It was the middle of the school year. Mala’s family had just moved to the little obscure town of Belgaum in the interiors of India. The only school within walking distance was the vernacular one. This was her last year at school, the most important one since it would determine admission to college. Unfortunately, this became the hardest year of her entire school life. The medium of instruction in her new school was Kannada, whereas she had been studying in an English medium school until then. Every class was now a battle – especially science and math. The concepts didn’t make sense; she had to read everything twice. Since she read Kannada really slowly, this, of course, took a very long time. Needless to say, with all the re-reading, Mala didn’t get much time to make any friends.
The only class she looked forward to was English Literature. In this class, she could forget her troubles as she listened to the works of Tennyson, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth. Mala loved poetry. While everyone struggled to memorize lines from a verse, she could recite an entire poem without once looking at her book. A few weeks after she had joined the school, Mr. Kumble had asked her to recite a poem by William Wordsworth in his English class. She had stood unfazed in front of the sixty students and recited, “The Inward Eye.”
“When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
She continued; her diction clear, her voice strong and lilting. As she recited, she closed her eyes. The students, the teacher faded from her consciousness. All she could see was those golden Daffodils. She didn’t look up once at the book, the verses spilling from her heart. She ended the rendering
“…In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.”
As she finished and looked up, she could feel the breathless silence in the class. She shifted uneasily, her trance now broken. Finally, Mr. Kumble, her English teacher, began to clap. “Wonderful, Mala. That was very good,” he said. As he stood there in seeming obeisance to the brilliance of Wordsworth and her flawless delivery, Mala saw in the eyes of the other students, a resentful scorn take birth. The scorn followed her through the rest of the school year. There were no warm invitations to birthday parties for her. No one walked with her to school and no-one shared their lunch with her.
Mala tried to blend into the background as best as she could. She didn’t raise her hand to answer questions and she didn’t speak out of turn. Every available minute was given to catching up on lessons. At home, she would finish her chores and then, while her sisters slept, she would stay awake and continue to make sense of the huge textbooks the teacher had let her borrow.
It was hard. Not the lessons themselves. A student loves a challenge. And young minds can absorb a lot. What was hard was taking in the growing disdain from the rest of the students. That is what exhausted her. She fought the alienation with her own sentence of self-imposed solitude. She poured herself into her work. Where she had been always at the top in her old school, Mala came out much below. But still, she placed honorably enough among the first ten students in the mid-terms. That only pushed the axe of resentment against her further into the hearts of the other students.
Months went by. Her sense of nothingness and worthlessness fortified itself further. It was almost the end of the school year now and Mala still felt like an outsider. She couldn’t wait to finish and no longer face the daily charade of social interaction. The walls of her house were enough for her existence. Like her sisters, she would just focus on household duties until a suitable match could be found for her. It was in this fragile state of emotional fatigue that she attended the last science class of the year before the board exams.
Mrs. Joshi, a stern middle-aged woman who wore thick red-rimmed glasses, was the teacher. Since they had finished the syllabus she announced that she would do something different that day. “Students,” she addressed the class, “today instead of the textbook, let’s talk about what is in your young scientific minds. What would you all like to be when you grow up?”
“Astronaut, Doctor, Nurse, Scientist.” The answers poured in like the tumultuous keys of a piano playing a masterful symphony. The music grew louder and louder. “Engineer, Professor, Civil Servant”. It reached a crescendo. “What about you, Mala?” the teacher now asked. All eyes turned towards her.
Mala stood up, and unable to face the salvo of stares, looked down at her feet. “What do you want to be?” repeated the teacher. After a long pause, Mala replied, “A housewife.”
The room exploded with laughter. She bit her tongue trying to hold back the deluge of tears. “Why do you say that?” the teacher now asked, a little more kindly. Mrs. Joshi had brown eyes Mala noticed as she looked into them through her the thick red rimmed glasses. Mala shrugged and said “I know that’s all I will be. I won’t be going to college Madam.” After the initial tittering among the students, there were one or two who walked up to her and smiled at her. Was it the evidence of her failure, her smallness that now endeared her to them?
