Ramani was really exasperated with her daughter. Meera's hair behaved as if a comb had never been run through it in her entire lifetime. This was definitely not a good time for Meera to have a bad hair day. Despite Ramani using an extraordinary amount of force, she found it difficult to force the comb through Meera's hair.
'Aagh, Aagh,' Meera protested as the comb made its way downwards.
'Stay still. It won't hurt if you stay still.' But Meera continued to fidget with pain and impatience, her feet clad in back shoes and black socks, stomping a noisy staccato.
Meera's hair was quite curly and equally unruly. The many litres of coconut oil that had been rubbed into it ever since Meera was born, had made little difference. If Meera's hair wasn't curly, it would have reached her waist. Instead it curled up inwards forming a ball, which did not stretch beyond her nape. Ramani's hair was not much different from Meera's and hence she had no right to complain. Ramani made another valiant attempt to rope all the strands of Meera's hair into a ponytail which she could pin down with the elastic band she held in her hand. A few strands of hair escaped Ramani's clutches, but she decided to ignore them. Her fingers formed a point and dipped into the elastic band. Her fingers then formed a claw, stretching the elastic band by the fingertips. Ramani slid Meera's hair into the enlarged band and withdrew all her fingers except her index finger, which she used to twist the band and form another loop, which doubly secured the hair. Despite Ramani's efforts, Meera's head did not have a pressed look and the ponytail was not more than a few inches long. It couldn't be helped. Ramani glanced at the clock on the wall. It was seven thirty and the school bus would be there by eight fifteen. Forty-five minutes to get Meera to eat some breakfast, finish her homework and walk fifty yards from the gate to the collection point for her school bus. 'Oh my Guruvayoorappa!' Ramani prayed aloud. 'Please don't let Unni wake up.' Unni was only a year old and if he woke up, he would require immediate attention. Ramani did not dare to say it aloud, but it would be equally disastrous if her husband woke up. Nandan had come back from night duty at around five in the morning. On the days when he had night-duty, he usually slept till mid-day, but once in a blue moon, Nandan would wake up at his normal waking hour and demand a cup of coffee.
The moment Ramani was finished with Meera's hair, Meera stood up. She was dressed in her school uniform - a blue and white checked blouse and a dark blue skirt, with black shoes and socks.
'You sit right here,' Ramani pushed Meera back into the dining chair on which she had been sitting. The maid was making dosas and the smell of crisp dosas wafted into the room. For a second Ramani thought that maybe she should get Meera to finish her homework first and then eat breakfast. No, breakfast was more important. To hell with the homework. It was best to get Meera to down a couple of dosas before tackling those exercises and problems.
'Zubeida, can you please bring two dosas to the table here?' Ramani was exquisitely polite to Zubeida. She was quite lucky to have Zubeida who had been with them ever since they moved to Simhapara more than five years ago. It was so difficult to find a good maid and even more difficult to retain one for long.
'Mummy, I'm not hungry,' Meera protested.
'But you have to eat breakfast. And then finish your homework!'
'I don't want breakfast. Not hungry!'
Ramani reconsidered. Maybe Meera should finish her homework and then tackle breakfast. She would be a bit hungry by then. Hopefully.
Zubeida was walking towards them, a porcelain plate with a couple of dosas in her hand. 'Oh dear! Meera is going to finish her homework first and then eat breakfast. Why don't you put them back Zubeida? Or better still, how many have you made so far?'
'Why don't you stop making dosas for a while and eat a few of them yourself?'
Zubeida agreed. Ramani and Zubeida both knew that Meera would not eat a dosa which had gone cold. Meera was pampered. Even Nandan was not so fussy, though he was entitled to.
'Okay, we'll finish your homework and then have breakfast.' Meera looked happy, but was not in her usual talkative mood.
