The sun motes trickled through the thin leaves, shooting glittering arrows aimed at the mad riot of colours spread across the flower beds. They bounced up again in different trajectories to fall back splashing the ground with warm pools of mellow light. The clusters of aromatic leaves lazily parted allowing tantalising glimpses of the drama unfolding below. The stage was set on the verdant lawn to the backdrop of a dancing chorus of several tall slim eucaplytus, bending gracefully from the waist nodding their heads at the friendly breeze. On a serene afternoon, such as this, there sat a little girl alone at a wicker table, her head bent over her books. Holding a stubby pencil in a tight finger-thumb grasp, she was absorbed in moulding and engraving the unfamiliar alphabets into her notebook. At times the pressure of the graphite tip would tear the paper along curves of the letters. Then she would take her hand off the paper and sigh. The soft yellow sunshine had a melancholy underskirt. Being past its peak it would soon wane. Piyu should be chasing the multi-hued butterflies matching her spirit to their nectar trips on that short wintery noon, rather than be tied down to books and study. Soon shadows would lengthen across the garden and the soft breeze would turn into a maniac wind, tearing around corners touching with icy fingers each nook and crevice, sending all living creatures scurrying into shelters. The little girl would have to gather up her books and run indoors while all the games her hands and legs had been itching to play would remain unexplored.Her little feet rubbed against each other involuntarily. But Piyu knew there was no escape either from the dots and loops of devnagari Hindi or from the detestable Sir. She glanced across to the covered verandah where her mother sat knitting with her colourful skeins of wool.Ostensibly to rein in her daughter’s wandering mind, her presence was, in fact, unknown to Susmita,a source of relief for the little girl. A talisman--to keep at bay incomprehensible, dreadful actions that Piyu had encountered recently!
Piyu’s birth had been a dream come true for Susmita. Since then, not only her every waking thought, but even in her sleep, the little girl had been her focus. It pained Susmita to make her eight-year old study when she should be gambolling in the sun. But Piyu’s daily morning tantrums to miss school were extremely unpalatable. Piyu used to love going to school but ever since she had started Hindi this year , the crying and cajoling sessions had begun. Unable to cope with the stress, most mornings, she would invariably vomit the glass of milk, Susmita made her drink. Her daughter’s anxieties formed a tight painful knot in Susmita’s stomach. She was at her wit’s end to find a solution. Each day sending off a weeping, little girl to school was a daily emotional drain and the rest of the day passed in a weary grind. She would keep imagining Piyu being humiliated and scolded in class and her mother’s heart would wail silently. She wished she knew how to get back those halycon days when her naturally- sociable daughter would eagerly go off to school.
Major Bose who was with the Indian Army, had just got posted to this northern city where Hindi was a mandatory subject at school. In Piyu’slast school in the southern part of the country, she had never needed to study it. Susmita, who had always helped the child with schoolwork, was not too familiar with the nuances of the language herself, having had her education at Kolkata. Ever since the new school year commenced, Piyu’sHindi notebooks with her teacher’s red ink scratches across Piyu’s innocent pencil marks told the pathetic tale. Piyu’s nightmares in tandem with Susmita’s sleeplessness were taking their toll of the mother-daughter duo.
Then one evening as Major Bose relaxed in the lawn, sharing a cup of tea and the day’s gossip with Susmita, there appeared a man at the gate. Lean and of medium height, his long, dark face with hollow cheeks showed a day’s stubble. Mild eyes shadowed by bushy eyebrows above the sharp cheekbones gave him a cadaverous look. A few strands of hair,sparsely covering his bald pate, valiantly tried doing their duty. His dark blue kurta and khakhi pyjamas were wrinkled and unwashed. His feet were encased in worn sandals. He carried a nondescript cloth bag hanging from his shoulder completing the seedy picture of the suburban-educated-unemployed-down-a-heels.
Unlatching the gate, he walked across to the couple.“Myself Mishra”, he announced, “I am school teacher from village. Searching job here. I saw baby. She going to school? I can give tuitions—in Maths, English and all subjects. Very small fees.”
