Nikesh Murali's work (which include comics, poems and short stories) has appeared in more than 80 publications worldwide. His works have been translated into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French. He won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Asian region in 2011. His poetry was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2007. He has completed his Masters in Journalism from Griffith University for which he was awarded the Griffith University Award for Academic Excellence in 2005, and his Masters in Teaching from James Cook University and a Bachelors degree in English Literature and World History from University of Kerala. He is working towards his Doctorate in Creative Writing.
Blood pounded in the boy’s veins like drums in a religious procession.
The teacher shouted in surprise when he stabbed her the first time. She then fell on the ground, shuddering and flapping her limbs about, and whimpered as he vented his anger on her soft body.
There was shocked silence in the classroom and no one stopped him.
Before a dark rage took over the boy, he was a cricket fan. He was addicted to Fanta and Dairy Milk. He liked fireworks and running on the railway track. He loved pasting pictures of actresses in skimpy clothes on last pages of his notebooks.
His mother was a nanny at a rich doctor’s house. The kids she looked after were the “spawn of Satan” according to her.
“I would much rather be with my gem,” she told him, running her fingers through his oily hair.
“But you are away from home all the time.”
“Amma is cleaning someone else’s dirty clothes so that you can be successful and not end up like your father.”
She made it home four times a month, on Sundays, just in time for mass at the neighbourhood church. She brought him half eaten snacks and candy left over from parties at her employer’s house.
After cooking him a nice lunch of spicy lentils and rice, she slept all afternoon in the hot bedroom, under the creaky rusted fan.
He watched the beautiful shape of her body on the mat and imagined its softness, but never disturbed her. She never asked him to join her.
She woke up, made tea and asked him about school. He showed her the best samples of his work, which weren’t many, for smiles and pats.
She left quietly, early in the morning. But he lay awake and listened as she left him again and again to silent nights with his father.
His father was a man of few words. He listened to metal all morning. The loud clanging of steel on steel haunted his waking hours.
They never talked about the mother.
The boy cooked rice porridge every night, which he had with mango pickle, three times a day.
His father never joined him, so the boy ate from a stainless steel bowl, squatting on his haunches in a corner of the kitchen, listening to crickets usher in the darkness.
He would then go sit on the veranda to look at the stars, while his father drank moonshine till he fell asleep, oblivious to the flies exploring his mouth and the dark warm stain of urine on his pants.
The boy hated school.
He deemed the marks made by chalk on the blackboard, a blasphemy. He couldn’t bear the trail of squeaking sounds it left in the creation of a sentence or an image. He wished he didn’t have to see or hear them again.
So he slipped into a world of daydreams. He was a movie star in most of them, shooting romantic song sequences on the beach with bikini clad blonde girls.
Teachers ignored his blank stares and terrible attempts at answering tests. They passed him from grade to grade, the box against his name ticked, their signatures propelling him into an uncertain fate that he neither feared nor desired.
His mother did not come home the week the new history teacher joined the school.
Described by his classmates as “a real piece of work”, she soon became the bane of his existence.
She was tall and hunched, and had a big belly that struggled unattractively against her silk saris. Several moles populated the right side of her face. She had bright white teeth and her eyes were set deep, betraying a permanent air of distrust.
She was all about discipline and results, and everyday she would quiz them and punish those who failed to answer correctly.
The boy had gotten into her bad books from week one for sleeping in the class. She had found him face down on his textbook, slobber lacing a photograph of the Pyramids. She broke her chalk on his forehead for this offence.
When he failed her pop quiz, she called him a “lazy sod” and made him stand on the bench.
He did not answer any of the questions about Mahatma Gandhi at the end of the month test and reported the capital of Egypt as Jordan.
The teacher wanted everyone who scored below ten to show her written remarks to their parents and get it signed.
Total lack of focus and discipline. I am not going to tolerate poor performances like this if it continues. She wrote on the boy’s paper.
The boy forged his father’s signature and gave it back to her. She bought it.
It had been two weeks since the boy’s mother stopped visiting. They didn’t own a phone so he couldn’t give her a call, not that she left a number.
His father was silent about her whereabouts. He was drinking more than usual.
He stole some money from his father to catch a bus to the city, to see his mother. He got the address from a postcard stuck to the only mirror in the house.
He felt lonelier in the city. It was full of people who zoomed past in vehicles coughing black smoke. They ignored him just like his father.
The sky was grey and tall concrete structures covered in dirt looked down on him wherever he went.
He caught a rickshaw to the house, a two storeyed palace of wood and marble.
A watchman met him at the gate.
“What do you want?”
The boy ogled at the green lawn and the swimming pool. He had only seen them in movies.
The watchman tapped his cane on the gate. “What do you want?”
“I want to see my mother.”
