WHEN KALYANI, THE first-ranking student of Class Ten walked into the staffroom, Matthew put aside the paperwork he was pretending to work on, and cast a wary glance around himself at the empty desks and chairs. It was the second week of June, the fourth day of the school year. The old round clock perched above the Sarvepalli Radhakrishna portrait on the wall showed ten minutes past five. Both the tube lights in the room were on because low rainclouds had gathered in the sky, bringing with them a low and persistent drone of thunder.
All the other teachers had left. So had the principal, Rammurthy. Matthew had stayed back on the pretext of filling up his class register. ‘Too early in the year to be putting in overtime, isn’t it, sir?’ Mrs Usha Rani, who taught biology to eighth and ninth, had said. He had grinned and replied, ‘Well, madam, Rammurthy Sir has hinted than I am being too much of a grasshopper. Asked me to be a bit more ant-like.’ Mrs Usha Rani had leaned conspiratorially toward him. ‘Maybe he wants you to bite him. Do that on all our behalf, sir.’
Matthew cleared his throat, and watched the fourteen year old girl stand with her thumbs tucked in under the shoulder-straps of her schoolbag. She wore her hair in two plaits, and at the end of each a white ribbon had been tied in an even bow. Her uniform was spotless and wrinkle-free; her thin face appeared fresh and eager. Her mouth – an exquisite mouth, which would only grow in beauty, thought Matthew – was set in a shape that communicated in equal parts allure and obedience. She had a plain golden ring threaded through the hole in her nose that made her look like a bride about to be led to a wedding hall.
Her eyes were her most disappointing feature – too often they assumed a dull, withered look – but this evening, even they were twinkling steadily. Her small bosom rose and fell with each breath she took, and every now and then she caught the corner of her lower lip with her teeth, as if to still her racing mind.
Matthew deliberately let a couple of moments pass in silence between them.
Then from under his register, he pulled out the note she had slipped into his hand that morning, hidden in her English Homework book. He held it with practiced nonchalance, between his index and middle fingers. I get notes like these all the time, he wanted to show her.
‘Good evening, sir,’ said Kalyani.
Matthew nodded his response. Then he came straight to the point, while at the same time noting – not for the first time – that the girl’s nose-ring reminded him of Geeta Sharma, who had taught him Hindi when he was in Tenth himself. He had written a similar note to Mrs Sharma, who was a little pretty thing from Punjab and who made it a point to smile in his direction (or so he had thought) whenever she walked into the class.
‘I hope you have some genuine doubts that you wanted to ask me,’ he told Kalyani, shaking the piece of paper at her. ‘It is not appropriate for a student and a teacher to meet alone like this – in the staffroom.’
‘I do have one genuine doubt, sir,’ said Kalyani, tucking her chin close to her chest, and then raising her gaze to meet his. Matthew felt a little stir in his heart when he saw those long eyelashes flap once. ‘Do you like me?’
Matthew did not reply at once. For a second or two he maintained eye contact with Kalyani, and the six feet between them seemed suddenly to shrink. It was the untold, unheard wish of every teenager – to be liked… loved… approved of by those in power. There was a deeper subtext to Kalyani’s question, though; so he picked his words with care.
‘I do like you,’ he said, and the playful defiance in Kalyani’s eyes turned into something more naked. ‘As a student. You’re attentive. Punctual. Diligent. Mature beyond your years.’
‘Mm hmm,’ said Kalyani. ‘Mature how?’
Matthew wished he had not used that word. ‘Your mind,’ he said. ‘You have a mind that is well-developed compared to your peers.’
‘Is that why I find myself drawn to older men, sir?’ asked Kalyani.
Matthew allowed himself a smile. ‘Do you have any subject-related doubts?’
‘You have always said that language is the study of life,’ said Kalyani. Her voice had dropped now to a low purr, and it made Matthew’s gaze travel down to her white socks, the nylon hugging her calves and accentuating their shape. ‘Is it wrong then that my doubts are life-related?’
