Gary was standing bent over, copying his homework. Math. He hadn’t been to school the day before yesterday. The last period today was math. He had to finish it before that. Akash Chauhan, who came first in class, may have been academically proficient, but was a complete coward and miser. He wouldn’t part with his notebook. What if Gary didn’t return it. Copy it right here, in my line of sight. Algebra equations, one slip and he would be done for. Glumly, Gary copied it all. ‘Your little sister, Gautam,’ Akash exclaimed suddenly in English, looking over the rim of his glasses. Gary’s real name was Gautam. His mother used to call him Garfield when he was younger because of his habit of trying to scratch people like an angry cat. From Garfield to Gary. Standing upright, Gary caught a glimpse of Totaa at the door. Totaa again. ‘I’ll break your nose,’ Gary shouted with a frown, stamping his foot as though about to chase her away. ‘Buzz off.’ Totaa’s tiny shadow disappeared from view. But it didn’t vanish entirely. Gary leant over his notebook again. It was recess at school. Children were running all over the bare field outside. The older boys were playing football on the ground to the right of the secondary building. Totaa came at this time every day. At least once. The primary section was at quite a distance. There was a small wooden gate in between. Still she would come. Gary scolded her, made as if to smack her, threatened her. He hated it with his friends present, he was embarrassed. Seven years younger, Totaa understood nothing. She would turn up anyway. Gary straightened again when Shubho tapped him on his back. ‘Uff, what is it?’
‘Why don’t you go find out,’ said Shubho. ‘Why do you behave that way all the time.’
Totaa stood tearfully, looking the other way. Her blouse hung out of her skirt on one side. Her hair had been through a battle. The buckle of her skirt had travelled all the way round to the front. Utterly dishevelled. Her left hand was smeared with chocolate. Melting, a single piece had survived. ‘Here,’ said Totaa, holding out her left hand. ‘It was Pritha’s happy birthday. We got two chocolates each. I ate one.’
‘Eat this one too,’ Gary wrinkled his nose. ‘Wash your hands afterwards. And listen, I’m doing my homework. Don’t bug me, ok?’ As a disappointed Totaa was about to leave, licking her fingers, Gary called out to her again. ‘Why are you limping? Are your shoes tight?’
Dada had called her back. This alone was enough to thrill Totaa into taking off her shoes and throwing them in the air. ‘Very tight dada. These are the old ones. The buckle’s broken on the new shoes. I tell ma every day, she keeps forgetting. Will you remind her?’ ‘All right, I will.’ Why blame the shoes, Gary thought to himself, considering the way she walks. ‘I’ll remind her. Put them back on now, your socks are getting dirty.’
Totaa left, limping. Gary waited, biting his lower lip, until Totaa’s shag had disappeared on the other side of the wooden gate. ‘It’s impossible,’ he had told his father so many times, ‘Tell ma to move Totaa to some other school. It’s very embarrassing. She doesn’t understand, she turns up in my classroom whenever she feels like, makes absurd demands. Or else shift me to some other school.’ He’d say the same thing today as well. When his father got back home. Every time, Abhijit Roychowdhury, Gary’s father, had told him calmly, ‘You’re in class nine. Do you know the implication of changing schools now, before class eleven? Will any good school accept you? Of course Totaa can go to some other school. She’s young. But your mother is asking for more time. How can she chase other schools now in the middle of the session? You must be patient, Gary.’
Gary couldn’t explain the problem in as many words to his father. Totaa used to visit him earlier too, in his previous class. At first she even used to call her brother when she needed to go to the toilet. Apparently someone had said there were ghosts and ghouls in the primary section toilet. She couldn’t even rely on her friends. Dada was so much older. To Totaa dada was Superman, dada was Batman, Sachin Tendulkar and all the rest. Then, too, Gary used to be annoyed, he used to be angry with her, but there was nothing so horribly embarrassing about it. The ugly scenes had been limited to their home initially. No outsider except their part-time maid knew about them. Not even the neighbours. When Gary went off to their new flat with his father and grandmother after the separation, the driver of their school-bus came to know, the Physical Training teacher came to know, Shubho, Akash and the rest came to know. Gary hadn’t been to school for two days. When he did go on the third day, his class-teacher Mrs Dewan had gently put her hand on his shoulder before leaving. ‘Take it easy, Gautam,’ she had said very softly. No one else had heard. Still Gary’s ears had begun to flame, his heart seemed to be thudding like a drum. He felt as though everyone had overheard, as though everyone was laughing at him. Totaa simply couldn’t understand that everything had changed. On her way to her class, she would break out of the prayer-line to flash him a wide smile, calling out da-da to him in the sun. She would come up to him on some pretext or the other during recess. She’d refuse to go even if he chased her away.
That night Gary didn’t tell his father about changing schools. His father looked unhappy, he must have quarrelled with his boss at office. He looked after marketing. Around the middle of every year the conflict over the sales target escalated like this. By the middle of March it reached a crescendo. Summoning a vertical crease to his forehead as he read National Geographic, Abhijit Chowdhury told to his son, ‘Go to bed now Gary. Leave me alone. Please.’
Gary telephoned his mother from his bedroom. Leave me alone. When the grown-ups want you have to be them, you have to share. Then when they want to be alone you have to leave them alone. They’re the ones who’ve made the rules. They’ll make a big show of taking children in their teams too. His mother phoned sometimes. She wanted to talk to Gary. Because his father had answered the phone only for someone at the other end to disconnect. Must have been ma. She didn’t want to talk to baba. When Gary answered the phone himself, they would chat for some time. She would ask about his studies, calculate the average of his marks in the unit tests. Actually it was because of his studies that Gary was living with his father. His mother had wanted both Totaa and Gary to live with her. His father must have been afraid. Afraid of loneliness. So he had said with a mixture of sadness and anger in his calm voice, ‘Aren’t you ignoring Gary’s future completely? He’ll take his class ten exams the year after next.’ Gary came to live with his father because he could help with the science-stream subjects. But when Gary went to his father these days with his math he said lazily, ‘I’ll have a look tomorrow, Gary. I’m far too tired today.’ After which he either sat down with a magazine or turned on the TV with the volume set to zero.
