Green Hills Literary Lantern

The Kind Face of Shiva

 

 

 

He’d failed English in all the quarterly tests, and the final exams were scheduled to begin 26 March, just six days to go. But as always, his stomach would start to tighten right below his navel, each time he looked down and tried to concentrate on the essay. He was a fifth-grader.

He leaned sideways on one hand and stared away, his other hand pushing his hair behind the ear. He combed his hair Sahrukh Khan-style. He sat on the southern end of the verandah outside his room. The pale sun lacked warmth; the chill in the air seeped up his shorts and pierced his faded blue sweater, his only sweater. He smelled the icy straw mat, the mud-plastered wall and the tires of his father’s old bicycle, propped up against the wooden post barely two feet from him. Above the wood-framed tin gate, the pedestrians’ heads nodded by sleepily, the tile-roofs glinted dully, and the smoke from the kitchen window scattered over the clothesline that stretched from the end of the corner rafter to the top of a bamboo planted beside the gate. His father was taking a bath in the backyard, clattering the pump and splashing water over his head, as loudly as ever. It was still two hours to the matinee. He’d heard that beginning today a new movie of Sahrukh Khan was showing at the Jaljala, one of Biratnagar’s three theaters. His classmates would gather at the theater two hours earlier, even though in the first week no one could buy a ticket from the window. You had to buy your ticket from a blackia.   

Just when he was wondering if he’d be lucky enough to get the money, his mother emerged from the kitchen that was on the other end of the L-shaped house. She tipped the potato-rinsed water off the verandah, smiled at him, then assumed a look of warning. “Study well, Babu, Papa is angry.” She wore her faded burgundy sari, its end wrapped into her waistband, a finger-length of vermillion in her center parting, and a dot of sandalwood tika on her forehead.

“Five rupees, don’t forget,” he said, raising his eyebrows.

“I’ll try.”

She helped him secretly. His father was so against movies that Mukund couldn’t even hum a song when his father was around. Mukund had to make sure that the cover of his notebook didn’t have a picture of a film star. It felt like a dream, yet he remembered staring at the bright screen in the warm darkness, thrilled and puzzled, his father holding him in his lap and feeding him popcorn, his mother to their side. The movie was Gunaho ka Devata—God of Crimes—starring Jeetendra, his mother had told him.    

Finally, he heard it—the faint, high-pitched crackle from the jeep. He jerked upright, breathless, his eyes fixed on the white convex of the Shiva temple that glimmered against the edge of the side mossy wall of the unpainted house to his right. The male voice echoed in the distance behind the kitchen, as if it were coming from that direction. It drowned out the noise of his father, the words so distorted Mukund could hardly make out anything except the name of the theater. He was up on his feet when the echo bounced off the roofs and the image of Sahrukh Khan, from the shoulder up, blasted by—he was in wraparounds. Mukund froze, the cloud of dust thinning over the gate, the echo—now he could hear Don—fading into the south horizon, his mind chasing the billboard as it raced past the kids jumping and cheering outside their houses. Suddenly, the noise from the pump snapped back into his consciousness, and he sat again on the cold mat, eyes on the notebook, burbling, “The cow is a four-footed domestic animal.”

 

“This goddamned real estate!” his father griped at his plate, tossing the rice and potato curry into a ball, his other hand on the kneecap. His face was dimmed by a month’s growth of beard. “I can’t believe we haven’t gotten to eat fish in two months.”

“Don’t worry,” his mother said in her comforting voice, “today you’ll surely find a client.”  

They sat in a triangle, Mukund cross-legged like his father—the only proper way to sit while eating or reading, according to his father—his mother on her heels next to the clay stove. Though equally thin, she was a shade lighter than both of them, with bright eyes. She’d rolled the sleeves of her blouse up to the elbows to hide the holes in the forearms. His father wore a plaid lungi and a gray T-shirt, his breast pocket inflated with a small thin diary in which he kept his money: five-, ten- and twenty-rupee notes. The food and the dark steel water glasses in the midst of them sucked up the dull light of the two-feet-by-one window.

“I don’t think so,” his father said. “Who’d want to buy a plot on farmland that has no access to roadway and has no electricity and water supply?”

