In Part II of this III-part story, The Teacher With a Past we see how Nandan helps his cousin pass an examination but later worries if the support has backfired
By Dr. Saumya Shankar Choudhury
PART – 2
It was mid-September in the district of Cachar in Assam’s Barak Valley, which experiences extremely hot and humid months up to October, beginning late March on a given year and that year was no better as far as climatic conditions were concerned. In the stifling heat of the afternoon, amidst sweaty backs and smelly armpits, Nandan boarded a bus for home, a distance of10 kilometers from the school. He usually ignored the chatter of the other passengers and the suffocating odors, but that day he started to experience a splitting headache, gradually increasing in intensity as the bus neared home, and culminating in a nauseating feeling with a gigantic lump at the back of his throat. Earlier, after class, he had dashed off to the headmaster’s room, but the limping teacher had already left by then in his prehistoric Fiat car.
As he opened the bamboo gate to enter his house, he could see his retired father, sitting on the verandah of the single storied structure which he had built with the retirement benefit. The old man was fanning himself with an old hand-fan made of dried palm leaves, hitting himself at regular intervals, pausing only to wipe the sweaty palms in his lungi, while making slurpy sounds generated by the betel juice in his toothless mouth. As usual he was waiting for Nandan to turn up at this time while the rest of the household was taking their siesta.
Nandan was the youngest of three sons and his father’s pet – their bond cemented by a packet of cigarettes which the dutiful son regularly supplied every evening and the occasional tobacco mound which both father and son would share secretly after some vigorous mixing with lime, beating the mixture on the palm of the left hand with precisely timed claps with the right after rigorously rubbing it with the right thumb. It was quite natural that the father was a bit offended when his favorite offspring ignored him and went straight to the well at the back of the house instead of preparing his tobacco with the granular contents from a small packet bearing a three dimensional hologram of a proud monkey cautioning its loyal patrons against counterfeit ingredients.
Nandan finished his bath and sipped his tea, the rich aroma of the tea leaves procured from Rose Kandy tea estate infiltrating his senses and providing a temporary relief from the headache. He looked in the direction of the setting sun in the horizon and gathered his thoughts. He thought of Pradeep’s matriculation examination with a tinge of regret. Pradeep used to bear an uncanny resemblance to Nandan those days. Both had the same dark brown eyes, sharp nose, pointed chin, lanky, of wheatish complexion and had their wavy hair set in the style of a particular film actor who had caught the fancy of the particular region. In fact, they were often mistaken for real brothers by those unknown to them.
Pradeep had tried and failed to clear Maths in the matriculation examination for three consecutive attempts and after three years had finally convinced a none too eager Nandan to sit for the exam impersonating the former in a sure shot attempt to pass the one last hurdle which would make him a permanent employee of a central government institution. It would be a giant leap from a lowly paid worker in the muster rolls to a permanent desk. The centre was the school in which Nandan incidentally would become a teacher couple of years later.
People in that locality or for that matter the invigilators on exam duty would not recognize Nandan or Pradeep. Nandan would have to sit for an hour-and-a-half, manage the required marks to pass and would leave without much fuss before the chief invigilator made her mandatory rounds half hour before the final bell rang for submitting the answer sheets. It was also comforting to know that most of the repeaters were from far flung places in the district and was unfamiliar to Nandan, who by then was pursuing his masters in the university in far off Guwahati.
Unknown to their guardians, both made it to the centre on D-day which turned out to be unusually cloudy and dark so much so that the corner of the room where Nandan was supposed to sit had to be supplied with candles. A perspiring Nandan started taking the examination and only after he managed to sign the sheet provided by the invigilator while checking the admit card, did he breathe easy. Probably the cloudy day was God sent as the invigilator did not for once give a second thought to the photograph on the admit card. Nandan for once thanked the electricity department for the customary load shedding.
For the next hour-and-a-half Nandan was engrossed in solving the problems like a seasoned professional, enjoying the ease at which he could tackle the paper thanks to the higher level of education he possessed. He would have carried on had it not been for the chief Invigilator who entered the door and immediately confiscated a candidate’s answer script as she caught him red-handed with chits of paper. A policeman followed close behind, the sight of whom took the wind out of the sails of till then smooth sailing Nandan’s boat. He silently replaced the cap on the pen, took his papers and walked out after handing the answer script to the bored looking invigilator.
A couple of students, who had been battling very hard for the past couple of hours trying to negotiate the problems without much success, too followed suit. The chief invigilator looked in their direction once but carried on with her rounds as Nandan silently but swiftly walked across the courtyard, careful not to attract any undue attention. He almost broke into a run when he saw Pradeep outside the gate.
Pradeep cleared his exam securing 65% in Maths which put him overall in Second Division. He never failed to add that if he would not have convinced Nandan to take the examination that year, it would have been impossible the following year as the paper was being divided into two parts.
Pradeep applied in the departmental examination for a post of a clerk armed with the certificate and managed to land himself in the accounts department, the posting being judged by his marks in the Mathematics which was incidentally the highest among the eligible candidates.
It was getting dark as Nandan sifted through his thoughts, which by then assumed a settled formation in his mathematical mind. He was calmed by the thought that it was nigh impossible to prove anything after all these years. He smiled at the thought that he’d never ever felt any guilt pangs nor did the incident prickle his conscience after the deed had been accomplished successfully. Smiling to himself, he got up to go the verandah and prepare tobacco for his father. But while spreading lime on his left palm for the mixture, a new fear began to take hold.
The head master might not have referred to that particular incident as the secret which he was aware of. He cleaned his palm much to the dismay of his father and dialed Pradeep’s cell number. Pradeep picked up the phone after a couple of rings much to the satisfaction of Nandan, who regarded these small acts of courtesy as signs of respect reserved for him for a lifetime. Pradeep replied in the negative when Nandan asked whether he knew the new head master. He told him to relax when Nandan related to him his worst fears and assured of any help if any problem arose as a result of the impersonation.
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Dr. Chowdhury is an avid writer, who in his professional life is a medico for the past 20 years, currently with a Central government Public Sector Undertaking. His first anthology of short stories, Barak To Doyang, was published by the National Library, Guwahati, in 2012. Besides writing, he has a keen interest in music.