Sonali’s blouse was stained with large circles of sweat. She was losing her patience in the heat. She walked to the back of the classroom and flipped a switch as the children settled into their seats. The rusty cooler made a watery hum, drowning out their chatter. She threw some jamun berries in her mouth and wiped her purple finger tips on a small towel that she kept in her drawer. Turning her head, she disposed of the waxy pits.
Soon the monsoons would come, the mosquitoes and sticky air. But it was the heat she minded; and now, just before school was out for the summer, she placed her teacher’s desk at the back of the room, directly in front of the cooler, embedded in the window. She knew this was a selfish act, but she could not have taught any other way. Sometimes, she’d offer a reward to the well behaved students and allow them fifteen minutes. She enjoyed watching them in front of the stiff flow, eyes closed and hands held out in a sort of ecstasy.
She didn’t use the blackboard along the front wall these days. She made the children write on the board instead, a sentence, a math problem, the diagram of a flower for the science section.
“Who can name the principle parts of a flower?”
A boy’s hand shot up. Looking around the room, her eyes fell on Ankita, but she resisted, and called upon the boy instead.
He stood up and recounted, “the petal, the stamen, the pistil, the receptacle, and the… sepal.” He looked at her, pleased with himself. Sonali waited.
“Are the principle parts of a flower, Miss Dhavan, Ma’am.”
When they called her Ma’am , it was okay. It was when they used her actual name, Miss Dhavan,and then Ma’am that she cringed. She was given to such particulars all her life.
“Correct. You may sit down.”
These particulars were probably the reason for her misfortunes; the singular misfortune in which she’d stood until now, a single woman, almost forty, who until recently seemed doomed to spinsterhood, while all those around her seemed to live their lives in comfort and cozy homes with husbands and children and the smells and sounds of ordinary, exhilarating life.
She looked down at her spindly fingers, so long and so unadorned, and then at her dress, a simple sari, the color of saffron. It was made of homespun cotton, purposefully chosen as a uniform by the school’s board to honor Gandhiji’s lessons on self-sufficiency.
But who looked back nowadays to Gandhiji except on Republic Day? The children certainly had it in their lesson plans, and his portraits were in all the major hallways. She thought of her mother, who still covered her head at the usual things, at temple and in government buildings, where pictures of the Mahatma were prominently displayed. It was a personal requirement, nothing that popular customs demanded. Her mother had became devout in certain respects, as if her life had acquired meaning with age and widowhood. She seemed to be trying to achieve a certain degree of sanctity without being fully committed, one foot still in the enjoyment of willful pleasures.
The children were shifting in their seats. She watched as they labeled the parts of a flower on printed diagrams. They gripped their pencils, their fingers blanched as they pressed hard against the page. Sonali straightened when Ankita approached.
Ankita let the paper go prematurely, and it wafted down near the wastepaper basket. She had eyes that always looked away. Sonali lifted Ankita’s chin.
“I haven’t graded your paper yet and you’re already throwing it in the trash?” The students snickered.
Ankita picked it up and laid it on the desk. Then she walked back to her seat and sat as if awaiting a sentence.
More children planted their papers on the desk.
A boy stood and threw a paper ball at Ankita. It was quick but she’d seen it. She sighed and called on him.
“I don’t miss a thing that goes on in my classroom,” she said. There was no other recourse.
“Go and stand in the corner with your arms up until I tell you.”
All the days were like this now. But even at day’s end, her challenge was to quiet her mind, to not compare, to try to be fascinated by a book or a television program or even to listen to her mother complain about her aches and pains on the telephone. Grading was not difficult. This was only the second standard, and handwriting and neatness held heavier weight than factual correctness.
At recess, Sonali stood in the courtyard, eating more jamun berries, black and oblong and especially tasty when top coated with black salt. She watched as Ankita played alone, humming to herself on the swing, away from the other children. On some days, there were two or three of them, girls who seemed to seek Ankita out. Sonali watched as one of the girls went behind her and shoved her off. They laughed as Ankita lay holding her knee, and dispersed when Sonali approached.
She pulled Ankita up and beat the dirt off her dress. Then she took her inside and searched the child’s face, but it was her own face she saw, voiceless and frightened. Purple stains appeared when she let go of Ankita’s uniform.
Once again, as she’d done many times before, Sonali left her at the office near the reception, in the able hands of Mrs. Dey, the school nurse.
