Across the Bridge – Chapter 30
Continued from “Battle on the Horn of a Bullock”
By this time, the school had two teachers as were in Bhuvan’s first school in another village. The senior teacher taught fourth and fifth grades in the room, which is all it could accommodate, and the junior teacher taught up to grade three under the neem tree in yard. Initially, the fifth grade had only Lapheel Pha-i for the student. Life under the neem tree was about the same as before. In the newly built room, the students were provided long mats woven with jute twines, which they had to pick from the small store room every morning and spread in the room, one on each side for the fourth and fifth grade students respectively. After the school, the students rolled the mats and replaced in the store room. Thus, they were spared the burden of bringing the jute sacks with them to sit on but at the expense of this extra work. The wooden planks to write on were gone too, they were using paper note books; writing was done with homemade pens by sharpening a small piece of thin cane and ink in inkpots. At the year’s end, the fifth grade students from many schools were examined collectively at a center in a larger village. In the beginning of next year, Lapheel Pha-i was enrolled in sixth grade in the Intermediate College couple of miles away from Kesari Nagar, close to the sugarcane collection center where Parasu was a clerk once; and each mat in the room got full slate of students.
Teachers gave the students pep talks on special occasions covering various aspects of learning and life, particularly moral conduct. A story from Mahatma Gandhi’s life was narrated frequently. According to this story, when Gandhi was in the elementary school, the school inspector during one of his visits asked the students to write five words, one of them being ‘kettle.’ Young Mohan Das Gandhi misspelled the word. The teacher poked him with his boot and prodded with a silent gesture to copy from the next kid. Mohan Das did not oblige; consequently, he was considered the worst kid in the class for being the only one not to have spelled all five words correctly; in addition, he had to endure teacher’s tirade. “Learn from the father of the nation; he preferred to be labeled a fool rather that cheat, be dishonest,” the teacher would emphasize. Righteousness of truthfulness and adherence to one’s word was taught by narrating the story of King Harishchandra, which is known to have had a major impact on the thinking of Mahatma Gandhi. There were various other stories used to inject righteous conduct into the students. Serving one’s guru was of course part of the talk.
Such stories had little effect on the likes of Siddha or they interpreted them to suit themselves. For example, Siddha took an oath to steal at least one piece of fruit every day from one of the orchards of Wrestler Boy and did his best to remain true to his oath, his ‘word.’ There were some around who bought the orchards for crops at the time the fruits started forming. The buyer tended the orchard, which included saving the fruits from the parrots, crows and the likes of Siddha. The buyer sold the crop in market and after paying the owner saved some money for oneself. One day, Siddha told Bhuvan, whom he had befriended by this time, “One day I did not get a chance to steal from the orchard even after several attempts. I was very worried that my oath might be broken that day. Well, I tried after sunset and managed to steal just one fruit. It was a close call but I was saved.”
“Don’t you remember the teacher telling us not to steal?” Bhuvan asked.
“Oh but to be true to one’s word is a higher virtue and upholding a higher virtue is one’s Dharma.”
True enough, this is the teaching of the Bhagvad-Gita. Telling a lie to save somebody’s life is one’s Dharma as Grandpa had done. However, Bhuvan found it difficult to comprehend how taking an oath to steal was Siddha’s Dharma but Siddha had stories to justify this.
During the short winter days, the teacher and students took a short lunch break. When the weather got hotter and the days longer starting in March, there was a long siesta period appended to the lunch hour. After their lunch, the teachers would take nap on cots under the neem tree and the students would sneak out of their homes to go jump in the canal. The children enjoyed jumping in and cooling off in water. The canal water used to be quite cold as it required a longer distance for the water starting in the Himalayas to warm up. When the kids were cold, they would roll in the hot sand, and after warming up, back in the canal. Most believed that such an alternating exposure to the heat and cold would get the children sick and therefore, jumping in the canals was strictly forbidden. For the children, allure of the fun was too strong to worry about getting sick, they had to sneak out. Sneaking out wasn’t difficult as the adults would all be napping, neither was getting caught in the act. A parent of someone or some other adult from the family would come with a cane; the adult was frequently spotted from a distance and the kid would hide in some field. The other kids would swear that their boy wasn’t there. The adult knew the truth but would have to leave hoping to succeed another day and of course, the boy would return as soon as the adult was gone. Occasionally some kid was caught in the act and was paraded ceremoniously to the village while the adult would be lashing him all the way. This made no difference, the kid would be jumping in the canal the next day again. Younger kids jumped by the Bridge in the small canal. While returning, they passed by the orchard of Wrestler Boy, which was one occasion when Siddha could try his craft. The older children, after graduating from the small canal would go to a bigger one on the other side. The Ganges Canal was not for the kids, it was for a few very skilled swimmers, even among them, for a few daring ones.
