The International Writers Magazine: Life Stories
The Confirmed Bachelor of the Bombay YMCA
Michael Chacko Daniels
Headmaster D’Silva planted gold-rimmed spectacles at the tip of his long nose on a sultry, pre-monsoon day in 1957. His light brown eyes swept our classroom. Ten years fell off me in an instant and I wanted to crawl under my small school desk, once again a little boy in colonial India, encountering for the first time this tall, light-skinned, angular, Goan-Portuguese man’s examining eyes, eyes that seemed to see all the ‘no, no’ things I had done.
“Hearts ablaze!” Zul Musani, our undisputed top scorer in cricket and exams, whispered from his back row throne.
Two words, but Zul’s voice brought me back from the brink of D’Silva-induced misery. I tightened my muscles: I was determined to hold my water this time, come what may.
“All these years, blue ties, now-a-days red,” Zul continued. “That’s my clue for Miss Marple and Nero Wolfe fans.”
Zul Musani loved to wrap clues around clues. His tongue could roll around English, Urdu, Hindi, Farsi, Arabic, Marathi, Latin, and French, as well as take occasional stabs at Konkani, the mother tongue of the Goan Catholic class majority. His famous lips had helped me leap at crucial times across my gaps in understanding Hindi and Math.
Could it be that he was telegraphing that Master D’Silva lacked sharp ears, no matter how sharp his tongue? Therefore: Not to worry.
The Headmaster wasn’t all-perfect, nor all-powerful!
A simple deduction, but my spirits rose, for it unlocked another mystery: Why Master D’Silva was unable to appreciate how Indians read English poetry.
He lacked a hearing device, or refused to use one. QED, I thought.
I imagined Zul and Dad hooting: “The sun set in 1947 on the one and only proper way to carry on.” And a strong point they’d have, wouldn’t they?
As for most of the boys, they were none too happy with the Oxbridge overlay on D’Silva’s Bombay accent, which made it hard to understand him at the best of times, and impossible when he had a cold. Just then, Master D’Silva rose to higher regions; thinned right eyebrow and its companion, an unaltered elephant flapper, accentuated the upward flight.
“Zul-fakir,” he said, “are you expressing agreement or disagreement? Speak up, Musani; show us how English should be spoken. You’re a strapping young fellow with a strong heart, and a pair of powerful bellows that any English village blacksmith would envy.”
As if a Bombay street tamasha—play—was being performed for our entertainment, our heads turned to watch and hear Zul’s response. Would he deflate the starched Headmaster with one of navaratna—nine-jeweled—Raja Birbal’s jokes from the sixteenth-century court of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar, or would he go straight for the heart, like St. Michael in the giant framed print doing sentry duty against evil in the school entryway?
Zul stood up.
“I was saying, Sir, some English say, ‘Indians can’t speak English or read English poetry the proper English way because Indians are vegetarians,’ which we all know is Colonel Blimp hogwash.” Thick, red lips opened and closed in a Persian-pale face with flashes and traces of Semite and Turk, broad eyebrows rose and fell, fingers of right hand pursed and unpursed. “Most Indians are omni—vorous, but after two hundred years of British colonial betterment, most people, in what used to be the world’s richest region under the Mughuls and the Marathas, can’t afford to eat meat in 1956 Anno Domini.”
I wanted to shout out: “Bravissimo, wah, wah!”
D’Silva slid his left foot forward; poised. He leaned from the waist in Zul’s direction. Not a wrinkle showed on his starched China blue shirt and gray cotton suit.
“Om-niv-o-rous, Zul-faker. You see what I mean? You may sit down now, and don’t whisper from the back row. Reputation has it you’re not only the smartest student in the class, you’re the oldest. You have to set the highest of standards.”
Zul nodded, smiled. “Thank you, Sir, for the much-needed correction. And, Sir, if you don’t mind, and if I be permitted to say a few words about my name, it is Zulfiqar, with a ‘q’, not Zul-fakir, nor Zul-faker. It’s a very respected name among Muslims in Bombay and in all of independent India. For us Muslims, it’s very important to get a person’s name right and not to make fun of it, even for the best of reasons. I know your noble teaching purpose is to be a provocateur, to challenge us to reach the highest heights. But as the principal, Father Fernandes, the Elder, says, ‘This is the new India and to make it work, as we all want it to, we must respect each other’s traditions.’”
