Across the Bridge – Chapter 33
Continued from “Black Mango Trail”
Students dreaded attending the classes of Kahra Master of course, but they had no choice as learning English was compulsory, which was quite elementary but not all that easy to learn for most of those Hindi speaking students. The blue-eyed teacher was in fact very keen at teaching, it was just that he believed his ways to be the good ways, so did about all around. He used to bring a flat bamboo ruler with him, his instrument to implement his ways. After a few months, the students were expected to develop some vocabulary and were tested on it. He would ask every student to translate and spell a word. If the student made a mistake, he would hold his fingers to lay the student’s palm flat on his table exposing its backside and hit the back hard with his ruler. “Master ji, this’ll kill me; Master ji, I’ll die; ...” were regular whines of the victim before receiving the excruciatingly painful hit, which were expected for if not, the student would get at least one more hit for being defiant, the same way as the jailer in Dostoyevsky’s ‘The house of dead’ would give some extra lashes to an inmate sentenced to receive certain number of lashes who took them without begging for mercy and justified his action with, “What could I do, he was so rude.”
There was a defiant kid in the class alright, but in a very different way. A student who was small in built, could not spell the word ‘picture.’ The consequence was obvious: He was called to the table, which petrified him but move he had to. As he moved, another student started crying. The teacher looked at the crying kid in amazement, “It is he who is going to get hit, why are you crying?”
“He is my friend.”
The teacher was taken aback a bit but regained his composure quickly and asked, “Would you be willing to take the punishment for his mistake then?”
The boy stood up, moved forward and placed his palm on the table exposing its back; the teacher did not even have to hold his fingers. He did hit the back of the palm, even harder; what could be expected, ‘The kid was so rude.” The boy took the hit without flinching and returned to his spot. He smiled all the way through the episode. From that day onwards, as his friend would make a spelling mistake and called to the table, he would get up immediately, walk to the table and the whole story would be replayed. He was taking his own punishment as well. In exchange for all these hits on the back of his palm, he was receiving a great deal of praise from his classmates and others for his feelings and loyalty to his friend.
Kids had developed a theory about why the blue eyed teacher was so cruel: He must be an illegitimate child of some firangi, a bastard, that is where he got his cruel genes. Fair color of the teacher’s skin and his blue eyes only added to the credibility of this ‘theory.’ The fact that there were other blue-eyed individuals with fair skin here and there could be explained away by reasoning that not all blue-eyed ones with Indian mothers had to be fathered by a white man. It did not bother them that PTI was neither blue eyed nor had fair skin and yet no less cruel than the Kahra Master: “There are all kinds of people everywhere but this Kahra is certainly a bastard.”
The students would complain of the teacher at home, which only invoked reprimands from their fathers, “He is trying to make you learn.” After all, they were the product of the same system. Some of this complaining made it to the Bridge where differing opinions were the norm and thus, the kids could hope for some sympathy, only sympathy, for they knew that nothing was going to change.
“Why are they keeping English still even after the firangis are gone?”
“Most of the work of the government and administration is still done in English; therefore, learning English is necessary if you want a good career.”
“Why did they not switch to Hindi immediately after independence?”
“There are so many languages in India; people from one region cannot read, write, speak or understand the language from another region. English is the only link language.”
“Hindi can be made the link language. If they can learn English, they can learn Hindi.”
“We should have a linguistic national identity instead of keeping a colonial legacy.”
“Would non-Hindi speaking people let it happen? They argue that this would place Hindi speaking people at an advantage. Keeping English places everybody equally at disadvantage, at a level playing field.”
“We let others dominate us so that some of us are not at an advantage, classic Indian tragedy.”
‘Three-Languages formula has been proposed to address such issues but it is not being implemented.”
