Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ramesh and the Landlord’s Secret (Part l)

Part I: Ramesh Disappears!

A poem about the Principal (not very flattering) can lead to trouble. With Ramesh around, solving one problem usually leads to another – and then the adventures start.

I looked around at the circle of eager faces crowding close to my desk in the small classroom, then glanced down at the sheet of paper in my hands, cleared my throat and began reciting:
“To Mr. Gupta, our Principal,
This poem I dedicate,
Whose two hundredth birthday
We’ll probably soon celebrate –”

“Two hundred years?” exclaimed Raghu, the class monitor, interrupting me unceremoniously. “I never thought he was that old!”

I slowly raised my eyes and stared frostily at this critic of my art. “There is, “I declared stonily, “something called ‘poetic license’ which allows a writer to exaggerate a little. Even an ignoramus like you would’ve realized this if you’d waited to hear the next four lines. Or perhaps,” I enquired politely, “you’d rather I did not read out my poem?”

“No, no!” protested Raghu hastily. “I’m sorry I interrupted! Please continue yaar!”

I hesitated a little then, with a shrug, resumed reading.
“While the above-mentioned age
One may easily refute,
That Guptaji is very ancient
Is a fact nobody will dispute!
Although he’s supposed to be
Our Indian History teacher,
On the subject of good behaviour,
He’s an equally good preacher.
His lectures on the latter
Are really such a bore,
But we dare not to tell him so,
For we fear that he’ll be sore.
When he’s angry he resembles
A bull that has seen red,
Or a lion that, for many days,
Has not been fed.
When Guptaji calls for you,
It’s best that you run;
He’s probably the most terrifying person
Since Attila the Hun!
When he --”

But my classmates were not destined to hear the rest of my poem. At this point Deepak, who had been posted at the door as a lookout, announced in a hoarse whisper that sounded more like a bull frog with a sore throat: “He’s coming!”

In less time than it takes to say ‘Watch out!’ everyone was at his place, studiously scanning a book or sharpening a pencil. My poem was quickly thrust between the pages of my exercise book, and I was busy trying to look busy filling ink into my pen. A step was heard outside the door – and a moment later Mr. Gupta, the Principal of our school, entered to take his History class.

With the smoothness and perfect timing that comes only from long practice, we all swept to our feet and chorused in harmony:
“Good morning, Sir!”

“Good morning, good morning,” murmured Mr. Gupta somewhat absently. He mounted the small raised platform in front of the blackboard on leaden feet. Something was worrying our Principal.

As I pointed out in my poem, Mr. Gupta is an elderly man. He is also spectacled, balding and plump. He looks rather like a Roman Emperor with something on his mind. He carefully polished his spectacles with his handkerchief, replaced them and looked owlishly at the class.

“I…er… have an important announcement to make,” he declared in the manner of a prophet of doom. “The new landlord has refused to renew the lease on this building,” he continued. “We will have to seek new premises. A letter is being sent to each of your parents informing them of this.” Mr. Gupta paused as if at a loss for words. It was clear that this news had come to him like a thump on the base of the skull with a sock full of wet sand.

I wasn’t surprised at his feelings. Mr. Gupta had nurtured this school right from its birth, thirty years ago. The Educational Trust which administered the school would find it very difficult, if not impossible, to find another suitable building in the town. Mr. Gupta was thus in danger of seeing his life’s work being demolished in front of his eyes!

I was not the only one who realized this. Mr. Gupta’s words were followed by a tense silence. It was broken by the Principal himself. “Anyway,” he continued quickly, “I will not be able to take this class today. I have to go and attend an urgent meeting of the governing body of the Trust. Just gve me your homework exercise books.”

As Raghu went quickly round the classroom, we handed our History exercise books to him. Without a word, Mr. Gupta accepted the pile of exercise books from Raghu and swept out of the room.

A buzz of excited conversation broke out. “Wow!” exclaimed Deepak, springing up from his chair and coming over to my desk. “Poor Guptaji! Does it mean the school will have to close down?”

“We’ll have to join some other school, then,” declared Deepak, “Which one? St. Thomas’?”

There was an immediate storm of protest. “Never!” shouted Shiv, the star of the school football team, from across the room. “St. Thomas’ School has been our football rival for years and years! I’d never go there!”

“What do you think?” I asked Ramesh, who had also left his desk and come over.

My spectacled friend stared down at me and there was an odd look in his eyes. “Listen, yaar,” he said quietly. “In which exercise book did you hide your poem on Mr. Gupta?”

“My poem?” I asked in a puzzled voice, for I had forgotten about it in the excitement following the Principal’s brief announcement. “Er….let’s see. Oh, yes! I hid it in my History exercise book. Why?”

Ramesh stepped back and pointed his forefinger at me in a dramatic gesture. “And which exercise book of yours did you just hand over to Guptaji?” he asked.

I had sometimes wondered how I would feel if a bomb ever exploded at my feet. I knew now. I shot out of my chair like a rocket. My mouth fell open and I goggled at Ramesh like a dead fish.

