The headmaster wrote furiously until he had covered a whole sheet.
His pen dipped into the ink pot from time to time and scratched on
the paper. To Sasank the sound was familiar - like Mother's muttering
under her breath when she was annoyed with Father.
When the headmaster had finished
the letter, he pulled the drawer so vigorously that it came out and
thudded onto his lap. Sasank smiled to himself; it must have hurt
the old fellow a good deal. He stood there with the same drooping
face as before, his back to the wall. School was over and the children
had all left.
The headmaster rummaged in the
drawer, found an empty envelope, folded the letter, slipped it in
and sealed the envelope. Presently he looked up at Sasank. His face
was ugly from anger. From the way he was pounding the envelope with
his fist, Sasank knew how much the headmaster longed to spank him.
Poor headmaster! As the son of the top government officer in the
town Sasank often escaped beatings at school, this despite his parents'
exhortations to the headmaster whenever they met: 'Cane him by all
means; don't hesitate to if he's up to any mischief.'
In a high pitched voice the
headmaster called Neelamani, the peon entrusted to shepherd Sasank
to and from the school, as if the fellow was in another country.
Neelamani was behind the door, his baggy khaki pants visible.
'Give this letter to your memsahib,'
the headmaster said. 'Not to anyone else, mind you. And let me know
tomorrow what the memsahib has to tell me. Right?'
Neelamani nodded vigorously
as though he had understood the full import of the headmaster's words. 'Yes
sir. This letter will go only into the memsahib's hands. Do you think
I don't care about my job?'
Pointing at Sasank, the headmaster
said, 'And deposit your illustrious little master with the memsahib.
Now that he knows about the letter he might vanish, and good god,
all the blame would be put on me. Hold him by the hand - right?'
'Yes sir,' Neelamani said enthusiastically.
'Now are you sure you know what
you've got to do?' The headmaster sighed. 'God alone knows who can
'No sir!' Neelamani protested
'No what? Now tell me what you're
On the way home Sasank tried to cajole Neelamani. 'Neeli, I don't
feel like going home so early. Mother must be asleep. Carry on home
if you want to; I'll get there in an hour or so. There's a fair near
the Gadachandi temple which started yesterday. Have you been to it?'
'Little master,' Neelamani said. 'So
many letters are being sent home, but you don't seem to mend your
'What do you mean? What's the
matter with you, old man? Tell me - are you a friend or an enemy?'
'Enemy? My dear little master,
how could you think of me as your enemy? I'm sure you've been up
to some terrible mischief at school. Please, please let me hear about
'Let's drop in at the fair,
Neelamani hesitated. 'Little
master, I've got to go to the market after handing over the letter
to the memsahib. There's nothing at home for the pot to boil.'
Sasank rummaged in his pocket. 'Pinch
something from our house on the sly - I'm sure that's not a big problem
for you. Let's see if the grocery peddlers are around. I've a fifty-paisa
coin and two twenty-five-paisas on me. With that you can manage a
bit of shopping, can't you?'
Sasank and Neelamani headed
towards the Gadachandi temple. No one was selling groceries, only
fancy goods and snacks, and one lone man was surreptitiously selling
toddy from a clay pot.
'Neeli, how about a drop or
two?' Sasank asked.
'No, my little master.' Neelamani
His mild remonstration gave
Sasank some hope. He knew he could make Neelamani do what he wanted,
'Come, come,' Sasank said. 'Just
a small glass!' He pulled Neelamani towards the liquor seller. 'No
one will know.'
'I'll be fired, little master,'
Neelamani protested again.
'Come, come, why are you such
a joker?' Sasank faked a laugh.
'I'm doomed if the headmaster
learns about this; doomed too if the memsahib finds out!'
'That's only if anyone is the
wiser! Let's see what that baldie chappal-thief of a headmaster has
written in the letter. Give it to me, I won't eat it.' Sasank dipped
his index finger into Neelamani's tumbler and tasted the drink. 'Tastes
good. You want another small glass?'
Neelamani smiled watching Sasank piss on the roadside and smear
the wet mud on his forehead. 'You know, little master, you don't
have a knack for stealing. You'll do well to keep away from it.'
'Shut up!' Sasank bellowed.
'It's an art. Not everyone has
it in him.' Neelamani laughed and took a crooked cigarette from his
'You've gone and pinched Father's
'But who taught me that art?'
Neelamani croaked. 'The day the sahib gets wind of it I'll be fired.
Sasank kept quiet.
