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The Survivor
by Pesi J. Padshah

At St. Peters High School in Panchgani, a hill station in the Western Ghats, where I was once a boarder, my classmate and special friend Ketan Kapoor, was a fellow always in trouble with the authorities. What enabled him to survive, was an above average set of reflexes and a dependable sense of strategy to fall back on, in sticky situations. To bear me out, there’s this classic classroom tale.

Monsieur Shaufelberger, our Swiss tutor, conveniently referred to as ‘Shaufie’, was conducting his usual, boring, Monday morning French class. Seated to my left, Ketan was busy explaining to me the tactics we should have employed in the previous evening’s football match which we lost, three nil, to the upper fifth. He was getting carried away and I was about to warn him discreetly, to  “Shurrup man”, when Shaufie suddenly turned off his torrent of French, pointed to Ketan, and declared angrily:

“You there ; you are talking in my class ; I don’t like it. Now shut up.”

In deference to Shaufie’s wishes, Ketan didn’t say another word . . . for fully two minutes. The next time he was reprimanded, he was made to stand on one leg, in front of the class, as punishment. This didn’t worry Ketan in the least. He was used to standing on one leg for Shaufie and, by then, had probably developed special muscles in his leg. Even so, I felt that being punished was unnecessary and avoidable. After all, I was able to converse quite freely, merely by speaking out of the corner of my mouth like James Cagney of gangster movie fame. I held my French textbook in front of me and stared blankly ahead, like the rest of the class. Evidently Ketan considered such precautions restrictive of his style and beneath his dignity, so it was not surprising that he attracted Shaufie’s attention yet again. This time, matters took an alarming turn.

A sudden, deathly hush fell upon the class ; conversation ceased even in the back row. Sensing danger, Ketan looked around for Shaufie and found him not two feet away, his face purple with rage. Their eyes met. Shaufie mouthed a dreadful sounding epithet in some strange language . . . it could have been French, but I could swear it was not anything he taught us in class. Then he drew back his arm and unleashed a ferocious punch which would certainly have hospitalized, if not decapitated, my friend. And that is when Ketan’s amazing reflexes came to his rescue. Ducking smartly, he slipped under  the blow and, as he explained to me afterwards, even noted how simple it would have been, to ‘hook’ with his right hand, to Shaufie’s unguarded midriff. He knew what he was talking about, mind you.  Ketan was ‘Mosquito weight’ boxing champion of our school, having defeated fearsome opponents like Ugly Urvekar and Basher Bismillah, on his way to the title. Mercifully, sanity prevented him from actually taking a swipe at Shaufie. A split second later though, there was an ear-rending crash, accompanied by a shower of splintering glass, and Monsieur Shaufelberger found that he had put his fist through the plate glass panel of the classroom door, in front of which Ketan had been standing on one leg.
The situation was highly dramatic in its own right.  Shaufie, in all his years at school, had not been known to get more than mildly exasperated with us boys, and here he was going purple in the face, using strong language that even we could not understand, and then raising his fist to a student  . . . and putting it through a glass door. But, added to all that, was the fact that the incident occurred in the early years of World War 2, when we schoolboys were made to dig trenches and observe elaborate safety precautions against a possible air attack by the Japanese. That the Japanese had ignored us so far was, to us, a disappointment. Hope and expectancy however, lingered on undiminished. When the crash of splintering glass fell upon our ears, it disrupted the peace and tranquility of our hill station school. It reverberated across corridors and classrooms, and rekindled hopes, setting young imaginations afire. Those not actually in our class, were not to know that it was Shaufie, and not the Japanese air force that was responsible. Ignoring all precautions and the safety of trenches, a flood of schoolboys overran the hockey field outside, to scream profanities, shake their fists and make rude signs, at imaginary Japanese warplanes. Others turned up at our classroom to ascertain details of the ‘bomb’ that had been dropped.

Those who visited the classroom, saw a distraught Shaufie, his face transformed from the deep purple of rage, to the bloodless pallor of despair. Down on all fours, he was, for some reason, picking up bits of splintered glass and stuffing them into his briefcase, while members of our class climbed on top of their desks and gleefully pointed out fragments that still needed collecting. Ketan overcame the urge to join them. His instinct for survival told him that it was time to metamorphose instantly, from untamed troublemaker, to aggrieved victim. Before he could be caught and questioned, he set off on his own to see the principal. 

The Reverend Mckeown  whose name had been cut down by us, to the much more manageable “Mack”, rose from his seat in alarm, as Ketan burst into his room without knocking.

“Why, what’s the matter, boy? You look distressed”, observed Mack, concern writ large in his features.

“I am, sir”, Ketan assured him with a carefully cultivated quaver in his voice. He tried, he told me, to also get tears to roll down his cheeks, but was unsuccessful.

“I have been assaulted, Sir” he disclosed.

“Assaulted? By whom?”

“By Shaufie . . .  er, Mr. Shaufelberger, Sir.”

“What for?” 

“I don’t know. I must have been talking”, volunteered Ketan.

“Did he hurt you?” 

“No Sir. He tried to but he missed. If he hadn’t, I would have been dead”, declared Ketan, with conviction, and added, “He smashed the glass door instead.” The quaver in his voice had, deftly, been reintroduced. It was crucial, he said, if he was not to be held responsible for the damaged door, and his pocket money  docked for the next several weeks.

“Hmm”, said the principal as he weighed up the situation. “Tell Shauf . . .er, tell Mr. Shaufelberger I’d like to have a word with him.”

“Yes Sir”, said Ketan, with satisfaction, and departed.

I’m not sure what took place between Mack and Shaufie, thereafter, but I am pleased to report that no cuts were made in Ketan’s pocket money.  

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