Monday, February 16, 2009

Malgudi days

Broken Panes

ON THE 15th of August 1930, about two thousand citizens of
Malgudi assembled on the right bank of Sarayu to protest against the arrest
of Gauri Sankar, a prominent political worker of Bombay. An earnestlooking
man clad in khaddar stood on a wooden platform and addressed the
gathering. In a high, piercing voice, he sketched the life and achievements
of Gauri Sankar; and after that passed on to generalities: 'We are
slaves to-day,' he shrieked, 'worse slaves than we have ever been before. Let
us remember our heritage. Have we forgotten the glorious periods of
Ramayana and Mahabharata? This is the country that has given the world a
Kalidasa, a Buddha, a Sankara. Our ships sailed the high seas and we had
reached the height of civilisation when the Englishman ate raw flesh and
wandered in the jungles, nude.
But now what are we?' He paused and said on the inspiration of the
moment, without troubling to verify the meaning:
‘We are slaves of slaves.' To Swaminathan, as to Mani, this part of the
speech was incomprehensible. But five minutes later the speaker said
something that seemed practicable:
'Just think for a while. We are three hundred and thirty-six millions,
and our land is as big as Europe minus Russia. England is no bigger than our
Madras Presidency and is inhabited by a handful of white rogues and is
thousands of miles away. Yet we bow in homage before the Englishman!
Why are we become, through no fault of our own, docile and timid? It
is the bureaucracy that has made us so, by intimidation and starvation. You
need not do more. Let every Indian spit on England, and the quantity of
saliva will be enough to drown England. ...'
'Gandhi ki Jai!' shouted Swaminathan involuntarily, deeply stirred by
the speaker's eloquence at this point. He received a fierce dig from Mani,
who whispered: Tool! Why can't you hold your tongue?'
Swaminathan asked: 'Is it true?'
'Spitting and drowning the Europeans.'
'Must be, otherwise, do you think that fellow would suggest it?'
'Then why not do it? It is easy.'
'Europeans will shoot us, they have no heart,' said Mani.
This seemed a satisfactory answer, and Swaminathan was about to
clear up another doubt, when one or two persons sitting around frowned at
For the rest of the evening Swaminathan was caught in the lecturer's
eloquence; so was Mani. With the lecturer they wept over the plight of the
Indian peasant; resolved to boycott English goods, especially Lancashire and
Manchester cloth, as the owners of those mills had cut off the thumbs of the
weavers of Dacca muslin, for which India was famous at one time. What
muslin it was, a whole piece of forty yards could be folded and kept in a
snuff box! The persons who cut off the thumbs of such weavers deserved the
worst punishment possible. And Swaminathan was going to mete it out by
wearing only khaddar, the rough homespun. He looked at the dress he was
just then wearing, in chagrin. 'Mani,' he said in a low voice, 'have you any
idea what I am wearing?'
Mani examined Swaminathan's coat and declared: 'It is Lancashire
'How do you know it?'
Mani glared at him in answer.
‘What are you wearing?' asked Swaminathan.
'Of course khaddar. Do you think I will pay a pie to those Lancashire
devils? No. They won't get it out of me.'
Swaminathan had his own doubts over this statement. But he
preferred to keep quiet, and wished that he had come out nude rather than in
what he believed to be Lancashire cloth.
A great cry burst from the crowd: 'Bharat Matha ki Jai!' And then
there were cries of 'Gandhi ki Jai!' After that came a kind of mournful
'national' song. The evening's programme closed with a bonfire of foreign
cloth. It was already dark. Suddenly the darkness was lit up by a red glare. A
fire was lighted. A couple of boys wearing Gandhi caps went round begging
people to bum their foreign cloth. Coats and caps and upper cloth came
whizzing through the air and fell with a thud into the fire, which purred and
crackled and rose high, thickening the air with smoke and a burnt smell.
People moved about like dim shadows in the red glare. Swaminathan was
watching the scene with little shivers of joy going down his spine.
