We were in the last year of college. My younger brother was in the first year. All my free time went in going around the bazaar. It had become a habit. I quite enjoyed it. In college, in the evening, our games were hockey, kho-kho, chess, football, and kabaddi. More than kho-kho, I liked to pick someone from the crowd and tail that person. There would always be people crossing the road in ones and twos. I much preferred watching them to watching kabaddi. To see a cow nosing its way into the vegetable market when the crowd was unaware of it was like watching a tamasha. You might see two cyclists collide, or a bag of flour spilt on the road. A lot could happen. I never attended college sports. I didn’t like reading newspapers, though friends of mine were regular visitors to the Gandhi Reading Room. Walking in the bazaar was what I liked best.
We didn’t need to shop every day. Twice a week we bought vegetables. Things like salt, lentils, rice, coriander, and chilies were bought once a month. Watching other shoppers was more fun than being a shopper oneself. I could spend hours in the bazaar and still leave with the same amount of money I had when I arrived. It was easy to tell who the big spenders in the crowd were. Secretly following one of them around made you feel you ’d seen everything there was to see. Returning from there, without having spent a paisa and with no compulsion to buy anything, gave me a sense of well-being. People who had to pass through the bazaar every day on their way to somewhere would cross it quickly, while those who did not have the money to buy what they wanted to would save up to buy later. But none could escape the bazaar. Even beggars could become shoppers from the money they earned; people without any money could always borrow some, or they could steal. On the other hand, if you didn’t have money you could be in the bazaar and the bazaar couldn’t care less whether you died of hunger or for lack of medicine. Be that as it may, I still liked going there.
I would return home at night when the shops were closing and congratulate myself that I hadn’t been overcharged. If I needed to step out again to get paan for my father, I would not go to Gange Guru’s shop that was around the corner but cycle down to the bazaar. Not once in my experience did a shopkeeper make the mistake of returning more money than he should have, or I handed him more than I had to. Nor did any shopkeeper forget to take money from me. (A lot had to happen before there could be a bazaar. For there to be mangoes, there had to be trees. What was not grown locally had to come from outside. Apples, pineapples, and lychees would arrive and get sold immediately. Jewelry shops did good business. It was a matter of great joy that people would set out to buy okra and would return home after having bought okra. If arhar dal was out of stock they would get mung dal.)
My friend would tell me that in my first year of college I lacked confidence, though I ’d improved afterwards. I don’t know what else he ’d have said if I ’d flunked the exams even once. I was terrified of flunking. The college used to be an old fort. On three sides of it were ponds and on all four sides there were high walls. At the entrance was an enormous door made of thick planks of wood held together with iron bands. Because of its great height, even an open truck loaded to the top could pass through it. I never saw the door closed.
The windows of the classrooms that faced the pond were low enough for you to bend down and bail out the water. It’s the sort of thing you might do sitting in a boat. There were four classrooms for first-year students and two for the fourth-year students. In the latter, the male students would sit with their legs dangling and pee in the water. The boys who chewed paan and tobacco positioned themselves near these windows.
The two third-year classrooms were situated far apart. In the interior of the building, between the classrooms, was a temple, where it was always dark. There were some tenants. They ’d been living there for decades. One of them was a clerk in the lower court and lived in three small rooms with his family, right next to the rooms where the postgraduate classes were held. The authorities tried every trick to get him to vacate. His son was in the same year as me. The soldiers’ barracks had been converted into classrooms, the stable into a cycle stand. On one side was a mound on which were three ancient peepul trees, their aerial roots like crooked lines embedded in the wall. Under the trees was an enclosure, in which were stuck saffron flags, about twenty-five of them. There were stone idols, some standing and others lying on the ground. The faculty lived there as well. Outside the main entrance, huddled together, were several tea shops. There were other shops that sold paan or fritters. These tiny shops with tiled roofs were so close to the entrance that it looked as if they ’d slowly shuffle their way into the college.
