Illustration: Manjil Rijal
Illustration: Manjil Rijal

Joseph, our maths teacher

A short story
He is dead. Joseph, our maths teacher. The news whizzed through our town's TVs, newspapers and mouths all week long. In the markets, the tea stalls, the air-conditioned grocery stores, the dimly-lit cafes, the brothels above the photocopy and printing shops, the alleys where we played cricket and the alleys where others played football. Everywhere we went, it was all we could hear. That Joseph, our maths teacher, was dead. We think the crows and the dogs have become sick of hearing the news by now, so we wouldn't be surprised if they have been visiting his grave and pushing aside the fallen leaves on his mound with their beaks and snouts, whispering to him, "Sir, you have become viral!"
From day one, Joseph was an odd figure in our school on account of his strictness. We don't think there was any teacher in the history of our school who was as strict as him. Even the way he looked and dressed echoed his strictness. He was clean-shaven save for the thick, dark moustache that nearly obscured his lips. His bald head reflected the lazy fan whenever sunlight crept into our classroom. He wore thick glasses with brown frames. He wore either a sky-blue or a grey shirt with formal black trousers. All spotless and pressed to perfection. He could be seen polishing his shoes at least thrice a day in the teachers' room. No wonder they were always so sleek.
We were in the ninth grade when he showed up in the wake of our previous maths teacher Jaideep's departure. Jaideep had left town because he could not show his face to anyone after being beaten up in front of the park by four prostitutes for not paying their dues for months. It turned out he had been gambling in the hope of becoming the richest man in our town, but this led to the emptying of his pockets. Anyway, this story is not about Jaideep, even though we missed his generous presence around us after Joseph landed in our lives.
In our first test in the ninth grade, it is safe to say that nearly eighty percent of us failed. Even though we were not as diligent in our studies as the passing twenty percent, under normal conditions – sorry, we mean under the reign of Jaideep – the unlucky eighty percent would at least get a seven out of ten. Zafar's pocket money was slashed. Anjum ranted to us about wanting to kill his father for slapping him too hard. Abhinash's parents didn't take him to the mountains during the winter vacation. Grace's mother threatened her with marriage and a complete halt to her education. 
Our misery didn't end as Joseph kept marking our tests with fat, red Fs the whole year. We had to take three retests after the midterm and final examinations. Even then, he was unwilling to let us pass easily. He reluctantly made us pass because it was our school's unofficial policy to not expel students unless the circumstances were extraordinary. After all, without the money flowing out of our guardians' pockets, the school would sink. The economy was bad. Coronavirus, Ukraine and whatnot. Our town, in particular, was one of those hit the hardest because of pre-existing conditions, such as the polluted river that reeked of urine and smoke, and on account of the river the failing crops, and on account of the failing crops the scarce production, and on account of the scarce production the rising prices, and on account of the rising prices this, and on account of this that – and one could just go on and on.
Joseph walked the lengths of our lines in the mornings when the whole school was required to sing the national anthem on the field that smelled like cow dung and burnt rubber from the garbage heaped outside the wall. He made sure all of us sang properly instead of lip-syncing to "Jana Mana Gana". Before the anthem started, he patrolled the washrooms and classes to see if anyone was hiding to skip assembly. Once he caught Rishi, Patel, Abdul, Janice and Farah smoking weed in the boys' washroom. He cuffed the boys on their ears and escorted all five of them to the field. Later their parents were called, and although he wanted to have them expelled for violating an integral rule – "No Smoking!" was eventually plastered on walls throughout the school – he finally had to settle for issuing each of them orders to note down two maths chapters. Despite Joseph's idealism, we were grateful to our principal ma'am for not changing the school's unofficial policy of holding on to students. 

Our misery didn't end as Joseph kept marking our tests with fat, red Fs the whole year.