Lighting the cigarette, Neelamani
continued, 'As I said - it's an art. Do you know how I filch washing
powder from your house?' He broke into a broad grin. 'I pour a good
quantity of powder into a paper funnel and rush into the bathroom;
half I put into the bucket for your clothes, and the other half I
roll into a bundle and tuck it into my dhoti. Then, after pottering
about for a while, I rush into my quarters on the pretext of finding
out what my poor wife is up to. My day's made when I pour the powder
into the sari-ends of Chima's mother. You know, little master, my
Chima wets his bed and floods the thin mattress every night. And
his clothes stink if washed only in water. Little master, I've bared
my soul to you, don't go and tell the memsahib! You tell her and
I'm doomed! My family would be your responsibility then. Tell me,
do I steal washing powder just for fun?'
'Chima's quite a roly-poly lad,
I say,' Sasank said. 'Just like a tomato, eh?'
'Heh, heh. A tomato!'
'Neeli, why, aren't you already
a little unsteady?'
'Not at all, little master.
My legs are quite steady!'
'That Chima boy is still sucking
at his mother's breasts?'
'He's not even seven months
old, sir! Let him have all the mother's milk he can get for two more
As they walked along, Neelamani
gave a sudden start.
'Little master, we're almost
home. Go ahead, I'll follow you. If memsahib sniffs the booze, I'll
be doomed.' He crouched down by the roadside to pee.
'Go ahead, I say,' Neelamani
entreated. 'Little master, my dear little master, walk on ahead.
I promise I won't give the memsahib the letter. Is that alright with
Sasank toyed with the idea that
after reaching home he'd sneak into Neelamani's quarters and tell
his wife that something had fallen into his eye and could she please
bare her breast and squirt some milk into it. Nothing like human
milk for cleansing the eye!
Sasank's mother was very worried and was pacing up and down the
'Why are you so late?' she asked,
when she saw Sasank. 'All the other children came home ages ago.
I was wondering whether my illustrious one had forgotten his way
and forayed into some tribal village sucking his mean little thumb.'
'Fine! Keep reminding me about
it, when I've almost given it up!'
'Come in and see who's turned
'Come inside and see.'
'Ma,' Sasank said. 'One thing,
'Come on, tell me.' She looked
at him closely.
'Well, no, nothing.'
'I hope you haven't sullied
your name at school!' His mother's voice was suddenly filled with
'Why should I sully my name?'
'If you've any good sense, you'll
tell me rightaway what mischief you've been up to. Come on
now, confess. Oh, I wish I were dead. I'm tired of your doings!'
'Honestly, Ma, I haven't done
a thing.' Sasank hugged her. 'Believe me - see, I swear by my eyes.'
'A curse on my fate. How I wish
I were dead!' she muttered, as she walked away to the kitchen.
Grandfather, Sasank's mother's father, was taking a walk in the
garden between the flowerbeds. He was visibly happy to see Sasank. 'Hello
smartie, how're you?' he asked cheerily.
'Grandpa, why didn't you bring
The old man smiled, revealing
his toothless gums. 'Why should I? What if somebody stole her! There're
thieves around, I'm told.'
Sasank could sense that his
mother and grandfather had been discussing his deeds. Unfazed, he
said, 'Come, I'll show you the local market.'
'Forget the market, show me
the temple. I'm told you've an important shrine here.'
'I've just come from the temple.
Let's go to the market. There's a shop where you can get very good
'Where will we get money
to buy dosas, my dear?'
'I have some.'
'How much? Where did you get
Just then Mother came out from
the kitchen. 'Sasank, tonight Grandpa will sleep in your room.'
'That's all right,' Sasank said,
and then turned to the old man. 'Tell me, Grandpa. What do you know
better - ghost stories or detective stories? You'll have to tell
me one at bedtime.'
They crossed the garden and
reached the gate.
'Grandpa, take a good look at
the rose bush on your left.'
Casting a glance at the plant,
Grandpa asked, 'Why?'
'There's a secret about it!'
'What's the secret?'
'Tell you later. Don't forget
to remind me about it in five or ten minutes.'
'Take note of this tree too,'
Sasank said, pointing at the sprawling banyan tree spreading its
canopy over the compound wall. 'Its trunk is hollow. No one knows
about it. Can you guess what's inside?'
'Wrong. Guess again'
'No. Something else. Wait, I'll
ask you a riddle first. Try to give me the right answer. Here it
is: name the one thing people all over the world die for.'
'Wrong. I'll give you another
chance. Think hard before you answer. I can give you a clue. The
thing can be either metal or paper.'
'Let me think about it; meanwhile
you answer my question. If one egg takes five minutes to boil, how
many hours will seven hundred and eighty nine eggs take?'
'What kind of a riddle is that!'
Sasank grunted. 'Wait, I'll do some quick mental arithmetic. Just
Grandfather laughed and took
a snuff box from his vest pocket. A crumpled two-rupee note fell
out with it.
'Grandpa, tonight you'll sleep
in my room, won't you?'
When Grandfather said he would rather go home alone after the evening
prayers at the temple, Sasank returned to find his mother sitting
on his bed weeping. His elder sister -- back from her dance-school - held
her hand, trying to console her.
