The Pigeonhole Principle

(The pigeonhole principle in mathematics, in its crudest form, states that if you have more pigeons than pigeonholes, you have to group multiple pigeons in one or more instances to accommodate them all.)

Outside, soft rain drizzled down the puckered white walls, drenching them slowly but incessantly in its cold and moist embrace. Silent green trees gazed upwards longingly as if searching for a faint trace of some stray sunbeam through the dark pall that veiled the land. The dahlias in the garden cowered their majestic heads before the frigid wind. The grey cemented area assumed a much darker shade reflecting the overcast skies above. The freshness of the grass slowly wafted from the damp ground, accentuated by the musty smell of the oak tables and chairs. Far away, over the regular sound of rainwater playfully tapping the paths, one could hear the dying vestiges of car horns scooting away in utmost urgency. The unnoticed edges of the window pane were already foggy, and mist was gradually invading the entire view. The weather was bad; it was getting worse.

Inside, he pulled his maroon blazer closer to his body for some added warmth. His fingers stared numbly out of his black fingerless gloves, and he decided to let them stay that way for a little while longer. Around him, the teak panels on the parlour walls threw grotesque shadows on their neighbours in response to the dim light above. A large, oblong and semi-transparent glass table was placed in front of him over a burgundy carpet that spanned the entire floor. Along three of the table’s sides were sofas, of which the smallest sofa was occupied by him. This gave him a sense of security, for if anyone in the corridor outside decided to peep in carelessly, he would remain well-hidden. The door was shut for now, and all he knew about the outer world was through the large French window on his left. The rhythm of the raindrops seeped in through this window as every drop clung to the glass, before being forced to scurry downwards to follow the trails of others before them. The room seemed to radiate the same feeling of loneliness echoing outside those walls.

This imprisonment however, did not stop our young hero from guessing what was happening elsewhere in the school at that time. In impatient ticks, the large clock on the wall behind him reported that recess was almost over, but no child hurried up the large grey steps to the lobby. The fields were empty, strangely missing the cheer and noise of a usual winter’s day. No footsteps sneaked up to the garden in an effort to depreciate its prominence as a forbidden place, and to appreciate their own bravado at having conquered something so dignified. No, the world outside was a constant place now — a place that was bereft of change save the one it enforced upon itself. He thought how every child in the school was restrained indoors at that exact moment, including him. The only difference was that they blamed it on the stupid weather, and he blamed it on his stupid tie.

If the devil ever decided to take a human form and appear on Earth to consume its inhabitants, he would surely become the evil Principal Blount. Known to be very particular about discipline, and a strict believer in rule of the rod, Mr Blount was not the kind of person you would expect to be merciful. He was infamous for dropping in classrooms unseen with such a disapproving look on his face that even the teachers became too self-aware to continue the lesson. Thereafter, he would leave the room as silently as he had entered, and leave everyone wondering what mental notes he had taken about their demeanour. You could never be too certain that whatever you did was not being monitored by his small, grey and emotionless eyes obscured behind those half-rimmed glasses. His tall and slender build gave an impression that he glided along the deserted corridors, foraging for innocent children who had dared looked sideways during class hours. His glare was one that could actually wipe the smile off children’s faces. Most of the students had seen his angrier side, and those who had not were mostly those model students whom every teacher praised. There were rumours that he had expelled over five students in the previous fall because of their increasing disregard for the school uniform, particularly in the way they fashioned their tie.

Now there was this peculiar rule in the school that students were only supposed to tie their ties in perfect Windsor knots. Though it made no sense whatsoever, Principal Blount had himself seen to it that this rule was strictly enforced. The children had later noted that the only thing constant in Mr Blount’s appearance was the way his ties were tied- an impeccable Windsor knot. It had thus become obvious how the rule had come into existence, and some of the senior students, in an effort to protest against it, had completely ignored the rule. With a particularly nasty display of temper, Principal Blount had entered their classroom, and asked them not to continue in the school further. That was the reason why many students feared him now.

Ryan was not afraid of Principal Blount. He was not afraid of anyone in the school for that matter. He did not care what the other students thought of him, or whether he was in the good books of his teachers. According to him, there were three kinds of children in any classroom. The first kind were the ones who loved being the teachers’ pets. The teachers loved them, and they revelled in their existence only in the teachers’ presence. The second kind were the more average students who did not quite know what they wanted out of school life yet. The third kind- his kind- were the disgraced students. They were almost always disarrayed, and came late to all classes. They hated library books and those forced library periods where they were supposed to read those hated library books. They were not concerned with academic performance, or reading in classes, or answering silly questions about battles, wars or ballads on battles and wars. Ryan loved this place in his class. It added a certain brash charm to his name. ‘Ryan’ sounded rebellious- somewhat rude and criminal.

He stared at the thin letters his fingers had involuntarily scribbled over the moist glass pane. R-Y-A-N- they spelt, as if echoing through the large empty school corridors, or pouring down from the lead skies as heavy downpour. The lower line in ‘Y’ trickled down clumsily, and Ryan’s sight followed its insignificant course through a multitude of other drops in its wake. It lost itself somewhere below, and after a heightened minute of frantic searching, Ryan decided to give up his current occupation, and proceeded towards the Vice Principal’s office. It was time for another one of the familiar lectures.

“I have never seen it rain in winters. This is really crazy — the weather,” he heard one of the members of the Principal’s supporting staff say. He tried to slip by unseen.

“Ryan! Here again, I see.” Ryan steeled himself for the onslaught he knew would greet him, and turned around to face the guy.

“Sure, Dan! Sometimes I wonder why they keep you around anymore. I have been here so many times that I can serve as the Principal’s assistant now.”