As he ate, Mukund resisted the impulse to reach up and remove his hair from his eyebrows. His belly knotted in impatience; the food in his mouth tasted like cardboard. His father had finished two-thirds of his rice and she was still talking the same everyday nonsense. Mukund caught her attention and frowned slyly, his eyes back on the plate before his father straightened to take a gulp of water.

“Trust Lord Shiva,” she said to his father.

"He helps liars,” his father said, replacing the glass, double the size of Mukund’s. “But I’m not going to lie that most of the plots are already sold, that the municipality has passed a budget for this area and within six months it’s sure to turn into one of the best suburbs of the city.”    

His father was referring to his coworkers, who didn’t feel any qualm about lying. Mukund had met a couple of them when he’d accompanied his father to the vegetable market. They all seemed so jolly Mukund felt sure each of them took their son to the movies every Saturday.

“I wouldn’t have to rot in real estate if I’d listened to my father and continued my education. I was so damn stupid I didn’t even sit for the tenth-grade exams,” his father said. After a moment, he added, “But some people’s eyes don’t open until they suffer in life.” 

It wasn’t hard for Mukund to sense that the last words were directed at him.

“Don’t be sad. Babu will do what you couldn’t. He’ll become famous one day.”

“Sure, as famous as a blackia,” his father said, “selling tickets outside a theater.” His father had seen him outside the theaters a few times.

“You say whatever comes to your mouth,” his mother protested politely. “In your time you too used to watch movies. So did you become a blackia? There isn’t a single boy in the entire neighborhood like Babu.” His mother ladled more rice and curry, even as his father refused, her glass bangles clinking.  

His father continued along the same murky line, and his mother listened quietly. It was only when his father was masticating the last morsel that she ventured, her voice casual, “What cheap vegetables a hawker was selling outside the gate yesterday! There was spinach, too. I’ve asked him to come by today. I’m thinking of cooking spinach for supper.”

His father looked up, as if counting cracked tiles, running his tongue over his teeth. Mukund dropped his eyes as his father flicked her a hard, knowing glance.

“Just twenty rupees,” she said.

Mukund could imagine the flash in his father’s eyes.

I will get spinach from the market on my way back,” his father said, and turning to Mukund, “you are not to step out the gate until I return, do you understand?” Then he rose to his feet and ducked out the cock-eyed bamboo door. 

    

Over the buzz and shouts of the road floated Kishor Kumar’s crisp voice: Khaike pan Banaras wala, khul jaye band akal ka tala. It came from the roof of the pink three-story building. The song was from the old Don. When Mukund was a child, his father used to sing it while bathing. Mukund stood in the warm sun, smoothing his back hair, the other hand in his shorts pocket. Next to him a knot of four tall well-dressed men smoked and chatted in soft, cheerful voices. Each time a bicycle trilled past, a chill shot through him, even though on a Saturday his father wasn’t likely to pass down this road on his way to the courthouse. Mukund repeatedly told himself to return. He had only come to see the billboard. But it felt so hard to move he kept saying to himself, Just a little longer. After all, his father wouldn’t come back before 6:00, not before 4:00 anyhow—he’d be visiting the agent and the people who had shown even the slightest interest in buying land. 

The billboard hung in the center of the three-foot-wide wall that cut the balconies in equal halves. Sahrukh Khan froze in the midst of taking a step. He looked more handsome than ever in his overcoat and sunglasses, his hair combed back around a center part, a revolver in his hand, his face stylishly angled down. The tallest of the four men compared Sahrukh Khan with Amitabh Bachhan and Dilip Kumar, the rest nodding and smiling in agreement. Exhilaration burned in him as Mukund imagined Sahrukh Khan shooting down guys, good and bad alike, without flinching even a little as in Bazigar, which had made him a star. In that movie Sahrukh Khan murdered the girl he pretended he wanted to marry. How cruel a character, but what great acting! Sahrukh Khan was the actor his classmates talked about the most, and Mukund too put him above all the Indian actors, in looks as well as acting. 

