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Authors: Milind Bokil

Shala

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Shala

Milind Bokil

Translated from the Marathi by
Vikrant Pande

T
he main road leads to my school, but I prefer the winding path through the fields. There is a long stretch of grassland behind our house, beyond the Mhatre chawl lines, barren except for a few date palms and tufts of grass growing between the rocks. The village of Kanhe begins where the grassland ends. On the right are paddy fields, overlooked by massive rocks, and on the left is Nana’s jungle. The road to school begins beyond the rocks.

I never had to come this way earlier. Till eighth standard, that is. Our school, till Seventh Standard, was at a different place. Back then, I’d take the road opposite Ganesh Provision Store which joins Kanhe Road near Mokshadham, winds past the railway station through Dattawadi and Pendse Colony, and then goes straight on to Nandi Talkies. Most students and teachers took this route to school. Pawar from the Tiloda building came along with me till last year, but has left school since. In any case, these days, I prefer to walk alone.

In the month of Shravan, the skies are a lovely blue, scattered with white clouds, and the fields are drenched in warm yellow sunshine. Now, the rains are nearly over and the Ganapati festival, too, got over a few days back. The paddy fields are still water-logged and it gets quite muddy at times, but I prefer this route except when it pours really hard. I love the rain. It is fun walking barefoot through the slushy fields. The air is cool and crisp, you can hear frogs croaking in the fields, and the sweet smell of ice-candy tells you that the paddy crop is ripe and ready.

These fields belong to Shankar Bhoir of Tenth Standard. During the planting season, the entire family, including Shankar, is out in the fields. His father knows me and greets me with a cheery ‘So, off to school, are you?’ Sometimes, he plucks a few young ears of paddy and shows me how to eat the milky grain without hurting my tongue.

In the afternoon, the fields are empty except for Shankar’s father and a few egrets. The faint, sweet smell of ripening rice wafts in with the breeze. How happy and contented the fields look in the mellow sunlight—like a painting. I have a favourite spot, a rock on the way down from the road, from where I sit and watch the fields. I can sit here for hours! And then I think of Shirodkar. Of course, I think of her all the time; morning, evening, at school, at home, everywhere! But all the more when I see these green and yellow paddy fields… And then I’m left with an aching feeling of emptiness in the pit of my stomach.

S
chool begins at 12:40, but I usually leave home by eleven. It takes only thirteen minutes to reach school, but we—Chitre, Phawdya, Surya and I—get together for our adda at Surya’s place en route. Of course, Aaisaheb and Ambabai do not know this. Ambabai is already in college by the time I leave for school; Aaisaheb doesn’t have a clue anyway. The one time Aaisaheb asked me, I had a readymade excuse: that Takalkar sir helped us with difficult sums in maths either in the morning or in free periods. This was true, except I never attended his classes! And if that wasn’t convincing, there’s always the excuse of band practice, which takes place an hour before school. In any case, my leaving early suits Aaisaheb because she can catch up with her friends before Ambabai returns from college.

Surya’s father is building this new place, conveniently enough for us. The construction began in May. By the time school reopened, the first slab had been laid; that’s when we began to have our adda there. Once we were nearly caught by Surya’s father. Thankfully, we saw him coming and quickly pretended to be busy studying Maths. ‘Don’t you have school today?’ he growled at Surya.

‘Yes. We are doing Maths.’

Chitre added, ‘We don’t have a place to sit, so we thought we’d stop by here for some time.’

Our legs were trembling with fear. Surya’s father, a tall and well-built man with perennially bloodshot eyes, can be quite a terror. He thrashes Surya every now and then. Surya does not fear anyone in the world except him. He has gifted an acre of land to our school, hence even Appa, our otherwise strict Principal, always gets up from the chair reverently, saying, ‘Come, come, Mhatre sheth.’

Somehow our excuse worked and he merely rolled his eyes, saying, ‘Oh, studying, is it? Good, good. I’ll have a proper room made for you here, with tiles and all, okay?’

‘Not here,’ piped up Surya. ‘The room above this.’

‘The one above?’

‘Yes, it is too noisy here, with people coming and going all the time.’

‘But you guys had better study hard, okay? If I ever find you wasting time, I’ll break your legs!’