Somebody asked him: 'Young man, do you want our country to remain in
eternal slavery?'
'No, no,' Swaminathan replied.
'But you are wearing a foreign cap.'
Swaminathan quailed with shame. 'Oh, I didn't notice he said and
removing his cap flung it into the fire with a feeling that he was saving the
Early next morning as Swaminathan lay in bed watching a dusty beam
of sunlight falling a few yards off his bed, his mind, which was just
emerging from sleep, became conscious of a vague worry. Swaminathan
asked himself what that worry was. It must be something connected with
school. Homework? No. Matters were all right in that direction. It was
something connected with dress. Bonfire, bonfire of clothes. Yes. It now
dawned upon him with an oppressive clearness that he had thrown his cap
into the patriotic bonfire of the previous evening; and of course his father
knew nothing about it.
What was he going to wear for school to-day? Telling his father and
asking for a new cap was not practicable. He could not go to school
He started for the school in a mood of fatalistic abandon, with only a
coat and no cap on. And the fates were certainly kind to him. At least
Swaminathan believed that he saw the hand of God in it when he reached the
school and found the boys gathered in the road in front of the school in a
noisy irregular mob.
Swaminathan passed through the crowd unnoticed till he reached the
school gate. A perfect stranger belonging to the Third Form stopped him and
asked: 'Where are you going?'
Swaminathan hesitated for a moment to discover if there was any trap
in this question and said: Why—er. ... Of course... .'
'No school to-day,' declared the stranger with emphasis, and added
passionately, 'one of the greatest sons of the Motherland has been sent to
'I won't go to school,' Swaminathan said, greatly relieved at this
unexpected solution to his cap problem.
The Head Master and the teachers were standing in the front veranda
of the school. The Head Master looked careworn. Ebenezar was swinging
his cane and pacing up and down. For once, the boys saw D. Pillai, the
History Teacher, serious, and gnawing his close-clipped moustache in great
agitation. The crowd in the road had become brisker and noisier, and
the school looked forlorn. At five minutes to ten the first bell rang, hardly
heard by anyone except those standing near the gate. A conference was
going on between the teachers and the Head Master. The Head Master's
hand trembled as he pulled out his watch and gave orders for the second bell.
The bell that at other times gave out a clear rich note now sounded weak and
inarticulate. The Head Master and the teacher were seen coming toward the
gate, and a lull came upon the mob.
The Head Master appealed to the boys to behave and get back to their
classes quietly. The boys stood firm. The teachers, including D. Pillai, tried
and failed. After uttering a warning that the punishment to follow would be
severe, the Head Master withdrew. Thundering shouts of 'Bharat Matha ki
Jai!' 'Gandhi ki Jai!' and 'Gaura Sankar ki Jai!' followed him.
There were gradual unnoticed additions of all sorts of people to the
original student mob. Now zestful adult voices could be detected in the
frequent cries of 'Gandhi ki Jai!' Half a dozen persons appointed themselves
leaders, and ran about crying: 'Remember, this is a hartal. This is a day of
mourning. Observe it in the proper spirit of sorrow and silence.'
Swaminathan was an unobserved atom in the crowd. Another
unobserved atom was busily piling up small stones before him, and flinging
them with admirable aim at the panes in the front part of the school building.
Swaminathan could hardly help following his example. He picked up a
handful of stones and searched the building with his eyes. He was
disappointed to find at least seventy per cent of the panes already attended
He uttered a sharp cry of joy as he discovered a whole ventilator,
consisting of small square glasses, in the Head Master's room, intact! He
sent a stone at it and waited with cocked-up ears for the splintering noise as
the stone hit the glass, and the final shivering noise, a fraction of a second
later, as the piece crashed on the floor. It was thrilling.
A puny man came running into the crowd announcing excitedly,
'Work is going on in the Board High School.'
This horrible piece of news set the crowd in motion. A movement
began towards the Board High School, which was situated at the tail-end of
Market Road.