In the teacher’s canteen, Mrs. Jasmine Kaur was displaying her new necklace, a thick, braided piece of twenty four carats. She never came to work without full makeup, her nails neatly polished, her sari pinned with a flashy broach, a designer bag at her side.
One of the teachers said,“Come and see what her husband has gifted Jasmine for her birthday.”
“We have bullies at this school.” Sonali heard her voice grow shrill. “Some of them are in your classes.” They looked to Jasmine Kaur, who was peeling an orange, and who spoke with the most authority.
“Good they pushed her off the swing and good she got a bloody knee.”
Sonali thought it strange how Jasmine Kaur knew what had happened in the courtyard, when she’d been in the canteen peeling oranges.
Jasmine Kaur taught eighth grade English as a pastime. She didn’t need to work, as she herself told everyone. Jasmine Kaur smelled of fragrant oranges. She had a grove full that she’d bring in daily during season, green skinned oranges with a light taste. Not pungent, not acidic, not even sweet. So unlike the jamun berry, sun dried and top coated with black salt, sold in newspaper cones outside the school. For Jasmine Kaur, her green oranges were the preferred method of repayment of favors.
“A crate full of freshly picked oranges for you dear,” she’d say to anyone who did her bidding, even students. No one said no to Mrs. Jasmine Kaur. But Sonali saw through her and wondered at her particular dislike of Ankita.
Those inclined to gossip in the teacher’s canteen said that Ankita’s father had gone to school with Jasmine Kaur, and that the two had been an ‘item.’ But in the end, he’d broke off with her and she’d shed many tears. Sonali found it hard to think of Jasmine Kaur shedding any tears.
Sonali went back to her classroom and turned the cooler off before she sat at her desk. She’d set and graded the papers before her, a paperweight to hold them in place. Ankita’s paper was graded too. She wrote in a very light hand, as if writing only to herself. There were people spoke that way too, she thought, mumbling to themselves, oblivious that others had to strain to hear them. She’d been that way herself, as a child. Ankita’s writing was like the delicate spindly fibers of a spider’s weaving, hardly there, like a breath. Sometimes she’d have to take off marks for missing punctuation, which was usually there, but barely decipherable.
Ankita’s timidity, like the delicacy of her handwriting, irritated her. And yet she was drawn to her and felt protective. She too had avoided friendships in her day, preferring solitude.
Sonali looked outside at the rain falling on the pavement. She heard footsteps from the hall and knew it was Mr. Goel, the school’s principal. When he talked to her in private, he sometimes lingered, his fingers touching hers after a gentle handshake or his hand pat against her shoulder, or his eyes, moving across her face and neck, slowly, as if to caress her.
He cleared his throat, “Miss Dhavan?”
Sonali looked up, but didn’t meet his eyes.
“So this is to be your last term ?” She nodded, annoyed at the question. He’d had her resignation letter on his desk for the past two months.
She looked away while he ran his gaze length wise over her. This was the last time, she thought.
The bell rang but his back was to the door and he gave no indication of leaving.
“I believe that was the bell for the classes to come in from recess,” she said.
He caught her eyes this time and made his advance. She saw his left hand reach forward and touch her forearm.
“I really should get going,” she said, recoiling from his clammy touch.
“Yes . Of course. You should go now,” he said, though he was the one who should leave. Finally, he opened the door, greeted some children in the hall and walked away.
She got up and turned the cooler back on. The children had made butterflies last week out of different colored paper. She’d hung them from the ceiling, each child’s butterfly held by a piece of yarn above their own desk. The room was vivified. She tried to memorize it as the class rushed in. She looked at their faces and eavesdropped on their excited conversations. It wouldn’t last. The class would begin, the lesson taught, the artwork taken down in a few days. She’d be getting married in a few weeks, moving away. She’d finally said yes to a match.
“Where’s Ankita?” she asked.
A boy stood up and pulled his lips apart. “My tooth fell out.” The class laughed.
“Did you see the nurse?”
“What about Ankita?” He shrugged. Sonali sent two children to find her.
When they returned without her ten minutes later, she left the class with an impromptu assignment, devising the proper reprimand once she found Ankita in her solitary dalliance or sitting on a bench somewhere.
She searched the hallways, but then remembered something. Ankita had a speech session once a week with Mr. Prabhakar. It must be speech day. It was hard to keep up with all the children’s specials.
As she passed the reception, she saw the nurse in the office.
“Ankita’s not still with you, is she, Mrs. Dey?”
