It was the summer of 2007. I had just faltered my way out of 11th standard and my dad insisted that I attend tuitions, especially for Mathematics, a subject that didn’t particularly interest me. I couldn’t get into tuitions for bright kids, because obviously I was no genius. Instead, I was admitted to Mrunalini’s Math Tuitions. A friend of my dad’s recommended her name. She had recently moved to our town and was considering starting tuitions. My dad wasn’t convinced but he really just didn’t want me to hang around at home. Girish, my elder brother, stayed in a hostel, and visited home twice a month to get the laundry done. He didn’t speak much. He was the quiet kind. He showed promise but had not, apparently, lived up to his potential. I, on the other hand, showed neither promise nor potential. Everyone knew that tuitions wouldn’t do me any good but my dad just wanted more time with himself in our quiet home.
Math tuitions were thrice every week, from 2 PM to 5 PM. Mrunalini Mam stayed in an apartment I didn’t know existed in a part of town I didn’t know existed. It was on the other side of the hill that I could see through my bedroom window. It was a couple of kilometres and I cycled to her place. Not many people stayed in that building and there were not many buildings around it. The building was neither too old nor too new. It was an ordinary building.
She stayed on the third floor. There was no nameplate on her door. I remember being slightly surprised at seeing her first. She wasn’t really beautiful but ageless. I couldn’t tell that she was married until I saw her son right behind her holding a box of crayons. He had her straight silky hair and hazel eyes. He sat on the sofa with his box of crayons and lego blocks while she drew curves and equations on a small whiteboard propped up in the dining room.
My mind wandered without any guilt whatsoever. I could tell that she could notice me looking around the house. There was barely anything in there. The walls were unpainted save for crayon scribbles. There were barely any utensils in the kitchen. The fridge was a tall anomaly. I was sure it was mostly empty. I seldom got a glimpse of her bedroom but I could almost picture it in my mind. A clean bed for two. An almost empty wardrobe. Crayon doodles on the pale white walls. A house. A sun. An unending streak of blue.
I wanted to know more about her but I couldn’t let my dad know of my curiosity. He would make something out of it, I didn’t know what. I wasn’t afraid, or embarrassed, or anxious. Perhaps, I wanted to take it upon myself. I kid-talked to her son when she visited the bathroom or went downstairs to get vegetables. I asked him innocuous sounding questions – Where are you from? What does your dad do? Where is he? He couldn’t speak much for a child his age. What was his age? Did he attend a school? I don’t know. One day, I sharpened my pencil and looked around for a bin to throw the pencil shavings into. She pointed near the washbasin. I let the pencil drop in the bin deliberately and scoured it for clues. I didn’t know what I was looking for until my hand grabbed onto an empty strip of tablets. While she explained Limits and Continuity, I felt the little bumps of the tablet strip in my trouser pocket. I was excited and anxious and her equations were as meaningful to me as her son’s doodles on the walls.
Later that day, I arrived home to find my brother in his room. He asked me if I had been using his computer. I knew right away what he was getting at. Those days, I wanted to know everything about sex. It was magical because no one talked about it and it seemed right on the horizon. I didn’t want to be unprepared for it when the day came. I wanted to see everything and his computer, the only one at our place, had recently got an internet connection. My search queries were oddly specific and comical. I wanted to make sure that I was the right size, the right girth, the right length, the right alignment and that I would last longer with an actual person than I did with myself. I usually deleted browser history but that day was different. I could see all my sexual insecurities in his eyes morphed into unspeakable crimes. He didn’t raise his voice or bark at me. He never found the right words or any words at all. But I was afraid that he would to talk to my dad about it in his own strange ways and although I couldn’t stop it, I didn’t want to be there when that happened. I cycled out with my bag and then it occurred to me that I could head over to Mrunalini’s apartment.
