I am aware that the exoticism of this story causes me to lend it more credence than I otherwise might. Had it been told to me, say, by my own uncle, about the Lincolnshire farms where he works, I would likely give it short shrift, but told, as it was, by my wife's uncle and about the rural backwaters of India, I find myself unable to dismiss it. Who am I, who have never spent more than two weeks at a time away from England, to say what can and cannot happen in distant places?
Not that there is much of the exotic in uncle Rustam himself; a large man, a bachelor of fifty-something years, and a second generation Scot. He returned (a word I only use because he uses it) to India as a young man for reasons he describes as complex and contradictory. In thirty years there he has never lost his unmistakable Britishness. His Glasgow accent resurfaces, he tells me, the moment he buys a ticket home. I have met him only a handful of times but I like him very much. The last time was at a family party in Edinburgh where, after perhaps one too many rum and cokes, he told me the story I am about to tell you.
At the time of these events he was, after a long catalogue of other careers, working as a schools inspector in Raipur. At the time of the telling he had resigned and moved to Chennai. In Raipur, he told me, he was responsible for a widely spread collection of rural primary schools. He was proud of his work, which was hard and involved a lot of travel. He operated, I gather, as a sort of general purpose fixer – a man who knew everyone and could navigate government bureaucracies. Need help with a grant application? or finding a qualified teacher willing to relocate? Uncle Rustam was your man. To hear him tell it, his visits were universally welcomed.
It was as he prepared for one of these visits that Tani, a senior health worker and his particular friend, knocked on his office door.
"Come in," he said, rising from behind his desk and clearing a stack of papers from a chair.
"You are travelling to the south?" she asked.
"Will you be visiting the villages of Lingala, or Kalapali?"
Uncle Rustam leafed through his itinerary. "Lingala I do not know. Is there even a school there? Ahha!" He tapped the page sharply with his finger so it sounded like a drum. "I will stop at the school in Kalapali if there is time, not a formal visit, just to take a look and see if they need anything."
Tani avoided his eyes and said "I wonder if I might beg of you a very delicate favour."
"Tani!" he said. "I could deny nothing you ask of me."
"What I tell you must be in absolute confidence."
"I shall be the very soul of discretion. I shall not breath a word of what you say beyond this room."
You may judge for yourself the value of uncle Rustam's assurance. After a little more back and forth Tani came to the point. She had an issue she said, with a nurse who had visited the two villages.
"She documents," Tani said, "two children losing height. One by six centimetres, another in by five and a half."
"Children do not shrink."
"They do not," Tani said, "but neither does a trained nurse of many years standing make such a mistake."
"It is a simple clerical error. She misread the previous measurement. Or measured the wrong child."
"She was alerted to the shrinking by the parents."
"Parents are always over-anxious. And many in these places are not sophisticated"
"Which is why we send a nurse, but having sent her am I to gainsay her, she who has held her tape measure up against the children when I have not? Or am I to now raise a medical incident with the state about an impossibility and make myself look foolish?"
Uncle Rustam began to appreciate Tani's dilemma. "You want me to take a look at the children."
"If I were perhaps to let slip their names..."
"The teachers will know," uncle Rustam said. "They are sensible types, and not so passionate as parents. The loss of six centimetres would not escape would their notice."
As it happened uncle Rustam was delayed in his morning visits and did not make it to the school in Kalapali until the late afternoon when lessons had ended for the day, but, seeing a light still on, he stopped anyway. The teacher, a miss Rawat, was still at work. After apologising for the unannounced intrusion and assuring the young woman that it was in no way an inspection, uncle Rustam began to turn on his charm. It was his proud accomplishment to remember any notable children from his previous visits and ask what progress had been made, a feat he achieved with copious, well organised notes, and a learned art of memorisation. This technique quickly warmed miss Rawat to him and she responded enthusiastically.
"She is now doing much better thank you... I had a word with his parents and he is now applying himself as he should... Oh, with this girl I can do nothing... This boy still disrupts my every class..."
It was uncle Rustam's intention to drop in the name which Tani had given him but, before he did, another of the names elicited a surprising reaction.
"This child is most perplexing. He is becoming foolisher."
"His words and numbers have gone backwards and he has become more silly. I am thinking of putting him back a year."
"You mean holding him back a year?" This was not an unheard of measure, although more often deployed as a threat than a weapon.
"No, I will put him back to fourth, he is no longer capable of the work we do in fifth."
Uncle Rustam asked a cleverly pointed question. "Perhaps the boy just has too much energy. How does he do in sports?"
"Very poorly, the other boys grow every day but this boy is now shorter than he was."