According to this formula, people would learn Hindi, English and their mother tongue, except for the Hindi speaking ones who would learn Hindi, English and one South Indian language to eliminate or at least reduce the advantage Hindi speaking people would have otherwise; North Indian languages were considered too close to Hindi to be acceptable to the South as a third language. English still had to be kept for technical and global reasons but at a much diminished level, advanced learning was for those who needed it.
“Why did they not implement the formula then?”
“It is because of the leaders. How many of them know Hindi?” Nakul Uncle interjected, “Nehru knows only English. All in the government are more like the British than us. They were educated in English schools and they send their kids to the same schools like the Doon Academy, where they teach only snobbery.”
“What kind of independence is this! It is just transfer of the same old system from the British to the Indian elite, from white firangis to the brown firangis.”
“Nehru even said to have commented that he would be the last Englishman to govern India.”
“I told you, they are all brown firangis, not just Nehru who can even pass for a white man.”
“They are keeping the same old bureaucracy of the days of firangis, which was designed to rule over us, not govern the country.”
“We can change this at the ballot box.”
“That will be in time y’aro;” Hasnu interjected, “Now the issue is the method of teaching, which is also still the same. These are not the ways they teach in the teacher’s training schools.”
“Oh, the teachers in training learn them in the Wash Your Hands Way,” Siddha commented. Everybody laughed.
A fellow in the gathering opined that the methods to teach they teach in the teachers’ training schools are no good and narrated a story to illustrate. According to the story, which may even have been concocted, a teacher during his final practical exam was supposed to have his students recognize the color red. Everyone knew what the color red looks like, the test was how the examinee would impart the knowledge to a student who did not know. The examinee showed a red rose and said, “The color of this flower is red.”
“No sir, the color of this flower is green,” several students spoke in chorus.
“Do you not know what the color red looks like?
The aspirant teacher was puzzled. He showed them a leaf and asked its color, which the students said was blue. He was hoping that the students would tell the color of the leaf to be green and then he could draw upon the difference between the colors of the leaf and flower but the students were determined to give the teacher hard time. Quite nervous by now, the teacher made a small cut on his finger to draw a couple of drops of blood. Even before he tried to convince the students that that was red color, the same group of students shouted in chorus, “Oh sir, we did not know that the color of our blood is purple.” By now the teacher had given up and was resigned to fail. As the last resort, he called about the most mischievous among the trouble makers to his table; the student also happened to be quite fair colored. Then he slapped the student on his cheek very hard and immediately showed him a mirror, “Color of your cheek is …”
“Red Sir,” the student shouted with tears in his eyes.
“Good boy,” the teacher said with contentment showing on his face, “Now show the class what the color red looks like.”
The student faced the class with teary eyes.
“Well, say something to them,” the teacher ordered.
“The color of my cheek is red,” said the sobbing student, “If you create unnecessary trouble, your cheeks will look red also.”
This drew smirks on to the faces of the teacher, students and also the examiners. The teacher was passed with full marks and a note that he used a prohibited method but that was the best course of action under the circumstances. Distinction was drawn between the situation in this story and Kahra Master’s unnecessarily brutal ways but the point was made that some tough love with minor physical punishment was necessary at times but it should be within limits. It was another matter that there were differing opinions about what the limits were.
“Not much has changed brothers,” someone started another thread, “We have the same bureaucracy, same system of government and same ways like strapping in the schools.”
It is true that much of the system after independence remained the same as before. Indian independence was a peaceful transition of power unlike many other countries where power was transferred by revolutionary means and subsequently the whole system was overhauled, but many profound changes had taken place and everybody knew it.
“Do you not see the host of schools like the one in our village and this college in the area?”
“But with the same old Kahra Masters and PTIs together with their same old teaching methods.”
“Or the beating methods.”
A laughter in chorus followed.
“The new teachers are quite adept at forgetting what they learn in the training schools and equally adept at learning the old ways.”
Suggestion that the principal appears to be a nice fellow, he should pay more attention to such matters, were met with, “If he can spare some time from his fund raising activities.”