'Bring me your bag,' Ramani commanded Meera who looked around her absentmindedly. It irritated Ramani, but she knew that she did not have the time for quarrels or recriminations. Rather than wait for Meera to make a move, Ramani went to the corner in the drawing room where Meera kept her green school bag. It was all Meera's fault. Meera knew that they would be having guests staying with them over the week-end and ought to have finished her homework Friday evening. Ramani had reminded and prodded Meera so many times that Friday evening, yet Meera had refused to forgo the sitcoms. It was partly Ramani's fault for not switching off the television. But she hated to forgo the two sitcoms which she regularly watched. The first one was at six thirty and the second one at seven thirty. It was the only real entertainment she had. It was such a pity that Meera had got into the habit of watching each of the sitcoms which Ramani watched. Ramani had tried so hard to wean her daughter from the television, but to no avail. Now how was she to finish her homework in time for the school bus? Ramani wiped the sweat off her brow. The few tendrils of hair which fell across her face were also brushed back. Thankfully Meera had made a start with the homework during the thirty-minute break between the two sitcoms. She claimed that she had finished half the English language exercises. That still left half of those exercises. Plus all those Maths problems.
At times like this, Ramani wished that they had not sent Meera to the English medium school she went to. For one, it was ten miles away. But Nandan had been insistent. Even police constables who worked under him did not send their children to the government run school. How could he, a sub-inspector, not send his daughter to St. Mary's? Ramani opened the green school bag and took out the English reader, the Maths text book and the notebook in which Meera wrote out various Maths problems. The books were all carefully bound in brown paper and had labels on them. 'Meera Menon'; 'Grade Two'; St. Mary's'. Ramani then hunted for the light blue pencil box which had to be somewhere inside the bag. She gave up and decided to carry the bag to the dining table. Let Meera find her pencil box. Ramani dumped the school bag on the chair which was on Meera's left. After she carefully laid the books in her hand on the table, she took the chair on Meera's right.
'Where's your pencil box?'
Meera leaned over and picked out the blue pencil box from between two books. 'Miss says I should start using a pen soon.'
'Did she actually say that?' Surely students in grade two were not meant to be using pens! 'Let me speak to her when I meet her next. We'll think of buying you a pen after that.'
'Everyone else in my class has got a pen.'
'Does Rashmi have a pen?'
'Of course she does.'
'I don't think so. Her mother would have mentioned it if she did.'
'You ask her mother. If she says Rashmi has a pen, will I get one as well?'
'Let's see. We don't have the time to discuss all this right now. Do you want to finish your English homework first?' Ramani pushed the English reader towards Meera, who opened it reluctantly.
'Show me, what do you have to do?' Ramani felt guilty. She ought to have asked these questions on Friday instead of watching TV. But what the heck. She was not a student anymore. She had gone through all this ages ago. Actually not. Life was a lot easier for students when she was young.
Meera opened the English reader. 'All the exercises in Lesson Three,' Meera glumly informed her mother. Lesson Three was a short story about a group of friends who went on a holiday to Dehra Dun. There were six exercises, all of them based on the story. To Ramani's shock, she saw that Meera had completed only one of them. 'Didn't you say you had finished half the English homework?' .She shouted at Meera who did not respond. 'Didn't you? Now how will you finish them all this morning?' It was partly her fault, Ramani conceded to herself. She ought not have watched both the sitcoms. No, not really. She did not spend more than an hour watching the sitcoms. It was Meera's fault for playing with her friends till around six in the evening. When she got back home, she was all sweaty and needed a bath. By then it was six thirty. Ramani had used the break in between the sitcoms to help Zubeida prepare dinner. She had trusted Meera to tackle the homework on her own. By the time the second sitcom got over, Nandan had come home and that was it. Their guests, Nandan's sister and husband and their two children, had arrived early in the morning on Saturday. Ramani did not really care to have them, but Nandan was really fond of his sister and Meera got along very well with her cousins. Until the guests departed Sunday evening, the house had reverberated to the cries and shrieks of Unni and the three children. Sunday evening, Ramani had tried to get Meera to finish off the homework, but Meera was too tired and Nandan had persuaded Ramani that Meera could do her homework in the morning before leaving for school. What did Nandan know about doing homework? He had left for his police station at eight in the night, after dinner and come back just before dawn in the morning, only to crash out.
