Harish sits next to him. Marthandan likes Harish. One good thing about Harish is that he cracks jokes. He says that Ponnamma teacher looks like a pumpkin. Then he draws a circle on his slate. Nowhere that misshapen circle looks like a pumpkin or Ponnamma teacher. Now he adds two small circles inside the big circle. He winks at Marthandan. With bewildered eyes Marthandan looks at Harish. With a few quick strokes Harish completes the picture and shows it to Marthandan. Yes, now it looks like a pumpkin. He looks hard and look..Ponnamma teacher’s face emerges from the pumpkin. They share a secret smile.
“Who is laughing there?” Devadas sir shouts.
Devadas sir teaches mathematics. Marthandan cherishes a deep fear for this thin, tall and khadi wearing teacher. He comes by cycle. His cycle is very special. It is a ‘Hercules’ make. It has a seal of Panchayat in its front frame. Just above it on the horizontal bar there is a small seat on which his daughter sits. Her name is Divya. She has curly hairs and round eyes like her father. She wears coarse cotton green skirt and off-white shirt. Unlike other children in the school, Divya carries her books in a khaddar bag that hangs from her slender shoulders. At the portico, Devadas sir puts his long legs down on the floor, lifts his daughter up and then keeps her down as if she were a small bird. She waves good bye to him and runs to her class which is next to Marthandan’s class room. Devadas sir then puts his cycle on stand, unclips his black bag made out of some unidentified material from the carrier and walks into the office room. Marthandan watches all this from behind a pillar with mounting fear in his mind.
“You two,” Devadas sir says. “You, Harish and Marthandan, come here.”
Like two rabbits they push their way through other children who have now got up to see a scene of punishment, shivering.
“Why did you laugh?” Sir asks.
“I did not,” says Harish.
“Then who did?”
Harish looks at Marthandan. Betrayal. Marthandan feels like crying. He wants to deny. He wants to tell the truth that they were laughing together at a caricature that Harish has just made. But his throat goes dry.
“Show me your hand,” Devadas sir demands.
Marthandan knows what is going to come. He freezes. His hands automatically go behind his back. A cane appears in sir’s hand. It moves menacingly in the air. It comes near to Marthandan like a snake. Now it was not sir speaking, but the cane.
“I have told you hundred and one times. Don’t disturb the class, Marthandan. I don’t like to hurt you. But what to do. I do not do it voluntarily. Devadas sir does it. I have to obey. After all I am a cane. I do feel happiness when it falls on the bottoms of Raju or Suresh. They are mischief makers. But you..Look how Harish has betrayed you. From this table I have been watching you. I know the caricature is done by Harish and you both laughed. But now, look at his face. How innocent he looks whereas you, you look like a real culprit. Now I do not have any other option. I am sorry.”
Cane falls on Marthandan’s right palm with a hissing sound. He feels a burning sensation passing through his hand to his chest and from there to him face and to the brain. Marthandan’s eyes well up. He wants to cry aloud. But he is very proud. He holds his tears back.
“Will you laugh again when I turn to the blackboard?” asks Devadas Sir.
Marthandan looks down and nods. Now cane speaks.
“Marthandan, I am sorry. Don’t you remember, last time when I fell on your right thighs, when was it, yes, it was last month and Ponnamma teacher was singing some poem out of tune, you were giggling like this. I told you then also. Don’t laugh.”
“I cannot control it,” tells Marthandan. “She looks so funny.”
“What can I do,” cane sighs. “If you giggle again, I have to hurt you.”
“Go back to your bench,” Devadas sir shouts.
Marthandan, with a stinging pain in his hand walks back. He wants to kill Harish. But he does not know how to do it. So he decides to punish Harish during the recess.
By the time, Devadas sir divides 756 by 9, the bell rings. Marthandan heaves a sigh of release. He looks at his right palm. A red line has formed there. It no longer pains. But that feeling of betrayal refuses to budge. Harish seems to have forgotten the episode altogether. He has already run towards the backyard of the school along with the other kids.
Marthandan follows a stream of screaming children. He wonders why they make so much of noise. As he is not able to find an answer he too makes an obscure screaming noise and joins the crowd. The whole school has descended at the backyard. It is a long yard where one section is claimed by the boys and the other by the girls.
