Madam Patel had assigned the word ‘gacchami’ for Sanskrit class. I go. Grah gacchami, I wrote in my notebook. I go home.
But the following day, as soon as she sat down behind her desk, she recoiled back up again with a shriek. She pushed the desk forward, and its legs squealed against the concrete floor in echo to her horror.
“Who did this?” Madam Patel’s eyes bulged wildly up to scan the classroom.
Nobody answered. We had never seen her react like this. Her voice never rose above soft monotonic decibels, droning conjugate verbs from memory. The angriest she had ever been was when Rastogi had stolen the board duster. And even then, her punishment was only to ask him to leave the classroom and spend ten minutes outside in murga position, squatting like a ‘chicken’ with his arms looped around his knees and hands pulling on his own ears.
“Class Five-B,” she said and pointed at the panel facing her side of the desk. “Tell me: who did this?”
Gingerly, some of the boys on the front tables stood up to see what she was pointing at. I looked at Prince next to me, who had until then kept his eyes buried deep into his textbook. “Let’s go look,” I suggested. The class squeezed in between Madam Patel and the blackboard behind her. Prince was on my right. On my left, Sonu put an arm for support around my shoulder. We formed a huddle of prepubescent sweat that always hovered over the boys’ dormitory halls at Mussoorie Scholar’s School. The last bath day for Class Five had been two days ago. The smell—mixed with the scent of mountain monsoon mould—had been intolerable for my first month in boarding school. But I had become more accustomed to it now.
Sonu, however, still disgusted me. He never took a bath in the dorm—not even on the day his parents visited for Diwali—and he always seemed to have a runny nose. “Watch your snotty hands, Sonu,” I said and shrugged him off my shoulder.
“Look,” Madam Patel’s voice cracked. “Look what they did.”
It was a piece of art. Drawn with a black permanent marker on the light-brown wood was a caricature of Madam Patel’s face and torso. The face was round and bumpy, with bushy eyebrows and a large mole on her cheek under her left eye, just like the unwitting model that inspired it. The portrait had large lips, shaded to mimic her bright red lipstick.
Looming threateningly over the image, however, was a thick, cylindrical missile, aimed right at Madam Patel’s mouth. We all knew what it was, even the girls. Rimi, the sardarni, made an audible gasp at the gigantic shaft. We were all impressed.
Gacchami, I go; gacchamah, we go; gacchasi, you go. Our homework had served as the inspiration for the final masterstroke. In English, below her image, the offending artist had written in neat block letters:
I immediately knew that this was trouble, that these were words that must not to be said, that this was something dirty, something that made me squirm and giggle at the same time.
And soon, laughter pealed out from all of us, synchronous as one, so in a rare moment, I felt like I belonged with them, with boys like Rastogi and Ahmed, who spent time after school lounging around the tuck-shop, or the other group who played Catch-Catch or Hide-and-Seek all day, or even stinky Sonu Snotface. I looked over to my side to my only friend—Prince—who, under his bold middle-parted hair, let out a sheepish smile.
“Who did this?” Madam Patel asked again.
Before anyone else could offer a suggestion, Ahmed pointed an accusatory finger at me. “It’s Prahlad, Madam,” he said. “He’s always drawing cartoons in his notebooks. I’ve seen it, Madam.”
“Prahlad…?” Madam Patel turned to me.
“No, no, Madam…” I stepped away from her desk. “…It wasn’t me. I don’t draw like that.”
And that was the truth; unlike the free-spirited, round shapes of this desk-art, my notebooks were filled with neat panels and angular characters. I took great care to measure and draw straight lines with the ruler. I reached into all the tools in the geometry-set to create the adventures. Power Man—all muscles and strength and a parallelogram-shaped cape—who flew around the world, fought undead skeletons, and rescued pretty princesses. Even the speech bubbles were rectangular.
Ahmed’s accusation made me feel light in the bottom of my stomach, as if the day’s lunch was attempting to rise back up. It felt like like my first day at MSS again, the feeling when Daddy waved goodbye and left me at the unfamiliar boarding school, with a large trunk in a dorm full of new faces, kids from parts of India I had barely even heard of.
“I… I… I didn’t do it, Madam,” I pleaded. “I don’t even know these words.”
“Madam,” now, Rastogi spoke up. “I think it was Chinki. He’s the only one who knows the English bad words.”
