Our morning walk was different today. All these days, there would be hardly anyone crossing or overtaking us as we made our way along the narrow ridge that serves as the border between neighbouring parcels of paddy fields to reach the mud road and thence the only tarred road of the village. This morning, we saw several young kids in newly tailored uniforms, toting Scooby-Day bags, colourful umbrellas and plastic water bottles. Then it dawned on me: today is the first day of the academic year.
Once on the main road, a school bus whooshed past us. Kids wearing the same broad blue checks –tunics or skirts for the girls, depending on the age and shirts for boys – were sitting in the cream-coloured bus like cans of liquid detergents or phials of nailpolish stacked on the shelves of a supermarket. Coming to think of it, the simile is quite appropriate: they are all going to be the finished products of the great education industry!
In my days, there were no uniforms; in fact, many boys wore no shirts. No footwear either. Coming to think of it, I think children’s footwear was unheard of. I think only it was reserved for the senior members of the most affluent families. There were no schoolbags either, for there were no notebooks; the only book one had in the primary classes was ‘Chitraavali’, the Malayalam textbook: Book I for Class 1, Book II for Class 2, etc. Though not immediately relevant to the context, those were days of shortages, rations and licences. By extension, those were also the days of scarcity; we were children of the permit raj. It was usual for three students to share the same copy. Not many had brand new copies, for most used hand-me-downs from seniors. At the end of the academic year, children would ‘reserve’ the books used by the seniors. They would often be given free to those who place the request. In stray cases, they would be sold at a discount to the original, the discount varying with the condition of the volume.
Barring Chitravali, the only ‘stationery’ a school-goer had was the slate. Fortified with the wooden frame, it was also a weapon in the hands of combating classmates. For those who did not have the palm-leaf umbrella, the slate would double as protection from rain till the nearest plot cultivating plantains or colocasia. Those leaves provided excellent shield from the showers.
Before use, the slate needed to be ‘conditioned’ by applying coconut oil and charcoal in order that the inscriptions on it would stand out. The process was an elaborate exercise, a ritual scheduled for the last evening of the summer vacation. After some use, the process had to be repeated. Temporary relief could be obtained by rubbing petals of shoe-flower (hibiscus). An alternative was the thick tongue-shaped bottle-green leaves of a plant that grows on the walls on either side of the lanes on the way to the school. You out it on the slate and poke it with the slate-pencil: the sap that oozes from the punctures are excellent for giving back the black colour to the slate.
Then there was this shiny light green succulent plant used for wiping them clean. On the way to school, you pluck a few twigs and carry them with you. The liquid stored in the stems and leaves provide enough fluid to clean the slate. It had another use too: after use, you could blow air into the stem, close the end and hit it lightly on your forehead: it would go ‘Pop!’
The school timings were 10 to 4. Though the school was only a kilometre or two away, you left at 9. Two kmph might seem an incredibly slow pace even for a six-year-old, but on the way, you had to wait for your classmates, pick up the ripe mangoes that would be waiting for you, chase the dragonflies, pluck flowers from the bushes that double as fences, fling sticks at the guava trees to bring the fruits down, open the tiffin box and put a few morsels of rice in the stream to feed the fish. You were lucky if you reached the school before the final bell rang out. The ‘bell’, incidentally, was a two-foot long piece of metal from the railway scrap, and the ‘tongue’ was another iron piece.
Everybody associated with the school was a ‘teacher’ or a ‘master’ (shortened to ‘maash’). Thus the office assistant in the high school was ‘clerk maash’, the canteen contractor was ‘canteen maash’ and the peon (called ‘attender’ in those days) was the ‘attender maash’.
Those days are gone. Those pleasures are forbidden to today’s kids. They perspire in their spotless starched and pressed uniforms. They are herded into and out of the schoolbus; they have no time to stand and stare.