I left home in the morning a little earlier because I had to visit my son’s school to attend the parent teacher meeting the school administration organized every six months.
Anirban, my only son, was not really bad at studies but lacked math aptitude, so Mr Dsouza, his math teacher, was the only person who complained about Anirban, that he had not improved his math performance since the last time.
Although I knew Ani was poor at math and that it was futile to expect him to become an engineer, like me, Mr Dsouza’s comments that day left me downcast for the rest of the day. Later in the day, while at office, I cancelled a meeting to be left alone.
After office, while returning home by metro, my sight fell on a person sitting across the aisle, in my compartment. Was he Mainak, that school friend of mine? At school I saw Mainak with a pinch of disdain because he was a poor student.
Mainak could draw pictures very well. I had tried helping him to improve at studies, particularly maths, but had realized he wouldn’t. He just wasn’t bright enough.
This realization slightly degenerated into disdain often showing up in my behavior towards him. Sometime, my insolence wasn’t very understated leaving Mainak a little mortified. A reticent type, Mainak never revealed he had felt insulted, though.
Then something happened.
We had given names to all our teachers based on their appearance, habits and in some cases because we simply didn’t like them. Our geography teacher was Tight Pant because he always wore tight trousers. Our biology sir was Yawn because he used to go on talking driving us bore.
Mr Basu, who taught us physical science, was called Misses Basu because he was a little effeminate. But Mrs Mitra, our math teacher, was another matter. She was graceful, dignified and yet friendly. We were in her awe. No one called her names.
I can trace my aggressive need to prove myself best at math at school to Mrs Mitra. When she pinched my cheek, to appreciate a math problem I had cracked, I would be on the seventh heaven.
When she taught a new math problem I had to be the first person in the class to answer her questions. I always had to be in her good books. I craved her attention and when it went to someone else in the class, it upset me deeply.
One day while explaining a math problem on black board, she suddenly stopped and walked to the last bench where Mainak was sitting. Mainak was doing something on his notebook and he was doing it so intently that when Mrs Mitra went and stood beside him, Mainak didn’t notice and continued with whatever he was doing. This amused us and we laughed together which broke Mainak’s trance finally. And he looked up.
Mrs Mitra took the notebook, saw what Mainak was doing and asked him to accompany her to the teachers’ room. After sometime, Mainak and Mrs Mitra returned to our class. I was surprised to see a glow on Mainak’s face whereas I had expected him to look mortified.
Later when I asked Mainak about the incident he said he had sketched Mrs Mitra – and she was impressed it – and had encouraged Mainak to take his drawing seriously.
He showed me the portrait – it was exactly how Mrs Mitra looked while explaining the math problem on the black board.
Following this incident, a sort of friendship developed between Mrs Mitra and Mainak. I often saw them talking in the corridor.
Now when I think about my misbehavior with Mainak during his last days in school, I can understand where it stemmed from.
Following the incident, Mainak’s very sight had started enraging me. Our classes started after a morning prayer. Before the prayer we assembled in our compound and broke into several rows facing the podium where the teachers and principal stood.
One day Mainak was standing next to me in the row adjacent to mine. After prayer I called him but he didn’t pay attention. He was looking away. Was he upset with my behavior? He had started maintaining distance with me lately, I had noticed.
“Mainak,” I called again but found no response. Then we started filing into the main building. The last few steps leading into our building were a little slippery due to rain the previous night. I pushed Mainak a little hard trying to get his attention.
Trying to turn back Mainak lost his bearing and skidded. He fell, his forehead hitting the concrete banister. I couldn’t see whether it was bleeding because he had held his forehead with his arms – and before I could recover from the shock a few students and teachers rushed to him guarding my view – and took him to our school clinic – from there he was taken home, I came to know later.
That was Mainak’s last day at school. His father had got transferred to another city and they left. I never saw Mainak again.
My station was a few minutes away. By now my compartment was almost empty as it would be everyday by the time the train reached my station. That man looking like Mainak was still sitting in the seat far away from mine.
Should I go and talk to him? What if he is really Mainak and he remembers what I had done to him on his last day at school? I didn’t mean any harm to him? It was just an accident. Why should I be hesitant? If I am hesitant will I not confirm that what I did at school was a deliberate attempt to cause him injury, not an accident?
But even if he is Mainak will his memory serve him after so long – almost 40 years? Is he in a good way – the stranger looks quite emaciated? If he is not I can offer some help – after all I had not treated him well at school. These thoughts crowded my mind. But finally I got up and gingerly walked across to the stranger who was looking down.
“Aaar…you Mainak of Cathedral Mission, 1972 batch?”
The stranger slowly looked up and replied in a shaky voice: “Arnav, you still remember me.” There was deep cut on his forehead which was still raw.