It began with a naughty limerick. Something about a llama from Burma and a Shyama with bad karma. Super Malini had almost finished whispering it to Noor Athaiya, her seatmate, when Jadiya Madhav, who’d been eavesdropping, guessed the punchline (‘Wrong way, Mr Dalai Lama!’) and all three chins quivering, exploded with laughter.
Jadiya placed his forehead on the desk and shook. Raghav-sir, the seniormost math teacher at Mount Mary’s, had been writing on the blackboard, but turned, his face livid with irritation.
‘Stand up! Yes, fatty. You. Now, tell us the joke so we can also ha-ha hee-hee.’
Jadiya couldn’t do any such thing of course, so he just stood there, blinking and sweating.
‘So-so-sorry, sir. I’m sorry, sir.’
‘You will be, but first tell us the joke.’
Jadiya Madhav’s darting glances looked for help. There was none.
Raghav-sir played with the chalk. ‘We’re waiting, moron. Or do you want to tell it to the Principal?’
‘The chords...’ Jadiya’s voice trembled as his panicked brain tried to make up a joke. But there was nothing remotely funny about chords. ‘The chords...’
‘The chords of a circle are– are–’
‘What circle?’ Raghav-sir’s voice rose.
‘The chords of a circle are– are–’
‘Are what, moron?’ roared Raghav-sir.
‘The chords of a circle are– are–’
Raghav-sir threw the chalk at him, hitting Jadiya square on the nose. Jadiya burst into tears. Great gasping water-heavy sobs.
Knowing Raghav-sir, blubbering was a sensible, even brilliant, thing to do. Courage is all very well, but history is written by those who hide behind rocks. Go-far Sridhar had already retrieved the chalk for Raghav-sir and scurried back to his desk. The students understood. This was how the game was played. Eat shit and live. Ask for respect and die. Salaam, sir; salaam, madam. Say salaam and obey. Salaam to dear God. Salaam to dear father. Salaam to dear mother. Salaam to elders and ancestors. Salaam to the teachers. Salaam to textbooks, salaam to homeworks, salaam to grades and exams. Salaam to phonies of every stripe.
Still, it’s always painful to watch a fellow prisoner grovel.
‘Sit down.’ Raghav-sir shook his head in disgust. ‘Wear a girl’s uniform tomorrow.’
The class returned to getting a math education. Apparently, there was no getting ahead in life if one didn’t know what happened to common chords when two circles intersected. Class life returned to normal. Almost normal.
The shriek took everyone by surprise. Bindaas Bilkis, who’d been two-thumbing her way through a computer game, lost focus and was laser-blasted by a zombie. Super Malini knocked the pencil box off her desk. Noor Athaiya, who’d been snoozing, eyes open, as still as a crocodile, awoke so suddenly that she cricked her neck. Jadiya stopped sniffling. Go-far stopped sniffing his fingers. An urgent wave of whispers ebbed and flowed around the room as students whipped around, shot inquiring looks at each other, pointed and shrugged. Who the What the Why the Where the Who.
‘Who was that?’ roared Raghav-sir.
‘How dare you! Stand up!’
Raghav-sir backed up against the blackboard, flummoxed. He opened his mouth, but nothing emerged. Veins swelled here and there, barely able to manage the excess blood-flow. Finally, Raghav-sir found his voice.
‘Have you gone mad, boy? Stand up! Immediately!’
The shrieks were all at the same pitch, delivered with the same silence-ripping precision and came from the same source: Eknath. A bespectacled, inoffensive little boy, in need of only a pencil-brush moustache and a stamp collection, to round off his inoffensive existence. He sat ram-rod straight and looked as composed as the Buddha.
Raghav-sir took a step as if to walk towards the boy, but then decided against it.
What if the scoundrel bit? He assayed a sickly smile, as if the shrieks were being issued on his orders. Raghav-sir even turned and resumed writing the proof on the board, but had to stop when the whispers reminded him he had an unresolved situation on his hands.
‘Silence.’ Raghav-sir looked above their heads. ‘Silence, I say.’
‘Have you swallowed something?’
Eknath shook his head.
