Jehangir Gotla stormed into the kitchen where his wife Zubin was preparing his favourite lunch-patra ni machhi for him to take to work. His hair was wet from the shower, his face glistened with droplets and his hands clutched the towel wrapped around his waist. He hovered behind her, watching her as she stuffed the fish with green coconut chutney and wrapped it in a small banana leaf to steam. His tiffin gleamed on the counter. She would soon pack it with fish and rice and shoo him to work. Few drops of water fell on her broad shoulder and startled her. She turned around.
“Why Jehangu? You are not ready yet? It’s almost 9:30!”
Jehangir adjusted the towel around his protruding belly and wiggled his toes as drops of water splashed on them. He kept staring, fascinated by the colours as the light split through it. But it did not elevate his mood. His face darkened and his lips quivered. He was afraid to look at her. She tilted his chin up and gazed into his face. Her piercing eyes drilled into his heart and bit by bit exhumed the secrets buried deep within. There was silence between them except for the groaning of the fan above and the oppressive heat.
“Why Jehangu? What’s the matter?”
She reached for the dish towel and dried his hair.
He couldn’t control the agony inside him. It burst out like a firecracker.
“ It’s April Fool’s Day!”
His mind flashed back to last year’s catastrophe. Those little rascals and their pranks. All the thrashing in the world hadn’t subdued them. They had embarrassed him in front of his friends and the headmaster. He had been the talk of the town.
A smile flickered on Zubin’s face but faded quickly when she felt his distress. He needed to vent his frustration.
“Tell me all about it.” She cooed, as though she had never heard this story before.
He looked into his wife’s loving face and ranted on.
“The donkeys! You can’t take a nap in peace anymore. They shaved off half my moustache!”
He stopped to catch his breath and continued as though it had happened yesterday.
“Then I ran into the staff room to hide my shame. My colleagues saw my face and burst into laughter. They were worse than the little rascals. So brutal! Thank God, the headmaster barged in. He threatened and silenced them. When he saw me, his jaws dropped but the fellow made a quick recovery. Then he beckoned me into his office.”
Tears of humiliation weld up in his eyes.
She clucked, soothed and dried his tears. He continued.
“One of the ruffians put a cockroach in my soup. I saw the roach squirm in the dark fluid, struggling to climb out. It made my stomach turn. Why! I almost fainted while drilling math into those numbskulls.”
In his agitation, he forget to mention the laxative that looked like Cadbury and the stink bomb that exploded in the school latrine.
She murmured words of sympathy and stroked his hair to pacify him but he felt the first sizzle of rebellion brewing inside him. He stood in front of her, unwavering, his thick legs like pillars grounding him and his arms folded across his chest. The towel around him threatened to drop any minute. He declared without a twinge of conscience.
“I am not going to work today! In fact, I am going to quit!”
Zubin’s tender smile vanished at the thought of him pondering around, following her like a lost puppy. It would ruin her plans for the day! She was looking forward to visiting Leila, two floor below, for a cup of chai and samosas and catch up on the latest gossip. Before that, she had to run to the market and pick up fresh eggplants to make bharthu for the evening. If he stayed home and muddled in her affairs, her plans would go haywire! The harmony so carefully preserved would shatter! She had to think fast.
She led him into the bedroom, clucking like a hen and took his khameez and pants out of the cupboard.
“Here, dress quickly.” She scolded as she combed his hair. “ You must go to work or you will ruin your chance at the promotion. If you quit now, then that sala Gulshan will snatch it from you.”
His rival’s face, the irritating smirk, materialized in front of Jehangir. He had laughed the most and spread rumours around the school. Gulshan did not deserve the promotion. He did not possess a degree in economics like Jehangir did! He had wormed his way into the profession with flattery and beguiling the headmaster’s daughter into marrying him. His only merit was that, as a son in law his wishes could not be ignored.
“Besides,” and she pointed to the pages of the small calendar that fluttered in the breeze. “It’s the second of the month today!”
Jehangir watched his wife with admiration and pride. Her soft, beautiful face framed by dark, long curls that flirted and caressed her cheeks, the lips as soft as a rose petal, that puckered up in anger whenever they fought. He basked in the cosy warmth of her presence, safe in the illusion that she was his shield, his saviour. He felt the tension ooze out of him and he relaxed enough to pinch her cheek in jest.
“My clever, little Zubi.” He tried to kiss her but she turned her face and it landed on her head.
She was right. He could not afford to lose this promotion. He had triumphed over obstacles placed in his path with courage and perseverance. He had worked hard to impress the headmaster with his modern teaching ideas. He could not lose it all to that sala Gulshan!
His anger propelled him into action. He slipped into his champals, grabbed his tiffin and umbrella and clambered down the staircase into the parking lot where his bicycle waited for him.
She waved and yelled from the balcony.
“ Beat them with your umbrella! Jehangu!”
As he disappeared round the corner, she looked at her clenched fist, opened it and stared at the crumpled piece of paper, the first of the month, that she had ripped from the calendar. Humming a Bollywood tune, she strolled into the kitchen, turned on the gas stove and watched the paper burn into shreds of black carbon.