When the alarm woke him up on his first day of junior college, Yuri had been dreaming. It was an odd dream. He was standing at the door to a classroom ringing with mirth and loud conversation.
He wanted to enter, but he wasn’t allowed in because he hadn’t brought his parents with him.
‘How do we know who you are?’ boomed a voice. ‘Besides, your undergarment is ridiculous.’
The class erupted in laughter.
Yuri had a single photograph of his parents, a black-and-white picture which hung in his bedroom. It was a wedding portrait, he in black, she in white, against a backdrop of stage clouds. They looked into the camera unsmiling and serious, and Yuri often wondered whether it was a premonition. He had studied that photograph for years.
He tried to imagine his mother smiling or laughing or walking in a garden, his father moving, turning, lifting something. But they remained just as he saw them, static images emptied of life.
When he tried to make them speak, they mouthed strange, clumsy lines: ‘We loved you, son.’ Or, ‘We are praying for you, son.’ He turned away in horror then – no, his beginnings could not be so embarrassing.
On his first day of college, when the Favre Leuba alarm clinked and clanked, Yuri tried not to look at that picture. He didn’t need myths and mysteries this morning, he needed the assurance of familiar things. He had hoped for monsoon light – for years, the first day of class had meant a Duckback raincoat with its rubbery smell, a new uniform’s faint abrasions, and water seeping into black rubber shoes.
But the June sun was pouring in, bright with a meaningless cheeriness. Well, at least this was familiar. He was used to unanswered prayers. Rain would have meant some continuity, some way of assuring himself that college wasn’t going to be as much of a challenge as his teachers had said it would be.
‘No one will care whether you attend class or bunk, whether you pass or fail,’ Father Kamath had said. ‘They won’t even know your name...’
Now the smell of eggs frying came wafting in. Tio Julio had obviously skipped morning service to mark the event with a hot breakfast. Normally, Tio’s departure meant time to masturbate; it was best in an empty house, Yuri had found. But today he would have to forego his early-morning pleasuring of himself.
Should I try it in the bath?
– No, you’ll have to rush it.
As the immersion heater warmed his bath water, he shaved with a new Topaz blade. It left him bleeding in three different spots, an improvement from the last time, when he had stopped counting after decapitating five pimples. He dabbed a little toothpaste on the worst cut. Vajradanti, Vajradanti, Vicco Vajradanti – a tune began in his head, then a thought interrupted it.
The sun is out because college will be different.
– You think? And how?
I’ll make friends.
Okay, one friend will do.
And this, too, was familiar. Each year, he had said to himself: ‘This is secondary school, I’ll make friends.’ Or, ‘I’ll join the cricket team this year. I’ll make friends.’ Or, ‘The tenth standard. Last chance to make friends. Should I join a study group?’ And each time the sprig of hope withered within a few hours. He would walk down the stairs into the schoolyard and there they were, the same bunch of boys milling around, already secure in their cliques and teams and groups.
Yuri knew why he had no friends. It wasn’t just that he tried to shave once a month and turned his face from a hairy pimpled mess to a bloody pimpled mess. It wasn’t just that he had grey eyes, like a cat’s, and was therefore untrustworthy by local suspicion. The real reason, he knew, was that he didn’t fit in.
For one, he thought in English while almost everyone else in school thought in their mother tongue. They took his English for a snobbery he had put on, because he was clearly no better off than they. In fact, he was probably a little poorer than many other boys in a school that gave a middle-class,
English-medium education to those who could barely afford it. English was the language that came naturally to Yuri because it was the language in which Tio Julio thought and spoke, and there had been no correctives in the shape of grandparents who spoke Konkani, or Hindi or Marathi, the languages that rang in the grounds and corridors of his school.
Add to that, he was the priest’s child. Padri ka bachcha. This was bad enough to mark him out in St Vincent’s High with its celibate priests. It felt worse because he knew it did not matter to anyone if this were true or not.
For Tio Julio was his guardian, his uncle, and not even a priest. But he was unmarried and belonged to the Order of Lay Contemplatives, an international order of people who had decided to live God-steeped lives, promising chastity, poverty and obedience to each other and to themselves. The only difference between them and the professed clergy was that they lived in the world and could hold other jobs.
If his uncle’s quiet asceticism left the boys uncomfortable, Yuri understood quite early that those who had signed up for a full-time clerical life did not think much of Tio Julio’s kind either. Although the priests in his school did not say so, sometimes there would be a raised eyebrow, sometimes an exchanged look.
But they were far away, these men in white cassocks. The boys were right there, in the schoolyard, all over and around him. The boys saw his uncle as Father Julio, a joyless padri, for he often came to school to teach Moral Instruction to the non-Catholics and scripture to the Roman Catholics. And since he was Yuri’s guardian, ‘Padri ka bachcha’ was how Yuri was known.
It didn’t help that their house was always visible to every boy in school. Their two-bedroom flat was in a church building and overlooked the schoolyard, which also served as the churchyard.
Tio Julio could often be seen putting their clothes out to dry in the narrow balcony, wringing and snapping the khadi browns and greys and Yuri’s uniform before hanging them on the rough jute.
‘What kind of man washes clothes?’ a boy had said to another.
The sight was almost daily proof of Yuri’s oddness. But as he grew older, Yuri sometimes wondered whether there was something quite else, maybe his temperament, that marked him out.
Excerpted with permission from The Education of Yuri, Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger.