It was after twenty years, in the year Big Ma’am passed away, that I started eating eggs again. My relationship with eggs had ended soon after I joined Oak Grove (OG) in 1995. On the first day at OG many of us were ushered inside Class 3B, which, as I found later, would be the section I would study in. In comparison to other classes, 3B was the biggest. On Sundays, the empty portion of the classroom – where the desks weren’t kept – would double up as the TV room. It had big, clear glass windows looking out to a flat corralled by a pushta where sometimes girls went out to play. In the day, despite the forest of oaks beyond the pushta, the windows allowed sunlight to enter. But on April 20th in 1995, at 6 pm, it was dark outside. The rain, earlier in the day, had wrapped the sunlight away.
We were made to sit in the tube-lit class – two to each desk. I was not used to tube-lights. In the railway quarter of Gaya, where I came from, we only used bulbs; or lanterns in the event of power cut, which was often. Earlier in the evening, my parents and siblings had left me with Miss Thapa, one of the two matrons for boys in Junior School (JS). Near my bed, where I was handed over, I cried and hugged one by one my parents, brother and little sister. My nine-year old eyes were still moist when I sat in the old oak desk under the unyielding white light surrounded by an unknown group of children. Some of them knew the place, as I could gather from their conversation. They, later, clarified that they were from Class 5.
One of them was Gunjan Masoom. A fair, short guy with a high angular forehead. When I think of him now, the image of Edward G Robinson comes to mind; not his villainy, though. He was kind to us with very little air about him, despite the novel seniority ordained on him and his classmates as the seniormost class in Junior School. Masoom was holding forth on what lay ahead for us in Jharipani. His best friend, Mritunjay with laddoos instead of cheeks, was talking to my other classmates.
It was Masoom who told us, on that first Jharipani evening, about Big Ma’am and Ma’am. Small would have been sonorous, but less respectful. Although Mrs. Bhaskar and Mrs. Khanna – Big Ma’am and Ma’am –, if one looked at them, could easily be categorised as big and small; also, in terms of the terror they triggered. The other teachers were merely Misses. Later, we saw the suave seniors from Boys School (BS) referring to the Misses as Ma’am. That was their word, not meant for us lowly, regimented JS kids. My uncle, who I looked up to as my style guru, had taught me that I must use Ma’am for teachers. It is more stylish, he had said. But now I was not in Gaya. It was Mussoorie hills. Things would go, as they do, in the good tradition of a hundred-year-old institution.
I have never kept a journal. Few of my classmates kept diaries in Junior School. I don’t know what became of them. One of them recorded about himself later in the salubrious environs of JNU. I never did that. I have tried keeping a journal few times and there is proof of it, but to little avail.
What do I remember of a person from almost 20 years ago? Only scenes and fragments. Memory is a disloyal device and time its accomplice. Come to think of it, the story of our lives could even be the stories we have forgotten.
I can remember few other things that happened in 1995, but no memory of that year carries the epochal sense than that of being caned in the corridor. It must have been July, or maybe August, because I remember wearing Duckback Gumboots. I had never heard of them before reading it in the OG prospectus brought by my father. They were not even available in Gaya. Our kit, which had to be brought from home and was inspected by the matrons after every vacation, had several unnecessary things; gumboots, the topmost. I was given the half Wellington variety and every monsoon it would tear near the big toe. For the three years I was in JS, my father kept buying a new pair at Dehra with his meagre Railway salary.
It was prep time, which used to be between 6 to 7 pm in JS. Priyanka was the prefect sent to class 3B to monitor. She was a looker; the prettiest among all the Class 5 girls. As a monitor many would summon a sense of authority, which was absent otherwise. We boys, at that time, felt the girl prefects favoured the girls: overlooking their acts of indiscipline or allowing them with matters that weren’t allowed to the boys.
