In high school, apart from Science and Mathematics, Arnav was taking a class on Business Studies, a course he had chosen over Computer Applications. It was not a subject that he was supposed to be serious about – a student of twelfth grade must be focused on his engineering entrance examinations, not on any plebeian subject. This course was just a formality, something that he needed to finish high school.
If you could pay the school enough money, you were not even required to attend classes, but Arnav’s parents were not that rich. Therefore, as much as he hated it, he was supposed to drag himself to school five days a week; and there each morning, he would see his Business Studies teacher, Gautam Singh, making his way into the school.
Gautam Singh would barge into the gate, wobbling on his pale green Bajaj Chetak, and would head to the faculty parking. He looked like he suffered from malnutrition when he was a kid but never tried to correct the imbalance. He would park at the same place every time, a place that was unofficially reserved for him. He’d usually be wearing a loose fitting shirt tucked into his pants. He would always have the same dust laden dark-brown shoes on, which was strange because word had it that he was earning a good salary.
The first thing he’d do after alighting from his scooter would be to light a bidi. Arnav had never seen any other person smoking on the school premises; even the security guards would sneak out to do it. Gautam Singh would walk around, smoking the bidi and talking to himself. This had made him a butt of jokes around the school, but he never seemed to care. Even when he would catch people imitating him, he’d still continue.
His gesticulations would be either very aggressive, maybe when he was not quite agreeing with himself, or quite mellow. Either way, it was a sight to behold, and most of the school would come to enjoy the show.
Arnav never made fun of Gautam Singh for this. He understood that we all talk to ourselves – why would you single out one person who likes to do it in a very dramatic way? Sometimes Arnav had a fleeting thought of seeing his future in this walking skeleton – a thought that made him shudder.
Gautam Singh’s act would be interrupted by the school bell, and at the conclusion of the school assembly, after dutifully singing the national anthem, all the students would make their way to the classrooms, most of time after getting reprimanded for not wearing polished shoes or not tucking in their white shirts neatly into their navy blue pants.
Ties would come off as the twelfth grade would settle into their seats, waiting for the roll call.
‘Present, Ma’am’; ‘yes, Ma’am’; ‘present’; ‘here’ were the usual replies.
They’d have to suffer through two classes before they would walk out to a classroom on the other side of the hall for their Business Studies class. There they would find Gautam Singh standing, leaning against the blackboard. He’d smile as the class walked past him, even though no one ever smiled back at him.
The class would take forever to settle in their seats. Some of them would be shrieking, calling each other, talking and discussing some match they saw last night. People who never watched football would pretend to be experts, just to feel like a part of the conversation.
Gautam Singh would say, “OK that’s enough,” only to be ignored.
“Silence,” he would murmur.
The students in the first two rows would open their notebooks and stare at him intently. These were the “good” kids, toppers of the batch, and people who were expected to be successful in the future.
The others, especially, the last rows would keep on talking. Gautam Singh would walk up to them, and stand with his arms crossed and an embarrassed smile on his face.
“OK, stop now,” he’d say.
They’d all stop, only to start again as soon as he turned. Ignoring the miscreants, Gautam Singh would walk to the black board, and start his class. He would have to speak over the ruckus. He would try his best, and the “good” students would carefully jot down what their teacher said, well, at least of things they could understand. Not that they were only distracted because of the noise, but Gautam Singh would be talking gibberish most of the time.
“I once had tea with RK Narayanan, the first president of the country,” he’d say in middle of the lecture. “Not the first, the current president, I mean.”
KR Narayanan was the tenth president of India, we must add at this point, to inform the readers who are not well informed.
“When, Sir?” someone would ask repressing their laugh.
His murmuring would be incomprehensible. Cross questioning would begin, in middle of which, he would turn around abruptly to resume teaching.
At times when he would be busy scribbling on the black board, some student would throw something at the blackboard – an object that they would have picked up on their way to the class, a piece of chalk perhaps. Gautam Singh would turn around, and the students would make grave faces, as if no one amongst them could have been responsible for a thing so heinous. He would give his embarrassed smile and continue teaching.
One time, a kid took off the hat his bench-mate was wearing and threw it at the board.
Gautam Singh turned around, picked it up, and said, quite poignantly, “A hat must be worn on the head, it adorns one’s head. It has a special place. It’s not something to be thrown.” And then he, rather elegantly, put on the hat.
The class burst out laughing, and Gautam Singh resumed his lecture on whatever in God’s name he was teaching.
