‘Hash, jump!’ Nikhil’s thrilled voice poked Harshit to take the plunge.
Harshit was standing on the ledge of the window, barely ten inches in width.
‘Come on, fast!’ Nikhil clapped his hands, and looked towards the door of the classroom. ‘Kumar Ma’am will be here any minute. You must jump before that, or I win the bet.’
Harshit stared at the drop from the second floor. Class VII-B window overlooked patches of grass that refused to be tamed, and algae-green slush. Beside it, a row of jumbled dahlias lay bleeding like wounded warriors, uncared for by the underpaid maali of the school. If he didn’t land on his feet at the precise spot, he was sure he would crack his neck.
‘Come on, I can hear Kumar Ma’am’s sandals coming up the staircase,’ Nikhil said urgently. Harshit turned to him with a wicked grin. ‘Tsk tsk, it’s only Kumar Ma’am. She’ll never tell.’
‘How do you know?’
‘She’s a great sport. Been my favourite English teacher for years.’
‘Any teacher in her right mind would grab both of you by the ear and take you straight to the principal’s office!’ Neerja’s anxious face peeped out of the window. She tucked her hair behind her ears, and spoke in a tone only the monitor of a class is permitted. ‘Harshit, stop being silly and jump right back in.’ To tease her, Harshit stuck out his tongue and dangled a leg dangerously over the ledge.
‘HARSHIT VERMA, WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING!’
Mrs Kumar’s startling bellow from behind disconcerted Harshit, and he leapt, without thinking, right over the ledge, into the open blue space, registering Mrs Kumar’s horrified scream, his classmates’ gasps and excited babble – somersaulting once, twice … and landed, very fortunately, on the bed of dead dahlias below, still breathing. Only, his left ankle was bent at an angle that he guessed could only mean one thing.
‘You still alive?’ Nikhil came panting up to him within minutes, followed by a few other panting classmates.
‘You shouldn’t have jumped, you idiot! I was only kidding! The fall could’ve made bone marrow pudding out of you!’
‘I didn’t mean to. Kumar Ma’am’s voice made me jump out of my skin – literally!’ Harshit smiled in spite of the excruciating pain. ‘I’m dead. My ankle’s gone, I think.’
‘Now, Kumar Ma’am will make bone marrow pudding out of both of us,’ Nikhil whispered wryly as Mrs Kumar’s slim figure appeared in the distance with Neerja and two senior students. ‘The whole school will come to know, including Godzilla! There goes our sports day too! The two of us will be kneeling outside Godzilla’s office while the rest of the school watches football. How could you be so dumb, Hash? Can you stand?’
‘No!’ Harshit cried, doubling over.
‘It’s all right. Leave him to me,’ Mrs Kumar said to Nikhil, skirting the grime as she approached the boys. She shook her sandal like a cat’s wet paw, and planted it firmly on the final spot. She stood still for a bit, leisurely stretching her long neck, breathing easy. Then she inched closer to the culprit, scrutinising his ankle. Nikhil swallowed, not wishing to leave Harshit to face the music alone. Mrs Kumar’s brow furrowed over her stern, grey eyes and, after a moment’s hesitation, he decided it was best to scuttle.
Harshit groaned before losing consciousness. When he regained his senses an hour or two later, Mrs Kumar was seated in front of him, her pen doing a graceful ballet on the paper in front of her. She always wrote her comments on the mark sheets with a flourish, whether extolling or condemning a student. Her handwriting, with all the ascendants and descendants, looked like miniature art. Sometimes she left a quote on greatness in the margins – an original one – usually.
Greatness should be one’s only ambition and desire.
Great men are never small, no matter what their height.
Being great is beyond being good, beyond being the best.
