The Gold Coin – a short story

“I want you to finish your homework by the time I am back from my walk,” said Pankajakshan, “I send you to a good school. You have good teachers. Yet look at your marks! You have barely made passing grades in three subjects.” Deepu, Pankajakshan’ s son said nothing.

There was nothing he could say when his father was in a bad mood. Any comments and wisecracks would result in a slap. It could get worse at times.  Pankajakshan was a police constable attached to the Neyyarinkara Police Station. Life had been tough for Pankajakshan as a child.  The son of a poor farmer, there were days when he and his siblings went to sleep on an empty stomach. He wanted to avoid that kind of life for his son. He wanted his son to be educated and get a good government job. He personally supervised Deepu ’s studies, when time permitted. Those teaching sessions would end disastrously for poor Deepu. He would get confused and end up making simple mistakes. That would annoy Pankajakshan.

Deepu ’s mother Sharadha had given up intervening. Whenever she tried it Pankajakshan would turn on her. Then mother and son would both get bruised for their efforts. The best way to handle these ‘study’ sessions would be to finish off the homework and hope for the best. This latest incident was triggered by the report card Deepu had brought home. Deepu or Deepak was in the fourth standard in the Neyyarinkara Government school. He was not dull, neither was he the top ranker in his class. Yet, Deepu loved to read. He devoured comics and magazines for children. He had read more books in that genre than any other student in his class.

Deepu knew he had to finish his homework in an hour. That was the time it took his father to finish his walk. Pankajakshan was putting on weight. Gopalan the new inspector who had taken charge at the Neyyarinkara Police Station was very particular about the fitness of his men.   Pankajakshan decided he would walk for five kilometres every day to cut the flab. It was the first day of his new exercise regimen and he was about to set out.

“What have you got for homework today Deepu?” said Sharadha who saw her husband disappearing round the bend on the road.

“Mathematics.  I have some sums on fractions and then English and Malayalam,” said Deepu.

“Finish it fast before your father comes.  Let me help you with the maths sums.”

Sharada sat with her son and helped him with the fractions. They then turned to Malayalam. Half an hour later all that remained was the English.

“You have to write ten sentences on a butterfly,” said Sharada, “I know, you can easily do that. I have some work in the kitchen. Let me finish that. Call me if you need any help.”

“I can write that on my own,” said Deepu. He was good in English. Sharada knew that and reassured went to the kitchen.  Pankajakshan was very particular about the time when he got his food.  Breakfast had to be at seven in the morning.  His lunch was at the police station. Dinner was to be at nine p.m. sharp. Any delays and he would throw a fit.  It was already six in the evening and Sharada had to rush.

Deepu opened his English exercise book.  He wrote down the title of his essay, ‘The Butterfly’. Then he left a line and started.

‘I am a butterfly. I have two pairs of wings…’

Here Deepu stopped.  He started to think.

‘How many pairs of wings does a butterfly have?’

‘Is it one or two?’

He was not sure. Then he had an idea.

‘There would be butterflies in the garden. I could catch one and count its wings. That will be the correct way of doing this.’ He thought.

He put his books aside and ran out. The house had a small garden. The garden had a large number of flowering plants. Some were planted on the ground and some were in huge clay pots.  Deepu looked around for a butterfly.  He could not see any.

“Maybe they are also doing their homework!” said Deepu to himself and laughed.

He tried shaking the leaves of the plants. He had seen butterflies hiding behind the leaves. By shaking the leaves, he hoped to get some to come out of their hiding place.  Then he saw a frog.  Deepu thought he had an ugly face.  The frog was looking at him.

“What are you doing in my garden?” said Deepu. The frog did not answer but stared back at him.

Deepu looked around for a stick. This was going to be fun. He found a small twig and picking it up he went up to the frog. He was about to poke when it jumped. Deepu exploded with laughter. He chased it around the garden. It would jump a few feet and wait. Then as Deepu came close it would jump again.

“Have you finished your homework?”

It was Pankajakshan and he was back from his walk.

Deepu stopped running and lied, “Yes.”

He hoped Pankajakshan would go for his bath first and then ask him to bring his homework. By then he would have completed his essay on the butterfly. That hope was dashed immediately.

