by Charanjeet Singh Minhas
The Punjabi class period was well past halfway when it was Mintoo’s turn to read. He rose lazily from his seat in the back as a crosscurrent of “3M-time-is-here!” glances swept the class.
“Mhm…unh…,” then a “glug,” followed by more “mhms…unhs…,” were the only sounds the reader could manage.
“Like when we can’t swallow the complete roti in one go, what do we do? We break it into morsels, don’t we!” the teacher prompted Mintoo, treading softly on her heeled sandals in his direction. “Likewise, begin by saying the letters that make the word.”
It was either the grace of her gleaming salwar-kameez or the milky whiteness of the chuni—the scarf which hung around her shoulders—that underlined her calmness even more. Something unprecedented and unusual—this calmness—especially in light of the episode presently unfolding. Her gray hairs showed more conspicuously near her temples and they deepened her serene figure.
Mintoo nodded his head in response. However, his mind and eyes were elsewhere—wildly hopping around in all directions for his next bully-target. Someone enjoying his ordeal. This target then would find lunch from the box missing, homework pages from the notebook ripped, a pile of glue on the seat.
“Papa…tata…tippee…gaga…” There was a long silence after he finished unspelling the word. Finally, he started to unspell it again. But this time, many in the class were holding their breath. Will the sequence keep moving along as they wished? The moments ticked away. Will they yield the climax his classmates cherished every time? The climax they themselves couldn’t perform. The climax for which they counted on their teachers. So far odds were in their favor. Mintoo’s prolonged silence now only increased them.
The whole class looked at the teacher very attentively, like soldiers waiting in ambush for the enemy. Their postures changed. Their angled bodies became perpendicular. The pairs of eyes atop the bodies stopped blinking. Catching every bit of the imminent sight was imperative.
Their alert ears eagerly waited to hear the berating as the prelude to the big finale. She would rush towards Mintoo, snatch the book away from his face with her left hand while the right arm would already be airborne. They always relished seeing it moving with great force towards its target—a soft and fleshy target.
The solid hand that openly and majestically rode at the top of this arm paid for its ride by delivering a powerful payload. Anyone was able to assess the lethality of the strike by looking at the fingerprints etched on the target.
Having watched the exercise umpteen times over months and years, the class had coined a phrase for the rocket’s motion from takeoff to landing: “3M time—Mintoo Marked Missiles.”
Wait…what…? Uh-oh, no 3M today! So many creased foreheads suddenly appeared in the class. They exchanged disappointing looks when the teacher instead simply asked the next in turn to read. She is no longer “doling the sweet-dish” to Mintoo they communicated to one another through their eyes.
Yes, it was last week when things changed. A police inspector, two sepoys in tow, had called on the teacher.
“Who was this inspector sahib, Mintoo?” madam had asked him politely—shocking the class—after the inspector and his platoon marched away.
“He is my tayaji…”
“Oh, I see, he is your father’s older brother…okay, okay…but does he also live in the same house?”
“Yes, only when he is posted in Patiala. He is alone…”
“Is your father also in the police?”
“Yes…but his posting is not in Patiala.”
The recess bell tolled and the class ran out of the room to the adjoining playground. Mintoo, on the other hand, had no such urgency to leave. He ambled out of the classroom. The class had already split into two teams and started to play when he reached them.
“You were lucky to escape 3M time today,” someone commented.
“No, I wasn’t you idiot. She is the one who is a bitch…always gives me hard parts to read,” Mintoo thundered and pushed the commenter hard on to the ground.
“Is your taya a dog then?” someone else interjected sarcastically.
“Bloody…who was that? Do not say that about my tayaji.”
“Why else would he come to meet the ‘bitch’ then?”
Everyone started to laugh, but quietly. No one wanted to directly offend him and get on his enemies list.
In those days, not only were Mintoo and I classmates, but neighbors as well. His house was only about hundred meters away from mine though on a different street.
I knew quite well that things were different for him at home—they were much better than for any of us. He had two mothers to start with. Imagine that! The “elder mom’s” raison d’etre was only and singularly him.
