The day was bright and sunny, white trails of calming clouds lazy against the blue sky, the glory that most good mornings begin with until you step into the torturing confinements of the ghettos folks are compelled to visit till they become adults – school. Watching the plump faces of the parents just outside, wearing ecstatic smiles and bickering pompous conversations, no doubt about how well their child was doing, makes me wonder if anything could be more ironical.
And so the monotonous day sets into its cogwheel motion.
Lines of students are shepherded into the auditorium like trails of ants marching towards a sugar cube, by the teachers all wearing the same perpetual scowl. And mine being a convent school did not help matters at all. Discipline was drilled into you right from kindergarten. So much so that by the time you reached second grade, if you felt an itch at your buttocks during prayers, before the natural reflex to scratch could take over, one of those scowling faces would appear in your mind’s eye, wagging a warning finger at you. Reluctantly, you endured it and your prayer begged only to lift the gruesome burden.
The routine that day was no different from any other. The first hour was always the most hated – Mathematics.
As the students walked into the class, there was the momentary escapade – the bliss of no teacher watching – and henceforth, the classroom burst into what condescending teachers, peering right over their round, bludgeoning spectacles described as ‘fish-markets’.
And a fish market it was. Probably a lot more with the chatter of conversations, the screeching shouts accompanied by the loud table banging, and even one collar-grappling contest between two red-faced, sweating bullies, no doubt to prove who reigned supreme in class.
Looking back, I doubt if a bunch of monkeys could have done better.
But, of course, such trivialities stopped interesting me ever since the first month of seventh grade – my then current grade – began. Apparently, all because of what our ethics-teacher-cum-counsellor described in a hushed tone one day as ‘puberty’, the baby steps into the real world of adulthood.
Gradually, in the course of the month, just after the last winter break, weird things started happening – scrawny voices cracked into loud, manly ones, hairs sprouted in a lot of places, some of them too embarrassing to be described to even your best friend, and of course, the girls with whom you got into hair-pulling fights without bothering a mind only a year back, suddenly seemed more like the female characters of mid-eighteen century stories in English textbooks – more graceful, more ladylike. Of course, there was the attraction that no one could comprehend initially. But, the girls were definitely no longer the sort whose hair could be pulled, without losing a lot of face in front of everyone.
And sure was I lost in this uncanny euphoria called adolescence, embracing it much faster than most of my mates.
The result – my first crush – Fiona. Weird as it may seem, the feeling actually started tickling the back of my mind after I watched Shrek, despite the seven years of being in the same section with her. Maybe the passion was always there and the movie just ignited it. Maybe it was just another miracle of adolescence. I never could guess the reason correctly. But, of course, it was Fiona, the beautiful princess, not the Ogre.
With love came the inevitable, complimentary obstacles, like the return gifts you got after handing the birthday gift.
Firstly, she was by far the smartest student in class while I was just another average somebody, proud to scrape through exams without cracking many books. Nowhere close to those nerds without any life, always mugging up obscure definitions and unnecessary explanations from text books. Surely, persistence was never the mark of true intelligence, or was it?
But the bigger, the almost unsurpassable obstacle was that she also happened to be the undisputed most-beautiful-girl, voted anonymously by the ministry of boys proud to cross the puberty finish-line earlier than most. And usually, she is damn nice to everyone, which only made the competition even tougher. I wanted to be the one she was nice to, not because she had to, to live up to her impeccable public image, but because deep down in her heart, she really craved to.
But that only made my resolution firmer. I was thoroughly convinced that she definitely was my true love. And if true love demanded persistence, I was game for it.
For the past couple of weeks, every moment of my waking hours and every second of my leisure time was spent mentally rehearsing about how I would approach her for sharing an ice-cream during the lunch break. The meticulous details covered everything – my exact, well-thought dialogues, my hand gestures and even the way I would look at her. The preparation, perhaps, best resembled a masterful, fool-proof computer program – a giant stack of IF – THEN – ELSE algorithms for my reactions determined by her response.
So, no matter how deafening the anarchy of the ‘fish-market’ was, I was lost in polishing my plans for the all-important proposal during the day’s lunch break.
