One day a strange young man appeared at the class six girls’ volleyball game, holding his thingy in his hand. He stood at a small distance from us, watching us play. It was on a Tuesday, in the PT class after our lunch break. I was eleven. The volleyball court we played on was just a few chalk outlines, two rusted poles and a raggedy net—in a lonely part of the grounds—no one else was about. Our PT coach, Sanjay Sir, was busy refereeing the boys’ basketball game down in the quad. There was a watchman at the front gate; but to call him, we would’ve had to walk past the man with his penis in his hand, who was only a few feet away from us. None of us were brave enough for that. The man looked young; maybe around 18 or 20 years old. He wore gold-framed green aviator glasses and his hair was in a Mithun Chakraborty-style mullet. His face was composed, grave, like a spectator at Wimbledon. He looked just like a regular guy—a bhaiya or someone’s driver—until your gaze traveled down, from face to crotch, and you saw that he was tugging frantically at his exposed genitals.
We felt sick with fear, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to move away—the man’s gaze was like a tractor beam in which we were all caught. We carried on, limply tossing the volleyball back and forth, pretending as if the man wasn’t there. It was winter, and we were grateful for having sweaters on to cover up our small, pre-pubescent breasts. The PT period went on for 45 minutes; the man stood watching us for most of it. Eventually, he gave a shudder, tucked himself in, and walked away with his hands in his pockets; looking around, whistling, like a silent movie actor.
After school, I usually went over to Ammu’s house. My parents came back after work at around 8 p.m.; I hated being by myself at home: I’d just sit around and watch television. Ammu’s mother said she didn’t approve of me being left alone at home. I suspect she didn’t approve of my mom. No one in Kamalpur did, especially the women.
Ammu’s mother, Kamini, was always home when we came back from school. She’d sit with us at the dining table while we had a snack: samosas, cheese-toast, etc. Kamini Aunty asked us about our day, and we’d chat for a while, drinking cold coffee and eating samosas. I’d feel envious of the comfortable way Ammu and her mom chatted with each other, but I knew I’d never want to trade mothers. Kamini Aunty wore only Indian clothes—frumpy saris and boxy kurta-pajamas—and fasted on Thursdays for Sai Baba, and on Mondays for Lord Shiva. My mom wore skirts, jeans, and even shorts. She dyed her hair, wore JOOP! perfume, smoked, drank, and had traveled to Europe and the U.S., from where she brought us back videotapes of the latest movies, and Top of the Pops and Dance Party USA.
So how was school today? Kamini Aunty asked.
Ammu began to disassemble her samosa with the focus of a bomb squad. We knew, with our inscrutable kids’ logic, that if we told Kamini Aunty about the man, she’d freak out and pull Ammu out of school, or worse, stop allowing me over to their house.
Nothing much, Ammu said.
Didn’t you have a games period? Kamini Aunty asked.
Yeah, after lunch, I said, blowing bubbles into my cold coffee.
Ammu beta, Kamini said. You wore cycling shorts, na?
We girls had to wear cycling shorts under our skirts during PT period to avoid any “accidents,” as our principal, Mrs. Chowdhury, put it. It would’ve been a lot fairer to let the girls just wear pants, but this rather obvious solution never struck anyone. A few of the girls wore cycling shorts all day, as it left them free to sit how they liked during class, where the boys dropped pencils or erasers under the tables so that they could peer up our skirts.
Some exercise is great for your figures, Kamini Aunty said, smiling.
The next day, in science class, our teacher Mrs. Roy came in looking anxious. Mrs. Roy was fresh off maternity leave, having recently given birth to her second son. That anyone found Roy ma’am cute enough to have sex with, twice for sure, amazed us. She reminded me of a happy cartoon witch: short, with horribly crooked teeth, and a big mole on her chin with two long, antennae-like black hairs sticking out. She had a nice voice, and was kind to us. She rarely punished us, unlike the others, who used to make us kneel outside the classroom, or send us to Mrs. Chowdhury’s office to kneel on the floor, or make the boys do “murga.” The teachers weren’t allowed to hit the students; but that didn’t stop them from thinking of other, more creative forms of punishment.
Boys, please file out in an orderly line and join the boys in class 6A, Mrs. Roy said.
There was the sound of desks being scraped forward and bags being picked up off of chairs. The boys left the class and the 6A girls came in to take up their seats. Once everyone had settled down, Mrs. Roy cleared her throat and began our lesson for that day.
