Aruhi wasn’t sure if she heard it right when the class teacher called out her name. She was sure her father had paid the school fees for the month. The class teacher of Third Standard, Section A,had been calling out names of the students who hadn’t paid the school fees in the past three months. The students were asked to stand outside the classroom in the corridor with their schoolbags.
“But my father had paid the fees for the month,” said Aruhi turning to Vaneetha who sat beside her.
“No, he might not have. That’s why class teacher called your name,” said Vaneetha.
Aruhi frowned a little at Vaneetha for not believing her. She decided to change her seat away from Vaneetha. But for the moment, she was forced to pick her schoolbag and get out of the classroom.
She almost reached the door, when she turned around and walked to the class teacher.
“Sir, I know that my father has paid the school fees for this month,” she said, “He always informs me when he does so.”
“But, your name wouldn’t appear in this defaulters’ list. It says that your father hasn’t paid the school fees for this month” said the class teacher, tapping on the list on his desk.
Aruhi wanted to take a good look at the list, to make sure if the class teacher had mispronounced someone else’s name. But she knew that she was the only one named Aruhi in Third Standard, including the other section too. She walked slowly out of the classroom, with the heavyrectangular box shapedschoolbaghanging on her back. She could hear the low murmurs of the students in the class. She felt some of them were even staring at her. She stood outside in the corridor, along with ten or more students of her own class, and dozens of others from adjacent classes. It filled the corridor as if it was the morning assembly. She had no clue what was happening.
She found Surabhi standing next to her sobbing uncontrollably, tears falling down her cheek.
“It’s her birthday today you know, she’s 8 years old now,” said Naresh, Surabhi’s best friend standing beside her.
Aruhi wanted to ask why she wasn’t in her birthday dress instead of the school uniform. But that was not the time to ask such questions.
“Aruhi, I’m shocked to see that you’re in the list too,” continued Naresh.
Surabhi wiped her tears to see if it was indeed Aruhi standing beside her.
The list of fee defaulters were almost always consistent. Every month the students were reminded about the non-payment of fees by the class teacher. But an action like this of sending the students out of the class was new for everyone.
“My father has paid the fees. The list is incorrect,” said Aruhi.
“How can you say that?” said Naresh.
“I don’t know. But I know that my father paid the fees.”
“They are grown-ups. They can’t make a mistake in preparing the list.”
“So, you know that your father failed hasn’t paid the fees?” asked Aruhi.
“Mmm hmm,” said Naresh nodding positively.
Aruhi realised that she shouldn’t have asked a question like that.
“He hasn’t paid the fees for the past two months,” hecontinued.
“My father hasn’t paid the fees for this month only,” said Surabhi in a sobbing voice, still rubbing her tearful eyes with her knuckles.
“Hey! Don’t make noise in the corridor!” came a roaring voice from a teacher, stretching her head out from the door of an adjacent classroom, “Go outside the building.”
The crowd in the corridor slowly began to descend the stairs out in the open playground. Surabhi, Naresh and Aruhi occupied a concrete bench on the grounds. Surabhi was relatively calm now.
“Happy birthday Surabhi,” said Aruhi stretching her hand for a handshake.
“Thanks,” said Surabhi accepting her handwith a meek smile and shaking it.
“These teachers, they haven’t even told us what to do,” said Naresh in an irritated tone, “Should we stay in the school? Should we leave for our home? We are stuck in the school for the day, but we can’t attend any classes. Why can’t they say things clearly? Stupid teachers.”
“Hey, you shouldn’t talk about teachers like that,” said Aruhi.
“Well, if your name is in the list by mistake, then they’re really stupid,” said Naresh.
Aruhi did feel the same. But criticising the teachers behind them didn’t feel right to her.
The trio wandered around the ground to pass time, mostly by the shades of the trees in the perimeter. Aruhi felt tired walking around with her heavy bag. But Naresh and Surabhilooked like they were used to it.
“What does your father do Aruhi?” asked Naresh.
“He’s a government servant.”
“A servant? Your father is a servant in the government? Like an office peon?” asked Surabhi.
“Oh no. He works in the office. But not as a servant. He says he works as a clerk. But father always tell me to tell others that he is a government servant.”
“Do government servants earn lot of money?” asked Naresh.
“I don’t know,” said Aruhi, shrugging her shoulders.
“I mean, do you have phone in your house? Or car, motorcycle?”
“I don’t have any of those. My father has a bicycle. And I have got a bicycle too.”
“Oh yes, you come to school on your bicycle right?” said Surabhi, excitedly.
“Yes, yes,” said Aruhi.
“Very few girls in Third Standard actually ride their bicycles to come to school,” said Naresh, “So you’re saying you are not rich.”
“I don’t know.”
