Monday, February 16, 2009

Malgudi days

Before the Examinations
IN APRIL, just two weeks before the examinations, Swaminathan
realised that his father was changing—for the worse. He was becoming
fussy and difficult. He seemed all of a sudden to have made up his mind to
harass his son. If the latter was seen chatting with his granny, he was told
sourly, 'Remember, boy, there is an examination. Your granny can wait, not
your examination.' If he was seen wandering behind his mother, lie was
hunted down and sent to his desk. If his voice was heard anywhere after the
Taluk Office gong had struck nine, a command would come from his father's
room, 'Swami, why haven't you gone to bed yet? You must get up early and
study a bit.' This was a trying period in Swaminathan's life. One day he was
piqued enough to retort, 'Why are you so nervous about my examination?'
'Suppose you fail?'
'Suppose all your juniors in the Fifth Standard become your classmates?'
Swaminathan sat at Decimals for half an hour.
At school everybody seemed to be overwhelmed by the thought of the
examinations. It was weeks since anybody had seen a smile on Sankar's face.
Somu had become brisk and business-like. The Pea took time to grasp jokes,
and seldom gave out any. And as for Rajam, he came to the school at the
stroke of the first bell, took down everything the teacher said, and left at the
stroke of the last bell, hardly uttering a dozen words to anybody. Mani was
beginning to look worried and took every opportunity to take Sankar aside
and have his doubts (that arose from time to time as he plodded through his
texts) cleared. He dogged the steps of the school clerk. There was a general
belief in the school that the clerk was omniscient and knew all the question
papers of all the classes.
One day Mani went to the clerk's house and laid a neat bundle
containing fresh brinjals at his feet. The clerk was pleased and took Mani in
and seated him on a stool. The clerk looked extremely amiable and Mani felt
that he could ask anything at that moment and get it. The clerk was
murmuring something about his cat, a lank ill-fed thing, that was nestling
close to him. Most of what he was saying did not enter Mani's head. He was
waiting feverishly to open the topic of question papers. The clerk had
meanwhile passed from cats to eye-flies; but it made little difference to
Mani, who was waiting for the other to pause for breath to launch his attack.
'You must never let these eye flies buzz near your eyes. All cases of eyesore
can be traced to it. When you get eyesore the only thing you can do is to take
a slice of raw onion. . . .'
Mani realised that the other would not stop, and butted in, 'There is
only a week more for the examinations, sir. . ..'
The clerk was slightly puzzled: 'Yes, indeed, a week more. . . . You
must take care to choose only the juicy variety, the large juicy variety, not
the small onion. . . .'
'Sir,' Mani interrupted, ignoring the juicy variety, 'I am much worried
about my examination.' He tried to look pathetic.
'I am glad. If you read well, you will pass’ said the Oracle.
'You see, sir, I am so worried, I don't sleep at nights, thinking of the
examination. ... If you could possibly tell me something important. ... I have
such a lot to study— don't want to study unnecessary things that may not be
necessary for the examination.' He meandered thus. The clerk understood
what he was driving at, but said, 'Just read all your portions arid you will
pass.' Mani realised that diplomacy was not his line. He asked bluntly,
'Please tell me, sir, what questions we are getting for our examination.'
The clerk denied having any knowledge of the question papers. Mani
flattered him by asking, if he did not know the questions, who else would.
By just a little more of the same judicious flattery the clerk was moved to
give what Mani believed to be 'valuable hints'. In spite of the fact that he did
not know what the First Form texts were, the clerk ventured to advise, 'You
must pay particular attention to geography. Maybe you will have to practise
map-drawing a lot. And in arithmetic make it a point to solve at least five
'I won't.'
'Of course you won't if you study hard and answer well. . . . Suppose
you fail and all your class-mates go up, leaving you behind? You can start
doing just what you like on the very day your examination closes.'
Swaminathan reflected: Suppose the Pea, Mani, Rajam, and Sankar,
deserted him and occupied Second A? His father was right. And then his
father drove home the point, problems every day, and you will be able to
tackle arithmetic as easily as you swallow plantains.'