Before Sasank could retrace
his steps and escape, his sister spotted him and shouted, 'Here he
comes! Here comes the moon of the family!'
Mother continued to weep. Amid
sobs, she lamented, 'Why am I not dead? What an illustrious son I
carried in my womb! What sin did I commit in my last life to deserve
His sister grasped Sasank's
hands pulling him closer. 'Ma, go ahead and break the hands that
steal! That'll cure him.'
Wiping her nose and eyes with
the end of her sari, Mother looked at Sasank in anger. 'Not even
a week has passed, and you've done it again. You swore by touching
me. How I wish I were dead!'
'That headmaster's a swine!'
Sasank muttered, freeing himself from his sister's grip. 'Am I to
blame for whatever happens at school? I'm accused of everything!'
Running her hand on his head,
his sister piped up sarcastically: 'Yes, indeed! There's lot of glue
here. No wonder the accusations stick!'
'Is it written in the book you've
stolen that stealing is wonderful?' his mother asked. 'You know,
Gautam Buddha never ever stole anything in any of his avatars? Do
you know that?'
'I do,' mumbled Sasank.
'You do?' Mother's voice
choked. 'Then why do you steal? I can't understand
you. Just pick up a kitchen knife and cut me into pieces, and
then go and steal to your heart's content!'
That night, when Sasank and his sister were having dinner, Father
came back from the office. Noticing his wife's sombre face, he asked, 'What's
'Have your dinner first,' she
said. 'Afterwards you can hear about the great deeds of your illustrious
'Go have a wash. Don't wait
for my father; he hasn't got back from the temple yet.'
'I went to the market to look
for some hilsa fish for your father, but didn't find any.'
'It's good you didn't. It's
Sasank hurried through his dinner
and tried to get up quickly.
'Why are you wolfing down your
food instead of chewing it?' Father said. 'Don't you know man can't
chew his cud like cattle can. See how nicely your sister's eating!'
'Sasank, rinse out your mouth
and come and sit here,' Mother said. 'Let's discuss the matter in
your father's presence.'
'What's happened?' Father asked,
as he took off his shirt. 'Out with it.'
'The headmaster has sent another
letter,' Sasank's sister chipped in.
'Shut up,' Mother snapped at
her. 'If you've finished eating, then get up and go to your room.'
'Has the little fellow been
up to some mischief again?' And before he could get an answer from
his wife, he pulled Sasank by his ears and hollered, 'Spill it out,
boy, before I tear off your ears.'
'I haven't done a thing,' protested
Father gave him a stinging slap. 'You
Sasank was taken aback. Father
hadn't struck him for a long time. He started to sob.
'This boy's heading for jail!'
Father despaired. 'A watermelon today, a pumpkin tomorrow, and then
maybe something big the day after! Tell me, what have you stolen
from the school this time?'
'A book,' whispered Sasank.
' The Jataka Tales .'
'Only one book?'
'A whole pile.'
'A whole pile!' Father broke
into a chuckle.
Sasank couldn't help but smile.
Father always liked people who laughed along with him. He often
guffawed, and, when he was alone, Sasank mimicked Father's boisterous
Another slap and Sasank's head
'How many books all told?'
'I haven't counted,' replied
Sasank. A string of snot ran down his nose. He struggled to sniff
it back up.
'See, see, the little sahib
doesn't even bother to count!' Father suddenly began to speak with
a theatrical flourish, as if addressing an invisible audience. 'Did
you steal the key or break open the almirah?'
'Then how did you remove the
'I slipped my hand between the
'But why did you steal them?'
'To read them.'
'You could've asked the headmaster.'
'The headmaster has said the
library books won't be lent out.'
'And so you stole!'
'I would've put them back.'
'You enjoy stealing, don't you?'
'You hate it?'
'Then why do you steal?' Father
gave him a hard kick on his behind. Sasank keeled forward, his face
barely missing the plates. He burst out crying.
'Leave him alone,' Mother intervened. 'Don't
trouble yourself anymore. Go have a wash.'
'Find out the price of the books
from the headmaster and send him the money first thing tomorrow morning,'
Father said. 'God, this thief will clean out my house!'
Grandfather returned home just
then. 'Who's going to clean out your house?'
Sasank's mother carried him to his room. 'Come, my dear,' she said
with a hug. 'Let me tell you something.'
Sasank wriggled out of her grasp. 'Keep
your fake love to yourself. Aren't you the one who got me a beating?'
'Why did you get the beating
-- don't you ever think about, ever wonder about, these things?
'That's because you got Father
'I? How did I do that?'
'You mentioned the headmaster's
'But why did the headmaster
send the letter in the first place?'
'It's all because I needed to
read some good story books.'
'Don't sidetrack the issue!
The headmaster complained about my darling because he stole the books.'
