Recess by Mohit Parikh

He closes his eyes and finds today’s date floating towards him. Shimmering in the darkness, swivelling – like the text on the Windows 95 screensaver. It seeps in through his forehead and gets absorbed. 23-04-98 is now a part of him. Today’s date, a Saturday, when the first sign of what he so eagerly awaited has appeared. The day when, while bathing, he has noticed a hair on his balls, and all his life’s problems are in the past.


He tightens his eye lids, then, satisfied that the date is now in him, forever, releases them. The class  quietly hunches over desks. Heads low and busy, low and clueless. 11:37:33, thirteen minutes still to recess. He skims again through his answer sheet, picks up his Chinese pen and writes in the rough work column: what now?


‘Done?’ Sir at his desk.


He straightens with a jerk. Turns the answer sheet towards Sir and sucks his lips. On the first page, the proof of Tangent-Secant theorem done using Trigonometry which is yet to be covered in class, so Sir should feel proud, curious, but Sir taps his fingers and says, ‘Write your roll number on the top. Yes, X-A, write your roll number on the top.’


He rests his head on the desk, guards it with his arms, smiles. This day is like any other day – yesterday and the day before and the day before ... even like the days of IX-A and VIII-A and VII-A ... except that today, oblivious to everyone, there is a hair standing tall inside his shorts, a single hair, long, black and shining. Sprouting out of nowhere, it stands rebelliously erect on his tiny barren orb, not thwarted by the force of the cloth of his underwear, announcing its eventual arrival with élan.


Recess. The monitor carries away answer sheets to the staff room and class breaks into shouting and howling and tearing up of rough pages. Some classmates rush up to him and he explains, like Skit Ma'am does, with repetitions and gestures and patience, the tricks involved in the last two problems. Vipul says, ‘What a test! Why doesn't he die! I hope there is a fire in the staff room and the bundle burns and he burns too.’ He laughs gaily.


The crowd disperses all at once, reveals Rajat and Shrey – grinning. He grins back and says nothing. They are too cool to talk about tests. And past is past, what has happened, good, bad, has happened; now immaterial. Shrey jumps onto his desk and as usual they remove from polythene bags their metallic lunch boxes that leak oil. They have got parantha and pickle, chapatti and cauliflower, and he cannot let them have such boring food on 23-04-98. Generously he says, ‘Come, let's go to the canteen. Treat from my side.’


 ’Oho, you and canteen! What's so special today?’ Shrey asks.


He smiles and starts to answer, but stops. His happiness, unshared, is overflowing, but one does not tell these things even to best friends.


Their trio walks the length of the corridor, and he feels proud. Rajat is the second tallest in X-A and Shrey is very hairy; he has a hair on his balls. For years, they have been friends and now they are equal too – now he is equal to them. He, 140 cms, 35 kgs, was delayed by the weird whims of nature; puberty came to his classmates and modified their bodies one by one, stretching, dilating, warping them, while his remained as is. Now it too will change, and it will be taller, stronger, moustached. Those days are past when they see him in inter-school competitions and say, ‘Oh, you too are in tenth?’ Parents in birthday parties won’t stare with disbelief when they learn he is older than Rajat and Shrey, that he is in fact the eighth oldest in the class of fifty two. They won’t flash big smiles and be amused at whatever he says even before he says it. He will blend in and become indistinguishable, part of a miscible mixture. He will be what he is supposed to be at fifteen and three fourth.


But what will happen to him first? Rajat and Shrey walk on either side of him, relaxed, in large alternate footsteps, his steps trying to move in tandem, R1R2R3-L2-L1R2L3-L2 ... and he imagines waking up on Monday transformed in his bed. Mummy shouts from the kitchen, get up Manan, 1141 is not going to wait for you. And when he gets up, all hairy like Shrey, she looks at him confused. He smiles, reassures her, it’s just puberty, Mummy. Endocrine glands. But Mummy does not get it of course, she hasn’t read about puberty in school. He grabs her hand and takes her to the dressing table mirror and makes her take off slippers. Standing side by side – their images unmagnified, vertical, virtual – he validates with his flattened palm: her ears on the level with his shoulders, her head ending below his nose. She is shorter than him now and forever. So, no more chywanprash, Mummy. No more asariya seeds. No more displaying me to doctors and relatives and guests and seeking counsel for a course in thyrodium-x.


He both hopes this happens and does not. Puberty should be as it is now, quiet, subdued, inside his pants. Blatant: a sudden shoot in height, a sudden hoarseness in voice, cheeks suddenly smeared with pimples, and people might publicise its doings in his pubic regions. They will discuss activation of his glands, enlargement of his reproductive organs. Their eyes will survey his face for traces of moustache, and in presence of their wives and daughters they will ask if he has started to shave, then cackle without waiting for a reply ... and these will be causes for shyness. He wants to invite indifference not attention. He wants to clear out that space in his head so that he may fill it up with things delightful and more important than modifications in his mortal shell.