“Do something good while you are at school, will you lad? Life outside is going to be tough on you if you continue in this manner.”

“You almost sound like the Vice Principal himself, don’t you, Dan?”

“Do I, now? Well, to your relief, you won’t be hearing any more of this stuff. You are up next to meet the Principal. Let us see how you respond to that, young man!”

Ryan did not reply.

Back in the parlour room, Ryan felt a tingling sensation down his spine. ‘I am not scared,’ he reassured himself. ‘He is just the Principal. All he can do is call mom here, yes. The rumours are all lies.’ For the first time in his life, probably, Ryan felt sick in his stomach. His mother would have to hail a cab in such rough weather to come to talk to the Principal. His fingers couldn’t sense anything anymore. He thrust them suddenly into his pockets, before realizing that it was a bad idea. He pulled them out again and started pumping his fists vigorously in an effort to get his veins working. His legs were shaking uncontrollably of their own accord. He tried hard to keep all disillusioning thoughts at bay, but Principal Blount’s face kept popping up each time he tried to consciously think of anything. He reasoned that he was infuriated, and surprised at the Principal’s indulgence in this issue- but he was not scared. ‘All of this just for a tie! All of this just for a stupid tie!’

Ryan was one of the few students who had not given much time to learn how to tie a tie. His mother had tied some knot for him back at home, and he had not tried telling her that only Windsor knots were allowed in school. He was simply not concerned what the rules were, and he was certainly not tied down by them. Moreover, she would not understand the difference between a Windsor  or half a Windsor knot anyway. He did not quite understand it himself. Ryan couldn’t have cared less. He just knew that the broader end was supposed to come in front and the shorter end was supposed to lie below it. He just used the same knot over and over again, everyday, in so rough a manner that what remained of the knot was a spherical parody of an elegant trapezoidal affair.

In one swift motion, he pulled out his tie. It was one long piece of silken cloth with its ends folded into a smooth taper. The creases on it followed no particular pattern. They were a result of the fabric’s prolonged crumpled state under the pathetic excuse of a knot. Ryan looked desperately at the tie, trying to figure out how to convert that single piece of dishevelled cloth into a Windsor knot that would impress Principal Blount. He folded a part of the tie in the shape he had seen on some of his smarter dressed classmates. He then tried leading the larger and smaller ends through the shape in turn. Finally satisfied with his work, he raised the tie and tugged at the smaller end, only to have the entire tie unravelled again, entwined in his unwise fingers.

‘Come on! Work for me just this time, and I will learn how to tie a tie for God’s sake.’

He made a small loop using the smaller end this time, and tried thrusting the larger end into the loop. The complete length of the tie degraded into a disfigured tangle that could never serve as the foundation for a respectable knot.

Ryan untied his work and laid out the tie before him again. He eyed the red piece of cloth that had cream stripes running diagonally across its whole stretch. This simple piece of classic garment that lay before him seemed to suddenly adopt the role of an ominous villain. All at once, he was a single raindrop, lost somewhere in the easel of the single, large window pane. Though he tried hard to stay fixed to no particular point on the easel, he knew he would soon be pulled down, and he would disappear forever from the searching eyes of curious onlookers. Ryan was surprised at this incongruity of his thoughts. He was even more surprised that he cared. ‘Oh! If I could only tie it this one time!’

“It’s time, boy,” shot a sudden voice from near the door, making Ryan jump. “Some nerves there! The Principal wants to meet you now.”

The few steps from the parlour to Principal Blount’s office seemed formidable. On the other side of the panelled door, the devil sat in his chair, possibly scrutinising him through the wooden barrier. Ryan wanted to run. He did not know where he would run off to, but he would just run- and never come back. Ryan looked down at the mosaic designs on the floor below, contemplating his decision. A large spiral engulfed the floor, with its eye reaching up a few paces from where Ryan stood now, looking up at his carefree attitude and untidy appearance. To his left, the Principal’s assistant sat, almost ready to motion him to go in. Ryan steeled his mind, clenched his reviving fingers, forced his nauseating grin, and walked towards the office with the resolve of someone who had nothing to lose.

While Ryan enters the Principal’s office, take a look at this large, red and white building. Leashed on to books they barely like, and waiting anxiously for bells to signal the passage of time, the students sit in perfectly arranged rows. On the surface, all ties are same — red, striped and restraining. But if you look close enough, you will find that one of these ties has a tighter knot, because the dark-haired boy keeps tugging at it when he is nervous. Another tie might have a monotonous pale orange line along its blade, because that is where the thin girl dropped some sauce. A third will have small marks on the hidden tail, and yet another will be twisted along the neck concealed under the collar.

These are small and imperceptible details which do not quite affect the grand scheme of things. From a safe distance though, every tie is plainly a way to tame the unstable silence that pervades this entire place. In subtle advances of the knot over the fabric, the tie binds every hound to the kennel.

‘Should I apologise?’ Ryan kept his gaze fixed on the transparent liquid-filled orb that served as a paperweight to the most important documents in the office. ‘Did he already call my mom?’

Mr Blount slowly took his deft fingers to his own tie, handling the knot as if to emphasize the importance of a perfect knot on the appeal of a person. He eased his index finger into the cleft between the face of the tie and the cloth beneath it, gently teasing the knot. Finally, satisfied with what he felt, he yanked off the entire tie in one swift motion and held it in his hands- drooping and clumsy.

“Let me show you how it is done, son.”

Right there, midst the relentless raindrops that hit the glass panes before darting off to their cold earthly graves, Ryan looked at his unkempt little noose, and decided to do something about it.

Author: Ayush

I love writing, and this blog serves as a slow growing collection of all my writing endeavours.

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