Have you ever cleaned out an old trunk or cupboard? While the task seems tedious to begin with, as you progress you start enjoying it because you find what can only be called “treasures” from the past. An old book with your name written in a childish scrawl, a photograph, a school uniform .. things that take you back in time.
I sometimes think that our memory is like a box. There are lots of things within, which remain deep inside. We forget that they are there. But once in a while something happens and you suddenly realize that they exist. So we take them out, dust them and look at them tenderly.
|This is a picture of the playground with the slide|
This is exactly what happened to me a few weeks ago when a friend of mine shared on face book, a photograph of our first school! It was a primary school till the 5th standard in a small town in West Bengal. The picture she had shared was the section outside the Headmistress’s office. I could immediately remember this place as the spot we were all made to assemble the very first day we went to school.
I think it was 1972-73. Appa says it was December. The school year in those parts of India were from January to December. I suddenly found memories flooding in .. I remembered faces and names that I never thought I would. I remembered my school uniform – a navy blue skirt and a white shirt with a navy blue tie. Since it was winter we wore a navy blue sweater. My hair was tied up in white ribbons.
The first day at school is etched in my memory. There were beautiful flowers in the lawn- roses, poppies, snap dragons. I can even smell the pollen..! Those of you who have experienced winter in India will know what I mean. The Headmistress, an intimidating lady called Mrs Lal asked us our names and told us that we “must speak in English”. She was a terror!! All of us used to tremble when we passed her. We had to wish her and she would wish us back. But she was an extremely kind hearted person.
I do not remember crying on my first day at school. When I checked with Amma she said that she was actually a bit disappointed about that. Apparently I waved at her and told her to “Go”!! Nearly three decades later I felt the same way as my mother did when my little one waved me goodbye and went happily with her teacher into her classroom.
The school was run by the Indian Railways. Like all the buildings owned by the Railways this was also painted red. There was a lovely garden with lots of trees , a playground with a slide and swings that often broke due to violent swinging. There was a dragon of a lady at the gate – “Nisha”. We used to refer to her as “Nisha di” ( short for didi). She wore a starched white saree, had grey hair and kept watch near the gate to see that everyone came on time and did not leave the school unescorted. I think even parents were scared of her sharp tongue. She ensured that no unauthorized person ever stepped on campus. There was another old lady “Bhikhiya di” who was the sweeper. Hers was not a pleasant job. Every day there would be atleast four or five kids who used to wet their pants or soil themselves. Whenever anyone did that it was to her that they would be sent. She would give us a sound scolding and clean us up thoroughly! And then there was “Panchu” da who was like an assistant to “Nisha di”. I don’t know what his job description was exactly but he was extremely popular person, maybe it was because he rang the school bell!
Miss Shanta Sarkar ,was our kindergarten teacher. She was plump and fair. I still remember her as the lady in a pink sari and a cream colored kashmiri shawl. She took us all in and made us sit at our desks. I was feeling awed by the teak wood furniture and the bright charts inside the class. I think we were given building blocks to play with.
The school timings were from 7.30AM till 12.30 PM. The kindergarten kids used to leave by 10.30AM. All of us from the railway officers colony used to travel by a creaking, groaning bus ( I think it was a dodge van and there were also some that were rebuilt trucks with seats and carpets inside). The same bus that used to take us to school also used to transport our fathers to office and back. By the time the bus picked up everyone in the morning, it would be filled to capacity and many of us kids had to sit on the adults’ laps. It was a major embarrassment if you were in class 3 or so and were made to sit on someone’s lap. Some fat “Uncles” were hated because it would mean atleast three to four kids being made to sit on laps. With so many children refusing to get on laps someone had a brain wave and came up with wooden stools. They used to be placed between the two rows of seats ( the seats ran parallel to the bus body) and we were happy sitting on them.
I remember feeling very excited and stressed at the same time every morning the bus honked in the next street. The bus used to start from there and I don’t know why the driver had this perverse pleasure of honking every ten minutes even before he started. The excitement used to prevent me from eating my breakfast properly. Amma, being the strict disciplinarian used to insist that unless I finished what was on my plate I could not leave-never mind if the bus was at the gate. Appa, was my savior during these times. The moment she left the dining room for the kitchen I used to transfer the uneaten food on to his plate which he used to eat quietly!!!
I used to carry my books initially in an aluminum box on which my grandfather had had my name engraved . Later I switched to a plastic basket ( the kind that is used for shopping) because that was what everyone was carrying. Lunch would be in a rectangular aluminum box. Though we called it lunch it was actually only a snack. The usual snack being parathas with jam ( my favorite), idli with podi and sometimes tomato sandwiches. After lunch all of us used to line up near the water tap . There were two taps attached to a tank – one out of which the boys used to drink and one from which we girls used to ( even in those days we had unconsciously adopted some form of gender segregation ).
The names of classmates flit in and out of my memory as I have lost touch with most of them. The class sizes were very small yet I remember only a few names Jayshree, Jyothi, Rupa, Sharmila, Sanchita, Moushumi , Loveleen among the girls. Among the boys there was Jijo, Ramesh, Manzoor, Ashim, Debashish, Madhu, Pradeep..! Though the school was meant primarily for children of railway employees we also had a fair number of students from the Defence colony nearby. There were a lot of sardar kids, plump boys with colorful turbans and apple cheeked girls with tightly plaited hair in the reverse style. There was this Sardar boy in my class who used to come with Kajal in his eyes ( I am not joking!) and a new hanky every day on his top knot!
I wish I could dig up more treasures from this box. There are memories but I am not able to put a date to it. For example I do not know if it was in class 1 or class 3 .. the classrooms used to often change so it is a bit difficult to link it to a place.
But I do remember being part of the Scouts and Guides. I used to love the scarf around my neck and the knotting ropes on my belt. Before we graduated to being Guides we were Bulbuls and the boys were Cubs. There used to be a lot of singing and dancing during these periods. I have some memories of the March past during sports day and being made to practice making announcements by the Headmistress for the event. I was made to recite over and over again the line welcoming the chief guest and his wife. “We welcome Uncle… and Aunty…”. But strangely I have no memories of actually making those announcements.
There is so much more I could write.. but these are like discrete pieces of a puzzle. I am sometimes able to put them together and form the complete picture but sometimes I cannot. I look for a friend to provide me with that missing link. And I must say I am really blessed to have at least a few who are able to do so. My friend Jyothi is what I call a “Memory Keeper” ! She even remembered the rhyme that she was made to recite when we had a visit from the inspector of schools !!
As we grow older I think these are the pieces that we cling on to. They tell us about a time when we lived without a care in this world. The world itself seemed different. And I think it is a lost world.. I don’t think I would find it anywhere except in that box inside my memory. It binds me to people who I no longer see every day but who remain a part of me. The childhood may be lost but the memories remain safe-locked inside the box- precious and priceless treasures !
( Hope all of you enjoyed your Diwali)