“Ankita? No. I sent her with two of the hall monitors,” Mrs. Dey said. “Two big boys come for her.”
“I thought she had speech today with Mr. Prabhakar.”
“Then check with him, Miss Dhavan.”
Sonali walked quickly. She stood at last in front of Mr. Goel’s door and knocked. Jasmine Kaur opened it. She was on her way out, her eyes filled with animosity. Mr. Goel’s face was ashen, as if he’d been given the news of a death, or maybe a threat. There was no telling what had gone on between these two.
“Mr. Goel,” she said. “I can’t find Ankita. I’ve been searching for her but I can’t leave my class alone for so long.” He seemed hardly to have registered what she’d said. “Would you check with Mr. Prabhakar?” she asked. He picked up the telephone with a nod as she was leaving.
She walked back to her classroom, unruly now, and taught the history lesson.
The class was dismissed at three and her thoughts gave way to dread, as she walked to Mr. Prabhakar’s office. No one had seen her today, he said. Her sessions were on Wednesdays, and today was not Wednesday.
There had never been any mishaps like this before. Sonali had sat back most of the time, met the stares of parents at conferences, intelligent or blank, involved or giving the appearance, and managed to get through each school year.
She looked at the clock. The buses would be leaving. Ankita had not been seen since lunchtime.
“A child is missing, sir,” she said, barging into the principal’s office. Mr. Goel was hunched over some papers.
“What was that?”
“A child in my class, Ankita,” she said.
“Did you look in the library, or outside on the swings, perhaps?” he asked.
“Yes. Everywhere. The swings are empty. She hasn’t been seen by anyone since lunchtime,” she said, her desperation showing.
“Sometimes parents send others to pick up their children. Did you make any phone calls?”
“We don’t have time for all this, she’s gone,” she said.
“Call the child’s home and ask if she made it there safely. Say you were just making sure,” he said. “I’ll check the bus stands.”
In the quiet of the hallway, she heard a muffled noise like a trapped animal from the closet at the bottom of the stair.
She called for the janitor to unlock the door. He yanked on a string to turn the light on. Ankita was tied to a support beam. She was seated on the floor, tied at the waist. Sonali untied the cloth from behind the support beam and pulled her up to her feet.
She hugged her then held her face in her hands. There was agitation in her eyes, but mostly relief in the child’s face.
“How did this happen?” Sonali asked.
“I got locked in…” her voice trailed off.
“Are you okay?”
Sonali looked around. An odor of oranges hung in the air. The rinds were strewn about the floor of the tiny closet.
Sonali turned to the janitor. “Do you know who did this?”
“A teacher asked me for my keys,” he said. “Who am I to question?” He walked off before Sonali could ask him further, muttering to himself and shaking his head.
Sonali and Ankita went outside. As per Mr. Goel’s instructions, she was sent home on a late bus, her parents told only that she’d missed the regular bus at three fifteen.
Sonali walked to the auto rickshaw stand. Distracted, she was almost run over by a motorcycle at the intersection. Perhaps it was the market noise, the crowd, the whistles and jabs or the political slogans. Or perhaps it was the giant film posters, half torn off, the gaudy faces of film stars, ashen and blue skinned, bloodshot eyes conveying drama, and blood red lips on heroines. She felt dizzy and disoriented. Filmi music played, while street dwellers brushed their teeth with their fingers, bathed children on sidewalks, and slept on old wicker slabs next to traffic. She picked her way through the streets teeming with life and tried to make sense of it. It was hot, and she felt as if a heavy weight had settled on her for good.
The auto dropped her in front of her building and she walked up the three flights to her flat. Once inside, she closed the windows and set the water to boil. The air was leaden, like a fly on the wall. The butter cream walls had attracted a fly that had become immovable for a long instant, just as everything had. She lay motionless on the sofa, except for her breath. She did not wish to exert herself to stop it, although she did wish for it to stop, so she could be inanimate and hard, like a quiet casket, or a red painted anchor with a rope around it’s neck. She heard the teapot in the kitchen softly coming to life. The charred remains of a burnt toast lay on the floor and two flies buzzed around it.
She thought of Ankita tied up in the dark. And Jasmine Kaur, who’d been instructing the bullies in her class.
In the evening, as if drawn providentially by her daughter’s ill humors, her mother came to visit. Mrs. Dhavan, wife of the late brigadier general, brought platefuls of dinner: summer vegetables like aubergine with onions and potatoes, hot and tart and greasy; paranthas, rice pilaf, and cold cucumber yogurt. She even brought her own homemade pickles of carrot and rye.
