Everyone Mr Bakshi spoke to agreed: it was indeed a marvellous achievement on six-year-old Uday’s part. His friends, relatives, colleagues—all were unanimous, their envy not untinged with a soupçon of resentment: little Uday’s life, they chorused, was made!
He would overhear people in his office discussing his son as he passed by, and his chest would swell with pride.
“That’s Mr Bakshi! Can you believe it, his son has been admitted to The Nouveau Academy!”
At six-and-a-half years, Uday’s destiny had been charted out: the best possible education in the country, facile admission to one of the best universities abroad, followed by a brilliant corporate career. All this, just because Uday had got admission to The Nouveau Academy before the age of seven!
Never mind the school’s pretentious and meretricious appellation, or the gimcrack architecture of its buildings, or the tastelessly decorated lobbies and atriums.
The elite private school had initially been set up in New Delhi a decade ago. Its branches had then soon sprouted in Mumbai, Chennai, and Bengaluru. By the time the brand had arrived in Kolkata, it had acquired quite a formidable reputation all over India.
Each of the schools—set up as franchises of its parent group—boasted the best teachers and best facilities in town, including an ultra-modern laboratory, a world-class auditorium, a superb gymnasium, a huge swimming pool, several tennis, badminton, basketball, and volleyball courts, and quite a few sprawling, manicured, and verdant playgrounds.
Gaining admission to this swanky address had not been an easy task: little Uday had been subjected no less than two rounds of interviews, and even a written test. His parents had been asked to attend one of these interviews. And after all that, Mr Bakshi had had to fork out a hefty donation to the school management.
And when Uday’s father had thought that would be all, he had had to grease the palms of the head clerk at the admissions counter with a thousand rupees, euphemistically known as ‘speed money’.
Mr Tarak Bakshi belonged to solid Bengali middle-class stock, a stolid and hard-working man who had risen—through sheer tenacity, perseverance, and diligence—to the post of deputy manager from a medical representative at Solstice Pharmaceuticals Pvt. Ltd. At forty-five, he was very much satisfied with himself and his life. And now, with his son’s achievement, a lifetime’s dream would come true. It would mean straitened circumstances for a few years, given the hefty school fees—as Mr Bakshi and his wife Sania well knew. But then, as they often told themselves, their son’s future was assured! Which was as good an insurance for their old age as any—as good as a government-guaranteed pension.
Uday was a small thin boy, and looked just like his mother, who was petite, slim, fine-featured, and nutmeg-brown. His father was of medium height and medium build, going to fat around the middle, with what was generally called a ‘wheatish’ complexion among Bengalis. The only memorable aspect of his face was his bristling walrus moustache.
On the first day, Mr Bakshi took his son to school in his second-hand compact, a Momentum A100 of the Indo-Japanese Kaizen Car Company, that staple of India’s middle-class and the most popular model on Kolkata’s streets. He was feeling justifiably elated: he would be able to rub shoulders with the who’s who of Kolkata society soon—industrialists, bankers, corporate honchos, film stars, barristers, surgeons, and those sundry other minor VIPs whose sons and daughters also studied at that school. The roads to the school were chock-a-block with snazzy Honda Cities and Hyundai Vernas, and there was even the occasional Mercedes Benz and BMW, while the Fords and Volkswagens were ubiquitous.
After a few days, he signed up his son for the daily school-bus as he needed his car for himself.
Then came the big day, the day of the annual function. Uday had come third in his class. His father was rather peeved when he saw the report card—he scolded Uday for not having stood first. The little boy listened to him with downcast eyes, but said nothing.
However, Mr Bakshi was quite, quite delighted when he received a cream-white card with golden borders, the invitation card for ‘the proud parents to attend the awards ceremony’ at the school auditorium on a Sunday morning. It more than made up for his earlier disappointment.
Never mind the school’s pretentious and meretricious appellation, or the gimcrack architecture of its buildings, or the tastelessly decorated lobbies and atriums
Mr Bakshi put on his best powder blue suit and a loud crimson tie for the big day. They left early, and he drove his Kaizen A100 with Uday in the back seat and Sania by his side. He was pleased to find quite a few parking spaces right in front of the school.
