Gathering her skirts, Kumud sat down and scrubbed the brass cups with tamarind, making them shine bright like gold. Gracefully tapping her feet, she kept singing in a soft voice to the sweet sound of her anklets,
A joyful clapping, a joyful clapping, a joyful clapping, re
With joy, a joyful clapping
For a moment, she was deeply tempted to whirl herself around, dance the garba. Then, a loud shout was heard in Pandya Master’s deep voice.
“Kumud! Why are you rooted there like a stump? Get rid of this one-eyed Shukracharya!”
Stretching her arms out, Kumud ran toward the verandah as if she were gliding through the air. A crow had settled into the thick of the peepal tree and was cawing in a persistent, full-throated manner. Pandya Master growled in anger.
The thick peepal tree hung low over the roof of the school’s long, open verandah. Kumud ran back and, reading the etched caste names Rajput, Vaniya, Suthar, Kumbhar on the clean cups, arranged them on the verandah. Taking the Brahmin’s cup and filling it from the earthen waterpot, she held it high and poured to drink her fill. In Lakhtar village, there were only three houses of Audichya Brahmins. Pandya Master’s, Bhawani Sheth’s, and her own, that is, that of Gorbaapa. Pandya Master didn’t like dipping at all. There was a strict code about contamination through touch. The school had to be kept absolutely clean and clear. In the mornings, as soon as she stepped into the premises, it was Kumud’s job to fill the waterpot and clean the cups. Rama’s lot was to clean the master’s desk and chalkboard and sweep the classroom floors. Vasanti would sweep the courtyard and lay out the jute sackcloths. Usha was the youngest. The master’s favorite.
Pandya Master would say, “This is work for girls; what great victory will they accomplish from more education!? It was only because Gorbaapa had persuaded the villagers into adopting the custom of educating girls. Alright then, two to four girls could continue to come to school. Once they were married and at their in-laws’, if they could manage to write a letter with a few words about their well-being, that would be good enough.” So the girls were free to study.
Through the tree branches, the afternoon’s golden rays of sunlight rippled back and forth like darting lizards across the verandah’s earth-and-dung floor. Kumud went to catch the sunlight in her fist but it clung to the peepal’s swinging branches and catapulted across the compound wall.
Kumud sat at one end of the verandah and, removing some berries from her slate bag, put them in a small pile. She wasn’t worried about Pandya Master’s admonitions. Sitting in the back, the girls could do whatever they wanted. The boys sat in the front. The untouchable Rajiya Chamaar’s son, Lakshman, sat in the courtyard. He had a great passion for learning. When the master dozed off, he would ask someone about everything that he hadn’t been able to hear or hadn’t understood and then memorize it all. Near the desk, the master’s favorite student, Vijaysinhji, would sit or lie sleeping on a low stool. Next to him, there was always a metal tiffin of food. Seated at his feet, a servant would press his legs and fan him with a leafy peepal branch.
On the rickety desk, there would be two of Masterji’s beloved items. A paan box and a thin, long cane. He was of the firm belief that the goddess of knowledge would only step her jingling feet into this dusty village school if the cane was sounded repeatedly. On a broken, one-armed chair, Pandya Master would sit impressively like an emperor on his throne. A bright and milky-white complexion, moist paan-reddened lips, eyes gleaming under attractively generous and thick brows.
The berries were gone. The boys were yelling out the multiplication tables. Kumud was bored. Little Usha had been nodding off for quite some time already. Vasanti was single-mindedly reciting the tables. Jeevantika’s Ma had gone into confinement so, from then on, she had been absent. Raseela had gotten engaged so she had been removed from school. And Raseela’s younger sister, Leela, had also stopped coming to school.
Kumud gave Vasanti a slap on the back. “As if you’re some big scholar! Let’s go to the river, it’ll be great fun.”
Vasanti got scared. “And school stings you that much, does it?”
“You’re such a scaredy-cat. There, the four times table is also done.”
Then, Pandya Master’s voice roared. “I taught you just two days ago. Who’s got it memorized? What’s today’s date? Hey, Mulji, get up. Write it on your slate.”
Nearby, it was as if all of Mulji’s twelve ships had sunk. He stood like a blank slate. Pandya Master left his comfortable seat. A stillness descended. His fair cheeks flushed red. Coming closer and putting a hand inside Mulji’s underwear, he pinched at the crease of the thigh and gave a twist. Mulji gave a loud cry and began sobbing.
“Muliya! For that, you shed tears? Is your father going to come and write it for you? Shut . . . up.”
Immediately, Mulji’s lips were sealed shut. He was not prepared for the cane.
Fearfully, Mahesh raised his hand.
“Are you all born of your mothers! Do you come here just to show your faces? Shaabaash, Maheshiya. Write.”
Mahesh wrote in shapely letters: “Magha, Vad Teras. 1978.”
Pandya Master gave a joyful backslap. Juice dribbled from the paan stuffed inside his cheeks. Going to the edge of the verandah, he spat out a deep red stream.
Then, he roared. “How often did I teach you this? Only Mahesh bothered to learn it. Idiots. Smarten up. Mahesh, from now on, you will write the date on the board each day. If you all remain stupid, it reflects badly on me too. Why are you just standing there? Write the date.”
“I forgot the da . . . date.”
“No matter how much faith one might have, fate holds us hostage. Alya, does anyone know the answer?”
Before he could be punished, Mahesh folded his hands and sat back down.
