Saturday, August 27, 2011

Reflections and Moments by S Prasanna Chandra - Star / Nestle Short Story Awards - Eighth Prize, Tuesday, October 28 1986

Teacher and another problem teenage student!

Her head is bent and she refuses to talk. She looks up and various emotions intermingle briefly on her face before she bends down once again. She is a pretty 16 year old girl, with lovely straight hair.

I touch her hand and she flinches. "We are here to help," I try to say in a firm, gentle and slightly indifferent tone, even as I wonder why  they keep breaking school and even social rules. She is one of the thousand odd students crammed into each dual-session-co-educational-rural secondary school. In most cases, she would be the most educated person in her family and looked upon with pride by the family for having reached Upper Secondary School. And the teachers in school, look upon people like her and wonder how on earth we can make them pass simple tests.

Can we really reach out and help another person? We may have walked the same path in the spring of our life, but does that mean that we can help them now? Can we really walk in each other's shoes? I am weary of trying to teach rural children the rudimentary rules of English Grammar. And when I am tired I always feel so alone. We came here all alone. Can anyone of us remember, where we came from? We make transit stops and we meet others when our paths cross.

"I was in the ditch with the boy," she says and she startles me because I was going miles away along my lonely path.

"You will not understand, will you?" she asks. "You are a teacher," she says in a matter of fact manner. I shake my head and retreat further and further into my Convent days.

"Baby! Baby! Are you up there?"
There was no reply. The person  in question appeared to be fast asleep. Into the silence crept the rustling sound of papers in her hand. This was followed immediately by, "Baby, are you writing letters again? I shall tell Father!"

"No, Ma. I'm not. I have to go to the Blind School now."
"When will you be back? You know Father does not like you to go out and ..."
"I know but it is my duty."
"Your duty is to be a good girl - remember that none of of our Malayalee girls do what you do. Don't talk about duty. This is all Evie's fault.  these Chinese girls, you do not know what they are ..."

"Evon is good.  If anyone is bad, i am bad. What do you kow about Chinese girls, Ma? You don't have a single Chinese friend and yet ..."
"Shut up!
Don't you ever talk back to me! I will strangle you before you ..."

She waits to hear no more. She jumps down from the bed and rushes into the bathroom. Why do these fights on on? Why didn't good Malayalee parents stay in good old Kerala? What is the mother scared of? Losing an ethnic identity? What is the daughter upset about? Being in limbo ... torn between different worlds and peoples?

As I run down the slope in Jalan Nong Chik, I see our dear old Ah Bee, as usual in his 'blue underwear', tending to his shop in the corner.

My long straight hiar comes undone from the confining rubber band. How I love the wind in my hair and how shocked my poor Ma will be ! Well, no decent Malayalee girl should ever let her hair down, should she? No, no, no.  But with the wind in my hair and my heart racing towards the boy, I  am no Malayalee, i am the 'Universal Girl'.

"Chiku! Where are you?" I sing out even as I see him walking towards me. His walk is absoulutely amazing in its stride and confidence.
"Mini, you are late. Any trouble at home?"
"None. Don't worry. I never have any trouble at home."
"Sure," he says  with a funny smile. I wonder if he meant it as a quesion or a statement. I am too happy to waste a second. It is a hot day and soon the tide will be coming in. I pull him by the hand and for once my sure-footed Chiku trips as we walk back to the library.

"Come on, Slow Coach. Let us finish this fast. We can make it to the beach and I can send you back and run home before my ..."
"Mini, why are you scared?"
"No. Whatever gave you that idea?"
"Your tone, I guess. Does your mother know about your trips to the beach?"
"Yes. She knows that I love the sea."
"Sure," and once again I begin to think - question or statement?

The next one and half hours is spent doing what Sister Xavier has told us is 'divine'. It is our divine duty to share our eyes so that the blind may see. Our school has the distinction of being the first school to take in blind children as day scholars. Every morning with all our hearts we sing, "In virtue simple in duty strong, is the motto for us all..."

Sister told us to talk to them, walk with them and read to them so that they may type out their books. She did not tell us not to go to the beach or not to talk too much. She told us to be natural at all times and natural I was, as I shed all inhibitions and followed the dictates of my heart.

Chiku and I slowly stroll along the beach. I kick the stones as I walk and he talks as correctly as ever. I keep on talking and he listens and nods. I place him under our favourite coconut tree in front of Han Suyin's picturesque house. I throw the newspapers to him and this is followed by my shoes. I walk out to the water and I wish that he would at least once come to the water, but he never has.

