It’s after 12 and I’m out bunking the last class of the day. History. There’s some Math competition in the school so the double geometry class was canceled. After managing a noisy, chaotic classroom for two consecutive free periods in the morning and a nicely filling lunch, I can’t be expected to sit through Chopra sir’s whining voice droning on about the independence movement. Who knew being a monitor would be so stressful? But hey, it gets me out of class once in a while, so I guess I can’t complain. I’m hanging out near the renovated classrooms on fourth floor. No one comes up here but you have to lie low so the peons on the third floor don’t spot you from the corridor. A bunch of us were supposed to meet up here, but it looks like no one else managed to get out in time.
“Hey, hey, Mithaiwala, what’s up? How’s monitor-giri working out?”
Mithaiwala. Only one chutiya in the whole school calls me that. The rest just call me MM. I like that. I look up and sure as fuck, it’s Vishal, sauntering up the stairs like he owns it. “Abbe, lie low! I don’t want to get caught up here”, I whisper to him. He plops down next to me and grins that crazy, bucktoothed grin of his, “I was in the competition.” He waves a badge at my face, “Free pass, yaar. Why are you up here any way? Chopra’s gonna be mad, you know? You’ll have to dish out some special mithai for him, ha ha ha” I hate his laughter and close as we are, I can smell that noxious garlic stink from his mouth. Does he ever wash his mouth? No wonder, his teeth are all yellow all the time. I peer down the corridor and it’s empty. No sounds from the stairs either. I have my own excuses for staying out, of course. Debate practice. Quiz planning. I have a notebook with my debate speech and a pen as evidence. It’s all good, I’m not worried.
Vishal pulls his knees up and regards me with a questioning look. Always does this, same damned look with his eyebrows knit close, beady little eyes staring at you like a rat. I wait for the inevitable interrogation. Word of our little incident in the 9th X class must have spread, I imagine. Whole school’s like one big rat warren. All of them with their gossiping, little intrigues, and “plan”s. Hate them, all of them. Hate that class. How long before the bell goes off? How long before I can run home? “So”, he starts his prologue, measuring out his words like they’re money. “You have quite a terrible class, you know? Rita really fucked you with this monitoring business. Very tragic, I can’t even begin to think of the pressure it must all be.” He shakes his head like he is sad and all. Gods, I swear this guy is so Bollywood I want to punch him in the throat. “Tragic”, ha! Bet he has a little notebook to write down interesting English words or something.
“Can’t be easy at all”, he continues as if he’s talking about some D-level complicated 20-mark Algebra problem, “Bad enough they reshuffled all of us into different classes in 9th. But…shit, putting the whole Vinu gang and all the rowdies in all the classes in one X class is just…” He shakes his head again sympathetically. Like he’s Shah Rukh Khan. I know what he’s after. Bastard, get to the bloody point. He lets out a long theatrical sigh, “I really feel for you, man. Pata hai, I told Bedade sir that this is all wrong, that it is impossible for one guy to control a class full of gundas. I really fought for you.”
Sure, sure. My hero, here’s your medal, now smile for the cameras and fuck off. Bedade sir told me about this chooth’s meddling. Smirked at me in that military way he has and told me to do my job. That I’m not getting replaced, ever. I have to laugh at this now, “Ya, but after today, I’m not hoping to be monitor for long.” His eyes light up at my response. You could cut his face off now and use it as a great explanation for that “as curious as a cat” simile in the next English period.
“Jai can do a better job of it anyway.”, I shrug, “He’s been doing it every time I bunk and he knows most of those guys well enough to handle them.” Jai’s a good guy, good heart. Loyal to a fault, which makes him a terrible monitor, of course. Never calls his friends out and only goes after people that won’t mess with him later. Terribly unfair, but he does a better job of keeping the noise down than me with my absolutely fair, no-nonsense approach. I look at the time, 30 more minutes for the bell. There’s some commotion from the third floor below us. 7th class kids getting restless, I imagine. I always loved the third floor classrooms. Big and wide, with lots of windows that looked out on the road. I never had a problem getting a window seat. Just sit there and stare out at the road forever, that’s all I wanted to do. That’s all I want to do. The first floor classrooms are horrible. Small, cramped, and the principal’s office and the staff room are right down the corridor. Always noisy with people coming and going and the shouts from PT classes in the ground. No peace, no calm. No trees that swayed at an arm’s length from the window. No regular drone of traffic sounds and bird calls breezing in at your ears. No peace at all.
