Payal Kapadia studied English Literature at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. After studying Journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago, she worked with Outlook in Mumbai and The Japan Times in Tokyo.
Her debut novella, “Wisha Wozzariter,” won the Crossword Award for Children’s Writing in 2013. It is also on the “101 Indian Children’s Books We Love!” list. Read her interview here. Below you can read an excerpt from her book, Horrid High. Courtesy: Payal Kapadia.
Book Excerpt- Horrid High
If eleven-year-old Ferg Gottin had been bought from a store, his parents would have returned him and demanded a refund. But everyone knows you can’t buy children any more than you can send them back where they came from. Once you have children, you’re stuck with them, and Mr and Mrs Gottin shuddered at the thought of being stuck with their son forever.
There was nothing wrong with Ferg. He was like any other boy his age. He liked football, he enjoyed riding his bicycle, and he steered clear of spinach and French beans. But he was a child and that, for Mr and Mrs Gottin, was where the problem lay.
You see, Mr and Mrs Gottin hated children. Hating children isn’t a very good thing, but the Gottins weren’t very good people. They looked upon parenting as an experiment that simply hadn’t worked out well for them.
‘Children give me the creeps; I can’t understand them,’ Mrs Gottin lamented, as though she had never been a child herself. ‘Ferg took us by surprise,’ Mr Gottin was fond of saying, ‘we simply weren’t ready for him’ as if Ferg had turned up on their doorstep one fine morning, gift-wrapped, while they were were still in their pyjamas.
Ferg was a bright boy and he had fond memories of his first nursery school. It was a small, white building with bookshelves that ran all the way up to the ceiling and colourful pictures that the children had made themselves, dotting the bright green walls. His teachers were a pair of middle-aged women who loved planning picnics and told wonderful stories.
Mrs Gottin’s memories of Ferg’s first school weren’t as fond. She had to suffer mobs of eager parents who spent all their time swapping tales about their children. There were Parent-Teacher Meets and Art Fests and Pet Days— and Mrs Gottin couldn’t, for the life of her, fathom why everything at school had to revolve around kids! The Gottins attended Ferg’s first Annual Show where Mrs Gottin quickly concluded that five-year-olds possessed no acting talent whatsoever.
Mrs Gottin called herself a stay-at-home mom although she wasn’t at home much. She was a small, shapely woman with stylish hair that she blow-dried at the salon three times a week. She didn’t cook or clean because work made her perspire, and perspiration made her blow-dried hair curl up at the ends in the ugliest way. She had a coterie of lady friends whom she lunched with on Tuesdays and Fridays, and ‘lunch with the ladies’ was always followed by a ‘quick round of shopping to find out what everyone is wearing’. Mrs Gottin’s closet was overflowing with the sort of clothes that everyone was wearing, the sort of clothes that the fashion magazines at her salon told her she must have.
Mrs Gottin loved the telly even more than she loved to shop, which is saying a lot. By the time Ferg got home from school, Mrs Gottin was usually seated in front of the telly in a careful way that wouldn’t crease her clothes. She had large, gloopy eyes that needed a good cry at least once a day, usually at prime time. Her sympathies were always for the wrong person. Once she was moved to hysterical sobs by the story of a surgeon who had forgotten his knife inside a patient. Another time, she cried so hard for a motorist who ran over a puppy, she had hiccups for five days afterwards.
‘The world is a cruel, cruel place,’ she’d moan, thinking of the poor surgeon and the hapless motorist. ‘Everything moves me to tears.’
But Ferg left her curiously dry-eyed. She didn’t feel sorry for this pale little boy who looked so much like her.
‘There’s nothing that awful about having parents who don’t love you,’ she said on one of those rare occasions when it occurred to her to speak to Ferg. ‘I grew up with a mum and dad who couldn’t have cared a hoot, and I turned out fine.’
As Ferg grew older, there were class projects and Show- and-Tell and soccer meets to attend. Mrs Gottin tried her best to worm out of all these activities, but there were still occasions, however rare, when she had to turn up at school.
‘Raising a child is too time-consuming,’ she told her husband, forgetting as always, that Ferg was in the room. ‘I have other things to do besides being his mother!’
Mr Gottin grunted in agreement. ‘Hire someone else to be his mother, darling!’ he said and went back to reading the sports section of the newspaper even though he had never played a single sport in his life.
Mr and Mrs Gottin didn’t speak an awful lot to each other, but the house was far from quiet. When Mrs Gottin was home, the telly was always on so loud it made the walls shake in protest. Mr Gottin spent many days of the month away from home, travelling. But when he was home, he was mostly on the phone shouting, ‘Now, you listen!’ and ‘You take that!’ There were never any pauses in his conversations, the sort that come naturally when two people are talking to each other and one gives the other a chance to speak.
