Her new problem would keep her going forward. It could save her. But as she got more deeply involved with it, her temper frayed without Jackson’s influence and inspiration. She snapped at students, colleagues, and the administrative staff. She abandoned her favorite old rituals, such as dispensing advice to new students along the lines of “learn something new every day that is disjoint from the problem you’re working on.” Such phrases seemed pointless now. She began to cancel classes. If the students showed up anyway, she ignored them, and continued to work on her own problem at the board. She turned her back to the confused young people expecting to be taught something else, something that had nothing to do with the scribbles under Nela’s chalk. She dismissed their confusion. She was doing her own dharma.
One day, Nela took out a paper on the hawk-dove game, and leaned back in her chair to read. She read on and on, and hardly registered the knock on her door. “Enter!” she called out, marking her place on the page with her finger. How had she managed so many pages in so little time?
A girl of about twenty, very thin, stood in front of her. The girl’s skin was damp, hair standing up at all angles, and she was nervously chewing her pierced bottom lip. She reminded Nela of a hatchling, another of the small creatures designed to make adults feel protective. “Yes?” said Nela.
“How come you didn’t show up for class?” the girl asked, almost inaudibly.
Nela glanced at her watch. “Oh no! I must have lost track of time. Is anyone still in the classroom?”
“No, they all bailed after ten minutes.”
“And no one thought to look for me here in the obvious place?” “I guess they didn’t think that was their job.”
Nela should have let it end right there, let the clumsy comment pass. It was her fault, after all. But the girl’s impudence burned a hole in her stomach. She decided that she would reschedule the missed class, but begin all the ones to follow with a quiz. The pupils who absented themselves would fail that day’s quiz. She announced the news in class the following day.
She told herself that she was doing it for the students’ own good. It was not a spiteful gesture, the sprawling students’ rolled eyes and theatrical groans notwithstanding. Someday they would thank her for preparing them for their futures. They would inherit the reins of the field, after all, and Nela must not let standards slip.
After a few sessions, Nela noticed that some of the students would not take the quizzes. They sat in their seats, pencils dancing between thumbs and forefingers, but left their papers face side down on their desks. They would not hand in the blank sheets at the end of class, but left them on their desks while they slipped out the door silently. Soon, many more did not even pick up their pencils.
If they were going to behave like stubborn children, then, Nela would teach them like rank beginners. “What’s a formula?” she demanded, peering into the sullen crowd. The room buzzed, but she couldn’t see exactly who was whispering. “It’s not a trick question. I want a definition.” The students looked confused. One boy raised his hand. Nela nodded at him.
“A formula is an expression in symbols.”
She nodded curtly. “What is an equation?” Heads hung. Pencils tapped. The same hand rose.
“An equation is two sets of expressions on either side of an equality.”
“What is a calculation?” The boy didn’t bother to raise his hand this time.
“It’s a process leading to expressions and equations,” he declared. Nela stared at the boy, trying to place him. He was from Japan. Last week, she had overheard him telling an older student who suggested he pick up after himself in the lounge, “We have servants to do that where I come from.” He was a typical arrogant rich kid, but sure of his answers, and therefore useful for intimidating the less prepared students.
After class, the girl who first alerted Nela to her missed session appeared at the office. “I have regularly scheduled office hours,” her professor reminded her. The girl closed the door behind her without a trace of her former timid quality. Nela could have sworn she had grown taller, too. She should be long past that.
“We took a vote and we don’t think it’s fair.”
“Life is notoriously not fair. But to what, specifically, are you referring?”
“All these damn quizzes,” she spat. “Half the class is suddenly failing because of them. They count for a whole third of our marks! You can’t do that.”
“By whose authority?”
The girl pulled out a creased paper from her backpack. “We’ve all signed this. We want you to stop bullying us. We are your employers. We pay your salary, and we want satisfaction. The customer is always right.”
Nela felt the blood in her temples thud against her skull. Employers, indeed! Nela took the paper and tore it in half, her black eyes boring into the girl’s ice blue ones. “You may go now,” she said in a voice as heavy as lead.
Two days later, Nela, in her perpetual bad mood, was angrily sweeping all her gyroscopes into a drawer when Ashoke walked in. “Are you ready to give the exam, Nela? I will walk you.” She made an exasperated gesture, but he just stood there like a mountain. Or an ant hill.