I had not visited the loo before the beginning of the prep, as I usually would. A few minutes after the prep started, I went to Priyanka to seek permission to go to the toilet. Sitting on the teachers’ chair, she refused. It was not wrong on her part to not allow. She did not know my condition and boys could have had plans, which as a monitor she had to be mindful of. I came back to my seat and tried to put myself to reading. But the water in the belly continued to rumble. Priyanka ambled in between the rows of desks with a book in hand. Distracted with my internal situation and her sauntering, my mind veered away from reading. She wouldn’t let me forget and forgetting helps, as I learned later. The art of controlling to wee-wee was still few years’ practice away. I stood up as she came near my desk to ask; only to be refused again. Now, I urgently needed to spend a penny. So, sitting at my desk I devised a plan. I went to her after wriggling for a few minutes, and sought permission to sharpen my pencil. She allowed that. The bin was kept behind the door, which exited in the corridor. I had thought that while sharpening my pencil I would escape. But as it happens, I had not gauged that the clouds were bursting at the seams. I stood near the bin with pencil in hand and a stream of hot piddle running down my hairless thighs. Half of it entering the half Wellington and the rest trickling down the trousers towards the bin. I stood there like a rock. My plan had failed. It would be a matter of seconds before Priyanka would ask me to go back to my seat. It is thoroughly suspicious to be standing and sharpening the pencil for so long. I did not know how to turn around to go back to the seat.
Ms. Bhatia, who was the class teacher for 3B was the MoD (Master/Mistress on Duty) that day. She, in a sense, was my saviour. Seeing the puddle in the corridor, she came inside the class. I was still behind the door, near the bin. Immediately she knew what had happened. Taking me by the ear, out in the corridor – pencil in hand – led me straight to the dormitory to change.
From the corner of my eye I saw the amorphous beauty I had created. It was like a giant spatula, the front of which has melted with overheating. “All forms of beauty”, as Baudelaire has written, “like all possible phenomena, have within them something eternal and something transitory — an absolute and a particular element.” Mine was also an abstraction combined with an absolute and transitory. Often, I have thought about its shape and whenever afterwards I have crossed that part of the corridor I have tried to imagine the contours of a long-evaporated piss.
When I returned from the dorm, people had queued up for dinner. My class had given respectful space to my creation. Moving to go to the dining hall, the boys did not cross by jumping over it, as if doing that would stunt its future length. I moved behind Shitikantha, the last person in the queue, although my place usually was second, being the second shortest boy of Class 3. I moved as the rest of the class had – making a right turn and then a left, observing that melted spatula for the last time.
I ate my dinner with eyes cast down, trying not to think of what was in the offing.
Big Ma’am had come to the dining hall, as she did every night. I was aware even with downcast eyes. She must have seen it before it was wiped away and she must have asked the MoD about it. It was gracious of her to spare me in the dining hall and even after dinner.
The next day was Sunday. Immediately after breakfast, on Sundays, an hour-long prep was held in the morning before we went out on the flat to play. Monsoons are the season of football in Jhids (short form for Jharipani we learnt in BS), a sport I have never been fond of. On the days our class got to play futta, I would sit in the covered shed and watch seniors play table-tennis. Class 3 kids seldom got a chance to play TT, but seeing it every day helped me pick up the game later. Near the TT tables, on the bench, the day’s newspapers were kept. I read them with gusto, but little understanding, as I had at Gaya – reading the newspaper to my grandfather before or after his work hours.
Monthly tests were not very far away, but I used the prep to think of West Indies touring England, of Lara’s score and Ambrose’s wickets. My reverie was broken when Big Ma’am entered the class with open hair, a cane and a fresh breeze that turned into pain and now has lodged in my mind as memory. She took me out in the corridor and gave me two whacks with her cane on my calves. I don’t know what the cane was made of, but it was very elastic and Big Ma’am applied an adequate amount of thrust for it to cause an adequate amount of pain for a nine-year-old kid. I was not scolded. She did not say anything. It was like a bloodless coup. We understood what was done and what must not be done again.
That was my first major encounter with Big Ma’am. It would not be too long before I would be caned again. And this time for doing something I had not actually done.
