First Day in Junior School

We completed admission formalities at the school office and trudged up the steep climb leading to the Junior school. The weather was heavy with gloom, as was the case in all the subsequent years too on school joining day. The school building was built of huge square cut silica stones, colonial style. There were occasional cemented intrusions on the façade courtesy the Inspector of Works, Indian Railways. The arched grey classroom windows were highlighted by red brick lattice work over the top. The boundary wall of the school also accommodated an amply spaced ground space dotted by oak trees. This ample front yard was prohibited for the students for some unknown reason. The entry to the portals of Junior School was simple, three steps that lead to a landing which was again a small step away from a covered verandah. From the verandah through, into the dimly lit interiors. I was left by the leg, so with some prodding from Mom, put forward the right one across and into my new world. My heart was a churn of fear, trepidation and overbearing loss. It felt as if I had left a few things behind in just getting here. I turned back to look down at the path behind, and the few steps that would have taken me back outside again looked so impossible. Shubha chechi walked a few steps ahead, greeting all and sundry, while I took in the surroundings. The walls had just received a whitewash, with a red band separating it from the three feet high blue paint coming up to meet it from the base. The smell was musty, of fresh paint, and curry, the last one coming in from the kitchen at the far side. The clock straight opposite the entrance thudded 11:30 AM, perhaps in acknowledgement of the companionship that I would provide it over the next three years. It turned out that extremely “fidgety” students would be asked to stand under the clock during evening study hours. It had two framed art pieces on either side. The first, an embroidered girl with a flowery basket in her hand, the other a solitary sunflower. Over the next 3 years I will have spent hours under the clock thinking about the artist who put together the embroidered girl. Sometimes thinking up elaborate stories etched back in time, behind its conception. Pappa, went with Shubha chechi to one side of the corridor to enquire about what should be done next. I and Mom stood aside under the steps with the coolie who had already deposited the trunks up the flight of stairs. Mom used this opportunity to instruct me, “Be good and smart, don’t lose the handkerchief, greet your teachers………” Shubha chechi came in a rush, took Mummy’s hand and lead the charge up the stairs. They then disappeared into a hall that announced “Girls Dormitory”. Opposite this was the boys’ dormitory. The coolie had left my trunk, and tuck box just inside. Neat green counterpanes spread across ten horizontal rows of beds. Mrs. Thapa came sailing down one of the aisle’s greeting me with a business like smile “What is your name?”. My father answered “Manoj Kumar” with a strong Malayalee accent. “Do you like this place?” She went on, and I responded with a polite smile. I will be in her “Cupboard”, she informed. This in short meant that she will be the keeper of my effects, distributor of cold creams, manager of my personal inventory and arbiter of dormitory discipline. Pappa was asked to take out my personal effects from the trunk and arrange them on the bed nearby. I was starting to notice other parents and kids by now, trooping in to a similar kind of welcome by Miss. Thapa and a few others. Some guardians were almost genuflecting before the “Cupboard” in charge. A few others were trying our beds by sitting on them and then sizing up the local powers that be for better beds and mattresses. The wards themselves were busy piling up stuff on the beds, while a few other parents indulged in small talk. Pappa, was bent over, counting every item, verifying and stacking them neatly and I was holding onto the wrought iron bed stand observing the goings on, around. Miss Thapa, re-appeared, this time with a grim look and asked pappa. Are you ready? An older woman, looking heavy and matronly ruffled my hair and smiled down at me. She was Ramkali ayaji. This was again portentous. Starting from tomorrow, she will catch us in our towels outside the bath tub and even as she will be discussing little house hold matters with Santo ayah nearby, make a little pond like intrusion in her palm and pour smelly Amla oil clinically into it. She will then proceed to apply the same on our heads. In later days, I would routinely attribute my fast disappearing hairline to the lack of Ramkali ayah’s generous helpings of oil and her firm motherly hands through my scalp every morning. The counting was brisk. Everything was strictly as per specifications. It had to be. It was all brand new. By next year though the quality of inventory will have suffered badly. It will not be as easy to explain off the dog collared shirts, the quick mended pants and the eroded green base under the tennis shoes. I could sense relief, when Mrs. Thapa approved the stock, asked us to leave it as is on the bed and took us around for a few introductions. Mrs. Singh looked through both of us, Miss. Saxena was warm and beautiful. Mrs. Sahni giggled at some joke which neither I nor pappa understood. Next stop. Headmistress’s office. As we came out, we found Shubha chechi sharing details about her summer vacation with one of her classmates. Mom was looking on indulgently and she was glad that everything went well with us. We met the distraught Nag uncle outside. His son’s monsoon shoes were rejected by Mrs. Singh. It was not as per specifications. He then went ahead murmuring and was later seen making enquiries about the next bus to Mussoorie. A thing that impressed me about Mrs. Bhaskar in later years was the personalised attention she would give to each guardian. In my case, she asked mom “did you brush up his knowledge about planets?” referring to the question I was asked during the admission interview. Then even as she was scribbling on some papers Pappa had put before her, “Shubha is a well behaved girl, you should be like her.” She then pulled out a list from under her glass paperweight and announced, “Manoj will be in Mrs. Mathur’s class, III B. You will have to see Mrs. Mathur and hand over the pocket money. It is already lunch time though, and they will have to line up for lunch at the bell.” – Manoj Panikkar (1991)
This piece was written by Manoj Panikkar on  August 07, 2007 on his blog.
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