Bhumika was tearing her hair out. She was to address the gathering of "imminent personalities in the field of sustainable architecture" the next morning as the newspaper article put it and she had no clue what to speak. The only flash of intelligence she could manage was to smile exasperatedly as she inserted a mental (sic) after "imminent" when she read the article. Whoever came up with award ceremonies anyway? Not that she hated the attention - she basked in it actually. She could feel the admiration of her envious peers and eager juniors wrap her in a warm golden glow. But award ceremonies had none of that - it was just one boring rigmarole that everybody went through. How nice would it be to just wake up a morning after instead and read about it all in the papers directly. And how nice would it be to not make a speech, especially when your brain has as much ideas as an arthropod has mammaries.
"Amma, do you know the Bala and Adibala mantras?"
Bhumika smiled a bit. Perhaps a bit of time with Shital will free her thoughts.
"Who told you about them Shital?"
"Mohit was telling us that he is going to learn them from his grandfather and once he learns them he will never have to eat or sleep again. Is that true amma?"
"What do you think?"
"I think its hogwash amma.", said Shital, the word hogwash garnished with an intonation of innocent pride that an eleven year old gets when she uses a new word that she learnt recently.
"Oh is it?", Bhumika smiled as she recognized that tone of pride "Why do you think so?"
"Because if that were the case we would all learn it and nobody will have to do anything ever. Besides, who really wants a life where you don't have to eat or sleep. It's fun to eat and sleep."
"So you are saying there is no such thing as magic?", Bhumika quizzed.
"Oh, magic is in the stories amma. Like in the story Viswamitra can teach magic to Rama. But in real life it won't happen, right?"
Bhumika seemed to be lost in thought. She shook herself out of her reverie.
"Actually, there is magic in real life.", Bhumika called Shital to sit next to her. "Let me tell you a story, ok?"
Shital jumped up eagerly at the mention of the word story.
"So, once upon a time, there was a little girl, say eleven years old", Bhumika brushed Shital's hair, "just like you. Her name was Bhumika."
"Oh but that's your name too. Did you know this girl?"
"I knew her very well. She was a smart girl who always got into trouble with her teachers..."
"Teachers? You mean like in a school?"
"Yes. So what happened was..."
Little Bhumika was sitting outside the principal's office with a sullen look on her face. She did not carry the slightest tinge of fear that most kids who are summoned to the principal's office do. She swung her legs furiously for indeed, she was very angry. She had done nothing wrong. Absolutely nothing wrong!
It was lunch recess. She had finished her lunch early and she had sat down to read Sherlock Holmes. Silver Blaze it was and Watson had just told Sherlock Holmes the dog did nothing in the night-time. The bell rang and she had to reluctantly close the book. Her mistake was that instead of placing it back carefully in the bag, she had left it to lie on the desk.
Sushma, the English teacher walked in and her eyes fell on the book. She swooped on it with an uncalled for vehemence and carried it off. Five minutes after the after-lunch prayer, Bhumika was hauled to the principal's office for having broken the rule of "no comics allowed in class".
"You again Bhumika", said the exasperated principal. "What this time Sushma?"
"I confiscated this from her bag madam", Sushma said presenting the copy of Sherlock Holmes as if it were Exhibit A, the bloodied blunt knife that had been found buried in the Baron's back.
"What do you have to say Bhumika?", asked the principal from her purported pulpit.
"First of all madam," began Bhumika in a confident and methodical manner, "that is not a comic. I tried explaining it to Sushma madam. The book is almost completely text and has no graphic images. So I did not break the no comics in the classroom rule."
Bhumika looked at the principal with slightly hopeful eyes.
"It is literature madam...", she continued undaunted by the principal's steely glare.
"Secondly, if I did break the no comics in classroom rule, then Sushma madam broke the nobody must move when the prayer is in progress rule madam", she protested.
"What head weight", gasped Sushma madam.
"Such insolence", rasped the principal superceding Susma's pedestrian English with something that more suited the gravity of the situation.
"Bhumika, please bring your parents to school tomorrow. We need to have a discussion.", said the principal in a voice that spluttered with fire and brimstone.
With a gesture that showed visible annoyance, Bhumika deadpanned "Yes madam."