I half-expected D’Silva’s new red tie to pop out of his buttoned coat like a snake dangling from his Adam’s apple. But a monogrammed gold clip prevented anything from diminishing the gravity of his Goan-Portuguese face.
The class of twenty-nine boys, mostly fourteen-year-olds watched. A pigeon murmured in the eaves; somewhere a crow cawed. Inside the classroom—silence: not a page was turned, not a pencil dropped. My ears prepared for the worst.
Would the Headmaster, who wielded his tongue instead of a cane, send Zul to Father F., the Elder, who’d administer his own occasional medicine: a dose of judicious caning?
Or: would he follow the usual hierarchy of physical punishment in which teachers caned Catholics frequently; Hindus, occasionally; Protestants, almost never; and Muslims, never?
Or: would he make Zul bloom in the doorway on his knees, a universally-applied punishment for infractions?
Declare defeat? Unlikely.
My eyes grew larger, the better to draw Master D’Silva in. Remove his venom.
“Zul never gets caned,” whispered Jerome D’Souza. “Please, God, at least once!”
I recalled Zul telling me: “No rule about not caning Muslims. Just that the Catholic teachers live in mortal fear of Muslim street reprisals, memories and stories of the partition of India ripen in horror in their imaginations.” He had wondered how all this fit in with the words of Father F., the Elder, against stereotyping and treating people differently.
Master D’Silva ignored Zul.
~ ~ ~
“Nota bene,”—Headmaster D’Silva re-ascended with the Latin—“the names in your poetry textbook. Are any Indian?”
His voice—a blade chipping wood. I missed Miss D’Lima’s soft words.
Flipped pages crackled.
Left-handed Gopal Rao—a fellow south Indian, the only boy shorter than me, who occupied the twin desk to my right, conjoined in the footings—covered his notebook with his palm and wrote, Nota bene = Note well.
One smart kid! My buddy. Gopal Rao’s language skills out-ranked mine.
Copying his style, I responded: That much, even I know.
D’Silva’s shoulders and elbows moved forward, easing starched white French cuffs out of his gray jacket.
Gold links glinted, teased, retracted.
In slow motion, eyebrows rose, waited for our attention to catch up.
Light brown eyes passed over me. Returned. Passed.
I felt like a peeled, ripe banana quickly changing color. I wanted to rush out of the class and hide before D’Silva squashed me.
An open book nestled in his palm now, as if he held a hymnal in church.
Was he going to regale us with Oxbridge-educated-and-returned diction? Was he an exception to his rule about Indians’ inability to read English poetry?
Wasn’t he an Indian? Was he about to tie himself up in logical knots?
He did a dervish whirl; unspoken questions dancing in my brain, as perhaps those of my classmates, were spun away with the force of Master D’Silva’s laws of planetary motion. His right arm flared, he chalked the blackboard:
Charge of the Light Brigade
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
A swishing sound as he rubbed chalky fingers vigorously against his left palm. Fine white chalk dust filled the air. He checked his fingers.
A man of infinite care, I thought. And isn’t every movement, an opportunity to educate?
He straightened, unsatisfied. Another round—this time with a cloth duster that he’d brought along with him. He gave the cloth a good shake.
Gopal Rao sneezed.
Zul Musani shot a guerrilla whisper. “The secret of his charge is in the red tie.”
Red-tie secret? What was that? One of Zul’s riddles? Was the always sensible Zul descending into some craze over the changing colors of cravats?
I narrowed my eyes, trying to shrink this elegant teacher—this teacher with the tacked on accent about whom I’d heard so many favorable reports in years past from my older brother—down to a more Bombay-everyday size?
D’Silva’s right foot joined his left, right foot slid back, angular face lowered.
“Raise your hand, Paul.” Zul’s hurried syllables reached me from the back row, as Master D’Silva charged at me from the blackboard.
Startled, I lowered my eyes to my English textbook for a moment of visual readjustment.
When I looked up, D’Silva’s eyes pinned me.
“Miss D’Lima,” he announced, “speaks highly of your reading of poetry and recitation.”