Breakfast in JS was at 8 and 8:30 on Sundays. We got porridge, two slices of bread, butter, tea and an egg. The egg would either be boiled, scrambled or in the form of omelette. I used to eat eggs in Gaya, but not with so much relish as my brother did. He could pour down the white and the yolk straight in his mouth or eat boiled eggs at the corner thela. The poach was his favourite though and he had introduced me to it at a mela. During the summer vacation, after the first one and a half months at school, I told my brother that we got an egg every day. He was glad that I was finally following his footsteps. I cannot put my finger on when I got allergic to eggs.
It was perhaps a Friday of October when late at night I vomited right beside my bed. After dinner, in the dorm, I started having a stinging stomach ache. It felt like someone had put a clip on my intestines and passed current in it. Choosing not to tell anyone I slept off after brushing my teeth and polishing my shoes, thinking sleep would heal, as it often did. Some time, late at night, I brought my head out of the blanket and threw up. My bed was near the door that led to the night guard’s room. Seen from the main entry of the dorm, it was at the other end, just short of the corner in the right. The night guard’s room, I learnt afterwards, used to be Ma’am Khanna’s room before she married. It was the room where a love was born.
I did not tell anyone in the morning either. The ache in the stomach had gone right after I had emptied it. Under the blue light of the night bulb, I tried washing off the vomit from the floor, bringing water from the toilet and pushing it out of the door towards the night guard’s room. But I missed washing off the puke stains on my bedsheet.
In the morning I dressed up like every day and went downstairs. The day passed off peacefully. But when the night came, Miss Thapa enquired what I had done. I told her everything truthfully, but she had made up her mind that it was not vomit, but shit. The presence of water had assured her of her belief. Plus, perhaps my history. As I returned to my bed after a slap from Miss Thapa, I thought, it was only about time when Big Ma’am would come to know. I lost my sleep that night even though my bed had a fresh sheet spread.
Next day was Sunday, but nothing happened. I did not know then that Monday would prove to be bloody.
In the morning assembly, after the songs and prayers, Big Ma’am called out my name. There was Bachchan Singh with big black moustache and dark eyes standing behind the TT tables, near the opening that led to the Girls’ Toilet, with the cane. My maroon full sleeved jersey hung loose, as fashion dictated, hiding my buttocks. Big Ma’am said something about the importance of discipline to the assembly as she softly folded up my jersey. This time I received three in front of all the teachers, girls and boys. I remember gritting my teeth, but flinching as little as I could muster. I was not in the wrong I believed.
The temporary stain of the bed-sheet had led to temporary marks on my butt and indelible ones in the folds of my memory. As further punishment, I was asked to sit for a week outside Big Ma’am’s office at playtime. Most people did not know why I was caned, as that day in the assembly, there were few others who were served the same dessert. If I recall correctly, there was a girl, and a couple of boys from Class 5. Perhaps, in the shock of seeing a girl being caned, most forgot to ask me what I had done. Those who did, received a cold stare as an answer. Only few of my close friends knew the truth.
I had not taken Big Ma’am’s caning very badly, though. Earlier, I was the guy who had pissed his pants, but this time I was not the one who had shat. The second caning was like the second coming. To be caned twice in Class 3 was as bad ass as it could get. If in no one else’s, at least in my own mind, I had arrived.
October in Muss is a sensuous time. The hills seem more intimate. The days are bright and verdant. In the evenings, a crimson sky cuts you deep, whirling within you thoughts wanted or unwanted.
The dark green slatted bench, on which I was supposed to sit for a week, was right outside the door of Big Ma’am’s office. From that coign of vantage, in the Winterline light of the October evening, I looked over a rarely seen area of the school. An area that was perhaps the most well-kept in all of Oak Grove. As JS students, we entered it only during Founders’ Day with buntings to welcome the chief guest. The buntings had to be held in both hands to be waved above your head. As if that were not hard enough, the May sun of Mussoorie – subdued compared to the plains – were punishing owing to the unadulterated transmission. Doing the bunting-charade for an uninspiring sarkari babu every year seemed especially pointless. In those harsh times, the beauty of the place was lost on us, but sitting there for a week with nothing better to do, the serene charm of that place was ravishing.
