8th Grade and The Three Musketeers

Sampat

I was excited about going to 8th grade, I was finally moving back to morning shift after 3 painful years in the afternoon shift. I hated afternoon shifts, because I wasted all morning doing either homework or worrying about teachers spanking me for two reasons

1) Things I did not do

2) Things I did do.

I loved the morning shift because I  could get out before 1.00 PM and then I could play outside until dad got home. Why only until dad got home? Because dad believed that pressure creates diamonds . No no , not out of coal but out of young malleable minds who should be pressured to better their minds rather than waste valuable time in idle horseplay.I once recited  “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, he flew into a rage and finally after calming down , he informed me that  it was an English conspiracy to keep the Indian proletariat under their thumbs.

For my first day , I was excitedly awaiting the class teacher , the teacher came in into the class and I saw with great pleasure that it was Mrs. Mascarenhas, the elderly lady who was extremely affectionate towards all the kids. However I learnt to my utter dismay that it was not her who would be the class teacher but Mrs. Sudha, Mrs. Sudha had a reputation for toughness, today they would probably lock her up and throw away the key . There was a rumor among the students that in one of her fits of rage she had pulled an arm out of a socket permanently, the dude apparently walked around with one hand swinging to the ground. Mrs. S’s entrance was followed by a pin drop silence, Mrs. Sudha wore the look of a satisfied tigress who had just devoured a full cow and she announced her plan for helping the repeaters in the class. “I have decided that all the boys who have been in the 8th grade for the last few years need to make a attempt to pass this year, these boys need a role model to emulate and so we are going to have these boys sit with the smart new boys of 8th grade. Srikanth will sit with Sachin, Vineet will sit with Deepak, Sanjay will sit with Virendra and Johnson will sit with Sampat….”. I stopped listening and looked around in trepidation trying to see who Johnson was but I saw so many new faces that I was completely at a loss. Apparently Mrs. Sudha was preoccupied with bigger priorities and she busied herself with the schedules and soon afterwards it was time to go home. I was thrilled when it was time to go home, I was looking forward to playing with my friend Somu  . I really liked Somu and considered him a good natured gentle soul

(Narr – Somu was one of those boys who was scraping by the skin of his teeth each year and his parents had convinced him to hang around boys who were more academically gifted so that intellectual osmosis could succeed where they had failed.)

Our favorite activity was cricket . The baffled reader might query “Cricket with 2 players!!!” ,  let me respond to that with a quote “Necessity is the mother of invention”. The rules of modified cricket were more complex than straight cricket and even a professional player would have been befuddled by the rules but we enjoyed themselves hugely until Somu’s mother came over and screamed at Somu “Arre melya(wastrel), when are you going to read your textbooks? Sampat is a smart boy he can pass without studying, you need to study and work hard. Sampat, you need to let Somu study so he can pass with good marks too” .I smiled a sheepish grin and made off wistfully towards my house and worse it was just 5.00 PM . I chanced upon Amrita , my neighbour as I was walking back home, she was growing up to be a beautiful girl .  Alas , it is one of tragedies of my life that the poetry that flows in  my heart cannot make it way to my tongue so I walked on, tongue tied , trying hard to think of something clever , something impressive , anything but myself but before I could succeed in my brilliant plan, she passed me oblivious to my pain , more concerned about the state of her makeup . Probably getting ready to meet her boyfriend Pramod who liked to brag about her .

As I morosely entered the house, the gloom pervaded and I wondered gloomily about homework.  I hated homework with a passion. The school bag held no attraction so decided instead to re read the latest issue of Chandamama . I loved the story of Vikram and the Vampire and the story involved a beautiful princess trapped by a wizard and a handsome prince rescuing her and the Chandamama artist had done a great job of depicting the beauty of the princess on paper along with dressing her suitably to arouse a normal full blooded male’s passion. I stared at the princess long enough to get uncomfortably aroused, when my uncle happened to spy upon me and he snapped ,”You better stop that or else you will go blind”.

Fortunately for me , my evening turned out to be entirely uneventful with the only piece of conversation between me and my dad being a gruff inquiry about my first day at school , after I started my unintelligible mumble about him being unhappy about Mrs. S being the class teacher, dad said “well done , you have to make us proud in SSC”.  Mom is usually more sympathetic but she seemed disinterested in my woes today . I wondered morosely at the purpose of academics and the futility of it all . At that fateful moment of self-pity and inner contemplation, I ‘realized’ that my wife would be that person . She had to be!!! after all everybody knew that the quality of the procured wife was directly proportional to my grades. After more deep contemplation on those lines, I decided to try my textbooks again , but the ungainly sight of that wretched school bag undid all my efforts and add to the distraction when dad had turned on the Television for his news so I picked up my Chandamama for the umpteenth time and opened up the page which showed the beautiful well endowed princess.

