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The Pencil

"Where's my pencil?" Raja, my 11-year old son, demanded. He looked accusingly at me. "You and Mom always hide anything I leave on the dining table."

I did not bother to point out that the dining table is not where one leaves pencils. I helped Raja rummage through a pile of books in a vain attempt to locate the pencil.

Eventually it was Lucy who found the pencil bag on the couch. Raja grabbed the bag without a "Thank you." He counted the seven tall, glistening, yellow pencils with their electrically sharpened points. Reassured, he tramped off to his room.

I remembered the pencil when I was about Raja's age.

* * *

"Where's your pencil?" Father demanded. He had just come back from work. My younger brother Chidambaram and I were sitting on the floor of the study room reading the lessons for the next day.

Chidambaram went to his side of the bookshelf, opened his geometry box, and took out his pencil. It was slightly less than half the length of a new pencil--Father always cut a pencil in half to give us--with a blunt point. Father checked the bottom end where he had shaved off the brown paint of the pencil and had written Chidambaram's initials with his red fountain pen, as a precaution against other students stealing it. Just above the initials, in slightly worn out silver letters, was the brand name, "Parvathi Pencils."

Satisfied, Father returned the pencil to Chidambaram.

I was watching the proceedings from the corner of my eye, pretending to be immersed in my textbook.

"And where is yours?" Father asked me.

I went to my side of the bookshelf and pulled out the geometry box. I acted surprised at not seeing my pencil there and lifted the protractor as if the pencil could have rolled underneath. I kept staring at the inside of the box, frowning hard, looking like I was trying to remember something. I closed the geometry box, put it back on top of my books, and took my school bag from the nail on the wall. I felt inside the empty bag, elaborately working toward both corners. I made a deliberate display of turning the bag inside out. Chidambaram was trying to be helpful and searched behind my books.

Father was getting angrier. "Don't tell me you lost your pencil again!"

"No, Father! I had it with me just a minute ago."

Father ordered me to bring the pencil to him as soon as I found it. I continued searching here and there and Chidambaram kept running into me. At least he did not pester me with his usual silly questions.

I remembered the previous time when I finally had to confess that I had lost my pencil. Father became very angry.

"How could you be so irresponsible?" he yelled. "This is the third pencil you've lost this term. Do you know how hard I have to work to buy each pencil? Why can't you concentrate on what you are doing? Didn't I teach you to put away your pencil safely in the geometry box as soon as you finished writing? You probably put it in your pocket and lost it while jumping up and down like a monkey. Today you lose the pencil and tomorrow you'll lose your notebook and the next day you'll lose your book. Then you will fail in your examination and be good for nothing. You don't have any self-discipline. You get distracted very easily and you daydream all the time. Why can't you be a good boy like the others? If I keep working hard for ingrates like you and waste all my time looking for your pencil, I may die soon. Just like your mother. Then what do you think will happen to you?"

Father punctuated each sentence with a slap. My cheeks began to burn. Soon they became numb. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I kept mumbling, "I won't do it again, Father. I will take good care of my pencil. I will not lose anything. I will be a good boy. I will do everything you taught me."

My mumbling made Father angrier. He continued shouting at me, and I became frightened the neighbors would hear his scolding.

Father stopped after ten minutes. He unlocked his desk drawer and pulled out a new pencil. He cut it in half and put away the part which had the label "Parvathi Pencils". He sharpened one end of the other half, cut a notch near the other end, and wrote my initials with his red fountain pen. He spent a lot of time getting the pencil ready for me. He was a kind man and I knew he loved us very much and wanted us to be good boys. I knew how busy he was and how careless and ungrateful I have been.

"Don't lose this one!" Father said as he gave me the new half pencil.

I did not lose it.

I gave it to Yesudoss during the PT class. We were playing soccer and Yesudoss was one of the captains. He was the best soccer player in the First Form and he chose his team carefully. I gave him the pencil while he and the other captain were taking turns choosing players for their teams.

