In the Yard of an Old Woman

Across the Bridge – Chapter 27

“Continued from Dirt and Dung”

By this time Nehru, following the advice of Mountbatten and against the wishes of some members of his own government, particularly Patel and of Indian people in general, had referred the Kashmir issue to the United Nations, which became another topic for the arguments at the Bridge.

“He is not the right Prime Minister for the times, Patel is.”

Most were in agreement with this position.

“Patel had more votes, he would have been the President of Congress and the Prime Minister, Gandhi ji forced him to withdraw his name,” Nakul uncle offered words of his wisdom.

“Why would he do that?”

“Because Nehru threatened to break up the Congress and Gandhi ji feared that in that case firangis would have an excuse to delay transfer of power.”

“These are all stories concocted by the political foes of Pundit Nehru ji.”

“He is no pundit, not even a Hindu; he considers himself Muslim by culture and Hindu by accident of birth. His chamchas have attached ‘Pundit’ to his name to attract Hindu votes.”

“Nehru is not even a true Indian. He calls himself English by education and last Englishman to govern India, the last firangi.”

“Where did you hear that?”

Someone did take the side of Nakul as he posed the question to others, “Why do you think he appointed that firangi the first Governor General of independent India?”

Before anybody could think of an answer, Nakul Uncle responded, “His affinity with the firangis and to keep Edwina Mountbatten close to him for a while longer.”

“Why are you so hung upon Nehru’s pants?” someone asked with a smirk.

“It’s not him, it’s Edwina who is hung upon Nehru’s pants.”

Everyone laughed.

“Nathu Ram should have killed Nehru instead of Gandhi ji.”

“He should have killed Jinnah.”

“And Churchill.”

“If it was not Jinnah, Churchill would have found someone else, or created one.”

“He should have killed no one y’aro;” Hasnu interjected, “We Indians should have had more sense.” ...............

For its part, United Nations passed a resolution for a plebiscite with conditions: Pakistan must withdraw from the part of Kashmir that it occupied, sufficiently many Indian troops be deployed in Kashmir to maintain the law and order and plebiscite be held under UN supervision after calm has returned. No part of the resolution ever got implemented.

After summer holidays, Bhuvan went in grade two, Siddha in grade one, and things moved more smoothly between the two. One of those days a stranger came to the school and announced that there was a school in Kesari Nagar now and that he was the teacher assigned to the school. He collected the students from Kesari Nagar and headed to their village with them. On his way he was educating them.

“India is free now, free from the firangi yoke. Immense amount of effort has gone into it from the Indians of all stripes and persuasions, from Gandhi ji to Neta ji to Azad and many in between and around. Many sacrifices have been made, much blood has been shed, firangis thought they could subjugate us with their guns and our traitors. They did not know that we are Indians, they never heard of Padmini who preferred jauhar over subjugation, of Rajputs who gave their lives in their efforts to preserve their freedom. Do not forget the martyrs of Dharsana Salt Works, do not forget Bhagat Singh, Udham Singh; oh, how many do I mention? This is a land of sacrifices, of pride, of dignity, of knowledge; knowledge originated here and spread westwards.... It is a blessing to us to be on this land providing us an opportunity to decorate our foreheads with the dust of this land …”

Tears were flowing from the eyes of several children and the eyes of most of the others were moist. Some of the children placed their planks and sacks on the ground and touched the ground with their foreheads, others picked some dust and applied it to their foreheads; either way their foreheads were adorned with the ‘sacred dust’ of their beloved motherland. Siddha stood untouched by it all; however, he did pick a little dust and applied it to his forehead after some prodding from the other kids and a piercing look from the teacher shaming him in doing so.

After reaching Kesari Nagar, the teacher informed the villagers that there was a school in their village now and that he needed a place to teach the students. Schools were opened en masse soon after independence but there were no buildings or other usual facilities, just a teacher was assigned to each school and the rest was up to the teacher, villagers and the students. The first school in Kesari Nagar started under a neem tree in the front yard of a kind farmer. Next day, the teacher enrolled the students. Every student would stand up and tell him his name and which grade he was in at his old school and the teacher would enroll him in that grade. Teacher started with an older looking student, “Name?”

“Lun Phil Thin.”

The dismayed teacher looked at the boy. After some thought, he made out the name and remarked, “Correct pronunciation of your name is “Run Vir Singh, not Lun Phil Thin. What will you learn if you can’t even pronounce your name correctly? Do you know the meaning of your name?”

The student just stood there silently. The teacher told him the meaning of his name, “Brave as lion in battle.”

At this point the farmer who was watching the whole exercise with amusement still thinking that this was all a play rather than a genuine school, informed the teacher, “The boy has speech defect Master ji.”

The boy, who was a cousin of Khatku, had already earned his nickname “Lapheel Pha-i” for his accent quite a while back.

“Which grade were you in?” asked the teacher.


Enrolment continued. Lapheel Pha-i was the only student in grade three, all the others were in lower grades. When Siddha’s turn came, he said, “Grade two.” There were some smirks but nobody objected and thus, he became Bhuvan’s close neighbor yet again. Sure, the students were required to collect and submit the certificates but Siddha did not find it difficult to change one to two on the handwritten certificate by gently washing some ink and writing over; he made sure to smear ink in this manner at few other places to wash off possible suspicion. Bhuvan learned another lesson in the ways of humans, which he re-learned again and again on many occasions later. However, while Bhuvan was a good learner of academic material and some other skills, he proved to be a very poor learner in these ways of humans. For his part, Siddha found it better to change his ways with Bhuvan for he could use Bhuvan’s help in school. He was quite fine for his level but since he had cheated his way into a higher grade, he had to do some catching up, which was not all that difficult given the material covered but it required some time and effort. In the meantime, he had to create and maintain an impression of adequate performance, which required some cheating. Sitting next to Bhuvan was quite useful for this purpose as he could copy the solutions and seek help. Later on, he found it easier to just copy more often than to learn the material well.

