Miscellanea / Manjula Padmanabhan
The future looks bleaker than ever, except for the makers of ear-plugs
Schools are supposed to be institutions which prepare children
for their future as sane and responsible adults. But the school
across the street from where I live makes me hope that my future
does not include too many of its students.
Elsewhere in the colony, the heralds of dawn are peacocks, koyals
and bulbuls. But here at the southern boundary of this otherwise
pleasant estate, the day begins with a hissing rasp of static
from the school's microphone. It's 7 am and and children are massing
in readiness for Assembly.
"Hur - yup, boyzand girls - " a woman's voice harangues.
She sounds like a jail superintendent on a bad day. "Chenab
house, did you hear me? Hurr-yup!!" There are five houses:
Jumna, Chenab, Sutlej, Raavi and Ganga. Judging from what we hear,
each one is more unruly than the next. "Put your bags on
the right - did you hear me, Raavi house boys? On the right I
said!" And, of course, "Stop tocking, all of you! STOP
But the children do not stop "tocking". On the contrary,
they squeak, they howl they whoop and they murmur. "Jumna
house - take two steps forward!" shrills the voice of command.
And from the vantage point of our terrace, we can see one of the
lines of children milling about, some stepping back, some forward,
some tripping over their obese and incontinent bags, some drifting
sideways, "Attention!" bleats the teacher like a soprano
sheep. And a limp spasm through the ranks, as adolescent shoulder
adjust the angles of their slouches.
Then the principal takes the stand. "Good morning, children,"
he says, "Stop talking." There is a ragged silence.
"Let us pray!" he commands, in a tone of voice normally
reserved for the parade ground. The neighbourhood echoes to his
entreaties for Grace, Understanding, Compassion and other highprofile
qualities while flotillas of children in their white-on-white
uniforms straggle across the school's grounds, disgorged from
buses or family cars. They seem utterly unconcerned about being
late. They walk in the manner of those who will never know Grace
or any of her relatives. They stump across the fields like amputated
crabs, forced upright on one pair of limbs while the other pair
flail under the weight of bursting satchels.
After the prayer, the sermon. The principal fancies himself as
a wit. A recent speech concerned the hair styles of his male students.
"Some of your seem to be avoiding a haircut", he said.
"Is it too expensive, perhaps? Those of you who find it too
expensive are welcome to have your hair cut by the barber at the
school hostel..." He peppers his talks with minor expletives
such as "hell" and "for God's sake" while
maintaining a "thee-and-thou" relationship with the
Almighty. He sounds like a convent school product who has found
his vocation as the Lord's own drill sergeant, chivvying his young
troops to polish their souls to a mirror-finish, the better to
reflect the glory of the school.
On ordinary days the sermon is followed by a song. A choir of
eager little voices keens patriotic hymns in Hindi. Much passion
and energy must have gone towards creating ditties so devoid of
beauty as to be of purely medicinal value. One song, a great favourite,
has a chorus which sounds like musical hiccups. The microphone
distorts the words, so we are spared the actual messages. But
the tunes lodge like thread worms deep in the gut of memory, twitching
and tickling long after breakfast. I have sometimes caught myself
humming a mutant jingle late into the night, unable to flush it
from my mind even after headphoning a strong dose of Pink Floyd.
There are days when the songs are preceded by speeches read out
in piping voices by young would-be orators. A small number are
amusing, but the majority reek of sentiments more saccharine sweet
than a dessert buffet for diabetics. On other days, there are
visiting worthies. One recent one was a former student who had
apparently become some sort of leading light in the saffron-bridge.
She railed on for 15 minutes, her voice rising higher and higher.
By the time she had reached her rousing "Hari Om!!"
the street dogs were stirring uneasily, as if someone had blown
one of those dog whistles too high for human ears to hear.
Finally, the band strikes up and the prefects call out manoeuvers,
"Ganga house - quick march! Stay in your places - I said,
STAY IN YOUR PLACES!!!" The drums pound away and bag-pipes
skirl piteously, playing what sounds like a cross between "London
Bridge is Falling Down" and "Pop Goes the Weasel."
But despite the drums, when we look across the street, we see
the children streaming away in lunatic disarray, like beads scattering
from a broken necklace.
Sports days and festive events are a torment of deafening announcements,
inane prattle and music designed to knock the fillings out of
teeth. But alas, parents and students alike seem to thrive on
this atmosphere of shallow patriotism and high-decibel aesthetics.
Its branches spread out across North India, like weeds. The future
looks bleaker than ever, except for the makers of ear-plugs.
Illustrations: Dominic Xavier