He made us stand up with our hands raised high when he found us dozing off in class. It was embarrassing because others laughed if our white shirts displayed patches of underarm sweat. It pained our necks and shoulders to stay in that position for at least twenty minutes. He made us hold our noses and stand in front of the class when we didn't bring in our homework. If we laughed when the seated students made faces at us, he would make us remain standing for twenty more minutes.
Sometimes, he checked our classwork copies. He pulled at our sideburns if he found out that a) we didn't pay attention, or b) our copies were not exclusively reserved for maths. As for the girls, he hit their palms with his steel ruler.
When we were late for his class, he made the boys do thirty sit-ups and ordered the girls to keep standing on their desks for twenty minutes. We felt our legs turn into bricks. Such a nuisance meant we could not enjoy our tiffin break properly. It meant we had to sit for three consecutive classes, including his, with empty stomachs because the crowd at the canteen either finished the food early or the bell rang before our turns came. On the days that Joseph took class in the first period, many of us fainted in his class or the ones after because we had woken up late and could not eat anything before rushing out to school.
Needless to say, we hated Joseph, the stealer of joy. Our hatred manifested in action in the tenth grade when we started pulling pranks on him.
Rehmat's trousers tore open on the sides while doing sit-ups for being late. An undying spell of laughter gripped the class. Joseph seemed to enjoy the laughter as some kind of validation of his policies. He threw his eyes at us and banged on the podium with the duster, stunning us into silence. Rehmat could not lift his face. Some of us spotted tears gathering in his eyes. Raghu kindly offered him a stapler to seal the torn pieces.
During tiffin break, as we gobbled up egg chops and pakoras on the tiled platform beneath the gulmohar tree, Rehmat said, "Let's teach Joseph a lesson."
We blinked. We scoffed. 
Jamal: "Yeah, sure, hahaha. What if we get caught, genius?"
Rehmat: "Areh, duffer. We will do it outside school. Mostly."
Raghu: "I don't know, yaar. You do something first. Establish your credibility."
That evening, we learnt through our group chat that Rehmat had thrown five eggs at Joseph's windows in the afternoon, when the sun's harshness emptied the streets. He brought Raghu, Jamal, Abhishek and six others as witnesses. They fled the scene on their bicycles while Joseph's wife, unsure who the culprits were, screamed expletives through one of the windows with a crying baby in her arms.

Needless to say, we hated Joseph, the stealer of joy.

