(This is the second chapter from my draft novel loosely titled 'a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Growing Up.' Let me know what you think!
Read Chapter 1 here)
Chapter 2: SchoolDaze
‘Gudia still isn’t up?’
My mother was addressing Kajal, who replied in a surly manner that she had tried three times to awaken me thus far, but that I was simply pretending to be asleep under the blanket. I shut my eyes tighter, trying not to stiffen at the sound of the approaching Mother.
She poked me through the blanket in a rather unloving manner, hissing ‘Gudia. Gudia! It’s already seven fifteen. Wake up!’
I waited a moment before stirring and peeping out through a crack in the blanket. ‘Mama.’ I whispered in a hoarse voice which I hoped sounded fevered. ‘I don’t think I’m well enough to go to school today.’
My mother’s eyes glinted. She put an experienced hand on my forehead which I tried to make hot through sheer will power, but Mama looked unimpressed. Her lips became a determined thin line and she straightened up and said, ‘Well, let’s just take your temperature and see, shall we?’
I nodded weakly, and then looked over at Chanda’s bed. She was still huddled in a corner. I wondered idly why I always had to be first to wake up. Another thorn in my side. However, it was a fact that the reason Chand slept huddled in a corner was that she still wasn’t used to having her own bed.
In the days when the three of us used to have to share a double bed, my brother and I were fiercely possessive of our respective sides of the bed. The arrival of Baby Chanda was not viewed as a positive event when it came to night-time and she was duly plonked in the middle of the bed. We spent a really long time bickering about how she was taking up more space than warranted on a particular side – eventually we came to a solution – Chand would have to sleep with her butt-crack exactly aligned with the middle of the bed, the line dileneated by where the two gaddas met. It was an extremely satisfactory compromise, we thought. Except for Chanda, of course, who muttered so resentfully in a continuous low monotone that one might have been forgiven for thinking she was somehow related to Kajal.
Mother returned with a thermometer and I popped it under my mouth. I was counting on the fact that Mom had better things to do than hang around and wait while the mercury rose. I was right. She disappeared into her room for a minute. Now was my chance. I glanced around to make sure no one was looking, and popped the thermometer under my bed-lamp, holding it as close to the bulb as I could. I could feel the heat against my fingers and just hoped the thermometer wouldn’t explode. I had a strong feeling this was going to work.
My sister stirred and I glanced sharply at her. If she woke up now and asked what I was doing, there would be no time for explanations or to buy her over before Mom came in. The sound of mother’s footsteps made it a moot point and I quickly popped the thermometer under my throat again. It felt satisfyingly warm.
I sighed softly as mother extracted the thermometer from my mouth and examined it. I closed my eyes, waiting expectantly for her to pronounce that I was far too ill to go to school today.
There was a long silence. Unable to wait any more, I opened one eye and looked up at Ma who was frowning at the thermometer and not looking particularly happy. She looked at me a trifle suspiciously and I immediately looked as forlorn and sick as I could. She ‘Hmmmed’ and then appeared to make up her mind. Brightening, she said ‘You’re fine. Come on, get ready. Off you two go to school.’
This wasn’t possible. ‘Ma!’ I protested ‘I’m sure I have fever. What does the thermometer say?’
The glint in the eye was back and it was dangerous this time. In carefully measured tones, she said ‘It says that somebody might be trying a little too hard to sham their way out of school. Again.’
That was it. It was no use. In my mind, I said ‘Curses. Foiled Again.’ Because those were the days that I used to read Champak comic and the big bad wolf always used phrases like that when he failed to trap an innocent rabbit into becoming his dinner.
Off to school it would be.
School wasn’t what it used to be, I thought a trifle nostalgically as we waited at the bus stop. I kicked at a small stone, scuffing my shined black shoes. Chanda and Gudia were magically transformed into Gitanjali and Yashodhara, by virtue of being dressed in our blue school uniforms, with the belts that bore the school’s emblem and the words ‘We Soar to Achieve.’ I often wondered idly what this really meant, but I had to admit it sounded kind of cool and went well with our school symbol – the Eagle.
In the old days, I could have fooled myself into thinking that I somehow identified with that regal bird. After all, when I was in the top grade at the Primary School, it had been kind of like that, lording it over the swarm of smaller kids. I was never considered for Prefect or any important position, but there was a certain respect that age commanded and by George, we were the oldest in that whole building. Apart from the ancient, decrepit teachers there but they didn’t really matter, and were merely a minor inconvenience.
Things were different now in the Senior school. A year had passed but it didn’t look like it was going to get any easier. The teachers were still either too strict or too sour, and the classwork looked like it was getting harder and harder. I wouldn’t really know because the classwork was also mindnumbingly boring and couldn’t hold my attention for more than three minutes at a time. I spent most of my time daydreaming and glancing at the clock to see if it was time for recess yet, and after recess, if it was time to go home yet. Clearly, I wasn’t alone in this because while my marks never shone through for the obvious reason that I never studied, I managed to stay just above the class average. Mother dear was constantly unimpressed by the 75% that I regularly brought home on report cards, but I was unmotivated to try any harder.
