The news has fervently brought racism back to our discussion tables. Our tables currently extended as platforms; precisely social media. We tend to associate racism and discrimination with adults and adulthood. But that is not the case, there is a world of children that we rarely read in children’s books. There is a different world of growing up which is transparently depicted through stories speaking of a hostile world. Smells and Stenches written by Sara Joseph is a story from the collection The Two Named Boy and Other Stories published by Mango Books in 2008.
Anni’s heart boiled! Kokanchira! How dare they! Is she the daughter of a corpse to be called that? Calling live children corpses, and human beings kokan and then slapping or caning them—that is what teachers do.
“Sick and tired of punishing these rotters!” Annamma Teacher mutters.
Then she orders her to move away and stand apart from the others. Anni puts her dictation slate down on the table and waits obediently at a distance. Annamma Teacher marks the ticks and crosses without letting her fingers even touch it—as if the slate itself was a stinking thing. There is only anger and disgust on her face. What would it cost her to smile a little? Anni wonders.
“Take it and push off,” Teacher says pointing to her slate. Even if the right answers were marked wrong, Anni would not have the guts to complain. Why only Anni; no one from Kokanchira would dare to do that.
“Rotters! They never bathe; never brush their teeth!” Ammini Teacher complains.
“Who knows if they even clean their bottoms after taking a shit!” That one is from Saraswathy Teacher! When she hears that, Anni coils up in shame. “Am I mad or what, to come to school, without washing?” fumes Anni. Anni bathes, brushes her teeth and cleans her bottom carefully every day. If she doesn’t wash her hands with soap after going to the toilet, Kuttipappan scolds her.
When Anni goes to the toilet, she announces to everyone in the house, “I am going to take a shit.”
“Just go, girl!” Amma gets annoyed.
“Have you washed yourself?” Kuttipappan asks her when she returns.
“Did you wash your hands with soap?”
And Anni would show her hands. No teacher has any right to fault Anni on cleanliness. Every morning, she and Kuttipappan both brush their teeth. First with powdery black umikkari. After that with a rolled up mango leaf. Next—and this, Anni doesn’t like at all—with a twig from the neem tree. The bitter taste fills her mouth! And finally, Kuttipappan strips the mid-rib of a coconut leaf, breaks it into two and gives her one half to use as her tongue cleaner.
There are many kids in Anni’s class who don’t cut their nails. You can see the dark line of dirt behind their uncut nails.
“Devils!” That’s what Annamma Teacher calls those who don’t cut their nails. Anni also does not like her nail-cutting sessions. Kuttipappan has hurt her many times while cutting her nails.
“Don’t pull your hand away!” Kuttipappan orders.
That is the instant Anni would want to pull her hand away and she would do it, too! And that would hurt her finger. She would forgive Kuttipappan if no spots of blood appeared. If they did, she would whimper. She would refuse to be comforted, however much Kuttipappan tried. He would blow softly on her injured finger. But that was usually of no use. Anni would cry even louder. Finally Grandmother would appear and give her a piece of fresh coconut or jaggery and scold Kuttipappan. That comforted Anni. Even then, on and off, she would look at that finger and sob. While she sobbed, she would stare at Kuttipappan accusingly.
“Haven’t I told you many times that you should be careful when I cut your nails, and that you should not pull your hand away?” Kuttipappan would ask.
It was Kuttipappan who told Anni all about the diseases that children who don’t cut their nails could get. It is only because of him that she has clean nails. And Anni, in turn, passes the advice on to her classmates. But they pay no attention. Some even make fun of her.
One day Annamma Teacher said that she would make those who don’t cut their nails kneel down in the hot sun! But they still didn’t cut their nails.
“Show me your hand.” Annamma Teacher ordered.
Vasu extended his hands.
“Why haven’t you cut your nails?”
“I don’t know how to . . .”
“Doesn’t your mother know?”
“She goes out to work.”
“What about your father?”
Vasu stared silently at the teacher.
“Are you trying to scare me with your stare? Didn’t you hear me—can’t your father cut your nails?”
“I don’t have a father.” Vasu said.
“I will fry you in the sun, if you don’t cut your nails by tomorrow,” the teacher said. Anni felt bad for him. Vasu does not have a father. Anni has a father, but she does not know where he is. Mother would get angry, if she were to ask about him. She would say, “Be quiet, I have a hundred things to do.”
Kids who don’t cut their nails get sores. Both Vasu’s legs are full of sores. Sometimes you see him scratching himself so hard it looks as though he is angry! He scratches and scratches until it bleeds. It’s a scary thing to see the blood running down his knees.
“Go and wash, you dirty creature!” It is in Ammini Teacher’s class that Vasu’s scratching
is at its worst. Ammini Teacher teaches them Maths. The moment she picks up a chalk to write on the board, Vasu starts scratching away! Finally, when the teacher asks him to go and wash his leg, he runs out like a deer!
The teachers smell of different things as they pass by. Sometimes of powder; sometimes of special soaps; and sometimes of perfumes. They don’t buy scented soaps in Anni’s house. Anni bathes with bar soaps. Amma washes her hair with washing soda. After you wash your hair like that, it becomes as dry as coconut husk. It is when you bathe with soap, that your hair smells nice! Anni has never used powder or perfume. She doesn’t like Annamma Teacher’s eucalyptus smell. Teacher’s nose is blocked everyday, that’s why she uses eucalyptus. But Anni doesn’t like that smell—it reminds her of houses where someone has died. Ammini Teacher smells of jasmine flowers. Friends say that it is because she uses jasmine-scented perfume.
When she passes by, the kids from Kokanchira take a deeeeeeep breath and the jasmine smell seeps into their bodies. Anni’s mother smells different at different times. Sometimes, of garlic. Sometimes, of washing soda. Sometimes of rusting metal. Sometimes of naphthalene balls. Of fish on the days that she cooks fish. One day Anni tried asking her to bathe with scented soap. Mother nearly slapped her for that:
“There is not even enough money to buy rice! And she only wants scented soaps! What airs you have!”
(Smells and Stenches is a part of The Two Named Boy and Other Stories – a collection of stories surrounding children who rarely find voice in mainstream children’s literature. The story Smells and Stenches has been illustrated by Koonal Duggal. To purchase the book click here!)