Saturday, March 31, 2012

Schools - Then and Now

               Despite the passage of time – a neat 50 years – the memory and images still hold fast in my mind. My father took me to the Principal, an Englishman, who said hello to me, I smiled and then sent me on my way to the class. It was my first day in school. I was un-informed and un-uniformed, knew little of English that was the lingua franca of the school, and here I was being welcomed this time by another person from the Empire, Miss Heavens, the English woman who was our class teacher. She was tall with slender legs that ran a long way down her skirt to the floor, and young and cherubic, and with a mobile face that effervesced when she spoke. She rattled off a few sentences which I didn’t understand one bit and amid the encircling confusion that had descended on my four-year old mind I sensed I was being welcomed to their midst. I was promptly given a chair (later I learnt how inappropriate it was – this kissa of the kursi) – a small one meant for small children my age – to sit in front of an appropriately small table and, once there, listened to the music that was serenading the class. For me, it was an easy and smooth initiation into the world of school and education.
            We made friends in no time and we picked up enough English to speak among ourselves in that language which was de rigueur in school. Mostly it was the slang that we picked up from seniors and some incredibly genteel expressions from our teachers. We played cricket, football, marbles, tops, and stone. As we moved up the ladder, along with our proficiency with games and the enrichment of our slang came newer subjects: science (Nature Rambles), geography (of climate and continents), arithmetic (9 x 8s = 72), history (Akbar the Great), Desk-Work (noun, verb, pronoun, adjective) that needed to be written down in pencil in the spaces provided for filling in – all sufficiently confusing to make us sweat when the lessons were on and enormously relieving (naturally!) when the blight was off our backs. But it was an easy life I had slipped into.
My dream run suddenly came to an end when my father was transferred to another place, a much smaller town than the city of Cuttack we lived in before. I had to move on to this place, no matter how much I hated to. Apart from the fact that it was a vernacular school where the medium of education was Oriya, my mother tongue, the school was in a shambles. The boys and girls wings were different, while the girls began early at 6.30 and finished at 11; ours began at 11.30 and got over only at 4.30 in the afternoon. The boys were rowdy and a ragtag combine, with no motivation to study. They were the ones who held the school to utter ransom. The furniture had been destroyed completely, so the classrooms were devoid of any semblance of tables and chairs, and it looked stripped and bared. Only one table and one chair meant for the teacher, sat flush in the front, close to the blackboard. We were expected to (and we did) sit on the floor, cross-legged, our books in front, row upon row of children, pen in hand, writing in the exercise book balanced precariously on our thighs, some right, some left, depending on who was what – a rightie or a leftie.
The light points and fans didn’t exist. They had been yanked out and carted away elsewhere with not a trace. The electric wires hung about naked though the power supply had been cut off to empty their potency and make it safe for the children to carry out their hooliganism. Some obdurate fans that didn’t give in to the obnoxious demands of the obstreperous boys had been mangled out of shape, their blades twisted inward into an ersatz floral design. Cows had a full run of the verandah that ran across and meandered about the H-shaped school building leaving their holy indelible marks of waste that no one thought proper to sweep clean. There was the winter that was quite severe in this part of western Orissa and it made sense to these bovines to seek the refuge of the school building that was so generous in welcoming them with open arms and legs of its verandah and the capacious innards of its numerous rooms. Winter was followed by quick-fleeted spring, then by summer – long, hot, and oppressive – and then came the rains when the angry clouds emptied its entrails on a thirsty and parched earth. Little wonder the cows counted their blessings – that our school was such an unstinting host of epic scale! Their yawns during the daytime provided resonant and amusant tune to our painful teaching.
My welcome here was exactly the obverse of the one I had experienced earlier in my kindergarten. My socks and shoes, and smart ironed uniform of my previous school I had put on instinctively, didn’t go down well with my classmates. I was careening into an endless combat mission Unaware to the ways of the school, I found no one wearing shoes: they wore (if at all) chappals that were pushed out off their feet and parked at the rear end of the class. That gesture indeed made good sense. For sitting cross-legged on the floor isn’t ever comfortable with chappals on. The feet were cleaner and the shods that invariably stuck to the chappals didn’t add to the filth we sat on. We considered ourselves lucky if someone among us took the trouble to go over to the school office and found a dari, a rug, and brought it to our classroom for us, the fortunate ones to sit on. We were in seventh class and not senior enough to deserve a dari. It wasn’t a fulfilling time by any means. My life’s goalpost had shifted back and was now looking inwards. The idea of shock and puzzlement snarled my unreconstructed mind. I wished I was stubborn and stalling, refusing to flow with the inexorable march of time. But I was helpless.
