‘Ravi died here in the isolation ward yesterday.’ Her younger brother brought the letter to her as she came out of the kitchen wiping her hand on her saree.
She opened the envelope after signing her name against a number pointed out by her brother on a piece of paper.
Express delivery was common enough, but it was a long time since she got a letter.
In her hurry, she even forgot to notice the handwriting. Ravi died here in the isolation ward yesterday.
Ravi…Ravi… Ravi is dead.
Ravi died here in the isolation ward. Where was it?
New Delhi. 10-6- New Delhi—
Was he in New Delhi?
It was signed by Susannamma Varghese. Susannamma—
Susannamma Varghese, Nurse, Safdarjung Hospital, New Delhi. Ravi died…
‘It was septic fever. He caught his foot on a rusty old nail or something. The infection became septic. He was brought here too late.
Whatever modern medicine could do, was done for him. You can console yourself with that thought. When he was conscious he asked me to inform you, should anything happen to him.
God bless you!
Ravi died, swallowing the pain of a wound which turned septic. Ravi who was nothing but laughter and sunshine. And he died,
miles from home in a big hospital in an unfamiliar place, with no one beside him.
He was a mountain brook of vitality that surged forth, laughing.
Ravi who had slightly curling hair which was combed back with a crest in front and who had large eyes—
Ravi is dead.
How can he be?
She’d never see him again! Those smiling eyes—
She raised her left hand and bit hard on her arm. It hurt.
I am not dead, she told herself. It was Ravi who was dead.
‘You are born with a sick conscience,’ he once told her. Ravi—
‘Who is the letter from, dear? What news?’
She crumpled the sheet of blue paper into her palm. It was all these people who killed Ravi.
‘It’s from a friend of mine, Amma. There’s nothing new.’ She went in and sat on her cot.
I’m sure you’d realize some day Indira, that what you’re doing now is wrong.
‘Aren’t you going to school? It’s well past nine.’
I must go away, she told herself, it’d be better for me to go away from here.
‘What’s wrong with you? You don’t look well. Why don’t you send an application for leave through the kids?’
She rose to her feet.
‘I have to go, Amma.’
Seeing her change her saree Amma went to the kitchen.
She straightened out the crumpled letter and folding it, slipped it into her blouse.
Indira, you’re throwing your happiness away with both hands— ‘Aren’t you coming, Chechi? It’s nearly nine thirty.’ Rema called
to her from outside.
‘You go. I’ll come later.’
‘Why go alone, dear? Let them wait a bit.’ Amma came into her room once again.
‘Rema, wait! Don’t go.’ Among them, these people—
‘Never mind, Amma. Let them go. They’ll get into trouble if they’re late. You get along, kids.’
If only Amma also would leave— Somehow she managed to get out.
‘Where’s your bindi?’ Amma had been watching her. ‘Not today, there’s no time.’
‘You could have done without all this rush if you started everything a bit early, couldn’t you?’
They’ve killed Ravi, now—
‘Wait, Indira! You forgot your umbrella.’ Amma was hurrying after her with it.
She hooked it, still furled, on her arm and walked on. Oh, if only I too were to catch a fever—
She had to pass in front of her college.
On the last day of examinations, it was here on the western verandah of the History Block that—
It was inside the History Block that she got to know Ravi and came to lose him too. It was the final year of Honours. She got to know him only because she was on the editorial board of the college magazine. Or, she would have counted Ravi among those silk-shirted, perfumed fools hanging about the campus with nothing to do, hair combed back to form a kind of bird’s nest in the front.
Ravi came to find out whether his piece on Pre-Independence days would be published in the magazine. ‘The Nineteen Forties’—that was
the title of his essay. If he hadn’t written it, he wouldn’t have come to meet her. They got to know each other from that day on.
Ravi—whom she’d mentally christened ‘Butterfly’—
And she who disapproved of the chatting and flirting that went on in the corners of the verandahs and under the stairs—
Her plan of action had been chalked out in advance. There was no place in it for dalliance with butterflies.
She had to do well in her studies and get a job. She had brothers but they were all younger than her. She had to bear part of the burden with her mother.
There was no time to fool around. Yet, Ravi who was known as a mischievous devil—
Ravi who used to sketch caricatures of the teachers during the class and smuggle them out to the girls’ side through the back, making it difficult for them to hold in their laughter—
Ravi who was the darling of the girls—
Many girls had wept the day Ravi’s people flew him to Madras because he’d broken his nose playing cricket.
What canards had been spread at the time! One group had it that his nose was gone—
While another had it that he’d been taken away for plastic surgery.
What a racket it was!
And Ravi came back in a week, with the same handsome nose and mischievous smile.
Ravi could have had any flirtatious young thing dancing attendance on him with a flick of his fingers.
Yet Ravi— Ravi—
On the day the college closed for the Christmas vacation—
The way he cut a foolscap sheet of paper into half inch wide ribbons so popular with students who wished to cheat in the examinations, filled them with ‘Many happy returns of the day’ written in very small hand, folded them into matchstick thin strips and handed them to her—
How ever did he find out about her birthday? She had never had birthdays celebrated at home. She herself had never felt that the day on which you were born was in any way a memorable one.
The things that he got up to! Things which ordinary people would never do.
On the last day of examinations.
