Our teachers’ eccentricities were as fixed as the position of Orion. There was Ms Padmini, our English teacher, who never failed to begin the day with a quote, our complete lack of interest notwithstanding. Mr Palani bullied us with equations. Mr Nelson charmed us with geography, and the headmaster, as she liked to call herself, inspired students to pee their pants, ergo the smell in the corridors; she didn’t teach us anything. I didn’t know her name, because, well, no one ever called her by her name, even during the morning prayer assembly. She just walked, ramrod straight, down the corridors, praying for at least one of us to be out ‘loitering’ when we should be ‘dutifully’ in class.
‘Next week please read everything beforehand. How will you understand the beauty of his words if you do not recite them out loud? I will be choosing people at random to read passages of their choice. Please practise reading aloud at home.’
My heart dropped like an anchor into my stomach; I shouldn’t have eaten all of Jai’s chicken liver at lunch.
‘Hey,’ Nallini said, ‘we have ten minutes before Palani gets here. Want to see my new Game Plan?’ I nodded, but saw Mr Palani walk in early and we shuffled back into our places on the second row.
As Mr Palani regaled us with the dormancy of volcanoes, I turned my head right towards the open window and inhaled. From here I could see the open courtyard and the sulking banyan. I latched onto the dependable vista and slipped into a ready-made daydream, one where I make the three-point shot that would win us this year’s championship. My eyes locked onto to a blob of blue sky, and as I considered its shape – an amoeba, I thought – a big branch cut right through it. But something was off. So I leaned forward and squinted to get a better look, and realised it wasn’t a branch. For one, it wasn’t far away. It was closer, like ten feet or so away. And...it was a pencil. A yellow HB pencil was floating in midair; it was brand new and I could see the black-and-yellow lines. I shook my head and blinked to clear my vision, but it remained, suspended. I felt something jump inside me. I looked from the pointy tip to the eraser and found a pair of eyes. New Girl. She hadn’t seen me yet because her eyes were locked on the pencil, and they wore a look I only saw on Mom when she crocheted, one of hazy but intense concentration.
The bell rang and her eyes caught mine; my heart stilled. She looked away, grabbed the pencil and stood up. But so did everyone else and I lost her in the sea of blue.
The whole thing stayed with me. Hello...a floating pencil? But it wasn’t just that. Something else felt lodged behind my eye, in that place where thoughts hide, like the first line of a song you’ve heard a million times.
It poked at me all through lunch, even as I ignored Jai and Nallini’s incessant bickering. New Girl wasn’t taking anything other than Geography and English with me and so I didn’t see her for the rest of the day. It subsisted all the way home, through dinner after which I gave up and began hitting my head with my wrist in the hopes of setting it free. In any other family, this action would have been cause for concern, but all Mom said was, ‘Stuck thought, Shonu?’
“There had been a pencil and, my dear Watson, it had not wanted to be plucked.”
She came over and drew circles on my temples – it was how she helped me unravel my tangled thoughts. ‘Remember, it’s just a knot,’ she said quietly, ‘so just take it apart slowly, as you would a knot. When you a hurry a knot, it only—’
‘Tightens,’ I said. ‘I know, Mom.’ But Mom and I always got to the bottom of my knots, or to the ends if you will. Only this time, I couldn’t really tell her I’d imagined a floating pencil. That would be too much, even for her. So what had happened? Things don’t float outside of Jai’s comics. The pencil had probably been a branch. A yellow branch with an eraser?
I sighed. It had been a pencil and it had been floating. But it was not the nature of the object that was beating at the insides of my brain like someone would a tabla. So I did what Dr Strudel, my head doctor back in Denver, had always advised I do when I couldn’t catch a thought. I forgot about it and worked on one of Dad’s sudoku puzzles. Nothing clicked and so I called it a night.
Just as I was tugging the top sheet off my bed everything unspooled like a tape. I ran the afternoon’s scene like a slow-motion reel and pressed pause on my picture. New Girl had plucked the pencil from the air. There had been a tug; I had sensed resistance on part of the pencil. There had been a pencil and, my dear Watson, it had not wanted to be plucked.
Reshma K. Barshikar is an author, features writer and former investment banker who lives in Mumbai.
Excerpted with permission from The Hidden Children, Reshma K. Barshikar, Two Ravens.