Twenty-nine pairs of lungs vacuumed-up the air in the room.
I couldn’t breathe.
Master D’Silva’s thin mantle of dyed hair fluttered.
My heart missed a beat, then raced as it often did when I tried to outrun Bombay’s double decker buses on my block and when Miss D’Lima swished past our apartment building on her route to the railway station.
Aah, the mass intake of breath! I wasn’t the only one who’d loved to recite our assigned poems in Miss D’Lima’s class.
Memory of her rose scent surged through me. I felt an urge to squeeze the flatulence out of this tall, angular man.
Who was the Headmaster addressing? Did Miss D’Lima actually single someone out for praise? No, no, that wasn’t possible. She’d always encouraged us, but remained studiously neutral in a class where hearts bumped wildly just being in the same room as her.
But, wait a second, didn’t I sense a dose of accusation in the Headmaster’s declaration?
Master D’Silva straightened. “Pao-loose will coach us on how to read Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade.”
I was about to say, “Paulose not Pao-loose, Sir. Paul, as in Paul the Apostle, not pao, the Bombay word for bread,” but he cut me off with:
“Let us see if you merit Miss D’Lima’s confidence in you.”
Bham! That got me in my heart.
I remained glued to my seat.
“Your brother, I recall, won all the school’s elocution competitions.”
Wham! That got me in my gut.
I could feel Gopal Rao’s eyes on me.
I eased into the aisle to the left of my shoebox-sized desk. My textbook went into the palm of my right hand, dwarfing it.
I thought: “I’ll charge into this unexpected battle.”
I looked up. His eyes bored down at me from what appeared to be twice my height.
I felt naked—all exposed thighs and knees, my navy blue, short pants a year too short. I could hear my mother say:
“You are that age you don’t want anything private sticking out of short pants from between your legs. Accidentally only, I mean. It happens, even with short-pants-wearing-Bombay policemen. Some, no knickers. Just like you. When you stand up, you can become a regular laughing stock.
“A wandering crow or a hijra—a eunuch, you understand, Bombay’s full of them—could pluck your privates off. What will you do then? Who will marry you? Not any girl in her right mind. Anything could happen in Bombay, strangers everywhere, not like my childhood Kerala.”
“Into the valley of Death, Paul Pao—lost,” Master D’Silva said.
The book toppled.
“Cannon to the right of them,” he said.
Some laughter around me, not from Rao or Zul, I was certain.
My barely covered rear wiggled at the ceiling as I retrieved the book with Gopal Rao’s help, trying my best not to have anything snake out from the front, as my short pants rode up.
On straightening, my head banged against the desk.
“Aayee,” I cried out.
Maroon school tie, weighted with my school badge, swung around my neck. That artful cowlick over my right eye—a broken wing.
I tried to tidy up.
The brown-paper-covered book flew, a flower-offering at the great man’s feet.
“Cannon to the left of them,” D’Silva said.
Furious, even as I trembled, I began from memory, “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward.”
I could hear my voice, an old man’s, full of tremors. Heartfelt. Rushed.
“Those one-and-a-half leagues are all we need now, Paul Pao-less. As I was saying, ‘No one in India knows how to read English poetry.’ Who’ll go next? Zulfiqar, how about you showing us what you got? Prove me wrong.”
~ ~ ~
“You look like a monkey who ate ginger,” Mummy said in Malayalam, the south Indian language she’d grown up with, when I popped into the steam-filled kitchen ten minutes after school closed at 4 P.M., hungry for something to kill the taste and smell of humiliation.
Zul had tried to pull me aside to talk, but I dodged his long arms and, my heart and eyes ready to burst, I ran on the cobblestone footpath—all the way home, out-pacing lumbering, red double-deckers.
“Now I know what that expression means,” I said in English.
“Come, help me, son,” she continued in Malayalam, took a close look at me and shifted to English. “Wash your hands. Turn chapattis on the frying pan, tell me about the ginger.”
“I’ll turn them, but nothing to tell.”
At the counter top, close to the gas burner, she rolled a chapatti, sari tucked firmly at the waist like a female warrior. “Oh, that tone! I know all too well. I tell you, I feel better when I talk about troubles with someone.”
