Karthi was in love.
Whether it was right for him to be in love, being only eight years old, was a different matter.
He thought Mari was the most beautiful thing he had ever set his eyes on. And though he was trying hard to do his maths homework (the terrifying prospect of facing Varadarajan sir with a blank notebook urged him on), he just couldn’t. He had been sitting in the corner of appa’s room with his back against the wall, his books spread out around him, chewing the end of his pencil and trying to focus on the problem at hand.
‘Joseph had three dozen roses. He gave half of them to Alice. How many roses did each of them have?’
Oh, lucky boy Joseph! He had three dozen roses to give away to whoever he liked. Whereas he, Karthi, could not find a way to get hold of just one rose to give to Mari. It would look beautiful in her hair that swung down her back in a thick, long plait. She would pin it just behind her ear, like the heroines in the black and white film songs paatti watched on TV.
But where could he find a rose?
There were all sorts of plants in the yard outside, but no rose among them. On his way home from school, he had seen women selling large, colourful baskets of roses. But the school bus did not stop anywhere near the market and asking the driver to let him down midway was out of the question. The driver was an annoying fellow with a knowing laugh and a hundred questions; he would want to know what business R. Karthik from III-B had in the flower market, whether his parents knew he was making such a strange request to the bus driver, and what the school principal would say if he found out.
No, it would be foolish to even try.
Getting an auto from the stand outside the school was also risky—the auto drivers had regular riders and knew most of the students by name. They knew he usually took the school bus and if he dared ask one of them to take him to the market, there would only be more questions. Briefly, he considered walking to the market but no, it was too far—even by bus, it took twenty minutes. He wished he had a cycle like some of the older students—that would make things so much simpler.
‘Karthi, are you done with your homework? Do you need help?’
‘Almost, innum five minutes-la I will finish,’ he lied, hoping appa wouldn’t ask to see what he had done. Appa, usually a busy man who thought of nothing but office and the news had occasional fits of conscientiousness, coming home earlier than usual, asking him all sorts of things about school and wanting to look at his notebooks. Appa would then point out the pointlessness of some of the things in his textbook, share random facts that had nothing to do with the project he was working on, and set him impositions to improve his handwriting.
Karthi always agreed to write out things like ‘Mahatma Gandhi is the father of our nation’ fifty times because he knew appa would never remember to check if he had. Weeks would go by before appa would have another pang of guilt, by which time he would have forgotten what punishment he had doled out last time.
It occurred to him that he could just ask appa to buy him a rose. If he said something about a science project, about sticking the rose in a notebook and labelling it, appa would surely oblige. He would also make exasperated noises and tell amma what useless things they were teaching these days at school, but that didn’t matter.
But instinctively, Karthi knew this would be wrong.
Mari had asked him for a rose – not her father, not her mother, not even Balaganesh who always found an excuse to borrow a pencil or ruler from her, even if he had one in his bag. She had asked him, Karthi.
He had to get this rose himself, without anyone else knowing about it. Then it would mean something.
‘Karthi, saapda vaa,’ amma called him, the smell of vatha kozhambu wafting in from the kitchen. His stomach rumbled and he got up, the rose problem temporarily thrust aside.
As soon as he woke up the next morning, he knew it was going to be an important day. Everything that had seemed so hopeless and ordinary yesterday felt new and different today—the feel of his crisply ironed shirt collar against his neck, the familiar smell of shoe polish, the froth in his mug of Bournvita, the sun rays warming the top of his head as he sat on the chair in the verandah sipping his drink…there was magic in the air.
He was barely surprised when he spotted the rose bush in the St. Thomas churchyard on his way to the bus stop. For the past five years, he had been walking down that same road every morning, initially with his paatti holding his hand and in the past year, all by himself, and he had never before noticed the rose bush. For all he knew, it could have magically sprung up overnight.
There was only a single pink rose in bloom on the bush, another fact that he considered significant. It was on the other side of the fence though. He didn’t want to go around to the main gate because the watchman there was sure to stop him; so he squeezed through the fence. He was in and out of the yard in a trice, the rose clutched firmly in his hand—small and pink, in bloom for barely a few hours. The scratches on his arms and legs stung, but he was relieved that his clothes weren’t torn—the fewer explanations he had to make at home, the better.
He put the rose in his lunch bag, on top of his tiffin dabba that amma had packed with deliciously cold curd rice. The coldness would keep the rose from wilting till he got a chance to give it to Mari.
Mari’s father sometimes dropped her off at school on his way to work and Karthi liked the mystery of the routine. As he set out from home each day, he would wonder—would she or wouldn’t she be in the bus today? On this day, she wasn’t, but he was not disappointed. Almost as soon as he walked into the class, he caught her eye—she had a strangely excited look on her face that heightened as he nodded, smiling, at her unasked question. He knew exactly what she was feeling—he felt the same way himself!
