"Amma? Where are my uniforms?"
"With the Iron Master," she said. "You must fetch them."
I retrieved my sandals from their post by the front door and trotted down the front steps of our home. Darting between mopeds and auto-rickshaws, I crossed the road into the popular neighborhood park. Adults walked the perimeter for exercise, avoiding the central gathering of children devoted to their games of cricket and football. Two enormous rain trees stood silently on either end, offering shade to those in need of relief from the heat.
Winding my way between crowds, I ignored shouts from the neighborhood kids to join them. My destination was at the far edge of the park—Iron Master's residence and place of business. It was little more than a shack, pieced together with wood planks and scraps of metal. The corrugated tin roof was crooked and plagued with rust spots. How the entire thing had survived the last monsoon season, I didn't know.
When I approached, the man was crouched in front of his doorway, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.
"Namaste," I said.
"Yes, Boss." He had a quick smile and deep-set eyes. A few remaining black hairs speckled his thick, grey mustache. His clothes were threadbare and baggy on his thin frame. They were also wrinkled, which seemed strange to me since he ironed garments for a living. The only parts of his body that appeared healthy were his muscular forearms. But even they were covered by aging skin, sun-damaged from a lifetime of smoothing clothes outdoors.
"I'm here to pick up my school uniforms."
He bobbled his head, extinguished the cigarette, and disappeared inside. His black, cast-iron box sat on a board off to the side. I inspected it while I waited for him to gather my things. It looked heavy. I tried to pick it up but could barely move it.
"Here you are, Boss." He popped back outside. I tried to look like I hadn't been touching his things. If he'd seen me, he gave no indication.
I thanked him and hurried back home.
The next morning, I walked past Iron Master's shack on the way to school. He was out front, working. I marveled at his skill in moving such a cumbersome iron filled with smoldering coals. He nodded and smiled at me. I pressed my hands together in greeting as he weaved the bulky box over the wrinkles of a freshly laundered shirt. He stuck his fingers in a copper water pot and flicked a few drops on the garment. As soon as the iron met the water, hissing and steam filled the air. The comforting smell of charcoal floated on the breeze.
As soon as I arrived at school, I took my place in the morning inspection line. The principal always took a keen interest in his students' appearance as we entered our first class of the day. That morning, he sized me up from head-top to toe-tip. A short grunt of satisfaction told me that my appearance met his standards. He moved his gaze to the next student in line.
I silently thanked Iron Master for the well-pressed uniform, as any shortcomings would have been pointed out and punished. The principal was strict. There was a rumor he had served in a foreign army for several years before returning home to India. A crease on our shirts would elicit a deep frown. Socks of the wrong material or that refused to remain knee-high could easily elicit a punishment of twenty sit-ups. One day, my friend Sunil wore mismatched socks. He was assigned 100 sit-ups and could not walk properly for three days afterward. Luckily for the lot of us, the principal never paid attention to how we left school each day. By the final bell, we were usually a combination of dusty shoes, wrinkled shorts, and untucked shirts.
On my way home from school, I stopped in the park to join a game of football. Since I was an unskilled player, some of the kids were reluctant to pass to me, but I was determined to impress everyone with a strong kick. My eyes followed the ball. Back. Forth. One way. Then another. It came toward me. I took a deep breath, propelling my right leg forward, striking out like a snake. Contact! The ball shot into the air so high, that people around the park stopped what they were doing to see where it would land. It skimmed the outermost leaves of the top of the rain tree, making a long, measured descent towards the edge of the park. I could tell exactly where it was headed. As the ball sank through the air, my stomach matched its movement. It crashed through the thin, rusted metal of Iron Master's roof and disappeared into the hut, leaving a gaping hole in its wake.
I rushed toward the shack while the other kids scattered away in different directions. Iron Master came out of his home, covered in a layer of road dust that had jarred loose from his broken roof. He held the soccer ball in his hands. I stood before him with my arms crossed behind my back. Mortified, I mumbled an apology.
For some reason, he was smiling. The first words out of his mouth were, "Thank you."
I stared at him, confused.
"I see everyone else has run off. But you are here to own your actions. Very good."
I didn't know what else to say. I looked down and scraped my foot in the dirt.
"I suppose this means I need to fix my roof." He chuckled.
I couldn't believe it. I had envisioned Iron Master dragging me by one ear to my house and angrily banging on the door to inform my mother of my transgression. Instead, he welcomed me with a smile.
I surveyed the damage to his roof and burst into tears.
"Hey, Boss. No need to cry," he said.
Ironic. I had damaged his house, and now he was comforting me.
"Come," he said. "Sit." He motioned to the ground.
We sat down together.
"Do you see that spider there, in the web?" He pointed to the overhang of the roof.
"If someone knocks its home with a broom, does it get angry?
"Why is that?"
"It's a spider. It doesn't know how to get mad."
"Correct. And I am like the spider. Do you know why?"
I shook my head.
"Anger is like a spider's venom. It will slowly digest the positive thoughts in your mind and make you miserable. Does that sound good to you?"
"If someone wrongs me, I forgive. I could hold anger toward you and let this spoiled roof ruin my day. But that doesn't seem like a very nice way to spend my time. Instead, perhaps we can fix the roof together and take this opportunity to become friends."
I nodded in understanding and then spent the next hour helping Iron Master patch the hole in his roof.
On my walk home, I became lost in thought, thinking about what my new friend had said about anger. I wondered what other bits of wisdom I could learn from him. In my mind, I flipped his name around from Iron Master to Master Nori, anxious to visit him again soon.