The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Life Moments
Hide Your Books
He stares at the pamphlet for so long that the words erupt from its sickly yellow surface and start dancing in front of his eyes. He wills them to go back to their rightful positions so that he can make sense of them and of the pamphlet, which was thrust into his hand at the gate by a sleepy watchman when he arrived at the school in the morning.
Mohsin, who is sitting beside him and similarly engaged in a slow battle to decipher the contents of the page, looks at him with eyes that are beginning to shine as comprehension trickles into his brain.
'Does this really mean no more punishment? Like, ever again? No more corporate punishment?'
Mohsin waves aside the correction with an impatient wave of his hand, his enthusiasm undiminished.
'Do you know what this means? Can you even imagine sitting in Mr. Shantaram's class?'
Mr. Shantaram is the arts and crafts professor to their eighth grade class, a vile children-hating man who is always accompanied by a slender stick which is a foot long. It looks deceptively harmless but is perfectly capable of inflicting deep welts with just a short rap, a punishment that is dispensed by Mr. Shantaram whenever a student forgets to bring the arts and crafts notebook to class. He allows no excuses and is unmoved by tears that already spring to the eyes of the student who is about to be punished.
Everyone in the class has experienced the business end of that stick. Some, like Mohsin, are intimately acquainted with the pain it brings. And then there's him, the short boy with the thick-framed plastic glasses who sits on the front desk and never gets punished because he always, always brings his notebook to class. A fact that Mohsin brings up now with considerable irony in his voice.
'Of course, it will hardly make a difference to you, will it?'
He shrugs, hoping to appear nonchalant. Mohsin persists.
'Look at you! Acting like it's no big deal. You know this will change my life completely, right?'
He doesn't answer but he knows that his friend is right. And judging from the happy gurgle of excitement emanating from the rest of the class behind him, everybody else is also revelling in this directive issued by a suddenly benevolent sounding Ministry of Education.
Over the next few hours, he smiles whenever his classmates smile at him but secretly feels guilty for not sharing in their happiness. All through the morning, the chatter in the class goes on unabated, refusing to be quelled by the toothless threats from the teachers who are painfully aware of the source of the jubilant mood they face.
During the lunch break, things gain traction when someone makes the suggestion, wholeheartedly supported by the rest of the class, that during Mr. Shantaram's class, everyone ought to stand up when the teacher inevitably asked his dreaded question. They ought to stand up, look him in the eye and tell him that the arts and crafts notebook was back at home, even if it was buried in the schoolbag on the desk before them. The whole class defying him and his barbarous ways. Of course, he would know that the class was trying to spite him, but the directive would render him powerless to retaliate. He would have no option but to swallow his pride and let them sit down without using that stick of his. Maybe somebody could muster the courage to tell him that the stick ought to be retired now. Wouldn't that drive old Mr. Shantaram well and truly up the wall?
Good natured laughter swells giddily in the classroom at the prospect of all these, hitherto unthinkable, scenarios unfolding before their eyes. He sits with his lunch box opened but untouched, feeling isolated from the rest of them. He tries to think of what Father would say if he showed him the directive. He would probably laugh at it and crumple it in those big hands of his.
'This won't mean that you can slack off, son. If you do, I will give you a beating that none of those teachers could equal, directive or no directive.'
The imagined words of Father make him flinch in his seat and he fervently prays that no one noticed it. But his classmates are too busy talking about the directive and without meaning to, he starts listening to all their optimistic posturing. Hearing a single note of dissent from the crowd, he hones on its source eagerly. He sees that someone is trying to be a bit more pragmatic than the rest.
'What do you think he will do if he is no longer allowed to punish us? What can all the other teachers do? Does the directive say anything about that?'
There is a scramble as people try to reach for the directive again and try to read beyond the first few lines. Mohsin, sensing the sudden unease the class has been thrown in, takes charge.
'Don't worry, everyone. It is very clearly specified here, under the alternatives. All the teachers can do now is write a note to our parents saying that we misbehaved or whatever. That's all they will do.'
There is a collective sigh of relief from the class and a return to the happiness of a moment ago. Father wouldn't be too happy to receive a note from the teachers, he thinks.
Mohsin sidles into his spot next to him when the bell rings, nudging him to get his attention.
'Listen, when Shantaram walks in now, you have to stand up with the rest of us, okay?'
He looks at Mohsin with a blank expression on his face but with his insides already curdling in horror.
