Across the Bridge – Chapter 32
Continued from “Taro’s Carrot”
The Intermediate College couple of miles from Kesari Nagar, close to the sugarcane weighing center was one of the two colleges serving a quite large rural region. There were other schools in the area up to the eighth grade but for higher grades the students to this school came from many villages, some as far as five-six miles. Most of the students had to walk to and from the school as the parents of only a few could afford to buy bicycles; it was difficult enough to manage the money for tuition fees, books and the like, in addition to other family needs. Former peasants owned the land now, so all the crops they could grow was theirs except for the taxes, which were miniscule compared to what the landlords used to extract out of them. This did get most of them out of their earlier miserable state but cash flow was still small. Almost everyone did grow some of the cash crop, sugarcane. Parasu was a full-fledged patwari by now, everyone else in his parental family worked in the fields. Consequently, the family of Shambhu Das was now among the better off people in the village, a big change compared to their earlier days. The life of the service providers also improved somewhat with the improvement in the lives of farmers. Also, there were subsidies and financial support from the government to the poor people in one form or the other. Situation had improved to the extent that whoever wanted to go to school at this level, could, while previously mostly only the kids of rich people had the opportunity who were rarely interested in education. As for the school, it could provide rooms with tin roofs, desks and benches only to the students in seventh and higher grades. The yard, hallways and an orchard next to the school were all that was available to the sixth grade students. A class could be held anywhere in the yard and the orchard. During hot weather, the orchard was more suitable and during the cold days of winter, the yard. This was a blessing in disguise for the sixth grade students since the rooms with tin roofs were too hot during the summer and too cold during the winter while the cool breeze in the orchard provided relief from the summer heat and the sunshine in the yard, from the winter cold. This blessing was compensated for during the rainy season when they had to huddle in a hallway.
The school year started in early July about when the monsoons started when it was hot and humid. On the hot sunny days, a school servant would place a chair for the teacher and a portable blackboard under a tamarind tree in the orchard. The orchard shared a part of its boundary with the school and the tamarind tree was in a corner close to the school. On the rainy days, the same chair and board were placed in a hallway. The servant also placed long jute mats for the students to sit on. There were no females in the school, neither students nor teachers; in rural areas, it took quite a few years for education to get to them. One new experience the sixth grade students got was that there were several subjects and there was a separate teacher for each subject.
The incoming sixth graders had heard the stories providing them some information about the school. They were told that there were two most dreaded teachers in the school: One was a blue eyed English Teacher, called Kahra Master for the color of his eyes, which was very rare around there; the other one was a Physical Training Instructor, referred to as PTI. Any mistake on the part of a student would draw a severe physical punishment from each one of them even though it had been outlawed at the time of independence. There was only one English Teacher for the grades six to eight and only one PTI; so, there was no escaping them for the first three years. Other teachers as well as the principal would also inflict physical punishment whenever they felt its need. In their mind set, this was necessary to discipline and educate the kids and thus, make them better humans.
It did not take long for Bhuvan’s classmates to learn their ways of operating. Kahra Master started with teaching the alphabets. After a few days, he asked every student to recite them. Every student slipped somewhere along the way except Bhuvan. Kahra Master ordered him to slap on the face of every student in the class. The students were quite familiar with physical punishment in the elementary school but all of that was inflicted by the teacher. This form, new to them, was mixed with humiliation. Hesitatingly, Bhuvan slapped on the face of the first two students very gently, more like touching. Kahra Master called him and slapped hard on his face, “This is how you are supposed to slap.” Bhuvan’s face turned red. He still spared the first two and slapped on the face of the third. He could not slap anywhere nearly as hard as the teacher, who hollered, “Start from the beginning again, else I will have to teach you another lesson.” Bhuvan felt lucky to have escaped slap on the other cheek for this deed of kindness; he did slap on the faces of the first two also before going to the others. In the end, it was Bhuvan who was punished most.
Experience with the PTI was not far behind. He carried a few feet long thick pole of the type Bhuvan had seen with his second grade teacher in the nearby village. During the physical training period, the PTI administered elementary exercises like stand erect and stretch arms horizontally. If an arm was not stretched to his satisfaction, he would hit the arm with the pole. Some of the time allotted for physical training was used for moving dirt from the fields or higher areas in the school to wherever it was needed like to raise the level of the playground to keep it dry. Programs undertaken under labor donation program still continued as needed. There was a dirt road passing at some distance from the school connecting a village to the paved road, which was barely good enough for the bullock carts to move. The village Pradhan called upon people to donate labor to improve it. Students of course were ordered to donate labor for days and days. Kids of all grades were supervised by the PTI. If a kid in a lower grade was deemed not to be doing his best, he would receive a hit of the pole. Older kids in higher grades escaped the punishment mainly because they did the job adequately; if not, they would be shamed into it, not hit for being grown up.
