It was after school hours. Almost an hour ago, either Krishna or Jimmy had rung the bell, a continual pealing that seemed to release a spring in the backs of the boys and girls, who jumped out of their chairs and proceeded to throw, without ceremony or compassion, their books into their satchels. It was then useless for a teacher to try to be heard, or to beat the table despairingly with the back of a duster, raising dramatic puffs of chalk-dust, for the boys hard-heartedly assumed deafness; one or two ‘good girls’ who raised their arms even now, a full twenty seconds after the bell, to ask a relevant question, further irritated the teacher, who, her hands powdered with sediments of green and white chalk, wanted to be upstairs in the teachers’ common room, pouring tea from her cup into her saucer and very slowly sipping it. Preparing, like Atlas, to lift a tottering load of brown-paper-covered exercise books full of long, ingenious bluffers’ answers, she, in a moment of mischief and vindictiveness, said to a ‘good girl’: ‘Lata, will you please carry these for me upstairs?’ So impenitently angelic was the girl that she agreed without a murmur of resentment, with an air of perpetual readiness, even.
Mud-stained boys were now, at half-past four, coming in through the main gate after having played rugger, walking with both a tiptoer’s tentativeness and a plodder’s crushing stride in their studded boots. Only one girl, but the prettiest of them all. 7D’s Charmayne, had stayed back, accidentally, to admire this spectacle. The rugger tryouts had taken the trouble, on-field, during the scrum, to wrestle and hug the earth completely, and by the end of it, to return with an unfaultable cosmetic exterior of dirt, sweat, and plastered hair. Not an inch of clean skin, and on their bodies, uncreased cotton, was to be seen, and, on coming through the gate, they were confident of having presented their most redoubtably sluggish, most uncompromisingly slovenly, most acutely male selves to Charmayne, who, however, refused to look directly at them, perhaps out of shyness.
One of the boys, mounting the two steps to the corridor, regarded his left boot, whose lace had come untied. Elegant, casual, and drooping, the untied lace seemed to him a stylish touch, like an illegible but masterly signature, and he left it as it was and clattered off.
Gautam had stayed back with Khusroo because Khusroo had coaxed him into believing that dancing was something that could be learnt. ‘There are no steps, believe me,’ he said. ‘You just have to move, and enjoy yourself.’ And this matter, of moving, and being able to enjoy it, had taken on some importance because the first Senior School Social of the year had been announced, and the date set for Saturday. ‘But you must come,’ insisted Khusroo, who had never shown much interest in Gautam’s spiritual or social evolution. ‘You should come,’ he had said with genuine, though inexplicable, eagerness. Gautam had been, at first, resistant. He could not see himself, much as he would have liked to, wantonly positioning himself a few inches away from a girl, and then, with aplomb, shivering and shaking ecstatically before her. Perhaps he would not mind if she did not look at him, but, contradictorily, perhaps he would mind. Such introspective furrows were left to be smoothed out by Khusroo, who tried to convince Gautam of the ordinariness and rationality of it – that dance was not a wayward display, but a necessary pleasure. Yet Gautam would not have changed his mind had not Anil, at five foot and half an inch, had the temerity to say: ‘Of course I’m going’ – as if it were a right it would be foolish not to exercise. If Anil, at his height, could suffer to relinquish the shield and protection of his white school uniform for the daring intimacy of his social clothes, so could Gautam.
So here they were, standing in the corridor near the gate, in front of one of the Standard 9 classrooms, by the back door to the Chemistry laboratory. The temperature had fallen, imperceptibly, gracefully, to 27 degrees, till the school itself seemed raised to a timeless stratosphere that was neither heaven nor earth, a place rained upon by coolness. The sun became tolerant, and suddenly sunlight was reflected in blinks and flashes, now here, now there, off hidden hospital windows across the street which earlier in the day no one would have guessed even existed. In the trees just outside the school walls – trees whose branches climbed prolifically over roofs and partitions, and ranged freely everywhere like a band of irrepressible trespassers – sparrows had begun to chirp all at once, loudly, excitedly, and probably informatively. Now that the school was empty, it seemed that the life around it had begun to imitate the intent, sometimes shy, play of the schoolchildren, with light bouncing and glancing off one hospital window to the next, chasing certain routes and eluding others, and the invisible birds shouting to each other.