‘Stand up?’ Raghav-sir’s shirt was soaked in sweat.
Just then, the bell rang. Raghav-sir threw down the chalk and duster, picked up his textbook and fled the room.
Usually, when a class got over, it was as if a bottle full of flies had been smashed. Kids would launch from their seats, turn towards their friends, run for bio-breaks, slip on headphones, contemplate deep thoughts, make cow eyes at their beloveds, check their cell phones, take out game consoles, open comic books, and in general, do all they could to erase the memory of the last thirty minutes.
This time it was different. Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. Pin-drop as in silence. Every pair of eyes in the classroom, even the plastic right eye of Bindaas Bilkis, gazed upon Eknath. Tick tock, tick tock.
He cracked his knuckles. The class erupted. The kids crowded around Eknath, yaar you’re totally mental crazy wow Eknath show me how to shriek did you see Raghav’s face? like he was going to Bilkis don’t hog him you pig Jadiya what was the joke yaar Raghav ka hawa tight ho gaya na but Eknath how did you think of totally freaky Eknath I’ve a party on Saturday can you wow that so rocked rocked rocked.
Mothers are a good thing and fathers are a good thing, so it’s a lucky child who has both. But Eknath was lucky twice over. Not only did he have a loving father and loving mother, they were married to other people, so he had a bonus mother and a bonus father as well. Weekends he spent with his real father and bonus mother and the rest of the week with his real mother and bonus father. His bonus parents gifted him alarm clocks and comic books on Marathi saints and pulled coins from his ear and spycam’d him when he babysat his bonus baby brother and sister. It got pretty complicated, especially during festivals, but everyone said the new arrangements were working out pretty well.
Eknath wondered about that. At breakfast, he often witnessed his mother and bonus father coochie coo over the dosa and chutney, perhaps because they believed he’d lost his sight and hearing. On the weekends, he often witnessed his father and bonus mother coochie coo over the orange juice and omelette, perhaps because they believed he’d thrown himself over the balcony. His bonus mother, generous to a fault, even tried to include him in the festivities: ‘Eknath, tell your naughty father I can’t cook if he won’t let go of my shirt.’
‘She can’t cook, dad.’
When things got too frisky at his father’s house, Eknath fled to Khan-uncle’s apartment two floors down.
‘Oh, it’s Eknath.’ Khan-uncle always seemed to have a book in his hand. ‘We were wondering why the weekend hadn’t arrived.’
It wasn’t what Khan-uncle said, but the way he said it. Class! Style! Grace! His Hindustani was a pleasure to hear. And Fatima Khan was so motherly: roly-poly, cheerful, always humming some tune or busy making sure that Mrs Khan’s Authentic Mughlai Spices Pvt Ltd was running authentically. The family was a sanctuary, the house a home. When Jahanara, their pretty thirteen-year old daughter, relaxed in Mrs. Khan’s comfortable lap, the two joking and whispering in that intimate mother-daughter manner as they watched some Hindi movie or the other, Eknath burned with a longing so intense that his chai would taste lukewarm.
‘Eknath, could you do me a favor?’ Khan-uncle would sometimes say in these moments. ‘Is ‘farsickness’ a word? Would you be so kind as to look it up for me?’
And Eknath would check it out on the net. When Khan-uncle was not working in Delhi University’s library, he was working on his Book. He’d been working on the Book as long as Eknath had known him. Mrs Khan once remarked that Khan-uncle had probably been working on it in his mother’s womb. Khan-uncle described the Book differently at different times: a philosophy of change, a history of religious movements, an encyclopaedia of folly, a geography of the imagination, a study of prophets.
‘A prophet is not someone who leads others, Eknath,’ Khan-uncle had explained. ‘They lead themselves. They trust themselves first and foremost. But it requires a leap of faith. A mortal jump. Salto mortale. All of us have the gift, but alas, so few have the courage. Incidentally, would you be so kind as to see if ‘quakebuttock’ is a word?’
‘Ibrahim, he’s only twelve!’ Mrs Khan would say, smiling in that understanding way she had. ‘Beta, if you let him, he’ll bore you to death. Listen, why don’t you have dinner with us? You like fish curry, don’t you? I’ll ask your father.’