They continued the harassment for the next six days. We participated in those episodes with enthusiasm at first, but it was becoming tedious and joyless, repeating the same act over and over again. It was also risky because the locals were growing cautious; a security guard had been installed at the decrepit apartment building to keep watch on the seventh day.
So we changed our tactics. Now we planted gum on his chair when we found no one in the teachers' room, which was, sadly, rare. He faced the board while we pressed our mouths hard because sometimes pink, sometimes white, sometimes yellow and sometimes green gum would greet us from his backside.
Bina, a girl who lived in the building opposite the park, never missed her holiday walks. Joseph, of course, would never suspect a girl of pulling such bold pranks. On top of that, it would make perfect sense to him that a girl living close by only came to take advantage of the greenery in the park. That was how she kept watch on him and texted "Go" in the group chat when he jogged past the bed of tulips. That was when we threw polythene bags with muddy water (and sometimes urine) from outside the wall. We could never see his reaction because of the barrier, but we took pride through Bina's descriptions in the chat.
"he was sooo embarrassed lol"
"evry1 stared at him as he left xD"
"he tore leaves from a plant and tried to rub himself dry wat an idiot smh"
At school, she said, "I love it when some people shake their heads in pity at him ahahaha. Like, I heard them say, 'Why him? Always?'"
The golden days suffered a sudden death when Bina texted, "Guys. Let's stop. They're installing cctv outside the park because you remember last Sunday stupid jamal hit two old women. UGH."
Inspired by the film Do Dooni Chaar, Abhinav suggested we defile Joseph's yellow Vespa. That awful old eyesore with peeling paint. For three consecutive days, we punctured the tires using Mehta's folding knife. Happiness thrashed within us as we watched him drag the Vespa out the school gate to a mechanic shop in the terrible heat. We heard him pleading with principal ma'am to install CCTV cameras all over campus. True to its cheapskate-ness, the school declined his request.
On the fourth day, Diksha brought a paint spray with which we drew penises and breasts on the Vespa and punctured the new tires. 
We were in the field laughing among ourselves imagining his reactions. Will he quit, we thought with hopeful anticipation. We heard him screaming from the parking lot. People ran from the field towards the sound. It sounded as though someone had been murdered.
He was screaming and stomping on his glasses.
"Who did this?!"
"Who has been doing this to me?!"
"If you are ballsy enough, come show your face!"
Tears caked his face, mixing with the sweat. His bald head seemed like it was melting. He grabbed the scrawny security guard from the audience.
"Did you not see who did this?! Tell me who did this! Tell me, damn it!"
"I… I don't know, sir ji. I only guard the gate. I rarely come here," he pleaded, hands folded and quivering.
His temples throbbed. We had never seen him this angry.
He looked around the audience with pinched eyebrows. He singled out our physics teacher, Ashish.
"Was it you, Ashish? I know you have always been jealous of me, ever since we were in high school! It was you, wasn't it? You bastard!"
Ashish was perplexed. His eyes grew large upon hearing the accusation.
He tore out of the crowd and punched Joseph's cheek. He was on top of him, still punching. Other teachers shouted at the guards and senior students to break up the fight.
Joseph's shirt was torn at the sleeves and Ashish's upper buttons were missing. 
Joseph crawled towards the Vespa and sat with his back to its body. He continued crying like a baby whose parents wouldn't buy him that one remote-controlled car it had set its eyes upon. Teachers extended their sympathies and rushed to him with a first-aid box.
"Joseph, please get a hold of yourself."
"Don't cry like this, Joseph. Let's get you home."
"Come on, get up slowly. I will take you home."
"Please stop crying, Joseph. We will take stern action against the criminals who spoiled your scooter. Don't you worry."
To be frank we did feel sad watching him cry like that. But in the grand scheme of things we were happy because we were successful; he was no longer strict with us.
We entered the class as we pleased. We wrote nothing in our classwork copies. We used other copies for maths classes. We lip-synced "Jana Gana Mana". We skipped assembly and played in the classrooms. He didn't confiscate our phones even though he saw us taking selfies during classes. His cheeks became stubbly.
He became a different man. He didn't change his marking policies, however. He was still as stern as before in that regard.
Overall, we had mixed feelings about him. Yes, we hated him for his draconian marking. But we were also sad about the Vespa incident. This sadness transformed from a seed into a tree when we learned from Raja, one of the janitors, that the Vespa was one of Joseph's treasured possessions. His father, whom he loved dearly, had given it to him as a wedding gift. His father died in a fire years later and because their photo albums turned into ashes nothing remained to echo his memory except the Vespa.
Raja knew such things because Joseph got hammered that night and stumbled across Raja at the bar. He put his head on Raja's shoulder and narrated his pain. He always treated Raja well because they both had Odia roots. 
"I was uncomfortable with him being so close to me like that. The sweaty and alcoholic stench made things worse," he said. "But I listened. That man might seem tough on the outside, but he is shaken. I hope God punishes whoever did that with him. Rascals!"
Raja stormed off with his soapy bucket and broom. We were left to process our thoughts regarding Joseph. Did we hate him or did we feel sorry for him? Was it possible to feel both hatred and remorse?
In the tenth-grade final maths exam before the board exams next year, surprisingly, all of us passed. Except for Akshara. We were astonished at our results but the feeling subsided as we realised that enduring him since the ninth grade had hammered into our brains the capacity to pass his uncompromising scrutiny. Akshara fell on the dusty floor and touched Joseph's shoes. "Please, let me pass, sir. I don't want to give a retest," she begged and sobbed. Her tears hit the ground. Joseph remained impassive. He only replied once. "You have to sit for a retest to pass. Look at your scores! You are eleven behind passing marks! What else do you expect?"
She stood outside the teachers' room for hours. She followed him to the parking lot. To his house. But to no avail. Luckily, she wasn't our friend. She hung around with another group. So we couldn't care less about her. We were happy that we had qualified for the board exams without having to sit for retests. We were grilling barbeque chicken on Haroon's rooftop. Smoke seeped into the winter air. We took off our woollen gloves and ran our hands over the fire before pressing our faces with heated palms.
"Guys! Look! Isn't this Joseph?" Abhinav said, his gaze plastered to his phone.
Some of us were playing carrom, some were dancing, some were smoking weed and some were smoking Marlboros.
We left our activities and scrambled to view the clip.
Yes, it was Joseph in the video. His bald head was a river of blood. His grey shirt was now half dark.
"Say it!" someone said and kicked him in the arm. He fell into the puddle.
"Say it!" the man roared again.
He folded his hand and said in a muffled tone, "Jai Shri Ram."
"Stop crying like a girl and say it like a man!"
"Jai Shri Ram!" he said, trying to raise his voice, but breaking into tears again.
Someone kicked him in the chest. He fell on his head. He squirmed. Other men from the group began kicking him indiscriminately. On the head. The belly. A hyena-like laughter blared from the video, and soon, the clip ended.
The video, posted by a fake account with no profile photo, appeared on Abhinav's newsfeed and, as we later discovered, on our newsfeeds, because people kept sharing it with captions like:
"Stop Hindutva violence!" 
"The state of democracy in India."
"These men don't define Hinduism. They are deviants."
Our barbeque chicken turned into charred lumps. None of us ate that night. We swallowed cold gulps of air. We woke up to the news that, as we feared, he was dead. 
We read in the newspapers and watched in the news that Raja was a witness to the event. He told journalists that those men had randomly stopped them as they walked out of the vegetable market. They asked to inspect their bags. They found beef, which was banned in the entire district, in Joseph's bag. He told the interviewers that Joseph had bought the pack of beef from a black-market supplier who operated inside the vegetable market. They separated the duo and began assaulting Joseph for "desecrating the sanctity of Hinduism."
We returned to school after a week-long winter break because we had to sit for model tests before the board exams. On our way home after the first English model test, we were stopped by Raja in the corridor. The entire gang wasn't present. Only six of us.