As if he were being rocked from side to side, and backward and forward, in a train compartment, Khusroo’s hip and torso shook, as, more frugally, did his legs. ‘On the shuffling ma-adness,’ he sang, ‘of loco-motive bryeath – da da da all time loser’s hurtlin’ to his dyeath ... ’ Melody was replaced by a menacing curl of the lips. Khusroo would lean forward quickly and spectatorially, and then immediately retreat backward with a mildly alarmed air; meanwhile, his arms, quite irrelevantly and encouragingly keeping time, appeared to treat these two ostensibly unconnected movements as part of a single motion, accompanying them with magical and peremptory snaps of the fingers. ‘You try too,’ said Khusroo. Gautam, sitting on the floor and looking up, pretended not to hear. Khusroo stopped and stamped his foot. ‘Gautam Bose, what am I doing here if you’re not going to get up and do something?’ he said sternly. ‘Khusroo, I’ve just realised ... ’ mumbled the other. ‘Realised?’ said Khusroo, enraged, as if it had been a particularly poorly chosen word. ‘You haven’t realised anything! Come on, get up.’ Gautam obeyed, out of embarrassment; he lifted himself out of his brooding inactivity with a giant, ostentatious effort. Then he stood with both his arms by his side, like a boxer who does not know what to do. Khusroo uttered unexpected soothing words: ‘It’s easy Gautam, just loosen up.’ But each part of his body felt like a mechanism that had been jammed and rusted and made useless by shyness and sensitivity, and some miraculous lubricant, like forgetfulness, was now required. He remembered his parents, who, for about two months in the middle of their lives, used to put a 45 rpm on the gramophone, and then, in broad daylight, amidst the drawing-room furniture, watched by Gautam sitting huddled on the sofa and looking past the twin peaks of his knees, try out their recently memorised dancesteps. His mother, continually adjusting the aanchal on her sari, and saying ‘cha-cha-cha’ under her breath, as she had no doubt been told to by her instructor, would dance with an expression of utter determination on her face. There were times when, on Gautam’s request, she did this when his father was not there, alone, in the drawing-room, and the look of determination reappeared. Every Saturday evening, they would go to the first floor of an old mansion behind the Taj Mahal Hotel, where Mr Sequiera conducted his dancing classes. Mr Sequiera even advertised on the slides in cinema halls, illuminating this message: ‘Be A Social Success: Learn Ballroom Dancing!’ For a while, thus, ‘cha cha cha’ was mentioned in the house, and also that word that could have come straight from a fable: ‘foxtrot’. Then, after two months, almost overnight, his parents gave up dance and stopped playing those records and quite calmly took up other habits. Though it is said that children pass through ‘phases’, Gautam found that his parents probably passed through as many phases as he did, if not more. They were always changing, developing, growing. For instance, when Gautam had been eight, his mother would return from the hairdresser with her hair leavened into a full-grown bun, which had then been set and lacquered into a marble repose. Now, however, those accessories – hair-net, false hair, lacquer spray – were lying in some drawer untouched, and his mother’s hair, on evenings out, had taken on another, less extreme, incarnation. His father, too, he remembered, once had two personable sideburns, which, one day, without explanation, had been reduced to a more modest size. There was nothing fixed, constant, or permanent about his parents.
Even as Gautam was summoning within himself the preparedness to set his body moving, without safety, without company, in midair as it were, there came a bang from not too far away, and then the sound of a muffled, amplified voice: ‘Check ... one – two – three ... check.’ ‘Come on,’ said Khusroo, losing interest in Gautam’s lonely, fledgling efforts to translate into motion. ‘Let’s see what those chaps are doing. If you don’t mind,’ he added, ‘we’ll continue later.’ ‘No, no,’ said Gautam. ‘No, let’s see what those chaps are doing.’ They went down the corridor and turned right, and walked a little way to the first door to the hall. At the other end of the now empty space, where only this morning they had stood distractedly with their hymn-books, the stage was occupied by the Phantom Congregation, who were practising, in resounding fits and starts punctuated by gaps of silence and slouching, the songs that would set this hall and the bones and vertebrae of various eager neophytes vibrating next Saturday. Rahul Jagtiani, the lead singer, a tall, unextraordinary boy with spectacles and a moustache, was holding the mike with one hand casually, as if it were a perfectly mundane, everyday object, and talking to Keki Antia the bassist, who, as he struck the strings on his guitar with his plectrum, produced fat, ponderous globules of sound. The other two were bent upon their instruments in introspective postures of study and absorption: the thin, spirit-like, demoniacally stubble-cheeked Freddy Billimoria, who leaned with a mixture of swooning pleasure and fatigue over his drums, now thudded, with a pedal at his foot, the great bass drum standing upright, and now, superfluously, hit the floating cymbal with a polished attenuated stick that seemed a fitting extension of his own skinniness, creating a marvellous sound that rippled outward, a reverberating whisper. And Rajat Kapoor, also splenetic and unpredictable, hit his guitar strings at times to release that loud electric bang that Khusroo and Gautam had heard from a distance, which they now understood to be a particular chord. Then he would rapidly turn one of the four knobs on the guitar’s incandescent flame-red box, and prick his ears for a prophetic hum on the speaker. To Khusroo’s and Gautam’s awe, Rahul Jagtiani suddenly turned and exclaimed, ‘Hey – one – two – three,’ and all those individual technological noises had been gathered into a single united wave, and they had begun to play ‘Smoke on the Water’. The combined voices of Antia, Jagtiani and Billimoria could hardly be heard over Rajat Kapoor’s guitar, which had been, midway through the song, launched into the wayward kinks and corkscrew effect of the wah-wah mode. Khusroo and Gautam felt jolted by the scruff of their necks and shoulders, a cavity forming in their solar plexuses, and they looked on speechless with wonder.
