‘Miss Coelho, English Teacher’ was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
A few days after Miss Coelho received the Best Teacher award, the following letter appeared in the Times of India, Mumbai.
Better late than never, I suppose. But the government could have given Miss Coelho the award twenty, thirty or even forty years ago, in fact the day she became a teacher and joined St Patrick’s School for Girls. For even then she knew better English than anybody else—and knew how to teach it, whether to a class of forty or to a single lost child like me. She mesmerised us with her talk, her walk, her stories, her sudden questions, her praise . . . She never bothered to consult any textbook or notes, and whenever she used the blackboard, did so in a rush, as if afraid of wasting any of the precious 40 minutes of the period. She never missed a class. Nor did we. Yes, she gave us tests, plenty of them, not to pass or fail us, but to find out where she had failed us, so that she could take the necessary corrective steps. Almost every evening she stayed back late for those who needed special help. She still does, I am sure. Not one of us—her girls—failed to do well in the board exams and, later, in pursuing careers of our choice.
She will turn sixty next year. I hope that the powers-that-be will not let her retire then. They will never get another one like her.
It is not known if Miss Coelho read the letter. Probably not. She considered newspapers a waste of time. As for the powers-that-be, it did not matter what the letter said. Rules were rules. Miss Coelho had to go the day she turned sixty.
Retirement held no terror for her. Father Pereira had already offered her something purposeful to do—editing The Call of Jesus, the quarterly journal of the church. For years now, while attending the Sunday mass, and recalling how Lord Jesus had come to her aid in every crisis in her life, she had prayed for a chance to serve Him. Now at last she had got her chance . . . And maybe some day, Father Pereira would agree to include in the journal a section on good English!
As for the other terror of retirement, meeting her daily expenses, she did not have to worry about that either. Following her dear father’s advice, she had saved fifteen percent of her salary every month, rain or shine, and invested it in fixed deposits of the Bank of India, as solid a bank as any. The interest from these alone should be enough to meet her expenses, leaving the capital intact. Why, she might even be able to make a trip to Jerusalem some day! In the meantime, she could afford a few luxuries, couldn’t she? She bought herself a slice of babinca from Fonseca’s on the way home.
Home was a first floor flat in an old, double-storied house in Gulmohar Lane, off Colaba Causeway. Crowded when her grandparents and parents were alive, and her sister Carmina not yet married, the flat was now almost too large for her alone, consisting as it did of a large living room flanked by a bedroom, a study, a bathroom and a kitchen. The best part of the flat was its rent, Rs 75 per month, thanks to the Rent Control Act, which did not permit owners of old houses to increase rents. Fortunately, her landlord had never pestered her to vacate the flat, like some other landlords in Colaba. Nor, after his death some six months back, had his wife or son, although they lived right below her.
Her part-time maid Shantabai came at five, as she did every evening, and between chores, gave her the news of the day. The price of onions had gone up again; the Government was doing nothing about it . . . Minister Bhonsle, the one who was always threatening to close down dancing bars, had been caught visiting a brothel; men were like that only . . . Babaji (Miss Coelho’s landlord’s son) was migrating to Australia . . .
‘Migrating! Are you sure?’
‘Yes, memsahib. His mother is staying on,’ Shantabai completed the news and continued, ‘There was a shootout between Pahadi Pehelwan’s gang and some smugglers near Sassoon Docks last night; one of the smugglers was killed . . . The bus stand is being shifted to . . .’
Miss Coelho nodded but she had stopped paying attention to Shantabai’s news. The young man’s departure for Australia would be the end of an era. The families had known each other since 1942, when her grandfather, moving from Goa to wartime Bombay to take up a job in Defence Accounts, had rented the flat and lived in it to the ripe old age of eighty-two. The family had celebrated his eightieth birthday with a large party . . . Now both the floors would have only one woman each.
