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The Story of a Ruler

by Vani Viswanathan

A ruler catches a little girl’s eye. Now how can she get her hands on one? Vani Viswanathan tells a story of longing, tantrums and a child’s relationship with her parents.

“Wow!” I gasped. “Where did you get it?” I asked, breathless.

My cousin gave me a wide grin. “Fountainhead,” she replied.

I held the white plastic ruler in my hands, fascinated. It was a translucent white, with red markings for the measurement. The star attraction on the ruler, however, was its two slots to hold pencils, one clever twist of plastic that could hold an eraser or a sharpener.

I needed one immediately.

I was a fairly non-demanding child, even for those times. Call it upbringing, the times we lived in, the family circumstances, the school I studied in – but there was little that I was so adamant about having. Stationery, however, was a big weakness. To this day, I think the biggest fights I have had with my mother around asking them to buy something, all revolved around stationery. A new pencil case, a new schoolbag, a highlighter (even as mother read out research that simply highlighting lines of text made no impact on learning or retention, it only ruined eyesight).

The latest fixation was this ruler.

I made the request to my father, the easier of my parents to coax into buying me something, mostly because he and I had similar tastes when it came to buying things. Open a draw at home today and you would still find a set of 12 pencils, some ink cartridges and an eraser or something.

I gingerly brought it up on the way home from my cousin’s place, as I sat hugging my father, riding pillion with him on the scooter.

“Appa,” I started when we stopped at a traffic light, “Vidhu has this scale,” referring to the ruler as I did, back then.

“Hmm…”

“It can hold two pencils, an eraser, a sharpener and all… and it is also a scale!”

“Is that so?” he asked.

I was disappointed. The object of my fancy hadn’t triggered any reaction from him. A book would have done something else. He would have asked me about it, the author, if I knew the plot, and somehow, a few days later, it would land up on my study table to be seen when I woke up, with a little scribble “To Acchu, from Appa and Amma,” with a date. I’d previously asked for a Hero fountain pen and he’d gladly talked about it too, and bought me one a few days later.

So I left the subject there for the day, and brought it up the next weekend, when we were out in the main road, shopping. There was a stationery shop. I tugged at my father’s shirt cuffs. “Appa, you remember that scale? Can we go here to check if they have it?”
“What scale?” Mother came around to asking. Darn it, she’d heard. The voice of reason in the family, the one who can so neatly distinguish between need and want, and control the latter. The one I take after today.

“Yeah…” I dragged. “I saw one at Vidhu’s house, and I want one too…”

“What happened to the stainless steel ruler we got you? We hunted quite a bit for that, if you remember!”

Did I also mention she had an elephant’s memory?

We walked into the stationery shop nevertheless, as I also needed a political map of India. And no, they didn’t have the scale.

I kept quiet the next few days, although I thought of the scale often. How cool it would be, I thought, if I could carry my pencils, eraser and ruler all in one package! I wouldn’t even need a pencil case! That ugly wide Mickey Mouse case, occupying so much space in my schoolbag, would be gone! I could simply keep the scale and be done with it! In the space saved, I could carry my WWF trump cards!

Of course, there was no way you could make such an argument to your parent. The most you could do was to pester them, and that’s what I did. For the next two weeks, I brought it up constantly, pleading with them to take me to Fountainhead to buy it, because heck, that’s the only magical place that stocked this wondrous innovation.

“But you take me there to buy books! Why do you hate me, can’t you buy me a scale?!” one day I hurled this accusation at my father, through tears streaming down my cheeks. This was the last straw for my father. My uncle and aunt were visiting, and they were seeing the otherwise model child throwing a tantrum, all for a ruler. He put on his shirt, took the scooter keys and started the scooter. “Well? Are you coming or not?” he called out. I wiped my tears with the back of my hand, pulled my frock hem up to my nose to wipe some snot, wore my chappals and ran out. We rode a good 35 minutes to reach Royapettah, to Fountainhead. I gravitated towards the stationery section. And there it was, the soon-to-be-mine scale! And there were white, yellow and light blue ones! I picked the yellow. Father paid thirty five rupees, and we were off home.

As I entered home, my aunt, my favourite aunt, flashed at me a coy smile. I didn’t smile back. And behind her, I saw my mother, lips drawn into a straight line, throwing me a piercing “Are you happy now?” look. I shrank into a corner, crumpling the crackling plastic that covered the ruler. To make me feel less guilty, my aunt pulled me on to her lap, saying “Let’s see your new scale!” and a few minutes later, I was a little less sad.

The scale did draw some interest in class the next day. A few days later, as I ran around the classroom during lunch break chasing some fellow, I accidentally slammed it hard down a desk and one of the two pencil holders came off. In the summer break of that year, I left it inside my schoolbag with the eraser in it, and when I took it out after a good two months, the eraser had melted and stuck on to the ruler. I couldn’t, obviously, carry this now-ugly scale to school anymore. I did use it when I did my homework, though.

And in case you were wondering, I still have the ruler with me today. A good 20 years later. The gooey mess from the eraser is still there, the canary yellow is now a dull butter yellow, and the broken pencil holder’s sharp edge has softened over the years that the scale has seen during its umpteen moves from Chennai to my overseas college to my hostels in India to my home today. Whether it’s because of guilt, or a reflection of my mother’s attitude – that one values things gotten after much struggle – I don’t know, but I still use it when I need a foot-long ruler.

Pic: http://blgiftsimports.com/images/Stopngoline/lDA115.jpg

Vani Viswanathan is often lost in her world of books and A R Rahman, churning out lines in her head or humming a song. Her world is one of frivolity, optimism, quietude and general chilled-ness, where there is always place for outbursts of laughter, bouts of silence, chocolate, ice cream and lots of books and endless iTunes playlists from all over the world. She is now a CSR communications consultant, and has been blogging at http://chennaigalwrites.blogspot.com since 2005.

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