The culprit for this functional anarchy was the Headmaster of our school, a certain Mr. Verma, who lived in a cloistered world of his own. A nice man, he was still in a state of shock, from losing his only son born after seven daughters, who was picked up by a peddler of bread-bun-and-biscuit and murdered, hallucinating that the little dead boy’s Adam’s apple would help another childless couple to get started on a family of their own. It was one of the most bizarre things I had ever heard as a child. Distraught and still mourning over the loss of his son, Mr. Verma let the school spin out of control. It was indeed on auto pilot. He sat in his office room, never coming out of it to see what was happening in the world around him, and hardly ever saw either the teachers or the students. We never got to see the Headmaster, and for us new hearts in the school, out of curiosity we espied him from the window that opened a crack. He sat there; both legs lifted to the chair and while one lay horizontal hugging the seat, the right stood up vertically helping his right hand to rest on it in the process of writing. We pitied him and the fate that had befallen him.
Not so when it concerned us and our studies. We felt lost through sheer inactivity. The rowdy element among the students ran the school the way they thought it best. Left to their own devices, our teachers hammered out their own paths. While, in his own fuzzy way, Parida Sir was eloquent and inclusive, Bhanja Sir, who taught us social studies – history, geography and civics – in his own grumpy way, was erratic and intolerant. Tall and lanky, his teeth were long and went well beyond his mouth’s frame. In the classroom he walked around teaching and every time he spoke he puffed out a sprinkle of spit that found its way through the gaps of his enormous teeth, travelled the distance from his face at considerable height and through sheer gravity came down and sprayed us all seated on the floor in the first and second rows. It was like a revolving garden spray performing at quarter efficiency. On our part, we didn’t like this spray and tried to wipe out the frothy element now descending on us unremittingly and with a rapidity that was a natural outcome of Bhanja Sir’s teaching gathering pace and steam.
Kar Sir taught us English. “Rama ess a gooda boy,” he would say and explain the same in Oriya, “Rama gotiye uttama balaka.” Further: “He gooes to school everyday,” and in Oriya: “Se dainika bidyalaya ku jaye.” His mode was to teach English the Oriya way. Or to be more precise, his was English teaching made easy in Oriya. And this was not only on the issue of teaching; it went beyond – and embraced his sartorial sense. I clearly remember the first time he came to our class it was to teach Oriya. He was dressed to the nines in snow-white dhoti and kurta and black half-shoe. Next time he came it was to teach us English. His dress had changed and he had transformed himself to a complete brown sahib. He was now smartly turned out in terry cot trousers, full-sleeve shirt, and black shoe and matching socks. Thereafter it was going to be only English lessons for him, and so he religiously turned out in a wide repertoire of his new trousers and shirts we had not seen before. Amazed at the range of his ward robe, we kept counting his pairs of dress which he never repeated. After a while we simply lost count of it. They were just too many for our small un-mathematical minds still struggling to grasp the rudiments of mental maths (Sankhetika and Auikika) from Parida Sir. Little wonder we hated going to school.
But we had a Board exam to clear in Class VII. I was all at sea with the medium of instruction which was now Oriya. I understood nothing of Oriya Sahitya. Nor social science or general science. Even maths was beyond me. Only English was a cake walk. In the half-yearly exam I flunked in all subjects except English and, of course, Drawing. The last one was essentially due to my growing friendship with the Drawing teacher who played cricket with us after the classes in the school field. He liked to bat and given my dodgy artistry and with my future clearly at stake I unhesitatingly turned my arm over to bowl at him. I was right, he wasn’t an ingrate. By the time the exam got underway, I had struck up an equation with him. Not averse to nepotism he gave me the required 15 marks out of 50 so that I pass. Much against the Cassandra’s pronouncements of doom, I managed to get past the 7th Class Board exams with a high second. This was a huge relief. I was overjoyed.
Things changed for the better when we moved over to Class IX. This was thanks to the new Headmaster. We got desks to sit and write on. The fans started whirring overhead. The teachers were now more punctual and regular, and most of them tuned themselves to the new environ. But the results continued to be dismal. Of the 40-odd who appeared in the matriculation exam barely 10-odd passed. Needless to say, no one got a first, only 2 or 3 got a second – a low second – and the remainder barely scraped through with percentages in the low 30s. In the school exam, I got a bare 46 percent yet stood second in Class X and earned a prize. I was thrilled. I thought I had arrived.
