as the science teacher hovered at the periphery of his vision. Fortunately, he did not ask any questions to Ankit.
Lunch time, it was same. Everyone kept a safe distance from Ankit. No one wanted to get into trouble. Finally, it was the last period. Ankit gave a sigh of relief. Now he could go home and play with the calf. Their cow had calved recently. He had brought the special thick milk for the class teacher, just a few days back. Will all that help today? He wondered.
As the last bell rang, the class teacher, signed Ankit to stay back. Other children ran out noisily. He was marched to the Principal's office. He was surprised to see Sanjana sitting in a corner: her eyes wide with fear. She did not need to fear though. Her great grand-father had donated the land on which, the school stood today.
The principal ma'am stood up and came out from behind her huge desk. Looking at him- as if he were an exotic beetle. She repeated her question thrice. The boy just kept staring down. His silence was incriminating. Ma'am did not know what to do with such a child. If it was stealing- five canes would have settled it. But this obnoxious behaviour from a little tyke?
Okay, let me write a note to his father- this is a serious matter, The principal thought and turned around to go back to her writing table. Suddenly she heard a noise behind her. By the time she was able to swing her heavy frame around, Ankit was out of the office in one bound and running helter-skelter towards the gate. Fortunately there was no gate keeper in sight. As he cleared the gate and turned left to his village- he took a quick glance back: Principal ma'am and Sanjana, were standing at the door, in surprise..
“So son, how is it that you want to help me in the fields for next ten days?? What about your school?” Ankit's father handed him the tether of the calf, as he finished milking the cow.
“Baba, the school is closed for two weeks because the principal has died; dont worry- I will go later; let me help you in the meantime..”
Ankit took the calf to the cow, so that she could fill her stomach with her mother's milk. His father always left enough for the calf. He felt happy watching the calf jerking her head and feeding noisily. He felt a little bad about the little lie –
But then, he thought, if grown ups can speak a lie, why not him. He was sure God will understand and forgive.
Did you ever meet Sanjana after that? I could not help asking him.
“Well... After I got my first job as a salesman, I met her once. I was showing her this washing machine, that I was selling those days... she remembered that event and said – I learned only that day that you stammered and that what a 'big deal' it was- Till then, I thought that your blinking of eyes when you talked was quite cute..”
So what happened that day, after you ran off?- the child within me could not be silenced.
“Well, she told me that after I ran away, strangely, she suddenly felt very brave and told the principal that she was nowhere near me in the line and the whole thing was just a bogus story.. and the ma'am kept repeating like a robot: why didn't he say so? why didn't he say so?..”
We both had a laugh- as the bus lurched and moved on – like our lives.
“And yes, she did buy the machine.. That was my first break!”
(This story is pure fiction based on pure facts! No offence meant to anyone. I wish to thank Ankit from Malgudi! sachin)