Paperthin

by adithyanarayanan

When Krishna’s father came home to tell his family that he had been transferred to Mumbai he added that they would have to pack and move within a week’s time. Krishna didn’t cry or make a fuss like last time. At the age of 11 the boy had already changed 5 schools across 3 cities, and the family had been expecting this news for a couple of weeks now. The next day after the morning assembly Krishna quietly walked up to his teacher and informed her about the transfer. Before the final bell rang, he distributed sweets among his friends, returned his borrowed books and said his final goodbyes. On the way back home, Krishna stopped near the gardens past the school gates and turned around to look at his school building one last time. He closed his eyes for a second after to safely store the picture he had just taken with his eyes, and then walked away – no trace of emotion on his face.

Krishna’s father worked in the petroleum business and his company would often transfer him with little notice, an occupational hazard his family had learnt to deal with over the years. Krishna would dread the day his father would come home with the yellow envelope that had the details of his next posting, and he would spend the next few days crying in his room. The transfers mostly meant that Krishna grew up expecting to leave the friends even before he made them; he was made to step into a new city and a new school every second year only so he could leave the friends he made. It was cruel, but soon he realized that there was little he could do about it, and as time passed he began to keep fewer and fewer friends.

The house they moved into in Mumbai was much bigger than their previous house. They lived in Gokuldham society, which was a housing colony and that meant that there was a playground where Krishna could go ride his cycle or play cricket with children. Krishna was not interested in playing, but his mother made sure the neighbor’s son took him with him and after an initial awkward phase that lasted a month, Krishna soon settled into the new colony. His teachers in school liked him too; he sat on the second bench next to the window, completed his homework, and did well when the exams came.

A few years before Krishna was born, a right-wing party made it mandatory across schools in the country to teach the state language along with the National language. While there was a lot of debate around the topic in the legislature assembly, and within the education board, the rule stuck. When Krishna’s Marathi language teacher walked into class, Krishna introduced himself and proceeded to tell her that he didn’t understand a word of the language, but that he was willing to work hard in order to do well. This had worked for him in the past and Krishna expected her to smile or pat his head, but the lady looked up at the heavens, and in a grand gesture proceeded to call out to the Hindu gods to ask what wrong she had done in her previous life to end up in a school where they thought it was perfectly acceptable to take children who knew nothing in the language she taught, year after year. She then gave Krishna a solid tap with her knuckles on his head and sent him back to his place, and Krishna knew that life as he knew it then, was slowly about to change.

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Shubhangi Godbole’s Marathi tuition center had a notorious reputation in the neighborhood that Krishna’s family had just moved into. While her tuition center was the most successful tuition one in the entire Western belt, stories of Shubhagi’s infamous temper surfaced often. Still, she did extremely well for herself, for her student’s far outperformed students of other tuition centers. That was partly because Shubhangi knew her subject really well, and partly because she tolerated no nonsense or indiscipline of any sort. People said that once Shubhangi had a student hit so hard, that his parents had to take him to the nearby hospital. The next day, the story goes, Shubhangi came to visit the boy with a box of chocolates, a bouquet of flowers and a Marathi textbook, and proceeded to take tuitions for him for the next one hour that she was there in the hospital room. When the results came out that year, the boy scored cent percent in Marathi, and like most other things that end well, all was forgiven and forgotten.

When Krishna’s mother went to meet Shubhangi the evening after Krishna’s Marathi teacher had called out to all the gods, Shubhangi made it very clear to her that while she would ensure that Krishna would get a distinction in Marathi, she would do so using her own methods. Over a cup of hot tea that Shubhangi had made for herself, she assured Krishna’s mother that used the cane to discipline only the worst students, and that as long as Krishna was sincere and hard working, there was nothing for anybody to worry about. However she added, if Krishna’s mother wanted a friendlier, more affectionate teacher she could put her in touch with Mardekar aunty who lived down the road who still had a couple of vacant slots. But everyone knew that the students at Mardekar’s flew paper planes in class, and so Krishna’s mother promptly paid the fees for the year, and promised Shubhangi that Krishna was bright, well-disciplined child and that she was confident that with some initial help, he would soon begin to do extremely well in Marathi.

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The next day when Krishna walked into the tuition center, he sat on a bench right at the back; his friends in school had warned him against sitting in the front. When Shubhangi saw him, she got up, walked to his bench and handed him a test paper. Today was test day at the tuition center, she said and all her other students in the center were busy solving the paper. An hour later, after the answers were announced and after the papers had been corrected, the students walked up to Shubhangi one by one, and explained why they got how much they did. Anyone who got less than 70% was caned six times. Krishna starred at his empty paper; he had been unable to understand a single question in the test. When it was finally his turn, he slowly walked up the aisle and handed over his empty paper. Shubhangi looked at his paper, and then back at him and when she lifted her cane, he stretched his hand and closed his eyes, but a second later when he didn’t feel the cane smack against his palm, he opened an eyes to realize that Shubhangi was pointing at his bag. She then tapped the vacant spot on the first bench in front of her and said, ‘Bring you bag here. You will sit here every day, every week, for as long as it takes you to do well on my tests.’ That evening Krishna went home and cried to his mother, begging her to send him to Mardekar’s instead. But no tamil iyer ponnu has ever sent her son to a second grade tuition when a better one is available in the area, so Krishna had to continue going for Marathi tuitions to Shubhangi miss instead.