His staccato English, richly flavoured with the regional accents, was disconcerting. Major Bose was about to wave him off peremptorily when a thought struck him,“Can you teach Hindi?”
Susmita gave a sharp look to her husband. Her knitted brows clearly expressed her disapproval. She even shook her head slightly, but her husband chose to ignore her silent gestures.
In response Mishra pulled out an old file, tied with a cord, from his grimy bag. Untying it, he revealed a thick assortment of accreditations.
Major Bose and Susmita carefully studied the documents. Though some were irrelevant, the antecedents and recommendations were impressive. Major Bose also took him through a grilling interview that he usually did with a new recruit to his platoon. He wanted to assure his wife and rest her doubts about Mishra’s authenticity. BesidesMajor Bose, himself would not permit just a man from nowhere to spend time with his precious daughter.
Finally the Major made up his mind.
“We want you to tutor our daughter in Hindi. She does not know even the alphabet. Can you bring her up to the standard of language skills required for class two?” inquired Major Bose.
“Kyon nehi? In one month she can be reading and writing everything in Hindi. Just leave me to teach.”
Though vague misgivings still plagued Susmita, Mishra was hired at five hundred rupees a month starting the next day.
‘Let’s try him, Mita. We can always send him off if he isn’t any good,’ placated Major Bose at night. Susmita was clearly unhappy about giving this man charge of her little daughter. The very thought had started off a mental breeze swirling the dry leaves of a shadowy childhood memory. Unsuccessfully trying to recall the source of her discomfort, Susmita sounded stubborn, “I think a woman teacher would have been better.”
Major Bose turned the light off, signalling the end of the conversation.Following the dictates of her maternal instinct, Susmita silently resolved to chaperone Piyu each moment she spent with Mishra.
That evening Susmita looked at her daughter spread-eagled on the carpet watching TV. Her curly pigtails waved back and forth as her head nodded to the beat of the theme music of her favourite cartoon. In her red jersey and blue jeans, feet encased in red woollen socks, big eyes riveted to the screen, her tiny nose and rosebud mouth, she was adorable. A wave of tender regret swept over Susmita at the thought of the restrictions about to be foisted on the unsuspecting child. Especially during the noontime, when she loved running about the garden playing her imaginary games.
The next day a wicker table with two chairs was set in the spacious lawns, in the shadows of the stately trees that marched along the edge of the lawn in a queue. Susmita hoped the warmth of the golden sunshine perfumed by the sharp eucalyptus scent would mitigate somewhat the distaste of working on the hated Hindi. Susmita positioned herself in the overlooking verandah within earshot and in full view of the study area.
After lunch she took Piyu on her lap and,nuzzling her soft hair filled with baby musk, started explaining, “You have told me so many times that you don’t understand Hindi. And Miss scolds you?”
Little Piyu nodded.
“So Baba has got a nice teacher who will teach you Hindi.”
“Oh good! I didn’t like Miss at school anyway.”
“No darling! Not a teacher for the school. Baba has got you a teacher at home.”
“Home? But nobody studies at home. Everybody studies at school.”
“ Right. So this will be our secret. This teacher will teach you at home and when you do all your Hindi work without mistakes in school, all your friends and Miss will get a surprise!! Everyone will say, ‘When did little Piyu become so good at Hindi?”
And you will say, “Magic! I learnt Hindi by magic and now I will be the best!”
“ Oh yes!!” Piyu loved secrets and she had recently been to a magic show where she had been amazed to see doves fly out of the magician’s hat!
But she still had to be coaxed to sit down at the table, when Mishra arrived at 3 pm.
