A forty-five-degree slope led the way to Maya Kaikobad’s quarters. Moushumi climbed slowly; she wasn’t used to hilly places. Ahead, Satwaki walked briskly up, holding Mimi by the hand. Mimi, in turn, held Rishi’s hand, forming a frisky, curly haired link between father and son. The breeze had begun to turn chilly as the sun cooled to a burnt brick shade, growing moodier by the minute. Everything looked as if it had been painted in the colours artists would choose if they picturised poems.
Moushumi jogged her mind, but failed to remember the poet’s name, the one who made her think of painters visualising poems on canvas or paper. A few lines drifted in and out of her head, ruffling her thoughts, just like the evening breeze. She remembered “Daffodils” from her middle school days, and now a few lines from that poem fluttered in her mind like the petals of those very flowers in a meadow. Funny, she mused, how Indian grass grew in fields, but those in England were always in meadows! The school they had come to in the Nilgiris reminded her of these things, English things, she’d read about. Its old Victorian buildings, orderly flower beds, large pedigree dogs, and teachers’ cottages tucked behind sudden tangles of eucalyptus and other tall trees, took Moushumi away to a land she was familiar with, through books. A woman’s low laugh brought her back to her surroundings.
They were here to get Rishi admitted. The school was old and prestigious, and both Satwaki and Moushumi had heaved a collective sigh of relief when they received the confirmation letter. They had arrived three days ahead of Rishi’s admission date, and like any other tourist family, had gone sightseeing and picnicking in and around Coonoor and Ooty. Moushumi had already shopped for extra warm clothes and thermal underwear for Rishi in Singapore, but she still wanted to check out Ooty’s markets. The school provided uniforms and sundry warm clothes and blankets, but Moushumi hadn’t liked them. The colours were dull and the material scratchy.
“Considering the steep school fees, you’d think they’d provide better quality!” she grumbled to Satwaki.
He said nothing. He didn’t want to come across as a pinchpenny. A nice bright cotton slipcover would have solved both problems as far as he was concerned, why buy expensive stuff? Things got stolen or lost in boarding schools.
They had reached the school premises earlier in the day, nervous and much ahead of schedule. They had met most of the teachers and the headmaster during tea, a dainty spread of mostly baked confectioneries and savoury puffs baked by the school’s own bakery, and tea and coffee served in plain white cups and saucers with the school’s insignia. This was a school ritual for all new students, more than a century old. There were other parents with their children sitting at the tables laid out in the lawn. All were new students, though some had older siblings already in the school, and many of the parents were old students of the school. Both Satwaki and Moushumi noticed the difference between the parents who were old students and those who were not, straightaway. There was an invisible barrier between them, which came through in the way the parents carried themselves and how the school teachers and staff treated them. The old students were on sure ground, familiar territory. They spoke with confidence with the teachers, their acquaintances and friends. They ignored the other parents, not necessarily out of rudeness, but because they didn’t notice them at all.
Putting Rishi in a boarding school, one with a history, or pedigree as Satwaki’s father used to say, had been a dream for both him and Moushumi, neither of whom had had that experience. Satwaki had gone to various schools, wherever his father had been posted. The schools that the children of most army officers attended. He had finished his schooling at St. Xavier’s school though, when his father was posted in Kolkata. Moushumi, born and raised in Kolkata, had been to a typical old Kolkata institution, an academically sound, but semi-English medium school, with more stress on Bengali than spoken English. She spoke English fluently, but with a marked Bengali accent.
Satwaki was doing well in his career. He had recently been transferred to Singapore as head of his company’s operations. Satwaki often spoke of the school alumni some of his colleagues and business associates belonged to.
“It’s like a club,” he’d told her. “That’s a clique my son should be able to relate to.”
Moushumi had never stayed even for a single night away from Rishi. But she kept her feelings to herself. It was for the good of the child. They were not trying to shirk their parental responsibilities. She knew how Satwaki felt during some of the office get-togethers. Not that she felt any better. What was it about schools that set people apart no matter how well they did in life later on, including the degrees from prestigious institutes? Moushumi shook her head at the thought as she climbed up the incline leading to the junior boys’ hostel and beyond.
They had taken the first step for their children. Rishi had been admitted. A few years later Mimi would join him. Their children would be part of a luminous alumnus. As if he’d read her thoughts, Satwaki looked back and smiled. The breeze blew her hair, and Satwaki motioned her to stop as he took aim with his camera. He seemed a lot more relaxed now that all the formalities were over, and they were free to explore the substantial grounds and chat with any teacher who happened to be available.
“Hurry Ma!” said Mimi and immediately turned back to skip alongside her brother. Mimi was even more excited than Rishi about his school. She had already made plans about which horse she would ride and on which side of the long dining hall she would sit. Rishi smiled when she announced her preferences.
