The guard at the school gate spat on the road, leaving a vermillion splatter of tobacco. Chintu dodged the spit as he tried to wiggle in through the narrow side gate.
“Hey there, big boy! You are very late.” The guard restrained Chintu.
Heavy early morning rains had given way to a lighter drizzle. Chintu snuggled under the protruding roof of the security kiosk as he reasoned with the guard.
“I was in an emergency situation.”
But the guard was already speaking over the intercom. “Get in. P.T. Sir will see you in a moment.”
Chintu gulped, twice. P.T. Sir was the school physical trainer and the disciplinary incharge. A single word from him was enough to silence the entire morning assembly, sending shivers down everyone’s spine. Chintu mentally braced himself for the inevitable. There would be a round of interrogation, he would stammer in fear. Then there would be several rounds of running around the school play ground, as punishment.
But there was something different about the ferocious, pot-bellied ex army man approaching him today. P.T. Sir walked across the compound with a slight spring in his step, shielding himself with a large multicoloured umbrella.
Towering above the sixth grader, P.T. Sir glanced at his drenched school uniform, mud stained trousers, the shirt sticking to his slight form. To Chintu’s surprise, the normally impatient disciplinarian did hear him out. Spinning his umbrella left and right, creating a rainbow-like halo around his balding head, he nodded intermittently.
He took a long breath, with his eyes closed and murmured, “Keeping calm is the key. Address the root cause.”
Chintu almost leapt with joy as the curiously transformed teacher declared that all he had to do was report thirty minutes before school time next week, and help water the plants.
As Chintu scampered across the compound, making way to his class room, he heard P.T. Sir call his name.
“I would like to see your parents today, after school. I’ll have them called up after lunch break.”
Chintu’s shoulders slumped, as he entered class 6th B. This was worse than expected.
The crisp paper chit was passed on to Valmiki, aka Vikky, by the guy sitting behind him. Adjusting his spectacles, he read, “Loo break.” Vikky walked out after seeking the teacher’s permission.
As expected, Chintu was pacing the corridor, awaiting him.
“P.T. Sir wants to see my parents, today.” Chintu blurted the moment he saw his best friend.
Vikky probed and prodded Chintu till he was satisfied with each detail of his story. Finally he enquired,
“Where is it now?”
Chintu handed him another chit, as he replied furtively. “You must keep it safe, till I make alternate arrangements.”
“What about my parents? They would never understand…” Chintu’s voice trailed off.
Vikky put a hand on his pal’s shoulder, “You must do something of that tender heart of yours, young man. It will get you in trouble.”
“Speaking of tenderness, what’s the matter with P.T. Sir and that umbrella?” Chintu pried.
“Pradhyuman Talegaonkar Sir…” Vikky brooded, “Art of living course. Around the same time that he procured that atrocious umbrella. He carries it with him all the time.”
Chintu looked bewildered at his friend. Vikky new everything about everything under the sun, except for what was in his textbooks, ofcourse.
“So does it work?” Chintu persisted.
“It does, for twenty minutes.” Vikky hissed, with his head cocked to the left, his left arm on his waist, his right arm outstretched. All of a sudden he blew a whistle that sounded a lot like that of a pressure cooker.
Chintu chuckled at Vikki’s antics as they strolled back to their classroom.
As they walked across the classroom to their respective places, Chintu slyly glanced at the front row. Suvira, the class topper, was engrossed in solving an arithmetic problem, her forehead wrinkling funnily. Chintu shook his head, remembering the problem that he had to solve before lunch break.
As he mechanically copied symbols in his maths book, he thought of the impending call to his parents. Automatically his eyes drifted out of the window. P.T. Sir’s office lay right opposite his classroom, on the other arm of the U shaped building, separated by a tiny garden, freshly adorned with new saplings in terracotta pots. He squinted to focus on something nestled between the flowers pots. It was the same rainbow umbrella, laid open to dry in the sun, its handle still covered in a plastic wrap, testimony to the affection showered on it by its human. Inspiration struck him in an instant; as he plotted his last ditch attempt to divert P.T. Sir’s attention from making the call.