Piyu looked at the man doubtfully. All her teachers till then had been women like Mummy, with soft voices. Besides there seemed a funny smell around him. Not a bad smell but funny....! She took out her reader, notebook and pencil obediently as told. The lessons ensued. Soon Piyu wanted to erase a mistake and she couldn’t find the eraser. Remembering she had left it on her study table inside, she wriggled out of the chair and ran in. She found the eraser but didn’t want to give up her new-found freedom so quickly, so she made a detour to the rose bush in the back garden. It was a huge, tall bush with its branches, drooping down nearly to the ground, laden with the sweet smelling blossoms. There was just enough space around the thick stem for the child to sit. Once Piyu had parted the branches and crept inside, she was hidden by the thick overhang. Only her sneakers peeked. This was her favourite place, where she leaned her head against the gnarled stem and wove a million fantasies, safe from the world.
Soon Susmita noticed her long absence from the table and went in search. Pulling her out with soft encouragements from under the bush and kissing away her protests, her mother led her back to the table. Mishra did not seem much perturbed, Susmita noted. The rest of the tutoring went off without a hitch that day.
The next day Piyu protested that her games were being curtailed for the second day but when Susmita promised a weekend trip to the zoo, she acquiesced. All through the study, Susmita kept an eagle eye on her and Piyu couldn’t escape to her rose bush.
As she kept glancing at the teacher-pupil pair, Susmita also noticed Mishra’s rundown appearance and it awoke her natural generosity. Once the studies were underway and Piyu seemed absorbed, Susmita went in to arrange a tray of tea and biscuits for the tutor. Mishra accepted the tray with a grateful smile. Bending to keep the tray on the table Susmita’s nose detected the whiff of a strange scent---a sweet, cloying kind. To identify it, she took a deep breath. But she only breathed in the eucalyptus tang.
After about ten days of steady tutoring Piyu’s notebooks started coming back less and less embellished with red marks. Her assignments were being completed regularly. When the Hindi Miss at school complimented Piyu on her work, her early morning woes also started abating. Relief flooded Susmita.
“I knew this chap was genuine.”Major Bose crowed, “You worry unnecessarily. Now relax, Mita.”
The routine was established and Piyu seemed to accept it. The squiggly letters had started making some sense to her though she wished it was as simple as English. Specially the complicated object genders! Only she was still not comfortable with Sir. Especially she wished that Sir would not touch her so much. Mishra would hold her hand when she was writing and Piyu disliked the moisture left on her skin when he took his hand off. She would try to wriggle out her little hand from his firm grip without success. And his face would be close to her with its peculiar smell.
One day, Sir brought his cheek close to her face and with a pencil measured the distance from his cheek to her lips, and said, “Give me a kiss.” Piyu felt suddenly very sick and bile filled her mouth. She wanted to vomit. She looked towards her mother, but the verandah was empty. Susmita was indoors. She jumped up so suddenly that the chair toppled over. Spitting out the liquid into a flowerbed, she ran indoors. By the time she reached the kitchen the queasy feeling had subsided.Her mother was there, pouring the tea. The tea tray distracted Piyu and she forgot what she wanted to tell her mother.
“O Mummy, please let me put sugar in the cup,” pleaded Piyu eager to be a part of grownup games.
Susmita indulged her, “Okay Piyu. You may also stir the tea slowly. Just be careful and don’t drop any tea on the tray.”
Piyu concentrated on getting the heaped spoonfuls of sugar from the bowl to the cup and the memory of Sir’s scary behaviour submerged.
Another day Piyu was taking dictation, her pencil slowly shaping words while her lips silently formed the sounds. Mishra got up and on the pretext of checking the words placed his hand on her lower back. Piyu’s hand froze—her pencil halfway to completing a word. Through her jeans she could feel her skin burn where it was in contact with his hand. She stood up and mumbled that she needed to sharpen her pencil. Directly she went to her rose bush and wriggled under it. Her heart was beating fast. She kept sitting there hugging her knees. Pulling them to her chin she rolled herself up into a small ball. As expected, her mother came to get her. Piyu resisted while Susmita tried pulling her out.
“No. I don’t want to go to Sir. I hate him,” screamed Piyu.