What will happen to him first? If there is one hair on his balls there will be many – this should happen first; nature is logical. And then? An inverted triangle of hair as shown in the figure, Chapter 06, bottom right? Puberty spreading like gangrene from his groin and heading towards his head? He draws out his kerchief – a paper placed inside his kerchief, and gives it a quick glance. The contents, written this morning in the school bus with an unstable hand, are not readable but they serve as a cue:


Effects of puberty
→ Increase in height
→ Moustache 
→ Biceps
→ Triceps? Strength
→ Adam’s apple 
→ Hair on thighs, arms, arm pits, chest, chin (goatie), sideburns
→ Sweat (a lot of sweat) 
→ Shoe size equal to your father’s
→ Increase in weight? (always, always hungry)
→ ???
→ ?


A moustache is most important – if not moustache at least a few whiskers above the lips to satisfy the onlookers, followed by a few inches of height. The rest can take their time, the rest are only addendums. He would like to bowl as fast and throw flying discs as sharp as other tenthies but he can also do without that. His body, tiny, slim, is suppler than theirs – most of them can’t even flip sideways and he can sit longer than any of them in padmasana. And new shoe size, that would be an unnecessary bother. Point is, he does not want to be a teenager like the ones who try to act all grown up. He wants to be a kid with a moustache, a kid with a good height, a kid worthy of tenth grade.


His mind is content now , so he shares a joke, waves back at a senior whose name he cannot recall, jumps down the stairs, three at a time, four, his body swinging, with a hand on the railing and another on the wall, and challenges Shrey and Rajat to do the same. The new PT sir of Primary Section, waiting for students to make way; he says ‘Good Morning, Sir’. Sir is surprised and smiles and he feels good for having created a positive impression on behalf of the senior section. 11:46:23: shouldn’t he say Good Afternoon, not Good Morning? Afternoon starts after 12 noon, yes, but why wish a wish that will be valid for only 14 minutes?


School canteen is crowded. Rajat says, ‘Give me the money’, then ‘Wait over there,’ then calls out a name, and an arm rises above the many heads near the canteen counter; rising and bending and searching in the direction of the voice like a sunflower. This is wrong. People jumping queues or forcing themselves in a crowd or interrupting a shopkeeper when he is busy with other customers ... it’s unacceptable, others are as important as them why don’t people understand that? He has chided Mummy several times and she says she won’t repeat it but she does not improve; it felt good when that drug store owner gave her a scolding. And Papa used to push him forward in temples, wanting him to be as visible to idols as possible to receive maximum possible blessings, but he used to back away instead. Crowds are confusing, mindless, and idol worship is plain stupid. Guru Nanak said that.


But they are in tenth now. Tenth! As old as Ronak bhaiyya was last year. And the way Rajat does it, so easily, with a quick shout and a whistle, it looks kind of cool. He will admonish Rajat tomorrow. Demand from him an admission that these actions were inappropriate and will not be repeated in future, but not today when he is least interested in worldly affairs.


Shrey leads him away from the hungry, pushy boys screaming at the top of their voice:


‘Uncle three sweet buns, I came first Uncle, why you gave it to him...,’ and they are under the trees. A knock on the head. Kshitij towering over him.


‘Did you call me yesterday?’




‘Don't you ever call me again!’


The voice is loud, not too loud but loud, and the jaws are tight. So he waits. One should wait when people are like that: they will breathe out whatever has overcome them; winds will soak up and carry away their tightness. Their blood, boiling, will sweat out all the excessive heat. And soon they will become themselves again, less unreasonable, safe.


‘What happened?’ Shrey asks.


‘He called me yesterday when I had gone to gym and my didi picked up the phone. She told my father that I had a call from a girl. A girl! I told them it must be Manan, girls don’t have minds and I don't talk to them, but she and Mummy kept teasing me over dinner. I could not lift my eyes off the plate.’


Shrey falls on his back, clapping, contorting with laughter, the uniform getting dirty on the cement but Shrey won’t care, and Kshitij smiles, still frowning. He smiles too. He has his sympathies with Kshitij: sisters have a tendency to embarrass in front of everyone and over phone he does sound like a girl. Random salesmen address him as ma'am, his parents' friends mistake him for Mummy, and when he tells them who he is, they laugh and apologise or become uncomfortable and confused. It is okay. It is fine. It is not their or his fault. The hormonal changes haven't kicked in yet, that's all.


Or they have. For this morning he noticed irrefutable evidence of nature cooking something inside his body. There are plans in store for him.


