TOP POCKET By Nidadavolu Malathi

“I want a new skirt and top,” Parimala said.

“Just last week we got new clothes made for you saying you’re going to a new school. You want new clothes again,” mother said.

“Okay, I don’t need the skirt, just a new top. Without a new top, I am not going to go to school,” said Parimala.

“That’s cute. Princess wants new dress each day?” mother said, smiling.

“I don’t want one a day. I want a different dress only on the day I have the English language class,” said Parimala seriously.

“What happened in the English language class?” Akka (older sister) asked. She had realized long time back that this kind of desires originate only in the school.

Parimala remained silent.

“Okay, we’ll see. We’re having Bobby’s birthday next month. I will have new clothes made for both of you at the time.”

“No, I want it now,” Parimala insisted.

“Nice, very nice, like the deer up and running in a second. Don’t you know you don’t get everything and anything as you please right away? What’s the urgency anyways?” mother said, annoyed.

 

000

The day before …

School was in session. Parimala set foot in the tenth class room, wearing new skirt and top and holding the books and the geometry box tightly to her chest. All new faces; her heart was beating like a little engine … chuk, chuk … New school, new faces, new class, new teacher, new books, new skirt and new top—everything new, new, new … Just last week, mother took her to the store, had her pick her favorite cloth with flower prints for the skirt and mango shoot tinted cloth for the top. She got the outfit made by Ameer Saheb who was sitting on the porch with his sewing machine. Everything fell in place perfectly.

Yet, the new class was new class. Parimala, with her face lowered and sidelong glances, as if she was going to rob a bank, walked into the classroom and looked around. Teacher had not come in yet. All the boys were sitting on the right side in two rows and girls on the left side. Usually, smart and well-behaved students would sit in the front rows. Those who had not studied, had not done homework, and those who would engage in drawing funny pictures sit in the back rows.

Parimala stood at the door and watched them. All the children were talking, giggling noisily and making faces.

Her eyes completed one round and stopped on the two girls in the second row. She was not sure why but felt like there was something special about them. Between the two, the one on the far end noticed Parimala and smiled. Then she whispered something in the ear of the girl next to her. The second girl turned around, looked at her and also smiled. Parimala waited for what like ages and slowly walked toward the two girls. The two girls moved invitingly and made room for Parimala on the bench. The girl who moved and made room for her asked, “What is your name?”

She was fair-skinned, oval-faced and somewhat skinny. She looked so delicate, probably slightest touch could make her blood clot or she might faint, thought Parimala. She said her name was Ramani. The second girl’s skin was wheat-colored; her eyes seemed to be saying “I saw you somewhere; there was a naughty smile on her lips, looking was it was the place of origination for the naughty smile. Her name was Visala, she said.

“Parimala,” she said in a voice barely audible.

“Shh,” somebody from behind alerted them to be quiet.

Parimala stopped talking with Ramani, turned around, looked at the teacher who was just walking into the class; she was flabbergasted, her jaw dropped, and her heart was beating twice as fast. The teacher was the owner from whom her parents were renting the apartment.

It was just two weeks since they had moved in. Ever since they had moved, the landlord had been giving them plenty in the form of what they could do and what they could not or should not do in that apartment.

The teacher went to his desk, turned and looked at the faces in the class and said, “Hum, so, we have a new girl in the class,” he said, watching Parimala with a piercing look.

He opened the attendance register and started calling our the names. “Present, sir,” each student was responding dutifully.

“Prameela,” teacher called.

“It is Parimala, sir, not Prameela,” she said furtively.

“PARIMALA,” he said gritting his teeth, as if he was ready to devour her.

Somebody in the back row snickered.

“Silence!” the teacher shouted.

It was English language class. They were going to study a short story about the Pandava princes learning how to shoot the bow from their teacher Dronacharya. Dronacharya asks each of the princes what they saw on the tree. Only Arjuna says he did not see the tree nor branches; not even the bird but only the eye of the bird. It is a story about focus.

Parimala buried her head in the book. A girl from behind nudged her with her pencil, causing her to jerk. Parimala was startled and the geometry box in her lap fell on the floor with a bang. The items in the box—a ruler, a compass, a pencil, an eraser and a quarter of a rupee—all scattered all around. She was frightened; she bent down quickly and started picking the pieces, barely looking at the teacher for fear he might yell at her again.

The children in the class were making funny noises in a low pitch.

“Silence,” the teacher shouted again and told Parimala, “Come here.”

She put the items back in the box, put the box on the bench and went to him.

“Why did you bring that spice rack to my class?” he raised his voice, short of slapping her.

Parimala had no answer.

“Do you need that trash box in the English language class??

“No, sir. It is not needed in the English language class, sir.”

“From now on, never bring it to my class again. Understand? This goes for everybody. Nobody is allowed to bring the geometry box to my class,” he issued a memorandum to the entire class.