‘Okay,’ said Matthew. ‘Okay. Listen, Kalyani. You’re a wonderful girl. You belong to a nice, respectable family. And I have already answered your doubt. I do like you – as a student.’
‘What about as a woman?’
‘You’re not a woman yet,’ said Matthew. ‘You will be a woman sometime in the future.’
‘Will you like me then?’
Matthew smiled. ‘You will not be interested in me then, I think.’
‘I will always be interested in you, sir,’ said Kalyani.
She brought her lazy eyes to fasten onto him as she said those words. And it quickened his pulse. For just a moment he wondered if anyone would know if… outside the low thunder endured, suggesting but not quite bringing rain. A moist breeze entered the room and travelled around the two of them. It seemed to pluck at his fingers.
‘No one will know about this, sir, will they?’ she asked.
‘I will not tell anyone,’ said Matthew. ‘I will tear up this note. But you must promise that this is the last time.’
‘I’ve always thought you had the most penetrating eyes.’
Matthew could not help but blush. He stopped short of saying thank you, however. Where did the girl learn that word?
‘Flattering,’ he said, ‘but not appropriate.’
‘Why?’ asked Kalyani. ‘I really like you. You’re not like the boys in our class.’
‘What do you know about me to really like me?’
‘That is why I am here,’ said Kalyani. ‘I really want to know you. Don’t you want to know me?’
Matthew did not know whether he imagined the slight inflection on the word know that he heard. ‘No,’ he said quietly. ‘What you’re feeling is a rush of hormones, Kalyani. Believe me, you have plenty of time to choose a man for yourself who is in every way your equal –’
‘I think you’re the man for me,’ she said, again with an earnestness that shocked him.
He cleared his throat and coughed into his fist. ‘I am not the man for you,’ he said. ‘You will get a much better man. He will have more money than I do.’
‘I don’t care about money,’ she said. ‘What I do care about is personality. I love your personality.’
‘You know nothing about my personality,’ said Matthew. ‘What you see in class is a performance. A teacher is a performer, you know. An actor.’
‘I can see through your act,’ said Kalyani slyly. ‘I also know that you like me. I’ve seen you look at me.’
Matthew frowned at her. She was a beautiful girl, of course he had looked at her in stray moments during the class. He would not have been human if he hadn’t. What surprised him was that she had been aware of it.
‘I’ve never looked at you in that way.’
‘In what way, sir?’ said Kalyani.
‘In this way,’ said Matthew. ‘In a way that is inappropriate.’
‘You keep using that word,’ said Kalyani, and dropped her bag to the floor. She allowed her arms to rest on her sides now, and Matthew glanced at their length, the hairless glow of the skin on her wrists, and the leaf-like shape of her hands. ‘Why is it inappropriate? You’re not married.’
‘I am not,’ said Matthew.
‘I am not married either,’ she said.
‘It is not proper,’ said Matthew. ‘I am your teacher.’
‘Then teach me to be a woman.’ Her voice dropped to a purr again. ‘Teach me what it takes to win over a man as worthy as you.’
Matthew broke into a smile. She had clearly worked on some of these lines, he thought. She had written them down, she had practiced delivering them in front of the mirror, and she was now using them on him. Still, they were good. And when was the last time a woman said these things to him?
How about never?
‘I am your English teacher,’ said Matthew. ‘I can only teach you English.’
‘Fine,’ said Kalyani. ‘Show me how you would seduce a woman with your words. I will stand here and you can sit there – and you can just – talk to me.’
‘No!’ said Matthew. ‘Okay, I think you need to go.’
‘You have not yet taught me what I want to learn.’
Matthew laughed. ‘What you want to learn from me, my girl, is illegal. If someone came to know –’
‘No one will,’ said Kalyani. ‘There is no one here.’
‘You and I are here.’
‘I won’t tell anyone,’ said Kalyani. ‘If you choose to tell someone, I don’t care. Men are like that, aren’t they? They like to talk about their conquests. I don’t mind if you brag to your friends about me – that pretty girl in your English class who – oh god, you’re making me shy.’
