Monday, May 21, 2007

The Weight of Chalk...

The last period of the day was winding to a close. The kids were growing increasingly restless but took note of the irritation irradiating from their teacher's face and quietened. Ananthan Master mopped the few beads of sweat building up near his eyebrow carelessly with the sleeves of what had been hours earlier a neatly pressed white shirt. Sunanda was not going to be happy today. The perfectly folded handkerchief she tucked into his pocket every morning got back home in the evening, never used. She had once joked that if it helped, she could take the half-sleeves off of his old shirts and sew them into a kerchief. Ananthan had thought it was a great idea. Sunanda could just gasp in dismay.

"Maashe, the last bell rung 10 minutes ago."
It was one of the more brazen boys in the class. Ananthan stirred from his thoughts, and looked at the boy in disapproval.
"So, what if I keep you boys back a little longer. You are students taking the public exams this year, not children in elementary school."
The cowed down boy tried to summon an expression of utter boredom to his face. All he could manage was a shake of his head, caught as he was in the unusual cold stare of his teacher.
"Class dismissed. Next class we will take up Lagrange's Theorem."
"Maashe, you covered that only yesterday," a timider voice spoke up this time.
Ananthan threw up his arms, and showed the way to the door to his surprised students.
"Sir, are you okay, you seem ill. I can give you a ride home on my moped."
"Thanks for the offer, Bala. I am fine," Ananthan said and watched as Balan trooped out with his gang of friends.

Balan was one of Ananthan's favorites not just because he was a good student. His talent in versification and essay writing had won for the school many prizes in the District Youth Festival. But what troubled Ananthan was that like many of the other senior students in the school, Balan was also getting increasingly attracted to the politics that was being unleashed at all levels of the society in the district. Democracy was slowly giving way to fascism with a fight to the finish for dominance between the Left and the Right. Political murders were happening at an alarmingly increasing frequency, a fragile peace survived; one act of aggrandizement was all it took. Balan's family had traditionally advocated Rightist politics...and Balan seemed destined to go that road too. Ananthan had advised his pupil, but was met with a stonewall, that refused to open up...perhaps it must be because I was a leftist earlier, Ananthan tried to comfort himself.

The classroom had emptied out. He pondered hard on his next act. Should he just go home or should he.....he didn’t let the thought carry itself out. With overdone effort, he pressed his palms down on the wooden desk, and raised himself from his chair. He turned to the blackboard, and began to wipe it clean, with the blackened rug that had for long begged for washing and now seemed to be threatening to stop doing its work. Ananthan took a step backwards and surveyed his efforts. A reflection of the blackboard seemed to have fallen on his face as it darkened; dismayed by the chalkmarks that still littered the board. A sudden rage stoked up in him, and with firm, wide, almost manic strokes he gleaned away the last of the white that refused to detach in his earlier attempt, from its civilizational opposite, the black. He stacked his notebooks firmly within his left arm, collected the umbrella from its resting place by the wall and strode out, forgetting to turn off the fan that wheeled on and on...

The Local Committee office was on the way to his home. It must have been almost 20 years since he last took the steps leading upto its dusty confines. Then, he was considered among the Party's most promising leaders from the district. His speeches stood out for the calm manner in which he elucidated his thoughts, in an age when only fiery speeches could win the crowds, and for the substantive ideas he seemed to possess. He had become the Local committee secretary at 25, was promoted to the Area Committee at 27 and with the District Committee, the coveted State Committee membership or a legislatorship only some years down the line, he had supposedly thrown it all away. Ananthan knew it wasn't like that. He was an accused in the first of the political murders that aroused the media interest in the district and was considered lucky to have gotten away unpunished. His young wife, Sunanda was pregnant then and miscarried, due to the stress the trial brought about. Guilt, fatigue and a lack of fulfillment from the 12 years of model political activism he strived to pursue colluded in persistent pursuit of a change of heart and he quit. He had been branded a coward and traitor...but the years had forgiven and forgotten all that was said and done. His younger brother, Ravi had taken his place in the party and Ananthan, the fledgling politician was long erased from the public mind, he was today only Ananthan Master, a well-regarded, but insignificant high school mathematics teacher in public consciousness, at the Govt. Higher Secondary School.