This was a strange mixture, coexistence of the old and the new. Schools were opened but there was little in the name of resources. Facilities in the college were better than in the elementary school but still it was quite short on the resources. Development had to take place on all fronts and there was not much in the kitty. On top of that, some in the newly developed political class had found politics a lucrative activity. To illustrate this, a play was staged in the College in which a poor peasant storms into the office of a member of parliament and vents his anger. The play ends with the elected representative receiving the news of a big loss in his business, which he had developed by corrupt means. The play was dramatized by letting the elected member suffer cardiac arrest as he received the news.
Some of the resources had to be generated by fund raising activities. This was done by appealing to the people during the annual function of the college. Another way this was done was by personal persuasion for which a few board members together with the principal would visit people in the villages and extract donation in Gandhian way. Before independence, Mahatma Gandhi would milk rich industrialists to fund the activities of Congress Party at which Sarojani Naidu had once quipped, “It takes a lot of money to keep Gandhi poor.” Principal of the college also had earned similar reputation. He himself is known to have commented that he had become a butcher for the sake of his college, which he was really proud of as it indicated his dedication to raise funds to supplement the resources of college. In addition, he had to undertake some teaching himself for there was shortage of teachers as well. He also used physical punishment but very moderately like a gentle slap on the face with a comment, “Naughty.” In any case, the students would not dare complain to him or any other authority for fear of repercussions like the increase in the cruelty of Kahra Master.
About every student had experienced the torture inflicted by Kahra Master except Haidar Ali. His father was a government officer and quite proficient in English who coached Haidar. One day Kahra Master asked Haidar to translate the Hindi word ‘Hathi,’ which he translated correctly.
“Spell it,” hollered the teacher.
“Elefant Master ji.”
“Come here,” the blue-eyed teacher ordered Haidar. Everyone knew what that meant.
“Elephant Master ji, it is ‘ph,’ not ‘f’ Master ji,” said Haidar immediately.
“Come here,” hollered the teacher at the top of his voice.
Only thing for Haidar to do now was to whine, “Master ji I’ll die, it’ll kill me Master ji; ...” as he walked slowly towards the table knowing that now he might get an extra lash for not moving at the first call.
Sure enough; the blue-eyed one held his fingers in his hand, laid his palm down exposing its back and hit as hard as he could. The hit landed on the thumb of Kahra Master and his face turned red just like the face of the mischievous kid in teacher’s training school, not sure due to the pain or embarrassment, likely both. That was the last time Kahra Master hit anybody and Haidar saved his spotless record of never having gotten hit by Kahra Master’s ruler.
The school year was nearing an end and soon it was exam time. Yet again, Lapheel Pha-i was seen reading from his book even while walking, which was now longer than before as it included the walk from the village to the College also. Yet again, reaction of the other kids was also the same: Laugh at him; and so was his reaction: “Whatcha lutin at? Padha-i you ale dooin in thikhth glade id nothing, wait till you get to theventh glade. Then you will know what padha-i id. They don`t even intloduce deometli in thikhth glade; in theventh, you hafta do conthructhun.”
After the exams, it was summer and fun for the kids. As they returned in the seventh grade, Kahra Master was nowhere in sight. Soon it was learned that he had found a job in another school. Kids made no secret of their pleasure and thanked Heather Ali for ridding them of that teacher even though it was quite clear that nobody was ever going to get hit by Kara Master again.
It took another year and another kid to rid the school of the PTI. There was a small sick looking weak kid who landed under the ruler of PTI one day and PTI knew no difference between a bigger, stronger kid and a sick weakling; truly non-discriminating fellow that PTI was. He hit the boy the same way as any other boy but this kid fainted after a couple of hits. The principal together with the school board immediately suspended the PTI and he was fired soon after. Kids were of course thankful to the small sick looking kid. As for the PTI, he also managed to find a position in another school after pledging to give up his ways together with his wooden bar.
Continued to “New Brides Old Grooms”