Rajat arrives and Shrey recounts the story of Kshitij's plight with numerous new details. They start moaning and punch each other on the arm. He remains uninvolved. Rajat and Shrey may be teasing Kshitij but the joke is really on him. Besides, he never teases Kshitij. Kshitij was once a topper, a redoubtable rival. He would score marginally better in Maths and Science but Kshitij would make up for the deficit in languages. On the morning of a Parents Teachers Meet, in seventh grade, Kshitij’s bhaiyya returned from gym, drew out pistol from his father's drawer and shot himself on the temple. He was failing in Chemistry and Maths-II, and Chemistry Ma’am was always making fun of him – that’s what the seniors who went on strike told. Chemistry Ma’am changed school and school reopened and everyone in VII-A was clueless on how to behave in front of Kshitij; he became quieter and frowned more and more and submitted an application for section change. Since then, he is in the B section, scoring in seventies, sometimes eighties, and nobody punches him back when he punches them. Rajat and Shrey are friendlier with him now because he bought a new computer and they go to his house to play WWF – which is understandable.


Shrey and Rajat arguing again over something, over useless things: Ric Flair, fights fought: 252, fights won: 212, the length of skirts of Steffi Graff and Martina Hingis. He does not like talking wrongly about female players, about females, and though he does enjoy settling WWF debates, today he does not want to interfere. Standing with a foot resting against the tree trunk and his hands in his pockets, he listens to the many manly voices cackling around him. Boys flaunting their Adam's apple unwittingly as they speak, laugh, gobble samosas sandwiched in buns, drink soft drinks in large long gulps without wetting the tip of bottle and still managing to not choke. Boys fighting, shouting, walking hand in hand, hand over shoulder. And a question, long forgotten, arises again. A curious little question for which there must be a definite reply, an integer, or a rational number if the unit is years, so he listens absently to his friends, waiting, anticipating the range of replies. He listens, looking for the first minute pause to appear in their prattle; then he asks, ‘When does one's voice change?’


They suddenly go quiet. Shrey seems to be on the verge of saying something funny but Rajat shakes his head. He looks from one face to another: all at a loss of words, all discomforted by his inappropriateness. All making a concession to him: Manan, 140 cms, 35 kgs, not Kshitij, not someone else, someone who is their equal, so they won't ridicule him. He hasn't yet earned the right to be ridiculed; he does not yet belong with them. And they understand this too well.


He watches them silently: as Shrey starts to talk about holiday homework and curse teachers for spoiling their vacations, as they argue over Ric Flair again, ignoring him, ignoring the question completely, the three of them forming a closed bunch; and he feels a pressure building inside his chest. A balloon rising behind his ribcage, thrusting his bones out, out; a Helium balloon rising and inflating to burst him open, gut liver lungs heart. He says, ‘Have to go,’ and rushes towards the stairs.


He runs, runs, runs, up the stairs into the terrace; the volume of pressure inside his chest inching outwards, trying to release itself through his breath, his eyes; if he stops he will explode. He runs runs runs, faster – legs and shirts, scents of onions oil paranthas, shouts and chases, and he runs down now, down the staircase at the other end, to the senior's floor, end of the corridor. Breathless and nobody to watch him. His legs are shaking. His legs will fail him. His nervous system will fail him, no control and coordination. He tries to calm his breath. Blinks, big tears stick to the eye lashes like lens.




Skit Ma'am. He wipes off his eyes, nods, wishes her Good Morning – the voice dying inside his head, the lips do not move.


‘Come here! What happened?’


He clenches his teeth and nods his head slightly: nothing Ma'am. Skit Ma’am says, ‘Beta?’, and air gushes out from his mouth, a flood of tears rolls down his cheeks. He is sobbing, moaning – loudly. He does not know how to stop, what to do.


He wants to say, Ma'am, I am okay; he wants to apologise for crying like this; but as he tries to find words, fetch them from wherever they have retreated, form them, torrents of tears again. He finds himself panting. She presses his head against her bosom, her hands stroking his head. Her warmth, her smell, the grainy cloth of chiffon sari in which he buries his wet mouth – this is what he needed. Motherliness.


‘Such a big kid and crying like that. Does it look good?’


She takes him inside Commerce Staff Room – only seniors with permission can come here, and makes him take a chair.




He shakes his head. No, ma’am.


Bell strikes, once, the warning bell. Skit Ma'am packs her lunch box and wipes clean her desk with a cleaning cloth. Her lunch box is big, grey, cylindrical, and there is leftover ladyfinger in one of the bowls. Oily.