“You don’t choose your seat,” he said. “They allot you one.”
Mimi didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘allot’ so she stuck her tongue out at Rishi. But he continued to smile indulgently. Satwaki and Moushumi were certain he would be able to work his way around and later shine in the school. Rishi had always been at the top of his class. He also seemed to instinctively know what was expected of him, and tried to fulfil his parents’ expectations without fuss. When it came to Mimi, he was more avuncular than big brother, and that suited the girl just fine, because she never lost any opportunity to take advantage of Rishi.
Now the two of them continued ahead, walking-skipping, hands linked, along the path with pretty wild flowers growing in clumps on both sides, their father having long given up his hold on the energetic Mimi. The evening settled in around the children creating a pale silvery halo. Moushumi had a sudden urge to sit on one of the smoothed down boulders and weep. By now they had reached a fork in the path. The narrower one with cypress hedges almost hiding it from view, led the way to Maya Kaikobad’s house.
Maya had kept the door ajar, so she could see them coming before they reached her gate. Her cottage was a little away from the rest of the teachers’ homes. The ground, covered with thick green grass and wild flowers, fell steeply away right behind her house, giving it a suspended in air kind of look. She didn’t care for gardening so the lack of extra ground didn’t bother her. If anything, she enjoyed the solitude, the space between hers and theirs, and the emptiness behind. Thomas sat licking his paws near the door left ajar, where a bar of reluctant sunlight warmed his twitching tail.
“Meow,” said Thomas at the sound of Mimi’s voice.
“Yes. Let them in Thomas,” said Maya. “New student’s parents need attention,” she muttered as she walked back to the kitchen. She struck a match to the gas stove. She couldn’t remember what the mother looked like, even though they’d met that morning. Maya recalled the mother, the faceless and nameless mother, as eager to please, eager to see her son learn the piano, the violin and singing! The woman seemed eager for everything. “Upstarts!”
A shriek brought Maya quickly to the front door. Mimi stood with a shocked expression on her face, holding up her index finger. Thomas was nowhere to be seen. Moushumi was furiously rummaging through the depths of her copious handbag.
“Your cat bit me,” said Mimi matter-of-factly. “What’s her name?”
“Thomas. He’s a tom cat,” said Maya, almost smiling. “Bleeding?”
“Thomas is a boy cat,” Mimi announced to no one in particular. “No blood. See? I’m strong.”
“Come in. Come in,” said Maya stepping back into her parlour.
Satwaki and Rishi entered, muttered their greetings and sat down on the nearest sofa. Moushumi had unearthed a packet of band-aids by now. She knelt down to attend to Mimi’s finger.
“Oh. So, you’re one of those moms,” said Maya.
“Was the cat already vaccinated?” said Moushumi. She didn’t sound eager-to-please at all. Her large eyes flashed in the retreating light.
Maya frowned. She turned towards Satwaki. “Which country did you say you’re posted at?”
“That’s not too far. We have children from UK and even Canada. One child, parents divorced. The mother’s in Canada, but the grandparents stay in Kochi.”
“Which class is the child in?” said Satwaki.
“Look at my finger,” said Mimi, and bounded across to Rishi who stood respectfully near a wall in Maya’s parlour.
“What did you say your name was, boy?” said Maya. “Sit down. Sit down,” she waved her hands. “Make yourselves comfy.”
“Which class? Six?”
“No five,” said Moushumi brusquely. “He’ll turn ten this November. He’s a little young for his class. And, ahead,” but the last bit she muttered only to herself.
“I’m five,” said Mimi. “My birthday’s in September. Na baba?” She made herself comfortable on Satwaki’s lap. “Aunty where’s Thomas the tomcat?”
“Go to the garden and see if he’s there, chasing sparrows or mice. He was such a feral thing when I found him. Still a bit wild. Though vastly improved now.”
“Mimi be careful darling,” said Moushumi. She got up and followed Mimi to the door.
“Oh, don’t worry,” said Maya, before shrugging irritably and turning to Rishi. “Can you play?”
Rishi who had been listening to her attentively, nodded, and smiled shyly.
“He had a teacher in Singapore. But he’s just started,” said Satwaki.
“Play me something,” said Maya.
Rishi looked up at his father. Satwaki gave him a little push.
“It’s alright,” said Satwaki in a low voice. “This is not a test. Just play.”
Rishi walked gingerly towards the black upright piano at the corner of the parlour. He looked at the piano and then at his parents.
“Play,” mouthed Moushumi from the door.
“I’ll get you folks some coffee. Hot chocolate for the children?” said Maya.