“Often. When you’re at school becoming a wise man, Mrs. Sequeira visits. We tell each other worries. Feel better afterwards.”
“Last time I told you about how someone was caned, next thing I knew you were in school wearing a silk sari telling the principal, ‘If my Paul needs to be caned, just send us a note and we’ll do the caning, will send you a signed certificate of caning done. If you cane and we cane, that’s double dose. Enough is enough, especially with corp-o-real punishment.’
“You didn’t need to make a laughing stock of me. Nothing to worry in the caning department. They only cane the Catholic boys.”
She shook the chapatti rolling pin at me. “That’s not what Mrs. Sequeira says.”
“Well, sometimes they cane the Hindu boys. But, Gopal Rao, my deskmate, a Hindu, has never been caned. Nor have I, the only Protestant in the class.”
“What was wrong, going to your school?” she inquired. “Good for them to know you have a responsible parent. Sari tells them, ‘I have good Indian values.’ Silk—‘Don’t fool around with me.’ I know your Goan friends’ mothers wear frocks. They have good values, too. But I’m a sari-wearing Indian woman and I’m not going to wear a frock for the first time in my life just to go down and give your school people a piece of my mind.
“If a mother won’t speak up, who will? Your father? That’ll be the day, I tell you. The Messiah will come first. Your daddy, he’ll say to your school people, ‘Here, use my thicker cane. You do the caning; I’ll save my energy for putting rice and dahl on the table.’ Better, I went. So, tell me about ginger.”
I told her.
“Master D’Silva?” she inquired. “Mrs. Sequeira talked about him today. Going to be fifty.”
“Fifty?” As I’d observed D’Silva doing, my eyebrow ascended. Now I knew where my brother acquired that habit. “No one would believe you.”
“Mrs. Sequeira, she says that. Some people don’t show age. Maybe he is such a person. Or maybe, a person who wants to avoid his age and is clever in hiding.”
“So? What’s his age got to do with anything?”
“Fear. Of dying and not having been a householder. A confirmed bachelor, he’s afraid—”
“So what? That’s got nothing to do with me.”
“Afraid his time to find somebody to love him will be over.”
“You don’t know? Mrs. Sequeira does, told me everything.”
“What is there to know? In school, I study, listen to every word the teachers say, even when I don’t want to. Boys are not gossipers. We leave that to girls and you and Mrs. Sequeira.”
“You are being rude. I’m making these chapattis for your tea and dinner and you’re being rude. Mothers must talk to each other, if we don’t, men will make a mess of the world. Look what happened in Korea. Or in India during partition. You think neighbors would be killing neighbors, if the mothers had a chance to talk to each other?”
I held back comments on her logic.
“Sadness makes you rude. You’re a good boy, not like some. Your Master D’Silva—”
“He’s not mine—”
“Is in love.”
“So? A big nothing. He’s in love so he bullies me?”
“Big time romancing going on. Flowers. Chocolates. You’re a good boy. ‘My son, Paul, he’s a good boy,’ I tell Mrs. Sequeira. You don’t see all this love-sickness with Master D’Silva? Good. Keep your mind on studies, cricket, books. Make you wise and strong man. Changed wardrobe. Poor man. All the women talking, talking, not just Mrs. Sequeira. They know and they’re sorry for the poor man. Mrs. Sequeira says, ‘First the red tie, then the gold cuff links, then carrying flowers and chocolates by public transportation all the way from Byculla YMCA where he stays. Home for confirmed bachelors. Lived there for two decades.’
“‘When he dies,’ she says, ‘they’ll put up plaque outside his room: Headmaster D’Silva, a confirmed bachelor, lived here.’
“Now he is in love with a woman half his age. Could be his daughter. Poor man. Mrs. Sequeira says, ‘Wouldn’t happen if his mother were still alive. His mother! She’d give both of them a lashing with her tongue, loud enough for all to hear.’”
I spread homemade tomato jam onto a warm chapatti, my memories of the day receding as I salivated. “All this, his business, you all shouldn’t be gossiping about our teachers.”
Mummy slapped my fingers away. “No eating while working. Very bad habit. Everything about them—our business. We send our sons to their care not to be taught foolish Hollywood-style romancing. Future of India in their hands. What wisdom is there in a fifty-year-old confirmed bachelor chasing a young woman, a teacher in the same school?”