One of those days, Bhuvan noticed that some older kids returned to the school immediately after their lunch. This was unthinkable; Bhuvan decided to find out. One day he went back to the school after his lunch. While the teachers were napping under the neem tree in yard, the kids had their ears glued to the back wall of the room. There appeared to be a preferred spot, everyone took one’s turn to place one’s ear there. Bhuvan asked them what they were listening to. “Listen yourself and find out,” came the answer with a smirk and the preferred spot was immediately vacated for Bhuvan. He noticed that there was a narrow hole on that spot in the dry mud holding the bricks of the wall together. After placing his ear on the spot, he said, “I heard some strange sounds but couldn’t make out what was being said,” which generated more smirks. After the older kids were convinced that Bhuvan really didn’t know what the fuss was all about, one of them told him, “This is Ghanto’s love chamber silly, and her siesta time rendezvous with Balla, her Ghanta.”
“No wonder poor Balla is always so tired, no rest even during his siesta time after hard work in the morning to be followed by the same after he is finished with Ghanto,” remarked another kid.
“Alright, but what is there to listen?” asked Bhuvan.
Following some hin-hins and smirks, a boy tried to educate Bhuvan, “You are too young and naive Bhuvan; everyone does it in a regular way but Ghanto does it with band and all, striking her bells all the way!”
Bhuvan understood that Ghanto did something of the nature she did but doing it with band and all was completely out of his reach at this stage. He left not to miss jumping in the canal completely and never wasted a minute on it again. Allure of the fun on canal was too irresistible and gluing his ear to the wall too meaningless. Feelings of the older kids were quite the opposite. Siddha was enjoying jumping in the canal except that he would take breaks every now and then to fulfill his oath, to live by his Dharma. Each one remained engaged in one’s own pastime. For the likes of Bhuvan, the fun increased during the summer break in the months of May and June but sadly for the other kind, the room was locked during that period.
One of those afternoons, Ghanto came barging in the school and hollered, “Eh Master, what are you teaching these kids?”
“I am teaching what I am supposed to: Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and there are other things,” answered the teacher calmly although bewildered somewhat by Ghanto’s mannerism.
“Is that all you are teaching them? I suspect, they are not even learning any of that.”
“What else do you think they are learning?”
Ghanto was taken aback a bit. After gaining her composure, she said, “Do you know that they have bored a hole in the wall?”
“Have you done that?” the teacher hollered at the kids, “Who has done it?”
There was pin drop silence, a pin wouldn’t make any sound on that dirt floor anyway, and the kids sat stone faced. The teacher got rid of Ghanto with a promise, “I’ll find out and the culprit will get good spanking.”
The teacher had noticed them on that spot with their ears to the wall before but not well since the kids would get ‘busy’ with their books as soon as they noticed the teacher looking that way while half asleep during his siesta; whatever little he noticed, he didn’t consider that of any significance. But now everything came alive. After Ghanto was gone, the teacher asked the kids, “What do you listen through the hole?”
Kids sat there stone-faced. The teacher knew from his experience that that is all he was going to get out of them. So, he ordered everybody to go into murga posture, which meant to bring one’s arms under the legs and hold one’s ears with as little bending of the knees as possible and of course their butts must remain raised. In this posture with butt raised and head bowed, a kid really looked like a pecking chicken. If a kid tried to lower his butt, the teacher would spank it. Kids took it all sweating. In all such situations, even if a kid knew, he would not tell on the others for at some other time, others would tell on him, in addition to beating him up after the school. As always, the teacher would finally give up: “They have been punished well.” It is another matter that everybody had to pay the penalty for the deeds of a few; yet another lesson in the prevailing system of justice there.