The Local Committee office hadn't changed in the years. Unlike the corporate dalliance the party saw at the state ad district level, the grassroots still clung to its affinity with the common man. Now, the party owned the building but continued to rent the ground floor to the small convenience store, a tea shop, and the barber who had all set shop up there for as long as he could remember. Ananthan hesitantly climbed up the stairs and lingered for a few seconds on the corridor. He peaked into the meeting room. The creaky wooden benches had given way to plastic chairs and the walls were freshly painted. On the walls, still hung the same three pictures of Marx, Engels and Lenin from his days. The secretary's room beckoned to him. He was once its occupant, now a guest, feeling his way around what was once his second, or possibly his primary address. Without knocking, he entered the room and saw the secretary, Ramankutty talking on his mobile and his brother, Ravi staring out of the window. Ravi's presence unsettled Ananthan. Ravi had more important things to do in the district or area committee than hang around this place.

Ramankutty motioned Ananthan to take a chair, switched off his phone, a broad smile taking shape on his puckered lips.
"Thank you for coming, Master."
Ananthan didn't reply but looked at Ravi, whose body language betrayed a nervousness that Ananthan tried to piece together.
"Ananthetta, sorry for bothering you. The party members here brought some troubling news which, Comrade Ramankutty and I thought, you could help resolve.
"What is it?" Ananthan could feel his stomach tighten, a sudden fear gripped him. So this was it. His worst fears were turning true.
"You know how the Right, is increasingly finding supporters among the youngsters here. We feel it is a disturbing..."
"Come, to the point Ravi!" Ananthan interrupted his brother. Why is it that politicians fail to see the beauty of keeping their talk, short and sweet, Ananthan thought?
"It has to do with your student, Balan. He is spreading their ideology among the students at your school and around where he lives. If we don’t nip this in the bud, it will be hard to put a check on his activities when he is older."
"I guessed as much. Why did you have to bring me into this? You know, I am done with politics," Ananthan couldn’t mask the displeasure he felt for his younger brother.
"Yeah, we know that. That is why we need your help," the secretary had spoken for the first time.
"I have tried to counsel him. But he won't listen to me."
"Exactly! That is why we need to talk to him. We have tried to get him alone but he moves around with a gang of his friends all the time. But he trusts you. If you can take him somewhere, we can talk to him in person. It will only do him good you know," Ravi tepidly said.
"I know what is good for him. You don't need to tell me that!" Ananthan snapped at his younger brother. The fellow was a better politician than he had thought.
"Well, don't blame me if something untoward happens. You know how things work around here. More importantly don’t blame yourself." Ravi noticed the concern that briefly escaped Ananthan as he finished his sentence.
"Ananthetta, don’t worry. We will just give him a ticking off. If that doesn’t work, let's all comfort ourselves in that he wasn't ready to change his fate."
How insensitive and arrogant had Ravi become, Ananthan thought. In a few hours they would both be back in their house and would all be a happy family. Ravi had never married, citing his party work as the sole love of his life. They lived under the same roof even after their parents had died and never thought of partitioning the inherited house and land. Ananthan's two children, Anu and Anish doted on their uncle so much, that Ananthan always wondered, why despite being a teacher he couldn't get as close to his kids as Ravi, a chronic bachelor.
"All right. I will tell Balan to drop me home tomorrow evening after school."
Ananthan walked out, not bothering to bid farewell. Ravi collapsed on a chair, he was sweating was the first time in his life he put on the garb of a politician, to talk to his elder brother, whom he still venerated and considered as his first political guru.
"Here, drink this," the equally relieved secretary passed a tumbler containing water to Ravi.

Sunanda had observed the worry, scribbled large on Ananthan's face, but she couldn't decipher it. Nor could she connect the cold stares Ananthan kept giving Ravi, ever since he had reached home too. All night Ananthan tossed and turned in the bed, unlike the sound sleep he almost always managed to have. In the morning, Ananthan took his morning shower and skipped breakfast, like he usually did.
"Here take your books, and umbrella." Sunanda came running after Ananthan, who absently turned around, collected his belongings and walked, without acknowledging her.
A sigh of despair overcame her. Why is it that men seemed to carry all the weight of the world on their shoulders, she wondered. Her thoughts turned around to her children getting ready for school. Their lunch had yet to be readied. They studied at a different school from Ananthan's, a better school, a private school. Ravi was the one who forcefully advocated much for socialism, Ananthan had thought before finally yielding.