“A teacher? Same school?”
Who could this be? Why hadn’t I heard about it? What did Father F., the Elder, think about it? A headmaster in love with one of the teachers?
“What a public spectacle! ‘Between classes,’ Mrs. Sequeira says. Our business. If not ours, whose? All this modern love-affairing affecting morality of India. Gandhi is turning in grave now. I know, I know—cremated. I mean his spirit will be turning. What are your priests in your school doing? What Mrs. Sequeira says they’re doing, I won’t repeat to you. Not for your ears or years. I tell you about your Master D’Silva only because with his tongue he hurt you. He’s a man with broken heart. Man chasing woman half his age will have broken heart, if not one big heart attack; Mrs. Sequeira’s opinion. How can fifty-year-old man keep up, even with all his tennis practice?”
“Who is this young woman?”
“That I don’t know. Half his age I know. Also have news about your very own Miss D’Lima who got you writing all those poems in that little red notebook you won’t let anyone near.”
“Ouch!” My fingers escaped sizzling on the cast-iron frying pan.
“Careful, now. Your Miss D’Lima — getting married.”
“Is she going to marry a man who’s like a father to her?”
“No, no. She’s going to marry soon a young Anglo-Indian railway engineer. They’ll probably go—foreign, English-speaking country in about a year, maybe Canada. Better Canada, than U. S. of A.”
Now, I could really taste the ginger.
“‘Better not America,’ I told Mrs. Sequeira. ‘He’s one of our dark-skinned Anglo-Indians—from south India. I see Hollywood movies; I know Americans will run away from him when they see him.’
“Same reason your daddy will not go to America—”
I barely listened. Nothing would be smooth this year. “Can I eat?” I raised my voice. “I’m hungry. Your Mrs. Sequeira talks too much. She should mind her own business. Fat lots she knows.”
“Wait and see what happens. Then, you apologize to her in front of me. Sit down properly. Not good to swallow everything like your father. Chew ten times, my mother taught me. Otherwise, stomach will bloat and ache. Eat slowly and your jam and chapattis with plantains will taste like heaven’s own food. And by the time you finish you’ll be all grown up and understand all what I have said. Your daddy is always a different person after he eats slowly. No more wrestling with demons.”
The new electric doorbell screeched into my ears.
~ ~ ~
Right palm against the doorframe, Daddy held himself up. A dead-crow bow tie hung from his unbuttoned collar, sweat beaded and dripped from his black face. The sickly-sweet, rotting-fruit hair dye odor, mixed with souring burnt-tobacco remnants from the day’s three packs of Gold Flakes, filled my nostrils.
I held back a grimace; nothing I said would end his use of India’s best-selling hair dye.
I tried forcing my lips into a welcoming smile and saying: “Good evening, Daddy. It’s hot out there, isn’t it? I just ran all the way from school and helped Mummy in the sweltering kitchen.” But nothing came.
He barreled into the small, crowded drawing room-cum office. “Into silence today, huh? Nine years in that English-language, Goan-Portuguese-Catholic school and no ability to speak. You know what a hole your new text books make in my wallet?”
I told myself: It’s only all that tobacco, gallons of strong tea, and a hurly-burly commute that’s made him rude and out of control. He’ll be this way until he drives the demons out of his belly.
I was able to produce a decent: “Good evening.”
After that, I laid on a scratch to my head, then, stood on one leg. “Second-hand books would’ve been fine. Gopal Rao, who stands second in class, and Zul Musani, who’s first and whose family has all types of money, buy only used books.”
He shook fat fingers at me. “After you almost died of typhoid, your mother won’t let used books into the house. ‘Germs and white ants; if one won’t kill you, the other will,’ she says. My blessed mother, may she live in eternal peace, would say make germs and insects your friends and you can survive all epidemics. The Soviets say the same, today. According to them, you can survive war with germ remedies. In India, we say you must learn to live with germs. Also, the best therapy is urine therapy. One glass a day will make you healthy, wealthy, and wise. One-in-all therapy. No need for doctor-quacks . . . hospitals. No need for new textbooks. No hole in my wallet.”
