One of my favourite Asokamitran’s story. As I have mentioned in my earlier translations of his stories, Flag Hoisting – Asokamitran, Two Finger Typing – Asokamitran, Asokamitran does not dwell too much on description or commentary. A sentence or two and he would jump to conversation. But that sentence or two would always stay in memory. I am sure you would remember the bridge, the lights and magic squares for a long time.
Examination – Asokamitran
பரீட்சை – அசோகமித்திரன்
“Is it true what my children are saying?”
“What are you referring to Sir?”
“That you will not come from First of next month.”
“Why? what is the problem?”
“No problem sir. I am leaving the city.”
“Yes I am planning to leave by 10th or 12th next month.”
“I am going for another job.”
The way Agarwal looked at him, it was evident that he did not believe him.
“There are only two months left for the final exam. You are saying you leaving at this point in time.”
He did not respond.
“Why is it so difficult for you here. Are the children troubling you?”
“Nothing like that. I am just leaving the city.
“Did you inform the principal?”
“I have told him couple of months back.”
“But he (the principal) did not tell me.”
Agarwal still looked him with distrust. His sons were observing the conversation. He asked them, “Have you completed the corollary of 49th theorem?”
“Yes sir.” Both showed their notebooks to him.
“Very good. Tomorrow we will complete the problems based on this theorem.”
The children stood up.
The elder son said, “Sir, mom has made tea.”
“Why is she trolling herself. I had a coffee before starting from home.”
“You are coming cycling a long distance in this cold weather. What are we offering you? Just a cup of tea.” Mr. Agarwal said.
In reality, every day, within ten minutes after he started his tuition, Mrs. Agarwal would bring tea in a porcelain cup and saucer and keep in front of him. This is routine is missed today, rather delayed.
After his father’s death and seeing him struggling without a job, his school principal has arranged for this tuition job. Waking up at five in the morning and cycling about six kilometres was very difficult, initially, for him. It was October and when the visibility was close to zero as the thick fog was engulfing the city, for sixty rupees pedalling for half an hour and tutoring high class mathematic for one and half hours to children with different grasping skills has made him feel pity and he even cried once on the road while pedalling towards his class.
But the same snow, cold weather and the commute in the early morning, soon became a beautiful experience. In the six kilometres commute at least four kilometres of the road was paved with cement. There was a small bridge built on a canal which branched off from a lake. It was built by a nawab eons ago. It was a narrow bridge so cars could not go through. The bridge had decorative cast-iron pillars on each side instead of a concrete wall. Iron pillars placed every ten feet in between the cast iron posts had lamps which emitted a nice glow as if they were giving him a nice reception as he cycled across the bridge. And the snow would have covered the canal and the lake as far as he could see.
By morning six, the municipality would switch off all the lights on the bridge. The bridge was built by the Nawab for his personal use. So he had to cross the bridge before they switched off the lights at six. Also he had pump air to the back wheel of his bicycle every day. To improve breathing and increase heartbeat there could not be a better exercise than pumping air to cycle tube with an hand pump. He would start sweating profusely even in the cold weather once he finished pumping air. But he still had to cross the bridge before six.
There was another scenery which he could see in his morning commute every day which had attracted him. As soon as he crossed the bridge, the road went around the base of an hillock. The Nawab’s bungalow was on top of the hill and there was a valley on the other side of the road. There was a railway track which ran through it. At about 6.15, a train used to pass through. He could see only the top of the engine and the coaches from the road. But the light from the coaches, which came through the windows of the train would fall on either side of the track, making small squares, disappear and make the squares again. But he can’t see this once the winter is over. Once he started enjoying his ride, his cries stopped.
Had he not agreed to start maths tuition for Agarwal’s sons, he could not have seen the bridge decorated with lamps, the hillock and Nawab’s palace, the valley on the other side, the railway track and the magic squares formed by the train’s lights.
When he retuned from Agarwal’s house, all these magic scenes would have disappeared. The Nawab’s bungalow was in poor repair. The compound wall had cracks all over. The sides of railway track was always filled with rubbish and he once saw a dead pig near the track.
Still it was thirteen days to go for the first of next month. In thirteen days, he would have time to complete the complete syllabus for tenth standard and revise those lessons for couple of days. He was confident that Agarwal’s children would score more than ninety percent marks in the final exam. There was a probability that the younger one even score a centrum. The elder one had lost couple of years of schooling as he was down with repeated typhoid attacks.
Of course it was only correct that he stayed till the exams are over and see how they have scored in the exam. But he has agreed for a new job and that too in another town.