“Show me your homework,” said his father.

It was the sound of Pankajakshan shouting that brought Sharada running from the kitchen. Deepu was crying.

“What happened?” said Sharadha.

“You want to know what happened?” said Pankajakshan, “Your son has not only not completed the homework he is also training to become a liar.”

Pankajakshan then turned towards Deepu and said, “Did I not tell you to complete your homework by the time I returned from my walk?”

Deepu nodded his head through the tears.

“Then why were you playing in the garden, if your homework was not complete?” said Pankajakshan and slapped him.

“Please do not hit him. He has already completed his Mathematics and Malayalam homework. It is just ten lines that he needs to write for English. He will do it now,” said Sharada pleading her son’s case.

“Not only has he not listened to me, he lied about it,” said Pankajakshan shouting.

“Father, I am sorry. I will not lie again,” said Deepu between sobs.

“Next time this happens I will break your bones,” said Pankajakshan. He then turned at Sharadha, “Is the water for my bath ready?”

“Yes, it is in the bathroom,” said Sharada.

As her husband went for his bath, Sharada hugged her son tightly.

“Are you alright? Does it hurt?”

Deepu did not reply. He shook his head and pushed his mother away. He went to the table and picking up his exercise book and began writing.

‘I am a butterfly. I have two pairs of wings. I can fly and go from one place to another. No one controls me. I am free to do what I want.…’

The next day, on his way back from school, Deepu saw huge tents being set up on the ground near the railway station. He saw a few of his classmates there and ran over to them.

“It is a group of gipsies. They have set up some tents where they will be holding some shows,” said one of the children in the group.

“Shows? What shows?” said Deepu.

“Circus shows, clown acts, flamethrowers, magic tricks.”

“This should be fun.” said Deepu.

“Amma, there is a circus show in the village. Will you take me there?” said Deepu.

Sharadha was washing utensils in the kitchen.

“Ask you father, Deepu. You know I do not go anywhere on my own.”

Deepu thought about it for a minute and then realized that the chances of his father taking him next to impossible.

“Amma, father never has the time. He is always either working or scolding me. Why can you not take me? I promise I will hold your hand all the time.”

“Deepu, this is a village. Women do not go out unaccompanied. A male member of the family should be with them when they go out.”

“I am the male member in this family. I will be there with you!”

Sharadha smiled.

“Maybe after ten years you can come with me. Till then I have to go along with your father.”

Deepu thought about it some more.

“Amma, Lata aunty, the bank manager’s wife, she goes to the market alone. I have seen her buying grocery while I go to school.”

“Deepu, Lata aunty is not from this village. She studied at a college and is from the city. She can go where she wants.”

His mother ‘s explanation did not make sense to Deepu.

The next day, on his way back he again went by the circus tents. All the arrangements were now complete. A gate had been set up and the first show was to start from that night. Deepu looked all around. There was no one in sight. He walked up to a corner of the tent, lifted the thick canvas and slipped in. Inside there were small tents everywhere. There were people running around. Everyone was busy practising their act for the night’s performance. Deepu saw young children doing acrobatics, turning cartwheels. Some were jumping through hoops. He saw a man juggling brightly coloured balls. There was a well-built man lifting weights in a corner. Deepu did not know where to look. The whole place was a treasure trove of adventure and excitement.

“Who let you in.” A voice from behind made Deepu jump.

He saw a tall, thin man with a long moustache standing. With him stood a young girl. She must have been his age. Both of them stood there staring at Deepu.

“I… I came in through the… I slipped through…,” Deepu said fumbling with his response. He was scared.

“So, you were trying to sneak in and avoid paying the entry ticket. This time I am letting you go. Come back in the evening with your parents and first buy a ticket.”

“My father does not have the time. He is a police constable and is very busy and my mother cannot come without my father,” said Deepu a sad look on his face. He turned and started walking towards the gate.

“Wait!” said the man. Deepu stopped.

The man came up to him and looked at him. His face looked considerably softer now.

“Do you want to watch the show?” said the man.

Deepu nodded his head.

“Ok! Let me see what can be done about it,” said the man, “I am assuming you do not have any money?”

Deepu shook his head.

