A light breeze blew plumes of sand across the empty schoolyard. On the other side of a low wall the flat desert stretched out against the horizon. Over the course of the morning, the dark rectangle this side of the wall would shrink, and by recess would provide just enough shade for children like Akash who didn’t care to play cricket or run after a ball. From his seat by the open window Akash scanned the sky for signs of a rainstorm, for the swollen monsoon clouds that usually built up this time of year before they exploded with thunder and lightning to unleash sheets of rain. But the breeze only died, and Akash resigned himself to yet another day of relentless heat.
Mr. Sudhir was still performing the multiplication drill in front of the class. He pointed to a row of equations, leaving a white dot with his chalky index finger where he touched the blackboard. The students called the answers out in a loud chorus: 45, 54, 63. When would they see the pattern? It was so easy, once you saw the pattern in the numbers. Akash cited them backward in his mind, 81, 72, 63, 54, then added the multiplication products in his head, starting from the lowest. He knew the sequence and the total sum by heart. Numbers lined up in his head easily, arranged themselves into patterns, and moved in formations. Each math problem was like a hurdle he enjoyed jumping over with ease.
It was already too hot in the classroom. The blades of the old ceiling fan rotated slowly, cutting through the stale air more than moving it. Dark patches of sweat grew on the backs of the boys in front of him. The blue walls were covered with a patina of dirt, and a dark aura of smudge spread around the switches near the door. A faded black-and-white profile of Gandhi hung askew on the wall opposite the window. The old man looked serenely toward the lower left corner of the picture, his thin-rimmed, round glasses too low on his nose. Akash knew about Gandhi—his birthday was a national holiday and the class had to memorize poems and songs in his honor. Gandhi had preached ahimsa, nonviolence, and had worn white, the color of truth. Gandhi had starved himself to show the British that his willpower was stronger than their weapons. Mr. Sudhir had explained to the class that Gandhi had also told Indians to stop wanting, that wanting only brought trouble. The other students had nodded, but Akash knew they all wanted something. Wanting was just another kind of hunger, burning until satisfied. Akash’s family would soon not have enough to eat, because the rains hadn’t come. But their hunger would not change anything. He focused on the dusty poster beside the door. Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom and knowledge, wore a white sari and played her stringed instrument, the veena. Like all Hindu gods she rode on a vahana, a creature that allowed her to travel the heavens. Saraswati’s vehicle was a white swan, a sign of her wisdom and humility, according to Mr. Sudhir. Next to her feet waited a peacock. Akash locked his eyes onto Saraswati’s pale face and made his daily wish to learn more math.
Since last January Mr. Sudhir had met with him twice a week before school to work on more difficult equations. His father had reminded Akash many times how lucky he was that the teacher took extra time to teach him math without asking for money. But this morning Mr. Sudhir had patted the old textbook in front of him after they had finished the last page. “This is all the math I know. I only finished tenth standard. I won’t be able to help you any more.” Akash had been worried that this moment would come. “Thank you for teaching me what you know,” Akash had said after a short pause.
“If you do well in this year’s final exams you might win a scholarship,” the teacher had said.
“What is a scholarship?”
“A rich person or foundation gives money to the best students from poor families, to help them go to a good school so they can continue on to college.”
“They have these scholarships for kids after seventh standard?”
“Yes. I wish I could find you a tutor to help you study.”
“But I did well on my own last time.”
“You were the sixth best last year in our district. Only the best student in the state wins the scholarship.”
“How many students take the exam in the state?”
“Over one thousand.”
Akash knew enough about probability to calculate his chances. In order to finish first he would need money to pay a tutor who could teach him what he needed to know. But his family didn’t have any money.
“7 times 4,” the teacher boomed now, shaking Akash out of the memory of this morning’s conversation. The fan rotated two times. When no hand went up, the teacher pointed at a boy in the front row.
“Subash, what’s the answer?”
“T-t-twenty-one,” Subash stammered. The teacher shook his head.
“28,” Akash said. Subash turned around, and his angry glance hit Akash like the whip of a branch. Akash averted his eyes quickly and looked at Ravi, who sat next to him.
