Headmaster by Palagummi Padmaraju

 “Headmaster expired”.

Captain Rao read the telegram. He stood still for a while, preoccupied. His wife looked at him with knitted eyebrows. She bent forward to read the telegram in his hand.

“Who is this headmaster?”

“Our headmaster.”

She shrugged, left his kerchief and purse on the table, and left the room. Rao stood still preoccupied. His eyes became misty with old memories.

***

  The sand dunes cut the river Godavari across. From the top of the sand dune, the river looked very weak and pathetic, as if crawling to the end. But once one reached the other side of the dune, she looked more lively and energetic.

In the river, headmaster would stand, doing his daily morning “surya namaskaram”. Rao was Subba Rao in those days, and his friends, Krishnaiah, Ramanatham, Sambu and Ravi would swim in the river for about a furlong and go to the other side. There were lots of cucumber creepers on the other side. They hid small packets of chili powder and salt under the creepers. They would mash the cucumbers with bare hands and eat with chili powder and salt. From the seeds that they spilled while eating sprouted into many more creepers there all along the shore. By the time they swam back, the headmaster would have finished his “suryanamaskaram”.

“Hello, boys! What are the residents of Kishkindha up to today? Did they bring down the cucumbers or the melons?” he asked one morning. The boys were taken aback; they never guessed that he knew about their pranks.

Actually, sir, we were practicing swimming,” muttered Ramanatham.

“Look here, Satya Harsishchandra! I agree swimming practice is good for you, but if the owner of the groove catches you stealing his cucumbers, he might break your legs and you won’t be able to practice swimming any more.”

His humor was very subtle, not stabbing. He would speak softly, emphasizing every word leisurely and mildly.

                                                             ***

 “Hallo, Captain Rao? What is wrong with you? You are talking very softly!” It was Captain Reddy on the telephone. Rao smiled to himself. He was imitating the headmaster unconsciously.

***

In a school play, Rao played the role of Yudhishtira imitating the headmaster’s mannerisms and speech. All the teachers and friends complemented him on the job. The headmaster looked at him with smiling eyes and said, “Subbulu! Finally you made me Dharmaraja! He was a lousy bastard!” He was the only person who called him Subbulu.

“Reddy! Can you drop in on your way to the airport? I wish to join you.”

“What is the matter?”

“I will tell you later.”

Captain Rao returned the telephone to the cradle. He entered the dining room for breakfast. He sat down, sipping orange juice, and still looking vague. Kamala threw a suspicious look at him. Both of them were not on speaking terms for the past one month. There was not any fight or argument. In fact, there were no clear-cut accusations either. But Rao knew very well why Kamala was angry and why she shut the bedroom doors on him.

***

That day, she came to the airport, as usual, to pick him up. She always made it a point, to pick him up after his flight duties. She never came, after that day. He knew that she wouldn’t come any more.

On that day, there was a constant drizzle and wind. He couldn’t see her in the pitch-dark night, waiting for him. He did not expect her that day. In fact, she was farthest from his mind. Ms. Usha was hanging on to his neck, trying to go down the staircase of the aircraft. It was very uncomfortable on the narrow stairs, he was trying to help her get down, holding her at the waist. Usha felt very giddy as soon as her feet touched the ground (really!). He held her tightly, to stop her from falling. He put her in her pick up van, and got inside the van to go with her. It was then, that he saw Kamala standing in the rain, under a small umbrella, under one of the wings of the aircraft! It was well past midnight when he reached home, after admitting Usha in the hospital.

Kamala locked herself in the bedroom.

A warm welcome indeed, his wife had given him, after he arrived home, bone tired, exhausted, traumatic, after a brush with death! He tossed and turned on the lounge chair in the living room, that entire night. He felt very hurt and indignant at the silent accusation, defending his soul and actions, pure as driven snow! Is it fair, he thought, that his wife should suspect him, just because he held a colleague, who was shivering with fright, and that too, and whom he treated like his very own sister! (Oh yeah! You held her tender waist, with a pressure slightly more than needed. When she put her arms around your neck, her breasts brushing against you, when her heart fluttered like a bird against your chest, when your fingers caressed her spine, when her hair tickled on your neck, the peculiar pleasure that ran through your nerves was just the affection that a brother feels for a sister!!)