On my father’s retirement I moved back to Cuttack and shifted school. Here I was admitted in Class XI in one of the best schools of Orissa. But I felt lost. My second position and the prize for doing well were of no academic consequence. Every student I came across was better than me! My self-confidence was shattered. Matriculation exam was just seven months away and I was adrift and tossed about like a flotsam. My immediate friendship with Ramnath did not help matters. His notes that I borrowed copiously were to me incomprehensible. My teachers pooh-poohed me. “Son, Ramnath is too good for you to understand!” intoned Sadhu Sir. “You must follow someone who’s your equal!”
I didn’t know who my equal was. I was confused. The matriculation exam was already upon us. Before I knew what had hit me I was down to writing the exam in a daze, and not sure what I had done. The results came out as scheduled, after a few months. When I reached school to know the results, my heart in my mouth, my expectation hovering between the slender line of passing and failing, my teachers with the result sheets in their hands were agog with my result. “Sudhansu, you’ve got a first class!” they said, their faces awash, more with puzzlement than happiness, “but how did you manage it?” I smiled back and my smile, I guess, must have been beatific. I was in cloud nine.
But they puzzled over my performance. “If Sudhansu could get a first class, everyone in the school should have got a first,” said the much regarded Sadhu Sir, who was my favourite teacher and who knew me and my calibre inside out, to the assemblage of students and teachers gathered there to partake the results. He wasn’t exaggerating. Nor was he running me down. He was only stating the obvious. My stock in the school was indeed abysmal. It was pathetic.
My mind travels to the generation next when my children went to school in the 1980s and 1990s. Admission isn’t as walk-in as it was in my case in the 1960s. Far from it. Not only did we teach our children – still toddlers – how to face their life’s first and foremost interview but we taught them what to say in reply to questions we had contrived to anticipate. Thinking back I realize it was insanity that was hard to match. But at that time seeking admission was a do-or-die affair as though the child’s life depended entirely on these precious few minutes. As parents too we faced interviews to prove to the grasping teachers that we are well up to take care of their inadequacies so that the good name of the factory answering to the name of a school didn’t suffer at the hustings, am sorry exams! But in reality, it was no different than a hustings. Money and pampering was all.
The liberalized India threw up its won dialectics. Corporate world opened up a floodgate of opportunities with emphasis on technology and management. IITjees and CATjees became the buzzword. Parents quickly worked up a reverse education strategy that placed premium on B.Tech from IIT plus PGDM from IIM as the open sesame to make good the reparative gestures they expected from their children. Young children of 12-13-14 left the cosy comfort of their homes and headed for Kota to take up full time residence, something reminiscent of gurukuls in ancient times – for coaching and schooling. Parents lost sleep over their children’s performance, their sleep bobbing up and down with their wards’ success or failure. From our time when parents hardly ever knew their children’s performance and couldn’t care less about it, the clock had now come full circle.
Television with multiple channels and internet opened up a world with limitless possibilities. Students were full with information. From everything in the library it was now down to anything in the net. The couch potato syndrome was aggravated with parental pressure to excel. Physical activity and games took a backseat. India was in ferment. Professionalism bred granting more attention to career, even at the cost of health and social life. The children’s world was getting cocooned, the carelessness and insouciance of teenage and adolescence missing from their armoury. The innocence of childhood was a thing of the past. Rat race and breathless competition had upset the applecart of enjoyment of my childhood past. It was no more a time of enjoyment; it was instead a time of intense action and cutthroat precocious initiation into life.
Deviation from the above cast-iron path was fraught with immense risk with the attendant danger of anomie. Without the accepted throughputs one wasn’t too sure what awaited the child and the parents if they hammered out a course that was off the beaten track. Was it bust as per the society’s value system? Was it an attenuated goal that fell short of the accepted norm? Normlessness didn’t ring sanguine. Out-of-box thinking was not the way to a happy life. So a good student was reckoned how well he performed in the exam not by how much knowledge he had acquired. Knowledge didn’t earn him a seat in college but marks did. The facile cart was overturned when life met career and good practicality drove out crammed theories that singed the mind with the limitation of its own avatar. Alas, it’s too late in the day for retrieval.