"Miss Rawat, children do not shrink."
"You may say children do not shrink, and you are a more learned person than I, but this boy and another assuredly have shrunk."
Miss Rawat named the boy Tani had named.
"What do their parents say?" Uncle Rustam asked.
"The parents blame me. They say I am ruining their children. I, who have made progress with every child I have taught."
Uncle Rustam did not mention the girl with whom miss Rawat could do nothing, nor the boy who disrupted her every class. Instead he suggested that he might talk to the parents and assure them of miss Rawat's undoubted expertise. Two names and addresses were supplied.
At the first address uncle Rustam was surprised to find a fine house. He had assumed that the phenomenon was likely malnourishment stunting the development of the boys. Perhaps the family have overextended themselves and can no longer afford to eat, he pondered. This second theory only lasted till he was invited into the kitchen where pots bubbled on the stove and bread dough rested on the floured table.
Only the woman of the family was there to greet him, her husband being still at work. Uncle Rustam raised the matter of her son and she confirmed all the teacher had told him. He did not press in any regard, conscious that the matter was well out of his official jurisdiction, especially with only one parent present, but he assured her that miss Rawat was an accomplished teacher and that his department was taking an interest. Then he noticed music coming from another room.
"Who is that playing?" he said. "It is very fine."
The woman told him it was her son. "In the violin only now does he excel. And what future is there in that?"
Uncle Rustam made his excuses and left. He went immediately to the home of the other boy. This too was a well to-do house and this time he was greeted by both parents who, after he had introduced himself and explained why he was there, kindly invited him in to join them for dinner. Again, any thoughts that the boy was being underfed were swiftly put to rest.
For the first time uncle Rustam was able to actually observe one of the children. The boy sat at the end of the table occupied in some game with his younger sister. Uncle Rustam would have guessed he was two years below his supposed nine years of age, but he ate heartily enough.
The parents were happy to discuss the situation. "We had great hopes for him at the sciences," the father said. "Mathematics used to be his favourite class but now he cannot understand the sums he used to find easy."
"And his words," the mother said. "Every week he seems to forget another." She addressed the boy by name. "Do you know what an inspector is?" she asked.
The boy shook his head shyly.
"Have you taken him to see a doctor?" Uncle Rustam asked.
"He does not take us seriously." The boy's mother said. "He says he just needs to eat more. See how he eats!"
"Then I can only suggest you find another," uncle Rustam said. "I can reccomend you one. And I will call him first to explain that you are to be taken seriously."
After the meal (and a home cooked meal was a treat for bachelor uncle Rustam at the best of times, but especially when he was on the road) as he left to go, uncle Rustam chanced to spy a child size violin in the other room. "Which of you plays the violin?" he asked the children.
"I do," said the boy. "I want to be a soloist."
That night uncle Rustam phoned Tani from the payphone at his motel, there being not one bar of mobile signal for miles, and asked for the name of the child in Lingala. "Your nurse is to be trusted," he told her. "Raise all the might of your organisation. There is something strange happening here."
Afterwards he spread his map out on the the bed and examined it under the fluorescent light. Tani had given him the name of a twelve year old girl, which meant she would be in upper primary. He quickly located the nearest school. If he left early he could be there before lessons started. He could phone the school he was supposed to visit on the way and apologise.
The school near Lingala was not one of his favourites. The man who ran it was a tiresome little man named Dr Goswami, and the five teachers unimpressive even by the variable standards of remote schools. At least they would certainly tell him what he wanted to know. Dr Goswami was liable to be obstructive and demand a justification for his unannounced presence.
On these matters uncle Rustam mused as he sat in his car and watched the children file in, noting where the twelve-year-olds went. He did not spot the annoying Dr Goswami anywhere and hoped the man might not be present. Shortly after the lessons began he walked straight to the classroom he had identified, rapped on the door, and asked the teacher if he might have a word. The teacher, a woman who's name, to his shame, he could not recall, instructed her class to continue working through their sums and stepped outside into the corridor. Uncle Rustam came straight to the point and asked if the girl Tani had mentioned was present in her class.
A look of relief crossed the teacher's face -she doubtlessly thought she might be in trouble- and she explained that the girl had been held down a year and would be with the sixth grade class, but she happened to know that, at that moment, the girl was receiving a violin lesson in the music room.
The location of the music room uncle Rustam remembered very well for it was the only aspect of the school which had impressed him on his previous visit. He marched directly to it and flung open the door.