She patted his cheek.
'That baldie chappal-thief has
made up stories to malign me.'
'But that's because you gave
him a chance to do that.'
'He makes a mountain out of
a mole hill!'
'Is stealing something nice?'
'What happens to you when you
'And for the parents?'
'People will gossip that so
and so officer's son is a thief; beware of him, don't ever let him
into your house.'
'They'll say that.'
'And what else?'
'They'll wonder how his parents
can stand him!'
'And how will we feel?'
'And what else?'
'You'll hang your heads in shame.'
Sasank had all the answers.
Whenever the catechism began he felt his home was school and his
mother, a teacher. He cheered up a little because Mother looked happy
with his answers.
His sister hung back to listen. 'Ma,
ask him where thieves go when they grow up.'
Without waiting for Mother to
repeat the question, Sasank took off with a perverse flourish: 'They
go to jail, hand-cuffed; their limbs are broken by the police; they're
made to do hard labour; they weave carpets; their teeth break from
eating rice mixed with stones; and when they're released, everybody
'You can rattle off all that
in one breath, can't you?'
Sasank made a face at his sister. 'Drop
'You're a thief, you'd better
drop dead,' retorted his sister. 'Mother and Father will then heave
a sigh of relief.'
'You don't have to worry your
head about your parents!' Mother snarled at her daughter, as she
made Sasank's bed.
Father and Grandfather sat down to dinner and Mother served them.
Sasank rolled in the bed, from end to end, and tried to count how
many times Father had thrashed him. He seldom spanked, but when he
did, he did a good job; and that's why his beatings hurt more. Mother's
routine slaps had become a joke.
Sasank tried to eavesdrop.
'Let him go with Father to the
village and study there,' Mother said. 'Not only will he have to
pay more attention to his studies, maybe he will stop stealing.'
'Thrash him from time to time
and he'll be all right,' said Father
'God knows my hands are sore
from beating him.' Mother sighed. 'It doesn't have any effect on
'The trouble is one minute you
blow hot and the next you blow cold. I'm not surprised he's hardened.
If you want to thrash him, do it so that he takes to his bed for
two or three days. Don't give him a look of pity. Only then will
you know what a good beating can do! But with you it's a gentle slap
now and five minutes later all syrupy fussing!'
'I can't be so heartless and
'If you can't handle him, don't
talk about it.'
Mother appealed to Grandfather. 'Did
you hear! That's his way -- I'm to blame for everything!'
Grandfather had finished his
meal. 'Let Sasank come with me. He'll soon mend his ways in the village.'
'But he's still a child!' Father
said. 'He can't manage in the village.'
'He's already almost ten years
old!' Grandfather said curtly.
Sasank beat his head against
'Our village school is good
enough,' Grandfather continued. 'Every year more than half a dozen
of our students write the scholarship exams.'
'Forget the scholarship,' Mother
said. 'Let him only give up stealing. That'll be more than enough.
Did I tell you what the little devil did last gamhapurnima?'
Father, who had got up to wash
his hands, stopped in his tracks. 'What did he do? You never told
me! If nothing is brought to my notice, what cure can I prescribe?
The treatment has to be timely!'
Sasank felt breathless. His
mouth dried up. Oh God, he groaned. Let Mother not come out with that !
Anything but that! May words fail her. May a wasp sting her!
On the morning of gamhapurnima the postmistress came and invited
me for lunch,' Mother began.
'Oh, you've a postmistress here,
do you?' Grandfather remarked.
'No, no. The postmaster is such
a quiet mouse that his virago of a wife calls the shots; so everyone
around here refers to her as the postmistress. Gamhapurnima is a
big festival for them. I'd failed to turn up at her house last year
and for months she'd put on a long face. So this time I thought I'd
make up with her. Around eleven in the morning, after sending Neelamani
with two seers of sweets and a basket of fruit, as I was getting
ready to leave for their place, our illustrious son materialized
out of nowhere. For quite some time I'd been scared to take him along
with me to anyone's house. Who knew he wouldn't lift something there?
So I told him -- darling boy, you'd better stay home, I'll be back
in half an hour. But he was determined to accompany me. Helpless,
I made him swear he wouldn't touch a thing at the postmistress's house.'
Sasank recalled the incident.
For one thing, he hadn't really touched Mother when he'd given
his word, but only the end of her sari; for another, after saying
aloud, `Ma, I won't touch anything at the postmistress's house',
he had added in silence without pausing for breath, `Heck, I'm not
swearing anything'. So that day Sasank was as free from scruples
as Mother was from worries.
Mother went on with her account;
Father and Grandfather made comments now and then. In the next room,
his sister turned on the radio and listened to songs, perhaps jotting
them down. She and Pranab, an older boy at school, periodically exchanged
their song books. Smothered by Pranab's steady supply of chocolates,
Sasank had not tattled to Mother about it.