Soon, the next slab was laid; walls and tiles followed. Surya brought a dhurrie. We have our adda in the room upstairs, but we ensure that we spread out our books as an alibi first. The walls are sprayed with water, so the rooms are always cool and fresh and smell of cement.

The construction workers live in shacks behind the building. We often see a dark-complexioned woman feeding her child out in the open. Sometimes she doesn’t even bother to button up her blouse properly afterwards. We just smile at each other then.

From our room upstairs, we have a clear view of the road to school that comes straight from Mokshadham. No one from the main road can see us, but we can see everyone clearly. Phawdya and Surya stand by the window, commenting on the girls passing by, each of whom they have a nickname for. Bibikar and Shembe wanted to join us but we refused. Bibikar is a scaredy cat, and Shembekar a dimwit who gets thrashed by each and every teacher. Who would want such boys around?

The passers-by know that there is someone up there who makes wisecracks, but we are careful not to get caught. Once Phawdya called Randive sir ‘Prem Chopra’. Randive sir stopped in his tracks and shouted, ‘Do you want me to come up there?’ as we stood stock-still, peeping through the holes in the wall where the bamboo poles are placed. He finally left after what seemed like an eternity, turning around and glancing upwards several times.

‘Phawdya, why can’t you just shut up, bhenchod?’ Surya had shouted. ‘We’d have been screwed if he had come up here. We wouldn’t be able to sit here ever again!’

Ever since, we decided not to tease the teachers. Earlier, Surya and Phawdya would tease each and every girl too, but not anymore. We just sit there and have mindless conversations, resting our backs against the walls. And of course, I wait for Shirodkar.

That morning, I reached our adda to find Chitre sitting against the wall, fiddling with an old torch. His bag lay near him; a couple of battery cells and a few lengths of wire with clips were strewn on the floor. Chitre arrives as early as nine o’clock sometimes! Both his parents work. They leave home early and return late in the evening. There is a maid called Devaki who is supposed to look after them, but all she does is sleep. Chitre’s younger brother Raju leaves for school early in the morning, after which Chitre is free to do whatever he wants. Whenever Raju has a holiday, though, we are in trouble, because he follows us around like a pet dog, asking inane questions from time to time. He is a pain in the ass!

Chitre tells us that his mom and dad often quarrel in the evenings, but I think his mother is a gem. Her fair, soft midriff peeps out through her saree; Surya loves to gawk at it. We get to eat cakes in their house. She always asks us to stay back and play. But what can we play indoors? And then there is also the fear of that Raju trailing us once he sees us!

‘What are you up to?’ I asked Chitre, hanging up my bag on one of the bamboo poles jutting out of the wall.

‘Experiment.’

‘What about?’

‘Arre, I’m trying to create a torch that works both ways.’

‘Both ways?’

‘Yes. It’ll light up on this side when I push the button that way and then on that side when I push it this way,’ explained Chitre.

It was beyond me, so I kept quiet. Chitre is always up to some experiment or the other. I know him since Fifth Standard. He loves to try out stuff not mentioned in our textbooks, and always manages to get the first prize in the science exhibition at school. Even the kids tease him, calling him ‘shyntist’ in their Marathi accent! Last year he stole some sulphuric acid, poured it into a fused bulb, added copper sulphate and heated up the mixture. The bulb exploded with a loud bang, singeing his hand, and an acrid smell spread all over, but that hardly deterred our ever-curious Chitre. In fact, he went and asked Manjrekar sir why the mixture exploded!

‘Hasn’t Surya come in yet?’ I asked.

‘No.’

‘Phawdya?’

‘No.’

Phawdya (his two front teeth stick out like a spade, a phawda, hence the nickname!) would be late for sure. His father passed away when he was very young, and his mother runs a vegetable shop. Phawdya helps his mother buy vegetables at the mandi every morning, cleans them while his mother prepares lunch, and then comes running all the way. In the evenings, he minds the shop. We hang around too, sometimes, watching the women bend down to select the vegetables. Surya says Phawdya is a lucky scoundrel who gets to see melons every day! His mother frets if we crowd around Phawdya, but Surya soothes her saying, ‘We won’t disturb him, mavshi. We’re here to keep an eye on the melons and other vegetables!’ How we all laugh then! But of course the pun is lost on her.

