Rajappa sensed a sudden drop in his popularity. For the past three days everyone had been crowding around Nagarajan.
Rajappa tried to tell them that Nagarajan had become swollen headed, but no one paid any attention to him. For Nagarajan was generous in sharing the stamp album his uncle had sent from Singapore. The boys gathered around Nagarajan and devoured the album with their eyes till the school-bell rang for the morning class; they hovered round him at lunch-break and in the evening invaded his house.
Nagarajan showed the album to all of them without a trace of impatience. He only made one stipulation: “No one must touch the album.” He opened it out on his lap and turned over the pages himself and let everyone gaze to their fill.
The girls wanted to have a look at his album too. The boldest of them, Parvathi, came up to Nagarjan and asked him on behalf of the girls. Nagarajan gave her the album after putting a jacket on it. The album was returned to him in the evening after all the girls had seen it.
No one now mentioned Rajappa’s album or paid him any attention.
Once Rajappa’s album had been very famous. Rajappa collected stamps in the painstaking way bees collect honey. It was his whole life. He would set out early in the morning to visit other stamp-collectors. He would barter two Pakistans for a solitary USSR.
In the evening he would dump his school books in a corner, stuff a snack in the pocket of his shorts, gulp down a cup of coffee and dash out again. Four miles away a boy had a Canada… He had the biggest album in his class. The Revenue Officer’s son wanted to buy it for twenty-five rupees. The cheek of it! Rajappa retaliated, “Will you sell your baby brother to me for thirty rupees!” The boys applauded his retort.
But now no one looked at his album. And worse still, they made unfavourable comparisons with Nagarajan’s saying his album wasn’t fit to hold a candle to Nagarajan’s.
Rajappa refused to look at Nagarajan’s album. When other boys hovered over it, he turned his face away. But he did try to glance at it through the corner of his eye. It was indeed a beauty! Maybe it didn’t have the same stamps as Rajappa’s and might even have had not as many as his, but it was the only one of its kind. No local shop had one like it.
Nagarajan’s uncle had written his nephew’s name in bold letters on the first page of the album: A.S. NAGARAJAN. This was followed by an inscription:
To the shameless wretch trying to steal this album — See thou my name above? This is my album. It is my property and mine alone as long as the grass is green, the lotus red, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
The boys copied the lines in their albums. So did the girls in their books and botebooks.
Rajappa growled, “Why are you such copycats?”
The boys glared at him and Krishnan retorted, “Get lost, you jealous worm!”
“Jealous! Me! Way should I be? My album is much bigger, isn’t it?”
“Yours doesn’t have stamps like his! Look at the Indonesian beauty-hold it up and see it against the light.”
“He doesn’t have the stamps I have!”
“Ha! Show us one he hasn’t !”
“You show me one I haven’t. Let’s have a ten rupee bet.”
“Your album is only fit for the dustbin, taunted Krishnan.
And the boys chanted, “Garbage album! Garbage album!”
Rajappa realised the futility of continuing the argument.
How long it had taken him to build up his stamp-collection! He had built it stamp by stamp and then the postman had brought this album from Singapore and overnight Nagarajan had become all important! The boys didn’t know the difference between the two albums. And no amount of explaining would make the slightest difference.
Rajappa raged within. He began to hate going to school. How was he to face the boys? Usually on Saturdays and Sundays he hectically stamp hunted but this weekend he barely stirred out of the house. Usually, not a day passed without his turning the pages of his album, over and over again. Even at night he would sneak out of bed to look at the album. But two days had passed and he had not touched it. The sight of it filled him with anger. Compared to Nagarajan’s, his album now seemed a bundle of rags.
In the evening Rajappa went to Nagarajan’s house. He had made up his mind-he couldn’t put up with his ignominy any longer. After all, Nagarajan had only just chanced upon a stamp album. What did he know of the mysteries of stamp-collecting? Or how the experts evaluated them? He probably believed that the bigger the stamp, the more valuable it was. Or one from a powerful country more important than one from a weaker country. After all Nagarajan was only an amateur. Rajappa could easily palm off on him the less valuable stamps and walk away with the good ones. He had fooled many others before. The world of stamp-collecting was rife with cunning and trickery and Nagarajan was only a beginner.
Rajappa went straight upstairs to Nagarajan’s room. No one stopped him for he was a frequent visitor to the house. Rajappa sat down at Nagarajan’s desk. A little later Nagrajan’s younger sister, Kamakshi, came in.
“Brother had gone to town,” she said. “Have you seen his new album?”
Rajappa mumbled something unintelligible.
“It’s a real beauty, isn’t it? I believe no one else in school has one like it.”
“Who said that ?”
“It’s just a big album, no more. Is it enough merely to be oversized?”
Kamakshi didn’t reply and walked off.
