Thursday, December 16, 2010

New Words and New Troubles: To My Children 5

(The Writer Vila Primary School, where I spent five years)

Sometimes I think, especially when I walk along the alleys in my village, things have shrunk around me. What happened to those compound walls of my high school? When I was a student there, I thought the walls were too tall and I never could see a thing happening inside. You could feel schools from a distance from the buzzing sound that emanated from those buildings. During my childhood, schools were not personality grooming centers. Teachers taught all the subjects reading directly from the text books. They did not come with any special preparations to take classes. During their leisure hours they either gossiped or corrected the copy books disinterestedly. Male teachers discussed politics in the nearby tea shops, female teachers went to the washrooms in groups. I always wondered at this phenomenon called women teachers who went to the toilet in groups. I never found out the reason for this. And irrespective of their gender we called all the teachers, ‘Sir’.

I have very fond memories about my schools. Once our family was relocated from the city to the village, my parents found it difficult to send me and my sister to any play school. The reason was simple: there were no play schools. Instead, we had ‘kudi pallikkoodangal’, which means home tuition centers. These home tuition centers were run mainly by young graduate girls who were of marriageable age. Between graduation and marriage, there was always an interim phase for them. They had a lot of vacant time and one way of killing time was taking tuitions for young kids for a paltry fee. Often kids were given reading or writing exercises and while we were at it, the teachers attended household chores including helping their mothers in kitchen works or washing clothes. I remember my teacher through her smell; she had the fragrance of ‘Radhas’ soap. Radhas soap was one famous brand, which the Malayali film actresses endorsed at that time. I don’t remember her face now, but I remember a huge red bindi and the smell of Radhas soap.

Getting me everyday into the tuition class was a very difficult task. We had a maid servant at home, as my parents were ‘working parents’ and her name was ‘Chinnamma’. She was with us for several years. We called her ‘Chinnamma Appachi, which means Chinnamma Aunty (the word qualified her status as my father’s sister). She was ageless and agile but looked always old with a few teeth missing. I used to wonder why we were made to call her ‘appachi’. Why didn’t we call her ‘kunjamma?’ Kunjamma means ‘mother’s younger sister’. Later I came to know that establishing the paternal link was a way of endorsing a second woman’s presence within the family. She should have come from my father’s side. A woman from mother’s side could not have become a maid servant at home. Also, establishing this kinship marked out the sexual territories of the male members in a family.

It was Chinnamma Appachi’s job to take me to the tuition center. The poor woman carried a howling monster like me on her shoulders while my sister who was one year elder to me walked silently behind her holding the tip of her sari. We were made to wear socks, shoes and even neck ties. Still I don’t know the logic of my father, who took us away from the city schools and denied us English medium education, preferred to parade us like city bred kids in a small village like Vakkom. Wearing those clothes used to be a horrible experience for both of us. This practice continued till we reached upper primary classes. And there are some photographs in the family album in which you could see me and my sister wearing neck ties on normal shirts and half knickers, complete with bathroom slippers on our feet. Idealism at times could touch fanatical and ridiculous heights, I tell myself whenever I see these photographs again and again.

Apart from the red bindi and the fragrance of Radha’s soap in my tuition class, I vividly remember a few other things. My teacher always held a film magazine in her hands. The more she taught us, the more she devoured the black and white pictures of Prem Nazir and Sheela, the then superstars of Malayalam film industry. She smiled to herself and at times she went into reveries. One day, for the first time in my life, I saw a cow giving birth to a calf. The cow was in pain and we, the children came around it as my teacher, her parents and a few other people went to attend the cow in labor. I saw the calf coming out from a gaping hole behind the cow. First came two dark hoofs then a dark nose. The cow mooed as if it were butchered. Slowly the calf came out. We were also screaming and making noises mixed with joy and fear. The calf started limping around. Someone took it and kept near the udders of the cow. The cow licked its baby clean. During a week that followed I did not trouble Chinnamma Appachi. I was eager to go to the tuition class only to the see the calf.

My first school was ‘Government New Lower Primary School’. Some people called it New LPS and most of the others called it ‘Writrola’. As young kids we also called it ‘Writrola’. It took many years for me to know that ‘Writrola’ was actually a derivative of ‘Writer’s Vila’ (Writer’s property). The etymology of this name could be traced back to ‘Writer’s Villa’. In fact, the ‘writer’ in question was not actually a writer in the conventional sense; he was not a writer of literature. He was a ‘writer’ in a legal court. He used to write affidavits and so on. I had never seen this person and was happy to call my school ‘writrola’. As it was a lower primary school there were only four standards. However, I studied in this school for five years. There was only one year difference between me and my sister. Once she was formally enrolled in the school, I too was taken out of the home tuition class. I went to school with my sister.