I remember that in my first year, during the rains, I felt as though the classes were being held in a boat. In the history class my attention would invariably be drawn to the floor. I would tap it with my foot and it would sound hollow. I was convinced that there was an underground chamber there. Ants would keep coming out from the stone floor, through joints that had to be filled with cement. Despite heavy monsoon rain, the water in the pond stayed below window level, though frogs would jump in and enter the classrooms. When it was quiet we could see herons sitting on the windows, facing the pond, and they would leave at the first hint of sound. The smell of fish was overpowering. The man in charge of cleaning the classroom, after he ’d finished sweeping it, would put his hand into the water and pick up the dry flowers, the marigold garlands, the coconut husks, the banana leaves, and the matchsticks that had swept up against the wall. Sometimes he would also find pencils, erasers, and rulers floating in the water. However, because he was of low caste, he had once been driven away from the temple. After that, whenever he picked up the temple garbage he made sure to swear at the priest. When his son came down with smallpox and the smallpox goddess, so it was believed, was incarnated in the son, I had to go to his house and pay my obeisance to the goddess.
My tuition had been waived from the first year and I had to meet the principal to get the papers signed. While I was explaining my family circumstances to him, some of the plaster started falling from the wall and I could see the aerial root of the peepul hanging from it. The principal looked up, startled. He called out to the clerk, irritation in his voice, and pointed to the root. When the clerk tried to pull it out he ripped off more plaster until the root reached the end of the wall, which is when it finally broke. Only then did the principal sign the papers.
I liked studying finance and economics. The person who taught us economics dressed simply. He usually wore a white shirt and gray trousers. He was always leaning forward when he walked, half bent. If he had picked up something from the ground no one would even have noticed. His fingers were long and rough. On Sundays, he ’d clean his house himself. He took a day off and painted his bicycle. We had an argument over savings once. He said that you need more buyers for any business to grow, because buyers try to spend as little as possible. I thought that if buyers spent less, it would affect sales and businesses would slowly collapse. We save so that we can buy what we need. But then what happens to the savings? Father would save some money but it would soon be spent. I could not understand how a man’s money could grow if he bought expensive things and lived in a big house. The instructor said that if property or money was used to generate more wealth for only a few, inequality would increase. Not that I understood everything. The teacher never used the blackboard. In any case, when he was teaching I ’d be staring at the moss covering the cracks in the walls. In the monsoon, from the corners of the blackboard, small plants with long thin leaves would appear and the walls would be damp from floor to ceiling. In the evening, when I arrived for an extra class, I would see a couple of herons sitting on the desks. Their feet would leave wet marks and once in a while there ’d be a half-eaten fish. The peepul would have countless herons sitting on it in the evening, and you could see their necks through the leaves. While a class was going on, an unsuspecting heron would appear in the door and quickly turn back and return to the tree. And immediately afterwards a latecomer would enter the class.
At the time of college elections but even otherwise, words like frog, tortoise, heron, alligator, fish, pond, water, and fort were often heard. Because of the fort, the mohalla was called Fort Quarter. Another word that was often heard was raja. The neck feathers of the heron are extremely pretty, the kind that, along with diamonds, kings wear in their turbans. My house was in a part of town that for some reason was called Destitute Quarter. The rent was twenty-five rupees a month.
I ’d met Puttan on the way. He didn’t look too happy; from his shoulder hung an empty sling bag. Puttan was in the same class as my younger brother.
“Didn’t you buy anything?” I ’d asked him.
“I have to get sweet limes. They’re five rupees a dozen, but Father said they were four.”
“Why don’t you get a dozen bananas instead? They’re a rupee a dozen.”
“I don’t have to buy bananas. I have to get sweet limes and salt.”
“Salt is twenty paise a kilo.”
“White Tata salt is fifty-five paise a kilo,” Puttan had said.
I made Puttan buy the white Tata salt. I could have gotten him sweet limes at four rupees a dozen but they weren’t fresh.
Utensils were only bought occasionally. Sometimes spoons, sometimes katoris, and sometimes one thali. This was Father’s job. On Dhanteras, when it was considered auspicious to buy utensils, we always bought something, even if it was a small katori. Most of our utensils I remembered from my childhood. I liked glass tumblers. They had to be used carefully and somehow seemed more hygienic. But my mother was always afraid that they might break. There was also a big brass tumbler. About six years ago my younger brother had dropped it in the privy. The jamadarin, whose job it was to empty the privy, had to be called to retrieve it. She was also made to clean the tumbler. It was then put in the fire for purification. The jamadarin wanted it for herself but Father had scolded her. Afterwards, she went around telling everyone that we brahmins drank water from a tumbler that had been caked with shit.