The stage was not always such a profane site. In fact, in the morning, at nine o’clock, the Principal stood upon it and took the lead in folding his hands together and, uncharacteristically, closing his eyes to say, rather haltingly, the school’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. Gautam only knew some of the words – ‘vouchsafe’, ‘almighty God’, ‘daily bread’ (when he involuntarily and quite logically pictured a white Britannia slice), and the incomprehensible lines: ‘Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven, For ever and ever, Amen.’ The other words in the prayer, which far outnumbered these intervals of continuity, he substituted with approximate reverent vowel and consonant sounds. On some mornings, the head boy, or even a house captain or prefect, read out the prayer with a zeal and a correctness of elocution which the Protestant Principal from Kerala himself lacked. These prefects possessed an enviable purposefulness of bearing that told one that there were no stains on their conscience, and that an awareness of duties, theirs and others’, was never far from their minds; and they carried out, whenever they could, the principal’s and even the Lord’s will in school. To the ordinary boys and girls in class, however, God was a figure whose qualities were daily advertised and who was deferred to each morning, but who, in their lives, they had discovered through an inuring process of trial and error, was an absent friend, a perpetually missing adviser, and an unreliable and niggardly petitionee. On Thursday mornings, Father Kurien, in a long white habit, looked down apocalyptically upon the heads of the boys and girls and, doubling the size of his own eyes, fulminated about a God who had eyes everywhere, or lowered his voice to make gentle, ironical jabs at Darwin’s theory of evolution. He had a flowing Malyali accent, where one consonant, without quite ending, liquidly siphoned off into another – ‘m’, for instance, became ‘yem’.
At least once a week, nationalistic ideals were indulged by reading out ‘Where the mind is without fear’. The entire hall, then, in a grave, communal, drowsy chorus, said the words together; from afar, it would have sounded like nothing human, like a host of spirits praying, a murmur that swelled and died and swelled again:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into
fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its
way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-
widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Before the crescendo of the last line, when Gautam woke with a thrill of guilt, and, simultaneously, a surprisingly genuine, perhaps ungrateful, stab of hatred towards Tagore, before that line Gautam let his mind wander, here and there, from the Marine Drive to Jerry Lee Lewis, to two girls in 7A, Jasmine and Padmini, to his mother’s bye-bye in the morning, to Mr Patke, the PE teacher. On those unusual but inevitable days when Gautam’s mind found that it had recklessly and unwisely expended all its thoughts and had nothing more to think about, it had to return, prodigally, bankruptly, to the poem, where it clung with lowly fingers to whatever was concrete and material in the midst of all that fatherly high-thinking and abstraction; thus, odd pictures flashed before his eye, of people walking upright with their heads thrust backward; of a row of ten-foot walls coming up and then being demolished by someone (perhaps Tagore) with a sledgehammer; of bedouins, tents, and mysterious desert landscapes.