The men looked like government employees. When he grew up and started earning money, he’d also be able to watch a movie whenever he pleased. He’d take over the financial burden of the family, and his father would feel so relaxed he wouldn’t bother how often Mukund went to the movies. Mukund wanted to tell these men that Sahrukh Khan was his favorite actor, too, and he’d watched all his movies that had ever played in Biratnagar, each of them the first day, the first show.   

The crowds on either side, above and below the billboard, chatted and smoked. Kids leaned into the rail, in fours and fives, grinning at the traffic, their arms propped up before them. One was his own group: Biren, Prakash, Shyam and Mahesh. They looked excited, not a shred of worry about the exams on their faces. From time to time, as their eyes met his, they smiled and shouted, “Hey Sahrukh, come upstairs,” making lots of people turn their heads to Mukund. Each time he smiled back and raised his palm, as if to say, Just a minute, filled with envy as much as self-importance at being called the name of the superstar. He resisted the temptation to go up and ask for help. He wanted them to guess that he was with his father, who had gone to the restroom or somewhere. He wished he hadn’t made his mother ask his father for money, for that’s what had triggered his father’s injunction.  

There were three blackias, but right now he saw only one, selling tickets on the other side of the road. Mukund could see his crown above the crowd. His grimy face and the upturned collar of his old denim jacket came into view only once in a while, when someone pulled out of the crowd, ticket and change clutched tight in his fist, sleeve crumpled from the struggle, face reddened and happy. Mukund and his friends always bought the pink one for the front stalls.  The crowd jostled around the blackia, letting out polite, frantic yelps, as if he were really their elder brother: “Gopi Dai, here’s my money, Gopi Dai!” They pushed their bills at his face, scraping one another’s shoulder, not giving a damn about the vehicles that honked and beeped, easing past. Even as he remembered his father glaring as he said blackia, Mukund thought with envy of how the blackias could get in and out of the theaters at will, as if they owned them, the gatemen never stopping them.

The warning bell went off as soon as the song stopped. The balconies emptied, the men in front of him vanished, and the crowd around the blackia that had thinned began to wrestle as they shouted. Mukund was turning around, heavy-hearted, when he noticed Biren right in front of him, buying popcorn.  

“Biren!” he called, dodging wildly between a rickshaw and a car.

“What? Aren’t you watching the movie?”

“My father left before I woke up. I’ll pay you back.”   

“I’m sorry, but I don’t have,” Biren said, four packets of popcorn held up against his cream-colored jacket. 

“Biren, please.”

“I’m telling the truth.” Biren started for the entrance, ducking through the crowd.

Mukund followed, grabbing at his friend’s fat arm. “Okay, here’s an idea. You enter the hall, come out with the stub and give it to me.”

“And me?” Biren smirked, stopping beside the chatpati vendor next to the entrance.

“You can enter without it. The doorman will recognize you, he won’t ask you to show your ticket stub so soon.”

“Okay,” Biren said, rushing in to join the line.

Mukund waited outside in the cold shade, pushing a hand through his hair, half wishing Biren would not show up. A line of kids, his age and older, shuffled into the doorman, each pushing the one in front. The walls above their heads displayed the colorful posters of newly released movies. The door to the stalls was open just enough for one person to enter. The doorman, tall and thick-set, in a black coat, tore the tickets one by one, returning the halves, looking alert that nobody slipped in without a ticket. Well-dressed couples entered, green and yellow tickets in their hands, and hurried up the stairs, their kids pushing after them.

Finally, Biren emerged and Mukund was stepping forward for the ticket when a voice thundered his name. He turned around to his father’s glare over the passing car roofs and felt his bones chill.

  

Deaf to the vehicles and pedestrians, he chanted Shiva’s name to himself—something he always did when he felt certain that his father would beat him, and almost every time his father would stop short of that. Mukund sat astride the rear carrier, clutching the back edge of the saddle, his thongs on the ends of the hub.

Namaskar, Mishraji,” he heard a voice close to the temple.

Namaskar,” his father answered in the voice of a man ailing for a month, and braked next to Uncle Jha, Prakash’s father, right in front of the temple.

Mukund bowed to the statue, seated in a yoga posture on a platform, life-size, milk-colored, its calm, compassionate face staring out the door at Mukund, a huge trident planted to its side. 

