Friday, September 12, 2008

Eleonora Amore

'I’d no idea it would be like this…knew you were strong, clever…not that you’d be living in a hell, like this, by your own choice! But why…why?'

The pages blinked at her in motley floral hues. There was an entry for each day of school he’d attended that year: and special entries for each of those days she’d engaged classes for X A. But that came to just two days a week, plus those days for any extra hours engaged. In all, it came to seventy one special entries, each of which took up more than two pages, and the other ordinary days. He’d filled up the specials in a scarlet ink. Then there were long passages which were written in green and crossed out in black; some were still visible, and at times it gave you the impression that he’d done it after a lot of thought.

It was evident that this had been his major preoccupation for the whole year. But she recalled with horror that she’d been his teacher for the previous year also, and he’d probably first seen her a year before that. It was not just a crush, it was an obsession growing strong by the minute, engaging and disengaging like the tentacles of an octopus: but he was holding up well, his grades were still the very best, and he was hard to beat in anything he’d set his sights on. He was still the role model for the entire 2500-strong student-force of the school; there had never been anyone like him before.

She found herself in a bizarre situation: it was not her choice, it was not his either, they were thrown together not by the crush or by the rush of feelings; no, there had never been any chance for that sort of thing, and there certainly had been no dalliance. She set exemplary standards in teaching and he in learning, and this came at a price. They both paid with their time; it was well-known that they had little or no free time, and it was also well known that they were not teaching or preparing or studying all the time. He still took no private lessons, though it had been rumoured for a time that he might find her tutelage useful, maybe just to lessen his load. She knew all along that he was built for far more difficult tasks, this was a side-business to him. So she never harboured any notion of his coming to take private lessons from her.

And side-business it was, too. When she tested him three months into the year, she found that he’d carefully compressed everything into neat little pills to be reproduced later: unravelling like paper flowers, he was only concerned with the most efficient arrangement—a hierarchy—of the knowledge structure he built. In the end, she realised with considerable wonderment and admiration, it all reduced to several bullets of hyphenated analytical headings that told the story—but just to him and to those similar.

The school bus was gone now. In three weeks he would be finishing his business at the school. She was already thinking of that. Sure as a dumbbell he would top the state examinations; and sure as anything, the school would never be the same again, the disturbance would be immense. It would never recover from the huge shadow he would cast over it. It was nothing to do with the school at all: he had his own methods, and he would follow a course almost in opposition to the accepted curricular ones. It was a source of relief to her that she was the chemistry mistress and not the history or any other humanities mistress; the way he wrote in the examinations was an exercise in kindness. He would write answers in keeping with the invigilator, and he knew everyone and their level pretty well. But she was proud to be his chemistry miss: she was really good and she prepared well, and before she came to meet him she had a sort of arrogant self-assurance that bordered on the despotic.

In one day that had changed when in the course of a lesson she pronounced 'Raul' for Raoult, in whose name there is a famous chemical law ('the vapour pressure of an ideal solution...'). He casually remarked that it was “Ray-o”. It was a surprise but she had it coming: his reputation was such that every schoolmistress knew that the boy was special, and the first lesson everyone learnt was to realise that this was no ordinary boy. It was quite well known that the Principal used to instruct all teachers before engaging Std X A; the reason was this boy. And with the utterance of that single word, the equation between the two changed; it imperceptibly coloured her evenings and changed him.

In that first class, when she spoke out her taskmaster rules—which included the admonition that they should all take down lecture notes—she was transferring what she’d herself learnt at college a few years ago and found useful—when she spelt them out, waving the cane like a baton, he realised that his life would never be the same again. They were only doing the ninth standard and here she was, already launching them into young adulthood, on the path to true scholarship. He became immensely respectful towards her. And to everyone else it was not just respect of any sort: it was respect towards her superior technique and great battle-readiness. Though everyone grudged her these qualities, none wanted to be in her shoes. She came every day to school prepared to face the music; her preparations for class were legendary.

Short and diminutive; at 155 cm perhaps not everyone would call her short, but at 95 lbs she was surely petite. She walked very upright and briskly. She was very adept at draping the sari; she would habitually use ironed cotton saris that would keep their impeccable falls intact at the end of the day and even through the night if need be; she was very careful about dressing and being clean. But dusky complexion and acne played sore bed mate to her grooming, making her look like a prude and a tart. In the eyes of the boys, she was either remarkably depraved (which was a reflection of their own veiled sexual longing) or incredibly unfortunate. (It was a fact that her father had retired penniless from the army; she had an elder sister who has run away with a bus driver, and a younger sister who had tried along similar lines to the disgrace of the family, which was why they were changing houses every now and then.)

'Come…it’s getting dark.'

They walked peacefully beneath the lindens. It was the last week of February but the summer heat was already upon them; the trees were abloom. He had chosen a most delicate moment to hand her his most trusted secret…a huge, 500-page book, so carefully written and indexed that it did not take much effort on her part to understand that it was a boy’s life.

She was a much-misunderstood, much-exploited woman herself. She’d struggled to get her master’s, worked odd jobs until she’d found employment in this school, which still paid her a pittance. She took private tuitions and also engaged classes during the morning (pre-school) hours at a nearby tuition centre. It all added up to something more significant than her salary. She was unmarried, and her folks needed her badly just for the money. So they left her alone…to work, to toil, and make ends meet which were not hers to twine and knot. And…in the long run, her private tuitions—combined with her dressing, which was always decent but a bit too perfect for mere mortals to duplicate—gave her a bad name. In this little conservative place where an English song would be front-page news, an unmarried woman of 24 living hand to mouth had very limited options. It was said that she was a very frustrated creature. He never knew for real, nor did he ever try to find out.