‘Shut up! All of you!’ Mrs. Ruth bellowed from the classroom door. An instantaneous silence overpowered the chaos. Conversations ended midway with mouths half-open. Manically banging fists hit the table’s edge instead, the sting on the knuckles thoroughly swallowed with a sour grimace and a puff of cheeks. Fierce fingers grappling collars became friendly ones merely adjusting their best friend’s neckties.
‘Now, your homework, children.’ Mrs. Ruth said with a motherly warmth as if the person yelling moments back was someone entirely different.
The words shot a shiver of prickle up my spine.
As far as homework goes, I am a defaulter by default – I never do my homework, so the notion of forgetting it is non-existent. What turned my knees to jelly was the fact that I had forgotten my daily ritual, the smarter thing than doing my own – copying a lifeless nerd’s homework.
‘Shit’ I murmured.
Nearby, a couple of the ‘good’ boys – hair oiled and neatly combed, full sleeved shirts perfectly buttoned – held a hand to their gaping mouth, eyes bulged and utterly aghast. Sadly, certain students were still well behind their times – not just in hitting puberty but also getting acquainted with slang, not even in seventh grade.
As the students submitted their homework, Mrs. Ruth’s maliciously smiling eyes went from the student who submitted to counting the towering pile of notebooks on her desk.
She never had to ask who did not submit.
‘Siddhart! Where is your homework?’ Mrs. Ruth shouted, louder than the first time.
The class became a ghastly silence. The silence before the storm.
‘Er’ I mumbled, at a loss for words, the final nail driven into my coffin.
Mrs. Ruth snorted.
‘Since you consider yourself so smart that you don’t see the need to write your homework, please recite the multiplication table of seventeen and you will be shown mercy this time.’
I never understood how teachers morphed into master strippers of students’ public dignity at the blink of an eye. Visualizing what was to come wasn’t difficult – my reputation would cringe, shrivel and wilt like a forgotten autumn leaf. Not that I ever claimed to be academically brilliant, but I was just smart enough to balance my reputation on the thin thread of what was considered respectable amongst my peers then – no one ever gazed at me with pitiful eyes that asked ‘Oh, what will become of this dull boy?’
Unfortunately, Mrs. Ruth had swung the sledge-hammer on the glass-castle of my reputation.
Thing is, multiplications tables weren’t a big deal at all. In fact, I considered them useless mumbo-jumbo, a child’s play, after I learned to multiply double digits. Of course, conventional wisdom expected that an average seventh grader knew multiplication tables. And sure as hell, everyone claimed they remembered it, myself included. Until that moment of truth – eyes all around me turned blank, staring at random objects and feigning unrecognition.
‘The multiplication table of seventeen, Siddhart!’
My lips moved in vain but the machinery of my brain clogged to a halt. Searching the forgotten, vestiges of my memory for the multiplication tables I mugged up in third grade was futile.
‘Oh! It seems Siddhart did not pass his third grade? Did you simply cheat in the final exams then?
A merry chuckle broke out from the first benches, those seated right under her nose. I made a mental note of the most innocent faces with the heartiest laughter – all nominees for the boot licking teacher’s pet of the year award, also anonymously picked by the ministry of boys reaching adolescence before the rest of their counterparts – scores had to be settled with them soon.
My face flushed red, a righteous anger flaring up in me.
How dare she accuse me of cheating?
Instead of begging for apology, I sought refuge in reason. I regretted the words even before they escaped my mouth. Logic, after all, is merely specks of dust thrown at the savage giant of authority.
‘But Mrs. Ruth, I learnt the multiplication table of seventeen in third grade. Surely, I cannot recite what I learnt four years ago.’
Mrs. Ruth started laughing wildly, almost maniacally. The chuckling from the first benches dwindled and died down as if a cat stopping its purring at the roar of a lion. For a brief moment, I wondered if she had really gone crazy.
‘Petty excuses won’t work! Just you see, Siddhart, how lame your excuses are! Volunteers for reciting the multiplication table of seventeen!’
Heads scrambled in fear. Until that one hand went up gradually, like a white cease-fire flag going up in a war zone.
It was then I realized that the phrase about driving the final nail in the coffin is utterly incomplete. What if the person inside was still alive, clawing at the coffin from within while nails were hammered onto it and the mourning well-wishers were, ironically, actually facilitating the act of burying someone alive?
Watching Fiona stand up to answer, that’s what I exactly felt – buried alive in a coffin.