“What a mess!” gasped Raghu, aghast at my plight. “When the Princi reads that poem of yours, he’ll blow his top!”

I slumped back in my chair.

“But don’t worry,” reassured Ramesh. “There’s still a way out!”

As a strong swimmer hoots to the surface after a high dive, my soul rose suddenly from the depths to which it had descended. I raised my head and stared at Ramesh. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well,” said Ramesh, the familiar glint appearing in his spectacles. “You heard the Princi say that he has to attend an urgent meeting now. My guess is that he’ll dump the exercise books he’s just collected in his study and go straight to the staff room or the seminar room or wherever the meeting is being held. Since the Princi’s study is never locked, we can go now and hop in when nobody’s looking, remove your poem from your exercise book, and hop out again! But we’ll have to act fast – before the Princi returns to his study after the meeting is over!

For a moment, the boldness of this plan took my breath away. “What if the Princi catches us?” I exclaimed.

“Am I afraid of the Principal?” cried Ramesh, manfully. “Well, yes, I am!” he added, after a moment’s reflection. “But he won’t catch us if we’re careful! Come on, yaar, don’t be chicken! Think what’s at stake!”

That decided me. Ramesh’s plan did have some chances of success and that was more than enough reason to justify trying it out. Beggars, after all, cannot be choosers. It was of vital importance that Mr. Gupta should not read the poem.

“All right,” I agreed, fighting down my natural fear of Ramesh’s daring escapades. “Let’s go!”

The Principal’s study was on the ground floor and in one corner of the rambling building. It was with…well, not quite an uplifted heart… call it a heart lifted about halfway… that I followed Ramesh there. At a moment when everything had seemed lost and disaster stared me in the face, Ramesh had come up with a plan which, while undoubtedly risky, did carry with it a chance of success. And, the good friend that he was, he had automatically made my problem his own. At the same time, I was fully aware that Ramesh has the general outlook on life of a ticking bomb. In his company you always have the uneasy feeling that something is likely to go off at any moment with a pop.

We reached the small passage leading to Mr. Gupta’s study and found, that by the mercy of the fates, it was empty. “Well,” said Ramesh, “who’ll go in?”

I began to get cold feet. “Er…you’re kind of better at this sort of thing, aren’t you?”

Ramesh grinned at me. “You’ll never change, yaar! All right, I’ll go! You stay as a lookout. Incase anybody comes along, start talking loudly to warn me. I’ll keep as quiet as a mouse until that person goes away! Got it?” I nodded.

Ramesh hurried to the door of the study. He looked furtively around him like the hero of a C-grade spy movie. Then he quickly turned the door knob and stepped into the room, shutting the door after him.

The seconds ticked away with agonizing slowness. Then, just as I began to feel that things were going smoothly, I heard the sound of heavy footsteps approaching. I whirled around to see who this unwelcome intruder was – and then my heart jumped into my mouth and slammed against my teeth! For the person who had suddenly rounded the corner and come into view was none other than Mr. Gupta himself!

Mr. Gupta stopped in his tracks as soon as he saw me. A puzzled frown creased his brow. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “Do you want something?”

I swallowed painfully. If he ever got to know what I wanted…

Mr. Gupta took a step forward. “Well? Why don’t you say something? Hurry up!”

I took hold of myself. With a courage born out of desperation, I managed to stammer in a loud voice: “I…er…well…er…actually, sir, I…er…wanted to…er…ask a question in history!

Mr. Gupta was truly amazed. “You want to ask a question?” He gave a pleased smile. “Well, well, wonders will never cease! Certainly, my boy, ask your question! Ask ten questions, if you want!” He glanced at his wristwatch. “The Chairman of the governing body has telephoned to say that he’ll be half-an-hour late. So we can discuss your problem now in my study. Come!”

I felt as if I had been hit in the eye with a wet fish. I reeled. “In the study, sir? But…but…”

But Mr. Guota had already reached the study door. With my heart still in my mouth, I followed. Had Ramesh heard me talking to Mr. Gupta? And had he found a place to hide?

Mr. Gupta swung open the door. I stopped breathing.

Mr. Gupta stepped into the room. I shut my eyes.

“What’s the matter?” I heard Mr. Gupta shout impatiently. “Why aren’t you coming in?”

I stepped into Mr. Gupta’s study and stared wildly around me. Ramesh was nowhere in sight! Hope began to creep back into my heart, much like a puppy that shamefully and quietly returns to his master's house after an unauthorised morning in the forest.

Mr. Gupta sank into the chair behind his desk. “Now ask your question!” he ordered.

I stared at the Principal, my heart sinking. I felt as if I was facing a firing squad. “Uh…it’s about the first battle of Panipat, sir!” I said quickly, on my feet.

“What about it?”

I thought fast. “Er…did Akbar –- ”


“No, no! I meant Humayun!”


I began to perspire. The situation was fast becoming desperate. I tried one last shot in the dark. “Actually, it’s…it’s about Babur!”