"Bala, I am still feeling unwell. Can you drop me at my house after school."
"Of course, Master.'
"Thank you, Bala."
The rest of the day went by as fast as Ananthan would have loved it to slow down. It had to be done. Balan's zeal, courage and strength would only increase in the years to come and it would only put his life in danger. There wasn’t much point in talking to the parents. Most kids with such early political leanings pick it up only from home and with the encouragement of their parents. Ananthan knew this well, he and Ravi were prime examples.

The pillion was a little too small, but Balan slid forward to make more space for Ananthan. They took off with Balan riding slower than usual. This was a big day for him, and a big honour. He had seen Ananthan Master walking home a few times when he took this route which lead to a friend's house, but he never took up the ride Balan offered.
"Maashe, this is the first time i am giving a teacher a ride.'
"Maashe, have you corrected the mid-term papers?"
"Yes. You have done very well. You should be getting it the day after. I have a few more to valuate."
"Thank You." The thrill from Balan's cracked voice made Ananthan's heart cringe.
"Why this cup of woes for me, G-G-G-God," Ananthan mused wearily. From believer to atheist to agnost to hesitant believer again, his faith had completed a full orbit around his life.

In the distance, a jeep lay parked by the roadside. Three men could be seen leaning against it facing them. As they got closer, a sudden fear enveloped Balan. A sudden knowledge of what was about to befall hit him and he slowed the moped down. His parents and partymen had regularly warned him over the last few months of a 'quotation' put out for him by the Left's goonda squads. He went home or went out with a group of fellow-men and always kept a tight guard when having to go it alone. Ananthan saw the men too at the same instant and knew they were spotted. Balan tried to turn around.
"What are you doing?" Ananthan asked. The histrionic talents of his youth were back. Ananthan thought disgustedly.
"Maashe, they are men after me. I can't get caught."
"Don't worry I am there." Ananthan tried to calm his pupil.
The three men, now joined by a forth unseen before, came running at breakneck speed.

"We have been waiting for you, you bastard," one of them shouted as they caught up. Ass-oles, Ananthan thought. They had given away their game even before it started. These were not the genuine party-men who would have been much smarter than this...these were the clinger-on rogues with no work to do, that were highly valued these days by politicians, for doing their dirty spadework.
"How did you know I am coming this way?" Balan shot back.
Ananthan's heart sank with the question. Balan would have been a fool not to miss the betrayal now and Ananthan knew Balan was anything but a fool.
"Sonofabitch, you have hardly sprouted a moustache and you have begun to wisetalk to elders too," one of the men said in a harsh tone.
'Move back. Let me speak," the forth man whom they hadn’t spotted initially came forward. He had a pleasanter demeanor than the other three. Ananthan recognized him as Ashokan, who had begun party work around the time he had begun too. Not even bothering to acknowledge Ananthan he placed his calloused fingers across Balan's cheeks.
"We are being told you are increasingly becoming a smart-ass. Stop involving in your kiddy-politics, study well, find a job and escape from here. Else you are going to die and that too in pain.
"I would welcome a death like that from you monsters with open arms."
A warm smile appeared on the man's face.
"Stop playing hero, kid. This is not personal. This is politics and this is the politics your people would deal, to one of ours too. I too have kids, but I have warned them to stay off this game of death. I just extend the same threat to you, as a father would."
"Thanks for your fatherly concern, mister. Now if you could excuse us...I have better things to do," Balan smirked.
This was a mistake. The smile disappeared from the man's face and Ananthan cowered as a murderous intent replaced it. He slapped Balan, hard on his face. Balan fell off the moped and with him the moped and Ananthan too hit the ground.
"Is that the best, you could give me," Balan responded gamely.
"Stop it Bala. You are provoking them needlessly," Ananthan pleaded.
"I have waited for this day, all my life, Master. For how long can I hide?"
The four men went berserk at that moment, pounced on Balan, and began kicking him mercilessly.
Ananthan cried and begged but was shaken off by the fourth man who pushed him away as the other three, unleashed their powerful blows on the now bleeding boy.