Phawdya’s mother is a simple soul. She feeds us local figs and seasonal fruits. She has a straight green line across her forehead. Phawdya says when his father was alive she would put sindoor in it, though Chitre, with his scientific mind, wonders how the sindoor could ever stay put in a horizontal line!

Phawdya hates selling vegetables. His passion is cricket. He is the best fast bowler in school. Chitre and Phawdya are the kings of the game. If Chitre decides to stay put, no one can bowl him out. Last year we defeated Tope High School and Subhash Vidyalaya in the inter-school cricket tournament. We lost to the South Indian School in the finals, though. They had a prejudiced umpire!

Surya
has
to be in the team each time, irrespective of his skills. His dadagiri comes in handy, especially when playing against other teams in town. They can’t leave me out so I usually stand behind the wicket-keeper as I have butter fingers! If Chitre and Phawdya play their natural game, we have nothing to worry about. But last year we lost to Ninth-A. A boy called Aire bowled out Chitre on the very first ball! Had it been some other team, Surya would have created a ruckus calling it a ‘trial ball’, but it was our own school, so we had to eat the humble pie.

Surya is the next one to join the adda. (His real name is Suresh, but no one calls him that.) He wears the tightest pants, and his biceps bulge with all the exercise he does each day. On the very first day of school, Zende sir had taken one look at his pants and quipped, ‘You may as well not wear anything!’ Surya ignored the taunt. He loves to buff his hair and gives it a quick brush with his comb when no one is watching. He doesn’t carry a school bag; he just ties his books together with a thick rubber band.

Most boys in our school carry their books around in this fashion. I wanted to, as well, but Ambabai made a bag for me after she learnt some stitching. It is quite nice actually, and many teachers have asked me about the design. Only I don’t like it at all. Some of the boys know how to twirl a notebook on their forefinger. All of Surya’s books have a small hole in the centre. He can spin the books for nearly ten minutes at times on the tip of a divider.

‘Ichibhana, what are you up to?’ Surya drawled, entering the room. Ichibhana is Surya’s favourite term of endearment. No one knows what it means, but people in the villages around here use it all the time.

‘Some experiment,’ I explained.

‘I am trying to make a torch which burns at both ends,’ elaborated Chitre.

‘Torch? Ichibhana, can you feel the current? Come, I will show you how to get some current!’

Surya is always up to some prank or the other. He is a little crazy, and raring to pick up a fight with anyone in the classroom. There are other guys like Dashrath Bhoir the six-footer, whom Surya never tries to mess with. They are distantly related to each other too. Surya’s cousin Harishchandra is also in our class. A quiet fellow, he does not interfere in anyone’s work and merely smiles if you tease him. He never gets angry. But last year, when some of the boys from Sonarpada came to beat up Surya, one shout from Harishchandra was enough to stop them in their tracks. If any outsider challenges any one of us, our entire gang comes together. Hence, even a wimp like Sadu Kale can afford to strut around like a dada.

‘Hasn’t Phawdya come in yet?’ Surya asked.

‘No. Must be busy cleaning the vegetables,’ I said.

‘Is Barve ma’am likely to come in today?’

‘God only knows!’

It had been a week since Barve ma’am had come to school. We were not sure why. The daily Hindi class was thus a free period for us. But since it was the second period, we were not allowed to go out. If only it had been after the mid-break, we could have gone out into the playground. Some teacher or the other substituted her class.

‘I hope Bendre ma’am does not come in that period,’ Surya said.

‘I am doomed if she does,’ Chitre said.

‘Ichibhana, she doesn’t get married and tortures us!’

No one likes Bendre ma’am. She’s unmarried and a terror. Her tongue lashes out like a whip. And, of all subjects, she teaches English! All are scared to attend her class. Phawdya says it is because of the collective curse of all the students that she’s still unmarried. She insists that we speak in English in her class. I’m fine with that. Naru mama has taught me good English and in fact, I’m the one who answers most of her questions. But that does not make me her favourite student. She does not like anyone in our class!

Phawdya walked in just then, lumbering noisily up the steps.

‘Why are you late?’

‘The rotis took some time,’ he said, trying to catch his breath.

‘Come, sit here,’ I said.

‘I saw Paranjpe ma’am.’

‘Where?’

‘Near the station. She was coming this way.’

‘Was she alone?’ Surya asked.

‘Yes.’

‘Come on! That’s not possible. That Zende must be somewhere close by. Are you sure?’

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