Of all options, reform is the best way to correct delinquents and prevent future misdeeds. That is what is the general notion and research shows the same too. Our school administration thought, likewise. Small but healthy doses of kindness and fostering children will aid in nurturing young minds into becoming responsible citizens, is what they believed in. In Senior School, such doses became large but turned unhealthy! In Junior School, however, doses were small, tender and very meaningful. Such as Sunday TV, weekly tuck-day, letter writing to parents and the one-off nature walks. Jharipani, like most hill stations, always had very unpredictable weather. One would get up at 5:30-6 AM to peep out of the window and see only grey. Initially, of course, an 8 yr old was excited that s/he was up in the clouds! Pretty quickly, the ugly notion and difference between clouds, fog and mist was clarified, braking yet another dream of this child. Anyhow, back to the dormitory window. So, this grey envelope outside would soon be washed away by clear bright sun ray dust gushing through the glass-pane on to the maroon bed cover showing off its shine. However, just when you would be walking down the wooden staircase to the classroom, you may be startled by sudden thunder storm noises, hail knocking on your classroom windows trying to fill your empty ink-well on your desk. All within a matter of an hour or little more. So, actually planning for a nature walk, announcing a nature walk and finally making it out of JS gates, were heavily mutually exclusive. There were days it had been over a month from the last nature walk that children had been exposed to and it had not rained for 2 days consecutively. Fresh rumours brewed that Big Ma’am was thinking of nature walk for teachers and children. Yes, back in our days (late eighties/nineties) even teachers were not allowed to step out of bounds. Special permission with a very very genuine and almost life saving cause may get an approval. I don’t think even the Principals ever went against what Big Ma’am instructed for JS. And now, looking back, I thank her for being the way she was. Actually, all the headmistresses of JS. At least for a long time. Till, things became more democratic in nature, i hear. Anyhow, back to morning assembly. The assembly in which nature walk was announced was a very special day. It was never a Monday, since Monday was hygiene check day with check on your growing hair and nails, cleanliness around and in your ears, a clean handkerchief in your pocket and shining leather shoes. It was never a Saturday or Sunday, as it was late rising on those days and there was no assembly. So, it could be any day between Tuesday and Friday. Letter writing was on Fridays. And I think I have recollections of writing “today we went for a nature walk”. But not much of anything more around the walk. Because, a letter from OGJS had its own script! It better not go wrong. And the flowery letter pads had limited letter sheets and space in it.

Every nature walk was a revelation. If you were a new joinee and getting to hear Big Ma’am’s announcement for the first time, you would be confused. It was pure nature all around. And all day all we could do was walk. Now what is this new task called nature walk? But seeing children of your age as well as teachers young and old, getting gleeful, you made sense, this was going to be good. Walking back to the classroom in a single file only to re-group to queue up in twos, hand in hand, was another stimulating exercise. One scream from the class teacher, “you should see only the back of the head of the one in front” never sounded so sweet as on that day! Only difference being, in a single file you had no option but one head. Waiting in twos, hand in hand, you had two heads to find lice in! Till the time you stepped out of JS from the back gate down towards the Principal’s office & residence, you were never sure, this walk was a reality. Weather could play spoilt sport. So, could the Principal. Anyhow, walking cautiously down the slope, at least 2-3 children from each class section, would slip and fall, because they stepped on the moss. In the process, since you are hand in hand, the person whose hand is in yours, would be misbalanced and may be fall too, which may start a chain reaction of falls, since the one behind could busy tracking a lice on the back of the head! Well, the walk from the Princi’s gate till the valley was circumspect, since you were now far but not as far from JS compound that you cannot be called back. However, the moment you took that last turn, from where, one route leads to the right, down the stairs to the valley and the left turn was a blind turn which totally made JS and Princi’s office, both, vanish completely and forever! Now, you were free, almost, under the watchful eyes of your class teacher and that bastard, sneaky class section monitor, who was waiting to win some brownie points, by shouting your name and ordering you to fall in line.

The real walk would start now. You would trudge down the final slope and begin your walk uphill to Jharipani bus stand/post office. On the way, not that there were many passersby, but anyone and everyone you cross, would greet you and you would do the same. At the top of the climb, just after the gate, the postman would come out, stand on the post office steps and smile all through till the 150+ children from JS passed by. Padamji (Gupta Stores), a known miser, but one of the largest hearted shopkeeper/businessman I have come across in my life till date, would offer you his entire shop, for the right price, of course! Kids would give greedy stares on the jars filled with kismi bars, phantom cigarette packs, chatpati namkeen packets, aam-paapad and crates of newly launched small cute bottles called Take-away ThumsUp and Limca! Another solid climb up for another shop, smaller than Gupta Stores would wave at the teachers, I am guessing to lure them in on the way back so that they don’t end up getting into the trap and buying something from Padamji. Once you have crossed these milestones, up on your left was a highly dilapidated and forgotten Patiala House. One kept hearing multiple stories about it, but no one was really interested. It surely intrigued a few kids, who made plans to make a visit, but soon forgot, since this one-day-parole was just not enough to do everything that crossed your mind. From the gates of Patiala House till Nepal Palace was a smooth, plain and easy walk. There were lush, brightly green bushes to your right and the Doon Valley showed up right up to your chin, for the first time in many days, weeks and months. You were almost delirious seeing the valley so up close. The serpent roads seem to have wrapped you like your muffler and the far away mountains seem to be echoing your name just as your mom called you. Winds from Doon valley hitting your face was becoming warmer than usual and just when the faint vehicle horns had started making you homesick once again, your partner to your right, would pull you, bringing you back to reality, cursing you and would step towards “khaai-side” to wrap the same muffler, listen to the same echo and vehicle horns. On the right side of the road, where shrubs grew, if you were talking this walk during the appropriate months, you could see and smell, odd and random plants with white, purple and yellow flowers. Though some were tempted, the hillside was barb-wired, so you could not step up and pluck any of it. As you would be stepping towards Nepal House there were a couple of houses, where kids of the locals would be playing outside. They would get more excited than you. We could understand only later of it. They too had very limited visitors in and around them. Seeing so many children together, in double files, walking hand in hand, in the same uniform, was a brilliant circus-like entertainment for them too! We would cross Gate No. 1 of Nepal Palace, when, there would be an announcement that Cl III and IV would return from here, while Cl V was privileged to walk till Gate No. 2 of Nepal Palace. It was called a Palace and from what we hear, used to be one too. However, the distance between Gate No.1 and Gate No. 2 wasn’t as much. Probably, 100 meters. But, as in any, prisoners who had spent more time enjoyed better fruits of staying alive in a prison!

The walk back was never a pleasure. Well, it was great till Padamjis shop, where you took one last look at the jars. Excitement fell a little as you crossed the gate and entered school technically. It fell a little more as you passed by the lusty green valley of ours. As you took the last climb and walked into JS, all you had was the colour of those flowers in your eyes, smell of warm air from Doon valley in your nostrils and weary feet from the slopes and climbs of a dream you just walked through and were back, waiting for yet another assembly, looking eagerly towards Big Ma’am to announce yet another nature walk.

– Kanishka Mallick (1996)

This piece was shared by Kanishka Mallick on  May 09, 2020 via a personal message.


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