“Then we have a problem,” said the man. He closed his eyes and stood there like a statue. Then he began waving his hands in the air. He was mumbling in some strange language. His whole body shook as if he had a fever. Swaying as if to a rhythm which only he could hear, he clapped his hands loudly.

“Check your shirt pocket,” said the man.

Deepu did not understand what was happening but he obeyed. He put his fingers into his shirt pocket. The next moment Deepu let out a shout of surprise. He found a large gold-coloured coin in his pocket.

“How did that coin get in my pocket?” said Deepu. He was certain it was not there before. He had never seen that coin before.

“This is a magic coin. You have been chosen by the guardian spirits. They have decided that from now on you will be the owner of this coin. Whenever you want to come to the tent, just show this to the man at the gate and he would let you in.”

Deepu had a big smile on his face as he thanked the man and ran out. He was very happy. It was the first time in his life that he felt wanted, special.

“Have I not told you not to speak to strangers?” said Sharadha. Deepu had come home and told his mother everything that happened that day.

“Amma, they are good people. Why would they hurt me?”

“I do not want you to go there.”

“Amma!” Deepu protested but it was of use.

His mother was adamant. She forbade him from going into the circus tent. His father did not have the time to take him there. He went to his room and sat there looking at the gold coin in his hand.

The circus was in the village for a week. Every day the shows would start at seven p.m. and end by nine p.m. Everyday Deepu would take out the coin and look at it for a long time. Then with a sigh, he would put it back. He knew his parents well enough to know that they would not take him to the circus.

All his friends at school had seen the show. Some had seen it multiple times. The whole day in class the children would talk about how the strong man had lifted a table in one hand or how the juggler had juggled five knives.

Deepu would listen to them and sigh. He had seen some of them practice that day, but that was boring. He wanted to see them in full costume with the music blaring and the people clapping in the background.

Then the last day for the circus dawned. Deepu got up early. He knew what he was going to do that day. He would finish his homework early and then go and watch the circus. He knew what the end result of this ‘bravery’ would be. Not only his father it was possible even his mother would spank him for going out of the house that late, but he was determined.

This was the first time in the eight years of his life, that a circus had come to his village and he was not going to miss it.

“What are you doing with your head in the books?” said Sharadha amazed to see Deepu surrounded by books. He had finished his lunch after coming home and immediately sat down to do his homework.

“I have a lot of homework today,” said Deepu.

“Are you not going out to play?” said Sharadha.

Deepu shook his head.

“Amma I will call you if I need any help.”

“I just finished washing all the dirty dishes. Now I will go and take a short nap. I will help you in the evening.”
Deepu worked feverishly. Strangely it seemed today there was more homework than normal. There was English, mathematics, general science and social studies books before him. He completed the work in one book and reached for the next. Time and again his mind would go to his plans for that night.

He had planned everything down to the minute. He was targeting to finish his homework by six. That was also the time his mother would go for her bath.  After her bath, which took more than half an hour as she also washed all the dirty clothes in the bathroom, she usually came out by six forty.  Next, she went to the puja room and would sit there, chant prayers and read from the scriptures for half an hour.

From the prayer room, she would go straight to the kitchen and begin preparing dinner. If Deepu had any doubts in his homework he would ask her for help and she would shout out the answers while working in the kitchen.

By the time Deepu had finished and put aside the last book, it was already six-thirty. He ran to the bedroom and took out a clean shirt from the cupboard. He could hear the sound of the tap running in the bathroom. He knew his mother was going to be there for at least another fifteen minutes. Deepu put on the clean shirt and slipped on the sandals he usually wore when going out.

“Amma, I would be in my room. I have finished all my homework and kept it on the table – if you want to check. I am reading a storybook and do not want to be disturbed.”

Deepu went up to his room and shut the door from outside. He occasionally used to shut the door to his room when Sharadha switched on the radio or when she and Pankajakshan were having an argument. It kept the voices out of the room. Deepu used the same tactic now. His mother usually did not disturb him when he was reading. Deepu ran out of the house. Pankajakshan would be back from the police-station by eight. The evening walk had lasted one day only.  Life in a police station was hectic. Deepu was counting on that.

