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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 TOCKING!"

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

Manjula Padmanabhan

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