No, she didn’t just recite the multiplication table of seventeen. There was no knotting of a trail of hair or rubbing of the chin to recall a forgotten number. She sang it as if she came out of her mother’s womb singing it.
All those countless hours of meticulous planning were consumed in this mix of tragic agony. True love turned sworn vengeance.
Never before was I so relieved on school getting over.
I needed that aimless wandering, that mindless roaming around the neighborhood. The way some needed music, some needed books, the rare, of the wilder sort, older boys in school then needed a cigarette. I realized much later on that those long walks were what folks called ‘escapism’.
But even with the breezy air caressing my face on a perfect February afternoon, even after having strolled long enough to have my uniform shirt plastered onto my back with sweat, the flashbacks kept coming back – Fiona smiling sweetly, hands clutched behind her back in impossible politeness just after completing the table of seventeen. No, the festering rage, the screaming vengeance did not subside, not even one bit.
Until it caught my eye.
Come to think of it, there was nothing special at all. It was, after all, a tiny nothing – no better words could describe it better. It was purely by a single grain of chance that I happened to glance left while trotting down one of the pavements, sour, grumpy and looking down at my thumping feet.
Sandwiched right between an enormous bakery and a gigantic bookstore, both with gleaming white walls was this scrambled, almost run-down shop. To me, that tiny shop seemed somehow shy of how shabby it was as if cursing fate for its fault of hauling it between the two dandy buildings, like the sad ugly duckling from the kindergarten story.
Glimpsing sideways, I watched the clockmaker inside, working deliriously with a passion so hot that I almost felt it from across the road. An incessant urge gripped me to get a closer view.
I watched for long moments, awestruck, soaking the fervor of the toiling clockmaker. His eyes were feverish with concentration, his brow bathed with sweat. The little shop was a testimony to his workmanship – every hanging clock was a masterpiece with its shiny face, intricate machinery, and almost a musical clicking.
I was lost, utterly lost in awestruck amazement, perhaps as lost as innocent children getting lost in fairy tales when he walked up to me.
‘Yes?’ The clockmaker’s deep, hazel but tired eyes peered at me.
‘I…I just wanted to look.’ I mumbled.
‘One doesn’t look without wanting for oneself. Now, what would a boy’s heart want?’
My eyes were fixed on the specter of the clocks, their ticking a melodious rhythm, their designs fantastic, and unworldly. With each passing moment, I was smitten with wonder, as if under the influence of some magic spell. No effort, whatsoever, could pull me out of it.
‘Here. This is no ordinary watch. With this, time will always be one your side.’
I looked down and saw what he had handed me – a small pocket watch, a body of ordinary brown and plain but precise hands. Nothing spectacular like the ones on his wall.
I frowned as if a terrible day at school was not bad enough and everyone wanted to make a fortune out of my horrible luck.
But my thirteen-year-old self was too used to such sugar coated promises that are always packaged with underlain trickery, especially those coming from wrinkled smiles with only a few tufts of white hair left. No wonder, every old man thought young boys were easy money.
‘What is that supposed to even mean? Sounds all like some weird riddle to me, grandpa.’
‘It means well boy! Goodness, in its most pristine form you can imagine! All my heart’s passion goes into teaching it to learn your heart’s deepest desire and then gift it to you!’
I frowned at the cheesy words. Words too good to be true. The pocket watch was too ordinary, without the slightest hint that it performed miracles the clockmaker just promised.
I glanced up at the clocks on the wall then at the pocket watch. There was perfect, almost impossible synchronization between all of them, without even the difference of a fraction of a second – 2:40 PM, 16th of February.
Perhaps it was because reason left me. Perhaps it was because of the same unexplained magical pull that tugged me to the clockmaker’s shop. I bought it, despite all logic, exhausting my meager pocket money, well before the end of the month, not caring about the chocolates I wouldn’t be able to indulge in.
Strangely, the hate smoldering within me winked out, as I walked back home.
The evening passed quite uneventfully.
There were the usual reminders from my mother ordering me to either study harder or to choose a life of ruin pretty soon. Of course, as usual, the rebukes were mechanical, almost dull. Not that it hurt my self-esteem – after all my intelligence is far more superior stuff than the boring algebra and pointless geometry taught at school. But, then again, doesn’t every academically mediocre student say this?