It took about ten minutes to walk from his home to the ground where the circus tents had been set up. Deepu made it in five. He ran as fast as he could. As he neared the gates of the campsite he saw a huge crowd had already gathered.  People were lining up to buy tickets.  He saw some of his classmates holding on to the hands of their parents. They saw him and called his name. He did not respond. He went straight towards the gates.

“We start at seven. The ticket sale has not yet started. Buy a ticket first and then come here.” said the man at the gate in a mechanical tone. He said this daily to those who tried to get in early.

Deepu showed him the gold coin.

The man looked at it and then smiled at Deepu.

“You are the lucky child! Go right in. The rules do not apply to you now.”

The man opened the gates partially and Deepu slid in. Deepu was inside a huge circular tent. He ran up and occupied a seat in the first row. He could not contain his excitement as he looked all around the enclosure. The tent was covered in a colourful canvas. There was a ring in the middle and the seats were all arranged around the ring.

Huge electrical lights hung from bamboo poles and shone down at the ring. One by one the people started coming in. He had got in for free. It was the magic of his gold coin. He checked and reassured himself that the coin was still in his pocket.

Pankajakshan came home around eight in the evening. Sharadha had a glass of water ready for him by the time he had taken off his shoes.

“Where is Deepu?” said Pankajakshan.

“In his room. Reading some comic. He said he did not want to be disturbed,” said Sharadha, “he has finished all his homework. I checked his books.” She added that part quickly knowing how her husband’s mind worked.

“The boy does poorly in his exams and yet reads so many books.”

“He is smart. He puts in a lot of hard work,” said Sharadha.

“I hope for his sake all that hard work will reflect in his marks. Is the hot water for my bath ready?”

“Yes! I have put it in the bathroom.”

Pankajakshan had his bath and after a quick bow before the pictures of the Gods, he was ready to meet his son.

“Where is Deepu?” said Pankajakshan.

“In his room.”

“No! he is not there. I just checked.”

“He said he would be in his room,” said Sharadha.

She went to check Deepu ’s room.

“I told you I have already checked there.”

Sharadha came out. She was worried. She ran out and checked the compound around the house. Deepu was not there. She came in again.

“Where is he?” said Pankajakshan.

“He is not there in the house,” said Sharadha.

She was feeling slightly dizzy and held on to a chair for support. Suddenly her legs were feeling week.

“Have you checked the loft?” said Pankajakshan.

“No. I am worried. Where can he be. He was here when I went to have a bath.”

Pankajakshan took a torch and climbed up the stairs, which led to the loft. There he shone the light in all the corners. Except for the cob webs and the dust there was nothing there. He climbed down. Now Pankajakshan was worried.

“Did he say anything about going to his friend’s house?” he said.

“At this time of the night. He knows better than that,” said Sharadha and then thought that it was an idea worth checking. “Can you go and see if he is there.”

“I do not know who his friends are,” said Pankajakshan. Realizing for the first time how little he knew about his son.

“I will come with you,” said Sharadha.

She went to the kitchen and shut off the stove and covered all the food. They rushed out of the house in their haste forgetting to lock the doors. Suddenly all that seemed unimportant.

They went from one friend ’s house to another. Most of the houses were locked.

“Where is everybody,” said Pankajakshan.

“I do not know. I want my son. Oh God please I will never scold him again in my life. Please, please help me find my son.”

In the middle of the street, on the pitch – dark street she started to cry. Pankajakshan did not cry but he was worried. Thoughts raced through his mind. He remembered how he had felt when he had seen Deepu for the first time at the hospital, the day he was born. He remembered how happy he had felt when he had taken his first step. He remembered when he had fallen asleep on his chest. Then he remembered how he had trashed the boy the last time he had come home with a bad report card.

‘Has he left the house because of me?’ thought Pankajakshan, ‘Why would he want to stay in the house. All that I do is beat him.’

Then his eyes fell on a poster stuck to the wall of a house. It was an announcement of the circus show in the village. Sharadha saw it at the same time.

“Can he have gone there?” they both said together.

The circus show was in full swing.  The jugglers, the strong man and the acrobats had all finished their acts. The last act of the day the magic show was underway. Deepu sitting in the front rows had enjoyed himself all through the evening. He had gasped with surprise when the magic show had started. It was the same man who had given him the coin. His hands were hurting with clapping but that did not stop him from clapping.

