The three boys walked down the well-worn path towards their homes. The sun was almost overhead, blazing with an intensity no different from any other day that summer. The heat reached down through the overhead canopy of trees, making them curse. None of them felt like talking with the soaring temperature. One of the three boys felt even less like talking than he had ever had before. Without doubt, it was the worst day of Russel’s life. Or would be when he got home.
They trudged down another twisting trail which surged over rock-encrusted terrain. The village of Telim had been built on a hill. Most of the old quarter still stood up proudly out of the wind-swept grasses, looking down into the crook of the hill where the newer settlements had risen, over a period of only five years. All three of them lived in the Telim Housing Board, a sprawling network of 200 units that had come up to house the labour force for the nearby industrial estate.
At the outskirts of the housing colony, one of the boys broke off with a wave then ran the rest of the way to his house, satchel thumping. Russel Gonsalves didn’t wave back. His face was hard, tensed with anxiety and fear, his mind elsewhere, focusing on a future that heralded more than just mere unpleasantness.
He could see the Ashoka tree – already as tall as he was – standing outside the back of his house. There was no prolonging the inevitable – he was almost home. The shroud of despondency tightened around him, and he gulped as he turned off the path. His friend watched him go, pity in his features. He knew what Russel was feeling and realised his fears were not unfounded. They were justified, he felt, plodding on. Both boys were virtually next-door neighbours, and what were regarded home-secrets were hard to keep in a community so closely knit together.
Russel’s house, like others in adjacent rows, was a small, compact unit, one that looked as though it had been designed for efficient, but not a comfortable, living. The front door opened into a tiny sitting room which doubled at nights as a bedroom. The only other room in the house was the kitchen, which contained a closed-in toilet-cum-bathroom. It was a place Russel knew well: he ate, studied and slept within its four grimy and soot-streaked walls. As he approached it now, he was filled with dread. The door to the kitchen was open.
At the stove, his mother was pouring some ration oil into a frying pan. She heard him come in, and smiled in welcome, eyes reddened by constant rubbing.
As he stared, she began lowering rings of onion, cut fine so that they looked plentiful into the thick peanut oil. “Before you change, I want you to go buy a matchbox.”
Leaning back against the wall, Russel almost gave in to temptation by straightening then stopped. He took a deep breath. “They gave us our Second Unit Test report cards today.”
She lifted a mackerel, its sides slit and packed with masala, by the tail and lowered it onto the pan, taking a step back as the hot oil burst and spat as it enveloped the fish. “And-?”
“I scored 74%.” said Russel quickly, searching her face eagerly for a positive reaction.
“Oh dear!” she said, in mock sorrow. “You just missed a distinction!” With a sponge, she wiped the oily surface of the stove. “Never mind, Russel. The marks you get are important, but you still have time to improve. What counts the most is that you stand first.”
Russel felt as though his breathing had suddenly been cut off. “Mama.” he heard himself say. “I’m sorry – I didn’t come first this time.”
She stopped and looked at him. There was a frown on her face. “You’re not joking with me, Russel?” She saw his face, and sighed heavily. “So who beat you? Venkat?”
He looked at the floor. He felt like crying. “And Joel and Andrew and Sachin.” He said softly.
Her eyes widened, betraying her shock. “You came in fifth in this test? Russel! Fifth!” She turned back to the stove, automatically reaching for the ladle, her face filled with sadness. “I don’t know what to say.” She flipped over a darkened fish. “You’d better go and get that matchbox now.”
Russel quietly slipped out of the kitchen.
There was no fixed time for lunch. They ate usually when Russel’s father got home, and the hour of his arrival varied sharply, depending to a great extent on who he met in the bar, and how much he’d had in his pocket. He came home reeking of alcohol, but nevertheless sober, the reason being their lack of funds.
Until a year ago, his father had been employed at a fishnet factory in the industrial estate. It had been a hard way to make a living, and he often put in extra hours, because the extra rupees meant a few luxuries in a life filled mostly with toil and sweat. His hand had been trapped between the rollers on one such overtime, and his colleagues later claimed weariness had been the reason for the accident. By the time frantic shouts had alerted other personnel to shut off the machinery, his father had fainted, his right limb crushed up to the upper arm. The surgeon took off his arm and he was ‘retired’ from his post with some compensation.