Another difference was that in Mintoo’s house, there were two cops.
At that time, police in the Punjab weren’t dependent on their salaries any more than they are nowadays. Base salaries were legally and rightfully granted but not deemed full compensation for work. Earnings were what a cop could churn “on top” for the “work done.” The usual earnings range then was three to ten times the salary. The amount was determined by factors such as the cop’s assignment and location.
In the Punjab, especially of that era, expecting parents wanted only baby boys. In Mintoo’s house, things had doubled down in his favor. When his “elder mom” had failed to conceive, his father was “forced” to marry again. (Arranged marriages were the de facto norm of the times in the Punjab. The earlier wife in such situations largely became a variant of housemaid.)
This new alliance was fertile indeed. Child after child dispelled the quiet dullness of the house. Its first product: a baby girl. Second, against all petitions to God and prayers elsewhere, again was a baby girl. However, the house was really plunged into gloom and sorrow when a third baby girl completed a hat trick, defeating all the sacred offerings and votives.
Even so, Mintoo’s father was looking forward to being “forced” once again. He grew very careful about what he wore. He started making it a point that his beard and mustache were neatly trimmed, dyed and starched. He stopped venturing out unless he had dabbed himself with powder after the bath and sprayed his clothes with perfume after.
This time he was searching for someone who would yield a crop of baby boys. And when the recalcitrant clouds finally moved aside, and the heavens smiled on a five-female-one-male family—Mintoo was born. Oh boy! What an elated and jubilant feeling in the house it was. Even the doors and windows were happy. They suddenly started creaking better and sweeter.
Years later, when we were playing cricket on the street near his house, Mintoo told me, “My father is calling you inside.”
“Why?” I asked him, surprised.
“I don’t ask him what, when, where, why, who, and how. Okay! Go fast; otherwise don’t blame me later.”
I had no choice. No one had a choice when it was Mintoo threatening that his “elder mom” would visit the offender’s house and not only splash him in stinking colors but his entire family as well. Everyone feared this tongue-lashing and becoming the butt of the neighborhood gossip and humor. As I started to leave I kept looking at Mintoo with his dilated eyes and stern face.
On the way, I wished my daddy were here now and not posted far away in Jammu. I became more anxious wondering if Mintoo’s father already knew that he was in Jammu and not in Patiala. I earnestly hoped he thought that daddy was in Patiala. He couldn’t be too much of a cop with me then.
Inside, Mintoo’s father, mother, and two sisters were sitting around a table eating samosas and drinking steaming tea. A large purse, similar to the ones madams in the school carried, was on the table as well.
I greeted his father, “Sat Sri Akal,” with folded hands, and bowed respectfully to others around the table. While I was still at it, “elder mom” appeared from somewhere mumbling something. She picked up the large purse and empty cups and plates from the table and started to walk away. On the way, she stopped and turned to say: “You are busy in school and he too with his police inspectorship…haanh.” She spoke with her face turned to one side. It was difficult to guess whom she was addressing.
“These good-for-nothing girls, doing who-knows-what all day… But about Mintoo no one is bothered. He comes from school and starts to play immediately and all day he doesn’t eat anything or drink any milk.”
She was so consumed in her excessive concern that not even my greeting interrupted her. She paused intermittently only to suck air and saliva from her mouth.
However, others acknowledged and responded to my greetings.
Mintoo’s father said, “We are soon solemnizing Mintoo’s sister’s engagement. The boy is in America. Before going there he studied in this great school in Nabha. We want…”
“Oh, I guess you mean PPS!” I interrupted in an attempt to impress him while he was pointing to Mintoo’s oldest sister.
“No, it is a different kind of school. In a league that you can’t imagine, I have been there many times. It is really big. Even the students there know how to talk in English. Even when they walk they talk in English. Even when they eat or play, only English. I myself saw boys speaking this much English.”
His open hand was close to his chest and parallel to the ground. He looked at everyone to emphasize his amazement—hand still in the air.