I suppose she was a good teacher. She encouraged me to ask questions despite my lacklustre interest. She often said I could come over anytime if I had any queries. I considered the thought often, imagining what the two of them would be doing in their empty home at strange hours. That day, I decided to cycle outside her building near a park that no one visited. The sun was setting and it was darker than usual. Soon, it began to drizzle and I decided to park my cycle in the building’s basement.
She wasn’t expecting me that day. I saw a pair of shoes outside her apartment that I didn’t recognize. I heard a voice of a man. I heard the TV. It was playing louder than usual. I heard her kid dragging a plastic toy on the marble floor. I heard the rain outside. I knew I had to step in. I knocked.
She opened the door after a minute. Had it taken her a moment longer, I would have been on my way back home. Perhaps, I would’ve been reminded of the empty tablet strip in my other trouser. I would have had to witness my brother at dinner. Perhaps, he would have been too embarrassed to talk about the search history to my dad in my presence. I would then have looked up the name of the tablet strip and find out what it meant. I would’ve moved one step closer to solving an equation that I was truly interested in. None of that happened.
She opened the door. I saw a sense of nervousness in her eyes. They wanted to ask me why I was here. I don’t remember her inviting me in as much I remember me just walking inside. When I saw the man, sitting on the sofa, with his legs sprawled all over it, the excitement was palpable. I heard her voice, distant and feeble. What’s the matter? Any problem? I showed her the exercise problem numbers. Seven. Thirteen. Sixteen. I traced back my finger to number eleven. This, too.
I couldn’t tell if she was surprised or disturbed or happy. It didn’t matter. I smelt sex in the house. It was a faint odour of sweat on the man’s chin. It was the drizzle outside steadily growing into a storm. It was the wetness in the lone strand of hair that touched her lips as she looked into the open book. It was the metallic sheen of the motorcycle keys on the teapoy. It was the matte brownness of the leather keychain. There was dreaminess in her eyes as she glanced at the problems; a certain slowness in her movements as though her skin still prickled from the touch of the man’s stubble.
She was on problem number eleven when the man sort of grunted and stood up. He walked into the bedroom and called the kid inside. I heard clunks of kitchen utensils, of a faucet turned on. He was humming a song and I couldn’t tell which. He had a low, deep voice like an ancient wooden instrument. I could feel the vibrations all around us. I noticed tiny, almost invisible hair on her face and I must have made a face because she asked me about it. Twice.
The man came outside with tea-cups. He offered me one but I declined. I said I don’t drink tea. She laughed. The man forced the hot cup in my palm. I had to hold it. I said I should get going, that I had figured out the solutions. The man laughed. The kid had climbed onto his lap and was feeling the contours of his chin without looking up.
“Where do you live?” The man asked me. I sipped tea, took a moment and answered. He asked about my dad. What does he do? Where does he work? He asked me if I had any siblings, asked me what my brother did. My skin had turned hot and I stuttered. My hands shook and I placed the tea cup back on the teapoy. He asked Mrunalini, jokingly, whether I was a good student. She smiled and looked at me. Then he asked me if she was a good teacher. I nodded. The kid had climbed out of his lap and was moving towards Mrunalini’s. The man leaned towards her to grab hold of the kid and then leaned further towards her neck. I said I should get going. She asked me to come by anytime if I had any questions.
When I reached home, I was soaked to my bones. My brother was gone and my dad asked me where I had been all this time. Apparently, he had been worried. We had dinner together. He asked me about my progress at the tuitions. Then, as I was responding, he cut me short. He said I shouldn’t mess around with my brother’s computer.
He said, “Just concentrate on your studies, will you?”
When we finished dinner, he walked back into his room. I waited outside and wondered what his room looked like inside. I waited outside and wondered whether I should ask him about her. Is she married?
I went upstairs and into my brother’s room. I switched on the computer and fished the empty tablet strip out of my pocket. I folded it and read the name. It had stopped raining, the night was quiet and the lonely cursor blinked alluringly in the search box.