The watchman looked at him closely.
“Are you Valsamma’s son?”
He nodded, still taking in the sights of the compound.
“So you didn’t know?”
“Your father didn’t tell you?”
The boy shook his head.
“Your mother ran away with someone.”
“I can’t tell you more.”
“Where did she go?”
“She must be in Goa by now on her honeymoon.” The Watchman smiled cruelly.
When he turned around to leave, the watchman stopped him and offered him some money, “Take it.”
He accepted it.
The bus ride home was a long one.
His father was passed out when he got home. There was vomit everywhere and he stepped on it in the dark.
The boy cried all night, wiping his tears with one hand and killing mosquitoes with the other.
A week later, he failed another test and when the teacher asked for a signature from his parents, he refused.
She dragged him to the principal’s office.
She called him a “waste of space” and tore his answer paper.
The Principal calmed her down. He promised that he would speak to the boy’s father, and sent her back to the classroom.
He retrieved the contact number for the father’s metal works factory from the boy’s admission files.
He dialled the number. Someone picked up the phone and said they would get the man.
The boy collected torn bits of his paper from the floor with great reverence and put it in the waste basket.
The principal said hello. He listened and muttered brief responses, and then hung up the phone.
“Did you get my father?” the boy asked.
“That was his manager,” the Principal said.
He took the boy back to the classroom. He called the teacher out and talked to her in hushed tones.
“What a surprise!” she said looking at the boy.
The teacher went in muttering and cursing. He couldn’t hear what she was saying. The whole classroom laughed.
When he was allowed back in the class, his classmates greeted him with mocking glances. He knew that he was the butt of their jokes. But now he couldn’t hide from their derision even at the back of the classroom.
As he walked towards his usual seat, the teacher stopped him and asked him to sit on the front bench.
“Let me see if I can fix you,” she said pointing a finger at him.
Anger clouded his senses. “There is nothing fixable about my life bitch,” he thought.
The boy skipped school the next day and watched a movie. Then he walked along railway track bouncing a ball till the sun went down.
When he got home he burned all of his mother’s clothes. He sat in front of the charred remains, mourning, as if he had cremated her body, her memories.
He lay down, crying and whispering her name, and drifted off to sleep.
He dreamt that the history teacher was tearing his notebooks and filling the classroom with paper. He was sinking in it, suffocating, as he looked for a way to escape.
“I will fix you. I will fix you up good,” she said as he drowned.
He woke up screaming, his body soaked in sweat.
He went to the kitchen to get a drink. The utensils were bathed in an otherworldly blue of a full moon night.
He spotted the knife sitting on a clay pot. It was small and rusted in places. The wooden handle was chipped and scarred. He held it up in the light, felt its sharpness.
No one would laugh at him if he carried a blade.
He imagined a scenario where he was being bullied by his piece-of-shit classmates.
“She’s enjoying her honeymoon in Goa,” one of them said.
He pulled the knife out and twirled it several times like his favourite action heroes and thrust it into a desk. He watched the pests slink away.
He smiled at the daydream.
He took it to school the next day.
They were learning about the assassination of Gandhi in the history class. He didn’t know or cared why the man had died, but wanted to know how. He listened in rapt attention.
A gun shot. Hey Ram, his last words.
It was not spectacular enough for him. He couldn’t bear another second of the teacher’s tedious drivel.
He took out one of his notebooks and opened the back page and looked at the picture of the half Persian half Indian actress lying in a bathtub full of rose petals. He felt a strange surge of desire.
A piece of chalk hit his left eye. He cried out and pressed it shut.
The teacher rushed at him. She wrenched the book from his hands and stared at it angrily.
“No wonder you don’t listen in the classroom you filthy mongrel. Is this why your mother left? She must have been disgusted by you.”
Some of the kids laughed.
He felt a strange pressure build in his head. A surge of embarrassment and anger washed over, leaving him warm and cold at the same time.
He thought he heard someone say, “She is in Goa. Enjoying her honeymoon.” But it could have been something else. They were taunting him and that was enough.
In that brief moment before his hand reached for the knife, the boy realised that his father rarely spoke to him because he feared the seeds of wrath in his offspring. He was a child destined for steel and gore.
He was covered in blood. Gaping mouths of lethal wounds on her body mocked him.
He scrambled away from the corpse and sat in a corner with the knife clenched firmly in his hands.
Someone ran to the Principal’s office. A few girls sobbed.
The light coming through the doorway was too bright. The pounding in his head stopped and now his heart felt heavy.
He wept and rocked his body.
The room was blurred by tears; the onlookers, faceless and demonic.
He wished he was back home, next to his father, on the veranda that reeked of moonshine and vomit and urine. At least they weren’t alone. They had the stars and nights full of silence.