Meera did not respond to Ramani’s accusations. Instead she started to weep. 'Never mind,' Ramani was forced to console Meera. 'We have time to finish it. But let this be a lesson to you.' Privately she admitted to herself that this was more a lesson for herself, than for Meera.
Meera bravely wiped off her tears and started to tackle the homework. The second exercise was a series of jumbled sentences. Meera started to read them through her tear stained eyes. After a few minutes, she started to assign a number to each sentence, which signified the position that sentence would have occupied had they been in the right sequence.
'Wait a minute,' Ramani stopped Meera as she assigned number six to the penultimate sentence. 'Is that correct?' Ramani spoke to herself rather than to Meera. 'Yes, it's correct. Go on, go on.'
It was almost seven fifty. There was hardly any time left. "Zubeida, could you please bring me a dosa for Meera?' Ramani shouted in panic. It took Zubeida a full five minutes to bring a piping hot dosa and a small bowl of sambhar to the table. Ramani could not complain, since she had asked Zubeida to eat the dosas she had made earlier. 'I'll bring one more in just a minute, Zubeida said and disappeared into the kitchen. Meera continued to do her homework. Ramani tore off a piece of dosa, dunked it in the sambhar and shoved it into Meera's mouth.
'Jam,' Meera demanded with her mouth full of dosa.
'No, you eat the dosa with Sambhar,' Ramani insisted.
'Nooo!' Meera started to wail. 'In that case I don't want any dosa.'
Ramani wanted to slap Meera, but that would only make things worse. 'If you eat this one with Sambhar, you can have the next one with Jam,' Ramani promised. Mollified, Meera allowed Ramani to feed her the dosa.
'Zubeida, when you bring the next dosa, do bring the jam bottle as well,' Ramani hollered across.
'The mixed fruit jam and not the pineapple jam,' Meera added. It nearly drove Ramani up the wall. Meera was so much pampered.
'It's the red one, isn't it?' Zubeida shouted from the kitchen.
'Yes, the red one,' Ramani confirmed. 'Can you also fill her water bottle?'
'I've already done that.'
Soon Zubeida brought another dosa to the table. She also brought with her the red water bottle with its white cap tightly screwed shut. Meera had taken a full five minutes to eat the first dosa. And she still had two more exercises to finish. At this rate, there was no way she would finish the Maths homework.
'Zubeida, please come here. Don't make any more dosas now. We'll make them after Meera leaves.'
Zubeida appeared. 'Can you please feed Meera? I must ...'
Zubeida cheerfully took over the job of feeding Meera, standing behind her. Ramani quickly got up and walked over to the wash basin and washed her fingers. Wiping her fingers on a fluffy white towel which she took from the towel rack, she opened Meera's Maths text book and the notebook. 'Tell me quickly, what do you have to do?'
Meera took a minute off from the English exercise. Zubeida also suspended the process of conveying small chunks of the dosa to Meera's mouth. Meera turned the pages of the text book and pointed out a series of multiplication and division exercises to her mother. 'All these which I have marked.' Meera had placed small tick marks against the exercises she had to complete. There were fifteen problems in all. 'Are you allowed to write the answers in the textbook itself?' Ramani asked Meera.
'Yes,' Meera said, only to retract in a second. 'Oh no! In the notebook.' Meera went back to her English homework and Zubeida recommenced the process of feeding her.