I have one-and-a-half hours all to myself. One-and-a-half hours to be ME and to be with him. Perhaps I should run away with him. No, that will never do. People will talk. And where will we go? And i am too scared. He is so quiet. He never is quiet.  I walk back and pick up the papers and try to get him to snap out of his silence.

"Chiku, when do you perform again?"
"Not sure."
"I love to hear you play. I think you're fantastic. When I first saw you on stage, I told Deepa that I was going to talk to you. You remember how Brother sang and then ..."
"Mini, why don't you stop talking for a while. I would like to listen to the sea. "

I throw the paper at him and run away. Whey does he hurt me? I hate him suddenly. I walk on but  I turn around to make sure that he is all right. He is coming is coming towards me and the sea.
"Mini , I am sorry."
"It's okay. My fault really," I jabber too much. But I really do love to talk to you. If only you will see that I ..."

"Exactly! I will not see and you keep on telling me to see. I never will, you know." His voice goes very soft. I feel treacherous tears stinging my eyes.

"Mini, what do I look like?"
"Now let me see, we must not let you get too vain you know. You are fair, with brownish hair and quite handsome really."

"Mini, what is fair? What is brown? We all learn that the sky is blue and the grass is green and tea is brown. Tell me what colour is. Show it to me, Mini."

I cannot speak. I don't ever want to lose my sight. I used to have nighmares that i was going blind. He manages to read my feelings. He touches my wet face and says softly, "It's raining, is it?" I nod my head.

"Come on, I will show you the colours of the rainbow. He sings Over the Rainbow and tells me the fairy tale about the pot of gold at the end of every rainbow.

"We all have a rainbow over our lives Mini, and God has reserved a pot of gold for each one of us. We have to find the rainbows of our lives, follow them and get our gold. So hold fast to dreams for when your dreams die then ..."

"Chiku, you are poetic as well! Do you write too?"
"Mini, I want to go back."
"What? It is only five. I don't want to go back. Why?" There is only silence. "Why? Damn you, tell me why!"

"Please don't swear. It is ugly and anyway Convent girls never do."
"How many Convent girls do you know, Chiku? Many?" I really don't want to be jealous.

"Sure, sure."
"Don't you 'sure' me! You have been 'suring' me the whole day. I will not see you again. Go and ask one of the many to help you."

"Come on Mini. You are the only one who comes and reads to me. You are like so many peopl,e and when you have gone I always feel as though I was with many people.  You are so chatty and noisy and also so peaceful. Long, long afer you have gone, I still feel and hear you and that is bad. I want peace and not turmoil. Now listen, I am going to touch you. May I touch you Mini?"

I am scared. I look around and there are people. No, Chiku will never hurt me but why? - A million thoughts creep into my mind. I see and hear faces and people and I hear my mother and the nuns and slowly Chiku's voice reaches me. "Are you there?"

"Why, what?"
"Why touch?"
"To see you. I have never seen you, you know."

I laugh with relief. For one moment I had forgotten how the blind see. Now I feel shy - no boy has ever touched me and there is a queer sensation all over me and it is not unpleasant.

"Hmm, chubby soft cheeks. Eyes...?
"Dunno." I pause and then, "Well what is the verdict?"
"Beautiful. I see what I can feel - love, happiness, laughter - don't ever lose the ability to laugh, Mini - also the sadness. Why the sadness, Mini?"

"I'm not sad.  I love being with you. I can't seem to stay away from you. Do you think we will always be together? I can cook, you know, and I love beautiful things and we will have a beautiful house just like what you see in the books. I will have a good job and I can look after you and we will be happy."

"Mini, stop it! If and when I get married, I will look after my wife. I am not an invalid and not a pet. I am certainly not a beautiful object either!"

Once again I feel that dread. Why are these Malays so intense? Even Fauziah is like that sometimes but she always snaps out of it.

"Chiku, is it because I am an Indian?"

"No, and I really do want to go back, so please do take me back."

We walk back in silnece but it is an uneasy silence. I must have upset him and I really do not know how or when I did it. As we walk through the gates he pulls my hands as he always does and races me to the hibiscus plants. We flop down and Chiku appears to have got over his mood.

"Mini, listen to me very carefully and do not interrupt me. Don't ever come back to this school. Don't ever choose a boy to read to. We are lonely people. You made me see a million things - some of which I should never have seen. You talked your way into my heart but you are wrong for me. Tomorrow I am leaving for Kuala Lumpur. I will not see you for a long time and maybe never. You will always be in  my heart. A part of you will always be with me - I will see you, hear you and sometimes even long for you but ..."

"Chiku, no! Why?"
"It is wrong, that is why."
What did I do wrong?"
"It is not you."
"Then tell me why and stop acting like a machine!"

