(amended from Ryze)
“Sarada, I’m leaving.”
Bhaskaran set out for the university. He brushed off the dust of his bicycle-seat, mumbling to himself that he must clean it this Sunday, and rode off.
Bhaskaran was professor of biochemistry at Alagappa University. It was a small town he lived in, and a small town he taught in. Nevertheless, he had an international reputation; he was invited to address conferences around the globe, and had several scientific breakthroughs to his credit.
Today he had to take B.Sc. Biochemistry lecture at 11 A.M., and then the M.Sc. Metabolomics lecture at 2:00 P.M. His PhD student was to meet him sometime in the middle. “Hm, the phosphatase mis-expression was coming on well”, he said to himself as he parked his bicycle opposite his department. But what he looked forward to most was the movie at 6:00 P.M. He had promised he would take Sarada out. He looked at his gold-plated watch, a wedding gift from Father-in-law. 10:30 A.M. Time enough for a quick coffee and a glance at the newspapers.
He was an indifferent teacher, but the depth of his scholarship more than made up for it. Having done his PhD at Caltech, he had nevertheless chosen to return to his hometown and University. This alone gained him the awe of his peers.
He wound up his lecture and went into the faculty club for lunch. The students hadn’t proved as stubborn as last time, and had managed to absorb the notion of allosteric regulation. He looked forward to his lunch: sambar, rice and curry. Some things should never change, he reflected, as he hailed a colleague.
Students nicknamed him Prof. ‘Starchy’. Dressed in white cotton shirts, black trousers, thick, and hair well-oiled, he was the very picture of the unworldly academic. His fogged, square-rimmed glasses, which he refused to trade in for a swankier pair, lent him that philosophical air that is supposedly required of every professor’s being. That, and his Golden Pen, which he won as university topper, were his proudest possessions.
The Metabolomics lecture was over. Teaching M.Sc.s was easy: make them look up some papers and turn in assignments, which he could correct at leisure. And sneak a few laughs. And his student had exuberantly reported that the phosphatase experiment was giving publishable data. It was to be a perfect day.
He cycled home. “You’re late”, said Sarada. He dashed in, washed his face, quickly combed his hair, and they set out. A Rajnikanth movie was playing. Luckily, they had booked a month in advance.
As the movie progressed, Sarada gaped at her husband. Prof. Starchy was now whistling and hooting with the others. He matched the superstar’s ‘styles’ and sleights-of-hand with his own. He mouthed the ‘signature’ dialogues with the same accentuation as the actor.
Sarada tugged and whispered reproachfully. “There you go again! What will people think? The famous professor hooting vulgarly like this!”
“I am a professor in the university only. In the theatre, everyone is just a Rajni fan.”
Suhas turned back towards his shop. He had been loitering with his chums in the lane; now he had to go sit in the shop while the owner went home for lunch. As he turned into the main road, he paused to have a glimpse at Shahi Bakery. His eyes skimmed over the biscuits inviting him in from under the glass shelves. He daren’t go in though.
The riot had been fun while it lasted. It had been a manly thing to do - smashing things, setting them alight. He had been a soldier for his faith.
There were rows upon row of nankhatai. He liked the ones with cashews in them. Also the ones with badams. Shahi Bakery was famous for its pav. Soft inside, with a thin crust and just a bit sour, they were the best thing to have with tea in the morning. But he couldn’t even look at them, leave alone dream of eating one.
He was among the mob when they had attacked the bakery. The owner and two of his assistants had perished with their shop. Chanting “Death to the invader devils!” the mob had dragged them out and hacked their limbs. Though Suhas was not among the murderers, he had gleefully looted the shop’s contents.
He currently held the post of a milk vendor’s home-delivery boy. His eager face was welcomed every morning by housewives as he collected coupons and handed over the milk packets. After the morning’s rounds and accounts, he was free till lunchtime. This time he spent doing various odd jobs for other shopkeepers, or perhaps flirted with girls. Anything, but spend time in the fateful street.
The bakery owner had not been a pleasant man, and gave no credit. Gruff and businesslike, he had little time for people wanting to make small talk. The sourness of his behaviour made up for the niceness of his products. He hadn’t given a thought to his eventual comeuppance. Every minor grudge his neighbours and customers had with him was settled in blood.
Suhas lingered longingly. An assistant had just brought out a plate of pastries. They were known to be the most delicious in the neighbourhood. Sweet and creamy, especially the strawberry ones. If he did, perhaps he would be recognised and handed over to the police. He had never had any run-in with the cops before.
Though the owner had been killed, his son and nephew had escaped. With the compensation that they got from the courts, they had rebuilt the bakery, and restored it to its former fame. Business was as good as it had ever been. The recipes, locked in a metal safe, had survived the blaze, though little else did.
Suhas dithered. Should he go into the shop? He had managed to escape being identified, and had nearly put everything behind him, but fear persisted. Would the bakery men give him away?
He turned away. The bakery owner had rebuilt his life. And left his in tatters.