Before going to sleep that night, she brought out her box of memories: greeting cards from past students; a small silver crucifix that had belonged to her grandmother; counterfoils of tickets for Romeo and Juliet, which she had seen with Desmond on their first date; her only photograph with him, taken in a Flora Fountain studio; the ring that she had worn for four months; the yellowed, last letter from him, written three days before he had finally succumbed to cancer . . .
She knew every word of the letter. She read it again nevertheless. It wrenched her heart as it had every time she had read it in the last . . . 39 years, two months and five days.
I don’t mind dying, except that I wanted to prove my father wrong. He used to say that marriage is the graveyard of love. I know that our love would only have increased with every passing day.
Can you do me one last favour, darling? Don’t become a nun. Continue teaching. You are a fantastic teacher. And teaching too is serving Our Lord.
Dear Desmond. How she used to long for his voice, so deep, so caressing; and those dimples on his cheeks every time he smiled; and the sweetness of his breath when he came close . . . Lying in bed that October evening, amid the shadows of his hospital ward, he had returned to her the engagement ring on his finger and asked her to get married to someone nice after his death. She had slid it back on his finger, given him a smile and asked him not to talk nonsense; he was going to be all right . . . He had died an hour later. She wept for days after that. When she stopped at last, it was with a sudden realisation that she was never going to weep again, for she was never going to love again. But she had continued teaching—and survived . . . Could that have been Desmond’s reason for asking her to keep teaching? . . . Wait a minute. Could Lord Jesus have done it?—through Desmond of course. That was how He worked, through others . . .
She slept fitfully that night, and woke up the next morning with an inexplicable sense of loss. Retirement blues? She got out of bed and made herself a cup of tea. What was it that she had planned to do that morning? Yes, to go to David Sassoon library and borrow Usage and Abusage by Eric Partridge; go to church and meet Father Pereira; buy some groceries on the way back . . .
Just as she was leaving home, however, the postman came, bringing her a letter from the bank. It conveyed that three of her fixed deposits were maturing on the thirtieth and would be rerolled automatically. A routine letter. She was about to fold it back when her eyes fell on a sentence at the bottom:
Following the lowering of the repo rate by RBI, new rates of interest will apply.
What did that mean? That she would get less interest? Surely not. But then why the sentence in a letter to her?
She went to the bank.
The bank manager liked Miss Coelho. He offered her tea, explained to her the complexities of high finance and at last answered her question: yes, her FDs would earn a little less now.
‘Even though my FDs are really old?’
‘I’m afraid so . . .’ And he repeated what he had already told her.
‘That may be so,’ she said when he had finished, ‘but it is most unfair to people who have retired and have only their savings to live on.’
‘Y-es,’ he murmured.
‘Never mind,’ she rose. ‘Lord Jesus will find a way.’
He escorted her to the door. ‘Why don’t you give tuitions, Miss Coelho?’ he suggested at the door. ‘There is a crying need for good tutors in English. Just the other day my assistant manager . . .’
That was how Miss Coelho started to give tuitions, beginning with the son of the assistant manager. Before the month was out, she had three more pupils. She taught them for an hour every day, Monday to Friday, and individually, the way she considered best. Inevitably, her fame spread. She was not just the best tutor in the whole of Colaba but also, bafflingly, the most affordable, a bargain really. Before a month more was out, she was tutoring seven children of various ages—oddly, all of them boys—and had no room for any more.
‘Maybe you should charge your pupils a little more,’ the bank manager suggested to her. ‘Seven hundred rupees a month per child is far too little these days.’
‘I’m not giving the tuitions to become a millionaire,’ she said tartly, ‘but only to make good the loss from your lowering—so unfairly—the interest on my FDs.’
‘It was beyond my control,’ he protested and mollified her with praise for what she had done for his assistant manager’s son. ‘I’m so glad,’ he added with a smile, ‘that you accepted my suggestion and decided to give tuitions.’
‘That is vanity,’ she admonished him, wagging a finger. ‘It was Lord Jesus who made the suggestion through you.’
