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For this year’s feast online, here’s an unfamiliar dish: an Onam story set in Loyola. Thank you, Jiby for accepting my challenge. – Ashok

Where lies Mahabali?

by Jiby Kattakayam

“Where are you all going for Onam vacation?’ Geetha M’am asked the Standard II class. “What is Onam, madam?,” Aju asked. “Okay, I will tell you the story of Mahabali and Vamanan. Onam is when the good old king, Mahabali, returns to visit Malayalis,” she said, and proceeded to tell the tale. “So Vamanan said a lie?” Rehaan asked. “No.  Mahabali was not smart,” M’am replied.  Sonu, who loved tales said defiantly, “No, Vamanan lied. If I meet Mahabali I will tell him he is a good man. Will he come to our class?” “Yes, if the school decides to invite him.” Dressing up rotund men and boys as Mahabali was a location tradition and now a marketing technique, but would the school follow suit, Geetha M’am thought, and then changed her mind. “No, Mahabali stays outside.” Sonu was disappointed.

The bell rang. Geetha M’am left. Sonu had made up his mind. As he walked to the door, a fierce tug on his sleeve stopped him short. “To where?” Kiran asked. “I am going to see if I can meet Mahabali.” “Don’t go. You will get into trouble,” Kiran replied, scared. “No one will notice. You just keep quiet. Hide my bag under your desk,” Sonu responded with a threatening glare.

Where do I look? There were two places in Loyola that young boys couldn’t go. The haunted house where the scary man lives and the hollow well where the crocodile dwells. Are there more scary places that I don’t know of, Sonu wondered. He skipped down the steps and slipped out of junior school.

The newly built indoor stadium towered before his eyes. It looked like a palace! Sonu ran towards the monstrous structure. The sun beat down harshly. The lack of shade bothered him. His dad, an ex-student had said that a vast unused playground, and before that a jungle with ancient trees once stood in place of the stadium. A jungle would have been so much fun! Where did the trees go? Who put the trees there? Who took them out? The stadium was locked.

A sudden fear gripped him. What is the punishment for cutting class? What if Mahabali would not come to Loyola? Sonu looked around. No one was around. Like a soldier trying to evade enemies in the computer game Tasha played, he proceeded to the football ground. Stopping at the row of water taps, he felt thirst. Sonu cupped his right hand under the tap as he stretched to reach and open it, and let the water gush into his little palm cup. He moved his cup quickly to his mouth like the seniors did. Drinking this water was now forbidden. But the cooler didn’t taste so good. A few sips later, Sonu, now refreshed began to feel the light breeze feathering him under the cool shade of casuarinas. But I can’t rest here, I’ll get caught, he said to himself.

The sands on the football ground soaked in the colours of the sun, rain, sweat, chalk, blood and tears over the years now glowed yellow in pristine solitude. Paper balls firmed with rubber bands, rubber balls, cork balls, footballs, the stamp of shoe and sandal and the press of rollers had churned it to life and ground it back to death, day in and day out. Seeming to respect its serenity, Sonu stepped off the ground and walked around its boundary. Hitting a laboured stride, he cast a fearful glance at the windows of the junior school classrooms and then a worried, fleeting look at the haunted house and finally reached the reassuring long shadows that the gulmohars cast on the “steps”.

Climbing the “steps”, he headed for the tennis court, forgetting the crocodile’s well. “What are you doing here?” a harsh voice and a rough hand on his collar rudely broke his reverie. “Looking for…” Before Sonu could finish, the hand pulled him down on to his knees and then to his butt. He felt the surge of tears and they sprung out before he could down the shutters. “No. Don’t cry. I won’t tell on you.” Sonu looked up. The older boy had a kind face now and was patting Sonu on the back. “Why did you cry? I was only joking. You too have cut class, haven’t you? I know junior school is a prison. Wait till you get to Plus-Two. It’s a cage then!” “I wasn’t cutting class,” Sonu said indignantly. “I came looking for somebody.” “Stay a while and keep a lookout for the non-teaching staff, will you?” the senior asked. He took out a mobile phone. “Hello…aah Sheela, Ajith here. You didn’t go to school? I just thought I’d give you a ring…” The seniors were always talking about girls. In the canteen. At the bus stop. Inside the bus. Maybe it is that what is called Love. But loving girls! I can barely stand Tasha.

Ajith stood up and paced, phone in hand. Weren’t phones banned, Sonu wondered? Time to slip away. He passed the tennis court and was on the road leading to the school gate. What was outside the school walls? In school, layers and layers of friendships, classes and pastimes had stood between Sonu and the school walls. The world outside came to his notice only during evening walks to the shops with Mummy. His attention passed the open gates and caught a sign that read “Police Station”. If they catch me outside, will it be worse punishment than what the school will give me? He ran past the road, across the hockey ground dissecting it in a neat straight diagonal leaving him at the end of the hostel corridor. The corridor opened into the Loyola College campus.