The three periods after lunch-break passed breezily. A smug smile playing on his lips, he glanced intermittently at the office. Watching P.T. Sir peeping out of the door and speaking to the peon convinced him that the absence of the umbrella had been felt. As he imagined people frantically searching for it, he thought of the umbrella resting behind the waste barrel at the back-gate of school. Originally intending to dispose it in the waste bin, he had not had the heart to rob the man of his new found optimism.
It was drizzling again as the school bell rang. Just as Chintu stepped out of the classroom, he saw his parents emerging from the office at the opposite end! Horrified, he looked at his mother smiling forcefully, her teeth clenched, as P.T.Sir walked out, talking affably all the time.
They spoke for a painfully long time, as Chintu watched from the corridor, reluctant to move any closer. The school was empty now, except for an occasional sweeper mopping floors, and Suvira. Chintu observed suspiciously as she walked all along the perimeter of the garden, striding between flower pots, looking for something.
The dreaded trio walked upto him, P.T.Sir swirling his umbrella into a riot of colours overhead.
“Chaitanya is a fine boy; he says he got late trying to rescue an animal. Just help him reprioritise, would you?”
Chintu’s parents nodded respectfully, as they made way to the parking lot. Chintu followed mutely,crestfallen. As their car exited the school gate, they saw Suvira walking hurriedly, shielding her head with a polythene bag. Chintu lowered the window glass, as the car halted.
“Do you want a lift?”
Suvira nodded gratefully, as she climbed on to the backseat, beside Chintu. “Someone stole by brand new rainbow umbrella.”
Chintu’s mother shifted impatiently in her seat. His father interrupted her, “What is your story, young man?”
“I was walking to school, well ahead of time. It was still raining, when I skirted around Vinayak VadaPav centre. I saw a…”
“You stopped by for a bite, didn’t you?” Chintu’s mother interjected.
Chintu fumbled for a second before resuming, speaking very fast this time. “The road was dug out…exposed pipeline…puppy stranded on top of the pipe…surrounded by pooled rainwater…yelping helplessly…people shooting its video…no one to help.”
Chintu paused for breath, “So I got down myself. But the puppy was petrified…refused to come to me…I had to do a tandem walk on that pipe to go fetch it…I got late for school.”
“But someone could have called one of those people who rescue animals. How could you go late to school for that?” His mother was aghast.
“Call who?” Chintu was genuinely interested.
“The authorities, I don’t know!” His mother was exasperated.
“The point is, you cannot be late to school, for whatever reason.” His father summarised, questioning furthur, “Where is that puppy now?”
“No i-d-e-a.” Chintu shrugged.
“So what lesson did Chintu miss at school?” Chintu’s mother enquired of Suvira.
“Florence Nightingale- A lesson in selfless service.” Suvira replied.
“You have some catching up to do, my chap!”Chintu’s father concluded.
The uncomfortable silence was broken by Suvira, “Uncle, please halt at the next left street. My house is just second in the line.”
As she got off the car, she whispered to Chintu, “You did a good job there.” Then, with a twinkle in her eye, she added, “In case you need, I’ll adopt the puppy.”
Chintu looked up at her in astonishment, his soft jet black eyes meeting her piercing hazel ones. They waved as the car moved on speedily, his heart beating faster.
On the way back home, he imagined the butterscotch brown puppy in its new home. The raindrops slid in pairs, slanting across the glass of the car window. The umbrella with its myriad colours was a pretty sight after all, Chintu smiled sheepishly.
At the school, in the flower garden, new buds erupted, separating their sealed pods, to bath in the fragrant light showers. Flowers bloomed in variegated hues, conjuring a rainbow of their own. The umbrella lay hidden in its retreat behind the barrel, waiting for a tender hearted young man to retrieve it the next day.
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