Wednesday, December 26, 2007

“I want a new pair of shoes, Amma.” Her mother’s matter-of-fact eyes went over her tiny eight-year old feet in a quick glance of appraisal before replying. “They seem to be in good shape, chellam, wanting nothing but a wash perhaps. Why do you want a new pair?” she sighed. Some explanations wither in the face of maternal reason. That’s the perennial blight of the frisky meadows of childhood, the bleak inevitability of having to convince obstinate adults about a cause that marches within the rules of your infantile logic. “Because…” she tried again, her voice shrinking into a whimper as her mother’s arms encircled her. And then the truth came out in a wounded whisper. “Because I want shoes that make me run faster.” And an invisible stream of deeper reasons that flowed along the banks of her teary hiccups, unnoticed. Because I’m tired of being the slowest in class all the time. Because I take ten seconds longer than anybody else. Because I want to be like everybody else, not someone singled out for ridicule for forty seconds of athletic ignominy…

“Ok. Manu. Stop Crying. You want to run faster, so you want new shoes? No problem. Just wait till tomorrow.”

Her smiles didn’t dampen at the sight of an ordinary cardboard carton, but when her fragile feet were eased into the hundred-rupee comfort of a shoe-laced sanctuary, she started. “But…’ her black eyes ignited with protest, fuelled by the mocking phantoms of parental perfidies peeking out from every steel-rimmed shoe-lace hole. “It’s only a size-10 Bata white-canvas shoe. It’s the same thing as what I’ve got. How will it ever help?”

And the swift pledges and rebuttals of her mother. “Of course not, Manu, it looks the same, but it’s a very special pair of shoes. It’s a magic shoe.”

Magic. Its familiar limpid contours. And it had winked at her more than once. The colours that appeared out of nowhere on the blank sheets of her magic colour books (“Just wet your brush and see the colours run. It’s magic.”). The obedient jerks of the car wheels under the remote-transmitted waves of the magic wand in her brother’s hands. The fabulous shuffling dance of red and black playing cards that seemed to puncture the rules of probability with an innocent ease. Nothing is easier to believe at the credulous age of eight, than magic. And magic is never more real when the package bears the ultimate seal of parental guarantees.

“ But it comes with a special instruction. Of course, you’ll run real fast and win any race with these shoes. But this will work only if your mind is focused on one thing.” She paused. Manu waited with bated breath. This was the crucial bit.

“You’ve got to keep thinking about the finish line, nothing else. You shouldn’t look feel, hear, and see, anything else while you’re running.”

“Why, it’s just like the fairy tales, it’s got to work then.” She marveled. “After all, every implement of magic has a catch, a condition. Like Cinderella’s midnight deadline.’ And Manu was off with her shoes clasped against the feral gallops of her tiny overjoyed heart.

“OK. Stand in line all of you. Height order, as usual.” The P.T master’s brusque booming voice was a deliberate deception that still didn’t succeed in hiding a yielding kind nature. He’d ignored school guidelines and surrendered to the girls’ constant choruses of “Please Sir. Please.” To let them play on that grey afternoon, when the rain and sun seemed to be taking turns in going undercover in an elaborately rehearsed stratagem of frustrating the citizens of Madras. The playground had turned from a crisp brown cup cake to a soggy cake mixture that had been deserted in an oven that had powered off midway.

The PT master stalked past endless pairs of muddy shoes, shaking his head at the culpable owners, and ignoring cries of “But it’s been raining the whole day”. “Cleanliness is Godliness.”, one of the key school dictums, scowled menacingly from their sanctimonious heights on the signboards at the squirming feet within the muddied shoes. Shoes like ravaged canvas sails that had been buffeted by the slimy currents of roadside puddles. Shoes like despoiled defeated shields that had suffered the thrusts of victorious feet upon their faces- to accept parallel brown imprints from an identical sole- footprinted scars that wouldn’t leave for a long time. And shoes that bore the unmistakable odour of a quick-fix mixture-- chalk and Kiwi shoe white, faithfully (and hurriedly) rubbed over mucky shoes, as if a genie would materialize from the shoe to banish the squalor.

“Aha, new shoes, Manu?” His eyes swallowed the untainted expanse of the white spotless scabbard enveloping her tapering feet. Swords that slashed their way through dirt without staining the scabbard. His pleased smile seemed to reignite in her, that glow that the new shoes had spawned. The rest of the class tittered. “Well, new shoes are not going to make slowcoach Manu run any faster.” Somebody remarked, and the entire class burst out laughing. But Manu smiled back at him, bravely with her tiny head aloft.

“Now there.” He continued kindly. ‘I’m sure you’ll do much better this time. Would you like to take the trials first?”

Manu took in the familiar sight of the small ground in a single scouting glance. There was the principal’s room and the huge slushy pool outside her door, the cricket nets, the playpens for the KG kids, the long jump pits, and then back to base. “I shouldn’t get mired anywhere, hey wait, I shouldn’t think of anything else but the target.” She concentrated as hard as she could on the finishing line, which had been drawn some distance away from the starting blocks and she managed to stow that image in some upper decks of her mind. A circular object of erstwhile doom emerged from the PT master’s pocket on a black leash and he adjusted the timer to zero, ignoring the remarks that this action invited. “Why take so much trouble Sir, she’ll take exactly forty seconds anyway. Imagine, forty! I complete the course in twenty point three…”

His long brown fingers were poised over the red button, inconsequential accomplices in this conspiracy, ready to dispatch Manu on a sprint, to match the tick-tock ticking sprint of the cunning contrivance of time in his powerless hands. “OK. Manu. Ready?”