'You were listening to us talk in the break, weren't you? Come on! I know you were.'
He looks at Mohsin and nods his head carefully, already thinking of excuses that he can make.
'Well, just stand up today, okay? I know you have your notebook with you. You never forget to bring it. But it would be amazing if we all stand up. And I mean, all of us. It would not be the same if one person decides to be all righteous and sit down while we stand up and show old Shantaram that he cannot be a tyrant anymore.'
'But what's the point of it anyway? He probably won't ask us to stand today.'
Mohsin snorts in derision.
'I doubt he will learn what the directive actually means until we show him. And we can only do that by standing up to him today. So, will you stand up with the rest of us? You won't be getting punished at all.'
'What if he writes those notes to our parents? You know he is mean enough to do something like that for the entire class.'
'So what? We don't have to show it our parents. My folks couldn't care less about these things. And most parents will know what we did was the right thing if we explain it to them. They will probably laugh at him for being an idiot.'
He looks at Mohsin and knows that there is no possible way in which he could explain his position, that Father would not think that the professor was being an idiot and in fact, would take a note from school very, very seriously indeed. When he sits still without replying, Mohsin gives him a smile and a wink.
When Mr. Shantaram walks in, everyone sits up straight in their seats, an instinctive response to fear that refuses to go away without a fight despite the newfound courage brought by the directive. Everybody notices the stick hanging by the side of its master like an obedient dog. He looks at them with his baleful eyes, his nose quivering.
'Okay. Get out your notebooks. Don't waste my time.'
The usual sounds of bags being zipped open, books being slammed on the desks, pencils being sharpened, are all absent. A silence descends on the classroom that threatens to break if someone so much as breathes. Mr. Shantaram, to his credit, does not evince any interest in their lack of activity. When they continue to sit still, he repeats himself.
'Get out your books.'
Mohsin looks at him out of the corner of his eye, seeking reassurance that he would rise to the occasion when the time comes. He resolutely looks down at his own feet, unsure of what to do.
'I will ask only one more time. Get your books out. Now.'
He feels that his chest is constricted, like someone is choking him slowly. He wishes he fell sick in the morning and didn't have to come to school. He wishes the directive was not issued even if it meant the end of the happiness that the class is currently enjoying. He wishes there was no arts and crafts class today. Running out of things to wish, he goes back to watching his shoes, mindful of the professor's gaze on him. Sitting on the front bench, he feels utterly exposed.
'Okay. Okay. Stand up if you haven't brought your notebook.'
For a while, nothing happens but just when the tension in the room reaches breaking point, Mohsin stands up. Unlike all the times in the past, he doesn't stand with his head down and shoulders hunched in a futile attempt to make himself scarce. No, this time, Mohsin stands and looks at Mr. Shantaram with triumph written all over his face. One by one, everyone in the class begins to follow his lead and stand up. He doesn't dare turn around to see the scene but the amount of noise generated by the scrapping of the chairs tells him that everybody is determined to follow through with the crazy plan. He risks a glance at the teacher and finds a look of confusion on Mr. Shantaram's face, a bewildered expression that gives way to fury right in front of his eyes as he understands what is happening. It is a sight that is at once fascinating and horrific to witness.
Just as he is about to go back to looking at his shoes, those terrible blood-shot eyes swivel around in their sockets to meet his gaze. Inexplicably, the bloodless lips stretch into a smile, a sneer. He sees in them a challenge, daring him to shed the skin of a diligent boy and become one with the delinquent crowd. As the full force of that terrible gaze comes to rest on him, he feels like he has been caught in the middle of a cosmic tug of war between two sides desperate to claim him as their own. As if on cue, Mohsin nudges him again, still seeking the complete rebellion that he had spoken of. A few of his classmates hiss at him from behind.
But he cannot bring himself to look at any of them. He is still transfixed by those eyes and as he looks on in horror, the face around them warps into that of Father's. The expression becomes sterner, the chin heavier, the hair longer. But the eyes remain the same, a madness in them that cannot be placated. He clenches his hands and his eyes shut to rid himself of the vision, his nails burying themselves into the soft palms which have never been hit before in the classroom.
With hands that are suddenly trembling, he reaches for the bag at his feet.
© Ajay Patri January 2015
Ajay Patri is a twenty two year old law student from Bangalore, India. He has been published previously in Spark, The Literary Yard and was a finalist in the DNA - Out of Print Short Fiction Feature 2014. He is also due to be published in Every Day Fiction in January 2015.
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