“Don’t worry about him,” Ravi whispered. “Just tell me the answer to the third one.” Akash nodded, and when the teacher pointed to 9 •7 Ravi raised his hand and answered,
After school Ravi and Akash walked together back to their village. The path led straight along a turmeric field, separated from a dried-up irrigation canal by a long row of trees. The pollarded trees had shed their leaves in the intense heat. Their bare branches ended in thick knobs held upward like the fists of angry men. The drought had left the soil cracked, and the spice plants looked starved. Sometimes a short trickle of rain speckled the ground enough to give off the promising smell of wet mud. But after this cruel teaser the sky didn’t open for a roaring downpour, gave no relief from the sticky heat that hung unchanged, like a punishment with no end in sight.
“How do you do it?” Ravi asked. “The answers just spill out of you.”
“They’re just in my head,” Akash answered, kicking a pebble off the dirt path.
“They stick to you like flies on a cow,” Ravi said. “Why are the numbers in your head and not in mine?”
“I don’t know.” Akash shrugged. He didn’t like it when Ravi mentioned his gift for numbers. “But you can run faster than I can.”
“Whoever gets to old Poonam’s house second has to do the other one’s homework,” Ravi said. His eyes sparkled with the anticipated victory.
“All right.” Akash knew he would lose this competition, but wanted to humor his friend.
“But you have to try!” Ravi called.
“I will,” Akash said. “My legs just don’t work as fast as my brain.”
They crouched behind the line Ravi had quickly drawn in the dirt. “Go!” Ravi called, and disappeared instantly in a cloud of dust. Akash followed. There were eighteen trees between the school and the village. It took eleven steps to get from one tree to the next. That made 191 steps each way. If he knew the exact distance he could calculate Ravi’s speed per kilometer. But Akash wouldn’t suggest measuring it, for fear this would spoil the running fun for Ravi. Soon he heard Ravi’s cry of victory. “First!” When Akash reached old Poonam’s hut Ravi greeted him, laughing. “I thought you’d never get here!”
“Come on! I wasn’t that slow!” said Akash, bending forward to catch his breath.
“Not fast enough for me to do your homework!” Ravi said, with a tone of triumph.
“No problem!” Akash said. “I’ll do it!”
“Look, there is your uncle!” Ravi pointed in the direction of the banyan tree in the center of the village square, where three men sat on their charpoys, playing cards.
Akash quickly crossed the square without looking up. He knew that his uncle would be losing money his family urgently needed. Akash waved goodbye and hurried toward his family’s home at the western edge of the village. The narrow lane was empty and quiet at this time of day except for a few cows that stood motionless, blocking his path. The animals stared into the distance and showed no reaction to Akash’s presence as he flattened himself against the wall to squeeze past one cow’s bony shoulders.
Aunt Kamla was sweeping the hard mud in front of the hut with a twig broom, supporting her protruding pregnant belly with her free hand. Akash’s little cousin Amit was playing in the shade and threw a handful of dirt in Akash’s direction as he passed. Two tiny front teeth blinked in his broad smile.
Inside their two-room hut, his grandmother knelt in front of the family shrine. Dadima was dusting the painted clay statue of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god. Ganesha was worshipped as the remover of obstacles. With a dotted turban on his large head, he sat perched and smiling on a small mouse. Without taking notice of Akash, Dadima wiped the elephant’s ears before she placed him next to the figure of Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. Saraswati was not present in Akash’s family’s shrine. But Mr. Sudhir had given Akash a small picture of Saraswati last February, when they celebrated Vasant Panchami, the goddess’s birthday, in school. Akash had carried it in his notebook ever since. While Dadima still had her back turned to him, he opened the notebook and focused on the picture of the goddess. Akash put his hands together in front of his chest, whispering a short prayer to Saraswati, asking her to help him continue his education.
“Haven’t you put your nose into books long enough at school?” Dadima got up and looked down at him disapprovingly. Folds of loose skin quivered on his grandmother’s neck. “What are you dawdling in here for?” Akash quickly closed the notebook and put his schoolbag under the charpoy. “Get out and take your father his lunch. He’s probably waiting for it already.”
Akash hurried outside, where his cousin Anu was preparing for her daily walk to fetch water.
“You look like a bird that fell out of his nest,” Anu said as she placed two small empty water vessels into a larger one and hoisted them on her hip. “What happened?”
“I need money for another teacher,” Akash said, and picked up the two tiffin boxes with food that Dadima had placed for Bapu near the fire hole.
“What do you need another teacher for? Aren’t you going to Mr. Sudhir’s class?”
“Yes, but I need to find a tutor who knows more math so I can pass the exam as the best in the state.”