Schooling was not a life and death issue for the parents during my childhood. I sat with my sister in the first standard, in full western clothes. I was an intelligent kid and I learned things very fast, perhaps faster than the other kids and the headmaster and my class teacher did not find any reason for me to remain in the first standard for the second time. Along with my sister, I was promoted to the second standard; then to the third and to the fourth. But as I have told you, my father has certain Quixotic beliefs. When I reached the fourth standard with my sister, someone just sowed a few seeds of doubt to my father’s mind. It was something like this? These two kids are studying together. As they go into high school, there would be a competition amongst the siblings about their talent. It is not good to create rivalry between them. My father too started thinking on the same line.

The person who raised the issue of competition was not intending anything bad. On the contrary he was suggesting the possibility of a family trouble in future as in Kerala, the school final examination, that is tenth standard examination, was a very prestigious affair. The examination was a centralized affair conducted by the government and unlike in these days, the rank that one got decided his or her future as a doctor, engineer, bus conductor, police man or just a home tuition master. There used to be severe competitions amongst the parents during the month of March, when the school final examinations were conducted. We did not have the 10 + 2 system then. Once you passed the tenth standard, you went to a junior college to do your ‘pre-degree’ course.

Besides this future competition, in our small village itself there used to be severe competitions between parents who were well off in their career as school teachers or government servants. Gaining the first position in the high school was a thing of contention amongst the parents in the village whose children were in the same class. It all started the moment you entered the eighth standard, which was the beginning point of your high school life. The teachers themselves identify two or three students who could be the first, second and third rank holders within the school. Once the ball was set to roll like that the whole village and the tuition class masters and anyone who is worthy of his name take it up as their prestige issue. The whole village talked about these students till one of them became the first position holder in the school final examinations. To make matters worse, all the cultural organizations in the village and the rich people around offered cash prizes and other awards for the winners. Even prizes were there for separate subjects. Besides all these, the tutorial colleges published the photographs of these winners in their annual notices.

There used to be a war like situation during the school final examination days. The possible toppers are fed and cared for like sacrificial lambs. Above all, the village expected not just top positions from these kids; they expected these kids to be good at everything. So throughout the high school years, these kids tried to be the best story writers, best singer, best actor, best orator, best political leader and so on. And the interesting thing was that none expect the vigilant parents were there to groom these kids for these tough competitions. Some teachers derived secret pleasure by promoting one kid against the other, which eventually resulted into huge village scandals. For the parents of these chosen three, life used to be an ongoing war till they came out in flying colors. When their wards went on stage repeatedly during the annual celebration day to receive those small soap boxes, copper cups, certificates, cash awards and so on these parents felt that they were relieved from all the karmic ties in this earth. For them this sight used to be orgasmic. But for the majority of the parents who belonged to the working class, these competitions were non-existent affairs. They were happy if their children somehow made it to the next class.

My father thought on the issue that his friend raised and he found there was a sound logic in it. As intelligent kids, his children were going to be competitors for the top position in future. This would have brought trouble in the family. Besides, he might have thought of enjoying the glory of being the father of the top student in two consecutive years in future. So he decided to meet the headmaster in the school. The result was that I was made to sit once again in the third standard for another year while my sister gloriously entered the fourth standard. I don’t think I felt anything particularly bad. But the result was that I lost two years in my school life. One, as a result of this Quixotic move of my father and two, I seriously fell ill a day before I was to sit for the school final examination. I was admitted to a hospital in the town and I had to wait one whole year to appear for the examination as a ‘private’ student. My sister got first position in her school final examinations and her name was written on the school wall where the names of the toppers are written with white paint with the year of studies against it. Though I too got higher marks in the school final examinations, my name never appeared on the wall of fame. Nor did I receive any cash or kind awards for my achievements.

In Writerola School my life was uneventful. My cousin, Shibu (now the famous artist Shibu Natesan) was there in the same school. He was in the fourth standard when my sister and I joined the school. He took care of us during the first year and my father had given him strict instructions to protect me if I fought with some other kids. Once in a while Shibu bought sweets for me and sometimes accompanied me back to home. One day I had a severe fight with senior boy in the school and I bit him so ruthlessly that even Shibu could not do anything. Finally the parents of both the parties met outside the school and settled the issue.

Writrola School had a ‘noon meal scheme’. Some kind of wheat boiled and cooked in vegetable oil was served during the lunch hours. Most of the kids came from poor families and they relished this meal with a lot of appetite. The cooks were very benevolent and they packed the lunch boxes of several kids who wanted to take a share of it to their homes. Many mothers waited for these kids to come with the filled lunch boxes. As we were from a well off family, we were not allowed to eat this food. We took our lunch along and ate it separately. However, I always wanted to taste this noon meal served at the school and in some occasions I shared this food with my friends. It did not have any particular taste though I could feel the smell and texture of it when I write about it.