Their eyes turned to Prince next to me. I had learned, within the first few hours of the new student orientation back in August, that Prince hated being called by that slur. But he was the only one in Class Five with those features—paler face, slanted eyes, straighter and darker hair—and once Rastogi decided that his name was ‘Chinki’, all the boys in the dorm agreed without protest.
Prince shook his head. “No… No, Madam.”
“Students,” Madam Patel looked around at our huddle. “You must not say bad words in any language.”
“Yes, Madam,” Rastogi said. He was the second-shortest boy in the class, but he had the loudest voice. “You should tell Chinki to not say bad words.”
Ahmed laughed out behind him.
“Bijay Rastogi,” Madam Patel said. “You cannot say that word, either.”
Now the whole class, including the girls, began to laugh.
Rastogi finally stopped, and in en masse imitation, the class quieted down, too. They looked at Madam Patel for direction.
“Leave now,” she said. “Leave all of you. No class today.”
“No class?” asked Sonu. “Really, Madam?”
“No class,” she repeated, and slumped back into her seat. Her shoulders fell and, suddenly, the colours of her sari and her lipstick and her glowing chubby cheeks didn’t feel as bright as before. “Leave.”
Gacchamah, I thought to myself as I collected my books and geometry-set into my bag. We go.
My classmates ran out to the dusty sports field behind the school building and divided up into their respective factions. Some of the girls drew hopscotch lines in the sand. Some kicked around a football. Some of the boys, led by KP and Ravi, plotted their Hide-And-Seek teams. KP always wore that ugly orange cap he had bought from the Tibetan Refugee market. Ravi had one leg longer than the other and needed to wear one of those special boots, but he could still never stop himself from running awkwardly when he played. Some boys fled to far ends of the field to fling tennis balls high into the sky for Catch-Catch. Some of the others formed their agora against the pushta wall on the far end of the field, lost in their never-ending conversations.
Before I could ask Prince what he wanted to do, he skipped away.
“Where are you going?”
“I’ll be back,” he said. “I’ll meet you in the library later, okay?”
Then, I was alone. It was a sunny, December afternoon, my first experience of winter in the mountains, where I had discovered the stark difference between the sun and the shade. Lethargic warmth and unsettling cold. Delhi had been cold in the wintertime, but Mussoorie was something else, frigidity that made me immobile at times, needing the limited hours of sunshine to thaw me into activity.
My first few months at MSS had been awash by the depressing monsoon, when it rained so much that I had to carry an extra pair of socks in my school-bag every day. Our bedsheets in the dorm were always a little damp in the moist atmosphere. When the weather finally cleared for fall, I began to spend more time outdoors. And on one such day, when my classmates broke into their groups, I saw that there was only one other boy in his lonesome on the sports field—Prince—expertly kicking up a hacky-sack he had made out of rubber-bands. Boldly, I decided that it was time to make a friend, and I asked him if I could play, too. He nodded, sure, and kicked the little thing at me, but I failed to catch it. “Just keep trying,” he said. “You’ll get it.”
I missed again.
“You need a rhythm with your leg,” Prince said. “Steady rhythm, up-down, up-down.”
But I was too slow, or kicked the mound of rubber-bands too hard so it flew away, or too soft that it fell limply under my feet. Then, I quit.
So, when he wasn’t kicking up his hacky-sack, Prince and I sat in the sun drawing comics in our notebooks: mine, stories of Power Man on international espionage missions; his comprised of giant-sized animals living with regular-sized people.
One Sunday a month, we were allowed to leave the school gates for a few hours. We went down the road till the Main Chowk, ate dosas at a South-Indian restaurant at the bazaar, and then walked all the way till the book shop near the post-office to spend our pocket-money on Champak comics. Back in the dorm, we requested the head warden to re-assign us to the same bunk-bed: I climbed the ladder to the top; Prince tucked into his red Manchester United blanket in the bottom.
It got colder, and with the final exams coming up before the Christmas holidays, we began to spend more time in the library. One day, Prince discovered old bound collections of women’s magazines like Femina or Gladrags. The magazines were kept in the dark, dampest corners of the library, in the metal cupboards for which we needed to ask the librarian for a special key. We lied to her that we were picking out issues of SportStar instead. In the women’s magazines, we turned to the ‘Letters’ section to read excitedly about older ladies asking for advice for sexual problems. It was our little secret, and we vowed that we would never tell any of the other boys in the class about it.
