“Appa, the crackers!” Manu said for the thirtieth time since morning, as he pulled my lungi looking up at me. His baby face had the same smile I woke up every day to see. He perhaps thought that there was enough money inside his father’s pocket to buy the whole of uncle Babu’s firecracker shop. Only I did not even have an anniversary gift for his mother tomorrow. As the sun was setting through the horizons of the Sahyadri mountains, I wondered if it was a coincidence that I had a letter inside my pocket. A job offer letter I had been carefully hiding from my wife Preeti for two weeks now. For a man drowning in debt and out of work for three months, it was rather odd that I would take so long to accept it. Or not to accept it? With five hours to midnight and the deadline, I still did not have a decision.
“I told you, it’s raining outside. They won’t burst,” I said.
“All my friends are bursting them. Come, see!”
“You’ll catch a cold, son. Didn’t your Amma tell you?”
Smile faded from Manu’s face. “But you promised. And it rains every day.”
“The rain will stop and it’ll be sunny during Diwali. Just a couple of months. I’ll save all the firecrackers for you. Okay?”
“Oh, you didn’t get those crackers. Now I know!” Tears filled Manu’s soft brown eyes which were identical to his mother’s. “I gave you the list,” he said, punching me softly.
The page from his ruled notebook – where he had neatly scribbled a list of firecrackers – still rested in my shirt pocket, with a stack of overdue electricity bills. His handwriting was certainly prettier than my own, and just a notch below his mother’s. He would soon outshine her; I remember her handwriting from the second standard very well.
“I told you, I have them in my bag. Why don’t you get inside, dear? Your Amma has some special Ganesh Chaturthi sweets made for us,” I said.
“I don’t want sweets. I want crackers. Everybody’s bursting crackers.”
“It’s getting darker, Manu. You’ll fall sick if the mosquitoes bite. Let’s go. School’s closed tomorrow as well. Let’s burst crackers together in the morning.”
“No, no, no. You go to that extra work in the morning, I know. And you don’t get me anything.” Extra work! The term suddenly reminded me of my situation. A situation this little sweetheart did not know. He should not know.
“I’ve got all the crackers you told me to get, dear.” I ruffled Manu’s hair smiling at him, “five crackling kings, ten zamin chakkars, and two rockets. How do you think I remember if I’ve not got them?”
“Please, please, please, Appa,” Manu’s face sparkled with joy as he jumped and danced. “Can I get them now? Just give me two!”
“Only if you go inside now and eat the sweets with Amma. I’ll join you in a minute. Okay? Let’s burst the crackers after that.”
“One zamin chakkar, one crackling king and one rocket,” Manu screamed as he ran inside, leaving a smile on my face as he often did. Sighing, I walked up to my neighbor and colleague Suresh, who had been of great help to me in the past three months. He was the headmaster who had to hand me that suspension letter just to do his job.
“The kid doesn’t know, does he?” asked Suresh.
“No. It’s too hard on him. Thank God he goes to a different school.” I sighed again. People had been moving out of villages for several years now. There were not enough kids in public schools and many were closing. I was transferred four times in the past nine years. Every time I got transferred to a new school and we moved, little Manu had to lose his dear friends. I knew how hard it was for him to make close friends at a school where his Dad taught. Other kids usually kept away from the teacher’s son for various reasons. Preeti and I had then decided that he would go a different school nearby, and that perhaps was the single best decision we had made in recent times. I did not want Manu to find out that I had lost my job. I would do anything to keep that smile on his face.
“How’s your job hunt been?”
“I’m doing what I can,” I said. In the past three months, I had applied to over sixty schools in nearby villages and towns. I could not get into any of them. The only interview I could get through later was for a private school in Hubli – a city over a hundred kilometers away. And the deadline to accept their offer was tomorrow. Both Preeti and I liked village life: clean air, farms and greenery of the Western Ghats, small yet well-connected communities, and the rustic serenity as opposed to the noisy crowds. We grew up in the villages, and even our wedding was at a lesser-known temple in the foothills of the Sahyadri mountains. But now that I thought about it, if we had to move to a city to get a job, Preeti would be affected more than I would be. She was all into gardening, agriculture and Ayurvedic home medicine, spending most of her day with herbs and spices. Life in a city would take that away from her. I remembered visiting Mangalore last year for my week-long job training. She had come with me, and I could tell she hated it. Only Manu had caught some interest with the cricket clubs scattered all across the city.
“The government has promised that they will find a solution to this before Diwali,” Suresh said. “There are more than a hundred teachers like you all across the state. It was in the news today that you could be put back on the payroll by the end of next month. The teachers’ association has been demanding it for a long time. I have worked with you, and I know how good a teacher you are, Amit. Someone will see that.”
“Thank you,” I said, treasuring those words from my ex-boss.