What else could I say to keep him going? “Making friends with germs? Gopal Rao would like that. He’s a Hindu, wants to become a Jain.”
That brought on a scowl.
“Nothing Hindu or Jain about my mother. She was cent-per-cent Christian and proud of it. She could drive Satan out of the most wicked person. How was that school of yours? You want to go foreign for advanced studies? Canada, Australia, New Zealand? Good Christian, Commonwealth countries? Must put cent-per-cent effort, nothing less. White man expects much, accepts no excuses.”
Better to go back into silent mode, I thought. “Fine,” I said.
“One word answers I get from you about school. All right, I’ll try again. What did you learn today, Paul?”
“What kind of school is that? You think white man will accept ‘not much’ learning from an Indian? Maybe I should pull you out of it and put you in a Hindi-medium school, teach you to live in the new India.”
Mummy came from the kitchen, waving a curved knife like a scimitar. “Master D’Silva is pining for Miss D’Lima,” she said.
His small dark eyes widened. “School for lovers?” His right index finger flogged the air, eyes danced. “I told you we shouldn’t send him to a Catholic-Portuguese-Goan school, it’s a nest for anti-Indian terrorists and free-Goa saboteurs. Best that we take him out.”
“I got to go,” I said, having heard these threats before. “Zul’s going to help me understand some Algebra equations.”
I left a silent thought behind, hoping it’d percolate into them: It isn’t as if admission into English-medium schools is going a-begging in the new India of luminous, English-spouting patriots like Nehru and Krishna Menon. It’s harder to get into them than to get elected to parliament.
~ ~ ~
Zul drew me into his home on the first floor of a white-washed, four-story building on a quiet side street.
I removed my shoes just near the front door.
“Salaam Alaykum,” said his father, seated on a settee, a rosary in his right hand.
“Alaykum salaam,” shot out of me from some forgotten memory.
His pale, broad-browed, bearded face opened into a warm smile. “Come in, come in, Paul, no formalities in our home.”
I was glad he didn’t say “humble home.”
“Thank you, Mr. Musani. Thank you. You are very kind.”
Zul’s eyes pointed to the dining room. “After school, I stopped at my uncle’s to get a record. It’ll clear your mind of Silva-fog.”
“What is it?” I said when we were in the dining room, which glowed with polished old wood.
“A treasure.” Left fist encircled his right index finger. “A poem Thomas Edison, the inventor, recorded on a wax cylinder way back in 1890. Only a few copies in India. Uncle attended Trinity College, Cambridge, Tennyson’s alma mater; Uncle loves English poetry, writes in both Urdu and English.”
Curiosity was killing me, but family history couldn’t be interrupted without sounding impolite. “I didn’t know that your uncle was a poet.”
“Poet and industrialist. This record’s one of his most valued possessions. Bought it in London. Bombay customs squeezed him. Paid a princely sum without squawking. Tennyson is his favorite poet. When I told him what happened in class today, he felt the risk of something happening to the record was well worth the good it could do.”
“After such a build up,” I smiled, “it better be good, Zul.”
In slow motion, he raised right palm until chest high and facing the ceiling, then right thumb touched index finger. He held the mudra for a moment.
He opened the gramophone, searched for a new needle. “Uncle’s instructions: ‘Use a fresh needle each time you play it.’ I have only one new needle. We can only listen to it once. So, sit down, and lend Tennyson your undivided attention.”
“Wait. Wait. Don’t start, yet. Your riddle, about ties, I have the answer. Our Master D’Silva is in love.”
“Aah, Paul, you’re wising up. You’re going to move up from third in the class to first one of these days.”
“The question is: Who is he courting?”
“Paul, the answer’s within your grasp. D’Silva behaved badly. He’s no better than those priests in our school who used to beat the Catholic boys, Satanic fury flushing their faces. Now, for my D’Silva-antidote, let’s listen to Alfred, Lord Tennyson.”
Donning white gloves, fingers avoiding the flat surface, he lowered the record to the turntable, gently. “Close your eyes. You’ll hear it better that way. I’ll turn up the volume, but remember, the original dates back to the last century.”
A tremulous, rushed voice.
No starch and angles.
The little hairs on my hand stood straight up. D’Silva’s hold loosened.
