Thursday, June 06, 2013

First Division, by Sushma Joshi


FIRST DIVISION
SUSHMA JOSHI

The small servant quarters behind the Colonel’s house where Mahesh spent his first night in Kathmandu would be his home for the next nine years.
Life took on a well-known routine from his first morning. From six am to ten am, Mahesh attended the Nandi Ratri School. In the afternoons and evenings, he  shopped for food, gardened, and ran errands. He planted a vegetable garden. He repaired the water pipes when they broke. He took clothes to the drycleaners. He knocked on the doors of the Colonel’s relatives to deliver red and gold invitation cards to marriage and rice-eating ceremonies. A few months later, he learnt to drive the car, and could then he seen around town, driving the red Toyota. He had no time to complain about the hard work he had to do—each morning at dawn, he sat down and forced himself to practice mathematics.
Before long, Mahesh’s humor endeared him to the household. The Colonel’s two daughters demanded he accompany them on every social event. The General’s wife asked him to drive her around. Within half a year, Mahesh became a popular fixture in the household. He didn’t have the status of a family member, but on the other hand he was often taken to festivals and family events to which the Colonel’s two illegitimate sons were not invited to. 
The young boys lived in the Colonel’s household. One was twelve, the other one a year younger. At first, Mahesh couldn’t tell how they were related to the Colonel—the Colonel’s wife ignored their presence, and the servants treated them in turn with glancing disdain or secretive kindness. The two boys attended a modest private school, and the Colonel paid for the tuition-- this much Mahesh knew, because he would himself go with the thousand rupee notes in his hands every month to pay the school. During the evenings, the boys played badminton with the General’s two young daughters. Reshma and Anisha treated the boys with either mild condescion, or show tepid affection. Yet, they were never taken along to the social events the Colonel, his wife, and their two daughters attended almost every day. 
Their mother, a plain-looking Kasai woman, was Reshma and Anisha’s wet nurse when they were born. Then she became pregnant. The Colonel’s wife was hysterical—not only because the woman was older than her, but also because she was the plainest looking woman one could find in the Kathmandu Valley. Insulted, the Colonel’s wife demanded the woman leave. The Colonel resisted, and another son was born within two years. As his wife’s rages got worse, and her female relatives started to pressure the Colonel, he reluctantly agreed to her wishes, and asked his mistress to leave the household. He had provided for her well—rumors said he had bought her land in Gokarna, and she was now married and settled with a man from the surrounding village. The two boys, Janu and Ram,  had remained behind.
The two boys were mischievous young brats who loved to play football with Mahesh whenever he had a moment free. The Colonel paid for private tutors for every subject. One, a tutor for mathematics, was from the faraway district of Khotang. He had a high, reedy voice and wore socks which smelled so powerful that the boys speculated he hadn’t washed them since their purchase. This tutor, tired of the two boys’ practical jokes (they would put eggs underneath the cushion he was about to sit on, or splash him with water as he was walking up the stairs), decided to consider Mahesh his real pupil. Mahesh’s desire to learn set him apart from his two young charges, who thought of his daily visits as opportunities to play practical jokes, and who devised one ingenious trick after another to drive him away. The young tutor promised Mahesh he would pass his SLC exams if he continued to work with diligence for two years.
 Two years after coming down to Kathmandu, Mahesh sat for his SLC exams. It was a few days after his eighteenth birthday, on a spring day filled with a dry and dusty wind. The examination was held in another school, which he had a hard time finding. By the time he reached the testing location, he was sweating profusely with nervousness.