With that money, and the little that trickled in whenever Russel’s mother found work, they were managing to survive. His father had emerged from the post-op ward a different person – silent, hard, embittered. He punished his family with his silence, night after night, day after day, choosing to sit outside on the kitchen step, smoking his beedis. After what seemed an eternity trying in vain to draw him out of his shell, both Russel and his mother gave up their efforts, resigning themselves to the fateful turn their lives had taken. One day, rising out of his crouch, he strode to the HORLICKS jar, took out a note and declared he was going for a drink. And for the past year, his routine remained the same.
They were eating on the single table in their home, the same one Russel studied on in the evenings under the glare of an overhead bulb. His father had returned later than usual, but with a smile that meant somebody else had paid for the alcohol. Before entering, he greeted the couple next door, another sign of high spirits. Russel felt his hopes rise as he cleared the surface of books and pulled the three stools around it in preparation for lunch.
Lunch ended with the man pushing away his plate and licking way the last of the fish from his fingers. “Excellent.” He said, beaming at his wife. “And I thought you’d forgotten how to cook.”
She smiled back at him hesitantly, putting some rice into her mouth.
He turned to Russel, who was drinking his water. “What’s our scholar been up to in school today?”
Russel delicately lowered his glass. Across, his mother, reaching for her glass, had stopped, and was watching him fearfully. Avoiding her eyes, he turned to his father sombrely. “They gave us the report cards today. I came fifth in class.”
About to light a beedi, his father looked up. “Are you drunk?” he asked harshly.
Russel put his head down. “I’m sorry, papa.”
He removed the beedi from his mouth. “You came fifth in the class.” He repeated slowly, studying his son’s face. “What am I supposed to say?” He crushed the beedi ruthlessly, dropping it to the floor in a careless gesture. “What the hell am I supposed to say?”
Russel winced but said nothing. His mother had stopped eating, her eyes lowered as though prior knowledge had made her guilty too.
“All your life, right from the first standard, you’ve been coming first. Always. You never slipped. You never let anyone beat you out of your rightful position. I never made you work the way I had to. I never took away your study-time – why? So you could study hard and do well in class. I never asked more of you than that. And now you are sitting at my table and telling me that four others have scored higher!”
He slammed his good fist on the table, and his wife flinched. “You know what I’ve told you; what I’ve been belting into you since you were so small: inside the classroom or outside it, you either stand first or you stand last – there’s no in-between. You remember that, son? Do you remember me telling you that?”
Russel nodded silently. His father looked up at the ceiling. He was breathing heavily. “I don’t know what to say. You know that a good college education depends on you getting on the merit list. I can’t afford to send you to college with the little we have. I’ve told you that. I’ve explained it all to you and you told me, yes, you understood and you’d study hard because that was the only way you’ll ever escape from this way of life – it’s the only way out. But damn it, will you tell me how the hell you’re going to get into Science if you come fifth in your class!”
He gripped the edge of the table. “The competition out there is cutthroat. You slip up once and you’re out of the race!” He turned to his wife who went pale. “Tomorrow morning you go meet his teacher. Find out why he’s done so badly.” He got up. “And don’t come back until you do.”
The teacher in the white churidar strode briskly into the staff-room. She went to the table and picked up a recent issue of Stardust and shut it again. The elderly peon sitting under the fan looked up. “There’s a parent outside who wants to meet you.”
Preeti made her way to the corridor outside.
Russel’s mother was standing there, looking so lost and frightened that Preeti felt an instant twinge of sympathy for her. “I’m Miss Vikrant. Can I help you?”
The other woman started, clearly nervous. “Oh – Miss Vikrant! Good morning…” she said quickly, her words tumbling out. “I’m so sorry to bother you – I know how much work you have-”
Guiltily, Preeti lowered her arm, dropping the magazine from sight. “You are-?”
Mrs. Gonsalves introduced herself. “I came to talk about Russel’s results in the second unit test.”
The teacher nodded. “Yes, he’s slipped this time. Nothing to be worried about, I’m sure he’ll make up by the first semester.”
“But why, Miss Vikrant?” she said, almost pleading. “What’s the reason that his grades have fallen so badly?”
“Please, Mrs. Gonsalves,” said the teacher, her tone going up in warning. “His performance on the class basis may not have been up to his usual standards, but by his individual performance is excellent. It happens to everyone at some time or the other. A depression or a low in Russel’s life that could have affected his work. He’s a very dedicated student, and he’s trying hard. I’m sure the results of this test are no reflection on his intelligence. Give him some time. I have faith in him.”