Nela gathered her materials and made for the door. Ashoke cleared his throat and she wheeled around. “What now?” He pointed to her feet. Sighing and scowling, she kicked off her running shoes and shoved her toes into her pumps. “May we go now?”
Ashoke’s Adam’s apple moved in his throat like an animal all the way to the physics building, but Nela was not listening. Suddenly, he became quiet, his face scrunched. Nela shot him a sideways glance.
“We will need to have a chat about your teaching. We worry that you may have lost interest,” he was saying. He placed a proprietary hand on her shoulder, which she violently shrugged off. “I cannot postpone telling any longer. We have decided that one of us will come to listen in on your class now and then. I offered myself in this service. I know you best, and I may be able to help you regain interest in your calling.”
Nela reared back and leveled her blackest gaze at him. “Don’t try to intimidate me with your puffy title and your flimsy power! WE this and WE that! If you try anything with me…” She did not finish her threat, but plowed straight into her classroom. He followed her for a few steps, and she abruptly pivoted to face him. Ashoke flinched under her glare, and scurried away without another word.
Nela slammed the door on the hum of voices. The sight of teenagers sprawled on their seats irked her more severely than usual. And yet, that was no reason to slough off her duty towards them. Administration had a point. She was aware that her students were upset with her. Just the day before, she had seen one of them in Ashoke’s office. The door was wide open—Ashoke made a point of that whenever he was with a female student, for all the good it did the girl—and Nela heard the girl complaining about her. She also caught a glimpse of Ashoke comforting the girl. It was the same student looking at her now, dull eyes staring out at her from the third row.
“All cell phones on the table,” Nela ordered. A wave of protest rippled through the room, but Nela, arms crossed over her chest, stood at the table, immoveable. A small hill of devices began to pile up, and Nela walked to the front of the room to take her seat. A few of the little machines in the pile began to ring, and their owners shuffled to the back to turn them off. Nela assumed that they cheated with their devices, but she didn’t know exactly how. She passed out the test and said, “You have one hour. This will count as one third of your marks. Show your work.”
Heads bowed in unison, and nothing more was heard except the occasional cough and the scratch of pencil on paper. Nela looked at the array of phones on her table. So it had come to this. She tried to recall what trend had irritated her own teachers, but came up with nothing. The last golden age of obedient innocents? The Americans must view the fifties this way, never mind the population of mothers on tranquilizers.
Nela stretched her legs and bent down to examine the faulty heel on her shoe. Out of her peripheral vision, she sensed one student’s hand upturned suspiciously under the desk. Nela bolted upright, jerked away from the table and marched to where the student was now furtively and furiously rubbing her palm. “Let me see,” Nela said.
The girl raised her long-lashed eyes to her teacher. “See what, eh?” she asked.
“Your hands,” Nela ordered. The girl offered the innocent one first, still rubbing the other one on her knee. Nela grabbed that one and held it to the light. “That’s an old-fashioned way to cheat. I’d have thought you kids would go in for a more modern way.” She spit the words out like bullets.
The girl opened her mouth, to protest, so Nela thought. A long wail came out instead. “No fair,” the girl sputtered. “I didn’t cheat. It’s not what you think.”
Nela let the hand drop as if it had scalded her. “Oh, very well, then—deepest apologies!” Her sarcasm plastered the girl’s spine to the back of her chair. She sniffed and snuffled and rolled her offended eyes toward Nela. Did she expect some tissues? Nela stared at her until the girl dropped her gaze. “You only have forty more minutes, class. Do not waste it on rubbernecking!” The stricken students turned back to their task. Nela circled the room for the duration of every one of the remaining minutes, stopping at the accused student’s desk each time. She wanted to remind the girl she could not be trusted.
When the bell rang, the students slapped their papers onto her table. Although it was her habit to search the departing faces to see whether her questions had been too easy or too hard for them, Nela no longer cared. She did not look at them, and waited for the rustling sound of fabric and paper to subside. She sat in her chair for many minutes. Stay or go? She couldn’t decide. There were complications everywhere.