‘This year we’ll do Malavikagnimitra. Principal Sir is yet to give his consent, so don’t tell anyone. He wants the English play to be simple, you know, parents get bored and most of them do not understand the language, but isn’t school reputation something too? Do you know eighth grade students of St. Anthony’s did Christmas Carol on their Foundation Day? Christmas Carol! I thought we must do something huge this time. A musical. Everyone likes musical. Don't tell anyone yet. There is a big role for the queen. Lots of dialogues. And I am thinking of Bhatia from XII-C as the king – he is six feet so the mismatch in the pair will be striking ...’


He feels indebted for the role and the knowledge.


He is himself again: he can stand, he can speak, he is breathing without spasms. He is feather-weighted. That’s how he knows himself: like a spirit governing his body, not a body governing itself. He climbs down the stairs, one at a time; no hurry. A peon striking a gong with a wooden hammer. The peon's hand lifting up to his shoulder, coming down in a single even motion and striking the marred circular surface of the gong hard: tunnnnnn. He imagines the sound waves travelling through walls into classrooms, striking the corridor’s ceiling and floor and through them into other classrooms, refracting, reflecting, dampening. And a similar process happens inside his ears: the audio signals striking the walls of his ear canals and onto his ear drum, travelling from there to his brain through acoustic nerves, where his brain counts the number of peaks of amplitude and concludes this is fifth period. And he is outside. Class has started without him and he is in the washroom. The world too will go on without him; it had before he was born and it will after he will die and it will now too, if he decides to be away, outside, not where he is supposed to be. He unzips his pants and intends to pee: peeing happens. He squeezes his eyes tight then opens them wide. No traces of tears. The corridor is deserted, the sound of his steps attracting attention. IX-C, IX-B, IX-A, students on the first bench turn their heads from the blackboard to the door, look at him as he goes past their doors. They will recognise him, exclaim to the next boy, look, Manan bhaiyya, outside! Or will they? Do they call him bhaiyya behind his back, even the taller ones, the ones who aren’t his friends or fans? Does he deserve the respect they give him for being older? He stands outside the class and prepares a face, a face that will offer no clue to Sanskrit Ma’am about his crying, and rehearses: May I come in, Ma'am? Why are you late? Sorry, Ma'am. I was with Skit Ma'am. May I come in, Ma’am. Sorry Ma’am, I was with Skit Ma’am. Ma’am, we were deciding on the annual skit. Kalidas, but please don’t tell anyone, Principal Sir hasn’t approved yet. The language ...


‘May I come in, Ma'am?’


‘Come in’


He flips open his book and buries his head. Students eyeing him. Has the news of the incident spread in the class? He remembers: there were those who noticed him, those who called out when he was running. Rajat and Shrey ... how will he face them after the period ends?


‘Ttattvamasyadivakyena svatma hi pratipaditah,’ Amey reads.


‘It means,’ Sanskrit Ma'am says and waits. Class picks up pencils, attentive. Sounds of riffling paper. ‘By such sentences as “That thou art”, our own self is affirmed.’1


‘Of that which is untrue and composed of the five elements, the scripture says, “neti neti”, “Not this, not this”. Class, what are the five elements?’


Earth, Fire, Water, Air and Sky. All of us and everything around us – these are the five elements, and yet, that we are not, we are not any of them. We are a point, that within a seed which holds the promise of a tree.


The invisible, the indestructible. The timeless. That’s what he has always been, that’s what he has always considered himself. So many years of sameness and he forgot he had a body that will change. He is a kid, that is how he can experience himself, always will. As a kid, a kid, a kid. What can a hair change?


Such a big boy and crying, does it look good; Skit Ma’am would never talk like that to Amey or Rajat or Shrey or any other tenthy. She would never ever press their heads against her bosom.


‘Open previous chapter, remaining exercises. Question five. Why does the prince renounce his kingdom? Does nobody know?’


He knows but he keeps his hands from shooting up. The class, reluctant, begins to participate. Parth would know all the answers but he does not like to speak. Ma'am dictates and looks at him once, but he steals his eyes away. He is waiting for the sixth period, the seventh period, the eight. He is waiting to get home, to get away. His head buried in the book, his eyes closed – an image of the peon, in blue uniform, with an indifferent, dutiful face. The gong: sonorous, lustrous, unattended. The peon unties the wooden hammer from the wooden case then looks at his wrist watch, his eyes counting as the seconds hand move. Then his hand comes down with force and uniformity, rebounds then comes down again. The intervals spaced evenly. Period after period, day after day, this man has been marking the transition from one period to another: coming out from wherever he is, from the middle of whatever he is doing. And Manan never once thought about the man. He has been in this school for ten years, and all this time his movements depended on the punctuality of this man he did not know existed. All these years he never once thought, who strikes the bell.


1Avadhuta Gita, Chapter 1, verse 25, translation in Wikisource.



Mohit Parikh’s work is published and upcoming in various Indian and American literary magazines. He has finished a novel where all the child characters, except one, grow up.