silhouetted person walking alone
Photo by Hongmei Zhao on Unsplash

The Shadow Teacher by Aditya Gautam

The day had been strange, and now it was night.

As she hurried on her way home, Simran passed beneath a streetlamp and could not repress a shudder at the sight of that Simran-shaped darkness which stretched from her feet to a few feet in front of her, that is to say, her shadow.

Her mind went back to how promisingly the day had begun.

At 9 in the morning, she had been standing on the balcony of a large apartment in South Delhi and the thought of landing her first job had filled her guts with excitement. Some of that excitement, admittedly, had started churning into nervousness when she rang the doorbell twice, and yet no one answered the door.

Maybe I’m at the wrong address, she had thought, and to confirm it with Pandey-Ji she had taken out the pamphlet from her handbag on which his number was printed.

Shadow Teacher1 urgently needed.
Preference to fair, Hindu girl
with good English.
Experienced and Fresher both welcome.

Mr. Purshottam Pandey (of the famous Pandey Halwayi2, Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi)
Ph: +91-9900289780

She had found the pamphlet stuck on an electric pole near her house and despite the fact that it sounded more like a ridiculous matrimonial ad than a call for a special-needs teacher, she had taken it off the pole and tucked it into her pocket.

The reason behind this pamphlet-stealing, ridiculousness-ignoring behavior was in part the utter boredom of her college vacations and in greater part the certification course she had done last year in Shadow Teaching. Until the pamphlet, no opportunity had presented itself for her to use what she had learned.

The next day, Simran had called Mr. Purshottam Pandey, and he had asked her, first, to call him Pandey-Ji like everyone else, and second, to show up at his house for an interview.

It was by the appointment thus fixed that she found herself today morning to be the ringer of unanswered doorbells.

Just as she was dialing his number, a boy’s stammering voice rang out inside the house.

"Mummy! So-so-someone’s at th-the door."

A couple of minutes later, a woman, about 40 years of age, wrapped in a banarasi saree3, with a few henna-dyed strands of orange in her head, opened the door and smiled at Simran. "Yes?"

Simran held up the pamphlet to her. "Good morning, ma’am. I talked to Pandey-Ji on the phone the day before yesterday and he asked me to drop by for an interview."

"Oh, yes, yes, yes. Simran. Yes, yes. Sonu’s father told me. I hope you didn’t have to wait long? We were just getting ready to leave for the shop—a big order for laddus4 for minister sahab’s house today came in just now," the woman shook Simran’s outstretched hand and then introduced herself. "I am Missus Pammi Pandey, by the way."

Simran took a step forward, expecting Mrs. Pandey to accept her inside the house, but Mrs. Pandey lingered on the doorway. "You are so tall. Are you a model, by the way?"

"Thank you, Pammi-Ji. But no, I’m not a model," Simran replied.

She was a little surprised at the abrupt and out-of-place question, but even more surprising was Mrs. Pandey’s obvious disappointment about her not being a model.

"But you are tall like a model. How tall are you exactly?"

Simran wondered whether she should simply choose not to reply. But perhaps this was some strange way of conducting an interview?

"5’9," she said.

"5’9?" Mrs. Pandey repeated after her, "but that’s certainly a model’s height. Are you sure you are not a model, by the way?"

"Sure? Yes, of course, I am sure about what I am not."

"Well, that’s a pity. Anyway, don’t just stand out there. Come on in, come in, by the way."

They entered the drawing-room and Simran sat down on a plush sofa. Mrs. Pandey got her a glass of water and then went back to fetch her husband.

The room had obviously been furnished by someone with a fair amount of money and no taste at all. Everything was of good quality, and none of it felt like it belonged.

The coffee table, for instance, was a minimalist all-glass affair, but the sofa-set around it had pink velvet covers.

Opposite to where she was sitting, an ivory statue of Ganesha, about 4-feet-high, stood next to a blue-lit gigantic aquarium that had too many fish, even for its great capacity. The fish kept bumping into each other, and into each other’s shadow, as they wondered why the ocean had suddenly become so crowded.