Nela walked down the corridor a few days later, cradling her books in her arms. She entered her classroom, resigned to the regularly scheduled interruption of her real work. She called the class to order, and as she lectured, she watched her charges’ eyes for a sign that they understood. A few students stared at her as if they were in a contest in some bar, but instead of confronting them, she passed a hand over her black bristles, raised her eyebrows, and smiled briefly. She hoped to put them off guard, and the gesture did seem to startle them. They ducked it, misunderstanding its
intent, looking down at their books again. Nela was puzzled. Maybe it was her shorn head. They were used to seeing her with her hair down to her waist, and perhaps this was the first time they noticed its loss. That must have been what all the whispering was about. Sheltered creatures, to have so little to talk about!
After class, Nela spent a peaceful hour rearranging her book shelves. It calmed her and was one of the few activities that could help her keep images of Jackson at bay. The tomes were her talismans, and maybe, by extension, could be his. Whenever she read the precious spines, her father’s presence also came back to her strongly: Appa presiding over Saraswati puja, the children rocking on bare heels in front of the plinth of books, musical instruments and garden shears composed a picture that could still squeeze the air from her lungs.
From outside her office door came a rustling sound. Ashoke! But no, it was an envelope sliding across the floor. It looked official. She picked it up and tore into it. “Dear Professor Sambashivan,” she read, “This letter is to inform you that an undergraduate in your class had lodged a complaint against you. The disciplinary board will meet to investigate the matter…”
Nela let the paper fall. It floated to the floor, quivering upward slightly with a gust of air from the vent. She jabbed her heel into it. The girl she had caught cheating was trying to turn the tables on her! She began to pace up and down the room. She couldn’t think with the blood rushing in her ears, so she yanked the door open and stomped into Ashoke’s office.
“Don’t worry,” he said, as soon as the facts of the matter had sputtered from Nela’s mouth. “I serve on that committee. No harm will come to you.” He took the liberty of surrounding her tense shoulders with his arm.
She walked out of his embrace, and said, “Since when can we not deal with cheating in our own ways?”
“Alleged cheating,” Ashoke corrected her. Nela furrowed her brows. She saw that he was not surprised by any of this. He knew all about it, and hadn’t said a word! He could have warned her. Why would he wish the embarrassment of a situation like this on her? She searched the familiar face for answers. Finding none, she slammed her fist on his desk just to see him jump.
In her own office again, she locked the door and stood in front of a shelf. She read the gold-embossed spines, whispering their names like prayers, prayers she didn’t believe would be received. And, if they were, received by whom? She believed in no God. The closest she had ever come to believing was during the Ganesh Chaturthi when she had fallen into a line of devotees with prayers written out on scraps of paper to give to the priests. She had written one, too, a wish more than a prayer. Let Amma live. That prayer had been granted. How many more were allowed her?
So she faced her accusers. The committee was made up of a chorus- line of her peers, who, in a war, should be on her side. These people would leave her for dead. Not one of the professors wanted to be there, that was clear from the crossed legs and folded arms. The colleagues Nela knew would not meet her eyes, and the ones she knew only by sight looked at her with calm curiosity. Not quite indifference, but close.
Each of the colleagues was sipping coffee from disposable cups. Would it really be such an effort to stay awake through this? The complainer sat in a chair in front of the line of professors, her ankles primly crossed. Where were the fake tattoos and leather she had been affecting all these months? She was dressed to sway a jury, face washed to a childlike innocence, borrowed clothes a size too big.
Nela stopped in front of her and greeted her formally, hands together in a namaste. The onlookers gasped, as if she was harassing the child. Well, why not make the girl squirm? Although Nela had no idea how a simple hello from another culture could do that! Shuli, the token woman in psychology, awkwardly tried to steer Nela to the chair facing the row of professors, but Nela pulled away from the presumptuous hand on her elbow. Shuli and she had exchanged greetings precisely three times in as many years. How dare she touch her!
Another teacher offered the chair to Nela as if they were at a restaurant. She glared at him. “He is not my peer,” Nela pointed out to the room. “I do not know him! I challenge the make-up of this committee!”
“Don’t be so literal, my friend,” Ashoke’s voice rose up from his seat in the middle of the table, a stack of papers dwarfing him. Nela had not even noticed him. Was he really leading this fiasco, then? She glowered at him. “This is only an informal inquiry to get to the bottom of the misunderstanding.”