A few people were coming. One of the men, ran to the jeep, reversed it, the other three men, caught hold of Ananthan Master, threw him into the jeep and sped off.
"Wait. Let me out. I need to take him to the hospital."
"There are other people for that. We will take you home after some time. He will be well cared for."
They dropped Ananthan off at his home after a few hours.
Ravi was waiting on the verandah. He had already heard the news. A look of apology, and a tint of shame was writ all over his face.
"Ananthetta, i am sorry things turned out this way."
"You promised me you won’t hurt him."
"Things got out of hand. The men were provoked very badly."
"Your ideology does allow for violence. But against a young, defenseless boy?"
Ravi kept quiet. He knew his brother would never forgive him for this.
"We are all worse than animals. You betrayed a brother. I betrayed a student."

Night had set in. Ananthan paced restlessly on the frontyard, wondering how hurt was Balan. The sky had an ashen colour, thanks to the thick clouds, which veiled the moon, away from prying eyes, to the verge of opacity. Ravi had forbid him from going to the hospital where the rightist activists had begun talking of revenge. The police had visited and taken Balan's statement according to a journalist Ravi had called up. Sunanda had heard all that happened, from Ravi who begged with her to intercede on his behalf to her husband.
"Not today, and not tomorrow either, may be the day after," she had answered, and he thanked her gratefully.
"Please come inside. It has become very cold now. Why fall sick too?" she pleaded to Ananthan.
"Did Ravi eat?" he asked.
"No. He said he wasn't hungry. He went to sleep."
"What about the kids?"
"They are staying at my parents’ house."
Husband and wife walked back into the house, one inconsolable, the other wondering how to console.

Someone was banging on the door intently.
"I will go," Sunanda said.
"No, that is for me," she was shaken briefly by the assuredness of his voice.
It was Narayanan, Balan's father. He had come alone instead of the scores of outraged people Ananthan expected. There was a car parked outside. It wasn't evident, in the darkness if there was anyone in it.
"Ananthanmaashe, thanks for all the help. Balan told me everything"
"How is Balan?"
"Does it matter to you?"
"I am sorry. I made a mistake," Ananthan wept inconsolably like one of the children who cried when he caned him.
"Don't worry. Balan didn't give your name to the police in his statement."
Narayanan turned around and walked.
"Master, you know, my boy still adores you. He pleaded with me not to hurt you or your brother".

Ananthan closed the door. He turned back and leaned against the door. His eyes were closed, a little in relief and almost all of it in self-pity. When his eyes opened, they fell on a Sunanda who was sobbing and Ravi who was deep in thought.
"Ananthetta, you should go back to teach. None of this was your fault", Ravi said, reading very well the thoughts preying his brother' mind.
"There is blood on my hands. The chalk will not answer my command on the blackboard."
"But your kids will starve. You should think of their future too."
"That is right. But I can't go back."
"You have to. Your kids' life depends on it."
"Then get me a transfer from here, somewhere far, far away. I hope you have the connections to get that done."
Ananthan walked off, his feet unsteady, hoping for the peace that deserted him for two blackened out days in his life's calendar. And Ravi, Ravi could feel the assured touch of loneliness, that would accompany him in this house, partly his house, now all his.

P.S - Some months back, a friend told me of an incident that happened in Kannur at a school where his uncle was the principal. A teacher who was a full-time politician always carried a bomb in his bag, as he feared for his life but that bomb one day exploded in class causing minor injuries and more than that, shock to the students. Then recently, i thought of the political affiliations some of the teachers in our college still maintained, and how some of them tried to manipulate us. That is from where this story took off. I would have loved to write this one in Malayalam, more so due to the story's nativity, but i had a compulsion that gave English the upperhand this time. After months of threads that broke down in "realization", I feel relieved at having overcome the bad run. As always when i take on fiction, feedback/criticism is appreciated this time too.


b v n said...

Awesome man ! you carried the story very requires some sense to end a story without another note i was expecting that chap to get killed...there you did a neat job as I said before...without too much colour...nicely done ! and political backdrops are my favourite too

then as you badly want some critisicm...why dont you call a rabbit a rabbit...are you afraid to name hindu fundamentalists and the communists by name...this is not an essay...but a story...a writer need not be politically correct...we know its RSS and the communitst..why not say so....? when you say rightist politics and all the story loses the edge...a hobbit is a hobbit not a vertically challenged individual....i hope i'm making myself clear here

btw why dont you open up your other blog for the stories ?

nish said...