Ramani grunted and got up. It meant having to write out all the problems in the notebook. It would have been far easier to write the answers next to the problems in the textbook itself. But Meera's school listed the improvement of handwriting as one of its objectives and students were given as many opportunities as possible to practice writing alphabets and numerals. Ramani took out Meera's Maths notebook and flipped the pages till she came to the last page where Meera had written the numerals in reverse order - from hundred to one. She scanned the problems. Six times seven is ______________. She took out a pencil from the pencil box and started to write out the problems and their answers in the notebook, making a conscious attempt to disguise her handwriting and make it resemble Meera's. She found herself having to pause many times to remember her multiplication tables. It irritated her. When she reached the division exercises, things became easier. Seventy seven divided by seven was a no-brainer. But then it got tougher again. Six hundred and thirty six had to be divided by twelve. Thankfully, there was no need to enter into decimals. She noticed with relief that Zubeida had finished feeding Meera.
'Can you please get her a glass of milk?' Zubeida went off with the empty plate and sambhar bowl and soon returned with a glass of milk with some Complan mixed in it, which she kept on the table.
When Ramani had three problems left, Meera announced with a flourish - 'I've finished.' She put the pencil in her hand into the pencil box. Ramani was tempted to get Meera to finish off the remaining problems, but it was already ten past eight. 'Drink your milk!' Ramani commanded Meera and went back to her task. Meera did not like to drink milk, even though it had Complan mixed in it, but her mother was not in the best of moods. Also, she had done her Maths homework. Never before had her mother done her homework for her. One good turn deserved another. Meera drank the milk in a few gulps and put back the glass on the table. She paused for a few minutes for Ramani to praise her, but none was forthcoming.
'Zubeida, please get her to gargle.' Ramani had been planning to implement the advice she got from one of her friends who had started the practice of brushing her teeth (and getting her children to brush theirs) after breakfast. Makes sense to brush your teeth after dinner and after breakfast, her friend had explained. Ramani did get Meera to brush her teeth before going to bed, but they were all used to brushing their teeth immediately on getting up, rather than after breakfast. Now she was glad that Meera had brushed her teeth in the morning rather than wait till she finished breakfast.
Zubeida gently led Meera to the wash basin and opened the tap. Meera collected some water in her small palm and gargled. Zubeida wiped Meera's face. Ramani finished off the last of the problems. She snapped the notebook shut and grabbed the English and Maths text books from the table. All the books and the pencil box were shoved back into the school bag.
'Come on, let's go.' Ramani grabbed Meera by her hand. Zubeida held the school bag in one hand and the red water bottle by its long strap in another and led the charge to the gate. The collection point for the school bus was fifty yards away. When they reached the gate, Zubeida shouted, 'the bus is already there.' The bus driver knew that Meera was the sub inspector’s daughter and usually waited for a couple of extra minutes. But Ramani hated Meera being late. Besides, what would the other children think? 'We are just in time, I think,' she told Zubeida. Nevertheless, Zubeida ran on ahead and told the bus driver, 'Meera mol is coming.' The driver gave them a cheerful grin. He was an ex-serviceman who had not yet figured out why children had to be put through such a gruelling drill each day of their childhood. As Meera clambered into the bus, Zubeida handed her her school bag and the water bottle. As the bus moved off, Ramani and Zubeida exchanged smiles of relief. It had been an exceptionally bad morning.
They were not natives of Simhapara. Nandan was from Thrissur and Ramani was from Palakkad. When she had got married, Nandan was posted at Allapuzha. Ramani had liked Allapuzha with its waterways and old world charm. They had had a very good time at Allapuzha. Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine that she would end up living in a place like Simhapara. Back in her native Palakkad and Nandan's Thrissur, people spoke of south-eastern Kerala with a mixture of scorn, awe and dread. The place was mountainous and the people were all drunkards and troublemakers. Even the women liked to have an occasional tipple. What else could one expect from people who lived in a place which used to be forest land till seventy years ago? It made sense to keep a safe distance from the Achchayans, as Syrian Christians are referred to, who formed a majority of the people there. But after living in Simhapara for over five years, Ramani had grown to love the place and its people. She still missed the paddy fields and palm trees of Palakkad, but had no hesitation in admitting that Simhapara was equally beautiful with its tall rubber trees which formed canopies over even the KK road, the gurgling streams which seemed to sprout everywhere and the weather, which was a lot more pleasant than that of Palakkad. It was her ambition to climb the Lion-Head one of these days, even though she knew that she would never do that. Whoever had heard of a woman climbing a rock on her own for fun? The people were quite friendly as well, beneath their gruff exteriors. True, they spoke Malayalam in an accent that could only be described as guttural. And they definitely did not have the sophistication or polish which people in Palakkad or Thrissur had.