Totaa had fallen asleep. ‘Her shoes are tight,’ Gary told his mother. ‘I saw her limping in school. Get her a new pair quickly.’ She was a little surprised, defensive too. ‘How come she didn’t tell me?’ ‘She did, you’ve forgotten,’ Gary shot back. Probably because he couldn’t keep himself from saying this to her. On such nights, when the house was absolutely silent, his father in the next room, his grandmother away visiting her daughter, when the enormous bed seemed like a sea with white sails trying to swallow him, Gary wanted so much to cry that his throat and ears hurt. He felt that the whole thing – that his mother had forgotten Garfield, that baba-Gary-ma-Totaa no longer snuggled against one another on winter or rainy nights, listening to the sitar or to Mozart – was a game. That Totaa came running to complain about her tight shoes – all this was a fun game devised by their parents. When it was over they would stand side by side smiling, like Sachin and Jayasuriya on TV. ‘How silly both of you are,’ they would tell Gary and Totaa, ‘April Fool!’
Sudeshna woke her daughter up a little early. One of her arms was dangling from the bed, she was sleeping like a rag doll, her mother felt a wave of tenderness. Totaa glowered over her milk and cornflakes, stirring it without eating – Sudeshna was annoyed. ‘What is it, hurry up. Go have your bath. Then I’ll buy you shoes on the way to school.’ Totaa raised her head to look at her mother. Question marks were written in her large brown eyes. How had her mother suddenly come to know?
‘Your Sachin Tendulkar had phoned yesterday. How he scolded me on the phone. Why hadn’t I… What’s all this Totaa!’
Totaa burst into tears. Crying her heart out. She had always had a very loud voice. ‘You can hear the newborn’s voice from the ground-floor!’ Dr Tripathi had marvelled when she was born. ‘This baby won’t need a paediatrician.’ There would be trouble if she was heard in the next flat. That’s where Shyamoli the child-psychologist lived. ‘What’s the matter, Sudeshna?’ she would come running to ask. ‘Any problem!’ ‘What’s the matter Totaa, are you missing dada?’ asked Sudedshna, leaning over her daughter.
‘Aaah-aaah-too… toothache!’ Pushing away her bowl and spoon Totaa ran to the bathroom mirror. One of her lower teeth was wobbling terribly. But it refused to come out. Toothache. The tooth that was supposed to come up in its place had appeared early, nudging the older one from the back. It was all so horrible. Totaa had gone to bed quite apprehensively the night before. What if she swallowed the tooth? She had no idea what would happen. Even the upper tooth had troubled her the same way before falling out. It had kept wobbling for ages, but without falling. It had bled from time to time. ‘If you go to bed with a wobbling tooth, you’ll swallow it for sure,’ her brother had scared her. ‘Let me pull it out with a thread.’
‘No!’ Totaa was mortally afraid of the thread.
‘Then let me punch it out of your mouth.’
Totaa had cried herself into a state.
Flanked by her mother and brother as she stood before the bathroom mirror, leaning on the basin with her elbows, Totaa had eventually pulled the bloodstained tooth off herself by shaking it back and forth. Then, it had been quite late at night, she had slept after dropping it in the dustbin when she couldn’t find a mousehole. But who knew what would happen today. Totaa had no faith in her mother. She wriggled out of her grip to escape into the bathroom. How could she buy shoes when she was so tense. ‘I’m warning you Totaa, I won’t allow you to miss school for such a small thing. You have a test too.’ Her mother dropped her at school, still scolding her.
They had exams in this school every second and fourth Friday. Class-tests. For all classes at the same time. Leaning over her English notebook to fill in the blanks in an uneven hand, Totaa realized that the naughty tooth was punching the wobbling tooth again. A drop of blood fell on the capital T of Tree. Mustn’t open your mouth when writing, Totaa, her mother had warned her so many times, but she simply couldn’t do it. Totaa stood up, scraping the bench back. ‘I want to go to my brother.’ ‘Not now,’ said class-teacher Samhita Nandy, raising her hand. ‘Finish your test!’ By then Totaa’s right palm was smeared with blood and saliva. ‘No, I SHALL go,’ said Totaa, shaking her head and galloping off like a terrified zebra pursued by a lion!
Opening the wooden gate in a flash Totaa ran out through it. In her hand were smears of blood and kthe bloodstained tooth. It had come out, it had come out. Totaa was terribly afraid. What if the bleeding didn’t stop? The fear of the empty white bed at night. What if ma forgot Totaa while chatting with Sudesh-kaku, just as baba had forgotten her birthday, what if they didn’t let dada meet her any more. Even after she had grown up, never ever, then…
Totaa was running, shouting for her Superman, dada, dada, dada. The tooth was enclosed in her fist.
Gary had heard Totaa’s sharp voice as soon as she had reached the turn to the secondary school building. He raised his face from his notebook. Mrs Dewan was looking at him strangely. Had she heard Totaa too? To his left, he saw Akash Chauhan wrestling desperately with the last sum. To his right Shubho was quiet, still, leaning over his notebook, like a bloodless fish caught in the agony of the very next moment after the hook is embedded in its throat. Gary still had three sums to finish. In a moment he folded the notebook with four-and-a-half sums in it and advanced towards Mrs Dewan without a sound. Then, before stepping out the door, he said, very softly, looking his class-teacher in the eye – my little sister.