One of Agarwal’s question still hasted him. He has not informed the principal about his decision to quit.
The principal had got him the job at Agarwal’s place. He told him, “The children don’t understand a word of what Jambu teacher is saying. They are struggling.” Only the principal called him Jambu. Everyone else called him Jadi vaathiyar (Jar Teacher). He was not shaped like a jar but the nick name struck. Even when he narrated the numbers, it sounded as if he was scolding his pupils in Telugu. While the students who were in the school for few years could decipher what he meant, the Agarwal’s children who came from Agra a town in North of India, could not understand a word of what he said. Mr. Agarwal went and complained to the principal. Till then no one has approached the principal for such problems. So the principal went to Jar teacher’s class next day and observed while the teacher was conducting his class. The following day, he called Mr. Agarwal and asked him, “Can you spend fifty or sixty rupees every month for tuition?”
In those days, a tutor would be paid one rupee a day for going to student’s home to teach. So it came out to thirty rupees for a month and for two children sixty rupees.
First when he got sixty rupees salary he felt little awkward. He told Agarwal to reduce the tuition fee by ten or twenty rupees. Mr. Agarwal immediately went to the principal and the principal called him in the evening and shouted at him.
“Do you or do I know how much you should be paid for your work. Who are you to discuss about the fee with Mr. Agarwal. He thought you were demanding more. So he came here and gave another twenty rupees.
That’s when he told the principal, “I am also looking for a job.”
The principal retorted, “Who asked you not to look for a job. Till you get a job, you can teach these children. The boys will remember you as long as they live.”
That the principal was exaggerating was not lost him though he was less than half of his age. Tuition, the names of Agarwal’s sons and corollary of 49th theorem – everything will be forgotten. Only the cold weather of the winter, the bridge, the Nawab’s bungalow and the train will remain in memory.
He went to see the principal. The District Education Officer had come on a visit to the school that day. A teacher known to him told him, “come after four o clock. Principal will be free only by that time.”
Everyone in the school treated him as if he was still a student of the school which actually surprised him. He was a student four years back.
Though he has not become a coat wearing teacher, he is also teaching students who are in tenth class the same lesson which are taught by Jar teacher. He hope Jar teacher would not see him at the school. He may get angry and say, “Hey have you become a teacher?”
But the Jar teacher did not come. Only Agarwal’s elder son came that side and wished him, “Good evening sir.”
Both stood quietly for some time. Suddenly the boy asked, “Sir. Will you come tomorrow for class?”
“Sure I will come. Why are you asking?”
“Sir you please stay here only.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sir you don’t go to another town. You please stay here.”
“In two month you will appear for the exams. After that, you may not even wish me Good Evening.”
The boy was dumbstruck. He could not respond to this comment. He saw tears welling up in his eyes.
“Why are you coming? You will definitely pass the exam. Your brother too. If I stay back, your father has to pay salary for two month to me. There is no need for that.”
As he was completing the sentence, the principal came our of his office. He was bit shocked when he saw them both. He asked, “Did you hit the kid?”
“No sir. I am just stopping my tuition from end of this month.”
“I just came to inform you sir.”
“What about these kids’ fate?”
“I have taught them all I know. They don’t need me any more.”
“Did they say that? Did their father say that?”
“No sir. I am saying sir.”
“They need you. How do you know they don’t need you. Just teach them till the exams.”
“Sir I am going out of town next month.”
“Yes sir. I am leaving this town.”
The principal slapped him hard on his face. “How can you take a decision without consulting me? I will come and report this to your mother. You want to leave this place? Just go to your house. I will come and talk to your mother when the school time is over. Go home now!”
Agarwal’s son just stood there, shocked to the core. He told the kid, “I will come to take class tomorrow.” Suddenly he felt a lightness in his heart. He felt happy that the principal had actually slapped him. He might have to postpone going out of the town by few days. Or he might have to give up on that idea altogether. But he ever left the town, he was sure, Agarwal, his two sons and also the principle would come to wish him Goodbye.
Ashokamitran (September 22, 1931 – March 23, 2017) was the pen name of Jagadisa Thyagarajan, an Indian writer regarded one of the most influential figures in post-independent Tamil literature. He began his prolific literary career with the prize winning play “Anbin Parisu” and went on to author more than two hundred short stories, and a dozen novellas and novels. A distinguished essayist and critic, he was the editor of the literary journal “Kanaiyaazhi”. He has written over 200 short stories, eight novels, some 15 novellas besides other prose writings. Most of his works have also been translated into English and other Indian languages, including Hindi, Malayalam, and Telugu.