a woman covering her ears


(Author:  Ashokamitran Translation: R.S. Saha )

“Amma!” Lalli called out.

“I’m coming, sweetie,” Amma replied from the kitchen. She dropped what she was doing and came out with wet hands. 

“Look, Amma,” Lalli said.

Amma sat down and took Lalli’s feet onto her lap. She put Lalli’s socks on and then her shoes, tying the laces carefully.

“Eight years old and the child still can’t tie her own shoes,” Amma affectionately teased. 

Lalli pretended to be mad.

Amma stood and kissed Lalli’s cheek. She fixed Lalli’s hair with both her hands and ran into the kitchen. The sounds of pots and pans ensued, signaling the resumption of Amma’s work.

Lalli dropped her box of books. It clattered because it was made of aluminum.

“What’d you drop?!” Amma shouted as she ran back out. Seeing Lalli, she asked, “You still haven’t gotten your books ready?” She quickly washed her hands, dried herself on the end of her saree, and began putting all the books and notebooks into the aluminum box. She gathered the scattered pens, pencils, and erasers and put them in the box. “Wait. I’ll get your tiffin box ready.” She went back to the kitchen.

The sound of a cracked bell resounded on the porch. The rickshaw had arrived. The rickshaw’s bell sounded neither like metal or nonmetal. That horrible sound was its identity. Lalli would clench her teeth every time she heard it. Because he had already picked up five children, Lalli would always be forced to squeeze herself into the middle. Lalli had tried to fight for a seat on the side when school first started but she couldn’t win against the other children. Her stubbornness did not work on them. 

Amma flew out with Lalli’s tiffin box while wiping it with her saree. She put it in a plastic tote bag and brought it to the rickshaw. “Oh! I forgot your water bottle.”

Lalli kicked at the ground. 

Amma returned with the water bottle and book box. Lalli watched her mom’s face. Amma ignored it and hung the tote bag on the hook that was holding the bags of the other children. One time, Amma had told the other children to move and had gotten Lalli a seat on the side. Lalli returned that evening with a fever. She had four or five marks from being pinched and scratched.

Amma waved as the rickshaw moved. She remained on the porch until the rickshaw turned at the end of the street and waved again.

Lalli cared more about her mother’s weakness than her own. If Amma had known how to, she would have fought with the rickshaw driver. Amma could fight with the English and Gym teachers. Lalli would not have so many worries, hesitation, and fear when leaving for school. Amma compromised for this weakness by hurrying in the morning, bearing with Lalli’s kicks, and giving many kisses. Amma evidently thought that Lalli didn’t know this.

Among the six children, two girls were the biggest. They were definitely in sixth or seventh grade. They found joy in bullying younger girls and would always cleverly avoid getting caught. This wasn’t a problem in just the rickshaw. A five minute water break would be given during school and the danger would be present at the pipe. Lalli would be splashed because the bullies knew her. Or one would spit a mouthful of water onto Lalli’s shirt. Lunch would be similar. Lalli would have to eat quickly and secretly. Many times she would end up dropping the food instead.

On a day of troubles, Lalli fell asleep in class.

When the teacher hit her for falling asleep, Lalli’s skirt and socks became wet.

“Teacher, teacher!” the other children had cheered and pointed at Lalli’s wet clothes. The teacher sent her out of the class and Lalli got a fever again.

The next day, Lalli’s father went and spoke to the headmistress. When Lalli went to school the day after, her English teacher’s glare was hard to bear. The woman never hit Lalli again but Lalli would still get stomach aches and nausea whenever it was time for English class.

A cyclist crashed into the rickshaw at a four way intersection. The cyclist began fighting with the rickshaw driver. Though they didn’t come to blows, they yelled at each other as viciously as possible. Lalli was awed by the cyclist. He was short and skinny yet he could fight so well. It was the rickshaw driver that whined and bowed out of the fight.

The second bell was rung before the rickshaw made it to school and the gate was shut. 

Roughly twenty five students were left outside the gates. Preschool to first grade children were waiting with whoever had brought them.

Prayers were conducted emphatically at that school. From the Buddha from 2,500 years ago to the Brahma Sathuvananda from 25 years ago, the headmistress or a teacher would preach for fifteen minutes to roughly 400 girls.

“Love is Truth. Truth is God. God is Merciful. Animals should be loved,” would be preached while the children waited outside the gate for fifteen minutes. Because the gate faced the east, it would be blasted by the sun at 9:00 A.M. There wasn’t a place to get shelter if it rained. The gate was two feet from the road. If it rained, the children would be sprayed with mud and water by any passing vehicle.

The gate opened after prayer. The sinful children would be allowed in. Lalli entered with her bag and tiffin box. 

They would have to remain outside until the end of the first period. Only then would the punishment end.

First period was English class. 

Lalli felt that she was sneered at by the English teacher. Lalli’s stomach turned. The appalam that her mom had lovingly given to her for breakfast now threw a tantrum.