Father would buy utensils but look upon them as his savings. Whenever he needed money he would sell some. He never bought new utensils but old ones that were in good condition. He knew the shopkeeper. People would come and sell their old utensils which were practically new for less than half the price of the new ones. The shop was near a hospital, so it had a lot of customers. People from the villages would come to the hospital for treatment, but instead of money they would bring their utensils with them. The shopkeeper would have them cleaned and polished and sell them as new, doubling his profit. When cholera broke out or there was famine, the shopkeeper called it his “season.” So much stuff would come in that he had to turn away the sellers. The villagers would plead with him and sell at a lower price.
Utensils of bell metal and brass would fetch a good price even if broken. After they ’d sold their junk—strips of iron, broken stoves, rusted containers, bottles—Father and Amma would both look pleased. When the bargaining was being done, Amma would take up position behind the door, near the threshold. I was always embarrassed to witness the haggling. It had taken five or six years to collect that scrap; it hadn’t been easy.
The biggest brass lota in the house had been kept aside for Father, for his exclusive use. After meals, he would remove his dentures and put them in the water that remained in the lota. My younger brother called the dentures my father’s mouth. He would hold the dentures in his hands, open the hands in the shape of a jaw, and tell Amma to give Father a piece of the roti. The roti would drop in his palm. The dentures were made locally about a year before. Father ever afterwards complained of pain in the gums. Being a brahmin, as part of his caste duties, he was frequently invited to eat at people’s homes. Sometimes he ’d forget to wear the dentures, and Amma would nag me to go after him on my bicycle with them. Till I was in high school I would accompany him to these meals, as would my brother. Even when we were not keen to go with him, he would insist on taking us along. I had to restrain myself from eating my fill, but even so I could eat more than my father and brother. That pleased my father. When I refused the food that was being served, my father saw to it that I got another helping of churma and laddoo on my leaf plate. Father was in the habit of keeping an angocha over his shoulder. It also served as his sling bag. He earned a hundred and fifty rupees every month from the wood depot and was comfortably off.
We never needed to buy angochas. There were always half a dozen of them lying in the trunk, given to us on death ceremonies or death anniversaries. Many of the utensils were given as mementos. The big lota was given “In memory of the late Ganga Din.” The other lota was “In memory of Misra from Barahimpur.” There were fifteen pairs of wooden sandals in the house and a bundle of sacred threads. I ’d stopped wearing a sacred thread. We had divided the utensils among ourselves and given them names. My thali was called “Duniya na mane,” my younger brother’s “Jhumroo,” Father’s “Ghar ghar mein bhagwan,” and Amma’s “Sant Sakhubai.” The names were those of old films, although the name that was inscribed on them said “Late Bindadin Shukla” or something else. Even the old utensils that Father had bought were inscribed, for instance,“Dhanaram Satnami Village Jora Thana Dharsiwa” or “Bisahoo son of Dukaloo Village Chhokranala Thana Arang.” These old utensils from the village were practically new, whereas those that came from the city were in poor shape. Utensils that had been bought just two days ago were taken back by the shopkeeper, but he only gave half price for them.
In the play for the annual function, my friend had the role of an old man. They had to use a lot of makeup to make him look the part. He was fair-complexioned, and if he hadn’t been so tall he could easily have played the girl’s role. In the play, she ’d done her matriculation but could not continue with her education because her father had died suddenly. Luckily, she married a rich man and lived happily ever after. Had my friend not been so thin he could have played the role of the district magistrate’s son, and had he not been so fair and good-looking he could have played the servant. The teachers wanted him in the play at any cost. My younger brother was not involved in it at all. I did not mind that. (Except for a few, most boys did not have anything to do with the play. Boys good at chemistry were also good at physics; there were many who failed. Those who did well were often from comfortably off families. Hukumchand Kothari, who always stood first, was the son of a rice mill owner.)