As if only to kill time till dinner, I glance through the multiplication table of seventeen. It was utterly easy, too simplistic stuff of the third standard. Those numbers stuck to my mind like names of old friends.
Bizarre as it may sound, a thought hit me – How can something insensitive and trivial like an ill-timed multiplication table alter something as deep as my true love? How could I be so impulsive, rash?
Then the image of Fiona’s smiling face curdled my mind.
I got lost in my wanderings, shamelessly forgiving her.
After a sober dinner, I went to sleep, wishing if I only had a second chance.
Waking up to my mother’s shout to hurry up, I got through the morning chores mechanically – brushing my teeth, bathing, gulping a breakfast of porridge and half-boiled eggs.
On my way to school, I glimpsed at my pocket watch.
Anger flared inside me.
Damn that old bastard! The fool tricked me into buying a faulty watch! Damn his grinning teeth!
Sorely hurt, I promised myself justice – flinging the watch right at his face after school.
The gears of daily routine set off in school. Succumbing to this monotonicity, I join the mindlessly trotting queue of students, streaming into the prayer hall. Of course, the usual, scowling faces of the sheepherding teachers passed by.
But despite the routine repetition, something felt terribly out of place.
I closed my eyes and joined hands for the Morning Prayer, but the wrongness still stuck. A temptation to open my eyes thrilled me, but that image of the frowning face, wagging that warning finger came up in my mind. I resisted my urge, saving it for later.
The usual ‘fish-market’ settled in the classroom, but the wrongness only gnawed even more fiercely. But I failed to lay a finger on it, as if the very air had gone stale but I did not know because I could not see it.
‘Shut up! All of you!’ Mrs. Ruth screamed. Instantly, the ‘fish-market’ became a prayer hall.
‘Now, your homework, children.’
Which homework? A shiver of chill jolted my spine.
‘Siddhart! Where is your homework?’ Mrs. Ruth shouted.
I held my silence, not because I did not have anything to say, but because the events of the morning were simply too absurd.
Long moments passed before the absurdity started making sense slowly, very, very slowly.
I guessed the words even before Mrs. Ruth uttered them.
‘Since you consider yourself so smart that you don’t see the need to write your homework, recite the multiplication table of seventeen.’
Grinning, I recited the multiplication table effortlessly. The laughter of the teacher’s pets in the first benches dwindled and then died a scrawny, almost painful death.
The long moments of the aghast silence lasted an eternity. The tiniest bit of detail is still etched into the pristine, secret corners of my memory – Mrs. Ruth’s cheeks red with embarrassment while trying to shy away from my gaze, a proud smirk splitting my face, all eyes turned towards me, bulged shock. Even the window that banged shut with the gusting wind, shattering a pane, but none of those stares as much as flinched.
And of course, that twinkle of a smile from Fiona that curdled my heart and wobbled my knees. Feelings only true love can evoke.
The lunch break was a heavenly dream. The vanilla ice-cream I shared with Fiona was an absolute bliss as we chatted. She laughed graciously at my witty remarks as I suddenly transformed into an expert conversationalist, no doubt all of it fruits from the weeks of rigorous preparation. Occasionally, I caught glimpses of the envious eyes of my competition. But, it only heightened my overflowing satisfaction.
But through all those moments, a desperate curiosity was clawing at me, like insects crawling beneath my skin.
Immediately when school ended, I rushed towards the direction of the clockmaker’s shop, sprinting all the way, without a care for the curses the shouldered pedestrians hurled at me.
I reached the unmistakably shabby shop, panting. My lungs burnt for the lack of air, my shirt was plastered to my back with sweat.
‘Yes?’ The clockmaker said turning towards me from whatever he was working on.
Those deep, hazel eyes bore no recognition.
Shaking, I fumbled out my pocket watch, all my promise for justice suddenly a gaping hollow. I glanced at my pocket watch to the shiny, clicking clocks at his shop. They all read, with the same impossible precision – 2:40 PM, 16th of February.
The clockmaker looked at his clocks, then at me for long moments.
He grinned in satisfaction. I grinned back.
A twenty-three-year-old fantasy addict who sees the world through the eyes of a four-year-old, wishing that magic was alive in the real world as it were in books. Till the day it actually happens, he chooses the harmless company of goblins and dwarves in medieval inns, sipping ale and weaving tales. And of course the occasional hiccup in between laughs.