In the bus, my mind wandered back to Nisha Ma’am. Nisha Ma’am had been my first grade teacher and the only teacher worth her salt in that wretched institute, in my personal opinion. She had taken charge of me on the first day, making me comfortable and actually personally dropping me off onto the bus herself for the first few days until I began to figure things out and stopped the heartrending weeping. I was filled with a feeling of warmth towards Nisha Ma’am even now when I thought about her.
She was a very nice lady but not a very subtle one. I remembered how at the first PTA meeting she looked at my father and exclaimed ‘Oh, but you DO have hair after all.’
My father had naturally been taken aback and not altogether flattered by the remark. Nisha Ma’am had gone on to brightly explain to him that all the Grade 1 students had been assigned the task of observing the colour of their Dad’s hair and coming back the next day to draw it in class. Little Yashodhara had apparently come into the class and solemnly declared the task was impossible for her to complete since her father’s head was devoid of any hair whatsoever.
My Dad, who was a trifle sensitive about his balding tendency, and out to me later that he did have some hair. ‘Look.’ He pointed behind his ears, turning his head slightly so that I could have a better view. ‘There it is. Black hair. Quite a bit of it. See now?’
I nodded dutifully as if noticing it for the first time and he said, a little less gently. ‘Next time, don’t tell your Ma’am that your Daddy doesn’t have any hair at all. Or no money for canteen.’
Despite the fact that I was a bit of a trial as a child, my father had a soft corner for me. He also harbored the deep and enduring hope that I would end up a doctor like him, and his father. I somehow really doubted that, but I didn’t want to disappoint Dear old Dad so I pretended that being a doctor was right up there in my list of things to do in the future, along with becoming a Champion Basketball Player, Genius Rock Star and Astronaut.
We reached the school, and it was time for Gitanjali and I to part ways. At the gate, I turned to her and said, seriously as usual. ‘You’re on your own now, kid. Walk away and go to your school.’ She was still in the Primary Wing. ‘We can’t be seen together else I will be associated with you and since that would really brand me as an unmitigated loser, I won’t have it.’ Those might have not been my exact words, but the gist was similar.
Today, little Chanda was being rebellious though. Usually, she would adjust her bag strap and walk away from me slowly without a backward glance. But now, she set her little chin resolutely and continued to walk by my side, matching me step for step.
‘What are you doing?’ I squeaked at her. ‘People will see us together.’
‘So what?’ She said carelessly, and everything about her attitude said that she was ready to finally start living life on the edge. ‘I’m your sister.’
‘But no one else has to know.’ I cried, glancing around to see if anyone was watching. How humiliating it would be if they made the association between cool me and this little ponytailed primary school drip.
The drip refused to evaporate though, and even though I lowered my head and quickened my step, she stayed with me right upto the point that I reached my own House line in the assembly. ‘So long, sister!’ She cried brightly making sure that everyone around for miles heard, while I cringed in embarassment. Finally, she trotted off towards her own school where she belonged, leaving me for once as the one seething in resentment and muttering malevolently, Kajal-style.
‘That’s your little sister?’ asked the House Captain, looking after her. ‘So cute.’
I couldn’t believe it. The House Captain was speaking to me and this time it wasn’t to tell me my nails were too long or that I was late yet again. I nodded along mutely, turning red and then starting to preen. Gitanjali Lal was so cute. Of course. After all, she was my sister.
If there was anything more boring than classwork at School, it would have to be the Assembly. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other restlessly. Despite the horrible summer heat of Delhi, we were expected to stand there for over 45 minutes every single day, listening to sanctimonious preaching and other nerdy kids who had been nominated, or worse, even volunteered to read out the day’s headlines. There were prayers, songs and speeches. It didn’t really seem to matter that every single day, at least one or two children were dropping like flies from the heat and dehydration. They would simply be picked up by the more well-built of the Prefects and transported to the Sick-Room to be given some sickly sweet Rasna or some other such healing concoction. I often wished that I would be amongst the lucky ones to faint, but it didn’t happen to me, and even though I had practiced falling down after swaying dramatically at home, I didn’t dare actually try it out there on the Assembly field. The teachers there were even scarier than Mom. Okay, that was pushing it, but they came close and one thought of someone accusing me of Shamming here was enough to quell any such fancy ideas for me. I still didn’t exactly know what Shamming was, but it was not favorably looked upon by adults, that much I had gathered.
The painful assembly ended with a painful rendition of the National Anthem. I was of course too cool to actually sing along and therefore I just mouthed the words listlessly. Like most days, today Kavitha S stood in front of me, her long oiled pigtails and the rim of her glasses glistening in the bright sunlight in front of me. She sang along loudly and tunefully, with a strange combination of solemnity and heart that made me want to kick her hard in the seat of the pants. Well, she didn’t wear pants of course, but a skirt like me, only about twice as long and I often imagined us standing right at the back of the line, and me suddenly pushing her over to topple all the kids in front of us like hapless dominoes. Like with most other of my fanciful ideas, I didn’t have the courage to execute.