The servant was played by a boy in the second year. He was a bit of a rogue and had agreed to the part quite readily. We had discouraged him from accepting it, but he said it didn’t matter. He knew that he could thrash the boy whose servant he was in the play anytime he wanted. This was true. He and I were together in the first year. If one day he showed us dirty pictures, the next day most of the women in the pictures looked pregnant to us, and his moustaches upturned with pride.
My younger brother would say to Amma, “Why doesn’t Father do the old man’s role in the play? He’s the right age, and anyway he sits around at home making some powder or other, if not triphala for digestion then something for the teeth. He has a fat nose, which we’ve inherited. He has long nails and so do we. You can hardly call him a representative of old money. He eats paan but only after pounding it in a mortar and pestle. His cannot have roasted gram unless it’s been turned into flour. When he dies he’ll leave behind his dentures. The upper one for my elder brother and the lower one for me.”
I said to Father, “I will pass the college exams this year. If you put in a word, Tiwariji is sure to give me a job in the municipality.” Father was on good terms with its secretary, Baldev Prasad Tiwari. The advantage of this was that the privy and drain were cleaned both morning and evening. Because my father had complained, the jamadarin had twice been replaced.
The minute the jamadarin saw me she would put down her basket and broom and politely greet me with folded hands. When I greeted my teachers or Baldev Prasad Tiwari, I would not put down my book or my sling bag. When I was still a child, the neighborhood barber would deliberately wish me by saying, “I touch your feet,” and I would wish him similarly, “I touch your feet.” The people sitting around would burst out laughing. Only later did Father explain to me that if someone says “I touch your feet” in greeting, the proper answer is “My blessings” or “May you be happy.”
Amma would give the jamadarin some dry puris and rotis, but leave them on the ground. If there was something to be done around the house in which there was fear of caste pollution, Amma would wear kosa silk. Father believed that pollution does not affect kosa silk, wool, gold, or money. I would argue with Father and say, “These are all expensive things. Name a few that everyone can afford.” When I said to him, “So it’s only the poor who pollute,” he had got irritated and said, “We are poor too.”
“We’re bees biswa brahmins, the highest category, and will always remain so, poor or not,” my younger brother had said.
Irritated by all this, I would bathe once in fifteen days even in summer, and then too only after Amma had screamed at me. And in winter I would go without a bath for months. Amma would call me a mleccha, a barbarian.
Father knew a brahmin the very thought of whom made me uncomfortable. It would always be me who was sent to him when we needed to borrow money.
“Father has asked to borrow fifty rupees.”
“Are you wearing your sacred thread?”
“Go and bathe first, wear your sacred thread, and then come back for the money.” Father would not go himself out of fear, which meant that I had to bathe and wear the thread and go back after an hour. If the money was not returned in time the brahmin would become violent. He was always ready with a wise saw—“Losers know no shame,” “You have to die first to see heaven,” “Better miser than god, at least you get an answer,” “A son who’s got his share of the property is as good as a neighbor,” and many others.
For the past year there had been a demand for my horoscope. The request always came on a reply-paid postcard. Father or my younger brother would copy the horoscope on the card. In his reply, Father would always put in one word, Commitment, by which he meant dowry. In his enthusiasm to show me to my prospective in-laws, he would once in a while turn up in college with them. It did not take me long to recognize the prospective in-laws. They would be carrying a sling bag which had one durrie, a change of clothes, and, right on top, a lota. Father had made it known that I would be getting a job as soon as I graduated. Those who doubted the assurance were taken to meet Baldev Prasad Tiwari, while those whose proposals were rejected were not replied to at all and the reply-paid card was used to write to my uncle in Sikathiyapur. The uncle would never write back, afraid that Father would turn up at his house and claim his five bighas of land. Every year Father would plan a trip but never managed to put together the money for it. The whole family had been to Sikathiyapur only once and that was twenty years earlier, when I was six months old.
