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Desi Fiction Middle School

For as long as she could remember, tendrils, peacocks, and rangolis ran amok in Suchi’s head. And leaped out at her notebooks.

The public school she went to, close to her village, had half its teaching staff getting replaced every year. And given its proximity to the military cantonment, half its students got refreshed every year. Not that any of it mattered to Suchi. She had learned the art of becoming invisible by sandwiching herself between eager-beaver-answer-giver-oh-I’m-so-clever and I-care-two-hoots-for-your-chalk-and-talk-lady! brigades of 7A.

She went to school on her bicycle with a group of girls from her village. The mud road got sludgy during monsoons but was good enough at other times. The best thing about the ride was the ever-changing patterns of the tracks left behind.

Once she got to her desk and flipped her notebook open, she slipped out of the class and entered her world; often unnoticed, at times ignored, and at other times scoffed at, by her teachers.

“Please pay attention to the classwork!”

“Such beau…tiful artwork! But this is Math class!!”

“Are you going to draw rangoli designs in your term papers?”

Were some of the kinder remarks when they caught her doodling. She chose to forget the harsher ones.

Her name came up in the staffroom at regular intervals when teachers discussed remediation for the ‘weak’ students. The old teachers tsked, and the new ones looked up at her details from the attendance register-- ‘late’ in front of her mother’s name, and ‘shop owner’ under her father’s occupation-- and made a note of it in their registers. The problem, they murmured, “loss of a parent at a young age”. And the solution, they concurred, “just tolerate a bit more, probably will get married off soon”. In a village full of struggling farmers, a shop owner was a rich man, they surmised. He should not have any trouble finding a suitable match for his daughter, even if she was a loony bird.

 “She is sure to win a trophy for being the bride with the best henna design,” they laughed.

***

Reema walked on the cracked cement path that led to an array of classrooms. July sun baked the earth and sent up hot air, leaving her throat parched. She looked at her timetable once again and hobbled up a short flight of stairs. The raucous 7A hardly registered the entry of a short, stout form. Until the form limped up on the pedestal and greeted them in a rich voice.

“Good morning, class!”

The first few rows folded in like a pack of cards. But the warring factions at the back took time to notice her. When they did, they slinked back to their places and trained their eyes on her. An anonymous voice shot out from the pool of body odour.

“Ma’am, this is our English period!”

“Yes. I know. I will be taking it till your regular teacher comes back.”

Quick murmurs travelled the length and breadth of the packed classroom. A couple of dry tamarind pods rattled on the tiled roof.

“What happened to her?”

“Unfortunately, she met with an accident during summer vacation. It will take her a little time to get back to school.”

With curiosity satisfied, insolence made a comeback.

“We will wait for her, then,” a bold voice declared, followed by a few chuckles across the humid classroom.

Suchi pulled her head out of her world. And studied the new object of rejection. To her surprise, it smiled back at her. Well, at the entire class, actually. It moved its mouth, without a tightened jaw or a frown on its forehead. Given the situation, it was an extraordinary feat!

“Well, I can understand your feelings. But as they say, time and tide wait for none. The session is still in progress and we need to work together if we want to make it count.” 

The short form in a cotton saree moved up and down the length of the classroom, its eyes taking in everything.

Suchi knew one thing about new teachers. They were dangerous. They came thinking they could revolutionize the system, and figure out how to make every student ‘perform’. She had to be careful. She closed her notebook and dug in her bag for the non-existent English Coursebook.

***

A couple of weeks later, Reema asked her students to pick their teams for the upcoming assignment. As always, there were a few left out. Reema spoke to one outcast at a time and managed to nudge them into one of the unwelcome groups, all except Suchi.

“Would you like to pick a team you want to join?”

“No.”

“Would you like me to assign you to a team?”

“No.”

“Then what do you want?”

“To be left alone.”

Reema stopped herself from uttering the wise words, probably always lobbed at the girl at times like these. She saw a fragile, battered ego that was buried under the rebellion. She used to know a girl like that--a younger Reema.

“Well, how about I put you on a special assignment? I need help with these display boards. Will you help me?”

***

Tendrils, peacocks, and rangolis lived just on the threshold. In the depths of Suchi’s world, countless forms roamed free. When Reema was allowed to take a peep, it took her breath away.

“Well, this is one of the best display boards I have ever seen. Especially the borders, just out of this world!”

Suchi’s shell crumbled a little. But she still wanted to get back into it, as quickly as she could.

 “Thank you, ma’am.”

“Have you ever considered showcasing your art?”

“How?”

“Maybe by submitting it to the school magazine, for starters?”

“Mmm… well, I tried when I was younger. But they never got selected.”

Suchi knew what her art teacher wanted. Art that made sense: like a meadow with giant flowers, a kettle with a proportionate shadow, or a portrait of a dead poet.

And doodles? They belonged at the margins of a Science or Math notebook. Never on the glossy Art Section pages of a school magazine.

A substitute teacher like Reema was just a passing blip on the school’s radar. But still… the tug of intricate tendrils on the board was too strong for her to ignore.

“Well, there are other places where you could submit. Maybe I should talk to your parent.”

***

Ten years later, sitting at the register of a small-town gift shop, Suchi scrolled through the sales orders for the day on her mobile. Among other things, Rangoli Gift Shop sold an assortment of mugs, wall art, trays, and other knickknacks with doodles on them.

The enterprise she owned with her husband was moderately successful. It was hard work, but it kept her inner world alive.

She wondered if things might get difficult with the arrival of their first baby.

 A row of framed certificates hung on the wall behind the cash register. First among them was her corner art from the display board of 7A.