“The best in the state?” Anu laughed. “What difference does it make? This is your last year of school anyway.” It was easy for Anu to say. She had never gone to school. She couldn’t read or write and the only numbers she knew were the ones she needed to count the goats. “I wish I had extra money,” she continued. “Then I could buy new bangles at the Ganesha Chaturthi fair next week. But even if I had any money, it would need to go to my dowry so I’ll find a good husband.” Anu pulled the end of her sari over her face and turned toward the gate. Akash still hadn’t gotten used to the sudden change in Anu since her thirteenth birthday last month. She was just a year older than him, but Anu was now obsessed with getting married. Akash remembered the visits from suitable boys’ families just a year ago, when Aunt Kamla and Uncle Jagdish had been looking for a groom for Anu’s older sister, his cousin Asha. The boys’ parents had looked at Asha the way Bapu inspected an ox he wanted to buy. He didn’t understand how Anu could be excited about this prospect. Just like her older sister, Anu had no say in the matter and wouldn’t even see her future husband before the ceremony. After the wedding she would need to move in with her husband’s family and serve her new mother-in-law, just as her mother had to serve Dadima. Even so, girls seemed to live for their marriage day. He wouldn’t say any more and followed her quickly through the gate before Dadima could remind him once again to take Bapu his food.
Bapu had tied a sheet between two khejri trees. Akash sat down with his father in the dark rectangle of the cloth’s shade to have lunch. While he watched Bapu finish his food, Akash told him about his conversation with Mr. Sudhir in the morning.
“If we had any extra money we would need to give it to Kumar-ji,” Bapu said as he wiped the tiffin box with the last piece of his chapati. “We owe him so much now that he is threatening to take away the land.”
“But if he took the land we could never pay him back,” Akash said.
“That’s true. But he won’t care.” Bapu belched. “No, you will have to do well on your exam without any tutor. I’m sure you can pass it!”
“It’s not about passing, Bapu. It’s about scoring at the very top and winning the scholarship so I can go to a better school!” The words came out more forcefully than Akash had intended. Bapu turned to him and Akash saw a familiar sadness darkening his eyes. “Son, you are just as willful as your mother. She always wanted to change things for the better. She argued even with your Dadima.” Bapu shook his head slowly.
“Nothing changes because of our doing. It’s all in the hands of the gods.”
Akash wished he hadn’t caused that sadness in Bapu. His mother had died giving birth to a sister when Akash was five years old. The baby had lived only three days. Akash often tried to force his memory to bring back his mother’s face or what it had felt like when she touched him, but his attempts remained futile, like blowing the embers of a cold fire.
“What about Uncle Jagdish? If he worked we’d have more money.” Akash had seen his uncle mix poppy husks with water and hastily drink the bhukki before he rested on his charpoy, his eyes mellow and soft from the opium.
“Your uncle is sick. All his thoughts are on the cards and the money he wins for the bhukki. He can’t work!” Bapu frowned at him. Akash knew that asking Bapu why he didn’t complain when Dadima gave money to Uncle Jagdish for playing cards or buying the poppy husk was like asking why Bapu didn’t turn the desert sand into gold. Bapu was the younger of the brothers, and Dadima defended her older son as fiercely as a sow her litter. But the familiar anger grew in Akash, and for a moment he wished he were two years old instead of twelve and could throw himself flat on his stomach, pounding his fists on the ground and screaming how he wanted it to be different.
“Look!” Bapu pointed toward an acacia tree on the edge of the field, where a soft rustle drew their attention. A large tortoise slowly appeared from under the branches. The yellow-black star-shaped patterns on its shell blended perfectly with the colors of the desert shrubs.
“You don’t see these very often anymore,” Bapu said. “People now catch and sell them to other countries.”
“What do they do with them in other countries?”
“In America people put tortoises in a cage to look at them.”
“How do you know about this?”
Bapu stretched out in the shade. “Oh, I once saw a man selling two of them to the dentist at the Ganesha Chaturthi fair.”
“How much money do they pay for a tortoise?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t think the gods made these tortoises to be sold to people in America,” Bapu said. “I think they belong here.”
Bapu closed his eyes and almost immediately began to snore. The festival commemorating Gane-sha’s birthday was coming up soon. Akash watched the tortoise crawl back into the bush. He could easily bring it to the Ganesha Chaturthi fair in Moti Bagh. He imagined the creature in a cage, surrounded by noisy children, pointing their fingers and throwing leaves. It would be wrong, but now the idea hummed in Akash’s head like a bee caught in a glass.
SARASWATI’S WAY Copyright © 2010 by Monika Schröder