Another day had dawned for the residents of Bilgram, a village near Joura tehsil, thirty kilometres from the district headquarters of Morena. It was a day like any other, except that a few boys and girls from the village were going to appear for the first paper of the class twelve board exams. Returning home from Panditji’s house, Manoj found his mother chatting with two other women. “Wait, I’ll be there in a while,” she said, when he called to her.

But Manoj was getting late for the exam. He got ready in a hurry and was just about to step out when his mother, now squatting on the doorstep, asked in tones of deep concern, “Wait, son, didn’t Rajni make chapattis for you? You mustn’t take your exam on an empty stomach.”

Having passed on the responsibility of making chapattis to her fifteen-year-old daughter, Rajni, she had busied herself in chit-chat with the neighbours. Today Manoj had no appetite. He ignored his mother and, clutching a mathematics guidebook, fled without a word.

Since Bilgram was just alongside the road that connected the tehsil to the district headquarters, the villagers were quite fortunate as far as transportation went; a bus plying between Joura and Morena passed by every ten minutes. At around 9 am, the number of commuters gathered on the culvert began to surge. Manoj headed straight to the Hanuman statue in a small temple near the culvert and mumbled his desperate plea, “O, Lord! Please help me sail through the maths paper. You are my only hope now.” By the time he returned to the culvert, Vishnu and his father, Pandit Kalicharan, were also there.

Seeing the father-son duo, a boy seated on the ledge of the culvert, spat out tobacco and asked playfully, “Panditji, are you going to Joura to help Vishnu cheat in the exam?” Panditji was shepherding Vishnu to the exam centre because he wanted to ensure a safe and hassle-free journey for his son. Irked by the question, he snapped, “You lot have neither seen a school nor read a book. What would you know about studies?” And he turned to look in the direction from which the bus was to come.

But no one conceded defeat so easily in this village. The insult hurled by Panditji had rattled all the boys who sat around. One of them asked nastily, “What good are studies? Does one become a thanedar? One only gets to be a teacher in a school like the one over there and spends a lifetime telling students to repeat tables.”

To stop the situation from getting out of hand, Manoj stepped in saying, “Teaching is such a prestigious profession. If I ever land such a job, I’ll be thrilled.”

“But one has to pass class twelve for that,” taunted another boy. “How will you pull that off, Manoj? Besides, there are rumours this year that the SDM will crack down on cheating.”

This was worrying new information. Never had Manoj thought of hearing something so unsettling just before an exam. He comforted himself with the thought that cheating, a time- honoured practice at Vidysagar Higher Secondary School in Joura, could not be stopped so abruptly. Cheating would help him pass these board exams, much as he had cheated his way to success in the tenth board.

A tempo paused on the culvert, making a dhad-dhad sound. The ear-splitting racket disrupted Manoj’s chain of thought. The vehicle was being driven by his friend, Balle. Manoj got on, as did Vishnu and Pandit Kalicharan. Moments later, a fifty-two- seater bus belonging to Balaji Bus Services parked right behind the tempo.

Even though the bus was already chock-a-block with some seventy passengers, its skinny twenty-year-old conductor was annoyed to see Balle whisking away three passengers. “Hey, you,’” he yelled. “How many more passengers will you take? You already have three extra; ask them to get down. They are mine.”

Bus operators had become touchy over the last few months because three or four tempos had started plying this route and eaten into their profits.

“Mind your own business,” snapped Balle. “This is my village!” He then added menacingly, like a lion in its own territory, “And your bus can’t ply on our roads.”

Balaji Bus Services was owned by a powerful man, rich and politically well-connected. The regional transport officer (RTO) and the local police thanedar, in return for steady monetary gains, had extended their loyal protection to him. The bus staff therefore routinely broke the law, confident in their special rights to take on more passengers than legally allowed.

As Balle and the opposing party continued to exchange compliments, the dispute escalated and villagers began gathering alongside the tempo as this was a suitable occasion to put the unity of the village on display. Seeing the enemy’s side grow in strength, the middle-aged driver signalled the conductor to withdraw. His many years on the job had taught him that running was the best strategy when trapped alone in a hostile village. Later, one should try to drag the conflict into one’s own territory.

The conductor retreated to the bus grumbling in frustration, but not before warning Balle, who was presently swinging from the tempo’s door, of unpleasant consequences. “We will make you forget all about driving a tempo on the road, you watch out!” he yelled.

Excerpted with permission from Twelfth Fail, Anurag Pathak, translated from the Hindi by Gautam Choubey and Lalit Kumar.