The reform school had been established during the pre-independent days and still followed the strict disciplinary methods followed by the British officers. The warden was notorious for his temper and severe punishments. There had been rumours of boys who had been permanently handicapped due to his methods but he had allegedly used his influence to seal all loops and come clean during each inquest.
All these titbits of information Kannan managed to pick up during his brief journey from the court to the reform school. Now as he stood in front of the infamous warden, his legs seemed to give away in fear as the warden eyed him in the most ominous manner.
“Remove your clothes and change into this uniform” he ordered.
Kannan hesitated as he felt ashamed to strip in front of everyone.
“Don’t make me repeat what I said” echoed the warden.
Tears ran down Kannan’s face as he shed his clothes and pulled on the uniform. He remembered how shy he had been to even stand in his underwear in front of his mother and now he had stood stark naked in front of total strangers.
“Stop your whimpering boy. I don’t like boys who cry. I am sure those tears did not come when you killed your cousin” said the warden sarcastically.
“In this school, I do not stand lies, theft and disobedience of any sort and if you are caught in any of these acts, the consequences shall be very painful. Here you obey my orders, is that understood?”
“Yes, sir” replied Kannan.
“Good, now go to the garden and join the others in the work.”
Kannan nodded and the assistant guard took him to the garden where there was a large group of boys busy, some pulling grass, while some planting seeds, and others digging with shovels. There were at least fifty of them and some seemed to be about his age while others were older.
“You can start by pulling grass from here,” said the guard leaving him to work next to a boy smaller than himself. The boy seemed to be a nervous little thing and Kannan wondered what crime he was in for.
Once the guard had left, the boy tried to strike up a conversation with Kannan.
“Hi, I am Pappu? Where are you from?” he asked.
Kannan however did not reply as he was in no mood for talk and he did not want criminals for friends either, he did not belong here.
Pappu would have continued to pester Kannan if a tall boy had not come and tapped on his head from behind.
“Do you work Pappu or do you want to get the usual lashing from the warden?” he asked angrily.
Pappu having realized the possibility of such a consequence immediately got back to his work. As the tall boy walked off he cast a scornful look at Kannan. He must be the leader thought Kannan.
The grass was not coming off easily and Kannan’s hands were already aching. The sun was now right above their heads and burning with all its intensity. He looked at his hands that now looked despicable, his nails having been filled up with dirt. When the guard rang the bell for lunch he was not sure he would be able to eat with his soiled hands but all the work had made him hungry and the smell of food made him lose all inhibitions.
The rest of the afternoon was spent again working in the garden, in the evening there was a round of exercise after which the boys were allowed to spend some time in the common room. The room had a caroms table, a small library and tables and desks with stationary items such as paper and pens for those who wanted to write letters or anything for that matter. Kannan noticed that no one cared for the library area as the racks and books on them seemed to be covered in dust. Overcome by the mental and physical fatigue that he had experienced in a day he sat down on a chair and rested his head on a desk. He had just managed to take a breather when he felt the chair being pulled from under him. He came crashing down onto the floor, wincing in pain as his head took a serious hit against another chair. The boys were now standing around him laughing, especially a fat one who seemed to be the perpetrator.
He said, “Here’s a welcome present for you boy.”
Kannan did not know what came over him but in the next moment he was on top of the fat boy, punching him on his face and stomach. The crowd of boys around was now cheering as the boys attacked each other like stray dogs on the street.
The cheering suddenly stopped and the room grew silent and the fighting ceased as the boys looked up to see what had caused such an effect. They found the warden towering over them, his eyes burning with fury. Picking them up by their ears he dragged them to his room.
To the fat boy he said, “You have not had enough I guess” and turning to Kannan he continued, “First day and you started a fight. You are a venomous one, aren’t you? Well I have the perfect anti venom for you”
“Now turn around both of you and bend down.”
Once the boys had complied, the warden pulled down their trousers and began lashing them continuously one after the other. Kannan thought he would faint from the scorching pain but he bit onto his lips trying to bear the onslaught till he could taste blood in his mouth. But what had been more painful was the fat boy’s screams that seemed to still ring in his ears long after he had limped outside the warden’s room.
The after effects survived long enough to prevent Kannan from being able to sit down and have his dinner. At night he tossed and turned about in the dormitory trying to fall asleep. To make matters worse it was infested with mosquitoes.
He mentally promised himself never to get onto the warden’s wrong side ever again. He had just done that when he felt someone kick him from behind. He turned around to see the fat boy and his gang standing around him, they had evidently not had enough and Kannan now wished he had not got into the fight earlier, not because he was afraid but he was tired both physically and mentally.
“Thought you had escaped, huh? It has only started, you rogue. We are going to teach you a lesson for hitting one of us” threatened the fat boy as he raised his fist to hit Kannan. Kannan was held down by the fat boy’s friends and he realized there was no point struggling. So he closed his eyes in preparation for whatever that came his way. But when a few minutes had passed and nothing had happened, Kannan opened his eyes in curiosity only to see that the tall boy he had seen earlier had held onto the fat boy’s hands and was now twisting them behind his back. The rest of the gang released Kannan from their grip and moved away.
The tall boy now pulled the fat boy closer and warned him, “I don’t want any of you troubling him, understand.” The fat boy and rest of his gang nodded and ran away to their respective beds in the dormitory.
“Thank you” replied Kannan a bit uncomfortably as the tall boy continued to stare at him.
“Here take this, it will help you forget the pain” he said handing Kannan a beedi.
“Do you know how to smoke it?” he asked.
“No” admitted Kannan.
“Here put it like this onto your lips and inhale” the tall boy instructed.
Kannan imitated the action and though he coughed a few times in the beginning he soon picked it up. The boy was right for he felt better.
“What is it?” asked Kannan realizing it was no ordinary beedi.
Kannan had heard about it from his friends, it was what bad people smoked for pleasure but strangely he did not feel guilty or ashamed for having smoked it. The pain had been severe and Kannan was ready to do anything to get rid of it. He was not bothered about the moral implications of the act or any act for that matter. He was a criminal now; it could not get any worse. The stuff was good, he thought, it was helping him take matters lightly.
“So I hear you murdered someone” said the tall boy.
Kannan made no reply but instead asked
“What is your name? I am Kannan.”
”I know. I am Ali.”
“So what did you do?” asked Kannan.
“I robbed a house along with my friend but the bastard got away leaving me alone to suffer” said Ali.
“But this is not your first time here. Is it?” asked Kannan.
“Yes, I have been in and out several times. It’s good you know. I know people here and they sort of listen to me and most of the inmates are scared of me” replied Ali.
“So why are you helping me?” asked Kannan.
“I heard your story from the guard, a good friend of mine by the way. But that’s not it. Something about you is very genuine. In my business I have come across a lot of people and I can distinctly differentiate the good from the bad” he explained.
“You have gone to school, I guess. You must know to write and read English.” said Ali.
“Yes, I do” admitted Kannan.
“How about you teach me to write and read English and I in turn can teach some typical Bombay Hindi” suggested Ali.
“Well I will help you, its the least I can do for helping me out today. But how do you know Hindi?” enquired Kannan.
I was in Bombay with my uncle for many years before I came here. He runs a small time illegal business in Dharavi. He’s also sort of like my guru” replied Ali.
Having realized that it was past midnight Ali said “Well, go to sleep now. The warden makes us get up at 4 in the morning. And if you want more of this,” he said pointing to the beedi, “don’t hesitate to ask. Good night”
“Good night,” said Kannan, realizing the irony of the phrase. What good could ever come of anything here, he wondered. He shut his eyes and weariness enveloped him luring him into deep slumber.