“Shall we go inside the mandir today?”
I was a little surprised. He and I used to go for a walk almost every night. I was following the practice inculcated in my childhood by granddad: ‘After lunch, rest a while; after dinner walk a mile.’ Moreover, I would reach home late in the evening after my work in my newspaper office. It meant no evening walks for me, but only nocturnal ones. He was a teacher in a school near the place where we lived in adjoining flats on the outskirts of Delhi. His tuitions would go into late evening. One day, about three years ago, he joined me on a walk and the habit continued ever since.
“You go, I’ll wait outside,” said I.
“Even Muslims can enter this mandir,” he said.
Only my name is Muslim, I didn’t say. I’m a rationalist. I’d rather follow Sanal Edamaruku than the Prophet. I’d rather follow Salman Rushdie than Bin Laden. He wouldn’t understand it even if I said it.
Of late, he couldn’t follow much of what I tried to tell him. His ability to comprehend what anyone said had been deteriorating steadily in the past few months. Whenever I said something he would ask “Eh?” Again and again. I stopped telling him anything. We became silent walkers. Occasionally his mobile phone would ring. He would peer into the phone’s screen as if it were the call of a terrorist. He seemed afraid of the phone. He seemed afraid of the caller. He seemed afraid of everything. The phone conversations were usually brief. Though apparently afraid, he would snarl into the phone. Cowardice and aggression – are they different from each other, I wondered. Something was breaking him from inside, I knew. I didn’t dare to ask.
It was almost two years ago he told me that he was haunted by a problem. It turned out that his principal was the ghost that haunted him.
He was a physics teacher in the higher secondary section of his school. His principal always nagged him with the accusation that his English was not good enough for a public school. Physics doesn’t need much English, he tried to explain to the principal. s = ut + 1/2 at2. What’s English about that? Rate of change of momentum is proportional to applied force. What’s English about that?
Principal was not a man who would accept such arguments which he called “specious.”
I don’t know anything about species arguments, he countered.
You are a disgrace to the species called teachers, Principal snarled.
You would do better in a species called politicians, he hissed pointing a finger at Principal.
His bike stood punctured that afternoon in the parking lot of the school. A drawing pin glared at him from the rear tyre.
“Your principal has a PhD in English literature. Why do you think he’ll do better in politics,” I asked him one day.
“Politics flows in his veins,” he said, “that should have carried poetry.”
Any person in power who gathers a coterie around him is a politician, that’s his theory. It has been so from the time of the ancient kings, he explained.
“But an administrator has to have some specially trusted people, even spies,” I tried to justify.
“Really?” he peered at me over his spectacles.
He was late one day for a particular class by a couple of minutes. Principal was already at the door of the classroom. Principal looked like a predator happy to have caught his prey. The predator caught the prey between his jaws and joggled him until his fury was abated. The students giggled in the class.
How can you do that in front of the students? He confronted Principal after the class. I think his demand was right. The principal could have summoned him to his office after the class and questioned him like a gentleman.
“I was going to call you anyway,” said Principal. “It’s good you came yourself. The moth has to fly into the flame.” Principal took out an envelope and extended it to him.
He accepted it. Envelopes were not new to him. He got them when he once slapped a student who called him his nickname. He got it, when he took leave due to loose motion, for not applying for leave on the previous day – as if he should have foreseen the rebellion of his bowels.
He got it now for being “a teacher with poor communication skills.” The students had given a written complaint against him and the management was “compelled” to take action. His service was not required beyond the “notice period of a month.”
“Principal asked the students to write the complaint,” he said to me that night.
Are you sure? I wanted to ask. But I know that some questions are better not asked. He walked with an augmented stoop that night. His legs wobbled. His steps faltered on occasions and he caught me by the shoulder lest he might fall down.
I accepted his invitation and went into the temple. I stood nonchalantly in front of Shiva’s phallus while he fell prostrate before it. He got up after a while and started circumambulating the phallus. “An erect posture is out of place in a mandir,” I heard a female voice whispering in my ear. Surprised, I turned back and saw a middle-aged woman walk along in silent piety, completing her circumambulation.
“What will you do now?” I dared to ask him as we walked home.
“Fight. I’ll fight legally. Legal. Legal.” He took off his spectacles, wiped it on his shirt sleeve and put it back. He did that a number of times as we walked.
Unexpectedly a cracker exploded a few feet ahead of us. Like a monster’s snarl. I was jolted and took a step back in horror before I realised that it was the harbinger of Diwali. Somebody had decided to herald the festival a couple of days ahead and he had chosen to throw the first cracker (and many more would follow soon) on the street.
He was not jolted a bit. He continued to walk.
“Hey, you’re really a bold man,” I said. “I was indeed jolted by the cracker.”
“Cracker? What cracker?” he asked.
Author’s disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. If it bears any resemblance to reality, I sympathise with the reality.