“Kittu! Don’t even dream of going out to play without finishing your homework!” Narayani shouted from the kitchen.
Kittu, her eight-year-old son grimaced. He was the only child she and her husband, could afford on his clerk’s salary. They had been married ten years. Their names rhymed, Narayani and Narayanan.
“A match made in heaven!” the astrologer had said. Surviving on a small salary anywhere on the planet was torturous. For the couple, if this was heaven, hell could not have been much worse.
Kittu was officially called Krishna Kumar Nair. Only the cruel sisters of St. Mary’s convent called him by his full name. The rest of the world called him Kittu. There was one more version of his name – Kicchu. That version was reserved for use by Bhavani Amma, his maternal grandmother.
Kittu banged his fist on the table. That hurt. It also made a noise that his mother heard.
“This is the last time I am warning you about banging your fist on the table,” she said, “Do it one more time and you will be standing in the corner of the kitchen for the rest of the day.”
Kittu sighed. Mothers! Can’t live with them and can’t live without them!
He could not understand why the whole world was against him. Earlier that day in school, Shastri Sir the Mathematics teacher had caned him. Three sharp swipes that stung for half an hour. Kittu had got all the answers wrong in his class test! He scores were one out of twenty-five. To pass you needed seven. The one mark he got was for neatness. His handwriting was neat. There was not much that he understood in Mathematics. In the test, he had copied the questions neatly and left blanks spaces where the answers should have come. He had hoped they would fill up somehow. That did not happen. His magic pencil had failed him.
He was not the only person in his class who got caned. Eight other boys were with him in that line-up.
“Next time, pay attention when I explain the problems!” thundered Shastri Sir.
He was repeating this sentence like a mantra each time he caned a student. Three swipes, his mantra, and then he would move on to the next boy.
Standard Eight Section B had forty students. Not that the rest of the class did great. Most of the marks ranged between 8 and 10. The one exception was Gopi. There was something strange about that boy. He got twenty-five out of twenty-five in Mathematics!
‘He gets full marks in Sanskrit! Who on earth gets full marks in Sanskrit? I wonder if he is an alien. An alien from the Krypton’ thought Kittu. His thoughts paused at this point. Then they went down a different path. ‘Did Krypton have aliens? Or was it that all the citizens of Krypton were aliens? Superman was an alien on Earth. If an earthling were to land on Krypton would he be considered alien? Was Kryptonite a problem for everyone from Krypton?’ These questions vexed Kittu. He was not sure about the answers. He did not remember reading about aliens in his comics. The problem was serious. There were too many gaps in his knowledge.
“I need to read all the superman comics again,” he said to himself.
At home, Kittu had one small, wooden cupboard all to himself. His mother had given him the cupboard for his school books. Kittu did not think his school books deserved that much respect. The bag occupied the lowest shelf of the cupboard. He arranged his comics in neat stacks in the cupboard. The superman and batman comics were costly. They occupied the top shelf. The Indian comics came on the second. The third shelf was for his toys. He hardly had any, yet they got one shelf all for themselves. The last shelf was reserved for the school bag. He did not let the school books contaminate the comics.
“Are you working on your mathematics homework!” Narayani yelling from the kitchen woke Kittu from his dreams.
He looked at the books spread across the table. As always Evil Shastri had given five problems that day. There were fractions and multiplications. Kittu could never understand why numbers played such evil tricks on one other. Why could they not live in peace with other numbers? Why do they always have to divide and multiply and why did they expect you to know the answer?
As if his problems with Mathematics were not enough he had homework in History and English. The sisters from the convent were worse than Shastri. They had strict rules. You were expected to speak in English in the class. Anyone caught talking in the local dialect was fined fifty paise on the spot. Since the students did not carry money, it would be noted against their name by the class monitor. At the end of the month, these fines were added to the fees. Indeed, it was a cruel world!