When Ramani got back, Nandan was cradling a bawling Unni in his arms. 'Why did you both have to leave the house at the same time?, he demanded furiously.
'We had to get Meera to the school bus!'
Nandan was justified in feeling irritated, Ramani told herself as she walked into the kitchen with Unni in her arms, followed by Zubeida. God alone knew how he coped with the rigours of his job. The late nights, the demands of his superiors, the pressure from various politicians, the sheer thankless nature of his job; it was all a bit too much. Surely he was entitled to a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. Zubeida could have seen Meera off on her own. Trust Unni to wake up at the exact moment when she stepped out of the house. Zubeida started to prepare a porridge mix for Unni, without Ramani giving any specific instruction.
After feeding Unni, Zubeida made a few more dosas for Ramani. Ramani did not bother to eat in the dining room. Instead she sat on a stool in the kitchen and ate the dosas which Zubeida made. There was no need to make dosas for Nandan. He would only wake up after noon, just in time for lunch. Ramani and Zubeida lolled around after Ramani's breakfast was over. Sending Meera to school was the main event of the day. Everything else seemed to be anti-climax in comparison. If Nandan weren't sleeping, Ramani would have played some music, or watched some TV. Since she couldn't do anything of that sort, she made plans for lunch straightaway. She would make some avial today. And some rasam. Nandan liked avial and rasam.
The rest of the morning passed by uneventfully. Around eleven thirty, Zubeida left for Meera's school carrying Meera's lunch box. Getting a hot lunch across to Meera had been a problem ever since Meera started going to school. Initially Nandan had arranged for a police constable to deliver Meera's lunch. The constable was not too keen to act as Nandan's personal servant and had started grumbling. The circle inspector who was Nandan's boss had gently suggested that Nandan make alternate arrangements. Ramani tried to persuade Meera to carry the lunch box with her when she went to school in the morning. This meant that Meera would have to eat for lunch whatever she had for breakfast. Meera's rebellion was a lot more vociferous than that of the police constable's. Ever since then, Zubeida made the midday trip to Meera's school. Once in a while Ramani would catch an auto and carry Meera's lunch to Meera's school. Ramani actually enjoyed such trips, for it meant a chance to leave the house. But today, since Nandan was around, there was no question of Ramani leaving the house. Nandan woke up around midday, ate the food which Ramani served him and left for work on his motorcycle. There was nothing much for Ramani to do in the afternoon. Asianet did not have anything interesting, but the cable operator ran a movie which had been released very recently. It was quite clear that the cable operator had obtained a pirated version of the movie. Though the picture quality was very bad, Ramani and Zubeida watched the entire movie. Soon it was time to prepare the evening tiffin and welcome Meera home from school.
The school bus discharged Meera and a few other children at the usual time. There was a mini-riot as the children got out of the bus and ran to their respective homes. Meera's hair was a dishevelled mess, with the elastic band struck somewhere in it. Meera always had so much more energy in the evenings than she did in the mornings. She dumped her school bag and water bottle in the main drawing room and charged into the kitchen. Unlike in the morning, she was unbelievably hungry and effortlessly demolished four parippu vadas. The tall glass of milk with Bournvita mixed in it was not so welcome, but Meera drank it without too much fuss. Once her hunger pangs had been dealt with, Meera started to go off to play with her friends.