The edifice under which I sat, though built in a typical colonial style, had a character of its own. The walls were of stone, coarse on the surface and lined with red borders. It had iron columns, wooden trusses, red tin roof, giving it the typical British look. It is set amidst a flat or perhaps a flattened patch of hill in which grew pine and oak. At one side lay a turf tennis court. The lawn was full of bright flowers, the names of which I regret not having learnt. A gardener could be seen with a sprinkling can in hand moving among the flower beds belted by bricks. Bajri was used in patches that uncannily looked pretty.
The air in that area smelled faintly of pines as if they stood there pining for a lost love. It was here that Big Ma’am lived – on the floor above her office. It was also from here, I later learnt, that a young BS teacher, jumped from the first floor onto the flat, not finding any other escape, when he was amid a whirlwind of an affair with a JS teacher. As school children we are usually curious for the forbidden. We seldom want to know how one lives, or what loneliness is. Not because we do not want to, but perhaps because we have not become aware of these realities. I did not know then, and I do not know now, what Big Ma’am’s life was like outside of her work. What movies she saw; what music she heard; what books she read; or who she talked to. We never knew. I, at least never saw her conversing with other teachers, which could be construed as a friendly chat. She laughed – yes -, but rarely in front of us. There is a photograph of her with senior Boys school students in Holi. She has a small gulal teeka on her forehead. The head tilts slightly to the right and a soft smile escapes her lips. She is clad in a white salwar kameez, with a light-coloured dupatta. The boys and Big Ma’am stand in the girls flat of JS. She has both her hands in front; the left clasping the right. An article on body language in a magazine I had read long ago said this sort of a posture is taken when the person is vulnerable but is required to display confidence.
Like many things, even her full name came to be known to me much later. Her signature is imprinted in my mind. The words formed beautifully in her cursive hand clearly pronouncing the S, the B, and the Bhaskar of her name, which in full was Shubh Bala Bhaskar. We saw the signature in our report cards, or in the dictation sheet. Big Ma’am did not take any classes, but she would take the dictation test for every half yearly and annual exam. She would read a passage clearly enunciated with perfect pauses to us, which we had to write down. She would then give five words to be written. One wrong spelling cost us three marks of the total fifty. I remember scoring forty-four most of the time and a fifty once. Some classmates couldn’t make out what she said and would muff up the spellings. Nothing else could be blamed, but their nervousness.
I got a glimpse of her life during the prayer ceremony held after her passing. Rakesh Sharma, her son in law spoke of the first time he visited her before their marriage. It was a misty August evening of early 80s. Her room clean, things at the right place, even the trace of his presence was eliminated as soon as they were done with tea and introductions. Mr. Sharma was then taken for a round of the school, which also had everything at the right place. Dressing gowns – hundreds of them – exactly in the same order. Toothbrushes dangling in a strange symmetry. Basins clean, even their bases. He remarked that Mrs. Bhaskar must have given grief to those who worked under her or those she taught. After, her retirement, she spent a life devoted to her parents, her brother, and her family. Her younger brother was a prominent business personality – Y C Deveshwar of ITC Ltd. -, but we never knew until much after school. Mr. Sharma told us that she stacked every picture and article of her brother that appeared in newspapers.
Authority needs a distance and Big Ma’am was an uber-powerful Headmistress. All of us – the students, the teachers, the staff – who crossed the path of that human dynamo, evinced only two reactions – awe or fear, or both. Love came much later. As little boys, who didn’t think themselves to be little, we feared her; her sheer energy, her immensity, her grey-black hair always neatly tied, her stylishly dull saree perfectly pleated, her voice clanging from end to end of the corridor, her eyes like a Goddess managing to get everything in order just by one piercing gaze. We often hated her for her orderliness and perhaps for the fear she induced. Many of us, including the staff, even waited eagerly for her superannuation. Looking back and looking at now what is left of Oak Grove, I wish Big Ma’am had never retired. Better still, I wish she were a never-aging phantom or one that spawned a never-ending line of Big Ma’ams to serve the little hamlet of Jharipani.