 He bit into the omelet and buttered toast, glancing at his wife. She was observing his absent-mindedness intently. She turned her eyes away, unable to bear the love in his eyes anymore.

“I need to go to Eluru, disembarking at Vijayawada.”

She looked at him enquiringly.

“Our headmaster expired. His only son is in the United States. I am like a son to him. His wife will feel happy if I went.” He laughed at his own absurd statement. How can a wife be happy with the death of a husband? Kamala did not laugh. She looked at him as if she had understood what he needed to say.

Rao hesitated for a while, and sipped his coffee.

“She doesn’t have any kith and kin. Can you accompany me?”

Captain Reddy, waiting in the driveway, honked. Rao got up from his chair. Kamala came out of her room, ready to go. He thought her silence meant her reluctance to join him. But, she came out, locked the house behind him, and climbed into the van. Reddy gave a questioning look.

“The headmaster passed away. We need to go to Eluru.”

The aircraft was full, no seats for them. He managed to get a place for Kamala in the airhostess’ cabin.

Reddy is a cool pilot. He steadily lifted the aircraft, and on to the cotton soft clouds. Rao stood behind him, watching.

The aircraft looked like the center of the cloud. When it cut across the cloud cover, it sent a funny shiver down the spine. The airhostess, Nayaki, lost her balance but controlled herself.

“I am sorry, I nearly spilled the tea on you,” she apologized with a smile.

“I wouldn’t mind if it were you, rather than the tea,” Reddy joked.

Rao looked at Kamala. His look said, “She is like our sister”. He laughed again at his absurd thoughts. He squeezed in to sit beside Kamala.

He slipped into a reverie again.

The headmaster was teaching us English. It was an essay by Mahatma Gandhi titled

‘All the mankind is brethren.’ He said, ‘Look here, boys. Mahatma seems to be quite a naughty man. He talks only of the males. He deliberately did not mention anything about ladies being our sisters. He must have seen many boys like our Subbulu ‘ – that is me. I was quite a naughty boy in my high school days.”

 Kamala’s eyes sparkled with a hidden smile. She strongly doubted that Rao said this story just to divert her attention from the airhostess. Though she was partly right, once he started speaking, Rao forgot everything about the airhostess and the conversation. His heart was filled with memories of the headmaster and his lips parted as he remembered the sweet smile of the headmaster. Kamala gave a sidelong glance at the smile.

The second airhostess too, lost her balance and gave an arrogant smile. Her smile seemed to carry the emptiness one feels in the pit of the stomach, when suddenly losing the footing. She could not guess whether Rao noticed the airhostess or not.

Suddenly Rao resumed talking.

Air is not like the terra firma. We are used to walk on the firm ground, but flying in the air is always an unpredictable, novel experience, however well trained one is. Air carries the aircraft, most of the time. But some times it lets go, like an adult who throws up a child in the air playfully and catches. At those times, only people who trust the air don’t panic. Some pilots do not develop that kind of trust in the air, even after many years of service. On every flight, they consider air as an enemy that needs to be vanquished.

Captain Rungta is an experienced pilot. He is also a very brave man.