‘I can’t believe this,’ said Matthew. ‘I cannot believe this. Okay, if you don’t leave the room in five seconds, Kalyani, I am going to take this letter and send it straight to the principal’s office tomorrow. And I will come down and speak to your father.’
Kalyani looked at Matthew with a detached expression for a few moments, as if she were examining a specimen. Her eyes assumed their surly shape once again, and with the firm setting of the mouth Matthew felt that a lot of her beauty drained away as his words congealed into her.
‘Do you mean that?’ she asked.
‘Of course I mean that,’ said Matthew.
Anger streaked across her face now. Her hands closed into small fists, and for a wild moment Matthew wondered if she would strike him. He knew he could not defend himself in any meaningful way if she did; she could even turn the tables on him by claiming that he had made a pass at her. The note was ambiguously worded – that she had a few doubts, could she come down to the staffroom after school hours and have them cleared? She would be the innocent student walking into the trap laid out by the predatory English teacher.
Mrs Usha Rani would tell everyone who would listen: I knew it was too early in the year to be doing overtime.
Matthew cursed himself for not having the foresight to record this conversation.
As his mind was racing this way, Kalyani’s anger ebbed, and gave way to hurt. She covered her eyes with her hands and began to weep. ‘I am sorry,’ she said. ‘I am sorry.’
Instinct bade Matthew to go over to the girl and comfort her. Perhaps with a hug. But prudence made him stay put. Instead he said, ‘Listen, Kalyani. Please don’t think that I am rejecting you. You’re a wonderful, wonderful girl. You will make a man very lucky some day.’
‘No, no,’ said Kalyani. ‘I am sorry. What was I thinking? Gah!’
‘It’s just that – it’s wrong, okay? There is nothing proper about me and you –’
‘I get it,’ said Kalyani. ‘I get it.’ She was wiping her eyes now and bending down to pick up her bag.
‘No, I don’t think you do,’ said Matthew. ‘But you will sometime in the future.’
‘Don’t you want your note?’
‘I will tear it up,’ said Matthew, as the girl turned and made for the door.
‘Do what you want with it. I don’t care.’
After Kalyani left, Matthew fingered the note and looked at the cursive handwriting on it. The letters leaned gracefully to the right, and the ‘g’s and the ‘f’s had beautiful flourishes that brought to mind Mrs Geeta Sharma’s writing. On her first day in her class, she had written on the blackboard a sentence (Punjab is the land of five rivers) in cursive. That had been the moment Matthew, watching from the far corner of the back row, fell in love with her.
He held the edge of Kalyani’s note in both hands, as if making to tear it up. But then he thought: no, better keep it.
As he got up to collect his things, the first raindrops fell on the asbestos roof that had been erected outside on tent poles for parent-teacher meetings. He brought out his yellow-and-white umbrella and shook it dry.
He shut the windows of the staffroom, locked its main door from the outside.
He found himself still very aroused by the happenings of the evening. He promised himself to think of Mrs Geeta Sharma in the shower that night.
* * *
For a second evening in a row Matthew found himself alone in the staffroom. Pretending to work. Waiting.
Today Usha Rani Madam had given him a quizzical eyebrow. Matthew had a feeling that if he kept this up, he would begin to garner a bit of a reputation at the school.
N. Abhishek, the third-ranking student of Class Ten, knocked on the open door and said, ‘May I come in, sir?’
Matthew nodded in his direction, and was struck by a sharp sense of having been here before. It was a similarly clouded day. The same heavy misty breeze swirling around the room. The same grumble of distant thunder. And a fluttering piece of paper, this one in Abhishek’s hand.
He came to stand in front of Matthew’s desk, a couple of steps closer to where Kalyani had stationed herself yesterday.
‘So,’ he said to the boy, ‘you know what I have called you here about.’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Abhishek, adjusting his glasses. He was a lanky lad who had just the previous year experienced his first spurt of adolescent growth. All limbs and hair. The sort of boy that girls couldn’t keep their eyes off. He played football, he ran track, he played band at the school day march-past, and he was every teacher’s pet. Seemed to sail through exams without having to study.
