The class dawdled on the way to the river. Durai Master had gone ahead. They passed the railway station and left town, taking the bumpy dirt road that ran alongside the railway tracks. In the distance, they could see women bent over, working in the submerged paddy fields. Closer by, women were returning home from the riverbank, carrying pots filled with water on their heads and hips.
Men herded cattle or prepared tools for the harvest. As the boys reached the flat countryside, the thatched-roof huts thinned out. Bulls were tied to wooden posts on the side of the road, goats wandered in and out of the mud houses. The boys paused to pray at roadside shrines. They slid down the trails leading off the road and scrambled back up again.
As they went further, there was less domestic activity. There were pastures dotted with grazing cattle, lush green paddy fields and banana orchards. Lost in conversation, the boys failed to notice even when bullock carts and one-horse vehicles came hurtling behind them. Mostly, they realised in the nick of time and leapt out of the way. On occasion, cart drivers had to shout to alert them. The bullock carts were loaded with sacks of grain and were headed to the flour mill.
It was when one such cart passed by that the boys caught sight of the washerman. He was little more than a speck in the distance, pounding clothes on rocks and spreading them out to dry on the riverbank. The breeze grew stronger as they got closer. The boys held on to their veshtis, which the wind threatened to blow away. Once they were all seated outside the washerman’s shack – with their veshtis tucked safely under them – Durai Master explained the challenge.
‘You have to fry each side of three slices. You cannot have more than two slices at a time on the pan. One side takes 30 seconds to get done. Turning over a slice takes 2 seconds. The time to remove a piece from the pan and put it on a plate or to take a slice from the plate and put it on the pan is 3 seconds. You’re only allowed to put in, remove or turn one slice at a time. You have three slices to fry. Let’s see how quickly and efficiently you can finish. Time is of the essence.’
Ramanujan was dejected, ‘Just as I thought – a cooking contest.’ ‘Bring the fish,’ Durai Master clapped. ‘Fish?’ everyone gasped. Was that what was to be fried? A girl appeared, bearing a tray. The boys held their noses and, simultaneously, craned their necks to get a better look. They had never seen fish before. They couldn’t see the fish, but they stared at the girl. Her hair was pulled back in two long plaits flying behind her in the breeze. The boys in the front row got a glimpse of her ankles. She didn’t seem to notice their presence. Her hair was tied up in mismatched ribbons, red on the left side and violet on the right. She didn’t appear to care about that either. ‘Are we to fry . . .’ Saranga struggled, ‘that?’ He pointed at the fish.
Pacha folded up his veshti, picked up the frying pan turner and thundered, ‘Let’s get on with it. Let’s make Team 2 win. Time is of the essence, remember?’
Nachu let out a long moan. ‘What about us?’ Jambu looked at Ramanju expectantly. ‘Dei genius! Suggest a shortcut.’ ‘We will not do it,’ Ramanujan pursed his lips. ‘I know the quickest way to do it, but I’m not telling you. We. Are. Not. Touching. That. Fish.’ Nachu’s shoulders slumped. Mukundan had fashioned a timer out of a glass lying around and sand from the riverbed. He set the hourglass down on level ground. A quarter of the class was crouched around it, counting seconds and shouting excitedly. The rest gathered around Pacha, cheering as he tossed the first piece of fish onto the pan, and then the second.
The fish crackled and sizzled on the iron pan, letting out the most inviting smell. A tantalising aroma filled the air. The boys grudgingly admitted that fried fish looked and smelt more appetising than anything they had ever eaten. ‘Delectable,’ they said to each other in hushed whispers. Their mouths watered. Varadan had taken on the role of commentator. ‘Team 2 is off to a great start. Team 1 seems to have fallen apart.’ Varadan’s description of Team 1 was accurate – the three members stood far apart. Nachu looked on helplessly as Pacha flipped slices. Jambu twisted his arm behind his back, pushed it up his shirt and scratched furiously. It helped him focus his thoughts.
Eating fish was forbidden. Leave alone Ramanju, no one else who lived on Sarangapani Sannidhi Street would touch fish, not even with a long stick. There was no use trying to convince Ramanju. He was more stubborn than a mule. Jambu looked around, hoping for aid. He spotted the girl who had brought the fish. She was crouched behind the bamboo fence, peering at them. Must be the washerman’s daughter, Jambu guessed. She couldn’t possibly be of any use. The girl caught Jambu staring and raised an eyebrow at him. Jambu looked around hesitantly. No one else had noticed her. She edged closer. ‘I have a way out. Follow me.’ She tossed her plaits over her shoulder, turned and walked away with her nose in the air.
Excerpted with permission from Ramanujan: From Zero to Infinity, Arundhati Venkatesh, illustrations by Priya Kuriyan, Puffin.