Zul raised the arm of the stylus. “Sounds more like you, Paul, than D’Silva’s slow theatrics. D’Silva’s error is he acquired his teaching skills from colonial models. Begins with no’s, nay’s, won’t do’s. Even when he’s challenging us. Oxbridge hasn’t changed him.”
I took a deep breath, felt the tightness in my gut ease up on me.
I saw again D’Silva’s eyes when he had referred to Miss D’Lima’s praise. That look! Was it pain? Hatred? Jealousy? Envy? Fear? Or all of it?
Had she said fewer words in favor of the good master?
“Zul, I know who our Master D’Silva loves. It just came to me.”
“Hush.” His eyes were closed, eyebrows raised.
I closed my eyes, listened. Shoulders relaxed, lowered.
Tennyson’s sorrowful words inexorably drew me into feeling how sad it would be when Mis D’Lima left us. No matter the rhythms and rhapsodies of love we entertained in our minds within our hope-filled moments, she’d leave just the way Mrs. Sequeira said she would. I felt sorry for our D’Silva. And for myself
Poor, poor man, I thought, building on Mummy’s words. Poor, poor me.
How could I hold to my hatred of this love-starved man for bullying me after Miss D’Lima had praised me to him?
It was as impossible not to love Miss D’Lima as it was to love Master D’Silva.
So I thought at that time.
~ ~ ~
A week later, Master D’Silva said, voice bright and crisp above the thunder, wind, and rain outside, “I’m looking for a few volunteers to help me organize, enumerate, and catalogue all the library books of Standards IX, X, and XI. You have to pass a test to qualify. Those who don’t want to work on the books and those who don’t pass the test can volunteer for activities at the school’s annual fair.
“The test? Write 250 words on who your favorite writer is, and why. Spelling, quality of writing, and penmanship count. But what I’m really looking for are volunteers who love to read, who love books, who love writers.”
Gopal Rao was already writing.
I turned and looked at Zul Musani. He nodded, raised his eyebrows, and sealed his recommendation with a little smile.
I wrote furiously.
Was it a demon or an archangel at my fingertips?
“The winners,” announced Master D’Silva, almost bowing, “are: our front-rowers, Gopal Rao and Paul Paulose. Paul’s little essay proves quality will rise to the top. Trust Miss D’Lima’s judgment.”
His light brown eyes challenged the class.
“Paul’s favorite author is Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Iberian novelist, poet, and playwright—the author of Don Quixote de la Mancha, which is Paul’s favorite book.”
I got a whiff of carbolic soap and talcum, not a trace of rotting hair dye.
His Adam’s apple bobbed.
He whirled back to face us—fully composed, he smiled, bent from the waist, peered at me from above his gold-rimmed glasses, and blew whiffs of Binaca toothpaste, as he said, “The two front-rowers—Rao and Paul—and I are going to have a lot of fun working on our little library. Books are treasures. They’ll stand by you when all else fail. People and nations are built with them. Long after people and nations disappear, books will remain.”
Soon Master D’Silva’s gray would see the light of day, I thought. I’d love for Dad to learn about our headmaster’s dye-free days. I was sure Mummy and her pal, Mrs. Sequeira, would love to hear that Master D’Silva would retain his status as The Confirmed Bachelor of the Byculla YMCA.
As for me, how could it be impossible to love a teacher such as him? A man who loved Don Quixote?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Michael Chacko Daniels is a former community worker and clown who grew up in Bombay, India. His past adventures include five years as a Volunteer In Service To America, four as editor/publisher of the New River Free Press of Grand Rapids, MI, and 16 running the Jobs for Homeless Consortium. During his years at Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living he edited and designed The Architecture of Independence series. He lives and works in San Francisco. His writing has appeared in Apollo's Lyre, Cricket Online Review, Denver Syntax, dragonfire, Eclectica, Grey Sparrow Journal, Hackwriters, Popular Ink, Quicksilver, SHALLA Magazine, and The Battered Suitcase. Writers Workshop, Calcutta, has published four of his books: Split in Two (Poetry, 2004), Anything Out of Place Is Dirt (Novel, 2004), That Damn Romantic Fool (Novel, 2005), and Morning in Santiniketan (Haiku, 2010). Website: http://indiawritingstation.com/
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