‘I noticed in class today that they were passing you a note from the girls’ section.’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Abhishek, his face not changing expression. ‘Kalyani wrote me a love letter.’
‘Indeed?’ said Matthew. ‘How do you feel about that?’
Abhishek shook his head. ‘I was going to come and give it to you, sir, even if you hadn’t called me in.’
Matthew believed the kid. By all accounts he had his sights set on the straight and narrow. He got good grades. He played sports. He joked around with his male friends. But his eye did not waver onto the girls’ side, not even by accident. He was the son of a doctor in Dhavaleshwaram, they said; the boy’s dad had wanted him to experience life in the village for a couple of years.
Matthew held out his hand, received the piece of paper from the boy. A glance at it almost made his hand shiver. Some words and phrases jumped out at him: show me how… seduce a woman with your words… brag to your friends… oh, god, you make me shy… teach me what it takes…
It took all his effort to scan the letter without showing any of his burgeoning anger. That little bitch, he thought. What a performance she put in yesterday! Fooling him into believing that it was him she was after when – when – the whole time she was just testing her lines. She wanted a man who would give her an honest reaction, and she had known that she would get them from him.
Matthew swallowed, and with a corner of his eye he looked at the boy. This fellow? She chose this fellow over me?
More than anything it scalded his blood that she had known – she had known that she could come in here and dupe him with all her nonsense. She had known that he had been eyeing her, and she had coolly taken advantage of it. What chutzpah for a fourteen-year-old! It was women like these, he thought, who grew up and twirled men around their little fingers.
Luckily it was Abhishek she had written to, and luckily Matthew had seen the note being passed. Or – he thought, shaking his head – luck did not exist. This was destiny, fate placing an opportunity in his hands to right some wrongs.
‘You never received this letter,’ he told Abhishek. ‘Understand?’
‘I don’t think I need to tell you that girls like this – you have to keep your distance from them, young man.’
‘I was your age once,’ said Matthew, folding up the letter and pushing it under his register. ‘I know how nice it must feel to have a girl say all those – things – to you. But do you think she means them? She just wants some attention, and she thinks you’re going to give it to her.’
Abhishek did not say anything. He had intense, narrow, honey-brown eyes that came to settle on Matthew. The gaze lingered for long enough to make him uncomfortable.
‘Or she has made a bet with her friends that she is going to seduce you,’ said Matthew, ‘and when she has you just where she wants you, she is going to publicly humiliate you and they will all laugh in your face. Do you want that?’
‘Good. You’re a sensible fellow. But you’re also innocent. Naive. When a woman beckons to you, you think you’re the only one.’
Once again that empty, wordless stare. This time Matthew smiled at him.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘it is not your fault. It is not hers either. Girls like that tend to go for boys like you. You’re calm, intelligent, son of a doctor…’
‘She is the daughter of a contractor, sir,’ said Abhishek. ‘They’re richer than us.’
‘A contractor only has money,’ said Matthew calmly, throwing a faint grin of derision at the boy. ‘They have no culture. You understand? You’re Brahmins, right?’
‘Sir? Yes, sir.’
‘A girl like that – who has no culture – finds boys like you attractive. Imagine – they have all the money they want, but they’re still not respected in society. You know, like a doctor is. Like you will be when you grow up.’
‘You will be a big man one day, Ahishek,’ said Matthew. ‘All the teachers in the school agree that your future is bright. You want to be a doctor, don’t you?’
‘You will inherit your father’s practice, his hospital in Dhavaleshwaram. You will build a bigger hospital. Your name will be known all over town.’
Abhishek’s eyes blinked a couple of times at Matthew’s suggestion. The boy was imagining his future, and at least a bit of what he saw intimidated him. Puzzled him.
‘It is that that the girl wants,’ said Matthew. ‘She sees you and she sees social status, prestige, culture – everything that she lacks in her own house, in her own life.’
‘She doesn’t,’ ventured Abhishek, ‘she doesn’t seem that uncultured to me, sir.’
