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  • Writer's pictureMahmudun Nabi

Friendly Mamdo Ghost

It’s the first day back at school after the summer vacation, but Fontu can’t say he’s all that excited about it. It’s also the day when they receive the results for the first semester of the year. Fontu can’t quite grasp the excitement among his classmates. Sure, it makes sense for the nerdy ones who seem to get thrilled by every little school thing. But for the rest, it should be just as bothersome as it is for him. Fontu thinks they’re perhaps too carefree to worry about life’s complexities. He might not be the top student in the class, but in some ways, he feels more mature than his peers. He’s curious about life’s intricacies and the workings of society, interests that others seem to lack.

Fontu steps into the classroom, joining the line with all the other boys and girls. They just won’t stop chattering, even after a while when everyone’s inside. Their class teacher, Mr. Girish Chandra, is growing older and doesn’t have the energy to control a bunch of mischievous ten-year-olds. So, he gives up on shouting and decides to enjoy his tea and newspaper instead. After ten minutes, the class finally calms down. Mr. Girish Chandra thinks about giving them a stern talk, but then he changes his mind. He takes a file from his bag and addresses the class, saying, “Today is your result day, and I have all your mark sheets.”

He starts handing them out one by one, occasionally asking for names because it’s not easy to remember all his 5,000 students at his age. Girish believes he’s finished giving out the transcripts when one student stands up and says, “Sir, I didn’t get mine.”

There are still some papers left with Mr. Girish, but he thought they were for absent students. “What’s your name, boy?” Girish asks.

“I am Fontu, sir. Fontu Talukdar,” the boy replies.

Girish searches for the name but can’t find it. “I think you should go to the headmaster to check if it’s there,” he tells Fontu.

Fontu can’t quite tell if the headmaster is older or younger than Girish sir. But one thing’s for sure, the headmaster has much more energy than Girish Chandra, which makes students more afraid of him than of most other teachers. His door is always open, and Fontu can see him reading a newspaper from down the corridor.

“May I come in, Sir?” Fontu asks.

“Yes, you may. What’s the matter, Fontu? Everything okay?” the headmaster asks with his smile fading but he knows why Fontu is here. He changes his glasses to an even sleeker pair and starts searching for the report card. It’s right on top.

The headmaster’s voice gets deeper and more serious as he reads, “I see. 83 in history. Good, very good.”

Fontu smiles back and nods twice. But then, as the headmaster continues reading, “Bangla 65, English 60…” he suddenly takes a dramatic pause and shouts loudly, “13 in math! How did you get so many numbers?”

Fontu is left bewildered, trying to process what’s happening. The headmaster keeps going on, now yelling, “What a shame! Hey, boy, aren’t you Abdullah Biswas’s grandson? What do I tell your parents now? Did you not think before getting this grade? Do you know what happens to people in the afterlife who can’t do math?”

Fontu is confused but knows it’s best to stay quiet. The headmaster sips his glass of water and continues, “Those who don’t know math are forever doomed in the afterlife. They lose balance in everything, and can’t tell crows from cuckoos. Arithmetic makes your heart transparent and helps you be practical, ridding your brain of destructive thoughts. 13 in math! Wait, I’m calling your father now.”

***

Fontu sits in their home’s courtyard, feeling completely lost. Yet he understands the situation better now. He had a feeling after the exam that things didn’t go well at all. Why is it his problem that someone has to buy 87 pineapples? But he had hoped for at least passing marks in math. Fontu notices Aunty Mina approaching with an angry expression. Mina is the maid at their house.

“Why are you sitting there? Go see your mother. You got a 13 in math. Today’s the day for scolding. Go on, she’s waiting for you,” Aunty Mina orders, her tone filled with frustration.

Fontu’s mother, who is often riddled with headaches, is sitting on a comfortable chair on the balcony with her newspaper when she spots Fontu approaching. She drops the newspaper the moment she sees him and gives him a silent, hard stare that feels like an eternity. Finally, she speaks, “You know who your grandfather is. Everyone in our village and ten other places remembers him for math. What do I tell him now?”

Fontu is patiently waiting for the moment when he has to apologize and explain, but his mother doesn’t give him a chance and keeps scolding, “It’s all your father’s fault. My son can never be bad at math. It’s your dad and his genes.”

Fontu finds a pause and seizes the chance to show his report card, saying, “But, Ma, I got 80 in history.”

He was also hoping to get her signature. But she doesn’t even look at the report card and keeps talking, “Of course, that’s no surprise to me. I taught you that. Your dad said he wants to teach you math; otherwise, I would have done that too. I’m not signing this. Go get it from your father.”

“But, Ma, he’s seeing patients,” Fontu points out anxiously, but his mother dismisses it, saying, “I don’t care about his patients. Go now.”

***

Fontu’s father has a little room in their house where he sees patients on weekends and sometimes even during the week. He’s still with a patient when Fontu enters, so he quietly takes a seat in a chair, not saying a word.

His dad says, “Let me see the report,” without looking at him.

But before Fontu can respond, the patient chimes in, “Here’s my stool report, Doctor."

His dad furrows his brow and says, “Not you, sir. I’m talking to my son.”

Fontu hands over the report to his dad. His father looks at the report and seems disappointed. He says, “Math was never my strong suit, but I used to manage 60 or 65. Thirteen is a bit too low, don’t you think? Because of this, I don’t think your mom is going to let me sleep upstairs tonight.”

Fontu knows that bringing up his history grades won’t help, so he stays quiet and lets his dad keep talking. His dad continues, “Neither of us is having any dinner tonight until we make a plan. Remember, practice makes perfect, my son. Don’t you think? I’ve arranged a tutor for you. Miss Nupur is waiting for you in the study. Go see her now.”

