"Pratik, I wanted to talk to you about something," the Principal told me this afternoon.
"Yes, ma'am." I replied.
"This boy, Aziz, in the sixth standard, he runs away daily, you know. I ask him to stay back, but he runs away."
"What's the matter with him, ma'am?"
I knew that not everyone stays back for remedial classes. So why was Aziz asked to do so?
"His father is in jail. He is a smart kid, you know. Just bad influence. Talk to him."
"Sure ma'am, I will talk to him. He must be having his last lecture now, won't he?" I had gone to the school early that day. So that gave me oppurtunity to catch the kid before he could 'run away'.
"Yes. Come, we will go there. Both of you sit in the libary, and you guide him, okay?"
We went to the class.
"Aziz," the principal called out.
"Aziz is upto it again," said the teacher. "He hasn't done his Marathi homework, and is not paying attention in class."
"Come here Aziz, what's this?" There was an affected authority in the principal's voice, befitting a Principal in such a situation.
School principals are given a position corresponding to God's, if school were considered a microcosm of human existence. Students rarely meet them, and even when they do, not so personally. The teachers, like priests or guides, threaten students by the principal's name. There is something casual about the teachers: the students can joke with them and ask them things. Since the teachers teach them for some time, they are within the students' imagination. Lack of any imagination creates a fear about the Principal, an alienation that only a few can manage to overcome in the entire school. It is well established from the start that tremendous power is vested in the principal, and the students accept this dictatorship from the beginning.
So I remembered, today, and I am thinking, how Principals would bring with them a wave of silence, which they would unleash all around the class just by standing under the door-frame. And how uneasy I felt when my Principal used to enter my class. It was as if the fear of imbalance would make me wobble, when we stood up to wish her like helpless robots programmed to rise before their creator. And I assumed that since the Principal has come, someone would get slapped. Like a residual, undegraded corpse, I rediscovered this assumption in the underground stream of my subconscious today, as I saw the doomed face of Aziz approach the Principal. I remembered the time when I was an Aziz, so strong was the feeling of being in his boots. She would slap him.
But she did not, humbling my cynical attitude of the meek. "Aziz, he will talk to you about your studies, okay?" she told him, pointing at me. I smiled at him. We went to the library, which I must say was cosy because of its small size and sufficient because of its number and type of books- a set of Britannica Encyclopaedia and another encyclopaedia for children, some abridged novels, some picture-books.
"Hello Aziz, I am Pratik."
"So, what happened?" I asked him about that last incident, with a broad smile, knowing perfectly well that I had to be on his side.
"Marathi bounces off my head. Can't understand much." he willingly confessed.
"So, which language do you like?" I asked.
"English." The reply didn't take time to come.
"Not even Hindi?"
"Not even Hindi.". I saw a pattern.
"Here, read this." I said, showing him my journal. His supple English, with a proper understanding of phonetics, surprised me. He could wade through words like 'involvement' and 'programme', though he must have been reading them for the first time. When I later asked him to read a Marathi and a Hindi journal, he couldn't. As was visible, he could not comprehend the Devnagari system of vowels in script, nor could he string together the syllables. This is a pattern I see in some other kids too: none of them can cope up equally well with English as well as a native language.
"We will take care of this language problem, don't worry." I assured. "So, where do you stay?" I asked, having nothing else to say.
"Metro. Near Bombay Hospital."
"Oh, Steven lives there too. Do you know Steven, from the eighth standard?"
"I don't live in a house, I live on the street."
A floodgate was opened in my mind, somewhere. I could sense violent activity in that corner of my mind. How could such a simple question be so dangerous? Why did I have to ask him that which could humiliate him? But no, wait, there was a certain frankness and objectivity on Aziz's face, unperturbed by reality, like evergreen leaves of a pine tree in the coldest of winters. He seemed not to be bothered. I was goaded.
"Who else is in your family?"
"Mother, a sister, and an uncle."
"Papa?" I quickly realized my bunder, as these words came out, perhaps while they were coming out: I had forgotten that his father was behind bars. But while the privileged falter at every step and still remain insulated, the unfortunate, in spite of all their misfortune, brave stormy questions, somehow.
"He is dead. My Papa is dead."