Twenty pairs of eyes turned toward Parimala. They all said, “All this, because of you!”

The class was over for the day. The two girls, who had made room for her earlier, were walking home. They lived in the same neighborhood. Parimala’s home was also in the same direction. She was walking a few steps behind them.

“Teacher seems to be mad at you for whatever reason,” Ramani commented.

“What did I do? Why would he be mad at me?” Parimala was confused.

“Who knows? You are renting the apartment from him, aren’t you? Probably, something has to do with that.”

Parimala could not understand the logic but decided then and there not to bring the geometry box to the language class again. But then, where could she put her pencil, eraser and the quarter of a rupee she was bringing for milk? She could not hold everything in her palm all the time.

The following day, mother who had compared her to the deer up and running changed her mind by next morning. “Might as well get it now. One errand done is one less thing to worry about,” she thought. Besides, the tailor takes his own sweet time to make the outfit.

That afternoon, mother took Bobby and Parimala to the store. Picking the right cloth for Bobby’s shirt and pants was over in a snap but picking the right cloth for Parimala’s outfit was another story. By the time she picked the cloth she liked, the sun was down. Mother paid for the items and went to the tailor sitting on the porch.

Ameer sahib took measurements.

“Add a pocket to my top,” Parimala said.

Ameer sahib was confused. He looked at mother.

She was also surprised. “What? Pocket for the top? What do you mean?” mother asked.

“Well, Bobby is getting a pocket for his shirt, isn’t he? Why can’t I have one?”

“Well, he is magavadu[i].”

“So? He is magavadu and I am adavadu. I want the pocket.”

“What is adavadu?” Mother said, laughing.

“Pocket would not look good on a girl’s top, madam,” Ameer sahib said.

“It would look good for me,” Parimala insisted.

“All right. Let us do it. Put a small square on her top as well,” mother said. It was getting late; she was worried about her husband’s supper. He needed to eat on time, always.

It was decided to put a pocket on the top and the next question was where—on the chest like boy’s shirt? Or, on the side, like grandfather’s kameej?

“I don’t know all that. All I know is I want a pocket on my top, which can hold my pencil and eraser and stuff.”

“If it is for holding the pencil and the eraser, the pocket on the chest may not be a good idea. They may fall out of the pocket when you jump and skip,” Ameer sahib explained the logistics of it.

“All right. Put it on the side,” Parimala agreed.

It was half past six by the time the issue had been resolved successfully. “Come on, let’s go,” mother pushed them into a rickshaw and got home anxiously.

000

The following day, it was Telugu grammar class. Parimala was so afraid of her English teacher but that was not the case with her Telugu teacher. His explanations of Telugu poems fascinate her, always. She understood every bit of grammar he taught.

That day, he was explaining the story of the great grammarian, Panini. The poem said Panini was very handsome—his face was like full moon, peaceful and bright, he was tall and well-built, he would serve the teacher without stopping and without complaint; however, he could never recite a single poem in his life.

Parimala liked that story very much. She was taken by the cute twist in the last line—a wonderful man with no brains! More than that, the phrases describing Panini ended in third person singular suffix vadu. That word brought another question to her mind—the one that mother had asked the day before.

After the class ended and all the students left, she approached the teacher. Ramani and Visala were waiting behind her.

“Sir! I have a question,” she said.

“Yes, dear! What is it?” he said with a smile. The teacher was very fond of her; he was impressed with her smartness.

“The pronominal ending vadu—I am confused. Vadu is singular and varu is plural, right?”

“Yes, dear.”

magavadu is singular and magavaru is plural.”

“That is correct.”

“Can’t we follow the same logic and say, work backwards and say adavaru is plural and adavadu is singular?”

Teacher laughed but Parimala did not. She was confused, seriously. She wanted to know the answer.

Teacher looked at her and said gently, “Grammar does not explain why things cannot be in a certain way, dear. It explains only how the prevalent words have changed in course of time. That is all. Let’s say you would start using adavadu and several others pick up and continue to use it on a regular basis. Then it becomes the norm. Probably, you should do so after you’ve become a notable writer.” He said partly in jest and partly in seriousness.

“I am going to start it even now,” she said. She felt free to speak her mind in his presence always.

“I don’t think so. You’d better wait until you’ve earned the reputation as a great writer. Then, they’d call it arshaprayogam (a construction similar to poetic justice). If you do it now, they’d just question your language skills. How did this idea start anyways?”

Ramani, who was standing next to her, pulled Parimala’s side pocket and said, “Here, because of this pocket.”

“What? … No, it’s okay. I never saw a pocket on a top. That’s why said …” he said, staring into her face, and trying to cover his surprise.

“Well, that is our Parimala!” Visala said.