Her shoes seemed to laugh at her, the pristine tinkle of the white laughter of magic and the certain victory that always came in its wake and suddenly she smiled. She nodded her readiness. “One two three.”

Manu shivered as the water entered her eyes, and the antiseptic odour drifted into her nostrils. The mud slithered off her skin slowly and snakily made its way into the soft secret folds of that wet turkey towel instead. The knotted spheres of cotton thread rubbed against her hair vigorously, threatening to pull her hair out along with the threads.

Like Velcro.Velvet of her black hair against the crotchety towel.

She opened her eyes. A lopsided obscured view. Between the gaps left by the towel-edges between she saw her mother leaving her umbrella outside the Headmistress’ room. As she entered, she rushed towards Manu. The ayah stopped toweling her immediately, and as it lifted Manu felt a fresh wave of devastating disorientation bleed into her. And as she hugged her mother weakly,everything seemed to vanish- her pounding aches and the fiery blaze around the edges of her sore wounds.The deadened sensations within her head should have anaesthesized her bodily pain, but curiously, it strengthened her awareness of the pain. It reminded her of what her cataract-ridden grandmother used to say while being blindfolded- “Ah.Everything’s so much sharper now.” As if blind man’s buff offered a much better field of vision to cataract-clouded eyes. As if a frozen consciousness could sedate unbearable pain.

She caught fragments of the HM’s soothing voice as the two women spoke. “I’d suggest a nice hot bath. She needs to be cleaned up a bit. Lots of mud, yes terrible weather, isn’t it? And then a couple of bandages and a bit of rest. And she can come back to school tomorrow good as new.”

“Yes. She’s had a bad fall. Poor girl. It’s shock more than physical injury. I’ve already had a word with the PT instructor. I’m surprised he let the girls run about when the ground is so slippery. Thankfully, it was only the long jump pit that she fell into. Soft, but it’s made her all muddy. Nothing serious, really.”

She limped her way towards the school gate towards the waiting auto, on her mother’s arm, and they walked through the now desolate playground, half-drenched under the inadequate protection of an umbrella each. The brown cascades surging from puddles lapped on to their feet without any warning. Her mother trod cautiously on that slick path, her toes, in the clasp of a rubber-hawaii embrace, shunned the inundation She looked at Manu’s hopelessly submerged feet. One foot swathed within the grubby confines of a decrepit shoe and the other foot shuddering within navy-blue socks slowly turning brown as more and more sand from the stream plugged its weaves.

Manu’s mother looked at her solitary unprotected foot. “Where’s the other one, Manu?”

Manu’s hand stretched out of the confines of her umbrella into the icy shower, pointing soundlessly towards the long jump pit. “I’ll get it. Her mother said tactfully. As she walked to-and –fro across the length of that muddy mess, the sight of that runaway shoe eluded her with the doggedness of an errant puppy. “OK. Let’s leave” The words rolled out with absent-minded ease, with forgotten frigidity in a pitiless murmur. “It’s just an ordinary pair of canvas shoes anyway.”

“Manu?” She sighed impatiently as she waited, with her arms folded.

Manu winced with pain as bent down on her knees. Slowly, she undid the discoloured shoelaces, though wet, still stiff and new between her frozen fingers. As the lace wobbled out of that taut knot, it might have felt like untying the knots around a gift- kinesthetic memory counts after all. But she was actually ripping open the curtains of a performing magician, to realise that abracadabra was a mythical falsehood and he that the Wizard of Oz was a fable. The spell hadn’t bamboozled the gaping spectator, the enchantment was a deception, a con-trick. And the enchanted became the disenchanted. She flung it away-launching into an irritably brief trajectory of betrayal, and it lay suspended mid-air like a visual premonition for a single furious moment. It landed softly into the pit. But Manu’s mother, busy waving away the dripping annoyance of the sodden auto-driver, didn’t notice. She turned towards a now-erect Manu with sharp relief. “OK. Let’s go. Walk carefully.” Manu nodded. She was going to tread slowly and carefully for the rest of her life. She’d never shoot forward with that facile fluency of motion- a dream that had flown forth in a unrestrained flash and had evaporated with a piddling puff.

Ah, the dreams of childhood, they are spun out of glass. And like a skilled glass blower I’ve blown many-hued globes of triumph, drawn flimsy glass strands of hope, and shaped clear cylinders that were to enclose potions of enchantment. I’ve worked away steadily with my inextinguishable gas-torch of hope, those flames of faith cutting and blowing glass, my soft mouth encircling endless burning tubes of hot new glass. Broken. And all I have to do now was to walk carefully, avoiding the pointed edges of the sullen invisible pieces of my figurines. In the dark, where they won’t even beam at me under the sun, their sunlit smiles promising magical resurrection.

They walked carefully away from the long-jump pit. From that squelchy grave. A futile childhood dream was buried there- sullied, abandoned and torn to shreds.