Sasank plugged his ears with
his fingers. A little later, he took them out, and then shoved them
right back in again. Mother's voice sounded like the muffled roar
of a distant ocean. He felt numb.
Unplugging his ears, he strained
to hear. 'Just two rooms,' Mother was saying. 'A bedroom, and a sitting
Sasank grew impatient. Mother
had a knack of going into every little detail. Same with Father.
A story was not just one story, it was many; if it concerned an individual,
there'd be the inevitable details about his father, his uncle, his
aunt-in-law's sister-in-law's father-in-law, and so on and so forth.
Sasank closed his ears again, and recalled the fateful afternoon
he had spent at the postmistress's house.
Mother was being treated lavishly by the postmistress. All the
other ladies sat huddled around her. Mother was laughing and talking
very animatedly for a long time. Sasank felt very happy. Mother
rarely laughed; she always worried, always laboured away at something;
always feared that her children, particularly Sasank, would tarnish
the family's good name. Every day, when Sasank returned
home from school, she would invariably ask him, `Boy, have you done
anything today to shame us?' She lived on the edge of morbid fear.
Watching her now, Sasank decided he wouldn't look at a thing in the
postmistress's house, let alone steal anything.
Standing on the verandah, he
dredged up gobs of phlegm and spat them as far as he could. Despite
repeated attempts he failed to clear the beautiful siju bush
in front of the house. When his mouth was dry from spitting, he began
to count the shoes collected on the doorstep. Eleven pairs. He tried
to guess the owners. He didn't think Mother's pair was the costliest.
Her left chappal was more worn out at the heel than the right one.
Someone had come with a brand new pair; the price hadn't even been
Bored with counting the shoes,
he went into the house and found the postmistress doubled up in laughter.
Mother too was laughing hard. The postmistress's maidservant
was serving them hot steamcakes. 'Serve the boy first,' the postmistress
Sasank drank in the aroma of
roasted turmeric leaves; he longed to devour a few stuffed cakes.
But he was too restless to eat.
'Ma, let's go home,' he said.
'Didn't I tell you?' Mother
said, not looking at Sasank. 'If Ma has a good time, it's too much
for my children. Oh, what lovely children I have!'
'I want to go to the bathroom,
'Well, if you want to go to
the bathroom,' the postmistress said, 'you can use our's. Your mother
has come to our place after such a long time, we won't let her leave
so soon.' She took him through the bedroom to the courtyard and pointed
out the toilet.
Because of what he had said,
Sasank was forced to go into their stinking toilet. He stood there,
first counting to a hundred, and, in case that was too little, again
to two hundred. While he was doing that he broke up a wasp hive on
the wall. He dipped his left hand into the water of the old tin bucket
and left the toilet.
Okra and chilli plants fringed
the postmistress' courtyard. The okra was young and tender. Finding
no one around, Sasank plucked one and ate it. No sooner had he entered
the bedroom than he heard laughter and high-pitched discussion. He
felt too shy to go into the gathering because Mother would immediately
ask, without batting an eyelid: 'Did you have loose motions?' In
their house, there had been a joke about loose motions ever since
Sasank had messed his bed.
He stopped in the middle of
the bedroom. There was a cot pushed against the wall on the right.
From a clothesline above the head board hung a variety of clothes.
But the left side of the room seemed like a different world: there
was a small table and on it an electric lamp, a stack of books and
a bunch of pens in a glass tumbler. Sasank's eyes fixed onto the
pens. His heart rose and sank.
He went closer to the table.
Whose pens are these? he wondered. The postmaster's, or his son's?
He picked up a Plato and slowly unscrewed the cap. The nib was worn
out and the ink had dried. He put it back in place and picked up
another -- a red Teko. It was filled with red ink and Sasank drew
two lines on his palm and put the pen back. There was a blue Writer,
but Sasank didn't even touch it. He had never considered a Writer
a worthwhile pen -- it was cheap, squat, and didn't contain much
ink; it leaked if you ran about with it in your shirt pocket; the
nib never became as smooth as you liked. A Writer had once been bought
for Sasank, but within a couple of days he had broken the nib, dented
the cap with his teeth and thrown it away. Another pen, slender as
his little finger, stood like a dwarf beside the Writer. And at the
very end, towering over the lot, was an unparalleled beauty, in all
its elegance, which Sasank had purposely kept outside his field of
vision. His eyes gleamed at the sight of it -- a flaming red pen
with a golden cap and a dainty clip, but a little fatter and tougher
than any he had seen. Sasank picked it up; he held it in front of
him and read: Parker.
So this was a Parker! Sasank
drooled. Mother often said Father had been given a Parker as a wedding
present and that someone in his office had borrowed and never returned
it. A Parker was the costliest pen in the world, its nib made
of gold; when the nib broke people took it to the goldsmith and melted
it down, and with the gold made themselves rings. The pen didn't
need ink to be poured into it; a few squeezes of the rubber tube
inside the steel container and it filled up.