May 19, 2023 11:00

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26 comments

Wally Schmidt
19:45 Jun 28, 2023

I see you are not posting on Reedsy regularly anymore, but I wanted to leave a comment to let you know how much I enjoyed it. Reema shines the light on another soul bringing her humanity to the forefront. I love that Sushi gets a happy ending. What more could anyone ask for really.

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Suma Jayachandar
02:50 Jul 01, 2023

Thanks for the read and the comment, Wally. You are too kind. Glad you enjoyed it!

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Graham Kinross
10:31 Jun 01, 2023

This is great. Your style is brilliant. New teachers think they can revolutionise the system, true. Managers who’ve never taught often think it’s all easy, needs no preparation and isn’t such a big deal.

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Suma Jayachandar
12:19 Jun 02, 2023

Thank you so much for the high praise, Graham. I appreciate it.

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Graham Kinross
14:21 Jun 02, 2023

What do you teach?

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Suma Jayachandar
15:40 Jun 02, 2023

Started out teaching Math n Science, ended up with English:) Not signing into Reedsy regularly as of now. So, apologies in advance if I fail to respond. It was great to hear your encouraging voice, Graham. Thanks and take care.

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Graham Kinross
21:38 Jun 02, 2023

If you’re not on reedsy as much you’ll have a lot of extra time. What do you do with it? Different hobby now?

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Suma Jayachandar
05:56 Jun 04, 2023

Maybe, yes. Or trying out different forms of writing. Still trying to figure out:)

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John Siddham
10:02 May 25, 2023

Beautiful story, so well crafted. Reema was a discussion point at the regular staff room discussion, but it took a substitute teacher to uncover Reema delicately. This line says it all "She saw a fragile, battered ego that was buried under the rebellion. She used to know a girl like that--a younger Reema." Congrats, and well done!

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Suma Jayachandar
04:07 May 26, 2023

Thank you for your kind words. Appreciate it.

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Michał Przywara
21:41 May 23, 2023

An enjoyable coming-out-of-shell story. I think the key comes in two lines: "time and tide wait for none" and "Suchi knew one thing about new teachers. They were dangerous. They came thinking they could revolutionize the system" Reema didn't really do anything new or unusual. She simply recommended Suchi submit her work somewhere, which she had done before unsuccessfully. The key is, she recommended she try it again *now*, and in other places. Suchi had a failure earlier in her past, and she internalized that as she herself *being* a f...

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Suma Jayachandar
05:49 May 24, 2023

Thanks a ton. I’m taking a break from Reedsy. And I’m already bracing myself for an existence without such encouraging comments. You are one of the most generous souls I have met, Michal. Wish you every joy you dream of on your literary journey:)

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Michał Przywara
22:15 May 24, 2023

Thank you, Suma, and right back at you! Breaks are important. That said, I look forward to your next story, whether that's here or whether it's the next bestseller at the bookstore :)

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Katy B
16:04 May 22, 2023

I really enjoyed this story! You have an excellent strategy for feeding information through small details. And I always love reading stories that make unfamiliar cultures feel close and familiar. Thank you for sharing!

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Suma Jayachandar
04:23 May 23, 2023

Thanks for the read, Katy. Appreciate it! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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Zack Powell
18:15 May 20, 2023

That ending put the biggest smile on my face, and this is coming from someone who usually dislikes timeskip endings in stories. It helps, of course, that Suchi was written to be endearing and likeable, even more so with her backstory, so it felt like the right decision to give her a happy ending, especially considering the others counted her out. It's a beautiful story on Reema's side too. She was just passing by in the highway of Suchi's life. She wasn't even the actual teacher, just a substitute. And yet she had such a life-changing impac...

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Suma Jayachandar
07:31 May 21, 2023

Zack, Seeing your comment on my wall is like seeing the morning sun fill a room with warmth. It just makes me feel grateful. Thanks for your ever encouraging words.

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Mary Bendickson
13:15 May 19, 2023

Picture perfect details brought the scene to life. Understanding teacher brought the student to life.

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Suma Jayachandar
04:44 May 20, 2023

Thank you for the read and the comment. Appreciate it!

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Lily Finch
12:42 May 19, 2023

Depiction of Middle School America. Extremely real and vivid in explanation. The child on the outside of the cool kids. Fundamental importance is brought out exceptionally well. A glimpse into the elite of what few teachers see of their students. The student thrives in their adult life after the teacher's impact has been made. It definitely starred aligning when Suchi met that teacher who took an interest in and cared about her. Nicely done Suma. Thanks for the good read. LF6

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Suma Jayachandar
05:01 May 20, 2023

Thanks a lot for your generous appreciation, Lily. I’m surprised to see it resonated with readers on the other side of the globe! Thanks again for letting me know it did.

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Delbert Griffith
11:46 May 19, 2023

A pretty heartwarming tale, Suma. The scenes here could have been any public middle school in America; the realism is undeniable. The teaching techniques used on the 'outcast' are solid and valid. Great job in bringing verity to the tale, my friend. The outcome is one that few teachers get to experience: where our kids go after they leave us. We often don't get to see the impact we've had on them, more's the pity. Suchi was lucky enough to have a teacher who cared about her. Nicely done, Suma. Cheers!

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Suma Jayachandar
03:52 May 20, 2023

Thank you so much for reading and leaving a very thoughtful comment, Delbert. I deeply appreciate it. Having been in the trenches, I fully agree with 'The outcome is one that few teachers get to experience: where our kids go after they leave us". I have seen even the best of teachers lamenting the fact that they haven't been able to 'reach' everyone. So I guess one just has to keep doing the best they can.

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