Arnav, a good boy as he was, never threw anything at him, but he did enjoy whenever anyone did so, and he would sometimes encourage others to do it. The tossing of the cap could have been his idea.
Every lecture was fresh, every lecture a laughing riot. Arnav looked forward to it.
The high-jinks in his classroom would never deter Gautam Singh. Even after being insulted in nearly every class, he’d try to strike up conversation whenever he would run into his students outside the confines of the classroom. Students avoided him avidly.
One day, Arnav was hanging out with one of his friends, Eshan, in latter’s hostel room. Day-scholars were not allowed into the hostel and Arnav, being a day-scholar, had to be careful of not getting spotted by teachers. It was not easy to stay under the radar, for, just across the hostel was the faculty residences. He’d have to sneak through the back gate, where he would bribe the guard with a few cigarettes.
Eshan fell asleep and Arnav got out to leave, sneaking to the back gate, like a brown ninja. The guard had deserted his post and so he waddled out without a care in his mind. Barely had he crossed the gate, when he saw Gautam Singh standing there, ardently smoking a bidi. Arnav froze and wanted to turn around, but he had been spotted.
“Hi, you there!” Gautam Singh exclaimed. “You aren’t a hosteller, are you?”
“As a matter of fact I am, Sir.”
Gautam Singh squinted.
“My name is Eshan.”
“Are you in my class?”
“No, sir. I study Computer Applications.”
“I could have sworn that I have seen you in my class.”
“Maybe it is someone who looks like me, Sir. I have a very generic face, I have been told.”
“Why are you sneaking out of the back gate?”
Arnav thought for a moment, and blurted, “I am not sneaking out, Sir. I have to attend the practise for Founder’s Day. I am in the play, you see.”
“Why are you going out of the back way, then?” Gautam Singh asked, throwing his almost finished bidi on the ground, and letting out smoke through his nose.
Arnav looked around and said, slowly. “The view, Sir. So many trees. I like walking through here.” He bent down to pick up a fallen leaf and added, “I like nature. Very much.”
Gautam Singh sighed and uttered, “I am glad you do. People don’t care about the environment these days. They say they do, but they don’t. I do. I do, a lot. I smoke bidis because they are rolled from tree leaves, you see. Very medicinal properties those trees have.”
Arnav nodded, trying to seem earnest. Before his teacher could question him further, he said, “If you don’t mind, I’d have to take your leave, Sir. The practise starts in a few minutes.”
Gautam Singh excused Arnav, and the latter hopped to the bus-stop.
Arnav had lied to Gautam Singh, yes, but at least he had been polite, especially even when he knew he didn’t need to answer any of the questions posed to him. If there had been someone else in Arnav’s place, they’d have just pushed Gautam Singh and ran. There was no way Gautam Singh could have recognised Arnav the next day, or even gotten any other teacher to take his complaint seriously. Still, Arnav never treated him badly. Most of the time he felt sorry for Gautam Singh. At least that is what he tells everyone after all this time, maybe just to relieve himself of the guilt.
Gautam Singh’s day would normally start with a realisation that the space next to him on his bed was empty, and had always been. It would take him half an hour to muster the strength to step out of the bed, onto the concrete floor. Dragging himself to the balcony, he would light up a bidi.
He did not live in the faculty residences, although he did have a place – a small room – there. He preferred to live in a shabby two storey house that he had inherited from his parents. This house was on a hill just above the school and in the morning he would get a very good view of the school’s football ground, being slowly covered with sunlight. Often he would mutter, shaking his head, “It has been years since I played. I was good.”
On this particular day, the melancholy feeling that mornings brought with them was diluted. The school was going to start after a short summer break and Gautam Singh enjoyed teaching. Standing in his balcony, smoking his bidi, he stretched and sighed. A few more hours and he would get to do what he loved most. He could not wait to inspire students.
“I know, I know, I should shift to cigarettes,” he reprimanded himself, looking at the smoldering bidi. “I am a teacher at the best school in the world. I should have some class.”
No one really knew why the school continued to employ Gautam Singh. He was believed to be crazy by students and the teachers alike. Some said that the Principal had a soft spot for him. Whatever the reason of his occupying his post was, Gautam Singh had been teaching at the school for more than fifteen years. Some say that he used to be “normal” once, that is before his accident. Since no biographer had taken time to document his life, and he had no known close friends, it was hard to know the truth.