The beautiful navy-blue curtain that Mrs. Pandey had drawn behind her while going inside, Simran noticed, was wrapped on one side around a pudgy little boy.

She said "Hi" but he only looked at her silently with his round-as-a-penny eyes.

"What’s your name?" Simran tried again, but showing a Shakespearean nonchalance to this question, the boy turned to run away.

He collided, however, face first, into the enormous belly of his creator and reversed his course. Pandey-Ji entered the room with his son.

"Namaste, Simran madam," he said with folded hands. His wife also came into the room and sat down next to him. Their son took his place in a corner with his nose almost touching the screen of an enormous phone he held in both his hands.

“Namaste, Pandey-Ji. Here is my resume and my certification from the teaching course.”

Pandey-Ji took the thin file Simran offered him and after a cursory glance at the documents it contained, he placed it on the coffee table. “Your surname...Brahmin5?”

“Yes. Punjabi Brahmin,” Simran replied and Pandey-Ji seemed well-satisfied, but Mrs. Pandey decided to interject here with the line of conversation she considered too important to abandon in a hurry.

“Do you see how tall she is? And still not a model, by the way,” she said to her husband.

“Really?” Pandey-Ji muttered as he scrolled something on his phone, “Not a model? A teacher. Hah!”

Mrs. Pandey shrugged her shoulders and shook her head vehemently.

They seemed to have forgotten that Simran was present in the same room.

“Excuse me,” she said in an attempt to check this rather bewildering exchange, “but can you please tell me how would you like me to help your son? We can start with speech-therapy right away to ease up his stammering, I think.”

Pandey-Ji peered at her through sunken, small eyes. “Help our Sonu?” He pointed incredulously at his son with a thumb. “This sack of potatoes? Oh no, no, no.”

His wife gave a small chuckle and drew Sonu to her side. She fussed over the boy while he remained buried in his phone and gave her no attention whatsoever.

“Can you please not call him that?” Simran said coldly, feeling like the righteous champion of children everywhere. “It could be really detrimental to his self-esteem.”

“Don’t take offense, madam. Please,” Pandey-Ji said, “I only meant that it’s my daughter I want you to teach, not my son. Sonu, go fetch your sister from her room.”

Mr. and Mrs. Pandey waited silently for their children with Simran and she was glad they did not relapse into the subject of her not being a model despite having the height for it.

A couple of minutes later, Sonu came back and took his spot in a corner with his phone. His sister trailed behind him like a fat boy’s thin girl shadow.

She looked like a sweet kid. Reminiscent of a certain Roald Dahl character, maybe. Lean. Almost as tall as her brother. Cocooned inside a sea-green frock. A finger between the pages of a book in her hand to serve as a bookmark. Her wide, curious eyes passed over her parents and settled on Simran.

“This is our Rinky,” Mrs. Pammi Pandey said, and tousled Rinky’s neatly parted hair, an action that her daughter obviously found annoying.

“Hello, Rinky.” Simran shook hands with her. The girl’s small hand felt warm against her own. Her eyes had not wavered yet from Simran’s face.

Pandey-Ji got up from the sofa with a sigh. “So, Simran madam. We are quite willing to hire you as a Shadow Teacher for Rinky. If it’s alright by you, I mean?”

“Yeah, but can you please explain a little as to what exactly I’ll be helping Rinky with? We can talk in private if you want?”

Pandey-Ji shuffled his considerable weight between his legs and exchanged a discomfited glance with his wife.

“Well…” he began.

But Mrs. Pandey interrupted him and addressed Simran affectionately, all regrets about her height’s unrealized potential apparently forgotten for now.

“Let’s do one thing, Simran beta. Why don’t you spend the day with Rinky? You will get to know her problem by yourself, maybe? And the maid will come soon enough, so you can have lunch with the kids. What do you say, by the way?”

The suggestion sounded sensible to Simran despite the infuriating source from whence it came. Shadow Teachers were generally advised to spend some time alone with the child for whom they were going to be responsible.

“Sure, let’s do that.’”

