Across the Bridge – Chapter 28
Continued from “In the Yard of an Old Woman”
When Bhuvan was about four, a young man in the neighborhood had gone mad, so mad that his father and elder brother had to overpower him whenever he got his fit and tie him to a peg as cattle, which was no easy feat. During one of his fits, he was trying to deter his father and brother from overpowering him with a sugarcane leaf waving it like a sword, “Move away; do you not see my sword, I’ll slash you all, ....” This deterrent did not work; he was overpowered and tied to a peg anyway but not without some penalty: During all that commotion, the madman managed to bite and pull out a piece of flesh from his father’s leg. Only treatment the father used was to tie whole red hot chili peppers to his wound. He was healed in time and never showed any sign of madness himself as was believed that one bitten by a madman does unless one uses the hot pepper cure. Children were instructed to run to their homes whenever he got his fit; after that, mothers would lock up the doors and women and children would go to their flat roofs to watch the show as they did during this episode. He had acquired few grades of schooling in another village before he had gone mad. It was his going mad that ended his education.
The madman stopped having his frequent fits but that was several years later. Well before that, he had earned his nickname the ‘Madman’ forever. He found the problem with early education of the grown up children an opportune time to earn something for himself by ‘educating’ them so that they could enroll in higher grades. His father persuaded their parents that the Madman had been cured and he would make a good teacher. Thus the Madman started a school in the yard of the village temple of the type Parasu had in the neighboring village. All he had to do was to donate a small portion of his earnings to the temple. Some students in the regular school were also persuaded to attend the Madman’s school to accelerate their learning. The temple was not much of a temple, just a room with a veranda, a kitchen and a small yard; there were a few pieces of stones representing the gods cemented to a small platform in the yard. Occupiers of this temple varied from time to time adhering to different branches of Hinduism, each one telling people to use their ways of greeting, worshipping and views. Some of them also earned some money by selling some herbal concoctions and received tips for ‘healing’ people by waving a branch of neem tree over the sick while chanting something. Some of them provided some additional service also, like to one woman who was married to a man with a deformed body in a dismal state; couple of her children resembled a ‘hermit’ who occupied the temple for a few years. As for the temple, it was hardly ever used by anyone for worship, it was used mostly for chatting meetings, which included gossips. During hotter days, the Madman would move his class to the shade of a mango tree in an orchard some distance away from the village.
Madman always came equipped with a whole arahar lentil plant every morning, which grows quite tall in less than a year with rather thick hard stem. He used to clean the plant of all its leaves except for a few soft ones on the top and sit on his cot. Whenever he wanted to draw attention of a particular student, he would touch him with those soft leaves; the plant was long enough to reach every student in his small class. In the name of teaching, what he did mostly was preaching the students to serve their guru, the teacher, the Master, citing hearsay stories from the Sanskrit schools. The concept that service to one’s guru is the key to success in life was so ingrained in the psyche of many that Ch. Charan Singh when he was the Food Minister in his provincial cabinet attributed his success to the blessing “May God make you a king, my son” in exchange for the service he provided to his Muslim guru, particularly loading his hookah. Number of years later, Charan Singh did make it to the level of the Prime Minister even though for a few months only and earned the dubious distinction for being the only Prime Minister never having faced the parliament. It is difficult to determine if loading his teacher’s hookah had something to do with it. For now, we return to the Madman’s hookah.
One day when the Madman was holding his class under a mango tree, he touched a student with the soft leaves of his arahar plant and ordered him to load his hookah. The student was scared to go close to him as most of his students still did not believe that he was fully cured; they always maintained some distance between him and the front of class. The scared student persuaded couple of other students to accompany him. All three stood at some distance from the Madman arguing who would bring the bowl from his hookah. One clever fellow known to be tricky and cunning made a deal with one of the others, “If you bring the bowl, I will load it and place it back on the hookah.” The other boy did bring the bowl; the cunning one did load it but relegated on his promise to place it back on the hookah, arguing, “I loaded it, you place it on his hookah; you had brought it with ease, you can place it with equal ease.” Argument ensued; patience of the Madman gave way and he screamed. Children threw the bowl on the ground and ran towards the village behind the other kids who had already made their distance quietly in anticipation. The Madman was chasing the whole class. Sure enough, none of the students made it to the ministerial level; far from it.