Throwing the bidi butt down the hill, he turned around, and waddled into the bathroom to get ready. The school would start in a few hours and he had to be there on time.
After a quick shower, he started dressing, realising that he had forgotten to remove his night-socks before getting into the bathroom. He took them off, threw them on the bed, put on a dingy old pair, and hopped into his shoes.
Gazing into mirror, he combed his hair, at least what was left of it, and could not help remember how different he used to look just a few years ago. He was heavier, his head full of thick hair, and his skin was light.
“I used to be taller,” he said, with a smile.
His scooter was waiting for him just inside the gate that separated his property from the public road. The paint on the boundary wall was marred by water and moss was thriving on it. He pushed the metal gate open, and dragged his scooter out.
Five minutes later, he could see the school’s main entrance. He was elated. Finally he would be where he was meant to be – in his habitat, roaming in the wilderness.
He could barely control his excitement during the assembly. A few more hours and I would be teaching, he told himself. He looked around at the faces of the students, and to him, they all looked eager to learn, to imbibe everything that they were taught. He remembered being like that when he was their age.
After the assembly, he watched the students leave in a single file to their classes. Then he walked to the Staff Room, opened his locker, and took out his attendance register, following which he sat at the table that stood in middle of the room. With a smile on his face he looked around. The hustle in the room made him uncomfortable but he knew that he would have to suffer through it just for a few minutes. After that, every teacher would be busy and he would finally relax. He glanced at a piece of paper attached to his attendance register; it was his schedule. He saw that the first class of the day that he was supposed to take was Business Studies for the twelfth grade.
“How are you, Gautam Sir?” asked a woman in her mid thirties. Before Gautam Singh could reply, she had pranced out of the room.
“Good, thank you. How’re you?” he mumbled, regardless.
Three minutes later, he was alone.
When the clock struck a quarter to eleven he made his way to the third floor of the academic building, all ready to teach, to inspire. This was the day the cap throwing incident took place.
No one really knew why the school continued to employ Gautam Singh. He was thought crazy by students and the teachers alike. Some said that the principal had a soft spot for him. Whatever the reason, Gautam Singh had been teaching for more than fifteen years. Some say that he used to be “normal” once, that is before his accident. No biographer had taken time to document his life, and he had no known close friends so it was hard to know the truth.
Three weeks after prodding his classmate to throw a cap at Gautam Singh, Arnav was dragging his feet as he made his way to the school. He had an essay due in the third period and he had not even begun working on it.
As he neared the school, he saw a bunch of students huddled outside the gate. The guard was shouting that the school has been closed today and the students should go home. Thanking God, he hurried to a classmate that he saw standing next to the guard.
“What happened?” he asked.
The classmate shrugged. “It’s just closed I guess.”
Arnav was walking back to his home, when he met Eshan, walking around with his hostel mates.
“So you heard?” Eshan asked him. When he looked confused, Eshan added, “Gautam hung himself in his faculty residence. They found him there.”
Arnav listened without any reaction. He felt nothing, something that even to this day he finds interesting.
Eshan yapped on,”I saw him hanging. I was in the common toilet when I heard a shriek. It was Sweeper Aunty. We ran over there and saw him. He had these weird bulging eyes and his tongue was out. Quite weird actually. All the teachers who live in the faculty residence had assembled there in a few minutes, and they started shooing us away. I managed to click a photo. No one saw me. Here, look at it. So strange, right? What I don’t get is why he would come specially to the faculty residence to die. He never lived there. His room was always empty. Now I am sure he will haunt the place…”
When Arnav’s mother saw him enter the kitchen, she asked, with a mother’s worry, “Are you OK? Why did you come back? Are you sick?”
“No, Ma. The school’s closed today. A teacher killed himself, I think.”
His mother started.
“Is there any juice left? I am thirsty,” Arnav added, opening the refrigerator.
That night, Arnav lay in his bed, thinking about Gautam Singh.
“He could not have possibly done it because of the cap”, he told himself a third time, before rolling over and burying this head in the pillow.
“Why would come specially to the faculty residence to die?” he heard Eshan asking, as he drifted to sleep.
Maybe he wanted attention.
Maybe he did not want to die alone.
The next day, Arnav saw Gautam Singh’s green scooter standing in his “unofficial parking spot.”
What will become of it? he thought. Would someone come and get it? Did he have any heirs? A family?
A week later the scooter was gone, and Arnav never found out what happened to it. Not that he cared anymore, anyway.