Sasank brought the pen close
to his nose and sniffed. It gave off an aroma of paan zarda mixed
with sweat. He flared his nostrils and took a deep breath. His hands
were wet. He felt the pen slipping out of his hands.
From the sitting room came the
clink of cups and saucers.
Sasank took his fingers out of his ears. He was curious to know
how far Mother had got.
'I was surprised that the headmaster
should come to call on me ,' she was saying. 'What could
have made him do that?'
She was preparing paan, and
there was the sound of betelnuts being shredded by a nutcracker.
Sasank felt irritated that Mother should go into all those useless
details. She could never tell a story straight.
'The poor headmaster, he was
so apologetic. 'Memsahib, the matter shouldn't reach the sahib's
ears!' What was it that would bring the world crashing down, if it
reached the sahib's ears I wondered. The headmaster stood on the
verandah, scratching behind his ears as if he had committed a grave
sin. He wouldn't listen to my repeated requests to take a chair and
remained standing. He bit his tongue when I asked him if he would
like a cup of tea. I was amused by his behaviour. Why was he so tense,
what could be the reason?'
Sasank pulled out the pillow
from under his head and pressed it over his face. Mother's voice
was now hardly audible. It had never crossed Sasank's mind that the
baldie chappal-thief of a headmaster could so easily do him in.
Sasank was in no mood for school on the day following gamhapurnima.
The whole of the previous night he had dreamt of pens. In his dreams
the pens had grown wings and flown around like birds. Sasank had
tried to catch them, but they always remained just out of his grasp.
He had slept fitfully and every time he got up he had felt for the
Parker under his pillow. He decided that instead of going to school
he would hide in the garage and scribble five or ten pages with the
But Mother had packed him off
to school: 'Oh, you're beginning to shy away from your studies too?
Oh, how did you come into my womb? Who are you? An imp? Must you
Had it been some other day Sasank
would have pretended to go to the school and instead headed for a
tribal village up in the hills, where as the sahib's son he commanded
a lot of respect and where in the past he had asked the buxom tribal
girls to dance and sing for him. But today all he wanted was to be
left alone in the garage with the new pen.
But Father's jeep had broken
down and the mechanic was expected anytime. Sasank decided to go
to school. He took the pen from under the pillow and put it in his
He didn't say the prayers at
the school Assembly. While others sang Ahey Dayamaya Vishwa Vihari ,
Sasank ogled Labanya, the daughter of one of his father's subordinates.
Labanya was saying her prayers with her eyes closed, her breasts
rising and falling, and the curls near her ears swaying gently in
'An important announcement!'
the headmaster said, after the prayers were over. 'There'll be a
pen competition today. The student whose pen is judged the best will
receive a prize.'
The school was agog with excitement.
Never before had a competition like this been held: it was always
a handwriting competition, or games, or body-building, or exams.
Sasank had never won a prize in any of these.
'The competition will be held
after recess,' the headmaster continued. 'Those of you who want to
take part should write their name and number on a piece of paper,
clamp it to the clip of their pen and hand them in at my office.
You can enter more than one pen. There won't be any classes in the
last two periods and the results of the competition will be announced
The little interest Sasank had
for his studies evaporated when he heard the announcement. The image
of the Parker danced before his eyes. The pen flew around like a
golden oriole; it strutted about like a crane on spindly legs. The
backdrop changed from blue skies to grassy fields. It was like his
dream the night before.
Suddenly the arithmetic teacher
asked Sasank a question and his reply made the students in the class
burst into laughter. Sasank couldn't fathom why.
'Your head's full of cow dung!'
the teacher commented.
The bell rang for the tiffin
break. All those who had only their tawdry little Writers or ink-spewing
old Platos -- very few had a smart-looking Wilson, or a sleek Pilot,
which had hit the market only recently -- wrote out their name, number
and class on a small slip of paper and, after placing their pens
on the headmaster's table, slipped out to the nearby pond to take
potshots at frogs. They asked Sasank to join them, but he refused.
He opened his tiffin box. Mother had sent suji instead of paratha
and potato chips, which he loved. He didn't eat.
Labanya came over, full of love.
Sasank didn't attempt to nibble her cheeks as he did every time he
had a chance. The two rupees he had filched from Father's pocket
a week ago had now dwindled to four annas.
'Would you like to have a dosa?'
he asked her.
Labanya nodded. 'How many pens
are you entering in the competition? You've two lovely pens, haven't
you? I'm sure your pink Pilot will get the first prize.'
'Is a Pilot still considered
a good pen?' Sasank said. 'The best pen in the world is a Parker.
Then there are Shaeffers, then Heros, then . . .'
