Ten-year-olds usually don’t know much about divorce. Parents tend to keep it hush hush, some try to avoid the topic while others make up some story about how Dad needs to go live on a farm for a bit. Regardless, the word is taboo and yet, the entirety of Bloomsdale Elementary School knew when the principal finally got one.
Rajalakshmi, our principal, got herself a tabby, who wasn’t well-liked by most of the students. Everybody put up with Mannu, but more so for Rajalakshmi than for the sake of the cat. Most of us didn’t mind the cat much, however, he had managed to piss off all the other 5th-grade football and basketball players. Once the cat would stroll onto the field or the basketball court, all games were halted until the feline disruption would lollygag off their zones of enjoyment. It wasn’t very common for animals to be treated with this much respect by rowdy fifth graders, and what made Ballu angry was that Mannu would never get that same respect had he not been Rajalakshmi’s cat. Nepotism ran deep within the administrative structures of Bloomsdale Elementary School, and Balram Thakur would not stand for such discriminatory practices.
Ballu, the tallest fifth-grader, was best known for being the tallest fifth grader. He had dreams of being the best basketball player in the state, and he would let nothing come between him and his dream. Especially not a cat with an attitude.
On the morning of 13th October, when Mannu interrupted the 4th and 5th graders’ basketball game for the 6th time, Ballu snapped. He had to do something about this, and he needed Sanju to help out. Sanju was only 4 feet tall, and wasn’t good at sports and loved nurturing plants, which is why people thought it was odd that Sanju and Ballu hit it off so well.
(Rumour has it that Ballu was doing a routine check of his classmates’ tiffin boxes and he fell in love with Sanju’s mom’s cooking, and a deal was drawn, where, in exchange for Sanju’s negotiation skills and Nutella sandwiches, Ballu would protect Sanju from himself and other bullies.)
Ballu stomped off to find his trusted aide, only to find him quietly admiring the money plants Deepti Ma’am had planted outside her office.
He dragged Sanju aside and said, “Mannu has got to go. I’ve had enough.”
“Kya hua, Ballu?” Sanju knowingly asked.
“If that cat interrupts our game once more, I will not be able to control myself from flinging him across the school wall. We need to get rid of him to protect him from me.”
Sanjeev took out his notebook and scribbled what seemed to be a schedule. “Rajalakshmi leaves that demon cat out to loiter 3 times in the day. You’ve just experienced the morning session, which means the next time that cat is set free would be the fifth period. Yogi sir is absent, so we won’t be having art class. What do you have in the fifth period?”
“We’re in the same class, you idiot!”
“Yes, how do you not know this?”
“Well, I just never see you in class now do I?”
There was an uncomfortable silence before Sanjeev continued narrating his plan for the future of the cat. Two conditions were agreed upon:
The cat shall not be physically hurt (the two fifth-graders were yet to discover what emotional hurt meant), and
Ballu would let Sanjeev have his entire tiffin that day.
The 5th period rolled around and the two classmates stepped out of their class, with determined looks on their faces. They went to class 5-C and called their friend Priya outside. Priya was the only girl who didn’t run off to play roleplay games with all the other girls, and Ballu was too shy to admit that Priya had the best penalty shoot he had ever seen on a fifth-grader. She didn’t have to be convinced to help them, she harboured a hatred so fiery towards the cat that Sanjeev had to sacrifice half of his sandwich just to get her to agree to condition number 1.
While the rest of the school was busy studying, Ballu and Sanju swept the empty corridors, mewing around to see if they could connect with the cat somehow. Meanwhile, Priya had left on a diplomatic mission to the school guard, Ram Kishore bhaiya to allow the students to release Mannu into the wild roads of Delhi without complaining to Rajalakshmi.
Mannu wasn’t a hard cat to catch. He was overfed, rarely lifted a finger to do any cat-like chores, and in fact, was oblivious to the three mice that stole its food from his dish. Sanju had laid the perfect trap. Stolen salami from Rajinder’s tiffin was dipped into Deepti ma’am’s cough syrup. Deepti ma’am only ever gave it to a student if the only way to stop a kid from sneezing was to tranquilise them. The salami was laid out as bait and while Ballu stood in the corner, salivating silently, with his duffel bag ready to leap out and catch his archnemesis.
Fifteen minutes in and their mission had proven successful so far. Ballu slung his duffel bag over his shoulder and accompanied Sanjeev in going towards the school gate. Ram Kishore allowed the two boys to go out of the school for a total of 5 minutes, according to the agreement struck with Priya.
However, the bell for the recess rang and suddenly everything was chaos. Students would be pouring out into the field within seconds and there would be no way to enter the school without at least ten kids noticing and telling teachers what they witnessed.
Ballu placed the duffel carefully next to the road, complying with condition number 1, and ran inside, with Sanju and Priya scrambling in front of him to reach the field and feign normalcy.
The next day, in the morning assembly announcements, Sanjeev Sengupta, Balram Thakur and Priyadarshini Sen were called to the principal’s office.
Instead of being called one by one, they were all called in together. Rajalakshmi threw a tissue into her dustbin, and Sanju noticed how it wasn’t the first tissue used that morning. It seemed understandable, the woman was grieving her missing cat.
“I expect all three of you already know why you have been called?”
“Ma’am, he was annoying us so we just decided to let him out of school for a bit and thought he’d come back soon.”
“HE!? Who are you talking about?”
“Ma’am, your cat?”
“MANNU WAS A FEMALE CAT!”
“How does one know if a cat is a girl cat or a boy cat?” asked an innocent Ballu.
Rajalakshmi didn’t respond, and instead poured herself a glass of water, which she drank with two tablets of Disprin. Priya looked at Sanju, Sanju looked back at Priya, fear in their eyes as they heard tiny meowing noises from a basket in the corner of Ma’am’s office. Inside the basket were three baby kittens, the size of mere mice, mewing for their mother.
Ballu shifted his glance to what looked like the tattered remains of his bag, except it was a lot more reddish-brown than he remembered it to be. Finally, he looked straight at Rajalakshmi ma’am, now fully aware of what might have happened. It must have been one of those taxi driver people who park recklessly, Ballu found himself thinking.
“I have sent an email to all three of your parents. They will be coming to meet me tomorrow.”
None of them had anything left to say. All three just wished they had let the cat out of the bag.
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