His leg was firmly ensconced in a plaster now, and the pain had abated somewhat. She raised her eyes to his pale face, but didn’t say anything. She looked like an awesome, great being sitting on that chair – even more powerful than the principal. He was sure she was thinking of fresh quotes on her favourite subject. There was an aura about her that made hurrying feet instantly decelerate in the school corridors, and loud voices turn quiet. Harshit had noticed that she even cast a hypnotic charm on their teachers. How did one become so magnificent? What was it she often said? Being great is beyond being good, beyond being the best.
‘How do you feel, Harshit?’ she asked, not too unkindly. ‘You gave me a real scare today!’
‘I’m all right, Ma’am,’ he managed to utter. ‘I am sorry.’
‘That was a deliberate jump, wasn’t it?’
Mrs Kumar’s eyes were peering at him like ET’s. Harshit noticed she had relaxed her shoulders, and her pen had stopped prancing on the paper.
He chewed his lower lip for a few seconds. Anything you say might be used against you in court. Time for a court martial!
‘Well,’ Harshit rasped, ‘Nikhil said I couldn’t jump like a commando. It made me furious. Then you came in, and I had no time to think. He would have won the bet.’
Mrs Kumar sighed, looking at the earnest face of the skinny teenager in front of her. ‘You could have died,’ she said. ‘And then …?’
‘I know. I am sorry.’
‘I had pinned my hopes upon you this year for our four hundred metre-relay gold for Blue House.’
‘I know.’ Harshit winced.
‘What will we do now?’ Mrs Kumar sounded almost childlike – like Bagheera talking in Bambi’s voice. Harshit knew that to her a gold medal for Blue House really mattered.
‘Well, there’s Nikhil,’ he ventured, downcast, and feeling even worse than before. ‘He could fill in for me unless – uh – unless you plan to complain against us to Principal Ma’am, and we are ousted from the school before that.’
‘Complain? Why should I complain against my star athlete?’ Mrs Kumar’s was taken aback.
‘You mean … you mean you’re not going to get us expelled?’
‘No, I’m not, though you probably deserve it,’ Mrs Kumar replied after a pause. ‘You were foolish and reckless but … you were also very brave, son.’
‘Do you think I’m brave enough to be a commando, Ma’am?’
‘Of course! Except that commandos don’t jump off second-floor windowsills for no reason.’
Harshit grinned. ‘I’m going to be a commando.’
‘I’m sure you’ll be a great one.’
Mrs Kumar had never thought of taking the boys to the principal’s office. She considered Dr Nair an ignorant fool, who had been handed the reins of the school thanks to nepotism and puppeteering, all her blooming incapacities notwithstanding. ‘Revengeful, arrogant, and corrupt to boot!’ Mrs Kumar muttered to herself. If the word got to her, it would be suicide – for the students would obviously say that Harshit had jumped in fright when he had heard her thunderous voice. The responsibility would flap in the air for a minute, and then find her shoulders to roost upon – precisely the target Dr Nair would be waiting for. And that would proclaim the end of her career. That down-market country bumpkin would crush it with her hammer-like palms. Mrs Kumar had no suicidal tendencies.
‘All right, guys!’ Mrs Kumar’s deep voice rang out in the classroom, gluing all eyes to her face. ‘The teams are running neck-and-neck. Whoever answers this question correctly first, wins. Are you ready?’
‘Yes, Ma’am.’ Eight eager ears bent forward in anticipation.
‘Where are the following lines from? Listen carefully. You have five seconds to answer: At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps…’
‘I know! I know that one!’ Harshit’s bony figure began to tremble with energy, resembling a sleeping car engine suddenly come to life, and he leapt up. Nikhil’s arm tugged at his shirt with some urgency, but Harshit shoved it away.
‘You pressed the buzzer first. Yes, Harshit?’
‘Michael Jackson’s Thriller!’
A Niagara of laughter erupted from the members of Team A, followed by Mrs Kumar’s herself. Her stern eyes had the habit of crinkling up at moments like this.
‘Tryst with Destiny, you moron!’ Neerja spoke up from Team A.