'And what about English?'
'Oh, don't worry about that. Have you read all your lessons?'
'Yes, sir,' Mani replied without conviction.
'It is all right then. You must read all the important lessons again, and
if you have time, yet again, and that will be ample.'
These answers satisfied Mani greatly. On his way home, he smiled to
himself and said that the four annas he had invested on brinjals was not after
all a waste.
Mani felt important. He secretly pitied his classmates, who had to do
coolly work without valuable hints to lighten their labour. He felt he ought
to share his good secret with Swaminathan without divulging the source.
They were going home from the school. They stopped for a while at
the junction of Vinayak Mudali and Grove Streets before parting ways. Mani
said, 'Young man, have you any idea what we are getting for the
'Nothing outside the covers of the text-books.'
Mani ignored the humour. 'Now listen to me carefully, last night from
seven to ten, do you know what I did?'
'Munched ground-nuts?'
'Idiot, don't joke. I made two maps or India, two of Africa, and one
map of Europe.'
'Say all the maps in the Atlas.'
'Maybe,' Mani said, not quite liking the remark, but I do it with some
definite purpose. ... It may be that I know one or two questions. But don't let
the other fellows know anything about it. I may get into trouble.'
Swaminathan was taken in by the other's seriousness and inferred a moral.
Reaching home, Swaminathan felt rather dull. His mother was not at
home. Granny was not in a talkative mood. He related to her some exciting
incidents of the day:
'Granny, guess what happened in our school to-day. A boy in First C
stabbed another in the forearm with a penknife.'
‘What for?' asked granny mechanically.
'They were enemies.' Finding that it fell flat, he brought out the big
event of the day. 'Granny, granny, here is another thing. The Head Master
knocked his toe against a door-post and oh! there was such a lot of blood!
He went limping about the school the whole day. He couldn't take the Third
Form and so they had leave, the lucky fellows!'
'Is it?' asked granny.
Swaminathan perceived, to his intense disgust, that his granny was in
one of her dull sleepy moods.
He strayed near the swing-cradle of his little brother. Though at first
he had been sceptical of his brother's attractions and possibilities, now day
by day he was finding him more interesting. This little one was now six
months old and was charming. His attainments were: he made shrill noises
whenever he saw anybody; thrust his fists into his mouth and damped his
round arms up to the elbow; vigorously kicked the air; and frequently
displayed his bare red gums in a smile. Swaminathan loved every inch of
He would spend hours balancing himself on the edge of the cradle and
trying to make him say 'Swaminathan'. The little one would gurgle, and
Swaminathan would shriek, pretending that it was the other's futile version
of his name.
Now he peered in and was disappointed to find the baby asleep. He
cleared his throat aloud and coughed in the hope of waking him. But the
baby slept. He waited for a moment, and tiptoed away, reminding himself
that is was best to leave die other alone, as he had a knack of throwing the
house in turmoil for the first half-hour, whenever he awoke from
Staying at home in the evenings was extremely irksome. He sighed at
the thought of the sand-banks of Sarayu and Mani's company. But his father
had forbidden him to go out till the examinations were over. He often felt he
ought to tell his father what he thought of him. But somehow when one
came near doing it, one failed. He would have to endure it after all only for a
week. . . . The thought that he would have to put up with his travails only for
a week at worst gave him fresh energy.
He sat at his table and took out his Atlas. He opened the political map
of Europe and sat gazing at it. It puzzled him how people managed to live in
such a crooked country as Europe. He wondered what the shape of the
people might be who lived in places where the outline narrowed as in a cape,
and how they managed to escape being strangled by the contour of their
land. And then another favourite problem began to tease him: how did those
map makers find out what the shape of a country was? How did they find out
that Europe was like a camel's head? Probably they stood on high towers and
copied what they saw below. He wondered if he would be able to see India
as it looked in the map, if he stood on the top of the Town Hall. He had
never been there nor ever did he wish to go there. Though he was
incredulous, tailor Ranga persistently informed him that there was a torture
chamber in the top story of the Town Hall to which Pathans decoyed young
He shook himself from his brown study and copied the map of
Europe. He kept the original and his own copy side by side and
congratulated himself on his ability to draw, though his outline looked like
some strange animal that had part bull's face and part camel's.