By December, the sun set earlier after school, and even though I knew that the exams were only a week away, I could barely convince myself to revise. There was precious sunlight in the afternoons to be wasted looking into textbooks, and it was too cold at night in our uninsulated dorm to sit still and concentrate. The only subject I felt confident about was Sanskrit, but now, even that could be a problem if I was to be blamed for the vandalism. Pathana, pathami, pathati.
“Hey you: you want to play?”
Rastogi had decided that it was time for all of the boys to play Chor-Police. Cops and robbers. He squinted his eyes up at me. A caboodle of his friends stood behind him like well-trained hounds. Ravi and KP were there too, a fearful distance away from Rastogi, knowing that he had usurped their afternoon activity.
His question felt more like a threat than an invitation.
“I can’t,” I squeaked. “I have to go to the library.”
“Idiot Prahlad,” Rastogi pointed at me. “Too scared you won’t be able to catch me, huh?”
I didn’t answer. It was pointless playing Chor-Police with Rastogi and his friends. They were marplots to the game, always the robbers, always hiding in places outside the agreed boundary, like in the senior-school dorm with Rastogi’s elder brother or around the new, under-construction auditorium on the south-side of the school. Sometimes, Rastogi would just quit the game when he felt he was done playing and leave for afternoon tea, or head back to our dorm.
“Yaar, this Idiot will get us all in trouble with Madam Patel, you know?” Ahmed, thinner and taller than Rastogi, said from behind him. “Him and his Chinki friend. Hey, Prahlad.” Now, Ahmed looked at me. “You know they are going to ban TV for the whole dorm this Sunday?”
“What?” I asked.
“Yes, yes. I heard Madam Patel and the Principal talking. No TV. Punishment. Because of you, we’re going to miss the Final. Unless someone confesses, the whole dorm will miss the Final.”
“The whole dorm?”
“I heard Sister Sabrina say they’ll take away our tuck-cupboard keys, too,” Rastogi added. “No TV and no tuck. All because of Idiot and Chinki.”
Rastogi came up closer to me. His breath reeked with the unmistakable scent of Uncle Chipps. Salt-N-Vinegar flavour.
I lowered my eyes. “I have to go now.”
“You better confess to Madam Patel tomorrow or we will…”
“But,” I looked around, hoping Prince would appear to my side. “…But I didn’t do it!”
“Find out who did it, Idiot.”
“Maybe you did it,” I suddenly shot back. “You’re in Sanskrit class, too.”
“Behenchod,”he cursed grabbed me by the wrist with one hand. With the other, he slapped me on the back of my head. He had a firm grip and held me tight until my forearms wimped. Then, he grumbled something to Ahmed under his breath. They laughed and he let me go.
I would be safer in the library, I knew. For all the places the chors used to hide, they would never choose the library.
The library was private and quiet, and most of the people who came in there were quiet, too. Prince was late—it was a Thursday, one of his ‘T and S days’, when his parents called from Nagaland. On Tuesdays and Thursdays and Saturdays and Sundays, he would sit in the phone-booth, giving his mother and father both detailed summaries of his life: the type of food we were served for breakfast (always a one-egg omelette), which warden scolded him the most (always Sister Sabrina, and always for his middle-parted hair), and which classes he was struggling with (Sanskrit). Sometimes, they prayed on the phone. Prince was the only Christian in the class, so all his prayers ended with an ‘Amen’.
At the library, I walked past a group of elder boys—Class Tenth or Eleventh—sitting by the newspaper rack in front of the librarian’s desk. All of their shirts were untucked, their sleeves rolled back, and their house-ties loosened a little. I knew I could never leave dorms like that without getting reprimanded by one of the Sisters. Also seated in the library was my classmate Rimi, the Sardarni, reading quietly by herself, fiddling with her pony-tails.