“There he is!” said Sharada as her keen eyes spotted her son on the other side of the ring.

“Thank God!” said Pankajakshan. He started walking towards his son.

“Now for the last act of my performance, I will make a boy disappear. I want a volunteer from the audience,” said the magician to the crowd.

Deepu raised both his arms and began jumping around. There were a lot of children who had their arms raised. The magician spotted Deepu. He recognized the child immediately.

“Now for this act, I will ask a boy who is the bravest and most intelligent child in this village to step forward,” said the Magician and pointed at Deepu.

Deepu could not contain his joy and jumped into the ring. As Sharadha and Pankajakshan gasped Deepu ran straight towards the Magician.

“Deepu, Deepu!” Pankajakshan said and was about to jump into the ring when he heard someone calling his name. He knew that voice.

“Pankajakshan, what are you trying to do?” said Inspector Gopalan. He was in the audience and was along with his wife and two children.

“Sir! that is my boy.”

“That is not what I asked. What are you trying to do in the ring?”

“Sir I want to stop him from going there.”

“Pankajakshan! It is a magic show. The children are enjoying it. The whole village is here. Do not spoil their fun.”

Pankajakshan stepped back. He stood there on the sidelines along with Sharadha.

“I am going to hypnotize this boy,” said the magician. He waved his arms around Deepu and made strange signs with his fingers all around Deepu ’s face.  Deepu who was standing there closed his eyes and then as if asleep, fell into the arms of the Magician’s assistant.

The magician’s assistant placed Deepu in a big black box. Then he proceeded to dramatically close each door of the box.  The magician then put a large black cloth over the box and began waving his arms around. He was mumbling in a strange language as he started walking around the box.  There was pin-drop silence in the tent.

“Watch closely,” he said in a stage whisper.

He pulled off the cloth covering the box and slowly opened the box.  It was empty. The audience clapped and some of the rowdy boys even whistled their appreciation.

The lights were switched off and the show ended.

Sharadha and Pankajakshan gasped in horror. Deepu was nowhere to be seen. Husband and wife ran outside the tent. The people who had come to watch the show started to leave and were crowding all the gates. In the sea of faces, they were not able to spot Deepu.

“Where is my son?” said Sharadha, “Oh God, have I lost him again, twice in the same day!”

“Wait here, said Pankajakshan, “I am going to beat the truth out of that magician.”

He walked towards the place where the circus folks were all standing. The show in the village had ended. They were discussing when to dismantle the tents.

“Where is my son?” said Pankajakshan as he spotted the magician. He was smoking a cigarette in a corner.

“Your son?”

“The boy you put in the box.”

“Oh! you mean the sad boy. He ran away when he saw you two.”

“What do you mean?”

“Your son saw the two of you trying to catch him in between the show. He was so scared that as soon as he came out of the box he ran away. I think by now he would have reached your house.”

Pankajakshan and Sharadha turned and ran back home.

As the magician saw them leave he turned to the young girl by his side and said, “So these are the bad parents who would not let their only child see a magic show. I wish I had used these two for my ‘saw-in-half’ trick!” the girl laughed and the magician joined her in the laughter.

Pankajakshan and Sharadha saw the doors of their house wide open. They rushed in and went straight towards Deepu’ s room. The door was closed. As they pushed it open, both of them let out a sigh of relief. Deepu was fast asleep in his bed. They tiptoed to his bed and sat on either side.

Deepu was not asleep, he had just reached home a few minutes back. He was lying there with his eyes closed. He felt his father’s hand on his back. Pankajakshan patted his son for a long time while Sharadha sat there with tears in her eyes. They realized how precious the boy was to them. Neither of them said a word, but both knew that there would be changes in the house. Changes in the way they looked after their son. It was only when they came close to losing him that they realized how important he was in their lives.

As they went out of the room, Deepu opened his eyes. He knew something had happened in the room. Neither of them had scolded him. He had expected a thrashing from his father at the least. That did not happen. Instead, his father was patting his back. Something told Deepu that things were going to change. Change for the better. Deepu smiled in the dark. He opened his fist and in it, he had the gold coin. The magical gold coin that changed his life. With a smile on his face, Deepu fell asleep.