“Where are father and son coming from?” Uncle Jha said in a bantering tone, and grinned, his eyes shifting from his father to him and back. He wore a black jacket and dhoti and looked as breezy as ever, a sandalwood tika, like his mother’s, on his large forehead.

“Go study,” his father said, turning his head around, both his voice and look restrained.

Mukund rushed back to the mat and bent his head over his notebook, the same first page of “The Cow,” stealing glances toward the gate. His lips quivered as he continued to chant. He regretted not getting back right away. He could imagine his father nodding with a tight-lipped, half wan smile as Uncle Jha praised Prakash, who always stood first in their class: Though God didn’t give him wealth, he was grateful to Him that He gave him such a son. He didn’t remember he’d ever had to urge Prakash to study. Things like that. Uncle Jha wouldn’t say a word about his son watching every movie.  Mukund’s father would stare at Uncle Jha pensively, lamenting how very different Mukund was.

“Good you’re back early,” his mother choked out, emerging from the backyard with the washing, her shoulders hunched from the weight of the plastic tub. She shook out the twisted lump of his shirt, holding the seam of its shoulders with her fingers, and flung it on the clothesline. “Don’t be careless, Babu.” She smoothed the wrinkles of the drenched fabric with the back of her pale soaked fingers. “See how worried your father is about you.” Her hair had gone fluffy around her face, and her sleeves had come unrolled, showing the frayed cuffs. “You can see the movie after the exams. I’ll make Papa give you the money.”    

Mukund wanted to come right back at her, telling her he was reading, she needn’t kick up a fuss. But he knew his father could storm in any second. He couldn’t even make himself tell her his father had spotted him at the theater and was outside talking to Uncle Jha. Mukund listened for the sound of the gate, while she sweet-talked him, hanging clothes one after another, patting away their crinkles. “How well you used to study, Babu! You never used to fail English. Why don’t you study like that again and show your father how sharp you are?”

Mukund didn’t know why he hadn’t failed English in the earlier grades, why he hadn’t ever failed the rest of the subjects. Maybe all the teachers except Kamal Sir had been impressed with his father’s honesty and didn’t want to make him sad. Mukund’s head was up and he was hoping his father had gone back to work when the latch clunked, causing his heart to swing into his mouth. He tossed his head down and heard his father stomp over.   

“What did I tell you when I was leaving?” his father said, his voice quiet, as if he just wanted to test Mukund’s memory.

Mukund felt his neck stiffen.    

“He didn’t go anywhere today.” He pictured his mother fold her sleeves back up as she approached. “He’s been reading ever since you left.”   

He expected his father to shout at her.

“What did I tell you?” 

The title was a lonely nameless creature, the rest of his handwriting like a huge swarm of bees about to engulf and crush it, his father’s trousers and his mother’s sari a blur of white and burgundy against the edge of the verandah. He felt throttled and dazed. His mother’s silence made him think she’d probably guessed the thing. He braced both cheeks, not knowing which one his father was going to strike first.

“He’s just a child,” his mother said.

“Shut up,” his father shouted, then hissed through clenched teeth, “Child.” Mukund could imagine his father’s bristly face twisted into a grimace. “It’s you who’s been spoiling him,” he shouted again.

When his father left, Mukund looked up, took a deep breath, then leaned to one side and let his body go slack. His mother sat in the kitchen doorway, with a heap of rice on a soop—a tray made of fine bamboo strips—her sleeves rolled up to the elbows. As she weeded stones from the rice, he combed his hair with his fingers, watching the pedestrians’ profiles bobbing behind or past one another. He thought of his classmates seated warm and snug inside the dark theater, watching the movie, their arms stretching behind their heads, one on another. He shouldn’t have approached Biren for help. Now he couldn’t even lie to them that he too saw the movie first show.

    

An hour and a half after the exam had begun, he was still trying to find the nerve to take his hand off the desk and move it toward the crib sheets in his pocket that crushed his thigh and sent ticklish waves upward. Though the pocket didn’t face the aisle, it swelled out terribly. To hide it, he sat on the edge so his chest touched the desk. That’s my wallet, he’d say if Kamal Sir noticed it. But the thought that Kamal Sir might ask to see it gave him the shivers. He stared around or pretended to be doing grammar, ticking a box here, putting a preposition in a blank there, all wild guesses. He felt sure he wouldn’t do well on this.

