Food for Thought Served in the Mess Hall
Muthu returned to the college campus and resumed his mess hall duties. Naturally, his after-dinner under-the-table vigils were given up. But another kind of after-dinner session began for Muthu. Poo had learned about Muthu’s family background and his thwarted educational aspirations. It broke her heart to see the hopes of a brilliant boy to make a better life for himself and his family through education dashed by capricious fate. She determined that Muthu would write his school final exams and emerge with flying colors. She approached Meenakshi and asked permission to coach Muthu in the mess hall after dinner on alternate days of the week.
Meenakshi did not see anything wrong with the idea; in fact, she was pleasantly surprised at such a keenly developed sense of concern for the underprivileged in such a young girl. She’d heard something about Poo and Muthu being friends, and she thought it was rather sweet; in fact, she rather liked Muthu. He had been the only mess boy who had scored zero on the Roving Eye Count test during his interview, meaning he hadn’t looked at the poster even once! A fine boy of excellent character, and she felt Poo would be safer with Muthu than with any of the campus Romeos. However, she took one precaution: she appointed a reliable girl whom she knew well, Shalini, as a chaperone. Shalini had to be present during the coaching sessions in the mess hall. Poo agreed with alacrity.
And so the mess hall coaching sessions began, under the watchful eyes of Shalini. Poo was surprised at Muthu’s voracious appetite for knowledge and his technical virtuosity. She was delighted to see that he excelled in the hard sciences. He was first rate in math, whereas Poo proved better in the softer skills. And that was the natural division of labor that evolved: Muthu was the hard champion, Poo the soft champion. She was soon consulting Muthu on mathematical doubts in her engineering coursework, especially PK’s abstruse lectures. And as for soft skills, Poo was determined to leave no stone unturned to smooth Muthu’s road to success. She began working on Muthu’s English, both spoken and written. And it was here that Shalini was subjected to her first serious test as a chaperone.
Poo had been trying to get Muthu to pronounce English words correctly, and was getting frustrated at her lack of progress. Whatever she tried, the same old mistakes kept recurring. One day, in sheer desperation she asked Muthu to open his mouth. She took a pencil and touching the target spot with it, urged Muthu, “There! That’s where your tongue should be at the final syllable.” Poor Muthu tried again, to no avail.
Poo’s face was pink with frustration. “Open your mouth!” she ordered. Muthu complied.
And now Poo leaned close to Muthu’s face and inserted her tongue into his mouth. The novel Shalini was reading dropped from her nerveless fingers. Like a tugboat steering the mother ship into the harbor, Poo’s tongue gently guided Muthu’s tongue to the proper location – and held it there. Withdrawing her tongue, Poo asked Muthu to try the word again. And Shalini, who had stood up to intervene, stood rooted to the spot as Muthu spoke the word without a trace of an accent. Poo clapped her hands with delight!
After a week of this tongue therapy, Muthu’s accent had been completely neutralized. Shalini said she couldn’t believe her ears. Still, she did tell Poo that in her opinion, the Lakshman rekha had been crossed, and she was wondering if she should inform Meenakshi. Besides, it was such a yucky thing to do. At this, Poo drew herself up to her full height and replied that it was a platonic act that she had undertaken for pedagogical reasons, and if it came to that, she was prepared to do even yuckier things if it would further Muthu’s education. Besides, the results spoke for themselves, did they not? In the face of this eloquence, Shalini decided to drop the matter.
Then Muthu said Poo’s English had a noticeable North Indian accent, and wanted to try and neutralize it. Poo readily agreed. A week of intensive accent neutralization tongue treatment produced dramatic results: even Shalini had to admit that Poo’s North Indian accent had been wholly neutralized.
Then Poo said Muthu’s Hindi was strongly accented, and wanted to neutralize it, Hindi being the national language. Muthu agreed at once. But during the third session, a sportive fly tickled Poo at a sensitive spot on her nose, and she gave vent to a reflex sneeze that almost sliced poor Muthu’s tongue in two. He recovered after a month, but that was the end of the accent neutralization sessions.
I have a feeling it is just a matter of time before Poo’s lingual accent neutralization technique will be rediscovered, especially given the proliferation of call centers in India. In fact, the other day I was at a call center on business, and pushed open a door thinking it was the way to the restroom. It was dark inside, but once my eyes had adjusted to the light, I saw a couple on a sofa practicing the accent neutralization technique pioneered by Poo. I could see from their name tags that the senior manager was engaged in neutralizing the accent of a young female trainee. So absorbed were they in their neutralization exercise that they did not notice me. I was impressed by this display of concentration, dedication, and professionalism, and quietly left the room.
Now, I respect the valuable time of my busy readers and so will reduce the rest of the Poo and Muthu story to a numbered list:
1. Under Poo’s coaching, Muthu does exceedingly well in the school finals and gets admission to our college with financial assistance.
2. Their evening coaching sessions are now a thing of the past, but the couching sessions begin. Yes, there are no couches on the campus, but the culverts do nicely, thank you.
3. Muthu and Poo become inseparable; all their free time is spent with each other.
4. Poo goes to the United States for an MS, and Muthu follows a few years later.
5. They find good jobs, their careers flourish; they marry.
6. Muthu advances from strength to strength in his field, achieving international fame.
7. Muthu and Poo divorce.
8. Muthu marries a colleague, an American blonde called Jean.
9. A crushed Poo returns to India, takes up an appointment in her alma mater, and settles down in the university town.
And that is how matters stood when our story began, on the evening of the reunion.