“Good,” Pandey-Ji agreed, “so, we’ll see you in the evening. Then, you can tell us about how you are going to treat Rinky and we can also discuss your salary. Rinky, show madam your room, and Sonu—you keep an eye on the maid. Your mother says she stole some sugar last week.”

They saw off Mr. and Mrs. Pandey. Then, Rinky took her hand and led her inside.

The first thing she noticed on entering Rinky’s room were the books strewn everywhere from the table to the floor and peeking out of the half-open wardrobe. At a glance, she spotted Matilda, Coraline, The Sleeper and the Spindle, and some old copies of the Agatha Christie mysteries.

“How old are you Rinky?” Simran asked as she sat down on the bed and Rinky pulled up a chair beside her.

“I’ll be 8 next month.”

“Ah, you will be a big girl then.”

Rinky did not say anything to that.

Simran noticed a girl’s photograph on the table and asked Rinky who it was.

“Oh, that’s me. From last year,” Rinky said.

“Really? Well, I did not recognize you at all. You—well, you must have lost a lot of weight since then.”

Rinky nodded her head bashfully. “12 kilograms,” she said.

“Oh. Were you ill?”

Rinky shook her head.


“Mummy said that girls should not be fat. Nobody likes them if they are fat and they can make no friends.”

Simran felt revulsion bubble up inside her. She could imagine that sentence in Pammi Pandey’s voice well enough. “So you went on a diet?”

Rinky nodded her head again.

Further conversation revealed that Rinky was doing great in school, she had topped the third grade recently, and while she was not very interested in sports, she took piano lessons every Friday.

They called Sonu from his room and the three of them played UNO while the maid prepared lunch for them. After lunch, Sonu went to his room for a nap and Simran sat down with Rinky to go through her schoolbooks.

As the sun went down, Simran was no closer to understanding why Mr. and Mrs. Pandey felt the need to hire a Shadow Teacher when their daughter was obviously excelling in everything it was possible for an 8-year-old to excel at.

She asked Sonu to call Mrs. Pandey and find out how long they were going to be.

The doorbell finally rang a little after 7 while she was watching old Tom and Jerry episodes with the children and Simran opened the door to admit their parents. Pandey-Ji asked her how her day had been and beamed when Simran told him she had loved spending time with his children.

“So, shall we expect you to come and help Rinky from Monday? Let’s fix your salary at 8 thousand for the first month and then we can see based on how things go, what do you say?” he asked Simran a few minutes later as they sipped tea from ornate white china teacups.

“That sounds okay to me, but—”

“You want to switch to modeling, don’t you?” Mrs. Pandey offered.

Simran chose to ignore that.

“Pandey-Ji, frankly speaking, I don’t really understand how I can help Rinky. She is doing great at school, she has friends, she is polite. There are no ‘special needs’, as far as I can see. Do you want me to give her tuitions or something like that?”

“No, no, no, she already goes to the best coaching class in the city. It isn’t about that,” Pandey-Ji sighed and then turned to his wife. “Shall we show it to her?”

Mrs. Pandey bobbed her head up and down.

“Okay, come out to the balcony then,” Pandey-Ji said.

A few minutes later, Simran stood with the Pandey family outside their house. It had gotten dark, she saw, and she checked her watch pointedly to show that she should be on her way now.

“Do you think you can do something about it then?” Pandey-Ji asked.

“About what?”

“Oh, you don’t see it yet? Sonu, switch on the bulb.”

A bulb was switched on in the balcony. Simran felt like she was at an exhibition and was failing to appreciate something that was obvious to everyone else around her.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you want to show me, Pandey-Ji.”

“That, of course,” Pandey-Ji said in an exasperated voice and pointed at Rinky’s feet.

Simran followed the trajectory of his finger but again failed to see what he was driving at. He sighed.

“Her shadow. Look at her shadow.”

And Simran saw.

In front of the little girl was stretched out her disproportionate shadow—the shadow of a much larger girl.

For a moment, Simran thought that it was a trick of the light, and she was about to say that when she began to realize that it wasn’t as simple as that. For one thing, the Shadow Girl had a different hairstyle than Rinky. The ponytail she had in her photograph from last year. But also, the Shadow Girl was giving the finger to Mrs. Pammi Pandey even though Rinky stood unmoving with downcast eyes and both hands at her sides.