"Stop Hindutva violence!"

Before he could speak, he cried. He tried getting his words out in short bursts, but we understood nothing. We sat him on a bench beside the stairs. Haroon gave him a bottle of water.
"All of you need to stay away from that Akshara. She is dangerous," he began.
We scratched our chins.
"Because he failed her –"
We waited until he stopped crying.
"Because he failed her, she asked her father to manage him somehow."
We looked at one another, our foreheads wrinkling.
"He is with the party. The representative for this town," he added.
He began crying again, his face in his hands. He shivered. We didn't know Akshara's father was a political bigshot. But it all made sense. Her arrogance in talking with select people only. The way her friends milled around her. The way they all often made short trips outside the town on weekends.

Our barbeque chicken turned into charred lumps. None of us ate that night. We swallowed cold gulps of air.

"We were coming out of the market when those men stopped us. They spat on Joseph. They pushed him. Then they told him to fix Akshara's grade. Joseph shouted at them. 'Who are you to tell me what to do?' One of them slapped him so hard! He fell and the pack of beef rolled out of his bag! That damn packet!"
"Why didn't you tell all this to the police and the news?" Janice asked with a protesting and assertive tone.
We poked her and tutted because the reason behind his silence was obvious to us. She was too naive perhaps.
"They told me to keep quiet about it. They visited my house a few times after the incident when I was having dinner with my wife and daughter."
He stopped speaking now. Only muttered unintelligible words and sank into his hands and shivered and cried and shivered and shivered.
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Himal Southasian