You see, Ferg’s father had a hard job and it required him to lose his temper very often—he was a builder. He built tall buildings all over the city and where there was no space for a tall building, he flouted every law he could to make the space for it. He evicted poor tenants, demolished gardens, tore down schools. He should have been in jail for breaking so many laws, but he bribed anyone who was greedy enough. Those he couldn’t bribe, he bullied.
Like I told you, the Gottins didn’t speak an awful lot to each other, but they did speak an awful lot at each other. ‘Turn off that blasted TV! I can’t hear myself speak!’ bellowed Mr G to Mrs G at least twice a day. ‘Put down the phone, I can’t hear the telly!’ she retorted at least as many times. Ferg’s parents spoke above his head and looked right through him. Often he wondered what it would be like to have parents who didn’t treat him like he was invisible, who treated him like he was more than just an armchair or a floor rug in the living room.
Now, Ferg could see his parents only too clearly for the utterly unlikeable people they were. They didn’t have anything in common, apart from the fact that both of them were selfish. By the time Ferg turned eleven, his parents had had it up to here with good schools. They had just moved him to his seventh school, a put-your-nose-to-the-books sort of place that didn’t encourage its students to perform in public or take them on picnics. But when this school issued a report card and called Mrs Gottin in ‘to work with Ferg on his maths’, she declared, ‘Enough is enough! Isn’t there one school in this world where we can just dump the kid and forget about him?’
So Mrs Gottin switched off the telly and swore she would not put it back on till she had found just such a school. It would have to be a boarding school, that much was certain. She got on the Internet and started looking. It was not an easy job, you see, because a school where you can dump your children and forget about them has to be a pretty horrid school. And although there are many horrid schools in this big, bad world, there aren’t too many that will own up to being horrid.
At the back of her mind, Mrs Gottin knew that she was missing out on all her favourite TV shows, but she grimly ploughed on. After many hours and a few days, she decided to be more direct about what she was looking for and typed in ‘horrid school’ on Google search. A few links showed up.
A school inspector called Max Makewell had sworn a crusade against every horrid school in the district. A parents’ chat group was discussing how horrid teachers had a damaging effect on children. And then there it was! The oddest thing. A school called Happy High.
There was nothing horrid about the name, and when Mrs Gottin clicked the link, there was nothing horrid about the picture that appeared either. It looked like a beautiful brick building, painted a sunny yellow with a red roof and green windowsills. It was surrounded by trees and fronted by lush, green lawns—in fact, it looked like all the schools Mrs Gottin had already had it up to here with. There was a photo of the headmaster, a Principal Perverse, and he was smiling from ear to ear (his smile was so wide and toothy, it seemed to break his face in two).
There is no place on earth happier than Happy
High! We are happy, happy, happy to provide free schooling and lodging to orphans and runaways! We are happy, happy, happy to give fee-based schooling and lodging to children from happy families!
Is Happy High happy enough for you? Would you like to find out? We would be happy for you to answer these simple questions. Just tick Yes or No!
1. Do you enjoy spending time with your child?
2. Do you worry about the quality of your child’s education?
3. Do you want the best school for your child?
4. Do you want to be kept informed of how your child is doing at school?
Quickly, without much thought, Mrs Gottin ticked all the No boxes and something quite unexpected happened. A new page opened up and what it said made Mrs Gottin’s spirits leap!
Welcome to Horrid High (yes, that’s our real name and we’re proud of it). Horrid High is a school for orphans, runaways and rejects. You can dump your kids here and forget about them!
At Horrid High, we treat children with the contempt they deserve. From long years of experience teaching grubby little children, we have concluded that children are bloodsucking, brain-draining slave drivers. The more you give them, the more they want. Our philosophy on education is: take everything they have and give them nothing! What better way to get the little shrimps to fend for themselves?
So send us your unwanted children—are there any other kind? We won’t send you any school news or report cards, and we won’t call you for any Christmas plays or school events. We promise not to inform you if your child runs away or meets with a terrible accident. Make your problem our problem. E-mail Principal Perverse at perverse@ horridhigh.com
This is the perfect place for Ferg, Mrs Gottin thought. She felt a slow anger take hold of her when she recalled how Ferg had shown such little consideration for the only family he had. His crimes were altogether too many to count, but a few stood out. Like the time he had thoughtlessly fallen down the stairs while her favourite TV show was playing. It had been sheer good fortune that the doctor took half an hour to make the house call, which gave Mrs Gottin enough time to catch the ending.