Kittu looked out of the window. Gopi lived in the only double-storied house in the village. His father was an engineer with the electricity department. On the opposite side of the road was the house where Chikoo, another of his friends lived. Chikoo was a normal kid. He was also in the line-up that morning, getting beaten up by Cruel Shastri. Kittu wondered what Chikoo was doing. Unlike him, Chikoo watched TV the whole day. He did not like reading comics.
“Watching cartoons is better.” Chikoo insisted. He insisted that reading gave him a headache.
Kittu did not argue. His father could not afford a TV. All the TV viewing he did was at Chikoo’s house. Kittu was allowed to watch TV at Chikoo’s house for two hours every Sunday morning. Chikoo or Master Dinesh Kumar, as it said on the label of his books, was a shopkeepers’ son. His father would be in the shop the whole day. His mother also helped with the business. This meant that Chikoo was all alone in that house. This also meant that the TV would be switched on the whole day. Chikoo did all his homework watching cartoons. He was a regular member in Shastri’s line up. That was where he and Kittu first met. Over the months they became good friends.
Kittu heard the sound of the bathroom door close. He looked at the clock. The shorter hand was on six and the longer one was on two. Kittu always had trouble telling the time on clocks with hands. He preferred the digital watch his father wore. After a few minutes of staring, Kittu figured it was sometime after six.
That was time his mother went for her bath. She would oil her hair first and then go in with some clothes. First, she would wash them, which gave the oil time to set in. Only then would she have her bath. That meant she would be away for at least an hour. Kittu heaved a sigh of relief.
He hated taking baths. He could not imagine why anyone would want to spend an hour in the bathroom. On the positive side, he welcomed the fact that his mother’s bath took an hour. It gave him an hour to play.
He jumped off the chair and ran to his room. He had a superman cape, a gift from his previous birthday. The cape, in its previous life, was a door curtain. His mother had stitched it in the shape of a cape. Narayanan found the price of the real thing at the local toy store, much above his budget. This cape was a compromise with an old curtain. Kittu was not complaining. As long as it looked like a cape he was happy.
“With my super-vision I see some bad men hiding behind a rock!” Kittu said to himself.
Walking on his toes he went behind the ‘rock’ or what looked like a bed-sheet covering a chair to people with normal vision.
“Take that and that,” Kittu shouted and threw punches at imaginary bad-men from his imaginary world. “Disappear before I burn you with my super-x ray-vision!”
The bad men vanquished, Kittu struck a pose in front of the full-length mirror in the bedroom.
Cape around his neck, dressed in a vest and shorts, something was missing in the overall Superman persona.
“Yes! I know what is lacking” he shouted.
Running to his school bag he pulled out his set of felt pens. He removed his vest spread it on the floor and sat down next to it. He was about to start when he paused.
“Hmm! An ‘S’ will look common. I need something different.” Kittu said.
Then a stroke of inspiration hit him.
“Yes, that is it!
Kittu the Superhero to the rescue, ” said Kittu as he admired himself in the mirror. Flashing right across the centre of his chest on his vest was a big ‘K’. He stood there with both hands on his waist. Then for a better effect, he turned to one side, drew the cape partially over his body, raised one arm upwards.
“This is how I will look when I fly all over the world, saving people,” he said. He could feel the wind blowing his mop of curly hair into his eyes.
The next second there was a stinging pain in his earlobes, and he was back on earth! Narayani had finished her bath and found her son, preening before the mirror. She also saw his vest that would require some serious cleaning.
“What did I tell you about playing before finishing your homework?”, she did not wait for an answer and continued, “Why do you always waste your time?” Narayani was warming up, “As it is my life is tough!”
Once she started her tale of woe, it was impossible to stop her.
“Do you want to end up like me? Had I been a graduate, I would have got a job. Yes! Some women work now. You do not see them here in this village but in the big cities, they travel by buses, go to offices. They earn money and contribute towards the monthly expenses. I could have been like them. The only reason we are stuck in this village is that we never got the opportunity to go in for higher studies. Your father was lucky he got a scholarship that paid up to his graduation. Now, look at you! You have got this great chance to make something of your life and what do you do instead? You waste your time playing silly games…”
The monologue continued. Kittu sat there, wishing it would end. His eyes wandered above his mothers face. A few feet above her head a spider was dangling. Twisting and turning, attached to a silvery thread from its web. Every twist was bringing the spider closer to his mothers head. Kittu watched in fascination.