Labanya began to sulk for no
reason. 'I won't love you any longer, nor will I marry you when I
grow up. Off with you!'
'Father gave me a Parker yesterday.'
'Why should I show it to you
'Come on, show it to me. Please,
just once. Or else we won't be friends anymore!'
'First show me your . . .!'
Sasank looked around and planted a wet kiss on her right cheek.
Sasank took the pillow off his face to find out where Mother was.
'As if it were a competition,'
she was saying, 'the headmaster had a good look at all the pens and
found the one the postmaster had described. And on the slip of paper
stuck to the clip was the name of our illustrious son.'
'A capital idea!' Grandfather
laughed aloud, as though it was a humorous tale. 'How the hell did
he hit upon such a bright idea!'
Mother broke into a laugh. 'It
takes a thief to catch a thief! You know what's been the rumour at
the school for the past month? It seems the headmaster was caught
stealing shoes! He'd gone out and left his tattered chappals behind;
he walked away with someone else's new pair! Since then this boy
of ours has been chanting: the baldie's a chappal-thief! Whether
it's true or false, only Mother Ganga knows.'
'Like teacher like taught!'
Grandfather observed, and they laughed aloud.
After catching his breath, Grandfather
reminded Mother, 'What happened after that? You said the postmaster's
pen was retrieved. Then?'
Sasank felt that they were laughing
not so much at his theft as at his ineptitude. He kicked the pillow
in anger and covered his head with the bed sheet.
Mother's voice was still audible.
In the last period but one Sasank was summoned to the headmaster's
room. The headmaster stood, resting his enormous scrotum on the edge
of the table, the pens in disarray before him. It suddenly dawned
on Sasank that the competition was all a hoax. He cursed himself.
How had he failed to see through such a simple ruse?
But he wasn't one to give up
'Do you know the postmaster
has beaten his son black and blue?' the headmaster ranted. 'No, why
should you! The poor boy has taken to bed. Had the postmistress not
intervened the postmaster would have beaten the boy to death. And
all because of you.'
'Sir,' Sasank said. 'This pen
is not the postmaster's, it's my father's. I brought it from home
on the sly to enter it in the competition.'
'How did you know there'd be
'I didn't. After your announcement
I went home during recess to get it.'
'But the school peon saw you
and Labanya in the classroom during recess! Shall I call him over
and ask him?'
'But this pen is my father's.
He'll beat me to a pulp if he doesn't find it tomorrow.'
'Let him! The trouble with you
is that you haven't been spanked enough. Being the darling son of
an important officer, you have had a cushy time of it in school too.'
'If my father looks for the
pen, I'll tell him you've taken it away. At least I'll not be the
one to blame.'
The headmaster looked a shade
Feeling too warm under the bed sheet, Sasank tossed it aside. Now
he didn't have to strain his ears to listen to the conversation.
Father was speaking in his big booming voice: 'Well, well, well.
Only now do I understand why the headmaster rushed over to my office,
panting and puffing.'
'Did he?' Mother enquired. 'Why
did he do that? You didn't tell me about that.'
'How could I know the fellow
had come to conduct an investigation into my worthy son's pen-stealing?
He kept fumbling and scratching behind his ears; and when I asked
what had brought him to my office at that late hour, he said: Sir,
you haven't visited the school in a long time, please visit whenever
it's convenient; the fences are broken down and stray cows have eaten
the few trees and plants; please give us a grant to mend the fence.
And he asked for a character reference for his son who's going to
apply for a job in the railways. I called the stenographer over and
told him to type out a testimonial that such and such a person, son
of so and so, whom I've known for so many years and so many months,
is a hardworking, devoted young man, and has a good moral character.
The headmaster was very restless. He sat on the edge of the chair,
and beads of sweat dotted his bald pate. Then suddenly he started
babbling: `Sir, you've so many pens, but you must have a Parker.
It's the king among pens.' I was a little surprised. The man's behaviour
was certainly very odd -- why did he suddenly mention pens? I thought
of giving him a stern look, but then I thought why hurt the poor
fellow. So I said, `A Parker's prohibitive. Besides, you can get
it only on the black market.' The typed character certificate was
brought in, and as I was about to sign it with my pen, he fished
out a lovely pen out of his shirt pocket, unscrewed the cap, fixed
it on the bottom, and ceremoniously held it out to me. `Sir, please
sign it with this pen.' I took the pen and signed. What else could
I have done -- told him that he'd better keep his bloody pen? It
was a lovely pen, indeed. Pushing the certificate and the pen towards
him, I remarked, `Don't forget to tell me when your son gets the
job.' And with profuse thanks he left.'