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After the first few months of struggle, Krishna began to perform better in Marathi, both in school and in tuition. The initial few weeks had been extremely difficult; he was petrified of Shubhangi but sitting in the front of her gave him no choice but to concentrate and work hard at learning the language he had now begun to hate so much. But Krishna never got caned in tuition – partly because he worked so hard, and partly because Shubhangi soon took a liking to the young boy, and although she barely expressed it, she had been very impressed with the growth he had made, for within a few of months he was performing on par with her other students, occasionally even better.

Soon Krishna brought two of friends his to the tuition center. Ethan and Samantha were twins who became friends with Krishna when the three of them had gotten selected to perform in the annual school play. While Krishna had scored a respectable 72% in his Marathi paper, the twins failed the exam. The next day the class teacher had pulled the twins aside and told them that their Marathi scores would have to drastically improve if they wanted to continue to be a part of the school play, and Krishna knew that the only person who could help them was Shubhangi miss, and so he promptly took them over to the tuition center in the evening. Shubhangi agreed to teach them, and enrolled them right away.

While Ethan, Samantha and Krishna walked to the tuition after school together, they couldn’t sit together, for there was no place for the twins to sit in the front. Ethan and Samantha would take their seats right at the back while Krishna continued to sit in the front. The twins knew nothing in Marathi, and because they sat at the back and had joined extremely late in the year, they continued to perform badly for weeks even after they joining the center. Shubhangi didn’t like the twins very much, something about them put her off, and she never forgave their mistakes the same way she had forgiven Krishna’s during his first few weeks at the center. The twins too began to hate Shubhangi, and often-made fun of her on the way back home. When the Unit test results were announced, everyone in the tuition center did well except Ethan and Samantha. They had failed their Unit test again. The next day when Ethan forgot to bring homework notebook, Shubhangi caned him fourteen times in front of the whole class, six times more than the usual. The next day, Ethan and Samantha’s parents came to meet Shubhangi, and threatened to file a child abuse complaint against her in the nearby police station. Needless to say, they pulled Ethan and Samantha out of the tuition center and soon, a week later when the twins failed another Marathi test, the class teacher removed them from the play as well.

The incident deeply affected Krishna; for it seemed to him that Ethan and Samantha, and their parents seemed to think that he was to blame him for the incident. Shubhangi too had began to behave in an extremely cold manner with Krishna- there was no need for the boy to have brought his two friends along during the middle of the year and create all that commotion. Soon, he was made to give up his front seat, and sit at the back with some of the other children who did not study too well. This affected his work and during the weeks leading up to the final exams, Krishna didn’t perform well in his tests. When the final exam results were announced, he managed to secure only a 42% in Marathi.

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A week before the final exams, the tuition center shut, and Shubhangi called for a meeting to announce that she was getting married over the summer. She assured the parents that their students would perform very well in the upcoming final exams, adding that her marriage would in no way affect the functioning of the tuition center. Krishna from secretly hoped that her husband would take her away someplace far so he would never have to worry about seeing her again.

The entire summer, Krishna spent dreading the first day of tuition center when he would have to walk up to Shubhangi with his final Marathi exam papers. 42% was dismal and Krishna was convinced that he would get caned more times than Ethan had during his first day back after the summer, and unlike Ethan’s parents, his parents would do nothing about it, and all summer long he couldn’t take his mind of it.

After the first day back in school, Krishna slowly walked up the street leading up to the tuition center, his yearly tuition fee and his Marathi paper and in hand. He had decided over the summer that he would quietly take the beatings, proceed to work extremely hard over the next few months, and ensure that he got an 80% in the first Unit test. When he reached the tuition center, he noticed that it was locked. There were no other students around. He waited for a while, and then walked up the stairs to the third floor where he knew Shubhangi lived with her mother. He hesitated before ringing the doorbell, and it occurred to him for a fleeting second that he could run away, tell his mother than they had moved and that the house was locked and never come back, but having never been blessed with the courage to carry out such daring acts, he rang the doorbell. Shubhangi’s mother opened the door, and when Krishna asked about the tuitions, Shubhangi’s mother told him that she had gone away and that the tuition center would be shut for a while. Krishna was just about to leave when, he noticed Shubhangi at the far end of the corridor, from the corner of his eye and when she realized that he had seen her, she asked her mother to let him inside.

When Krishna sat down on the sofa next to the table fan, he saw that Shubhangi’s eyes were puffed; it looked like she had been crying. He had never seen her like this before and he sat cowed down, feet together, his hands on his lap. When her mother gave him water, he drank it quickly and placed the steel tumbler on the tray before her mother could put the tray down on the table next to him. When Shubhangi smiled, he noticed that her lips were pale.

When Shubhangi asked Krishna about his final exam, he Krishna handed over his paper and burst out crying. He didn’t understand why he was crying, she hadn’t even hit him yet, but the tears rolled on and on, and he could do nothing to stop them. When Krishna finally stopped crying, he looked at her and asked her if he could go home. She nodded and told him that she would call and inform him when tuitions would resume. After closing the door, through the iron grill he caught a glimpse of the marks on her back as she turned around to go inside. He put on his slippers and began to walk home.

Two lanes away from home, Krishna stopped and stood next to a temple in silence for a while. A minute later, he walked into the temple, put his tuition fee inside the donation box, said a small prayer for his teacher and then proceeded to run home.

– Adithya Narayanan

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