Adaptability is about the powerful difference between adapting to cope and adapting to win.
- Max McKeown
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“The first time it happened to me I ended up crawling all the way to the Bag-room.
This time I just went ahead and slapped myself. Didn’t work either. So, I shoved my right hand in my mouth. And then my left hand. Before long both my hands were pushing their way through the pipes into my stomach. I felt all that was there inside. I didn’t wake up. This is when I heard it.
The cham-cham of her anklets. She smelled like jasmine. I could sense her walking towards me, and I knew this was going to be the end. There was a gentle tap on my foot. Can’t say which one. But I knew it was her. The White Lady.
Her anklets danced in my ears, and there was nothing else I could hear. I felt my blanket rise, and a cold took its place. It hung over me, an almost frozen cloud. The chill took over me. It went through my night-suit, into my socks, pierced my flesh and froze my bones. Ice was the last thing my hands felt and they were lifeless, still in in my stomach. I was a corpse that yearned for fire. A brain begging for answers and a heart pining for freedom.
I stopped breathing. Voluntarily.
I wished to march on the beats of my biological heart but all I heard was her anklets that rang like a million bells. I had no control.. That is when I thought about it. Was I dead?
The blanket landed back, enveloping me again in its warmth. The ringing went farther and farther away. I pulled my hands out of my stomach and let them rest on my sides. A quiet came at last. I was dead. I am dead. What is the procedure?
My hands were wet. My back, my limbs were wet. My ears went in too. I was drowning now. In warm, gooey water. The water rose and engulfed me. I tried keeping my face out. And my hair too. I didn’t want my haircut to be ruined. The water touched my nose and shoot.
I was up.”
A dramatic pause and a confusing one for the listeners. And Hero continued
“I was drenched in sweat, and…” his voice trailed off.
“You wear socks while sleeping?” asked Machhi.. And the other members of the Pen-Fighters were awake with excitement.
The hero was in fact a patsy boy. This was Princi’s chance. Hero knew better. He deepened his already deep voice, intensified his glare and replied
“Yes. Lack of hemoglobulin. It is fatal.”
The silence that followed was deadlier. Hero stayed alpha. Machhi, Princi and Hero knew the truth. The movies had always spoken of it. The coolest of all always speaks last.
This time too they thought the conversation over.. Machhi would go on asking silly questions and Hero’s horrific tale would be left without flesh. Princi would think hard and when brain would fail, he would use his brawn.
The everyday just like the room they were in. A room just as ordinary as every other room. Two windows, a blackboard, a long bench at one side of the table and a few wooden chairs at the other side. The only thing that did hold importance was the table at the center of the room. The table that had come to be known as the official PenFighters table. A big, rectangular, wooden table. But this wasn’t a regular table. On its four sturdy legs, spread over thick solid wood was magic. Thin but durable. Lustrous and smooth. A dark brown mica top. The imported chocolate of tables. Which is what made it the best pen-fighting stadium in the school. Whosoever owned the table owned the school. And everyone was a pen-fighter. Every boarder, except them, the real PenFighters.
Macchi lay on this table, Hero sat on a wooden chair and Princi was distributed proportionately among the bench, the table, the earth, the sky,
“Did you know that this was once a hospital?” Kala said at last.
This time too he spoke when no one expected him to. The fourth member who sat on a plastic chair, the only plastic chair in the entire school.
Kala, the one who could lick his nose, the one with disfigured nails. Kala, the one who never lost a bet. Kala, the one who caught mice alive. Kala, the one who called them by their real names. Kala, the one. The only one without a nickname. Kala.
“This school you mean?” familiar questioner. Machhi.
“Bullshit” Violent. Princi.
“It’s a silly rumour.” Hero.
“This school was a private hospital once” the all-knowing. Kala.
“and how is that a scary story?” asked Princi this time and Machhi wondered what agreeing to a question was called.
“Perhaps, we should let him complete” Hero suggested and got up to look outside the window. The sun was setting just over the yoga board that hung on the top of a white wall that the Pen-fighters had scaled numerous times. The light was good.
Kala smiled. No one knew and no one could ever know that Kala loved Hero the most.