After the enrolment, the teacher asked the students to go home and each make a small national flag, the tricolor, with paper and cane to bring with them the next day, which the children did. The day started with a round around the village with nationalistic songs and shouts of, “Mahatma Gandhi ki - Jai; Pundit Jawahar Lal Nehru ki - Jai; Sardar Patel ki - Jai;....” They were all victorious now in their struggle to wrestle freedom from the British. And yes, others, revolutionaries and the like, weren’t forgotten either as there were slogans to call upon people to not let their sacrifices be forgotten, to keep their names and memories alive forever: Shaheedon ka naam – Amar rahe; .........

After its initiation under a neem tree in a yard, the ‘school’ moved from one yard to another except once when a farmer let his empty house be used. Then someone thought of a better way: There lived an old woman named Taro in a mud cake room still standing in the ruins of a house. Except for some area around the room in which Taro lived, what was once a house was covered with tall Prairie-like grass, which the dogs and the like used freely for whatever they wanted. Taro had no apparent heir to her property and some neighbors who had some ground to lay claim to it were waiting for her to die. Some villagers persuaded her that instead of leaving her property for vultures to fight over, she should donate it to the school. Not much persuasion was necessary as she jumped at the opportunity. She was allowed to live in her room until death after which the room was to be reverted to the school, which was the legal owner of the whole property now. People commented regularly, “Finally Taro did do a good deed.” Nobody ever mentioned what bad deeds had she done before except for peripheral mention of her evil powers, which she supposedly used to harm people, get them fighting and change friends into enemies by her witchcraft and by filling each with falsehoods about the other. One of her pastimes is said to have been to get couples fight by convincing one or both partners falsely that the other was cheating. Come to think of it, if she succeeded at doing what people said she did, her success was most likely the result of her skill at persuading people for certain things or stupidity of the people in believing her rather than her alleged witchcraft and evil powers.

She had earned her name after Taraka, an evil female character in Ramayana describing the life of Lord Rama. Taraka had tried to kill Rama but got killed herself with his arrow. Taro was rarely seen in the streets. Since the children believed that she was endowed with evil powers, they stayed away from her although some of them did use her advice occasionally. She had convinced them that if someone ate with one foot on a broom while fasting, one’s fasting status remained intact. Convincing some of the children like Siddha was not difficult as they welcomed this trick to kill two birds with one stone, to earn merit and not have to go hungry, but most others weren’t fooled, and genuinely maintained their fasts.

The first task was to clean up the place, which was no easy feat given the filth that had accumulated there over the years. First the villagers burned down the grass and burned the ground further by lighting sugarcane leaves and the like on it. Then they leveled it. After that, children were given one brick each to beat the ground into shape so that it was pressed hard enough to sit on, which they did for several days. Then of course, they started bringing their sacks and planks. The property had a tall neem tree in its middle, which provided the welcome shade. It took quite some time before a room with an attached storage room was built, just with bricks with mud holding them together, and a table and chair were acquired for the teacher with donations from the villagers and a grant from the education department. Southern wall of the brick house of Balla and Ghanto came in handy as it became the northern wall of the school, a shared wall with resulting savings.

In addition to Ghanto’s wall on the North side, the school had benefited further from the beginning from a wall of a brick house on the East side and another wall of a mud-cake house owned by Kadhelar, a recluse although not to the same extent as Taro. Kadhelar, a few years younger than Grandpa, had earned his name for being the son of an unwed mother and thus was genuinely a kadhelar. Oh yes, these things did happen in Grandpa`s times and always but it was a major social stigma those days. His mother was not fortunate enough to be able to abort him as was Ghanto. So the mother and son became social outcasts. The mother struggled almost alone to raise him although some people took pity on her at times in spite of despising her and helped. The father of Kadhelar was nowhere in sight and the mother never spoke about him except, may be, to her close confidents; that too is just a guess. He accepted his name quietly and responded to it although calling anybody else Bastard would generate a violent fight. He may have felt hurt in the beginning but slowly he accepted his lot. Some did remark though that it was the father who was a real Bastard. The phrase appears to have acquired double meaning: One, the usual meaning Bastard, and another, a nickname with connotation almost as any other nickname. He did have a patch of land which a fellow with no heir had transferred to him out of sympathy, pity, or because he did not like the people who were going to fight for the patch after he was gone. With hard work, the land produced enough for Kadhelar to sustain himself. The West side of the school had no wall until school itself constructed one many years later.

Opening of the schools was accompanied with a concerted and loud campaign to persuade people to get education. Many older children were already working in their parental farms. Existence of a school in the village coupled with the campaign motivated them to enroll in the school. However, they found sitting beside much younger kids in the kindergarten quite embarrassing, particularly as the other kids and the teacher weren’t making it easy for them either. Their feelings in the matter were quite different from the younger son in Mother India who had enrolled in a school voluntarily to learn how the loan shark was robbing them of their living while they were working hard and the land was bountiful. For the older kids in Kesari Nagar, and elsewhere, an arrangement was worked out that if they passed the test and thus demonstrated their ability to handle a higher grade, they could be enrolled in that grade.

Continued to “The School of a Madman”


More by :  Dr. Raj Vatsya

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