Thursday, November 17, 2005

A State of Righteousness

The Headmaster opened the lock that held shut the creaking iron gate of the school and scrambled in. It was a burning hot summer day. So hot that the top of his head seemed to be on fire from the short walk from his two roomed house to the school. The sweat stayed heavy on his face till he brought out his rough little towel and wiped it off. He would do this over and over again. There were no air conditioners in this village though he had heard that the Babus in the city were beginning to have them again now. It was a Sunday but he had come to school to ensure that everything was in place to welcome the American delegation that was visiting them on Monday. Americans. It had been years since he had seen foreigners of any kind. A few of them had continued to visit, in the early days of the Nayi Sarkar when the borders had still been porous. But once the Sarkar had publicly hanged a few of them for ‘inciting public opinion and promoting immorality’ they had stopped. And after that, the borders had been strengthened in any case and no one could come in anymore. Or go out. Now that the Nayi Sarkar regime had been a success, he heard that the Babus wanted to showcase their achievements to a select audience. Small batches of foreigners were therefore carefully being brought in to see all the manufactured happiness of the state paraded before them.

He opened the door of the large classroom with its chatais still lying on the ground. The room was a rectangular one with a blackboard on the wall ahead. It was covered in smells that could be distinguished from one another only with great difficulty. The dry wheezy smell of chalk molecules that had floated and merged into the air. The thickish smell of cow dung from the sheds behind the school. The salty smell of the sweat of hundreds of boys who had gone over their tables here. Two two zare four. Two three zare six. Two four zare eight. The rhythmic chanting of tables like some mystical invocation that no one could understand sounded here everyday, for this was a class of eight year olds. None of the other smells could be conjured away but he had atleast ensured that the Ayahs had aired the Chatais out in the sun and placed a few plastic chairs in the corner for the Americans to use.

They had also suddenly received an approval for the the entire building, with its ten classrooms and three smelly toilets to be painted. Since the approval had come late, no one had had the time to look into colours or shades or design schemes. The painting was happening in a flurry now, instructions being piled one over the other quickly, spaces filling up with the dregs of colours. Masterji remembered the old days when colours used to be a reflection of something. All police stations used to be painted red. Banks vied with one another to cover the urban landscape with their distinctive logos and colour schemes. For a long time now, such practices had been forbidden. The Sarkar believed that they were an unnecessary indulgence, inimical to the moral life that they wanted citizens to lead. For a long time now, the only colours available had been white or a off-yellow that looked dirty even when it was freshly painted and so never got dirtier. Yellow was in any case the symbol of purity, of chastity, of religious fervor. Bands of Gopikas wore yellow scarves covering their heads as a sign of modesty and their devotion to Krishna.

But there were no Gopikas here. It was entirely a boys school. A boys school with about three hundred boys from the surrounding villages, all dressed in their spotless white shirts and Khaki shorts. They did not cover their heads but simply wore a yellow ribbon tied around their heads and knotted on one side. Those who did well at the archery and singing sessions and pointed out erring neighbours would often be promoted to the Bhaktas Brigade which was assigned the job of going through students’ bags for any suspicious material, reporting on offenders and sometimes handing out punishments for trivial offenses. The Headmaster did not directly control any of these. Infact he did not carry out any of them, though he knew that he could be reported by anyone, if he obstructed these being carried out. They were tightly controlled by the Bharatiya Sabhyata Samitis (B.S.S) which operated in every Taluk and were in turn controlled by the District and State Level avatars of the same.

Ten years ago, one of the boys had been found carrying one of those pictures from the earlier days. He remembered the newspaper. It used to be called the Mid-day, and everyday the page 3 would carry a picture of a scantily dressed well endowed woman. Readers would pretend to be poring over the news intently when all they could actually see would be the model’s luscious curves. Young boys would turn away in embarassment, their eyes held a minute, and then another, by the vicarious promise of flesh on offer, so close, so touchy-feely. Somehow this boy had caught hold of one of these pictures. The white paper had been carefully scraped off from the cardboard that formed the cover of the notebook and here this picture had been hidden. The white paper had been repaced and glued forming a sort of bag through which the overwhelming sexuality of the mid-day mate threatened to burst through. One of the newly promoted Bhaktas, in a hurry to prove his worth, had discovered the trophy and zealously reported it to the B.S.S. The boy had been let off with twenty canings since it was his first offense. The Headmaster had tried to intervene citing that he was only a small boy and he had no father which explained the limited development of morality since a woman could not be trusted alone anyways with the development of a child’s character. The B.S.S local chief was a paunchy man with elephant like ears. His sage elephant ears gave him the appearance of being a patient man who could listen to every argument made to him knowing well that he had already decided on the right course of action.

He welcomed the Headmaster politely enquiring after his welfare. “Jai Shri Ram, Mishraji, Kaise hain? I didn’t see you at our last week’s Bhajan Mandali, I think?”. The Headmaster muttered something about being laid up with fever. He was not a man conversant with the niceties of small talk. He plunged into the case of the boy under the Mid-day Mate case and haltingly tried to explain why the boy deserved to be let off. In the end, for all his troubles, the boy didn’t receive one caning less. What was more, he reformed his ways and did well enough to be promoted to the Bhaktas Brigade the next year. The headmaster on the other hand stayed where he was, same place, same job, same life.

Once in a while, they let him have some entertainment, visiting the whores registered at the next village, their presence hidden from the wives and mothers. The two were distinct entities, everything common to them obliterated. The wives and mothers were carefully desexed, all evidence of breasts and thighs pushed under voluminous garments. The whores were the only ones allowed to parade themselves, infact, they were encouraged to be shameless, if only at night. That way, there was less danger of them wanting to become wives and mothers, less risk of accidental contamination.

Now there was a big event about to happen. Foreigners were coming. Firangis. Maybe there would even be a woman among them. One of those gora women with their clothes like men. Women here now dressed as women should, no ankle, no leg showing, no revealing the line that runs from crotch to toe, no arousing indecent emotions in helpless men. That was all as it should be and he had to admit that the Sarkar had brought about any number of good things. Still. Masterji sat down in the shade to watch the painting completed, and dreamt of the foreigners to come.


Aran said...

Excellent, taut writing Apu. Economic and exact use of words. I enjoyed the piece thoroughly. Reminded me of 1984, but I suppose that's inevitable... and actually a compliment if you'd choose to see it that way. Think of me giving you a standing ovation. :)

The post is still kind of percolating in my mind and will stay for a while I suppose. A mark of good writing.

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

wonderful writing. you have a real gift with these stories you write - they really draw the reader in

raven said...

Very, very nice.

apu said...

Thanks everyone for the kind words.. Aran, especially, your appreciation is very encouraging for this lazy writer who needs all the encouragement she gets :)

Aran said...

Oh, if encouragement is all you need then I can give you all you want. Will encouraging also make you continue the Renuka and Lavi (was that the girl's name?) story? You can see that some people just cannot let go of things... :D

But seriously, I really liked this post. :)

Dreamvendor said...

Awesome writing. Liked the narration esp. in the second para. The attention to details stands out. Great work!

I dun know if a small time writer like me can give the encouragement comfort, but your writing is truly GOOD!