“This school was a hospital once. It is not anymore. Someone was responsible” Everyone knew Kala never used and.
“Who?” all of them barked at once and the pigeons outside fluttered and flew. When it was silent again, Kala spoke
“That I am not sure of. There is a rumour. A patient. Sushil Ghosh. Suicide. That’s all I know” “What? And then? What? What is this?” they knew who this was.
“This is not a scary story” gritted Princi through his teeth, angry and ready to slap someone any minute.
Kala hated violence. Hero hated Princi. In that moment at least.
“Why are you telling us this? What is it that you do know?” Machhi asked. “I know someone who knows something.” “Who?” the bark echoed
“the carpenter” said Kala, and rose from his chair. He went and stood next to Hero and looked him in the eye and repeated
“the carpenter knows something” and then he looked at the yoga board and wondered if licking one’s own nose was an ancient yogic pose as well. The three of them knew Kala was gone. Before Hero could take it up, Princi broke in.
“So, the carpenter knows something that I don’t. My father is the Principal here, and he founded this school. Why would he not tell me?”
“But that’s alright. He never tells me anything. Guess we have some work to do boys. What say Hero?”
It was now the three of them looking out of the window, and Machhi looking at them. Sitting on the big pen fighters table. The sun was gone, the moon was yet to come. The sky was orange and Machhi it was an appropriate time now to join the comrades in their pose.
In the moments that followed, a silence filled 5-D and the four of them stood side by side, looking out of the window. They knew what this silence meant. The naked man had his hands folded at his chest, his arms in the air, his back bent, his knees tucked in, his back arched. A naked, bald men is perhaps best suited for the Sooryanamaskar, the silence said. The four of them agreed.
They waited there for the next day to arrive. Knowing completely that they wouldn’t be standing there all this while.
There was a loud bang. Solid metal banging into another. The silence, the pondering, the pose, the evening. Everything was shattered. They stayed glued to the ground and it shook underneath them once again. Bang. Panic crept in their eyes and before anyone could mouth it, it rang again. Deafening their ears. And again, and it continued ringing till each limb of silence was broken, till solitude’s spine was in pieces. When they couldn’t hear it any longer, they felt each organ inside them ringing. Each nerve was shaken. They made a run for it. Machhi bumped into Hero and Princi fell on Kala. Pure chaos.
When Matron Tulsi caught them, they were all ready. But not for prep. The dining hall which turned into the prep hall each evening spread like a carpet in an award show. Narrow and long. At one end was a wooden door they all had their eyes fixed on. Their eyes were in their skulls which rested on their little necks. Their little necks had little nerves bursting out. Their arms were raised above everything little. Eight little palms blessed the forty-eight boys and thirteen girls that sat on wooden dining tables invested in their daily turmoil.
There was a loud human shriek and a wind blew in the dining hall that made all the blue curtains fly like superhero capes. Matron Tulsi and Uma Didi stood rooted and then realized it was a sigh of relief, sighed by not only the four of them but the other boarders. Mischief in the air meant prep time over. Negi, the driver barged through the wooden door.
“Phone Phone!” was the shout and the little runts ran as if it was “Fire fire”. Matron Tulsi ran inside, through the kitchen, to the telephone. She knew who to call. Uma Didi tired her best to contain the excitement that had filled the cuboidal hall. It was chaotic. No one knew what had happened but they all knew what to do. Through the windows Kala saw Mr. Verma and Negi running. Limping after them was Langda bhaiya, the school mechanic-cum-electrician-cum-part-time driver-cum-carpenter. It was Machhi who knew first what this meant. He looked at the others and they knew it too. Princi couldn’t be a part of this. His father was in action and he had to be nearby. Kala and Hero teamed up. Machhi went with the responsible son. The ever-cool two saw the first chance and ran up the two flights of stairs and stopped outside 5-D, it was still open. They dashed up another flight of stairs to the carpenter’s room. Machhi had guessed it right. It was open. Langda Bhaiya hadn’t locked it. Kala pushed the stubborn door open and ducked two cobwebs, stumbled upon a huge plank, banged his head against a work under progress of some sort and fell on an old back, lamp post. Hero would have laughed, had he been Princi. He helped Kala up and his jaw dropped. The dust on the foot of the lamp post was wiped by Kala’s shorts. And beneath that dust written in white letters was a name. The name- Sushil Ghosh.