“ Now don’t be naughty, Piyu. Sir is teaching you so well. Miss at school says you are good, doesn’t she? Come out, darling. Finish your work and then we will go driving with Baba.”
“It is Sir, I hate.”
Unable to articulate the real cause of her hatred, she failed to get across that it was Sir rather than studying Hindi that she had an objection to.
But Susmita put down her behaviour to childish wilfulness and dragged her out.
Piyu went back with slow steps. When she reached the table, Sir was nonchantly sipping tea with loud slurps. Even Susmita wondered at his noncommittal attitude but concluded he was just being patient with the child. After all he had succeeded in improving Piyu’s Hindi skills. As she settled Piyu into her chair she, once again, was assailed by the faint, sickly-sweet smell that seemed to cling to Mishra.
Later that night, lying in bed Piyu remembered the incident and was confused. When her father picked her up and threw her in the air, she loved the thrill of falling into her father’s open arms. When she sat on her uncle’s lap and he hugged her tightly she felt like purring with contentment. Why then did she feel so unwell whenever Sir touched her? Should she tell Mummy?
But Mummy will surely admonish her. “Piyu don’t be naughty. You are making up tales because you don’t want to study.” How to make her believe that Sir does these hateful things only when Mama leaves her chair to do some work inside the house?
A few days passed without incident. Then one morning dawn broke to cloudy skies, spattering rain, and freezing temperatures. School and tutoring were cancelled and nobody was happier than Piyu. Cooped indoors, Susmita and Piyu played cards and other indoor games. The long afternoon was spent watching a film on TV.
Even as the mother and daughter followed the intricacies of a murder mystery onscreen, Piyu’s thoughts were as grey as the weather outdoors. She was still mystified with her own feelings and Sir’s strange, frightening behaviour. The sagacity of telling her mother was under serious consideration. But the story on the screen unfolded distracting Piyu. Soon it held her total attention. Following the detective’s moves, she was amazed to find out that the murder weapon was crushed glass pieces stirred into a cocktail glass of thick tomato juice. The graphic details of the process was shown step by step till the unsuspecting victim drank the juice that killed her.
Piyu mulled over the climax silently. “Mummy, you told me that glass could cut my fingers but if you eat glass, you can die, too.”
“Yes darling.” Looking at her daughter’s pensive face, Susmita was intrigued by the workings of a child’s mind.
The next day brought clear bright blue skies. The rain-perfumed eucalyptus murmured in the chilled breeze, and even the mellow sunshine had a sharp edge to it. The frigid air made everyone dig their chins into the scarves around their necks and push hands deep into pockets. Come noon and Mishra arrived, only a shawl added to his ensemble, thin shoulders hunched against the wind.
Susmita’s heart melted. “Doesn’t the man have a warm coat to wear in this cold weather?” she wondered. Instantly she decided to go through her husband’s clothes to find an old but serviceable coat for Mishra. From that day on she added a glass of hot Bournvita to the tea tray.
Ingeniously Piyu became alert to her mother’s movements and excused herself from her studies whenever her mother went indoors. Often she would help to set the tray. She would ladle spoonfuls of sugar or Bournvita into the cup or glass and stir carefully as her mother would arrange biscuits or other snacks. As Susmita observed Piyu playing the role of the little housewife, she thought tenderly and a tad sadly, “My baby is growing up.”
Piyu was, now, at the top of her class in Hindi. Though Mishra would touch her hand and asked her for a kiss whenever he had the opportunity, Piyu would try not to let such opportunities arise. When she couldn’t avoid it she would ignore the gesture and swallow the bile rising into her mouth. With an ageless instinct inherited from the lineage of her sex, at just eight years of age, Piyu was strategising means to cope with the kind of harassment typically dealt to women in this country, regardless of age or status. She had taken her first tiny steps on the way to join those legions. And the strain showed in Piyu’s recurrent nightmares. Susmita was puzzled. The cause of these night disturbances defied logic .
