Sukul needs a proper introduction. He happens to be my schoolmate. Back in the day, he belonged to the tribe of boys who were ready to lose their heads but never their choti the tuft of hair that epitomized their exalted caste. I could never quite understand how one could compare a man’s honour with something as limp as a choti. I was of the opinion that an animal lives on even if its tail is cut off, but the severed tail withers and rots away. Moreover, a tail has skin, blood, bone and muscles. A choti, by contrast, is merely a clump of hair. It is lifeless, soulless.

On several occasions, I’d heard from the likes of Sukul the fanatics of the cult of the choti profound spiritual discourses on its significance. Yet, not once did I see the electricity of wisdom spark through the bulbous tuft nor grasp its essence. As a result, Sukul and I drifted apart into rival groups. His gang had Hindu boys who imagined themselves to be defenders of that faith, whereas mine comprised those who believed friendship was above religion. Naturally, in my group, all were welcome Hindus, Muslims, farmers, everyone. We even had different playgrounds.

At times, following serious deliberations with my own group, I would visit Sukul’s playground and watch him play hockey with a sense of joy, wonder and deep appreciation, wide-eyed at his exploits. Meanwhile, the chotis atop each of Sukul’s teammates dangling like playing sticks, dancing to the rhythm of their nimble feet were engaged in their own hockey match. Wali Mohammad often jested that when those blokes pirouetted on the playground, their tufts played tabla on their skulls. While Phillip quipped, “See, the Hunter of the East has got the Hindu’s forehead in a noose of hair.”

With time, Sukul’s tuft and educational attainments, both grew dense. If there was ever a quarrel, he simply unknotted his choti, held the tuft aloft and proclaimed threateningly, “I am a descendant of Chanakya.”

When the entrance exams drew near, Sukul’s eyes were always bloodshot. A boy told me that he studied very diligently. At nights, he knotted his choti to a string, which in turn was tied to a peg hammered into the wall. The mechanism ensured that if he ever dozed off, he would be jolted back into wakefulness. Finally, I could see at least one earthly use of that choti.

By this time, I had earned a reputation as a poet, and, consequently, I saw no use of study. I spent my time marvelling at the mysteries of nature. At times, I would even counsel the boys that those who grovel to pass ordinary school exams, particularly when a book as profound as that of nature lay open before them they were no better than weeds. On such occasions, the boys would look at me stunned, awed by my wisdom.

However, the adulation I enjoyed was short-lived. With less than ten days to the entrance exams, I suddenly lost my courage. As I contemplated my certain failure, poetry disappeared from nature; the beauties of the world were disfigured; my father’s sacred form appeared terrifying, ghostly; instead of drizzling gently, my mother’s love thundered incessantly. To preserve my clan’s honour, I had been married off as a child. My young bride’s singular beauty once endlessly enchanting now overflowed with the hemlock of hatred that spilled out of her enraged eyes. The townsfolk, who had once showered me with boundless affection, now began searing my soul with their contempt. And in the middle of all this, one day, I beheld the happy glow of diligence on Sukul’s sunken face.

While books frightened me, the thought of putting them away added to my terror of failure. In effect, my imagination ran amuck: from deep space to the netherworlds. In fact, my imagination has never soared so high as it did back in the day. Perhaps, it has never since found such potent masala to propel its flight.

After much thought, I decided that I would teeter up to the door of the exam’s imposing mansion, but, like a well-mannered boy, retreat without knocking too hard or pushing it violently open. In other words, I jumped the bandwagon. Since others had invested all their energies in the exams, they spent the pre-result phase calculating their possible scores. I, however, was clear-headed and, therefore, without a worry. I had adorned the dreary answer script for mathematics with the poet Padmakar’s chirpy poems. Consequently, while others returned empty-handed from the examination hall, I managed to collect handfuls of lies, which I used judiciously to hoodwink others father, mother, wife, relatives, townsfolk, everyone as the situation demanded.