“Huh, I don’t know if my family is poor or not. I mean, we are never hungry, but we don’t have a phone at home, car, or motorcycle. Also, we buy new clothes only once in a year in Diwali. I have seen rich people having all the things that we don’t have, and doing things we can’t do. But if my father can’t pay for school fees, maybe I’m poor,” said Naresh.
Both Surabhi and Aruhi were intently listening to him. They both felt like Naresh was talking like a grown-up. They had never thought about all the things that he had just said.
After roaming the whole school premises aimlessly, the trio heard the interval bell and there were movements of teachers and students in the corridors.
“I want to talk to our class teacher,” said Aruhi looking at the bunch of students coming out of their classrooms, “I have to tell him once more that my father has actually paid the fees.”
The trio walked towards the staff room. Aruhi went inside and found that the class teacher hadn’t yet arrived.
“He isn’t here,” she told Naresh and Surabhi who were standing outside.
There were a couple of other students waiting inside the staff room around his seat.
After waiting for five minutes or so, Aruhi finally saw her class teacher walking towards the staff room from a distance.
“Get inside,” said Naresh, almost pushing her through her bag.
“Wait, let him get inside first. Then you can talk,” said Surabhi.
Aruhi watched the class teacher enter the staff room and sit in his chair, but he was quickly surrounded by the students waiting for him.
“Oh no, he is busy with other kids now,” said Naresh.
“I will still get inside and wait for my turn,” said Aruhi.
She took down her schoolbag from her shoulders and handed it to Naresh before getting inside the staff room. Naresh extended one strap of the bag to Surabhi for support.
“Her bag is too heavy,” he commented.
“We can keep it down, the floor is not that dirty,” suggested Surabhi.
Naresh hesitantly laid the bag down.
Aruhi patiently waited for other senior students to finish their talk with her class teacher. After waiting for another five minutes, only she and one more boy from her class, Anil, were left.
“What do you guys want?” asked the class teacher.
“I have paid school fees sir,” Aruhi spoke up quickly.
Anil looked at Aruhi for a moment and then he nodded and said, “Me too.”
“But then why are your names in the list?” said the class teacher.
“I clearly remember my father telling me that he paid the fees for the month,” said Aruhi.
“My father hasn’t told me, but I’m sure he might have paid sir,” said Anil.
The class teacher was silent, and was brooding for a few moments and Anil and Aruhi were hoping that he would come up with some solution.
“You guys can call your parents and ask them to bring the school fee receipts here,” said the class teacher, “If they have paid the fees, then they would have kept the receipts.”
“Sure sir,” said Anil and Aruhi together.
“But I don’t even have a phone in my house,” whispered Aruhi while she and Anil were walking out of the staff room.
They met Naresh and Surabhi outside and then walked together at some distance in the ground, away from the crowd and noise in the corridor, to finally tell them what the class teacher had told them.
“That’s great right? You guys can go back to the classes,” said Naresh with a smile.
“To be honest, I like getting out of the classroom,” chuckled Anil, “But you know right, they will throw you out of the school if you don’t pay the fees?”
Naresh and Surabhi looked a bit meek and sad when they heard it.
“There is not much time left for the interval to be over,” said Aruhi, looking at her digital watch, “Only five minutes are left before the school gates will get closed. I have to call my neighbours, if they are at home. Even the lady of the neighbouring house goes to office, but a bit late. Naresh, Surabhi, please keep my bag while we go outside to make a call.”
“Please keep my bag too, we will come back right away,” said Anil hastily removing his bag and throwing it to Naresh.
Naresh and Surabhi looked at each other and decided to sit on a bench in the playground, as the two extra bags were too heavy to be carried around.
Anil and Aruhi almost sprinted to the school main gate.
“Where are you kids going?” asked the watchman at the gate.
“We have to make a phone call,” said Anil in a panting voice.
“Come back quickly, interval time is almost over,” said the watchman.
Anil and Aruhi passed through the gate and dashed to the nearest grocery shop where the PCO box was fortunately unoccupied.
Anil dialled the number to his home first.
“Yes ma, bring the school receipt for this month’s fee,” said Anil after explaining her his situation, “Right ma. You have to come by lunchtime.”
Next Aruhi dialled the number of her neighbour’s house. As she had expected, no one picked up the call.
“She’s gone to office, I shouldn’t even have tried,” said Aruhi.
“It’s okay, try during lunch break. We have to go back,” said Anil patting her back to get to the school gate again.
“Get inside soon kids, the time is almost over,” said the watchman, as he watched Anil and Aruhi running and quickly passing through the gate.
The watchman couldn’t have been more precise as the bell rang right at that time, signalling the end of the interval break.