“…there are people in this village who would give anything to send their children to St Mary’s…”
Narayani continued. Her lament was worsened by the fact that she could not help in her son’s studies. By the time she had reached her tenth, her parents had pulled her out of school. They had two children and preferred to spend the little money they had on their son’s education. Narayani’s brother went on to become a graduate and was now working as a bus conductor. Not that it did any good to his parents. After his marriage, he had moved to the city and cut off all relations with his parents. It was Narayani who took care of her parents in their old age.
“… I was smart in school. I could have done well in college as well…” said Narayani.
This part of the narrative was not exactly true. She had barely scraped through her school exams. She had no idea how fractions worked. She could manage the local language subjects but English, Science and Mathematics were beyond her. That was left to her husband. Narayanan, when he found the time taught his son. He was a good teacher. The only problem was he rarely found the time to teach. By the time he would reach home the boy would already be asleep. The weekends were when father and son would get together and catch up.
“……had my parent not wasted their money on Kannan, today I would have been a graduate. I would have got a job, I would have….eeek!”
Kannan was her brother. Her story about her brother was interrupted as the spider finally made it to her head. Kittu saw his mother jump up and shake her head vigorously. She then began running in circles, shaking her head and making sounds as if trying to scare the spider. All this could not dislodge the spider which held on to Narayani’s hair. Kittu had never seen anything this funny in his life. He collapsed on the floor laughing. This was better than the cartoon films on Chikoo’s TV. Narayani was circling the room for the second time when the door opened and her husband walked in.
“What is a gadtuate?” said Kittu.
Half an hour later Narayanan was sitting reading the mornings newspaper.
“There is no such word. Where did you hear it?”
“Mother always says that if she were a gadtuate she could have got a job”
“Oh graduate! That is someone who has studied for about fifteen years. Ten years in school, two years of junior college and then another three years of college. That is when you become a graduate. You have to pass all the exams on the way!”
Kittu was lying on the straw mat with his feet on the wall, listening to his father. He could not imagine why anyone would want to study for fifteen years. He hoped to stop in a year or two. He was clear in his mind. He wanted to become a professional wrestler or a magician when he grew up. It was one or the other. There were days when he would want to be a policeman, but then he was afraid of the dark.
“How come you are home early,” said Narayani. She had a hot cup of tea in her hand.
“There was a seminar in the office today. Some people from a bank had come and gave us a talk on setting up a small business with loans from the bank.”
“A small business. It could be a shop or a ….”
Kittu was bored. His parent always had these boring discussions. He went to his cupboard and took a few of the Superman comics and started reading them.
“Look at him! No need for a bed or a pillow. He can sleep anywhere. Good that he had his dinner.” Narayanan found Kittu sleeping on the floor with the comics spread all around him. He carried the boy to his bed and tucked him in.
“Did he finish his homework?” said Narayanan.
“Yes. There is a little left, I will make him do it in the morning before he goes to school. This loan that you were talking about, the one that you get from the bank…can I also apply for a loan?”
Narayanan started to laugh but then seeing the look on his wife’s face stopped.
“What do you want a loan for?”
“I can stitch clothes. Maybe I can get a loan to start a tailor’s shop. During the day when you and Kittu are out, I can stitch clothes and make some extra money.”
Narayanan thought about it for a few minutes. His wife was not bragging. She was skilled with the sewing machine. He had bought her a machine a few months into their wedding and that proved to be one of the best investments of his life. Over the years her sewing skills had saved a few thousand rupees for the family.
“I think this could be a good idea. Let me speak to the bank people tomorrow.”
Narayani smiled. Her son sleeping in the next room was also smiling. In his dream he was flying high above the village, his cape fluttering in the breeze, Kittu the superhero to the rescue. From high up in the clouds, with his super-vision, he could see the village wave at him. They knew they were safe now.