'But the headmaster didn't breath
a word of it to me!' Mother was surprised. 'All he told me was --
madam, it's a secret, only you and I know about it. What about the
postmaster and postmistress? I asked. He said they didn't have to
know. It was enough that they got back the pen, they should be happy
'By then I was overcome with
shame. While leaving, he even added -- madam, please forgive me for
saying this, but please do keep an eye on Sasank, he's turning out
to be an incorrigible thief.' Mother choked. 'How did such a demon
come into my womb? What ghost or spirit was fluttering around when
I conceived him! Father, when you get back to the village, please
consult a good astrologer and see if there's any hope for him.'
It had never crossed Sasank's mind that his fate would be decided
so quickly. He heard Father tell Grandfather: 'Let him go with you
to the village tomorrow. With the blessings of God he might give
up stealing. If he doesn't change, he'll go to jail when he grows
up. He'll be the one to suffer, what does it matter to me? I'll promptly
Sasank took the pillow from
near his feet and buried his face in it. A cold wave of banishment
crept over him and he shuddered.
'Pack a few of his clothes in
my suitcase,' Grandfather said. 'Nothing much. Whatever else he needs
can be bought in the village.'
Sasank cried out in anguish.
Father set out on tour the next morning; his bedroll and suitcase
were already in the jeep. The peon accompanying him had come dressed
in a white uniform.
Father called Sasank over before
getting into the jeep. He held him close. 'Now you realize! Because
you wouldn't quit stealing you're being packed off to your grandpa's
place. Parents don't love children who steal. Promise me you'll try
and be a good boy.'
'I promise,' said Sasank.
'You won't ever steal again?'
'If I hear you've given up stealing,
then next year I'll bring you back. You like the school here, don't
Sasank wished Father would leave
early, so that he could travel at least twenty or twenty-five miles
before the sun became hot enough to make his eyes water.
Father bent down and touched
Grandfather's feet and got into the jeep. Turning to Mother, he said, 'Don't
worry if I'm not back in three days.' Then running his hands over
Sasank's head, he added, 'Obey Grandpa and Grandma. Be a good boy,
Without any provocation, Mother
suddenly piped up, 'If only your son had heeded such advice, he wouldn't
be being sent away.'
Two hours after Father left, the bus came and stopped in front of
their bungalow. They all came out of the house.
'Grandpa,' Sasank's elder sister
said. 'Warn Grandma that she should be careful. This boy can steal
the kohl from her eyes.'
Sasank made a face at her. 'Drop
'I hope you haven't stolen anything
of mine? I just can't trust you. Mother, have you checked his bag?'
Mother was in tears. Wiping
her eyes with the end of her sari, she hissed: 'Don't tease the child.
You know he's being packed off because of a bad habit.'
Grandfather gave a snort of
a laughter. 'Daughter, the way you talk it sounds as if he's going
to jail, not to his grandfather's place.'
'Grandpa!' his sister chimed
in again. 'Don't they beat thieves black and blue in the village?
Aren't their faces tarred? Aren't they made to sit on a donkey and
be paraded around?'
'Shut up or else...' Mother
screamed. 'As if your achievements are any more noteworthy!'
Mother bowed down by the wicket
gate of the garden to touch Grandfather's feet. She held Sasank in
her arms and kissed him copiously. Sasank tried to wriggle away.
Grandfather's suitcase was lifted to the roof of the bus. The driver
honked once briefly, as though his hand had accidentally touched
As they boarded the bus, Sasank's
sister tucked a bar of chocolate into his hands.
T wo seats in the front row had been reserved for them. Sasank sat
near the window. The bus moved. He waved. Mother and Sister waved
back. The bus gathered speed. Their bungalow slipped out of sight.
After some time they left the
town behind. Hours went by and the day grew hot. A woman craned her
neck out of the window and vomited. People seated behind her grumbled
and shouted. A small child started bawling. The bus sped on.
Sasank saw tears rolling down
'What is it, Grandpa?' Sasank
said. 'Are you missing Ma? You love her, don't you?'
Grandfather smiled. 'It's the
hot air that makes my eyes water.'
'Why didn't you tell me earlier?
I've got just the thing for you.'
'What?' Grandfather took out
his snuff box from his vest pocket. It was a beautifully carved silver
box. Sasank suddenly longed for it. Grandfather took a snort of snuff.
Sasank sneezed. He produced
a pair of dark glasses from inside his shirt.
'Yours?' Grandfather was surprised.
'Put them on, you'll feel better
'But whose are they?'
'They'll soothe your eyes.'
'Tell me the truth: whose are
they -- Father's?'
Sasank didn't answer. He dipped
his hand again into his shirt and took out his sister's song book.
The pink cover was wet with perspiration. Sasank said, 'Sister has
copied down some lovely songs from the radio. We'll keep singing
them throughout the journey. Sister once said this notebook was dearer
to her than her soul!'
Translated from the Oriya by Leelawati Mohapatra and Paul St-Pierre
Copyright © 2007 KK Mohapatra