The next day turned out to be a nightmare . Johnson was a bully who looked old enough to have a child as old as me, he looked at him in contempt and spat out “So you are Sampat huh, ” It was followed by a long list of profanities in chaste Marathi directed at my mother , my father and general ancestry.  “The smart mother f*&$#r who is supposed to help me pass this year”. went on Johnson.  I was extremely offended by the choice of his language but wisdom honed by centuries of survival instincts dictated that I dare not air my annoyance . So I smiled as pleasantly as I could and spat out “That stupid Sudha, she is brainless” to which Johnson laughed and  I seemed to create a spirit of bon homie in him by inventing a common foe. “You are a smart sisterf#@$r, I like you. Just know one thing, mind your own business and don’t tell me what to do and you can sit here peacefully else I will f$@% you up . This here is Sanjay and Srikanth, you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us . Got that , Shorty?? ” I had no clue what ‘f$@%’ meant but I understood enough not to ever raise Johnson’s ire or Srikanth’s or Sanjay’s. Some might call them the unholy trinity of our school but having just read Alexander Dumas’ three Musketeers , I knew what I was about to christen them.

So I patiently bore Johnson’s annoying habit of spluttering saliva all over the person nearest to him , or his odious habit of chewing tobacco or his awful  body odor.

One day however the three musketeers did not come to school which was a big relief ,I decided to move and sit next to my oldest pal Virendra , who has been with me since 1st grade. The teacher discussed the Aryan invasion of India about 5000 years ago and mentioned that Aryans were fair and tall whereas Dravidians were short and ugly and the Dravidians had lost to the Aryans. Dhani and Virendra decided they were Aryans since they were fair skinned decided to gang up on me.  I was told that I was a dravidian because I was short and dark and from South India . Some pals, right??  I was annoyed with my ‘ancestors’ for having lost the war to the stupid Aryans and putting me in this position today. I went home brooding and wondered what made my stupid ancestors lose and decided to ask my father in the evening , but he was not the least interested which made me feel even worse and I invariably dreaded the next morning.

However the next day Johnson returned and I lovingly toyed with the idea of letting Johnson know what Virendra and Dhani thought of dark short people since Johnson was just a touch lighter than coal but then I did not like the thought of being labelled a ‘chamcha’ (squealer) for the rest of the term.

Johnson was singing a song in the same tune as V Shantaram’s immortal classic “Eh Maalik tere Bande hum” in terrible Hindi.

oh darling, I am in your homestead

admiring your wondrous bedstead

your softness beckons

my manhood hardens

The original lyrics in a vulgar dialect of Hindi was in a language so colorful that it would make a sailor blush and sure to offend the refined senses of my readers so I will forego that.

The actual translation took several years for me to fully comprehend .At the time it sounded like some vulgar gibberish. Johnson looked extremely happy so out of courtesy I asked him why he was so happy to which he replied, “Ooooh , I saw my whore yesterday”. I had always heard the term whore in a derogatory manner and yet Johnson seemed to say that with real affection and of course I had no idea what ‘saw’ meant so I decided I would rather not play too stupid in case Johnson got mad. So I ventured casually “Where did you see your whore?” to which Johnson bemusedly replied “In the whorehouse , of course?” , it was follow by a guffaw from Srikanth who was listening in. He asked me with a conspiratorial chuckle , “Do you know what we do with a whore?”

I was too dumbstricken to answer. I was not aware of the quote “Deer in the headlights” but I imagine that was probably me , Deer with a 18 wheeler barreling towards me at 100 miles an hour.

“You just have to go there and pick yourself whoever you think you like the most and then you take her into her room and take her clothes off and make love to her” Johnson replied as if that was the most natural thing in the world for a 14 year old to know.My eyes glazed over “make what??????” . Johnson looked at me affectionately in that manner which a venerable wise man looks at a eager student who is desirous of all the knowledge in the world. “Tell you what, get 15 rupees next month and I will take you with me to meet my whore and you can kiss her  too” and he winked. My joy knew no bounds and the excitement made my head pound. Starting that day,  the sole purpose of my existence was to collect 15 rupees.

I walked home with a spring in my step feeling somewhat powerful and the delicious feeling of stealth that comes over when you know you have a secret from the whole wide world. I felt a feeling almost bordering on contempt as I saw people that I interacted with daily. I then started worrying about procuring 15 rupees from my mother without her finding out what I was planning to do with it. I decided maybe I would try to run more grocery errands for her, that way I would sneak out a few rupees and hopefully have the magical amount by the end of the month. Now much as I thought I could not conjure up the magical amount by the month end cos my mother was just too sharp so my last resort was hoodwinking my uncle into letting me run errands around the house . But try as I may , I could not think of anything useful that I could do which would enable the magic amount to change hands .

