The setting is a Missionary school, in one of the hottest parts of the country. It is among few of the strictest schools you can imagine. The event is the uneventful passing of a local politician, someone we, fifth standard students, had never heard of before that day.
It was an ordinary June morning at school. The morning sun glared down at us as we assembled on the school grounds. Our brown uniform was slowly becoming one with our rapidly browning skins. We were shifting restlessly waiting for the droning voice of the school captain to stop speaking, and soon she did. The students started shifting in the lines to make the quickest possible exit, murmuring among themselves in visible relief.
Someone pointedly cleared their throat in the mic, clearly trying to grab the attention of the students. We knew who it was, from the corner of our eyes we had noticed the looming figure of the headmistress standing on the podium. But we were as optimistic as we were stupid; we thought if we escaped the grounds fast enough, she will change her mind about speaking to us.
“Ahem! Class Five B stands in your place, stop moving.”
No such luck.
Her voice was sharp as a whip as she glared at us over her thick rimmed spectacles. Her hair was almost fully white and was always tucked neatly under her veil. She was old, and hunched, but her body didn’t betray any frailness, she had always cut a menacing figure as long as we knew her. Secretly all of us children thought she was immortal.
We quickly fell in our lines, head bowed in embarrassment, the other classes glared at us at the prospect of listening to any additional lecture due to our silliness. But that was not the case today.
She signed on the mic and nodded to herself as if to rein her anger.
“It is with a very heavy heart that I inform you, my dear children, that Mr. Prakash Agarwal has passed away.”Low murmurs of confusion spread around the grounds—
“No, you idiot.”
We once again hung our heads in shame. Well to be honest at that age we did not really feel all that much shame, we were usually more afraid of accidentally making eye contact with her. Nonetheless, we were now silent, and mildly interested in what she had to say.
“Mr. Agarwal was the former MLA of our constituency; he served us faithfully for several decades before passing the baton to his son.”
“Passed the baton? Is this a monarchy?” someone asked under their breath, only for their class teacher to materialize beside them and discreetly step on their foot to shut them up.
“He was a great man. And today we mourn his death.”
She paused theatrically and raised her head skywards in prayer. We could finally stare at her, and almost at the same time all of us realized that the headmistress did not, in fact, have to stand under the sun.
“So to honor his life and to express our condolences, we will hold a few minutes of silence as soon as the bell rings.”
And ring it did. The whirring sound filled the space like a noxious gas as if to make up for all the silence that was supposed to follow it. This time everyone hung their head, shoulders dropped in defeat, and silence sprawled over the slow roasting student body.
“I should have stayed at home.”
A voice that was clearly meant to be a whisper, but unfortunately for the speaker, it rang out like thunder in the silent assembly. Anyone would assume it was a discourteous student, with no semblance of respect for the dead, a student who needed to be disciplined as soon as possible. Because how dare they interrupt mourning, that everyone was clearly forced to take seriously.
But we the students of the infamous class ‘Five B’ knew differently, it was none other than the Vice Principal, who stood right at the end of our class line, probably hoping to catch us causing mischief. The weight of what we had witnessed hung in the air for a moment and then it exploded.
If someone asked me a few years ago, who was it that started giggling first, I’d have shrugged and dismissed the question. But alas the spoiler is in the title of the tale, it was yours truly that was the first one who couldn’t hold it in anymore. The high-pitched giggle escaped me like a snort, and within nanoseconds, all of my classmates joined in. It was chaos. The headmistress looked skyward again and continued the silence until the bell rang again. We had obviously still not stopped chortling; we went on like a clan of hyenas with a particularly bad sense of humor.
“Every class except class Five B please leaves the grounds!”
We were going to die, and we were still laughing. We knew it was our version of the dead man's last laugh. I could feel the phantom pain on my butt, on the spot where the cane would strike in a short while. But what hurt more were my overtaxed abdominal muscles, still gasping for breath, I can swear that even as an adult I’ve never had a better ab workout session.
It seemed like ages passed before we could stop ourselves. And as soon as we did, there she was, Sr. Sylvia stared at us like she was laying her eyes on a particularly distasteful alien species for the first time. She opened her mouth and angrily yelled,
“Are you fo— ols done embarrassing yourselves?”
Her voice cracked while yelling ‘fools’, and as you might have already guessed, it set us off again.
This time we were in tears and absolutely unstoppable, some of us were pinching ourselves to ebb the flood of laughter, but that didn’t seem to have any effect. Like an extremely contagious and stubborn stain of flu, it clung to us until we were in tatters. Sr. Sylvia stomped her feet in anger and stormed off furious.
And after a while the Vice Principal sighed dejectedly, her face was the very picture of disappointment. We had secretly hoped that the feeling of disappointment was also directed towards her, it was after all her actions that had brought us to this moment.
“Go to class kids, let’s not waste any more time here. And remember your punishment is not over.”
Thankfully we did not get any beatings that day, and instead, we were made to write an apology letter expressing our deep regret at our behavior and send it to Mr. Agarwal’s family (who mind you, would not have known of the incident if not for the letters) and the Headmistress (who corrected the errors in the letters and returned them to us).
In hindsight, nothing that took place that day was funny enough to garner the reaction that it did, but for the people who’ve been in similar situations before (and also for the ones who haven’t), all I have to say is: “If you know, you know”.