It was a Wednesday. Father told Marthandan that it was 1st June too. And it was the day when schools re-opened after the two months long summer vacation. Sky had gone suddenly dark. It was eight in the morning but darkness was still lingering around.
Neeli mooed from the stable as Kesavan, the milkman finished milking her. She had given birth to a beautiful calf a month ago. Marthandan was really happy to see this calf. It was golden brown in colour and had a beautiful white patch right in the middle of its forehead. Mother suggested a name for him, ‘Manikyan’. But somehow Marthandan did not like that name too much. He thought of calling him, ‘Neelandan.’ After many consultations the name was accepted by all. Marthandan was very happy.
Marthandan was now entering third standard. He looked at his new uniform; Khakhi half pants and white half sleeved shirt. He fondled the new dress for sometime as he sat at the threshold of the veranda and looked at the darkening sky. Mother called out from the kitchen. She wanted him to go and take bath immediately. Jimmy and Tommy came and sat near him. He touched their ears and they wagged their tails. Kuttappan, Karumban and Sundari were not seen anywhere. The hens and the rainbow chicks were also missing. Somehow the uncouth crows were even silent.
It is going to rain, Marthandan thought. The very thought of getting wet in the rain thrilled him. He pretended that he did not listen to the exhortations of his mother from the kitchen. He ogled at his father. He was reading his newspaper. He had just finished his second cup of tea and had lit a Panama cigarette. As if goaded by mother’s voice from kitchen, he raised his head from the newspaper and called out to Marthandan, “Go and take bath before it rains.”
He knew that father was not always soft-spoken like that. Today was a new day in Marthandan’s life. He was entering in a new class and his father must be proud of that. He had even promised to drop him to school by cycle. Marthandan did not have any other option than move himself towards the well. He got up from the threshold, looked at once again at the dark sky, mumbled a prayer for a quick rain, upon failing in getting results he walked to the other side of the house where is a shack mother had spread his towel.
With irritation he tugged at the towel. Something moved at the floor. Marthandan jumped back in fright. It was Sundari who was lying curled up in a heap of ash. She looked at him, mewed and climbed on the half wall and disappeared from the sight. Marthandan put his fingers into a coconut shell container and took out a pinch of burnt husk and put it on his left palm. It was spiked with a bit of dusted rock salt. Mother refilled it routinely whenever the shell container went empty.
Marthandan started brushing his teeth with the burnt husk. He tried his best to make the process slower. But the rain was not yet falling. It was not even drizzling. The dark and loaded clouds stood there in the sky with a forgotten purpose. The brushing of teeth was followed by cleaning of his tongue. Marthandan walked up to a small coconut plant and extracted a bristle from its leaf. Then he split it up into two equal halves. He dipped them in the bucket full of water. Then he took out one half, made a bow out of it, inserted into his mouth and started sliding it down on the tongue. He liked the feeling. He filled water into his mouth and gargled loudly. Some crows that were sitting still till then moved there in the trees. Marthandan felt a sense of normalcy.
One bucket after another he filled from the well and emptied it on cement tank made near the well. Once the tank was full, Marthandan got ready to take bath. With studied movements he removed his knickers down and shirt up and both of them landed at the edge of the shack like volleyball. Marthandan did not feel anything odd in taking bath in complete nude. Jimmy and Tommy came around to see him taking bath. Patiently they sat through this ritual.
By the time Marthandan wore his new uniform it was already nine in the morning. It was not raining. What a suspense, Marthandan thought. Mother served him with hot wafer thin dosas and red coconut chutney. He ate three and demanded three more. Mother obliged. It was his first day in third standard, which both the parties knew; while the former made use of the chance, the latter did not want to deny him his happiness.
Father took his umbrella with a curved grip and put it across the cycle’s handle bar. Then he started polishing and cleaning his cycle. Father was obsessed with cleaning his cycle. Whenever he was not sleeping, he was seen reading newspaper; whenever he was not reading newspaper he was cleaning cycle; whenever he was not cleaning cycle, he was talking to people. He was always busy. Marthandan never understood why his father was so busy all the time.
Marthandan said bye to his mother, went to the Tulsi tree, took a round with folded hands and came running to father’s side. He had already fixed Marthandan’s school bag at the clip of the cycle carrier.
During the last two months, thought Marthandan while sitting at the front bar of the cycle, nothing much had changed along the way. The electric posts were still there; the one which was leaning menacingly towards the road was now straightened up. Telephone poles made out of hollow iron pipes were also still there. Janu Checchi’s pickle and toffee shop was intact and she was talking to someone animatedly. Pushpangadan, the flower man was making another garland just the way he was doing two months back. Marthandan felt reassured.
As the cycle rolled along, scenery went past and a buzzing sound came closer. It was the buzz of the school. Marthandan felt a secret thrill growing inside him and at the same time he felt some kind of panic.
At the portico father alighted from the cycle and helped Marthandan to get down. He greeted the headmaster and handed over Marthandan to him. Headmaster patted on his shoulder and asked him to go to III A which was next II A, his class till two months before. Marthandan walked towards III A and waved bye to father. He got onto his cycle and peddled away.
The moment Marthandan stepped inside the classroom, there was a deafening sound. He shivered. It was the first thunder and lightning of the season. Then it poured. Marthandan knew that his father was now enjoying a ride in the rain.