The jamadarin would keep asking Amma when I ’d get married. She ’d been promised a sari when I did. She never had money for anything and even a five-paisa coin made her a buyer. She would come to know from Amma the houses where Father was invited for a ceremonial feast. These were occasions when many guests could be expected and a lot of food left over. The jamadarin would sit beside the garbage dump and wait. These dumps had a pecking order. In the one where the rubbish thrown out by Nathani went, people like us could find many things that we could use. Nathani was a wealthy merchant and we would never have thrown out the things that he did. If the jamadarin found something in the dump where our rubbish went, I was not surprised. I always wondered if the jamadarin had any rubbish of her own. When I was a young boy, in the garbage dump behind the lower courts I would find carbon paper, erasers, pencils, nib holders, nibs, small packets of ink powder, blank sheets of paper, postage stamps, and large envelopes. What astonished me most about the jamadarin was that she could carry on her head a basket smeared with ash and full of excrement, while tucked in her waist would be a pouch containing her rotis.
Because of the annual function, there was a lot of activity in the hostel until late at night. The whole place was lit up. The hostel consisted of a row of twenty-five rooms, many of them unoccupied. A group of boys in their underclothes were massaging their gums with tobacco paste, getting ready for bed. The language teacher was standing on the veranda. He was short, which is probably why he looked muscular. He was in charge of dramatics and sports. There was a crowd of boys around him and they were having an argument. As the argument grew more heated the boys who had been massaging their gums joined in. Then it became a free-for-all. The moment before it started was poised in the same way that the second hand of a clock is poised before it strikes twelve. The teacher had come down from the veranda and stood near the field. The boys and the teacher were as one body that kept moving forward and backward. The crowd was now at a little distance from the veranda. Small groups of boys who had broken from the crowd stood around in their underclothes, still massaging their gums, then sat down on the edge of the veranda in a row.
In the meantime, eight boys in the group had acquired hockey sticks and a cricket bat. One boy had a football. He lived near the main mosque. The boys with hockey sticks were from the Brahmin Quarter. Those who were not carrying anything were from the kabaddi and kho-kho teams. The teacher had angrily snatched the ball and had run out toward the field. There was pandemonium. It was dark and you could hardly see the green bushes at the edge of the field. The teacher had thrown the ball toward the bushes. The ball made a distinctive sound—thump thump thump—as it hit the ground. The crowd had split and the students were running in all directions. Some of the boys were from poor backgrounds, but at night it was hard to recognize them. Apart from Muslims and brahmins, there were boys from other castes as well. The teacher would have taken out the whistle from his pocket and then he must have gone home.
(Someone kept blowing the whistle and the whistle was meant for him, so the teacher would have thought, for he kept committing one foul after another, and in the morning that was still to come he would have searched for his glasses. When the sun had risen and he could see clearly, it was as though he ’d been wearing them. Not that his eyes were weak. He would have noticed the torn book in the library; a marble would have looked as big as a football to him. Everywhere the air was solid and there was no movement. At the point till where the eye could see in the dark was my football. I was inside the football, being kicked around. Why do such thoughts come to me?)
Usually he ’d be seen in the sports room. The room was small and filled with sports equipment, most of it broken. Next to his table were two gymnast’s clubs. On the table was a jumble of papers. They were held down by a cricket ball in the same way that his heavy round head was a paperweight, keeping his disorganized body in place. He expected everyone to have the sporting spirit. When in deep thought he would have his head in his hands and look as if he were trying to dodge a football coming at him. His head would remain in the same position. Anything could happen. Usually there was a problem that had to be dealt with, not that there was really a problem.
Many people had come for the college play. My father did not come, nor did my friend’s father. My friend’s father had a small shop that sold scented chewing tobacco. My friend would chew it all the time. The play ended at around one in the morning. The venue was a large hall. In the front row was Baldev Prasad Tiwari, the secretary of the municipal corporation. From time to time I would look in his direction. I felt happy to see him laugh, but he left early. After the play ended we found the chowkidar asleep on a durrie under the makeshift stage. Two boys from the mohalla were dozing there too.
My friend had acted well, better than anyone else. It did not take more than five minutes for the hall to empty out. A few people had flashlights. Those who found themselves without one joined the ones who did. It was dark and the ground was uneven. Some of those who were walking alongside the people with flashlights could have been their friends and took advantage of it. The others may simply have attached themselves to the group. Baldev Prasad Tiwari had left with his friends in a car. The magistrate’s car carried only him. The flashlight was not a car that only a few could take advantage of. The road belonged to everyone. So long as there was a crowd, one-thirty in the morning did not seem like one-thirty in the morning. Then suddenly it was two o’clock. The bright lights had been turned off. Only the fairy lights were left burning.
