Chikku was a ten year old boy with a problem. Not that other ten year old boys don’t have problems – but Chikku had an extraordinary problem. He had big ears. And I mean really, really, really big ears. They hung down low beneath his shoulders, and soared like two stiff, proud flags two feet above his head, heralding his arrival to the world. That was bad enough as it is, but it did not end there. On hot days like this one, they would flare red, like two bright carrots, glowing neon in the burning light. And on cold days, like the weekend before Christmas, he had to moisturize them carefully, or they would peel and whither, leaving two mounds of flaky white stuff on his shoulders. They were delicate things, those ears. If you knew Chikku well, you could read his emotions on them. They tweaked when he was happy, they stood up extra stuff and kind of wiggled – kind of like an excited puppy, quivering with excitement just before you throw the ball. And they drooped when he was sad, hanging listlessly like worn out clothes on a railing on a breezeless day.
The day he was born, Chikku the wrinkled little thing was swaddled in soft blue towels and was handed to his father. His father took the baby in his arms, pride flowing through every tired line in his face, his spectacles gleaming with his joy, and said, “Oh, my.” That is all. No more and no less. You see, if Chikku’s ears seem big and awkward now, imagine what they would have looked liked then. They looked like two imp ears accidentally misplaced onto an enlarged raisin. Let’s be honest, Chikku was not the cutest little cherub to have a bumpy landing on earth. Chikku’s father stared long and hard into the squished face before him. He cleared his throat hesitantly, “are you sure this is the right one?” he asked.
Ten years later, Chikku woke up that Monday morning with a sigh. He did not want to go to his new school. His parent told him that the new school was better and that it would make him work harder and generally become smarter. And what was worse, it was a Monday. There can be nothing worse than a new school and a Monday. He slid out of bed and trotted towards his bathroom, massaging his ears that had become cramped overnight. His reflection in the mirror caught his attention. His eyes followed the horrendously big flaps to where they disappeared over the edge of the mirror. “Today is not going to be a good day,” he told his reflection. He pulled the edge of one ear and twanged it – it bent nearly double and then sprung back into shape easily. Hmm. He quickly ran out, rummaged in the medicine drawer and picked up the roll of surgical tape and hurried back stealthily to the mirror. He folded his right ear into thirds and taped it up to the back to his head. He could hear a strange roaring sound inside his head, but it was of no significance, considering how inconspicuous his ear now was! It was a marvel that they had not thought of this earlier! He quickly trussed up his other ear as well, and looked proudly at the result in the mirror. He turned his head this way and that, straining to see what his now neatly packaged ears looked like. All he could see was two pink aching lumps on each side of his head and he was quite proud.
“All prepped up for the new school?” his mother called out from the kitchen. She was busy squashing a squishy sandwich into Chikku’s plastic tiffin box. Chikku cheerfully answered that he was indeed. When his mother emerged, victoriously wiping her hands on a dishrag, the expression n her face slowly turned into an odd mixture of horror and fascination. “What have you done?!” she howled.
“Much better, no?” Chikku beamed up at her.
“Don’t be silly. You look ridiculous!” And in one quick movement she ripped off the tape on his right ear. Chikku screamed. “What are you doing?! I spent a whole ten minutes getting that just right!”
“You look ridiculous!” His mother hollered back at an even higher decibel.
Chikku fell silent. Aha. So that’s what she thought about his all along. If she thought he looked ridiculous now, when his ears were all hidden away, then what had she been thinking so long? He was onto her little game. She had been playing pretend for so long. Parents say all sorts of things to make their kid (and themselves) believe their blighted offspring is the best thing to happen to the world – Or in the case of Chikku – not the worst thing that happened to the world. He looked at her dolorously, not saying a word.
“What I meant was you looked ridiculous like that, with your ears taped up. Now you’re just fine. Natural… uh… distinct. Yes, that’s the word, distinct.” It was pathetic to see her fish around for words, trying to make a quick save. But it was out there – around them, over them, beneath them. The truth. Ridiculous. The word stuck to the walls in a way that no speech about being special could erase.
Chikku knew she didn’t mean it, he knew that she hated Monday as much as he did. But it stung, and it stuck.
