They’re nine-year-olds, too old, so by the time they’re taunting the moon bears I’ve opened my mouth several times. But I’ve shut it again. I can’t decide whether to bid them stop.
It’s midday in a rainless July; the walkway radiates heat. The fun-sized black-furred bears doze under the flame-of-the-forest. The placard reads: ‘Moon Bear.’ That’s the children’s excuse.
“Why’s it called moon bear, miss?” Raghav asks me. “They’re just black.”
“They’ve got white moons on their chests,” Vikesh interjects.
“More like Vs, like Batman’s logo,” Anmol corrects.
“But we can’t see their chests.”
“Wake up, moon bears! Show us your moons!” Raghav’s voice cleanly bisects my eardrums.
The rest of the third-standard class have caught up: those who lingered to tease the hippos waddling from the water to rest their massive chins on the concrete floor. I’m surrounded by seventy boys screaming at the dozing moon bears.
They’re in their play-clothes. Normally they’d be in uniform; I begged the principal for an exception. It’s Saturday, I pleaded, a half-day: it’ll only be me teaching them English and Moral Science before we board the bus. They’ll soil their clothes, I pleaded, this dusty midsummer. The principal has three sons; this appeal worked. I do another headcount. The boys are a sea of thick checked shirts and faded blue-jeans: styles and fibres that the rich cast off in 2009, my students are sporting now.
“Wake up, moon bears! Deaf, or what?”
The zoo’s been modernised: no more cages except for the birds. These new enclosures are open-air, if modest-sized, half the room occupied by the steep ditch fronting the rails. When Anmol climbs the rails, spreading his arms Batman-like, I touch his shoulder; he climbs down, apologising.
Some of my students are first-generation learners; the rest are slightly less poor; they all respect teachers reflexively. When it comes to their safety I’ve no qualms intervening. I’d have to say one word and they’d stop taunting the animals.
Vikesh walks on alone, then runs back, screaming, “Next is rhino! Leave these waste fellows and come on!”
Half the boys follow; tracking them, I linger midway between bears and rhinos. Today I’m letting them set the pace. Most of these children are local – for them there’s no commuting cross-town to the vast suburban campuses of international schools – they live nearby. But many of them have never visited the zoo. I asked them on the bus. They’ve better things to do, they reassured me: Gameboys and such. Why haven’t their parents brought them? The entry-fee’s nominal.
It’s their first visit. I want them to enjoy themselves anyhow. As for the animals – they look oblivious. The safari-bus lingered within five feet of a lioness who sat holding a twig between her paws, brushing her teeth. My students leaped and screamed, but the lioness didn’t deign us a glance. Empathy’s important, but I’ll have other opportunities to teach that.
“They’re going to fight!” Vikesh claps at two rhinos squaring off, urging them on. The children huddle, trembling, excited, picking sides like racetrack gamblers.
“Will they hurt each other?” Raghav looks up at me. In his mud-brown face his green-gold eyes iridesce pity.
“Probably they’ll just posture a bit,” I venture. “Rhinos get stressed easily.”
“But they look like tanks,” says Anmol.
“Thick skins and soft hearts.”
The combatants paw the ground and make a few feints. My students watch goggle-eyed. Five-and-a-half-days a week I watch my students, chins on slack palms, struggle to stay awake between dutifully droning their lessons. Some of them will have the chance to attend college. I want to give them one exciting memory of school.
One rhino canters off, chased briefly by the victor, to seek solace with a third who’s resting under a silk-cotton tree, a forest unto itself. The boys groan, disappointed, but look relieved. Their hearts’re in the right place.
A rumble shivers through our ribcages, then crescendoes into a roar. “Tigress woke up!” says Raghav. “Now we can see her face!”
The children run off; I follow.
“I pity them,” says Vikesh.
“Why? They look healthy.”
“I mean my classmates,” he says gravely. I can’t decide whether he’s sincere. He’s a good student; he doesn’t need to brown-nose. But some of these children are prematurely wise, doing more than they need to. “Miss, why don’t you stop them?”
Put on the spot, I have the answer I’ve sought all afternoon. As we hurry towards the tiger-enclosure, I answer, “They’re having fun. Sometimes, that’s all that matters.”
Amita Basu is a cognitive scientist by day. Her fiction has appeared/is forthcoming in Fairlight Books, CommuterLit, Bandit Fiction, Toyon, Bewildering Stories, Gasher, and other magazines and anthologies. She lives in Bangalore, and blogs at http://amitabasu.com/