But, on that day, he seemed to have lost his mind. That stormy night when Kamala came to receive him at the airport! All of them were nearly killed that night. Captain Rungta was the chief pilot and Rao was the co-pilot. The left side engine was totally damaged. The wind and storm were playing with the aircraft as if it were a mere toy. Captain Rungta did the unthinkable. He jumped into an egoistic clash with the storm. The aircraft looked puny and powerless to face the nature’s fury. The aircraft was spinning like a paper boat. Rao warned Captain Rungta. Rungta yelled back with a gruff “shut up!” Rao was furious. There are about eighty people on the flight who could have died due to Rungta’s stupidity. Airport was yet a half-mile away. The aircraft steadily started losing height. The small hill ahead the airport, with a glowing red light on the top of it, was approaching them with alarming speed. “Lift her, lift her” shouted Rao in panic. Airhostess Usha was screaming in fear and frenzy. In the next two minutes, they would hit the hilltop and crash. Rao lifted his arm and gave a resounding whack on Captain Rungta’s neck. Rungta slumped in his seat. Rao pushed him aside and took over the controls. He gave a full throttle and lifted the aircraft. They just crossed the red light in a hair width. Then he balanced the aircraft steadily in the air. They were almost out of the ruin’s way. He made a circular move in the air and slowly landed the aircraft. When, finally, the aircraft came to a halt on the ground, he realized he was swathed in sweat. Usha was clinging on to him and shouting hysterically. He had to take her to the hospital and, only after she was sedated, she let him go.

Rao finished the story.

“The rules and regulations on the ground cannot be taken into consideration while in the air sometimes. I went against the rules when I overpowered Rungta and physically injured him. If I had followed the rules, even when he was prepared to kill all the passengers with his foolishness, I was expected to standby and watch. I disregarded the rules because I wanted to save those passengers. Just obeying my instincts is a strong part of my character. Right from my childhood, I caused problems to all those around me with my impulsive nature. On the aircraft, it is a different world altogether. I am the king there. I never make a mistake there. Back on the ground, all that I seem to be doing are mistakes.”

 He ignored her, on that day, and ran to the hospital with Usha; and today, he is trying to justify his actions, thought Kamala. He was not exactly apologizing, but rather saying that, since he had saved so many lives that night, he has a right to do just what he wants, she thought foolishly. Rao gave her an understanding smile.  He remembered suddenly, what the headmaster had said once, “A woman never trusts another woman, and more so, if the woman happens to be close to her husband and of course, it is the husband whom she trusts the least.”

Rao completed the rest of the story.

Usha fell asleep on the bed at the hospital. Rao went to the hotel. He sat in his room and wrote a letter to the authorities, explaining his breach of discipline. He mentioned that he hit Captain Rungta and took the controls of the aircraft into his hand. He mentioned that he was willing to accept any punishment given to him. He apologized to Captain Rungta for his behavior.

Captain Rungta stayed in the same hotel, four rooms away. Rao went to his room and knocked on his door. No reply. He glanced at his watch. It was 2:00 a.m. He changed his mind and turned to go, when he heard a gruff, “come in”. The voice sounded heavy with alcohol. Rao entered the room.

“Good evening, my hero!”

The voice was in no way taunting. Rungta glared at him through his blood red eyes for a while.  Rao could not fathom his state of mind. He seemed to be drunk but still in control of his senses. Rao smiled and gave him the letter of apology. Rungta read the letter. He turned away to look at the lamp for a while. Then suddenly he tore up the letter into pieces and threw them into the waste paper basket. He again glared at Rao, blankly. Finally he smiled sadly!

“Rao, can I get you something to drink? Or, are you too tired?”

Rao sat down in a chair. He got ready to serve the drinks.

“No, no! You are my guest”

Rungta poured the whisky into two glasses.

“Cheers”, Rungta emptied his glass.

Rao sat silently; he was uncomfortable. Rungta suddenly said, with his eyes shining,