It was past seven by now and his father came home. He was greatly
pleased to see his son at work. 'That is right, boy,' he said looking at the
map. Swaminathan felt that that moment was worth all his suffering. He
turned over the pages and opened out the map of Africa. Two days before
his examination he sat down to draw up a list of his needs. On a piece of
paper he wrote:
Unruled white paper 20 Sheets
Nibs 6
Ink 2 Bottles
He nibbled his pencil and reread the list. The list was disappointing.
He had never known that his wants were so few. When he first sat down to
draw the list he had hoped to fill two or three imposing pages. But now the
cold lines on the paper numbered only five. He scrutinised the list again:
'Unruled white paper 20 sheets.' He asked himself why he was so
particular about the paper's being unruled. It was a well-known fact that, try
as he would, his lines had a tendency to curl up towards the right-hand
corner of the paper. That would not do for examinations. He had better keep
a stock of ruled paper. And then 'Nibs'. He wondered how many nibs one
would need for an examination. One? Two? Five?. .. And then the Ink
column worried him. How much of it did one buy? After that he had trouble
with clips and pins. He not only had not the faintest idea of the quantity of
each that he would need but was totally ignorant of the unit of purchase also.
Could one go to a shop and demand six pins and six clips without offending
the shop man?
At the end the list was corrected to:
Unruled white paper
Ruled white paper
Black ink
The list was not satisfactory even now. After pondering over it, he
added 'Cardboard Pad One' and 'One Rupee For Additional Expenses'. His
father was busy in his office. Swaminathan stood before him with the list in
his hand. Father was absorbed in his work and did not know that
Swaminathan was there. Swaminathan suddenly realised that it would be
better to approach his father at some other time. He could be sure of a better
reception if he opened the question after food. He tiptoed out. When he was
just outside the door, his father called out, 'Who is that?' There was no
friendliness in the tone. 'Who is that I say?' roared father again and was at
his side with a scowling face before Swaminathan could decide whether to
sneak out or stop and answer.
'Was it you?'
You idiot, why couldn't you answer instead of driving me hoarse
calling out "Who is that? Who is that?". ... A man can't have peace in this
house even for a second. Here I am at work—and every fifth second
somebody or other pops in with some fool question or other. How am I to go
on? Go and tell your mother that she can't come to my room for the
rest of the day. I don't care if the whole battalion of oil-mongers and
vegetable women come and clamour for money. Let her drive them out.
Your mother seems to think—What is that paper in your hand?'
'Nothing, father,' Swaminathan answered, thrusting the paper into his
'What is that?' father shouted, snatching the list. Reading it with a
terrific scowl, he went back to his chair. 'What is this thing?'
Swaminathan had to cough twice to find his voice. 'It is—my—
examination list.'
'What examination list?'
'My examinations begin the day after to-morrow, you know.'
'And yet you are wandering about the house like an unleashed
donkey! What preposterous list is this? Do you think rupees, annas and pies
drop from the sky?' Swaminathan did not think so, but something nearly so.
Father pulled out a drawer and peering into it said: 'You can take from me
anything you want. I haven't got clips. You don't need them.
And then the pad, why do you want a pad? Are there no desks in your
rooms? In our days slates were good enough for us. But now you want pen,
paper, ink, and pad to keep under the paper. . . .' He took out an awful red
pencil and scored out the 'Pad' from the list. It almost gashed the list.
He flung it back at Swaminathan, who looked at it sadly. How
deliriously he had been dreaming of going to Ameer Mart, jingling with
coins, and buying things!
He was just going out when rather called him back and said: 'Here,
boy, as you go, for goodness' sake, remove the baby from the hall. I can't
stand his idiotic cry. . . . What is the matter with him? ... Is your mother deaf
or callous? The child may cry till he has fits, for aught she cares....'

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