The girl, already convinced of her status as a victim, rushed in indignantly. “There is no misunderstanding! She grabbed my hand in front of everybody, and made that clucking sound she does. Everyone thought I was cheating! My rep is ruined!”
“You were cheating! Unless your palm is a new place for decoration, as in the case of bridal henna or tattoos, and you were just admiring it under the table.” The cords in Nela’s neck stood out.
The girl looked confused first. Her expression quickly tightened to one of rage. “Bridal henna? How are we supposed to know what she’s talking about?” she appealed to the others. “The accent is bad enough!” Her smooth cheeks burned.
Ashoke waggled his head reflexively. “So it is your contention that Dr. Sambashivan harassed you by grabbing your hand, and further embarrassed you by the accusation that you were cheating?”
“She got no proof…” the girl swore under her breath. “Define proof,” Nela wheedled.
“Come to order!” Ashoke pounded his little gavel. It looked like a toy in his hand, and thudded against the table ineffectually. Nela ignored him.
“Don’t know? I’ll give you a hint. A proof is a set of expressions leading to the truth of a theorem,” Nela taunted.
The girl appealed to the table of professors. “She went around the room during the whole test, pacing and pacing like some kind of big cat or something, and every time she passed me, she’d stop and look at my paper. Then she’d make a sound like a growl or something and it totally freaked me out! She’s so whack!”
“Define theorem,” Nela demanded. “Don’t know that one either? A theorem is a logical statement with hypotheses and conclusions.”
“Isn’t she out of order or something?”
“Alright, Ms. Jameson,” Ashoke said quietly. “You may leave.” “But don’t I get a chance to take the test over? It wasn’t a fair test!
She made me too nervous!”
“You’re dismissed, Ms. Jameson,” Nela said, grinning. The girl gathered her things and hurried from the room,
muttering. Nela looked to her colleagues. They were already packing up. “Well?” she said.
Ashoke looked at her. “We have seen enough. We must deliberate. We will let you know of our findings.” Nela stuffed down the urge to slap him. She glanced at the group, looked them all up and down, and found no one who would meet her eyes. There would be no quick pats on the back, no meeting at the pub to commiserate with a maligned colleague. No griping about the changing face of the student body, how they considered themselves customers now, always right, the ones holding all the cards with their daddies’ tuition money.
The peers filed out of the room silently, heads bowed, shuffling their feet. Why not? They were on a slippery slope. Any one of them could be next.
Nela waited for Ashoke to get his books and papers together. He said nothing, barely nodded to her as he went out the door. It closed with a thud, and Nela winced as if the sound was much louder. She tracked his muffled footsteps retreating down the corridor. When she could no longer hear them, she gasped. She had been holding her breath.
Inter-departmental complaints were supposed to be confidential, but Nela knew from experience that nothing was leak-proof. The students already knew about the scandal, she realized. It was why, earlier in class, no student would meet her eye. And when she passed out papers, a few of her charges cringed theatrically.
During her own schooldays, she had been at the mercy of a number of teachers armed with rulers, and the freedom to wield them as they saw fit. Not the good old days, exactly, but a more obvious system than this, a rumor mill grinding away, fed with innuendo, secret meetings in closed rooms, recommendations handed down based on public pressure.
For the next week, Nela tallied up the mounting prejudice against her. She made it a point to walk briskly through the halls, greeting the people she had always greeted, pretending not to register it when they cut her dead.
There was no need for legal advice, Ashoke told her, when they accidentally collided in the corridor. The student had not accused her of physical abuse, wrist-grab notwithstanding. Only harassment.
“She wants an apology, and also to take the test again,” Ashoke said. “Why should I agree?” Nela retorted. “She was cheating. She should be expelled, not negotiated with.”
Ashoke, with a pained expression, put a hand over one ear. “We are all friends here, isn’t it. There is no need to shout.”
Nela was not aware that she was shouting. In fact, she was sure that she had not. What was Ashoke up to? She reached back into their childhoods for something that would explain his actions. He had always been possessive of her, but now he seemed intent on making it hard for her to stay on here. What could he gain by sacrificing her now?