“Rao, how could you do it, so easily? You saved the aircraft worth nearly eighty lakhs of rupees. More than that, you saved the lives of eighty people, which are priceless. To top it, now you write a letter apologizing for your breach of discipline. Oh yes, the blow you gave me on the neck! My neck is all swollen. It will probably hurt more tomorrow! I deserve it, of course. I don’t know what had happened to me. I seemed to have gone out of my mind. Somehow, the red lamp was not in my view at all. I thought it was just a matter of time before we all had died. My ego sprung up out of nowhere! I got terribly confused. Then you took over. I fell down when you hit me. I got up burning with rage, to push you away from the controls. The aircraft that was losing height rapidly suddenly went up and crossed the killer red lamp. How deftly you had controlled an aircraft that was running on a single engine! Your supreme confidence! You turned the aircraft around as if it were a mere bird.  Then you landed it gently. I was staring at you. Your eyes, the concentration in them! Then I understood. You hit me not because you hated me or you were jealous of me. You hit me, because you had no other choice at that time. I never knew you could take over the control of a hopeless situation so easily. I always had a very low opinion of you. I assumed you were an irresponsible playboy, joking around with people. Today I knew that, behind the happy-go-lucky exterior, lurks a determined, confident professional!”

Rao felt terribly embarrassed at the direct admiration and praise. He could not get himself to look at Rungta. He suddenly caught his reflection in the mirror on the dressing table. It looked strange! It suddenly turned into the headmaster’s face! He was amazed to find the same eyes, looking innocent with all the knowledge behind them, the same smile. Suddenly he realized that the headmaster became a part of himself. He knew he could never be the same person as the headmaster was. The headmaster would never get into troubles, like he always did.  He would pull people out of troubles! When he himself got into many troubles, it was the headmaster who pulled him out. On that night too, it was the headmaster who took the control over, thought Rao.

“Rao, I am quitting. I can no longer be a pilot.”

“Nonsense” protested Rao.

“Rao, I had been a pilot of fighter planes during many wars. I escaped many mortal dangers. I know very well how calm and courageous a pilot must be, how he needs to keep his cool in the face of dangers. I lost those qualities. If I feel wobbly when the aircraft is out of control, I can no longer be a pilot. Tomorrow I will meet the chairman and request him to transfer me into the administrative section. If he refuses, I shall resign.”

Rao knew that Rungta spoke the truth. He sighed. Rungta got up and lied down on his bed.

“I am terribly sleepy, Rao. You can stay if you like and finish the drink. If you need, there is one more bottle in the fridge. I never expected you to see tonight. I am so happy!”

Rungta fell asleep even before Rao finished saying “good night”.

 Kamala looked at him. His arm circled her waist. She gave a cautious look around. Both the airhostesses seemed to be missing.

The aircraft started descending. “No seat-belt here”, Rao gripped her waist firmly.

“The poor girls are missing their chances because of me”, she said, tauntingly. But there was no malice in her voice. She choked when the wheels touched the ground. She felt secure and happy with his arms holding her.

When they were in the taxi en route to Eluru, Rao opened his dairy and showed it to her. Under the plastic wrapper there was a photograph, which she had never seen before.

“Who is this?”

“Our headmaster.”

She looked at the picture for a long time.

The dead body was placed in the main hall. Headmaster’s wife sat at his feet. Janardana Rao and his daughter Nagamani sat a few feet away.

“Hello, Subba Rao”, Janardana Rao recognized him. Nagamani looked at him and turned away. The headmaster’s wife looked at him vacantly.

“Subba Rao, Surya Rao (headmaster’s son) will not be here for three days, at least. We need to cremate the body before it starts decaying. What do you think we should do?” asked Janardana Rao.

Rao went to the headmaster’s wife.

“Madam, can I perform the last rites? I am like your own son,” his voice choked.

She gave him a blank look. Finally she said, “alright child!”

Janardana Rao got busy with the arrangements.

Rao refused to look at the headmaster’s lifeless face. He firmly retained, in his mind, only the living, lively face of his teacher.

As he walked along the streets, performing the last rites, he felt the streets calling to him, silently.

The memories of the canal, shore, the boats, the early morning when I stole bananas and jaggery from the boats, swarmed my mind. Mother sent me to Kovvur to the high school, to the headmaster. He and my father were childhood friends. Mother was very much worried about my mischievous deeds.

