I was jolted out of nothingness. Disoriented, I looked around, ‘where was I?’ It took some time for me to comprehend, ‘Damn, I had fallen asleep again’.
I missed most of the insults, and some slang, the teacher threw at me while I was busy with myself. My blank look fuelled her anger even more and while she continued insulting me for the next 10 minutes or so, my classmates enjoyed the drama. Her voice, which had turned from charming at the beginning of the semester to a sweet lullaby, now served as the wake-up call for many.
“I am sorry Mam”, I said, thinking that the teacher would soon be running out of her vocabulary. She paused and regarded me as if I truly meant what I said. She thought a while. I was confused. I had never been able to understand why teachers took so long to respond to this innocent statement. Was it because they could never believe that a student could be sorry? (In most cases we weren’t) or Was it because they found it difficult to choose between the many punishments that raced their head? In fact, I never wanted to understand.
“Hmm, read from where I had stopped reading?” ‘Ah!’ the usual punishment, how was I supposed to know from where to read? Neither would any of my neighbors, we were back-benchers, we chose to sit here because we wanted to be cut off from the rest of the world, our class. Now here I would like to take some time to explain. Not all backbenchers are the regular cool people with extraordinary intelligence, no! We were normal human beings with an extraordinary level of talentlessness. We shared a few common characteristics, we were lazy, reluctant to participate in the class, and few of the only students who would sit pondering about the incomplete dreams last night. The teachers couldn’t get an answer out of us and we were mostly kept out of all the classroom activities. But we weren’t hopeless cases, we just didn’t get the kick to work for being the teacher’s so-called ‘Star Child’. But even then I looked around for help, hoping that someone might be behaving differently today and listening to her for a change. As expected, some were giggling, some looked as blank as me, while others refused to meet anyone’s eye.
The teacher sighed. “Just leave the class,” she said. I was surprised to hear that, never had she let anyone off so easily. Beating children like they were stray animals had been the usual punishment until quite some time in these parts of the country. But the new rule, enacted three years ago had brought the poor students some respite. Now the teachers didn’t beat us but their insults cut deeper than the beatings from before. I packed my stuff and hurried out of the class. It was the last class of the day, I got early freedom for the day.
The school was an hour’s walk from my place. We were situated in the far countryside, away from the hustle-bustle of the cities. There were trees everywhere you could see. Most families had lands to till. Our part of the country was famous for its agricultural produce, be it vegetables or dairy and even meat. As such there was a saying that no family slept hungry here. The lives were pretty simple and so were the people. Most of us wanted to complete high school and join our business, while some eccentric beings wanted to achieve great things in life. We were what others would have said, a ‘simpleton’. And why not, no sane man would leave the serenity of this place to see the bigger picture. We had everything one needed for a peaceful life, the yearly fairs, monthly meets, technology to the level that was required, gracious nature, and whatnot. At least I wouldn’t want to leave this harmonious life for something uncertain.
I walked out of the school gates, thinking how to spend the evening before leaving for my home. My father would be suspicious if I came in early. There had always been this thing, whatever I did, I never let him get any news of it. I didn’t want him to worry about me. He already had a fairly big business to worry about. But that was not the only reason.
My father was the eldest child of my grandfather. He had two siblings. While my aunt lived in the far-off cities, my uncle lived in a different country altogether. My father too had left the home for some time when he had gone to serve in the war. But he had come back and decided to look after the business my grandfather had worked so hard to establish. My aunt had eloped with her lover when she was twenty-two and my uncle was one of those eccentric people who had tried their luck outside. I had barely seen them, except for one occasion when the whole family had come together for my grandfather’s funeral. It was then I had found out that I had two cousin brothers and a sister, all of whom were least interested in talking to me. But that was long ago, I don’t even remember their names anymore, let alone their faces.
While my uncle and aunt were well settled now, life has not been as grateful to my father. In the war, my father had to pay a price that he didn’t account for. He lost one of his legs, the right one to be exact. I was very little when it happened and later was I able to relate when my mother told me about it. Though the doctors had sounded negative, my father never gave up hope. He still walks the planet, supported by two sturdy beams of wood that the doctors called crutches. It was a tough time for us then. As he managed to traverse each day, coping with the fact that he wouldn’t be able to feel the ground with both his legs. I remember my mother crying looking at him and my grandfather’s stern face melt, but my father beat all odds and stood up tall like the proud man he was. And though he lost the cheerfulness, he didn’t lose the touch of managing the huge business.
Lost in my thought I walked by the only bookstore in the vicinity. I didn’t know what to do so I came back to the store, thinking to pick something for reading. Raghuji, the owner of the store, was considered the most knowledgeable by the villagers and he was, at least according to me. He was an avid reader and read different types of books. I sometimes felt that the store was his ‘personal’ library. Whenever you entered the store you would find an elderly man perched on his chair with a book in his arms. He would look up from the book to check if his employee was tending to the customer and would go back to reading. Raghuji had grown up with me, that is what I felt. While I reached my youth, he reached his old age. In my childhood, I would often pester him for bringing children’s books. Most times he did bring them. Books with colored characters speaking their dialogues, the comics, and I enjoyed them the most. I remembered reading a comic book about a superhero called the “Metal Man” where he had turned his disadvantages into an advantage and saved the world. The story followed the life of a man who lost his legs in an accident and how he built himself some new ones that he called “prosthetics”. He wore armor to shield his upper half and went around saving the world. I had enjoyed the story to the end and couldn’t help but cry when he died at the end of the story. I laughed at my behavior but I was a child then.