Then one afternoon, when Susmita was busy discussing the planting of seasonal flowers with the gardener at a little distance from the study venue, Mishra boldly let his hand brush across the front seam of Piyu’s jeans, placing it for a few moments between her legs. Piyu started crying loudly.
Her mother hurried over. “What is it Piyu?” she asked in an annoyed tone.
“I think Baby is not feeling well,” smoothly lied Mishra. Piyu didn’t know what made her feel so ill—his touch or her rage!!
“Let her rest. I will come tomorrow,” he added rising. Susmita unconsciously noted the strange smell of the man but she was too concerned about Piyu.
Susmita placed her hand on Piyu’s forehead. It did seem warm. Taking her inside, she tucked her little daughter in bed with a glass of hot chocolate. Piyu was still tearful. A song and a story lulled the child to sleep. The next day, Piyu was still running fever and the doctor was consulted. His diagnosis was the mild viral infection that had been going around.
After Piyu had been up and around for a few days, study time was resumed. Mishra was surprised to find Piyu already writing an assignment at the table, when he arrived. She greeted him with more than usual enthusiasm. Susmita observing their interaction, was relieved. Soon it was time for tea and Susmita put aside her knitting.
Going in, she found Piyu already filling the kettle with water. As Susmita put the kettle on, Piyu got the Bournvita can, and of course the sugar bowl. When the hot water was poured into the glass, Piyu carefully spooned in generous amounts of Bournvita and sugar and stirred them in vigorously.
She walked alongside as her mother carried the steaming tray to the study table. Mishra thanked her with his usual smile. Once again the smell wafted by but when Susmita took a deep breath, it had vanished, as usual.
The rest of the noon passed peacefully and Piyu was absorbed in learning four-letter spellings. Mishra also kept his hands to himself that day. Once Mishra left and the dusk fell, Piyu spread her paints and drawing sheets on the dining table and contentedly sketched and coloured. At dinnertime, Susmita cleared the table. Gathering up tubes, pencils and the damp sheets of paper, she noticed Piyu had vividly painted the garden with Mishra and herself at their table. It was a particularly live rendition.
The next day Mishra did not come. Nor for the days after. In fact he didn’t come at all. It was the police who came by.
It was late evening and Major Bose was relaxing when the orderly announced, “Police have come and want to talk to Sahib.”
Major Bose invited the police superintendent into his drawing room while the two constables waited outside. The officer started inquiring about Mishra. How long had he been tutoring their daughter? Had they known him for a long? And so on. After answering the list of queries and repeating a few of his answers for the officer to make his notes, Major Bose was able to pose his own question.
He was informed that Mishra’s decaying body had been recovered from his locked room the day before. He had lived alone and had no known relatives or friends. Only when the neighbours were unable to tolerate the smell emanating from next door, they informed the police who broke into his room. They found him in bed bespattered with vomit and blood. As he was a confirmed alcoholic and drug addict, his neighbours were not surprised at the manner of death. Still the body had been sent for a post mortem and the report had come this morning. Traces of tiny glasses pieces had been found in his viscera and in the lab reports of his vomit. This had been attributed as the cause of his death. Though there could be many logical explanations for this, considering his lifestyle, the police wanted to rule out foul play. So they were investigating Mishra’s activities.
After the police left, Major Bose said, “Poor chap!”
His sympathetic remark was echoed by Susmita, “I was planning to give him one of your old coats. He really was very poor.”
“Probably took drugs and alcohol to drown his loneliness,” added her husband.
“Is that why he always smelled so strange?” wondered Susmita.
“Probably,” agreed Major Bose.
Piyu said nothing. She continued playing with her dolls on the carpet.
Later when she was helping Susmita knead the dough for dinner, she said, “I am glad, Sir is dead.”
Susmita was shocked into immobility to hear the viciousness in her childish voice.
“Why Piyu? He was so good to you.”
“He was very bad. God will punish him.” Piyu replied unrepentant.
Susmita didn’t pursue it further. She needed time to think out this unusual turn of events.
The next day, while playing Ludo with Piyu, Susmita asked her gently, “Piyu, why do you hate Sir, so much?”