“Bad handwriting” their brain said.
The chaos below them became audible.
“They might take a roll call anytime now. Let’s go.”
“I don’t think so” replied Hero. Kala ran down the stairs and entered 5-D. He went to the window they had ignored all evening and looked down. He came back running and grabbed Hero by the collar.
“What the hell!”
They both ran back to the window. Three floors down, right next to the bamboos a man was burning. Dancing around him were three figurines with buckets in their hands. Kala’s face was a blazing red.
“Shit. No one is around, not even Tulsi. Roll call.”
He looked at Hero hoping to be not alone in his fright and he was met with someone who did not look like his friend. Hero’s face was as pale as Kala’s original complexion. His eyes were marbles and he trembled like an earthquake.
“O hero!” Kala yelled and it worked to an extent. Hero’s body was back but his face remained wherever it was. Kala grabbed him by the arm and dashed downstairs.
The dormitories were silent when they arrived. No roll call had happened because no one was available. Matron Tulsi wasn’t to be seen anywhere. Kala and Hero relaxed a bit. It was a different kind of silent. They weren’t adults who could be fooled. One look at a person and you had to shut your ears to the noise his head made. The silence in the Girls’ Dorm said the same story. Something had happened and they had missed it. It was past ten and the lights were still on. Everyone sat in circles murmuring, whispering, and talking. They passed all of them with a certain nonchalance that demanded attention. The chirps dived into the silence and swam back to light once the dynamic duo was away from the ordinaries. A voice boomed a little bit louder than all the others
“Verma Sir has shown us all today what humanity is all about”
The emotion in it was so prominent that tension could no longer be contained. About twenty heads frolicked in laughter and Hero was one amongst them. Kala smiled and the atmospheric pressure dropped down by many a point. Away from the laughter Machhi, the Bengali boy with a big nose and braces sat on his bed. Eagerly awaiting his audience for the night. Kala and Hero reached his bed and made themselves comfortable on it. Machhi adjusted to the territorial invasion, put his fine long hair back only to find it falling back on his forehead and began his news piece.
“The man who lives next to the school lit himself on fire and jumped off his room window. He landed near the day school class eight, right next to the bamboos. Where it is dark and cool even during the day. The farthermost corner of the school, where the girls’ dorm ends and an empty classroom begins. Where…
“The bamboo sticks that haunt you in the sleepwalks, I fetch them every day from there.
Stop with the description and tell us what happened.” The wit of Hero. Always on time.
“The man was on fire and Negi was there, doing something, he saw him and ran inside to fetch Verma Sir. Verma Sir, Negi and the carpenter saved the man. Verma Sir’s face got a little burnt. The man is now in the hospital. And try not to laugh but…”
“The carpenter’s wooden leg, it got burnt too.”
Kala laughed, and Hero tried.
“And Princi? Where is he?”
“He’s inside” said Machhi pointing to the sliding door next to the bed next to his. The door which led to the Principal’s residence.
“He waited for a long time but then Sir called him inside”
Kala and Hero got up from the bed. Machhi pulled them down. He could not contain his excitement. They wondered what was left to say and that’s when he said it. The most exciting thing of the day, despite all that had happened.
“On his way inside, Sir stopped and looked back at the dorm. The whole dorm went quieter than they already were. He then said- No classes tomorrow, and slid inside. He must have thought we are in shock.”
Kala turned to face Hero and without saying anything he said, “Aah, so that’s what the silence said.”
Hero smiled and nodded. And then his smile froze midway.
“But no movie tonight?”
“Are you crazy? No way, it’s not Sunday tomorrow. Just Pity Holiday.”
Hero got up and crossed four or five beds and took a left turn to enter his den. The only two-bed room in the entire hostel. For Hero and for Kala, who followed him in, crossing four or five beds of the commoners who were already yawning.
The big lights went out, only the small bulbs stayed lit. White turned into yellow and the Hostel was in its nightshift. Matron Tulsi made her nightly appearance.