"Oh you are teaching sixth standard? Good luck to you", said Meera with a smirk.
"Why? Is there something that I must be aware of?", asked Gauri, the new English teacher.
"Bhumika is in that class. Why do you think Sushma went mid term? She couldn't handle that brat. Thinks she is the queen of the all that she purveys"
"Ah, interesting. So is she really?"
"The queen of all that she purveys?", Gauri laughed at her own joke as she picked up her books and started to leave. Meera looked on nonplussed.
Gauri paused at the door and walked back to Meera.
"It is all that she surveys, not purveys. Purvey is to provide. Survey is to oversee.", she said as discretely as she can before heading to her class.
The classroom was, like any teacher might remark, a fish market. Except for the studious few and the prudish few (and you couldn't make out which one was which easily), the entire class was in an uproar. The five minute delay in the new class teacher entering had loosened all semblance of order that the school had worked hard in inculcating over many years.
Two boys were engaged in a tug of war over a school bag that obviously contained some priceless treasure. A third boy presumably the owner of the bag was running around in circles and at times jumping on the bag in a bid to win back his property. A bunch of girls and boys were gossiping with furious intensity in a corner. Two boys in the last bench were devouring their elevenses with gusto; they had even taken off their shoes to match their Hobbit-like appetite. Amidst all this and more, the class monitor was screaming her throat hoarse, the only way she had seen adults try to get the class in order. In this she too failed as miserably as the adults did.
Gauri took a deep breath. This was going to be difficult. These kids had learnt a lot. A lot of wrong things.
She walked into the chaos like Liberty amidst the Revolution, graceful and sylph-like and calmly took her seat.
It took a few minutes before any of the students registered her presence. But once of them noticed her, all it took was a few whispers of "Hey, madam da..." for the whole class to settle down. To quote a teacher again there was pin drop silence in the class.
They all waited for the storm. But nothing happened. She just sat there, her expression neither angry nor hostile. The class monitor trying to salvage the situation mustered a sheepish "sorry madam" with her head hung low.
This is what Gauri was waiting for.
"Because we were noisy madam."
"Is that something bad?"
Another voice chimed in this time.
"We must not be noisy in the class."
"Because our talking will disturb other classes madam."
Bhumika who had been observing everything with her curiousity piqued ventured with an answer. Here, after all was a teacher who seemed to want to talk to them, not at them.
"Talking? We are talking now. Is it disturbing others?"
"Hmm...we can talk like this. But we were shouting and fighting madam. We were...", Bhumika paused trying to find the right word, "boisterous."
"So we can talk in class madam?" This was an incredulous Chaitanya who spoke as if the listener was the listener was two miles away.
Gauri suppressed the urge to make a joke at Mr.Vociferous.
"Maybe. What do you guys think you can do?"
"We can talk in the class, but calmly. Like how we are talking now." This was the usually timid Shabna.
"Super. So that settles that then. Let's get started with a nice story today. Have any of you been to a village fair?", Gauri asked as she opened her book to "The Lost Child" and looked up to see many little arms shoot up in enthusiasm. Bhumika felt happy inside. She did not know it then, but she was feeling the warmth that accompanied the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
In the coming weeks, there were numerous complaints in the staff room about how class 6 was always "noisy" when Gauri in the class, but very few noticed how silent the class was before she entered it.
Bhumika was devastated. The rumours were true then.
In the 6 months that Gauri madam taught their class, there had been so many subtle changes.
Shreyas was no longer breaking toys and benches during the recess, although he did break into the occasional Kata display whic could potentially turn out to be equally dangerous.
Shabnam who wouldn't confidently look anybody in the eye could easily muster cheery good byes in the evening before she rushed off to her music classes.
Saravanan no longer tore papers from his text book but was busy with the fine Japanese art of paper folding as he called it.
And Bhumika. The world had changed for her. She got up every day with a list of new words to use in the English class. She was now bending rules and not breaking them - she read her Sherlock Holmes in the playground and learnt to bear the boredom of Maths class like a martyr; after all what followed was her special phonetics class after hours with Gauri madam.
