Across the Bridge – Chapter 9
Continued from “Broken Cup”
Time slithered and Parasu turned seven. Shambhu was planning to send him to school as he reached this age. There was no bona fide school in the area, not even to start at alif, kindergarten, level. However, a fellow who had a few grades of schooling had started a private school in a neighboring village in the yard of a farmer who had allowed him to use it to teach the children. Such schools appeared and disappeared periodically. The delinquent orphans under Shambhu’s wing had gone to one such school. This one was in a different place with a different teacher. Teacher’s remuneration in such schools was usually some flour, salt, pepper, turmeric and butter once a week, and cash tip on a few special occasions annually. The students to this school came from that village and the neighboring ones. Parasu became another addition to the school. He would walk through fields to his school, spend all day there and come home in the late afternoon. Parasu completed up to grade two there.
Now he had to go to some accredited school qualified to tech the higher grades. The nearest such school was in a town, about ten miles from Kesari Nagar. Although an accredited school, it still had only one teacher from the third to the seventh grade when the students could earn their first, middle school diploma by passing a district wide exam. The teacher himself had acquired the middle school diploma, which was the end of his education except for teacher’s training. The students had to complete up to grade two in the kind of school Parasu had gone to. The teacher attended mostly to the fifth, sixth and seventh grades; for the lower grades, they were just told what to do and if they needed help, they could ask the senior students or the teacher. Shambhu took Parasu to enroll in that school.
“How many grades have you completed?” the teacher asked Parasu.
“Two grades Pundit ji.”
“Recite the multiplication table for nineteen.”
Parasu recited the table correctly. Then the teacher gave him a few questions involving addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, which Parasu solved satisfactorily. The teacher had him read from a book and then had him write a dictation. Having completed the test satisfactorily, Parasu was enrolled in grade three. Shambhu could manage only a small amount for the tip, which was acceptable to the teacher as he knew his condition.
Enrolment was easy but the expenses were not. The students had to pay eight paisas for the tuition and one paisa towards the essential expenses. This amount was not even noticed by the sons of landlords, it was not a significant amount for the farmers and peasants either, but for Shambhu, it was an amount to worry about. Parasu applied for exemption from the tuition fee on the grounds of poverty, which was granted but he still had to pay one paisa per month towards the essential expenses that could be managed. Then Parasu had to live in a boarding house managed by the school in a co-op style. The teacher would appoint the manager of the boarding house out of his students. The students would bring the grain and lentils from homes and some cash for the vegetables, cook’s salary and the like. This additional cash was a big problem for Parasu. Since Shambhu and Champa had decided to send Parasu to school, they were prepared to suffer for it. Big Mouth also had a keen interest in getting Parasu educated for that was their only hope to come out of their poverty.
Parasu turned out to be about the smartest student in the school and became teacher’s pet due to his hard work and demeanor. The teacher started paying extra attention to Parasu, which resulted in Parasu developing some reverence for the teacher. The teacher used to go for a walk in the morning and take his bath as he returned, which required pulling water from the well and pouring it over his head with a jug. To show his appreciation for the help he received from the teacher, Parasu started pulling the water from the well and filled the large bucket before the teacher would return. Parasu enjoyed providing this extra service for the extra attention he received from the teacher. Shambhu had already advised him, at the time of enrolling in the school, “Those learn best who learn at the feet of the Masters,” an old Sanskrit period directive. To Parasu’s amazement, the teacher paid his one paisa at the next payment day, which he continued to do.
The teacher did more. He appointed Parasu the boarding house manager and advised him that he did not have to bring much grain and lentils from home, just launder the books. He had to bring some to avoid suspicion. The teacher even helped him make some cash from the operation by equally foul means. All he had to do was to enter more money as expense than was paid to the vegetable vendors and enter that as his own contribution. This helped reduce the cash burden on Shambhu. The teacher had Parasu help the other poor students also by laundering the books, but to a much lesser extent, as they were not as poor as Parasu. This was all done at the expense of the children of landlords who had no interest in doing well in school as they were to go back to their landlording business; they never cared much for the affairs of the boarding house either. In the beginning Parasu felt uneasy about it and raised his concern to the teacher. However, the teacher convinced him that formally honest ways are not always the just ways, quoting Gandhi, that ‘there are just laws and unjust laws, it is the duty, Dharma, of a Satyagrahi to break the unjust laws.’