It was not that Yesudoss needed a pencil, but he liked collecting them. He chose me for his team. Since I was not very good at games, he made me the goalie. I stood between the two piles of stones marking the boundaries of the goal, daydreaming heroic saves.

I could watch Yesudoss and the other players moving the ball around. Most of the action was on the other side of the field, but I kept my eyes focused on the ball. Every time it came to our half, I crouched in readiness, mentally rehearsing my jump, catch, roll, and kick. I was not going to let the ball get through.

But the ball did, once. It slipped past me in a flash and I could not even touch it.

But Yesudoss was not upset because it was the other team's only goal against our team's four goals.

Later, there was a foul near the goal area. My heart beat fast in anticipation of the penalty kick. I could redeem myself with a heroic save. Madhan, the captain of the other team, was going to kick. I was a little frightened, but was going to stop the ball even if it killed me.

But Yesudoss did a switch at the last moment. He became the goalie and made me a regular player. Just for the duration of the penalty kick. That's how we usually play the game.

Of course, Yesudoss saved the goal. If I worked harder and became braver and smarter I could be as good a goalie as Yesudoss. Then, maybe, he'd make me a permanent goalie.

* * *

"Did you find your pencil?" Father shouted from his room.

"Still looking, Father," I replied.

Five minutes later, I asked Chidambaram to go back to his studies. I went to Father's room.

"I remember now. I left my pencil in school, inside my desk."

"Then why did you tell me that you had it just a minute ago? Why did you lie? Or are you lying now? Did you lose your pencil? Why can't you ever listen to me? What were you supposed to do with your pencil after you finish writing? Leave it in your desk?"

Father slapped me once.

* * *

The next day, I survived without a pencil during the first two class periods. The third period was Tamil and the teacher dictated notes about some poem. I pretended to write, holding my notebook high and moving my fingers as if they held a pencil. But that did not fool the teacher who always roamed around the desks and spied on us from behind.

"Thiagarajan, where is your pencil?" he shouted.

"I forgot to bring it, Sir," I said. "I was late for the train and in my hurry I forgot the pencil."

Luckily, the teacher did not get into one of his usual outbursts. He asked, "Does anyone have an extra pencil?"

I was embarrassed. I did not want Yesudoss to give me back the pencil. He did not. Sankar, seated next to me, gave me his extra pencil. It was a one-inch stub, inserted into the cardboard spool of sewing thread so that there was something to grasp.

I thanked Sankar. He said, "Be sure to give it back to me when you are done."

I wrote down everything the teacher dictated. But my mind was not in what I was writing.

I needed a pencil to show to my Father in the evening.

I could take one of my Father's pencils, but he kept them locked up in his desk drawer. I did not have a key and nobody could open the drawer without it.

I could forget to return Sankar's pencil, but there was no way I could pass it off as my pencil. It was too short and too different.

There was a pencil on the teacher's desk which I could steal when he was not looking. It was a fat one, sharpened on both ends. On one side it was red and on the other, it was blue. The teacher used it to mark our test papers. Even if I were able to take that pencil, there was no way I could convince Father it was my pencil.

I could take Chidambaram's pencil and claim it to be mine. But Father would surely ask Chidambaram to bring his pencil. And he would punish both of us.

I looked around at other students' pencils. None of them looked like mine. Some were taller and the others were shorter. Nataraj had one which was just about the size of my pencil, but it was yellow in color.

One thing I could not do was to ask Yesudoss for my pencil. He had probably left it home. Anyway, I could not ask back for things I had given to somebody else.

I could buy a pencil, but that would cost two annas. Father never gave us any money because he felt we were not responsible enough to handle money. He prohibited our uncle from giving us any money when he came visiting us.

But the only way I could get a pencil was to buy one. I had to do it somehow.

During the break, I went back home instead of eating the lunch from my tiffin box. As soon as the bell rang, I ran to the station and caught the electric train to Kodambakkam. I gobbled my rice with buttermilk from the lunch box during the five-minute train ride. I finalized my plan during the walk home from the station.

Granny and the cook were at home, but they were too busy doing other things to notice me.