‘Abhishek, Abhishek,’ said Matthew, smiling, ‘she is good at signalling culture, my boy. She reads books, she speaks in English, she participates in elocution, wins first prize in painting – you know, the works. But this is all just a coat of culture. You scratch it with your thumbnail and what do you find inside? All that is rotting and rotten.’
‘Whereas you – you’re born of good stock. Your father has name in these parts. That sort of thing cannot be bought for money – though people like these try.’ Matthew paused for a bit, looking at the boy, ascertaining how well his words were going down. ‘I need you to promise me something,’ he said, ‘for the sake of your parents.’
‘You must promise that you will not allow yourself to be distracted by girls of this sort. If men like you are susceptible to one thing, it is women who pretend to be in love with you. Remember – it is pretence! What other reason could she have for liking you?’
‘You’re like my younger brother,’ said Matthew. ‘Your father would say the exact same thing if he came to know of it.’
‘Don’t tell my father, sir, please.’
‘I agree, it will be uncomfortable if this comes out. I will take care of this letter, don’t you worry. But you must promise that you will not respond to that girl in any way from now on. I will take care of the other side as well.’
A shadow came over Abhishek’s plain face. ‘Will Kalyani be in trouble?’
Matthew laughed. ‘No, no. No trouble. I will deal with it properly. You trust me, don’t you?’
‘Yes, sir. Completely.’
‘Then pretend that this little episode never happened. Leave it all to me. Understand?’
‘Good. What else? How are preparations for school day coming along?’
* * *
When Matthew showed the letter to Kalyani, she said, ‘Fuck.’
Matthew smiled. ‘I am not hurt that you played the trick on me, Kalyani,’ he said, ‘but I am rather surprised that you chose Abhishek of all the boys.’
‘What do you mean?’
Matthew asked Kalyani to pull up a chair and sit opposite his desk. The weather on this third evening of overtime was brighter, though there was still a light cloud cover that brought diffused sunlight into the room.
More crucially, he felt brighter on the inside. Just watching the smug smile struck off her face was worth the hour or so of waiting – and of receiving the barbs of Usha Rani Madam.
‘What I mean is,’ he said, leaning forward and folding his arms on the table, inclining his head in the manner of one concerned, ‘you have to be very careful about what sort of men you confess your love to.’
Kalyani frowned at him. ‘How did you get that letter?’
‘Well,’ said Matthew, ‘I like to stay abreast of what goes on in class. And I found Abhishek and his friends reading out the letter in the yard by the Gandhi statue.’
‘Yes,’ said Matthew. ‘What did you think, a boy like Abhishek would keep this to himself? And you did say in the letter – you can brag to all your friends about me –’
‘You’re not supposed to read other people’s letters.’
Matthew said, ‘True, but I thought I could make an exception in this case – you know, because you said the same thing to me.’
‘I – you don’t understand – I was –’
‘Mm hmm,’ said Matthew, pursing his lips. ‘I think I do understand. You used me as a guinea pig in your experiments with language. You wanted to know if the things you wanted to say to Abhishek would stir me.’
‘It is not like that –’
‘Listen,’ said Matthew smiling generously. ‘This is not about me. If anything I am glad to have helped you write your letter. But a boy like that? Imagine what would have happened if I had not chanced upon the letter and told them off. The whole school would have been ringing with the news by the weekend.’
Kalyani’s eyes, contrite now, refreshingly contrite, watched the letter pinned to the table by his fingertips.
‘You know, until you’re sure – until you’re very sure, you must never write a letter to a boy.’
She looked up to meet his eyes with hers now, and nodded. ‘Okay.’
‘Men are not the saintly creatures you think they are, Kalyani,’ said Matthew. ‘In fact, it is men who look saintly that have all the nastiest kinks. Imagine in this case, you thought Abhishek was a nice guy, right? Who can blame you? Seems quiet, set in his ways, well-mannered and so on? Well, men are great at putting on a facade. Underneath lurks a beast.’