“Alright kids. Tomorrow’s holiday doesn’t mean no prayer tonight. Everybody sit on bed.”
The ones who were awake did so, the ones who weren’t were made to. An outrageously out of tune chanting of ridiculous words began and Hero waited with anxious breath to get it over with. The prayer stopped and Hero leapt out of bed.
“What happened?” Kala’s concern.
“Nothing. Gotta pee.”
On his way to the bathroom Hero raised his eyebrows and bobbled his head upwards thrice, a trademark Hero gesture which could mean anything ranging from What’s up? to Everything good? to Nice haircut to Let’s play some football tomorrow morning. With each head bobble the lights behind him went dark. It bowed down once to a sinister goodnight that was for Matron Tulsi. And then there was complete darkness. Hero traversed the last stretch of darkness with two years of experience by his side. A little red bulb illuminated the toilets. He passed the four taps, two for cold water and two for hot water. He went further and crossed the laundry room, and then under the red bulb, filled with the most familiar stench of everywhere. He glided past the toilets and entered the last Indian toilet. He locked the bolt and stood there for a few moments in silence. When he was sure no one was around, he lifted his black t-shirt a little above the waist and pulled out the document. His memories floated back to the evening. Before anything and everything had happened. He had found it in the carpenter’s room when Kala wasn’t there. Langda Bhaiya’s journal in Hindi.
Hero flipped through the pages. They were all filled with different colours of the ink. Even in the green Principal ink.
“How’d the bloody carpenter get a green pen?” he would have wondered, but the words at the right hand corner didn’t allow him to.
He postponed reading White-Lady and went to the page in black ink, the one whose title in its incorrect position had said Ghosh.
‘I know a little more about the most famous rumour of the school. Sushil Ghosh was a malaria patient. I don’t know why but one night he set himself on fire. The entire hospital burned down along with him. The lamp post is a proof he once existed. They say that he is still here, and that fire is his best friend. Well, let’s see.’
At the bottom right corner of the page, written in the same black ink was the title in English-Ghosh and below it was a date. A fear crept in. The open steel grills at the top of the toilet door, or perhaps the gap between the ground and the door. He looked at the spider accusingly, the creature looked as gullible as when it was on its birthday. Hero ran inside his head, to the most comforting corner of his heart. He locked the door shut. But fear kept banging against it. He pushed the pen-fighters table against it hoping that dear, old courage would turn up. Fear punched a hole through the door. Hero grabbed what came in his hand and struck with tremendous force. The black lamp post hit the door and dissolved it with itself.
“So much of it. All of it. In one single day.”
He got out of the bathroom. Crickets and owls were the only ones awake. He opened the steel door which led outside. It made a loud metallic noise. The night was awake with wind and rustle. He gathered all his strength and flung his right arm forward. The journal’s pages flipped open and flew through the darkness, out of the school wall, into a nowhere Hero would never see.
He rushed back inside, pulled the door inwards, and shut the metallic latch. He voyaged back to his den and jumped back on his bed. He threw his blanket over himself, covering himself from head to toe and tried his best to sleep. A few minutes of lying still and he knew he couldn’t do it. Hero never had any qualms of admitting fear. He risked his right leg out of the bed and kicked Kala.
“What is it?” said Kala’s exhaustion.
“What is it?”
“I think we should make a film about our adventures”
Kala rustled out of his sheets faking calm.
“What should we name it?”
Hero suggested a silly name and Kala contributed with a sillier one. They agreed that Machhi be woken up. They tiptoed to his bed and woke him up. The three of them entered the den and flocked in a corner.
Kala, Hero and Machhi whispered, murmured, and talked through the night, breaking Matron Tulsi’s three golden rules. The movie was made and awarded, they had cars and dogs and they lived in a hut on a mountain cliff where it rained whenever they wished. Rudransh was the new Principal, Raunak had an aquarium, Anubhav was a real hero and Kala was still the coolest. Hero suggested that he and Kala share a room. No one knew and no one could ever know that Hero loved Kala the most.
Sleep struck Kala first, Machhi second and finally it hit Hero...