Kichu, a boy tiny for his age, with small feet and hands and shorts so big for him that it barely held its place on his waist, looked in, standing quietly at the door. His large eyes were the most prominent feature on his little face. He was asked to sit on the floor for breakfast in the long corridor that connected the kitchen with the dining room. The corridor bordered the courtyard. It was August, almost the end of monsoon in the Malabar region. The light shower that seemed to fall through the house made everybody appear even more busy than usual. The aunts tip-toed with wet feet beside him. He was served steaming idlis with ghee and sugar in a silver plate that was specially reserved for him. A silver cup held milk, a luxury that not all grandchildren of the ancestral old house had access to.
He was only four and his grandmother had called for him from Mumbai after his mother died. She doted on him endlessly but sometimes looked through him like he was not even there, lost in thought. What happened Muthashi? he would ask and a tear and a smile would flash on her face at the same time. She had been willing to take him under her wing when his father married a second time. It was for the best, she had thought. The new bride was not used to caring for young boys.
Kichu’s father was an IAS officer who was well respected and loved by his peers. A year ago, when his wife died of pneumonia, he had felt that he hardly knew her. He had been a very busy man and had not really warmed up to his son either. And so he thought it best to let Kichu grow up with his grandmother.
Soon it was Kichu’s first day at the local government school. His mother’s cousin, Uncle Kochunni taught maths at the school. It was only natural that he was asked to take charge of the little boy’s education.
Kichu found his uncle very different from his grandmother. He was abusive and terrorised the children at school so that he could appear tough. He probably felt he needed to enforce authority particularly because he appeared lean and frail. A slight hunchback made him appear uninspiring. He held his large umbrella like a walking stick, leaning onto it even while he was not walking. Kichu did not know what to make of this man.
Kichu grew up. He made many friends at school. Evenings after school were his favourite time. His schoolbag would be hurled to one end of his room before he ran out to meet up with his new friends. The village pond was where all the boys got to hang out. They would race up to it and jump from the edge of the pond and frolic and make merry in the cool refreshing water. It would be hours before they all stepped out, tired from swimming but more from shouting in excitement and laughing their lungs out.
While his friends headed home, the village temple was Kichu’s next stop where he heard amazing stories on Lord Krishna, Arjuna’s predicament from the Bhagavat Gita, the Pandavas and the Mahabharata from travelling scholars and wise men who sojourned at the temple. One of them said,” He who had no one, will have Krishna by his side” Kichu never forgot that line. The temple priest, a man in white robes and a kind face, encouraged all the children who came to hear the wise men, to also chant shlokas praising the Lord before they left. When the children did, the priest would give each one of them a banana.
When Kichu returned home, he was often so tired that he would quickly fall asleep after supper. He knew no such thing as homework, for it was not until the next morning that he would even pick his school bag again.
Occasionally muthashi permitted him to eat breakfast at the tea-stall near the school. Uncle Kochunni agreed to pay for this collectively after subsequent eat-outs when the bill showed a substantial amount. However, there was a condition. Kichu must only eat one Dosa and one Vada, along with a cup of tea. Kichu was instructed never to change the menu.
One such time though, Kichu could feel a rumbling from somewhere inside of him. He had a sudden craving for an extra Dosa. He ordered one more. Nothing could have prepared him for what was coming.
Kichu was in his room getting ready for bed. He heard a swish from behind and then almost the same instant a sharp pain, almost a burn on his back. Even before he began screaming, came the next splat on his back, then the next and the next and the next. Uncle Kochunni had brought his cane with him and was making the best use of it. “That’s another for disobeying”, he said. Uncle K did not stop. He knew that no one was going to hear the boy scream. He had made sure of it. He had closed three doors leading up to the boy’s room. There was no way any sound would reach any other ear in the large house.
Kichu stopped feeling anything after a while. His shirt was wet and he could smell his own blood. He heard the door squeak open. It was over. He clenched his teeth and blurted out ” The son of a ***** ”
It was too late before he realised what he had done. Once again the cane cut his flesh, once again it did not stop.
Kichu was found early the next morning by a visiting cousin, Rami. He ran down to inform muthashi and everyone else. Muthashi was horrified to see her beloved Kichu unable to even move. She wailed and wept and swore never to let the evil uncle anywhere near him ever again.
R.K mama was Muthashi’s son, his mother’s brother. He was a banker and lived in Calcutta. Muthashi wrote to her son, who came to visit the following month. R.K mama had been extremely close to Kichu’s mother and all the news about how Kichu was beaten up pained him. His voice was soft and loving like Muthashi’s. He told Kichu that he was a sharp and inquisitive boy. He must pursue with dedication anything that interests him at school. Perhaps, if he did well, he might be able to study in a good school in Mumbai, where his father was. He could live with his father.
Muthashi was old and did not understand the ways of a school. Muthashi did not ask him to study. She never inquired about his school assessments. Kichu’s schooling remained unmonitored until grade 10 when he was required to appear for state board public exams.
Ambalakkad Government High School had forty children appear for the exam. The medium was Malayalam. There were five subjects to appear for. Science, Mathematics, English as a second language, Social Studies and Malayalam as the first language. The headmaster did not hope for much. All he wished for was that the school did not have a 100% failure. R.K mama had written to him about what Kochunni had done. The headmaster kept an eye on Kochunni ever since. He was never let to interact with Kichu.
The day of the results children and teachers flocked to the school. The headmaster was happily relieved and sat relaxed in his chair. Four children passed the exams. All four became heroes at school. Kichu was one of the four. There were loud celebratory chanting of names. While one of his friends lifted him, Kichu’s thoughts raced and he smiled.