As usual, the sitting arrangement was two students to each bench. Everybody except Mukund wore the liver-colored uniform sweater. The principal had repeatedly told him to ask his father to buy him one, but Mukund kept neglecting to do so, not wanting to add to his father’s worries. Outside the window, a mist blurred the playgrounds. The chill bit his face and froze his limbs. In front of him, Prakash wrote swiftly, looking his usual confident self, not at all affected by the weather. Biren, who sat on the other side of the aisle, wrote as speedily, his head bowed low, as if he were writing from memory and didn’t want to be distracted by looking up. For the first time, Mukund envied his courage and cribbing skill. Biren cheated on each exam and maintained a pretty good position in class. Before Kamal Sir entered the room holding a stack of answer books in one hand and a manila envelope full of question papers in the other, Mukund had asked Biren how he managed to do it without ever being caught. “It’s not only difficult but impossible to catch Don,” Biren had answered, feigning the self-assured, nasal voice of Sahrukh Khan. All the boys and the girls had burst out laughing, and Mukund had laughed, too, to make them think that he’d also watched Don. However clever he was, with his round face, fat body and curly hair, Biren didn’t look at all like Sahrukh Khan, Mukund had consoled himself.

Kamal Sir paced the aisle slowly, hands clasped behind him, a ball of cheat sheets in one, his leather shoes clicking against the cement floor. He was dressed in a tweed suit, his belly like a soccer ball double the size used in an inter-school tournament. His bulging eyes darted around. “This is an exam,” he bellowed from time to time, when someone whispered or turned their head around.

Each time Kamal Sir approached, from the front or back, it felt as if he were going to stop and check his pocket. Kamal Sir loved to outsmart his students. He’d uncover their cheat sheets before they got halfway through the first answers, or he’d just wait for the fun of shocking them when only fifteen minutes was left. Mukund imagined his father pulling up on the roadside to greet Kamal Sir and Kamal Sir complaining, “I’m sorry to inform you, Mishraji, that your son has started to crib,” turning his father’s smile into an expression of dismay. Later, over dinner, his father would explode at him, or just moan to his mother, Now this boy cribs, later he’ll burgle.

Mukund sighed hopelessly, then told himself that there was no other option if he wanted to watch the movie. Praying, he reached into his pocket when Kamal Sir was lumbering past toward the blackboard, and in a single movement, he drew one out and pushed it under the answer book before Kamal Sir turned around, facing him. Mukund felt like he’d just touched a cobra. Pretending to be checking his grammar, he waited until Kamal Sir was moving ahead of him again. It was the essay he needed, “Honesty,” worth 15 marks. All the time and effort he’d put into learning “The Cow” had gone to waste. He had to answer four long questions in the literature and composition section, and he had them all. Kamal Sir always tested from the notes he chalked on the blackboard, and Mukund had made a crib sheet of each, sitting curled up in bed, wrapped up in his quilt, while his father muttered to his mother on the other side of the wall. Through the holes in the crisscross of bamboo strips along the top, where mud plaster had peeled off, Mukund could hear his father’s voice like an FM radio with run-down batteries. He wrote tiny letters, very little space between words, imitating Biren, who often showed his crumpled sheets in the school toilet or on the way home, bragging how he’d made a fool of Kamal Sir.

Mukund maneuvered the sheet under the answer book and the question paper so that only one line peeped between them. He copied only when Kamal Sir was stepping forward past him. When Kamal Sir turned around, he slid the question paper down with his fingertips and looked up at the blackboard, pretending to strain his memory. When Kamal Sir pulled up short beside him, he’d shift back to the grammar page, as if to check for mistakes. As he copied and waited, Kamal Sir’s shoes clicked like a nightstick, the pages rustled and flapped like leaves in a sudden gale, the cars beeped from the road like an alarm.     

As the gong rang out, two loud dings, Kamal Sir announced, “Now you have only one hour,” and positioned himself next to the blackboard. Mukund had finished only half of the essay, and to get through he’d have to finish at least one more long-type answer. He frowned at the last incomplete sentence, while Kamal Sir cast his big eyes around.

