In a lockdown, many things get rationed. Hostel life in a way is a lockdown. You are free within bounds. Make it strict bounds. Well, in a residential school, let’s make it very strict bounds. Everything is fixed and runs with clockwise precision. Not just for the students. In Junior School, a child is not even in her teens. She has to be woken up at 5:30 AM, whether cajoled, forced or with soft strokes on cheeks, for which matrons have to be up at 5 AM. Aayajis have to probably wake up at 4 AM to sort her domestic chores and get to the dormitory by 5:15 AM to start waking the kids. To ensure that kids get hot water to wash, bathe and freshen up, are served their milk hot, porridge warm and bread cut in slices just the right size, everyday, come rain or minus temperatures in the hills, the dormitory and kitchen staff would have to wake up at 3:30 AM to get to the kitchen by 5 AM so that breakfast is ready for all the kids, staff and guests by 7:30-7:45 AM so that breakfast can be served at 8 AM, sharp. Everything by the clock, locked in time and place.
Kids, we are not sure if 5:30 or 6 AM is the right time to wake up. We are half-dreaming, half-awake and wait first few minutes juggling our eye balls to decide if we should keep lying down but open our eyes staying inside our quilts for a while, or get up and lie tilted resting our head on bed headrests, pulling quilts upto our chins or should we jump out of bed and be the first ones today to the tooth paste queue? Yesterday, being the last lot of kids we had to make do with the old white haggard Colgate, while envying the new green Closeup gel tooth paste on tooth brushes of the more active ones. While lying down, we have mixed emotions flashing between the warm head and cold nose tip. We can still feel the weight of last night’s storm on the dormitory walls, the bad dream of running wildly and peeping into every classroom, shouting and trying to find at least one random soul in the corridor to ensure we are not all alone in this building and feeling the shivers yet again. There is a pretty big realisation of every morning that we are still where we were yesterday and our mothers are not coming today either. Finally, sense sets in that in a couple of hours we will be in front of the class teacher and yesterday’s task is till incomplete. In the next 3.5 minutes, we have to step out of bed, rush to the peg, pull and wear our dressing gowns, swirl the towel over our shoulder and rush to queue up for toothpaste, from there rush to get a vacant washbasin, wait our turn for the loo, come off light and then again wait our turn to be pushed to take a bath with just the right temperature of hot water. We still wonder, how could Rambir Singhji, Maheshji, Mehboob, Guddu etc know how many mugs were just right for every child. They stopped throwing water and you were clean. Anyhow, we had to keep rushing. Back to our pegs and get dressed, before rushing and queuing up again to get our heads oiled, well-oiled actually. Here again, if you were very, very lucky you may get Keo Karpin Hair Oil, a new, better smelling product that had just come into the market. Else, our very own and waiting to be disowned Brahmi Amla Kesh Tel it was. From there to the next queue to get your combed, pick and wear your socks and shoes and go and wait by your bed side, till Matrons call out for everyone to queue up and walk down to classrooms/dining hall for prep time/breakfast at 8 AM, assembly at 9 AM and so and so forth. Everything by the clock, locked in time and place.
Everyday had fixed schedules, fixed meals and menus and fixed things to do. Just the Ma’am on Duty changed. Kids would get tuck from home. Of course, tuck needed a tuck box. And so that it does not get mixed, it had to have your name and class engraved or hand painted on it. Not to mention, but better to be fool proof, tuck naturally had to be non-perishable as it had to stay intact for at least 2-3 months, if not the whole 4-months term. For a long time, tuck boxes did not need locks. But later, for obvious reasons, parents were told to give tuck boxes with locking facility. During our recent visits, we came to know for logistics ease, tuck room was made as part of the dining hall and was kept locked under 3 locks on a single door, vertically. In our times, bearers would carry almost 200+ tuck boxes from a store room at least 80-100 meters away from the dining hall, arrange them at the far corner of the dining hall & children would take turns, section wise, to walk down, collect what they wanted to pick and come back to their seats. You had to finish every snack you chose on the dining table before you could walk out of the dining hall. No exceptions. In later years, we did see a lot of rules getting relaxed. My sense is, mostly due to parental pressure. Not so much from kids. We loved the little pleasures of life. Breaking rules had its own joy. Wednesday was Tuck Day. Some strange feeling tells me, it was twice a week with Fridays too being a Tuck Day. Anyhow, Wednesdays was our mirage & oasis in a dead desert, an island in a waste ocean and a saviour to the dying soul. Naturally, everyone would look forward to it. One fine sunny Wednesday, I was made to rethink, why I should look forward to it more than I ever had.
It was our usual Wednesday. Everything was going as per plan. 5:30 AM wakeup call by Ramkali Aayaji. 8 AM breakfast served by Anwar Miyaan and others. 9 AM assembly led by Mrs. Bhaskar. 12:45 afternoon lunch. Of course, I don’t remember who was the MOD that day, at the fag end of tea time, everyone was waiting for the little commotion that started when bearerjis would start brining in tuck boxes and keeping them in the corner. MOD started announcing, sections to go and pick their choices. I was as excited as Jaspal Bhatti’s side-kick to jump off the bench and rush to the box with my name. My section’s call was about to come, when I noticed one of the boys sitting at ease, without an expression, watching others. His section had been called by then. But he didn’t move. He saw others go and come back with their goodies, while he was slowly finishing the usual tea time snack served that evening. Just as I was about to stand and raise my leg to cross the bench, I saw his eyes lit up. One of the boys of his section, who used to sit on our table but a few spaces away came and stood next to him. Without a word and in a jiffy, he dumped 1 wafer piece, 1 melody toffee and a very limited amount of a namkeen, whatever small palm of a 10 or 11 yr-old can hold, in the plate of the still expressionless boy. As the section boy was walking back, he looked back with a very different look. That’s when this boy’s expressions changed and he said, “yeah, yeah, your sister won’t know. And this makes it – 7 and a half thekuas”!! The section boy only whispered, “its OK. I can live with 7 thekuas”. Now, to me, this was a worthy moment. But as foolish as I have always been, instead of asking the section boy, as we were walking out of the dining hall, I asked this chap about the deal. He looked at me and finally smiled. And very matter of factly said, “Actually I don’t have tuck. The little that my parents pack, gets over very soon. Last term, my friend probably noticed, that I would sit without tuck on Wednesday. One day he came to me, asked about my tuck (or the reason why its missing) and instantly proposed a deal. In exchange of some tuck, for every Wednesday it would be 1 thekua that that I get from home after vacations. After a bit of negotiation, they had agreed on 1 thekua for 2 Wednesdays’ sharing. I was even more confused now. He had said 7 thekuas. Which means at least 14 Wednesdays. Now, he laughed at me. He said, my friend won’t ask for thekua ever. And I will never insult him by offering him any. And then quickly added before running away, if you ever tell his sister, I will kill you.
In a lockdown, many things get rationed. We all tend to get selfish. However, few, or actually, very few in the world, seize the opportunity to un-ration and give one thing in abundance, love.
– Kanishka Mallick (1996)
1990s Kanishka Mallick OGJS