But before Mr Bakshi could park his car, Uday suddenly said to him: “Could you please park our car there, Papa? That’s right, in that road behind the children’s park.”
“That smelly dingy lane? But why?”
However, Uday was insistent.
“Why, son?” said Mr Bakshi. “That’s quite far from the school gates—we’ll have to walk quite a distance.”
“No, that’s fine. Please park our car right here, Papa.”
Puzzled, Mr Bakshi did as he was told. As they started to walk, Uday’s mother said, “But dear, why did you ask us to park the car there? What’s the reason?”
Uday was reticent. He lowered his eyes diffidently. “Oh, it’s nothing, really.”
“Speak up, child,” said Mr Tarak Bakshi, a trifle annoyed. “Why’re you making us walk all this way for nothing?”
It took some more persuasion before the little boy opened up. “Well, as you can see, Papa, most of the children and their fathers–mothers have come here in those big, big cars. Porsches, BMWs, Jaguars. If not those, then at least Volkswagens or Fords. There’s hardly any Tata Nano or Maruti Alto here, is there?”
Mr Bakshi stopped in his tracks. His breath became constricted in his throat.
“I don’t want my friends and classmates see me get down from a Kaizen. And those empty parking spaces—these are for the big shots, for the sons and daughters of ministers and judges.”
Mr Bakshi’s face fell. He shaded his eyes against the glare of the morning sun and then said, weakly, “Nowhere was it said that those parking slots were reserved or earmarked for anybody.”
His wife at once glanced at him, meaningfully, and hushed him up.
“It’s all right, Papa, it isn’t your fault at all,” said the little boy hastily on seeing his father’s crestfallen face. “I know we can’t afford a BMW or a Porsche, or even a Toyota—but that’s quite all right with me.”
Uday smiled apologetically. “Not that I mind at all! I know how poor we are and how hard you have to work to send me to such an excellent school. But my friends might make fun of you if they see us getting down from such a shabby old car. And that I wouldn’t be able to bear!”
Mrs Sania Bakshi looked down at the boy, shrewdly. “You must’ve told your friends that we own one of those flashy foreign cars, haven’t you?”
Uday looked embarrassed and lowered his eyes. He shrugged his small shoulders noncommittally.
Mr Bakshi froze, unable to say anything. His throat was dry, like a fragment of yesterday’s stale roti, and sweat broke out on his receding hairline. He swallowed nervously and looked up in trepidation at the grand, imposing edifice of The Nouveau Academy as it loomed forbiddingly, massive and hulking, over all the other houses in the locality.
Srinjay Chakravarti is a writer, editor, and translator based in Salt Lake City, Kolkata, in India. He was educated at St Xavier’s College, Calcutta and at universities based in Calcutta and New Delhi. As a former journalist with The Financial Times Group, he has worked on the editorial staff of an international online financial news service. His creative writing, including poetry, short fiction, and translations, has appeared in more than 150 publications in over 40 countries. These include journals and reviews of 20-odd colleges and universities. His first book of poems Occam’s Razor (Writers Workshop, Calcutta: 1994) received the Salt Literary Award in 1995 from John Kinsella, the eminent Australian writer and academic. He won one of the top prizes ($7,500) in the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Poetry Competition 2007–08.
Irfan Gul Dahri is a Sindh-born, Lahore-based artist who has been teaching as a permanent faculty member at NCA since 2006, holds a Master’s degree in Visual Art from National College of Arts and was awarded with the Principal’s Honors Award. He was also awarded with the Charles Wallace Visiting Artist Fellowship (2013/14) to study in Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, London. He has participated in the Karachi and Lahore Biennales and several residencies as well. Dahri has remained active in various community projects regarding student counseling and training. Dahri has had six solo shows along with numerous group exhibitions in Pakistan, Dubai, Singapore, England, the US and India. He has worked as gallery curator at O Art Space, and co-founded ART OTAQ, a non-profit dynamic platform for the greater exposure of art, culture and education. He is also the co-founder of Numaish Gah, a contemporary art gallery in Lahore. Dahri has curated many exhibitions as an independent curator at various venues. He has received the ‘Sadequain Pride of Performance Award’, the ‘Arjumand Painting award’ as well as the Chughtai Award.