There were some sounds coming from behind the stage. The students were getting out of their costumes and there were three teachers having a cup of tea with the principal. The boy who had played the servant was sitting in a corner by himself and had not changed his clothes. He was smoking a bidi. The principal put down his cup of tea, got up, and hit the boy with his fist. He snatched the bidi from his mouth and threw it out the window that was facing the pond. It struck me that you needed a whole pond to put out one bidi. In the play he was being a little more obsequious than necessary. The servant in the play was both lazy and a thief. He was not paid on time. His salary was twelve rupees a month. The play had ended but the atmosphere was still that of a play. If there were to be a servant’s role again in the annual play, the same boy would be chosen.
After the principal left, the boy who had played the role of the girl emerged from behind the curtain and walked away quickly. A little later, one of the teachers also left. He was walking behind the boy. My friend was standing beside a large wooden box in which the costumes were being put. He said in a tired voice, “I can’t find my shoes.” He had not removed his makeup. We were both in a hurry to get home. I said, “You are an old man who cannot find his shoes.” We took permission from the teachers and pushed off.
I wanted to walk fast and reach home as quickly as possible, but my friend was in a mood to have some fun. He said, “The shops close by eight-thirty but the bustle on the roads continues for a few hours afterwards.”
“Shops should remain open all night,” I said, swinging my empty sling bag in the dark. We had now come onto the road. Standing in front of a new house that looked empty, I said loudly, “This house is not for sale.”
“Even if it were,” my friend said, “how would we have taken it home in your bag?”
“You already have a house. Why do you need another?” I said to him. I was irritated.
When we reached the bazaar, my friend said, “I am an old man and need support.” I smiled and played along. To give him support, I put my left hand on his right shoulder. “You look like your father,” I said. At which he started coughing as though he were asthmatic. It was all part of the tomfoolery. Hearing him cough, about fifty dogs that hung around the Meat Market started barking. That shut my friend up. He was scared.
Right next to us was a neem tree. In the dark, the neem tree did not look like a real neem tree. It looked like some other tree dressed up like a neem. So was the case with the other trees. Then we came to the magistrate’s bungalow. His car was parked outside. The veranda light was on. There was nothing there to suggest that the magistrate had come to the play. The house looked like a house that had been dressed up to look like a magistrate’s bungalow. The scene looked as though it were a stage set.
“Your shop does good business,” I said.
“Why are you talking about things that were not in the play?”
Someone called out to us from behind. It was one of the teachers. He had a flashlight and was walking toward us.
“Shyam Lal Gupta, you are still wearing your costume,” he said, flashing the light in our faces. “You know that I’m responsible for it and for the stage props.”
“I’ve lost my shoes. Who’s responsible for them?”
“You can box my ears twice, if that’s any help,” the teacher mumbled angrily and walked away.
There was a large field. It was pitch dark. The darkness seemed to have acquired layers that rose to a great height and extended in all directions.Through familiarity and with a little guesswork I could tell where the ground was. I wanted to take the footpath and cross the field with the same familarity.
Next to the field was a primary school. There was a hill with a big tamarind tree. At the bottom of the hill was an idgah. A lane behind the school went past the idgah and a hospital. There was a bidi workshop in this lane, Randhir Bidi Factory. The locality around the factory was called Bharkapara. The mohalla was filthy. Most of the people who lived there belonged to the mahar caste. They worked in the bidi factory. The whole family, including the women and children, would sway their bodies backward and forward as to a rhythm when they rolled the bidis. It was the people from this mohalla who went behind the hill to defecate in the open, and that’s where the stench came from. A small office in the mohalla had a red flag fluttering over it. Processions would occasionally emerge from the office, everyone shouting slogans at the top of their voices. Eight- or ten-year-olds were quick at rolling bidis. They had dropped out of school after class four and started to work in order to earn money.