“I had the auto walla help me with these bags,” her mother said, carrying the food parcels in stout, fenestrated vegetable carriers that old people shopped with in the markets.
“How was your day, dear?” When Sonali didn’t answer, she said, “You should see my friend Lalitha now. She is fortunate to be alive, I say. She sits upright only for meals and for a good hand of rummy. But she belts out commands to that daughter-in-law of hers and those grandchildren like a grand matriarch. Do you know what she said to me? ‘The aches and pains of old age’ she said, ‘didn’t you notice that they would settle on you?’ Those were her exact words. ‘Didn’t you know that they would settle on you.’ Settle on you? How should I know that they would have to settle on me?”
“She was just engaging you, like I do all the time. You know how you are with your daily aches and pains,” Sonali replied.
“So you think I’m exaggerating?” asked her mother.
“We found a child today in the basement in the janitor’s closet, tied up. A girl from my class,” Sonali said. “I think I know who was responsible.”
“How awful! Who would do such a thing? Can there be such people?” Her mother was tasting the aubergines. “Wouldn’t it be nice, Sonali, to go on holiday, especially after this heat?” she asked.
Sonali laid out her mother’s wretched tablecloth and shared no more with her.
Jasmine Kaur’s callousness and untidy methods were discoverable. If the gossip about her and Ankita’s father was true, then Ankita was an ugly symbol; a daily dose of salt rubbed on a still open sore.
Sonali made up her mind. Jasmine Kaur would be given a grace period, in which if she demonstrated a first rate repentance, there would be no hullabaloo. But if she pressed on in her self-serving ways, there would be no holding back.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to take some action. And it will be public,” she stated matter-of-factly to Mr.Goel the next day. He was unsteady with his teacup.
“A grace period, Miss Dhavan?”
“Three days, Mr. Goel. She’ll need to say an apology to Ankita,” she said adding, “in front of the parents in the assembly.”
Without a knock, Jasmine Kaur entered the principal’s office.
“She’s had a poor upbringing, she has poor social skills, she can’t even speak, that little thief!” But then, with a calm inflection said, “She should be kicked out. What do you think, Mr. Goel?”
He scratched his head but said nothing, clearing his throat and looking from one teacher to the other. He asked for some water, unbuttoned the top of his shirt and loosened his tie. Jasmine Kaur went on.
“I say we expel this child and give the reason as thievery. Bring it to the board, Mr. Goel.” She produced a twenty four karat, braided chain and held it up. “One of the boys found it in her lunch bag with her uneaten lunch. My husband gave it to me for my birthday. I even have the box and the receipt. And when I demanded an explanation from her, she gave none. Stubborn, insolent child.”
“So you locked her up in the basement, in the janitor’s closet, is that it?” said Sonali. Mr. Goel intervened. Their meeting would resume tomorrow, before classes began.
Jasmine Kaur must have gone home that evening and presented a version of the days occurrence to her husband, the husband who gave her necklaces and who took her around in foreign cars. They must have come up with a counter offer that amounted in a way, to a bribe. That was the way it was done, wasn’t it? Because the next day both teacher and principal came in to Sonali’s classroom ready to pounce. They were united, expecting to see her bend to their bully tactics. Jasmine Kaur stood next to Mr. Goel, but didn’t speak.
“Mrs. Kaur has reviewed your proposal and has come up with her own,” said Mr. Goel, his face set like stone.
“A compromise, shall we say? You’ll be glad to hear it as it keeps both sides upstanding and helps clear the air,” he said.
She waited in polite expectancy. What he said about a private apology to Ankita seemed irrelevant now. As he went on, Sonali wrote some words on a notepad, very light, barely there.
J-U-S-T-I-C-E. She traced the words again on her wooden desk, under their probing eyes. They slowly became aware of their failure.
Jasmine Kaur hit the desk hard with her hand. “I said I would apologize! What do you want! I don’t need this job. I’ll quit. That’s what you want, right?” She pushed the desk into her ribs and walked out.
Mr. Goel stood, his neck veins prominent, his eyes making wide movements as if he no longer knew where to rest them.
Vimi Bajaj is a writer living near Chicago. A graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, she is currently working on a novel set mostly in India. A version of this story has been published in the online journal, “Prick of the Spindle.”