Class, please take out your textbooks and turn to page 22, she squeaked.
Ammu and I exchanged looks with our new best friend, Alifiya Basrai, who we called Fiya. She’d just moved to Kamalpur from Dubai, which gave her a certain foreign glamour in our eyes. Fiya’s parents had taken special permission from the school to let her wear a headscarf and track pants with our uniform. Lately we’d convinced Fiya to take off her headscarf after her parents dropped her off. The teachers didn’t seem to mind Fiya’s filial disobedience. Fiya was obsessed with two things: Bollywood and making non-veg jokes:
Banta’s wife went into the drawing room without clothes to serve salad to his guests.
Banta screamed: Beshram aurat, tu hosh mein to hai?
Wife: Oh ji, cookbook mein likha tha. “Serve without dressing, guests will enjoy.”
Everyone liked Fiya. She even managed to coax a smile from Miss Priss Ammu’s lips. Fiya, Ammu, and I—we’d been waiting for this particular science lesson since the start of the school year. Alone, we’d pored over page 22 many times; it had pictures of male and female Sexual Organs. I studied the pictures: the light pink uterus and ovaries looked like a bull with horns, or a satanic goat’s head, the penis looked like an old-fashioned water faucet, and the testes were like two chicken eggs.
But as the lesson progressed, our excitement gave way to soul-crushing boredom—the way Mrs. Roy explained it—sex was about as exciting as algebra homework.
When would we ever learn? Expectations will always lead to Disappointment.
Class, this is a picture of the penis, Mrs. Roy said, pronouncing it Pen-iss. Vagina, she pronounced wa-jinnah. She made them sound like a boring old couple from Shankar Nagar, Penisskar Uncle and Wajinnah Aunty. She made us wonder why our parents made us leave the room whenever there was a love scene in an English movie.
We were disappointed. We stopped paying attention. We passed notes with grinning penises and shy ovaries. Fiya started to whisper Aila! like some chokra boy after each of Mrs. Roy’s boring, banal statements.
During intercourse, the interaction between the male and female reproductive organs results in fertilization of the woman’s ovum by the man’s sperm.
The male reproductive system contains two main divisions: the Test-tease where sperm are produced, and the Peniss.
The female reproductive system likewise contains two main divisions: the Wajinnah and the uterus, which will receive the Sea-men, and the ovaries, which produces the ova.
Halfway through the class, our interest perked when Mrs. Roy explained fertilization. We had difficulty picturing it—she described how the egg and sperm fused to form a zygote, but seemed to not want to tell us how they got together in the first place.
Ma’am, I said finally, raising my hand. How do they meet?
What is it, Anahita? Mrs. Roy said, looking startled.
How do the egg and sperm meet? I asked.
The male inserts his peniss into the female’s wajinnah, Mrs. Roy said, turning pink, her mole-hairs fluttering nervously. Then the sperm travels through the cervix (she pronounced it as “Sir Vicks”) and into the uterus where it fertilizes the ovum.
Ma’am, Ammu said. What does a sperm look like?
Mrs. Roy’s face looked as if she’d been kidnapped by sex-bandits.
Well, under a microscope, a sperm has a sort of, uh, tadpole-like shape. But to the naked eye, it just looks like a milky-white, viscous fluid, Mrs. Roy said, coughing slightly.
After the class was over, and the 6B girls had left, the 6A girls huddled together and began to talk excitedly. So that’s what the man was doing! We’d examined the spot where he’d been standing, and saw, glistening on the gravel, what looked like small globs of egg white. It must have been Sea-men! But how did he get it out without a wa-jinnah? We stopped talking when the boys walked back into class. They all wore smug smiles—as if they’d just found out they had superpowers. Sanjay Sir had conducted their class; obviously they’d had a much better time.
Now that we’d figured out what the man was doing, we needed to decide who was going to tell the teachers about it. And, which teacher? Roy ma’am was too flighty; Sanjay sir was a man; and Chitra ma’am, the vice principal, was too mean. And Mrs. Chowdhury, who knew what she’d do—she might punish the man or she might punish all of us—the woman changed her mind twenty times a day! Girls and boys must sit separately, they could sit together, girls must tie their hair in two plaits, one plait is okay, religious prayers at assembly, secular prayers at assembly, no maids to be sent by parents at lunch time, maids are okay, etc. The only consistent thing about our principal was how inconsistent she was.