I found a spot in my favourite corner, the two-person bench nestled between the collections of Quantitative Aptitude books and our favourite cupboard of old bound magazines. The spot was shielded by long rows of shelves. The last time I had been here, Prince had shown me an exciting new discovery: Bible comics. The Sisters and teachers had left an entire collection—fifteen or twenty of them—with positive moral lessons for children from the Old Testament, like Abraham who nearly sacrificed his son for God; or Job, who wasn’t enraged after God slaughtered everything he loved. My favourite ones were the stories of scandal and nudity, like the very first when a pale-skinned Eve strolled around a forest naked with only conveniently-situated leaves guarding her private parts. Or the one about King David, who saw Bathsheba bathing from his roof and invited her over to his chambers for some adult fun-time. David was my favourite character, because he was small and beat a giant with a stone, and he became the King, and he got to summon beautiful naked women to his room.
“You little fucker,” I heard a voice over my shoulder. “Bhonsu, look at this little fucker, reading sexy comics. Little fucker with a little boner.”
It was one of those elder boys—untucked shirt, loose tie—who had quietly hovered around me to see my nose deep into Bathsheba’s bath. His face was glowing in a wild shade of red.
“Look, Bhonsu,” he shouted over to his friend again. “Come see.”
“Shh!” reprimanded the librarian from the far end.
I slapped the comic shut in embarrassment. Rimi, who had been disturbed by the commotion, was looking straight at me. I pushed my chair back; it further violated the silence of the library with an ear-piercing screech against the wooden floor.
“No, no,” the same red-faced one grabbed my shoulders. “Sit, sit, Little Boner. Have your way, haha.”
I shrugged him off, and, with a failed attempt to make myself seem invisible, walked down the long hallway, past encyclopaedias and the Ruskin Bond section and the newspapers in the front, and finally, out to the cold winter freedom.
I didn’t see Prince at dinner, even though Thursday was meat day at MSS. I sat in my usual corner of the noisy hall, with an empty seat opposite me. I didn’t make eye contact with anyone else.
I didn’t see Prince later that evening during Quiet Study Time in the dorm either, and began to worry. I wondered if the other boys had done something. I had once heard from Sonu that, back in Class Three—before I was sent to MSS—Rastogi and Ahmed had pushed a kid at the swing-set, breaking his spectacles. The kid cried all afternoon, and when he left for the summer break, he never came back to the school.
The Sisters rang the 8:30 PM bell, which meant that all seventy-two of us junior-school boys—Classes First to Fifth—had to get ready for bed. The dorm was a large hall that accommodated dozens of bunk-beds in neat rows squeezed close to each other. The whole room was ever-submerged in our combined odour of grime and sweat and mouldy bedsheets. It was cold as our bare feet scampered on the cement floor, colder on the wet bathroom tiles, and cold everywhere expect under the cocoon of my blanket. We brushed our teeth and washed our faces. Some even combed their hair to look neat and decorous as if they had an appointment elsewhere in their dreams. Some, like Sonu the Snotface, ran straight from the sports field to dinner to bed, resting in a cover of their grease and sweat.
I didn’t see Prince in the bathrooms or near the cupboards when I changed into my pyjamas. When I climbed up our bunk-bed, he wasn’t there in the bottom bunk reading his comics. I shivered until I got under my covers.
Prince and I had spoken about running away from MSS before. On the ramp up to the school building, there was a ledge that overlooked a jungle in the khud below. We had fantasised how we would do it: jump over the ledge into the jungle, roll down the hill, squeeze under the barb wire at the bottom, and then jump over the gate that was the final bastion of our imprisonment. We knew it would be big trouble, but it was fun to imagine what we would do next. Prince used to say that he wouldn’t dare to get caught, afraid that his parents would punish him even more severely than the school, that he would just walk back up to the school gate.
When I thought about it, I realised that I wasn’t afraid of any punishment. How far was Delhi, I wondered? When Daddy and I got into the train in July, I had slept all night, and we only reached near the mountains when we woke up. If I went home, Daddy would be happy to see me, wouldn’t he? Or maybe I would go to Mummy’s house first. Maybe she would be happier than him. It didn’t matter: I just wanted to leave.
I didn’t hear Prince return to the bunk below before I fell asleep. I wondered if he did it. If he actually ran away.
Prince wasn’t there when I woke up the next morning. His red blanket was tucked tight into his bed just like it had been the night before.
I got ready for school, alone, last among the rows of bunkbeds. I put on my cleanest white school-shirt, clipped on the blue house-tie, and added an extra layer of polish on my black Bata shoes.
“Prahlad Singh, you’re getting late,” I heard Sister Prasanna’s nasal voice, gnawing me to hurry. “Assembly begins in five minutes.”