Senior school was clearly turning me into a gutless little coward.
The hours passed slowly, with class after class. We had no PT period today. What a pity. At these those 40 minutes, happily spent out on the playground would have been a respite from the teachers, whose style of imparting wisdom largely comprised of getting students to read paragraphs out loud from textbooks that made no sense whatsoever.
The subjects all blended into each other in my head and recess came and went far too quickly. And as I listlessly checked the class timetable in my diary to see what was coming up in the second half the day, time suddenly started to speed up and move too quickly. The last period of the day was Maths.
Maths was taught by Chandru. Mrs. Chandrashekar. The bane of my existence. Why did we have to have the wretched subject every single day? The logic of the subject totally escaped me, and I was rendered further helpless by the fact that Chandru, being the perceptive sort, had long ago identified me as an A-1 trouble-maker and no-good-for-nothing-nik. While I had no desire to argue with her on this front, it irked me that she couldn’t just let me alone like the other teachers who either regarded me with an indulgent sense of humour or just plain couldn’t care less. There was no way to win with Chandru and therefore Maths was the only homework I actually ever did at home.
‘Ready to be scolded again today, Yashu?’ Asked Ankur, who sat next to me in class.
Ankur was a small kid, an inch shorter than me but with an ego that surpassed what I had heard about the proportions of the Great Wall of China. Everyone knew that he was from a rich family – he smuggled the latest Hot Wheels into class and showed them off, and his Uniform always looked shiny and new. He told us that he had 30 of them, one for each day of the month. I suspected this to be a lie, but never confronted him about it. Ankur had made it clear that his father could buy our fathers and I didn’t want that.
‘I won’t be scolded.’ I retored out of the side of my mouth. ‘I’ve done my homework.’ And I didn’t even have to hire someone else to do it for me like you, I thought spitefully.
Chandru entered the class like the silent snake that she was. Well, she was actually a brown, round creature who looked rather like a human hedgehog. Or a porcupine, with her prickly sarcastic remarks that left even the boldest student speechless, quivering at the knees, reduced to a mere pudding made solely out of shame. With such a gift, there was no doubt she had been born to be a teacher at this particular institute.
The first thing she did was to throw me a glance of pure, intense dislike. Perhaps I imagined it, but I thought she always started the class with this. She then called out attendance in a bored manner. Snapping the register shut, she instructed all of us to bring our Homework notebooks to her desk and leave them for corrections before she started the day’s final lesson.
I looked through the brown-paper covered notebooks in my bag. I knew I had put it in here last night. It was the only notebook I cared about. It was the only notebook that was no longer there. My mouth went dry and the digging about in my bag became more frantic. Where was it? It couldn’t be. I had done those damned algebra thingies, I had even asked Mom to glance over them and see if they were anywhere close to correct.
Mom. Of course. She had said she would do it later. And then I had become engrossed in a game of German-Referree. There was no mystery about it anymore. That honest, virtuous attempt at a pre-correction round with mother had put me in this soup. But surely, Chandru would understand.
Ha ha ha ha ha, I was already laughing hysterically in the head and it took Chandru a while to make herself heard.
‘Eshodhara.’ It cut through sharply like a knife into my consciousness. ‘Where is your homewark? I spose you have not done it and have a new excuse?’
‘Ma’am.’ I swallowed as I stood up, ignoring Ankur’s snarky giggling. ‘I…did it, but I left it at home.’
‘Of course.’ Chandru’s voice was so sarcastic and dangerous that even Deeksha, the class dunce laughed along with the others. Chandru continued, for the purpose of entertaining the rest of the class. ‘I thought you might have come up with something a little more imaginative. Are you sure the Tooth Fairy didn’t pay a visit and pick up the wrong thing last night?’
It wasn’t even funny but the class laughed louder at this. I had only vaguely heard of the term Nuclear Bomb but I felt certain that it was something I would want to bring to school one day for the express purpose of blowing up these people.
Chandru appeared to lose her taste for this game and simply snapped at me. ‘Bring me your diary. I will have to write to your mother again.’ She spat out the worst abuse that she could think of toward me. ‘Buddhu.’
She pronounced it Buddu in her distinctive South Indian way and I knew the next day I would be hearing it repeated constantly courtesy my kind and sympathetic classmates. I glanced up at the clock and my eyes boggled. Still 30 whole minutes of class-time left before the Dismissal Bell rang. Chandru ignored me for the rest of the class, but my ears were ringing constantly anyway with her own personal Dismissal Bell of ‘Buddu.’
Yes - I mentally kicked at another stone, and sighed morosely to myself - School definitely wasn’t what it used to be.