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How boarding school turned into a brutal Ramayana for a little boy

Daya Pawar
Daya PawarJun 29, 2015 | 13:42

How boarding school turned into a brutal Ramayana for a little boy

The story I’m going to tell you now still has the power to disturb me. How much the boys were to blame is debatable. Indian culture has us all in its vice-like grip; how can the Dalit escape? And yet I feel no hatred for all those who played a role in this miniature Ramayana. Some of them are now officials of high rank. One heads the Zilla Parishad. When I meet them, they ask after Aai. They speak respectfully of her. There were some for whom my mother has shown more affection than she does for me.

This is how it happened. Aai had not even been working a month in the hostel when she began her period. She was a traditional woman so she wondered how she was supposed to cook when she was in a state of ritual uncleanness. She took her dilemma to the Superintendent. He had no answers. There was no way he was going to pay someone else to work for four days each month. What of it? he said and forced her to go back to the kitchen. How did word of her condition spread to the students? That must remain a mystery.

When I enter the mess, plate and tumbler in hand, I am greeted by a chorus: ‘Shame, shame.’ No one is willing to eat. I have no idea what this is about. I think the curry might have gone bad, for the students are always griping about it; sometimes it is too salty, sometimes too thin. Some take an unholy delight in summoning my mother for a scolding while I am there. And then there are some truly perverse types. Once or twice, they have thrown fistfuls of salt into the curry behind her back. When it all gets too much for me, I sometimes steal to my mother’s side in the middle of the night and we weep together. At that age, tears are never far away. A few words can bring on sobs. Sane Guruji has done a good job of describing tears. But so many tears flow that my eyes begin to dry up.

Ignoring everyone now I force down a couple of mouthfuls. Then I get up from my seat and go to find out what has happened. Aai tells me. I want the earth to swallow us. I am too young to realise that it was the same society that had made us untouchable that deemed the woman’s body as unclean in the menses.

At another time, Aai was accused of robbery. And what was she accused of robbing? Flour. Not that she had anything to do with it. The real thief was the Superintendent. His marriage had just been fixed in Little Sangamner. He was a man of some years, a widower, and the girl was much younger.

His new relatives-to-be lived in the outhouse of a dak banglow with many children and much paraphernalia. Morning and evening, he’d be off for there, grinding his gums. Perhaps the age difference made him generous, for the provisions meant for the hostel began to be sent there on the Superintendent’s orders. One day, one of the students caught one of the Superintendent’s future relatives leaving via the back door, with a towel full of flour. This crime was laid at Aai’s doorstep. Since the Superintendent had the upper hand over us, neither of us could say anything. We could not afford to anger him. And so when the students had their kangaroo court and accused Aai, I could not say a word in her defence. Nor could she. The world, it seemed, was against us.

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Baluta; Speaking Tiger Books; Rs 350

Among our relatives was a boy called Dethe, tall and well-built. Whenever we were taunted or persecuted, he would take it personally. This repressed rage found expression in an odd manner. Before joining school, he had been a cowherd, taking the animals to forage. This meant he was admitted to school a few years late, which made him larger than most of the children in his class. While herding cattle, he had seen the other cowherds playing a strange game. Put a leaf of the gui plant into your ear, and you go mad for a little while. Now whether he actually did experience such a bout of madness or he was only pretending, there was no knowing. I never dared try it. One night, he put some gui leaf into his ear. When you do this, it seems, you begin to spin like a bhagat, an exorcist. He kept chanting: ‘The thorn of the gui! The thorn of the gui!’ In his hand he clutched a thorny branch of the taarwadi with which he would whip people who got in his way. This started a commotion at the hostel. In all this, I did not fail to notice one thing. When under the influence of the gui, Dethe attacked students at random but he never turned on either Aai or me. His main targets were the bullies. For a long time, I wondered whether these fits were the real thing.

Each boy in the hostel was rich in experience. Most of them had come from the lowest of the low strata of the villages. They had arrived here as the sum total of the multiple influences that had worked on them, some good, some bad. How could they free themselves from their backgrounds? Fights, arguments were always breaking out.

In the middle of all this, there was a Mumbai boy, the son of a rich father, a delicate, beautiful lad. It seemed that he might bleed if you so much as pinched him. He was the smallest boy in the hostel. His father was foreman of the works in a factory in the city and sent him a money order every month. He was always in fancy clothes. He would eat a couple of bites in the hostel and then go to a restaurant. His two elder brothers were uneducated; they were on the fringe of a gang. That was why their father had tried to isolate his youngest son. All the students fawned over him. They yearned to borrow his fashionable clothes and took advantage of him to go to the cinema and eat at restaurants.

There were always quarrels with the hostel officials over food. They were particularly fierce on feast days. Without the authorities knowing, the boarders would check the account books. They knew the grant amounts by heart. When the hostel officials stopped the morning serving of usal, there was widespread resentment and things often boiled over. I felt rather sorry for the officials. They had to walk a tight-rope—balancing the trustees and the students. The grant money would often arrive late, which meant buying provisions on credit for two or three months at a stretch. Some days we even went hungry. The boarders would abuse the trustees and the masters. If a trustee came to a meeting, the complaints were only about food.

