Where are the nightmares, precisely? (Short Shots Entry)
|Note: The words 'Sir' and 'Principal' begin with capitals to show respect.
The members of the committee sat rigid in their chairs. Nobody shuffled or coughed or surreptitiously checked their phone. The matter being discussed was serious and all of them were interested in the outcome of this meeting.
"So," the chairperson said, as the screen went blank.
There was a moment of silence -- and then a babble.
"That was ridiculous."
"I didn't understand it. Was it a person or a ghost?"
"Hideous. Why would anyone make a film like that?"
"It was excellent. You people don't understand the finer points of film-making."
The last sentence rang out and everyone suddenly fell silent again. They gazed at the speaker, a short young lady with a mop of black curls and glowing brown skin. Her sleeveless red T-shirt and maroon trousers were in contrast with their more formal attire.
Natasha opened her purse and fished out a cigarette. Nobody spoke as she lighted up and took a slow drag. She exhaled the smoke and then began, "What I mean is, look at how ..."
"Natasha, you know you're not supposed to smoke in here. Take that disgusting thing out if you must keep puffing it." Vasanthi's starched seemed to crackle with her voice. The light caught her which flashed.
"Sorry, Madam Chairperson," Natasha replied, looking Vasanthi straight in the face. "You find my ciggie disgusting, you find that film disgusting. There's a lot you find disgusting, isn't there?"
"The rules say smoking is to be in designated smoking zones only. This isn't a designated smoking zone. Kindly stub that cigarette out if you want to stay in here."
Natasha took another deep drag and exhaled, and then looked exaggeratedly around, seeking something with which to stub out her cigarette. The thin, bespectacled man seated next to her picked up his glass and nudged the coaster forward.
"Jayesh ..." Vasanthi began.
"Don't worry," Natasha interrupted as she drove the cigarette hard into the coaster. "This won't contaminate anyone's future drink."
Vasanthi didn't deign to reply, so Natasha continued. "Ah, I have disrespected the poor coaster, just like that film insulted your sensibilities." She dropped the limp cigarette on the table and leaned back in her chair. "What, precisely, was wrong with the film?"
Vasanthi shuddered. "That last scene alone," she said. "That horrible black figure and all those white things screaming around. I'm going to get nightmares about it for weeks."
"If you mean ghosts and skulls, say ghosts and skulls. No need to use euphemisms like 'figures' and 'things'."
"A ghost by any other name would cause as many nightmares," Jayesh muttered, so that only Natasha could hear.
"Ghosts and skulls, then," Vasanthi flashed back. "I certainly don't want to expose my students to those ghosts and skulls."
"Your students are my students, too."
"And that's precisely why you should have more concern for their mental health. You set a bad enough example with your smoking."
"We'll leave my smoking out of this conversation, please."
"Your smoking is very relevant to this conversation. It proves you don't care for the welfare of your students or your colleagues. You're recommending this film only because your friend made it."
"I'm recommending this film because I think that fifteen-and-sixteen-year-olds are old enough to understand it and would benefit from the insights it gives ..."
"Insights?" Lakshmi spoke up for the first time, her deep voice cutting across Natasha's high-pitched explanation. "Natasha, the film is all special effects and gore. I agree with Vasanthi. The students should not see it."
"All against the film being shown at the Annual Day celebration?" Vasanthi announced.
Nine hands were raised. The film would not be screened.
"Thanks," Natasha said, handing his cigarette back to Jayesh.
It was twilight, and they were seated on the park bench where they usually met up during their evening walk. Jayesh blew a few smoke-rings before he replied.
"I didn't vote against the film because I really believe in it," he said.
"You're trying to clarify that you weren't influenced by our friendship."
"Will I get brownie points if I agree, or if I disagree with that?"
"You don't need to chalk up brownie points, you're not up against anyone else."
"What exactly do you mean by that?"
"Oh, come on, Jayesh. We're done with the flirting phase, aren't we? We both know this is more than a friendship."
"You're the one who used the word friendship."
"Okay. Relationship, then."
Jayesh sat up straight. He chucked the cigarette and crushed it under his heel. "Are we in a relationship?"
"So it's okay for me to kiss you?"
"I have smoker's breath."
"I won't notice, I have it too."
He was right. He didn't notice.
A summons to the Principal's private office usually meant bad news. As he made his way down the corridor toward the dreaded door, Jayesh wondered what he was in trouble for this time.
A brisk 'come in' answered his knock, and Mr. Ravindra gestured him to a chair with an impatient wave of his hand.
"What is the meaning of this?"
Jayesh had to be sure what 'this' was before he responded. He gulped. He cleared his throat. He wished Mr. Ravindra would speak on and drop a few clues, but the Principal was waiting in his big black chair, his eyes boring into Jayesh's face.
"Well, Sir ..." Jayesh stammered.
"I mean ... what do you think of it?" Quite feeble, but the best he could do under the circumstances.