“If you don’t study, what will you do? Roll bidis?” Father would say when he scolded us for neglecting our studies. Not a single boy from this mohalla had been to college. Only a few days ago, my younger brother had told Father that he had had enough education and wanted to get a job. Father had said, “Go and join the bidi factory then.” I ’d come to realize that unless the entire family worked at making bidis, it would not have enough to eat. Father did not like the idea that we should work while still in college. He said that in respectable homes a person earns to make a better life for his children. You should take up a job only after graduation, even if it means eating only one meal a day. But even after graduation, I would think to myself, two meals a day was just about all that you could expect.
In primary school, we would often play in that field. In one of the games, we kept a piece of paper on the ground in the belief that if it was touched by a pariah kite’s shadow it would turn into a rupee note. We ’d keep pieces of paper in our pockets and wait for the kite. The kite would be wheeling in the sky. Its shadow would move rapidly over the uneven ground and climb up the hill. Holding a scrap of paper and crouching low, we ’d chase the kite’s shadow. As soon as we got the chance, we ’d try and place the piece of paper inside it but the shadow would already have moved away. The scrap of paper would fly about in the breeze. We wasted many pages of our exercise books doing this, for we never had any other paper available. I could easily climb up the tamarind tree. When boys were up on the tree and felt like peeing, they ’d pee from there. I ’d either pee before climbing the tree or would come down and do so.
“Can you see the kite flying up there?” I asked.
“How can I see in the dark?”
“Do you have some spare paper?”
“I have a fountain pen.”
“It’s no good keeping a fountain pen in the kite’s shadow. Darkness is the shadow of a large kite.”
I found a small piece of paper in my pocket. It was the receipt for some things I ’d bought. We put the piece of paper on the ground and bent down to look at it. Then my friend picked up the piece of paper and put it in his pocket. But I snatched it back from him. A piece of paper is still a piece of paper.
On Tuesdays, when the shops were closed, I studied till late. I resented their being closed. There was no separate room or quiet place at home to study. I remembered the large wooden box at the college. It was large enough for two people to sit comfortably inside. Our house was a little like that box. As soon as evening fell there would be a smell, as of something burning. The whole mohalla had the same smell. I asked Amma about it. She said that it was of flaxseed oil. We used groundnut oil for cooking. It was expensive. When my exams approached, I ’d stop doing the shopping and Father would take over from me. I was always afraid that he ’d get ripped off. Rising prices were another source of anxiety.
Amma too had a wooden box. It had belonged to Ajiya and had several small compartments in which she kept loose change, betel nuts for prayer rituals, a religious book about the goddess Durga, and two cotton threads dyed with turmeric. One was for me and the other for my brother. Every year on our birthdays Amma would tie a knot in them. She was in the habit of eating opium. With the help of some finely filtered ash, she ’d make pellets the size of coriander seeds from a sticky lump of opium and stash them away to eat later. Amma looked very old. She had a wooden comb that she would run through her hair. She ’d collect the hair that came away in the comb and make a string from it. She ’d use it to tie her hair. I joked with her that if she collected the entire family’s hair, she could knit a sweater for me. I offered to have my head shaved and give her the hair so that she could knit me a cap. Balls of tangled hair, the string that she made from it, the wooden comb, and her small casket of opium were kept inside the trunk. The trunk was locked and the key hung from a string around her neck.
My friend had come to my place on Tuesday so that we could study together. If we drew up a schedule and followed it, we managed to get some work done. My friend had all the books that we needed. He was cleverer than me. We spread out a bamboo mat on the veranda and sat down to study. My brother and I were wearing similar clothes, blue shirts and khaki shorts. We intended to concentrate on our studies. My friend had bad breath.
“Your mouth smells real bad when you don’t chew scented tobacco,” I said.
“No it doesn’t.” He brought his mouth close to my nose. “Ha!” he said, and exhaled. I pushed him away. My younger brother held him by his hands and I went “Ha! Ha! Ha!” at him in retaliation. Father arrived just then. He had a bottle of groundnut oil in his right hand and in his left he was holding his bunched-up dhoti. He took off his chappals near the door and was about to go in.
“Namaste,” my friend greeted him.
“How come you found a shop that was open on Tuesday?” I asked, a little anxiously.
“There’s one in Nayapara that stays open.”
“The fellow must have overcharged you,” I muttered.
“We were out of oil,” Father said.