Speaking of which, Mrs Gottin looked at her watch. It was almost time for her morning sitcom, so she settled her shapely bottom upon the couch, feeling certain that she could squeeze in an e-mail to Principal Perverse during the commercial break.
Faughty Winks had always been quite a sleeper. When he was a baby, he slept so soundly that his mother often shook him in his crib to make sure he was alive. He spent his strong and youthful years in Spain, where every Spaniard worth his name takes a siesta. But the trouble with Faughty was that he didn’t take the siesta; the siesta took him. It fell upon him unannounced, at the most inconvenient times, and he was powerless to resist it.
It was unfortunate that his last job had been as a bullfighter in Pamplona. There he was in the ring, staring down a mighty bull, when all of a sudden, he felt his eyes grow heavy. It was a silly, unstoppable feeling, and he sank to the floor, asleep. The The bull was nonplussed; he had not even touched the man yet. And Faughty’s mother hadn’t been around to shake him and determine whether it was sleep or death that had overcome him. From the bull’s point of view, Faughty was as good as dead.
Bulls charge—that’s what they do—and with no one in the ring to mow down, the bull threw two overweight British spectators so high up into the air, they could only be seen with binoculars. They came down soon enough and spent their summer lying in hospital instead of sunning on a Spanish beach somewhere.
Faughty lost his job, but it was the headlines in the newspapers that hurt him more. ‘Good Night, Bullfight!’ jeered the Spanish Chronicle. ‘Bullfights Are a Yawn,’ suggested the Madrid Morning Post. He swore never to return to Spain, trying a string of jobs in other places till he found his way to Horrid High.
Keeping watch at the gates was an easy enough job at Horrid High, for it was not often that anyone came to this school, and even less often that anyone actually tried to leave. It is no surprise, then, that Faughty Winks was fast asleep when Ferg arrived.
Ferg stared up at the huge, rusted gate. It had half a dozen locks on it, as though it had never been opened. There was an HH upon the gate, and an image of a boy bent over a chair with a large man looming over the boy, scowling. The man had his right arm raised in the air, and there was a whip in it.
Below, in curly lettering, were the words:
There will always be consequences.
The badge on the guard’s shirt read: Faughty Winks. Ferg’s ears tingled. He had a bad feeling about Mr Winks. There was a long, black stick gleaming in his left hand, and Ferg didn’t want to discover, like the boy on the gate, that there were consequences to rousing a guard.
Ferg’s ears had been tingling all week. They always did when something bad was going to happen. His first memory of this tingling sensation went back to when he was three, right before the Gottins forgot to feed him during a particularly active social week. (It was a stroke of good luck that he had been stashing away crumbs down the side of his cot for days.) Another time, when he was five, his ears tingled right before the Gottins went off on holiday, locking him inside the house. (Again, it helped that he had piled up all the shoeboxes from Mrs Gottin’s closet under an open window so that he could climb in and out.) He remembered when he was six, his ears tingled right before Mrs Gottin had a row with the barber and swore never to set foot in his shop again. (Ferg’s hair grew to shoulder-length and might have been down to his ankles if he hadn’t given Mr Gottin a bad case of lice.) Ferg’s ears tingled when he was nine, right before Mrs Gottin decided to give him all his shots on a single day. (She might never have given him any shots at all if she hadn’t got chickenpox and blamed it on him.)
Ferg’s ears stuck out both sides of his head, quite like the handles of a milk jug. But they were his early warning system, the only pair of things he could depend on in a world where the pair of parents he had been given were particularly undependable. So he wasn’t that taken aback when his mother brought him the news; his ears had been tingling for days.
‘You’re going to a new school, a boarding school like you read about in books, and you have us to thank,’ said Mrs Gottin. ‘It’s called Happy High,’ she lied, ‘because it’s such a happy place.’
It would be good to go off to boarding school and be away from his parents, thought Ferg. But why were his ears tingling so hard?
‘Maybe it’s an unhappy place,’ he wondered aloud to his best friend, Ace, as they got on the school bus the next morning.
‘Then why would it be called Happy High?’ she retorted. Ace was Ferg’s neighbour and the only girl he could be friends with because there was nothing girly about her. (But for her favourite hat, of course: an orange one with a bright yellow feather on top that no boy would be caught dead wearing.) Ace, with her short hair tucked up inside her hat, might have passed off as a boy. She was tall for her age, with a steady gaze and strong legs. She could beat any of the boys at football, and she could pull a mean punch or two. She could tell stories, wild, crazy stories that got into your head and took you to wild, crazy places, especially when she had that hat of hers on!
Ferg liked Ace because she wasn’t like the other girls, giggling and gossiping about the frail boy with the strange parents who never turned up at school. Ace liked Ferg because he wasn’t like the other boys, trying to prove how strong he was, or how fast he could run, or how high he could jump. She felt protective about him because there seemed to be nobody else in the world who cared about him.