“Yes, thank you,” said Satwaki.
“Mimi, aunty’s getting hot chocolate for you. Come in,” said Moushumi.
“Play Rishi,” said Satwaki.
Rishi lifted the lid and the velvet cloth that covered the keys. He sat down on the piano stool, and ran his fingers over the keys, east to west and west to east, paused and looked around once before resting his fingers on the centre keys. Rishi closed his eyes for a few seconds in concentration, and then began to play. He didn’t look up during the time he played, six pieces in all. Behind him, his parents sat listening, nervous on his behalf. Maya watched them, first the boy, the mother and then the father. Mimi was the only one who was unaffected by the atmosphere. She had managed to make friends with Thomas, and was stroking him and murmuring endearments. Thomas seemed to enjoy her attention and had completely forgotten about his earlier hostility.
“How long have you been learning?” said Maya when Rishi finished.
“One and a half years,” said Moushumi.
“Let him say Mou,” said Satwaki, adding almost immediately, “I think one year, and seven and a half months.”
Rishi nodded and looked at Maya expectantly.
“You’ll improve,” she said. “Is the sugar okay in your coffee? And, you miss Muffet? Your hot chocolate, okay?”
“I’m letting it cool first,” said Mimi swinging her legs.
Thomas got down from her lap. Mimi got up.
“No,” said Moushumi. “Drink your chocolate first.”
Mimi grinned at Maya. Maya tweaked her nose, and walked across the room, to an arm chair near the sofa where Satwaki was sitting.
“You know I’m half Burmese,” she said, crossing and uncrossing her legs, and then crossing them again. “Half from my mother’s side. My parents divorced when I was four. I stayed with my dad and his family. I’ve lived almost in every continent in the world.”
Moushumi quickly left her armchair and sat down next to Satwaki. “That must have been many years ago, right?” she said.
“In those days, divorce wasn’t common, was it?” said Satwaki.
“Those days was 1960,” said Maya uncrossing her long legs. “We were so erudite!” She laughed, somewhat mirthlessly.
“Oh,” said Moushumi, and very softly under her breath, savouring the new word, ‘Erudite.’
“I attended finishing school in Switzerland. But my heart was in music, so I went to Germany after that. You know I’ve been with the Calcutta Choir since its inception, almost. They’ve renamed the city Kolkata!” She waved a dismissive hand even though her audience showed no disagreement. “Pish posh! It was made by the British.”
“Your husband is also into music?” said Moushumi.
“I don’t have a husband. Not now.”
“Oh?” said Satwaki and Moushumi together.
“I came to this school to drill some music sense into the kids. And also, for the air. Hills you know.”
“Yes,” said Satwaki. “Purer. Indian cities are polluted.”
“But hill stations have become so touristy these days. I’m not sure I can stand it anymore. And then the quality of people. In my time, you had to come from a certain kind of family to get admission into a boarding school like this…”
“I know what you mean,” said Satwaki. “My father was in the army. He felt the same way about civilians.”
“Oh, you have an army background? So, what was your father?”
“He was a doctor.”
“Oh? A doctor?” She fluttered her fingers. “Don’t mind me,” she said airily. “I’m just an old romantic. You know soldiers and men in uniforms…” Maya turned towards Moushumi. “And your father?”
“Both my parents were professors at Calcutta University.”
“Ah yes,” said Maya. “That unmistakable accent. I’ve lived in Cal for, how many years? More than twenty - thirty, now.” She turned towards Rishi, “And what do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be a deep-sea diver,” said Mimi.
“Good for you!” said Maya. “Rishi, you have a sweet smile. Now, I’ll play you a couple of pieces, okay?”
Rishi nodded shyly. Mimi went up and leaned against Rishi. “Play for me too,” she said to Maya. Satwaki leaned forward.
“It’s getting late” said Moushumi. But nobody paid her any attention.
Maya played elegantly, her body swaying with the music. She played an easy piece by Tchaikovsky first, and then quickly moved on to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. She followed it up with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. When she began to play Mozart’s Symphony No 40 in G minor, Molto Allegro, Satwaki and Moushumi looked at each other. They smiled in mutual recognition of the music. It was one their favourite Hindi Film songs. They hadn’t known about its classical origins! The idea delighted them. They continued to smile throughout the piece, but without comprehension, except when the first familiar bars were repeated.
“Recognise this?” said Maya when she began playing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor.
Satwaki grinned. “Saturday Night Fever!”
Maya turned her head to smile at him and continued playing. She ended her performance with a Nocturne by Chopin. Mimi, who had slowly crept forward with each new piece that was played, now stood at Maya’s shoulder, almost breathing on her arm.