She tried a new tactic. “Okay, maybe your ears do look a bit odd, but that doesn’t mean they have to become the center of who you are. I’m sure you have a lot of hidden talents, and when we find them, everyone will know how good you are, and everyone will want ears like you because everyone will want to be like you.”
“I don’t have any hidden talents.” Chikku said in a dull, slab voice.
“Of course you do, we just need to find it. We’ll start you off on that new gardening course next week, and you’ll see.”
“I don’t even like plants.” Chikku was still unconvinced. With 232 classes behind him, he was pretty sure that they’re not going to find any miraculous talents in him. His eyes took on the tired look of a veteran who has been there, seen it all. A little while longer, and his eyes would’ve taken on the glazed look, he would’ve rubbed his aching ears and would have begun saying war stories about he has single handed ambushed the posse of maths teachers during their coffee break with a flying feline, or how he planted that mine of gerbils in the piano teacher’s –
“We’ll find something,” his mother said briskly, stuffing the idly in his mouth and shoo-ing him towards the door. “You’ll be late,” she said.
Chikku grabbed his bag from her extended hand, and dutifully trotted towards the door. He had low expectations for the world today – it was a Monday after all. He stood at the gate, watching the traffic whirl past, cutting it way through the grey smoke that rose off the pavement in wisps and swirled around the edges of his ears. A man hurrying past shoved him out of the way, muttering something under his breath, lost underneath the handkerchief he held to cover his noses and mouth in a somewhat desperate bid to get cleaner air than everyone else. It helped that their apartment was on the main road, and he just needed to step outside their front door, climb down six fleets of stairs, and tada! There it was, the city rumbling away, waiting to gobble them up – like a cat watching them from outside the hole, just waiting for the rat to emerge so that it can slap its big paw in one swift, sudden moment and it would all be over. Just when Chikku was just about to figure out which headlights looks the most like cat eyes, the van drew up.
“Oi, Chaitan, jump in quickly!” the driver called. Chikku clambered onto the dun colored van, which reminded him over of a glorified soap box than anything else. He carefully navigated his ears through the narrow doorway before him, he’s had enough incidents of accidentally bonking them on some unexpected low hanging thing, or slamming the door shut on them. However, this method of enter though spoke of caution also meant that the first thing the other kids in the van saw were his ears, and that is what they would remember till the very end.
As Chikku looked around for a space, bags miraculous appeared in places where there had been no bags before, and scrawny eight year olds needed two seats to spread themselves out comfortable. Chikku gulped.
“Oi Batface! You can come and hangout with us!” a voice slurred from the back on the van.
Three boys sat there, yellow smiles sprawled across their faces. One was scrawny like a broomstick that had been broken into too many pieces, and had been put back together by a person who did not know how. The second was an overgrown lump that resembled a bloated toad, sucking up someone else’s lunch through its soft, lubberly mouth. But the one that was talking was worst of all – little jagged edged of teeth emerged from underneath the upper lip with a curious tuft of hair on it – it looked like centipede had been slowly pulling itself along, and just gave up and died. Right there on his face.
“Would this bar do? You just need something to cling from when you hang upside down right?” His laugh sounded like something throttled out of a dying hyena. Hyuk hyuk hyuk hyuk.
The van snickered politely. Chikku gulped. The driver was looking at his surly-eyed, waiting for him to find a spot, before she can drive off.
“What are you blinking for? Just sit down somewhere!” he yelled over the noise of the rumbling engine, his hand impatiently gripped on the steering wheel.
Chikku’s eyes rolled around desperately, looking for a few space. He could feel at least a dozen beady eyes bore into the back of his neck. Wherever he looked, eyes glowered back at him, and hands moved protectively over bags, and as every inch of space disappeared under some form of bag, boy or girl.
“You can sit here!” A small voice squeaked to Chikku’s right.
The voice came from under an enormous pink strawberry shaped bag. All Chikku could see were two black-buckle-shoe-d feet sticking out from under it. Chikku collapsed onto the half-seat offered so generously.
With a roar that defies all known theories of inertia and momentum, the van swung out, rushing headlong into the honking jungle of traffic.
“Aww. The mouse and the bat have become friends,” the Centipede Boy drawled. Someone tittered suitably. And then he apparently ran out of un-funny things to say, and settled into fishing out a neon green plastic comb and pulling it through his greasy hair.