It was decided that Ammu, who was class monitor, should tell Soujanya ma’am, the English teacher, who was our favorite. Ammu didn’t like this plan; Kamini Aunty had instilled in her a terror of anything to do with sex. For Ammu, saying “penis” in front of an adult would feel like someone had unscrewed her head and poured a canister full of undiluted shame into her body. So I wasn’t surprised when she refused.
Mithun (we called him as Mithun because of the hairstyle) showed up again the next Tuesday. We didn’t know how he figured out our schedule, but somehow, he knew we’d be at the volleyball court on Tuesday afternoons. When we had first arrived at the courts he hadn’t been there, and we’d prematurely heaved a sigh of collective relief. Someone obviously alerted the school authorities; they must’ve beaten Mithun up before handing him over to the cops. We began our game in high spirits, shouting and scrapping. We actually had fun for a while. Then we turned around and saw him. He’d showed up out of nowhere, like a horny ghost.
Again, we grew quiet, again, we didn’t run away, again, we threw the ball like Mithun wasn’t there, our faces pinched with fear. We were like small animals trapped in a ravine by a flock of beaters. Or rather, by this one man, beating off. It was an overcast, blustery day. The wind made our arm-hair stand up in filaments; it whipped our skirts about—we had to tuck them between our legs while playing. There was a smell of burning leaves and wood smoke. The gray sky made the trees a preternatural shade of green, the emerald green of Scarlett O’Hara’s velvet gown, or of a poisonous insect. The light was as if the world existed inside an aquamarine, a tiny mineral embedded in a lucent blue-green crystal.
A raggedy net, two rusted poles, and white chalk outlines.
A soft whimpering was carried to us by the wind. I looked around for its source.
It was Fiya, who’d dropped to the ground on her knees and begun to wail. She got up and scrambled over to one of the rusty poles around which she’d tied her hijab (she always kept it close by in case her parents suddenly showed up). She tied the scarf around her head—as if this might make Mithun stop. I looked over at Ammu, whose eyes had become mirrors to the violently gray sky. I don’t remember when Ammu became protective of Fiya—she’d protect her from the taunts of our class boys, who called Fiya Mullah, Paki, Abu Dhabi, etc. In return, Fiya started to follow Ammu around like a puppy.
I was shocked, then impressed, then frightened, when Ammu picked up a pointy gray stone and flung it at Mithun with a scream. The stone missed him by a foot, so Ammu threw another, and another, and another, until she finally hit him on the chest. But Mithun was a persevering sort of pervert: just like the cartoon cow in our Moral Science textbook, he believed “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” When we all began to hurl rocks at him and scream, this only encouraged Mithun: he turned around, his back to us, his right hand moving up and down. Up and Down. His legs a shoulder-width apart and slightly bent at the knees, like a karate pose. We threw rocks, we threw clumps of mud, even some sticks. We stopped when Mithun tossed his head back, as if in pain. He let out a happy moan, then tucked himself back into his pants, dusted off his back and shoulders and walked away.
The next day in science class, Roy ma’am continued to torture us with her version of sexual reproduction. The 6B boys filed out, the 6A girls filed in, followed by a school peon, who pushed a TV and VCR on a wooden trolley. The peon set up the TV and pushed a tape into the VCR, and left. Mrs. Roy rapped a chalk duster on a table to get our attention. Using the remote, she pressed play, and we saw a girl in a tennis outfit being lectured by an older woman. They were talking about menstruation. The girl kept cocking her head to one side and looked at the woman quizzically, as she explained how girls who “attained” puberty were like lovely butterflies bursting out of a cocoon. Cut to a confusing visual of a cartoon butterfly that flutters about before morphing into a sanitary napkin followed by a dry description of what happens when you get your period. The video told us everything, and also, nothing. For example, it didn’t tell us:
a) How girls who get their periods often drop out of school
b) How, sometimes, they’re forbidden to bathe or exercise and
c) Are not allowed inside temples or kitchens
d) That people believe their touch could spoil certain foods, like pickles
e) How poor girls use cloths, which they can’t put outside to dry, in case anyone sees, so the cloths begin to stink and cause infection
f) How rich girls who can afford sanitary napkins are given them in a black plastic bag
As the video ended, I got fidgety with irritation. This was ridiculous. Somebody had to tell Roy ma’am about Mithun. If Ammu was too scared to do it, then it was up to me. I waited until class ended, and the 6B boys had begun to file back in. Mrs. Roy was gathering up her things at the desk when I approached her.