Rajappa scanned the books littered on the table. His hand grazed against he lock of the table drawer. Almost involuntarily he tugged at it. It was firmly locked. Why not open it? The key lay among the books.
Rajappa went over to the staircase and glanced around. No one was in sight. He opened the drawer. Nagarajan’s stamp album was right on top. Rajappa turned over the first page and read the inscription. His heart began to pound. He closed the drawer and locked it. He thrust the album into his shorts and let his shirt fall over it. He hurried down the steps and ran home. On reaching home he hid the album behind his bookshelf. His body felt as though it was on fire, his throat was dry and blood pounded in his head.
Finally at eight in the evening Appu, who lived opposite, came and told Rajappa that Nagarajan’s stamp album was missing. Nagarajan and he had gone down to town in the evening and when they returned, the album was gone!
Rajappa didn’t utter a word. He prayed that Appu would go away. And when Appu did go away, he hurried to his room and bolted the door. He took out the album from behind the shelf.
He shoved the album back behind the shelf.
Rajappa hardly touched his dinner. The family was concerned and asked if he was feeling unwell. Maybe sleep would bring peace? Rajappa lay down on his bed. But sleep eluded him. What if somebody stumbled upon the hidden album while he was asleep? He got up, took out the album and put it under his pillow.
Rajappa hadn’t woken up when Appu appeared in the morning. Appu had just been to Nagarajan’s again.
“I’m told you were at his house yesterday.”
Rajappa felt his heart sink. He gave a non-committal nod. “Kamakshi says you were the only one to call at the house while Nagarajan and I had gone down to town.”
Rajappa detected the suspicion in Appu’s tone.
“Nagarajan has been crying all night. His father might send for the police.”
Rajappa didn’t say a word.
Nagarajan’s father worked in the police superintendent’s office. He had only to lift his little finger and the whole police force would be out to trace the album.
Fortunately for Rajappa, Appu’s brother arrived to fetch his brother. For a long time after he had left Rajappa sat still on his bed. His father finished breakfast and left for office on his bicycle.
There was a knock at the front door. Was it the police?
Rajappa grabbed the album from under his pillow and ran upstairs and shoved it behind a bookshelf. What if the police made a search? He took it out of the bookshelf, tucked it under his shirt and came downstairs.
Someone was still knocking on the door. Rajappa’s mother shouted from the kitchen, “Why don’t you open the door?” She was sure to go and unbolt it herself in a few seconds.
Rajappa ran to the back of the house. He went into the bathroom and closed the door. There was a large oven in the bathroom for heating the bath-water. Rajappa threw the album in the fire. The album burned, and with it all the precious stamps that were unavailable anywhere. Tears filled Rajappa’s eyes.
Mother was shouting, “Hurry up! Nagarajan has come to see you.”
Rajappa took off his shorts and wrapping himself with a wet towel came out of the bathroom. He put on a fresh shirt and shorts and went upstairs. Nagarajan was sitting in a chair.
“My stamp album is lost,” Nagarajan said in a broken voice. His face was grief-stricken and his eyes red-rimmed and swollen with hours of crying.
“Where had you kept it?” Rajappa asked.
“I am sure I had put it in the table drawer. I had locked the drawer too. I went out for a short while and when I returned it was gone.”
Tears streamed down his face. Rajappa felt so guilty he could hardly look at his friend. “Don’t cry,” he mumbled.
But the more he tried to console Nagarajan the more the boy cried.
Rajappa ran downstairs and was back in a moment. He had his stamp album in his arms.
“Nagarajan, here’s my album. It’s yours. Don’t look at me in that way! I mean it, really. The album is for you.”
“No. I am giving it to you. Honestly. It’s all yours from today. Keep it.”
Nagarajan couldn’t believe his eyes. Rajappa giving his album away! But Rajappa kept urging him to take it.
“What about you?” Nagarajan asked.
“I don’t want it any more.”
“Not even a stamp?”
“No, not one.”
“But how will you live without your stamps?”
Rajappa’s eyes brimmed with tears.
“Don’t cry, Rajappa. You don’t have to give away your album. Keep it. You worked so hard on it.”
“No. You keep it. It’s for you. Take it home. Please take it and go away,” screamed Rajappa.
Nagarajan was baffled. He took the album and came down. Rajappa followed him, wiping his tears with his shirt-end.
They stood at the door. “Thank you,” Nagarajan said. “Bye.”
Nagarajan had stepped into the street when Rajappa called out to him.
“Please…please give me the album just for tonight. I will hand it back to you tomorrow morning.”
Nagarajan agreed and went away.
Rajappa climbed the stairs and bolted the door of his room.
Holding the album tightly, he sobbed his heart out.
Translated from Tamil by Ashokamitran; Published by National Book Trust, India.