He prayed again, and as if his prayer had been heard, Kamal Sir walked over and passed by him only to stand at the back. Mukund resumed. When the gong tolled the end of the exam time, Mukund was hurriedly spelling the last word of the second answer, trying to assure himself that Kamal Sir would pass him this time, given that he hadn’t left his answer book blank. He carefully put the crib sheet into his pocket even as Kamal Sir snatched the answer books behind him.   

 

A week after the exams, he waited for his father on the verandah, reading his English notebook by the light of the oil lamp, his voice loud enough to reach the road. The blue fog obscured the gate. The cold made him want to go in, but he wanted his father to see him reading as he entered. He sat straight, cross-legged, his hands knit together in his lap. His father could show up any second. He felt sure he’d fail, and this was the only possible way to soften his father. Each time he thought of the results, he pictured his father’s scornful glare and his mother’s sad, incredulous look. Go study, she’d yell, to alleviate his father’s anger. 

His father arrived when he was thinking of his friends chattering about Don in the classroom, looking proud and contented. The moment he heard the sound of the latch, he cranked up his volume and listened self-consciously to his father shut the gate and wheel the bike in. As soon as the front wheel hit the edge of the verandah, he smelled fish. He looked up at the black polythene bag shining in the light.

“It was a lucky day today,” his father said, giving his first smile in two months. His face was clean-shaven and bright against the thick fog. Nearly as tall as Amitabh Bachhan, his father was not less handsome than any Indian film actor.

“Didn’t I tell you Shiva is very kind?” She smiled back at his father.     

“Yes, He is,” he said, his smile narrowing in mild irony, “once in two months.”

            His father slid the bag out of the handlebar, ducked in and hunkered down against the wall, easing the bag down before him. He did sigh like other days, but it was a loud sigh, one of fatigue mixed with joy. Mukund had let his voice drop to a mumble, though he made sure he sounded serious. As his father explained to his mother in a soft, upbeat voice how the sale went through, Mukund repeated the same sentence over and over, wondering how he’d ever get to watch the movie.

His mother disappeared into the kitchen, and as his father turned around, Mukund looked down and felt his father’s eyes scan his notebook and his face. He hoped there was no anger in them. How his father used to smile at him before he’d started failing! In pre-school days he was the most wonderful father in the world. Every morning, before leaving for work, his father would pedal him around the front yard ten times. Thrilled, Mukund would wave at his mother, as if they were going on a trip, and she’d wave back, grinning from the verandah. His hands gripping the middle of the handlebar, feet on the tops of the forks, Mukund would imagine that he was pedaling and hoot the whole time, filling the yard with his voice.

His mother returned with an aluminum dish and the cutter and set them down next to the bag and squatted in the doorway, smiling. “Babu has worked very hard. I’m sure he won’t fail English this time.”

“I wonder,” his father said. He pulled the cutter closer so that its handle was under his right foot. “When’s the result coming out?”

“Tomorrow,” Mukund said, trying to sound positive.

“Please give him five rupees tomorrow to watch a movie,” his mother said.    

            Mukund kept on, overwhelmed with longing and hope, surprised and grateful that his mother had finally dared to make the request for him.     

“If he passes all his subjects,” his father said, taking out the limp catfish, hardness again in his voice.  

Mukund struggled to keep his voice going, the skin on both sides of his face prickling. Why did his father have to make such a fuss when the school promoted students who failed up to two subjects? The smell of the fish grew awful, nearly gagging him, as his father pushed the dorsal fin up and down against the edge of the curved blade. As much as he liked fish, Mukund wanted the thing to wriggle out of his father’s hand into the fog and disappear.

 

The corridor made him shiver. He smelled lemon as he passed half a dozen girls standing in the sun, close to a pillar. They were from a different class. Out of a loose leaf from an old textbook, they ate chatpati, talking and giggling. Mukund loved chatpati, but not as much as he did movies. Whenever his father gave him a rupee to spend during recess—which was, of course, before he’d started failing English—he’d save it for a movie. He gravitated to the square wooden notice board on the wall next to the principal’s office, even though he knew the results wouldn’t get posted before 11. “Today last day!” the movie jeep had screamed, passing his house, and he’d dreamed that none of his marks was circled in red. Even as he looked at the old exam and fee notices, he heard the teachers’ voices. They were discussing the questions they’d set this year and the way the students had answered them. 

