Book House

“The Element of Fog”: This debut novel is a moving love story and an evocative portrait of hill station and boarding school life

Author Boudhayan Sen
  • The book “The Element of Fog” by Boudhayan Sen is a gentle, beautifully crafted novel.


  • In a hill station in mid-90s South India, Suman Ghosh is a self-satisfied teacher at a prestigious boarding school. He is a quiet, observant man, prone to mistaking routine for accomplishment. All of which is about to change.


  • A hundred and twenty years before Suman, Reverend Finley arrives from Britain and finds himself drawn to those very same hills. As he learns to love his new home, he also finds himself drawn to what can never be his.


  • Read an excerpt from the book below.


Assembly is over, and now the real work of the term begins. In the dorms, the happenings and gossip of the summer are rapidly shared. Coteries of friends that existed before the holidays gather at first, and members size each other up for new developments over the holidays – a new hairstyle, an unreported summer romance – before reviving old routines. And then there’s what is revealed over the course of the term, once the trust is re-established: the unexpected divorce, or turns in the family business that make this year’s school fees a greater burden than they used to be.

There is a pattern, but none of this goes according to plan for any individual. Occasionally, one member of the group will decide that last year’s modes of interaction are no longer to their liking. This will result in a shearing of the edges among the cliques. New friendships will spring up to take the place of mere acquaintance, rancour where there used to be amity.

Teachers move more slowly in this regard. The teachers’lounge is the best place to observe who is new, who is re-establishing their social dominance, and who, like me, continues to pace around in the periphery. I prefer to stand on my own and avail myself of a coffee and a distraction from the classroom and my office, as well as several of the very excellent egg sandwiches. The hard-boiled eggs are diced down to the ideal size and accompanied by the perfect level of mayonnaise and salt, all nestling in soft bread baked fresh that morning and with the crust trimmed away. If I sound too eager about this particular snack, it is simply the absence of breakfast in combination with the pavlovian anticipation of my taste buds. The morning break comes and the teacher wants coffee and egg sandwiches. The combination of flavours renders even the most inane teachers’ lounge conversations tolerable. And I can always gesture towards the sandwiches and excuse myself from tiresome conversations – most colleagues will empathize with the desire to grab another one.

There is of course the matter of Ms Little-K. Each new school year brings the possibility that something will have changed in the course of our three-month summer vacation, and that perhaps she will now see me in a different, favourable light. Yes – I know this is wishful thinking on my part – and it’s not as if I have made any special efforts in this direction. But it’s not the first time I have noticed myself entering the lounge after a break and looking around with intent. I try to do this casually so as not to reveal too much. I scan the edge of the room first, along the semicircle of windows with the bright morning sun streaming in. There she is! Same flowing hair – a little shorter perhaps? She isn’t facing me, but I know it’s her. The pale-blue kurta with the embroidery along the edges and of course the slightly fancy sandals with the leather braiding that wraps around to secure the back. It’s not cold enough for sneakers yet. I find it fascinating how the denim of her jeans bunches at the ankles and then stretches invitingly upwards . . .

‘Arre, what a speech!’ Pandian breaks in, thumping my shoulder with his heavy palm. He is the PE teacher. We were only vaguely acquainted in college, but even then I remember him playing up his physicality; now he trades on some implied familiarity despite our tenuous connection.We had not kept in touch during his intervening years in the army, and I realize I don’t actually know for sure that he was in the army – or what it was that he did while there.

‘Thank you, Pandian. You know it’s the same speech I give at the start of every year,’ I reply with a light smile. Having located Ms Little-K, I was now looking forward to my coffee and egg sandwich and had not planned on making conversation before achieving my objectives.

‘But it’s the delivery, man! Such conviction – even I feel like I’m going to go to class right away to start learning lots of new things.’

‘Then you were either not listening, or you have forgotten what I’ve said many times before. Look at all those parents and new kids. Do you think they want to hear “Oh no – here we go again”?’

‘Of course, of course . . . Congratulations, by the way.’

‘For what?’ I say, a little disingenuously. I know I’ve been officially appointed high school coordinator – even though I’ve been doing the job for a few years now. But I guess it is now common knowledge after the vice principal– Jason Chapman – called on me by name in the assembly.

‘The high school coordinator job! Arre, JC said it already – why are you trying to be shy about it?’ As usual, Pandian’s voice had gone from indoor volume to PE-class instruction levels, so the volume and timbre had the usual effect of getting everyone else to quiet down and pay attention. The last to stop were a group of female teachers assembled on a couch in the middle of an animated exchange, but even they quieted down and looked uptowards us. I couldn’t be sure if it was my news or the loud declamation of ‘JC’ that caused this. Some took umbrage at this unorthodox use of the Saviour’s initials, and there were those who revelled in the double entendre implied in the reference to the school’s ‘golden boy’ vice principal. Even Pandian realized he had probably gone a step too far. He harrumphed and moved sideways, picking up thelast egg sandwich on the tray.

‘Yes, good idea, let’s do some announcements.’ JC had been waiting for a pause in the conversation, and this was his opening. ‘Well, welcome everyone to a new school year. As you all know, there are several staff changes and appointments that were decided over the summer, so we should announce and celebrate each of them appropriately. There are also several new faces among us, so let’s do the quick announcements now and leave the longer introductions for our staff meeting on Thursday afternoon.

‘First, as you may know, Andrew’s flight from Canada has been delayed, so God willing, he will be joining us in just a few days.’ Andrew Darling is our school principal. That suited JC nicely – he relished playing principal whenever he could; there was no power grab too small for this JC.

‘Then, we have a new high school coordinator – Ghosh will be taking on the new role, and I think there’s already a line forming outside his office for schedule changes.’Some polite laughter, and a few tentative rounds of applause. I nod into middle distance. I don’t pay attention to the rest of JC’s announcements. I had found Ms Little-K, the cooks had brought in another tray of egg sandwiches and cheese sandwiches as well as a new samovar of coffee, and since the bell was about to ring in the first period of classes, there was little time to lose. There’s lots I could tell you about bells, but the important thing to remember is that there are two bells – the first and the second. The first bell – a single toll – tells you when to leave wherever you are, while the second bell – two tolls – tells you that you should by now have found your way to where you are supposed to be. There are five minutes between the two. At first, this causes some confusion, but within a week, even the most confused students develop a sense of whether the chimes belong to the first or the second. In a few weeks, by the end of second period, the body learns that it’s time for coffee, and by the end of the fourth period that it’s time for lunch.

Excerpted with permission from The Element of Fog, Boudhayan Sen, Juggernaut Books. Read more about the book here and buy it here.

 

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