And she would. And Eknath would buzz around in quiet joy setting the plates, handing out the forks, cutting the bread and trying to be helpful without being a nuisance. Khan-uncle always got busy just when dinner was announced, something that always made Mrs Khan sigh dramatically, and then she’d send Jahanara to fetch him. When Khan-uncle finally showed up, there’d be the usual sheepish making up. But nothing gross. Just classy Urdu couplets from Khan-uncle about Saki-this, Saki-that.
‘It’s time we re-upholstered Eknath’s chair,’ Mrs Khan said, pausing to taste the curry. ‘It’s coming apart. How’s the curry, beta? Too hot?’
Eknath’s chair! Why not his home? Why couldn’t the Khans adopt him? Jahanara loved Mrs Khan best, and that was unfair on Khan-uncle. It was obvious Khan-uncle was awfully fond of him. If he was adopted, he could balance it out. Anyway, he didn’t mind if he wasn’t loved. It was enough to be liked. Anything, as long as he could be a part of their home. And he would make himself indispensable. The Khans could definitely use a son in their old age. It really was the perfect solution. Oh, the fun times they would have. The busy weekdays, the long lazy Saturdays filled with movies, friends and laughter, the hours spent discussing heavy topics with Khan-uncle, the family meals, the graceful interactions, and the contentment of knowing the next day and the next and the next would bring yet another day of life worth living.
‘Aunty-ji, will you adopt me?’
Everybody laughed. Even Eknath.
‘I’ll certainly feed you,’ said Mrs Khan, fondly. ‘Look at you, such a skinny mouse.’
But increasingly, Eknath found himself returning home to have dinner with his dad and bonus mother.
‘They’re nice people,’ his dad said, ladling out the brown and sludgy daal makhani, ‘but we have food in this house too. Besides, you’re coming here to spend time with me. Right?’
Eknath said nothing.
‘What will you do now that they’re divorcing?’ asked his bonus mother, smiling.
‘Fatima is returning to Indore with her daughter. She’ll probably have to continue supporting her useless husband.’
Eknath stared at her.
‘What, you didn’t know? You practically live there.’
Eknath said nothing.
‘Oh, he’s furious now. His nose goes all white just like yours, sweetie.’
‘It does not!’ Eknath’s father threw a kishmish at his wife. ‘Take it back!’
‘Not in this lifetime.’
‘Don’t make me.’ Eknath’s father ducked a kishmish.‘Oh, I’ll make you.’
‘So how’s this then? Eh? Eh?’
‘That’s my leg, dad.’ Eknath lowered his head and tried to block out the gasps, winks, flying kishmish and giggles with the foul taste of the daal.
That night, Eknath couldn’t sleep. When he closed his eyes, it was as if everything disappeared: the bed, the room, the very earth itself. He hung suspended amongst the pale cold stars. The terror forced his eyes open. But then it was to return to this room, not his room; to this house, not his house. Eknath sat up, drank some water and then lay down again. His bonus mother was mistaken. There wasn’t a happier couple than the Khans. He checked the time. The clock’s soft blue letters said it was just before midnight. Tomorrow would be Sunday. Then Monday and the drudgery of school. If he had to sit through one more mathematics class... Why was Raghav-sir so cruel? It made no sense. Adults made no sense. They could do anything, and they did. He closed his eyes, but a short while later, reopened them. Was he going crazy? The thought was cheering because crazy people wouldn’t ask that question. Perhaps he was in a mental asylum; after all, if he was, how would he know he wasn’t? Eknath smiled in the dark. There was an odd burning sensation in his chest. Dad always overdid the spices. He drank more water, but the burning sensation didn’t go away. Eknath realized with astonishment that he was crying. He wiped his cheeks, but the tears wouldn’t stop. He got up. Maybe he could go downstairs and watch TV without the sound for a while. But he hesitated. Sometimes his dad and bonus mother watched late-night movies, especially on weekends. They didn’t like to be disturbed. He lay down again. The burning sensation grew worse. He tried to pray but couldn’t find a god to believe in.
He closed his eyes, and once again the world fell away.