Anil and Aruhi were panting heavily when they reached the bench where Naresh and Surabhi were sitting with bored faces.
“I have called my mother, she will come by lunch time,” said Anil, getting his bag from Naresh’s lap.
“No one picked the phone in my neighbour’s house,” said Aruhi with a disappointed face.
Now the four of them wandered around. Anil seemed to be clearly enjoying the break from classes.
All of them sat on the steps at the base of the flag post.
“Don’t you think someone would shoo us away from here?” asked Surabhi.
“Until then we can rest here,” said Naresh, stretching his legs down the small steps.
Aruhi knew that everything would be sorted out the next day. Her father could come to the school and talk with the school office. But she still felt everything wrong about it. It was wrong for Anil too, but he seemed to be least bothered out about it. She did feel sorry for Naresh and Surabhi.
“It’s Surabhi’s birthday you know?” she said nudging Anil with her elbow.
“Wow, Happy Birthday Surbabhi!” said Anil, more in a formal voice, “You didn’t bring any chocolate for us? And you didn’t wear any colour dress?”
Surabhi kept quiet and Aruhi thought she had better not informed Anil about her birthday.
“You have never given us any chocolates or worn any colour dress on your birthday, have you?” asked Naresh.
“My birthday is always during the summer vacation,” said Anil.
Two more hours passed and it was lunchtime. The school gate opened and there was the usual crowd of students, teachers, parents and other staffs going in and out through the gate. The four kids were standing at a distance, looking for Anil’s mother.
“I don’t think anyone of us has seen your mother before Anil,” said Aruhi.
“Yeah, it’s okay. I will spot her,” said Anil who kept looking at the crowded gate.
The crowd subsided in five minutes. Anil seemed to be impatient and heartbroken.
“Hey, lunchtime has just started, your mother will come for sure,” said Aruhi looking at his cheerless face.
“There she is!” said Anil excitedly as he ran towards a saree-clad woman.
He hugged her mother tightly around her waist and they both walked towards the school office. The trio just watched him walk merrily holding his mother’s hand.
“Now it’s just the three of us,” said Aruhi.
“There are many others who are still wandering around,” said Naresh.
“Hey Aruhi, you can go to your house now on your bicycle and come back with the fee receipt,” said Surabhi watching a bunch of kids crossing the gate with their bicycles.
“Yes! Why didn’t I think of it before?” said Aruhi with excitement, clapping her hands.
“Yes, but you need to come back before the lunchtime ends, or else the watchman wouldn’t let you in,” said Naresh, “Which I think doesn’t really matter. You can just stay at home after that.”
“Oh yes, just stay at home rather,” said Surabhi, “Let your father come here tomorrow and show them the fee receipt.”
“But…,” said Aruhi, now considering all the suggestions that Naresh and Surabhi just gave, “But I would lose a day of attendance if I miss the classes today.”
Naresh and Surabhinodded their heads in agreement.
“I’ll go to my home and come back soon,” said Aruhi, “Should I take my bag or leave it here?”
“Take it,” said Naresh, “What if you don’t come back because you couldn’t find the receipt or you came back late and the watchman won’t let you enter. Your bag would be safer with you.”
“I’ll take it then. See you later guys.”
Aruhi rushed towards the bicycle stand nearby with the heavy schoolbag on her back, dangling and making noises while also hitting her back. She unlocked the wire lock around the back wheel and pushed it towards the gate after waving to both Naresh and Surabhi from a distance.
“Where are you going kid? Half day?” asked the watchman, looking at the schoolbag she was carrying.
“No no, I’m going to my home to get my school fee receipt,” said Aruhi and explained her whole matter to him.
“But you can’t leave the school premises just like that. You need a written letter from your class teacher and have it signed by the Principal or Vice-Principal. You have been marked present on the attendance right?”
“But that’s what, I haven’t been marked present today.”
The watchman seemed confused now.
“What if you go back now and get the permission letter to go outside from your class teacher or Principal? Can you do that?”
“It will take time! Class teacher might be having his lunch, so do the Principal and Vice-Principal. By the time I get the permission letter, it would be too late, the lunchtime would be over and I won’t be allowed to enter.”
“You should have asked me before or got the permission letter earlier.”
“I didn’t know these rules,” said Aruhi with a low voice.
The watchman was silent again, making small grunts, looking to his left and right for some time, as if he was gonna steal something.
“Okay kid, I’m letting you now, only because you didn’t know the rules. But you should be back before the lunchtime is over, or else you would be sent back home.”
“Thank you!” said Aruhi as she rushed out of the gate and swiftly jumped on her bicycle.
She had not really ridden her bicycle on the road during the afternoon time of the day. The road looked less crowded than the morning. It did not take much time for her to reach her house. She parked her bicycle in front of her house and rang the bell.