Everyone was rattled by my claim, made in an unflinching tone, that should the evaluations be honest, I would secure the first position in the entire district. My father was so taken in by the lie that his bearing became insolent. But as the day of results inched closer, my soul’s lush creepers began to shrivel. I had left no scope for father’s forgiveness, not even for a year’s provisional pardon. Under the circumstances, running away from home seemed the only way out.

One day, I told my mother, “The zamindars of Jagatpur have urged me to join a baraat so earnestly as though the wedding party would lose its sparkle without me.” My mother was clearly moved by the announcement; an invitation from the affluent zamindars was quite flattering. She broke the news to my father: “Have you heard this? Your worthy child is now socializing with the zamindars. They’ve invited him to join their wedding procession.”

“Then he must go. Buy him some clothing of his choice and give him a little money for the expenses too,’ answered my father, suppressing his pride. Later, finding me alone, my wife was prompt with her plea, ‘Don’t get so dazzled by the nautch girls that I fade out of your memory.”

To allay her fears, I quoted a line from Kalidasa’s Raghuvansham. It means the following: “How could a mind, possessing such little knowledge, describe a glorious clan, born of the sun?”

On hearing the words, she took a confident step towards me, certain that I had praised her over the nautch girl, and asked, “Shouldn’t I be told its meaning too?”

“Your body is delicate like a tender bamboo shoot, hers is fat. Yours radiates sunlight, hers is all venom,” I explained that Sanskrit quote to her, careful with the “meaning”.

“Ah, stop it,” she blushed and returned to her chores, her gait exuding pride and contentment.

My clothes were ready on time, and I was given the promised money too. On the designated day, I set out for the zamindars’ baraat. However, shortly before reaching the destination, I switched to a different road and reached the railway station instead just in time for the incoming train. Thereafter, I bought a ticket to my in-laws’ place and wore a mourner’s face throughout the journey.

My in-laws were alarmed to find me in that state. People flocked to me with anxious questions. “There’s been a bitter land dispute in the village. The matter has gone to the police. Since many of our enemies are injured in the skirmish, Father has been jailed. At the time of his arrest, he asked me to go to my father-in-law, collect three hundred rupees, the remainder of the dowry, return to the district the very next day and bail him out with the money,” I explained in a tone of dejection.

My father-in-law was struck dumb by the news, and my mother-in-law broke down. Father-in-law didn’t have the money demanded of him. But my mother-in-law feared that if they weren’t forthcoming with help, then, upon his release, Tripathiji would marry his son off to another girl. Mortified at the thought, she pawned off some of her jewellery for Rs 150 nose ring, bangles, anklets and such. “Child, we couldn’t raise more. As it is, we’re always indebted to you. But we’ll gradually pay the remaining amount too. With folded hands, I urge Tripathiji to have mercy on us,” pleaded my mother-in-law, handing over the money to me.

I assured her that I would never come to their home demanding the rest; it was indeed a grave crisis, but we would make do with whatever she could give. My kindness moved my father-in-law to tears. I bowed to him in deep reverence, touched his feet and returned to the station in a timely manner, to buy a ticket to Calcutta.

Hereafter, the foundation for my new life was laid. I learnt from the newspapers that Sukul had passed the exams in the first division. Four years later, he got a BA degree, followed by an MA degree. I kept track of his progress. Eventually, he found a good job too. Having passed all the exams, he became an examiner himself. By contrast, my own life remained largely unchanged. I erred once and kept erring thereafter; having failed that first exam, I failed in all the other exams too. I appeared for one exam after another, but to no avail.

Today, I met Sukul for the first time since those days. His visit brought the past vividly to life in my mind. All these years later, everything stands changed. My parents are gone, my wife is dead. Only I remain, clung to my same old self. Surrounded by a dreary field of daily exams, swept over by countless waves of questions.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Sukul’s Wife’ in A Portrait of Love: Six Stories; One Novella, by Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’, translated from the Hindi by Gautam Choubey, Penguin India.