Kumud was becoming impatient. Freeing the hand that Vasanti had been holding on to, she went up to the desk. Only two days earlier, Vishnu Bhai had brought home a calendar block. He had been explaining about all the dates, festivals, and occasions to Kumud, Usha, and Vasanti. She had so loved that calendar block. She’d kept turning the pages and asking Vishnu questions.
Kumud took a piece of chalk and wrote on the board. Date 3-2-1922. Then, she stood in a triumphant pose. “Saayab, today is Febarwadi, the third, and what’s written at the end there is known as the year.”
“Shaabaash, Kumud beta.” Pandya Master came closer and put a hand on Kumud’s head.
Kumud lowered herself only slightly and touched his feet.
“The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree. Like mother, like daughter. Jayaba’s upbringing and Gorbaapa’s lineage. Your brother, Vishnu, was also a first-class scholar, ho! Shame on you, boys. Dullards. A girl has outdone you all.”
Pandya Master wrote the names of all twelve months on the board. Instructed them all to write them twenty times each. Commanded them to memorize by rote. Then, spitting out the paan, he gargled. Arranged the chair properly. Stretched his legs out atop the desk and, in short order, sought refuge with the goddess of sleep.
Everyone became engrossed in solicitously writing nice, clear letters.
With the exception of Vijaysinhji. Also known as Nanabaapu, Pratapsinhbaapu’s son. A special stool had been placed for him in the most comfortable spot and a servant sat by his feet. A food tiffin at his side. His father’s express warning was that he shouldn’t have to even lift a finger. And that he had permission to sleep at leisure when the Master fell asleep. But, right now, Nanabaapu could smell sukhdi from the food tiffin. He put aside his slate and pen and opened it.
Kumud was looking for an opportunity to run off. What better time than now? The riverbank was calling. Hoisting her slate bag over her shoulders, grabbing Usha’s hand, and snatching the slate that Vasanti had been diligently writing on, Kumud ran out of the school’s courtyard.
There was a shout from behind, “Ku . . . mu . . . d! Wait.”
Looking back, she saw that it was Lakshman.
“You’re a fast runner! Like the wind blowing past.”
“But why did you stop me?”
“Ben, please write the names from the board onto my slate. I can’t see from the courtyard.”
Lakshman placed a piece of slate onto the verandah’s broken bench and stood at a distance.
“Uh-huh.” So saying, Kumud sat on the bench and reached an arm for the slate when Vasanti ran up, breathless.
“Eh . . . hold up!”
“You’ll take Lakshmaniya’s slate in your hands? As if you don’t know. Teaching him all the time as if you’re a Masteraani.”
Kumud laughed and took the piece of slate in her hands.
“Here, I’ve taken the slate in my hands. Did anything happen? Did the skies come crashing down? Why shouldn’t he want to study like everyone else? Lakshmaniya, there’s a crack again in your slate. I’m writing it down on my slate, alright! Memorize by rote and stand first in class.”
Lakshman was taken aback. “Bon, if you give your slate away, Jayaba will scold you.”
Vasanti’s anger sparked up again. “She won’t scold, she’ll beat Kumud into dust. Contaminated Kumudadi.”
But would Kumud listen! Recalling the names of the months, she began writing in an orderly manner. Lakshman and Usha began to repeat along with her. Vasanti stood there, suppressing outrage.
Kumud instructed, “If you two don’t tell, then how will Ba find out? I’ll ask Bhai to get me another slate.”
Kumud made Lakshman read the names out and then, holding hands, all three girls raced off so wildly that they only caught their breath at the river’s ghat. In the middle of the afternoon, the riverbank was empty. The wasteland ahead was also quiet. Clapping merrily, Usha stretched out on the banyan tree bench.
Vasanti’s rage was still ratcheting up. “See what big reward was won from running away? If my Ba finds out, she’ll thrash me, don’t you know!”
“Samukaki will never find out.”
“My Ba’s eyes are always watching. She’s nobody’s fool. Then she’ll sing the same old song: Vasanti, you’re older than Kumud. You don’t have the protection of a brother or a father over your head. If you wander about aimlessly and without any care like this, you’ll never find a good home.”
Despite their anger, they both laughed.
“Look, Vasanti. No one is going to tell Samukaki. And, if Pandya Master finds out, then sheer joy.” Kumud puffed up her cheeks as if she had a paan inside her mouth. Body rigid. A branch in her hand. Voice hoarse as if her mouth were oozing with tobacco juice. “Jayaba, Kumud has turned eight. Very clever. Now, take her out of school. She’ll cook-shook. Get her tethered.”
Vasanti burst into rattling laughter.
Usha’s face dropped. “What’s that, ben! They’ll tether you like a cow?”
Kumud gave Usha a tap. “That means that I will be married off.”
“Look, like this,” Kumud tied one end of her odhani to the end of Vasanti’s odhani. Covering her head, walking in circles as if around the marriage altar, Kumud began to sing shyly,
The auspicious marriage thread sparkles with bangles in between, re,
Beside the beloved son, the beloved daughter looks so beautiful, re.
The two friends clapped hands and giggled. Usha didn’t feel like laughing at all.
Kumud caught Vasanti’s hand. “Le, you’re my husband and I’m your wife. We’ll have a wedding just like everyone else.”
The image of a beloved face swam into Vasanti’s vision. “Why didn’t you say so before!”
Kumud pinched her. Vasanti smiled tenderly and caught both of Kumud’s hands. Pulling onto each other with clasped hands, they stretched their arms out and began swirling about in circles. The entire sky also began spinning round and round as if in delightful play. Like echoing birdsong, the girls’ sweet laughter filled the banyan’s thick canopy.
© Varsha Adalja. Translation © 2022 by Jenny Bhatt.