“These landlords are rich by robbing the peasants by force in addition to enforcing the unjust laws enacted by the British in an immoral manner. Besides, they would not miss or even notice the amount being stolen from them.”
“But a satyagrahi should do it openly and not avoid the penalty for breaking the law.” Parasu argued.
“We can pay our penalties later,” the teacher humored him away.
Rather strange that laundering the books bothered Parasu but his getting with some other kids at night and stealing fruits didn’t. The road passing by the school used to be completely empty after midnight except for some lone camel carts, which used to transport fruits to Meerut city. Drivers were always dozing off and the camels just trudged along by themselves. The children would get together every now and then and quietly steal some fruits. Even the children of landlords participated in the mischief. They just considered it a thrilling prank without which their childhood and adolescence would have been incomplete.
Still there were other expenses and now only twelve and a half bighas as his share and a family to support, things were getting tough. His big brother on the other hand was a little better off, although not by much. However, their cooperative ways helped both but Shambhu still had difficulty managing. So he let it be known that he was available for some extra work. Every now and then some landlord would have some extra work, like help with harvest and tilling the sugarcane fields, Shambhu would take it. As remuneration, he received a meal and a small amount of cash. It helped particularly with the payments of tips to the teacher once in the middle of the year and once at the end of the year when Parasu was promoted to the next grade. The teacher would not forego the tips although he was a bit considerate in that he didn’t mind a small tip from Shambhu. Tips were usually tailored to one’s means anyway. In spite of this hard work, there were times when Shambhu did not have cash for the tips. Big Mouth had already pawned whatever little jewelry she had, even her last pieces: A pair of hollow silver anklets. At times even Champa came to his aid by pawning some of her jewelry. It was very difficult for the poor peasants to get out of such debts even though miniscule as the lenders were more interested in collecting the exorbitant interest they charged than in the capital. The lender in Mother India had used it very effectively: The mother’s all jewelry was gone except her beloved gold bracelets. Finally, she had to give them up also, which weighed very heavy on the younger son, particularly because the lender’s daughter would tease him by showing of the bracelets on her wrists. The son always went in rage at this sight. After he became a bandit and robbed the lender, he took those bracelets with pride, burned all the papers to free the peasants from their debts and killed the lender.
Parasu passed his seventh grade district-wide exam. Topping his class was a foregone conclusion. But now there was a problem: Shambhu could not afford to send him to the city for further education. It weighed heavy on Parasu, Shambhu and Champa but Big Mouth and Big Brother reasoned that he was educated enough, the most educated one in several villages. He can use it to earn some money, which would help the family. Parasu also got two sisters by this time, which made the need even more acute.
““And Parasu did whatever he could after his Middle High School, rather than sit and do nothing until he found some reasonable job,” Dharmu Patwari continued.
“He understood the difficulties brother patwari, he did.”
Parasu knew that his father would not pressure him but he had to help, do the best he could. Although ‘highly educated,’ Middle High School diploma was not much for anything. Besides, he was only about fifteen, which wasn’t going to help: What kind of a job a child could get? While trying, Parasu decided to open a school of the kind he had started his own education in. He talked to his father for help, which Shambhu was glad to provide. He just went to a nearby village bigger than Kesari Nagar and talked to a farmer friend, more of an acquaintance, who Shambhu ran into here and there.
“Ram Ram brother.”
“Ram Ram brother, come share my hookah.”
Soon Shambhu came to the point: “Your son has passed Middle, did well. Difficult to find something so soon, you think you could help him open a school.”
The fellow was more than pleased, he welcomed the idea. Parasu had gained reputation for being ‘highly educated,’ and smart. He thought that he would make a good teacher. Farmers and the peasants alike had realized that the way out of their poverty and ignorance was education. They were always confounded at the ease with which the patwaris and landlords were swindling them, as was the younger brother in Mother India who had wondered for long that his family was killing itself working in the fields, the land was bountiful, yet they had nothing even to eat. All grown up, one day he sat beside little kids reciting alphabets in a school run by a young female teacher. The teacher explained to him with the help of pebbles: The family produced four pebbles, three went in interest to the moneylender and one that was left, which wasn’t enough to feed the family and the debt was still intact. The brother found it easier to become a bandit. Farmers and peasants didn’t find the profession of a bandit very appealing, they opted for education instead. Since there was not much money to send the kids to schools in the towns and cities, to send them to such schools was an attractive alternative. In the past they had just literate individuals in the name of teachers, now they were getting an educated fellow, a bona fide Middle High School diploma holder, that too having topped his class! Wow!