When it reached the Board High School, the self-appointed leaders
held up their hands and requested the crowd to remain outside and be
peaceful, and entered the school. Within fifteen minutes, trickling in by twos
and threes, the crowd was in the school hall.
A spokesman of the crowd said to the Head Master, 'Sir, we are not
here to create a disturbance. We only want you to close the school. It is
imperative. Our leader is in gaol. Our Motherland is in the throes of war.'
The Head Master, a wizened owl-like man, screamed,
"With whose permission did you enter the building? Kindly go out. Or
I shall send for the police.'
This was received with howling, jeering, and hooting. And following
it, tables and benches were overturned and broken, and window-panes were
smashed. Most of the Board School boys merged with the crowd. A few,
however, stood apart. They were first invited to come out; but when they
showed reluctance, they were dragged out.
Swaminathan's part in all this was by no means negligible. It was he
who shouted 'We will spit on the police' (though it was drowned in the din),
when the Head Master mentioned the police. The mention of the police had
sent his blood boiling. What brazenness, what shamelessness, to talk of
police—the nefarious agents of the Lancashire thumb cutters! When the
pandemonium started, he was behind no one in destroying the school
furniture. With tremendous joy he discovered that there were many glass
panes untouched yet. His craving to break them could not be fully satisfied
in his own school. He ran round collecting ink-bottles and flung them one by
one at every pane that caught his eye. When the Board School boys were
dragged out, he felt that he could not do much in that line, most of the boys
being as big as himself. On the flash of a bright idea, he wriggled through
the crowd and looked for the Infant Standards. There he found little children
huddled together and shivering with fright. He charged into this crowd with
such ferocity that the children scattered about, stumbling and falling. One
unfortunate child who shuffled and moved awkwardly received individual
attention. Swaminathan pounced upon him, pulled out his cap, threw it down
and stamped on it, swearing at him all the time. He pushed him and dragged
him this way and that and then gave him a blow on the head and left him to
his fate.
Having successfully paralysed work in the Board School, the crowd
moved on in a procession along Market Road. The air vibrated with the
songs and slogans uttered in a hundred keys by a hundred voices.
Swaminathan found himself wedged in among a lot of unknown people, in
one of the last ranks. The glare from the blanched treeless Market Road was
blinding. The white dust stirred up by the procession hung like thin mist in
the air and choked him. He could see before him nothing but moving backs
and shoulders and occasionally odd parts of some building. His throat was
dry with shouting, and he was beginning to feel hungry. He was just
pondering whether he could just slip out and go home, when the procession
came to a sudden halt. In a minute the rear ranks surged forward to see what
the matter was.
The crowd was now in the centre of Market Road, before the fountain
in the square. On the other side of the fountain were drawn up about fifty
constables armed with lathis. About a dozen of them held up the procession.
A big man, with a cane in his hand and a revolver slung from his belt,
advanced towards the procession. His leather straps and belts and the highlypolished
boots and hose made him imposing in Swaminathan's eyes. When
he turned his head Swaminathan saw to his horror that it was Rajam's father!
Swaminathan could not help feeling sorry that it should be Rajam's father.
Rajam's father! Rajam's father to be at the head of those traitors! The Deputy
Superintendent of Police fixed his eyes on his wrist-watch and said, 'I
declare this assembly unlawful. I give it five minutes to disperse.' At the end
of five minutes he looked up and uttered in a hollow voice the word,
In the confusion that followed Swaminathan was very nearly trampled
upon and killed. The policemen rushed into the crowd, pushing and beating
everybody. Swaminathan had joined a small group of panic-stricken runners.
The policemen came towards them with upraised lathis. Swaminathan
shrieked to them, 'Don't kill me. I know nothing.'
He then heard a series of dull noises as the lathis descended on the
bodies of his neighbours. Swaminathan saw blood streaming from the
forehead of one. Down came the lathis again. Another runner fell down with
a groan. On the back of a third the lathis fell again and again.
Swaminathan felt giddy with fear. He was running as fast as his legs
could carry him. But the policemen kept pace with him; one of them held
him up by his hair and asked, What business have you here?'
