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Vol. 6, No. 4

Seventeen Tomatoes
by Jaspreet Singh

Shomi and Bawa, fast friends, studied in the Model Boys' School in Kashmir. Classes were held in tents. Not far from the grade-three tent the boys could see a brick-and-cement building under construction. Mrs. Bhogal, the teacher, told them that the construction was moving so slowly, the building would be ready for the education of the boys' grandchildren.
    The math class had just begun when a man in camouflage uniform entered the tent. A girl with half-closed eyes marched behind him carrying a school bag and seventeen tomatoes. She had a long ponytail and wore a dark blue phiran somewhat large for her.
    "Where can my daughter sit?" asked the man loudly.
    "She cannot sit," said Mrs. Bhogal. "This is a boys' school."
    The girl hid behind the man's back.
    "Don't be afraid, girl," said the man. "Go sit anywhere."
    Then he marched toward the teacher and loaded his revolver.
    "Rules," said Mrs. Bhogal, gasping for breath, "cannot be broken."
    "There are no girls' schools in this area, madam," he said. "Listen carefully: if you send my child home, I will shoot you."
    The entire class hummed with fear and excitement.
    "Silence!" Mrs. Bhogal put her finger over her lips. "Pin-drop silence!"
    Shomi and Bawa wondered why the teacher didn't whip out her cane at that moment. Any trouble they made was always met with such a warning.
    The military man scanned the tent with red eyes. The left side of the tent was full of boys; the right side of the tent was full of boys.
    "Girl," said Mrs. Bhogal, dead as a brick, "take my chair and sit in the middle."
    Satisfied, the man unloaded the revolver and marched out toward the distant mountains. For a long time afterward the class could hear the echo of his footsteps pounding the path that led from the tent.
    That day Mrs. Bhogal declared an early recess.
    During recess the girl stayed glued to her chair and began eating tomatoes. Shomi and Bawa hesitantly inched toward her, as did the rest of the class. She was as still as a pebble, except for the movement caused by her eating. The boys told her their names; she nervously swallowed. The girl finished the sixth tomato faster than the fifth. When Shomi told her his name, she giggled with a sparkle in her eyes.
    No one asked the girl her name. They also avoided the topic of her father. Instead, they bragged about the cities they had visited or the cricket matches they had won or the Amitabh-Rekha movies they had watched. They gave her strands of saffron. And Shomi and Bawa promised her more gifts the next day: butterflies and answers to Mrs. Bhogal's exams.
    The girl didn't join them for football, but she watched them competing in the schoolyard through the tent window. She looked frightened, but continued eating the tomatoes, reddish-green fruits the size of Ping-Pong balls.
    Shomi and Bawa did not join the other boys in the yard. They were rolling a bicycle tire inside the unfinished building. When the tire wobbled over a mound of cement, Shomi turned to his friend and confessed: "When I grow up I will marry her."
    "Who?" Bawa asked.
    "The girl!"
    "Then her father will shoot you," said Bawa.
    "I am ready to die," Shomi declared defiantly.
    "Why die? Why not write a letter?"
    "Letter?"
    "If she replies, you two could run away," Bawa suggested.
    Recess ended as the girl finished the eleventh tomato. Mrs. Bhogal rang the bell and started teaching the history lesson. Under normal circumstances she was just a conventional teacher, but that day her lecture took an unconventional turn.
    "Class," she began in a subdued voice, "over there on the distant mountains, there are two gardens. On the left is Shalimar and on the right is Nishat. Shalimar was built by the Emperor for the Empress. And Nishat was built by the Empress's brother for the Empress."
    "Yes, madam," boomed the boys. Shomi watched the girl eat her thirteenth tomato.
    "One day, in A.D. 1632, the Emperor cut off the supply of water to Nishat. Do you know why?"
    "No, madam!"
    "Because Nishat was as beautiful as Shalimar."
    "Yes, madam," chimed the boys. Bawa studied the girl as she started on her fourteenth tomato.
    Shomi half-listened to the history of gardens. He was busy drafting a love letter with a blue pencil. When the epistle was done, he asked Bawa for editorial assistance. Bawa used the eraser generously and added a few lines.
    "How are you going to hand it to her?" whispered Bawa.
    "I'll walk to her chair."
    "Fool, do it with style."
    Bawa transformed the declaration of love into a messenger plane and propelled it upward as Mrs. Bhogal chalked some new history on the blackboard. Shomi saw the entire class twist their necks. The boys turned to observe the loops of the plane, which swished out of the tent and returned smelling of saffron. Once inside, the messenger plane, sailing like a bird, sheared past Mrs. Bhogal's beehive hair and lost momentum, landing serenely on three tomatoes.
    “Girl," said Mrs. Bhogal angrily with hands on her hips, "bring it to me."
    The girl did exactly as she was told.
    The teacher snatched the aircraft from her, flattened its paper, and began reading the blue words to the whole class.
    Paralyzed, Shomi turned toward Bawa. Shomi's eyes shook with alarm.

    I love you like in the movies.

    Bawa sniffled and scuffed his boots against the floor.

    I want to marry you. You will be my Empress. I will build you a garden more beautiful than Nishat. We will plant tomatoes in the garden so that you can eat them. Write soon and wait for the next stage of my plan to rescue you.
    Flying kiss, Emperor Bawa

    Shomi heaved a sigh of relief. Bawa hid his face between his arms on the desk. Caught by Mrs. Bhogal. Caught by his fast friend.
    "Girl," asked the teacher rolling her eyes, "do you want to marry Emperor Bawa?"
    The girl blushed and held her belly and vomited a sweet-smelling paste of tomatoes. Then she wept a flood of tears and ran out of the tent, heading in the direction of the distant mountains.
    The teacher caned Bawa on the back of his hand. She made him wear a chicken mask. She forced him to raise his arms above his head for the rest of the day.
    An eerie silence stilled the tent. Shomi contemplated the situation for a while, his gaze fixed on the two uneaten tomatoes. He knew for certain the girl would return with her father, who would shoot them both: Mrs. Bhogal and Bawa.

To read other stories from the Winter 2002 issue, click here to purchase it from our online store.

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