Marthandan looks the boys who have started playing with a plastic ball. It takes different shapes as children kick at it with all their might. Does it look like Ponnamma teacher’s face at times? Marthandan laughs. He has forgotten Devadas sir’s punishment. He climbs on a huge window and sits at the sill like many others do and watch the proceedings in the ground.
None uses toilet, including girls. All of them pee outside. One of the major attractions during the recess is the peeing competition by boys. There is a huge wall that separates the school from a disused bungalow where everyone believes lived a ghost. The compound of this ghost house has a gloomy look always. Marthandan and friends climb up these windows and look at the ghost house and jump down screaming as if they had seen a ghost lurking there under the huge tamarind tree.
On this wall, the boys pee with relish. They write all the words they have so far learned in the school with the urine jet. Some are expert in peeing high. It is needs patience and training. Those who are untrained in the trade attempt it get drenched by their own pee. Harish is good at high-peeing. Marthandan is a low-pee-er after some failed efforts at high-peeing.
Girl also pee in the open. But none cares. They all squat on the their side of the yard, spreading their skirts like fans and after sometime get up with, and with a quick movement pull up their knickers, leaving a wet patch on the ground, back to their ring-a-ring-roses and other girly games.
Only those people who use the fungus infested lavatories are the teachers. They go to these washrooms in a group. One by one they go inside and the rest stand outside keeping their noses covered with the ends of their sarees and dhotis. Somehow, children do not notice teachers going in and out of these stinking washrooms. They think teachers are like gods. Gods and film stars do not pee or shit, that’s what they believed. But a mortal self like Marthandan watches it all. He smiles at the thought that whether they would be doing a peeing match inside washrooms.
Harish drives a Fiat car and brakes right in front of the window where Marthandan sits. Marthandan jumps down and gets into his Ambassador car and both of them go for a long drive. They drive through hills, valleys, dangerous forest tracks and quarries and suddenly they hear the bell ringing again announcing the end of the recess. They drive back to the front yard of the school and park their cars under the gooseberry tree right in the middle of the front yard. Like two cowboys they walk back to the class, this time with their tired throats after making that engine sounds, in silence.
As they sit one of the back benches, Headmaster comes and announces that the teacher who is supposed to take the class is on leave. He assigns Raju to write the names of the mischief makers and tells Ponnamma teacher who does her singing session in the next class, to keep a watch on this class too.
Raju wears a mask of seriousness over his otherwise fox like face and stand still in front of the class, at the table. He keeps his slate and pencil ready so that he could write the names of the noisy ones who would be punished by the end of that period, by none other than the headmaster. Headmaster loves Gandhiji a lot as he speaks about Gandhiji everyday in the morning assembly. He gives stress to ‘ahimsa’, non-violence in his eloquent speech. But when it comes to punishing mischievous ones, he throws Gandhiji into the dustbin. He becomes very violent. He turns himself into a British soldier and poor children, true Gandhians on a protest march. Then it is massacre. Fearing this everyone keeps quite. Raju thinks that it is because of his serious face. Class moves like a python that has just swallowed a goat, silently but irritatingly.
“Press my wound,” Marthandan whispers to Harish. He turns to Marthandan surprised.
“Now?” Harish’s eyes ask.
“Yes, now.” Marthandan’s eyes tell menacingly.
Harish looks at the spot where Marthandan’s right index finger points. There is a wound on his left knee; a recent one he got while jumping down from the window sill in one of the recess hours. The scabs have covered it now.
Harish uses his index finger and thumb to feel around the wound. Marthandan likes it. Harish applies gentle pressure on the wound. Marthandan feels a greater joy. The movement of the fingers increases and Marthandan is in heaven. Harish knows that it was his punishment for betraying him before Devadas sir. He does it obediently. Perhaps, he also likes doing it.
Raju desperately stands there looking for some mischief maker to come up with innovative ideas of disrupting silence. Children are more restraint as they see the headmaster’s British face in the mask of Raju.
Final bell rings. The school bursts open like pods of cotton and innocence flows out of it like soft and puffy cotton filings.