'I don't know anything, leave me, sirs,' Swaminathan pleaded.
'Doing nothing! Mischievous monkey!' said the grim, hideous
policeman—how hideous policemen were at close quarters!—and delivering
him a light tap on the head with the lathi, ordered him to run before he was
Swaminathan's original intention had been to avoid that day's topic
before his father. But as soon as father came home, even before taking off
his coat, he called mother and gave her a summary of the day's events. He
spoke with a good deal of warmth. The Deputy Superintendent is a butcher,'
he said as he went in to change. Swaminathan was disposed to agree that the
Deputy Superintendent was a butcher, as he recollected the picture of
Rajam's father looking at his watch, grimly ticking off seconds before giving
orders for massacre. Father came out of the dressing-room be fore undoing
his tie, to declare, 'Fifty persons have been taken to the hospital with
dangerous contusions. One or two are also believed to be killed.' Turning to
Swaminathan he said, 'I heard, that schoolboys have given a lot of trouble,
what did you do?
There was a strike. . . replied Swaminathan and discovered here an
opportunity to get his cap problem solved. He added, 'Oh, the confusion!
You know, somebody pulled off the cap that I was wearing and tore it to
bits.... I want a cap before I start for school to-morrow.'
Who was he?' rather asked.
'I don't know, some bully in the crowd.'
‘Why did he do it?'
'Because it was foreign....'
Who said so? I paid two rupees and got it from the Khaddar Stores. It
is a black khaddar cap. Why do you presume that you know what is what?'
'I didn't do anything. I was very nearly assaulted when I resisted.'
'You should have knocked him down. I bought the cap and the cloth
for your coat on the same day in the Khaddar Stores. If any man says that
they are not khaddar, he must be blind.'
'People say that it was made in Lancashire.'
'Nonsense. You can ask them to mind their business. And if you allow
your clothes to be torn by people who think this and that, you will have to go
about naked, that is all. And you may also tell them that I won't have a pie of
mine sent to foreign countries. I know my duty. Whatever it is, why do not
you urchins leave politics alone and mind your business?
‘We have enough troubles in our country without you brats messing
up things...’
Swaminathan lay wide awake in bed for a long time. As the hours
advanced, and one by one as the lights in the house disappeared, his body
compelled him to take stock of the various injuries done to it during the day.
His elbows and muscles had their own tales to tell: they brought back to his
mind the three or four falls that he had had that day. One was—
when—yes, when Rajam got down from his car and came to the school, and
Swaminathan had wanted to hide himself, and in the hurry stumbled on a
heap of stones, and there the knees were badly skinned. And again when the
policemen charged, he ran and fell flat before a shop, and some monster ran
over him, pinning him with one foot to the ground.
Now as he turned there was a pang about his hips. And then he felt as
if a load had been hung from his thighs. And again as he thought of it, he felt
a heavy monotonous pain in the head—the merciless rascals! The
policeman's lathi was none too gentle. And he had been called a monkey! He
would—He would see—To call him a monkey! He was no monkey. Only
they—the policemen—looked like monkeys, and they behaved like monkeys
The Head Master entered the class with a slightly flushed face and a
hard ominous look in his eyes. Swaminathan wished that he had been
anywhere but there at that moment. The Head Master surveyed the class for
a few minutes and asked, 'Are you not ashamed to come and sit there after
what you did yesterday?' Just as a special honour to them, he read out the
names of a dozen or so that had attended the class. After that he read out the
names of those that had kept away, and asked them to stand on their
benches. He felt that that punishment was not enough and asked them to
stand on their desks. Swaminathan was among them and felt humiliated at
that eminence. Then they were lectured. When it was over, they were asked
to offer explanations one by one. One said that he had had an attack of
headache and there fore could not come to the school. He was asked to bring
a medical certificate. The second said that while he had been coming to the
school on the previous day, someone had told him that there would be no
school, and he had gone back home. The Head Master replied that if he was
going to listen to every loafer who said there would be no school, he
deserved to be flogged. Anyway, why did he not come to the school and
verify? No answer. The punishment was pronounced: ten days' attendance
cancelled, two rupees fine, and the whole day to be spent on the desk. The
third said that he had had an attack of headache. The fourth said that he had
had stomach-ache. The fifth said that his grandmother died suddenly just as
he was starting for the school. The Head Master asked him if he could bring
a letter from his father. No. He had no father. Then, who was his guardian?