In between the hits from the Kahra Master, the PTI and other teachers, with labor donation squished in, there was still some room left to squish some teaching and learning in. Entry in the morning and escape in the afternoon from this hodge-podge was provided by two trails between Kesari Nagar and the school. The kids from different parts of the village used the trail that was convenient to them except when one took the other trail for the company of a friend or because one was involved in an argument that had to be carried all the way to the village where it ended because the fellow had to quench the urge of his growling tummy. One of the trails passed by a place called Black Mango, not the trail Bhuvan took regularly.
“Hey Harpal, let us go by the Black Mango Trail today,” one day Bhuvan said to Siddha using his real name, “I wonder what a Black Mango Tree looks like.”
“OK, but there is no mango tree there, black or white or of any other kind.”
“You know the place though?”
“Oh yeah, it is just the corner where one turns from the road on to the trail.”
“Why is the place called Black Mango when there is no black mango tree there?”
“That I don’t know but everybody calls it Black Mango.”
Both of them joined a group going that way. Soon they came to the spot where the trail joined the paved road. Bhuvan discovered that the Black Mango was that corner of the field planted with corn. Sure enough, there was no tree, just the plants of corn.
“Why is this spot called Black Mango?” Bhuvan threw the question into the crowd. Still there was no answer.
By this time Bhuvan’s hanging around Grandpa had reduced considerably. While many in Grandpa’s age group had started saying, “Old age is upon us, it is time for us to slow down and for the kids to look after us,” Grandpa was not showing signs of slowing down much except that after a day’s work in the fields, his legs could use a massage every now and then. At such times, he would ask Bhuvan to give him foot massage. During those foot massages, Bhuvan would still throw in some odd question that he thought grandpa could answer. Black Mango was a fair game and he did get an answer as a handed down story.
During the war of independence in 1857, British lost a battle that took place by a river few miles away from Kesari Nagar. Few escaping white British officers were killed by the villagers some distance away from the battle field. After the British side won the war, five villages in the area around where their officers were killed were declared ‘Rebel’ and were ordered to be burned down. In addition, the whole region was suspected of rebellious activities. Kesari Nagar was not one of the villages slated to be burned down but it was in the larger suspected region. To punish the rebels, there were mass hangings in several places using anything that could be used for the purpose. There was a large mango tree at that spot, which could accommodate a large number of hangings and it was located strategically between several villages. A portable chair and a small table were placed close to the tree for a white British officer who tried the cases. Soldiers, invariably Indian, brought the suspected rebels to him for ‘trial,’ which constituted of a few cursory questions followed by an order to hang the accused. The officer had no time to listen to any pleading and denials, and no inclination to respond to the mercy pleas. In fact, a mercy plea was interpreted as an admission of guilt and a swift order; so were no plea and any attempt to hide or escape. It was the victor’s justice at its worst, witch hunt. Yet again, our familiar verse describes the situation best:
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t;
Drown if you sink, burn if you float.
Shambhu Das, when trapped in this ‘no way out’ situation, had his Shiva Lingam to turn to; our damned ‘rebels’ had no such recourse.
The best bet to survive was to reaffirm allegiance and complete loyalty to the British, which meant complete submission demonstrated by gestures, success of which too depended on the whim of the official. Most accused ones were neither as witty nor as lucky as was Ghalib in Delhi who got off by telling a joke that he was a half Muslim because he drank alcoholic beverages but did not eat pork that amused the trial officer. There were some official and some self-appointed informers who got some people arrested for personal grudge and later received some kind of reward ‘for helping in catching the rebels.’
Weather was nice, so the mass cremations could take place. Need to dispose the corpses in the river did not arise as once had during the cholera epidemic. Some months after the incident, the tree was chopped down; people waited for this long for things to return to some level of normalcy to avoid suspicion of disloyalty. After that, no tree was planted at that spot but it got the name Black Mango and India became a part of the British Empire instead of being ruled by the East India Company.
Bhuvan would take that trail every now and then, stop by that spot and stare in space.
Continued to “Blue-Eyed Teacher”