By Abhirup Dutta
Praveen was known as the Boy Who Missed Beatings. He was a scrawny boy with naturally spiky hair and buck teeth, earning him several other names such as Scarecrow, Porcupine, Squirrel, Bhoot (ghost), Pisachi (ghoul), Cricket Bat and Sonic the Hedgehog.
There was no alarm in his house. He woke to his mother ringing the bells around an image of a blue Shiva sitting on a yellow tiger skin, torn out from the last year’s calendar. His father dialed up the volume on the old Cathode-Ray television which featured an enigmatic astrologer giving inspirational messages to whoever dialed the digits blinking on the screen in bright pink.
Praveen punched the wall in response to the cacophony. He tore out some cotton, rolled it into buds and stuck it in his ears.
The world was normal now.
The next few moments passed in a haze and he found himself bathed and dressed in a uniform – an ivory-white collared shirt and bottle-green trousers. His mother tied the tie around his neck, a green and white striped tie with the seam of the cloth joined in odd angles at the end. She then stapled a handkerchief with the school logo over his shirt-pocket.
As he sat down at the breakfast table, his stomach churned. Before him was a giant glass tumbler of frothing white milk. He went closer and was overcome by the sharp smell of cow-barn.
“Ma, can I have chai?”
“Chai? That’s for adults,” his mother said, “Milk will make you strong and help you fill out your bones—they are so scrawny like a Pisachi. You don’t even look human. When I come back, I want it empty.”
Praveen’s father turned around. “Areeey, shall I buy some Bournvita or Horlicks powder for the milk? Or Milo? Milo has chocolate flavor, which will remove the smell.”
“Shut up and don’t pretend as if you help in running the house,” Ma answered. “My mother said drinking brown milk will make the skin complexion darker. No chocolate. And I am throwing out the Chai leaves too. From today, as a family, we are all drinking pure white milk.”
On hearing the horn of the school-rickshaw, Parveen dashed out of the house, spilling the milk on the table.
* * *
School started with the morning assembly at 9 a.m. sharp, with all the students gathered on the field. Praveen loved seeing everyone neatly lined up in height-order as sorted by the 4 houses. Their House Prefects herded the students in a perfectly straight line. It began with the prayers, followed by the Indian National Anthem, ending with the School Pledge.
The Physical Training teacher screeched several iterations of “Attention” and “Stand-at-ease,” caning the boys with a supple stick of bamboo on the back of their knees if they hesitated. The House Prefects checked if the leather shoes were polished, if the ties and belts were symmetrical, and when needed, pulled out the boys for further beatings. Beating girls was generally avoided, as lifting the skirts’ hemline to beat the calves was considered improper and dishonorable. There were exceptions for “tomboys”, however, who weren’t considered feminine enough to warrant sympathy or modesty.
* * *
History was the first class and the teacher, Shastry Sir, was an old-fashioned old man. Every day, he wore his tweed jacket with black elbow-pads over a crisp white Dhoti wrapped around the legs in exactly 4 creases. He completed the look with knee-high socks and oxfords that made sharp clicks on the floor every time he walked around the room, making Praveen wince.
While rubbing his thumb over his moustache, Shastry Sir often asked random people questions to see if they were following his lecture. If a satisfactory answer was not given, he made students kneel on the floor outside the class, where all who passed by in the hallway could ridicule them. Three bulky boys Ravi, Siddharth, Wasim and a pig-tailed girl, Durga, were the victims today.
Praveen answered Shastry Sir’s question impeccably, but it started to go wrong when Shastry Sir came closer, his shoes clicking under his heels.
“Praveen, what is this?” Shastry Sir asked, yanking away his notebook. “Why are you writing in ball-point pen? Ball-points are for adults. You must always start off with a traditional fountain pen and liquid ink. Writing in cursive letters with the slanted nib of a fountain pen prepares you for a lifetime of good penmanship.”
“Sir, I cannot hold a fountain pen in my fingers without spinning it”, Praveen answered, blushing. “My mother has spoken with the Head-Mistress asking for special permission—”
“Young man, I hate lazy excuses. You simply lack attention and discipline. Your handwriting is inelegant,” he said displaying the book to everyone in class, turning its pages. “I’m disciplining you for your own good. You need to nurture self-control, finesse and class, which prepares you for success in life. Otherwise, when you grow up, you will end up like Cleaner Uncle over there”.
Sir pointed at Cleaner Uncle outside the doors, who squatted on the floor, wiping it with a washcloth. Cleaner Uncle scowled at Shastry Sir, and muttering swear-words, hit the cloth hard on the floor.
Sir turned back to the class, a half-smile on his face.
