“Will all those who have not done their homework, please stand up,” said Naithaniji in his deep gravelly voice. A bolt of cold terror ran down Murli Prasad’s back. Not only had he not done his homework, he also did not know how to say that in English, which he knew from experience, was going to be Guruji’s next request. He was absolutely right. “Those standing will now tell me why they haven’t completed their homework,” Guruji’s voice was cold and he was menacingly stroking the thin cane in his hand.
It was a time to test friendships. While Guruji turned his back to the class to spit the remains of the betel nut in his mouth into the dustbin, Murli whispered urgently to Ajay sitting next to him. “Batha, jaldi batha,” he growled, “homework nahin kiya ko angrezi mein kya kehte hain”. (Tell me quick, how you say you haven’t done your homework in English).“I did not do my home work,” Ajay whispered back, wiping his running nose with the back of his frayed sweater sleeve while pretending to be deeply engrossed in the English textbook open on his desk. A smart move since Guruji had turned back to the class again and was wiping his white moustache (that had acquired a fine spray of red from the chewed supari whose remnants he had so deftly deposited in the bin). “Yes Murli? ” he asked, prowling around Murli’s desk like a bagh in the forest. Murli was getting confused. He and his mother had come to live in Jaiharikhal with his father who was a soldier in the Army, only recently. Back in the village, he had never been exposed to spoken English. He could write the alphabets and do the A for Apple, B for Boy routine quite well if there was a picture book at hand. But speaking full sentences was a formidable task. “I d-d-d …I do not do my homework,” he mumbled, trying desperately to remember the sequence of words. The cane had landed on his bottom before the sentence ended. “You village bumpkins, you squat on stones to shit. You think you can be like the English? Angrez kursi pe baith ke hagte hain (the English sit on chairs to shit),” Naithaniji growled, moving on to pop some more supari into his mouth. Murli Prasad was allowed to sit down on his sore backside. He immediately got into a hushed discussion with Ajay about what the toilets of the English would look like and how difficult it must be to shit in a formal sitting position.
Other than his English class, he was enjoying school. The boys were rosy cheeked and friendly and often came to class in slippers and pyjamas, which made Murli feel quite at home. That mother had washed their grey school trousers and they had not dried yet was a good enough excuse to not be in uniform. Jaiharikhal was a cold place and Guruji knew that none of the families could afford to get more than one school trouser stitched for their children. As long as you had some parts of your uniform in place, no punishments were meted out. While some of the boys wore pyjamas with school shirts, ties and sweaters; others teamed uniform pants with their home pullovers. Some even came wearing their older siblings’ footwear, either having broken the straps of their slippers playing football or not being able to find one of the pair in a hurry to get to school before the assembly bell rang. Many of the girls wore skirts with hems let out term after term, the faded stitch line showing just how much they had grown.
While Guruji got very upset with incorrect English, he was quite understanding about shabby dressing. In fact, he endorsed it. Often he would himself come to class in a pullover that was gently unraveling from the back where he had caught it on a lose nail sticking out of his chair in the classroom. In fact, most of Naithaniji’s clothes had a tear at the back from the nail, which acted as a sort of indication that he was the class teacher for standard five.
Whatever be his animosity towards the English language and Naithaniji’s cane, Murli bore no malice towards his teacher. In fact, one day he decided to put an end to the nail’s evil acts. He got hold of the heavy class duster and was in the process of hammering the wicked nail poking out of the class teacher’s chair in with some hearty knocks when Naithaniji walked in and caught him by the ear, suspecting that he was up to some trick. While Murli was too tongue tied to explain what he was doing (he also could not say it in English) the best student in class explained his attempted good deed and made Naithaniji take off his sweater to show him the tear the nail had made.
“Thank you my, boy,” a visibly touched Naithaniji said to Murli, letting go of the ear he was holding, “I’m sorry.” “Menshon nat, guruji,” Murli declared, blushing as pink as the tip of his pinched ear. “Not. Pronounce that as ‘naught’”, smiled Guruji, correcting him gently. That was the first time Naithaniji had smiled at him. For Murli the sun came out from behind the clouds and sent a warm ray right into the classroom where he was standing next to his English teacher.
Thereafter, Murli Prasad started liking his English class. He learnt that instead of “My come in Sir,” he had to say “May I come in Sir”. What he thought was “Omlette” was in fact “I am late”. And if he rephrased “May I do toilet?” just a bit and instead asked: “May I go to the toilet?” it made Naithaniji so much happier.
On his way to school, a five kilometer walk from his house, Murli would sometimes catch the maroon of Naithaniji’s pullover far ahead in a turn on the road. He would sling his bag across his back, sprint along the hillside, and clamber up the slopes, getting wisps of fern and fallen pine leaves caught in his hair, to catch up with his English teacher. Breathless and red nosed from the early morning run in the cold, he would greet Naithaniji with “Namaste Guruji,” adding a “Good Morning Sir” for good measure. The two would then walk together in companionable silence listening to the rustle of the wind up in the Pine trees and the piercing “Kafal pako, mil na chakho” (the kafal fruit has ripened but I didn’t taste it) of the hill bird, hidden in the thicket somewhere. They would watch the white flecked Whistling Thrush hop across the track and see the snow covered Dhauladhar ranges far in the distance changing colour in the sunlight on a clear day. Sometimes, they would come upon a patch of wild flowers and Murli would point them out because he had come to love the verse Guruji would break into.
“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils.”
Murli did not know what daffodils looked like and when he asked guruji, he didn’t either. “They grow in England Murli. Maybe when you grow up you will go there and see them some day. I know I never will. But that doesn’t matter, I’m sure they are as pretty as the yellow marigolds we have growing in our town”.
Many years passed. Murli cleared his civil services exams and interview (in English) and joined the External Affairs Ministry. On his first posting to Birmingham, he came across a clutch of golden yellow flowers growing along the bank of the Edgbaston Reservoir. Next to them was a signboard that read: Please don’t pluck daffodils. Murli stared at them for almost an eternity. He looked beyond the still blue waters to the narrow mud track that turned along the edge of the lake. He thought he could see a man with a familiar shuffling walk and an old maroon pullover with a rip in the back, darned with a mismatched thread. If he could have, he would have run after that fading figure and pulled at his elbow, where the sleeve sagged a bit. Instead, he just blinked to clear the wetness in his eyes that was blurring his vision. “Look Guruji, daffodils,” he said to himself, gently reaching out to touch a yellow petal.
Naithaniji had passed away many years back making his final journey in a bier lifted by his sons. There had been yellow marigold flowers scattered on the white sheet covering his body.
Rachna Bisht Rawat is a full time mom and part time writer. She lives in Delhi with her husband Manoj, teenage son Saransh the Wise and a crazy overgrown Golden Retriever – Huzoor, which (roughly translated from Urdu) means, Your Highness.
What motivates her to create?
I was a quiet, shy, introvert in my childhood. Scared and insecure. When I started writing I realised it gave me the gifts of confidence, perception, happiness and the ability to make friends, if only in my stories. Slowly these qualities started seeping into my personality. Writing comes naturally to me. If I didn’t write, I doubt I would be as happy and content as I am now.
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