I went directly to my father's room. On top of his squat little bookshelf, there was a pile of printed papers from Dalal & Co., Stock Brokers. Father got them every Tuesday. They all had a list of names of companies and lots of numbers. This pile was a collection from three years ago. Surely Father did not need to read all of them. I took an inch thick pile from the bottom, beginning with March, 1947. I made sure I did not disturb the rest of the pile.

Next I looked at the old newspapers arranged neatly in the corner of the table. After reading the newspapers, Father put them in the pile, saving them for the old paper buyer who came around during the first Friday of every month. I took three newspapers from the bottom of the pile. I made sure not to disturb the rest of this pile, either. I put the stock-market papers and the newspapers in my school bag.

Granny saw me as I was sneaking out of the door. "No school this afternoon?" she called out.

"I came to pick up a notebook I forgot," I yelled back, hoping she wouldn't report my trip to Father.

I caught the electric train back. But I did not go directly back to school. Instead, I went to the old paper shop. The man in the shop bought old paper of all kinds. He also sold secondhand books.

He looked at my pile, frowning.

"Not too much here," he grumbled. "I don't want to buy it. It is not worth it."

I did not talk back. I just stood there, silently.

He did not even bother to weigh my pile of papers.

"I'll give you one anna for this pile. It isn't worth it, but I'll give you an anna! "

My heart sank. I needed two annas to buy a Parvathi pencil.

"Give me two annas," I said, trying not to sound desperate.

The paper man ignored me. I stood there silently while he went about arranging his books. After about five minutes, he noticed I was still standing there.

"I don't need that paper. You can take it back. Don't just stand there blocking the light."

I just stood there; there was no light to block. I repeated, "Give me two annas. I can bring you some newspaper next month," I said feebly.

"One anna and a half, that's my final offer," said the paper man.

I could have stood there and bargained like a grownup. But the paper man continued to ignore me, and it was getting late for the afternoon classes.

I desperation, I pulled out the math notebook from my school bag. It contained 120 pages, almost all used up with my homework. I added it to my pile.

"Give me two annas, please!" I said. I might fail math without the old problems to review before the examination. Father might ask to see my math notebook. I might have to do my math homework in my Tamil notebook and my teacher would get angry. But I had to get the two annas to buy my pencil.

The paper man gave me two annas, in eight quarter-anna coins. I clutched them in my hand and ran to the school supplies shop near the school.

I bought a Parvathi pencil and started running back to school.

I stopped suddenly. The pencil I bought was not sharpened. I could not show it to Father and claim it to be my pencil.

I had seen my father cut the pencil in half. I had also seen him sharpen the pencil. He used a pen knife. But he warned us not to sharpen the pencils because we might cut our fingers. He sharpened our pencils every morning. He never gave us a big enough point and the pencils became blunt very soon. When I complained about it, he told me not to press too hard while I wrote. That way, the point would last longer. And if it became blunt, I should ask the teacher to sharpen it for us.

In the First Form, boys don't ask their teachers to sharpen their pencils. That was elementary school behavior. So once I did sharpen the pencil at school, borrowing an old razor blade from Sankar. Father immediately figured out I had disobeyed him. I lied and said that I asked the class monitor to sharpen the pencil. Father punished me and told me never to do it again.

I went back to the shopkeeper and asked him for a knife. "I want to sharpen the pencil," I said.

"If you want a knife, you can buy one for eight annas. I cannot give you a knife and have you use it and then sell it to someone else. That would be dishonest."

"I bought the pencil from you. Give me a knife to sharpen it," I said.

He ignored me. I stood on the sidewalk waiting patiently.

He looked at me after five minutes. "Go away. Don't stand there blocking my other customers. I don't have a knife to give you."

"I bought the pencil from you..." I repeated.

Eventually the shopkeeper opened his desk drawer and pulled out a rusted razor blade. He broke it in half lengthwise. He gave one half to me.

"Here, take this and go away. Don't stand whining in front of the shop and bring me bad luck."