‘Imagine how your father would take it if the issue came out,’ said Matthew, shaking his head. ‘He would not like it, would he?’
‘Please don’t tell my father, please.’
Matthew laughed. ‘No, no, I won’t,’ he said. ‘But your beloved lover boy was going to, believe it or not. And then your father would have had a nice little chat with you in your house. Maybe pulled you out of school – think of the shame.’
Kalyani looked away from him into the distance, and her eyes fluttered with tears.
‘Now,’ said Matthew consolingly. He reached over and patted her on the arm. ‘Don’t worry. Nothing will happen. Nothing has happened. I will see to it. I have spoken to the boys, and if they speak a word they will have to answer to me. Okay?’
She licked her lips, nodded. ‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘You must remember this always, Kalyani,’ said Matthew, after acknowledging her thanks with a nod. ‘Always wait for the man to profess affection for you. You must never be the one to tell a man. It’s not what is expected of a woman.’
‘But – if I like a boy, what is wrong in telling him?’
‘Isn’t it?’ said Matthew. ‘But the world is not logical like that. The world expects you to play the role of a woman. It is your job to show the boy some of your interest – subtly – and wait for him to respond. If you take the first step instead, you will be called a slut. A needy bitch. That’s what they will say about you behind your back.’
‘A needy bitch,’ Kalyani repeated, softly.
‘A needy bitch,’ said Matthew. ‘That is what Abhishek would have said about you, if I had not intervened.’
Kalyani’s eyes flickered some more, as if she were reluctant to believe Matthew’s words. Something within her was jarring against his message, he could tell, and he knew he shouldn’t fight against it. All he had to do for now was sow these seeds; time would see to it that they germinated and grew.
‘Okay,’ said Kalyani at last.
‘I am sorry,’ said Matthew. ‘You will make a man happy one day.’
‘You think so?’
‘I do,’ said Matthew. ‘But remember – look for men who come from a similar family to yours. Abhishek’s father – he may be a doctor, but rumour has it that he is a bit service-minded. Tends to give a lot of free treatment to a lot of people. They don’t even have a car…’
‘I don’t care about money,’ said Kalyani. ‘My father has plenty –’
‘That is precisely why you must choose men who are richer than you,’ said Matthew. ‘That way you know that they don’t love you for your money. But with a poor man – you know, if I were your age, I’d jump at the chance of marrying you.’
Again that flicker of uncertainty in Kalyani’s eyes. Again that slow, reluctant nod.
Matthew let the silence settle for a while. Then he tore up her letter to Abhishek slowly, as she watched. He leaned over to the side and threw the pieces into the wastebasket.
‘Now,’ he said, ‘just stay away from Abhishek, all right?’
‘Okay. And you will keep this all a secret? No one will know?’
‘My lips are sealed.’
‘Thank you. Thank you very much.’
Matthew smiled widely. ‘Hey, what are English teachers for?’
* * *
Matthew rode home in the bus to Dhavaleshwaram that night with a mind light and clear as air. He made conversation with the conductor. He looked out of the window at the setting sun and marvelled at its majesty. When a spirited argument about local politics took hold among a couple of his co-travellers in the last seat, he looked over his shoulder and offered them a brief comment of his own.
On the way home from the bus stop, he whistled all his favourite tunes back to back.
He made some instant noodles for himself on his electric stove, and called his mother while watching the water boil. She told him he must not eat noodles every day, that she had read a newspaper report about a man in Hyderabad who died of lead poisoning – lead that made its way into his body through instant noodles. On other days this would have made him bark something back, but tonight he just snickered. ‘I have booked a gas cylinder, Mother,’ he told her. ‘No more noodles from tomorrow.’
It was that kind of night; you felt nice about telling a lie.
Later, while tucking into his dinner with a chilli-sprinkled two-egg-omelette on the side, he remembered a Byron poem and repeated the first two lines to himself over and over. She walks in beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies. And all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes.
Such beautiful lines.
When he went to bed he found himself drifting off easily into peaceful, dreamless slumber, the kind that visits a good man at the end of an honest day’s work.