“Because he touched me.”
Susmita was stunned and her voice was sharp, “What do you mean—touched you?”
Piyu started crying. Little by little, with controlled queries, everything tumbled out. Susmita held her sobbing daughter in her arms, her own eyes wet and inquired, hurt raw in her voice, “Why did you not tell me?”
“I was afraid you would not believe me.”
Pain stabbed Susmita’s heart. Suddenly the heavy curtains of her mind parted. The sepia images became crystal clear. She, a small child and the chauffer who took her to school.....Too naive to tell her mother, Susmita remembered her helplessness and red hot anger at his touches, until she had been rescued by the sacking of the man due some other misdemeanour.
And now her baby!! White rage palpitated in waves but she forced herself to be calm. With her best intentions she had failed Piyu. Drying her eyes and forcing herself to smile, she said gently, “Now he can’t hurt you. In fact nobody will hurt you. Ever. Don’t be afraid, Piyu.” Her little daughter nodded and putting her small arms around her mother rested her head on her bosom. Her mother was filled with the fierce instinct that incites all mothers to protect their offspring.
Piyu stayed on her mother’s lap for some time. The fledgling had returned to her safe nest after a tumultuous storm. Susmita held her tightly and a painful knot of tears formed in her throat.
That night she told her husband the sordid tale. Unwilling to acknowledge the error of judgement, all he remarked was, “Good riddance.”And turned over to sleep.
A few days later it was Piyu’s birthday and Susmita had been toiling all day preparing for the evening party.The sun was going down in all its golden glory. The dying raystwinkled through the leaves. The azure dome overhead was painted with delicate strokes of rosy pink, peach, and orange when Susmita smoothed the final pats of white icing.She placed the huge chocolate cake on the centre of the table and inserted nine candles. Standing back she surveyedwith satisfaction the dishes of sandwiches wrapped in embroidered napkins, variegated sweets, cream biscuits, pastries, black gram curry and puffy patties. Guests would start arriving soon and Piyu had to be dressed up in her new lacy pink dress. Calling for the little girl, Susmita reached the rose bush. Parting the branches heavy with their scented burden, she peeped in. There was nobody there. About to turn away,her attention was caught by a sparkle. She looked closely. It was the thick glass bottom , broken off a blue-patterned drinking glass. Another decimated glass bottom lay close by. The pattern identified them as bottoms of glasses from a set that resided in her crockery cabinet. Puzzled, Susmita crouched to get a better view in the fading light. She remembered noticing two glasses missing from the set. She had made a mental note to reprimand the maid. She must have broken them while washing up. But why would the maid put the broken pieces here? And where was the rest of the broken glass? Then she saw a glistening powder coating a flat stone nearby. The same powder covered the end of a pestle-like stone near it.
Haltingly Susmita tried putting it together in her mind. Apparently, somebody had diligently crushed the juice glasses into powder on the flat stone using another stone as a pestle. The bottoms had been left as they were too thick. Circular marks on the flat stone showed that the glass dust had been scraped off carefully.The venomous dust seemed to have been swept up and gathered for a purpose. Who could have done that? And why? Nobody could get through the branches into this secluded haven other than little Piyu.
Then the jigsaw pieces dropped into place.“Noooo!!”screamed Susmita that emerged like a croak from her choked voice.The darkness deepened. The world spun around her and she sat back heavily holding her head.
Pain swamped her and constricted her throat. She couldn’t breathe. “My poor baby!!My poor baby!” was her only conscious thought. Sitting on her haunches she swayed to and fro moaning like a hurt animal. She found it impossible to give vent to the searing grief and guilt that burned within her .
Freezing darkness had gathered and Major Bose nearly missed her in the gloom. He had been looking for her for a long time. Susmita stared blankly at him, his queries incomprehensible. And when he tried pulling her up, she lurched against him, a dead weight. As he half carried, half dragged her in, all she whispered was, “Not her. Not her. It was I. It was I. It was I!”