From my cupboard, I stuffed a 20 rupee note in my pocket—the last of my pocket-money for the term—and rushed to the door.
“Good morning, Sister,” I mumbled. She glanced at my hair (side-parted) and my nails (clipped and clean) and allowed me out. I rushed up the ramp to school, overlooking the ledge that led down the jungle in the khud, and huffed and sweated to get to class before Rastogi and Ahmed. “Oye, Idiot,” Rastogi said when he saw me pass by. “Where’s that Chinki friend of yours?”
I saved my breath, panting my way up in the thin mountain air.
By the time Sanskrit class rolled around, Madam Patel wasn’t in a mood to teach again. She sat behind her desk—now with a piece of paper cello-taped across the offending artwork—and stared at us opposite her. She wore a threatening black shade of eye-liner underneath her eyes. It was impossible to look away. “Anyone have anything to confess?” she asked. Ten minutes of silence followed, when the only sounds in the room were sniffling noses and soft coughs, and then, Madam Patel told all of us to stand up. “All of you: spend the rest of the period outside.”
We huddled out together, leaving Madam Patel alone in the classroom. She lowered her forehead and buried her face on the table.
“Where is he?” Rastogi asked me in the hallway outside. “Where’s Chinki?”
“I don’t know.”
“He did this. He’s the only one who says that ‘F’ word. Tell us where he is.”
All eyes of the Five-B class now turned to me.
“I’ll slap you back to your mother’s house, you understand?” Rastogi said. “Just confess you and Chinki did it, and we’ll be able to watch the game on Sunday.”
“You confess,” I shouted back.
With a wide-open palm, Rastogi smacked me by the side of my head, sending my side-parted hair awry over my forehead. I was caught unaware, slow to react, like a failure to gauge the hacky-sacks Prince would kick in my direction. It stung. Sharp like a Himalayan winter breeze. I squealed and buckled down to my knees on to the dusty concrete floor.
The class gave Rastogi room to operate, backing further away from us. Rastogi stood above me as I crouched down, feeling even smaller than him. I didn’t want to look up, but I could sense his lips seething, daring me to act.
“Tell her you did it,” he repeated.
“Stop it, Rastogi,” I heard Sonu Snotface’s sniffling voice. “Don’t hit him.”
“Huh? What will you do about it.”
“I’ll tell on you,” Sonu walked forward from the crowd. “Don’t hit him. I’ll tell on you.”
And then, all of their black Bata shoes dispersed away from me. Boy shoes and girl shoes. I wanted to stay right there, staring at the swirl of dust on the floor underneath me, looking at the footprints in the dust, hearing their shoes grind against the floor, looking down till they all went away somewhere—probably the sports field—and a solitary drop of snot fell out of my nose and on the ground, and there were no more sounds. No more except for a faint sob, and I knew that it was Madam Patel inside the classroom.
School ended, and Prince was still missing. I sat alone in the sports field, feeding on pockets of direct winter sunlight as my anodyne, waiting for him to return.
Prince didn’t appear, but KP came up to me in his orange cap, with Ravi and three other classmates trailing closely behind.
“Hey Prahlad,” KP said.
“Do you want to play Chor-Police? Yaar, we are one short. We want to play three catching three.”
It was just them, the usual group who liked to play. No Rastogi, no Ahmed.
“Sure,” I said.
“Great,” KP smiled. “You want to be Chor or Police?”
“Hmm,” I twitched my cheek for a second, as if I needed to contemplate. “Police,” I said. “I’ll catch the Chors.”
“Okay. Then, me, you and Vipin are Police, okay? You guys, go hide now,” he told the rest. “We’ll follow you after counting to hundred.”
We were in a team, yes, but I wanted to operate all by myself. So, once we finished the count, we separated: KP went to the classrooms, Vipin ran up to the senior school offices, and I decided to walk back towards the dorms. I had a faint idea of my game-plan but was too afraid to let it crystallise in my own mind, as if thinking about it would make it too real.
I walked down the ramp, isolated but for the birds chirping up on the branches of devdar trees above. I found the lowest spot on the boundary of the ledge of the ramp, the spot Prince and I had talked about. It came up to my shoulders. I glanced around, ensured I was alone, and then grunted and climbed up the stone ledge. I had to use more strength than I thought I had in my arms to lift up the rest of myself. Muscles and strength, I told myself, Like Power Man. My shirt got scraped and my tie clipped off and fell back behind me.