‘What am I doing here,’ thought Eknath, as he surveyed the quiet, rain-washed streets lit only by the dull yellow of the street lamps. He could sense the tall arc of his apartment complex behind him. The water was almost ankle-high. He could feel the thin rain begin to wet his face, the back of his hands and even slip into his kurta. There was nobody anywhere. He looked up and saw that there wasn’t a single light in any of the apartments. He started to walk away from the apartment building. When he stopped, the burning sensation increased, so he continued walking, sloshing through the water. He was wrong about there being no children. The streets were thronged with them. How had he not seen it before? There were dozens, huddling in shop entrances, sleeping on raised platforms, squeezed into apartment doorways. The water was rising. If this continued, he’d drown. The thought came as a relief. Yes, it would all be so easy then. To lie down in the water and never wake up. The water would be kind, he could tell. Water inside him and water outside. Perhaps it was time to end their separation. Eknath didn’t see the manhole opening up beneath his feet. He fell. Four, five feet. Perhaps six. He landed on a soft pile of rotting debris, instinctively stretching his arms out to break his fall. When he regained his breath, Eknath lifted his bruised hands, and found they were covered in a gritty slime that clung to his skin like a net. He looked up. A pale circular light was visible. He tried to scream for help.
The shriek stunned him into silence. He tried again.
Then he understood. He was now a sewer rat. So of course he’d shriek. It was his mark, his call. Ah, he could see them now, his family. There they were. Hundreds of them. There were thousands perhaps millions of rats in this sewer. Heads cocked, whiskers twitching, leathery hairless ears shaped in his direction. Their lumpy bodies, beginning at a point and tapering in shriveled whip-like tails, were covered with brown dank fur glistening in the thin light. His tribe. Like him, they must all have been children once. At the mercy of adults. Helpless. Well, not him. Not any longer. He was now a rat, free and strong.
‘I tell myself this,’ he told the sea of red eyes and silenced throats, ‘we who have nothing have nothing to fear.’
‘I tell myself this,’ he told the sea of red eyes and hungry throats, ‘we who have nothing to fear have no need of gods.’
They began to murmur.
‘I tell myself this,’ he told the sea of red eyes and murmuring throats, ‘we who have no gods have each other.’
The murmur became a howl.
‘I tell myself this,’ he told the sea of red eyes and howling throats, ‘we who have each other have everything.’
He raised his hands towards the circular opening. The wave of sound swept him off his feet and surged him towards the light.
‘Salto mortale, Eknath,’ he heard a voice say.
And Eknath jumped.
‘What happened? What happened?’ The kids gathered around Eknath. He had just returned from the Principal’s office.
‘Gave me a note. They want it signed by my parents.’ Eknath showed a piece of paper. ‘I wasn’t really paying attention.’
The kids laughed, high-fiving each other. Dude! We thought you were toast. What’s with the shrieking, yaar? What got into you, Shrieknath? Paagalkuttatis or something? Weren’t you scared?
‘No, not scared. I know their secret now.’ Eknath settled on the teacher’s desk.
‘Adults are organized. You attack one, and a dozen will come to its aid.’
The kids glanced at each other, a little shocked. It?
‘That’s how they get away with crap. So we need to organize too. If we’re organized, then they’ll think twice before messing with us. One for all, all for one.’
But. How. Why. What. Where. But. Eknath held up his hand for silence and pointed at Super Malini.
‘What’s with the shrieking, Eknath?’
‘They treat us like rats, torment us like rats, run experiments on us like rats. All right, we are rats. So we shriek. But we’ll be organized rats. And beware our shriek for all heaven will fall when we shriek together.’
They stared at him in wonder. He sat, arms folded, totally without fear. Bindaas Bilkis fancied she saw a faint nimbus around Eknath’s head. He pointed at Noor Athaiya.
‘Dude, don’t generalize. My mom works insane hours for my sake. I’m not a rat, and she’s not the enemy.’
‘The good ones are the problem. Good apples hide the bad ones. Good ones go bad. I don’t care about the good ones anymore.’
‘Dude, you’re crazy.’