Her mother had a shocked expression as soon as she opened the door.
“Aruhi! Kid what happened? What are you doing here?” said her mother letting her inside the house.
Aruhi took down the bag from her shoulders and narrated her whole half day in the school to her mother.
“This school people are useless! Can’t they note down that your school fees are paid? They made you suffer so much.”
“Mother I need the school fee receipt quickly. I don’t have much time. The watchman won’t let me inside if it’s late.”
Her mother checked the drawers, the wardrobes and looked inside their sections one by one. But she couldn’t find the receipt.
“You father actually keeps the receipts safe, but he keeps it in different places. It’s really difficult…Ah! I think I got it.”
Her mother found a receipt inside a book kept on a table and Aruhi was elated.
“Uh huh, it’s last month’s receipt, not this month’s.”
Aruhiexcitement faded and she sat on the sofa to take some rest.
Her mother had turned the bedroom upside down, but the receipt was nowhere to be found. Only older receipts kept popping up here and there.
“Mother, check father’s shirt and pant that he wore yesterday,” said Aruhi.
“But I have washed them.”
“Did you wash the receipts inside too?”
“I took out the notes, coins and some papers from his pockets and kept it aside, let me see.”
Mother rushed to the living room and found some small bits of paper lying on the table.
“I finally got it. Here,” said mother.
Aruhi grabbed the receipt from her mother’s hand and checked it once.
“The month and date of payment is written,” said mother.
Aruhi jump with excitement and hugged her mother.
“You haven’t had your lunch yet right?”
Aruhi looked at her watch. The school lunchtime was almost getting over.
“Mother I have to go now,” said Aruhi, “I promise that I will have my lunch onceI reach the school.”
“Ok Aruhi, go ahead. But don’t rush. And if you don’t reach on time you can come back. It doesn’t matter,” said her mother before giving her a deep kiss on both her cheeks.
Aruhi kept the receipt safely inside her bag and took off on her bicycle. The road was even more deserted now. It was just people walking or two wheelers occasionally appearing from time to time. She pedalled the bicycle at full speed when she neared the school gate and applied a sudden brake just before she was about to hit the rails of the entrance gate. She then looked at the time on her digital watch again.
“It’s not time yet,” said Aruhi before the watchman could say anything.
“Are you entering the school now?” asked the watchman with a confused look.
“No, I left for home to get my school fee receipt.”
“Oh right, you’re that kid,” said the watchman suddenly remembering her.
He let her inside and she hastily sped up her bicycle to the parking spot. She couldn’t find Naresh or Surabhiaround. She then rushed to the staff room. Fortunately, her school teacher was present there.
“I have brought the school fee receipt,” said Aruhi in a panting voice and handed him the receipt.
A few couple of teachers who were resting in the staff room watched her incredulously as she seemed to have just run a marathon.
“Well, seems like the School Office had made a mistake,” said the school teacher, “I will see if I can mark you present for today, even though you couldn’t attendthe morning classes. You can attend the remaining classes now.”
“Thank you sir,” said Aruhi turning around to leave.
“Wait,” said the class teacher.
She turned back and saw him stretching out the receipt. She hit her forehead with her palm and took it back.
“Don’t go around losing it,” said the class teacher.
Aruhi nodded and went outside the staff room. But she was really hungry now. She found an obscure deserted spot in a corridor. She took out her lunchbox and sat on the floor to have her lunch. She had never tasted so delicious a lunch before.
After finishing the lunch she waited for the bell to ring and then walked into her classroom before the teacher of the next class arrived.
“You came back? You paid the fees?” asked Vaneetha.
“I had already paid it and I showed the receipt to the class teacher too,” said Aruhi in a stern voice.
She looked around and found Anil. But she still couldn’t find Naresh and Surabhi.
In the next few days, most of the students who were mentioned in the fee defaulters list had paid and came back to the classes. Only Naresh and Surabhi were missing.
“Do you have their phone numbers or their home addresses?” asked Aruhi one day to Anil during an interval break.
“I had talked to them only that day, never before that,” said Anil, “I thought you would have their phone numbers.”
Aruhi was sad that she didn’t know their whereabouts. She later asked each of her classmates about Naresh and Surabhi’s phone numbers or addresses. Some did give her a vague description of their addresses, but the locality they mentioned were quite far away and Aruhi didn’t exactly know where the localities were, or else she could have pedalled her bicycle to their houses.
Years later, Aruhitried searching them on social media, when it became a thing. She could still bring up the images of their disappointed, hopeless, withereddown little faces clearly in her mind. It pained her heart to guess that they might have attended a slightly worse school or didn’t attend any school at all. She had grown up well into her late teens, but Naresh and Surabhi were still the little melancholic kids for her.