000

Parimala kept mulling over it all night. She could not understand the logic behind the pocket being gender-related. One possibility could be—long time ago, when mother, her mother and grandmother had not gone out at all, probably there had been no need to walk around with pencils and erasers and there had been no need for pockets either. Now, for her, there was a need for her to carry the pencil and the eraser and therefore the pocket was also needed. Ever so often she had lost one or the other always and kept buying new things again and again. Akkayya offered to make a little bag for her but Parimala did not think it was a good idea. She still would have to remember to carry it all the time. A pocket on the other hand would take care of it by itself. She would not have to worry about it constantly. Then, she could use her brain for other purposes! That is how she convinced herself.

000

That was fifteen years back.

Parimala came from America and went to visit Ramani. Ramani was elated to see her. She jumped to her feet and hugged Parimala with all her heart. “Wow, after sooooooo long. I never thought I could see you again…. How’re you? Tell me everything… Sometimes Visala and I see your stories in some magazine and talk about you.”

Parimala was thrilled to hear that her friends had read her stories and thought about her.

Ramani said, “Come on, let’s visit Visala. She lives in Hyderabad. Now she came here yesterday to see her older sister. Let’s go.”

All the three sat down in Visala’s home and kept chatting about their school days, the short teacher, the math teacher and so many other things.

“Remember, you were the only one in those days to come to class with a pocket top. We used to admire your guts and laugh,” Ramani said.

Parimala laughed, “Why didn’t you all have tops made with pockets?”

“How? I had no choice but use up all the clothes my older sister had outgrown and handed me down,” Visala sighed, recalling the life of her childhood days.

“I ran out of luck in that area as well. My sibling happened to be a boy. I wish they had let me wear his clothes. Then I would have gotten pockets automatically. It didn’t occur to me, to be frank,” Ramani lamented.

“Where is our teacher?” Parimala asked.

“He is staying home, after retirement.”

“Let’s go, see him,” Parimala said, recalling those times with her teacher.

“Let’s go, quick then. He will be home now. If we don’t go now, we may miss him. He will go to the park,” Visala said.

000

Teacher was sitting in an easy chair on the porch and reading bhagavatam. Next to him, his wife Kamamma was sitting on the floor and cutting beans.

As he heard the gate squeak, he looked up and asked, “Who’s that?” adjusting his glasses.

Kamamma recognized them and said, “the girls, Ramani and Parimala,” and turned to them and invited them kindly, “Come in. How’re you?”

“Who? Pocket Parimala?” teacher said teasingly.

Parimala smiled shyly. She was thinking “why on earth it came to me in those days.”

Kamamma went in and returned with buttermilk in three glasses and gave it to them.

“You don’t have to,” they protested mildly and took the glasses.

“So, you are in America now. Our granddaughter came to visit us last month. All those pants, shirts, and all that… Probably, you’re also the same. Lots of pockets, head to foot,” the teacher said, commenting cheerily.

“Lots of pockets and lots of money in those pockets … is that right?” Kamamma said, smiling.

Parimala looked away as she mumbled, “No, not so in my case.”

Kamamma said it for fun but, after watching Parimala’s face, wished she had not said it.

Parimala however collected herself quickly and laughed, “Now no pocket but this bag only,” she said, holding out her handbag. Then she took a pen from the bag and gave it to him, “I brought this little gift for you.”

He took it cheerfully and said, “bless you.”

Ramani said, “Wherever she is and however many pockets she may have, our Parimala is always the same old Parimala, sir. As always, her pockets are full of papers and pencils, nothing else.”

Teacher said, “I heard you’ve been writing stories. You possess the gift of Goddess Saraswati’s blessings. I knew even then that you would become a great writer. I am really happy for you.”

“No great writer, sir. Just scribbling a few lines whenever I feel like and whatever comes to my mind,” Parimala said modestly and feeling shy for the compliment.

“That’s what I am saying too—safekeeping. Pocket to hold the pencil, and the pencil to hold the heart.”

Suddenly, silence fell. For some reason, nobody found words to say. Silence dropped a heavy curtain on their hearts.

“It’s getting dark. We’d better go,” they said, getting up to leave.

“Wait,” Kamamma went in and returned with paan leaves, fruits and kumkum. She put kumkum on their foreheads and gave them the paan leaves and fruits.

Parimala bent and touched their feet, seeking their blessings. She had forgotten these traditions, almost. Today, suddenly, she felt like following that tradition. Tears gathered in her eyes.

They said goodbye one more time and walked toward the gate. At the gate, Parimala stopped and looked sideways at her teacher, and saw him dabbing his eyes with the towel on his shoulder. She heaved a small sigh and hastened to join her two friends.

On her way home, she kept chanting as if it was a mantra—pocket to hold the pencil, and the pencil to hold the heart.

(End)

Originally published on thulika.net, October 2010

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[i] A play upon the Telugu word magavadu for boy. The suffix vadu is a male suffix. Adavadu is a made up word, inconsistent with Telugu usage.