The bright girl with whom Simran had spent the day was almost completely gone now. In her place stood a helpless 8-year-old whose parents were displaying her like a circus freak that needed to be redeemed of its freakishness.

“Well...what...I mean, I can’t.”

The words in Simran’s mind broke down and scattered into nothingness as she tried to voice them.

Looking at Rinky’s shadow, now swaying side to side, now dancing to a silent song of its own, she felt as though the curtain on the world’s backstage had been ripped apart and she was looking through the gaps at things supposed to remain unseen.

“You are a Shadow Teacher, aren’t you? So you must teach her to control her shadow, right?” Mrs. Pandey asked her. She could hear the accusation in her voice.

Simran started to mumble something about that not being the meaning of the term but stopped as she realized how useless it would be to explain that.

“Look, madam,” Pandey-Ji said, “we have already taken her to all manners of priests and doctors. Nothing seems to work. It wasn’t so bad at first, but the girl’s shadow seems to have become a person of its own now. A few weeks ago Sonu’s school suggested hiring a Shadow Teacher for him but of course he doesn’t have a problem with his shadow, so we thought it would be better to hire one for his sister.”

“I understand,” Simran said, “but don’t you think you could leave this thing alone? Maybe it will go away by itself just as it came?”

Mrs. Pandey shook her head. “You don’t understand. News travels so fast in the community. In a few years when we are trying to marry Rinky people would still be asking about her—her abnormality—and God forbid if she is not cured by then—I can’t imagine what her life would be like.”

“Well, she is just a little kid. There’s a lot of time until you have to think about all that, right?”

Pandey-Ji looked at her with tired eyes and his small mouth grew smaller. “So you can’t help us?”

Simran looked at Rinky again and shook her head. But as she turned to leave, the Shadow Girl had waved goodbye to her and Simran had waved back.

“I will come again tomorrow, okay? I am not making any promises, but let’s see if I can help,” she had said to Pandey-Ji before leaving. She doubted she could do anything about the shadow, but maybe she could still be there for the girl to whom it was attached.

It had been a strange day indeed.

The light from the streetlamp faded out as Simran took a few more steps towards her house and her shadow melted back into the darkness.

At dinner, her brother asked her how the interview had gone and she told him that she was sure she had landed the job but she wasn’t really sure where she had landed.

Later at night, in her bed, a thought behind her thoughts wondered what her shadow might do if one day it also decided to have a mind of its own. When she turned on her side did her shadow on the wall turn a moment sooner? Was its leg bent at the same angle as hers?

Before drifting off to sleep, she did the only sensible thing one can do if one is afraid of shadows, that is to say, she turned off the lights and closed her eyes.

1 Shadow Teacher: An educational assistant who works directly with a single child with special needs during his/her early school years.

2 Halwayi: A sweetshop owner.

3 Banarasi saree: An expensive, gaudy saree usually reserved for special occasions.

4 Laddu: A popular Indian sweet.

5 Brahmin: As the highest caste in the Hindu caste-system, the traditional role of Brahmins was to teach.


Aditya Gautam is an internationally published writer from India. A speculative short story by him was included in the Best Asian Fiction Anthology, 2018 by Kitaab, Singapore. Most recently, his work has appeared in the July 2021 issue of the Orca literary journal. His debut novel will be published by Aesthetic Press, USA in March 2022. His writing can be accessed here.

Author's note

This story is rooted in the oral myth telling tradition of India which deals not so much with climaxing a narrative as in exploring it. Contemporary Indian society, from a writer’s perspective, is an infinitely interesting space for exploring the paradoxical nature of people. The aspiration of becoming "modern", for instance, moves parallel for most of the Indian upper-middle class with the aspiration of conforming as much as possible to the conventions held by their caste, community, society, or gender. Through this story, I have employed elements of magical-realism and absurd humor to focus on such contradictions and their coming to life, literally as well as figuratively.