The hall was packed with students who Mahesh didn’t know. He looked down at the desk, scarred with rough-hewn writing. Raju loves Shova. Cigarette=good health. Vote for Vodka! Screw off! F..F..F. O Pet Shop BOY/sex. I hear your voice so, I call your name, heaven’s in my hea… The unfamiliar desk stunned him. The flicker of disorientation and panic increased as he was handed his answer booklet. He opened the fresh notebook, and stared at its empty white expanse. Then he opened the questions sheet. The questions were unfamiliar, they all appeared to be from another world. He couldn’t answer a single one. A boy in the next table saw his stunned expression, and grinned. Then he bent down and started to write furiously with his pen.
Mahesh tried to clear his mind. I know the answer, he told himself.  All those mornings he had gotten up early to struggle with geometry and algebra would be wasted. He would never be able to join the Army if he forgot all he had learned at this crucial hour. Then, as he breathed and rustled the pages in desperation, trying to remember, he saw the girl sitting next to him. Her pencils, eraser and sharpener were aligned in a neat and methodical row. She’d pulled her hair back, and tied it in a simple ponytail. Her shirt was crisp, sky-blue, as if her mother had washed it the day before, and ironed it this morning. Neat navy pleats fell from her hips. She bent her neck forward, and the weight of her hand held the papers in place. Her serene face showed no sign of strain—she was in her element. Mahesh looked at her single-minded concentration, and was reminded of Maya.
Then Mahesh remembered. All the formulas that had vanished from his brain returned. Every single math problem swam back into focus with crystal-clear clarity. The answers came to him with effortless ease. He sent up a silent blessing to his tutor. He remembered all the minutiae of geometrical theorems, all the odd logical twists of algebra, all the numerical details of arithmetic. He didn’t even have to open his pencil box and peek in to see the cheat sheet he had prepared with elaborate care last night—written in minute handwriting, it was all the formulas he had been certain he would forget. The paper was rolled up into a tight scroll and rested inside the little round opening of his pencil sharpener. Later, unrolling the little cork of paper, he would see that the pencil marks had smudged and even if he’d opened them, he wouldn’t have been able to read them anyway.
 Mahesh waited for the results of the examination with restless uncertainty, tinged with great trepidation—an anticipation he had never felt for anything else in his life. Six months later, the results were announced. Students packed the schoolyard. They clustered around the long white sheets of paper pasted to the walls. “What marks did you get?” Prabhu, Mahesh’s best friend, said as he tried to find his name in the long list of names. Mahesh put his finger to the paper, and went down each Thapa till he saw “Mahesh.” He put a straight line next to it and saw: seventy-three percent. Unable to believe this, he looked again. And again. “How much did you get?” Prabhu asked, worried by the silence. Mahesh has failed, he thought.
“Seventy-three percent,” Mahesh answered. A little hush settled around him. For a moment, the fraternal camaraderie gave way to a tense jealousy. Except for one lone genius, nobody else had scored as high in their school. Then Prabhu broke the silence. “Khatarnak, yaar,” said Prabhu, putting his arm around him and hugging him.   
 “Come friends,” Mahesh said, putting his arm around two classmates. “This is a question of luck! Some people get more marks, some less. It’s all a big lottery.” Even as the words came out of his mouth, he knew he was lying. He had worked hard to get these results. His friends had dabbled with their books, but never put in the time and effort to understand each and every page, as he had done. Many of them came from Kathmandu families. Their families owned houses and land. They were not driven by the same imperative. “Lets go get some momo.” The boys forgot their grievances within a few minutes as they sat and ate plates of steaming meat dumplings, laughing at Mahesh’s silly jokes. After a few bottles of beer, they all felt like they had scored in the First Division. 
Afterwards, Mahesh went to a STD booth and called Maya. She would laugh and cry. His parents would invite people to celebrate, he knew.
 The phone lines were busy. For an hour, Mahesh tried, but the phone lines remained engaged.  Mahesh, frustrated, kept on dialing the number. The owner of the communication center said, with sympathy, “Why don’t you give me the number. I will try and call it in the evening, and give Maya the message.”
