Technology and I are not great friends. I feel the information overload through technology, confuses my already confused state of mind! But a huge part of the credit of connecting the whole group of 1993 pass outs certainly goes to 'technology'! Along with the human mind and emotion, 'it' has travelled faster than light, sound and everything I know of and connected the whole bunch of us, from all over the world, for our 25th Anniversary:) The 25th Anniversary meet, teachers get together, stay over, all plans are going ahead on full swing on the whatsapp group. But I am somewhere in my mind going back in time and space where there was no such technology and pace. Like ripples; places, events, smiles, faces and memories are coming alive....
6 in the morning, Appa switches off the fan and wakes us up. There is no cuddling or wake up with a smile. It is Vividh Bharati blasting in the background and a harsh voice, waking the 3 of us up. Mornings are very disciplined and structured. Everyone has their share of house chores to do before heading to the bathroom. The body clock moves as per the program on the radio and once we are ready, we head to the kitchen to have our kanji (rice porridge) with lime pickle and ghee. Milk is compulsory, which, a lot of times for me, goes down the drain :). School is a 5-7 minute walk or 3-5 minute run for me.
A mad rush of kids, flood the road connecting Pattom and Pottazukhi every morning. Buses, matadors, cars, bikes, cycles and even the pedestrians; all rushing in one direction, all on one mission! Time is the name of the game. The 2000 odd children all dressed in grey and white need to enter the huge iron gate, kept open in its two halves; before the strike of 9 am. As the iron bell is manually rung by Ammavan (the old man who was our school peon), the gates close in. A small one is still open for those late comers- who are a mix of lazy, fun loving and some genuinely late creatures!
This was where I ran to everyday, from the age of 5-15 and spent a huge portion 8-9 hours of the day. Inside the iron gate was a steep climb up to my destination classroom. The classroom changed every year, but all of them echoed the same words- discipline, fear, and performance! In the 10 years I spent there, there were a lot of structural changes that happened, the office moved, a temple came into existence, one huge ground was converted into two. But in all, the space breathed the same two colours I was clad in- grey and white!
Since the time I remember I was in the prayer group. There were a number of times I ran in from the small gate hurriedly, tucked my bag somewhere near Ammavan and rushed into the line going to the assembly and quietly joined the prayer group somewhere enroute. In many of those hurried moments a stern and piercing eye would follow me until I joined the prayer group. Our Principal..Her pitch black thick hair always tied up in a bun with not one strand ever falling over her face. Impeccable cotton, starched sarees worn everyday carried with a gait that overflowed sophistication, and leadership. Round full face with a big bindi in the center and hard rimmed specs resting on her nose. The face bore no smile and it transferred an aura of fear and discipline through her which she carried along wherever she went. She hardly spoke and did most of her talking through her eyes which were visible past the specs she had on! She was up there on a pedestal… somewhere no one could easily reach!
Once while in the 7th std, I was playing with a ball outside my classroom with some other friends. One boy came running up the steps and shouted "Sir.." looking into my eyes. I signalled everyone to ‘head into the class’, and in the nick of time jumped into the class myself and threw the ball in. Our second in command- Vice Principal just entered the class after me. He was personification of terror with a physical handicap. He had elephantiasis- where his right foot was the size of an elephant’s and he limped around the whole campus. He wore a white shirt and a white dhoti everyday- both spotless and crease free. He carried a stick in his hand which he used very often, irrespective of the age of the student. He taught English and he made up for his physical handicap with a stream of foul language words he used very often through the day! He was usually late for his classes as he took time to walk up to the classroom, but once in, he was in command!!
The common areas in the school were the grounds, walk ways, water taps and of course the toilets. Areas; where we could be free, (usually) without any vigilance. The grounds were huge mud areas with trees in the circumference. My school had at least 5 grounds each utilised for different things. The space and openness it brought to the school campus was magical. I got into the habit of having my lunch in 5 minutes and spending the rest 35 minutes of the lunch break on the ground. The habit still remains and I gobble up my food at the fastest speed, in any given table:) . Walkways were places where the ‘one arm distance’ norm had to be maintained. Even if you are walking to reach from place A to place B, you couldn’t really get close to any other person physically. Water taps were the kind you see in marriage halls today- a whole line of them arranged linearly and you always wanted to use the first one, so you didn’t have to see the gross stuff that came out from the mouth of others! Toilet was a space I dreaded to go to. A common toilet for girls which had the horrible aroma any time of the day! This led to another habit I unknowingly grew with- to control my nature’s calls very naturally!