The next evening, when she was going over her notes, a man she had never seen before entered through the door and stood before her.
‘Yes?’ she raised an eyebrow.
‘Are you the teacher?’ he asked.
‘That’s right . . .’
‘Come with me,’ he said, holding out his hand.
‘I beg your pardon!’
‘Pahadi Pehelwan wants to talk to you.’
She heard Shantabai gasp and turned to see her hand covering her mouth, her eyes wide in alarm. She turned back to the stranger and said, ‘If this Paha . . . wants to talk to me, ask him to come here.’
‘Didn’t you hear me?’ the man cried. ‘Pahadi Pehelwan wants you.’
‘There is no need to raise your voice. I can hear perfectly well.’
The man opened his mouth to say something but closed it, turned round and walked out of the door.
‘Why are you behaving like a frightened rabbit?’ Miss Coelho called out to Shantabai when the man had gone. ‘And for heaven’s sake, come out of the kitchen.’
Shantabai came out. Beads of perspiration covered her brow.
‘Do you know the man?’ Miss Coelho asked.
Shantabai shook her head.
’Hmm. Who is this Paha . . . whatever?’
‘The . . the . . . Raja of Colaba.’
‘What do you mean, raja?’
It took her many questions to learn that it was Pahadi Pehelwan, not the police, nor the BMC, and certainly not the Government, that ruled Colaba. Maybe nice people like her did not know that, but everybody else did. Pahadi Pehelwan did not deal in drugs or prostitution but dealt in everything else. Probably half of the shop owners of Colaba paid weekly dues to him.
‘Why?’ Miss Coelho was puzzled.
‘Because . . . things happen to people who don’t do what he wants,’ Shantabai murmured, giving the door a quick glance.
‘I see,’ Miss Coelho digested the information. ‘So why does he want to meet me?’
That stumped Shantabai. ‘I don’t know, memsahib. But I don’t like it. I hope the man does not come again.’
‘He will. He has gone to his master for orders on what to do. And the next time he comes, don’t behave like a rabbit. Face him like a man.’
Miss Coelho was right; the man had gone to his boss for orders. In his whole life, Pistol—that was the name by which the boys knew him—had never been so surprised. The old woman had actually refused to obey Pahadi Pehelwan’s summons. Should he have just picked her up and carried her to him? He had almost done that. Something in the look she gave him had stopped him.
To his relief, Pahadi Pehelwan did not explode when he told him what had happened. He only stroked his chin for a minute and said, ‘All right. Let us go and meet her.’
Fifteen minutes later Pahadi Pehelwan, closely followed by Pistol, walked in through the door. Miss Coelho was still seated at the table, going over her notes. He stared at her. She stared back at him.
He was the first to speak. ‘I want you to teach English to my daughter Peri.’
‘I’m sorry. I can’t take any more pupils,’ she said.
‘You won’t have to teach her much, only enough to pass the entrance test of St Patrick’s.’
‘Only? Only? Do you have . . .’
‘And not for long,’ he continued, ‘just three months.’
‘. . . any . . . What do you mean, just three months?’
‘Peri is already five years old. She has to pass the test this year.’
‘And you are coming to me today! You want me to teach her in three months what takes . . .’
He put up a hand. ‘It was not my idea to put her in St Patrick’s. It was my wife’s. I promised her the day she died that I would put her there.’
‘Still, you could . . . When did she die?’
‘Last Saturday. She had cancer.’
Miss Coelho stared at him for a long time without saying anything. ‘Where is Peri?’ she asked in a murmur when she spoke again.
‘At home. I did not bring her because I don’t like to see her disappointed. I mean, in case you said no. She is all that I have now.’
Was that a glint of tears in his eyes? Miss Coelho looked away.
‘How much English does she know?’ she asked when she looked at him again.
‘She can sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. My wife had hired a teacher who . . .’