Mrs. Gonsalves looked hopeful. “You think so? You think that this bad grade is just a phase he’s passing through? He’ll get over it?”
Preeti frowned. “It’s okay to be concerned, but not distraught, as you seem to be.” She placed a hand on the other’s arm. “There’s an Algebra test next week. Let’s see how Russel fares.”
Mr. Gonsalves didn’t come home for lunch that day, so they had lunch without him.
Later, she washed the dishes, and Russel tidied the table and pushed it back into the corner. She lay down awhile after that, her first rest since rising at dawn that day, then got up and went to the back to wash the clothes. Russel didn’t sleep, which was routine for him, had been made routine a long time ago by a father who said that time spent napping was time wasted in the most criminal manner possible. So he sat down on the table and opened his text to do his homework.
Mr. Gonsalves returned at tea-time, smelling stronger than usual, and less sober than on other days. He sat down at the table, and listened to what his wife had to say while she served tea. “Test?” He said woodenly, looking at his son. “You have an Algebra test next week?” Russel nodded timidly. “So are you going to answer that test?” Russel obliged him with another quick nod.
“Good, good. Are you going to answer that test well? You going to grind all those guys into the dust and show them you’re the best?” Swallowing, Russel nodded. “That’s the spirit, son! That’s the kind of attitude I want to see you have – the kind that will make you number one again.” He gulped down some tea. “I want you to do well. That’s all I’m asking of you. I want you to make me happy. Do you want me to be happy? You’re going to make me happy, aren’t you? That’s why from today till that test is over, there will be no books, comics or playtime for you.”
Russel’s mouth opened in dismay, and his father shot out of his chair and hit him across the face. “Making faces, son?” He hit him again, harder. “Are you making faces at me?” He slapped Russel full across the cheek and the boy fell off his stool biting back the sobs. “I’m trying to help you achieve what you can’t, and you repay me like this?” He looked down at the prone form. “I’m not going to hit you any more. But I want you to do well.” He stared at the boy. “You love your mother, boy? Do you love her?” Russel nodded terrified. “I hope so, boy, because until your test is over, I’m going to go on beating your mother, so that you’ll study for that test. You’ll hear her scream and you’ll beg for more time to study, so that you can be the best.” He towered above him. “You hear that, son? I’m doing it for you, all for you.”
Dinner that night was a quiet affair, a meal so shrouded in silence that every little sound or movement – the gulping down of water, the clink of metal against wood, a nervous cough – seemed to have a meaning of its own.
Russel cleaned up as usual after dinner while his father lit a beedi on the kitchen step. He edged the table back into place and took out his Algebra textbook, aware that his father was watching as he smoked. He opened to a page, checked the number and sat down on a stool under the bulb.
Gonsalves finished his beedi, then rose and shut the door. He went into the other room, where his wife was combing her tresses. Russel’s eyes lifted from his book, afraid of what might happen next.
He heard his mother exclaim, then there was a sharp crack followed by a shriek, quickly cut off.
Russel closed his eyes, his teeth clenched so tightly that pain lanced through his gums. The second retort sounded loud to his heightened senses, terminating again in a choked cry. He gripped his pencil hard, forcing himself to concentrate on the numbers stretched across the page.
Another crack cut through his dream-like state, making him jump, heart pounding. Tears sprang to his eyes making the equations take on a life of their own through the wetness. Images of his mother, bruised and battered, drifted into his mind, and something stabbed inside his chest. Oh mama, he thought helplessly as the first tear splattered the open page, I’m so sorry…
He woke up with a throbbing pain in the back of his neck, and realised why immediately. He had fallen asleep at the table, head tucked sideways into his folded arms. He stood up, groggy, one hand reaching to soothe the ache, and saw that the bulb was still on. He turned it off then looked down grimly at the open text, its pages crumpled where he’d slept over it. The sudden reality of his situation brought him fully awake. He hadn’t accomplished any work last night at all. If his father asked, he’d have to lie. Today was Sunday – he’d have plenty of time to make up for lost time. He’d study hard, he’d study sincerely today, do his work thoroughly – so that he could be number one again. He’d study hard for the rest of the term. Just let the beatings stop.