May be I was always given this feeling that I was different from other kids as if I had some special abilities. I was special, as much as I could remember, in the case of my body fat. I was too fat. Or was I? Or I was just a chubby kid amongst the half fed poor kids? When I take a look at the photographs in the family album, I think that I was not too fat as I know obese kids looked different than I looked in those photographs. But my father believed that I was different because he saw me always reading and writing. There was not a single piece of paper at home that I had not read or written on. My parents were secretly enjoying all those. My mother had even made some special arrangements for me to read more and more books. She gave some money to a small shop keeper who sold soda, cool drinks, lemon water, candies and magazines. The money was meant for one glass of lemon water. I was supposed to go to this shop after the school hours and have my dose of lemon water. The arrangement was like this that mother paid him money for one month in advance so that I could sit and read all those magazines in the shop. He sold the same copies that I read to other people. This went on for a couple of months and when I was in the fourth standard I became a member in a local library.

My greed for reading was somewhat unnatural till I met another friend, Shahul. He appeared from nowhere to our neighborhood. He had a troubled family and he was shifted from his parents’ place to a relative’s house in my village. Shahul read all the time even while walking. As he was living at his relative’s house, he had to do all the errands. He went to the market, flour mill and many other places. And all the time he was reading. He walked and read, or he read and walked. I stood at the gate of my house and watched him going with an open book in one hand while the other hand held heavy bags filled with vegetables, rice or rice flour. We became thick friends as we shared this love for books. We spent several hours reading together. I thought he would become a writer. But after he pre-degree, he joined the Indian Army. I never met him after that.

At Writrola School, I saw this man named ‘Mandoor’ everyday. Mandoor could be a nickname for a slow witted person. Mandoor was a huge guy with long arms and thick lips. He came to the school to eat the free noon meal. He was harmless though he was twenty year or something at that time. He also played the role of an errand boy for the teachers. He used to buy cigarettes and lemon water for the teachers. He brought chalk pieces from the office room when the teachers asked him to do so. And the headmaster had given him the responsibility of ringing the bell to announce the break time, lunch recess and the periods. We, the children looked at Mandoor wistfully from the classrooms all the time. Our muscles twitched when Mandoor made a move. We always thought he was going to ring the long bell that announced the recess time. Many years later I came to know that Mandoor died; he died young and alone.

My reading habit in the primary school at times got me into trouble also. I was not strictly reading children’s literature. I was reading all kinds of stuff. I should say that my interest was more in the literature meant for grown up people. After reading the abridged biographies of the famous people, I took interest in reading novels. In one of the novels I came across this world, ‘Raatri Kamukan’ (night lover). I was in the fourth standard and I knew that a raatri kamukan was a man who visited his beloved at night. Inspired by this new word, I approached one of my classmates and told her that I was her raatri kamukan. I thought it was a very innocent act and I was happy that I used a new word in my speech.

But the effect of this linguistic exercise was different. The girl went to her home and told her mother that her classmate told her that he was her ‘night lover’. Next morning I woke up to see my friend’s mother standing in front of our home and debating something with my parents. From her talk I could make out one particular word and that was ‘raatri kamukan’. I knew that I was in trouble. However, my parents laughed it off and pacified the woman and sent her back in good mood. This was one incident that made my parents alert about the kind of literature that I read with and without their knowledge. They tried to impose some restrictions but I had gone too far. I was already reading a lot of adult literature and when I went to the new school, I was already equipped to face the new realities.


jai kallikkal said...

Wow..loved your free flowing words. Life brings forth varied experiences before us. You studied in Kerala and your blog beautifully reflects your sentiments and state of mind in those days.

....the real life recollection is not just heart touching but awe inspiring.

layered said...

the neck-tie with bathroom slipper tells of a time I recognise :)
was remembering my own crazy reading times... read almost all Sarat Chandra Chattopadhaya and Bankim Chandra and lots of other adult novels before I finished 8th standard :)

geetha said...

so nice......,now i can see my class mates, teachers,especially one Narayani Teacher,who always wanted me to cut my long hair,in my primary school "Karuvayil Bhagam LP school, Cherthala.several days i cried and complained to my parents,now i realised that she was correct,because for an LP school student short hair cut is good.And also i feel the smell of that lunch, which i had to taste only on Oct.2(sevana varam),on that day i gained permission from my mother after a strong argument.thank u so much Johny,for this recollection of sweet memories.......