***

Things don’t look any better for Fontu. He knows exactly who Miss Nupur is and is well aware of her reputation. She’s the high school math teacher in their town, and all the high school students are scared of her.

Nupur is reading a newspaper when Fontu walks in. He figures it’s best to give her the report card before she asks for it. But she surprises him, saying, “I don’t need to see that. Let me introduce myself. I don’t know if you’re familiar with how I work, but I have my methods, and I expect all my students to cooperate. Normally, I don’t teach younger students because I don’t have the time. However, I couldn’t say no to your father as I owe him a favor. Your mother has assured me that it’s perfectly fine to use my extreme methods on you if necessary. Today is the first day, so I haven’t brought my sticks. You’ll get to know them better tomorrow. Today, we’ll tackle the exam questions that got you a 13.”

It feels like the longest one-and-a-half hours in Fontu’s life. She scolds him every 30 seconds while she’s around. Even though she’s gone now, it doesn’t make things much better. He still has a load of homework to complete for tomorrow. She even mentioned that all her sticks have names. Fontu is pretty sure tomorrow won’t be pleasant. He leaves the study and spots his younger sister playing with the neighbor’s kids in their courtyard. She still struggles with speaking properly, having that baby language common for 4-year-olds with missing teeth. She starts laughing and points at him to show her friends.

“My brother got 13 in math!” she screams with excitement. Fontu feels like scolding her, but instead, he quickly leaves the house.

He heads to the bamboo forest near his house. What else can he do? He can’t go play with friends; he’s the only one in class who got a 13 in math. So he chooses solitude here in the bamboo forest. There’s a small pond in the middle of the forest. He used to come here with his friends to play hide and seek. He starts throwing rocks into the pond, thinking about society and how unfair some of its rules are. A person who doesn’t know math gets no respect in society. He knows money is important, but why can’t we just live in the forest and eat what nature provides? These rules don’t sit right with him.

He still thinks and throws rocks when his thoughts are interrupted by a noise – something hit by his rock, he thinks at first. But there’s a strange-looking person standing by the pond now. They start laughing loudly, “How Maw Khaw, smells like a baby cow.”

He’s not in the mood to deal with this right now; he wanted some alone time. “There’s no baby cow here; if you’re looking for one, you need to go to the fields over there,” he points west.

The person starts laughing again, “Human baby, cow baby, all are the same to me as long as they’re afraid of me.”

“What’s there to be afraid of?” he asks, taking a closer look at the person. The first thing he notices is the mustache; the biggest mustache he’s seen is that of an old teacher at his school who retired a year ago, but even that mustache was nothing compared to this. Their eyes are unusually red, like high school students, and their teeth are all black. The voice is so high-pitched, almost like they’re talking through their nose. They are dressed in a feminine manner, with an outfit similar to a saree. However, there’s something peculiar about their legs, he can’t point out what exactly.

He speaks with an annoyed voice, “Listen, I’ve seen many strange people when I went to the city with my dad. You’re nothing that extraordinary. At this moment, the biggest fear in my life is Miss Nupur.”

With a little confusion and unpreparedness, the person speaks, “What? You’re not afraid of me? But I’m not a human. Look at me, I’m a ghost!”

Fontu throws the last rock into the pond a bit harder, “Both my parents told me there’s no such thing as ghosts. Maybe a long time ago there was, but in this era, if you try to scare people, you’ll just be ridiculed. Be a math teacher if you want to scare me.”

The ghost looks confused and starts scratching their head, “Well, it is true I haven’t done this for a while, and things may have changed with time. But you have to believe that I am a ghost; look what I can do.”

The ghost starts jumping and flying through the bamboo to prove the point of having a transparent body. Fontu is still unimpressed and wants to get rid of this self-proclaimed ghost, “Please, can you go now? Everybody can do this nowadays. Our PET teacher showed us some tricks last year at the school function.”

“Is that so?” The ghost almost sounds like they’re going to cry, they start begging him to believe in them, “Please, if you don’t believe me, then I will cease to exist. Our whole existence is based on what humans think of us.”

He gets up and thinks about finding some other quiet place, but the ghost won’t let him go. “Please give me one last chance; if you come with me, I’ll do anything for you. I’ll do your math homework for a year.”

Now that’s a proposal Fontu can’t reject doubtlessly. “How good are you at math?” he asks the ghost.

“I am excellent; my whole world is built on ones and zeros,” the ghost replies.

He thinks of giving the ghost a chance, “Okay, let’s go.”

The ghost opens a portal on the ground and jumps in with him.

***

They’re floating on something that seems like a cloud but feels as soft as a pillow. It’s a whole different world, that’s for sure. The sky here is a shade of purple, the sun shines green, and the trees are yellow. Fontu notices skeletons all around, singing and dancing with various instruments.

“Take a closer look,” the ghost tells Fontu, pointing to a leaf. Upon examination, Fontu sees that it’s covered in pixelated numbers and symbols, and this strange coding is everywhere, not just on the leaf.

The ghost asks once more, “Do you believe me now?”

For a moment, Fontu finds relief from his worries and starts to feel much better in this peculiar world. He replies, “Yes, I believe you now.”

***

The ceiling fan is spinning slowly, making a strange, high-pitched noise. Fontu isn’t sure if it had woken him up, or if it was just his sweat. He had dozed off on the sofa in the study. Looking out the window, he sees his sister playing in the courtyard. Fontu doesn’t want to interact with her, so he decides to use the backdoor leading to the backyard. As he opens the door, he notices his notebook lying on the stairs. Picking it up, he finds it quite odd. When he opens the notebook, he discovers that all his homework for tomorrow is already completed.


Written by Mahmudun Nabi.

Cover photo by Roman Mager.


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