So many distant doors had opened and all of them had closed…and she’d not even tried a few of them, she never got that far in her hurried life. But of one thing she was sure: when she was in the class, in front of the blackboard, her heart was stone and she poured it forth in a carefully modulated stream which was both effective and captivating. Her accent was superb, her method uncompromising. She summoned all her heart and all her life-force to beat the life out of those outstretched felon hands. She would cry horribly in the staffroom, and during those times she cut quite a sorry figure, and even the `felons' would often come in droves to console her. But she never stopped crying.

They’d walked the kilometre to the highway. It was now completely dark, and they had been talking all the while. He had written wonderfully, and it slowly bit into her to realise that she had been closely observed, her every word appreciated and noted by this maverick of a schoolboy who had been, by his own admission, just ‘looking to see.’ Ah, how he said it! He was looking to find her faults! The classic formula for falling…rising in love. But his words were kind; even her mother hadn't spoken so tenderly to her in years.

She enjoyed the strictly programmatic beginning of each entry. It merely described her getup, her hairdo (which was wont to be the same everyday, a ponytail—so he took his chances at the colour of the hair band, and noting if a few curls of hair actually evaded the clasp of the girdle), her first words (mostly the greeting, so he would note the exact phrasing and the look she wore when she said it), and of course, which of the legs she crooked underneath when she sat down to take the toll.

She was not hurt by this immense invasion of privacy: her every atom reverberated not with the sense of being violated, but with an almost helpless urge to cry out, ‘Why, why me?’ But it could only be she; and she knew it. They were alike in a lot many respects, and they knew it all along; the only thing that was missing in her was the realisation that he was in fact, filing her away in this big blue book whilst she toiled in the tuition home and in her little room up the stairs. An uncontrollable rage welled within her, and she glared at him: but there was no malice in his eyes, and she knew instantly that he too was living in hell. Each to one's own: they were so close, yet so far away.

She turned the pages once more under the sodium lights: she laughed at the monthly summaries he had written, which were mostly summaries of the saris she had worn, how she’d been during class…she broke out in a fit as she read his snide remark that he suspected her mother of running a laundry service. But it was not a totally naïve record either, he had noted additional details that spiced up an otherwise clinical report that startled one with the regularity of a striking clock. O! The things people cook in their pots! She was stuck for words so she merely asked him, ‘How did you manage to find the time for this?’

‘No no, the miracle was that I found the time to live,’ he smiled and said nonchalantly, ‘you are my life.’

At that moment, a long truck passed them on the road, cutting off the light for more than a few seconds. In darkness, she saw his silhouette bristling with an aura of orange backlight. This was a not a boy who would just look and look; he had transfixed her, and he himself has secured it all by transferring all his energies into this one concept he had drilled out and christened as his life’s motive. Of course he was playing, of course he was just making it all sound worthwhile. But she was at the end of it—she was the quarry, she was the object of his gaze, and she had been invaded—and she felt tiny, in a way she had never felt even beside her huge uncle. Silent and benign, he was just a shadow, a disconcerting fond gaze at the other side of the void: but he was there, and his faint offer (was it love? But he never said it, perhaps it was not required) only made her tremble every now and then when the realisation dawned upon her.

He was fifteen and she was 24. But how did it matter! It was not as if they were arranging something. But for the first time in her life, she felt respect for a man. She felt respect for a boy who appeared infinitely thoughtful, caring, and even chivalrous: he had written all of this magnificent book only for her, just to show her. For two years he had toiled for this; and he had completed all but the last dozen or so pages in a most regular pattern. She respected the man he already was, but felt like squealing a cry because there was nothing she could offer him to eradicate that huge chasm separated them.

‘No, wait…wait…’ She buried her eyes in her face, and slumped down on the rather wide road marker just beside. Sighing audibly, she dissolved in silent peals of gentle sobbing. He could hear the wavelike regression of her breath. He wanted to comfort her, to be the fragrant petal, tears meant something to him, and it scared him when a woman cried.

‘I am sorry…?’ She fished about and emerged in a strong rally, putting away her handkerchief. ‘You’ve dropped this on me…no, really. I’d like to talk about it…just talk, I’m not…I cannot…you know that, don’t you. You’re a wonderful person…but I have to live out my life just the way it is…but I’d like to tell you a few things. I don’t want…I want to know a few things, too. Tomorrow—’

By all means, yes, he was ready to hear her story. ‘Tomorrow’ would be a Saturday and it suited him fine. But his eyes betrayed him; and she assured him that she knew it was not for the tête-à-tête that he’d given up his secret to her. ‘Tomorrow’ would be a big day for either of them.

'Til tomorrow, then. What she'd not asked was his permission—she was already trapped anyhow—the permission to really be miserable, to feel disconnected and awful in a way her listless life had never afforded her to. But...'til tomorrow, it was a promise, and they both hung on it.

[2600, 12 edits, 100 min for basic text (2347), 90 min for edits]
[This had come to me today in a dream, but I'd probably lived this dream about 15 years ago, and hundreds of times. Coloured by selective memory and a fondness that grows with distance and irreparable loss; This to a very special person who remains...special.]

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