I stayed in a small room next to the headmaster’s house, with three other friends. I was at an age when rebellion came naturally to me. I could not fathom the master for the first few days. Grey hair, his moustache, gold framed glasses, he indeed looked academic. He would sit on the verandah till late at nights, in his armchair, reading a book.

One day I took the other boys to a late night show at the circus tent. The other boys were good as long as they are on their own; they would never go for a late night circus show. They would not tell tales about me to the headmaster either.

Next day, when we were swimming in Godavari, the master asked,

“Boys, how was the circus last night?”

By the time I’d gathered my wits to bluff my way out, master had already left. I realized that I would never be able to lie to him.

The cremation fire was glowing. Janardana Rao and he sat on the shore of the canal.

“I have never seen any one think so clearly and so good at heart. I shifted to Eluru for Nagamani’s education. He too retired and settled here. His son went abroad. He would always ask me, “”dear sir! Please find a small house for my old woman and me. I can’t afford high rents.” I got him to stay in this house. We would meet every day. Both of them liked Nagamani very much.”

“Did Nagamani get married, sir?” Rao asked hesitantly.

Janardana Rao smiled.

“Of course! She is of the same age as you are. It was he who saved you and her after the big furor. I was hell bent upon ruining your future those days. He diffused the whole situation. Of course, it was good for my daughter too…………”

****

Janardana Rao was a member of the Brahmo samaj. Their ancestors were from the courtesans’ caste. He was a lawyer by profession and got all his sisters married. Nagamani was his eldest daughter. She was my classmate. She was very proud of her father and spoke always of “her dad”. He always quoted from scriptures. Most of the high caste Hindus ridiculed him. Our Telugu teacher always joked about him. Ramanatham and Sambu always walked behind the girls after school and teased them with comments.

“Who could be the father of the lawyer?”

“It is a bit difficult to tell. You would have to choose from many people!”

“Unfortunately, he wants to become a respectable man.”

“No point in washing a rat’s skin, it is forever black”, they would sing.

Nagamani would be enraged and treated all of us like filth.

One day Telugu teacher said in the staff room,

“All the great people in Mahabharata are of dubious parentage! Like some respectable people in our town…”

Headmaster had just then entered the room, and said mildly,

“Now, sir, do you think one knows surely who one’s father is? We have to just go by what our mothers say, isn’t it? In any case, we are in no way affected by who our father is, but by who we are, don’t you think?”

One day in the evening Janardana Rao was giving us a talk in the school. Headmaster invited him. We all got angry with both of them. When he stood up to give his talk, we made a racket. He seemed to be slightly irritated, but headmaster looked calm. Janardana Rao could not finish his talk and he concluded as early as he could. Headmaster got up to say something. We were all nervous with waiting. He said without any emotion,

“I wish to thank Mr. Janardana Rao on all our behalf. The thanks are not for his talk. It is for his patience towards us. I also apologize to him, for I could not teach basic courtesy to my students.”

All the teachers sitting in the front looked uncomfortable. All of us understood how pained headmaster was with the emphasis he placed on each word. With child hood irrationality we held Janardana Rao responsible for all the agony of the evening. To add to it, Nagamani abused us with strong words. I was even more enraged. When I found her alone, I started taunting about her caste. She would turn red in the face, but never complained to any of the teachers. Perhaps, she guessed correctly that none of the teachers would support her. One fine day, she gave a sarcastic smile and said, “Elephants always ignore barking dogs.”

That day the last class was history. History teacher was a pious, timid old man. We loved to embarrass him with silly questions. We found his discomfort hilarious. That day I got Sambu to ask him, how many concubines Krishnadeva rayalu could have had? He turned red in the face, since he considered Krishnadeva rayalu in high respect. Fortunately, the bell rang and put him out of his misery. He rushed to leave the class. After going out he must have remembered that the teacher who taught in the last hour should wait till all the girls in the class left. I did not notice him standing outside the entrance. All the boys were in a stampede near the entrance. The girls waited for all the boys to leave. At the end of the girls was Nagamani, standing. She gave her usual sarcastic smile to me. I lost my temper. All the girls were moving out. In the end Nagamani and behind her was I. Suddenly on an impulse, I grabbed her plaited hair in my hand and pulled her towards me. She screamed in fright and fell over me. I held her waist and hugged her. I do not know why I did. All the girls were screaming hysterically. The teacher came inside the class shouting, “you naughty boy! What are you up to?” I fled the scene.

