Paduma's World By Nihal de Silva
Paduma 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 the table.

Tell me.
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 correct answers?


Paduma 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 8.5 kilograms.”

The 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.

The 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’.

Paduma 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.

The idiots.
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?

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

He 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.

The 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.

Paduma fades quietly away. Paduma is seated quietly at his desk when the girls troop in. They are perspiring profusely and obviously agitated.
And late!

“Didn't 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.

“I 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.

“Not another word,” Miss Rupa yells angrily, her face thunderous. “All you girls will do detention next week. Sit down and be quiet.”
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.

Saro stamps viciously on Paduma's foot as she edges past him to her desk. He ignores the pain and whispers innocently:
"Mokada parakku wuney?"

Why are you late?
"Umba napuru … umba …," Saro's rage makes her incoherent.
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.

"This 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.

"If 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.

"Teacher 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.

Being 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.

Miss 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.

"Everything 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.

Look 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 his chest.
"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 hands."

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 forward.
"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 scoundrel.
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 so?"
"Oh yes miss," Paduma says fervently. "I promise. Really."
Paduma is unusually quiet as they walk home after school.
"Apey teacher hari hädai neyda?" Mahi Bada observes. "Sootikkek wagey."
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.

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