World By Nihal de Silva
meets the Sootikka
Paduma hates math tests.
Miss Rupa has written the questions on the board. The very first
question is giving him trouble.
4 lt. 650 ml + 3 lt. 540 ml =
Paduma has put down the answer as 7 lt. 1190 ml but that doesn't
look right. How many millilitres make up a litre? 10,000? 100,000?
He thinks for a while, biting his pencil, then crosses out his first
answer and writes 8lt 190 ml. But he is not happy.
He tries to peep at Saro's answer but she has the exercise book
covered with her left hand. Paduma waits till Miss Rupa looks away.
"Mokakkda uttarey?" he asks in a hoarse whisper.
Saro frowns and shakes her head. Furious, Paduma kicks her under
Saro looks at him angrily for a moment and then gives in. She takes
a scrap of paper, scribbles the answer on it and passes it to Paduma.
Paduma studies the note with a puzzled frown. How can the answer
be 8.5 kg? Yet Saro is one of the best students in the class. There
is no time to waste; he crosses out the answer he had written earlier
and writes 8.5 kg.
Miss Rupa is checking the answer scripts one by one. The plump Sita
is chided for having two wrong answers. Saro, on the other hand,
is praised for getting them all right. Paduma knows he is next;
he waits confidently for a pat on the back.
Miss Rupa has a look of wonder on her face. Paduma is ecstatic;
this is his moment.
“Stand up, you,” Miss Rupa says, pointing at Paduma.
“All the children must see the cleverest boy in the class.”
This is wonderful, but how am I cleverer than Saro who has all the
is on his feet, smiling proudly. All eyes are on him.
“The answer to the first question is 8 lt. 190 ml. Most of
you have got it right,” Miss Rupa says slowly. “This
buffalo writes the correct answer, then crosses it out and writes
children scream with laughter; Paduma prays for the earth to split
open and swallow him up. He turns to look at the wretch who had
tricked him. Saro has covered her face with her hands; but her shoulders
are heaving as if she has a fever.
children are still laughing at him when the bell rings for the interval.
Even Mahi Bada and Bothalay find an excuse to slip away. No one
wants to be seen with the ‘cleverest boy in the class’.
sits on a plank resting on two coconut stumps and watches the other
boys at play. He is too ashamed to join them, knowing they will
mock him. He looks balefully at the girls seated under the mal mara
tree, having their food. Saro is waving her arms and talking; their
laughter rings across the playground. Paduma grinds his teeth.
Saro is the one. She alone is responsible for his disgrace. He had
worked out the correct answer already; all she had to do was to
confirm it. It would have cost her nothing. Instead she feeds him
an answer that makes him look so stupid. What punishment will balance
the account? What action will regain his prestige?
girls are throwing scraps of food to Pulli, the brown and white
mongrel bitch. Pulli has adopted the school and lives on the food
the children feed it and the refuse in the pit behind the principal's
house. Only one pup seems to have survived from its litter, a little
white animal with a brown patch over one eye.
pup is popular with the girls. They feed it with the best scraps
and pass it from hand to hand. Saro has named the animal Suddhi
because it's colour. The pup is her special pet.
girls run off to play hopscotch in the sandy area near the gate.
Paduma remains on the bench, searching desperately for some scheme
that will restore his honour.
has an idea and runs to the school dump to collect what he needs.
Catching the pup is no problem. The animals are still under the
mara tree, looking for forgotten scraps. Paduma uses a bit of string
to secure an empty tin to the pup's tail: into the tin he drops
a few pebbles. The trusting little animal makes no protest till
it takes a few steps and hears the awful rattle behind.
pup panics and runs howling across the playground, the tin can bouncing
and rattling behind it. The girls, seeing this, add to the commotion
by screaming and running after the terrified puppy, whereupon it
redoubles its efforts to escape.
fades quietly away. Paduma is seated quietly at his desk when the
girls troop in. They are perspiring profusely and obviously agitated.
you hear the bell?” Miss Rupa asks nastily. “I can expect
the boys to misbehave but I thought you girls are better.”
“But Miss …,” Saro tries to explain.
don't want to hear your excuses,” Miss Rupa cuts her off.
“You have disgraced me in front of your new parisaraya teacher.”
“Miss …,” Saro tries again.
another word,” Miss Rupa yells angrily, her face thunderous.
“All you girls will do detention next week. Sit down and be
The girls are in shock. They have always been pets of the class
teacher, now they have suddenly been disgraced in public. They walk
slowly to their desks, heads down and shoulders slouched; but when
they look at Paduma their eyes seem to emit bolts of white flame.
stamps viciously on Paduma's foot as she edges past him to her desk.