Vishal pulls me out of my reverie by tapping me on the shoulder. I zoned out on him, it seems, because he looks worried. I seem to do that a lot these days in school. Can’t focus on things that are right in front of me. The other day, I lost myself in my thoughts in Hindi class and forgot what page was being discussed in class. Earned a remark in the calendar and an hour of copying out the whole bloody poem 10 times in my notebook. Plus, I have to recite it out tomorrow in class. Vishal is talking again, “…that’s when Vinu came in and stopped the fight. Are you even listening?” I detect a note of impatience there and have to keep myself from smiling. I just nod and wave at him to carry on. This could be useful.
With a grunt, he carried on, “Any way, what I came to ask you is about what happened today. In class.” What happened, what happened, I’ve been listening to this bullshit for two periods now. Every guy I run into, what happened. “Nothing. Nothing happened”, I lay it out plainly. But he’s not convinced. Nobody is convinced. Because something’s always happening in this school, right? Little ant hive of bustling activity. Everything’s a movie waiting to happen, right? Everything has to be a big drama, has to be discussed and blown up and talked about. I hate this place. 18 more minutes, and I’ll be out of here.
“We had a free Geometry thanks to your stupid competition and…I managed the class. That is all.”
“Oh, that was it. Right, right. You did not go ballistic on Abhay and Sejal at all then. All of that is just lies, is it?”
The bastard’s taunting me. I can hear it in his voice. I can see it in his ratty eyes. Ah, I’m tired and sick. I think I have a fever. There’s no wind up here during school hours. You’d think there would be a wind because of all of the empty space up here, but there isn’t. I guess I’ll have to spell out the truth, bring some much needed clarity on this matter. Gods, I hate talking about this shit.
“I’m the bloody monitor, right? That’s what I’m there for, to manage disturbances in class. Abhay was yelling at Sejal from the last bench and she, on the first bench, yelling back. The rest of the class is howling like a pack of monkeys about this. So yes, I quieted them down. That’s. My. Job.”
I didn’t realise I was yelling until I saw Vishal motioning me to quiet down. Heh, he actually looks a little scared now. Though I wonder what he’s heard. What’s all this fuss about?
“Ya, ya, I’ll be quiet. But…why’s everyone asking me about this? Ran into Raghu last period and he wanted to know what happened. Recess time, the girls and Jaadya and Muthu are after me about what happened. Vik’s not talking to me at all. Why all this tamasha?”
Vishal stares at me blankly, “Baba, how long have you been out?”
I try to remember. Let me see, I stormed out of the class in the middle of Geometry – 2, leaving Jai to tend the class. Recess was right after. Skipped the English and Marathi periods for debate practice. Huh. I’ve been out all day! “I’ve…been out since recess, why?”
Once more, that godawful shake of his head and worse, now he’s staring distantly at the empty corridor. Damned dramebaaz probably imagines the whole of DDLJ in his head while wanking. “So…you really don’t know”, he mutters. I’m obliged to interject with an irritated “WHAT?” now.
“Sejal’s been weepy since you threatened to report her and Abhay to Bedade. What I hear, she started breaking down minutes after you bunked before recess.”
More drama, nice. But Sejal’s always been a little drama queen. She stays in my building, we go to the same Marathi tuition, I should know. Since her tits popped out and she started getting attention. It’s nothing new. I’ve known her since KG and it’s bloody nothing new. I tell him, “It’s nothing new. She’s always been like that. Probably wants some sympathy, that’s all.”
Vishal tries to smirk, but fails horribly. It makes him look like he’s trying to wink at someone. “Mithai man, you’re in deep shit. She’s been telling people you’re a stalker. That you chase after her in the building. Keep bothering her over little things and teasing her with your little group. Blank calls and all. That you’re a two-faced little shit playing the good boy in school and showing your real face outside.”