The days of equating the English language with the elite and privileged class are not even over yet in Punjab or the Indian subcontinent.
“All become big officers after school. The only problem is getting in. The school is called Punjab Public School.”
“Papa, that’s what he said. PPS is short for Punjab Public School,” Mintoo’s youngest sister explained. I looked admiringly at her and then at the oldest sister, inquiring, “So, looks like you will soon be off to America. How nice!” Who in Punjab wouldn’t give his or her leg and arm to go to America then, just like now.
She looked the other way without bothering to acknowledge what I said. It was not from bashfulness. She most likely had decoded the encryption in my look: “What will happen to the boyfriend you’ve been meeting every evening in the dimly lit nook near my house for over a year now?”
Mintoo’s father continued: “I want you and Mintoo to prepare together and take the admission test this Sunday. You have three full days to prepare for it,” Mintoo’s father said.
“It is a very expensive school and my parents can’t afford to pay that much,” I told him truthfully.
“You just do what I am telling you. I will take care of the rest with your father,” he told me in a tone that left no room for discussion.
I soon found out that English and math were the subjects that the school tested for admission. The night before the test there was no electricity in my home, not even in the wee hours of the next morning. So I used an oil lamp to prepare.
On Sunday, Mintoo, his parents and I rode in the police jeep to the school. On arrival we waited outside the school dining room that had been converted into the test center. Two men came over to meet with Mintoo’s father. From their conversation, I overheard the real reason why I had been ordered to take the test.
“We have arranged for them to sit together,” one of the strangers told Mintoo’s father, who was wearing his uniform. “As long as this other boy Charanjeet can soar his kite, your son automatically will be in the clouds,” the other man said.
I found the test interesting, and I knew the material. I was so engaged that I had no clue how much Mintoo was copying off me. But later I found out that he couldn’t even inconvenience himself enough to copy properly. Apparently, making a plate and being served wasn’t good enough for him. He wished someone to chew and cud it for him as well.
After we came out of the test center, Mintoo’s father was busy schmoozing with the school’s headmaster.
One day when I came back from school, mummy showed me a letter. “This one is in English,” she informed me. “Can you read where it is from?”
“It is from the school in Nabha,” I told her in excitement.
“The school I went to with Mintoo to take the entrance test.”
“I thought you went to see some police parade.”
“No…let me take it to Kiran Bhaaji to help me understand it.”
I went running to our tenant’s room. And, yahoo! Not only had I passed the entrance exam, but I had placed first.
While I was over the moon the next day at school, Mintoo was nonchalant. When I asked him if he had received his results letter from PPS, he said, “I don’t know…my parents said forget PPS. That was just a means to the end. The ultimate destination is America. After my sister’s marriage, my parents said, I should also leave to go to America. So, why would I need PPS? There, in America, all schools are totally English, and because it is such an advanced, rich and powerful country, English just grows on everyone so easily; even the kids there who can’t walk talk English.”
My real test was now ahead of me. Who would pay for the new school? When daddy came down from Jammu and went to PPS, he came back with a long face. The school fee was much more than he could afford. But on the advice of a colleague, he took me one day to meet the school bursar.
Daddy was inside the bursar’s office for a long time while I waited outside. Then the assistant, also sitting outside, went in on hearing the buzzer, and came out to tell me, “Go in. Bursar Sahib Sir is calling you.”
When I entered the room the bursar stood up and came forward to shake hands with me. “We are looking forward to your joining our school,” he said. Daddy saluted the bursar with a thump of his right foot and an alert jerk of his right forearm.
We walked quickly out of the school to the city bus stop. I wasn’t sure what really happened inside. When I looked up at my father a couple of times to ask him, I saw him happy, smiling, and lost in his own world.
I couldn’t hold it any longer as we waited for the bus. “What happened there? How will you pay the fee?”
“Haha…son, Waheguru is endless. It is not me alone anymore…the Punjab government will pay more than sixty percent of your all expenses in merit scholarship.”