Subbu’s jaw dropped.
“And I got this for my last birthday”, Mani said as he produced a white, shiny Hot Wheels car. “And this one was for my previous 95 out of 100 in Social Studies”. Another item emerged from the bag that seemed to hold an infinite supply of toys – this time a GiJoe. It was the short break hour and Mani had decided to exhibit his collection atop Prema ma’am’s table that day to his huddled group of gawking, incredulous classmates. “Mani”, Subbu asked when he finally found his voice, “What does your father do?”. This endowment of seemingly hundreds of toys could only be justified if Mani’s father owned a toy shop. “Don’t you know da?”, Mani asked with a mixture of condescension and genuine puzzlement, “Your father and my father are colleagues at the same company.”. The knot in Subbu’s chest tightened and he found himself looking at the bench lost in thought about the unfairness being meted out to him by life, his parents and everyone. He had scored a lot of 95s as well. Mostly in English, but it counted, didn’t it? He was shaken from his reverie by Murugan who was by now staring daggers at Mani. “He thinks he’s some sort of big shot just because he has more toys than us. We’ll see who’s smiling when something goes missing.”. Subbu didn’t like the glint in Murugan’s eyes but he didn’t want to antagonise his friend, so he meekly nodded hoping his face didn’t betray his conscience. Mani had just finished displaying a tiny He-Man eraser (that held in an outstretched plastic hand a small, but sharp plastic sword of sorts, sharp enough to prick any of Subbu’s mental balloons of happiness, if any were left), when Prema ma’am walked into the classroom and Mani hastily replaced all the objects back into his “akshayapatra” of a bag and the rest of them hurriedly took their places in their seats.
Later during lunch, Subbu spotted Mani frantically looking for something. He had an inkling as to what might have happened but he innocently went and asked the worried boy, “Mani, are you searching for something?”. Mani looked up ashen-faced at Subbu and said, “My brand new kaleidoscope, Subbu. Have you seen it?”. Subbu thought Murugan might have something to do with this missing tube of mirrors but he shook his head vigorously…perhaps a little too vigorously, for Mani surveyed him for a few seconds as though the location of the missing cylinder was marked with an “X” on Subbu’s forehead, before resuming his search under the desks. The latter stayed there a few more minutes watching the former struggle before sympathetically patting him on his back and walking away.
As he moved away from the seeker he saw Murugan, standing a few benches away, looking at Mani with a satisfied expression on his face. “See how he pitifully searches for his Parker Pen”, he smirked with a whisper once Subbu was within earshot. Subbu furrowed his eyebrows – “Parker ..Pen?” he thought, but not aloud. “Now Mani has lost two items, only one of which he has noticed missing”, he brooded. “Subbu?”, Murugan enquired, “Do you think we should keep it for ourselves or break it?”. Subbu frowned. Of course, he had been jealous of how many more things Mani had and maybe a tiny part of him had revelled at the thought of Mani grappling with the loss of one of his prized possessions that he had “shown off”, but was he, Subbu, an evil person? What would Harry Potter do? He pondered the paths his heroes from fiction and mythology might take if faced with such moral questions and decided with a resolve as a wave of shame washed over him – “No”, and prepared himself to patronise Murugan for his action; but the thief had vanished out of sight and Subbu’s eyes wandered back to a still worried-looking Mani. He walked back to the bemoaner and said with the tone of a savior, “Don’t worry Mani, I’ll help you find your pen…err..telescope.”, he corrected himself as Mani looked at him quizzically. “Kaleidoscope”, he was corrected. Subbu adopted a loftier expression all the while muttering to himself about having overcome jealousy and being the bigger man and yet being corrected by ungrateful monsters. As he bent under the desk himself, he wondered if he should bring up the topic of adequate compensation with his parents and ran a possible scenario over in his head about how that conversation with his father might go –
He would gingerly broach the topic – “Appa, Mani had brought 4 HotWheels cars today.”
Appa would remark only partially listening – “Mm Hmm.”
He would repeat the premise for father’s benefit.
Appa would feign interest this time and look at him as if to wonder why this sentence was being posed to him.
Then he would ask for an increase in number of cars for himself and let the chips fall where they may. He had no idea how Appa would react to this new man with a spine, but he was prepared to try, for justice’s sake.
For the second time that day, he jerked back to reality only to notice that he had wandered off to the opposite row of benches on his knees, all the while, trying to look for Mani’s kaleidoscope, obviously unsuccessfully. As he prepared to abandon the search, he spotted a glint of something shiny by the trash can situated at the left end of Prema ma’am’s table. He rushed to it and picked it up even as it came undone in his hand, the glass pieces smashed to smithereens. It would seem that in Mani’s haste to pick up his things, this tube had fallen to the ground and scattered. He brought the remnants of the tube and the bad news back to Mani. The boy took one look at the glass pieces and started weeping profusely, spluttering pieces of speech from which Subbu gathered that Mani had had to sweep the entire house to get his Appa to buy him this what-was-once-a-fine-bangle-piece-displayer. Subbu felt even more sympathetic towards this boy and thought he should probably, at this point, not add insult to injury by enquiring if Mani had noticed anything else missing from his Bag of Wonders. By this time, two more of their classmates had arrived by Mani’s side and had begun consoling him. Subbu felt confident about the moral support Mani was receiving and decided to confront Murugan immediately, chide him, maybe teach him a lesson or two about the virtues of honesty and the horridness of jealousy and get the pen back to Mani before the latter even discovered its loss – surely the poor boy had suffered enough already.
His thoughts and actions were interrupted by Prema ma’am walking in again with an expression of what he could only surmise was absolute rage. She slammed the notebooks she was holding onto her table and dust from 1947 rose up to fill the air in the classroom, it seemed.
“Everyone take your bags and keep them on your desks”, she said, in an icy tone. Subbu blinked and looked around at his classmates who looked equally clueless.
“One of you has stolen my Parker Pen and I’m going to find out who.”