A girl, looking only nine or perhaps even eight years of age, stood to attention in the centre of the small room behind a music stand. At her feet (uncle Rustam noticed that her shoes were at least a size and a half too big for her) lay unopened a child-size black plastic violin case. Behind her, leaning over a chair on which it sat, a man was lifting a second small violin from an old wooden case. The words he said, uncle Rustam told me, explained nothing, but outlined for him the silhouette of the crime.
"Lets have you play my special violin today."
There was, uncle Rustam said, a strangely nauseous beauty to the man. He was a small man with oiled hair and a buff coloured suit, his eyes were quick and clever, and his hands delicate. He was dark skinned, and his skin had the smooth glow of youth but there was some indefinable quality of youth which the man lacked.
"It was," uncle Rustam said, "like finding a woman who you thought a peach from a distance was close up nothing but foundation and a push-up bra."
We were sitting on a roof terrace bar when he told me this, looking out onto a fine Edinburgh night sky. He shook his head because he did not like his own analogy. "It was not just age," he said. "The violin teacher was beautiful but a spider can be beautiful in its way. A snake, which sheds its skin every year, is flawless and perfect like a jewel, but it is still unmistakably a snake."
I have always known Uncle Rustam as a gentle, avuncular man. I have never had any trouble understanding why, even absent as he was, he was my wife's favourite uncle when she was a girl, but he is six foot tall and broad shouldered, and a man does not grow up Indian in 1970s Glasgow without acquiring a certain toughness. He is, I am told, fearsome when roused.
He was roused now and, with quick strides, he crossed the room and seized the violin teacher by the neck. "What are you doing to these children?" he shouted.
The violin teacher seemed momentarily terrified but then a calm smile formed on his face. "I am only teaching the girl the violin," he said.
"What is happening here?" It was Dr Goswami at the door. The girl, sobbing in fright, squeezed past him and ran away down the corridor.
"Dr Goswami, this man is attacking me," the violin teacher croaked.
"Rustam Mistry?" Dr Goswami exclaimed. "We are not due an inspection!"
"There is something amiss with this man," uncle Rustam said. "The children who play his violin are all shrinking."
"Absurd," came the strangled cry of the violin teacher.
"Children do not shrink," Dr Goswami said.
"You are doing something to them" uncle Rustam growled. "And I will know what." And he physically shook the little man by the neck.
"Cease this!" Dr Goswami shouted. "What are you accusing this man of? Release him."
Uncle Rustram let go of the violin teacher but remained standing where he was, never taking his eyes off the man, his fists at his side. The violin teacher dropped onto one of the chairs and held his neck with both hands.
"It is an ordinary violin," he said. "See for yourselves. Play it a little if you doubt me." He picked the violin up from where he had dropped it and held it out with both hands. "It is old, and not very fine, but it has a sentimental value for me and I like to hear my favourite students play it from time to time."
Dr Goswami stepped forward and put a hand on uncle Rustam's shoulder, as if to ease him away from the man. "Mr Mistry is clearly upset," he said to the violin teacher. "He travels much and perhaps the heat has befuddled him."
The violin teacher nodded gently. "I am a forgiving person," he said, "If you will excuse me I have other students to teach today." And he went to put the violin back in it's case.
"A snake," uncle Rustam told me in Edinburgh, "is unmistakably a snake." He pushed the violin teacher back into the chair and seized the violin.
Dr Goswami shouted. "Rustam Mistry stop this or I will be forced to call the police. We cannot have this behaviour in a school." It was that last admonishment, uncle Rustam said, that made him realise he had to let the man go. He was great believer in the sanctity of schools.
Dr Goswami took the violin from uncle Rustam's grasp and handed it back to the teacher who hurriedly gathered it and his papers under his arms and went from the room. Uncle Rustam sat down and held his head in his hands. The strings of the violin has sounded a little as he released it and the note still hung in the air.
"I do not know if it was I who started the rumour," uncle Rustam told me in Edinburgh. "Certainly I should have known what forces I stirred when I kept asking about the man, and I asked about him everywhere I went. The people in those villages believe all sorts and they have no confidence in the police. They take matters into their own hands." He looked at his feet. "He was found three weeks later strung by the neck from a tree. His violin had been burned underneath his feet." He looked back up at me. "It is not the outcome I would have chosen."
"What of the children?" I asked.
"It was a theft," he said. "Those strings sounded for so long, I could still hear them even as I drove away. It took a piece of my future I think, but I am old, and my future is a lesser thing than my past, and my past is strong enough to make up for the loss." He fingered his moustache. "There were seven in all. Tani wrote to me when the last one died. They all of them continued getting smaller and none of her doctors could help. They withered away poor things, just withered away, till they were nothing but little lifeless husks of infants unable even to breath."