The society was mismanaged, its accounts puffed. The government subsidy often did not suffice. And in any case, by the time the money got to the hostel, much of it had leaked away. The government felt that the organisation should also raise funds from the public; the hostel officials were routinely accused of stealing the money. When prices rose and things got expensive, the local hoods would threaten the shopkeepers. That was what happened on certain important days, including Dr Ambedkar’s birthday. There would be a feast. If it were not declared, the students would force the issue by gheraoing the officials. A feast meant laddoos and jilebi added to the menu. No one would touch the rice or chapattis that day. The students would take bets.

I remember one of these. A student from a higher class ate twenty or twenty-five fist-sized laddoos at a single sitting to the shock and awe of all of us.

We would be served a mutton barbaat once a week. You were lucky to get a piece of meat in your serving. Once, the students in charge of the shopping bought sheep meat by mistake. It didn’t take long for word to spread. The students refused to touch the fatty and fibrous meat. Only a few of us ate. The rest had to be fed with bhel and laddoos bought at a restaurant. A teacher said, ‘When you’re corrupt to the core, why worry about your skin?’ I remember one of the superintendents of the boarding school, Bhagwat Master, who was a man of ideals. His food was no different from ours; he ate with the students. The boys had had bad experiences with his predecessors, whom they nearly drove away, but for Bhagwat Master they had only respect. He kept the needs of the students in mind and fought to protect their interests. He lived a simple life, never showing off or putting himself forward. He was wiry of form, his hair elegantly parted so that a lock fell across his forehead. He held the tail end of his dhotar in one hand as he walked. One of his front teeth was missing. At some time in the past, he had served in the military. That explained his love of exercise. He wanted the students to be fit, to play sports. If you didn’t show up for games, he got your food stopped.

One of the boys, Sonawane, was in the habit of chewing tobacco which he would always be scrubbing in the palm of his hand. One day, Bhagwat Master had him bodily lifted and carried to the playground. Sonawane simply squatted on the ground, like a buffalo in a pond. He refused to play; he was adamant in his apathy to physical activity. Finally Bhagwat gave up on him. In the beginning, he had wanted to impose military discipline on us. He would rise at dawn to take us on parade. We went running on the SangamnerPune Road with Bhagwat leading the pack. Once, he showed us how to fall to the ground in case of an air raid. In doing so, he hurt his chest so badly that he was ill for a couple of months. His chest was all bound up with bandages, to our great amusement. Thereafter, dawn parades were no longer mentioned.

The boys of the boarding discussed the girls of the high school endlessly. These were all upper-caste girls. Their saris and make-up were subjects of fascination. Some boys even counted the saris each girl had. Perhaps that was because many of the boys had just a couple of pairs of clothes. So this almost endless parade of saris was nothing short of mindblowing. There were many cases of unrequited love. If textbooks were exchanged, the boys would be elevated to seventh heaven. Pathare, one of the students, had the style of a film hero. On Saturdays, he would bring a steam iron from a rich friend in his village so that he could go to school in high style. Some of his friends knew that he was madly in love with a Brahmin girl. He would explode if he were teased about it. One day the boys wrote a letter in the girl’s handwriting and tucked it into his book. She had ‘invited’ him to meet her at the State Transport Bus Stand that evening. It is difficult to describe Pathare’s delight. Of course he dressed up to the nines. Of course she did not show up. Of course he was terribly disappointed and came back dejected. The rest of us toyed with him, as a cat torments a mouse. Poor fellow, he was close to tears.

Then there was Rokade. He was one of the better students at the boarding school. He was terribly poor. His parents were labourers. His books and clothes were in tatters. No one would lend him their books during the day, so he would get up to study in the night when all the others were sleeping, so that he might use their books. He was good at all the subjects but he scored full marks in Sanskrit and mathematics. He always stood first or second in class. In his class there was a sweet, fat girl called Kulkarni. They got to know each other by pretending to talk about studies. In the evening she would take her aged grandfather for a walk and steer him over to the hostel. Rokade would, quite coincidentally of course, happen to be around. They would exchange a few words about school work. Kulkarni was pretty: plump cheeks, short but of a neat and shapely build, sparkling eyes, skin the colour of ketaki. Rokade would talk about her for hours when we were alone. He and I looked a bit similar, in face and physique. We could even use each other’s clothes, so people thought he was my younger brother. It is difficult to say how far he and that girl Kulkarni went but when there was a send-off after the SSC examinations, both wept copiously.

Then Rokade comes to Bombay. Kulkarni goes to Pune. Rokade joins college but he does not forget. After four long years, he meets her suddenly in Thane. She has graduated as well. He reminds her of their love. ‘Let’s get married,’ he urges. Kulkarni gives this a cool reception. ‘Where were you all these years?’ she asks. ‘I had forgotten all about you. Did you really set such store by what happened in school?’ Poor Rokade was devastated. But he was not willing to give up so easily. He even went and met her family. They refused the match on the basis of his caste. Rokade was broken as if he had been thrown from a great height.

Translated from the Marathi by Jerry Pinto

(This excerpt has been published with permission from Speaking Tiger.)

Last updated: January 02, 2018 | 20:18
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