Sonu suddenly felt small. Should I walk on? What is the time? Like I know to read time. Time was measured in bells. How many have rung? I am too far to hear them now, he sighed. A curiosity to see the college engulfed him. A group of men and women sat under a tree, engrossed in carefree chatter. What were they talking? I’d like to sit like them, and talk. But then isn’t playing football better than just talking? Sonu couldn’t make up his mind and walked. A priest! I am caught, Sonu thought. Now what? Should I run? “Are you lost? The school is that way.” The priest pointed to the narrow road that led past the college, wound around the chapel and then continued to slope gently down. “Thank you,” Sonu muttered.

The bell rang. A clamour arose. Teachers stepped out of classrooms and were soon lost in the black and white that milled all around. It was lunch break. My lunch box! No, I want parotta today. But, no money. He moved in the direction of the canteen, scanning heads for familiar faces until it rested on Ajith again, eating, no sight of the mobile phone now. A tantalizing smell of beef curry that flowed easily around two dead-beaten parottas reached Sonu’s nostrils. “Where did you disappear?” Ajith demanded. Sonu didn’t respond, his eyes fixed on Ajith’s steel plate. “Here, take this.” Ajith offered a fragment of parotta he had just pealed and dipped into the gravy. “Thanks. But I am hungry.” Sonu felt no shame. Ajith smiled and took out his wallet. A frown quickly appeared on his face. “I am sorry. I have only twenty rupees. I need to buy a recharge coupon.” Sonu was disappointed. Why had Mahabali given up all he had, Sonu wondered.

Sonu lumbered about. It was nice to be around people. He watched a boy, his age, bend down and pick up something. A coin. The boy looked at it, put it in his pocket and walked. Thief! Sonu decided. Time, for some policing. He remembered the police station, and shivered. He followed the boy. The thief stopped outside the vice-principal’s office, pondered for a while, looked hurriedly around and walked in. Sonu peeked in. ‘Father, I found this rupee lying on the…” Why did the boy give up his possession? Why did I judge him that way? Sonu was bewildered.

He walked on and stopped at a sign. “Onion Bank of India.” No, it was a U. But how to pronounce that? Sonu stared at the sign in perplexion. Two seniors were coming out from the bank. “The buggers are raising the fees like crazy. My dad said he could educate 10 kids like me at an aided school for the same money,” one said. “Dey Chill. You are studying at Loyola. Not some godforsaken government school,” the other smirked. Sonu looked inside the bank for Mahabali. What need has the king for a bank? Didn’t Vamanan take everything he saved?

He trudged down the steps, past the cage. His dad had told him that there once lived a python in the cage. The python had died. After it had died, a senior named him Kaa. Through the quadrangle and past the basketball court, he walked. Dad said Loyola had good basketball teams and that BB players were the heroes at school. But everyone was playing cricket now. Why would I play a game that no one watches anymore, Sonu thought. A tall, gawky boy hunched in grave conversation with a short teacher, an answer sheet in her hand. They didn’t notice Sonu. “M’am I needed those five marks. It would have got me a Distinction.” “But why copy,” the teacher shook her head. “Everyone cheats, M’am.” Everyone cheats? Did Mahabali cheat in school, Sonu wondered.

I am tired. I am hungry. I want to sleep. Will I see Mahabali in my dreams, Sonu hoped. The place he chose to sleep was the last remaining woods in the school. Beside the indoor stadium, bordering the big estate. They used to go there during lunch breaks and play hide and seek. Sonu looked around for ants and wasps and spiders and squirrels. Satisfied that nothing from nature that would harm him was around, he slept. Soundly.

Wasn’t that the bell ringing? Sonu rose with a start. Was school over? He walked over to the edge of the stadium and peered. The buses were coming in, ready to park and wait for the boys to leap in. One more period to go. He had survived. He would wait. It had been a good day. His first adventure. Would Tasha believe me? Will I do it again? Sonu shuddered at the thought. Mahabali hadn’t shown up. Sonu tried remembering why he wanted to see Mahabali in the morning. The bell rang again, for the last time in the day and Sonu knew it was “three thirty”.

“Let me sit.” It was Arun, the bully. “No!” Sonu responded fiercely. He needed the window seat. No bully could unseat him today. Mahabali was a fool. If needed, I will fight. Maybe the old king is somewhere in the city. I will tell him he is a fool. Sonu resisted the tug of home though his stop was nearing. He slid down in his seat so that the conductor uncle would not notice. His stop went by and new, unfamiliar places opened up before his eyes. “Eda Sonu, why didn’t you get off at your stop?” the conductor uncle on spotting him, asked, flustered. “I slept off, uncle.” Lie. A harmless lie makes a difference, Sonu thought. The conductor made calls to Sonu’s home.

“Mummy, I am done with school. I saw a college and I have also travelled the world. When can I start working?” “Right away. I have forgotten all I learnt in school. You can start with teaching me every day all your lessons,” Mummy said. Sonu’s face fell and his footsteps lost pace. There was no homework from today’s class. What would I tell her? Will truth save me? Or will another lie help? Didn’t Vamanan lie? Where is Mahabali?

Jiby Kattakayam (1998 ISC) is a reporter for The Hindu newspaper, in Kozhikode.