Just when everything was hunky dory, it all came crumbling down. Gauri madam was leaving the school. Bhumika was angry, hurt and sad at the same time. She spent the entirety of the school's last day away from everybody, especially Gauri madam.
"Oh there you are Bhumika. I've been looking for you all day."
Bhumika bravely hid her tears and put on her best nonchalant expression.
"I'm sorry madam. I didn't know."
"You know I am leaving. I've got something for you."
Bhumika's eyes lit up as she saw a parcel in Gauri madam's hands. Judging by the size of it, it was a book. A good fat one.
Gauri began as if she were going to give the parcel to Bhumika and then stopped. She fidgeted a bit, trying to say what she had wanted to say especially to Bhumika.
"Oh God! I too am going to become one of those lecturing teachers finally. Well, here goes nothing...", thought Gauri as she started.
"Bhumika, I wanted to say something to you before I leave." Gauri bit her lip. "You are a different girl Bhumika, not like the other kids in the class."
Bhumika beamed as if she had been complimented, which after all was what had happened.
"Now it is not easy being different. I am sure you would have already realized that. In general people are afraid of anything that is different and do everything in their power to make it conform.", Gauri waited to see if Bhumika will ask the meaning of the word conform. There was no question.
"But no matter how difficult it might be, you must always be you. As long as you are true to your own self", Gauri and Bhumika both smiled as they caught the Hamlet reference simultaneously.
Gauri moved close to Bhumika as if she were to whisper a secret chant, "And at any point in life, if you are in doubt about the truth, just ask why. Remember that is your only protection. Ask why, again and again"
Gauri handed over the book to her. It was a used copy of "Fun with Maths and Physics" by Yakov Perlman.
Before she knew it, the summer holidays were over, Gauri madam had been supplanted by an impostor and all Bhumika was left with was Fun with maths and physics. So just to keep alive a memory, she began reading it.
And she realized, this was a book of "Whys". Why do boiled eggs spin but not raw eggs? Why does your hair stand on end sometimes during winter when you run your comb over it? Why did the Lilliputians have to use 150 beds to make one bed for Gulliver who when they were just one-twelfth his size?
As she read more, Bhumika realized she loved asking why. So she began to do what no honest student would ever dream of doing. She listened to what her teacher had said.
So, she asked why,
when she was fifteen and a cowardly loafer passed a vulgar comment at her on the road.
when she was seventeen and her uncle lectured her on how she should choose only between engineering and medicine.
and later when her father tried to convince her hard to take a B.E. seat in a reputed college instead of the B.Arch. course that she always wanted but was only available in an unknown college.
when she was twenty and her friends tried to push her to trying drugs at a party.
when she was twenty five and her mother wanted her to marry immediately.
when she was twenty eight and her mother said she would never have a grand daughter thanks to her irresponsible daughter wasting her fertility.
when she was thirty and the man she looked up to as a good friend suggested they have an "arrangement" because after all even though she might be old she will definitely have "needs".
when she saw Shital's teachers asking her to try and write with her right hand when she was obviously left handed.
"So she asked why,
when she was thirty five and her daughter refused to take bath in the mornings but kept jumping around in her chaadi"
"He he he", giggled Shital as Bhumika tickled her.
"But amma, magic?"
"What did Gauri madam tell about asking why to Bhumika?"
"Hmm...she said it was protection."
"So wasn't that magic? A simple question that protected Bhumika all through her life. How does that sound?"
"Hmm...I don't understand amma. Super bore only this story is." Shital pouted and ran away to get her colouring book.
The next day, clad in a simple cotton saree, Bhumika commenced her speech.
"My daughter asked me a story yesterday. A story about Viswamitra, the teacher, the friend of the world. And I remembered the story of my teacher, my friend who gave me my own magic mantra that took me beyond just food and sleep.
Good evening to you all fine people..."
Bhumika finished watching the video titled "Architect wins award and hearts with her speech" the second time. No errors in diction, grammar or pronunciation. "Can be sent.", she muttered to herself softly.
A couple of minutes later, her Whatsapp chat window showed two grey ticks.
A few seconds later, the ticks turned blue.
Almost instantly, the phone rang. The newly updated contact read Gauri madam (Viswamitra).