WOW! beautifully written!!

Jiby said...

bvn, thanks. i knew i wud get that criticism from someone...the story is not about rss and communism...really who cares about is more about the fight for domination...i saw this war of attrition first hand at sct where abvp and sfi were neck-to-neck. another reason i called them left and right was that i felt it had a universal appeal...political correctness was not what i aimed for...i didnt want the story i was telling sidetracked by naming of the entities involved.

nish, thanks.

b v n said...

Jiby, you said it !...that Universal appeal part...thats where we have a difference...when someone say writes a story on czech in 60s ..forget the ideology...its better to say the soviets brutally took over from dubceck..right ? rather than say the leftist forces from the east.....again we can disagree right :)))

Jiby said... u won't give up huh! well the argument can continue but my idea of universal appeal was contrary to yours. if i get on to write another draft of this one, which i doubt, i will do a rethink on your lines.

Vinod/Kakka said...

Well done, man of many talents

Rajesh said...

I did not like it the first time I read it. But I liked it more, when I read it again, more slowly. But criticism is what you want and so, criticism is what you will get. Totally personal (as all criticism essentially is), coloured with all my biases, prejudices.

1. In terms of the tone, the imagery and the general feeling that I get when I read this, it is similar to your earlier story (about the guy who comes back to his village). I feel you are putting too much of yourself into the main characters. You are not thinking of how they can be if they were independent of you. You are restricting them, thereby restricting the potential of the story.
2. At the level of a humble story, this story has very little novelty for me. I have heard and seen a lot of these RSS/CPM fights. I automatically switched off.
3. As a 'slice of life' it is spot on, as a story I believe, it is too topical
4. Even though it is written in English, the words talked to me in Malayalam. I am criticizing this.
5. I have no sympathy for the protagonist because somehow, I feel that nothing new has been told to me about him in the duration of the story. The tone has been set in the opening paragraph and I have an inkling as to how this is going to end for him, right then. I would like an occasional surprise or at least to know something very personal about him, something that has not been painted with a 'general' brush. Essentially, this criticism encompasses all your characters. I thought them too cardboard cut-out and stereotypical. Exactly the way I would have envisaged each of them even if you had given them a single line introduction.

I loved some of the lines that you used. But I wont get into that beacuse this is all about pulling out the negatives:-)

Jiby said...

vinodcheta, thank you :)

rajesh, thanks very much man for the a fellow writer i really appreciate the effort you took to flesh out areas of concern, something most of us shy away from doing. i don't know whether its right to justify myself to a reader but maybe you would want to know my thoughts too.

where i agree with u -
- i admit that it had nothing new in terms of a novel look at today's politics at the grassroot level.
- what you said about how each character turned out, i agree with you that they would look like stereotypes to a trained eye but i hope a reader unfamiliar with the millieu might think differently.

- personally i felt the characters were as distant from me as was possible and this was an area where i consciously put in more effort...perhaps where i came into play was close knowledge of the strong-arm tactics used in the story.
- the english conversations talking it out in malayalam was deliberate...i believed that was the only way i could convey the emotions involved.
- i don't know if it looked that way but i have stayed away from empathizing with any of the character's.

again, thanks a lot have raised all really good points i need to keep in mind for the future. another thing is i wrote the story the way you said you do in your reply to my comment on your latest work, conveived the plot one day and took two sessions in two days to write it.

Rajesh said...

Hey Jiby

I agree with your agreements and disagreements. I think I am too close to the milieu to have a detached, unbiased opinion. But I would really love to see you write stories in the natural style that you use to write about everyday happenings.
Do keep writing. Your posts are among the very few in the blogworld that I really look forward to. And do give my opinions only the respect purely personal opinions deserve.

Ashok said...

On the whole, I enjoyed reading the story when it was posted. Today, I returned and loved the comments here (Thanks, BVN and Rajesh). Even though a commissioning editor, I do not evaluate fiction -- am clueless on how to go about it. So, sorry Jiby, no useful comments from me. One thing I felt was that (barring anecdotes) you write better fiction than non-fiction. Blame my merciless non-fiction eye. :-)