Tuesday, April 16, 2013

N is for Nambiar Sir: A Short Story

This post is part of the A to Z Challenge.

It was mid-morning, and there was a call for Nambiar Sir. There was a parcel for him, could they deliver it now?

"Of course, of course," Nambiar Sir said. "I am available right now."

He laid the phone down.

"Sharade!" he said.

His wife had just put up her feet after the morning chores. She lowered her newspaper and looked up at him.

"There's a parcel, it seems," he said.

She made a non-committal sound, and the newspaper went up again.

Nambiar Sir went and sat on one of the cane chairs in the patio. It was a hot day, yellow with sunshine. No sounds broke the silence, except for leaves singing in the wind. He opened a magazine and pretended to read.

Who could have sent the parcel, he wondered. His friends usually sent letters. Short terse messages, obligation more than a desire to communicate.

The postman came before the courier did. The Nambiars had a letter box, but he wheeled his bicycle up to the patio. Nambiar Sir had taught him in school.

A bill, a newsletter. The postman spent some time talking about how hot it was. He drank a glass of cold orange Rasna in one gulp, waited to see if he would get some more, and left.

Nambiar Sir opened the newsletter with pleasure. It was run by a classmate of his from college. It was famous in the literary circles; many sent in content, hoping to be printed. She printed it whenever she had enough good material. The work was usually good - insightful, well-written, eclectic. Nambiar Sir couldn't think of a better way of spending a hot summer day.

The courier arrived just as he was finishing the editorial. A black scooter with a yellow box at the back; a hassled young man in a black uniform and a yellow cap.

"Ravichandran Nambiar?" he asked.
"Sign here," he said, without waiting for an affirmative.

Nambiar Sir signed, and was handed a small white parcel, crisscrossed with brown tape. The man walked quickly to the scooter, and left without closing the gate.

Nambiar Sir felt the parcel. It seemed to contain something with a hard cover - maybe something electronic? There were several indecipherable symbols on it, random sequences of numbers and letters. It had clearly been sent from abroad. The sender had not written his name on the parcel, but the markings said ‘United Kingdom’.

Mr Nambiar put the parcel on the patio table and went to close the gate. The sun was almost overhead, and his shadow clung close to his heels like a scared puppy. The guava tree near the gate cast a pleasant shade, and he was tempted to stay under it rather than go back to the veranda. He dawdled a bit on the half wall bordering the guava, looking up at the pattern the sunshine made on the leaves.

When he looked back down again, eyes dazzled by the sunlight, Sharada was standing on the veranda, examining the parcel. She had brought him a glass of Rasna, and the thought of it made him go back to the veranda.

“What is this?” she asked.
“How do I know,” he said, suddenly irritated. “You can see I haven’t opened it yet.”
“Well, open it then,” she said. “Let’s see if one of your old revolutionary friends has sent you a bomb from London.”
“Bring me a pair of scissors.”
“But I only have my milk scissors,” she said. “I don’t think they’ll be able to cut through this material.”
“Then bring me the knife, woman!”

Her face changed, but she went inside without a word. He sighed. He knew his temper was getting worse these days. She was tolerating him for now, but who knew how long it would last. For the umpteenth time in the last one year, he resolved to treat her better.

The problem was that she wanted him to run for the Panchayat elections, now that he was retired. Her logic was that he wouldn’t even have to campaign - practically everyone in the village had either been taught by him, or had children who had been taught by him.

Sharada had come back with the big knife. He took it and carefully slit open one end of the parcel. He peered in, and saw stacked white sheets of paper.

“What is it?” Sharada asked.
“It’s a book!” He said in wonder. Who had sent him a book all the way from England?

He slit the parcel open further, and the book fell into his hand.

It was a beautiful little thing, a hardbound. The front cover was a palette of pinks and oranges and reds and purples, the whole framed in white - as if a sunset had been imposed on a snow field. The golden crown of the publisher’s logo winked at him from the bottom of the spine.

Across the Fiery Fields, embossed letters proclaimed in white. Smaller letters traced out the author’s name below - Tejas Matthew Roy.

“Tejas? Is that...?” Sharada asked.
Nambiar Sir nodded. He suddenly realized that his eyes had filled up. He bent further over the book so that Sharada wouldn’t see.

He was in shock. He watched, aloof, as his left hand lifted itself and opened the front cover of the book. He tilted his face and tried to read the text on the inside cover. But his eyes were full, and he couldn’t read.

His right hand flipped the first couple of pages. Suddenly, it stopped. Five words had arrested it.

For Nambiar Sir and Sharadamma.

Simple words printed in beautiful black italics on thick creamy paper. They seemed to dance before his eyes, helped by his tears.

Sharada gasped the same moment his tear fell on the page, so that he wasn’t sure if she had gasped at the dedication or the fact that he was crying.

He turned the page quickly, hoping she hadn’t seen the tear. The blot was visible on this side of the page, so he quickly flipped to the back cover.

And there he was, in black and white. Slightly long black hair, a messy beard and the same lazy smile as ever. Light fell on the right side of his face, leaving the other side in shadow - it made him look slightly forbidding, despite the smile. Was it the bulky sweater that was making him look chubby?

They stared at the photo in silence for some time.

Finally, Sharada sighed and rose.
“Drink your Rasna - it’s becoming warm.” There was a break in her voice.
“Sharade,” he said.
She didn’t reply, but he knew she was listening.
“Did you ever believe - it? Them? What they said?”
“No. I don’t know. I didn’t know what to believe, or even what I wanted to believe. They were questioning you, your reputation - so I hoped it wasn’t true. But then...” Her voice faltered. “I loved him like a son, so I wanted to believe them. I wanted him to be your son at least, even if not mine.”

Nambiar Sir smiled sadly, gazing out at the yard. “I used to wish that too, often. I wished he had been ours. But he wasn’t. He wasn’t mine, Sharade.”

He looked up at her. She was drying her tears on the edge of her sari.

“But he was!” She suddenly burst out. “He was ours. We almost brought him up, didn’t we? It was our house he used to come to after school, it was my rice and my pulisseri that he used to love. It was here that he learnt to love books. He was ours!”

He smiled at her. “Is it any wonder that people started saying what they did?”
“Well, he needed parents, and we were right next door! His mother certainly had no time for him.”
“And that was another reason for people to talk, wasn’t it? Why come and settle in this village if you worked two hours away?”
“I’m glad she did - otherwise we wouldn’t have had a son for twelve years.”

He looked down at the book.
“Does it have a return address?” she asked.
He checked the parcel - nothing. He flipped through the pages of the book, and a folded piece of paper fell out.

He opened it. It was a note from Tejas, in Malayalam. The letters were awkward, as if not used to being strung together. Sharada leaned over his shoulder, and they read it together.

Nambiar Sir and Sharadamme,

This book happened because of you both, so I thought you should know.

I am returning to India in two months. I will be in Kochi for some time. Amma said I should check with you both before I come and meet you, but I know that’s not necessary. See you soon!


This time, two tear drops fell on the sheet of paper. Nambiar Sir didn’t care. He held Sharada’s hand and squeezed it tightly. Sharada smiled at him through her tears.

“So who gets to read the book first?’ she asked.
• • •


Jina said...

I dont know why-but I loved this one