“The vegetable couldn’t be cooked without oil. And you wouldn’t have eaten without the vegetable,” said Amma.
“I won’t now have the vegetable even if you cook it,” my younger brother said.
“It was nine rupees a kilo. It’s clean oil,” Father said.
“If you ’d waited for a day, I would have got it for eight rupees a kilo.”
“Be quiet,” Father shouted and went in. Amma followed him.
“Do you know where the bottle of oil is?” I asked my friend.
“How would I know? Must be in the kitchen.”
“Yes, he must have hung it from a peg there,” said my younger brother.
There came the sound of digging in the courtyard.
“Father is burying the bottle of oil,” said my younger brother.
“Come, let’s go and see,” said my friend.
“Why would he bury it? The bottle doesn’t have a cap. Mud will get into it,” I said.
When the three of us entered, Father was shaking out some gunny sacks. He spread out one of them and sat down near Amma.
“The price of old bell metal is now nineteen and a half rupees per kilo,” Father said to Amma.
“What about new bell metal?” I asked.
“That’s forty rupees a kilo. Old brass is touching fifteen.”
“Why don’t we sell the thali?” I said to Father. “It weighs two kilos. We have no use for it.”
“It came in your mother’s trousseau.”
“The bicycle tires and tubes need to be changed,” my younger brother said. There was no sign of the bottle of oil.
“Where’s the oil? I’ll go and return it.”
“Let it be.” Father had started slicing the potatoes.
Amma had covered herself with an unwashed sari and was lying in a corner. Only her feet were visible. There were silver ringlets on her thin wrinkled toes and a double-band ring on the toe next to the big toe.
“Amma! Get up!” I shouted.
“Leave her alone,” Father said.
“Where is the ringlet from one of your toes? It’s missing,” said my younger brother.
Amma got up hurriedly, but when she saw the commotion she lay down again.
“You’ve gone mad,” said Father irritably.
“The bottle of oil is up there on a peg,” said my friend, pointing to it. There was an empty sling bag hanging next to it. My father had stopped slicing the potatoes and the three of us had come out. I had the bottle in my hand.
“You go and study,” I said to my younger brother.
“I want to come too,” he said. He wanted to be the one holding the bottle.
“No,” I said angrily. When he stretched out a hand to take the bottle, I held his hair with my left hand and pushed him aside. My younger brother went back. Studies too were important after all. I had not changed my clothes and was wearing my new khaki shorts. I thought the shopkeeper would not be impressed by my shorts and refuse to take back the oil.
That’s what happened. The shopkeeper did not take back the oil. I walked further on and came to the railway tracks. My friend had gone home. At a little distance from the tracks there were two men sitting under a shisham tree. They looked to be fathers.
“Aren’t you Panditji’s son?” one of them shouted out to me.
“Yes,” I said.
“Have you had a quarrel at home that you’ve come here? The exams haven’t yet begun,” he yelled out to me again.
“No, I haven’t had a quarrel,” I said, turning toward him.
“Then what are you doing here? Go home. It’s time for the train to come.”
He saw the bottle when I turned to go back.
“What’s in the bottle?”
“It’s groundnut oil.”
Some of the oil had got spilt on the way. The day the results came out, fathers were worried about their sons. A couple of years ago a boy who had failed the exam had thrown himself in front of a train. On the day of the results, fathers would keep an eye on the railway tracks and on the ponds and wells. The police too would be there. The windows of the college that opened onto the pond would be closed. Inwardly, I cursed myself for having gone near tracks.
I ’d told Father that I was not ready for marriage. My voice had become gruff. I could shout down anyone. I ’d been in several scuffles with my friend. My trips to the bazaar had become infrequent. We didn’t need to buy much anyway. I ’d started going to the Bharkapara Reading Room in the evenings. I looked on the bazaar as if it were my enemy. I ’d begun to understand things like dishonesty, hoarding, profiteering. The finance and economics teachers had been dismissed from college.
READ: Dreaming the World: Vinod Kumar Shukla’s Extraordinary Sentences by Vidyan Ravinthiran
“College” was first published in English in Blue Is Like Blue (2019), a collection of Vinod Kumar Shukla’s stories translated by Mehrotra and Rai, by HarperCollins India.