As soon as he set eyes on her, he blurted out, ‘Let’s go get married, Indira.’ It was just like him. ‘This is the day when everyone is supposed to go their own ways. But why should we? Come with me!’
‘Come with me! How easy!’
‘Why not? I’ve made up my mind to marry you, Indira. And you—‘
She interrupted him to quote poetry at him. ‘King Cophetua swore a royal oath
This beggar maid shall be my queen.’ ‘Shut up!’
‘Aren’t I right? Don’t you think that this is somewhat like that?’ ‘Stop being silly, Indira. Answer me straight.’
‘I’m not being silly. I’m very serious. We live in two different worlds.
Everyone has a background, don’t they?’ ‘Background, my foot!’
‘Do you know the Hindi word for background?’
She felt like wasting her time asking him absurd questions— ‘I don’t know Hindi.’
‘What’s wrong with Hindi? Our national language—‘
‘Stop talking nonsense, Indira. Are you willing? Let me know that.’ ‘My father is no more.’
‘I know that.’
‘There are seven of us.’ ‘Yes.’
‘My first duty is towards them.’
‘If I’m ready to do something which my people wouldn’t approve
‘There’s a difference. You are rich.’
‘There you go again. Being rich doesn’t make you love your parents
And so it had gone on and on. And in the end—
‘So your answer is no. I’d expected this all along. Indira, you are a
fool to throw your happiness away with both hands. Born with a sick conscience. Leave it. What’s the point in wasting time, talking to you? I am going. You’ll realize someday, Indira, that what you’ve done just now is wrong.’
I realized it, Ravi, she cried, I realized it only too well and long before you expected me to.
It hadn’t taken her the past six years to realize it.
She had gone about priding herself on her intelligence, got only a third class and ended up as a school mistress.
She had been dead set against becoming a school mistress. ‘Those who cannot, teach.’ Everything the sahib said was gospel truth in those days, wasn’t it? She didn’t want to be a school mistress. She became precisely that.
What else can you expect with a third class honours in History? She realized her mistake only too well.
It didn’t take the arrival of people with a proposal from the innocuous Kumaran Master to make her realize that.
Really, it didn’t take her long to realize that she tended to measure everyone against him.
There never was any question of time, Ravi, she cried, I’d known it when I sent you away with a no.
I did whatever I thought was right. Forgive me, Ravi, forgive me. I would have broken down if I hadn’t played the fool then.
You, with your big heart, would have caught on to that, wouldn’t you, Ravi?
Right and wrong—
Duties and responsibilities— Ravi—
This cursed school and the teachers condemned to share a single room and the unruly students—
You went away and died—
You’ll never see him again, she told herself, you’ll never see Ravi who walked away, hiding the wound that you inflicted saying with a smile that you’d realize your mistake some day.
Here’s the damned school, she muttered to herself. The children didn’t mill around the gate. Thank God for that!
The staff room was right near the entrance. It was a single large room almost like a hall. The men sat beyond a screen.
There weren’t enough benches to seat everyone. There was a single desk which was crammed with lunch boxes and packets. In the middle of the room three or four people huddled round a table with a broken leg. They had to exchange tittle-tattle accumulated since four o’clock last evening till this hour, hadn’t they? What a lot of carping had to be got over with!
A snatch of film music floated in from the other side of the screen.
The odour of cigarette smoke. A burst of laughter too.
Suppressed giggles from the corner nearest the window. The gang did this every day. Savitri was right in the middle.
Savithri and Kunhikuttan Master.
They commute by the same bus. He’d get up to something everyday for her to carry over here and laugh about.
On the other side, they will be carrying on from where these people left off.
‘Indira, what are you doing here?’ said Meenakshi Amma. Where is she coming from now, with a bundle of papers?
‘Well, the Headmaster is kicking up a row over there saying that there’s no leave application and no sign of the person either. You have a class during the first period, haven’t you? What happened to you?’
A class during the first period.
She walked out just as she had come in. What day is it? What day is it today?
The Head Master was waiting at the door. That ought to be her class, since teachers would have reached every other room.
Giving her just a look, he moved away from the door.
She stood bewildered before the boys, the umbrella still hooked on her arm.
What do I do now, she wondered… ‘Please, teacher, may we sit?’
It was followed by laughter. She motioned to them to sit.
She still carried the umbrella. She placed it on the table. The boys were laughing still. She shouldn’t have kept it there. What was she to
do? What was she supposed to teach them? Oh, God, she prayed silently, what am I to do with them?
The racket was growing stronger.
Are these Ravi’s before me, she wondered, with their hair combed
Was darkness closing in around her?
She stood leaning against the table, holding firmly on to it with
The class had fallen silent. ‘Teacher, imposition.’
A boy stood before her, holding out a piece of paper. Oh, Lord!
Taking it from him, she looked at it. Under the spreading chestnut tree. The village smithy…
Oh, Lord! The six lines of that poem—that was what she’d been teaching them.
‘Hey you! Hand in your papers, quick!’ She heard a voice from the
Five or six others came up with the papers. Yes, the same poem. ‘Someone please give me a book,’ her voice sounded as if it was
coming up a deep well.
A boy in the front bench sprang up, holding out a text. As she took it from him, she felt tears moistening her eyes.
Children, I love you all. In the name of the sons I do not have—that I will never have—I love you.