Miss Coelho sighed. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. And Ba Baa Black Sheep. That was all that English teachers seemed to be teaching children these days. ‘I’ll need to teach her for an hour and a half every day, five to six-thirty, Monday to Friday,’ she said at last.
‘Thank you. My car will pick you up at . . .’
‘My pupils come to my place,’ she said evenly.
‘Er . . . All right. I’ll bring her here before five tomorrow.’ He brought out a wallet from his pocket. ‘Your fees . . .’
‘I don’t charge fees in advance,’ she said.
‘I just thought that maybe some . . .’
‘No. Nothing now. Only at the end of the three months.’
Miss Coelho was prepared to be kind to the girl whom cancer had robbed of love, and who entered through the door the next afternoon, her hand holding her father’s little finger, her large unblinking eyes looking at her uncertainly. What she was not prepared for was what happened next: she fell in love with her. It happened suddenly, when the girl edged closer and gave her a hesitant smile, bringing out dimples on her cheeks. Indeed, so strong was the emotion that surged through her that for a few seconds she could not utter a word. The girl was the daughter that she and Desmond would have had. She wanted to hug her, cover her with kisses, stroke her hair, tell her that everything was going to be alright . . .
‘What is your name?’ she asked her instead.
‘How old are you?’ she asked her next.
‘Read the words on this page,’ she said next.
The girl knew none of the words. She barely recognised the letters of the alphabet.
‘Every evening from five to six-thirty,’ Miss Coelho reminded Pahadi Pehewan when he returned to pick up the girl, ‘Monday to Friday. And on Saturday and Sunday afternoons from two to five.’ She knew that she would need every minute of those hours. She also knew that all of a sudden she wanted nothing more in life than to help the girl do well in the test.
To her delight, Peri turned out to be a good learner. Before the first month was out, the girl could grasp almost everything that she said to her, so long as she spoke slowly and used only the words and sentence structures that she had learnt already. She could speak small sentences herself. But she still had a long way to go, Miss Coelho knew. Her direction prepositions were still shaky, her irregular words were confused, her reading aloud was jerky . . .
One evening, when she was teaching Peri the cursive script, Shantabai dropped a bombshell. ‘Babaji has come from Australia. He is selling the house.’
‘What! . . . Why?’
‘He is buying a house in Australia.’
‘What about his mother? Is she too going to Australia?’
‘No. She is moving to an old people’s home in Vashi.’
Miss Coelho was too shocked to ask any more questions. Shantabai went on nevertheless.
‘Someone called Manwani is buying the house. Nobody knows him. He is from Chembur.’
A week later the new owner of the house came to meet her.
‘I’m told that you are a busy person, madam, so I’ll come straight to the point,’ he said. ‘I want you to vacate this flat. I’ll pay you one lakh rupees for it.’
‘I’ve no wish to move from here,’ she said.
‘I was born here . . .’
‘Five lakhs—plus your moving expenses.’
‘. . . and have lived here all my life.’
He gave her a long, hard look and said, ‘Please think it over.’ And he left.
‘Manwani wants to pull down the house,’ Shantabai told her that evening, ‘and construct a big building here, with shops and everything.’
‘He can’t do that,’ Miss Coelho said, ‘The law forbids it. It is precisely to protect tenants from people like him that the government has made the law.’
‘People say that he has the BMC in his pocket.’
‘Even the Corporation can’t do anything against the Act,’ Miss Coelho said. ‘Only Lord Jesus can. And He is on the side of the tenants!’ she smiled, remembering her dear father’s joke.
She dismissed Manwani from her thoughts. She had no time to waste anyway. She had to edit dozens of articles, poems and other tidbits to be included in The Call of Jesus. Moreover, three of her pupils, apart from Peri, had to tackle important tests in the next few months.
One day the girl murmured, ‘Papa says that mummy has gone to God.’
‘That’s right, Peri.’
‘Radha—my best friend—says that mummy will never come back.’