Mahesh, breathless, ran to the Colonel’s home to show his mentor his mark-sheet. He’d receive high praise, he was certain. Now he could try out for the British Gurkhas. As he entered the cool foyer, breathless and panting, Mahesh was struck by the murmur of voices coming from the Colonel’s living room. The guard at the gate, a stodgy old man, gave him a warning sign—the palm flicked, telling him to go away. Mahesh ignored the old guard. On tiptoe, Mahesh walked toward the wooden door, and pressed himself against it.
“… oversee Kilo Sera 2, General,” one of the voices said with a raspy cough. “You have the military expertise for this one.”
 “Gentlemen, I thank you for the promotion, but I have to defer. I don’t understand why you have chosen me for this task.” This was the Colonel’s voice.
“General,” the other voice replied in a formal tone. “Your previous experience in counter-insurgency in the Indian Army would serve us well.”
So the Colonel had been promoted to a General, Mahesh thought. And what was Kilo Sera 2?
“Alright, gentlemen.” Mahesh heard glasses clinking. “I will take on the task of co-coordinating Kilo Sera 2. Along with others, of course.” 
The door opened, and Mahesh stepped back. The Colonel marched out without a glance to either side. Mahesh looked in and saw the men saluting as he left.
The following Saturday, a grand party took place to celebrate the Colonel’s promotion. Men in military uniform, and women in pretty saris, milled around. The bar overflowed with whiskey and wine. Small burners heated large trays of mutton curry, tandoori chicken, a buttery pulao, three kinds of vegetable dishes, and a side table full of pickles. On a side table, a smiling man in a topi cap handed out sikarni, a thickened yogurt scented with saffron, cinnamon and cardamom. Mahesh had seconds, and then thirds of the delicious sikarni. The server didn’t seemed to mind, so he considered taking a forth portion. The conversation was upbeat, although the edginess that surrounded the men was unmistakable. Men stood in clumps, and the word “Maoist” cropped up often.
“Congratulations on your promotion, General.” Mahesh, satiated with his fourth bowl of sikarni, gave him a salute.
“Thank you, Mahesh. And you on your results. First division, I heard,” the General said. He smiled. This old man already knows I passed my exams in the middle of this busy week, thought Mahesh. The old man, it appeared, knew everything long before ordinary men.
“Thank you, sir.” Mahesh hesitated for a moment, and then blurted out. “I’ve been hearing about Kilo Sera 2. I was wondering what it was, sir.”
The General looked at him. His eyes turned cold, his mouth pursed into a thin line. “Mahesh, you are like a son to me. I know you want to join the British Gurkhas, but in case they don’t select you, you’ll enter the RNA. So learn the first rule of it. Never question a higher officer questions about things you have no business talking about.”
Mahesh stood there, red-faced, while the General moved away. Everywhere he turned, men whispered, sotto voco, Kilo Sera 2, Kilo Sera 2, Kilo Sera 2. But he was not allowed to know about it. He stood there, looking at the elegant women who floated in and out on clouds of chiffon and perfume, and felt a sudden anger in his loneliness. The lovely smiles the young girls gave the officers in new uniforms, the undercurrent of longing, the subtle embraces and flutter of eyelids, the talk of the men that seemed to hint at worlds he’d never be allowed in—all of that was on display for him, encounters he could watch, but never enter into.
*
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HOW TO GET YOUR SLC RESULTS:
I was informed by a young man who's been very active in the Internet and new technologies world that the SLC results will not be printed in the newspapers this year, but will be available via SMS. There are eight carriers who will publicize the SLC results, and Sparrow SMS is one of them. Here's what he has informed me (and asked me to spread the word):
Like last past three years, this year too, they will be able to view their results directly in their cell phones via SMS. Once the results have been announced, the result can be obtained by typing:
SLC, then a space, then symbol number,  to 5001
More information about Sparrow SMS here. 

1 comment:

Nicolas said...

Hi! Interesting story. I wonder what happens next do post the rest of story soon... or do I have to pick up a book to know the rest? In any case, keep up the good work,