Later that week, Mrs. Joshi and Mr. Kumble came home to talk to her parents. Mala stood by the door while her mother served them fresh coffee and idlis. The teacher persuaded her parents to let her study more. Maybe she could find a scholarship, maybe a few teachers from the school could help her. “She is bright,” said Mrs. Joshi. “She just needs some guidance and time.” “You should hear her recite Wordsworth,” said Mr. Kumble. Her mother looked uncertainly at the professors. “I guess she can study until she gets married,” offered her father in conciliation.
Mala had been listening at the door. She slowly realized the implication of this discussion. College. She ran inside. Suddenly it was as if the weight of a mountain had been lifted from her shoulders. Nothing mattered – not the disdain from her classmates, not the trouble she had had with the lessons. Nothing seemed insurmountable.
“Padma, Padma, listen, I am going to college,” she whispered to her sleeping sister. Padma would not stir, so she rushed up alone to the balcony. She looked up at the open sky. Her face still turned toward the sun, she spun around until all she could see was a cerulean blue. When she stopped suddenly, a multitude of color exploded in her eyes covering the earth everywhere she looked. Her body still swayed caught in the aftermath of the spinning. She giggled in delirium, holding unsteadily to the parapet. She sat there for a long time after, dreaming up all the books she would read in college and all the money she would make, all the clothes she would buy and all the big places she would go to.
The exams were held, the school year ended and summer rolled in. Mala day-dreamed of the things she would be once she went to college. She tended to the neighbor’s dog pretending to be a doctor. “Here take your medicine three times a day and get some rest,” she pronounced. The puppy snuggled up to her and woofed softly in compliance. As she climbed the mango tree in her cousin’s farm she thought maybe she could be an astronaut and fly away into space. As she sat in the evenings with her parents and sisters eating poha and tea, she thought maybe she could be a writer like Prabhakar Uncle. Thus she secretly plotted and connived the entire summer.
At the end of summer, her cousin was getting married in the beach town of Gokarna. The family made their way there. Gokarna was hot and humid. They had four days before the wedding. As soon as they arrived, all the cousins got together and spent an entire day near the beach. They dipped in the water, collected seashells and kicked sand at each other. The next couple of days they ran from house to house collecting berries, mangoes, and sweet hibiscus flowers. At the end of the day, they had stood in a circle counting each person’s winnings. Mala lost the competition, but she didn’t mind. She was busy gathering other things. She was observing what her uncles and aunts and cousins and their friends worked as. Maybe she could be an advocate like Rao uncle, maybe a dentist like Seema aunty. Her basket was brimming, not with fruits and flowers, but with dreams, ambitions, transformations and flights. The universe had been generous to her.
The wedding was a flurry of activities. Everyone was determined to look their very best for the ceremonies. Mala didn’t object when her aunts dressed her in her mother’s blue silk Sari. She didn’t fuss as they outlined her eyes with kohl. She sat decked in full finery and examined the reflection in the mirror. The intricate peacock design on her necklace caught her eye as she held the pendant to the sun. “Mala you are looking so pretty,” her sister said. “Like an actress.” “Well maybe I will become one then,” replied Mala and the two sisters giggled.
The day of the wedding came and went. Her cousin left to go to her in-laws’ house and Mala and her family headed back to Belgaum. There were now only three weeks to go until college began. She had to go shopping for books and pencils.
August finally came and so did the first day of college. Hundreds of students wore their new clothes, clutched their new bags and made their way up the steps to the sanctum of their new place of learning. But Mala was not among them.
Mala was sitting in a plane, by the window, ready to fly 8,000 miles away to a place called America. As the plane rose and took off, she looked outside. The buildings and trees became smaller and smaller and finally disappeared into the clouds. “Mala, what are you looking at?” asked Arun, her new husband. Mala rested her head back on the seat and sighed. “Daffodils”, she replied.
Belgaum – a small town in Karnataka, India
Kannada – the regional language spoken in Karnataka, India
Poha – a snack made of beaten rice, onions and potatoes had in the western regions of India
Gokarna – a town near the beach in Karnataka, India