‘When people die, Peri, they go to God, who lives in heaven. They don’t come back but they watch us from there. They never stop loving us.’
‘Will mummy always love me?’
‘I’ll also always love her. And papa too . . . Also you too!’
Miss Coelho took a moment to clear her throat. When she spoke again, she said, ‘We can’t use also as well as too in a sentence, Peri. We can say “also you” or “you too”, never “also you too.’’ ’
Manwani came back a week later. ‘I can give you seven lakhs,’ he said without any preliminaries. ‘That’s my final offer.’
‘My answer is still the same,’ she said. ‘I’m not leaving my home.’
‘I would advise you to accept the offer,’ he said in a voice suddenly menacing.
It was a threat, she realised, but an empty threat. The law was on her side. And she really had no time to waste. Peri’s entrance test was just two weeks away. Moreover, Father Pereira had reminded her that the final proofs of The Call of Jesus had to be submitted to the printers by the twentieth of the month. She had assured him that she would complete the editing in good time, although the English of many contributors left a lot to be desired. Maybe the journal should start a section on Good English. He had frowned and said that it was what the writers said, not how cleverly they said it, that mattered. Not yielding, she had said that what some of the writers had written was in such bad English that it made no sense at all; surely, they would serve Our Lord better if they wrote more intelligibly. And thus they had argued for a full fifteen minutes, till finally he had said—absurdly, she felt—let us not forget, Miss Coelho, that Our Lord too did not know good English. And yet he could deliver the Sermon on the Mount . . .
The weeks passed in an instant. The last evening, when Pahadi Pehelwan came to collect Peri, he brought out his wallet and asked her to name her fee.
‘There is no hurry,’ she said. ‘Come and meet me on Monday evening.’
‘Monday is the day of Peri’s test . . .’
‘Yes. Come after the test.’
The next day was Sunday, the day of mass. Miss Coelho stayed on in church after the mass, praying, and walked back in deep thought. Peri should do well. But one never knew with entrance tests. Almost five hundred girls would be appearing this year. Peri did not have to merely pass the test; she had to pass it with distinction . . .
Manwani was waiting for her below the house, along with a ward officer from the BMC, who said that he wanted to examine the stability of the building. Surprised, for there was nothing wrong with the building, she let them into her flat nevertheless. The man spent ten minutes in it, examining walls, and making notes in a little book.
That evening Shantabai told her that Manwani had asked the BMC to declare the building unsafe. That would let him evict her and raze the building.
Miss Coelho did not say anything this time, just murmured, ‘Lord Jesus will take care of us.’
She spent Monday afternoon in her chair with a book, looking up at the door from time to time. Four o’clock. Five o’clock. The door opened but only to let in Shantabai. Miss Coelho continued sitting, sipping tea. Six o’clock . . . Six fifteen . . . Then, when she had almost given up hope, an exuberant Pahadi Pehelwan, carrying a shyly smiling Peri in his arms, rushed in through the door. ‘Peri has been selected! She stood first, along with two other children. All three got exactly the same marks.’ He put down the girl.
‘I’m very proud of you, Peri,’ Miss Coelho said, giving her a smile. The girl beamed back at her, bringing out her dimples in all their magical allure. From far away Miss Coelho heard Pahadi Pehelwan ask her, ‘Your fees, madam. Name your figure—any figure.’
She looked at him.
‘I’m the happiest man in the world today,’ he said, laughing.
‘Two thousand and one hundred rupees,’ she said.
‘What nonsense!’ he cried. ‘I’m giving you one lakh.’ He put a bundle on the table.
‘You will take that right back,’ she said. ‘I decide what I charge my pupils.’
The battle lasted many minutes this time. As usual, she won it.
‘But isn’t there anything else that I can do for you?’ he asked.
‘There is nothing, thank you. I’ve everything I want.’
‘There must be something,’ he persisted.
‘There is nothing,’ she repeated.