A small incident that represents my dislike for Big Ma’am at that time occurred when I returned after the winter vacations of Class 4 in February of 1997. There was a long queue, in front of her office, to get some papers signed when we were reporting back to school. The queue chugged along as did the parents standing beside their wards. Someone in the front bent down to touch her feet. Everyone after that person started doing the same. That winter, my uncle had come to drop me, as my father had fallen ill, and my grandfather although he wanted to come, couldn’t. When my turn came, I did not bend down to touch her feet. Going back to the mind of that ten-year-old boy, I think there were two reasons: one, this was not the tradition of a boarding school like OG; second, I didn’t want to, because I didn’t like her. When my uncle asked about it, I remember responding with a face that betrayed the second emotion.
Picture credit: Amit Rajak
After two days of sitting alone at the wooden bench, I was joined by a Class 5 senior. He was the tallest guy, but not great at sports or even studies. SC Gupta, or SC to us, would bloom as an artist and as a long-distance runner in BS. SC believed Big Ma’am couldn’t stand him, and therefore, although he was not the only one talking, had been singled out for this punishment. I chuckled and thought that I had been punished for shitting, and he for bull-shitting. SC remained a bull-shitter. The last time I met him was at Ganga Dhaba in JNU. His long screed was about why one should never fall in love especially with Delhi girls. Soon after that he got married, which I heard was not an arranged one. SC made for an interesting company on the bench. He knew a lot of things and he talked a lot. We became friends and he helped me in BS as much as he could.
After the vomiting incident, my bed was shifted. It was now in the Class 5 row, just one away from the window. My neighbour was Sanjeev Singh, a new joiner in Class 5, who would later go on to become a national record holder in 100 metre dash, and the school captain. Sanjeev and I would talk a lot after the lights were switched off. He was the one, who, when I was admitted in the hospital in Class 4th, taught me the word ‘fuck’.
Every night, I would leave the curtains of Sanjeev’s window slightly ajar. Enough for me to see the night sky and difficult enough for Miss Thapa to notice. I loved looking at the spectral moon, and the two sets of stars – one hung low in the sky and the other haphazardly arranged on the Mussoorie hills. Some nights the tired moon cast its pale light through the windows and on others it didn’t appear perhaps hidden by the oaks. On those nights the illuminated hill would keep me in trance till sleep came embracing. There were nights that were moonless. The crickets stridulated their everlasting monotonous meaningful note. Droplets of water played the musical solfège. Sometimes, the breeze softened by the mighty oaks would enter the dorm, soothing away the loneliness. And in those hours, out of the front door Big Ma’am would enter with her elves. Inside the quilt tightly tucked in the mattress I played dead, with eyes shutting out the light, but ears wide open trying to hear the soft murmur in the pitter-patter of walking shoes.
I often think of those nights and try to conjure up those footsteps. It makes me wonder if we can ever leave the places we have grown up in.
Picture credit: Amit Rajak
It was only in the last hour of the morning of 30th June that I read of the passing of Big Ma’am. She had closed her eyes at 5:52 am in the presence of her family.
I had last seen her in March 1998. She had retired on the last day of February- her birthday month, but stayed back for a few more days. It was also the penultimate month for my class in JS before we went to the senior schools. It was a strange time. A winter of hope and happiness was passing, as a spring of despair and fear awaited us. We would be delivered from Junior School to the Senior Boys (and Senior Girls). To go from the abandon of a Class 5 senior to the horror of a Class 6 chick is a rite de passage more defined than any other in the life of an Oak Grovian.
I don’t know how, but Big Ma’am had prepared us. She was like the mountain, who by its sheer presence taught you. Now when I think of her, I am reminded of a poem:
Even after all this time
the sun never says to the earth,
“You owe me.”
Look what happens with
a love like that,
it lights the whole sky.
She lit up our lives with her being.
– Nikhil Kumar (2005 Batch)
This tribute is a work by Nikhil Kumar. This was shared by him over email on October 15, 2017.