I sat on the ledge, with one leg dangling back into the path and one over the khud. There was a steep hill of green and brown falling down into my right, a jungle of devdar, and shrubs, and rocks, and ferns, and those stinging nettles that Sister Sabrina warned us about to dissuade us from ever braving our way down the jungle.
“Prince,” I shouted at nobody below. “Prince? Are you there?”
And so, I jumped into the khud, landed on the heels of my Batas on some loose rocks, and began to slide down, helpless to the force of gravity. It was colder here in the shade of the trees, but they also disguised my escape. I felt safe. I fell on my butt and tried to keep some balance as I skidded. The back of my shirt scrapped against more loose rocks, and I felt a sting on the side of my shoulders.
It took less than a minute, and the descent, which used to seem like an impossible abyss in the jungle, was suddenly scaled. I was bruised and muddied, but I knew then what I had to do. There was enough space to wiggle out underneath the rows of barb-wire at the bottom of khud. There was renewed strength in my arms to lift myself over a fence. I landed on my feet out on a pucca motorable road, into the public realm, outside the school.
I knew the way down this road from past trips to the bazaar. I wondered if Prince had taken the same path yesterday, if he had made it all the way out of town, if he had gone back to Nagaland.
Down at the main chowk, the mountain serenity was suddenly disturbed by dozens of taxis shuttling visitors in and out of Mussoorie. Buses dropped off tourists and pilgrims, and rickshaw-wallahs tinkled by, offering trips to the Company Garden or Kempty Falls. Smells of sizzling chhola batura spiced up the late afternoon air.
It was my first time here alone and unsupervised. I walked down to the bus-stop, where a man with sprouts of white hair frothing out his ears sat behind a desk. He was lodging something into a register in front of him.
“I want to go to Delhi,” I told him. I knew I must have looked helpless and beaten, wearing a dirty white shirt and no house-tie. “How much is the bus there?”
“To Delhi? Take this bus to Dehradun first. Then take an interstate to Delhi.”
“How much is the bus to Dehradun?”
“Just 25 rupees.”
“And to Delhi?”
He looked at me more intently now. “Hundreds, beta,” he said. “Where are your parents? Are you alone?”
“No, no…” Slowly, I backed away from his counter.
The man nodded and turned back into his register. Hundreds? I reached into my pocket to feel the only cash I had, a soggy twenty-rupee note. I froze at the prospect of freedom, like a docile dog suddenly released from its master’s leash, immobile in its spot. I wondered if, even if I did get home, where exactly would I go? Would I go to Daddy’s house or to Mummy? Who would I stay with after the first night? Would Daddy keep me with him, or would he take me to see Mummy? Would he let me see her at all? Would they pass me between one and the other at the Bengali restaurant at South-Ex market every week, just like they had done for all those years before MSS?
No, I didn’t want to go home, I decided. I was going to walk back. Back to school.
On my return, I walked around the fence I had scaled and to the school’s main entrance, the large steel silver gates which secured in all the students. It had gotten much colder, and I wished that I had worn my sweater so I wouldn’t look shrivelled into myself. It was dusk and there was a guard sitting alone in the guardhouse, an old Garhwali man with a thick moustache that twirled round circles over his cheeks.
“Arre!” he stood up at attention when he saw me. “What happened to you?”
“I fell,” I cried. “I was playing Chor-Police and I fell.”
He eyed me suspiciously for a moment before his shoulders relaxed. “No problem, beta,” he said in a soft voice. “What class are you in? Let’s go back up to your dorm, okay?”
“We’ll deal with you tomorrow, young man,” Sister Prasanna, the tallest and heaviest of the wardens, told me when I confessed my attempted escape. I had dinner in an empty hall after everyone else was done. The school allowed me to make an after-hours call home; I called Mummy first, and then Daddy, but neither of them picked up. Sister Prasanna ushered me back to the dorm.
It was Quiet Study Time, and my classmates were sitting in groups around a few of their lower bunk beds with their textbooks. There was a big group of eight or nine of them, all around the lower bunk of my bed. And in between, lying in his pyjamas on his bed sideways like a statue of the Reclining Buddha, with a triumphant smile on his face, was Prince.
“Hey Prahlad,” KP was the first to see me back. “Where were you all day?”