He ignores the pain and whispers innocently:
"Mokada parakku wuney?"
are you late?
"Umba napuru … umba …," Saro's rage makes
You wicked … you …
Miss Rupa beckons and a princess walks into the class. Even her
sari is worn differently, with a lot of frills at the waist. The
sleeves of her pink blouse are puffed at the shoulder. She is tall
and slender; her smile is like a sunrise.
is Miss Kanthi," Miss Rupa announces. "She is a trainee
and will be teaching parisaraya, the environment. She will take
you outside for lessons and I want all of you to behave."
Miss Rupa lets her eyes run over the faces before her. She clearly
doesn't like what she sees.
any of you cause trouble, I will be held responsible. I'll …
I'll punish you severely; do you hear?"
Miss Kanthi tells them to form a line in the compound. She leads
them through the school gate towards the wäwa, two by two and
holding hands. Saro is next to him.
wants us to hold hands," Paduma whispers gleefully.
The look Saro directs at him should have scorched his face.
"I'd rather hold a polonga than touch your hand," she
snaps, turning her face away.
compared with a viper pleases Paduma. He tries to whistle jauntily
but only succeeds in dribbling spit on his chin.
They find a shady spot near the bund and sit in a circle. Miss Kanthi
sits with them. Paduma feels deep in his heart that parisaraya will
become his favourite subject.
Kanthi addresses the class. She speaks softly and her voice seems
to carry its own music. The children lean forward to catch every
word. Miss Rupa is mad to think that anyone will cause trouble in
Miss Kanthi's class. Anyway, if anyone dares to make trouble they'll
have to deal with him, Paduma, first.
that you are taught in school is very important. Some of you may
not understand the importance of it now, but you will, when you
are older," Miss Kanthi says, letting her eyes pass gently
over all the children seated there, "but the most important
subject of all is the environment".
"Just look at it," Miss Kanthi stretches her arm out.
"Look at the water in the wäwa, so clean and cool. It
is home to fish that fishermen depend on for their livelihood.
at the nelum and olu plants growing in the water, the village people
collect the roots for food. Look at the reeds growing along the
edge; people use it for weaving and for shelter. Look at the birds
that beautify the wäwa. Some walking along the edge searching
for fish and frogs, some swimming in deep water and some circling
in the air above."
Miss Kanthi pauses and lets her eyes pass over the faces of the
children. She smiles and Paduma feels as if a knife has entered
"Look at this kumbuk tree above you," Miss Kanthi goes
on. "It has stood on this bank for over hundred years, giving
its shade to people and animals alike, spreading its branches as
if to embrace them all."
"But look at this," Miss Kanthi points at the ugly scars
on the trunk of the tree. Sharp knives have been used to carve an
assortment of names on the bark.
Gumunu + Prithi.
Prabath loves Sriya.
Hema is a gemba.
"The people who damaged this tree were not evil. They just
didn't know that this tree draws all its food through the bark;
that when the bark is destroyed the tree might die. The people who
throw rubbish in the wäwa don't realise that it will spoil
the water and kill the fish."
"The people in this village must be educated. You, all of you
in this class, must teach others to protect the environment. Are
you with me? Will those who agree to help in this task raise their
Who can refuse an appeal by Miss Kanthi?
Paduma is the first to raise his hand; the other children follow.
"To teach others, you must first learn about the environment,"
Miss Kanthi says with a smile. "I will teach you. Now I want
to form two teams to see who will perform better. First we need
two leaders. Let me see …"
Miss Kanthi looks over the class and points to Saro and then, to
his surprise and joy, to Paduma. The two leaders are told to come
"Miss, don't make this fellow a leader," Saro says angrily
as she comes up. "During the interval he tortured my puppy
by tying a tin can to its tail."
Oh no. Miss Kanthi will demote me now. Worse, she'll think I'm a
Miss Kanthi studies Paduma for a moment.
"I am sure he is very sorry about that," Miss Kanthi answers
calmly. "He will never do anything like that again. Isn't that
"Oh yes miss," Paduma says fervently. "I promise.
Paduma is unusually quiet as they walk home after school.
"Apey teacher hari hädai neyda?" Mahi Bada observes.
Our teacher is very pretty, isn't she? Just like a sunbird.
"Paduma eyata love wagey," Bothaley says with a laugh.
"Ekai saddayak nätthey." Looks like Paduma is in
love with her. That's why he's so quiet.
With a roar of anger, Paduma picks up a stick from the side of the
road and chases Bothalay all the way to his home.