Nikhil kicked his foot, echoing Neerja’s answer, with a purple scowl at his partner. Harshit slid to his chair, a chastened mouse now, trying to hide his face with his palms.
‘Team A wins!’ announced Mrs Kumar. ‘Class X-A, you can celebrate, yoohoo!’ Turning to Harshit, her lips stretched into a delighted smile again. ‘Really, son, that’s the best I ever heard! Our commando team loses today!’
‘Thank you, Ma’am,’ Neerja said warmly, coming up to her. ‘It was really kind of you to take time out for our quiz. I know you’ve become very busy ever since you became the headmistress of the junior wing. But our quizzes are no fun without you.’
‘Anytime, Neerja, anytime.’ A patronising smile appeared on Mrs Kumar’s face. It’s my pleasure too.’
‘Is it true that Nair Ma’am is retiring this year, Ma’am?’
‘Well, yes,’ Mrs Kumar said reflectively. ‘I think Dr Harsh Seth will be taking over soon.’
‘I wish you were still teaching us in senior school though,’ offered Harshit, with some feeling. ‘English classes are no fun without you either.’
Mrs Kumar hugged him affectionately. Once again Harshit was filled with wonder at the lady’s mesmeric power. It was as though her mere presence inspired him to do heroic things.
‘Grow up to be great men, boys! I want to be proud of you one day.’
‘Is greatness so important’ Ma’am?’ The question nagging at him for years was out before he knew it.
Mrs Kumar paused, and then replied, ‘There is nothing else.’
‘It’s about earning your name, your fame.’
‘What’s in a name?’ he gave her a wicked grin.
‘Well,’ she smiled back. ‘It’s the only thing you leave behind.’
April is the cruellest month. And this April certainly was, thought Major Arora, sitting on the cemented sill outside the room, trying to wave away the sorrow that boomeranged into him every few minutes. He studied the plush reception, and children rushing around in their uniforms, squealing and chattering. Fourteen summers echoed from the rooms and familiar corridors.
At the sound of movement his eyes turned towards the door.
‘We are so glad our daughter’s got through, Mrs Kumar.’ The gentleman making his exit shook her hand at the door. ‘You’ve brought about an amazing change in the school ever since you took over as the principal. This school never saw such fantastic results earlier.’
Mrs Kumar smiled, swallowing the compliment.
‘You are very kind,’ she said.
Major Arora caught the same voice – deep and confident, and saw her slim figure appear. There was the familiar sternness in her grey eyes – that used to melt into laughter in an instant. She was a lot more grey now – her hair, and even her pretty face.
‘And, oh, congratulations for the great award! Terrific achievement,’ added the gentleman, still standing at the door.
Mrs Kumar bent low, mumbling her polite thank yous – the humility dissolving into an obsequiousness that seemed out of place in her.
‘All the best, Madam. We’ll meet again soon.’
‘And do remember the water coolers, Mr Singhal,’ Mrs Kumar said lightly. ‘It’s all for the sake of our school, you know. We only have our children’s best interests in mind.’
‘Sure, sure, I understand perfectly. Don’t worry about that, Madam. It’ll be taken care of.’
The gentleman left, and Mrs Kumar acknowledged the new figure who was now standing courteously in front of her. She raised her brow wordlessly.
‘Major Nikhil Arora, Ma’am,’ he said with a polite bow. ‘I’m an ex-student of this school. You used to be our English teacher … about twenty-five years ago.’
‘Oh,’ Mrs Kumar scrutinised him more carefully, showing a semblance of recognition. ‘Nikhil Arora. Your face seems familiar. Of course! Nikhil Arora, the sports champ of Blue House! Come in, come in, Nikhil. I’m sorry. You’re all so grown up now! My secretary mentioned you, but it didn’t strike me then. How have you been?’
‘I’ve been very well, Ma’am, thank you.’ Nikhil took in the well-polished desk and tiled floor. ‘The school has indeed changed a lot. I’ve been hearing a lot of great reports of course, especially after you became the principal. It always makes me proud.’