He shook his head, puzzled; and taking Peri by the hand, went out of the door. She moved to the window and from a crack in the curtains watched them cross the street to a waiting car. Peri turned to look up and her heart skipped a beat. But the girl looked away without waving and got into the car. She must not have been visible from behind the curtain. But by the time she had pulled it aside, the car was gone. She turned and told Shantabai that she did not want anything for dinner. Shantabai stared at her for a moment, stunned to see tears where she had never seen them before, and went into the kitchen to make her tomato soup and toast, determined to force her to eat those at least.
‘There must be something that the woman wants,’ Pahadi Pehelwan said to Pistol the next morning. ‘Nobody in the world wants nothing.’
‘Yes, boss. Nobody wants nothing.’
‘She is a strange woman,’ Pahadi Pehelwan mused some more. ‘Ask that maid of hers. She may know. There must be something that the woman wants.’
And so it happened that the next evening, when Miss Coelho was sipping tea, somebody rushed in through the door and fell prostrate at her feet.
‘What on earth . . . ,’ she cried and tried to move away her feet.
It was no use. Two large hands had clutched them, sandals and all. A face, pausing only to cry ‘Please forgive me’, had buried itself on them and, horror of horrors, was now proceeding to kiss the sandals.
‘Shantabai!’ she called out. ‘SHANTABAI!’
Shantabai rushed out of the kitchen but stopped when she saw the man. ‘It is that Manwani fellow,’ she said, folding her arms.
‘Manwani?’ Miss Coelho stared at her uncomprehendingly and looked down to verify.
‘Please forgive me,’ his voice came up muffled. ‘I had no idea that you knew such a mahan purush, such a great man.’
‘What are you talking about, Mr Manwani?’ she cried . . . ‘What is he talking about, Shantabai?’ She looked at Shantabai helplessly . . . ‘Please leave my feet, Mr Manwani!’ She looked down again.
‘First say you forgive me,’ he said.
‘Oh, this is ridiculous! Please get up, Mr Manwani.’
‘No. First forgive me.’
She tried to pull away her feet. A string of a sandal broke. ‘LEAVE MY FEET!’ she cried.
‘First forgive me.’
‘Oh God . . . !’
It was Shantabai who broke the logjam, ‘Maybe, memsahib, you could forgive him and let him say what he wants to.’
‘Eh? All right. I forgive you,’ Miss Coelho said. ‘Now please get up.’
It took him some moments to scramble to his feet and join his palms in supplication. Beads of perspiration ran down his head.
‘Stay in this flat as long as you like,’ he said. ‘In fact, I insist that you stay on. And don’t pay me any rent. Yes, no rent. And please go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I will pay for the ticket. I’ll pay for all the expenses too. There is an excellent group tour going there next month . . .’
‘Well, that was a surprise,’ Miss Coelho said to Shantabai after he had gone. ‘Who do you think caused the change in his heart?’
‘Our Lord Jesus, who else? Remember? I told you that He . . .’
‘Yes, memsahib,’ Shantabai smiled.
‘But this tea has gone cold,’ Miss Coelho said. ‘You would not mind warming it up, would you?’
Before Shantabai could do so, there was a knock on the door. It was Father Pereira. ‘I’ve given further thought to your suggestion, Miss Coelho,’ he explained as she rose from her chair. ‘Maybe we should introduce a column in The Call of Jesus on the importance of good English. I mean, the English of some of our contributors does leave a lot to be desired . . .’
‘I know, I know,’ Shantabai said after he left, and before Miss Coelho could say anything, ‘It was Lord Jesus who spoke through him.’
As for the trip to Jerusalem, she had to abandon it. Two days before it was to start, Pahadi Pehelwan asked her if she would continue teaching Peri English for a year more.
‘Where is Peri?’ she asked.
‘Downstairs; in the car,’ he said, ‘I didn’t bring her up because I don’t like to see her disappointed. I mean, in case you said no . . .’