Chikku stared straight ahead, too embarrassed by the beady eyes fixed on him to say anything. You would think he would’ve gotten used to the staring by now – but humiliation is always painful, no matter how many times you have go through the same thing. And for Chikku, it was no different. It did not help that there was an annoying voice at the back of his head that kept squeaking “I told you so!” over and over again.
“My name is Ammu,” the voice from underneath the giant plastic pink strawberry squeaked.
“Don’t mind Senthil,” her voice dropped conspiratorly, “My sister says they keep him in the school only because the principal does not want to release such a blight onto society.”
Chikku tried to nod as sympathetically as possible on receiving this piece of information.
“She said we should feel sorry for him, kind of like a blister that won’t go away.”
Chikku considered the analogy. He didn’t see why anyone should ever want to feel sorry for a blister. Blisters are things that you poke, annoy, or at best, ignore. But he remained wisely silent.
The van careened widely onto two wheels, screeching in protest, dropped onto all four wheels, and gently trundled through the gates. Chikku twisted his head around just soon enough to see the sign through the window – ‘St. Joesph Matriculation School’ – or so the board read.
“So. This is it. The new school that’s supposed to make him smarter.” Chikku thought with a vague sense of doom hanging upon him. He could just feel it out there – the Monday lurking around in the shadows, just waiting for him to turn his back, so that it can pounce on him, and do something disastrous. Or even worse, there’s another kind of Mondays as well. They are the sneaky kinds – they slink around, and make you think that everything is okay – and you will, you will, until the trap snaps shut, and you see everyone staring at you like they’ve always wanted to – and you just know – that something really, really, bad has happened. You’ve been most framed for the most horrid crime that can be committed by a ten year old boy. With such glum ponderings, Chikku clambered down from the bus and followed the general stream of students as they rushed approximately in the same direction.
“Which class?” Ammu asked.
Chikku turned and saw nothing beside him but air. He lowered his gaze a bit. Ammu was tiny even for a six year old. She was just about 2 and a half feet tall. If you want to know how much two and a half feet is… it is about as much as tall as a series of Encyclopedia Britannica stacked on top of each other. Or a large rabbit when it stood on its hind legs. Ammu trotted along beside him, with her giant pink strawberry bag strapped onto her back, with many of the same knots and devices used by mountain climbers who have to carry three months of provisions with them.
“You’re tiny!” Chikku exclaimed, involuntarily. It’s amazing that people can spend so much of time saying the most obvious things.
“And you have big ears!” Ammu shot back cheerily.
Chikku considered this. She was tiny and he had big ears, and there was nothing they could do about it. It was true.
Chikku grinned. “At least it was better than having something that looks like a dead centipede on your face.”
Ammu broke into guffaws and snorted with laughter. She had a high squeaky laugh that spilt out of her tiny being, and filled up vast amounts of space around her. People around them gave them odd looks. A six-year-old year old as big as a shrub and a ten-year-old with ears as big and bright red as two large Frisbees attract attention as it is – but people do somewhat resent it if the odd people in a crowd actually manage to have a good time. They like to pity them, make fun of them, but some odd reason become vaguely annoyed when they seem to be enjoying themselves.
“He is Centipede-Boy!” She said gleefully. And that was what they called him during all the time they knew each other – and that, was for a long, long time.
As Ammu giggled to herself, clearing out the last bits of mirth, Chikku measured her using his thumb, like the way he’s seen artists in the movies do. He hmm-ed and haw-ed himself, trying to figure out her exact height. “You know what –“
“What?” she asked, tugging him toward the gate to the main compound. The bell would go off at any minute now.
“I think you’re just about an inch smaller than my ear!”
Ammu looked at him, astounded. Now that he’s said it, she realized that he was probably right. Mortifying as it was, to be smaller than someone’s ear, she could not fail but see the immense joke that it offered. She burst into another fit of giggles that left her hands flailing wildly, trying to wave something in sign language that Chikku could not understand. She didn’t bother explaining, and instead dragged Chikku through the gate and pointed towards the group he should be with. They she trotted off to join her own gaggle of friends who seemed to be as prone to giggling as she was.