Mrs Kumar seemed pleased. Her grey eyes glowed. ‘Yes, it’s been a long journey.’
‘The school has been doing very well, I gather. The whole façade has changed – become quite modern. I went for a quick recce before I sat down outside.’
‘Well, yes. Mrs Kumar said benignly. ‘Isn’t that nice? It’s a huge change from the dilapidated rural building you left behind.’
‘Of course. There’s a certain grandeur that wasn’t there in our time.’
‘Yes,’ Mrs Kumar nodded. ‘Some parents have been good patrons. Some former students, who’ve turned out well, have contributed too. Some of them have their own children studying here now. Admission isn’t easy here any longer, you know…’ She broke off with a meaningful stare. After a pause she said, ‘And you? How has life treated you? So you did finally become a commando, eh?’
Nikhil returned her smile with a sorrowful nod. ‘Kumaon regiment, Ma’am. A major, as you can see. It’s been a long road too.’
‘No opulence and grandeur for folks like us. It’s an austere life.’
‘ I guess so,’ she said, wondering about the real aim of his visit. She did not entertain too many distractions at this time in school when there was so much to do. ‘So ... tell me more. What brings you here?’ He paused, preoccupied. After a moment, he continued, ‘I’m sorry I’ve brought you some terrible news, Ma’am.’
Mrs Kumar raised her brow again.
‘Major Harshit Verma, Special Forces, Para 1 regiment, lost his life in the Srinagar encounter with terrorists recently.’
‘Your favourite student, Ma’am, and my best friend. Harshit Verma; remember? He died fighting those bastards!’
Mrs Kumar’s face was as blank as the pale POP wall behind her.
‘Yes,’ she said, looking thoughtful. ‘I believe I heard something mentioned about some former student somewhere recently.’
‘It was all over the papers – local as well as national. You couldn’t have missed it.’
‘I … haven’t had time to look at the newspaper over the last few days.’
‘He died a hero’s death, Ma’am. We were so proud. We held a prayer meeting too, and even sent word to the school – to you. But no representative turned up.’
‘Well, really?’ Mrs Kumar’s grey eyes stared at him through her pince-nez. ‘I can’t say I received the message.’
‘We were hoping the school would do something – dedicate a library to him, offer a scholarship in his name, raise some funds for the family – ’
Mrs Kumar was silent. Her eyes were fixed on the paper weight in front of her. Almost inadvertently, her fingers began to play with it.
‘You do remember Harshit Verma, don’t you? He jumped from the second floor window once. He was our star athlete, really – the true commando – right from those days.’
‘That fat boy with a bulbous nose, right? Yellow House?’
Silence fell, interrupted only by the occasional yell outside.
‘We wanted to pay him a tribute,’ he said quietly. ‘You really have no memory of him?’
There was a knock at the door.
‘Mr and Mrs Gandhi here with their son, Ma’am. They were late with their admissions too, so…’
‘Oh yes, yes, do send them in.’ Mrs Kumar looked at Nikhil again. ‘I’m really sorry for our student, Major Arora. Rest assured we’ll do all we can. Right now I’m afraid I’m a bit tied up. It’s a busy time, you understand … ’
Nikhil’s legs refused to help him stand up, but eventually did. The head seemed reluctant to nod a farewell, but eventually did too. A hot blast of the summer loo whacked his face as he stepped out of the principal’s room. He walked towards the gate, once again engulfed by the echoes of fourteen summers spent on these grounds.
The title of the story may be translated from the Hindi as My Salutes to You, Mother. In this allegorical tale, ‘Ma’ is a reference to the nation.
Divya Dubey is the publisher of Gyaana Books, Delhi. She is the author of Turtle Dove: Six Simple Tales. She occasionally writes short stories, and articles for mainstream newspapers and magazines, and enjoys conducting guest lectures on creative writing and publishing. She was shortlisted for the British Council Young Creative Entrepreneur Award, Publishing, 2010.