The two lions, crudely shaped, sat on either side of the gate glaring at each other… With scruffy fingers, feeling the rib-like manes of those cement lions, I used to sit on the high wall waiting for the old school master. I couldn’t really say I was waiting. I always wished he didn’t come. But I knew he would always come. The soft green mounds of moss which grew in erratic patterns in the crevices of the aged wall, lashed by rain and eroded by the sun always fascinated me. Scooping a handful of the moss, spilling it around, squinting at the rising sun I kept my eastward watch.

As punctual as the rising sun, he would appear on the eastern bend of the narrow road, the russet ribbon-like strip of a road which went winding down to the east fort of the town. A tall lean man, he walked briskly in measured strides too brisk for his three score years. Under his right arm he carried his greying umbrella. With its hooded handle he would jerk me down from my perch of surveillance.

There were never any words of greetings, neither from him nor from me. I would run ahead of him to the outhouse, to the open corridor flanked by long parapets of shining black stone. I sat cross-legged on the stone seat trying to solve tedious sums, deciphering riddling phrases and proverbs. He sat facing me majestically leaning on the funny head-rest of his wooden chair. Beyond a brief nod he would never recognize my Herculean efforts to prove myself. And it pricked my little ego. Perhaps that was the reason why when my cousin told me the sad plight of my ailing school master I didn’t or couldn’t respond the way he did.

I was back home on annual leave after my first posting out of the state. I had missed my family, friends, my favourite haunts – the beaches and the waterways. I had so much to catch up on. I had all the summer fruits – a feast of mangoes, palm fruits, and custard apples. The old school master was not even in the periphery of my thoughts. My aunt reminded me once again of the old man: penniless; seriously ill; kept by one of his reluctant sons, he was slowly sinking. It was my duty, she said, to visit him.

I remember even in those days he was a poor man. I always thought it was not the pupil but the sumptuous meals my mother offered him which were his main attraction. When the breakfast arrived, for me almond milk and for him four idlies floating and diving in a ruddy pool of sambar, I couldn’t help seeing the gleam in his eyes. With expert fingers he would flick the idlies into his mouth one by one and evince his relish in a burp. Once the ritual of the breakfast was over, he would turn his disapproving eyes towards me.

“Do you know there are thousands of children in the town who cannot even dream of milk? And you sulk over a silver mug!” He hissed his words at me as though he was pronouncing a curse on me. In an incantatory voice he painted before me a ghastly picture: half-naked children drinking chalk-white kanji poured in coconut shells. Those skull-shaped, one-eyed, grinning coconut shells haunted me even in my dreams. I felt vaguely sad, vaguely guilty. And I hated the old school master.

It was not easy to find his house. I don’t know what drove me on my desperate mission, crossing railway lines, climbing over pineapple fences until at last I reached the red brick-house. A bearded man, with tobacco-stained teeth, opened the door for me. That must be his ‘reluctant son’, I thought. As my eyes grew familiar to the darkness inside, I saw him stretched on a coir-string cot, a bag of bones; surrounded by filth and flies. Was he the same formidable man who introduced me to Karl Marx and Jesus Christ? He turned towards me. And I could trace in the glassy dazed eyes a flicker of recognition. He raised a wasted hand. Was it a gesture of blessing? A recognition? A reward I had thought he had held from me, so grudgingly, for so long.

I took out a couple of hundred rupee notes from my wallet. I was aware of the reluctant son’s anxious look. I heard him murmur that a film star, an old student had recently sent him a giant sum of two thousand rupees. Obviously he was weighing my gesture of kindness. Could he ever have even an inkling of the giant debt I owed my Master even today?

Trying to put the scene behind me, I walked hurriedly.  But the wheezing sound of his troubled breathing, the persistent cough which rocked his body, followed me beyond pineapple fences and the railway lines to the beach resort where I had arranged a bachelors’ meet. Flustered, I fled to my freedom. Or was my mind still fettered? I did not quite know.

Sujata Sankranti (c)

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