“Aunty you play like a queen. A real fairy queen!” whispered Mimi in an enraptured voice the minute Maya finished,
“Really?” said Maya. She ran a playful finger all the way from Mimi’s curls to her chin. “And you look like a little elf yourself. Dancing in the moonlight.”
Maya rose from the piano seat, a faint smile playing on her lips, but her eyes seemed to have drawn in the dulcet yet contemplative notes from the Nocturne. Her shadow elongated against the wall with regal grace. Satwaki and Moushumi also rose, as if to remain seated would have been a violation of the evening. Rishi seemed transfixed, and had to be pulled to his feet by Mimi. Maya saw them to the door and raising a hand, she fluttered two fingers. Satwaki ducked his head. Mimi waved her hand like a flag. Rishi said “bye ma’am,” but so softly nobody heard. Moushumi barely nodded in acknowledgement, and strode ahead, her hand on Rishi’s shoulder.
Later when the three of them walked back to the school guard house, beyond which their taxi waited, Mimi almost dragged her feet, and was unusually quiet. She hadn’t cried when they said good bye to Rishi in front of his dormitory, under the kindly but firm eyes of the house master. They watched as Rishi gathered his almost ten-year-old dignity around his shoulders like a cloak and walked down the long corridor, never once glancing back. Mimi caught hold of her parents’ hands, one in each of her own and pulled them away with all her strength when Rishi’s back finally disappeared around a bend. They were silent, almost still, throughout the ride back to their hotel. The three of them felt claustrophobic in their hotel room, so summoning the hotel’s taxi service they set out to eat elsewhere, a nice restaurant that served alcohol, preferably.
Moushumi, Satwaki and Mimi ended up weeping simultaneously during dinner, after they had “cheered,” Satwaki raising his whiskey glass, Moushumi her Gin and Lime and Mimi her Vanilla chocolate float. They didn’t care who watched them. The tears just came, turning their drinks salty. They couldn’t eat, but Moushumi, ever the frugal mother, asked for the uneaten portions to be boxed. Satwaki didn’t protest that it would be wasted since they were going to return to their hotel, not home. He was too overcome by emotion to bother. They took the overnight train to Chennai the next day, and the flight back to Singapore the same night, after freshening up and eating lunch at a hotel near the airport.
During the days that followed, after their return, Mimi diligently checked the letter box downstairs on her way back from school, every day. At Rishi’s school they were encouraged to write letters on paper, not email, though the school administration and teachers kept parents abreast of everything through their website and individual emails. A letter arrived at last, after weeks of waiting, and it was fat with news. Satwaki hurried home from office after Mimi’s excited phone call. She hadn’t opened the letter, nor had she allowed Moushumi to do so. The two of them watched excitedly, like children beneath a Christmas tree, as Satwaki did the honours. Rishi had written a separate letter to each of them. Some details overlapped, like the school routine and new friends that Rishi had made. But there was something exclusive for each of them.
Mimi’s letter carried many doodles and sketches and descriptions of the horses and their names. Satwaki’s letter contained Rishi’s study plans, and details about the teachers. To Moushumi, he wrote about Maya and Thomas:
Dearest Ma, wrote Rishi, and a few paragraphs later, Maya Ma’m didn’t stay. She left a couple of weeks after we met her, when she had played like a fairy queen, like Mimi said! Thomas didn’t go with her. He has become a feral cat now. Yesterday I saw him and called. I had a biscuit in my hand, but he only looked at me suspiciously and ran off. I heard something about Maya Ma’m. People are saying that she packed the piano along with her furniture. The piano belonged to the school. I don’t know how true this is…”
Moushumi read the letter to herself again after she’d read it out to Mimi and Satwaki. This was to become the first of a family ritual, the opening of Rishi’s letter together and reading each portion to each other. That day, she also took Rishi’s letter to a corner and re-read it for the umpteenth time from the first word to the last, slowly. When she came across the portion about Maya Kaikobad, she smiled grimly, but her tongue caressed the word “feral” in her mouth, over and over again. “My clever boy,” she said to herself, “he heard it just once and already knows it, and can even use it in a sentence!”
* * * * *
"Feral" was first published in The Reading Hour and is part of Shikhandin's new short story collection Impetuous Women (Penguin/Viking: An imprint of Penguin Random House, 2021).
Shikhandin is the pen name of an Indian writer who writes for adults and children. Her published books, as Shikhandin, include Impetuous Women (Penguin-Random House India), Immoderate Men (Speaking Tiger), and Vibhuti Cat (Duckbill-Penguin-Random House India). Prior to that a novel and a short story collection were published. Shikhandin has won multiple awards in India and abroad, and her poetry and prose have been widely published in journals and anthologies worldwide.