“Do you know Hamilton’s Rule?” she asked in a voice so cunning and soft Ashoke had to bend down to scoop up the words. He shook his head. “Jackson was telling me about it in bed one night.” Ashoke colored up, his forehead instantly dampening. Nela idly wondered at what temperature his hair oil would begin to melt. She took a piece of chalk in hand and scrawled a formula on the board. She quoted, “Put into words, the relatedness of the individual that profits from the altruistic act of the focal individual must be higher than the cost/benefit ratio this act imposes. “
Ashoke looked annoyed, the way he always did when an unfamiliar concept was introduced to him. Thinking seemed to make his head hurt. “It’s a handy explanation of how related a person must be to you for you to bother to save them. Altruistic vs. selfish genes.” Nela began to sketch a scene of a man at a lake. “If this man has a choice, according to the principle, who will he save? The two brothers, or four nephews, or these eight cousins?” She drew one of the cousins with a halo of frizz and dressed in a sari. “How many less-close relatives are worth one sibling? Blood is blood, you always say. Family is everything, etc. etc. It is not really true with you, though, is it?”
They looked at one another, leaning away from the barrier between them. Ashoke’s expression sealed over. His eyes clouded, and Nela saw that he was giving her up. The only question remaining was how to make his triumph hurt him, if that was possible. She smiled with as much bravado as she could muster, and slouched against the table in a way meant to provoke him, but did not, for once. She had her answer.
“We will hear you tomorrow at nine.”
At ten minutes after nine, Nela entered the room. After she had settled herself in her chair, she narrowed her eyes to hard black hash marks for the benefit of each member of the committee.
Along with the professors, two more students were in attendance. Ashoke mumbled their names to the assembled company, his voice drowned out by the noisy scraping of Nela’s chair. “I trust you have no objections to the presence of these representatives from the Student Rights Association?” he said.
Nela shrugged and examined her nails. Suddenly, she raised her head and stared at the students. “A circus, is it?” The students widened their eyes, and one of the girls’ faces crinkling up as if to cry. Ashoke frowned, and flung his arms at his sides in an expression of exasperation Nela recognized from their childhood. He pursed his lips and brought the meeting to order.
“Ms. Jameson alleges that Dr. Sambashivan abused her during an exam on November 14. May we hear from Dr. Sambashivan what occurred on that day?”
“I’ve already told you. She was cheating and I caught her.” “How do you know she was cheating?”
“She had written answers on her palm, which she tried to rub off when she saw that I had caught her.”
“Did you see the writing on her palm?”
“She had rubbed it off by the time I reached her seat.” “So you looked at her hand, and saw nothing?”
“Unless you installed a secret camera in the room, it would be difficult to prove.”
Nela crossed her legs and resumed the inspection of her nails. They excused her before she had a chance to upend her chair or otherwise make a scene. She sauntered into the next room, nodding mocking goodbyes, but once the door was shut, she began to pace.
The committee deliberated for all of five minutes. They called Nela back in the room, where they did not ask her to take her seat. She stood before them, hands behind her back, as if she was shackled.
Ashoke, as the chair, delivered the committee’s recommendation to allow the girl to take the test over. Before Nela could protest, he stridently told her that they had also decided to call for a formal apology, and strongly encouraged her to take classes on anger management.
“Or perhaps an all expenses paid trip to a spa!” Nela countered. “On your nickles, isn’t it?”
At a certain point, when under duress, Nela became an observer, with no attachment to the outcome. Ashoke’s behavior was what interested her at the moment, how he could do what he was doing to someone with even one particle of his own DNA. She thought back to a play in which he had acted when he was eight years old. He had played Arjuna, anguished at the possibility that he would have to kill kinsmen and friends in battle. She remembered the little boy’s squeaky protests to Lord Krishna, how he begged to understand what was beyond him. But this was easy. He was an adult now. He had no excuse.
The committee members whispered behind their hands, and the two students behind theirs. Ashoke bobbed his head like a sewing machine at whatever they were saying. At last he stood apart from the others, cleared his throat, and suggested she take a leave of absence. “Think of it as a sabbatical for rest and reflection. We know you have been under a lot of strain from taking care of your mother,” he said piously. Nela laughed aloud. The great goose! She walked out of the room and left him simpering in mid-sentence, the colleagues with their mouths ajar.
That night, at her cottage, Nela overturned her basket of mail. She sifted through all the envelopes on the floor and began to accept every invitation that would take her away from there.