'Where are you going?' Ramani called after her.
'To Anju's house. Rita and Sunil will also be there'
'Make sure you are back soon. You cannot watch any TV unless you finish your homework first,' Ramani warned Meera in advance.
Meera frowned. 'Aren't you going to watch ____________________? It was an hour long TV serial which Ramani watched without fail every Monday evening. Last Monday, the step-mother in the serial had started making plans to persuade her husband to re-write his will.
'Oh, I'm going to watch it, but you need to finish your homework before you can watch any TV.'
Meera stood there nonplussed. 'And you need to have a bath before you start studying,' Ramani added for good measure.
'Can't I do my homework at night, after dinner?'
'After dinner you will fall asleep. Unless you finish your homework, you cannot watch any TV. Henceforth, this will be the rule everyday. No TV until you've finished your homework.'
Meera knew that she was cornered. 'So, what time should I come back from Anju's house?'
'I don't know. How much homework do you have?'
'Malayalam, I need to memorise a poem, Science, I have a small class test, and then ....' Meera furrowed her brows. 'That's it. Nothing else.'
'What about Maths?' Ramani demanded. It was rare for the Maths teacher to not to give any homework.
'Nothing. No Maths homework.'
'No English homework either.'
'Are you sure?' Ramani looked at Meera sideways in a manner designed to strike terror and panic in Meera's heart.
'I am sure,' Meera replied.
'Don't you have any Hindi homework?'
Meera drew a sharp breath. They had Hindi classes only thrice a week. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. And she did have to fill a page in her Hindi exercise book.
'Do you have any Hindi homework?' Ramani demanded again. She knew that she had Meera in a trap.
'A little bit,' Meera conceded and giggled. Her mother did not take the bait. Instead she continued to maintain a serious demeanour and said 'You'll need an hour and a half to finish all your homework. So when will you come back home from your play?'
It was all a bit too much for Meera to calculate. She knew that the serial would start at seven. Did that mean she had to start studying at five thirty? 'What time is it now?' she asked her mother.
'It's almost five now. Remember you need to have a bath when you get back from your play.'
Meera's face clouded. 'Can you send Zubeida to call me after a while? I will be at Anju's house.' It was best to leave the calculation of time to her mother.
'Alright,' Ramani conceded. I'll send Zubeida to call you.'
Meera ran off to play, but there was no spring in her step. Ramani went into the house with the satisfaction of having scored a victory over her daughter. Meera's school bag lay abandoned in the drawing room. Ramani made a mental note to buy Meera a larger school bag, one into which Meera's water bottle would also fit. Ramani decided to have a look at Meera's English reader. Meera was bound to have got some of her homework wrong. Ramani took out the English reader and turned the pages to Lesson Three. The teacher had marked the exercises. Meera hadn't done too badly. Only one of her answers was wrong. Not bad, Ramani told herself. She then picked up the Maths notebook. Did the teacher figure out that Meera's mother had done her Maths homework? Ramani turned the pages. What would the teacher do if she realised that Ramani had stepped into her daughter's shoes and imitated her handwriting. To her shock she saw that the teacher had marked three of the answers wrong. How could that be? They were such simple problems. Seven times nine is fifty three Ramani had written. It was a silly careless mistake. And the last two answers were apparently wrong as well. Hundred and ten divided by five is twenty three, Ramani had written. Another careless mistake. And two hundred divided by ten is twenty. Wasn't that right? The teacher had crossed it out and scribbled something next to the answer in a handwriting that was almost illegible. Read the question carefully. That was what the teacher had written. What did she mean? Ramani opened the Maths text book and looked at the question she had copied. Oh! It was three hundred divided by ten and not two hundred divided by ten. In a state of shock, Ramani put back the text books and note book into the school bag. She was no longer sure if she could be so firm with Meera that evening.