The magic number 15 etched itself in my mind , my soul . Johnson however seemed to have all but forgotten his promise and seemed disinterested in me. The next couple of weeks seemed like eternity stretched out and no solution or end in sight .One of those days, our biology teacher was teaching us all about the mating habits of frogs.  After all the gory details were laid out , Johnson , Srikanth and Sanjay chuckled and Johnson said in a low tone “wonder if he has to give Rs 15 too”, it was a sneaky chuckle . I was baffled now , I failed to see the connection between the mating habits of frogs and the magical amount of Rs 15. I imagined that I had somehow missed a critical part of the frog commerce due to my own affliction with the number 15 .  After school , I saw the three musketeers at a Kulfi (Indian icecream) stand , the science of making kulfi is honed into a fine art by these kulfi artists.  The sweetened cream spiced with cardamom is dropped into thin metal pyramidal moulds and a bamboo stick is inserted into the center and stuck inside an ice box . There are 3 sizes to choose from , the thin one which lasted maybe a dozen licks was 25p , the one bigger than that was 50p and then you had the giant for Rs 1. Magically the kulfi vendor knows which one is frozen solid and which ones to leave in longer . When you give him the money, he will whip out a mould and dip it in a water canister that he keeps nearby and viola the ice cream stick slides out like butter. It would take two more years before I found out that it was actually salt water and why it slid out so easily but at the time, it seemed like magic . I could never get the ice cubes out of trays by merely dipping them in water .

But coming back the three musketeers had each bought the 25p one and gawking at the girls coming out  so I ventured to ask Johnson if he would still take me with him at month end if I did not have the money  . He told me to “f@#^ off” in no uncertain terms and also picked up a few pebbles and threw them at me just to reinforce his decision .

Come the month end and I was all antsy , I was in school but my mind was not in school.I was still too busy trying to figure out how to get that magic amount and convince Johnson to take me along . I could visualize myself with this extremely gorgeous woman who looked like the personification of the princess in my Chandamama . I imagined that she would be pleased to do the slightest bidding when I handed her the magical amount of Rs 15 . I was lost in my own private melodrama when I heard something akin to a thunderous roar , I jumped up and realized that Mrs Vasantha was upon me. I looked up petrified at her

“Sorry , maam ”

She roared this time “when do frogs mate??”

I have not the slightest clue but Johnson’s comment came to mind and I decided to venture an answer  “When the frog gets 15 Rs” .

I will never forget the expression on Mrs. Vasantha’s face ,nor will I ever forget the laughter that arose from the class . I looked around and saw Johnson glare at me.  Needless to say that was warning enough for me not to rat him out . I realized I was in trouble, but little idea as to how deep I was in, I was made to kneel down before the principals office for the whole day but before that I got a humiliating whacking from Mrs. Vasantha in front of the class and then from Mrs. Shanthi the principal. My parents were summoned the next day, I will never forget the heart wrenching panic I felt. I would have liked to be a fly on the wall for the parent teacher meeting. Luckily for me , my father did not come along. When my mother came out , she came out in a daze, I guess it never crossed her mind that her dear son had actually grown up and lost at least part of his innocence, though in all honesty looking back I have to say that I had lost none of that innocence yet but somehow I was guilty . Her face made a terrible impression on me , one that I never forgot . It was one of anguish and confusion, for the life of me I could not understand why I had hurt her so badly , her look which seemed to convey disappointment and shame , all in one glance . It seemed too terrible a punishment . But she pulled herself together very quickly , not before I swore to myself , never ever again would I ever do something that would hurt her so terribly.

We stopped outside the school at a guava vendor and she asked him to cut up a guava for us and spice it up with that special mixture of salt and chili powder . She took one slice and gave me the rest started walking home . She started talking about the spice mixture and how it never seems to taste that way when she made at home .I could care less about the spice mixture and dreaded the moment my father found out, if my mother seemed so shook up, I shuddered to think what my dad would say and do.   I was silent on the way home dreading the inevitable. Finally the terror of having to explain this to my father got the better of me, I turned around and asked her “Can you please not tell dad about this?”

She looked at me silently ,”I wont but I need to know where you found out about this” . Shamefacedly I told her about Johnson and also imploring her not to complain because a Chamcha (squealer) gets ostracized and beaten up at school.

She smiled at me and told me not to worry . She kept her word , my dad queried as to why she needed to go to school , she fobbed him off with some answer that seemed to satisfy him.

The next day at school seemed as though nothing had changed , Johnson sat next to me and leered at me and said “Whats up , Rs 15?” . I politely smiled and said nothing. After that point I tried my damnedest to ignore him and focus. The week passed by uneventfully but I had a big surprise on Monday when I came back .The three musketeers were missing , I figured they had pulled another disappearing act but Mrs Sudha announced that Johnson , Srikanth and Sanjay had been transferred to a different division . To say that I was relieved would be an understatement.

That afternoon after returning home , I told mom the news . She acted surprised and happy but I knew her well enough to know that she was not truly surprised. She had managed to somehow pull strings  or make calls to make this happen. All my years in that school, I had never seen that happen before or happen since .  I looked at her with gratitude and pride , my mother was not one who was about to let anybody harm her cubs . She caught my look and smiled benevolently and went back to the kitchen .

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