I ran from the shop, stopped near a lamp post, and put my school bag down. I took out the pencil and scored a circle around it near the middle. On top of the letter P in Parvathi just as I had seen my Father do it. Then I did two more circles, half an inch on either side of the first one. I whittled the pencil alternatively toward the center circle. After five minutes of careful whittling, I broke the pencil in half. Then I shaved off some more of the wood until I had sharpened the ends of the two half pencils. I was careful not to make deep cuts or to cut my finger. Then I shaved off some of the paint near the bottom of the pencil. I could not put my initials in red ink, but Father might not notice it.

By the time I got back to school, the second period in the afternoon was about to end. I was lucky; the last period was PT and I waited in the soccer field.

Yesudoss saw me. "How come you didn't come to class?" he asked.

I was very proud. You had to be tough to cut classes.

"I went shopping," I said nonchalantly. I showed him the two half pencils.

I gave Yesudoss one of them. The one which had the Parvathi Pencils label.

Yesudoss chose me for his team during his second turn. That made me very proud. He let me be the goalie. Sankar was mumbling about it, but Yesudoss ignored him.

There was a penalty kick just like in the previous game, but Yesudoss did not switch. I was the goalie and everybody was watching me. Madhan was going to kick the ball. He was very tricky. He could kick the ball with his left foot or right. I had to watch carefully.

The kick came and the ball rose to the left side. I threw myself in the path of the ball, hoping to catch it. I could not. The ball hit me straight in my face. It felt like a giant cricket ball. My lower lip was cut and it started bleeding. I closed my eyes in pain. Father would punish me for getting hurt.

The ball fell down in front of the goal line. I fell on top and held it tight. I had saved the goal!

Our team won, three goals to none.

"Good save!" said Yesudoss after the game.

And I gave him the other half of the pencil.

* * *

When I returned home that evening, Chidambaram was watering the coconut trees in the garden and Father was supervising him.

"Where's your pencil?" Father shouted at me. "I want to see it immediately."

Standing behind Father, Chidambaram was signaling something. Probably meant to say that Father was very angry. Well, I could figure that out myself.

"I will bring it you immediately, Father," I yelled and ran inside the house. I emptied my school bag on the table, hoping to see a half-pencil by some miracle.

I could not tell Father I had left the pencil in the classroom again.

Suddenly I saw Chidambaram's half pencil on the table and grabbed it. It had his initials. I put the pencil in my mouth and chewed on it. The initials became illegible.

Maybe Father would ask to see Chidambaram's pencil. He would punish Chidambaram for losing his pencil. Maybe he would figure out I stole Chidambaram's pencil. Maybe Chidambaram would say I stole his pencil. Or he would lie for me and get punished.

I did not have time to think through all possibilities. When Father walked in, I gave him the pencil. Chidambaram walked in behind him and rummaged the book shelf.

Father looked at the pencil. He looked at the chewed end. He grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me. "How many times have I told you not to chew on the pencil?"

I did not answer. I did not want him to see the cut in my lip.

Chidambaram was hovering behind Father.

Suddenly Father stopped shaking me. He took another look at the pencil.

"This is not your pencil, this is Chidambaram's. I gave you the top half of the pencil."

Father slapped me hard. My mouth flew open. The cut in my lip started bleeding again. Father looked at the blood and held his upraised hand.

"You stole Chidambaram's pencil," he accused me.

Chidambaram stepped from behind Father. He was holding a half-pencil in his hand. It also had bite marks effacing the initials. But it had the label, Parvathi Pencils.

"Father, you gave me the bottom half and Thiaguannan the top half," he said.

Father looked at the pencils. He looked at the bite marks. He raised his hands to slap Chidambaram but stopped in the middle. He looked at my bleeding lips.

"You kids must have switched your pencils. I don't know why you did it or what you are up to. You always disobey me and you are going to send me to an early grave. I am not going to punish you this time, but I want you to go to a corner and pray to God to become obedient sons."

As we went to the corner, Chidambaram whispered, "I found your pencil behind the bookshelf. The pencil you lost last week."

And then we prayed to God to help us become obedient sons.

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