"A machine indeed! Do you know how many times I rehearsed this speech? I don't like to go and yet I would love to go. I wanted to just go off but Brother told me to tell you first that ..."

"Brother! What did he say? He must have told you wicked things about me. You know what these teachers are like - they are so old and dumb and they do not understand us. How can you listen to them and treat me like this? Wait till I see him. I shall ..."

"No, Mini," he says softly. His softness stops me more effectively than if he had shouted at me.  "Mini, goodbye.  You are wrong about Brother. He really likes you and  ... why are you crying?"
"To stop you."
"No. I have to go now. Thanks and so long." I stay put and he walks off. Then he stumbles. In a flash I am with him.

"Chiku, I am coming with you. I am not a child. I am sixteen and I ..." roughly, he pushes away my hand.
"Don't you know when you are not wanted? I have already said goodbye."

"Chiku, I hate you.. I am glad you are going. I hate Malays." He comes and touches my cheeks and says, "I was always scared that one day you would say that to me and that I would not be able to take it. Now you have said it and i guess I can take it after all. You hate Malays, do you, my Mini?
"Yes, I do. It is because I am an Indian. If i were a Malay girl, you would not be so hateful."

"Mini," he says softly and I strain to hear every word. "I have always wanted to see. I may be blind but I do see what you will never see. You are not blind but you are blinded by your eyes. You see me as a Malay, but I see you as a person. I see the nature of a person but you see the race. I hear the voice oflove and the hand of kindness. You hear the voice of a Malay and see the hand of a Chinese, perhaps. Can you see people Mini, or can you only see the Cinese, the Indians and the Malays?"

"Your eyes blind you, Mini. After you have seen the face, the skin and the clothes, you can see no deeper, so you miss seeing the fellow human being. There is only one race - the human race and they are divided into two groups - male and female. That race that you talk about is an accident of birth. Not one of us chooses our our race. Can you judge a man for what he did not choose to be? Your duty is to overcome it."
"I am not racist!"
"Aren't you?" I start to protest when he continues, "Mini, I will give anything in the world to be able to see. Tell me the difference between Fauziah and you..."

"We look different and ..."
"Do not talk about colour and not about features either. Tell me the difference that I can see with my fingers, my nose and ears. Any difference?"
"I don't know." I am so confused. Why are we talking about race now?
"No, you are the same. You both feel the cold, the heat, hunger, joy, sadness. Both of you can walk, talk and eat."
"Yes, we are the same," I agree.

"No, you are not the same. She does not come and spend her afternoons reading to the blind. She does not giggle and go to the beach. She does not get your grades in school. She does not touch my heart. You understand?"

I try to but I cannot seem to get what he is getting at.

"You may think about this much later and I hope you will understand. You are the same and yet so different. Your differences set you apart - that is your individuality. Your sameness unites you and that is your humanity. Each one is an individual and for us, in our world, there is no race.

"God reserved it especially for those who see. He gave to some 'sight' and to some He gave 'insight'. If you do not see the face, then maybe you will not see the race."  He paused for a while.

"Mini, can you see your face? No - only by reflection. It is the face that reveals to you the race. Why then didn't God reveal your own face to you? Because it is not important. It plays no part in your dealing with people. You react to their nature not their faces my dear. A face does no service for humanity but a kind heart does. "

I am alone.
"Mini, come on, get up. Your parents will worry. If you are to become a part of him, he will come and look for you. Now go home and remember that your parents love you." Brother walked with me to the gates.  He squeezed my hand and gave me something. I looked at it. It was in Braille.
"Brother, I cannot read it. "
"Shame on you. . You have come here for two years and you cannot read it. You will just have to learn. Now off you go. "

My name is not Mini and his name is not Chiku. The Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, Johore Bahru, had staged The Sound of Music and the 'Braille Dots', a band from Princess Elizabeth School for the Blind, provided live music.  I first saw his face as I fell at his feet and looked up.  He had put out his foot as he played the guitar, and I had tripped and bruised my knee. Before I could stop myself, I had said, "Can't you see where your foot is?"
"No, Madam! As a matter of fact, I cannot. Will it help if I say sorry?"

"Teacher, are you shocked? I was in the ditch with the boy," and there is a kind of silent defiance in her voice.

"Go home. I'll see you  tomorrow." There is relief written all over her face. She smiles nervously and walks off. I drive home from my school in Baling. On my dressing table, framed up, is an old sheet of hard paper and typed on it in Braille are the words:

When twilight drops her curtain down
And pins it with a star
Remember that you have a friend
Though he may wander far..."

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