The classrooms were simple square shaped rooms with wooden tables and benches which were shared between 3-4 kids. There was a blackboard in the back and a teacher’s desk in front of it. Being a non Malayalee, I struggled through the first 4 years of school where Malayalam was compulsory. I remember copying the entire question back on the answer paper and writing the single word answer in English for my Malayalam unit tests :). I have no faintest idea how I graced out of those years. Punishments, beatings on the knuckles, ‘get out of the class’, and impositions were all tools of fear used to bring in discipline. I have got them all at some point or the other through the 10 years. Unit tests and exams were the performance indicators and it was a painful exercise I went through year after year. The report card with marks and rank had to be brought home, signed and returned back- along with it came- anxiety pangs, lies, and wonderful stories. Frankly even after this intense methodology in place, I don’t remember a word I studied through my school life:)
The ‘head’ was getting groomed through the initial years and suddenly a suppressed organ of one self- the ‘heart’ broke open to express itself. From the 5th std onwards a new world of noticing and ‘attraction’ of the opposite sex started to happen. A normal growth phenomenon, but in my closed campus of utmost discipline, it was just not acceptable! One morning, all of 10 years old, I gathered all the courage I had and walked directly into Principal madam’s cabin to tell her that a boy had uttered the unimaginable 3 words to me – ‘I love you!’. My serious and stern Principal, burst into laughter!!! I was aghast!!! I didn’t want to accept that she looked lovely when she laughed; but was so humiliated, hurt and angry that she made fun of such an important and crucial event of my life. I had specially mustered all the courage on the earth and walked into her cabin thinking, she would understand me… but she laughed!!!! A hurt and disturbed me, decided to take charge of things on my own going forward :)
Soon the ‘crushes’ syndrome began to blossom. There was a new, fresh and lovely reason to go to school. Though we all girls used to gossip and grumble about the ‘boys’ trouble, somewhere secretly I enjoyed the special attention, concern, thrill and eagerness that the feeling brought with it. It was a suppressed, harmless, and hormone filled feeling that saw no boundaries of reason or future. Suddenly the grounds that were open spaces turned in to strategic locations to watch your crush or catch the guy watching you! Cycles ferries around my house after school and blank calls made over the house phone number were some noticeable changes that happened after school hours. The highest level of feeling that was expressed to me was a ‘hand made greeting card'- which I had the audacity to not accept. Why? Because I believed if I accepted the card it meant a 'yes'; it meant a lifelong commitment, it meant things beyond I could fathom!!!:))
Well, the school's 'one arm distance' phenomenon, and a similar strict and disciplined environment at home had made all expressions of the heart in line with those of the head. Right -wrong, yes- no, perfect-imperfect behaviour, combined with fear- 'what will people say' effect- held back a lot of natural expression and acceptance of feelings in me. Looking back I think the family and school- the 2 main influences in those growing years, united together and worked untiringly towards a 2 pronged strategy:
1- Totally suppressing the heart and
2-Vehemently expressing the head!
I have a scholar sister 8 years elder to me and I was always being compared to her in studies. But fortunately or unfortunately, I started looking for other options to express myself. I started actively playing sports. All kinds of it.. kho kho, kabbadi, athletics, long jump et al. It gave me a sense of freedom. The competitive spirit of the sports day, the feeling of oneness for the house and just running against the gush of wind brought with it a sense of purpose. When we were in the 7th std, Princi introduced Basketball in the school. She announced there would be a girls team and interested kids could join. I jumped on the opportunity and asked all my close friends even those who were not that sporty, to just join. We soon had a school girls team! We had a dedicated coach, dedicated court, separate practice time and team uniform – green shirt and white shorts!! The white salwar, grey kameez and ‘v’ shaped white duppatta uniform from the 5th std was torturing and the 'shorts' was a fresh revolutionary feeling for me. Until then all sports days I ran barefoot. But now we were asked to buy sports shoes!! I was just loving it :) Appa was not very happy, but he cribbed and bought me the cheapest shoes possible. I was number 9, the dribbler of the team. I had an identity!
Basketball took me through my first ‘out of home all alone’ experience. A friend of mine and me were selected to the District level match and I travelled away from home for the first time and survived eating pottu, kadala, boiled rice, tappiocca and black coffee. All things I never ate ever in the 12 years of my life until then ! But it was an exciting and memorable experience for me. I enjoyed every practice session with my coach. The warm ups, the exercises, the strategies, the techniques, the game and the drop dead exhaustion it brought along with it. Once while playing a match in Jimmy George stadium against another school, the opponent player fouled and tripped me. I was badly hurt and couldn’t get up. Team mates ran and picked me up from the court. My ankle had swollen really bad. Coach put an ice pack and said it could be a fracture. I was brought home in a school vehicle. It was a ligament tear. The next day I had an unexpected visitor. Madam Principal herself!!! I couldn’t believe my eyes! She had let down all the masks of discipline and fear and was talking me to like a concerned mother. She had stepped down from her pedestal and walked up to me! I felt I had done one of the greatest achievements in the history of my school :)) Though it occurred due to the bad karma of someone else, I carried this heroic feeling on my shoulders and continues to be one of my best memories of school life !
My home being one of the closest to school was the usual meeting point. So every year after the last exam I had friends over for lunch followed by 3-4 hours of play/chat. Amma and Appa got to know my friends and Appa had his expert comments on all my friends :) Sometimes the venue changed through the years, which was also refreshing. In the school dabba, I remember having chapati and aloo bhaji almost every day from one of my friend’s lunch box. Don't remember who ate mine, but the aloo bhaji used to be so yummy, and no amount of recreations by me, has got me close to it. After the 8th Std, teachers were more approachable comparatively, and we started having a rapport with them. Because of that, the subjects they taught were more understandable! In 9th and 10th Std on Teachers day we acted big! Wore sarees and took classes for younger kids. We all got dressed up at my home and walked to the school in a group. I wore Amma's green saree with a small zari border, and took English for the 7th Std. I felt I could replace our Vice Principal. I felt I was ready now...to rule the world :))
After our 10th std farewell party, a big group of us- girls and boys together came home; just wishing this journey would never end, just wishing we could hold on to the moment a little longer . That moment which was the zenith of excitement and sadness combined together. The journey however ended… the buildings, the classrooms, the grounds, the toilets, the teachers, the sports, the one arm distance, my Principal, crushes, lunches … all of it..
10 years in school for me, was like a trek up a small hill. Fear of hurdles, discipline and need to perform was instilled from the outside. And a few falls, some mischief and just doing for the sake of joy, came from within.
Trekked a few more hills through the last 25 years, but every time I walked through a fog, I kept looking back….