There were no ‘good mornings’ that day, and Russel watched when his mother appeared, steeling himself for the bruises, which would be on her face and neck. But there were none and it puzzled him for some time. Until he saw her grimace when bending, making the fabric of her dress tighten over her back. Russel didn’t see the belt until much later, when his father tossed it outside the house. It had snapped in two pieces. Russel stared at it and bit his lip.
The Algebra text lay in front of him, open and uninviting for the rest of the day. It seemed that every time he had composed himself sufficiently to tackle a problem, his mind would shift focus, settling on his mother’s tear-streaked face. A face that contorted in agony each time the belt lashed down against the tender skin, one fist clutched over her mouth to silence her cries. And each fresh image was accompanied by a wave of guilt that washed over him as he realised why the pain was being wrought, that he was the culprit. Guilt enough to make him see into the present, looking at and hating the printed numbers that stared up at him, mocking him his inability to concentrate. And as he gazed down at them, willing himself to solve them, the same horrific thoughts would spring back into focus.
Daylight was replaced all too soon by darkness, and Russel was horrified to see that he hadn’t progressed beyond the first chapter. Quickly, he turned some pages ahead. If his father happened to glance over his shoulder, he should find nothing amiss.
Russel managed a chapter after that. But it had been done badly, and he knew that his knowledge of the formulae was still shaky. He closed the book with a sigh. He would try to read later in the night. There was nothing more to be accomplished now.
The days passed by, one after the other. To Russel, coming home each day from school to a silent and gloomy household, it seemed that the time had flown. The atmosphere in the house became almost palpable, and Russel noticed what looked like a large bruise on his mother’s neck one morning. There were tears in her eyes as she prepared the breakfast, and Russel wished that she would say something, anything, but she kept quiet, her silence total, as though she, and the household along with her, had forgotten how to communicate. It only made him feel worse, because he realised that she was suffering in silence because she knew that he would do well in the test – and end the beatings and her misery. It was so unfair, thought Russel that her safety should depend on his performance.
The hours rushed by, and the days clicked past, marked by an occasional cry of pain, and the heavy thud of a blow being dealt. Remorse and pain and horror gnawed at Russel, now almost continually, the pitiful screams invading his mind every time he opened his text. And on Friday night, the one before the test, he looked up from his book, eyes clouded with tears. He knew now that there was no possible way he would pass the next day’s exam. There were no excuses, he realized, and he knew that going to his father now would solve nothing. He took a deep breath. Tomorrow he would do badly for his exam and the beatings would continue and his mother would scream, tormenting him and he would slip from number five still downward. Time, which for the last week, had rocketed past, seemed suddenly to have stopped.
There was only one way out.
Tears streamed down his cheeks as he got up from the stool. It surprised him that he had not hesitated, not spent more time mulling over it. He should have been horrified beyond belief that he could even dream of doing something like this, but he wasn’t. The reason was simple: it was the only way out.
His shaking hand took the can of Baygon from its corner, and he opened the cap slowly. He knew he was doing the unforgivable, that he would go straight to hell, condemned eternally to its raging fires. But for Russel, it had all ceased to matter. He felt only fear, sorrow, but most of all defeat.
The Baygon splashed into the glass of coffee he had poured. He put the glass onto the table, and sat himself down on his stool. He stared at his reflection inside.
As he lifted the glass, a tear broke loose, shattering his reflection.
They buried him on the outskirts of the village, amongst the scattered gravestones. Mrs. Gonsalves had found the body in the morning doubled over the kitchen table. The village doctor had arrived before the policeman, to declare him as dead.
An Inspector arrived in a Police jeep. He had examined the kitchen and found only two things to interest him: the glass of coffee, its residue of Baygon clear by smell alone, and the insecticide can on the floor. Later analysis would reveal only one set of prints: the victim’s. The Inspector had sat down then politely declined, with a small shiver, the cup of proffered coffee, and asked a few questions. A post-mortem would have to be performed, he informed them. Stomach contents would be sent to the Forensic Science Laboratory, Pune. It would be some weeks before the results were out, but unofficially, the Inspector had hinted that the case was clearly one of suicide. The reasons had been plenty: a shattered home, unhappy personal life – suicide must have been a welcome solution.
They stood on the dying grass as the casket was lowered. Dusk had begun to fall, painting the western sky golden-orange. Mrs. Gonsalves looked at the grave, her brown eyes empty of tears and emotion. They waited till everyone else had gone, then Mrs. Gonsalves put her arm around Russel, and they turned away.