Speaking of his childhood, humorist Sam Levinson wrote something that goes like this: ‘Those days mothers had not heard of new-fangled ideas like child psychology that could be used on erring children; they used whatever they could lay their hands on – like the ladle or the rolling pin.’ This was something that I had read in the 1960’s when I was in college, but it sprang to my mind the other day when I read of corporal punishment having been banned in schools in Kerala. It also reminded me of the first time I was administered such a punitive measure.
That was in 1951. I used to go to the only school in our village – which was a mile away. That was a primary school which taught up to Class 5. For ‘higher studies’, one needed to go to the elementary school which was another two miles away. After three years there, you had to go to the High School which was even farther by a good three miles.
More than the school, the fun was in the trip to the school and back. You had to foot it all the way, whether you crossed the paddy-fields or took the mud road up and down the hillock and then through the motorable village road. The former was a shortcut and less arduous because the terrain was plain. It was great fun negotiating the fragile ribbon-like ridges that separated neighbouring paddy-fields.
A slate and the only text book in one hand and lunch packed in plantain leaf in the other, Bhaskaran, Rasheed, Sarojini and I would walk along the ridge, one behind the other, to the school and back, making friends with frogs and grasshoppers, dragonflies and what, for want of a better word, I will refer to as ladybugs. We would watch with wonder as mango trees bloomed, catch the whiff as jackfruit trees sprouted buds that would in course of time transform into fruits, pluck and eat the crunchy tender cucumber that farmers would offer. We believed that the single-log bridges across the streams were for the grown-up; we would step into the water and walk across. There was no fear of footwear getting wet: we wore none!
It was greater fun during the rainy days, (which might have covered a half of the academic year in the Malabar of the pre-climate-change days – the 1950’s). You had a palm-leaf umbrella that sat on your head. As you walk in Indian file formation, if you went too close to your pal, you two would collide and both might lose balance and land in the shallow water collected in the farmland.
The school was a thatched shed. Only the seniors had benches to sit on. The privileged class, students in Class 5, had desks too. We, the juniors, in classes 1 and 2, sat on the floor and shared the same teacher. The working arrangement was that as those in class 1 learnt what had been taught, those in Class 2 would be taught a new lesson. As they revised the lesson, Class 1 would be taught a new lesson.
In the monsoons, the thatched roof would permit some water to drip into the classrooms. That afforded us some variety and fun, as we could shift from our assigned spaces on the floor. When the sun shone, its rays would filter through the thatched roof and form little circles on the floor or the books or the knickers or the frocks that the students wore.
The children that we were used to refer to these circles as ‘eggs’. It was our pastime to open our palms and stretch our hands to where the ‘egg’ was. We would then bring the ‘egg’ to the centre of the palm, close the fist, thus ‘catching the egg’ and putting it into our pockets. (Those who wore no shirts were allowed to put the eggs in their mouths.) We would, of course, do this only when the teacher was not around.
One day, when Leela teacher was away in Class 2, Ananthan and I were busy ‘catching eggs’. Both of us were busy putting the eggs, one by one into our shirt-pockets. At an unexpected moment, Leela teacher came into the class. We were too busy to notice either her or the calm that had descended the atmosphere when the classmates saw her and quickly buried their faces in the books.
As she watched us, the entire class giggled. That was when we came down to the real world. Leela teacher called both of us to the table and asked us to put our open palms on the table. She pulled out the slender cane. Ready to receive one lash, if not more, I shut my eyes hard, waiting for the cane to hit my palm and stinging pain to course through my body. So did Ananthan.
I heard the swish of the menacing cane as it cut through the air. I winced. I heard it hit the destination, but it was not my palm. I heard a titter run through the classroom and wondered why. The cane had landed on, I guess, Ananthan’s palm, because it never hit me. I waited for my turn.
Nothing happened. Leela teacher said, ‘Go back to your seats, both of you.’ I wondered why I had been spared and only Ananthan was subjected to the punishment. Heads down, not looking at each other, the two of us went back to our seats.
On our way back home, Ananthan asked me, ‘Did it hurt, Rajan?’
I responded, ‘Weren’t you, Ananthan, the one that got the spanking?’
This was the first corporal punishment I ever received in school. The way Leela teacher spanked both of us with just one swish without hurting either of us is perhaps the sweetest memory I have of my Class 1 days.