“But I wanted to let you know,” Suresh said. “I won’t be able to lend you any more money this month. You know, festival and other expenses are going through the roof.”
“Of course.” I had a lump in my throat for a moment. “Thank you for all your help. Is it okay if I pay you back by the end of next month?”
“Um, yeah. I think that should be okay,” Suresh shrugged, taking his gaze away from me.
“I’ll try to make it earlier than that,” I added.
“Appa, you’re the best!” Manu hugged me as we finished dinner in the lantern light. The firecrackers leftover from last year’s Diwali had saved me. “None of my friends had Snake-crackers! Where did you get them from? Do you have some more of them for tomorrow?”
“You bet!” I gave Manu a fist bump. “And there will be more surprises if you thank your Amma for this delicious festival feast.”
“Love you, Amma.” Manu kissed Preeti on her cheek as she smiled at me. Nothing had changed about that smile ever since I had first met her. Even my sweetest dreams were not in competition.
“Goodnight, dear!” she said, and Manu ran towards the bedroom.
“You cook like I am the richest man in the world, but I couldn’t even keep electricity running on a festival.” I said, gazing at her face that showed no hint of sadness. I couldn’t remember the last time she complained about something. But I also could not remember the last time she shopped herself a new saree.
“Just a few days,” she smiled. “I know that it’ll be back on. And the house has enough sunlight during the day! We are paying all the dues anyway, right?”
“As soon as their office opens up on Monday.” I had the exact change of five hundred and thirty-four rupees in my pocket, along with the bills for the past two months.
“And my home products doubled in sale this month,” she said. She was an excellent cook, and made some of the best kind of spice-mixes and food items. We had started selling them at local shops a couple of years ago, to make some extra income. Without it, we could not have survived the past three months.
“Can’t thank you enough for that,” I said. I was doing all kinds of little jobs and errands that earned daily wages, but the long term solution was to move to a city like everyone else did. And Manu would lose his friends again. Preeti her bucolic world. Every time I considered that thought, the answer was no to the letter in my pocket.
“It’s our anniversary tomorrow!” Preeti’s eyes gleamed as she said that.
“Yeah! Nine years?” And the ninth was going to be dull and in darkness, as even the electricity would not be back on tomorrow. “I’m sorry that we have to celebrate it like this, Preeti! I’ll make it up to you. I promise.”
“It’s going to be just fine, trust me.” Preeti smiled again. Even after so many years of knowing her, I wondered where she could get that optimism from.
“I don’t have any gifts for you this year, Preeti,” I said, feeling guilty.
“Don’t worry about it. I have one for you.”
“Yes. Do you remember my friend Sunaina from high school?” She asked.
“Yes, the girl with double braided ponytails.” I could not think of a connection.
“So, I called her last week. Years it had been. She now works at a coaching institute in Hubli,” she said. “She told me that one of the maths teachers who taught eighth standard quit, and they are not able to find a replacement. The current batch of students will have exams in March and they just want a temporary maths tutor for six months who teaches every evening. I learnt all my maths from you in school, Amit. So, I mailed Sunaina your resume last week.”
“Thank you, but I don’t think I would qualify,” I said, still processing what she had done.
“But the head of the institute wants to interview you,” she took out an envelope she had been carefully hiding all this while and handed it over to me. It was open, and I took out the letter and browsed through it. It had a day-long formal interview schedule for next week.
“Fifteen thousand rupees a month!” I read from the letter.
“Not as much as you used to make, but I think it will be enough for the moment.”
“That is if I clear the interview,” I added. “But we will then have to move to Hubli!” I could not delay that thought. Will she be happy there?
“I think it’s time we did that,” she said, her eyes fixed on mine. “And I heard there are many good cricket clubs there as well. Manu would love it, too.”
“He would.” I pictured Manu in his white cricket jersey as I took a few seconds to ensure Preeti meant what she said. “But are you sure?”
“Of course, I am. I have given it enough thought in the past couple of months.” she said.
“But you couldn’t wait till tomorrow to tell me this?” I pulled her close and kissed her softly.
“I just needed that smiling face back again, I don’t care!”
“In that case, even I have something to tell you.” I took out the letter from my pocket and handed it over to her. “I gave a set of interviews a couple of weeks back. I didn’t tell you, because I knew how much you disliked moving to a city. I couldn’t decide whether to take it until now.”
“Whoa!” her jaw dropped as she saw the letter. “Tomorrow is the last day to accept this! What the hell were you thinking?”
“I was thinking I should accept it on a special day.” I laughed.
“What if I had not told you about Sunaina? Were you ever gonna tell me? Promise me you’d never do this again. And that you would call them first thing in the morning tomorrow.”
“Absolutely, my love.” I said, smiling. Preeti rested her head on my chest as I wrapped my arms around her. There were some things in life I often wondered if I deserved.
Written as part the Fiction Writing course (ENG 288) at NC State.