Praveen didn’t understand what was going on. He turned towards the window and spun his ball-point pen between his fingers to calm his nerves.
Sir grabbed Praveen’s chin and bent over his face. “What’s outside the window? Eyes at me when I’m talking to you. Don’t look away.” Shastry Sir gestured for Parveen to get up and join the other kneelers to await his fate at the end of the class.
* * *
Mr. Subramanya Shastry hated a lot of things. He hated his white dhoti getting soiled on the bus when he sat next to an unbathed construction worker. He hated the increasing addiction to tea and coffee amongst the youth. He hated how boys half-tucked their shirts to mimic their Bollywood heroes after school. He hated how schoolgirls, polished to become far more lady-like than the English Madams in his youth, eventually ended up a common-man’s wife, squatting on the kitchen floor and boiling rice.
He considered himself a tragic hero, fighting an uphill battle in a society that was collapsing around him. It was why history was his favorite subject, and hitting children on the bones of their hands, his favorite mode of discipline.
As the bells rang at the end of the class, Mr. Shastry collected his books and walked up to the kneelers. He gestured the only girl in the group to leave. Then, he turned to the boys and said, “Hold out your hands”.
All the boys held out their hands to receive a stinging slap on the palms with a cane. Mr. Shastry hated the look of boredom in their eyes—the look that said, “Yes, this is standard procedure, you old man. Now hurry up and let us go on with our mischief-making.”
“Oh no, you smart rascals”, he said, “Turn your hands, palms facing down.”
A look of terror came upon the boys. They turned their hands.
Ravi shrieked in pain as his knuckles reddened.
Siddharth jerked his hand and instinctively put it in his mouth, licking his knuckles with his tongue.
Wasim shrieked and squeezed his knuckles as they began to swell.
Mr. Shastry turned to Praveen, to his baby-like fingers. His wrists were thinner than Durga, the pig-tailed girl. Mr. Shastry couldn’t bring himself to hit Parveen.
“Sir, it is not fair,” Ravi protested, “That boy always misses his beatings. And from other teachers too.”
Siddharth nodded vigorously while Wasim still squeezed his rapidly swelling knuckles.
“This boy is so thin and sensitive. If I hit him, he might break his bones and die. Then, his dotting mother and the head-mistress will have me arrested for murder.”
Some of the kids laughed at this. The scrawny kid, however, looked angry with furrowed brows and reddened cheeks.
Mr. Shastry said to Parveen, “Bring a fountain pen tomorrow and Royal Blue ink.”
* * *
At lunch, Mr Shastry observed the kids sit down on the grounds, cross-legged and in circles with friends. They spread lunch-towels on the grass and pulled out metallic tiffin-boxes stacked up in sets, each containing a course of the meal.
He didn’t understand the Scarecrow kid’s reaction. He had expected relief when he spared him, but that only made Praveen angrier. As he made rounds ensuring the kids finished every last morsel of their lunch without frivolities, he searched for the Scarecrow.
The Scarecrow was in the corner behind the ground fence, surrounded by several kids who pointed and laughed at him. He was crying, his body twisting abnormally with arms around his ears.
“Such a sensitive boy! The Boy Who Misses Beatings!” they said.
“Do you know why Shastry Sir did not beat Praveen?” Ravi spoke as though he was beginning a joke.
“Why? Why?” the other kids taunted.
“Because Shastry Sir does not hit girls.”
A roar of laughter followed, with chants of “Praveen is not a boy! Praveen is a girl! Praveen is a girl!”
Mr. Shastry walked over to the group. A deadly silence fell over them. Praveen removed his arms from his ears and held out his hand, palms down.
Mr. Shastry felt the Scarecrow’s piercing gaze in his own spine. He did not have his cane with him. Instead he took out his pen from his tweed jacket.
Ravi laughed. “Sir are you beating him with a small pen?”
A weak uncertain giggle rippled through the group.
Mr. Shastry grabbed the Scarecrow’s hand and inserted the pen between his index and middle fingers. He then wrapped his hand around the fingers and squeezed them with the full force of an adult man.
Praveen squealed, twisting his body in jerks. The color drained from the faces of the other kids. Slapping a cane on the skin was normal; this was crossing a line.
Mr. Shastry said, “I did not discipline Praveen before because I was saving up this special punishment for later. He is not a girl. He is a boy. And he is not sensitive. If anything, he is a bloody rascal.”
The other kids nodded and carefully walked away, leaving them behind.
While the Scarecrow rubbed his fingers vigorously, the look on his face became softer. He muttered, “Thank you Sir.”
“For what?” Mr. Shastry scoffed, and walked away.
* * * * *