This is…new. This is, I don’t know what this is. Why would she do this? Rotten little whore that she is, why would anyone believe this? Gods, fuck, fuck, fuck. Bhen…fuck. She ties me a rakhi every year. She’s beautiful and smart. I remember her in last year’s New Year’s party in the building. Her hair in the wind, her dance…she’s a conniving little bitch. Vishal is watching me. I stand up and peek over the low wall of the corridor, at the ground below. I don’t want to see that bastard staring at me. I want…”How long has this been going on?”, I ask.
“Oh, the rumours have been out for a month or so now. That you fancy Sejal. But, this is the kind of proof that confirms it, you know? And…oh man, let me tell you, Vinu and Abhay and the lot, they are not happy. There’s a setting today. After school. Your setting.”
I can feel the colour seep away from my skin. I can feel my blood turn warm, a loss of feeling in my knees. From what I’ve read and seen in the movies, this is what falling in love is like. But I haven’t felt afraid like this, not for a long time. A setting. My setting. What is this? Doesn’t anyone want to know the real deal? I can feel my teeth gnashing against each other, a sullen rage like a hammer on my chest. “That whore has so much cock in her mouth, bhenchod, and you guys believe her over me? Vik, where the fuck is Vik? I want to talk…” I see the smile on Vishal’s face, that awful shake of his head and I don’t have to hear him at all.
“See, we did that scene with Sanjay the other day, remember? Where he was bothering our Saina a lot so we had to…straighten him out a little? For the Vinu gang, this is payback. Vik agrees. We don’t want a big scene happening over…what you said,” Now, he’s smirking. Bastard learns fast, “No scene over some bullshit spat.”
Sanjay is a pervy little runt, goes around proposing to random chicks every month. Hides out in the toilet during the rakhi weeks to avoid being brother-ed. I am a bloody asset, the guy who helps these sorry little duffers out when their little ape brains can’t understand basic math, when the weight of all their muscle squeezes dates and events in history out of their head. I’m the guy passing my impeccably written answer sheets back to them so they can scrape together a 50 in their exams so their dads won’t beat them. I am the good guy, the clean name, I’m a fucking asset! And they’re throwing me out to the jackals like this? No, fuck, no. Never, no.
“Listen, don’t fight it. I mean, it probably won’t be anything bad. They have a lot of bhadaas in their hearts to take out on you, because of, you know, your monitoring and all. Thoda maar khaa le, two or three slaps, a punch or two. And it’ll be done. If you don’t fight back, it’ll be over in a couple of minutes, tops.”
Sage advice from a cowardly little piece of shit that always hangs back from a fight. A gossip machine is all he is, a Narad muni. In the distance, the bell rings. School’s over. I can hear Vishal rising up behind me and walking to the stairs. He says something but I can’t hear him. I can only think about those guys waiting outside, the crowd gathered around them, the eyes…the waiting, watching eyes. Sejal. I can’t get beaten in front of Sejal. Everything has to be a scene here. Blown up, exaggerated, a movie every day. I hate this and I can’t leave. The 7th class is being led out. I can hear the noise of the line going down to the gates, like a river flowing out. A river of whispers. Whole bloody school, with its rivers of whispers. Won’t be long before Vishal drops a word with someone who murmurs to someone else and people start showing up here, persuading me to show up for this farce, this act, this…what do they call it, climax. Yes, climax. I should get out of here. But I can’t. They’re waiting outside. And if I take too long, they’ll wait outside forever. And it’ll be the same thing tomorrow and day after and the whispers piling up. I don’t want to be a part of this any more.
I am at the head of the stairs, looking down. The peons are out, I can hear the swish-swish sounds of their brooms re-distributing the dust in the corridor more evenly. So every part of it is equally dirty. Stairs, ever stood at the top and looked down a straight flight of stairs? Kind of looks like an arrowhead. An arrow pointing at where you ought to be. All you have to do is fall down its length and it will take you where you ought to be. There is a wind at my back now. The after-school wind, we called it. I always thought of it as a wind of nothing, a wind of absence, like the school is making up for its sudden emptiness by breathing out along the corridor. Like it’s pushing all of us who’re still here away. Go outside, it’s saying. Walk out to whatever is waiting outside for you. The school bus, a gang of waiting thugs, Sejal. Walk out. Or fall. I wipe the sweat off my forehead. I turn around, the corridor’s still empty. Where’s the wind? I should get going. It’s only ghosts up here now. I take a step back. The arrow will carry me.