I ran without aim or direction along the river. I climbed the railway bridge and ran towards Rajahmundry. Some train climbed the bridge behind me, started chasing me. I ran till I reached the next station. My lungs were bursting with exertion. I slumped on the platform. I reached home back by ten o’clock in the night. I stood near the wall in the darkness. I heard Janardana Rao speaking to the headmaster.

“We have to teach such rowdies a stiff lesson. I will see to it that he is kicked out of the school for ever.”

“Sure sir! I will complaint to the higher office. I will write a strong complaint, so that he cannot join any other school. Let the history teacher come with the report, first” said the headmaster.

I felt weak in my legs and slumped down. Janardana Rao left after a while. Headmaster saw him off at the gate, turned back to go in and noticed me. I stood up facing him. He slapped me on the face. I fell down and could not get up again. He came down to look into my face. He said,

“Go inside and sleep”.

He paused again before going in, and asked, “have you eaten any food?”

I did not answer. He took me inside.

He called his wife and said, “I think this idiot has not had any food. Give him some rice.”  I wondered if she knew what I had done. I said I did not want any food. He said, “Shut up and eat.” I ate my food and looked at him. He looked like God who could forgive all our sins. I finished the food and came out. He was reading a book on his chair. I wanted to tell him something, but could gather neither my wits nor courage.

He simply said, “Go to bed now.” I went inside my room. My roommates too did not bother to talk to me and promptly went off to sleep. I could not find sleep anyhow and my brain was teeming with absurd thoughts. I have to apologize to Nagamani. Of course, I will be rusticated from the school. Then I will humiliate her again in the main street. Why did I do it? What will happen to me now? What will mother say? I will commit suicide.

The whole night dreams haunted me.

Next day morning I did not go to the Godavari for my usual swim. I did not step out of my room. My roommates still avoided me, as if I were a particularly harm full animal. I heard the history teacher talking out side to the headmaster.

“Idiots, these boys are! We have to punish him, sir. How dare he, in the class, with so many students! I tell you, sir he should be….”

I peeped out of the crack in the door to see what was going on. History teacher wrote a three-page report, which the headmaster was reading. He read the first page and merely turned the rest two pages.

“That is fine sir. I will report the incident to the higher authorities,” he said in the end.

A week went by. Everyday evening Janardana Rao would come and ask about the status of the complaint.

“Come on, sir. How can we discipline the school children if we don’t punish the rascals? Why is there no reply for your complaint?”

“Red tape, sir! Do you think any office works efficiently in our country? Most of the time they simply throw our letters in the waste paper basket.” headmaster would say.

“Please send them a reminder.”

“Sure. I will do it right away. I will mark a copy to the D.E.O too!”

Daily morning the history teacher would come to make similar enquiries. Again the same dialogue would go on. I kept on imagining what would happen next.

Headmaster would write a reminder. It would travel by the evening mail to Eluru. The D.E.O would read the letter. He would call mother and tell her the matter. How upset she would be! If only the letter would not read Eluru! If the train meets with an accident near Nidadavolu! If only all the letters would catch fire! Or, if the letter would be read by a clerk in the D.E.O’s office, who was in a similar predicament in his younger days! He would sympathize with me and throw the report in rubbish.

I heard that Nagamani has not been coming to school for the past four days. I felt guilty.

After ten days, the history teacher came in the early morning, in a foul mood.

“What is this I hear sir? It seems you never sent that report to the higher authorities.”

Headmaster fell silent for a minute.

“Hmm! Actually I am having second thoughts about sending the letter.”