That was the end of the Madman’s school. One can only anticipate what he would have used instead of an arahar plant had the school lasted for one season. Some years later, the Madman managed to secure a job with the police station nearby doing some chores, which was quite good with his few grades of education. Even though he was not even a constable, it did not do much good to an already low level of confidence in the police force. As for the older children, they were accommodated by a government regulation, which allowed anyone to enter the provincial tenth grade exams and whoever passed would receive his Matriculation Diploma. Some made good use of the regulation but most used it to write the exams and fail. Whenever a need to produce an evidence of one’s education arose like in job seeking, he produced the certificate proving that he failed the Matriculation exams and thus was assumed to have passed his ninth grade. The fact that they could only read and write did not prove to be a handicap in performing their duties as they applied only for the jobs that required only a minimal literacy but by ‘proving’ that they reached the tenth grade, they had better chance of getting the job compared to someone with fourth grade education or the like. Quite soon the farce became known though and gave birth to a diploma abbreviated MABF: Matriculation Appeared But Failed, which became a common joke.
The group loosely classified as children having been taken care of, some attention was paid to the adults of all ages. Evening classes were held to educate them. The aims were modest: Just making them literate. Adult students and others donated kerosene oil for the lamps for light and the students during the day became the teachers in the same school in the evenings. The teacher stayed in Kesari Nagar frequently to participate, not sure for his dedication to eradication of illiteracy or for the free meals he was getting. Not much illiteracy was eradicated although some did learn to write their names.
Females were left out of this whole exercise, they were not supposed to be educated; all they needed to know was to cook, clean and participate in the farm work, which was mostly to deliver food to the fields and carry the cattle food home, although some skills like knitting and the like were expected of them. Their turn at education did come but much later.
Reading, writing and the like was not the only education that was needed there, eradication of ignorance in other matters was at times even more challenging as illustrated by the following incident.
One day during the regular school hours, a few adults of the village almost hysterical, showed up in the school and each one grabbed one’s child and ran out. Initially the teacher was confounded wondering what was with those fellows. Then he regained his composure and managed to ask the last one of them why he was taking the child out of school and that too in this manner. “Nashtar Wallas are coming,” he blurted and ran out with his child. They were all seen to be running towards the fields later trying to save the children from the Nashtar Wallas. Soon several young fellows showed up and told the teacher that they were the ‘Foot Doctors’ charged with the responsibility to immunize the children against a variety of diseases.
“So, you are the Nashtar Wallas that scared the people,” the teacher commented.
“Yes. People are illiterate and quite ignorant. Government has launched this scheme to eliminate or at least reduce the deaths caused by so many diseases but some people think that we are making the children sick,” the head foot doctor responded.
“There is a lot more to educate people about in addition to the regular teaching in schools,” observed the teacher.
“We do all we can by explaining the principle before giving the shots but it will take time I suppose.”
The teacher nodded in agreement. The Head Nashtar Walla started with his pep talk explaining to the students that they inject a small amount of disease causing substance, which makes the person a little sick. In response, the body develops ability to fight the disease. Since the injected amount is very small, the body does not experience much difficulty in getting rid of it and develops the ability to fight a bigger attack in the process.
Malaria was the most common disease in the area, typhoid was not uncommon, small pox and cholera were the deadliest ones. In addition to immunization, the administration had started sending workers to spray the mosquito breeding places and disinfect the wells, which altered the taste of water. Yet again, there was some resistance, which dissipated in time. Slowly, there was a noticeable decrease in the fatalities during infancy and later including the adults. The region never experienced a widespread epidemic again as a result of these precautions while they were not uncommon previously. The cholera epidemic that affected the region about the time of the Merchant with Hundred Thousand Animals became a matter of legends.
Continued to “Ballot on the Horn of a Bullock”