The English teacher was extra affectionate with how she taught her favorite students that day. Of the 33 children in that class, more than 20 would arrive by car now and then. On yearly functions, carnivals, and School Day, those kids would be sent home with ticket books and return with hundred or two hundred rupees. Lalli, on the other hand, only managed to bring fifteen rupees. One time. Lalli would have to return a full ticket book. Her mother came to do it twice. After that, her mom never came back to the school.

“Miss,” Lalli called out from outside.

The teacher continued her lesson while laughing.

“Miss,” Lalli said again.

It fell on the teacher’s ears this time, but she looked around the class to see who it was. 

“Miss,” Lalli tried again.

The teacher glared at Lalli. “What are you up to now?”

Lalli holds up two fingers. 

“Oh,” the teacher said. “K. Lalitha has to go to the bathroom.”

The students were unsure of whether to laugh or not so they remained quiet. 

“If you need to go to the bathroom during first period, why not go at home?” the teacher asked.

The class was quiet.

“However, if K. Lalitha doesn’t go to the bathroom now, the classroom will become one.”

Now the class began to laugh.

“K. Lalitha you may go,” the teacher said. “And for all four periods you can stay outside.”

Lalli cried all the way to the bathrooms past the playground but she returned after being unable to go. She stood outside the classroom.

The teacher was conducting diction. She asked Lalli why she hadn’t written anything.

Lalli was unable to stand and write in her notebook so she began to cry.

“Look here, if you cry and make a scene, I’ll send you home.”

Lalli’s tears stopped but she continued to sob.

The bell rang, ending the first period. Tamil was next with a different teacher. This was the only teacher that the girls could speak in Tamil to. 

The Tamil teacher didn’t notice Lalli standing outside until ten minutes into class. When she finally noticed, she asked, “Hey why are you outside?”

Before Lalli could answer, the class responded, “She came late!”

“Alright. Come and sit in your spot,” the teacher said. 

Lalli remained outside.

“Hurry! Sit down.”

“I…I…” Lalli stammered and began wailing. 

The Tamil teacher went to Lalli then looked at the class. “What happened?”

“The English teacher told her to stay outside all day.”

The Tamil teacher’s pity disappeared. The English teacher’s command continued. 

Lalli’s sobbing ended before Tamil class ended. Her attention left the class, and herself, and her eyes were on the playground, the sky, the windows and doors of the building next door, the buses on the road beyond the playground’s wall, a funeral procession carrying a sitting corpse, a bird circling something black on the playground, the hair of the girls in the first row in class, and the powder falling from the chalk as the teacher wrote. Lalli enjoyed it all. In class, only a little could be seen through the window. The buses couldn’t be seen but their tops could. Same with trucks. An imaginary competition could be held to see which direction the vehicles would arrive first. 

Lalli realized her feet hurt. Amma had tied the shoe laces tight. Her stomach gave her trouble again. 

The third period’s teacher spoke quietly. Aside from Tamil class, everything was in English. For second grade students, everything was the same. 

The girls had named that teacher ‘Baby Mouse’. They had seen other teachers yell at Baby Mouse.

Lalli shifted from one foot to another. Baby Mouse, without a care, mumbled through her lesson. 

“Teacher,” Lalli called out and raised two fingers.

Baby Mouse nodded at her to go. 

Lalli left her book box and lunch outside the classroom and ran toward the playground. There were four steps to descend from the classroom building. The second step from the top was in the sun. More than her head, her legs felt more hot. It felt like her legs were locked inside something and she wasn’t able to run quickly. Her stomach felt like a balloon was in it. The bathroom felt too far away.

She felt the sun throughout her body. She felt like she was the sun itself. The bathroom ran away because she had become the sun. The more she ran, the farther the bathroom got. The bathroom and English teacher were clearly friends. The bathroom hadn’t been so mean during the first period. The English teacher had definitely said something. 

Lalli’s stomach boiled like a pot of water. It was a hot pot venting steam. The balloon had become a steam pot. That’s why it was so hard to run. No one could lift a full pot, much less one filled with boiling water. Amma had filled her stomach with hot water. They were friends too. 

At the lunch bell at 12:10, everyone finally noticed a small girl collapsed in the playground. Girls surrounded Lalli. The headmistress told a teacher to go and check what was happening. The teacher brought the caretaker after seeing what had happened.

Lalli’s clothes needed to be washed. Her whole body needed to be cleaned. She had a fever. Her limbs jerked like she was having a seizure.

Amma didn’t hesitate this time to pick up Lalli. She struggled to take Lalli home and also let her father know at work what happened. Lalli slurred unintelligibly due to her fever.

Two days later, Amma went to the school to pick up Lalli’s book box and tiffin box. She waited for forty five minutes. The headmistress informed her that two term fees and other fees adding up to 311 rupees had to be paid. Lalli’s book box and tote bag were found.

Her tiffin box was gone.