Ma’am? I said. I need to tell you something.
What is it, Mistry? Mrs. Roy asked looking worried again. Maybe it was my tone that alarmed her. I wasn’t known amongst the teachers for sounding hesitant.
I took a deep breath, and began vomiting out the words before I lost my courage.
Ma’am, there is a man, a bad man, who comes to watch us while we are playing volleyball in the PT period. He…he touches himself, there.
Mrs. Roy looked at me as if I was speaking in tongues. Then her expression changed, became shrewd and leery, as if I were a shopkeeper she wanted to bargain with.
What do you mean he touches himself, there? she asked.
He touches his penis, I said, feeling embarrassed.
Why were you looking … there? Mrs. Roy asked.
Why were you looking at his…his penis?
I wasn’t looking at it! He was touching it!
Don’t raise your voice, she said. Come with me to the principal’s office.
Mrs. Chowdhury’s office was in a corner from where she could survey the school grounds. It was light and airy, in an octagonal shape with five large windows. Trophies from inter-school math and science competitions lined one wall. A peon in a brown uniform had taken a few from off the shelves, and sat on the floor polishing them. Chowdhury ma’am was behind her large desk made of heavy teak wood, which was covered with files, reports, papers, a steel letter opener, and her tiffin of fried mackerel and dal-rice.
Good afternoon ma’am, I said.
Mrs. Chowdhury looked up from her lunch. She was a large woman with leg o’ mutton arms and a fat bun of salt and pepper hair. She always wore highly starched Bengali saris with geometric patterns, and a Japanese-flag-sized red bindi on her forehead. At every morning assembly, two or three of the younger kids who’d skipped breakfast would faint, because Mrs. Chowdhury ma’am made us stand in the sun for hours: listening to her long, meandering lectures about god only knows what.
Hello, Mrs. Chowdhury said, picking at a piece of fish. What’s going on?
Tell ma’am what you told me, Mrs. Roy prodded.
There’s a man who comes to our volleyball game. He showed us his penis, I said.
What!? Mrs. Chowdhury said, dropping her fish on the plate.
She says that a man comes to their games…and exposes himself, Roy ma’am said.
But that’s impossible! That’s simply not possible, Mrs. Chowdhury said, looking goggle-eyed. No, no, no, no, Anahita, you must be mistaken, you must’ve seen something else; that you thought was something else. Anyway, how can you know what a…a penis looks like? What sort of movies do your parents let you watch? I’ll have to call them in.
Please ma’am, I said, and began to cry.
We’ll see about that, Mrs. Chowdhury said. Kana, get all the 6B girls in here.
The girls filed in, led by Ammu, with Roy ma’am bringing up the rear. They had their hands behind their backs and eyes glued to the ground, looking like young criminals brought in for trial. Chowdhury ma’am packed up her tiffin and put it to one side.
Girls, Anahita has told me something very disturbing, she said, steepling her fingers. I want to know if she’s speaking the truth. Has a man come to watch your games?
The girls remained quiet. I worried about what would happen if the teachers thought I was lying. They would call my parents, I thought, and tell them I was depraved. I sobbed.
Ma’am, it was Ammu who spoke. There was a man, and he showed it to us.
Is this true? Mrs. Chowdhury said, looking at the others.
Yes ma’am, Fiya murmured without looking up.
All right then, Mrs. Chowdhury said. Kana, tell the watchman to keep an eye out. Girls, because you kept this thing secret, you will all come to kneel in my office every lunch break this week.
She resumed picking at her fish. We filed out of the office.
The next Tuesday, when the man showed up, the watchman, Sanjay Sir and three male teachers were waiting for him. We watched as they shoved him about, yelling, saying things like behenchod, madarchod, pervert, low-caste-goat-fucker. We saw the man plead, on his knees, and say Mother Promise while pinching his Adam’s apple. Fists and feet rained down on his head. He fell to the ground in a cloud of fine dust. The last thing we saw before being led away was the watchman and the teachers standing around the man in a ring, kicking him in the head, stomach, and back. We heard him scream that he was sorry; that he had sisters and a mother at home. He never wanted to hurt us. Mother Promise! Mother Promise! Mother Promise!