‘Am I, Noor? Have you tested your mother’s goodness?’
‘Dude, I’ve no need to. I know. And here’s a clue. We’re also going to be adults one day.’
‘You are going to be the adult they’ll let you be. Look at them. Do you want to grow up to be Raghav? Did Raghav ever think he’d grow up to be Raghav?’
Eknath’s voice changed, deepened. ‘In times past, there was once a wolf cub found in the wild by dogs. They let it live, and the cub never forgot the merciful act. The wolf cub was weaned by dogs, bitten by dogs, trained by dogs, loved by dogs, led by dogs. Years passed, and one day while chasing a rabbit, he came across a wolf pack. He saw wolves. They saw a dog.’
A soft silence fell over the class.
‘But Eknath-ji,’ said Super Malini, sounding awed. ‘What can we do? We’re just children.’
‘I know what I can do. I can shriek. I can teach you if you want?’
Super Malini made a face and shook her head.
‘That’s okay. Shrieknath shrieks for all rats.’
Noor laughed. ‘Dude, you’ve a screw seriously loose. Who made you god?’
‘Who you calling crazy, bitch?’ Bindaas Bilkis came and stood by Eknath’s side.
‘Yah, it’s not crazy.’ Jadiya Madhav’s eyes were red.
Eknath inclined his head. ‘See, Noor? One for all, all for one. That’s the only god we need. Bilkis, borrow your pen for a second?’
Mrs Krishnan, the morals teacher, entered the room and the students began to scatter. Time to salaam.
Eknath slid off the desk. Without undue hurry, he signed the note in his real father’s name. He tucked the note away and looked up. Bilkis was staring at him with a peculiar expression. The one-eye thing was kinda neat.
‘Thanks.’ He returned the pen.
‘Can you teach me?’ asked Bindaas Bilkis, in a hurried whisper. ‘To shriek?’
‘Sure. It’s really simple.’
‘Saturday, eleven-ish? Meetup at the mall?’
‘Cool. It’s a date then.’
‘Can I come too?’ asked Jadiya.
‘No.’ Bindaas Bilkis shot him a poisonous look. ‘You know what, E, I bet we could make a game.’ She drew a banner with her hands. ‘Call it ‘Shriek: The Prophesy.’ Mutant sewer rats versus Humans. But humans are the vermin. Oh, it’ll be epic. Blood, giblets everywhere and–’
‘Lots of water.’
‘Water? Hmm. I don’t know...Yah okay, like cool sludge and stuff. Really gross stuff. Wait. Idea! Sewers. The fight out will be in an awesome sewer system. But it’ll have manholes to a parallel dimension.’
‘To a world called Hamlin.’
‘Okay... Like Pied Piper of Hamlin? Sure. Maybe the Piper is our prophet. We’ll make it really gritty and dark. Really, really dark. Have you played ‘Deus Ex? ’
No! ‘Thief’? Ohmigod. Oh. My. God. Okay, tell you what–’
‘You’ll need remix,’ said Jadiya. ‘Can’t have a game without music. I know music.’
Bilkis looked at Eknath, who nodded.
‘Allright, but if you suck, you’re out. And you’ll have to make scarce if things get mushy between E and me.’
‘Oh sure, sure,’ said Jadiya, gratefully jiggling all over. ‘Saturday.’
‘Bilkis, go sit down. What is this khusur-pusur going on? Eknath.’
Bilkis shot Mrs Krishnan a poisonous look. She made a token step towards her desk. ‘We’ll go to the Reliance game center at the mall. You got to try ‘Thief’. You’ll die. Just die. Shriek will be like that, except more intense. Epic intense. We’ll–’
Bilkis and Eknath looked at each other.
‘Eek.’ Bindaas Bilkis extended her fist.
‘Eek.’ Eknath matched the knuckle-bump.
Eknath slid into his seat. He’d need an excuse to meet Bilkis on Saturday. He didn’t know anything about computer games. Well, time to learn. Time to plot. Time to go to war. He cleared his throat.
(From the forthcoming anthology Whispers In The Classroom, Voices On The Field. Ed.- Richa Jha. Publisher- Wisdom Tree.)