When they were out in the corridor again, Gautam said to Khusroo: ‘You think they lake drugs?’ Khusroo snorted: ‘Those chaps? I doubt it, my dear fellow. They’re not even 16.’ The music followed them out into the corridor and took on an independent, if less coherent, life there. ‘Jim Morrison was a tripper,’ he said warmly. ‘But no one knows what happened to him.’ They walked past the small quad, where NCC cadets marched to ‘daine baye daine baye’ on Fridays. On the wall at that end, which separated the school from the Gyan Sadhana College of Science and Commerce, founded by B.R. Ambedkar for the ‘scheduled castes’, a black and white cat, poised in profile, had actually paused to turn its face toward the noise in the corridor before it jumped down lightly into the abyss on the other side. Two crows hopping on the even black ground of the quad had been taken aback by the noise that seemed unrelated to the usual belligerence of hockey sticks and rubber balls in the area; unable to locate its source, they darted around together, shooting quick, investigative glances in the wrong direction, not yet ready to fly off. Urchin boys in khaki shorts and shirts with one or two buttons left were standing by the main gate of the school, grinning, but not daring to come in. The music had reached here, softer but still clear, mysterious, joyous, contrasting with the tiny everyday sounds of the hospital, the college, and the rest of the lane. The two began to go up the stairs, stomping recklessly and making as much noise as they pleased, passing a room next to the vice-principal’s office where question papers for a terminal exam were being unhurriedly cyclostyled. As they went past, they saw one of the hammals, Fernandes, no longer in his khaki uniform, but wearing grey trousers and a terylene shirt, sitting on a stool, his hand cupped round a beedi, smoke issuing from his nostrils. There were no teachers around – only the vice-principal, Mr Pascal, lived upstairs in a flat no one had ever seen, with his wife and children, who, too, were unknown figures. Yet it was said that Mr Pascal sometimes descended the stairs at six o’clock with a rifle in his hand, strode to the centre of the empty quad where during the day they played basketball, and shot at the pigeons decreed to be a nuisance in school. ‘Apparently he’s gun-running in the Congo,’ said Khusroo of Jim Morrison. He got all his information from his elder brother Darius, a formidably knowledgeable individual whom Gautam had glimpsed only once or twice, a person who possessed a quirky, almost spiritual beauty that was incarnated in the silvery braces he shifted uncomfortably, every few minutes, in his mouth, and the two or three small, inflamed, red pimples that were scattered on his cheeks. ‘With Rimbaud.’ ‘Rambo?’ said Gautam, never before having heard a name that sounded like that. ‘Not Rambo, Rimbaud,’ said Khusroo through his nose. Khusroo and his best friend Anil were Gautam’s guides through the echoing, fantastic-hued chambers of rock music; they talked; Gautam listened; but behind all the words was the distant, intransigent, instructive, bespectacled figure of Darius: it was Darius who had first brought to their small worlds the intractable poetic name of Frank Zappa; it was Darius who had informed them of the subtle but fluid difference between ‘bop’ and ‘jazz’; it was Darius who set off colourful fusions of images in their heads by declaring that the ‘walrus’ in ‘I Am The Walrus’ was John Lennon, and that ‘Sexy Sadie’ was the Maharishi; Darius spoke the words; Khusroo and Anil merely repeated. Since then Gautam had entered a pink-green world of innuendoes and monsters, culminating in his purchase of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from Rhythm House, with rows of famous heads, dead ones and living ones, arranged on the cover like a great floral bouquet, a gift, and at the back, at the bottom, near ‘Printed in Dum Dum, Calcutta’, the words he had almost missed: ‘A splendid time is guaranteed for all.’ They went now into their classroom and slung their satchels on their backs. They had a lot to talk about as they went down the stairs.
It seemed that there was nothing Gautam could do about going to the dance on Saturday. Already he was thinking of the trousers he would wear. Last year, his mother had had two polyester pairs made for him by Woodrow and Bayne, his father’s tailors, but they were too formal. For a long time he had searched for the trousers that would fit him tightly around the thighs; he had heard that hippies who had come to India in search of enlightenment sometimes sold their Levi-Strausses and Wranglers outside the Stiffies Hotel; they were the real thing, with faded furry patches shining like velvet against the inky blue. But his mother, always one to criticise new ideas and bent on doing everything according to her own, rather limited, understanding, had said the jeans might not be safe because the hippies often had diseases. His mother, ever since he could remember, saw germs, uncleanliness, and infection everywhere, in the most innocent of things, in the rims of glasses, in wet plates, in fingers, especially dark brown ones, and had taken it upon herself to battle her way through a country whose citizens possessed immune-systems that were always on their toes. And then someone had told him that a shop in Kemp’s Corner was making blue jeans, the first in India. He had gone there one hopeful morning with his mother, and, after trying out a pair, had said: ‘Will it fade?’ Yes, he had been assured, the colour would run. They were altered again by another tailor to hug his thighs, and now he wore no other trousers at all, wearing them when he went out with his parents for drives, or with Anil for walks down Breach Candy, or to pick his father up from the office. It was not that his mother did not throw tantrums about the other two trousers, or try to part Gautam from these, she and Jamuna smuggling them away and both maintaining they were being dry-cleaned at the laundry, until Gautam became suspicious. But now, for the first time, he would wear them to school. Everyone would come wearing clothes he had never seen them in before, in T-shirts, real Levi-Strauss jeans, and Charmayne in a backless halter.