“We thought you got lost!” Ravi added.
“Idiot is back, huh?” Rastogi smirked.
But I could barely hear them; I was just staring at Prince, who looked relaxed in his dominion, unusually riant in the midst of our other classmates.
“Prince!” I said. “What happened to you? Are you okay?”
Rastogi squeezed himself next to Prince on the bottom bunk and grabbed his shoulders. “He did it, you know that, Idiot? Your friend, Ch—… Your friend, Prince. This fuckami. This fuckami did it.”
Rastogi was eating a packet of Uncle Chipps. Salt-N-Vinegar. He offered the packet to Prince, who gleefuly charged a hand in to retrieve a giant, crispy piece.
“What an artist you are!” Rastogi said to Prince. “Fuckami, fuckasi, fuck-what? Fuck something, haha.”
And Ahmed and Ravi and KP and even Sonu laughed.
“But… But what happened?” I asked. “Prince, did you get in trouble.”
“They kept him in the seniors’ dorm last night,” Rastogi said, speaking for my friend. “Sister Sabrina found his notebooks…”
“With all the cartoons…” Ahmed added.
“And he had so many, so many cartoons of Madam Patel hahaha…” Rastogi laughed.
“Then they came to him and showed him,” Ravi said, squealing and laughing as he spoke. “Didn’t they Prince? Didn’t Principal himself call you in his office?”
Prince smiled and confirmed in a low voice. “Yes, Principal himself called me.”
“And Prince told the Principal it was him. Told him to his face!” Rastogi’s voice reached a conspiratorial, excited high pitch.
“I did, I did,” Prince said.
“So… So,” I looked around at the rest of their boys, feeling weak under my knees, suddenly wishing I was upstairs, safe in my own bunk, separated from everyone else’s reach. “So, what will happen to you?”
“I got a short suspension,” Prince said. “Early Christmas holiday! My parents are coming from Nagaland to pick me up tomorrow.”
“Wow, yaar,” Ahmed creeped up to the other side of the bed, looking at Prince admiringly. “Now you get to go home.”
“Yaar, Prince,” asked KP, “What does it mean, that word you wrote?”
“It means…” Prince said and laughed sheepishly to himself, “…It means what Principal and Madam Patel do after school.”
There was a rapturous overflow of laughter. All of them—even those like KP whom I knew still didn’t understand—began to howl out with contagious amusement.
“Chalo, Prince,” Rastogi said and stood up. “At least now we can watch the game on Sunday. And you get to go home. All problems solved.”
Right on time, 8:30 PM, the dorm bell rang dingdingding. “Sleep time, children,” Sister Sabrina walked into the hall. “Boys, get ready for bed.”
“Chalo, see you later, huh?” Rastogi offered Prince a handshake.
“Later,” Prince smiled and shook his hand.
I changed into my pyjamas, brushed my teeth, washed my face, and then came back to the bunk to find Prince all alone, still lying casually on his back, reading one of his Champaks. I didn’t say anything as I climbed up the ladder to get up to my bed. Within a few more minutes, the Sisters turned off all the lights and the entire hall was hushed in darkness.
I waited a few minutes in the dark before turning over to look beneath me.
“Prince,” I whispered. “Prince.”
“Prince, you will go home? Your parents… they won’t be angry at you?”
He yawned. “No. No, I don’t think so.”
“But they…” I still couldn’t understand what had happened. Why he wasn’t afraid. “But they…” I said louder, loud enough for the others to hear us in the dark, “…They don’t have a problem? Taking you back?”
“No problem,” Prince sniffed. “My Dad went to this school, too. He told me he understands.”
“Hey, shut up,” Rastogi, who was sleeping three rows of bunk-beds away from us, shouted back. “Go to sleep, Fuckasi!”
And the rest of the boys laughed out loud again, including Prince below.
“Go to sleep, Prahlad,” Prince said softly when the laughter died down. “It will be okay. Tomorrow, it will all be alright.”
Karan Madhok is an Indian writer and a graduate of the MFA programme from the American University in Washington, DC. His short fiction and translations have been published on The Literary Review, ANMLY, F(r)iction, The Aerogram, and Solstice. He won American University’s 2018 Myra Skralew Award for the best MFA Thesis (prose) and is currently working on his first novel. Karan is the founder and editor of the Indian arts review, The Chakkar.