"What do I think of it? What do I think of it? You have to ask me that? I want to know what you were thinking, if indeed you were thinking anything."
Still, not a clue about what it was. Was it the dratted film that Natasha had dared to screen in class on her laptop? Was it that the Principal had found out he had spent the night with Natasha? Could he have found that out? He, Jayesh, had been very discreet, going in the side door after dark and emerging before dawn.
Jayesh gazed at the Principal and found himself wondering, absurdly, how a fifty-five year old man could have such jet-black hair. Did he get it dyed? His mustache and goatee were jet-black too, though. Did he dye those as well?
The pause was getting extremely awkward. Jayesh had opened his mouth to say -- he didn't know what -- when there was a desperate rat-a-tat at the door. Natasha stumbled in without waiting for permission.
"What is the meaning of this?" Mr. Ravindra was standing, glowering at her. "Didn't my secretary tell you not to disturb me?"
"Yes, Sir, but I knew you'd called Jayesh and I had to explain."
"About the film, Sir."
So that wasn't the trouble then. Jayesh didn't know whether to feel relieved or horrible. Technically, their private lives were nobody's business but he would rather the campus didn't gossip about whether he was sleeping with Natasha.
"The horror film I showed in class, Sir. I had to take over Jayesh's class as well to show it in one go and I thought maybe you thought he ..."
"I thought, you thought, he thought. I don't know which film you're talking about. What is all this?"
Natasha blurted the name of the film. Mr. Ravindra's brow cleared. A smile appeared on his face.
"You showed that film in class, did you? I hope you discussed it with the students."
"I did, Sir. I discussed inner demons and outer demons, and whether nightmares are really daytime fears come true or figments of the imagination."
"Excellent, excellent. It's great to see a teacher who understands what students need to talk about. And you thought you'd be in trouble with me for showing this film?"
"Well, Sir, the committee had vetoed it."
Mr. Ravindra winked. "Committee headed by Ms. Vasanthi?"
Natasha's eyes widened.
"Listen, Ms. Vasanthi is efficient and loyal and has the school's best interests at heart, but she hasn't moved with the times. I'll speak to her about this. Now, young man," he said, turning to Jayesh. "Why aren't you looking relieved that you're not in trouble over this film? What other mischief have you been up to that you thought I was going to bring up?"
Jayesh and Natasha exchanged a quick glance.
"Aha. The silent glance. The method of communication of all couples. So, the two of you are a couple? Another glance. Yes, yes, you are a couple. You are a -- how shall we say this -- you are an intimate couple?"
Mr. Ravindra shook with silent laughter as the two of them blushed and looked at the floor. Finally, he spoke again.
"You thought you were in trouble for a horror film and you thought you were in trouble for expressing love for each other. Don't you know me well enough to know that I move with the times? In my day, you had to be married to be intimate, but one accepts that times have changed. In my day, one couldn't play a horror film in class, but one realizes that students need to talk about their fears, and seeing these manifested on screen can help."
"Uh -- thank you, Sir," Natasha mumbled.
"And now, you may leave, young lady. I have yet to reprimand your boyfriend, and it wouldn't do to have you standing here and watching. Yes, glance. That's the best way for couples to communicate, with their eyes. He knows you'll shower him with kisses later, your eyes say that. You know he's clueless about what I'm going to say, since it's neither about the film nor his new girlfriend."
The door clicked shut behind Natasha. Mr. Ravindra shook his head and chuckled. "People are so scared to be summoned here. Am I as frightening as that black figure in the film? Is my committee as frightening as the white things around it? Oh, don't reply, don't reply."
Mr. Ravindra leaned over and pressed a button at one end of his desk. In a minute, his secretary appeared. "Get us a couple of cups of tea, please."
As they sat at opposite ends of the desk waiting for the tea, Mr. Ravindra gushed about the brilliant film Natasha's friend had made. How it personified fear and yet showed ways of coping, how it used special effects to heighten emotions, how the plot and characters worked well as a basis for discussion. With youngsters -- and how very glad he was to have a teacher sensible enough to conduct such discussions. "And you are going to marry this sensible young woman. I shall want an expensive bottle of champagne, mind you."
"I haven't proposed to her yet, Sir, I don't know if she'll accept."
"You stupid boy. Didn't you see her eyes? She has already accepted. And the way she came rushing in here to rescue you from my clutches. Did my heart good, that did. Ah, here's the tea. Thank you. Jayesh, take a couple of sips before I start scolding you."
"I called you here about the syllabus you presented for the upcoming academic year. "
"What about it, Sir?"
"It's not the same as the draft syllabus you'd shown me earlier. You've left out some important topics and I wanted to know why in the world you'd omitted the best part ... what were you thinking?"
Jayesh gave a sheepish grin. "The committee on curriculum thought those topics were too advanced for this age group, Sir. They made me cut them out."
Mr. Ravindra didn't respond. He was tapping away at his smart phone. He tapped a few times, then smiled. "I think you could say this is a nice photo of a committee, couldn't you?"