Ace could always make sense of things, even though she was being infuriatingly literal about this situation.
‘It doesn’t have to be happy just because it’s called Happy High,’ Ferg returned.
‘That’s true,’ agreed Ace, ‘though I’ve found that names are often a good indication of things …’
‘I’ll vouch for the fact that you’re top-notch, every bit as your name suggests,’ remarked Ferg, knocking Ace’s hat off playfully. And then he sobered up: ‘My name makes sense, too, you know …’
Ace faked a wide smile: ‘I’m sure Ferg is short for Ferguson or … or … Fergallo … or Fer … Fergen!’
Ferg knew Ace was only trying to cheer him up, so he didn’t point out that Fergallo and Fergen weren’t even real names! Ferg’s name wasn’t short for anything longer, and when you teamed it up with his family name—that name meant only one thing and he had known it all his life. would forget him once he was off at boarding school. ‘Names are a good indication of things, which means that the school
‘You’re right,’ he said at last, thinking of how fast his parents must be all right. But I just can’t believe that my ears could be dead wrong.’
They weren’t. It was Mr and Mrs Gottin who were dead wrong—they knew that Horrid High was a perfectly horrid school, but they concluded that their son would fit right in. ‘Parents know everything, don’t they?’ they said. But parents don’t know everything, and if you gathered everything that Mr and Mrs Gottin knew about children, it wouldn’t fill a teaspoon. So of course when Mrs Gottin told Ferg to pack his things, she was surprised to find that everything he owned was now three sizes too small. Children grow, who would have thought it! It was most inconvenient, Mrs G noted, how Ferg’s trousers were all knee-length, and how his T-shirts rode up so that his stomach peeped out. Almost all of them said ‘I am Superman’, which seems rather silly when you’re eleven years old. Ferg’s shoes were getting so snug, he had started wearing them without laces. His pyjamas had a Mickey Mouse print on them that he had loved when he was five, but didn’t feel so happy about any more.
Children are a drain on the economy, mused Mrs Gottin, who had never had a significant thought about finances until then. Anything new I buy him, she thought, the ungrateful wretch will only outgrow.
She decided to send him off with what he had—although he didn’t have much. ‘It’s always prudent to pack light, my dear,’ she said.
For once Mrs Gottin was right. Happy High was a long
trudge from the nearest station. Dead End Station—Ferg’s ears tingled at the name. He was glad that he had packed light. The Gottins had put him on the train after what they called the Final Farewell, vanishing before the guard had even blown the whistle. ‘We’ve paid up for three years at a time,’ said Mr Gottin. ‘So you should have no reason to contact us.’ ‘Don’t be horrid, darling. He can always call us if there is an emergency,’ said Mrs Gottin, putting an unusual emphasis on the last word, before quickly adding, ‘but there won’t be any emergencies, I’m sure.’
Ferg’s tummy rumbled. Mrs Gottin had been kind enough to pack him a sandwich, even though the effort did curl up her hair, forcing her to dash off to the salon for a quick fix before the Final Farewell. The sandwich was only two slices of plain bread with nothing in between, so it didn’t go a long way.
There was no one at Dead End Station to collect Ferg, but there was a sign with two arrows on it. One arrow pointed left: To Town. The other pointed right: To HH.
The path To HH was a wide, green avenue, so serene and pleasant it should have attracted walkers. But it was deserted and Ferg didn’t chance across a single person or car going by. A tiny stream ran alongside, babbling like a child with a story to tell. Early spring flowers blossomed on the kerb. Birds sang in the branches; soft, white clouds floated overhead; the grass under Ferg’s feet was green and moist. Ferg smiled as a gentle breeze stirred his hair—the road leading to Happy High was putting him in a happy mood. Except for the tingling in his ears …
A crow called above him, breaking the silence. Its cry was answered by many others. Ferg looked up—a dense knot of crows circled overhead, staining the sky. A murder of crows. That’s what a group of crows is called, his teacher had said at his last English lesson—a murder. He shivered, which was odd because the wind had died down without warning. The stream had quieted down to a listless trickle. All other birdsong had faded away.
‘Aaaargh!’ Ferg jumped as something hit his cheek, hard. It was a fish-head, and Ferg stared at it as it lay in the grass, its dead eyes staring back at him. It smelled rotten, and already a cloud of flies was settling on it. Ferg touched his cheek gingerly; he felt a bruise coming up.
A loud cawing broke out again—a sort of complaining—the crows must have dropped their lunch. They wheeled in a circle of rage, and Ferg followed them with his eyes. That’s when he saw it. Happy High.