“Er…did he -- ” and then I broke off suddenly, my eyes nearly shooting out of their sockets. The cupboard door behind Mr. Gupta’s head had opened slightly and I glimpsed Ramesh peering at me from inside!

“What’s the matter?” asked Mr. Gupta surprised. “What are you staring at?” He began to turn.

Ramesh quickly re-shut the cupboard door. “I wasn’t staring at anything, sir!” I cried desperately. “My-my mind just wandered!”

Mr. Gupta stopped turning his head. Instead, he directed a penetrating stare in my direction. “Your mind seems to be wandering a lot, this morning,” he said, his voice hardening a little. “Will you or will you not ask me your question?”

I gave up. I was unequal to the situation. “I-I’ve f-forgotten my question, sir!” I stammered.

There was the sort of silence which I believe cyclones drop into for a second or two before they break in fury.

“What did you say?” he asked in a dangerous voice.

“I-I’ve forgotten my question, sir!” I repeated miserably.

“Oh?” said Mr. Gupta. He got slowly to his feet. “Is this some sort of a joke?” he thundered. “You have the nerve, the audacity, the outrageous cheek to try to be funny with me! You think I have nothing to do but sit and listen to your babbling! You – what is this?” he asked testily to the peon who had suddenly appeared at the door of the study.

“Excuse me, sir, but the Chairman Saab has arrived,” replied the peon. “He’s in the staff room.”

Mr. Gupta sprang to his feet. “That was very quick of him!” he exclaimed. “The meeting can start now!” He turned to the peon. “Go and tell the Chairman that I am just coming!” he ordered.

“Ji Saab,” said the peon and left. Mr. Gupta turned to me. “I’ll deal with you later,” he said grimly. “Now go back to your class!”

Mr. Gupta picked up some papers from his desk and swept out of the room. I scuttled after him.

Raghu and Deepak had told the rest of the class my plight. Immediately on entering the room I was surrounded by eager classmates wanting to know the outcome of the mission. The ordeal I had just suffered left me feeling as if I had been run over by several motor-lorries and it was some time before I could collect my thoughts sufficiently to tell them what had happened. After I had finished, Raghu uttered a low whistle and exclaimed. “I wonder that your hair hasn’t turned white – after what you’ve been through! So you don’t know whether Ramesh finally managed to remove your poem from your exercise book after all?”

“No,” I replied. “But Ramesh should be back soon. Then we’ll know!”

I was wrong. Ramesh did not return. The break bell rang soon after, and during the interval I searched the entire school building and grounds for him like a madman. But not a sign of him did I find! Ramesh seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth – leaving not a trace behind!

The rest of the day was spent watching some documentary films in the auditorium. I naturally found it difficult to concentrate on the screen. Thankfully, no one noticed that Ramesh was missing. I knew that he had plenty of chances to slip out of the Principal’s study after Mr. Gupta and I had left. Ramesh’s non-appearance was something I just couldn’t explain.

When the last bell rang, Ramesh had still not re-appeared. Sick at heart, I picked up Ramesh’s school-bag along with my own and prepared to leave for home.

I do not know how I managed to reach home without being run over – I was too worried to notice what was happening on the roads.

The first thing I did on returning home was to pick up the telephone receiver and dial Ramesh’s number. No, Ramesh’s mother informed me, Ramesh had not yet returned home from school. Was anything the matter?

“No,” I assured her in a hollow voice. “Nothing’s the matter.” Perplexed more or less sums up the state I was in when I sat down to lunch. My mother’s cooking turned to ashes in my mouth. Just as I was finishing, the telephone rang.

“It’s for you,” my mother told me, holding the receiver in her hand, “Ramesh calling.”

Ramesh? For the second time that day, I shot out of my chair like a rocket. I grabbed the receiver from my startled mother and barked into the mouthpiece: “Where are you speaking from?”

“Home,” replied the familiar voice at the other end of the line. “I just arrived. Have you got my schoolbag?”

“Yes, yes!” I exclaimed impatiently. “But what happened to you? Where did you disappear?”

“It’s a long story,” said Ramesh mysteriously. “Were you worried?”

I uttered a hacking laugh.

“Was I worried, you ask! Why, I searched every drawer and dustbin in the school looking for you!”

“Sorry about that,” murmured Ramesh soothingly. “I couldn’t help it. I’ll tell you all about what happened to me a little later. You know the old abandoned house belonging to the landlord, near the field behind the school? Well, meet me there in an hour. And bring your torch along!”

“But-but --”

“No buts, yaar. Please do as I say! And, I’ve got your poem!”

“My poem?” I had forgotten all about it while worrying over Ramesh’s disappearance! “Yes, of course! Thanks a ton! O.K. I’ll do as you say. But you’d better have a good reason for dragging me there!”

The click of a receiver being replaced was the answer I got.

Next time: What has the abandoned house got to do with Ramesh’s mysterious disappearance from school?