“Anything for a brother. I’ll spread the word around. Parasu can start tomorrow under the neem tree,” the acquaintance responded.
The yard bordered the dirt road, the neem tree was close to the borderline of farmer’s property and the road. Thus Parasu started his school under a neem tree in a farmer’s yard, with two students at the kindergarten level. However, the students in his school increased rapidly. They came from several neighboring villages. Most of them were at the alif level but there were some whom he placed at a higher level.
Since such schools were not accredited, after a few grades, the student was taken to an accredited school of the kind Parasu had graduated from. The student would write the exam and be placed at a proper level, the way Parasu had been. Parasu’s old school was the most popular one for being the closest and his acquaintance with the teacher helped. He was quite successful at getting his students placed at fourth and even fifth grade level. His popularity increased as a result, so did his income although the amount and mode of payment to the teacher in this school was the same as in the other similar schools. The parents, brothers, sisters and the like of some students would also bring in something home grown like corn on the cob, melon and the like, even grains, lentils and juggery, as gifts as well as they gave generous tips to entice him to pay more attention to their children.br />
Some vegetables that a gardener’s daughter handed him every now and then, when she went to sell them with her mother to the neighboring villages, came in handy for Parasu’s family; Big Mouth would get something to plug her mouth with: vegetables, on such days. Gardener’s son was in the school of course, the only non-peasant child. The daughter had started going with her mother when she was barely seven. This was more to teach the girl the methods of trade and getting her used to the ways. A small cane-bucket was placed on her head with some vegetables, she would speak in a low voice in chorus with her mother’s louder voice: potatoes, tomatoes, this and that, come get’em. Now the girl was about fourteen, could say things in louder voice having gotten used to the ways of business having overcome her initial hesitation. She was now capable of going and selling alone but it was not safe for a girl. Therefore, she still went with her mother except that they sold in different parts in the same village and meet later to go to another village or return home, depending on the situation. When they would be close to the village while returning after each day of street vending, the mother would linger on with some friend to chat and the girl could be left alone to go home. That gave her an opportunity to be generous to Parasu, which was just to give him some of the vegetables they had not been able to sell even though they could be sold the next day. A few missing pieces were hardly ever noticed; besides, explaining to her mother was easy as she had a brother in Parasu’s school. The farmer with the neem tree even invited Parasu to stay overnight every now and then. On such days he would get free meals. He would have to spend some time with the son of farmer in the evening, of course, to return the favor. In the meantime, he was searching for something that could be called a job with some stability and a salary.
One day when gardener’s daughter was returning after her errands, she learned that Parasu was not going to his village that day. He was staying with the farmer, obviously. She gave all the vegetables she hadn’t been able to sell, to the farmer, ‘for Pundit ji,’ meaning Parasu as everyone called him ‘Pundit ji.’ Every teacher was called Pundit ji for being ‘learned,’ Parasu being a Brahman was a coincidence. Every Brahman was called Pundit ji, even if illiterate. It took quite a few years for the term ‘Pundit ji’ to morph into ‘Master ji.’ As for the vegetables, they were more than enough for the farmer’s whole family and the farmer paid her with some grain anyway.
Later in the day, little after the sunset, the gardener’s daughter passed by the neem tree and glanced towards Parasu squatted on a cot in the yard waiting for the invitation to eat. The meals were prepared at ghara, where the females lived; the ghera, where the neem tree stood was used as the barn and living space for the males. Married males of course went to sleep with their wives in the gharas. As the gardener’s daughter glanced, Parasu sensed something out of ordinary. For one thing, gardener’s daughter passing that way at that time was unexpected; then the glance had an unusual feel to it. Parasu looked around, there was no one in sight, so he followed the girl. As he caught up with her, she turned around, smiled a coy smile and blushed; then she lowered her eyes. Parasu blushed also as the coy glance struck him. Gardener’s daughter turned around and walked towards her home along a different route than she had come by, Parasu turned around and retraced his way to the cot near the neem tree.
A genuine diploma with good grade, a not so bad school and now the first romance at sixteen; what more could Parasu ask for? A job, which was still eluding him. The time slithered by and he turned eighteen.
Continued to “A Cup of Tea”