His grandmother. But the grandmother was dead, was she not? No. It was
another grandmother. The Head Master asked how many grandmothers a
person could have. No answer. Could he bring a letter from his neighbours?
No, he could not. None of his neighbours could read or write, because
he lived in the more illiterate parts of Ellaman Street. Then the Head Master
offered to send a teacher to this illiterate locality to ascertain from the boy's
neighbours if the death of the grandmother was a fact. A pause, some
perspiration, and then the answer that the neighbours could not possibly
know anything about it, since the grandmother died in the village. The Head
Master hit him on the knuckles with his cane, called him a street dog, and
pronounced the punishment: fifteen days' suspension.
When Swaminathan's turn came, he looked around helplessly. Rajam
sat on the third bench in front, and resolutely looked away. He was gazing at
the black-board intently.
But yet the back of his head and the pink ears were visible to
Swaminathan. It was an intolerable sight. Swaminathan was in acute
suspense lest that head should turn and fix its eyes on his; he felt that he
would drop from the desk to the floor, if that happened. The pink ears three
benches off made him incapable of speech. If only somebody would put a
black-board between his eyes and those pink ears!
He was deaf to the question that the Head Master was putting to him.
A rap on his body from the Head Master's cane brought him to himself.
'Why did you keep away yesterday?' asked the Head Master, looking
up. Swaminathan's first impulse was to protest that he had never been
absent. But the attendance register was there. 'No—No—I was stoned. I tried
to come, but they took away my cap and burnt it. Many strong men held me
down when I tried to come. . . . When a great man is sent to gaol. ... I am
surprised to see you a slave of the Englishmen. . . . Didn't they cut off—
Dacca Muslin—Slaves of slaves....' These were some of the disjointed
explanations which streamed into his head, and, which, even at that moment,
he was discreet enough not to express. He had wanted to mention a
headache, but he found to his distress that others beside him had had one.
The Head Master shouted, Won't you open your mouth?' He brought the
cane sharply down on Swaminathan's right shoulder. Swaminathan kept
staring at the Head Master with tearful eyes, massaging with his left hand
the spot where the cane was laid. 'I will kill you if you keep on staring
without answering my question,' cried the Head Master.
I—I—couldn't come,' stammered Swaminathan.
"Is that so?' asked the Head Master, and turning to a boy said, 'Bring
the peon.'
Swaminathan thought: 'What, is he going to ask the peon to thrash
me? If he does any such thing, I will bite everybody dead.' The peon came.
The Head Master said to him, 'Now say what you know about this rascal on
the desk.'
The peon eyed Swaminathan with a sinister look, grunted, and
demanded, 'Didn't I see you break the panes? ...'
'Of the ventilators in my room?' added the Head Master with zest.
Here there was no chance of escape. Swaminathan kept staring
foolishly till he received another whack on the back.
The Head Master demanded what the young brigand had to say about
it. The brigand had nothing to say. It was a fact that he had broken the panes.
They had seen it. There was nothing more to it. He had unconsciously
become defiant and did not care to deny the charge. When another whack
came on his back, he ejaculated, 'Don't beat me, sir. It pains.' This was an
invitation to the Head Master to bring down the cane four times again. He
said, 'Keep standing here, on this desk, staring like an idiot, till I announce
your dismissal.'
Every pore in Swaminathan's body burnt with the touch of the cane.
He had a sudden flood of courage, the courage that comes of desperation. He
restrained the tears that were threatening to rush out, jumped down, and,
grasping his books, rushed out muttering, 'I don't care for your dirty school.'

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