Shomi and Bawa, fast friends, studied in the Model Boys' School in Kashmir. Classes were held in tents. Not far from the grade-three tent the
boys could see a brick-and-cement building under construction. Mrs. Bhogal, the
teacher, told them that the construction was moving so slowly, the building
would be ready for the education of the boys' grandchildren.
The math class had just begun when a man in camouflage uniform entered the tent. A girl
with half-closed eyes marched behind him carrying a school bag and seventeen
tomatoes. She had a long ponytail and wore a dark blue phiran somewhat large for
"Where can my daughter sit?" asked the man
"She cannot sit," said Mrs. Bhogal. "This is a
The girl hid behind the man's
"Don't be afraid, girl," said the man. "Go sit
Then he marched toward the teacher and loaded his
"Rules," said Mrs. Bhogal, gasping for breath,
"cannot be broken."
"There are no girls' schools in
this area, madam," he said. "Listen carefully: if you send my child
home, I will shoot you."
The entire class hummed with fear and
"Silence!" Mrs. Bhogal put her finger over her lips.
Shomi and Bawa wondered why the teacher
didn't whip out her cane at that moment. Any trouble they made was always
met with such a warning.
The military man scanned the tent with red eyes.
The left side of the tent was full of boys; the right side of the tent was full
"Girl," said Mrs. Bhogal, dead as a brick, "take
my chair and sit in the middle."
Satisfied, the man unloaded the
revolver and marched out toward the distant mountains. For a long time afterward
the class could hear the echo of his footsteps pounding the path that led from
That day Mrs. Bhogal declared an early recess.
the girl stayed glued to her chair and began eating tomatoes. Shomi and Bawa
hesitantly inched toward her, as did the rest of the class. She was as still as
a pebble, except for the movement caused by her eating. The boys told her their
names; she nervously swallowed. The girl finished the sixth tomato faster than
the fifth. When Shomi told her his name, she giggled with a sparkle in her
No one asked the girl her name. They also avoided the topic of her
father. Instead, they bragged about the cities they had visited or the cricket
matches they had won or the Amitabh-Rekha movies they had watched. They gave her
strands of saffron. And Shomi and Bawa promised her more gifts the next day:
butterflies and answers to Mrs. Bhogal's exams.
The girl didn't
join them for football, but she watched them competing in the schoolyard through
the tent window. She looked frightened, but continued eating the tomatoes,
reddish-green fruits the size of Ping-Pong balls.
Shomi and Bawa did not
join the other boys in the yard. They were rolling a bicycle tire inside the
unfinished building. When the tire wobbled over a mound of cement, Shomi turned
to his friend and confessed: "When I grow up I will marry
"Who?" Bawa asked.
"Then her father will shoot you," said
"I am ready to die," Shomi declared
"Why die? Why not write a
"If she replies, you two
could run away," Bawa suggested.
Recess ended as the girl finished the
eleventh tomato. Mrs. Bhogal rang the bell and started teaching the history
lesson. Under normal circumstances she was just a conventional teacher, but that
day her lecture took an unconventional turn.
"Class," she began
in a subdued voice, "over there on the distant mountains, there are two
gardens. On the left is Shalimar and on the right is Nishat. Shalimar was built
by the Emperor for the Empress. And Nishat was built by the Empress's
brother for the Empress."
"Yes, madam," boomed the boys.
Shomi watched the girl eat her thirteenth tomato.
"One day, in A.D.
1632, the Emperor cut off the supply of water to Nishat. Do you know
"Because Nishat was as
beautiful as Shalimar."
"Yes, madam," chimed the boys. Bawa
studied the girl as she started on her fourteenth tomato.
to the history of gardens. He was busy drafting a love letter with a blue
pencil. When the epistle was done, he asked Bawa for editorial assistance. Bawa
used the eraser generously and added a few lines.
"How are you going
to hand it to her?" whispered Bawa.
"I'll walk to her
"Fool, do it with style."
Bawa transformed the
declaration of love into a messenger plane and propelled it upward as Mrs.
Bhogal chalked some new history on the blackboard. Shomi saw the entire class
twist their necks. The boys turned to observe the loops of the plane, which
swished out of the tent and returned smelling of saffron. Once inside, the
messenger plane, sailing like a bird, sheared past Mrs. Bhogal's beehive
hair and lost momentum, landing serenely on three
“Girl," said Mrs. Bhogal angrily with hands on her
hips, "bring it to me."
The girl did exactly as she was
The teacher snatched the aircraft from her, flattened its paper, and
began reading the blue words to the whole class.
Paralyzed, Shomi turned
toward Bawa. Shomi's eyes shook with alarm.
I love you like in the movies.
Bawa sniffled and scuffed his boots against the floor.
I want to marry you. You will be my Empress. I will build you a garden
more beautiful than Nishat. We will plant tomatoes in the garden so that you can
eat them. Write soon and wait for the next stage of my plan to rescue you.
Flying kiss, Emperor Bawa
Shomi heaved a sigh of relief. Bawa
hid his face between his arms on the desk. Caught by Mrs. Bhogal. Caught by his
"Girl," asked the teacher rolling her eyes,
"do you want to marry Emperor Bawa?"
The girl blushed and held
her belly and vomited a sweet-smelling paste of tomatoes. Then she wept a flood
of tears and ran out of the tent, heading in the direction of the distant
The teacher caned Bawa on the back of his hand. She made him wear
a chicken mask. She forced him to raise his arms above his head for the rest of
An eerie silence stilled the tent. Shomi contemplated the situation
for a while, his gaze fixed on the two uneaten tomatoes. He knew for certain the
girl would return with her father, who would shoot them both: Mrs. Bhogal and
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