Mukund leaned against the pillar next to the steps, combing the back of his hair with his fingers. He could hear the girls over the muffled voices of the teachers and those from the lawn. In the slowly drying grass sat around twenty in three separate groups, far apart, each forming a circle, chatting, none looking anxious about their results. His own group was far away, in the center of the ground, joined by Salina and Reeta, the girls who had more than once told him his hair was just like Sahrukh Khan’s, each time making him blush. They’d been so absorbed in their conversation that they hadn’t noticed him yet, and he was glad about it.  He was determined not to join them—they’d easily guess that he hadn’t seen the movie yet. He knew what they were talking about. That day at the movie theater, his father must have struck Biren as weird. Biren might even have told everyone by now. His father never got angry at him, he’d lie to them later. That afternoon they were supposed to visit his uncle, he’d tell them, and he happened to forget that. But as soon as they’d returned, his father had himself told him to watch the second show, pressing the money into his hand. 

The rice he’d eaten began to prick holes in his stomach when it looked like past 11 and the clerk hadn’t emerged with the result sheets. If he waited any longer, his father would be gone, he wouldn’t return until late afternoon, and there was no way his father would let him watch the evening show. He made for the door, praying.

“You don’t know?” the principal said, raising his dry, raspy voice. “The results will come out tomorrow.” It was then that Mukund realized that the rest of the students had already come and gone.  

Kamal Sir smiled at Mukund and, like his colleagues, turned back to the principal as he resumed his claptrap. The subject had changed to politics, causes of corruption in the government offices. The principal leaned back in his chair, hands on the armrests, behind the rectangular table draped with a green cloth. Kamal Sir sat in the middle on one side, his thick fingers laced on the ball of his stomach. The principal had a long, pointed nose. He wore a Nepali cap to hide his baldness, Mukund often thought. He spoke with his chin up, red betel dribble staining the corners of his mouth. He sounded like a person paralyzed in the lower jaw. The girls stood in the same place, giggling now and again.

Suddenly, a voice rose, off-key, ending the giggles: Khaike pan Banaras wala, khul jaye band akal ka tala, the new version. It was Biren. As usual, he jerked himself forward as he sang, the rest of the group clapping. It wasn’t loud enough to upset the principal, who went on, looking as if he didn’t even see Mukund anymore. Mukund didn’t leave the doorway, hoping to catch Kamal Sir’s attention. Like the rest of the teachers, he too listened to the principal with rapt attention, nodding and smiling. Mukund tried to assure himself that the movie would come back within a couple of months, even as he knew in his guts that he wouldn’t be able to bear his group’s ridicule. As soon as they learnt that he’d missed the movie, they’d give him sneering looks. What, you missed Don? Look at this Sahrukh Khan. He missed his own movie.

Finally, Kamal Sir turned around. “Can’t you wait for one more day?” he said, interrupting the principal and causing the other teachers to turn around, too. 

“Please, sir, have I passed English?”

“I don’t remember your mark.”

“Please sir, you do remember.”

For a moment Kamal Sir frowned in mock annoyance, then let his face relax. “What do you think?”        

“I think I’ve passed,” Mukund said.

“Then you have.” It was Math Sir, who sat next to Kamal Sir, in his customary dhoti and black jacket. He was a thin, dark-complexioned man.

Mukund turned back to Kamal Sir, breathless with joy. Kamal Sir responded by pursing his lips and raising his eyebrows, as if to reiterate that he didn’t remember. But there was a glint of a smile in his big eyes. Everybody except Kamal Sir was grinning at Mukund, even the principal, in such a way that they might have been congratulating Mukund. Mukund imagined Kamal Sir telling them earlier that he had passed Mukund for encouragement.   

    

His father was exiting the gate, his mother behind the bike — Mukund could make out her hair above the wall. He hoped there was still enough time to make the matinee.