The bell rang and she settled into her seat, one row in front of him. She had sat in that exact spot from the beginning of the school year, where he could see her as she bent over her notebook or slouch, hiding behind her as she stood up to answer a teacher’s question.
Varadarajan sir walked in and started talking about fractions. Everybody in sir’s problems seemed to lead terribly transactional lives, sharing half or one-third of what they had with other people or wanting nine-tenths of their father’s land. He wouldn’t have liked to be one of them. Karthi doodled absently in the margin of his notebook, allowing sir’s voice to wash over him.
As sir turned to the board to write down a sum, Mari suddenly turned around, her swift movement taking him by surprise, and slipped a piece of paper on his desk. She turned away again and resumed writing as though nothing had happened, while he picked up the chit with trembling fingers. His throat was dry—what if someone had seen her do it? Next to him, Balaganesh sniggered. Karthi ignored him.
He didn’t dare open the note till Varadarajan sir had turned away again. Inside was one line written in Mari’s neat, curly writing: Will you sit next to me in the bus today?
Oh, wouldn’t he! Of course, he would! He felt a warm blush rising from his neck, spreading through his cheeks, and warming his ears. He frowned at Balaganesh who was trying to take a peek at the note, folded it up and put it into his pocket.
Suddenly, a thought occurred to him: did she expect him to scribble a note in return? Would she turn around again any moment to take it from him? His heart began to pound, his hands turned clammy.
He tore a piece of paper from the second-last page of his notebook, the edge of it jagged instead of straight. Pretending to take notes from the blackboard, he wrote Yes in big, shaky letters and folded the note thrice for good measure. Now it was tiny, barely the size of his thumbnail. He only had to pass it to her without Varadarajan sir noticing.
He stared straight ahead, his mind racing, waiting for the perfect moment. And that is when he saw it.
A tiny black creature, a little like an ant, but more solid somehow, running on its tiny, tiny feet. It appeared and disappeared, playing hide and seek amidst the oiled, combed lines of Mari’s hair, now running down her plait, now appearing again near the top of her head where her hair parting ended.
She had a louse in her hair!
The back of his neck crawled. He shook himself like a dog, trying to get rid of the sensation. She turned around at that instant, to see if he had a note to pass her, but he only stared at her blindly, struck dumb.
He imagined the rose in her hair—and the lice crawling all over its beautiful pink petals. A wave of revulsion swept through him.
No, it was impossible—he could not give her the rose. Not after seeing that—but what was he to do now? He had nodded to her that morning and now he had the note in his hand and any moment now, she would turn around again, expecting him to pass her one in return. But he couldn’t meet her smiling, unchanged gaze, let alone give her the little piece of paper that was crumpled in his palm.
What could he do? If he did nothing now, she would speak to him when the bell rang for recess—there was no running away possible. And he could not tell her—what could he say anyway? It was impossible. The day was drained and wilted, all the magic sucked out of it, like the creature sucking the life out of his poor, pink rose. But no, no, he should not think of that—
‘Karthik Raghavan, answer my question!’ Varadarajan sir’s voice boomed suddenly on his right.
‘Wha-what sir?’ he asked, startled. When had the teacher directed his attention on him?
‘Your homework—have you done your homework?’ Sir sounded irritated, angry.
‘No, sir.’ As soon as he said it, Karthi knew he was going to be caned. It was Thursday and the maths teacher usually tended to run out of patience by midweek.
‘You will stay back after school for one hour every day. You will get extra homework. I will write in your diary and don’t think you can enter my class without your father signing it. Now hold out your hand!’
Sir brought the cane down on Karthi’s outstretched palm, once, twice, thrice. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he hopped on one leg, howling in pain. He felt the scene swimming around him: Balaganesh shrinking by his side, trying to make himself invisible. A row of dismayed girls’ faces twisting around to look at him. Sniggers from somewhere behind him.
But somewhere inside his head, he felt a tremendous sense of relief: if he had to stay back after school, he would not need to give Mari an answer.
Gowri N Kishore is a writer based in Bangalore. She is a winner of the Elle Fiction Awards 2013. One of her short stories is part of ‘Across the Ages’, an anthology published by Pageturners and another is part of ‘The Summer of the Cat’, an e-book anthology by Random House India. Her works have also appeared in Women’s Web, The New Indian Express, Deccan Herald, Reading Hour, and The Youth Express. She is a recipient of the President of India’s National Balsree Honor for excellence in Creative Writing, an award she received from Dr. Abdul Kalam at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. She blogs at gowrink.wordpress.com.