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The Pantomime

by Uddalak Banerjee

In a street near Fatehpuri in Delhi, which was as usual throbbing with activity and its daily share of crowd, one distinct voice could be heard distinctly:

Sahib bibi gulam sunlo. Dekho sahibaan dekho. Ye gajjab ajab khel to dekho. Dulhe raja ki naach to dekho.

Well, actually doll dances are very common in this part of the world, and almost in all the markets in Delhi have such activities in abandon.

UBJ was passing by 13 Central Avenue, where a man was playing a puppet in his hand and singing the above song. There were a lot of dolls in his roadside shop, all different: each had a different face and a different emotion written on it. Some were grinning, some were demure, some were crying, some were laughing, each one depicting a separate emotion.

UBJ was on his way to his maths tutorial in Fatehpuri and was looking for an auto to take him there, but the picture of these dolls lived on in some part of his mind. It was night and the owl was screeching in one of the trees along the street.

For the last 17 years the pressure of education had never ceased for UBJ. “Don’t come to class if you don’t come prepared,” shouted one of the known faces.

Another face shouted, “Don’t come home if you fail. What respect would we have left in our community? I feel ashamed to name you my son.”

Another, more familiar face, which looked more humane and relaxed shouted, “Please complete the third exercise by tomorrow and bring all the exercises completed the next day. I will ask questions and check your assignments.”

Other faces were rather unobtrusive, and their voices seemed to overlap on each other. Some were making faces, some were frowning, some calling him “fool.” Some faces were busy joking about his taste in clothing. They all overlapped on each other.

Soon the auto driver called out, “Fatehpuri. Fatehpuri. Kaha utarni hai (Where do you want to go?).”

UBJ said, “Near the Prince Hotel.”

The auto stopped and UBJ paid five rupees and made his way to the classroom. The moment he entered the teacher mockingly said, ”Yes king UBJ, your kingdom may well stretch far and wide, but I’m sorry, I don’t think you merit a place in my kingdom, which you can see spread out here. By the way, did your highness have that amount of seriousness to do Chapter 3 of M.L. Khanna’s On the Trigonometry of Multiple Angles?”

UBJ mustered just enough courage to say quietly, ”No, ma’am.” The moment he shot back those words it appeared as if the words struck like an arrow directly into a hornets’ nest, and a dark unending cloud of insects started to engulf the horizons of his world.

“What? You did not do it? Well it was a pity that I allowed you to be part of my class, but I have had had enough. I know you love to be in a separate world of your own, somewhere in the clouds where reality does not bother you.

“But you must know the position you are in. You are the most imbecilic, prudish child I have ever seen. You are an obstinate and highly imaginative kind of boy who has no space or value in the current era of competition.

“You should see your brother, who is doing Computer Science and Engineering. Your mom and dad, who are bankers and earn enough to sustain you and provide you with so many teachers. Compare to them what you are doing in return for their investment. You are making all their hard-earned money go to waste! You are murdering their hopes and throwing yourself away from competition and have reached a point of no return.

“More than four Lakh candidates take IIT entrance each year and more than ten Lakh candidates take All-India Engineering Entrance Examination. Where do you think you stand? You don’t even have a chance even if more than half of them don’t even show up for the exam.”

For UBJ these words hardly touched him. They just whiskered by here and there like aimless bullets, without having any impact on him. To him, the teacher’s face was one of those puppet faces he had heard talking.

Anyway, as the teacher asked him to sit on the floor near the blackboard, UBJ was frightened to see something that perhaps no one could ever notice despite their regular attendance. The teacher’s left hand had a length of thread attached to it. And the same was the case for the right hand.

At first he did not believe his eyes, but the moment when he was about to make point it out, the teacher turned towards him and said, ”You shameless, uncouth, brutish creature. You are still looking at me?”

UBJ was frightened by the belligerent voice of the teacher. He said nothing. As the teacher turned, he saw some part of her face come off, just like a mask. The color of her face was also changing from white to brown. Every movement of her jaw was seemingly making the mask come out in his imagination.

As the teacher actively made hand postures and pauses in between, all but he seemed deeply satisfied and engrossed in the subject, each time oscillating their heads in unison to appreciate the words of the teacher. At times the whole thing looked blatantly affected.

He shrieked upon seeing that from behind the teacher’s head a big thread was moving towards the roof. Suddenly the string was pulled and the teacher stared upwards.

On the roof there were some fifty such threads spiraling down to all other students in the class except him. UBJ tried hard to see the puppeteer through the hole in the roof through which the threads moved, up near the fan. But he could see none.

The teacher hit back, saying, “What are you doing?”

All fifty faces immediately reflected the same smile; all lips inclined to the same angle at the same instant. UBJ’s mouth dried in fear as the puppeteer’s face kept eluding his searching gaze.

Copyright © 2010 by Uddalak Banerjee

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