Ghanto for her part, squeezed in some rags in the hole, which wouldn’t need much in the name of material as it was a narrow hole made with a wire. Children responded with pushing the rags back with the same wire that they had used to bore the hole. After that, Ghanto didn’t bother with it, just continued whatever she had been doing before enjoyment of which was much too seductive to waste her valuable time on complaining to the teacher or squeezing rags in the hole.
Children’s activities continued as Ghanto’s did with about the same level of dedication and enjoyment. Those who were glued to the hole in wall were still there, those who enjoyed jumping the canal still continued with it and Siddha continued with his dedicated effort to live by his word. One day when Bhuvan was returning from the canal thinking of ways to evade the adults in his family, he ran into Wrestler Boy by his orchard, who asked him, “How many Vedas have you learned so far Bhuvan?” This was a frequent question Wrestler Boy had been asking Bhuvan. Grandpa had told him that four Vedas are the oldest books of knowledge but that’s about all. When he was in grade two, he would answer, “I have completed one, going on to the second.” When he was in the third grade, his answer changed to, “I have completed two, going on to the third,” and similar adjustment was made in grade four. This all changed this year as he was now going into the fifth grade; he had to answer, “I have studied all four Vedas.”
“Then what are you doing in the school? There is nothing more left to learn.”
Grandpa had told Bhuvan that all the basic knowledge is contained in the Vedas. Faced with the question, Bhuvan was about as much at loss as Grandpa used to be at his continued pestering, “What is beyond all the oceans? What is beyond all the stars? ....” Grandpa’s answer came in handy as Bhuvan responded, “Donkey’s tail,” which drew a smirk from Wrestler Boy. During all this questioning and answering over the years, Bhuvan and Wrestler Boy became comfortable in talking to each other. In fact, Wrestler Boy had befriended most of the children in the village, which enabled him to pass his time in arguing with them, discussing things they were learning and whatever else. He did interact with the adults but to a much lesser extent who found him rather immature resulting from his lack of responsibility of a family.
Teaching and learning continued together with the chicken postures and lashes, which were the regular consequences of unsatisfactory performance. Towards the end of the school year, fifth grade students had to write their exams at the center few miles away from Kesari Nagar. Exams in the college took place sometime before those for the elementary school. During his exams Lapheel Pha-i was spotted regularly reading from his book even while walking, which drew laughs and jeers from the elementary school students.
“Whatcha lutin at? Padha-i you ale dooin in thith elementaly thakool id nothin, wait till you get to the thikhth glade. Then you will know what padha-i id,” Lapheel Pha-i would tell them in his characteristic accent, which we will use only occasionally as in case of Khatku.
During the fifth grade exams, the students sat on a long jute mat of the same type as they had in the school except that now they were required to sit behind each other. Siddha always made sure to sit behind Bhuvan, which provided him an opportunity to peek over Bhuvan’s shoulder. After one of the exams, Siddha complained to the teacher that he was stuck on a question and was having difficulty peeking over Bhuvan’s shoulder; so he poked Bhuvan with his pen but Bhuvan did not place his notebook in a position for Siddha to be able to copy. The teacher verbally reprehended Bhuvan for not helping Siddha cheat. This teacher certainly had something in common with young Mohan Das Gandhi’s teacher except that this same teacher had preached honesty by citing Gandhi’s example at an earlier occasion. This was yet another occasion for Bhuvan to be confounded. Later in a conversation Siddha explained to him:
“You do not understand anything Bhuvan. I listen to the moral preaching in the Wash Your Hands Way.”
“What is the Wash Your Hands Way?”
“When the teacher preaches, I take it all in the palms of my hands; after the preaching is over, I drop it all on the ground and wash my hands well soon after. So this type of learning does not remain in my possession and if it is not in my possession, I am not bound by it.”
Bhuvan’s confusion only increased. In any case, he asked, “And the teacher does not seem to really mean his preaching either.”
“Oh, he means it alright but only when he is preaching. After that, he places his bag of morality in a safe place to retrieve later as he needs it. This is called Put Away the Bag Way.”
“Hmmmm,” Bhuvan hummed and walked away with his head bowed looking in a deep thought.
Continued to “Taro’s Carrot”