“Here comes your brilliant son,” his father said, his voice as cynical as his gaze. His white kurta reflected the warm, thrilling sun.

His mother emerged, darting to the other side of the bike, pulling her sari over her head, her eyes intense with hope.

“Did the results come out, Babu?” she cried.

Mukund stopped two steps from them. “Yes,” he said, with effort, hoping his face or voice didn’t betray the fact.    

“What happened? Did you pass?” she said, her forehead wrinkled.

“Yes.” 

“English, too?” she said.

He avoided his father’s doubtful stare. “Yes.”      

            She flung her arms wide open and pounced on him, gasping hysterically, her sari slipping down behind her head. Her bangles struck wild delicate chords as she hugged him hard and massaged the back of his head. “I was sure you would. My Babu is brilliant, my Babu, my darling Babu,” she crooned.

The pedestrians turned around and smiled in amusement.

“What?” his father said.

            She swiveled around, straightening up, her hand draped around Mukund’s shoulder. “Didn’t you hear?” she said to his father.

            “You passed English, too?” The skin around his father’s unblinking eyes puckered in a mixed expression of disbelief and joy.

            Mukund nodded yes. 

“You did?” his father said, his voice melted, the crumples gone, eyes lit up.     

            Mukund dropped his eyes to the wheel and hoped his father wouldn’t say, Come on, let’s go see. That he wouldn’t ask the mark, even though Mukund had already settled on the answer: They hadn’t yet put the result sheet on the notice board. It was Math Sir who told him.

            “What do you think of Babu?” his mother said, with an exaggerated note of pride. She’d begun to praise Mukund when there was a sudden jerk of the bike, accompanied by a snap of the kick stand, and before he knew it, Mukund was enfolded in his father’s arms, the prickly stubble rubbing against his cheek. Mukund smelled his father’s warm breath as his father cuddled and kissed him and held him out to look him in the eye.        

            “So you did it, huh?” His father beamed, the skin above the beard flushed, his eyes two dazzling marbles.

            Mukund let out a tight-lipped smile, then turned to his mother, who was already grinning at Mukund. She pulled her burgundy sari back up over her head, the vermillion in her part and her red forehead tika glowing.

“I still can’t believe it,” his father said.   

              “Now stop doubting Babu’s talent.” His mother put on an air of anger. “From now on, don’t say about him whatever comes to your mouth.”

            His father laughed with a backward tilt of his head. “This time he did work very hard,” he said, turning to his mother.

Mukund hardened his eyebrows at his mother and she understood him. 

“Babu has kept his promise and now it’s your turn,” she said.

            “Sure, let’s go,” his father said, rising, his voice as hearty as it used to be when Mukund was little.

            Mukund dashed for the pillion, surprised that his father was accompanying him.

            “Sit here, you dummy!” his father snapped affectionately, tossing his head toward the crossbar.

            The old couple chuckled at them as they hobbled past, and his father chuckled back. Mukund climbed the bar, hoping he wasn’t dreaming. It was when they lurched into motion—his mother waving at Mukund, grinning, and Mukund waving back—that a cold shiver ran through him. What if Math Sir had simply joked, as he often did in class? Mukund tried to assure himself that it couldn’t be so. He remembered the glint in Kamal Sir’s eyes. It was congratulatory, no doubt, and it was the first time Kamal Sir had smiled at him ever since he failed English in the first quarterly. Mukund turned and nodded to Shiva. Tomorrow he’d chant His name right from the moment he woke up till he checked the notice board. Right now he wanted to enjoy the ride with his father and the movie of his favorite hero.

            “Which movie do you want to see?” his father asked as they approached the intersection.

            Mukund answered, tickled and grateful that at long last he was going to watch the movie. He wished his group, at least one of them, would see his father buying him a ticket and accompanying him into the theater, to his seat.

 

 

Krishna Mohan Mishra took his M.A. in creative writing from Miami University in 2005. One of his stories was nominated for inclusion in Best New American Voices (2007). His fiction has appeared in Storyglossia, and he’s working on his first collection of short stories. He teaches English at Nursing Campus, which is located in Biratnagar, the second largest city of Nepal .