“What? How can you spare such undisciplined brats? How could you forgive him?”

“Come on, sir! Is he an enemy soldier to hate him so much? He is still a child!”

“What are you saying, sir? How will we train the children if we let him go?”

“Dear Sir, all those sages who performed strict penances and thought nothing beyond God’s feet too ran agog with desire when they saw an apsara, why talk of a young inexperienced boy! I do not know about you sir, but honestly, if a good-looking girl were passing by, I too feel extremely tempted to give a second look! The fear of the society, my family, my own concepts of good and bad, all together pull me back. Or else, I too would have hugged a girl, in my age. I do not, because I know that in that event, more than the girl I will be in soup. He is a young boy; he did not have such discerning capacity. He did a small mistake. Who knows how much he is repenting, now. If we leave him now, he will never do such a thing in all his life. If we ruin his life by expelling him from the school, he may never get a chance to start afresh. His repentance is his own punishment, I think.”

Suddenly they both were in my room. I was slumped on the floor. I could not lift up my head with the weight of guilt. Slowly both of them left.

That day evening the lawyer came as usual. After some routine discussions, he got up to go.

“Sir, I need to tell you something. I took my own decision in a small matter. I did not send the report to the higher authorities,” said the headmaster.

“But why?” said the lawyer.

I heard a roar in my ears; the anxiety and pressure were too much to bear.

 He was still saying,

“If you complain about me, I will have to resign from my job. In principle, I should have filed that report and punished that boy. But somehow I was not convinced about the wisdom of the action. I am a teacher. When one of my students strays, my duty is to show him the right path, not ruin his life. If I had sent a report about his misbehavior, he would have been expelled from the school, which of course he deserves. But he will be totally out of control then. He might think he can do anything and get away with it. He might even humiliate your daughter even more! You can get him arrested, but then unnecessary rumors will start floating about your daughter too, which I thought is undesirable. But if you insist, I shall send the report.”

“That’s fine, but why did you not tell me for such a long time?”

“You were too enraged to think calmly.”

After that I lost track of their conversation.

I ran out of the house. I took a short cut to reach the lawyer’s house before him. I was breathless when I reached their house. I knocked on their door.

His wife opened the door and asked,

“Yes, who is it?”

“It’s me, Subba Rao”

She gasped. She became stiff as if I were some murderer or a drunkard. Nagamani came out.

“You!”

“I am very sorry Nagamani. I did something very wrong. I am not asking you to forgive me. I do not know why I behaved so badly.”

I did not notice the lawyer standing behind me. I turned back to go home and saw him.

“Sir, I heard all that you and headmaster were talking. I am sorry for what I have done. Even if you get me expelled, I will not bother Nagamani any more. Do what you think is the best, sir”.

I did not return home that night. I sat in the schoolyard. I slept there.

From the next day I attended school as usual. Every body seemed to have forgotten about the incident. I cleared my school leaving exams in flying colors that year. I thought that is the best way to thank headmaster. I wanted him to have the satisfaction of pulling a man from the brink of ruin.

After that whenever I faced a problem, I would think what the headmaster would have expected me to do. He became a part of my alter ego and me. When I make stupid mistakes, my alter ego lovingly forgives me and corrects me gently.

****

He sat on the cot and told the entire story to Kamala. Nagamani was sleeping inside with her mother.

In the mild light of the dawn, all the birds were waking up the entire world. He looked at Kamala sleeping peacefully, her head perched on his thigh. A smile played on her lips, a smile that knows all his faults, and forgives, just like the headmaster’s smile.

****

(Translator’s note: This story was published in the anthology gAlivAna  (1984) of Palagummi Padmaraju. The permission given by Smt. Palagummi Satyanandam is gratefully acknowledged.

Acharya devo bhava“, the teacher who plays an important role, just like parents, in a person’s character building and is indeed on par with the God.

Translated by Sharada, Australia, and published on thulika.net, October 2004)