Kids Corner


17 Tomatoes

A Short Story


Adi and Arjun, fast friends, studied in the Model Boys' School in Kashmir. Classes were held in tents. Not far from the grade-three tent the boys could see a brick-and-cement building under construction. Mrs. Nargis, the teacher, told them that the construction was moving so slowly, the building would be ready for the education of the boys' grandchildren.

The math class had just begun when a man in camouflage uniform entered the tent. A girl with half-closed eyes marched behind him carrying a school bag and seventeen tomatoes. She had a long ponytail and wore a dark blue pheran somewhat large for her.

"Where can my daughter sit?" asked the man loudly.

"She cannot sit," said Mrs. Nargis. "This is a boys' school."

The girl hid behind the man's back.

"Don't be afraid, girl," said the man. "Go sit anywhere."

Then he marched toward the teacher and loaded his revolver.

"Rules," said Mrs. Nargis, gasping for breath, "cannot be broken."

"There are no girls' schools in this area, madam," he said. "Listen carefully: If you send my child home, I will shoot you."

The entire class hummed with fear and excitement.

"Silence!" Mrs. Nargis put her finger over her lips. "Pin-drop silence!"

Adi and Arjun wondered why the teacher didn't whip out her cane at that moment. Any trouble they made was always met with such a warning.

The military man scanned the tent with red eyes. The left side of the tent was full of boys; the right side of the tent was full of boys.

"Girl," said Mrs. Nargis, dead as a brick, "take my chair and sit in the middle."

Satisfied, the man unloaded the revolver and marched out toward the distant mountains. For a long time afterward the class could hear the echo of his footsteps pounding the path that led from the tent.

That day Mrs. Nargis declared an early recess.

During recess the girl stayed glued to her chair and began eating tomatoes. Adi and Arjun hesitantly inched toward her, as did the rest of the class. She was as still as a pebble, except for the movement caused by her eating. The boys told her their names; she nervously swallowed. The girl finished the sixth tomato faster than the fifth. When Arjun told her his name, she giggled with a sparkle in her eyes.

No one asked the girl her name. They also avoided the topic of her father. Instead, they bragged about the cities they had visited or the cricket matches they had won or the Amitabh-Rekha movies they had watched. They gave her strands of saffron. And Adi and Arjun promised her more gifts the next day: butterflies and answers to Mrs. Nargis's exams.

The girl didn't join them for football, but she watched them competing in the schoolyard through the tent window. She looked frightened, but continued eating the tomatoes, reddish-green fruits the size of ping-pong balls.

Adi and Arjun did not join the other boys in the yard. They were rolling a bicycle tire inside the unfinished building. When the tire wobbled over a mound of cement, Arjun turned to his friend and confessed: "When I grow up, I will marry her."

"Who?" Adi asked.

"The girl!"

"Then her father will shoot you," said Adi.

"I am ready to die," Arjun declared defiantly.

"Why die? Why not write a letter?"


"If she replies, you two could run away," Adi suggested.

Recess ended as the girl finished the eleventh tomato. Mrs. Nargis rang the bell and started teaching the history lesson. Under normal circumstances she was a conventional teacher, but that day her lecture took an unconventional turn.

"Class," she began in a subdued voice, "over there on the distant mountains, there are two gardens. On the left is Shalimar and on the right is Nishat. Shalimar was built by the Emperor for the Empress. And Nishat was built by the Empress's brother for the Empress."

"Yes, madam," boomed the boys. Arjun watched the girl eat her thirteenth tomato.

"One day, in A.D. 1632, the Emperor cut off the supply of water to Nishat. Do you know why?"

"No, madam!"

"Because Nishat was as beautiful as Shalimar."

"Yes, madam," chimed the boys. Adi studied the girl as she started on her fourteenth tomato.

Arjun half-listened to the history of gardens. He was busy drafting a love letter with a blue pencil. When the epistle was done, he asked Adi for editorial assistance. Adi used the eraser generously and added a few lines.

"How are you going to hand it to her?" whispered Adi.

"I'll walk to her chair."

"Fool, do it with style."

Adi transformed the declaration of love into a messenger plane and propelled it upward as Mrs. Nargis chalked some new history on the blackboard.

Arjun saw the entire class twist their necks. The boys turned to observe the loops of the plane, which swished out of the tent and returned smelling of saffron. Once inside, the messenger plane, sailing like a bird, sheared past Mrs. Nargis's beehive hair and lost momentum, landing serenely on three tomatoes.

"Girl," said Mrs. Nargis angrily with hands on her hips, "bring it to me."

The girl did exactly as she was told.

The teacher snatched the aircraft from her, flattened its paper, and began reading the blue words to the whole class.

Paralyzed, Arjun turned toward Adi. Arjun's eyes shook with alarm.

I love you like in the movies.

Adi sniffled and scuffed his boots against the floor.

I want to marry you. You will be my Empress. I will build you a garden more beautiful than Nishat. We will plant tomatoes in the garden so that you can eat them. Write soon and wait for the next stage of my plan to rescue you.

Flying kiss, Emperor Adi

Arjun heaved a sigh of relief. Adi hid his face between his arms on the desk. Caught by Mrs. Nargis. Caught by his fast friend.

"Girl," asked the teacher rolling her eyes, "do you want to marry Emperor Adi?"

The girl blushed and held her belly and vomited a sweet-smelling paste of tomatoes. Then she wept a flood of tears and ran out of the tent, heading in the direction of the distant mountains.

The teacher caned Adi on the back of his hand. She made him wear a chicken mask. She forced him to raise his arms above his head for the rest of the day.

An eerie silence stilled the tent. Arjun contemplated the situation for a while, his gaze fixed on the two uneaten tomatoes. He knew for certain the girl would return with her father, who would shoot them both: Mrs. Nargis and Adi. 


["17 Tomatoes" is taken from a short-story collection, Seventeen Tomatoes: Tales from Kashmir, by Jaspreet Singh. Vehicule Press, Montreal, Canada, 2006. $16.95. 162 pages. ISBN # 1-55065-188-9.]

Conversation about this article

1: Surinder Singh Chawla (India), June 08, 2007, 12:35 AM.

Beautiful rendition of simple thoughts. You have touched, moved and inspired me.

2: Mohkam Singh (London, England), June 08, 2007, 1:27 AM.

Enjoyed the piece very much. Look forward to buying the book shortly, to read the rest of them. Hope to see more of Jaspreet Singh's work on (And, thank you for adding a "Fiction" section!)

3: Gurdeep Singh (Srinagar, India), June 12, 2007, 6:28 AM.

A gentle and insightful approach to depicting and understanding innocence!

4: Satvir Kaur (Boston, MA, U.S.A.), June 15, 2007, 12:16 AM.

Very nice. I loved it.

5: Upkar Singh (Sydney, Australia), September 18, 2012, 7:22 PM.

I want to buy this book. Where can I get it? [EDITOR: Try "" online ...]

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